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Premium plan to save rum industry

SHAWN CUMBERBATCH, [email protected]

Premium plan to save rum industry

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FRANCE IS KNOWN FOR WINE MAKING. Barbados is the birthplace of rum. So what does a Frenchman know about rum? That was the question on the lips of some Barbadians more than seven years ago when Raphael Grisoni arrived here to take up his post as managing director of Mount Gay Distilleries Limited.

The doubts have not lingered. All it takes is one conversation with Grisoni to learn that his love for Mount Gay and rum is just about as strong as his French accent.

Such passion, and his realisation four years ago of a need to reposition the 312-year-old brand to ensure its survival, is keeping this rum boss highly motivated.

“Yes, when I came I had a mission, and this mission evolved. Four years ago, my mandate was really to rethink the vision for the brand and the strategy. It is what I did, with a team, I was not alone, of course, and it’s what we did, resetting the strategy for the brand for the long term, making sure that the brand will continue to develop and still exist in the future and I liked it because it has forced me to rethink and to put myself in a dynamic context,” he told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY during a recent interview.

Grisoni, who acknowledged the work of key team members including marketing manager David Sealy, said despite being around since 1703, Mount Gay could not survive on its heritage alone. He feels this is something others in the industry here, and Caribbean-wide, will all eventually have to face. Fortunately for Mount Gay, that realisation came “four to five years” ago.

“Things are moving around, so you need to move as well and being forced to rethink the strategy for me has been a great moment. In a way, it has been easy because there are no 20 alternatives to the strategy we took, I think this is the only one. I am not just talking about Mount Gay but the rum industry in Barbados. If you don’t go the route of premium rum you are going to disappear,” he said.

But Grisoni is equally sure that “we need to be helped also, so we need to have a performing sugar industry because this is the foundation of the rum industry in Barbados”.

In this regard, Mount Gay’s French parent company Remy Cointreau has, as they say, put its money where its mouth is, buying the historic Mount Gay Plantation in St Lucy – the place where it all started.

He is hoping that other key investors, including Barbados Farms owner Sagicor, will remain in sugar, saying its exit “would be a big mistake not only for the sugar industry but for the rum industry, so purchasing a plantation is already a sign that we believe in this industry.”

“Two years ago, I didn’t have in mind the plantation project and it came by chance because I knew that the original Mount Gay plantation around the distillery was for sale and I said it’s an opportunity for the brand, for the company to reassemble the pieces of the puzzle, which are the distillery and the plantation, because originally it was one piece and then it was acquired by different people and split up,” he noted.

Having been here since 2008, the managing director is also very clear about what Mount Gay, and being the birthplace of rum, means to Barbadians.

“Mount Gay is part of the national patrimony, there’s no doubt. We have a fantastic and a unique heritage being the oldest rum brand in the world. This is something amazing and we can build on that, also building on the fact that Barbados is the birthplace of rum,” he said.

“We have a consumer who is evolving, so we need to be relevant for this new consumer; if you are not, effectively you are disappearing. But relevancy doesn’t meant that you have to deny your heritage or deny your past, it’s just that you have to highlight different aspects of your brand, do some innovation effectively so that you can still be in contact with the taste of the consumer.”

He added: “We want to maintain that authentic rum, not with sweeteners, not with flavourings, but proper distillation, and aging. There is complexity in distillation, there is complexity in aging, it’s a proper premium brown spirit, the same way cognac can be or scotch whisky can be. In fact, we are trying to help the youngest consumer rediscover Mount Gay, to rediscover what we do and so far it’s working.”

Grisoni is fully aware that “producing rum in Barbados has no competitive advantage, because the majority of inputs are imported”, and other aspects can be costly, including manpower and energy.

It is a fact he does not find intimidating, though, especially considering the plans Mount Gay has in store, including expanding its brand academy. This is where bartenders, bloggers, journalists and others from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France and Australia are invited here to be educated about rum, returning home as “ambassadors for Mount Gay and for Barbados rum”. A similar venture is planned for Barbadians.

Grisoni and his team also have their eyes on new markets, especially in Asia and Africa, where there is “great potential”, and new products, including one specially developed for the Barbados market, and which will be unveiled in November.

“The fact is that Mount Gay is growing. Last year, we grew by double digits and this year so far is the same. It’s a pretty healthy business and we are happy about that. At the end of the day, we are very lucky to have a very nice brand,” Grisoni said.