Recently, I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico to attend an awards ceremony for Destilería Serrallés’ Don Q gran anejo rum and tour the historic distillery. Their flagship spirit is Don Q rum, which is the best-selling rum in Puerto Rico, far outselling Bacardi. During the days I spent there, I spent a good deal of time enjoying the varied tastes of Puerto Rican food and beverage. One thing I noticed over and over, was that rum based cocktails are regularly served with food instead of the more typical wine. Most restaurants offer mojitos, rum punches or pina coladas made with Don Q Cristal, or you can order a gran anejo rum on the rocks.
Because of the high quality the Serrallés family puts into their products, Don Q rum continually receives spirit and cocktail awards year after year. Their Blackbeard Spiced Rum won a well deserved Chairman’s award from Paul Pacult’s Ultimate Cocktail Challenge in 2011, and their anejo and gran anejo rums placed high in the challenge as well. Not only that, but their rums have won numerous platinum and gold medals at other international competitions as well.
My journey really began the first night, when those of us who had been invited to attend the week’s festivities, carpooled to a local restaurant named Buddatai, headed up by Next Iron Chef, Robert Trevino. Everyone started the evening with a round of mojitos and I had the pleasure of sharing a table along with Esteban Ordonez (seen at right with two friends), the national brand ambassador for Don Q. I think I learned more about the world of spirits in those few hours than I have over the past several years. After an evening of listening to stories about the history of rum in Puerto Rican culture over a delicious meal, everyone headed back to the El San Juan Hotel for a nightcap at the bar.
The next day was literally full of planned food & drink activities, and we began by taking two tour buses to La Plaza Del Mercado in nearby Santurce, for a lunchtime of fresh shrimp and octopus ceviches, grilled chicken, mashed plantains and the favorite local beverage of Don Q Cristal with coconut water and lime juice poured over ice. From there, we went to local seaside restaurant Soleil for a heartier meal of beef, seafood and vegetable tapas plates served with fresh rum punches. Lastly, we stopped for a taste of the entire Don Q product line at Casa Don Q which is the museum and shop in San Juan. After the heat of the day, it was great to have a Pina Colada in the style of Ramon “Monchito” Marrero (seen at left), who is said to have created the drink back in 1954.
The evening’s main event was the 5 Star Diamond Award given to Félix J. Serrallés Jr., President and CEO of Destilería Serrallés (pictured 2nd from the left) held at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. In this day and age, when conglomerates regularly buy out small family run distilleries, it is a breath of fresh air to find out that Destilería Serrallés is still run by the descendents of the original founder. During the evening, I took the opportunity to talk with some of the other attendees including Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell, Camper English, Martin Cate and Estaban Ordonez about rum and it’s increasing popularity in the world of cocktails. The event was packed and at times quite surreal with a Puerto Rican string band playing in one corner while the Serrallés family crest was shown dancing around the ceiling in a light show reminiscent of the Bat Signal. The drinks were interesting too, as gran anejo Manhattans and spiced rum daiquiris flowed along with flutes of Cava.
The program itself was blessedly short and to the point, with American Academy of Hospitality Sciences President & CEO, Joseph D. Cinque and Karen Lynn Dixon, International General Manager giving a summary introduction to the history of the Serrallés family’s business. During the award ceremony, Mr. Félix J. Serrallés, Jr. was joined on stage with other Destilería Serrallés Board Members & Family Members, including Roberto J. Serrallés, Vice President of Business Development at Destilería Serrallés and 6th Generation Rum Maker to accept the The Five-Star Diamond Award which is usually only given to restaurants and hotels. In fact, Don Q is only the 4th spirit to receive this award and the only rum! As Félix was about to leave the stage, he was also given a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the economy and welfare of Puerto Rico. He gave a brief thank you speech, and the evening quickly ended. Before we left tho’, several of us made our way over to Laurel, the museum’s restaurant/bar for a last Don Q gran anejo on the rocks before calling it a night.
The next day was the real highlight for most of us, as we all took a trip over the mountains to Ponce where Destilería Serrallés is located. Our tour was hosted by Roberto Serrallés, son of fifth generation Félix, and I was surprised to learn that the distillery doesn’t normally give tours to anyone. Although considering the enthusiasm that Roberto showed during the next few hours, he could easily do so if he decided to retire.
We started with a short overview of the grounds via a blueprint in the boardroom, then took a walk through the headquarters. We each donned construction helmets and went out into the late morning heat to inspect the barrel shed, then over to one of the aging warehouses where we got a chance to taste high-proof rum right out of the barrel. The rest of the tour took us to the fermenting tanks, a decades old pot still (still in use) and the new gleaming steel column stills. One area that Roberto was most excited about was a building which held cutting edge equipment designed to completely purify the waste water. He said that they are one of the few rum distilleries in the Caribbean that does not dump their waste into the ocean, but rather recycles it for local farming use. In fact, Destilería Serrallés is one of the “greenest” companies around since they reuse or reclaim virtually every aspect of their resources. Within the grounds of the distillery they make their own bio gas, electricity, mulch and irrigation water.
After the tour, we got the chance to taste four different unblended spirits: two unaged rums made by pot still and column still; and two aged pot still and column still rums. Each was quite unique and different from any rum I’ve ever tasted. Ms. Silvia Santiago, the master blender creates a careful blending of several of these “unfinished” rums to achieve the taste profile they’re known for before anything is released to market. Their master blender only has to smell the rums to know what the end result will be. Pretty impressive stuff!
We were all famished by this point, so we boarded the buses and drove back towards San Juan to make a late lunch stop. We ended up stopping at local roadside diner Guavate, for some awesome roasted pig, morcella, rice with pigeon peas, mofungo, and tostones. Looking around the diner, I saw numerous signs and bottles of Don Q once again. It was apparent that Don Q, in a very real sense is the spirit of Puerto Rico and it’s people. It is as much a part of the Hispanic lifestyle as their religious faith. Perhaps, the angels are watching over the Serrallés distillery while enjoying their angel’s share.