Sprawling Sugarcane Fields
Sugarcane grows all year long in the rich Dominican soils. These southeastern sugarcanes have a particularly rich content of sugar, which speeds up the fermentation process. Typically, the canes need to grow about 7 to 9 months before harvest.
The Whack of a Machete
Although most of the harvesting is done by machinery, there are a few benefits to harvesting by hand. Hand harvesting is better for the soil, and you can get a larger sugar cane content because you can reach all the way to the bottom of the cane when you cut by hand. Sugarcane is cut about 8 to 9 months out of the year, with a pause during the rainy season.
The cut sugarcane needs to be transported within 24 hours to the refinery to stay fresh. At the refinery, juice is extracted from the sugarcane with pressure and steam. After the juice is crystallized, you also get a dark and viscous molasses, which is the material for the rum. This particular molasses contains about 55-60% fermentable sugar.
Trucks unload the molasses into storage tanks. In this photo, this truck is just about done unloading, so the stream of molasses is narrow. These storage tanks are essential during the rainy season when sugarcane is not cut. Molasses stored in the tanks can last for years.
Molasses Storage Tanks
Each storage tank holds one million gallons of molasses. The fermentation process then begins with diluting molasses with water and yeast, which reacts with the sugar to produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. The first alcohol product is a fermented wine, roughly 8-10% alcohol.
This particular set of columns can distill up to 40,000 liters a day. The result from the first distillation is a raw alcohol called "flema" which is about 90% alcohol. This product is then distilled in a second column, and the distillers select the lighter alcohols that concentrate at the top of the column for their final product.
In addition to analyzing the incoming molasses for sugarcane content, the lab also analyzes the final product for acidity, alcohol content, and level of heavy vs. light alcohols.
Welcome to Puerto Plata
Trucks transport the raw spirit daily to the aging and blending warehouse in Puerto Plata.
Water from the Mountains
The 95% alcohol is then diluted with de-mineralized water from the mountains of Puerto Plata to 65% alcohol.
The barrels are moved into one of many warehouses for aging. These horizontally oriented barrels hold rum that is aged for 3 to 8 years. (Vertically oriented barrels hold rum that is aged from 1 to 3 years.) The humidity of the tropics speeds up the aging process. In fact, it is difficult to age rum here for more than 8 years, as the barrel may have completely evaporated by then. In one of the smaller warehouses, the air was so thick with alcohol that you'd likely pass out from hanging out there for too long!
Inside the Barrels
The wood inside the barrels has been charred to a medium toast.
The First Filter
When the aging is up, char particles are filtered out of the rum.
Off to Rest
Once the product is formulated, the blended rum is sent to these tanks to "rest." This process is meant to allow the rums to blend together and soften any aggressive edge. The resting period can range from 3 to 40 days, depending on the product.
More Char Particle Removal
After the resting process, the rum must get approved for bottling. When it's approved, it goes through one final filter to remove any leftover particles from the cask.
The bottling facility is quite the impressive sight. It can produce up to 25,000 bottles a day.
Ready to Drink
Ah, finally, it is in our hands! You could call it a sweet success, but the rum is actually quite dry. In the Dominican Republic, a common way to drink rum is over ice with 7-up and lime—a "Santo Libre". Cheers!