“We don’t actually distil in Barranquilla, rather we source raw distillates from throughout South America, Colombia and the Caribbean. We have suppliers in Trinidad, Dominican Republic and Panama. What they have in common is that they all produce a similar style of distillate, which is key to putting together the right congeneric makeup that will eventually become La Hechicera. We look for rums that are distilled from molasses through continuous distillation, but ultimately have a very light congeneric style.
“When you look at the chemistry of the liquid itself, it’s the congeners that eventually oxidise, age and mature into a full-bodied rum like La Hechicera. Such rums can spend longer in a barrel without becoming too strong. We seek the right balance between fusel oils, high acidity and very high esters that will oxidise well into the rich spectrum of flavours that comprise La Hechicera.
We bring these different distillates, ranging from extra neutral cane alcohols to full-bodied and other styles of distillates to Barranquilla where our team of Master Blenders blend them into the right makeup that we know will eventually evolve, mature and blossom into a rum like La Hechicera.
The other key components, and this is something that Giraldo Mituoka Kagana, our Cuban/Japanese Master Blender always stresses whenever he starts a tour of our facilities, he says “You might think this is a rum factory, but a rum factory is actually limited to the confines of an actual barrel, it’s a reactor of sorts.” Once you have that perfect makeup in the liquid, once you seed it into the barrel, that is where the magic starts to happen, it’s all about the interaction between the wood, the liquid itself, the congeners, all about that circulation of air in and out of the wood.
Giraldo Mituoka Kagana
We take a distillate or several distillates, we blend this into a specific chemical profile with the right organoleptic properties and then we seed that into the barrel. And that is really where our production process begins, obviously then we the ageing process which we are very careful and specific with.
La Hechicera is the flagship
“What we’ve been doing as a company and continue to do is, not only produce La Hechicera and other family brands, but also produce brands for third parties. One thing we’ve never used though is additives in a rum, meaning no sugar, no essences or artificial additives of any sorts, which means that we have to strictly rely on the variables that are inherent to the actual ageing process, which means identifying each and every barrel’s individual properties and traits, being able to clearly distinguish one lot of distillates at a certain stage in the ageing process from another. Being able to play with very subtle variables like, for example, the fact that barrels, let’s say on the fourth or fifth floor of the bodega age at higher rates due to the much higher temperatures than the ones at the first floor.
We need to be able to play with all these different variables in an ageing bodega that usually other producers, other much larger producers, are able to ignore, quite simply because we use them to be able to steer our different blends into different profiles for different labels and different customers. So our focus is mostly on the blending of these distillates into the right makeup, the right balance, and then being very specific and very careful with how we care for that liquid over time until it becomes the right rum.
The importance of barrels
“We started importing barrels as staves so we could re-assemble them in Barranquilla, but we quickly realised the best flavours come from a freshly-dumped [emptied] American white oak cask, so we now buy complete barrels, freshly dumped from Kentucky. This gives us wood that is still swollen with the liquid it held before, bourbon, and we find that really just kick-starts rum, gets it going very quickly. Obviously, barrels have a limited lifetime when ageing bourbon, perhaps three to six years and they can only be used once, but they have an afterlife ageing rum that can go on for several cycles and many years.
A fresh barrel will give you a completely different flavour profile and will work in a completely different way to an old, well matured cask. So that a barrel that is freshly-dumped is good for getting the rum started and getting all those ageing processes flowing, but an older barrel with perhaps not infuse as much oakiness into the liquid, but it will serve as that reactor, for oxidation and maturation, so it’s great for mellowing the rums later down the line. So we try to, in a very controlled manner, get a sense for whether we want to re-char barrels down the line after a couple of cycles, or whether we want to just continue to use them as-is to just use it as a vehicle for that interaction between the atmosphere and the liquid itself. We do re-char, re-assemble and repair some, but usually we try to use them for whatever they’re best for, at whatever stage they’re on, so whether they’re new, whether they’re old, they all contribute something to the mix.
The art of blending
“People do not realise about blending ... and this is why the term ‘Master Blender’ is apt, is that every time you create a new batch, you need to re-create a blend. Let’s say if you were to use 25% of a selection of barrels holding a floral and ripe rum, and you were to use maybe 20% of this other lot, which is very woody and very stringent and dry, and then you were to use perhaps 55%, to complete that blend of a rum, that is very well-balanced and round to bring it all together, and you waited a month to produce another lot and you tried to go to those exact set of barrels, you would find that they’re no longer what they were at time you initially use them.
