Foursquare Distillery was on the agenda today on our fourth day at the Barbados Rum Experience. Talk about a rum nerds’ paradise…
Today I walked around an eight-acre estate that has been the home to multiple sugar works over the centuries but is now where you’ll find Foursquare Distillery. It’s a charming little Barbados rum maker you’ve probably never heard of. Har. Har. Har.
On the fourth day, there was Foursquare
You all know Foursquare already, I’m sure, given it’s just about the most lauded, awarded, and individual (yes, I’m annoyed I couldn’t think of another word that would rhyme) rum distillery around. As a retailer, we can attest to how quickly limited edition bottlings like the Exceptional Cask Strength sell out, which is in minutes. People love their Foursquare, and it’s an example used to demonstrate the changing face of rum as a spirit to be taken seriously, and collected, one that can rival the likes of Scotch or Cognac.
This is why it’s so remarkable that it only started making its own spirit in November 1996. The Seale family that owns the brand goes back further in rum, of course. A lot further. There’s been Seales making Bajan rum as far back as 1820, but they didn’t have their own company until Reginald Leon Seale founded one on 1 October 1926. The man whose rum career began at just 13 as an assistant blender managed to save $50 to found his own blending, bottling, and retail business, which passed down to his son Reginald Clarence Seale in 1946.
Clarence David Seale was then the next generation to take the reigns and still serves as chairman. His son is the current master distiller, blender, and CEO Richard Seale. He worked with his father to change the direction of the company by founding a distillery. On the fourth day of the Barbados Rum Experience, we toured Foursquare with Richard and his wife Gayle, whose title is global brand ambassador but must fill about 50 different roles (including organising and running much of this festival), to peek behind the curtain and find out what all the fuss was about.
Starting with the sweet
We begin the tour learning about the old sugar factory Foursquare bought to convert into a distillery. It’s a very good place for a distillery, partly because of access to the biggest water table in the country. It’s of such quality and quantity that there’s actually a water bottling plant in the distillery and the waste is recycled to water the lawns. The green credentials are also bolstered by the full waste treatment plant on-site and Barbados’ largest collection of solar panels in one estate.
The other handy thing about the sugar factory was that it came with two giant molasses storage facilities, as well as a chunk of local cane. As we’ve discussed already this week, there’s an attempt to increase the amount of locally-sourced raw material here but the reality is the bulk of the molasses has to be shipped in from Guyana. One of the interesting things about the way Richard approaches sugarcane is that he wants to blur the line between rum made from juice or molasses. The two are often separated into different categories, but Richard demonstrated in his seminar on Monday that historically rum was made on a sugar estate using both, and now so does he.
The cane is harvested and cut by hand and then fed into a triple roller mill, before a screw press gives a second gentler squeeze, a technique completely unique to Foursquare. This juice is then fermented using an approach that dates back over 400 years (apart from the stainless steel tanks to avoid contamination), which entails letting natural yeast do its thing to convert sugar into alcohol, and with it, all those create those lovely flavours from esters and congeners. Richard says you should not confuse this rum with Agricole, not every spirit made with cane juice should be categorised like this.
Then there’s molasses, of which Richard says “you can’t think of a more perfect raw material for making flavourful things”. A rare moment of poetry aside, he quickly returns to business to explain the two-step fermentation process which is all about control. A South African distillers yeast strain is fed into the tanks with computer-controlled temperature input (around 30 degrees Celsius is ideal) with an external heat exchanger on-hand to help regulate temperature and the molasses is gradually added to ensure there is a rolling supply of mash to be distilled. It all takes 48 hours across four tanks and smells terrific.
There’s pot and column stills here, with Richard utilising still parts fabricated in Scotland, Italy, and Barbados to create some unique equipment to assist an approach full of quirks. The copper pot still is topped by a small column that feeds the two retort chambers and two sets of coolers. This nano copper column topper, which was a modification on the original still that was liked enough to be built into the newer pot still, ensures that the six trays attain a catalytic effect of removing sulphuric compounds at a rate that is closer to 36 trays. Richard rejects the notion this could make it a hybrid still, pointing out there are pot still designs from the early 19th century that demonstrates modifications to facilitate higher-ABV batch distillation, which is enough time for us to appreciate they should not be confused with continuous distillation.
