Rum, following gin’s example, is celebrating a renaissance. The sugarcane spirit in its natural form has been produced since 1785 on the Caribbean island of Grenada, at the River Antoine distillery – by hand, using ancient machinery. A visit
The first mouthful slipping down your throat burns like fire, leaving an earthy, fruity note in its wake. River Antoine rum – or just “Rivers,” as it’s called on Grenada – may not count among the noble spirits, but it does give you an idea of how the sugarcane spirit must have tasted to seafarers and pirates in the 18th century. Each drop brims with nostalgia, sends the senses careering into the past.
With every passing year, rum gains in popularity. At the start of this renaissance, back in 2010, more rum was being consumed in the United States than ever before. In 2017, sales of rum in Great Britain exceeded one billion pounds for the first time ever. Over the past ten years, the number of rum brands in the country has trebled. In Germany, too, more and more rum distilleries have started up since 2015. The good rums long since ceased being used as mixers with cola; instead, they are tasted, collected and reviewed by gourmets. But to truly understand the difference between industrially produced rum and the original derived from freshly pressed sugarcane juice, it’s a good idea to make the trip to the heart of rum production, to the northeast of the Caribbean island of Grenada – to the source whence springs rhum agricole, rum produced according to the traditional method, exactly as it was over 230 years ago.
Our journey back in time takes us to La Poterie, a tiny hamlet in the lee of a mighty volcanic crater bordered by dense jungle, and deep into the fields of towering sugarcane, from which the red roofs of the Rivers distillery reach skyward. Here, Whitfield Lyons’ welcomes visitors with a broad smile: “Welcome to the source!” Now 41 years old, he has spent most of his life here.
There’s no sign at the entrance proclaiming what kind of a place this is, just rusty equipment bearing witness to museum-worthy technology; rough, meter-thick stone walls eroded by salt and wind, and encrusted with soot and the vapors of fermenting sugarcane juice; and between them, the workers of today in their colorful shirts, caps and sneakers, producing rum with wheel, fire and leverage. They crush the sugarcane at the old mill, load up wooden handcarts with the remains of the crushed canes and wheel them over to the furnace, where they are burned as fuel. The extracted juice is boiled down to syrup in massive copper pots before being turned into alcohol in deep fermentation tanks.
A fragrant cloud of marine salt and fermented fructose hangs over the plantation, sweet and heavy. The air smells of rotten wood – and Lyons’ after-shave. “I have no sense of smell at all, these days,” he says. As a child, he regularly brought his parents’ lunch over to the distillery – stews made with beans, breadfruit, spinach and coconut milk. When the giant apparatus stood still in the afternoon, the site would become a playground for Lyons and his pals.
It was quite by chance that he later ended up working at the distillery: His fiancée recommended him for a vacant position there. Lyons wasn’t too sure about it, but in the end he went for his intended’s sake. It only took him a matter of minutes to give a convincing account of his thorough knowledge of the various stages of production. That was in 2001. Since then, he has taken care of tourists and delegations from all over the world, who tend to come for the white beaches in the southwest of the green island and only travel across Grenada’s hilly hinterland to see the distillery. Even though Lyons could give a guided tour of the site blindfolded, he himself never touches Rivers or any other alcoholic beverages – his mother’s death five years ago was caused by decades of alcohol consumption.
Rivers used to be the sugarcane cutters’ drink. Lyons’ parents were also among the men and women of Grenada who harvested, cut and stripped the raw material for the high-proof spirit. Today on Grenada, rum is a beverage everyone can enjoy and it is served in countless rum shops scattered across the whole island. “Maybe it doesn’t have the finest taste or smell better than all the rest,” says Lyons, “but it definitely has the best after-effects – and that’s none.” That’s because Rivers – despite its alcohol content of up to 80 percent – is a natural, unadulterated product that does not make your head throb – unlike other brands of rum.
