The Age of Angostura – Part One

You might think what follows is yet another story about Angostura Bitters. Sure, the iconic skinny bottle with the over-sized white label is as essential as shaker tins in cocktail bars around the globe. Hands stained red from the Trinidadian-made bitters are a sure sign of a professional bartender. And of course, there’s the story of the closely guarded recipes for Angostura bitters, known only to a tiny handful of people.

But Trinidad’s House of Angostura is much more than their famous
bitters; they are also the country’s last remaining rum producer. In fact,
Angostura’s rum distillery is one of the Caribbean’s largest.

I was recently fortunate to be Angostura’s invited guest to
see their operations. As hoped for, I came away with tons of photos and the
inside scoop on distillery operations and rums made there. Spending two full one-on-one
days with John Georges, Angostura’s master distiller certainly helped!

Beyond touring Angostura’s distillery, we spent an entire
day exploring the last remaining remnants of Trinidad’s sugar and rum industry,
including the now legendary Caroni distillery and Brechin Castle.

In what follows, I’ll only briefly touch on Angostura’s
bitters history; just enough to provide proper context for the rum side of
Angostura’s house.

To really understand a distillery’s ethos, it helps to know its
path to where it is today. Thus, we’ll start our deep dive with a quick overview
of Trinidad, and its rum and sugar industry history. Since there’s much to wonk
out over, I’ve split my reporting into two parts. This is Part 1, which covers
the history of Angostura and related Trinidadian rum producers. In Part 2
you’ll get a very detailed and technical look at Angostura’s distillery.

Just off the coast of South America, the island of Trinidad lays
only nine miles from Venezuela at their nearest points. Christopher Columbus
was the first European explorer to come across the island; the date: July 31st,
1498 during his third voyage.[i]

In 1588 the Spanish took control of the island, pushing
aside the native Caribs and colonized it in earnest. Seven years later in 1595,
Walter Raleigh, the famed British poet, soldier, and explorer set out from
England, looking for El Dorado, the mythical South American city of gold.
Although he never found El Dorado, he made two stops on Trinidad, commenting
favorably on the tobacco and sugar cane cultivation there. Also, he temporarily
captured the lightly guarded capital city like one does.

Nonetheless, the Spanish remained in control of Trinidad for
almost another two centuries, though the island’s population and agriculture declined
substantially over that time. That state of affairs eventually changed when Caribbean
geopolitical changes caused the Spanish crown to renew its investment in the colony.
The year 1787 saw the establishment of the first sugar cane plantation. By 1795,
159 sugar cane plantations were scattered across Trinidad’s landscape.

Trinidad’s revitalization attracted the attention of the
British who were flexing their newfound regional muscles. In 1797, British admiral
Henry Harvey and associated army forces took control of Trinidad with almost no
opposition. Trinidad officially became a British colony when Spain ceded it as
part of the 1802 Treaty
of Amiens
.

Trinidad’s geographic location made it well positioned in Caribbean
trade routes. In time, Port of Spain, the capital city, became a major Caribbean
trading hub, a position it retains today.

1889 found the British crown merging Trinidad and the nearby
island of Tobago into a single colony: Trinidad and Tobago. An interesting
historical note: In the early 1800s Tobago made substantially more rum than
Trinidad, but today Tobago makes no rum.

Alongside sister colony Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago became
an independent country in 1962.

Note: For reading clarity, in what follows I will use Trinidad
as shorthand for the full country name.

As a British colony for over 160 years, Trinidad’s colonial-era
rum history followed a similar arc as other British colonies like Jamaica,
British Guiana, Barbados, and St. Lucia.

In the early days of colonization, agriculturally suitable
land was carved up into hundreds of sugar cane plantations. Each plantation had
a small sugar factory, nearly always a small rum distillery to use the sugar factory
byproducts.

Primary sugar growing regions in Trinidad (highlighted)

With the onset of the industrial revolution, efficiencies in
manufacturing and transportation drove many plantations to consolidate into
fewer, larger plantations. In this era, raw sugar, destined to be sent to
England for further refining, was the plantation’s raison d’être. Rum was a
secondary product, sold for a small profit to offset plantation expenses, or
given to slaves and indentured servants.

By the second half of the 1800s competition from beet sugar
as well as sugar from other regions caused the price of Caribbean sugar to plummet,
making many estates unprofitable. This led to the demise of many plantations
and their associated rum distilleries.

