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Caroni Rum Mania: How Forgotten Barrels in Trinidad Transformed Into A Cult Rum Phenomenon

Distillery Spotlight: Caroni Distillery 

Region: Caroni Plains, Trinidad, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles breaks down how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their spirit. Click here to uncover the stories behind more of your favourite brands and distilleries. 

When Luca purchased these thousands of barrels of rum, Caroni wasn’t a widely-known brand… But Velier’s involvement set in motion a remarkable transformation that would see Caroni elevated from a forgotten distillery to a cult icon.

(Source: Whisky Show)

An Unexpected Discovery: Luca Gargano's 2004 Visit to Caroni

The year was 2004, and Luca Gargano, an enterprising Italian importer found himself on a dusty road, ensconced within the verdant expanse of Trinidad's landscape. Accompanied by the seasoned lens of photographer Fredi Marcarini, Gargano was on a quest for something special: a hidden gem in the vast Caribbean world of rum. Their journey led them to the gates of what they believed was the operational Caroni Distillery. The reality, however, was quite different.

 

Caroni Distillery’s rusty road sign (Source: La Maison & Velier)

 

Luca and Fredi found themselves stepping into the eerily silent Caroni Distillery, which they expected to be abuzz with the sounds of cane-crushing and distilling. Unbeknownst to them, Caroni Distillery had been closed for a year. Its tall, imposing column stills lay dormant, no longer churning distillate. It was a poignant tableau, one of an industrial titan laid to rest. But the story of Caroni was far from over. In fact, with Luca, it was really just about to begin.

 

“In the courtyard of the abandoned Caroni Distillery that has been closed since the year 2000, there are some vehicles that once belonged to the firm, and that now belong to Nature.” (Description and photographs by Fredi Marcarini)

 

Under the intense Caribbean sun, the men found themselves inside one of Caroni's unassuming, weather-beaten warehouses. Luca's heart must have skipped a beat as his gaze fell upon a scene that was both unexpected and breath-taking: barrels. Thousands of them, carefully stacked, some adorned with a patina of dust and years of benign neglect. These barrels have been maturing in the tropical heat since Caroni's operational days.

It was like stumbling upon an oenologist's dream, a liquid time capsule preserving decades of the distillery's legacy. These barrels held Caroni's well-aged stock, products of the distillery's unique craft, hinting at untold flavour profiles and the soul of an establishment that had once been a cornerstone of Trinidad's rum industry.

 

(Source: La Maison & Velier)

 

Luca recognized the potential in this seeming desolation. He saw beyond the closure, the dust, and the seeming end of an era. What lay before him was an opportunity, an untouched treasure trove that could just redefine the way connoisseurs and enthusiasts perceived and appreciated rum. He resolved to purchase this stock and hopefully reinvigorate the legacy of Caroni.

His Caroni adventure had only just begun. And little did he know, he would be responsible for igniting the biggest cult brand in the world of rum. This would go far beyond all the attention that the distillery had ever experienced when it was alive.

What is Caronimania? 

The Caroni 1996, 22 Years Old, 15th Anniversary Bar Lamp Ginza & Shinanoya, Velier (Read our contributor's review!)

 

Caroni's thick, deep, oily, tropical profile with toffees, treacle and even a hint of tar or fusel oil was the epitome of "heavy" rums. And as Luca Gargano pulled back the curtains to reveal Caroni's remarkable story, this spirit captured the hearts of rum enthusiasts worldwide.

Today, Caroni’s rum constantly fetch the highest prices at auctions, paralleling the bidding frenzies typically reserved for the legendary Port Ellen in the world of whisky. The increasing demand for Caroni at auctions painted a clear picture: The rum world is drunk on Caronimania. Despite the distillery's closure more than two decades ago, its rums have continued to appreciate both in value and in esteem.

But what exactly is this Caroni that seems to bewitch all rum lovers? Let’s have a closer look. 

 

And old Caroni ad (Credits: The Cocktail Wonk)

How Caroni Gets Its Taste

Caroni Distillery officially began operations in 1918, although some sources suggest that it may have already been operational in the late 1800s. Its history was linked to the tastes of the Royal British Navy and the economy of Trinidad and Tobago. Built on the fertile Caroni Plain, its location next to a local sugar refinery allowed for a consistent supply of molasses, and for a time, Caroni operated with an unusual self-sufficiency for a distillery, producing rum from its own sugarcane crop.

