Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Cruzan Rum Distillery

This weekend in St. Croix was a little slow, so I took the opportunity to go with an acquaintance of mine to the home of St. Croix's most famous export, Cruzan Rum. The Cruzan brand was actually founded around 1934, but the former sugar plantation upon which the distillery sits has been producing rum since around 1760. Our first glance of the distillery was the old carriage house, which definitely harkens back to a time long ago: 

The history of Rum is deeply intertwined with the history of St. Croix. Throughout much of its history, St. Croix was one of the leading producers of sugarcane in the Caribbean, particularly in the 17th through early 19th Centuries. Much of the sugarcane grown in St. Croix was converted to molasses, which both allowed for easier shipping, and which forms the basis of distilling rum. 

The Seven Flags of St. Croix's Administrators
(L to R: Sovereign Order of Malta, Denmark, Netherlands, the United States, France, the UK, Spain)
As with many things in the world, globalization, climate change, and politics have transformed Cruzan Rum. While still largely managed by the Nelthropp family, whose ownership of Cruzan dates back to the middle of the 20th Century, the Cruzan brand is now owned by Beam Global Spirits. St. Croix's climate, which has become more arid over time, has also made large scale sugarcane production impractical. Because of climate change, the majority of molasses used to produce Cruzan is imported from Central and South America. However, due to favorable trade laws, Cruzan is able to import high grade molasses at a price significantly lower than many competitors. One high point of the trip was being able to actually taste some of the molasses being used for distillation (see below). It was definitely not like the kind you find in stores!

Molasses being poured to begin the distillation process.
At Cruzan, the distillery tour is much more "hands on" than at most distilleries. St. Croix's other rum producer, Captain Morgan, doesn't allow such a high degree of access to its production facilities. At Cruzan, one can get right up to the fermentation vats!

The molasses was moving due to the yeast particles alone...
Following fermentation, the molasses mixture is distilled using a column system, which happens to take place in the second tallest building on St. Croix (the competition actually isn't very stiff). Cruzan is known for their particularly thorough distillation process that removes most of the fusel oils and impurities that are often left behind in other spirits. For this reason, Cruzan is much less likely to produce the headaches associated with hangovers. After distillation, the raw Rum is then placed in barrels for aging at the St. Croix facility:

The various stages of aging. 
As you can see above, aging in the tropical climate results in a high degree of evaporation. By the time Cruzan's 12 year rums are done aging, as much as 90% of the initial liquid may have evaporated. In the tropics, aging also takes place much faster, so rums with lower ages have similar characteristics to much longer aged spirits such as Scotch and Bourbon.

The Cruzan Hospitality Pavilion
Our tour complete, we came to the high point of the day, which was a chance to taste the various Cruzan rum varities at the distillery's hospitality pavilion. After a few Cruzan drinks, we had definitely educated ourselves on the wide array of rums that our local distillery produces.

Cruzan is always a good call.
Before we left, I decided to splurge a bit and bring home a souvenir. I bought a bottle of Cruzan's premium offering, Cruzan Single Barrel. Aged for up to 12 years, the Single Barrel is a welcome addition to my collection at home.

I bought their limited edition large bottle, so a stock photo will have to do.

Beyond the opportunity to learn more about our local rum, the Cruzan distillery was a great way to become more knowledgeable about Crucian history and culture. It was definitely a nice way to spend a Saturday, and is a must-see destination for any visitor to our little island.



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

San Juan

Well, readers, it's been a good two weeks since I updated you on life down in the Virgin Islands. This week, my post departs from the USVI and brings us to one island over, in Puerto Rico. I had a 5 day weekend due to Easter, so I took the opportunity to cure my "island fever" and visit our neighbor island to the west. San Juan is about 90 miles from St. Croix, so the flight there takes about 30 minutes from tarmac to tarmac. Flights usually run between $100 and $200 including luggage, and, combined with relatively cheap rental cars and some moderately priced accommodations, Puerto Rico makes a great weekend getaway from the USVI.

