Distillery visits are special to me. There is something magical about seeing the process of your favourite rum being produced in real time. Those gorgeous stills, fermentation vats, barrel warehouses, cane fields. It all makes my heart beat a little faster. Some are higher on the bucket list than others of course, and the list is long. I’ve been to a few of those favourite ones, like Foursquare, Savanna, Grays, Neisson and Mount Gay. However there are still quite a few left that I’m desperate to visit, including Hampden, Worthy Park, Demerara Distillers, River Antoine, Mhoba and Saint Lucia Distillers.
I’ve been wanting to go to Saint Lucia for ever. Once I tasted the Hamilton Vendome St Lucia releases many years ago, I had to visit them. The problem is, there is only one distillery on the island. Which is why I kept on going to different holiday destinations. One distillery is not enough to keep me occupied during a vacation. There is a solution to that though, which is called Martinique……but more on that later. When I was preparing for this trip, which was an anniversary gift from my partner and I to ourselves, I was in touch with mighty Ben Jones a lot. I tried not to bother him too much, but planning a trip like this can get very exciting….so I had to hold myself here and there, as he’s a busy man, being Director of North America for Spiribam. In that role he obviously has many connections to distilleries in Martinique and Saint Lucia. He helped me a lot with some introductions and appointments, including with Margaret Monplaisir, CEO of Saint Lucia Distillers Ltd. Someone I only knew from watching her speak at online events. Communicating with her was very pleasant from the get go. On the ball, very easy going and clearly set out to make our stay an unforgettable one. It made me even more excited to meet her.
We got to St Lucia on a Friday afternoon. Margaret had arranged for someone to pick us up and take us to the hotel. Amazing! We spent the weekend on the beach mostly. Gorgeous beach with lush green “mountains” hugging it. Naturally, sipping various St Lucian rums like Bounty and Denros. I couldn’t wait for Monday to role around though, as that was the day of the distillery visit.
That Monday we were picked up, which is necessary when you have a rum tasting ahead of you. It took about 40 minutes to get there. The drive is gorgeous. St Lucia’s nature is impressive. Mountains and green everywhere. Many colourful houses. If you aren’t drinking alcohol, it’s very much worth it to rent a car for a day or two and go explore the island. You do need to have a bit of confidence in your driving, since you’ll be driving on the left (the wrong side), on narrow roads that can be very steep and contain a ton of hairpin turns. I enjoyed it, but it did take 100% focus to make sure we survived the journey.
Once we arrived at the distillery, Margaret was waiting for us outside. What a start. We instantly felt super welcome. She led us through their office building, introduced us to several people, including master blender Deny Duplessis. She showed us the room where we’d have the tasting later and then handed us over to a staff member who gave us a quick introduction to the distillery before watching a short video, which was the only touristy part of the day. Right after was when the real fun started, as we met Ian John, distillery manager. He had just arrived at work and it looked like he had to get into the groove a little bit at the beginning, which is understandable. Once he did, and once we showed our passion for the distillery and asked some questions that were not typical for a tourist to ask, he went into 5th gear immediately. He gave us so many details about every step of the process, it was fantastic. Ian is a super nice guy with an incredible amount of knowledge, who’s generous in sharing that with others. I could talk with Ian forever, which is almost what happened. Unfortunately he also had proper work to do, so he did tell me a couple of times we had to hurry a bit, otherwise “some people will be upset that we are taking too much time”, lol. Made total sense.
First thing we walked past were the molasses storage tanks. SLD receives two molasses shipments per year at two to three thousand tonnes per shipment. It’s transported from the harbour through a 1.5 kilometer pipeline to the distillery. The molasses originate from Panama, Brazil, Dominican, Colombia or Mexico.
SLD has their own cane fields, which are right next to the distillery. A blue and a green cane variety are growing there. According to Ian there is only a small difference between the two when it comes to flavour. So small that most people wouldn’t notice it. The terroir is the same. One of the main benefits of having 2 varieties is in the unfortunate event of one being hit by disease. If that happens, they still have the other as a backup. It’s the old “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” principle.
Next, we went up the stairs to look at the fermentation area. The fermentation vats are special, well, some of them. They are very old concrete vats, which have a downside and an upside. The downside to them is that they take an incredible amount of maintenance to keep them running, especially in comparison to modern stainless steel fermenters, which are also being used at SLD. The upside is that the concrete vats are part of creating the unique flavour profile of SLD rum. Hence why Ian mentioned they are worth all the hassle, time and money to keep them running.
