Don Q Deep Dive

In the annals of rum history, Puerto Rico often gets short shrift. While the stories of Barbados, Jamaica, and Martinique rums are well trod ground for writers, Puerto Rico’s rum story is far less known despite being the largest producer of Caribbean rum today.

One reason for the lack of attention among enthusiasts is that the countless millions of gallons of light “silver” rums flowing from Puerto Rico don’t stoke the passions of rum connoisseurs. But the island is much more than these light rums.

Another reason Puerto Rico’s story isn’t told as often is that it’s only been a significant exporter of rum for eighty years. But look past these reasons and you’ll see a rich rum history with plenty to excite rum lovers. When it comes to Puerto Rican rum history, only one producer has been there since the beginning: Destilería Serrallés.

I recently visited their distillery and came away with a far
deeper appreciation for their central role in Puerto Rican rum history. And what
they’re doing today is equally impressive. Before jumping into the modern-day
details of Destilería Serrallés, let’s hop in the time machine, set the dial
for the early 1800s, and see how it came to be.

Our story begins in the 1820s when Sebastián Serrallés
arrives in the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico. At this point in history, Caribbean
sugar cane production had been going strong for nearly two centuries. Sebastián
soon established a sugar cane estate in Ponce on the southern coast of the
island, where Destilería Serrallés is still based today.

It was Don Juan Serrallés, Sebastián’s son, who led the
family into the rum business in 1865 by purchasing a small French-made batch
still topped with a short neck containing several plates. Also around this time,
Facundo Bacardi began distilling in Cuba, another Spanish colony. It was the
start of many rum-related happenings connecting the two colonies.

Around 1890, both Cuba and Puerto Rico acquired their first
column stills, setting the foundation for the “Spanish heritage” style of rum,
characterized by a relatively short molasses ferment, column distillation, blending
of light and heavier rums, and a lighter flavor profile when compared to pot
still rums from Jamaica, Guyana and elsewhere. By 1897, there were 198
distilleries on Puerto Rico producing over 1.6 million gallons of rum, most which
was consumed locally. Compared to other Caribbean colonies, this was a
relatively moderate amount at the time.

1898 brought the Spanish-American war, a relatively quick
conflict ending decisively in America’s favor and starting it on the path to world
power status. The 1898
Treaty of Paris
effectively gave the U.S. control over Puerto Rico and Cuba,
along with other Spanish territories including Guam and the Philippines.  However, while Cuba gained formal independence
in 1902, Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory to this day.

In 1917, the U.S. Congress enacted the rum cover-over
provision. In brief, federal taxes collected from Puerto Rican manufacturers were
sent back, or covered-over, to the Puerto Rican treasury. This includes the
excise tax on distilled spirits. The goal of the cover-over was to supply funds
to the local government for infrastructure improvements and related causes. The details of the rum
cover-over
are enormously complicated and addressed elsewhere, so I will
leave it at that for now. However, it should be noted that the rum cover-over exists
to this day, both for Puerto Rico and for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

1917 also brought prohibition to Puerto Rico, two years
prior to the States. However, a small amount of “medicinal” rum production was sanctioned,
similar to medicinal whiskey production in Kentucky during prohibition. Several
rum makers on the island, including Serrallés, remained in business by
temporarily switching to other types of production.

The end of prohibition in 1933 lit the big bang moment for
Puerto Rican rum. Distilleries started making rum again with gusto, eager to
supply the now-legal U.S. market. Serrallés was quick out of the gate to
capitalize on the opportunity. They expanded production capacity by adding a
five-column still which allowed them to make either rum or fuel ethanol; whichever
was most in the demand at the moment.

Prohibition’s end also brought a new tax scheme on spirits
imported into the U.S.; the upshot was that domestically made spirits paid less
taxes. So big was the American market that Bacardi, then operating primarily in
Cuba, saw financial benefit in building a new distillery in Puerto Rico in 1936
to provide rums for the American market.

As the 1930s segued into the 1940s rum production in Puerto
Rico grew substantially every year. With increased production came increased
excise taxes feeding the island’s treasury by way of the cover-over. During
this time, vast amounts of public works were effectively subsidized by Puerto
Rican rum sales.

