In the late 1970s, former Air Jamaica pilot Robert Hamaty was waiting to take off from Bermuda when he noticed a number of passengers boarding his plane carrying bottles of Gosling’s Rum.
“There’s no sugar cane there, no factory, no nothing. So I got back to Jamaica and asked, ‘How the hell do these people have rum?’ And they said, ‘Oh, that’s Jamaican rum, and they bottle and blend it in Bermuda.’”
After Mr. Hamaty joined Cayman Airways in 1978, he noticed passengers here would board planes carrying Appleton or other brands of rum made abroad.
That is when the idea of Tortuga Rum was born.
“I said, ‘Why can’t this island have its own rum?’” Mr. Hamaty said.
More than 35 years later, Tortuga stands out as a local success story, with a recognized brand and products distributed throughout the world. According to Mr. Hamaty, his company has 20 storefronts and some 110 employees here, along with bakeries and 100 employees in Jamaica, 70 in the Bahamas and 40 in Barbados.
“A gentleman said he went to Lebanon the other day and was shocked to see the cake in Lebanon,” he said.
But Tortuga’s growth has not been an easy process, Mr. Hamaty said.
“We didn’t climb to the top,” he said. “We clawed.”
Tortuga’s struggles started before the company even existed. Mr. Hamaty said when he tried to trademark “Tortuga” in 1982, he was told by British officials that he’d need permission from the government of Haiti since there is an island there named La Tortue – tortuga and tortue both mean “turtle” in Spanish and French, respectively.
Luckily, Mr. Hamaty said he met in Jamaica with a Haitian consulate who gave him permission.
“They said they’re French, so they wouldn’t name a rum Tortuga,” he said. “So we got permission.”
In 1984, Tortuga opened a storefront on the George Town waterfront, selling its products to cruise ship passengers. While that business got off the ground, Mr. Hamaty’s wife, Carlene, would often make rum cake for visiting guests and family.
“We had guests at our house who said, ‘Forget the rum, you need to focus on this cake,’” Mr. Hamaty said.
The Hamatys followed that advice, with Robert continuing to focus on the rum side of the business and Carlene heading up the cake baking. Along with baking thousands of rum cakes for customers – Mrs. Hamaty said she once baked 3,700 cakes for the CEO of Citibank to take to his employees in Texas – Mrs. Hamaty traveled around the Caribbean, training cooks in Barbados, Jamaica and the Bahamas to bake her family’s recipe.
Mr. Hamaty explained that his wife made trips abroad to train cooks because tariffs made it too expensive for the cakes to be made in Cayman and shipped to other Caribbean jurisdictions.
Despite having to teach others to bake, Mrs. Hamaty said she has been able to safeguard her family’s secret recipe throughout the decades. However, competitors have indeed tried to steal the formula, she said.
One time, a local competitor – Mrs. Hamaty declined to name this person – tried to get into the bakery when he thought she was off island.
“A girl called me and said there’s a gentleman who wants to get into our bakery. I came over and he said, ‘Hi, Mrs. Hamaty, I was just taking some cakes back to England,’” she said. “I said, ‘I appreciate your business, but this is the second time you tried to get into our bakery.’ I said, ‘Tell your boss, the next time you try to get into our bakery, I’m going to send you back to him in a Tortuga rum cake box.’”
While trying to spread the Tortuga brand throughout the Caribbean and beyond, the Hamatys also focused on making the brand a mainstay back in Cayman.
A major breakthrough to that end came in 1994, when they opened the first Tortuga store in Owen Roberts International Airport. That store was replaced last month by a new Tortuga outlet at the redeveloped airport terminal.
Tortuga also opened its first local distillery last January, and plans to open another, larger one in West Bay.
After all that work, Mr. Hamaty took a moment to enjoy his success at a 35th anniversary celebration on Wednesday evening. One of the reasons the Tortuga founder is taking time to reflect on his career is because he also celebrated another anniversary last week: the 23rd year of his heart transplant.
“I’ve lived with someone else’s heart for 23 years. We’re very lucky and we’ve done a lot,” he said. “It’s time to take a break and let the new generation take over.”