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The importance of rum to Caribbean culture

One of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about the Caribbean is wonderful golden rum. Whether you drink it neat, or as a base to a mojito or any other exotic cocktail, rum is synonymous with this group of exotic islands.

Early beginnings

Rum originated in the 1630s in Barbados when it was discovered that molasses – a by-product of the sugar refining process – could be fermented into alcohol. And following a trip to Barbados with his brother, George Washington even demanded a tot of rum at his inauguration in 1789.

If it's good enough for Washington, it's good enough for the rest of us, and such was the drink's popularity that this potent spirit can now be found throughout the world.

An island apart

Produced in Jamaica, Aruba, Cuba and St Lucia, among other countries, rum is made in a variety of different ways in each of the places where it's distilled. This explains why there are so many different tastes and styles throughout the islands.

In order to help consumers appreciate these variations, and also guarantee the provenance of rum produced throughout the Caribbean, The West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers' - WIRSPA - has introduced a marque, or an authentication system.

Using rum as a sightseeing guide

If you wanted, you could base a tour of the Caribbean around the islands' many distilleries. There's even an online International Rum Council that will help you select your destination – distillery by distillery, or island by island – as well as adding to your rum knowledge.

One of the oldest established rum distilleries is, as you'd expect, on the island of Barbados. Mount Gay Distillery, in Bridgetown is still going strong after more than 300 years, having been established in 1703.

Here tourists can explore the plant to see how rum is made as well as learn about its social history and how rum has diversified over the ages. You might be surprised to find that rum has overtones of flavours including chocolate, almond, banana and vanilla.

Rum and the arts

The economic and cultural importance of rum in the Caribbean cannot be understated. Each Caribbean island that produces rum has a different history and distinct culture, but the connection of rum with Caribbean music, food and the tourism industry is evident.

Highlighting the cultural links, the late great Bob Marley composed a guitar solo about Jamaican Rum. And on the tiny Caribbean island of Martinique, there's even a rum distillery that's been converted to a super contemporary art museum.

The world-renowned Island records founder, Chris Blackwell, is a huge fan of rum, having created his own Blackwell Rum brand. Blackwell believes in rum in all its forms and advocates pouring it over fruit salad, drinking it neat and adding it in cocktails.

You can actually hang out at his Goldeneye Estate, just under an hour's drive away from Ocho Rios and sip rum at this now upscale hotel and resort. In case you didn't know, the estate is famous thanks to the fact that James Bond writer, Ian Fleming, used to live here.

Celebrate rum at Caribbean festivals

The Caribbean islands have many differences, but one of their unifying factors is rum. August 16th is International Rum Day, which is celebrated across the Caribbean and further afield – now there's a party worth attending.

As with all festivals you'll have the pleasure of attending during your stay in the Caribbean, they aren't simply a celebration of alcohol but a way of showing off the music, the costumes and the traditions of these islands. So you can immerse yourself in all things rum and Caribbean.

If you're celebrating in Jamaica, just be aware that you may encounter something called overproof rum. This is the stuff that the locals drink and is 80% proof – to say that this is really strong is something of an understatement. So maybe ask for an Appleton's or Myers instead.

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