The Makers: Behind the scenes of 4 rum distilleries

You know, one of the pleasures of being a bartender is all that great booze you get to drink, and rum in particular gets a good showing at this time of the year thanks to the warmer weather. But the rum doesn’t arrive fully formed — it’s gots to get made first, and one of the other pleasures of the job is meeting the people who make this fine spirit. We spoke to a few distillers and blenders and asked them about their gig, and their production facilities.


Distillery: Paradise Beverages
Where: Fiji
Products: Fiji Rum Co rums

Aptly named for a distillery located in Fiji, Paradise Beverages produce the Fiji Rum Co range of rums (which have clocked up some 38 medals over the last four years) and includes Bounty Rum, which took out the title of the world’s best rum at the 2014 World Spirits Awards in San Francisco in 2014. They’ve got some plans to expand the range in 2016, with the introduction of some new flavoured rums due to hit the market this year, so we asked distiller Liam Costello what a typical day in the distillery is like.

What’s a typical day for you? 
Each day I’m at the distillery to see how the stills are going, checking steam pressure, base temperatures, condenser temperatures, flow rate in and out of the still, testing the spirit off both the pot still and continuous stills to check on fermentations. Then down to the QC Lab to check on any bench top samples prior to bottling or blending, and on the tank samples from the previous day’s distillation.



Can you tell us a bit about the distillery itself?
We have a three column continuous still and two pot stills for rum and a 4 column continuous still for neutral spirits. We produce up to 1 million litres of spirit a year but have capacity to do approximately 1.6 million litres, to meet our plans for the future. At the distillery, we employ around 60 people, all our products are still packed and labelled by hand.

Can you tell us a bit about the history of the distillery?
The distillery was commissioned in 1980 by then-owners Fiji Sugar Corporation, who sold it to Fosters in 1998. My background in the industry started around 35 years ago at Beenleigh Rum, when I was the youngest rum distiller in Australia.  I got my first taste of success there, with our rums winning the award for the Most Successful Exhibitor at the Royal Brisbane Show two years running, and also earning three gold medals, six silver medals and six bronzes during that period. 
I then spent the next 20 years in the wine industry, as general manager of Rosemount Wines and then sales director of Southcorp Wines, before moving to Fiji in 2003 to buy a resort.  I started with Fosters in 2006 and then reconnected with rum, joining Paradise Beverages in 2009 and developing the 13 new products that now form the Fiji Rum Co portfolio.


Distillery: Angostura
Where: Trinidad
Products: Angostura rums, and Angostura Bitters range

Angostura are famous for their flagship Angostura Aromatic Bitters, but they’ve also got an impressive range of award-winning rums. That’s thanks to their distillery in Laventille in Trinidad, erected in 1949 and built with a unique five column distilling system. It’s a system they’ve added to over the years, and now produce some 600,000 cases of rum and 200,000 cases of bitters each year. Overseeing things is master distiller John Georges — we asked him what is involved in his day.

What does a typical day of work involve for you?
A typical day in life of a distiller revolves around maintaining the quality of the rum. In spite of all the beautiful engineering that goes into their design, stills can be ‘temperamental’: there is always something that will ‘upset’ even the best-run operations. Getting things right requires the distiller’s knowledge of his own equipment and experience. Some of the best plant operators I have known were not engineers but men who learnt the job by being there for many years and had developed an enviable intuitive knowledge of how things worked, and more importantly, how to fix it when they didn’t. Appraising the product and adjusting conditions as needed is paramount.

Once that is sorted ones goes on to the business of maintaining the output. As with all other businesses that require human resource management, supply chain management and plant and equipment maintenance.

Very few dull moments!


Can you tell us about the distillery itself?
All our rums begin with molasses. We ferment the diluted molasses with our own yeast. Careful attention to the operating conditions produces a ‘wine’ or ‘wash’ that we believe is unique to us, containing the alcohol and congeners that will be separated and refined during distillation into Angostura rum.

At Angostura, we use continuous distillation – a multi-column still unit consisting of five columns. The first column is the ‘wash column’; it separates the rum from the fermented ‘wash’. Starting with the 5-9% alcohol in the ‘wash’, this column removes the water and yields ‘heavy rum’ – a full-flavoured rum between 80 – 85% alcohol. This rum is placed in oak barrels to be aged.

For lighter-bodied rums, the unaged ‘heavy rum’ is distilled in the other three columns where it is further refined to reduce the level of the congeners in the liquid – the product, a ‘light rum’, is about 95% alcohol. The fifth column is a ‘recovery’ column whose main role is to ensure maximum product yield.

Our system of continuous distillation allows Angostura the flexibility to manufacture rums of varying character – congener levels – and provides many more options of taste and flavour that is seen in our blended aged rums. Our stills generally run 24 hours a day for 320 to 330 days a year. Between the distilling and ageing functions we have a compliment of about 50 employees.

Can you tell us a bit about the history of the distillery?
Angostura has been involved in with rum since its early days in Trinidad – circa 1878.

