I became a ‘rummelier’ in St. Kitts — here’s how it went

St kitts landscapeSt kitts landscape

Charmaine Noronha [Toronto Star] March 18, 2023 — There’s a fascinating movement afoot to honour the island’s past by bringing rum production back.

As more of a connoisseur of fine spirits than fine wines, I was intrigued to learn I could become a “rummelier” in St. Kitts.

The Caribbean island recently launched its Kittitian RumMaster program, which includes expert-led practical and theoretical courses at two distilleries. In the one-day tour, you’ll better understand the complex history of the spirit, create your own spiced rum and study the science of mixing rum-based cocktails.

My day starts at Wingfield Estate, site of the Caribbean’s oldest surviving rum distillery and home of the recently launched Old Road Rum Company. Under the heat of the mid-morning sun, I wander the lush grounds while my tour guide points out notable features, including the ancient ruins of the excavated distillery and sugar plantation.

“This would have been the sugar mill where the sugar cane stalks were squeezed to extract the juice from the plant. And that steam boiler would have crystallized the sugar,” says Bon Jovi. (Yes, that’s his real name.)

Standing by a towering stone chimney, which was presumably the giveaway that a distillery existed on this site, Jovi reveals that the Widdowson family bought the estate in the 1970s, when it was still covered in overgrowth from a neighbouring forest reserve.

In 2013, with the help of archeologists, the family discovered they were sitting on a historic distillery. Archeologists have since established that rum was produced here as early as 1681, making Wingfield the oldest intact distillery in the Caribbean. This estate was once owned by Christopher Jeaffreson, an ancestor of former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson.

The production of rum is deeply connected to the history that has shaped the two-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis.

The home of the first British and French colonies in the Caribbean, St. Kitts has a complicated history, rooted in slavery. When Christopher Columbus sailed to St. Kitts in 1493 — which was then inhabited by the Carib people — he named it St. Christopher, which was shortened to St. Kitt’s by English settlers, who established a colony on the island’s west coast. The French established their own colony in 1627. Divided between the French and English in the 17th century, the island was given to Britain; St. Kitts and Nevis achieved independence only in 1983.

This colonization brought brutality, including the genocide of the Indigenous Caribs and the importation of African slaves, millions of whom didn’t survive the treacherous transatlantic journey. Those who did were forced to build up the island for the benefit of colonizers, which included clearing tobacco and rainforests to make way for sugar cane.

By 1775, with 200 estates and 68 sugar plantations producing the “white gold,” St. Kitts became known as Sugar City, and was one of the wealthiest British colonies at the time. The abundant sugar production led to abundant rum production.

“You couldn’t walk anywhere without seeing a sugar plantation when I was kid,” says Old Road Rum founder Jack Widdowson. But the island’s last sugar cane factory closed in 2005, after St. Kitts could no longer compete with global producers, and this, in turn, forced the island’s once-bountiful rum production to fold.

Widdowson lived in Toronto and Nova Scotia for 14 years to attend university and work before moving home to bring the excavated distillery back to life. “When I realized what we were sitting on in terms of (the distillery’s) historical value, I wanted to do something with that history,” says Widdowson, who has been at the forefront of a movement to honour the island’s past by bringing rum production back to St. Kitts.

In 2019, he launched Old Road Rum, which is currently produced from imported batch rum (he won’t divulge from where), aged for 12 years in former bourbon casks, and then blended and bottled. As a long-term ambition, he’s working toward distilling rum and replanting sugar cane on the grounds.

Roger Brisbane is also part of this revivalist movement to bring rum back. His distillery, Spice Mill Restaurant, is the second stop in the Kittitian RumMaster program. Brisbane created Hibiscus Spirits, a spiced rum infused with locally grown roselle hibiscus. Also called sorrel, it’s widely consumed in the Caribbean.

At his beautiful beachfront distillery, my fellow rum-masters-in-the-making and I blend cloves, vanilla and other ingredients to create various flavour profiles as Brisbane guides us through the methodology of infusing spices and herbs into spirits. After developing and bottling our own signature spiced rum to take home, we shake up colourful coconut rum cocktails.

Of course, you don’t need to enrol in a course to experience rum on St. Kitts. At the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, mixologist Kendie Williams generously pours tastings of notable foreign brands like El Dorado and Zacapa, along with Brinley Gold Shipwreck. You can also sample the hotel’s own (and very rare) Crowned Monkey Rum — only one barrel of it was produced.

Whatever you do, make time for the lively Sunshine’s Beach Bar & Grill, which has served up its famous Killer Bee rum punch for 30 years in Nevis. The cocktail comes with a warning from just about every local: be careful. I take one sip of my Baby Bee (I asked for a small serving) and understand why — two of these babies and I’d surely be under the table.

The walls are plastered with photos of those who have survived this killer cocktail, including Justin Trudeau, Beyoncé and Jay Z, and Magic Johnson.

The bar’s owner, Sunshine Caines, who embodies his name, emerges from a spirited table of teetotallers to greet me with a big, bright smile. Aside from divulging that he uses Old Road Rum in his Killer Bees, he won’t reveal what makes it so potent.

It’s a full-circle moment for Caines, who worked on the sugar plantations as a child, an arduous experience. “It taught me that hard work can bring success,” he says. “Not (success) like Jeff Bezos but success in life, and I’ve used that success to share what this island offers: joy and kindness. To me, sharing that is what makes you successful.”

I’ll drink to that. Not only does the island share joy and kindness, but it’s also suffused with a determination to honour the past by bringing its history into its future.

How to become a certified “rummelier”

The Kittitian RumMaster program is a three-hour tour, $150 (U.S.) per person, offered weekly (Wednesdays). After you’re tutored in rum tradition and technique at the two distilleries, you’ll receive a certificate of completion. To sign up, visit “The Joys of Rum” on stkittstourism.kn.

Charmaine Noronha travelled as a guest of the St. Kitts Tourism Authority, which did not review or approve this article.

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