Still Life: Saint Lucia Distillers

Every few months, a tanker ship pulls into Saint Lucia’s Roseau Bay, and anchors. A diver drops into the water and attaches an 8-inch flexible hose to the ship. The hose is connected to a 12-inch pipeline that runs for 194 meters underwater before hitting land and popping up in the middle of a beach and continuing overland for just over a kilometer. Eventually the pipe connects to one of several gigantic tanks.

For the next several hours, thick black liquid flows from
the ship to the tank. This liquid is vital to the site’s operation. The liquid
isn’t oil. Rather, it’s molasses. Since Saint Lucia no longer grows enough
sugar to make any appreciable amount of molasses, this undersea dance is how
the one distillery on the island – St. Lucia Distillers – gets its vital
feedstock.

This unusual way of getting rum’s raw material to where it’s
needed is but just one of many unique things about the Island’s only rum
distillery. I experienced many aspects of this firsthand on a May 2019 visit to
Saint Lucia to meet
with WIRSPA
representatives.

Style-wise, St. Lucia Distillers is an amalgamation of many
other Caribbean distillery templates. It uses both cane juice and molasses, multiple
yeast strains, and three different types of stills – we’ll dive deep into them
later. All these production options let them create a wide variety of base rums
which they blend into several product lines with many different expressions. Unlike
distilleries which hew to all pot distilled or all column distilled rums, St.
Lucia’s Distillers center of gravity is a blend of pot and column still rum, something
also seen in other islands such as Barbados and Jamaica.

Briefly recounting the history of St. Lucian rum, historical
research shows that St. Lucia wasn’t a large rum exporter during the 1800s to
mid-1900s. The available export figures never rise above 70,000 gallons per
year, a tiny amount compared to Jamaica, Demerara and Martinique, which exported
millions of gallons every year.

The St. Lucia Distillers story starts in 1931 when Denis
Barnard built a distillery at Dennery, on the eastern shores of St. Lucia.  Four decades later in 1972, the Barnard family
merged operations with the Geest family, who owned the only other operating rum
distillery on the island. The Geest’s Roseau Bay Distillery was situated on the
opposite side of the Island, due west of the Dennery distillery.

After the two families merged operations in 1972, production
stopped at the Dennery distillery and all production moved to the Roseau Bay
facility.

The first rum from the combined operation was named Denros, created
from the first three letters of each distillery – “Den” and “Ros”. Denros Strong
Rum, an unaged and 80 percent ABV firebreather is still sold today on St.
Lucia.

In 1993, the Barnard family bought out the Geest family’s
shares to take full ownership of the company, albeit at a different distillery
than they built in 1931.

The winds of change increased in 1998 when the Barnards sold
24.9 percent of the company to Trinidad’s Angostura Limited – Yes, that
Angostura of bitters and rum fame. The parent company of Angostura, CLICO, later bought the remaining shares of St. Lucia
Distillers in 2005 to take full ownership.  However, Laurie Barnard, the grandson of Denis
Barnard remained as the Managing Director till his passing in 2012.

2009 brought the financial collapse of CL Financial, the overarching
parent company of St. Lucia Distillers, as well as Angostura, Appleton and E&A
Scheer
. In the decade prior, CL Financial had bought up many high profile
spirit producers before going bankrupt. It’s a tangled tale that I wrote about here.
 For our purposes, St. Lucia Distillers
was essentially up for sale from 2009 onward.

A new corporate parent appeared in 2016 in the form of Spiribam,
the spirits division of Groupe Bernard Hayot (GBH). GBH already owned Martinique’s Rhum
Clemént
and Rhum
J.M
in their portfolio, and Saint  Lucia is just a short ferry ride from Martinique.

Spiribam soon started an aggressive renovation and upgrade
program for the distillery, as well as substantial revamping of the
distillery’s brand portfolio. More on this later.

It’s a hot, humid May morning when I arrive at St. Lucia
Distillers, henceforth referred to as SLD for brevity’s sake. After gawking at
the display case filled with dozens of alcoholic beverages made at the
distillery, I first meet Michael Speakman, SLD’s Sales & Marketing Director,
before being handed off to Lennox Wilson, the distillery’s production manager.

