To identify the location of the distilleries on an island, I go to rum shops, talk to shopkeepers, and look at the rum labels. I first heard of the River Antoine distillery at the Fat Rice Bar in Carriacou, just north of Grenada.
A few days later, I was in Grenada on a bus heading north from Grenville to the distillery. The busses don't go all the way to the distillery but if you ask around you can find a driver that will take you for a couple of extra dollars. Even if you only ride to the "junction," the end of the line, you are only about ten minute walk through some interesting countryside.
As the roofs of the distillery buildings become visible over the top of the cane, prepare to be transported back in time. The cornerstone on the boiling house proudly states 1785, only nine years after the US Declaration of Independence.
Some of the equipment at this estate has obviously been replaced, but there is no doubt that the people who worked here more than two hundred years ago, the ancestors of the present employees, would feel right at home here today.
The River Antoine Estate produces a variety of agricultural products, but is best known for its rum. Sugar cane, grown on the estate, is crushed in the water-powered cane mill. The fresh-squeezed juice flows down a wooden sluice to the boiling house, where it is cooked in cast-iron pots over an open fire of dried cane stalks and wood. As the juice is ladled from pot to pot to thicken the sweet liquid, tempering lime is added to precipitate the unwanted impurities and to aid fermentation.
After the juice has boiled a few hours, the thickened liquid is ladled into another sluice that directs it to the fermentation tanks on the second floor of the still house. Without the addition of yeast, the boiled cane juice takes about eight days to ferment. Once all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the wash is drained from the concrete tanks to the pot still below.
Some of the products of a previous distillation are added to the fermented wash, then heated by a fire built directly under the copper pot. The alcohol-rich vapor from the second retort is condensed by water from the stream that also powers the mill. The fresh rum is then piped to the sight glass on the ground floor of the still house.
The hydrometer in the sight glass indicates the alcohol content of the condensed liquid. Depending on its alcohol content, the distiller directs the product stream to one of the three concrete cisterns in the floor. Not all of the clear liquid is fit to drink but since it contains some alcohol that can be recovered it is used to fill the retorts for the next distillation. Not much is wasted in this operation.
On a large chalkboard in front of the sight glass, the depth of liquid in each cistern is recorded. Gallons of alcohol are calculated and entered in another column. Daily production is only about 35 gallons, but you can see the raw rum to be bottled is between 150 and 153 British proof, or about 87% alcohol by volume. Rivers is the strongest rum I found in the Eastern Caribbean.
The distillery is being expanded to meet a growing demand. To maintain the unique character of this rum, John Dore and Co, the London based company that built the previous stills installed another still in the late 90s.
This is one of the few distilleries where you can see all of the stages of rum making without any fanfare. After touring the operation, you can sample the clear rum that was probably distilled yesterday, if not that morning. What you see is what you get. Don't be put off by the plastic cups or the warm water. My taste tends to favor an aged rum, but if you want to take home a bottle of white rum, right from the still, this is a rare opportunity.
A visitor center was recently opened. Cold drinks, including rum and beer are available as well as souvenir items. But the character of this distillery survives in spite of the improvements.
Most of the work is done here in the morning, so get here early if you want to see the operation in motion. Around here, "Don't say rum, say Rivers."