Traditional spiced rum is more than just a flavored spirit. It’s a piece of Caribbean culture.
“Every island, or more correctly, almost every family in the Caribbean has their own spiced rum recipe,” says Ed Hamilton, a rum importer for the Ministry of Rum often credited with playing a large role to popularize the spirit in the U.S.
Hamilton traveled through the Caribbean throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1997, he published The Complete Guide to Rum: An Authoritative Guide to Rums of the World, (Triumph Books, 1997) at a time when U.S. liquor stores typically stocked only a small selection of the spirit.
Steven Ferreira, a bartender of Dominican heritage at New York City’s Pouring Ribbons, says the island’s local spiced rum, mamajuana, derived from the native Taíno people.
“[They] would brew a tea of barks, roots, herbs, honey and the rumored turtle penis, sourced right on Ayiti [the Haitian Creole name for Haiti],” says Ferreira. “This was used in many cases to treat illnesses or for sexual vitality.”
Mamajuana is prepared like grandma’s soup, with each household’s recipe being unique, according to Ferreira. The only constant ingredients, he says, are honey and either rum, red wine or both.
Rum’s origins in the Caribbean date to the early 17th century, and it’s likely spiced rum was born around the same time. Similar to how juniper and other botanicals were added to wines and vodka-like spirits in their early origins to mask harsh flavors, as legend has it spiced rum was born out of the same reasons.
Today, you’ll find the treasured spirit throughout the Caribbean. In St. Lucia and many Caribbean islands, locals call it “spice rum.” In the French Caribbean islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique, as well as Mauritius and Réunion, which are located across the world in the Indian Ocean, locals call theirs rhum arrangé.
What connects all of them is spice, though that varies. Commonly used spices include cinnamon ginger, vanilla pod, slices of lime, bay leaf, raisins, nutmeg and more. On St. Maarten, Hamilton says he visited a rum shop that sold all kinds of spice-flavored rhum agricoles from Guadeloupe, similar to rhum arrangé, with sugar, spices and local fruits.
“One of my favorite spiced rums was a blend of two-year-old Trinidad rum with mangoes, cinnamon and a little raw sugar,” says Hamilton. “A barrel of rum fell off an island freighter and was floating in the anchorage, so I brought it onto my boat. At 160 proof, the rum was a bit hot right from the barrel. But, when spiced, it was a favorite on board my boat for several years.”
In St. Lucia, the “secret” ingredient used in many spiced rums on the island is the bois bandé bark, which translates to stretched wood and is a believed aphrodisiac.
“Today, elderly St. Lucians recall that spice rum was illegal when they grew up,” says Sergin John Baptiste, marketing manager for St. Lucia Distillers. It produces Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum, thought by many to be one of the better spiced bottlings on the market.
“The all-but-forbidden drink was duly code-named ‘Enba Kontwere,’ [below the counter] and was served in small glasses due to its high strength and very charging effect,” says John Baptiste.
By 1770s, sugarcane was grown widely throughout Roseau, where St. Lucia Distillers is located today. And the plant was used to create rum, which was brewed by slaves, and these recipes survived beyond emancipation. But authorities began banning these recipes because the base rums as well as some of the ingredients used were deemed unsafe for consumption.
But “In the 1980s, these spice rums witnessed a brand-new revival, with vendors selling their concoctions all over the island to locals and tourists alike, as the rich traditions of indigenous infusions became more accepted in society,” says Baptiste.
Today, these spiced rums are sold as souvenirs to tourists. But they also serve as physical and emotional remedies. They can be an important part of celebratory occasions. A prime example is the spiced rum sold at St. Lucia’s famous Friday Night Jump Up parties.
Whether you are experimenting with a family recipe or trying the spirit for the first time, homemade spiced rum is an excellent way to toast Caribbean tradition. Spiced rums provide a connection to the various cultures across the islands, which is one of the most beautiful parts of drinking spirits.
How to Make a Spiced Rum
It’s important to note that alcohol is a solvent. Not all ingredients are safe or legal for infusions. Before you start to make your own spiced rum, refer to Cocktailsafe.org to make sure any spices and botanicals that you use are safe for consumption.
Also, spiced rum isn’t an exact science. It’s more of an exploration of flavor, so embrace the creative process and trust your palate.
The recipe below is only a template, so feel free to make it your own. Here are a few steps and tips to get started.
- Start with a white rum with 45-50% alcohol by volume (abv). Doorly’s Three-Year-Old or Chairman’s Reserve White Label are good choices, as they don’t already have sugars added.
- A good proportion of cane sugar to spirit is between 15 to 25 grams of sugar per liter of rum, or 1.5% to 2.5% of the liquid volume of the rum. For example, for one (750 ml) bottle of rum, you would add 15 grams of sugar, which is a little less than 4 teaspoons.
- Start by infusing a smaller portion of rum just in case you don’t like your spice mix. A good place to start is 1 cup. After 1 or 2 days, you’ll have a good idea whether or not you like the flavor. Another method is to make a few one-ingredient infusions, like cinnamon rum or pineapple rum, and then blend them together so you can pinpoint which flavors you like. This is more time consuming, but worth it to eliminate unwanted flavors.
- Once you get to your desired flavor, you can fine-strain the rum into a separate bottle or leave it with its spices.
Spiced rum ingredients
- 1 (750ml) bottle white rum (like Chairman’s Reserve White)
- ½ cup pineapple, cubed
- ½ banana peel
- 2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 3 whole cloves
- ½ star anise
- ¼ teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg
- 3 small pieces fresh-sliced ginger
- 3 strips orange peel
- 15 grams (or just under for tablespoons) cane sugar
Add all ingredients to non-reactive container (cambro works best).
Stir to dissolve most of the sugar.
Let rest to infuse for 2 days, then check and stir. Check every day until it develops desired flavor. Strain into bottles and store. You can keep some of the spices in the bottle for visual appeal.