When it comes to exported Grenadian-made rum, one name has dominated over the last two decades: Clarke’s Court. The brand is the flagship of Grenada Distiller’s Ltd., the country’s largest rum distillery — at least till Renegade Rum starts producing. During my recent Grenada visit (hosted by Renegade), I was also privileged to receive an in-depth look at Grenada Distillers Ltd (GDL).
Unlike the River Antoine distillery to the north which exudes 18th century rum history, GDL is typical specimen of early to mid-20th century sugar and rum making.
The operation is somewhat unusual because by the time of its 1930s inception, sugar factories and rum distilleries had been moving towards separate facilities for many years. However, at GDL, distillation equipment is a literal stone’s throw from the sugar making equipment within in the same building.
Before jumping into Grenada Distillers history and production details, I suggest familiarizing yourself with Grenada’s rum history and background, detailed in my Grenada Rum Cheat Sheet.
Grenada Distillers History
What we now call Grenada Distillers Ltd was previously known as the Grenada Sugar Factory; the distillery was just part of the sugar factory’s operations. For this text, we shall consider them to be the same entity.
The sugar factory was established circa 1936 (sources vary on the exact year) on the Woodlands Estate in the south of Grenada. Records [i] show a distillery existing on the Woodlands Estates as early as 1895[ii], but there’s no indication that the Grenada Sugar Factory was built atop the prior distillery.
The book, Grenada: Island of Conflict [iii] provides some of the factory’s early financial details:
The Grenada Sugar Factory was a public corporation set up in 1936 to produce sugar and rum. The Honourable C.F.P. Renwick owned 4,500 of its ordinary shares given to him for services rendered and to be rendered to the Corporation. W.L. Innis, a Barbadian, was given 1,000 as promoter’s share; the remaining 1,200 shares were divided among five of the original subscribers … Most of the canes processed were procured from the Company’s four estates at Woodlands, Hope Vale, Calivigny and Bardia. The last was purchased from C.F.P. Renwick in June 1941 for £8,736; in addition 171 peasant producers, two estates and a few contractors delivered canes to the factory.
…There seems to have been a great disparity in the prices paid to the various suppliers of cane. In 1942, whereas the company’s estates received $6.03 per ton of cane, other estates received $5.40, and peasants $4.30.
Long before the Grenada Sugar factory’s establishment, sugar cane agriculture was waning in Grenada. The factory served as the primary sugar factory on the island over the next five or six decades. While mainly processing company-owned cane estates, it also provided a source of income to 171 “peasant producers” at a minimum price fixed by the government.[iv] Per oral histories, distillation was part of the factory’s operations since the very beginning.
According to Evelyn Ross, a long-time factory employee, by 1959 sugar’s market price was so low that it wasn’t economically viable to make sugar at the factory. To keep the rum flowing, the factory transitioned to making and distilling from cane syrup. In time, even using cane syrup was more expensive than importing molasses, so imported molasses became part of the distillery’s operations.
Around the 1960, the Clarke’s Court became GDL’s flagship brand. The name derives from the factory area’s name before it was renamed to Woodlands. GDL’s previous brands included Tradewinds and Red Neck, named so because its bottles had a red top.
In 1979, Grenada’s New Jewel Movement came into power and ownership of the Grenada Sugar Factory came under the new government’s control. After the US invasion ousted the New Jewel government in 1983, partial ownership of the factory returned to the private sector. It wasn’t till 2001 that the government divested it majority ownership of the factory to Leroy Neckles, the current owner and chairman. The same year, the enterprise was renamed to Grenada Distillers Ltd.
Today, the sugar factory equipment lies dormant, a museum for visitors to marvel at the enormous steam engine and sugar making equipment. It’s unclear exactly when the last sugar cane was processed at the factory, although it appears to have been no earlier than 1997[v].
Luckily for rum lovers, rum production has continued unabated to this day.
Into GDL’s Distillery
Were it not for the enormous gantry crane that once moved tons of sugar cane, the sugar factory/distillery building could be any large scale building clad in corrugated metal siding. But before entering, my first order of business is to meet Leroy Neckles, the chairman of Grenada Distiller Ltd. Joining us is Chris Holder, a longtime GDL employee and my guide for the visit.
