Demerara Distillers Ltd – Part One

In Roald Dahl’s classic book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the plot hinges upon a handful of golden tickets tucked into chocolate bars, granting undreamed-of access to a mysteriously magical candy factory.

That story came to mind one day as I scanned a newly arrived email—my own golden ticket! But rather than an invitation to a candy factory, I’d soon be wandering through hallowed ground in the rum world.

I’m always excited to tour a rum distillery—collecting them all is an obsession of mine—but an invitation to visit Demerara Distillers Ltd. in Guyana is a whole new ballgame. You see, access to the inner workings of this famed distillery has traditionally been hard to come by.

Why the obsession with this distillery as compared to all the others I’d visited?

In the annals of rum history, Demerara rum appears over and over again. For two centuries Demerara rum was the core component of the British Navy rum blend, until the “daily tot” ended in 1970.

Furthermore, during tiki’s formative years Demerara rum’s earthy, smoky profile was called for in many Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic recipes. To this day, Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum is synonymous with tiki like no other rum. 

Many well-known brands are supplied by Demerara Distillers Ltd., also referred to as DDL: El Dorado, Pusser’s, Lemon Hart, Old Sam, Wood’s O.V.D., and Lamb’s are just a few household names. Many more brands use rum made by DDL even if they don’t mention it.

But the most exciting part of my golden ticket to tour DDL was seeing the company’s crown jewels: The iconic stills from centuries past that still make rum today.

You’d be hard pressed to name any still more famous among rum geeks than the Port Mourant double wooden pot still; its flavor is instantly recognizable and crucial to numerous blends. Then there’s Enmore—a column still made from wood! And let’s not forget the Versailles and Savalle stills! The story of these venerable stills and how they came together in one place is an obsession for some.

Port Mourant and Enmore stills at Diamond Distillery

Over the course of two stories (this is Part One) we’ll dive deep into Demerara Distillers Limited—how it came to be and its operations today. In this part I’ll take on a highly compressed but essential tour of Guyana, its rum history, and how modern-day DDL came to be. It sets the stage for Part Two so I can immediately jump into distillery operations, the stills, and related topics. There’s just too much material to cover in a single story!

A Brief Overview of Guyana and Its History

Guyana (in red) among South America and the Caribbean

Situated on South America’s northeastern coast, the country of Guyana (the name means “Land of Many Waters”) borders Venezuela to the west, Suriname to the east, and Brazil to the south and west. Just 350 miles from the equator, Guyana lays a justifiable claim to being hotter than the Caribbean rum producing islands to the north.

What is now modern-day Guyana was once three colonies: Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo. The Dutch settled the Berbice and Essequibo colonies first, in the early 1600s. They later established Demerara as a new colony in 1745 after taking note of its previously uncultivated land nearby. The Dutch influence remains in Guyana to this day. For example, the town of Uitvlugt (pronounced “eye flot”) is one of many Dutch place names within the country, as is Stabroek (the main market in Georgetown), New Amsterdam, Schoonoord, etc.

Similarly, if you consider Amsterdam’s extensive canal system, you can imagine how the same Dutch engineering skills created the extensive canal system crossing Guyana’s coastal region, a necessity in a country where the coastal lands are several meters below sea level.

Soon after the Dutch occupied Demerara and Essequibo in the 1600s they began growing sugar cane on the vast coastal plains. The aforementioned canals enabled barges (locally called “punts”) — heaped high with cut sugar cane—to travel great distances to sugar mills. You can still see this today at the Uitvlugt sugar factory.

Sugar cane punts in canal at Uitvlugt sugar factory

Despite the overall decline in Caribbean region sugar production over the past century due to stiff global competition, Guyana still grows a substantial amount of sugar. The resulting molasses supplies the voracious appetite of DDL as well as other rum making countries, although in recent years the amount of molasses exported has diminished. (In fact, DDL has had to import molasses recently for their own production requirements.)

