Hell or High Water XO

Hell or High Water XO

Hell or High Water XO

Craft Rum Box | Hell or High Water XO


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Hell or High Water. These guys have seen a lot. Despite their earnest attempts, it has taken an extraordinary amount of effort to keep in the game.

And, the story behind this is uncomfortable but fascinating. So much so, that one of the founders is writing a book on it. But hey...we’re a step ahead here, so I caught up with him to ask a few questions and write a little something of my own. I will warn you there are difficult themes and some reference to sexual assault. It is not a light read. But it is the brand's story, and they deserve to tell it. People aren’t always keen to share their misfortune, perhaps to project the idea of a ‘strong’ brand. However, misfortune is interesting. As Margaret Attwood said, “If everything is perfect all the time, there is no story.” Hell or High Water feature this quote on their website and for good reason, as they have done something very clever, they have taken their troubles and turned it into their brand.

Well, everything has not gone perfectly all the time. We have a story, it tells of hardships and trouble. Obstacles. Fire. Near death. Death. Almost going bankrupt a dozen times. Mistakes. Backstabbings. Finally there is jail. But the story does not end there. It is also about friendship. Entrepreneurship. Persistence. Determination and hopeful optimism. We will keep going, come hell or high water.

Let’s start our story back in 2010 when Founders Olli Hietalahti and Jouko Laune decided to launch a rum brand. They had virtually no experience in rum, but they had plenty of experience in the advertising industry. Five years prior to this, they had also had a little joke, that if Ron is the Spanish word for rum, then who was the most famous Ron in the world? Ron Jeremy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the adult movie industry, he was a big name at the time. In fact, the biggest name, rated #1 in the world, and the joke was that the duo found it rather funny that he looked like Mario, the loveable Italian Plumber. Branding their rum Ron de Jeremy was tongue in cheek and sure to be noticeable.

So, they made the bold decision to go for it. The first step was to get permission from the man himself. Olli had managed to source his number from a producer and made a call. “I was really nervous”, he remembers, “I called around 2am since I didn’t want to call before noon in LA. Ron said, ‘You guys are crazy if you fly to the other side of the globe just to pitch an idea.’” Without any promise of a result, the pair flew to LA to meet him for thirty minutes. He was over an hour late to the meeting and gave the pair plenty of time to sweat as they wondered if they had flown halfway around the world for nothing. Then, he turned up and they talked. “Ron said that all kinds of ideas have been presented to him during his thirty years career (as you can imagine), but nobody had realized Ron means rum”. As a result, he gave the go ahead for the brand. So, they had a brand, but then they needed a rum.



They began by meeting up with leading rum expert Luis Ayala. It took a little persuading as he’s a busy man, but they persuaded. They flew to Texas and he
gave them a three-day crash course on rum in his living room. “He’s got about 800 different bottles on the bookshelf,” Olli smiles, “he was educating us.” They discovered they were keen on rum from Panama. Then, they began working with one of the worlds leading rum blenders, Don Pancho Fernandez. “We looked up to him very highly.” Olli says. Though, the set- up wasn't without its issues. Sometimes labels were missing, sometimes the corks leaked and there were delays in supply. The PR involved a lot of parties with Ron and with this, they managed the difficult task of breaking their product into the US via importers and distributors. Despite various production hiccups they muddled through, and over the course of two years, they had entered an impressive 20 US States.

Then, there was a fire. The bottling facility, inventory and warehouse were destroyed, along with the stock destined for US Shores. It took five months to replace the product, and the quality wasn’t up to scratch. Unable to meet demand, momentum died, and the distributors focused on other rums. “We burned our US dreams there”. Olli states, matter of factly. The duo contemplated returning to advertising, but they weren’t ready to give up, so in 2014 they moved operations to Holland and carried on slowly building their brand.

Around 2017, there were some controversial rumblings around Ron Jeremy. There had been allegations of sexual assault that had not made it to trial, and Rolling Stone magazine had written a piece on him. Olli reached out to Ron, who assured them that none of it was true. “We trusted him.” Olli sighs. “We had been touring with him a lot on several tours, in the US. We went to Australia. We brought him to Europe many times, so I've seen him, countless times with people and it always looked like it was just harmless fun. He was a popular guy, all sorts of people flocked to see him. He always had a sharpie in his pocket to sign books, bottles and anything else you can imagine, he carried a harmonica and played people tunes. So everything looked very innocent and we never witnessed anything that looked suspicious.” So, they trusted and things continued, and then the AVN (Adult Video Network - who had named him the #1 all time adult video star), stepped away, saying he couldn’t attend events anymore because of the allegations, and it all started feeling a little suspicious.



