If you think Jamaica, and rum immediately springs to mind, this island’s for you. Though brace those tastebuds for some incoming surprises. The white rum we’re peddled away from Caribbean shores is diluted to a distinctly weaker version of the hard stuff. Golden rum gets its colour and taste from a little oak cask ageing – think 20 years plus. And the heavy stuff? A moody, brooding rum that’s serving you oakey musk mixed with heady molasses. The process? A kind of rum sorcery that’s been handed down through the generations for centuries. Estates on the island create the strongest rums by a process called wild fermentation. Expect to feel more than a little light headed…
Jamaica’s rum story
Jamaica’s rum history is a long and winding tale that dates back centuries. In the late 1800s there were just under 150 distilleries on the island busily ageing full-bodied casks of fire water. Today, there’s just five distilleries that have honed their craft to deliver the island’s liquid gold we all know and love. We’ll not spill any spoilers involving the swashbuckling, sugar plantations, estates, government meddling and the English/Spanish battle for ownership of the island. That’s for you to uncover on the island’s distillery tours. What we will say is, though a cooling Red Stripe beer is almost taking over as the National Drink, do try to sample at least a sip of Jamaica’s golden rum. It’s a long way from the pared back white rum we’re used to in cocktails. Aged in oak casks, it’s smooth, rich and is the closest taste to the original rums first made on the island.
In 2019, Jamaica launched its first rum festival. Thousands turned up to celebrate the island’s favourite drink and no one’s looked back since. Now an annual event, Jamaica’s biggest brands are committed to gathering together to sell more rum and boost a little tourism along the way. Of course, the annual festival is far more than a marketing exercise. Attendees can sip on tasting flights, dig into the drink’s heritage and check out the legendary entertainment. In reality, seeing Shaggy live in concert has to be the number one reason to attend. And, let’s face it, if you’re going to book tickets to a rum festival, Jamaica is the place to do it. The island’s biggest distillery, the Appleton Estate is the main sponsor. But if you fancy getting in on their backstory, read on…
Appleton Estate Rum Experience
If you’re going to delve into Jamaica’s rum heritage, it’s best to start with a peek behind the gates of the Appleton Estate. Jamaica’s longest surviving distillery has quite the fancy pad to check out too. Acres of grounds, a sleek and stylish bar, restaurant and an oak-clad gift shop make this a very chic tour to join. The multi-sensory (their words, not ours) tour begins on the plump sofas in the welcome centre. Here, you’ll find it difficult to say no to a rum cocktail before moving on to learn about the estate’s Master Blender. Joy Spence is quite the big deal in the rum scene – being the first woman to hold this title in the entire industry. Job titles aside, you’ll also delve into the history of the rum made here. With not a moment to spare it’s on to the expansive grounds, where you can expect a massive blood sugar spike with the offering of a cup full of sugar cane juice.
Nerves jangling, it’s time to wander into the heady scents of cooked molasses and the oak barrels where the rum is ageing in Appleton’s centuries-old distilling process. Finally, to the tasting room, where the rum magic happens.
Hampden Estate Rum Tour
Another Jamaican rum brand with some hefty heritage under its belt, the Hampden Estate also offers a chance to scamper among the barrels and pots in its impressive estate. These acres aren’t quite as manicured as Applewood’s but there’s an undeniable charm to Hampden’s slightly more rustic approach. You’ll be getting an insight into their 260 year old rum crafting process, tasting their premium products, peaking into the inner workings of a working distillery and wandering the grounds. At this point it’s worth mentioning that Hampden is located in croc country. Which may not be top of your Jamaica wildlife spotting list, but does add an air of excitement to that part of the tour. So reptilian antics may or may not be included, but lunch definitely is.
Orbzii tip: Depending on your transport situation, it’s worth noting you can book these tours directly with both distilleries. Don’t get caught out, essentially over-paying for a taxi.
While everyone completes a tick box exercise at Rick’s Cafe in Negril, track down these alternative rum bars in Jamaica instead.
Sunnyside Beach Bar
One of those no frills, drop in, hang out, enjoy the beach views kind of place that just embodies everything you picture when you imagine drinking a rum punch in Jamaica. Set smack in the heart of Seven Mile Beach, Sunnyside Beach Bar is one of the cheaper bars to hang out at. Meet the locals, try a rum cocktail or two and enjoy the views.
Mingle a smidge of celeb spotting with your rum imbibing at this very cool hangout in Port Antonio. Part of the Geejam Hotel complex, Bushbar often gets overshadowed by the on site recording studio. Brace yourself for some namedropping as it happens to have hosted Diplo, Rihanna, Drake, John Legend and Alicia Keyes in its time. The bar’s as swish as you’d expect it to be, considering its rather A-List adjacent clientele. One for music fans and perhaps art lovers. After a stay, Banksy left some of his signature work, which – if you book into the hotel – you can also check out.