We love some clichés because they're true, and few Caribbean clichés are as beloved as a sundowner rum cocktail on a beach. And when the sun dips, the music often strikes up, transforming bars, beaches and street blocks into parties, from salsa and merengue dancing in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, to the fashion parade of a dancehall night in Jamaica.
Rums of the Caribbean
The Caribbean makes the world’s best rum, and while some venture no further than a regular old Cuba libre (rum and cola) or piña colada, a highball of exquisite seven-year-old añejo over ice, sipped as the sun sets, is liquid heaven.
- Antigua Cavalier and English Harbour are best mixed with fruit juice for a refreshing – if potentially lethal – punch.
- Barbados Considered to produce some of the finest in the Caribbean, with Mount Gay being the best-known label.
- Dominica Rum connoisseurs crave this local concoction, Macoucherie. Don’t be fooled by the plastic bottles or cheap-looking label, it’s an undiscovered gem.
- Dominican Republic Dozens of local brands are available, but the big three are Brugal, Barceló and Bermudez.
- Haiti Barbancourt rum, made directly from sugar cane juice instead of molasses. Drink it aged four, eight or a deeply smooth (and expensive) 15 years.
- Jamaica Clear and light white rums, deep dark rums like Appleton and Wray & Nephew's brain-bashing overproof rums (rum over 151 proof).
- Puerto Rico The national drink. Though the headquarters of Bacardi are outside San Juan, Puerto Ricans drink locally made Don Q or Castillo.
- Saba Known for homemade rums, which are often flavored with locally grown banana, mango, vanilla or ‘Saba spice'. Most restaurants and hotels have their own special brew.
- USVI Cruzan rum has been St Croix’s happy juice since 1760, from light white rum to banana, guava and other tropical flavors.
- Curaçao Yes, there really is a liquor by the name. It’s a startling blue, especially given its orange flavor.
- Mudslide A creamy cocktail combining Kahlua, Baileys and vodka – from Grand Cayman.
- Painkiller A sweet mix of rum, coconut, pineapple, orange juice and nutmeg.
- Rum Punch The ubiquitous drink of the Caribbean. No two versions are alike but the best should combine multiple rums with fresh fruit juice and a dusting of nutmeg.
- Ti-punch Short for petit punch, it's the normal apéro (aperitif) in Guadeloupe: a mix of rum, lime and cane syrup, but mainly rum.
What to Drink
Caribbean drinks are more than just rum. Beer is like bottled water – no, it is the bottled water. Red Stripe from Jamaica, Carib from Trinidad & Tobago and the Dominican Republic's Presidente have earned global reputations. Numerous more regional lagers keep you cool during the hot days and nights. Many of the English-speaking islands also have a strong taste for bottle stout.
The Caribbean produces some of the world’s finest coffee. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee needs no introduction, while Haitian Bleu (named for its color) is sought out for its dark roasted flavor and organic origins. Cuba also grows organic coffee, usually served strong, black and sweet or as silky, milky café con leche, which is also how they prefer it in Puerto Rico.
Fruit juices are another treat. Coconut water sipped fresh from the nut is refreshing and light – perfect on a hot day. Those with a real sweet tooth can go for freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.
If you could taste them, what would sunsets and long days at the beach taste like? Most likely, rum. In a daiquiri, by itself, or with sugar and a slice of lime, rum is the drink of the Caribbean. Rum is the top purchase by people visiting the Caribbean and you will see it offered everywhere, usually at prices much cheaper than you’ll find at home.
More enjoyable than getting a good deal on rum of course is trying rum. At factories throughout the region you can see how it is made and learn some of its history. Many people find these tours to be trip highlights.
- Casa Bacardí Rum Factory, Puerto Rico A good introduction to rum production – fermenting mashed sugarcane or molasses in huge vats, capturing the alcohol through distillation, aging it in wooden casks in big hot warehouses – and there are free tastings. The brand itself is a worldwide icon.
- Cruzan Rum Distillery, US Virgin Islands A pleasant 20-minute tour with tastings at the end.
- Museo del Ron, Cuba Some say that Cuban rum is the best (certainly the makers of best-selling Havana Club would agree). Do some investigation at this Havana institution where in addition to the usual tour and tasting there’s a re-creation of a traditional distillery, complete with a model railway.
- Rhumerie St James, Martinique There are many distilleries on this French island, but English speakers will learn the most at this enjoyable stop. Martinique is the epicenter of high-quality, pure-cane rums, which are called rhum agricole.
- Mount Gay Rum Visitors Centre, Barbados The aged rums here are some of Barbados’ best. This is a very traditional tour at a working distillery.
Top rums include Bermudez Anniversario from the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s Barbancourt Five Star and Mount Gay Extra Old from Barbados. The color of rum ranges from clear to honey brown. The darker the drink, the older, usually. Unlike Scotch, however, older does not necessarily equal better, especially considering that some distilleries add coloring and fresh product to the casks for ‘aged rum’ because of the thirsty angels.
Distillers explain that because of the warm Caribbean climate up to 15% of the rum evaporates every year during aging. This evaporation is called ‘the angel’s share’ at distilleries around the world and usually averages closer to 5%. The angels in the Caribbean are living it up, apparently.
Let taste be your guide; take a small sniff of straight rum with your mouth slightly open. This gives you an idea of the taste without being overwhelmed by the alcohol burn. In the better rums you might smell some vanilla, a hint of flowers, or even, oddly enough, cotton candy – it is just cooked sugar that soaked up the flavors of sun-warmed casks, after all.