Grenada’s oldest rum distillery runs on a waterwheel and hand-stroked furnace.
One of the joys of travel, for me, is sampling the local cuisine and intoxicants–and learning the stories behind them.
A recent media visit brought me to River Antoine Estate, the oldest rum distillery in the island nation of Grenada. The privately owned distillery, which markets its rum under the “Rivers” label, was established in 1785. Little has changed since then.
Every step of the organic process, from loading the presses with sugar cane to stoking the wood-burning furnace to filling the bottles, is done by hand. The ancient presses are driven by a humongous and equally ancient waterwheel–the only functioning waterwheel in all the Caribbean.
“We have 80 persons,” our host told us. “If we automate, we have to cut the staff.”
After the sugar cane is pressed, the juice flows through filtering screens. It is then hand-scooped into a series of uncovered heated vats of increasing temperature until it becomes syrupy. From there, it moves to other uncovered vats to ferment naturally, in the open air. No chemicals, sugars or yeast are added. After about a week, it is ready to be distilled.
Nothing goes to waste at River Antoine Estate. The leftover sugar cane stalks, called bagasse, are put to good use. They are piled in the sun to dry, then used as kindling and fertilizer. In days before toothbrushes, people used the fibrous residue to clean their teeth. The distillery’s glass bottles are recycled, cleaned and refilled.
The primary product of River Antoine Estate is crystal clear Royal Grenadian Rum. It comes in two strengths: 150 proof, which is 75 percent alcohol by volume, and 138 proof, which is 69 percent alcohol by volume. Both are in high demand. The distillery produces 500 bottles a day, and regularly sells out. I’m no rum expert, so here’s my take: I found the taste very strong and highly botanical, but not unpleasant.
If you want to take some home with you, stick to the lower proof. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, the 150 proof Royale Grenadian Rum cannot legally be transported on airlines because of its high flammability. Drink up while you’re in the country.
“There’s no way you can get a hangover,” said our host. “Chemicals are what give the hangover.”
Not being inclined to prove or disprove the claim, I’ll take his word for it.
(River Antoine Estate does not have a website, but it does have a Facebook page.)