Since the early 17th century, St. Croix has been making use of its natural resources locally as well as exporting them worldwide. A fine example of this is the refining of sugar cane (once St. Croix’s primary cash crop) to produce rum. At one time, over 150 plantations were producing molasses and rum at their factories. Today, the tradition of making rum on St. Croix is carried on by the Nelthropp family. Their brand, Cruzan Rum, has been voted one of the best in the world. With visiting friends, I had the opportunity to play tourist and tour the rum distillery to discover what goes into making a world-class rum.
Entering the distillery, we observed remnants of the original plantation, Estate Diamond. An old sugar mill now serves as a cistern for the distillery. An imposing, large green building, once the estate’s great house, now serves as the distillery’s main office. A 19th century chimney is now enclosed and houses the boilers. Like the times, things must change. Additional office space had to be added to the grounds to accommodate their employees, but other than that, the past of this plantation has been well preserved by the use of the existing buildings.
Our guide was Karen Nelthropp Low, one of the four Nelthropp’s currently working at the family distillery. She explained that the first necessary ingredient is sugar cane, the juice of which is turned into molasses, transferred to distillery tanks, diluted with rainwater and then boiled at 400 degrees. The mixture is then cooled to room temperature and transferred to the ‘seed tanks’. Yeast and more rainwater are then added to total 500 gallons of the mixture.
Sixteen hours later, billions of yeast cultures are alive and working in each gallon. This is then transferred to fermentors, where more water and molasses are added. The yeast eats the sugar, converting it into alcohol. The remaining mix is three parts water, and one part molasses. The mixture is now called ‘beer’ (not like the kind found in your friendly tavern, even though it is brown and foamy). Only 10% of this mixture is used in the rum. Sound interesting? Wait until you see (and smell) it up close! One of my favorite things about this tour is getting to walk beside the tanks and actually look into them and see the process as it is happening!
Next, the actual distilling begins. Cruzan Rum uses a multi-column distillation process that removes nearly all impurities from the rum, including fusel oils. Fusel oil is what causes hangovers, so there you go, another reason to drink Cruzan Rum… no hangovers! When the distillation process is complete, the rum is clear. The golden brown color is given to the rum by the barrels in which it is stored.
The American made, once-used, charred white oak barrels are bought from Jim Beam and are steamed upon arrival to remove any residue flavors or fusel oils from the bourbon previously stored in them. The rum is then stored in the barrels for anywhere from 1 to 12 years. The time in the barrels mellows the flavor of the rum and gives it the rich golden color. Cruzan Estate Light and Dark Rums are made using the rum from barrels that have been stored between 1 to 4 years. An extra filtering process eliminates the color to produce the light rum. When the rum has been aged and it is time to be ‘dumped’, it is rolled, and the barrels beaten to release the bung (or cork). The rum is then drained into a holding tank and charcoal filtered to refine the color and flavor.
At the present time, Cruzan Rum is owned by Beam Suntory. What does that mean for Cruzan Rum? The Nelthropp family still operates the distillery and handles the rum production. Bottling of the rum is now done off-island at a sister facility owned by Beam Suntory. Once the rums are aged at the Cruzan distillery, they are then loaded into tankers and shipped stateside to begin the packaging and distribution process. According to Karen, this arrangement leaves the Nelthropp family to do what they have been doing best for generations, making rum. This system makes a lot of sense when you consider that only fifteen percent of the rum is sold here in the local market while the other 85 percent is sent to the United States and beyond.
At the pavilion, the final stop on the tour, our guide became our bartender and we got to taste the smooth and pure rum. Children are welcome in the pavilion (but not to the rum tasting). Estate Diamond Rum, named after the estate in which the distillery resides, is aged 5 to 12 years. Cruzan Single Barrel aged rums are also available and is great for those who appreciate sipping a good rum. As many of you know, there are many flavored rums available including mango, key lime, pineapple, coconut, banana, orange, spiced, and blackstrap molasses. In addition to samples of various rums, visitors also get to choose two different mixed drinks or cocktails from a list of Cruzan favorites.
We came, we toured, we tasted, and we bought gifts for friends (and for ourselves). Oh, and my visiting friends took advantage of the duty-free allowance of 6 bottles of rum per adult for US citizens! The employees at Cruzan even bubble wrapped and boxed their rum for airline travel for only a few extra dollars. Make sure to visit this fun and historic attraction while you are on St. Croix. The Cruzan Rum Distillery is open* from 9am to 4 pm, Monday through Friday, and 10am to 2 pm on Saturdays. They are also open on Sundays (from November – April) from 10am to 2 pm, and when a cruise ship is in port. Tours leave every 30 minutes from the top of the hour, so do hurry to the ‘Don’t Hurry Rum’!– Jennie Ogden, Editor *Be sure to verify current hours of operation as they may change from time to time.
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- The Marvelous Mango
- Savoring St. Croix Like a Local
- The Spirited History of Caribbean Rum
- Take Advantage of Duty-Free Shopping
- St. Croix Heritage Trail
- Two Rum Distilleries, 39 Flavors of Rum!
- My St. Croix Destination Wedding
- Safari Tour with Sweeny
- Cruzan Rum, a St. Croix Tradition