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The History of St. Croix Rum
Look behind the first bar you walk into after you have landed on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands and you will know without a doubt what the island’s rum is. Cruzan is the only distillery on the island (although by 2011 bulk rums for Captain Morgan will also be distilled there) and the locals take a certain pride in that fact. Every bar I visited had Cruzan cocktails on the menu, Cruzan rums in the well and a stock of every bottling the distillery produces ready and waiting. I have never seen... such a concentration of one brand.
To date (2009) Cruzan Rum is producing 15 rums including a Single Barrel Estate, 151 Proof, Black Strap, Light Two Year and Dark Two Year; tropical flavors that include banana, black cherry, citrus, coconut, guava, mango, pineapple, raspberry and vanilla and a decadent Rum Cream. If we weigh out the quality, craftsmanship, family values, versatility and mixability, the line of Cruzan Rums is impressive.
The Crucians have reason to be proud of this locally produced spirit as it is one of the smoother rums I’ve had to date and the heritage and tradition of the Nelthropp family producing rum in St. Croix goes back 7 generations. We expect this sort of family tradition in whiskies especially, but for rum it is a bit of a phenomenon and the tradition rivals that of the Beams and Samuels bourbon family legacies.
To fully understand the story of Cruzan Rum we should look at the family’s heritage and that of the island of St. Croix itself.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus landed on the north side of the island that would come to be known at St. Croix (or Santa Cruz). Here he met two native people, the Arawak and the Carib. The Caribs were certainly not the nicest people the Spanish would meet in their ventures and are said to have been cannibals and, in the least, they terrorized the Arawaks on this small island and others throughout the Caribbean.
While Spain was the first to claim St. Croix, it has had many owners over the last 500 years including England, Holland, France, the Knights of Malta, Denmark, and finally the United States. Yet it was the Spanish who imported what would come to be known as West Indian “Gold” – or sugar – by introducing sugarcane (native to Asia).Continue to 2 of 12 below.
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The Whim Plantation Sugar Factory
Over the years sugarcane ruled St. Croix and at one time as much as 85% of the island was covered with sugarcane fields. Plantations like the Whim Plantation were established over the years and the mid 1700’s saw a peak in production through the mid 1800’s. It was at the beginning of this era, in 1760, that the Nelthropp family started the Cruzan tradition. The name for the brand is derived from the term “Crucian,” which refers to the people who live on the island.
In the 1960’s the island’s... sugarcane production ended due to a lack of rain for the thirsty crops. Evidence of the days gone by can still be seen throughout St. Croix, mostly by the abandoned windmills scattered around the island. Some have been converted to modern uses including a private dining room at the Buccaneer Resort and a cistern to collect rain water at the Cruzan distillery.Continue to 3 of 12 below.
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Nelthropp Family Tradition
Family tradition runs deep at Cruzan and it is now operated by the 7th generation of rum distillers. The legacy was most recently passed down from Donald Nelthropp Sr. to his three children, Gary the Master Distiller and President, Donnie the Vice President and Karen who is head of Public Relations. Despite his retirement, however, Donald Sr. is still known to put upwards of 40 hours a week in the distillery and has a keen sense for the entire operation, including the 5-column stills which he... built years ago.
A family business such as this has marks of ingenuity all over and the Nelthropps hold dear to a thrifty attitude that if it’s broke, repair it, don’t replace it. Evidence can be seen throughout the distillery of this mentality and it is quite refreshing. Pencil marks and hand-written notes are visible on much of the equipment, while floors are patched, stills show signs of small repairs and barrel cracks are filled by hand. Throughout the campus one will also notice tributes to St. Croix’s history itself, most notably the seven flags – one for each country that has claimed possession over the tiny island at one time or another - surrounding the sugarcane windmill turned cistern.
Quality control is also a family affair and includes some of the distillery’s extended family. Each morning a round table of various members of the Nelthropp family and distillery staff gather to check samples of their rum in various stages. Scientific and human tests are performed in the lab to catch any abnormalities in the previous day’s production before the new rums go much farther in the process. Imagine sitting down with those closest to you daily for a morning check of rum. It seems like a dream, but it is one that those behind Cruzan feel is necessary for continued success and a consistency in the finished product.Continue to 4 of 12 below.
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Molasses Delivered to Cruzan Rum Distillery
The process of making rum begins with sugarcane, but it is the molasses which is a by-product of sugar production where rum really begins. The Cruzan distillery prides itself on using what they believe to be the best molasses available, a high-end grade from Guatemala. While local molasses was once used, the sugar production which ended in the 1960’s quickly put a stop to that. Now some 3 million gallons of molasses are often waiting at the local port while 200,000 gallons are often stored at... the distillery.