Wilson has a long history in the rum industry. Before coming
to SLD in 2009 he had worked for nearly every Jamaican rum producer, as well as
a stint in the beer industry. In short, he’s impeccably qualified to make the
many different rums that SLD is famous for.

Leaving the cooling confines of the administration building,
my tour begins where most distillery tours start — water sources. Here, the
distillery uses harvested rainwater, collected in various places around the
distillery grounds. Should rainfall be insufficient, they can tap into a
reserve pond owned by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Through a fence, and between us and the ocean, is a sugar cane
field. While Saint. Lucia long ago stopped growing cane on a commercial scale
in 1962, SLD maintains five acres of cane fields used to make cane juice rums. This
cane field provides a very small amount of the total fermentable material SLD
uses, but it enlarges the palette of rums for the blenders to work with, so is
a worthwhile investment.

Of course, the majority of the rums made at SLD originate
from molasses, which brings us back to the underwater pipeline delivering rum
straight from the tanker ship to the distillery’s molasses tanks. During my
visit, the distillery’s tanks held up to 2400 metric tons of molasses. However,
planned upgrades will double that, enabling them to store an entire year’s
supply of molasses on site. Currently, the molasses SLD purchases comes from
the Dominican Republic.

Another fun fact about SLD and ships involves the distillery’s
energy source. Their distillery’s steam requirements are met via three boilers,
powered by used ship oil. The savings from not buying diesel fuel defrays a
substantial amount of operational costs. In the event enough ship oil isn’t
available, they can use conventional diesel fuel to power the boilers.

Stepping into the main distillery building, Wilson and I
climb up to a catwalk that puts us next to several large steel talks where yeast
propagation occurs, as well as the mixing of yeast, water and molasses to make
a wash. The initial brix of the molasses is around 85 brix, which is brought
down to around 20 brix after dilution and before fermentation starts.

The final fermentation occurs at the other end of the
distillery building, in one of eight open air, temperature controlled tanks.
The typical fermentation takes around 36 to 40 hours, with a short resting
period of several hours afterwards. Two different yeast strains are employed,
known as Type A and Type B. The resulting fermented wash is around 7 percent
ABV.

When it comes to distillation options, SLD has a full house with
four stills, each different from the others:

John Dore 1

A small double retort pot still made by the John Dore company in 1998, and which recently underwent substantial refurbishment. Its capacity is 100 imperial gallons (454 liters) and can make just over 25,000 LAA (liters of absolute alcohol) per year.

Interestingly, during the refurbishment, the retorts were accidentally
installed in the wrong order. A few months after my visit, I was told that the
retorts will be restored to their original ordering at the next maintenance
interval.

Editorial note: this seemingly arcane detail of the still
refurbishment received a large amount of interest from SLD fans on Facebook after
I posted pictures of the retorts from my visit. It wasn’t long before multiple
before/after photos of the still were circulating and being closely scrutinized.
Never underestimate how wonky rum geeks will get!

John Dore 2

Another double retort still, and a substantially larger version of the John Dore 1, installed in 2005. At 6000 liters (or 1319 imperial gallons), the John Dore 2 has 13 times of the capacity of the John Dore 1 and can produce 168,000 LAA per year This still recently received a new swan neck connecting the pot to the first retort.

Vendome

A hybrid still, i.e. a pot still with an attached 8 plate column neck. It began operation in the beginning of 2003. The capacity is 300 imperial gallons (1363 liters) and it’s capable of making 20,360 LAA per year.  Purchased from Trinidad Distillers Ltd, aka Angostura.

The rum from this still is very recognizable to my taste
buds. It makes the rubbery notes that I’ve come to associate with certain SLD
rums.

McMillan Ltd Coffey

A twin column still, installed in 1985.  Three different rums are collected from different plates on this still. For lighter rums, yeast type A (mentioned earlier) is used for fermentation, with collection from a very high plate. For heavier rums, yeast type B is used, and collection happens on lower plates.

