RYLAND PETERS & SMALL
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Text © Tristan Stephenson 2017
Design and photographs © Ryland Peters & Small 2017 (see page 256 for full credits)
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THE RUM TOUR
It was with equal parts of excitement and expectation that I embarked upon writing this book, the fifth in the series, and by far the most ambitious. Why? Because this is rum, of course, the most diverse, contentious and fascinating of all the world’s drinks... not to mention the most geographically dispersed!
As such, my journey has taken me across over 20 countries and dozens of islands. I’ve travelled to distilleries on horseback across active volcanoes, through rivers in a 4x4 and around tiny islets by boat. The lingering taste of rum has coated my mouth as I watched the sun set over the Amazon, and as the sun rose on the Virgin Islands. Rum made me dance the salsa in Cuba, drink all night with locals in Barbados and swim in the sea at dawn in Martinique. I’ve bought rum for $10 a gallon and $100 a shot. I’ve met people who depend on rum for the livelihood of their families, and have encountered islands that depend on rum for the livelihood of their communities. Is there another drink that offers such a taste of the human world?
Of course, this was never rum’s intention. Rum is a spirit that has soaked into the history books and is bound to the places that make it. When we talk about terroir in wine and spirits, we refer to the impact of climate and geography on the taste of a drink. Rum’s terroir is its past, and the flavour of many of the rums we drink today are an echo of island history more than they are the intentional formation of taste and aroma compounds. Rum does not need to be aged in cask to taste old — it is a multi-sensory mouthful of an era of discovery, conquest, colonization, exploitation and trade.
But rum is more than just a quaint artefact of history’s tectonic shifts. On many occasions, rum was there, making the history. Rum was the fire in the bellies of armies and navies, and the shackles that bound generations of slaves. It gave cause to revolutions: on plantations and across nations. It helped to establish global trade networks, kept the weak in bondage and turned rich men into gods.
In the 21st century, we are still living in the aftermath of the colonial era, and as rum struggles to find its place in the world, we need to remember these things more than ever. Rum is a rich tapestry of styles, and each island or national style is an intricate cultural pattern, described by tradition, technology and trade.
This means that rum style varies a lot. For better or for worse, “rum” is a loose category, vaguely strung around sugarcane and the 50-or-so countries that currently make it — bad news if you're looking for a neat summary; good news if you like being surprised and enjoy exploring new flavours.
I believe there's something for everyone in this spirit. Drunk neat, rum is a marvel. In mixed drinks, it is magical. Virtually any cocktail will willingly have its base spirit substituted for (the right) rum, but the stable of classics in this category speak for themselves: Daiquiri, Mojito, Pina Colada and Mai Tai to name but a few.
So let's go to the Caribbean and to some of the most beautiful places on earth. It won't always be pretty though as rum is far from a picture postcard. This is raw spirit — a spirit with real character. A free spirit, you might say.
While it’s likely — but by no means certain — that rum and sugarcane spirits originated in the Americas, the same cannot be said for the cane itself. Sugarcane, a fast-growing species of grass, is the base material from which all rums are made, whether it’s in the form of the juice of the plant itself, the concentrated syrup made from the juice, or the molasses — the dark brown gloop that is leftover when you crystallize sugar out of the juice.
Over half of all the countries in the world grow sugarcane today, but 10,000 years ago you would have needed to travel to the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific to find any. We know that sugarcane is indigenous to the island, thanks to a unique ecosystem that exists there, of which sugarcane is a key component. Sugarcane is the sole source of food for the New Guinea cane weevil, a native species of beetle that bores into the cane stem and munches through the sweet fibrous interior. Also a resident of New Guinea is a type of tachinid fly that parasitizes the cane weevil with its larvae. The fly is dependent on the beetle for survival and the beetle is reliant on the sugarcane. For such a fruitful piece of symbiosis to have developed between the two insects, it is likely that sugarcane must have been growing on New Guinea since the last ice age.
For early indigenous communities of New Guinea, known as the Papuans, the sugarcane offered an abundance of calories in the simplest possible form of energy: sugar. Early human settlers gnawed on the rough stem of cane, before developing tools to extract the juice, either with a couple of rocks, or with a pestle and mortar. The juice of the cane offered a nice, instant hit of energy, but the high sugar content that made it so desirable was also one of its major drawbacks. When combined with the tropical environment, the juice was prone to fermenting within a matter of days. The answer was to boil the juice down into a kind of honey, or to heat it until dark brown sugar crystals formed on the sides of the pan.
It has been theorised that sugarcane was first domesticated as a crop in New Guinea around 6000BC.
Of the hundreds of heirloom varieties of cane that grow wildly in New Guinea, only the sweetest, Saccharum officinarum, also known as Creole cane, was selected for cultivation. It was transported west to Indonesia, the Philippines and mainland Asia, and east to Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii and Easter Island.
Sugarcane was widely cultivated in India too, which was something
Persian Emperor Darius I discovered when he invaded in 510BC. When Alexander
the Great arrived in India in 325BC, one of his generals was in awe of the
plant that could “bring forth honey without the help of bees, from which an
intoxicating drink can be made.” Later, around the second century AD, the first
recorded sugar mill was built in India and scholars documented how to manage a
Sugarcane infiltrated Indian society on many levels; it was used medicinally for humans and as food for elephants, and the juice was fermented into wine known as gaudi or sidhu. It also became a symbol used in Hindu and Buddhist faiths. It's also India that we must thank for the word “sugar”, which is thought to be derived from the Prakrit word sakkara, meaning sand or gravel.
Sugarcane is still consumed by many modern-day Papuans, and for a few it forms a key component of their diet.
Sugar was extremely rare in northern Europe until the 11th century, when Christian crusaders brought the sweet tasting spice back with them from the Holy Lands.
Having conquered India and infiltrated China and Japan, in around 600AD, cane was transported west, to Persia. The timing was exquisite, as the rise of the Islamic faith would soon serve as a vehicle for sugar's journey further westward to
The Arabs were a well-organised and technologically impressive bunch. The vast scale of their rapidly growing empire meant that trade between regions was fluid. Their agricultural prowess and advanced water management systems allowed plantations to flourish like never before. By the turn of the eighth century AD, the
Africa. Sugarcane was grown on the banks of the River Nile, and was cultivated by the Moors on Sicily, Malta and southern Spain. The island of Cyprus became a vivid green Arab sugar garden. One Italian traveller wrote of Cyprus in the 15th
century that “the abundance of the sugarcane and its magnificence are beyond words.”
Arabic physicians used sugar in a variety of medicinal preparations, such as shurba (sherbet), which back then was sweet hot water taken as medicine; rubb, a preserve of fruits in sugar; and gulab, a rose-scented sweet tea.
Those who were committed to the Islamic faith abstained from drinking, so fermented cane juice was off the table. There is no evidence that the Arabs or the Moors ever distilled fermented cane products either, but given that it was the Moors, who introduced distillation to Europe by way of Italy, and considering the freedom of access to sugar products that these people enjoyed, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to speculate that the experiments of an Islamic alchemist might have resulted in the world's first proto-rum.
The earliest types of commercial Indian sugar mills were effectively giant garlic presses. The extracted juice flowed out of the crucible into a receiving vessel.
Northern Europe would have to wait until the Crusades before they got their first real taste of sugar. Crusaders brought sugar back to England from the Holy Lands, and by 1243 the Royal Household of Edward I was getting through nearly 3,000 kg (6,600 lbs) of sugar in a single year. At that time in Europe, sugar was regarded as a spice, valued as highly as vanilla or saffron today. A 1-kg (2.2-lbs) bag of sugar would have set you back the equivalent of £100 ($125) in today's money. Reserved only for those with sufficiently deep pockets, sugar was used by the wealthy as an extravagant signifier of status, added even to savoury dishes just because, well... why not? The hunger for sweetness was not limited to the upper classes, though. The compulsion for sugar was universal, and the human brain was wired to want it.
As European powers clambered to reclaim lands from the Moors, they discovered areas dedicated to growing sugarcane. Learning the secrets of cane cultivation, they planted more wherever it would grow. But besides the most southerly islands, Europe was not particularly well suited to growing sugarcane. Winters were too cold and the rainfall was insufficient. Rhodes, Crete, Cyprus, and Malta operated plantations under Christian rule, and the cane was shipped to Venice for refinement into sugar.
The early 15th century saw Portugal conducting increasingly adventurous voyages along the west coast of Africa. In 1421 the island of Madeira was sighted by sailors passing by the west coast of Morocco. This island, which would prove to be a vital step (both physically and commercially) toward the colonial plantation system, was very well suited to sugarcane cultivation. The first shipments of sugar arrived in Bristol, England in 1456, and 50 years later, Madeira was producing 1,800 tons (2,015 US tons) of sugar a year: equivalent to around half of all the
sugar consumed in Europe at that time.
Another crucial development in the story of sugar and of rum occurred at around the same time. In 1444 the first boatload of 235 slaves was shipped out of Lagos by the Portuguese. A cheap workforce would prove to be an essential component of plantation economics, and these were the first of millions of African slaves whose lives would be lost to sugar.
NEW WORLD ORDER
Christopher Columbus's historic first voyage of 1492, after securing the support of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, was intended to plot new trade routes with the East Indies. The Spanish had been slower at entering the spice and silk trade than the Dutch or English, owing to the protracted Reconquista of the Iberian peninsular from its Muslim occupants.
Columbus proposed a radical shortcut to the east (by heading to the west) and with it presented the opportunity to gain a competitive edge over rival European powers in the hunt for gold, silk, pepper, cloves and ginger.
“I know you've been getting along fine
without us Europeans, but it's time for a change around here. Now -
tell me where the gold is”.
On the first voyage, the trade winds propelled the navigator across the Atlantic in five weeks, first sighting land at San Salvador in the Bahamas (which Columbus was convinced was Japan), then Cuba (which he thought was China) and then Hispaniola. The island of Hispaniola — now shared between Haiti and the Dominican Republic — was of particular interest to Columbus because he believed a wealth of gold lay hidden there. He encountered the friendly indigenous Tamo people and wrote about them in his letters to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Columbus received small gifts of gold and pearls from the Tamo, and even left a party of 39 men behind to establish a small colony.
Upon his return to Spain, Columbus was welcomed as a hero. He presented the Spanish monarchs with tobacco, pineapples, a turkey, and a hammock, all of which were previously unknown to European culture. On his second voyage in 1493 Columbus returned to Hispaniola, this time with a fleet of 17 ships, 1,200 men and 1,500 sugarcane shoots.
Many history books include accounts of Columbus and his son Ferdinand, who oversaw the planting of sugarcane on Hispaniola on the second voyage. Columbus's father-in-law was a sugar planter on Madeira and Columbus was no doubt aware of the crop's value in Europe. He was a man driven by greed as much as he was adventure, and in the back of his mind was a promise from the Spanish crown of a 10% share of all profits generated by newly established colonies. But according to Fernando Campoamor in his landmark 1985 book El Hijo Alegre de la Cana de Azucar, the explorer was unable to conduct the cultivation experiments he intended because the delicate plants did not survive the sea crossing. What is certain is that seven years later, in 1500, Pedro di Atienza successfully transported and planted sugarcane seedlings on Hispaniola. It was probably only then that the early settlers discovered that sugarcane flourished in the tropical Caribbean climate.
on the other hand, remained elusive. So too did the promised spices and silk.
These lands were not the East Indies after all, although the likes of
Christopher Columbus would go to their death beds still believing it so. The
absence of any immediate value is one of the reasons that the Spanish defended
the Caribbean so poorly over the 100 years that followed, instead directing
their attentions to the precious metals that Central America offered. This
allowed the Dutch, English and French to swoop in and pick up their share of
the island booty. The Europeans realised the potential of sugarcane.
Consequently, the plantation system and the sugar-refining industry, rather
than the harvesting of spices and silk production, were destined to shape the
economy and society of the West Indies and Brazil.
The method for making sugar in the Caribbean remained almost unchanged for over three centuries.
As the sea spray settled on the shores of the Caribbean region, it must have seemed a place of enormous agricultural potential to the European settlers: fertile lands, clear waters, year-round sunshine, and a trusting native populace just waiting to be put to task — there was a problem with that, however.
Within the space of a single generation the indigenous Carib, Warao and Arawak people who occupied most of the Caribbean islands were almost entirely eradicated. As colonies expanded, tens of thousands melted away panning for gold in rivers, in fruitless mining operations, or on plantations, and those who resisted slavery were slaughtered by European forces (mostly Spanish) who possessed superior weaponry and a greater knowledge of how to use it. Many, it seems were executed under orders from Christopher Columbus himself. The biggest killer of all, however, was disease. Measles, mumps and smallpox plagued the indigenous populace, who lacked the antibodies and medicine to combat European viruses effectively. The Dominican Friar Bartolome de las Casas wrote that when he arrived in Hispaniola in 1508, “there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery and the mines.” He added: “Who in future generations will believe this?”
In the early 1500s, the Portuguese established the first sugar plantations in South America. They were in the states of Bahia and Pernambuco, on Brazil's moist eastern coastline. The grass flourished, and by 1550 there were five sugar refineries in Brazil, and the Portuguese were shipping sugarcane presses and vats over from Europe to aid the pursuit. But compared to other tropical commodities, like cotton or tobacco, sugarcane was a much tougher beast to manage. A sugar planter needed a superior understanding of agricultural practices, factory management skills, the ability to deal with agricultural diseases, a huge supply of water and enough money to bankroll the whole operation as lands were cleared and crops planted. But more than anything, a planter needed a cheap and plentiful labour force. Brazilian natives were hunted down for this purpose in expeditions called bandeiras. Once captured, these men and women were put to task, but as was the case in Hispaniola, they quickly succumbed to diseases. A bigger, more dependable workforce was needed, and fortunately for Portugal, they had access to one.
The West African slave trade had been held in state of near monopoly by the Portuguese since the 1440s, so the next logical step was to connect the dots between their trading outpost in Elmina (on Africa's Gold Coast) and their developing colonies in the Americas.
Prior to earning his title as “Protector of the Indians”, Bartolome de las Casas participated in slave raids and military expeditions against the native Taino population of Hispaniola.
That “Middle Passage”, as it is known, was sailed for the first time by Portuguese mariners in 1510. These sailors brought black slaves with them and recorded their presence on the ship's manifest. Thousands more slaves followed over the next 378 years.
The “first in, last out” approach was a consistent theme in the history of slavery. Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico were all early adopters of African slaves and among the most reluctant to give it up (some would argue that the Dominican Republic still hasn't - see pages 91—92) and they too required the manpower to manage their extensive sugarcane plantations. Spain's obsession with gold had spread their empire thinly across the Central American belt. With the Spanish weakened by the endeavour, the British, Dutch and French made it their business to harass both their ships and settlements persistently through the unofficial employment of bucaneros and privateers (see pages 23—24). Naturally the mercantilist Spanish were none too keen for their colonies to trade with rival nations, and these embargoes stunted the growth of the Spanish sugarcane industry to the point where the crop didn't become dominant on any of their occupied islands until the 19th century.
Back to the 17th century, and sugar production in Brazil was showing no signs of abating. This was partly thanks to the Dutch West India Company, which had seized the colonial territory of Pernambuco from the Portuguese in 1630 and began rampantly planting more cane. Ten years later, the Dutch began shipping slaves from equatorial Africa, which became a critical juncture in the establishment of further Dutch plantations, as well as securing sugar’s position in the infamous triangular trade (see pages 20—21). In 1612, the total production of sugar in Brazil had reached 14,000 tons (15,400 US tons). But by the 1640s, Pernambuco alone had 350 refineries, exporting more than 24,000 tons (26,500 US tons) of sugar annually to Amsterdam.
Despite being the largest Caribbean island, the scale of sugar production on Cuba didn't truly ramp up until the late 19th century.
Sugar was becoming difficult to ignore as a New World commodity as demand for sugar in Europe continued to rise. It was around this time that the British and French Caribbean took a greater interest in sugarcane cultivation. The British established a settlement on Barbados in 1627 and the French followed suit on Martinique in 1635. The first plantations on these islands were used to grow cotton and tobacco, or fustic wood and indigo (both used in the manufacturing of dyes). Early settlers persevered with these crops for the better part of two centuries, but in the 1640s, there was a rapid shift towards sugarcane. This came about after the Portuguese recaptured Pernambuco from the Dutch West India Company, who immediately sought to establish trading opportunities in the Caribbean.
And so it was that Dutch traders sailed north. Spilling into the Caribbean, they presented the English and French a complete commercial and logistical solution for sugarcane, along with a century’s worth of combined practical know-how of how to run a plantation. The seed was planted, and once established the sugar production in the Caribbean increased at a furious rate. Barbados’s sugarcane production grew from 7,000 (7,700 US tons) to 12,000 tons (13,200 US tons) in the second half of the 17th century, while on Guadeloupe, exports grew from 2,000 tons (2,200 US tons) in 1674 to 10,000 tons (11,000 US tons) in the space of 25 years.
In Brazil, on the other hand, large-scale sugar production was relentless from the late 16th century onwards.
Over the next 100 years, sugar would become the most valuable trading commodity in the world; it became very much the oil of its day. But more than just a commodity, sugar production provided one of the original means and motivations for European expansion, colonization and control in the New World, precipitating a course of events that would forever shape the destiny of the Western Hemisphere.
By the middle of the 17th century, sugar was being grown on most of the islands of the Caribbean, and it was during this period that the first British and French rums were distilled. Exactly where and when this happened is a matter that we shall debate shortly, but one thing that we can be sure of is that rum was not the first alcoholic beverage enjoyed by New World booze hounds.
Richard Ligon, an English colonist who lived in Barbados between 1647 and 1650, gives us one of the best insights about life on the island during its early English colonization. In his book A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, he wrote, “The first [drink], and that which is most used in the Island, is Mobbie, a drink made of potatoes.” Mobbie was a kind of potato beer, produced using a variety of fermented red (sweet) potatoes known to the native Caribs as ma'bi. It was the job of the women to boil the potatoes and mash them up, then add them to large earthenware vessels along with water, molasses and spices, such as ginger. The mixture would then naturally ferment over a period of a few days and your efforts would be rewarded with a kind of spiced potato beer.
Similar drinks to this were made from the crop cassava. Known as otiicou in the Carib language, in Barbados cassava wine was called parranow or perino. According to Ligon, its taste was comparable to “the finest English beer”. Many Carib women wound up toothless after a lifetime’s ouicou-making, which involved chewing on a mouthful of grated cassava, then spitting it into a calabash (a container formed from the shell of a gourd-like fruit) filled with water and more cassava. The enzymes in the women’s saliva converted the starches into fermentable sugars and airborne yeast took care of alcohol production. The acid in the raw cassava was responsible for the tooth decay.
A 17th-century woodcut print depicts the “personal involvement” of
manufacturing cassava wine on the
Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
Other wines and beers were enjoyed too, produced from the fermentation of plantain, bananas, plums, oranges, limes, wild grapes and tamarind. Pineapple wine — which even on paper sounds delicious — got a thumbs up from Ligon, with the ever-enthusiastic colonist describing it as “the Nectar which the Gods drunk”. The French missionary Pere Labat also remarked on the “extremely agreeable” taste of pineapple wine.
Delicious as some of these drinks may have been, there is no evidence to suggest that any of them were ever distilled into strong spirits, and there’s a very good reason for that. At the turn of the 17th century, distillation in Europe was seldom practised by anyone other than physicians who were generally trying to uncover the next big medicinal cure-all or the secret to eternal life. But strong alcohol was about to enter a transitional phase that would see it graduate from the medicine cabinet to the bar room.
Distillation was introduced to Europe by the Moors in the 11th century — yes, the same people that brought sugarcane to the Europeans' attention — after which it was documented by scholars at the earliest recorded medical school in Salerno, southern Italy, before migrating north to Antwerp, Amsterdam, and other places that didn't necessarily start with an ‘A'. The precursor to whisky, aqua vitae (“water of life”), had found its way to Ireland and Scotland by the middle of the 15th century, where it was renamed in the Gaelic language uisge beatha. Meanwhile, the Dutch, who were among the earliest practitioners of distillation in Europe, were experimenting with brandewijn (“burnt wine”): a grape-based spirit that would later be known as “brandy”.
to a distillation operation was the still itself, which would heat the
fermented beer or wine, evaporating the alcohol (which has a lower boiling
point than water) and condense it into a crystal clear concentrate. In Europe,
the first commercial distilleries were purpose-built to manufacture genever,
whisky and brandy. In the Caribbean, they came about as supplementary
operations to a sugar refinery. The oldest pot stills were generally under 450
litres (100 US gallons) in size and made from hammered copper. Brazil was
ground zero for distillation in the Americas, probably receiving stills by way
of Madeira, and it was most likely sugarcane that was used as the base material
for their experiments. In 1533, when sugar mills were established at Sao Jorge
dos Erasmos, Madre de Deus, and Sao Joao, the planters also installed copper
alembic stills to produce aguardiente de cana (“fire water of cane”),
which is the earliest example of the spirit that would later be known as cacha^a.
The ruins of Brazil’s first cacha^a distillery at Sao Jorge dos Erasmos
have been excavated recently by archaeologists and designated as a historical
site. In fact, the uptake of distillation in Brazil was so frenzied that,
according to some historical accounts, Brazil had 192 distilleries in 1585, and
that number was set to double by 1630.
Unlike this large 19th-century distillery, the first Caribbean rum plants were merely addenda to sugar mills.
For close to 100 years, Brazil remained the only place in the Americas producing cane spirits. As inconceivable as this may seem, it's a solid depiction of the extreme isolation that the earliest New World colonies experienced, and the poor exchange of knowledge that came as a result. This was the dawn of globalization, but it was also a time where journeys took weeks not hours and the dissemination of knowledge took decades.
The British and French had a fairly good excuse of course — they weren't farming sugarcane during this period — but the Spanish? The Spanish Empire were operating sizeable sugarcane plantations in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, as far back as the 1550s. There's no record of distillation in any Spanish colonies until the 1640s, however, which more than anything is indicative of the Spanish Empire's isolationist approach to global domination.
Prior to the invention of the vacuum pan, sugar was made by ladling boiling juice between successively smaller pans.
The rise of Caribbean rum ultimately came as a result of that most dependable of all ocean trading people, the Dutch. Holland dominated international commerce in the 17th century — their East and West Indies Trading Corporations arguably became the world's first mega corporations. This was a nation that wasn't motivated by discovering gold, or by a desire to convert the godless natives to Christianity. The Dutch were capitalists, driven by the commercial opportunity and saleable commodities like coffee, spices and sugarcane. Sugar's exit route from Brazil came via the Dutch, who, when forced to relinquish Dutch Brazil in the 1640s (see page 15), required immediate action to keep their sugar empire running. It would be the Dutch who would later supply most of the copper stills in the Caribbean, too.
In 1644, a Dutchman by the name of Benjamin Da Costa brought sugar refining equipment to Martinique and it's possible that he brought alembic stills with him too. It's also possible that they were already there, as a manuscript from 1640 (when the colony was only five years old) states that the slaves were drinking a “strong eau de vie that they call brusle ventre [stomach burner].” Since it's unlikely that slaves would have access to imported brandy, one would have to assume that this brusle ventre was distilled from a locally grown source of fermentable sugar — and yes, it was probably sugarcane.
In Barbados, however, it seems that distillation might have preceded the fullscale arrival of sugarcane to the island. Sir Henry Colt, a British traveller, visited the four-year-old colony of Barbados in 1631, when there were scarcely more than a few hundred inhabitants on the island. Colt reported that the people were “devourers upp of hott [sic] waters and such good distillers thereof.” Whether these spirits were made from cane or some other vegetable or fruit remains a mystery, but five years later, the Dutch emigre Pietr Blower brought distillery equipment to Barbados from Brazil. This was a crucial step in the development of rum, as it is alleged that Blower was the man who introduced the concept of distilling spirits from waste from the sugar-refining process, rather than valuable cane juice.
For centuries, sugar refineries had been converting sugarcane juice into sweet crystals, but nobody had found a good use for the molasses — the thick, dark syrup that was left behind. Up to 40% of the weight of the molasses was pure sugar, but the technical practicalities and associated costs of extracting the remaining sugar meant that it wasn't worth the effort. Like a tightly locked chest containing a wealth of sweet treasure, as long as the chest remained locked, it was worthless. For many islands, molasses was deemed too bulky and not cost-effective to ship abroad.
This map of Barbados was drawn in 1683, by which time the British
had already controlled the island for
over 55 years.
In some cases it was simply discarded into the ocean — enough to “make a province rich” according to one Hispaniola official in 1535 — or used as a fertilizer for the next season's sugarcane crops. Sometimes it was used as animal feed, or reboiled to make a cheaper form of sweetener known as peneles, which was used to make gingerbread. In most instances it contributed to the diets of slaves, whether as food itself, or as a fermented drink. The tropical climate, coupled with high levels of sugar in the molasses, meant that fermentation was inevitable — especially given that molasses was commonly left lying around for weeks at a time. The consumption of fermented molasses was not limited only to slaves, either. Colonial life was tough on everyone, and alcohol an essential distraction to the hardships of the age of discovery. In a part of the world where beer, wine and spirits were all imported at great expense, one couldn't be too discriminating over the source of the intoxicant.
One of the earliest references of colonists consuming molasses wine comes from 1596 when English chaplain Dr Layfield reported that the Spanish colonies in Puerto Rico enjoyed a drink called guacapo, which was, “made of Molasses (that is, the coarsest of their Sugar) and some Spices”. This molasses wine was known as guarapo and guarapa to the Spanish, garapa to the Portuguese (in Brazil) and grappe to the French.
Once sugarcane spirit becoming a regular feature in the plantations of the New World, it was only right that they were given a proper name. It should have been a simple affair, but this was booze birthed out of effluent made by slaves — it was never going to be an easy process. Sadly, history is not so complete that all the colloquial terms and slang references to this spirit that would later be known as rum are available to us. The road to a liquor called “rum” was no easier than any of the rest of rum's turbulent passage through time. What we do know is that before rum there was “kill devil”.
Why the spirit was called kill devil is not clear. Probably because it was strong — perhaps strong enough to kill a devil? — but more likely through a corruption of language of one sort or another. The French referred to the stuff as guildive, which is probably a compound of the old French word guiller (meaning “fermentation”) or the Malay word giler (“crazy”) and diable (“devil”). When the English heard it spoken they distorted into the suitably dangerous sounding kill devil.
Kill Devil bears no resemblance to “rum”, of course. “Rum” is cited by most historians as an abbreviation of “rumbullion”: a word originating from the county of Devon, England, meaning “a great tumult or uproar” and may have been used by Devonian settlers in Barbados. Rumbullion was first mentioned in 1652 by Barbados resident and wealthy sugar planter Giles Silvester, and it's the only time we see the word linked with kill devil. He was clearly not a fan of rumbullion: “the chiefe fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil, and this made of suggar [sic] canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”
For me, a more likely scenario than the borrowing of a faintly appropriate Devonian word, is that rumbullion came about as a fusion of different English and French words. In 16th-century England, the word “rum” was used to mean “excellent, fine or good” and was informally coupled with “booze” to form the Elizabethan slang term “rum booze”, which was used colloquially to reference wine (though appearing very little in texts). John P. Hughes, a linguistics expert and the author of The Science of Language suggests that at the time, “rum booze” was popularly pluralized into the word “rumboes”, which, in turn was singularised into “rumbo” to refer to “strong punch”. Rum was simply a shortened form of “rumbo”. The word rumbullion may have emerged from the amalgamation of rum and the French word bouillon (meaning “hot drink”), referring to a hot, strong, punch. If this is beginning to sound confusing, we're not quite done yet.
Roemer glasses were popular drinking vessels among Dutch navigators and traders - could the name of this glass be where rum got its name from?
There are other competing theories about the origin of the word rumbullion, however. Some historians suggest that rumbullion derives from the large drinking glasses used by Dutch seamen known as a roemer. Others think that rum could also be derived from the word aroma or the latter part of the Latin word for sugar: saccharum. Some researchers have posited that the word rum heralds from the Sanskrit roma (“water”), an opinion shared by many 19th-century dictionaries. Other etymologists have mentioned the Romani word “rum”, meaning “strong” or “potent”. However the word “rum” came about, it was also the basis of “ramboozle” and “rumfustian”, both popular British drinks in the mid-17th century. Neither was made with rum, however, but rather eggs, ale, wine, sugar and various spices.
The first recorded use of the word “rum” to describe a sugarcane spirit comes from 1650, and it also comes from the island of Barbados. A deed for the sale of the Three Houses Plantation in the parish of St Philip, Barbados included in its inventory “four large mastick cisterns for liquor of rum.” Further confirmation that rum was here to stay (and indeed that it was on the move) comes from
English traveller George Warren’s 1667 book An impartial description of Surinam upon the continent of Guiana in America: “Rum is a spirit extracted from the juice... called Kill-Devil in New England!”
This blunt, monosyllabic word seemed a fitting sound to describe a drink of such humble origins. “Rum” was quickly adopted by planters in the Spanish- and French-speaking colonies of the Caribbean, translating to rhum and ron respectively.
Slave ships varied in size and capacity, but the larger models could
transport up to 200 slaves, albeit in
wretched conditions, in a single voyage.
THE TRIANGULAR TRADE
Triangular trade is the name given to a trading system conducted between three specific areas. The best-known triangular trade route was the commercial platform that linked the Caribbean and American colonies with their European colonial powers and the west coast of Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries. This trading system was necessary because of the regional demand for the goods generated by the other regions in the triangle, and was propelled by the powerful trade winds that traversed the Atlantic — for an African slave it must have seemed that even the planet itself was aligned against them.
In the Caribbean, ships were loaded with sugar, rum, coffee and spices, which were sent to Europe where the ship's captain traded for manufactured items, such as textiles, cutlery and weapons. Leaving Europe, the ships next sailed south to Africa, where they traded for human cargo. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, where they were sold at auction and sent to work on the plantations, growing sugar and ensuring the continuation of the cycle. As the colonies of North America became better established, a second triangular trading system was developed that effectively cut Europe out of the equation. Both systems are paramount to the history of sugar and rum because an estimated two-thirds of the 1.5 million African slaves who made the voyage between 1627 and 1775 were put to work on sugarcane plantations.
Although the slave trade was abused to its fullest and most abominable extent by European powers during the 17th and 18th centuries, the African slave trade existed in Africa and the East Indies as far back as the 1100s. Operated by the kings of West Africa, tribesmen from Central and South African regions were kidnapped and sold by chiefs from Angola and the Ivory Coast, often in exchange for akpeteshie or burukutu — a type of date palm wine.
This fondness for fermented alcoholic beverages among the kings of Africa was important, as along with cloth, gunpowder and ironware, it would later be leveraged by European traders keen to exchange rum for slaves. Distilled spirits were unknown in Africa, so when these supercharged liquids called rum, rhum, aguardiente and cacha^a were offered to the kings, they were keenly received. Whether it was rum or some other manufactured commodity from Europe or the colonies, this exchange of product for human cargo is cited by some historians as the birth of capitalism and the global economy.
During the six-week voyage across the ocean, on average one-third of all slaves perished en route. Those that didn't die were often malnourished, ill and/or psychologically traumatized. Traders recognized this, so they compensated for their lost human cargo by overcrowding their ships, which really only had the effect of worsening the problem. The slaves were chained into the hold so tightly that there was no room to move. Men were afforded a space of 180 x 37 cm (6 x 1% ft), and women even less. Water and food were heavily rationed, and buckets provided the only means of disposing of human waste. The gruesome living
conditions lead to outbreaks of typhoid, measles and yellow fever. In some extreme instances, 90% of a ship's hold were pronounced dead upon arrival in port. On some occasions, entire ships were lost, as slaves mounted insurrections against their captors. Some of these mutinies were successful, such as the Clare in 1729, and others resulted in the death of everybody on board.
The crew, which generally comprised lowlifes and criminals, really didn't have it much better. They were just as vulnerable to contracting diseases, but also bound to the backbreaking tasks that filled their days and weeks.
Despite the availability of molasses, the earliest rums were often made from the sucrose-rich skimmings or scum that were collected during the sugar refining process. Now this stuff really was useless, and the collection and subsequent fermentation of the skimmings illustrates, more than anything, the thriftiness of the early sugarcane planters. There are reports of distilleries in both the French and British Caribbean making rum in this way through the 1640s, until molasses finally became the de facto base material across all Caribbean islands.
As is the case with most things in rum's history, this came about as a result of economics more than good taste. Most plantations in the mid-1600s made two types of sugar: dark muscovado; and low-quality peneles. This approach resulted in the maximum quantity of sugar with as little as possible waste, which, in turn, limited the quantity of rum that could be manufactured. Semi-refined white sugar sold for twice the price of muscovado, but it also generated more waste. As the demand for rum increased, planters on every island in the Caribbean turned to molasses.
The earliest account of rum-making in Barbados comes from Richard Ligon's A True and Exact History of Barbados (1647). Ligon offers detailed drawings of a sugar mill and still-house, which comprised two pots and a cistern. The cistern was likely made from mastic wood (in a time when the forest of Barbados were still being cleared) and was presumably used for fermenting the sugar skimmings from the mill. The pots differ in size, suggesting a similar routine to that which is used in the production of malt whisky, where the larger of the two pots was used for the principal distillation of “low wines”, and the smaller used for the second distillation of high-strength spirit. This is a surprisingly sophisticated setup for the 17 th century, and far more elaborate than the stills being employed on Martinique during the same period.
Jean-Baptiste du Tertre, who toured Martinique in the 1640s, describes in his 1654 book Histoire Generale des fl.es Saint-Christophe, de la Guadeloupe, de la Martinique et autres de l’Amerique a single pot-still that he calls a vinaigrerie. It is connected to a worm-tub condenser and is operated by slaves, who made an “intoxicating liquor” using sugar skimmings for personal consumption.
Over the 50 years that followed rum's uneasy birth, the spirit swept across the Caribbean like a tropical typhoon. What had, at first, been a drink for slaves, was now starting to fill the punch bowls of white planters, but this wasn't all that it was filling — rum soon took its rightful place aboard ship’s manifest, stored in barrels and stacked in the cargo hold of every trading ship across the region.
The steep rise in rum consumption through the Caribbean and later in Europe meant that rum needed to get its game face on. The 17th century would see rum reinvent itself time after time, evolving from skimmings-based moonshine to a fully fledged industry that would make fortunes for the planters in Barbados, Jamaica and Sainte-Domingue.
This 1823 drawing forms part of the series “Ten Views in the Island
of Antigua” and shows slaves loading
barrels of sugar onto boats.
Speaking of Barbados, the esteemed distiller William Y-Worth wrote an account of a Barbadian rum recipe in 1707 in which the product was fermented “together with the remains of the former distillation”. This is the first reference to the use of “dunder” (the residual liquid after distilling rum) in rum production. It’s interesting that the recipe does not herald from Jamaica, where the practice would become a hallmark of the Jamaican style (see page 48).
Samuel Martin, an Irish immigrant with plantations in Antigua, operated an estate that covered 245 hectares (605 acres), of which 160 hectares (400 acres) was used for growing cane in 1756. Martin published “An Essay on Plantership” in 1786 that includes a recipe for rum comprising,“one-third scum from cane juice, one-third of water from washing the coppers, and one-third lees.” This was left to ferment for 24 hours, after which molasses is added gradually to build up the yeast cell count and “yield a due proportion of rum”.
With more plantation operators recording their recipes, further refinement and specialization ensued. The late 18th century is full of accounts from experienced distillers (especially in Jamaica) who were, for the first time, aware of terroir, the importance of pH in fermentation, consistency and more refined distillation techniques. Rum had well and truly evolved beyond the second-thought hooch to an art that required careful consideration and documentation. Why? Because it made money, of course.
RUMMING AROUND THE BRITISH ISLES
The 18th century was a period of massive growth for the Caribbean rum industry, which saw exports to Britain, North America and parts of Northern Europe increase at an astonishing rate. In 1690, little if any rum was imported into the UK. In 1697, a measly 100 litres (26 US gallons) or one-quarter of a sherry barrel arrived on British shores. By 1750, 4.5 million litres (1.2 million US gallons) of rum arrived in British ports, and that number was set to triple over the next two decades to the point where rum accounted for 25% of all the spirits consumed in British Isles in 1780.
The sheer volume of rum available to the British drinker didn't do
much to elevate the spirit's reputation, and for the time being it occupied a
curious position in the eyes of the 18th-century drinker. This was a spirit
that was labelled by its challengers as a drink for slaves or common men, and
yet it was being manufactured by wealthy plantation owners with strong
connections to the British aristocracy. As such, the upper classes, whose focus
remained fixated on wine and brandy, saw rum as a quaint, yet potentially
dangerous and exotic novelty. The lower classes stuck with the “bang for your
buck” mantra, which, in London at least, meant gin — 45 million litres (12
million US gallons) of it in 1750 alone. That just left the middle classes, who
were priced out of the brandy market and keen to avoid genever so as to disassociate
themselves from the gin-guzzling
Glasgow's second sugar refinery, called the Old Sugar House, was
erected in 1669 by a group of Glasgow
merchants to refine sugar imported from the Caribbean.
But this was more than just a case of class and financial resources. Availability played a big part in the decision-making process, too, and nowhere more so than in the lesser populated extremities of the British Isles, especially towns and cities on the western coastline, like Bristol, Liverpool and Falmouth, which developed into industrial trading hubs for Caribbean imports. The availability of rum in these towns lead to some entrepreneurial types establishing blending houses. Amazingly, there are accounts of sugar refineries and distilleries opening in Glasgow, Liverpool and London, as far back as the 1670s. Given that so little (if any) rum was imported into Britain at that time, it's quite possible that the first taste of rum for many British people was in fact British rum!
As volumes grew through the latter part of the 1700s, one thing remained fairly steady: around 85% of the rum imported was Jamaican, and most of the remaining 15% was from Barbados, who at the time exported more to the colonies in North America.
But not all the rum that flowed into Britain was destined to stay there. British rum drinkers had a preference for the higher strength Jamaican rum. Barbados rum was mostly re-exported to other European territories. Demand was especially high in Ireland, which consumed more rum than England and Wales combined in the latter part of the 18th century.
YO HO HO
It's almost impossible to talk about rum without referencing pirates, but the significance of piracy in the story of rum is hugely overplayed. Real pirates were little more than rag-tag packs of ocean-going militia, comprising wandering criminals, social outcasts, and debtors, with bills that no honest man could pay. Some pirates operated as “privateers” — a form of legally sanctioned pirating, introduced by Elizabeth I to disrupt Spanish colonial efforts. Some of the famed wrongdoings of pirates and privateers are as legendary as they sound (see Captain Morgan on pages 192—93), but many of our perceived pirate stereotypes are either dramatic embellishments of the truth or just pure fiction.
The golden age of pirating came about at the end of the 17th century, which coincided with the first sugar plantations establishing themselves in the Caribbean. Rum was in a nascent state during this time; it was in production and available locally, but not yet the widely traded international commodity that it would soon become. The merchant ships of the late 17th century were more often packed with wine, French brandy and Dutch genever. And it’s those drinks — not rum — that typically “shivered a pirate's timbers”.
In fact, the association between pirates and rum was all but nonexistent until 1883, when Robert Louis Stevenson penned Treasure Island. Originally serialized in a children’s magazine, the novel was written around 50 years after the last pirate had walked the plank. Stevenson probably had less reference material concerning rum and pirates to go on than we do today, and while the geographical connection between piracy and rum is easy to establish, it’s highly unlikely that pirates were as committed to rum drinking as Stevenson would have us believe.
The word “rum” appears 57 times in Treasure Island (“brandy” appears just 14 times), and most famously on the opening page:
“Fifteen men on the dead mans chest Yo ho ho, and a bottle of
This sea shanty, like most of the rest of his book, was a product of Stevenson’s imagination, and these words were never consciously spoken by a pirate, or anyone else, until Treasure Island appeared on book shelves. It’s alleged that Stevenson found the name “Dead Man’s Chest” among a list of Virgin Island names in a book by fellow novelist Charles Kingsley, possibly in reference to the Dead Chest Island off Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands. It’s likely that Stevenson’s “bottle of rum” is the single greatest contributor to the rum-swigging pirate cliche, but rum wasn’t the only piece of pirate mythology perpetuated by Stevenson. Treasure maps, gravel-throated west-country accents, and walking around with a parrot on one’s shoulder are all creations of Stevenson’s.
A (barely) walking cliche of what a pirate probably wasnt. Except
for the fact that in this instance, he is
uncharacteristically without a bottle of rum.
The image of the rum-guzzling pirate has proved a difficult one to shake. Stevenson’s book, along with fictional characters that it has influenced, such as Captain Hook from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and more recently Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, offer a glamorous portrayal of criminality on the high seas, where morals are loose and the rum flows freely. My favourite line from Treasure Island that concerns rum is delivered by Long John Silver himself. While recovering from a sword fight Silver refuses medical attention, insisting that rum will suffice, “I lived on rum, I tell you. It’s been meat and drink, and man and wife, to me”.
A RUM RATION
In the spring of 1655, English Vice-Admiral William Penn set sail from Barbados with a fleet of 37 war ships and several thousand soldiers. His intention was to take the island of Hispaniola from the Spanish, but the attack was ill-prepared and mismanaged. Penn was reluctant to return to Barbados with his tail between his legs, however, so he opted instead to sail further west, and attempt to seize the less desirable Spanish colony of Jamaica. This time he was successful, resulting in the establishment of what would, by the early 1700s, surpass Barbados as Britain’s most valuable Caribbean territory. The capture of Jamaica on May 17 1655 also marked the start of a Royal Navy tradition that would remain in place for over one-third of a millennium: the rum ration.
By the time this illustration of Port Royal in Jamaica was undertaken in 1865, the Royal Navy had been administering rum rations to its sailors for some 200 years.
Or so the story goes. In fact, there is no documented evidence to confirm that rum was rationed to troops in Jamaica. What we do know is that Jamaica was a tobacco island under Spanish rule, and grew only a token gesture of sugarcane to satisfy the local market. We also know that there are no accounts of rum production or rum consumption on the island prior to the arrival of the British in 1655. So it seems strange that the capture of Jamaica, of all places, served as the catalyst for the Navy rum ration, and especially so when one considers that the fleet had just sailed from Barbados — an island that was known to be producing cane spirits at that time! Even if rum was being made in Jamaica in 1655, it would only have been for local consumption, and in 1654 the population of Jamaica was just 2,500. Where then, would stocks of rum sufficient to fill the bellies of seven thousand British sailors be conjured up from?
There are solid historical references to rum rationing on ships at Port Royal, Jamaica, in the 1680s, and it's fair to assume that the practice was going on in Jamaica for some years prior to that. Given the island's dominance in both sugar and rum production in the 18th century, it would have been convenient for some historians to establish a link between the Royal Navy arriving there and rum appearing on-board their ships. But I for one think that it's likely that rum was not new to sailors in 1655 and that it was issued to them before the capture of Jamaica as well as afterwards.
One thing's for sure though: life on a 17th-century Royal Navy ship was a living hell. Squalid living conditions, biscuit rations, strict punishment and the constant fear of death by disease or hostile encounter. Alcohol was a necessary antidote on these voyages, and the traditional maritime appetite for alcohol was never more voracious than during this period when men were spending longer at sea than ever before. Sailors were dispensed beer rations at an agreeable rate of one gallon per day, but the beer was prone to turning sour after a couple of weeks at sea and that left only slimy water as a source of refreshment. Some time in the middle of the 17th century, sailors became acquainted with rum. In those days, Royal Navy ships operated autonomously and there was no standard regulations or code of instructions (seamen and even officers wouldn't have standardized uniform for another 100 years). So the practice likely began on a micro-level then spread steadily throughout the rest of the fleet as rum became more available. Rum (and other spirits) was the natural choice of refreshment for sailors, because on long voyages it didn't go sour in the barrel — indeed, it improved!
Then there was the fact that it was strong stuff, which the sailing men no doubt approved of. We can only guess at the real strength of the spirit back then, though. Distillation techniques were mostly rather crude in the 17th century, and it wasn't until 1816 that Sikes's hydrometer was invented and the ability to measure strength (proof) accurately became a reality. The term “proof” (in its capacity as a gauge of alcoholic strength) originated in the Royal Navy, and more specifically with regard to rum. It was the task of the ship's purser (the supplies handler) to assess the quality of all incoming food and drink stocks from the port, as well as to manage their rationing among the men. Where rum was concerned, this meant testing the alcohol content to ensure that the liquid wasn't diluted by some unscrupulous trader wishing to squeeze some extra cash out of his client. The test was conducted using gunpowder, wherein the rum was mixed with a small quantity of the powder and heated with an open flame. The burning of the gunpowder was observed by the purser, who gauged the ferocity of the flame to calculate the strength of the rum. There were no percentages or degrees on his scale, however — rum was either deemed strong enough or not. The test became known as the “proof” test. Rum that burned like dry gunpowder was “proven” to be of adequate strength, and that strength happened to be 57% alcohol by volume. Rum burning hotter or brighter than gunpowder was clearly stronger, and those rums were labelled “over-proof ”.
