It was once the powerhouse of South America, but over the last 20 years Venezuela has been subject to unrelenting economic and political crises. We discovered how its oldest rum distillery, Santa Teresa, became an engine of transformation for a country in chaos…
Venezuela is beleaguered and broken. The government has racked up gargantuan debts that it cannot afford to pay. The value of the country’s main commodity, oil, has nosedived. A national poll revealed that food shortages are so severe, the average Venezuelan living in extreme poverty lost 19 pounds in weight during 2016. Those who can afford to leave are fleeing in their millions.
But in the midst of the crime, the corruption, and the humanitarian crises, there are glimmers of change, led by trailblazers like Santa Teresa. Since we couldn’t visit the Hacienda in person, the Hacienda came to us – well, to a beautiful house in the centre of Madrid – where Luis Viera Landaluce, Santa Teresa’s regional marketing manager, transported us through the estate’s 221-year history…
Santa Teresa Rum: The history
Located in El Consejo within the fertile valley of Aragua, Hacienda Santa Teresa started life as a sugar cane plantation when it was founded back in 1796. For context, says Viera Landaluce, the country’s fight for independence started in 1811, which essentially means that Santa Teresa as an estate is older than Venezuela as a country. Its location – a key route in and in out of the capital city of Caracas – has meant that the Hacienda has been a key participant in some of the country’s milestones.
Venezuela was the driving force behind Latin America’s independence revolution, and the first of the South American Republics to officially break away from Spain. The movement was led by Simón Bolívar, also known as El Libertador (The Liberator), who was key to the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama as sovereign states. He also had relatives who lived in Aragua valley named the Ribas family, one of whom – Jose Felix Ribas – was an important military figure.
The family were targeted by the Spanish monarchy, and 35 members were murdered, with just one survivor: Panchita Ribas y Palacios, who was taken hostage by Spanish soldiers. She was later rescued by a former slave of the Ribas family – former, because Bolívar ratified the abolition of slavery in Venezuela at the Hacienda Santa Teresa in 1818 – and raised in safety.
By around 1826 peace prevailed, and Venezuela transformed into a land of opportunity, attracting immigrants from across the globe. One such settler was Gustav Julius Vollmer from Hamburg, whose family owned a shipping company. “As well as opportunity, he also found love in the arms of Panchita,” says Viera Landaluce.
Sugarcane harvests ceased during the war, so the couple worked with other families to reinstate the historic crop, and began producing aguardiente for locals. Panchita and Gustav became the first of five generations of the Vollmer family, who still own the Santa Teresa Hacienda to this day.
In around 1885 the family began producing rum at a commercial level and registered the Santa Teresa brand in 1909 – making it the very first Venezuelan rum trademark and the third trademark in the country overall. In the decades that followed, Santa Teresa Rum became somewhat of a national treasure; synonymous with the drinking culture of the country.
While the country has seen “peaks and valleys, figuratively speaking”, observes Viera Landaluce, the last few decades have been particularly taxing. When fifth generation family member Alberto Vollmer took the reins in 1997, it became his mission to guide the company through these turbulent times.
Santa Teresa Rum: Project Alkatraz
Two years later, in 1999, Venezuelan politician Hugo Chávez was elected as president, dubbing his socialist economic policies the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. The years of political mismanagement that predated his presidency set him up as a hero of the people. “People were fed up,” says Viera Landaluce. “They really thought that his revolution was going to make the country move forward. He encouraged the poor to take what the rich had to spare.”
While Venezuela “was no paradise before Chávez”, his “political and economical frame of mind led other issues to arise”. Crime surged, and household goods became scarce. There were huge shortages of construction materials, which in turn led to huge shortages of housing.
Tensions grew and formed a pinnacle moment in Santa Teresa’s history in the early 2000s. The Hacienda was invaded by hundreds of families, who set up camp within its grounds. Vollmer met the head of the squatters and told him: ‘If you invade my lands, I will invade your brain’.
“He meant that he would invade him with concepts and ideas and values,” explains Viera Landaluce. “If the squatters were left, the Hacienda would’ve become a rotten shanty town like many that we have throughout South America.” As negotiations got underway, Vollmer recognised the legitimate need for housing. It was agreed that the squatters could stay in return for labour, and the government would provide infrastructure and financing.
“This was a strong wake-up call that the country had changed, that the revolution had arrived, and that Santa Teresa could not remain an island in the middle of the ocean,” Viera Landaluce continues. “If you want to earn the right to be there another 200 years you have to earn it, you cannot take it for granted. And the way to earn that right is by not turning your back on the community.”
This would be a valuable lesson to learn, and in 2003 Santa Teresa would put it into practice again. Three gang members broke into the Hacienda, violently beating a security guard to steal his gun. A chase ensued and one of the culprits, 20-year-old Derjuis Rebolledo, known as Cara de Leon (Lion Face) was caught. He was taken to Aragua police, who began to drive him out of town. They have been known to execute criminals.
A negotiation process began with the police, and Rebolledo was brought back to the Hacienda, where Vollmer offered him two options: to return the gun and complete three month’s unpaid work for Santa Teresa with food and shelter, or to be handed over to the police once more. Rebolledo asked whether he could complete the term with his mates, to which Vollmer agrees. One week later, he returned with 22 gang members. This was the beginning of Project Alcatraz.