At the onset of the twentieth century, the number of rum
distilleries in each colony was an order of magnitude off their peaks; the
remaining distilleries were much larger and more centralized. Some distilleries
were independent of the sugar estates, and simply purchased molasses from them.

Compared to the big rum-making colonies, Trinidad was a mid-tier player in colonial era rum production. Available production and export quantities from the 1800s show Trinidad’s rum production all over the map, from only a few thousand gallons per year, up to 908,000 in 1801. In contrast, Jamaica and British Guiana regularly produced around three to four million gallons per year, ten times more than Trinidad.

The snippet below shows a large sampling of Trinidad’s rum and related producers in 1887. There’s dozen rum producers, and ten more making bitters and shrubs. Several names in the list such as Siegert, Brechin Castle, Usine St. Madeline and Caroni are familiar to Trinidad rum historians.

Reports on the Colonial Sections – 1887

Moving into the 1900s, a common pattern in the rum and sugar
industry was the consolidation of a colony’s sugar and rum operations under
British corporate control. For instance, Booker Brothers, McConnell held huge
stakes in British Guiana, as did Tate & Lyle in Jamaica and Trinidad. We’ll
return to Tate & Lyle in a bit.

Over Trinidad’s 20th century colonial era, rum
production vacillated wildly. Immediately Before WW I, the island exported
around 100,000 gallons of rum yearly. But in the midst of the war exports
jumped to 915,000 gallons in 1915, the vast majority going to the United
Kingdom presumably for the war effort. However, by 1920, exports had dropped back
to 55,000 gallons and remained around that level for many years afterwards.

World War II changed the picture dramatically, revectoring
Trinidad’s sugar cane crop towards rum making once again.  The five remaining distilleries on Trinidad produced
1.3 million gallons in 1941.   

The West Indies and Caribbean year book – 1976-1977

During the twentieth century, Trinidad’s rum history boiled
down to three primary rum distillers:

  • Caroni
  • Fernandes
  • Angostura

They intersected with each other at various points over the
years before consolidation and harsh economic realities left one remaining rum
producer: Angostura.

Caroni

Caroni is far more than a rum brand or distillery. In
Trinidad life, Caroni also refers to Caroni County, the Caroni river, the
Caroni Plain, and the Caroni swamp, among other things.

For rum geeks though, Caroni means one thing: Rum!
Caroni-made rums have been the hot ticket recently, with collectors and buyers
scrambling to buy anything with Caroni on the label.

The Caroni distillery we know of today is said to have been
established in 1918. However, there are several earlier references to rum
distilling in Caroni, including the 1914 newspaper article, shown below. Unfortunately,
relatively little was reported in the press about the Caroni distillery’s early
rum making.

Port of Spain gazette – November 28, 1914

In 1936, the British sugar refiners Tate & Lyle
purchased Caroni’s sugar and rum operations, subsequently it as base for further
expansions: Esperanza and Bronte estates in 1955, Woodford estate in 1961 and St.
Madeline Estate in 1962. By then, Tate & Lyle was the dominant sugar
operator on the island. The Caroni distillery was along the last three rum distilleries,
along with Fernandes and Angostura.

Caroni’s Rums

Over its lifetime the Caroni distillery used an interesting
variety of stills:

  • A company advertisement states that a cast iron
    still was commissioned in 1918.
  • In 1936 a wooden Coffey still was added.
  • In 1957, a single-column still from the Esperanza
    Estate came to Caroni, where it made high-ester rum for flavoring.
  • In 1980, a four-column still made by German
    country Gebr. Hermann came into use making “very clean alcohol”.
  • In 1984, the 1918 cast iron and 1936 wooden Coffey
    still were replaced by a Blair two-column still and a pot still.

While today’s enthusiasts associate Caroni with very heavy,
oily, diesel-like rum, it’s clear from looking at the stills above that Caroni
made a wide variety of different marks.

Caroni Advertisement, circa 1950

It’s well-established that the British Royal Navy purchased
Caroni rum for use in their rum blend in the mid-1900s. Presumably this was a
heavier style of rum. In contrast, Caroni advertisements from the 1950s say “For
very few people recognize Caroni as a rum. It’s more like whisky, with a dry,
light and delicate flavour all its own. Caroni is the perfect man’s drink, straight
and without trimmings.”

Another advertisement from 1964 further adds “And
remember, Caroni does not linger on the breath.”

