Rum to the hills — a boozy education in Jamaica

Appleton Estate

Once you get south of the white sand, bottomless drinks and sunburns of the all-inclusives in Montego Bay, Jamaica, you’re surrounded by rolling hills covered in lush green foliage. Of this Nassau Valley landscape in St. Elizabeth, 11,000 acres belongs to Appleton Estate, makers of rum.

The Estate is a solid day trip, two and a half hours driving through small towns and farmland, and then another two and a half hours back, but it’s worth the drive to see a bit of the countryside and learn about a spirit that’s a specialty of this country and one that many Canadians consume terribly poor versions of (think saccharine alcopops). I’ll confess that this is why I was here: My last experiences with rum were during my university days, when quality loses out to economy. In the weeks leading up to this trip, more than one drink aficionado told me that rum is the next big liquor, and so I decided to indulge in some hands-on education by going to the source.

Master blender Joy Spence, who started with the company 32 years ago as a chemist, works with a team of 31 to turn out seven varieties of amber (or gold) rum — the spirit also comes in white, spice, dark and flavoured varieties. The tasting notes present are those of orange peel, nutmeg, vanilla bean, coffee bean and chocolate, which can be found in other amber rums. But unlike other rums, all of Appleton’s is produced on a single estate, meaning the company can claim terroir — geographic, soil and weather demarcation.

Another difference here is that Appleton follows the scotch and whisky tradition of age statements; the youngest rum in the blend is the age that’s on the bottle.

But, while learning the story behind what goes in the bottle is interesting, one really needs to get a taste to fully develop an appreciation of rum — and throwing back a shot is not how it’s done.

First, there must be sensory training, acquainting one’s palate with the tasting notes mentioned earlier (it helps that I have a sweet tooth and so am possibly too familiar with chocolate, for instance). Next, you want to examine the colour, clarity and brilliance of the rum by holding the glass up, leaning it back slightly and returning it upright. Looking at the liquid that remains on the side of the glass, take note of how quickly it returns to the rest of the rum. The slower it returns, the fuller the body of the spirit. Moving on to the nose, before swirling, inhale, exhale and inhale deeply again. It’s the second inhale that will reveal citrus and nutmeg aromas. Swirl the rum, then inhale twice again. The swirling releases the other aromas: coffee, vanilla and chocolate. Now, it’s time to sip. It’s smooth, mellow and I have a soft burn in the back of my throat. Truth be told, it feels like a warm hug – definitely not how I remember rum tasting (then again, I don’t recall taking this much time to savour it).

I’ve had a sip of Appleton’s 21-year-old ultra premium rum, “a true sipping rum,” Spence explains, so it’s no surprise that I’m immediately taken by it. This is some of the best rum on the market. It also sells for an average of $150 a bottle.

For those who aren’t ready to make that kind of investment, Spence suggests dabbling in blending rums. Appleton’s own is called V/X; it’s a blend of 15 rums. It has a fruity aroma, which Spence says “makes it a fabulous mixer” and is “the gateway” to rum appreciation. I suggest passing on Coke as a mixer and choosing club soda instead. It does a nice job damping rum’s sweetness, and creates a light, refreshing summer drink.

Plus, if you order it the next time you’re in Jamaica, the locals will give you a nod of appreciation.

This story ran in the National Post (January 2014)