Meet Don Benn – West Indies Distillery

Don Benn is the Operations Manager and Master Distiller at the West Indies Rum Distillery.  He has been part of the team for over 22 years. When not making wonderful rums he enjoys watching squash and cricket (and most other spots) as well as relaxing in the company of close family and friends.

FRS: Tell us about your personal rum journey.

Don: Started in 1998 right out of university. My first role at the distillery was supervising fermentation at the plant and then within a year being also responsible for the distilling from our main column still.  In the first 3 years I was able to learn and operate all of our stills with the guidance of the previous Master Distiller and also from experienced workers like Digger and James Franklin. 

This role expanded after the first 10 years and has now evolved to overseeing the aging, blending and bottling activities at the distillery.

FRS: What brought you to join the West Indies Distillery team?

Don: It came down to a choice of working with the water or rum.  Water seemed less interesting at the time.

FRS: West Indies has a wide range of rums that it is providing to the rum loving world… Do you have a clear favorite when it is time to sit down and sip at the end of the day?

Don: Yes I do.

  • Secret Blend done for celebration of 100 years of service of 3 valued members of our team – this is a rare treat as it is a blend only done for this special occasion, and is in very limited supply.
  • Other than that, I would say Plantation 5 year.

FRS: Is there anything upcoming that you are truly excited about (even if you can only give us hints)?

Don: I can’t reveal too much obvious but let’s just say – further exploration of the marriage of rum and Caribbean fruits/spices.

FRS: The members of the Florida Rum Society have been dreaming of visiting Barbados since our very early Virtual Happy Hours in spring 2020… once the time comes what are some things that members should be sure NOT TO MISS when visiting Barbados?

Don’s List:

  • Harrison’s Cave
  • Friday Night in Oistins (great local food, music, people  – however might not be an option with Covid-19)
  • West Indies Rum Distillery tour
  • Historic Bridgetown tour (this is our capital city)
  • Island Safari Tour + Catamaran boat cruise of the west coast of the island (no wild animals involved but you can swim with the turtles and other ocean life)
  • Of course, the many beaches with white sand and turquoise, clear waters.

FRS: Before the “COVID times”, you did some traveling, sharing the good word of rum… When travel starts to be welcomed back to the world is there anywhere that you just cannot wait to pack your bags and head off to?

Don: That is a tough question to answer. Anywhere that we can share the good word on rum is a good place to be.

Top 3 choices – (at the moment)

  • San Francisco (never been there before but heard great things about the city),
  • Cognac (meeting up with the Maison Ferrand and Plantation teams is always a great time),
  • China (always eager to see rum in new markets)

FRS: When not sipping rum what do you enjoy doing in Barbados?

Don: Playing sports and spending time with my family.  Sometimes these two activities go together.

FRS: You must have a cocktail recipe to share with the FRS that shines with West Indies Distillery products… care to share a favorite or two?

Don: Cocktails are not my usual go-to drink, as I prefer to drink rum straight. – However, the mix of Plantation 5 year and Coconut water is a fabulous combination.  It’s an obvious choice in Barbados, fresh coconut water is available everyday, and no need to reach out too far for a bottle of Plantation 5. 

FRS: I know you, along with Alexandre, have been combing through historical records and artifacts locked away at the distillery… what, would you say, is one of the most interesting things you’ve been able to uncover?

Don: There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the vault.  The old minutes of the distillery which chart the history of the distillery. The recipes and techniques used for blending and aging. But as a technical person by nature, seeing the archived drawings of some of the past stills and even stills that were planned and were never built/installed.  We have a chance now to bring some of those drawings to life. The real hero of this search however is Andrew Hassell our General Manager.  He has a more intimate knowledge of all things in the vault and even of Barbados rum history in general, more than anyone I know.

