Above: Papa Zouk (all photos by CJ)
By Alexander Britell
ANTIGUA — A man excuses himself to offer a brand-new bottle of rum to the counter of the bar.
But this is no ordinary bottle. It is an Appleton 21. And it is a gift, a gift to this bar.
The bottle joins more than one hundred others: Clement, St James, Angostura Single Barrel. The greats and the goods and the necessities.
But here, all of them are gifts.
But it was not always this way.
Just a year ago, Papa Zouk, just outside of St John’s Antigua, was the greatest rum bar in the Caribbean, with the most diverse rum selection of any bar in the region.
It was a Caribbean legend, the brainchild of German film producer Bert Kirchner, the kind of place you have to know about, even if you haven’t heard about it.
It was famous for its Ti’ Punch, its ever-growing trove of rum, its superb fish and the creative, dynamic personality of Kirchner, who is now also the country’s Film Commissioner by day.
But last year, a fire hit, ravaging the bar and destroying almost all the bottles.
But that was not the end for Papa Zouk Fish ‘n’ Rum.
Kirchner didn’t think he had the resources to rebuild. But then offers began to trickle in from longtime friends of the bar.
Soon, Papa Zouk was rising from the ashes (as Kirchner often says) all due to the goodwill of the many guests who had had their unforgettable evenings at this place.
Above: Papa Zouk’s signature Ti’ Punch
“It was so humbling,” Kirchner says. “I had no idea it means so much to so many people. They all came to rebuild it.”
Now, Papa Zouk is back. While it’s a little bigger than it used to be, the vibe is the same: this is a classic Caribbean rum shop, a portal to the Old Days of the West Indies, still playing the same zouk.
And all of the rum bottles that burned now live on, dotting the upper shelves of the place, shadowy memories of the onetime collection.
After the fire, Kirchner found all of the bottles and extracted the rum that made it through the blaze; he then combined all of it into a single barrel, for what he calls the world’s most unique rum blend.
Above: Bert Kirchner with his “Fire Rum”
It’s named Fire Rum, and now you can take a sip in a tiny glass and taste a world of flavours, all the spiced rums and all the flavoured rums and the aged rums and the ones from Mauritius and Martinique and everywhere where cane spirits are king. It’s a fascinating taste.
And the fish, made by local chef Karen Mayres, is still some of the best you can find anywhere, although Kirchner refuses to call his place a restaurant.
Above: Chef Karen Mayres makes the island’s best fish
It’s a rum shop, he says. A member of the World’s Little Rum Shops, he says. The Founding Member.
Kirchner likes to tell the story of Papa Zouk, the namesake of the bar, the man who inspired this wonderful place.
He was a legend in Dominica. He was deaf and dumb. But when zouk began to play, he would feel the vibration and tap his foot and move.
And years after they met, when the man they called Papa Zouk passed on, Kirchner refused.
“I said, ‘he’s not dead. He has to live on,’” Kirchner says. And so, soon, Papa Zouk, the little rum shop was born, 16 years ago.
And after the years and the fire, there’s still something here.
When you walk in, you see the rum bottles, you hear the beat of the zouk, you feel something.
And it moves you.