Everything I might have learned on the rum tour I promptly forgot at the tasting session, where our Hawaiian shirt-bedecked tour guide shot generous splashes of Cruzan rum into plastic cups. Coconut, mango, guava, raspberry, some scary-looking molassesy black label concoction, cream rum… If only we hadn’t gotten there right before closing time. Though maybe that was for the best.
Cruzan rum is manufactured on a smallish plot of land on the western side of the island of St. Croix. The whole walking tour takes about fifteen minutes, from the office across a pebble-strewn lawn to an open warehouse with giant bins of fermenting alcohol, past a tower, storage facility, and trucks. The occasional chicken clucks past, and the whole operation looks more like grandpa’s moonshine still in the backyard than a legitimate rum factory which turns out something like 575,000 opaque, tropical cases of rum each year.
The fermenting house is really a raised platform built around large metal vats of water, yeast, and sugarcane in various stages of fermentation. The smell of raw alcohol sweetness, like mashed apples and burnt sugar, is overwhelming, especially in the heat. From these vats, where thefermenting liquid spends about two days, the mash is transferred to a tall tower where it undergoes something called five-column distillation. In this process, the mash is pumped through a series of columns which remove aldehydes, esters, and other various trace compounds. This process also removes fusil oils, light oils formed during fermentation that accumulate during distillation and are often blamed for hangovers.
We say, “So we can drink as much Cruzan as we want and not have a hangover?” Our tour guide says, “I’m not saying that.”
After fermentation and distillation, the rum is cut with rainwater and placed in handcrafted wooden barrels for aging. Around 23,000 charred oak barrels of maturing rum line the shelves of an extensive aging warehouse, where the rum just sort of hangs out for at least two years – and up to twelve – thinking about who it wants to be.
Aged rum is dumped and diluted to 80 proof. This is what dumping is like: In a room off to the side of the aging warehouse, a guy with a metal pipe hits a barrel of rum and pops out a wooden cork and spills the rum into a trough lined with charred wooden chips. This rum is fierce – we all dip our fingers in the stream and taste. It evaporates in my mouth and tastes a little bit like petroleum and rubbing alcohol.
Here more than anywhere else I’m impressed with how rustic this process is. There’s just a guy, whacking a barrel, and rum flowing out of a hole in the barrel. It’s very Pirates of the Caribbean. The factory puts out an impressive amount of rum – and very good rum – but it all comes back to this guy whacking a wooden cork out of a barrel.
I’ve had a lot of Cruzan rum this week – nothing says tropical vacation better than pina coladas with coconut rum, mojitos, mango and strawberry daiquiris complete with pink umbrella, and other fruity frozen concoctions. And every one of those pretty bottles came from an open-air factory where geckos scuttle over railings and each barrel of rum is opened by a guy in a sweat-covered green t-shirt swinging a stick.
The rum is bottled and flavored in Florida rather than St. Croix, which means that each clean, colorful bottle of rum has been shipped to the mainland before it gets to come back to the tasting room at its own factory. I would like my own trajectory to be like Cruzan’s. New York is great, but there’s not enough water, not enough sun, and not enough rum.
Muddle the juice of ½ lime, about 1 tsp sugar, 4 mint leaves in the bottom of a glass, then add a healthy jigger of white rum and ice, then top off with tonic.