Every day, lines of trucks enter the processing area of the Magdalena sugar mill in Guatemala, each packed with hundreds of tons of raw sugar cane. The endless procession fuels Central America’s largest sugar producer, Ingenio Magdalena S.A., known by the tagline “Tierra Dulce!” With sugar paying the bills, Magdalena did what centuries of sugar producers have done before them: It started making booze.
In 2001, the company started distilling but not for itself. Magdalena sold neutral spirits in bulk to be used in all types of alcohol production across the globe, including vodka, mixto tequila and, of course, rum. Today, through a partnership with Oregon’s House Spirits, for the first time, its rum is entering the U.S. The new Casa Magdalena, a blanco rum intended for cocktails, is now available stateside.
Ingenio Magdalena (image: Jake Emen)
The Family Connection
How exactly did a small spirits company in the Pacific Northwest get linked with a gigantic Guatemalan sugar mill? Tom Mooney, House Spirits’ CEO and the former American Craft Spirits Association president, grew up in Guatemala and was childhood friends with Luis Fernando Leal, who’s now the third-generation owner of Magdalena. “Everything that has been happening over the years with House Spirits goes back to Luis Fernando in some way,” says Mooney.
The idea was hatched to work together on a rum, with House Spirits benefiting from large-scale production they’d never be able to manage in house and Magdalena getting an opportunity to directly showcase its spirit to the world. Meanwhile, Guatemala gets a boost via further representation and recognition with a quality product on store shelves. The rum’s label depicts Guatemala’s volcano-dotted skyline, a familiar scene to anyone who’s visited the ancient city of Antigua, where Magdalena is located.
(image: Jake Emen)
“This product is a great way to tell the story of this place and the family, and that’s something we’re proud of in its own right,” says Mooney. “There just aren’t enough rums that have come out of here in a long time.”
While Ron Zacapa is a prominent Guatemalan rum, there have been substantial barriers to entry for new Guatemalan rums to hit the market. According to Leal, using a pot still is illegal in the country, and barrel aging is heavily restricted. Which is why Casa Magdalena rum is brought to the U.S. via tankers and then matured for six months in bourbon barrels at the House Spirits warehouse.
(image: Jake Emen)
The firepower behind the Magdalena distillery is something to witness. The distillery can churn out 120,000 liters per day, while the newer still built in 2007 can handle another 300,000 liters. The columns look more like rocket boosters for Elon Musk’s latest Falcon Heavy launch vehicle than distillery components. At its peak annual output, Magdalena could fill more than 40 Olympic-size swimming pools to the brim with alcohol.
This, of course, is far removed from how craft distilleries in America produce their booze, so Mooney and House Spirits founder and distiller Christian Krogstad, along with Magdalena head distiller Estuardo Domínguez García, collectively set out to find ways to bridge the gap. “It’s really fun to bring the philosophy of a craft distiller to one of the world’s largest operations,” says Mooney. “It’s two completely different ways of doing things.”
In such industrialized processes as sugar production and bulk alcohol distillation, squeezing every last drop of efficiency out of the operation is of key importance. For this project, however, the team developed a plan based on what Mooney calls “planned inefficiency.”
Distillation strength was dropped from 96.4 percent to 94.8 percent, while fermentation time was increased from the plant’s typical 30 hours at 34 degrees Celsius to 120 hours at 32 degrees Celsius. “Longer and lower temperature fermentation really does make a difference,” says Mooney.
Another key component was the use of Miel A molasses, which as the least-processed variation of molasses has not yet been through a centrifuge and therefore contains the highest concentrations of sugar. “This was the first big decision,” says García. “We’re trying to highlight the taste of the cane. We want a rich cane flavor.”
(image: Jake Emen)
It’s more expensive to produce rum in this fashion, but it lends the product a more robust base. “We wanted the richest and most flavorful molasses,” says Mooney.
The final result is a rum that speaks to its Guatemalan origins while being fine-tuned for cocktails, specifically Daiquiris. Erin Hayes, the national director of education and advocacy for House Spirits, says the team tasted through an endless barrage of dozens of different Daiquiris with spirit strengths ranging from 40 percent to 45 percent ABV before settling in at the precise 41.25 percent ABV chosen for bottling.
Magdalena is currently available in 20 states across the U.S. Nab a bottle and mix up a few drinks to see what a taste of Guatemala, and some planned inefficiency, has to offer.