Nestled at the base of the tallest and most active volcano in Nicaragua lies rum distiller Flor de Caña, a fifth-generation family business whose 130-year history is peppered with political, personal, and environmental crises. Today, the FairTrade-certified operation is a force for change that utilises 100% renewable energy to create a sustainable rum range in every sense of the word. We spoke to global brand ambassador Mauricio Solórzano…
Having weathered a civil war, a revolution, hyperinflation, distillery fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – the distillery is located along the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’, which has the most volcanic activity in the world – Flor de Caña has experienced more than its fair share of strife. And yet, despite all the odds, it has remained in family hands for five generations (for context, only three in every 10,000 family-owned businesses make it that far).
The brand’s story begins 1890. The distillery’s location – at the foot of the San Cristóbal volcano – was decided by founder Alfredo Francisco Pellas. The Italian entrepreneur left his hometown of Genoa in 1875 to construct the Grand Interoceanic Canal, a proposed shipping route through Nicaragua to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The project never came to fruition, but Pellas remained in the country and bought a sugar mill in Chichigalpa, where the distillery remains to this day.
Originally, Flor de Caña was made in limited quantities for friends and family but in 1937 the business became Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua in 1937, and the brand was commercialised for the Nicaraguan market. Safe to say, it hasn’t been an easy ride. “As a brand and as a country, it’s been very hard to get to where we are now,” says global brand ambassador Mauricio Solórzano. “Nicaragua through history has been through natural disasters, civil war, hyperinflation. Right now we just are getting out of two monster hurricanes. We’ve been through a lot.”
One of the most striking events in Flor de Caña’s history is a devastating plane crash involving fourth generation family member Carlos Pellas and his wife Vivian. “Miraculously, they survived,” says Solórzano. “But when Mr Pellas went to rescue his wife from the plane, it exploded.” The couple suffered burns that covered 80 percent of their bodies. The accident, which killed 148 people, is considered the greatest air disaster to occur in Central America. In 1991, Vivian set up an NGO, Aproquen, to provide child burn victims in Nicaragua with free medical services.
Flor de Caña: the rum
While historic distillers are sometimes slow to embrace and prioritise sustainability, the same can’t be said for Flor de Caña, which has planted 50,000 trees annually across Nicaragua since 2005. Distilled with 100% renewable energy, its rum is the only spirit in the world to be both certified FairTrade and carbon-neutral, meaning all carbon emissions during its entire life cycle, from field to market, are offset. The liquid is also gluten free and certified kosher.
Its sugarcane fields – all 35,000 acres of them – are located five miles from the active San Cristóbal volcano, which has erupted some 30 times since the 16th century. Both the soil and water are enriched by minerals and organic material from the volcano, lending a “volcanic character that is very different from other producers of rum,” says Solórzano, while the unique microclimate in this region means wood interaction ageing process is “more intense and more dynamic”.
The distillery follows a sustainable model throughout production. Excess material from the sugarcane harvest is used to power a turbine that powers the entire facility. When the molasses from the sugarcane is fermented with Flor de Caña’s own yeast cultivar, the CO2 emissions that are naturally released during this process are captured, repurposed, and sold to the brewery industry in Central America.
The wort is distilled five times in stainless steel columns and the distillate aged in charred ex-bourbon barrels “from four to 30 years,” says Solórzano. The rum is free from added sugar and additives. “If you put a little bit of Flor de Caña into the palm of your hand and you rub your hands together, you won’t have a sticky sensation at all. That’s because we don’t add any caramel or anything artificial.”
Fascinatingly, Flor de Caña is home to the most bountiful reserve of aged alcohol in the region. In the 1980s, foreign trade was nationalised by the socialist Sandinista government. Rather than turn over their stocks for a meagre profit, they decided to age them in neighbouring Honduras, “which is very close to our facility, because we are located on the north side of the country,” says Solórzano. “When the government changed a few years later, we brought back those reserves of alcohol.” By the early nineties, Flor de Caña had the largest reserve of aged rum in the world.
As well as stock, sustainability of people is also key to Flor de Caña’s operation. The company has provided free schooling for the children of all employees since 1913 – including the current maestro ronero, Tomás Cano, a third generation distiller who went to primary school, secondary school and university through that model – and free healthcare services for employee’s families since 1958. “I like to say that we grow with our people,” says Solórzano. “They’re our biggest asset.”
For a distiller that has already endured so much, 2020 has not been without its own unique challenges; the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, plus the brutality of Hurricane Iota and Storm Eta. But Solórzano remains unrelentingly positive. “These things give us the strength to build our character for the future,” he says. Make no mistake: for Flor de Caña, the only way is up.
Nose: Toffee apple and buttercream, with notes of vanilla pods and honey. A second whiff reveals crisp, tart citrus.
Palate: A huge hit of dark brown sugar and cocoa evolves into caramel, brandy and plums on the mid-palate.
Finish: There’s spicy oak and a touch of dryness, followed by long, lingering stewed fruit notes.
The Flor de Caña range is available from Master of Malt.