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A Visit to River Antoine Distillery

River Antoine distillery as seen from from the adjacent hillside

There are a few rum distilleries people describe as being like Mecca, meaning any true rum aficionado with the means must attempt to make a pilgrimage there at least once. Demerara Distillers in Guyana is one of these nearly holy sites due to its amazing collection of stills, including wooden Coffey and pot stills. Hampden Estate in Jamaica is another, due to its old-world production methods and muck pit realness.

Cane grows alongside the estate’s aqueduct with Flamboyant trees in the distance

Another distillery in this pantheon that’s not as well-known to the casual rummy—but no less important in its status—is located in Tivoli, just a bit inland from Grenada’s northeast coast. It’s about twenty-five miles and over an hour’s drive from Saint George’s where most visitors to the island stay, but the drive is beautiful, and the destination well-worth the effort: River Antoine.

The River Antoine distillery is simply called “Rivers” here, and after spending any amount of time on the island, one quickly learns this is the rum Grenadians truly and fully embrace as their own. This fact is borne out by personal testimonials from folks we met, but also by its almost total lack of export (a small number of cases were sold through Astor Wine in New York in the summer of 2017, but they sold out quickly and have yet to reappear).

“Don’t say rum, say Rivers” is a popular phrase in Tivoli

Rivers is bottled at two strengths: 69% and 75% ABV, so either one is a decidedly full throttle spirit. The one thing we kept hearing from folks on the island, however, was that Rivers did not produce hangovers. Others claimed it was a calming and wholesome spirit, whereas rum made at another distillery on the island made people fight. Regardless of their veracity, statements like these showed us that Grenadians really loved their Rivers, and that there was a lot of mythology around the rum itself. That makes sense given its persistent presence on the island.

The estate was established in 1785, and in many ways the distillery itself has remained unchanged. Although not an agricole style rum, Rivers is indeed made from partially concentrated fresh cane juice (we also hear there is some syrup used depending on the synchronicity of harvest and fermentation capacity). The availability of cane dictates the production volumes, which according to Ed Hamilton are about 132 liters per day.

On the day of our visit, we saw non-estate cane being crushed, so that likely lead to some extra Rivers availability for a few days. (The cane was from Cane Co., the company founded to supply the new Renegade Rum Distillery with cane juice for their impressive new project.)

Walking around the estate, one cannot help but become overwhelmed by its unchanged nature. Here the oldest working water wheel in the Caribbean is still used to crush the cane, and it’s not a gimmick. We witnessed the following scene:

A load of cane arrived by truck. It was dumped in front of the cane crusher, and a worker scrambled up to open the watercourse. Once the water began flowing to the wheel, it began spinning. Once spinning at a reasonable rate, the workers began feeding the cane into the crusher. Bits of cane not fully crushed are re-run, and the juice runs down into the boiling house.

Check out the gallery photos below:

Inside the boiling house, the juice is concentrated in coppers just as in the old days. The coppers are heated with bagasse, and the liquid is moved from bowl to bowl as it reaches the desired concentration. Lime is added to drop out impurities, and then the concentrated juice is allowed to cool for two days before being sent to a series of open fermentation tanks in an adjacent building. No yeast is added to the juice, but the fermentation area is literally teaming with the it. The wild fermentation takes about a week, and is clearly influenced by the local flora.

From the fermenters, the wine is transferred in batches to the pot stills, which are attached to twin retorts. One of the pots was recently replaced with a new  one from Vendome in Louisville, Kentucky—apparently the direct wood-fired heating of the still leads to a shorter lifespan than we see with steam. Rather than bagasse, the stills are fired with local hardwoods which burn hotter and more consistently than bagasse.  The bagasse does not go to waste, however—we already mentioned it’s used to heat the juice, but it’s also used in the cane fields as organic ground cover, and is available to local residents for use in their gardens as well.

More photos:

Out of the second retort, the spirit can be as high as 87% ABV (the retorts are clearly charged with high and low wines from previous runs) and the clear rum is collected in cisterns before proofing and bottling.

Incidentally, the only piece of modern equipment visible during our visit was a bottle capper. The bottles themselves are mostly returned to the distillery to be refilled. Our tour guide Patsy tells us that when bottling at 69% ABV and above, all the used bottles need is a bit of rinsing prior to reuse.

As mentioned above, the distillery only sells unaged rum at 69% and 75%. With the 75% being too high an ABV for air travel, that is the real holy grail, so make sure to buy a bottle and enjoy it during your stay. Of course, you could try and smuggle one out (people do) but the airport security are likely to check your bag if (like me) you have six or eight bottles of rum in it.

After touring the operation and seeing how Rivers is made from start to finish, we were treated to samples of the rum and a couple of punches they bottle. Of course for me, the rums were the real stars, and we purchased several to take home and share with friends. If ever there was a great gift for a rum lover, this is it, so buy as much as you can reasonably fit in your baggage. You definitely won’t regret having too much.

Our trip to River Antoine was the culmination of a years-long dream, an it did not disappoint. Grenada’s countryside is so beautiful, and there are numerous other tourist destinations along the way including chocolate farms and natural scenery. With the modern Renegade distillery and the incredibly original River Antoine operating on the same small island, Grenada should be on the must-visit list of rummy destinations for every rum lover.

*All photos by Kai Miller

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon Colwell permalink
    August 30, 2019 12:58 am

    This is possibly the best rum review I have ever read. Every self-respecting rum distillery should look like a decrepit, haunted lot from a Scooby Doo cartoon. But serious question: what’s the difference between concentrated fresh cane juice and syrup ?

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      August 30, 2019 7:07 am

      LOL thanks, Simon. My tour guide didn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the production process, so I’m not sure. I think the boiling (and the liming) is mostly used to purify and increase the sugar concentration in the juice, which helps to make a more consistent product. Syrup is usually 65°Bx or so, and the stuff we saw didn’t look that viscous. Could be wrong, of course. I’m hoping this post will inspire others to visit and they can ask the questions I forgot to ask while constantly picking my jaw up off the floor.

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