Rum afficianados descend upon Guyana
There is nothing like the majesty of mother nature to give you pause for thought, and when it comes to mother nature, Kaieteur Falls in Guyana is one of her most impressive children.
Last month I found myself standing on top of Kaieteur Falls, which, as well as being the biggest single drop waterfall in the world, is one of the most spectacular sights I have ever witnessed. As I stood at the top of the falls with the lush valley below endlessly rolling into the distance and the waterfall’s spray cooling my face, it dawned on me that this is an amazing time to be involved in our industry.
What a good looking bunch we were
Kaieteur Falls was the culmination of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Guyana, courtesy of El Dorado Rum and surrounding me were bartenders, managers and owners from individual venues and bar groups. Brand trips are no longer the domain of the bar group buyer or owner, they are open to everyone in our industry.
Four days earlier I had awoken under a mosquito net for our first day in Guyana. From the balcony I could see not only the Diamond Distillery already in full swing, but also the two villas housing my companions on the trip.
Those on this adventure consisted of Stefanie Holt, the International Brand Ambassador for El Dorado Rum; Kirsty Loveday, owner of Love Drinks the UK distributors for El Dorado; Alex Proudfoot, of Raouls in Oxford who had won the El Dorado Swizzle competition earlier in the year; Lyndon Higginson, boss man of Liars Club in Manchester; Lee Lynch, Scouse legend from Living Ventures; Henry Tootal the gentleman from Parched Pubs and Nick Taylor from the Fat Cat Group.
Slowly everyone started to emerge from their slumber to take in the early-ish morning sights and sounds of a new country. Yesterday had seen us fly from the UK, which included an 8 hour layover in Barbados, giving ample time for Lyndon to get us lost on our way to lunch and the chance to pop into Northern bartenders haven Mojo’s sister venue.
After 24 hours of travelling we had arrived in Guyana to discover that each of the villas contained at least one of each of almost all of the El Dorado range (3, 5, 6, 8, 12 and 15 year olds). Needless to say we had done a little bit of ‘quality control’ before crashing out but there was no time to feel sorry for ourselves, we had a distillery to visit.
The Diamond Distillery
This was my first rum distillery and what a distillery it is, with Master Distiller Shaun Caleb as our tour guide, the group really were in for a treat. One of the first things that struck me as we wandered through the site was what an amazing example it was of the ability to blend the old and the new.
Alex fulfilling a dream and licking an El Dorado Still
It should come as no surprise from a company renowned for their skill in blending rum that technology and skills should be well combined. As we walked around we saw the old (and I mean old – the wooden pot still is older than Jake Burger’s record collection) wooden and metal stills alongside massive new metal stills reaching up into the beautiful blue sky above us.
There will be a more in-depth article coming soon about the distillery, stills and people behind El Dorado, but the distillery tour did have one surprise which I can’t wait to share with you. Unbeknownst to us, Stef had organised a treat long before we had arrived.
As we walked around the ageing house the keen eyes in the group noticed 5 barrels lying on the ground, seemingly much older than the others stacked to the ceilings around them. When it was explained that these barrels had been brought over from the other ageing warehouse for us to try direct at cask strength I actually, for the first time of my life, heard the sound of saliva forming in the mouths around me (for the record it is both a disgusting and scary sound).
The 5 barrels contained rum from 4 different stills so we could compare the difference nuances each give before the skill of blending takes place. The barrels, which were expertly opened by a guy using a big metal stick, contained:
- Metal Savalle Still from 2000
- Single Wooden Pot Still (VSG) from 2000
- Double Wooden Pot Still (PM) from 2000
- Wooden Continuous Still (EHP) from 1997
The difference between the rums was unbelievable. They were all, in their own right, fantastic products (as Lyndon commented at one point with the sort of tasting note you don’t hear everyday ‘That’s smooth as fucking tits’) and everyone had different favourites. It really put into context why the different stills are used and why El Dorado rums have such a depth of flavour.
Those of you who have been paying attention will notice that there were 5 barrels but I have only listed 4 of them above. The reason for this is that they brought along two barrels of the Double Wooden Pot Still from 2000. These barrels were filled on the same day from the same still and stored next to each other in the warehouse. Yet when they were opened and poured into the glass the differences between them was astounding.
