In St Barth, Finding The Rhythm of Caribbean Rum

st barth caribbean rumdThe Rhum Room in Gustavia, the Caribbean's leading rum bar, is open.
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My journey started with the thrill of the prop plane nosing down for a “bombs away” landing at the Gustaf III airport runway, one of the shortest in the world, as the landing gear of the Tradewind Aviation plane hammered the tarmac.

I had arrived to be a rum judge at Caribbean Journal’s 2019 Caribbean Rum Awards event in St. Barth, a tiny jewel of an island in the French West Indies that was discovered by Columbus in 1493.

The island retains some slivers of its Columbian virginity. It is studded with subtle contrasts like naturally-growing cacti and the sweet breath of bougainvillea that softens almost every man-made surface. Despite its mercantile tradition that stretches back hundreds of years, St Barth has the quality of remaining unswollen by the cruise industry due to its small, shallow port and remote location.

st barth caribbean rum
Gustavia, the last great French Caribbean downtown.

I was one of seven rum judges on the island for a week of music, food and dancing and just lolling around listening to music and watching sailboats beat against steady Easterly trade winds. We completed the postcard effect by playing a lot of Bob Marley music because that’s what you do to enhance the fun: rhythm, poetry and spirit, the way Bob Marley’s calliope of musical talents is able to inspire, regardless of your latitude or longitude, but in St. Barth his music has a like-new magic.

The rum event was intimate but serious, with no enforced conformity, and a professional congeniality that grew warmer over time. Our shared priority was a protracted immersion into rum starting with a type of rum called rhum agricole, the French phrase for rums made of pure sugar cane juice that mostly come from French-speaking islands in the West Indies.

These rhums are typically aged in former sherry, port and bourbon barrels to enhance flavor and complexity. Most rums are produced from molasses, which is more akin to a byproduct of sugar cane, but is nevertheless capable of producing great results too. St Barth is too rocky and dry to support its own sugar cane production, so our rum selections were collected from the rocky, volcanic, sun-kissed islands of the region.

st barth caribbean rum
Inside the Rhum Room.

Despite the purpose of the trip, it was not fueled by excessive rum consumption, though easy neat-drinking was our daily marinade. There is some other quality to sipping aged, small-batch Caribbean rums that typical rum reviews tend to miss. So I offer an answer to the why question about small batch Caribbean rums and how to get into their rhythm.

Being a Caribbean rum judge is to venture under the orchestral canopy of the world’s best rums where the contours of the liquid take you on a journey from the diagnostic heights to the valley of decision, where notes sink, float and fly. Rum is a force that bridges the islands of the Caribbean through flavor and history. 

Properly consumed, they hint at the hidden tissue connecting us all, if you allow it through openness to the mystery of our separateness and our togetherness, like the blurred space between the spinning hub and rim of a wheel. Rums’ tasting notes, like melodies, are rhythmically complex, conjuring up wild landscapes painted on your pallet from earth’s sweetest flavors with acoustic-like textures designed to turn your mouth into a concert hall. Drinking these rums reminds me that our most essential connection is to earth’s fertility.

The terroir that is so imaginatively arpeggiated in all the dark and white rums we sampled reinforces this simple and accessible truth.

The center of the action was Rhum Room, the largest Caribbean rum bar in the world. Rhum Room is behind a hidden door located in the kitchen of The Quarter Kitchen and Cocktail Lab in the island’s main city of Gustavia. Both establishments share handcrafted hardwood flourishes and masculine under-lit bar shelves, affecting the air of Yankee industriousness in the tropics. Chris Davis, the proprietor of both, orchestrates a quixotic menu with subtle Indo-Chinese influences that is other-worldly in terms of quality and service.

Rum is his real passion.

For Chris, a person’s rum knowledge is a barometer of integrity, and as I sat at his bar puffing on a fine Cuba cigar (Bolivar Libertador), absorbing his pear-shaped rum knowledge and sipping on a glass of Cuban Santiago de Cuba Once (“11”), I imagined that for him the frequent popping of champagne corks conjures up the crackle of small arms engagement that would mark the fantastical start of a revolution towards the founding of a new country called Rhum.

None of this can be said of many mass-produced distilled spirits that beg for our collective attention. Excessive processing and marketing budgets that make up most of the purchase value is the real story. Like pop songs, the only thing that comes to the surface with these products is more surface – and early morning regret. Franchise tie-ins and higher proofs yoke new entrants to short-term commercial demands – sprung from spreadsheets and filled with clichéd phrases (“bold”, “smooth”). Sociability and friendship are mere marketing copy barbed with irony.

st barth caribbean rum
Renowned Martinique Chef Guy Ferdinand does a master class on the ti’ punch cocktail.

A great rum should have a beginning, a middle and an end – a tiny revolution in your mouth with its own nutrition that is earth’s special presence in you. Grass, mahogany, cinnamon, herbs, tannic dryness and sometimes the warmth of charred sugar, cohered together. In you, rum should break the grid of predictability in your harried life and suspend the culture’s oppressive Ideology of Rush. Presence is the objective. These sensations – that you must make room for – come to you. You don’t go to them.

The master distiller’s compositional process reflects an aesthetic priority as opposed to a short-term commercial objective. Above all else, rum should be shared with others as a way to combat the vacancy of an industrial-scale consumption society that too often quenches the potential for human connection. This is what I believe Bob Marley might have referred to as “mental slavery” in the resistance message of his lyrics.

There were 45 rums to sample in a single day.

Such a quantity is consumable only with a huge amount of water. For me that meant consuming two gallons of water in a three-hour period. While I took notes, marking my votes for each category, the rush of flavors and sensations expressed themselves in musical form as I hurled myself into the fray.

Guadeloupe’s Bologne tasted like Morgana King’s “A Taste of Honey”. If you’re not familiar with Morgana, she was also an actor who achieved moderate fame as the wife of Vito Corleone in the film, The Godfather.

Martinique’s Rhum Neisson L’Esprit Bio reminded me of higher-pitched dub-reggae-punk sound from an all-female band called the Slits because its blanc color contrasted with rebellious floral notes and a subtle terroir paid out as a strong burn and easy finish that is typically in the realm of dark rums. And for the three winners (see the full list of CRA winners here) in the Ultra-Premium category: Don Q Reserva de la Familia Serralles, Ron del Barrilito Five-Star, Havana Club Maximo. They all sounded like Wagner.

All I needed was a secret door to discover the world of small batch Caribbean rums – and moments of happiness I didn’t allow to drift away. My advice is to take up the living roots of these rums, gather some friends, turn off the media and play the music.

This year’s Caribbean Rum Awards will be held again in St Barth from Nov. 10-15 in and around Gustavia.

For more information on the 2020 edition, visit the Caribbean Rum Awards or email rum@caribjournal.com or Hello@25sbh.com