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Cane & Able Founder Lee Smith (Interview)

Published by The Rumlab ago

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By Jose Hoffmann

1. Who is Lee Smith?

I’m the founder of Cane & Able, a new independent UK rum house, and the creator of our debut brand, Lost Years Rum. Lost Years is a range of the exceptional Caribbean and Latin American rums devoted to saving endangered sea turtles. My experience in the rum business is pretty limited – we launched in November 2020 and this is my very first spirits venture, so I’m on a steep learning curve! Before setting up Cane & Able I ran a London-based communication agency, which I sold in 2017.

2. What does rum mean to you? What made you fall in love with rum and when did it happen?

My rum journey started about 15 years ago. I drank sweetened rum initially – but soon began exploring the category and quickly discovered what incredible, diverse spirit rum is. I’m a massive fan of Jamaican and Barbadian rums – which is why we source much of our rum from these islands – but I’ve been blown away by rums from elsewhere too – Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, the US and Madeira to name a few. I don’t think I will ever get bored of trying new rums – that’s one of the things that excites me so much about this category! Before setting up the business I attended Luis Ayala’s Rum University in Kentucky – a fantastic ‘deep dive’ into the world of rum, which opened up my eyes to the complexity and rich history of the spirit.

3. Three essential characteristics that define rum?

Rum is, quite simply, the most versatile and varied spirit in the world – there are so many dimensions to rum that no other spirit comes remotely close to it. From the sugar cane itself to the influence of terroir, fermentation, distillation, maturation, cask type, blending and more, there are so many elements involved in the creation of beautiful rum. And then there are so many ways to drink it! Every time you think you are close to understanding rum, you discover another style or service that forces you to redefine what the spirit is and means to you. I love that diversity.

Rum remains misunderstood. Most consumer’s experience of rum has been confined to a few global brands and the spirit is often perceived as a cheap party drink, something found in holiday cocktails, or an occasional festive treat. The way rums are categorized – white, golden, dark – is meaningless, and most consumers are blissfully unaware of the role coloring and added sugar plays in making a rum look older or giving it a smoother mouthfeel. The rise of flavored and spiced rums is a worry too, as these tend to take the emphasis off the spirit itself. But in that misunderstanding and confusion is a huge opportunity. I’ve seen this first-hand with our tastings – when we share our unadulterated rums with the uninitiated, they quickly discover what Great Spirit rum can be! I think now is a pivotal time for the rum industry and I hope that, in the coming years, we will see many more consumers discover the joy of ‘grown up’ rum and develop a far deeper appreciation of what makes rum great.

Third, there’s just something about rum – an x-factor -that sets it apart from other spirits – it warms the soul in a way that no other spirit does.

4. What is the most important contribution you have made to the rum industry? 

I can’t possibly claim to have made a difference in six short months, but I hope that in years to come, we will have helped shift consumer understanding of rum in some small way and also helped demonstrate that the rum industry can have a positive impact on our planet.

5. Benefits that the rum industry has given you.

Launching a new rum brand has been a great thrill and a brilliant opportunity for self-renewal. I spent nearly 30 years in the communication profession and, with my 50th birthday approaching later this summer, wanted to do something completely different with my life. Entering the rum business has meant stepping away from my comfort zone and learning to speak a whole new language! It’s challenging, demanding, and sometimes a little scary, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable.

6. What´s another thing you are passionate about, in addition to rum? Why?

Music is another big passion in my life. I have an eclectic taste – I love everything from classic jazz and 60s soul, to 80s pop, modern-day dance music, trance, hip hop, and grime. Watching a fantastic band live at an arena or hearing a great DJ set at a club in Ibiza are two of life’s best experiences – I can’t wait for the return of live music and clubs! Rum is a bit like music really – there’s something for all tastes!

7. What is your favorite place for drinking rum?

It has to be on the beach in Jamaica! Indeed, that’s where the idea for Lost Years Rum was hatched – during our last family holiday back in 2019. Nothing can beat watching the sunset on the beach in Negril, with a glass of funky Jamaican rum in your hand.

8. Why is it important to educate the rum consumer?

There’s a lot of talk about the ‘premiumization’ of rum, but this can only really happen when consumers understand and appreciate what they are drinking. Sometimes the lack of consumer knowledge around rum is frustrating, but people are quick learners and quality speaks for itself – the key is to get out there and talk about great rum and, most importantly, let people try it – once they do there’s often a eureka moment when they realize what they’ve been missing. Those are the moments that delight me. At Lost Years we’re all about pure, unadulterated blends sourced from world-class distilleries in the Caribbean and Latin America – so we’re doing our bit to introduce consumers to authentic but affordable ‘grown up’ rum.

9. Any tips to train the palate and taste a good premium rum?

Taste a lot of it! Rum is such a diverse spirit, so the key is to taste as many different rums as possible and to learn from that experience. I think we also need to be careful not to become too focused on the handful of distilleries the rum geeks obsess about. There are, of course, some truly exceptional rum distilleries out there, but there are hundreds of other less well-known producers across the world making amazing liquids that just need to be discovered.

10. Is the commitment to sustainable development the key to success for the permanence of the rum industry in the world? Why?

Sustainability is a key concern for every industry and rum is no different. The clock is ticking for our planet and the alarm bells are ringing, so we have to take action before it is too late. Thankfully, more and more consumers are seeking out sustainable brands and calling out those that don’t behave ethically or that damage the environment. I firmly believe that those producers that choose to ignore this movement will suffer in the long term. The good news is that many rum producers are now embracing sustainability and we are starting to see positive change and real innovation. Even small producers like us can make a difference though – we have pursued a zero plastic approach from the outset and make full use of eco-friendly materials, even though this is more costly, as well as offsetting our carbon emissions by planting sea grass, an eco-wonder-plant. We also raise money to fund the conservation of endangered sea turtles – every bottle of Lost Years Rum we sell saves up to ten baby sea turtles! I think you will see the emergence of more purpose-driven brands like ours in the coming years and that’s got to be a good thing.

11. What are your next goals in the rum industry?

We’ve got big ambitions for Lost Years rum and the next 12 months will see us build our presence here in the UK and begin to roll out the brand internationally. We’ve already had a huge amount of interest from overseas and so export will be a key priority for us in 2022. I’m also keen to grow the range – provided we can do it in a way that doesn’t undermine our core values – and we’ll also begin to develop a second brand. Ultimately, our dream is for Cane & Able to develop a small portfolio of rum brands that appeal to different sections of the market.

12. How can people learn more about you? Website? Social media page?

You can learn all about Lost Years at our website www.lostyearsrum.com. We’re also on all the key social media channels via @lostyearsrum.