Interview with Matthew Callwood of Callwood Rum Distillery in Cane Garden Bay British Virgin Islands


I first came across the existence of this place via a recent social media post and wondered to myself how I had missed it in the past. For me this distillery, though I have not visited myself yet, has all the hallmarks of high interest. For one it is over 400 years old, tying directly into some of the oldest traditions of pot still distillation in the world, a glimpse into how things were once done. For two, direct fired pot stills, always in my wheelhouse!
As always I am proponent of keeping distillation as simple and traditional as possible and I was immediately intrigued by the production processes, the history, and the resilience of this 400 year old distillery located in the British Virgin Islands and making rum from sugar cane juice as opposed to molasses. I immediately set about finding as much information as I could about the distillery and added the owner on social media so as to get a better profile. In it’s 400 year history the distillery has definitely had its share of adversity but perhaps no challenge bigger and more fearsome than Hurricane Irma which laid the distillery bare. Fortunately for all of us the walls of the old girl were still standing and the Callwood family were no where near close to throwing in the towel. Who couldn’t or wouldn’t be enamoured with an ancient distillery using ancient pot stills that offers tours for $1.00 and fine rum as cheap as $10 a pint!

Pressing the cane.

Matthew, tell us a little about yourself, your family, and the history your family as at the distillery please?

The distillery was officially started in the 1600s. The first owners were a family named Arundel from England but my family, the Callwood family, bought it in the early 1800s and we are now into the fourth generation.

Collecting the juice

We here at the Alchemist Cabinet are very passionate about pot stills, tell us about your stills, where they came from and how old they are. Do you guys do double pot still distillation or just a single pass distillation? Do you ever have to have any repair work done on the stills?

We had two boilers that were operational. One of them got destroyed during a storm when a coconut tree fell on it. Unfortunately we couldn’t get it repaired as there is no copper on island and no skilled workers. We only distill our rum once, making heads and tails cuts. Proof off of the still is 98 but we proof it down to 40% due to our law here.
Firing the pots for boiling the juice

Can you describe to us a typical production day and how the juice is prepared for fermentation and how the stills are fired and what fuel you use? Also, what is your distillation season?

We have a sugar cane press that came here in the 1800’s which runs off of a diesel engine. The first one we had used donkeys for power but we sold it to St.Croix where it is now on display. Our season for making the rum is March-August and our yield is 25 gallons per day. Our fermentation takes 8-12 days depending on how hot it is.
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Boiling the juice to evaporate some water prior to fermentation

What is the profile of your spirit from the still? Tell us about the different aged and flavored rums and the “panty dropper”.

We have four flavors of rum : 10yr old, 4yr old, white rum, and panty dropper which is blended with sweetness (they include a piece of sugar cane in the bottle) for nice flavor for the ladies.
Original Alembic Stills. Direct fired

In 400 years your bound to have some good distillery related stories of either your own or passed down to you, any interesting historical events or funny stories about the distillery?

Back in the day rum was only 10 cents and every Thursday and Friday crowds would gather to come and get drunk and would fall asleep on the squeezed sugar cane skin which is known as bagasse. (they also use the sugar cane after squeezing to fire their cookers in order to evaporate some water from the sugar can juice which takes about 3 hours, if you go longer than three hours you begin to create Molasses which they don’t want)

How are things progressing after Irma?

Everything is back together after the storm, it was a slow process but we are keeping our heads up!

Firing the stills with discarded wood!

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