By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
John Watlings Distillery is being “bombarded” by international distributors wanting to sell its high-end rum brand overseas, with its principals telling Tribune Business that per head visitor spend is “significantly” ahead of projections.
Pepin Argamasilla, one of the distillery’s principals, told this newspaper that while they were entertaining all international inquiries, their “principal objective” was to expand the rum product’s reach in the Bahamas market.
Confirming that visitor numbers and on-site rum/gift sales were “increasing at a consistent rate”, Mr Argamasilla disclosed that he and his fellow investors were still in the process of executing their $2 million option to purchase the Buena Vista Estate from the National Insurance Board (NIB).
The purchase option had been included in their original November 2011 lease deal with NIB, and Mr Argamasilla told Tribune Business that outright ownership would give John Watlings more security and control over its Buena Vista investment.
And, coupled with Graycliff’s plans and those of other investors, Mr Argamasilla said John Watlings was helping to “slowly but surely” bring the hill-top neighbourhood overlooking downtown Nassau back to life.
“John Watlings is the most expensive brand, but it’s incredible how many of those bottles are going out of the shop,” Mr Argamasilla said. “I had to do another blend this morning. We’re literally blending and bottling to keep up with the demand. It’s a good problem to have.
“We have different pro motions around the island, and people are gravitating towards the brand and enjoying it. People are even writing back from abroad, saying they’re going through withdrawal symptoms and want this Bahamian rum distributed in the US.”
While flattered by this, and the inquiries from international distributors wanting to take on John Watlings’ products, Mr Argamasilla said he and his fellow investors were focused on the Bahamas roll-out first and foremost.
Apart from the on-site sales at Buena Vista’s tavern and retail shop, John Watlings rum is also being sold at restaurants and through the normal liquor store distribution channels.
“We did a deal with Burns House where we’re available through Burns House in New Providence and the Family Islands. And we’re also distributed through the Bahamian Brewery, Sands,” Mr Argamasilla told Tribune Business.
“Our principal focus is the Bahamas. We’re trying to hold the international interest back. We’re getting bombarded by international distributors wanting to distribute our product in other countries.
“We’re talking to everybody, but our principal objective is to get it out in New Providence and the Family Islands. The Bahamas is our most important market. We’re always first for the Bahamas.”
John Watlings is a family affair, the investors behind the project including Pepin and his brother, Leon, plus cousins Jose and Mario Portuondo, and Guillermo Garcia-Lay. The project epitomizes what many believe should be the hallmarks of downtown Nassau’s revitalistation, namely a focus on cultural and heritage/historical tourism through the revival of the Buena Vista Estate.
Apart from guided tours of the property, where visitors learn of its and Nassau’s history, Mr Argamasilla and his family spotted the ‘market gap’ left by Bacardi’s exit for a locally-produced rum brand featuring several varieties. Visitors also get to experience, and watch, the rum production process in action via an interactive experience at the micro distillery.
NIB’s 2012 annual report confirms that the investor group has moved to purchase Buena Vista, stating: “In October 2012, John Watlings Distillery Ltd exercised its option to purchase the premises of Buena Vista at the appraised value of $2 million as per the operating lease agreement dated November 3, 2011.
“The sale agreement was executed, and a deposit of $200,000 was received in March 2013.”
Confirming that the purchase process was still live, Mr Argamasilla told Tribune Business: “We’re still working on that. We have to get a lot of approvals on it from the Bahamas Investment Authority and other government entities. It just takes time.”
Apart from the greater security ownership will provide, Mr Argamasilla added that it would be consistent with “the amount of money we’ve invested in the estate”.
While declining to give a figure for this, he told Tribune Business that with per capita spend higher than projected, hitting their goal of 150,000 visitors for the first year was no longer so important.
Noting that visitor numbers were still “exceeding thousands”, Mr Argamasilla said: “What’s interesting is that the spend per visitor is higher than projected, so we don’t necessarily need so many visitors. It’s a significant increase.
“We luckily didn’t experience much of the downturn during the low season. During this week we had 20 cruise ships in, and between last Saturday and Sunday we had 11 ships coming in. Every week it’s increasing/increasing – visitor numbers and what we’re selling out of the retail store and at the tavern. They’re growing at a consistent rate.”
Mr Argamasilla acknowledged that Buena Vista’s April 2013 opening had been impacted by crime – both the robbery of a US embassy employee and Carnival Cruise Lines’ passenger warning. He praised the police response as “spectacular”, and emphasized that both he and his family felt very safe at Buena Vista and in the surrounding area.
“It’s happening up on the hill here,” he added. “We can see a lot of different things occurring. Delancey Caf� opened next door to us, and they’re opening a new museum centred around the life and times of Delancey Town. There’s Graycliff, the Art Gallery and the Roman Catholic Church. The neighbourhood is slowly but surely starting to come alive again.”
Buena Vista was originally constructed in 1789, and has been home to persons such as Chief Justices and others that have “helped formed the Bahamas of today”.
“We’re getting there,” Mr Argamasilla said of his family’s Buena Vista venture. “There’s still a lot of building to do, a lot of things to be coming up with in the next few months. It’s like any other business; you have to work hard at it and keep it growing. You should never be satisfied with where you are. It’s a beautiful brand.”