One of the Greenest, most eco-friendly distilleries in the world has to be the River Antoine Estate near Tivoli in northern Grenada. In continuous operation since 1785 it produces rum in a manner that has changed little since the eighteenth century, still utilizing water power and manpower where most operations have long ago switched to petroleum and electricity hogging, non-renewable methods.
It’s not surprising that the estate bears the name of “Captain Antoine”, one of the last of the Kalinago (Carib) natives who were the islands original inhabitants. “Captain Antoine”, a Kalinago chief, and his followers chose to leap to their deaths at nearby Morne de Sauteurs (Leapers Hill) in 1651, rather than submit to French invaders. Like its namesake, the distillery continues to hold out against the incursion of wasteful modernity in their tranquil corner of the unspoiled island of Grenada.
As you wend your way through the estate and past fields of sugar cane approaching the estate, the first thing you notice is the large water wheel propelled by the brisk currents of River Antoine. I wait near an ancient bougainvillea covered building for our guide, whose grandmother had worked here and her grandmother before her. She explained that the establishment had been bought out from foreign interests by three local gentlemen who prided themselves on making rum in the old fashioned way. Indeed, “River”, as the rum is known by the “Greens” (Grenadians) is the closest thing you’ll find to the grog that members of the Royal Navy used to down two hundred years ago. Unfortunately you’ll not likely see “River” outside of Grenada unless a friend brings you a bottle as the locals and expatriates ensure none makes it off the island.
On first observation it’s obvious this is not a Disnified simulation of the past but the real McCoy in all its gritty realism. First of all the sugar cane is harvested and bound in bundles with the leaves of the cane plant for ease of carriage (no plastic ropes here!) The cane is piled high and fed by sweating laborers onto a conveyor belt and into a crusher, all powered by the huge water wheel which looms overhead. It is passed through the crusher twice to extract all the juice and then the residue, called bagasse, is hoisted into a rail mounted hopper and pushed by hand to be tipped into a waste pile. The cane is then dried in the sun and afterward burnt to provide the heat necessary to render down the cane juice. Nothing is wasted.
Cane juice is filtered through wicker mats, then allowed to flow down a sluice to the copper pots of the boiling house where it is transferred from one container to another to allow thickening. I had a try at the huge ladle used in the process and found the action remarkably like rowing!
Once the appropriate concentration of sugar is obtained the juice is allowed to cool and fermentation begins from naturally occurring yeasts. We now mounted a flight of stairs to the second floor, passing an old fashioned chalk board where production, sugar concentration, alcohol concentration etc. is tallied.
The juice is pumped here and allowed 8 days of fermentation in tanks before moving on to the still. A wood fire is required for this process as bagasse won’t burn at a high enough temperature to allow proper distillation.
New rum is pumped by hand out of the distillation tank and its specific gravity checked with a hydrometer to determine the alcohol content. (Note: the hydrometer is not a concession to modernity having been invented by the Greek mathematician Hypatia in the 3rd century AD). Once at an appropriate alcohol content the rum is hand bottled. Production runs about 36 gallons daily.
My guide led me on to the tasting area where I relished a cinnamon and fruit flavored rum of about 16% alcohol content. Using the astounding variety of exotic fruits and spice found on Grenada, with no preservatives, the product puts other flavored rums to shame.
River Antoine white rum comes in two strengths 138 proof (69% alcohol) and 150 proof (75% alcohol). I’m sure you could fuel a car with either. I poured a small shot of the 150 proof and noticed my guide and several other workers watching closely for my reaction. Being a Newfoundlander I’m no stranger to Screech, my province’s traditional of over proof rum, and downed it in one gulp, smacking my lips. My audience looked slightly disappointed. I think they were expecting a different reaction!
All Images By George Burden – All Rights Reserved
For more information on visiting Grenada, visit Rhythms of Spice