There is a single spirit synonymous with the Caribbean islands: Rum.
Rum is made by distilling sugarcane. This makes it easy to understand why most of the world's rum is produced in the Caribbean as well as a few South American countries. Rum has been used as currency, a bribery payment to win elections, medicine for naval officers and as one of the early illegal import products into America.
Rum running began during the early 1900s from islands such as the Biminis and the Bahamas into Southern Florida to avoid taxation and, during Prohibition, to get spirits into America when they were illegal. The effort to curtail the illegal import of rum was comparable to the government effort to stop the importation of narcotics today. This put forth a pirate culture around the Caribbean islands and relocated a lot of the perceived riff raff along what is now known as the Florida Keys. In 1933, when Prohibition ended, so did the business of rum running.
Rum shares history with the likes of famed rum runner William S. McCoy (named as one of a few origins of the term "the real McCoy"), Earnest Hemingway and countless Jimmy Buffett songs. With the notion that first hand experience is the best experience, we left Myrtle Beach last week in the middle of the night and headed to the Florida Keys to explore the place where rum landed in America. Specifically, we were headed all the way to Key West.
As we drove out of Miami and through the small islands in the early morning hours, I noticed that there were no actual pirates, but plenty of references to pirates and more rum than you can fathom. Later that afternoon in Key West, we ventured away from the tourist laden Duval Street to Pat Croce's Rum Barrel, which claims to have the largest selection of rum in the world. Pact Croce's boasts more than 160 different types of rum, which left me no room to argue the claim, and also offers a book called the "Rum Bible" to help guide you through the selections. The bartender introduced himself as Allen and, in a well-educated manner, suggested a few cocktails that may suit our late afternoon palate. I decided on a drink made with fresh pineapple juice, coconut, aged rum and nutmeg. It tasted just like the islands and was everything you might expect in a rum drink. My partner in crime ordered the Wild Berry Mojito and, while I've been making and drinking mojitos for the better part of 10 years, this particular blend just seemed to be head and shoulders above any I've had previously. Maybe it was where I was and who I was drinking with?
About half way through our delicious libations, I noticed a glass cabinet nestled in the back of the main bar. It contained probably a hundred bottles of fine and rare rum. Obviously, I was in awe of the selection and, being very perceptive and a good salesman, Allen hustled over to offer me a flight of rum if I wanted to sample the spirits from behind the glass. I don't think anyone will be surprised that I began studying the "Rum Bible" for my four selections almost immediately. When he smiled at three of my four choices and began unlocking the glass, I knew I was in for a nice treat.
He gently placed four glasses into a wooden plank and poured the rum while giving a concise description of each. Rum from Haiti, Barbados, Dominican Republic and Guatemala were among those we tasted. I must admit that the 23-year Ron Zacapa Rum from Guatemala was the unanimous favorite. The French-style rum, or rhum, from Barbados was the least favorite and was, ultimately, made into a cocktail for us later in the day. I don't say this often about bartenders, especially in Key West, but I was impressed with the service and expertise of our rum liaison. Everyone who visits Key West should stop in to taste a nice aged sipper and to say "hi" to Allen. It was a perfect afternoon of rum and sun.
Rum has run the gamut of being an illicit import to being a fruit and umbrella garnished beach icon. It does hold an important place in our history as a constant among the locals of the southern islands. My recent experience left me wanting more of the island life and the island beverage. I guess most vacations will do that to an extent and I won't fight it when those feelings come back around. There is no doubt that the next time I take a sip of aged rum in one of my local bars, I'll think about that afternoon at the Rum Barrel and wish that I were sitting back on that stool with all those wonderful drinks. Oh, and the wonderful company. Cheers!
Kevin Hoover, a local food and beverage manager, is engaged in the endless pursuit of the perfect cocktail and dining experience. Check out his blog at lushlifeonline.com