This June, at the invitation of the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association (WIRSPA), twelve North American journalists gathered for an opportunity to visit the island of Hispaniola and the operations of three rum companies in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. When the trip began my familiarity with the works of WIRSPA was limited to the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque. The ACR marque was developed to symbolize the quality and authenticity of the rums produced by the companies that are WIRSPA members. It has been used in campaigns across Europe and is now launching in North America with a series of trade seminars.
As I have visited rum companies across the Caribbean and the Americas, I have often observed how they use or dispose of their waste and by-products and their green initiatives. In the not too distant past, companies would of ten dump their waste in the ocean or store it in caves or dumping grounds. This led to unforeseen environmental impacts that are still being addressed today.
WIRSPA, through its Capital Investment program, has been assisting companies in the implementation of programs that help them manage their environmental impact. For example: On our second day of the trip, we traveled to Alcoholes Finos Dominicanos (AFD). This distillery provides the rum for Ron Barcelo and was one of the greenest, self-sufficient, large scale operations I had ever seen. AFD produces around 16 million liters of alcohol a day, 335 days a year. During the tour we learned that the chemicals from the stripping run are extracted and stored for resale. The bagasse is sent to the incinerators that help power the operation. The ash and biomass is then blended with the waste water and used to fertilize the sugar cane fields around the distillery. CO2 is captured and bottled for sale to beverage companies. The alcohol produced is then shipped to Barcelo or exported out of the country. On a side note AFD has also implemented some educational incentives and outreach programs to the communities around the distillery that help grow the sugar cane used in their production.
From AFD we traveled to the Barcelo aging and bottling center which also featured a visitors’ center and museum. This was a pretty standard experience until we got to the cooperage room. There we got to watch them revitalize rum barrels by stripping the old char, inspect and if needed replace barrel staves, then rechar the barrels to the toast needed for the day. With the barrel shortage the market is currently experiencing it was good to see a company making the most of this resource.
During our time in the Dominican Republic we also visited the Brugal Aging and Bottling facility in Puerta Plata. While there we toured their aging houses, bottling/packaging facility and tasting room. Brugal has been one of the top selling rums in the Caribbean for years. They currently produce seven million cases of rum per year in San Pedro de Macoris, 70 km east of Santo Domingo. Since we did not have the opportunity to visit their distillery, I requested information about their environmental efforts. They notified me that in 2012 they changed from heavy fuel oil to natural and bio gas earning the company a national environmental award. It was also noted during distillation they recover on average 8,000 tons of CO2 a year, 60% of their waste water is repurposed and 75 tons of solid waste is recycled. After our visit we spent the afternoon in Puerta Plata and then flew back to Santo Domingo for an eventful evening.
While we were visiting Puerta Plata, WIRSPA representatives met to discuss and make decisions concerning the future of the organization. That evening at a reception we heard speeches about the future of the organization as well as U.S. subsidies and how they affected the marketplace and hopes of continued negotiations that would create a fairer market environment than what currently exists.
The fourth day of our trip our intrepid band of writers flew to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to visit the Rhum Barbancourt distillery. After we cleared customs we loaded up in our van and sped through the city. Port-au-Prince has very little in the way of highway infrastructure. During our travels we only saw a few red lights and the city’s first overpass is set to open in late 2015. This led to a fun and somewhat chaotic ride with lots to see and discuss along the way. On the surface we witnessed a busy city with a vibrant street scene with loads of vendors selling mostly to residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. Gradually we saw more tailoring of goods to the tourists closer to the city’s famous Iron Market and other monuments. It was explained to me that after the 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake, most of the middle class had abandoned the country. This has left the nation with a 50% unemployment as industries have been slow to return to the country. The lack of capital investment has been challenging, but the city is finally seeing its textile and electronics factories come back on line.
As we approached the distillery we found ourselves surrounded by fields of sugar cane and homesteads for the farmers. I later learned that the company has 600 hectares of land dedicated to sugar cane production. After we arrived and had introductions and refreshments, we were allowed to tour the distillery. After the earthquake, it took Rhum Barbancourt several months to get their operation back on line. One of the things that will always stand out about this tour is how thoroughly they displayed their processes. We witnessed the cane coming in from the fields, it getting weighed and then piled where it is then transported to the crusher. At the crusher we witnessed the sugar cane juice get harvested and moved to distillation tanks. The cane juice ferments for three days, becoming “cane wine” with roughly 7% alcohol content. Throughout the tour our guides changed- each one sharing details about different parts of the operation. Rhum Barbancourt, like AFD, incinerates their bagasse; however, instead of repurposing their ash they gather it in barrels for offsite disposal. It was noted that the waste water is considered too valuable to waste, so it is reused throughout the distillery for various purposes.
Our tour continued into the guts of the distillery: climbing catwalks and viewing the column stills in action. The heat was intense as the operators climbed around us making sure everything was functioning perfectly. Everyone I chatted with was very knowledgeable and it was easy to tell how much pride they had in their work. We departed the distillery and walked over to the aging houses witnessing firsthand the large limousine oak vats and rows and rows of barrels. It was here that we learned how the earthquake had destroyed barrels, caused many to roll off their perches, and damaged aging warehouses. WIRSPA grant money was key in helping the company get their operation back on line and restore the warehouses with materials needed for aging including several of the huge aging vats. Our last stop of the tour took us to the blending and bottling room and we witnessed a large team of workers filling and boxing bottles of Rhum Barbancourt Three Star for the market. We returned to the reception tent and took part in a tasting hosted by Thierry Gardère that included their full regular line and one unnamed product that is in development.
U.S. Television media tends to focus on the negatives of what is going on in Haiti, but I chose instead to see the beauty in the landscape and its people. Their dignity and force of will to carve a life for themselves is worthy of admiration. The middle class that abandoned the country after the earthquake is now being replaced by a new one as industries return and a new merchant class rises. It is obvious in talking to the people that Rhum Barbancourt is revered because, between the distilleries and cane fields, they have been one of the most stable employers of the people.
Friday morning our group departed for the airport and returned home with brains and notebooks full of the knowledge we had gained from this interesting experience. WIRSPA/ACR as an organization has done a lot of surprisingly good things for its member companies and now finds itself at a crossroads as members decide its future direction. Meanwhile the organization continues its program to educate the North American and European markets about the ACR marque and negotiate for a stronger place in the world market. It will be interesting to witness what happens next as the decisions made now will have ripple effects that affect the rum industry around the world.