They use two different yeast strains for fermentation, yeast A and B, where yeast B was derived from sugar cane. B is used for all the aged rum, A for unaged, such as Denrose. The two yeasts are never blended, as B would consume A. In the fermentation process, the molasses brix count is first brought down from 85 to about 18-20. Then nutrients, vitamins and enzymes are added to create a healthy yeast. Fermentation lasts for about 40 hours, where alcohol is produced for about 24 hours and the rest of the time it’s left sitting for more flavour creation. Mmmmmm....flavour creation!
The smell was incredible around these fermentation vats and I could have spent a lot more time there, but we had to move on to the stills. Not a punishment to look at them at all! They have a column still and three gorgeous copper pot stills. The pots are a 450 liter John Dore 1, a 6000 liter John Dore 2 and 1300 liter Vendome. The Vendome used to be in Trinidad at Angostura (TDL), where they felt they didn’t need it anymore. SLD gladly took it off their hands. Apparently Angostura regret that decision very much and I can see why. The Vendome produces a beautiful spirit. It’s a slow and inefficient process though, which is why there isn’t a lot of rum produced on this still. Each batch is 130 to 140 liters and takes 10 hours to be finished. It has 9 rectification plates and a shell and tube condenser. It refluxes straight from the condenser back to the pot. The wash is distilled up to 85-90% abv, the hearts are then taken at 90%.
John Dore 1 and 2 are both double retort pot stills. #1 produces 63000 liters a year (molasses and cane juice), #2 produces 168000 liters. The column produces a million liters a year. It is a 45 plate rectifier column, where they distill on plates 30, 32 and 40, up to 95% abv.
SLD uses cane juice and molasses to make rum. The small amounts of cane juice go straight to the John Dore 1. John Dore 2 is too big and the Vendome not efficient enough, as it doesn’t produce enough alcohol in comparison to the JD1. This is also why they only fill the Vendome with batches of 130-140 liters. The inefficiency of the still causes the heads and tails part of the spirit to grow faster than the hearts when you increase the batch size. Larger batches make no sense because of this.
After giving my favourite still, the Vendome, a hug, we went to the lab. We were told not to take photos, which adds to the thought that you are entering Area 51. I always have that feeling when I’m in a distillery lab, wondering if there are any secrets lurking somewhere and telling myself that I shouldn’t stare at anything for a long time, just to make sure I don’t get arrested and put back on a plane to Canada. Master blender Deny Duplessis was hard at work there, so we only disturbed him for a minute or so to say hi.
We then walked over to the ageing warehouses. Just before we got there, Ian told us to stop for a second. He mentioned that we should breath in right when we are walking in. We did. Oh my, such beautiful aromas! SLD has three warehouses with 3500 barrels each. They use a wide variety of casks. The oldest rum that’s resting there is from 1999. The evaporation rate, or angels share, is 7% for the first year and then goes down to 5 or 6%. They top up the barrels every two to three years to battle the angels.
We walked around the warehouse for a while, taking in the smells and admiring the casks. Unfortunately it was the end of the tour with Ian. It was tasting time!
We went back to the office building where we met up with Deny. He had prepared an insane tasting for us. Eleven different blending components. Unaged and aged cane juice rums, unaged and aged molasses rums. Goodness me this was interesting. It was so interesting that I couldn’t multitask and write down notes unfortunately. Not a big deal, as some experiences don’t need to be recorded like that, they just need to remain in your heart and soul. Besides, none of these rums are for sale on their own, so their notes wouldn’t be very helpful anyway. Deny slowly walked us through all of them, while telling us in which rums the particular component could be found. They were all impressive in their own way. Each time it was a rum from the Vendome still he would say:”This is one from your still Ivar”. Haha, a very effective way of making me feel good! I wish it was my still. Would be a nice Christmas gift.
