The Peligroso cocktail is my introduction. At Old San Juan, Puerto Rico’s La Factoría— the world’s 45th best bar per Drinks International—I tell bartender Carlos Irizarry that I want a rum drink. Before mixing together Campari, Averna, lime, lavender simple syrup, and Tabasco, he picks up a bottle of Ron del Barrilito rum, holds it out to show me the striking label, and says, "This is the best." In it goes.
Though Ron del Barrilito is Puerto Rico’s oldest rum brand, and one highly esteemed, it came to the States in the ’60s. Lauded for its deep, almost whiskey-like complexity, the rum—aged in the city of Bayamón, located inland and to the west of San Juan—is produced in two age-specific expressions. The two-star rests for three years, and the three-star is a blend of six- to ten-year-aged rums.
Ron del Barrilito has been aging its rum in Spanish sherry barrels for over a century, since around 1880.
As the story goes, in 1871, Pedro F. Fernández returned home to Puerto Rico's suburbs from his engineering studies in France, and took over the property where his father had been producing small amounts of rum for guests, as was customary on sugarcane plantations. Fernández developed the rum formula that his family still uses today, which lends the spirit its character, and expanded production. Ron del Barrilito has been aging its rum in Spanish sherry barrels for over a century, since around 1880. Yet, it was only four months ago that the distillery decided it was time to launch a website.
The company’s non-existent marketing isn’t a ploy for special attention. The rum factory itself is staffed by only nine employees, four of whom are family members. Monica Fernández, great-granddaughter of Pedro, answers the phone; Manuel, his grandson, has given sips of over 20-year-old rum to chefs like Eric Ripert on Avec Eric and José Andrés on The Getaway, their respective travel series. "We’re very traditional, but we’re not a traditional company," Monica says, explaining that they’re not seeking endless growth. They only want to make excellent rum.
But quality rum is only recently in vogue. For decades, cartoon pirates and high school debauchery have spoiled the spirit with a strange history. "It’s definitely cleaned itself up and proved it can play with all the other spirits," writer Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, states. Developed by sugarcane plantation owners in the Caribbean as a way to use molasses waste, rum has only recently begun to be seriously explored on cocktail menus beyond tiki kitsch. "It’s had a very downmarket reputation for a while," says Curtis. "People figured out that it’s not all crap."
Puerto Rican rum, specifically, is lauded for its lightness. Vodka-clear Bacardi is the established image, though that company has its roots in Cuba; it moved over to Puerto Rico in 1936, before Fidel Castro took power. Don Q started producing rum on the island in 1865, but the company’s Bacardi-like range of flavors, ubiquity, and widespread availability have made it incapable of attaining Barrilito’s cult status, though its Añejo aged rum is considered very good. "Barrilito’s got a little more funk to it; not as much as what you get in Jamaica or Guyana, but it’s got more flavor than I think a lot of the traditional Puerto Rican rums do," explains Curtis.
And it’s that funk that’s made it the go-to for bartenders on the island, and a cult rum beyond. Barrilito only exports to Spain and a few states, where the three-star goes for around $35. The two star is a bit more affordable, at around $27. "The trend toward fine cocktails has increased demand, but our production depends on what was produced six to ten years ago," says Monica, who notes the company produces 10 to 15 thousand cases per year. David Eber, who runs Ron del Barrilito's New York distribution, says that between Puerto Ricans in the city and bartenders looking for a rum that compares to Scotch and bourbon, they run out of the three star all the time. "It deserves to be on the shelf with other Puerto Rican rums, between Bacardi 8 and Don Q Añejo," says Eber. Still, the rum-focused bartenders in Manhattan are using it whenever they can, poised for rum’s real break-out moment.
On the island today, Barrilito is beloved for being truly local in a place where 80 percent of food is imported.
"I think rum is the next category that’s finally about to be explored," considers Lynette Marrero, cocktail consultant for Brooklyn’s recently opened Llama Inn. Barrilito, which she describes as dry and masculine, could be one bottle that helps raise rum’s status among drinkers. "Rum is completely unique depending on where it’s from; it’s very expressive of terroir, just like Scotch," she states. Her family, like Barrilito, is from Bayamón; to her, the rum displays characteristics of the region. "It has a really oaky, woody, sort of bourbon quality. Depending on which star you get, it’s a style of rum that really shows how the cane can have very good flavor from the barrels and drink like a bourbon, but without that corn note," she says. "It has a little hint of sweetness, but they balance that really well with the dryness of the oak."
One of her old colleagues is self-styled tiki pirate Brian Miller—formerly of New York’s esteemed cocktail dens ZZ’s Clam Bar, Death & Co., and Pegu Club—who’s also a big fan of Barrilito, when he can find it. "It's definitely in my top ten favorite rums to work with; it's really unique," he says. "I love it in a 1934 Zombie and I've had success blending it with bourbons. It has a similar flavor profile."
On the island today, Barrilito is beloved for being truly local in a place where 80 percent of food is imported, and it’s an old-school example of the small-batch, craft spirit ethos that’s permeated drink culture. When La Factoría opened in 2012, it "completely changed the bar scene," says owner Leslie Cofresí. Cocktail bars have popped up not just in San Juan, but across the island, and everyone has stepped up their game to compete with the bar that’s now considered one of the world's 50 best. That the island has a rum they can truly call their own is an important part of its evolution.
"The bartenders here, they really enjoy having a product that is like so many products in the States, whether it’s Hudson Whiskey or Death’s Door Gin from Wisconsin, where you can take some pride in your product, understand what makes it really special, and present the real idea of what the island is, instead of these major liquor houses and major liquor conglomerates," explains expat George Jenich, who runs the bar at Santurce’s Gallo Negro. "I think it’s important to the bartenders here and helps them show people who come down here what Puerto Rico really is about because a lot of people have no idea." He moved down to the island from Boston because of the emerging cocktail scene and hadn’t heard of Barrilito, but after discovering the spirit, he now uses it in place of whiskey in classic cocktails.
Gallo Negro’s executive chef Maria Grubb chimes in about why the rum is so special. "When someone comes to deliver the Barrilito, it’s literally the son that comes to the restaurant," she says. "When you go buy it, it’s the daughter. It’s our house shot—on your birthday, your anniversary, we cheer with it."
If there are, like the politicians say, two Americas, then certainly two Puerto Ricos exist, too. There's the cruise ship stop, as compared to the one discovered by those who look below the surface. There’s Bacardi, and there’s Barrilito. And the island's rich cocktail culture that has begun to develop in the last few years is a way for that more interesting Puerto Rico to show itself to the world, and its growth is timed perfectly with rum’s craft resurgence. Ron del Barrilito is the ideal ambassador; find it, or it will find you.