Local Spirits: The BVI's rums

Local Spirits
The BVI's rums provide a perspective on times gone by

by Linda Gard

Three hundred years ago, sugar cane plantations draped almost every hillside in the BVI and sugar production flavored just about every aspect of life on the islands. Sugar planters soon learned how easy it was to turn cane juice and byproducts like molasses into a sweet intoxicant and an even sweeter trade item. Rum distilleries sprang up throughout the islands and a new industry was born.

A hundred years later, more than 100 distilleries were still operating in BVI, but a decline had set in. In the 1920s and early 30s, prohibition in the United States provided a temporary boost to producers here – and elsewhere – particularly those with easy access to the sea, but few distilleries survived long after that. And when the British Navy ended the daily "tot" of rum for its seamen in 1970, a considerable portion of worldwide demand simply evaporated.

Today, the plantations are long gone, along with most of the distilleries, though remnants of both remain, many crumbling under the scrambling flora that threatens to swallow up much of these islands' past.

Two of Tortola's historic distilleries, however, have escaped that fate, to become authentic reminders of days gone by. Only one, Callwood's, continues to produce unique BVI rums from sugar cane every year, while another, at Josiah's Bay, was unearthed, restored and repurposed within the past decade. A more recently arrived, but now more famous purveyor of rum in the BVI also maintains links with history through an ongoing relationship with the British Navy and its legendary rum.

On a recent trip to Tortola, I visited all three for a rum-laced perspective on BVI history.

The past
Callwood's, still producing 18th-century-style rum

Callwood RumCrossing the bridge just up from the main road at Cane Garden Bay is a bit like stepping back in time. The hand-lettered Callwood Distillery sign is new, but the squat, gray-stone building behind it is centuries old. Pausing for a minute just past the bridge, visitors can look up to see tall grassy plants waving in the sunshine. This is sugar cane, the basic ingredient of rum and Tortola's dominant income source for hundreds of years.

A vestige of the once prolific sugar production of the area, the Callwood Distillery at Cane Garden Bay is like a working museum preserving the heritage of an industry that has largely disappeared, not just in BVI, but around the world: traditional, sustainable, natural rum production.

The distillery has been owned and operated by the Callwood family since Richard Callwood, Sr., great grandfather of the current owner, Michael Callwood, purchased the land, then part of the Arundel Estate. The story of Callwood, Sr. is the stuff of island legend: a reputed buccaneer, he owned Thatch Island in the 1800s and bought the property where the distillery now stands for the illegitimate son who bore his name. Ever since then, a centuries-old distilling process has been set in motion every March by Tortola's annual sugar cane harvest.

Kervin Callwood has been working the family business for ten years now, greeting visitors, conducting tours and selling its range of Arundel rums. In season, he also makes the rum – a process that takes place almost entirely out of doors – using cane harvested on-site and brought in by local farmers, March to August, 25 gallons a day, five days a week. "I take the weekends off to party," says Kervin, with a broad smile, "All our cane is grown on the island. We like to keep it local here."

As the cane is put through the crusher, the juice is collected in a receiver before being transferred into large copper boilers and boiled for a few hours over a fire of crushed cane stalks, coconut husks and local wood. It is then transferred to barrels to ferment naturally into wine over eight to ten days. When the fermentation is complete, the mixture is transferred to the still pot for a full day of boiling and distilling. When the alcohol vaporizes it then condenses through a water-cooled, coiled pipe that sends the liquid indoors for the first time, for bottling, storage and aging.

Dark rum is aged four years in oak casks, and white rum, which requires much less aging, is stored in glass demijohns. Kervin recommends the premium product, aged for ten years: "It's much smoother. You can drink it with just sugar and lime or honey and lime," he says.

Callwood's Arundel Cane Rum process creates a truly unique product. Not only is it one of the few distilleries still making rum from cane juice – most rum is distilled from molasses – it is also the only licensed distillery in the Eastern Caribbean still using a single pot process. Tortola's limited cane crop keeps the batches small and tradition ensures they contain only natural ingredients, with no added chemicals or preservatives.

The present
Pusser's, the authentic taste of British Navy Rum in the BVI

The best-known purveyor of rum in the BVI may be a relative newcomer, but its direct link to the British Navy casts a warm glow on the rich seafaring history of these islands.