At some point during the tasting, Margaret joined us and then Michael Speakman walked in as well. Michael is Chief Sales & Marketing Officer at SLD. I was surrounded by true rum experts who I respect much. No pressure whatsoever. :) We had a lot of laughs during the tasting. When we were done, we tried some of their liqueurs and flavoured rums. I was surprised by the lime and the sorrel. Liked them both. My partner liked the coconut and coffee as well. At that moment Ian walked in. Now I was in the room with all the VIPs! We took some photos and said goodbye. Ian said:”it was very nice to meet you, I learned something from you and you learned something from me”. I have no idea what he learned from me, I think he was simply being very polite and a true gentleman by saying that. One thing is for sure, I learned a lot from him. I’d love to be his unpaid volunteer helper for a week. Oh my, what a learning experience that would be.
We walked out of the distillery on a high. Not only because of the rum we had consumed, but mostly because of the amazing hospitality and kindness of all who met there. We were so distracted by this feeling that we forgot to go to the distillery shop and buy some rum! DOH! We did something much better though, we had lunch with Margaret at a very nice restaurant. Food was great, the views were awesome and the company was even better.
Talking about Margaret, I feel the need to share a few more words about her. Spending time with her instantly makes your day better. She’s a beacon of positive energy, strength and care. This trip wouldn’t have been half as good if it wasn’t for her. If you’ve met Appleton’s Joy Spence, then you know she fills an entire room with her amazing aura. It’s similar with Margaret. I think it’s unfortunate for the rum geek community that she doesn’t travel more, as everyone’s missing out on her company. I think it would be great for the brand as well if she was present at the largest festivals as the ultimate ambassador of the distillery. Now, I have no idea if she even wants this and she might be cursing me right now. I’m just blabbing away out of appreciation for her. Sorry Margaret! I have to add that I noticed Deny has been starting to travel abroad to rum events lately, which is fantastic. A very knowledgeable, humble and generous person who I’m certain the rum community will embrace and be very impressed by.
We ended our week on another high. Margaret invited us to join the distillery team at St Lucia Jazz. We had no idea what to expect, but we were all up for that adventure. Several people had told us that traffic is insane during the festival and not to take a taxi, as it would take forever to get there. Since it was on the other side of the bay from where we were staying, we decided to take a water taxi instead. Slightly challenging to get one, but it definitely was the right choice. This particular taxi was a tiny inflatable boat with a big motor. My long limbs barely fit in it and subsequently I got to the festival soaking wet. That didn’t dampen the mood though, it made us laugh more than anything and besides….with the hot weather my clothes dried up very soon. The festival was busy and buzzing. Definitely an electric feel in the air. At some point we found Margaret and spent a good few hours with her and her family, plus a bunch of people from SLD. We had a lot of fun! We didn’t know any of the music, apart from one song, so that was an adventure in itself. An adventure we felt privileged to have experienced. We’d definitely go again if we are ever in St Lucia at festival time.
As you can tell, we had an unforgettable trip. St Lucia is a very impressive country. The landscape is breathtaking with its mountains and rain forests. The people are friendly, the food is good, the weather gorgeous and the rum very tasty. What else do you need?! If you do go, make sure to rent a car and explore the island. Get an AWD vehicle, as the roads can be very steep, with lots of hairpin turns, elevations of 15%, some dirt roads, all while driving on the left side. It’s challenging to drive there. Don’t do it if you aren’t an experienced driver. Hire someone to do it for you, which has the added benefit that you can focus on all the gorgeous vistas. If you feel one distillery is not enough entertainment to warrant a trip to St Lucia, there are very short flights or an intriguing ferry ride to Martinique. Another gorgeous island, with a ton of interesting distilleries. Since it’s part of France, it feels like Europe in the Caribbean. We stayed there for one night and saw Clement, A1710, Rhum JM, Neisson and Depaz. Need to go back to see the rest.
We are very thankful to everyone we met at Saint Lucia Distillers and to Ben Jones. Special thanks to Margaret for your warmth, care and all that you arranged for us. Ian, for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your wealth of knowledge with us and having the patience to listen to my many questions. Deny, for setting up an incredible tasting, taking all that time to share your wisdom and answer my no doubt repetitive and amateur level questions……and for the amazing 16 year sample you gave me. Last and certainly not least, thanks to Michael for answering tons of questions over the years and for our excellent poolside chat about the good, the ugly and the evil in the rum world.
Before I went, I felt Saint Lucia Distillers was one of the top distilleries in the world because of their use of multiple still types, fermenting molasses and cane juice, experimenting with various cask types and, of course, being able to produce great rum through it all. That view has only been strengthened by visiting the distillery. It’s very impressive what they are doing and I can’t wait to taste future releases. We’ll be back!