A new dawn for Ron del Barrilito
Six employees flutter and dart between the chambers that jealously guard the precious historical recipe that, in spite of becoming one of the first rums in the premium market, never abandoned its handcrafted production. The employees clear the way for the barrels that will be arriving at noon from Spain, once used to age sherry. At the other side of Hacienda Santa Ana, at least a dozen workers are toiling away to erect the Ron del Barrilito visitor center, which is expected to open to the public later in 2018.
'We are fulfilling the legend started by the Fernández family: we're producing the five-star rum. Almost 80% of the production has already been reserved,' gushed Jose Colón, current CEO of Hacienda Santa Ana, LLC.
The introduction of this product last month marks the beginning of an era of production growth for the oldest rum in the island as it reaffirms the supreme quality of Puerto Rican rum. In 2017, the reins of Ron del Barrilito were taken over by a group of investors led by Colón and industry executive Joaquín Bacardí III.
Four generations of the Fernández family protected the rum's formula and production processes under Edmundo B. Fernandez, Inc. Up until last year, brothers Manuel and Fernando were at the helm of this enterprise, and now the new management has made a commitment to preserve the handcrafted quality of its rum, which was registered in 1880.
The family didn't break off all ties with the company after the handover: Mónica Fernández (Manuel's daughter) and her cousin continue working every day at the hacienda where Barrilito has always been made.
'Working at other companies, I noticed everything was done at a quick, sales-driven pace. Here, this is a family enterprise, where we focus on making a quality product. Our priority has always been rather our quality and product, instead of being a business with accelerated goals and revenues,' Mónica explained.
In 1797, the Spanish Crown granted Fernando Fernández the title of Hacienda Santa Ana, and his son Pedro --upon returning from France in 1871, where he learned to distill cognac-- created the now-famous rum for private consumption among family and friends. It used to be served straight from a small barrel, hence its name (Barrilito, meaning 'small barrel'), well known among rum enthusiasts.
'We're a big family, but not all the siblings were involved. Only my dad, Uncle Fernando, and my aunt kept working every day at the company. In fact, my dad was a civil and chemical engineer. He had an engineering practice his entire life, and he used to spend his time between his office and the factory up until about seven years ago. His partner decided to move, they closed their practice, and he ended up coming here full-time,' he revealed.
Facing the company's new reality, Mónica recalled when she was more heavily involved with the family business at the start, and 'every time a tourist walked in, we had to stop whatever we were doing to show him around. We saw the potential to develop something rather more structured to receive tourists,' but they didn't have enough personnel.
Manuel Fernández's daughter does not remember if there were any approaches from governmental or private entities to develop the touristic aspect, but she is certain that 'this was a private family company, and they didn't want anyone else to step in and tell them how to do things. It was for family pride that the product was kept as unchanged as possible, not because outsiders told us what to do.'
Colón added that, aside from opening a visitor center, the company also seeks to increase its presence outside Puerto Rico and invest in more inventory, facilities, and personnel.
The lawyer and entrepreneur reminisced that, 'I grew up with the third Fernández generation. I approached other investors to take Barrilito to the next level. The family agreed to enter the transaction.' But not without making a commitment to the family to take the product 'above and beyond'. He acknowledges that 'you're taking part of their lives, but it was rather the trust they developed in us,' that made the pass of the baton possible.
Meanwhile, Barrilito will not change its particular color, which is the result of the maceration process in the barrel, without adding caramel like other rums do. They will continue using their original label, as well as filtered rainwater to prepare their iconic product, which takes at least three years to reach the bottle.
'There are many excellent international rums that enjoy the consumer's constancy and favor,' but Ron del Barrilito 'is not a mass-produced rum. It is handcrafted, so you shouldn't expect high-volume production, but dedication and consistency. We don't want to maximize the amount of rum in a barrel. I'd rather it age gently, no matter how long it takes,' stated Luis Planas, the wizard who created the five-star product. For many, the wait will always be worth it.