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Venezuela's Rocky Economy Creates a Rum Revival

FILE - Bottles of Santa Teresa "Gran Reserva" rum move along the assembly line at the factory in La Victoria, Aragua State, Venezuela, March 26, 2015.

Ever since he was a young man, one of Guillermo Matos' small pleasures has been a mid-month round of cocktails with friends.

His drink of choice was always imported whiskey. But with Venezuela's economic crisis putting its price out of reach, the 45-year-old men's tie store owner has had to change his ways, going local and switching to his country's internationally lauded rum. He now sips a glass of Venezuelan Santa Teresa 1796, on the rocks.

Matos can buy a bottle of local rum for $8, rather than roughly $25 for a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black.

"At these prices who couldn't enjoy a rum?" he said, while gathered with friends at a busy Caracas restaurant.

A lot of his countrymen are also making the change. Rum sales have shot up by more than a quarter here, while whiskey sales shrank by one-third, between 2012 and 2013, according to the Scotch Whiskey Association.

And the South American country's ranking for world whiskey consumption fell from 9th place to 14th place.

Market for Scotch

Venezuela has long been Latin America's biggest market for Scotch, which is recognized as a status symbol here. People commonly toss it back at baseball games and arena concerts, and even working-class families seek out a fine whiskey for special events like weddings.

The love affair with the drink was always something of an embarrassment to the country's socialist leadership.

"I'm not inclined to keep giving out dollars to import whiskey at this volume," the late President Hugo Chavez said in 2007. "What revolution is this? The whiskey revolution?"

But an economic collapse has produced a rum revival.

A plunge in crude prices has battered Venezuelans' oil-dependent economy and sharply lowered export revenues. The government has tightened rigid currency controls and restricted spending on imports to high-priority goods such as food and medicine.

With inflation running above 60 percent, Venezuelans' money no longer goes as far, putting whiskey beyond reach for many. A bottle of Chivas Regal 18 Year Old Whiskey costs $31, calculated at the black-market exchange rate, more than Venezuela's monthly minimum wage.

Boost in domestic spirits

Such economic downturns often have prompted a boost in domestic spirits, said Nestor Ortega, master distiller at Santa Teresa, one of the country's premier rum makers.

Besides oil, rum is one of the few exports for which the country is steadily building an overseas reputation.

Key to its success are stringent laws that demand rum be aged for at least two years. And unlike more arid sugar-growing parts of the Caribbean, local rum makers say the fertile soil and cooler climate in the best rum-growing area outside Caracas lends Venezuelan rum a rounder, more flavorful aroma.

At Hacienda Santa Teresa, Beatriz Zambrano leans over a control panel straight out of a sci-fi movie and monitors a collection of pumps, stills and boilers. From here she can see the entire distilling process, from the temperature at which molasses from a nearby sugar mill is fermented, to the rum's traditional aging process in white oak barrels previously used to store sherry from Spain.

"With this, I don't have to be outside all the time," said Zambrano, who supervises a crew of some 400 employees. "Whatever failure there is, it shows up on the panel."

Fifth-generation rum maker

The laboratory-like conditions have served the fifth-generation rum maker well. Santa Teresa's 1796 features prominently on any list of the world's best rums, and last year won a gold medal in the Global Rum Masters in London in 2014. Venezuelan rums overall won six prizes at last year's San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Matos said he's enthused by the rum's success abroad.

Even if the economy were to right itself and prices for his once beloved whiskey were to fall within reach again, he says he's hooked on rum and has no intention of switching back.

"It's been a nice surprise," he says, adding that he's started collecting cocktail recipes made with rum. "Venezuelan rum is very good and it's a lot of fun to use for mixing drinks."