Even Shaun was amazed at the differences and if any of us needed any proof of the skills of a rum blender that was it. Lee and Lyndon however decided that they had the skill levels necessary and made their own blend using the two barrels. The quality of their experiment certainly had more to do with the quality of the rum than the talent of the blenders on this occasion.
It’s for Charity Mate
A tutored tasting of the full range with Master Blender Sharon Sue-Hang followed, and included not only the Single Barrel range and the sought after 25yo, it also gave us our first look at El Dorado’s own over proof rum called High Wine which was to play a big part in our trip, but more on that later. Next up was the start of the second part of our Guyanese adventure.
Our savior – the Coconut Man
The following evening was El Dorado’s annual charity dinner to raise money for the DDL Foundation which funds education for underprivileged children in Guyana. I was excited to hear that a chef had been flown over from the US to provide the food and even more so to hear that internationally renowned bartenders would be making bespoke cocktails for the event. That was until I found out that this group of bartenders was actually our group… Bugger.
The brief was to create three drinks using local ingredients as our inspiration. This did provide us with the opportunity to experience a bit of the real country, which is unfortunately often overlooked on these trips. First stop was the local food market for some inspiration and ingredients. It was a loud, colourful, senses tingling experience made slightly more surreal with our bodyguards (who were quickly named Turner & Hooch, despite neither of them being a large slobbering dog) following our every move.
We soon had inspiration forming ingredients although we weren’t entirely sure what they all were. There was only one way to celebrate, fresh coconut water opened expertly by a man with a machete, which strangely worried Turner & Hooch a lot less than a friendly man on a bike.
Back at The Compound (the affectionate name we had given to our guarded and barb wired home away from home) the group was split up to create the drinks. I was on chief tasting duty, beer opening and general support whilst, Kirsty was on topping up the tan assignment by the pool.
Stef had warned us all that the locals were big fans of sweet drinks, so there would be none of that trendy, bartendery bitter-as-all-buggery nonsense on this trip. Stef, Henry and Nick were quickly into an El Dorado 8, cherry and mauby concoction (mauby being a very popular spicy/sweet Caribbean bark-based syrup).
Alex used his Swizzling magic and just as speedily knocked up a swizzle with El Dorado 5, passionfruit, juices and pineapple jam. Only the simple job of the punch handed to Lee and Lyndon seemed to be causing issues. They had tried pretty much every combination of every ingredient at our disposal before they, close to breaking down, found the solution… Increase the amount of booze.
Problem solved, drinks sorted, time to get changed and get out on the town.
The next 36 hours found us exploring Guyana’s capital city Georgetown by day and night (with Tango & Cash always close by). The evenings revolved around food and rum with a side order of Gangnam style dancing, casino gambling and charitable giving.
So impressed with the Sea Curb…
During the day our education on Guyana continued with a scenic tour of the city. I learned several interesting things about Guyana and Georgetown during the trip, and here are some of them:
- The main costal areas are actually below sea level and it is only thanks to the skill of the early Dutch settlers that the whole country isn’t a massive uninhabitable swamp
- To help keep the sea at bay Guyana has a massive sea wall 280 miles in length, of which they are very proud
- The sea wall is rather unimpressive when you actually see it (more of a sea kerb, as was suggested to our insulted-looking local guides)
- They have the second tallest wooden building in the world, St George’s Cathedral
- It was the tallest until recently. They don’t like the fact it isn’t anymore, but it’s still amazing
- When we were there they were advertising a Chris Brown gig on New Years Eve
- After we left they have cancelled it, as they don’t want a women-beating idiot in their country
- Guyanese people are COOL
As we left the casino following the charity dinner we were in high spirits. The cocktails had been a success (in the sense that no-one had said they were horrible and/or thrown them at us), lots of money had been raised, Kirsty and Lyndon had both picked up some pretty amazing one-off bottles of rum in the auction, a surprising number of us had won on the blackjack and roulette tables but most excitingly was the knowledge of what tomorrow held in store.
