Born out of adverse circumstances, National Rums of Jamaica (NRJ) is a testament to how a legacy industry in the country continues to reinvent itself while manufacturing one of Jamaica's flagship products.
In the 1970s, a time in which 'King Sugar' was on the decline as the island's leading agricultural product, the Government of Jamaica moved to nationalise a number of sugar factories and rum distilleries, under the Sugar Corporation of Jamaica, in an effort to salvage both industries. At the beginning of the next decade, the Government would take another step to prevent what seemed like the imminent demise of the sugar and rum industries.
"Out of a fear for the collapse of both industries, Evon Brown, my predecessor [and former managing director of NRJ] convinced the Government to split the distilleries from the sugar factories and then National Rums of Jamaica was born, in 1980," Martha Miller, CEO of NRJ, shared recently with the Jamaica Observer.
Back then NRJ managed the operations of three rum distilleries across Jamaica – Long Pond Distillery in Clarks Town, Trelawny; Innswood Distillery Sugar Estate in St Catherine; and Clarendon Distillery, otherwise known as Monymusk. At the turn of the 21st century, the Government-run organisation discontinued rum production at the Innswood Distillery, converting it into an aged rum facility.
Faced with a confluence of challenges between 2007 and 2008, the Government of Jamaica reduced its shareholding in NRJ. At that time, the world faced the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1920s, forcing governments to cut excessive spending. Meanwhile, acting upon a World Trade Organization ruling, the European Union discontinued the purchase of sugar from Jamaica and the Caribbean concessionary rates.
With the local distilleries squeezed due to constrained government spending, but still in need of technological upgrades and investments, the Government sold 66 per cent of its stake to Caricom rum producers Demerara Distillers Limited from Guyana and Barbados-based Goddards Enterprises, then owners of West Indies Rum Distillery.
In 2018, French-owned company Maison Ferrand purchased West Indies Rum Distillery from Goddards, and with the acquisition secured a 33 per cent interest in NRJ.
Innovation and differentiation
According to Miller, this period of transition to a privately run operation was marked by significant product innovation and differentiation.
"They (new owners) encouraged us to form our own brands and that's was when Monymusk was formed… in 2012. Prior to 2013, we were a bulk rum provider, but by then we started the branded business slowly," she told Business Observer.
Thereafter, NRJ divided its focus on both bulk and branded rums. Notwithstanding, a significant portion of the company's revenues come from the export of bulk rum to the United States and Europe. In fact, the CEO boasts that NRJ is a major supplier of bulk rum to spirits producer Diageo, known for its Captain Morgan Rum brand.
Rising from the ashes like the mythical phoenix, the Trelawny-based Long Pond Distillery began producing its own branded iteration of Jamaican rum in 2021, after a fire gutted its fermentation plant just three years prior.
"That [fermentation plant] was [officially] reopened in 2022 and now we are happily proud to say we are back at capacity producing all our rums and all our marks," Miller stated.
A mark, she explained, is a line of rums that have gone through specific fermentation, distillation and aging processes to produce a unique flavour profile.
The Long Pond Distillery has two marks — its ITP15, or 15-year-old rum; and VRW 2003, launched in 2021, which is an 18-year-old rum. Monymusk's marks the Classic Gold and Special Reserve products.
While noting that Jamaican rums are possibly "the most popular" in the world, Miller highlights a significant difference in production of the alcohol between distilleries located in the north and south of the island. On one hand, rum distilleries in the north such as Long Pond and Hampden have more robust, more flavourful and heavier profiles, while in the south distilleries such as Appleton and Wray & Nephew, Worthy Park and Clarendon tend to produce more floral, fruitier and lighter profiles.
But what distinguishes NRJ from its local competitors?
"What makes Monymusk unique is that we are able to blend the heavier-profile rum with the lighter-profile rum, leaving you with a much different product than what everybody else has," Miller outlined.
"But we are also known as a place to source aged rums. So, we get a lot of calls from [international] customers looking for Jamaican aged rums… so we also provide that," she added.
The CEO disclosed that given the company's unique value proposition, it has doubled its capacity for aged rums in 2023. Over the next three to five years, NRJ plans to increase its volume of aged rums even more with a view to grow exports. She also pointed out that while the company is the smallest producer of rum in Jamaica, it is however the largest exporter of the spirit.
With an almost 200-strong staff complement, NRJ employs about 12 team members at its Ardenne Road corporate office in St Andrew, with a combination of administrative and production staff scattered throughout its Innswood aging plant, and Long Pond and Clarendon distilleries. Clarendon is where the manufacturer employs the bulk of its human capital; some 120 staff members divided between Monymusk factory workers and farmers from neighbouring communities working the company's 400 hectares of farmlands dedicated to the cultivation of sugar cane.
Here, Miller revealed to the Business Observer that the Clarendon Distillery sells the raw sugar cane to the Worthy Park factory in St Catherine, which in turn sells molasses back to NRJ.
Yet, beyond expansion of its operations, growing exports and delivering increased shareholder value to its foreign owners, the local rum producer also has plans to streamline its processes in keeping with environmental, social and governmental (ESG) best practices.
"One of the things that we benefit from, even though are a small rum-producing entity in terms of the number of persons that we employ… being associated with a multinational of the size and magnitude of Diageo forces us to benefit from some first world requirements," Miller said, adding that such requirements include sustainability and quality standards.
From an environmental standpoint, the company recently converted energy generation at the Clarendon Distillers from bunker sea oil to liquefied natural gas. At Long Pond, NRJ has switched from bunker sea oil to liquefied petroleum gas. In the long run, Miller hopes to integrate solar energy but pointed out that a 100 per cent conversion to solar would be impossible given that the company runs a 24-hour operation.
One of the by-products of the rum-making process is bio-dunder, which the Clarendon Distillers uses for the fertigation of its farmlands. Looking ahead, Miller has plans to incorporate a water harvesting system in the fertigation process.
So far, Clarendon Distillers is HAACCP-certified and the next operation will be Long Pond, then Innswood. The company is also working with Diageo to streamline its packaging, transportation and supply chain processes with ESG best practices.
However, the NRJ's priority at present is its employees. The CEO informed the Business Observer that it is now reviewing a number of workers' rights issues. Among these she listed adequate water, rest, shade for farmers; access to sanitation and protective gear; the number of work hours in a day, the number of days people work in a fortnight, and a liveable wage paid according to hours worked by employees.
At the same time, NRJ continues to make investments in its operations as it seeks to improve efficiencies.
"So we're always expanding; we're now in expansion mode. We just got a new boiler... so we're looking at activities that will boost production," Miller outlined.
Over the last two years the company has doubled its bottling capacity and increased warehousing space. Now it is preparing to instal a combined heat and power plant in Clarendon to remove that factory off the national grid.
While tight-lipped on any additional plans, Miller said that the public can look out for more from NRJ.