Hell Or High Water Rum CEO Olli Hietalahti (Interview)

Published by The Rumlab ago about the Hell Or High Water company

Hell Or High Water Rum CEO Olli Hietalahti (Interview) article cover image

By Jose Hoffmann

Olli Hietalahti is the CEO of One Eyed Spirits. He is the co-founder of Hell or High Water Rum, which was previously known as Ron de Jeremy. Learn more about Olli Hietalahti, in the following interview:

TRL: What does rum mean to you?

Oh boy, this is a big question! I am currently writing a book that will be published this spring, and that is the heart of the book, what rum means to me and what has happened since we stumbled into the wonderful world of rum. To put it in a few words, for me rum means story, journey, and growth. 

Let’s go back a little bit. 18 years to be precise. At that time, my business partner Jouko Laune and I were advertising creatives. One night in 2004 we were sitting in a bar in Amsterdam after a long day of photoshoots. There was a nice rum poster on the wall with a picture of a bottle and text: Ron de… (Can’t remember which brand). We realized ron is the Spanish word for rum.

A few seconds later it hit us: Ron de Jeremy. While the world is full of Rons, the world’s most famous pornstar Ron Jeremy is one of the most recognizable. We thought that was hilarious. It was a joke for 6 years until we founded the Ron de Jeremy rum brand and the first bottles came out in 2011. We expanded quickly to 25 countries.

In 2018 Ron de Jeremy was voted one of the Top Ten trending rums in the world by Drinks International magazine’s Brands Report which surveys the 106 best bars in the world. But as the great novelist Margaret Atwood once said, “If everything is perfect all the time, there is no story”. 

Things certainly have not been perfect all the time. So we do have a story. It tells about hardships and trouble, Obstacles, Fire, Near-death, Death; almost going bankrupt a dozen times, mistakes, backstabbing. Finally, there is jail.

In June 2020 Ron Jeremy was arrested, facing serious charges of sexual crimes. He has been in jail waiting for the trial ever since. We were faced with three options: we could continue with the brand but that was not morally sustainable, we could quit the rum business and go back to our former lives or we could create something new. 

We simply refused to quit. We are entrepreneurs and love the rum world. So, we decided to fight and create a new brand; whose heart and soul reflect our journey from one hardship to another. You fall 7 times, get up 8. 

The rum is called Hell or High Water. 

For those not familiar with the expression, “come hell or high water”, it means you are willing to do whatever it takes to overcome difficulties or obstacles. You never give up. Hell or High Water certainly sums up our journey but we think the story of winning through hardships is universal and touches everyone. We all face hardships and setbacks. We all understand the feeling. We like to say that “A Rough Journey Makes a Smooth Rum”.

TRL: What is the most important contribution you have made in the rum industry?

We love to build brands that create strong emotions. Ron de Jeremy certainly was one. Our mission was to make people smile twice, first when they encountered the brand and the second time when they tasted the rum. For ten years that worked and we did create a lot of smiles! (Sadly the joke died when he was arrested). With the new Hell or High Water brand, we hope we can encourage people to laugh in the face of adversity. Be more optimistic, determined, and persistent. So I do hope that through our brands we make a tiny contribution.

TRL: Benefits the rum industry has given to you

It was the craziest decade anyone could hope for life-changing journey. Friends, stories, laughter, and tears! 

TRL: What’s another thing you are passionate about, in addition to rum?

I think the older you get the more you realize what is truly important in life. I would be nothing without my family and friends. I’m an old fart but I still love to do sports. Basketball, golf, skiing, football…I love reading and try to nurture a curious mind.

TRL: What is your favorite place for drinking rum?

It’s not the place, it’s the people. With good friends, any place goes, and with a good rum in your hand, any place gets better!

TRL: Favorite drink + recipe

Call me old-fashioned but I love Rum Old Fashioned. It is such a simple drink to make. But to make it perfect, that requires dedication. 

We just did a wonderful cocktail list with the master bartender Ondra Hnilička of Hemingway Bar in Prague. Here’s a nice rum old fashioned recipe with a twist:

“Come Hell or High Water”

50 ml Hell or High Water XO Rum1 tbsp Amarena juice10 ml cherry liquor2 dashes of chocolate bitters

Stir all the ingredients with ice and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist and amarena cherry.

TRL: Why is it important to educate the consumer?

All understanding comes from education. We can elevate people to drink better rums only when they understand what they are drinking and why they should pay more for the good stuff. 

TRL: Who would you like to meet in the rum industry?

I think it is most inspirational to sit down with other small entrepreneurs and share stories and learning experiences. So anyone with a good story! If I could go back in time it’d be interesting to talk with the original rum runners. 

TRL: What are your next goals in the rum industry?

Hell or High Water Rum has only been out for a few months now. Last year was a transition from the old brand to the new and that went amazingly well. But 2022 is our first real year. So we have a lot of work to do to get the brand out. Fortunately, we have received a lot of support from our importers and distributors. They all understand the need for change and like the new Hell or High Water brand. I almost got teary-eyed when one of them said at the Berlin Bar Convent that “we all hope you succeed”

Right now we focus on the core portfolio of Hell or High Water XO, Reserva, and Spiced. But we are experimenting with blends and toying with product ideas. We’ll hopefully have a new product out next fall. 

TRL: Plans you have when you leave the rum industry

I think I’m going to stick around for a while! If I ever leave, the plan is to open a really good bottle of rum, take a sip and just enjoy it. 

TRL: Why is the role of the bartender important in the rum industry?

Bartenders are the gatekeepers. They form the bridge between your brand and someone who might become your customer. Good bartenders are also authorities that people follow, they can affect which brands are hot and which are not. They are very important in educating the people and turning them towards good rums. Having a few trusted bartenders is very helpful also when developing products and taste profiles. And obviously, they create the wonderful cocktails that we all enjoy!

TRL: What is your advice for new generations in the rum industry?

Try all the rums you get your hands into. Ask a lot of stupid questions, you’ll notice people like to help you if you’re humble and polite. 

It is going to take more time than you think. You are going to face obstacles, many more than you think now. The question is what will you do when the shit hits the fan? Will you surrender or fight, come Hell or High Water! Remember “Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”. So keep your eye on the ball, keep smiling, and stay optimistic. May your glass always be half full!

TRL: How can people learn more about you?

https://www.hellorhighwaterrum.com

https://www.instagram.com/hellorhighwaterrum  email: [email protected]