The IWSC caught up with Richard, CEO and master distiller of Foursquare, to find out how he plans to make the most of his year in the spotlight and how he’s spearheading the rum renaissance.
Richard Seale is a man on a mission. The single-minded, straight-talking master distiller has super-premium rum running through his veins, and is hell-bent on shaking up the category, smashing stereotypes and dispelling disparaging myths around rum. Seale comes from a long line of rum makers – his family’s roots in Barbados stretch back to the 1650s, and he’s the fourth generation to take the helm at his family firm. His great grandfather, Reginald Leon Seale, founded rum distribution company R L Seale & Co in Bridgetown in 1926, which went on to acquire the rum portfolio of ESA Field and become a hit in the domestic market.
Seale joined the business in 1993; a pivotal year that saw his father – Sir David Seale – acquire the Alleyne Arthur rum group, and by extension, the Martin Doorly brand. “This was a huge step for us, and owning the prestigious Doorly brand meant that developing significant stocks of maturing rum would be required, and the opportunity to export was a real prospect,” Seale recounts. A year later, father and son snapped up a 17th century sugar factory, which they lovingly restored, building one of the world’s most compelling rum distilleries on the site complete with a three-column vacuum still for lighter rums, a modern pot still for small batch rums, and its own bottling plant.
With an eagle eye for detail and a questioning mind, Seale has never been fearful of ringing the changes in a conservative industry, and was the driving force behind the creation of Foursquare, which sets the benchmark for what a Caribbean distillery can be. At the forefront of the rum revolution, after completing Bachelors and Masters degrees at the University of London, Seale learnt how to blend from the best. “I was fortunate that by the time I joined the company we had two very experienced master blenders who were indispensable guides in my early days of distilling, as they passed on years of experience to me when it came to maturation. In those early days, I’d also reach out to people in the Scotch industry for guidance on cask selection – the late Jim Swan comes to mind. The hardest aspect of good spirit making is patience,” Seale reveals.
He passionately believes quality rum deserves its place at the top table when it comes to super-premium spirits, and that it can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with single malt Scotch and VSOP Cognac. “Honestly and respectfully, I believe we should be aiming far above them both. Rum has a diverse and aromatic raw material, the most complex of fermentation practices, the most diverse and advanced stills in place and the undoubtedly the best climate for the maturation of spirits. We have the potential; now it’s up to us to get it right,” he says. Foursquare’s prices are as punchy as Seale’s ambition – most of the rums cost over £100 – but such confident pricing is paramount in order to compete in the big league. “We’re a small player in a high cost environment, so our prices are either punchy or we don’t exist. The most important thing then becomes the quality. We can’t exist at the low end, so we must deliver on quality,” he says.
While innovation is key to moving any category forward, rather then reinventing the wheel, Seale’s ultimate goal is to stay true to the Barbados style. “Making novel things is trite; anyone can do it. My desire is to make Barbados rum and to do it well; that’s the real challenge,” he says. Having helped to re-establish Barbados’ rightful place on the world stage as a source of exceptional rums, Seale is fiercely protective over the signature Barbados style, and has worked with the likes of Mount Gay to create a Geographical Indication for Barbados to protect its generational learnings and heritage. “Only the oldest spirit makers have a legacy of pot stills, and Barbados rum is notable for retaining the use of them. The modern Barbados style was developed a little over a century ago by blending pot and column still rums. Developing a GI for Barbados rum is important to ensure the know-how behind our rums,” he says.
For the last six years he’s been crafting his rums from a mixture of molasses and fresh cane juice in a bid to return Barbados rum to its roots and “deliberately blur the lines between rums made from cane juice or molasses, as it was in the past”. Enthusiastic about extended ageing, Seale is keen to prove that rum can age just as gracefully as Cognac or Scotch, if a little quicker. “There are still some misconceptions around ageing rum and the idea that it will age too quickly and will taste too woody, which I’m striving to dispel,” he says. “Some people think that the Caribbean is too hot for ageing rum, and that it ages too fast, but the maturation of rum is no different to other spirits. There’s nothing fast about it – it’s still a slow process, just a little less slow than maturing a spirit in Scotland. Drinking a 12-year-old rum is like drinking a 20-year-old Scotch.”
The oldest rum currently resting in barrel at the distillery is from the 2004 vintage, which Seale is looking to release as an 18 Year Old. “There are some other rums from later vintages that I have in mind to age for even longer,” he reveals. With rum sales having overtaken whisky sales in the UK this year, the rum renaissance is gathering speed, as an engaged new audience delves deeper into the category. “The renaissance is real, and its success is providing investment for the next steps and is also attracting outside investment, with new Barbados distilleries in the pipeline,” says Seale. “When you look on back bars and store shelves today, we have a selection of cask strength rums, pure pot rums and very old rums that we’ve not seen in decades. It’s not that these are novel products, but that the market for them exists in a more significant way. I can be more ambitious now and invest in maturing long fermentation rums made from fresh cane juice because I know I have an audience.”
Having scooped the Outstanding Spirits Producer gong at the 2021 IWSC awards, Seale has been named the IWSC’s Industry Champion for 2023 – an evolution of the President role – and is hoping to use his year in the spotlight to bang the drum for super-premium rum through educational tastings and masterclasses, podcasts and press trips. “It’s a great opportunity, as there hasn’t been an industry champion from our part of the world, nor one from a sole rum producer. Our mission has always been to promote excellence in Barbados rum on the global stage, so the activities with the IWSC over the next year will be an opportunity that I intend to exploit to the full,” he says. As to what the future holds for high-end rum, Seale is cautiously optimistic about the road ahead. “If we look back from where we’ve come from then it’s incredible, when you consider what was on the shelves and what people perceived to be good rum, but we’ve got a lot of work to do if we want to make serious inroads into other super-premium spirits categories,” he says. “We’re in a much better place than we used to be, but we still have a long way to go to get where we should be.”
The IWSC’s 2023 Awards Dinner will be celebrated on 19 October 2023. Save the date.