Growing up in Puerto Rico surrounded by his family’s business, Roberto Serrallés could scarcely avoid the rum world. But after 20 years in Puerto Rico, he moved to the United States to pursue a PhD from the University of Oregon with the hope of one day becoming a professor. He didn’t stay away from Puerto Rico for long. When his father called seeking advice on an environmental issue the company was facing, Serrallés was intrigued, and he spent the next four years consulting on a wastewater energy project for Destillería Serrallés. After completing the project, Serrallés joined the family business full time, and today, he’s Vice President of Business Development and Commercial Director. He recently took time to chat with Joshua Harris of The Bon Vivants (and Pig & Punch) about why he’s passionate about Don Q products and how he likes to spend his downtime.
Josh Harris: What was your title and job description when you first started working with your family’s company?
Roberto Serrallés: When I started I was the Director of Environmental Risk Management. That was basically 100% of my job—to finish setting up this wastewater treatment plan, building it and getting it off the ground. From there I started doing a few more commercial things. Right now I’m VP of Business Development and the Commercial Director, so I oversee all sort of commercial aspects of the company both local and export markets in the U.S.
JH: What do you enjoy most about your job?
RS: What I enjoy the most is that we make really good products; it’s a lot easier to sell when there’s an intrinsic quality in the product. Also, being part of this family business. Spending time with my dad is actually one of the highlights of my days.
JH: There’s a lot of rum in the world. A lot of people distill sugarcane and export it to the U.S. and all over the world. We have an extremely competitive market for all sorts of spirits, and I imagine you see that magnified in many ways in the rum category. What would you say sets Don Q apart?
RS: The most important thing that sets us apart is embedded in how we go about making rum. Our DNA is completely intertwined with the products we make, and its something that happens when you’ve been doing this for 150 years as a family. You just sort of become an extension of your product and your product becomes an extension of you. We stick to traditional ways. We don’t cut corners or jump on the latest bandwagon. We won’t add colors to make our product super dark because that’s what’s selling the most and we’re certainly not going to sweeten our rums. We make honest rums the way we feel like it’s intended to be made, the way we’ve always made them.
JH: When you’re out visiting a bar in Puerto Rico or the U.S., how do you like to drink Don Q?
RS: I love Champagne and anything that has to do with sparkling wine or bubbles, so I’ll ask the bartender to make me something that includes Champagne.
JH: What is it about Pig & Punch that appeals to you, and why do you continue to support us every year?
RS: We have a slant in our thinking, which is very community-based and community-oriented. When we had the opportunity to help with Pig & Punch, I thought it was really cool that a group of bartenders get together and do these things that are so driven towards community. That was inspiring to me—to see this group of people come together to try to give back. That’s kind of why we jumped in and it’s been a natural fit for us ever since.
JH: One of the things we find in this business is that the line between work and play can get very blurry. When you’re truly able to detach from your work and responsibilities, what do you enjoy doing?
RS: What I do most when I’m not at work is spend as much time as possible with family. When we’re in Puerto Rico, we’ll go out to the beach; we have a boat that we’ll take out to snorkel. The kids love it, and I can’t wait until they’re both 10 years old so we can scuba dive. The other thing we like to do is travel. I think it’s so important for kids to be exposed to different cultures, different ways of doing things. I’ve also become a master Lego-builder; just give us a blueprint and we’ll knock it out.
JH: Speaking of travel, what’s your one not-to-be-missed travel destination?
RS: I did a backpacking trip through the south island in New Zealand in 1986. I did this trek where I crossed from the northeast all the way to the west coast, called the Heaphy Track. I’d have to mention that place, just because of the sheer natural beauty of the west coast of the south island of New Zealand. I also have a special place in my heart for the Solo Khumbu valley in Nepal, which is just at the foothills of the Himalayas, basically where the trek starts to go up to Mt. Everest. The people are amazing. The cuisine was interesting.
JH: Throughout all the traveling you’ve gotten to do, what has been your most memorable fine-dining experience?
RS: I once ate a place called The Herbfarm outside of Seattle. This place was phenomenal. They do very small plates; I think we had seven different plates. I was in great company with some really good friends, and we did this dinner that was just absolutely remarkable. To this day it stands out as one of the best.
JH: On the flip side, what’s your go-to street food?
RS: I love pho, and Seattle has a number of fantastic pho places. It’s nourishing, authentic and tasty, and you walk away having spent just a few dollars feeling like you’re set for a few days.
JH: And now for some rapid-fire questions…
JH: Cats or dogs?
JH: Early bird or night owl?
RS: Night owl.
JH: Coffee or tea?
JH: Beach or mountains?
RS: I’d say coastal mountains.
JH: Forks, chopsticks or fingers?
JH: Books, movies, or TV?
JH: Aged or unaged?
JH: Standard or automatic?
JH: Hot tea or iced tea?
RS: Hot tea.
JH: Still or sparkling? Although I think I already know the answer…
RS: Sparkling, for sure.