Rum is made on countless palm-fringed islands and sun-scorched areas. In fact, you will probably find rum stores wherever there are sugarcane plantations. Rum is frankly captivating: just like local wine or craft beer, it bottles (yes, I play on words) the flavors of the region where it is produced. Each country has its history and a set of traditions that influence the taste of rum, such as yeasts and micro-organisms in Jamaica or volcanic soils in Martinique. But it is in Barbados, considered as the cradle of rum, that the bottles of the world find part of their origin.
It is of course a warm and sunny morning that I arrive at St. Nicholas Abbey, located in the hilly district of Scotland, Barbados. An impressive avenue lined with mahogany leads to one of the most grandiose Jacobin dwellings that survive in the Western Hemisphere, built in the 1650s, decorated with festoons and gables curved and curved.
I quickly explore the house which is still in good condition, dominated by dark woodwork and whose dining room seems set for an imminent feast. I then stroll to the new rum factory in an outbuilding, near the remains of the stone foundations of an eighteenth-century windmill. (The notarial deeds of the property suggest that rum was produced as early as 1658, but it is not known when the whole thing stopped.)
I find Larry Warren, the affable owner of the gray ponytail and the flirting accent with Newfoundland, whose family has been living in Barbados since the 1840s. As a training architect, he bought the property in 2006, introduced guided tours and added a small café. Then, unique among the distillers of the island, he began making rum with molasses from the cannaie of the estate, while other distilleries import theirs. (It also uses yeasts grown in Speyside, Scotland.) This is the first new distillery to be built on the island in 20 years, and the second for a century, on an island that has already had more of 80.
Sparkling in copper, the steam-fired, column-steamed hybrid still with all its dials and gauges, sits in a room with oak barrels stacked by five, where wood and Antillean heat operate their magic on rum, aged in barrels three years before being bottled. It also evaporates through the wood in the tropical climate. Mr. Warren rushes down a ladder, bursts the bung of a barrel to make me taste one of his first cuvées … but is sorry to find it empty. It seems that they have been taken too often.
Liquid luck smiles us in the tasting room, where I savor its rich and supple white rum. Birds squeak in the trees encircling the terrace, where familiar scents of fermented molasses, a derivative of the sugar production and raw material of most rums of the world, are spreading. This was the norm when the island was dotted with distilleries. Shortly after the inauguration, an old islander landed, deeply inspired and exclaimed: “Oh brother, have not felt that in 40 years! “
This same scent is spreading around the Mount Gay distillery, at the northern end of the island, where I find spokesman Darrio Prescod who agrees to show me around. (The place is not open to the public.) Mount Gay prides itself, with supporting evidence, to be the world’s oldest operating rum. As we hike to see the still and column stills, Mr. Prescod gives me a hint of how the island’s coral-limestone rock filters the minerals out of the water, making it perfect for water. distillation as the famous flat water of Kentucky. “We can say that this island was invented for rum,” he says, smiling.
Invented also for the taste. I saw my most exquisite Barbadian rum experience at the John Moore Bar in Weston on the east coast. A kind of chic cabin, between a busy two-lane road and a pretty white sand beach flanked by almond trees. Sitting outside, a corner of the corner loudly celebrates a birthday (they clink to my health, me to theirs), and I spend an afternoon with my paraphernalia: bottle of Mount Gay rum, cola and icicles. I sip my drink watching fishermen tossed on green, pink and blue boats, unloading sea urchins caught near the coast. A scene as timeless as the rum of Barbados.
A few days later, as I travel through Jamaica, I come across several small, slightly dilapidated rum bars, just like those in Barbados, but with the funniest names: Rumfaces Bar, Denise’s Bar & Car Wash. And when I stop for a drink, I know immediately where I am: the traditional Jamaican approach (longer fermentation and a preference for blends with dense rum, distilled into stills) gives the spirit a deep taste and earthy, full and robust, sometimes reminiscent of overripe pineapple.
I stop at Appleton Estate, Jamaica’s most famous export (after Bob Marley), on the edge of St. Elizabeth Parish. The last stretch of the journey is like a prelude, dragging me through endless and dense cane. Appleton’s industrial complex evokes a small autonomous village with free peacocks, walking among trees whose trunks, like lids of rum casks, have been bleached.
A long time Appleton winemaker, Joy Spence combines great sensory skills with chemistry training, which is a great match for rum and the acclaimed and elegant Appleton flavor profile. She takes me around the owner, shows me the historic press sugar cane driven by a mule and the imposing building, similar to a shed, where the current production is underway.
After a tasting of five Appleton rums, we place several bottles in front of me, then I am invited to concoct my own blend, mixing rum distilled in still with aromas of plum and custard with another, young and distilled in column, with bright scents of lemon. I pour, taste and experiment. Tadam! I find my mix sweet, discreet and rather tasty. Joy Spence does not agree.
The drinks are always better when ordered in bougie-bouis on the edge of a path or in huts at the seaside, which abound in Jamaica. At Scotchies, in Montego Bay, pork at the jerk not for wimps tames with a rum and Ting (a grapefruit soda from the vintage). And there’s the Floyd’s Pelican Bar, at Parottee Bay, on the south coast of the island, a salmigondis of piles, driftwood and straw planks resting on a swampy sandbank, far from the shore. This is the place to sample the richness of Jamaican rum … to go down with a Red Stripe.
I leave the sea and return to the hilly, wooded land near Hampden Estate, 45 minutes from Montego Bay. The Gothic-inspired residence of the sugar cane plantation, founded in 1753, is still inhabited by the family owning the distillery. Vivian Wisdom, the distiller with the formidable surname worthy of Charles Dickens, is ideally suited to visit a place that, obviously, has not had much rub shoulders with modernity since the time of the novelist.
We spend some time exploring the distillery with stone walls, a technological marvel of the XIX th century swarming spiders and whose roof is in dire need of repair. “It’s not a sterile distillery, if I can afford it,” Mr. Wisdom told me. As he explains to me, distilling here requires know-how going back decades, which implies that indigenous yeasts and microorganisms living in ceiling beams noiselessly colonize fermentation tanks. They have never been modernized because customers value this taste