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A Rum Hop Through the West Indies

Island-hopping through Barbados, Jamaica and Martinique, our writer find the islands pack a punch.

Martinique’s Mount Pelée; Distillerie J.M.

Left to right: The verdant slopes of Martinique’s Mount Pelée; rolling out the barrels at the Distillerie J.M.

Rum is made on innumerable palm-fringed islands and along many sun-parched coastal plains – basically, anywhere you find sugar cane growing, you’ll likely find rum being made nearby. What makes rum supremely captivating – like terroir-driven wine or small-batch craft beer – is that it neatly manages to embottle the place where it’s made. (No, this is not a word. Yes, it should be.) Every rum island has its own history and set of traditions influencing flavour, like the yeasts and microbes of Jamaica or the composition of volcanic soil on Martinique. And Barbados is arguably the cradle of rum, the land from which every bottle on every back bar worldwide can trace its lineage.

This seems self-evident one warm and sunny morning when I arrive at St. Nicholas Abbey, set in Barbados’ hilly Scotland District. An impressive allée of mahogany trees leads to one of the greatest surviving Jacobean mansions in the western hemisphere, built in the 1650s and festooned with curved and scrolled gables.

Larry Warren and son; Mount Gay giant pot; Barbados locals; St. Nicholas Abbey

Clockwise from top left: Larry Warren, atop the ladder, with his son Simon in the St. Nicholas Abbey barrel room; one of Mount Gay’s giant pot still; Barbados locals gather at roadside restaurants for swordfish cakes, rum drinks and cold beer; some of the outbuildings at St. Nicholas Abbey date from the 1650s.

I briefly explore the carefully restored home, which is all dense, dark woodwork with formal dining room laid out as if for an impending feast. Then I wander down to visit the new rum-making operation, in an outbuilding near the stone base of an 18th-century windmill. Deeds suggest that rum was made here as early as 1658, although it’s uncertain when that stopped.

I meet owner Larry Warren, an affable man with a greying ponytail and an accent that brings to mind Newfoundland. An architect by trade, he comes from a family that has lived on Barbados since the 1840s. After purchasing the estate in 2006, Warren opened it up to tours, added a small café and began making rum with molasses produced from the estate’s sugar cane – unique amongst this island’s other producers, who source their syrup offshore. (He also uses yeasts cultured in Speyside, Scotland.) It’s the first new distillery in 20 years, and second in a century, on an island that has seen more than 80 through the ages.

17th-century plantation house

Abbey mode: The 17th-century plantation house is surrounded by lush gardens and tall stands of palm and mahogany trees.

His hybrid pot-and-column still is coppery and steampunk-ish, laden with dials and gauges, and it sits in a room with oak barrels stacked five high. The wood and West Indian heat perform their subtle magic on rum, which ages three years before seeing a bottle. The rum also evaporates through the wood in the island heat. Warren scrambles up a ladder and pops a bung to let me taste some of his first run, and is chagrined to find it empty – it’s been sampled too often.

We find liquid luck in the distillery’s tasting room, where I try his rich and supple white rum. Birds clamour in the trees off the deck, and a familiar aroma wafts through: fermenting molasses. A by-product of sugar production, it’s the raw material for most rums around the world, as it was when Barbados was dotted with distilleries. Shortly after Warren opened, one old-time islander visited, inhaled deeply and exclaimed, “Brudder, haven’t smelled that in 40 years!”

Strawberry Hill Hotel; Appleton Estate rum sampler; Scotchies jerk chicken

Clockwise from left: In Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, Strawberry Hill Hotel has a view to forever; an Appleton Estate rum sampler; jerk chicken cooks slowly over pimento wood at Scotchies in Montego Bay.

That same scent fills the air around the Mount Gay distillery at the north end of the island, where I’m met by spokesman Darrio Prescod, who agreed to show me around. (The distillery is not normally open to the public.) Mount Gay claims, with solid evidence, to be the oldest continuous producer of rum in the world. As we trek off to see the pot and column stills, Prescod fills me in on how the island’s coral limestone bedrock filters minerals out of the water, making it every bit as perfect for distilling as the famous branch water of Kentucky. “It’s safe to say that this island was invented for rum,” he says with a wry grin.

And for enjoying it, too. My best Barbados rum moment happens at John Moore Bar in Weston, on the east coast. It’s something of a glorified shack, wedged between a busy two-lane road and a lovely white-sand beach fringed with sea almond trees. A local crew loudly celebrates a birthday at picnic tables outside (they toast me and I toast them), and I spend a short afternoon working through a set-up – a bottle of Mount Gay rum, and some cola and ice. I sip as I watch fishermen bobbing in lurid green, pink and blue boats harvesting “sea eggs” from urchins offshore: a scene as timeless as Barbados rum.

