Nicaraguan Rum, Labour Conditions, and Western Apathy

Rums from Nicaragua are as far away from being my favorites as it gets. There’s virtually nothing in their profiles that is to my liking. As a result, I have stopped getting samples and tasting them altogether at some point. My most recent exposure to Nicaraguan rum was when we’ve had the Kill Devil Nicaragua 1999 17YO (59,5%) in a blind tasting, which I thought was absolutely awful. Some of the other participants seemed to like it at least a bit though. On top of that, some connoisseurs have approached me and told me that some bottlings are supposedly way better than this so I gathered a few samples and decided to give Nicaraguan rums one final chance. But before we start with the tasting there’s something I’d like to address.

Since there’s only one major distillery in Nicaragua, the Compania Licorera de Nicaragua, San Antonio (CLNSA), all rums by independents bottlers should come from this one, no matter what is stated on the label. Some state Chichigalpa (a city close to Nicaragua’s east coast) while others put Volcano Distillery on the label, but all refer to CLNSA, where Flor de Caña is produced. They belong to the Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL), a subsidiary of Grupo Pellas. This family owned conglomerate of more than 20 companies has annual sales of about 1,5$ billion, that’s more than 11% of Nicaragua’s GDP. Head of the conglomerate is a certain Carlos Pellas, a good friend of the Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and the first billionaire of the country. According to Carlos Pellas, he does what he can to alleviate hardship by, among others, providing free health care to his workers and offering 500 scholarships a year to his employees and their children (see the Bloomberg article linked above).

chichigalpa (2)
Sugar Cane cutters at ISA

Most of Chichigalpa’s and the surrounding villages’ inhabitants work at CLNSA and the associated sugar factory El Ingenio San Antonio (ISA), which is responsible for almost two-thirds of Nicaragua’s sugar production with about 17.000 tons of sugar a day. This effectively makes sugar cane a monoculture in the area. Even worse, the death rate in the area is higher than in the rest of Nicaragua (by a factor of six!) and other regions centered around sugar cane cultivation and distillation in other countries. According to the La Isla Network, an NGO “dedicated to ending chronic kidney disease of undetermined causes (CKDu) among workers and their communities worldwide”, ‘enfermedad renal crónica’ or CKDu is the predominant cause of death among this population. Since treatment to kidney failure is very limited in the region, it is usual fatal. It is said that at least 3000 people have died as a consequence of CKDu in Chichigalpa alone in the last decade. For a long time, workers believed chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides to be the main culprit of the problem, which led to El Salvador, who have been affected by the same problem at a similar magnitude, banning 53 agrichemicals in 2013. But in 2015, a group of researchers from Boston University challenged this. They found that the decline in kidney function during the harvest and the differences by job category and employment duration provide evidence that one or more risk factors of CKD are occupational. Specifically, they found that cutters who drank more of a generic energy drink while on the job had a smaller drop in kidney function than those who drank less of it. In fact, field workers who had the most contact with agricultural chemicals, i.e. those who were primarily spraying for weeds and pests, demonstrated the least decline in kidney functioning over the course of a harvest. Those affected the most were the cutters and planters of the cane, which are among the most physically demanding tasks (it is not uncommon to lose 2,5 kilos on a single working day). This suggests that overwork in extreme climate and dehydration might be the main causes.

Since workers are paid per ton of sugar cane (less than 1€/ ton), simply working less hours is not an alternative. Many of them are only employed seasonally, which means that they have to earn the equivalent of a year’s salary in the harvesting season. This leads them to work for longer hours with more exposure to the heat and few to no breaks, just for a somewhat decent pay. Since the payment is rather bad, many workers make use of fake IDs in order to work even more hours. The average yield of a cane cutter is four to eight tons of cane a day. Instead of relaxing the working conditions (e.g. by switching to decent hourly pay) and ensuring proper hydration and intake of nutrients, the response of the sugar factory was to test the workers’ kidney function at the beginning of each harvest. If a worker’s kidney showed signs of failure, (s)he wouldn’t be hired again. To the best of my knowledge, there is still no access to drinking water for the employees and according to the La Isla Network some employees still work for 12 hours a day at temperatures of 38+° Celsius.


Today, Chichigalpa resembles a ghost town according to this reporter. Of its about 60.000 inhabitants, three or four are said to die each and every day. The demand for coffins was so high that its production has been subsidised. A new graveyard had to be added in order to accommodate the bodies. As stated above, the problem is not limited to Nicaragua. El Salvador experienced similar cases and sugar cane workers in other countries as well as people working in different kinds of sectors in the tropics are affected as well. But the numbers for Nicaraguan sugar factory employees are especially bad. Between 2002 and 2012, almost half of all deaths in Nicaragua can be traced back to kidney failures, for men between 35 and 55 that number was three out of for, even. Needless to say, that number is way higher for Chichigalpa and the surrounding villages.

What does all of this have to do with western apathy you might ask!? Despite this tragedy, people like us are sometimes willing to pay hundreds of Euros for just a single bottle of rum. True, that booze might not be the most recent Flor de Caña expressions (I hope no one will ever pay that much for one) but in most cases where these sums of money are involved the money doesn’t actually reach a single person it actually should: The producers and everyone that has been involved in the production process. Please note that I am not criticizing paying large sums of money for a bottle of booze. I do it myself. What is more, if I knew it were to reach the workers I would even love to do so. It’s much rather the greed, hoarding and speculative behaviour that annoys me, especially when we consider that the money involved is just being swapped back and forth between Western collectors and connoisseurs. In many cases, certain single casks aside, the premia we pay are just the result of artificial scarcities due to a few individuals and parties that are buying way more than they actually can and want to consume, just to sell the remains on secondary markets at abnormal prices. What’s funny is that those who tend to pay the most money for a bottle of rum are often times exactly the same people who are looking for the cheapest pack of refined sugar in the super market. My intention here is not to piss anyone off but much rather to increase the awareness of the issue. So if the shoe fits you, I hope you wear it and think about the consequences this kind of behaviour entails.

