A Lil Ray Of Sunshine

A Lil Ray Of Sunshine

Lil Ray’s No.1 is simply superb! A wonderful, bright drink produced by blending three African rums, from Réunion, Mauritius & Eswatni and infusing it with their own spice mix including pineapple, clementine and clove. How delicious does that sound?! This is a very new endeavour, a year in the making, with the first bottles hitting the shelves just 3 months ago in March. We took a ‘lil’ time to catch up with Co-Founder James Bright to find out the story behind the rum, and why he loves African rums so much.

Ahoy there James! And congratulations on the launch of Lil Ray’s No.1 African Spiced Rum. Well, let's start from the beginning. Who is Lil Ray?

“Lil Ray is a character for sure, he was someone who was trying to find his calling in life as a pirate but wasn't much good at anything, except drinking rum. And his love for rum started getting in the way of his tasks and jobs. Eventually he was thrown overboard for not being able to do any of the jobs on the ship properly, with nothing but a barrel of rum. But, rather than this being a bad thing it pushed him to follow his passion for rum. Washing up on a tropical island, he used spices to flavour the rum leading to his now legendary spice mixes, doing what he loved and living his best life for the rest of his days in rum paradise.”

That certainly is a good story! A story of finding potential and doing what you love perhaps?

“I think it's a story that resonates with me, about following your passion. If you find true love for something and that thing sticks, eventually I think you need to pursue it. I think that's the beauty of our lives, following our passions and interests and nurturing and growing that, sharing it with others. That's what we are all about and that's why Lil Ray resonates with us as an idea and a story - doing what you love and making it into something to share with others. That's why he's the image of our brand and what we are trying to do. He's a symbol for those who dare to dream, to keep dreaming and try to make those dreams into a reality.”

Wonderful! It seems Lil Ray found a ‘lil’ wisdom in that barrel of rum. So, where do you guys fit in? Tell us about the real Lil Rays.

“We (myself, James Rayner and Paul Marsden) have always had a love of spiced rum, we all grew up together in a small town called Marple in Cheshire, knowing each other since I was five years old. We've all been through a lot together, basically we are family and we see each other as brothers which is both very good and very bad at times, hahaha! One day we were drinking rum together in my garden and decided to take the plunge. We knew what we liked from a good spiced rum and as a rum taster for many years, I'd tried 100s of spiced rums, so basically we decided to go from there.”

And it’s really interesting to see African rums being used. Lil Ray No1 is a blend of three African rums. Can you tell us about the character of African rums, and why you chose these three to blend?

“I have loved rum for a long time, for most of that time I drank almost exclusively Caribbean rum as most people do, there are so many distilleries in the Caribbean and they produce so much of the world's rum. Rum from Guyana (demerara rum mainly) was generally my favourite for a long time, Watsons for instance. But then I managed to try some Afro and Afro-Caribbean rums which I absolutely fell in love with. The depth of flavour and the smoothness just hit me straight away. So I started trying African rums. A lot of African Rum is made in East Africa such as Réunion and Mauritius which produce that beautiful sugar cane spirit rum lovers universally love. Then I tried rum from Eswatini (formally Swaziland) and was blown away by the complexity and smoothness of it, so well produced, great, genuinely great tasting rum, I think because it doesn't have the reputation of Caribbean rum to fall back on, it has to be good to sell in a competitive market and they really know what they are doing. I honestly don't think African Rum gets a fair shake and wanted to do something about that. My partner (shout out to Grace who helped so much with the business), is from East Africa and there is so much culture, character and flavour that just remains undiscovered from that part of Africa. I was determined a light needed to be shone on what was being produced there. I am truly blown away by their rums and so using African rum was a no brainer.

We blended the rums for an ideal balance of tasty, smooth rum flavour as a base and used RO (reverse osmosis) pure water to complete. Then complimented it with our base spice mix and pineapple, clementine and clove which are three of the best natural ingredients to spice and flavour our rum for a fruity, sweet and spiced all serve rum that goes as well as a sipping rum as it does in cocktails or with mixers. A good quality ginger beer makes this drink into something I think literally everyone would enjoy (unless you hate ginger beer of course!)”

That sounds great! What's the blending process like, can you take us behind the scenes?

“Well the recipe is a secret so I'm a 'lil' limited, but I can say that the process takes a long time. We blend the rums with RO water to the desired ABV and then add the spice, we don't use anything artificial at all, just pure whole spices so it takes between 4-5 weeks just to spice the rum alone once it has been blended, no flavourings or colours, no added sugar or caramel, no powdered ingredients. It's about as natural as you can get really. We use the purest of pure water, pure African Rum and all natural ingredients.

