It all started one evening in 2010, when Pat Powers was sitting around with his two brothers, Brian and Jim, sipping rum and remembering their dad, who’d passed away just a month earlier.
Though they were three Irish-Americans from Chicago, the location for this family bonding was Pat’s finca just outside of Medellin, Colombia (“finca” means farm, but in modern Colombia the term usually refers to weekend houses in the country). Pat’s finca, he notes, was a little different than most: Its previous owner was the drug lord Pablo Escobar. Legend has it that the locals tore apart the walls after Escobar’s death in 1993, searching for hidden gold. Pat made his own changes, too: He turned Escobar’s private bullfighting ring into a soccer pitch for his kids.
Powers pere had been an entrepreneur, and the brothers all were, too: Jim had started a record label, Brian had started an ad agency, and Pat had been working for the family pipeline business most of his life, aggressively hunting for opportunities. It was that work that brought him to Colombia in the first place, in 1994, as the country was in the midst of a violent struggle to fill the power vacuum left by Escobar’s death. Powers was trying to expand his business in a more conventional way, chasing a good deal at an iron foundry.
That day in 2010, the Powers brothers were talking about how their dad had always wanted them all to start a business together, but they’d never got around to it. Pat particularly remembered that he’d wanted it to be something fun, like owning a bar. As the evening wore on, they started to think, well, we’ve all got complementary skills—why don’t we try doing something together? They kicked around a few ideas—a leather business, maybe?—before they looked down at their glasses and said, What about rum?
“That set the wheels turning,” said Jim Powers, “and literally, over the course of a couple of hours of conversation, we said, ‘Let’s do it! We should create our own rum.’”
It was a great plan. Except, of course, that none of them knew anything about the spirits business.
The past two decades, Americans have been learning how to drink. Craft beer production rose 16% from 2013 to 2014, according to data from the Brewers Association, and made up more than 10% of the overall market, a benchmark it first reached in 2013. Sales of distilled spirits have been growing in America for 18 straight years, according to data compiled by the Beverage Information & Insights Group, an independent industry research organization. In 2014 alone, Americans spent $77.4 billion on spirits, a 57% increase in a decade.
Much of this growth is in American whiskeys and tequilas, where a movement away from mass-market brands and to smaller labels, with a greater emphasis on flavor and craftsmanship, has been under way for many years. In short, Americans have gotten more interested in drinking and less interested in getting drunk.
While sales of rum actually declined by about 1.5% in 2014, the Powers brothers feel it’s due for the same revitalization that moved consumers (or at least prestige consumers) from Smirnoff to Grey Goose and from Jose Cuervo to Patrón. “When looking at the spirits market, the last one to not have a push into the small premium producers was rum,” said Pat Powers.
“Before the tequila boom in the United States, I learned while living in Guadalajara [in the early ‘90s] that Mexicans drink tequila like a fine whiskey or brandy,” he continued. “It was a sipping drink, not the tequila popper or mixer drink like we did in college. Rum is meant to enjoyed neat or on the rocks like we do whiskey, not as a mixer.”
Grayum Vickers, a certified sommelier and bartender at New York’s trendy NoMad Hotel (author’s note: he’s also my cousin), agrees. “The thing is, people get so turned off by rum because the market is so overpopulated with garbage,” he said on a recent evening. “But really good rum is super good and distinctive.”
Five years after their brainstorming session, the Powers’s product, Parce Rum, is winning awards, including Best Rum, Best Aged Rum, and Best of Show Aged White Spirit (all at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the largest, most influential international spirits competition in America). So how did three white guys from Chicago approach making one of Colombia’s best new rums?
Listening to the Colombian way of making and drinking rum was crucial. Instead of making a rum for Americans, they made a rum for Colombians. What’s more, they followed the lead of Colombian experts on what makes a great Colombian rum.
After about a year and a half of looking, the Powers brothers found Arthur and Brojen Fernandez-Domecq, a father and son team of master blenders. The rum they produce, currently available in eight- and 12-year aged varieties, is a blackstrap rum made from a proprietary blend of Colombian, Trinidadian, and Panamanian sugarcane. It’s then brought to Colombia, where it’s aged in whiskey barrels, blended, and bottled. Unusually for Spanish-style rums, every drop of Parce is the age it says on the bottle. Most other Spanish rums use what’s called a solera system, where newer rum is put into the aging barrels to replace what evaporates out.
Starting a spirits business, the Powers brothers found, wasn’t particularly straightforward. But they divided their work by skill sets.
Jim, whose record label Minty Fresh specialized in finding indie bands from far-flung countries and releasing their work in the U.S., focused on the firm’s creative direction—how could they make it appeal to the right market? Brian, the former ad man, brought in investors. Pat, who’d been living and working in Colombia for 20 years, focused on figuring out the details of importing and exporting. “Its kind of old hat to me,” he said, “whether it be iron castings, rubber gaskets, women’s lingerie, or rum. All the same.”
Still, little things were difficult. Jim spent two years working with a designer just to come up with the bottle. Even picking a name was complex and drawn out.
“Our first name was going to be Bacano,” said Brian Powers. “That means like cool, hip [in Colombia]. If they like something, they say, ah, bacano!” But then they started to worry that bacano was too close to Bacardi. “Then we went with Parcero, which is basically the Medellin equivalent of ‘bro,’” he continued, “but in the eleventh hour, right before we were going to develop our bottles, we got a call from somebody that said it was too close to their name, another rum. So we changed to Parce,” a shortened version of parcero. “In the end, Parce–it’s easy to say, it’s cool, it’s quicker, it’s more memorable. And I feel like we settled on exactly the name we should have.”
Parce is currently available in a few hand-selected markets: New York, Chicago, Seattle, Colorado, and still growing. The Powers brothers credit it all to the one man who didn’t get to see it come together: their dad. “Parce is pretty much Dad’s idea, in my opinion,” said Pat Powers. “Dad would probably say to us, ‘Guys, go pound the pavement and get selling. You boys have a great product—but don’t ever forget, there is always someone else behind you who wants it more.”