Finally, what should we do as consumers? Should we simply boycott Nicaraguan rum altogether until working conditions at the sugar factory improve? I do not think so since the employees at the distillery and sugar factory are well aware of the problem and partly even adjusted the number of their working days in order to reduce the burden on their immune systems and kidneys. This shows that these people are dependent on the income they earn at the distillery and sugar factory and a lower demand for these products would simply result in less seasonal hirings, only adding to the misery of the workers. Instead, as stated above, I think it is important to raise the awareness of the issue and to support NGOs such as the La Isla Network, who can actively contribute to improving the working conditions of the affected workers. So next time when you contemplate buying the next rare and expensive bottle, perhaps also keep in mind that some of that money might also be used to support one of the amazing NGOs which ensure that the working conditions of the people, who are ultimately responsible for the luxury good that you are chasing after, improve.

Now, to get back to some (hopefully) more fun business let’s taste a few rums. Since I really don’t have any expectations, I decided against doing it blindly this time.

cgnCave Guildive Nicaragua 2000 15YO (56%): The nose comes with the typical smokey Nicaraguan profile. Behind that we can find burnt cocoa, dark berries such as black currant and brambleberries as well as boot polish. It’s nowhere near as bad as I remember other Nicaraguan rums, probably because the nose is much fruitier. Deeper in the glass I can also find the note that I typically associate with matches. What does it taste like? I immediately get the smokey notes paired with a few salty flavours, caramel and tobacco perhaps.The boot polish became a furniture polish. The black currants are still there but not as present as before. The finish comes with more tobacco and introduces a few spices here and there. However, it’s way too strong and hot. I must say that the nose was not too bad, the taste leaves a lot to be desired however. It’s just too harsh for my liking, even at 15 years. I guess that this might be a Whisky drinker’s rum, irrespective of its quality of course.  (73/100)

canmcCadenhead’s Volcano Distillery 2002 11YO (62%):  The mark on this one is ‘NMC’. As explained above, there is only one distillery in Nicaragua, namely the Compania Licorera de Nicaragua in Chichigalpa. My guess is that the mark simply stands for Nicaragua Main Chichigalpa but who knows. It’s not that it really matters anyways. The nose is very similar to the Cave Guildive’s (CG) but it has a distinct coconut-touch to it. Then again the polish, cocoa and now also clearly cashews. Despite the higher abv, this smells a bit smoother and cleaner. The first sip comes with sweet coconut and plenty of smokey notes. It’s a lot better than the CG as you get a rough idea of what the rum wants to deliver. It is balancing on the fine line between a sweet and a rough, smokey profile. I’d say that if this is what you are after you might want to check it out. I am still not a fan but I am not put off entirely. Strawberry jam, cereal and grassy notes round of the palate. The finish delivers more of the same and despite the higher abv, it is way less harsh than that of the CG. It is an okay-ish rum, given that you like this particular style. For me it is subpar. (74/100)

smwsnSingle Malt Whisky Society Nicaragua 2004 12YO (55%): SMWS always gives us a fancy name paired with their tasting notes. This one is called “Fruit and nut case” while the notes read “Medium-bodied fruitiness, with dark stoned fruits and cocoa waiting to erupt. Butterscotch and marzipan on the palate with a long, dry finish”. So we have a ‘nut case’ without any nuts in the tasting notes… d’uh. The nose is the mildest and least smokey of the bunch. In a sense it is also more elegant but I wouldn’t say that it is better or more interesting than the other two. I get a mix of leather, cocoa beans, chocolate and bitter oranges. Like the nose, the taste is milder than that of the other two candidates. I am buying SMWS’ nut story but I cannot really find any fruits in the mix. The nuts come closest to walnuts this time I’d say, the rest is a combination of sweet, chocolate-dipped cherries, leather and hay. Once again, the finish offers more of the same but supports the rum nicely. All in all, this should easily be the best of the bunch so far, a rum that I don’t mind to sip but wouldn’t buy either. (77/100)

cgn2 (2).jpgCave Guildive Nicaragua 2004 13YO (66%): So let’s try a “sister cask” of the same batch at a higher abv. Quite to my surprise, the nose actually is not too bad. The smokiness is more of a nuance to this sweet and fruity profile. Besides tobacco and coffee beans I get a mix of stone fruits and even a touch of glue. Quality-wise, its miles ahead of the others. While the taste drops off the nose once again, it’s nowhere near as drastic as we’ve had it before. There’s a mix of figs and raisins as well as mild chilies, iodine and plaster. Nicaragua is a bit like rum’s version of Laphroaig, without being as good though. Then some notes of barbecue and charcoal. The 2004 vintage is not too bad and given its 13 years the rum is relatively mature. All in all I don’t think I will ever really enjoy Nicaraguan rum though but at least I now know that it doesn’t have to be awful all the time. By the way, all of these are better than the entirety of the Flor de Caña expressions I have tried (more or less all of them). Did we forget something? Right, the finish. It’s more smoky and closer to Mettwurst or smoked salmon now. I can also find a few herbal notes and get the feeling that I am chewing on leather. Well… thumb-60x60 (74/100)

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