Our Visit to Antigua Distillery on RAT ISLAND!

As it stands, we at Bartender Atlas still have full time-jobs. Jess (in case you have never looked here) has worked as a professional photographer for about 15 years. She is very good, so good in fact that she was asked to photograph a wedding at The Verandah Resort in Antigua.

After about 23 seconds of discussion we decided that I would tag along on this trip. Primarily for vacation but also because I had tasted and fallen in love with English Harbour Rum. As we do any time we travel we reached out to distributors and manufacturers of the rum and asked if they offered tastings or distillery tours. When we heard back from our new friend Calbert (who is the sales and marketing executive for Antigua Distillery in the USA) we felt lucky and then got excited.

We met Calbert at the liquor store attached to the Antigua Distillery office and took a quick ride to the distillery. Many distilleries, especially in the past five to ten years have remodelled parts of their factories to have beautiful visitor centres and expanded the rooms surrounding their stills and fermenting tanks to be more tourist friendly. This distillery though, stands as it has for decades. They make gorgeous rum here and that is their main concern.

Standing in the parking lot of the distillery, we quickly began to learn that Antigua Distillery was like no other and for a number of reasons. Calbert told us the name of the plot of land we were standing on, Rat Island. As we began tucking our pants into our socks, he clarified. “Rat Island” was named not because of any kind of infestation, but because of the shape of the land and the long causeway that once connected it to mainland Antigua.

Once inside we were led up a narrow flight of stairs to the fermenting area. Antigua Distillery used to use Muscavado sugar cane exclusively, until the early 1960s when it became no longer viable. At that time, people were looking for a lighter style of rum and so the currently produced Cavalier Rum was created. The Cavalier Rum is the same rum today as it was then. These days the molasses being used is sometimes from Antigua but the proximity to other sugar producing islands in the West Indies means some molasses comes from abroad. Because of it’s proximity to the harbour and therefore ships, Antigua Distillery has a series of underground pipes leading directly from there to the distillery. Secret molasses tunnels, who knew?

A proprietary yeast is used to start the fermentation process and then the molasses and yeast combination is left to ferment for between 36 and 48 hours in open vats. These open vats sit under a tin roof to protect them from weather, but other than that, natural yeasts that are flying through the air off of the ocean that is only metres away can interact with the fermenting molasses. If this has an effect on the final product, it always has and this is how the rum has always been made so why mess it up now?

From the fermenting tanks the wash is pumped into a (booze nerds, get ready for this) a copper column still. Not copper lined, or a still with copper plates, but a very old, 100 percent copper still. This very rare still possesses and imparts so much character. Once going through the copper still, the distillate is tasted, tested by the distiller (there are no computers involved) and ready to be barrelled.

One note here: the boiler used for the still is oil powered. That wouldn’t be a big deal except that the oil being used is recycled. There is a lot of oil in all the ships in the harbour and so Antigua Distillery buys the oil, has it cleaned (a process I couldn’t possibly understand the workings of) and then they use it again to power their distillery. When I ask Calbert if the oil is cheaper he laughed “No, it’s incredibly expensive.” He got serious again and followed with: “But it is very important to us to help the earth when we can.”

Once in a barrel the rum will sit for two years.  Water is added before ageing to help curb evaporation while ageing. At two years we have what most Antiguans drink, Cavalier Rum. Cavalier is a smooth round rum with lingering vanilla and butterscotch flavours. Light in body but not so light it couldn’t stand up to some lime juice and sugar in a cocktail.

The storage warehouse for the barrels is much smaller than others I have been to. It is one warehouse with about 4000 barrels in it. They are in the midst of building more storage facilities but that number is surprisingly low for the popularity of Antiguan rum worldwide.

After five years in barrels we have English Harbour 5 Year Rum. Many barrels from the same year are blended in 85 year old wooden blending tanks. The blend is tasted, again by humans, not computers, to ensure consistency. After being blended the rum is bottled right there at the distillery. If you have never hunted down English Harbour 5 year rum, do yourself a favour. This rum is nothing like the funky rums from places like Martinique, or the grassy full bodied rums from Jamaica (we like those too!). English Harbour is light and easy drinking with a rich backbone of stone fruit and baking spices. There is also an English Harbour 10 Year rum that needs to be tasted to be understood.

Three new expressions have found their way into the English Harbour fold too. Small amounts of the 5 year get to sit an extra six months in some different barrels. There are now English Harbour rums that have been finished in Sherry, Port and Madeira barrels. They all integrate with the 5 Year in their own way. If you can find any (again we said small amounts) pick them up and send them directly to us at Bartender Atlas. (Love you!)

After our tour we went back to Premier Beverages (for all your wine and liquor needs in St. John) and bought exactly the amount of liquor we are allowed to bring back to Canada, which is too bad, because everything we tasted was great.

Thanks again to Calbert and everyone from Antigua Distillery for having us out for a day.