 

(Source: Black Tot)

 

In 1936, Caroni Distillery became part of the sugar operations of Tate & Lyle (a large British food processing company that still exists today, and produces the sweetener Splenda). By that decade, Caroni had cemented its place within the sugar operations, becoming a significant supplier to the Royal British Navy. Many of these sailors favoured heavy marques in their daily tot. Therefore the heavy, high-ester rums produced here were a key ingredient in the Navy's rum blend that satisfied the palates of countless sailors.

 

The massive column still at the de-commissioned Caroni Distillery (Source: Fredi Marcarini)

 

The distinctive profile of Caroni’s rums is largely attributed to the distillery’s array of stills and its high-ester production technique. Originally using just a cast-iron pot still, Caroni diversified its distillation equipment by acquiring a wooden Coffey still in 1936 and later adding a column still in 1955.

Most notably, the column stills at Caroni was used to produce the high-ester rum profile that became Caroni’s signature. These rums are rich in congeners - compounds that provide flavour - and could create robust, oily, fruity, and funky notes, sought after by enthusiasts for its intensity and complexity.

 

The Caroni Plains of Trinidad (Source: Bas Leenders)

 

The distillery also drew water from the nearby Caroni River, renowned for its low mineral content. This tied the rum more closely to its environment and had a subtle influence on its flavour profile.

 

An old distillery worker photographed by the aging barrels (Source: Fredi Marcarini)

 

Yet, it was not just about the 'how' but also the 'where'. This is where passionate rum preservationists like Luca Gargano become responsible. While most European importers would have transferred rums they purchased to cooler climates for slower aging, most of Caroni’s rums were left exactly where they were found, and allowed to continue aging in Trinidad’s tropical climate. The interaction between the rum, the wood of the barrels, and the environment was significantly intensified there. This gave the rum a depth and complexity that set it apart. But more on Luca’s involvement later!  

Caroni Shuts Its Doors

Caroni's days were not all imbued with the sweetness of success. The subsequent decades saw Caroni navigating a wave of nationalization attempts by the Trinidadian government.

Tate & Lyle's sugar operations faced challenges as the sugar industry in Trinidad and Tobago began to decline. The rising cost of making sugar, coupled with falling prices and increased competition, began to cast shadows over Caroni's future. In 1975, Caroni became fully nationalised and held by the Trinidadian government, marking the beginning of a new era for Caroni, one tinged with uncertainty.

 

Angostura (the company that also makes the famous Angostura Bitters) looked to purchase Caroni Distillery, but the deal fell through. It ended up purchasing a small parcel of rums instead. (Source: BBC)

 

This transition was marked by financial difficulties, and the business continued to lose money for the next 25 years. The government finally decided to cut its losses in 2001 and tried selling the distillery to Angostura (famed for its Angostura Bitters, and another big Trinidad distiller). Unfortunately, the proposed deal fell through because neither side could agree on a sale price. Nobody took control of Caroni Distillery, and this led to its closure in 2002.

The closure of Caroni Distillery marked the end of an era, a chapter that had been woven into the fabric of Trinidad's sugar industry for more than eight decades. Yet just as its doors shut, another story was about to unfold. Its legacy came to be uncovered by the Indiana Jones of rum.

Velier presented Caroni rum as an exotic treasure from Trinidad. A narrative of adventure, discovery, and unexpected fortune - akin to stumbling upon an abandoned temple filled with golden relics.

Restoring and Preserving The Legacy: Luca Gargano's Vision

The year after the Caroni Distillery shuttered its operations, a curious Italian with a penchant for the exotic arrived on the scene. Luca Gargano, a well-known figure in the spirits industry and the charismatic CEO of the Italian spirits distribution company Velier, had come to Trinidad in search of unique rums.

 

Velier's chief, Luca. (Image Source: CEO Magazine)

 

While Caroni Distillery was no longer around, Luca was elated by his discovery of thousands of forgotten barrels, some dating back to the 1970s.

Fascinated by the potential of these aged stocks and recognizing the importance of their preservation, Velier purchased most of the barrels. But most of these barrels stayed exactly where they were, and continued sitting in the warehouses of the abandoned distillery.

