The history of Guyana’s distilleries dates back to the 18th century and the huge proliferation of sugar cane plantations established on the banks of the Demerara River following the Dutch colonization the country in 1616. The country was then seized by the British in 1796, who officially took over in 1814. In 1831, the three colonies founded by the Dutch—Essequibo (1616), Berbice (1627) and Demerara (1752)—were merged into the single colony of British Guiana. The country remained under British rule until it gained independence in 1966, in the process changing its name to Guyana.
British Guiana moved into sugar production relatively late in the game, which enabled it to import the latest equipment for milling cane and producing sugar, molasses and rum. Production boomed and in just a few decades the country became the world’s leading sugar producer. This led the country’s economy to become entirely reliant on the industry, which was in turn dependent on slavery, which was officially abolished with the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 but continued long after in other forms of exploitation. Even after the price of sugar fell in the 1880s and the country diversified its revenue sources, sugar remained a major part of its exports. Rum was no different and quickly gained renown. In 1780, there were more than 300 distilleries clustered around the Demerara River, each with their own mark.
The drop in the price of sugar and the emergence of taxes, however, led to consolidation of the sector. After mergers and takeovers, the number of plantations fell from 230 in the 1930s to just 18 in 1958. The same phenomenon was observed among distilleries and by 1942 only nine remained. A new wave of closures hit again between the 1950s and 1970s. In 1975, Guyana’s government nationalized the remaining distilleries, and they became the property of Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL). Three distilleries survived: Enmore, Uitvlugt and Diamond. In the late 20th century, only Diamond was still in operation, an estate founded in 1670 on the east bank of the Demerara River. The actual Diamond rum itself is produced in a two-column metal Coffey still installed at the distillery in the 1950s, but it is best known for housing the Heritage Stills Port Mourant, Uitvlugt, Versailles and Enmore.
One of the three casks composing the famous UF30E 1985
The Booker group’s distilleries
Skeldon, Blairmont, La Bonne Intention and Albion were owned by the London group Booker, founded in 1835 by George and Richard Booker. Booker was a major player in sugar production in British Guiana and owned more than half the country’s sugar plantations by the end of the 19th century. Guyana was sometimes even referred to as Booker’s Guiana. The group’s distilleries were closed at its impetus, except for Uitvlugt, which was modernized in the early 1960s. It was also at Uitvlugt that the styles from these distilleries were kept thanks to its four-column Savalle still.
La Bonne Intention
The plantation La Bonne Intention was located on the east bank of the Demerara River. It seems to have been founded in the late 18th century. It was initially a cotton plantation and only began growing cane in the 1820s. Rum production is also thought to have begun there in the 19th century, as shown by its presence at the Calcutta Universal Exhibition in 1883-1884. La Bonne Intention closed in the early 1960s, but the sugar refinery survived until 2011. The rare Bonne Intention rums (LBI mark) to have come to us were distilled at Uitvlugt.
The Skeldon plantation was founded by William Ross on the banks of the Demerara in the early 19th century. The distillery closed in 1960. Its Coffey still is thought to have been transferred to Uitvlugt, then Diamond, before finally being dismantled. Other sources say it did not survive Skeldon’s closure. As Velier’s bottlings of Skeldon (vintages 1973 and 1978) explicitly refer to a Coffey still, we are inclined to favour the first theory. What is certain, however, is that the Skeldon rum produced today is made with the Uitvlugt still at Diamond.
The Blairmont plantation, named after its founder Lambert Blair, was established on the west bank of the Berbice River in the first decades of the 19th century. The first records of distillation here are found in 1862. The distillery closed in 1962 and the fate of its two-column Savalle still is unknown.
The Albion plantation seems to have been founded in the early 19th century. It is not known when rum production began there. The distillery closed in 1968. The Albion still was a wooden column still, but its fate is also unknown. Although the Albion style continues to be produced at Uitvlugt using its Savalle still, bottlings mentioning a wooden Coffey still were probably created using Enmore’s still.
The Heritage Stills
The Port Mourant distillery was built in 1732 and closed in 1955. The Port Mourant still was a double wooden pot still made from Green Heartwood, which combined excellent watertightness—leading to its frequent use in ship-building—and it being almost as good as copper at eliminating the sulphur compounds found in vapours during distillation. It was moved to Albion when Port Mourant closed, then to Uitvlugt and finally to Diamond. It is known for producing a heavy and oily rum.
