This is part two of a series about Demerara Distillers Ltd. In Part One I covered the history of Guyana’s rum industry, how Demerara Distillers came to be, and their operations today. Much of it is necessary background for what follows. There’s lots to cover here, so I won’t be reviewing material given in Part One. I highly suggest you read that first.
It’s a beautifully sunny but humid morning as I wait outside Georgetown’s Pegasus hotel to meet my driver from Demerara Distillers Ltd, henceforth referred to as DDL. As our car skirts along the banks of the Demerara river I soak up the air-conditioning, knowing that after arriving at the Diamond distillery on the city’s outskirts, the hot Guyana air will be further supercharged by the steam flowing through the distillery’s historic stills.
DDL’s complex at Diamond, which includes the distillery, aging warehouses, bottling plant, administrative offices and more, is massive. Back in the 1700s, it was one of many sugar estates established along the banks of the Demerara river. Today, there’s not a sugar cane plant to be found anywhere on the grounds.
After passing through the guard gate and pulling up the distillery complex, I’m greeted by the distillery production manager, Darryl Manichand. Looking to be in his early 30s at most, he’s not the grizzled veteran you’d expect. However, his appearance belies a very extensive knowledge of distillery operations. He was recruited by DDL at a relatively young age and extensively trained on any number of different rum production roles. It’s a pattern I noticed at DDL. Nearly everybody I met was quite knowledgeable across many disciplines, not just their current role.
Into the Diamond
While cars speed by on the freeway running past the distillery, Darryl and I first establish what I hope to see. In brief: EVERYTHING!
For a distillery so strongly associated with centuries of rum production and its historic stills, the distillery complex is surprisingly modern looking. If it weren’t for two enormous column stills towering nearby, you might not guess rum is made here.
Preliminaries dealt with, Darryl hands me a hard hat and off we go!
Water and Energy
Without large amounts of water and energy, a distillery can’t make rum. They’re the essential circulatory systems of any distillery, enabling it to turn agricultural material such as molasses, grapes, or grains into delicious distilled spirits.
Being close to the Demerara river, Diamond has plenty of groundwater below, extracted via three wells drilled 500 feet down. Constant testing ensures the distillery doesn’t over extract the water table and the quality of raw water confirms to World Health Organization standards before further purification process and use.
As for energy, the distillery once powered its boilers entirely with heavy fuel oil. In the past decade DDL started harvesting biogas produced across the highway by mixing the distillery’s effluent with cow manure. This was funded in part by a European Union grant and facilitated by WIRSPA. Approximately 35 to 55 percent of the distillery’s energy needs for the boilers are now met via biogas, with the remaining supplied by heavy fuel oil.
Diamond is capable of making 20 million liters of pure alcohol (LPA) per year, making it among the largest Caribbean distilleries today. Naturally, it goes through an extraordinary amount of molasses – between 200 and 220 tons every day. Three enormous molasses storage tanks hold 1000 metric tons at the ready.
In prior years, Guyana’s GuySuCo made enough molasses to fully supply Diamond as well as export to other rum-making countries. More recently, local molasses has only fulfilled about eighty percent of DDL’s needs, so the remainder is imported from elsewhere.
However, efforts are underway to work with local sugar growers to get DDL’s percentage of local molasses back up to where it was previously. To achieve this, the sugar industry will need to focus on higher grade molasses, with a corresponding reduction in sugar extracted for sale. Put another way, the sugar content in molasses is more valuable for making rum than as table sugar.
Fermentation starts by propagating an active, dry yeast for around 18 hours in a set of propagation tanks. The contents of two such tanks, representing about 10 percent by volume, goes into one fermenting tank, along with molasses and water, of course.
Diamond has thirteen fermenters – eight closed and five open tanks which are situated close to the stillhouse. The open fermenters are so large that they’re surrounded by an elevated walkway made of open metal grating to gain access from above — try not to look down! From the walkway I crane my neck over the edge of a stainless-steel tank to see a firehouse of molasses slowly filling it. Looking around, I also catch a fleeting glimpse into the adjoining stillhouse, but that will have to wait.
