The Caribbean is known for its gorgeous beaches, laid back atmosphere and beautiful scenery. But food and drink connoisseurs might be more familiar with the other hilights of the Caribbean islands – particularly rum.
September 24th to 26th was Caribbean Week here in Toronto. Designed to promote travel and industry in the 32 Caribbean islands, the festival also featured an evening of Rum and Rhythm at the Harbourcastle Westin, where guests listened to the sounds of the Caribbean while sampling rum from the islands and culinary offerings from some of the Caribbean’s top chefs. Guests could sample a variety of rum and rum-based cocktails, and a buffet-style selection of Caribbean cuisine that included everything from salt fish to bread pudding.
We wisely filled up on some of the fabulous edible offerings first before hitting the rum and cocktail samples.
From the Bahamas, Chef Mario Adderley offered traditional rice and beans, an outstanding conch stew and apple bread pudding with a light rum sauce. Chef Vidyadhara Shetty from Cayman Islands prepared grilled swordfish, paired with a fruit salsa, and possibly the best rum cake we’ve ever eaten.
The culinary offerings from Chef Richardson Skinner of St. Lucia might well have been our favourite overall. Chef Skinner was serving up a salad of avocado and cucumber with figs in a lime dressing, fried plantains, salt fish and veggies and a ginger and coconut crème brûlée.
And our favourite dessert came from Chef Lewalie J. Henley of United States Virgin Islands. His little glazed donuts were sweet and spicy. He also served up a spicy ceviche, braised chicken in a sauce with sweet peppers, and fluffy little beignets full of conch meat.
Rum comes in four basic styles; white or light rums are primarily used in cocktails; gold or amber rums are aged in wooden barrels; dark rums hearken back to the original recipe and have been aged in charred oak casks to create the almost black colour; and spiced or flavoured rums have an additional flavour element added during distillation, making them great for cocktails or even cooking.
In addition to these basic styles, each country adds their own unique characteristics to their rum, making a tasting event such as the one we attended like a trip around the islands without ever having to leave home.
El Dorado Demerara: This 5-year-old version (LCBO #894014, $24.75) of this Guyanese rum is distinctive yet delicate. We felt that it needed a bit more maturing, as it didn’t stand up to the complexity and warmth of its 12-year-old cousin (LCBO #912402, $34.95) that had notes of banana and vanilla.
Angostura 1919 (LCBO #616409, $29.70): We tried this both straight and in a cocktail. Straight up, this rum from Trinidad and Tobago was one of our favourites of the evening, with notes of bacon and vanilla on the nose, and then a strong flavour of caramel and butter – like crème brûlée in a glass. The cocktail on offer paired this rum with strawberry juice and lime juice, and while I usually am not a fan of pink, girly cocktails, this was quite refreshing, with the rum cutting through much of the sweetness of the fruit.
Cruzan from US Virgin Islands, although not a flavoured rum, had strong coconut notes for me. Although they’ve discontinued this product recently, the LCBO offers a recipe for this rum where it is mixed with cream of coconut, and I think that combination would work well. More of a mixing rum, to my palate, it didn’t wow me straight up.
The Pyrat Pistol (LCBO #69328, $29.95) from Angiulla tied with the Angostura for my favourite rum of the evening. Featuring notes of vanilla, caramel and honey, I also got the smell of ripe mango from this rum, and found it to be warm and smooth. I’ll definitely be adding this one to my collection.
We finished the evening with a Mojito made with the Cuban rum Havana Club (LCBO# 633685, $24.75). Although I doubt it would be a good idea, I could drink Mojitos like water and this version, full of mint and lime, was particularly refreshing.
Rum is knit into the history and culture of both the Caribbean islands and parts of Canada, where trade in the sugar-based elixir has existed for centuries. But rum is more than just a drink for pirates; it’s a versatile beverage that can not only be mixed in cocktails but can be sipped straight. With many brands offering a level of quality comparable to fine whiskey, rum might just be ready to move past the bottle of cola and take centre stage on the cocktail scene.