Richard Seale (EN)

Richard Seale’s interview (2015)

Hello Richard, welcome to DuRhum. Please could you start by presenting yourself and your family history briefly. Since when have you been a part of the rum industry? Can you describe your job, your daily routine, and your challenges?

I am the 4th generation of a family business started in 1926. Like so many brands we started as a merchant, buying and blending rums under our name. My daily routine includes overseeing distillation and aging. The greatest challenge is raise Rum to its rightful place alongside the best of spirits. To do this we have to continue to do the right things and improve what we offer but also to fight for what is best for the industry.

If you had to chose which three of your rums you felt delivered the best value for money, which would you chose? And which one rum you have ever made are you most proud of?

Doorlys XO, Doorlys 12yr and R L Seale 10yr. We do not overdo the package or marketing. Try to deliver genuinely mature, authentic spirit at an accessible price.

I would be most proud of Doorlys XO, it was something new for us and gained us a lot of attention and respect.

Back in 2014 you revealed something big, something that many people knew (or at least suspect) or just heard about for the first time, but never talked about and often denied. I am of course speaking about the addition of sugar into rum. This is one of those subjects that — logically — people should have talked about and researched for years, yet few ever did. How do you explain that no-one ever tried to alert the consumers? I mean, it’s crazy to think we need Sweden and Finland’s studies and tests to start to move on the subject?

The truth is that most rum experts did not know and did not want to know. Even when suspicions were raised most experts were content to take the denials of producers at face value. I am sometimes asked, what is wrong with adding sugar?, I answer, ask the ones who lie about it, they must know what is wrong with the practice. Apparently in earlier discussion forums it was heresy to suggest rum was adulterated. Now we know the heretics spoke the truth. I think rum review needs to move to the next level. It needs to move from fanaticism to a proper critical analysis

During the 70’s and with the industrialization of the production of spirits, producers have changed their way of doing rum, to produce more with less quality, distilling a quasi neutral spirit. Do you think that this is when the producers started to add sugar in quantity, to mask a bad or poor-quality distillate?

I think industrialization, that is moving from spirit making to alcohol production is a 20th century phenomenon which started earlier than the 70s. If you look at much so called rum production in the Caribbean it is from 20th century entities with mass industrial alcohol production. With this type of production it is normal that alcoholic beverages are made by addition of flavour to alcohol of which sugar is a core component (or they are very bland, light, vodka like).

The art of producing flavour in the wine and selectively extracting it with the pot still is long lost in this case. For example we even have continuous fermentation in some “rum” producers surely the very antithesis of good wine making. Extractive distillation, the signature element of neutral spirit production is sadly common place in today’s rum production and this often happens because the same stills are being used for vodka or other alcohol production. A poor substitute for a pot still rum is sometimes taken from one column in this multi column configuration but this is nothing more than impure alcohol. It then is not surprising the final rum is flavoured and sugared to mask the poor product.

There are two terrible myths out there in the rum community; the first is that a low abv product from the column is the same as rum from the pot. This is patent nonsense. The second is that all column spirit at high proof is neutral. There is a big difference between a coffey still producing light but flavourful spirit and a multi column still with extractive distillation.

So far has there been any negative feedback for you? Have you been in trouble with some of these producers because of your revelations?

Yes, I had some negative feedback. Some experts did not like having their incompetence exposed and took cheap shots at me suggesting I was behaving in poor taste by attacking my competition. I am attacking an industry problem, for whom the cap fits let them wear it. Others have tried to discredit the test results going as far as to say it is a sham. The rum industry has a real risk of going in the vodka direction where premium rum will be about perceived value rather than real value. If that happens there is no place for us and I am entitled to try to shape the industry for what I think is the best.

It seems that the debate receives a lot of attention from bloggers, commentators and in online fora, but the subject is getting twisted, perhaps helped by industry and « professional pundits » to avoid to talk about the real problem. And the real problem is not adding sugar but not telling it to the consumers, and there has been little or no response from industry in this regard. Do you feel this is an accurate portrayal of the current situation?

