Nelson Hernández, Ron Diplomático: “A master rum maker is like an orchestra conductor”.

by Raúl Pérez
Nelson Hernandez Ron Diplomático

Ron Diplomático is like a big family. Its 500 workers control the entire rum production process, from the sugar cane fields to the bottling, and everything is done with a love and passion that is rarely seen. This is probably the secret of the great success that their rums have achieved over the years. Ron Diplomático is a benchmark among premium rums, but it is also a symbol of Venezuela’s passion and a reflection of the charm of its people.

In charge of this great family is master rum maker Nelson Hernández – a key player in the world of rum that has raised Ron Diplomático’s reputation to where it is today. In this interview, we discover a man of great experience and wisdom, whose passion for rum is contagious. With a sparkle in his eyes, he tells us all about the differences between the Diplomático rums, the optimisation of the production process, and how proud he is of all his colleagues who work at the distillery.

You have extensive experience in the world of rum, and have held a number of positions in Ron Diplomático before becoming a master rum maker… but was this always your goal, or has it been more of a natural evolution over the years?

It really has been an evolution. I am a mechanical engineer, and my first years of work experience were in the oil industry in Venezuela. From there I moved to our distillery, 35 years ago, which at that time was Seagram’s, also in the technical area. I had to learn the process of making rum well, and that’s when I fell in love. I was very passionate about the care that went into all the stages of rum making and I began to make a career in the different stages of production.

A rum master knows every step of the rum-making process in detail because each stage has an effect on the final result. It’s a mixture of science and art.

For all this, you need knowledge, experience, patience, but above all a lot of passion. Because in the end, the rum you create conveys a personality and a passion, which is what defines us as rum makers.

rum barrels

What does it mean to be a master rum maker?

A master rum maker is like an orchestra conductor. They must have scientific knowledge and combine it with art. It’s like a symphony. Being a master rum maker makes me proud and personally, I find it very fulfilling.

Being a master rum maker comes with great responsibility…

Yes, we are the leaders of a great team. Let’s say that we are the visible face of 500 people who work in the factory, because everyone does their bit, and it is the master who consolidates all that work and also gives it an image.

How many rum masters are there at Ron Diplomático?

Tito Corbero and I are currently leading the project. And of course, thinking about the future, within the team we already have people working with us with 10 or 12 years of experience who will replace us at Ron Diplomático.

Unlike other spirits, rum is not subject to one standard set of regulations defining its production. Each country or region has its own style and rules. Can you explain the differences?

The common factor is, of course, the raw material, but rum also represents passion, sharing, enjoyment, and freedom. There are countries where the fermentation process uses a certain type of yeast, which plays a key role in the process. Also, the raw material can change, you can use sugar cane juice, cane honey or molasses.

There is something very important to note: when you make a rum, everything influences the taste. We are talking about the raw material, the fermentation, the distillation, the ageing, the influence of the climate, and so on. Some countries have their own particularities and legislation. There are countries that allow dilution with water and still call it rum, without ageing. In other countries the maturation may change to 3 months or 6 months. There are many variables. So each country is looking for a different profile, but there is no one better than another.

And what defines Venezuelan rums?

In Venezuela, ageing is carried out for a minimum of 2 years in oak barrels, the raw material must be 100% Venezuelan, and the alcohol content must be between 40% and 50%. All of this influences the characteristics of the end product.

There are four elements that converge in Venezuela to create a very particular climate. Our country has a coastline with the Caribbean Sea, 40% of the territory is Amazonian, the Andes mountain range begins in Venezuela and provides high-quality water, and we are very close to the equator with an average temperature of 32º Celsius. These elements create very special conditions in the soil for planting sugar cane.

So in Venezuela, on the one hand, we have excellent raw materials and, on the other hand, very good conditions for ageing thanks to the climate. With the experience of our master rum makers, and these elements, we can create a very particular profile in Venezuelan rum.

Nelson Hernández, master rum maker at Ron Diplomático

And specifically, in your opinion and experience, what defines Ron Diplomático? What differentiates it from other brands?

It is unique and exclusive because there are a number of elements that define what we call “the Diplomático style”. We use two raw materials, sugar cane honey and sugar cane molasses. We also have our own yeast, created in Seagram’s time, which is specific to our profile. And we have three unique and exclusive distilling systems. Each system allows us to obtain a particular final distillate.

