The Road To WIRSPA – A Cocktail Wonk Story
My phone finally vibrates – the WhatsApp message reads, “OK ready. We’re on the fourth floor.”
I do another quick check in the mirror to make sure I’m presentable and take one more glance out the hotel room window. Below me are the blue waters of Rodney Bay in St. Lucia. Taking a deep breath, I start the short walk to the fourth floor. I knock and am ushered into a windowless conference room.
Arrayed around a conference table are a half dozen extremely influential people in the rum world–but who are virtually unknown outside of industry circles.
I take a seat at the table. Around me is the head of the Jamaican Spirits Pool; the managing director of Mount Gay; the chairman of J. Wray & Nephew; the managing director of Saint Lucia Distillers; and the Executive Director of the Dominican Republic Rum Producers. At the head of the table sits Komal Samaroo, executive chairman of Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL). Next to him is Vaughn Renwick, chief executive officer of the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association, more often referred to as WIRSPA. Collectively, the people here are (most of) WIRSPA’s Board of Directors.
As a rum writer, educator, and historian, I’d be thrilled simply to listen in on what this group might discuss. But I’m not here for that. Instead, all eyes turn toward me for what I have to say.
If you care enough about rum to want historic brands and distilleries to remain competitive in the global spirits market, you should know about WIRSPA and what it does.
In the simplest terms, WIRSPA represents the collective interests of numerous Caribbean rum-producing countries. Most initiatives that WIRSPA undertakes, like trade policy negotiations and truth-in-labeling lobbying, are far removed from the public eye. These topics simply may not be as immediately relevant to rum enthusiasts as the latest limited-edition cask strength port cask–finished rum. Yet what WIRSPA does is ultimately much more important to rum’s future. For someone like me who studies all aspects of the rum world, being in this room is the ultimate inner circle of Caribbean rum.
So then, what exactly is WIRSPA? Is it a government organization? Who funds it? And what authority does it have?
Technically, WIRSPA is an “association of associations,” representing distillers’ organizations from certain countries across the Caribbean. However, that’s not a terribly useful definition for the average enthusiast, so let’s try a simpler analogy: WIRSPA is somewhat like the NATO of Caribbean rum — without the military connotations, of course. Like NATO, WIRSPA members are countries with common, shared interests, located within the same region. However, while NATO’s members are the actual governments of its member countries, WIRSPA’s members are groupings of rum producers, each collective representing the interest of one country.
Some examples make this clearer: Jamaica’s WIRSPA membership is represented by the Jamaica Rum & Spirits Trade Association (JRASTA). All four Jamaican rum producers—J. Wray & Nephew, National Rums of Jamaica, Hampden Estate, and Worthy Park Estate—have input into the policy positions of JRASTA as it relates to WIRSPA.
The Barbados WIRSPA membership is represented by the Barbados Rum Distillers Committee. The four Barbados producers—Mount Gay, West Indies Rum Distillery, Foursquare, and St. Nicholas Abbey—all provide input to the Barbados Rum Distillers Committee.
In short, these per-country organizations represent the collective position of their country’s producers. One person from that per-country organization serves as the delegate to WIRSPA.
Some WIRSPA member countries such as Guyana, St. Lucia, and Trinidad only have one rum producer. Thus, Demerara Distillers Limited is the sole vote of the “Distillers and Rum Producers of Guyana” group, while Trinidad Distillers Ltd. (i.e. Angostura) is the sole voice in the Trinidad Rum Exporters’ Advisory Committee.
The list of WIRSPA member countries has changed over the decades since it formed in 1971. The initial set of member countries was Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago, all of whom remain members today. The current set of member countries is as follows:
- Antigua Rum Producers’ Association
- Asociacion Dominicana De Productores De Ron
- Barbados Rum Committee
- Distillers and Rum Producers of Guyana
- Jamaica Rum & Spirits Trade Association
- St. Lucia Rum Producers’ Association
- Suriname Rum Producers’ Foundation
- Trinidad Rum Exporters’ Advisory Committee
- Belize Rum Producers’ Association
- Dominican Rum Association
- Grenada Rum & Spirits Producers’ Association
- Haitian Rum Producers’ Association
- St. Vincent Rum Association
The sharp eye might notice that certain well known Caribbean rum-producing locales aren’t on the list, including Cuba, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and various other rum-making areas. In the case of Martinique and Guadeloupe, they are territories of France and as such are represented by a somewhat similar trade organization known as CIRT DOM (Conseil Interprofessionnel Du Rhum Traditionnel Des Dom Cirt Dom). As for Puerto Rico and St. Croix, they’re territories of the United States, and thus not independent countries either. The CARIFORUM countries which make up the WIRSPA membership are all independent countries. (we’ll get to CARIFORUM in a moment.)
WIRSPA is very involved in international organizations, first and foremost with CARIFORUM. In case you’re not familiar with CARIFORUM –even I wasn’t – it comprises the Caribbean members of the ACP countries—an organization of 79 African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) states that have banded together to collectively exert influence when dealing with other parts of the world.
CARIFORUM, as a subset of the ACP, is a way for Caribbean member states to collectively interact and negotiate with other government organizations, including the United States and the European Union (EU).
WIRSPA is not a governmental organization and has no legal authority over any aspect of the rum trade. Rather, it functions as a regional trade group, advocating for causes that its members collectively agree upon. WIRSPA’s financing comes via dues paid by WIRSPA member producers in different proportions.
