Inside A Rum Wonderland - Liverpool's Main Rum Company
Visiting The Main Rum Company in Liverpool is a golden ticket experience for rum geeks. While E&A Scheer, Main Rum’s parent company, supplies brands with custom blends by the ISO tank, Main Rum supplies well-pedigreed casks to independent bottlers. The rum originates from well-known distilleries and ages (or is secondarily aged) in one of Main Rum’s warehouses. If you’ve ever wondered how a relatively young independent bottler like Holmes Cay can sell rum distilled decades before they started, there’s a good chance they purchased stock from The Main Rum Company.
I first toured The Main Rum Company in October of 2017. At the time, my invitation was exceedingly rare, and my subsequent article was the first publication to take readers inside Main Rum’s operations. Main Rum’s management was extremely cautious about what they shared back then, and I wasn’t permitted to take photos of their casks undergoing aging. Fortunately, the company started sharing more as time passed and even supplied some of the photographs appearing in our Modern Caribbean Rum book.
A first visit to Main Rum is overwhelming as there’s just so much to absorb in real time. So, when we planned our travel to this year’s Whisky Exchange Rum Show, we arrived a few days early to fit in a return visit to Main Rum. It was well worth the effort, as many things have changed since 2017, and I could take photographs this time!
Main Rum’s Managing Director Ian Smith picked us up upon arriving via a morning train from London. Main Rum moved offices not too long ago into a long two-story brick building. From the customer-facing perspective, the new offices are a substantial upgrade from the rather cramped offices once used by Demerara Distiller’s UK operations in the 1990s.
The ground floor of the new Main Rum space is an open office with a handful of desks, each with a computer and covered with dozens of sample bottles. However, it’s upstairs in a large open room where potential cask buyers spend most of their time. On one side is a backbar-like display holding dozens of bottles, some from the company’s customers, others samples drawn from Main Rum casks. A substantial conference table occupies the rest of the upstairs space.
Upon arriving, operations manager Ian Hoyles and commercial manager Andy Seach joined us. I knew we’d eventually make our way to the aging warehouse, but I had many questions about Main Rum’s day-to-day operations beforehand. Among them:
Q: Does Scheer utilize some of Main Rum’s vast assortment of vintage rums in their custom bulk rum blends for customers?
A: Yes. Quite a few customer blends utilize relatively small amounts of rum sourced from Main Rum’s inventory.
Q: What effect did Brexit have on Main Rum’s operations?
A: Before Brexit, samples flowed relatively easily between Main Rum, E&A Scheer, and European clients. Post-Brexit, shipping excise-taxable samples was a logistical nightmare that took many months to sort out. Even now, each shipment traverses through several more intermediate stops than before, creating significant bookkeeping efforts.
Q: Where else does Main Rum have casks besides Liverpool?
A: A newly built warehouse in Scotland and another facility in Amsterdam. Having inventory in multiple locations mitigates risk so that a single calamity like a fire won’t destroy the company’s entire inventory.
With all my questions answered, Ian Hoyles, Andy, Mrs. Wonk, and I headed across Liverpool to the Plutus UK warehouse on Great Howard Street. The nearly 200-year-old six-story brick warehouse was originally a bonded tobacco warehouse and then a bonded tea warehouse. It’s just 200 meters from Stanley Dock, where ships arriving from the Caribbean unloaded their cargo, which included substantial amounts of rum in recent years. Today, Plutus rents space in the warehouse to various wine and spirits companies for aging and inventory storage. While Main Rum is among Plutus’ best-known customers, another beloved UK independent bottler also ages here as well.
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Much of Main Rum’s Liverpool inventory resides below ground. A cobwebbed freight elevator installed decades (centuries?) makes a slow, clamorous descent to the cellar, ending abruptly with a jolt. Imagine Charlie’s Great Glass Elevator taking you to a place of your wildest dreams, but made of exposed metal and only able to go up or down.
The aroma of rum is noticeable even before the elevator jolts to a stop. Once Ian pulls the door open, we step into a large, dim room filled with a cornucopia of casks. Some are stacked several layers high on pallets; others rest on the floor in neat rows. The hundreds of casks we see are only a tiny fraction of Main Rum’s inventory spread throughout the building.
During my first visit, we had to avoid several large puddles of water, and our cell phones were the best available lighting in a few spots. This time, the obstacles were fewer, and the overhead lighting was sufficient—as long as we kept moving. Motion sensors determined no one was present several times and plunged us into pitch blackness. Still, it’s a small inconvenience to spend time with so much rum.
Main Rum uses a custom set of marques that differ from what the supplying distilleries use. Thus, visitors (usually) can’t decode the labeling on Main Rum’s casks, but the keen eye can pick out certain letter combinations that provide a hint, e.g., PM (Port Mourant) and NY (“New Yarmouth.”) Main Rum uses a variety of cask sizes, and every cask Ian drew samples from was bigger than a bourbon cask. I believe they were sherry butts or something of similar size.
Approaching a cask only steps from the elevator, Ian went to work with his bung flogger. (Yes, that really is the name of the oddly shaped wooden mallet.) A few practiced strikes near the bunghole, and the wooden bung pops out. A few squeezes of a plastic pump inserted into the bunghole places a sample of rum into our tasting glasses. While Ian and Andy are seasoned veterans at spitting out rum after evaluating it, I fully enjoyed quite a bit of each sample.
I was remiss in recording everything we sampled, but a few stand out in my memory. Among them:
A Port Mourant (Demerara) aged in a quarter cask previously used for Laphroaig Scotch whisky.
A blend of Port Mourant and DHE (Diamond High Ester)
Hampden LROK – A perfect level of hogo without going off the deep end, ester-wise.
LBI (La Bonne Intention) from Demerara Distillers.
To my surprise, it was the LBI that caught me off guard. I’d never tasted LBI by itself, and it was unlike anything I’d previously tasted. I said, “This is perfect. I’ll buy the cask!” Ian laughed and replied that the cask wouldn’t be ready for several more years.
Ian’s reply underscores an important point about how Main Rum operates. While their cask inventory numbers well into the thousands, only some are for sale at any given moment. Ian monitors each cask and decides when it’s optimally developed. Selling a cask prematurely could tarnish Main Rum’s reputation that it’s built over decades. For example, I asked Ian about some recent Caroni releases, and he said that some Caroni casks take quite a long time before some of the harsh notes mellow out into something Main Rum will sell.
This approach of selling no cask before its time influences what Main Rum’s customers can buy. The company has many clients, and each (reasonably) desires the best choices among the style of rum they’re looking for. However, it’s not a free-for-all where multiple buyers compete for the same cask. Instead, Main Rum selects a set of casks a client may be interested in and reserves them while the customer decides. There’s little risk of a customer selecting a cask only to learn it’s already sold.
With the bung flogger finally earning a well-earned rest, Mrs. Wonk and I took a walk around the building’s exterior to find Bob Dylan’s steps, then headed to the Titanic Hotel for a late lunch. The hotel now occupies the building where incoming rum from the Caribbean was stored in enormous tanks and has a well-appointed rum bar commemorating that legacy.
Our visit came to a close back at the Main Rum’s offices with some final tastings of a few more spectacular samples that I’m sure Ian knew would make my eye pop out. Mrs. Wonk and I greatly appreciate the Main Rum team spending nearly a full workday with us. Experiences like this push me further in my passion for writing and educating about rum.
For more information about The Main Rum Company and E&A Scheer, see Chapter 13 (“Bulk and Sourced Rum”) of Modern Caribbean Rum.