Island Spirit: How Rum Became Puerto Rico’s Favourite Drink

Island Spirit: How Rum Became Puerto Rico’s Favourite Drink

Made on the island for over 400 years, rum is Puerto Rico’s signature spirit. We caught up with the general manager of the island’s largest distillery to explore the story behind the alcohol – and find out where to drink it



It’s
a fact: San Juan’s nightlife runs on rum. It’s the fuel
that energises the Caribbean rhythms thumping through the capital’s
streets come nightfall, and it’s the Dutch courage that provides
confidence in jazz musicians’ improvisations when they play the
city’s dimly lit cigar bars. Low-key drinking dives serve the spirit mixed only with
fruit juice, while world-acclaimed cocktail bars like La Factoría, on
Calle de San Sebastián, add fermented ginger concoctions, clove
honey and cherry liqueurs to the mix.

“Rum is part of the fabric of the culture of the Caribbean,”
says Gabriel Solano, the general manager of Casa
Bacardí
, a famed rum distillery on the island (and the flagship
home of the global Bacardí brand). “And Puerto Rico is renowned for
its award-winning rum. Gold or white, spiced or dark, the island is
the rum capital of the world.”

Colourful doorframe in Puerto Rico
A Puerto Rico cityscape

San Juan’s colourful archiecture, left, and a view the older
part of the city.

It’s been that way for a while. Rum production in Puerto Rico is
thought to date back to as early as the 16th century, when it was
discovered as a byproduct of the sugar cane industry. Although the
spirit hails from the West Indies (the first confirmed mention of
the term “rum” has been found in a 1650 Bajan document), it’s
difficult to track down exactly when and where the first barrel was
made.

Inevitably, the drink followed the British Royal Navy (who
colonised and controlled areas of the West Indies) around the
world, arriving in America and also Europe, where it became seen as the
sailors’ drink of choice (and, often, their salary, as some sea
dogs would gladly accept it as payment for onboard services). There
are few records of how, or who, worked out how to make it (though
many countries today claim ownership), but we do know the modern
method of crafting the spirit is largely unchanged from what it
would have been in the 17th century, when sugar cane molasses was
fermented and distilled, then aged in oak barrels.

And we do know that the spirit continues to be deeply embedded
in Puerto Rican culture. The Barcardí brand is woven into the
drink’s history on the island, too. Founded in 1862 in Santiago de
Cuba by Don Facundo Bacardí Massó, who bought a small distillery
with which to revolutionise the rum-making process, Bacardí’s
production in Puerto Rico kicked off in 1936 – a canny move to
avoid high tariffs laid against Cuban imports into America. By
1961, Casa Bacardí – the so-called “Cathedral of Rum” – had opened
in Cataño, a majestic white temple to all things (alcoholically)
spiritual. Today, nearly 85 per cent of all Bacardí-made rum
originates on the island, including the distinctive Casa Bacardí
Special Reserve, an exclusive blend made in Puerto Rico and only
available for kerbside pickup from the distillery.

The cathedral-like buildng of Casa Barcardi
Rum barrels

Casa Bacardi, left, and rum barrels piled high.

Ways to sample the island spirit are numerous. Drive the 179km
length of the Caribbean island and you’ll pass so many rum shacks
you’ll lose count. In Old San Juan, late-night dancing in dive bars
– and at rooftop cocktail spots – is fuelled by the spirit. You can
swot up on your cocktail knowledge at Casa Bacardí, learning all
about Barcardí daiquiris and Cuba libres – and testing some
expressions, too – through tasting tours and mixology classes. And
on the white-sand beaches, in the shade of swaying palms, beach
bars specialise in the island’s holy trinity: pineapple, coconut
and rum. Piña coladas are practically a birthright, as they should
be: the cocktail was invented here.

