We visited Seychelles to find out how two brothers created a rum unique to the island against all the odds. This is the remarkable story of Takamaka Rum.
You know The Seychelles, don’t you? An Indian Ocean island destination, the name of which immediately conjures images of tropical glory. Ribbons of sandy beaches. Soaring mountain views. Thick jungles full of abundant vegetation. To eat there’s fresh seafood, a wealth of local interpretations of curries, and Creole barbecue. To drink, the go-to beer is the island-produced SeyBrew, there’s Rum Arrangé (a rum-based mixture made with a variety of spices and fruit), and there is something amazing for a Celtic man like myself to see the Walking Man and bottles of Guinness on every supermarket shelf and back bar in this tiny beautiful corner of the earth.
But if you were on the hunt for a Seychellois spirit brand for a long time you would have come up empty-handed, even amongst all this rich culinary culture. That was until Takamaka Rum.
A brand of brothers
Richard and Bernard d’Offay founded Takamaka over twenty years ago. The name comes from a local tree as well as a beach and a district near the capital. They grew up in South Africa, occasionally visiting their ancestral home (they can trace their family history to the 18th century as one of the first families to settle in Seychelles), and could never figure out why anybody wouldn’t just live here. Inspiration for how to return came from their father Robert, an entrepreneur with a passion for distillation. In 2000, he ordered a book on home distillation and began frequenting the local supermarket to buy yeast and refined sugar to experiment with.
On a small pot still at home he began making rum with his sons (two of them anyway, Richard’s twin is a vicar and their mother jokes all her sons are in the spirit business). The duo soon realised this was their means not only to return to Seychelles but to make something that represented the island. “For the last twenty years, our goal has been to create rums that offer a taste of Seychelles to people around the world,” Richard says. They went back to the island of Mahe and set up shop, distilling on makeshift equipment their father built. Their own pool was an interim cooling tower for their makeshift condenser.
By February 2002, they officially opened Trois Frères Distillery in Seychelles, to this day the only distillery in the country, in a former plantation estate that has been a boat repair yard, regal car garage, art gallery, coconut mill, and more. It’s also been burnt down and rebuilt, and at the time the brothers got it the building was neglected. They’ve carefully restored the ground with the Seychelles Heritage Foundation, and now on-site there’s two distilleries, an agricole and molasses rum set up, as well as various maturation cellars with different climates, a tiny sugarcane crop, and a bottling line (which is soon to be updated and refurbed). But it’s so much more than a site where booze is made. There’s also a museum, medicinal garden, historical ruins, a rum shack, and two Giant Aldabra tortoises, Taka and Maka.
Seychellois sugar cane
It’s hard to articulate what a remarkable feat it was to create a rum brand that has grown to this size in Seychelles if you haven’t been, but a good place to start would be to say there was no sugar industry when the brothers started. Only a small amount of sugar cane was grown to produce a local fermented beer called Baka, so the Takamaka team swiftly set about establishing links to plant sugarcane in areas they felt were underutilized, collaborating with farmers to both ensure a consistent supply and to give them an extra income.
Bernard’s father-in-law actually oversees the brand’s growing practices, in which sustainability plays a role thanks to a no-pesticides program, a policy of using bagasse (the waste from sugar cane) for animal feed, and providing large tanks for rainwater collection. Committing to ethical practice isn’t much a problem for Takamka, scaling up volume on the other hand is. Despite Takamaka almost single-handedly creating an industry for it, we’re still talking tiny numbers. Historically the distillery has never been able to produce more than 4,500 litres of finished cane rum in a year.
However, there’s currently a lot of renovation happening at the distillery to increase production capacity and more farmers have started to plant on Mahe but now also on La Digue. The target is 7,000 litres of Seychelles cane rum per year by 2024. What’s really exciting about what they’re growing is how the sugar cane is as unique as the islands it grows on. The crop is planted in granitic soil, which has all this local influence from native vegetation and beach sand etc., and as far as the distillery knows it is the only in the world producing sugar cane in this soil type. That gives the cane grown locally a distinct terroir, said to be notes of “raw sugar, floral grassiness and flavours of the sun-baked soil”.