For a long time, rum was known chiefly as a cheap party drink that usually resulted in a hangover. Bacardi, for instance, the world’s biggest rum producer, had removed most of the spirit’s flavor to make it a better mixer. As a result, rum was widely believed to actually taste of nothing. This made it difficult for other producers to seriously establish their product on the market. The general perception of the sugarcane spirit has been changing for over a decade now, triggered by U.S. and British restaurateurs, barkeepers and connoisseurs, whose concerted efforts have rehoisted the rum flag. And the real boom is apparently still to come: Between 2022 and 2024, rum will make it into the premium sector, according to Benjamin Jones – and as managing director of Spiribam, a premier rum trader and subsidiary of several Caribbean rum producers, he should know. Jones is considered an authority in the world of spirits. “There was always a chance that rum would ignite worldwide enthusiasm, it was just that the matches were damp. Now there are many interested consumers again, and the market is offering more variety and quality.”
If we switched to mechanical operation, La Poterie would be without jobs and without means
In sultry Grenada, future trends leave the population cold, as do facts: Yes, the rum from the neighboring island of Barbados is older than Rivers. “But,” says Lyons, “our neighbors don’t make rhum agricole; they make rhum industriel.“ The one is made from freshly pressed sugarcane juice and accounts for just three percent of the world market. The basis for rhum industriel, on the other hand, is molasses, the syrup that remains when the sugar has been extracted from the sugarcane juice. That’s what most rum producers use, including Havana Club, Bacardi and Captain Morgan.
The Rivers distillery built in 1785, on the other hand, is reputedly the oldest rhum agricole distillery still in operation today. This is a distinction that fills many Grenadians with pride, despite the colonialism and slavery that informed the distillery’s history. That practically every seed cast into the volcanic earth thrives on Spice Island, as it’s known, is something French colonialists also realized. In the late 18th century, they built a distillery on the palm-lined northeastern coast of Grenada and set slaves to work there, producing high-proof rum, which they then shipped overseas. The nearby river which flows into the Atlantic just a stone’s throw away gave the distillery its name: River Antoine. Much has happened since then on Spice Island: regime changes, slave uprisings, revolutions, invasions, but on the 160-hectare distillery site, time appears to have stood still.
At the end of this production chain sits Veronica Augustine McSween, sticking labels on the empty bottles and filling each by hand with the clear, golden spirit. Around 500 bottles a day, five days a week, for the past 36 years. On Grenada, it’s highly likely that nearly every one of the 100 000 inhabitants has drunk from a bottle of Rivers filled by McSween. The stout 61-year-old’s voice cracks when she speaks and she rarely leaves her chair. “My knees,” she complains. She retired a year ago, “but the boss asked me to come back,” and since then she has labeled and filled bottles of River – just like she always has. She is the company’s longest-serving employee. Not a lot has changed in the past four decades; she has seen employees and managers come and go, but otherwise everything is much the same as it has always been. “We cut the sugar cane with machetes, just as we always have.”
McSween also joined Rivers through a family connection: her mother, father, brother and uncle used to work here, and now her sons chop sugar cane. McSween’s husband is responsible for heating the tanks in which the fermented sugar cane juice is distilled. The description “family business” is more than apt for Rivers. The company presently has 80 employees: 50 in the fields and 30 in the distillery. Most come from the surrounding area. “If we switched to mechanical operation, La Poterie would be without jobs and without means,” says Whitfield Lyons.
That is one of the reasons why Rivers sticks to tradition. “This is our heritage,” says Lyons, “with all its disadvantages.” For instance, when a part breaks – like the turning gear of the mill did last June. Spare parts are no longer available, and the broken components had to be made by hand from scratch. Nobody on Grenada could do this, so the company contracted a blacksmith on the neighboring island of Trinidad to make the part. “It took a couple of weeks,” says Lyons. Production stopped while they waited. But, happily, Grenadians are very relaxed when it comes to time – and they know that it is one of the key ingredients in a good rum.