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That’s the spirit

Caribbean spirits

While rum still reigns supreme across the Caribbean, a new wave of local distillers are playing around with different drinks and flavours. Janet Kipling takes a taste

Rum and the Caribbean have been in a centuries-long marriage.

But now there is a new flirtation. Although unlikely to permanently break such a devoted bond, home-grown gin brands are proving to be a tempting seduction for many a cocktail drinker around the Caribbean – so much so that micro-distilleries are springing up on several islands. This new passion for the ancient juniper-flavoured spirit reflects a worldwide trend. In Britain, where gin first grew popular in the late 17th century, a record 73 million bottles were sold in 2018. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association reported numbers that almost doubled from 2016. Originally created in Holland in the 16th century as a tonic wine with medicinal properties, ‘genever’ (as it was called then) became known as Mother’s Ruin during the so-called ‘gin craze’ of the 18th century. At the time, water was unsafe to drink, and a pint of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer. Drawings show gin drinkers in various stages of debauchery and madness, a decline in moral standards that was halted by the introduction of expensive licences to distill the spirit. Gin’s renaissance began around ten years ago when Sipsmith was granted a gin licence – the first issued in London since 1820. Since then, hundreds of new gin brands, each with its own signature botanical flavourings, have sprung up. It was only a matter of time before the trend hit the Caribbean. Here we look at some of the island entrepreneurs shaking up the spirit scene.

‘We wanted to spread more positive messages’
BVI Gin, Tortola, BVI

The development of one Caribbean distillery was partly driven by a force other than fashion – hurricane recovery. BVI GIN was launched by the Little Bay Distilling Company in September 2018 by Matthew Neal, who had been working as a lawyer in Tortola for three years when Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017. “Following Irma, there was a great deal of news of devastation coming out of the BVI,” says Matthew. “We wanted to spread more positive messages about the territory – messages of resilience, messages that the BVI was open for business. We had been working on the idea for a while but it seemed the perfect time to set up the Little Bay Distilling Company.”

Having seen gin soar in popularity in Europe over the past few years, and noting that almost all the gin sold in the Caribbean is imported, Matthew wanted to see a gin producer in the region. He had learned about distilling, but had no experience himself, yet felt driven to act after the storm. He was away when Irma hit; when he returned three weeks later, what he saw shocked him. “There was no power, many private homes were damaged or destroyed, and it was very difficult to communicate because systems were damaged,” Matthew says. “But what was very positive was the way in which the community banded together, helping each other, showing great strength. One of our key drivers in launching BVI GIN was to spread a positive message and to help get the BVI name out there.”

With persistence and belief, Matthew and his partners overcame the logistical obstacles of setting up a distillery on a small Caribbean island, including sourcing equipment, base ingredients, bottles and labels, and gaining licences and health inspections. Developing the precise flavour profile was a time-consuming process that involved making hundreds of test batches and running a number of (very welcome) tastings. It took a year, and the result is a traditional London Dry Gin with beautiful flavours of juniper and citrus from grapefruit and lemon, balanced with floral notes taken from the Caribbean hibiscus flower. Cassia bark and liquorice root are also there, resulting in a gin that is light and refreshing, and pairs perfectly with tonic or Ting, and a twist of grapefruit. There is also a BVI Pink Gin infused with raspberry.

BVI GIN has already won Bronze in the International Wine & Spirit Competition, and Best in the Americas from The Gin Guide. “We’ve had a very positive reaction so far,” says Matthew. “People who don’t usually drink gin have enjoyed the product. We believe we’re putting gin on the map in the BVI and, once we start exporting to the wider Caribbean, we hope to increase the awareness of a new image of BVI
in the region.”

• Sold throughout the BVI; around US$36 per bottle;

3 winning ways with gin
BVI GIN’s Matthew Neal suggests some top tipples

1 Classic G&T – Add a twist of grapefruit to the classic gin and tonic to bring out the refreshing citrus notes. Perfect as a sundowner.

2 BVI Passion – A sublime mix of BVI GIN with passion-fruit puree, club soda and fresh lime juice, creating a Sunday beach cocktail that isn’t too sweet.

3 The BVI 75 – A classy mix of BVI Pink Gin with a dash of sugar syrup, fresh lemon juice and topped with champagne or sparking wine, offering a twist on the classic French 75 cocktail that perfectly balances the sweet and citrus. Ideal for a celebration.

‘Locally crafted spirits have a bright future’
Virgin Islands Craft Distillers, USVI

Virgin Islands Craft Distillers is a family affair. Indiana-born John Brugos came to St Thomas to work as a chef, followed by his entrepreneur brother Joseph.

“We started off as home brewers and moved on to home distilling,” says John. “We started making rum and whisky, then began experimenting with gin and vodka because we knew that it would be years before the rum was ready!”