Rum + Dinner = Perfection

A few weeks ago Mrs. Trader (Nautical Nina) and I had the opportunity to experience the Sapphire Falls Rum Dinner. The Universal Orlando Loews Resort puts on this event 2-3 times a year. Each time they feature a different rum brand and pair their multiple offerings with a five course dinner. This past evenT starred Plantation Rums. From start to finish it was a Rum-Riffic evening! SPOILER ALERT: We LOVED this event and will be back for the next one and would HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who is a Rum Lover or a Foodie (or BOTH, like us)!

Upon arrival at Sapphire Fall, we were directed downstairs to Amatista Cookhouse.  There we checked in and were welcomed to the patio for beer, wine or, of course, rum.  They had a punch pre-made with Plantation Three Stars rum. I will say that while good, the punch could have benefited from being served over crushed ice like a Painkiller.  There were some passed appetizers while everyone waited to be welcomed in the dining room.

We had the pleasure of talking with Phil, Assistant Director of Food and Beverage, before the doors opened to welcome us to our tables. Phil is an amazing host and definitely is one that will go above and beyond to make you feel welcome.

Prior to entering the dining room we were assigned a table. Nautical Nina and I joined Rum Master Eddie, his wife, son and brother all at Table #1. As we entered and found our table, we settled in for dinner. The rum punch from outside was also available at each table but the best was yet to come.

We started with Sticky Santiago Spareribs which were agave braised with a pineapple mango chutney. The ribs were paired with a Carnaval featuring Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum. I already knew I was a big fan of Stiggins’ Fancy rum and this drink was wonderful.

It had a little charred pineapple in it, which was a nice touch. It was during this first course we were introduced both to Aaron, our mixologist for the evening from Sapphire Fall, and Rocky, Rum Ambassador for Plantation Rums. During the course of the evening Aaron would share how he built each rum drink and Rocky would give great information on each Plantation rum. (Rocky had amazing stories about the lengths that the Planation team goes to in order to ensure a premium, quality product. It was really wonderful to have the opportunity to hear those stories first hand.)

Next we moved to a Simple Seared Scallop paired with a Voodoo Lemonade made with Plantation Three Stars.  The lemonade was nice, light, made for pool side enjoyment. 

Then the soup course was a Bahamian Bouillabaisse (with snapper, shrimp, calamari and mussels) which was paired with a Plantation Original Dark Overproof “Red Tide”.  Since first coming out I have enjoyed the O.F.T.D. Overproof from Plantation and Red Tide was very nice… had an Old Fashioned feel to it, slightly sweeter.  It was a good contrast to the seafood soup.

The main course was an amazing Caribbean Rubbed Ribeye which was matched with, in my opinion, the highlight of the evening… The Smoke Show with Plantation Original Dark. Aaron served it “trapped” in smoke and then released the drinks and smoke to fill each table. The aroma of the smoke paired perfectly with the drink and steak. This was so enjoyable that Phil, and our wonderful waiter Henry, were kind enough to grab us another round.

We “ended” with a Autumn Spiced Cheesecake and Plantation Barbados 2002 Gran Terroir rum for sipping.  The cheesecake was fantastic with hints of cinnamon, clove, allspice and more.  The Barbados 2002 is a great sipping rum… it is how a Barbados Rum should be… a little “lighter” than a full Jamaican rum but able to stand on its own and represent Barbados with a slightly sweet finish.

The good news was that the evening was not even over yet… we ended back on the patio with hand-rolled cigars, coffee and one of Plantation’s newest offerings, their Xaymaca Extra Dry.  I have had the opportunity to become very familiar with this wonderful offering from Plantation… so much so that it actually is part of my “Mai Tai Rum Blend”.

I would be remise if I didn’t call out the fact that I had the opportunity to meet “Typhoon Tommy” (designer/builder of the beautiful Suffering Bastard tiki bar) and his fiancé, Kari (creator of Magical Tiki Meet Up). It was wonderful to chat with them about all things rum and tiki, and I hope that our paths will continue to cross in the future.

