How rum is made in St. Lucia Distillers (part II)
Cane growing, harvesting and pressing
While they currently use imported molasses from Guyana, they’ve been doing some experimentation growing their own sugarcane to produce cane juice for the last four years. Growing sugarcane was stopped in the island during the 1960’s and was replaced with the growing of bananas.
In 2008, St. Lucia Distillers started growing a small amount of sugarcane. They now have five acres that can yield 20 barrels of rum out of one harvest. They in particular don’t burn the cane field off before harvest, but after harvest annually to clean up after cropping. At the moment they’re experimenting with 4 cane varieties brought from Barbados; some yield more juice, some yield more sugar. They press the cane in a relatively small machine. The resultant bagasse is used as compost for their own fields. Only when it is fresh, just pressed and still wet, they’d feed animals with some of it.
Some of their experimentations with their own sugarcane juice are being aged at the moment, having used three methods of fermentation and two different pot stills. The results, according to Roger Miller (Quality Assurance Coordinator / Laboratory Supervisor), have been quite good so far and they are looking forward to exciting blends from these in a few years:
The reality is that their currently commercialised rum in the market is made with molasses imported from Guyana and not their own sugarcane juice yet. The molasses is carried through a 6.500 ft long pipe underground from the ship at the bay to their tanks at the plant.
They ferment separately in different batches:
1. Natural, wild yeast from the atmosphere in open vats, uncontrolled, for experimentation.
2. Controlled yeast in closed vats. And for this, they use two different strains, separately:
• yeast strain 1
• yeast strain 2
Each batch is fermented for about 48 hours and then distilled separately. After that, if they want to use both washes, then they’d blend them according to the final product’s formula they wish to bottle. The wild, uncontrolled fermentation is at an experimentation stage at the moment.
Before starting fermentation, they still have to dilute the molasses. Their molasses has a high specific gravity level (89 Brix), which inhibits fermentation; they must bring it down with water and they do so to 20 Brix. If sugar content was excessive, you’d waste molasses and that’s expensive (yeast wont die but it just can’t eat that concentration of sugar) and if it was insufficient, you wouldn’t get enough alcohol. A special machine is used for this; they just pre-set it for those proportions and it’s capable of handling between 500 and 1.000 gallons of liquid per hour. At this stage, temperature is about 30 ºC, but there’s no need to control it, until yeast comes into play.
River and rain water is used, which is first passed through sand filters and charcoal filters and it’s important to avoid chlorine, as it kills yeast (and also bacteria). Every two weeks these machines are stopped and washed to sterilize the whole system and avoid the presence of other unwanted yeast and bacteria. They use high pressure water and steam as part of the cleaning and sterilization process.
Fermentation starts in a stainless steel propagator. 300 gallons of diluted molasses in a big container to which yeast is added. After a few hours active fermentation starts and the yeast starts eating sugar and multiplying. Now sugar levels start decreasing. From here, the mixture is pumped out to two tanks of 10.000 gallons capacity. Now temperature must be controlled (too high will kill the yeast and too low will put it to sleep). They inject air to let oxygen be present in the fermentation. All this was to propagate the yeast and now that the mixture has increased in volume, it is pumped out to eight open vats (made of concrete covered in fiber glass) in which it keeps on fermenting until the required alcohol level is achieved. In the industry, typical alcohol levels range from 7% to just above 9% ABV in wash. As long as the yeast is alive and working (fermenting) you can see the liquid bubbling and moving vigorously, but when it dies, all goes quiet. The dead yeast and much of the unfermented suspended matter settles at the bottom of the vat, looking like mud and, after removing the alcoholic wash, it’s pumped down a pipe to be discarded.
There are 4 stills working in the distillery: 1 column still + 3 pot stills (1 small John Dore + 1 large John Dore + 1 Vendome).
The column still is formed by two columns:  analyzer and  rectifier, with some forty plates (perforated obstacles for the liquid to go through all the way down). In the first one steam is injected at the bottom and the wash is pumped in from the top. Spent wash exists at the very bottom and then discarded (some old schoolers in other countries still reuse it and add it to the next fermentation batch). The resultant vapours from the first column are now injected at the bottom of the second one and as they go up through the plates, they meet the alcohol coming down. Heads from the column still are collected (not as they do with heads from the pot stills, since these are very little and are just redistilled) in a separate stainless steel tank. The tails, or feints, are redistilled after their fusel oils have been removed by decanting them and then discarded.
The spirit (heart) they get from the column is 95 % ABV and they take it at three different levels (plates) established by the master distiller, depending on the rum profile they might want to produce. The higher the plate, the purer the spirit up to a point.
Cyril Mangal is responsible for keeping the ageing cellar and all the barrels. St. Lucia Distillers began with a small aging warehouse of only 300 barrels, but now they handle several thousand barrels in use, mainly ex-bourbon (Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace and Jack Daniel’s) casks of about 200 litres, although they also have just a few port and sherry casks a bit bigger (220-250 litres).
Rum is placed in barrels at 60 to 65% ABV. Previously, higher strengths were used, but with time they learnt it was much better to do it at 60-65 %, which is their habit now.
Story behind the Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Casks:
Chairman’s Reserve is a blend containing aged rums which, after blending, is put back into casks to marry for 6 more months. On May 2nd 2007 St. Lucia Distillers was struck by a major fire which destroyed their administration and blending facility. Mercifully most of their distillery was spared, but they suffered great problems with storage space for their casks. In the melee that followed, their cellar master, Mr. Cyril Mangal, was forced to find space for aging casks in the most unusual places. Having done so, the cellar team had a memory lapse and forgot the casks left in a hidden spot and found them almost 4 years later… Hence their bottling of Chairman’s Reserve The Forgotten Casks with Cyril’s signature on its label, as being responsible for that.
We got to taste 13 different rums that were just middle stages of what they use to make their blends, 7 other rums that were their final products on the market (Chairman’s Reserve White Label, C.R. Spiced, C.R. The Forgotten Casks, Admiral Rodney, TOZ and Strong Rum [80 % abv, for local market]) and even 1 at an experimental stage they’re working on. Some of them went like this:
40 % abv. First blended in 1999. Target: Mid to Premium Market
Raw: 100 % molasses
Fermentation: 24-30 hours (Two strains of yeast: [strain 1] and [strain 2])
Distillation: column + pot stills
Ageing: Initial blend contains rum aged in 100 % bourbon barrels. Blend is then placed in bourbon barrels again for 6 months.
visual: dark golden amber
nose: pot still character, honeyed fruit, spicy vanilla, raisins
mouthfeel: balanced, complex, yet mellow, ripe grapes, coconut, tobacco, spice. Long pleasant finish.
Chairman’s Reserve The Forgotten Cask
Raw: same as C.R.
Distillation: same as C.R.
Ageing: same as C.R., plus 3-4 years extra aging
Raw: same as C.R.
Distillation: 100 % column still
Ageing: 100 % bourbon barrels. Blend of 5—10 y.o.
Raw: same as C.R.
Distillation: column (all three levels) + pot stills (both)
Ageing: 100 % bourbon barrels. Blend of 5—10 y.o.
‘The views expressed above are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of WIRSPA Inc’.