The rum renaissance has mostly put a lot of molasses-based rum from former British Caribbean colonies under the spotlight.
Barbadian, Jamaican, and Guyanese rum are easily the best-known and most-liked rums at the moment. This is largely due to the way their flavor profiles correlate with those of whisky drinkers. In any case, there are others that aren’t getting the same attention. A couple of these are English Harbour rum from Antigua, as well as rum from St. Lucia.
By the 1950s, only two distilleries remained in St. Lucia. One was the Dennery distillery founded by Denis Barnard in 1931. The other was the Geest-owned distillery located at Roseau Bay. These two entities merged in 1972 to form Saint Lucia Distillers (SLD). The merger arose during the island’s transition from sugarcane to plantains. SLD also now stands at the site where the Roseau distillery used to be. They chose to use that site since Roseau is closer to the port, in order for the imported molasses to get to the distillery faster.
In 1993, the Barnard family bought out the Geest family to take full ownership of SLD. In 1998, they sold some shares to CLICO, the company that owns Trinidad’s Angostura Distillery. CLICO bought the entirety of SLD’s shares in 2005 but kept Laurie Barnard, Denis’ grandson, as the managing director.
SLD ended up for sale due to CLICO’s financial collapse in 2009. I heard Maison Ferrand, Plantation’s parent company, was in the running to buy the distillery, but Groupe Bernard Hayot (GBH), in the form of Spiribam, eventually came out on top in 2016. Spiribam is GBH’s spirits division and already has Martinique’s Rhum JM and Clement under their purview.
As far as more technical aspects of the distillery, they have eight open-top fermenters. They can hold 3,500L of wash each. Two types of yeast are used. Having an open fermentation means the distillery allows some foreign and uncontrolled bacteria and yeast to get to the wash. I guess they think it allows some additional flavors, despite the use of cultured yeasts. Fermentation lasts from 36 to 42 hours. The resulting ABV of the wash is 7%.
The distillery uses four stills to produce a multitude of rum styles. There are the following:
John Dore 1: a 454L double retort pot still. It was commissioned in 1998. It’s used to distill molasses and the very limited amounts of cane juice-based wash grown and fermented by SLD. Angostura brought in this still when they acquired shares of the distillery.
John Dore 2: a 6,000L double retort pot still, commissioned in 2005. Only molasses-based washes are distilled here. SLD’s master blender, Denny Duplessis, says he gets ripe mangoes from this still’s distillate.
Vendome: A “hybrid” still: a pot still with nine plates. The still was commissioned in 2002, and molasses and cane juice are distilled here. This still is said to produce a salty and rubbery flavor.
McMillan Coffey: The distillery’s 45-plate twin column still. This was installed in 1985, and only molasses-based washes are used in it. It’s used to make light, medium, and heavy distillate. About 4500L of distillate can be produced per day.
SLD currently only grows enough sugarcane to produce 25 barrels of cane juice-based rum per year. As of a Zavvy distillery tour in January 2021, the mentioned there are about 8,500 barrels of aging rum in the warehouses. Their barrel entry proof is around 63%. They mostly use ex-bourbon casks, but recently have been using more ex-wine casks.
Today’s rum is SLD’s Chairman’s Reserve Original. It was launched in 1999. The recipe is a blend of molasses-based rum from at least four to five years from their pot and column stills. To be exact, the distillates came from the John Dore 2, and the upper and medium plates of the McMillan Coffey stills. The name Chairman’s Reserve came from Laurie Barnard, the chairman of the distillery until his passing in 2012.
Laurie Barnard is an unsung hero of the rum industry. Even Richard Seale recognizes his contributions. It’s said that in the 1990s he already saw what rum could be, hence his investment in more stills to produce more styles of rum. The success SLD is now enjoying is due to his vision. Sadly, he isn’t alive today to see how far SLD and rum has become.
SLD’s current CEO is Margaret Monplaisir. She has been working for the company for a long time. In multiple interviews, she has proudly and fondly mentioned that she started working for the Barnards when she was still in school. She worked during her summer break so she could buy school materials, and after she finished studying, she briefly worked at a car dealership. There, Laurie’s brother, Craig, saw her while looking for a new car and insisted she work at SLD. The rest is history.
Chairman’s Reserve Original – Review
Color: Barley tea.
On the nose: An initial light blast of pimento dram, ripe banana peel and ripe banana. The ethanol quickly spikes for a bit then immediately drops. It’s followed by more subtle fruity notes such as apples, leather, banana-que, paint thinner, tobacco, leather, honey and vanilla.
In the mouth: Like on the nose, I get light notes. The ethanol bite is initially more prickly. It’s quickly followed by tastes of pimento dram, tobacco, overripe bananas, honey and vanilla. After I swallow, I get subtle notes of toffee, toasted coconut flakes, chocolate raisins and caramelized apples.
Unassuming and straightforward. I like the simplicity. The proof is an automatic indication of what to expect; it’s something that can be used to get people accustomed to the funk of molasses-based rum. At the same time, experienced funk lovers can still appreciate it. It’s a decent rum to be had by itself but will also do very well as a mixer.
I’m sure this will be better when bottled at a higher proof, but this one does its job. It gives off pretty funky flavors, but the intensity is dialed down by the 40% ABV and the inclusion of column-distilled rum. For funk lovers, there are no off-flavors. This can be given to folks who want to try the funkier and pure pot-distilled Jamaican rum, such as Hampden or Worthy Park. Think of it as recommending a less-peated single malt such as Talisker to someone who wants to try Ardbeg.
If I were to be asked which part of this rum I prefer, it would be the nose. Despite giving off nearly the same flavors as the mouth, I like how I got two layers off from it. The brief spike in ethanol helps me reset what I smell for a bit before the second wave of aromas arise. That said, what I got in the mouth is pretty good, too. It’s just more akin receiving the notes in a straight line without a break, so they can pile up.
Images of the fermentation area and stills are courtesy of The Cocktail Wonk.