Today we have a guest article by Cedrik, a fellow rum connoisseur who is probably the biggest fan of the Rockley-style I know. He has put together a few thoughts on this particular style of rum and communicated them privately through Whatsapp but I thought that they might be worth sharing with you guys so I’ve asked him to write a small essay. Here’s what he came up with.
When Barbados and Rum are mentioned in the same sentence today, most people will think of Mount Gay or maybe Foursquare, but if you turn back time just for a few years, many people will most likely think of a different distillery, at least if you’re familiar with the European independent bottlers.
I am talking about the West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD), now owned by Plantation’s head company Maison Ferrand. Not having a brand of its own, WIRD has been supplying rum to local companies and European bulk traders for ages, now spanning from super light column still distillates to some heavy-ish pot still rums.
Public perception of WIRD
In recent years, at least two different styles of pot still rums have emerged from WIRD. One, while not bad at all, never really resonated with many rum geeks, the other however left a mark with its fairly unique style, which has become known as “Rockley”.
Many describe its key-components as smoky, medicinal or even disinfectant-like with notes of honey and, depending on which release, a rather strong ester influence. It is a style of rum which is not necessarily everyone’s darling, similar to rum from Caroni or super-high ester rum from Jamaica. You will probably either love or hate it.
There are two vintages that lived long enough to still have an impact in todays’ rum market: 1986 and 2000. Other batches distilled in the ’70s have been released, none of those seem to have reached the same wide-spread distribution as ’86 and ’00 though.
There have not been any new vintages fitting the “Rockley”-profile that were distilled after 2000. Some Bloggers assume that the SMWS R3-series might be Rockley while other fans of that style who have tasted a rum of said R3-series do not see it as Rockley.
Spotting those rums on a shelf (or website) by the label alone can be rather difficult. Rockley-style rums tend to get released under various names: West Indies Rum Distillery (especially later bottles), West Indies Rum Refinery (WIRDs old name), Blackrock (the name of a city district very close to the distillery) or Rockley, the name that stuck and is still being used as a synonym for this style of rum.
So, what do we know of this infamous Rockley-style? Sadly, not much. Bristol states that “The Rockley Estate is no more and the distillery closed some years ago. This fine rum was distilled on a unique pot still which produces very distinctive and full flavoured rum”. This probably shaped the early perception. Some sources describe the West Indies’ Pot still set up as an adventurous chain of a single pot still (without two retorts that are so popular among rum producers) hooked up to the distillery’s old column, utilizing it as a rectifier feeding into a second pot still, that is, again, hooked up to a rectifying column (Diffordsguide, Stephenson (2017)). But we can find no word of this “unique pot still” that is mentioned on the label of the Bristol rums.
In 2015, Nikos Arvanitis contributed to this matter in form of a guest article written for Steven James‘ Rum Diaries Blog. Thanks to him, we now know a bit more about the actual Rockley Still, but we ended up having to toss away what we believed to know about the Rockley-style rum sold by IBs. The Rockley Still does exist and it is named after the Rockley plantation, located in the Southwest of Barbados. It is indeed located at WIRD but in a non-operational state, and that for many years. And this is it. At least until this summer.
Reality of WIRD/ Rockley
After Ferrand obtained WIRD, they slowly started letting the public rum crowd take a look behind the curtain. In a presentation at the Miami Rum Festival, Alexandre Gabriel talked about the stills present at the site, both active and inactive.
Greggs Farms Still (Pot Still)
- Acquired by WIRD in the 1950s
- Open flame still, 2000l capacity
John Dore Still (Four-Column Still)
- Acquired by WIRD in 1975
- Capable of creating 12 different styles of rum
- Operable as a Two-Column-Still
Batson Still (Pot Still)
- Acquired by WIRD in 1936, repaired in 1940
Rockley Still (Pot Still)
- Produced before 1891, acquired by WIRD in 1936
- Most likely the oldest copper pot still in existence
Blair Still (Two-Column Still)
- Finished construction in 1945
- Planned to supply “heavy” column still Rum in the future
Gabriel does not mention any double Pot Still-rectifier chain but we do not know what happens to the vapor from the Pot Still either. There might be a rectifier after all, it is rather unlikely that there are two of both though. However, all of that information provided by Alexandre Gabriel at Miami Rum Festival is still subject to further research and might change eventually. He claims to be 80% sure though.
