In the city of Bayamón, just a 20-minute drive from San Juan, Puerto Rico’s oldest rum producer continues to make its signature spirit with the methods it developed in the 19th century. Outside the island, Ron del Barrilito has achieved quiet, cult-like status in drinking circles. But in Puerto Rico, the rum has a fervent fanbase.
It all started in the 1870s, when Pedro Fernández returned to his family’s hacienda after studying engineering in France. He came home with a passion for aged spirits and started experimenting with different rum recipes using sugarcane grown around the hacienda. Fernández settled on what’s now known as the Tres Estrellas (“Three Stars”). Aged for six to ten years in oak barrels that previously housed sherry, the rum had a fruity sweetness and smoky aftertaste that quickly found fans in hacienda visitors. Since Fernández served it out of a little barrel, guests started requesting ron del barrilito (“rum from the little barrel”). When he decided to start selling the spirit in 1880, the nickname became official.
When Prohibition began in the United States in 1920, Ron del Barrilito ceased most of its commercial production, selling its rum for medicinal purposes only. After Prohibition ended, Pedro’s son, Edmundo, created a second variety, the Dos Estrellas, which was aged for three to five years. The resulting rum was lighter in flavor than its predecessor and better for cocktails. (There are now two additional varieties, the Cuatro and Cinco Estrellas, which are aged up to 20 and 35 years, respectively, and both made in the style of sipping rums.)
Though they no longer operate as a distillery (they buy rum—some say from nearby liquor juggernaut, Bacardi—then blend and age it on-site), the nearly 140-year-old producer holds tight to its traditions. They only created a website a few years ago and opened a tasting room in 2019. You can book a tour in advance, which includes a history of the hacienda, the rum-making process, and a visit to the barrel room. Be sure to ask to see the “Freedom Barrel,” filled in 1942 and not to be opened until Puerto Rico achieves full independence. When that happens, the company says they’ll serve the rum in the town square.
You can also sample all four rums in the tasting room. With the purchase of the Cuatro Estrella variety, you can even fill your own bottle from the barrel, handwrite the label, dip it in wax, and apply the official seal.