Kitchen Exhibitionist
The Culinary Quests of a Food Enthusiast Stuck in the Sticks
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
A Trio of Caribbean Rum Adventures
It's not just for pirates anymore.

I love rum! White rum, dark rum, spiced rum, any kind of rum. Gimme rum!

For summer drinking, fruity rum cocktails can’t be beat. For cooking, rum is my favorite liquor ingredient in cakes, confections, and especially fruit desserts. So last fall, while cruising the Southern Caribbean, I made sure to explore the local rums of each island we visited.

Rum is everywhere in the Caribbean. Each event and activity seems to offer the ubiquitous complimentary rum punch cocktail. Even the tourist gift shops and liquor stores offer free samples. And the prices are duty free so rums are a bargain. I came home weighed down with eight different bottles of rum.

Here are three of my more interesting rum adventures.

San Juan, Puerto Rico - Bacardi Factory Tour

Darwin and I had some time to spend in San Juan on Sunday before boarding our cruise ship so we explored the streets of Old San Juan in the morning. Around midday it was beginning to get very hot in the sun so we decided to visit the Bacardi Factory.

Here is a great travel tip. To get there, take the ferry across the bay to Catalano ($1) and a taxi from the ferry dock to the Casa De Bacardi ($3 a person). The cruise ships offer bus tours to Bacardi for around $39 per person but you can do it on your own for only $8 a person roundtrip and have a short breezy boat cruise across the bay instead of a long crowded bus ride around it.

Bacardi, the largest rum distiller in the world, has a long history of rum making, and the free tour was informative and fun. It includes coupons for two free drinks in the large open sided pavilion topped with a swooping roof resembling the wings of a bat, their logo. We arrived just as the next tour was starting so we didn’t have time to get our drinks before we hopped on the open-air tour tram. We toured around the beautifully landscaped grounds as the driver described the facility. Unfortunately, as it was Sunday, there was no bottling activity in the factory.

Next, we entered an air-conditioned building through a reproduction of a 19th century Spanish Caribbean colonial courtyard with a beautiful fountain and tiled murals showing the history of rum throughout the islands. Each visitor was given a hand-held tour phone which described all the exhibits throughout the museum. After stopping in the cozy theater to watch a film highlighting Bacardi’s long history, we walked at our own pace throughout the museum, which is a reproduction of the original distillery. There were different interactive displays showing the history of rum, exhibits covering the various steps of rum making, and pieces of original distillery equipment. I found most interesting the section on aging, which allowed you to smell the rum during the different stages of production. The aroma of the aged rum was definitively smoother than that of the raw rum.

Then, in a beautifully appointed Art Deco lounge designed as a replica of Bacardi’s prohibition era executive bar in Cuba, tour guides dressed as old-style waiters discussed the history of rum’s popularity and the story behind the Cuba Libre cocktail.

Next, loud music drew us down a long bright hallway lined chronologically with large Bacardi advertisements from the past century to a tower made of hundreds of Bacardi rum bottles. There we discovered some very clever video email kiosks that allowed you to make a short video of yourself, in front of the rum tower with the music blaring in the background, and, with the push of a button, email it to friends.

Like all free tours, it ended in the gift shop, which sold all Bacardi rum products at very good prices, as well as t-shirts, caps and other souvenirs. We went out to the pavilion and had our free drinks. Bacardi rums are widely available back home, so there was nothing very unusual for us to try. I had the mojito, a refreshing rum and mint drink, and also tried their special rum punch of the day.

Of all the rum tours we tried, this one was the most elaborate and professional, although the rums themselves were not unusual. I highly recommend a visit to the Casa De Bacardi as a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours in San Juan.

Barbados – Mount Gay Distillery and Visitor’s Center

Upon arrival in Barbados we found a licensed taxi driver, Todd, who was willing to take us around the island for the entire day for a set price. If you have at least two people in your party, this is a less expensive option than the bus tours offered by the cruise ship. But more important than the cost savings, you have the flexibility to go where you want, when you want and stay as long as you like.

One of the places we told Todd we wished to visit was the Mount Gay Rum visitor’s center, located just outside of Bridgetown, the port where we docked. He surprised us by first taking us to the actual distillery in the northern part of the island where the rum is made. The Mount Gay visitor’s center is a very popular spot with tourists, but at the distillery we were the only visitors. It was a very interesting tour and unlike any brewery or winery we had ever visited before. We donned hard hats and one of the workers took us around, describing the process of rum making, and answering our questions.

Most modern facilities have stainless steel tanks with tight covers. The Mount Gay distillery starts their rum in huge old wooden vats. The molasses, water, and yeast are mixed and allowed to sit uncovered during the fermentation process. There were several vats at various stages of fermentation. The aroma of the molasses and yeast was very nice and made me think of gingersnap cookies.

Instead of relying on public power utilities, Mount Gay still uses it own steam boilers to generate power. The rum is distilled in their old-fashioned pot stills and then placed in large containers and shipped to their aging facility.

Later in the afternoon, after visiting other Barbados attractions, we stopped at the more popular Mount Gay visitor’s center and took a tour with a group of other tourists. I was very glad we visited the real distillery first. At the visitor’s center they offer a short film and small museum area. At the end of the tour is the tasting bar. The bartender explained how to do rum tasting, which it turns out is very much like wine tasting.

The Mount Gay Extra Old rum, distilled in copper pot stills and aged in special oak barrels, was a treat. What excellent sipping rum! Dark, smooth, toasty and a bit smoky; it is the rum equivalent of good single malt scotch. Mount Gay Extra Old rum is now my favorite rum for drinking straight.

In the gift shop we bought a 1.75 liter bottle for $25.25. Here in Pennsylvania you can only buy 750 ml bottles and they cost $30.99 apiece. In Barbados we got more than twice the rum for about 20% less!

St Lucia - St Lucia Distillers

During my pre-trip reading about St. Lucia I had heard of a local cocktail called Stairway to Heaven, made with a special local rum liqueur of the same name. This liqueur is flavored with ginger and bois bandé, a bark from a local tree that is reputed to have aphrodisiac properties. In addition to this liqueur, the cocktail contains regular rum, coconut cream, and orange juice. I had the opportunity to try this drink at a large open-sided thatched roof bar right on the beach at Anse Chastenet. I don’t know if it was the drink or the atmosphere but it was certainly delicious!

We stopped for free rum tasting at the St. Lucia Distillers. There was no formal tour or education here. Visitors belly up to a large bar area and may taste anything and everything available. They had a very impressive selection of rums, including some unusual ones. We tasted a Rum Cream liqueur which was a lot like eggnog. The peanut flavored rum, which sounds weird, was really delicious! St. Lucia Distillers offered about a dozen different types of rum and of course I tasted most of them. Hic!

Our taxi driver, a native St Lucian, expected me to go for all the sweet, flavored rums. When I tried and preferred the stronger, richer rums, he was first shocked, and then amused. He laughed with glee, because, “Woman, you enjoy the men’s rums!”.

A specialty of St. Lucia is Kwèyòl Spice Rum. Delightfully fragrant, and made with the Bois Bandé aphrodisiac bark, it has the aroma of vanilla and cinnamon but the taste is not as sweet as the aroma suggests. It is very complex, with traces of oak, bitters and nuts. The label is beautiful, too. I bought a bottle to bring home.

Despite this plethora of rum experiences, we left many other Caribbean islands and their rum treasures unexplored…. for next time!

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