Distillery Focus

Bodega Don George

Dave Broom heads to a surprising Scottishoutpost in the Dominican Republic.
By Dave Broom
The domino tiles are shuffled once more and we pick, eyeing each other up, trying to second-guess our opponents’ hands. Candles flutter in the warm midnight air. Double six is thrown and off we go once more. Cigars are burning and the yellow netting on the bottle has slipped down provocatively, like a burlesque dancer’s fishnet. Ice in the tumbler, slug of rum. Do I follow his lead or block him out? We have all night.This is the Dominican Republic after all. This is the rum life.The scene is quintessentially Caribbean and yet it is taking place in the latest and in some ways most surprising outpost of the Edrington Group. A few eyebrows were raised when this cautious Scottish whisky firm said it was buying a rum brand, especially a rum brand called Brugal which few in the UK had ever heard of. Then you looked at the figures. This wasn’t some boutique Caribbean rum,this was a five million case brand which was already at over one million cases in Spain, a market which is shipping whisky sales at an alarming rate. The other four million are drunk here in the DomRep, which isn’t bad given there’s only 10 million people in the country and one presumes that figure includes children.You could say they like their rum here. Specifically, they like their Brugal. Everywhere you look, town signs, street signs, billboards, huge trucks, all are branded with the red white and blue Brugal logo, the colours of which are, of course, the same as the national flag. Maybe they’re interchangeable. In some ways, that’s how big brands work, as ciphers for their place of birth. BLOOD, FISH SAUCE AND CLARITY God it’s hot. The sweat is trickling down my back as I stand beside the truck, its load of molasses glooping slowly into the underground tanks, its dense aroma rising into the air. DomRep molasses,we are proudly told.That’s unusual these days, as the decline in the sugar industry means most rum distillers import their raw material. Brugal however sources all its needs from three sugar plantations, here on the south-east coast where the cane harvest goes on eight months of the year, allowing the distillery to operate 365 days a year.A cup of molasses is brought. It tastes bitter-sweet, with a hint of blood and HP sauce. This concentrated mass of flavour is diluted (there’s too much sugar to allow yeast to live), yeast is added and 42 hours of temperature controlled fermentation later you end up with a brownish alcoholic wash at 8% ABV that tastes earthy, slightly yeasty with a penetrating acidity.The stills, as is common in the Caribbean, are outdoors, a double column set-up. The first column takes the alcohol up to 90% ABV, separating the the evocatively named ‘flem’, a pungent, slightly rubbery, nutty liquid that’s low in fruit, from the ‘vinaza’which smells exactly like Thai fish sauce.The flem is diluted and then redistilled up to to 95% ABV giving a final spirit that’s as sweet and clean as you’d expect with light lychee, lime, pineapple and floral notes cut with a distant nuttiness.Baby Brugal.This clarity of aroma,this belief in the light is typical of Latin rums where the talk in distillation revolves around the removal of congeners,making it the flip-side of single malt production, or even pot still rum-making. If Brugal only wants the lightest spirit, then what happens to the heavier alcohol I ask Gustavo Ortega, the youngest of the firm’s maestro roneros and like his older colleagues a member of the Brugal dynasty.“Each company has its own way. We don’t want this heavier spirit, but there are others who do, so we sell it to them. What they do then is up to them.” It does beg the question however,what is DomRep rum?Brugal is the sole distillery on the island and doesn’t blend for other firms, yet the market is full of bottles purporting to have been produced in the DomRep,though “produced”seems to have a somewhat loose meaning. Some may be made from the spirit which Brugal sells on,some may simply be blended here, or aged here.Rum can be slippery when it comes to provenance and origins can be clouded in obfuscation.But there are other famous brands from here. How did Brugal get to be top of the pile? “35 years ago, there was Barcelo, Bermudez, Ciboney and ourselves and the top brand changed on a regular basis..it was cyclic,”Gustavo explains.“What happened,was that we started concentrating on the wood-aged market and investing in casks. Now we have 82 per cent of the domestic market.” COFFEE, CHOCOLATE AND A SURPRISE To get to the warehouses you have to traverse the country, passing through cloud-draped forested hills and lost valleys to the north coast and the town of Puerto Plata. Every third truck seems to be one of Brugal’s either taking rum out to the market or shipping the spirit north to be aged. Slowly you begin to get an idea of what an 82 per cent hold of the market means. The warehousing site simply confirms this. It’s,well, vast. Close on 300,000 casks lying in 14 huge whitepainted warehouses. Tourists wander around on guided visits, locals pop in to pick up bottles, or a new set of branded dominos.Part of the reason for the site’s size is down to the legal requirement that all DomRep spirit must be aged for a minimum of one year before it can be called rum,meaning that even the (rather excellent) Brugal white has been in cask for up to 16 months. That maturation takes place in mediumtoasted ex-bourbon, American white oak barrels that are either palletised (for younger expressions) or racked (for longerterm aging).Impressive undoubtedly, but other than in terms of scale, fairly standard for rum distilleries.“Premium rum needs premium wood,”says Fernando Ortega. An obvious enough statement, but if there is one area where rum has lagged behind whisky it is in wood management. Brugal, clearly, is one of the exceptions to this rule. There has also been a reliance on American oak barrels, which makes sense in many ways, your source of casks is relatively close by, there are natural flavour bridges between vanilla and coconut in the oak and the soft sweet fruitiness of rum. But who is to say that this is the only template? If Brugal knows how to distil light rum,then Edrington knows about wood.“Come this way,”says Fernando, leading us round the back of the warehousing, past engineering workshops and towards a low building with a sign that reads “Bodega Don George”Bodega = aging cellar, but who’s Don George? That’ll be George Espey, Edrington’s master of wood.It takes a minute to work out what’s going on here. The eyes have got used to endless racks of Yankee barrels, George’s bodega though, these are hoggies, aren’t they? Fernando draws a sample. It’s dark, heading into mahogany. The nose has prune, dried fruits, there’s more tannin,more spice and a broad herbal quality to the rum.Another has power and length with a dense dried citrus quality.If Brugal’s signature is clean with chocolate, coconut, fresh orange peel and sandalwood these add a riper layer of concentration on top.European oak, ex-sherry. It’s the experience learned at Highland Park and Macallan.How these experiments will end up is as yet unknown, but a limited edition is planned for next year. “In super premium we have the future,”says Fernando.“It’s expensive, remember as well as buying special casks we’re also living with losing 12 per cent in evaporation per year – but it is worth it.” The tiles are getting slammed down now. Dominos is seen as a kid’s game, but it’s actually one of slow and subtle strategies, of maneuvering into a winning position. The same is happening in aged rum. Havana Club laid the double six, but it can’t yet get into the US, Appleton is looking good, but lacks volume, el Dorado has volume but needs distribution, Bacardi could dominate, but it’s prevaricating given its strength in white rum,then there’s Brugal with volume, distribution and premium ambitions. The prize?To be the dominant player in the fastest-growing sector in the fastest-growing spirit category.The players smile, sip their rums, look at their tiles and plan their next move.