Creating Seychellois spirit
When I was at Takamaka’s home in June I saw first-hand how much renovation is taking place to create more Seychellois rum, with new stills and a boiler installed in the agricole distillery. This included a 1,000-litre wash still with a traditional copper condenser that has eight bubble plates that allow for an advanced rum separation, as well as a new 450-litre hybrid spirit still.
I also got a glimpse at barrels of the ex-bourbon (Buffalo Trace and Four Roses being most common) and French oak barrels used to age its cane-based rum. Takamaka has taken great care to account for its tropical climate, working with Tonnellerie Radoux to conduct barrel trials to find out which styles worked best in these conditions. This meant testing oak varieties and grain sizes to see what could withstand the humidity and not overload the rum with tannins, and ordering the casks that fit the bill.
A short walk away is the state-of-the-art molasses distillery, filled with gleaming new tanks and stills. It’s more than 20x the output of the agricole distillery and will soon run 24/7. As there’s no molasses locally, grade A molasses from the rich soils of the Indian Ocean is shipped in. This is fermented in three 5,000-litre tanks with distillers yeast for about three days, then sent to an 8,000-litre beer tank along with the heads and tails from the previous batch to promote more esters.
From there, it’s fed to three continuous column stills, the first to strip the spirit with hot water from a boiler outside (natural spring water from the Seychelles National Park, no less). The next two columns have copper and stainless steel plates to rectify, and once distilled it’s tested and blended before being aged or bottled. Each distillery has its own distiller running the operation, with master blender Steven Rioux connecting the two.
Rioux doesn’t just blend and oversee maturation, but also his passion project, creating what Takamaka is calling ‘pressed rum’. It’s somewhere between spiced, flavoured, and botanical rum made using a mechanical process called hydrodynamic cavitation. Essentially what happens is spirit is fed through a tank powered by a motor and turbines, then pressure and temperature are applied to alter its molecular composition. The turbines create small bubbles which collapse and release energy, which is when the shockwave goes through the liquid and creates rapid changes, much quicker than barrel maturation would, for example. A bit like that machine Bart uses to become a fly, only rum goes in and comes out smoother and with new flavours.
Steven explains that it also maintains esterification and oxidation, all processes that happen naturally inside a cask, and that you can also add different types of wood fines (literally a cask shredded down to tiny pieces) to impart barrel-esque influences. You can’t add them directly into the tank because even though you get the flavours you want like caramel and vanilla, the fines get broken down too small for filtration. Instead, Steven worked out that doing a soaking period of seven days with the wood fines prior, then filtering the spirit and running the cavitation works better. Then the rum comes out a darker colour, with flavours from the wood fines perceptible in the spirit. Tasting it, I can’t quite compare it to anything else I’ve had. I think it’s too tannic to be bottled on its own, but it’s an intriguing blending component.
Hydrodynamic cavitation is a remarkable process used occasionally in the wine industry and in some breweries, but very rarely in spirits. “At the point where we started, we heard of only one other in the States and even they were not using the exact process,” Steven says. “As you can imagine, we had no reference point so we needed to experiment.” After tests were conducted on 60-litre batches, they scaled up to 1,000-litre batches. One very important thing to stress here is that the guys are transparent and forthright about the fact that this is not an alternative or a means to bypass traditional ageing. “We’ve no intention of replacing the craft and rich heritage of the rum ageing process, this is simply one part of the story. A single part that allows us to present you with rums that may not be what you expect. We love that this process uses no chemicals and no flavouring. It’s simply rum, oak, and pressure,” Bernard says. It’s just another technique to derive flavour, the kind of ingenuity that comes when faced with the challenges of working on a small remote island.