Caroni Advertisement, circa 1964

Caroni produced expressions around the time it closed down
include:

  • Superb White Magic
  • Special Old Cask
  • Felicite Gold
  • Stallion Puncheon
  • Caroni Puncheon Rum
  • Authentic Gold and Authentic White

Caroni’s Demise

 In 1970, amidst a hemorrhaging
sugar industry and Caribbean-wide nationalization of industries, Trinidad’s government
acquired a 51 percent stake in Caroni. Tate & Lyle continued to manage operations
while holding the remaining 49 percent. Unfortunately, the sugar industry continued
to bleed money, and in 1975 the government became Caroni’s full owner. Now
under state control, the government redubbing it “Caroni (1975) Ltd.” You’ll
still see Caroni (1975) signs on Trinidad today.

In 1976, management of the Forres Park sugar factory (described
in the next section) was taken over by Caroni (1975). The parliamentary record
regarding the decision reads:[ii]

In respect to the issue that
has arisen relating to Forres Park, the Cabinet has decided as follows:

(a) The Forres Park
factory is to be operative in the crop season 1976.

(b) Factory workers at
Forres Park will get the same rate of wages as factory workers at Caroni

(c) The Forres Park Sugar
Factory will be leased for one year and operated by Caroni on behalf of the
Government whilst the longer term issues are decided.

Caroni 1975’s losses continued over the next quarter-century.
Around 2000, the government attempted to scale back to only 51 percent
ownership of Caroni by selling off 49 percent of it. Angostura bid for that 49
percent ownership and was declared the preferred bidder by the government.

In the end, the purchase agreement was scuttled. Angostura never took control of any portion of Caroni. I emphasize this because multiple sources have erroneously reported that Angostura purchased Caroni. Simply put, the purchase did not come to fruition and Caroni’s operations shut down in 2003.

Caroni’s Run Stock

What wrecked any sale and led to Caroni’s closure was a
dispute over the value of Caroni’s rum stock, i.e. its previously distilled rum
residing in a Caroni warehouse.

The government selected Liverpool’s Main
Rum Company
to evaluate Caroni’s rum and determine it’s worth. The value Main
Rum reported on the 18,500 casks was approximately US $3.3 million. However,
another unofficial source said that Caroni’s rum stock was worth far more –
around US $147 million.

The resulting kerfuffle included charges of cronyism and
back room deals. Some alleged that the government wanted to effectively give
Caroni to Angostura for far less than its true value.

Caroni rum stock was subsequently sold off piecemeal. Angostura
acquired the majority of the stock. Other purchasers include Italy’s Velier, Liverpool’s
Main Rum Company, and presumably others.

In 2008, the government held an auction for some of the remaining
stock. However, the reserve price was too high, so no bids were filed.

Fernandes Distillers Ltd

Joseph Bento (“Jo”) Fernandes started in the rum business in
the 1920s, purchasing rum in bulk from island distilleries, then blending and
bottling them.

He got a big break in 1932 after a fire destroyed the
government’s rum bond warehouse. Some of the rum survived and Fernandes
purchased at a fire sale price– Sorry, the joke had to be made!

This rum became the basis of the Fernandes 1919 expression, named
as such because it was distilled in 1919. It was Trinidad’s first vintage dated
rum and became popular. When the stock of 1919-distilled rum ran out, Fernandes
renamed it to Vat 19.[iii]

In 1933, Fernandes purchased the shuttered Forres Park sugar
estate and set about to rehabilitate it. The sugar estate’s rum distillery had
a wooden still and Fernandes began working with it to learn the distiller’s
art.

Fernandes was for more than a rum maker. He had holdings in
many enterprises. A 1955 newspaper article[iv]
indicated that he was the richest man in Trinidad and in the final states of
purchasing the legendary Queens Park Hotel, the inspiration for the now iconic
Queens Park Swizzle cocktail.

Fernandes Distillery

Sometime before 1961 (the exact date is uncertain),
Fernandes built a new rum distillery in Laventille, a community on the outskirts
of Port of Spain. In the early 1970s, Fernandes rums were 85 percent of
Trinidad’s rum market.

Perhaps sensing change in the air, Jo Fernandes sold
Fernandes Distillers to Angostura and Bacardi in 1973. We’ll come back to this
topic shortly.

As of 2020, Jo’s grandson, Joseph, still lives in Port of
Spain and owns Cazabon Wine & Cocktail Bar. I was fortunate to meet him
during my visit and found him quite engaging and full of stories about his
family’s rum history.

Key Fernandes expressions over the years include:

  • Black Label / Red Label
  • Forres Park Puncheon
  • Crystal White
  • Vat 19
  • 19
  • Ferdi’s
  • White Star

The Black Label and Forres Park Puncheon rums, originally
made by Fernandes, are still made today, albeit at Angostura’s distillery.

