An Interview with Nils Van Rijn The Duchess Independent Bottler

An Interview with Nils Van Rijn The Duchess Independent Bottler by the fat rum pirateAn Interview with Nils Van Rijn The Duchess Independent Bottler

Over the past year or so a new Independent Rum Bottler has come to many Rum Enthusiasts attention. The bottler, The Duchess have made great waves with their attention to detail, both in terms of the design and presentation of their rums but more importantly due to the high standard of their offerings.

Over the next few months I will be reviewing a few of their rums. I will say at this point, this interview has been prompted by me trying their rums, rather than being offered them in exchange for a review. I received a couple of samples at London Rumfest from fellow enthusiasts who urged me to try them. Which prompted me to contact Nils.

As you will learn in this interview, Nils has been active in the Wine and Whisky world for some time, so he has not leapt into the world of rum without some considerable experience in the drinks industry. The Duchess initially bottled Whisky but has now moved into rum as well.

So lets hear what he has to say about the current rum world and what he is hoping to do in the future.

Nils is in the right of the picture (the taller one)

1. What is your background in the drinks industry?

My background is different from most people who work in the rum industry. By now, I’ve been involved professionally more than 15 years, but we all start somewhere.
As a young man, I started drinking Scotch while my friends were sipping their beers. I was very interested in its complexity and how it was made.

At first, as a whisky geek, I attended many masterclasses and started writing content for Dutch magazines. Soon I had become acquainted with the right people in the industry, who taught me the tricks of the trade. I was blessed with a good nose; that really helped me further. Professionally I’ve been the lucky victim of some very lucky circumstances – quite a story.

I used to work as a youth counsellor with juvenile offenders that were placed under my supervision. As you can imagine, that was a very challenging job. After 5 years of doing that, I was pretty much done with that profession. I promised myself to follow my passion and started to work for a retail chain in the spirits business, selling the everyday drinks, while I studied the chemistry of Scotch whisky and became an officially credited Whisky Ambassador.

One day, an acquaintance of my current employer came to my house to convince me to come work with him at bestofwhiskies.com. He came back a second time to convince me. My wife made me see reason, so I went there and I have worked there ever since that day. Then, in 2014, it felt natural to start an independent label, called The Duchess, to meet the demand for fine and rare whiskies. In 2017, we bottled our first rum and the rest is history.

2. What is the aim of The Duchess? Will you be bottling other spirits as well as rum?

We started out bottling whisky at first. It was getting harder to find decent whisky casks, so I decided to try releasing a good rum. As a try-out, we bottled the Guadeloupe Bellevue 19 Years Old. Right after bottling that, we released the Belize 10 Years Old, which sold out within the space of a few weeks.

An Interview with Nils Van Rijn The Duchess Independent Bottler by the fat rum pirateThat got me triggered to really start working on releasing more single cask rums, and building a good name for the Duchess in the rum-loving industry. With The Duchess, we cater to the demand for cask strength single cask rums, which we absolutely love ourselves.

To be honest, I turn down more casks than I’m offered when selecting our releases. When selecting a rum, both my employer Frank Valkenhoff and myself have to agree on it 100%. We do not release much, but when we do, it’s funky and complex, for a fair amount of money.

I want people to love the drink just as much as I do. If we were in it for the money, we’d be releasing many more casks, but we don’t like to work that way. The Duchess is all about true passion for the drink and genuinely releasing good stuff.

3. There are a number of independent bottlers on the market at the moment – How are you finding the market? Is it difficult to make an impression?

I do not focus on what others do, I do what I think is good and I stick to my own game. Sure, there’s many independent bottlers around releasing single cask rums consecutively in large quantities, but we don’t. If you think there is a large number of independents rum bottlers, you should see the whisky industry; hundreds of independent bottlers releasing thousands of bottles annually.

To my honest opinion, in the rum industry I still consider there to be a small and marginal amount of independent bottlers. By just doing our own thing with The Duchess, it brings more joy and passion to our label whenever we release something new.

What we do is a very artisanal way of releasing something that is just awesome. When bottling, I fill every bottle by hand, cork it, wax it and label it myself. It takes time and effort and is by no means the most efficient way of doing things. But it’s fun and I enjoy every step of the process. It makes me happier to produce something that is 100% done by myself. I put true passion in every bottle.