Edward Vernon: Royal Navy Admiral, mixologist and grogram coat advocate.
The Royal Navy demanded that all rums stored on Navy ships were overproof. Perhaps this was because a barrel of “under-proof” rum spilt its contents all over an adjacent cask of gunpowder causing the gunpowder to burn poorly and rendering a ship defenceless. Or perhaps it was just the mariners hankering for the burn of strong spirit. The Navy's policy changed in 1866 when all Navy rum was prescribed at 4.5 under-proof, which is where it stayed for the duration of the ration.
From the mid-1600s until the 1730s, rum was rationed to sailors without rules or guidelines. In fact, there are very few accounts of rum rationing at all until the 18th century, and those that do exist are rather vague. In February 1727, Captain Gascoigne of the HMS Greyhound, which was stationed at Port Royal, wrote to the Navy Board suggesting that a “double allowance of rum” might encourage the men under his command to work harder.
In 1731, the first documented regulations “Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea” were published, which reveal both what a daily rum ration constituted and that the ritual had spread beyond the Caribbean, into wider Royal Navy operations. The regulations stated that a standard issue gallon of beer was equivalent to “a pint of wine or half a pint of brandy, rum or arrack”. Whether rum, brandy or arrack (which would have served as a substitute for rum or brandy in the East Indies), a half pint of strong spirit a day is equivalent to ten double shots (50 ml or 2 oz) — every day.
that much alcohol flowing through a sailor's veins, it's amazing that sailors
felt the need to smuggle extra stocks of rum on-board during shore leave. One
trick commonly employed by shrewd seamen in the Caribbean involved emptying
coconuts of their milk and refilling them with rum before boarding the ship.
Extra drams were also occasionally issued by officers as rewards for exemplary
service or acts of heroism. Before going into battle, captains sometimes
ordered a “tot” (a ration) for the crew to make them more “brave and willing.”
Not content with inventing “grog”, Admiral Vernon achieved what Hosier couldn't, capturing Portobello in 1739.
RUM, GROGGERY AND THE LASH
For many sailors, rum would become their only form of liquid intake, and was the cause of no shortage of accidents, disputes and deaths. But alcoholism was really only a single strand in a sorry tapestry of malnutrition and poor hygiene on-board Navy ships. During the 18th century diseases killed more British sailors than combat did, and the biggest killer of all was scurvy — a deficiency in vitamin C. One of the most horrendous examples of this was Vice-Admiral Hosier's siege of Portobello, which over a six-month period resulted in the death of 4,000 men from ‘fever' compared to only a handful who died in battle.
This plight of the seaman was recognized by one man. Admiral Edward Vernon was adored by his men for his obvious concern for their wellbeing, and for his exceptional leadership skills in battle. Vernon petitioned for the rum ration to be reduced, but more crucially, that it should be mixed with water, limes and sugar. His pleas were heard, and in 1740 the rum issue became gospel. The concoction was served twice daily, once between 10am and 12pm, and another between 4pm and 6pm. This new drink needed a name, and with the sailors' known ability for inventive language, it was called “grog” — named for the grogram waterproof boat cloak that was the trademark apparel of Admiral Vernon.
With fresh lime juice featuring in the diet of every sailor in the Navy from 1740 onwards, there's no telling how many lives that would have otherwise been lost to scurvy were saved by Admiral Edward Vernon's cocktail. The mixture of rum to water (and other ingredients) was set at 4:1 in favour of water, but this was prone to change depending on who was in charge. As such, the mixture seamen used for grog was named by compass points. Due North was pure rum, and due West was water alone. WNW would therefore be one-third rum and two-thirds water, and NW half and half. If a seaman had two “nor-westers,” he'd had two glasses of half rum and half water.
THE BLACK TOT
In the 19th century, there was a slow change of attitude towards intoxication among active servicemen. In 1824 the tot of rum was halved in size to one- quarter of a pint (one gill) and the sailors were compensated by an increase in pay and additional rationing of meat, cocoa and tea. As early as 1850 the Admiralty's “Grog Committee” met to discuss the problems associated with overconsumption of alcohol among seamen, and shortly after they released a report which confirmed the relationship between drunkenness and discipline, recommending that the ration be abolished. Rather than abolish it the Royal Navy Commission reduced it again, this time half a gill (one-eight of a pint).
Following these reductions in quantity it seems that the Royal Navy took a greater interest in the quality of the rum. Since the inception of the tot, the Navy were prone to shop around, initially buying most of their stock from Jamaica and Barbados. But by the 19th century, their preference tended to lie with Guyana. From 1783 onwards all purchases were made through the sugar broker, ED & F Man & Co., who continued to supply the Navy right up until 1970 when the ration was abolished. In 1908 the Royal Navy purchased 420,000 gallons of “Demerara rum”. All rum shipments were sent to the Royal Victoria Yard where they were blended in linked vats which were never entirely emptied. This brought a degree of consistency to the liquid, in much the same way as a solera system works (see page 55). James Park’s Nelson’s Blood (1983) details an account from one P. Curtis, who was a chief petty officer stationed at HMS Terror in Singapore shortly after World War II. He recounts an evening where no less than six chief pursers got together with various samples of blending stock and over the course of two hours of appreciating “the glow which spreads from the stomach and engenders that wonderful feeling of peace and bonhomie”, they established a blend of rums that was agreed to be perfect by all present. The blend comprised: “fifty-five percent Demerara, thirty percent Trinidad, with the remainder from Natal and Mauritius.”
British Royal Navy sailors grab the largest vessels they can get
their hands on for their twice-daily issue of
grog from the ship's rum tub.
But while Curtis and company were fine-tuning the taste and aroma of a Navy tradition three-hundred years in the making, other men, in offices, were again calling for the rum ration to be done away with. It had been over 100 years since the tot had been dropped to half a gill, during which time the Navy had fought two world wars and built aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Yet still, all over the world, rum was dispensed twice daily to service men and women.
On January 28 1970, the “Great Rum Debate” took place in the House of Commons. Despite impassioned speeches from the likes of MP James Wellbeloved, who argued that, “there is some evidence from people who serve at sea in Her Majesty's ships and in the Merchant Navy that a tot of rum can have a stabilising effect upon the stomach, and this is indeed a matter of considerable importance”, it was decided that the rum ration had no place in the modern Navy. July 31 1970 would forever more be known as “Black Tot Day”, when the last pipe of “Up Spirits” was chimed and the final ration issued at 11am — 24 times, in 24 time zones, across the globe.
By contrast with other members of the Commonwealth, the Royal Australian Navy had already discontinued the rum ration nearly 50 years earlier, in 1921. Two other Commonwealth navies retained the rum ration after the Royal Navy abandoned it, however. But less than two years after Black Tot Day, March 31 1972 became the final day of the rum ration in the Royal Canadian Navy. The New Zealand Navy displayed an impressive level of commitment to the rum ration, holding out until February 27 1990.
By means of compensation, British seamen were allowed an extra can of beer as part of their ration. The remaining rum stocks (which were mostly stored in casks) were put up for auction. They were bought by Chief Petty Officer Brian Cornford, who had served in Royal Navy submarines during World War II. Cornford had the ships drop their remaining supplies off at Gibraltar, where with the help of John Kania, a cellar master under his employment, they undertook the laborious task of decanting the barrels into 1-gallon (1.2-US gallon) earthenware flagons, which were wrapped in wicker, sealed with wax and date-stamped. The flagons were then sold on again, with many of them ending up in Gibraltar bars during the 1970s and 1980s. They are now much harder to get hold of, although I do have one in my collection which is wax stamped with the year 1956. I plan on cracking it open on July 31 2020 to mark the 50-year anniversary of Black Tot Day.
There are countless reports of rum still making an appearance during particularly cold military operations during the 1980s and 1990s. By this point it took the form of a bottle of Lamb's or Pusser's however, rather than the original wicker-covered 1-gallon demijohns. Trawling through the military internet forums these days, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that rum still has a place in the modern Navy. And while it may not be dispensed through the official channels it's clear that there's a lasting legacy of strong booze that's difficult to erase completely.
NEW ENGLAND RUM
Bourbon whiskey has been the spirit of the United States for the past 150 years, but long before the first farmers mashed the first corn, it was rum that filled the tavern cups.
As with the tropics, alcohol played an important role in the physical and mental conditioning of colonists, for whom it provided medicine and nourishment for both body and mind. Colonizing required its own set of skills, and re-establishing the psychological muscle memory of learned social rituals was key to the general mood of colonial society. Alcohol played its own part in this, and when coupled with the fact that colonists possessed a “deep seated distrust of water” (as Wayne Curtis puts it in his book And a Bottle of Rum), making one’s own hooch was damn near essential.
So the colonists began brewing — beer mostly, from cereals, like rye and dark barley malts, but also from corn, apples, pumpkin and other fruits and fermentable sources. But these crops were needed for the equally important act of eating. So wines were imported too, from Portugal, Madeira and France, but this was not cheap. Not to mention that a dependence on Europe for your evening’s night cap was, psychologically, a step backward rather than forward. What colonists really yearned for was the freedom and independence to work a hard day in the fields, and then drink hard, home-grown, liquor at night... (and sometimes in the day, too).
The first rum distillery was built on Staten Island, New York in 1650 (and a second in Boston in 1657), just a decade after the first Caribbean operations manifested themselves, and barely a generation after the Pilgrim Fathers established the colony of Massachusetts. Molasses arrived by boat from the Caribbean, where, at the time, there was an overwhelming surplus of the stuff, and once again it was the Dutch who provided the know-how to convert it into a strong spirit. And since rum was unlikely to have been traded by boat in any meaningful quantity until the late 1650s, it’s fair to surmise that distilleries in Massachusetts and New York were inspired to make rum independently of their Caribbean cousins.
For colonies on Barbados and Martinique, early distilling was a simple means of leveraging value out of industrial waste, but in New York and Boston, no sugar mills existed, so the purchase of bulk shipments of molasses and the establishment of distilleries to process it testifies to the resourcefulness of the colonists where matters of high-strength alcohol were concerned.
In the space of a decade or so, rum was everywhere. As the population of the colonies increased, so too did the demand for rum, although this was at a far greater rate than the distilleries could keep up with. Rum was available in every tavern and tippling house, and it was drunk widely at home where it was also used in cooking — sometimes even finding its way into a recipe for “fryed bacon” — or when served once to Rev. Elijah Kellogg, “with salt fish and crackers”. Rum was used as a currency — it was traded with native Americans for furs (and used as leverage once a dependency had been established), or as part payment of wages. Rum was made in and consumed in colonial towns, in scraggly half-built villages, halfway up mountains and in the remote northern ports around Newfoundland. Rum was produced domestically, but also flowed in from Barbados (which was considered to be the best rum-producing country of that time) along with regular shipments from Grenada and Antigua. Given that these spirits were no doubt shipped in barrels, the preference for imported spirit may have been down to the simple softening of the spirit by the oak cask.
Rum was the most widely consumed drink of its time. It was drunk on an abusive scale, which was likeable to London's disastrous “gin craze” of the early 1700s. By the middle of the 18th century, the average American adult was drinking a bottle-and-a-half of rum every week.
The most common way to do this was the easiest — straight-up and sometimes followed by a glass of water. Sometimes the water and rum were mixed before knocking it back, and when sweetened and spiced they formed a drink known as mimbo. More commonly it was mixed with molasses, where the drink was instead called bombo.
But cocktail etiquette was loose in those days, little was off-limits, and rum was mixed with anything that was found lying around: it was mixed with shrub vinegars in a “Switchel”, mixed with hard cider in a “Samson” and combined with beaten eggs in a “Bellowstop”. But the best drink of the era was unquestionably the “Flip”, which required some equipment, however. It consisted of a large earthenware bowl, to which rum, sugar (or molasses), ale and spices were added. The mixture would be stirred before — in a most dramatic turn of events — a hot “loggerhead” was stabbed into its murky depths. A loggerhead is a kind of fire poker with a ball on the end, which tended to be the first weapon men went for during drunken brawls (hence the phrase “at loggerheads”). But this wasn't all about theatre; the use of the hot loggerhead affected the drink in a number of ways: first — and most obviously — it heats it, though not to the point of it being a “hot” drink, but rather a “warm” one. The intense heat also causes the bubbles in the beer to expand, which foams up the drink, adding a bit of drama to proceedings. Finally, the heat of the loggerhead also cooks the drink, caramelizing the sugars and creating Maillard reactions, that contribute toasty, cooked, qualities. The caramelization also produces bitter flavours, that in turn balance the sweetness of the beer and sugar.
The Flip existed in a time before the widespread hopping of beer, and this searing process introduced some of the bitterness that hop flowers would normally provide. Combine all of the above elements together: sweetness, aromatic spice, homely cereal notes, fruitiness, gentle warmth, foamy texture and a more-ish bitterness, and you're left with one of the great drinks of all time — produced using only blacksmith's tools and the foraged scraps of an adolescent colonial society.
American pilgrims created a demand for rum among native populations
by using it as a means to trade for
animal skins or other sought-after materials. It was used by settlers as a “lubricant” for trade so that better
deals could be negotiated.
know not why we should blush to confess that Mlolasses was
an essential Ingredient in American Independence. Many great
Events have proceeded from much smaller causes.”
John Adams, second President of the United States
The North American molasses trade was a useful little earner for the British Caribbean planters, who charged 10p (£20 or $27 today) a gallon for the stuff. The British Empire was highly attentive to the needs of these powerful business leaders, and therefore keen to maintain a healthy trade between colonies. But the North Americans were a savvy bunch, and in the pursuit of favourable prices, they soon began trading with the entire Caribbean region and especially the French. Saint-Domingue, Martinique and Guadeloupe sold molasses at around half the price of the British product — a bargain only made possible by a surplus of product and favourable re-export tariffs set by the French government to curb the enormous quantities of sugar and molasses that was landing in French mainland ports. By 1730, the colony of Massachusetts was importing over 90 per cent of its molasses requirements from the French West Indies.
The British planters were not happy about this, and in response, the British parliament introduced the Molasses Act in 1733. The Act imposed a tax on molasses imported from foreign colonies, such as the French or Dutch West Indies, at a rate of 6p (£12 or $20 today) per gallon. This brought the price of a gallon to around 10p (£20 or $27 today) regardless of where you bought it from. This did not sit well with New England and the other colonies. Rum was the currency of the North America trading enterprise, but more than that it was a manufactured item that was of their own making, not imported, not a hand out, but representative of the blood and sweat of the overall colonial endeavour. History teaches us that there's a fine balance to be had where matters of tax on alcohol (or products related to the production of alcohol) are concerned. If actually collected, the molasses tax would have slowed economic growth in New England and destroyed much of the rum industry in the process. In this instance the tax was poorly policed and expertly evaded. This was one of the first examples of mass civil disobedience among the colonists, and cited by some historians as the first murmuring of revolutionary uprising.
The so-called Boston Tea Party is often seen as the catalyst for the
American Revolution, but the
revolutionary seed was planted by sugar, molasses and rum.
Three decades passed and an average of only £2,000 (£400,000 or $660,000 today) of tax revenue was collected each year. By the 1760s, the British were strapped for cash following the Seven Years' War (1754—63), which had doubled the national debt. In response, parliament raised taxes on many imported goods, but also passed a modified version of the Molasses Act. The ensuing Sugar Act of 1764 halved the rate of taxation on molasses, but on this occasion Britain was going to make damn sure it was paid. Policing was overseen by the British Army and a fleet of 27 mobile Royal Navy ships who were permitted to pursue smugglers on the high seas. The Act also throttled the trade in timber and other colonial goods with French colonies.
Just like the earlier Molasses Act, this new legislation was an enormous threat to the American rum industry, which by this point was making 80% of its 6 million gallons (22 million litres) of annual consumption from imported molasses. The colonists, who viewed the new Act as a great injustice, took to the streets with placards and pamphlets. In what could almost be classed as a “democratic” turn of events, the tax was reduced (in 1766) to just 1p (£2 or £3.50 today) a gallon. But this rollback of taxation policy represented a major paradigm shift in the relationship between colonist and crown. A growing sense of fortitude seasoned the punch bowls of New England taverns, and rum nurtured the first stirrings of dissent. Aware that they had buckled in the face of popular demand, Parliament launched a counter-offensive and imposed direct taxes on the colonies for the first time. The Stamp Act of 1765 required colonists to pay tax on every piece of printed paper they used. The Tea Act of May 1773 granted the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the American colonies. The cry went out across the colonies “no taxation without representation!”
The iconic Boston Tea Party took place six months later, in December 1773 during which the Sons of Liberty destroyed a huge shipment of East India Company tea. In February 1775, Parliament declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion, and in April of that year conflicts broke out, commencing with battles at Lexington and Concord. The American Revolutionary War had begun.
fiNDING SUCCESS IN THE 19TH CENTURY
Up until the middle of the 19th century, the sugar business remained the dominant economic activity across all but the smallest of the Caribbean islands.
But the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade by the European colonial powers between 1807 and 1818, followed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which outlawed slavery in the British Empire, demanded a rapid transition for planters from slave labour to a free labour system.
This necessitated profound changes in the running of plantations and distilleries, from recruitment to welfare and workforce management. The upshot was that making sugar was going to cost more money from now on. In addition to workforce challenges, the productivity of Caribbean sugar estates was beginning to suffer thanks to soil exhaustion, which had rendered entire sections of Barbados unsuitable for growing sugarcane by the 1820s. This had a positive impact on Demerara sugar, however, which if left unchecked threatened to flood the market and destabilize commodity prices.
Despite the gradual decline of the sugar industry on Barbados, there were still dozens of sugar estates at the end of the 19th century, like Spring Hall in St. Lucy.
This came at a time when Europe, and especially France, was busy developing an alternate sugar source: sugar beets. By 1837, there were 542 sugar beet factories in France producing 35,000 tons (38,600 US tons) of raw sugar annually. By 1890 over half the world’s sugar came from sugar beet. This increased the global availability of sugar and lowered its value at a time when plantations cost more than ever to run.
The old system was broken, the financial margins simply didn’t add up, and the business plan needed a drastic re-write. Hundreds of small mills (and distilleries) across the British Caribbean closed during this period, or were consolidated into larger industrial operations. Others ceased refining activities but doggedly persevered with rum production. This set the stage for the next turn in rum’s long journey as the islands attempted to commercialize their distilleries in a world that wouldn’t stand still.
Fortunately, the industrial age was there to help, revolutionizing distillery technology and shaping rum flavour in the process. Rum-making methods hadn’t evolved much in three centuries, and the pot still followed the same basic distillation principles that had been established in the ninth century. Rum was still produced in batches, which was time-consuming and costly, and highly prescriptive as far as the final flavour of the spirit was concerned. A continuous still was needed; a device that could process fermented beer or wine and turn it into high-strength alcohol without all the faffing about.
Edouard Adam's still formed the basis of the first truly continuous stills, but it also possessed similar features to many of the pot still and retorts that are used today to make “heavier” rums.
The first attempt at this came from an illiterate Frenchman by the name of Edouard Adam, who patented a prototype continuous still in 1804. Adam’s column was a horizontal arrangement that linked together a series of what Adam called “large eggs”, with pipes that would route alcohol vapour from one egg to the next. The design is highly reminiscent of the pot still and retort set ups that are still used in some rum distilleries today.
The column-shaped Pistorius still arrived in 1817. The pioneering design was adapted the following year by Dutch sugar trader Armand Savalle, which in turn became a popular design among rum distillers, especially in the French Caribbean. Later versions were developed by the French engineer Jean-Baptiste Cellier- Blumenthal, and Robert Stein, the owner of the Kilbagie distillery in Fife, Scotland.
Then, in 1830, came the revolutionary design patented by the Irishman Aeneas Coffey. The Coffey still was the first of its kind to sustain a truly continuous process of distillation. It was a work of genius for its time, as evidenced by the fact that the same basic design is used in many distilleries today.
The French and Spanish rum-makers were the earliest adopters of the continuous still, while the British stuck to their pots. This tactic proved successful (for the time being) as the trademark high-ester Jamaican style became a spirit category in its own right. Export volumes reached all-time highs and the cash piled up, so much so that it garnered the attention of great chemists and engineers, who applied scientific principles to rum-making through research into yeast, fermentation and dunder (see pages 46—48). They sought to understand the nuances of rum production, with the aim of broadening rum styles as tastes shifted to lighter styles. By the end of the century, Jamaican distillers were producing high- and low-ester marques, and rum export values outpaced that of sugar.
The French island of Martinique (see pages 130—147) experienced a similar trajectory of growth, with exports increasing by a factor of 20 between 1850 and 1890. This unprecedented surge in uptake was largely due to the devastation of European vineyards by the phylloxera mite. When wine and brandy stocks dwindled, the French looked to the colonies for a source of hard liquor, and Martinique was only too happy to oblige.
The arrival of the continuous still divided the rum-producing world into two camps: those with pots and those without. Lighter styles were considered purer and therefore higher in quality, while pot-still rums developed a reputation for being smelly and rough. A style somewhere in the middle of the two was deemed to be something that most people would get along with nicely. But these heavy and light rums were limited by the equipment that was used to make them. The solution presented itself eventually and gave rise to a new faction within the rum canon: blenders.
Blending was a British invention, and one that would later become synonymous with Scotch whisky. With America's attentions shifted to whiskey production, and the Royal Navy fully invested in dramming, rum was becoming a drink with increasingly British associations.
Blenders established themselves on both sides of the Atlantic, applying a degree of credibility to the liquor where there was once none. Blending stretched volumes of good-quality stuff and covered up the not so good ones. But more than anything, it gave a guarantee of quality and authenticity.
A RUM SUPERPOWER
The arrival of the column still in Cuba set the stage for a new, lighter, cleaner style of rum that would become the hallmark of the best-selling rum brands in the world today. Cuban rum captured the imagination of the US, helped to establish rum's relevance within cocktail culture and fostered the development of some of the world's best bartenders (not to mention bars) in the early 20th century.
In an age of Martinis and Champagne, light rum was a necessary deviation for a category heavily rooted in, well, heaviness. Light rum didn't need to be tamed with aggressive flavours, or blended down. This rum was for mixing, sipping and swigging back from a highball as you mambo across the dance floor
The continuous still came at just the right time for the Spanish islands, where distilleries began popping up in the late 18th century. Lucrative trading with the newly independent US meant that islands like Cuba quickly became the most industrially advanced in the region. In the 19th century, sugar- and rum-making were enterprises tied directly to Cuba's social and economical successes or failures. Geographically dislocated from its Spanish motherland, Cuba was also a world away in terms of its drinking habits. The rum made in Cuba became a product that could legitimately be called “Cuban” and that helped to establish the concept of identity and individuality among the Cuban people. Rum still resonates strongly on this island, because of the countless families of Spanish origin that helped to establish the Cuban identity by making and selling rum made from Cuban molasses.
By the 1860s, there were a remarkable 1,365 distilleries on Cuba, and the island exported 20.5 million litres (5.4 million US gallons) of rum each year — providing much-needed succour to soldiers during the American Civil War — and placing Cuba only behind Martinique in the rum rankings. So far as sugar was concerned, Cuba became the top producer in the world, outpacing Jamaica and all the other British colonies combined.
Cuba fought three wars against the Spanish between 1868 and 1898, culminating in a US-assisted victory and the agreement of Spain to relinquish all claim of sovereignty over the island. The Cuba libre trade-off heralded a new era of aggressive American influence that shaped the geopolitical landscape of the north Caribbean for decades to come. American sponsorship also helped to shape the sugar industry on Cuba, consolidating mills and distilleries into larger industrial operations that churned out rum at record-breaking levels. Finally, it transformed Havana into a party town that was seen by some as chic and sophisticated, and by others as an intoxicant of the soul, with its casinos, cocktail coupes, and the greatest bartenders of the age: the cantinero.
Cocktail culture was already well-established in many American cities by this point, but had failed to penetrate the colonial Caribbean because there was little call for it. Havana was just 160 km (100 miles) from Key West in Florida, and only a few hours by plane (once commercial air travel was established) from New York or Washington. At a time when the Temperance movement was gathering pace in the US, Cuba became the “local bar”of America. When Prohibition took effect in the US in 1920, America brought cocktail culture to the Cuban party and Cuba supplied all the rum. A joint advertising campaign between Bacardi and Pan Am airlines gave birth to such slogans as, “Leave the Dry Lands Behind,” and “Fly to Cuba and Bathe in Bacardi rum.” The tourism to the island doubled in a period of ten years, growing from 45,000 annual visitors in 1916 to 90,000 in 1926.
Bacardi adverts in Cuba in the 1940s stated “El Que a Cuba Ha Hecho
Famosa” (The one that has made
Carnival time in Havana: a great opportunity to drink Cuban rum and drive fast cars in a circle.
At that time, most of the (good) hotels in Havana were under the ownership of US companies, and the city became an intimate hotbed of various exotic vices complete with race track, sporting arenas and theme parks (it could be argued that Havana was a theme park) all serviced by the indebted Cuban populace. One of the better outcomes of this arrangement was some of the greatest rum cocktails in the world today: Mojito (see page 215), Daiquiri (see page 224), El Presidente page 237) and Mulata, to name a few.
These drinks, while based on formulae of older whiskey- or gin-based cocktails, were conceived and executed by the cantineros, who tended bar for some of the greatest names of the era. The journalist Hector Zumbado described these celebrity service industry professionals as “Diplomatic, polyglot, like skilled ambassadors. Discreet and reserved.”
The bars of this era are just as legendary as the men who tended them: the famed Havana establishment Sloppy Joe’s — where the cantineros were known to make 100 daiquiris in a single (large) shaker — diverted its attentions from food to drink during Prohibition. La Floridita became “La Cuna del Daiquiri” (“The Cradle of the Daiquiri”) under the legendary Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, who captained the bar team from 1918.
Sloppy Joe's in Havana... hold on a second, is that Noel Coward and Alec Guinness at the bar?!
The Asociacion de Cantineros de Cuba served as a bartenders' trade union that operated apprentice schemes, ran extensive training programs and even trained bartenders in English, which was essential if they were to service the parched throngs of incoming American and British vacationers.
Prohibition established the market for Cuban rum in America, and once it was repealed, the American appetite for a “cleaner” style of rum endured — evident in the rise of even more neutral vodka. The Cuban approach spread through other rum-producing regions, even influencing distilleries which had in the past been stalwarts of the pot-still approach, such as Trinidad. Cuban rum endured too, but more throu gh its most famous progeny, Bacard^ and its legacy as the modern rum standard, than as an island of rum distillers.
WAR AND SURVIVAL
As the Cuban spirit soared, the first decade of the 20th century was a complete disaster for Martinique, which up until that point had remained the world's biggest rum producer. The catastrophic eruption of Mount Pelee, on May 8 1902 wiped out dozens of distilleries that surrounded Sainte-Pierre — touted the rum capital of the world — and export volumes from the island dropped from 18 million litres (4.8 million US gallons) in 1901 down to around half that in 1903. The decade that followed became a period of consolidation, as the surviving distilleries took the opportunity to snap up smaller plantations and increase their production capacities. These larger molasses distilleries became known as producers of rhum industriel while the older, smaller operations that tended to farm andjuice their own cane, produced rhum agricole.
The legendary Floridita sells Daiquiris at twice the price of other Havana bars - but they're worth it.
Meanwhile, the British Caribbean sugar industry was in its death throes, as competition from rival sugar beet and Central and South American producers saw commodity prices plummet. The entire industry had been flipped on its head: sugar was no longer the high-value spice that it had once been, but the spirit formerly known as “Kill Devil” was becoming a premium product! Trinidad switched to oil, Grenada to spices and Barbados to tourism; all maintained distilling operations, but for the time being, their respective rum markets contracted to local trade only.
Guyana began to mine bauxite (aluminium ore), which competed with sugar for economic dominance. However, the sugar industry survived thanks to biannual harvests, a quality product and the importation of cheap labour: over 250,000 Indians between the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. Large wholesale contracts from British blenders also kept rum distilleries working in spite of continued consolidation.
In Jamaica, the Sugar Experiment Station opened in 1905. It had the aim of perfecting the agriculture of sugarcane on the island, as well as exploring the potential for further diversity in Jamaican rum. Quality improved, and the European market maintained a healthy demand for it. In spite of this, 80 Jamaican distilleries closed in the first half of the 20th century.
World War I supercharged rum production across the region, as the French government issued rations of rhum agricole to an army of 1 million soldiers. Approximately 136 million litres (36 million US gallons) of rum were exported from Martinique during the war, accounting for 75% of the island's export revenue. British rum was drunk in French trenches too. When water came up to your knees it was no doubt a welcome respite from the misery of trench warfare, leading to one British soldier to remark, “Rum of course is our chief great good. The Ark of the Covenant was never borne with greater care than is bestowed upon the large stone rum-jars in their passage through this wilderness.”
Despite the growth of bourbon, rum production in the US continued into the 20th century, and nowhere more so than in the former British colonies of New England and Massachusetts. Prohibition put an end to that of course, but it was not the only disaster to befall the US rum business.
The catastrophic eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902 destroyed the town
of Saint-Pierre, engulfing some of
the biggest and best rum distilleries in the Caribbean at that time.
January 15 1919 was an unusually warm day in Boston, which might have been why the US Industrial Alcohol Distilling Company tank, which was filled with 16 million litres (2.3 million US gallons) of molasses, decided to buckle, spilling its contents into the streets and harbour. The flood killed 21 individuals and injured more than 150 others while damaging an estimated $1 million (£6 million or $10 million today) of property. The 1919 tragedy inundated the newpapers with conspiracies and conjecture about how the tank had failed so epically. It is even said that on a hot summer's day, there is still a lingering scent of molasses in the North End and around Commercial Street.
The rest of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean adopted Cuban techniques in an effort to exploit the growing market for Cuban rum. Rum distilleries multiplied in Puerto Rico during the early part of the century and the Dominican rum industry flourished thanks to an influx of Cuban workers in the 1880s. New distilleries popped up across Central America too, in Panama (1922) Nicaragua (1937), and Guatemala (1939) — all of them leveraging the American appetite for lighter rum.
By the end of the 16th century, sugarcane had crossed the Pacific and arrived back to the islands from which it originated, leaving a trail of war, taxation, trade and culture in its wake. The Americas continued to dominate the industry, right up until the end of the 19th century, but Asia would soon become the sweetest spot on earth. Of the top five sugarcane growers in the world today, four are Asian (though even combined, they do not match the colossal production levels of Brazil — the world’s top producer).
Wherever sugarcane could grow, rum was never far behind. In South Africa, rum was known simply as “cane”. In Dutch Indonesia, cane was used (along with palm) to make a similar spirit to rum called arrack.
Sugarcane arrived in Australia in 1788, on the ships of the First Fleet. Through the colony’s first 25 years, until the first coins were minted in 1813, rum was New South Wales’ defacto form of currency. When the first permanent regiment (the New South Wales Corps) arrived in 1790, they served as both colonial enforcer and financial regulator, overseeing the importation and distribution of rum among the colonists and getting rather rich off the back of it. This led to their nicknaming as the “Rum Corps”.
In 1806, Governor William Bligh arrived in New South Wales, a man already written in legend for his part in the Mutiny on the Bounty — the notorious incident in which he and 18 loyalists were set adrift by acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and forced to survive on rum rations as they travelled 6,500 km (3,500 nautical miles) to reach safety. Bligh’s leadership qualities once again proved to be fuel enough for a revolt, when the Rum Corps staged the Rum Rebellion, deposing Governor Bligh who had attempted to destroy illegal stills and curtail the quantity of overpriced rum that filtered through the Corps’ cellars. The Rum Rebellion is the first and only instance of the overthrow of the Australian government.
Australia was so far away from the Caribbean and Europe that most of the imported rum came via India or Java. Casks of Bengal rum (which was reputed to be stronger than Jamaican rum) were in the hold of nearly every ship from India, and Indian merchants grew wealthy thanks to the Sydney trade, sending their ships “laden half with rice and half with bad spirits”, according to the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey.
This wood engraving from 1886 shows
Aboriginal people pressing sugarcane at one of Australia's first sugar
mills in northern Queensland.
The popularity of rum “down under” didn't falter, and the island’s first legitimate sugar mills and rum distilleries were built in northern Queensland in the 1860s. The view was taken that white men lacked the stamina to work the plantations, so an estimated 62,000 labourers were brought to Queensland between 1863 and 1904. Virtually all of them came from the indigenous populations of New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides — Australia was one of the last places on earth to cultivate sugarcane, but its workforce was supplied by one of the first.
In 1869, the world's first and only mobile rum distillery was born: the SS Walrus was taken over by the Pioneer Floating Sugar Company and fitted out with a working sugar mill and distillery. It travelled up and down the Albert and Logan Rivers in Queensland, anchoring at wharves near the cane fields. The mill was capable of crushing 2 tons (2.2 US tons) of sugar a day and used the leftover molasses to make rum. As ingenious as a floating rum distillery sounds, it was a failure. Distilling operations ceased in 1871 and the ship was decommissioned two years later. The oldest surviving legal distillery in Australia is Beenleigh, Queensland, which was originally founded by Francis Gooding and John Davy in 1884 — a time when there were over a dozen rum distilleries in Queensland.
Distillation in the Philippines has a history dating back to the 16th century, but the nation's first rum distillery was born out of an old aguardiente (a strong spirit, translating as “fiery water”, which is often made from sugarcane) and “tuba”(a type of palm wine) distillery in Hagonoy. In 1856, the distillery was acquired by Valentin Teus y Yrisarry and, six years later, a rectifying plant was built in Isla de Tanduay.
By the 1930s, the rum produced here was branded as “Tanduay Rhum” and its packaging was changed from the 45-litre (10-gallon) dama juana container to the more practically sized 750-ml (25-oz) glass bottles. Tanduay is the third highest selling rum brand in the world today.
In the Indian Ocean, the Madine Distillery Company was established on the volcanic island of Mauritius in 1926 and has survived along with a further five distilleries (Charamel, Rhumerie de Mascareignes, Gray's, Oxenham and St. Aubin) taking the island’s total to six — and that doesn't include the blenders! Sugarcane was introduced to Mauritius by the Dutch via Java, and the earliest record of rum distillation takes us back to 1850 and one Pierre Charles Francois Harel. The island produces both molasses and cane juice rums, and exports around 600,000 litres (160,000 US gallons) a year at present.
Nearby Reunion has an even longer history of rum, with the first stills arriving in 1704. The first modern distillery was set up by Frenchman Charles Panon- Desbassayns, and by 1842 there were 12 sugar mills and six distilleries on the island.
By 1928 that number had increased to 31 distilleries, 16 of which had sugar mills attached to them. The collapse of trade with occupied France during World War II forced the closure of two of the mills and all of the distilleries save for Isautier distillery which was founded by Charles Isautier in 1845. The Isautier distillery remains in operation today, run by the sixth generation of the family. Only two others have survived, and both of them are now subsidiaries of Group Quartier Franyais: Savanna distillery, which was originally established in 1870, and Riviere du Mat. The latter two produce the most famous rum brand on the island: Rhum Charrette.
Caribbean tourism started in 1778 when the Bath Hotel and Spring House were built on the island of Nevis. Further resorts appeared on the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba and Jamaica in the late 19th century — destinations that were serviced by regular steam boat charters from the US. The rise of air travel and the availability of residential air conditioning, in the early 20th century, encouraged further tourism to the region, transporting those who could afford it to paradisiacal islands that offered an imaginative alternative to monochrome America.
Those who were less well-off were no less desirous for the same experience, and this was the catalyst of an American trend towards Hawaiian music, as well as the renaissance of 19th-century “tropical” literature, such as Moby Dick and Treasure Island. Cocktail bars, like the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel, capitalized on the fad, installing plastic palm trees and bringing island magic to the Hollywood set. But this was still the domain of the Martini and black-tie — a place for dancing and sipping, and largely indistinguishable from any other stylish nightclub of the era.
Then tiki came along.
With its roots in South Pacific mythology, tiki is best known for its flaming torches and wild-looking humanoid statues (or totems). For the rum lover, the cult of tiki grew to a similarly reverential status, mostly through the actions of a pair of American restaurant operators, who infused various elements of island culture into a no-frills, marketable product. For a mid-century American, tiki represented the thrill of being transported elsewhere — away from the office, the hardships of war, the anonymity of white spirits and moderation. Rum — with its associations with island life and the laid-back culture that comes with that (and of course sugar’s ancient origins in Polynesia) — made it a perfect pairing for the grass-skirt revolution.
By the late 1950s, glass buoys, exotica music and drinks as big as your head were available in dozens of cities across the US and beyond. Two men in particular built thatched-roof empires off the back of tiki: Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt aka “Donn Beach” and Victor Bergeron aka “Trader Vic”.
Gantt was born in Texas, but he left home young, touring the
Caribbean with his grandfather for a few years, then, when Prohibition took
effect, he became a bootlegger, smuggling contraband rum into the US from the
Bahamas. In the 1930s, Gantt moved to Hollywood, and once Prohibition was
repealed, he opened a bar in an old tailor’s store called “Don’s Beachcomber”
(the name was later changed to “Don the Beachcomber’s”). It was a modestly
sized place, but charming to look at with its ramshackle array of artefacts
that Gantt had salvaged along his travels: carved masks, flotsam, puffer fish
and other marine items.
Hawaii became an American territory in 1898, by which point it was a significant grower of sugarcane. It became a major tourist destination in the age of jet travel.
Tiki had its roots firmly planted in Polynesia, but the rum all came from the Caribbean.
The drinks lineup started out as a modest punch-style offering, but soon extended as Gantt (which, by now was officially known as “Donn Beach”) experimented with potent spices, tropical fruit juices and his own blend of rums. This was revolutionary mixology for the time, orchestrated by a man who had a deep understanding of how ingredients could be layered and paired — a philosophy that later became known as Don’s “Rhum Rhapsodies”. As the catalogue of popular original cocktails expanded, Donn became increasingly secretive about the recipes, just as his rivals became ever more intent on obtaining them. To that end, his bartenders constructed the cocktails using coded or numbered bottles, the contents of which were unknown to them. Rum was personally selected by Donn, usually arriving from Jamaica or Guyana.
Trader Vic s and Don the Beachcombers were successful because they
didn t just sell food and drink - they
offered a form of escape.
In 1937 a one-legged man named Victor Bergeron took an interest in Don the Beachcomber’s bar. Bergeron was a San Francisco native who had opened a restaurant called Hinky Drinks in Oakland in 1934. The 30-capacity venue was inspired by Vic’s trips to Cuba where he had met La Floridita’s legendary cantinero Constante. As such, it was Cuban sandwiches and daiquiris on the menu at Hinky Dinks.
Vic was even more inspired by the multi-sensory spectacle that was Don the Beachcomber’s, however, to the point were he offered to go into partnership with Donn. His proposal was rebuffed, though. Then, one day, in 1937, he closed Hinky Dinks, reopening and reinventing it as Trader Vic’s.
Vic reinvented himself too, assuming the persona of “Trader Vic” and all the imaginative backstory that came with it. No longer was it a childhood bout of tuberculosis that had lost him a leg — instead it was the result of shark attack. Vic regaled his patrons with numerous tall tales of “The Trader’s” adventures, most of them occurring in places that Vic wouldn't actually experience for some years to come. As flimsy as most of his stories were, it didn’t matter. Vic was the consummate businessman and like layers of teak veneer, Vic constructed a substantial brand, putting himself right at the centre of it.
Vic expanded his operations in the 1940s, to Seattle, then Beverly Hills, then on to the most iconic of all Trader Vic outposts: San Francisco. This four-storey operation was largely a food-led destination, curiously specializing in Cantonese cuisine. There were bars there too, of course, dispensing all manner of rum-spiked concoctions from the Dr. Funk (made with “Jamaica or Martinique” rum and pastis) to the Flamingo (made with “Puerto Rican rum, Angostura bitters, cucumber rind, and 7-Up”) all served in brightly coloured vases, garnished with flowers and elaborate pieces of tropical plant matter.
By the early 1960s, there were 20 Trader Vic’s across the US and around the same number of Don the Beachcomber’s, too. Sadly, for Donn, he didn’t own most of them. Divorce lost him the rights to the business and further expansion was overseen by his ex-wife Sunny Sund. Donn went and fought in World War II, and upon his return, settled in Oahu, Hawaii, finding some success in taking tiki culture back to where it all began.
By the 1970s tiki and cocktail culture in general were already in decline. When mixed drinks reemerged in the 1980s, the legacy of tiki was present — in the drinks themselves, in their striking, almost ostentatious appearance and in their ludicrous names. If only the attention to ingredients displayed by Donn and Vic was there too. It was the dawn of the dark age of drinking.
THE NEW REVOLUTION
In the late 20th century, global rum sales remained largely stagnant but the sales split shifted considerably. Small distilleries across the Caribbean dropped like flies, through consolidation deals, or from being priced out of the market by favourable tariffs and tax breaks for larger operations. Rum became a bulk wholesale product. Great chunks of rum history were misplaced when these operations closed, taking with them centuries of traditional practices that are all but absent from the Caribbean today. With no clear route as to where rum had come from, the entire concept of rum became obscured. The cry went out, “what is rum?”
For many (like my parents) it was a colonial relic from a pre-industrial era; potent, pungent and consumed only by an older generation. For many others, it was Bacardi — a multinational brand that transcended the entire category. The message was incoherent and it set rum back an entire generation.
Then, finally, it seemed as though the fog was beginning to clear. In the first decade of the new millennium, rum was the fastest growing major spirit category in the world, with sales increasing by 40% over the 10-year period. Most of the growth was seen in Asia, which is now the biggest rum-drinking market in the world. Consumption doubled there between 2000 and 2010, thanks to emerging local brands like McDowell's No. 1 Celebration, which is not only India's most popular rum, but, as of 2015, the biggest-selling rum brand in the world — shifting 17.8 million 9-litre (2.4-US gallon) cases over the year.
But what about premium rum? Whisky, Cognac, vodka and gin — all had achieved some level of premiumization in the 1990s. Now, in the new millennium, it was rum's time to shine.
New releases from old distilleries trickled in, taking a lead from whisky and Cognac. These were fancily packaged products claiming good provenance and long maturation. Spiced rums were introduced and Barbados and Trinidad experienced a revival. Then new, aged releases followed from the French-speaking islands, the Spanish-speaking islands, Latin America and beyond. Realization set in: rum was being produced across dozens of countries, in numerous styles, and now at a broad range of prices.
In Europe, Spain and Germany are the largest rum markets and Spain is by far the biggest consumer of aged rum, with the market currently dominated by Brugal and Barcelo brands from the Dominican Republic. France and UK lean towards white rum, but aged rum, along with spiced offerings, is the fastest growing section of the category. Globally, the market for spiced and flavoured rums has doubled over the past 10 years, and it's these spirits that fill the glasses of the next generation of drinkers. Spiced rum now accounts for 8% of the total global rum category.
This diversity is cause for great celebration, but the absence of enforceable overarching legislation has also become one of rum's biggest challenges in the 21st century. In all the revolutionary excitement, noone remembered to strategize the correct approach to marketing “new rum”. Rather, rum brands have blindly snatched at cues from Scotch and vodka categories, recycling them into an abstract of rum.
The category has rediscovered itself and yet, the question is still valid, “what is rum?” It's a spirit made from sugarcane products and sometimes aged in barrels. It is the most diverse spirit category in the world today. It's a consumer product that has shaped the geopolitical and cultural landscape of our world more than any other.
THE SCIENCE OF THE SUGARCANE
Sugarcane is a giant of the Gramineane (grass) family, certain varieties of which can grow up to 6 metres (20 ft) tall. The green leaves of the plant look like giant blades of grass, but the stem has a similar appearance to bamboo (also a member of the grass family) with a stem comprising interconnecting boney-looking joints, known as nodes. Each stem is typically 3—4 metres (10—13 ft) in height and about 5 cm (2 in) in diameter. Thanks to its size and leaf surface-area-to-mass ratio, sugarcane is a champion photosynthesizer. In the prime sugarcane-growing regions of the tropics, a single square metre (11 square feet) of sunshine can produce up to 17 kg (37 lbs) of sugarcane in a season.
And we're going to need it. It's estimated that the world will consume 174 million tons (191 US tons) of sugar in 2017 and around 80% of that sugar will be extracted from cane, the remainder coming from sugar beets. Both of these plants are unusual because they store energy in the form of sucrose instead of starch. Starch is the energy of choice for the rest of the plant kingdom because it isn't water soluble and doesn't draw water into the storage cells. In the case of sugarcane, this sucrose is dissolved into fluid in the stem of the plant. Good news for us, but bad news if you're short on water, because sugarcane needs a lot.