In comparing Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands, the two locations couldn't be more different. While St. Croix has a largely Afro-Caribbean culture similar to that of many nearby islands, Puerto Rico's is markedly more Latin American. Arriving in San Juan, a bustling, urban metropolis, was a far cry from the slow pace of life on St. Croix. In addition to adjusting to the heavier traffic (and smoother roads), I also had to get used to driving on the right again, and reading road signs in Spanish. Nonetheless, there were some pretty good benefits to being in Puerto Rico. First and foremost was the coffee (seen below). If you're an Espresso fan, Puerto Rican coffee honestly puts Starbucks to shame. It's quite similar to Cuban coffee, though diabetics beware: everything in this part of the world comes with sugar!

Traditional Puerto Rican coffee

My hotel in San Juan was in the Condado section of the city, which features high rise condos and hotels, as well as scenic vistas of the Atlantic Ocean. I greatly enjoyed staying here because it had a good mix of Puerto Rican restaurants and bars, as well as some more familiar places, such as Walgreen's and Chili's. As much as I like to assimilate as much as possible to a local culture, I was happy to see an American chain restaurant after so long!

Avenida Ashford in Condado, San Juan
One of my major objectives on my trip was to go shopping. As we don't really have department stores or the like on St. Croix, I took the opportunity to go to Plaza de las Americas, which is billed as the largest mall in the Caribbean (I honestly doubt it has much competition). I bought a few essentials (a dress shirt and a polo), and was interested to find that they do, in fact, sell bowties in the Caribbean, at least at Macy's:

Didn't expect to see these!
San Juan offered a wide array of interesting restaurants and bars to choose from. In addition, one benefit to coming over to Puerto Rico is that the general cost of living is considerably lower than that on St. Croix. While out and about, I was fortunate enough to have one of the better Mojitos of my life (see below). I'm pretty certain my cocktail was made with either Bacardi or Don Q, the two kings of Puerto Rican Rum. It's worth mentioning, for anyone contemplating a visit to both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, that the normal liquor prices in St. Croix are lower than the Duty Free prices in the San Juan airport, even for Puerto Rican rum. Liquor is pretty much the only thing cheaper on St. Croix than anywhere else, but at least there's something :-) Regardless of what kind of liquor you prefer, rums from either island are a pretty good bet!

What ended up being a pretty good Mojito
Even though I wake up to a view of the beach every day, I made an obligatory visit to Condado's stretch of oceanfront sand. I have to say that the view was pretty impressive, especially since it contrasted well with all the high rise buildings that dot the shoreline. San Juan offers the best of both worlds in many ways: There's outstanding beaches, and all the amenities a major city has to offer within walking distance from your beach chair or cabana.

The beach at Condado.
Breaking away from Condado, with my flight drawing near, I took the time to visit the San Juan National Historic Site, specifically Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Construction on the Castillo began in the 16th Century, and was a very impressive structure, offering outstanding vistas of Old San Juan and the surrounding area.

While the weather was windy and overcast, I was able to get a few good shots in of the castle and surroundings:

The main entrance to the Castillo

One of the Castillo's famous sentry towers.

Looking east toward Old San Juan

The weather was a little dodgy, but the photos came out well.

After visiting the historic sites, I ran into a bit of trouble at the airport, as my flight was delayed and eventually cancelled. Luckily, in large part due to the advocacy of one of my fellow air travelers, the airline found us accomodation for the night, and I got an extra night in San Juan gratis. I took the opportunity to have a really good Puerto Rican breakfast the next day, one which is hard to find in restaurants on St. Croix:

While our accommodations were a little unconventional (vacation condos attached to a hotel), the hotel managing them had a great location on the beach, and I was able to enjoy some more scenic views on my final day in the city.

A nice morning view!
All in all, I enjoyed my trip to San Juan very much, and plan on visiting again soon, and on a fairly regular basis for that matter. Living on a small island, everyone I know has stressed the importance of leaving the island every few weeks to break "island fever." We in the USVI are definitely fortunate to have such an exciting, accessible, affordable, and pleasant destination nearby!

So long, San Juan!