So, you need to recreate that formula every single time you blend a new batch, which is why blending is an integral part of every stage of the rum-making process, and it’s what we’ve tried to become very good at.
Master blender (Maestro Ronero
“One of the sources of magic in our brand, in our story, in our family and what it is we do, is our Cuban/Japanese Master Blender. Giraldo Mituoka Kagana’s Japanese parents were immigrants to Cuba before the revolution. They stayed in Cuba and Giraldo basically grew up cutting sugar cane for the revolution. He moved up the sugar hierarchy, eventually into the Cuban rum-making elite as a Master Blender. He was recognised as one of the best and therefore, he was allowed the opportunity to go to Colombia, travel to Barranquilla to transfer that knowledge onto us.
And after ten years, when we parted ways with the Cuban Government, Giraldo stayed with us. I mentioned he’s a source of magic and he is – he has Japanese precision and patience and dedicated to a correct way of doing things, but he’s also, in every respect, very Cuban in character. The second he opens his mouth, he’s all about songs, lyrics, poems and stories. So, we’re very happy to have him onboard and be the only rum bodega with a Cuban/Japanese Master Blender that brings those two sides of the spectrum into the mix. Quite a character.
A solera-style rum
“We clearly say on our bottle that ours is a solera-style rum and we do believe it is, but we also acknowledge that it’s a unique take on the solera method. In the rum industry, ‘solera’ is a term that a lot of people find confusing and for some it’s a source of scepticism or mistrust. Obviously, it’s an inherited term.
The word ‘solera’ is drawn from Spanish brandy and sherry, it’s just a way of organising your barrels so that you can guarantee blending a homogenous product, you can guarantee continuity, and it’s basically the way you physically structure your barrels in a pyramid form, it just facilitates the flow of liquid from a barrel onto a next, onto a next. And these layers, the way these barrels are stacked, one on top of another are called ‘criaderas’.
When explaining the traditional solera method to people, I find it useful to refer to a pyramid of champagne flutes where you pour liquid onto the top glass which fills, overflows onto the second layer and then down to the third layer progressively.
Similarly, in a traditional solera, you’re always pouring fresh distillate onto the top casks and then taking it out of the cask through the bottom layer. That gives you a very harmonious, balanced and very predictable result, which is a good thing in a rum-making. But it ignores so many of the specifics in using organic matter, like how one barrel differs from the next. They all have different histories. They’ve all held different liquids. They are of different ages. A traditional solera is just the mechanical movement of a liquid from one layer to another.
Our solera method respects blending rum progressively, it’s a way of assimilating rum from one barrel onto the other very gradually and harmoniously so that you can eventually get to a specific makeup and flavour profile. However, we’ve liberalised and flexed that solera method so that it’s not only driven by the youngest liquid being poured, in part, onto the next layer. Our solera allows us to use the nuances between casks to re-create rums, whether it’s for La Hechicera or one of the other rum brands we produce.
So, we do consider Le Hechicera to be a solera-style rum in that it is the result of several different stages that comprise a unique blend - it’s a minimum of 12 years and up to 21 years old. We’ve built on Spanish tradition, but ours is a very liberal interpretation of solera, our unique take, and I do believe it’s, at least for our model, an improvement on what is offered by the traditional solera method.”
A small brand
“La Hechicera is the result of a selection process which takes barrels from 12 and up to 21 years, but not all of them are right for La Hechicera. It’s the result of continuously selecting the best casks, the best reserves, until they eventually reflect our ideal of what good rum should be like, so it’s limited production.
When we launched the brand in November 2012, we produced just 3,000 bottles. That was our whole production and its what we launched in the UK with. We started expanding internationally as a Colombian brand, rooted in Colombia, sold in Colombia and we’re now selling into about 20 different markets around the world. We’re looking to complete 15,000 cases this year , but La Hechicera is still, by all measures, a small brand.
Fortunately, we’ve been focusing for over two decades on making sure we have liquid in the casks constantly, which is why we hope to see the brand grow significantly into the future as the premium rum opportunity in the world materialises.”