Caribbean Drinking – Is It All About Rum?

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Recently I spent three glorious weeks on the Caribbean island of Grenada.  35 degree temperatures, crystal blue seas and bright, bright sunshine.  I’ve been to the Caribbean a few times before:  Antigua, Barbados, Cuba and Jamaica and, each time, I’ve drunk rum.  Rum punch, rum and pineapple, rum and coke, rum cocktails.  It’s been a number of years since I was last there and I was interested to see whether Grenada had anything more to offer or is it still all about the rum?

There are a number of rum distilleries in Grenada, the most famous being Westerhall.  Here they make the whole spectrum of rums, from white to dark, aged and spiced.  The Westerhall name is seen all around Grenada and across the globe.  You also have Clarkes Court which calls itself Grenada’s number one rum.  Again, a full spectrum producer from light to dark and including flavoured rum.

Whilst on the island we visited the River Antoine Distillery – they don’t have their own website but you can read all about the history on the ‘Uncommon Caribbean’ website here.  The reason we went to River Antoine is that they are one of the oldest in the Caribbean, their water wheel alone is 231 years old.  They do everything in a traditional way including growing their own sugar as well as buying from those in the community around them.  They employ 81 local people and they are constantly looking for ways to recycle and reuse any of their by-products and waste.  Due to their size and the nature of the way they make their rum (the method practically unchanged for 231 years) they make only 500 bottles a day.  They often sell out and, at carnival time, they sell out of their back stock as well.  It took us all of 20 minutes to have a guided walk around the distillery, it is that small.  It is like walking back in time and it really brought home to me how deeply rooted to the country and the community these small distilleries are and, before big business, how central to the local economy they used to be.

River Antoine produce four rums – two whites and two flavoured:  a rum punch and a chocolate type drink – these are at 20% ABV.  The white rum on the other hand is at 75% proof.  They also make a 69% proof for the tourists which means you can actually take it on the aeroplane (the 75% is not allowed as it is flammable!)  Now, to manage expectations I should tell you I’m not a lover of white rum, I find it too harsh and, at 75% ABV, way too alcoholic, however I was keen to try the rum which has been “made in the same way, and on much of the same equipment, since 1785.”   With the rise in popularity of craft beer and bath-tub gin in the UK it was really refreshing to go back to a place which truly is a heritage business; historical, traditional and with a sense of place.

And here’s where the romance ended I’m afraid; the rum was throat stripping, overwhelmingly smoky and made me feel like I’d been breathing fire.  I’m not a local, it’s not 1785 and, unfortunately, the taste wasn’t for my modern (and slightly delicate) palate.  It’s a wonderful place to visit, just don’t drink the rum!  

​So, what else can you drink on the island if you don’t fancy the rum?  Amid the two locally bottled, and omnipresent, beers Stag and Carib, the West Indies Beer Company has recently found its place on the island.  Now open for two years, and having been extended a number of times, the microbrewery and bar imports all of the ingredients needed to make traditional ales – some of which are ridiculously strong (I’m seeing a ‘strong alcohol’ theme!)  It has been a runaway success and, by using the brewery as an exciting back drop to the bar, it keeps the beer at the very centre of the business.  I’m not a big traditional beer fan so I drank rum and pineapple.  The other half tried quite a few though and declared them to be very good indeed. 

So, what about the wine?  Can I drink wine in the Caribbean?  The largest cellar on the island belongs to the Aquarium restaurant.  On Sundays they have a BBQ and live music and it’s a fantastic way to spend the day – listening to music on the beach with amazing grilled foods, drinking whilst watching the sun go down. 

Having spent a whole week drinking rum and Carib, I was looking forward to getting my wine fix.  We went to Aquarium a number of times (please don’t think this was all in one day’s drinking!)  Unsurprisingly, they have a large selection of North American and South American wines on the menu but they tend to be at the cheaper end of the market (think Barefoot Zinfandel).  I was more interested in the Old World stuff so tried the white Rioja, the Muscadet and the Prosecco – all imported from Europe. 

Aquarium has a vast list including some very expensive Louis Latour and all of the Champagnes you’d expect.  Imported wine is expensive due to import tax and travel costs so the wines we were drinking were around the £30 – £40 mark.  The pound dropped in value considerably whilst we were there so the wine got more expensive as we went on.  The Rioja and the Muscadet were very welcome after a couple of weeks of beer and rum but they were both quite thin and astringent.  We were working at the bottom end of the menu and it showed – I would expect to pay about £15 in a UK restaurant for the quality we were drinking.  The Prosecco was better and very enjoyable however, because of the heat and humidity, the bubbles were gone very quickly.  The heat really played a part in the enjoyment of the wine.  You couldn’t leave it in the glass for anything more than a couple of minutes otherwise it would be warm, the ice in the ice bucket melted incredibly quickly so the bottle didn’t stay chilled for very long either.  We were pouring a mouthful of wine at a time into the glass – although it was lovely to be back on the grape stuff, it wasn’t the usual wine drinking experience and we ended up the afternoon back on the rum punches.

So, is the Caribbean all about rum, no.  Will you end up drinking rum, yes.  It has the history, the sense of place, the diversity and the versatility which makes it very enjoyable to drink in the hot days and humid nights.  The inherent expertise that they have around rum is unparalleled, it’s a way of life and, as I always say, when you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

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