Grenada has more sugar cane than it can handle, an unprecedented situation relative to the prior two centuries. From the south to the north, vibrantly green sugar cane stalks rise several meters into the deep blue January sky. The cane is ready to cut — scratch that — the cane is past prime time for harvesting laments Bertrand John (“BJ”), CaneCo’s director of agriculture, as we four-wheel through field after field in his truck.
Five years prior, the prospect of hundreds of sugar cane covered acres would have seemed a pipe dream to BJ or nearly any other Grenadian. The island, once a substantial source of sugar cane and rum during the British colonial era, saw its agriculture precipitously decline over its last forty years as an independent country.
Yet at the start of 2020, there’s plenty of sugar cane to be had. It just can’t be cut because there’s no place to process it.
Fresh cut cane must be milled within hours or harvesting; the island’s last sugar factory closed decades ago. River Antoine, an extremely old-school rum distillery, could use some of it, but the distillery is closed for repair at the moment.
This abundance of cane wasn’t planted on a whim, however. Rather, CaneCo planted hundreds of acres of sugar cane in anticipation of a brand new, state of the art rum distillery doing things very differently. A Renegade. if you will.
Finishing any project at the scope of a substantial rum distillery requires putting many moving parts in motion early on. Almost invariably, certain parts fall behind in the well-planned choreography. Here on Grenada, the cane is ready, but the distillery is not. A massive cane mill, boiler, fermentation tanks, and two shiny new stills are in place, but haven’t yet started working in unison. Turning them into a well-oiled pipeline will take more time and extensive testing before the cane can arrive and the rum flows.
Cane that grow too long causes problems down the line. With nobody on the island able to take it, CaneCo will plow it back into the soil. It’s not the ideal outcome, but it nonetheless heralds a return to Grenada’s agricultural bounty and the hope of an even brighter rum future for the island.
This was the situation on the ground when I visited Grenada in January 2020 as a guest of Renegade Rum. While I was originally to witness freshly cut cane run arrive and morph into rum, seeing a new rum distillery as it prepares to spring to life was a rare opportunity I was glad to have.
In the calm before the storm, I got up close and personal with the equipment, touching the cane mill rollers, peering into the gigantic fermentation tanks, rapping my knuckles on the gleaming copper pot still. When all this equipment comes to life, it will make rum that takes terroir to unprecedented extremes.
(Note: You can learn more about Grenada’s rum history and industry in my Grenada Rum Cheat Sheet.)
To really understand Renegade’s mission and approach you must dial the clock back two decades. In 2000, Mark Reynier, then the owner of Scotch whisky independent bottler Murray McDavid, along with a group of investors, purchased the shuttered Bruichladdich distillery on Islay for £6 million. Reynier, who’d previously spent 20 years in the wine industry was no stranger to terroir, and Bruichladdich was his initial proving ground for terroir in spirits.
Bruichladdich’s new owners wasted no time rehabilitating the distillery, albeit on a shoestring budget and keeping much of the original 19th century equipment. Over the next few years, Bruichladdich’s star rose in the whisky world, in part for its dozens of small batch, quirkily named releases.
Some of these releases indulged Reynier’s fascination with terroir. The base material of Scotch whisky is barley, which is grown around the globe. However, Reynier jumped on the idea of barley from local Islay farmers and tracking exactly which farm’s barley was used in each batch. Taking it further, the name of the farm (or farms) name went on the label! The idea is that barley from one region of the island creates a different flavor profile than another regions barley.
As the revamped Bruichladdich’s operations took off, Reynier also dipped his toe in the independent rum bottling scene. It was a natural extension of Murray McDavid’s independent whisky bottling business. Reynier purchased rum, brought it to Bruichladdich’s Islay warehouses for further aging, and when ready, released it under the Renegade Rum moniker. (For some additional detail on Renegade’s independent bottlings, check out Lance’s story on The Lone Caner.)
