Tracking the Strongest Rum in the Caribbean to Its Source

Sunset Very Strong rum is the spirit of St. Vincent
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Sunset Very Strong rum is the spirit of St. Vincent

The truck driver responsible for getting the molasses to the distillery from the holding tank in Kingstown, a bleached blonde grid of colonial relics and eighties atrocities peopled by dignified shop women, stumbling rastas and a dozen or so tourists regretting the decision to get off the boat, crashed exactly once this year. This is a point of pride for both the driver (he’s fine) and St. Vincent Distillers, which is accessible only by a winding, cliff-top highway engineered to be precisely too small for a tanker and a ragged looking Toyota Hilux to share. And after the highway there are the rutted streets of Georgetown, so complicated it’s tempting to let a machete wielding local hop in your car and provide direction (spoiler: he’ll demand cash at journey’s end).

The fact that St. Vincent’s roads aren’t glazed by the slurry shipped from Guyana is something just north of an achievement and just south of a miracle.

The reason that the truck gets through twice a day is that the truck is important. The St. Vincent Distillers Ltd. truck is the truck that makes the islanders’ favorite drink, Sunset Very Strong Rum, possible. Back in the day, rum was made with the sugar from the slave plantation that once sprawled where the distillery now stands. Progress eliminated supply when that hateful place was destroyed. All the production manager has to say about this history is that “You’ve got to go through a process to be a diamond.” Pieces of the plantation were repurposed to make the thick-walled rooms where the good stuff now ages in whiskey barrels. The man is immaculately dressed, proud of his job.

As well he should be. St. Vincent Distillery sits in a town that drug runners avoid (“Too crazy,” one told me before heading up to harvest his crop on a volcano), employs just 27 people, all of them locals, and puts out not only the best rum in the world - Captain Bligh XO won gold at the World Drink Awards – but the most singular alcoholic product in the Caribbean. 

Very Strong Rum is 169 proof, which means that you can use it, as locals do, to start your barbecue before you start drinking. But that proof, which translates to 84.5% alcohol by volume, isn’t the whole measure of the stuff. What’s impressive about it is that it tastes good. It tastes like coconuts, sunshine and a punch to the jaw. It tastes like blood to the yachters who slurp down local-made rum punches in the high-walled resorts at the island’s southern tip then trip down the docks.

Very Strong is part of life on St. Vincent. It’s what you use to disinfect cuts and what you use to kill small fish or knock big ones unconscious (just pour it in their gills). Bottles lay on the black sand beaches that run up the windward side of the island like Morse Code toward the indigenous town of Grand and the pools made of lava at inaccurately named New Sandy Bay, where the water is so calm older men can drink the stuff in the shallows. The key isn’t figuring out how to drink it, which isn’t that hard if you’ve got the esophagus for such things, but figuring out how to stand up afterwards. There’s a fair amount of splashing around.

The rum is a product of St. Vincent in more than just the typical, sticker-on-the-bottle way. The island, the biggest in the archipelago the English once hoped to make the frontier of the West Indies Federation is covered in jungle, mountains, and the crumbling sets from Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It’s not a tourist-friendly place, but it’s not unfriendly either. People, many of them poor, many of them happy, many of them thick-calved from long walks up the hills between bays, are just going about their lives. And, on the island, going about your life means barbecues and hanging out in the streets at night. People know their neighbors and how their neighbors dance.

They also know that Very Strong is getting a little less common. The younger generation prefers a sweeter drink, Sparrow’s Premium, which is good but not exceptional. When a young woman tries to buy Very Strong in a grocery story, the guy at the till will invariably ask if she wants something else. The arc of the universe bends toward palatable, a fact that is doubly true in the Caribbean, an uncomfortable place that sells the idea of ease.

Watching that molasses truck navigate the squealing free-for-all of downtown Kingstown is something to behold, a pageant of stubbornness with a clear moral: Never give up. The driver doesn’t and, after a while, the hurried fishermen and sweaty policemen team up to clear a path. They know he’s doing something difficult and they know he’s doing it for them.

St. Vincent Very Strong Rum is available stateside wherever people of Caribbean descent open liquor stores. Otherwise, you’ve got to buy it online. [$60.50; masterofmalt.com]