Regional Guide - Caribbean Spirits

Rum distilleries to visit, producers to discover and cocktails to savour!

If you are beach-bound and headed towards the Caribbean, the sand and sea await but no doubt the rum is already calling your name...

Of course, sipping surf side is what you’ll be doing, but if you are on the islands already you’d be amazed at how rewarding a tour around a distillery can be. You’ll also be captivated by the kind of drinks being made if you go beyond the tourist trail and the typical Mai Tai’s, Pina Colada’s and Blue Hawaiian’s…

For us, tasting rum in that environment – when it’s local and of the place that’s literally all around you - is one of the highlights of any trip to the Caribbean. That said, the broad number of types and names being banded about can make Rum difficult to understand (especially when you add in the unenforced classifications and liberal wording on labels).

Here’s our guide to the region’s offerings and what you can discover there.

The Caribbean Spirits Scene

Rum’s link to the Caribbean is as old as time. It can even be traced back to records from Barbados as far back as the 1650’s. 

The first thing to appreciate about Caribbean rum is that there’re different islands and therefore different rum styles. Sounds obvious, sure, but so often regions made up of dozens of small states easily get homogenised, and the joyful part of rum is the nuances that come from different nations.

Puerto Rican rum is known for having a lighter profile, most typically the result of multiple distillations on column stills. Jamaican rum is the opposite – where you should expect big, rich rums that are typically produced on pot stills which produce more esters (flavours) during distillation. Think big tropical fruits, spiciness, and lots of molasses – all of which is sometimes known as “funk”. 

Further across - Guyanan rums are predominantly made in the famed Demerara River are also known to be very fruity and rich with a reputation for having a robust and full body. Meanwhile, Bajan (Barbadian) rum is often made from a mix of pot and column still distillation to achieve a balance of these two profiles. Bajan producers often talk about blending and have very strategic cask ageing processes to create their desired harmony.

The above assumes a similar raw materials and similar distilling methods but just like each of the islands are different – each have their own unique canes and approach to rum making too. 

Take places like Martinique, Guadeloupe or Haiti who make theirs from pressed cane juice and whose Rhum Agricole is typified by clean, grassy and vegetal notes. Some Dominican rums also use sugarcane juice rather than molasses.

With these huge variances, it will come as no surprise that the “local” scenes are dramatically different to each other. Suffice it to say that what you get in a hotel or resort is not what the locals are drinking, and that each country will have a different view about how best to consume their local rum.

Drinking aside, what’s been pleasing to see is how many rum brands are trying to address what is a challenging category history and commit to find better paths forward. 

There’s no avoiding the unsavoury parts of rums past; colonialization, slave trade and plantations. There’s also no avoiding the fact that for years, brands were owned by foreign companies and that both the wealth and value was created elsewhere and not reinvested back into the communities that grow the cane, make the sugar and actually distil the rum. 

It’s not a nice subject matter, but it is important part of the region’s history with spirits and its relationship with rum. Previous policies of sweeping it out of sight is not acceptable - nor is cancelling brands that exist today due to actions long ago. Many brands are trying to readdress the balance and by accepting the challenges of navigating the territory – are finding ways to make the changes needed. 

This is playing out in a myriad of ways, from investment in infrastructure, visitor centres opening up, GI’s being pursued to protect the rums made by specific countries, and far more accurate accounts of history being told.

Through all of this evolution, it’s now possible to understand the influence of rum on a region far better than ever before, especially should you care to visit in person.

The Sights - Carribean distilleries to visit

Let’s start with Jamaica, and one of the biggest names in Rum, Appleton.

In two hours, you can gain a deeper appreciation for both rum and Jamaica in an authentic, multi-sensory experience. The Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience starts off at their visitor centre (with a drink of course) and once you’ve taken in the beautiful grounds where sugar cane gently blows, you go through the process. 

It starts with milling and how it is possible to capture the terroir and moves onto visiting centuries old copper pot stills, the aging houses filled with oak barrels and finishes with a tasting. It’s set up for visitors and caters to both newbies and nerds alike.