The distillation term “dead wash” refers to the end result of fermentation. I was quite surprised to learn that nearly all of Diamond’s stills use the same wash profile. That is to say, the wash used for the Port Mourant still is the same used for the Enmore, Versailles, and Diamond Coffey stills. No special ingredients, extra-long ferments, or anything like that. (We’ll geek out on the stills later.)
Diamond’s typical fermentation cycle lasts for 24 to 30 hours. The five open-air fermenting tanks are exposed to additional airborne yeasts historically found near sugar cane fields, so have a higher final congener count at the end of fermentation. As for the eight closed fermenters, special equipment collects the carbon dioxide fermentation byproduct for other uses like beverage carbonation. DDL is the Pepsi franchisee in Guyana since 1993, so they can use the carbon dioxide themselves.
The final wash for distillation is prepared by combining both open and closed fermentations. In total, Diamond’s fermentation equipment supports creating up to 55,000 liters of pure alcohol (LPA) per day. It’s no coincidence that the fermentation capacity is matched to DDL’s biggest still.
The daily total capacity of all Diamond’s stills far exceeds the amount of wash that can be made in a day, so only a subset of the stills run at any time. Careful scheduling of what stills will be operated on a given day is calculated based on current demands and future estimates of what types of rum will be needed to blend specific products like El Dorado 15 year. These estimates may extend fifteen years or more into the future!
Earlier, I mentioned that with just two exceptions, all stills use the same wash profile, i.e. a 24-30 hour fermentation in open and closed fermenters. One of the exceptions regards the Savalle still. Distillation with the Savalle starts with the same wash profile. However, during distillation low wines coming from the still are blended into the still’s incoming wash. The net effect is that the low wines are continuously redistilled. We’ll touch on the second exception a bit later.
After much anticipation on my part, Darryl and I enter the stillhouse via the same elevated walkway surrounding the fermenters. It appears that the original stillhouse was significantly expanded to accommodate all the stills brought from Uitvlugt circa 2000. All of Diamond’s stills, save the two largest, are found within the crowded, noisy confines of the stillhouse. It’s cozy enough that from a particular vantage point you can likely see every still within – or at least part of each.
The figure above provides a general idea of where each of the Diamond distillery’s still are in relationship to each other. Be warned: It’s highly simplified and not to scale.
Diamond Coffey Stills
Our first stop is the two Diamond Coffey stills, helpfully labeled #1 and #2 on attached signs. Each has two columns, i.e., the traditional Coffey analyzer and rectifier setup. The wash first enters the top of the analyzer, where the alcohol is “stripped” from the water. The enriched alcohol them fed into the base of the rectifier where it rises through a series of plates, with the final output collected near the top.
These Coffey stills have been at Diamond since the 1950’s. To my knowledge they weren’t installed somewhere else first. They both make the same marque: SVW, which a medium bodied spirit, one of the 24 or so marques that Sharon Sue-Hang, DDL’s Master Blender, blends to make different expressions.
In front of Coffey #1 and #2 are their respective spirit “test cases”. Resembling something mildly steampunk, several large, capped glass cylinders sit atop black metal cabinets. Warm distillate, fresh from the still, flows through the cylinders, allowing its strength to be assessed by what resembles a large glass thermometer to the untrained eye, but is actually a hydrometer bulb.
Darryl reaches down and plucks something from the metal grating. In my hand it resembles a small piece of rock, roughly the size of two stacked nickels. Rather than concrete however, it’s scale that has formed on the plates within the nearby still. Darryl explains that there’s so much ash, limestone, and minerals within the local molasses that even after initial processing to remove them, the remaining solids still form a rock-hard cake on the still plates. This reduces still efficiency and reduces copper contact. Thus, the operators shut down the still for cleaning every few weeks. A crew removes each plate, chisels out all the hard cake, then puts the plate back. It’s a slow, laborious process. The newer column stills (MPRS and Coffey #3) operates under vacuum conditions at a lower temperature, so less of this cake forms. Cleaning is easier and doesn’t need to occur so often.
