In early 2020 I visited the island of Grenada as a guest of Renegade Rum. While there, I visited all four current and future rum producers on the island in my role as WIRSPA’s Community Envoy. In advance of my upcoming coverage of Grenada’s rum makers, I’ve assembled a dossier about Grenadian rum to set the stage for future in-depth looks at the island’s producers.
Grenada is an enticing Caribbean locale; lush, with foliage and panoramic vistas in every direction; the archetype of what you likely imagine a Caribbean island to be. While Grenada isn’t known for its rum the way Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique and Cuba are, Grenada has something incredibly special for the intrepid rum tourist, if they know where to look.
Nowhere else in the Caribbean have I seen so many rum distilleries – some operating, some in ruins –harkening back to the way rum was made since the mid-1600s. Long before centralized distilleries, column stills and molasses delivered by tanker trucks, Caribbean rum was intimately tied to small plantations and simple technology: Waterwheel driven cane crushing, boiling houses where steaming cane juice is ladled between copper pans, and pot stills fired directly by locally scavenged wood.
More than any other Caribbean island, Grenada took me back to rum’s roots. For someone who studies rum’s long history, seeing these small, simple sugar and rum-making estates is an experience that no book, no matter how detailed, can compete with.
Grenada is much more than a museum of rum’s past, however. Recently it became ground zero for an exciting project seemingly destined to be seminal part of rum’s vibrant future. You’d be hard-pressed to find another island that more vividly highlights rum’s past and future, and in such close proximity.
Located in the south Caribbean Sea only 90 miles north of Venezuela and Trinidad, Grenada is a relatively small island; at only 134 square miles, it’s 20 percent smaller than Barbados, its neighbor to the northeast. Despite its tiny size, the island has both rainforest and prime agricultural land, well-suited for growing sugar cane. In fact, Grenada become known as the spice island for its significant production of nutmeg, cocoa, cloves and mace.
Pre-British Colonial History
Grenada first became known to the Europeans during Columbus’ third voyage in 1498, where he sighted the island but did not go ashore. As you might expect, Grenada was inhabited then by native Caribs (Kalinago), who remained blissfully unaware of the coming European colonization for another century.
In 1649, a French expedition from Martinique landed on Grenada and began a long offensive against the natives, completely killing them off by 1654. As a French settlement, the island was lightly utilized for first few decades. In 1700, there were “…no more than 251 whites, and 525 blacks, employed in cultivating three sugar and fifty-two indigo estates.” [i]
Agriculture seems to have increased in the following half-century. Two decades after French rule ended in 1762, the British estimated the island’s output under the French Tricolore was “…6,000 small hogsheads of sugar, 12,000 puncheons of rum, 2,500,000 pounds of coffee, 200,000 pounds of cocoa…” [ii]
A puncheon is around 108 imperial gallons, so 12,000 puncheons are approximately 1.3 million imperial gallons, or 5.8 million liters. To put that figure in perspective, the top two British colonial rum producers, Jamaica and British Guiana, each typically made around three to four million gallons annually.
Early British Colonial Era – Boom Time
Grenada was captured by the British in 1762 during the Seven Years war and was formally ceded by France in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, alongside the neighboring islands of Saint Vincent, Dominica, and Tobago.
With the proven commercial success of the sugar estate model on Barbados and Jamaica, the British rapidly moved to adopt Grenada to that model. By 1776, just thirteen years after British control, Grenada had 106 sugar estates and exported 819,000 imperial gallons of rum.
Available data suggests Grenada’s high-water mark for rum production was 1.2 million gallons in 1823. [iii] That same year, Jamaica exported 3.9 million gallons[iv], and Demerara around 1.8 million gallons.
Looking at each British colony’s peak rum output over its time under British rule, Grenada was a mid-tier producer early on, then dwindled after 1840 or so.
