Welcome to Part Two of my look at Trinidadian Rum and Angostura, the last remaining rum producer on Trinidad. In Part One, I reviewed Trinidad’s background and role in Caribbean rum history. I also provided key details about Trinidad’s three primary 20th century rum producers: Caroni, Fernandes, and Angostura, and how Angostura became Trinidad’s sole remaining rum producer.
There a lot to cover here, so I won’t rehash information presented in Part One here. I highly suggest reading it before continuing.
For reading brevity, I will refer to the country of Trinidad and Tobago as simply Trinidad.
It’s a warm, humid December morning as I wait prepare for my first day on the island. My ride this morning is with John Georges, Angostura’s recently retired Master Distiller. He still does educational work for Angostura. Today’s mission is showing me around distillery while I bombard him with questions.
It’s a short ride with panoramic vistas over the Caribbean Sea as we head to Angostura’s facility, which is a few miles southwest of Queens Park Savannah, Port of Spain’s community hub. As rum distilleries go, Angostura’s complex is quite large. It’s among of the Caribbean’s largest rum producers, currently capable of making 8.5 million liters of pure alcohol (LPA) annually. Much of it sold as bulk rum. Technically, the distillery operations are part of Trinidad Distillers Ltd. (TDL), a subsidiary of Angostura Holdings. I will use TDL, rather than Angostura when describing distillery-specific details.
Besides the distillery buildings and aging warehouses, the site has a substantial bottling plant for Angostura’s rums and other beverages the produce. Angostura’s compound is also where they create their eponymous bitters. More on this later!
This recently filmed drone video gives a sense of just how big the compound is. Although the action moves a bit slowly, it has high definition looks inside a beautiful aging warehouse. It also pans the entire length of one of the distillation columns and shows other distillery angles mere humans with an iPhone can’t capture.
When Angostura built its distillery in the late 1940s, they weren’t constrained by any particular rum-making traditions, ala British, French, or Spanish heritage styles. Trinidad was still a British colony then, but they didn’t go the British heritage route. Thus, you won’t find long fermentation, muck pits, and pot stills at Angostura.
If you had to map Angostura’s rum-making technique into a colonial style, it would be much closer to the Spanish heritage traditions as seen in Cuba and Puerto Rico. That is, shorter fermentation, column distillation, and distilling both light and heavy rums for subsequent blending. My recent story on Destilería Serrallés (aka Don Q) discusses the Spanish heritage style in more detail.
Trinidad once had a thriving sugar industry supplying all the country’s rum distilleries with all their molasses needs. Those days disappeared by the late 1900s; the country’s last operational sugar factory closing in 2007. Like many distilleries once supplied by local molasses, TDL had to look elsewhere for molasses in order to keep distilling.
Guyana’s GuySuCo supplied many Caribbean distilleries with molasses for many years, including TDL. However, today GuySuCo doesn’t make enough to completely supply Demerara Distiller’s needs, much less rum distilleries in other countries.
TDL currently sources molasses from several countries. The Dominican Republic is one, Fiji another. Sometimes, certain South American counties also supply molasses to TDL.
The TDL distillery has massive molasses storage tanks holding between six and ten thousand tons of molasses in reserve. That’s around 1.1 to 1.8 million gallons for those playing at home.
TDL’s fermentation starts by propagating yeast cells to create the thousands of liters of yeast needed for large scale fermentation. Starting from a small sample of TDL’s proprietary yeast strain, the yeast cells feed and multiply while moving through a series of ever-larger propagation tanks.
The next fermentation step is diluting molasses with municipal water to achieve the right brix, i.e. sugar content. The now substantial volume of propagated yeasts then goes into the mix.
Two rows of stainless-steel fermentation tanks, each around 150,000 liters (39,600 gallons) hold the fermenting wash. There are fourteen such tanks, but only twelve are currently in use, making for a concurrent wash capacity of 1.8 million liters, or 474,000 gallons.
The closed fermentation tanks are temperature controlled to keep the wash’s temperature at around 92°F (33°C). TDL’s distillers collect the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. It’s used later for carbonating drinks and other purposes.
TDL’s fermentation lasts for about 48 hours, slightly on the longer side compared to other similar, high-volume distilleries. Earlier, I mentioned TDL makes both light and heavy rums. When making heavy rum, the fermentation period extends for a bit longer after active fermentation ceases, and allows additional flavors to evolve.
Distillation at TDL has been all about column stills from the very beginning. TDL’s original column still from 1947 was a Savalle column, which was carted off long ago as the distillery grew. There are now three multi-column (five column) stills on site. The first came in 1975 following Bacardi’s investment and their need for more bulk rum.
