The idea of tasting history is one that spirits enthusiasts encounter at one point or another.
While the fact that spirits like whisky are products of history is common sense to (I would hope) all enthusiasts, the specific notion of tasting that history often emerges in conjunction with how long a spirit has been aged or has remained unopened in the bottle, the traditional practices in the production process of a spirit, or the traceable history of a particular spirit’s brand.
An example of this notion being referenced when it comes to whisky would be the book entitled “Whiskey: A taste of the History, how it’s made and the art of drinking it like a sir” by Michael Abernethy. I haven’t read it, but a brief look at its table of contents shows that it focuses on the global history of whisky and the major styles of whisky today. In this sense, “tasting history” seems to involve understanding whisky’s global development.
Another example would be the PBS television series named “A Taste of History,” which started airing in 2008. It featured chef and restaurateur Walter Staib, who travelled across the United States and to other countries to explore the histories of different cuisines, dishes, and beverages. One of the episodes in the series was dedicated to George Washington’s rye whiskey and distillery. Here, it seems that history can be “tasted” through the consumption of food amidst the consideration of its cultural roots.
A final and more recent example can be seen in the way the same notion of “tasting history” was used quite consistently to describe Gordon & MacPhail’s 2021 release of an 80-year-old Glenlivet single malt from 1940; the same was done for their release of a 70-year-old Glenlivet which was sold in 2018. In these cases, it seems to be argued that history itself can be tangibly experienced by drinking single malt that was made around three-fourths of a century ago. There are countless other examples, and not all of them only involve whisky; rums have also been associated with the same idea.
The frequent use of this idea shouldn’t come as a surprise. There’s an alluring romanticism surrounding the ability to transcend time, in one way or another, in order to encounter the past and the experiences of people in history. When used to describe spirits, it can elevate the way consumers enjoy or learn about what they are drinking. Heck, it leads to purchases and profits.
Rivers Royal Grenadian Rum from River Antoine Rum Distillery provides a unique interpretation of “tasting history.”
Grenada is a Caribbean country that mainly comprises a single island. It’s mostly known today for being the “Spice Isle” because of its production of spices like nutmeg. However, when the British wrested control of the island from the French in 1762 (the French arrived on the island in 1650), the island was soon after used for the mass cultivation of sugarcane and the production of sugar and rum. Around the mid-1800s, the abolition of slavery and its subsequent impact on the sugar and rum industries led to the reduction of productivity in Grenada, and sugarcane agriculture waned until production rates only responded to local demands.
Today, there are only two rum distilleries and two distilleries-turned-independent-bottlers on Grenada; one of the two remaining distilleries is River Antoine.
This website on Grenadian history explains that in 1656, a Frenchman named “Antoine” bought the River Antoine Estate; the nearby river (Antoine river), lake (Lake Antoine), and bay (Antoine bay) were named after him. By the late 1600s, sugar and rum were already being produced by African slaves who were brought to the island but for local consumption.
In 1724, the estate was sold by Antoine to an Englishman named Captain Grant, under whose ownership the rum distillery was established. After several changes in ownership due to various reasons, the estate was bought by the De Gale family, who generally owned the estate until the 1980s before it was sold in 1988 to local Grenadian investors – Shirley Richards, Ray Edgar, and Franklyn Thomas – who still currently own the estate.
Right now, the River Antoine distillery is one of the largest tourist destinations on Grenada because of its intimate links to history. Specifically, River Antoine continues to make rum in virtually the same way it did in the 1600s. Let’s take a look at some key aspects of how its Rivers rum is made:
Local sugarcane is manually harvested and cut before being fed into and crushed in the same cane mill they’ve historically used, which is mechanically powered by a water wheel connected by an aqueduct to the Antoine River. Yes, this also means that if the river isn’t flowing well, no cane will be crushed either. According to the Grenada Tourism Authority, this makes the distillery the oldest water-propelled distillery in the Caribbean.
The sugarcane juice collected from the mill is brought to the boiling house, where the juice is heated and concentrated in a series of metal bowls until a syrup with a specific sugar concentration is produced. Compared to other distilleries that are focused also on producing sugar, River Antoine does not heat the sugarcane juice to the point of separating all the sugar from the leftover molasses.
The resultant sugarcane syrup is then manually ladled to a cooling tank and rested for two days before it is fermented. Only wild fermentation is used, and it’s done for nine days in open-top concrete tanks that are not cleaned between each use to encourage additional bacterial reactions.