 

(Source: Velier Italy)

 

You see, Luca was serious about preserving the authenticity of the Caroni experience, and wanted to continue aging the rum in Trinidad's tropical climate. This decision was considered unconventional at the time, as it was common practice for European spirits importers to take their rums back and age them in cooler European climates, slowing the aging process. Yet Gargano stood firm in his conviction that Caroni rum, born and bred in the tropics, should age in the environment it originated from.

In an industry often affected by homogeneity and sugar additives, Luca also championed the individuality and uniqueness of each barrel of Caroni. Rather diluting the spirit, Luca bottled the rum directly from the barrel, often at high proof and without dilution, preserving the unique characteristics of each cask in each bottle.

Birth of a Cult Brand: The Rise of Caronimania

A range of Velier’s Caroni expressions in the iconic black bottling (Source: Fine and Rare Spirits)

 

It bears noting that when Luca purchased these thousands of barrels of rum, Caroni wasn’t a widely-known brand. And while Caroni was a large operation, it primarily produced bulk rums for rum blenders, rarely showing its face to consumers. Velier’s involvement set in motion a remarkable transformation that would see Caroni elevated from a forgotten distillery to a cult icon.

The quality and distinctive taste of Caroni was obvious to Luca and Velier. Yet it would take more than just quality rum to win over the hearts and palates of enthusiasts. To intrigue the discerning and often skeptical rum connoisseurs, Velier embarked on a mission to present Caroni rum as an exotic treasure from Trinidad. The narrative they told was one of adventure, discovery, and unexpected fortune - akin to stumbling upon an abandoned temple filled with golden relics.

  

(Source: Velier’s Official Caroni Database)

 

Partnering with Fredi Marcarini (who was himself present when the Caroni barrels were discovered), the liquid was presented in Velier’s iconic stout black bottles with photographs taken by Fredi that portrayed the lost distillery’s history in an intriguing, evocative light. The eye-catching presentation, combined with the exceptional quality of the rum, quickly captured the attention of enthusiasts around the globe. 

Starting in 2005, small batches of single cask Caroni rums came to be released to rum lovers around the world, although primarily in Italy. Each release was a product of a specific barrel, often featuring just a few hundred bottles, reinforcing the scarcity and singularity of each batch. On occasion, barrels with similar provenance, age, or strength were blended and combined, but individuality was the mainstay of each release.

Above the storytelling and packaging, ‘heavy style’ rum lovers were especially spellbound by the deep, oily, tropical profile that was becoming increasingly rare in the mid-2000s. There aren’t many rums with such a thick profile on the market, probably because the polite and delicate continentally aged rums were mainstream.

And thus, "Caronimania" was born. The passionate following that grew around these rums began to extend beyond Italy, capturing the imagination of rum enthusiasts globally. From fervent discussions in online forums to high-profile auctions where bottles fetched eye-watering prices, the fervour for Caroni became palpable.

We can say that Caronimania is not just a fleeting trend; it continues to be a testament to the enduring legacy of great rum makers and passionate archivists like Velier.

Notable Caroni Releases

(Source: Whisky Show)

 

There can only be fewer and fewer casks and bottles of Caroni lying around, and these dwindling stocks certainly contribute to the mania that continues to surround Caroni amongst spirit geeks and auction houses. Many of these releases have cult and collectible status, but let's talk about a few highlights that stand out to us.

(Source: Rum Auctioneer)

 

The poignantly-named ‘The Last Caroni’ 23 Years Old is described as the culmination of Luca’s labour of love as it is some of the oldest tropically-aged Caronis with an angel’s share reaching 85%. This is also the 39thand final Caroni bottling from Velier that represents Velier's last stocks of the rum.

| Read our contributor’s review of the The Last Caroni!

(Source: Rum Auctioneer)

 

Another highly coveted series is the Caroni Employee’s series. Seeking to immortalise the legacy of Caroni, Luca and Velier conceived of a tribute to the workers who were instrumental in the distillery. Luca reconnected with 16 former employees and had them pose in portraits taken by Fredi, which were then used as bottle labels. To create this series, Luca organised a “Caroni Ceremony” which brought together 24 Caroni enthusiasts in Cognac, France. They formed 8 focus groups and selected 60 barrels of Caroni to be blended to produce this series.

These expressions have garnered immense admiration, their rarity and distinctive character contributing to the fervour and acclaim that surround the Caroni brand.

However, it is certainly a shame that accessibility (and price) of these rare bottlings might prove a challenge to those who are just newly entering the world of rums. To that end, Velier’s greatest gift to the rum community present and future is perhaps its “Standard Range” Caroni.

