Still Life: Saint Lucia Distillers

Every few months, a tanker ship pulls into Saint Lucia’s Roseau Bay, and anchors. A diver drops into the water and attaches an 8-inch flexible hose to the ship. The hose is connected to a 12-inch pipeline that runs for 194 meters underwater before hitting land and popping up in the middle of a beach and continuing overland for just over a kilometer. Eventually the pipe connects to one of several gigantic tanks.

For the next several hours, thick black liquid flows from the ship to the tank—liquid that is vital to the site’s operation. Not oil, but rather molasses: Since Saint Lucia no longer grows enough sugar to make any appreciable amount of molasses on the island, this undersea dance is how the island’s one distillery– St. Lucia Distillers – receives its vital feedstock.

This undersea molasses transfer is just one of the many unique aspects of the distillery, many of which I experienced firsthand during a May 2019 visit to Saint Lucia to meet with WIRSPA representatives.

Style-wise, St. Lucia Distillers is an amalgamation of many other Caribbean distillery templates: It uses both cane juice and molasses, multiple yeast strains, and three different types of stills – we’ll dive deep later. All these production options allow the distillers to create a wide variety of base rums, which they blend into several product lines with many expressions. Unlike distilleries that hew to all–pot distilled or all–column distilled rums, St. Lucia’s Distillers center of gravity is a blend of pot and column still rum, something also seen on other islands such as Barbados and Jamaica.

A Wee Bit of History

Briefly recounting the history of St. Lucian rum, historical research shows that St. Lucia wasn’t a large rum exporter during the 1800s to mid-1900s. The available export figures never rise above 70,000 gallons per year, a tiny amount compared to Jamaica, Demerara, and Martinique–all of which exported millions of gallons every year.

The St. Lucia Distillers story starts in 1931 when Denis Barnard built a distillery at Dennery, on the eastern shores of St. Lucia.  Four decades later, in 1972, the Barnard family merged operations with the Geest family, who owned the only other operating rum distillery on the island. The Geest’s Roseau Bay Distillery was situated on the opposite side of the Island, due west of the Dennery distillery.

After the two families merged operations in 1972, operations ceased at the Dennery distillery and all production moved to the Roseau Bay facility

The first rum from the combined operation was named Denros, created from the first three letters of each distillery – “Den” and “Ros.” Denros Strong Rum, an unaged, 80 percent ABV firebreather, is still sold today on St. Lucia.

In 1993, the Barnard family bought out the Geest family’s shares to take full ownership of the company, albeit at a different distillery than the one they built in 1931.

The winds of change blew stronger in 1998 when the Barnards sold 24.9 percent of the company to Trinidad’s Angostura Limited – yes, that Angostura of bitters and rum fame. The parent company of Angostura, CLICO, later acquired the remaining shares of St. Lucia Distillers in 2005 to take full ownership.  However, Laurie Barnard, grandson of Denis Barnard, remained as the managing director until his passing in 2012.

2009 brought the fiscal collapse of CL Financial, the overarching parent company of St. Lucia Distillers as well as Angostura, Appleton, and E&A Scheer. In the decade prior, CL Financial had bought up many high-profile spirit producers before going bankrupt. (It’s a tangled tale that I wrote about here.)  For our purposes, St. Lucia Distillers was essentially up for sale from 2009 onward.

A new corporate parent appeared in 2016 in the form of Spiribam, the spirits division of Groupe Bernard Hayot (GBH). GBH already held Martinique’s Rhum Clemént and Rhum J.M in their portfolio, and Saint  Lucia itself is just a short ferry ride from Martinique.

Spiribam soon began an aggressive renovation and upgrade program for the distillery, as well as substantial revamping of the brand portfolio. (More on this later.)

A Distillery, Revealed

It’s a hot, humid May morning when I arrive at St. Lucia Distillers, henceforth referred to as SLD for brevity’s sake. After gawking at the display case filled with dozens of alcoholic offerings made at the distillery, I first meet Michael Speakman, SLD’s sales and marketing director, before being handed off to Lennox Wilson, the distillery’s production manager.

