Rum is as much a part of the history of Puerto Rico as El Morro, the streets of Old San Juan or a plate of arroz con pollo.
The island's rum industry generates more than $300 million in revenues each year and employs hundreds across many distilleries, according to the Department of Economic Development and Commerce.
The history of rum in Puerto Rico is a story of the families who settled there and began producing sugar to satisfy demand in Europe for the product.
Don Q master blender Silvia Santiago explains the distillation process to tour groups. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Don Q
The Serralles family is one of those stories. Originally from Catalonia, Spain, they immigrated to Puerto Rico in the early 1800s, settled in Ponce and since 1865 have been producing rum.
The family behind the top-selling Don Q brand is now telling their story and showcasing their craft in a tour launched in March at their facility in Ponce, on the island's southern coast.
Sugar production was the Serralles' first endeavor when they arrived in Puerto Rico, harvesting and refining the sugar cane that Spanish colonizers had brought to the island centuries earlier. They eventually opened a rum-producing facility at their hacienda near Ponce.
Their distilling business managed to survive the Prohibition era, which lasted from 1917 to 1933 in Puerto Rico, by concentrating its efforts on refined sugar production instead of on alcohol during those years.
The end of Prohibition signaled a new beginning for the family business, marked by the launch of Don Q, its flagship brand, in 1934.
There is a virtual reality component to the Don Q Rum Tour. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Don Q
The new Don Q Rum Tour tells of the family's 157 years in the industry and also gives visitors a peek inside the distilling process.
The tour takes place in the Museo Castillo Serralles, which was the home of the Serralles family for more than 50 years. The elegant 1930s revival mansion includes a butterfly nursery and a Japanese meditation garden with benches, pagodas and koi ponds.
"We feel very excited and proud to share from the Museo Castillo Serralles the history of our island's leading rums. Don Q is an iconic brand for all Puerto Ricans because it represents, above all, culture and quality," said Philippe Brechot, CEO of Destileria Serralles, the oldest operating distillery in Puerto Rico.
"Being able to provide this new experience for our visitors and our customers further elevates this meaning," he said.
Participants on the rum tour learn about the history of rum on the island and the craftsmanship of Don Q production at the distillery.
The Museo Castillo Serralles, once home to a family of sugar and rum producers, and the Vigia Cross are Ponce landmarks. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Don Q
Intro to mixology
Tour participants will also take part in a mixology workshop and prepare a hand-shaken pina colada and an old fashioned as well as have an opportunity to sample rum directly from the white oak barrels in which it is stored. The exhibit also includes an opportunity to get up close with the rum production process via virtual reality technology.
"The 90-minute tour is intended for small groups of up to 15 people max. Less than a week after the tour launched, we saw great interest and foot traffic," said Adamarie Melendez, senior brand manager for Don Q.
"As a permanent exhibition, we're glad it's here to stay so that both locals and tourists alike can enjoy this experience and learn about the rich history and heritage of Don Q rum," she said.
The tour pays commission and is conducted in English and Spanish; admission is $15 per person and must be booked in advance. Days of operation are Thursdays through Mondays at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Participants must be 18 or older to take the tour and must show proof of vaccination to enter. For information, visit https://museocastilloserralles.com.
The Don Q exhibit is part of the Puerto Rico Rum Journey and Rums of Puerto Rico initiatives in collaboration with the Department of Economic Development and Commerce.
The Parque de Bombas is a firehouse-turned-firefighting museum in Ponce. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Don Q
While in Ponce ...
Adjacent to the museum is the 100-foot Cruceta del Vigia, or Vigia Cross, an iconic Ponce landmark that opened in 1984 and has withstood various natural disasters, including three major hurricanes. The arms of the cross measure 70 feet across.
Visitors can ascend the 10-story monument for panoramic vistas of the city and the sea.
While in Ponce, visitors should also make time for the Museum of Ponce Architecture, housed in a pastel-pink building that some say looks like a wedding cake, and the Parque de Bombas, a firehouse-turned-firefighting museum decked out in red and black stripes that resemble a checkerboard.