The 140-year-old Puerto Rican rum you probably don’t know about

RESPOST: ChicagoTribune.com, Lisa Futterman APR 09,2020

A lot of people have never heard of Ron del Barrilito, though it’s been around since 1880.

The aged Puerto Rican rum is the oldest produced on the island. Pedro Fernandez started making it when he returned from a journey to France — with some side trips to observe cognac production. Inspired, Fernandez went home to his family’s hacienda in Bayamon, near San Juan, and set his unique, small batch production in motion. And it’s been made there ever since. Prized by locals, until a few years ago it could be hard to find in the States. Though lately that is changing with some new influence. More on that in a bit.

Ron del Barrilito starts with a clear liquid distilled from molasses. A portion of that distillate goes into each of 25 wooden tanks, individually loaded with a locally sourced flavoring ingredient (stone fruits, spices, etc), to macerate for several months. These secret macerations are carefully blended with more distillate in a large tank, “proofed down” with rainwater collected on site, and set to age in oversized oak Oloroso sherry barrels shipped over from Spain.

The age profile on these rum blends really sets them apart. “The three star contains no rum under six years old, but many over 10 and even up to 17 years old,” says Eduardo Bacardi, sales and marketing director. Additionally, the dark amber color of the spirit is obtained solely by aging, not additives. “If the master blender needs to color correct, he finds a barrel of dark 16-year-old rum to correct it.”

In 2017, three Puerto Rican investors convinced the Fernandez family to sell the company with the promise that their artisanal legacy would continue. One of those investors, Joaquin Bacardi, who worked for Bacardi Rum for 30 years, hired his son Eduardo, now 26, to bring the brand into the 21st century.

The Bacardis opened a visitor center in February 2019 on the grounds of the original distillery. They offer tours, tastings and hands-on mixology classes. (Right now they are offering free tours to folks who reschedule their cancelled March or April trip to Puerto Rico — details at rumcheckpr.com).

When the new investors took stock of the hacienda, they came across dozens of barrels that had been aging since the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of them were close to empty, the spirits inside almost completely evaporated over time. They collected the remaining precious drops — “inherited assets” as the younger Bacardi calls them — and Master Blender M. Luis Planas created a one-time batch of 200 bottles of Five Star Ron del Barrilito that are pricy ($750 and up) and hard to find.

Visitors and locals alike love the traditional Two Star and Three Star versions, with their classic gold and black labels. The Three Star drinks like fine whiskey — a couple of drops of water or an ice cube are all it needs to open up its brown sugary, slightly funky flavors.

Lisa Futterman is a freelance writer.