Hans Dillesse is a very talented and gifted painter, with whom we select native flowers for the labels, preferably indigenous to where the distillery is. Luckily for me, people love the artwork just as much as I do and Hans is an awesome guy who also happens to be very funny. Seriously, if you go for just one drink with him you’ll be laughing all night!

I wouldn’t want to change one bit. It’s the style we love and it’s our way of doing things, to rightfully honor the product.

The rums we release are all very special to me. Like I said before, we turn more casks down than we select. I always stick to 3 questions when selecting a cask for The Duchess. One, do I like it? Two, do I like it so much that I would buy a second bottle? And three, do I like it so much that I would buy a third bottle to give to a friend, or for keeps?

Frankly, I do not focus on making an impression to get noticed. I get noticed by doing things differently than everyone else is doing. I focus on doing our own thing and people love me for what I release. When buying a bottle of rum released by The Duchess, you are purchasing something complex, funky, and well worth your money.

Actually, everyone is buying true passion, my passion, and I’m glad to share this with the people who appreciate it.

4. How have you been marketing The Duchess? How has the word got out?

Good question! When we started out, it was rum for whisky geeks. Whisky is getting to darn expensive for most people and this was something that I absolutely enjoy myself. I discovered that I can enjoy a good rum just as much as a single malt.

There are more similarities than differences between them. I attend a lot of whisky festivals and it’s fun to have whisky nerds taste these products.

The sad thing is that the rum industry is its own worst enemy. Due to additives that have been used, like sugaring products or coloring, it has a gotten to the point that rum came to have a bad name among some people.

Most consumers still think rum is like Bacardi, because that’s what they know. Education-wise there is a lot to gain for us. We do market that we do not use additives or coloring. Consumers have a right to this level of transparency. Most of our marketing is the actual quality of the bottle itself, but rather than just mentioning the distillery that makes it, we also put emphasis on the island it’s from. That way we pay homage to both.

The Duchess promotion for now is mostly word of mouth. The quality will speak for itself. And we have a Facebook page. We are underground, but totally D.I.Y. We work with a limited number of selling and distribution points. The Duchess would also never mass release anything and I’d like to keep it that way. It gives me joy and excitement doing something that I love and put so much dedication into.

The Duchess has made it all the way to Hollywood Boulevard, by the way. We have a shop there that sells our products. I think that’s awesome. I’m truly grateful for that.

5. Where do you see The Duchess in 5 years’ time?

As a brand we will be recognized internationally as a high quality label with tens of annual releases per year. All releases are still cask strength and single casks. Hopefully 100% tropical aged editions too and some exceptional fine and rare stuff. By then, editions will have a higher demand than what is available, but that’s just the way it is.

Our partners will sell our products as selected distributors. I would absolutely enjoy to have London, Milan, Paris, Copenhagen, Hollywood and Hong Kong as distribution points in the future, while still working cask by cask in small quantities. I would never water down products just to meet the higher demand for our releases, nor would I make a blend. All it does it taking away the complexity of an awesome product.

We will also have more special editions by then, for festivals and special editions sold only in one place, such as a London or Paris edition. Yes, if anyone who is reading this is interested at this point, please contact me. I’m open to any suggestion.An Interview with Nils Van Rijn The Duchess Independent Bottler by the fat rum pirate

We will also see new series that have yet to see the light. No worries there yet, the flowers series will continue for a little while longer for now, but we will do something new and cool after that.

I love the rum community and the people who are so passionate The Duchess will stick to its roots. We won’t forget our fans in any way. We will make no concessions that would jeopardize The Duchess’ quality either. The Duchess will also never mass produce or anything like that. It’s not The Duchess way of doing things.

6. What do you find so special about rum?

What I like most about rum is the complexity and different layers in the drink when it comes to taste. It evolves in both taste and nose when you pour it to your glass. I love a taste of olives and slightly peated taste in rums.

Other than its taste, I love the history about it. As a kid I wanted to become a history teacher, which I obviously never did. I love to read about history, and rum has a lot of history to it. I just read the book Rum and Reggae by Hans Offringa. Reading about rum makes you respect what rum is all about so much more.

7. What is your favourite style of rum? 

Rum Agricole for sure, full-bodied rum with a mildly peated character.