Our first stop is outside the factory building, where cut cane stalks from nearby fields were once hoisted by the crane onto a wooden conveyer belt leading into the building. Upon entering the building, a menacing set of blades further slashed at the cane stalks, preparing them to enter the roller mill.
Inside the factory’s cavernous interior is all the heavy machinery you’d expect for mid-20th century sugar refining. First and foremost, an enormous steam engine on a raised platform runs parallel to the cane mill. Its clear the mill hasn’t run in many years, but if you close your eyes, you might imagine what it looked like.
Chris asks a worker if the steam engine could be started up for my benefit. It will take a while to fire up the boiler to make the requisite high-pressure steam. While we wait, I closely examine every inch of the cane mill. Above us, elevated walkways lead to the vacuum pans and rotary mud filters, key parts of turning cane juice into sugar and molasses.
A low whistle starts, increasing in intensity as the boiler and pipes shrug off their slumber. Chris and I are summoned back to the steam engine, a lever is thrown, and it slowly creaks to life. It’s quite an impressive sight, as seen in this video:
Over the years, GDL’s distillery has used both molasses and cane syrup as the economic situation warranted. When molasses importation started, Guyana was the preferred source, but with the decline of Guyana’s sugar, GDL turned elsewhere; today Panamanian molasses keeps GDL’s still running.
Molasses arrives via tanker trucks. The main storage tank holds 140,000 imperial gallons (635,000 liters), augmented by three smaller tanks of 4000 gallons (18,000 liters) each.
Fermentation is via dry, pitched yeast, rather than via on-site propagation. The wash starts in a 1,000-gallon (4,500 liter) mixing tank where yeast, molasses, and water combine before flowing to one of the three 8,000-gallon (36,300 liter) fermentation tanks. The tanks are open topped but netted to keep debris out. Temperature control of the fermentation is available.
Fermentation typically last three to four days, yielding a wash at around 5 percent ABV. During my visit, I was told that new equipment, including an additional fermenter, was expected to bring fermentation times down to two days.
Near the fermentation tanks stands a 1983 vintage twin-column Coffey still, made by John Dore. Both columns are clad in white metal shielding. The still’s spirit safe and control/monitoring equipment is on an elevated metal grate platform a few feet in front of the twin columns.
Rum comes off the rectification column in the range of 95 percent ABV. On a typical day it makes 400 gallons (1800 liters) of rum. With a typical 300 days/year duty cycle, that’s around 100,000 gallons/year, or about half of the Coffey still at St. Lucia Distillers.
GDL makes two distillates, differentiated by the plate they’re drawn from. Prior to 2003, a relatively low plate on the column was used, resulting in a heavier spirit. Post-2003, the distillery experimented with making a lighter rum, taken off four plates higher on the column. This lighter rum found favor with consumers and was more efficient to distill, so became Clarke’s Court standard white rum. I’m told that a few hundred cases of the earlier, heavier rum (less than 5 percent of overall production) are made each year for very long-time consumers preferring the pre-2003 style rum.
The majority of Clarke’s Court rum sold on Grenada is unaged white rum, including their “Pure White” expression bottled at 69 percent ABV. Nonetheless, for higher end markets, including export, GDL puts own rum for aging in a nearby building.
Regardless of whether aged or not, GDL bottles their rums, as well as liqueurs and related products on their on-site bottling line.
All of GDL’s cask are ex-bourbon, filled with rum diluted to 70 percent ABV before casking. The oldest expression available as I write this is a limited edition #37, aged for twelve years. When first launched in 2010, the #37 expression was an eight-year aged rum. However, in the gift shop I saw both eight- and twelve-year expressions.
Outside of the GDL’s house brands, you’ll find GDL’s aged rum in other brands, including Berry Bros. & Rudd and Six Saints.