British Guiana

In 1803, the British forcibly took control of these colonies, with the Dutch officially ceding ownership in 1814. In 1822 the British merged the Demerara and Essequibo colonies, and in 1831 added Berbice. From 1831 onward, the region was known as British Guiana, although for several decades afterward British colonial reports continued to treat Demerara and Berbice as distinct regions. (These seemingly esoteric details matter greatly when researching rum history of that era.)

In 1833, the British abolished slavery throughout their empire. The law took effect in 1834 but slaves had to serve for years as “apprentices” before they were fully freed in 1838. British colonies which had previously depended on African slaves for agricultural works like rum production needed another source of manual labor. The East Indies in particular filled that need. Between 1838 and 1917 more than 340,000 indentured laborers came to British Guiana from India and many stayed when their indenture ended.[i] Their descendants comprise the most populous ethnic group in Guyana today.

In short, from the early 1800s to the 1960s, British Guiana was a workhorse colony for the British Empire, sending vast quantities of sugar, rum, and other raw materials back to the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

An Independent Guyana

In 1966 British Guiana asserted its independence from the Crown and took a new name: Guyana. It was part of a wave of British Caribbean colonies gaining independence starting in the 1960s: Jamaica and Trinidad led things off in 1962; Barbados celebrated independence alongside Guyana in 1966; and Grenada followed suit in 1974.

Guyana’s flag

(Note: For the remainder of this story I use British Guiana when referring to the pre-independence era and Guyana for the post-independence period.)

Following Guyana’s independence, it wasn’t long before the socialist movement as seen in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean took hold. In the mid-1970s the government nationalized and assumed ownership of industries like sugar, rum, and bauxite production.

A decade later (the mid-1980s) the missteps of socialist policies took a heavy toll. The government was forced to begin reversing state ownership of many industries, selling them to private investors over time. The Guyanese sugar and rum industries were very much swept up in these changes. (I’ll return to this topic later.)

A Very Brief History of the Guyanese Sugar and Rum Industries

In the early days of Dutch and subsequent British rule, sugar and rum production was based on the sugar estate model, similar to elsewhere in the Caribbean. Each estate consisted of a plot of agricultural land and a sugar cane mill to process the sugar grown there. Most estates also had distilling equipment which they used to convert the molasses, a byproduct of sugar cane processing, into another saleable commodity: rum. In those days, rum was just one element of the sugar industry, and far from the most important. Hundreds of sugar estates dotted the landscape near British Guiana’s Atlantic coast.

Sugar estates on a 1759 map. Diamond Estate is No. 10, owned by John Carter

There is some evidence of rum production under Dutch rule as early as 1703, and we don’t know how much rum the Dutch made while in possession of the Guiana colonies. However, in 1832 the newly minted British Guiana produced approximately 1.5 million gallons of rum. This was a very substantial amount at the time, but still less than Jamaica produced. Just three decades later British Guiana made 3.2 million gallons of rum, surpassing Jamaica’s rum output and making British Guiana the largest British colonial rum producer.

British Guiana held this dominant position nearly every year until independence. The vast majority of British Guiana rum went to England, and much of what arrived in London was aged in the West India Docks or sent to British navy victualling yards to make the famed British navy rum.

Early Rum Distillation in Guyana

Since the Dutch made rum in Guyana well before the invention of continuous distillation in the early 1800s, we know that early rum making in the Guiana colonies used batch distillation, better known as pot stills.

While pot stills are normally made entirely of metal, nothing requires the kettle, where the rum wash is heated, to be metal. Metal was precious in those days, and the Guiana colonies had something nearly as strong and durable: greenheart wood. It’s extremely strong and too hard to work with regular tools. It’s also not prone to decay in wet conditions. Many enterprising Guianese estates made the kettle of their pot stills out of greenheart wood.