The onset of the U.S. entering World War II in late 1941 lit
the afterburners of Puerto Rico’s rum economy. U.S. wartime regulations
required reserving grain for war-related purposes, effectively shutting down
American whiskey production. Rum from Puerto Rican and elsewhere in the
Caribbean flooded into the U.S. to fill the gap left by the whiskey industry
pause.

To give a sense how much rum production rose during the WW
II era, in 1940 Puerto Rico shipped 1.4 million gallons to the U.S. Four years
later in 1944, it was six million gallons. In that year, the island made 7.3
million gallons of rum, but sources indicate it was capable of making at least
14 million gallons.[1]

With every boom comes a bust. For Puerto Rico’s rum makers,
it was the end of World War II when mainland whiskey distilleries resumed
production. Furthering Puerto Rico’s woes, the ravenous wartime call for
spirits of any kind had the island shipping unaged or very lightly aged rum as soon
as it was made. Relatively little or no high-quality aged stocks remained in
warehouses.

With the island so dependent on carry-over taxes from the
rum industry, the government worked quickly to bring rum-related revenues back
up. One approach was improving the reputation of the island’s rum by setting a
minimum quality bar on exported rum.

Those regulations still exist today. In brief, genuine
Puerto Rican rum must be:

  • Distilled and aged in Puerto Rico
  • Molasses based
  • Distilled in a continuous column
  • Aged for a minimum of 1 year in American white
    oak barrels

Another blow to Puerto Rico’s rum industry in the post-war
era was the demise of the island’s sugar cane industry. The once plentiful
molasses that distilleries relied on began to come from elsewhere. A sad
reminder of Puerto Rico’s once great sugar industry is just across the road
from Destilería Serrallés: The long-shuttered remains of the Serrallés sugar factory.

Defunct Serrallés sugar factory

The 1959 Cuban Revolution left Bacardi without their
facilities in Cuba, so Puerto Rico became the new center of their distilling
operations. Over the following decades, Bacardi became a household name and the
largest Caribbean rum brand.

Meanwhile, the Serrallés family business also grew and in 1985 they acquired
the assets of Puerto Rico Distillers, Inc., a subsidiary of the Canadian
spirits giant Seagram’s. The acquisition brought additional brands such as Ronrico
and Palo Viejo to the Serrallés portfolio.

That deal also gave Serrallés the rights to produce and distribute Captain
Morgan rum in the Caribbean, and they made an enormous amount of it over the
following decades. In 2007, partially in anticipation of more Captain Morgan
business, Serrallés substantially increased their distillation capacity by
adding a second multi-column still to replace most of the original 1934 still.  (The “beer” column is still used today. More
on that later.)

In 2011, Diageo, who by then had purchased the Captain
Morgan brand, opted to discontinue its license with Serrallés and move
production to St. Croix USVI. This move was in part due Diageo striking a
favorable financial deal with the USVI government involving parts of the
cover-over money.

In 2019, Serrallés announced a major, $22 million expansion,
including increased distillation capacity and major upgrades to their bottling
line capacity.

In 1934 Serrallés inaugurated the Don Q brand. Don Q refers
to Don Quixote, the main character from the eponymous novel by Miguel de
Cervantes. The brand has been continuously sold in the U.S. since then, albeit waxing
and waning in availability. The Don Q brand is Serrallés’ premium export brand,
as well as the number one selling rum in Puerto Rico.

Besides Don Q, the company also makes cane-based vodka, as
well as other local rum brands such as Palo Viejo, which is the number two
selling rum brand on the island.

In the early years, Don Q was imported into the states via national
importers like Schieffelin and Heublein. Seeking to better control things, Serrallés
set up Don Q Imports in the 1960s to manage their own importing. By the 1980s Don
Q Imports was shuttered, although the brand remained in a few states via an
agency arrangement with Jim Beam. In 2006, Serrallés USA was formed to
essentially re-launch the brand and broaden its distribution within the U.S.

Conveniently, this brings us to the topic of Roberto Serrallés, once the president of Serrallés USA and current Vice President of Business development .

