The Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits (1908) Part Four


The fourth article devoted to the work of the Royal Commission starts with the testimony of Mr. Algernon Aspinall, a representative of the famous West India Committee.  Concerning the definition of rum, Mr. Aspinall too presents a very different position  from the one previously expressed by Mr. Nolan, Jamaica’s Special Commissioner and he makes a defence of the quality of rum produced with Column Still. Also the second witness, Mr Ernest Tinne, who defends the quality of Demerara Rum, agrees with Mr. Aspinall.

Perhaps, though, it is the last testimonies that are of greatest interest to us today. Three different witnesses make us understand the real quality level of the huge market of cheap rum, and of other cheap spirits, at the beginning of the XX Century.

TWENTY-FIFTH DAY, Wednesday, 8th July, 1808   Mr. Algernon E. Aspinall, called

  1. You are, I believe, Secretary of the West India Committee? – That is so.
  2. That, I believe, is an association of planters, merchants, and others interested generally in the British West Indies, British Guyana and British Honduras? – Yes.

13399.The West India Committee, I believe, has been established for a great many years? – Yes, it was established early in the eighteenth century, and was incorporated by Royal Charter on August 4th, 1904.

  1. What are the objects of the Association? – The objects of the Association as set out in the Royal Charter are by united action to promote the interests of the agricultural and manufacturing industries and trade, and thus increase the general welfare of the British West Indies, British Guyana and British Honduras.
  2. The question of rum has come before you? – Yes, constantly.
  3. Will you give us your idea of what constitutes rum? – The views of the West India Committee are enunciated in the following statement: “That only spirit distilled direct from sugar-cane product in sugar-cane growing countries is entitled to be called rum, and that such spirit has been called and recognized as rum for over half a century, whether made in a pot or a patent still.”
  4. You are aware that it has been stated in evidence that the term “rum” should be confined to the pot still product? – We are, and we do not agree with that view.
  5. Can you tell me which of the West Indies produces rum in any considerable amount? – Jamaica produces about 1,250,000 gallons per annum, and the rest of the islands among them produce about 200.000 gallons. British Guyana, which we consider part of the West Indies, produces about 2,500,000 gallons.
  6. The largest output is British Guyana? – Yes, by far.

TWENTY-SIXTH DAY. Monday, July 20th, 1908.

Mr. Ernest Tinne, called

  1. The business of your firm in Demerara and the West Indies is an old one? — Yes.
  2. Established in the year 1782? — Yes.
  3. I want your definition of rum? – I consider Mr. Aspinall’s definition is exactly corrected. It is spirit distilled directly from sugar-cane products in sugar-cane growing countries, and, I might add, whether it is produced in a pot still fired direct or a pot still heated by steam, or continuous still, or a Coffey patent still. There must have been a good deal of confusion, if I might say so, in the minds of Mr. Nolan and Mr. Heron as to what you call pot stills. More than 30 years ago I think the whole of the rum in Demerara was made in pot stills heated by direct fires. That, if I may say so without hurting the feelings of a Jamaica man, is, I consider, a dirty, wasteful and unscientific process. You are liable to get a residue in the bottom of the copper retort from distilling which exposes you to the burning of the copper. You have no proper means with direct heat of regulating the heath of your wash as you have in a steam still, and I think the return from that is not as good as we get at the present from the vat or pot steam stills and Coffey stills. I do not altogether agree with what Sir Daniel Morris and, I think Mr. Nolan said about the return from molasses in Demerara being worse, because we take more sugar out of the juice than they do in Jamaica. I do not think the rum need any worse. You naturally get less rum from molasses containing less sugar, but that is no reason why the rum should be any worse.

[At this point the Commission gets back briefly to the so-called Imitation Rum]

Mr. Frank Litherland Teed, recalled

  1. Have you any reason to think that this imitation rum is being sold in this country? – I have no means of knowing. Of course, you might get the import numbers from the Customs, but I do not see how you are to get the quantities that are actually manufactured in this country. If you take the patent still grain spirit which I believe is now called patent still Scotch Whiskey, and put some of these ethers to it, it becomes rum. We have heard this morning that it becomes gin under certain circumstances, but, of course, if you put in other essences it may become brandy.

[And here we get to two weighty statements given by big British producers and exporters of Spirits. It is clear that the only checks the product was subjected to were those of Excise and Custom officials  in order to establish the correct taxation. There was no quality control, no checks to verify the authenticity of the product  and all the various types of cheap Spirits were made with the same “British Plain Spirit”.]

TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY. Tuesday, July 21st, 1908

Mr. James Monro Nicol, called

  1. You are exporters of Scotch whiskey, West Indian rum, British rum and compounded spirits, and you are proprietors of Customs bonded warehouses? – Yes.
  2. You wish to make some remarks to the Commission about a certain practice of mixing rum and plain spirit for exportation? – Yes.
  3. It has been suggested by one witness that this practice should be prohibited? – That is so.
  4. I understand that you take a different view: Will you kindly explain to the Commission exactly what that view is? – As stated in my précis, my present company and its predecessors have carried on that business for almost 40 years in accordance with the regulations of the Excise and Customs.
  5. That is the business of mixing Demerara rum with plain spirit in bond? – Yes. We therefore feel that it would be very unfair to us now to have that permission taken away not only on account of our own loss but we feel that it would be to the loss of the trade of the country, and there is no doubt about it that other countries would step in and do the trade if we did not do it.
  6. Under what designation is this mixed rum exported by you; how is it described? – It is ordered first of all from us as a rum and we invoice it as a rum. We use the term “rum” in our correspondence ourselves, but in the Customs, of course, the name “rum” is not recognised. The casks do not bear on them the name “rum”. They have to be marked “mixed”: That is certain.
  7. Not “rum” but “mixed” by itself? – Yes, the word “mixed”, which I suppose is a sufficient indication, or at least it meets the requirements of the Excise and Customs, that is a mixed spirit.
  8. That is, mixed for foreign use? – Yes.
  9. But is there any further mark on the cask that is exported? – That depends entirely on the market that the article goes to.
  10. Take Australia, for instance? – For Australia it is now necessary to add the country of origin on the casks and therefore they are marked: “The product of Great Britain and the West Indies”: There is no objection to putting on the word “British rum”, and as a matter of fact in exporting to Australia these two words do appear over and above the statement as the country of origin.
  11. You have on that cask when sent to Australia, have you not “British Rum”, the produce of Great Britain and the West Indies, in addition to the word “mixed”? – Yes, that is so.
  12. How do you invoice those mixtures? – It is invoiced as “rum”.
  13. To Australia? – Yes.

14372.And the term “British Rum” does not appear on the invoice?  – No, it does not appear. Of course, the rum may have a brand as many rums have. As I understand, many rums in Australia are known by brands, such as our own. Our own brand is known as the “Red Star Brand”.

  1. Where does the bulk of that spirit go to? – It goes to Australia, New Zealand and the Australasian islands as well as to different parts of Eastern Europe.
  2. Does New Zealand accept it without any special designation? – They do; no certificate of age is required in New Zealand.
  3. And no special description? – No, no special description.
  4. It simply goes there marked “mixed”? – That is so.
  5. And invoiced as “rum”? – Yes, invoiced as “rum”. In our case the invoice has on it “Red Star Rum”.
  6. Do you know if any spirit of that kind is sold in this country as rum, that is, mixed Demerara or Jamaica rum with plain spirit? Of course, I am aware that that could not be done in bond for home trade, but do you know whether spirit of that nature is sold as rum in this country? – I am not aware of it. We are not in the Home Trade, and of course I do not know the ins and outs of it.
  7. Would you regard that as a legitimate trade in this country? – I would.
  8. To sell that as “rum”? – Yes. I consider that there is no monopoly in the word “rum”.
  9. … What is the smallest amount of rum you can get in the cheapest article you send out? You must have a cheap trade as well as anybody else. What is the smallest amount of rum you would put in? – That we use, or that might be used?
  10. That you can put in? – I should say if you use one gallon of Demerara rum with your British spirit it would have to go out as mixed spirit.
  11. One gallon of Demerara rum to how many gallons of plain spirit? – One gallon of Demerara rum to 100 of plain spirit.

Mr. F.W. Percy Preston, called

  1. What is the nature of the business of your firm? – We are distillers and also exporters.
  2. Distillers of what? –What do you distill? – British plain spirit.
  3. Is that grain spirit? – Molasses spirit mostly. There is a little grain, but the bulk of our trade is molasses spirit.
  4. You are proprietors of Excise bonded warehouses? – Yes, and also of a vatting establishment over the top.
  5. You wish to give evidence before the Commission as the desirability or otherwise that the mixing of rum and plain spirit for exportation should be prohibited? – Yes.
  6. What do you wish to say in reference to that? – I simply say that if that is taken away from this country, the Germans take the trade and we lose it. They would send it direct from Hamburg to the West Coast of Africa, where I should otherwise send it, and they would simply take the trade off us, and our trade is ruined.
  7. What you export is a mixture of West Indian rum and British plain spirit? – Yes, made from molasses, which I call plain spirit.
  8. How do you invoice it? – It is really a trade term. A merchant writes to me and he says, “What is your price for African rum”, and I tell him what the price is. Another man from Manchester, from where most of the Mediterranean trade is done, writes and says, “What is the price for your Mediterranean rum”, and an Australian writes and says, “ What is your price for Australian rum”, and I tell them. The Excise know the proper thing to put on the cask. We do not work under the Customs, but we work under the Excise.

I would like to conclude this article with a personal reflection. Many today in the rum world seem to feel nostalgia for the good old times when, in their opinion, the quality of rum ( indeed, the quality of quite everything)  was better than is now: more natural, authentic, artisan, and  healthier, too.  These accounts show us that, at least as regards rum, in truth there is nothing to be nostalgic for, and that the good old times were not so good after all.

Ok, I think it is enough for this month, see you in May.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on April 2020 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

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