You might not have heard of Indonesian rum but if Sam Jeveons has anything to do with it, that’s all set to change. With his expert knowledge of the bar scene in Asia, he and three ex-Diageo executives, Andy Gaunt, Joe Milner and Marc Rodrigues, spotted a gap in the market for an Asian product that would have both local and international appeal.
He talks to Lena Leo about the history of Indonesian rum, its age-old distilling method and his brand new baby, Nusa Caña rum.
Nusa Caña rum creator, Sam Jeveons
Asia is buzzing with rumours that you are bringing back Indonesian rum. What’s the story?
Indonesia has an impressive distilling heritage and 8,000-year association with sugarcane: the world can trace sugarcane species back to four strains from Asia, two of which originated in Indonesia
In 1634 a Dutch explorer came to Java and found 12 distilleries producing sugarcane-based white spirit. Back then it was made from cold-pressed sugarcane but later, with the development of sugar production industry, it evolved as a molasses-based distillate.
Was Indonesian rum known outside the country back then?
Yes, in the 18th century it was Indonesian, not Caribbean that was the preferred rum. It was served in European salons and coffee houses. But history is written by the winners and before long history forgot the sugarcane spirit from Indonesia.
Firstly, because most of the sugar cane production got shifted to the Caribbean, creating perfect conditions for the commercialisation of rum. A huge industry favoured by Western and European governments sprang up along the Caribbean trading routes and began to dominate the global rum trade.
Secondly, because of an ongoing and deeply sensitive divide between the religious views on alcohol consumption and its export production in a largely Muslim and Hindu state.
So what is Nusa Caña rum?
It’s a tropical white rum distilled on Java. Its fermentation starts with molasses, local water, and red rice cakes – a method different from any other rum production. The red rice cakes kick-start fermentation of the wash and encourages growth and interaction of yeast, but are removed prior to distillation.
Nusa Caña is distilled twice in steel Chinese pot stills – it was the Chinese who brought distilling here in the 14th century, way before the Dutch made it to South East Asia. After distillation the liquid is aged in teak casks. Why teak? The wood is very hard, therefore, it doesn’t interact much with the liquid, giving it an overall drier finish. Finally, we blend our rum for modern tastes and dilute to bottling strength to produce Nusa Caña.
Many people don’t care about rum unless it’s aged in barrels. What’s your view on that?
In rum, just like in tequila, the flavour personality is found in the ‘white’ un-aged spirit with all other notes coming from the ageing process. If your white rum is ‘off’, you can’t get a good aged product without adding flavours or sweeteners.
Do you think white rum gets a bad rep?
Precisely that! You can sip good white rum, or have it on rocks or in shots, but tastes have changed. In my past, white rum was a party drink, now everything is about crafted cocktails and speakeasy bars; we do not see much fun in the bars anymore. Nusa Caña isn’t a niche product; it’s not a for geeky bartenders to keep at the back of the bar: Nusa Caña is not for catching dust!
What’s the best way to drink it?
It’s a great partner to citrus in cocktails or the tropical flavours found throughout Indonesia. I love it neat over ice, maybe with a little bit of spice: star anise brings out earthiness in it. Another way is to have it with a simple twist; I recommend pomelo.
Nusa Caña rum serve at Potato Head, Bali
Where does the name come from?
We combined two words: “nusa”, an island in Indonesian, and “caña”, sugar or sugarcane in Spanish. We wanted locals to have the sense of ownership, to feel proud of their heritage. Many people in Asia have no idea about Indonesian rum and when I tell them the story their faces light up.
Your label features a tribal mask – is it related to local island culture?
It’s a Barong Mask from Bali, representing a deity whose name means “King of Forest”. Barong masks have been a part of Indonesian culture for centuries, each mask depicting a character and personality used in folk dance and ceremonies and story telling.
Tourists might know Bali for its beaches and waves, but 99% of its territory is a lush tropical forest. People who started rum distillation in Indonesia come from the forest and we chose the Barong Mask to reflect this past.
What’s your advice to people who want to launch their own drinks brand?
Have a good team, be prepared for anything and enjoy the process. The more people you ask – the more opinions you get, which is sometimes bad for reaching a consensus, so surround yourself with people you trust. Your team should bring not only skills but great networks. At the beginning, we were bootstrapping it, relying on favours from networks rather than investment. That’s why it took us a while to get everything together.
Nusa Caña rum is available in select bars in Jakarta, Singapore, Bali and Hong Kong. For more details see nusacana.com