“These guys were rejected by society and by offering them this deal, by giving them an opportunity, we proved that trust generates more trust,” says Viera Landaluce. “We unarmed a very dangerous gang by giving them the opportunity to come and work for three months, and they took it.
“But of course, working was just not enough. We started incorporating psychological treatment and academic education – some of these boys never finished primary school. What really made the difference was an education in human values. Basic things like respect, discipline, teamwork, and more difficult things like resilience, and the ability to fall, get up and carry on. Those values formed the cornerstone of Project Alcatraz.”
The Hacienda also introduced rugby to the programme, largely because of the values it promotes, but also because the sport was almost unheard of in Venezuela – so each gang member would have the same starting point. “None of them had seen a rugby ball before,” explains Viera Landaluce. “This helps to break up the hierarchy in the gang.”
As the three month period drew to a close, gang leader José Gregorio Arrieta (known as El Gordo) told Vollmer that the gang was planning on returning to the streets. A rival gang would come after them as soon as they leave, and since the Hacienda now affiliated with Gregorio Arrieta and his cronies, Vollmer would also be at risk. Santa Teresa reach out to the rival gang with the same deal, and they accepted the offer. Eight other gangs have since participated in the programme; around 200 gang members in total.
In 2003, before Project Alcatraz began, the official murder rate in El Conseco was 114 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Viera Landaluce tells me. By 2013, that rate was reduced to 12 per 100,000, which means a 90% reduction in violent-related death. El Gordo is now the head rugby coach at the Hacienda, where he oversees seven other coaches. Darwin Ospino, a former gang member known as Patapiche (Smelly Feet), is the head of security for Vollmer’s family and takes care of his wife and daughters.
“We believe the enterprise has to be an engine of transformation in the community and we want the Santa Teresa brand to become a source of inspiration for others,” says Viera Landaluce. “Rum and rugby don’t seem to have much in common but there are so many values that we share that we just cannot think of one without the other: Humility, discipline, teamwork, and resilience.”
Santa Teresa Rum: The liquid
While Santa Teresa is beloved to Venezuelans, the rum has, for the most part, remained relatively untapped elsewhere. In December 2016 the brand penned a distribution deal with Bacardi Limited, making it the global importer for the brand outside of Venezuela. While the drive for premiumisation has gained traction in recent years, the super-premium market is relatively small, with just a handful of distilleries producing truly high-end expressions. Santa Teresa 1796, launched in 1996 to mark the 200-year anniversary of the estate, is one of them.
So, what sets it apart? To set the scene: the sugarcane is taken to the sugar mills for grinding. Juice is extracted from the cane, leaving a byproduct – molasses. Yeast is added to the molasses, turning the sugar to alcohol in a process called continuous fermentation, which takes between 12 and 16 hours. The remaining ‘must’, which has an alcohol content of around 8% abv, is then distilled.
There are two types of distillation at Santa Teresa: Continuous Column distillation and Pot Still distillation. From the former, two different cuts of alcohol are taken: a lighter, clearer spirit with an abv of 95% from the fourth column, and a stickier, oilier spirit with an abv of 75% from the first column. The latter is “deep and fruity”, and is described as the “house signature” of Santa Teresa. These two ingredients form the base of every rum the distillery makes.
To create Santa Teresa 1796, some of the original must is fermented for longer, and then distilled in the Pot Still – resulting in an “even deeper and heavier and more profound” spirit that has an abv of around 83%. Each individual rum style is aged separately in former American whiskey barrels made from American oak, and there are around 100,000 of these ageing at any given time. In Venezuela, the Angel’s Share is around 10% in the first year. By the second year, one-fifth of the barrel is gone.
According to the Ron de Venezuela Denominación de Origen (DOC), the alcohol must be rested in wood for at least two years – the longest rum ageing requirement in the world, according to Viera Landaluce. Among other rules, the rum must be a minimum of 40% abv, made with molasses from Venezuela, and cannot be made with alcohol sourced from other markets. Producers may add colourings and sweeteners, so long as they’re derived from sugarcane.
In the case of 1796, the barrels containing light, heavy and pot still rum are left to rest for between four and 35 years. When they’re ready, they’re combined in a blending tank, and aged further using the rather complex Solera method. Four levels of ex-Scotch whisky American oak barrels are stacked vertically, with a maturation vat linked to the one at the bottom. When the vat is half empty, it will be topped up by barrel four, which sits directly above it. A portion of barrel three will then be decanted into barrel four, and so on, until the barrel at the top is half empty. This is refilled with rum from the blending tank.
Since the Solera cellar was first filled in 1992, only half of the bottom vat has ever been emptied for bottling at any one time, to preserve the ‘mother rum’: the original rum in the system. There are 12 such vats in total, each with a capacity of 18,000 litres. The process is a “taste and cascade” operation, Viera Landaluce says. As such, there’s no stopwatch on it – “it’s ready when the master blender says so”.
Much like Scotch whisky, to declare an age statement Venezuelan rum brands must reference the youngest liquid in the bottle. Since this number would be wildly inaccurate due to the nature of the Solera method, 1976 is presented without.
“For us, it’s not so much about how old it is, but how well we blend it,” says Viera Landaluce. “Obviously age is an important factor, but what really makes the rum quality is the balance.” A sentiment that applies not only to the liquid but the entire Santa Teresa estate.