How One Distillery Is Bringing Economic Opportunity to Belize & Improving Cocktail Hour for Us
Copalli Rum is more than the sum of its delicious parts. It is a rum distillery based in Punta Gorda, Belize, but it is providing—with a refreshingly direct and multi-pronged approach—not just a route to a tastier cocktail for us, but a greener environment, with new economic opportunities and support for endangered traditional culture-ways for Belizeans.
But before we get to that rum, let’s back up.
Bird’s Eye View of Belize
Belize is a little larger than Massachusetts—160 miles long, and 68 miles wide. It is also the least densely populated country in Central America, with a population of just about 418,000 people, according to the U.N. To put that in perspective, the city of Boston alone has more than 675,000 residents, and Massachusetts registers 6.985 million people within its borders.
More than half of Belize’s land is devoted to rainforest, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture organization. The continued health of the rainforest is key not just to the country’s future, but to the future of our entire planet..
The rainforest only covers about 6% of the earth’s surface, but it harbors more than 50% of the world’s species of animals and plants, and provides the world with an estimated 20% of its oxygen. Tourism represents about 40% of the GDP in Belize, and much of that is focused on visits to the rainforest. Private organizations and nonprofits have been stepping up its protection measures in recent years. After declining more than 28% between 1986 and 2018, the Nature Conservancy and its partners recently closed a deal to protect 236,000 acres of rainforest in the country, bringing the percentage of Belizean rainforest land protected up to 40%.
But nonprofits, NGOs, and governmental oversight can’t do it all—especially in Southern Belize, where poverty is particularly endemic. The country, overall, has a high rate of poverty, with 58% of Belize’s youth officially classified by UNICEF as “multi-dimensionally poor,” and lacking “at least one of these basic needs: adequate nutrition, clean drinking water, proper sanitation, adequate housing, and access to education and information.”
“The poverty, coupled with a lack of opportunity, especially in Southern Belize, led a lot of residents to take up unsustainable fishing and hunting practices,” says Wil Maheia, a native of the area, and a well-known conservationist who has worked for decades to promote environmental stewardship in the country. “Everyone wants to do the right thing, but they also need to feed their families. We couldn’t just say ‘stop doing that’ without providing an alternative.”
In 2010, Maheia founded Toledo Exposure, a nonprofit that aimed to protect the rainforest and watershed, while also providing a viable living to local residents. He worked with stakeholders at the Nature Conservancy, and got to know other entrepreneurs and environmental activists, like Todd Robinson.
Pairing Sustainability With Economic Opportunity
Robinson, a trailblazing financier-turned-conservationist who moved to Belize to retire and fly fish, soon discovered that the plentiful stock of fish around the majestic Belize Barrier Reef off the coast of Punta Gorda—the largest living reef in the world—was depleted. After learning that deforestation, gillnet fishing (illegal in Belize as of 2020), and illegal logging were destroying the waters around Punta Gorda, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
“Todd realized that simply trying to protect the rainforest and waterways through activism wouldn’t be enough,” Ed Tiege, Copalli’s president and master distiller, explains. “So he not only purchased about 16,000 acres worth of rainforest, 15,000 of which he set aside in a permanent easement, he set out to provide opportunity and jobs for people.”
The Punta Gorda property, set within the Maya Mountains on the Rio Grande river in Belize, already featured a fishing lodge, and was previously home to a rum distillery named Rocky Run Rum, founded in the second half of the 19th century by fleeing Confederates following their defeat in the Civil War. (But that’s another story).
Robinson and Maheia, who now serves as a sustainability and conservation consultant at Copalli, approached sporting goods brand Orvis Company for help.
“They not only agreed to help us, they brought in staff members to train the families we’d approached about stopping their unsustainable activities,” Maheia says. “They taught them how to fly fish, and provided them with the means to not just make the salary they were before, but in many cases, double or triple it.”
Robinson also built out an ecolodge on the property to bring in adventure-minded tourists and fly fisherman who are once again flocking to the revived region. Opened in 2018, the all-inclusive luxury lodge includes an array of eco-and-adrenaline-infused experiences.
Great Cocktails, Doing Good
Robinson also—along with Tiege, whom he recruited in 2015—have managed to launch an award-winning rum distillery with serious eco-creds. Copalli Rum is the first organically certified rum produced in Belize, and is at the heart of the Copal Lodge’s working certified organic farm. The farm, which produces almost all of the food served at the lodge, grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, coffee, and cacao, and also raises chickens, goats, and pigs for their eggs, dairy, and meat, and has 80 acres of sugarcane for the rum.
Copalli has another 20 acres of sugarcane at another farm, and recently purchased a 2,000 acre farm, which they will slowly replant over time to sugarcane.
“Part of our mission is to only replant abandoned citrus orchards with sugarcane,” explains Waluca Maheia, Wil’s son and Copalli’s global brand ambassador. “We have not and will not ever rip out portions of the rainforest to plant sugarcane. But farmers have found that citrus isn’t really commercially viable in Southern Belize, because our land sits too close to the water table. The limestone-rich soil is perfect for growing sugarcane suitable for premium expressions of rum, so we are able to replace abandoned citrus acreage with sugarcane.”
In addition to farming sugarcane and everything else organically, they collect rainwater (about 100,000 gallons annually) to proof the rum in lieu of groundwater and produce less than half of the industry average of carbon emissions per bottle thanks to their sustainability efforts.
Copalli also refrains from burning sugarcane in the fields—a common practice in rum production that contributes to particulate pollution—and powers its refrigeration by steam, which requires less electricity and produces fewer emissions than comparable systems. Copalli uses biomass produced from the sugarcane field waste to power their boiler, creating a zero-waste production system. (Read the full sustainability report here).
Through the lodge, farm, and distillery, Copalli now employs more people in Southern Belize than any other organization, save the Belizean government. But it also gives back in other ways.
“Copalli contributes to community organizations that help keep local residents healthy, improves their future prospects, and preserves their cultural legacy,” Wil explains.
Primary beneficiaries include Claver College Extension, which provides adults with accredited high school diplomas (about 50% of adults in Southern Belize lack a high school diploma, in part because the law requires education only until age 13); Hillside Health Care International, a nonprofit that provides healthcare to about 4,500 patients per year; and Battle of the Drums, a massive annual drumming celebration and program that honors the Garifuna people, who are descendants of the Carib Indians who settled in the country in the early 1800s, and whose culture and language is threatened.
Currently, Copalli Rum donates $50,000 annually to the nonprofits it supports, who share the proceeds equally. As sales of Copalli Rum increase, that number is expected to rise, the Maheias explain.
“And remember, every bottle directly and indirectly gives back to the Belizean people, the rainforest, and the waterways,” Wil says.
The rainforest of Belize harbors 250 varieties of orchids, 500 species of birds, 700 tree species, endangered animals like the jaguar, armadillo, and tapir, and lost Maya cities. There’s so much worth preserving, it’s hard to know where to start.
So just sip the spirit of the rainforest. Right now, Copalli is available online, or at bars and stores in California, Florida, and New York, with plans to aggressively ramp up production and distribution this year. Try the White Rum, the Barrel Rested Rum, or the Cacao Rum, solo or in cocktails. My favorite is a neat Cacao Rum, made from Copalli white rum, placed in a tank to rest with farm-grown organic cacao nibs, which infuse the rum with chocolatey goodness. The rum is then redistilled to remove the color, but the aroma and flavor of the chocolate remains.
Red ripe raspberries, mocha, cinnamon, coffee, cream. Utterly distinct, lush and unexpected. Like the rainforest it’s grown inside and around.