Rum is history in Puerto Rico. This island is the leading producer of rum (ron) in the Caribbean and there were once hundreds of small distilleries here.
Track down its greatest rum-making dynasties and you might meet Fernando Fernandez, heir to the family that has been making Ron de Barrilito since 1880. His office lies inside the shell of a graceful windmill built in 1827, surrounded by aged photographs of his grandfather and dusty bottles of what many believe to be the world’s finest rum.
The rambling hacienda contains cellars crammed with white-oak barrels of rum, once used to mature Spanish sherry, the air thick with the burnt, sweet aroma of sugar molasses. Workers bottle the rum by hand, slap on labels and then pile them, delicately, onto trucks for distribution.
Real connoisseurs drink Barrilito on ice – a spicy, rich spirit that goes down like fine Cognac.
The top rum-maker in Puerto Rico, however, is Don Q. The brand was created by the Serrallés family, who started selling rum in 1865 in the southern coastal city of Ponce. You might try it in Puerto Rico’s national cocktail, the piña colada.
Then there’s Casa Bacardí. Visit this slick tourist centre inside the “cathedral of rum”, the vast Bacardí distillery across San Juan Bay, and you’ll enter another world – Cuba, to be precise.
The Bacardí family started making rum in Santiago de Cuba in 1862, and now utterly dominate the world market. Hand-held audio devices and enthusiastic guides help you navigate the seven sections of the centre.
Special barrels allow you to “nose” the effects of wood barrelling, ageing and finishing, as well as the various Bacardí brands on offer: sweetly scented apple and melon flavours and the rich, addictive aroma of coconut-laced rum – piña colada in a bottle.
Bacardí abandoned Cuba in 1960 and now has its headquarters in Bermuda, but while you can argue about where it came from or who made it first, there’s no doubt that today the home of rum is Puerto Rico.
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