I’ve gone to a rum distillery. Straight after breakfast.
No, I’ve not done the ‘it’s five o’clock somewhere’ thing. That’s when you try to justify having a drink at a time you’d find unacceptable at home, just because you’re on holiday. No, I have visited Bacardi’s distillery because it is Puerto Rico’s second biggest tourist attraction, after the historic San Juan Old Town. And with so many visitors it wasn’t difficult to get there.
The Bacardi distillery is situated opposite the fortified Old San Juan Town, in an area called Cataño. They started rum making in San Juan in the 1930s but this site, built on former swampland, was opened in 1958. The easiest and cheapest way to get there was to catch a public ferry, so I headed off to the terminal, just a short walk from my hotel in the centre of the Old City.
The gleaming white cruise ships were lined up along the piers in the distance. And many of those cruise trippers head for Pier 2, my embarkation point, each day. I was going early to avoid ‘the rush.’ The distillery is open from 9am with the last tours at around 4pm. They receive over 250,000 visitors annually and they are open each day apart from Christmas and, of course, Thanksgiving. Well, this is America. In fact the Pier 2 departure terminal is so frequently visited, I discovered that it had its own Facebook page! Who would want to ‘poke’ a pier?
I guess it must be a dull job selling travel tickets for such a straightforward, simple route and travel transaction. And my overly-polite British cost enquiry was met with an auto response from the woman behind Perspex in the booth. Before I’d even finished my “excuse me…” she’d replied, “50 cents.”
I took my ticket and went through to the departures waiting area. A ferry arrived a few minutes later. It was just a short, 10-minute crossing to the other side of the water and the trip offered great views back to the Old City, with its multi-coloured buildings lining the hill, penned in by massive stone forts at either side of the slope. The breeze on the water was cooling too. What a relief.
There were no obvious signs on how to get to the Bacardi distillery from the Cataño terminal, so I just followed the handful of tourists who had disembarked and were wandering aimlessly, like liquor-seeking lemmings. After a short, two-minute walk to the side of a multi-storey car park we found a row of white minibuses lined up, ready to take us tourists on the 5-minute drive to Bacardi. I was told that the cost should be $3 but today it was $5. I was ready to haggle, but a Norwegian couple in the queue ahead of me appeared to be on the verge of melting in the 30-degree heat. And they were willing to fork out a few more bucks each to get onboard to the air conditioning. I’d lost my negotiating tool!
But it was worth it. What should have been an ordinary minibus journey turned into a scene from a Hollywood movie. The driver seemed to be in a world of his own, immersed in the frantic shouting on the Spanish language talk show he had on the radio. As we approached Bacardi, I could see that the barrier across their entrance road was in the ‘down’ position. The driver did not notice and he didn’t slow down. The bus ploughed into it! The result – a cracked windscreen and the barrier dangling like a snapped cocktail stick. The driver then got out of the bus and had a two-minute argument with himself before we continued on our way.
We arrived to an impressive sight at the other side of the car park. A large, solid white canopy provided a roof to an open-sided seating area, hemmed in by a bar on the right and the tour ticket purchase tills on the left. The ceiling was meant to look like a bat, Bacardi’s trademark logo. I thought that it looked more like a nun’s starched whimple.
I took my ticket and waited to be called by a guide. There are three guided tours on offer at Bacardi – a $12 historical tour, a $45 tasting session and for $45 you can also learn how to mix rum-based cocktails on a ‘mixology’ course. I smiled at that word and thought of the 1980s British Telecom advert during which ‘Beattie’ tried to cheer up her grandson following his poor exam results. “Cheer up, you got an ‘ology,” she said. I’m not sure whether actress Maureen Lipman had a qualification in making Mojitos in mind, but if you complete the short Bacardi course, you do receive a certificate.
My tour guide arrived and he was a bundle of enthusiasm for Bacardi. Jesus Riveria, a smiling forty-something. He introduced himself. “With a name like Jesus, you know you’re in good hands,” he beamed. I expect he’s used that line during the thousands of trips he’s marshalled over the years. But he still projected a passion for his work and the company. I liked him and his enthusiasm was infectious. Jesus told me that he had always worked with people in tourism. And it showed. He was a guide working with hotels and cruise ships before Bacardi. He loves his home island – the rich diverse landscape and the range of things to do and places to go. The Old Town and rainforest were his recommendations. He’d worked for the distillery, heading up the tour guide team for over a decade. Although there were around 300 people working on site it was like being part of family, he told me. I heard this from a number of employees during my short trip and noticed that they greeted each other with genuine warmth. I believed it.
Jesus led the way from the open-air bar to a golf buggy where we made a short minute-long journey to the visitor centre entrance. Now, if you book on a tour, the chances are you’ll be in a larger group and a road train will take you between the tour check-in area and the start of the trip. As we slowly buzzed along the road, Jesus pointed out a white art-deco style building to the left of the visitor centre. “That’s the Cathedral of Rum,” he said. A former governor gave the building that label and it underlines the importance of this distillery to the local economy.
Bacardi has produced rum in Puerto Rico since 1936 and now, 85% of their global production comes from this site. “The Bacardi you drink in Britain most likely comes from here,” Jesus said. We entered the visitor centre through a side door and walked down past a conference room, not too dissimilar from the ones you might have to use for boring meetings at work. But here there wasn’t a spreadsheet in sight. Sets of spirit glasses in front of each seat revealed that this was the setting for the mixology sessions.
