Alfred Aybrook

There are many stories about the very early beginnings of Old Reserve and Old Arrack.

This is one of the best.

Alfred Aybrook was born in the village of Fulford, York, UK in October 1833. The 2nd son of a doctor, he helped his father mix the early medicinal remedies including the infusion of herbs into poultices to treat various ailments. As he grew, his interest in herbs increased and, as was common at the time, he decided to seek a new life in the colonies.

Travelling first to Barbados in the West Indies, he found employment as a sugar plantation overseer with a family friend where he became interested in the distillation of Rum and Sugar Cane Brandy.

By the age of 27 he felt confident enough to distill his own Rum which was sold locally. Initially a success, it was only when he tried to export to nearby Caribbean islands that he encountered opposition from other local rum producers. One night, a major fire swept through his small distillery and reduced it to smouldering ashes rendering him both homeless and penniless. It was rumoured that the fire was started by jealous competitors but no evidence has ever been found.

New York City 1860

With little prospects in the West Indies and a burning ambition to extend his knowledge of distillation, he used his lmowledge of medicine to gain passage as a "doctor" on a trading ship that delivered essential supplies from New York around the islands.

Disembarking into the melting pot of 1860's New York, he used his skills to build one of the thousands of illicit stills in the city providing "moonshine" for the burgeoning population in Hell's Kitchen and The Bowery.

Not only did he become a distiller, but also a trader, for it was common practice in those days to be in total charge of your product — such was the danger from armed gangs to steal your stock.

Thomas Mason

It was at this point, aged 33, that he met Thomas Mason.

Mason was a planter of English stock from Alabama and was engaged in the export and trade of molasses and cotton but, following the devastation of the American Civil War, he was looking for new ideas. Mason was 37 at the time and financially astute and, although he had lost almost everything in the war, he saw the opportunity that Aybrook's knowledge and his trading skills could bring.

One night, whilst drinking together in a New York tavern they fell into conversation with the first mate of a ship that lay at anchor in the harbour. The ship was carrying a cargo of spices from the Far East and conversation quickly turned to the countries the man had visited. He painted such a glowing picture of Ceylon that both Mason and Aybrook resolved to seek passage there.

It was at this point that fate took a hand as there were berths available on the ship for its return journey across the Atlantic to Liverpool delivering cotton for the manufacturing mills a Lancashire, England. The 2 men pooled their resources and booked passage for a new beginning in the Old World.

Arriving in the bleak autumn of 1867 from the steamy heat of New York, both decided to leave immediately. But how?

Alfred decided to contact his family in York where he learned that his father had died some 5 year's previously and left a small legacy. Claiming his inheritance he returned to Liverpool and booked passage for himself and Mason on a ship bound for Madras.

It was during the 3 long months on board that they laid their plans to build a distillery in Ceylon.

Thomas Mason

1868 in Ceylon was the great era of tea planting with the rapid growth of upland tea estates making fortunes for their owners.

Mason believed that the sweltering lowlands would be ideal for Sugar Cane production and resolved to start growing the essential ingredient for what was hoped to be Ceylon Rum. Unfortunately, the first attempt on land leased from a local planter proved disastrous as the cane was afflicted by blight. (A similar blight had affected the early coffee plantations and that resulted in the establishment of the tea industry).

As the payment for their next lease was due and there was insufficient funds available to pay, the two men met with the planter, Frank Horsley, to discuss the figure. During the meeting on his bungalow verandah, Horsley served a locally produced Arrack and both Mason and Aybrook commented on the flavour and taste being rough.

Horsley told them that if they could improve the strength, flavor and taste he would allow them to pay the money due when their first sale was completed.

This was sufficient incentive for them and building of the still commenced almost immediately with labour borrowed from Horsley's tea estate.

Within 6 months, and after much experimentation by Aybrook, their first product was ready to be sampled. Collecting together a group of British and Burgher friends, Horsley held the tasting at the Planters Club in Colombo, the capital. It was a resounding success and the foundations of improved Arrack production had been laid.

Mason and Aybrook decided to form a partnership that was to last for the next 30 years with Mason insisting that Aybrooks name be placed first as he had the distilling expertise.

By 1870, they were producing over 200 bottles a week of the Arrack they called Old Reserve and selling to local planters and their friends, but such was the reputation of the quality of their product that word spread amongst the local population and sales (via the planters staff!) soon began to increase.

In 1871, following the building of a new still, production had increased to 500 bottles a week and Old Reserve had become firmly established as the finest Arrack in Ceylon.

Aybrook, now aged 38, was the Master Blender whilst Mason provided the financial and business acumen to grow the company. At this time at one of the Friday soirees at the Ceylon Club, Aybrook was introduced to the daughter of a local Burgher family, Eilisha. Within 12 months they were married. Sadly, they had no children.

Thomas Mason remained unmarried until 1880 when, aged 46, he married a widow of British descent who was travelling back from Hong Kong to the UK and had stopped off in Ceylon at the Galle Face Hotel. Theirs was a happy marriage that produced a daughter, Gertrude.

Aybrook and Mason continued to flourish as a company but it never branched out into other spirits, preferring to concentrate on maintaining the highest quality of its leading product, Old Reserve although a second brand was introduced, Old Arrack, a slightly less potent spirit.

Mason used his skills as a trader to take both Old Reserve and Old Arrack around Ceylon to introduce it to the towns and villages that had traditionally relied on locally produced Toddy and Arrack. Wherever he went (despite opposition from local distillers) the products were widely accepted.

By the early 1890's Mason was using his trading skills to introduce Old Reserve to wider audiences in British India, Burma and Hong Kong. T. and Arrack were exported in exchange for rubber, silk and essential goods.

By 1899, Both Aybrook and Mason were close to retirement and recognizing that succession was critical to the success of the company they had built up over 30 years, handed the reins over to local managers.

Old Kandy

Alfred Aybrook died at his home in Kandy in 1911 aged 80 where he had moved in an effort to improve his failing health.

Thomas Mason lived on until 1916. His daughter, Gertrude, helped run the company until 1934.

Both brands, Old Reserve and Old Arrack continued to flourish until 1980 when the brand names were bought by Gilbeys of London. In 1993 Gilbeys (Lanka Ltd) changed its name to International Distillers (Lanka) Ltd (IDL). In 1997, the controlling interest in IDL was taken over by Premium Brands Limited, a Sri Lankan company and, in 2004, the present identity of ID Lanka Ltd was created.

Today, both Old Reserve and Old Arrack are recognized worldwide as the premier Arracks currently in production and their subtle flavours are being appreciated by connoisseurs of fine spirits.