By 2010, Bruichladdich, Murray McDavid, and Renegade rum were all under the direction of Mark Reynier and a small group of investor associates – a pattern that would continue in other locales over the following decade.
Bruichladdich’s success brought attention from bigger fish in the Scotch whisky pond. In 2012 French spirits group Rémy Cointreau made a £58 million for Bruichladdich. Reynier didn’t wish to sell, but enough other investors did, and the deal went through.
Not content to sit on his Bruichladdich profits, Reynier and his investors looked for other whiskey opportunities, and in 2014 purchased the redundant but very modern Waterford brewery in Ireland, built just a few years earlier by Diageo to make Guinness. The purchase price: just 18 percent of its estimated £40 million value.
Beer and whiskey making share much equipment in common, and Reynier saw an inexpensive way to acquire an Irish whiskey distillery by adding distillation equipment to the brewery. The new venture’s name: Renegade Spirits,
Reynier’s fixation on terroir is everywhere in Waterford distillery’s operations. As on Islay, Reynier’s team works with local Irish farms to purchase their barley. However, Waterford take things to next level: tracking a farm’s barley all the way through the whiskey making process and into the bottle. As Waterford’s web site describes it:
We have sourced an unprecedented 72 Irish farms, some organic, some biodynamic, growing barley on 19 distinct soil types. With a pioneering digital logistical system keeping track, each farmer’s crop is harvested, stored, malted and distilled separately. Thus, we can capture in spirit each farm’s terroir… We only distill one farm at a time… [Note: this is now up to 86 growers.]
Waterford’s bottlings are small batch and have the farm’s name and a unique version number on the label. As I write this, Waterford’s initial batches are being bottled.
A New Rum Rises
While planning Waterford, Reynier still had rum in his sights. After a good start with Renegade Rum’s independent bottlings, he grew dissatisfied with the quality of the available rum stock. As he put it in our interview:
I was getting bored of independent whisky bottlings. The stocks were drying up. All the good stuff had gone… Rum seemed to offer interesting alternatives. Similar age, obscure distilleries, many which had shut down. It was an exciting replacement.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that rum was in an even worse position. It was like Scotch whisky in the ’70s. There were even fewer barrels. The age statements were suspicious. The quality even more so.
Still keen to sell rum, Reynier set out to take the next logical step — making rum himself that met his high bar for quality and terroir.
Usually at this point in a story, the protagonist scours the Caribbean for a historic rum distillery; an undiscovered gem which they pick up for a song, rehabilitate, and amazing rum soon emerges — roll credits. In essence, what happened at Bruichladdich. But this story takes a different twist.
Reynier did scour the Caribbean but came up short. From our interview:
I looked at quite a few over a ten-year period, initially looking for stocks, then distilleries. But the thing that kept coming home to me was that many were in a shocking state of repair. Very uneconomic in today’s world; unproductive old machinery, old equipment, poorly maintained, mostly pre-colonial era equipment that suffered from a lack of investment and maintenance. You’ve seen them; all the bits lying around the distilleries, abandoned.
A small aside to put the above in context. Between 2010 and 2017, several well-known Caribbean rum distilleries changed hands, including:
- 2012 – Chevrillon purchases La Mauny and Trois Rivières
- 2013 – Campari purchases J. Wray & Nephew, owner of Appleton Estate and New Yarmouth
- 2014 – Rémy Cointreau purchases Rum Refinery of Mount Gay
- 2017 – Spiribam purchases Saint Lucia Distillers
- 2017 – Maison Ferrand purchases West Indies Rum Distillery
Reynier won’t say exactly which distilleries he looked at, but the list above suggests several prestigious distilleries were available at the right price. It’s not unreasonable to assume Reynier looked at some of them, and possibly others.
Reynier eventually concluded that building a new distillery from scratch was the best option. But where?