Shortly after the cane has flowered, it stockpiles sugar in preparation for growth in the following year, but if you cut it down at the right time, it's possible to literally raid the candy store. Thanks to centuries of continued cane cutting, the plant has retaliated by packing even more sugar into its stem, to the point where around one-fifth of its pressed juice is pure sugary goodness.
AGRICULTURE AND TERROIR
Being a grass has its advantages. One of which is that the plant does not require annually re-seeding. If cut correctly, the leftover stub will send up new stalks (called a ratoon) each season for up to 10 years. Successive harvests give decreasing yields however, so after 4—6 seasons it becomes necessary to replant the entire field. Mechanically harvested fields require more frequent replanting.
Cane terroir (a term that describes the soil, topography, and climate of environment in which the plant is grown) and cane variety is far less of a concern for rum producers that use molasses as their base material than it is for rhum agricole (see page 46) distillers or those that use cane juice or cane honey as their sugar source. This is because most, if not all, of the geographical and climactic influences that shape the material will be deadened during the sugar refinery process.
For those distillers that use cane juice as their base material (a practice popular in the French islands of the Caribbean) the variety of the cane, where it is grown, when it is harvested and how it is harvested are all scrutinized. The specific agriculture of the cane is often one of the major points of difference between distillers, discernible right through to the finished product. This begins with the variety of cane, where each type offers slightly different levels of sugar concentration (referred to as Brix and measured in ° Brix) and preferred growing conditions. Some varieties have been specifically bred or hybridized to be more disease-resistant, to thrive in volcanic soil, at higher altitudes or in hotter, low- lying regions. Others are prized more for their flavour, such as B69-566 or “Blue Cane”— named after the colour of the yeast that naturally forms on it — which was originally bred in Barbados and now proudly features in various single-varietal release rums from Martinique and Guadeloupe.
The cane that grows near the clay- and silt-rich soils of the northern coastline of Jamaica has been highly regarded for its high yield of sugar for over 250 years.
There are other colours assigned to different cane varieties: red, green and blue. These colours do not always reflect in the appearance of the cane itself, though. Blue cane is more mauve in appearance, which the Martinican poet Patrick Chamoiseau seems to agree with when he described the “purple swathes of sugar cane [and] heady aroma of the first cane flowers.”
Cane grown on higher ground, where humidity also tends to be higher, usually grows taller. This means it has a higher overall sugar content than low-grown canes, but the concentration of sugars is slightly lower. For the commercially minded rum manufacturer, higher concentrations of sugar are preferred, because this means more alcohol per ton of cane.
“You have to know how to cut the cane, talk to it as it falls, bundle it right away, take it to the grinders with due respect.”
Patrick Chamoiseau, poet Sugarcane is harvested during the dry season, which typically lands between January and July in the Caribbean and Latin America. Where possible, the cutting is done by machine, but it's still necessary to hand-cut the cane if the terrain is on a steep hillside, or generally impassable.
Cutting sugarcane by hand has to rank as one of the worst jobs on the planet. It's back-breaking, monotonous, hot and dangerous. I have tried my hand at it a number of times, and after only five minutes of cutting and stripping the cane with a machete, I was desperate to never cut another piece ever again.
The use of sugarcane harvesters, which were originally invented in the 1920s, certainly save a lot of time and effort, but they're no good on hillsides or on small plantations.
On some plantations, where cane is cut by hand — and especially those in Latin America — the cane is first burned before it is harvested. While not an environmentally sound practice, this does make the hand-harvesting process a lot easier and reduces labour costs. The fire scorches the outside of the cane, which minimizes juice loss during cutting. It doesn't damage the main structure of the cane, but it does strip the cane of any dry pieces of fibre, and protects the dense grass from the attention of dangerous insects and snakes.
Where cane is cut by machines — usually by a sugarcane harvester, which was originally developed in the 1920s — it’s usually conducted in tandem with a tractor trailer. The sugarcane harvester has a pair of conical shaped drills at the front that wind around, grabbing the cane and wrenching it from the earth.
Underneath the cabin of the machine, the cane is chopped into smaller pieces in such a way that the extraction of juice is avoided and the green leaves are processed out of the mix. Less than a second has passed, and the cane pieces are now at the rear of the vehicle, where they are conveyed up, before being mercilessly tossed sideways into a trailer that's pulled along by a tractor.
Mechanical harvesting is only possible on flat or very nearly flat terrain, so the majority of the world's sugarcane is still cut by hand. Mechanical harvesting is more damaging to the cane itself compared with cut cane, and the farmer suffers greater harvest losses. It's also more ecologically damaging because it compacts soil and damages the root and stem of the remaining plant stub.
Quite recently there have been advances in smaller cane harvesters so they now look more like large lawnmowers. These machines aim to make the handharvesting process less gruelling in environments where large machines are impractical or unaffordable, and cause less damage to the environment.
Loading cane into the mill at Barbancourt. See if you can spot the camera-shy distillery worker.
However the cane has been cut, it's possible to encounter it being transported by any means imaginable. During the Caribbean harvesting seasons, roads and tracks are littered with dropped lengths of cane, which ideally needs pressing within 48 hours to prevent the sucrose being broken down into simpler sugars by the enzyme invertase.
Once the cane arrives at the mill, the crop is weighed and the value calculated. In some countries it is a legal requirement that a sample of cane is taken and the sugar content measured. Sweeter cane makes more alcohol, and is naturally worth more money, so this encourages farmers to cut it only when the plant has reached its peak ripeness. Once calculated, the sweetness and the weight are entered into a formula that gives a price that the farmer is paid.
In large sugar refineries and the biggest distilleries in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the cane is dumped onto large patios and pushed around by bulldozers that load it onto conveyor belts. In smaller distilleries, like River Antoine in Grenada, the canes can be bundled together and unloaded by hand.
MAKING SUGAR AND MOLASSES
Since most rums are made from molasses, which is a by-product of the sugar- refining process, it's useful to first understand how sugarcane is processed in the context of a modern sugar mill.
Once it has arrived at the mill, the sugarcane is fed into a series of conveyor belts and rolling cutters, which break and squash the cane into sequentially smaller pieces until all that's left is bagasse (pulp fibre) and free-running juice. The smell of these places is pungent — always sharply acidic like vinegar (indicating the constant presence of airborne yeast) — but also earthy, vegetal and of course sweet. Water is added during milling to help flush as much sucrose from the plant as possible.
Next, the heavy impurities from the raw cane juice are removed by a process of clarification, which sees a strong alkaline known as “milk of lime” (calcium hydroxide slurry) added to the juice. This neutralizes the acids, which prevents the sucrose from converting into starch. The lime slurry needs to be removed, however, so the juice is carbonated at high temperature, which converts the calcium hydroxide into calcium carbonate (limestone), which can easily be filtered out. Sulphur dioxide is added to the juice, which increases the acidity, lowering the juice from a pH of 9 to a pH of 5. It also bleaches the juice, helping to improve the flavour of the sugar and lightening the colour.
The next stage is concentration, where most of the water is evaporated from the juice, leaving behind a super-sweet syrup. This is performed in a low-pressure boiler (called a vacuum pan) which places the liquid under a partial vacuum as it is heated, lowering the boiling point, and avoiding the caramelization of the sugars in the juice.
Next comes crystallization, where the last portion of the water is evaporated under very strict controls. Seed grain (sugar granules) are fed into the vacuum pan and as the water evaporates, more crystals begin to form. This process is typically repeated three times, and each time the remaining syrup becomes darker and more viscous. After the third boil, the sugar crystals leave the vacuum pan as a thick brown snowball of sugar, at which point it is classed as muscovado sugar. This is then sent to a centrifuge for further refining into raw sugar of at least 96° Brix (the percentage of sugar by mass).
The syrup that is left in the pan is molasses, and is graded based on the number of times it has been boiled. The leftovers after the first boiling is known as “first syrup” or “light molasses”. This has a relatively high sugar content and would typically be sent for further boiling, but it can be sold as “treacle” for baking. The remnants from the second boil are classed as “dark molasses” or “medium molasses” — it too can be used as a baking ingredient but one with far less purity and a good deal more colour. The remaining syrup from the third and final boil, when no more sugar can be liberated from the syrup, is “blackstrap molasses”. It's not that there isn't any sugar left (blackstrap molasses from cane comprises roughly 30—40% sucrose and 20% other sugars) — it’s just that it costs more money to extract the remaining sugar than the sugar itself is worth.
For the rum-maker, it’s blackstrap that is of the most interest: just over half of all the rum distilleries in the Caribbean and Latin America (disregarding Haiti’s 500- or-so distilleries that produce the fellow sugarcane spirit clairin) use blackstrap as their base material. But the distilleries using molasses are, on the whole, much bigger than the French island’s agricole operations, so molasses-based rums account for over 90% of all the rum made in the Caribbean and Latin America. As black as boot polish, it’s a viscous sludge that smells of liquorice (licorice) and iron and looks like congealed blood.
During cane sugar
refining, no part of the cane is wasted. Once the juice is pressed, the bagasse
is burnt. One ton of dry bagasse is equivalent in energy value to two
barrels of fuel oil, and the heat it produces is used to create steam energy,
which powers mills and pumps. Since fresh bagasse still contains around
50% water, it’s usually dried on patios before being burned.
Base materials for rum-making are available from this roadside
seller in Grenada (if you can excuse their
Cane honey is concentrated juice of the sugarcane plant. It’s produced during the evaporation stage of the sugar-refining process and takes on the appearance of a thick honey-like syrup and is around 75° Brix. Cane honey intended for rum is usually made in much the same way as it is in a sugar mill (see left), only the process ends before the vacuum-pan stage, thus preventing crystallization of the sugar. When the rum-maker wishes to use the cane honey to make rum, they dilute the syrup with water, back down to around 20° Brix before fermentation.
Cane honey rums differ from those made from cane juice, because many of the volatile organic compounds that are present in the juice are lost during the evaporation process. This typically results in a fermentation with fewer congeners (substances other than alcohol produced during fermentation), which means far less of the banana and vegetal madness present in agricole-style rums. In truth, cane honey rums are closer in style to molasses rums, but much of this depends on how conducive the fermentation and distillation processes are to retaining the character of the base material.
With the exception of St. Nicholas Abbey (see pages 74—77) in Barbados, the distilleries that use cane honey to make their rums are all in Latin America (Guatemala, Panama and the Dominican Republic). And all of them run quite short fermentations and produce high-strength column-still distillates, so almost any trace of the cane honey flavour is lost. But even if these were pot-still rums, I think it’s questionable whether — after a few years' maturation — you could pick out a cane honey rum among a selection of other molasses-based rums.
Rum producers that use cane honey tend to promote the flavour benefits, but the use of cane honey over molasses really boils down to economics. Whether it's taxes, subsidies, the price of sugar, price of molasses, or the cost of the labour force, sometimes it just makes better business sense to turn sugar cane into rum rather than sugar and molasses rum. These distilleries could of course just make cane juice spirits (in the agricole style), but cane syrup has the benefit of being a stable product. One that can be tucked away in a safe place and fermented long after the harvesting season has ended.
Rums that are made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses, are most commonly referred to as rhum agricole. This is a French term, which translates to “agricultural rum” or “farm rum”. In the past, the term rhum agricole usually referred to a small, self-sufficient type of producer rather than to the material that they made their rum from. Indeed, sugar cane juice rums were known as rhum de vessou, and cane syrup and molasses rums known as rhum de syrup and rhum de melasse.
Just as today's “craft” distilleries are keen to remind us of their relatively small operations, rhum agricole also spoke of boutique production and cottage industry. Larger operations, which tended to be in urban areas, and usually purchased their base material from a third party, were known as rhum industriel distilleries (see pages 60—61).
Rhum agricole rums begin their lives with similar mechanical processing as in sugar refineries — this isn’t surprising, since many of them are a tribute to an old sugar mill. Once the cane is cut, the clock starts ticking and the race is on to mill the plant as quickly as possible to ensure maximum sugar — and therefore alcohol — yield. The cane is pressed, typically through a series of roller mills linked together by conveyor belts. In some distilleries, water is added at the time of pressing, and in the most modern examples, the quantity of water is adjusted by a computer in order to reach the optimum level of sweetness in the pressed juice. Foam and scum from the pressing, along with any debris/dirt or pieces of cane fibre, are filtered out of the juice, which is then sent for fermentation .
Cane mills such as these are common to all agricole distilleries. This one is at Damoiseau distillery on
Cane juice rums are not to everyone's tastes. For me, there's a far stronger link
down to the fact that there are fewer stages of human intervention in the manufacturing process.”. Factors like cane variety, terroir and processing technique become highly relevant in this style, which opens up additional levels of distinction between similar products. As Dave Broom puts it in Rum (2003): “it's somehow appropriate that the French make rum in this fashion as, in many ways, it is one step closer to wine.”
Fermentation is an essential stage of the rum-making process because it is here where all the alcohol is made! Through the action of millions of yeast cells, alcohol molecules are manufactured from the sugars present in molasses or sugarcane juice/syrup. But fermentation is also a crucial stage in the development of flavour in a rum — that is, if the rum you're making is to be flavourful. There are many factors at play during fermentation, some of them easier to control than others, but the key variables here are the type of yeast that is used and the length of the fermentation.
These days, most distilleries use a distiller's yeast to ferment their molasses or cane products. This will be a specific strain of the fast-acting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae — the same species that has been used by brewers and breadmakers since ancient times. The type of yeast used will not only affect the yield of alcohol, but can also control the rate and intensity of fermentation, and ultimately the complex flavourful congeners that are created. Distiller's yeasts offer the most efficient rate of conversion, but often do so at the cost of flavour. Some distilleries use proprietary yeast strains that aim to produce specific flavours during fermentation.
Yeast can be added to the fermenting vessel in one of two ways, either by tipping 20-kg (44-lb) bags of living culture in by hand, or by pumping liquid yeast in through pipes. Some more modern distilleries use yeast propagation tanks, which provide optimal conditions for yeast cell cultures to multiply before further sugars are added. Some more traditional rum distillers don't add a yeast culture at all, instead allowing natural airborne yeasts to let fermentation works its magic.
If the distillery is making rum from cane juice, it's a ready-made source of sugar and ready to be fermented straight out of the cane. In the case of molasses and cane juice, these products are too dense to be fermented as they are — which is also the reason why they constitute a “shelf-stable” product (i.e. one that can be stored safely at room temperature) — so they must be diluted with water first. A distillery may also add a yeast nutrient to the molasses, which helps to promote a healthy fermentation. This typically takes the form of ammonium sulphate, which helps to boost nitrogen levels and keep the yeast active.
When a yeast is exposed to a sugary environment in the tropics, it gets to work in less than an hour. Fer mentation begins with the metabolic process called glycolysis, where yeast converts one glucose (sugar) molecule into two pyruvate molecules. Pyruvate is a form of “free energy” that can be used to create other energy-providing compounds, and this is exactly the same process that takes place in the human body to convert glucose into a usable energy currency.
Pyruvate features three carbon atoms. During the fermentation of bread, it is these atoms that combine with the yeast and oxygen to make carbon dioxide (CO2). Voila: your bread proves. In the case of fermenting sugary liquids, such as
molasses and cane juice, the liquid doesn't have access to much oxygen — a layer of CO2 sits on top of the brew, and oxygen can't penetrate down through the liquid. This lack of oxygen means that the process is described as “anaerobic”. In this instance the pyruvate can't combine all its carbon with oxygen (to create CO2), so it instead produces molecules of ethanol, methanol and other types of alcohol.
Heat can become problematic in the hot environments in which rum distilleries traditionally locate themselves, and if the temperature of the fermentation rises above 38°C (100°F), there is a chance that the yeast cells will die in a kind of hot soup of their own making. It's for this reason that some distilleries run liquid-cooling lines through their fermenters, to cool things down a little. In non-traditional rum-producing regions, the problem is flipped on its head, and sometimes it's necessary to warm the fermentation vessels gently to promote yeast culture growth and encourage fermentation.
It is the ethanol that gives the fermented liquid its alcoholic strength, but the other alcohols produced, along with development of aldehydes and esters, are the true designators of flavour. The variety and quantity of these compounds is dictated by a whole number of factors that are not limited to the mineral content and pH of the cane juice or the syrup/molasses and any added water; the length and temperature of fermentation and the type of yeast used are also key factors.
Longer fermentation is the most significant of these factors, as highlighted by the 30-day “flavour-makers” (i.e. the month-long process of fermentation) that take place at distilleries like Hampden Estate (see pages 126—27) in Jamaica. These rums owe much of their flavour and aroma to complex organic compounds called esters, which are generated during longer fermentations when acids in the wash/wine react with alcohols. The acids themselves are created by the secondary fermentation of alcohols, and by the action of lactobacillus bacteria on residual sugars. Esters are also created by the organic reduction of aldehydes that are themselves created by the oxidation of alcohol. Low-molecular-weight esters are present in many natural fruits, herbs and flowers, and it's these compounds that give us the suggestion of fruitiness or floral aroma in rum. More esters are produced in longer fermentation (at the sacrifice of alcohol content) as the alcoholic wash/wine is given an extended opportunity to oxidize and reduce.
A lighter style of rum needs only a short fermentation (typically 18—48 hours, because the product is intended to be light in flavour). Heavier rums tend to be fermented for as much as five days — we'll explore distilleries' approaches to this in The Rum Tour chapter.
The final strength of the fermented wash/wine will vary according to many of the factors listed above, not least of all the sugar content (Brix) of the starting wort. In general though, wash/wine strength will sit somewhere between 5 and 8%, so something like a strong beer.
MUCK & DUNDER
Some Jamaican distilleries undergo a process known as “dundering” during fermentation, which is similar to that of sour-mashing in the Bourbon industry. However, with Bourbon it's a simple case of adding leftover acidic stillage (or vinasse) to the ferment, whereas with dunder there’s a little more to it... and it isn't pretty.
A “dunder pit” is where this magic/horror takes place. In this pit, the waste stillage is mixed with cane vinegar, fresh molasses and water, and the whole horrific mess is aerated over a period of hours. The precise cocktail of ingredients is designed to create the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, and this oozing mass of infected goo is affectionately referred to as “muck”. As the bacteria multiply, they produce a range of long-chain fatty (carboxylic) acids, each of
which will come in handy during fermentation when they react with alcohol to create esters. The resulting aromas are funky beyond all measure, like defiled fruit. Aficionados of the style call it “hogo”, which is derived from the French term hautgout (good flavour), a term that also lends itself to that most infamous affliction of the gourmand — gout.
There are many historical references to “muck holes” from the early 20th century, during a time when high-ester Jamaican rums were sought-after ingredients for culinary applications such as in candy production. The muck hole operates like a bioreactor with the aim of creating nice, complex carboxylic acids. The problem is that, if left unchecked, the muck becomes overly acidic, resulting in the production of ammonia, before finally stalling. This is managed by adding the alkaline lime marl (crumbly sedimentary rock comprising limestone and clay), which keeps the pH in check and helps create acid crystals/salts which could be drawn off as fresh stillage was added. Cane vinegar is added because it's made from acetic acid. This is good from a flavour standpoint as — being the shortest chain acid — it readily bonds with lime marl to form salt crystals. Acetic acid trades places with longer-chain acids, and allows them to partake in the creation of more interesting aroma-giving esters.
A beguiling if not just downright confusing, dunder chart at Hampden
Estate. I hope it makes more sense to
them than it does to me.
Pot stills are the simplest and oldest form of distillation. They work like large kettles: an alcoholic wash/wine is heated, the vapours are channelled up to the top (neck) of the still and then into the condenser where they are converted back into a liquid. Pot stills are usually made from copper, which is used because of its high thermal conductivity, malleability and catalytic properties.
Distillation in pots is quite inefficient, however, and distillation runs are often repeated in a batch process to increase alcohol strength. Logic would suggest that any alcoholic liquid that is heated should produce a vapour of 100% pure alcohol, but some water inevitably finds itself into each distillation because water vapour and steam are generated even at very low temperatures.
In a traditional pot still, the first distillation only produces a “spirit” of around 25—30% alcohol by volume (ABV). The second distillation results in a liquid of typically 65—75% ABV — sufficient in strength to be called a spirit. It’s possible to distil this spirit a third time — although I know of no rums that do so — but there is little advantage in doing this, as the crudeness of the process limits the potential concentration of alcohol.
It’s not just alcohol that carries through in pot distillation. As the wash/wine is heated from the bottom, the system generates upward pressure that forces alcohol and water precipitates, as well as volatile aromatic molecules (but not colour) up through the neck of the still, along the lyne arm and down into the condenser. Taller stills produce a lighter style of spirit, because they make it harder for heavier compounds to make the journey uphill. Short stills encourage the transfer of heavier compounds into the condenser, making a rum style with greater depth and lingering flavour.
Tall stills give a spirit more interaction time (and space) with copper. Copper has a purifying effect on a distilled spirit, and a greater degree of interaction removes sulphurous flavours and heightens the cultivation of delicate fruit and floral aromatics. This is especially so in small stills, since there is a greater surface area of copper in relation to the volume of liquid. Of course, the effects of size vary based on how much liquid is put in the still too. The shape of the still also has a part to play, with the different forms encouraging a varying degree of reflux in the system. A short still can produce spirit that is reminiscent of a tall still by bulging out and pinching in at certain stages up the neck of the still.
Modern stills are powered by steam coils or steam jackets, but older examples can be directly fired by an oil or gas flame or by burning wood or bagasse. Direct firing is thought to produce a spirit heavier in character, as hot spots on the inside of the still burn the wash/wine (and especially any insoluble matter contained in it) causing complex caramelizations, Maillard reactions, charring of solid matter and the production of furfural (an oily liquid with an almond-like aroma) and sulphur compounds that may carry through into the final product.
Whatever the style of rum, it's always necessary to “cut” the freshly distilled spirit during the second distillation to remove dangerous and unpleasant smelling compounds. The first cut is known as the “heads” and contains higher alcohols and ketones, which besides being toxic also give the spirit the aroma of glue or turpentine. The heads typically represent the first 5% of a complete run, and after collection they are sometimes redistilled in the next batch to liberate any remaining ethanol. Next the main body of the spirit (known as the “heart”) begins to flow from the condenser — this is effectively high-strength white rum. Finally, towards the end of the run, it's necessary to make a second cut, as the “tails” begin to come through. These comprise heavier, oily alcohols that can give a spirit a rough and unclean flavour, as well as making it cloudy in appearance. Again, some distilleries will redistill a portion of the tails too.
The exact cut of the “heart” differs according to the distiller's preference, with every subsequent litre of distillate highlighting specific characteristics generated during fermentation — from light florals, to citrus freshness, down to vibrant berries and rich, dark fruits.
RETORT IS THE ANSWER
In the world of rum, pot stills rarely operate in isolation. Most
have a pair of “retorts”connected between the lyne arm and the condenser. A
retort is like an additional, smaller pot that conducts a further distillation
of the spirit vapour, increasing the strength and removing the need to run a
second “batch” distillation.
Potstills - like those at Mount Gay and St. Lucia Distillers - are the backbone of the world's best blended rums.
The pot is filled with alcoholic wash/wine as normal, which is
heated until the vapour (of around 30% ABV) is carried over into the first
retort. Here it is met by “low wines” from the previous distillation, which mix
with the vapour and boil, doubling the spirit vapour strength up to roughly 60%
ABV This vapour carries over into the next retort, which contains the “high
wines” from the previous distillation. The spirit vapour once again increases
in strength, this time up to 88%
ABV, and then passes into the condenser. The liquid that flows off is then cut four ways: heads, heart (rum), high wines and low wines, where the latter two are recycled back into the retorts ready for the next distillation.
A collection of steel and copper columns of different lengths and
widths at the La Mauny distillery in
The wider the column, the higher the potential throughput. The more plates the column has, the greater
the purity of spirit.
The important distinction to make between pot stills and column stills is the concept of a “batch” process. In pot distillation, the efficiency of the distillation and the character of the resulting liquid is orchestrated by duration of the distillation and the timing of the cuts — it is an artisanal process requiring both technical training and an understanding of the organoleptic properties of the spirit. A column still is different. It's a continuous process that need never end so long as there is a good supply of alcoholic liquid fed into the system, and it's for this reason that the column still is sometimes referred to as a “continuous still”. But there is a common misconception that all column stills are the same, and that they all produce the same, largely netural, industrial spirit. This is an unfair assessment, however. Generally speaking, the more columns in a continuous still setup, the purer — or to put it another way, “neutral” — the resulting spirit becomes.
Column stills seem like quite modern innovations, but they have been around since the 1830s and early versions were being developed 200 years before then. One of the first continuous stills was invented by Frenchman Edouard Adam, who attended chemistry lectures under Professor Laurent Solimani at the University of Montpellier. Amazingly, Adam was illiterate, but despite that apparently minor setback, he developed and patented the first type of column still in 1804. Unrecognizable from the stills you can see on page 49, Adam's column was a horizontal arrangement that linked together a series of “large eggs”, with pipes that routed alcohol vapour from one egg to the next. The strength of the spirit increased in each subsequent egg, whilst the leftover stuff was recycled back at the start again.
The Pistorius still, which was patented in 1817, was the first still to be arranged in a column shape. Steam was pumped up from the bottom and beer from the top and distillation took place on a series of perforated “plates” arranged through the length of the column. This design worked best because it allowed for a smooth graduation of temperature change from higher at the bottom to lower at the top. Since ethyl alcohol boiled at exactly 78.3°C (172.9°F), in theory you could fraction spirit vapour off the column at a height that corresponded to that temperature and capture a very high-strength spirit, leaving most of the (undesirable) residual flavour behind.
Subsequent iterations were developed in France and Scotland, and by 1830 the final design had been settled upon, fully realized in a design patented by the Inspector General of Excise in Ireland, Aeneas Coffey. The “Coffey Still” or “Patent Still”was a truly continuous process, where fermented beer (or wine) was pumped in and high-strength alcohol drawn off. It was even quite energy-efficient for its time, using the cool pipes that fed beer into the system as condensing coils for the hot alochol vapours exiting it — like a dog eating its own tail.
In Coffey's design, two columns are at work, with both of them separated into chambers by a series of perforated plates. Starting in the rectifying column, the wash/wine is carried down through a coiled pipe and heated as it goes. The wash/wine is then pumped up to the top of the analyzer column, where it is sprayed on to the top plate, and falls through the holes, gradually making its way to the bottom. At the bottom of the analyser, steam is pumped into the system, which rises up to meet the falling wash/wine. This has the effect of stripping the alcohol from the wash/wine, which then rises back up the analyzer; it is then pumped out (owing to the pressure) before travelling down to the base of the rectifier. Once there, it continues to evaporate upwards, with each plate acting like a single distillation run. As it nears the top, it begins to cool, because only the lightest part of the vapour can continue upwards. Once it reaches the collecting plate (which is set by the distiller) the spirit is allowed to flow out, fully concentrated and up to 95% pure alcohol.
The number of plates in the two columns dictates the final strength of the spirit: fewer plates produce a more characterful, less refined liquid. More plates, more columns, and taller columns result in a purer style of distillate, but it also means a greater degree of flexibility in the style of distillate that is produced, as different combinations of columns are connected or removed from the sequence. Most Latin American distilleries operate entirely with columns, often producing different weights of marque that can be used in a final blend.
Although hybrid stills seem like relatively new innovations, they have their origins in much older distilleries. Some of the first column stills on Puerto Rico and Cuba were in fact hybrids — pot stills with columns mounted on top. These days, a hybrid still usually looks like a pot still with a column connected on the side. By opening and closing the plates on the column, the distiller can select how heavy or light the rum comes off the still. Examples of modern hybrid stills can be found at St. Nicholas Abbey (see pages 74—77) on Barbados and at Cayman Spirits Co. (see page 83) on Grand Cayman.
Hybrid German stills are very popular with gin distillers, and we're
starting to see them used to make rum
Ask someone to picture “rum” in their head, and it’s quite likely they will think of an oak barrel. Barrels or casks are linked to rum's history, just as they are to its flavour. Since its earliest conception in the 17th century, rum has been shifted around in barrels, from island to mainland, from sugar mill to port, from distillery to blender. Before the dawn of of the forklift truck and pallet, the oak barrel was the trustiest of vessels to store your goods. It’s been around since Roman times, and for some 2,000 years it has been the go-to method of transportation for pretty much everything — be it fish, nails, coins, booze, or dead admirals (in the case of Admiral Horatio Nelson): the unique shape of a wooden barrel — that pinches inwardly at both ends — makes it surprisingly easy for a single person to move hundreds of kilograms of cargo around by themselves. Barrels are watertight, relatively cheap to “raise”, highly durable (some last over a century before being decommissioned) and easy to store. The unique nature of wood as a storage material also means that air and vapours can move freely in and out of the cask, while the liquid stays safe inside. This is a key element of the maturation process. Best of all, though — they can turn fiery white rum into a spirit of nuance and distinction.
Fermented molasses bubbling through one of the plates on the column still at Antigua Distillers.
To better understand how oak affects a white rum, we must get to grips with the material itself.
Most of the barrels in the spirits industry are made in the US and intended for the production of Bourbon whiskey, or constructed in Spain and France, where they are used to age sherry, wines, and brandy. The rest of the spirits-producing world (including rum, Scotch, and Tequila) purchases second-hand barrels from these producers in the US, Spain and France in order to age their products. This system of build, use, sell, use, is born out the economics of availability and the trading patterns that were established centuries ago. But the use of new barrels in the Bourbon and Cognac industries has in turn defined the style of those spirits, with their up-front, concentrated, oak characteristics.
Bourbon casks make up the vast majority of the barrels used by the rum industry and are made from a variety of oak known as “white oak” (Quercus alba). This type of oak has a paler-coloured bark than other varieties, although the colour of the cut wood is indistinguishable from any other. White oak is a fastgrowing variety, rising straight and true and reaching maturation in only 60—80 years. The result is wood influence that we commonly associate with rum: plenty of vanilla and other associated “white” things, such as banana, white chocolate, buttermilk and custard.
White oak casks are built in the US, filled with Bourbon, emptied and then sold to rum makers. US law prohibits the refilling of these casks, so Bourbon producers are legally obliged to move them on to other industries. Second-hand goods they may be, but having been stripped of some of their flavour, they are less aggressive in their delivery of wood characteristics and easier to control than new casks — think of it like a tea bag that, after brewing a cup, still has plenty of flavour to give to a second, third, or even fourth cup... if left to brew for long enough.
Although any type of barrel can be used to age rum, the most common
varieties are French and American
European oak casks are generally used and sold in much the same way as Bourbon casks are: filled one or more times, then sold on to other industries. European oak casks can be made from white oak or red oak (Quercus robur) which is a slower growing tree, that twists and turns and only reaches maturation after 150 years. The resulting spirit tends to be more tannic (a trait of the slow growth), peppery and spicy with, rather fittingly, flavours of red-coloured things like dried plums, grapes, cloves and red wine. The wine or brandy that previously filled the cask will have stripped some of the flavour out (just as Bourbon does) but the cask still has plenty left to give, as well as some residual flavours from the wine (or spirit) that it previously contained. Ex-wine and sherry casks are prized by the Scotch whisky industry, but have made little headway into the rum world. Distillers such as Foursquare (see pages 68—71) in Barbados, Brugal (see pages 94—95) in the Dominican Republic and St Lucia Distillers (see pages 159—61) in St Lucia are among the pioneers of these new premium offerings — more to come in the future, I hope.
In the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean, it’s quite common to encounter French oak casks, made from Quercus sessliflora that grows in the Limousin Forest. These have often passed through the Cognac industry first, but in certain distilleries, like Barbancourt in Haiti (see pages 117—18), it’s the new cask that’s used. These casks offer up zestiness, spice and plenty of grippy tannin.
Depending on how they'll be stored, some barrels are filled from the top - others through a bung hole on the side.
New American oak casks are rare to find in rum distilleries, although some producers are experimenting with them on a small scale, curious to find out what a new-oak cask can contribute to a rum blend.
Whatever the type of oak, the barrel will be charred (in Bourbon barrel production) or toasted (in European oak barrel production) at the time of its construction, and possibly again, later in its life. The origins of this practice are not entirely clear, but some historians suggest that it was a means of removing the taint of the product that the barrel previously held (fish, for example) before filling it with wine or spirit. Bourbon’s alleged inventor, Reverend Elijah Craig, is sometimes credited as the originator of the practice. That’s also an alleged claim.
Charring is an all-out flamethrower assault in the interior surfaces of the barrel, as ruthless licks of heat blast the wood for 30—60 seconds, causing the surface to bubble and writhe as it catches fire. When a cask is toasted, the heat is applied more gently, sometimes through convection rather than direct flame, and over a longer period of time — up to and around 6 minutes. Think of it like frying versus baking. Baking the barrels like this results in the degradation of wood polymers into flavoursome compounds, the destruction of unpleasant resinous compounds in the wood, and in the case of charring, the forming of a thin layer of active carbon. The two different approaches also play to the flavour palates of the
associated spirit industries.
THE MATURATION MECHANISM
Ageing rum is not as simple as “the longer you leave it the more woody it gets”, and certainly not as simple as “the older the rum the better it tastes”. An age statement on a bottle can be useful, but it only really becomes relevant if the other variables are made aware to us: the type and condition of wood, age of the cask, how many times it has been filled and various environmental factors.
Newer casks will give a rum more flavour, and it's for this reason that you may encounter an amber-coloured 3-year-old next to a straw-coloured 10-year-old (using the same teabag three or four times will produce similar results). That's not to say that refill casks are worthless, in fact it's sometimes a more pleasantly subdued and considered flavour that we find from these older barrels.
Deciphering the complex nature of spirits maturation is a skill that took decades to master.
Much of what goes on in the perpetual twilight of a warehouse, however, is unpredictable without the analysis of every stave of wood that makes up every cask and every drop of liquid that goes into it. The changes that take effect in the murky realms of the vessel are, even today, still being scrutinized and tested to better understand the effects of the barrel and the optimum maturation conditions.
We're not completely in the dark though. Oak itself contains over 100 volatile components capable of contributing flavour in a rum. Additionally there are other compounds formed through the oxidation of wood extracts and compounds already present in the freshly made spirit. It's these factors that broadly affect the flavour of an aged spirit.
Looking at this in more detail, there are four components of oak structure that contribute flavour to rum: lignin, hemicellulose, extractives and oak tannins. Once charred or toasted, the lignin in the oak contributes to flavours of toast, coffee, vanilla and then caramel, chocolate, toffee and cream. Hemicellulose is the breeze block of oak's secondary cell walls. It is thought to react with complex acids in the spirit, causing simple un-sweet wood sugars (around 200 different types) to be extracted that provide body and “smoothness” to the liquid. Extractives are free- running solubles that get washed out by the rum. They include a whole host of flavour compounds that can provide grassy, baked, wood-sap, peachy, floral and even greasy aromas. Wood tannin gives the familiar drying sensation on the palate, and when managed correctly, balance and grip to an otherwise flabby spirit. Tannins also impart colour and astringent flavour, at least in the early phase of maturation, and take part in various oxidative reactions removing sulphury off- notes and promoting colour stability, lignin breakdown and oxidation of alcohol into acetals, producing ethereal top-notes.
Last, but certainly not least, is the chemical degradation of the liquid through oxidation. Besides ethanol, there are numerous other trace alcohols present in rum, each with its own weight and flavour and each capable of being turned into aldehydes and acids. For example, the oxidation of the ethanol (alcohol) in the cask forms acetaldehyde and acetic acid. Aldehydes play an important role in rum aroma, like benzaldehyde (oxidized benzyl alcohol), which smells like almond.
Acetic acid, along with other oxoacids are crucial for the formation of esters. Esters provide all of the fruity and floral top notes in rum aroma, everything from geranium or jasmine right through to apple, sage, pineapple and strawberry.
Climate affects rum at virtually every stage of production, from the cane to fast ferments and accelerated maturation.
Casks are organic containers, each one like a wooden lung that “breathes” in its immediate environment through the course of the day. Alcohol and water are in a constant state of evaporation, and they both move out of the cask, making way for the incoming air. The hotter the climate and the greater the variance between day and night, the faster this process occurs. Over time, the volume of the cask depreciates and the liquid dissipates, and in the tropics this occurs at a rate of 5%
to 10% of the total contents of the barrel every year. In particularly hot climates, like Venezuela and Guyana, a distillery might expect to lose half of the barrel in the space of five years.
On some French-speaking islands, rhum agricole producers “top-up” casks with similar-aged rum as the level in the barrel drops. This physical intervention in the maturation process is known as elevage (“breeding”). It’s a canny way of reducing the number of casks that the distillery needs to store, but it also reduces the angel's share and affects the flavour of the future rum by minimizing oxidative reactions.
I have heard it said that spirits aged in the tropics mature five or ten times faster (depending on who you speak to) than in the chilly climes of the whisky or Cognac industries. But I think that statements like these can be a little misleading and are founded upon unscientific principles. Certainly, the interactive effect of the oak is accelerated, as the contraction and expansion of the cask is amplified by hot days and cool nights. This is why the spirit colours so quickly, as tannins are quickly drawn out of the cask. Evaporative losses are much higher in the Caribbean, so the spirit concentrates much faster, and this also has the apparent effect of speeding up maturation. The increased headspace in the cask (as the liquid evaporates) also increases the rate of oxidation, because when the cask empties, the area of exposed liquid increases until the cask is half full. But the increase in surface area alone is enough for a five-fold increase in oxidative degradation.
So in some respects the maturation is accelerated significantly, and in others it is but a slight change. The point is, that a rum matured for five years in the Caribbean and a rum matured for 15 years in France, will not taste the same. Climactic considerations have too great an influence here for us to be able compare one age statement to another, even if the starting liquid and cask are identical. The fact that even subtle shifts in temperature, air pressure and humidity can affect rum quite dramatically is certainly something to be celebrated, and comes as no surprise for a product born out of such humble origins as cane and wood.
The process of solera ageing has its origins in the production of sherry, so it's not surprising that it should find its home in some of the Spanish-speaking distilleries in the West Indies, and it’s brands like Santa Teresa (see pages 188—89) and Zacapa (see pages 172—73) that have found the most fame in this particular field.
A solera traditionally comprises three or four horizontal “layers” of casks, which are all filled with rums of the same average age. Rum for bottling is vatted from liquid drawn from the casks on the bottom layer, nearest the ground (“suelo” means “ground” in Spanish, which is where the term “solera” is taken from) but these casks are never completely emptied. The bottom layer is then topped up with rum from the second layer, which is topped up from the next layer, and so on. The top layer is topped up with other aged stocks from outside of the system, or with white rum.
Solera is a system of both maturation and blending that maintains consistency and balances old with new and the rum drawn from the solera system will contain some small percentage of rum that is as old as the system itself. Well, that’s how the system is supposed to work, anyway.
In reality, it isn’t always practical to store barrels in layers on top of one another. The “layers” may constitute entire warehouses, where the rum is vatted in between each step. With some distilleries, the term “solera” has only vague similarities to the sherry-making process, such as with Ron Zacapa’s incredibly convoluted sistema solera, which mixes static ageing, the French practice of elevage (see page 54) and some elements of Spanish solera all into one system.
Blending is nigh-on impossible to avoid in the world of rum. Almost all rums are blended in some shape or form: a blending of casks, ages, distillates or distilleries. Blending balances flavour, defines a product's style, and hedges bets, like an insurance policy against the possibility of certain rums becoming unavailable, if you will. It also stretches volumes, lengthening flavoursome heavy rum with lighter-style spirit. Imagine a finished bottle of rum like a piece of music, where all of the component parts form a harmonious balance of flavour. Sometimes it's nice to experience an unblended rum — a solo piece — but for the most part we are looking for balance and synergy. In this analogy, different styles of rum are representative of different musical instruments — from the bass notes of Demerara or Jamaica, to the high-pitched treble of column-still Spanish rums. Orchestrating these separate components into a finished composition — whether from the same distillery or not — is where the artistry of the blender comes into play.
Further difficulty arises when re-creating that composition time and time again. In an orchestra you would find the best musicians of their time to play the piece, but as any concert-goer knows, there will always be subtle changes to the arrangement in each subsequent portrayal. The blender (or conductor) has similar challenges in the form of changes in distillery character and — if the rum is aged — price and availability of casks.
Practically speaking, the master blender will nose and taste cask samples, then compose a blend based on his or her findings. The distillery staff will then be tasked with dumping the liquid from all the relevant casks and mixing the liquid together in stainless steel tanks or occasionally large wooden vats.
All rum undergoes some degree of filtration, through steel, cellulose or nylon mesh, to remove particles attracted during the distillation process, or from time spent in cask.
Some rums are also chill-filtered. This process is the same as any other mechanical filtration method, except the spirit is chilled to approximately 0°C (32°F) (and sometimes much lower) prior to filtration. The chilling is necessary to draw certain fatty-acids and long-chain esters out of solution, which would turn the liquid cloudy if it is subjected to particularly cold (sub-zero) storage conditions, or if served over ice or from the freezer. While this is thought to only subtly change the flavour of the spirit, it would appear to be an acceptable compromise for a brand that doesn't wish to have their liquid turn cloudy on store shelves. Not everyone agrees that chill-filtering has a positive impact on quality, however. Some rum producers are beginning to follow the lead of the Scotch whisky industry and labelling their product as non-chill filtered — their belief being that process diminishes mouthfeel and removes precious flavourgiving components from the rum.
Diversifying the flavour of rum stocks is the best way for a master blender to compose a balanced product.
Cloudiness can also be a sign of a potentially dangerous product, but assuming you are assured of the provenance of the bottles, it's nothing to worry about.
Some rums, especially those of Spanish origin, may be filtered through charcoal prior to blending and bottling. This process is intended to soften flavour, but also to remove colour. Bacardi Carta Blanca is perhaps the best example of such a rum, as this spirit is matured for around two years, yet in the bottle it is crystal clear. The process also irons out discrepancies in colour, in some respects achieving the same effect as adding distiller's caramel but by removing colour instead.
Activated charcoal is a type of carbon that has been treated with oxygen. These lightweight black granules are unique and unrivalled in their surface area-to-mass ratio — a single gram can have a surface area in excess of 500 square meters! The more surface, the better the chance that large impure molecules adsorb onto the mass of the charcoal; activated charcoal can adsorb up to 20 times its weight. This can be a good or bad thing, since charcoal is not great at discriminating between “bad” and “good” flavour molecules. Either way, it's been used in spirits production for over two centuries, and is especially important for vodka, where flavour-free is often the goal.
Testing the organoleptic properties of some cask samples in the lab at St. Lucia Distillers.
Although rum is inextricably linked with sugar, and many rums do indeed smell of “sweet” things (honey, toffee, treacle, etc.), rum will never taste truly sweet unless it has been sweetened before bottling. Virtually all of the sugars provided by molasses or cane juice are converted into alcohol during fermentation, and any residual sugars that are left behind do not carry over during distillation. And it's because of this fact that rum bottled fresh from the still will have no sugar in it whatsoever. Even barrels, with all their associated caramels and vanilla contribute only trace quantities of actual sugar.
With that in mind, it may be surprising to learn that at least half of the rums in this book do contain sugar and therefore have been sweetened. This goes for white rums as well as darker expressions, although it is in the latter that we tend to find the most liberal use of sweetener. This is nothing new — sugar has been added to rum for centuries — which is hardly surprising given the availability of the stuff in and around rum distilleries. Sweetening rum has the effect of softening alcohol burn and highlighting selected characteristics, as well as thickening the texture and the apparent concentration of the liquor. And it’s for this reason — to make the rum more approachable — that sweetening has become an industry-wide practice. The problem is, some rums are so sweet that they are in danger of approaching a liqueur level of sweetness, and in my opinion, too much sugar can also muddy flavour and flatten nuance.
Most distillers that admit to adding sugar claim to do so because they are trying to iron out discrepancies in flavour from batch to batch. In other words: to ensure consistency. I'm fine with this — it’s something that’s practised in other spirit categories besides rum, most notably in the Cognac business, which refers to the sweetening of their liquids with the innocent sounding term “dosage”. With Cognac, the legal limit is 2 g of sugar per litre of spirit — a barely detectable quantity.
But what is more frustrating than the act of sweetening itself, is the reluctance of distilleries to own up to it. “Do you add sugar?” is a question I often ask when touring distilleries, and it’s often followed by a period of awkward silence. The producers that do add only a little (less than 5 g/litre) are usually quite honest about doing so. Conversely, it’s the rums that are noticeably sweet (I’m looking at you, Central America and Guyana) that are keeping tight-lipped. Transparency has never been more sought-after in food and drink than it is today, both for the health conscious seeking assurances and for those interested in provenance and the integrity of manufacturing.