Every distillery has its own vibe; its own reason for being. At Grenada Distillers Ltd, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Because of its relatively late start in 1937, it doesn’t have the romance of a historic legacy like River Antoine. And unlike Renegade Rum, it’s not a hyper-modern operation illuminating the way to rum’s future.
What I eventually came to see GDL’s role in Grenadian rum was this: During an era when the rum industry consolidated into fewer, mega-distilleries, GDL was the lone large-scale distillery on the island that survived. As such, it provides a valuable look at a mostly ignored era of rum history.
I’d like to thank Devon Date and Vaughn Renwick for their extensive assistance in ferreting out details of Grenada Distillers Ltd.’s history.
A Few More Snaps..
Oral History for future researchers
What follows are summaries of phone conversations with prior GDL employees, drawing on their recollections. They are not their actual words, and is unverified data, so should be treated as such.
Michael Kirton was a Grenadian working in the Barbados sugar industry in the 1970s. He was the youngest factory manager in Barbados, working at the Warren‘s sugar factory. His background was in chemistry. He was asked to come to Grenada in 1980 to resuscitate the Grenada sugar factory with a focus on rum production from local sugarcane.
One of his first actions on returning to Grenada was to procure a new still from John Dore. He says the old still that he met there had been upgraded but could possibly have been the original still. He says Grenada was one of the few countries in the OECS with a column still. he said this gave Grenada sugar Factory the ability to produce a high-quality light rum in contrast to the other rum distilleries which up until then had pot stills.
He also introduced a series of efficiency measures in relation to the arrival sorting of cane and the grinding operation.
After the US invasion he was no longer associated with the factory but when Leroy Neckles purchased it, he came back in to advise Leroy and stayed for several years.
The woodlands Estate factory is about 100m south of GDL. There are also remnants of an aqueduct which would have wound its way down the mountainside to power the waterwheel.
Up to circa 2000, the entire facility was powered solely by steam provided by a massive brick clad boiler working from bagasse. A system of overhead shafts and drive belts transmitted power from the steam engine to distant parts of the factory, to power pumps, and other equipment, including the giant lathes in the machine room used to turn the rollers for the grinding gear, to renew them.
He was with the sugar factory until the year 2000. He started as secretary treasurer moved up to general manager and to eventually become chairman.
Evelyn joined the sugar factory in 1956. He says they were producing around 23,000 tons of sugar, up to a high of 27,000 tons in 1958. That tonnage seems very high considering hurricane Janet in the mid-50s. By 1959 they had decided that sugar production was so uneconomical and stopped making sugar in that year. Thereafter they used all the juice from the canes they bought from other estates as well as their own estates to produce syrup.
But even that syrup was too expensive and so they immediately began importing molasses from Guyana the Dominican Republic on Martinique.
Evelyn says they had a competition to come up with a brand name for the rum from the factory when he joined in 1956. He realized that the area had been part of the Clark’s Court estate and he came up with the name for the brand as Clark’s Court. Because he was a company employee, he was not eligible for the competition prize!
Prior to having a formal brand-name, the rum from the sugar factory was known as red cap or red neck room due to the fact that it was bottled in a clear bottle with a red top.
As far as he is aware the still that was there in 1956, is the one that remained with the factory, albeit with some upgrades. The still was a column still from the very start and he thinks it was supplied by John Dore. He says the sugar factory rum was particularly special because all the other rum in Grenada was made from pot stills.
Evelyn says they were ageing rum from 1957, in Oak barrels is imported from the USA. they imported the barrels knocked down in staves, and they had a cooper who reassembled the barrels.
Around 1999 or 2000, the South African government had a massive expo in South Africa. They invited many companies from the Caribbean to participate and several rum producers went. The sugar factory, represented by Evelyn Ross, took something like 40 cases of rum down for the exhibition.
[i] Minutes of the legislative Council; Grenada; 1906
[ii] The Grenada handbook, directory and almanac; 1897
[iii] Grenada: Island of Conflict; Brizan, George I., 1998
[iv] Agriculture in the West Indies – Compiled from Documents supplied to the West India Royal Commission; 1942
[v] Grenada—Recent Economic Developments – IMF Staff Country Report No. 97/117; 1997