That’s a big thing for us, we don't really like spirit drink 'rums' which are becoming more and more popular. They are technically not (legally speaking) rums as they are under 37.5%, so are a 'rum' spirit drink rather than an actual rum. Often these rums are packed with sugar or unnatural flavours that make it soapy and undrinkable without mixers. We wanted to keep it traditional, spiced rum has a significant, proud and eventful history spanning hundreds of years and we take that history seriously. The last thing I'd want is for the rum sector to turn into spirit alcopops or gimmicks with flavourings and edible glitter like we saw happen with a section of the gin market. Great spiced rum should be just as good straight as it is in cocktails or with mixers and we don't compromise in achieving that and want to continue making a natural and sustainable product that delivers every time on taste and enjoyment.

Honestly there have been a lot of late nights, 20+hr work days, unforeseen circumstances that have made this a real journey and it definitely has not been plain sailing (no pun intended). We all have second jobs and families/partners and with covid it's not been easy to get this start up going. I think because we are so close it's helped us pull together to make the dream happen despite all the setbacks and difficulties of this last year, which I think everyone will agree has been anything but ordinary. You know what though, it has been 100% worth it, getting the feedback from our customers saying how much they enjoyed our product and buying two or three bottles at a time. It’s the ultimate reward for all the hard work. We have had a lot of sales through Master of Malt who have been great and all of our ratings have been 5 stars so far which is unreal as they cater to so many spirits enthusiasts.

Everything is done by hand as we are a small batch producer, each batch being under 100 bottles so it's labour intensive. But this means we can assure it gets the attention it deserves to meet the quality we want to deliver. Our plant is based in the UK and we blend and spice the rum domestically.”

That’s a lot of hard work in every bottle. And, Lil Ray uses a unique spice mix of pineapple, clementine and clove which sounds absolutely amazing! It's also really interesting as it suggests a more fruit-led spiced profile. Why did you go for these flavours?

“We did a lot of market research (which was a lot of fun of course), and gathered a lot of consumer feedback which we took on board. Our No.1 was the result. These flavours are some of the most loved and well received in what I like to call the new golden age of spiced rum. Personally I love clementine in rum, I think it’s one of the ultimate matches, similarly pineapple for its punchyness and sweetness, along with clove for its warmth and spice so it came together quite naturally over time. When we were happy we began producing Lil Ray's No.1 as our first endeavour. We have two more in the pipeline that will be available later this year. It's been a lot of work since we started the concept nearly a year ago now, and we have been trading since March this year with an amazing response from rum lovers across the UK.

Our rum is suitable for vegans, vegetarians and is gluten free, but most importantly we don't use plastic on the product and the bottle, it's label and tag are all 100% recyclable. The sea is a huge part of rum and its history so as a company we don't want to contribute to putting any more plastic in it if we can help it.”

It sounds amazing. Can you give us some tasting notes for our rum geeks to look for while they try it?

“No.1 starts with bright pineapple and citrus, with a sweet cinnamon and ginger note coming through along with banana, orange and treacle notes to follow, a beautiful up and down rum flavour throughout, bursting with complexity and a very smooth moreish aftertaste.”

Would you recommend this as a sipping rum? Rum to be mixed? What serves/cocktail recipes would you suggest?

“This is an all serve rum and we developed it with that in mind from the beginning, we didn't want to lose that depth and sophistication from our base rums originating In Réunion, Mauritius and Eswatini, but wanted it to be enjoyable in mixers and cocktails as well as for sipping straight. Some of the best cocktails I've tried using our rum to date are:-

Lil Ray's Rum Old Fashioned
50ml Lil Ray’s No. 1
Orange peel burned
2 dashes orange bitters
25ml gomme syrup

Lil Ray's Choc Orange
37.5ml Lil Ray’s No. 1
12.5ml baileys
2 dashes orange bitters
12.5ml vanilla syrup
50ml milk and cream

Lil Ray's Spiced Mai Tai
37.5ml lil Ray’s
12.5ml triple sec
12.5ml orgeat syrup
12.5ml lime
25ml orange juice
25ml pineapple juice

(Shout out to Charlie James's (Rayner) partner who has many years experience behind bars who came up with these beauties!)”

What a selection, it’s tough to pick a favourite from that list. What are your plans for the future? Are you going to be launching another rum?

“Indeed, we are currently trying to get word out about Lil Ray's No.1 but we have a No.2 and. No.3 coming later in the year. No 2 is a Coffee, Coconut and Vanilla spiced rum and No.3 is an Allspice, Lemongrass and Ginger, both using our blend of rums from Réunion, Mauritius and Eswatini, with our Lil Ray's base spice blend. As for the future, who knows - we hope people keep sharing and enjoying our product and if they do, then onto bigger and better things.”

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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.