Luca Gargano, the world’s greatest rum collector, on how to tell a good bottle from a bad one

Hot off his latest collaboration with Jamaican distillery Appleton Estate, the feted expert talks about the new release, why he’s enamoured with the industry, and the rum renaissance

There are few libations more romantic than rum – its tropical ageing; the poetic expression of sugarcane; the long-lead processes of fermentation, distillation and years spent in the barrel; and, ultimately, that unbeatable flavour of time.

Appleton Estate, the oldest continuously operating rum distillery in Jamaica, has long been a flag bearer in the industry, its centuries of craftsmanship expressed across its near-200,000-barrel inventory, one of the most extensive in the world.

At the crest of its lineup is the Hearts Collection, an incredibly rare and exclusive limited collection of 100% pot still single marque rums that have been hand-selected, from the distillery’s famed inventory, by Appleton Estate’s Master Blender Joy Spence in collaboration with renowned rum connoisseur Luca Gargano.

Luca Gargano, the world's greatest rum collector

When Campari Group, which oversees Appleton Estate, debuted the range’s first instalment, in 2020 – the 1994, 1995 and 1999 vintages – it was an instant smash hit, with subsequent releases – 1984 and 2003 – selling out instantly and becoming a prized asset of connoisseurs across the globe.

Defining this range is, of course, the fact that each bottling has been distilled in copper Forsyth pot stills – a production technique that allows for a richer quality and more distinctive texture than that you’d get from column-still rums – and was made with a single marque, meaning no blending took place, the first time that Appleton Estate undertook the move.

“I’m a pot still girl. It’s the funkiness—it’s just so complex and intriguing,” says Spence. “I always had a passion to release a single-marque pot still.”

The success of the releases was, with little doubt, also down to the fact that they were produced in an unprecedented partnership with Luca Gargano, a rum connoisseur, enthusiast and one of the most celebrated individuals in the industry, one who has more than 40,000 bottles in his possession.

Joy Spence, Master Blender of Appleton Estate, and rum collector Luca Gargano standing in a cellar

Gargano, though attributed as the first to import New World wines into Italy, is, today, better known for elevating the status of rums, notably by creating a new classification for the spirit that keeps it at the level of single malt, and also by being the pioneer to insist on including details such as congener and ester levels on his co-bottlings, a move that made the public aware of the myriad differences and nuances within the drink.

“I am for tropical ageing, distillery ageing, and respect for the name, the trademarks, and the country of origin,” Gargano, who had long wanted to collaborate with Appleton Estate and Spence, states.

Gargano’s first visit to the estate, it has been well documented, took on the flavour of a religious-like experience, as, when he came across the spring, the distillery’s water source, he performed a dramatic Italian prayer over the pond. “The first time I met him in person…” Spence says, “believe you me – he’s one of the most interesting people I’ve met in my life. He’s more eccentric than you can imagine.”

A person writing on an Appleton Estate rum bottle

As for their newest additions to the Hearts Collection – the 1993 and 2002 – each rare rum, as with prior releases, is a single proprietary marque that’s been distilled in a Forsyth pot still and aged for over two decades in the tropical temperatures of Jamaica. While the older offering, the 1993, showcases a medley of nutmeg and cinnamon scents that have been offset by hits of warm butterscotch, mint, toasted oak and honeyed vanilla, the 2002 is defined by orange blossom notes that fade into a taste of molasses, medium-roasted coffee and caramel.

Below, in celebration of this extremely rare release, we chat to Gargano to talk about the beauty of rum, his rapport with Spence, and what makes the Hearts Collection so coveted.

JL: A watchmaker gets their thrills from seeing all the intricacies of a timepiece working together; a cobbler sees beauty in a well-made pair of shoes – what does rum mean to you, on an emotional level?

LG: I got into rum at a very young age, as a rum manager in St James, therefore my whole life has been marked by rum. I first went to the Caribbean in a pre-internet era, and this enabled me to feel, live and experience the Caribbean and its climate. Such an experience, at such a young age, is truly unforgettable.

I’ve read that you wanted to collaborate with Appleton Estate for years – how did that 2020 Hearts Collection collaboration actually come about? Did you approach Appleton Estate, or vice versa?

My dream was to do some co-bottlings, to participate in official bottlings with all the distilleries that had pot stills. I had succeeded with almost all of them, but Appleton seemed quite unreachable to me. But, one day, Campari got in touch with me: at first I thought that they meant to study my approach to the Italian market, but, from there, the first contact we began to discuss the idea of co-bottling, which allowed me to realise my dream of bottling Appleton by taking its pot stills. In fact, it is a double dream, because Appleton had never bottled a 100% pot still rum before.

How does the relationship between you and Joy work? Is it pure harmony and agreement – or are you constantly questioning and pushing each other?

Joy Spence knows her craft very well, she’s passionate about her work, serious and rigorous, a very strong woman, a rock… Joy and I think alike when it comes to rum production, and we also have the same palate. In fact, during blind tastings we have always chosen the same samples.

And I’ve read that the moment you first saw the Appleton Estate spring was an almost religious moment – would you be able to elaborate on that experience?

During one of my first visits to Appleton, Joy took me to a pond with its pristine waters, and she told me that that spot had always been a personal place of hers, where she would go if she needed to stop and meditate. It was emotional for me to be there with her, on a beautiful day, with the crystal clear water; an emotion that has remained in my heart. Even now, every time I return to Appleton, I would like to be taken back there.

What is it about Appleton Estate that made you want to collaborate with them once again? Is it how they treat the raw material; is it the terroir; or, rather than one or two individual elements, is it – I assume – all the variant parts that harmonise together?

In my opinion, Appleton is the number one distillery in the world. Firstly, because it is an estate; and, secondly, because it has top-level distillation equipment (pot stills and columns) and also a vintage stock of aged rums like no rum distillery has in the world. The idea of bottling Appleton pot stills was a dream of mine. Among its seven editions, the 1994 bottled in 2021 is also the oldest bottling in the history of a tropical-ageing pot still rum. We are talking about products that are 30 years old, and 30 years of tropical ageing are hugely valuable. Also, this is a sign of greatness and farsightedness for Appleton: it really is truly exceptional to keep some single marks for 20–30 years, with an angel’s share of 7–8%.

What, for you, is the main attraction in 100% single marque pot still rums?

The Hearts series emphasises a distillation technique that enhances the raw material, just as it happens with single malts in the whisky world. Bottling single marques can also show us – with this series that has reached the 7th release – which are the different colours that Joy Spence can use when making her blends.

In general terms, are there any clear and obvious indications of a good rum – and are there clear and obvious indications of a bad rum?

As for all spirits, raw material, fermentation, ageing and distillation are the elements that determine quality. Obviously, spirits should come exclusively from the fermentation of the raw material – sugar cane and its derivatives – without any other additions. Rum with added sugar, for instance, will never be a great spirit.

And what are your thoughts on the idea that a rum renaissance is currently taking place? And why do you think it’s seen more of a surge in popularity in recent years?

There certainly is a renaissance of rum, but not in general: the market has increased, thanks to mainstream products, too. Above all, there is an understanding that authentic artisanal and original rums are on the same level as all the great spirits, like cognac, single malts, and more. This means that people are finally discovering that some products from the world of rums belong, too, to the category of the great spirits of the planet.

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