When I’m in Mexico, I drink tequila. When I was in Thailand, I drank Chang and Leo beers and Song Sam (a delightful Thai rum/whiskey hybrid). When I was in Ireland, I pounded pints of Guinness with the best of them. Wait, does this mean I drink only bourbon because I live in Kentucky? I feel like my entire universe just shifted on its axis.
No, no way. I love bourbon.
Moving on… recently, when on a two-week sailing trip through the Caribbean, you had better believe I made like the locals and began an island-hopping rum quest fit for a pirate queen. I’m lucky enough to be in domestic partnership bliss with the son of sailors, so when my partner’s parents chartered a beautiful sailboat through the British Virgin Islands this July, and invited us along, I trained my liver accordingly and prepared to live on mostly conch and blended libations. Lucky for me, I gained some local rum education and palate-training along the way (pirate research, I tell you).
When Jamie and I landed on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, our boat Anacapa, full of family and friends, promptly scooped us up from the marina (located all of 50 feet from the airport) and sailed toward Cooper Island. Cooper Island is a small but dazzling set of hills, whose lushness is still recovering from Hurricane Irma. It looms over the turquoise waters of Manchioneel Bay, which houses the British Virgin Islands’ first and only eco-resort. This resort boasts a few boutiques, an incredible restaurant and, much to my excitement, the beachside Rum Bar.
Jamie, his brother, a few new friends and I meandered into the bar after we took the dinghy in for dinner and perused the menus of classic cocktails, rum flights and rare, local distillations I’d never heard of. We decided to try a few of the barkeep’s suggestions, including the Barbados-originated Plantation 5 Year Signature Blend, aged in none other than bourbon casks in Barbados, and then shipped to France to be double-aged in Pierre-Ferrand barrels. Bittersweet, toasty, with an almost chocolaty finish, this rum was delightfully sip-able neat. A perfect way to start the trip.
A few islands later, and we’d gotten the hang of being passengers and almost pseudo-bartenders of our crew (the best way I knew how to contribute). Jost Van Dyke island, perhaps the most breathtaking, sparkling waters and beaches of the incredible places we journeyed, also housed our favorite bars, where we met local friends and became regulars. One of our favorites was the famous Soggy Dollar Bar, which claims to have invented the Painkiller cocktail in the 1970s. Perhaps the essence of the Caribbean bar scene, the Painkiller is made with dark rum, cream of coconut, pineapple and orange juices. And the Soggy Dollar offers different varieties with fruit-infused rum. The bartenders are geniuses, also, as one of them noticed me fancying the Mango Painkiller all day. When I went up to order a few beers, he asked, “Have you tried a shot of mango rum in the Presidente?” I hadn’t, but, of course, I’d be getting that now. Mango rum, right into my lager. Great up-sell, dude. Delicious. 10/10 would recommend.
When we docked the Anacapa back in Tortola and flew over to Puerto Rico for a few nights, my rum quest shifted to the renowned cocktail of PR — the piña colada. After all, Puerto Rico is the birthplace of this glorious concoction, and I wanted to go straight to the original. We had dinner at Barrachina, the ambient colonial restaurant in Old San Juan, which claims to have invented the drink. Admittedly, the original piña colada, whose place of origin even has a city plaque, was underwhelming, as it was evident when it was poured from a giant slushy mixer and then topped with rum. I later found out Anthony Bourdain went there and practically shunned the place.
Damn, I should have known better.
However, I went to a cocktail bar that didn’t even serve piña coladas and found something perhaps even better. La Factoria in Old San Juan, named one of the world’s 50 best bars and housed in a former historic café, makes a deconstructed piña colada from rum, a pineapple shrub, coconut water, cinnamon simple syrup and allspice. Not frozen. Bearing all the classic flavors of the drink, but with elevated ingredients fit for well, a pirate queen?
I read that Blackbeard once said, “Only the devil and I know the whereabouts of my treasure.”
I’m no thief — I’m telling you where the treasure is, so you can plan your next vacation. Cheers!