We walked on, down the corridor and reached the atrium where the tours start. The yellow walls and red-tiled floor of the inner courtyard resembled a hacienda villa. And in the middle of the room was a water feature topped by a wrought-iron sculpture – the Bacardi bat.
I asked Jesus how the logo came about. Apparently the mammals were considered lucky in the Sitges area of Spain, where Bacardi’s founder had grown-up before moving to Cuba. His wife had also seen bats roosting a barn when arriving on the island and so the logo was adopted.
We went through some big doors into a large cinema auditorium. No photos or videos were allowed at this point of the trip for ‘copyright’ reasons. I’m not sure why that was. And I’m really not sure why anyone would want to copy the film I saw. However I can see that some people have sneaked cameras in and uploaded the 10-minute movie onto YouTube. It was a well-produced, glossy film with pumping salsa music to set the mood. It detailed the Bacardi family’s struggle against earthquakes, storms and the seizure of their assets by the Cuban regime. There was a lot of PR spin. That’s public relations, rather than Puerto Rico.
Next, our tour party of two moved onto a replica of the Bacardi founder’s old Havana office, adorned with old promotional posters, documents and pictures. Here, you’ll learn about the history of sugar cane in the Caribbean and how rum making became big business. Jesus interjected with an impressive fact. “This site produces 100,000 gallons of alcohol a day.”
“Wow” I responded, unable to process the magnitude of that production.
“Welcome to paradise,” Jesus laughed.
Next, I got to smell different samples of the rum as it went through the production stages. The first stage smelt rough. That’s what sailors would have drunk as rations way back when. It was approaching lunchtime, when a drink might be acceptable on holiday. We moved into another room, the coolest reconstruction in the complex. I was standing in a full-scale replica of a 1930s Havana bar with photos on the wall to prove the rebuild was accurate. The room appeared authentic, complete with mirror-backed thin wooden shelves, lots of ebony wood and a patterned tiled floor. You could have filmed Bugsy Malone 2 in there.
This is where tour parties get to see Mojitos and Daiquiris being made, but they don’t get to taste. Yet. Jesus explained that the Mojito was created with lime to prevent scurvy and mountains of mint to mask the taste of the rougher rum before Bacardi arrived. Daiquiri is a mineral mining town in Cuba and the cocktail was named after its birthplace simply because it was easier to order than giving the bartender a list of ingredients.
“Time for tastings,” Jesus smiled. Now I’m not normally a rum drinker but Jesus was determined to help me taste the difference between the Bacardi brands. The more expensive rums were conditioned in cherry wood barrels and for longer periods of time. Those samples tasted smoother. “To truly get the best experience you sniff the rum, inhaling three times,” said Jesus. “You should smell vanilla, caramelised fruits or caramels,” he added. They say the same with some white wines, I said. But I was corrected. “Ah, but with wine the first smell is most important, with rum, it is the last inhalation.”
Jesus told me that their Gold 12-year rum was considered so good, you shouldn’t even dilute it with ice cubes. It is clear that, like any major international product, Bacardi has fans who become brand ambassadors. And if you know one, you need to send them here. The gift shop area offered bags of booty with either the bat or Bacardi letters emblazed on them. Jesus excitedly pointed out the contents of an up-lit glass display cabinet. “These are spectacles made of wood from old rum barrels.” My response was, “that brings a new meaning to beer goggles.” The attempted joke failed to raise a smile.
I asked Jesus what the best Bacardi product was. His response was worthy of a politician being questioned in a public debate. “Every one is a great product, and there’s one Bacardi product that’s going to be your favourite. Enjoy them all. But everything in moderation, my friend” was his non-committal but impressive response.
Going on price, the most costly bottle was a reserve, which I would assume means it is the best. At the time I was told that the distillery was the only place to get Bacardi Reserva Limitada, although it was on sale at the airport for $85. As an extra treat or for a special present you can fill your own bottle of this special rum from a giant cask, seal it with wax and have the bottle engraved with your message. Paul Margarita, a 29-year Bacardi employee looks after this and he’ll take your picture with a special Bacardi app and upload it straight to Facebook for you.
They take this special rum seriously and a master blender signs each bottle. It also comes with a mark of authenticity. So next time you’re given a bottle of booze at Christmas, ask the gift bearer if they can prove it is legitimate!
I’d reached the gift shop, the end of most good tours. It was time to head back to the start and claim my free drink to which I was entitled with my entry token. And in case you were wondering, I had a diet Coke. It was nice to sit and soak up the atmosphere in the open-sided, bat-roofed bar. Some trippers were going to the new, on-site Georgina’s Café for lunch. And as always there were some moaning customers. “It’s too commercial.” “It’s like the Disney Land of distilleries.”
I didn’t think that was fair. Okay, you don’t actually go into the distillery itself – there are probably health and safety reasons for that. You do get to see it from a viewing platform, though. But it was a cheap, fun way to spend a few hours.
If you’ve been to the Dublin Guinness Brewery or had a look around Heineken in Amsterdam, this tour is of a similar high standard. And whether you drink or you’re teetotal, you will learn something new. And for me, that’s what travel is all about.