But there is another still. A super rare, Vulcan-made “Triple Chamber Still”.
It has been inactive for the last years but was re-activated last summer, together with new wooden fermentation vats.
This type of still is neither a continuous column still nor a traditional pot still. From the outside it looks a little bit like a single column still but it is nowhere near as tall as those multistoried twin (or more) column stills. It is a batch still technology bridging traditional pot still and continuous column still and was primarily used by American whiskey makers up until Prohibition. Only one other still is in use by an American distillery that has recreated this type of still.
More information on the Chamber Still:
- WIRDs master distiller explaining how it works at 12:00
- David Wondrich Explains Three-Chamber Wooden Stills
- The Chamber Still Is Reborn
We now know what is located at WIRD but one question remains: where does/ did the Rockley-style rum come from? The real Rockley Still has been retired for way too long to be responsible for the Rockley-style rums. We cannot tell for sure where it is from, but we can make educated guesses based on what we know thanks to Maison Ferrand and Alexandre Gabriel.
The dates of distillation of the Vulcan Chamber Still match the latest known Rockley-vintages (1986, 2000). In addition to this, a guest at the Miami Rum Festival claims to have picked up some “smokiness” in the fresh distillate of the Vulcan Still. This suggests that what we know as “Rockley” might actually stem from this almost extinct type of still.
IBs labeling it as a pot still might either make a mistake or it is just a simplification by the distillery or the broker. Keep in mind that this type of still is basically non-existent and being a batch still, calling it a pot still rum might have seemed more reasonable than calling it a column still or using a name almost nobody would know about.
Another question still remains: What role does Rockley play in all of this?
A possibility would be that WIRD phased out the old Rockley still but continued to simulate its style with the Vulcan still. Another would be that Bristol simply made up a little story for a nice label.
Nonetheless, there are still some secrets to be revealed but I’m fairly certain Gabriel and the team of Maison Ferrand will do their best to take the educable rum geek on a journey with them. After all, they have taken a turn for the better and started providing in-depth information about new releases for those who are willing to look for them. It will be a matter of time before WIRD will be the object of further “investigation” (most likely by Matt Pietrek, I assume). However, I’m worried about the availability of this great style of Rum. The recent Xaymaca release, not having been sweetened at least, is met with strong criticism for still playing it too safe. One can only hope Maison Ferrand will not waste all of this potentially wonderful rum in washed-out, low proof, sugared and cognac-finished mass market blends. Only time will tell.
- most information on the stills at WIRD seem to be incorrect/ inaccurate
- the Rockley-style most likely comes from the recently re-activated Vulcan made “Three-Chamber-Still”
Acknowledgement: The featured image on this page and the pictures of the stills have been kindly provided by Matt Pietrek. We are waiting for you article (edit: it has been published in the meantime)
Shortly after this article went online, some new pieces of information came up. According to Richard Seale, the rum distilled in ’86 was the product of the Vulcan being run as a wash still and the Gregg Farm pot still as a spirit still. While not giving specific vintages, Mr. Gabriel did confirm that the Vulcan was indeed used as a wash still for the Gregg Farm pot still on some rare occasions, though it was just one of several different still configurations used at WIRD. Even though it does not confirm that every Rockley-Style rum was made using the same set-up (there are minor differences between ’86 and ’00 as well), it further reinforces the assumption that the Vulcan played a pivotal role in creating this lovely rum.
Another topic that did not make it into this article was the use of different fermentation methods (Mr. Gabriel revealed that WIRD used sea water for some fermentations in the past). But there are just too few information out there to dig deeper into that.