The Caroni distillery
Although an advert in the Trinidad Guardian attests to the existence of the Caroni distillery as far back as 1899, it was only officially established in 1918, in Trinidad and Tobago, on the Caroni Plain in the south-east of Port of Spain. At the time, Trinidad and Tobago had officially been under British rule since the establishment of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. Unlike the other distilleries on the island - of which there were around ten - Caroni had its own adjoining sugar plant and did not rely on the import of molasses from Guyana to produce its rum. In 1936, Caroni joined the British company Tate & Lyle, a giant in the sugar industry created from the 1929 merger of the two competing businesses Henry Tate & Sons and Abram Lyle & Sons.
Over the years, the new company, Caroni (1937) Limited, acquired other plantations in Trinidad and Tobago, buying Esperanza Estate and Bronte Estate in 1955, Sainte Madeleine Estate in 1957, Woodford Lodge Estate in 1961 and Orange Grove Estate in 1968. Occasionally it would salvage distillation equipment from the properties, like the column still from Esperanza Estate in 1957, which joined a cast iron pot still used at the distillery since it first opened and a Coffey still installed in 1936, both of which were dismantled in the 1980s. At the time Caroni was a key player in Trinidad and Tobago’s sugar industry and major investments were made to modernize production, such as the industrial use of bagasse, mechanization of harvests and the development of new varieties of sugar cane.
Few bottlings were released during this period, although one - Caroni Navy Rum Extra Strong - was used by Velier as inspiration for its own labels and then re-released in a 2018 edition to celebrate the distillery’s centenary. The distillery’s ester-rich heavy rum was also a key ingredient in the rum ration given to members of the Royal Navy, known as the “tot”, and used to add more character to the blend.
Caroni became an increasingly less profitable business for Tate & Lyle after Great Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973 and the Lomé Convention was established in 1976 to regulate imports and cap prices on various agricultural products, such as sugar, which were sourced from African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, including many former British, French, Belgian and Dutch colonies. The group reacted to these protectionist measures - introduced to protect European producers - by diversifying its activities and buying Manbré & Garton, its main British rival in Great Britain, in 1976. In 1970, Tate & Lyle had already sold 51% of its shares to the State of Trinidad and Tobago, which had gained independence in 1962, and in 1975 sold its remaining shares. The company was renamed Caroni (1975) Limited and its rum production branch Rum Distillers (of Trinidad & Tobago) Ltd.
The new company got off to a difficult start, with sugar production no longer profitable and exports restricted. At the same time, in 1970, Admiral of the Fleet Peter John Hill-Norton ended the age-old tradition of providing members of the Royal Navy with rum rations, fearing it reduced efficiency on ships and led to poor handling of equipment. The last ration was served on 31 July 1970, a day known as Black Tot Day.
Staying true to the country, Caroni therefore returned its focus to the domestic market and attempted to diversify. But the company continued to make a loss that the State was forced to cover. An attempt to reduce costs by outsourcing the distillery’s sugar supply also ended in failure. In 2001, Angostura won a bid to purchase the company’s rum branch, but a disagreement over the value of stocks - some 18,000 casks - meant the sale was never completed. The sugar refinery eventually closed in 2002, with the distillery following suit in 2003. Caroni’s history had always been inextricably linked to Trinidad and Tobago’s sugar industry and, now that the country’s economy relied primarily on tourism and its petrol and gas resources, was unable to survive without it.
Inside the empty distillery
Angostura eventually bought most of the distillery’s stock, with the rest going in part to the Italian independent bottler Velier. Velier’s manager Luca Gargano discovered Caroni in December 2004 during a trip to Trinidad and Tobago with photographer Fredi Marcarini. He bought part of the stock from the distillery (approximately 1,600 casks) and released eight bottlings in 2005, followed by many others. Gargano stored the casks in a tropical climate in Trinidad, then partly in Guyana, in Demerara Distillers Limited’s warehouses from 2008. The bottlings were released either at cask strength or just below.
Rudy Moore, Caroni’s liquidator
Although other bottlers and brokers also bought casks at the auctions held by the distillery’s liquidator Rudy Moore in 2005, they did not have the same profile as those owned by Velier and Bristol (who also bought stocks at an earlier date) due to their much shorter tropical maturation. Additionally, while Velier and Bristol focused on very aromatic heavy rums, the rums sold at auction were light rums, with a far less flamboyant style.
While Caroni’s bottlings attracted the attention of only a few enthusiasts when they were first released, interest in the distillery has increased exponentially over the years. Although this trend can be explained in part by a general rise in rum’s popularity, it is above all the distillery’s very unique style that has caught the eye of enthusiasts and its characteristic oily texture and petrol notes. Today, bottles that were initially sold for small two-figure sums now fetch several hundreds and even several thousands of euros at auction.
Caroni 20 Years 1967 Moon Import “The Birds”
46%, 75 cl - 900 bottles
This Caroni, bottled by the Italian import and bottling giant Moon Import, stands in stark contrast to the modern editions of our era. The petrol notes are more discreet and almost absent, and the rum as a whole is much softer, revealing notes of salted butter caramel, honey and dried fruit. It may in fact be a light rum, which Caroni also produced for its blends. It is a great example of a less well-known aspect of Caroni, and surprisingly the oldest vintage from the distillery sold.
Caroni 21 Years 1998 Employees Kevon "Slippery" Moreno Full Proof Heavy Rum
69.5%, 70 cl, 2019 - 1,400 bottles
The tropical ageing of this Caroni - in this case a heavy rum - has done its work to stunning effect, resulting in a deeply ingrained character carried by an impressive alcohol content. We find Caroni’s trademark petrol notes as well as notes of citrus fruit, exotic fruit and caramel, all of which bring the rum lots of balance and complexity. This bottling is dedicated to Kevon “Slippery” Moreno, who worked at the distillery for ten years. The Employees series, which was launched in 2018, pays tribute to Caroni’s former employees, retraced by Luca Gargano with the help of Rudy Moore and photographed by Fredi Marcarini.