Updated: Mar 29
Visiting a rum distillery is tricky business, most of them are based in faraway places that require three plane rides, two boats & a horse drawn carriage to get to. Then there's the added difficulty of procuring VISA's, arranging a visit with a representative(most distilleries don't have visitor centres) & some are in countries with questionable internal political situations(here's looking at you Venezuela). So when Alexx Mouzouris, the global brand ambassador for DonQ rum, called us up with a trip to Puerto Rico to visit the legendary Destileria Serrallés we just couldn't say no!
The production of DonQ rum is in the Destileria Serrallés in Ponce, Puerto Rico. The Serrallés family settled in Puerto Rico in circa. 1820 & were originally from Catalunya in Spain. They created sugar plantations in the area & sold to Spain, France & the USA. The first rum created on the current site of the distillery was in 1865, the distillery itself is on the site of the 2nd plantation the Serrallés family founded in 1861 which was originally named "Hacienda Mercedita" & was named as such after the matriarch of the Serrallés family at the time, Mercedes Perez. There have been numerous specific milestones in the family history that have really cemented this distillery & the family behind it as one of the leading producers of rum around the world. So here's some 'Fun Facts': - Ramon "Monchito" Marrero created the first ever Piña Colada in the Beachcomber Bar at the Caribe Hilton Hotel using DonQ Rum in 1954.
- DonQ stands for "Don Quixote" the famous Spanish novel that also happens to be a favourite of the family.
- The Serrallés distillery contributes over 300 million USD in the Puerto Rican economy annually through rum sales.
- DonQ rum is the most popular rum in Puerto Rico ahead of Bacardi, Captain Morgan etc.
Arrival So here we were, hard-hats on we were greeted by none other than Roberto Serrallés the sixth-generation rum maker at the distillery. Passionate to the brim, he waves his hands more than Italians during an argument as he greets us & shares with us the history of the historic place & his family business. Roberto has been instrumental in spear-heading the business here at the distillery & moving everything forward as the new head of operations here. He had acquired a PhD in Environmental Sciences & has been applying it to the distillery since he joined the company. DonQ rum is one of the greenest spirits produced in the world at the current time.
Many bartenders have sat through numerous training sessions before where they've learned a great deal about the process of distillation, fermentation & aging in barrels. On this trip I had the opportunity to sit down & speak personally to the Master Blender, the head of operations & numerous workers at the distillery. Here's some of the most fascinating facts about production at the Serrallés distillery.
Sugar & Molasses
The price of sugar in 2001 was 5 cents to the pound(0.05 USD cents to 450 grams) whilst in 2014 it was 31 cents per pound (0.31 USD cents to 450 grams). The rise of the price of sugar means a few things to us: - We're all eating too much sweets & getting fatter
- Diabetes is a huge problem is the future
- The quality of molasses for rum production is getting WORSE
The reasoning is basic economics in the sugar industry. Since the highest grade of molasses can contain up to 84% sugar the cost of extraction outweighed the profit from sales by 2001 prices. In 2014 however with rising demand sugar producers are trying to get as much sugar out of the molasses as possible. So to produce the same consistent quality of rum without cutting corners becomes harder, more expensive & or just downright impossible on a large scale.
As a result of the rising prices the Serrallés distillery actually blends the molasses it buys in order to achieve the required sugar blends to product its rum. I've never heard of a distillery doing this before so it absolutely blew my mind. Just to think how much effort you have to go through in order to achieve a quality rum is insane. After this it got increasingly hard to understand exactly how they process everything due to my lack of engineering knowledge & I wasn't allowed to take pictures in the main office computer for obvious reasons(THATS THE SECRET). In a nutshell they actually flash pasteurise the molasses & th fermentation time is roughly 40-48 hours before everything goes through the stills.
Sometimes bartenders forget that past all of the romance & the veneer of artistry that we sometimes put on ourselves regarding things like this we forget that in order for us to enjoy these amazing products we have to remember that first & foremost this is a BUSINESS. Of course they want to produce good quality products, they want to be the best they can be to their community & the rest of the world but there is a certain RESPONSIBILITY that a family-owned company has to the employees that work for them. Any crisis that happens in the company will always effect the bottom line which includes the lives of many more than just the family.
It was amazing to hear that the average employee turnover in this company was around 20 years. Over a few rums someone even mentioned one of the most golden lines I've ever heard of: "I couldn't fire her even if I wanted to, she would never forgive me!"
This was a family business that genuinely cared for it the people that made the magic happen. Since we visited the distillery during shutdown & cleaning process it wasn't quite as hectic as they would be normally. It is still refreshing to know that even this is was a huge business they cared about all the people that worked with them. So onto the business details!
- The bulk of the Serrallés distillery business is selling 'Bulk Rum' to the USA. They predict that they will be selling over 17 million gallons of 'Bulk Rum' in 2019 (Thats over 64 million litres).
- There are over 100,000 barrels of rum resting in the Destileria Serrallés for DonQ rum.
- Puerto Rican rum has its own governed rules for rum production. In order to be called 'Puerto Rican Rum' as opposed to 'Made in Puerto Rico' the production has to be on the island of Puerto Rico & be aged for at least 1 year on the island.
- The family company turnover is over 120 million in 2018.
- The new bottling line can process over 200 bottles per minute.
Blending & Tasting
Every good distillery tour usually ends with a delicious tasting of the produced spirit. Luckily for us this was one area where the DonQ rum distillery wasn't different. Jaiker Soto Bravo is the current keeper of the flame at Destileria Serrallés & took us in to one of the ageing warehouses where they work on the experimental stuff & house the oldest stock. Pop opens a barrel where we taste rum that was over 29 years old & straight from the cask.
From this moment some of the details started to get a little hazy as this stuff was way higher in proof than you can imagine. Regardless we managed to convince his to squeeze a few details out: - The distillery produces vintages every 2 years that are both limited quantities & different every time. Collectors edition! - They've teamed up with Mancino Vermouth to produce Ex-Vermouth cask rum finishes
- They have another 4 different collaborations in the pipeline that they "can't" talk about but nevertheless we spotted Sherry casks in the warehouse
- Expect a big reveal later in 2019
In the end we'd like to open up our hearts & say a HUGE thank you to everyone at DonQ for the opportunity to come & visit your home. The hospitality was exceptional & the whole experience was unbelievable. The sights, sounds, smells & taste of Puerto Rico is one we highly recommend to any bartender around the world.
P.S. Also pick yourself up a bottle of DonQ especially if its the vintage edition. WORTH IT!