Stephen Spark discovers one of Seychelles fastest-growing exports – Takamaka Bay rum. He talks to Richard d'Offay who, with his brother Bernard, founded the Trois Frères Distillery on Mahé island
Richard d’Offay Takamaka Bay rum
Seychelles might have been made for sipping rum. I’m sitting in an easy chair on the verandah of a 200-year-old colonial house as brightly coloured birds flit about the manicured lawns and the seductive rhythms of local séga music drift out from the bar. It is hard to believe that this idyllic spot on the archipelago’s main island of Mahé is a working distillery, and the nerve centre of one of the country’s fastest-growing exports: Takamaka Bay rum.
My host is the proprietor, Richard d’Offay, a charming and enthusiastic young Seychellois whose accent betrays both a childhood spent in South Africa and an obvious passion for producing fine rum. Along with his brother Bernard, he returned to Seychelles at the age of 26. “We wanted to live on our own terms, so we started the distillery,” he explained. They set up initially in a warehouse in February 2002.
As he drove to work each day he noticed a sadly dilapidated old property that had once been at the heart of the Jorre de St Jorre family’s estate. After a sustained letter-writing campaign, the brothers were able to persuade its owner, the Seychelles government, to grant them a 50-year lease. They then embarked a major effort to restore on this national heritage site, which dates back to 1792. “The old house was falling down, so there was a lot of work we had to do. The whole restoration took us about two and a half years,” Richard recalled. Operations moved to the Trois Frères Distillery, at La Plaine St André, in 2010 and the restored house, La Grande Maison, opened to the public shortly afterwards.
The distillery and stores are in a long, single-storey building to one side of the house, which contains a bar and a restaurant. The latter was something of an afterthought, Richard said. “Our intention was just to have a bar where people could taste our products and taste our cocktails – and I must say we have good cocktails – and we had to make sure people had something to eat. And if people had something to eat we wanted to give them the best.” Certainly the red snapper can compare with the best on offer at any of the Seychelles’ five-star hotels.
The determination to produce the best is the force that drives Richard d’Offay – and with good reason, for Seychelles was hardly virgin territory for rum manufacture. “There have been distilleries in Seychelles for hundreds of years. At one stage everyone had a still,” he noted. However, the existing distilleries catered only for the local market at that time, whereas the d’Offays had set their ambitions higher. “We always saw ourselves as locally produced but as good as a bottle of Havana Club. It’s all those international brands coming into Seychelles that we have to compete against and we do that successfully.”
It took time for the brand to become established. “At the beginning it was difficult to convince people that we were a very good quality product.” Since those early days – still little more than a decade ago – market perceptions have changed dramatically, however. “Now a lot of people think that our distillery, or our brand, is bigger than we actually are, which I think is a compliment. People think we’re either a massive public company or we owned by Seybrew [Seychelles’ major brewery] or Diageo. But we’re still owner-run and we’re a family business at the end of the day.”
Conquering the market in Seychelles – a country of only 90,000 people – is one thing, but the export market is a challenge on another level. Nevertheless, Richard believes Takamaka is making steady progress: “We are still growing our exports. We are quite successful in Dubai Duty Free. We have got a distributor in the UK [Whisky Exchange], we have a distributor in Germany, which deals with the German, Swiss, Austrian and Dutch market, and in France we distribute through Whisky de France.” At the beginning of the year Takamaka also began distributing in China. There’s no rush to global domination, though: “I think you build a brand like ours literally one person at a time. We’ve got time on our hands.”
Time is an important ingredient in the company’s premium St André 8-year-old, which, with its flavours of vanilla, marmalade and oak with a touch of spice, is as warming as a Seychellois sunset. Head distiller and former marine biologist Dave Bullay pointed to a recent consignment of port barrels, which were being prepared to take the 8-year-old. The younger guys, Richard said, tend to go for the crisp and clean White Rum (sold in the UK as cane spirit), while the vanilla and caramel tones of the Dark Rum are especially popular with the ever-growing numbers of visitors to Seychelles’ annual carnival, where the company had two big and well-patronised bars this year; it is based on a recipe created by the d’Offay brothers’ grandfather. The St André Rhum Vesou contains a higher proportion of pot stills plus a young vesou distillate from pure sugar cane juice and is popular locally for cocktails. Black Label, produced chiefly for the local market, and a coconut rum complete the range.
Until now the packaging and label design has all been carried out in-house. “My brother-in-law designed our label,” Richard revealed. “Now that it’s becoming more important that the packaging needs to be ‘there’, we’ve got a group of designers in the UK that’s going to be tweaking our brand to make it a little bit more professional.” He added: “People buy with their eyes first, especially in our export market, so we’re always looking at ways to improve.”
Richard continued: “If you look at our product as a whole, from the bottle down to the label and of course what’s in the bottle, then people can come to the distillery and see how we make Takamaka, it increases confidence. The small size of the island (just 60 square miles or 155sq km) is a guarantee of the freshness of the cane. In contrast with Indian Ocean neighbours Mauritius and Réunion, for example, the lack of flat land on Mahé precluded the development of large plantations. As a result, the supply chain is, like the distillery itself, intimate and small-scale.
“We work with a lot of growers – in the south at Val d’Endor and at Anse aux Pins, for instance. But none of them are professional sugar cane growers; they’re guys who have plantations ofmaybe 1,000sq m up on the side of a hill. Instead of getting a big delivery of 100 tonnes from one producer we get a lot of deliveries of 1 tonne or 3 tonnes. A lot of people have started planting sugar cane on their land now where they didn’t grow it before.”
Trois Freres Distillery employs 45 staff and currently produces around 40,000 cases a year – “a drop in the ocean when you compare it with small to medium-sized distilleries,” Richard admitted cheerfully. He sees that as an advantage, drawing a comparison with the micro-brewery movement: “These days, people want to discover something new. Especially in Europe, people want to look for the smallest producers.”
So, I asked Richard, what’s the long-term strategy? “The most important thing is that we just continue to produce good-quality rum that we’re proud of, and to know that we’re making the best possible rum. If hopefully people can relate to it and enjoy it, from there we grow and grow and grow.”
Pictured: Richard and his brother Bernard (top); the distillery; bottled rums; cane crusher
19 May 2013