“Why does it not surprise me that much of Madeira’s earliest and most successful industries were related to alcohol?”
Of course, Madeira is not alone in fulfilling man’s enduring interest in a ‘wee tipple’… just now and again, you understand! But there’s a rich and enduring liquor legacy here on the ‘Garden Isles’ that should be further explored.
The sugarcane harvest lasts only 3 weeks in Madeira (usually from late April to mid-May) and every Poncha drinker on the island raises a glass to a bumper harvest. Rum puts the punch in ‘Poncha’ and as the fishermen’s traditional ‘pick-me-up’ gets evermore popular, demand for sugar cane and its distilled derivative is steadily on the rise.
It was 1.30 pm when we arrived in Porto da Cruz, half an hour northeast of Funchal and North Mills Rum Distillery was closed! You need to keep in mind here in Madeira, people stop for lunch and usually have a proper sit-down meal. We decided to do the same at ‘A Pipa’, a so-called snack bar just around the corner… more on that in a separate article…
Very suitably refreshed, we returned to watch trucks of varying shapes and sizes, like
giant hedgehogs, deliver cargoes of cane. Each ‘hedgehog’ waited in turn to allow
hungry mechanical claws to grab fistfuls of purple or yellow stalks to feed the jaws of
the waiting mill.
The sugar cane was then squeezed and pulverised to extract the sweet liquid and prepare it for distillation into rum. It’s quite a simple process really, reminding me of a giant juicer! We were lucky to see the plant in full operation at this time of the year but North Mills Rum Distillery is open for visitors all year round. You can enjoy a free tour to get the gist of the process and best of all, savour a free sample at the end of the tour.
I don’t generally think about rum as being Madeiran! The Caribbean is more associated with the spirit; Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, that sort of place!
But this is just a reflection of sugar’s migration around the globe. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Madeira was very much the ‘sweet spot’ of the sugar industry. At that time, those sturdy staves of sugarcane were like the Fairy Godmother’s magic wand for the Madeiran economy. In late Middle Age Europe, sugar was white gold and Madeira was its treasury!
Rum is made by fermenting and distilling the juice of sugarcane then either bottling the clear spirit for mixing with Poncha and other cocktail drinks or ageing it in oak barrels to produce a darker premium rum that can be sipped on its own or on the rocks.
The budget version was particularly popular with sailors as ‘Grog’, a sea-faring staple made by mixing beer or water with the cheapest rum particularly associated with the British Royal Navy. Where do you think the word ‘groggy’ comes from?
Today, Madeira produces only a tiny percentage of the world’s rum. Five companies on the island provide around 600,000 litres annually while the island of Martinique, sporting one of the Caribbean’s smallest companies produces four million.
The market in Madeira is mainly for younger rums with a 40% alcohol volume to be consumed in Poncha. For sipping rums, ageing is required usually for three, six or nine years. Rum aged in oak barrels for 9 months old is used for daiquiris and mojitos.
Going Through the Mill
North Mills Distillery is a historical landmark in the township of Porto da Cruz. Known as the ‘Engenho do Norte’ or Northern Mill, the facility was established in 1927 and it still uses the original steam-driven grinding machine, the only mill in Europe still doing so.
The archaic grinder was going like the clappers when we first entered then it would almost ‘grind to a halt’ as a heavier load of cane hit the crushers. There are a few other interesting artefacts around such as a wood boiler, built by Jones Burton & Co from Liverpool.
During our tour, the little factory was a shambles of sugarcane. We’d watched the guys cut the stalks and carry them to waiting trucks a few days earlier so was interesting to follow the process to its conclusion. I must admit, seeing the thin, insipid fluid barely trickling out of tiny little taps seemed an anticlimax but I felt much better about it when we sampled the final product in the form of a Poncha! Saúde (Good Health)!