TUESDAY OCTOBER 17, 2017
 
Blog TRAVEL
THE (JAMAICAN) RUM DIARY
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If you’re going to drink at Jamaica's Appleton Estate, you better get a local to drive you there and back. I’m not sure any foreign driver could handle it. The twisted cliff-hugging roads leading to the iconic rum distillery have no guardrails and are crowded with lazy-eyed, brain-dead goats and oncoming pedestrians who seem to have lost the fear of God.

Having said that, the drive is worth it. Rural Jamaica is an ethereally beautiful place.

There are mountains, unmolested and green with palms and bamboo. There are unending fields, rich with produce and grazing beasts. And there are people, perhaps some of the friendliest I’ve met, always eager to introduce you to the delights of their culture.

And rum is certainly part of Jamaican culture. Order a rum cocktail at a local dive and the bartender will tell you, "You’re like a real Jamaican, mon." Appleton’s will likely be the brand poured in your glass, and for good reason. Given the facts, you shouldn’t really be drinking anything else.

The earliest known production of rum is believed to have taken place in 1749 at Appleton Estate. In a country that creates more than 20.5 million litres of rum a year, Appleton is the largest and most lauded purveyor of the drink.

As I arrive on the Appleton grounds, I am immediately struck by how outrageously wonderful it is: I’m in the middle of Nassau Valley, the sun tearing through the blue sky, peacocks grazing by the estate entrance. Walking into the building, friendly barkeeps offer me a rum punch, on the condition that I can’t ask for the recipe. Seconds are allowed, though.

Appleton master (title deserved) brewer Joy Spence then approaches me.

Born in Manchester, Spence moved to Kingston when she was two years old. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science at the University of West Indies, Spence traveled to England to earn her Masters of Science in Analytical Chemistry at the University of Loughborough. Her final exam scores were — and still are — the highest in the school’s history. Eventually, Spence landed the top gig at Appleton Estate, what she called, "the perfect balance of art and science."

By the way she smiles in conversation, I can tell Spence loves her drink. "In Jamaica, we like to soothe both spirits," she says. "Beside every church, there’s always a bar."

On a bus tour of the grounds with Spence, I learn why Jamaica is the rum capital. Thanks to the local climate, and the surrounding mountains, Nassau Valley is the perfect ecosystem to nurture Appleton’s 4,000 hectares of sugar cane. Rain usually falls between 2 and 3 p.m. every day, providing the ideal amount of water to the crops. "Barring a hurricane," Spence says, "we never have to worry about quality."

International law states that rum must be made from sugar cane (done), but Jamaicans understand quality on a higher legal level. Consistent aging, the process that ensures 12-year-old rum, for example, has indeed existed for 12 years, without tampering or blending, is compulsory in Jamaica. Moreover, island law states that no added ingredients (like sugar, sherry, or fruit) except caramel can be added to the alcohol. Rum brewing, in other Latin and Caribbean nations that shall remain nameless, is not subject to the same scrutiny. In short: non-Jamaican rum don’t cut it.

Driving through the fields, my bus passes a sign perched on a rusty chain-link fence: "Goats will be shot and cows will be impounded." It’s the most hilariously abrasive thing I’ve encountered since arriving in Jamaica. Appleton Estate takes rum seriously.

Finally comes the tasting, and without being an expert, I can at least confirm that the rum, in all its varieties, is delicious. It’s amazing that sugar cane, spring water, caramel, and a little bit of time, can create infinite variations in colour, age and aroma. I pick up notes of chocolate, vanilla, banana and coffee in each blend. But it goes without saying, that the 30-year-old rum has a certain perfection about it, no Coke needed.

Makes you wonder why others even try.

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