The resulting 3 Queens Bush Tea Gin is named after Mary, Agnes and Mathilda, three formerly enslaved women who led 1878 riots against tough labour conditions. It is infused with juniper, lemongrass and basil. The Blue Marlin vodka is a crisp, fierce spirit.

“We produce both vodka and gin with the same sugar and yeast used for our rum,” says John. “This gives both spirits a soft mouth feel, a vanilla nose and a very subtle sweetness. 3 Queens is different from other gins because we use botanicals commonly found in local bush tea recipes. We believe all locally crafted spirits have a bright future as consumers become more savvy and visitors want to find something truly local and delicious to bring home.”

• Available in the USVI at liquor stores, restaurants and bars; around US$40 per bottle;

‘We’re committed to supporting our islands’ growth’
Mutiny Island Vodka, USVI

Originating from Poland and Russia, vodka is traditionally made from fermented potatoes or grains. But Mutiny Island Vodka has given this a truly Caribbean twist by creating the world’s first and only vodka made from breadfruit. It’s named after the 1789 uprising on the HMS Bounty, which was carrying breadfruit from Tahiti, and is also the first to be distilled on St Croix, at the newly established Sion Farm Distillery, where it is made in a state-of-the-art artisanal copper still.

Mutiny Island is the brainchild of award-winning chef and restaurateur Todd Manley. Originally from Virginia, Todd owns four popular restaurants on St Croix, where he has lived since 2010. Working in collaboration with gold-medal-winning distiller Chris Richeson, Todd aimed to create a vodka that truly captures the character of the islands.

“With the creation of Mutiny Island Vodka and the opening of Sion Farm Distillery, we have shown our commitment to supporting the growth of St Croix and the USVI through employment, agriculture, environmental initiatives and the vibrant tourist trade,” says Todd.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Mutiny Island will be donated to the Trees That Feed Foundation to support its efforts to alleviate hunger in tropical countries by planting fruit trees to feed people, create jobs and benefit the environment.

• Mutiny Island Vodka is currently available throughout the USVI, Puerto Rico and Barbados; around US$25 per bottle;

‘The flavours represent our island home’
Antilles Stillhouse, Antigua

When David Murphy and his family ditched the freezing Canadian winters for the sunshine of his birthplace, Antigua, setting up a distillery was part of the dream.

David had studied wine-making in college, and went on to have a successful career in the business. But it was the by-product of wine-making – grape skins – that began to capture David’s interest as a potential sideline. Borrowing a small still, he started to experiment, creating grappa, then brandy and, ultimately, gin. Shortly afterwards, Antilles Stillhouse was born.

What he calls his ‘mad scientist’ passion found a whole new outlet in Antigua, as he used every local botanical he could lay his hands on – from cucumbers to bush honey – to experiment with.

The results are Big Wood Gin, named after the hill near English Harbour where David’s distillery is located, and Pink Gin, which features fresh local sorrel to add a vibrant colour and tart floral flavour.

“Sugar is no longer grown in Antigua,” says David. “However, rum has such a depth of history that it will always be part of our culture and tradition. Gin is made with an infinitely flexible palette of botanicals, so by using local ingredients gin achieves that sense of place much more literally than rum. The flavours and aromas mingling in the still are trapped in bottles, and genuinely represent our island home.”

“I love gin, and it will always be a core product for Antilles Stillhouse. However, there are a lot of great, under-explored ingredients in this part of the world. I know cassava and sweet potato are both considered to make excellent vodka, and I think an exotic spiced rum may also form part of our repertoire.”

• Antilles Stillhouse gins are available in restaurants and wine-sellers throughout Antigua; around EC$100 (US$38) per bottle;

60 second liquor lesson

Expert distiller David Murphy from Antilles Stillhouse explains the differences between the drinks

In order to make a spirit, you must perform two key processes: fermentation and distillation. Alcohol is created by fermentation, which involves adding yeast to some form of sugar. Distillation uses heat to separate the alcohol from the fermented product to create a concentrated spirit.

Gin To make our gin we ferment brown sugar with yeast. The alcohol is then run through our still to produce a clean, neutral spirit that is very pure and flavourless. This is where the artistry comes in. We run it through the still again with juniper (all gin features juniper, which provides its distinctive flavour) and our selection of local Caribbean botanicals, which means
it really embodies the taste of a place. In this way, our gin celebrates Caribbean flavours in a bottle.

Vodka This clear spirit can be made from any sugar or starch. For example, in Russia potatoes are used. Vodka is also commonly made from wheat, barley or cane sugar. Essentially, what gives vodka its characteristics as a spirit is that it is distilled to a super-high purity so that only the slightest hint of its original ingredients remains. Vodka with added flavours – ranging from lemon to chocolate – has become increasingly popular.

Rum This spirit, so popular in the Caribbean, is always made from sugar cane in some form. The alcohol produced by the sugar-cane fermentation is distilled to produce a white rum spirit. To make dark rum, the white rum is stored in oak barrels to age. This adds colour and a depth of flavour to the spirit.