You might think what follows is yet another story about Angostura Bitters. Sure, the iconic skinny bottle with the over-sized white label is as essential as shaker tins in cocktail bars around the globe. Hands stained red from the Trinidadian-made bitters are a sure sign of a professional bartender. And of course, there’s the story of the closely guarded recipes for Angostura bitters, known only to a tiny handful of people.
But Trinidad’s House of Angostura is much more than their famous bitters; they are also the country’s last remaining rum producer. In fact, Angostura’s rum distillery is one of the Caribbean’s largest.
I was recently fortunate to be Angostura’s invited guest to see their operations. As hoped for, I came away with tons of photos and the inside scoop on distillery operations and rums made there. Spending two full one-on-one days with John Georges, Angostura’s master distiller certainly helped!
Beyond touring Angostura’s distillery, we spent an entire day exploring the last remaining remnants of Trinidad’s sugar and rum industry, including the now legendary Caroni distillery and Brechin Castle.
In what follows, I’ll only briefly touch on Angostura’s bitters history; just enough to provide proper context for the rum side of Angostura’s house.
To really understand a distillery’s ethos, it helps to know its path to where it is today. Thus, we’ll start our deep dive with a quick overview of Trinidad, and its rum and sugar industry history. Since there’s much to wonk out over, I’ve split my reporting into two parts. This is Part 1, which covers the history of Angostura and related Trinidadian rum producers. In Part 2 you’ll get a very detailed and technical look at Angostura’s distillery.
Just off the coast of South America, the island of Trinidad lays only nine miles from Venezuela at their nearest points. Christopher Columbus was the first European explorer to come across the island; the date: July 31st, 1498 during his third voyage.[i]
In 1588 the Spanish took control of the island, pushing aside the native Caribs and colonized it in earnest. Seven years later in 1595, Walter Raleigh, the famed British poet, soldier, and explorer set out from England, looking for El Dorado, the mythical South American city of gold. Although he never found El Dorado, he stopped twice on Trinidad, commenting favorably on the tobacco and sugar cane cultivation there. Also, he temporarily captured the lightly guarded capital city, like one does.
Nonetheless, the Spanish remained in control of Trinidad for another two centuries, though the island’s population and agriculture declined substantially over that time. That state of affairs changed when Caribbean geopolitical changes caused the Spanish crown to renew its investment in the colony. The year 1787 saw the establishment of the first sugar cane plantation, and by 1795, 159 sugar cane plantations were scattered across Trinidad’s landscape.
Trinidad’s revitalization attracted the attention of the British who were then flexing their newfound regional muscles. In 1797, British admiral Henry Harvey and an associated army force took control of Trinidad with almost no opposition. Trinidad officially became a British colony when Spain ceded it as part of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens.
Trinidad’s geographic location made it well positioned in Caribbean trade routes. In time, the capital city of Port of Spain became a major Caribbean trading hub, a position it retains today.
1889 found the British crown merging Trinidad and the nearby island of Tobago into a single colony: Trinidad and Tobago. (Interesting historical note: In the early 1800s Tobago made substantially more rum than Trinidad, but today Tobago makes no rum.)
Alongside Jamaica, its sister British colony, Trinidad and Tobago gained independence in 1962.
Note: For reading clarity, in what follows I will use Trinidad as shorthand for the full country name.
Trinidad Rum History
As a British colony for over 160 years, Trinidad’s colonial-era rum history followed a similar arc as other colonies like Jamaica, British Guiana, Barbados, and St. Lucia.
In the early days of colonization, agriculturally suitable land was carved up into hundreds of sugar cane plantations. Each plantation had a small sugar factory, nearly always accompanied by a small rum distillery using the sugar factory’s byproducts.
With the onset of the industrial revolution, efficiencies in manufacturing and transportation drove the consolidation of many small plantations into fewer, larger plantations. In this era, raw sugar destined for England was the plantation’s raison d’être. Rum was a secondary product, sold for a small profit to offset plantation expenses, or given to slaves and indentured servants.
By the second half of the 1800s, competition from beet sugar as well as other regions caused Caribbean sugar prices to plummet, making many estates unprofitable. This led to the demise of numerous plantations and associated rum distilleries.
At the onset of the twentieth century, the number of rum distilleries in the colonies was an order of magnitude less than at the peak. The remaining distilleries were much larger and more centralized. Some distilleries became independent of a sugar estate, and simply purchased molasses from various estates.
