The headlines may have read ‘1780 rum sells for £80000’, but this was the comparatively simple conclusion of a fascinating three year journey.
It all began with us doing a simple inventory in the dark, damp cellars of Harewood House, something we had done before. While recording bottle names and quantities I noticed that along the back wall in two of the bins were a number of bottles buried under black mould and cobwebs. They had obviously been there for a very, very long time so I asked Mark if he had any idea what they were. He said he had always known they were there but had no idea what they contained – if indeed anything – adding that he’d first seen them as a child when shown the wine cellar, and had found their ancient and murky appearance somewhat sinister. I suggested maybe we could investigate further into what might be inside and so one bottle was removed and we headed back to Harrogate Fine Wine. So began our epic voyage that took us back over two centuries.
Once back at the shop we washed off the mould – which was quite a task – and carefully opened the bottle. Bear in mind at this point we had absolutely no idea what it was or even if it was going to be remotely drinkable. We painstakingly removed the wax and then the very frail cork before pouring a couple of glasses and admiring the pale amber liquid before us. So what was it? Previously unmarked bottles of Madeira and Cognac had been found in the cellar so in the back of our minds this might well be what we had found. What’s more the clarity indicated we could be in luck in terms of finding a drinkable product. It smelt a little volatile and Madeira was in our minds, so we both took a decent slug and – I have to say – got the shock of our lives as it clearly packed a considerable alcoholic punch. This was most definitely not Madeira! Once we regained our breath we instinctively thought ‘young cognac’. Every stately home of note would have been filled with the stuff of course, so this was a plausible suggestion. At this point my wife came in and we invited her to taste the spirit, and after one sip she said ‘this isn’t Cognac, it’s rum’. It was one of those eureka moments, as Harewood House’s historical connections to the Caribbean suggested the liquid could indeed be rum.
We set about locating evidence to confirm what we suspected and found a cellar book on display in one of the public rooms. This particular book dated back to the 1960’s and it listed two bins of light and dark ‘cane spirit’, both with a date of 1780. Our jaws dropped as we realised that this was no ordinary discovery and we had obviously unearthed something very special indeed. We asked if there were any more cellar books, and indeed there were. We arranged to have these extraordinary volumes made available and one afternoon they were laid out for us to examine. Going back through them day by day, year by year, we were able the trace the same cane spirit in the same bins all the way back to an ancient cellar book from 1805. Sadly that was where the trail ended as we couldn’t find a record to cover the preceding 25 years, but we felt that the consistent detail of where the bottles were for over 200 years was conclusive enough!
We spent one more absorbing afternoon going through various Lascelles archives stored at York University to try and locate the final detail of when the rum arrived, or where it was originally produced. This was a collection of extremely old and almost unreadable paperwork, all recorded in old-fashioned, close to indecipherable, hand-written script, and although there were references to rum and sugar plantations we were unable to find any more evidence as to the origins of the cane spirit. We returned to Harewood House where further examination of bought and sold ledgers yielded a large order of corks pre 1780 which at least was something relevant. It would have been normal practice for a house like Harewood to ship their own barrels and bottle spirit themselves. And indeed the corks have York stamped on them, which meant we were inching closer to a conclusion. During one of our initial visits to the cellar at Harewood we also found a very old corking machine which again provided more evidence that bottling took place at the house.
Having a very good idea what we had found we spoke to Nigel Smith from Tennants Auctioneers and showed him one of the bottles. He dated it as mid-to-late 18th century. Although this only proved when the hand blown bottles were actually made it tied in nicely with the cellar books.
During all this process we kept the 7th Earl and Countess up to speed as we uncovered the story further. Lord Harewood didn’t say a great deal at that point, but one day he casually dropped into conversation that he knew perfectly well about the rum. Indeed he occasionally opened one with the family over the Christmas holidays. Despite his ageing years he was clearly enjoying the treasure hunt we had embarked upon and was watching with quiet fascination. It’s a great shame that he didn’t get to see the result of the sale as he would have been astonished to see what happened to those mouldy old bottles – and of course he would have thrilled at the potential benefit they were going to do for the Geraldine Connor Foundation where all proceeds from the sales were set to go.