Back in the compound on the balcony sipping El Dorado 12 year old, we were as excited as a bartender in a hat, tattoo and moustache comb shop. Tomorrow we were going ‘in land’ for the next part of our Guyanese adventure. We had packed lots of rum and little else in our bags for 2 days of rivers, waterfalls, islands, beaches and adventure.
There is an equation that can be used for all booze trips. It is as follows:
Amount drunk last night – size of breakfast
Excitement levels of activity to be undertaken = Chance of vomit on back of neck on bus/train/plane/boat
Despite the small lake of rum that had been consumed the night before the breakfast and excitement meant my neck was a safe vomit free zone despite the bumpy roads and boat journey ahead of us.
Our 2nd savior – Coconut Man’s cousin Juice Man
Music plays a big part of the Guyanese culture (which made the decision to bring Chris Brown over even more baffling) and an hour on a little bus was plenty enough time for us all to be schooled in their love of Chutney. According to those who know more about music than me (which doesn’t say much – I know so little about music I should be a judge on the X Factor) it’s a fusion of Soca and Indian music.
What I can tell you is, it’s hilarious. All, and I mean all, the songs are about two things: women and rum. That’s it, a whole genre of music all about just two subjects. It’s brilliant, I mean it’s awful, but it’s brilliant. Above all else it’s certainly a great way to pass an hour on a bus in the Caribbean.
As we pulled up next to the river, the sheer size of it began to dawn on me. Whilst Guyana’s most famous river may be the Demerara, its biggest is the Essequibo. Sometimes the word ‘biggest’ doesn’t seem adequate, this is one of those occasions.
The river is 1,000 km long, 20km wide in points and has 365 islands on it. Still hard to picture that isn’t it? Okay try this for size, the biggest island IN the river is bigger than Barbados….
I was having a similar problem taking in the vastness of the Essequibo as I stood on its banks waiting for our boat to arrive. As I gazed out across the river I pointed to the other side asking if there were any towns on the other side of the river. ‘There may well be’ came the slightly cocky response ‘that however is an island, the other side is another 8 km past that point’.
As we powered down the river nature began to envelope us, you could see shoulders relaxing, smiles getting wider and a feeling of serenity come over the boat. In fact half the boat got so relaxed they passed out. They were awake again to see the island owned by one of Guyana’s most famous locals though, Eddie Grant of Electric Avenue fame.
Our destination for the next 24 hours was a place around an hour and a half up the river, Baganara Island. We knew little of it, Stef had been reasonably tight lipped, except it was beautiful, had a beach and lots of games to play in between relaxing on hammocks. We had decided this sounded acceptable.
A short detour via a mining town later (I say short because it was approximately 2,000 degrees and we had far too many Northerners in our group to risk some sort of mass heat stroke episode) we rounded a bend in the river. Before us stood an amazing white, plantation style house on an island with volleyball net and kayaks on the beach.
Oh yes, that’s right, sweeeeeet
We were really keen to see who lived in a place like this, rumours started spreading through the boat, then we started slowing ‘it must be someone important if they’re slowing to let us take photos’ came the call from up front. Bit by bit it dawned on us that the boat wasn’t just slowing, it was docking, I looked across and saw a very cheeky smile on Stef’s face. This truly was our home for the next day or so, my joy was curtailed momentarily when Henry realised what was happening and gripped my leg so hard in his excitement I nearly got deep vein thrombosis.
The rest of the afternoon felt as if I was in a cheesy 80s film montage. With varying degrees of success the group proceeded to play pool, table tennis, Frisbee, football kicky alongside some serious hammock and beach relaxing.
The bar was fully stocked with El Dorado and we made sure no-one ran dry. During the afternoon Henry invented the drink of the trip, a heady mix of the aforementioned High Wine Overproof mixed with the house speciality Lime Swank (a kind of limeade that featured in Alex’s winning Swizzle presentation). The drink he named ‘See You Tomorrow Morning’ was dangerously moreish.
At some point during the afternoon we began to notice a rather impressive storm moving very slowly towards us. As the scenery was slowly lost to a creeping bank of dark cloud someone foolishly mentioned that ‘a bit of rain to break up the heat would be nice’. Half an hour later the biggest storm I have seen in a very long time whipped across our peaceful little haven.
