Straight from a five and a half hour, sweltering hike through the Marcos y Cordero springs, we stand in the entrance to the Aldea Rum Distillery in San Andrés y Sauces. Our feet and legs are coated in a thick layer of red dirt and mud; our T shirts and shorts are dirty and sweat stained and just to add insult to injury, a peach has got squashed at the bottom of my rucksack, seeped and left an unsightly and sticky brown stain at the base of my back. In short, we’re the dirtiest, sweatiest people in the known universe.
Before us stands José Manuel Quevedo, grandson of Don Manuel Quevedo Alemán, the man who, 76 years ago set up the business whose amber bottles now grace the shelves of quality liquor stores across the globe. It’s not exactly how I would have chosen to meet Don José.
A rum family
Learning his trade in the sugar mills of Cuba at the end of the 19th century, Manuel Quevedo Alemán returned to his native Gran Canaria to work in the family sugar mill but World War 1 brought sales, exports and ultimately production to a standstill. Fleeing poverty, the young Manuel moved his family to Funchal in Madeira and spent the next 15 years learning how to distil brandy. Returning once more to Gran Canaria in 1934, Manuel decided to put his expertise to work for himself and in 1936 he opened the Aldea Rum Factory in the village of San Nicolás de Tolentino.
Integrally linked with the sugar cane trade, the manufacture of rum in the Canary Islands has suffered the same fate as many of the mono-cultures introduced over the course of their 500 plus year history since their conquest by Spain – one of boom and bust. When, at the end of the 1940s and early 1950s the tomato export industry faltered, farmers turned to sugar cane to boost their income and the Aldea factory boomed. But when tomatoes once more began to dominate world trading, sugar cane production on the islands fell and soon became too expensive to source. In 1960 the Aldea factory on Gran Canaria closed its doors.
Following the closure of the family business, Manuel’s son Carmelo moved to La Palma, taking the Aldea rum brand with him and in 1960 his son, José Manuel, established the family business once again, overlooking the tiny harbour of Espindóla in San Andrés y Sauces where it still stands today.
Waving aside my profuse apologies for the state of our general appearance, José Manuel leads us over to a tasting bar in the corner of the warehouse where a neat row of Aldea Rum bottles form a golden arc along the bar top, and asks us which we would like to try. Not being much of a rum drinker, I have no idea. Don Manuel removes the cap from a bottle of Reserva 10 Años (10 Years Reserve) and pours two shots. I’m expecting to judder but the rum slips smoothly down my throat, warming and comforting.
It’s the use of pure sugar cane juice, or Guarapo, to distil the rum that sets Aldea apart from most other rum manufacturers. For many commercial producers, rum is a by-product of sugar production, using the molasses which remains uncrystallized from which to distil rum. But at Aldea, it’s the sugar cane that’s used, freshly picked and squeezed, to produce the rum which retains its flavour and aroma of pure sugar cane.
José Quevedo Rodríguez, fourth generation of this rum family, was born and has spent his whole life here in Espindóla. Leading us from the warehouse and across the road to the factory, José explains how the sugar cane is cut and then fed into the press in order to produce the Guarapo. The press is 8 or 9 years old and came from Brazil second hand. Taking up the whole of the factory floor, it’s the space needed to house the cane and the press that prevents most commercial manufacturers from using fresh Guarapo. Across the road again and José shows us the fermentation tanks, the wood burning, continuous distillation stil in which the rum is produced and the stack upon stack of logs in the yard outside waiting to feed its endless hunger.
Nothing in the factory is shiny and new, it’s all old and well used and if I wasn’t being shown around by José I’d swear the place had fallen into dis-use. In reality, what we’re seeing is authentic and traditional methods of producing an elite rum that can hold its head up on the world market. There’s nothing glamorous about the surroundings that produce it but the finished product has all the class and elegance of a vintage wine.
Whether it’s the island’s famous ‘Ron Miel’ honey rum; a 15 year old, oak matured ‘Familiar’ or a celebratory ’75 Aniversario’ specially blended to celebrate the brand’s milestone birthday last year, a bottle of Aldea rum is an authentic taste of tradition. And even if you show up looking like something the cat would decline to drag in, the Quevedo family will still welcome you with a smile and their best shot or two.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+