A Catch Up with Ruben Maduro
We recently caught up with our good friend in Amsterdam, Ruben Maduro, and talked all things botanical rum, how his brand - Spirited Union - has developed since we last talked, next steps, and addressed the inevitable pandemic-shaped elephant in the room.
Hi again! So first off, for those who perhaps don’t know you, could you please introduce yourself?
Hi, so my name is Ruben Maduro and I’m the founder of Spirited Union Botanical Rum and Spirited Union Distillery in Amsterdam, which launched five years ago. Prior to that, I used to work in bars and restaurants in Breda, Rotterdam, London, and Aruba, and I was fortunate that it was mostly in environments where working with quality produce and ingredients were key. That’s why I developed a passion for working with real ingredients and combining and creating new flavour combinations. As a kid, I grew up in Aruba, where my great grandad used to be a rum trader, and that’s where I also developed a passion for rum. Just growing up with him and hearing his stories inspired me to try to do something new within the rum space.
Can you remind us how you got into the drinks industry initially?
I got into the drinks industry at a very early age. I was actually working in the kitchen from 14 years old, as a busboy, and I then worked my way up from chef, to server, to bartender. I really enjoyed working behind the bar and flair – juggling around bottles and stuff! After a short while, I decided to enter a national mixology competition at 18 years old and managed to come in second in the whole of Holland. That’s really when I caught the bug and I started doing international cocktail competitions. After a little while, I decided to go back to the Island of Aruba where I worked for a few years in several cocktail bars and soaking up as much sun and rum as I could before moving to London. This is where I lived for about two and a half years, working in cocktail bars, and that was right before I decided to actually work on a rum of my own and enter the “spirits world”.
So obviously this isn’t the first time we’ve talked – the last time we sat down a couple years back it was a very different world and a very different industry! So could you fill us in on some of the developments for your brand in this time? You were known as Union 55 back then if I remember correctly?
Well, good question, but I’ll give you some context first I think. When I started working on a new approach to rum, I looked at the rum category through 2 lenses. On one hand, you’ve got your traditional styles of rum coming from everywhere around the world. I mean, it’s beautiful how much diversity there is in the category. Although some use it for cocktails, most enjoy sipping it nice and slow. On the other hand, you’ve got the almost polarizing side of rum which doesn’t care about any of the same things the traditional rum brands care about because it’s all about partying. It’s about mixing an artificial colour. It’s about adding loads of sugar and fake flavours and putting a pirate on the label, and kind of just being a bit fake and silly.
So not just adding artificial flavors, but actually extracting authentic flavors from botanicals; from plants, from seeds, from nuts, from leaves, and from fruits
So I was frustrated with what was going on here, I wanted to move into a space that sits in between these two worlds and embrace all of the beautiful styles and flavours of rum from different origins and evolve its flavours using botanicals in a real and honest way. So not just adding artificial flavors, but actually extracting authentic flavors from botanicals; from plants, from seeds, from nuts, from leaves, and from fruits. And that’s how the botanical rum category was born.
When I started, the brand was called Union 55 because, at that stage, we had only one product. Now, with a range of rums, we have decided to change that slightly and tweak the brand name to Spirited Union, as it’s a range of spirits unified under one idea and one company. Two years ago, we opened the first botanical rum distillery; Spirited Union Distillery, which is focused on flavour innovation and creativity in the rum category, working with natural ingredients to push boundaries of what is possible.
Exciting stuff! So can you tell us a bit more about your more recent products, Lime & Leaf, Pink Grapefruit & Rose, Queen Pineapple & Spice, Organic Coconut, and Sweet Orange & Ginger – the processes, ideas behind them, and what the intention behind them were?
So we had them on ice for a while and, partly due to COVID but also because we just wanted to complete the range with these new expressions and to enter different areas within the rum category, we decided to push the launch forward a bit. So, in terms of our approach to botanical rum, we like to embrace that diversity and quality of rum and for that reason we always work with single-origin rums. We’re always looking for rums to work with that are completely traceable, so we even know which exact distillery the liquid came from, how it’s been made, what’s inside, and to analyze that flavour. That’s my job; to select the rums and work off of that rum’s unique flavour profile and build on that through botanicals. With the new editions, we’ve done exactly that.
Then there’s the lemon and leaf, which is our first white botanical rum, and I believe it’s the first white botanical rum in the world.
I’ll go through them one by one because I think they each deserve a little bit of the spotlight. The Pink Grapefruit and Rose uses as a base a rum from Swaziland, in Africa, which is a light and slightly floral rum. It is actually distilled in what is known as the “flower belt” of Africa. It’s distilled in column stills and then we redistill it in Amsterdam, with pink grapefruits, blood oranges and vapour infused with elderflower blossom and rose petals. Our Queen Pineapple & Spice, which just won Best New Product 2020 at The Grocer, is a pineapple rum that is just so tasty. I sourced the original rum from Panama, which had been aged for two to three years, and infused it with – you guessed it – pineapples. I literally spent months testing different types of pineapples to infuse with, re-distilling the skin which is quite aromatic, distilling cinnamon. and also cloves. It’s incredibly good.
