The St.Kitts and Nevis Flag.
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St.Kitts and Nevis Rum Trip July 2008

The Rumelier has just returned from St.Kitts and Nevis on a weeks visit, where he enjoyed the sun and rum to excess.
On the way down to St.Kitts The Rumelier had to overnight in Miami, Florida, and was fortunate to get to spend some time with Robert and Robin Burr from "Gifted Rums" at their home in Coral Gables. While spending time with the Burr's The Rumelier was allowed to taste numerous fine rums in the Burr's collection. This indeed was a great way to start a vacation, fine rums and very knowledgeable rum company. The Rumelier hopes to return this favour in the coming months.

Robert and Robin Burr of the Gifted Rums Guide.
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The Burrs by some of their fine rum collection.
Baron Edmund De Rothschild's C.S.R.
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The old version is on the left in the flask style bottle.

St.Kitts and Nevis were once known as the sugar islands and it is not difficult to figure out why when you visit these beautiful Caribbean islands. There is evidence of sugar cane cultivation absolutely everywhere, from the actual sugar fields, chimney stacks, railway tracks, to the long closed sugar mill.
This is the real Caribbean, tall volcanic peaks, long sandy beaches, majestic palm trees, clapboard houses and sugar cane fields in abundance. This is the Caribbean you dreamt of visiting, on cold windy nights, living as a kid in North Wales.
The history of sugar cane cultivation goes back hundreds of years and follows a familiar script on many of the Caribbean islands. These islands were fought over by the French, British, Dutch and Spanish and changed hands numerous times. When St.Kitts and Nevis finally became a British colony after the Treaty of Versailles, sugar was king and it was making the British planters some of the richest men on earth.
Unfortunately all of these plantations now lie in ruins waiting to be bought by wealthy ex-pats or being surrounded by resorts and golf courses or just crumbling away. Sugar cane cultivation and sugar production have recently gone the same way as the former plantations, with the last cane being cut on July 31st 2005. The local government decided that the St.Kitts Sugar Manugacturing Corporation and sugar production was no longer a profitable business and the decision to close the sugar mill and all sugar production, was made.
Recently there have been rumours of reviving sugar cane cultivation for the production of ethynol, but many locals feel this may just be empty election promises.
The Rumelier was lucky to receive a personal tour of the now closed sugarmill in Basseterre, given to him by one of the former workers at the mill. This tour was one of the highlights of his trip to St.Kitts and Nevis and gave a great insight into how sugar was produced and the vast scale of the operation, which was responsible for over 1000 jobs on this small island.

Lavalee Plantation Boiler Chimney.
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These chimneys and windmills are everywhere in St.Kitts.

Of course with any island that has an abundance of sugar cane, there has to be evidence of rum production, which was the main reason for The Rumelier's visit to St.Kitts and Nevis. Unfortunately, there are no longer any legally distilled rums in the country.When the sugarmill closed down and when the distillery was damaged badly by hurricane Hugo, both the continuous three column still and the two copper pot stills were shipped off to other countries. The continuous still was moved to Grenada and the pot stills to Guyana. The only rum actually distilled on St.Kitts and Nevis these days is moonshine or as it is called locally, "Hammond" or "Culture". Like sugar production before it, this will soon die out, as the supply of locally produced molasses will eventually dry up. The molasses being used today to ferment in old oil drums is what remains inside the huge molasses tanks at the long abandoned sugarmill in Basseterre.
The Rumelier actually witnessed the demolition of the molasses tanks at the sugar storage warehouse at the shipping dock, where the demolished tanks were being loaded onto flatbeds to be sold for scrap metal. The smell of molasses was everywhere and was noticed well before the realization of the flatened tanks.
The local moonshine distillers were talking about switching to "white potatoes" to make their rum when the supply of molasses finally dries up. The island is covered in sugar cane, so The Rumelier suggested that they use fresh sugar cane juice to distill their rum. This was met with some scepticism by the Hammond distillers. (See below for a detailed description of The Rumelier's visit to a "Hammond" still.)

Bagasse still awaiting bailing in the sugarmill.
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The bails were used to start the boilers after work stoppages.
DDL's own label rums bottled in St.Kitts.
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They also blend, bottle and label other rums for customers.