Asked about the ABV that each still reaches, Wilson informed
me that rum comes of the pot (batch) stills at around 85 percent ABV. Rum from
the Coffey still is around 95 percent ABV.

Let’s now briefly return to the sugar cane that SLD grows.
The resulting cane juice is a relatively small amount; so small that it’s not
viable to run it through the two larger stills, i.e. the John Dore 2 and the
Coffey still. Thus, any SLD cane juice rum was made with the John Dore 1 or
Vendome stills.

From these four stills, SLD makes eight different
distillates. Wait! How is this possible? Some stills make more than one type of
rum:

  • John Dore 1: Two distillates, one from a molasses wash, the other from a cane juice wash.
  • John Dore 2: One distillate from a molasses wash
  • Vendome: Two distillates, one from a molasses wash, the other from a cane juice wash.
  • McMillan Coffey: Three distillates (Light, medium, heavy) from a molasses wash.

As for the Coffey still distillates, the light spirit is
made with yeast strain “A” and is taken from a high plate, #40. While not
exactly neutral, it’s very light and is used primarily for blending or in the
Denros “Strong Rum”.

The medium and heavy Coffey still spirits ferment with yeast
strain “B.” The medium rum is collected from plate #32, while the heavy is
collected from plate #30. Unlike the light rum, the medium and heavy
distillates are aged prior to blending.

Speaking of aging, we didn’t visit any of the primary aging
warehouses during my visit. However, there was a smaller aging area within the
main distillery building that held a few hundred barrels. While very
picturesque in an “old time distillery” sort of way, future plans are for this
small aging area to become part of a visitor’s center. Sad as that might sound,
a modern visitor’s center is a much needed addition to the distillery if “civilian”
tourists are to come through, not just rum geeks.

Per Wilson, rums at SLD typically enter the cask at around
63 percent ABV. While most of the top tier rums from SLD contains a blend of rums
in the six to eleven year range, the distillery also has on hand rums aged up
to 19 years, which I was privileged to try. Some of these rums will end up as
single cask selections released into the market in the coming years.

The distillery portion of my visit wrapped up in the
blending hall, filled with tanks up to 10,000 gallons in capacity. I noticed several
finned contraptions on wheels, which the veteran distillery visitor would recognizable
as chill filtration units. SLD chill filters some of the rums it exports.
Adjoining the blending hall is a well-stocked laboratory, full of the usual
chemistry analysis equipment and hundreds of sample bottles of all manner of
shapes, sizes, coloring, and packaging.

With the distillery portion of my visit over, Wilson introduced
me over to Roger Miller, SLD’s Quality Assurance Coordinator and Laboratory
Supervisor. Miller and I adjourned to a blissfully cool boardroom. Waiting for
me at the head of a large conference table was a murderer’s row of sample
glasses filled with rum – nineteen in total. You’ll recall from earlier that
the distillery makes eight different types of distillates. Seven of them were present
in unaged form on the bottommost row. The middle row contained aged versions of
the distillates, and the top row contained final, bottled expressions. All
except the final row of samples were substantially over 40 percent ABV, so I
had my work cut out for me to stay sober!

With the aid of a slide presentation, Miller walked me through
the technical details of each sample. As cool as that was, what really knocked
my boat were the slides showing in great detail how many of the exported
expressions such as Chairman’s Reserve and Admiral Rodney are blended – from the
component distillates and aging protocols to the final blend. Truly a rum
geek’s dream Powerpoint presentation!

There was way too much detail in the presentation to fully capture here, but I noted some key points for the exported product lines:

Bounty

The Bounty line was originally only sold locally on Saint
Lucia as a value oriented brand. When Spiribam purchased SLD, they saw the
potential of distributing Bounty in other markets. Originally the Bounty line was
entirely column distilled rum. However, the newly added Bounty Premium Dark
expression has a bit of the Vendome pot still distillate.