The Seychelles paradox
The brothers are very open about the fact that across their two-decade rum-making journey, the brand’s geographical isolation is their greatest strength and also their greatest weakness. Tourism is obviously massive for the country’s economy, making up about a quarter of the country’s GDP, and the distillery was heaving with visitors when I was there. Amazingly, I was told that was a quiet day. Takamaka has also just opened a brand new outlet in the island’s sole airport, where you can sip rum, learn about Seychelles’ history, and pick up some merchandise to always remind you of this little paradise.
But this dream island is also something of a logistical nightmare. The Seychelles is a welcoming port, but often a convenient waystation en route to elsewhere. Bernard describes it as the last stop for everything. Most raw materials have to be shipped in, never mind specialist equipment like stills or fermentation tanks. Scaling up has taken decades of effort for a brand that would be several times bigger in a different country. That means Takamaka has to pad out its stock with out-sourced rum. Over a decade ago, Richard Seale at Foursquare distillery in Barbados helped with this, supplying eight-year-old Bajan rum to use as a blending element. If you’re going to import somebody else’s rum, you might as well make it the best. The fact Seale is happy to send his rum serves as a huge vote of confidence for Takamaka, as I can’t see him working with anyone he doesn’t respect, as is the fact that Habitation Velier has begun to bottle some of the brand’s rum.
I can see why. I truly love what the Takamaka team has made. This is a singular project, born out of a true love for both the island and the spirit, one that has only lasted because of tremendous resilience and resourcefulness. They could have done it so differently. They could have just bottled someone else’s rum. They could have just bought in cane. They could have just sold up when it started going well and retired to the beach. Instead, they brought spirit to The Seychelles, and better they made one that embodies this incredible island.
Below is a run-through of the rum, with my pick of the highlights. And if you do find yourself in Seychelles in the future, for the love of god make sure you visit the distillery. It’s the most fun you’ll have in paradise. And say hi to Taka and Maka for me.
Takamaka has two main core ranges, the Seychelles Series is made up of five molasses-based rums: Rum Blanc, Dark Spiced, Zannannan (Pineapple), Koko (Coconut), and Overproof, as well as the St Andre Series, which comprises of Extra Noir, Zepis Kreol, Pti Lakaz, and Grankaz a more complex affair consisting of cane and molasses rums made on pot and column stills, as well as its pressed rums, and some of those Bajan rums blended in for good measure.
Rum Blanc: I’m a sucker for a good, versatile, no-nonsense unaged rum and Rum Blanc is just that. The beating heart of all Takamaka rums, it’s made with a touch of high-ester pot still rum to add complex aromas and creamy texture to the light and refined column still molasses-based rum that makes up the bulk of this spirit. You can’t go wrong with any of the classics: Mojito, Cuba Libre, Daiquiri, or Piña Colada, but if you wanted something a little less playful but one to get the serious rum drinkers going, the 69% Overproof is a sublime sip.
Zepis Kreol: Worth trying just because I can’t think of another rum like it. To create ZK, a blend of pot and column still molasses was pre-soaked with ex-Merlot French oak wood fines, then macerated with locally grown natural spices before being pressed. This is your cavitation creation, right here. That liquid is then blended with eight-year-old Bajan Foursquare rum, before spending 60 days in very old ex-bourbon casks. Zepis Kreol is a singular creation somewhere between spiced, flavoured, and botanical rum with an array of beautiful flavours like aromatic baking spice, red berry sweetness, papaya, and caramel.
Grankaz: The standout sipper of the group, Grankaz combines pot-distilled Seychelles cane rum aged in medium toast new French oak with three-year-old ex-bourbon molasses rum and then a helping of eight-year-old Bajan Foursquare molasses rum. It’s an expert blend, bottled at 45.1% with no additional sugar or colouring and only very lightly filtered. It’s got lots of classic rich and sweet notes you want, from toasted vanilla to luscious caramel, as well as heaps of dried fruit and this herbaceous, floral quality that drifts welcomely throughout. Served over ice on a warm Seychelles day is paradise. If you can’t get there, it should help ease those woes and transport you.