The history of rum, that intoxicating spirit birthed in the sugarcane plantations of Barbados in the 17th century (we’ll leave mention by Marco Polo of a similar distillate discovered in ancient Iran 300 years prior to real historians), very much parallels that of the colonization of the New World, and thus, is steeped in tales of exploration, drama, and violence.
With the rise of the cultivation of sugarcane alongside that of the slave trade aside, rum’s proliferation in the 18th century was so extensive that consumption was estimated at three gallons a year for every American, including children; over the course of the ensuing centuries it has grown to become one of the most regularly consumed tipples worldwide. Its influence on popular culture, of course, is fully evidenced in the likes of a massive franchise of Johnny Depp movies; and the classic 1985 Pogues album just wouldn’t have been the same if it were titled Vodka Sodomy & the Lash.
We were recently afforded the chance to not just ramp up our rum intelligence, but also for an up-close look at the process of its production – which happily included generous samplings of the end product – at the distillery of one of the world’s premiere purveyors, Ron Barcelo. That said distillery happens to be located in the tropical Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo, made the experience distinctly authentic.
After an easy flight from NYC we settled in the city’s charming Colonial Zone, where every corner exhibits an example of the area’s history. Santo Domingo, in fact, contains the oldest remains of gothic architecture in the ‘New World.’ With the stylish Hotel Billini as home base, we ventured forth to explore the local churches and cafes, eventually, converging for dinner at Pat’e Palo on the Plaza Espana, where we were introduced to a dazzling assortment of Ron Barcelo cocktails – learning just how smoothly the stuff goes down.
The following morning had us donning hardhats and heading to the aforementioned Barcelo distillery, to witness the magic firsthand. The process is surprisingly simple – apparently the devil is in the details of blending and ageing – and basically involves massive truckfulls of sugar cane being ground up and mulched and watered and magically turned into rum. Back at Barcelo’s Centro Historico Museum and tasting room we were at perhaps even more rapt attention when it came to sampling the finished product; said museum, which exhibits the history of rum development, is understandably the main tourist attraction in the region.
With all that note taking over, it was time for lunch, and more rum cocktails. For the rest of the afternoon we decamped to the splendid Boca Marina, a beachfront restaurant where dining, sunbathing, and swimming merged to create a fully immersive D.R. experience.
That evening, after some downtime at the chill Billini (it’s got a pool with an awesome view of the Basilica Santa Maria Cathedral), we ventured out to explore the more South Beach like vibes of downtown SD, where velvet ropes and valet parking are de rigueur. Our first stop was the plants and flowers festooned Central Gastronomica, where we were feted with a variety of Ron Barcelo cocktail creations, including a Stormy Daze of Barceló Añejo, lime juice, and ginger beer. Eventually yearning for the quiet of the Colonial Zone, we headed back for a simple late-night dinner at the charming Falafel Colonial, where we showed remarkable restraint regarding our rum consumption.
We capped off our weekend with a day of sightseeing, memorable meals, and of course more rum. Our charming guide Tirso gave us an insightful walking tour of our new home, Zona Colonial to the locals, where amongst other sites we made an interior visit to the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the oldest such house of worship in the Americas. Walking was followed by eating, and we lunched at the equally charming – thanks in part to the lashings of Ron Barcelo – El Mesón de Bari, where the rum paired particularly well with the local ceviche.
Our last dinner in the D.R. was at Peperoni in downtown SD, where an alluringly young and fashionable crowd had us checking our outfits in the opulent loos; the place was as swank as it gets. Combining select dim sum with traditional dishes such as waldorf salad and crab cakes, the menu was as good as the scene.
And, naturally, we capped the evening off with a few final rounds of Ron Barcelo…the good stuff.