Savoring the Caribbean’s tropical rum trail

 

If you sip

ACCOMMODATIONS

Goldeneye: Chic beachfront and lagoon cottages, a stunning villa where Ian Fleming once lived, delectable and locally sourced menus, staff that treats you like an old friend: Goldeneye is fabulous enough to please 007 himself. Oracabessa, Jamaica; rates from $620. 800-OUTPOST (688-7678) or 1-876-622-9007; www.goldeneye.com

Jake’s: A boutique beachfront hotel that not only has a whimsical style but is deeply involved in local community work, through its Breds Treasure Beach Foundation. Calabash Bay, Treasure Beach, Jamaica; one bedroom $95-$295, cottages & villas from $115. 877-526-2428 or 1-876-965-3000; www.jakeshotel.com.

Ocean Two: Just off St. Lawrence Gap, Barbados’ night-life mecca, the trendy Ocean Two offers the best of both worlds: It’s close to the action, but elegantly tucked away on a private beach. Dover, Christ Church, Barbados; rates start at $216. 1-246-418-1800; oceantwobarbados.com.

Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa: Martinique’s only five-star resort, this resort has 50 chic suites in 18 Creole-style villas, and is the sort of blissful retreat one checks into and dreads leaving. It’s also a sumptuous homage to rum: rum cellar, rum menu, bottles and barrels as décor and, at the Guerlain Spa, a “ti-punch treatment,” themed after the popular local drink. Le François, Martinique; rates from $549. 011-596-596 54 80 80, capest.com.

HISTORY

These books are excellent sources on rum and its history.

• “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails,” by Wayne Curtis

• “Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776,” by Ian Williams


The New York Times

“Care to kiss the ground?”

The question came from Norman Murray, local sage and tour guide in the rural parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica.

“Our visitors from Europe, America — this is a holy pilgrimage for them. So, really,” he egged me on, “feel free.”

Confession: I nearly knelt. After years of visiting Jamaica, I had at last landed in Appleton Estate, a centuries-old temple of sorts, teeming with spirits and nestled in the lush Nassau Valley.

I composed myself, and resumed the tour, moving from fermentation to distillation to tongue-titillation — aka tasting — under Murray’s erudite command.

Call it rumming around: traversing three islands via the inebriating stuff that for centuries lubricated economies and fueled bloody deeds — the oil of the colonial era. This string of islands may chat in disparate tongues and dance to divergent soundtracks, but one heady draft remains its common denominator: brown or white, served neat in roadside watering holes or garnished with cherries and umbrellas in tourist spots, rum yokes the region historically, culturally, intoxicatingly.

It’s also on the rise. Much as vodka did a decade ago, rum is enjoying a resurgence, with brands emerging from Connecticut to St. Croix, Australia to Trinidad. Never mind food and wine; food and rum festivals are the way to go, in destinations like Barbados, Grenada, Berlin and Rome.

I began my mission where many a mission was born: Goldeneye. On Jamaica’s north coast, the onetime home of James Bond creator Ian Fleming is now a resort owned by former Island Records impresario Chris Blackwell, the man who introduced the world to Bob Marley. These days Blackwell is promoting another Jamaican staple, which greeted me as I entered my swanky beachfront cottage: Blackwell Rum.

“I drink it neat, and sometimes atop a nice fruit salad,” Blackwell said in a phone interview, adding that rum is the first venture he’s put his name on. By day I sipped it with watermelon and ginger; by night it marinated my lobster and coconut rice.

After the rugged terrain of Jamaica, Barbados’ flatness was striking. Such topography is ideal for cultivating cane. Barbados is one of the region’s only coral limestone islands, said to lend an inimitable flavor to the water used in rum production.

I arrived in time for the annual Food & Wine and Rum Festival in November: sumptuous fêtes, rum tastings and classes by chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, Ming Tsai — and Paul Yellin, known as the Rhum Chef. Barbados-raised and author of the cookbook Infusion! Spirited Cooking, Yellin agreed to rum around with me on the island.

“Breakfast in one distillery, lunch in another. And definitely more rum for dinner,” he explained, picking me up in his truck after sunrise. Breakfast never made it past the car: fish cakes with tangy pepper sauce that I devoured as we traversed a cane field. We toured the Foursquare Rum Distillery and Heritage Park, a sugar plantation turned modern factory.

I drove through countryside populated by small chattel houses, testing bar stools from one end of the island to the other. My haunts bore names like De Nest Bar and Hide Away, Survival Bar and Marshall’s. On the Atlantic side I relished Bathsheba. There I drank Mount Gay and coconut water. Next thing I knew I was dancing to soca music in a rum shop just past the barber shop, to the left of the roundabout; then I was dancing while devouring something heavenly called “pickled seacat,” which is actually a ceviche of octopus.

Just when I thought I had a handle on rum, I discovered rhum. Enter Martinique, elegant French island, home to cane and banana fields, a hikable volcano, black-sand beaches — and a nationalistic, revisionary rum legacy.

I was schooled during a tour of La Favorite, near the island’s capital, Fort-de-France. There are 11 distilleries on the island, seven still producing rum. La Favorite, one of two family-owned ones, exhibits a 1905 steam engine, still powering the whole shebang. A defining feature of all Martinican distilleries stands nearby: a distillation column, cap made of copper, as per regulation. Regulation? Indeed: from the French government, which granted Martinican rum the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or AOC: a designation given to fine agricultural products like cognac and cheese.

Rhum agricole, like Brazilian cachaça, is made not from molasses but the cane juice itself, which the French tell us is truer to the sugar flavor.

In the end, it’s a matter of taste. Distinguished by alcohol level, color, age and, like wine, terroir, rhum agricole is earthier than my beloved Appleton. The whites had a sweet, flowery flavor; the extra-olds, unique vintages, evoked maple and coffee.

But in Martinique the taste of the rum was beside the point; the distillery was everything. Rum touring in Martinique rivals Napa wine jaunts.

On the final day of my journey, even my morning coffee was rum. Well, rum cream, consumed at Habitation Clément, a plantation with botanical gardens, a Creole house and an art gallery. The flavors and blends sold alongside traditional Clément rums are dazzling: coffee, chocolate, mojito, coconut, guava, cherry.

But during an audio tour that thoroughly covered rum history and production, I decided that here lay the educational apex of distillery-hopping. I wandered through the plantation’s sculpture garden and spotted something remarkable: blood on the leaves. A massive red statue of the word “Blood,” poised before a picture-perfect cane field. It evoked the Billie Holiday song Strange Fruit, about lynchings in a pastoral Southern landscape: “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” she sang.

This scene, stunning yet haunted by perennial pain, struck me as perfect homage: Behold a spirit whose legacy contains all the paradoxes and complexity of the wistfully beautiful region that gave birth to it so long ago.

Read more Latin American & Caribbean Travel stories from the Miami Herald

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK



  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category