As 2017 draws nigh, it’s time for the traditional year end wrap-up, summarizing the highlights of what appeared here over the last 12 months. Some of what follows could be called self-indulgent navel-gazing; reflections on how my writing has evolved. But I contend there’s also value to you, the reader – it provides a broader context for what the site has become. And who knows, you might have missed a relevant post as the world speeds by.
As a confirmed Jamaican rum “dunderhead,” I obsessively track every snippet of news regarding the island’s rum industry. So it was with great joy that I learned about a year ago that the Long Pond Distillery was gearing up to resume operations after a several year hiatus.
Maggie Campbell glances at the clock again, then toward the still. Even from twenty feet away, she knows the thin stream of still-warm rum coming off it is the “hearts” – ethanol, aka “the good alcohol” that we drink. She frowns a bit. Normally this is the raison d’etre of a distiller’s day, but for some reason, this distillation is taking far longer than she’d estimated when we began hours ago. In the hours since we started, Maggie has done the near-impossible – answered every single one of my wonky questions about every aspect of Privateer Rum’s production process, from cane sourcing to distilling to bottling. I’ve literally run out of questions to ask – a first for me.
In May 2017, I traveled to Cuba to immerse myself in the topic of Cuban rum as a guest of Havana Club. My two prior articles (Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet and The Many Lives of Havana Club) cover the broad strokes of Cuban rum and Havana Club’s history. Here, we’ll go inside a Cuban distillery and focus on the technical side of Cuban rum production.
We’ve been riding in the tourist coach for thirty minutes. Just outside of Havana, the highway scenery turns to lush, green farmland. Exiting the freeway I instinctively check my pocket for the umpteenth time – yes, my passport’s still there. The Havana Club handlers have repeatedly drilled us on this tenet in the preceding days: No passport, no admittance to the distillery. As an American–one of only two in our group of fifty–I’ve been forewarned that I might face an additional challenge. Extra paperwork and approval is required for Americans. I’d sent in my forms weeks ago, but who knows if the appropriate Cuban bureaucrat agreed to approve it?
There’s a hint of mythology regarding Cuban rum – a certain cachet, a promise of elegance. Much as the mere mention of “Japanese whisky” gets the single-malt fanatic’s heart racing, the Cuban rums of yoresan hold a special meaning for rum connoisseurs. It hearkens us back to U.S. Prohibition, when thirsty Americans took a quick hop to Cuba to legally enjoy Cuban rums in the now classic drinks invented on the island: The Daiquiri. The Mojito. The El Presidente. In the fifty-plus years since America’s embargo on Cuban product began, its rum has become highly valued contraband, covertly acquired and doled out on the sly by generations of American imbibers.
Despite being cut off from the American market and its estimated forty percent of the world’s rum consumption, Havana Club and other Cuban rums are still the third most consumed Caribbean rum worldwide. They trail only Bacardi and Captain Morgan, if you can believe that. Bacardi was born in Cuba and the company still touts its Cuban roots and production processes first used in Cuba. Consider just Bacardi and Havana Club alone, it’s clear that Cuban “style” rum is far and away the most prevalent type of rum consumed today.
In early 2017, I visited the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe with Spiribam’s Benjamin Jones to tour the distilleries whose products are imported to the U.S. by his company. In this and other posts I describe a distillery we visited. If you’re not familiar with rhum agricole production, it’s highly suggested you start with this overview.
At Guadeloupe’s Damoiseau distillery, the last minutes of a cane stalk’s life are spent on a giant red escalator, lifting it thirty feet into the air before plunging the cane downward into a chute to meet the business end of a whirling shredder. All day during the cane harvest season, massive trucks trundle up to the base of the escalator to deposit ton after ton of freshly cut cane segments. This pipeline of just-cut cane turned into rhum in less than two days is the hallmark of the French-style of production, giving rhum agricole its distinctive flavor.