N.L. liquor corp. to change 'Old Sam' logo over concerns about racist branding

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp. says it will change the logo — but keep the name — of a locally bottled rum brand that appears to depict a laughing Black man.

The Crown corporation said Monday its research into the 200-year history of Old Sam Rum did not unearth any direct evidence that the image on its labels was rooted in racist stereotypes.

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But in a statement announcing the character's removal, the agency reported it is impossible to reach a definitive conclusion about the logo's origins.

"Although we may believe the imagery is not related to negative racial stereotypes, we cannot conclusively state that those linkages may not exist or be perceived in that light," the statement read.

"Given NLC's values and our commitment to diversity, inclusion and acceptance, therefore, we believe that the time is right to evolve the Old Sam brand and adjust the visual identity of the product accordingly."

The corporation announced a review of the product this month after a staff member raised concerns.

The move followed several other companies making changes to their labels — including PepsiCo's Aunt Jemima pancake products and Mars Inc.'s Uncle Ben's rice — as global Black Lives Matter protests have prompted fresh scrutiny of racism in product branding.

While the NLC's review of Old Sam got underway, the New Brunswick Liquor Corp. stated that as of June 19, it would pull the brand's products from its shelves and conduct a full review of its own catalogue.

The NLC reported Monday that its "extensive research" suggested the person illustrated in black-and-white on Old Sam labels may be the founder of Edward Young & Co. Ltd, the company that originally owned the product.

The corporation said its research, which has not been made public, included looking at trademark and other filings, historical labels and the history of the rum industry in Guyana — areas the NLC said "yielded limited additional information."

Text that was removed from the product website shortly after the NLC's statement on Monday vaguely described "Old Sam" as a man who sold rum products in Guyana in the 1700s. It said the rum "has a personality as unique as its namesake.''

"Sam was a man who demanded much of himself, his workers and his rums, but brimmed with generosity for guests and friends,'' the text read.

"Merchants, naval officers and New World adventurers alike found their way to his post on the Demerara River to share a story, a laugh and a taste of the latest blend.''

The NLC told The Canadian Press in an email that research suggested the person on the label "is likely" Edward Young of Edward Young & Co. Ltd., because he had used his image on other products in the past.

The corporation said it removed the description of Old Sam from the product website in light of this discovery.

"It is possible that regardless of the founder's name, over subsequent decades, the person on the bottle became identified with the name Sam, which is what the story on the website depicts," the statement read.

There are two Old Sam Rum products in the collection of spirits produced by the NLC's manufacturing division.

According to the company's website, the rum is imported from Guyana and blended and bottled in St. John's. The rums have been sold in other Canadian provinces including Alberta, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The NLC says the rebranding will happen "in the coming months" but the "historic and beloved 'Old Sam' name" and recipe will both remain.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2020.

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