La Hechicera makes some of the best Spanish-style rum out there with nothing added: no sugar, no flavourings, no nothing. We caught up with managing director Miguel Riascos for a few drinks.
La Hechicera as a brand is a recent creation; it was launched in London in 2012. However, the Riascos family’s involvement in the rum business goes back to 1994. They learned how to make rum in Cuba, Miguel Riascos explained: “After deciding to leave the banana business due to instability and insecurity in Colombia at the time (early ‘90s), my father, Miguel Riascos Noguera, decided to travel to Cuba in search of new business opportunities and alternatives to agriculture, which at the time carried an inherent risk. In Cuba, my father quickly fell in love with the promise of rum and sought a deal with the Cuban Ministry of Sugar with the purpose of establishing a rum factory in Barranquilla with the Cuban establishment’s technical support. As part of this arrangement, several qualified chemical engineers and master blenders were sent from Cuba to Colombia”, including master blender Giraldo Mituoka Kagana who is still with the company.
Barranquilla, a city on the Caribbean coast, near Cartagena, was the perfect place to do this because it had been designated a Free Zone. In the rest of the country alcohol above 20% ABV was a state monopoly. Unlike in Venezuela, there were no private brands, which is perhaps why Colombian rum doesn’t have the same reputation as its neighbour. The family bought in Colombian cane spirit and aged it in ex-bourbon barrels to their own exacting standards meaning no sugar or other additives. The rum would then be sold on to be blended into Colombian or generic Caribbean rums. Which seems a shame.
So, the decision was taken to bottle some of their own. The result was La Hechicera, the name means Enchantress in Spanish, a reference to the magical fecundity and diversity of Colombia. Riascos said: “Colombia has more species of flora and fauna than any other country in the world.” Appropriately, I was meeting with Riascos in the jungle-inspired splendour of Amazonico in Mayfair.
The project goes back to when the family got into the rum business , Riascos said: “When we initially created La Hechicera, it was by far the oldest rum that our family had aged. This is the epitome of everything we want to produce”. He went on to tell me a little about the rum: “The idea was to bottle something absolutely pure. It’s a typical Hispanic-style rum in that it is molasses-fermented, column-distilled and aged in ex-Jack Daniel’s American white oak for a minimum of 12 years.” The oldest component is 21 years old. The rum comes off the column at between 88 and 96% ABV so, according to Riascos, “it’s light in its congenic make-up, and yet it’s very characterful in its woodiness. It’s spent so long in the barrel. That is quite simply the way we like to make our rum and I do feel this almost epitomises our rum making style in Barranquilla.” Though at the moment they buy in the spirit, the family has plans to build their own distillery in the near future though will continue to buy in spirit even when it’s up and running as they like the diversity of flavours, according to Riascos.
Colombia, once a byword for a failed state, is now one of Latin America’s success stories. I asked Riascos if the country was more stable now and he replied with obvious pride: “It’s firmly stable, today it’s one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America. It’s the third largest already after Mexico and Brazil. It’s got an unbelievably diversified economy which is obviously a source of growth and future growth for sure.”
Nevertheless, he’s surprised by how his home country has taken to La Hechicera, it’s now the biggest market. “Colombians generally are not big consumers of Colombian products,” he said. In the past sophisticated drinkers went for Scotch brands, especially Grand Old Parr which is a cult drink in the country. Now though, people are taking pride in home-grown products: “Today La Hechicera is almost synonymous with Colombia”, Riascos said.
The family expected La Hechicera to be an export-led product so they launched it in London in 2012. “ In the UK and in London specifically you do have all the expert bartenders, the awards, the publications, and the master blenders, so it’s a great platform to position the brands in the on-trade,” Riascos said. “We are constantly working with bartenders. A classic cocktail is always a great anchor to create a new idea.” Over our interview, we tried two takes on the Old Fashioned: firstly the so-called Gold Fashioned, made with a gold-coated (yes real gold!) cube of panela (unrefined cane sugar). Then the Banana Republic, made with banana liqueur, bitters and a piece of dehydrated banana. It’s a nod to the family’s involvement in the banana business. “What we try to do with our cocktails is to tell the story about Colombia, about provenance, about who we are, “ Riascos said.
Michael Fink from Amazanico had also been hard at work coming up with cocktails (yes, it was quite a boozy interview.) First off an Old Fashioned made with Antica Formula vermouth and strawberry and tobacco bitters which really brought out the chocolate in the rum. This was followed by a sort of Daiquiri meets Sidecar cocktail with lime juice, sugar, Italian vermouth and Cointreau. It worked so well because like the best Spanish-style rums, there’s more than a little of Cognac about La Hechicera. It’s a beautifully-poised rum, perfumed and wine-like with intense notes of nuts and vanilla; the long ageing in no way overpowers the spirit. And all the time with that purity, there’s none of the sugar that you get in some Venezualan rums.
The company currently produces around 20,000 cases a year with plans to raise that to 100,000 in three years. It currently holds around 12,000 casks of rum so there’s plenty in stock. It’s been such a success, that the family has just released a new version called Serie Experimental #1 which is finished in casks that held Spanish Muscat for around 13 years so the oak was heavily impregnated with wine. They had 16 casks yielding 7200 bottles. Riascos said, “it shares the same DNA, but it’s got that added body from that finish.” The Muscat adds sweetness (perceived sweetness that is, not actual sugar) and brings out the rum’s floral side with some added dried fruit and tobacco notes. It’s a great sipping rum, as is the standard bottling.
You’ll notice that it’s called Serie Experimental #1, so expect others to follow. “We’re currently working on dos, tres and cuatro,” said Riascos. “And we’ll see if one of those hits the market later this year. We’ve been working with wines from Napa Valley. We’ve been working with Canadian rye whisky. We’ve been working with different natural fruits and infusions, things that tell the story of Colombia as the most biodiverse country in the world. We are working together with Colombia’s largest independent brewery to kind of do a barrel exchange. So they’re working with our barrels for their beer and they’re sending them back with a few added notes and then we’re ageing our rum in there to see if that works. I’m very sceptical about it, but if it works it will be very, very good.” We think it will too.