Named San Juan de Baptiste by Columbus when he landed on the south coast on Nov 19, 1493 the island was renamed Puerto Rico by Governor Ponce de Leon in 1509 for the great harbor on the north coast. The island lacked large quantities of gold but all-weather harbor of Puerto Rico has been an important trading center for the last four centuries.
Sugar cane was brought from Hispaniola to Puerto Rico in 1515 and in the west coast town of Añasco, the first ox-powered sugar cane grinding mill, trapiche, was established in 1523. Two decades later, a proliferation of small water-powered mills dotted the countryside on the west and south coasts. Hundreds of sugar mills produced raw sugar until 1873 when the steam-powered, San Vicente central sugar mill was built. The abolition of slavery on the island the same year marked a change in the industry that continued to dominate agriculture for the next one hundred years. In the early 20th century more than 40 centrales, or central sugar mills, produced raw sugar, much of which was refined in the US.
As a byproduct of the sugar making process, rum production in Puerto Rico became a major industry with distilleries on the north, west and south coasts. In 1903, Juan Serrallés installed the first continuous still on the island which allowed his company greater quality control and increased product capacity. In 1911 the Puerto Rican Distilling Co. began distilling operations in Arecibo.
In an effort to help the Puerto Rican economy through rum exports after World War II, the Planta Piloto de Ron was built in Rio Piedras, just outside San Juan. This small pilot distillery was used to analyze all aspects of the rum making process from fermentation through distillation. Heading the research was Cuban born, Rafael Arroyo, who had begun rum-making research before the war and became known as the father of Puerto Rican rum.
By the 1950s, Rums of Puerto Rico, the advertising and marketing company charged with increasing Puerto Rican rum exports, was touting the New Puerto Rican rum being lighter as a result of the new, higher distillation purity. Other improvements that Señor Arroyo implemented were improved fermentation quality through better hygiene and yeast selection that improved fermentation efficiency.
Although the planta piloto de ron was funded by US taxes on Puerto Rican rum exports the program was unique in that all of the research was made available, free of charge, to any rum distiller in any country that wanted it. As a result of better quality control, aggressive marketing and an American taste for lighter spirits Puerto Rican rum exports grew considerably. Cuba’s political problems of the late 50’s and 60’s gave Puerto Rico an even bigger advantage in the US rum market.
In the following decades several joint ventures produced rum for American and Canadian interests. The last quarter of the 20th century saw a consolidation of the distilling industry on Puerto Rico with only Bacardi in the north and Serrallés in the south operating continuous stills. Trigo, near San Juan blends rum from other large producers and distills small amounts of pot still rum that are used in their products which are sold mostly on Puerto Rico.
In 2000, the Roig sugar factory in Yabucoa and the Coloso factory in Aguada, not far from where the first sugar cane had been brought to the island 385 years before closed. Pressure on the Puerto Rican sugar industry from South and Central America sugar producers, higher labor costs and a shift toward higher tech manufacturing including pharmacutials and the chemical industry contributed to the closure of what had been the most important industry on Puerto Rico for almost 400 years.
To the Spanish-speaking population of the island the sugar cane spirit is known as ron. By law, all rum must be aged at least one year in oak barrels. Many of the rums from Puerto Rico are much older than the one year minimum but few labels actually tell how long the rum has been aged. I expect this to change as consumers become more aware of what makes rum unique among distilled spirits. After aging, much of this rum is carbon-filtered to remove the color gained while aging but like most Caribbean islands, the local preference is for a clear spirit.
All of the alcohol distilled today in Puerto Rico is made by fermenting imported molasses. Since World War II, Puerto Rican rum has tended to be lighter than that bottled on the other islands since it is typically distilled to a higher alcohol content. In the last ten years, there has been a shift from producing many of the lightest Caribbean rums toward marketing rums which have been aged longer and to those with more flavor. Although caramel is added to many of the darker blends to enhance the natural color attained during aging, it is typically used sparingly to allow the distilled flavors to dominate the spirit's taste.
In addition to the flavored rums produced by the licensed distilleries, there is a long standing tradition of flavoring rum with coconut milk or creme and other spices to make coquito, which is primarily consumed during the long holiday season that starts before Christmas and runs through Three Kings Day, twelve days after Christmas. Before the last sugar cane harvest in 2000, cañita, a coarse sugar cane spirit made in illicit stills wasn't hard to find in rural Puerto Rico. High unemployment in those areas where sugar cane was once commercially cultivated initially contributed to an increase in illicit distilling but as more of the old sugar cane fields were replanted or developed for other purposes this traditional liquor became harder and harder to find.