Roberto Serrallés (right)

Destilería Serrallés is one of the few remaining
family-owned Caribbean distilleries. Although the current CEO, Philippe Brechot,
is not a family member, the rum making tradition lives on with Roberto Serrallés.
Roberto is on the company’s board of directors, as well as Vice President of
Business development and an architect of the Serralles USA venture. Roberto is
no bean counter. He’s very hands on, taking a substantial role in modernizing
operations and substantially reducing environmental impact – more on this
later.

Now in his early 50s, Roberto is very personable and passionate. After growing
up in Puerto Rico, he headed to the U.S. mainland where he obtained his PhD in
environmental studies from the University of Oregon. Originally thinking he
would remain in academia, he was instead brought back into the family business
in 2004 to help with wastewater treatment issues. His role has increased substantially
since then and he frequently represents the company at rum events around the
world.

Roberto Serrallés

As a former academic, it’s not surprising that Roberto is
very enthusiastic about teaching. During our visit Roberto brought us into his
office, sat us in front of a whiteboard, and spent 45 minutes animatedly described
rum making at Serrallés in astonishing detail; You might even think he was born
with a whiteboard marker in hand!

Before geeking out over the Serrallés distillery details,
it’s helpful to understand the type of rum that Serrallés makes. Many rum
producers from former Spanish colonies such Cuba, Puerto Rico and Panama make
rum in a common style that some call “Spanish Style,” although I prefer
“Spanish Heritage”.

The common threads that connects Spanish heritage rums include
most or all of the following:

  • A molasses wash and a relatively short
    fermentation of a day or two.
  • Use of cultured yeast rather than wild yeast fermentation
  • Column distillation
  • Distilling both light rum (around in 94 percent
    ABV) in several columns, and heavier rum (around 75 percent ABV) in a single
    column
  • Blending light and heavy column rum together to make
    a variety of rum “bases” to complement the light and heavy rums.
  • Aging three or more base rums (light, medium,
    heavy) separately, then blending them together prior to bottling.

Serrallés follows this basic model of rum making, as does
Bacardi, Havana
Club
, Angostura, and numerous other distilleries. To read more about this,
see my Cuban
Rum Cheat Sheet
.

It’s important to note that there are some distilleries from
Spanish heritage countries like Venezuela that incorporate batch stills and
other techniques into their rum making. These rums are outside of the
particular Spanish heritage definition I gave above.

Let’s put on our hard hats and join Roberto in his golf cart
to enter the heart of Destilería Serrallés, travelling through it in the same sequence
that rum production follows.

The distillery is located in Ponce, about 3.5 miles from Puerto
Rico’s southern coast, roughly equidistant from the east and west coasts. Several
rivers flow through the mountains rising in the distance to the north. One of these
rivers has a historical connection to the distillery.

Water

Water is the lifeblood of distilling. A distillery without a
reliable, high quality water source won’t stay in business for long. I start
every distillery tour by asking about its water source.

Destilería Serrallés has a great story in this regard. The Río
Inabón river winds through Puerto Rico’s volcanic mountains and is one of fourteen
rivers in the Ponce region. Per the company’s site, the 1898 Treaty of Paris
granted exclusive use of the Río Inabón to the Serrallés family business.

Molasses

As our golf cart approaches the main distillery building, I
spy several enormous molasses tanks of varying sizes. According to Roberto, imported
molasses is approximately seventy percent of the direct cost of making rum here.
If sugar cane and the resulting molasses were available locally, that figure could
be substantially less. Unfortunately, a recent Serrallés experiment to grow
sugar cane and possibly reintroduce it on a wider scale was wiped out by
Hurricane Maria in 2017.

With no local molasses source, the distillery imports it
from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and sometimes other sources. Getting
high quality molasses with sufficient sugar content to ferment successfully is
challenging. With increasingly efficient sugar cane processing, fewer fermentable
sugars remain in the molasses. Dominican Republic molasses is usually the lowest
cost but must be blended with “high test” molasses to increase the sugar levels.
High test molasses is just partially inverted cane syrup from which no sugar
has been removed.

The distillery keeps around 9 million gallons of molasses on
site. At the nearby port you’ll find another 2 million gallons in reserve.

Fermentation

At Serrallés, fermentation starts
by diluting the molasses blend with water down to 40 brix. (Brix is the amount
of sugar in a water solution.) The molasses/water mix blend is then heated and
kept at 170 Fahrenheit for five minutes to pasteurize it. Afterwards, it’s is
further reduced with more water to 20 brix, ready for fermentation.

