Nestled in the corner of Cane Garden Bay in Tortola, BVI, a tiny limestone building houses the Caribbean’s oldest continuously operating pot still. The Callwood Distillery has made its way into tourist guidebooks, but visiting this unique place is unlike any other distillery tour.
Our taxi driver dropped us off and showed us where to walk to the beach afterward. The haphazardly painted sign on the small stone building announcing we were at Callwood Distillery gave me pause. No guard booths. No massive signs. No tour trams. No gift shops. And no one else was there, except for a friendly tabby cat.
We ventured inside to meet Melanie Callwood, daughter of the owner, who introduced us to the Arundel rums her family has made for the last two hundred years. Before the Callwoods bought the distillery, it had already been operating for two hundred years! For a few bucks, we bellied up to the bar and Melanie poured us a shot of each of their rums, the white rum, the golden rum, the 10-year aged rum, and yes, the “Panty Dropper.”
Unlike most Caribbean rums, the Callwoods distill their rum from pure cane juice, not molasses. A quick walk around the building revealed a stack of cane next in line for cooking. They use cane grown on their property and cook it in vats they’ve been using for centuries. The juice is then naturally fermented in oak barrels from 8 to 21 days. The fermented cane juice is then distilled in the copper still outside the building. The family distills with the help of several family members during the months of March through September. Unaged rum is stored initially in the hand-blown glass demijohns and cowboys and the aged rum is put away in the oak casks. On average, they produce 25 gallons a day for around 300,000 gallons of rum each year. All of their rum is distilled at 80 proof. The rum is sold on property and at stores only in the British Virgin Islands.
During our sampling, a tall young man whom we’d spied the night before at a local bar wandered in. Melanie introduced us to her brother, Matthew, the master distiller and heir to the Callwood distillery. Matthew shyly introduced himself as a master drinker. Hmmm…. my kind of guy. After checking in with his sister, Matthew headed out to work on the rum, but agreed to a few photos.
As for the rums, cane rum is definitely different than the typical mass-produced molasses rum we are used to. There’s much more flavor and a sweeter, smoother end. The unaged versions are intended for mixing and would do justice to a Cuba Libre or rum punch. We enjoyed the 10-year aged for sipping. A light amber color, the aged rum has a smooth caramel smell with notes of spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg. Over ice, it’s a refreshing treat, especially after dinner while on a sun-kissed beach. As for the “Panty Dropper,” that is a sweetened rum which allegedly appeals to the ladies, although not this Thirty Jane. Who can resist the risque label, though?! We took a bottle home for one of our favorite booze hound who was thoroughly impressed with our find.
My trip to Callwood Distillery was one of the highlights of my week long sail through the Virgin Islands. Melanie and Matthew were delightful and their family’s commitment to producing rum is admirable. Once Tortola boasted 27 distilleries with 7 located in Cane Garden Bay. Today, only Callwood remains, and rum drinkers and adventure seekers are grateful.
Special thanks to the Captain and crew of Marauder Sailing Charters for suggesting a visit to Callwood.