Jamaican brunch; Floyd’s Pelican Bar

Left to right: Jamaican brunch? I’ll have grilled snapper, fried plaintain, dumplings and coco bread; all aboard for Floyd’s Pelican Bar.

As I criss-cross Jamaica a few days later I pass dozens of small, marginally derelict rum shops, like in Barbados, but with better names: Rumfaces Bar, Denise’s Bar & Car Wash. When I slow down to sip the rum, though, I know where I am. Jamaica’s traditional approach – longer fermentation times and a preference for dense, pot-distilled rum in their blends – makes the local spirit deep and earthy with a full, robust taste, at times reminiscent of overripe pineapple.

My first stop is at Appleton Estate – the source of Jamaica’s best-known export (after Bob Marley tunes) – deep inside St. Elizabeth Parish. The last leg of the drive is like a prelude, taking me through endless, dense sugar cane fields. Appleton’s factory complex has the feel of a small, self-contained, if overlooked, village, complete with free-roaming peacocks wandering between trees with whitewashed trunks and rum barrels with whitewashed heads.

Hellshire Beach in Jamaica

The shacks on Hellshire Beach in Jamaica serve up fresh seafood, Red Stripe and rum punch.

Joy Spence, Appleton’s long-time master blender, has combined sharp sensory skills with training in chemistry to ensure that all rum bottled here is faithful to Appleton’s famed flavour profile, balancing funk with elegance. She shows me around the grounds, including a historic mule-powered sugar cane press and the massive shed-like building where the modern rum-making is under way.

After a tasting of five Appleton rums, several bottles are set before me and I’m told to craft my own blend, mixing the plummy, custardy notes of aged pot-still rum with the bright, lemony zest of the younger column-stilled rum. I pour, taste and tinker. Voilà! I think my smooth, understated blend quite tasty. Joy Spence does not.

The drinks are always better when tracked down and consumed in the roadside dives and seaside shacks that dot the island. At Scotchies in Montego Bay, the jerk pork, served with a fiery pepper sauce that’s not for the timid, was tamed by a rum and Ting (a local grapefruit soda). And Floyd’s Pelican Bar, a reverse oasis in Parottee Bay on the island’s south coast, is essentially a slapdash assemblage of stilts, driftwood planks and thatch set on a swamped sandbar far from land. In other words, the perfect place to savour the richness of Jamaican rum – and chase it with Red Stripe.

Point de Vue Restaurant in Martinique

Lunch is leisurely at the Point de Vue Restaurant in Martinique.

I head away from the waves back into Jamaica’s hilly, forested landscape to Hampden Estate, about 45 minutes from Montego Bay. This sugar estate, founded in 1753, has a Gothic-influenced plantation house still used by the family that owns the distillery. The distiller here has the splendidly Dickensian name of Vivian Wisdom, which makes him the perfect guide for showing me around a place that evidently hasn’t seen much modernization since Charles Dickens.

We spend a bit of time exploring the rum works, a marvel of 19th-century technology with stone walls and abundant spiders and a roof sorely in need of patching. “It’s not a sterile distillery,” says Wisdom, “let me put it that way.” As he explains it, rum making here still requires knowledge of how it was done in decades past, which involves indigenous yeasts and microbes that live in the rafters above and silently colonize the vats during fermentation. They’ve never modernized because customers want the rum to taste just as it does.

Rhum Clément oak barrels; a new boiler at Distillerie J.M.

Left to right: At Rhum Clément, oak barrels bear the brand of Homère Clément; assembling a new boiler at Distillerie J.M.

After, we walk over to the porch-wrapped plantation house and stroll the veranda, sipping some of their fruity, high-ester rum. It’s bold and complex – who needs modern? – and it tastes to me of right here and now.

The majority of rum worldwide starts as molasses, a by-product of sugar production. On Martinique, they make rum (or rhum, as it’s spelled here) from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice – and have done since the collapse of the 19th century sugar industry left a surplus of fresh cane. It’s called “agricole” rum, and when I sip it (especially the unaged white rum), it seems appropriately named – all grassy and agricultural. I know in an instant that this is a product that came from a field. It’s distinctive enough to have its own appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), like Armagnac or Roquefort or Chablis.

Sainte-Luce bar

An order of agricole rum and Orangina at a seaside bar in Sainte-Luce.

