Wine Blogging Wednesday
Solera of the Caribbean Sea, Papirusa of Puerto Rico, and the Batard of Bayamon, Ron del Barrilito (rum from the little barrel) offers palates predisposed to character-rich wines a welcome midwinter alternative. Three Fernandez generations have crafted a mysterious, deceptively complex, amber-hued, full flavored rum using the same secret family recipe since 1880. For full appreciation and escape from frozen tundras, you can visit the Fernandez clan clinging to their patch of quaintly pastoral Bayamon, Puerto Rico land where the rum has been made and aged for more than 100 years. Or, simply throw on some fresh logs, crank up the Reggaeton, pour your rum neat, and transport yourself beyond January’s icicle tinged rooftops with thoughts of whooshing grand ceiling fans, palm trees, and the saline air of an unspoiled Caribbean belonging to generations past.
I am consumed by wine appreciation and neither understand nor collect fine rum. Yet, when my family retreats to Isla Verde, Puerto Rico every year around this time for 25 years running, we robotically stock our beachside apartment full of Barrilito “Three Star” within a couple hours of arriving on the island. I put wine aside and luxuriate for days on end in its aromas and depth of flavors akin to fine Cognac, Sherry, Brandy, and over-the-top Chardonnay. My nose gravitates to the glass no less often than if Montrachet filled the vessel three fingers high. Needing to fill in blanks and relieve some curiosity, I convinced a small group to join me on an uncharted path (really hard to find) to visit the Fernandez family at their hacienda.
Don’t think Bacardi or Don Q. There are no tours or fancy tasting rooms, you will be the only ones there, and your hosts will be third and fourth generation Fernandez’s. You can click this image to meet them:
Forget about learning how they make the rum. It is a closely held family secret, never written down and now protected by a third generation Fernandez who happens to also be a Cornell trained chemical engineer. The business has passed from Fernando to Emanuel and then again to the current day Fernando. They survived prohibition launching a rubbing alcohol (dreamy stuff called Alcholado Santa Ana made from eucaliptic leaves and alcohol intending to rejuvenate without the sting of traditional rubbing alcohol) business which carries on today, tough local government laws that prevents them from making the pure alcohol which they have to source from Bacardi, a choking local tax levied by the government, and instances of eminent domain highlighted by the Puerto Rican government’s seizure of a parcel of Fernandez land to erect a penitentiary that still casts an ominous shadow along the perimeter of Ron del Barrilito.
Total annual production is 14,000 cases of two rums; Two Star and Three Star. There is no difference in the formulas, just the age of the rums that make up the final blends. Two Star is aged three years in 132 gallon used Sherry barrels sourced in Spain. The mass market rum factories on the island, such as Bacardi, employ old whiskey barrels. The more exotic Three Star is blended with rums that have rested in wood for 6-10 years. Each year the blend is slightly different, but the commitment is always to include some 10-year-old rum. The deeper color in the glass on the right gives away the rich advantages of longer term aging for the Three Star compared to the Two Star on the left.
The Three Star offers up a nose of roasted nuts, vanilla, toast, essence of butterscotch, and cream soda aromas. While there are those hints of sweetness on the nose, the mouthfeel is serious and rich, with a warming and long smooth finish that defies the strength of its 86 proof guts. It’s not even related to the white rums that are mass-produced and line the shelves of our nation’s bottle shops. Fernando Fernandez recommends drinking the Three Star “over rocks with a green lemon peel”. For the Two Star, which is similar but more restrained on all fronts, he jokingly grants permission to mix it with Sprite, Coke, or whatever other rum infused drinks grab your fancy. But never, never consider pouring the Three Star in any fashion that will obfuscate the intrinsic flavor and richness values they strike in final blending. Watch and listen to this brief video clip of Fernando Fernandez on this and related topics by clicking on his image.
Fernando grew up on the property replete with windmill once used in production but now serving as an office. A house erected in the early 1800’s by the Fernandez family has been designated, along with the windmill, historic monument status by the government. I guess it’s the least they could do running roads and jails through what was once a meandering sugar cane farm and hacienda. You can view the three bedroom, one bath house that Fernando continues to live in by clicking this short video clip.
The Three Star rum sells in stores in Puerto Rico for about $20 and the Two Star can be bought for around $13. If you visit Ron del Barrilito, you can buy a 3-pack of the Three Star for $36! No worries about channel conflicts down here. The rums are available in a few major markets in the US.
Forget any palate memory you have of rum, and discard the images of Mojitos, Pina Coladas, and Long Island Iced Tea. This is a serious beverage that can be appreciated by the most advanced wine palate. And, it will warm the soul and tickle the taste buds in the depth of winter when we need it most.
The last two videos are really worth viewing. This one includes Fernando’s tips on where to buy the rum in the US. This last informative video offers a tour of the barrel room and inspection of some of the old barrels. A “freedom barrel” of rum made by Fernando’s father in 1942, along with a commitment to open it in the town square of Bayamon to share freely (they will pay the taxes too) with its citizens when Puerto Rico achieves independence, still sits patiently in the dark humid cellar. Enjoy them and soak up the restorative warmth and history in this Puerto Rican liquid treasure.