William M. Dowd photos
FREDERIKSTED, St. Croix -- The truck driver in the NFL football jersey placed one end of a curved PVC pipe into a larger, metal pipe in the blacktop driveway, then pulled a lever on his tank.
Moments later, a thick, dark stream of Guatamalan molasses began oozing its way from the tanker truck into the gravity-feed system that filled huge storage tanks at the Cruzan's Diamond Estate Distillery.
Step 1 in the process of creating a line of fine rums -- rum industriale, to be precise -- had been taken.
However, I was most interested in a point in the process that came numerous steps later. Tasting the final product of several Cruzan rums in a blind tasting involving rums from Bacardi, Pyrat and Myers's. Having been fortified with the requisite cheeseburger -- as in Jimmy Buffet's iconic song "Cheeseburgers in Paradise" -- the night before, I was ready to begin.
The tasting was led by Bobby Gleason (who goes by "Bobby G" in his professional life), right, the master mixologist for Jim Beam Brands, which took over the Cruzan operation last year from Absolut.
Gleason's forte is cocktails -- the history of them, the romance of them, the creation of them, and the enjoyment of them. He's a wealth of stories about the high and mighty and the down and dirty from his years as a bartender at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, but he's a star in his own right. Last year, for example, at the Nightclub & Bar Show he shattered the Guinness Book of World Records mark for the number of cocktails made in one hour.
The record had been 179 by London bartender Paul Martin. Gleason flew past it with an astounding 253.
"The rules said you had to complete one cocktail before you began another, had to have at least three ingredients in each one, and each had to be different," he explained. "I think I had four or more ingredients in just about all of mine."
He's just as adept at leading a casually-paced tasting. Sitting in a converted 19th Century carriage house on the Cruzan complex, we sampled nine 80-proof rums of varying style. The results:
Bacardi Superior: A honey fragrance with a surprisingly lingering finish atop banana and apple notes and the characteristic Bacardi mild burn.
Cruzan Estate Light: A gentle nose with honey and applesauce notes, then elements of caramel, vanilla and sweet apple in the mid-range and finish.
Bacardi Reserva: More of the honey nose, but with the added element of butterscotch, which made the slight acidity of the taste a surprise. A round, structured mouth-feel.
Cruzan 2-Year Dark: Here we moved into softer, more refined fragrances of brown sugar and tropical tastes of coconut and pineapple. A very agreeable product.
Bacardi 8: Fragrances of almonds and creme brulee precede a spicy, nutty rum with the tropical notes of pineapple and toasted coconut. Complex and pleasing.
Pyrat XO: This is a blend of rums from nine different pot stills. The strong aroma of orange peel creates an expectation of something like a Grand Marnier, and that's what comes through along with touches of anise and cinnamon. A nice dessert offering.
Cruzan Single Barrel: Vanilla, almonds and allspice all compete in the nose, but the taste is dry, soft and Scotch-like with a hint of orange. Very nice sipping rum.
Myers's Origional Dark: Notes of maple and chocolate in the nose, which match up with the dark color, then more chocolate, plus coffee and some molasses in the haste and finish.
Cruzan Black Strap Navy Style: This two-year-old is flavored with dark molasses, and that's what comes through in the nose and in the initial taste. It quickly softens, and coffee elements come through, leading to a long, smooth finish.
Cruzan and its Diamond Estate Distillery is still run by the Nelthropp family despite having passed through a succession of off-island owners. It now is in its seventh generation with Gary Nelthropp in charge of the daily operation. Although the five-still manufacturing equipment is old, it is kept in good repair and Cruzan can crank out 17,000 cases daily.
"We're expanding our warehousing under Beam Global," Nelthropp said. "We already have 12 warehouses that can handle about 10,000 cases each, but we'll be able to put 23,000 in the new facility."
The weather has changed dramatically over the years on St. Croix. At one time, it was the Caribbean's major sugar producer. When Nelthropp's father was young there were seven rivers that ran full year-round, helping supply the much-needed water.
"Now," Nelthropp says, "there are maybe two. We're not really sure what changed, but the rainfall just disappeared. At one time 85% of the island was planted in sugar cane; now it's virtually zero. That's why we started importing our own molasses, and what we get from Guatamala is very high quality."
Rums made from cane sugar are known as rum agricole. Because Cruzan, the island's lone rum distillery, makes its spirits from molasses which comes from cane, it is known as rum industriale.
Cruzan (pronounced crew-zhawn) matures its rums in once-used bourbon or other whiskey barrels. The aged rum is charcoal filtered. White (light) rum is aged 14 months to four years, the single barrel up to 12 years.
The bottling is done in Florida, which makes economic sense -- 85% of Cruzan rum is sold in the States.
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