Can a rum be good enough to sip on its own like you might a scotch or tequila?
Brugal Rum thinks so, and I spent the past week in the Dominican Republic, home of Brugal, experiencing how. I say experience instead of simply saying I tasted or learned about Brugal, because to be a part of Brugal, tasting the product, meeting the people (many who are 4th and 5th generation, or have been with the company 30+ years), and understanding the process is so much more than simply seeing how their product is made. It was the joyful culmination of the Dominican Republic spirit, as the country, the culture, the tradition, the people, the plentiful sugar cane, and the stunning waters of the Caribbean are as much a part of Brugal as the rum. As they say, “it is a country where conversations start with a bottle in hand and not a cell phone.” I was an invited guest of the company to see first hand how this spirit is made, traveling from one end of the country to the other to experience Brugal.
Brugal is a company dedicated to mastering the creation of what they proudly say is the best, and driest, rum in the world. It is the most important element of Brugal.
When you think rum, “dry” isn’t usually the idea that comes to mind, it is a spirit made from sugar cane after all. But, through multiple distillations and very close product control, Brugal has managed to create an ultra light rum, which also means its base alcohol level is ultra high (95%) and thus ultra dry. It is also the only rum product in the country to be made completely in the D.R., starting in the city that is as known as much for their professional baseball players as they are for their sugar cane, San Pedro de Macorís, the home of Sammy Sosa, George Bell, Robinson Cano, our own Alexi Ogando, relief pitcher for the Rangers, and lots and lots of sugar cane.
Founded by Andres Brugal Montaner, Brugal has been making their crisp and clean rum since 1888 when the Spanish born Montaner immigrated from Spain to Cuba and eventually the D.R., setting up his home in Puerto Plata where the company headquarters remain today. Originally the product wasn’t as dry as it is today, but modern technology changing from cooper stills to column distillation tanks allowed them evolve to creating this clean, dry beverage that has made Brugal the number one rum from the Dominican Republic.
Why so dry? Brugal is focused on ensuring that the rum that goes into their oak casks, mostly medium toast white American oak that has been previously used for Bourbon, is completely flavor free. A dry rum is not sweet, it is ultra light and relatively free of aromas except for hints of floral and citrus notes. Creating a clean alcohol will allow easy absorption of the flavors and aromas the oak gives off, instead of just being sweet.
The process is detailed, but relatively simple, just like making any spirit. You start in the fields harvesting the plentiful sugar cane available in and around San Pedro de Macorís, in the Southern part of the country. Brugal doesn’t own the sugar cane fields, but they have an exclusive agreement with the farmers for their molasses. Sugar cane grows all year, which means it can be harvested all year, and rejuvenates itself without replanting. It can be harvested after 7 months, but most farmers wait about 9 months until the sugar cane is 10-12 feet high. Though mechanical harvesting is becoming increasingly popular due to the economics of it, but hand harvested sugar cane, chopping the sugar cane at the base with a machete, is best for the plant and its reproduction, as well as the product, as the juiciest sugar is located at the base of the plant where most mechanical harvesters can’t get to. After harvest the sugar cane is moved to the sugar refineries to be made into crystallized sugar.
The bi-product of this is molasses. The sugar companies can’t use this, so the rum companies benefit as the base molasses product will eventually be turned into rum after fermentation, distillation and aging. The fermentation and distillation process takes about 45 total hours, with fermentation lasting 36-40 hours. This is where Brugal sets themselves a part from some rum producers, with a double distillation, first to 90% alcohol, then a second distillation to 95% alcohol. The Brugal facility in San Pedro can make up to 75,000 liters of 95% alcohol each day.
The process is continual and consistent, even during the rainy season (about 3 months starting in mid-June or July) when the sugar cane factories stop running because the fields are too muddy to harvest. During this time Brugal will process molasses they hold in reserve, keeping their distillation plant running throughout the year. At the end of the distillation the alcohol is sent in trucks to Puerto Plata for aging and bottling. An average of two semi-trucks are sent each day.