One of Jamaica’s newest rum tour attractions celebrates one of the island’s oldest sugar and rum producers – Worthy Park

Elevated 1200 feet above sea level in the hills of Lluidas Vale, St. Catherine, the guided rum tours take you from the 1670’s into the present day and immerse your senses in the sights, sounds, flavours, aromas and craft of 100% Pot Still distilled rum making. 

It was long overdue for such a renowned distillery and it now makes their story accessible to all who care to visit. That, and many rum flights featuring five Rum-Bar and Worthy Park Single Estate offerings too.  

A trip to Barbados must surely mean carving out an afternoon to visit Mount Gay

Steeped in over 300 years of heritage and expertise, the experiences are a rum-lover’s paradise. There’s a lot of different tours available, and transport is easy to organise (they even do it from set locations). 

We suggest going all in. Of course we would write that, but the tour of the distillery with a more in-depth tasting experience is so worthwhile. You get to tour of the grounds, the Well House and experience the rum making process, before indulging in a tasting that includes their four signature rums, four rums exclusively available at Mount Gay as well a limited edition offering. 

It’s the full experience and you learn a lot along the way, lubricated by a lot of tasty treats…

The big producer on the island is the West Indies Rum Distillery, located in Brighton, Black Rock on the southern parish of St. Michael.

It was founded in 1893 and produces a variety of Bajan Rums. Today, it’s said to make 80% of the island's rum, and its portfolio consists of widely popular brands such as Cockspur Rum, Stade’s, Malibu, Plantation and more. 

It’s massive too – it can produce up to nine million litres of pure alcohol every year and has the storage capacity for about one and a half million litres as bulk storage as well as twenty thousand barrels. It’s not for the faint hearted, nor for walk ins. 

If you are super keen though, mail ahead and they may be able to accommodate but be realistic – it’s a plant, not a distillery. That said, it’s literally on the beach, so even if it’s just to gaze and the sheer size of it all as you walk past…

While technically a Central American country, Belize also considers itself part of the Caribbean. It’s also home to COPALLI Rum (Copal Tree Distillery). It’s part of a much bigger business, meaning it has so much to offer above and beyond rum and an easy to pitch to travel companions who may be interested in booze… think fly fishing, agritourism experiences, jungle adventure tours, bird watching, spa and wellness… 

You can indulge in doing both, or let others do the activities while the rum takes centre stage and if you go to the distillery, you are guided through a farm to flask kind of experience. 

You see the organic cane fields and harvest your own sugarcane, before heading to the on-site distillery to learn the basics of rum-making. You see the entire distillery and bottling facility before traveling to the Agricultural Center to taste the spirits. 

The agro-business is a big part of their rum and the non-GMO heirloom sugarcane sourced from 22,000 acres of pristine rainforest is a big deal. As a tour, it’s as much about learning about the land, ways of farming and community. It shows how rum producers can positively impact that and cast a spotlight on the broader sustainability conversation. Truly inspiring. 

When it comes to the Caribbean - Guadeloupe isn’t the first island to be recommended on many tourism sites but it’s all the better for it. It’s beautiful. It’s tucked away and still has a sense of discovery about it. 

The archipelago of Guadeloupe is home to over a dozen islands and if you go, you’ll find some fantastic Agricole producers there, many of whom have open doors.

The largest (accounting for close to half of its overall production) is Damoiseau, located in the Bellevue estate in Grande-Terre. It was bought by Roger Damoiseau in 1942, who converted it into a Rhum Agricole distillery, which is today run by his grandson, Hervé. There’s lots of history there and a family at the heart of it all with many stories to delve into!

Highlight Spirits - Caribbean brands to watch

As part of this regional guide, we wanted to highlight two producers who we feel embody real quality and represent two contrasting styles of rum. 

The first is Foursquare Rum Distillery who are tucked away in the southern countryside of Barbados, on the site of a former sugar plantation that dates back to 1720. 

The distillery was re-opened by the Seale family in 1996, and the distilling and blending operations are currently led by Richard Seale. It’s fast become the pre-eminent rum producer in the region, scooping up awards and rave reviews year after year. They are best known for Doorly's, Old Brigand and E.S.A.Field. F. but the Foursquare Exceptional Cask Selections are what get the nerds hot under the collar.

Exceptional Cask Selections are a series rare offering from Foursquare Rum Distillery that Richard personally selects and, in many ways, each is a reflection of his personal projects and ideas he has been working on for years. 