WIRSPA is recognized around the world as the voice of the ACP Caribbean rum industry. Besides governmental organizations like CARIFORUM, WIRSPA also interacts and collaborates with trade groups such as DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), Spirits Canada, Spirits Europe, the UK’s Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA), the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), and the World Spirits Alliance.
One can go very far down the rabbit hole of WIRSPA-affiliated international governmental and non-governmental organizations, but that’s a tale for another time. The global spirits trade is an enormous business, of which the Caribbean rum producers are a small portion. Only by working together can the WIRSPA member countries collectively pool their influence and have a representative voice in trade discussions.
In the weeks before my meeting with WIRSPA’s Executive Committee, WIRSPA asked me to create a proposal for how I might assist them. Their area of interest: My recommendations on how WIRSPA and its member producers can be better involved in the social media discussions of the burgeoning rum enthusiast movement. This is necessarily a two-way street – WIRSPA’s members would like to know what enthusiasts are talking about, as well as have a well-defined channel for communicating about WIRSPA’s initiatives and stories.
Vaughn subsequently asked me to present at WIRSPA’s upcoming meeting in St. Lucia. Naturally, I said “Yes”. As an added incentive, a visit to Saint Lucia Distillers was a possibility, and I’d long wanted to see it.
After meeting the Executive Committee, I attended a special evening event focused on how WIRSPA members could collaborate more effectively with the Caribbean tourism industry to elevate both industries by creating more opportunities for tourists to learn about true, high-quality Caribbean rums in the same light that imported foreign spirits are. In the words of Dominic Fedee, Minister of Tourism and chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation: “With some 40 million visitors coming to our countries each year, we have a unique opportunity for them to sample and purchase our products, whether it be on board ship, in our resorts, or in our community tourism initiatives.”
The following day, as part of the WIRSPA general sessions, I gave a formal presentation to a larger audience. Besides the Executive Committee, producers also represented included the West Indies Rum Distillery, J. Wray & Nephew, National Rums of Jamaica, Grenada Distillers, Travellers (Belize), English Harbour, and Angostura, among others. In my presentation I spoke about the current hot topics in rum social media forums, what enthusiasts were looking for from rum producers, and what producers could learn from online discussions
After presenting, I was asked to sit in on the session covering WIRSPA’s Responsible Drinking Initiative. In a nutshell, and to no one’s surprise, drinking to excess, underage drinking, drink driving and drinking while pregnant are longstanding public health issues associated with the beverage alcohol industry. In response, various national and international organizations have been discussing ways to ameliorate these problems, including reducing the availability of beverage alcohol, restricting advertising related to it, and raising excise taxes.
WIRSPA’s position is that vigorous, proactive self-regulation and responsible policies can make for a more effective and nuanced approach to responsible drinking initiatives than government decrees, which can create unintended negative consequences. As such, WIRSPA was keen to work more closely with institutions such as the WHO (World Health Organization), COTED (The Council for Trade and Economic Development) and COHSOD (The Council for Human and Social Development). Separately, members discussed their plans to adopt a revised Code of Practice for members including advertising content, as well as an initiative for improved beverage spirit labeling.
In preparation for my WIRSPA meeting, I dove deeply into WIRSPA’s history and its accomplishments over the years. Of particular interest is that between 2002 and 2010, as part of a compensation agreement, the EU supplied a 58 million Euro grant through CARIFORUM and WIRSPA to help upgrade and modernize distilleries, provide for better wastewater treatment, and assist brands in marketing campaigns. The EU funds contributed between 30 and 50 percent (typically) of the cost of each project — producers had to put of the full cost and were refunded the grant portion. Altogether, more than 350 separate projects across 23 companies in 11 WIRSPA member countries received funding.
I’ve personally seen at least four instances of where this money went:
- The new column distillation section of the Clarendon distillery in Jamaica.
- New pot stills and steam turbines at Appleton Estate in Jamaica.
- Improved bottling facility and aging warehouse at the Foursquare distillery in Barbados.
- Distillery upgrades at St. Lucia Distillers.
Some of the EU grant money also went to develop and promote the Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) category, represented by the ACR marque, a logo that WIRSPA member producers may use on their bottle labels to indicate that the contents comply with the ACR requirements. There are three different marque tiers: The basic ACR marque requires that the rum is made from sugar cane juice or molasses within the ACP Caribbean region and meets accepted industry standards of product quality. The second and third tiers – Matured and Deluxe – additionally require that the rums have been aged for at least one or five years, respectively.
The introduction and promotion of the ACR marque ramped up over several years, with initial efforts focused on advertising and trade events in the UK, Italy, and Spain, later shifting focus to other European countries, as well as the US and Canada. Along the way, WIRSPA organized several trips for key influencers and bartenders to WIRSPA distilleries. I was fortunate to be picked to be part of the ACR tour of Jamaican distilleries in early 2016.
A few days after WIRSPA and I agreed on my Community Envoy role, I was provided the full agenda for the meeting I’d just attended. It’s an alphabet soup of acronyms for various committees, organizations, and efforts, and is extremely challenging to read without referring frequently to the glossary at the end. Nonetheless, it provided my first eye-opening view into the many areas that WIRSPA advocates for its member countries—and what we’ll be talking about in the months to come. I look forward to diving in deeply, and hope you’ll join me.