Jonathan Ray gets a taste for rum but knows when it’s time to stop.
Excitement in the Caribbean concerning Prince Harry’s impending visit to the region is definitely rising. Flags and bunting are being hung left, right and centre and as I left Antigua airport this morning, en route to St. Kitts and Nevis, there was an honour guard of soldiers being put through their paces on the tarmac. Taking the proffered salute was a stout gentleman on a rather modest dais looking far from regal with his high-vis yellow jacket and clipboard. I think it’s fair to say that everyone still needs a bit more practice.
But who cares? Prince Harry – here to represent the Queen on a tour that coincides with three Caribbean countries celebrating milestone independence anniversaries – will be given the warmest of welcomes to this glorious part of the world. And he has a tough schedule ahead of him. He starts off in Antigua and Barbuda on 20th November before heading to St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Barbados and Guyana. I just hope he’s brought his drinking boots. He’ll need them.
After all, the Caribbean is synonymous with rum. You can’t think of one without the other and locals get through formidable amounts of the stuff. Visitors are expected to pull their weight too. I’ve been in the Caribbean for a week now, island hopping here and there, and have drunk more rum in the last seven days than I have in the last seven years. And I always prided myself for drinking a fair bit of it at home.
Rum is any spirit made from sugar cane and its derivatives using either a pot still or a column still (Mount Gay famously uses both) and it is produced all along the equator wherever sugar cane is grown. The rum made in and around the Caribbean, though, is the best and most prized. Rum made on ‘French’ islands – known as rhum agricole – is distilled from sugar cane juice; rum made on ‘British’ islands (what we call rum and the French sometimes call rhum industriel) is distilled from molasses, a by-product of sugar production.
Nobody is sure where the name ‘rum’ originated from. Lisette Davis, owner of Grenada’s Rumboat Retreat and all-round rum expert reckons it comes either from saccharum officinarum, the Latin term for the genus of tall-growing grass of which sugar cane is a member or from the old English term ‘rumbullion’ meaning great.
During my few days in Barbados I visited the oldest rum distillery in the world (the mighty Mount Gay, founded in 1703) and the beautiful St. Nicholas Abbey whose tiny production is much sought after. And in Grenada I visited both the extraordinary River Antoine (pron: ann-twine), still using its original 250 year-old equipment including its vast water wheel (the oldest in the Caribbean), and Clarke’s Court, the island’s leading distillery, in operation for a mere 80 years but producer of very tasty rums indeed including one of my favourites – Old Grog.
During my travels through Grenada, Barbados and St. Kitts and Nevis, I discover that almost all the rum drunk locally is white rum, most of which has come straight off the still and been bottled and hasn’t been aged in oak barrels picking up colour as it does so. There are some very fine aged white rums, it’s true, but most are simple fare, ideal for mixing in cocktails or drinking with Coca Cola or neat with chasers.
Some white rum is sold in plastic flagons in rum shops and the supermarkets where a gallon of rum is considerably cheaper than a bottle of crap imported wine such as Blossom Hill or Turning Leaf.
Most rum is around 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) although River Antoine’s rum is famously powerful at 75% ABV (the label laconically terms it ‘Slightly Overproof Rum’) so potent, in fact, that it is deemed too combustible to be carried on aeroplanes. They therefore sell another version which is simply the same rum watered down to a permissible 69% ABV. More than enough to make anyone’s hair curl.
Although visitors to the Caribbean tend to drink their rum in cocktails or punches, of which I’ve had more than my fair share this week, locals drink it neat in the many rum shops or shacks that dot the islands. The custom is to buy it by the bottle (not necessarily 75cl, smaller sizes are permissible) and you will be served a bowl of ice alongside it and a couple of glasses and are expected to knock the rum back neat, followed by a shot of water or Coke, Sprite or even beer.
I’ve tried rum every which way the last few days and can proudly boast of having survived not only River Antoine’s Slightly Overproof Rum but also the formidable Killer Bee cocktail as served at Sunshine’s on the beach at Nevis. They say that one Killer Bee is never enough and that two are too many and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that there is one massive sting in this cocktail’s tail.
In Barbados I had a fine evening ‘liming’ with some locals (that’s to say chatting late into the night and drinking far, far too much Mount Gay Black Barrel). I decided to call it a night only when my even more inebriated host offered to drive me back to my hotel. The trouble is that, notoriously, in this land of heavy rum drinkers there are no laws at all against drink driving and I was just sober enough to realise that I was far better off walking than cadging a lift. I made my excuses and left.
Next time, I’ll tell you more about my very favourite rums and will give you some excellent cocktail recipes to make at home. Till then.