When tanker trucks pull up to the distillery to unload their precious mahogany sludge one realizes how heavy molasses really is. In such bulk, the stream of molasses emptied into holding tanks before fermentation is like a continuous, tar snake with such force you feel like you could get sucked in from merely sticking your finger in for a taste. Surprisingly for such a slow moving animal, it takes only about 30 minutes to empty one large tanker.
The molasses used at Cruzan is much sweeter and less refined than what we often find in supermarkets and I couldn’t help but think how I’d love a bottle for what could possibly be the best round of Black Stripes ever.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Fermentation Tanks at Cruzan Rum
The fermentation tanks are the first step for molasses as it makes its journey through the distillery to become Cruzan rum. It is in this stage that the detailed calculation begins and control over environment becomes crucial.
Cruzan begins fermentation in propagating tanks where a mix of 10:1 water and molasses are slowly introduced to the yeast which will begin the conversion to alcohol. After propagation the mixture is sent to one of the 13 main fermentation tanks. These hold considerably more... liquid than the previous tanks and the mix is further diluted to 75% water and 25% molasses.
It is important at this point to regulate the temperature of the fermenting liquid. If it is allowed to reach too high of a temperature the yeast will die and fermentation will stop. So, for the 48 hours while fermentation is taking place the tanks are kept at a steady 90-92 degrees – an arduous task considering the fermentation process itself creates its own heat and in this case it is being done in tropical temperatures.Continue to 6 of 12 below.
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Cruzan Rum Distillation Process Explained
It is always in the still room that a distiller’s eyes light up with pride and an infinite knowledge of their spirit. Gary Nelthropp is no different and facts, temperatures, undesirable and desirable aspects of the rum distilling process roll off his tongue somewhat like a mad scientist trying to explain the theory of relativity to laymen. It is really quite fascinating no matter how many distillery tours you go on.
As he speaks, Nelthropp is against a backdrop littered with more evidence of the... family-fix it philosophy. The control board for the still room is riddled with scribbled notes in Sharpie, pencil marks for precise alignment, label strips with more notes and more, all conveying the feeling of “Dad’s workshop.”
Among the many things that can and often do taint rum are fusel oils, a natural occurrence in the distillation process. These oils are often left in rums and can be noticed as an alcoholic, almost antiseptic, note because not all distillers take the time to remove them entirely. Nelthropp shows a beaker filled with an early stage distillate and points out the noticeable oil slick floating on the top – these are fusel oils and cannot be taken out, but only masked in the aging process – and it makes you wonder exactly what you’re drinking half the time. Cruzan makes a point to remove imperfections from the distillate prior to barreling and the finished product side-by-side with a few other rums make it clear that this extra craftsmanship is worth the effort.Continue to 7 of 12 below.
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Cruzan Rum's Continuous Column Still
The still house is where the magic happens, where water turns to wine, so to say. At Cruzan each of the 5 columns of the still have a purpose in refining the dark fermented liquid into a crystal clear distillate that is ready for the barrel.
Nelthropp, like his father, is a man who certainly knows his still. They’re familiarity with the 5-column continuous still is so great that they are able to pinpoint exactly where a problem in its infancy may be occurring and can tell you exactly where each... unwanted aspect of their rum is taken out – those fusel oils are removed in plate 17.
By the time the process is done, all of the heads and fusel oils (among other imperfect qualities) are removed and the result is a clear, odorless liquid. Pour this 189 proof distillate over your hand and it will almost immediately evaporate, leaving your skin as clean (if not cleaner) than before it touched you.
It should also be noted that Cruzan has a growing environmental consciousness. While their production is already held to higher standards than many other rum distilleries because St. Croix is a United States territory and EPA standards apply, they have plans to go beyond that. Nelthropp says that they have a goal of producing zero discharge within 3 years and Karen Nelthropp mentioned plans of building a power plant that will take the distillery off the island’s power grid.Continue to 8 of 12 below.
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Coopers Repair Barrels
The tedious task of the barrel cooper is one that should be admired. Since Cruzan reuses bourbon barrels the coopers at the distillery are there to repair any cracks. They do this by meticulously pounding bullrush, a marsh plant that when dried is often used to make mats and chair seats, into the offending spaces between the barrel’s staves. Using these flat leaves does the trick and is another testament to the distillery’s thrifty ways.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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The Theory of Aging Cruzan Rum
The way in which a rum’s age is calculated can be slightly confusing, especially for those used to seeing 15-40 year old whiskey bottlings. Rum seems much younger than aged spirits from colder climates but in reality it is the warmer, tropical climates where much of the world’s rum is produced that speeds up the aging process. When you see a 10 or 15 year old rum it is very old for this particular spirit and on occasion you’ll even see a 20+ year rum, which are often the oldest and highest... priced. On average 8 years is a decently aged rum but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire blend is 8 years old.