Behind the Diamond Coffey stills is less well-known still known as the Tri-Canada. It’s much more modern column still, installed around 1980 using parts from John Dore and Tri-Canada Industries. These days it’s primarily used to make neutral alcohol for spirit drinks, although newer stills have essentially taken over the Tri-Canada’s role.
French Savalle Stills
To the left of the twin Coffey stills are a pair of Savalle stills. These are somewhat similar to a Coffey still, but with twice as many columns, i.e., four columns. The French Savalle Stills were originally installed at the Uitvlugt Distillery circa 1921, but have been settled at Diamond Distillery since 2000.
The configuration of this four-column setup is highly flexible, allowing the creation of different styles of distillates ranging from light to medium spirits. This still makes nine of Diamond’s 24 different marques. Like the Coffey stills, the Savalle stills also need to be regularly stopped for plate cleaning and other maintenance.
Port Mourant Still
Just past the Savalle still, a set of steps takes you down to a lower-level elevated walkway. Coming from the direction we did; I didn’t notice the Port Mourant still until I was practically standing over it. My jaw dropped when I saw it in the flesh, immediately recognizable from pictures but also different than I expected. It’s very large, L-shaped, and wedged between walkways and metal piping, making it impossible to capture a good image of it in its entirety. As such, watching the video above is highly suggested.
The Port Mourant is arguably the most famous rum still anywhere. Made mostly of greenheart wood, the rum it makes has a very heavy, oily, “green plant” note that’s immediately identifiable, even in a blend of rums. The unique Port Mourant flavor profile has become synonymous with British Navy rum and in brands like Pusser’s and Lambs Navy that emulate it.
The Port Mourant still is technically considered a vat still. It consists of two very large, squat covered wooden vats, one bigger than the other.
Both vats have an enormous black swan necks rising from the covered top. The larger vat’s neck plunges into the top of the second vat. The smaller vat’s swan neck ends in a cylindrical retort, which is essentially a crude still heated by the incoming hot vapor. Rising from the retort is a rectifier cannister – cool water runs through the rectifier to create reflux as the distillate vapor migrates to the final condenser coil where it turns back to liquid.
The Port Mourant estate, where the vats are claimed to have come from, was established in 1732. However, the still’s current configuration with the retort and rectifier was likely established significantly after 1732.
Luckily for me, the Port Mourant was running during my visit. It’s easy to tell because the tops of both vats are under several inches of steaming water. The water helps keep the wood on the top from drying out and warping. There’s also steam emerging from where parts of the swan necks join together. It’s undeniably very Old School.
While the Port Mourant still is called a “double wooden pot still”, it’s not technically a double retort pot still, like found in Jamaica, Barbados, or St. Lucia.
In a double retort still, prior to the distillation the first retort is charged with low wines and the second retort with high wines. The heated distillate moves from the pot into the first retort (low wines), on to the second retort (high wines), and finally to the condenser. All of the heat required for distillation is applied to the wash in the pot.
In contrast, the Port Mourant still is set up with wash in both vats. Steam coils inside the base of each vat heat the wash. The vapor from the first vat flows through the swan neck into the wash within the second vat. The vapor from the second vat then flows via its swan neck into the retort, up the rectifier, and so on.
If you’re hopelessly confused how this works (I was!), think of the smaller vat as the first retort in a double retort still, although it’s charged with wash rather than low wines. It’s a most unusual arrangement that I’ve yet to see anywhere else.
Rum comes off the still in the 84-87 percent range. Interestingly, for such a heavy rum, the ethyl acetate level of Port Mourant distillate is only in the 20-50 gr/hL AA level, which is significantly less than a “funky” Jamaican rum. Most of the Port Mourant flavors come from other congeners besides esters!
French Versailles Still
Next to the Port Mourant still, separated from it by the elevated walkway, is the Versailles still. It’s a classic Demerara vat still, and is also known as the single wooden pot still. Built in the 1890s, the Versailles still is very similar to the Port Mourant still, except there’s no second vat in the liquid/vapor pipeline.
