The Best Places to Travel for Rum

Mar 9, 2019

Rum is hardly just a drink. It’s turquoise seas and sandy beach in a bottle. For tropical vibes, no other liquor comes close. And sure, some of that is effective marketing (see: the pirates and palms on every other label). But rum is truly born of balmy climes where sugar cane—the essential ingredient—thrives.  Doesn’t hurt, of course, that the spirit blends so well with slushed ice, fruit syrups and mini-umbrellas. In fact, some of the resulting cocktails—Mai Tais, Piña Coladas, Mojitos, Daiquiris—are beloved enough to get their own national holidays.

Not that Americans need a specific excuse to bust out the rum: Domestic consumption has nearly doubled over the past 15 years. And growing right alongside that is a niche brand of tourism—trips motivated, at least in part, by local distilleries and rum culture. Fancy yourself a rum pilgrim? (Or even rum-curious?) Steer your ship toward these six spots.

Barbados

The most commonly accepted—if still occasionally disputed—birthplace of rum, Barbados became the first recorded source of the spirit in a 1650 lease. Mt. Gay, founded about half a century later, remains the world’s oldest continuously operating rum brand. You can visit the St. Michael distillery for anything from a basic tasting (try the flagship blend of spiced rums) to a rum and food pairing (think Bajan ceviche or fried fish) to a bottomless-rum-punch lunch. For an award-winning rum with a dark fruit funk, head to Four Square Rum Distillery, outside the small town of Four Roads, makes an award-winning rum with a dark-druit funk. Tours run Monday thru Friday from 7:30am to 4:30pm,  but aim for later in the day so you can spend your afternoon at the Copper Still Bar, part of a historic 18th Century still house that’s been converted into a modern watering hole.

Jamaica

The history of Caribbean rum is twined with the business of sugar cane. By the early 18th Century, Jamaica had overtaken Barbados as the industry’s capital; the liquor derivative—Jamaican rum—has a heavier, funkier style that became definitive during this era. Two cane-to-glass tours (you start in the fields, you end in the tasting room) that’ll give you a good taste of this earthy, yeasty version: the Appleton Estate Rum Experience in Vauxhall—this is Jamaica's oldest sugar estate; the distillery’s been in continuous production since 1749)—and the only slightly younger Hampden Estate, a small pot still operation that’s remained largely unchanged since its founding in 1753. Both serve up local food with your tasting; Appleton Estate features a bonus jerk pit.

Martinique

The French island of Martinique has its own way of handling hooch. Technically, they don’t make rum here; they make rhum, also known as agricole. Whereas traditional rum is derived from molasses—a byproduct of sugar refining—Martiniquans use only the fresh-pressed cane juice. The result is a spirit with a savory, grassy edge, minus the sweeter notes associated with the more familiar version. Rhum is so distinct, in fact, it's protected under its own AOC (appellation of origin), the same designation of origin that prevents Champagne and Cognac from being produced outside of their eponymous regions. In total, there are 14 makers of Martinique Rhum Agricole. Habitation Clément is the reported birthplace of the spirit; it’s now a French historical landmark (the island is an Overseas Department of France). The distillery is worth a visit for not only the rhum, but also the restored colonial estate's gardens and galleries. To get a sense of the volcanic effect on rhum's terroir, head to the jungle-shrouded Distillerie J.M. in Macouba. The estate sits only four miles downslope from (dormant since 1902) Mt. Pelee—and the resulting nutrient-dense soil produces a robust variety of cane, and intensely fragrant, grassy rum. 

Hawaii

Hawaii’s islands are home to a growing number of rum producers surfing that craft spirits wave; each of the four main islands now claims at least one. In Kauai, Kōloa bottles up a single batch spirit derived from local cane. Kuleana Rum Works is bringing its super-premium variety (in the rum world, that phrase tends to mean more time maturing in the barrel, where the liquid can pick up all sorts of enticing dessert-like flavors) to the Big Island. Mahina in Maui is an exceptional bottling, with notes of vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon spice that’ll make bourbon lovers happy. Oahu is home to Kō Hana, a sensational and sustainable agricole-style rum distilled from hydroponic cane. All four offer tours, but the last is likely the only rum walk on earth that takes you through a working aquaponic farm—complete with koi tanks.

Thailand

"Asia" and "rum:" not the most intuitive pairing. But Thailand is home to a handful of innovative producers. Chalong Bay, in the coastal retreat of Phuket, is one.  They offer daily tours kicked off with a fresh mojito, plus cocktail workshops in which you can learn rum-based recipes three times a week. Pro tip: Don't go home without a bottle of the spicy-coconutty Phraya.

Philippines

Quick: Name the world’s most popular rum brand. Most people guess it’s Puerto Rico-based Bacardi. For much of recent history, they would’ve been right. But the fastest-growing producer in the world (and largest by total volume) is actually in the Philippines. That brand is Tanduay, and it came out of what seemed to be nowhere in 2017 to overtake Bacardi as the global king of rum. Then again, the archipelago's sugarcane history does reach back a good 500 years. Most of the rum produced here through the 20th Century was driven more by efficiency than flavor, but new craft brands like Don Papa are breaking into the super premium market. Make your way to Negros Island and the city of Bacolod to trace the region’s rum roots. The area’s nicknamed Sugarlandia, and it’s home to one of the last active muscovado sugar producers. Book a tour at the San Miguel Brewery, current site of Don Papa’s distillation and maturation.

Guatemala

Widely regarded as one of the best premium rums on the planet, Ron Zacapa alone—specifically, the XO Gran Reserva—warrants a trip to Guatemala (but you’ll want to allow plenty of time for all this, too). You'll find bottles across the country for well below U.S. prices, and plenty of other tasty local offerings such as Ron Botran and Casa Magdalena at dozens of speciality rum bars. Hit up Guatemala City's Rumbar or Antigua's La Casa del Ron for top-tier sipping.

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