The team decided, all things considered, that they were “stuck with the name”. They would change the branding, keeping the name but removing his face, in order to distance the brand from the man. So, they put the new design together and at the turn of 2020, they laid out for a new bottle and stopper. Then came another blow. “I had all the invoices on my on my desk.” Olli says, “everything was kind of coming in. We hadn't produced it, but then COVID hit in March 2020. So I was looking at the invoices I had to pay. And everything stopped, the sales stopped, bars were closed, importers laid people off and we stopped and thought, we're going to go bankrupt now.”

Yet still, they persevered and survived. Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

“So 2020, mid June,” he continues, “that run of bottling was finished, so we had a massive inventory, a bigger inventory than ever, in our history, and one week later, Ron Jeremy is arrested.”

One week later.

In June 2020, Ron Jeremy was arrested
on a large number of sexual assault allegations. And just like that, the brand came crashing down, along with the decade of work the pair had put into it.

After the initial shock and fearing bankruptcy once again, we decided to fight. We realized that after a decade of hard work we had built something of value: wonderful products and a great network of business friends and colleagues.

UK Distributors had to hold their hands up and say they couldn’t take their rum, and Olli’s only response was “I understand”. That said, other places were still taking it, hesitantly, looking to see how things unfolded. It kept things going for a while, although it wasn’t long before they realised it couldn’t continue. They were left with three choices. They could carry on, but morally they knew they couldn’t, they could stop altogether, cut their losses and appreciate the experience, or they could start a new brand.

“Ron Jeremy’s arrest was a shock. The initial reaction was: did we just lose everything we had been building for 10 years? Very quickly the fighting mode kicked in. Hell no, we’ve been banging our head in the wall for a decade and we want to keep doing that. And it was mixed with relief. There had been rumours of Ron for a couple of years. We saw the opportunity to leave that behind us and start fresh.

So there was a lot of enthusiasm, it was thrilling to be building something new again. But at the same time we had the massive inventory to sell and knew that if we didn’t get rid of that, there would be no future.”

They brainstormed ideas. Then, they realised everything they needed was in their own story. And once they came across the term ‘come hell or high water’, the deal was sealed as it perfectly represented their determination to make it work, as well as acknowledging the difficulties they had experienced. “Immediately it felt really good for us.” Olli says. “We felt that maybe that's something that a lot of people can kind of relate to, and it felt really natural for us.” They have taken the branding and run with it. Their PR photos show them battered and bruised, bleeding and bandaged. “We wore those outfits to Bar Convent in Berlin, it was kind of scary but a lot of fun,” Olli muses. “People were asking us what happened and we said, ‘Rum! Rum happened!’”

We simply refuse to quit. We are entrepreneurs and love the rum world. So, we have created a new brand; whose heart and soul reflect our journey: two idiots stumbling 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.

They relaunched Spring last year, so this is all still very new. However, they are finding a lot of support from the network they’ve built over the last decade. And, I think that branding helps, it’s honesty and vulnerability from a couple of guys who just wanted to launch a rum brand.

Olli certainly has a lot more stories to tell than I can fit into this article. That’s why he’s been working on a book for the last year. I want details but I’m going to have to wait. The book is written in Finnish, Olli’s first language, and it will be some time before it gets an English translation. I’ll be honest though, having spoken to him, I can’t wait to read it. And I can’t wait to try this rum. As Olli says “It’s our best selling product, people really really like it.” And, I’m not surprised, it sounds fantastic.

“The XO blend includes hand-selected
pot and column still rums from Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana. It showcases a dark mahogany colour with a golden hue. The nose is loaded with rich sugarcane, heavy congeners and wet oak. Once on the palate, it smoothly caresses the tastebuds, with a medley of bright tropical fruits, baking spices and brown sugar, atop a bed of soft tannins. The finish is prolonged and very enjoyable. The overall experience is well balanced and exquisite, definitely a sipping rum for sophisticated customers looking to expand their horizons. Serve neat or on the rocks.”

Hell or High Water is a rum for those who laugh in the face of adversity. The hopelessly optimistic. The quietly confident whose spirit will triumph. It is a rum blended

with persistence and determination. Made smooth by the rough journey.

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Bernadette Pamplin

Bernadette loves rum. She set up a gin focused blog Under The Ginfluence eight years ago. Since then, her passion has naturally spread from gin, to rum and other spirits too. You can find work from her on Gin Magazine, Distiller Magazine, and Spirits Beacon, as well as content for  The Gin Guide.

She’s also the editor of Rum’s the Word, writing articles on rums featured in the box, as well as other rum related topics. Bernadette has built up six years experience in judging for events like Gin of the Year, World Gin Awards, Spirits Business Awards, Gin Guide Awards, IWSC and the American Distilling Institute Judging of Craft Spirits and works behind the scenes, assisting with organising and participating in panels for the Craft Distilling Expo.