By Stephen Vargha
The only rum cellar in Ecuador remains a bit of a secret in the country despite being around for almost seven decades. And for those who consume San Miguel rum, many of them do not know it is made right here in Cuenca.
“We produce the finest rums,” exclaims Renata García of Cava San Miguel. “We age most of the rum in American oak barrels.” Those barrels were used only once for the production of bourbon in Kentucky. To be called bourbon in the United States, the spirit is required by law to be aged in a new barrel.
Highland sugarcane is used for the production of rum at Cava San Miguel. It is a shorter variety than what is grown in the coastal provinces of Ecuador. It is also grown in the lower elevations and valleys of Cañar Province.
Sugar cane, originally from Papua New Guinea, was adopted in Asia where it was cultivated and then planted in Africa and India. Over 1,300 years ago, sugarcane was introduced by the invading Muslims in Spain. About 900 years later, the Spanish took the sugarcane to the West Indies and Latin America. With the ideal climate, rum production thrived. In 1703, the first commercial rum distillery in the world opened on the island of Barbados.
By the 1600s, New Englanders perfected their craft of rum distillation, making it some of the most affordable alcohol on the market. They were so good at it that by 1763, there were 150 distilleries in New England. Rum was a whopping 80 percent of the New England economy. The King of England noticed, and in 1764, the Sugar Act was enacted, where a tax was levied on molasses, the main ingredient of rum. This began the chants of “No taxation without representation.”
After becoming a country, the United States had a huge influx of immigrants. Many of these immigrants were from Ireland and Scotland, bringing plenty of experience with grain distillation. That is when whiskey and other grain-based spirits became more common, causing the popularity of rum to go south… literally.
In 1655, British Admiral William Penn captured Jamaica from the Spanish. He authorized the locally made sugarcane spirit to replace their official beer ration. Sailing back to England, Penn found that the rum had the natural advantage of remaining sweet in the cask for much longer than water or beer.
It was not until 1731 that the British Navy Board was persuaded to make the official daily ration, one pint of wine or half a pint of rum, to be issued neat (at 80% ABV) in two equal amounts daily. Needless to say, the drunkenness was a threat to naval efficiency so in 1850 the rum ration was fixed at an eighth of a pint, until it was abolished in 1970.
Historically, the image of rum connoted a lower class of spirits. Scotch and wine were viewed as “gentleman’s” drinks. Because rum was essentially a byproduct of sugarcane and because it could be produced cheaper than scotch and wine, rum was considered low class and unrefined.
That is until the mid-twentieth century when what was produced in the Uzhupud Valley, near Paute became a government approved rum aging cellar in Cuenca. What was produced at Hacienda Uzhupud was an alcoholic drink similar to liquor distilled from wine. Because it was similar and was a strong alcohol, it was known as “Aguardiente de Caña” (Cane Brandy).
The hacienda’s owners, the workers, and the residents of the area respected Saint Michael the Archangel. They carried out all activities under his protection. That is why San Miguel has the archangel as its emblem. It has a military angel, a dragon, and lions on each side to represent strength and power. The Latin at the bottom states, “Give us strength. Give us hope.”
The sugarcane production has moved north to Cañar Province, where at harvest time, a fire is started at the top of the plants.
“We burn the tops because it is feather-like, and the leaves are razor sharp. We do not want any of that feather-like material ending up in the guarapo (sugarcane juice),” says García. “The fire also scares the wild animals and keeps them far from the harvest.”
Yeast is added to the guarapo to begin the fermentation process. The liquid is transported and stored at an altitude of 2,538 meters / 8,327 above sea level in oak barrels. The humidity is between 85 and 95 percent with a constant temperature of 18°C / 64°F.
“Aging is slower here than at the coast with its higher temperatures,” García says. Add that to the fact that San Miguel uses barrels and you get a different, more refined taste.
“We are the only company in Ecuador using barrels. Most of them come from the United States, Canada, and Central Europe,” says García. “Our American oak barrels have already been aged before we use them.”
Every barrel is toasted before being used. The barrels are toasted lightly, or to a medium or dark color. This gives their rums a different complexion and taste. The three-year-old rum has a fruity taste and a 37% ABV. Aged for two more years, Ron San Miguel 5 possesses a nutty taste and a 38% ABV. Ron San Miguel 7 Black ages the longest at seven years. It is considered world class, and it has a wood-like taste with a 40% ABV. This top-of-the line rum is exported to many countries.
Cava San Miguel’s huge barrels have been here for a half-century to “rest the liquor.” The smallest barrels are only used for ten to fifteen years. Cava San Miguel’s Ron San Miguel Gold is usually aged in these barrels thus the containers are used four times before being discarded.
Maybe the most interesting barrels are the five-meter-long ones that came to Cava San Miguel prior to the overthrow of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in 1959. “These barrels were originally used by pirates, and when Fidel Castro came to power, he stopped the exportation of them. This is all we can get,” says García.
All told, there are thousands of barrels with quality rum aging in barrels in southwest Cuenca. They are all stacked in an orderly manner, waiting to be bottled and sold in Cuenca and throughout the world.
Cava San Miguel conducts tours daily. The best way to arrange one is to go to their website. After the tour, there is small tasting as well as an opportunity to peruse the store which includes Eduardo Vega ceramics and Panama hats. Of course, you have your choice of rums and cocktails!
“Try our rum at home by eating a piece of chocolate followed by a sip of rum, followed by more chocolate, followed by more of our great rum,” García encouragingly suggests.
Cava San Miguel, Panamericana Sur Km. 1.2, Calle de la Serenata y Calle Beethoven, Cuenca, 07.238.5666, https://www.centurcava.com.ec/en
Visitation times are 08:30-10:00, 10:00-11:30, 11:30-13:00, 13:00-14:30, and 14:30-16:00. Tours are conducted in Spanish and English. The maximum number of people admitted for each visit is 25 people.
Photos by Stephen Vargha