Wilson has a long history in the rum industry: Before coming to SLD in 2009, he had worked for nearly every Jamaican rum producer, as well as a stint in the beer industry. In short, he’s impeccably qualified to make the many different rums SLD is famous for.

Leaving the cooling confines of the administration building, my tour begins where most distillery tours start—water sources. Here, the distillery uses harvested rainwater, collected in various places around the distillery grounds. Should rainfall be insufficient, they can tap into a reserve pond owned by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Beyond a fence—and between us and the ocean—is a sugar cane field. While St. Lucia stopped growing cane on a commercial scale in 1962, SLD maintains five acres of fields used to make cane juice rums. This cane field provides a very small amount of the total fermentable material SLD uses, but it enlarges the palette of rums for the blenders to work with, so is a worthwhile investment.

Of course, the majority of the rums made at SLD originate from molasses, which brings us back to the underwater pipeline delivering straight from the ship to the distillery’s molasses tanks. During my visit, the distillery’s existing tanks held up to 2400 metric tons of molasses. However, planned upgrades will double that, enabling them to store an entire year’s supply of molasses (currently sourced from the Dominican Republic) on site.

Another fun fact involves the distillery’s energy source. Their steam requirements are met via three boilers, powered by recycled ship oil. The savings from not buying diesel fuel defrays a substantial amount of operational costs. In the event enough ship oil isn’t available, they can use conventional diesel fuel to power the boilers.

Stepping into the main distillery building, Wilson and I climb up to a catwalk that puts us next to several large steel talks where yeast propagation occurs, as well as the mixing of yeast, water, and molasses to make a wash. The initial brix of the molasses is around 85, which is brought down to around 20 brix after dilution and before fermentation starts.

The final fermentation occurs at the other end of the distillery building, in one of eight open-air, temperature-controlled tanks. The typical fermentation takes around 36 to 40 hours, with a short resting period of several hours afterward. Two different yeast strains are employed, known as Type A and Type B. The resulting fermented wash is around 7 percent ABV.

Be Still My Heart

When it comes to distillation options, SLD has a full house with four stills, each different from the others:

John Dore 1

A small double-retort pot still made by the John Dore company in 1998 and which recently underwent substantial refurbishment. Its capacity is 100 imperial gallons (454 liters) and can produce just over 25,000 LAA (liters of absolute alcohol) per year.

Interestingly, during the refurbishment, the retorts were accidentally installed in the wrong order. A few months after my visit, I was told that the retorts will be restored to their original ordering at the next maintenance interval.

(Editorial note: This seemingly arcane detail of the still refurbishment received a large amount of interest from SLD fans on Facebook after I posted pictures of the retorts from my visit. It wasn’t long until multiple “before/after” photos of the still were circulating and being closely scrutinized. Never underestimate how wonky rum geeks will get!)

John Dore 2

Another double-retort still and a substantially larger version of the John Dore 1, installed in 2005. At 6,000 liters (or 1,319 imperial gallons), the John Dore 2 has thirteen times of the capacity of the John Dore 1, producing as much as 168,000 LAA per year. This still recently received a new swan neck connecting the pot to the first retort.

Vendome

A hybrid still, i.e. a pot still with an attached eight-plate column neck; it began operation in the beginning of 2003 after being purchased from Trinidad Distillers Ltd, aka Angostura. Its capacity is 300 imperial gallons (1,363 liters), and it’s capable of producing 20,360 LAA per year.  

The rum from this still is very recognizable to my taste buds; It makes the rubbery notes that I’ve come to associate with certain SLD rums.

McMillan Ltd Coffey

A twin column still, installed in 1985.  Three different rums are collected from different plates on this still. For lighter rums, yeast Type A (mentioned earlier) is used for fermentation, with collection from a very high plate. For heavier rums, yeast Type B is utilized, and collection happens on lower plates.

