Today is Columbus Day, so I had the day off. Even in the midst of this stupid Government shutdown I am still working; at least for now.
Since it is an American holiday, all of the Guyanese businesses are open, including the Demerara Distillers Limited. They are much better known as the makers of El Dorado Rum.
A group of seven of us rode a bus that had been arranged by our Community Liaison Officer. We were picked up at about 09:20. About an hour later we found ourselves at the DSL store near the distillery. That is where we bought our G$3,000 tickets, approximately $15.
The bus dropped us off at the guard booth at the main entry point. We waited there for our tour guide. While we waited, the guards outfitted each member of the group with hair nets and hardhats.
Shortly after the issuance of hardhats, our tour guide, Amanda, arrived. She asked that we remove all jewelry. She also cautioned us against the use of matches, lighters, and firearms. Luckily I had nothing to worry about with these tourists!! Amanda followed that conversation with a safety briefing and the admonition that we could not take photographs during the tour.
Our first stop was at what is called the Services Building. I must admit during the tour it was difficult to hear what Amanda was saying, because there was so much background noise. That is compounded by the fact that, in general, the Guyanese talk very softly. Often, even though I was standing right beside Amanda and leaning my ear in toward her, I still could not make out what she was saying. Maybe I actually am getting old…
The Services Building is the “green” epicenter of DDL. This is where methane gases, for example, are captured and re-routed for use in other parts of the distilling process; including liquified gas, gas cylinders and dry ice.
From the Services Building, a couple of flights of stairs took us to the yeast and fermentation areas. The making of rum begins in the sugar cane fields. A byproduct of sugar cane refining into sugar is molasses. The molasses from the refiners is mixed with yeast at the distillery to begin the fermentation process. That process takes a little more than a day.
The “wash”, as it is called at this point, is pumped into huge, open-air vats. One could see the heat waves coming from the liquid. When queried, Amanda was unsure of the temperature of the liquid.
The wash almost appeared to be boiling. That was due to the bubbles caused by the yeast. There were several buckets around on the walkways we were using. The substance in the buckets helped to keep the yeast from bubbling over the top of the vats. At this point in the tour it was rather malodorous.
Answering a question, Amanda confirmed that rain getting into the open vats does not negatively impact the distillation process.
From the vats the wash goes to any of a number of available stills. The first one we were taken to is known as the EHP Wooden Coffey still. EHP stands for Edward Henry Porter. The still was apparently originally from his estate. Coffey is the type of still. That particular still has been in continuous use since 1880. It is constructed with local greenheart wood. It is the only one of its kind in the world.
The EHP Wooden Coffey still consists of two towers of wood, the second of which is known as the rectifier. Each tower of wood is about 40 or 50 feet tall. Rum is made by introducing the wash to the top of the column and steam at the bottom. This combination wrings out the alcohol vapors, winding their way to the bottom of the still. The heavier rums are from the top of the rectifier, mediums from the middle and the lighter rums from the bottom.
Directly across from the EHP Wooden Coffey still sits the two Grand PM Pot stills. PM stands for Port Mourant, a town in Guyana. That is where the Grand PM Pot stills began their lives of making rum. These were also made of the local greenheart wood. Both stills have been in continuous use since 1732! Like the EHP Wooden Coffey still, these are the only of their kind in the world. The EHP Wooden Coffey still and the Grand PM Pot stills are credited for giving El Dorado rums their distinctive flavors. Amanda stated that the Master Distiller, Mr. George Robinson, will often mix from both stills to come up with one particular rum.
It was at this point in the tour that one could begin to detect the distinct odor of rum. The odors were nowhere near as noxious as at the fermentation and yeast areas.
In addition to these wooden “patriarchs”, there were several more modern metal stills in use. One in particular was easily the size of a ten-story building.
Departing the still area we were led into the rum warehouse. It was an amazing sight. The rum barrels were stacked in alternating rows of two, 12 barrels deep and five barrels high. Amanda said there are some 60,000 barrels in storage. Each barrel is specifically marked to indicate the rum mixture and the date it was distilled. The rums that are ultimately bottled consist of several years duration; three, five, eight, 12, 15, 21, and 25.
The barrels are all made on site using American white oak. Depending on the type of rum desired, some of the barrels are burned on the inside while others are not.
As noted above, DDL’s longest aged rum is the 25 year variety. That means that all rum that is used has been stored for a minimum of 25 years. There may be some used that has been stored a little longer. A 750ml bottle of the 25 year rum costs about G$70,000 which equates to about $350. They are only produced once each year in very limited quantity.
Over the years of storage, some of the rum is lost through the wood. That is known as the angel’s share. In the case of the 25 year rum, the angel’s share amounts to one-half. In other words, when the barrels are opened they are only about one-half full. Those barrels are only used once. “Younger” rum barrels may be used multiple times.
As we left the rum warehouse we saw where the rum is emptied from the barrels to prepare for bottling. In the floor of that area were four or five stainless steel “sinks” in the floor. They were about 18 inches square by about four inches deep. There were no barrels being emptied while we were there; however, some had been emptied earlier in the day. Because of that there were some of the bungs in the sinks along with some pieces of burlap. Apparently when the bungs are first set in the barrels, a small square of burlap is placed over the hole first. That helps secure the bung. We were allowed to pick up and inspect the bungs and the burlap. They were still wet, having a definite odor of rum. Those that wished were able to take them as a souvenir.
Emerging from the emptying area we were at the cooperage. Unfortunately, barrels were not being made while we were there. At this point of the tour we were allowed to begin taking photographs.
The final stop of the tour was the Heritage Center. It is a combination museum and tasting room. Several scale models of the stills help one understand what had just been seen.
In the tasting room one sees there are some 19 different types of rum produced at DDL. The 15 year rum has won awards for many years in a row. This year, the eight year rum won. I initially asked to taste the 25 year rum. Amanda said that was not offered because of the expense. I ended up tasting the 15, eight, and six year rums. My favorite by far was the 15 year rum. I could see it as a “sipping” rum. The eight year smelled sweet, but I thought it had a real alcohol smell and taste. The six year was even worse. I likened it to rocket fuel (by the way, all of DDL’s rum have a 40% alcohol content). If I were to buy rum it would be the 15 year variety.
I would highly recommend the tour to anyone that visits Georgetown.