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An Interview With 6th Generation Rum Maker Roberto Serralles

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Roberto Serralles' family has been making rum in Puerto Rico since 1865, making it one of the oldest privately owned and operated companies in the U.S. and its territories. Serralles' flagship brand, Don Q, is stylistically a quintessentially Puerto Rican rum -- dry, light, clean, great for mixing.

Roberto, whose many accolades include the Golden Barrel Rum Awards Master Distiller of the Year, had no plans to join the family business and was getting his Ph.D in environmental sciences when, in 2004, his father came calling with a problem about... well, read the interview and find out for yourself. Today, Roberto has a hand in many different aspects of Destilería Serralles, from making the rum to strategic business planning. In 2012, Roberto, along with Rande Gerber, developed and introduced Caliche, a new high-end white rum. He's also been working for the last ten years on making Destilería Serralles the first environmentally sustainable rum distillery. Has he succeeded? Read on to get the scoop.

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TS: Distileria Serralles has been a family-run business for 150 years, but you didn't intend to get into the business yourself. What happened?

RS: I started as a teacher, and there was no idea I was going to work for the family business. I got my undergraduate degree in history, my master's degree, and I did a little teaching, environmental teaching, in Vermont. I was like, I don't want to teach high school, I want to teach college. And part of teaching college is, you gotta get a Ph.D. So I went to the University of Oregon, and got a Ph.D in environmental sciences. And then, I was studying this environmental stuff, and my dad calls up and says, "Hey, I'm having this problem with the distillery. My wastewater situation, we've gotta fix it. I know you're studying environmental stuff, and can you help me out?" I was writing my dissertation and living in Seattle. And I said sure, I'll help you out. So I started going to Puerto Rico on a monthly basis to try to come up with a solution for the wastewater situation. That's how it all started. I started in the non-glamorous side of rum-making. The back end, the kitchen -- not even the kitchen, the trash bin!

TS: It's kind of funny that you had to be offered a job.

RS: Oh yeah, and I had to be approved by the board of directors. Working in the family business is a great challenge. It's wonderful in a lot of ways, it's challenging in a lot of ways.... When you look at the distributors in the United States, they're all family businesses. So when you come from a family business as a supplier, you know, the meetings are easier, it's a slightly different rapport. And we're really easy to work with -- I think people actually like us.

TS: Would you want your kids to go into the business?

RS: My dad never put any pressure on me and I'm not going to put any pressure on my kids. They might just want to. They recognize the logo -- it's kind of scary. They're like, "Dad, look, Don Q!" .... They're gonna be popular when they go to college.

TS: Do you see the preconceptions of rum as a category beginning to change? Or is it still, Don Q is a party drink? And how do you change that perception?

RS: The industry is changing. It's really exciting, the whole craft thing. I think it's interesting, what's going on. I mean, if we have the whole explosion like it was with craft beers.... Unfortunately, I think the category has been hammered by its leader [Bacardi]. And when you look at everything they do, and every kind of communication they do, it's all about the party, the party, the party. And then when you look at the other leader, you know -- The Captain [Morgan] -- it's about parties too. They want the kids, just when they're done with beer, to jump into their boat. So they're not helping the category, because communication with the consumers is all about the party, the umbrella, and getting away to a beach.

And for us, who are serious about rum, and really find that it's such a noble, wonderful spirit... we have to elevate the category. And I think people are starting to take it seriously. I think the movement toward brown spirits can help, with some of the aged rums. Obviously the conversation around Zacapa is not about the party and the beach. I think that can help. I think us talking about the real craft of making rum, and educating people about making rum, the sustainability side of things, I think all those things can also help elevate. I think from a DonQ perspective, and particularly from a Caliche perspective....

TS: Yeah, with white rum it's really difficult.

RS: Yeah, I think the biggest problem for Caliche is that white rum has always been thought of as ... crappy rum. I think Caliche makes the effort to stretch the category and move it forward and get us to the place where it rightly should be. There's no reason why a vodka is $25, and people are happy to pay it, when I do exactly the same thing and I do ten other things after that, that add more quality, drinkability, smoothness, complexity.... I think eventually we'll get there, you know? I hope it's in my lifetime.

TS: How is Caliche different from Don Q Cristal?