“Rum is ingrained in our culture and it’s always present for
celebrations – and Puerto Ricans love to celebrate life,” says
Solano. “At the beach or on a beautiful night out, a rum cocktail
is perfect for every occasion.” He recommends keeping the national
drink simple, with a pour of Bacardí Cuatro, coconut cream and
pineapple juice, plus a fresh pineapple wedge garnish.

Today, islanders are picky about what makes a Puerto Rican rum.
High-quality molasses is a must, as is a continuous-distillation
process, and the rum has to be aged for a minimum of one year in a
white-oak barrel. Anything else, and it can’t be called Puerto
Rican rum.

Barcardí meets the criteria; so, too, do the bottles being
produced by the growing number of artisan distilleries on the
island. In the mountains, in Jayuya, Luís José Cruz Rivera and his
team have been distilling a spiced rum made using a technique more
commonly used to create French brandy at La Destilería. In
Mayagüez, the 25-strong Destilería Coquí team started out making an
updated version of traditional island moonshine, Ron Caña, in 2012.
Now, Destilería Coquí is the largest artisanal distillery in the
country.

What unites the hundreds of bottles made across the island is
the spirit’s taste. Puerto Rican rum should be light, oaky and
quite dry. The flavour should be there, be you drinking gold, light
or white rum. There’s no Jamaican funk in the flavour, and it’s
less sweet than Bajan bottles. It’s distinctively Puerto Rican. And
the best way to drink it? When on the island, of course.

Four must-visit Puerto Rico rum-drinking destinations

A hut sits on a Puerto Rico beach beneath a palm tree
The pink exterior of a Puerto Rico rum bar

A Puerto Rico beach, left, and La Casita de Rones. | Photo
credit: Ackats / Shutterstock.com

Casa Bacardí, Cataño

Head to the gleaming white “Cathedral of Rum” across the bay
from Old San Juan for a guided tour through the brand’s island
history (and a chance to taste your way through Bacardí’s numerous
expressions). Mixology classes and tasting tours are on offer, too
– and all include a welcome drink. “We have some of the best
cocktails on the island,” says Solano. His order? A cocktail called
when in PR – a tantalising pour of Bacardí Cuatro, orgeat and red
wine.

PR-165, Cataño, 00949

+1 787 788 8400
bacardi.com/casa-bacardi

La Pícara, Santurce

For precision-poured cocktails from an award-winning bar team,
head to the edgy San Juan neighbourhood of Santurce to find this
slick spot. “The head bartender at La Pícara was the 2019 Bacardí
Legacy Award winner,” says Solano. “He won with a cocktail called
ritmo tropical – the perfect representation of the island.” Other
menu highlights include the mezcal-spiked fiesta and the seductive
amoy y chocolate – a cocoa twist on a traditional old
fashioned.

1403 Avenida Juan Ponce de León, San Juan, 00907
+1 787 957 1385
instagram.com/lapicarapr

La Casita de Rones, Old San Juan

In search of a classic Puerto Rican rum bar? Set your sights on
the flamingo-pink La Casita de Rones. Housing two bars, a
restaurant and a rum shop, this spirit mecca is famed for its
extensive rum menu. Head here in the evening for a tasting
experience out under the stars on the patio. The cocktails are
excellent, too.

Calle Comercio, San Juan, 00901

+1 787 966 7042
lacasitarums.com

La Factoría, Old San Juan

“This excellent bar frequently tops lists of the world’s best
bars, and rightly so,” says Solano. “It’s a local favourite – and
one of the first island bars to introduce mixology to Puerto Rico.”
Trading off its reputation, La Factoría has no need of a sign above
its door, but you’ll always find a crowd congregating around its
rugged exterior come evening. Sample the eclectic cocktails that
earned it a place on the The World’s 50 Best Bars list, then head
through the unmarked door behind the bar to find a second room
filled with rum-fuelled dancers and a DJ playing until late.

148 Calle de San Sebastián, San Juan, 00901
+1 787 412 4251
lafactoriapr.com

The dancefloor at La Factoria

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