Puerto Rico is no stranger to the world of alcohol production. After all, the island is home to one of the world's top-selling rum brands, Bacardí, as well as to Don Q, which actually outsells it at home. Then there's the long-standing cult favorite Ron del Barrilito.
Recent years have brought notable additions to the mix, however, including a popular brewery with plans to begin distilling spirit categories not yet produced on the island, and alternate styles of rum which, until now, haven't originated from Puerto Rico. This is how they’re expanding Puerto Rico’s distilling scene.
Ocean Lab Brewing
Following its opening in 2017, Ocean Lab Brewing has become the dominant craft-beer producer on the island. “When we got started, nobody here knew anything about craft beer,” says Matías Fernández, a founding partner in the venture.
The idea to launch a large-scale craft brewery in San Juan came from the success Fernández saw with his beer-focused restaurants. “We created two restaurants that sold over 100 different beers in their menus, at a time when there were very few restaurants in Puerto Rico serving craft beer,” says Fernández. “Both restaurants became instant successes and became very popular. That’s when we saw an opportunity for a local craft-beer business.”
A core line of approachable beers, including a blonde ale, an American wheat, a pale ale, and an IPA, served to introduce local consumers to the brewery’s offerings. Ocean Lab has since branched out into ongoing experimental and seasonal releases, as well as natural fruit-flavored beers, including BOB (or Blood Orange Blonde) and Ruby, made with ruby red grapefruit. “Today, Ocean Lab has a very large following from local beer enthusiasts,” says Fernández. “The brewery has also become a tourist destination, receiving guests from hotels and cruise ships.”
Ocean Lab now accounts for 30% of Puerto Rico's craft-beer sales, and has only grown more popular over the course of the pandemic. Shutting down the brewery, which brings in about 1 million visitors per year, was initially devastating. However, it pivoted to create an online store with 24-hour delivery anywhere on the island. “Incredibly, the brewery’s sales increased 20% during the pandemic,” says Fernández, an increase large enough to lead to ongoing sellouts. “Everything we manufacture is sold the same week.”
A major expansion is therefore in progress for 2022, with the brewery set to double its production. On top of that, the team will be getting started with an in-house distillery producing gin, vodka, and whiskey, becoming the first on the island to distill these spirits.
San Juan Distillers
When rum drinkers think of Puerto Rico's offerings, the category is generally described as being a light, clean style of column-distilled rum made from molasses. San Juan Distillers is taking an entirely new approach, however.
“I wasn't going to do what we were doing traditionally in Puerto Rico, column-distilled from molasses, very light rum,” says San Juan’s founder, Pepe Alvarez. “I wanted to come in doing something completely different and something that had never been done.”
He uses two types of pot stills, a German-made Arnold Holstein and a set of Charentais cognac stills. Even more notable is that he's using them to make rhum agricole distilled from fresh sugar cane juice. "We're making the first agricole rum ever made in Puerto Rico,” says Alvarez. “The rum comes out super-aromatic and super-clean, it's a beautiful, beautiful full-bodied rum.” The different stills also enable him to create two distinctive base rums to blend together to bring out the best in both.
Perhaps most impressive, Alvarez grows all of his own sugarcane, reviving a lost industry on the island of Puerto Rico and bringing back native varieties of sugarcane in the process. “Nobody else is growing sugar cane in Puerto Rico,” he says. “We're the only one. We rescued at least five varieties of Puerto Rican sugar cane, which are amazing.”
Alvarez had hoped to debut his rum by December 2017. However, like so much else on the island, Hurricane Maria derailed those plans and destroyed his sugarcane fields. While he worked on replanting, he first launched a popular line of infused rums, long a local Puerto Rican tradition, under the Tresclavos brand. “These are like a moonshine that we cure with local fruits, but we decided to make a rum caña with a good-quality base rum and to use source fruits from local farmers,” he says.
His agricole rum is now available under the Ron Pepón brand, offering an unaged blanco and a barrel-matured añejo, which Alvarez plans to continue steadily increasing in age. “It improves by the year,” he says.
Alvarez is doubling down on his early progress, with plans to increase his sugarcane fields from 110 to 250 acres, while adding in new warehouses and production equipment. "We're so excited with the way things are going and the enthusiasm we see from everybody, that keeps us going,” he says. His goal for 2022 is to find the right distributor to enter major markets in the continental U.S.
A common rum-world practice is to source liquid from major producers and put a personal touch on it via finishes and/or blending. In the case of Scryer, founded by Derek Schwarz and Garrett Robinson, the operation procures pot-distilled Barbadian rum matured in bourbon barrels, brings the liquid to its San Juan barrel house and tasting room, and finishes the rum in sherry and port casks, blending the two together. It may not be truly Puerto Rican in origin, but it is expanding the category of Puerto Rican rum.
“The entire concept really began to take shape when we considered moving the operation to Puerto Rico, my mother's homeland, and my second home away from the States,” says Schwarz. After Hurricane Maria, the pair ran a fundraising campaign to help restore power and water to remote locations on the island, an effort that inspired them to remain on the island long-term.
Schwarz prioritized starting with a pot-distilled rum for its richer and more robust characteristics. “The essence of the molasses, with its rich butterscotch and creamy caramel notes, could for us only be fully captured via pot distillation,” he says.
After five years in bourbon casks, the rum has a base of vanilla and oak flavors, to which the finishing casks add their own touches. “The tawny port casks infuse a full-bodied aroma, jammy notes on the palate, and a rich character of brandied cherry,” says Schwarz. “The oloroso sherry casks slowly transform the naturally dry distillate into a flavorful palate of dessert baking spices, walnuts, and dried fruits such as raisins and dates.”
While Scryer is currently only available in Puerto Rico, the pair hopes to expand production and reach stateside and international markets by 2023. “We are fortunate to have been well-embraced by locals and bar-industry veterans alike,” says Schwarz. “Many are interested in the concept of a new sipping rum alongside the mainstays of the island, while others see new potential for cocktail creation.”