Caribbean Rum: A Traveler's Guide

Pusser's Rum

 Dominick Lockyer/CC by 2.0

Just as the Irish have whiskey, the Russians their vodka, and the Scottish their, well, scotch, the Caribbean has rum. Derived from sugar cane, rum is much more than a drink: each glass is full of Caribbean history and culture. For many Caribbean travelers, no trip is truly started before that first rum drink is served -- often as soon as you arrive in the lobby of your hotel -- and packing isn’t complete without leaving some space for some favorite bottles of rum to take home from the trip.

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Caribbean Rum History

© Bob Curley

Rum's history and that of the Caribbean share deep roots that go back 400 years. As Europeans began colonizing the Caribbean in the 17th century -- after mostly giving up their dreams of finding gold in the islands -- the first sugar-cane plantations began to spring up. African slaves (and enslaved indigenous islanders) were forced to work the cane fields from dawn to dusk under the blazing summer sun.

Sugar itself was the cash crop, but almost immediately planters began using byproducts like molasses to distill primitive white rum -- a process first discovered by their slaves. Thus was born the infamous “triangle trade” of sugar, slaves, and molasses for rum between the Caribbean, Africa, and the American colonies.

At first, rum was distilled in pot stills; later, more sophisticated column stills allowed for easier mass production. It was soon discovered that storing rum in oak barrels mellowed the natural harshness of the liquid, and aging of rum began. A daily ration of “grog” (rum mixed with water and lime juice) became standard for sailors of the British Royal Navy after the conquest of Jamaica in 1655 -- a tradition that lasted well into the 20th century. Pusser’s Rum, still made in the British Virgin Islands, was the official rum of the Royal Navy.

Today, rum is available in a variety of forms, including light, gold, dark, spiced, and premium rums. Light rums are clear in color and are aged the least and filtered the most. Gold rums are aged in white barrels for a few years. Dark rums are aged in heavily charred oak barrels that give them a deeper flavor. Spiced rums are flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, anise, pepper, and other spices found in the Caribbean. Premium rums are carefully blended in small batches, and aged for many years to smooth and mellow their flavors, like a fine cognac.

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Caribbean Rum Shops

© Bob Curley

A rum shop is not a store that sells rum, per se, or simply a bar that serves rum. You can find those anywhere. In the Caribbean, a rum shop is a unique entity, distinct even from other island bars or even beach bars (although some rum shops are on the beach!). They serve a special role in the culture of islands across the Caribbean, but especially in places like Jamaica, St. Lucia, Montserrat, and Barbados (which alone has more than 1,500 rum shops).

Regardless of race, wealth, or cultural background, you can come to a rum shop, order a rum and Coke (or whatever else you’d like, within reason) from the tiny bar, and let the locals chat you up about everything and anything, from local politics, sports, tourism, or whatever else comes to mind.

Also known as rum shacks, rum shops are social gathering spots lubricated by the islands’ favorite drink. They can be located in someone’s house or in a ramshackle shack along the roadside. Some serve packaged chips and other snacks, while others are known for their fresh local food.

Cheaper than bars or restaurants, rum shops typically sell rum by the bottle (small, medium or large), alongside a glass (with or without ice) and perhaps a soft drink to chase the spirits.

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Buying Caribbean Rum and Getting It Home

Photo © Fiyah Dawta via Flickr

A bottle (or more) of rum is probably the most common souvenir brought home from the Caribbean. Because rum is produced locally and in great quantity, you can find bottles of rum at good prices in island stores: it some places, it’s entirely accurate to state that the local rum is cheaper than (bottled) water.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, for example, you can get a 750 ml bottle of Cruzan rum for about $7 -- less than half of what you’d pay in the U.S. Buying a bottle of rum in the supermarket for your hotel room is a great way to save money on drinks when compared to prices at local bars.

If you checked luggage for your trip, you can simply buy your rum locally and pack the bottles into your checked bags: shopkeepers will usually wrap your purchase for travel, and you should bury the bottles within your clothing for further insulation. p> Do be mindful of the duty-free allowance: if you are a U.S. citizen you can bring home a maximum of $800 worth of goods per person duty-free from most of the Caribbean ($1,600 from the U.S. Virgin Islands), including up to two liters of alcohol per person over age 21 (up to 5 liters from the U.S.V.I.). And remember that you are banned from bringing back any products from Cuba, including Cuban rum.

Thanks to post-9/11 security requirements, you cannot place your bottles of rum in your carry-on luggage. This presents a bit of a quandary if you haven’t checked bags on your way down to the islands, and requires some math in this era of checked-baggage fees: Does the cost of checking a bag make sense if you’re doing so mainly to bring back some inexpensive rum? Fortunately, most airlines do not yet charge a fee to check bags for international flights (outside the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

You can also buy Caribbean rum at the airport duty-free shop located beyond the security checkpoint and carry your bottles directly onto the plane. That’s fine if you’re flying nonstop to your final destination in the U.S. However, if you are making a connecting flight after you land in the U.S., you’ll need to place your rum in a checked bag for the subsequent leg(s) of your journey.

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