As the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and countless Captain Morgan commercials testify, rum is the drink of the Caribbean. But if you’re like me—cursed in college by a night of ill-advised overindulgence—rum is palatable only when disguised in a mixed drink like a piña colada or a dark and stormy. Until, that is, I went to Puerto Rico.
It was late evening, and after wandering the cobblestone streets of San Juan for a few hours, I searched out a bar stool at El Batey, a dive near the famed El Convento Hotel. Medalla Light, the local beer, is surprising flavorful… but I needed a bit more punch to cut through my aching feet (those scenic cobblestones can take its toll), so I ordered my standby: Jameson’s on the rocks.
“Why don’t you try the local rum,” said the bartender, a brusk young woman with a mop of brown curls made wild by the island humidity. She wore a New York Knicks jersey, and carried herself as if she hailed from the edgier part of the Lower East Side; her suggestion was more a command than a question.
I said sure, figuring I’d muscle through what I predicted to be the sickly-sweet, oh-so-uninspired rum on the rocks placed before me.
Instead, I was delivered a liquor the color of dark caramel that smelled of pepper and roasted nuts—not the saccharine nose I’d feared. The taste was equally surprising—slightly sweet and dense, with a bit of a burn and a smokiness I typically attribute to whiskey. The finish had hints of pepper and honey. It was, quite simply, a revelation.
The rum in question was Ron de Barrilito, which traces back to Fernando Fernandez, who became owner of Puerto Rico’s oldest rum plantation in 1880. The distillery is still owned and operated by the Fernandez family. Distilled in whiskey and bourbon barrels, only 11,000 cases are produced each year—Barrilito doesn’t care about overt branding, mass production, or market penetration—they don't even have a website. As a result, each sip tastes like it was lovingly crafted just for you, whether you try the three-star (distilled for six to ten years) or to the two star, which distills for a minimum of three years. Translated into rum from a little barrel, Ron de Baralito is ubiquitous throughout Puerto Rico and available to purchase at the San Juan Airport. Thankfully it’s slowly appearing in a variety of liquor stores throughout the States.
I finished my first before the ice melted, and ordered another.
Rum instead of whiskey?
Puerto Rico is full of surprises.
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