RS: Cristal was a reaction to the gold rum market in Puerto Rico. The rum market in Puerto Rico was dominated by gold rum, overwhelmingly -- 80 or 90 percent. And with the introduction of imported vodkas and stuff, and this concept that brown spirits were not healthy or would give you a headache, or make you hungover or stuff like that, the market started shifting towards white spirits. And our white spirit wasn't clear enough to compete with vodkas head to head. So we developed Cristal as a rum that could stand up to a vodka. So it had to be incredibly crystal-clear. Nobody really makes a rum that clear, unless it's un-aged. Cristal is a very smooth, light and kind of dry rum. It's very mixable.

Really, we make two types of rum. We make light rum, which is five columns distilled, and we make a heavy rum, which is one column distilled only. Not a pot still, but it's similar to a pot still, because it goes through only one column distillation. And that rum has a lot more character, more congeners, but it provides a little more body. So the blend of Cristal has mostly light rum -- it's got some heavy rum, but mostly light rum. That's how you play around with how you make it.

Now, on the Caliche side, what we wanted to do was two things. We wanted to stretch the category forward, so this had to have body, it had to have the characteristics of an aged rum, which it is, but be clear. It had to have plenty of body, just to stand up in traditional cocktails, so it wouldn't be missed if you're putting six ingredients in. So that has a lot more heavy, a lot more aged product. Cristal is 1-3 year old, mostly one, and Caliche is 3-5, with some solera. And that creates a huge difference, because, you know, the tropics heightens the aging process. It has a lot more body to it.

TS: I feel like that's why people don't respect aged rums, because of the heightened aging process. They see a 30 year old whisky, and then they see a 6 year old rum, and the difference in the aging process doesn't register.

RS: When you look at the flavor profile of a straight-up 6 year old rum from a barrel, and you look at a 20 year old single malt or whatever, they're very similar. Really, seriously, in terms of like an aging characteristic, what the wood is imparting on the spirit.

I pulled a 25 year old barrel the other day. It was [laid down] the year I graduated from college. It was pretty good. But it's a heavier rum, it's slightly higher proof. So that can work. But it was pleasant. It was definitely like... if not done properly, it can be over-woody.

TS: Have you toyed with different aging processes?

RS: You know, I want to. I think that's the next sort of thing. But there's so much to do with the traditional thing. You know, we are playing around with doing things like aging, blending and re-aging. I think those things are cool. We have a couple of different formats that we're playing around and doing that with, because you can get some really interesting characteristics that you wouldn't necessarily get simply by simply blending them after they've aged separately. But I think there's something about the aging that we could explore more. And I think we're definitely going to do more of that.

TS: Have you got any brand expansions planned for Caliche or Don Q?

We're turning 150 years old next year, and we're releasing a limited edition beautiful bottle, for the 150th anniversary of the company. We're only making 1,800 bottles, and that's a fun project right now, working on that blend. Because I want it to be, you know, up there in age. I think we might be able to pull off a 20, which would be really, really exciting.

We're working on the Don Q side, maybe expanding it with a spiced rum. Not necessarily like Captain Morgan, full-blown spice, but something different.

And Caliche, we've thought about, maybe we can do a gold as well. But we're gonna see what we can do with this white rum category first.

TS: Did you go into Caliche with a timetable for success?

RS: We are available in many states, but .... We're trying to focus on markets where there's a rum culture, and we can really have a group of people who understand it, and then we can slowly expand it from there. We don't want to do too many national things, we don't want to dilute our efforts and be everywhere at the same time. And so we're focusing on New York, we're focusing on the usual culprits. New York, Miami, Chicago, L.A. Boston, there's a little thing going on there. San Francisco has a nice little mixology scene.

TS: Are there any emerging markets that have surprised you?

RS: For example, we have a nice distributor, and he's pushing us, but South Dakota? Who knows about rum in South Dakota and North Dakota? It has something to do with the natural gas thing, I'm not sure what, but we sold 4,000 cases there. I'm surprised at how much rum is consumed in Minnesota, Wisconsin... they drink a lot of rum. They drink a lot of everything there. Because it's so cold, I think. But when I saw the numbers in the Dakotas, I thought, what's going on there?

TS: When you make two different rums in the same distillery, is it essentially the same base product? Like, are you using the same molasses for Don Q and Caliche?

RS: Yes. We use the same molasses, we use the same types of rum.

I think of us as artists. And we make our "color palette," it starts with these primary colors, which is light rum, heavy rum and medium rum. Then I age them in different proportions and different ways, and then I keep expanding my color palette. And then I'll take them out and maybe I'll re-blend them, and you get some more colors. And at the end of the day, as a blender, what you do is, using all these different colors, you make a particular blend. And when I think of Caliche, it's a completely different painting [from Don Q]. Same artist, but a completely different painting.