These are one-of-a-kind expressions, and thorough the nuance of blending and maturation, demonstrate what’s possible when you blend styles, processes, finishes and creativity. It’s also why all eyes are on them as a distillery and why they are held in such high regard.

Alongside their proximity, shared status as French Overseas Territories and similar agricole production styles - Martinique and Guadeloupe each have some brilliant rum producers. 

That said, despite all the parallels, Guadeloupe has been left in the shadows of Martinique and the latter’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, rightly or wrongly, gives it a superior reputation. 

The AOC requires sugar cane farmers and rum producers to follow strict regulations on the type, location and intensity of cane farming as well as fermentation and distillation processes. What does this mean? If you are into Rhum Argricole, the brands produced there are must try’s - none more so than Trois Rivières

Theirs is a story that began centuries ago, and the Trois Rivières Plantation is an integral part of Martinique’s historical heritage. The name comes from the three rivers that border the acres of sugarcane fields: Oman, Bois d’Inde and Saint Pierre. 

Following the 18th and 19th centuries where the plantation specialised in the production of sugar and their rum was a side hustle; by the beginning of the 20th Century the opposite was true: Trois Rivières was exclusively manufacturing Agricole rum.

Production moved from Sainte-Luce to Rivière Pilote to a new site in 2004 but the precious sugarcane fields are still located in Sainte-Luce on the original lands that board the Caribbean Sea and towered by the famous windmill.

Their range is broad, but one we feel best exemplifies their unique style is the surprisingly mineral, salty, seawater notes of Trois Rivières Cuvée de l’Océan. It’s solely made with the juice of sugarcanes specifically raised on the waterfront of Anse Trabaud located in the extreme south of Martinique. 

Spotlight on the Rum Punch

It’s impossible to talk about rum in the Caribbean without delving into the world of Rum Punches. They rose to fame during the mid-1600s when rum from West Indies became fashionable in London's coffee houses. Soon, rum became the most popular choice for both the wealthy aristocrats and for English sailors. 

With its popularity (and the newly acquired control of sugar producing colonies) the Royal Navy swapped the daily allowance of a gallon of beer for half a pint of rum instead. 

With the rum punch a staple at home and being made as far as the colonies and beyond. It took on a life of its own and over hundreds of years, there have been countless recipes, riffs and recreations.  

What is a Rum Punch and how do you make an authentic one? 

It’s thought that the word punch comes from the Indian word “panch” which means five, and that the five refers to the five ingredients of sour, sweet, strong, weak, and spice. The famous Bajan poem for how to make a rum punch is one we live by - and one we suggest you memorising for when you make one at home.

‘One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak, a dash of bitters and a sprinkle of spice, serve well chilled with plenty of ice. ‘ 

What sour, sweet and weak are really depends on the style of rum you have. The "sour" in Barbadian rum punch is lime juice, while the “sweet” in early iterations would have been fresh-pressed sugarcane juice. Historically "weak" meant water.

You can be far more creative though and sour can be any citrus, sweet any matter of infused syrup or liqueur. The weak could be fruit juices or even a mixer of some kind. The beauty of the recipe is that if you keep those ratios, you are almost always about right and it’s not hard to adapt to taste.

The Jamaican Rum Punch structure is similar and equally as famous. It’s also called the Planter's Punch and usually it includes three fruits (e.g pineapple, lime or orange) and fresh mint.

The Planter’s Punch has a storied past and can be traced back to the early 1900’s and while ingredient ratios vary from account to account (as does the drink’s name—Jamaican Rum Punch, Creole Punch, Planter’s) it almost always contains rum, lime, sugar and water. Again, you can be creative with how you tailor it but what we find is that due to the nature of Jamaican rums (the “funk”) – you are well rewarded if you don’t overcomplicate the simple staples of lime / sugar / water. Let the rum showcase all it has to offer and take the lead!

Spirits Kiosk
Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum
Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum
Mount Gay Eclipse Rum
Mount Gay Eclipse Rum
Damoiseau Les Arrangés Pineapple & Vanilla Rum
Damoiseau Les Arrangés Pineapple & Vanilla Rum

27 June 2022