Earlier this year, I traveled to Puerto Rico to meet with sixth-generation rum maker Roberto Serrallés, vice president of business development at Destilería Serrallés. We met at the company’s rum distillery in Ponce, located on the southern coast of Puerto Rico and separated from San Juan by a winding mountain highway.
A Little History
The company’s founders came from the Catalonia region of Spain in the 1820s and began distilling rum in Ponce by 1865. A son of those founders was Roberto Serrallés’ grandfather. Roberto’s father, Felix Juan Serrallés, Jr., is the company’s largest shareholder, president and CEO.
Serrallés’ largest rum brand, Don Q, was created in the 1930s. Following tensions with a former importer, Serrallés became a bulk supplier throughout the 1980s and 90s. Then in 2006 the company entered the New York and Florida markets with Don Q, building on the high market share within the rum category that Don Q enjoys within Puerto Rico.
The Magical Part of the Process
“For us, we feel like our thing is making a really clean distilling, with just the right amount of rum taste,” Serrallés says. “We let the barrels do the aging — not as much work as with Bourbon, but we use twice-used light whiskey barrels.”
The company likes to use barrels that are six years post-Bourbon and never re-chars them. Serrallés uses a very short, controlled fermentation and thinks of itself more as an aging and blending company than strictly a rum maker.
“The distilling process is very technical, but the blending and aging are more magical and exciting and artisanal,” Serrallés says. “That’s what gets me excited about making rum.”
Watching Waste Water
“Disposing of waste water when you don’t have sugar growing next to your distillery is a big problem,” Serrallés says. “We don’t put anything in the ocean, and that’s difficult when you’re creating 350,000 gallons of waste water when the plant is going full blast.”
Those concerns about the environment are what brought Roberto Serrallés back to the family business. Under his watch they’ve instituted a dual-system treatment process, which the company borrowed from Anheuser-Busch. The system uses both anaerobic and aerobic bacterial digestion, which can reduce organic content in the waste water and reduce the company’s oil consumption as well.
“Now we’re testing a micro-filtration system as a pilot, and a system for separating solids,” Serrallés says. “It increases costs by $1 per proof gallon, but doing things the right way is often more expensive. Hopefully people will come to expect that and other companies will have to catch up to us.”
The company hasn’t grown sugarcane in Puerto Rico in about two decades, choosing instead to import molasses, but Serrallés is looking to change that.
“I’ve embarked on a project with the government and we’re already growing 500 acres, which is our seed area,” he says. “We saved samples of all the varieties we used to grow. Eventually we’d like to grow this into a 20,000 acre operation of growing sugar cane within Puerto Rico.”
Growing sugar in Puerto Rico will reduce costs, increase efficiency, control quality, and allow the company to experiment with single estate sugar cane products.
A Final Thought
“Those are some of the things that make us different,” Serrallés says. “We’re careful and meticulous on the production side, focused on blending and aging, and we’re working on being cleaner and more efficient.”
Full Disclosure: Serrallés USA paid for my travel and lodging so I could visit the distillery in Ponce, Puerto Rico.