Molasses pasteurization isn’t particularly common in the rum
world. It eliminates any wild yeast and bacteria, thus enabling a more
consistent product fermented only with the desired yeast strain. In contrast,
pasteurizing would be anathema at a distillery like Hampden
Estate
or River Antoine which rely on natural, airborne yeast for their
unique flavor.

The yeast Serrallés uses is a special strain, isolated in
the 1950s.  It goes into one of fourteen
fermentation tanks that feed the nearby column stills. The nine original tanks
hold 35,000 gallons each. They were later augmented by four more 70,000 gallons
tanks. Two additional 200,000 gallons tanks round out the lot. As you would
expect in an operation that values consistency, all fermenters are temperature controlled
to prevent the fermenting liquid from getting too warm.

There are two primary fermentation protocols used at Serrallés;
one for light rum, the other for heavy rum.

Approximately 95 percent of the rum made at Destilería
Serrallés is light rum, made using a 40 to 44-hour fermentation, resulting in a
wash of around nine percent ABV.

In contrast, heavy rum (the other five percent of the rum
made there) uses a substantially longer seven to ten-day ferment and yielding a
similar nine percent ABV wash.

Distillation

Our golf cart comes to a rest near a large factory-looking
building, which in fact it is – a rum factory. Roughly six stories tall and
partially sheathed in corrugated metal siding, it holds a menagerie of metal
pipes, columns and walkways going every direction imaginable. Embedded
somewhere within the maze is the 1934-built column still that made all the
company’s rum till 2007.

Stillhouse
1934 column still

Stepping inside, we come face-to-face with one of its very
large and tall columns. It’s reminiscent of the many bourbon stills in
Kentucky. The resemblance is further confirmed by the “VENDOME” on the many oval
portal doors running up the still that allow access to the plates within. Stills
made by Vendome Copper & Brass Works are synonymous with American
bourbon
, but here we find one in the Caribbean, thousands of miles from the
Bourbon heartland.

1934 column still – Note: “VENDOME, LOUiSVILLE”

The first column, aka the “beer” column has over a dozen plates
within. It’s the only portion of the original five column still in everyday
use. Operated at full capacity, the 1934 still could pump out 12 million proof
gallons of rum per year. These days the beer column is used exclusively for
distilling the Serrallés heavy rum which emerges at around 75 percent ABV.

Next, Roberto and his golf cart take us on a very short ride
to a very different looking distilling apparatus. Unlike the confusing maze of
equipment within the 1934 stillhouse, the 2007-built five-column still is easy
to pick out from the surroundings. Encased within a neat grid of orthogonal
beams and walkways, the silver columns jut into the sky.

2007 five-column still

Run at full capacity, the 2007 still is capable of 22
million proof gallons of rum per year. It distills the company’s light rum,
which comes off at approximately 94.5 percent ABV.  Our time was short, so we didn’t ascend the
stairways to view the distillery from above. Instead, we made a quick stop at
the distillery control center to gawk at the phalanx of monitors showing key
distillery operations in real time.

Traditional Aging

Another spin in the golf cart takes us to one of several
on-site aging warehouses. In total, the company has somewhere around 100,000 to
110,000 casks of rum in stock. The vast majority are ex-bourbon casks, but a
few surprises await us. More on that in a bit.

Light rum enters the cask at between 55 to 65 percent ABV,
while the less plentiful heavy rum goes is casked between 65 and 75 percent
ABV. According to Roberto, around 5,000 casks reach the end of their useful
life each year and are pulled from service. A little math shows that the
typical cask spends about twenty years in service here.

But wait, there’s more! Like many distilleries, Serrallés consolidates
casks of the same vintage rum. For example, ten casks that are each 70 percent
full could be consolidated to just seven casks, each 100 percent full.
Eliminating the air space in a cask reduces evaporation, aka the angel’s share.
It also frees up casks to use with the next rum batch.

Earlier, I mentioned that besides light and heavy rum, Serrallés
also has a medium rum, made by blending light and heavy rums prior to aging.
Wonk that I am, I asked how much medium rum was blended, and what the ratio of
light to heavy rum in the blend is. Alas, it’s a company secret, but I tried!

