Among rum cognoscenti, Jamaica’s Hampden Estate is held in exceedingly high reverence; a visit to the distillery is a rite of passage for hardcore rum geeks. Beyond just the extremely funky rums which draw high prices and attract collectors, Hampden’s distillery is revered as a step back in time a century or more into rum’s storied past.
While Hampden is indeed all it’s cracked up to be, it’s a miracle of modernity next to Grenada’s River Antoine. At Hampden, molasses arrives via truck. At River Antoine, a nearly two century old water wheel powers the cane mill. The resulting cane juice is processed the same way it was in the 1600s. And while Hampden heats it stills with steam, River Antoine burns locally scavenged hardwood directly beneath the stills.
If Hampden Estate is a window into rum making circa 1880, River Antoine takes you back another century to pre-industrial revolution rum making.
Both Hampden and River Antoine make extraordinarily funky, barn-burning rums capable of causing the faint-hearted to flee. River Antoine’s rum isn’t at all expensive but is highly sought out by many rum cognoscenti. You won’t find it in the finest liquor stores in Europe or the United States. Very little, if any is exported from Grenada, so hopping on a plane is your best bet to acquire it.
Distilleries like Mount Gay (1703) and Appleton (1749) started rum making prior to River Antoine’s 1785 distilling start date, but the Mount Gay and Appleton distilleries evolved and modernized substantially over time. In contrast, River Antoine looks the way it might have in 1785, except to the highly trained eye. That makes Grenada’s oldest operational distillery unique in the Caribbean rum world.
In early 2020, I visited Grenada to see the new Renegade’s new distillery. Naturally, River Antoine was an essential stop as well. Before jumping in what I saw at this living museum rum’s early roots, I suggest first reading my Grenada Rum Cheat Sheet for important context.
Note: River Antoine wasn’t distilling during my visit. The chimney for the fireboxes under the pot stills had recently failed, thus providing distillery staff the opportunity for substantial renovations in numerous systems. As such, a few of the photos below of the distillery in operation are presented courtesy of Marco Graziano, taken during his own earlier visit.
River Antoine History
The River Antoine estate is located on Grenada’s northeast coast near the river of the same name. For such a long running estate, early details are challenging to find in original sources. However, a 1763 record, created shortly after the British takeover, says the estate comprised 150 acres and sugar was among the crops.[i] The same source shows that the estate had grown to 480 acres by 1782.” On an extremely detailed 1780 map, the estate is represented as “41”, just south of Lake Antoine.
It’s claimed that 1785 was the first year rum was distilled at the estate. We don’t know for sure how the first cane mill was powered (likely wind or oxen), but in 1840, the estate acquired a new watermill, driven by a viaduct connected to the nearby river.
In 1856, the estate was listed for sale, described as “451 acres of very fertile land, adapted for cane or other cultivation….an excellent watermill, boiling and curing house, liquor loft and rum store….”
An 1878 report proclaims the shocking conditions of “Coolies” (Indentured laborers from the East Indies) at River Antoine and elsewhere on Grenada:[ii]
During the British colonial era, River Antoine remained a small distillery, not expanding its capacity as many other distilleries did. An 1897 handbook[iii] records the estate’s output as “75 bags of cocoa, 150 barrels of sugar, and 2400 gallons of rum.” Production figures from 1903-1905 are similar: 1680, 1301, and 2721 gallons, respectively.[iv]
The estate’s longest running owners were the De Gale family, who owned it for at least a century — through Grenada ‘s independence and up till the 1980s. Establishing the initial purchase date by De Gale is challenging, but as early as 1897, Thomas De Gale was the owner.
River Antoine played a prominent role in Grenada’s labor history. In 1959, the estate’s workers took over the estate in response to claims of mistreatment[v]. Again in 1980, during the People’s Revolutionary Government (1979-1983), a group opposed to the government took control of the estate. [vi] Eventually, the estate was restored to the De Gale family, who subsequently sold it in 1988 to local investors, including Shirley Richards, the estate’s current General Manager.
Today, River Antoine is among Grenada’s most popular tourist destinations. A large restaurant with capacity to handle tour buses was recently built for the influx of visitors. Besides sugar cane for rum, the estate still grows coconuts and nutmeg — traditional Grenadian crops.
Until River Antoine, every distillery I’ve visited has visible concessions to modernity and repeatability of rum making. River Antoine is the exact opposite. It’s extremely simple rum making, done exactly the way it was centuries ago. There’s no pasteurization or cultured yeast strains here. No temperature-controlled fermenting vats. No steam-heated, temperature-controlled distillation passes.