Asked about the ABV that each still reaches, Wilson informed me that rum comes of the pot (batch) stills at around 85 percent ABV; rum from the Coffey still is around 95 percent ABV.

Let’s now briefly return to the sugar cane that SLD grows. The resulting cane juice is a relatively small amount—so small that it’s not viable to run it through the two larger stills, i.e. the John Dore 2 and the Coffey still. Thus, any SLD cane juice rum was made with the John Dore 1 or Vendome stills.

From these four stills, SLD makes eight different distillates. Wait! How is this possible? Some stills make more than one type of rum:

  • John Dore 1: Two distillates—one from a molasses wash, the other from a cane juice wash.
  • John Dore 2: One distillate from a molasses wash
  • Vendome: Two distillates—one from a molasses wash, the other from a cane juice wash.
  • McMillan Coffey: Three distillates—Light, medium, and heavy, from a molasses wash.

As for the Coffey still distillates, the light spirit is made with yeast Type A and is taken from a high plate, number 40. While not exactly neutral, it’s very light and is used primarily for blending or in the Denros Strong Rum.

The medium and heavy Coffey still spirits ferment with yeast Type B. The medium rum is collected from plate 32, while the heavy is collected from plate 30. Unlike the light rum, the medium and heavy distillates are aged prior to blending.

Aging

Speaking of aging, we didn’t visit any of the primary aging warehouses during my visit. However, there was a smaller aging area within the main distillery building that held a few hundred barrels. While very picturesque in an “old time distillery” sort of way, future plans are for this small aging area to become part of a visitor’s center. Sad as that might sound, a modern visitor’s center is a much needed addition to the distillery if “civilian” tourists are to come through, not just rum geeks.

Per Wilson, rums at SLD typically enter the cask at around 63 percent ABV. While most of the top-tier rums from SLD contain a blend of rums in the six- to eleven-year range, the distillery also has on hand rums aged up to nineteen years, which I was privileged to try. Some of these rums will end up as single cask selections released into the market in the coming years.

The distillery portion of my visit wrapped up in the blending hall, filled with tanks up to 10,000 gallons in capacity. I noticed several finned contraptions on wheels, which the veteran distillery visitor would recognizable as chill filtration units; SLD chill filters some of the rums it exports.

Adjoining the blending hall is a well-stocked laboratory, full of the usual chemistry analysis equipment and hundreds of sample bottles of all manner of shapes, sizes, coloring, and packaging.

Blending the Product Lines

With the distillery portion of my visit over, Wilson introduced me to Roger Miller, SLD’s quality assurance coordinator and laboratory supervisor. Miller and I adjourned to a blissfully cool boardroom. Waiting for me at the head of a large conference table was a murderer’s row of sample glasses filled with rum – nineteen in total. You’ll recall that the distillery makes eight different types of distillates—seven of them were present in unaged form on the bottommost row. The middle row contained aged versions of the distillates, and the top row contained final, bottled expressions. All except the final row of samples were substantially higher than 40 percent ABV, so I had my work cut out for me to stay on top of things!

With the aid of a slide presentation, Miller walked me through the technical details of each sample. As cool as that was, what really rocked my boat were the slides showing in great detail how many of the exported expressions, such as Chairman’s Reserve and Admiral Rodney, are blended – from the component distillates and aging protocols to the final blend. Truly a rum geek’s dream PowerPoint presentation!

There was way too much detail in the presentation to fully capture here, but I noted some key points for the exported product lines:

Bounty

The Bounty line was originally only sold locally on St. Lucia as a value-oriented brand. When Spiribam purchased SLD, they saw the potential of distributing Bounty in other markets. Originally the line was entirely column distilled rum. However, the newly added Bounty Premium Dark expression has a bit of the Vendome pot still distillate.

