Luca Gargano, head of Velier, unveils the fabulous collection of rums which he has put together over two decades, exclusively for Whisky Magazine & Fine Spirits. Old Martiniquais and Jamaicans, lesser-known navy rums, 19th-Century Cubans, long-gone distilleries… These rare and precious bottles bear valuable witness to the past three centuries, and recount entire chapters of our history.
More fool they who judge a book by its cover, for the greatest of treasures possess the subtle gift of being invisible to those who look only skin-deep. Luca Gargano knows this better than anyone – he who has spotted diamonds in the rough, Clairins from ramshackle stills hidden in open cabins in Hispaniola, who has exhumed marvellous Caronis in abandoned Trinidad warehouses. It is in the Serravalle industrial estate, between Genoa and Milan, that he has elected to stash one of the most precious rum collections in the world. Right in the middle of an Italian fashion outlet mall, where the devil wears Prada when he could be sipping Skeldon, is where Velier’s inventory and logistics are housed. But at the far end of the immense warehouse, behind a heavy fire door, hundreds upon hundreds of very special bottles are hidden from view on ugly supermarket shelves. Rare bottles. Precious bottles. Plunked down without ceremony. Neon lighting, no protective glass whatsoever, no luxurious wood panelling. Walking through this liquid Louvre feels more like breaking into a Lidl after hours – a Lidl stocked with Caronis, Demeraras, old Ballys, Saint James’, lost Cuban and Jamaican rums, all their necks wrapped in clingfilm.
‘In 2010-2011 or so, I realized I didn’t have a complete historical archive of my own bottlings’, Garano told us. ‘That’s when I started my collection, concentrating on rums produced before 2000. I pick and choose, of course. And I assembled all my Velier bottles, which I sometimes had to buy again – Caronis, Skeldons – sometimes for 4 figures’. The famous black Velier bottles pull you in as soon as you enter, conversing with the darkness and attracting light like no others. The first Caronis, the Employees series, the Old Legends, the Lights and Heavys from the 80s illustrated with great photos by the late Fredi Marcarini. This passion for photography can also be found on the collection of magnums, clothed in shots by Magnum Photos star Elliott Erwitt. But it’s lettering-only on the old Demeraras, Diamonds, Albions, Skeldons, Port Mourants, Uitvlugts, Blairmonts… All these mythic names which plunge the canny observer into mute awe.
‘I’ve done 452 co-bottlings in my life’, Luca says, the night before the Serravalle visit. The light catches the paintings set on the floor of his glass-roofed Genoa office – not enough wall space to put them up. ‘And I’ve acquired a hundred or so paintings by African and Caribbean artists, to bring together artists and craftspeople. I want to create a platform to show them to the entire world’. Uncovering talent, spotlighting it, watching its value grow… What are we talking about again, rum or paintings? No matter. We are talking about life being too short to not live it with love and passion.
Lined up in tight rows, the black Velier bottles face the Japanese whiskies across the central aisle – Karuizawas, Hanyus, Chichibus, old Nikkas… ‘I’ve assembled a few single malts, and around 200 Chartreuses because I love them’. The ‘few’ whiskies (old Scotches, mainly) take up the entire right wing of the massive space. A huge number of Macallans from the 30s, 40s and 50s, the best of Islay, 70s Ardbegs to die for, Laphroaigs, 50s and 60s Bowmores… A veritable tribe of 10-year-old Glenmorangies, Taliskers, old blends… The crème de la crème of Italian bottlings, of course – Samaroli, Moon Import, Silver Seal – but also a few old Armagnacs from the early 20th century, venerable calvadoses. My God, please lock me in here and throw away the key!
The rum takes up the left wing, dozens and dozens of running metres. ‘My iPhone loses track of my step-count by the end of the day’, jokes Lidwine Maro, barely. She watches over the place, carefully handling each bottle the photographer asks to shoot. French Antilles, Guyana, Barbados, Cuba, Jamaica… From row to row, the Velier collection is an extraordinary trip through time.
We suddenly come upon an incredible library, an archive where the sometimes-dark pages of our history are written in faded labels. Colonialist imagery adorns a great many bottles, a stark reminder that rum was from the very beginning a product of Western imperialism, of slavery, with the plantation system as a bedrock. ‘Nigger Rum’, ‘Rhum du Vieux Colon’ (‘Old Colonist’s Rum’), ‘Colonial Rum’, ‘Rhum Bamboula’ (a type of Haitian dance which has become a slur designating Black people - t/n), ‘Le Négrillon’… So many bottling names which would be simply outlawed today. The vintages echo landmark years of the last century (1914, 1918, 1939) and the names of defunct bottlers bear witness to the mergers, failures, and other business shake-ups that have shaped the history of rum. Take this 1875 Medford, a pure product of New England, from the time where the northern United States had more rum distilleries than bourbon.
