Rum is the official drink of the Caribbean. Sure, you can get beer (in fact, every island seems to have its own brewery), Ting, mauby, and sorrell..but the sugar cane distillate is everywhere on the islands, which seem to be scattered with small bars in shacks about every quarter mile alongside every road.
It's thought that modern day rum was discovered by plantation slaves who figured out that molasses from cane could be distilled into alcohol. It was given as rations by both the Royal Navy and pirates.
On St. Croix, the Nelthropp family have been making rum for centuries. In fact, the remnants of an old sugar mill still occupy a place at the entrance of the now-modernized Cruzan Rum Distillery, just outside of the port city of Frederiksted.
We toured the distillery, learning how rum is made in the process (and enjoying a complimentary tasting afterward). Here's what we saw:
Rum starts with molasses derived from sugar cane. The molasses, a light amber color resembling maple syrup, is transferred to distillery tanks and diluted with tropical rain water, pumped directly from St. Croix aquifers. Yeast cultures are introduced, starting the fermenting process.
The molasses, yeast, and rainwater ferment in these tanks. The entire distillery was strong with the scents of molasses and yeast. The sugars in the molasses are converted to alcohol rather quickly.
After the fermentation process is complete, the fermented mash is separated and distilled down into pure ethyl alcohol. Highly flammable...not at all drinkable (yet).
Rum distillate. You're reading the barrel correctly. That's 189 proof rum. It's still not at all drinkable at this stage.
The rum distillate is then transferred to American oak bourbon barrels, where it will age and get its dark amber color and rich smoothness. After barrel aging, the rum is charcoal filtered and diluted to 80 proof with more rain water. It's then bottled and distributed.
After the tour, we're served rum punches and pina coladas at the rum shop, where rum is amazingly cheap.
Cheap rum (and duty free).
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Original Cruzan Rum building.