Hard to credit now but back in December 2019 Saint Lucia was the last foreign country I visited – before Covid turned the world upside down. There I consolidated my passion for rum. It will be consummated once again on Saturday, August 28 when Manchester Rum Festival makes its belated return. Among the many treasures to taste will be Saint Lucia’s own Chairman’s Reserve, Four Square from Barbados, Montanya from Colorado and our own Diablesse, all of which have been staging posts on my rum journey, which began among the sugar cane plantations of the Caribbean.
The two hour west coast road trip north from Soufriere to Castries is a clifftop, hairpin bend rollercoaster ride, requiring strong nerves at the wheel (taxi recommended). En route, the views are fabulous, the fishing villages of Anse La Raye and Canaries worth a quirky stop-off, our only regret we hadn’t time to detour to picturesque Marigot Bay.
Inland consolation, a ‘Rhythm of Rum’ tour of St Lucia Distillers. The island no longer produces commercial quantities of sugar cane, importing molasses from Guyana or Barbados and this is the only producer left but the quality is high from the core brand Chairman’s Reserve upwards. At the end of the hourlong tour you get to sample their 20 or so products and access discounts on purchases at the Rhum Shoppe.
Dave Marsland, organiser of the Rum Festival, also happens to be UK brand ambassador for Chairman’s Reserve. His favourite of the range? “It would be Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Cask. It’s smooth with plenty of the ex-American oak barrel flavours coming through, whether I drink it straight, with coconut water or as an Old Fashioned. Works fantastic with cigars too.”
My own? The real knockout is the Denros Strong Rum – 80% ABV, 160º proof. Well maybe not a tot on a school night.
Rum’s heartland is the northern parishes. Historic plantations still dot the landscape in various states of desuetude. Movable wooden worker’s dwellings called chattel houses add to the sense of transience. The clue to where all the sugar cane fields once were are the windmills.
In 1846 the island had more than 500 – only Holland had a greater density – and the remaining mills, in whatever state, are all now under a preservation order. The Barbados National Trust maintain the Morgan Lewis Working Mill. in the parish of St Andrew’s. From December to April visitors can see cane ground into juice there.
Under 10 minutes away and much more enjoyably hands on is St Nicholas Abbey, the island’s best historic day out. One of only three Jacobean mansions left in the whole Americas, the gabled old house set among mahogany trees summons up the ghosts of those early plantation owners with its museum addressing the slave issue, while current owners the Warren family lovingly preserve the old rum-making methods in a boutique distillery they set up a decade ago.
So you get a steam-powered cane crush and a traditional pot still, using cane for the syrup that’s unique to the 400 acre estate, half of which is under sugar cultivation. The quest for a premium quality spirit was consolidated by enlisting the advice – and starter rums – of Richard Seale, owner of the island’s multi award-winning Foursquare distillery.
So the older rums (10 years) we tasted with Larry Warren after our tour originated at Foursquare before being barrel-aged at the Abbey, most of whose own rums still need to serve their time in oak. There’s no church connection, by the way; Abbey’s just a landowner’s affectation from way back.
The little town of Crested Butte is not as glamorous as Rockies mecca Telluride. Indeed the folksy mountain charm is it selling point alongside – for me – its rum distillery. Whoa! We a long way from sugar plantations, so why did Karen Hoskin decided to set up Montanya Distillers here on Main Street? It’s the pure mountain water apparently that is the key, the stuff that makes spring so special.
So the flowers were in full spate in the high meadows above Crested Butte 150 miles north of Telluride. Like its rival destination, this former coal mining town is divided into a ski resort village and the original settlement below, rescued by hippies in the Seventies and still not insufferably gentrified.
I loved its bookshops and coffee hang-outs, kids selling homemade lemonade on the streets and, above all Montanya, for its sustainable ethos and the quality of its acclaimed small batch product. Rum sounds an odd drink to be making in the mountains but owner Karen Hoskin believes the 9,000ft altitude helps the progress.
“Our non-GMO sugar cane comes from family farmers in Louisiana, who grow and mill for us,” she says. “ Our water comes from one of the purest spring and snowmelt charged aquifers in the USA. Our rums are made by hand, from scratch, in a very traditional way using alembic copper pot stills from Portugal.”
One bonus of booking a Montanya tour is you get a complimentary cocktail in the garden bar. Karen discovered her taste for rum in Goa – try her signature, spicy Maharaja. You may never leave.
South Manchester is the least exotic rum address I know, but then Cleo Farman has always taken the Odd route. That was the name of her pioneering NQ bar on Thomas Street. That spawned Odder and Oddest and then they all all faded away leaving ebullient Cleo with the kind of midlife crisis we’d all want when she decamped back to the Caribbean where she had once worked for Richard Branson on Neckar Island. Retrenchment meant nine months researching rum blends, out of which arose in early 2019 her own bespoke blends.
They bear the name Diablesse – inspired by a Caribbean folklore spook, La Diablesse, born human but turned demonic after a pact with the Devil. Makes for a striking bottle label. They say you should use a long spoon to sup with the Devil.
Diablesse Caribbean Rum (40% abv) is Cleo’s benchmark blend of three distinctive rums, serious stuff, while Diablesse Clementine Spiced Rum (42.3%) is a crowd-pleasing demerara rum from the Diamond Distillery, flavoured with clementine and a spice mix of spice mix of vanilla pod, ginger, cinnamon, cinnamon and clove.
Lovely glugger the latter, but it is the Caribbean Rum that really makes you sit up and pay attention. Some canny blending has gone into its creation with a major contribution to its complexity and smoothness coming from ageing in American bourbon barrels. No added sugar or caramel either.
Manchester Rum Festival 2021 will be going ahead on Saturday August 28, 12pm-7pm at new venue Mercure Manchester Piccadilly Hotel. Check out the full list of rums via this link. I suspect it may be a sell-out even after a handful of extra tickets were squeezed out. Priced £30 + booking fee, please check here.