The only evidence in the country of legal rum production is a small bottling and blending plant, owned and operated by Demerara Distillers Limited (D.D.L.) of Guyana. This plant is located next to the Customs Offices in Bird Rock, Basseterre, close to the old sugar shipment warehouse. Here they bottle their own brands of Belmont Estate Rum and Cane Spirit Ritchmont (C.S.R.). There are four variations of Belmont Estate Rum, Special Gold, Superior White, Gold Coconut and Caribbean Coconut aswell as Belmont Estate Napoleon Blended Brandy. They also bottle the Brinley's Gold range of flavoured rums, Vanilla, Lime, Mango, Coffee and Spiced and a rum called St.Kitts Rum for other customers in St.Kitts.
All the rum is imported from D.D.L. in Guyana in twenty foot liquid tankers and then blended and bottled at the plant in Basseterre. They also age a small ammount of rum in old french oak barrels left over from the days of Baron Edmond De Rothschild's involvement in rum production. The Baron decided that St.Kitts had some of the best water in the Caribbean and thought this would produce the best spirit in the world. These barrels have seen better days with many being discarded due to leakages in recent times.
Even though the bottling plant is relatively small, they do manage to produce some excellent rums under the various labels and are always looking for new product lines and packaging ideas.
The Belmont and CSR range of rums are not widely available outside of St.Kitts, but if you visit the islands you must try the whole product range while you have the chance.

Old french oak barrels at the DDL plant St.Kitts.
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The barrels are leftover from the Baron Rothschild's days in St.Kitts.

To compliment all the locally produced rums, there is a large selection of imported rums available in St.Kitts from all over the Caribbean. Many bars have a large selection of rums to choose from, as do all the liquor stores on the island. Hammond or Culture was available in some of the rum shops away from the tourist areas. There is an abundance of rum shops on the island, usually brightly painted by the beer or rum companies. These bars are a part of the community and many have been around for centuries, they are literally on every street corner.

Tanker trucks bring the rum from Guyana.
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The rum is imported at overstrength.

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Visit to a Moonshine or Hammond Still
On his recent visit to St.Kitts The Rumelier was very fortunate to get a view into the culture of the island when he got to visit an illegal hammond still, hidden deep in a small valley, in an old sugar cane field. This undoubtedly was the highlight of the trip for The Rumelier.
It began with a taxi ride from Frigate Bay, past Basseterre and up the west coast of the island to the Sandy Point area. The taxi driver The Rumelier used during his visit was an excellent guide and had shown him areas of the island that most tourists and even many locals have never seen. It was during a tour of the island the previous day that the driver had organized the visit to the still, as it was already too late in the day to witness the rum production. On arrival at Sandy Point the taxi pulled up in front of a small corner house, on a slight hill, on a dead end road, leading up to the nearest long abandoned sugar cane field. After a short wait, two men and two small potcake dogs came out of the house and started to lead the way up the hill towards the illegal still.
The Rumelier was now getting excited, this was something he had always wanted to see first hand, and now it was finally going to happen.
The small group took a twenty minute walk through the sugar cane fields, past crumbling remains of old sugar plantation buildings and chimneys, with fantastic views of St. Eustatius away in the far distance. The two dogs were running off in the fields and climbing on the ruins chasing some of the local population of goats. A little further down the old track and the first hints of a still became visible. A small plume of smoke was coming out of a field in a small valley in front of the group. Could this finally be the still The Rumelier was searching for?

A Hammond or Moonshine still in St.Kitts.
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An old oil drum makes a good pot still.

A small path lead off to the left of the main path down a slope where two local men were seated. The reception as the group arrived was initially a bit frosty, with questions about why the guides were bringing more people to see the stills. However, after a short time everything was fine and introductions were made.
On the site there were two simple pot stills in operation. Each one consisted of the main pot, made from an old oil drum which was linked to another oil drum with the gooseneck. The second drum was acting as the condenser and was full of water. A coil wound it's way around inside the drum with a small exit pipe at the bottom for the rum to drip out of and for collection purposes.
Each pot still sat on top of a small fire, made from branches cut off nearby trees. The secret here was not to heat the deadwash too hot, as this would cause all sorts of problems for the distillers. A hot fire would also damage the oil drums, and they would not have a long lifespan. Graphic descriptions were given when a drum is heated too hot and The Rumelier was told to run if the sides of the drum started to swell out!! There did not seem to be much concern for this happening, these guys appeared to have been doing this for years and knew how to keep the fire low, underneath the still.
On another side of the "distillery" there were several more old drums filled with molasses, all in different stages of fermentation. Each drum was filled almost to the top with molasses and water and then two very small packets of bakers yeast were added to the wash, just like the ones you buy in the foodstore for making bread. The average fermentation time was nine days, a long time when compared to commercial operations. This is why there were numerous tanks needed if the distillers wanted to make rum regularly. This whole operation appeared to run around the same time everyday, as The Rumelier was too late the previous day to see the rum being distilled. The Rumelier's group had appeared at the "distillery" at a perfect time, as the first drops of "Hammond" were about to start dripping from the still.

