This Average Joe’s year of living in Puerto Rico has come to an end. And for my last experience on this enchanting island I was fortunate enough that the Ron Del Barrilito rum factory had finally reopened to visitors following its damaging encounter with Hurricane Maria. Here is my tour:
It’s 9:30 AM and raining here in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. I am the first person of the day to the newly rebuilt Ron Del Barrilito visitor center. No fresh off the boat cruise ship crowds being loud and obnoxious. No crowds at the bar waiting for their free drink. It’s just the staff and me. It’s my idea of Heaven.
The smell of fresh cut wood permeates the visitor center. It’s brand new. Just recently reopened; the center is a long rectangle, with historical displays, a bar, tasting rooms and a gift shop. The decor is recycled woods. With wooden furnishings for sitting and visiting. It’s extremely rustic and simple. As if you were going to your family cabin by the lake.
After signing up for your tour, you are given a “free” drink. A rum drink of course. You could do a Mojito, an Old Fashion, or one of the many other rum drinks the bar Tender has at is his or her disposal. Of course, only the house rum is served here. If your pockets are deep, you could do a signature five star rum for only $50.00.
I started with the Hemingway Daiquiri, in honor of the master writer himself. This drink would be the first many.
I have signed up for the rum tasting tour this morning. It’s an $80.00 for the tour and an opportunity to sample four rums, to include the brands signature five star rum. Timmy, is my personal guide this morning. I say personal, because no one else shows up. It’s just me and Timmy.
Timmy escorts me throughout the facility, giving me a fascinating history lesson, showing me artifacts, and expanding my meager knowledge of rum.
Ron Del Barrilito is an old school rum distillery (technically, they are now a rum factory). Founded in 1880 by Pedro Fernández, who would make rum making a family affair, the family business has survived numerous hurricanes, government changes, and the dreaded prohibition as Puerto Rico, like its big brother the United States, enforced its dreaded blue laws on its Common Wealth as it did on the mainland.
Family members still live on the estate.
Unlike the Bacardi tour, which is infinitely more popular with tourist and of course well known, the Ron Del Barrilito tour is extremely up close and personal.
I am taken to the coopers station and get to see their work area, and even sniff a barrel that is being prepared. White Oak, even after charring and years of use, has an exceptionally enjoyable oaky smell that I find very calming and relaxing.
Ron Del Barrilito rum is aged in used bourbon barrels, so every barrel received has to be inspected, tested for leaks, and then prepped before being used to store and age rum.
New barrels sell for thousands of dollars while used barrels can be purchased for hundreds of dollars and then reused. The durability of oak means a whiskey barrel can last for decades of use. A fact that would be pointed out to me shortly.
Who would have thought, that a trade as old as civilization, the trade of the coopers, would still be going strong well into this century?
And, with the world wide demand for rum, whiskey and bourbon growing stronger every year, this industry would be in such high demand?
Decades ago, the family was able to grow sugar cane on site and produced their own molasses which was then distilled into rum. However, today’s economics now dictate they now buy rum, and then mix it and age it on site.
The original estate windmill is still in place and now holds an executive office.
While the family no longer distills rum, they continue to use the same recipe that was developed by the founder. Of course, like all family recipes, it is kept secret. The base rums are formulated in these massive barrels before being moved into smaller barrels for aging and storage.
Once the rum is prepped, it is then aged. Some of it is even aged for decades. Part of the tour is walking through the ricket where hundreds of barrels are stored and the magic of aging is taking place.
I do some quick math in my head as I am prone to do. Each whiskey barrel holds 53 gallons or 200 liters of liquid gold. Roughly, 267 bottles per barrel. Figure the average bottle is $30.00 and each barrel is worth maybe $8,000.00. I am walking among hundreds of barrels.
The ricket is hot and humid. I started sweating within moments. The barrels at eye level are decades old; these need the least heat. Those at the top of the ricket are the newest. They need the most heat for the magic to take effect. If I am hot and sweating at ground level, it must be scorching along the roof and under the direct tropical sun.
Barrel number 1951, was filled in 1984. I was a junior at Eau Gallie High School, Melbourne, Florida that year. This batch of rum, is almost forty years old.
One barrel is special. Dubbed, “The Old Lady,” it was filled in the 1950’s when talk of Puerto Rico independence was at its highest and thoughts of shaking off the yolk of mainland tyranny were common.
The family patriarch had an idea, and set aside one barrel, for that special moment. This barrel, Barrel #1, 1952 was designated as that very special barrel. It is only to be opened, if and when, the island gains its independence.
Then, and only then, it will be moved to the town square and shared among the townsfolk as part of a collective celebration in honor of their freedom and independence.
These days with talk of island debts and hurricane recovery taking center stage, this barrel may have to wait many more decades before the dream of cracking “The Old Lady” open and sharing in this rum is ever achieved.
With my taste of (more) rum wetted from the tour of the grounds, and my shirt wet with sweat, it was time for some serious rum tasting. And, air conditioning.
Timmy escorted me back to the visitor center and to the tasting room. This was I had been waiting for:
I would be sampling four rums:
- The One Star- a very nice inexpensive rum, with more body and heat than other brands of similar aging. Very good for mixing and sharing of cocktails.
- The Three Star- a very good rum. You could sip with an ice cube or go with mixing in a cocktail. You will pick up on hints of fruits.
- The Four Star- sold only on site, a delicious sipping rum with a hearty oak and spice taste. This rum would compare to any exceptional well aged bourbon. A fine addition to your collection. As it is only sold on site, be prepared to shell out $300.00.
- The Five Star- exceptionally well aged (decades) combination that is truly unique on the palate as the smoke, char, oak and spice explode within your mouth leaving you wanting ever more. At $750.00 a bottle, only a serious collector or drinker can afford a bottle of this exquisite nature. For us Average Joes, a simple tasting is all we get. If the tasting leaves you wanting more, and it will, for $50.00 the bar will pour you a drink. Just be prepared to sit and relax as you sip this beauty. You will not be in a hurry, nor, should you.
With my tasting done, I am now a graduate of the Ron Del Barrilito school of Rum Tasting Course. It’s been a wonderful three hours of drinking, learning new things and seeing living history.
If you come to Puerto Rico, you have two choices for rum tours, Ron Del Barrilito and the Casa Bacardi. Both are excellent, but the Ron Del Barrilito is more intimate; like your good neighbor is having you over for a drink, a talk, and walk around the house and garage. If you choose this tour, you will not be disappointed.
This Average Joe, loved it!