France has its wine, Germany has its beer, and Puerto Rico has its rum—it is called the "rum capital of the world," after all.
From the plethora of rum-based drinks found around the island to the distillery business (over 70 percent of the rum sold in the U.S. comes from Puerto Rico), rum is a huge part of the Puerto Rican experience.
The spirit is also a big part of the island's history. Juan Ponce de León first brought Creole sugar cane rootstocks from La Española (Dominican Republic) in 1506. Eleven years later, the first sugar mill was established in Añasco. Rum production began in the 1650s, a byproduct of the sugar cane industry on which Puerto Rico made its early living.
Guarapo, or sugar cane juice, is extracted and boiled to high temperatures. The process yields crystallized sugar and syrupy molasses. Sugar cane laborers discovered that mixing molasses with water and fermenting it produced a distilled spirit: rum. Incidentally, the word "rum" comes from Barbados.
Types of Rum
Today, there are myriad types of rum. Here is a brief introduction.
- Light Rum (or Silver/White Rum): A preferred rum for cocktails and mixed drinks, light and white rums have a more subtle flavor. The most ubiquitous example of light rum can be found in the supremely popular mojito, a Cuban drink, which has become a local favorite in Puerto Rico.
- Gold or Amber Rum: That familiar golden brown hue, rich taste, and full body make this the natural choice for your standard rum and coke. Aged in wooden barrels, they have a stronger flavor than light rums.
- Spiced Rum: Usually, a gold variety, this grade of rum gets its name and flavor from the added spices and, occasionally, caramel.
- Dark Rum: Aged longer in heavily charred barrels, dark rum has a much stronger flavor, hints of spices, and a strong molasses or caramel overtone.
Brands of Puerto Rican Rum
The locals are proud of their rum, even if they sometimes get sick of the ever-present Piña Colada. Puerto Rico is the only rum-producing country to adhere to a minimum aging law for the drink; before it can be sold, the spirit is required to be aged in white oak barrels for at least a year. Not sure what to try? Here's a summary of what you'll find on the island.
- Bacardi: The world's most popular rum, Bacardi has a massive distillery located across the bay from Old San Juan. It's a popular and free tourist attraction.
- Don Q: Many locals claim that this is the best rum in Puerto Rico.
- Ron del Bariilito: The "Cognac of the Caribbean" is a blend of rums aged six to 10 years in charred oak barrels.
- Palo Viejo: This variety is a favorite for classic drinks like coquito, the Puerto Rican eggnog. Palo Viejo is hard to find outside the island, so take full advantage while you're here.
- Ron Llave: This is a traditional, mellow rum available in light or dark grades.
- Ron Caña: Okay, ron caña isn’t actually rum, but it is a similar liquor made from sugarcane. It’s the local equivalent of moonshine.
The Best Bars in San Juan
- Barrachina: This restaurant in Old San Juan claims to have invented the piña colada. Be prepared to indulge in a cocktail that's oh-so-creamy and unbelievably delicious.
- El Batey Bar: This dive bar is allegedly the oldest in town; it serves up cheap drinks in plastic cups.
- El Boricua: Live music, a dance floor, and cheap drinks keep locals coming back to this bar again and again.
- La Factoría: You might recognize La Factoría from Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's widely-popular "Despacito" music video—and the vibes here are just as fun as you'd expect. Named one of the 50 best bars in the world, you can't go wrong with any craft cocktail here.
- JungleBird: Owned by the same company as La Factoría, this tiki bar in La Placita serves up delightful tropical drinks.
- Lupi's Mexican Grill and Sports Cantina: Don't let the fact that this is a sports bar fool you. Here, you can enjoy a delightful selection of mojitos while you watch the game.