8. Do you have a favorite rum to date?

Yes, I have, but it’s not for sale yet. It is still maturing in a cask. Mark Watt from Cadenhead poured me a Caroni 1998 straight from the cask, and it was just pure awesomeness. I was high fiving myself for being able to taste this. I don’t know what exactly was done for sure, but this was peated sherry cask Caroni.

It was so complex with warm layers of complexity, and was fairly peated all the way through. Mark tells me the cask will be sleeping for a while and that he currently has no plans to bottle it yet. All the same, it was just one big wow factor for me!
Mark: if you’re reading this, I would love to buy your cask! I know I have been asking before. At least sharing is caring, my friend, ha!

9. A favorite mixed rum drink or cocktail?

I don’t drink cocktails very much. Not that I do not fancy them, but most drinks I drink are pure with no water and no ice because I love these products just the way they are. I used to drink “Godfather” cocktails in the past when I was a student.

It’s a 50/50 Amaretto and Jacky D. with some ice cubes Maybe I just should try the same thing with a Cuban rum and Jacky D. and call it “Scarface”. There my friends, I just invented a new cocktail it think!

10. Where do you stand on the additives “issue”?

Plain and simple: don’t do it! The product is awesome on its own, just the way it is. Have respect for the drink. At The Duchess, we recently have added the line: “No additives, No colouring” to our new labels. We love transparency, the consumers have a right to know the contents of the product. I do not buy casks that contain additives, and I never will. To my opinion this always be inferior to the real deal

I know the industry uses caramel E150a to make their products have a consistent color. Basically, in a nutshell: it has to look the same consistently, or is made darker to generate more sales. It’s a form of marketing: the darker the rum, the easier the sale. And it makes sense: would you buy a Coca Cola if it looked plain white? It happens a lot all over both in the rum and whisky industries.

Here, the knowledge I gathered when I took whisky chemistry comes in handy, which I would like to share with our dear readers: When you make caramel you are actually burning carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are made out of sugar or sometimes even corn molasses. It’s fun to try to make some in the kitchen yourselves.

Although it’s in fact officially allowed to use caramel as an artificial coloring agent for alcoholic spirits, I don’t think it’s right to do so. Although it is used only in very small amounts, and should therefore not (according to the industry) add any taste… the truth is – it does.

An Interview with Nils Van Rijn The Duchess Independent Bottler by the fat rum pirateI feel uneasy about this (mis)use..Basically you’re just lying, selling something that it’s not by masking the true color of the genuine product by darkening it with the use of E150a.

In some European countries, it needs to be stated on the label by law when used, thumbs up there! Our fans of The Duchess do not have to be afraid we would ever do this. Our products do not have to look consistent, as they are all single casks. All it needs to do is just taste awesome, and it is our selection process that makes the difference. So no additives and no coloring in our products.

About chill-filtering: this is mostly done to limit viscosity in a product when stored cold. The contents look cloudy, and big brands want to make the product look good all the time. Chill-filtering prevents that, but will also take a way a wee bit of its complexity. We filter through a cheesecloth straight from the cask. The rum siphoned from the cask runs through it, separating the liquid from debris from the cask, nothing more than that. When we were bottling the Guadeloupe, big chunks of charcoal blocked the filter several times.

Another thing is transparency of tropical aging versus European aging. Just to let you know, we will give out this information in the future.

11. How do you see the current rum market? Are you noticing a change in what people are asking for or demanding?

I see the rum market full of people who are very excited and eager to learn and to be educated about the product that is undergoing a “boom” at the moment. What the market needs its great ambassadors to do so. I have tremendous respect for people like Zan Kong and Richard Seale, who are at the top of their game and are generally nice people.

I’ve met Zan personally, a very warm and kind man. I hope to meet Richard soon. I love what he’s achieving in the industry. Kris von Stedingk with Rum Symposium is also dong great things educationally.

As for the demands on certain rums: sure, people want collectible products that are getting scare such as Caroni, and hopefully the market will not attract the so-called investors who want to cash out at big profits for these items. It takes away the fun and makes it harder to obtain certain casks like Caroni and Hampden, because that’s what they all want.

There’s plenty of distilleries that make a good dram and of course we will be releasing these casks as well. Personally I don’t get tempted too much into buying what the market demands. I release what I love and what’s good and we’re just doing our own thing. I guess that makes us a little different from others.