The real problem is do we want rum to be a product of real or perceived value? If we do not get the problem of sugar and other adulterants under control it will largely be the latter. There is little response from the industry because we do not have the equivalent of the SWA or the French AOC. Our umbrella body does not seek to make producers comply with standards rather they seek (interpret) standards to comply with producers worst practice. We have an ACR marque but in contrast to the French AOC it says absolutely nothing about fermentation, type of distillation or minimum aging. It is not even necessary to bottle at source. This seems ludicrous for any kind of marque.

Your suggestion was to fix some standard/cap on the legal limit of additive sugar allowed, just as for Cognac…to avoid rum to becoming nothing more than a liquor someday. Do you feel this can ever be implemented in practice?

It seems unlikely.

What are your feelings regarding the minimum information that should be required on a label?

It should not be necessary to state anything other than the word Rum but that word should have a clear unequivocal meaning.

Here in France, when you look for rums into a liquor shop you don’t have many choices (even if you tend to have more choices as time goes by); if you want to discover the world of rum you will surely leave the shop with a bottle of Diplomatico, Zacapa, Don Papa, or any other blockbuster — many of which tend to have added sugar. This « trains » the palate to enjoy such a profile, and from that moment people tend to search for the same types of rums, the sweetened ones, and dislike what is actually is a real and natural rum. How do you deal with that situation, as a professional making a respectful, unadulterated product, and what advice would you give to people who wish to try rum as a quality spirit for the first time ?

I feel like people who’ve been drinking these kinds of added-to and excessively sweetened rums -and keep doing so – are fooled and don’t actually know what real rum is, confusing « sweetness » with « sweetened. » It’s always disheartening when you hear people saying the older the rum is the sweeter it should be, but that’s nonsense…and we won’t even discuss the age misinformation you can find on many bottles. Can we get out of this situation of lack of knowledge somehow ?

Today the word “smooth” has a different meaning. Historically, smooth largely referred to tails or feints on the palate. Therefore a skilled distiller tried to balance taking as much flavour from the wine but making the spirit “smooth” with a good cut. Of course the main weapon to make a spirit palatable is the aging and so we have the maxim of aging to render spirits “smooth”. Agricole is a good illustration. The single column gives a spirit with a huge wonderful nose but sharp on the palate. Give it time and it will be wonderful in all aspects.

Vodka’s solution is to make pure alcohol therefore no tails (but no flavour is apparently ok!) Now they outdo each other for “smoothness” by making the alcohol as pure as possible and in many cases using gylcerine.

Value is entirely perceived and influenced by marketing, packaging and perceived “smoothness” as an indicator of quality. This is the antithesis of spirit making in the tradition of whisky and cognac.

When we looked at Johnny’s test we saw the super premium rums were always the ones with more sugar. Yet these same super-premiums targeted an ultra-exclusive market, and said they were older, better…more special. And this justified the extra cost. Yet this led to the more expensive rums being equated with having to be sweeter. The more sugar the more dollar, why that? I think there is a real problem there, people don’t know what they’re drinking and may carry this misperception for the rest of their tastings. Can you comment on this?

In rum likewise the perception of quality is now the “smoothness” from the sugar. They are duped to believe this quality, obtained by simply adding sugar is somehow a reflection of traditional spirit making skill. Most consumers of these products and indeed many reviewers have no clue of authentic rum character. They seemingly have little idea whether the flavour is exogenous or endogenous. They accept at face value production in multi column plants miraculously producing flavourful products even with such flavour completely unrelated to the wine.

It is troubling when opinion leaders then endorse that simple sweetness and a nice decanter are the hallmarks of quality. In this way the same consumer seduced by sweetened rum has his trite viewpoint validated by a self-appointed “expert”. I saw a review that hailed a rum purportedly double digit aged as rum of the year or some such accolade but I found it was a heavily sugared, likely flavoured, foul distillate with a really awful nose full of sulphur and fusel oil. One of us must be wrong. No surprise no distillery is mentioned by the product or the reviewer. It seems in this case, the sweetness (and the fancy package and age claim) was enough to convince the reviewer (and presumably the consumer) of its “quality”. From my perspective as a distiller it was awful.

