The first time I ever drank rum was spout-to-lips from a plastic gallon in a fraternity basement. I knew then why the early settlers called the spirit “Kill Devil.”
Now, I treat rum like a bodega cat and leave it alone unless it approaches me. When I do drink rum, it’s Bacardi shaken in a bottle of Sprite or God-knows-what blended with ice and too much grenadine. Never have I taken a swig of a Cuba Libre and pondered the vintage.
The American craft distilling movement is doing its best to redeem the name of rum, but Bacardi still represents a third of the overall market, with Captain Morgan closely behind. Though both megabrands are losing market share annually to upstarts like Cane & Abe and Dancing Pines, the indignity has been culturally absorbed.
But rum is a drink of resilience. It has built nations, fueled navies, and perpetrated countless evils. It was the spur of an industry that transformed a region — a history so potent it can’t be drowned in sugar.
In order to learn this, you need to put aside the Sunday hangovers and pina coladas. You need to leave the United States and drink with untainted lips. So that’s what I did. Courtesy of Cheap Caribbean, I booked a five-day tour through the islands of Antigua, St. Kitts, and Barbados to try and reclaim a relationship with the spirit that’s been haunting me for the past decade.
First drop in the rum barrel: Antigua & Barbuda
Antigua was nearly destroyed in 1995 by Hurricane Luis, greatly setting back its development into a glossy tourist island. It has an almost Southeast Asian feel, with sewers running along the streets uncovered. Following Irma, it’s become a hospice for devastated sister island Barbuda. Our first stop, Antigua Distillery Limited, feels more like an oil derrick than a distillery, but it’s a monument to the resiliency of the storm-battered island.
ADL was founded in 1933 by rum shop owners. Rum shops are keystones in Caribbean society, and the proprietors of these bodega-like neighborhood bars would take rum from distillers, mix it with caramel or other sweeteners, and create signature blends. The directors of ADL wanted to control the production of rum from the beginning, and so they chartered a piece of land on an island no one wanted and have been making the only island-distilled rum ever since.
As we open the van door, the smell of molasses floods in. Molasses is the raw material for rum — once a byproduct that was dumped into the sea by sugarcane refineries, molasses became the brown gold of the Caribbean when slaves discovered you could ferment it into liquor.
As ADL sales and marketing executive Calbert Francis tells us, the sugar plantations of old are now gone from Antigua. The molasses fermented at ADL is shipped in from Guyana or, more recently, Panama. Tourism has taken over as the flagship industry, accounting for over 50% of the country’s GDP, and tourists like to drink. ADL makes 9,000 barrels of rum per batch, processing it through their traditional all-copper column still. The history of the distillery is cached all over its tanks and scaffolding, and they outfit us in hairnets and hard hats before letting us climb up to the fermenters.
Francis walks us through the process of how the molasses is fermented, distilled several times, and aged into rum, maneuvering through every syllable like it’s a poem he learned to recite in school. He introduces us to master blender Kevin Semple, who has the enviable position of tasting dozens of vintages and blending them into the company’s flagship rums, Cavalier and English Harbour. Cavalier is a young-aged rum that sells at the shelf level of Captain Morgan. It’s a definitive mixing rum. English Harbour, however, is a beautiful a five-to-ten-year-aged export that’s quickly endeared itself to Antiguans — who Francis refers to as “by far the most stubborn people on the planet.”
I drink a plastic thimble of their five-year English Harbour. It goes down with a light tingle and a raisin sweetness. I feel no urge to vomit or riot against the taste. I follow that with a ten-year, which rises from the cup with oak and smoke aromas. Its sips like scotch, and I imagine a hand-carved ice cube swimming in two fingers of the stuff.
Second drop in the rum barrel: St. Kitts & Nevis
There are more monkeys than people on the knotty, verdant island of St. Kitts, which has seen a ton of foreign investment. As we make our way to Wingfield Estate, we can see austere mansions in the mountainsides where rich expats sit and drink rum punch and admire the curve of the world.
St. Kitts is nicknamed “the Mother Colony” for its pivotal position in the British sugar trade, and as such, it’s unsurprising that St. Kitts is home to one of the world’s oldest sugar plantations. Rum is not commercially distilled on St. Kitts anymore, but Wingfield Estate, founded in 1625 by an ancestor to Thomas Jefferson, was one of the first to ever process cane into rum in the British New World. In the last four years, the ruins of the plantation were excavated and saved from demolition, and historians are still wrestling to qualify just how important Wingfield has been to the history of St. Kitts.
