Friday, October 28, 2011

Be careful what you order!

In the tropics, especially the Caribbean, you drink rum. This is a given. And it’s too darned hot to drink spirits neat, so you have to mix them. Pina coladas and other such fruity rum cocktails are very pleasant, but a chap can rarely order such a thing without aspersions being cast on his manhood. Thus, a rum and Coke is what a man mostly drinks in the tropics. How hard can that be?

Well, in Jamaica it is a minefield. The default rum option invariably seems to be Wray & Nephew’s Overproof White Rum, which is a rather too robustly alcoholic at nearly 63% (and I think it used to be even stronger when I first visited the island twenty years ago). And it tastes of toilets. That’s putting it kindly: it tastes like something you shouldn’t even pick up without putting protective gloves on first. The smell is even worse than the taste: sniff too deeply and your eyes will water, your nostrils will pucker, you may even gag. This stuff is, I believe, quite literally emetic. A chemist friend who also tried this appalling distillation some years ago assures me that he recognised the distinctive whiff of pyridine about it – a chemical commonly added to things like methylated spirit to try to ensure that you’ll throw up before you can imbibe a fatal amount of the stuff.

This overpowering chemical tang cannot be disguised or diluted. Trying to dilute this rum is a big mistake: it seems somehow able to propagate its poison, to make any mixer taste completely of its own chemical nastiness. You can pour a half-litre of Coke into a single shot of this vile drink, and the nauseating stench will still assault your nostrils every bit as savagely. The more mixer you add, the more foul-tasting fluid you have in your glass to try and drink. If you inadvertently order a Rum and Coke in Jamaica, you are almost certainly going to end up with a Wray & Nephew’s and Coke – that is, a highball glass of carbonated bleach.

The locals, it seems, have developed an immunity to the dubious chemical additives in their homeland’s flagship “rum”. Or they’re prepared to ignore its disgusting taste because it delivers such bang-for-the-buck in alcohol content. Or perhaps they just like messing with tourists. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I ever saw a single Jamaican drink any of this stuff.

No, no, they drink a much more palatable variety of rum. The leading rum producer on the island is the Appleton Estate sugar plantation, and their Special Dark Rum is the tipple of choice for most Jamaicans. It’s not particularly dark; neither dark, nor light, an amber, caramelly colour. And it’s not particularly complex in flavour; it lacks any of those rich notes of cinnamon or cardamom or vanilla that you get in some of the Caribbean’s more exotic rums. But it’s very palatable, slides down easy. Goes nicely with Coke.

'State Special and Coke  is what you order in Jamaica – if you want a refreshing mixed drink, rather than a Dr Jekyll beaker of foaming toxins.

[I've long been meaning to write more about my first trip to Jamaica - my first exotic overseas journey, right after I finished university - but keep failing to get around to it. The other week, I happened to discover that I still had this piece on my computer, something I submitted several years ago to a - now defunct - Caribbean travel website. I'm not sure if Wray & Nephew's White Rum is still as awful as this.  It has been many, many years since I last tried it. The Appleton Estate has subsequently taken over the brand, and they have been ramping up their efforts to market it around the world over the last decade or so.]


The Lunch said...

Wray & Nephew. Hmmm. Walked into a Jamaican beach bar once with a moth-collector. There was a blind guy (cataracts) at the bar. Asked what he was drinking and ordered two for us, one for him and one for the barman. It was clear why - at 64% proof - it has that effect.

Froog said...

Well, strictly speaking, it's only 62.8% - which is fairly lightweight by the standards of overproof spirits. I've drunk quite a few things of similar - or stronger - alcohol concentration, and found them a bit fiery but not at all unpalatable.

And it was the chemical lab smell of the old W&N product that turned the stomach as much as, or more than its taste.