‘I started with the very old bottles’, notes Luca. ‘I have several from the 18th century, many from the 19th and pre-World War 2 20th. I also keep a few bottles of Rhum Fantaisie, which weren’t 100% rum. For the labels’. Near the back, facing the wall, a fabulous collection of Jamaican rums springs to life before our eyes. A multitude of Wray & Nephews, including an 1890 and ‘one of 12 bottles released to commemorate Reagan’s visit to Jamaica in 1982, with some of the last drops from Mona’, Luca points out excitedly. A Kingston Jamaica Vintage 1750 – one of the oldest known rums in the world – sits beside the splendid black glass onion of an exceedingly rare Delcroix London Jamaica 1794. And the 1806 Yardies, poured into old matte hand-blown bottles by Lacaux Frères in Limoges, stand straight-shouldered and slightly askew, drinking in in the light reflected by the neighbouring 50-year-old Appleton (1962), twinkling in its satin-lined box.
Sitting at his computer, the Velier boss zooms into the picture of a mid-1970s Wray & Nephew. ‘Do you see? They specify “Aged in wood 20 tropical years”. But they stopped specifying it afterwards’. Conversely, independent rum bottlers in Scotland and England matured their stores in Europe. The label on Favell’s London Dock Demerara navy rums states: ‘Skilled merchants used to bring the finest young rums from the British West Indies to mature them in London’s Docks, because experience had taught them that Rum matured best in the temperate British climate’. The fracas between tropical vs continental aging is nothing new…
‘I purchased the Remsberg collection – an American lawyer who had put together one of the major collections of incredible bottles, with a lot of Cubans, bottles released for the U.S. market’. An impressive array of Cuban rums is deployed, dominated by brotherly rivals Havana Club and Bacardi (the oldest being from 1890), their labels eaten by the mould and moisture of a previous life. ‘I opened a white Bacardi from 1942 to send a sample for chromatography: it had a rate of non-alcoholics of 283g/hL! Can you imagine?! That’s as much as a ! I uncorked one of the 1780 Harewood Rums that was bought at auction at Christie’s, it was amazing’. He points to the black 2003 Neisson Colibri #5 bottle that sits half-empty on the coffee table. ‘The problem is, I open some of the collector’s items to taste them. This weakness, human as it may be, worries me when I see my collection dwindling’.
The Captain Morgan labels tell of the supply shifts over the years: ‘Jamaica rum’ (often), ‘Fine Puerto Rican rum’, ‘Demerara Rum’, ‘produce of Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados’… The sauce may change but the name stays, invulnerable. Royal Navy jugs sit regally among the navy rums, whose bottles invariably bear illustrations of sailing ships and pirates. Mythical bars are immortalized by releases bearing their names – 1933 Sloppy Joe’s (Cuban) and Trader Vic’s (Jamaican, of course).
‘My favourite? An Antimaono from Tahiti. Likely the original name of the distillery behind Tamure. This bottle reminds me of my time in Polynesia in the 80s. I dug it up at the very beginning, in France, when I was starting my collection. I also love the labels on the 1959 Saint Étiennes. Among the terribly expensive rarities, we have the 1966 Clément’. Distilled on the plantation back when the Martinique factory was still operating, this 100,000 € 25-year-old rum is accompanied by a baccarat crystal decanter topped with a gold-and-diamond stopper representing the plantation house, sculpted by Tournaire, of Paris’ Place Vendôme. ‘The stopper’s in the safe, this one’s a replica’, notes Lidwine.
The Martinique rum collection alone is stupefying, with an impressive series of J. Ballys from the 30s onward, and a no less impressive payload of Saint James’ whose vintages go back to World War 1. The 70s releases are particularly hard to find. Dillon, JM, HSE, Villebeuf, Neisson, La Favorite… Depaz, whose old labels state that the rum ‘owes its reputation to its primarily volcanic terroir on the slopes of Mount Pelée, whose ardent cloud destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre on May 8, 1902’. Another seismic event had shaken Genoa on the eve of our visit: an earthquake of over 4 on the Richter scale. Had the tremor really not reached Serravalle? We certainly felt shaken.
By Christine Lambert