Ten years later in 1985, a second multi-column, portions of it purchased from Bacardi, came into use. Then in 1999, a third multi-column came online. These days, the 1975 column still isn’t actively used.
All three stills are situated within tall rectangular, open air structures several stories high. Two of the column stills are adjacent within the same structure.
After a recent change of strategic direction and changes to effluent processing, the two stills make around 25,000 LPA per day, or 8.5 million LPA annually. However, they could make more with some additional investment in waste processing.
While TDL is all column stills today, In the early 2000s TDL purchased a Vendome hybrid batch still (a pot with eight plates in the next) to experiment with. John Georges provided a bit of background on the still in our interview. The short summary is that the experiments didn’t turn out as expected, so TDL sold the Vendome to their (then) sister distillery, St. Lucia Distillers, where it makes rum today.
Heavy rum distillation at TDL uses only the first column of the multi-column stills, colloquially known as the “beer column”. Rum coming off the beer column clocks in at about eighty percent ABV, with a congener level in the 300 to 400 range. Light rum distillation uses all the columns, emerging at around 95 percent ABV.
This process of making both light and heavy rums from the same still is consistent with other distilleries like Cuba’s Havana Club and Puerto Rico’s Destilería Serrallés. TDL also creates several different “medium” rums by blending the light and heavy rums together, something Havana Club, Serrallés and other distilleries also do.
As is the norm in Caribbean distilleries, Angostura ages the vast majority of their rum in ex-bourbon casks. Inspecting a few barrelheads in the cask filling area, I spied “Lem Motlow” on some of them, a telltale sign they originated at Jack Daniels in Tennessee. Georges added that Four Roses in Kentucky also supplies casks to TDL. On site coopers maintain and repair the barrels.
Angostura performs all cask aging on site. Some casks age within an enormous brick warehouse that stands out as a visual point of reference within the TDL site. Spread around the various warehouse are approximately 75,000 casks, stacked upright on pallets. This is how most modern, large scale rum distilleries age these days, as opposed to laying on their sides as was done previously.
Light rum goes into casks at around 75 percent ABV, and rarely ages for more than two years. In contrast, heavy rum slumbers at between 55 to 65 percent ABV, usually for much longer durations. As for the medium rums, some secrets have to be maintained; I did ask!
In Trinidad’s hot climate, the typical angel’s share (evaporation) is between five to ten percent over the first few years. The rate drops over time as the more volatile elements escape through the cask’s walls. Periodically, warehouse workers consolidate around 400 to 800 casks of rum of the same age, resulting in slightly fewer, but fuller casks. Keeping the casks topped up minimizes the angel’s thirst.
Overseeing Angostura’s blending operation is Carol Homer-Caesar. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an opportunity to meet her, but I did learn a few other interesting tidbits about Angostura’s blending process.
Reading between the lines in my interview with Georges, certain distillates collected from the still’s non-primary collection plates; side streams, he called them. Small portions of these side streams are strategically blended into the primary rums prior to aging, in to accentuate particular flavor characteristics.
Angostura makes all their own caramel coloring. It’s a relatively small affair when compared to the rum making. I noticed a couple of mid-sized cube shaped steel tanks, helpfully labeled “caramel tank #1” and “caramel tank #2”. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go into how Angostura’s caramel compares to industrial E150.
The caramel plant makes two types of caramel. One type adjusts the color of Angostura’s rums, the other type goes into Angostura bitters. Caramel intended for rum use is made with inverted white sugar, whereas caramel for bitters starts with brown sugar.
The final interesting blending-related item involves another Trinidad distillery’s rum! A few years ago, Angostura purchased some of the shuttered Caroni distillery’s rum stock for blending. Caroni rum on the market today is known for being quite heavy and punchy, and independent bottlers sell it for a substantial sum. I might be wrong, but I would bet there’s some Caroni rum blended into Angostura’s 1787 expression.
With the distillery properly examined and photographed, my next order of business was Angostura’s bitters making room and museum. Both are more tourist friendly than the distillery, and don’t require a hard hat.
Although I visited Trinidad for the rum, there was no way I’d pass up seeing how Angostura Bitters are made. Given how many millions of white-labeled bitter bottles populate bar shelves and liquor cabinets around the globe, I expected it to be a bigger operation than what I witnessed.
Nearly everything occurs in a very large room filled with rows of tanks around 45,000 liters in size. Every tank bears Angostura’s iconic white label, as if it was the world’s largest bottle of Angostura bitters.