Compared to the big rum-making colonies, Trinidad was a mid-tier player in rum production. Available production and export quantities from the 1800s suggest that Trinidad’s rum production varied wildly, from only a few thousand gallons per year, up to 908,000 in 1808. In contrast, Jamaica and British Guiana regularly produced around three million gallons or more per year, ten times more than Trinidad’s typical production.
The snippet below shows some of Trinidad’s rum and related producers in 1887. There’s dozen rum producers, and ten companies making bitters and shrubs. Several names in the list such as Siegert, Brechin Castle, Usine St. Madeline and Caroni are familiar names to Trinidad rum historians.
Moving into the 1900s, a common pattern in the British rum and sugar industry was the consolidation of sugar estates and distilleries under British corporate control. For instance, Booker Brothers, McConnell held huge stakes in British Guiana, as did Tate & Lyle in Jamaica and Trinidad. We’ll return to Tate & Lyle in a bit.
Over Trinidad’s 20th century colonial era, rum production vacillated wildly. Immediately before WW I, the island exported around 100,000 gallons of rum yearly. But in the midst of the war, exports jumped to 915,000 gallons, the vast majority going to the United Kingdom, presumably for the war effort. By the 1920, exports had dropped back to 55,000 gallons and remained at those level for many years afterwards.
World War II changed the rum picture dramatically, revectoring Trinidad’s sugar cane crop towards rum making again. The five remaining distilleries on Trinidad produced 1.3 million gallons in 1941.
Trinidad’s Big Three Rum Makers
In the twentieth century, Trinidad’s rum history boils down to three primary rum distillers:
They all intersected with each other at various points before consolidation and harsh economic realities left one remaining rum producer: Angostura.
Let’s take a look at each.
Caroni is far more than a rum brand or distillery. On Trinidad, Caroni also refers to Caroni County, the Caroni river, the Caroni Plain, and the Caroni swamp, among other things.
However, for rum geeks Caroni means one thing: Rum! Caroni-made rums have become a very hot ticket, with collectors and buyers scrambling to buy anything with a Caroni label.
The Caroni distillery we know of today is said to have been established in 1918. However, there are several prior references to rum distilling in Caroni, including the 1914 newspaper article shown below. Unfortunately, relatively little was reported in the press about the early days of the Caroni distillery.
In 1936, British sugar refiners Tate & Lyle purchased Caroni’s sugar and rum operations, subsequently using it as base for further expansions: Esperanza and Bronte estates in 1955, Woodford estate in 1961 and St. Madeline Estate in 1962. By then, Tate & Lyle was the dominant sugar operator on the island. The Caroni distillery was along the last three rum distilleries, along with Fernandes and Angostura.
Over its lifetime the Caroni distillery used an interesting variety of stills:
- A company advertisement states that a cast iron still was commissioned in 1918.
- In 1936 a wooden Coffey still was added.
- In 1957, a single-column still from the Esperanza Estate came to Caroni, where it made high-ester rum for flavoring.
- In 1980, a four-column still made by German company Gebr. Hermann came into use, making “very clean alcohol”.
- In 1984, the 1918 cast iron and 1936 wooden Coffey still were replaced by a Blair two-column still and a pot still.
While today’s enthusiasts associate Caroni with very heavy, oily, diesel-like rum, it’s clear from looking at the stills above that Caroni made a wide variety of rums, from very light to very heavy.
It’s well-established that the British Royal Navy purchased Caroni rum for use in their rum blend in the mid-1900s. Presumably this was a heavier style of rum.
In contrast, Caroni advertisements from the 1950s say “For very few people recognize Caroni as a rum. It’s more like whisky, with a dry, light and delicate flavour all its own. Caroni is the perfect man’s drink, straight and without trimmings.”
Another advertisement from 1964 further adds “And remember, Caroni does not linger on the breath.”
Caroni-made products around the time it ceased operating included:
- Superb White Magic
- Special Old Cask
- Felicite Gold
- Stallion Puncheon
- Caroni Puncheon Rum
- Authentic Gold and Authentic White
In 1970, amidst a hemorrhaging sugar industry and Caribbean-wide nationalization of industries, Trinidad’s government acquired a 51 percent stake in Caroni. Tate & Lyle continued to manage operations while holding the remaining 49 percent. Unfortunately, the sugar industry continued to bleed money, and in 1975 the government took full ownership of Caroni.
Under state control, the government redubbed the enterprise “Caroni (1975) Ltd.” There are still Caroni (1975) signs all over the Caroni region today.