Angostura (aka Trinidad Distillers)

Trinidad’s most famous export, Angostura Bitters, came to
the island in 1875. Originally concocted in the Venezuelan town of Angostura
(now Ciudad Bolívar) in 1824, Dr. Johann Siegert’s medicinal tincture quickly
found commercial success. Following his 1870 death, Johann’s sons moved
production to Trinidad in 1875, where it has remained since. Angostura Bitters
are now considered a national treasure.

In those first few decades on Trinidad, Angostura purchased rum to make its bitters from local distilleries. This testimony at the 1897 Report of the West India Royal Commission highlights this history:

1897 West India Royal Commission

Since Angostura already purchased a substantial amount of
rum, it made sense to buy even more rum at a good price and aged/blend/bottle
it themselves under the Angostura name. Thus, in the early days, Angostura
branded rum wasn’t distilled by them.

Sensing a growing market, Angostura went all in, building their
own distillery in 1947. (Some sources say 1949.) This rum making subsidiary
became of subsidiary of Angostura, known as Trinidad Distillers Ltd., aka TDL;
the name is still used today.

Presumably not all of the rum Angostura distilled was used
in Angostura bitters or Angostura rum, so the remainder of it was sold as bulk
rum.

Fun fact. Angostura’s distillery is now across the street
from where the Fernandes distillery once was.

Note: At this juncture in the story, we need to look into
Angostura’s ownership, which became incredibly starting in the 1970s. I shall
tease it apart at a high level, but what follows may deviate slightly from the
exact legal rendition of the story.

Bacardi Era

Between 1875 and 1973, Angostura went through a number of
ownership changes. Much of the time it was partially owned by the Siegert
family, and for a brief spell in 1958, the Trinidad government owned the
company. [v]

Big changes came in 1973 when Bacardi desired to expand
their markets in various countries and needed additional distilling capacity.[vi]
Angostura was in a position to help and improve its own situation at the same
time. A deal was put together, comprising two main parts:

  • Angostura (i.e. TDL) purchased Fernandes
    Distillers, gaining immediate capacity.
  • Bacardi took a forty percent stake in Trinidad
    Distillers. This stake was in the form of a holding company, Rumpro Company
    Ltd.

Drilling into this deal a bit more, Bacardi’s motivation for
partnering with Angostura concerned international trading arrangements at the
time. Newly minted countries like Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad which were
previously European colonies had banded together as part of the African, Caribbean,
and Pacific Group of States (ACP). To assist with their economic development
the European Union (EU) gave preferential tax treatment and access to the EU
market for certain goods including rum under the 1975 Lomé Convention. By
partnering with an ACP country (Trinidad) Bacardi gained access to these ACP
benefits.

Soon after Bacardi’s investment, Angostura acquired a new
multicolumn still in 1975, substantially further adding to their capacity.
Bacardi purchased much of the resulting rum. Thus, Bacardi was both a customer
and minority owner of TDL. Bacardi’s partial ownership of Trinidad Distillers
Ltd. continued until the late 1990s.

CL Financial

1997 brought substantial changes to Angostura that still
echo to this day. CL
Financial
, a privately held Trinidad-based conglomerate, purchased Rumpro
from Bacardi.

The CL Financial story is extremely confusing, but in brief,
CL Financial was the parent holding company for a number of companies including
Colonial Life Insurance (CLICO), CL World Brands, Angostura Holdings, and many
more. CL Financial also had stakes in media, agriculture, and banking, among
others.

Staring in the mid-1990s, the company voraciously acquired
other brands and companies, including Angostura. With Angostura under its belt,
CL used it as a base to acquire numerous other distilled spirit companies over
the next decade. The list included:

CL Financial funded its aggressive acquisitions by issuing
risky insurance annuities that weren’t subject to strict banking regulations.
For those of a certain age, this tale should sound familiar.

Starting in 2007, the global financial crisis hit the
world’s economies like a hurricane. Countless high-flying financial firms got
hammered as the market and government regulators found the company’s balance
sheet untenable due to risky loans or other financial shenanigans. Countless
companies went out of business as financial crisis played out across the world.
A “liquidity crisis” is the term used to describe CL Financial’s situation.