Distillation apparatuses made this way were called “vat stills” to differentiate them from traditional “pot stills.”  Vat stills thus are strongly associated with British Guiana and nowhere else. A 1908 British document[ii] contains this description of vat stills:

Vat stills consist of cylindrical wooden vessels built of staves strongly hooped with wrought iron. They have high copper domes covering openings in the heads of the vessels which communicate with a retort or retorts of the Jamaican pattern, but, as a rule, the retort acts as the lowest vessel of a rectifying column. As in Winter’s still a spiral pipe or a series of small perpendicular pipes descends down the interior of the column through which cold water is run whenever distillation is in progress, and by which the spirit vapour undergoes a process of rectification as it ascends the column before passing into the condenser. The vat stills are heated by injection of steam.

Diagram of a Typical Demerara vat still
Source: Sugar and the sugar cane: an elementary treatise on the agriculture of the sugar cane and on the manufacture of cane sugar. (1905)

Fortunately for we in modern times, two of these vat stills continue to make rum to this day at DDL’s Diamond distillery—The Port Mourant and Versailles stills. It’s claimed that the Port Mourant double wooden still was built in 1732 on the estate of the same name. However, the retort and rectifier attached to it were likely added later, since retorts and rectifiers were not in common use till the 1800s. It’s important to note that the Port Mourant still is not a true double retort still like you’d find in Jamaica, despite the visual similarities. I’ll touch on this in more detail in Part Two.

Naturally, column distillation eventually came to British Guiana—such stills were more efficient, continuous, and could produce more rum. In fact, some of the early column stills were also made of the greenheart wood, with copper plates inside. The Enmore wooden Coffey still was one such, built in 1880 and still making rum.

Given British Guiana’s incredible volume of rum production by 1854 (3.2 million gallons), it’s natural to assume that column distillation contributed substantially to that figure. However, history shows this wasn’t exactly the case.

Available records have the earliest column still in the colony around 1880, but it’s possible that column stills arrived earlier. There is evidence[iii] of column stills producing rum in India as early as 1848, so it’s possible British Guiana also acquired them prior to 1880. To put these dates in context, Barbados got its first column still in 1893, while Jamaica held out until around 1960.

This isn’t to say that the column still rapidly became the primary distillation technique soon after they were introduced. The Governor of British Guiana stated in the aforementioned 1908 document just how much rum was produced during 1907-1908 on estates using “vat” (pot) stills, continuous (column) stills, or some combination of the two:

  • Vat stills: 64.6%
  • Continuous stills: 20.8%
  • Vat and continuous stills: 14.6%

In short, pot distillation remained at around 60 percent of the colony’s rum production three decades (or more) after the first column still arrived. Nonetheless, this didn’t stop J.C. Nolan, special commissioner of the Jamaican Government to the UK, from taking a shot at Demerara rum in his testimony before the same 1908 commission:

Questioner: What result did that state of things produce in the West Indies?

J.C. Nolan: The whole of the sugar industry of the West Indies would have collapsed if assistance had not been rendered.

Questioner: Did the other colonies suffer as well as Jamaica?

J.C. Nolan: Yes, but not so much. Demerara adopted a cheaper method of making rum than we did. We stuck to the old pot still, but they had better machinery for making sugar, and much rum from third molasses by a cheaper method.

According to Nolan, the rums of British Guiana (labeled “Demerara” here) were of inferior quality because they used continuous distillation. He dubbed such distillate “silent spirit” rather than rum, insisting that it should never be intermingled with true Jamaican rum. On the other hand, British Guiana was selling a lot more rum to the British navy than Jamaica was!

Elsewhere in the same 1908 document, the governor of British Guiana states that there were forty-four operational rum distilleries in the colony. While this sounds like a lot in today’s world, a century earlier there were hundreds of small sugar estates distilleries covering the colony’s agricultural land.

The relentless reduction in the number of operating estates and distilleries was a common pattern across the Caribbean in the 1800s and 1900s. Some of this was due to centralizing resources in larger factories. Another factor was the declining commodity price of sugar, in part from competition from sugar made from beets. Running a sugar estate was expensive, and if sugar couldn’t be sold for more than their cost, the estate was unprofitable. Such estates eventually shut down or were consolidated with others. Between 1908 and 1960, British Guiana went from forty-four rum distilleries to eight.

