Like waterfalls you can only visit so many distilleries but Rivers Rum is unique. We read that time had stood still and modernisation had passed it by AND that Rivers has the only fully operational eighteenth century water wheel in the western hemisphere AND they allegedly make the strongest rum in the Caribbean - so off we went to find the place. Not that easy, we saw the sign at the turning, then nothing, Bear asked at the restaurant and was told "to keep going". Tucked out of sight we found Rivers and two guides fought indifference to show us round.
The building dates from 1785 though distilling on the site may go back further in time.
The water wheel from both sides
This is a distillery that runs all year. A bit of a contradiction: the concentration of sugar in cane is at its highest during the dry season - January to May, in theory, the water wheel which powers the cane press is therefore more likely to work when there is plenty of water in the River Antoine, that is in the rainy season - June to December - you just have to accept some things.
The simplicity and the antiquity of the place beggar description. Bundles of cane are crushed twice, then placed in the island's only railway truck which is trundled along the island's only railway line for the very short trip to a tip. Bear trotting along behind our bored guide through a "health and safety free zone". Here the cane dries in the sun and, now known as 'bagasse', is used as fuel in the first heating process, excess is sold as fertiliser for the cane fields and other locations on the island.
The juice is roughly filtered by scooping up the 'bits' and letting them drain through a wicker mat. The juice flows into the main building, where it is 'ladled' through a succession of big metal basins ('coppers') until it is brought to the boil in the last one. The ladling process looks just like rowing a boat. The fire below the boiling cane juice uses bagasse.
Once the right sugar concentration has been reached, the hot juice is spooned into cooling tanks at the back of the building. It spends two days there, during which time it is invaded by natural airborne yeast's, fermentation starts spontaneously and after a couple of days is ready to be moved.
We were pleased to find a couple of signs for the tourists
The fermenting juice is then pumped upstairs into concrete fermentation tanks, where it bubbles away for eight days. Then it is ready for distillation. Here, the fire below the boiler is heated with wood, because bagasse does not burn hot enough to super heat the liquid. Our visit to Rivers held us spell-bound as we followed the process of the manufacture of this rum in a manner that has not changed for generations and couldn't help remembering the hi-tech, sheer scale production on our visit to Mount Gay Rum in Barbados by comparison there is nothing "shiny" here.
Then there is the 'no tech' of the bottling process. After all this, your credulity is stretched to bursting point as you sample the product. Words failed us, partly as we fought the impact of a factory that has refused to be dragged into the twenty first century had on us, partly because our vocal chords were rendered temporarily numb for a while by the 70% potion and partly through being shocked at just how good the finished stuff is.
750 bottles are produced daily, long may it trundle on. We came away with an over-proof which should have a warning sign hanging from the neck of the bottle, a red all-spicy rum for Christmas and a green one that has a delicious spicy citrus flavour.
Very apt to take a picture of Bear and his booty near fire extinguishers.
Our final giggle was discussing whether the works tractor was still in use or one for the "careful owner" collection
ALL IN ALL INCREDIBLE - THE PAST STILL LIVING AND SURVIVING IN THE PRESENT