CHICHIGALPA – Nicaragua’s old-time, slow-aged rum is about to venture into the face-paced, modern-age tourism industry.
Having won more than 120 international awards over the past seven years for its quality rums, Nicaragua’s celebrated exporter will now try to distinguish itself in the local tourism market.
Starting in September, the world’s most award-winning rum will open its 73-year-old distillery to the public for the first time ever.
And in the colonial city of Granada, Flor de Caña is finalizing separate plans to open a high-end boutique souvenir shop on the Central Park, similar to the store the liquor company opened last year in the AugustoC.SandinoInternationalAirport.
“We are going to convert the distillery into a tourism destination with six stations where tourists can see the whole process of making rum and learn about the history of Flor de Caña,” said Public Relations Manager Mauricio Solorzano during an interview at the distillery in Chichigalpa, Chinandega, 120 kilometers northwest of Managua.
The distillery tour, which will be led by bilingual guides, will take tourists through the processes of making molasses from sugarcane, distilling the liquor, barreling it for slow aging, and then bottling it for export.
Tour groups will also learn about the history of Flor de Caña and visit an on-site museum featuring all the old equipment used in the past to bring in the cane harvest and convert it to rum.
Flor de Caña hopes to promote their “tourism alternative” through area tour operators and cruise ships docking in Corinto.
The History of Rum
The original, crude version of what would become Flor de Caña rum was first distilled in 1890 as a homemade spirit made by the Pellas family to celebrate the end of the cane harvest at the Ingenio San Antonio sugar plantation in Chichigalpa.
As the Pellases became more serious about making rum – and money – the quality improved and became more scientific and less artisanal. By 1959, Flor de Caña was exported for the first time. Fifty years later, under the fifth generation of Pellas ownership and management, Flor de Caña is exported to more than 40 countries on all five continents.
Though Flor de Caña is the sixth oldest rum company in the world, it continues to reinvent itself by producing “new” rums for new markets. And some of the company’s best success has come in just the past few years.
The 18-year Centenario Gold, which was first bottled and marketed in 2005, has twice won the gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (2006 and 2008).
And with such recognition has come increased international demand. Only five years after Flor de Caña started to export to Chile, the South American nation has quickly become the liquor company’s most important market in the world, surpassing even Nicaragua and the United States.
“The Chilean market has been the biggest surprises for us,” Solorzano said. “Our sales there are growing exponentially.”
Solorzano declined to divulge the company’s sales figures or export numbers, guarding that information as tightly as the company’s “secret recipes” that go into their rums.
However, Solorzano did say that Flor de Caña has continued to make a splash in several U.S. markets, especially in Miami, California, Texas and New York.
Closer to home, Flor de Caña has recently changed its distributor in Costa Rica, a country Solorzano thinks has “enormous potential” for rum sales. “I think that market will explode,” he said.
The company is also hoping for success from its next rum, a soon-to-be-released 23-year-aged spirit that will be Flor de Caña’s longest-aged rum so far. (The rum is also Flor de Caña’s smoothest and tastiest to date, in the humble yet not-insignificant opinion of one reporter and self-styled rum enthusiast who recently had the merry fortune of sampling the spirit directly out of a barrel marked ‘1987’.)
Solorzano said that unlike the company’s other rums, the 23-year-old will probably not be marketed on its age, but rather as a “special collection” – perhaps as a calculated effort to avoid confusing consumers with a product line that looks increasingly like a combinatorial number-placement puzzle for savants (4, 5, 7, 12, 18, and 21).
Solorzano would not reveal the name of the new rum, saying only that it will be sold in a uniquely shaped bottle and be promoted – and no doubt priced – as an elite spirit.
For those with less-refined tastes – and much stronger stomachs – Flor de Caña is also about to start exporting it’s cheaper, mass-consumption rum known as “Ron Plata.”
During the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, the Pellas family was acutely aware that their immense holdings were a fleshy target for confiscation. So as a form of political insurance, the distillery started to barrel as much rum as possible in the 1980s and squirrel it away in warehouses.
The idea, Solorzano explained, was that if the Sandinistas confiscated the distillery, Flor de Caña would be able to move its rum out of the country as quickly as possible and so survive to bottle it another day.
Though the Sandinistas did temporarily confiscate the San Antonio sugar plantation, the revolutionary government never touched the distillery, or its enormous reserve of barreled rum.
As a result, Solorzano says, Flor de Caña now has the largest stash of slow-aged barreled rum in the world, allowing the company to continue producing exclusive spirits. But the real secret to the company’s success, Solorzano said, is that they use the best ingredients and don’t cut any corners in the production process.
While most rums are distilled two times, all Flor de Caña rum is distilled five times, assuring a purer alcohol, Solorzano said.
The liquor is then slow-aged in artisanal white oak barrels to get a full, rich flavor.
And unlike other liquor companies, Flor de Caña does not employ an aging practice known as “solera,” which blends the ages of alcohols to market it as a more exclusive product.
Solorzano said that other rums that claim to be aged 21 years might contain only 10 percent rum that is actually that old, while the rest is blended with younger batches. But with Flor de Caña, 100 percent of the rum in the bottle is as old as the label on the bottle claims, he says.
Environmental Villain or Hero?
While Flor de Caña’s quality taste has led to international accolades in the recent years, here in Nicaragua the headlines have focused more on the problems of former cane workers claiming to suffer from chronic kidney disease as a result of working with dangerous pesticides on the San Antonio sugar plantations.
In the past decade, as many as 3,500 former cane workers have died of kidney disease, and another 1,000 are sick with the disease in Chinandega, according to local cane worker unions and reports from the Pan American Health Organization (NT, Nov. 7, 2008).
Several dozen former cane workers are currently camped out near the Cathedral in Managua in permanent protest, calling on Grupo Pellas to respond to their needs.
A recent independent study on the epidemiology of chronic kidney disease in Nicaragua by BostonUniversity’s School of Public Health determined that previous studies on the issue – 22 in total – have produced a wide range of hypothesized causes, but nothing definitive.
The BU group determined from previous studies here that sugar cane workers are one of the occupational groups with a high prevalence of chronic kidney disease in Nicaragua, but they are not unique in having a high prevalence of chronic kidney disease.
“Chronic kidney disease appears to be a complex, multifaceted problem in Nicaragua,” the BU group reported, while outlining an ambitious strategy to conduct further studies here.
“We cannot guarantee that our pursuits will find a single, explicit cause that will stop this epidemic,” the BU group warned. Flor de Caña has also distanced itself from the issue.
“We have done everything possible to protect the workers, “ Solorzano said. “Flor de Caña has nothing to do with this; this is a problem whose origin researchers haven’t been able to define or detect yet. And we as a brand have nothing to do with that.”
On the contrary, he stressed, Flor de Caña is “the most environmentally friendly rum on the planet.”
He said the rum produced in Chichigalpa is part of a “closed system,” that captures 120,000 tons of CO2 each year to sell to the beer and soda companies and converts other emissions into methane to power the plant.
The Party Continues
Despite Flor de Caña’s plans this year to expand its product line, branch into tourism and increase its international market presence, Solorzano says the company hasn’t become drunk with ambition.
“The goal isn’t to explode like one of the massive liquor companies, but rather maintain the company as a premium brand for a segment that doesn’t consume too massively,” he said.
Solorzano added, “I always recommend that people drink with their good friend – moderation.”
But on nights that moderation isn’t available or doesn’t feel like going out, there’s always Ron Plata.