BVI's naval history lives on today among the many sailors who regularly visit Pusser's West Indies Ltd., whether in Road Town, Soper's Hole, Leverick Bay or its other locations in BVI and around the world. Ironically, it was the death of a centuries-old naval tradition that brought Pusser's to life.

For hundreds of years, the British fleet patrolled the high seas, including the Caribbean, and distributed a daily "tot" of rum to all its serving seamen, a rare bit of comfort in a harsh life. What started as a daily pint of straight rum was later diluted with water and, later still, flavored with lime juice and sugar to become grog.

It was one of the longest-running traditions in maritime history when the Navy finally ended the practice on July 31, 1970 – a day mourned by many as "Black Tot Day." For one man, however, it proved a life-changing opportunity. Charles Tobias, founder and now CEO of Pusser's, first had the idea to reintroduce British Navy Rum while setting out from Gibraltar to Barbados on his yacht Mar in 1978. As he wrote recently on his blog, a small mechanical failure brought him into direct contact with that particular rum shortly after departure: "A Royal Navy vessel was conveniently close at hand, so I pulled alongside," he wrote. The captain not only provided a solution to the mechanical problem, but offered a two-gallon jug of navy rum for the voyage as well. "I had never tasted such good, full-flavored rum, so good in fact that I decided the commercial launch of Pusser's Rum would be my next project."

The name Pusser's was a historic reference, too, a play on British sailors' pronunciation of purser – the officer who would have handed out the daily "tot" on navy ships in past centuries.

In 1979, Tobias took his plan to the British Admiralty, with a request for the rights and historic formula to blend rum identical to the one it had distributed for centuries. The Admiralty responded positively; the arrangement would enable its tradition to live on and provide a substantial annual donation to The Royal Navy Sailor's Fund charity, providing on-shore amenities for serving sailors.

Tobias was given not only the formula, but the right to use the Navy's white ensign and name on his labels as well, and the resurrected blend was bottled and first sold to the public in 1980. Now distributed around the world, Pusser's has won multiple gold-medals and generated more than £1 million in donations to The Royal Navy Sailor's Fund – a remarkable tribute to the seafaring history of BVI.

The future
Josiah's Bay Plantation, a look at the past and the future

Josiah's Bay DistilleryIf a visit to Callwoods distillery is like stepping back in time, a visit to Josiah's Bay is like setting foot on another island. Descending dramatically from the ridge road that traces Tortola's rocky spine, visitors put the island's steep, arid hills behind them. The land flattens out like a flood plain, fenced fields of pasture appear and farm gates line the road.

Like few other places in Tortola, this valley feels like prime agricultural land and evidence shows it has been for millennia: the indigenous Taino left shards of their signature pottery behind here. Where the road peters out to a muddy track, visitors are inclined to turn right to the beach, but to the left lies something more surprising: The ruins of an 18th century sugar plantation that once included a fine estate house, sugar factory buildings of the same era and remnants of a rum distillery.

First developed by British sugar cane planter Isaac Pickering, the estate originally included about 600 acres, but was divided into smaller parcels in the mid-19th century. A portion of those parcels was purchased in the 1930s for a home and business – that business being a rum distillery at a time when prohibition was the law in the United States. The story is that rum was shipped out from here in hand-hewn open boats to the U.S. Virgin Islands, disguised under locally made charcoal.

The distillery was still functioning when the property changed hands again in the 1940s, but bad roads and overgrowth led to disrepair by the early 1960s. Ambitious plans to restore the property to its original glory began in the late 1980s but weren't undertaken until the mid-1990s. That massive task revealed four historic buildings. The house was largest at approximately 70 by 30 feet and in remarkably good condition considering it had been the distillery's boiler house for 30 years. The distillery's rum was aged in what had been the cookhouse. A third building had been the bathhouse, while a fourth unidentified building, a stone and brick oven, a small pit for cauldron cooking, copper pots, a steam engine and a mill were also uncovered.

After the restoration, the site was repurposed into a restaurant and art gallery – the distillery notably absent – but these ventures didn't last. Today, the site stands empty again, amidst pots and related distilling equipment, a quiet and curious testament to ever-changing times. Could the old distillery at Josiah's Bay be restored to produce rum again? Some politicians would like to see this happen and perhaps some day sugar will once again be king and rum production flourish here.

Local rum is the spirit that warms the heart of the British Virgin Islands. Seeking it out and sampling it is to revisit the history that made the islands what they are today: a vivid reflection of a long and colorful past.