Costa Tropical: Sugar and Rum

Rum Montero barrels OnLToday, the sugar factories and plantations are all but gone, leaving behind museums, unharvested wild sugar cane and… a rum factory, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

The story of sugar-cane crops on the Costa Tropical goes back a long way, both in time and in distance, because the plant first appeared 6,000 years ago and 15,000 km away in Papua New Guinea. From there it reached China and India even though it wasn’t part of the human diet until 3,000 years later.

Sugar cane is mentioned in ancient Hindu religious-poetic texts around 800 BC and then legal documents between 200 years BC and 200 years AD. And it was in India where Alexander the Great’s soldiers discovered it.

The Persians also found it there in the Indus Valley and wrote of a “honey that needs no bees” around 500 AD. Then came the Arabs, who had across it in Mesopotamia and had brought it with them across the Mediterranean through the expansion of Islam.

And that’s how it arrived on the Costa Tropical, during the 10th Century. But its arrival in Spain was only yet another staging post before the Spanish Empire exported it to its colonies in the New World, but that’s another story.

In the 13th Century the Muslim Geographer, Yakut, wrote of the vast plantations in the Vega del Guadalfeo, which enjoyed a unique climate,  in the whole of Europe: sugar cane is not resistant to frost and sub-zero temperatures and must have bountiful water in the periods of maximum growth (spring/summer) – here both conditions were met.

Sugar cane was originally cultivated from Manilva (Málaga) to Adra (Almería) but it was the Costa Granadina where conditions were best and where this crop was grown right up to the 1990’s.

One of the few things that the arrival of the Catholic Monarchs didn’t manage to ruin was sugar production – quite a different story was the silk industry. With the fall of the Nazari Kingdom in 1492, centred in Granada, the agrarian life surrounding sugar-cane production was changed: The Muslims combined sugar-cane crops with other crops, but the new rulers decided to concentrate only on sugar cane. The result was that the Granada production reached all the important-at-the-time capitals of Europe: Genoa, Paris, London, Florence, Venice…

But the crop had been implanted in the New World, which became a serious competitor. This direct competition, coupled to the disastrous management of Spain in the 19th Century under despotic monarchs began to tip, fatally, into the favour of the Caribbean.

Whereas in the New World new agricultural techniques were harnessed, in backward Andalusia things trundled on much as they had always been done. Little by little, the low crop yield of the Costa Tropical resulted in a contraction of the area under the crop.

Then came the experiments with cotton at the beginning of the 19th century to the further detriment of sugar-cane production. Couple this with the surge in sugar-beet production in the rest of Europe and things looked pretty grim.

Then around the middle of that century, Spanish botanist Ramón de la Sagra, having witnessed first hand how the Industrial Revolution (steam power) had been harnessed to the sugar-cane industry in Cuba, decided to jump start the lethargic agricultural sector in Andalucia, until then stuck in practices little changed since the Middle Ages. By 1860 there were seven industrialised sugar factories in Motril.

But it was short lived because by 1916 prices plummeted owing to overproduction. Things improved slightly up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, but nothing like the magnificence of the late 19th Century. By the 1970’s things had dived again thanks to the arrival of subtropical fruits in the 1950’s. By 1985 only one factory remained (La Azucarera del Guadalfeo) and the last crop was harvested in 2006; 35,000 tonnes of cane were harvested and 3,000 tonnes of sugar were produced, which were consumed in the local region.

The origins of Ron Montero
The sugar factories had gone, but not the rum factory Ron Montero which produces some of the finest rum, using imported molasses since the local supply dried up.

Ron Montero was founded in 1963 by Francisco Montero Martín.

Francico was born in 1929, the youngest of six children and spent a turbulent childhood owing to the Spanish Civil War, something which marked his character for life. Whilst Spain convulsed and Europe erupted in flames, young Francisco spent his childhood days amongst the sugar cane and steam of his grandfather’s sugar factory, La Melcochera in Lobres.

However, it was in his father’s factory that he learnt how cane was turned into sugar. It was at home, nevertheless, where he experimented with how to turn molasses into rum through distillation, bless his cotton socks!

He had tried his first aguardientes whilst still a young boy – as did most young boys of that generation. A labourer or fisherman wouldn’t start the day without a glass to kick-start a gruelling day’s work. The English-language equivalent is ‘firewater,’ and both are generic terms for alcohol between 29% and 60% proof. The fire or burnt logic behind the name is also present in the name brandy, by the way.

Anyway, Francisco was intrigued by the whole distillation process and aguardientes to rum is a short pace.

When the head of the family died in 1952, the sons split the tasks between them, leaving 23-year-old Francisco in the laboratory and in charge of the technical side of production. His father, Enrique, besides running his business, had also been the Mayor of Motril, by the way.

One of Francisco’s first experiment was a brew so strong that he christened it Aguardiente Llorica (weeping firewater) because it invariably brought a tear to the drinker’s eye. He tinkered with vodka and gin before marrying his life to rum – and a happy marriage it was.

He had it clear that he wanted a rum, aged in American oak, that from birth to maturity spent a lengthy childhood – no rushed processes, just the stately walk of rum coming of age in the most traditional of manners.

The fundamental thing for him was the molasses; it had to be fresh, because if it wasn’t it quickly loses quality. The old sources of molasses from factories in Cuba and Colombia fall into this latter category, which is why Ron Montero imports its molasses from India and Pakistan.

Francisco never had the time to marry – he was already wed to the factory – but he did have one serious fiancee, who was from Almuñécar, which might had something to do with the name of one of his first rum creations, Ron Blanco Sexis, which was discontinued in 1980.

MOT Rum Factory OnLRon Montero Today
In 1963, on land inherited from his father on the port road, he built his bodega; a life-long dream. Now aged 34 he produced his Ron Palido Montero, but it was a struggle. Competitors existed – some of whom cut corners – yet with time Ron Montero became the rum in the province. And Tio Paco, as he became know, did it all by himself, without partners, without a sales team, without his own outlet, just an impeccable product and determination. His sales technique was the word-to-mouth of those that tried it and fell in love with it too. He did have his life-long friend, though, Javier Castro, who took bottles with him on his trips to Granada, Málaga and Almería for his normal job. Javier’s commission for this helping hand was a bottle or two of rum whenever he wanted one.

Francisco eventually retired and the business passed onto his nephew Joaquín Martín Montero and his wife, María Elena Targa. The couple completely renovated the bodega itself, which had hardly changed since 1963, whilst keeping the production technique unchanged.

From there the management of the factory was passed to their very capable daughter, Andrea Martín Targa, whom we had a chance to meet and who gave us an excellent guided tour of the bodega. Andrea, educated in the United States, is completely bilingual. She is young, inspired but steeped in the philosophy of Tío Paco when it comes to producing the finest rum around. She intends to take her time in the family trait – and take Ron Montero far beyond the province of Granada.

We wish her all the luck and only ask her to keep back a bottle or two for the thirsty Gazette team!

Guided Tours
With the disastrous recent fire now behind them, Ron Montero do guided tours of the bodega, which are a not-to-be-missed chance for anyone who wants to learn more about our Costa Tropical and its rum factory.

More information: Ron Montero, www.ronmontero.com, 958 600 183

  1 comment for “Costa Tropical: Sugar and Rum

  1. February 26, 2015 at 11:00 am

    Nice Reading. And a fine rum it is indeed! Both me and friends i have introduced to Costa Tropical has fallen in love with it, so there are some bottles here in Sweden too 😉

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