The Caribbean’s Virgin Islands are synonymous with rum. After all, rum is what the pirates drank and was even used as island currency. When people think of drinking in the Virgin Islands, they often think of cocktails made with rum; Daiquiris, Mojitos, Painkillers, Pina Coladas. Therefore, no visit to the Virgin Island of St. Croix is complete without a stop at the Cruzan Rum Distillery in Estate Diamond.
The scent of molasses is already in the air as we pull into the front gate of Cruzan headquarters, a collection of brightly colored buildings just off the highway. The gate guard points us toward the visitor’s center, a sherbet orange building with an open air patio. As you enter the doorway, a painted sign says “Welcome to the Don’t Hurry.” Guests register for the $8 per person tour inside and then wait for the next tour to begin. Before the tours guests can peruse the gift and bottle shop, they can relax on the soft patio furniture or play of game of cornhole on the lawn.
After a few minutes of hanging out, our young tour guide, Yashira, gathers everyone together. About eight of us follow her to the parking lot, where she gives us an overview. Although short in stature, Yashira is mighty in Cruzan knowledge. She tells us most of the Distillery’s buildings are historic and one of the oldest structures is the stone sugar mill, which began operation in the mid-1700s. Yashira says at one time there were over 115 sugar mills on St. Croix and that even though they no longer operational, all of the mills are considered historic buildings. If someone purchases land with a sugar mill on it, they are not allowed to tear it down, but are allowed to build around them.
The rum distillery began shortly after the sugar plantation at Estate Diamond opened. Most sugar plantations had rum distilleries as a way to use up molasses, a by-product of sugar cane production that is the main ingredient in rum. Back in the 1700s and 1800s, all rum that came from St. Croix was called Cruzan Rum, which comes from the nickname of St. Croix residents, called Crucians, (pronounced Cru-zans), and Estate Diamond was the brand name. It wasn’t until the 1930s, after the other distilleries closed, that Estate Diamond re-branded as Cruzan Rum and is the last remaining distillery from the plantation era left on the island (Captain Morgan, a Puerto Rican rum company, moved its distillery to St. Croix in 2010 when Seagram’s sold it to Diageo Spirits). Cruzan has been run by the Nelthropp family for over three generations. As Yashira tell us this, Gary Nelthropp, Cruzan’s President and Master Distiller, exits one building and walks to another across the parking lot.
After this quick history lesson, Yashira directs us to a large blue building and gets to the business of explaining how rum is made. Rum has only three ingredients, yeast, water and molasses. The molasses is pumped into giant underground tanks from large tanker trucks. We stop behind one of these trucks as it deposits a sweet-smelling brown liquid into the holding tank. Since sugar cane is no longer produced on St. Croix, the molasses used by Cruzan comes from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Dominican Republic. It is shipped to the island and then loaded into tanker trucks. The distillery gets 8-10 molasses trucks every day, and the storage tanks below us hold one and half million gallons. Yashira allows us to stick a finger into the thick brown stream for a taste. It tastes better than it looks. Underground giant yeast tanks holding 4,000 gallons mix the ingredients for 16 hours.
This mixture is then transferred to nine fermentation tanks inside the blue building, which hold 30,000 gallons The tanks are where the yeast grows to create alcohol. Fermentation or yeast growth is what causes the liquid to bubble in the tanks, what Yashira calls “movement.” The longer the liquid is in the tanks, the slower the yeast grow and the slower the movement of the liquid. From the speed of the liquid we see, this batch is pretty fresh.
Next to the fermentation building is the distillation tower. Yashira says it is the second tallest building on St. Croix. The island’s tallest building is the airport’s control tower. Cruzan’s tower has five columns — the stripping column, the purification column, the clarification column, and the fourth and fifth are the rectifying columns. The tower acts as a giant pressure cooker and as the alcohol turns to vapor and rises, the first three columns take out the impurities. Yashira says that it is the impurities that give people hangovers and that Cruzan Rum is so clean, people have fewer hangovers.
As the alcohol cools, it returns to liquid. Only 10% is the actual alcohol and the other 90% are remains. At this point, the liquid is 189 proof, which is 95% alcohol (Yashira calls it moonshine). The remains and the leftover molasses and yeast head to the cooling slide just off the distillation tower. The leftover liquid comes out between 200-215 degrees and is put on a belt, which looks like a giant rectangle-shaped water slide. As the remains slide down the tower in stages, the liquid cools until it is cool enough to return to the ocean, which is why "St. Croix fish are the happiest fish in the Caribbean," according to a laughing Yashira.
