In rum history’s annals, Demerara rum from Guyana is among the most storied styles of rum. But beyond vague descriptions including “smokey” and “made from Demerara sugarcane,” most enthusiasts don’t know much about what makes Guyana’s rum unique.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle in the northeast region of South America known today as Guyana. Three rivers, the Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo, lent their respective names to Dutch colonies. Circa 1815, the British took control of these colonies and later consolidated them into British Guiana, although the Demerara name remained in use for many decades.
The British wasted no time ramping up sugar production, and by the mid-1800s, British Guiana was the Empire’s largest rum maker. In a nod to cost and material availability, many stills were constructed of Greenheart wood, an abundant, local hardwood. The colony’s heavy pot distilled rums found particular favor with the Royal Navy blenders, who made Demerara rum a core component of the navy’s blend.
Demerara Rum Style
Historically, Demerara rum was described as heavy, with burnt as a common descriptor. Trader Vic wrote in 1946, “It is similar in some respects to dark Jamaica, but it has a dry burned flavor….”
Notably, a 1937 essay by a US government chemist stated: “To the distillate … are added French plums, Valencia raisins, spices, and other flavoring ingredients… Most of these rums are highly colored with caramel which also has some influence on their flavor.” Thankfully, things have changed since then.
In recent decades, Demerara rum has branched out in several stylistic directions. However, Demerara rum’s most iconic and easily recognizable flavor profile remains that of the heavy, oily rums made in two wooden vat stills.
While hundreds of rum distilleries once populated Guyana’s coastal region, only five remained operational when Guyana gained independence in 1966: Albion, Versailles, Enmore, Uitvlugt, and Diamond. That number dwindled to just two by 1995: Uitvlugt and Diamond. Fortunately, several stills and associated “recipes” from the closed distilleries moved to Uitvlugt, where their marks continued to be made.
In 1999, due to dire economic circumstances, the Uitvlugt distillery closed, although the site’s aging warehouse and adjacent sugar factory remain in use. All of the Uitvlugt distillery’s stills moved to the Diamond Estate near Georgetown, where they continue to make rum today. Among them are the “heritage” wooden stills: The Enmore wooden Coffey still, the Port Mourant double wooden vat still, and the Versailles single wooden vat still. All three are particular favorites of independent bottlers.
The consolidation of Guyana’s rum industry also led to the formation of Demerara Distillers Ltd, now Guyana’s sole rum-making entity.
Guyana Rum Today
Demerara Distillers is one of the Caribbean’s most versatile rum makers. Its ten rum stills, including the three wooden stills, can make nearly anything desired, from very light rum to heavy, pot distilled rum and high-ester rum.
The company’s house brands, El Dorado and Diamond Reserve, comprise a wide range of flavor profiles. Demerara Distillers also sells bulk rum, and many independent bottlers and private label brands utilize rum made by Demerara Distillers. The company is also a full-service co-packager, producing bottled rum for several well-known brands.
Recent years have been tough for the Caribbean sugar industry. Guyana’s sugar mills once produced enough molasses to supply all the country’s distilleries, with plenty remaining to export to rum makers elsewhere. However, in the past decade, Demerara Distillers has needed to import molasses to augment a dwindling local supply.
Although Demerara Distillers is Guyana’s sole rum maker, the country recently ratified a geographical indication (GI) for rum in 2017. In 2021 the Demerara Rum GI received European Union recognition, a significant accomplishment in protecting the reputation of Demerara Rum in international markets.