Solera Aging

Entering the aging warehouse designated for visits like ours,
it’s impossible to miss the rows of sherry casks, stacked vertically,
three-high. In total, there’s 131 casks. Yes, what we have here is a solera, and
a real one at that. Not one of those faux-soleras that rum enthusiasts rail
against
. These casks once aged Osborne Oloroso
sherry
, but now hold a small proportion of Serrallés’ rum for decades. A
solera in Puerto Rico isn’t too surprising, given the island’s long history as
a colony of Spain, where solera aging originated.

Technically, what Serrallés has is a three-level solera,
meaning it has two criaderas (levels), with the bottom (oldest) level being the
actual solera. Sherry soleras in Spain typically have many more levels, but a
three-level solera is nothing to sneeze at. In order to keep things simple for
those not versed in solera terminology, I’ll just call them the youngest,
middle, and oldest levels.

Heavy rum with at least four years of ex-bourbon cask aging
goes into the youngest level. Rum in the middle level has an average age of
around 20 years and is occasionally replenished with rum from the youngest level.
As for the oldest (bottommost) level, the rum within those casks is occasionally
replenished with rum from the middle level. Within the oldest level there is rum
up to 53 years old, i.e., when the solera started.

You’re probably wondering how this solera aged rum tastes.
During a “build your own blend” session with Roberto, we found out. It’s very,
very intense, even for someone who drinks super
high ester
Jamaican rums and Grand Arôme without flinching. After many decades in a cask, the solera rum is extremely
tannic, yet rich with other flavors. It’s assuredly a rum for blending in very
small quantities with lighter rums, much like bitters in a cocktail.

Behind the enormous solera, we spied more large casks
resting on the floor. A peek at their label revealed that some were ex-vermouth
casks, some were ex-sherry casks, and a few I can’t reveal. These casks are the
final step in creating the Don Q limited editions, which to date consist of the
Vermouth Cask Finish and Sherry Cask finish rums.

Puerto Rico has two of the largest rum distilleries in the
world. In terms of case volume, Bacardi is by far the largest Caribbean rum
brand in the world, selling 17.1 million 9-liter cases in 2018. However, when
it comes to bulk rum for export, Serrallés is the top dog on the island.
According to experts, the distillery is among the largest bulk rum producers in
the Caribbean.

At the time of this writing, the distillery is capable of
producing 22 million proof gallons of rum per year, which isn’t to say it
always makes that quantity. Of the rum made, approximately twenty percent goes
to company owned brands like Don Q and Palo Viejo. The remaining 80 percent is
exported as unaged bulk rum.

Some within the rum industry have portrayed bulk rum
producers and their five column stills as incapable of making high quality rum.
However, with the right equipment and expertise, a distillery can make both
high quality rum as well as light, bulk rum. One does not prevent the other and
it’s a common model for many Caribbean distilleries.

In today’s market, there’s a demand for bulk rum, and it doesn’t make economic
sense for large distilleries to limit production to just what they age and sell
themselves. There’s a lot of money tied up in human and physical capital, molasses
storage, fermenters, control rooms and other items common to both types of rum
making. To not capitalize on that is to leave money on the table.

Given Roberto’s passion for environment issues, it’s no
surprise that the distillery is on the leading edge of reducing environmental
impact. There are three main thrusts: Clean water, energy efficiency, and carbon
dioxide emissions.

Clean Water

Distilleries use a phenomenal amount of water for
fermentation, distillation, and other uses. Three times more wastewater is
created than alcohol produced! The resulting wastewater has many compounds that
can harm the environment in sufficient quantity. In the old days, this water
might have been dumped into a field or drained into the ocean. In the modern
era, this isn’t acceptable.

Over time, Roberto developed a complex system to process
wastewater. I won’t attempt to describe it in full detail here but will instead
convey some key points. A graphical
version
of it can be found on the DonQ site if you want to learn more.

The system uses both aerobic and anaerobic digestions,
which use bacteria to break down compounds into other forms and make them more
easily separable from water. The methane gas that results from anerobic
digestion can be collected for later use. The company has tested separating
some of the solids from the wastewater through centrifuges and is evaluating
mixing it with wood chips from shipping palettes to create an industrial
compost. After the wastewater treatment, the resulting water is clean enough for
irrigation.

