PHOTO: Tasting room at Habitation Clement (Photo by Brian Major)
Rum is as much a part of the Caribbean as blue waters, white-sand beaches and lush countryside. The spirit was created on 17th and 18th century Caribbean sugarcane plantations and soon became a key component in the slave-based colonial economy. Thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson’s "Treasure Island," rum was later inexorably linked to Caribbean pirates.
Rum’s birth occurred when Caribbean slaves discovered molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, could be distilled to create an alcoholic beverage. The drink’s popularity lived beyond emancipation in 1883.
In the centuries that followed, Caribbean rum became a barroom standard as well as an instrument of trade. A rum toast became a goodwill gesture in business deals. In short, every strata of society, from farmers to aristocrats, participated in the Caribbean’s rum-drinking tradition. Even today, many Caribbean residents look to the end-of-day rum drink.
Visitors can sample a taste of Caribbean rum culture via a visit to one of dozens of Caribbean distilleries, production centers and even local rum bars. Three islands offer distinctive Caribbean rum experiences:
The southern Caribbean nation bills itself as the “birthplace of rum.” Tradition suggests the appellation is accurate and there’s no evidence to counter the notion. One of the earliest mentions of the drink occurs in a 1651 Barbados document which describes it as “made of sugar canes distilled; a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”
Rum’s status in Barbados quickly took a turn for the better. By 1703 the Mount Gay distillery was producing what is believed to be the world’s oldest version of the beverage. The Mount Gay distillation process utilizes the island’s limestone-filtered groundwater and molasses developed from the island’s high-quality sugarcane. The molasses is distilled in copper pot stills, using the same technique first developed in 1703.
Travelers can visit the Mount Gay Visitor Centre in downtown Bridgetown, Barbados’ capital. The Centre offers a museum detailing the history of Mount Gay and Barbados’s rum culture, a tasting room where guests learn the fundamentals of the rum-making process and a production hall where visitors can witness production in action. The Centre can arrange tours of local rum shops in and around Bridgetown and also has a bar and lounge, and a gift shop.
St. Nicholas Abbey in St. Peter parish is a Jacobean mansion and former plantation that dates back to 1660. Today the site is headquarters of Nicholas Abbey Rum distillery. Visitors can take complimentary guided tours of the main house, which features antiques and artifacts from the home's 350-year history, as well as the boiling house and rum distillery.
The Foursquare Rum Factory and Heritage Park in St. Philip parish presents a more modern rum-making facility. There are also more than 2,000 local rum bars across Barbados, some no more than colorfully adorned roadside shacks where travelers can interact with local residents. The Sunset Vybz rum bar in the village of Westburg in St. Michael's parish and the Old Brigand rum bar in the town of Shorey in St. Andrew’s parish are just two bars popular with locals and visitors alike.
Martinique's version of rum is distinct from its counterpart in that the island’s “rhum agricole” is distilled from sugar cane juice, not molasses. Martinique rhum is produced in 14 separate distilleries, and carries the “Appellation d’Origine Controlee” designation from France that is unique to Martinique and denotes rhums that meet strict standards.
There are 12 official Martinique rhum brands. Two of the best-known, Habitation Clement in Le Francois, and the Depaz Estate in Saint-Pierre, offer visitor tours of their plantation grounds and distillery facilities.
Habitation Clement is tied to Martinique’s creole history through its founder, Homer Clement, a black Martinique native who attended medical school in Paris and later became a "doctor of the poor" in his home country, working to advance public health. Dr. Clement also served as an alderman and then mayor of the town of Francis from 1885 until his death in 1923.
Clement’s main house was classified a Martinique historical monument in 1996. The estate’s lush, extensive grounds include a botanic garden and palm grove. Visitors can also tour the original rum-making factory and its modern equivalent, which includes huge aging barrels.
The historic Depaz distillery is set on a plantation located at the foot of Mount Pelee, whose 1902 eruption destroyed the town of St. Pierre and killed nearly all of its 30,000 residents. The grounds feature the island’s oldest steam-powered engine, a water-driven paddle wheel, a steam museum and a restored master’s house. Additionally, Rhum Saint-James, La Mauny, Rhum Neisson and Rhum JM all offer tours and rhum-tasting opportunities.
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Rum (“ron” in Spanish) has been produced in Puerto Rico since the 16th century, and as in other parts of the Caribbean, was an integral element of the island’s economy. Distilleries around the island still produce millions of gallons of rum each year despite a long decline in sugar cane harvesting.
The Bacardi Rum Facility, about a half-hour drive outside of San Juan, offers a fascinating look into one of the island’s signature brands. Bacardi is a family-run business which traces its roots to Facund Bacardi i Masso, a 19th century Catalonian wine merchant credited with transforming rum from a locally popular, but relatively unrefined drink into one of the world’s most widely produced and popular beverages.
The “Cathedral of Rum” distillery is housed in a distinctive art-deco styled building where an interactive museum tells the story of the Bacardi family, and features a wealth of original historical documents. Priceless 100-year-old, unopened bottles of rum from the distillery’s earliest days are on display and a screening room features a film on the Bacardi story.
The facility’s bar and tasting room is decked out in red and black leather with a full bar backed by floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Next door is a large room equipped with monitors where visitors can post videos of their impressions directly to Facebook. There’s also a shaded and landscaped outdoor bar.