Given how prominently features in Reynier’s spirited journey, cane juice rum was the only option. Thus, any location had to support growing sugar cane on a commercial level. Molasses was a non-starter, as Reynier believes terroir is stripped away by the sugar/molasses production process. as Reynier explains it:
A premium spirit like cognac is made from wine. Grappa is made from the debris left over after you’ve made wine. One is held in great prestige, and the other one is something given away at the end of an Italian meal. There’s obviously good grappas, of course…
Another desirable attribute of a distillery location is many different micro-climates and soil conditions, the better to further refine the collective understanding of terroir.
In June of 2015, Reynier visited Grenada for the first time. Impressed by what he saw, in early 2016 he commissioned Booker Tate — a company descended from Booker’s and Tate & Lyle, both very old guard names in the sugar and rum industry — for a feasibility study on growing sugar cane commercially on Grenada.
Once a substantial exporter of sugar and rum in the early 1800s, Grenada’s agriculture had dwindled to a mere shadow of its former self in the subsequent two centuries. Nonetheless, the island has land with a proven agricultural track record. A further point in Grenada’s favor: there are two other rum distilleries on the island, so some amount of local know-how and infrastructure was on hand.
On Feb. 5th 2016, Renegade Spirits Grenada Ltd. incorporated. The initial investors include much of the same group who invested alongside Reynier in Bruichladdich and Waterford. The initial investment amount was undisclosed, but news report of the time reported an estimated distillery cost of around US $20 million.
Says Reynier of this investment:
It was only possible because of substantial upfront investment. It was a huge leap of faith, only possible because of our track record, private shareholder base, and originality of our proposition.
The Renegade Team
From the beginning, Renegade’s plan was to utilize local know-how and integrate into the local community. Employing island residents in as many roles for the team is one approach. A substantial investment in training has yielded encouraging results. For instance, the three-person distilling team is composed entirely of Grenadian women.
Renegade also leverages veterans from three local rum producers: Grenada Distillers Ltd., Westerhall, and River Antoine:
- Westerhall Estate GM Graham Williams is an investor and company director, providing substantial know-how in navigating the political and governmental landscape.
- CaneCo’s Director of Agriculture Bertand John was previously the General Manager at River Antoine.
- Head Distiller Devon Date served as the Production Manager at Grenada Distillers Ltd., aka Clarke’s Court.
A Cane-Do Company
All rum starts with sugar cane, so securing a reliable supply of sugar cane is essential; distilling from fresh cane juice is the only way Renegade will operate. You’ll find no large tanks for molasses or cane syrup on site. This means a large supply of local sugar cane must be harvested on a set schedule. Too much cane arriving at the distillery is as problematic as not enough.
In Ireland and Islay, local malted barley isn’t perishable. If too much arrives, it’s stored till needed. Not so with fresh curt cane. It’s a time-sensitive balancing act between farmer and distillery. Rhum producers on Martinique and Guadeloupe know this well. Renegade’s original plan was similar to their earlier ventures: Work with local farmers, pick cane varietals, and plan when it would be harvested.
Those best laid plans hit a snag early on – they just wouldn’t work. As Reynier described it:
The idea coming here [to Grenada] was to get farmers to grow cane themselves. To empower farmers — provide them with the cane and the know how to do it. But entrepreneurially that just didn’t work. It was too much of an ask… After independence [in 1974], Grenada had sort of a Marxist revolution, so a lot of land was confiscated and broken up; all those amazingly productive estates disappeared, and the agriculture was dismantled.
Luckily, this hitch became clear early on. There was no choice but for Renegade to go into the sugar cane farming business. Reynier’s take:
It was pretty down on itself when I came along. Trying to convince people to grow cane — that just didn’t work. So, we had to do it ourselves…. We had to find land, lease it, rent it, clear it of forty years of jungle, prepare it and plant it up. That’s what we’ve done over the proceeding four years.
Thus, a new enterprise, CaneCo, became a subsidiary of Renegade Spirits Grenada, with Bertand John as Director of Agriculture, and Westerhall’s Graham Williams as a director.