The Final Eight: Guyana’s Legendary Rum Distilleries

An obscure document, Annual Report of the Comptroller of Customs & Excise for the Year 1960, provides a glimpse into the state of the British Guiana distilling industry at that moment. It lists the production details for the last eight operating rum distilleries:

Berbice

  • Skeldon – Closed in 1960
  • Blairmont – Closed in 1962
  • Albion – Closed in 1968

Demerara

  • La Bonne Intention – Closed in 1959
  • Versailles – Closed in 1978
  • Enmore – Closed in 1994
  • Uitvlugt – Closed in 1999.
  • Diamond – Still operating

Connecting a few dots, when DDL became an independent entity circa 1993, it had three operating distilleries: Enmore, Uitvlugt, and Diamond. Over the next six years DDL shuttered the first two, leaving Diamond as the sole operating rum distillery in Guyana, but filled with stills from the other two.

It’s important to note here that distilleries and sugar factories typically share the same name, often of a nearby town, e.g. Uitvlugt, or Skeldon. However, while a rum distillery may have closed, the sugar factory of the same name may still be operating. For instance, the Uitvlugt distillery closed in 1999 but the Uitvlugt sugar factory still operates as of 2020.

Note: Some sources say Uitvlugt closed in 1999, others in 2000. The most authoritative source indicates it closed in December, 1999. It’s entirely likely that moving the stills to Diamond went well into 2000.

Partial remains of the Uitvlugt distillery today. Uitvlugt sugar factory buildings in background.

If the distillery names in the list above seem familiar (especially to hardcore Demerara rum collectors), it’s likely because of Italian independent bottler Velier releasing expressions referencing all eight distilleries by name. Some of the Velier releases were distilled at the named distillery; others were distilled in the style of the named distillery, sometimes using a still transplanted from the original location.

As we’ll see in the second part of our story, when a distillery closed, the stills and rum recipes were often transferred to another facility. There, the marques (flavor profile) of the rum from the closed distillery were replicated while retaining the name of the original distillery. For example, the Enmore still at DDL was originally at the Enmore estate.

Should you desire to soak in a truly overwhelming amount of information about these shuttered distilleries, see the page The Demerara Distilleries 2.0 (English).  It holds a stunning amount of information about Guyanese rum and associated sugar estates.

Corporate Control of British Guiana’s Rum Industry

One can’t describe British Guiana/Guyana rum history without touching on the British company best known as Booker Brothers, McConnell & Co. By the 1880s they began acquiring vast swaths of the British Guiana economy. A 1964 New York Times article lists their holdings as “tropical agriculture, shops and wholesale distribution, engineering and industries, rum and produce, and shipping.” So huge was Booker’s private interest in the country that the country’s initials B.G. (British Guiana) were jokingly said to actually mean Booker’s Guiana. 

Booker Bros., McConnell (“Bookers”) dominated the British Guiana sugar industry. Among its enterprises was a shipping line (“Booker Line”) that ran regularly between Liverpool and Demerara, providing direct transport for British Guiana sugar and rum (and other products) to England.

Source: https://www.bostonapothecary.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/United-Rum-Merchants-Lemon-Hart-Lambs-1951-brochure.pdf

So successful was Bookers that in 1949, they purchased United Rum Merchants, the British rum merchants who made Lamb’s Navy Rum, Lemon Hart, Red Heart, and Black Heart rums. This gave Bookers an entire “farm to table” rum pipeline from cane fields to bottles on a store shelf.

Nationalization of Guyana’s Rum Industry

A decade after Independence, Guyana’s socialist leaning government began nationalizing much of the country’s private industry, including sugar and associated rum production. The sugar industry concerns morphed into Guyana Sugar Corporation, better known as GuySuCo.

As for the rum industry, the once vast number of rum distilleries was down to three companies and their associated distilleries:

  • Diamond Liquors Limited (DLL) – Diamond distillery. Owned by Jessels Holdings
  • Guyana Distillers Limited (GDL) – Uitvlugt distillery. Owned by Booker Bros., McConnell.
  • Demerara Distilleries Ltd – Enmore distillery. A subsidiary of Guyana Distillers Limited.