We can get out of this situation. The first step is the proper understanding of authentic character and real value. To do this we need to classify rums properly. The inane categories of white, gold etc must go. We need to classify rum by the proper hierarchy of authenticity and value.

Pure pot

Blended (pot/column)

Column (without extractive distillation)

Column (with extractive distillation)*


It is absurd to suggest that authenticity and real super premium value can come from a multi column industrial alcohol plant.

As time goes by I’m kind of pissed about all the lies going on into the rum industry, we know it’s all about regulation (and the appalling lack of them as well) and of course we can’t fully blame the producers but I truly think it’s more than legitimate to ask for transparency and honesty, in advertising, in labelling and on company websites. More and more, knowledgeable consumers tend to trust Barbados or Jamaican rums (and increasingly agricoles), because you really know what you’re drinking and that’s important. Can they keep fooling us consumers around forever ?

I agree with your sentiments completely. I share your frustration. We need the opinion leaders on our side.

For too long they have taken everything from the producers at face value and regurgitate the press releases without asking the right questions. I reiterate they need to move from fanaticism to genuine criticism.

We’re losing the authenticity of rum (all is not bad of course), instead of keeping some elementary rules and basics that every producers should respect (about distillation, age, colour and those adulterants, put some minimum standards for everyone) to maintain the integrity and the identity of what rum actually is. Don’t you think real categories must be finally set up and communicated clearly?

This is the critical first step. Real categories. Opinion leaders need to understand the key elements of authenticity and real value.

Opinion leaders should demand elementary standards about distillation, age statements, colour and adulterants. No longer should multi column distillation plants be passed off as super premium, no longer should misleading (or bogus) age statements be tolerated. No longer should surfeit colour be anything but mocked. No longer should rum with adulterants be praised.

Is it possible that we are all wrong on this side of the discussion? We purists think we are correct in liking unadulterated Bajan or Jamaican rums – but during some festivals you may now hear professionals talking about the success of these so called rum (Diplomatico, Don Papa, …) and clearly saying they need to adapt their products to those…because that’s what the consumers want. Since all distilleries and producers are making rums to turn a profit, can they afford to ignore the masses that provide their revenue?

I like to believe truth can never be on the wrong side. Ours is a philosophy not a strategy. It is a sound philosophy but perhaps not the best strategy.

Of course, I’m not sure that’s all up to either party, consumer or producer, because a consumer drinks what he finds in the shop, and what’s found there is what the products want him to purchase… yet the consumer can always walk away and buy something else

It is true we make what we believe and hope to find our consumer.

As a distiller, you are a commercial entity seeking to increase market share and maximise profit, and yet at the same time calling for standards that have the potential to erode the revenue stream of competitors. How do you defend against charges of hypocrisy?

Rum is not as successful as whisky and cognac. Our share of the super premium market is very poor. I believe we can do much better. My intent is for the industry to do much better as a whole. Standards may hurt some competitors but it will do wonders for many others who are very small and very underappreciated.

There are hundreds of whisky blogs (and magazines) available, but less than twenty worldwide that are dedicated to rum. To what do you ascribe this imbalance?

Where are the great rums to write about? We have all done a poor job on this. We have not invested in rum as we should have. Where are our pure pot 20 yr old + spirits? So very few, even fewer aged in the Caribbean.

With the decline of print media, what role do you feel bloggers have to play in the communication of tastings, ratings, debates and controversies like this one? Do you think they have a responsibility of any kind to the larger public?

Opinion leaders can be more effective than ever before. They need to think more carefully about their responsibility.

Can you share any of 4 Square’s future plans with our readers?

We are going to do more special releases. I want our portfolio to be a dynamic one. We are going to shift away a little bit from the lighter traditional Barbadian blended style and show off more full bodied rums. We will continue to explore different casks. The core portfolio will always be there and evolve more slowly but the special releases will allow us to be a little more dynamic.

In closing, were you to give any advice to rum lovers, what would it be? Any words to the industry?

Buy what you enjoy but be careful what you pay for.