A rum do: London’s Rumfest

It’s not just for pirates any more – the spirit of the Caribbean is sweeping the world. Franka Philip takes a taste of London’s Rumfest

One of the rum girls at the Rum Experience in October 2008 in London. Photograph courtesy Ian Burrell

Something’s been creeping up on connoisseurs in the UK and Europe. It’s something for which the Caribbean is world-famous, but it won’t be long before people around the world understand its true depth and beauty better than our own people.

What am I talking about?

Rum, of course! The spirit that we put in Christmas cake, season meat with, add to eggnog and use for “sapping” arthritic knees is becoming one of the world’s trendiest drinks.

Drinks writers are lining up to sing rum’s praises, and in upmarket bars, drinks dealers and supermarkets, one can easily browse through and buy the best premium rums.

And speaking of upmarket, the Caribbean restaurant Cottons in London boasts an incredible range of rums from around the world. Owner Ian Burrell, aka “The Rum Ambassador”, has been hosting rum-tastings and lectures on rum all over Europe.

Three years ago, he started The UK Rum Experience, a trade show for rum producers and distributors that’s also known to rum lovers here as “The Rumfest”.

The Rumfest, with costumed dancing girls, tricksy bartending displays and delicious Caribbean food, attracts a wide range of people, from West Indians who just want a taste of home to Brits who want to relive the memories of holidays past.

When I went, I was struck by the sheer number of top-class rums from the Caribbean and across the world in the same space. There were a lot of familiar brands on display, like the Angostura rums from Trinidad, Appleton from Jamaica and Clarke’s Court from Grenada, but I bypassed these usual suspects and went in search of different rums with interesting stories.

How much more interesting could you get than rum discovered by an Italian on a scuba-diving holiday in Cuba?

Ron Vigia takes its name from from Finca Vigia, the Cuban mansion that American writer Ernest Hemingway called home for 22 years. Hemingway was a man who knew and loved good alcohol, so this rum should be special. The Gran Reserva 18 años that was on show at the Rumfest was from a select batch of 15,000 that’s allowed to leave Cuba every year. Maurizio Lapi, one of the Italians responsible for bringing Ron Vigia to Europe, said their deal with the Cuban government to export this rum was down to a bit of luck.

“We were always thinking of doing business that involved the Caribbean, so I said, let’s find a niche product in Cuba for Europe.

“We met some Cuban government officials who were keen on the idea of exporting the rum…we happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Since he signed the deal with the Cubans four years ago, Ron Vigia has been sold in Italy, Spain and Switzerland. The UK got its first taste of the rum at the Rum Experience. And was it special? Ron Vigia wouldn’t be my first choice for sipping, but it’s perfect for potent cocktails. Despite his jaunty English, Mr Lapi was spot-on with his description of the rum: “It’s very tasty in the mouth, a lot of flowering, not so aggressive.”

Many believe that good rum goes with the perceived laid-back Caribbean lifestyle. And when I encountered Barbadian rum expert Larry Warren, an engaging man with a great sense of humour, I thought, here’s a man that personifies that Caribbean cool.

Warren, an architect by profession, has taken to rum-making in recent years with his acquisition of the Jacobean plantation house St Nicholas Abbey, described as one of the island’s “seven wonders”, and now a tourist destination.

Warren’s plan is to establish a cottage industry based on sugar and to integrate it with tourism, branding the products for export and within the local tourism market – hence St Nicholas Abbey Rum.

“It’s important, as our sugar industry has fallen on hard times, and we need to find ways of diversifying it and one way to add value to the sugar product,” he said. “What we need to do also is step it up, especially as, worldwide, rum is becoming the drink of this generation.”

The complex and delicious ten-year-old rum is based on sugar-cane juice. Warren boasts that visitors to St Nicholas can see the process of hand-bottling directly from the barrel, and he intends to show off this process when he returns for this year’s Rumfest.

This gorgeous rum comes in a beautiful bottle, a French-made decanter-type bottle inscribed with a picture of the abbey. The bottle that Warren gave me is numbered 2915 and I fully intend to get a refill this year. Like many of the new premium rums coming from the region, St Nicholas Abbey is produced in very limited quantities and aimed at the top end of the market. For now, it is generally only available in Barbados at St Nicholas Abbey.

“We want to create a handmade product, so we are not likely to produce large amounts,” he said. “The moment we try to make it something more than it is, then we’ll be trying to compete in a market we have no ability to compete in.”

That point of view is one that goes through the market, and while it’s totally sensible, it does mean that some of our best premium rum will never be tasted by rum lovers in the region – unless they travel often and buy rum in duty-free airport outlets or abroad.

This is something I put to Frank Ward, the head of the West Indian Rum and Spirit Producers Association (WIRSPA) and the managing director of Mount Gay Distilleries.

He pointed to his company’s own rum, Mount Gilboa, which currently retails at £30 a bottle in the UK. Mount Gilboa is the only triple-distilled, pot-still rum available on the market. Ward says the production process is similar to that of cognac or single malt.

“The process of making the rum is very time-consuming, and the volumes are very small. It will always be a niche rum and it will have a certain rarity value,” he said.

“Very premium rums are only available in limited quantities, so you are unlikely to be able to go to your corner shop or your supermarket and find them. It’s just like very premium cognacs and scotches; you’re not going to find them in the ordinary supermarket.

“It’s a simple matter of economics. There is no single answer, because you can produce rum for the lower end of the market where volume is important. If you’re making a very premium rums, the case sales are likely to be relatively small, and therefore, you would not want to depend wholly and solely on that.”

Mount Gilboa is better than most of the rums I’ve ever tasted. It’s both fruity and herbal and has the smoothness of cognac. It certainly was one of the finds of the Rum Experience. But would I pay £30 for a bottle? Yes, because it is excellent rum.

What I loved about the Rumfest was the joy of coming across rums like Mount Gilboa and St Nicholas Abbey. Finding these stalls practically dwarfed by the grandiose displays of the larger and more established rum producers was like finding hidden treasure.

I hope the economic situation doesn’t prevent us from having a great Rum Experience this year. It’s not about drinking rum and getting drunk: it’s about showing off the Caribbean’s culture, lifestyle and history. The different flavours and styles of rum mirror the diversity of life across the region. And to me, that’s absolutely priceless.


The next UK Rum Experience takes place in London on October 24 and 25

For more information:
UK Rum Experience: http://www.rumfest.co.uk/
Rum Vigia: http://www.rumvigia.com/Default2.aspx?lang=eng
St Nicholas Abbey: http://www.stnicholasabbey.com