The age of rum on the bottle is the youngest of all the rums mixed into that particular blend and Cruzan’s product line is a great example. Cruzan Light is aged for a mere 14 months, just enough to get some oak, while their 2 Year is a blend of rums aged anywhere between 2-4 years. Cruzan’s Single Barrel, however, has a slightly more complex journey through the barrel. It begins with a blend of rums that average between 5 ½ and 6 years old, which once married are barreled again in unused oak casks for another 6-9 months. This smaller batch rum is held moved into stainless steel, temperature-controlled holding tanks until enough has been finished to constitute a bottling run.
Besides the new barrels that temporarily house Cruzan Single Barrel, all barrels used at the distillery are one-time use bourbon barrels, the majority of which once held Jim Beam bourbon. This whiskey barrel technique has been used at the distillery continuously over the last 45 years and if you pay close enough attention you’ll find slight bourbon characteristics inside even the Light Rum. This is also aided slightly by small charred chips placed inside each barrel.
One other difference in Cruzan’s aging process compared to many whiskies is that there is no need to rotate casks within the barrel house. This is due to the fact that the storage facilities are designed to let that warm Caribbean breeze flow freely and evenly hit each of the barrels whether they are at the top or the bottom of the stack.Continue to 10 of 12 below.
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Finishing Cruzan Rum
An upgrade to the modern hose systems for filling and emptying barrels of finished rum is in the planning phase, but for now time-tested methods are standard at Cruzan. When a barrel of rum reaches its optimum age (such as these 2006 barrelings meant to be Cruzan Light) the barrel is taken to a separate building and rolled over a cistern. The barrel is whacked with a large stick several times until the precious liquid begins to flow into the shallow trench. The rum follows an unseen path to... holding tanks and the small, charred chips are caught just below the barrel.
At this point the rums are 142 proof and are sent off to be cut to their 80 proof bottle strength. However, Cruzan has had to make concessions for their production due to popularity and when the choice of barreling or bottling on site needed to be made; they chose to increase barreling space. Now, all Cruzan rums are sent to the port inside the distillery’s own tankers and the tanks are sent to Florida where the rum will meet its bottle, flavors are created, and cartons are sent out for distribution.
Cruzan continues to grow and at this moment, they are housing some 42,000 barrels at the distillery, a 12,000 increase over last year, and run 300 days a year. The distillery keeps up with demand by operating 300 days out of the year and produces around 3,400 cases of rum each day.Continue to 11 of 12 below.
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Flavored Cruzan Rums
Cruzan’s 9 tropical flavors (banana, black cherry, citrus, coconut, guava, mango, pineapple, raspberry and vanilla) are good. Flavored rums are difficult to produce without being overly sweet simply because it is the nature of the spirit. Often these are just on the verge of syrupy unlike vodkas which tend to be dry. Cruzan is no different but these flavors are better than many I’ve tried. I believe that flavored rums should be saved for cocktails because it is in drinks that these shine and... I’ve been playing with Cruzan’s Guava with some very nice results. Bobby “G”’s Fresh Squeeze is a good example.
Then we get to that anomaly of the Cruzan line, the Rum Cream. This is nothing short of yummy and is not only a supreme cocktail mixer to substitute for other cream liqueurs, but is divine on the rocks for dessert. I have yet to try it, but have dreams of a dessert martini with Black Strap and Rum Cream – this would be the ultimate indulgence I’m saving for the right meal. Find flavored rum cocktails...Continue to 12 of 12 below.
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Cruzan Rum Review
I will admit that I was not very familiar with Cruzan prior to my trip to St. Croix. I had a random Cruzan cocktail here and there and was aware of their line up but had never truly explored the brand. That quickly changed when I met Bobby “G” Gleason, Master Mixologist for Beam Global Spirits, and he took our group on a tasting tour of Cruzan.
Essentially Bobby “G” guided us through a side-by-side comparison between Cruzan and other popular brands. It is always in these types of testing that one... learns some amazing truths and the realization of why you enjoy one brand or another becomes clear.
The first sampling was the white rums and Cruzan’s counterpart the most common Bacardi in the world. In these clear spirits Cruzan was less sweet, both in aroma and taste, but Bacardi had a noticeable alcohol note that made it seem unnatural and unclean. This goes back to that elimination of fusel oils that Gary Nelthropp was so adamant about earlier in the day. The same could be seen in the aged rum comparison where Cruzan Single Barrel and Bacardi 8 were matched up. Here I found that same unnatural alcohol in Bacardi and a very smooth, natural, and more subtle sweetness in Cruzan.
The process was repeated and while I found that I tremendously enjoyed the strong orange peel notes of Pyrat XO, Cruzan was impressive throughout. The White Rum is nice sipping but even better for mixing, the Single Barrel a rum worthy of the slowest, chilled sips and the very dark Black Strap (which I recommend highly as a replacement for Meyers Dark) is very sweet, luscious and simply yummy.