Energy Efficiency

Distilleries also use a phenomenal amount of energy to heat
water and pump things around. Destilería Serrallés previously consumed around
two million gallons of crude oil per year towards that end. However, after
collecting the methane generated during wastewater treatment, the distillery
uses it as an alternative fuel source. Nowadays, the methane (with additional
treatment), may supply about fifty percent of the distillery’s energy, saving
around one million gallons of crude oil annually.

Another win on the energy front comes from a rather clever
use of solar power. With storage for 100,000 casks, there’s plenty of roof area
atop the aging warehouses, making a perfect spot for solar panels. The panels create
one megawatt of power for use by the distillery. That’s nice, but not the clever
part!

The solar panels also shield the warehouse roof from direct
sun, thus reducing the warehouse internal temperature. This reduction in
temperature leads to lower evaporative losses from casks, i.e. the angel’s
share. Measurements taken with and without the panels showed the angel’s share
went down by one percent, e.g. from six percent to five percent annually. The
amount of rum “saved” paid for the panels within six months!

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

All the fermenters at Serrallés are closed, rather than open
air. Fermentation creates large amounts of carbon dioxide, which has a negative
environmental impact in sufficient quantity. The company has collected it for
use by the local island soda manufacturers for carbonating their beverages.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government recently changed
regulations for the allowed refrigerants needed to condense the gas into liquid
form. As such, the company is undergoing an expensive process to rework their
equipment to be compliant and start collecting it again.

Besides making less expensive carbon dioxide for local
companies, collecting it also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide shipped to
the island from elsewhere, further reducing environmental impact.

While collecting carbon dioxide from fermentation isn’t
unique to Serrallés, it’s still worth highlighting as an approach that
distilleries take to go “greener”.

Having seen firsthand the various base rums that Serrallés
makes, I was finally able to wrap my head around exactly what’s in the many
expressions they offer. These details come from Don G Global Ambassador Alexx
Mouzouris and Roberto. Some of them may surprise you!

Main Lineup

Don Q Cristal: A blend of light rums aged from 1.5 to
three years. Charcoal filtered.

Don Q Gold: A blend of light rums aged from two to five
years.

Don Q Añejo: A blend of light and medium rums aged
from three to eight years.

Gran Añejo: A blend of light, medium and heavy rums aged
nine to twelve years. Also contains some rum from the oldest solera level (up
to 53 years.)

151: A blend of medium and heavy rums aged from 1-5
years.

Caliche: A blend of three, four, and five-year light
and medium rums, plus a bit of medium level solera rum. Charcoal filtered.  (Note: Caliche is not part of the Don Q lineup
but is a lovely and flavorful lightly aged/filtered rum.)

Limited Editions

2005 Single Barrel: 100 percent light rum. Distilled
in 2005. Casked at 65 percent ABV.

2007 Single Barrel: 100 percent medium rum. Distilled
in 2007. Aged for nine years. Casked at 60 percent ABV.

2009 Single Barrel: 100 percent light rum. Distilled
in 2009. Casked at 65 percent ABV in once used light whiskey casks.

Vermouth Cask Finish: A blend of light, medium and
heavy rums. Aged for five to eight years. Finished for four to six weeks in
Mancino Vermouth Vecchio casks. (Vecchio is a sweet, red vermouth.)

Sherry Cask Finish: A blend of light, medium and
heavy rums. Aged for five to eight years. Finished for one year in an Osborne
Oloroso sherry cask.

Gran Reserva de la Familia Serrallés: Medium rum. Aged for twenty
years. Note: Only 1865 bottles were made. It celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Serrallés company making rum and is priced at $1865.


Having visited Destilería Serrallés, I have a new
appreciation for the island’s historical place in rum making. While some people
choose to mischaracterize the island’s rum as flavorless, the reality is far
different. Puerto Rico now has plenty of great rums to excite the connoisseur’s
palate, and a bright future ahead of it.


[1] Condition
of Puerto Rican Sugar Industry: Hearings Before the Committee on Insular
Affairs, House of Representatives, Seventy-ninth Congress, First Session, on
Condition of Puerto Rican Sugar Industry, Washington, D. C; U.S. Government
Printing Office, 1945

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