Admiral Rodney

Named for an important British admiral of the 1700s, Admiral Rodney rum was originally a single expression, column-distilled rum—and a healthy step up from the Bounty line. While Admiral Rodney was exported, it didn’t receive nearly the marketing attention as the top-tier Chairman’s Reserve line. After the acquisition, Spiribam saw an opportunity and expanded Admiral Rodney to three expressions. Each is column-distilled rum from the McMillan still, with substantially more age than the Bounty lineup rums.

The three Admiral Rodney expressions take their names from ships in Rodney’s fleet that participated in the extremely important Battle of the Saintes in 1782:

The entry tier HMS Princessa is a blend of medium and heavy column rums, aged for five to seven years in ex-bourbon, followed by two years in ex-port casks.

The middle tier HMS Royal Oak is comprised of medium column distillate, aged in ex-bourbon casks for six to twelve years.  The Royal Oak blend is essentially unchanged from the original Admiral Rodney blend.

The top shelf HMS Formidable is entirely the heavy column distillate, aged for ten to fifteen years in ex-bourbon.

Chairman’s Reserve

The Chairman’s line represents the top tier of SLD rums. Originally it was composed of four rums: The original Chairman’s Reserve, a lightly aged/filtered white rum, a spiced rum, and the “Forgotten Cask,”originally a limited edition made from Chairman’s Reserve that accidentally aged for an additional four years after some casks were misplaced following a distillery fire.  The Forgotten Cask was so well received that SLD decided to make more in the same style, albeit without forgetting where the casks were aging.

1931

Beside the regularly released, top tier Chairman’s Reserve rums, SLD also made a limited edition, yearly release of rums dubbed “1931,” after the distillery’s start date. Each year’s 1931 release was a different blend of rums, differentiated by differing label colors.

After Spiribam purchased SLD, it dispensed with the yearly limited-edition 1931 releases. However, it kept the 1931 moniker and bottle format, locked the blend components, and made it the new top line expression in the Chairman’s Reserve lineup. Restated, a “1931” style rum continues to be made, but it’s no longer a limited release and doesn’t change from year to year. It’s now known as Chairman’s Reserve 1931.

A brief overview of the Chairman’s Reserve lineup blends:

Chairman’s Reserve: A blend of pot and column still rum, aged separately, then blended and further aged. The average age of the blend, albeit not an age statement, is five years.

Chairman’s Reserve White:  A blend of pot and column still rums, aged separately in American white oak for three to four years, then filtered for color.

Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Original: The original Chairman’s Reserve rum, infused with bois bandé,a local Caribbean bark culturally known for its aphrodisiac qualities, as well as local spices and fruits such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, vanilla, allspice, and lemon and orange peels.

Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Cask: Similar to the baseline Chairman’s Reserve but aged longer; the rums in this blend are between six and eleven years of age.

Chairman’s Reserve 1931: The blend of this rum is difficult to describe, so I’ll let the photo below do the work. That said, it contains seven distillates from all four SLD stills—six use a molasses wash, and one uses cane juice. The resulting blend is 72 percent column and 28 percent pot, with rums aged between six and eleven years.

The Future of St. Lucia Distillers

Except for a few very large producers, the rum industry isn’t as profitable as you might think. Even well-known brands have struggled to stay financially afloat and remain independent. Over the past decade, we’ve seen hallowed brands snapped up by bigger spirits consortiums (for instance, Mount Gay by Remy Cointreau, Appleton Estate by Campari, and West Indies Rum Distillery by Plantation Rum).

To the credit of the aforementioned purchasers, each acquisition was followed by a substantial infusion of money to refurbish and upgrade equipment and revamp the marketing. In my visit to St. Lucia Distillers, I saw the same dynamic at play. While a small part of me wishes iconic distilleries could remain frozen in time, the reality is that only by adapting and changing can these distilleries remain viable in an ever-expanding spirits market. In that regard, I’m quite happy that St. Lucia Distillers and its excellent rum portfolio are in good hands, making it possible for more enthusiasts to visit the distillery, as well as continue to buy their exceptional rums.

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