An issue with the Colonial Classification of Rum is that it defines the spirit by the three European powers that came to the Caribbean to conquer, and the contributions made by other groups are essentially erased.
One such group is the Portuguese people who migrated in multiple waves and made an invaluable and often overlooked contribution to rum. In the context of rum being understood as French, Spanish, or English; there is definitely a case for understanding the concept of Portuguese Caribbean Rum.
Portuguese people came to the Caribbean in small numbers before but, it was after the abolition of slavery that the most significant numbers migrated to the region. The majority came from Madeira, and they included two groups; Presbyterians fleeing religious persecution, and Catholics who were mostly rural vineyard workers.
The economy of the island was already in decline when in 1852, a pathogen attacked almost all wine grapes. In that year, less than two thousand pipes of wine were produced compared to almost twelve thousand the year before. Production continued to plummet, and by 1855 only three dozen pipes of wine were produced.1 The wine industry was slowly stabilizing itself when in 1872 the Phylloxera crisis arrived on the island’s shores allowing for immigration to the West Indies to be sustained.
The plight of the Portuguese coincided with the plantocracy’s desire to replace the recently freed slaves and also increase the European population in the Anglophone Caribbean with people who could not usurp their status in society. The earliest of them left Madeira for British Guiana in 1834, and after a decade of relative success, vessels like the Eweritta and Portland left Portugal with migrants bound for Trinidad,2 Saint Vincent, and Antigua. On their arrival, they entered into Indentureship contracts and began working in the agricultural sector.
As a general trend, as soon as their contractual obligations were fulfilled, they left field labour and moved towards various means of self-employment. In Saint Vincent, the Portuguese population remained within a geographical base in rural areas on the eastern coast of the island.3 In the three other colonies however, they became increasingly urbanized, and followed a path into retail, rum blending, and ultimately control of their respective local rum industry.4
Their rise in this area was remarkable in terms of how rapid it was and because outsiders saw it as being built on cheap goods sold from small shops.
In reality, it was due to commitment to the trade from an early age and cooperation within their community. Novices began in the backrooms learning the art of rum blending since they did not speak the local tongue. As they slowly became fluent in English, they also learnt French Creole and Bhojpuri which gave them an advantage over more established shops since they could communicate better with their customers.5
In time, apprentices were given loans and land leases to establish their own retail and rumshop business. On Thursdays in Trinidad, shopkeepers would be given half the day off, and they would journey to Port of Spain to stock goods and discuss business. Discussions on private and personal matters crossed both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean since many of them had friends and family in Antigua, Guyana, and Madeira.
By 1851 In British Guiana, more than two thirds of the shops in rural regions were owned by the Portuguese while they owned more than half of those in Georgetown.6 Twenty years later in Antigua, more than half of the liquor licences were issued to them, and with the exception of one shop they sold all of the rum outside of Saint John’s Parish.7
It was a similar situation in Trinidad, where by the turn of the century over half of the male Portuguese population was involved in the commercial sector, and most of their involvement was related to rumshops and grocery stores.
These Trinidadian businessmen would have included Manuel Augusto da Silva who owned at least three bars and was famous for an award winning Amaro called Mimosa Madeira Wine. Silva would eventually return to Portugal, but he would continue to sell his products through his agent in Trinidad, Henry Luz. Luz himself sold Black Cat Rum and also ran an establishment called the Black Cat that advertised having both Jamaican rum and New England rum8 in stock at one point. Another example of a rum bar and rum brand sharing the same name was Serrão’s Peep of the Morning.
Among them was also Manoel Fernandes, a wine and spirit merchant with a small shop on Henry Street, Port of Spain. His son José Gregorio would grow the business so that by 1920 there were retail outlets in Diego Martin to the west and San Fernando in south. It would be the decision of Joseph Bento Fernandes to join the company started by his grandfather that would make the family name synonymous with Trinidad Rum.
In the early nineteen thirties, he would make two purchasing decisions so significant that they affect the names of popular Trinidad Rums to this day. The first of these was to purchase rum stocks that were previously stored in the Government Rum Bond. These stocks were put up for sale after a fire in June of 1932 destroyed the Treasury Chambers where the bond was located. Joseph blended some of these rums and named them for the year that they were put into casks; Fernandes 1919 Age Guaranteed was born.
It’s often stated that the original stock for this rum ran out, however it’s more likely that it was blended with newer stock from the same estates and of a similar age. Fernandes 1919 became Fernandes VAT 19, a product that’s currently produced by Angostura and sold alongside Angostura 1919, their homage to Trinidad’s first vintage rum and the bedrock of their premium range of rums.
