Cayman rum keeps with islands’ seafaring spirit

Like any great Caribbean tale, the story of Cayman Spirits Co. and its signature Seven Fathoms rum starts at sea.

While the company itself got its start in 2007, the origins of its rum can be traced back to Cayman’s seafaring days and the concept of “agitation” – in other words, rocking the rum barrel to hasten the aging process and stir up a sweet, earthy balance of flavors.

“It goes back to a time when they would make rum and send it across the ocean and people would actually pay more for rum that had crossed the ocean because they knew the barrel on the ship was rocking. So that was called ‘ocean-aged’ rum,” explains cofounder Walker Romanica during one of the daily tours of the operation’s George Town distillery.

Here, landlubbers can taste Cayman’s own version of ocean-aged rum – along with Caymanian vodka, H.H. Hutchings’ liqueurs and on a lucky day, Distiller’s Special gin. (And at US$15 a head for a full tour and tasting, an afternoon at the distillery qualifies as quite a deal in Cayman.)

Cayman Spirits keeps with the “ocean-aged” tradition – without the headache of traversing the high seas – by keeping its rum and its barrels in Cayman waters – literally.

“We found a way to do that using what we have available here. In Cayman, of course, the first thing we thought of was the beautiful ocean,” Romanica says.

Submerging wooden barrels into the Caribbean Sea began as an experiment for Romanica and cofounder Nelson Dilbert, who grew up playing music and fittingly, drinking rum together.

“We didn’t know it was market research at the time,” Romanica says with a laugh.

More than a decade later, ocean aging is the distiller’s signature touch.

While a sugar cane base provides the rum its grassy and fruity flavors, the wood barrel – charred on the inside and sealed on the outside before submersion – offers an essential element.

“That gives earthy notes like chocolate, coffee, vanilla, nutty notes, even cinnamon and spice notes. Those all come from the oak aging and the roasted wood sugars that are in the oak. So, as the spirit sits in the barrel, it starts to slowly absorb this whole spectrum of earthy flavors. When those are in the perfect balance, that’s when you have a really beautiful aged rum,” Romanica says.

Of course, submerging barrels in the waters of a world-class dive destination comes with its risks – notably, that a curious diver might locate your stash.

In the early days, before Seven Fathoms made its public debut, that is exactly what happened.

“There was a diver from Red Sail who actually found one of the barrels, and didn’t know what it was,” Romanica says.

“They actually brought one of the barrels into a bar locally and said, ‘Hey, I found this under the water.’

“Everyone was trying it and tasting it. Eventually word got back to us – Cayman’s a small place.”

As the story goes, the diver eventually brought the rum to the distillers, who rewarded him with the finished product.

“Because, of course, the rum in the barrel is very different. It’s much higher strength. It has little pieces of barrel chips floating around in it and black dust from the wood. If you were actually to drink that, you might think, ‘Wow, this is some crazy stuff.’”

This tale may be one reason Cayman Spirits staff are hesitant to name the current location of its barrels.

Tour guide and bartender Donavon Lumby simply says, the barrels are out there – presumably at a location that is much more difficult to loot.

Lumby is, however, happy to share a few cocktail ideas.

For a good eggnog, he suggests the Governor’s Reserve Spiced Rum, with notes of anis, coriander and orange peel.

For those in the cooking spirit, he points to the dark rum with its sweet, molasses flavor as a perfect fit for baked ham or even pancake syrup for a boozy brunch.

On beach days, he says the banana rum, reminiscent of Laffy Taffy, makes for a good milkshake.

Then there’s the fan favorite, the Governor’s Reserve Gold Rum with notes of butterscotch and toasted vanilla.

“The last six months, it’s been killing it. We can barely keep it in stock,” he says.

As Cayman Spirits’ reputation grows, so does the demand for its product.

“We like our rum down here,” he says. “You can’t come to an island and not drink rum.”

The company says it now produces around one million liters of spirits a year, much of that destined for export to the United States, Canada and Europe.

International expansion is currently a major point of focus for Romanica – “We’re really trying to develop our relationships abroad with importers and build the name for our rum and Cayman rum in general,” – but developments are in store for local fans, as well.

While Romanica is hesitant to share the full details of upcoming projects, islanders should keep their eyes peeled for announcements later in the year. One development – described by Romanica as “one of the island’s worst kept secrets” – will be canned rum cocktails, slated to be ready in time for Pirates Week this November.

In the meantime, tastings can be done at the distillery at 68 Bronze Road or at the scenic Pedro St. James bar in Savannah.

Groups of ten or more can also reserve a full bar, including unlimited drinks and a tour, for three hours at $30 a head.