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  • Writer's pictureStuart Pearce

Madeira Rum pt2 - The distilleries and bars

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

Following on from my overview article about Madeira Island and its incredible rum history (here), today I'm going to provide little detail on the 5 rum producers (all of which I visited during my recent trip to the island), as well as a few excellent bars.

The Distilleries

Located in Porto da Cruz, a popular hub for surfing and trail running situated on the northeast coast.

A beautiful, traditional looking distillery established in 1927, Engenhos do Norte is now heavily geared up to the commercial coach tours presumably from cruise ships in Funchal, so it was hard to get beyond the crowds and find any deeper insights into the distillery. [unfortunately I didn't get any response to my email asking for a more in-depth tour]

The small amount I did gather is that they operate 3 column stills and 1 pot still. The vast majority of their output is from the columns - which includes all aged bottlings (for the next couple of years at least).

They have recently made a conscious shift to age a much larger proportion of their output, which they bottle under a number of brand names. The most significant being Rum North, Branca and 970. With the cask strength 970 single barrel series being the pinnacle of their line-up.

I had the opportunity to try a number of 970 bottlings during my trip, these are aged up to 15yrs (which begets a c.40% angel's share), in a variety of different casks.

To my taste the 15yr had lost too much of the fresh cane notes and had not interacted well with the cask, resulting in an unappealing wet wood taste. The standouts of the 970 line were the younger releases, particularly those aged in virgin oak followed by ex-Madeira.

More detail in pt3 of this epic series when I review a number of Madeira rums.

Established in 1901, this stunning old distillery is located in view of the ocean on the southwest coast of the island. It boasts an excellent museum, showcasing the rich distilling history on the island, as well as a massive 1 year old Bolo de Mel (Madiera Honey Cake) - a practical demonstration of the longevity of these local delicacies, that does actually get eaten by the team once a year!

Engenhos da Calheta are revered as producing the number one aguardente (unaged rum) for Poncha - although that tends now to only be the view of the older generations.

Although also geared up for the predictable coach tours, I was lucky to arrive during a quiet spell and was shown around by a helpful member of the team. After which I was able to purchase samples of a selection of the distillery's aged rums. A very enjoyable visit, although sadly the lacklustre rums were a huge disappointment, lacking in both flavour and body, and further disadvantaged by their time in what I can only guess were poor quality barrels. Best stick with the Poncha rum.

Unlike the first two distilleries, Engenho Novo is a relatively new, relatively modern distillery set in an industrial park in the southwest of the island. But don't let that fool you - behind this arguably ugly facade hides a treasure trove of history, antiquity and very exciting rum operations.

Established in 2006 by a descendant of the family who ran, between 1845 - 1986, the largest, most important and (in its day) most technologically advanced distillery in Madeira. In 1920 this giant Engenho (located in Funchal) was processing 600 tonnes of cane per day! (They could have managed the entire island's current cane output in just over 2 weeks!)

As I mentioned in pt1 (rum travels - Madeira) Engenho Novo benefitted from several items of distilling & fermenting equipment from the ancient distillery, as well as a substantial stock of 25yr aged rum.

Although the visionary creator of this new distillery is no longer with us, the company honour his legacy by bottling under the brand named after the original founder from 1845, William Hinton (nb: great history of the firm on the Hinton website here)

I was treated to a fascinating and really enjoyable tour of both the distillery and bottling facility by the genial Mario (Ambassador for the William Hinton Brand). The highlights being:

  • The original Hinton wood fired engine (pic above), still burning tonnes of wood every day to provide heat for the distillation. A plan to burn the bagasse is in the pipeline but probably a few years off - and sadly will require the retirement of this old beast.

  • William Hinton 6yr - surprisingly rich and complete for a 40% rum. This is achieved thanks to the blend of ex-port, madeira, brandy, whisky & sherry barrels in aging.

  • The aging stock of 1000 stunning casks (first barrels laid down in 2009, now 20% of their rum is put in cask. These lose 20% angel's share every 3 years in the heat & humidly of the loft located aging warehouse).

  • Tasting outstanding barrel and clay pot samples. A well-aged madeira barrel sample was the pick of the day and I hope it gets bottled as single cask, without reduction (both beauty and the beast, yum!).

