"This country's never going to get fixed unless you fix the slums. But if you can turn this rubbish heap around, you can turn anything around," explains Alberto, who conceived Alcatraz and deliberately narrow-focuses all of Santa Teresa's social-action programs locally and beyond. "Once you set the example, you have something to show, to say, 'Look here what we did with almost no resources. Imagine what could happen with resources.' That's what we want to do, get down to the nitty-gritty facts: We did this. Don't talk, do.

"We've done one or two things," he adds modestly. "All you have to have is a good idea, no?"

One of the other things they did while working to fix the slums was save C.A. Ron Santa Teresa from financial ruin.

Unlike most rums sold in the U.S., which are mixed but unaged, rum in Venezuela - where the spirit is serious business - must be aged a minimum of two years in order to be called rum. That makes even the less expensive rums Santa Teresa has marketed so far in the States (Grand Reserva, a fruity, woody, two-to-five-year-old golden añejo; Rhum Orange, an elegantly silky rum steeped with Valencia orange peel, not orange flavoring; and Araku, a sophisticated coffee-infused rum, to be introduced this summer) Cadillac quality, comparatively.

And 1796, the firm's top-of-the-line rum, is a Rolls Royce. The exquisitely balanced bicentennial brew is the world's only rum produced in a solera. A costly artisan system normally used for Spanish brandy and sherry, the solera system blends four- to 35-year-old rums, then ages and flavors the blend further in a stacked series of old French Limousin oak barrels. "I've seen some very commercial rums use the term 'solera' on their labels while never using a true solera system, which requires patience and a lot of human attention," explains spirits evangelist Sean Ludford, whose website, www.spiritsexperts.com, analyzes liquors. "Rather, these commercial makers simply create a blend of rums of various ages."

In contrast, the true solera's finished product is rich, nutty, honeyed, and spicy, full-bodied but so smooth it practically purrs. It's rum capable of converting people who think they hate rum. And mixing it with Coke would be sinful. "'In terms of quality, 1796 joins the relatively small category of contemplative wood spirits like single­-malt scotch or cognac, and it can be used in the same way," enthuses Ludford. "It offers similarly complex aromas and flavors. You sit down after a good meal and enjoy it straight, when you want to relax."

"The Rhum Orange is also great for after eating," opines Edgar Leal, the James Beard House-honored chef and owner of Miami's premier Nuevo Latino restaurant, Cacao. "Even the elegant bottle design makes you see you're having something special."