Admiral Rodney

Named for an important British admiral of the 1700s, Admiral
Rodney rum was originally a single expression, column distilled rum, and a healthy
step up from the Bounty line. While Admiral Rodney was exported, it didn’t
receive nearly the marketing attention as the top tier Chairman’s Reserve line.
After the acquisition, Spiribam saw an opportunity and expanded Admiral Rodney
to three expressions. Each is column distilled rum from the McMillan still,
with substantially more age than the Bounty lineup rums.

The three Admiral Rodney expressions take their names from ships
in Rodney’s fleet which participated in the extremely important Battle of the
Saintes
in 1782.

The entry tier HMS Princessa is a blend of medium and
heavy column rums, aged for 5-7 years in ex-bourbon, followed by two years in ex-port
casks.

The middle tier HMS Royal Oak is comprised of medium column
distillate, aged in ex-bourbon casks for 6-12 years.  The Royal Oak blend is essentially unchanged
from the original Admiral Rodney blend.

The top shelf HMS Formidable is entirely the heavy column
distillate, aged for 10-15 years in ex-bourbon.

Chairman’s Reserve

The Chairman’s line represents the top tier of SLD rums. Originally
it was composed of four rums: The original Chairman’s Reserve, A lightly
aged/filtered white rum, a spiced rum, and the “Forgotten Cask”, originally a
limited edition made from Chairman’s Reserve that accidentally aged for an additional
four years after some casks were misplaced after a distillery fire.  The Forgotten Cask was so well received that
SLD decided to make more in the same style, albeit without forgetting where the
casks were.

1931

Beside the regularly released, top tier Chairman’s Reserve
rums, SLD also made a limited edition, yearly release of rums dubbed “1931”
after the distillery’s start date. Each year’s 1931 release was a different
blend of rums, differentiated by different label colors.

After Spiribam purchased SLD, it dispensed with the yearly
limited edition 1931 releases. However, it kept the 1931 moniker and bottle
format, locked the blend components, and made it the new top line expression in
the Chairman’s Reserve lineup. Restated, a “1931” style rum continues to be
made, but it’s no longer a limited release and doesn’t change from year to
year. It’s now known as “Chairman’s Reserve 1931.”

A brief overview of the Chairman’s Reserve lineup blends:

Chairman’s Reserve: A blend of pot and column still
rum, aged separately, then blended and further aged. The average age of the
blend, albeit not an age statement, is five years.

Chairman’s Reserve White:  A blend of pot and column still rums, aged
separately in American white oak for three to four years, then filtered for
color.

Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Original: The original
Chairman’s Reserve rum, infused with “Bois Bandé,” a local Caribbean bark
culturally known for its aphrodisiac qualities, as well as local spices and
fruits such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, vanilla, allspice, lemon and orange
peels.

Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Cask: Similar to the
baseline Chairman’s Reserve but aged longer. The rums in this blend are between
six and eleven years of age.

Chairman’s Reserve 1931: The blend of this rum is
difficult to describe, so I’ll let the picture here do the work. That said, it
contains seven distillates from all four SLD stills. Six use a molasses wash,
and one from cane juice. The resulting blend is 72 percent column and 28
percent pot, with rums aged between six and eleven years.

Except for a few very large producers, the rum industry
isn’t as profitable as you might think. Even well-known brands have struggled
to stay financially afloat and remain independent. Over the past decade, we’ve
seen hallowed brands snapped up by bigger spirits consortiums. For instance,
Mount Gay by Remy Cointreau, Appleton Estate by Campari, and West Indies Rum
Distillery by Plantation Rum.

To the credit of the aforementioned purchasers, each
acquisition was followed by a substantial infusion of money to refurbish and
upgrade equipment and revamp the marketing. In my visit to St. Lucia
Distillers, I saw the same dynamic at play. While a small part of me wishes
iconic distilleries could remain frozen of time, the reality is that only by
adapting and changing can these distilleries remain viable in an ever-expanding
spirits market. In that regard, I’m quite happy that St. Lucia Distillers and
its excellent rum portfolio are in good hands, making it possible for more
enthusiasts to visit the distillery, as well as continue to buy their
exceptional rums.

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