Freshly started molasses in the right drum.
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Several day old molasses in the left drum.

There was a little excitement in the air now and much tinkering of the makeshift valves on the condenser. Feeling the goose-neck for heat seemed to indicate that the rum was about to start dripping from the exit pipe at the bottom of the condenser. Some water was thrown on the fire so as not to overheat the wash. Then, right on cue the first drops (shown in photo) began to drip from the pipe. An old plastic soda bottle was put under the pipe to catch the clear liquid, now flowing freely from the still. When this bottle was nearly full the contents were then transfered to a larger old three gallon plastic water bottle, to be replaced by another old soda bottle.
Some of the contents of the first bottle were separated into an old Gatorade bottle and given to The Rumelier to take home as a present. Of course he was not allowed to leave before sampling some of this fine spirit. After a little trepidation, a small sip was taken. It was pretty good stuff, not what he had been expecting at all. It definitely needed filtering, which could easily be achieved by pouring through a coffee filter.
This was such a simple looking operation, but these distillers had years of experience, knowing every little step of the operation off by heart.

The first drop of hammond coming off the still.
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The first rum is called the Heads.

These guys were experts at their "hobby" and The Rumelier could have stayed there all day talking about the ins and outs of the operation, but unfortunately he had another appointment with DDL in Bassetere. He was going from low-tech to high-tech in the space of minutes.

The future for these distillers is fairly unsure right now. Their supply of molasses is limited to what remains in the molasses tanks at the long abandoned sugar-mill. It was said that one of the tanks has a hole in the top, and so the molasses from this one is not as good as the other tank. The distillers mentioned that they may have to use white potatoes instead of molasses. This appeared a strange choice for an island covered in sugar cane, now growing wild everywhere. Surely fresh sugar cane juice would be a more viable option for fermentation.

Whatever the future is for these distillers, they have left a legacy on the islands of St.Kitts and Nevis and hopefully they will pass their art on to future generations to enjoy. This brief meeting with the distillers and their "Hammond" will be long remembered by The Rumelier, an unforgettable experience, one that should be enjoyed by all rum lovers once in their lifetime.

The two condensers standing next to each other.
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The one on the left was the one producing on The Rumelier's visit.
A wider view of the whole operation.
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St.Kitts Overview

St.Kitts and Nevis is a fantastic location to visit for any rum lover. Even though there isn't any legally distilled rum being produced on the island anymore, there is still a great deal of rum related sights to see. There are the endless sugar cane fields and plantations, some of which have been restored, sugarmills, warehouses, rum bottling plants and last but not least, illegal Hammond stills and thier rums.

Of course, there is all sorts of rum to be discovered and tasted. The local rums, Hammond, Belmont, CSR, Brinley's and St.Kitts Rum and also an endless list of imported rums from neighbouring islands, too many to list here.

Combined with all the above, are friendly and helpful people who want you to enjoy your vacation. The island of St.Kitts is relatively small, but there is plenty to do and see during a weeks vacation. A great adventure for any rum lover, and well worth a visit.

 

Fresh rum coming from a Hammond still.
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The contents are transfered to a larger water bottle.
The final record of cane being unloaded in tons.
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An old steam engine used to move the cane trucks.
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There are numerous old engines, mainly diesel lying around abandoned.
"Road Through a Sugar Estate, St.Kitts, B.W.I."
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An old postcard view of a sugar estate from the early 1900's.
The old sugar warehouse in Basseterre, St.Kitts.
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Small boats were loaded here and taken out to the larger ships.