By Alexander Britell
The “noble spirit” of rum has captivated the Caribbean for centuries, and Edward Hamilton has devoted himself to exploring it. Hamilton, who began the “Ministry of Rum” website in 1995 and is a leading rum importer based out of Chicago, has traveled the Caribbean and beyond, usually on his sailboat, tasting and researching the rums of the islands. Caribbean Journal talked to Hamilton about the importance of rum in the region, its varied character across the West Indies and how appreciation for the spirit has changed over the years.
What does rum mean to the Caribbean?
Rum is woven into the fabric of life. It’s one of the threads of the fabric of life in the Caribbean. In the islands, it is a way of life. It is a part of the history and the economy of virtually every Caribbean island. And from a non-Caribbean perspective, it is one of the few spirits that really transports you to a geographic place. It’s hard to pick up a glass of rum and not have this image of swaying palm trees and clear water and maybe a moonlit night. It transports you unlike vodka. Where does vodka take you?
How much does rum vary from island to island?
Every island has a unique rum, and the rum of every island is unique. Take two English-speaking islands like St Lucia and Antigua, and the rums will have a different profile, and that’s based on the history of the islands and personal preferences. Take an island like Barbados — it’s one of the few islands where the local taste favors a dark, aged rum. When you go to Trinidad, the preference is white rums, lighter rums, clear rums. If you go to St Vincent, the national rum, the most-consumed rum is a white overproof rum. That’s changed a little bit — a few years ago, if you didn’t have white overproof, St Vincent “Very Strong Rum,” in your rum shop, you might as well close your shutters and go home.
Is there an island in the Caribbean that is particularly prolific in its production?
A lot of rum is made in Guyana, and Guyana was traditionally a bulk rum supplier, dating back to the royal navy, when Guyanese Demerara rums were some of the first rums to be named, and they were in the recipe for sailors’ Pusser’s Rum in the 17th century. Traditionally they were a bulk rum supplier and the rum was carried from Guyana to other places. Some of it was aged, some of it wasn’t. Today Guyana produces a lot of rum under the El Dorado rum. But that was a surprise — that’s something that’s changed in the last 15 years.
Have there been any changes in rum or the culture of rum in the last few years?
I would say that the quality of rum has improved throughout the islands over the last 10 to 15 years. A very good example is Barbados — Mount Gay Extra Old was first bottled in 1994, and it was a little bit of an experiment. They didn’t really know how it was going to do. They wren’t planning to export it, but people started drinking it and said, ‘gee, this is good.’ People are looking for better rum, and the distillers are getting competition. The thing that’s changed is we’re seeing more rums from other islands brought in. We’re seeing more rums from Barbados and Guyana. El Dorado was virtually unknown outside of Guyana in the rest of the Caribbean, and nobody had ever seen or tasted it. But today we’ve got better trade, better communication, and people are traveling and saying, ‘I want these rums.’
Is there rum trade between the islands?
Absolutely. But it’s still very segmented. You can’t buy French rums in Antigua. You can buy them a little bit in St Lucia because they’re neighbouring islands and there’s a lot of family ties between those islands. In Dominica, you can find the occasional bottle of French rum there.
Do you have a favorite rum?
Asking which is your favorite rum is like asking which is your favorite island. The reality is that there are a lot of different rums for different occasions. It’s like food — do you want to eat the same thing for breakfast that you want to eat for dinner? Of course not. My first drink of the day is usually a ‘ti [petit] punch made with French rum. I fell in love with French rum and the style. But it’s not for everybody. I’ll go on to an aged rum or rum punch, and then, at the end of the night, I would want to drink something that’s been sitting somewhere in a barrel for 10 to 12 years, resting quietly on a Caribbean island somewhere. But I wouldn’t want to drink that same rum as my first drink of the day. Rum is the most varied of all the distilled spirits, and I think that’s something really important to understand.