As a result, what comes off the still varies widely in strength, although what’s bottled for local consumption is at least 75 percent ABV. To the naked eye, there’s no visible technology that predates the mid-1800s. My jaw was frequently agape, seeing things I’d only read about in historic texts.
The distillery is situated off a small rural road that hugs Grenada’s northeastern coastline. There’s no fence or guard gate marking your approach. You might think you’d wandered onto a luxury villa’s private driveway. But once you spot the drying bagasse covering every inch of ground, you know you’re close.
After meeting Shirley Richards, the general manager, my guide provided me with the distillery’s basic details during the short stroll to our first stop. Among other things, I learn that the estate has some eighty employees, presumably not all on the distilling side of things.
We soon arrive at the watermill, acquired in 1840 from George Fletcher & Co. of London & Derby, a firm that specialized in sugar processing machinery. The wheel portion is partially encased in a masonry structure. A trough along the structure’s top deposits water from the nearby river onto the wheel, causing it to move.
A gap in the structure’s wall lets the waterwheel’s axle connect to a gear on the other side of the wall. This gear drives the Victorian era cane mill. A separate sprocket elsewhere on the mill drives a chain connected to a conveyor belt which drags cane pieces up a ramp for depositing in the mill. A corrugated metal roof covers the milling area, shielding workers from the tropical sun or rain. Of course, if River Antoine isn’t flowing sufficiently that day, no cane will be crushed.
The mill rollers draw my attention because they’re flat, rather than grooved, like every other cane mill I’ve seen. Grooved rollers are more efficient. My guide informs me that the rollers once were grooved but have worn down over time.
About 85 percent of the cane typically processed annually comes from estate-owned cane fields, the other from local farmers. During my visit, I saw a board indicating that cane from Renegade Rum’s CaneCo subsidiary was the last cane crushed. Over the course of a growing season, the milled cane juice varies between 6 and 15º Brix.
Metal tracks near the mill enable a cart to transport the just-crushed bagasse away from the milling area. It’s spread on the ground to sun dry before being burned as fuel in a boiler. As for the collected cane juice, it travels down a small trough to the boiling house.
Prior to the industrial revolution, sugar cane juice processing was a crude, entirely manual process. The basic idea is to heat the cane juice to partially drive off water and cause sucrose crystals to form. The sucrose crystals are then strained and collected. The thick, dark liquid left behind is molasses.
The usual process for the above involved a row of large, spherical metal bowls, heated from beneath. The bowls are known as coppers, although not made of copper any more. Cane juice goes into the first copper, where it’s heated to vaporize some of the water and concentrate the sugar within the liquid.
In time, the liquid is ladled to the next heated copper for further concentration. This process repeats for each copper in pipeline fashion: Fresh cane juice enters the first copper; wet sugar crystals and molasses exit the final copper.
All that said, River Antoine is focused on rum rather than sugar, so its process differs slightly.
River Antoine has a series of five coppers housed in one part of a T-shaped building just a few meters from the watermill. However, the boiling house doesn’t take things to the point of separating sugar from molasses. Rather, concentration stops after making a cane syrup at around 14º Brix. This becomes the primary source material for fermentation.
The heated, thickening juice spends about 45 minutes in each copper. Workers uses a bowl attached to a long stick to ladle the juice from copper to copper. Timing a and a careful eye is important, otherwise the sugar caramelizes which isn’t desirable for rum making.
Once sufficiently thickened, workers ladle the cane syrup into a trough leading to a cooling tank, where it rests for about two days.
River Antoine’s fermentation is completely natural and airborne. No cultured yeast to be found here! Fermentation of the cane syrup from the adjacent boiling house occurs in open-topped, concrete tanks.
Fermentation typically takes eight days in one of the nine tanks. The tanks aren’t scrubbed after each use. Thus, the residue of one fermentation batch seeds a highly bacterial fermentation of the next batch. Bacterial fermentation leads to more unusual flavors than a “normal” yeast-only fermentation.
While the primary fermentation source material is cane syrup from the boiling house, a bit of Trinidad molasses is usually added to mix to boost the brix to 18º and create a higher yield. Of course, a 100 percent cane syrup fermentation can be done upon special request.
The resulting fermented wash is typically between 4 and 4.5 percent ABV, depending on the season and sugar content of a given day’s cane crush. Modern distilleries like Demerara Distillers work hard to control the wash’s strength for distillation consistency. However, at River Antione, such wide variations are an accepted part of life.
