On the Trail

Refining Sugar Cane in Guyana

David Driscoll

While traveling to Guyana a while back to visit the DDL distillery—home of El Dorado rum—we had two options for what we wanted to do on our third day abroad: go with master distiller Shaun Caleb on a trek into the Guyanese jungle, or do some things around the distillery. Always up for solo adventure, I decided to split from the group and somehow convinced DDL to call the Guyanese government and give me a tour of the state-owned Guysuco Uitvlugt-Leonara sugar estate factory. I had told the distillery owner Komal that we were dedicated to El Dorado because its one of the most open and transparent companies we've ever worked with. I stressed to him that the more information about rum he could present me with, the more I could make the case for his brand; "We're all about communicating the story to our customers," I said.

"Then you should learn how we get our molasses," he replied. 

After the other members of our group departed that morning, I hopped into a car with distillery chemist Najuma Nelson and we headed west, across the expansive Demerara river (and over a mile-long floating bridge) towards Uitvlught where the factory sits and high-quality Demerara sugar is produced.

The town of Versailles is on the way to Uitvlugt and our driver was able to point out where the old estate was from where DDL sourced its ancient single wooden pot still. Remember there were once more than 370 sugar estates and distilleries operating in Guyana. Serious booze history is just about everywhere you look. Preparations for Mashramani, the Guyanese version of Carnivale, were going on all along the road, as well. Sunday is the big celebration, but of course we're leaving Saturday. "You came all the way to Guyana and you're leaving the day before Mashramani?" everyone asked us. Apparently we hadn’t planned accordingly.

I didn’t get the impression that the Guysuco sugar factory gets many visitors. Of the few they might get, I don't think many of them are Americans with notebooks taking an excessive amount of pictures. I definitely stood out like a sore thumb, but I was given a warm welcome and everyone was very helpful. ICBU stands for Isaac Christiany Boody/Uitvlugt, which you may recognize from El Dorado's single still series we're currently selling. That's because the Savalle still was taken from the former Uitvlugt distillery, which was located right next door to the ICBU factory, so both facilities share the same name. Distilleries were built in Guyana only as part of a sugar estate, but Uitvlugt was closed in 2000 and the equipment was moved to Diamond distillery. While the Diamond sugar estate no longer exists, it did at one point and its purpose was to transfer the harvested cane to the crusher by river boat. While some operations have moved over to mechanical harvesting, the plant manager said all his cane is still harvested by knife or machete.

Once the cane has been crushed, the juice is then transferred into giant tanks called evaporators where the water is separated through boiling. The syrup then comes pouring out through dispensers. Molasses, of course, is what's left after much of the initial sugar has been removed from the juice. As it boils it continues to separate sugar into crystals. Most rum is distilled from molasses and it’s amazing how little I knew about the real flavor of that substance. I always associated molasses with the syrup I poured over my pancakes on Saturday morning, but real Demerara molasses is a thick paste that tastes of funky anise and root beer. You can see why pot distilled molasses-based rums are so wacky and sometimes smell of sulphur. It’s a distillation that’s true to flavor.

While I was there to learn about molasses, I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to taste a real Demerara sugar straight from the source. I stuck my finger into the crystals, pulled up a few grains, and gave it a little lick. It's all I can think of these days when I see Demerara sugar in the grocery store.

-David Driscoll