The Versailles estate was founded in the mid18th century on the west bank of the Demerara by Pierre L’Amirault. Versailles was one of Guyana’s smallest distilleries and one of the first to age its rum, which was presented at several fairs in the late 19th century, including the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1867. The Versailles is a 250-year-old vat still. One of its unique features is its cylindrical vat made out of Green Heartwood. It is equipped with a copper swan neck and a rectifier column. The reflux and vapours’ interaction with the wood afford the rum lots of body and depth. After the distillery closed in the early 1970s, the still was moved to Enmore in 1977, Uitvlugt in 1993 and then Diamond in 1999.
The Enmore plantation was founded in the early 19th century by Edward Henry Porter on the east bank of the Demerara. The Enmore still is a two-column Green Heartwood wooden Coffey still built in 1880 after Aeneas Coffey’s invention in 1832. It was transferred to Uitvlugt when the distillery closed in 1994 and then to Diamond when Uitvlugt closed in 1999.
Uitvlugt was built in the late 18th century on the west bank of the Demerara, near the village of the same name built by Dutch settlers in 1752. Uitvlugt was originally equipped with a double wooden pot still, but this was replaced in the 1920s with a four-column Savalle still. The still can produce an impressive range of different styles using its various settings. It is used by Demerara Distillers Limited to produce nine marks, including those of closed distilleries like Skeldon, Blairmont and Albion. It has been housed at Diamond ever since Uitvlugt closed in 1999.
The late recognition of Guyana’s rums
Guyana’s rums had long been popular with the British Royal Navy. From 1850, Her Majesty’s sailors were served a ration of rum known as a “tot”, composed of rums from the British colonies of Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. Admiral of the Fleet Peter John Hill-Norton ended this tradition in 1970, fearing it was leading to poor control of the equipment on-board ships. The last ration was served on 31 July 1970, a day known as Black Tot Day.
Guyana’s rums really began to gain notoriety thanks to the selections of Luca Gargano, a leading figure in the world of rum and director of the Genoese bottler Velier. His first selections of Demerara rum date back to 1996. In 2004, Gargano was invited to Guyana to choose casks by his friend Yesu Persaud, who was at the time President of Demerara Distillers Limited. These extremely characterful rums bottled in Velier’s famous black bottles gradually become some of the most sought-after in the world. The partnership ended in 2015 when Yesu Persaud retired and Demerara Distillers Limited decided to take back control of its heritage, now that its reputation had been widely established among rum enthusiasts.
Demerara Distillers Limited has had its own brand (El Dorado) since 1992 when it launched the El Dorado 15 Year Old. The project dates back to the rum industry’s nationalization in 1975. The first editions contained rums from Enmore, Uitvlugt and Diamond, but these days everything is produced at Diamond. Today, the El Dorado brand covers rums produced with the various stills housed at Diamond, including the famous Heritage Stills. Aside from El Dorado, Demerara rums can also be found among many independent bottlers, who are often supplied by the broker Scheer in Amsterdam.
After remaining for a long time in the shadows, Demerara rums are now some of the most highly prized in the world. They have helped build Velier’s renown and continue to contribute to rum’s establishment as a leading category, paving the way for other rums from former British colonies like Trinidad and Tobago with Caroni, and, more recently, Jamaica and Barbados.
Skeldon 27 Year Old 1978 Velier
60.4%, 70 cl, 2005, SWR
This Skeldon has quite a reputation among rum enthusiasts and is often referred to as one of the best rums ever bottled. An accolade we agree it deserves. The nose opens with intense notes of coffee (Sidra), salted butter caramel, rubber, liquorice, leather, tobacco and spice bread. There are also numerous exotic fruits (pineapple, mango) and red fruits (strawberry, wild strawberry). All these elements are also found on the palate, alongside notes of salt, hydrocarbon and citrus fruit (lemon zest, bitter orange). With impressive power, this rum must have one of the longest finishes ever found on any spirit ever bottled. And you’ll be glad it does, as this is a tasting you will hope never ends!
Albion 16 Year Old 1994 Velier
60.4%, 70 cl, 2011, #7100 – 7101 – 7102 – 7103 AN
Albion’s trademark tar and rubber aromas immediately seize the nostrils. The rum is oily and deeply complex, with notes of molasses, caramel forgotten on the fire, coffee and dried fruits (Corinthian raisin). Ripe fruits are also strongly present, with mango, pineapple, apricot and citrus fruits (orange, lemon) all expressed. Finally we find a salty and fresh dimension with a hint of mint and liquorice that remain into the finish. A rum with all the qualities of a great Demerara: powerful, long and infinitely complex.