The second decision was the purchase of the derelict Forres Park Estate in south Trinidad. At that point, Joseph Bento was still only a rum blender, and the wooden pot still was his main motivation for acquiring the property since it allowed him to experiment with his own rum distillation.
It was here that he developed Puncheon Rum, uncut distillate that was allowed to rest for a few days in large wooden casks.
Ownership of this property allowed him to assess the feasibility of both running a distillery and growing sugarcane, since the estate included large swaths of sugarcane and bananas and almost two hundred acres of teak. Ultimately, he only chose to move forward with building his own rum distillery over a decade later. Supposedly, he flirted with the idea of growing his own sugarcane well into the 1960s.
Portuguese Rum Merchants in Antigua were making similar moves. In 1921 and 1929, two members of the De Souza family purchased sugar estates in Saint Phillip. Also, in 1929, eight Portuguese businessmen came together to consolidate purchases of molasses. All but one of the eight owned a rumshop. Three years later, when Antigua Distillery Limited was established by those same businessmen, the De Souza property was consolidated along with several nearby estates into the Montpelier Estate in order to provide molasses for Muscovado Cavalier Rum. Previously, rumshop owners in Antigua sold rum under names like Red Cock, Silver Leaf and Imperial, but they decided on producing a single rum brand with the aim of eventually exporting.
As early as the 1890’s, Montpelier was considered to be one of the top producers of Muscovado sugar in the Caribbean. When it was acquired by Antigua Distillery, it was already old and in some disrepair. A Guyanese man of Portuguese descent joined the company in an engineering capacity, repairs were done, and research was conducted, but the last crop was processed in 1953 and the factory was closed.9 The change in molasses supply coincided with a shift in global rum preferences towards lighter spirits and a new product called Cavalier Rum became their new brand. Three different products are currently sold under the Cavalier name alongside the more premium English Harbour brand.
In Guyana, the Portuguese rum shop owners were also growing their enterprises into larger brands.
Charles Correia learned wine making and blending while at a Madeiran boarding school, and on returning to Guyana in 1910 he began bottling and blending his own products. They seem to have been fortified wines that used local fruits like cherries, light rum, and imported old world wines. He went on to establish an agency in Trinidad that eventually grew into a full-fledged production center. The entire Correia enterprise is now owned by Angostura and they currently produce Correia’s Rum and Correia’s Hard Wine for the local market.
The D’Aguiar family had a far bigger impact on Guyanese rum culture than Correia.
Jose Gomes D’Aguiar owned a growing number of rum shops at a time when only one in five Guyanese rum shops did not belong to a person of Portuguese descent. In 1885 the business expanded into shipping, brokerage, confectionaries, and cocoa. In the next decade, his sons Jose, Manoel, Francisco and John would take over the company and purchase the Demerara Ice House, an interest that included carbonated beverages, restaurants and more. Expansion into these commercial sectors was also typical of the Portuguese community in Trinidad and Antigua.
The company experienced some decline for a few decades before the youngest son of the founder entered the business. Peter D’Aguiar expanded and improved the company’s beverage division by acquiring the rights to bottle Pepsi in Guyana as well as the establishment of a beer company called Banks Brewing Company. He also significantly expanded the XM line of rum that would have included brands like XM Gold Demerara Rum and XM Royal Extra Mature Demerara Rum at different points.
This line has historically been the market leader in Guyana and only now is losing some market share to El Dorado Rum and Diamond Rum produced by Demerara Distillers Limited. XM Rum was once a blend of Guyanese rum, but the company currently sources their spirit from the Foursquare Distillery in Barbados and Angostura in Trinidad.
The total control that Booker’s had over Guyana’s sugarcane industry likely prevented them from purchasing any estates or building their own distillery, but their insights into Guyanese rum production might have played a part in influencing the Portuguese-built distilleries in Antigua and Trinidad.
In 1920’s Guyana, attempts were being made to approximate pot still rum marques using a four column Savalle still at Uitvlugt Estate just west of Georgetown. The experiments were successful, because that still currently produces nine marques that replicate the rum from at least five old estate stills that are no longer in use.
The dominant distillate in both El Dorado 21 Year Old Rum, and El Dorado 25 Year Old Rum both come from this four column French Savalle still. The decision by the Antigua Distillery, Fernandes Distillery, and even the Caroni Distillery to use the exact same rum distillation set-up might have been influenced by correspondence with Guyanese rum blenders on the versatility of the still.
