Rum Makers Are Elevating Sugar's Nectar to Higher Levels
Posted: August 1, 2000
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Mount Gay claims to be the oldest rum maker in what may be the world's oldest rum culture, based on its having made rum as early as 1703 and possibly as far back as 1663, when namesake John Gay Alleyne was the caretaker of the Mount Gilboa estate in northern Barbados. The rum is still distilled there (although the distillery can't be toured) before being brought to the blending plant.
Nevertheless, David Seale, the scion of R.L. Seale, makes his own claims to local seniority. He points out that there has been an unbroken line of five generations of Seales making rum here. A tradition, he says, that is "our family silver." Mount Gay's pedigree was broken, he explains, in the early 1900s when Aubrey Ward (the man whose signature appears on the bottle) bought the company and reinvented it.
Despite this apparent bit of rum snobbery and the fact that David Seale recently became Sir David when he was knighted, he is not at all a haughty man. Of British ancestry, he nevertheless speaks in the sing-songy island accent as he enthuses about his passion for rum. "It's in our blood here in Barbados."
Seale makes a white rum called E.S.A. Field that is the island's most popular. Nevertheless, enough of a tradition exists in the family for aging rums that when Seagrams was putting together its recent collection of four brands, called Rare Rums of the Caribbean, it asked Seale to create the only rum in the series not made by the company. "I don't know why they happened to come to us," says Seale, "but we must be doing something right." He adds that the Seales always made aged rums for private consumption even when the market wasn't clamoring for it. "The older rums were the chairman's reserve," he says with a smile and a hint of a lip smack.
Hans Bergheim, Seale's export sales director, takes a visitor on a tour of Heritage Park. The park, housed on what was once a sugar factory dating back to 1700s, has replicas of the buildings used in the trade as well as quite a few of the tools used to make rum. "There are a lot of myths about rum that need to be dispelled," he confides. The first is that a rum's dark color is a reflection of years in the barrel. Like Scotch, rum will only take on so much color from the barrel. Even at the relatively ancient age of five years, it is only slightly muddy. To make it darker, manufacturers add caramel coloring, as do makers of blended Scotch. Seale prefers to package its older rum in a darkened bottle to give it that suggestion of age rather than mix the rum with as much caramel.
Another myth, Bergheim notes, is that the age statement on a bottle of rum is necessarily reflective of all the rum that goes into the blend. It might refer to only the oldest rum in the mix, and not very much of it at that. "If you read that a rum is 21 years old, it may be just a teaspoon of it is that old. People didn't predict 21 years ago that there would be a market for aged rum and put away enough of it to sell now." What Bergheim doesn't say is that a pure rum at such an age is likely to be past its prime.
In stark contrast to the historical displays at Four Square is the distillery itself. Spic 'n' span clean and highly computerized, it can be run by a team of two men checking needles and gauges. The modern vacuum stills are capable of cooking rum at a constant low temperature, which, Seale says, is the hallmark of his product. The plant's degree of technical sophistication is rivaled in the rum world only by Bacardi's Puerto Rico plant.
Both facilities are highly ecologically conscious, recycling by-products of the fermentation process to make solid foods for livestock and carbon dioxide for soft drinks or dry ice. Four Square Distillery takes pride in the fact that it doesn't dump spent molasses at sea where it might retard coral growth. At Bacardi, 70 percent of the energy used to run the boiler comes from methane that is captured in the fermentation process.
While Bacardi may be the most modern of rum makers, it still wears its pride and passion for the spirit as a badge of honor no less obvious than its familiar bat logo. Nowhere is this clearer than at the Bacardi Museum at its U.S. headquarters in Miami, Florida. As you step into the museum, you see two maps. One shows Bacardi's worldwide presence before 1958, the other shows it now. On the former there is one bat logo, representing a Cuban plant. On the latter there are dozens scattered all over the world--but none in Cuba.
Bacardi made the fortunate decision to move to Puerto Rico before Cuba turned Communist, thereby giving itself a foothold outside the country that was invaluable when its Cuba property was confiscated. While it lost its home base and millions of dollars in property, it was able to regroup with a worldwide presence.
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