In 2014 the government-owned Swedish liquor store chain Systembolaget, and Alko, a similar chain of stores in Finland, ran a series of tests on a range of over 30 popular rum brands. The products were mostly from Spanish-speaking islands in the Caribbean, and Central and South American countries. Their results were, for the most part, quite consistent, and both studies made for a rather disturbing read. At the lower end of the scale, the younger island rums, such as Havana Club, Brugal and Bacardi, contained around 3 g sugar per litre of spirit. At the higher end there were some rums, like Ron Zacapa 23, Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, and Rhum Quorhum Solera 23 that each contained over 40 g sugar per litre of spirit. These figures are difficult to discredit, since testing was rigorous and conducted by two independent bodies.
Some of these producers still insist that the sugar in their rum comes from the barrel or from some proprietary production technique, relating to still shape or fermentation procedure.
The issue lies in the fact that adding sugar to rum, just like adding colour, is unregulated. Producers can choose to sweeten as they wish, and it’s consumers that will make the final decision with their wallets on whether the rum is enjoyable or not. I personally think that some sweet rums are really rather delicious, but that certainly doesn’t mean that good rum has to be sweetened aggressively, or that an amazing rum need have any sugar adding to it at all.
It’s unlikely we will see an end to sugaring in rum, and I’m not sure that it needs to stop. What would be nice though, is some transparency on the matter. Labelling that clearly defines how much sugar has been added to the rum. With that information we can better understand why we like certain rums, and how we assign value to that.
It's easy to dismiss colouring as cheating, but most of us struggle to disassociate dark spirits with quality.
Colouring is common among virtually all of the aged (and some of the un-aged) rums in this book. In fact, it's common among almost all spirits, as a means of standardizing the appearance of bottles on the liquor store shelf, and suggesting a little more time in oak than the natural spirit's colour might communicate.
This is achieved using distiller's caramel (E150a), which is obtained through the heating and caramelization of carbohydrates (sugar). So, it is in fact, just caramel. E150a has no sweetness to it however, since the process is carefully controlled so as to caramelize all of the available sugars, resulting in a very thick, black syrup. By itself the flavour is bitter, if anything, and a little goes a very long way. A pinprick of caramel is enough to muddy a sink-full of water.
Judging the rum by its colour is futile at the best of times, but once the element of colouring is introduced, the relationship between the colour of the liquid, its time spent in oak and the flavour one might expect of the liquid, is misleading to say the least. In fact, it's designed to fool you. The practice of adding colour to suggest long years in casks is one of the longstanding hallmarks of the Black Rum style. The irony being that, while these rums may appear to be long in years, they are generally a blend of either very young or even unaged spirits. Mutton dressed as lamb, you might say.
Think about it enough (as I have) and it eventually leads one to question whether the colouring of rum really matters at all. Scientific studies on this subject suggest that the associated flavours of oak are perceptible in both spirits that are aged in oak and those that only appear to have been. It's a great example of how the colour of a drink can have profound influences on our perception of its flavour: “eye appeal is half the meal”, so the saying goes. Take a nose on a glass of Navy rum and it's difficult to stifle similarly coloured flavour descriptors like “oak”, “toffee”, “molasses”, “coffee” and “spice”. The same rum without any adulteration of colour would not attract the same vocabulary. Ignorance is bliss. At the end of the day we are only fooling ourselves though, and blenders have been perfecting this art for at least two centuries.
The single greatest challenge that rum faces in the 21st century is how it should be labelled. Whisky has its single malts and blends, brandy has age designations by VS, VSOP and XO. Even that most abused of spirits, Tequila, has strict classification terms that make it a relatively easy category to navigate around. Rum has never had an effective system of classification, and it's certainly about time it did.
The problem stems from the fact that there are no universal regulations concerning how rum should be labelled. Rum is made across five continents and in as many as 50 countries, many of which have their own regulations and rules regarding how the liquid is produced and how long it is aged for. Getting them all to agree on an overarching labelling policy is simply not going to happen.
So we make up our own rules around classification, as a means of communicating rum style and finding some orderliness amongst all the confusion.
In the past, many of us have communicated rum style in colours: white, light, silver, blanca, gold, oro, dark etc. But basing flavour on colour alone is an ill- defined and often misleading way of communicating rum flavour. Many budget “gold” or “dark” rums are in fact un-aged or very young rums that get much of their colour from caramel colouring, while some rums that are aged in barrels are filtered to remove their colour. These production elements are poorly legislated at best, and open to blatant abuse at worst, so they skew the whole system, creating broader misunderstanding of rum in general, which in turn makes it a difficult category of spirits to engage with.
More recently, we have found a better way of breaking down rum style, which is by classifying it according to the island or region that originated the style: Jamaican (pot-still heavy rum), Barbados (a blend of column and pot), Cuban/Spanish (column-still), French (made from cane juice rather than molasses) and so on.
Obviously there are producers that don't sit geographically in any of these regions, but it's likely that the rum they make has taken a lead from one of these styles. This is a system that works alright, but it requires that the drinker has some knowledge of the traditional practices of each region. It also assumes that the rum in question adheres to the expected style of its region. But this often isn't the case. Take Dominica for example, the island's only remaining rum distillery makes rum according to the French standard and yet it is a former British colony. And what about the US, with its hundreds of craft distilleries that produce a whole range of styles. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, it shoves a great number of proudly independent Caribbean and Central American nations under the title of their (generally) former colonial administrator, which is more than a little disrespectful, in my view!
I am of course not the first to recognize this need for new classification, and quite recently there have been great steps towards establishing a global standard for rum categorization. The aim of a new system is simple: build a framework of rum classification that clearly informs the consumer how the product has been made and what it is likely to taste like. With the information clear on every bottle (or from the mouth of every bartender), the consumer will then have everything they need to place a value on the product.
One such system has been developed by two of the biggest names in the rum industry: Luca Gargano of the Italian rum bottler Velier, and Richard Seale of Foursquare distillery (see pages 68—71) in Barbados. Their system goes something like this:
Single Pot-Still Rum — A pot-still rum that is the product of a single distillery Single Column-Still Rum — A single column-still rum that is the product of a single distillery
Single Blended Rum — A blend of pot- and column-still rum that are both the products of a single distillery
Blended Rum — A rum containing pot-still rum that is the product of more than one distillery
Rum — A multi-column distilled rum that contains no pot-still rum
The world of rum is often a confusing and even misleading place to explore. By building a framework of classification, it will be a much easier and more enjoyable journey.
This is a classification system that places a great deal of emphasis on the distillation process and whether the rum is a product of a single distillery or not, and follows closely to the Scotch whisky model. The main intention is to highlight the different approaches to making rum these days: in a traditional distillery (with a pot-still) and in a modern ethanol plant (with multi-column stills). This is important information for consumers, because it highlights the value of rums that are produced in the more traditional, more costly, manner. On the other hand, it fails to effectively communicate flavour. There is no mention of base material, country of origin, maturation or fermentation.
For this book, I have devised my own classification system, that is built upon the above system and the system detailed in Martin Cate's excellent Smuggler's Cove cocktail book. This system is not as exacting as Seale and Gargano's in its treatment of rums that are the product of a single distillery vs. rums blended from various sources. It also makes no distinction between single-column (Coffey) distillation and multi-column distillation. While I recognize that the two methods can and do make different styles of rum, I also believe that a good system also needs to be a simple system.
All the rums in this book can be categorized based on three key criteria:
» How long (if at all) the rum has been aged
» What base material the rum is made from
» How the rum has been distilled and/or blended;
The first of these is the age of the rum. Classifying rum by the time it has spent in barrels is quite often misleading. This is because not all producers adhere to the EU and US rules of stating the age of the youngest rum in the bottle, and regulating this is a difficult if not impossible task to undertake. There are also rums in this book that are matured for only a few years, but thanks to the addition of sugar, colourings and other flavourings (see pages 56—58), simulate the characteristics of an older rum. I have debated these practices in other sections of the book, but for the sake of classifying flavour, we are forced to lump them in with rums that are genuinely old, as they taste pretty damn similar. With that in mind, we will be using four different descriptors to communicate maturation: unaged; aged white; aged; and extra-aged.
The second section of the classification concerns the raw material that the rum is made from. Rums made from cane juice (also known as agricole) have a different spectrum of flavour and aroma from those made from molasses or cane syrup (cane honey). In this book, we will single out rums that are produced from the fermentation of cane juice, by placing “Cane Juice” at the start of the rum’s category identifier. I think that it's very difficult to distinguish between cane syrup and molasses as a base material in a finished product, and a category system with “molasses” or “syrup” in front of every title is too clunky. So these two will be lumped in together and identified by the fact that they do not stipulate “Cane Juice” as their base material.
Distillation is the hardest of the three classification components to communicate, partly because of the diverse range of rum production techniques out there and the blending that follows. But also because these pieces of machinery don’t communicate flavour effectively for the average consumer. Too much detail and the system becomes baffling and ineffective, but too little detail and major deviations may get missed and there will be too little information to form an accurate assessment of the product.
This system will make three separate distinctions for distillation: column-still (but rather than explicitly state that a rum is made in a column-still, we will simply refer to these spirits as “rum”); pot-still; and blended (being a blend of pot and column-still rums). The most important distinction here is the pot still, which produces a very different type of liquid when compared to the column. Naturally, a blend of both will offer something, somewhere in-between.
In practice, our system now offers a complete solution for describing any of the thousands of rums that are out there, produced by hundreds of distilleries, across dozens of unique territories. Whether it's an “Extra-Aged Rum” from Nicaragua, an “Aged-White Blended Rum” from St Lucia, an “Aged Pot-Still Rum” from Jamaica, or an “Un-aged Cane Juice Rum” from Martinique.
BLACK RUM/NAVY STRENGTH/OVERPROOF
Here are three additional classifications of British origin that, although capable of fitting into the above system, are better singled out, as they are more heavily stylized by their strength or the liberal use of colourings than they are by base product, distillation or maturation.
Black Rum is a style of lightly aged or un-aged rum that has been heavily coloured to simulate what might have once been a long-in-barrel style consumed aboard ships. They are typically coloured with caramel or molasses to recreate the effect. This produces a unique rum format, that is both hot and light, yet appearing dense and rich. It's very important to draw a distinction between these rums and extra-aged examples that may have a similar hue, but taste rather different. Some good examples of this style are Gosling's Black Seal, Captain Morgan Original, and Lamb's. The point is, they are still young rums, but their darker appearance has a peculiar effect on our sense of flavour perception, being simultaneously “old”tasting and light.
Navy Strength is an extension of the Black Rum style, and refers to rums that have been coloured and that are stronger than 50% ABV. Traditionally these rums would have been at least 57% ABV, which is equivalent to the imperial measurement of 100% proof (see page 25). Some examples of Navy Strength rums are: Wood's, Rum XP, Pusser's Overproof and Gosling's 151.
Overproof is a term that can also be used to describe Navy Strength rum, but I tend to use Overproof when referring to un-aged or very lightly aged spirits that are bottled above 50% ABV Some good examples of this style are: Wray & Nephew White, Sunset Very Strong Rum, and Clarke's Court Pure White Rum.
AGRICOLE AND AOC
For all my moaning about a lack of overriding legislation when it comes to rummaking, this is not the case as far as rhum agricole is concerned. This style of rum is known to few people and enjoyed by even fewer, but it is one of the most exciting areas of the rum category and one that is carefully defined by law.
Under EU law, rhum agricole must be produced from the freshly pressed juice of sugarcane and must be made in one of nine listed territories including the likes of Guadeloupe, Grenada, Madeira and Reunion. In addition to this, the island of Martinique has an Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC), which is similar to the EU's Protected Designation of Origin, that sets out rules concerning production practices, distillation equipment, and even cane-harvesting periods for any product wishing to class itself as AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole (see right).
The only problem with the EU’s rhum agricole definition is that it doesn't capture all rums made from sugarcane juice as a base material, which can leave some rums locked in a state of limbo if they don't comply with certain aspects of the edict. To make matters more confusing, the term agricole was not historically used to describe sugarcane juice-based spirits, but to signify a plantation-based distillery versus a larger urban distillery regardless of the material used. The plantation distillery with its immediate source of sugar was agricole (agricultural) and the large urban distillery receiving molasses was industriel (“industrial”) .
For me, any rum produced using fresh cane juice as the base material and where the use of cane juice is perceivable in the final product (I'm looking at you, Barbancourt distillery — see pages 117—18) can reasonably be called a rhum agricole according to the modern definition — regardless of where it actually comes from. To make a rum from cane juice, it's essential that the cane grows nearby, and that physical link to the land — irrespective of distillery size — is what really exemplifies the style.
AOC MARTINIQUE RHUM AGRICOLE
This classification is by far and away the most rigorous among any legal classification of rum. It starts with the plantation itself, which must be on the island of Martinique and must fall within one of 23 designated municipalities that lie mostly in the centre of the island. Cultivation yields are limited to 120 tons (132 US tons) of sugarcane per hectare, which is designed to limit the amount of fertilizer used and to keep agricultural practices sustainable. Harvest must take place between January 1 and August 31 every year, and only certain chemicals are permitted to be used.
The wort used for fermentation must be composed only of the juice of the plant (and water) and must be a minimum of 14° Brix and a pH of at least 4.7 — both of these measures are there to promote the harvesting of fully ripe cane, but they also limit fermentation problems due to insufficient sugars. Distillation takes place in a column still comprising 5—9 rectifying plates and at least 15 copper or stainless steel stripping plates. The spirit must come off the still at an average of 65—75% ABV. These measures are aimed at limiting undesirable heavy alcohols in the final product.
Just your average Martinican supermarket where a litre of AOC
Martinique rhum agricole costs a mere
ˆ4.95 (£4.20 or $5).
The legislation also stretches to
label, where blanc must be rested in steel for at least 3 months; eleve
sous bois must be aged for at least 12 months and contain at least 20 g
(0.7 oz) of congeners (flavour-giving compounds) per 100 litres (26.5 US
gallons) of pure alcohol; vieux must be aged for at least 3 years in
casks no larger than 650 litres (172 US gallons) and contain at least 325 g
(11.5 oz) congeners per 100 litres (26.5 US gallons) of pure alcohol.
If badly managed, a bottling line can easily become the “bottle neck” of rum production.
he story of sugar on Antigua begins with Colonel Christopher Codrington, the Captain-General of the Leeward Islands, and a successful sugar planter with
holdings in Barbados and St. Kitts. European colonization of Antigua and
Barbuda began in earnest in 1634 with the arrival of English colonists from St. Kitts. But it was the arrival of Codrington in 1674 that would change the course of history on the islands. Codrington brought sugarcane to the island from St. Kitts, and established a plantation named “Betty's Hope” in honour of his daughter. The plantation covered 350 hectares (870 acres) and at its height was worked by nearly 400 slaves. Other planters, who had previously been focused on tobacco and indigo crops, took Codrington's lead, and by the 1750s, over half of the arable land on the island — 28,000 hectares (70,000 acres) — was occupied by 150 sugar mills. Most of them ran a distillery too. Betty's Hope remained in the Codrington family for 250 years, and was eventually sold in 1944 and closed shortly thereafter. The two original windmills can still be seen today, and there is a visitor centre and museum that give guests a good taste of what plantation life on Antigua was once like.
Sugar slowly declined through the 19th and 20th centuries, and Antigua slid into a state of economic stagnation. By 1939 there were just two distilleries. The legacy of rum lived on, however, and in time Antigua became a blending powerhouse, importing rums from British colonies, mixing them with their own and bottling them under the names Red Cock, Black Cock, Silver Leaf, White House and Bolanda. There is no commercially grown sugarcane on Antigua today, and it's tourism that drives the economy, which, I guess, is in part driven by rum.
Visitors who stray far enough from their cruise ships or yachts will discover an island of rich contrasts. Exiting the pastel confines of St. John's Heritage Harbour (which is effectively an American shopping mall touting branded goods, diamonds and overpriced sandwiches) it's all cracked pavements and broken-down vehicles until you hit one the islands 365 beaches — one for every day of the year! In a backstreet of one neighbourhood, I visited a bar that stated on the door in no uncertain terms, “No drugs, no weapons, no bareback.” At some time, later, the proprietor felt the need to add, “No children.”
One bar that doesn't see the need for such signs and that should certainly not be missed, is Papa Zouk's seafood and rum shack. The bar stocks a fantastic range of international rums, good seafood and a compelling backstory. Calamity struck this little restaurant back in 2009, when a fire completely burned it to the ground. At that time Papa Zouk's had one of the greatest rum collections in the West Indies, and in the aftermath some of those bottles were salvaged. With the labels burned to a cinder, proprietor Bert Kirchner saw an opportunity and blended everything into a single vat. Visitors to the rebuilt Papa Zouk now have the opportunity to buy a 15-ml (0.5-oz) sample of Bert's “Fire Rum” and taste some of the world's finest rums brought together by tragic circumstances.
Crumbled remains of old sugar mills, like the ones at Betty's Hope, are a regular sight across Antigua.
The Antigua Distillery is situated on a small peninsula of land between two main harbours in Antigua's capital, St John's. There's a container yard there and the coastguard's office, and then there's Antigua Distillers Limited (ADL), with a full distillery and separate building that handles logistics for their brand agency subsidiary, Premier Beverages. Despite being enveloped by Caribbean waters and the close proximity to the Fort James beach, don't be fooled by the picturesque setting that a map might suggest. It turns out that once upon a time, this wasn't a peninsular at all, but an island, linked to mainland Antigua by a causeway. Rat Island, as it was known to the locals, was not riddled with vermin as the name suggests, but shaped like a rat.
Thanks to the dredging of Deep Water Harbour, and the widening of the causeway, a modern satellite view shows up only a very normal-looking strip of land.
Rat Island probably wasn't the first-choice location for the three Portuguese entrepreneurs who set up the distillery. These men were ex-indentured servants from Madeira, who had each established their own rum blending houses in St. John's, in the north of Antigua. Business was good, and in 1932 they clubbed together and built their own distillery that would secure a good supply of quality rum for the future. The authorities were reluctant to site a distillery on the mainland, deeming it both noisy and smelly, so offered them “Rat Island” as an alternative, which at the time was home only to a leper colony.
the distillery was constructed, complete with pot stills, and began to make
Caballero-branded rum. A few years later, in the 1940s, they set up the
Montpellier Sugar Factory on the east coast of the island, near Freetown, and
replaced their pots with a multi-column Savalle still. The sugar estate
provided the distillery with all the molasses it needed, including “fancy
molasses” and muscovado sugar, which they used to launch their Cavalier brand
of “Muscovado Rum” in 1947. The plantation closed in the 1950s, at which point
Antigua Distillers switched to using standard blackstrap molasses from the
Antigua Sugar Factory. In time, the sugar factory closed too, and the
distillery began sourcing molasses from St. Kitts and then Guyana. These days,
deliveries of molasses arrive from Guyana by boat, which moor up in Deep Water
Harbour and pump a 1,000-ton (1,100-US ton) parcel of black syrup through
underground pipes and into an enormous receiver on the hill top. Building your
distillery on Rat Island does have some advantages.
The copper portholes on the
Antigua Distillery's beautiful column still offer a striking perspective of
being stripped from molasses wine.
For all the technological advances that the spirits business has witnessed over the past 50 years, some processes are still undertaken by hand and nose.
The highlight of this distillery is the triple column still that replaced the older column in 1992 — if you want a taste of what the previous still was capable of, look no further than English Harbour 1981. Due to the high risk of tropical storms in the area, someone decided to chop up the still into smaller pieces, then line them up next to each other (and in some cases on top of each other) to lower the height. This means that there are in fact five columns that operate as if they are three. Confused? I know I am. As with all column stills, this one is steam- powered, with much of that steam being generated through the burning of waste oil from cruise ships.
But the really interesting thing about this still is what it's made from: copper. From the main structure of the columns, to the internal bubble plates, the porthole frames... even the bolts — it’s all copper. The condensers are copper too. With all that copper column going on you can be sure that the spirit is high in strength, and it is — 95.5% ABV — so very nearly neutral in taste.
But that doesn't matter too much to ADL, as it’s during the maturation process that they build their flavour profile. Their English Harbour brand is named after the small settlement on the south of the island that was formerly a Royal Navy base of operations. English Harbour rum has had its share of the awards over the years, and I can see why; it features complex, unsweetened maturation characteristics that you only encounter when good wood is matched with a great blender. Most of the barrels arrive via Kentucky, but the distillery is also experimenting with European wine and sherry casks, the first releases of which we are just starting to see.
nlike the other islands in the eastern Caribbean, which are volcanic in their geological origins, most of the island of Barbados is formed from a coral reef limestone cap. Over a period of about a million years, the gradual accumulation of the oceanic sediments and regular tectonic uplifts caused by the Atlantic plate being pushed under the Caribbean plate, literally forced Barbados to surface. The end result is a much flatter island than the others in the Lesser Antilles belt, and when coupled with strong Atlantic winds, this made Barbados easy to colonize, setting the stage for one of the first great sugar islands of the Caribbean, as well as the birthplace of Caribbean rum.
Barbados was named by Spanish colonists, who briefly claimed the island in the 16th century. It's thought to mean “the bearded ones” which may be either in reference to the bearded fig-trees that were indigenous to the island, or perhaps to a particularly hairy tribe of Carib Indians who lived there at the time. By the early 17th century, the Spanish had effectively given up on Barbados (no gold), which allowed the English to settle its uninhabited land, in the 1620s.
Barbados started out growing tobacco and indigo, but Barbadian tobacco couldn't compete with the quality of the Virginian offering, being described once, in 1628, as “foul, full of stalks, and evil coloured”. A new commodity crop was needed. And so the island began cultivating sugar in 1640. It was a Dutchman, Pieter Blower, who, in 1637, brought cuttings to the island by way of Brazil.
The calcium-rich coral-island soil proved to be good for the cane and the flat swathes of land made harvesting easy. Barbados was the first island in the Lesser Antilles to fully embrace sugarcane, and the industry expanded at an exponential rate. In 1645, there were 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) of arable land on the island, but the forest clearing in the years that followed meant that by 1667 there were 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) operated by 750 land owners. By that point, there were around 300 sugar mills, together producing 4.5 million litres (1.1 million US gallons) of rum a year. Soon, up to 70% of the land was reserved for cane growing, so much so that almost everything, including food, often had to be imported from New England. This relationship with the American colonies proved fruitful for both sides however. By the mid-1700s Barbados was exporting over 6.8 million litres (1.8 million US gallons) of rum a year, and at least half of it was heading north, to New England, Philadelphia, Viriginia and the Carolinas. Like the Irish and Canadians, the colonists of north America favoured the lighter style of rum. Evidence suggests that the earliest Barbados rums were double-distilled in pots, resulting in a purer, and cleaner-tasting rum.
But trade relations with North America turned out to be Barbados' Achilles' heel, as embargoes placed during, and following, the American War of Independence kicked in. Not that they stopped George Washington tapping a barrel of Barbados rum at his presidential inauguration. With Barbados' largest export market all but neutralized, export rum volumes to America dropped to just 91,000 litres (240,000 US gallons) in 1788, compared to 4.5 million litres (1.2 million US gallons) in 1768.
Falling sugar prices and the decreasing demand for Barbadian rum, along with the looming threat of the emancipation of slavery which would lead to increased labour costs and social unrest were all factors that played a part in the slow collapse of the sugar industry on the island. In the 1820s, Barbados exported just 60,000 litres (15,500 US gallons) of rum a year, compared to Jamaica which exported three times that volume every day. However, in 1834 there were still a total of 340 sugar mills, and 82,807 slaves on the island. Molasses was still being shipped north, and domestic rum consumption rocketed. The rum industry on Barbados was still very much alive.
The most obvious difference between the geography of Barbados and the other islands that comprise the Lesser Antilles is the distinct lack of hills.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the sugar industry became more commercialized as wealthy plantation owners consolidated the farms that were too small to make a decent living from. Soon, the average plantation on Barbados comprised hundreds of acres of land managed by a workforce of at least 100 slaves. As well as processing the sugar, many of these plantations would have been distilling rum from the leftover molasses too.
Further consolidation and new legislation stripped the industry back further. The 1938 West Indies Yearbook lists only four rum manufacturers on the island: Batson's, Mount Gay, West Indies Rum Refinery and Barbados Distilleries Ltd. By the 1980s, only Mount Gay and the West Indies Rum Distillery remained. The good news is that we're back to four again now, thanks to the (re)construction of Foursquare (see right) in St. Philips and St. Nicholas Abbey (see pages 74—77) in St. Lucy.
With the exception of St. Nicholas Abbey (which actually uses a hybrid column/pot), all of the distilleries on Barbados use column stills in tandem with pots to make blended rums. This is the hallmark of the Barbados style, which has been mixing column and pot rum longer than any other nation. Just like Jamaica, St. Lucia and Guyana, this in-house blending of opposing distillates produces a balanced product that is difficult to replicate with one or the other alone. There is no legislation that defines this, it’s more like a secret covenant between distillers — a solemn vow of responsibility towards authenticity of taste, and transparency of production. It sounds like a cliche, but there really are no bad rums from Barbados, just rums that are good and rums that are very good.
For me at least, Barbados remains the spiritual home of rum in the Caribbean. It was the first, it was for a long time the biggest, and there still exists a certain holiness to the island where rum is concerned. There are something like 1,500 rum shops on the island, where the delicate art of knocking back a 200-ml (7-oz) bottle of E. S. A. Fields with some coke or ginger is practised by both locals and tourists alike. Like Guyana, the ritual of eating “cutters” alongside a glass of rum is alive and well here. In Barbados this is typically something fatty, like chicken liver pate, or a stew containing some unidentifiable meat and altogether too much chilli (chile).
The story of the Foursquare Distillery is not really a story of a
distillery at all. The estate was once known as “Square Pond” and is referenced
as far back as 1636. This preceded the arrival of cane in Barbados, however,
and the Foursquare sugar mill wasn’t established until much later, in the
1730s. The oldest building on the site is dated to this time too. Known as the
“still house”, it carries historical and architectural designations from the
Barbados National Trust. Interestingly though, Foursquare was never
particularly well renowned for its “stills”, even though rum was certainly made
there during the 18th and 19th centuries. The mill was well known for the
quality of its sugar, though (especially “fancy molasses”), and it won awards
for its vacuum pan sugar in 1886. In the 20th century, the mill, like many
others, acquiesced to economic change and the growth of tourism on the island.
It finally closed in 1984.
Less than a 10-minute drive
from the airport, the visitors' centre at Foursquare is a must-see. Foursquare
produce everything, from £8 ($10) bottles of Old Brigand, to single pot-still rums that fetch hundreds of
dollars at auction.
The long neck on the pot still (top left), plus its two retorts, results in a relatively light, yet characterful, potstill distillate; the steel Coffey still, (bottom left) which produces an even lighter style of spirit, is showing some signs of buckling under (low) pressure! Between them, these stills make dozens of rum expressions.
But the real story of Foursquare is not really a story of a distillery at all. It’s a story about blenders.
In the British Caribbean, it was blenders that elevated rum from hard white spirit, to a consistent, reliable and delicious-tasting thing that could be called a “brand”. This is especially true in Barbados, where the 1906 Rum Duty Act made it law that distilleries could only sell their rum in quantities of 10 gallons (45 litres/12 US gallons) or above. Ten gallons is a little too much for one person, or even for 10 people, but rather than damaging rum sales, this single piece of legislation helped to establish the blender's profession and introduced a personal touch to the category when it was needed. There were dozens of these blenders in Bridgetown and traders like Martin Doorly & Co, E. S. A. Field, and R. L. Seale's all centred themselves around the busy trading thoroughfare of Roebuck Street. These men dealt not just in rum, but in textiles, metalware, rice, potatoes and anything else that could be bought and sold. Selling potatoes and rice is quite unlikely to write your name in history, but blending rum might. One such blender was Reginald Leon Seale, who, in 1883 at the ripe old age of 13, was apprenticed with a trader who taught him how to blend. Some years later, Seale established his own trading company, which also practised the art of rum blending, only this time it had his name on it.
Doorly's “Macaw” brand sets a benchmark in the blended rum category.
There are plenty to choose from,
but my pick is the Port Cask 9-year-old.
R. L. Seale's was incorporated in 1926, and the company passed from father to son, through Reginald Clarence Seale, who ran the business until 1972, and on to Sir David Seale, who in 1977 broke the business away from Roebuck Street and built a blending and bottling facility in Hopefield. At that time, the Seales were buying rum from the West Indies Rum Distillery (see page 78), but after acquiring Alleyne Arthur & Hunte in 1993, a distillery of their own was needed. The site of the former Foursquare distillery was chosen, and in 1996 Sir David Seale opened a state-of-the-art operation, splicing together the history of sugar and rum-making in Barbados, with the flourishing tourism industry, into what it is today — a glorious theme park dedicated to making and promoting rum. An equally monumental event took place the following year, when David's son, Richard came on board as the new managing director.
Richard is among the most vocally passionate people in the rum industry today, and true to the blender's constitution, he is a balanced mix of knowledge and opinion when it comes to the history and current state of the category. That's fair enough if you ask me. In a category that is as fragmented and confusing as rum can be, rum needs patriots who can speak with authority and shepherd the ill- educated through the various pitfalls that await them.
Alongside his work as a self-appointed educator, Richard (and his father) manages a veritable “sticker book” of rum brands that have been amassed by Seales over the years. These brands include some of the oldest and best-loved names in Barbadian rum history. Naturally, there's R. L. Seale's “Finest Rum” with its iconic black bottle and bent neck. Then there's the prestigious Doorly's “Macaw” brand, E. S. A. Field (Barbados's most popular white rum), Old Brigand (Barbados's most popular aged rum), Alleyne Arthur's “Special Barbados Rum” and countless special releases under the Foursquare brand name. You can also add to that list the various contracted brands that are produced at Foursquare, like Mahiki Rum (from London's famous tiki club) and Rum Sixty Six, not to mention independent bottlings such as those from Luca Gargano's Velier (see page 207).
The distillery uses molasses from Guyana to produce its rums, although there are small-scale experiments taking place that use cane syrup sourced from St. Nicholas Abbey (see pages 74—77). Fermentation is conducted in four vessels, each of them 44,000 litres (11,500 US gallons), and the same parameters (including yeast) are used across all the expressions. In terms of distillation equipment, Foursquare has all the bases covered. The higher-ester rum is made in a 1,760-litre (465-US gallon) copper pot still made by Forsyths in Scotland. It has a long neck and two linked retorts. This still produces a distinctly characterful spirit at roughly 82% ABV, which is similar in style to Jamaican pot-still rums. Interestingly, the spirit vapour passes through two separate condensers: one that converts most of the vapour into a liquid (like most other pot stills) and another that cools the distillate down to 8°C (46°F). This improves the efficiency of the distillation process by alleviating the airspace of warm spirit vapour and thereby lowering the air pressure in the system. The air pressure is also lowered in the Foursquare Coffey still, though in this instance, it's with a greater sense of purpose. The still comprises two linked columns and an aldehyde stripper. The first two columns produce a light rum at 92% ABV, and when the aldehyde stripper is incorporated, it serves as a third column, and is only used to make very light, high-strength, rum. The whole system is run under a partial vacuum, which lowers the temperature of the steam down to 80°C (176°F) and the boiling point of ethanol even lower. It's an energy-saving solution more than a secret recipe for incredible rum, but it's commendable nevertheless.
All of the rums produced at Foursquare are a blend of column and pot-still spirits, with the exception of one or two limited pot-still releases. Richard Seale is determined that rum should be made this way, but after four generations of blending, that's hardly surprising. The urge to blend white rum is also too great a temptation, so with few exceptions, Foursquare mature two types of rum: a high- strength, column-still spirit, with a little pot-still rum added to it, and a fruitier pot-still rum with a little column-still spirit added to it. During maturation, the chemical makeup of the spirit, along with the cask itself, determines which direction the flavour profile will follow. By acquainting these two disparate spirits with one another prior to ageing, Seale can be more confident of an affinity later down the line.
The Mount Gay Distillers experience is just a 10-minute walk from the port in Bridgetown. Set in a colonial-style property, it's an all-singing, all-dancing, tribute to the world's oldest rum distillery. Thirsty tourists are taken on a multi-sensory tour of the history of the refinery, the history of rum in Barbados and invited to partake in a full tasting of the range of Mount Gay rums at the beautiful mahogany bar. What visitors won't see, however, is any rum being made. And that's because Mount Gay isn't made in Bridgetown. It never has been. The distillery, formerly known as the Mount Gilboa Distillery but often referred to as the Mount Gay Refinery, is actually in the far north of the island, cleverly concealed for such a sizeable operation, and accessible by invitation only.
The distillery is one of the oldest in the world, and it’s claimed that rum was being made here as far back as the 17th century. The earliest written evidence is a deed of sale from February 20, 1703, which details some of the equipment on the site at that time: “Two stone windmills... one boiling house with seven coppers, one curing house and one still house.” The remains of one of those windmills can still be seen there today.
The Mount Gilboa estate was officially formed by William Sandiford, who consolidated a number of small sugar plantations in the early 18th century. The estates all lay on a ridge of land to the north of the St. Lucy parish of Barbados called Mount Gilboa, so Sandiford used that name for his 113-hectare (280-acre) plot of land. In 1747, the Sandiford family sold the mill and distillery to John Sober (never to be sober again!), and the distillery stayed in the family for the next 100 years. During this period, Cumberbatch Sober (John’s son), who lived in London, asked his good friend Sir John Gay Alleyne to manage the operation for him. Alleyne owned the nearby Nicholas Plantation (see pages 74—77) so had some experience in these matters, and whatever he did, he did well. In 1852 the Sobers renamed the plantation Mount Gay in honour of their friend (Mount Alleyne was already taken).
Mount Gay launched their best-known blend, “Eclipse” in 1910, thought to reflect the total eclipse of the sun that occurred that year. This eclipse would have been a very different product to the present-day blend however, as the distillery comprised only pot stills in 1910. It was shortly after the launch of Eclipse that the next major player in the Mount Gay story was introduced: Aubrey Ward, a highly successful English/ Irish businessman, who bought the distillery in 1918. He set about upgrading the old equipment with newer pieces, including the addition of a Savalle column which operated up until 1976. Along with his business partner and marketing specialist John Hutson, Ward opened up Mount Gay to the international market, and by 1958 it was sold in 19 countries. Aubrey Ward’s efforts were continued by his son Darnley DaCosta Ward until his death in 1989. At the time of Darnley’s death, the French spirits company Remy Martin (later becoming Remy Cointreau) bought a majority shareholding in Mount Gay Distillers Ltd., but the Ward family retained a shareholding in the company as well as ownership of the physical Mount Gay Refinery. Consequently, the refinery (which is actually the distillery) is licensed to produce rum for Remy Cointreau, who upon receiving fresh rum, take care of the ageing and blending of Mount Gay rums. The bottling is done in Bridgetown.
This slightly awkward arrangement forms the preface of the Mount Gilboa brand. Named after the former title of the Mount Gay Refinery, Mount Gilboa was launched by Frank Ward (a descendant of Aubrey Ward) in 2006. A triple pot-still rum, distilled in the same pots used in the Mount Gay blends, Mount Gilboa seems to have struggled to gain traction among connoisseurs despite being a rare artefact: 100% pot-still Barbadian rum.
Master Blender Allen Smith assesses the job at hand - a forklift truck may be required.
The black stuff that you can see on the walls of the warehouse is the ethanol-loving Baudoinia mould.
The Mount Gay estate currently owns 134 hectares (331 acres) of canegrowing land, which is good for 5,000—6,000 tons (5,500—6,600 US tons) of molasses per year. That represents a little over half of the molasses required for their annual rum production (the balance comes from Guyana and other sources on Barbados). There's no sugar refinery at Mount Gay, so the molasses arrives by truck from the local sugar factory, or from the docks. Once the molasses has been pumped into one of the underground storage vats, it is mixed with water that's tapped from a 90-metre (300-ft) coral limestone well, which is owned by the estate. A proprietary yeast strain is added to the molasses, which is fermented in oak fermentation vats for around 36 hours.
Distillation at Mount Gay is conducted in two separate still houses. The first of which contains four large pot stills, manufactured by coppersmiths from Forsyths and Macmillan in Scotland and Forgassa in Spain. The oldest of the bunch (a Macmillan still) was probably installed at the turn of the 20th century, but even Mount Gay aren't entirely sure of this. What is known, is that when “Blues”, the oldest employee at the distillery, joined in 1965, the still looked old even then. The pots are all very similar in their design, however, following the typical rum setup of one large pot followed by two linked retorts. The pot-still rum is distilled twice, which takes it up to a strength of around 85% ABV.
The second still house is for the two-column copper Coffey still, which churns out the vast majority of the spirit made here, at a strength of over 94% ABV. As you might expect, this is a far lighter spirit than the pot-still stuff, but this balancing of pot and column is the defining characteristic of the Barbados style. The freshly made pot and column rums are each diluted to around 65% ABV and matured separately to one another for a period of one to 10 years, depending on which blend it will finally end up in.
When the brakes are released and the pedal pushed firmly to the metal, this distillery can fill 250 x 200-litre (53-US gallon) barrels in a single day. The casks are stored upright here, and loaded onto a conveyor belt for emptying followed by immediate re-filling. The effect is something like a Formula 1 pitstop. Almost all of the casks at Mount Gay are ex-bourbon, but Allen Smith, Mount Gay's master blender, is also conducting some experiments with European wine and sherry casks. I even spotted some virgin oak barrels on my tour of the distillery. But this goes beyond the simple finishing of rums in glamorous casks. Smith is trialling different toast levels with his rum, and running entire maturation cycles in wine casks.
It's all part of a wider project that Mount Gay are pursuing, to explore the two main variables in rum-making: the distillation process and the maturation process. Besides releases from selected casks, we can also expect to see 100% pot-still and 100% column-still bottlings in the not-too-distant future.
These bespoke offerings are welcome additions from such a large producer. Mount Gay won't divulge exactly how many casks of rum they are currently holding, but with four enormous bonds, and anything from 10,000 to 20,000 casks in each bond, I wouldn't be surprised if there were 50,000 casks of rum on site. And they're going to need it — Mount Gay currently fills the equivalent of six million 70-cl (24-oz) bottles of rum in a year. Around 30% of that is white rum,
but accounting for evaporative losses of 7—12% per year, the distillery needs to empty (and re-fill) in excess of 15,000 casks of rum every year to keep up with demand.
ST. NICHOLAS ABBEY
St. Nicholas Abbey is Barbados's youngest distillery. Under the supervision of the Warren family, bottling of rum started here in 2009 and distilling in 2013. But paradoxically, this abbey (which is actually not an abbey at all but one of only three surviving Jacobean mansions in the Western hemisphere) has a reasonable claim to being the oldest surviving sugarcane plantation in Barbados, and possibly, the Caribbean.
The house and plantation were first established by Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Berringer, who arrived in the fledgling British colony of Barbados in 1634. He had £8,000 (£1.4 million/$1.75 million today) in his bank account. By the 1650s, a plantation had been established, and like most others on the island by this time, it was turning to sugarcane cultivation. Although no conclusive evidence currently exists, it is quite possible — likely, even — that rum was being made at the Nicholas Plantation during the 1650s. The old mill house is architecturally very similar to some of the earliest rum distilleries of the time, and just recently, the archaeologist and spirits writer Professor Frederick H. Smith has retrieved currently unidentified copper artefacts from the grounds of St. Nicholas Abbey. If investigations can demonstrate a history of distilling activity during the late 17th century, there could be a new contender to the claim for “world's oldest rum distillery”.
Benjamin Berringer died in 1660, the rumour being that he was poisoned or possibly killed in a duel (accounts vary) by his business partner, Sir John Yeamans. Yeamans was an infamous colonist, described in his day as “a pirate ashore”, who had arrived on the island with 200 African slaves. After Berringer's death, Yeamans changed the name of the plantation to “Yeamans Plantation” and the following year he married Berringer's widow. Berringer's children took the matter to court, and were awarded ownership of the property in 1669, about the time that Yeamans emigrated to America and founded the colony of Carolina. When Berringer's grand-daughter married George Nicholas in the late 1600s, the Yeamans name was finally changed to “Nicholas Plantation” in his honour.
The hybrid still at St. Nicholas Abbey produces a spirit that sits somewhere between column and pot; soft,
but not devoid of personality.
The Nicholas family ran the operation until 1725, when falling sugar prices forced the family to sell the plantation to Joseph Dottin, who was Deputy Governor of Barbados at the time. Dottin gave the plantation to his daughter, Christian, upon her marriage to Sir John Gay Alleyne in October 1746. Sir John might have been the greatest plantation manager of his generation. In his time he managed various successful operations on Barbados, including the Mount Gilboa plantation, which would later take his name (see page 72). Perhaps the most significant contribution Sir John made to St. Nicholas Abbey was expanding the company's rum distillation as a mean of economic sustainability.
Sir John and Christian died at the turn of the 19th century with no surviving heirs. The following years were spent trying to track down European members of the Dottin family and the property incurred considerable debt until it was taken over by the Chancery Court in Bridgetown in 1810. It was sold to the Cumberbatch family for £20,500 (£1.75 million/$2.2 million today) and passed from father, to son, to daughter, ending up in the hands of Sarah Cumberbatch and her husband, Charles Cave. It is believed that the plantation was named St. Nicholas Abbey by the couple, who were married in “Bath Abbey”, and whose ancestral home was “St. Nicholas Parish” in England.
St. Nicholas Abbey remained in the Cave family for some 200 years, and continued to produce sugar up until 1947, after which the doors were opened for tourism. In 2006 it was purchased by Larry Warren, a renowned Barbadian architect. And it's under the Warrens' guidance that St. Nicholas Abbey has been beautifully restored to a state that is quite likely better than its original glory. Every square inch of the house and grounds has been sensitively refurbished to pristine condition and I cannot imagine a grander place to spend an afternoon drinking rum and enjoying the nature of the island.
The rum side of the estate is managed by Larry's son, Simon, who has recently purchased 90 hectares (225 acres) of adjacent land. This means that all of the future rums produced here will be made from estate-grown sugar. That'll be the thin end of a fat wedge of sustainable practices that are taking place here: everything, from the milling of the raw cane to stencilling of the bottles, is conducted on site. The leftover bagasse from crushing is compacted into manageable briquettes, which are used to power the modern steam boiler that powers the mill and heats the evaporators and the still. All that's needed are some oak trees and a glassblower, and this little operation would be entirely selfsufficient.
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growing collection of casks, an old sugar mill, and the future promise of
estate-grown cane: St. Nicholas
The rum is made from sugarcane syrup, rather than juice. Under the not-so- watchful eyes of the resident bat colony, the freshly pressed juice is passed through a series of evaporators, reducing the volume down by approximately 70%. Once reduced, the syrup is stable enough to be stored for months, which is necessary to ensure all-year-round production of rum outside of the typical February-June Barbados harvest.
Before fermentation, the syrup is diluted and acidulated, then fermentation takes place in one of two 1,500-litre (400-US gallon) steel vessels. The yeast is first propagated with a small batch of the cane honey, to promote growth and commence fermentation . After a while, more of the diluted cane syrup is added and air is percolated through the tank. From start to finish, the total fermentation lasts 48-60 hours, producing a cane wine with a strength of 9-12% ABV.
Next, the cane wine is passed over to one of the youngest pot-stills in the
West-Indies — a German-manufactured 600-litre/160-US gallon) copper pot. The still is powered by that same bagasse-burning steam boiler, and has a rectifying column attached to it, resulting in a clean yet characterful spirit that is collected between 88—94% ABV. The spirit is cut back to 65% before being matured exclusively in ex-bourbon casks.
The distillery currently has 150 barrels of maturing stocks and these days, St. Nicholas Abbey bottle their own white rum and 5-year-old rum, both of which were made entirely on the grounds of the abbey itself. Back in 2009, when the first rums were released, the Warrens had no aged stocks, so the original “5” rum was bought in from the Foursquare Distillery (see pages 68—71). As time has progressed, so too has the rum, and St. Nicholas Abbey still bottle two older expressions — a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old — which are in fact products of Foursquare Distillery.
Labels are applied by hand, glass is engraved by hand - even the
leather seal on the bottle cap is hand-
With a name like the The West Indies Rum Distillery (aka W.I.R.D), you might imagine that this Barbados rum producer sits on the edge of a white sandy beach, surrounded by palms, and a breeze that carries the faint smell of rum and coconut — and you would be right! This distillery even has its own beach club. But while the sand on Brighton Beach, to the north of Bridgetown, is unquestionably sand, the palms and the coconuts are slightly less literal. Along with the Cockspur brand of rums, this distillery makes the famous “Malibu” coconut liqueur on behalf of French spirits giant Pernod Ricard: all 30 million litres (80 million US gallons) a year of it. Welcome to Barbados's biggest distillery.
