By Brie Cokos
Italy has its wine. Germany has its beer. Russia has its vodka. Scotland has its whisky. Mexico has its tequila. In Belize, we have rum.
For Belize, rum symbolizes more than an alcoholic beverage; rum is a cultural phenomenon that visitors from around the world associate with the essence of the tropics. Although it is one of the seven countries of Central American nations, Belize blends more into the Caribbean mentality of its island neighbors. This geographic connection has implanted rum into Belizean life.
To understand the origins of the spirit, rum lovers must look at the source of its potency. Just as barley and hops constitute the core of beer, sugar cane is rumÍs soul. Although the hearty grass grows well in all tropical climes around the world, it originates in Papau New Guinea. When farmers from Mexico brought their cane growing knowledge to Belize over a century ago, they found that the soils, especially in the northern districts, have the capability to support dense stands of cane. From the field, the cane is pressed in mechanical mills to extract its sugary juice.
Fermentation begins with the addition of yeast to the sugar cane juice. The sucrose is converted to alcohol in as many as ten days. Molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, can also be fermented. The resulting liquid contains only 10% alcohol by volume. To increase the alcohol content, the cane wine is boiled while the vapor is collected and condensed. While this process began with a simple tea kettle and a glass collecting flask, modern distilleries respond to the tremendous demand for the beverage by employing massive vertical columns to produce as much as 20,000 liters of rum per day.
At this point, the fresh raw spirit can take many paths on its way to the liquor cabinet. If the rum is consumed immediately, it will have a harsh taste due to trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas formed during fermentation. Some connoisseurs prefer the strength and taste of freshly distilled rum. Most consumers, however, prefer the smoother taste of an aged spirit. From here, time takes over as rum matures. Usually, it is sealed in oak barrels, sometimes once used to hold whiskey or bourbon, for as many as thirty years. The aging process can be arrested at any time according to the whim of the consumerÍs taste and alcohol content preferences. The clear liquid gradually turns to a dark brown over time. Once taken from the still and bottled, the aging process stops as the rum awaits your glass.
Enough chemistry for now. The bottom line is that the clear, tan, or brown liquid you pour over ice or mix in a blender has come a long way to serve you. To appropriately honor it for its long journey, Belizeans blend rum into a variety of concoctions that celebrate the distinctive taste. The beauty of rum is that it mixes so well with different flavors that consumers of all preferences can appreciate its simplicity. The favorite and most popular mixer is coca-cola. Rum and coke is the number one mixed drink in Belize. Light rums are often mixed with Sprite or soda water with lime as well. Some rum is blended with coconut extract after distillation to capture the "island spirit" in a bottle. Coconut rum mixed with pineapple juice is locally referred to as a "panty ripper". Although it is viewed as a ladies drink, even the manliest of men cannot deny that pineapple and coconut make a delicious combination. As for the name, after sampling three or four, see if it is appropriate. Another derivative of coconut and rum flavors is the famous pina colada. Although it did not originate in Belize, the drink appears on several bar menus and a blender can be found in most watering holes. The basic pina colada contains light and dark rum, crème de coconut, pineapple juice, and crushed ice, but the offshoots from that basic recipe are endless.
For a simpler treat that still captures the island essence, mix your favorite rum with coconut water. Of course, obtaining coconut water may not be easy for most people. However, if you find yourself on an island with swaying coconut trees, have your island friend pick a nut, use his machete to slice it open and pour the water into a glass. Most people not accustomed to island life have the impression that coconut water is a thick, sweet white cream. Coconut water is really the clear liquid core of a premature coconut that retains only trace remnants of the coconut flavor and is not sweet. It eventually dries up as the coconut matures and uses it to nourish itself. If you truly want to be an islander, forego ice in this concoctionńfreezers donÍt grow on palm trees.
Belizeans also mix rum with roots and herbal extracts in a privately produced drink called "bitters". Bitters can be prepared with gin, vodka or simply water, but the most commonly used liquor employed to extract the "medicinal" qualities of the herbs is rum. Each bitters drinker prefers his own blend that he usually prepares himself. After gathering the appropriate roots and herbs in a bottle, extra strong rum (over-proof, usually 150 or higher) is poured in and allowed to sit for at least 24 hours. Drinking this blend straight may be dangerous for novices, but mixed with other juices, extracts, or milk cuts its strength and adds to its flavor. Bitters can also be prepared with rums with a lower alcohol content and drank straight. This is not a beverage well known to tourists, but if you would like to try a purely local treat, ask a Belizean where to find some bitters.
Local favorites aside, rum can bond with an infinite variety of flavors or be consumed just as it comes from the distillery. Within Belizean borders, four distilleries satisfy the nationÍs rum demands. The Travellers Liquors Distillery produces one of BelizeÍs most popular rums, One Barrel Refined Old Rum. One Barrel has won numerous gold medals in the "dark and light 80 proof" category at the annual International Rum Festival. One Barrel, or its aged counterpart, Prestige Premium Gold, continually surpasses other rums throughout the Caribbean in taste and quality. Travellers Liquors produces seventeen varieties of rum all together.
From a tall stalk of cane to a fruity cocktail with an umbrella sticking out at the top, the essence of distilled sugar travels far on its journey towards happy hour„which is any hour in the tropics. At the core of Caribbean culture is the landÍs rum. Prized with the same zest as the sea that bears the regionÍs name, rum provides the appeal to the tropics that many travelers seek in their quest for the ultimate bar, cabana, or beach spirit. Is your mouth watering yet?
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography