Savoring the Caribbean’s tropical rum trail

06/21/2014 12:00 AM

06/21/2014 9:55 PM

“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.

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