The distillery was built in 1893 by George and Herman Stade, who had emigrated to Barbados by way of Trinidad. George was an engineer, and it was he who sourced the machinery and introduced the first column still to Barbados (in fact, this still might have been only the second column still in the Caribbean (after Bacardi) and likely remains the oldest in use today).
Meanwhile, Valdemar Hanschell, a Danish merchant based in Bridgetown, was busy adding rum blending to a diverse list of marine services that already included chandlery, rope braiding and sail making. Around a decade later, he launched Cockspur rum, named after the island's traditional emblem of a rooster. Hanschell went on to merge with various other companies through the 20th century, becoming Hanschell Larson in 1928, then Hanshell Innis Ltd in 1971.
Meanwhile, the Stade distillery was nationalized under the name West India Rum Refinery in 1918 and remained that way until it was sold in 1973, to the Goddard family. Goddard Enterprises is a major Caribbean conglomerate, with subsidiary companies in over twenty countries, as well as a few rum brands to their names like Gold Braid and J&R. The Goddard's bought Hanschell Innis too, which was already being produced at the distillery.
The distillery is one of only a handful in the rum world that uses a semi- continuous fermentation process, rather than fermenting in batches. This approach started in 2002, when the old open-air fermenters were replaced with four high- spec new additions, each of them with a 230,000-litre (61,000-US gallon) capacity. To put that into context, these fermenters are five times the size of the ones at the Bacardi distillery in San Juan, although there are only four of them compared to Bacardfs 20. The process involves breeding massive cultures of flocculating yeast (dense clumps of yeast) that are harvested in settling tanks, washed with sulphuric acid, and stored until such a time that they are needed. In this way, the distillery can amass staggering numbers of yeast cells and run back to back fermentations for days on end. Moreover, fermentation time is significantly reduced, down to as little as 12 hours for a 60-ton (66-US ton) batch of molasses. For this to work, and for the yeast culture to remain consistent, all of the equipment must be maintained to a surgical level of cleanliness, so at all times one of the four fermenters is cleaned by an automated CIP (clean in place) system while the other three are in use.
The distillery uses four stills in total, two column configurations, one pot still, and one pot still connected to a column: The #79 still is a modern four-column continuous still that runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, producing 45,000 litres (12,000 US gallons) of spirit a day. The slightly older John Dore multi-column still (#77) was installed in 1975, and depending on which of the four columns that are used it can produce medium- to light-bodied rums for blending. The #62 still is a wash still, which feeds a low-strength distillate into the distillery's original 1893 column still. This still produces a medium-bodied rum at 55—60% ABV. This distillate is then redistilled in the fourth still (#73) which is a copper pot with a rectifying column on top that produces a distillate of around 85% ABV.
Only the former are used to make the base spirit for Malibu, but true to the Barbadian style, it's a combination of pot and column that is blended to make the rum you find in a Cockspur bottle.
ixty tiny islands make up the British Virgin Islands, of which only 16 are permanently inhabited. The largest of those is Tortola, which comprises around 55 square kilometres (21 square miles) of land. The hills here are steep, rising up to over 500 metres (1,650 ft), and the roads are intestinal, like a rollercoaster ride through some wretched animal. Worse still, as the “British” part of the name dictates that everyone drives on the left-hand side of the road, but the close proximity to the US means that all the cars are imported left-hand-drive vehicles. Throw in an almost complete lack of road signs, and it means driving on the island can be quite frightening.
The terror of driving around the place is certainly worth it, though. They call the British Virgin Islands “nature's little secret” and you can see why: white sand beaches, turquoise waters and a persistent vista of tropical islands plonked perfectly in the sea. It's surprisingly easy to find your own stretch of pristine beach on Tortola, so along with the tax breaks, it's little wonder that so many people consider it as paradise.
It's for the above reasons that I assumed they were named the Virgin Islands: being unspoilt, flawless. They were in fact named by Columbus, who sighted them on his second voyage, in 1493. Columbus gave them the fanciful name Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vfrgenes (“Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins”) after the legend of Saint Ursula, which was shortened to Las Vfrgenes (The Virgins). The islands were captured by the English (from the Dutch) in 1672, who introduced cotton and sugar. The cotton industry in the Caribbean couldn't compete with that of Egypt and eventually America, so when it collapsed, the Virgin Islands became a monoculture set of islands and sugar was king.
Following a similar course as many other Caribbean islands, sugar remained dominant until the middle of the 19th century, when a combination of the abolition of slavery and the development of European sugar-beet put an end to the party. For the British Virgin Islands it was even tougher, after a series of Hurricanes, the worst of which occurred in September of 1819, destroying many of the sugar factories. In 1819 there were over 100 sugar mills on the island, but just 30 remained in 1845. Many old mills still dot the islands' hills and coastlines of Tortola, such as the one on Brewer's Bay, which even has two small, and rather broken pot stills embedded in its tumbled-down wreckage.
There's only one distillery left on Tortola, and amazingly many of the islands' residents are unaware of its existence. This is partly due to the vehement consumption of Pussers Navy Rum (see pages 202—03) on the island, which accounts for some 85% of all the rum drunk on Tortola. Much of the consumption is centred around “Pusser's Outpost” in Road Town. Big and garish, the outpost is colonial styled on the outside but more like a Victorian pub for sailors on the inside. The food is bad and the drinks just about passable, but it's required viewing for cocktail geeks on account of being the home of the Painkiller cocktail (see pages 238—39).
A visit to the island of Tortola is incomplete without drinking rum at Bomba's Beach Shack - but watch out for the mushroom tea...
The Callwood distillery on Tortola is old. Very old. Indeed, its owners have been known to claim a 400-year ancestry, which takes us back to the earliest known records of sugar farming in the area (so should likely be taken with a pinch of salt). But the original distillery buildings are in keeping with other pieces of architecture from the 17th century, and with other, defunct, sugar mills on the island, so a foundation date in the late 1600s is plausible. There is no documentation to back any of this up, however, and the best we've got is 18th- century references to a 17th-century sugar mill, known as the Arundel Estate.
The estate changed hands in the late 1800s, although no firm date is known. It would, however, certainly have been after the emancipation of slavery, in 1834. It was sold to the buccaneer Richard Callwood, who owned the nearby Thatch Island. Callwood gifted the estate to his son, Richard Jr, who was the progeny of one of Richard senior's former slaves. Sections of the Arundel Estate were sliced- off and sold on over the years (a 1.5 hectare/3.5 acre plot is on the market right now) but the sugar mill and distillery remained in the Callwood family, right up until present day Michael Callwood, Richard Jr's great-grandson.
The methods and equipment have been left mostly unchanged during the past 200 years, which makes Callwood a truly unique distillery, but more important still, is the significance of this place to the history of rum distilling in the Caribbean. In the early 19th century there would have been over a thousand operations just like this scattered all over the Caribbean, but it just so happens that this, along with the likes of Shillingford (see pages 89—90) and River Antoine (see pages 99—100) is one of the last remaining examples.
A nice day for patching holes in the still neck (while it's in operation). It's back to basics at Callwood, which is part of the charm and also part of the frustration.
The staff, and Michael Callwood himself, perform their roles faithfully, but more as caretakers to tradition than as skilled craftsmen in their own right. Like puppets who are controlled by thin threads of history that connect them to the rum makers of old, they are powerless to change, or even appreciate, the delicate nuances of their own rum making routine. It is an inevitability, I suppose, that those who are most faithful to historical practices should also be the ones most ignorant to understanding it. Rum-making was not always the artful undertaking that we think of it as being today, and for the Callwood distillery it is still that way. This probably makes for a slightly inconsistent product, which is all part of the romance of course, but the bigger problem here is that nobody seems to know any technical details concerning how the rum is made! Here, though is what we do know:
Young “green” sugarcane is cut by hand between March and July. It is pressed by a tiny old diesel-powered mill that feeds into a large stone receiver, about the size of a bathtub. The juice is then diluted slightly with water, and boiled for around three hours in big copper kettles. This step helps to preserve the cane juice so that it doesn't need to be fermented immediately. When it's time to ferment, the juice, which is now slightly concentrated, is fed into 200-litre (52-US gallon) “open top” oak casks, where it is naturally fermented by wild yeasts for 10—20 days. Nobody knows what strength the fermentation is when it's finished, but what's perhaps more significant is that nobody cares either! As with much of the process, it is a mystery.
The fermented cane wine is then directed into an old copper pot still of approximately 100 litres (26 US gallons), which is at all times outside and completely exposed to the elements. The still is directly heated by a woodburning furnace, and most of the fuel is old coconut husks, bagasse and bits of wood pallet — I even spotted rotten papaya being thrown in there! A chimney on the side of the furnace vents out the smoke and the contents of the still bubble away. The spirit vapours travel up to the head of the still and down the swan's neck, into a worm-tub condenser. From start to finish, it can take 10—14 hours for the full distillation run to complete and it's controlled only by the intensity of the fire.
Nobody I questioned knew the strength of the resulting distillate, including Michael Callwood, who simply chuckled to himself, considered the question for a moment, and then shrugged. I think it's quite possible that Michael doesn't know, but I hope somebody does if we're to trust the ABV percentage that's written on the bottle!
The good, if somewhat miraculous, news is that the rum is really rather tasty. But perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised. Cane juice is packed full of flavour, and that prolonged fermentation builds up plenty of big fruity esters and aldehydes. Then the low-strength, single distillation ensures that they are retained in every single drop of rum. The distillery currently bottles four products; an un-aged white rum, a 4-year-old, 10-yearold, and a rum liqueur that is sweetened using fresh sugar cane juice... it’s called “The Panty Dropper”. None of these rums are exported, so you will need to take a trip to the Virgin Islands if you wish to taste them.
The methodology used at Callwood is undoubtedly crude, but the rum speaks for itself. My recommendation is the Arundel 4-year-old.
here are some Caribbean islands that have virtually no history of cultivating cane or making rum. The one thing these places all have in common is that they're small, with far too little workable arable land to make a sugar mill and distillery economically viable. Grand Cayman, the largest of the three Cayman Islands, is one of those places. It's a mere 196 square kilometres (76 square miles). Not as small as Tortola or Marie-Galante, but impractical for running a plantation due to its claw-like shape. The Caymans are also fairly remote, being 240 km (150 miles) south of their closest neighbour, Cuba. But there's another very good reason why sugar production — or indeed any kind of production — never really managed to establish itself in Cayman: Pirates.
Columbus first sighted the Caymans on May 10 1503. Spotting the two smaller islands Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, he named them Las Tortugas (“The Turtles”) after the numerous sea turtles that inhabited their waters. The islands themselves are long rather than round, however, so the name was later changed to Caymanes after the Carib word caiman meaning “crocodile”. Marine crocodiles did once inhabit Cayman waters too, and it was these along with the turtles that attracted the attention of hungry sailors and fishermen.
The islands remained mostly uninhabited until the 18th century, but soon became a popular hangout for wreckers, salvaging from and plundering distressed ships. The trick was to attach a lantern to a donkey and walk it along the coastline, confusing ships and causing them to crash into the rocks. The remoteness of the islands also made them a safe haven for refugees from the Spanish inquisition, mutineers, shipwrecked sailors and runaway slaves; all of them perfect recruitment material for a pirate ship. According to some accounts, Cayman was the archetypal pirate-trading port, and even though they weren't making rum there, they sure as hell were trading it and drinking it.
There are no pirates there these days, or at least only of the tax-avoiding kind, but the Cayman Islands still celebrate the memory of the marauders in Pirate Week, every November.
When I first heard about a new rum from the Cayman Islands that was supposedly aged under water I had to laugh. It was 2009, just two years after Cayman Spirits Co. had been founded, and around the time of their first release of “Seven Fathoms Rum” — see what they did there? When I was planning my rum tour, I decided it was definitely worth a trip to the Cayman Islands to get to the bottom of this murky story.
Founded in 2007 by Walker Romanica and Nelson Dilbert, the distillery relocated to larger premises in George Town in 2013 and it's now a fairly serious operation.
The distillery makes a selection of rum bases fit for blending, depending on the time of the year. Most of the rum is made from molasses, but in the past they have also used evaporated cane juice as well as fresh cane juice in concert with brown sugar to produce an agricole-style rum. The molasses is cut to 20° Brix then fermented for 6—7 days in 4,500-litre (1,200-US gallon) steel fermenters. The 8% ferment is then used to make two types of rum; a 93% ABV “light rum” and a 87% ABV “heavy rum”. The light rum is distilled twice, first in a 5,900-litre (1,560-US gallon) Vendome stripping still, which pulls out a low wine of around 40% ABV, and finally in a smaller Christian Carl pot still with an eight-plate
rectification column. The “heavy rum” is distilled just once in the Christian Carl still. These two liquids are then blended together ready for maturation. Maturation underwater.
The all-singing and all-dancing visitors' centre at the Cayman
Spirits Co. If you ask for Jordan, he will actually
sing and dance for you.
At the back right is the Vendome stripping still, and in the front is the Christian Carl pot.
The Christian Carl pot bubbles away.
You're probably wondering how they do it, and I'm going to tell you, but first a little backstory: besides being the proprietor of a distillery, Walker Romanica's family also own a company called Divetech, who specialize in diver training and equipment retail. This means access to lots of technical equipment too, like winches and cranes — you know, the kind of stuff you might need if you wanted to drop barrels of rum into the ocean (and pull them back out again).
The first stage of the process is locating a suitable place for storing the casks. Diving is a very popular sport in Cayman, so barrels need to be hidden in quiet spots where they will remain undisturbed for years to come. Stage two involves laying concrete foundations under the water, which will be used as anchorage points for the barrels. Each foundation will be good to hold three casks, and Cayman Spirits Co. now have a bunch of these points plotted all around the bays of Grand Cayman. The barrels themselves are protected from the water, though the distillery will not divulge exactly how this is done. Next they're hauled on to the boat ready for dunking. Most barrels contain enough air in them so they will float to the surface, but when the crane drops the cask, its momentum causes it to sink before resurfacing. It's at the point where the cask has sunken near the bottom that a waiting diver secures it to the foundation.
According to Cayman Spirits Co., Seven Fathoms rum is a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old rums, all of which have spent some time maturing underwater. To meet that demand they claim to have approximately 100 casks of rum currently anchored in Cayman waters. There are further experiments taking place too, with older rums, smaller casks and one highly sought-after Modern Cooperage cask. At £2,400 ($3,000) a piece, these steel barrels are sealed units that simulate the effects of a wooden cask by using racks of barrel staves that can be manually “stirred” through the liquid. The theory is that it provides superior control and repeatability, as well as virtually eradicating the angel's share and therefore increasing profitability. Immersing wood into rum seems somehow fitting for a company which has made a name for itself by drowning wooden barrels in the sea.
he name Cuba comes from the Tamo Indian word cubao (“where fertile land is abundant”) and it's certainly an apt description of the Caribbean's largest island. If Barbados dominated 17th-century sugar cultivation, and Jamaica dominated the 18th century, it was undoubtedly Cuba that laid claim to the 19th century.
Sugar production got off to a slow start here, impeded by failures on Spain's behalf to take note of British and French innovations in cane cultivation, and by decades of declining Cuban population. Local rum production was stifled during the 18th century, thanks to Spanish paranoia that the new spirit might compete with Spain’s native wine, sack (sherry) and brandy. The Real Cedula (“Royal Decree”) of June 8 1693 actually prohibited rum-making, but the effect was the establishment of numerous illicit distilling operations and the rise of aguardiente de canne — rum’s tearaway younger sibling. The blanket ban continued through the first half of the 18th century, and in 1754, offenders were ordered to work on public buildings with no pay, which typically landed them with a life lived on the street.
As the old Cuban saying goes, “sin azucar no hay pa^s” (“without sugar there’s no country”), and this is certainly true of Cuba. The change — for both sugar and rum — came during the Seven Years War (1754—63), when the British briefly occupied Havana. By that time, rum drinking was fully ingrained in Royal Navy culture, and the necessary stills and expertise quickly disseminated through the island. Following the return of the Spanish, the policies surrounding rum production and trade were relaxed, but more important still were the revolutions in both America and Sainte-Domingue (Haiti), which established new trade and attracted new expertise and slaves respectively. Cuba, an island that accounts for almost half of all the farmable land in the Caribbean, comfortably filled both voids. Consequentially, the island exported 5 million litres (1.5 million US gallons) of rum in 1802 — 30 times the quantity exported in 1778.
Technological advances throughout the 19th century, including the mechanization of the refining process and the establishment of railways, saw Cuba's share of the world market more than double and the crop become the primary focus of the economy. With sugar in increasingly high demand, and molasses exports to North America increasing too, Cuban cane was making money on three separate fronts. By the mid-1800s, Cuba had become the most valuable island in the Caribbean.
Besides its landmass, there were a number of other factors that contributed to Cuba's dominance in the industry, not least of all its trading relationship with the US and its reluctance to abolish slavery. Cuba was also the only major island in the region that was free of mountains. Nearly three-quarters of its land formed a rolling plain — ideal for planting crops. Cuba also prospered above other islands because they used better methods when harvesting the sugar crops: they adopted modern milling methods such as watermills, enclosed furnaces, steam engines and vacuum pans.
Following the Cuban War of Independence, the island began the 20th century under indirect US control, culminating in the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, a man who was popular with the US thanks to his anti-Communist position and because the situation furthered US business interests on the island. American money built huge factories known as centrales, able to process cane for a large number of different plantations. Batista encouraged large-scale gambling in Havana, by granting tax exemptions for new casinos and assigning public funds as grants for construction. Havana became a playground for American pleasureseekers who quaffed back Daiquiris and Mojitos by the dozen. Rum production increased steadily, barely affected by US prohibition in which Cuba, just 90 km (55 miles) from Key West served as a handy stop off for the committed drinker. Just prior to World War II there were over 100 distilleries on the island, the main producers being Matusalem (“the Cognac of Rums”), Bacardy Caney and Arechabala (now Havana Club). By 1959, US companies owned about 40% of all the Cuban sugar plantations.
The barrel bus at Havana Club's San Jose distillery (below left) and a number of column stills at work (below right). Cuban-style rum is a blend of column-still distillates.
It was a golden era of Cuban cocktail culture, but a dark time for the Cuban people. A time where Ernest Hemingway could be found propping up the bar at La Bodeguita del Media or La Floridita — he still does, but only in the form of a roped-off statue — and when the Club de Cantineros de Cuba (today known as the Cuban Bartenders' Association) would meet at their three-storey headquarters on Paseo del Prado. Cuba remains one of the only nations in the world that celebrates a National Bartender's day every year, which it does on October 7.
After a campaign lasting several years, Fidel Castro took control of Cuba on January 1 1959. The revolution was sold as a democratic one, but within a matter of months the extreme economic and social crisis that Cuba faced forced Castro to go a lot further than perhaps he first intended. First he took control of the media, then nationalized commerce, seizing 105 sugar plants and the 19 remaining distilleries on October 13 1960. The act infuriated Washington, which imposed an economic embargo which still stands today. There's nothing like a spot of communism to get the citizens thirsty, however. Distilleries worked around the clock, and between 1986—87 alone, Cuba produced 8.3 million litres (22 million gallons) of rum. And since there was nobody but the Soviets to trade with, only a fraction of that figure ever left the country. Equally impressive was the volume of industrial ethanol produced during the same period — over 1 billion litres (2.6 billion US gallons) through the 1970s and 1980s. The shift of Cuba's attention from spirit to steak in the late 1980s diverted molasses away from the distilleries and into cattle feed, shrinking the alcohol industry to its present day form.
These days, Havana Club is the only widely exported Cuban rum brand, and is produced across two separate distilleries near Havana. But other regions also contain distilleries that make numerous smaller brands for local consumption. Among the biggest of these are Roneria Central in Villa Clara in the centre of the island; and Roneria de Santiago de Cuba, the former Bacardi distillery on the island's southeast coast. The island is big enough that each region tends to conform to a specific style of rum — western is very dry, central style is balanced and eastern rums are fruity — a remnant of a time when there were dozens of such operations across the nation.
In total, Cuba drinks around 55 million litres (14.5 million US gallons) of rum a year, but the vast majority of this comes from lesser-known brands. Browsing the shelves of the local shops reveals tempting lesser-known varieties such as Cubay's pleasantly sweet dark rum and Ron Palma Mulata — a good white rum.
Cuba can't buy casks directly from the US, so Havana Club barrels are usually on their third or fourth fill when they arrive here (below left); cantineros working on a mojito production line (centre); the barrels may be third-hand, but they can still create some exceptional liquids (below right).
Havana Club is one of those brands that makes rum an easy subject to get excited about: a name that paints a picture of jazz music, cocktails and cigars; branding that conjures up the golden age of Club de Cantineros de Cuba; and liquid that — somewhat ironically considering its country of origin — mixes very well with others. Havana Club is the darling of the current generation of bartenders; a brand that has salsa-danced the Mojito from the depths of obscurity to the lips of every drinker in every continent of the world.
A rum called “Havana Club” was first registered by Jose Arechabala in 1934. The product was sold primarily in Cuba, although the popularity of the island in the US at that time ensured that many bottles made their way to the States.
Following the Cuban Revolution, in 1960, all of Cuba’s distilleries were seized and nationalized, including Havana Club and Bacardi — which had by that point already established distilleries in Puerto Rico and Mexico and later a headquarters in Bermuda. The Arechabalas also left Cuba during this time, but failed to reestablish production of their rum. Back in Cuba, Castro started making “Havana Club” rum (to a new recipe), which was sold locally, as well as to his comrades in the USSR. By the mid-1990s and after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Castro was keen to get a little more out of his rum brand, so he teamed up with the French spirits giant Pernod Ricard, who in a joint partnership known as Havana Club International now market Havana Club across the entire world. Well, except the US, owing to the long-standing trade embargo. But if you live in the US, you might at some point have seen bottles of Havana Club rum for sale, which begs the question — where are they coming from?
While Castro was negotiating terms with his new partners in 1993, another negotiation was going on in a boardroom in the Bahamas. Remember the Arechabala family? Well they certainly remembered, and as far as they were concerned, they had never been compensated for the illegal seizure of their assets in Cuba, or for the continued marketing of their Havana Club brand. Havana Club was — to all intents and purposes — still their brand. So they sold the rights and the recipe to another company — Bacardi. The same Bacardi that still held a sizeable grudge against the Castro regime on account of the seizures of their own Cuban operations, along with the distilling clout to easily launch a rum-based revenge project. And so it was, that from 1995 onwards, Bacardi began marketing a Cuban rum brand, produced in Bermuda, sold in only the US, called Havana Club.
Lawsuits followed, of course, and Bacardfs Havana Club disappeared for a time, but in 1998 a new piece of federal legislation now commonly known as the “Bacardi bill” came into effect, which effectively banned trademark registration for brands that have been confiscated by governments, like, say, Havana Club in Cuba.
These days, Bacardi Havana Club is made at their Puerto Rico distillery, and the brand maintains that the Arechabalas passed them a legitimate trademark to the brand name, for its use in the US and the rest of the world. But more recently, US-Cuba relations have been thawing, and Pernod Ricard have had a Trademark reapplication accepted by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control, which now gives them the rights to market Havana Club — that is the one produced in Cuba — on US turf. As a backup plan, Havana Club International have already begun bottling rum under the “Havanista” brand, which is indistinguishable in appearance and taste from standard Havana Club rum.
If it all sounds a little convoluted, it's worth noting that this is just the tip of the iceberg where it comes to the complex relationships between the US and Cuba and between Bacardi and Castro. But since most of the world, for the time being at least, is drinking Havana Club that's made in Cuba, it's there that we'll focus our investigations:
Since 2007, Havana Club has been made in two separate locations in Cuba. The oldest distillery, Santa Cruz del Note, was built in 1993, after the formation of Havana Club International. Ten years later, demand for authentic Cuban rum was high and Havana Club rum had won itself a serious international following. So a new distillery was built, this time closer to Havana and featuring improved facilities for visitors (though it’s still only accessible with an invitation). Santa Cruz is still the brand workhorse, producing the younger rums in the portfolio, Anejo Blanco and Havana Club 3-year-old, which together account for just over 60% of the four million 9-litre (2.4-US gallon) cases of Havana Club that ship every year. That leaves the newer San Jose plant free to focus on the aged and super-premium expressions.
Havana Club rums are legally required to be made from Cuban molasses only. But with around 50 Cuban sugar refineries to choose from, they can still be selective where it comes to sugar and mineral content. The production process is the same no matter which distillery you visit. Once the molasses has arrived, it’s cut with water and fermented for 24 hours using Havana Club’s proprietary yeast strain. The molasses wine is then distilled in a single steel column still, with copper bubble plates, up to a strength of 74—76% ABV. The resulting distillate is known as aguardiente (“fire water”) and it’s this slightly floral, slightly honeyed stuff that forms the basis for all Havana Club products. The aguardiente is next matured in American oak for two years then filtered to remove most of its colour. Following on from that, there is a new arrival in the form of neutral molasses spirit. This high-strength ethyl-alcohol is bought in from one of Cuba’s industrial alcohol plants and is mixed to a specific ratio with the aguardiente. If it’s bottled straight away, it is done so as Havana Club Anejo Blanco. For all other marques, further maturation is required.
Unlike most rum-makers, Havana Club get their casks from Scotland, Ireland or Canada rather than the US. The barrels are still American, but the trade embargo between Cuba and the US means that even barrel purchases must be made in a round-about way. Curiously though, this work-around approach will have surely shaped a different style of Cuban rum to the ones that might have been made there prior to the Cuban Revolution in 1959. A white oak barrel can't go on dishing out flavour forever, and by the time Havana Club get their hands on them, they are invariably on to their fourth or fifth fill. This means that this particular rum needs a lot of time in oak before it becomes rich in maturation character — that, for me, might be one of the reasons that even the older expressions retain their mixability.
n November 3 1493, just 20 days after departing the Canary Islands, Columbus sighted a small volcanic island that he named Dominica after the Latin word for Sunday. In the light of present day, Dominica is still a feral and rugged land, so one can only imagine the sights that Columbus beheld over 500 years ago. Dominica is nicknamed the “Nature Island” on account of the dense rainforest and network of rivers that dominate the interior island. Driving through the black heart of the jungle at night is a solitary and intimidating adventure. Ever curious, I once stopped my vehicle at the side of the road, stepped out, and cut the lights. The experience was like being instantly transported to a dream world, where blackness only served to thicken the humidity, skewing your perception of time as the deafening scream of wildlife envelopes you.
That dense centre of the island remained one of the last strongholds of the fierce Caribs, through most of the 18th century until Britain took it over in 1763. Plantations operated around the coast of the island, but they favoured coffee, and by the end of the 19th century, sugar accounted for less than 15% of total exports. This alternate approach to agriculture bred a unique culture of slavery too. Slaves on Dominica were permitted to grow their own provisions and trade them at market. Some bought their freedom with the proceeds, which established communities for free black inhabitants, some of whom bought slaves of their own. Later, Dominica became one of the first islands to have black members in the House of Assembly, and by the time slavery was abolished in 1838, the maj o rity of the house was black. Dominica was the only island in the British West Indies where white rule was successfully challenged.
Today Dominica is a rich blend of its French, English and African heritage. But more than anything, the people here are Dominican. In the 17th century, the French considered the spirit made from sugarcane grown in this rich, volcanic soil to be unique. Today, none of the rum bottled on this island is exported but conditions still exist to produce exceptional cane spirits.
Dominica does a big domestic trade in flavoured rums, which are typically unsweetened infusions of herbs, barks or spices, steeped into white rum, and referred to on the island as “cask rum”. One of the island's most famous blends of cask rum is bois bande which, like the Dominican Republic’s Mama Juana and Grenada's Woodman, is said to have a tumescent effect on the males who consume it. It’s made by infusing the highly prized bark of the bois bande tree in white rum for a number of weeks or even months. It’s harder to come by these days as the drink became so popular with the locals that it threatened to kill off all the trees. The authorities have subsequently declared the stripping of bois bande bark a criminal activity.
If you find yourself driving north of Roseau towards the Macoucherie Estate (operated by Shillingford Estates Ltd) you can’t help by pass the so-called Belfast Distillery. This distillery, which once blended rums from a copper pot and column, closed in the late 1980s. There have, ever since, been rumours of the equipment being reinstated, but currently Belfast blends rum from Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados and bottles the Soca White and Red Cap brands under the Belfast label. It's a wonder that the word “distillery” is permitted to be used, as the reality of the operation is one of a distribution and packaging point for canned fish, soft drinks, and just about anything else you care to imagine.
The colourful capital of Dominica, Roseau, houses the iconic Ruins Rock Cafe (centre) - an ideal spot to test how much rum punch you can consume in a afternoon.
There are two rum bars that are definitely worth a visit in Dominica. The first is actually a restaurant called “Islet View”, which is all on its own on the outskirts of Castle Bruce on the island's east coast. The bar stocks over 100 beautifully presented proprietary rum infusions. The second bar is Ruins Rock in Roseau, which looks like a small fortress. They serve a damn good rum punch.
Hurricane Erika struck Dominica on August 27 2015. On the west coast, 2.5 cm (1 inch) of rain fell every hour for 12 straight hours, turning rivers into torrents and green hills into deadly mudslides. The sea overflowed onto the shore, engulfing small villages and killing dozens. On the northwest of the island, near the mouth of the Layou River, the 250-year-old Macoucherie Estate suffered badly. The original stone buildings — some of them with walls 60-cm (2-ft) thick
— were almost completely submerged in water. The stills and fermenters got their feet wet too, and the cane press, staff housing and staff cricket field were obliterated. The barrel store was also hit hard and all but 40 casks of rum were lost. As the carnage unfolded, Don Shillingford could do nothing but watch, open-mouthed from his old plantation house on the hillside.
The Shillingford brothers (Thomas and William) were blacksmiths, who first set foot in Dominica in the mid-18th century. The blacksmith craft was an essential cog in the engine that was the sugar industry. Horses needed horseshoes; the sugar mills and crystallization pans were in regular need of repair; molasses barrels required metal hoops to hold the barrels together; and slaves needed shackles. From their base in Newtown, the brothers prospered, expanding their business almost as quickly as they expanded their families. As with many industrious white colonists of the time, racial hierarchy soon succumbed to the pull of human desire. Thomas Shillingford became the first in his family to depart from the social expectations of the time by marrying a black woman who was originally from Sierra Leone.
The oldest remaining building on the Macoucherie Estate is thought to date back to the 18th century. Fortunately it survived the floods, which is more than can be said for the barrel store.
Over the years that followed, the Shillingfords evolved from a small house of white British colonists to a sprawling family of Dominicans, with influence in virtually every aspect of island society. From the membership of the legislature to landholding, insurance brokering, media, schools, the importation of food and other merchandise and the exportation of cassava, arrowroot, cocoa, bananas, coffee, citrus fruits, sugar and rum. Although the powerful influence of the family began to decline from the 1960s, with the rise of Lebanese immigrants and political change on the island, the Shillingford name is still identified all over the Caribbean as a Dominican name.
The Shillingfords owned and operated plantations on Dominica through the 19th and 20th centuries, but it was Howell Donald Shillingford, CBE who, in 1942, bought the bankrupt Macoucherie Estate on the island's west coast. A mill was first founded on this site (which takes its name from the nearby river) as far back as the 1770s, and by 1827, when the estate was owned by James Laing of Scotland, the business owned 113 slaves. In the same year Macoucherie produced 89,000 kg (196,000 lbs) of sugar, 18,500 litres (4,850 US gallons) of rum and 33,000 litres (8,650 US gallons) of molasses.
Once they're back on their feet, I believe there is huge potential for the Shillingford rums. And given Don's commitment to premiumization, I expect to be enjoying them in five to 10 years' time.
The abolition of slavery in 1838 marked a slow decline in sugar production on Dominica, but rather than close up shop completely, Macoucherie took the same approach as the French islands, and in 1890 switched its attentions to producing rum from cane juice. When Howell Shillingford bought the plantation he expanded sugarcane cultivation on the property and rebuilt the mill and distillery. In time, the estate passed on to Howell's son, and his son, Clifton “Dense” Shillingford, and the recovery of this distillery is being handled by his son, Howell's great-grandson, Don.
The Shillingfords are the only cane growers on the island today, but over 70% of Don's 14 hectares (35 acres) of sugarcane was wiped out by Erika. Cane grows back of course, but stone does not. The destruction of the distillery's aqueduct was a major blow. Shillingford is one of only two rum distilleries in the world that still uses a water wheel to turn their cane cutter — the other being River Antoine (see pages 99—100) in Grenada. Water is collected in a reservoir 3 km (2 miles) up in the green hills of the Shillingford Estate, and by controlling the flow, the distillery team can adjust the speed of the Pelton water wheel, which has been clocked at up to 95 kph (60 mph). When operational, the mill cuts 1,800—2,700 kg (4,000— 6,000 lbs) of cane in a day, and the distillery goes through about 61,000 kg (135,000 lbs) during a normal season. Fermentation of the cane juice (which is adjusted to 7° Brix through the addition of water) takes four to seven days to complete, and then the fruity wash is distilled in a single small column up to a strength of 70—75% ABV, retaining a good deal of the cane’s original characteristics with it. The estate usually has about 25 full-time employees and an annual production capacity of around 19,000 litres (5,000 US gallons).
The Macoucherie rums made here are all of the cane juice variety, but Don also makes Prime Star rum, which is distilled from a wash of molasses, sourced from Trinidad. Don still sells his overproof rum too, which is also molasses-based and matured for a couple of months in oak. Local drinkers turn up with a container and pay for whatever they take. The distillery shop currently feels like the de-briefing area in a war zone, but there are big plans afoot. More of the 180- hectare (450-acre) Shillingford estate will be allocated to cane growing in the future, and more aged rums will be produced. Don plans to release 5- and 10- year-old single-cask expressions, which will tap firmly into the premium end of the market.
he island of Hispaniola is shared between the Dominican Republic in the east and Haiti in the west. It's often referred to as a microcosm of Latin America, which it has more in common with than any of the Caribbean islands. The Dominican Republic has both the highest and lowest elevations in the region and this is likely one of the reasons that it garnered interest from a certain 15th century explorer. When Christopher Columbus landed on the island, on his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492, he named it “Insula Hispana”, meaning “the Spanish Island” in Latin or La Isla Espanola, in Spanish. Columbus transported cane cuttings to Hispana on his second voyage, in 1493, but the fragile plants died during the crossing, and the newly founded colony of Santo Domingo would have to wait another seven years until Pedro di Atienza arrived with living plants in 1500. Once planted the cane did rather well and it wasn't long before it was being pressed and fermented, the earliest known reference of this being in 1511. Five years later, in 1516, the first known mill in the West Indies dedicated to producing sugar was built in the colony of Santo Domingo in the south of the island. Exactly when the first distillation on Hispaniola took place remains a mystery.
As with most Spanish colonies, the focus was mainly on finding gold during the early years of colonization. The popularity of aguardiente grew too, becoming a particular hit with the Spanish buccaneros, where it was a staple piece of merchandise in their contraband economy. This eventually led to the King of Spain banning rum production in 1720, and it remains to this day the only Caribbean island ever to do so, besides Puerto Rico (see pages 148—49). The prohibition was lifted in 1778 and a permit system was introduced. Just 15 years later there were 173 distilleries in the Dominican Republic, each of them gobbling up molasses from the 792 sugarcane plantations that populated the eastern side of the island. Many Cubans travelled to the Dominican Republic in the 1880s and 1950s ahead of the Cuban War for Independence and the Cuban Revolution. On both occasions, they brought with them a taste and a passion for making Cuban rum, and it's the legacy of this that sets the Dominican style.
These days the sugar industry has consolidated significantly, and most of it in the southeast of the country and controlled by a handful of powerful families. Virtually all of the sugarcane in the Dominican Republic is cut by hand, by a workforce comprising mostly men, women and children of Haitian descent, who toil for 14-hour days in the fields for the equivalent of less than £1.60 ($2) a day. For almost 80 years, the Dominican sugar barons have been luring poverty- stricken Haitians across the border with promises of a better life. They're housed in plantation communities known as bateyes and compensated for their efforts with food tokens. Most of the time their documentation is confiscated, rendering them stateless and illegal. Many of the workers are born into this life of indentured servitude, starting in the fields as young as seven-years-old. Nobody knows how many Haitians currently live within this system, but it's estimated that up to 20,000 fresh souls are smuggled across the border every season — and there are two cutting seasons a year in the Dominican Republic.
Independent, obstinate and resourceful: the Dominican Republic really does feel like Columbus country.
The Columbus Alcazar (bottom right), located in Santo Domingo, is
the oldest viceregal residence in the
There are three major rum-makers in the Dominican Republic, and they all conveniently start with the same letter: Barcelo, Bermudez and Brugal. All the rums made here are multi-column distilled, achieving vodka levels of neutrality in the process. For better or for worse, this has firmly placed the emphasis on maturation, to the point where a visit to a distillery is in fact a visit to a barrel store and bottling line. Though it has to be said, the distilleries themselves, which are little more than industrial ethanol plants, are not inspiring setups. Most of them are located in the low-lying southeast of the country, like oil rigs amongst a sea of sugarcane.
Bermudez is the oldest of the three producers, dating back as far as 1852. They're also the only one of the trio that doesn't really export their product, but instead choose to focus on producing budget whiskey and vodka brands for the local market. Speaking of the local market, Brugal dominate 75% of the share in the Dominican Republic to the extent that many of the street and road signs are sponsored by them.
By Dominican Republic law, all rum labelled as being from the Dominican Republic must be distilled there and matured for no less than 12 months. Even white rums must abide by this rule, and are filtered to remove colour after
As is consistent with most of the rum brands arising in Spanish colonies, Barcelo (bar-SEL-oh) was established by a Spaniard too. Julian Barcelo emigrated to the Dominican Republic from Majorca, Spain, in 1929 and established a blending house the following year. The 1930s was the dawn of the iron-fisted dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, which saw 30 years of enormous industrial growth for the Dominican Republic, and Barcelo certainly made the most of it, working with local distillers around Santo Domingo to launch the “Carta Real” brand. Unlike Ron Barcelo itself, Carta Real is still owned by the Barcelo family, who, headed up today by Jose Barcelo, still bottle rums in Santo Domingo under the brand names “Columbus” and “Dubar Imperial”.
The first rum going by the name of Barcelo was launched in 1950, starting with Blanco and Dorado (“golden”) expressions. These were joined by an Anejo and Imperial in the 1970s. Over the past 20 years the brand has gradually been bought out by Spanish investors, and merged with Varma International. This has prompted further releases of extra-aged rum expressions (see below) as well as enormous export trade in Spain and a further 55 countries besides. Nowadays Barcelo own barely 20% of the Dominican rum market, but thanks to the 20 million litres (5.2 million US gallons) of rum that they export every year, the brand ranks behind only Bacard^ Havana Club and Captain Morgan in the West Indies.
Barcelo is the only rum in the Dominican Republic to use cane juice as their base material. In fact, as far as I am aware, it is the only Spanish-style rum made exclusively from sugarcane juice. So we're looking at an agricole-esque product then? Nope. The use of cane juice in this instance is neither here nor there, since the distillate comes off the still at around 95% ABV and any trace of base material has been stripped out completely. The producer of that spirit is the sexy sounding “Alcoholes Finos Dominicanos”, who are based just north of the south coast town of San Pedro de Marcolis, and not far from Batey Consuelito and Batey Vasca. Constructed in 2009, the distillery comprises both copper and stainless steel column stills, as well as cane-milling equipment sufficient to produce 50,000 litres (13,000 US gallons) of alcohol a day.
Heading west 18 km (11 miles), we find the Barcelo ageing and bottling facility. It's as far removed from the tribulations of cutting sugarcane by hand as could be possible. A polished visitors centre, rum museum and tasting room prove a tempting opportunity for tourists visiting the south-coast beaches. The high- strength alcohol is tankered over to the ageing facility, where it is cut down to 70% ABV in preparation for filling American white oak casks. Under Dominican law, all rum must be aged for a minimum of 12 months, but Barcelo prove they're in it to win it by maturing for a minimum of 18 months on all of their expressions. There's an on-site cooperage that conducts repairs and reconditions casks by stripping the inside and re-charring the wood. The coopers use thin strips of bulrush (known locally as enea) to plug minor cracks and fissures in the casks.
The humble beginnings of one of the world's biggest rum brands.
The Barcelo visitors centre features dozens of old bottles, including rums blended by Julian Barcelo himself.
The Anejo and Gran Anejo expressions are blends of 2- and 3-year-old, and 4- and 6-year old rums respectively. Gran Platinum is the brand's answer to vodka drinkers: a 6-year-old rum filtered to remove any trace of colour. Then there's Imperial: the flagship of the brand, comprising 8—10—year old rums aged in exbourbon casks.
There are some Bordeaux wine barrels taking up space too, which are used only for the 9,000 bottles of Imperial Premium Blend that are released annually. Also hidden among the production space is a filter packed with Mexican onyx stones. The Barcelo Imperial Onyx expression is presented in matt black packaging and after undergoing maturation in “extra-charred” casks, the liquid is passed through this filter. I'm not entirely sure what it is supposed to do, but releases like these don't come cheap. It's for perhaps that reason that they have enjoyed some success in the Russian and Chinese luxury markets. I'm always wary of brands that boast ludicrous production practices and overly showy packaging, as they're all too often marketing a brand of lifestyle than truly delicious rum. In the case of the super-premium Barecelo offerings however, I can't bring myself to hate them, because they're damn tasty rums.
Andres Brugal Montaner was only 18 when he emigrated to the Caribbean from Catalonia in 1868. His first choice of tropical island was not the Dominican Republic however, but Cuba, where he settled in the southern coastal town of Santiago, later opening a hardware store. Naturally he was aware of sugarcane cultivation, and at some point he also became aware of the rum manufacturing process too. This was during the time of Jose Marti, the “Apostle of Cuban Independence”, and a period of great social change in Cuba as a colony, and eventually a nation. The Ten Years' War (1868—78) fought against Spain had already sent many planters packing their bags and heading to the relative stability of the Dominican Republic to ply their trade. Then the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886 saw the freed men of Cuba join the ranks of the working classes. Security fears plagued business owners and many more left Cuba never to return. Among them was Andres Brugal, who moved to Puerto Plata on the Dominican Republic's north coast in 1888, which would have seemed like sugar nirvana to the arriving planters and rum makers. Cane was booming thanks to President Ulises “LiKs” Heureaux’s subsidising of plantations (with European-borrowed cash), which sought to curry favour with the quickly expanding populace. These subsidies along with the drop in market value of sugar, would ultimately lead to the country’s bankruptcy (and LiHs’s assassination) in 1899, but by that point Don Andres Brugal was already well-established as one of the country’s greatest rum blenders.
Today, there are estimated to be more than 1,500 Dominican people, scattered over seven generations, who descend from this Spanish immigrants who had come to Puerto Plata to start a rum revolution. Don Andres himself oversaw production of Brugal rum up until his death in 1930, and despite the Scottish-based Edrington Group buying a majority shareholding of the business in 2008, the day- to-day operations remain in the safe hands of Brugal’s fifth generation of Maestros Roneros: Gustavo Ortega Zeller and Jassil Villanueva.
Brugal employ the services of no fewer than
three distilleries to produce their spirit. They are all located in the ocean
of cane that dominates the east of the island, and between them they can
produce up to 75,000 litres (20,000 US gallons) of pure alcohol in a day. The
spirit comes off the still at 95% ABV and by master blender Jassil Villanueva’s
own admission, “all of the character comes from the cask”. Once it arrives at
one of Brugal’s ageing facilities, the spirit is cut to 65% ABV ready for
filling in batches of 108 casks at a time.
Brugal Extra Anejo is the No. 1 bestselling rum in the Dominican
Republic (top); a snapshot of the
enormous bottling hall at Brugal's Puerto Plata blending facility (middle); Brugal cask samples taken at one-year
There are two ageing and bottling facilities used by Brugal, a “small” customerfacing operation in the centre of Puerto Plata that offers tours and tastings, and a larger warehouse to the west that handles 85% of the products. The warehouse in Puerto Plata is a colourful place thanks to an old cask management system that Brugal used to employ, which involved painting the chime (outer) hoop red, yellow, blue or white to denote how many times it had been filled. The system has been replaced by barcodes, but the barrels still bear the colour. Besides exbourbon casks, Brugal also have healthy stocks of olorosso a Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. These are a relatively rare in the rum world, but there are few companies with better access to this quality of wood than the Edrington Group, who have built a reputation for top-quality malt whisky through a liberal use of sherry casks.