Adjoining the boiling house and fermentation building is a covered area. In the middle, perched atop a six-foot high concrete platform are two side-by-side double retort pot stills. Currently one still is from Kentucky’s Vendome, the other from John Dore. I’m told the pot portions wear out relatively quickly due to the aggressive direct heating.
On one side of the platform, directly beneath the pots, two fireboxes are recessed into the concrete. Distillation starts by burning locally scavenged hardwood in those fireboxes, heating the pot immediately above. It’s a remarkably simple arrangement and far less elaborate than modern steam-coil heated pot stills.
The stills each take a wash charge of around 1800 liters (475 U.S. gallons.) Over the course of a run, approximately 77 liters (20 U.S. gallons) of rum collects, normally at around 75 percent ABV in strength.
Under normal circumstances, the chimney for the two fireboxes rises up between the two stills. However, during my visit the chimney and fireboxes were being rebuilt from the ground up. No distillation was possible, so employees were also performing big ticket maintenance in several areas. It was a striking sight to see the disassembled pot kettles, necks off, sitting almost haphazardly on the ground nearby.
Also, on the platform near the still’s twin retorts are wash-preheaters. They transfer heat from the still’s hot vapors to the next wash batch prior to distillation, saving time and energy. Adjacent to the pre-heaters is a pit in the concrete platform. Within the pit are a pair of worm coils for condensing the rum vapors coming off the still. During distillation, water in the pit absorbs heat from the hot vapors passing through the coils, cooling the vapors back into liquid form.
Unlike at most distilleries, there’s no spirit safe or collection tanks visible from the stills. Here, they’re located inside a room in the T-building. The collection tank is sunk into the room’s concrete floor. A dipstick allows checking the tank’s fill level.
In one corner of the nearly empty room with the rum collection tank is the bottling line: A ten-gallon Igloo cooler and a small bottle capping machine, a very small concessions to modernity. Workers fill the cooler from the receiving tank, dilute it to the desired strength, then fill the bottle from the cooler’s side tap. Short of dipping bottles directly into the spirit tank, it couldn’t be a simpler bottling line.
Grenadian rum bottles are scarce enough that they’re reused between River Antoine, Westerhall, and Clarke’s Court. Previously used bottles get rinsed well and have a new label is applied prior to sending it back out to customers.
If you’re curious about aged versions of River Antoine, there are none. What comes off the still is sold almost immediately thereafter, much in the same way it was during the colonial era.
Naturally, there’s the question of River Antoine’s rum itself – how is it?
The distillery sells two strengths of Rivers Royal Grenadian Rum, easily differentiated by their label color. The blue-labeled, lesser strength version clocks in at 69 percent ABV, just under the threshold of what most airlines allow to be transported. Thus, it’s the choice of tourist bringing bottles home, myself included.
The higher strength local rum, in a tan bottle with red ribbon is guaranteed to be at least 75 percent ABV. It might be higher however, depending on what came off the still on any given day. The estate also bottles a rum punch.
As for the rum’s taste, I shall not try to impart any sort of detailed tasting notes here. What came to mind while tasting at the distillery was a cross between Hampden’s Rum Fire and Clairin Le Rocher from Haiti, which for me has a distinct, almost paprika note. The latter isn’t particularly surprising, given that Haiti’s clairin production appears similar to what I saw at River Antoine.
The short synopsis is that River Antoine’s rum is exactly the sort of weird and wonderful, overpowering monster that high ester rum enthusiasts go bananas for. That said, you might think twice before gifting a bottle to an unsuspecting co-worker or neighbor upon returning home. YMMV.
Pro tip: Bring local cash if you want to purchase bottles at the distillery. They don’t take credit cards or foreign currency.
As Martin Cate told me years ago in a van bouncing across the back roads of Jamaica, River Antoine is a transformative experience for rum geeks, much the same way Hampden Estate is. For students of rum history or high ester zealots, River Antoine might be the most thrilling rum experiences you’ll ever have.
I sincerely hope the estate can moderately and thoughtfully expand its production, thus ensuring future generations of rum enthusiasts can partake of its unique connection to rum’s epic and storied past.
[i] Legacies of British Slave-ownership site: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/estate/view/1361
[ii] Parliamentary papers. 1878-1879;v.51
[iii] The Grenada handbook, directory and almanac,1897
[iv] Minutes of the legislative Council; Grenada; 1906
[vi] The New Jewel Movement: Grenada’s Revolution, 1979-1983