Driving west from Kingston towards the Appleton Estate in the parish of St. Elizabeth, on the island of Jamaica, I come upon a fire by the side of the road, pouring thick black smoke into the air. Curious, I stop the car and walk over to where a small crowd has gathered. What is burning, I learn, is a dead cow. It was in such an advanced state of decomposition when discovered, it seems, that the local trash removers wouldn't touch it. The only solution was to set the carcass on fire. I get back into the car, roll up the windows, and plow through the smoke.
Surprises are common in Jamaica, and you never quite know what to expect—except that it will most likely be something unexpected.
With their often fiery foods, its highly charged reggae, and its bold, proud populace, Jamaica is a brazen and unsubtle place. It seems only natural, then, that rum, the country's most famous indigenous alcohol, should be assertive and uncompromising too. On previous trips to the island, I'd learned something about other aspects of Jamaican life; finally, I went back for the rum.
Rum, which is distilled from either fermented sugarcane juice or molasses (the intensely flavored syrup that is a by-product of sugarcane refining), is manufactured on almost every Caribbean island where sugarcane is grown. Sugarcane—a tall grass (Saccharum officinarum) probably native to India—was first brought to the Caribbean from the Canary Islands by Columbus. By the 17th century, sugar production had become the dominant industry in the Caribbean. The demand for sugar in Europe was virtually insatiable for a sweet crop. Today, the Caribbean is far more renowned for its rum than for its sugar, and rum is a source of fierce national pride. There are many outstanding rums in the region, but Jamaican Rums stand alone. Traditionally full-bodied, they have an unusual, earthy flavor and an almost soothing, hypnotic effect, immediately evocative of the island itself.
The six rum distilleries operating in Jamaica, two are owned by Wray & Nephew, a Division of the Campari Group and the island's principal producer of rum. The other distilleries sell most of their rum in bulk, for blending and bottling by other companies. Campari Group bottles its own, under the Appleton Estate label and several others; its rums account for about 95 percent of that consumed on the island and are exported to more than 60 countries. In operation since 1749, the Appleton Estate is the oldest rum-producing facility in the English-speaking Caribbean. Covering 12,000 acres and turning out as much as 10 million liters a year, it is also the largest.
"We're in a valley, on the banks of the Black River," he says, "and we use the river water to make our rum." Jamaican rum is made exclusively from molasses, diluted into what is called a wash and then transferred to fermentation tanks. Yeast, taken from the blossoms of the sugarcane, is added to activate fermentation. The fermented wash is distilled in either pot or column stills. Appleton's ancient-looking pot stills, some of which have been in service since 1749, are shaped like large kettles with long, angled spouts; the sleek, modern column stills are tall, stainless-steel tanks. Both are used regularly, to produce rums with different characteristics. After distillation, the rum is stored for aging in charred casks of American and Canadian oak, in a large warehouse. Most Jamaican rum is aged for at least three years.
Rum has borne its share of epithets over the years. It has been known as "demon rum" and "kill-devil." One critic, back in 1651, described it as "a hot, hellish and terrible liquor". Rum is a friendly companion, there are eight categories of rum in Jamaica, classified according to the amount of esters that they contain. Esters are what give rum most of its flavor and fragrance.
The best-selling rum in Jamaica by far, however, is Wray & Nephew's so-called white overproof, a middle-ester rum at a strength of 126 proof. It's popular partly because it's a good mixer. Some Jamaicans however like it because they have the idea that dark rum might not be good for them, that white rum is somehow purer. And tradition imputes to white rum an almost elixir-like power. Taken with honey and lime, for instance, it is believed to cure colds. It is used to christen newborns and to purify the dead. It is even said that if you are building a house and sprinkle white rum around the foundations, it will keep the duppies, or evil spirits, away. But if you drink too much overproof, of course, instead of ridding yourself of the duppies, you just might end up having a conversation with them.