Caribbean rum | Wine

Rum from local sugar cane is still produced at this primitive Tortola Island rum factory in the Virgin Islands.     - Contributed Photo
Rum from local sugar cane is still produced at this primitive Tortola Island rum factory in the Virgin Islands.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

After attending a seminar on tequila that was poorly done at a local restaurant, I researched tequila by interviewing personnel at various WSLCB stores, checking books out of the library and Googling. I was surprised at how many readers commented on that column. This column on rum is another diversion from wine.

We recently traveled to the Virgin Islands to visit Rod and Jill Hearne, former Island residents. In six-month increments over the past 10 years, they have sailed Lookfar, their 50-foot sloop, from Seattle to Mexico and through the Panama Canal. Incidentally, did you know that you can e-mail the Panama Canal and ask them to direct the Web-cam in a certain direction so you can watch a specific boat? However, it is first-come, first-serve, and someone had already e-mailed a request, so we missed seeing the Hearnes go through the Canal.

After a couple of years along the coast of Columbia, they are currently plying the turquoise waters of the Caribbean for a couple of seasons. Their boat is in protected harbors during the hurricane season.

Not much is going on in the Virgin Islands other than tourism. The islands of St. Thomas and St. John are U.S. territories. St. Thomas, which is a four-hour flight from JFK in New York, is the main airport and also a major cruise port. It is a huge duty-free shopping destination, and the stores open and close with the arrival and departure of cruise ships. There have been as many as 11 ships in port at one time, and the advent of the megaships has brought record-breaking numbers of shoppers. The atmosphere is frenetic shopping with shop owners outside of stores, hawking their wares and lower prices.

Conversely, St. John is two-thirds a national park. The United States purchased the Danish West Indies, now called the U.S. Virgin Islands, from Denmark in 1917. Then Lawrence Rockefeller formed a nonprofit conservation and educational organization. He acquired more than 5,000 acres of land on St. John, which were eventually donated to the United States for a national park.

Consequently, the character of St. John is totally different from St. Thomas. Accessible by ferry or private boat, travelers to St. John are hikers and eco-tourists. The Hearnes were fortunate to be assigned a two-month volunteer stint as “bay hosts” for the national park. While other volunteers are park rangers who conduct tours on land, the bay hosts greet each boat, advise for mooring (to protect the coral reefs, dispense helpful information such as where to fuel, where to find provision, etc.) and collect the daily mooring fee.

As for the history of rum, it is the history of sugar. Sugar is a sweet crystalline carbohydrate which occurs naturally in a variety of plants. One of those plants is the sugar cane, which in Latin is saccharum officinarum — the origin of the word "rum," according to etymologists.

The Caribbean basin proved to be an ideal climate for growing sugar cane, and sugar production quickly spread around the islands. The insatiable demand in Europe for sugar soon led to the establishment of hundreds of sugar cane plantations and mills in the various colonies throughout the Caribbean. While we were on St. John, we visited the Annaberg Sugar Plantation. Sugar is no longer made here. In fact, the sugar cane fields are gone. However, the aging ruins of the plantation are still here. Again, our tour guides are volunteers.

Annaberg was one of the few plantations to have a windmill. There are various ways to squeeze the sugar juice from the very fibrous sugar cane, but the most labor intensive method was to feed the cut cane into rollers by hand — arduous work in the Caribbean climate. This was not only slow, but dangerous; an axe was kept nearby in case a slave’s hand or arm got caught. Some distilleries used horses to move the rollers. Annaberg used horses when there was not enough wind to power the windmills.

After the cane was crushed, the juice ran by gravity into a large copper kettle where a fire was lit beneath. The excess water evaporated and workers would ladle the juice from one kettle to the next, down a line of five kettles, becoming more and more concentrated. The concentrated essence was then placed in a box to crystallize.

The first distillation of rum in the Caribbean was in the 17th century. Plantation slaves noticed that when the leftover molasses was rained on and left in the sun, it would ferment. By the late 1650s, the former waste product was being distilled. The concentrate was aged in oak and other barrels.

While the history of rum is the history of sugar, the dark annals of slavery in the Caribbean Islands are entwined with the sugar plantations. Slaves were brought in from Africa in an elaborate trading triangle. Sugar was shipped to Europe. Then Europe shipped copper, cloth, guns and ammunition to Africa. Then slaves were shipped from Africa to the Caribbean. Slaves were not treated well in general, but these African slaves were treated horrifically. Often, their only food was the sugar cane. The Caribbean sun was unrelenting; the humidity was exhausting. Sixteen slave cabins were found at Annaberg. They were made of branches woven together with lime, mud and molasses. The roofs were likely made of palm leaves.

The population growth of slaves indicates the importance of sugar and rum to the Caribbean economy. From 1717 to 1724, the slave numbers had grown from 547 to 1,430 in those seven years. By 1788, there were 9,000 slaves.

The majority of the world’s rum production occurs in and around the Caribbean. Since most of the sugar cane plantations are gone, most of the molasses used for Caribbean rum is imported from Brazil.

Interesting facts about the Virgin Islands: half of the territory belongs to the United States and the other is British. Everyone drives on the left side, and U.S. currency is used in all the Virgin Islands. The Hearnes sailed to our next visit, which was Callwood Distillery on Tortola, which is in the British Virgin Islands. First, we had to go to Customs on Tortola with our four passports. Keep in mind that the islands of the British and U.S. Virgin Islands are within sight of each other. When slaves escaped, they swam to a neighboring island — often just a mile away.

Callwood is one of two rum distilleries in the British Virgin Islands. The other is located on Jost Van Dyke. Although it is unknown exactly how old Callwood is, the style of stone and brick architecture widely used by the British dates to around the mid-1700s. The distillery has been in the Callwood family since the late 1800s.

To call this distillery “rustic” is overly complimentary. It is dilapidated, rundown and crumbling. Spider webs festoon the ceilings. I kept searching to see a modern facility hidden back in the bushes. Traditional, if not archaic methods, are used to brew and distill the rum that is made from pure sugar cane, rather than importing molasses from Brazil, which is common now. At Callwood, neither horses nor windmills are used to press the raw sugar cane. Pure sweat equity. The sugar juice is then boiled in various copper pots in the old method. I was happy that rum is essentially alcohol and doesn’t harbor germs. According to a search on the Internet, Callwood’s rum — which is labeled "Arundel" — is only available at the distillery. Stock up, if you dare.

We did not go to St. Croix, which is one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Cruzan, which is the most recognized rum in the Virgin Islands, is made there. There is a very well-done tour there. We again had to go through Customs — this time, United States — as we returned to St. John.

Rum had been relegated to a category of drink for the aged; sort of like ordering “Seagram’s Seven.” However, with the advent of frou frou designer cocktails in the trendiest bars, rum has had a resurgence with the Mojito. Other tropical drinks such as Pina Colada, Mai Tai, Scorpion, Cuba Libre, Long Island Iced Tea and Zombie help deplete the rum inventory.

A note on the Hearnes: in July, they are bareboating along the coast of Scotland to visit Scottish distilleries. To sail those waters, they both had to obtain a 100 gross ton Mariner’s License.

Dee Hitch can be reached at

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