From 3 substantial distilleries to Pedro's house! Quite literally, this micro-distillery is situated under the family home on a quiet backstreet not far from the airport. The custom still was installed and bespoked to suit cane juice several decades ago, but it was only in 2013 that Pedro took up the reigns and began producing rum in commercial quantities ... and in a slightly more 'above board' capacity than his father ;-)

Pedro is incredibly passionate about what he does, and his excitement is contagious. He couldn't have been more welcoming, and I had a wonderful time visiting his distillery and tasting his rums.

What he achieves in this tiny space is quite breath-taking. From humble beginnings in 2013, receiving and crushing just 10 tonnes of cane. Fermenting and distilling this to produce 1,000 bottles of rum. Pedro now buys 300 tonnes of cane from local farmers, which is delivered in daily truck loads over a very busy 2 months - literally dumped onto his small driveway, where he and a temporary 4 person workforce shun sleep and rest to process this vast quantity. First through the mini crusher, then 2-3 days in fermentation tanks and finally off to the incredible old still.

Somehow, hidden in nooks and crannies, even hanging from the ceiling, Pedro has shoehorned 67 barrels into the distillery. I wish he could fit more in, as his delicious, full flavoured rum gains even greater complexity after some years in barrel. His award winning 6 year rum is comfortably the best rum I have tried from Madeira!

And now for something completely different. Maria and Paulo would, I'm sure, not mind me saying that they are the mad folk on Madeira's spirits scene, the new kids on the block doing crazy experiments. And, in the rum world, we all love the mad folk doing crazy experiments!

Following Paulo's many successful years in the wine industry, in 2019 these two decided to set up a distillery in Maderia. Against all the odds (not least 2 years of covid lockdowns) they now have a beautiful hybrid still up and running, and a number of interesting bottlings carrying their name.

Maria and Paulo invited me to their small warehouse where I spent a very enjoyable afternoon hearing all about their incredible first few years and tasting their excellent range of rum and eau de vie. Amongst the aged banana brandy, unaged custard apple and prickly pear, two bottlings really stood out for me:

  • Banana Eau de Vie - A brilliant, innovative and frankly delicious Eau de Vie produced using just the rejected bananas from the island that would otherwise go to waste. An astonishing 10-12kg of bananas are peeled, squished, fermented and distilled to produce each 500ml bottle of this tasty spirit!

  • Balancal Rum - The first rum fermented and distilled by Paulo, this rum was crushed* and fermented at Engenhos do Norte using his unusual cabernet sauvignon yeast. It was then first distilled on the Engenhos' pot still to 42% (all carefully overseen by Paulo) before transporting it back to Vinha Alta. After resting for 6 months, it was second distilled on the hybrid still. Half the output has been released in 729 beautifully presented half litre bottles. The other 350L is aging in an absolutely stunning ex-madeira cask [the detailed quality and provenance I learned about this cask is a great example of the care that Maria and Paulo are putting into every aspect of their craft spirits] - I can't wait to try this rum in a few more years!

*Having opted not to buy a cane crusher, Paulo is working closely with Engenhos do Norte to crush his cane and first distil the juice on location in Porto da Cruz. This year he has taken delivery of 1900L of rum at 69.9% which will be diluted before redistilling on the hybrid still. I really question the decision to not invest in a crusher, as I would love to see Vinha Alta fermenting on site with their wine yeast, and then distilling exclusively on their hybrid still.

The Bars

If you love good rums, or cocktails, or if you just like having a fantastic time, Pukiki is an absolute must!

Seriously, this little piece of paradise is worth a trip to Madeira on its own.

Drop in on the first day of your holiday, so you don't miss it. And because I guarantee you'll be back before you leave. Do you get the impression that I liked it? :-) Martin and Carla have done wonders creating a destination bar. I can't wait to be back.

A basic but comprehensive rum emporium in the capital city of Funchal. The very knowledgeable team are on hand to guide you through the Madeira's rum delicacies, and of course to whip up a delicious Fishermans Poncha.

A couple of other bars worth a mention... [both are seasonal, opening roughly April to October]

The bar, restaurant and associated sea water pool complex are a must visit if you're passing Ponta Delgada and the sun is shining.

And if one of their excellent Poncha is not enough, then time your visit for early September when Poncha and cracking tunes are flowing 20hrs a day throughout the 3-day Senhor Bom Jesus festival.

A spectacular little water's edge beach bar & restaurant, with a solid selection of local rums. Make sure you ask Ernesto for his world famous 'shot Cacao'.

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