 

The Velier Caroni "Standard Range". (Image Source: Passion du Whisky)

 

These are Caroni blends from multiple years, dressed up in vintage-style labels framed with stylised rope details on the edges – a design motiff that the distillery's original bottlings would have donned since the 1940s:

  • Velier Caroni 100% Trinidad Rum 12YO (2000-2012), 50%
  • Velier Caroni 100% Trinidad Rum 15YO (1998-2013), 52%
  • Velier Caroni 100% Trinidad Rum 17YO (1998-2015), 55%
  • Velier Caroni 100% Trinidad Rum 21YO (1996-2017), 57.18%

What makes this Velier’s gift to the rum community is really the fact that compared to single barrel releases (which are limited to only a few hundred bottles each), these have a rumoured bottle count of potentially 50,000 bottles and more!

To readers who are new to Caroni, this range is highly recommended. These offer an accessible (and non-astronomically priced) point of entry for those looking to gain exposure to Caroni, and they satisfy cravings of long time Caroni lovers too. Each edition has been designed to offer a reference point for what Caroni rums are supposed to taste like across a spectrum of ages – 12, 15, 17 and 21 years.

So even when the single cask releases have become increasingly rare (or would be glued to collectors' shelves), the sizable stock of Velier’s “Standard Range” Caroni protects the rum community's access to this lost distillery for many years to come. We'll most likely not get to taste the unique flavours of Caroni in future, but this is an admirable attempt from Velier (and an incredibly well thought out one at that) to ensure that Caroni's flavours would still be accessible for several more generations of rum lovers.

Just as a taste, here is our review of the third bottling in this Standard Range – the Velier Caroni 100% Trinidad Rum 17 Year Old.  

Velier Caroni 100% Trinidad Rum 17YO (1998-2015), 55% – Review

 

Color: Amber

Aroma: From the moment it hits the glass, petrol fumes pour forth, slightly sweet of thick honey, mixed a brighter synthetic acetone. It leans towards a brighter phenolic gasoline profile rather than the heavier dark tar - more squeaky, alittle like varnish or lacquer. There's certainly still smoke - burnt and dusty rubber tyres, burnt old wood, with a little bit of salinity.

This eases up over time to become sweet and more candied - honey coated yellow fruits - mangoes and apricots, as well as more dark fruit jams - blackberry and plum jams, with raisins and figs. More on baking spices, vanilla cream, nutmeg. There's a little bit of salt and lime zest that reminds me of a margarita glass' rim. There's also an interesting but somewhat pointed herbaceous note of dried parsley that flickers about.

Taste: Heavier and darker things here - more petrol but buoyed with thick, syrupy herbal honey undertones. More on dusty tyre rubber, tar, burnt old wood - a smoky, herbal cough syrup (Pei Pa Koa) note but more synthetic notes. The fruitiness here is more held back and more gentle, cooked dark fruits with concentrated sugars - plums, prunes, dates, raisins, banana puree. There's also some heavily roasted cacao, tobacco leaves, eucalyptus, poached ginger and leather, damp forest floor with fallen leaves, wet wood and moss. Finally abit of black olive brine.

Finish: Long, mentholated, with more diesel, burnt wood, dried herbs, laced with a good serving of molasses - still of a lit cigar. Traces of cacao nibs and dark fruit jams, and just as touch of licorice.

 

Our Rating

🫀

This pretty much captures the heart of Caroni's heavy house style with some showing of the darker sweeter, fruitier notes that some of the best Caroni's display. And it's at a much more value for money price tag and is way more accessible because collector's have yet to get to it yet while they duke it out over Velier's whichever-series.

If you're starting out, definitely, definitely do yourself a favor and try this. Heck, pick up a bottle, you won't regret it in a couple of years.

 

| Read our full review of the "Standard Range" Velier Caroni 100% Trinidad Rum 17YO!

 

With each bottle of Caroni rum now seen as a liquid artifact from a bygone distillery, the romance of the brand's story, the exceptional quality of the rum, the tasteful portraits from the late Fredi Marcarini and the visionary efforts of Luca Gargano, have all combined to position Caroni as a legendary figure in the world of spirits. We can say that Caronimania is not just a fleeting trend; it continues to be a testament to the enduring legacy of great rum makers and passionate archivists like Velier.

@CharsiuCharlie