When we arrive to the estate, it’s raining drops as fat as tortoise shells. The ruins of the 17th Century aqueducts stand resolutely as goats huddle in their shadow. This is a plantation that advanced from animal to water to steam to combustion as a method of crushing sugar cane. It saw the British empire’s glory and fell long before Kittitian independence. In that moment, the magnitude of Caribbean rum becomes clear. Wingfield is the island’s Angkor Wat. It’s most triumphant cultural touchstone. Those mountainside villas wouldn’t exist if these bricks hadn’t been laid nearly 400 years prior.
We retreat back to the van, shaking island rain from our shirts, and depart for a tour at Clay Villa Plantation House and Gardens. Unlike Wingfield, Clay Villa was a plantation run by free people. Hidden behind large headstone walls in the peaks of the island, it’s cloistered off from other plantations. When the government closed the sugarcane industry in 2005, it converted to a museum and animal sanctuary, where it’s tended to by seventh-generation owner Bridget Hurd and her insidiously hilarious husband Philip.
Philip is a 24-year veteran of the British navy who knows the villa instinctively. Between the collection of leather maps, flamboyant trees, Malay parasols, and maimed parrots, Philip prattles out well-rehearsed jokes as he details every tchotchke and lifeform his wife and him have collected over their life together, ultimately leading us down to his cave at the base of the estate.
Philip’s cave is no larger than bank vault. The walls are brightly painted and covered with X-rated Farside comics he collected in the navy. He pours a cotton-candy-pink cup of rum punch for everyone in my party, giving the recipe in British elementary sing-song — one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. I drink and feel a satisfaction that is centuries older than myself. Riding that satisfaction, I carom into a night of roulette, rum punch, and karaoke.
Last drop in the rum barrel: Barbados
I awake with a roaring hangover and drag myself to the airport 15 minutes late. “Here I am again,” I think to myself, in misery, “imperialized by this goddamn sugar booze again.”
It goes that George Washington so loved Barbadian rum that he demanded a barrel of it at his inauguration, and Philip’s schoolyard jingle is nearly the national anthem of Barbados. But as I board the two-engine puddle jumper bound for the island, my esteem for the spirit has never been lower.
Rum used to be the most popular drink in Colonial America. It was traded as currency in the New World, but post-revolution restrictions on imports from the British Caribbean made rum expensive and difficult to attain. Whiskey became the American spirit in the 1800s, and rum was gradually reduced to a popper drink for college kids. Meanwhile, in Barbados, rum is still the principal dye in the island’s cultural tapestry.
Ancestral forms of rum have been traced to ancient China and Sweden, but Barbados is rightfully cited as the birthplace of modern rum. Way back in 1703, Mount Gay established as the world’s oldest rum distillery, and the folks in St. Michael are still the eminent rum distillers of the Caribbean. It is the germination point of rum’s relationship with North America.
Unlike ADL, Mount Gay distills from island-made molasses. Also unlike ADL, Mount Gay is pristine. It feels like an old clay plantation, with white stone walls and hemisphere windows on every building. The gift shops feels like a duty-free in Miami. Our tour guide hands us a chartreuse rum punch leads us through a pun-laden history of the 300-year-old rum factory. The new rum introduces itself to last night’s rum still steeping in my veins.
We try a trio of Mount Gay’s offerings. First was Eclipse, their boozy, caramel flagship. It calls for a goblet of coconut and pineapple. Next is a half-ounce of Black Barrel, a whiskey-adjacent rum aged in charred barrels. It smacks of wood and smoke and everything redeeming about liquor. Then, there’s XO. It sits in the tasting flute a glistening cherry brown. It smells rich like musty almonds. It’s complex and wonderful. I’m stymied for descriptors. It tastes like cognac, but with an island charm.
After the tour, a waiter pours me a Yellow Fellow — a concoction of passion fruit, lemon juice, Black Barrel, and turmeric — and I sit stupefied with a creeping buzz. The Barbadian air is panicking with a coming rain as I dig a fork into my charred kingfish. Calypso Gold in that Maryland basement seems like another lifetime.