Historic Distilleries of Tortola

A rum distillery tour is a must on any trip to the British Virgin Islands.  Tortola has several fun, easily accessed sights to for you to foster an appreciation for history, and the central role rum, sugar and the Caribbean played in an economy that spanned three continents, known as the Triangle Trade.  If you’re more interested in how rum was made one- two- or three centuries ago, its all within a few minute’s drive on Tortola.

Mount Healthy Mill

There are three essential place to visit.  Th order you see them is unimportant,  but we’ll start at the top, and make our first visit the sugar mill on Mount Healthy, now a designated national park.  The Government of Tortola has done an admirable job of  preserving this landmark facility.  Not only is the sugar mill tower in good condition, but the grounds are pristine, surrounded by comfortable benches for you to relax on, breathe the clean Caribbean air, and imagine what life must have been like in the ages when African slaves and the indigenous population provided the backbone for sugar and rum production in the Colonies.  A metal memorial plaque describes the rum making process.  The sugar mill’s location atop Mount Healthy is unique not only for its great views, as most mills were located at lower elevations and closer to the loading docks.  It was eventually learned that getting the cut raw cane to the crusher quickly, had a positive affect on the rum’s taste.  Hauling bulk cane up a mountainside, then transporting molasses, sugar or rum back down the mountain was an inefficient burden.

Brewer's Bay Stills 2 Brewer's Cane CrusherCallwood Bottles

Next stop; sleepy little Brewer’s Bay, facing West on the North side of Tortola.  The facility there is in disrepair, much of it hidden by undergrowth. But the sheer magnitude of the once-thriving operation, and the wealth of intact distilling equipment, are awesome.  Pot stills and cooling worm coils surround the decrepit stone buildings and plantation houses.  Turn every corner, peak in any doorway to discover another treasure trove of rusting antique cane crushers and a single-cylinder reciprocating engine (steam or diesel?).  Furnaces and boiling pots are all left in place as if the workers up and abandoned the site all at once.  With a little effort, Tortola could clean up the grounds and have one of the region’s truly great monuments to rum production.

Callwood Barrels

Last stop; Callwood Distillery, reportedly the oldest continuously operating rum distillery in the Caribbean.  Michael Callwood will demonstrate how rum was made two hundred years ago, and is still being made today at his facility.  It’s all there in one condensed operation.  To the left of the ancient stone building is the belt-driven cane crusher, with stonework ducts draining freash-crushed cane juice into fermentation pots boiling coppers.  Lucky visitors might see the wood-fired boilers out back. Then step inside and warp backwards in time 200 years, as you stand slack jawed among, barrels stacked with aging ru small pot stills, and sundry other pieces of ancient distilling craft.  Take pictures, sample the goods, and by all means take home one of the smoothest spiced rums you’ll find anywhere.  Months after you’ve returned home, Callwood’s Spiced Rum will transport you back to this day on Tortola, while their Arundel aged rum reeks of old world production values.

Any taxicab driver on Tortola should know these places and can drive you for a reasonable fee.  However, the man with the greatest appreciation for Tortola’s history also has developed a palate for the island's better spiced rums.  That gentleman’s name is Sandman Rhymer.  Call him at 284-499-1503 to arrange a fascinating, informative tour.  And if all the sightseeing leaves you hungry for a bite or a swim, have Sandman drop you off at Myett’s Garden Resort on Cane Garden Bay.  Located on Tortola’s best beach for swimming, dining, and drinking, Myett’s is owned by Sandman’s brother Kareem and his wife Valerie.  You won’t be disappointed.

© Dave Russell 2014