CL Financial survived the crisis by the skin of its teeth,
only because the Trinidad and Tobago government loaned the company billions of
dollars in other to prevent a bigger economic collapse. As part of the
agreement, CL Financial had to divest certain assets and give government the
majority of seats on the company’s board. This put Trinidad’s government in the
unusual situation of having substantial say over how CL Financial was run, but
without actual ownership.

In the decade since the CL Financial bailout, the company
divested all of its distilled spirit holdings with the exception of Angostura
itself. I’m told that the government considers Angostura a national treasure, so
has not seriously considered allowing it to be sold to a foreign owner like
Appleton or St. Lucia Distillers were.

At present, between CL Financial’s holdings in Rumpro, plus additional
holdings by its CLICO subsidiary, CL Financial owns approximately 77 percent of
Angostura’s shares. If you’re interested in where the other divested sprits
companies ended up, see my story How
the Financial Crisis of 2007 Reshaped the Rum World
.

Angostura’s Subsequent Challenges

In 2016, a Trinidad newspaper article reported:[vii]

The local rum company has been buying bulk rum from Cuba and South America and simply repackaging it, without substantial changes, and selling it to export markets.

Angostura denied the reporting, stating:

“1. The integrity of The House of Angostura’s rums is not under audit.

“2. All of our international branded rum products are aged and meet international standards.

“3. The House of Angostura is ISO certified which allows its products to enter export markets.

“4. The House of Angostura uses the official standard for Caribbean rums (WIRSPA) Authentic Caribbean Rum Marquee for all its branded aged rums, guaranteeing age claims made.”

Shortly thereafter, Angostura’s CEO, Robert Wong, and COO, Romesh
Singh, both resigned. Wong, the CEO, was permanently replaced in 2017 by Genevieve
Jodhan, another Angostura executive.[viii]

Angostura later clarified its position, stating that the
alcohol it imported was for spirit drinks and non-export rums, something which
the government had licensed it to do.

In 2018, news reports surfaced of additional internal audits
unrelated to alcohol importation. In 2020, Peter Sandström, previously an
executive at Diageo and Edrington-Bean Suntory, took over the CEO reins.[ix]

We’ve covered an extensive amount of history here, so a
brief synopsis of Trinidad rum history and how Angostura came to be Angostura’s
only remaining rum distillery is in order.

  • Early 1900s: The Caroni rum distillery is built.
    Over the following decades, other sugar estates and distilleries are folded
    into Caroni’s operations, then owned by Tate & Lyle.
  • Early 1900s: Angostura begins buying, blending, and
    selling rum under the Angostura name.
  • 1940s: Joseph “Jo” Fernandes builds a rum distillery,
    and Fernandes became the biggest rum brand on Trinidad.
  • 1947: Angostura builds its distillery, using the
    rum for its bitters, rums, and bulk rum exports.
  • 1973: Fernandes sells Fernandes Distillers to
    Bacardi and Angostura. Bacardi takes a 40 percent ownership in the two
    distilleries.
  • 1975: In the face of large financial losses, the
    Trinidad government takes over Caroni from Tate & Lyle.
  • 1997: Angostura is purchased by CL Financial, jumpstarting
    a series of distilled spirit acquisitions.
  • Early 2000s: The Trinidad government shuts down Caroni’s
    rum operations and sells off the rum stocks to various purchasers, including
    Angostura.
  • 2007: The global financial crisis causes CL
    Financial to divest most of its spirits portfolio except for Angostura.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll take an intensive look at
Angostura’s distillery and current rum lineup.


[i] History
of the British colonies – volume 2, 1834, Montgomery Martin

[ii] Republic
of Trinidad & Tobago Budget Speeches 1957-1981,
page 696

[iii] “2007:
JOSEPH BENTO “J.B.” FERNANDES (1903-1992)”; https://chamber.org.tt/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/2007-fernandes.pdf

[iv] “Rum
magnate in hotel deal”; Kingston Gleaner, Sept. 7, 1955, page 7

[v]
“Trinidad to Acquire Angostura Bitters”; New York Times, Aug. 21st,
1958

[vi] An
Ancient Potion’s Modern Secret”; Miami Herald, Dec. 20th, 1982

[vii] “Audit
into Angostura rum”. Sunday Express. Sunday Express, Dec. 3rd,
2016

[viii]
“Angostura appoints Jodhan as permanent CEO”; https://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2017/02/jodhan-confirmed-as-angostura-ceo/

[ix]
“Angostura gets new CEO”; https://trinidadexpress.com/business/local/angostura-gets-new-ceo/article_f224280c-38b8-11ea-8c1a-c352c130108a.html

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