Now, there's finishing touches. For example, charcoal filtration. We don't use the same charcoal filtration as any other product, for Caliche. So those little touches, you do differently. Now those blends are totally different, so there's gonna be some tonalities and some details that are gonna be completely different. And that's how we manage to work all these different brands under one umbrella. The real masterpiece is the final blend. And that's what we're all trying to get, this beautiful thing. And you're just sort of using these different ingredients that you built, and you keep using more and more colors in your color palette to just be able to express new things. And that's how we approach rum.

TS: Your rums are distilled five times. What's the difference between five distillations and four, or five and six?

RS: Good question. Why is five the magic number? I think that, if properly designed, with five distillations, you've pretty much taken out all the things you want to take out. So I think our product, I think you reverse-engineer it. You have a profile that you want, and you need X number of steps to get to. And I think that we kind of planned it backwards.... Nobody's ever asked me that question!

TS: Would you ever try [a different number of distillations] to say, hey, let's see what happens?

RS: I wonder... I wonder what would happen. It would just be a different profile, I guess. That's a good question. But we designed it specifically so at the end you can take out just the right amount of elements you want to take out.

TS: Distileria Serralles has been taking steps to become a sustainable distillery. What led you to attempt it and how far along are you?

RS: Rum producers, we have a particular problem, because our raw materials, the ones we use, are already someone else's waste product. Molasses is really what's left over when it's really not economically viable to extract more sugar. So when we're done with it, it's really not toxic, it's all organic, but it's just a lot of organic content. Our beer [the rum before it's distilled] isn't super-efficient. It's generally 8-10% alcohol, max. So the other 90%, you think about the volume that is. It's like, 25 million cases of rum sold in the United States, there's ten times that volume of wastewater that's produced. I mean, that's the scale.

We have a hard time as an industry trying to find a solution to this. One of the original solutions was, you just put it in your sugarcane fields. And some people do that, and it's a very green thing called fertigation -- you're putting back nutrients. You can put some of your waste water into the sugarcane fields. But where you don't -- i.e. small islands in the Caribbean -- then it becomes a problem. And for many years, people were dumping in the ocean. To this day, you can still dump in the ocean, with some EPA regulations.

And for us, the whole thing was, OK, we have a problem -- because we're growing -- and under our local DEQ [Dept. of Environmental Quality] permit, we were putting our waste water in these fields. But the problem was that as we were growing our volumes and growing our volumes, more of this material... it just doesn't percolate well. It's liquid, but it's got a lot of stuff in it.

So we were doing that, and like, OK, there's got to be some solution, some sort of win-win that we can fix that problem and have some benefit. With anaerobic digestion, which is the first thing we do, bacteria eat up the organic content and exhale methane. And the methane, we scrub it and feed it to our boiler. And when everything's working, it can reduce about 50% of our oil consumption. Which is pretty amazing, because [the] biology's very tricky.

The secondary step is just like a municipal wastewater treatment facility, where you bombard it with oxygen. And that's because the anaerobic only reduces it about 60-65%. The second [step], we can bring it all the way down. We start with about 25,000 parts per million of BOD, and we end up with 150. BOD is just a term, and it's a geek-out thing -- "biological oxygen demand." What it's telling you is that this wastewater is competing for oxygen in water. Who is it competing with? Living things, like fish, etc. That's why wastewater in the ocean is really bad, because it depletes all the oxygen. So that's why you have to reduce the BOD.

TS: How does that affect your bottom line?

RS: It costs us more. That aerobic part, even though we save some money on the oil and all that stuff, the aerobic part consumes a lot of electricity, and then we're doing all these other things. So the whole operation not only was a huge investment -- we invested over $20 million over 10 years -- but we feel like we're at a place like, OK, we're fine tuning it, it's not perfect all the time. That's why I'm sometimes hesitant to really make a big deal out of it. We're committed to sustainability, we're committed to being better and better and better, as much as we can, and we're going to have our setbacks, because this is uncharted territory. I couldn't go somewhere and get the book to do it. You had to literally build this Frankenstein from this different technology from all over the place and see what worked.

TS: How far away are you from actually being sustainable?

RS: At the end of the day, what we want to do is have a zero discharge operation, where every output becomes something else's input, and there's no waste. It's a huge task, we're not there, and it's gonna take a long time to get there.... And I really want to be clear about it. We've got a lot to do. I don't want people to say, "Oh, you're claiming you're sustainable, but what about your this or your that." You know what, I'm cool. I sleep well at night. Because I know we're doing what we're supposed to be doing and we'll try, I'll sleep well, and the next day is the next day.