Legendary Trinidad-based rum distillery Caroni closed its doors in 2003. Since then, the distillery’s distinctive, heavy rums have become some of the most collected.
It’s thought the distillery was established in 1918, however some sources suggest it was in operation as early as 1899. The distillery takes its name from the Caroni Plain, where it is located – a region that was home to the island’s main sugar plantations. Given its location, Caroni benefited from its own sugar refinery and therefore a steady, direct supply of local molasses.
At one point, the operation had over 9,000 workers, however its fate was tied to that of the island’s sugar industry. Caroni was bought by Tate & Lyle in 1936, who sold a controlling share to the government in 1970, before the distillery was fully nationalised in 1975. The state negotiated a sale of a 49% share to Angostura (famed for its bitters), however after a dispute over stock, the deal fell through. Having been government-subsidised for several years, the local sugar industry finally collapsed and, in 2002, the sugar factory shut its doors. Without a source for molasses, the Caroni distillery closed several months later, in 2003. While there were once more than 50 distilleries on Trinidad, today only Angostura remains.
Originally Caroni had a cast iron pot still, however it acquired a wooden Coffey still in 1936 and then a single column still when it absorbed the Esperanza and Bronte Estates, in 1955. The column still produced particularly high ester rums, and is responsible for the Caroni style as it is known today. The pot and Coffey still were replaced in the 1980s.
Prior to the distillery’s closure, the rums were mainly sold for blending – rarely appearing under the Caroni label. The distinctive style of these rare bottlings, however, earned Caroni a reputation amongst the most dedicated rum afficionados. The rums produced were heavy, complex, dry, oily and high in alcohol – often used for British Navy blends.
Caroni’s tale could have ended in 2003 – if it weren’t for Italian importer and distributor Luca Gargano. Visiting the island in 2004 to research a book on rum, he happened upon the closed distillery (which he had believed to still be running). The initial disappointment of facing the distillery’s shuttered doors was offset, however, when he discovered a bonded warehouse containing hundreds of barrels, the oldest of which were from the 1970s. Gargano’s company Velier purchased the stocks in their entirety over the next few years.
The first Velier Caroni bottlings were released in 2005 (a selection from the 1980s), the same year that the distillery was demolished, sealing its fate. Since then, “Caronimania” has taken hold, with these remarkable spirits some of the most sought-after. Just two or three bottlings are released each year, the remaining stocks drip-fed onto the market in batches of just several hundred bottles.