The Decline of Sugar & Rum
The 1834 abolition of slavery in the British colonies had a devastating impact on the profitability of sugar cane estates. Without inexpensive labor, and with downward pressure on sugar prices from beet sugar and competition elsewhere, many Caribbean sugar estates consolidated or closed.
Barbados Governor William Reid wrote in 1848 that without government assistance or price protection, sugar cane cultivation might disappear from nearly all Britain’s colonies, and highlighted Grenada in particular:
By 1877, Grenada made 90,000 gallons of rum and only 47,000 the following year, or just 4% of the island’s peak production a half-century prior.[v]
An 1889 book journaled the dire situation of the island’s sugar and associated rum industry:[vi]
Grenada.—There are very few estates under cultivation with sugar, and the produce is chiefly consumed locally. The great difficulty with which planters here have to contend is the paucity of labour and the badness of the roads.
Some colonies had success in repurposing their agricultural land for other purposes, Grenada among them. By the late 1800s, much of the island’s agriculture had shifted to nutmeg, cocoa and assorted fruits.
Sugar cane agriculture diminished to just that needed for local consumption. Them immensely important 1897 Report of the West India Royal Commission highlights this: [vii]
Grenada’s sugar and rum production remained quite small as 20th century dawned. Between 1913 and 1920, twelve licensed distilleries made around 60,000 gallons of rum annually, none of it exported:
Furthermore, a 1923 report by Grenada’s agricultural department suggests the rum being made was not of particularly high quality:
By the 1940s, the island was down to nine distilleries making around 30,000 gallons per year. Miraculously, two of those distilleries are still in operation today: River Antoine and Grenada Distillers Ltd.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a wave of independence sweep through Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, and many others transitioned to full nationhood. Grenada’s moment came in 1974.
The wave of Caribbean independence was followed shortly by a rise in socialism and/or Marxism, looking to the Cuba’s 1959 Revolution for inspiration.
Just five years after Grenadian nationhood, the Marxist People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) was proclaimed on 13 March 1979. The Grenada Sugar Factory (and associated rum distillery) eventually come under government control. However competing distilleries Westerhall and Dunfermline did not.
Grenada’s Marxist era ended abruptly in 1983 when the U.S. and a coalition of Caribbean nations invaded the island and reestablished a constitutional government. However, it has been said that agricultural practice and know-how further deteriorated while under the PRG government.
Ivan the Terrible
Two decades later in 2004, Hurricane Ivan dealt a devastating blow to the island, destroying ninety percent of the island’s houses. It also substantially damaged the island’s agriculture. Prior to Ivan, Grenada produced around 30% of the world’s supply of nutmeg. Damage to the cane fields brought sugar cane milling to a standstill, except for the small amount used by River Antoine to make rum.
Grenada Distillers Ltd. (previously Grenada Sugar Factory) had no choice but to begin importing molasses to continue production, while the Dunfermline factory closed altogether as the result of Ivan. The following year, Hurricane Emily further knocked Grenada back on its heels.
In 2016, a new enterprise began taking shape on Grenada, managed and financed by the same team behind revitalizing Scotland’s Bruichladdich and Waterford Distillery in Ireland.
The short-term goal: Restoring and replanting many of Grenada’s cane fields that had laid dormant and become overgrown over forty years. The Grand Vision: A large scale, state of the art, ecologically friendly distillery utilizing entirely island grown cane juice. No molasses, no cane syrup, just cane juice.
The audacious Renegade Rum project is a from the ground up, greenfield effort. Cane fields had to be leased and cleared, roads installed, and cane planted years before an entirely new rum distillery is ready to start turning it into rum. As of April 2020, Renegade’s distillery is doing final checks on its distilling equipment prior to bringing in the first batches of cane for processing. I’ll cover Renegade Rum and its Cane Co. subsidiary extensively in a future story.
Grenada’s Rum Industry Today
There are four existing rum makers (two distilling) on Grenada, with Renegade on the imminent horizon. I’ll quickly review them here, saving a more detailed description and photos for subsequent stories.