In 1976, management of the Forres Park sugar factory (described in the next section) was taken over by Caroni (1975). The parliamentary record regarding the decision reads:[ii]
In respect to the issue that has arisen relating to Forres Park, the Cabinet has decided as follows:
(a) The Forres Park factory is to be operative in the crop season 1976.
(b) Factory workers at Forres Park will get the same rate of wages as factory workers at Caroni
(c) The Forres Park Sugar Factory will be leased for one year and operated by Caroni on behalf of the Government whilst the longer term issues are decided.
Caroni (1975)’s losses continued over the next quarter-century. In the year 2000, the government tried to scale back its ownership of Caroni by selling off 49 percent, just enough to retain government control. Angostura bid for that 49 percent and was declared the preferred bidder by the government. However…
The purchase agreement was eventually scuttled. Angostura never took control of any portion of the Caroni distillery. I emphasize this because multiple sources erroneously report that Angostura purchased Caroni. Simply put, nobody purchased a stake in Caroni, and its operations shut down in 2003.
There’s more to the story, however.
Caroni’s Run Stock
What wrecked any sale and eventually led to Caroni’s closure was a dispute over the value of Caroni’s rum stock, i.e. its previously distilled rum, then residing in a bonded warehouse.
Prior to the attempted sale, the government selected Liverpool’s The Main Rum Company to evaluate Caroni’s rum stock and determine its worth. Main Rum’s valuation put a value of approximately US $3.3 million on Caroni’s 18,000-plus casks. However, around the same time, another source reported that Caroni’s rum stock was worth far more – between US $150 million and US $1 billion.
The resulting kerfuffle over the rum’s value included charges of cronyism and back room deals. Some alleged the government wanted to hand over Caroni to Angostura for far less than its true value.
In the end, Caroni’s rum stock was sold off piecemeal, with Angostura acquiring the majority of it. Other purchasers included Italy’s Velier (circa 2005), The Main Rum Company, and presumably others.
In 2008, Trinidad’s government held an auction for the remaining stock. However, the reserve price was too high and no bids were filed.
Fernandes Distillers Ltd
Joseph Bento (“Jo”) Fernandes started in the rum business in the 1920s, purchasing rum in bulk from local distilleries for aging, blending and bottling.
He got a big break in 1932 when a fire destroyed the government’s bonded rum warehouse. Some rum survived, which Fernandes purchased it at a fire sale price. (Sorry, the joke had to be made.)
This rum became the basis of Fernandes’ “1919” product, named for its 1919 distillation date. It was Trinidad’s first vintage dated rum and became quite popular. When the stock of 1919-distilled rum ran out, Fernandes renamed the product “Vat 19”.[iii]
In 1933, Fernandes purchased the shuttered Forres Park sugar estate and set about rehabilitating it. The sugar estate’s defunct rum distillery had a wooden still and Fernandes began using it to learn the distiller’s art.
Jo Fernandes was for more than a rum maker; he had holdings in many enterprises. A 1955 newspaper article[iv] labeled him the richest man in Trinidad, and reported that he would soon purchase the legendary Queen’s Park Hotel. The now iconic Queen’s Park Swizzle cocktail is named for the hotel.
Sometime before 1961 (the exact date is uncertain), Fernandes built a new rum distillery in Laventille, a community on the outskirts of Port of Spain. By the early 1970s, Fernandes rums were 85 percent of Trinidad’s rum market.
Fun fact. Angostura’s distillery is across the street from where the Fernandes distillery once was.
Perhaps sensing headwinds in the industry, Jo Fernandes sold his distilling operations to Angostura and Bacardi in 1973. We’ll return to this shortly.
As of 2020, Jo’s grandson, Joseph, still lives in Port of Spain and owns Cazabon Wine & Cocktail Bar. I was fortunate to meet him during my visit, and found him quite engaging and full of stories about his family’s history.
Key Fernandes expressions over the years include:
- Black Label / Red Label
- Forres Park Puncheon
- Crystal White
- Vat 19
- White Star
The Black Label and Forres Park Puncheon rums, originally made by Fernandes, are still made today at the Angostura distillery.
Angostura (Trinidad Distillers)
Trinidad’s most famous export, Angostura Bitters, came to the island in 1875. Originally concocted in 1824 in the Venezuelan town of Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar), Dr. Johann Siegert’s medicinal tincture quickly found commercial success. Following his 1870 death, Johann’s sons moved production to Trinidad in 1875, where it has remained ever since. Angostura Bitters are considered a Trinidadian national treasure.