Typically, the sugar content of the syrup is enough to reach the desired alcohol yield from the fermentation. However, since the local sugarcane is not as sweet during the rainy season, River Antoine adds molasses that they import from Trinidad to increase the sugar concentration. Due to their willing deference to the variance caused by differences in season and harvest quality (and their refusal to use cultured yeast), the alcohol yield after fermentation also varies.
After the wash is heated by wash-preheaters that recycle heat coming from the distillation of the previous batch, distillation takes place using two double retort pot stills that are directly heated using fire created through the burning of bagasse (the dried fibers of sugarcane that have been left over from the milling process) and other pieces of wood. The distillate is condensed and cooled using worm coils that are submerged in water, similar to the worm tubs used in Scotch distilleries.
The bottling process is equally simple; the distillate is stored and diluted in a big ice cooler, bottles are manually filled up using the cooler’s spout, and the bottles are sealed using a bottle capping machine.
In this entire process, there are almost no signs of the distillery or its processes being influenced by industrialization or modern equipment, save for minuscule changes like the use of the bottle capping machine. The distillery also places an emphasis on the sustainable use of energy in multiple parts of the production process. According to Whitfield Lyons, who served as the distillery’s supervisor of tours, River Antoine is a “working museum” that utilizes traditional methods both to preserve their heritage and provide jobs for the Grenadian community.
The estate’s brand, Rivers Royal Grenadian Rum, consists of two kinds of bottlings. The first has varying alcohol percentages without dipping below 75%, and the distillery mostly releases this kind to respond to local demands. Roger Augustine, owner of a Grenada-based tourism company, explains that the rum is mostly consumed neat and unadulterated, though River Antoine also sells a rum punch that points to another way locals consume their rum.
The second kind of bottling is released at a consistent 69% strength; this is designed for tourists to be able to bring home bottles since most airlines prohibit combustible liquids that have 70 and above percentage of alcohol. Limited stock of this bottling is also made available outside of Grenada by importer La Maison & Velier, who started purchasing from River Antoine in 2019 or 2020.
Rivers Royale Grenadian Rum 69% – Review
On the nose: Absolutely pungent, but without an overpowering hit of ethanol. It primarily comprises fresh sugar cane but is nuanced by artificial sweet corn powder, flower tisane, damp leaves and soil, and canned pineapple tidbits. The sweetness threads into the territory of cheese pimiento, kielbasa sausages, and the dank aromas you get from leaving wet clothes in a closed space for too long. Mouthwatering hints of garlic powder and thyme. Digging a little more after some time reveals more fruit and crisp aromas: sliced pears sautéing in light olive oil, dry white wine, and boxed apple juice.
In the mouth: I like how it took me a couple of sips to acclimatize before I could zero in on what’s going on. It has a beefy and oily mouthfeel, with the arrival consisting of juniper, pickled pineapples, and lemon-flavored hard candy. It doubles down on the olives. Then comes sugar cane juice, leftover pesto sauce, and the fresh and briny yet dirty taste of sea urchin sashimi. If Willy Wonka’s Three-Course Dinner Gum were real, I’d imagine it to have this kind of development. Throughout the development, the texture remains oily. Exhaling leads to marker pens and almost a chewing gum note. The finish is unsurprisingly long. Even the oiliness remains in the throat. Pei Pa Koa candy (made from a syrup used in Chinese medicine), singed wood, brown sugar, and orange peels.
It grows on you and isn’t remotely boring. It’s lively and funky. Paradoxically, it has a dirtiness that readily contrasts a lot of freshness among the developing flavors. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as balanced, however, because some flavors do jump out, almost aggressively at times. I’d expect a rum like this to be divisive among enthusiasts. Still, the experience of tasting this is worthwhile, and it offers multiple phases between and within the nose and palate that demand one’s time and presence. The Cocktail Wonk nailed it on the head when said that this rum made him think of “a cross between Hampden’s Rum Fire and Clairin Le Rocher from Haiti.”
River Antoine offers a different and unique view of history, and this becomes more apparent after one compares it to other rum or whisky distilleries that promote their brands by speaking of a commitment to tradition yet use modern equipment or practices. I was able to purchase this locally at $80, but it costs around $110 at both Master of Malt and The Whiskey Exchange. To me, the value given the quality and supply is just fine, warranting no changes in the score that I assign to it; a fairly priced taste of history!
The photos of River Antoine Rum Distillery are courtesy of Bob Curley, Paul Crask, The Wandering Wagars, and The Grenada Tourism Authority.