1. Barbados - The Home of Rum
Barbados is just 21 miles, by 14 miles (167 square miles) and is serviced by a number of regular bus routes that cost little but will allow you to really experience the island.
If you opt for a taxi, make absolutely sure that you negotiate a rate before you set off as prices will quickly escalate otherwise. The easiest option is to hire a car and move at your own pace, although this does rather limit the amount of Rum sampling you can partake in…
Mount Gay – Making Rum Since 1703
The trail to Barbados is a well-beaten one for tourists and has been for many years. Lots of tourist options and a Rum trail worth treading.
The Mount Gay visitors centre has been the main draw from the tourist office, and probably still is – however they are currently developing things that will surely be amazing in years to come as they have been purchasing land and are looking for a ‘ground to glass solution’ for their Rum making. When that happens, I’ll bet you a dollar it will be a wonderful, interactive experience.
Authentic Rum from Foursquare
The Foursquare Distillery is another excellent destination. A well-signed trail leads you through the distillery in a surprisingly open access way and is explorable at your own pace.
The Rums from Foursquare (brands such are Doorly’s, R L Seale, Foursquare and Rum Sixty-Six) are winning all the awards these days, so it’s advisable to go check out where the magic happens.
Historic St Nicholas Abbey
A ‘must see’ is St Nicholas Abbey for all those that want a glimpse at both Barbado's history and an increasingly successful, genuinely small-batch distillery.
Make sure you get along when they are crushing the locally grown and harvested sugar cane to ensure to experience the full array of aromas associated with Rum production. The Rum produced at St Nicholas Abbey might well be on modern equipment, but it’s as authentic as it gets with its single estate approach.
2. Martinique - La Route des Rhums
For the average Brit, or American, the notion of heading to the French Caribbean might not be the most obvious. The choice of flights might not be the widest and (let’s be honest), the island doesn’t market itself very well in the mainstream (outside of France).
But with a little bit of careful travel planning, this beautiful extension of mainland France is well worth checking out. Ensure you’ve got a wallet full of euros and (for the Europeans), bring your European Health Insurance card – yes – that’s right, all the trappings of home are a ‘thing’ in this corner of the Caribbean.
From the moment you touch down, you could be forgiven for thinking you aren’t necessarily in the Caribbean, and it’s not until you get outside of Fort-de-France that the unmistakable signs of the Caribbean reveal themselves in the form of fields of sugarcane and banana plantations, and for those familiar with the ‘English’ Caribbean, then you’ll find Martinique compellingly different. Fortunately, the one thing that it does share with the rest of the Caribbean is it’s love of Rhum!
Sugar Cane R(h)um & Terroir
Whilst it’s not impossible to conceive of a spirit being made from fermented molasses on Martinique, the island is all set up for the production of Rhum from sugar cane juice.
So much so, that in 1996, the Rhum producers implemented an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or A.O.C. that defines all aspects of production, ostensibly to offer a minimum standard of production quality, but also to define the Rhums produced in Martinique as being of a certain style.
The extra ‘h’ is simply the way that Rum is spelt in French, but the Agricole style of production makes for a spirit of a very different flavour profile to that of ‘typically’ English style, molasses Rums.
For an island as small as Martinique (43 miles x 19 miles / 439 square miles), you’ll find at least 10 Rhum destinations to explore, all offering their unique take on the A.O.C., each taking advantage of the widely differing terrain that Martinique offers to imprint a different taste and style on their Rhum.
The north of the island is dominated by Mount Pelée; a semi-active volcano that has shaped the chemistry of the soil and directly influces the sugarcane grown locally. It’s a hot, humid region that gets a lot of rainfall.
Compare and contrast to the relatively flat lands in the very south of the island and perhaps you’ll start to get a sense of the notion of terroir that cane juice spirits can offer. With that in mind you’ve a wonderful sense of exploration ahead of you!
The most developed tourist locations such as Habitation Clément, may not produce the raw distillate anymore, but the facility shows every aspect in wonderful detail.
For the geeks, the cutaway sections of the creole column stills might well be the coolest thing you see but everyone will surely enjoy the aroma of the ageing houses and the opportunity to buy the full range of Rhums at wonderful prices.
Some locations such as Rhum J.M. might be a long way off the beaten track, but this beautifully located, small facility allows you to see all aspects of production, from cane crushing to fermentation, distillation and maturation.
Oh, and tasting… Let’s not forget the most important aspect of all. Compare and contrast to the la Mauny facility in the south of the island and you’ll see it’s not just about scale of production, your palate will surly discern the difference in growing location and production style.
In my experience, just about every producer throws open their doors to visitors, with only a couple of ‘production’ only locations (such as Distillery Simone) keeping it to the trade only.
Your problem is how to see them all, as a taxi would be an expensive option. Driving around is easy enough with a sat-nav, but tricky at times when confronted with narrow twisty, turn-ey roads and little in the way of visibility around the next corner due to the encroaching, lush tropical plantlife.
Do take time to visit Neisson, Habitation Saint-Étienne, La Favorite and Depaz. In fact, go see all the locations and make the most of a week or so travelling around the island, but do find time to spend a little time at any of the beautiful beaches on Martinique, Grand Anse des Salines being one of the most popular.
Oh, and if you’ve time and or inclination, don’t forget that Martinique is connected to the local islands of St Lucia, Guadeloupe, Marie Galante and Dominica via the l'Express des Iles ferry service. All those islands… so little time…
3. Jamaica - Authentic Rum
Of the three locations considered in this article, Jamaica is easily the biggest (4,240 square miles) and therefore most difficult to get around quickly, but for this minor inconvenience you’ll find that Jamaica can offer a route to a distant Rum past that nowhere else in the world can come close to.
Jamaica can offer you real ‘old school’ through to modern, but all with a taste profile that is utterly unique to the island. Jamaica is the home of the pot still – nowhere else in the world will you see so many, large capacity pot stills producing intensely characterful Rum – it’s a rummy-dream-come-true!
Appleton Estate – The Islands Flagship Brand
Wind the clock back a hundred years and the island would have offered you a hundred or more distilleries to visit. These days, there are only six distilleries, three of which are closed to the public.
The biggest facility — Appleton Estate — is at the time of publication closed to the public for a massive overhaul of its visitor centre, but scheduled to be up and running again in November 2017.
The previous facility was both informative and delicious (in terms of the end-of-tour tasting), so we can only imagine how much better things will be, come the end of the year.
The Appleton Estate brand is truly global, and so visitors to the island are likely to be familiar with the marques of Rum they produce, but even if this is true for you, going to the estate and seeing first hand where it is produced is still a magical and rewarding adventure.
Truly Authentic – Hampden Estate
For the best chance of getting in touch with truly authentic Rum, then Hampden Estate is your number one destination.
Hampden is the last remaining place that confirms its use of the semi-mythical dunder pit as part of its Rum production process. Without getting into the chemistry of the muck-pits, it’s an integral component in the production of high ester Rum – a trademark of the Jamaican Rum style.
High ester Rum isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it is a real experience and once you’re used to it, nothing else quite measures up. It’s also a process that puts you in touch with the way things would have been done centuries ago.
This is a working facility that allows people to look around, rather than a place that’s redesigned its facilities to make the tourist trail the centre of attention. It’s set in beautiful gardens and surrounded by acres of rolling sugarcane fields. Ask questions and breathe in the history of a company that’s been making Rum since the mid seventeenth century. It’s a must-see for anyone serious about Rum.
A Modern Masterpiece – Worthy Park
For a modern take on a process that’s been around for centuries you’ll need to keep an eye on developments at Worthy Park.
Just like most of the major Rum producers on the island, Worthy Park first started production back in the early seventeen-hundreds, but due to the crazy situation of an over-supply situation for Jamaican Rum on the world market (which was depressing the price), the estate stopped producing Rum in the 1960’s.
Fortunately, situations change and in 2004, the new owners of the estate decided to install state of the art equipment and start up Rum production again, drawing on the attention to detail and experience demonstrated in their sugar refinery (incidentally one of the most efficient set-ups in Jamaica).
The Forsythe pot still, and hence full-flavoured, characterful Rum is still very much at the heart of things though. Unmistakably Jamaican in profile and a true single estate Rum from field to bottle.
I’m misleading my dear readers a little, at the time of this article being released, Worthy Park doesn’t yet offer a tourist trail, but plans are in place and it won’t be long before something comes online, making Worthy Park a main point of interest on the Jamaican Rum Trail.
4. Grenada: The Spice Isle!
The beautiful island of Grenada can be found at the most southerly end of the Grenadines. It’s an island with centuries of different cultural influence from the French and British colonisers and the African slaves they brought there to work the land. Whilst sugarcane was the main crop of choice, the introduction of nutmeg (which was brought to Grenada in 1843) was a huge success and now the island fulfils around 40% of the world’s needs.
In terms of Rum though, this island has three options for the Rum tourist.
At one time, the Westerhall Estate distilled its own Rum, and the evidence of the production still remains, but these days activity is focused on the ageing and blending of different marques of Rum. They don’t run formalised facility tours, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask, right?
Even if you can’t get in, the local bars will stock their products in far more detail that you’ll find anywhere else in the world and (of course) everyone should experience Jack Iron at least once in their life.
Clarke’s Court Rum Distillery (Grenada Distillers Limited)
Claiming to be the islands best-known and largest distillery on Grenada and its certainly famous for producing a wide range of products. Clarke's Court Rum Distillery welcomes Rum tourists, you’ll be able to take a look at the production facility and then tuck yourself into the bar at the end and try the range of Rums. Well worth a trip the capital city of Grenada I reckon.
River Antoine Rum Distillery
For the experienced rummy, there is Rivers Royale Rum. For anyone who’s visited Grenada already – and further chosen to get out of the resort and explore: there is Rivers Royale Rum - a Rum that’s unforgettable once experienced.
The bottle label claims the distillery (located in the north east of the island) was established in 1785 and whilst it sure isn’t the same distillery it was back then, it really is a place lost in time, producing ridiculously characterful, pure pot still, authentic Rum. The fact that they choose to present it at high proof is the crowning glory.
If you want to know what Rum really is, or what it can be – then River Antoine is your goal… …just don’t expect a high tech, modern interactive tourist experience. Oh, and treat it with respect as well. Rivers Royale takes no prisoners.
Relocating our gaze towards the Indian Ocean, we have a seascape that was just as fought over by the Europeans as the Caribbean was and much for the same reasons.
The neighbouring islands of Madagascar (which is quite frankly huge in comparison to Mauritius) and Reunion (far more comparable to Mauritius) also offer Rum solutions, but it’s the fact that Mauritius is very difficult to pin down in terms of a Rum style that attracts me.
For a start, they produce Rums from both sugarcane juice and molasses. Both pot and column stills feature. They drink it both aged and unaged. They spice it, flavour it and drink a lot of it.
Apparently, sugarcane was introduced to Mauritius in the early 1600’s (by the Dutch), predominantly as a way of producing an alcoholic beverage through fermentation only. It wasn’t until 1850 that fermentation and distillation combined to produce Rum. Even now, the oldest of the six distilleries only dates back to 1926 and so the notion of what Rum can be, is quite modern for the most part.
Rhumerie de Chamarel, Rhumerie de Mascareignes and Saint Aubin produce cane juice Rum while Grays, Indian Ocean Rum Company and Oxenham produce their Rum from molasses.
All are worth visiting, although if I were forced to choose just one, then Saint Aubin would be my pick as it has so much to offer and once you’ve seen all Mauritius has to offer, perhaps the short-ish trip to Reunion should be considered.
Ron Montero, Motril
Spain, especially the Southern Coast (with its locations such as Marbella, Torremolinos and Malaga) might well be better connected with Rum consumption than with Rum production, but actually the region surrounding Motril is at the heart of what was Europe’s sugar (from cane rather than beet) production capital.
Like many things that are considered a commodity item, the market will always demand the very best price and unfortunately it just became commercially impossible to stay in business. The sugar mill (Azucarera del Guadalfeo S.A.) shut at the end of one shift in 2006 and never reopened leaving an eerie, increasingly dust covered snapshot in time.
But the relatively modern sugar production hints at a very interesting past, one highlights the fact that sugarcane had been grown regionally for more than a thousand years. Predating all the activity in the new world and in fact dates right back to the Moorish empire.
There is a only single Rum producer in Motril: Ron Montero. It (sadly) has to rely on imported molasses these days rather than use the biproduct of its own sugar mills, but that hasn’t stopped it from continuing production.
Azucarera Montero may well be a modern production facility, all automation and continuous distillation – producing an almost entirely neutral spirit for industrial use – it also produces several marques of light Rum that are then transferred to the ageing and blending facility at Ron Montero (also in Motril).
It’s here that you can see a true solera system in use and try the various Rums that are extremely popular in the area: Ron Palido Montero, Ron Montero Gran Reserva and Ron Francisco Montero 50th Anniversary.
So why Motril as a destination?
Well sugarcane has been reintroduced as a speciality crop, so for those who haven’t seen it up close, smelt the way it does and taste it fresh – this is a great place to start.
There’s a museum dedicated to the long history of sugar production in the area and that’s really quite interesting. There’s the modern (and old) distillery and there’s the ageing facility. The area is also generally quite beautiful and for lovers of seafood, there are plenty of wonderful reasonably priced dining options. Flights to Malaga tend to be reasonable and you’ve the easily option of visiting the historic city of Granada an hour or so to the north. All in all, pretty cool I’d say.