In those first few decades on Trinidad, Angostura purchased rum from local distilleries to make bitters. This testimony below from the 1897 Report of the West India Royal Commission highlights this:
Since Angostura already purchased a substantial amount of rum, it made sense to buy even more to get a better price, then age/blend/bottle it under the Angostura name. That is, in the early days, Angostura branded rum wasn’t distilled by Angostura.
Sensing a growing rum market, Angostura went all-in to the rum business in in 1949 by building their own distillery. This new enterprise was incorporated as a subsidiary of Angostura called Trinidad Distillers Ltd., aka TDL. The TDL name is still in use today.
With its shiny new distillery, Angostura could make far more than it needed for its bitters, or could sell under its own brand. The excess rum was sold as bulk rum. Angostura has sold bulk rum nearly every year since then.
At this juncture in the story, we need to look into Angostura’s ownership, which became incredibly starting in the 1970s. I shall tease things apart at a high level, but make no claims that what follows is legally precise.
Between 1875 and 1973, Angostura went through a number of ownership changes. Much of the time it owned at least partially by the Siegert family. However, for a brief spell in 1958 the Trinidad government owned Angostura. [v] This was to prevent its takeover by a Canadian businessman intending to move the company to tax-free Bermuda. Angostura was shortly thereafter sold back to the Siegert family.
Big changes came in 1973 when Bacardi came knocking to expand their export markets and gain additional distilling capacity.[vi] Angostura was in a position to help out, and improve its own prospects at the same time. A deal was put together, comprised of two main elements:
- Angostura (i.e. TDL) purchased Fernandes Distillers, gaining immediate capacity.
- Bacardi took a forty percent stake in Trinidad Distillers, i.e. the Angostura and Fernandes distilleries. This stake was in the form of a holding company called Rumpro Company Ltd.
Drilling into this deal a bit more, Bacardi’s motivation for partnering with Angostura concerned international trading arrangements at the time. Newly minted Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad had banded together as part of a trading bloc known as the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP).
To aid in the ACP states’ economic development, the European Union (EU) gave preferential tax treatment and access to the EU market for certain goods, including ACP rum, under the 1975 Lomé Convention. By partnering with an ACP country, i.e. Trinidad, Bacardi gained access to these financial benefits.
Soon after Bacardi’s investment, Angostura acquired a new multi-column still in 1975, substantially further adding to their capacity. Bacardi purchased much of the resulting rum, thus making Bacardi both a customer and minority owner of TDL.
Bacardi’s partial ownership of TDL continued until the late 1990s.
1997 brought substantial changes to Angostura that still echo to this day. CL Financial, a privately held Trinidad-based conglomerate, purchased Rumpro (representing partial ownership of TDL) from Bacardi.
The CL Financial story is extremely confusing, but in brief, CL Financial was the parent holding company for a number of companies including Colonial Life Insurance (CLICO), CL World Brands, Angostura Holdings, and many more. CL Financial also had stakes in media, agriculture, and banking, among other things.
Staring in the mid-1990s, the company voraciously acquired other brands and companies, including Angostura. With Angostura under its belt, CL Financial used it as a base to acquire numerous other distilled spirit companies over the next decade, including:
- Appleton Estate
- St. Lucia Distillers
- Cruzan Rum
- Suriname Alcoholic Beverages
- E&A Scheer
- Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI, but known today as Midwest Grain Products, or MGP)
- Hine Cognac
- Belvedere Vodka
CL Financial funded its aggressive acquisitions by issuing risky insurance annuities that weren’t subject to strict banking regulations. For those of a certain age, this tale should sound familiar.
Starting in 2007, the global financial crisis hit the world’s economies like a hurricane. Countless high-flying financial firms got hammered as the market and government regulators found company’s balance sheets untenable due to risky loans or other financial shenanigans. Countless companies went under as the financial crisis played out across the world. A “liquidity crisis” was the term used to describe CL Financial’s situation.
CL Financial survived the crisis by the skin of its teeth, only because the Trinidad and Tobago government loaned the company billions of dollars to prevent a wider economic collapse. As part of the agreement, CL Financial had to divest certain assets and give government the majority of seats on the company’s board. This put Trinidad’s government in the unusual situation of having substantial say over how CL Financial was run, but without actual ownership.
In the decade since the CL Financial bailout, the company has divested all of its distilled spirit holdings with the exception of Angostura itself. I’m told that the government considers Angostura a national treasure, so has not seriously considered allowing it to be sold to a foreign owner like Appleton or St. Lucia Distillers were.
