A Toast to a Virgin Islands Legend
On USVI anniversary, we salute Cruzan Rum, still the islands' drink of choice
This year, we say happy anniversary to the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s the centennial of the territory’s transfer from Danish rule to American rule. And across the USVI, celebrators are toasting the occasion the right way: with a cup of Cruzan Rum.
Since the mid to late 1700s, sugarcane plantations and rum distillation have been big business on the islands. According to Gary Nelthropp, President at Cruzan Rum, 85 percent of the island of St. Croix (where Cruzan is located) was broken up into sugarcane plantations. With the molasses taken from processing the cane, each estate began to make its own heavy-body pot still rum.
“I’m looking out my window right now and we have a sugar mill on-site which dates back to 1760,” Nelthropp said. “My father harvested the last crop of cane on the island when I was a young boy. We’re the last historical rum distillery on the island of St. Croix.”
Cruzan didn’t start on this spot, though. The Nelthropp family came to St. Croix in the late 1700s and began making rum on their own estate shortly thereafter. Since then, it’s been a family affair, even through a move to the historic distillery the company now calls home.
“We’ve been making rum for seven generations on St. Croix, but only three generations here at Cruzan distillery,” Karen Nelthropp Low, Cruzan’s manager of guest relations, said.
Cruzan Rum officially began the day after Prohibition ended, though the legacy was going strong long before that. The recipe started as one of those heavy-body pot still rums, but in the 1950s, the family introduced five-column distillation into the process to produce a clean finished product. Now, Cruzan is present at every gathering on the island, the go-to drink for a taste of St. Croix.
The popularity of the brand is at least partially due to how the Nelthropps run the business, too. If brands these days want to have such a lasting legacy, they should consider this advice from Gary and Karen:
Maintain a Standard
This is arguably the best advice the siblings have to fostering a long history for a brand. Set high standards and meet those tirelessly. With Cruzan, the entire process happens on-site, from the mixing of molasses all the way to distillation and aging. And there’s always someone monitoring the process, making sure every barrel matches the quality standards Cruzan requires.
“We’re very proud of our standard,” Gary said. “Knowing we have control of the whole process here is important to us, and having a gatekeeper, someone that truly cares day-to-day what it is we’re producing is key. Our name’s on this. We have a standard and we’re going to meet that standard. If someone wants to change that, we’re going to be standing between our standards and what they want.”
The Nelthropp family runs the Cruzan Rum brand. (From left to right) Gary, a master distiller; Karen, the manager of guest relations; Donald Sr., retired president; Donald Jr., master blender. (Photo: The Nelthropp family)
Treat Employees Like Family
Cruzan has a tradition of longevity with more than just the rum — the employees stay for a long time as well. Gary says that right now, out of the company’s 65 or so employees, the majority of them have been with the business for 40 years or more. And he knows every single one of them by name. Karen also noted how important it is to treat employees well. She calls the team one big family that works closely together.
“We’re hand in hand with the employees,” she said. “We go right out there and dig the mud with them.”
Because almost the entire family is involved in the rum-making process at Cruzan, the team is always able to learn from a different perspective. Karen can teach about guest relations, Gary can explain the intricacies of being a company president and their brother Donny is the master blender. Their father Donald, one of the original partners in Cruzan, retired about 10 years ago but still maintains an active presence in the company. Gary notes that he continues to learn from his father, even to this day, because he remains so involved in the business.
“Having someone like that and being able to learn under someone that is that focused and good at what they do, all of us have been lucky,” Gary said.
Know the Rules
Cruzan is a business on a U.S. territory (it’s now owned by Beam Suntory, but still managed by the family), so it has to follow both laws for the mainland U.S. and laws on the island. Because the Nelthropp family is intimately familiar with these rules and regulations, they can show exactly how the company gives back to the local economy.
“There are excise taxes generated in the Virgin Islands and because of the rum we’ve sold to the United States, those taxes come back to the Virgin Islands,” Gary said. “We’ve been an integral part of the economy and the infrastructure because of [this].”
Perhaps most of all, the family behind Cruzan Rum has learned to make sure the people involved with the brand are respectful to everyone inside and outside of the company. “Not only did I learn from my father about distillation and what we’re producing, but we also learned how to treat people,” Gary said. “You should be able to take the time to say hello. Those things are important. They’re part of our DNA.”