Map of the Sugar Plantation lots along the Demerara River in 1798, Source: National Archives.
Rum has a rich history in Guyana that traces all the way back to the 1650s with the introduction of sugar cane by early Dutch settlers. It was once home to over 300 sugar plantations which lined the banks of the Demerara river, each with their own still producing their own distinctive rums from Demerara sugar molasses. However, a process of amalgamation over the centuries saw various plantations combine - by the 1930s there were 230 operating sugar plantations and in 1958, only 18. Today only one distillery remains to tell the story of Guyana's rum-making history.
Sugarcane is the base ingredient for rum production [Photo: Flickr/Sweeter Alternative]
The Versailles Estate originally lay on the west bank of the Demerara river. It was founded in the mid-18th century by Pierre L'Amirault and according to Marco Freyer of Barrel-Aged Mind, first appeared on a map in 1776. At this point it is believed that Versailles planted exclusively coffee and did not plant sugarcane until the 19th century. As Guyana entered the sugar industry late it afforded them the advantage to import the foremost equipment for milling sugarcane into sugar crystals, molasses and rum. The sugarcane industry in Guyana sky-rocketed, and along with it a rapid increase in rum production.
Within a few decades, Guyana became the largest sugar producing country in the Caribbean and their rums earned a reputation rivalling the best in the world. Each estate produced their own distinctive rum and were given their own identifying marks to recognise the origin e.g. PM = Port Mourant.
Versailles was one of Guyana's smallest distilleries producing both uncoloured and golden rums. The rum of Versailles Distillery was among the first of Guyana to be matured, and by the end of the 1800's was showcased to various expos in Europe including the Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris. It was around this time period that Versailles incorporated a variety of bordering estates and by 1937 had merged with the plantation Schoon Ord. It is from this that we take the probable conclusion that the Versailles mark VSG is likely a combination of three distilleries - Versailles, Schoon Ord and Goed Fortuin.
Unfortunately, in 1975 the Guyanese government began privatising sugar plantations which saw a number of estates and distilleries succumb to the pressures including Versailles Distillery which closed at some point in the early 1970s. By this point only three distilleries (from what was once counted at over 300) remained in Guyana - Diamond, Enmore and Uitvlugt. Diamond Liquors (Diamond Distillery) and Guyana Distillers (Uitvlugt Distillery) were merged into Demerara Distillers Limited in 1983 with them acquiring all the various stills, equipment and expertise from these closed distilleries. The Versailles wooden pot still was moved from its original home in Versailles to Enmore in 1977, then to Uitvlugt in 1993 and as of Uitvlugt's closure in 2000 now operates at the last remaining estate in Guyana, Diamond Distillery.
Versailles Single Wooden Pot Still (Demerara Vat Still)
Wooden Pot Still [Source: Nicolas Gill, New Worlder]
The Versailles Still is one of only two of its kind left (along with the Port Mourant Double Wooden Pot Still). The ancient still is over 250 years old and at its current home still produces a very unique style of rum similar to its humble beginnings at Versailles Estate. This relic from a bygone age of rum distilling incorporates a historic cylindrical wooden(!) body (made from Green Heartwood, which is native to Guyana and is mostly used in boat-building due to its ability to remain strong while constantly wet), a copper swan neck and VSG rectifier column. The combination of the native woods interaction with the alcoholic sugars and the immense reflux from the copper alembic result in a very heavy bodied distillate, ideal for creating their distinctive characteristic of robust, highly flavourful and aromatic Demerara rums.
With only a small capacity of 2,000 gallons, the lower yield achieved from the Versailles still coupled with its historic and unique style of production in the last remaining single wooden pot still make rums distilled on it some of the most sought-after amongst spirits enthusiasts.
The history of Guyanese rum, its distilleries and stills is a rather complicated one, but if you're looking to delve deeper into this we would highly recommend Marco Freyer's article on The Demerara Distillers on his blog Barrel-Aged Minds which pulls together a history of British Guiana and the colonies, plantations and distilleries, along with the movement of stills.
Our current auction features the incredibly rare opportunity to purchase a cask of Demerara rum which was distilled on the Versailles still in June 1991 during its tenure at the now closed Enmore distillery. This is a traditional Demerara Dark Rum, coloured before shipping to Europe where it has been maturing in American Oak Barrels since March 1992.