Damian McKinney is a man rich in spirit and experiences, with a thirst for adventure that has led him to the helm of one of Barbados’ most popular rum brands.

Cockspur caught the Kenyan’s attention when he came to the island in 1988, at atime when the annual thoroughbred horse racing event bore the name of the rum brand.

“It was the Cockspur Gold Cup then and I just couldn’t understand why Cockspur was not this great brand that it could be. Barbados has great rum brands and almost the Cinderella in all this was Cockspur. And even though, to be fair, there had been people working at it, it was still the Cinderella,” he recalls.

Now, at the helm of Woodland Radicle Limited and its affiliated companies (the WR Group) which took over Cockspur in mid-2017, McKinney has the power, resources, vision and team to be the godfather that gives Cockspur its fairy-tale ending.

“My dream is that you walk into the Ritz in London and you tell the barman ‘you know, I’d love a rum’, and he says to you ‘well, first of all, the best rums in the world come from Barbados’ and then the second thing is ‘ok, now let me show you what the different rums are, and you can choose from this amazing portfolio’. All I want is to make sure that Cockspur is absolutely proudly standing shoulder to shoulder with the others as one of the best rums in the world. That would be a brilliant result!” McKinney says.

And while purists may scoff, the businessman isn’t banking only on Cockspur fine rum to reach his lofty goal. Spiced and flavoured rums are becoming increasingly popular, particularly among Generation Y, and the brand sees the value in that market.

“Millennials are really important; people’s taste is sweeter, and fruity tastes are what they like. So we will build on that. We want to make sure that if you’re of a responsible drinking age where you have a degree of choice, we provide you with the best experience,” he says, although he’s adamant that Cockspur isn’t targeting under-aged drinkers because “that would go against everything I personally believe”.

In this regard, McKinney talks about Cockspur’s popular fruit-flavoured white rums. Cockspur Green Apple Splash and Cockspur Splash Pineapple Coconut are among the products doing well in the market, including the millennials, many of whom are adventurous and crave new products.

“There are different views about what constitutes great rum. We are trying to make sure, first of all, that the quality of rum is fantastic. Inevitably, with any brand, you’re going to try to stretch it and, frankly, consumers are looking for flavours. Who are we to turn around to a consumer and say ‘you’re wrong and ignorant and you don’t know what you want’? We can give you quality, but within that quality we can also produce flavoured rums.

“Why wouldn’t we look to spread the joy of rum, rather than saying ‘no, you can only drink it this way?’”

He hints there’s more in store for the Cockspur Splash products in particular, as he talks about building on the success of those blends. But he’s keeping that one close to his chest, saying only that it will be “taken to another level within the next few months”.

“Cinderella put new clothes. Her godmother came along and waved a wand and she had a beautiful set of clothes, beautiful shoes, and she had a carriage with horses which took her to the palace. She was given all the support to make her shine. Our job is just literally to do the same [with Cockspur].”

Although McKinney has lived an exciting life that includes an 18-year career as a commando in the Royal Marines and has taken him all across the world, Barbados—the birthplace of rum—is where he feels most at home.

“There is a beat here. When I get off that plane, I can almost hear the steel drums playing. I can smell the rum in the air,” the easy-going businessman says.

In this regard, McKinney talks about Cockspur’s popular fruit-flavoured white rums. Cockspur Green Apple Splash and Cockspur Splash Pineapple Coconut are among the products doing well in the market, including the millennials, many of whom are adventurous and crave new products.

“There are different views about what constitutes great rum. We are trying to make sure, first of all, that the quality of rum is fantastic. Inevitably, with any brand, you’re going to try to stretch it and, frankly, consumers are looking for flavours. Who are we to turn around to a consumer and say ‘you’re wrong and ignorant and you don’t know what you want’? We can give you quality, but within that quality we can also produce flavoured rums.

“Why wouldn’t we look to spread the joy of rum, rather than saying ‘no, you can only drink it this way?’”

He hints there’s more in store for the Cockspur Splash products in particular, as he talks about building on the success of those blends. But he’s keeping that one close to his chest, saying only that it will be “taken to another level within the next few months”.

“Cinderella put new clothes. Her godmother came along and waved a wand and she had a beautiful set of clothes, beautiful shoes, and she had a carriage with horses which took her to the palace. She was given all the support to make her shine. Our job is just literally to do the same [with Cockspur].”

Although McKinney has lived an exciting life that includes an 18-year career as a commando in the Royal Marines and has taken him all across the world, Barbados—the birthplace of rum—is where he feels most at home.

“There is a beat here. When I get off that plane, I can almost hear the steel drums playing. I can smell the rum in the air,” the easy-going businessman says.

It’s a long way from the land of his birth, just as his current role as chairman of Cockspur is a far cry from his military stint. But both his life in the East African nation and his training in the United Kingdom as a commando, as well as the journey in between, have prepared him for the massive task he now has.

Before talking business, McKinney relaxes in his office at Woodland Great House, nestled among thick, towering trees in the rural parish of St George. The sprawling property, which the father of five and his wife, Krissi, chose in 2008 when they decided they would raise their family here also provides the grounds for the mixed farming on which the McKinneys depend for virtually all their food.

It may surprise some that McKinney literally gets his hands dirty in the field, but it’s nothing new for a man who was raised on a large farm and encouraged to be adventurous.

As he recounts stories of his youth—once or twice using the language of his native tongue, Swahili—and talks about the journey that led him to start McKinney Rogers 18 years ago and now chair Cockspur Rum, it’s clear the lessons about exploring, taking risks, and “embracing adventure but respecting danger” have stayed with him.

After being told from as far back as he could remember that life was an adventure to be embraced, the thrill seeker joined the Royal Marines. He moved up the ranks and appeared destined to become a general.

But after being a commando for 18 years, 14 of those in active duty, including during the Gulf War, he decided it was time to begin another chapter.

“I really, really loved it but I decided I didn’t want to be a general in a headquarters. I worked out that I had 20 more years in my career and four years of fun—fun for me was on the frontline leading and working with the people I was with—and so I resigned,” McKinney recalls.

He had always harboured the idea of going into business, but after saying goodbye to his life as a commando, McKinney chose not to go the oft-travelled road of many ex-military men.

“I didn’t want to go the security route. I wanted to just embrace business,” he says.

McKinney began working with a consultancy business, but that eventually became too boring and risk averse for this adventurer and after a nudging from a bank manager whom he met, he brought together a team of business execution professions to form McKinney Rogers, now a division of global company GP Strategies.

He remains one of the company’s principals, but now devotes much of his time to Cockspur as he continues on a mission to place it among the spirits of choice at any bar, at any event, anywhere in the world.

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