It is hard to put into words just how fantastic the Rum Dinner was. Phil’s team hosted an amazing evening and Aaron did a wonderful job building and pairing the drinks. (Shout out to Henry too… he was attentive and personable and has a true eye for guest service!) It was wonderful to hear the stories from Rocky and have the opportunity to chat with him thought out the evening (how do I get his job?!?!). Fernando, the incredible manager of Strong Water, also made an appearance and, like always, it was a pleasure catching up with him.

(Special THANK YOU to Rum Master Eddie who is always a wonderful host and makes sure we don’t miss the invites these events!)

While the next hasn’t been scheduled, Nautical Nina and I will definitely be joining!  Keep your eyes on my Instagram (@trader_jays) and I’ll be sure to post as soon as the next one is announced… I’d love the chance to taste some rum and eat some amazing food with everyone.

Summer of Rum: Part 2

If you haven’t read Part 1 yet then give it a quick read.

With the Memorial Day weekend upon us, the Summer of Rum was getting ramped up as the call came in for Trader Jay to take his show on the road! Our friends, Stacy and Eric, were hosting us for Memorial Day Boat Fun and BBQ and asked if Trader Jay could mix up Mai Tais and, just like that, the Trader Jay Pop Up was born! With fresh juiced lime, rum and all the fixin’s we had a day of Mai Tais and fun.

The next big event came in the form of End of School Pool Party Extravaganza! Without getting too much into the weeds, we had a never-ending pool/porch rehab project that just kept being delayed for one reason or another. It FINALLY came to completion on the last day of school for the Little Traders. There was lots of swimming and plenty of tiki drink fun (some with fire) for parents as well as a “carefully crafted” kid-friendly tiki punch for the kiddos that was consumed to the very last drop (mix some guava/pineapple juice with some sprite and sparkling apple juice and you will have some happy Keiki).

Over the next few weeks some new rums made their way into Trader Jay’s (including Foursquare Premise and my sought after Abuelo Tawny Port, both Father’s Day gifts). Also, Salty Joel and I did some tasting of the Appleton Estate 21 year (maybe my new favorite “exclusive style” rum – the oak SHINES and you feel the age on your tongue). And while not yet making a permanent home at the Trader’s, El Dorado 21 made a guest appearance via Dr. Cocktail Carter. I think, if forced to pick, I’d give the Appleton 21 the slight edge but it might just be in my head since I seem to prefer Jamaican rum. The El Dorado was also a great sipper that is a little easier to come across in Central Florida.

I was very fortunate, through a new “rum friend”, to have the opportunity to obtain Giffard Orgeat (as well as many other syrups for experimenting). So I must give a shout out to Rum Master Eddie for providing the bar with more options. (Which means the menu might go beyond 2 pages soon!) Eddie has also made me realize that I have some rum collecting catching up to do as he is the proud owner of over 100 different bottles (I’m at around 45ish).

Finally, we capped off “Part 2” with yet another visit to our wonderful friends at Strong Water. (Have you still not read about it? Do so here! Have you still not visited? GO NOW!) Dr. Cocktail and his wonderful wife joined us on the adventure.

Rum Captain Brad was manning the helm once again with Admiral Fernado close at hand! They had us set up at the bar (which, if you’re a long time reader, you know that the bar is our preference). We had some wonderful tastings including Facundo Eximo (a 10 year-ish blend which I actually prefer over the Paraiso and the Exquisito… which we also tried). I was also fortunate to try some Ron Barcelo Imperial 30th Anniversary (careful, the wood bottom is not permanently attached, Captain Brad). While the Barcelo 30th has the number 30 on it, it seems that it is aged for 10 years but, as it indicates, celebrates the 30th anniversary of the distillery. It is a Domican Republic rum and is a great sipper… not as deep as the Appleton 21 or El Dorado but smooth. It went down really easy with hints of toffee, nutmeg and caramel.

While tasting is all well and good, the food that came was amazing and Brad mixed up some amazing drinks! It was decided by Stacy that the grog must go on Trader Jay’s winter menu. Brad also made me a variation on a Negroni… with some kind of magical Guavaberry liqueur. I am not a negroni fan and this was extremely delightful!