The open sided house was no match for the rain and wind as it had us shivering and huddled round a table. Thank god it did, as without warning a huge bolt of lightning struck a tree a few meters from where we had been merrily playing shortly before. The noise was so loud we physically jumped from our seats and it was a minor miracle no-one soiled themselves, although Alex did have brown shorts on.
Fire and Singsong
As the excitement and High Wine of the afternoon began to wear off there was a distinct possibility the evening was going to be a wash out. The rain had abated but the energy levels had blown away with it. We needed help and Lee and Lyndon jumped into action producing a series of increasingly strong rounds of Instant Coffee Martini shots.
The moment Lee lost his eyebrows
With caffeine and alcohol coursing through our veins as darkness descended Lyndon decided to show off his party piece. Time for a fire breathing show.
This is where the High Wine really came to the fore. Lyndon soon had everyone ooohing and aaahing with his antics and I was thoroughly enjoying it until I heard the words ‘does anyone else want to give it a try?’ I could just see someone going up in a burst of flames in the middle of no-where. I needn’t have worried.
Not only was Lyndon a good teacher but more importantly everyone who had a go was rubbish. Over the next half an hour a series of people proceeded to spit High Wine all over the beach and in the process put out the flame. On the downside lovely booze was wasted, on the plus side everyone still had all their features in working order at the end.
As the evening turned to night the drinks began to flow in earnest and it was time for Karaoke. With Stef on DJ duty and a pile of CD’s as tall as her to choose from, it was a long and hilarious night with song after song, classic after classic murdered in cold blood by the increasingly enthusiastic group. What we lacked in talent we made up for in enthusiasm and not for the first time I was grateful we were so far away from civilisation.
There was, however, one family who had chosen this night for a relaxing getaway at Baganara who were stunned to find a group of drunk bartenders had joined them on holiday. The dad watched us sing pretty much all of the evening before we finally let him have the mic, he was awesome, Tom Jones awesome. His ears must have been bleeding listening to us for hours but the look of pride on his daughters face made up for it I’m sure.
The next morning we arose to another beautiful blue sky and any traces of hangovers were soon left behind as we, boarded a tiny plane to fly to the beautiful Kaieteur Falls. The one hour flight gave some people the chance to catch up on some sleep and others the chance to gaze at the beautiful, expansive scenery Guyana has to offer with Stef doing her best Travel Guide impression.
The very impressive Kaieteur Falls
After our first glimpse of the falls from the plane we found ourselves wandering through the forest on route to the first of 3 viewing points of the falls. Usually heights and I don’t play well, and as we clambered onto the first viewing rock I was more than a little nervous. The sheer beauty of what was in front of us took all my fears away, but not Alex’s. The realisation he was to become a dad for the first time as soon as he got home suddenly made him feel very mortal. He stayed a little way back and did a great job of camouflaging himself against the green foliage behind him.
As I touched on at the start of this piece Kaieteur Falls are a magnificently, beautiful spectacle. As we got closer and closer via the viewing points the views got more and more spectacular, we were so high up that at one point an eagle soured on air currents blow us.
The final spot was actually on top of the waterfall itself looking out across the valley below it and seeing the rainbows the water droplets produced as they cascaded over the edge. It was at this point I had my revelation about our industry.
I had just spent 4 days with amazing people in a beautiful country on the other side of the world. I had experienced different cultures, tried amazing rums, laughed, cried (the karaoke was really that bad) and won $1,000 off Lyndon at pool.
I repeat this is an amazing time to be a part of our industry.
As we returned for the final night to the compound the atmosphere was a little flat. At 2am the cab was coming to pick everyone up and this adventure was nearly at an end. That sombre mood lasted exactly as long as it took someone to say ‘Drink?’.
The final night was lost in rum and games on the balcony. Sleep seemed pointless with a 2am pickup and most people battled through. Those who didn’t regretted it hugely upon waking. It felt like the last night of the summer holidays when you were a kid, if you didn’t go to sleep it wouldn’t end.
Thank you to everyone who looked after us on the trip, it was an amazing few days that none of us will forget. Also thanks to Stef, DDL and Love Drinks for inviting us all out and everyone in the group for making it so memorable.
(originally published by BAR LIFE, 10-JANUARY-2013)