Demerara. The word alone is infectious. It’s derived from the Arawak language, meaning “river of the letter wood.” It sounds exotic. It is exotic. Demerara is a place, as well as the name of things related to that place. It’s a region near the wild coast of the tiny South American nation of Guyana, founded by the Dutch. It’s also a river and along it are fields of sugarcane lined with canals where herons and egrets wade. The air is sweet smelling. It smells of tropical forests, as well as the sea.
Demerara is also a name tied to sugar, an extension of which is rum. Specifically, Demerera signifies the rum of Guyana, of which many call as the world’s best. Demerara rum, as you might expect, is produced on the banks of the Demerara River, just outside of Guyana’s capital of Georgetown. All Demerara rum is distilled in Guyana, regardless of where it may be aged and bottled. The rum is derived from sugarcane grown along the banks and is distilled by the last remaining Guyanese distiller, Demerara Distillers Limited, or the DDL.
The DDL distillery, best known for producing El Dorado rum, is an important landmark near Georgetown and facilities are open to the public by reservation. Seeing the vats and aged wooden stills surviving in the tropical heat in one of the wildest landscapes on earth is quite impressive, even if the facilities are quite humbling. Tours end with a tasting of several rums in a modern tasting room dotted with the black and white photos that tell the history of rum in Guyana, which closely follows the history of the country.
The History of Demerara Rum
Guyana was a pristine land inhabited by Arawaks and Caribs when Christopher Columbus came ashore in 1498, though it was not produced on a large scale until the late 1700s, roughly a century later than in the rest of the Caribbean. As Guyana’s plantation owners entered the sugar industry late, they were able to import advanced equipment for milling sugarcane and the industry exploded.
Distilling was introduced in the 1850’s by the British and not long after there were more than 300 sugar estates producing their own rums, though by the end of the century that number began to drop along with the number of sugar plantations. By the 1930s there were 230 operating sugar plantations and in 1958, only 18. Each estate produced its own distinctive rum and they were given their own marks to identify the origin, for example, PM is Port Morant. These rums were shipped to England and the trading name Demerara Rum was established.
Flavor Characteristics and the Coffey Still
During the early 20th century all the stills were merged and all ended up in the hands of DDL – Demerara Distillers Limited. The wooden coffey still – EHP – is the last one left since 1880 and the only wooden column still used in the world and what gives El Dorado rum its distinctive flavor. Made of a Guyanese wood called Greenheart, it produces mild and fruity medium bodied rum. The EHP single barrel rum from El Dorado comes from this still. It’s used in the El Dorado 5yo, 8yo, 12yo, 15yo, 21yo, and 25yo and what is shipped off to blenders elsewhere in the world.
The unique environment of the Guyanese coast lends to flavors and aromas, which are in turn heavily affected by fermentation, distillation, aging, and blending. The old wooden stills add to the flavor bouquet. These are deep, rich rums with lots of earthy, smoky notes that give them a unique complexity.
El Dorado 21 year old: This El Dorado rum has been named the best rum in the world again and again and after tasting it is easy to see why. It’s undeniably smooth, dark and rich, and redolent of molasses and burnt sugar.
El Dorado 12 year old: I prefer this over El Dorado’s better known 15 year old. It’s clean, smooth, and easy to drink and doesn’t have the price point of the 21 year old.
Wood’s 100 Navy Rum: Despite the high 57% abv, Wood’s 100 Navy rum is surprisingly smooth. Notes of coffee, cinnamon, and cloves and short yet potent finish.
Pyrat XO Reserve: Aged as much as fifteen years in American oak and French Limousin barrels, it’s a bright, citrusy rum that’s produced at DDL from a blend of 2-year-old Demerara rums and other stocks sourced from other producers in the Caribbean.
XM Royal 10 year old: Produced by ageing the rum in bourbon casks for at least a decade, then it’s finished in sherry casks for six months before bottling.