Although our company was created to make our famous Angostura Aromatic Bitters in the town of Angostura (now Cuidad Bolivar) in Venezuela, we moved to Trinidad in 1875 and have been here ever since. Rum was added to the company’s product line in Trinidad and at first it was based on aging and blending rums made by others. We finally built and commissioned our own distillery and began operation in 1949. In those days we operated for about six months in a year producing about 1 million litres.

We are now capable of producing up to 20 million litres per year. In addition, we can accommodate up to 80,000 casks in our six (6) aging warehouses

I just missed working with that first still that served us so well until the early seventies. When I joined Angostura in 1982, about a year after graduating with a degree in Chemical Engineering, we were on our second unit and now capable of producing 6 million litres. I was part of the team that expanded our distilling capacity by a further 8 million litres in 1987. In 1999 we had one further expansion, making us now capable of producing up to 20 million litres.


Distillery: Saint James
Where: Martinique
Products: St James Agricole Rhum

Saint James has an enviable place in the production of rhum agricole. They’ve traced their history back some 250 years to the establishment of a sugar mill in 1765. Interesting factoid: they created the first vintage rhum agricole in 1884 for a special banquet, and in 1885 sold a vintage rhum for the first time. They own the sugar cane that is used for their rhum, which gives them control over the process, and they draw from some 450 hectares of plantings.
We spoke to Marc Sassier who oversees production at Saint James.

What does your typical working day?
Generally, I am on the Saint James site between 6.30 am and 5.00 pm. As the quality manager, my missions are divided into two main periods: the cut of the cane and the inter-harvest.

The cut is the most active period, six days a week. During the week and each day, I realize these daily missions at the Saint James plantations: Control of the fermentation process of the molasses; Control of the rums distilled the day before; Identification of the future white rums, aged in wooden casks rums or other old rums; Definition of the instructions depending of the previous day and the quality of the harvest; Follow up of the supply of canes, from our own plantations in Martinique; Interaction with the laboratory to control the fermentation qualities (pH, yeast etc); Follow up of the customs rules and accounting.

The inter-harvest concerns the rest of the year. During this period, we have to allocate the rums: we have to do the repartition and allocation of the rums, such as: Identify the white rums.; Maturation in large oak casks for amber rums; Ageing in small oak casks for the future old rums.

Some bottles are also produced for the Saint James Museum.

At the same time, we are developing new products (liqueurs, aged rums…). This is the most strategic but not the most time-consuming period.

Can you tell us a little about the Distillery Saint James?
Saint James Agricole Rums, certified by the AOC Martinique are all distilled in creole columns, using a continuous unique distillation. Creole columns are specific of French Indies area. Its platters are larger in order to ensure an efficient distillation with a low degree cane wine.

With the acquisition of the Saint James distillery in 2003 by La Martinquaise Group, we have gone from a production of 3.2 million liters (55%Alc. rums) to at least 3.8 million liters each year and we have already exceeded 4 million liters.
Indeed, this is the first appearance of the Saint James Rum with a strong brand identity. The trademark was registered in 1882. The identity of Saint James embodied by the Agricole and aged rums. Pioneer, Saint James invented the vintage principle and maintains an interesting ageing potential with 13.000 barrels, mostly Bourbon barrels which give to our rums its typical roasted character, largely awarded at professional competitions since 1893.

Nethertheless, Saint James still stays at a human scale with 53 employees (production, technical support, executive and museum) and 30 employees in the plantations.


Producer: Atlantico Rum
Where: Dominican Republic
Products: Atlantico rums

Atlantico rums have won awards, and that’s down to the way they’re made. Made in the Dominican Republic, they use rums distilled from both the fresh juice of sugar cane — much like agricole rum is made — and they use rums made from molasses.
The genius in the Atlantico rum process takes place in the blending. They blend different styles of rums — for example, those from the fresh sugar cane juice and those from molasses — and they blend different ages of rums.

That’s what happens in their solera.We spoke to Omar Vicente, the man in charge of overseeing the soleras and Atlantico’s master blender, and about how they go about their work.

What does a typical day of work involve for you?
My day usually begins with a visit to our cellar. Each morning I take a walk and verify by section the state of the barrels. Samples of rum are taken and brought to the laboratory where we perform product testing to check that the organoleptic and physico-chemical properties remain under our established standards. Once the samples are are tested, I spend time either developing new blends or making sure everything is ready if we are bottling that day.


Can you tell us a bit about the blending facility itself — how big is it, how many stages are there in the solera system you use?
We have a fairly large solera but the amount of rum varies depending on if we have just bottled or if rum was recently distilled and brought to the solera for aging. Within the solera, we have different sections that have different layers (depending on the types of rum that will go int the specific blend). Generally speaking, we tend to use four and five layers in our sections.

The blending process is very rigorous, we must monitor the barrels and confirm that the barrel interaction – effective content, the aim is to achieve an identical batches of previous productions lot.

Can you tell us a bit about why the solera system is important to Atlántico and how if affects the liquid in the bottle?
The Solera system is paramount in Atlantico’s aging process because it allows us to achieve homogeneity between annual production and ponder the vintage. This is extremely important when you are aging in a place like the Dominican Republic where weather can be extreme (hot, wet, humid) and greatly impact the rums. Without using the solera system, each batch would likely vary greatly from previous ones.

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