Finally, as we were treated to an amazing Tres Leches cake the size of your head, we did a little sampling of Ron del Barrilito from Puerto Rico. We were able to try the two star, three star and overproof (with Admiral Fernando promising the five star in the near future).

Another amazing evening at Strong Water. I know I have said it many times but it really is a gem! We are so thrilled that our friends Kim and Rum Runner Steve introduced us and the amazing, customer-centric service will keep us returning. I cannot say enough good things about Brad and Fernando (when you go, ask for them, you won’t be disappointed). Those crazy fools even let me hold a bottle of Black Tot (not taste, just hold… and smell… so, ya know, getting closer).

The Summer of Rum will probably move on… we will see if a Part three is warranted. Until then… Drink Up Me Hearties!

Rum Tasting: Bajan 1966

I was very fortune last week to obtain a bottle of Bajan 1966 Barbados Rum. Currently Bajan is only available for purchase in Barbados so I was lucky to gain access to a bottle.

There is no secret that Barbados is one of the largest rum producing islands and of great importance in the history of rum, however in learning more about Bajan Rum, I also learned some Barbadian History.  From the Bajan site:

Our regal, barrel-aged rum was named in honor of Barbados’ Independence which was granted on November 30th, 1966 after 300 plus years as a British colony. Dominated by a lucrative sugar industry, once run on the blood, sweat and tears of African slaves, this historic date marked more than our emancipation — it sparked cultural and economic change.

Rum is still the essence of Barbados, the DNA of the nation. Old-timers even call it, “the nectar of life,” there through heartbreak, romance and exultation. Day and night, on palm-fringed streets, families, friends and strangers-just-met are seduced by its dark and delicious taste. You could say that rum is the oil in our engines, the beat behind our rhythm, the spirit of Barbados.

Half a century may have passed since our Independence, but our country celebrates in serious style when November rolls around. We revel in 50 plus years of emancipation, hosting parades, socials and festivals.

BAJAN 1966 is the people’s rum, a drink for any occasion. Relax, unwind and sip that tipple. Be inspired by the spirit of freedom.

I also learned that the word “Bajan” is another term used to refer to people from Barbados and is pronounced BAY-jun.  It is actually thought to be a shortened version of Barbadian and is used by locals quite often.

Bajan 1966 is a mix of both pot still and column rums and then aged in American oak bourbon barrels. (I was, however, disappointed to not find any age statement.)

The bottle is clear, very crisp looking and the rum color has a red hue to it.  It is beautiful for sure though the gold lettering on the bottle makes it a little hard to photograph with my simple iPhone. (From their website it looks like the bottle actually is sold in a beautiful blue and gold cylinder however mine didn’t have that upon arrival.)

I invited my good friend Steve over for a sampling.

First we started with some neat and sipped it… as Bajan claims you should.  The smell is AMAZING! They do not add any sugars or perfumes (as I would prefer) and the nose is really clean and fresh. You really get a nice aroma of vanilla along with a hint of caramel.

The taste is very clean as well. The vanilla hits you first as it merges into a finish of oak and tropical fruits.  There is a slight harshness for only a half of moment on the palette but I find that comforting because it reminds me that I’m drinking rum. While we didn’t try some on the rocks, I can see how this would be the way I would sample it next time around.

Next I mixed it up in a classic Mai Tai.  I usually mix my Mai Tais with a strong Jamaican rum (per Trader Vic’s original) however the Bajan 1966 stood up fair well.  Steve really enjoyed the Mai Tai and was pleased on how Bajan was complimented by the lime and orgeat.  I will say that the curaçao was a bit overpowering against the rum for me and maybe I’d pull it back some in the future.

I think the Bajan will also shine nicely in something simple like a Barbados Rum Punch or a Rum Old Fashioned (so that’ll be on tap for the future).

I haven’t really established a “Rum Grading Scale” yet but I would give this a 4 out of 5 tikis.  You won’t find it in the U.S. but if you’re visiting Barbados then it might be a nice addition to pick up.