CaneCo’s initial plantings in April 2016 were tissue cultured cane embryos, which by September were growing on Westerhall’s land. Initially, the company leased and planted 200 acres across nine locations. There are plans to ramp up to 600 acres, but BJ tells me that initial sugar yields are so good that not as many acres may be needed.
Reynier’s teams have always embraced technology, so it’s no surprise that the cane fields have remote, solar powered weathers station uploading data via cellular network to Renegade’s computers. Renegade’s scientist can then account for weather conditions when teasing apart the complexity of terroir. Furthermore, drones help monitor the fields and can sparingly apply insecticides and pesticides only when needed.
Also of note: Grenada has no poisonous snakes, so there’s no need to burn the fields prior to harvest. A big win for the environment!
To see the outer extremes of rum history – it’s distant past and vibrant future – there’s no better place than Grenada’s northeastern coast. There, you’ll find River Antoine, a distillery appearing virtually unchanged from 200 years prior. River water powers a waterwheel that drives an ancient cane mill. A boiling house with pans (“coppers”) reduces the cane juice to syrup; workers manually transfer hot juice from pan to pan with a ladle. Wild fermentation and a wood fired pot still makes for a very primal, high ester rum. It really is a working museum of very early rum making.
Just 1.5 miles to the south lies Renegade’s distillery, just a seeming stone’s throw from the Atlantic ocean. Everything about it is hypermodern, efficient, and very, very blue. All four buildings are blue. The enormous cane mill is blue. The effluent tanks are blue. Even the smokestack is blue. Occasionally a splash of yellow breaks through the blueness; an elevated walkway for instance.
The distillery is in the near-final stages of construction during my visit. I checked in first at the site’s temporary office: An air-conditioned construction trailer where the head distiller, chief engineer, and others spend many hours coordinating the multitude of decisions and details.
Minimizing environmental impact was a core ethos in designing the distillery. As outsider coming to the island, there was a desire to keep environmental concerns from holding up local approvals. Towards that end, the distillery design, equipment, and processes center around reducing environmental outflow to almost nothing.
There are three primary solid waste streams: the solid remains of cane stalks (bagasse), solids from the vinasse, and ash from the boiler. All have systems in place to minimize them. Likewise, all sources of liquid runoff have been anticipated and will be collected so as to not flow untreated onto nearby land. Renegade is justifiably proud of its primary, secondary and tertiary waste treatment plant and their use of phytoremediation.
Reynier says the distillery was designed from the end, backwards. What’s that mean? The waste mitigation and treatment systems were designed first. The cost of these system alone was at least U.S. $2 million. Once waste treatment capacity was established, it informed the size of the fermentation and distillation systems. That in turn informed the cane mill capacity.
Viewed from above, the distillery buildings form a triangle with one long side and two shorter sides. The long side is the cane crushing building. The two shorter sides are the fermentation and distillery buildings. A short distance away is a single (for now) aging warehouse. According to Reynier, this triangle layout creates a courtyard, taking inspiration from Scotch whisky distillery courtyards. Bruichladdich was among the first with a courtyard layout he tells me, a touch of pride in his voice.
The distillery’s output when all systems operate at maximum capacity is estimated around one million LAA (Liters Absolute Alcohol). If bottled at 45% ABV, that’s around three million 750 ml bottles. According to experts, one million LAA is about the capacity of distilleries like St. Lucia Distillers, Foursquare, and Worthy Park, and a small fraction of behemoths like Bacardi and Destilería Serrallés. However, the first few years of Renegade’s operation are expected to yield considerably less during initial tuning.
Renegade’s rum making begins with cane hauling vehicles arriving with cut cane, transported immediately after harvesting from nearby fields. The cane will be tested and weighed, then deposited very close to the entrance of the very imposing looking cane mill housed inside the utility building. The cane mill stretches over quite a distance. Cane enters one end; bagasse exits the other.
