A Visit to West Indies Rum Distillery
Visiting the West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD)
How about a nice rum on the beach? Sounds good, of course. Now how about an entire rum distillery on the beach? That’s where West Indies Rum Distillery sits–on the beach at Black Rock in Barbados’ Saint Michael Parish.
Founded in 1893 by two German brothers, the distillery was sold in 1903 to Barbadian interests. Today it is 88% owned by Goddard Enterprises Ltd., headquartered in Bridgetown. The distillery is primarily a bulk rum producer, but also makes its own marques under the Cockspur name, twenty in all. In addition to rum, the distillery produces Gilbey’s gin and Popov vodka. It also produces Malibu coconut liqueur for the local market, as well as the rum base for the US/Canadian market.
Despite its prime location, WIRD is surprisingly not set up for tours, but I was fortunate enough to visit with the help of WIRSPA. Our tour guide was Operations Manager, Don Benn.
The facility operates 24/7, and the three shifts can produce up to 15,000,000 liters of pure alcohol a year using a combination of their four stills (two continuous and two pot). While most of this alcohol is sold in bulk containers, WIRD can also bottle up to 200,000 cases per year. The bottling line is used to package third-party products as well, including Pusser’s and Afrohead.
The process starts of course with fermentation, using molasses primarily from Guyana, Barbados and Mexico. Using 200,000 liter tanks (~53k gal) they produce an 8% wash in a short 24-hour fermentation aided by ammonium sulfate. The unique India-designed propagation/fermentation system allows for yeast to be recycled through a flocculation/sedimentation process; it gets a full change-out every five to six months. The CO2 generated from the fermentation is released to atmosphere.
The same fermentation process is used for all products, and the wine is fed to the continuous stills almost exclusively (the pot stills run for just about one month per year). Some is aged, but most is sold direct from the still at 95% ABV. The vinasse is diluted 5:1 and pumped 2 km out to sea via pipeline. Given the nature of the business, WIRD doesn’t keep too much aged stock. As of my visit, there were roughly 5,000 barrels in storage.
Editor’s note: This trip was sponsored by the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers Association (WIRSPA) under the auspices of the Authentic Caribbean Rum Certification (ACR) Program. After completing the free 4-hour certification course in San Francisco, I submitted an application for, and was accepted into the Full Certification program in the Caribbean. As part of the inaugural class, we visited six Caribbean rum distilleries and one sugar factory across three countries in four days. I highly recommend taking the free certification class when it comes to a town near you. It’s quite informative, but best of all, it qualifies you to apply for the Full Certification program in the Caribbean (also free of charge).