This top-level oak really comes into its own in the older expressions that Brugal produce, where wood spice, dried fruits and sweet dairy notes win me over. The 1888 expression is my pick of the bunch, it spends 6—8 years in exbourbon casks before being finished for a few years in ex-oloroso casks. Layenda is sort of the reverse of 1888, spending the majority of its time in sherry wood. Brugal Extra Viejo is a blend of rums aged 3—8 years in ex-bourbon casks. XV is also a blend of 3—8-year-old ex-bourbon cask rums, mixed with 2—3-year-old Pedro Ximenez cask rums. Brugal Anejo is aged for 2—5 years, and so too is Especial Extra Dry (which is filtered to remove colour). And if you're feeling flush, why not splash out on a bottle of Brugal “Papa Andres”? It carries no age statement as, according to Jassil, “the ages are irrelevant”. Prior to 2013, Papa Andres was available only in charity auctions, but Brugal are now releasing 1,000 bottles annually. At £1,200 ($1,500) a bottle though, you'll probably need only
It would be neglectful of me not to mention the Brugal Foundation, a charitable organisation set up in 1988 to promote quality education in the Dominican Republic through opening schools and investing in scholarships for talented students who face financial hardship.
ritain took permanent control of Grenada from France in 1763 under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Included in the deal were 100 sugar mills along with 12,000 enslaved Africans. The British took little time colonizing the island, and just seven years later there were 1,500 colonists and 25,000 slaves. That same year the island exported 2.5 million litres (660,000 US gallons) of rum. The number of plantations continued to grow over the following 50 years, until the island became almost completely dependent on sugar, with as much as 83% of the slave workforce involved in sugar production by 1819. Things were set to change however, as the emancipation of slaves in 1833, followed by Europe's steady transition to sugar beet, meant that making sugar was no longer a viable economic activity.
Grenada remained prosperous thanks to an agricultural program in the latter half of the 19th century that saw the island shift from large-scale sugar production to small-scale peasant cultivation of cocoa and spices. Sugar was out, and nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves and ginger were in. Today, this tiny island, which was only introduced to nutmeg in 1843, now produces around one-quarter of all the world's supply. Nutmeg even features on the country's flag. Grenada is the 10th smallest country in the world, and the second smallest in the Caribbean. For me, it serves as a fantastic resume of all the best bits of the Caribbean: sun-bleached sand and clear waters; steep mountains that play host to wildlife from iguanas to armadillo; a varied agriculture with enough spices to single-handedly service the Americas; and strong rum.
The island was devastated by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, but the rebuild was swift and the architecture has remained sympathetic to the historical designs. The main town at St. George’s is almost suspiciously pristine given the apparent authenticity of the pastel-coloured buildings and thriving market place. Fishermen busy themselves with nets, or with bottled beer. Rum makes an appearance too, but it is a drink consumed mostly by the older generation at present.
There are two rum distilleries on Grenada: Grenada Distillers Ltd. and River Antoine. Twenty-five years ago there were four, but among the casualties of Hurricane Ivan was the Dunfermline Estate, which was originally established in 1797 just a few miles away from River Antoine in the north.
If it's cane harvesting season, you won't be short of sugary treats (below left); Grenada has done a fairly good job at capitalizing on rum tourism (below); Clarke's Court branding above liquor stores reminds us of the top-selling brand; (below right) cane fields and palms near River Antoine Distillery (far right).
Grenada’s Westerhall Estate was founded in the 1700s, but was originally a citrus fruit and banana estate, before turning to cane-growing and rum-making when Sir William Johnstone bought it in the late 1700s, changing the name to Westerhall in reflection of his hometown in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. This distillery also harnessed energy from the river (the St Louis. in this instance) which turned two wheels, one for crushing cane and the other for crushing fruits. The distillery was retired in 1994, and exactly a decade later, Hurricane Ivan took care of demolishing the walls. Nowadays, visitors are invited to walk the grounds,
which are somewhat of an open-air museum of rum history. Westerhall still bottle and blend rum that is sourced from the Angostura distillery in Trinidad.
Moonshining is alive and well in Grenada also, where it's estimated that over 50 illegitimate stills are secluded among the dense hills and steep valleys. Here, they
that are not making their own are at least flavouring bought stuff. Spiced rum is known as “woodman” on Grenada, which can be infused with anything from borbondi bark and cola nuts right through to centipedes. If you're wondering why someone would be inclined to drink such a concoction, it's worth knowing that the name “woodman” is not in reference to someone in the profession of felling trees, but rather in the “sexual potency” it supposedly bestows upon the drinker.
sells, and on this particular island so too does Campari... for some reason.
Advertising for the Italian aperitif is everywhere, but booze of all sorts is
commonplace. Around 5% of the population of Grenada are degree-level students,
attending medical courses at St. George's University (it's always the medics
that drink the hardest) so it may not come as a surprise to learn that Grenada
has the highest alcohol consumption per capita in the Western Hemisphere,
rattling through the equivalent of 31 bottles of 40% ABV rum per person, per year.
The problem is, nobody is drinking 40% alcohol spirits here. Both of the
islands' distilleries bottle super-high strength spirits as standard and I can
assure you that it remains that way (undiluted, unmixed) as it claws its way
down your throat.
The Grenada Sugar Factory has undergone some major changes in the past 20 years, but Clarke's Court is just as popular as ever among the Grenadians.
GRENADA SUGAR FACTORY
By the turn of the 20th century, Grenada’s sugar industry was already in serious decline. Spices had proven a more lucrative crop and cheaper to manage. The only issue was that nutmeg and cinnamon trees could take decades to reach full maturity, while cane can be grown and cut in a matter of months. Grenada was no longer dependent on sugar, like so many of its neighbours, but there was still money to be made from this fast-maturing cash crop.
This is evident in the construction of the Grenada Sugar Factory, which was built in 1937 on the site of an even older mill that dates back to the 18th century. At that time, the island was still growing in excess of 30,000 tons (33,000 US tons) of sugar every year, but it was becoming increasingly impractical for each plantation to operate their own mill and distillery. So a collective of sugar planters formed the Cane Grower’s Association, and consolidated their production in a new company in the Woodlands Valley. They named it the Grenada Sugar Factory Ltd. As with most other sugar-processing plants of the era, a distillery was built alongside the plant to process the leftover molasses into rum.
War was just around the corner, so the first bottling of rum was delayed until 1947, when the Grenada Sugar Factory launched the Red Neck Rum brand. Later, the factory produced another rum under the Tradewinds brand, and this went head to head with products from Dunfermline Estate, River Antoine and Westerhall. All of them, however, were forced to compete with a rapid decline of sugar on the island. Unperturbed, the distillery's best known brand, Clarke's Court, was created in 1973. This rum was named after nearby Clarke's Court Bay, which gets its name from Gedney Clarke, who purchased much of the Woodlands estate in the late 19th century, including the original “Court Bay” that was named by the Dutch. The early Clarke's Court rums would have been quite different to the ones bottled today however.
At 69% alcohol by volume, it's advisable to approach Clarke's Court Pure White Rum with caution. I advise having a glass of water close at hand. And perhaps a fire extinguisher, too.
Following Maurice Bishop's political revolution in 1979, the company was privatized in 1982 and renamed Grenada Distillers Ltd. It was a subtle change of title from the “Grenada Sugar Factory” (by which it is still known by locals) but an important one, as it coincided with the termination of sugar manufacturing. The year 1983 also saw the original alembic stills stripped out of the distillery and replaced with a column still. The raw material changed too. Up until the 1980s the distillery was producing rum from three different Grenadian base materials: sugar cane juice and molasses during the February to June harvest season; and sugarcane syrup and molasses for the remainder of the year. With sugar production coming to an end there was no molasses, so it began arriving by boat from Guyana. The cane syrup continued to be processed using the local crop, but both products were (as they are today) distilled to above 95%, so any trace of character was stripped out. Another 10 years passed, and virtually all of the sugar plantations on the island had shut up shop. Now the distillery uses imported molasses from Guyana and Panama.
The ability to adapt is what’s kept this operation alive for the past 80 years, but much has been lost along the way. What we're left with today is, in truth, a ghost of rum’s past. Present in spirit, but lacking in body and character.
Molasses is not the only Guyanan import hanging around at the distillery. The master blender at Grenada Distillers is Ahmad Rasheed, a veteran chemist and former operations manager at the Diamond Distillery in Georgetown (see pages 175—78). Under Mr Rasheed’s exceptionally experienced gaze, fermentation takes place in 36,500-litre (9,500-US gallon) tanks, of which there are six. The spirit is distilled to 95% ABV and either cut for bottling one of the high-strength products, or sent for filling ex-bourbon casks.
The River Antoine distillery on Grenada’s north-east coast was first established in 1785. At that time there would have been dozens of small sugar estates across the island, each of them busily processing the island’s chief commodity and producing their share of rum with it. But the sugar industry soon began to decline, and was hit especially hard by the emancipation of slavery in 1834, which made the sugar factories unsustainable.
Milestones in the island’s history include the building of Grenada’s first school (1872), the arrival of the first motor vehicle (1907) and the introduction of electricity (1928). During this time, the agriculture of the island began to look beyond sugarcane, to the spices that it is now renowned for. But through all that change, through rebellion and independence, one thing has remained almost exactly the same: River Antoine distillery.
The operational practices at River Antoine are old-fashioned to say the least. The distillery is one of only two rum distilleries in the world (the other is Shillingford on Dominica — see page 89) that is powered by a water wheel, which claims to be the oldest working example in the whole of the Americas. The wheel is turned by an aqueduct fed from a nearby reservoir, which is in turn filled by the River Antoine itself. This wheel powers the distillery’s conveyor belt and cane mill, processing the raw sugarcane into fresh juice and bagasse (the leftover dry husk). The cane itself is all of the “hand-cut” variety, arriving in bundles wrapped in green cane leaves, from one of the 50 or so family farms that supply the distillery.
The freshly pressed juice travels along a narrow, tiled aqueduct and into the boiler room. In here, the juice is filtered and then transferred between consecutive copper pans (four in total) which each hold up to 1,820 litres (480 US gallons) of juice. The pans are gently heated from a furnace operating below, which is fuelled by the bagasse. As more fresh juice flows in, an attendant ladles liquid from the cooler pans to the hotter ones, reducing its volume until it reaches 19—21% sugar — somewhere in-between juice and syrup. The volume of juice is recorded on a blackboard and the farmer is paid at a rate of $1.75 East Caribbean dollars (45p/30^) per gallon. One gallon (4.5 litres) of juice is enough to make about V5 gallon (1 litre) of 69% ABV rum.
When the conveyor belt breaks down, cane is loaded into the mill by
hand. They only press cane in the
morning - the reservoir feeding the wheel dries up by noon.
Cane juice simmering in copper pans gives us a snapshot of how sugar was once made across the region.
The fresher the cane, the more juice it gives up. This blackboard
records the volume of cane juice each
farmer's crop yielded.
The next step is fermentation, which takes 6—8 days. No yeast is added to the juice; instead the distillery allows its open windows and ensuing natural airborne yeast to take care of proceedings. This, along with the cocktail of bacteria that cling to the side of the tanks, and pirouetting shafts of Grenadian sunshine, makes for wacky alcoholic soup of around 17% ABV, although this is prone to shifting up or down.
Distillation is carried out in one of two 1,365-litre (360-US gallon) copper pot-stills that are each heated by a wood-burning furnace. These stills were manufactured in the US in the middle of the last century, and their design is reminiscent of a whisky still. The distillate passes through two steel retorts and then a heat exchanger, which pre-heats the next batch of wash and kicks off the condensation of spirit vapour. Then the distillate is partially condensed, the vapour travels down through a worm-tub style condenser before it is cut and collected. The machinery and process here is primitive enough that the end results are inconsistent in strength, so it's not unheard of for the rum to be re-distilled to bring the strength up to a minimum of 75% ABV.
The rum made here is bottled straight from the still, and although it says 75% on the bottle, I suspect that at times it could be even higher (but never lower). Passenger aircraft will not carry spirits above 70% ABV and even freight planes require specialist licensing, so it's for this reason that you're unlikely to ever see a bottle of “Rivers” outside of Grenada. If you do, it would have travelled by boat. River Antoine recognized this as a problem for tourists, so these days they also bottle at a comparatively tame 69% ABV, too.
The rum made here is strong by anyone's standards, but the observance of historical methods is stronger still. It's hard not to get caught up in the emotion of the whole thing, as centuries of rum-making are recounted through the wearing of hard stone and timber, and through the subjugation of weary machines. Perhaps I'm a romantic, but when I taste the rum made here I feel like I am drinking the distillery itself. I pray it never changes.
nown as the “butterfly island” on account of its lepidopteran shape, Guadeloupe is in fact two islands separated by a salt water river. The western wing is called Basse-Terre, and it's dominated by lush green volcanic hills stitched thick with banana trees. The lower-lying land reaches towards the sea, and it's in those areas you tend to find all the sugarcane. Five of Guadeloupe's six distilleries are on Basse-Terre. The eastern wing, Grande-Terre, is lower lying and hotter, and along with lots of chalk-rich soil, it makes for perfect growing conditions for the cane. The island's largest distillery, Damoiseau, is situated here, near the tip of the wing. In the thorax of the island, where the two regions join, is the islands largest city, Pointe-a- Pitre: a busy port and industrial town during the daytime but rather more edgy after dark where the rhum flows freely.
During the harvesting season, Guadeloupe is teeming with shifting swathes of leafy sugarcane. There are 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of land dedicated to growing cane on the island, which translates to around 800,000 tons (880,000 US tons) of raw cane harvested annually. And since a single ton of cane yields 200 litres (53 US gallons) of rhum agricole, it’s safe to say that Guadeloupe is future- proofed for any rise in demand. The island actually produces more rhum than its more famous southern neighbour, Martinique, but unlike Martinique there is no AOC. There is a Geographical Indication associated with Guadeloupian rhum, however, but that doesn’t prevent the distilleries on Guadeloupe going about their business as they please. In general, they use the Martinique rule book as a guideline, tweaking bits and pieces to suit their own preference. This also means that distillers on Guadeloupe make more molasses-based rhum, or rhum industriel as it is known there, although most of it is exported for blending and none is bottled for sale on the island.
Every bit as relevant to the rum aficionado as Guadeloupe itself, is the nearby island dependancy of Marie-Galante. The island is accessible by a one-hour boat ride, heading south-east from Pointe-a-Pitre. For me, Marie-Galante represents the epitome of the Caribbean idyl: white sandy beaches, coral reefs, lazy sun- bleached waterfront towns and generally not a lot going on to distract you from the beauty of the whole thing. Not a lot that is, except for rhum-making. There are three distilleries on this island, which measures only 15 km (9 miles) from tip to tip; with a population of just 12,000 souls, nobody’s short of a bottle of rhum on Marie-Galante.
the quantity of distilleries on Marie-Galante, visitors will notice that the rhum
produced here is bottled at a rather alarming strength of 59%. The French
government have legally sanctioned this bottling strength, which is two degrees
above the normal legal limit and almost half as strong again as the industry
standard of 40% ABV. “Why?” you might ask. During one rhum-fuelled
encounter, a local musician told me it’s because the island has historically
been quite short on
water. The distillers made a plea for a higher bottling strength, which meant less water was needed to dilute the product.
Due to the size of Marie-Galante, the distilleries have become popular tourist attractions. By far the most interesting of the three is Bielle, which is producing some of the finest rhums in the Caribbean right now.
Young cane flourishing on the fertile volcanic soils of Basse-Terre.
Marie-Galante is far less frantic than the towns of Guadeloupe.
There's a good tourism trade, great bars and
some fantastic rhum agricole for lubrication.
As the 19th century came to a close, there were 106 windmills on Marie-Galante, which, on an island with a landmass of just 158 square kilometres (61 square miles), means you could never stray far from somewhere that was refining sugar. A few were dedicated only to producing raw sugar, but most were making rhum, and if not from sugarcane juice then certainly from the molasses by-product leftover from the sugar-refining process. The empty stumps of many of these forgotten plantations are still dotted around the hills of Marie-Galante, like nagging gravestones reminding us of a once thriving cottage industry. Today, this island which was once known as l’ile aux cent moulins (“the island of a hundred windmills”) has only two windmills that are still turning, and they are said to be the only working windmills in the West Indies. One of them, which was built in 1821, is at the Bellevue distillery.
Hubert Damoiseau has been at the head of this operation for 42 years now, which was originally bought by his great-grandfather, in 1924. As a cousin of Herve Damoiseau, proprietor of the Damoiseau distillery in Grande-Terre on Guadeloupe's mainland, there's rhum in the blood of this family and there's a heartiness to the rhum, too. Hubert inherited the distillery from his uncle in the 1970s and impassioned the locals to help him pump some life into the business. Hubert is something of a local hero today and the distillery employees loyally state that it's the man they work for, not the distillery. This is because, in 1995, Hubert merged the operation with the Erstein group, a French sugar conglomerate. Erstein later passed their interest on to the La Martiniquaise group (France's second largest spirits group) who own a whole bunch of brands and distilleries, including Depaz (see pages 133—34) and Saint James (see pages 145—147).
All too often these mergers and acquisitions can turn out a little toxic, especially when humble old distilleries are concerned, but this partnership has proven to be a fruitful one. Over the years that have passed since the acquisition, significant investment has been channelled into the Bellevue distillery and it now holds a position as one of the “greenest” distilleries in the world. This begins with cane that is sourced only from the fields adjacent to the distillery, reducing transport costs and minimizing the carbon footprint. All of the waste water from the distillery is oxygenated using cutting-edge technology then, after seven months, used to irrigate the cane fields. Just like many other agricole distilleries, the bagasse is burned to produce steam, and the leftover ash is turned into fertilizer.
On top of these sustainable agricultural practices, Bellevue has taken further measures that go above and beyond the normal remit of a spirits producer. Four acres of solar panels were installed in 2010, which overnight made Bellevue the largest solar farm in the Caribbean; and what with being in a part of the world where the sun shines all day long, these panels are good for generating over one- third of all of Marie-Galante's energy needs.
It's thanks to all of the measures listed above, along with a generally fierce culture of sustainability, that Bellevue, a distillery that produces 1.2 million litres (317,00 US gallons) of bottled rhum a year (placing it third in the production rankings of Guadeloupean distilleries) is in fact carbon negative — a claim that only a handful of spirits producers in the world can make.
With its 20-plate column and truckloads of cane, Bellevue is a relatively normal-looking distillery on the face of it, but scratch the surface and there's a wealth of environmental considerations lurking underneath.
Ironically, the windmill is little more than an ornament (ok, a very large and impressive ornament) and it plays no part in the operation whatsoever.
Bellevue rhum is made from red and white cane varieties, the
juice of which is fermented for 30—40 hours using a conventional baker’s yeast.
The rhum is distilled in a 20-plate stainless-steel column still, up to
a strength of 79% ABV. Around 95% of production is bottled as rhum blanc
at either 50% ABV or, in accordance with the Marie-Galante Trademark, 59% ABV.
The remaining 5% is sent for maturation in ex-bourbon and ex-Cognac casks.
The windmill turns (top), but it doesn't mill anything, unlike this mini-mill (middle right), which juices cane samples to test their sugar content so that the farmer is paid appropriately. The end result is 59% ABV Marie-
Galante rhum, which packs some heat - but that's the point, right?
I have absolutely no reservations when I say that, of the trio of distilleries on Marie-Galante, Bielle is the most progressive. In fact, it’s probably the most exciting distillery in terms of liquid innovation of any of the sixteen distilleries on the French Caribbean islands. This is in part down to a fruitful partnership with Italian rum importer, Luca Gargano, and grappa baron, Gianni Capovilla. It’s also thanks to Jerome Thiery, the distillery manager, whose explorations into cane milling, long fermentations, and pot stills (for some expressions) has resulted in some blinding white rhums that exhibit clarity and complexity by the bucketload. But credit must also go to Jacques Larrent, the cellar master, who earned his stripes working for the Martell Cognac house, and has now turned his attention to rhum agricole. Between these four men, the rule book is getting somewhat of a re-write.
The Bielle distillery is near the centre of Marie-Galante, around a 10-minute drive north from Grand Bourg. The road gradually becomes less and less passable, but just before you conclude that it’s all too much and turn around... the distillery appears from nowhere. On the day that I visited it was a hive of activity. Visitors milled around drinking Ti Punch and sampling the range of rhums. Distillery workers busied themselves with the truckloads of cane that seemed to turn up every ten minutes. Authentically dressed local women set up half a dozen market stalls, selling fish-filled pasties, coconut crudites and other patisserie items. Wandering the grounds, you’re occasional made aware of the aroma of animal sweat and manure. It’s the real deal though; carts drawn by oxen plod along the road, loaded high with just-cut cane from the nearby plantations.
The sampling bar at Bielle has over a dozen rhums to try, so be sure to arrange a taxi home.
Inside the distillery there are roller mills for crushing the cane, fermenters and of course the traditional Savalle column still for making rhum agricole. There’s also a
500-litre (132-US gallon) German-style alembic pot still that looks slightly out of place in the context of rhum agricole. It’s of the same cast as those that have become popular in the craft spirits movement of late.
This copper pot hints at some weird goings-on at Bielle, and the deeper you delve the more it becomes clear: Bielle is not a conventional rhum-maker, but in truth, two distilleries under one roof. With the exception of “Premium Blanc” (see right), the Bielle branded rhums are made in a mostly typical agricole fashion: cane (red and white varieties) are hand-cut and milled only twice — this is to avoid the green and sappy flavours that can come about during a third or fourth pressing. Fermentation lasts 36—48 hours and the rhum is distilled up to 77% through three linked columns. Then, in a process that (to the best of my recollection) is unique to Bielle, the rhum is cut to bottling strength using rainwater — or l’eau du ciel (“water from heaven”) as Jacques puts it.
Bielle is not the only rum made here, though. The “Rhum Rhum” brand, which has been produced here since 2007, is a little more unorthodox than Bielle products, or as the case may be: very orthodox indeed. It’s made in partnership with Gianni Capovilla and Luca Gargano, and this brand has notched up no shortage of awards in its first few years of existence. Production of these rhums is at odds with contemporary agricole practices, and it’s almost easier to think of the rhums as fruit spirits, the fruit being the cane itself.
The cane juice is captured only from the first pressing and has no water added to it whatsoever. The juice is then sent for a whopping 7—10-day fermentation, developing all manner of flavourful eccentricities during its mutation into cane wine. This flavourful vin is then distilled twice in the copper pot still. Unlike the column still, commonly used by agricole distillers, a pot tends to concentrate flavour rather than strip it out, and these rums are certainly no exception to that rule. If the agricole category can be criticized for anything, it should be that the distilleries that make it are too consistent to one another, but Rhum Rhum doesn’t just fly in the face of that — it swoops in front of your face like a UFO and goes off like a hand grenade. The pot still is also used to re-distill Bielle’s Premium Blanc rhum agricole, which is one of my favourite entry-level white rhums.
In addition to all the other goings on at Bielle, there’s no sign of negligence where matters of maturation are concerned either. Jacques Larrent has indulged in a fine selection of French casks to bolster ex-bourbon stocks, from ex-Cognac through to ex-Sauternes and various other French wine casks. His endeavours have certainly paid off. The Bielle distillery is an exhibition of quality rhum- making, and its rhum are like works of fine art. With an unusual degree of aromatic precision and great taste balance. It sure makes me glad I’m not a rhum- maker who has to compete with witchcraft such as this.
Even though Pointe-a-Pitre is both the commercial and literal centre of Guadeloupe, the capital of the two islands is Basse-Terre — a micro-city in the south-west of the Basse-Terre region. This town is a welcome antidote to the tempestuous goings-on of Pointe-a-Pitre, looking and feeling far more like a slice of the French Riviera. Fishing vessels gently sway in the harbour, markets sell fresh fish, and people ride horses on the beach. It's that kind of place. On the northern edge of the town is Distillerie Bologne, a squat green fortress of an operation, set against the smudge of clouds that circle the Soufriere volcano, and peering over rows of ripe sugarcane at the cerulean sea.
The De Bolognes were a Protestant family from the Dauphine region of France, who had migrated to Holland in the 16th century. Certain members of the family later settled in Brazil, which was a Dutch colony managed by the Dutch West India Company from 1630—54. The family prospered in sugar cultivation, as well as in the trade of sugar and rhum in the northwest of France and with Europe. When the Portuguese finally recaptured Brazil, many of the Dutch families were forced to flee. The De Bolognes first headed to Martinique, where they were quickly ushered away for being Protestants, then they arrived in Guadeloupe, in early 1654, with their workers and their gold and their silver, which they were allowed to keep under the capitulation treaties signed in Brazil.
The Bolognes' sugar estates prospered on the southern slopes of of the Soufriere hills. On Christmas day in 1745, Joseph Bologne was born, the son of George Bologne, and Nanon, one of his African slaves. Joseph, who would later be known as “Chevalier de Saint-George”, was never involved in the running of the plantation or distillery, but he's worth a mention on account of being one of the most celebrated musicians of his time, being a virtuoso violinist, conductor of the Paris symphony orchestra and the first classical composer of African ancestry. During the French Revolution, Saint-George led the first all-black regiment in Europe. He was also handy with a fencing foil, not bad on horseback and an enviable dancer.
Sugarcane in the fields surrounding the Distillerie Bologne.
Distillerie Bologne is a big operation - dumper trucks are required to load cane into the mill.
The brightly coloured mill at Distillerie Bologne looks as though
it's been requisitioned from a travelling
Back in Guadeloupe, the Bologne estate fell on hard times during the French revolution, ultimately leading to the sale of the estate. On May 26 1830, Jean- Antoine Am¸-No¸l purchased the sugar refinery. Born in the town of Bouillante, in the region of Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, Jean-Antoine was the first free-born man of colour to own a property as extensive (114 hectares/280 acres) as the former De Bologne plantation. Business flourished up until 1848, when slavery was abolished, and despite his efforts to organize paid labour on the plantation, he was crippled by substantial debts. He died in 1850 and was buried on the property. His grave remains marked to this day.
Rhum Bologne is distilled to only 55—60% ABV. This means that less of that juicy cane character of the vin (fermented cane juice) is stripped out, and less water is required to dilute the finished product. The newly made spirit is stored in 10,000-litre (2,650-US gallon) oak vats for up to six months during the rainy season, while it awaits bottling. Because of that, even the rhum blanc has a slight off-white colour to it.
But it is in Distillerie Bologne's vieux (aged) rhums that we find the real treasures. Bologne have a policy of using only French oak casks from Cognac and Armagnac houses. The wood offers up fruit and spice in spades, but when coupled with that beefy, muscular distillate, you get the best of both worlds — the finesse of a ballerina and the balls of a boxer.
The older of Distillerie Bologne’s releases, such as the VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), which is a blend of rhums between four and eight years old, take on an intensely concentrated Cognac quality, with bright florals, a herbal edge, rich fruit and a tobacco finish. Bologne's oldest stocks are unmatched on the island. On any island, perhaps.
DOMAINE DE DAMOISEAU
Of the six distilleries currently operating on the “Butterfly Island”, Domaine de Damoiseau is the only one located on the low-lying countryside of Grand-Terre. In contrast to the water-powered sugar mills of Basse-Terre, it's wind power that was historically used to mill cane on Grand-Terre, and the remains of these structures can still be seen across the countryside. Perched on the tip of the creature's east-facing wing, Guadeloupe's largest distillery might be worthy of an island all of its own. Domaine de Damoiseau bottle a remarkable 3.2 million litres (845,000 US gallons) of rhum every year, which accounts for nearly half of all the rhum produced in Guadeloupe.
The first Damoiseau arrived in Guadeloupe in 1816, emigrating from France. One of their descendants, Roger Damoiseau, was working in a sugar factory in Grande-Terre when, in 1942, he was told about an old mill up for sale, near the historical port of Le Moule. Damoiseau couldn't afford to buy the property however, but his neighbour, seeing the potential in the man, fronted up a loan and the sale was made. The neighbours cash was safe, so it would seem. The distillery enjoyed great success.
Herve Damoiseau is the current owner, a man driven by an enormous passion for the rhum he makes, with just a light seasoning of ‘crazy' thrown in for good measure. When I visited the distillery it took me 20 minutes of searching to track him down, until I eventually found him in the packing area, where he was prying open a bottling nozzle using a screwdriver. In my opinion, it’s Herve’s slightly quirky hands-on approach that resonates around the distillery and into the mindset of all the people who work there. Everyo n e keeps busy in this place, as visitors are invited to wander freely around the plant — “They’re fine, as long as they don’t fall in the rhum!” Herve informed me with a look of derangement in his eyes, which implied that falling in a vat of rum was a real possibility.
These days, the crushing mill is powered by a steam engine. The dismantled 1871 Fives-Lille engine and the vertical engine are at the back of the yard. The rest of the gear is on display in the park in front of the visitor centre. In fact, the Damoiseau distillery is positively littered with decaying pieces of engineering equipment.
Damoisueau produce the lightest spirit on the island, and the lightest of any French rhum agricole distillates by my reckoning. This is thanks to the 12-plate Coffey still, which pumps out a white rhum at around 88% ABV. Roughly 85% of the output is sold as white rhum, but the aged stocks are still enough to fill 3,000 barrels. Works are underway to increase the cask capacity to 8,000 barrels, however.
Ok, perhaps not everyone is busy, but this is rum-making after all,
and a laid back approach is a key
DOMAINE DE SEVERIN
The earliest recorded history of the area occupied by the present-day Distillerie du Domaine de Severin, in the north of Basse-Terre, shows an 18thcentury sugar mill, called Habitiation Bellevue. It's no wonder someone chose to put a plantation here. Lush cane fields prosper happily on the long north stretch, down from the mountain to the coast.
In the early 19th century, Bellevue was bought by Monsieur Severin (first name unknown) and the name changed. Jump forward to the 20th century, and sugarbased activities and been wound down, and the buildings had been recommissioned for the canning of pineapples. In 1920, Ms. Beauvarlet purchased the site and re-instated rhum-making, placing her nephew, Henri Marsolle, in charge of operations.
Henri operated the distillery for over 40 years, even through the death of his son, Edward, who was tragically killed when he attempted to rescue a co-worker after a boiler exploded in the distillery. Henri handed the reins over to his other son, Joseph, in 1966. In time, many of the day-to-day operations were passed on to Joseph's own three sons: Jose, Pascal and Thierry.
Severin is easily the prettiest distillery of the Basse-Terre collection, and it receives more visitors than any other in Guadeloupe. The operational area and the grounds have been well-maintained. There's an old colonial house that was built by Henri Marsolle in the 1940s, and a small restaurant turns out good Creole food (on the occasions that it is actually open). For those who are unable, or unwilling, to take the short self-guided tour through the gardens, there is even a model train that unceremoniously drags “carriages” of interested parties along the winding gravel pathways.
In 2014 a majority stakeholding of Severin was sold to the investment firm, Jose Pirbakas, so it’s unclear what the future holds for this operation. For now at least, Pascal Marsolle still works at the distillery, but more in his capacity as a source of historical information than as a distiller. These days he has a separate company that manufactures Creole cooking ingredients, and he tends to a small retail space in one corner of the distillery building.
Outside, the last remaining paddle wheel in the French Antilles still spins on its axle. It was once used to power the mill that crushed the cane, but was decommissioned in 2008. Time rolls on. the wheel feigns progress... but its unabating motion is superfluous to the Severin operation.
Sugarcane is cut by hand here, as the steep slopes make machine-cutting impossible. Once pressed for its juice, it’s fermented for 48 hours. If you arrive at the right time of day you can witness the cane wine bubbling over the edges of the 16,000-litre (4,225-US gallon) open-top fermenters and flowing down the sides. Most distilleries toss sulphuric acid to their tanks to quell the gassy expansion, but Severin prefer to let things take their natural course. It’s another indicator of the graceful acceptance of fate that this distillery seems to have adopted over the years. Distillation is done in a single column, and the resulting spirit is between 65— 70% ABV. It’s an angry little spirit that they produce at Severin, feeling somewhat bitter and warped by the whole ordeal. But there’s something strangely pleasant to be found in that, as the liquid grapples with your mouth, trying (but failing) to evade the inevitable. The single aged expression that the distillery is currently bottling tempers some of that aggression, mind you. It’s just a shame there aren’t any others. That is hopefully set to change however, as the distillery is stocking a range of woods (sherry, French, ex-bourbon) presumably with the intention of blending interesting future releases.
The old water wheel and beautiful grounds at Domaine de Severin make it a must-see for rum lovers, or indeed, anyone (below left). Sugarcane is cut by hand at Domaine de Severin and transported by tractor to the mill (centre above). The angels return the favour with a spot of music as they enjoy their “share” (centre below). Hopefully we'll taste the fruits of these casks in the not too distant future (below right).
On Columbus’s second voyage across the Atlantic, in which he was transporting sugarcane cuttings to the Caribbean, the first island he encountered was named after his own flagship, Marigalante. The fleet spent only a day on the small island, before heading north, where they encountered a much bigger land mass. At that time, Guadeloupe was known to the Carib Indians as “Karukera”, which roughly translates to “island with beautiful water”. Columbus dropped anchor on November 4 1493 and spent 10 days exploring the island that he named “Santa Mana de Guadalupe” after the Virgin Mary, venerated in the Spanish town of Guadalupe. Amazingly, the fierce Carib Indians maintained occupation of the island until 1640 when, after over a century of bloody encounters with Spanish and French forces, they relented and the French seized control. They kept the name “Guadeloupe” and named the region where Columbus set to shore Sainte- Marie.
In the early 18th century, King Louis XIV of France granted the title of Marquis de Sainte-Marie to a nobleman, and gifted him a large piece of land on the eastern coast of Basse-Terre. Like most of Guadeloupe, the marquisate specialized in sugar through the 19th century and the estate included a sugar mill and hundreds of acres of cane plantation. Jump forward to 1890, however, and the heir to the original Marquis had developed a penchant for all the noble pleasures that came with his station — drinking, women and gambling — the latter of which he wasn't very good at it. With debts piling high, he was forced to sell the estate to settle his bills. The highest bidder was Henri Longueteau, a local engineer, who, in 1895, turned the mill into a rhum distillery. That distillery has since passed through four generations of the Longueteau family, right up to the present-day director, Francois Longueteau.
Half of the estate's 65 hectares (160 acres) is dedicated to growing bananas and the other half to sugarcane. Between the red and blue varieties, this is enough cane to supply the enitre distillery operation, making Longueteau the only selfsufficient distiller on the island. The cane is crushed and fermented for 48 hours before being sent to the stainless-steel column still, which is capable of processing up to 6,000 litres (1,585 US gallons) of a rhum a day. For Longueteau rhums, the white rhum comes off the still at around 72% ABV, and is then rested in large, inactive, oak vats for three months before being bottled. This resting period seems to give Longueteau a slight edge, turning soft tropical fruits into drier, vegetal tones.
The Karukera brand was launched in 2002, when Guillaume Drouin, son to the famous Calvados producer Christian Drouin, had a veritable rhum epiphany during a trip to Haiti. He partnered with Longueteau to produce his own version of rhum agricole. Only blue cane is used, which is, unusually for an agricole, fermented without the addition of anti-foaming or acidifying substances.
For both brands it is the mature rhums that really steal the show, and there are certainly plenty to choose from. A strong policy towards French oak casks takes the rhum to the realm of citrus fruits, dried berries, and flora.
This distillery is generally hard to access for public tours, but there is a large shop and tasting room that opens throughout the week. There, you can sample the many varieties of rhum produced at the distillery, including the Mon Repos (made from cane syrup) Longueteau, and Karukera brands, as well as the usual fruit punches and spiced offerings.
The Montebello distillery, also known as the Carrere Distillery, is a 20-minute drive from the centre of Pointe-a-Pitre, heading south, along the eastern coastal road of Basse-Terre. This is good, because those on a pilgrimage to Montebello will need to use all 1,200 seconds to mentally prepare themselves for what they are about to see.
The distillery is a grey and rust-coloured relic. Half post-apocalyptic shanty town, half steam-punk theme-park, and seemingly constructed entirely from corrugated iron and pipes bonded together with the grease and sweat of nearly a century's hard toil. It is a homage to the industrial age: to steam power, cogs, valves and flames. Along with the near-deafening barrage of noises — hissing, whirring and the occasional scream — one might assume that they are no longer in a distillery, but inside the world's largest combustion engine. There are pressure gauges seemingly everywhere — far too numerous and too dirty to be of any practical function. But it's difficult not to be won over by the industrial craft of the whole thing. Montebello is a mechanical wonder.
The Distillerie Carrere, which was named after the small village in which it is situated, was first established in 1930, by the Dolomite family. It struggled through the early years, hindered by over-production and World War II, until it was eventually closed in 1966 and converted into a cinema. Looking at the operation today, it's hard to imagine how it could possibly have functioned as a movie theatre, and it seems that the endeavour failed to capture the attentions of the locals too. In 1968 the site was sold to Jean Marsolle, the brother of Henry Marsolle: owner and operator of the nearby Severin distillery. Jean Marsolle's son, Alain, came on board too, and later purchased the distillery from his father. Alain's legacy was in the acquisition of old distillery equipment, which over time returned the distillery to its original operating condition, including a functioning steam boiler powered by a bagasse-burning furnace. The distillery was renamed “Montebello” in 1975, and since December 2011 it has been Gregory Marsolle, Alain's son, who has served as king of this corrugated castle.
Distillerie Carrere is a corrugated iron metropolis that is equally absurd on the inside.
The rhum produced here is rhum agricole, made only from the fresh juice of the cane. Montebello add less water during milling and run a slightly longer fermentation than their contemporaries, claiming that a more complex, fruity cane wine is produced, and that this translates into a finer spirit. The vin, which has an ABV of around 12% is distilled in a double-column copper still, and drawn-off at 85% ABV. Perhaps the most interesting element of the production however, is their maturation program. Ever faithful to the gods of grease and steel, Montebello store their casks in sheet metal warehouses. In the Guadeloupean sunshine, these structures are like ovens that softly bake the casks, and forcefully dredging the rhum in their flavoursome depths.
Distilleries are factories, and steel and copper can sometimes feel sanitary and cold. Often they are. But at Montebello the tangle of shapes and surfaces takes on a different presence, one that feels time-honoured and as relevant as any oak barrel or water wheel. As the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau put it, “Silence is gathered in the sounds of metal. Age, rust, and paint acquire a trembling of skin.”
POISSON The Poisson distillery is near the west coast of Marie-Galante, walking distance from the beach. They make the popular Pere Labat brand of rhum there, named after the 18th-century Martinican planter who established the standard for sugar plantations in the French West indies. Poisson is my favourite of the Marie- Galante trio, but not because it makes the best rhum (that would be Bielle) — it’s my favourite because it's also home to a hidden gem of a restaurant called La Table de Pere Labat. Eating (and drinking) there should be made mandatory for any distillery visitor. I can highly recommend the tartare de poisson, which goes down nicely when accompanied by a Ti Punch.
Back in the 1860s, the Poisson family ran a sugar mill on the current site of the Poisson distillery, though the distillery didn’t get its name until Edouard Rameau bought the property in 1916 and installed a distillery there. Besides the aforementioned restaurant and a small shop, not much has changed here. It is the smallest of the Marie-Galante trio (producing just 300,000 litres (80,000 US gallons a year) and production had come to a halt on the day that I visited. Some parts of the building are ancient, some of them so old and worn-looking that you might think it was constructed in the Middle Ages. The production process is true to the standard agricole mould. All of the cane on Marie-Galante is cut by hand, and originates from any one of the hundred or so family-owned plots of land. Farmers are paid ˆ60—70 (£51—60 or $63—73) per ton of cane cut, depending on the brix of the juice, which is measured from a sample at the time of delivery. This distillery is a steam-powered operation, where the heat is generated by burning the bagasse in a huge iron furnace, which is so battered that it has the look of something constructed a few centuries ago from riveted sheets of dusty leather. Distillation is conducted in the original (101-year-old) copper Coffey still.
The rhums produced here vary in quality but one or two are really rather good. It’s a nice surprise to find that their standard agricole blanc is bottled at three different strengths: 40%, 50% and 59% ABV. In a tasting, this offers the opportunity explore the effects of dilution on the product. And in this instance we find three quite different rhums; my personal favourite is the 50%. The least desirable rhums on the roster are the Dore (gold) and Soleil (sun). Both have been subjected to only short amount of time in cask — two months in ex-bourbon casks and 12 months in a 10,000-litre (2,650-US gallon) oak vat respectively — and in both instances a good deal of distillery character has been lost while the benefits of the barrel are still yet to be found. By far the most special product here is the Cuvee 1997, an 18-year-old rhum that is truly a diamond in the rough.
Poisson's still is one of the oldest working examples in the whole of the Caribbean. The fact that someone saw fit to slice a piece of metal off the top of Poisson's boiler (centre) is just one of many signs that the equipment here has seen a hard life.
Order up a Ti Punch and enjoy some great Caribbean seafood at La Table du Pere Labat.
aiti is a country that has struggled more than most in recent years. Struck with natural disaster, political corruption, military coups, trade embargoes and disease; it's easy to misplace the historical and present-day significance of this beautiful country to the rhum category. By my estimate Haiti has as many rhum distilleries as the rest of the world combined. They call it clairin here, and most of its un-aged spirit is made from the natural fermentation of sugarcane juice or syrup on a very small scale. It's hardcore stuff: bright, oily, vegetal and sold at off- the-still strength. Even I was forced to suppress a gasp upon my first combustible sip of clairin. Besides the bottlings listed in the following pages, it's unlikely you'll ever get to taste the fruits of Haiti's 500-or-so distilleries without visiting them in person (most of the clairin never leaves the village it was made in, let alone the country), but it's imperative that we recognize the Haitian culture for sugarcane spirits for what it is: an untainted slice of rhum history deserving a book all of its own.
A campaign to occupy the long western coast of Hispaniola was kickstarted by French privateers during the 1630s. The west of the island had been neglected by the Spanish, and by the time they realized what had happened there was no other option than to cede the space to the French crown, establishing more or less the present day border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The French were keen cane farmers, and starting in the 1730s, engineers constructed complex irrigation systems to increase sugarcane production. By the 1740s Saint- Domingue (as it was known by the French) together with Jamaica, had become the main supplier of the world's sugar and accountable for over half of all the world's coffee. It's hard to imagine it looking at Haiti today, but Saint-Domingue was the richest colony in the Caribbean during the 18th century.
A hardworking colony like Sainte-Domingue doesn't get by without a large workforce. In 1789, two years prior to the revolution, there were nearly half a million African slaves working in Saint-Domingue, which accounted for roughly half of all the slaves in the Caribbean at the time, outnumbering the white land owners by a factor of twenty. Spurred on by a religious ceremony performed by the vodou priest Dutty Boukman, which allegedly prophesied freedom for all slaves, the uprising began on August 21 1791. It would become the greatest slave revolt since Spartacus, making legends out of the likes of Toussaint Louverture, a general of the slave army and a self-educated former slave. On January 1 1804, Haiti was declared a free republic. It was the only successful slave-led revolution of the colonial period.
Freedom came at a cost however. The expulsion of white land owners meant that sugar plantations became mismanaged. Coupled with the ideological threat that Haiti posed to the international community — for whom slavery was still a lucrative economic venture — meant that trade dried up too. Put simply, Haiti never recovered from the revolutionary fallout. Today its economy is in tatters, sugarcane farming is in decline, and its political prognosis best described as “dire”.
Natural fermentation at one of Haiti's countless village distilleries.
No two stills are the same in Haiti.
A clairin pit-stop adds an additional layer of danger to driving.
Port-au-Prince is the poorest city in the Americas. Slum-lined streets are piled high with trash — a problem that is “managed” through the aggressive use of bulldozers — as UN and UNICEF vehicles pick through the turmoil. There is beauty to be found here too. Overcrowded buses are saturated with colour and branded with bible scripture, like roaming fairground rides in a post-apocalyptic metropolis. Motorcycles are loaded with three or more people... Or stacked high with bananas and sugarcane. Pigs casually root through the rubbish for scraps of fermenting vegetables, while their owners conduct business on mobile (cell) phones. Street vendors skilfully shave lengths of cane for children, while others sell tatty cobs of corn, BBQ chicken, watermelon, mango and coconut. On some streets you find men carving up huge ice blocks in the road, the cuttings of which will be used to chill fresh foods where electricity isn't available.
The tractor at Arawaks, loaded with freshly cut cane (left). Plastic fermenters are not ideal, as they can (and do) taint the spirit (centre). Fritz is hoping to export his Arawaks brand in the near future (right).
Population pressure, poor health, no work, and a non-existent infrastructure have all contributed to the Haitian chaos. But in the rural areas we find serenity, where the human spirit radiates and the distilled spirit does just about the same. If Haiti is to find its way back into the world it will require a concerted effort from international and domestic powers, but for my money, the abundance of interesting rhum this country makes is as good a place to start as any.