A convey belt takes cane from the entry chute through a series of moving metal rakes. Subsequent conveyor belts drop the cane into three separate clusters of grooved rollers which squeeze the juice out of the cane. Pumps then push the collected juice to juice tanks, where it’s tested and then sent on to the fermentation building.
The mill is sized to process about 2.5 to 3 acres of sugar cane per day, or about 75 tons. Near the end of the cane mill path is space for a fourth set of mill rollers if deemed useful someday.
At most other cane juice distilleries, the bagasse collects somewhere for eventual handling. Some milling operations can burn bagasse as fuel after it’s dried substantially. However, at Renegade, the bagasse can be used as fuel almost immediately.
A conveyer belt takes the bagasse fresh off the mill, feeding it to a holding bin from which another belt transports the bagasse to a boiler in an adjoining room.
The South African made biomass boiler cost US $2 million and has a four-tier emission control system. It’s extremely efficient and can work with a higher degree of bagasse moisture than less advanced boilers. The small amount of ash it makes is collected and becomes fertilizer, while its exhaust is scrubbed two ways to remove almost all particulate matter.
The steam emerging from the boilers serves dual purposes. Some goes to heat the stills, while the remainder drives a steam turbine to produce electricity. Once the cane pipeline starts moving, the generated bagasse can supply much of the distillery’s heat and power needs. As backup, an enormous, 750kvh backup diesel generator is also on hand. An extensive overview of boiler operations can be read here.
The utility building houses a number of other distillery functions, including yeast propagation and power management. There’s even a small residential facility upstairs for employees or guests to stay overnight.
Perhaps the most visibly unusual thing about Renegade’s distillery is the fermentation building. Unlike other rum distilleries, there’s no upright fermentation vats bubbling away. Rather, the fermentation building is dominated by twelve gigantic metal cylinders, arranged in two horizontal rows of six. Each 40,000-liter cylinder fits inside a 40-foot shipping container. Not a coincidence; it’s how they arrived in Grenada.
Horizontal fermenters are more commonplace in wine and beer making, but still rare at distilleries. According to head distiller Devon Date, the horizontal configuration results in less fluid pressure at the bottom of the tank, so the yeast undergoes less stress.
In the hot Grenadian climate, the temperature could affect fermentation. The warmer the temperature of fermenting liquid, the faster it ferments. The rate at which fermentation occurs impacts the flavor compounds in the resulting wash. Thus, speeding or slowing a fermentation is one way to tune a rum’s flavor. Renegade’s fermenters are temperature controlled, as you’d expect in a modern distillery.
Devon expects fermentations to run between 24-36 hours typically, using a custom designed yeast from Lallemand. Because each batch of crushed cane juice will be fermented and distilled separately, it will be important to carefully schedule exactly what’s in each of the six tank pairs.
The third side of the distillery triangle is the distillation building. Within is a column still and double retort pot still, both built by Forsyths in Scotland. The building also houses the distillery’s control room and visitors center.
In my interview with Reynier, I asked why both pot and column stills:
… you have a lot of [cane] volume in a short time. Pot stills alone wouldn’t be able to handle the volume… whereas a column still can handle a larger volume in a shorter time… A column would be better suited for cane, but I couldn’t resist pots because that’s what I know.
…the difference between still types is more about the weight of the spirit rather than intrinsic flavors. … If you have the same ferment and distill it in both pot and column stills, you’ll get a different weight of spirit. The complexity of the flavors can be more or less the same…
Naturally, the choice of whether to use the pot vs. column still is dictated in part by the amount of wash to be distilled. A small batch doesn’t make sense to distill in the column still, whereas a large batch wouldn’t be processed by the pot still fast enough.
If you’re familiar with Worthy Park’s double retort still, Renegade’s looks quite similar, albeit smaller. Both are shiny copper and hard to look away from. They’re also both situated on an elevated platform fifteen feet (or so) above ground level.