The vapor from the Versailles pot flows into a retort and rectifier similar to the Port Mourant. In that regard, it’s a true single retort pot still. Rum comes off the Versailles still at around 84-86 percent ABV, about the same as the Port Mourant. In terms of the congener profile, it is roughly 60 percent to that of the double wooden (Port Mourant) pot still. If you desire a pot still rum with less “kick” in flavour, the Versailles is ideal.
Every so often, both the Port Mourant and Versailles undergo maintenance to replace a few wooden planks comprising the side of the vat. Replacing all the planks at once would change the still’s flavor profile too much. However, in 2006 the Versailles still was in such bad shape that the entire vat was rebuilt.
Diamond High Ester Still
Tucked between the Versailles and Savalle still is a very intriguing still, unknown even to most Demerara rum geeks. The DHE (“Diamond High Ester”) still is a relatively small John Dore double retort pot still, the only one of its kind at Diamond.
According to Darryl, it’s from the 1950s and makes rums at up to 70,000 ppm of ethyl acetate. That’s the same as 7,000 g/hL AA, which are the units used for Jamaican rum ester levels. The wash for this still is the second exception to the usual fermentation scheme at Diamond.
The DHE wash is made well away from the main fermentation area adjoining the still house. The DHE wash ferments for several months and includes local fruits, similar to fermentation for high ester Jamaican rum. The distillation process uses slow boiling and high reflux within the DHE still to retain and extract the high concentration of ethyl acetate formed during the “funky fermentation” process.
Tucked away at ground level, almost out of sight and near the DHE still, is a very large blue bulb with a tall metal neck. It’s a batch still, used to make the gin that DDL makes, branded as Lord’s Robert Gin.
At the far end of the still house looms the twin columns of the Enmore wooden Coffey still. Enmore is the estate/distillery where it originally resided, and EHP are the initials of Edward Henry Porter, the onetime owner of the Enmore estate. Thus, the still and associated marque is also known as “EHP”.
Both columns are made from the same greenheart wood used for the wooden vat stills. Dozens of large wooden rectangular planks are arranged to form a pair of square columns at least twenty feet high. Each plank is painted red, although much of the paint has fallen away. Metal rods with bolted ends stretch across and through the planks, hold the whole contraption together. Inside are the plates like you’d find in any other Coffey still, except that they’re square, not round. The analyzer column has wooden plates while the rectifier has copper plates.
The Enmore still was built around 1880 and is the last remaining wooden Coffey anywhere. As with the vat stills, planks in the Enmore occasionally need to be replaced. However, the original copper plumbing is still going strong!
MPRS and Coffey #3
Diamond’s newest stills are far too large to fit in the stillhouse. They loom over the distillery and are easy to spot from the nearby highway.
The MPRS (multi-pressure rectification still) and Coffey #3 stills are co-located in an open-air tower near the still house. Both were installed circa 2011. The MPRS has five columns – the first two operate at less than atmospheric pressure, making them what’s known as a “vacuum” still. Because the initial columns operate at a vacuum, temperatures inside the still are lower causes far less scale to form on the plates, compared to Coffey #1 and #2 stills. The remaining columns of the MPRS operate at atmospheric and high pressure.
The MPRS still can be used to make neutral spirit and a range of light rums and is so efficient that it can use all of the distillery’s daily fermentation capacity all by itself. This still can be configured to removing all congeners produced from the fermentation process, making a neutral spirit used in creating vodka. Some of the light rums it makes goes into the Diamond Reserve rums, but not the El Dorado line.
The adjoining Coffey #3 still has two columns and also operates in a vacuum. It’s used to make light and medium spirits and is capable of making 22,000 LPA (liters pure alcohol) per day.
If you’re wondering why I appear to have skipped over nearly all the history of the various stills, plus the various marques that they make, never fear! At the end of this story is a section devoted to all those wonky topics.
DDL maintains two aging facilities. The first is at the Diamond distillery complex, comprised of three extremely large warehouses, filled with casks stored upright on pallets. To a large extent, they’re very similar to many other aging warehouses I’ve visited around the Caribbean. But there was one surprise worth noting: While wandering up and down countless rows of casks, I noticed notes hanging from some casks, indicating the brand they’re destined for. I was sworn to secrecy not to divulge them, but it’s easy enough to guess some of them. Just think of brands selling Demerara rum; I mentioned a few in Part One, and DDL is the only company making Demerara rum, so do the math.
