The culture behind rum is global, although for the past few hundred years most of the world’s high-quality rums have been produced in the Caribbean. Several of these come from Grenada and it could be said that a significant part of the spirit of Grenada’s own culture can be represented, distilled even, by the artful history of rum production.
To learn more about this ongoing history and cultural importance of rum production on our island, BusinessGrenada met with Ian Harford from the Westerhall Estate, which has won numerous international awards for its rums.
Westerhall Estate Ltd was registered in 1966 and is family owned. Westerhall’s HQ dates back to 1800 and rum has certainly been produced here since then. In the estate’s gardens you can see the old equipment from the 1700s that was used for crushing sugar cane, which would have produced the essential juice required to make crystal sugar. There can be little doubt that this juice would also have been used to make rum.
Rum production requires several basic stages: growing sugar cane, harvesting it, extracting juice, processing and fermenting that juice, distilling the fermented juice, blending rums, aging that blend, and of course bottling and selling it.
Harvested stalks are crushed to extract juice, and depending on the type of cane used, this juice can be clear, but is often tinged with a slight yellow or green colour, and needs to be fermented or processed immediately. “You can take that juice and produce rum straightaway,” Ian says, ‘“but very few do.” Instead, the juice is boiled and processed in a factory to take out some of the crystal sugars. What is left over is known as molasses, which is still rich in sugars. A big advantage for rum makers is that well made molasses can be stored in an airtight container for several years, then simply rehydrated and fermented. Once fermented, the liquid has a typical alcohol content of between six and ten per cent.
Rum can be made from sugar cane juice, or juice that has been boiled to make syrup that can be stored for a short while, or molasses. “We have an international standard among rum producers in the Caribbean,” Ian explains. “If you go to Martinique, for example, they label two types of rum: rhum agricole and rhum industriel. Agricole is made directly from the juice or syrup; rhum industriel, which is what most rums are, is made from molasses.”
“We have a pot still, which is a small operation,” Ian says. “Ours holds 450 gallons. Heat is applied and we remove the product we need. A continuous still is a column where the product is being fed 24-hours a day. The product comes off at different levels depending on the temperature. It’s more like a refinery.”
After the juice or molasses has been fermented and distilled, the rum produced represents only about ten per cent of the total mass. The 90 per cent left has little use, quickly becomes malodorous, and disposing of it is a problem. “We have not distilled recently, so it’s not a current problem,” says Ian, “but we used to treat it as an effluent and let it out into the river. It’s all natural so if it’s released into the sea carefully it’s not a problem. At some cost, it can even be made into a fertiliser to feed the next cane crop.”
All rum that comes off a still is crystal clear and has different strengths depending on the fermentation process and the type of still. A traditional small still will produce rum of up to about 80% alcohol by volume, whereas a very efficient modern still can deliver rum that is well over 90% alcohol by volume, which obviously needs to be broken down. Once the alcohol content has been lowered the rum needs to be blended with other rums and aged to allow complexity of flavour to develop.
Westerhall currently specialises in the art of blending; the intricacies of which are a closely guarded family secret. “Everybody is looking for a particular taste or quality to call their own rum and this is achieved by careful blending of different types of rum,” Ian reveals.
Rum is typically aged in wooden barrels that have been used once for storing bourbon. The law in the USA states that bourbon has to be aged in new barrels each time, which is fortunate for rum makers. Although there are people experimenting with using lots of different types of barrel, Westerhall only uses the traditional once-used bourbon barrels. Westerhall seeks consistency with its recipes, so customers can depend on buying the taste that they prefer.
Aging gives rum a smoothness. It also adds colour and subtle flavour because the rum reacts with the wood, which is why some barrels are charred inside before the rum is added.
Traditionally, the aging process added a depth of colour to the rum and its darkness was a strong indicator as to how long it had been kept in a barrel. That is no longer necessarily true, says Harford, “because it’s easy to change the colour in a way that will not impart anything to the rum. A lot of the dark rum you see now could be young rum with a huge amount of caramel in it,” he cautions, assuring that Westerhall does not condone this practice. However, he says that it is possible to have “several rums of the same age that have different colours: some because of the amount of time in a particular type of wooden barrel; some because of additions and detractions such as a charcoal filter.”
Westerhall produces over 25,000 cases of rum a year, each of which contains 12 bottles of 75cl. “We do export to Britain, which requires bottles with 70cl, but British law allows us to adapt the content and not the bottle,” Harford says, although Westerhall does have new bottles for the European market, which are a little shorter and so require new labels, which of course is an added cost.
The USA remains Westerhall’s main export market, but the recent surge of interest in fine rums in the UK means that Westerhall now exports almost a third of the rum it produces. “We sponsored the RORC race that finished at Port Louis,” Ian says. “That helped our marketing in Britain. People became aware of us and sailors are historically rum drinkers.” He also acknowledges that Sandals La Source resort has improved local sales because of the increase in tourists it has directly and indirectly created. Along with this, he mentions that the increase in super yachts at Port Louis Marina has also boosted Westerhall’s sales: “they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in a week when they stock up here and they often buy quite a lot of our rum.”
Westerhall employs about 30 people in the rum business, who work a single shift from 08:00 to 16:00, five days a week. This means there is room to increase production as foreign markets develop; sometimes, however, less is more. Ian explains that they “focus on producing high-quality rums, not high-volume amounts, which takes a lot of skill.” He clearly has confidence in those employed, explaining that Westerhall has “several from the same families who have worked with us for years. They understand the business well and have elite skills that are difficult to train when you produce specialist rums. Like any other business, we also need middle management people who focus on the business rather than the product.”
The Westerhall Group has other businesses too, namely the Umbrellas Beach Bar on Grand Anse beach, the Island Pools business that provides maintenance for swimming pools, and a business called Island Ice. In total they employ nearly 90 Grenadians. The ice business in particular uses a lot of electricity and would like to use solar panels to provide clean electricity. However, the cost of import duties and the bureaucracy of generating sustainable energy make the investment at this time, too expensive.
Westerhall currently provides seven types of blended rum and represents roughly two-fifths of the Grenadian rum industry. The best-selling rum is called White Jack, which is an aged rum that has been charcoal-filtered to have the colour removed. Jack Iron is a red rum and comes a close second on sales. Both deliver roughly 70 per cent alcohol by volume.
Premium products include Vintage Rum, which contains some rums from copper-pot stills and has been aged in oak barrels for a minimum of ten years, making it a natural dark rum; another premium product is Plantation Rum, which is also a blend of rums from copper-pot stills that has been aged in charred American oak barrels for six years, and is the best-selling export rum.
12 Degrees is a light rum distilled twice in copper-pot stills, aged for two years in plain oak barrels, then charcoal-filtered and diluted to 40 per cent alcohol with Grenadian spring water.
The most recent addition is known as Westerhall Dark, which is a seven-year-old, naturally coloured dark rum. Many people’s favourite is the Superb Light, which has been aged for three years to create a light rum with a natural colour and 43 per cent alcohol by volume.
Westerhall Estate plans to expand their visitor centre and to construct a place purely for revealing some of the history and art in Grenadian rum. This would be a shrine for all rum connoisseurs. In the meantime, anyone who is interested in learning more about the culture and history of rum should visit the Westerhall Estate museum and take a tour. It is a cultural experience that should be enjoyed by everyone who visits Grenada or who lives here.