Madeira is an Autonomous region of Portugal, located in the Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Morocco. It’s exceptionally hilly; in fact, mountainous might be a better descriptor.
It's famous for many things - Madeira Wine being the most obvious – but the island has been growing sugarcane since before Christopher Columbus took cane to the New World in 1493 and has been producing Agricole Rum for centuries.
The fact that Madeiran aguardente hasn’t really been promoted overseas is something of a surprise, but things are changing. The Madeira government recently took steps to have their Rum officially recognised as being Agricole under EU law. It also set about rebranding the poor image of ‘fire water’ (the literal translation of aguardente) into a more respectable Rum and whilst the locals tend to drown it in ‘poncha’ anyway, a number of the producers on the island have loftier plans for their future.
There are three main Rum producers on the island and some accept visitors. Whilst there are similarities in production, each also offers some differences which make each them worth visiting. There are also a few artisanal producers whose products are worth looking out for.
An interesting point of note is that all the sugarcane on the island is cut by hand and this is reflected in the varieties of cane grown on the island. Cane cutting season isn’t a fixed date, but typically runs from April to June and so timing your visit for then will allow the greatest experience. You’ll soon become accustomed to seeing trucks laden with cut cane waiting to get to the distilleries.
The main producers all use column stills, but don’t let this fool you into thinking the spirit they produce is light – far from it – the columns typically only have a few plates and distillate is produced to no more than 70-72%ABV. Low rectification equals a characterful spirit.
Engenho Do Norte (North Mils Distillery)
This is the closest largescale producer to Funchal, the capital of Madeira and one of the oldest on the island as well. Some of the equipment dates back the 1800’s and still runs on steam power for the most part.
During crushing season it’s a constant hive of activity, but they welcome visitors and from a central position it’s possible to see all the aspects of production: crushing, fermentation and distillation. The bottling is carried out at their facility in Funchal.
One of the most popular brands on the island is Branca; an unaged, 50%ABV Agricole Rum produced from a variety of cane types. Fermentation requires a starter, but once it’s running the vats are half emptied and then topped with fresh cane juice meaning the process is pretty much continuous and as the tanks are open, all manner of wild yeast can get involved. Its distilled, then rested for six months typically before reducing and bottling.
The team have just released a 60% ABV Branca Fire expression for those who need a higher proof offering.
They have a reasonable amount of aged stock and are looking to increase this. They have a well-stocked shop and operate in a wonderful location – a bay just north of Porto da Cruz and benefit from having some lovely restaurants near-by as well.
Engenhos Da Calheta
Head west from Funchal and you’ll hit upon the town of Calheta and it’s here that you’ll find Engenhos Da Calheta producing the ubiquitous Aguardente de Cana (Rum Agricola da Maderia). It’s not exactly branded, but you will see the easily recognised yellow and red label everywhere. Not the finest Rum on the island, but probably the cheapest (if that’s your motivation). Stepping into the distillery is like stepping back in time and once again, during cane crushing season the place is an amazing hive of activity.
Calheta is a great tourist location and the fantastic tiki bar – Pukiki – isn’t far away, so do take the time to get a delicious cocktail from Martin, Carla and team.
Engenho Novo Da Madeira / William Hinton
The William Hinton brand has been created to allow the company to tackle the export market. It focuses on different aged expressions and is a young brand to watch. The production facility doesn’t yet offer formal visitor facilities, but this may well change in the near future.
Some of the finest Agricole rum I’ve ever tasted is produced at a residential location in Santa Cruz (east of Funchal), so you can guess it’s a very small operation. The quality of the spirit is far above the local level of requirement for ‘poncha’ and we hope that the company will start exporting soon.
Unique for several reasons, firstly they intentionally rest their cane for a week after cutting before crushing. Without fail, every other cane juice Rum/Rhum/Cachaça producer I have encountered to date crush their cane within 24 hours of cutting. They say it improves it and who am I to argue?
Secondly, they use a copper pot still more commonly seen in the production of spirits that have a lot of solid matter in the fermentation process. The 50% ABV Agricole Rum is intense and full of character and well worth keeping an eye out for when you visit the island.
At the time of publication, the company has vast stocks of delicious unaged and aged Rums, but not brand name. It’s a small company and uses pot stills for production rather than the traditional column stills. We can’t wait for them to start releasing the good stuff to the market!