Avid travelers have come up with a lot of names for themselves over the years—nomad, vagabond, and aimless wanderer are a few examples that would also make a great indie band album title. And, of course, many people prefer the magnanimous label of “influencer,” because it sounds cooler than “vacationer with a selfie stick.” They’re all perfectly fine. Still, some of us who travel a lot, particularly in the Caribbean, might wonder if there’s something else, something a little more emphatic that we can take home and wear as a badge of honor.
Someone in St. Kitts must have been listening to our prayers, because this very special and beautiful West Indies destination now offers a spectacular honorary title for visitors: Kittitian RumMaster. Don’t be fooled—this fun new program is hardly a top-level course. If anything, it’s more of a beginner’s guide with the benefit of having instructors who share a deep fondness for rum and their beautiful home. But it is certainly rich with rewards.
“The history of Caribbean rum and its influential impact can be seen throughout St. Kitts,” the Honorable Marsha Henderson, Minister of Tourism, International Transport, Civil Aviation, Urban Development, Employment, and Labor explained of this program’s inception. “St. Kitts is home to the oldest surviving rum distillery in the Caribbean and is also home to a growing unconventional rum scene. We are excited to incorporate an integral part of our history into expanding innovative tourism opportunities. We are confident this tour will allow travelers to experience St. Kitts in a different way and take back home a part of our island’s rich history by becoming a Kittitian RumMaster.”
To earn this exceptional title that rolls off the tongue oh so well, visitors must complete two courses that take place at two different establishments that tell two different stories of the island’s rum culture. The first is Old Road Rum Company at the Wingfield Estate, where the spirit has a compelling history, of which the surface has only been scratched. The second is Spice Mill, home of Hibiscus Spirits, where creativity and innovation will change the way people think about rum. At the end, participants will earn a certificate—which is certainly one of the best souvenirs anyone could ask for—in addition to an invaluable grasp of just how much this island excels at blending the past, present, and future.
The Difference Between Distilleries
One of my favorite things about travel is talking spirits in the Caribbean. I’m obsessed with the debates over where a certain cocktail was created, which island makes the best rum, and which little off-the-radar bars and restaurants are serving the most creative drinks. The best thing about it all is no matter what you learn, someone somewhere else will almost certainly tell you that you’re wrong.
If you enjoy such things as well, distillery tours are as interesting and entertaining as they are educational, because they’re a great way to learn about an island’s history from people who often possess extra special details that you can further share on your adventures.
In fact, this was reinforced for me on the first leg of the Kittitian RumMaster program, as we kicked off the educational journey at the Wingfield Estate, home to Old Road Rum Company. Here, a guide named—and I swear I am not making this up—Bon Jovi blessed me with the knowledge of the island’s rich rum history on one of the spots where its future is being cultivated and mapped.
But the journey to a tourist’s bragging rights begins with a very important distinction.
When it comes to Caribbean rum, everyone recognizes Mount Gay as the “world’s oldest commercial rum distillery,” with paperwork dated sometime around 1703, a credit to Sir John Gay Alleyne’s legendary business acumen. The Barbados institution is not, however, the Caribbean’s “oldest surviving rum distillery.”
As we learned from Bon Jovi and his fellow guides, that title belongs to the Wingfield Estate, which is an important property for several reasons, including being one of four places on the island where 17th century Amerindian petroglyphs have been found. Arguably the greatest discovery came in 2013, when the original rum distillery was excavated, offering proof that the spirit had been produced here as far back as 1681.
More excavation is expected in the coming years, but in the meantime, Jack Widdowson is focused on the estate’s future. The young, charismatic founder of Old Road Rum Company leads the first course of the RumMaster program, offering facts and theories about the distillery’s past and the 18th century sugar plantation—once owned by a relative of Thomas Jefferson—before an exceptionally in-depth tasting class, where aspiring RumMasters learn firsthand why Widdowson’s work will eventually be the talk of the spirits world.
And he isn’t the only ambitious soul at Wingfield. As Bon Jovi escorted us around the estate to marvel at the masonry that has kept the massive chimney, aqueduct, mill and boiling houses, and kiln preserved for hundreds of years, he also explained that they hope Old Road Rum’s signature Alfie’s Bar—named for the last head distiller—is eventually recognized as one of the best rum bars in the entire Caribbean. Judging by the celebration cocktail that acknowledged the completion of the first Kittitian RumMaster session, it’s only a matter of time before that hope becomes reality.
Creativity is in the Cocktail
Despite the marvelous variety of accommodations and dining experiences on St. Kitts, the conversation of where to stay and what to do often begins around Cockleshell Bay, as it is home to the popular Park Hyatt St. Kitts and a beautiful stretch of beach. It is also an ideal location for travelers who want to visit sister island Nevis on a day trip, but no one should ever leave this area without eating at Spice Mill Restaurant.
In addition to being home to the Passion Beach and Hibiscus Rooftop Bars, this property is also where visitors can grab a bottle of Hibiscus Spiced Rum or Hibiscus Gin as a very delicious souvenir (we’re waiting on pins and needles for the return of Hibiscus Tequila). Owner and rum expert Roger Brisbane leads the second half of the Kittitian RumMaster experience, as it showcases not only how he has blended the traditional spirit with the beloved Caribbean staple of sorrel (Roselle Hibiscus calyx), but also his methodology in developing spiced rum.
Whereas the visit to Wingfield focuses on a basic introduction to rum, the spirit’s history on the island, how it is made, and identifying flavor profiles, the session at Hibiscus will thrill people who care more about how to use it and especially making delicious cocktails to impress their friends back home. As we sat with Brisbane and learned how to blend our own bottles, he displayed his impressive talents even further by explaining how he develops his own recipes that keep guests coming back to the Spice Mill for more.
The goal of this endeavor is as much to make visitors understand the island’s rich history and immense culture as it is to help them better comprehend the versatility of rum. Ultimately, they’ll return home with a certificate and probably a bottle of Old Road Rum and Hibiscus Spice Rum, which deserve a place on any Caribbean traveler’s bar.
But those will be nothing compared to the enduring appreciation and respect they’ll feel for the people who are developing new ways to make people fall in love with St. Kitts all over again.