Establish in 1785, River Antoine is a step back in time, to the earliest days of rum making. A waterwheel powered by a nearby river drives a cane mill that crushes cane from local fields. A lengthy, open air cane juice fermentation creates a highly flavorful wash similar to that found at Jamaica’s high ester rum makers like Long Pond and Hampden Estate.
Two direct fired double retort pot stills emit rum at around 75 percent ABV or higher. The estate does not age any of its rum, and it is rarely exported, as available quantities are limited. Nonetheless, it can be a challenge to find the high ester, pungent Rivers rum on the island, as visiting rum enthusiasts snap up many bottles to take home.
Grenada Distillers Ltd.
Established in 1937, Grenada Distillers Ltd. (GDL) is the island’s current largest distillery. operating a small John Dore-made twin column still. The distillery is housed within the same building as non-operational Grenada Sugar Factory. If you ask nicely, the staff might just fire up the steam boilers that drive the cane milling equipment, which still works to a degree.
GDL’s house brand is Clarke’s Court, which was established around 1960, and first exported in 2000. The distillery has an onsite aging warehouse, and GDL makes several unaged and aged expressions. The current top of the Clarke’s Court lineup is #37, aged for twelve years. Clarke’s Court Pure White (unaged) and Old Grog (aged) rums are more mainstream examples of what you’ll find in Grenada stores.
Believe to have started distilling in the mid-1800s, the small estate distillery focused on bulk exports originally. In 1973 it created its first branded rum, Rum Sipper Strong Rum for local consumption. The distillery’s first started exporting rum in 1989 as Westerhall Plantation Rum.
In 1996, Westerhall stopped distilling, and started purchasing rum that it blends and sells as various brands, including Jack Iron, White Jack, and Plantation. Westerhall’s initial rum purchases were from Trinidad, but more recently they’ve started purchasing rum from two Barbadian rum distilleries. Westerhall White Jack (unaged) and Jack Iron (aged) rums are mainstream expression, while their Vintage expressions (10XO) is their high end-expression, aged for a minimum of ten years.
Despite the fact that there is no active distillery on site, Westerhall is well-worth a visit for anybody interested in rum history. The estate’s distillery was demolished by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, but you can wander around the open-air ruins to see the waterwheel, the boiling coppers, and the remarkably well-preserved pair of double retort pot stills. There’s also a small museum with Westerhall and Grenadian history artifacts.
Eastern Caribbean Rum Company
A small blender that purchases rum, blends it, and resells it under a variety of brands, including Canne Royale, Cannes Brulees, and Barrel Jack, which is sold locally and exported.
Last but not least, at Grenada’s markets you’ll find a plethora of small, artisanal spiced rums using locally grown spices. You’ll find them in brightly colored, hand painted bottles.
When it comes to rum, what Grenada lacks in size, it makes up for in history and future potential. I’ve given you a taste here why it’s worth a visit, as if the island’s other charms weren’t enough. Stay tuned for future in-depth looks at Grenada’s rum distilleries.
[i] The British Colonial Library: West Indies: comprising Jamaica, Honduras, Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, the Bahamas, and the Virgin isles. Martin, R. Montgomery; 1834
[ii] Private Information of the Present State of the Island of Grenada and its Dependencies and of its value and importance to the crown of Great Britain, most humbly submitted to the consideration of His Majesty’s Ministers by the British Merchants, 1788, PRO, CO 101/26, Miscellaneous.
[iii] The British Colonial Library: West Indies
[iv] History of the Colonies of the British Empire in the West Indies South America; 1843
[v] Sugar Growing and Refining: A Comprehensive Treatise; Lock, Charles;1882
[vi] Tropical Agriculture; A Treatise on the Culture, Preparation, Commerce and Consumption of the Principal Products of the Vegetable Kingdom; Simmonds, P.L.; 1889
[vii] Report of the West India Royal Commission Vol. I; 1897