Cavaillon is a small town in the south of Haiti, about halfway along the Les Cays peninsular. Not so long ago there were six clairin distilleries in the region, but in recent times farmers have been lured to other crops like beans, rice and sorghum. One distillery still remains, however. It's run by Fritz Vaval, who took over the role of master distiller from his father 10 years ago. The Vavals are well known in Cavaillon. The town's doctor is a Vaval and two of the streets are named for the family.
The Arawaks' estate pays homage to the Arawak and Taino Indians that occupied various Caribbean islands prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Some scholars estimate that on Hispaniola alone there may be have been as many as three million Tamo inhabitants in the 15th century. The Spanish conquistadors put the men to work in gold mines and married their women, but both males and females fell victim to European diseases like smallpox and measles, or to starvation. Whether by disease or by the sword, the arrival of the Spanish ultimately amounted to genocide of the indigenous population. In the 1530s the question came from Spain: “How many Indians are there? Who are the chiefs?” The answer was clearly stated: “None. They are all gone”.
Fritz Vaval's estate comprises around 8 hectares (20 acres) of cane-growing land, along with small papaya, lemon and apricot groves. This is not the site of the original distillery, which moved from the other side of the town back in 2003. The cane mill is diesel-powered, and sends the fresh juice (which is at around 10— 12° Brix) into a large trough, where it is filtered and then pumped into one of six fermentation vessels. Here it sits for one to two weeks, naturally fermented by airborne yeast. Next it's pumped into a pot still resembling a trash can with a domed top. The pot connects to a stout rectification column and there's a retort pipe that feeds heavy alcohols back into the main still. Three worm tub-style condensers feed the freshly distilled liquid into collecting vessels.
Fritz sells to the local market in 4.5-litre (1.2-US gallon) containers, but unlike most clairin producers, he also supplies it in 250-ml (9-oz) labelled glass bottles. This aims to add value to the product, removing the stigma of high volume consumption and bringing a degree of discernment to the liquid. The same Arawaks clairin is also bottled independently by the Italian rum company Velier under the Clairin Vaval brand name.
Formerly a prop in Star Wars (ok, not really), the still at Arawaks is not the prettiest, but it gets the job done.
There are experimentations going on at Arawaks too. I tried no less than five fruit-flavoured clairins that are in development, all produced with fruits grown on the Vaval estate. Mango was my favourite, for its sweet vibrancy, but the lemon- flavoured clairin showed how subtle citrus elements can amplify the characteristics we associate with cane juice rums. Perhaps most exciting of all are Fritz's experiments with aged clairin. Having called upon the services of a local artisan barrel maker, Fritz is maturing his rhum in a 60-litre (16-US gallon) charred cask made from a local variety of oak. The results, after only a single year, are extremely promising.
In many ways, Fritz Vaval is the ultimate poster boy for clairin. He studied agriculture and natural resources in Mexico, and worked in Canada for most of his younger life. He’s a man of the world, well educated, but possessing an endearing sensibility towards Haiti's natural environment. Talking to this man you can sense the ability and determination to instigate a Haitian rhum revolution. I, for one, am sold on it.
The next planned works on the distillery will see him change his 2,275-litre (600-US gallon) plastic fermenters for stainless steel. Then he wants to install solar panels so that the distillery becomes carbon neutral or possibly even carbon negative, generating a sustainable energy source for the residents of Cavaillon.
Barbancourt may be Haiti’s only internationally recognized rhum brand, but just like any other Haitian distillery, you have to drive down a rough pot-holed track to get there. This suburb of Port-au-Prince is no less poor than the rest the city, so the distillery walls are suitably tall (4.5 metres/15 ft) and the gate suitably well guarded. The high walls tell a story of more than just paranoia, however. Barbancourt is a fiercely self-sufficient operation, and a brand name that is revered among the Haitian people. If Port-au-Prince were Rome, Barbancourt would be the Vatican.
Administrating a big business in Haiti’s changeable climate
(commercial, political and physical) is no mean feat. In one of the most
chaotic environments in the world, this family-owned businesses has lasted 150
years, making it one of the oldest companies in Haiti. A few years ago they
built a workshop that fabricates replacement parts for the mill, pumps, stills
and condensers. They generate their own electricity from two enormous diesel
generators, steam from burnt bagasse, while water is pumped in from a
nearby well. There’s the sensation of entering a sanctuary as you pass through
the gated portal; the brick-built barrel stores are cleanly maintained and the
manicured gardens show off a variety of tropical flora and lawns shaved to a
fine green fuzz. It’s a normal-looking distillery, but here, in Haiti, it feels
almost extravagant. There is cause for celebration though. The presence of
Barbancourt can be felt everywhere in Haiti, where 200 ml (7 oz) bottles are
available from virtually any street corner or hole in the wall vendor. Today,
the distillery produces 350,000 9-litre (2.5-US gallon) cases of rhum a
year, is employer to 450 people, and is responsible for the livelihood of a
further 20,000 people across the country.
Barbancourt fill around 200 barrels a week, and the scale of the warehousing and blending rooms reflect this. The drinking sculpture (below centre) guarding the warehouse door is known to the staff as le intoxique (the addict).
Dupre Barbancourt emigrated to Haiti from Charante in France in the 1850s. He purchased the terres d'etoiles (“star land”) plantation and built his distillery in 1862, applying his methods of Cognac production to cane juice rhum. The distillery passed into the hands of Barbancourt’s second wife, Nathalie Gardere and it is within the Gardere family that it has remained right up until the present fourth generation owner, Thierry Gardere.
The operation is reminiscent of any other agricole distillery. Cane is hand-cut from the 8-hectare (200-acre) Barbancourt estate, and the same quantity again bought in from neighbouring estates. It’s milled for its juice and fermented for 72 hours using a brewer’s yeast. The fermented vesou is then distilled through two linked column stills (one steel, one copper) up to a strength of 94% ABV. The distillery has a policy of using only virgin Limousin oak casks from France, and the spirit is cut to 60% alcohol and joined in the barrel by a selection of spices, including cacao and vanilla. This, for me, is a disappointing stage in the Barbancourt process, and totally unnecessary if it weren’t for the fact that most of the characteristics of their base material had been stripped out during distillation. I would love to see what this distillery is capable of with a more robust, lower strength distillate, and no adulteration of flavour.
In reference to the original “star land” plantation and the Cognac categories predilection for using stars to denote age, Barbancourt are the only rhum brand that I know of which use a star system on their labels. That's probably because it's a confusing system, but I greatly respect their adherence to tradition. Here's how it works:
“*” matured for a minimum of 1 year
“***” matured for a minimum of 4 years
“*****” matured for a minimum of 8
Master distiller Rubens
LaFortune produces 13,500 litres (3,600
US gallons) of 94% spirit
every day, and a
well-oiled bottling line is needed to get it out to customers. Approximately half of Barbancourt's production
volume is sent for export.
The Chelo distillery is not an easy place to get to. Located in the town of Saint Michel de l'Attalaye, it’s right in the middle of Haiti’s northern Massif du Nord mountain range. On a map, it's barely 60 km (37 miles) north of Port-au-Prince, but weather permitting it’s a five-hour drive through some of the toughest roads on the planet. The track — and that’s an overstatement — that scales the mountain is in some sections incomplete, and in others still damaged by the earthquake of 2010. On certain stretches it’s even necessary to drive through rivers where children scamper around in the water and locals wash their motorcycles. There are few cars brave enough to attempt it, save for the crazy truck drivers that supply the villages, weaving up the hills with their precariously stacked loads. It’s an adventure, and a rewarding one at that, as near to the summit you encounter what
is quite likely the highest concentration of distilleries in the world.
These are farming communities, each with small plots of land, growing mostly corn and cane. Every village has a clairin distillery and some have more than one. It's not surprising then, that making clairin is an activity that everyone in the village is engaged with. In one tiny hamlet that I stopped at, children clambered around the pot still as their mothers chatted next to the mill.
Michel Sajous's distillery can be found just outside Saint Michel de l'Attalaye on Chelo farm. Sajous employs half a dozen people at the distillery, and the estate has around 30 hectares (75 acres) of land, planted with different varieties of cane, including the “Crystal” variety — one of the types allowed in the Martinique Rhum Agricole AOC. The mill is diesel-powered and electric pumps channel liquids around the various stages of production. By Haitian standards it's state of the art.
Spirit-collecting vessels that are big enough to climb in and swim around.
Chelo make their clairin from sugarcane syrup, rather than juice, which means they can distill outside of the harvesting season. After pressing and boiling, the syrup is stored until required. The diluted syrup is fermented naturally in big steel boxes for up to two weeks. The pot still is approximately 500 litres (132 US gallons) and is heated by a bagasse- and wood-burning furnace. The distillate is then routed into a short column purifier and then through the first of three worm tub condensers. The middle of these condensers also serves as a pre-heater for fresh wash entering into the pot still. The last condenser is the largest of the tubs and to my surprise is home to a small family of turtles. Yes, you read that correctly. They are fed, of course, but how they survive in the fluctuating water temperature I do not know!
dmiral Penn's capture of Jamaica in 1655 established a British colony that would later become the greatest sugar island that had ever existed. Despite being well sighted among the Greater Antilles trading routes, the Spanish had taken little interest in the island, growing tobacco mostly, but most farms were worthless, subsistent smallholdings. At first, the British sought to establish new trading opportunities for their Caribbean interest, so with nails and timber they built the makeshift town of Port Royal, just across the harbour from present-day
Kingston. In the space of 25 years, Port Royal became the biggest and wealthiest city in the Caribbean.
The rise of Port Royal can be largely attributed to piracy, for which this town became the de-facto trading outpost for merchants, privateers, and pirates. The residents of Port Royal gained great notoriety for their brazen display of wealth and loose moral parameters. According to one English visitor who promptly left aboard the same ship he arrived on, the demographic was split between, “Pirates, cut throats, whores, and some of the vilest people in the whole of the world”. The promise of free trade, a plentiful supply of alcohol and fast women, lured in the pirates, who brought with them gold and silver from plundered Spanish ships. For a 17th-century pirate, there really was no better place on earth to dispense with one's loot than on a fortnight's bender through the rum bars and brothels on Port Royal's Lime Street. The cash and the muscle that these bands of pirates brought to the town convinced the greedy governors to turn a blind eye to all the debauchery. Merchants were happy to have them around too, tasking them with ‘forced trade' (robbery) expeditions on Spanish vessels.
The historical accounts of Port Royal during this period are as colourful a picture of pirate culture as you're ever likely to encounter. One 17th-century visitor described it as: “The Dunghill of the Universe, the Refuse of the whole creation...a shapeless Pile of Rubbish confused'ly jumbl'd up into an Emblem of the Chaos, neglected by Omnipotence when he formed the world into its admirable Order.”
That negligence on the part of God soon lapsed however. In true “Noah's Ark” style, this rotten city was devastated by an earthquake in 1692, and around half of the buildings were swept away by the ocean. The destruction of Port Royal also marked the beginning of the twilight years of the pirate era, as the agricultural potential of the region demanded that trading waters were properly secured. A new Jamaican history was about to be written, and this one would become equally as legendary.
The early 18th century saw massive agricultural change on the island, as forests were stripped to make way for sugar and coffee plantations. By the mid-1700s, Jamaica competed with only Sant-Domingue for the title of the Caribbean's biggest sugar grower. Sugar mills and distilleries popped up like mushrooms in the night, and exports of rum in the Britain increased linearly through the century (with a notable hiccup during the American Revolutionary War), rising from 910,000 litres (240,000 US gallons) in 1725 to 9.1 million litres (2.4 million US gallons) in the 1770s.
But this was only the beginning. After the Haitian Revolution, Jamaica’s rum and sugar production ramped up, and with increasing demand for rum and sugar in Europe, the island became the world’s largest sugarcane superpower. By the 1820s, Jamaica was exporting more rum to Britain than all of Britain’s other 14 Caribbean colonies combined — over 140 million litres (36 million gallons) a year throughout the decade. Remember, that’s only exports to Britain and doesn’t include trade with other colonies, or domestic consumption. To put it into perspective, it’s as much rum as Martinique’s entire annual production during its biggest ever year (1917). It’s equivalent to Bacardfs entire annual global output today. Enough rum to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every week. If Forbes ran a rich list in 1830, it would have been filled with white Jamaican plantation owners, who were among the wealthiest individuals on the planet.
For a time, the situation was sustainable as the island’s varied landscape meant it didn’t fall victim to the monoculture mentality. Jamaica was able to ride the ebbs and flows of the volatile sugar market that would be the ultimate undoing of smaller islands. But at the turn of the 20th century, familiar themes began to play out; those of consolidation, oversupply, competition with sugar beet, and disruption during wartime. Jamaica still had 110 distilleries in 1901 and over 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of arable land dedicated to growing sugarcane. The island was producing three distinct qualities of rum, intended for the local market, British market and European market (which basically meant Germany). By this time, Germany had developed quite a taste for fruity high-ester rum, so when the German government raised taxes on Jamaican rum the industry responded by manufacturing ever more intense “Continental Rum” that could be diluted to a sensible drinking formula once it arrived in Europe.
The surplus of rum after World War II led many to close or consolidate, as prices hit rock bottom. The number of distilleries in 1948 had dropped to only 25, and in the 1960s, rum manufacturers banded together to coordinate prices and production to attempt to stabilize the rum market — the rum equivalent of OPEC.
There remains only five active distilleries on the island today, and while volumes are still among the highest in the Caribbean, the majority of the rums made in Jamaica is sold on the wholesale market — where it is sent on to one of the blending houses to form a finished product. And it’s sought after stuff. Jamaican rum can transform an otherwise dull blend in to a weighty, resonant little number. This is thanks to the island’s commitment to the pot still, which despite the laborious batch process is responsible for defining the pervasive style. But in Jamaica, “pot still” doesn't always mean the artisanal little alembic still that it you might see on other islands. Jamaican distilleries are home to some of the biggest pots outside of the Irish whiskey industry, each with a double retort that concentrates the liquor up to high strengths.
Pot-distillation, along with absurd fermentation processes, and the occasional use of dunder (see page 48) means that Hampden Estate distillery (see pages 126—27) has sustained a century-old niche industry supplying high-ester pot-still Jamaican rum to flavour houses. These “espresso” rums are almost undrinkable in their pure form, but highly sought-after when used as a ballsy component of blend that needs a kick in the right direction.
This distinctive approach also means that Jamaica will soon be awarded a Geographical Indication (GI) for its rum. After almost a decade of wading- through-molasses bureaucracy, the island recently passed the first GI in the English-speaking Caribbean. This was for “Jamaica Jerk”, which will soon be followed by “Blue Mountain Coffee” and “Jamaica Rum”. Under the jurisdictions where the GI is applicable, any product labelled as “Jamaica Rum” (or similar) must be fermented and distilled from molasses, on the island of Jamaica, and possess the organoleptic properties associated with Jamaican pot-still rum. It does, however, not need to be matured in Jamaica.
Contemporary Jamaica is every bit the temple to the drunken gods of rum, but most visitors are sadly only sold the edited version of what true Jamaican culture is all about. The all-inclusive resorts that form the basis of what most tourists experience, might as well be on a separate island. There the cash-fueled propaganda engine would have you believe that staying within their manufactured ecosystem is the safest place for you. But under the veneer of the Jamaica stereotype, Jamaica's “four R's” (reggae, Rastafari, reefer and rum) exist with far more nuance than any tourist brochure can possible illustrate. While Jamaica is not without its dangers, I believe that getting to the heart of British Caribbean culture is worth the risk. How else would I have found myself between Kingston bars, wading through a street filled with revellers at 2am on a Thursday, with a bottle of rum in one hand and a quarter of jerk chicken in the other? But as they say in Jamaica, “Chicken merry, hawk de near.”
Green cane at dusk at the Hampden Estate. No other island identifies with rum and sugar at such a fundamental level as Jamaica and the Jamaicans.
We find the Appleton Estate in the southwestern district of Jamaica, known as St. Elizabeth. It's accurate to call Appleton an estate rather than a just a distillery, since there are 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of sugarcane plantation here as well as the Appleton Sugar Refinery. All of the rum that is made at the distillery is produced from one of the 10 varieties of Appleton Estate cane that is grown there, which makes the brand unique among Jamaican rums. But to reach the Estate it's first necessary to penetrate the green heart of the island, through dense forest, up steep inclines, and through Cockpit County, which contains some of the most unique geology in the Caribbean.
The “karst” of Cockpit County are a range of cone-shaped mountains in miniature. Only known to occur in a handful of countries besides Jamaica, these green goosebumps besiege the Appleton Estate's northern front. They whip up odd pressure systems in the area, creating an entirely unique ecosystem. During the wet season, when the cane is flourishing, the rain falls daily in sharp bursts, almost to the same minute. This means the plantation is irrigated on a strict schedule, and over time the sugarcane takes on an unusually vivid shade of green. This, in turn, produces a better quality, higher yield sugar, and even reflects right down to the molasses itself. Tall tales of terroir are too often tenuous in respect of molasses-based rums, but if there’s tenability to be found anywhere, it’s at Appleton Estate.
Don’t believe me? Joy Spence has been Appleton’s master blender for 20 years, and she told me that “the orange peel top note that is the hallmark of Appleton Estate rums, is a result of our unique sugarcane plantation”. It has to come from somewhere, I suppose, why not the karst?
Perhaps that’s why Cockpit County was chosen for the plantation in the first place. The oldest reference to the estate goes back to 1749, when it was less than 4 hectares (10 acres) in size but known to be producing both sugar and rum. A few years later, the estate was bought by the Dickinson family, descendants of Frances Dickinson, an officer involved in the 1655 capture of Jamaica from the Spanish. Appleton was sold in 1845 to one William Hill, and at the time comprised 7 hectares (17 acres). By 1900, it had increased to 23 hectares (56 acres) when it was sold to A. McDowell Nathan, one of Jamaica’s most prominent businessmen. Ten years later it had quadrupled in size and, in 1916, the current owners J. Wray & Nephew bought the property. All 1,300 hectares (3,200 acres) of it.
The company began when founder John Wray bought the Shakespeare Tavern in Kingston in 1825, and they later began blending rums. By the 1870s, J. Wray (then headed up by his nephew) was producing some of the most highly respected rums in the industry, winning awards for their 10-, 15- and 25-year-old expressions. Although the brand is most famous for its white overproof rum these days, back in the early 20th century, it was bottles with age statements that drew a crowd. None more so than the legendary Wray & Nephew 17, which was used in the original Mai Tai of 1944 (see page 212). The rum itself has long been discontinued, and when a few bottles of Wray & Nephew 17 resurfaced at the turn of the millennium they were quickly snapped up before being valued at £21,000 ($26,000) a piece.
J. Wray & Nephew were themselves bought out by the Campari Group in 2012. They now command 4,450 hectares (11,000 acres) of plantation land, and operate two distilleries on the island: Appleton Estate and New Yarmouth, the latter being situated in Clarendon, further east. It’s there that Wray & Nephew White (overproof) is made. Considering “Whites” is the bestselling rum on the island, the distillery is a bit of an enigma, and every bit the yin to Appleton’s tourist-friendly yang. Like Appleton, New Yarmouth has its origins in the 18th century, but the original mill was abandoned at the turn of the 20th century and a new one built on the same site in the middle of the century. Besides producing
Wray & Nephew there, this distillery also turns out a gaggle of other, lesser known white rum brands for the domestic market: Coruba, Conquering Lion, Charly's JB and Edwin Charley.
Elegant lyne arms dip in and out of retorts
at the Appleton Estate distillery (left). Only a seriously laidback approach to
rum-making can wear out a chair like this (right).
J. Wray & Nephew is the most
popular rum brand in Jamaica, and it's produced at Appleton's sister
distillery, New Yarmouth (top). Only a token gesture of rum is matured on-site at the Appleton Estate
(above). The vast majority is filled and stored in Kingston.
Back at Appleton, we discover a 36-hour fermentation process using Appleton’s own proprietary yeast strain. The resulting molasses wine is 7% ABV and this ramps up to 86% through one of Appleton’s five 22,750-litre (6,000-US gallon) pot stills. The still house at Appleton is a plumber’s paradise, where the trunks of these beastly pots plunge in and out of retorts like sea monsters. There’s a column still at the far end of the still house, and the spirit it produces makes up the majority of the Appleton blend.
Old ledgers and leaky casks transport visitors a century or so ago to Appleton's old brick warehouse.
Un-aged rum is tankered to warehousing in Kingston, where it is cut to 80% ABV before being put to cask. Column- and pot-still spirits are matured separately and blended just prior to bottling. Close to one-quarter of a million casks of rum are currently held at Wray & Nephew's warehouse, including some of the oldest stocks in the whole of the Caribbean.
Between the Appleton Estate and Wray & Nephew “Whites” Overproof brands, J. Wray & Nephew dominated both the domestic and export market trade. Appleton is the world's fifth best-selling international rum brand, shifting the equivalent of 15 million 70-cl (24-oz) bottles in 2015. The rum produced at the estate makes up around 28% of all the rum made in Jamaica today, yet it accounts for more than 70% of the island's branded export volume. J. Wray & Nephew as a whole command 70% of the local market and the vast majority of that comes from Wray & Nephew “Whites” Overproof — which is as much a part of the Jamaican fabric as Bob Marley.
Appleton means quality; it's a national treasure here, and invokes a deep sense of patriotism in any Jamaican that speaks of it. And trust me, everybody in Jamaica wants to talk about Appleton. When abroad, Appleton is the international ambassador for Jamaican rum, typifying the Jamaican style and flying the flag for pot-still rums in general. In fact, it is the only rum in the world's top 10 sellers that contains a substantial pot-still component.
Some distilleries are so small, that even in their country of origin it's difficult to track down a bottle. If you visit Jamaica you might think this of the elusive Monymusk Overproof, which was launched by the Clarendon distillery in 2011. Just 5 km (3 miles) from Jamaica's south coast, Clarendon is not a small distillery. In fact, at around 40 million 75 cl (26 oz) bottles of rum a year, Clarendon is far and away Jamaica's biggest rum-maker. But Monymusk rum accounts for only a fraction of the rum distilled at Clarendon, and to understand where the rest goes, it's worth investing in some back-story:
The distillery is owned in roughly equal shares by four separate business interests. The first three fall under an organization known as the National Rums of Jamaica (NRJ), and they are: DDL of Guyana; Goddard Enterprises, whose portfolio also includes the W.I.R.D. distillery in Barbados (see page 68); and the Jamaican government. The remaining slice of the pie belongs to Diageo, for reasons that will become clear very shortly. To make things more interesting, National Rums of Jamaica also have interests in a further two (former) distilleries: Innswood, which operated from 1959 to 1992 and which now serves and an ageing and blending facility for the Monymusk brand rums produced by NRJ; and Long Pond, a mothballed distillery that may be gaining a new lease of life in the near future.
So where is all the rum from this distillery going? Well, 90% of the spirit distilled here is bottled by Diageo for Captain Morgan rum that is destined to be sold in Europe (Captain Morgan in the US is distilled mostly in St Croix — see pages 191—92). That little arrangement alone accounts for 60% of all the bulk export rum from Jamaica. Some of Diageo's cut is also used to make the legendary Myers's brand. The remaining 10% of production is split between NRJ's own Monymusk rum as well as other, small Jamaican brands like Port Royal and Smatt's.
original distillery at Clarendon was built in 1949, and part of this building
is still used to house the two pot stills and associated fermenters. There are
two types of pot-still rum made at Clarendon, light (lowester) and heavy
(high-ester). This is controlled during fermentation, where the light rum
undergoes a quick 24-hour ferment in steel tanks; and the heavy rum is
fermented for up to a month in wooden tuns similar to those found at Hampen
Estate (see pages 126—27) — although much bigger
and without the dunder! The older of the two pots is an enormous 20,000-litre
(5,285-US gallon) beast with a double retort. It is joined by a newer still,
manufactured in India, that weighs in at 25,000 litres (6,600 US gallons) — by
my estimations, it is the biggest pot still in the Caribbean.
This 1961 advert for Myers's Rum, complete with exotic scenery and
the promise of adventure, was
tailored to the American market. It also included a handy recipe for a Planter's Punch cocktail.
Around three-quarters of Clarendon’s output is taken care of by the column still. It's a cutting-edge example that was installed in 2010, replacing an older model. This still can be configured in a number of ways to produce three different marques of spirit that range from medium-bodied to neutral. It is, itself, fed fermented molasses from four 200,000-litre (52,850-US gallon) open-air steel troughs that can run a complete fermentation in 24 hours.
The Hampden Estate is one of the great hidden gems of the rum world. A keeper of lost art of Jamaican rum. The undisputed champion of high-ester rum; the duke of funk; and high-prince of hogo. For many people, the penetrating taste of Hampden rum is the very definition of rum flavour. You've probably tasted it in confectionery and ice-cream. Brilliant, bizarre and capable of transforming the most mundane of spirits into a blend that has character and depth.
In the north of Jamaica we find the most important sugar-growing region, prized by Richard Long in his 1774 book The History ofJamaica for its ability to, “yield more sugar, and better in quality [and] produce an extraordinary quantity of rum”. Anyone accustomed with the West Country of the UK will recognize the Trelawney and Falmouth place names, which tell a story of how the sugar and rum routes traced a watery bridge between Jamaica and the county of Cornwall (which also happens to be the name of Jamaica's westernmost county). Hampden could tell that story too. The estate was founded in 1756 by Mr. Archibald Sterling, a Scotsman. It has remained in continuous production ever since the time of Sterling, who in 1779, built the Hampden Great House of which the ground floor served as a rum store until the early 1900s. During the 1800s, the estate passed on to the Kelly-Lawson family, and then the Farquharson's, with whom it remained until 2003. During World War I, Hampden Estate constructed the Hampden Wharf in Falmouth, for shipment of its sugar and rums. The wharf is still standing, and is today a major entry port for “The Harmony of the Seas” — which, as of 2016, is the world's largest passenger cruise ship. In 2003 Hampden was bought by the Jamaica Sugar Company, who ran the refinery and distillery until 2009 when it was sold by public auction to the Everglades Farms Ltd. owned by the Hussey family. The estate is today composed of 5,250 hectares (13,000 acres) of cane-growing land, which for the sake of comparison is about the same area of land as the entire island of Tortola.
The smell of the cave-like fermentation house at Hampden is like sticking your head in a barrel of balsamic vinegar and inhaling. Deeply. It's all at once sharp, mouldy and ancient. There are no less than 89 fermenters in total — a recordbreaking number — ranging from 9,000—13,500 litres (2,400—3,600 US gallons) in size, and each of them crusty and buckled like an old wooden bucket thanks to long years of microbiological activity. It's these fermentation vats that possess the
secrets to the high-ester preparation.
This is in part due to the distillery’s use of dunder (see page 48) during the ferment. This acid-rich throwback to the previous distillation helps to promote a long and healthy fermentation by lowering the pH of the mix, as well as forging a link between each subsequent fermentation.
During the fermentation, both alcohol and acids are created through the action of the airborne yeasts and the ever-present bacteria that call the fermentation vats home. Each vat is left to bubble away for a minimum of two weeks, and additional days (up to a month) are then added on to the end of the fermentation to create seven unique marques of rum. This process, which is known as esterification (see page 47) sees the alcohols and acids undergo further reactions, creating wild fruity notes ranging from red berries, pineapple and kiwi, through to geranium and rose. Each of the seven marques are scored according to their ester content, which is measured in parts per million (PPM) with the lowest marque scoring 350 ppm and the highest 1,600 ppm (the highest level permitted by the Jamaican authorities) . At the top end of this scale, the massive concentration of esters takes the spirit far beyond the realms of what could normally be classified as drinkable rum. This is a concentrated, almost perverse level of fruitiness. Not normally bottled on its own (with the exception of DOK — see below) most of the super- high-ester rum produced here is used as flavouring for confectionery, ice-cream and other desserts. If you have ever tried a “rum-flavoured” liqueur chocolate, the base flavour probably came from Hampden.
Hamden employ three pot stills, which all have a 5,000-litre (1,320-US gallon) capacity and are all true to the classic Jamaican configuration: one large pot sequenced by two retorts and a condenser. The middle-cut comes off at around 85—87% ABV, and the distillation process is consistent among all the rums made here, regardless of the target ester count. The water here is supplied not from underground aquifers, but via Hampden's own mountain water collection system, which after use, returns only clean water to the earth.
If you want to try a real taste of Hampden Estate rums, look no further than DOK high overproof rum. Lauded as the highest ester count of any rum in the world, it is an experience not to be missed. Hampden produce the Rum Fire brand, which is difficult to get hold of outside of Jamaica, where it is a direct competitor of Wray & Nephew (see pages 122—24).
Perhaps the best
example of Hampden Estate functioning in a blend, is in Smith & Cross (see page 204) where that
high-ester trademark carries a finish that dares you to take another sip.
Hampden Estate manufactures rum like no other and the produce of these pot stills (below left) finds its way into dozens of blends. Rum Fire, the distillery's own brand (below right), does pretty much what it says on the bottle, and a barely legible sign (bottom right) tells us all we need to know about this distillery.
Appleton Estate may be the longest continuously operating rum distillery in Jamaica, but there is another that claims an older (albeit interrupted) history. Worthy Park Estate was patented in 1670, having been gifted by the British crown to Lieutenant Francis Price for services to England during the 1655 capture of Jamaica. Over the 300 years that followed, Worthy Park became the textbook West Indies sugar plantation — literally. Michael Craton’s A Jamaican Plantation: The History of Worthy Park 1670—1970 charts the fortunes and misfortunes of Jamaica’s most efficient sugar maker through the island’s turbulent history.
Worthy Park first turned to sugarcane cultivation in the 1720s (around a quarter of a century before Appleton), which makes it the oldest sugar factory in Jamaica. The earliest reference to distillation at Worthy Park pops up in 1741, where the equipment used to produce rum is detailed in a land survey document that is still held in nearby Spanish Town’s archive. By 1794 the estate comprised 230 hecatres (570 acres) of sugarcane plantation yielding 181 puncheons (66,000 litres/17,500 US gallons) of rum in the year.
The estate grew over the years and passed between three separate families, most recently the Clark family who bought the property in 1918. Since then, four generations of Clarks have managed Worthy Park, starting with Frederick Clark (who made the original purchase) through to the present-day owner, Gordon Clark. Gordon’s office is sited in what used to be the on-site slave hospital, which itself is located in a cluster of buildings equivalent to a modest-sized hamlet. Scale is an important thing to get your head around when it comes to Jamaican sugar estates.
After 300 years’ experience turning grass into sweet stuff, Worthy Park have got things down to a fine art. The cane is still mostly cut by hand, then processed in the gigantic Worthy Park sugar refinery. Since the late 1960s, this has been the most efficient sugar grower across the entire Caribbean. And they needed to be. The Jamaican rum industry was in a state of oversupply after World War II, forcing prices to unsustainable levels and threatening to cannibalize the entire industry. Action was needed, so the Spirit’s Pool Association of Jamaica met with all of the distillers on the island, and in agreement with them, Worthy Park put a cork in two centuries of continuous rum production. Corks can be removed however, and in 2004 the decision was made to recommence distilling. Construction was completed in 2007 — and what a corker of a distillery it is!
Rum is made from molasses, which is pumped along a 1-km (2/3 -mile) underground pipe from the Worthy Park refinery. Three types of fermentation are run here: one “quick” ferment, using a distiller’s yeast; a medium-ester ferment, pepped up by the distillery’s proprietary yeast strain; and three-week high-ester (900 ppm) fermentation that is fermented naturally by airborne yeast. All rums are distilled in an 18,000-litre (4,750 US gallon) pot still with a double retort, manufactured by Forsyths in Scotland. It’s fully automated, absolutely beautiful, and capable of processing 8,000 litres (2,100 US gallons) of 85% rum a day. I’m told it may be joined by a sister in the near future.
A beautiful example of a classic Jamaican pot still, though, as with many of the world's pot stills, this one was manufactured in Scotland. From the right, the still feeds into the low-wine retort, and from there it travels into the high-wine retort, before heading into the cylindrical condenser.
Versatility and scalability is the name of the game here. The distillery, which now accounts for 30—40% of the estate’s turnover, adheres to the traditions of Jamaican rum making, but this is a smart operation; one with a fully quipped lab, a state-of-the-art Clean In Place (CIP) cleaning system, and a deep understanding of what makes sugar tick. But more than anything, Worthy Park is a business, run with a solid understanding of the international rum market. This distillery, like most others in Jamaica, relies on a healthy wholesale trade to flog a portion of its rum. At present one-third of all the spirits made here is sold to a third party, and the customer sheet currently includes Main Rum, Hamilton Pot Still Rum, and even Bacard^ where Worthy Park rum features among their “Single Cane Estate” range. You'll also find Worthy Park rum in the Jamaica component of the popular The Duppy's Share blend (see page 204). Of the remaining rum, around half of the spirit is destined to appear in Worthy Park's own “Rum Bar” label, and the remaining rum is tucked away in casks for a “rainy day”.
Worthy Park employs about 30 members of staff in their distillery, although the enormous Worthy Park Estate employs many more than that in sugarcane-cutting and sugar-making activities.
mong all of the rum-producing regions in this book, the island of Martinique is deserving of some special distinction. In part, because it is the only rhum-producing region in the world that is regulated by an Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC — see pages 60-61). Also, because there were once over 500 habitations on the island, each of them tending to small plots of sugarcane and dedicated to the mechanical art of refining it into sugar or rhum. Finally, because even today the people of Martinique, its rhum-makers or otherwise, are so profoundly assured of the spirit of this island that it would be irresponsible to ignore them. It's been a rollercoaster ride for this island over the past 150 years. The amount of cane-growing land on Martinique has shrunk by two-thirds over the past 50 years, and so too has the number of distilleries. The quality of rhum on the other hand, has never been better.
“There are no bad rhums on Martinique.” Gilles tells me. He's the owner of a former indigo plantation in Les Anses d'Arlet, in the south of Martinique, who emigrated from France to Martinique - an overseas department of the French Republic - some 20 years previously. At that moment, he was cracking the wax seal on an ancient bottle of XO rhum agricole from the late, great “Dillon” distillery. As we toasted to our first sip of the honey-coloured liquid, I pondered the statement. He was right, of course, on the strict proviso that you like Martinique rhum agricole in the first instance. As with the other French islands in the Lesser Antilles belt, the rhum made here is distilled from the fermented juice of the cane, not the molasses. On Martinique the AOC gets quite specific about the details of this, to the point where quality is more or less standardized across the board. All of the seven remaining distilleries on the island crush their cane as it arrives, and some still use ancient steam boilers, fueled by sugar cane bagasse (the leftover crushed husk of the cane), to power their steel-roller mills. The fermented juice of this cane is distilled into rhum agricole (literally “agricultural rum”) resulting in a full and fruity take on a category that is dominated by the rich and spicy darkness of molasses. Martinicans call molasses-based rums rhum industriel (“industrial rum”), and speak of it with either playful indignation or total disinterest.
This mild and slightly seductive form of arrogance is just one of many reminders to visiting tourists that this is still a part of France. It's a tropical island, no doubt, but once you get past all the mosquitoes, bats, coconut palms and 30°C (86°F) heat, the culture and tempo of life is more like a slice of rural Provence. Villagers light up a cigarette in a morning as they head out to collect their baguettes from the local boulangerie, and even though bananas and plantain are available on-tap from roadside vendors, poor-quality coffee and the full range of cheeses can easily be tracked down too.
Dusk at Les Trois-llets in the south-west of the island - the perfect time for a Ti Punch (below left). Canecutting at J.M's Preville Estate on the northern shoulder of Mount Pelee (below right).
Take your pick, but personally I'd opt for three bottles of Depaz (left); a bottle of Rhum Dillon from the
1960s - beautifully finessed and tasting of fresh cherries and orange curd (above); from donkey cart to articulated lorry - when it's harvesting season, a farmer will get his crop to the distillery by any means possible (right).
The French first established a colony on Martinique in the 1640s and the first sugar-refining equipment arrived via the Dutch just a few years later. There were 14 sucreries on Martinique in 1670, 207 in 1690 and 454 in 1742. Like the Spanish, French colonies could only trade with other French colonies, and from 1713, rhum (known at the time as guildive) produced on Martinique fell under this edict too. The surplus of molasses on the island vastly outweighed the demand for French rhum in the motherland however, so this led to clandestine distilling operations, along with the smuggling of molasses into British North American colonies. As the law loosened up in the early 19th century, it allowed for the increased production of rhum (still from molasses at this point) to the point that 1 million litres (265,000 US gallons) had been exported by 1847.
Between 1850 and 1920 the Martinique rhum industry — and therefore Martinique itself — prospered enormously as a result of war and plague. French soldiers fighting in the Crimean War (1853—56) were rationed with rhum, which coincided with the abolition of taxation on the importation of colonial spirits into France. Next, came the phylloxera louse, which in its decimation of French vineyards, forced the country to turn to rhum when all the wine ran out and brandy stocks ran low. World War I was also extremely kind to Martinique, thanks to the French army once again rationing soldiers with rhum, this time at a rate of 570 ml (one pint) per week. In 1917, Martinique made 30 million litres (7.4 million US gallons) of rhum, which accounted for over 80% of the country's total export value.
One natural catastrophe that certainly didn't benefit the industry was the eruption of Mount Pelee. In 1902 the town of Saint Pierre on Martinique’s western coast was known as the “Paris of the Caribbean.” It was the commercial capital of the island and home to dozens of large plantations, most of which were making molasses-based rhum. It was also a busy port town that dealt in shipments of molasses from Martinican refineries without distillation capabilities, as well as those from Guadeloupe, St. Kitts and Demerara. When the volcano erupted on May 5, it wiped out all 30,000 occupants of the town (except one, a prisoner) and destroyed all the refineries and distilleries too. Distilleries could, and were, rebuilt of course (this time far away from any volcanoes), but a bigger threat was beginning to present itself. France’s quick shiftover to sugar beet as a source of raw sugar was dangerous for Martinique, which had up until then profited quite nicely from the tandem industries of sugar and molasses-based rhums.
The cane cutter ploughs through the cane, and loads the cut stems
into a tractor-drawn trailer. Most of the
world's sugarcane is harvested in this manner.
The production of rhum agricole probably began — as the name suggests — on farms and rural smallholdings that struggled to deliver their crops to centralized sugar mills. It probably began long before sugar beet became a threat. But as the price of sugar continued to fall, and demand for rhum steadily increased, the obvious solution was to skip the sugar-making process altogether and distil rhum from the cane juice instead.
The transition didn't take place overnight, however. In 1930 the split between rhum agricole and rhum industriel was roughly 50/50. At that time, up to 25% of all the spirits consumed in France was Martinican rhum, and the Martinicans themselves were drinking 32 litres (8.5 US gallons) of rhum per person, per year — more than any other rhum-producing island. Over the 50 years that followed, rhum agricole grew to became the dominant style as production of molasses rhum toppled. But the increase in market share was more a reflection of an industry in decline than a change of taste.
There are a number of reasons why Martinican rhum fell so sensationally. Quota systems were implemented after World War I to curtail overproduction. The system introduced a degree of bureaucracy to what had previously been a simple means of an agricultural livelihood. Buy-out and consolidation ensued, and the most dependable brands were the ones that made the cut. Martinican rhum lost export trade to France as whisky grew in popularity. In turn, there was a lack of capital to market products, and no means to upgrade old equipment.
Today there are seven distilleries on Martinique. It's only a small island of course, but that's 30 fewer than there were in 1960, and a drop in the ocean compared to 1939, when there were 150 distilleries in operation.
Martinique still produces over a dozen different brands of rhum agricole, and some of them, like Dillon, Trois Rivieres and J. Bally, are the adopted phantoms (or spirits) of cherished distilleries from the past; their new homes functioning as both holy temples and ongoing life support systems.
During the harvesting season, Martinique is alive with activity. Enormous trucks shift tons of precariously balanced sugarcane along twisting hillside roads, servicing the 3,250 hectares (8,000 acres) of cane-growing land. Those with a more modest crop load pick-up trucks until they're running on their rims and the suspension can take no more. Most of the cane is cut mechanically but on steep hills it's still necessary to do the job by hand.
Surprisingly, dedicated rhum bars are scarce on Martinique. The population choose instead to drink at one of the numerous and ever popular “snack” bars. Typically comprising little more than a terrace with some worn-out plastic picnic tables and a garish menu stuck to the wall, these so-called food outlets are your best bet for erasing an entire afternoon in the hot embrace of a rhum-fuelled love affair. Generally speaking, if you order rhum you will be served a Ti Punch (see pages 226—27). It can arrive as individual components (where you mix your own) or as a completed drink. Sometimes the bottle will simply be left on the table and the waiter will calculate what you owe by gauging the volume that's gone missing. For the power drinker, there is the option offeu (“fire”) or petit-feu: this ritual — which takes place in the early hours of the morning — sees the drinker swallow a shot of rhum, which is immediately followed by a glass of water. The idea is that the water “douses” the heat of the spirit, and the game is to see if you can swallow the rhum without it touching your lips or tongue.
On May 5 1902, after days of tremors and sensational plumes of ash,
Mount Pelee, 5 km (3 miles) to the north of Saint Pierre, finally gave way. It
began with a gruesome “crack”, which could be heard across the valley. A river
of boiling hot mud flooded into the valley, destroying the cane fields and
crashing through dwellings. A mass exodus of wild animals ensued, as giant
centipedes and pit vipers fled the hills and descended upon Saint Pierre,
killing and/or terrifying people and livestock in the process. The next day, blue
flames topped the summit of the mountain, signalling the imminent arrival of
lava. Authorities urged everyone to stay put, insisting that the mountain
presented no (further) danger. Two days later, on May 8, a sudden and extremely
powerful blast of hot gas and volcanic debris killed very nearly every one of
the 30,000 residents of Saint Pierre in minutes — the highest death toll of any
volcano in the 20th century.
Rhum-making requires a fine balance of haste and patience, from the high-pressure distillation of cane wine (left) and the frantic actions of the fast-spinning mill (above right) to the long wait for the oak barrels to work their wonders (above).
While all this was going on, Victor Depaz, a 16-year old-boy from Saint Pierre, was studying in Bordeaux. Victor's family had, up until that time, operated a very old distillery in Saint Pierre, called L'Habitation Perrinelle. Victor learned of the decimation of his home and death of his entire family by telegram the next day.
With no home to go back to, he completed his studies in France and returned to Martinique penniless, involving himself in the only industry that he knew: distillation. By then the rebuilding of Saint Pierre was underway, but the town was never restored to its former glory, and even today it is little more than a small but pretty town.
The devastation caused by the eruption, along with the danger of further eruptions, meant that it was 15 years before anyone dared to establish a sugar plantation in Saint Pierre. Perhaps it was madness, or perhaps it was a form of closure, but it was the orphan, Victor Depaz, who at the age 28, bought himself 512 hectares (1,265 acres) of land 1 km (2/3 mile) north of Saint Pierre, on the flanks of the mountain that had killed his entire family. On May 8 1917 he began distilling.
It turned out that all that volcanic soil did wonders for sugarcane, and as Depaz's estate flourished so too did his wealth. He went on to have 11 children and built himself an enormous chateau to house his family. Depaz died in 1960, by which time he had become one of the more prominent members of Martinique society, even at one time serving as Mayor of his beloved Saint Pierre.
The Depaz estate remains intact today, including the perfectly manicured lawns and enormous former residence of Victor Depaz and his family. The peak of Mount Pelee continues to feature heavily in the branding of the rhum. These days, the Depaz distillery is owned by La Martiniquaise, the same company that own Saint James distillery on the east of the island. The Depaz distillery, which also produces the Dillon brand, has a self-guided tour and an impressive faux-Creole reception area that has the only set of automatic doors made from wood that I have ever come across.
Production is a relatively standard affair as Martinique rhums go. One point of interest is the working steam- powered mill, which is still fuelled by a bagasseburning furnace. La Favorite (see page 136—37) is the only other distillery on the island that continues to generate energy in this bygone manner. After fermentation, two stainless-steel stills are used to distill Depaz rhums up to 68—70% ABV, producing a broad selection of blanc and vieux rhums that seem to speak of the nearby Caribbean sea, of salt and sun-bleached timber. There's a copper still there too, which was pilfered from the old Dillon distillery and is still used today to make Dillon rhums.
The original Dillon distillery is in the heart of Fort-de-France and it takes its name from Arthur Dillon (1750—94) a soldier with Lafayette’s troops in the American War of Independence. The distillery closed in 2005 and it now serves as a central bottling plant for the brand owners.
The north of Martinique is dominated by Mount Pelee, a volcano that is currently in a quiescent state, which means it is not active, but is registering seismic activity. Despite the widespread devastation during the volcanic eruption of 1902, Martinique's oldest remaining rhum distillery, Rhum J.M, survived.