The whole approach is about control, with Richard saying that if he distilled any slower it would stop. There’s additional coolers in the retorts to ensure reflux as well as a twin heating system from steam coils and a bain-marie (a steam jacket) so Richard can get a firm handle on a temperature input. This is also the only double retort he knows of adapted to vacuum distillation, an energy-efficient process that allows the distiller to alter air pressure inside the distillation system in order to distill at lower temperatures and means you can avoid unwanted flavours that arise from too much heat.
Richard makes a point that, given it’s such an old style of spirit, people don’t talk of advancement in the rum world and often credit everything in the Caribbean to Europeans, but that of the three major spirit categories that trace the use of the pot still from the 17th century – Scotch, Cognac, Irish whiskey, and rum – only the latter uses an advanced form of batch distillation: the retort. As for the traditional Coffey still, which also runs vacuum distillation with twin-columns undertaking the standard analyser/rectifier system. Richard blends the pot and column rums before barreling it in the majority of cases, presumably as a means to create greater integration, which you trade off for flexibility later down the line as once you’ve married them you obviously can’t separate them again.
Onto the warehouse
The rum is housed in wooden vats or stainless steel tanks before it is aged, or in cases where old stock (above 10 years) needs to be carefully managed. From there, the rum goes to one of four open-air warehouses, with 47,000 casks across them. Two more are being built to add an extra 14,000-barrel capacity in each.
The scale of Richard’s investment is also seen in his cask variety which includes mostly bourbon casks but also Cognac, Madeira, Calvados, Zinfandel, Syrah, Muscat, Sauternes, and some of the best genuine sherry casks you’ve ever seen. We’re talking 50-year-old solera sherry barrels, not ones just seasoned with sherry. This is the kind of thing you can buy when you’re small and have full creative freedom.
He’s incredibly picky when it comes to casks, and will also only use things he can trace a rummy connection to. That means no Tequila casks, for example. In Foursquare’s own bottling and packaging hall, everything is bottled without any additives and must be at least two matured for the aged stock. This is particularly important because Richard has gone to great and often controversial lengths to expose the number of rums made with a high addition of sweeteners, typically post-distillation.
The making of Foursquare
Foursquare doesn’t just bottle rum under its own name, and Gayle tells me they’re very proud of the brands it has bought and maintained, such as Doorly’s, E.S.A.Field, Real McCoy, and Old Brigand. The latter is exclusive to Barbados so I’ll fill you in a little. It’s known locally as the one-eyed man after the brigand (or pirate) on its label. Its core product is a sublime little supermarket shelf rum that’s aged for two years in bourbon casks and is the most popular on the island. It’s mixed with coke, sprite, juice, beer, tea, milk, and even makes it into soups we’re told, and our tasting showed that it’s lovely and sweet, like chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream with chopped bananas. I’d say I know from experience being here that it’s a sessionable rum, but I’ve been terribly serious and working very hard here. So you couldn’t possibly ask me. Nope…
At the other end of the scale is the kind of ultra-premium bottles that become collectors’ favourites, like the Exceptional Cask Series, which first landed in 2009 with a vintage 1998 expression. Outside of rums presented by the likes of Samaroli or Velier, it was rare to see this kind of rum on the market before Foursquare, which has also managed to maintain the ability to create these highly in-demand products and move with the times, creating more pot still rum with higher ABV and lots of cask variety, without the eye-watering price tag to match.
The decision to not raise prices when demand would remain demonstrates the kind of approach Foursquare Distillery has. It’s a proper family-owned brand with the kind of autonomy and flexibility that is often sacrificed with big investment, the type I’m certain the brand will have turned down as I can’t imagine there hasn’t been interest. The staff here will typically stay for decades and Richard feels comfortable stepping in and helping out in the bottling line as we saw him do today. He’s an honest, uncompromising man that has made a rum to match.
An unwavering ambition, generations of rum know-how, and enthusiasts’ word of mouth have built Foursquare. It’s a distillery that puts its money where its mouth is, and its mouth does a fair bit of talking. Leaving today, fellow tour group member Ian Burrell (name drop) remarked on his love for a famous sign on one of the warehouses. It either greets you or is the last thing you’ll see from the distillery, and it says ‘We do it right’. I’ve never met a rum lover who disagrees.