A guide to the Caribbean’s most popular spirits.
Painkiller. Rum Runner. Tropical Depression. The Green Monkey. Bahama Mama. No, these aren’t names of island rock bands but in fact classic Caribbean cocktails. All of them colorful, fruity, and potent. The drinks of the islands are synonymous with salty breezes, deliciously sunny days, and the kind of buzz only a sweet candy-colored concoction can provide. The spirits that give those cocktails their powerful kick are rums mostly, along with some surprising contenders such as guavaberry liqueur, and, of course, that famous electric-blue mixer that no self-respecting tiki bar would be without.
Each of the islands produces a spirit of a distinct character. Rum from Jamaica and Barbados is fuller-bodied than Puerto Rico’s, which, like Cuba’s, is light. And blue curaçao is not made from anything blue but rather from a strain of Valencia oranges brought over from Spain. We take a look at some of the spirits and the islands they call home. So whether you enjoy that barrel-aged rum neat or mixed with fruit juice and served with a little straw umbrella, this guide will help you sip knowledgeably.
St. Maarten: Guavaberry Liqueur
The national drink of St. Maarten, this spirit, also referred to as guavaberry rum, is made using fine oak-aged rum, cane sugar, and wild guavaberries—which are not at all like guavas. The small red and black berries are harvested from trees resembling eucalyptus and impart a pungent, bittersweet flavor. The drink is traditionally served at Christmastime, though local bartenders make tasty coladas with the “folk” liqueur year-round.
Curaçao: Blue Curaçao
Every household that has ever had a martini party, a tropical-themed backyard party, or a novelty-drink night has a bottle of blue curaçao kicking around. And while its electric-blue color—made possible by food coloring—is meant to evoke the blue waters of the Caribbean, it’s served everywhere from hipster throwback bars to Hawaiian luaus. The spirit is flavored with the dried peel of the laraha citrus fruit, a nonnative plant developed from the sweet Valencia orange transplanted by Spanish explorers to the island of Curaçao. The fruit gives it a sticky-sweet citrusy taste that pairs well with pineapple juice, rum, and other hard liquors, as evidenced by the popularity of the “Corpse Reviver No. Blue,” a cocktail made with blue curaçao, gin, Lillet Blanc, lemon, and dashes of absinthe. Plastic monkey garnish optional.
Jamaica: Appleton Estate
Arguably one of the strongest-smelling rums on the market, this quaff also has a tart grapefruit aftertaste that’s perfect for Jamaican rum punches. The estate dates back to 1655 when the British captured Jamaica from the Spanish, and sources suggest that rum has been produced there continuously since 1749. The estate is located in the center of the island in the area known as the Cockpit Country of Nassau Valley, where clean, clear water bubbles up from the head of the Black River. The brand also has the distinction of being helmed by the industry’s first female master blender, Joy Spence, a London-educated chemist who has curated the taste of the spirit for over 15 years.
Cactus liqueur? That’s right. And it’s mighty tasty. The electric-green color of Bonaire’s local spirit—and its sweet, citrusy flavor—makes it an ideal base for tropical concoctions like the Green Bonaire, a cosmo-inspired cocktail served straight up in a martini glass. Cadushy owners Eric and Jolande Gietman moved to Bonaire from the Netherlands in 2010 and created the beverage after experimenting with a few recipes. The liqueur is made with the peel of the Cadushy cactus, a small local lime known as the lamoenchi, and some secret ingredients. And don’t worry about prickly thorns getting in the way: all fruit is harvested and de-thorned by skilled locals.
Barbados: Mount Gay Rum
For a spirit that claims to be the oldest rum brand in existence (there’s a deed for the company that dates back to 1703), Mount Gay still has a contemporary following among rum lovers and mixologists. The brand maintains a strong connection to the sailing world, sponsoring regatta events around the world and the U.S. Sailing Association. And the storied rum is one of the key ingredients in Stirling Punch, a drink named for famous yachtsman, America’s Cup winner, and Vanderbilt Sailing Club founder Harold Stirling Vanderbilt. The latest Eclipse varietal is inspired by a 1910 total solar eclipse and features single- and double-distilled rums matured in Kentucky oak barrels, imparting flavors of banana, apricot, and vanilla.
St. Croix: Cruzan Rum
“Don’t hurry” is the motto of Cruzan rums. The idea translates well both in terms of how the rums are made and how they might best be enjoyed by consumers. In the early days, the spirit was made using pot stills; now a five-column distillation process removes the impurities and creates a clean, smooth-tasting mellow rum. Founded by Malcolm Skeoch, Cruzan has been produced for more than five generations at the Estate Diamond distillery on St. Croix since 1760. It is named after the island’s inhabitants, who are known as Cruzans (pronounced crew-shuns). The Single Barrel premium aged rum remains on the short list of great sipping rums of the Caribbean. The master blender selects his best vintage barrels for inclusion in this blend, then rebarrels them into single casks for further aging until they reach their peak of maturity.
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