In the spirit of not being shipwrecked, Trent and I were given a VIP tour of St. Kitts Bottling Company where, this sailor girl believes, the best rum ever is hand crafted. Rum is a big deal in the Caribbean, especially amongst the cruising crowd and we’ve sure had our share of spirits along the way. But every country has their specialty whether it be beer or the hard stuff but I’ll get to that later.
Brinley-Gold Shipwreck Rum is worth writing home about. I’m not a big rum drinker but this is NICE to sip on before bed. You’ve got to get your hands on a bottle if you’re ever lucky enough to see it on the shelf; trust me on this one. You’ll want to hide the bottle from everyone else in your house it’s that good. Words cannot describe it. Vanilla is my personal favorite. Trent’s into the spiced. Sugar and spice makes everything nice. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!
The Bottling Company isn’t open for tours to the public so I first contacted the Shipwreck headquarters in New Jersey where Zach Brinley himself set us up on a phenomenal tour with their chemist, Michael, in St. Kitts. We knew we found the warehouse when we could smell mangos a block away which is what Zach told us they’d be bottling when we arrived. Michael walked us through the production line, showed us the barrels where the rum is aged but the best part of the tour was visiting the lab and getting to know Michael. Of course the samples were a bonus. He even let us taste some rum still in the works, watermelon. I look forward to that one hitting the shelf.
Michael has been with the company since 1987 so he gave a quite informative tour. He certainly takes pride in what he does and I don’t blame him. He told us that up until a few years ago the sugar mill and the distillery were one in the same and he was the sugar chemist back them. The mill closed over 10 years ago and the distillery relocated but remains on St. Kitts where Michael moved into his new lab and started making rum. The distillery is a small operation and they definitely prefer to keep it simple. The lab would take you back in time. You won’t find a computer in Michael’s lab either. All the secret recipes are written on loose sheets of paper, stored in a separate folder for each flavor and stacked in a desk drawer.
I find it peculiar how there are still so many working rum distilleries in the West Indies but how very few fields of sugarcane still exist. I hear they still grow it in Jamaica and Cuba and maybe a few smaller islands. The West Indies is peppered with old abandoned sugar plantations. We stumble upon them all time as we hike around and sightsee. So naturally after talking with Michael I started researching sugar and rum because, as a sailor girl, I think I should know these things especially since, by the look of all these the ruins, it seems to have played a part in defining the cultural of these islands. Pirates of the Caribbean, The Royal Navy, Europeans and American Colonists alike all had an affinity for Rum.
Back in those days, every 2 pounds of sugar yielded an additional pound of this sticky, gooey, black, nasty (at the time) stuff that later came to be known as molasses. People around the refineries were literally swimming in molasses. No one knew what to do with it besides give a little to the livestock so it was dumped out at sea. Then one day some sugar plantation slaves discovered that molasses could be fermented into alcohol and a whole new trade began.
Sugar cane was the main cash crop for these islands during the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and they supplied around 85% of all the sugar consumed in Western Europe. African slaves became the main source of labor for this new labor intensive crop. You see, North American colonies had cornered the market on tobacco and cotton so the farmers here were urged to try something different and grow sugar cane. The endless low lying coastal regions worked perfectly for this new cash crop. The British snapped it up for their teas and cakes and the economy in the Caribbean boomed.
Africa, the Caribbean and the colonies supported the new strong need for more labor by establishing a triangular trade. Barrels of rum even became a new popular medium of exchange. More than three-quarters of the islands’ population was white before 1650 so that’s where you get such a mix of ethnicities across the Caribbean. There’s just so much history here. It all sounds like politics to me. Exchanging slaves, rum and molasses turned a good profit but the trade was all disrupted by the Sugar Act of 1764 which is also linked to causing the American Revolution. Fascinating.
That being said, you can still pick up a bottle of rum or sip on a rum punch almost anywhere in the Caribbean. It’s an iconic piece of history and it’s still about the cheapest liquor you can buy in the islands. However, in the Bahamas, if we weren’t drinking rum punch or a pina colada it was Kalik beer. Trent found some good rum in the Dominican Republic called Ron Barcelo. The Dominicans also made Presidente beer. Everything was cheap in that country. A Presidente didn’t fit in our cozies though because they’re were almost twice the size of your regular, 12 ounce, beer. Once we got to Puerto Rico and shopped at a wholesale grocery store, Trent restocked Pepper with a generic Puerto Rican light beer. Everything that came in a can in that country was only 10 ounces for some reason, even soda water.
That brings me to the US and British Virgin Islands, home of the “pain killer.” There’s no shortage of good drinks and happy hours in the Virgins. The best pain killers were made with Pusser’s rum and sprinkled with fresh nutmeg. Here’s a recipe if you’re ever in the mood to try one but I’m warning you to be careful; they’re really good!
It was easy to find inexpensive wine in the French islands like Saint Martin. I was even able to buy a few bags of wine. That was a nice treat. Now, in the Leeward islands it’s still rum punch, like they offer almost everywhere, or Carib beer. There’s a beer bottling company in St. Kitts too where I hear they also make Guinness and Stag. Carib is inexpensive but only if you recycle. Maybe we’ll try to get a tour before sailing away.
As I was researching and reading about rum and sugar today I got a craving for pumpernickel bread. I make it with molasses so I punched out a loaf in the midst of writing this article. All this talk of molasses made me hungry, which oddly enough, is now a difficult ingredient to find at the grocery store in the islands. The last place I saw it was in St. Thomas. I think Trent and I will go enjoy a little sip of rum with some hot, buttered, pumpernickel bread. If you make a painkiller, let me know what you think. Cheers!