Tortola’s past is entwined with the history of some of the most famous rums in the Caribbean — so when exploring, pack your thirst!
IF YOU’RE GOING ASHORE in Tortola, why not go rum hunting? The Caribbean has the perfect climate to grow sugar cane, and during the colonial period plantations sprouted among the islands. It wasn’t long before someone noticed that the byproducts of the refining process – molasses – fermented in the sun. From there, distillers began to work their magic. Pusser’s Rum
In the 17th century, a daily rum ration became standard for the crews of Britain’s Royal Navy. The ship’s purser, the supply clerk, provided each sailor his “tot” – a pint per day, served neat, of the “purser’s rum.” The ‘r’ was swallowed up over time (along with a lot of rum) and so it became known as “pusser’s rum.”
In 1740, Admiral Edward Vernon (nicknamed “Old Grog” for his grogram cloak), ordered that the rum ration be diluted with water and mixed with lime and sugar out of concern for drunkenness aboard. Sailors took to calling it “grog” disparagingly. The tradition held until “Black Tot Day,” July 31, 1970, when the last daily tot – by then only an eighth of a pint – was issued and the final toast was raised.
The Royal Navy’s blended rum recipe had never been for public consumption until entrepreneur Charles Tobias obtained the rights from the Admiralty in 1979, and began bottling Pusser’s Rum on Tortola. If your shore time is short, you must at least pop in for drink or to nab a bottle at Pusser’s Road Town Pub, one of two outposts on Tortola.
The Island’s Only Distillery
Along Cane Garden Bay on the island’s northwest side, looking out toward Jost Van Dyke, lies Callwood Rum Distillery. Dating back to the 1600s, Callwood is the longest continuously operating pot distillery in the Virgin Islands and one of the oldest in the entire Caribbean. The property was originally a cane plantation and they still use the original boiler. Hurricane Irma hit the island hard in 2017, but within a year Callwood had fired up the stills again under a new roof, while the weatherworn stonewalls still stand. Callwood’s label is Arundel Cane Rum, which comes as a white rum, two aged varieties, and a rum sweetened with cane juice. Batches are small and the techniques date
back to the early days. Don’t expect a big factory production. The tour is personal and a sample flight of the rums might set you back only $1.
If the sun is not yet over the yardarm, take a 20-minute taxi ride from the port and start your day at Sebastian’s on the Beach with a cup of coffee. As in rum coffee. Maybe with Sebastian’s Rum French toast for breakfast. While Callwood’s tipple travels and Pusser’s may even be available back home, this rum can only be found right here. With a label that looks as if it was produced on the office printer, Sebastian’s Rum is a spiced variety and very popular with locals and travelers alike.
The Largest Rum Collection in the Caribbean
Not all rums are created equal. As with wine grapes grown in specific regions, single-origin rums may have terroir – flavor profiles affected by soil, microclimates, and sunlight – and the art of blending rums of varying ages, barreling conditions, and distilling techniques also creates distinction. And nowhere are you going to be able to test that theory better than at the rum bar at Cooper Island Beach Club. The small island is reachable by ferry 6 miles south from Road Town, and the resort’s rum bar has become legendary, featuring a collection of over 250 different rums, including rare and aged varieties and house infusions. The most rare of the bunch is a bottle of Black Tot, the actual daily ration of the Royal British Navy, discontinued in 1970. That’ll set you back $100 for a pour. Flights of rums come with history and expert knowledge from your bartender.
Rum mixes well and as the staple liquor in the Virgin Islands, it’s not surprising that it forms the backbone of most cocktails. Local rum is cheap, often cheaper than the mixer. So if the drinks seem a bit strong, there’s an economical reason. The Virgin Islands lay claim to a couple of original recipes that you should try. Two places claim creation of the painkiller, but in either place you can’t go wrong: Pusser’s or the Soggy Dollar, a famous beach bar on nearby island Jost Van Dyke. ( Named for the money coming from pockets of patrons hopping off their boats at the beach.)
This cocktail features 2 ounces of Pusser’s Rum (or 4 if you’ve got a generous bartender or a lot of pain), 4 ounces of pineapple juice, 1 ounce of orange juice, and 1 ounce of cream of coconut (Coco Lopez), all shaken with ice, and served with a dash or two of freshly grated nutmeg.
Another Virgin Islands original, the bushwacker, sees a lot of little variations, but for the most part expect white, dark and/or coconut rum, Kahlua, and coconut cream in a blender with ice. Some may add Bailey’s Irish Cream, a splash of vodka, amaretto, or crème de cacao as well, finished with a squirt of chocolate syrup in a hurricane glass and topped with nutmeg. Myett’s, near Callwood Distillery in Cane Garden Bay, is famous for theirs.
Shopping For Rum
Packing rum for the trip home? Callwood sells on site and Sebastian’s is the only place to buy their rum. But not far from the pier, check out TICO Wine & Spirit Merchants’ two locations in Road Town, or stop in at Caribbean Cellars for a wide selection as well. Pusser’s has their own store inside both Tortola locations.
The Willy T Floating Bar
This party barge, reachable only by boat, is popular both with travelers and locals. Hurricane Irma destroyed the original barge, but a year later the new William Thornton moored in Grand Harbour at Peter Island. For the adventurer and three other friends, try the group shot: four shot glasses mounted in a row along an old water ski so that everyone tilts it back at once.
If your shore time is short, you must at least pop in for drink or to nab a bottle at Pusser’s Road Town Pub.