The Four Column French Savalle still is an important element of the Portuguese Caribbean Rum Style, just as the pot still is strongly associated with Jamaican Rum, and the Creole Column is important in understanding French Caribbean Rum. Similarly, just as those places have Jamaican Overproof and Agricole Blanc as their indigenous expressions of locally loved white rum; Antigua, Guyana and Trinidad all have Puncheon Rum.
Puncheon Rum is a high proof, dry and almost briny white rum that has existed under at least eight brand names but always from the same five companies in Antigua, Guyana, or Trinidad. These are also the only three English speaking countries in the Caribbean where the practice of blending aged rum with sugar syrup, and fortified wines is seen as traditional rather than taboo. Many factors influenced this blending tradition, but one of them might have been the casual approach to spirit categories that some Portuguese rum blenders seemed to have. Even today, Angostura Single Barrel Reserve is more of a dry liqueur than a rum, and the name references the blending barrel that a rum shop owner might have used rather than the common whisky term.
In terms of dividing rum into three distinct regional styles that are determined by global events and decisions in Europe, the case for Portuguese Caribbean Rum is as valid as the concepts of French Caribbean Rum, Spanish Caribbean Rum, and English Caribbean Rum.
Portuguese blending defined the style of rum put out by two of the largest rum distilleries in the Caribbean. Portuguese developed brands dominate the local drinking traditions in Trinidad, Guyana, and Antigua to this day. A Portuguese name on a bottle has typically meant quality rum in these parts of the Caribbean for over a hundred years.
Similarly, rum companies sometimes pay homage to their Portuguese blending traditions, but never really reach deeply into the rich heritage and history. It’s more of just a nod to them through the occasional special rum release.
The El Dorado Cask Finish Series were limited bottlings of their Fifteen Year Old Rum and Twelve Year Old Rum that were further matured for a short time in European wine casks. Two in this series used Bordeaux Sauternes casks, but the rest of them all made use of barrels that previously held Portuguese wine including Ruby Port, Red Wine, and Dry Madeira.
Antigua Distillery did something similar with their Small Batch Cask Finish Rum releases. This range was essentially English Harbour Five Year Old Rum that was finished in either Sherry, Port, or Madeira Wine Casks.
In a recent virtual tour video, the company made it clear that they were paying homage to their Portuguese founders, and not just capitalizing on the current popularity of unique cask finishes.
In another recent live video, an Angostura executive explained the history of French Creoles in Trinidad to WIRSPA’s community envoy who was asking about why the Trinidad rum style is so unlike the rum of other Anglophone Caribbean islands. He went on to speak about the Portuguese being “very silent” in Angostura’s history and praised the “legacy and provenance of the Portuguese Rum Makers” in Trinidad and Guyana.
In closing, he said that the company is willing to better utilize the Fernandes brand that they acquired in the 1970s and he revealed that they recently found some barrels of Caroni rum in one of their warehouses.
Caroni rum has a continuously growing cult following, and bids on bottles at auctions often reach astronomical prices. Meanwhile, premium releases from Angostura seem unable to generate as much interest as similar releases from companies like Saint Lucia Distillers or Mount Gay Distilleries.
If Angostura can manage to properly harness the rich past of Trinidadian rum making and channel the pride associated with names like Caroni and Fernandes into new products, the future of Trinidad rum is guaranteed to be exciting.
All images issued under a Creative Commons licence unless otherwise indicated. Article also appears on Author’s blog; The Portuguese Caribbean Rum of Trinidad, Guyana, and Antigua
- Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine, Alex Liddell
- Foundation Readings on the History of Trinidad & Tobago, Theodore Lewis, Jo-Anne Ferreira
- The Vincentian Portuguese: A Study in Ethnic Group Adaptation, Robert Ciski
- Madeiran Portuguese Migration to Guyana, Saint Vincent, Antigua and Trinidad: A Comparative Overview, Jo-Anne Ferreira
- Entrepreneurship in the Caribbean: Cuture, Structure, Conjuncture, Selwyn Ryan, Taimoon Stewart, Jo-Anne Ferreira
- The Portuguese of Guyana: A story of culture and conflict, Mary Noel Menezes
- The Peculiar Class: The Formation, Collapse, and Re-formation of the Middle Class in Antigua, Susan Lowes
- The Trinidad Guardian, January 1st 1919
- Plantations of Antigua: The Sweet Success of Sugar: A Biography of the Historic Planations which Made Antigua a Major Source of the World’s Early Sugar Supply, Agnes Meeker