It comes down to this: if a rum makes you happy and you love it so much that it makes you want to buy a second bottle for yourself, and a third one to give to your friend, then you know it’s superb. I will always base my choice on that response, regardless of the demands. I can’t speak for others but I like to keep things fair, a reasonable price for a cool dram.

12. Which rum publications online and in print do you follow. Are you looking to emulate or are you inspired by any current figures? If you are who and why?

I love Serge Valentin a lot, I read his blog every other day. A very productive writer he is. I also read up on Cocktail Wonk, Facebook pages about rum, Le Blog A Roger, RumShopBoy.com and The Lone Caner. Whenever I get the chance to read I will. I guess I have to keep reading your articles now too (Nothing like a slap in the face to keep you grounded eh? Thanks Nils! – Wes). It’s fun!

13. How do you feel about the current trend for unaged rum? The Clairins from Haiti and some of the unaged Jamaican rum which is coming out.

I have been offered Clairin matured on Caroni cask and I turned it down. I did drink Rum-bar from Jamaica and I understand why these products are released. They are good quality unaged rums that have a bigger and better complexity than the obvious products such as Bacardi, Havana Club and Captain Morgan.

So, to illustrate that there’s so much more out there, it’s a very good strategy and a more than welcome trend, and I think by doing this it can really serve to educate people. There will just be more to choose from, and that can never be a bad thing. As far as The Duchess is concerned, I don’t think I will release something like that. It’s just not what the Duchess is about.

14. Does the Duchess have any tricks up its sleeve for future releases. Any rums from relatively uncharted territiories we should be looking out for?

I’m glad you asked. We do, we always will have cool stuff. Next year, starting in February, we will be releasing 5 new editions. Hans Dillesse is currently painting until his hands hurt to bring us the nice designs he’s renowned for.

I will tell you this: we will be releasing a 21 Years OId Caroni and a very cool but different Diamond 20 Years Old matured on a Armagnac cask!

In addition to that, we will be bottling three other extremely old editions for release in the following months. I will not tell you the distilleries at this point but I will tell you this: we will be releasing a 28 Years Old from …?

I do have something on my wish-list though: I would love to release a Marie-Galante.

As passionate I am about rums, I’m always interested to talk to people about what they like. Recently due to many requests I started a Facebook page especially for The Duchess fans. I listen and talk to the people there. I even asked what we should be releasing next…..

You can visit us at: https://www.facebook.com/TheDuchessSpirits/

Also anyone can just e-mail me personally and I will write them back at

Nils@bestofwhiskies.com

15. What have been your top 3 rums of 2018?

Apart from my own releases, obviously, I think these editions, in no particular order, would cover that:

Foursquare Zinfandel Cask Blend. Not a single cask, but a blend. I cherish Richard Seale’s touch on this. It’s interesting to see how he likes to experiment and this made me happy. Well worth every penny. I would buy that second bottle.

Hampden 8 Year Old by Kintra Cask 25 This was considerably funky at a very young age. It was what I refer to as “off notes” that made this so interesting. A wee bit smoky, a wee bit rotten vegetables and bananas, and a wee bit of dirtiness.

Old Navy Rum by Silver Sea Surprisingly not their 30 Year Old Enmore. This navy rum definitely has that Oomph factor at 57%. It’s like Zan Kong versus Richard Seal in a cage fight that ends indecisively. Okay it’s a blend of both Jamaica and Barbados. I like the cool design, and rumour has it that the recipe for this blend dates back 800 years, hah hah. I don’t think so, the Americas and Caribbean were only discovered in 1492… but still very cool.

So there you go. I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. As you can see Nils is the very much the type of person we need to see and hear more of in the Rum Industry. On point and not afraid to air his views and opinions. I don’t agree with everything (the caramel issue is not a big deal for me – I haven’t personally noticed a change in flavour) but he is certainly right about things, 99% of the time!I haven’t edited or changed the answers to the questions or requested Nils re-write anything.

As a result any views are those of Nils. I would much rather have a discussion with Nils and have the odd argument than have my arse kissed by a some of the sycophants in the Industry. Or worse still feel I was in the company that expected me to blow smoke up their arse.

 

Thanks very much for your time Nils, the responses you have given to the questions have made this a really fascinating and insightful read.

I hope you all agree! 

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