Until a few years ago, I knew nothing about rum. There was the dark stuff, coveted by the pirates of Treasure Island, used by the Navy for grog on board warships and abused by Churchill in his sarcastic account of naval traditions: rum, sodomy and the lash. At least rum would be preferable to the other two.
There was also white rum, usually the preserve of those too young to appreciate a decent drink, who often mixed it with Coca-Cola. Even as a child, I did not like the taste of Coke. I last drank it about 40 years ago. I was travelling by bus across Anatolia and we stopped at a village for refreshment. I would have killed for a beer, but the choice was the local water or warm Coke. One of my companions, an aristocratic French leftie, exclaimed in protest: ‘Moi, j’ai une horreur de Coca-Cola.’ ‘Moi aussi,’ I replied, ‘but at least it probably won’t give us amoebic dysentry.’ It didn’t, for which I was thankful. I would drink Coke again in similar circumstances, but only then.
Several decades later, a party given by the prime minister of St Kitt’s, and there was a range of old dark rums, all delicious: yo-ho-ho, and any of those bottles. Although the name is redolent of another naval tradition, I thought that a pre-war Mount Gay, from Barbados, took the gold award. Back in my hotel, I noticed that the bar had the Mount Gay ordinary issue, so ordered a glass. The barman looked bewildered. ‘Mount Gay,’ I repeated, pointing at the bottle. Enlightenment dawned. ‘Ah, you mean Muon Gaaaii.’ His voice sounded as if it had been marinated in the stuff for many years.
As ever, if you are seeking wisdom and guidance on such matters, turn your steps towards that temple of Bacchus at the foot of St James’s Street, Messrs Berry Bros. There is a fellow called Doug McIvor who knows everything there is to know about rum, and other spirits. Rum is made all over the West Indies, as well as in Fiji and Mauritius. Is is a natural product in sugar-producing areas. Once the sugar is refined, add yeast and water to the molasses, and you have made rum.
The Scots had a lot to do with the production of rum. After the ’45, many of Prince Charles Edward’s troops were transported to the Caribbean. Those who survived often drew on distilling knowledge acquired at home. Equally, as so often in the British empire, other Scots arrived voluntarily, in search of a richer living than a Highland glen could afford. Some ended up running sugar plantations, no doubt employing the final naval tradition — but also making rum.
Since then, rum-making and human rights have both been refined. Berry Bros. has a range of Caribbean rums, all over ten years old, all excellent, all around the £40 mark. Which is the best? I would be tempted to reply ‘the last one I tasted’ but if forced to a choice, would probably vote for Berrys’ own XO. The Penny Blue from Mauritius is also seriously good, as were the bottles from Barbados and Saint Lucia but every bottle is worthy of respect.
If you were not concentrating, you might mistake these rums for a good Armagnac or a first-rate Spanish brandy: the Spaniards drink a lot of rum. It is a fine post-prandial refreshment, and goes excellently well with a cigar. Franco’s on Jermyn Street has turned into a smoking-room for chaps prohibited from enjoying a cigar in their club; it also has a range of old rums.
A bottle of good rum would make an excellent Christmas present for someone who enjoys brandy and whisky but has not yet discovered rum, which is, I suspect, true of many British connoisseurs. A pleasant voyage awaits.