Renegade’s pot holds 10,000 liters, paired with a 1300-liter first retort and 1000-liter second retort. For contrast, Worthy Park’s pot is nearly twice as big at 18,000 liters.
According to Devon, the pot still’s wash will enter around 6.5% ABV. After a computer controlled six-hour cycle, the resulting distillate should be in the 82-85% ABV range.
As for the column still, it’s a twin column design. The wash column has 19 copper sieve plates while the spirits column has 16 copper bubble caps plates. The spirit column has eight draw off points, allowing for precise control over how light or heavy the rum is. The design also allows reintroducing distillate taken from one plate to another plate. As Renegade’s very detailed page about their column says:
…different flavour compounds can be separated out – ‘fractions’ of distillate – at differing points up the column: a 70% alcohol will have much greater flavour compared to none at 96%….
…we can separate out the desirable flavour elements from the undesirable impurities and discard or reintroduce them back in to the column precisely where we want.
In the hands of a skilled distiller, the flexibility of this column setup enables creating a complex flavor profile. Reynier tells me it lets Devon play some “funky tunes.”
The column still wash will enter between 5.8-6.1% ABV, at a flow rate of 60 liters/minute. Distillate will come off at up to 95% ABV, and a rate of 3.7 liters/minute. Run flat out, the column still is capable of make 6,666 LAA/day.
Aging & Bottling
A short walk from the cane processing, fermentation, and distillation buildings is the aging warehouse – Just one for now, but there’s room for more later.
Renegade’s extreme terroir mission requires keeping each cane harvest completely separate from the others, all the way through bottling. Thus, there’s no large vats where multiple distillations go into prior to casking. Instead, each batch will be assigned a particular cask type (or types) and kept distinct from all other batches.
The first batch of casks have arrived, ready to be filled with new-make rum. The vast majority are American oak, but a chestnut cask and wild cherry cask seem to have snuck in as well. I’m told that European oak, and in particular, high end French oak is also in the cards. This is in line with what’s already happening at Waterford.
Renegade tells me that they hope to eventually have their own bottling line on the island, but for the initial releases they will likely use Westerhall’s bottling line.
As I write this (May 2020), the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on firing everything up. Engineers from equipment suppliers like Forsyths who ordinarily would be on site to assist are unable to be present. Reynier tells me they plan to use virtual reality to enable the engineers to participate remotely. It’s yet another example of Renegade embracing cutting edge technology to bring a hyper-modern distillery into existence.
As someone enamored with rum history and legacy distilleries, it would be easy to dismiss Renegade as too modern, too sterile. A fungus encrusted wooden fermentation vat is just more rumantic than a bank of computer-controlled cylinders straight from a 1960’s-era sci-fi movie.
Yet I’m incredibly excited by what’s in store. Maybe it’s my technology background, but I can’t wait to see the whole process come to life and taste the many rums Renegade makes. Part of the beauty of rum is its diversity; how a cane stalk and hundreds of years of human ingenuity have created such an enormous palate of aromas and flavors. I expect Renegade will add to that palette in substantial ways.
It will be several years before the first of Renegade’s rum emerges from the barrel for its world debut. However, we already know what not to expect: The usual parade of white, gold and long-aged expressions common to most other distilleries. Renegade’s releases will be numerous, and small batch, i.e. a collector’s dream!
To some extent, we’ve already seen what this will be like this with the many small-batch release from Bruichladdich during the Reynier era. And we’re about to get an even higher-fidelity preview as Waterford’s whiskeys arrive.
If Renegade’s foray into ultra-terroir rum was the result of newcomers to the rum world applying their expertise from one domain to another, I might be concerned. However, the Renegade team has extensive experience with rum, and I look forward to seeing them taking full advantage of the most modern rum distillery built to date.
My friend and fellow rum writer Josh Miller also visited Renegade about a year prior to me. You can read his take here.