We call our continuous distilling system Barbet. It was designed in 1959 exclusively for our distillery, with a very particular internal shape. It allows us to obtain a light but very aromatic distillate, and when you age it for 4 years you get a rum like Distillery Collection Nº2.

Another unique system we have was imported from Canada, where Canadian whisky was distilled. It’s called Batch Kettle and we adapted it to get a semi-complex distillate. There is no other distillery in the world that has a system like this, and when we age it for 6 years we get a Distillery Collection Nº1, with a totally different personality and profile than the continuous column.

Finally, we have a copper batch system, which was used in Scotland until ’59 producing malt whisky. It has a very particular shape and creates a unique distillate like the Distillery Collection No. 3 rum.

So, we have three distillation systems that allow us to obtain three completely unique and exclusive distillates, and then we age them at different times to blend them and obtain our Diplomático rums.

What is the process of making Ron Diplomático and which steps define its quality?

The fermentation process is key because it is where the congeners are generated, which give the aroma and the final flavour. Here, yeast is the star because it is in charge of transforming sugar into alcohol and congeners. You have to control the fermentation process very well to get the amount of congeners you need at the end. Then, in the distillation, you filter those congeners and choose the ones you want and the quantity. But the maturation process is also very important, because congeners are extracted from the barrel according to the type of wood, the toast, or the weather conditions, which are especially good in Venezuela thanks to the high relative humidity.

Ron Diplomático Ambassador

Is the sugar cane used by Diplomático special in any way?

When planting sugar cane, you have to take into account a couple of important parameters. First, to obtain the highest yield per hectare; second, that the sugar content of the plant is as high as possible; and third, that it is immune to pests. Depending on the type of soil you have on your farm, you have to choose the best sugar cane variety to achieve these three objectives.

That said, we work together with a research centre called Fundacaña that constantly evaluates types of sugar cane varieties that adapt to changes in climate and soil types to optimise productivity. This centre has developed a variety called Diplomática, which is specific to our farms, and which allows us to achieve the quality we want. So yes, our sugar cane is, in a way, special.

Ron Diplomático factory

Ron Diplomático is very committed to the environment and sustainability. What processes do you follow to reduce the environmental impact of rum production? What changes have you had to make to achieve this near-zero impact?

We have an organic treatment plant to recycle the cane waste, which we turn into organic fertiliser, and which replaces 90% of the use of agrochemicals. In addition, we pass it on free of charge to our sugar cane-growing partners. In this way, our neighbours are spared all these costs and we reduce the impact on the environment. In this way, we achieve a completely green production cycle. What comes out of the ground goes back into the ground.

This year we have gone a step further in our commitment to the environment to align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In addition to recycling waste, we have started to use our own energy generated from production steam, and we have also managed to reduce water consumption by 50%.

How can we best enjoy Ron Diplomático? Any tips?

There’s a rum with a personality for every occasion. For example, Diplomático Planas is perfect for daiquiris. Mantuano is great in a Rum Mule or a Tiki cocktail. You can also drink it neat or on the rocks, but it’s fantastic in cocktails. I recommend drinking our Reserva Exclusiva neat or on the rocks.

And could you suggest some pairings?

In the same order, I recommend pairing the Planas with seafood. With ceviche it’s just spectacular. Diplomático Mantuano goes very well with cold meats and red meats. Reserva Exclusiva goes well with desserts, for example with tiramisu. In fact, the famous bartender Patxi Troitiño has created a dessert with our rum called Diplomisu, which is delicious.

And finally… What’s your favourite rum?

This is a complicated question [ha ha], it’s like when you ask a parent who their favourite child is… but to give an order I would say Reserva Exclusiva first, followed by Single Vintage, and finally Mantuano or Planas to share with friends.

Diplomático allows that versatility. There really is a rum for every occasion.

Fantastic! I’m sure our readers appreciate all the tips and insights you’ve shared with us today. Thank you very much and see you soon!

It’s been a pleasure, thanks to you.

Translated by Chelsea Cummings from Raúl Pérez’s original Spanish article: Nelson Hernández, Ron Diplomático: «Un maestro ronero es como un director de orquesta».

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