Technically, Angostura Bitters are an alcohol-based infusion. That is, alcohol soaked in botanical ingredient to extract their flavors. The botanicals might include items like orange peel, quinine, cassia, gentian, cinnamon, and cascarilla, but the exact recipe is a closely guarded secret, known only to a handful of company employees. This secrecy is so great that Angostura has an agreement with Trinidad’s customs officials that their botanical shipments won’t be inspected when entering the country.
On one side of the room is a large red chute suspended from the ceiling. There’s an opening at the bottom where the spices for a batch emerge. From a space above, employees empty color-coded bags containing different spices. The employees don’t know what’s in the bags or what the colors mean. Within the chute they’re finely ground, enough so that no-one could identify all the spices and reveal the recipe’s closely guarded secret.
The ground spices go into a circular metal cannister, roughly the size of a large sofa ottoman. The cannister’s bottom is covered by a metal screen. This cannister goes on top of a metal cylinder filled with 55 percent ABV rum, and of the same diameter as the cannister. For four hours, the rum pumps through the ground spices within the cannister, somewhat like a coffee percolator.
Infusion done, the infused spirit is blended with sugar and caramel in one of the aforementioned 45,000-liter tanks. After three months of aging, the bitters are proofed down to 44.7 percent ABV prior to bottling.
I wish I had better pictures to include here to show the key points above, but I was not allowed to take photos in the bitters production room. However, the image above is from Angostura’s site. You can also get a brief glimpse inside the bitters room from this video.
Distillery visitor centers are often bit of a letdown, but Angostura clearly put a lot of effort into their museum. This is especially appreciated by someone like me who has a deep appreciation of history.
The tour begins in an immersive room housing the Barcant butterfly collection. The walls, floor and ceiling are painted to give the impression of a meadow. Panels spread throughout the room display countless thousands of preserved and pinned butterflies. Look closely at an Angostura rum bottle and you’ll spot a butterfly, the company’s symbol.
The tour progresses through more rooms filled with artifacts from Angostura’s nearly two century history. Naturally, it kicks off with the story of Johann Siegert and his sons, focusing on his medical career and his medicinal bitters. Subsequent rooms illustrate early bitters production and the many competing companies also making bitters. The final rooms cover recent company history, including Angostura’s rum business. If vintage rum bottles elevate your pulse, there’s many dozens to excite you here — both Angostura’s bottles, as well as early Fernandes bottles.
If you want a quick peek at the museum experience, there’s a well-done virtual walkthrough of the museum here: http://themuseumathoa.trinidadeventspaces.com/
Let’s wrap up our Angostura deep dive with quick review of Angostura’s rums, past and present.
Rums of the Past
The most iconic of Angostura’s early rums was Siegert’s Bouquet, a rum blended with a bit of Angostura Bitters. They also made a “pink rum”, similar to a pink gin. There’s a bottle on display in the museum.
Other rum expressions from the company’s past include:
- Old Oak White/Gold/Dark
- Royal Oak / Royal Oak 12 (aimed at Canadian market)
- Silver/Red/Black Circle
- Sea Lord / Canteen / Kairi
- Bond 10
Angostura’s current International rum lineup is as follows. I was fortunate to get a bit more production detail about certain expressions than you’ll find on the labels or company web site.
Angostura Reserva: Mostly light rum, with a touch of medium rum. Aged for three years in ex-bourbon barrels, then twice charcoal filtered. 40% ABV.
Angostura 5 Year: Light rum, aged for a minimum of five years, the charcoal filtered if more clarity is required. 40% ABV.
Angostura 7 Year: A blend of light, medium and heavy rums, each aged for at least seven years before blending. The resulting blend is then further aged for another two years. 40% ABV.
Angostura 1919: A blend of five different rums, aged between five and fourteen years. The name is a homage to the original Fernandes “1919” expression of the 1930s, made from rums distilled in 1919. 40% ABV.
Angostura 1824: A blend of medium and heavy rums, aged for a minimum of twelve years. The light rums are casked at 70-75% ABV, the heavy rums at 60-65% ABV. The name celebrates the founding of the House of Angostura in 1824. 40% ABV.
Angostura 1787: A blend of rums aged for a minimum of fifteen years. Cask entry strength is the same as the 1824 components. The name celebrates the 1787 establishment of the first sugar mill on Trinidad. 40% ABV.
I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to the wonderful people at Angostura, including Crystal Mc Donald, Lawn Davis, Raymond Edwards, and John Georges. They were all immensely helpful in my quest to go behind the scenes and bring it to my readers.
A few more snaps!