By law, the rum has to be aged in barrels for at least one year. Brugal ages even their lightest rums slightly more than this, with their premium 1888 and Siglo de Oro Rums aged 14-16 years, using a double barrel aging technique where the rum is first aged in American white oak for 6-8 years, then transferred to either Sherry oak casks or different American oak casks for another 4-8 years, then blended, stabilized and filtered before bottling. The result, an ultra smooth spirit which tastes light and refreshing, without a high alcohol burn or excessive sweetness. Unfortunately the Siglo de Oro is not available in the U.S.; happily the 1888 became available in October of 2011.
Each step of this is closely managed by both the team at Brugal, as well as the government, as the regulations on the creation of rum, the aging process, barrels used, etc. in the Dominican Republic are closely watched and taxed by their government. The government actually holds the keys to the warehouses where Brugal rum is aged; they lock the doors when the rum goes in and do not open them until the agreed upon time frame for aging has reached completion. Even the Brugal Master Blenders are not allowed in to check the casks; my group was given special access just to see the room where the casks are aged for our trip, but our time was limited and obtaining permission was nearly impossible. This regulation ensures the standards set out within the rum industry are upheld by all.
After visiting the distillation facility in Sn Pedro and then traveling to Puerto Plata for the tour of the aging and bottling facility we had an opportunity to taste through the Brugal portfolio of rums with two of the 4th generation Brugal Master Blenders, Don Fernando Ortega Brugal and Don Guillermo Abbott Brugal, and one 5th generation, Jassil L. Villanueva, still in the midst of her training. Our tasting started with their Blanco, their Anejo, their Extra Viejo and finally the 1888.
Double filtered, the 40 proof Blanco is the perfect accompaniment to a Cuba Libre (rum and coke) or Santa Libre (rum and lemon-lime soda) both with a squeeze of lime over ice. In early summer a new white rum will be introduced to the U.S. called Especial Exra Dry, triple filtered, clean and incredibly smooth this was enjoyed simply with a splash of club soda and a few limes. If a vodka soda is your drink of choice give this a try when it hits the market, it may turn you into a rum drinker. It turned me into one.
The Anejo is a great option for those looking for a rounder, more flavorful rum that is perfect for mixing with pineapple or mango juice with a splash of coconut water for a cocktail that will instantly transport you to your favorite beach. Aged 2-5 years the spice notes of the oak mixed with orange peel and toast mingle throughout the smooth rum.
When Brugal made their Extra Viejo in 1976 they joined the club of premium rum brands, which has been further extended by their 1888 and Siglo de Oro. The Extra Viejo is aged 3 to 8 years, giving a rich amber color with aromas of orange peel, spice, vanilla and almond. The ideal way to enjoy the flavors of this rum is sipping over ice with an orange twist allowing the citrus and floral aromas of the rum to pop, with notes of toasted brioche, vanilla and baking spice on the finish.
Brugal 1888 rum was first introduced in 1988 as a centennial rum celebrating the 100th anniversary of Brugal. Though the Maestros, including Don Guillermo and Don Fernando, knew this was a special product they wanted to do more, eventually relaunching the product that we have today, a rum that is aged first in American oak for 6-8 years then in oak casks previously used for Oloroso Sherry for another 4-6 years, creating a flavor profile that reminds you more of a cognac or a scotch than a rum. Filled with raisins, orange blossoms, chocolate, toast and coffee the 1888 verifies that a rum can be made for sipping, perfect served neat or over ice.
Creating great rum isn’t the only thing important to Brugal, as the people, the culture, the traditions and the country are also a big part of the company, so much so that they started a non-profit foundation funded by annual contributions from profits made by Brugal and by members of the Brugal family to help improve the quality of life in the Dominican Republic.
We had an opportunity to visit the George Arzeno Brugal Education Center in Puerto Plata, dedicated to Brugal’s late president and dedicated to educating, mentoring and guiding children from a relatively poor part of the city to ensure they have the best chance of future success in the country. The kids were adorable, and the teachers were gracious and kind, like many I met throughout the week. This was my first visit to the Dominican Republic; it won’t be my last.