It’s hard to separate rum from the Caribbean—Bacardi, El Dorado, Havana Club, Pusser’s, and Mount Gay Rum all come from such islands as Puerto Rico, Guyana, Cuba, Jamaica, and Barbados. With a history that traces back to 17th-century trade running, rum production was one of the first regional industries. But the Cayman Islands—a 102-square-mile British Overseas Territory in the western Caribbean Sea—is where the area’s most surprising rum is produced.
Since its founding 10 years ago, Cayman Spirits Co., the only rum distillery on the Cayman Islands, has been quietly working to change what rum can be. “Rum has had this reputation as a low-quality, high-volume spirit for a long time; that’s what the traditional Caribbean distillers that go back many, many years were making,” says Walker Romanica, one of the founders of the distillery. “What we’re doing is making small batches of high-quality rum, more in the model of what you’d see in a craft distillery in the United States.”
It’s all in how it’s made, especially when it comes to the company’s standout Seven Fathoms Rum. After the rum is distilled in Cayman Spirits Co.’s 5,000-square-foot custom-built distillery (a far cry from its original waterfront shack and five-gallon still) and stored in oak bourbon casks from Louisville, Kentucky, it’s taken to a secret location off the island’s coast and submerged at 42 feet—exactly seven fathoms—for up to three years before it’s bottled. While other rum manufacturers have used subwoofers or even the vibrations of nearby train tracks to agitate their casks, Cayman Spirits Co. is the only distiller in the world to age rum this way.
“It’s a very old concept that comes from when people would make rum and put it on a ship, and realize it aged better than on the shore because of the rocking,” explains Romanica. “It’s kind of like stirring your tea or coffee, which makes the sugar dissolve into the liquid faster. There are wood sugars in the charred barrels—tannins, lignins, ganilines—all of which are being extracted into the spirit as the ocean agitates the barrels.”
The result is a seriously smooth amber rum that tastes earthy and sweet—with notes of caramel, cinnamon, and even dark chocolate—without veering towards syrupy. There’s also a subtle taste of bourbon—which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Cayman Spirits Co.’s casks once held Maker’s Mark.
Seven Fathoms has been so successful, production has outgrown the island. Between the company’s Seven Fathoms Rum, Governor’s Reserve Rum, Gun Bay Vodka, H.H. Hutchinson’s Liqueurs, and an upcoming gin, the distillery requires 100,000 pounds of sugar, some of which comes from sugarcane harvested at farms in Grand Cayman’s East End, while more molasses and raw brown sugar is imported from the United States and Jamaica.
“Cayman has never had an industrial or commercial agricultural industry, so we don’t have huge amounts of land for giant sugarcane fields or the skill required to farm it,” says Romanica. “That’s probably why Cayman never had distilleries before we came along.” For now, it’s nearly at capacity producing about a million liters a year.
But it’s exactly that small-batch style that makes Cayman Spirits Co.’s rum stand out from its more mainstream Caribbean counterparts. “We still come in every morning and fire up the still; we make a batch and we stay there until it’s done,” he says. “There’s no computer operation, no 24-hour production schedule. It’s that art of hands-on distilling that really gets the flavors we’re looking for.”
This rum isn’t something you’d dump in a Solo cup with Coke; expect to sip and truly savor it neat or on the rocks. It’s easy to find it in the Cayman Islands at beach bars like Calico Jack’s, but you can enjoy a tasting as part of a $15 tour of the distillery or order it online from various retailers in the Cayman Islands and the United States.
>> Next: Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to the Cayman Islands