Lord Harewood’s sad death in 2011 meant the project was put on the back burner but as the bottles had been sitting there for over 200 years a few more months seemed unlikely to make too much difference to what was inside them. We met with David Lascelles, the 8th Earl, who took an active interest in the project, and he was keen for things to move forward. More discussion took place and on one such occasion – and indeed on the spur of the moment – we made a trip down to the cellar to examine another bottle. As we checked this bottle David was up a step ladder poking around in the cobwebs above the bins, and to our amazement he said that the bin plate was still there, but largely hidden under the centuries of mould and cobwebs. A quick wipe revealed, for the first time in decades, a bin number – ’12’ – and the magic words ‘cane spirits’. It was a moment none of us will ever forget as we all looked at each other in amazement. This seemed to be the conclusive evidence we had been looking for.
Over further meetings it was decided the bottles were to go to auction at Christies in London, and with the help of David Elswood, head of wine at Christies, we set about removing each individual bottle to make sure they were fit for sale. At this point it was discovered that a good number of bottles had poor ullages but just as many showed hardly any loss at all. Obviously under the mould some of the wax and corks had perished to some degree and this was enough for the long, slow evaporation to take place. The saleable bottles were carefully removed to London to be readied for auction. We decided to re-cork and re-wax the bottles for safe onward travel to the winning bidders as the very idea of any breakage or leakage en route to their final resting place was unthinkable. It also gave us a chance to check the quality was consistent across all the bottles set for sale.
We have noticed a few comments and some speculation that the contents of these bottles would be undrinkable – or ‘shot’. As we are in the enviable position of having tasted more of this spirit than probably any other living person we can categorically state that these bottles are anything but shot! As remarkable as it is the 230 years has done little to alter this liquid gold. So what does it taste like? It would be foolish to say that the impact of the age and the history behind the rum didn’t create an impression, but once the nuances and tones are focused on it becomes clear that this is no ordinary spirit. The layers of flavour – and indeed the purity of character – are mightily impressive. The original bottle we opened – from the ‘dark’ bin – was a mid-density, faintly pale bronze and absolutely crystal clear. It has an underlying sugar and caramel character and plenty of wood influence. There is also a feral, almost volatile, high-toned edge which delivers quite a punch. We can only assume this is a young cask strength cane spirit, with added caramel (as was the way back then). Christies had a sample tested for alcoholic strength and it came in at a whopping 56.8% which fully supports our tasting note, and indeed the splutters that accompanied that very first swig back in the shop. When we opened a bottle of ‘light’ it poured the most beautifully delicate straw gold, with exceptional clarity – almost diamond like in fact. It came across fresh and clean with subtle sweet molasses and phenolic overtones. Some richness and a smoky spiciness, and a massive kick of alcohol which made the dark seem tame. A young light rum still at its original shipping strength. Christies tested this one as well and it came out at an extraordinary 69.6%.
The first sale took place in December 2013. To our astonishment the £600 to £800 estimate was smashed out of the sale room with the 12 bottles realising £80,000. This was now not only the oldest rum ever sold but also the most expensive ever sold at auction. The second and final 16 bottle lot was auctioned in December 2014 and these managed to eclipse the previous year’s sale, realising well over £100,000. In total just shy of £200,000 was achieved. From the very beginning of this project it was decided that all profits would be used in a positive way. The decision was taken to donate all proceeds to the Geraldine Connor Foundation, established in 2012 as an arts charity, working with all sectors of the community, but especially young people, using the performing arts to inspire and transform, in the same way Geraldine had in her own life. Born in Britain, raised in Trinidad, Geraldine was a major figure in Yorkshire’s West Indian community. She was heavily involved in carnival and the steel band movement, a teacher as well as a performer, and creator of the legendary and spectacular piece of musical theatre, Carnival Messiah, last performed at Harewood in 2007 as part of the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Donating the proceeds to this excellent foundation – in effect returning the rum to its natural home – brings the tale full circle and is a most fitting finale.
In a final twist to this story we were thrilled to see a few of these bottles ending up back in Barbados, as Mount Gay purchased a number and one already takes pride of place in the Mount Gay visitor centre. Who’s to say it won’t stay there for another 234 years?
We would never have believed that the anonymous bottle we plucked out of the mould and cobwebs could have taken us on such a mesmerising and rewarding journey. Inevitably we’ve enjoyed every moment and are proud to have been involved in the record breaking sales. We’re also delighted that we’ve played a part in so much money being raised for such an important arts organisation as the Geraldine Connor Foundation.