DDL’s other aging facility is at Uitvlugt (pronounced “eye flot”), on the other side of the Demerara river by way of a floating bridge. (See Google map above.) Shaun Caleb, DDL’s Chief Production Officer and Master Distiller accompanied me at Uitvlugt, along with the warehouse manager, Jason Bhojedat. The activity level at the Uitvlugt warehouse is substantially less than at Diamond’s warehouse, nearly devoid of people except for two workers. Uitvlugt is where DDL sends casks that won’t be needed for at least three to five years. In computer terms, you’d call it “remote storage”.
At Uitvlugt, some casks are in racks on their side, while others are upright on pallets. In 2004, DDL started using pallets for all new fill barrels. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of casks still in racks, i.e., pre-2004, suggest DDL is doing just fine for long aged stocks.
Peering out the large warehouse doors, I spied the ruins of the Uitvlugt distillery on the other side of a large, grass-covered courtyard. What was once an operating distillery twenty years ago is now just so many piles of rusting barrel hoops, tanks, and pipes, strewn about in a post-apocalyptic jumble. Luckily, the stills long ago moved to the Diamond distillery. In the distance behind the distillery remains, the Uitvlugt sugar factory hums along. But that’s a story for another time.
While Shaun and I wondered through the rows of casks, the two workers prepared a surprise: Several casks were lined up, awaiting our return. Chalk lettering on each indicated they held rum marques I’d only dreamed of tasting straight from the casks. A barrel thief and some tasting glasses appeared, and we were transported to Rum Valhalla.
At the time of my visit, DDL had about 90,000 casks laid down, with plans to add more warehouses to bring it up to 130,000. That would put DDL’s cask count at more than Destilería Serrallés, and three times what Foursquare and Mount Gay have on hand.
For the most part, DDL relies on ex-bourbon casks. They cask the rum around 70 percent ABV, a fair bit lower than what it comes off the still at. Per Shaun Caleb, casking at this lower ABV helps reduces their typical angel’s share (evaporation) from around 11 percent ABV down to 5-7 percent ABV. As many other distilleries do, DDL periodically condenses barrels of the same distillate into fewer barrels, thus keeping them nearly full and further reducing evaporation.
As with just about everything else at Diamond, DDL has made significant investments in the blending process, poising the company for yet more growth.
The relatively new blending hall is a quite an impressive feat of automation. Two rows of 50,000-liter stainless steel tanks hold the various liquids needed for the target blend. The blenders sit in an air-conditioned room with a computer that drives all the pumps and valves needed to filter, blend, and dilute a product to the ready-to-bottle state. A graphical display of all components and fluid flows makes it easier for the operator to stay abreast of things.
One further point in regard to blending: Per Shaun, all of DDL’s colored (aged) rums are chill filtered prior to bottling, thus reducing a hazy appearance in a customer’s bottle at lower temperatures. To chill filter, the liquid is reduced to -20c for 24 hours, then passed through filters at the rate of 300 liters per second.
Naturally, DDL does its own bottling, and there’s an extensive bottling line on site at the Diamond facility. However, it’s fairly typical for companies to request no photos in this area, so I can’t share anything other than to say it was quite impressive.
As a final note on my DDL experience, I came away very much believing the company is well positioned for further growth. The company has invested extensively in upgrading technology, equipment, and processes. More importantly, it’s investing in its people. Guyana has had a “brain drain” with smart people leaving the country for greater opportunities elsewhere. What I saw at DDL was the investment in people for the long haul, not just to fulfill a particular position. A common theme with the people I met is that they were hired out of college or shortly thereafter. They then rotated through various stations, e.g. process chemists, aging warehouse, distillery, blending, and so forth. Team members have a detailed understanding of what other teams do, creating a deep bench that DDL can rely on as they merge the past and future of rum making.
