By Alexander Britell
He would carry it around in a small wooden barrel, rum in arm, giving tastes to his friends and those who wished to try it.
Don Pedro Fernandez, a third-generation sugarcane grower in Puerto Rico, had studied the art of brandy and cognac distillation in France and returned to the island with a copper pot still in 1871.
Fernandez wished to impart in rum the finesse of French spirits, and in a few years Puerto Rico’s first rum was born on an island covered in sugarcane plantations.
He called it “Ron del Barrilito,” or the “Rum of the Little Barrel,” branded with the story of those early rum sojourns.
Ron del Barrilito “three star” quickly became very popular, until Prohibition came and Puerto Rico, being part of the United States, was soon a rum-free zone.
The company shifted quickly its operations into a plant manufacturing alcohol for cosmetics and other purposes for a decade.
But when the ban was lifted, the family quickly decided to return to rum.
While the still didn’t revive, the rummaking tradition lived on, and Barrilito’s true art, that of barrel aging, became the focus of the company, using bulk rum blended with a tiny hint of a secret blend of macerated fruits and spices, and on-site aging techniques, a technique that dates back to Don Pedro’s brandy days.
The family then added a second expression, the Barrilito “two star,” a rum most at home in cocktails.
Today, Barrilito remains the island’s oldest, most beloved rum, the one that Puerto Rico’s rum drinkers drink, the one that gets you an approving glance from the barman when you ask for it.
It’s the quintessence of Puerto Rican rum, light and delicate, fine and balanced, the sherry aging adding just a whisper of sweetness to the rum’s edges.
And the three star remains the classic, a blend of rums between six and 10 years old, eminently drinkable and an institution in and of itself.
But the history of Barrilito is still being written.
The Hacienda Santa Ana, the historic home of Barrilito, about 20 minutes from San Juan, has been transformed, meaning you can visit the warehouse that’s home to the scores of ex-sherry barrels that shape the rum into Barrilito, watch the rummaking process, meet the master distiller (if he’s not in the lab) and get a feel for this centuries-old art form.
The walk around the facility is a reminder of just how important the art of barrel aging really is, as the alchemy of time and lightly toasted wood turns the raw distillate into a jewel.
“The rum is a blank canvas,” Barrilito’s Edgardo Sanchez says. “It’s our job to do the painting.”
There’s also a spiffy new visitor center at the Hacienda, where you can learn about the history of the family, of Barrilito, and where you can sample cocktails and try the rums themselves.
Hacienda Santa Ana is also the place to purchase the company’s new halo rum, the Barrilito Five Star, an ultra-rare blend of rums as old as 35 years. (Also on hand is a new Four-Star expression, with rums between 10 and 20 years old).
For rum lovers, it’s a Puerto Rico must, but even for the uninitiated, visiting the Hacienda is a way to take a glance at the old Puerto Rico, a land where the sugarcane would wave and rum prophets would journey around with little barrels in their arms.