An afternoon with Santa Teresa awaited my guest author last week . .
“After descending the stairs into the darkness of The Liar’s Club, your eyes focus on woven beach matting, colourful posters, bamboo support posts, huge wooden rum barrels, and old, worn brickwork. Reggae tunes are playing, and as we settle down on the comfy leather seats that line the walls, we are greeted with orange Daiquiri’s; an old Santa Teresa favourite. Pleasantly sharp, and pretty strongly boozy for half past three in the afternoon, we sip these while we wait for the rest of the tasting group to arrive, and begin to feel glad that we haven’t made any plans for the evening!
Our hosts for the afternoon are Becky from Mangrove, and Luis, who has worked for Santa Teresa for over eight years now. He’s back in the UK for the first time in three or so years, so straight away we know that this was going to be a pretty special tasting session. Luis introduces himself to everybody individually, chatting away and asking us if we’d ever tried Santa Teresa rum before. I was in the minority in that I haven’t; I’m a Pusser’s Navy Rum girl, myself, generous double with a good wedge of lime if you please; but I’m excited about getting to try this Venezuelan phenomenon.
While we’re enjoying our drinks, Luis gives us a brief history of the company. Santa Teresa is run by two brothers, Henrique and Alberto, and it is a company with a long pedigree. He tells us about the Venezuelan War of Independence in the early 1800s; a story of loss, pride, and the kindness of freed slaves. The central figure in his telling of this story, a little girl called Panchita, was rescued from enemy soldiers by her family’s former slaves, and grew up to fall in love with German man. This man had come to South America to make his fortune, and to find products for his father’s shipping company to export. His father, eager to meet his son’s new bride, sailed for Venezuela – but disaster struck, and his boat sank. The rose-like logo of his shipping company is now emblazoned on bottles of Santa Teresa rum. Luis tells us that Santa Teresa began in a moment of change, and is strongly tied to the ideals of independence, freedom, and family.
As we listen, our first sample of rum is brought round. Anejo is Santa Teresa’s flagship rum, and comes in their highly recognisable ‘squared chest’ bottle. Their use of the ‘squared chest’ is inspired by a popular local saying “to face it with your chest”, which translates roughly as somewhere between “to meet it head-on”, and “to take the bull by the horns”. A fitting inspiration for a brand which is as fiercely independent as Santa Teresa.
Anejo has a light, sweet nose full of the vanilla, toffee aromas which come from ageing in American white oak barrels. It’s not too sweet; there is a dryness present, supporting a peppery spice, and an almost citrus undertone. A blend of younger and slightly more mature rums, between two and five years, averaging out at about four years. Its slightly peppery nature is intended to stand up to being mixed, but this rum is almost smooth enough to sip straight up. Luis’ top tip: Anejo makes a great Mojito.
Despite only being launched for the international market in 2002, Santa Teresa is a surprisingly multi-cultural brand. “Rum is a product typical of the Caribbean,” Luis tells us, “Santa Teresa is made in Venezuela by a German-Venezuelan family, aged in American and French oak barrels – and we play an English sport, rugby.” He is keen to emphasise that rugby is not a widely played sport in Venezuela, and that its popularity at Hacienda Santa Teresa is unusual. Navigate to their website, and you will see photos of burly men in rugby kit heaving barrels around. “We are bordered by the Caribbean sea, there is a desert next to the beach, we have Andean mountains, jungles, table top mountains… This is the land where Santa Teresa comes from. We’re crazy! But we’re also crazy about our rum.”
The second rum we try is Claro. It’s known as the bartender’s favourite, and was developed for bars to use in cocktails. Claro means ‘clear’, which is fitting for this rum; it isn’t white, it isn’t golden, but almost like a white wine in colour. It is a blend of two and three-year old rums aged in American white oak; drier than Anejo, but soft, with hints of lime. There is, of course, an alcoholic tingle on the palate, but the softness carries through, with one of my fellow tasters describing it as ‘like cream soda’. Claro has a significant amount of Santa Teresa’s special Rosetta rum blended into it; a heavy rum with a distinctively smooth yet insistent flavour. Luis’ top tip: Claro is great for Daiquiri’s.
The oldest rum brand in Venezuela, Santa Teresa grow everything on their own lands. The sugar cane used to make their rum, the coffee for their coffee liqueur, and the oranges for their Rhum Orange. They use water from their own wells, and the factory which treats the sugar cane and produces the molasses which Santa Teresa use is only a few kilometres down the road; not just that, but it’s owned by another branch of their family.
The next rum we try is Selecto. It’s darker than Anejo, being a blend of rums aged between three and ten years, averaging out at eight years. The classic oak barrel-aged aromas of vanilla, toffee, and caramel are hugely prominent here, and there is less citrus present than in the Claro. With a big mouthfeel, this rum is particularly smooth, and is intended both for sipping and for use in premium cocktails such as an Old Fashioned. Luis’ top tip: this rum is wonderful showcased in a simple rum and tonic.
Last, we come to the 1796, the jewel in Santa Teresa’s crown. This rum is blended and aged using the Antiguo de Solera method, where blended rums up to 35 years old are slowly and gently matured together through a series of barrels, which are never allowed to empty more than half way before being fed with more rum, balancing and rounding out into an exceptionally smooth and complex final product. The barrels used in this process are French, rather than American, which contributes to the aroma; almost reminiscent of Christmas, reminding me of booze soaked cherries, fat juicy raisins and candied fruit peel. On the palate there is subtle citrus throughout, sweet orange isolated on the tip of the tongue, a balance between sweet and dry, and a rich brown sugar backbone supporting the whole thing. This is a complex rum, with a finish that lingers on and on.
People have attempted to buy Santa Teresa out. Luis tells us what Alberto had to say about that: “We are not for sale. My family has survived civil war, lasted through the change from dictatorship to democracy… Our ancestors survived, and they left this company for us. We will leave this company for our children, and for our great-grandchildren.”
This emphasis on independence and freedom is what keeps Santa Teresa an utterly authentic brand. Not satisfied with keeping their own independence by producing things on their own land and staying committed to the quality of their rum, they also have a full-on social conscience, working to help gang members break away from a life of crime, and gain the freedom to live productive, honest lives. Yes, Santa Teresa rehabilitate criminal gangs. They give them jobs, access to psychological help, a high school education, they train them with useful skills which mean they can build careers, and they also teach them discipline and respect… Through rugby.
Yes, you heard that correctly. Remember when I said that rugby isn’t widely played in Venezuela, but at Hacienda Santa Teresa they’re mad on it? These gang members have to learn the rules of rugby from scratch, and this is a core part of Santa Teresa’s gang rehabilitation project. The name of this ambitious yet wildly successful project? Project Alcatraz! Locals worried about having so many gang members working near to them, but official crime statistics for the area have shown a 76% drop in crime in the last three years. How cool (and possibly insane) are these guys? Like Luis told us earlier, “We’re crazy! But we’re also crazy about our rum.”
I’ll drink to that.”
Article kindly written by guest author Rowan Molyneux-Roberts