At present, between its Rumpro stake and additional holdings by its CLICO subsidiary, CL Financial owns approximately 77 percent of Angostura’s shares. If you’re interested in where the other divested spirits companies ended up, see How the Financial Crisis of 2007 Reshaped the Rum World.
10 Cane Collaboration
As a minor historical aside on Angostura and Trinidad rum, in the early 2000s, French conglomerate LVHM distilled its 10 Cane rum on Trinidad using locally-grown sugar cane juice. Distillation was at Usine St. Madeleine, in conjunction with Angostura who provided logistical support and facilities.
10 Cane production was subsequently moved to Foursquare Rum Distillery on Barbados. My forthcoming interview with Angostura Master Distiller John Georges has more details of the 10 Cane project on Trinidad.
Angostura’s Recent Challenges
In 2016, a Trinidad newspaper article reported:[vii]
The local rum company has been buying bulk rum from Cuba and South America and simply repackaging it, without substantial changes, and selling it to export markets.
Angostura denied the reporting, stating:
1. The integrity of The House of Angostura’s rums is not under audit.
2. All of our international branded rum products are aged and meet international standards.
3. The House of Angostura is ISO certified which allows its products to enter export markets.
4. The House of Angostura uses the official standard for Caribbean rums (WIRSPA) Authentic Caribbean Rum Marquee for all its branded aged rums, guaranteeing age claims made.
Shortly thereafter, Angostura’s CEO, Robert Wong, and COO, Romesh Singh, both resigned. Wong, the CEO, was permanently replaced in 2017 by Genevieve Jodhan, another Angostura executive.[viii]
Angostura later clarified its position, stating that the alcohol it imported was for spirit drinks and non-export rums, something which the government had given it a license to do.
In 2018, news reports surfaced of additional internal audits unrelated to alcohol importation. In 2020, Peter Sandström, previously an executive at Diageo and Edrington-Beam Suntory, took over the CEO reins.[ix]
We’ve covered an extensive amount of Trinidad rum history here, so a brief recap of what we’ve learned is in order:
- Late 1800s: Angostura begins buying, blending, and selling rum under the Angostura name.
- Early 1900s: The Caroni rum distillery is built.
- 1920s: Joseph “Jo” Fernandes enters the rum business, buying, blending and selling rum.
- 1936: Tate and Lyle acquires Caroni. Over the next three decades, Tate and Lyle folds additional sugar estates and distilleries into Caroni’s operations.
- 1940s: Jo Fernandes builds a rum distillery. Fernandes subsequently becomes the biggest rum brand on Trinidad.
- 1947: Angostura builds its distillery, using the rum for its bitters, rums, and bulk rum exports.
- 1973: Fernandes sells Fernandes Distillers to Bacardi and Angostura. Bacardi takes a 40 percent ownership in the two distilleries (Rumpro).
- 1970s: In the face of large financial losses, the Trinidad government takes over Caroni from Tate & Lyle.
- 1997: Angostura is purchased by CL Financial, jump-starting a series of distilled spirit company acquisitions.
- Early 2000s: The Trinidad government shuts down Caroni’s rum operations and sells off its rum stocks to various purchasers, including Angostura.
- 2007: The global financial crisis causes CL Financial to divest most of its spirits portfolio except for Angostura.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll take an intensive look at Angostura’s distillery, its bitter making, and their current rum lineup.
[i] History of the British colonies – volume 2, 1834, Montgomery Martin
[ii] Republic of Trinidad & Tobago Budget Speeches 1957-1981, page 696
[iii] “2007: JOSEPH BENTO “J.B.” FERNANDES (1903-1992)”; https://chamber.org.tt/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/2007-fernandes.pdf
[iv] “Rum magnate in hotel deal”; Kingston Gleaner, Sept. 7, 1955, page 7
[v] “Trinidad to Acquire Angostura Bitters”; New York Times, Aug. 21st, 1958
[vi] An Ancient Potion’s Modern Secret”; Miami Herald, Dec. 20th, 1982
[vii] “Audit into Angostura rum”. Sunday Express. Sunday Express, Dec. 3rd, 2016
[viii] “Angostura appoints Jodhan as permanent CEO”; https://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2017/02/jodhan-confirmed-as-angostura-ceo/
[ix] “Angostura gets new CEO”; https://trinidadexpress.com/business/local/angostura-gets-new-ceo/article_f224280c-38b8-11ea-8c1a-c352c130108a.html