The Caribbean has few rivals when it comes to the world of rum and even the smallest islands boast distilleries producing some of the finest vintages available to global connoisseurs.
Although numerous theories abound, the most generally agreed derivation of the name is that comes from the last three letters of the Latin word for sugar, saccharum.
Barbados is often seen as the first professional producer of rum and that’s where our tour of three Caribbean distilleries starts, at Mount Gay in the capital Bridgetown.
Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
The makers of Mount Gay claim it to be the oldest continually-produced spirit in the world, with no less than 314 years experience distilling the amber liquid gold under their belts. Sir John Gay was an 18th century Barbadian businessman and friend of the brilliantly-named John Sober who was fortunate enough to inherit a distillery.
Their combined talents brought Mount Gay Rum to fruition and then to the world through the busy maritime trade from the island. The distinctive, bold flavour is thanks to the island’s pristine water supply, Barbadian molasses known as ‘black gold,’ and fermentation and then distillation in traditional ‘double copper’ pot stills.
Maturation then takes place in charred white oak barrels that once held American whiskey, before the critical blending, which can contain dozens of different distillates. A stop at their impressive and comprehensive visitor centre is a must, to learn more on the rum’s story – and allow for tastings.
As Silversea’s Silver Spirit – aptly named for a rum tasting tour – docks in Martinique, French license plates dockside remind visitors this has been a French territory since 1946. Rum is the third biggest part of the economy and there are seven operational distilleries, although only one remains family-run: Clément.
At the former distillery and beautiful house surrounded by bougainvillea, staff explain how best to taste it: “Hold the stem – never the glass. Swill the glass to let the alcohol vapors out and then smell the different notes – vanilla, caramel, ginger and many more.”
Their Golden and Amber rums are aged in wood for 12-18 months, while their old rums are aged in oak barrels for anywhere between 18 months to 15 years. As with wine, there are exceptional vintages, namely the 1952, ‘56 and ‘70. They stress that their rum is agricultural, not industrial, as it’s produced with pure sugar cane, not molasses. As a result, they are the only rum in the world to hold the coveted French AOC label – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – as with Champagne or Cognac.
The small island of Grenada may only have 100,000 people, but most of them agree that their proudest export is Clarke’s Court Rum, thanks to 80 years knowhow in distilling, ageing, blending and bottling. Huge steam engines are remnants of what was the latest technology, while enormous vats remain in use. For most, the Hospitality Centre is the draw where their light, dark, flavoured, aged and overproof are all available to sample while sitting on their unique furniture made from barrels.
River’s Rum may boast Grenada’s strongest at an eye-watering 90% proof, but Clarke’s Court ‘Pure White’ comes in at a respectable 69% proof, a seven time international competition winner, best served with just a dash of local bitters.
Chris Dwyer visited the Caribbean as part of a cruise on the Silver Spirit.