David Whitley heads to Key West, the rum capital of the US
The default setting in Key West is merrily drunk. It’s the sort of place where a frozen daiquiri for breakfast is not only perfectly reasonable but eminently sensible. The delicious wooziness of this wilfully different island at the end of the Florida Keys chain is a strong part of its isolated appeal.
But inside The Rum Bar at the more demure end of notorious bacchanalia strip Duval Street, there’s at least a pretence that it’s all somehow educational.
For anyone whose knowledge of rum starts and finishes with pouring Coke on top of Bacardi, this is the place to open up a world of magic. There are hundreds of bottles on the shelves, from all over the rum-making world. You want Guyanese, or Anguillan, or Trinidadian? Then you can have it.
More to the point, the bar staff really know their stuff, and will merrily select tasting flights of five different rums according to your — and their — particular preferences. (The Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva from Venezuela and Centenario 25 from Costa Rica are astounding, by the way.) Deep, warming flavours, some packing a real punch, others winning over with honeyed mellowness, make the idea of using a mixer feel like appalling behaviour.
Key West has a long history with rum. It’s closer to Cuba than it is to Miami and, during the Prohibition era, the rum runners who gave their name to the potent local cocktail (Rum Runner) would spirit rum across the almost 90 miles of sea separating the islands. They’d hide the bottles and casks in the shallows, then fish them out when required. Key West became the main gateway for rum coming into the States.
But for all the rum coming in, none was being made in Key West (legally, at least) itself until 5 December 2013.
Paul Menta, the chef and restaurateur behind Key West Legal Rum, says the date was fitting, as it was the 81st anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. But that first batch was a long time in the making. He and his colleagues had to spend 18 months battling the state legislature to change the law to allow them to distil rum and sell it to the public on the premises.
“We wanted it to be downtown so people could see it being made,” says Paul. Tours of the distillery are open to the public, and many historical elements of the building have been kept. It was once a Coca-Cola factory, and the bottles and cups dug up during the refit have been saved.
It was previously Jack’s Saloon, considered the posh option among the fighty groghouses. There’s a large blown-up photo on the wall of the bartenders. “Jack watered down his high-proof stuff, but when the bartenders came in, he’d take them into the back and let them have the real version,” says Paul.
He insists that he approaches the rum-making with a chef’s eye. Madagascan vanilla is sourced for the vanilla-flavoured rum, while Key limes from local backyards go into the Key lime variety.
“But the important thing is that you can smell it being made from down the street,” Paul says. “And when we launched, it was the first time that the local mayor and navy commandant had drunk rum in Key West with the guy who made it. Well, legally at least…”