Then there’s the Lemon and Leaf, which is our first white botanical rum, and I believe it’s the first white botanical rum in the world. We launched it last year and it’s a Mauritian Agricole-style rum base that’s re-distilled with Amalfi lemons – the lemons you’d find used in limoncello with very thick skins, super fresh – and we added some eucalyptus black tea and then some tinctures of Sarawak pepper, sarsaparilla and kina bark. Now there’s also the Sweet Orange and Ginger, which actually uses a Jamaican rum as its base which has been aged for one year, so it has a bit of funk and fruity tones. We’ve then distilled it in Amsterdam with organic Valencia oranges and dried Curacao orange peels, and then infused it with dried and fresh ginger tinctures. It’s super aromatic, and it has a little bite from the ginger and the Jamaican heat. Then last, but by no means least, we have our Organic Coconut. It’s a rum we will launch in January 2021 and its honestly incredible! I’ve created it to celebrate our pledge to the planet, and so we are working with a rum from Belize for this one, and it’s actually a distillery that’s fairly new and located right in the middle of the rainforest in a sanctuary which supports local charities around the distillery. We then infuse it with organic coconut flakes from Sri Lanka, vanilla and raw cacao. Diluted down to 38% with organic coconut water, it has a fatty and smooth mouthfeel and is everything you want from a coconut rum.
They sound ridiculously good, we’ll have to get our hands on some! So we’ve been mainly using your original product – the Spice & Sea Salt rum – for our virtual classes so far. Could you tell our readers a bit about that liquid, too? Has the process or recipe changed over the past couple of years?
Yeah, so the first rum that we launched was the Spice and Sea Salt. I wanted to do something new within the rum space and started by changing the perception of spiced rum and to create a completely new category which we call botanical rum. I know that at TT Liquor you used to work with Union 55 Salted and Spiced Rum which we now call Spice & Sea Salt, although is still pretty much the same. Like with everything else we do, we work with natural ingredients and just like when you cook a meal, and this means it’s virtually impossible to re-create the exact flavour over and over. Sometimes the flavour extraction is stronger or weaker, and it’s our master distillers job to match the flavours of every batch with the original recipe. So we always like to make minor amends to the recipe to create a more consistent product.
I mean in the end, we will get through this, and we’re going to come out stronger than before. We’re not out of the woods yet, but definitely back on track!
How have you as an independent brand owner dealt with the unprecedented challenges thrown up by the coronavirus? We’ve spoken to a lot of UK-based owners and the consensus seems to be that it was – and is – the biggest challenge they’ve ever faced. Was this an experience you shared?
The year of 2020 has definitely been the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my working life. Being an on-premise brand and depending on sales in bars and restaurants ended up being our Achilles heel and I had to make some very difficult decisions to keep going. We had to temporarily close the distillery, stop production, close our visitors center and bar, the lot! So is it the worst thing that has ever happened to us? Probably not. Is it the biggest challenge we’ve faced as a company? Hell yes. But every downside has an upside, you know? So I decided to just sit down, take stock and let the dust settle. This break led to the decision to launch four new rums, focusing on both bars and shops. Rather than just going into bars, also looking at bottle shops and retail and getting it into people’s homes. So I mean in the end, we will get through this, and we’re going to come out stronger than before. We’re not out of the woods yet, but definitely back on track.
And we’re glad to hear it. So, speaking of coming back stronger, how do you think activities like our virtual cocktail classes, and interaction with your liquids by consumers via our guest spirit, can help brands like yours considering bars are obviously closed?
I love, love, love, love the virtual cocktail classes you guys do. It’s so incredible. I think it’s the best thing, the best response to a lockdown. It’s educational. It’s fun. So, yeah, I don’t know if you can tell but I really like it. It’s such an amazing opportunity to work with TT liquor and Mixology Events, and to be part of your virtual cocktail classes. I mean getting people to taste our liquids in a fun and informal way is just great!
We’ve got a few really cool things happening. For one, we just became an organically certified distillery.
You’re obviously a long-term friend of the company’s. Can you tell us what was it that drew you to TT in the first place? What has led to your long, sustained relationship with the us?
So funny enough, as I said before, I used to work in London in a bar where, Steve and Ali [our owners] used to come and actually worked for a bit. Ali used to work behind the same bar as I did, and remember I was telling everyone at the bar my dream of wanting to do something new in rum. And they always said they would support if and when I’d come back to London. Little did they know, 15 years later I would do just that! So yeah, ever since I started going to market in 2017, there has just been so much support coming from all you guys at TT, and not just because we’re friends but also because, I think they like the taste of rum, too! [laughs]
Oh, we like the rum! Don’t you worry about that! We only use products we like personally, and think others will too, for our virtual classes, and yours ticks those boxes!
Well that’s good news! I think I’m a bartender at heart, and when I first walked into TT when it was still being built, looking at it and then going through the building with Ali, it’s incredible to see their vision kind of coming to life. So it’s a place that I really like to go and hang out. I mean, the bottle shop is fantastic. They stock amazing products. Their bars are great. The bartenders, the people working there are great. So I think it’s really exciting. Fun bit of trivia: back in the day I actually did some bartending for Mixology Events back when they were still based in Old Street. Good times!
Good times indeed, we’ll have to see if we can dig out some photos! So, Ruben, looking forwards are there any exciting plans for Spirited Union on the horizon you want to reveal?
We’ve got a few really cool things happening. For one, we just became an organically certified distillery. And for next year, I’m in the process to look for new exciting rums that are all certified Bon Sucro which is sustainable. And yeah, basically just produce in a sustainable way so we can continue our pledge to the planet to make our entire business completely sustainable.
To round things off, tell us what’s your favourite cocktail at the moment? What are you drinking?
My favourite cocktail at the moment has to be the smoked pineapple daiquiri. It’s incredible. It’s 15ml smoked pineapple syrup, 50ml of the original Spice and Sea Salt Rum, 25 ml of fresh lime juice, shake hard and serve nice and cold either straight up or over ice. Delicious.