The three distilleries had a combined capacity of 8 million proof gallons but weren’t operating at full capacity; there wasn’t sufficient export demand to make more rum profitably.

In 1975, Yesu Persaud became the executive chairman of Diamond Liquors Limited. Over the next four decades he led the Guyanese rum industry through many twists and turns including:

  • Combining DLL and GDL into a single company under state control
  • The subsequent divestment of the company back to private ownership
  • The closing of all operating rum distilleries in Guyana, save one: Diamond Distillery
Barrels at DDL, commemorating the merger of GDL and DLL

The 1976 Annual Report of the Guyana Liquor Corporation succinctly describes how the transfer to state ownership took place:

On the 26th May, 1975, the State acquired the majority interest in Diamond Liquors Limited, and on 26th May, 1976, the majority interest in Guyana Distilleries Limited and its subsidiary – Demerara Distilleries Limited (Enmore).

The Shareholding of the State in the Companies after 26th May, 1976 was
63% – Diamond Liquors Limited
82% – Guyana Distilleries Limited
82% – Demerara Distilleries Limited

The remaining shares of the Companies are distributed among 3,352 Guyanese private shareholders, many of whom are workers in the Enterprise.

It was therefore necessary for a holding Company to be formed to control and coordinate the various activities of the three distilling Companies. Consequently, the Guyana Liquor Corporation was incorporated on 19th June, 1976 as a limited liability company under the Companies Ordinance.

The main function of the Liquor Corporation is to act as an “Umbrella Organisation” under which Diamond Liquors Limited, Guyana Distilleries Limited and its subsidiary – Demerara Distilleries Limited, would operate in order to ensure the maximum utilization of the resources in the distilling Industry, and also, to provide centralized Administrative, Technical, Financial and Personnel services and to direct Market strategy.

Unlike Cuba’s nationalization of its rum industry, the Guyana rum industry’s transition to state ownership was not instantaneous, and the shareholders were compensated. Bookers control over many industries was particularly reduced by the nationalization of many of its holdings.

In 1983 the two companies (DLL and GDL) merged to form Demerara Distillers Limited, also known as DDL.

Divestment

By the mid-1980s, after more than a decade of socialist control, Guyana’s government was in dire financial straits.  A 1993 paper published by Guyana’s Ministry of Finance summarizes how this situation came to pass:[iv]

After Independence in 1966, the Government pursued policies of mismanagement not only of the national economy but also in the state-owned entities.  Political interference, compounded by poor management, seriously affected the performance of these corporations.  Bedevilled by rampant corruption, low morale and non-existent accountability, this sector failed to contribute to general economic development, operating as it did in an environment not conducive to proper utilization of resources.  This unhealthy state of affairs worsened with the massive increase in the size of the state sector in the 70’s and 80’s, occasioned by the policy of purchasing huge foreign owned companies operating in Guyana in sugar, bauxite, trading, printing, manufacturing, shipbuilding, shipping, etc. ….

The economy, dominated by this inefficient state sector under what was effectively a one-party administrative dictatorship, experienced a steady deterioration, starting in the 1970’s and worsening sharply in the 1980’s.  As the economic and financial deterioration of the country continued, its debt position gradually worsened and, by 1985, Guyana was declared ineligible for foreign loans.  External pressures and fiscal management considerations prompted the previous Government into agreeing to a Divestment policy, as part of a Structural Adjustment Package recommended by the IMF/World Bank in 1989.

In short, in order to secure continued credit in the form of loans, Guyana need to move away from state control of industries, including DDL.  In 1988, government ownership of DDL dropped to 47 percent when DDL issued new shares that diluted DDL its share pool.[v] Over subsequent years the government’s ownership of DDL dropped further still.

Freed of the shackles of government control by the early 1990s, a newly energized DDL began promoting its flagship rum brand, El Dorado Demerara Rum.