Yashira leads us to Warehouse 8, a turquoise building filled with wooden barrels up to the roof. Warehouse 8 is where the magic happens. The alcohol is put into used whiskey barrels, which Cruzan gets from Jim Bean in Kentucky. Since a barrel can only be used once for whiskey, Jim Bean ships used barrels to St. Croix. Cruzan does a pressure steam to clean the inside then adds one pound of wood oak chips to give the rum color and flavor. Cruzan will use these barrels 5-10 times. When the rum is removed, or “dumped,” the barrels are repainted so they can be re-stenciled with a new date and a batch number.
The rum is clear when it comes out of the distillery, and if that batch of rum is going to be flavored, it is not aged. The rum that is aged can be in the barrels from one to 12 years. As it ages, the rum goes down to 42 proof, which is 21% alcohol. After aging, the rum is shipped to Jim Beam in Kentucky where it is bottled. Yashira tells us 85% of the bottled rum is shipped across the US, while 15% comes back to the Virgin Islands and St. Croix.
Yashira then shows us four different bottles of rum. The first bottle, filled with a clear liquid, is unaged rum. Next to it is a bottle about three-quarters full with a light amber color, that Yashira says was aged for only two years. The five-year rum bottle is darker still, and finally, Cruzan’s finest rum, which is aged for 12 years, is the darkest and takes up just the bottom of the bottle. The declining amount of liquid in the bottles represents how much is lost to evaporation, what is called the Angel’s Share. After 12 years of aging, out of a 50-gallon barrel, only five gallons remain.
From here, Yashira invites us back to the visitor’s center for what we’ve all been waiting for — the tasting. We are allowed to taste two kinds of rum and have two cocktails. Inside at the visitor's center bar, Yashira hands each us not one, but two drink menus with cocktails on both the front and back. Behind her is a row of Cruzan Rum bottles, showcasing every type of rum they make. We all begin with rum sampling, and I tried the award-winning Black Strap, which is a two-year aged rum that has pure molasses added into it. The taste is more like bourbon with maple syrup and almost as thick. Yashira says she likes to use Black Strap for cooking and marinating rather than drinking.
My next taste was Key Lime Rum, which Yashira recommends sipping chilled, so she puts a single ice cube in my cup. She is right; the chilled rum is refreshing almost like a lime soda. I was also able to taste my friend’s choice of rum, the incredible Velvet Cinn, a white rum horchata made with dairy cream and bakery cinnamon. Velvet Cinn is delicious on its own, but Yashira says its good drizzled on French toast and ice cream or put a few drops in your coffee. The rum’s taste is smooth, creamy cinnamon spice.
Some of Cruzan’s most popular rums are the flavored rum used in cocktails. The flavored rums, such as Vanilla, Blue Lemonade, and Black Cherry, are actually made in Kentucky. Cruzan ships unaged rum to Jim Beam where that distillery handles the flavor infusions. Someone asks Yashira, about Cruzan’s connection to Jim Beam. Yashira says Jim Beam bought Cruzan Rum in 2007 and the companies worked together for seven years until a Japanese company, Suntory (famous for producing Japan’s finest whiskeys such as the award-winning Hibiki) bought Jim Beam and everything Jim Beam owned, including Cruzan, in 2014 for $16 billion dollars. The company is now called Beam Suntory and is the 3rd largest spirits maker in the world.
Another person asks Yashira what her favorite rum is and she diplomatically says all of them. She then adds that she prefers the tropical rums like Mango, Passion Fruit and Coconut — spoken like a true Crucian.
Now it’s on to the cocktails. When Yashira tells us that the Cruzan Confusion cocktail tastes like “Skittles in a jar,” I decide to try it. The concoction contains almost every single flavored rum Cruzan makes. It’s a mix of Passion Fruit, Pineapple, Mango, Orange, Banana, and Key Lime Rums with pineapple and cranberry juice. It smells like bubble gum and tastes like Hawaiian Punch. The five rums used in the drink are already mixed in a large clear glass jug in the center of the bar. My second cocktail is the Summer Breeze, which is made with Key Lime Rum, Light Rum, club soda and a splash of Sprite. The drink is more tangy than I expected, but still citrusy good. Other cocktails people enjoyed were Dreamsicle with Orange and Vanilla Rums, Cherry Pop with Black Cherry and Vanilla Rums, Cruzan Splash with Guava Rum, and the Banana-ana with Banana and Dark Rums. Find these and dozens of other Cruzan Cocktail recipes on the distillery’s website.
Tours at Cruzan Rum Distillery are given Monday-Friday from 9 AM - 4 PM, Saturday 10 AM - 2 PM and Sunday (Nov-April) from 10 AM - 2 PM. The Distillery is located at 3A Estate Diamond northwest of the airport near Frederiksted, St. Croix. The distillery does not accept cash, only credit cards.
Photos via Carrie Dow
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