The Distillerie Saint-James is a large, industrial outfit producing some fine agricole rums from one of the AOC cane-growing zones in the township of Sainte-Marie. I spend a couple of hours poking around the Musée du Rhum, two buildings chock full of rum history – the old plantation house overflows with colourful French posters and marketing memorabilia of the last century. There’s also an old sugar cane train repurposed to take passengers on a trip to a banana museum (lamentably, not in operation that day), and I find what amounts to a festival of hammered copper: a soaring, two-storey building filled with an enthralling – for a distilling geek like me – collection of a couple dozen ancient stills rescued from the weeds around the island.

Distillerie J.M.

Just a splash: emptying barrels to blend rum for bottling, at Distillerie J.M.

When I break for food, it’s a reminder that I’m in an overseas region of France. Over the course of a few days, I enjoy many fine meals, including Creole-style grilled fish for lunch at a casual beachfront shack with views toward distant Dominica, and a supper of seafood cassoulet and mango tarte tatin in a quiet second-floor Creole-French restaurant called the Yellow. The evening is suddenly made less quiet when 11 finalists in the upcoming Miss Martinique contest arrive to celebrate a birthday – and the clamour quickly goes from bug to feature.

Getting out of the city, I spend most of a day hiking Mount Pelée, the island’s volcano, which towers above the sea. I’m assured it’s dormant (it last blew in 1932), but in 1902 it erupted and almost instantly killed 30,000 people. My path is long and relentless, first ascending to the rim of a caldera, then plunging down into a ravine before climbing the steep volcanic cones to the chilly, 1,937-metre summit – a six-hour round trip with fog drifting by in huge, silent tufts.

The road to Domaine de l’Acajou

The road to Domaine de l’Acajou, Rhum Clément’s 130-year-old distillery, is lined with palms.

From the volcano I can almost see the whole of the island, and I look down the slopes to my favourite rum producer on Martinique – and possibly in all of the West Indies – Distillerie J.M, in the hills of Macouba, near the island’s northern tip. It’s a Shangri-La-like setting with the distillery just above a small pond, and lush forest and verdant slopes in the background.

It’s a busy day when I arrive – a new boiler is being delivered, and one of the towering copper column stills is being reassembled after repairs – but long-time distiller Nazaire Canatous takes a few minutes to greet me. Gesturing to the hills, he explains how the cane is grown on the volcano’s flanks, with harvesters bringing in only as much each day as can be crushed before dusk. After 24 hours of fermentation, the wash is sent through the column stills, then rested or aged before finding its way into bottles.

Peak Martinique

Peak Martinique: Mount Pelée’s volcanic soil and lush vegetation turn up in agricole rum’s fresh, grassy aromas.

The place appeals to me in part because it so seamlessly melds yesterday and today. Canatous has worked here for nearly four decades; he’s the son of the former distiller, who began in 1930. Yet it also has a spiffy new olfactory room to educate vis-itors, where I sample the component aromas (warm Martinique vanilla, fragrant white flower) in the nine different rums produced here. Perhaps not surprisingly, this makes me thirsty.

Before departing, I select a bottle of the delicious, complicated X.O. I know that when I get home, uncorking it will release the north-facing slopes of a volcano and morning sunlight and the sounds of a sugar mill noisily making its way through an afternoon’s harvest.

In short, I hold in my hand Martinique, neatly embottled.


The Caribbean Rum Guide

Barbados

Flavour profile Crisp and bright with hints of molasses and baking spice.

Fermentation Just 2–4 days, for a light wash with fresh aromas and flavours.

Stills Mainly column-distilled, with some pot-still rum blended in for added depth.

Aging From 0 to 12 years. Rums gain complexity over time spent in oak barrels.


Jamaica

Flavour profile Rich and dense evoking tropical fruits and fried banana.

Fermentation Two weeks or longer so flavour elements like congeners and esters develop fully.

Stills Blends favour pot-distilled rum, which preserves more of the flavour compounds.

Aging Two years is common; longer aging – up to 25 years – usually means darker rums.


Martinique

Flavour profile Fragrant and grassy when unaged; the barrel adds vanilla and oak.

Fermentation By AOC rules, sugar cane juice can ferment for up to five days at 34ºC.

Stills Column stills meet strict AOC specs, the standard for rum quality.

Aging Rhum vieux spends at least six years in barrel; white agricole rum gets a six-week “rest” in steel tanks.

 

AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole Established in 1996, the only AOC outside mainland France dictates every aspect of rum production: sugar cane provenance, fermentation time, the stills used and barrel aging. Working with fresh cane juice is tricky – it needs to begin fermenting within a day of being pressed – but makes for a unique flavour.

Tags

BARBADOS     JAMAICA     MARTINIQUE     SUN DESTINATIONS