DDL Stills and Rum Marque Wonk Out
Fully understanding Diamond’s full complement of stills is quite a challenge. Harder still is keeping track of which estate some stills came from, and some moved several times! And it’s nearly impossible to remember all the various marques and their associated stills.
Using several sources, including Marco Freyr’s astoundingly detailed reference, I’ve made a Cheat Sheet of sorts to assemble all the key information in one place. If you’re not familiar with estate names like Diamond, Uitvlugt, Skeldon, Albion, etc., see Part One which covers the consolidation of Guyana’s rum estates down to just one: Diamond.
A few observations came to mind as I assembled the information below:
First, while the Diamond Distillery is portrayed as a living museum of still operational historic stills, it’s only been that way for two decades.
Prior to 2000, the now-shuttered Uitvlugt distillery held all the old stills that are at Diamond today, save Coffey #1 and #2. Uitvlugt was where the Port Mourant, Versailles, Savalle and Enmore stills came together first.
Second, the Savalle still is the most versatile in Diamond’s portfolio. While all the other stills make at most two marques, the Savalle still make a total of nine different marques. These marques include recreations of rums the long-resting distilleries: Skeldon, Albion, La Bonne Intention, and Blairmont. For this distillery’s marque list, I’ve put the originating distillery first, and the marque(s) within parenthesis, e.g. Blairmont(<B>)
- Name: Port Mourant
- Type: Batch – wooden vat (two vats, retort, rectifier)
- Installed: Some parts may originate from 1732, but the current configuration is assuredly newer.
- Estate lineage: Port Mourant -> Albion (~1955) -> Uitvlugt (1968) -> Diamond (1999, re-commissioned in 2000)
- Marques: PM,
- Name: Versailles
- Type: Batch – wooden vat (one vat, retort, rectifier)
- Installed: 1890
- Estate lineage: Lusignan (1890) -> Enmore(1978) -> Uitvlugt(1994) -> Diamond (1999, re-commissioned in 2000)
- Marques: <VSG>, KFM(Enmore)
- Name: Enmore / EHP (Edward Henry Porter)
- Type: Continuous – wooden Coffey (2 columns)
- Installed: 1880
- Estate lineage: Enmore(1880) -> Uitvlugt(1994) -> Diamond (1999, re-commissioned in 2000)
- Marques: EHP
- Name: Savalle #1, Savalle #2
- Type: Continuous – metal Savalle (4 columns)
- Installed: 1921 (Second still installed circa 1980).
- Estate lineage: Uitvlugt(1921) -> Diamond (1999, re-commissioned in 2000)
- Marques: ICBU and UMS (Uitvlugt), Skeldon(SWR, SM, CG), La Bonne Intention(LBI), Blairmont(<B>), AN(Albion)
- Note: ICBU or ICB/U stands for Ignatius Christian Bourda, an early estate owner of Uitvlugt. The U is for Uitvlugt, as you’d expect.
The GuySuCo website has the name as Ignatius Charles Bourda Uitvlugt.
- Name: Diamond #1, Diamond #2
- Type: Continuous – metal Coffey (2 columns)
- Installed: 1950
- Estate lineage: Diamond(1950)
- Marques: SVW
- Name: Diamond #3
- Type: Continuous – metal Coffey (2 columns)
- Installed: 2011
- Estate lineage: Diamond (2011)
- Marques: For use of special projects and some export blends
- Name: MPRS (Multi-pressure Rectification Still)
- Type: Continuous – metal multicolumn (5 columns)
- Installed: 2011
- Estate lineage: Diamond(2011)
- Marques: UN, LSR, GS20, DLR
- Name: Diamond High Ester
- Type: Batch – metal double retort
- Installed: 1950s
- Estate lineage: Diamond(1950s)
- Marques: DHE
My rather intensive effort to document Demerara Distillers Ltd. wouldn’t have been possible without the help of several people. I’d like to thank Sharda Veeren-Chand, Sharon Sue-Hang, Shaun Caleb, Darryl Manichand, Jason Bhojedat, and Komal Samaroo; for spending time with me in Guyana, as well as fact checking afterwards. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Lance Surujbally for his input and keen insights into Guyana.