Antoine Leroux-Preville bought the area now known as the Preville estate in 1790 and established a sugar factory there. In 1845, the sugar factory was sold to Jean-Marie Martin, who installed stills and began marketing molasses-based rhum under the J.M. Rhum name as a sideline. By the end of the 19th century, J.M's descendants had left the island, and the business — including the sugar works with five boilers, water mill and iron-wheel mill, as well as the “building used as the fermenting shop with a Pere Labat-type boiler system” — was liquidated. It changed hands a few times in the early part of the 20th century, as successive owners did their bit to update the distillery. In 1914, Gustave Crassous de Medeuil, already the owner of the Bellevue estate located in the hills of Fonds Preville, purchased the J.M distillery, which by now was dedicated only to the production of rhum agricole.
As you drive north on the winding Route de la Trace, banana plantations fill the vista. If cane means cash in the south, it's a peelable type of gold that grows in the north. The slightly higher altitude in the north lends itself better to growing bananas than cane.
J.M grow both crops. In fact, they are the only producer on the island to make rhum entirely from their own cane plantations, and between their nearby Bellevue and Preville estates, they have around 200 hectares (500 acres) of the stuff. J.M are quick to preach on the benefits of farming your own and the positive impact that the banana trees have on the local terroir. Sugarcane and banana plantations are rotated every five or six years to create optimal soil conditions for both products. If ever there was an explanation for that telltale agricole banana aroma, it's here.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the cut-your-own approach however, is the freshness of the sugarcane. J.M's long-time master distiller and blender, Nazaire Canatous, sets his team the challenge of milling fresh cane within a single hour of cutting it. If the distillery had a catchphrase it would probably be: “you can't get much fresher than that!”
J.M is high up in the north of Martinique. Contained within a lush green crucible, it's probably the prettiest of all the operational distilleries on Martinique. That 100% copper column, confirms it (bottom right).
Speaking of Nazaire, this man is one of the longest-serving distillers in the business, having worked at J.M for 45 years. His predecessor was his own father, who first clocked in to work at J.M in 1930. It's fair to say that the the brown- sugar signature style of J.M has been largely shaped by these two men.
Once the cane takes the very short trip down to the distillery, the three-stage mill (which was converted from steam to electric in 2013) starts the rhum-making process. Volcanic spring water from the mountain is used to extract the sugar, and it's this same water that is used to finish the products at their respective bottling strength. There are 17 fermentation vessels all told, with a total capacity of around
300,000 litres (80,000 US gallons). Fermentation lasts only 24 hours then the liquid is distilled through a single copper column. Waste water from the distillery (known as vinasse) is collected in a dirty yellow lake and used to irrigate the banana trees. Spirit destined to be sold as rhum blanc is rested in steel for a full six months — this is longer than most distilleries, and something that J.M believe is reflected in the quality of their spirit. The rest of the spirit is sent to the barrel house which, thanks to the exceptional humidity of the surrounding environment, has its own unique mark to place on the liquid.
La Favorite is the only remaining distillery in Martinique's capital, Fort-de-France. And what with being only a 15-minute drive from the port, you might expect it to be a glossy-facaded tourist magnet, cunningly engineered to lure in cruise ship excursion groups like sphinx moths to a lightbulb. But La Favorite's marketing department appears to have missed that memo. Indeed, this humble little distillery surely offers the most unembellished insight into Martinique rhum agricole of all the island's distilleries.
A sugar mill was founded on the current La Favorite estate as far back as 1843. At the time of its construction, “La Jambette” (named for the bordering river that supplied hydraulic power) consisted of 45 slaves, two sugar refineries and a small molasses rhum distillery with five fermentation vats and a copper pot-still. This refinery operated for 60 years, and while that can be deemed a success, they were certainly hard-earned years. Mainland France progressively shifted towards sugar beets as its prime source of sucrose during this time, then there was the defeat of the monarchists, who the planters all supported, and, just for good measure, Hurricane San Magm, which was the cause of 700 deaths on Martinique in 1891, was the near destruction of La Jambette.
It was only the Caribbean estates that swiftly shifted their attentions to rhum that survived the sugar downturn. Until that point, rhum on Martinique had been almost entirely molasses-based and little more than a by-product of the more lucrative sugar-refining operations. The onset of phylloxera louse, which decimated the French wine and brandy industry in the 1880s, helped rhum gain a foothold in the lucrative folds of the motherland. In the case of La Jambette, the business failed
to act quickly enough, and was sold, in 1902, to Henri Domoy.
Domoy put an end to all the sugar-refining activities and turned his attentions to producing rhum agricole full-time. This started with replacing the pot-still with a copper column, which was followed by a steam engine to crush the cane and new generators. Domoy also built a railway line through his plantation to transport cane from the fields as quickly and efficiently as possible. By the 1920s, the distillery was in fine form, and Domoy had completed the construction of a grand, imposing manor house called Chateau de La Favorite.
Since then, the distillery has passed through three successive generations of the Domoy family, from Henri, to Andre, to Franck Domoy: Henri’s great-grandson, who took over the day-to-day running of the operation in 2006. It's the longest continuously family-run distillery on the island. But more than that, this is agricole in its rawest form — blunt and very much imperfect. The staff barely acknowledge the curious visitors who wander freely around the distillery floor, in and amongst working gears and volatile fumes. It’s a health and safety nightmare in the making. It can’t go on like this for much longer. It’s not to be missed.
La Favorite produce only a small range of rhums, and an even smaller range of vieux expressions. The distillery is powered by a diesel steam engine that was built in France in 1906. It powers the three-stage mill, and pumps the cane juice into the fermenters, of which there are 10, each 35,000 litres (9,250 US gallons) in size.
A stare that could strip spirit from wine and send this curious author running for cover.
Some team members clearly take their job a little less seriously than the chap above.
Driving east from Fort-de-France, an enormous Hollywood-style sign on the hillside announces your approach to the island's southernmost distillery: Trois Rivieres. Sadly, the sign is just as artificial as the region of Los Angeles that the real Hollywood sign designates. Trois Rivieres is still there, but the distillery stopped producing in 2002. The still was uprooted, along with all the casks of maturing spirit, and transported 10 minutes further down the road to La Mauny. The purchase of Trois Rivieres by La Mauny, in 2001, means that La Mauny is, along with the Duquense brand, the second-biggest rhum producer in Martinique. But with its aircraft hangar of a still house, lined with five large column stills, it sure does feel like the biggest.
La Mauny was founded in 1891 and named after “Count Mauny” Joseph Ferdinand Poulain, a counsellor of the Martinique Court of Appeal, who bought the land around Riviere Pilote in the 18th century. The Laurent family were the first to run an estate on this site, as far back as the 17th century. During the Martinique sugar crisis of the 1880s, the mill was sold to the Code family, who in 1891 installed the island's first pot still and began making rhum. The distillery and refinery passed to the Bellonnie brothers in 1923, who were experienced rum and sugar merchants from Fort-de France. They undertook a process of mo dernization that included the installation of a modern column still. Theodore Bellonnie allied with the Bourdillon family upon his brother's death in 1969, forming the BBS group (Bellonnie, Bourdillon & Successors). Jean-Pierre Bourdillon arrange the relocation of the distillery 100 metres (330 ft) up the road, and re-developed the plantation fields which were at the time too rugged for mechanical harvesting. He also acquired equipment from a mothballed operation in nearby Acajou, which increased the distillery's throughput.
In 1994, La Mauny acquired the Trois Rivieres distillery from Martini & Rossi. As part of the deal they also got the Duquesne rum brand which was then, and remains today, one of the top-selling brands on the island. The new millennium saw a bunch of buyouts and mergers, which left La Mauny in the hands of La Martiniquaise, who already had their hands on Saint James and Depaz. Between all those brands the company commanded over 60% of the Martinique rum market. The authorities deemed it a monopoly and La Martiniquaise were forced to sell La Mauny distillery to the Chervillon Group.
The first indication of scale at La Mauny is the enormous crane grabber that clutches great clawfulls of cane and sends it on its way to the roller mills. La Mauny has 295 hectares (730 acres) of cane-growing land, which accounts for around 30% of their requirements. The mill is a sophisticated system, whereby water is added to extract optimal levels of sugar, but the exact amount of water is constantly adjusted by a computer that measures the Brix of the juice after crushing. Consistent sweetness of juice means a consistent fermentation, which is necessary here since La Mauny use six different yeast strains. Once the juice arrives at one of the 27 fermentation vats (each of them with a capacity of 57,000 litres/15,000 US gallons), the correct yeast culture is added depending on whether it’s La Mauny, Trois Rivieres, and Duquense-branded rum that is being made. Three of the fermenters serve as “mother tanks”, which run on a semi- continuous fermentation, periodically sharing one-third of their contents with a fresh tank of cane juice before being topped up with more juice itself. The process is something akin to a solera ageing system (see page 55), though of course unrelated to maturation, guaranteeing consistency between tanks and relieving the distillery staff of the need to add fresh yeast in all 27 tanks.
Every drop of rum produced at La Mauny is made from sugarcane that has been handled by this terrifying machine (far left and middle left). Once pressed, the burnt husks of cane generate steam for the still house (middle right and far right), but the mills themselves are diesel-powered.
Trois Rivieres is one of the better-known Martinican export brands,
even though the distillery closed 1 5
Next is the still house, with its five separate column stills. Three are reserved for La Mauny, and one each for Trois Rivieres and Duquense. Master distiller Henry Vicrobeck has the job of managing these beasts, which are affectionately named after cars — one known as the “F1”; another is the “2CV”; and so on — and between them can produce up to 3 million litres (6.3 million US gallons) of alcohol a year. In practice they make around half of that. Most of the 5,000 casks here are ex-bourbon, but there are plenty of French ones too, that are used for Trois Rivieres and La Mauny expressions. All casks are filled with white rum at a strength of 60—65% ABV. As I wander through the barrel house I notice sherry casks too, and Cognac, Port and Muscatel barrels.
Le Simon is the only distillery in Martinique that is not readily accessible to the
public, and the only one that does not produce rum under the distillery’s own name. In distillery circles, it is something of a ghostwriter, but performs the important role of surrogate parent and guardian to two of the most cherished names in Martinique rhum agricole (as well as some other, lesser-known labels): Clement and Habitation Saint-Etienne (HSE). It is surprising to learn that these brands are not distilled in their original locations, although both Clement and HSE are transported home for ageing, blending and bottling. The history of both brands, as well as Le Simon itself, is extensive, and to better appreciate it, it’s worth telling the tale in concert. So here it is, a tale of three distilleries:
Le Simon was built in 1862 by Emile Bougenot, a young engineer, who arrived from France on behalf of the J. F. Cail engineering firm. Bougenot is responsible for a number of architectural beauties on the island, but his greatest successes were with sugar. Bougenot managed nine seperate refineries in his time, had shares in over a dozen, as well as outright ownership of Le Galion: the last operating sugar mill in Martinique today. For the first 70 years of its life, Le Simon was a fully operational sugar refinery that made rhum industriel as a sideline. Cane was supplied by five nearby habitations: Fontaines, La Digue, Palmistres, Union-Roy and Petit France, totalling 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of land between them.
In 1991, the French President
Francois Mitterrand hosted President George H. W. Bush at Habitation
Clement to discuss ending the Persian Gulf War.
During the same period, Dr Homere Clement was also getting into the sugar business. Clement was a radical socialist politician, who served in the French National Assembly as deputy of Martinique from 19021906. He was popular, in as much as a politician can be, and was considered by many the uncrowned king of Martinique. In 1883 Clement bought a sugar mill in the Acajou region, not far from Le Simon.
That same year, another sugar mill, near St. Stephen, in the central-north of the island, was sold to Amede Aubery. The mill had been originally founded in 1862 (the same year as Le Simon) and the new owner renamed it Habitation Saint- Etienne.
While the mills at Le Simon and Saint-Etienne were still quite new, Clement’s mill had been in operation since 1770, and was in desperate need of modernization. Clement added a distillery, and enjoyed some success marketing rhum industriel under various brand names, though none that used his own name. In time, the distillery and mill was passed on to Homere Clement’s son, Charles, who was responsible for marketing the family’s first rhum agricole. Charles was also faced with the challenge of rebuilding the distillery in 1938 after it was destroyed by fire. Charles Clement went on to become president of the union of rhum agricole distillers, helping to establish the criteria for the Martinique AOC.
Around the same time that Habitation Clement was burning, Le Simon distillery began making rhum agricole too. Likewise, production of rhum agricole at Habitation Saint-Etienne began in the 1930s, and during the slump of the 1950s HSE became the top-selling brand on the island. It was also the backdrop to Patrick Chamoiseau’s “Seven Dreams of Elmira”, which poetically frames the
tradition and legacy of Saint-Etienne:
“The shadows of the machines shimmered with all the souls who had worked there before: the one's who'd kept the books in the plantation grocery; the one's who'd cut the eternities of sugarcane; the one's who'd worn out hand-trucks carrying it; who'd tamed the brilliance of the forge; who'd made the steam boiler rumble; who'd kept the hydraulic mill running under the fury of the canals; the master-distillers who orchestrated the spirit of our rum in the chaudfroid of the coils. All those people!”
In 1971 Le Simon was bought by a Groupement d'Interet Economique (GIE) headed up by Yves Hayot, and from thence forth it produced both rhum agricole and rhum industriel, the former distilled from molasses imported from Guadeloupe. This was a testing time for Martinique rhum, which forced the closure of countless distilleries and the consolidation of others. In 1986 Yves Hayot rescued Habitation Clement and moved production to Le Simon two years later. The business was subsequently sold to Yves's brother, Bernard, and in 2005, Habitation Clement was converted in to an all singing and dancing museum of rum history.
At Le Simon, there are blending vats big enough to make your mouth water.
The Clement range covers a rainbow of colours and all manner of flavours (except rainbow flavour).
Modern racking systems such as these make it relatively easy to move casks in and out of warehouse space.
A tour of the old distillery, immaculate grounds, palm groves, and colonial house is narrated by a multilingual audio guide. There's a museum that regularly showcases the works of local artists, and the tasting room and boutique is all glossy white surfaces and clean lines. Some of the most sought-after rums in the Caribbean have been, and still are, bottled under the Clement name, and the brand has been instrumental in establishing the super-premium section of the rhum agricole category.
Habitation Saint-Etienne was retired in 1988, and production of Saint-Etienne rums moved to La Favorite (see pages 136—37) for a few years. In 1994, the brand and original column still were bought by Yves and Jose Hayot, and fermentation and distillation (including the still itself) were moved to Le Simon, thus completing a merger of distilleries 130 years in the making.
HSE rum is today distilled at Le Simon, then transported north to the original distillery in St. Stephen, where it is cut with water from the River Lezarde before bottling. The rhum is available in an impressive array of marques these days, from the standard white offering through to extra-aged expressions and liquids finished in single malt (including Islay), sherry and Sauterne casks.
Le Simon is the most technologically advanced distillery on Martinique. The distillery doesn't own a plantation, so cane is sourced from various farms across the south of the island. After pressing it is fermented using a Belgian baker's yeast that takes 24—36 hours to turn the sweet sugarcane juice (vesou) into boozy cane wine. The plant has four columns: one brought over from Habitation Clement, used to produce (you guessed it) Clement; and the original still from St. Stephen that is used to make HSE. There are another two column stills that are used to make
other products for the domestic market.
Neisson is the smallest distillery on Martinique, accounting for less than 2% of the island's output. But if history tells us anything, it should be never to underestimate the French when they arrive in ambitious, compact packages. Nelson’s rhum blanc is the most popular white rhum on the island. You can sense a certain loyalty to this place, which has remained in continuous operation since 1931 — even through World War II — and is today, along with La Favorite (see pages 136—37) one of only two remaining family-run distilleries on Martinique.
The Neisson family first started farming sugarcane on Martinique in 1922. The location Hildevert-Pamphille Neisson picked was the small town of Le Carbet, about 15 km (9 miles) north along the western coast from Fort-de-France. Distillation was introduced in 1931, and the distillery was later handed over to Hildevert’s sons: Adrien and Jean. Jean trained in Paris as a chemical engineer and took over the running of the distillery when Adrien died in 1971. When Jean Neisson died, there was no male heir to take on the mantle. The responsibility fell to his grandson Gregory Vernant. At only 15 years old, Gregory was quite clued up on the technicalities of making rhum, but he was too young to be drinking, let alone running a distillery by himself. The solution, which rescued the distillery, was for Claudine Vernant Neisson (Gregory’s mother and Jean’s daughter) to step in. A trained hospital physician, Claudine took over as master distiller while Gregory finished his studies. Thirty years on, and this mother and son duo are still running the distillery today.
The copper column at Neisson features portholes which make it look like a giant copper octopus tentacle (above); the roller mill at Neisson - it's best not to get too close to these (bottom).
Neisson use a proprietary yeast strain to make their rhum. This came about after the distillery undertook a study on the biodiversity of yeasts naturally present in their parcels of sugarcane.
Partnering with SOFRLAB, a company that is deeply invested in the technical aspects of yeast genetics and fermentation characteristics, they assessed over a three-year period how cane terroir influences yeast biodiversity.
An initial sample of 200 yeast cultures was narrowed down to six, which were then tested through fermentation and assessed for their efficiency and for the organoleptic properties of the resulting ferment and rhum. Two yeast cultures were finally selected, and for the first time in a long while, a Martinique distiller was using native yeasts to make rhum.
The yeast has a lower rate of efficiency than the distiller's yeasts typical of the other producers, so this draws out fermentation for up to five days. The result is a wine of around 4.5%, but it's the complex array of flavours that set it apart from the rest. Over this sustained period, oxygen has further opportunity to react with the alcohol as it is produced and this, along with the unique array of congeners generated by Neisson's proprietary yeast, results in the formation of new aldehydes and esters — the building blocks of fruity flavours.
Neisson's Savalle still was installed in 1952 and is the only one on the island made entirely from copper. The tower is painstakingly deconstructed, cleaned, and put back together again once a year, during the wet season.
All Neisson rhum vieux are matured for a minimum of four years (a whole year over the legal requirement). Around 70% of the barrel stock are ex-bourbon casks, the remainder being 350-litre (93-US gallon) French oak casks, some of them new, and some of them previously used by the Cognac industry. The warehousing at Neisson also holds half a dozen circa 1,000-litre (264-US gallon) oval-shaped blending vats for mixing mature spirit before bottling.
Neisson bottle five different rhum blanc at four different strengths (50%, 52.5%, 55%, and 70% ABV) but this is more than just a case of choosing how drunk you wish to get. Through a combination of cane variety and terroir, Neisson have created a range of white rhums that highlight the potential variation in flavour that these agricultural details can impact. The standard 50% and 55%, for example, are made from five varieties of cane, sourced from Saint-Pierre and Carbet. The 52.5% uses only Thieubert Carbet Blue cane grown adjacent to the distillery. The L'esprit is made from the same Blue cane and Crystal cane varieties, and the still is managed slightly differently resulting in an un-cut 70% ABV spirit — the highest strength of French rhum agricole you can find.
Bottling at 70% has caused a few eyebrows to become raised, and not only from those who are drinking the stuff. High-strength agricole appears to go against the grain of French rhum tradition. I applaud Neisson for their boldness in this matter, and for their continued efforts in furthering the category through their explorations.
It's difficult to miss the Saint James distillery. Dropped like a military aid parcel in the middle of Sainte-Marie, an otherwise pretty little seaside town on Martinique's north-east Atlantic coast. It's no wonder this distillery feels so incongruous to the town's lowslung shacks and beachside snack bars. Saint James moved to Saint- Marie following the decimation of the original plantation during the Mount Pelee eruption of 1902. Survival instinct is in the staves and bolts of all of Martinique's distilleries, but no other can claim the dogged determination of Saint James. It's Martinique's biggest rhum distillery, with the largest stock of mature rhum in the French Antilles and the capacity to fill the equivalent of 3.5 million 70-cl (25-oz) bottles a year.
It was in 1765 that one Reverend Pere Edmond Lefebure (the learned alchemist and Superieur of the Convent of Brothers of Charity) set up a sugar mill and distillery in Saint Pierre (see pages 133—134). Being a man of the cloth, it wouldn't have been unforeseen that Lefebure chose “Saint Jacques” as the name, but it was later changed to Saint James to adopt a more Englishsounding name that would attract foreign trade from the colonies in New England.
The plantation changed hands and in 1882, shortly after the pot stills had been replaced with columns, the brand was trademarked by Paulin Lambert. Lambert was a Marseille-based importer of Saint James (among other brands) and purchased the business in 1890. Lambert also attempted (but failed) to patent Saint James's square bottle shape, which was intended to catch the eye, but also to make transportation of the product safer. A few years later, other brands like Johnnie Walker and Cointreau would make the square bottle iconic, but by my reckoning it was Saint James that first innovated in the field. The distillery on Martinique was obviously doing well by this point, as one traveller in 1890 noted that there were huge letters indicating “Plantations Saint-James” on the hills that overlooked what was at that time the rhum capital of the world: Saint Pierre.
trace of that sign, and the distillery itself, were lost during during the
devastating eruption of Mount Pelee. For some three decades following the
disaster, Saint James's rhums were produced across a range of other
distilleries that Lambert acquired with the insurance payout. In 1929 a new,
dedicated distillery was built, but it wasn't until 1974 that production moved
permanently to the newly renovated site in Sainte-Marie.
Martinique's biggest distillery is just like the Saint James bottle: square-shaped and full of rhum.
When you're filling as many casks as Saint James do, an on-site cooper is an essential component.
The early 1900s was the era in which product marketing was established, and Lambert was one of the first individuals in the spirits business to understand the value of it. Moving forward, Lambert's son, Pierre, and nephew, Ernest, took over the running of the distillery in 1947. At that time Saint James were bottling 2 million litres (4.2 million US gallons) of rhum a year, which sounds impressive, but it was soon to be their undoing. Over-production and a slump in demand meant that the value of rhum plummeted and Saint James filed for bankruptcy in 1958.
Saint James was one of the first agricole producers to bottle
and label their rhum, transforming it from a
product into a brand. These bottles date back to the World War II-era and before, which means that some of
them probably contain some molasses spirit.
Some 10 years later, the brand was bought by its French importer Picon (famous for their “Biere” aperitif), who were in turn bought by Cointreau in 2003. Today the business is run by the La Matiniquaise group, who also own Depaz and Dillon brands.
The last 40 years of Saint James have been marked by the presence of Mr Jean Claude Benoit, who has managed the operation since the early 1980s. During his time he has successfully preserved the artisanal practices of the operation even through significant expansion. More than that, Benoit has been a key player in the crusade for quality Martinique rhum, and in the development of the Martinique AOC in the 1990s.
Today, the Saint James estate includes 120 hectares (300 acres) of cane-growing land and supports a network of 50-or-so smallholders who grow cane on their behalf. Inside the distillery there are six stainless-steel column stills, capable of processing one ton of cane per minute during the harvesting season. That's a lot of juice, and in order to meet the demand, there are four individual banks of roller mills, and a combined fermentation capacity of 1 million litres (2.1 million US gallons) spread across 24 vats. Fermentation takes 36 hours.
The range of rhum produced at the distillery is staggering, and it starts with five rhum blanc expressions. There are numerous aged rhums too, many with doubledigit maturation periods assigned to them. In fact, there are few distilleries in the Caribbean that can match the range of marketed expressions that Saint James currency output.
In addition to the rhum distilled in the single-column stills, a pot still, resembling the one depicted on the label, is used to make small amounts of a bottle known as Coeur de Chauffe (“Heart Heating”). This still, which is illustrated on the label of the bottle, was once wood-fired, but is now powered by steam. Distilled from fresh cane juice, this rhum is difficult to get hold of from anywhere except the distillery, and is bottled at 60% ABV. It's the only pot- distilled rhum agricole made on Martinique, but because it’s made in a pot and is distilled below the required 65% ABV threshold, it cannot be classified as AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole.
As if all this rhum wasn’t a good enough reason to visit Saint James already, the distillery also operates two museums. One contains a rich trove of artefacts and literature relating to the brand; the other spectacularly brings the history of distillation to life. It’s probably the best museum of distillation in the world. Nextdoor to the museum is a small workshop. When I visited, there was a cooper hard at work repairing barrels and converting old barrels into pieces of furniture and authentic Martinican drums. Imaging my surprise when he stopped work and demonstrated the drum to me, hammering away at the skin of the thing with the palms of his hands and tips of his fingers. I’ve never seen a drum made from a rhum barrel before, and even though he played only for a minute, that sound will remain with me for some time.
Even at the biggest distilleries, a hands-on approach is not just sought-after, but essential.
uerto Rico, aka “la Isla del Encanto” (“The Isle of Enchantment”) has, perhaps beyond all other Caribbean islands, enjoyed the greatest successes in its capitalization of the romance of rum. It has had some advantages in this arena, of course: Puerto Rico is an overseas department of the US, and therefore bound by laws and to some extent the culture of the motherland — for better or worse. This makes San Juan, the island's capital, and particularly Old San Juan, a top tourism hotspot for millions of Americans, who appreciate the safety net that federal law casts under them, but also yearn for something exotic and nonAmerican. The casual holidaymaker can expect the uninhibited nightlife of Old San Juan, sweltering heat “where men sweat 24-hours a day” (to borrow a quote from Hunter S. Thompson’s Rum Diary, set in San Juan) and bottomless bottles of rum, which, all in all, fits the bill quite nicely.
The first sugar plantations on Puerto Rico date back to the 16th century, and were known locally as ingenios or trapiches. In 1523, Genovese native Tomas de Castellon established the first sugar mill in San German, naming it San Juan de las Palmas. In the 1540s more mills were founded along the banks of navigable rivers near San Juan. As with most of the Caribbean’s Spanish colonies, sugar was a contributor to the island’s economy, though stifled by shortsighted trade restrictions. That’s nothing that a couple of hundred years of history couldn’t resolve, however. The agrarian reforms of 1776 and the Spanish crown’s Real Cedula (Royal Decree of Graces) of 1815 stimulated the growth in the industry. By the middle of the 19th century, there were 789 sugar plantations on the island. Puerto Rico had become a fully fledged sugar isle.
Cane began a slow decline from then, struggling to compete with European sugar beet and struck from the land to make way for coffee. Distilling was very much active, however, with the island producing 145,000 litres (3,850 US gallons) in 1899. Distillation was mostly conducted at an artisanal level, especially in the Arecibo region, where the famous Roses, Garda y Co. was bottling their Ron de la Casa de Roses as early as 1868. Other haciendas like San Francisco and San Gabriel, produced molasses rum in small alembic pot stills.
In the early 20th century, as the rest of the Caribbean sugar industry faltered, Puerto Rico’s newfound status as a territory of the US transformed it into the American candy store. Cane harvests temporarily increased and capital investment from the US paid for newer and bigger sugar factories — 40 mills processed 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of sugarcane in 1930. There were negative sides to being American too. No sooner had the Jones Act been signed, in 1917, making Puerto Rico an official US territory, Puerto Ricans were given the chance to vote on whether or not to introduce prohibition. Incredibly, they voted “yes”, and the bill was passed immediately. Being a colonial island, it was much harder to enforce the ban of liquor sale and production than on the mainland, however, so the illicit production of alcohol no doubt occurred. But for many Puerto Ricans, prohibition was a chance to embrace the newfound sense of US patriotism.
One distillery that didn’t do too badly out of the situation was The Puerto
Rico Distilling Co., which was a merger of various smaller operations incorporated in 1911. At the time it was still a subsidiary of the giant Canadian liquor firm Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Ltd., and during prohibition, the distillery started making industrial alcohols, as well as over 250 different brands of “bay rum” — an extremely popular type of herbal lotion made from among other things, bay leaves.
Prohibition was lifted in 1933 and sugar production resumed steadily, reaching its zenith in 1952, when Puerto Rico was second only to Cuba in the Caribbean. Rum production positively exploded, increasing from 1.2 million litres (320,000 US gallons) in 1934 to 32 million litres (8.5 million US gallons) in 1935! The following year Bacardi opened their first distillery on the island, further spiraling the figures. In 1936 Puerto Rico had 17 distilleries in total and was biggest rum producer in the world. Also launching at that time was Ron Candado, a joint venture with Florida Cane Products, Inc., which spawned a new corporation, Ron Rico, whose flagship product was the Ronrico rum, a brand that enjoyed considerable success in the US.
Sugar declined steadily thereafter, succumbing to competition from Brazil and India, and at the turn of the millennium, operations ceased at the last mills still functioning on the island: Roig in Yabucoa and Coloso, which had operated for nearly 100 years in the municipality of Aguada. Today, four operational distilleries remain on the island.
San Juan is the most highly developed city in the Caribbean: a melting pot of Spanish, Taino, African and American influences, more recently joined by an influx of Chinese and Lebanese immigrants. The modern, industrial part of San Juan with its fast-food chains and electronics stores could just as easily be a part of mainland America, but in the Old Town we find a thriving Latino culture, beautiful architecture, and plenty of tourists and locals enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
But rum here is by no means reserved only for the tourists. Puerto Ricans drink rum with an almost frenzied dedication, and it's a well-known fact that when the island is under threat from hurricanes, the first task is to head to the store and buy rum and mixers. Only once a stock of rum is assured should you head home and secure your property. And if you're Puerto Rican, you'll almost certainly be buying Destilena Serralles’s Don Q, which was launched in 1865. Puerto Ricans are loyal to the Serralles family, and in spite of Bacardi’s 50-hectare (126-acre) distillery, with its 200,000 annual visitors, Don Q still commands around 80% of the native rum market — there’s little room here for foreign brands.
Special mention must go to the Fernandez family, who, in the early 19th century established the island’s oldest rum brand at their Santa Ana plantation in Bayamon. As far back as 1804, they were making a type of quasi-rum from fermented sugar and honey, which was allegedly aged in European oak barrels. In 1827, the Fernandez family ordered 127 slaves to build an enormous stone tower/windmill on their plantation that would be used for crushing cane, which remains in place today. Pedro Fernando Fernandez took charge from 1880, and using a column still, launched a very popular rum that became known as “Ron del Barrilito” (translating as “rum from the little barrel”). The original distillery has since closed, but Fernando’s grand-son (also called Fernando) continues to market the Ron del Barrilito brand. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Fernandez story, is the so-called “freedom barrel”. This single barrel of rum was laid down in 1942, and was put aside with orders that it should only be opened when Puerto Rico becomes a free and independent nation. If that ever happens, the cask will be taken to the town square in the centre of Bayamon and its contents will be offered free to all those who wish to drink from it.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro on the northern peninsular of San
Juan, the second oldest continually
inhabited city in the western hemisphere.
The architecture and design of Old San Juan is representative of four centuries of development.
There are a number of distilleries in this book that produce multiple rum brands, but only one that produces the same rum across multiple international locations. Bacardi currently operates three distilleries, the main one in Puerto Rico, plus one in Mexico and India. There are none in Cuba — a statement that might seem odd for a company that proudly promotes its Cuban heritage. The reasons for this are complex, and entire books have been dedicated to the subject. I'll attempt to sum it up in a couple of pages:
The stills moved out of this building in 1979. Nowadays, it's filled with tour attractions and offices.
Bacardi is the story of how a Spanish immigrant to Cuba established the basic principles of a new style of rum, one that was lighter and more refined than those that came before it. It’s also the story of how his descendants transformed Bacardi into the world's best known rum brand and the largest family-run spirits firm in the world, standing up against the tyranny of Spanish rule and the rule of Cuba’s own home-grown dictators in the process. This is a story of courage and, occasionally, controversy, as an ever-expanding dynasty (500 members at last count) tries to balance conflicting interests of family, business, politics and patriotism.
Don Facundo Bacardi Masso was born in the port town of Sitges, just south of Barcelona, Spain. It was in the 1830s that a 15-year-old Facundo (along with his brothers Magm, Juan and Jose) emigrated to Santiago de Cuba on Cuba’s eastern coast. Catalonians were recognized as hard workers (the Bacardi family were trained stonemasons) and the brothers set up a grocer’s store called El Palo Gordo (“The Big Stick”) in the busy town. It was a success, and some years later, in 1843, Facundo had saved 6,000 Cuban gold pesos (equivalent to ten thousand dollars) and broke away from the family business, opening his own store. Things did not go as planned, however — an earthquake in 1852, followed by a cholera epidemic brought Santiago to its knees. Facundo was now married to wife Amalia and had four children — Emilio, Facundo Junior, Juan and Maria — but the family was forced to return to Spain for a time.
When Bacardi returned to Santiago, new opportunities presented themselves. Sugar production had been on the rise in Cuba since the Haitian revolution, and by the 1830s the island was outpacing all the British colonies combined. Rum exports from Cuba had remained quite low though the early 19th century, but there was no shortage of molasses lying around. The only problem was, the Spaniard didn’t know how to make rum.
Enter Jose Leon Boutellier: a French resident of Santiago and a tenant in the house of Amalia Bacardfs godmother. Boutellier ran a small distillery in Santiago, which also operated as a confectioner. The pair teamed up, forming Bacard^ Boutellier & Compania, selling their rums through a shop owned by one of Facundo’s brothers. Over time, the business grew from a backroom operation, and in 1862, they bought their first distillery. It’s this date that is commonly accepted as the founding of the Bacardi brand.
There are various factors that can be attributed to the success of the early Bacard^Boutellier rum. The two entrepreneurs experimented extensively with yeast, isolating a strain that produced a fast-acting, low-ester wine. They also explored charcoal filtering as a means of both clarifying their liquid and polishing its flavour. Charcoal filtering is commonplace these days, but this was the first known example of a such a process in the rum world. Their distillery in Santiago also used one of the earliest column stills in the Western Hemisphere, and it's with this piece of kit that the duo happened across their winning formula: a blend of low-strength aguardiente and high-strength redistillaro. The Bacardi recipe is still based on the same blending principles — and so is virtually every other rum in Latin America today.
Bacardi and Boutellier also recognised the importance of branding their product. This was becoming a more common practice among blenders in the late 19th century, who bought in their product from distilleries and mixed it to a proprietary recipe or formula. It was highly unusual for a distillery to market and brand its own products, however, and Bacardi were one of the pioneers of this approach.
After Boutellier's retirement, Don Facundo passed the business on to his sons in 1877 and died some 10 years later. Emilio Bacardi took on the role of president, and it was under his leadership, and later that of his brother-in-law, Enrique Schueg, that Bacardi would become a Cuban household brand. Facundo Jr. became the company’s first Maestro de ron (Master Blender) a position that he held for over 30 years. He was the company's most valuable asset, and perhaps the greatest living distiller of his era.
Despite the growing popularity of their rum, the turn of the 20th century was also a turbulent period for the Bacardi family. The Cuban independence movement was in full swing and Bacardis were passionate adversaries of Spanish colonial rule. Emilio Bacardi collected donations for the rebel army that were active in the Cuban hinterland, and also served as one of its city-based contacts for secret communications. His son Emilito even became actively involved in combat by joining the rebels and fighting under the command of the popular rebel leader Antonio Maceo. The Spanish were not oblivious to the Bacardfs stance on independence. Aware of this, the family took the decision to exile many of the female Bacardis to Kingston, in Jamaica. On one fateful occasion, a militia marched up to the door of Emilio’s house and forced a gun into his hands, ordering him to fight for the Spanish crown. Emilio threw the gun on the ground and refused, landing himself a spell in jail. That stretch was extended when he refused to publicly support the Spanish government. He spent three years in a Cuban jail, and was later jailed in Spain too.
After the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, which ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the US, the political and economic situation in free Cuba stabilized significantly. As vocal advocates of the liberation, Bacardi were in a position to grow their business, which got big quickly thanks to new trading opportunities with the US.
Historically, Bacardi had dealt only in rum up until this time, but the rising status of the family meant that the Bacardi business and their political interests soon began to stretch far beyond a generation of rum distillers. Emilio was appointed Mayor of Santiago by the American military governor of Santiago during the Spanish-American war and, among other things, negotiated the arrival of electricity in the town. The Bacardi family were also involved in various charitable endeavours around Santiago, including the handing out of cash every year on February 4 to commemorate the founding of the company. Bacardi diversified into brewing too, establishing the Hatuey brand (named after the fierce Taino chief who repelled Spanish attempts at colonizing Cuba) which, during prohibition and the Wall Street crash, helped to bankroll the wider Bacardi interests.
The massive Bacardi operation, with its steam generators, spirit pipelines and enormous continuous stills (above right) - heated by methane generated from their own waste matter - is a sight to behold.
From the perspective of rum, the post-war era was a period of enormous international expansion for Bacardi, starting with a bottling plant in Spain in 1910, then one in New York in 1915 (which subsequently closed during prohibition). Next on the list was an upgraded distillery in Santiago, which opened in 1922 and was capable of processing 75,000 litres (20,000 US gallons) of molasses a day.
Emilio Bacardi died later that year, age 78. The next era of Bacardi expansion was overseen by Enrique Schueg, and then his son-in-law, Jose “Pepin” Bosch. A rising star in the rapidly growing family, Bosch was the son-in-law of Enrique Schueg, and had spent time serving as Cuba's finance minister. Bosch was an intimidating and controversial individual, but it's thanks to his relentless determination that the ship was successfully steered through the turbulent waters of the mid-20th century.
The family's first international distillery opened in 1931, in Mexico City. The site that was chosen was on Calle de Cerdos (“The Street of Pigs”). A rum distillery may have seemed out of place in a city positively swimming in agave-based spirits, but Bacardi’s new home was directly opposite the Coca Cola factory — the most enduring of all of Bacardi's love affairs. It wasn't long before the locals began referring to Calle de Cerdos as “Avenida de Cuba Libre” (“The Avenue of Cuba Libre”).
Just four years after the opening of the Mexican operation, Bosch and Schueg began touring sites in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. An old factory was chosen as the site of the company’s second international distillery, and it commenced production in 1936.
In 1956 a new distillery was built in the state of Puebla, around 100 km (60 miles) south-east of Mexico City. This region had been supplying sugarcane to the distillery in Mexico City since the 1930s, and relocating production to the same area made significant savings in transportation costs. The move ended up saving more than just money, however: it probably rescued the entire Mexican operation as, on July 28, 1957, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 — the worst Mexico City had ever seen — levelled some of the old distillery buildings, taking thousands of barrels of nascent rum stocks with it. The distillery in Puebla continued fermentation and distillation operations while a new ageing and blending facility was constructed on the outskirts of the capital. But there were bigger disasters yet to come^
Like most Cubans, Bacardi were, at first, strong supporters of Castro’s revolutionary movement. Fidel promised democracy and an end to the iron-fisted era of former dictator Fulgencio Batista — a chance to reclaim the sentiment of the original Cuban War of Independence, perhaps. Pepm Bosch personally donated money to Castro’s cause, and as a leading Cuban businessman, even accompanied him to Washington D.C. on a media trip in 1959. The relationship deteriorated quickly following Castro’s victory, after his politics rapidly shifted left and the revolutionary authorities began seizing private property. Bacardi were a proud Cuban family, and one that was deeply embedded in the fabric of Cuban culture. The seizure of their businesses, along with the betrayal that came with it, cut deeper than Castro could possibly have known.
For a time, some members of the family remained in Cuba, involving themselves in underground anti-Castro organizations. Others convinced themselves that this was not the start of a communist regime and that everything would return to normal soon. Pepm Bosch was not so ignorant to the reality of the situation. Furious at the betrayal, he relocated the company headquarters to the Bahamas.
The loss of Cuba could have gnawed away at the Bacardis like an infection. Instead, it sparked an almost dangerous level of tenacity that drove the company forward. Bosch became consumed by a determination to see Fidel Castro removed from power, an obsession that allied him to the CIA and, some would say, the Mafia. Thomas Gjelten writes in his Bacardi and the longfightfor Cuba (2008), “Bosch was willing to spend large sums on the anti-Castro cause, and on occasion [it] took him to the edge of illegal activity.”
From a business perspective, exile from Cuba did wonders for Bacardi. It diverted attention away from brewing, forcing Bacardi to focus on expanding its rum business. It also helped that similarly exiled Cubans, now residing in the US, were hungry for a taste of home. The 1960s and 1970s saw the Bacardi empire grow by 12% a year, punctuated by new distilleries opening in Puerto Rico in 1958, then Brazil (1961), and the Bahamas (1965). Next came a distillery in Canada, followed by new facilities in Martinique, Panama and Spain. It remains today one of the most rapid phases of growth ever witnessed in a spirits company.
latter part of the 20th century was a period of continued growth for Bacardi, and
by 1980, Bacardi was the biggest spirits brand in the US, and the biggest rum
brand in the world. Today, the distillery in Puebla, Mexico outputs 5 million
cases of Bacardi rum a year. That, however, is not a lot, when compared to the
quantities manufactured at the company's San Juan distillery, which produces 12
million 9-litre (2.4-US gallon) cases of rum a year. Bacardi have also retained
a third distillery, in India, which produces just under 1 million cases of rum
for the local market.
Although many processes at Casa Bacardi are automated, lab work must
be done by hand. These tiny
fermentation samples will be multiplied up to the distillery's 20 x 50,000-litre (13,000-US gallon) fermentation
True to the Spanish style that they helped establish, Bacardi use only column stills to make their rums. There are five of them in each of the three distilleries, tasked with making two different types of spirit — redistilaro, a 95% ABV nearneutral spirit that utilizes all five columns; and a juicier aguardiente that is made using only one of the columns and comes off at around 80% ABV. Both spirits are matured and charcoal-filtered separately before being blended together according to the specific flavour profile of each expression. Spirits enter the barrel anywhere from 55—80% ABV based on the specific extractives the master blender is after. The aguardiente also undergoes charcoal-filtration prior to maturation. This intervention aims to remove some of the brighter distillery characteristics that can evolve into overly pungent fruity notes during maturation. For the redistilaro, fermentation is a 24-hour process at 32°C (90°F), and slightly longer for the mosto that is intended for making aguardiente.
When volumes are this high, large chunks of profit are at stake, so everything must be critiqued to the most exacting standards. Molasses arrives from Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica and Fiji, and samples are constantly being analyzed; for the alcohol yield they will provide but also for the potential organoleptic qualities it will provide in the aguardiente. The decades-old Bacardi yeast strain is handled like a precious artefact — which I suppose it is. Stocks of this yeast are locked in a temperature-controlled vault, and regularly destroyed and replenished to avoid mutation. In the lab, a team of white-coated men and women use medical-grade photo-analytical equipment to measure yeast cell counts — a process that was once done using a microscope and a hand-clicker.
After that earthquake in Mexico, Bacardi adjusted their barrel-racking strategy so as to stack casks on their ends (rather than on their sides) to better combat the threat of future earthquakes. Bacardi also claim that this method slightly lowers the effects of oxidation in their ageing process.
The rums in Bacardi’s warehouses are typically matured for 1—14 years and the barrels (which are all ex-bourbon) may be refilled up to four times in a lifespan.
The emptying and filling room is done in an automated fashion that is reminiscent of a milking parlour, where one set of hoses sucks the liquid out and another immediately fills the empty cask back up.
Mexico bottles its own product, but in Puerto Rico the rum is shipped to the relevant market for bottling: Malaga, in Spain; Jacksonville in Florida; or Brazil. Each tanker holds 50 storage containers of rum — approximately 2.5 million bottles of rum per shipment.
The most famous of the Bacardi expressions is Carta Blanca — which is a blend of rums at least one-year-old that has been charcoal-filtered to remove colour. Besides Carta Oro (gold) and Black, other, older expressions, are beginning to materialize, such as Bacardi Carta Ocho 8 Anos and the fantastic Casa Bacardi Special Reserve (10—16-years-old), which you can buy straight from the barrel if you visit the San Juan distillery.
Club Caribe is one of the newest distilleries in the Caribbean. It opened in 2012 at a cost of $40 million (£32 million) on the site of a former pharmaceutical plant. If that sounds a bit bleak to you, it's worth mentioning that the distillery is located in the mountain town of Cidra, which enjoys some of the most buena of vistas on the island.
Club Caribe LLC is in fact an arm of Florida Caribbean Distillers, who own a further two distilleries in Florida; one at Lake Alfred, and the other at Auburndale. The distilleries work in tandem, wherein molasses from the southern states of the US, is fermented and distilled in Florida, then transported at 80% ABV to the Club Caribe distillery in Cidra, where it is distilled for a final time. The effort of shifting rum around the place is rewarded by tax breaks, as the finished spirit is considered a product of Puerto Rico, not Florida. Under the Federal Rum Excise Tax Refunds program, the government of Puerto Rico receives a refund of $13.25 (£10.50) per gallon from the $13.50 (£10.90) excise that is imposed per gallon of rum sold in the US.
That slender, frosted glass bottle is unashamedly aimed at vodka consumers. The liquid isn't far off vodka either, so it does beg the question: why don't you just buy a vodka instead.