St Nicholas Abbey, the family distillery in Barbados

24 April 2023 | Interviews & Meetings
St Nicholas Abbey, the family distillery in Barbados

St Nicholas Abbey, the family distillery in Barbados

Meeting with Dimitri Perez, president of Apothéka

Hello and thank you for granting us an interview. St Nicholas Abbey is both the most discreet and one of the oldest distilleries on the island. Can you tell us a bit about its history and its specificity within Barbados?

Hello Matthieu and thank you for your interest in the Estate of St Nicholas Abbey (SNA). It is a great pleasure for ApΩtheka to talk to you about it because as we indicate in the introduction of the presentation of this one on our catalog, SNA is a hymn, an ode to the criteria of APΩTHEKA for the selection of its nectars …

350 years of history

Located on the island of Barbados, the immense property of 162 hectares created in 1658, brings together history, architecture, nature, know-how and exclusive luxury carried by the family of the prestigious architect Larry Warren (Architect of the famous palace One Sandy Lane ). It was in 2006 that Larry Warren and his family bought this 350-year-old estate. Because St Nicholas Abbey is first of all one of the last 3 residences in the western hemisphere of Renaissance style (Jacobean architecture), a jewel of Flemish, Dutch and French influences. The estate includes a mahogany forest on "Cherry tree Hill", a viewpoint at an altitude of 260m dominating the east coast of the island, a railway and its 1914 steam locomotive and of course 85 hectares dedicated to cultivation of sugarcane, 25 of which are in operation, for the needs of current production. The old windmill (1720) no longer operates but the cane continues to be crushed by a steam engine from 1890 to harvest the first juice.

It is difficult to sum up the property's 350-year history, but it began producing rum from 1750 when it was owned by the famous Sir John Gay Alleyne, who later gave his name to the "Mount-Gay”. He will develop the original recipe for St Nicholas Abbey distillates. The plantation mill produced sugar and molasses in its early years, with production later switching to syrup. These products, as well as distilled rum, were exported to Europe and America. At the height of production, SNA was considered one of the most successful plantations in the Caribbean…

Among the other distilleries of Barbados

To return to a more contemporary period, we are accustomed to describing SNA as the property that links the various distilleries on the island, the former Mount-Gilboa, renamed Mount-gay in posthumous honor of Sir John Gay Alleyne and Foursquare. Indeed, when the Warrens took over the estate in 2006, it was to Richard Seale that they turned to help them create a selection of rums to be aged in Single Cask at the estate (today sold under the oldest SNA expressions 18, 23 and soon 20 and 25 years of age). With a personal interest in rums distilled from sugarcane using traditional methods, Mr. Seale helped the plantation recreate an original recipe, that of cane syrup rums. It is certainly this link that explains today why the 3 properties have embarked on a common process of creation and recognition of the designation of origin “Rum from Barbados”. To be continued…

Panoramic View of the property St Nicholas Abbey

St Nicholas Abbey produces rum from cane syrup. What is the process of making this syrup?

The original recipe based on cane syrup is today the particularity of SNA rums. Indeed, the old steam press of 1890 allows only very low yields. It only presses the cane once without seeking to maximize the yield of obtaining pressed cane juice. So here we get a very sweet juice, very concentrated. In a few minutes, the juice is sent to the vacuum evaporator which reduces it to syrup. This can then be stored for future rehydration during fermentation to ensure optimal freshness and quality.

A last care before fermentation will be applied, which will consist of rehydrating this syrup with water drawn from the tablecloths of the estate (the purity of the water of Barbados is very recognized thanks to the natural filtration of its limestone subsoil coral), water which will still be reverse osmosis, purer water, odorless, free of any aftertaste as well as various undesirable and polluting substances. It is obtained naturally, without any chemicals, thanks to the reverse osmosis process. The care given to each of these steps is the key to one of the parameters of the organoleptic identity (DNA) of SNA rums.

L'alambic "Annabelle"

What type of still is used and to what degree is the rum distilled?

After the fermentation of the syrup, it is actually distilled in a small "pot-still" entirely in copper of 600L made from German manufacture (Holstein) named "Annabelle". Designed specifically to reach the profile of the desired rums, it distills in batches and has an "onion shape" for the concentration of aromas, and a small rectification column with 2 collection basins for the "heads" and "tails" which can be reintegrated at the discretion of the distiller on the following batches. The eaux-de-vie come out at around 71% alc.vol (around 60L AP/600L of syrup).

St Nicholas Abbey is a rum that is firmly positioned on the high-end market. Can you tell us about the care taken not only in the distillation but also in the bottle, each copy of which is unique?

Slightly reduced with the same reverse osmosis water described above, the eaux-de-vie are then taken either to the cellars for rums intended for ageing, or stored before bottling for white rums. Aging at SNA is also special for several reasons. First, the estate is the only one facing the east coast (ocean) as opposed to the distilleries located on the Caribbean coast, located on the highlands, the plantation benefits from the refreshing trade winds which promote the maturation of the rum. The choice was made to bottle only "single cask" rums, without blending, on the basis of aging in ex-bourbon, ex-Foursquare barrels. Old barrels therefore, largely oxidized and only bringing in the medium and long term patinated wood tannins. Old rums start at 5 years old, then 8 and 12 years for the oldest rums today produced entirely at the estate. The 18, 20, 23 and 25 year olds all aged in the SNA cellars but were purchased from 2006 at Foursquare.

A neat bottling

Bottling at SNA is an art in itself since each bottle is indeed unique. The heads of the corks are cut from the Mahogany trees of the estate on "Cherry tree hill", they are topped with a round of leather stamped with the SNA seal, cut and placed by hand. All labeling is applied by hand and each carafe is engraved by Mrs. Anna Warren with the bottling date, cask number and carafe number. If the estate produces 10,000 bottles per year (which is very little).

An exclusivity

France is one of the only two countries in the world (with England) to be authorized to import SNA rums on the basis of a few thousand bottles of all ages. We made two choices specific to our house: not to import the white and to concentrate on rums at 40% alc.vol. These are rums which logically are expensive, rare, precise and precious and we did not wish to add the excise costs on 60% alc.vol.

St Nicholas Abbey Range

How could one characterize, from a taste point of view, the St Nicholas Abbey range?

It's quite easy to describe them as they are so different from all the rums I have discovered. They are light, fine, elegant, refined. The producer describes them as “pur & clean”. I believe that he is referring to eaux-de-vie with a very refined style. Obviously in a very Anglo-Saxon style, we first have at the opening a varnished side which then accompanies the aromas conferred by the woodiness of the old barrels. It gives it an elegant note of vanilla which over the years also brings a breathtaking "cherry" side. Vanilla merges with fresh butter softened by cocoa notes. Melting in the mouth, the oily texture and length offer sensations of earth, old wood, cocoa and butter.

Which cuvée should you start with to discover the Maison St Nicholas Abbey? What is its aromatic profile?

The framework of the 5 year old is found in the 8 year old but we increase in intensity and delicacy and even more on the more punchy 12 year old... These are wonders for delicate palates, nothing is heavy with too intense wood. Everything is delicate. So you have to start with the 5-year-old, then go up the towers.

View from the distillery. Photo taken during our trip to Barbados in 2019.

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Interview by

Matthieu Lange
Conseiller en spiritueux