Being true pirates of the Caribbean, we have a healthy affinity for rum. One or two rum drinks a day keeps the parasites away and a squeeze of lime wards off any outbreak of scurvy- something you have to be vigilant about when living on a boat. We usually have at least two cases of white and two cases of dark rum in stock at any given time. This ensures that we will always have an ample supply for Cuba Libres, Ti Punches, Daiquiris, Pina Coladas, Planteur’s Punches and Painkillers.
We also make an effort to visit a rum distillery on the rum producing islands that we visit. It is a pilgrimage that allows us to witness firsthand how this wonderful spirit originates and allows us to sample the goods thus refining our palettes to better determine what we like and what we don’t. Inevitably, at each place we visit, we find more and more rums we like. Our shelves are overflowing with rum. We have rum stored in virtually every cubbyhole on board- in the kitchen, in the bedroom, even in the bathroom.
Each distillery we have visited is unique and beautiful, with most of them laid out on large estates with manicured gardens, lush landscapes and a plethora of libations to reward your visit. From all of our visits, we have learned to divide rums into two types, those that are made from molasses and those that are made from pure cane. It is this second type- called Rhum Agricole- that we find very special. It is also rarer to find a rum agricole distillery. To make this type of rum, you must have a sugar cane crop, which means you must have lots of land, the right climate, and more labor to help cultivate it. Whereas, distilleries producing molasses based rum need only receive a shipment of molasses to begin the rum making process.
We recently visited our favorite rum agricole distillery yet, the Rivers Antoine Rum Distillery. Located on the Northeaster tip on Grenada, Rivers founded in 1785, encompasses over 500 acres of cane fields with a cascading river running through it to provide an endless supply of fresh water. This fresh water is the life blood of the rum they produce. What is unique about Rivers is that all of the rum production is done by hand with no modern machinery and no electric power. Rum is made the old fashioned way, and is dependent upon the supply of fresh water to spin the giant wheel that powers the cane grinder and starts the whole process in motion.
We had Whitfield as our guide to walk us through the entire rum making process at Rivers. First the cane is cut and bundled and transported back to the main building. Once there, one of the oldest working water wheels in the world powers the cane grinder. Workers are continually pushing cane in the giant grinder to be mashed and re-mashed to get out every last bit of juice. The workers then load the used cane into carts and manually push them away to be used as compost or fuel. The cane juice flows into giant cast iron pots where it gets boiled by fire fueled by mashed cane. After boiling, the juice is ladled into large vats for fermentation. The juice sits and ferments into a bubbly, sickly sweet smelling stew while sugar turns into alcohol. Once finished with this process, the juice then flows into large copper distillation tanks that are heated by a wood burning fire. The rum is distilled until it reaches the desired alcohol content. For Rivers this is at least 75% alcohol! It it is not at this level, it is sent back to continue the distillation process.
Once the rum is tested by a chemist and passes muster, the batch is sent to an underground holding tank. The rum remains in this holding tank under lock until a government official visits each Friday to measure the amount produced with a 7 foot tall dipstick (this determines the amount of tax levied on the distillery each week). Once the government gets its cut, the rum is unlocked, bottled and boxed to be shipped to restaurants and bars across Grenada. The rum is never exported (it is too strong and thus banned on airplanes) and is only for the consumption and enjoyment of Grenadians. The output each year is modest and depends on the amount of rainfall- high rain means more water and more power to the waterwheel to get the process going, low rain means less spin to the wheel and less rum.
The end product packs a potent punch and while not the smoothest and most refined of rums, is quite good nonetheless and only $10 a bottle. What is priceless about Rivers though is the pride and tradition that governs the entire establishment. Also, the opportunity to see the entire process first hand and chat with the people who are making it while they are making it was awesome. Nothing in the more modern distilleries can compare to walking over the mashed cane, leaning over a huge copper pot of bubbly goo, sitting down with the chemist as he samples a batch and deems it too weak or watching the manager slap a fake label over a bottle so that we can take it back to the US. Cheers to Rivers Antoine Rum!