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The Distillery Putting Puerto Rico Back in Puerto Rican Rum


The Distillery Putting Puerto Rico Back in Puerto Rican Rum

Using homegrown heirloom sugarcane varieties, San Juan Artisan Distillers is part of a small group of producers challenging the imported molasses-based rums that have long dominated the island.

In the town of Vega Alta, on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, sugarcane grows the way it might have 200 years ago. These are the grounds of San Juan Artisan Distillers, founded in 2011, which has kick-started a new phase in Puerto Rico’s sugar and rum history. The distillery is located approximately two miles from the ruins of the old San Vicente Central sugar mill, which was founded in 1873 and closed in 1967. Until San Juan Artisan Distillers came around, that was the story of sugar on the archipelago: a historical curiosity that left the landscape dotted with abandoned mills, rusted over in the middle of overgrown fields. But founder Pepé Álvarez had a vision to create a rum that would honor Puerto Rico’s sugarcane growing heritage and challenge the molasses-based rums that dominate the island.

At its peak in 1952, Puerto Rico’s sugar industry produced 12.5 million tons of sugar at 34 mills and seven refineries. The industry experienced rapid deterioration when sugar production took a back seat to the industrialization project of Operation Bootstrap in 1947, which eliminated all corporate taxes for 10 years to encourage investment by U.S. industry. The intention then was to move Puerto Rico away from its agrarian system and toward a manufacturing economy. Between 1951 and 1968, 17 plants ceased operations. In 2000, the last two plants shuttered, but rum distillation never ended in Puerto Rico.

In fact, in the United States, more than 20 million gallons of rum consumed per year is produced in Puerto Rico. The big, famous rum distilleries, Bacardí and Don Q, are classic dry-style, light-bodied smooth rums distilled from imported molasses, the sourcing of which, during industrialization, became cheaper than producing sugar. The former distillery exports 6.7 million 9-liter cases to the U.S. annually, and the latter is the most consumed locally. They have faced very little competition in the marketplace. Now, however, more and more small producers are emerging, including San Juan Artisan Distillers, whose bottlings stand out for being made from locally grown sugarcane juice.

When Alvarez, who spent most of his life working in landscaping and farming, decided to get into the rum business in 2008 and launch the distillery, his research began with seeking out sugarcane. The cultivation of cane and the production of sugar has been an integral part of the Puerto Rican economy and national identity since the 16th century. Christopher Columbus brought the sugarcane plant on his second voyage. While it was first planted in the Americas in Hispaniola, the island known today as the Dominican Republic and Haiti, it was later cultivated in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba. 

Looking for sugarcane to plant in his distillery, Alvarez learned of a reserve of the crop saved by Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture. In the 1960s and ’70s, the government had set out to create and improve sugarcane varieties to yield more juice, have less fiber and have softer bark for more efficient production. But sugar production yielded to industrialization, and the project was abandoned. Alvarez planted five varieties.

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Today, San Juan Artisan Distillers is the only producer on the island that distills from their own sugarcane, whose tall stalks surround the distillery. The rum made there is a far cry from the molasses-based style typical in Puerto Rico, and is more akin to rhum agricole, which is distilled from sugarcane juice. Its expression has more grassy, funky elements reflective of the land where it’s grown.

Because of his agricultural background, Alvarez’s decision to operate an estate distillery wasn’t a huge stretch. “I was 55 years old and I felt too young to retire,” he says. He traveled to agricole distilleries around the French Caribbean to learn more about production. “I thought it could be something interesting to establish in Puerto Rico.”

First, Alvarez purchased a brand-new German column still, which he uses to distill the brand’s lighter rums. He also acquired red pot stills and other equipment—originally used for Cognac—from the Moët Hennessy house, which had recently closed an artisanal rum distillery in Trinidad. For some expressions, Alvarez blends rums from the two stills, while others are bottled individually. It took a year and a half to assemble all the equipment.

“I paid and did all this by selling my paintings, assets that I had, because no bank, no one, trusted my project of creating my distillery,” he says. “But I was clear that I wanted to have a distillery with its own sugarcane. I am stubborn.”

San Juan Distillery Puerto Rico

Hurricane María in 2017 affected the pace of the distillery’s opening and the launch of Ron Pepón, its first “ron agrícola” (“Pepón” means “Big Pepe,” in honor of Alvarez’s father); his initial plantings were destroyed by the storm. But the sugarcane grew back swiftly, allowing them to slowly fill their oak barrels.

Before distillation, the cane is ground in a mill and comes out in pieces, frayed from pressing. The liquid juice it yields has a greenish hue, and in its first pressing, it collects in a container in the mill. Half is watery cane juice, and the other half is waste, which the distillery uses as compost to nourish the sugarcane field. From there, the juice takes about four to five days to ferment before it is distilled. The rum ages for at least 12 months in barrels before bottling, as Puerto Rico law requires for products to be labeled “Rum of Puerto Rico.” This job is carried out by Alvarez’s son, Jose R. Álvarez Lefranc, who is a trained engineer and manages the operations and administration of the distillery.

Today the Ron Pepón brand has blanco and añejo expressions, the latter of which is aged for 24 to 36 months in used oak bourbon casks. The distillery also has a series of rums called Tres Clavos, which are infused with local fruits like pineapple, ginger, passion fruit and quenepa. In 2025, they plan to add a new product line of “ron agrícolas” that get a second six-month finish, in either Cognac casks, sherry casks or barrels made from amburana wood. 

While it looked like the end of Puerto Rican sugar at the start of this century, San Juan Artisan Distillers has brought it back from the dead, creating a new tradition and a new style of rum along the way. “Our product is unique in its kind: grown, harvested, fermented and distilled sugarcane juice from Puerto Rican heirloom varieties,” says Alvarez. “These varieties are from here. They carry our land’s DNA. They are our heritage.” 

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