Lee Smith is a rum lover who was challenged by his son to help endangered sea turtles. This is the story of how he founded Lost Years Rum.
Every year, thousands of newly-hatched sea turtles flip-flop their way across treacherous beaches to the slightly safer solitude of the waves. They won’t be seen again for almost a decade. We have no real idea where they go during these ‘lost years’.
We do know that sea turtles are a vital part of our ocean ecosystem, and have been since the time of the dinosaurs. Despite roaming the seas for over 110 million years, today six out of seven species are classified as either endangered or threatened. Certain species could become extinct within a generation.
Lee Smith was told this sobering information on a family holiday in Jamaica back in 2019, after a more pleasant experience visiting Hampden Estate. His son Billy felt the emotional connection anyone would have to these beautiful, graceful creatures and challenged his dad to do something good for them. He and his wife Trudy had considered creating a rum brand for some time at the point and decided then that they would launch one dedicated to saving them.
A real impact through rum
Everything about the brand was built around that one simple idea, with the name being a direct reference to those mystery early years. Each bottle sold raises money to support SEE Turtles, a charity that ensures the cash actually gets to the front line and makes a tangible difference, assisting numerous local groups and community conservation projects across the Caribbean and Latin America. The donations aren’t linked to profits, it comes straight off the top line, so there’s a contribution for every drop sold.
SEE Turtles has calculated that for every dollar invested in this way they save up to ten baby sea turtles. Lost Years has handed over $5,000 so far. “We’ve helped save around 50,000 of these amazing creatures. It’s an incredible achievement, but we have a long way to go – our goal is to get to over one million saved in the next few years,” Smith explains.
Smith’s previous experience at a communication agency means he knows a thing or two about design and storytelling, but he had no background at all in the spirits business. So why rum? “My own rum journey started about 15 years ago. I began where a lot of people begin – with spiced rum – but soon began exploring the category and discovering what an incredible, diverse spirit rum is,” Smith says. He counts himself as a massive fan of Jamaican and Bajan rums, which is why he sources so much from these islands, but he’s also enjoyed sampling spirit from the likes of Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, the US, and Madeira to name a few. “I don’t think I will ever get bored of trying new rums – that’s one of the things that excites me so much about this category!”
Creating Lost Years Rum
Smith wants to lead a brand that helps others on that journey, wherever they are on their rum discovery. His brief was this: a range of approachable rums that were still quality and had provenance, covering both aged and unaged, with premium sippers and versatile spirits that can be mixed, all showcasing different styles from the Caribbean and Latin America. Simple, right? Well, it wasn’t too much of a challenge for one of the oldest rum blending houses in the world, E&A Scheer. “Over the course of many months we sampled dozens of different blends, refined them, and gradually whittled them down to the four we currently offer,” Smith explains.
The signature bottling is called Four Island, a blend of three aged rums sourced from Barbados, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, with the added ‘x-factor’ of unaged Rhum Agricole from Guadeloupe. “We’re champions of the art of rum blending and believe that the right marriage of a number of single origin rums can create something much more than the sum of its parts,” Smith says. That hit of agricole is such a very cool touch. There’s also a more traditional molasses-based aged rum called Arribada, but even then this one’s intriguing because it’s sourced from distilleries across Latin America. Arribada is aged up to eight years in bourbon barrels and is named after the mass sea turtle nesting events that take place in that part of the world.
Then there are the unaged rums, based on a combination of Jamaican column still rum and a high ester pot still rum from Barbados. The core bottling is the very reasonably priced Silver Moon, but there’s also a navy strength bottled at 54.5% ABV, the latter of which picked up a Master medal in Rum Masters 2021 just four months after it was launched. Every Lost Years Rum is unadulterated, with absolutely no sugar, caramel, or flavours post-distillation. More products are also in the pipeline, with its first spiced rums coming this autumn.
A purpose-driven brand
Of course, it’s no use supporting a cause like conservation if you don’t operate sustainability yourself. More and more, people are buying from brands that demonstrate clear environmental standards, and Smith believes that those producers that choose to ignore this movement will suffer in the long term. “The good news is that many rum producers are now embracing sustainability and we are starting to see positive change and real innovation,” he says. “Even small producers like us can make a difference.” Lost Years Rum has a zero plastic approach, using more costly eco-friendly materials, and offsets its carbon emissions by planting seagrass, which Smith says is an “eco wonder-plant.”
It’s not sustainability that concerns people today. Brands that make a difference, with strong ethics and a clear purpose couldn’t be this prevalent unless there was a real demand for them. Smith reasons that, whether it’s within the spirits business or more broadly, more purpose-driven brands will emerge over the coming years as the shift in purchasing behaviour continues to trend towards them. “Business can be a force for good and – as we have shown – even small, family-owned brands can make a real difference,” he summarises.
All that good work would be in vain if the rums weren’t up to scratch, so it’s a good thing this is a seriously impressive range. People, aficionados, and industry award judges have all recognised the quality of Lost Years Rum, the latter awarding it 15 medals in the space of 18 months. Smith thinks rum is the most versatile and varied spirit in the world, and outside conservation, what Lost Years does best is make a good case for that argument. “There are so many dimensions to rum that no other spirit comes remotely close to it. From the sugar cane itself, to the influence of terroir, fermentation, distillation, maturation, cask type, blending, and more, there are so many elements involved in the creation of a beautiful rum,” Smith says. “And then there are so many ways to drink it! Every time you think you are close to understanding rum, you discover another style or serve that forces you to re-define what the spirit is and means to you.” My personal favourite of the range does just that.
Star of the show: Lost Years Navy Strength Rum
Lost Years Navy Strength Rum is the stand-out for me. The recipe is interesting, combining unaged high-ester pot still distillate from Barbados and column still distillate from Jamaica. You would usually expect the latter to be pot still rum because people favour Jamaican rum for those big, complex, and funky flavours. Then there’s the fact that you hardly see unaged rums bottled and advertised as ‘Navy Strength’, that’s typically gin’s domain. But honestly, tasting this you’ll be begging for navy strength unaged rums to be the norm. I don’t really like classifying rum by colour, but if you’re used to a certain kind of ‘white rum’ this will blow your mind. It’s elegant, intense, creamy and fruity – simply one of the best rums I’ve had this year. The Four Island is also stellar, and underneath the Navy Strength tasting notes I’ve included a fun little serve if all the talk of endangered sea turtles has got you down. Don’t forget, drinking Lost Years helps the little guys out. It’s a good cause for them and your tastebuds.
Nose: Through foam banana sweets and lots of oily lime juice comes creamy apricot yoghurt, a medley of tropical fruit, and tart blackcurrant, as well as layers of thick molasses and a touch of cardamom.
Palate: That alcohol strength shows with some peppery spice, but silly layers of vanilla, toffee, and white chocolate tame it while coconut, pineapple, earthy red chilli, and a hint of coffee and cream add complexity.
Finish: Some tart grapefruit and passion fruit linger among honey and dark berries.
Perfect serve: Grown-Up Chocolate Milk
100g brown sugar
Add the milk, cocoa, and brown sugar to a saucepan. Stir over medium heat for five minutes until everything has dissolved. Take off the heat and leave to cool. Once cool, add the Lost Years Four Island Rum and mix thoroughly. Bottle the mixture up and store it in the fridge. Pour over ice when ready to enjoy!
Photo credit for the cute little turtle in the feature image goes to Juan Ma Gonzalez.