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A Nostalgic Journey through San Juan Artisan Distillers, in Vega Alta

The distillery is the only company in Puerto Rico producing craft rum with their very own sugarcane plantation

April 24, 2024 - 11:00 PM

The San Juan Artisan Distillers owner, José Ramón “Pepe” Álvarez Reyes. (Isabel Ferre Sadurni Photography)

Lee la historia en español aquí.

Vega Alta.- Learning the history of the sugar industry in Puerto Rico from a 21st century sugarcane plantation, while the distinctive smells of craft sugarcane rum adorn the atmosphere, has become a tourist attraction worth experiencing.

This is San Juan Artisan Distillers, an agritourism project located in the Sabana Hoyos area of Vega Alta. Visitors can experience the full rum fabrication process, from milling and distilling, to bottling. They also have the chance to taste a variety of products made with fresh fruit.

In this location, the brands Tres Clavos and Ron Pepón were born. These are two exquisite distilled rums made under strict quality controls with a workforce of 15 people, formed mostly by local women.

Part of the San Juan Artisan Distillers offer,
Part of the San Juan Artisan Distillers offer, (Isabel Ferre Sadurni Photography)

The concept emerged from a concern of businessman José Ramón “Pepe” Álvarez Reyes, who saw the opportunity to reinvent himself through a phenomenon that was booming in the United States; the distillation of artisanal rums.

Álvarez Reyes, who was born in Florida, came to Puerto Rico when he was eight years old. Though he had a privileged upbringing, his household’s economic situation deteriorated, and he’s had to work since he was 15 years old.

Two years later, he created his own landscape gardening company, which he named “Jardín vida verde”. His business prospered in such a way that, suddenly, he was at the top with large projects that included hotels, housing developments and manufacturing, and others.

However, the elimination of Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code in 1995, which led to the closure of U.S. manufacturers, which moved their operations to other countries, caused Álvarez Reyes to remain in uncertainty. However, in his search for options, he decided to reinvent himself.

The barrels where the rum is stored.
The barrels where the rum is stored. (Isabel Ferre Sadurni Photography)

At that time, the businessman had several estates, including the nearly 14-acre plot where his project is located, which began to take shape a decade ago.

“When I started this business, there were about 60 craft distilleries across the United States. Right now there are nearly 3,000 across the nation. I didn’t want to get involved in brewery because I’ve never been a brewer and there was a lot of competition,” said the 65-year-old man.

“I looked at a business model that the French developed many years ago in the Antilles. When the sugarcane industry disappeared in Puerto Rico, they invented a type of agricultural rum. Along with my wife, Mari Carmen Pont, we visited about six small distilleries where they distill fermented juice,” recalled Álvarez.

Therefore, they returned to Puerto Rico to implement the studied model with the objective of “doing something different”, since they did not want to make rum similar to the ones produced by larger companies on the island.

“I set out to create the first distillery in the history of rums in Puerto Rico, to make our own rum, from our own sugarcane plants. I had experience planting grass, and well, sugarcane is a type of grass. It’s a very technical, delicate crop and it’s a big challenge,” he admitted.

He also recruited his son, José Roberto Álvarez Lefranc, a civil engineer graduated from UPR Mayagüez who has become an “expert in distilling and fermentation”.

“We started building the project, but there was a problem and it was that, in Puerto Rico, nobody had sugar cane. We planted five rows that were about 50 feet long. Then we planted around 70 acres of sugar cane, the largest crop ever on the island,” he said.

When everything was ready to unveil the project, Hurricane María passed and devastated the cane fields. According to him, this situation caused him deep sadness until he saw three nails in the laboratory.

“We found three nails on our farm in Vega Baja, which belonged to the old train that transported sugarcane across the island. Then, I look at some rums that had been given to me and I came up with the idea of creating a premium quality rum, inspired by our Puerto Rican rum,” he said.

Label placement process.
Label placement process. (Isabel Ferre Sadurni Photography)

This is how Tres Clavos was born in 2018, “a rum that we make with fruits from Puerto Rican farmers, except coconut because there is no commercial coconut production in Puerto Rico, so we import organic coconut from Indonesia”.

“We have passionfruit, ginger, quenepa (guinep), mango, coconut and pineapple. That rum is made with no preservatives and a small amount of sugar. We want it to taste like rum and the fruit it’s made with. We don’t add colors, preservatives or artificial flavors,” he said.

Meanwhile, in 2020, “we managed to launch Ron Pepón as the first agricultural rum produced in Puerto Rico: Aged Ron Pepón and white Ron Pepón”. The name of the product is a tribute to his father.

Every year, about 10,000 boxes are produced between the two brands, although “the goal is to reach 30,000″.

In 2020, the company was certified by the Tourism Company as the twenty-second agritourism destination. According to don Pepe, “we have two tours; one that is 45 minutes long and a VIP tour that is 90 minutes long”.

During the tour, “we talk briefly about the history of sugarcane in Puerto Rico. We have a collection of old photographs that we show visitors.” In addition, visitors can appreciate “everything from cane milling to the distillation, bottling and processing of fruit”.

“We walk, enter the aging cellar, we show our collection of over 700 barrels undergoing the aging process. Then we visit the sugar cane field. Many people have never seen sugarcane. Finally, we return to the visitors’ house, we sit down and perform a tasting of all the flavors and rums we have.”

For details: sanjuanartisandistillers.com or 787-222-1633.

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