Demerara Distillers Ltd. Today

DDL’s management hub is at the massive Diamond Distillery complex located near the banks of the Demerara River, only six miles south of the center of Georgetown, Guyana’s capital and largest city.

First under Yesu Persaud and then under Komal Samaroo since 2014, DDL has grown into far more than a rum producer.

Yesu Persaud and Komal Samaroo

Using its experience in packaging and labeling, DDL has expanded into other beverages. It’s the Guyana franchisee for Pepsi, Seven Up, and Slice, as well as owning a local soda brand called SoCa. DDL also bottles fruit juices and branded (DDL) mineral water. With the carbon dioxide captured during rum fermentation, DDL sells dry ice and carbon dioxide for carbonation and other purposes.

Beyond beverages, DDL also provides shipping and warehousing services and is the Guyanese distributor for brands like Nestle and Johnson & Johnson. Technically these service are managed through subsidiaries Demerara Shipping, and Distribution Services Limited. However they are however both wholly owed subsidiaries of DDL.

As for DDL’s rum business, its El Dorado Demerara brand is among the most recognized rum brands worldwide. (Quirky side note: At the time DDL begin selling El Dorado rum in local and certain export markets in the 1960s, Puerto Rico’s Destileria Serrallés was selling “Don Q Eldorado Rum” in the United States. Seeking to move into the U.S. market, DDL subsequently purchased the Eldorado trademark from Serrallés in the early 1990s to avoid any consumer confusion or trademark issues.)

El Dorado Advertisement, 1987

Recently, DDL split the El Dorado lineup into two brands: The “Diamond Reserve” lineup focuses on entry level rums, while El Dorado remains the marquee brand.

DDL is also a bulk rum supplier to other brands. Approximately forty percent of DDL’s rum goes into its house brands, while the other sixty percent is sold to partner brands or as bulk rum. The percentage of bulk rum sales has dropped over the decades as DDL has focused on growing its premium rum sales.

Who are these partner brands? Some well-known names mentioned previously include Pusser’s, Lemon Hart, Wood’s Lamb’s, and Old Sam. These days, if a rum bottle says Demerara on the label, you can reasonably assume it was distilled (and possibly aged) at the Diamond distillery.

But wait, there’s more to DDL’s rum business! The company also has a one-third ownership in National Rums of Jamaica, or NRJ. The other partners in NRJ are the Jamaican government and France’s Plantation Rum, each owning a third. NRJ’s distilleries are Clarendon and Long Pond, and their house brand is Monymusk.

Monymusk (NRJ) rums

Part One Wrap-Up

By now we’ve covered a lot of material about Guyana’s Rum History and DDL’s backstory. The stage is properly set for an in-depth look at Diamond Distillery, the last operating rum distillery in Guyana and a major player in today’s rum world.  Within Diamond Distillery’s confines is a veritable living museum of rum history, situated side by side with the most modern rum making practices. Part Two will take you inside in extreme detail. Stay tuned!


[i][i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Guyanese

[ii][ii] Great Britain. Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits., James, H. James. (190809)

[iii] Wray, Leonard “The Practical Sugar Planter”, 1848

[iv] https://finance.gov.gy/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/privastisation-policy-framework-paper_2.pdf

[v] http://countrystudies.us/guyana/71.htm

13 thoughts on “Demerara Distillers Ltd – Part One

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  1. Very interesting, thanks! Looking forward to part two.
    A note on the historiography: the geographical term Guyanas or the Guiana Shield is much larger than you described and spans over areas in Venezuela, French Guyana and Brazil. French informal presence in the large swathes of the region since 1503 explains the many French names of people and places also in the Dutch and British territories.

    A second note to tease your interest in rum: French Guyana (a French region that has the EU’s largest national park!) still has one distillery, called Rhum Saint-Maurice. Operation is located at St-Laurent-du-Maroni, but it owns sugar fields towards the border with Suriname too. It is a very interesting subset of the rhum agricole, and certainly worthy of attention as several of their products have won medals in the French Concours agricoles the last two decades.

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