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Cruzan Rum Entwined With Island’s History, Culture

January 30, 2019 GMT

Most think of the great American spirit as bourbon whiskey. But in the U.S. Virgin Islands, it’s rum.

Two major rum producers, Cruzan and Captain Morgan, call the island of St. Croix home. But Cruzan is entwined with the culture of the island, with a history stretching back 250 years. The name, Cruzan, means “of St. Croix.” Captain Morgan relocated several years ago from Puerto Rico, lured by billions of government incentive dollars. The close-knit St. Croix community, with deep relationships strengthened by enduring adversity, view the Captain as a carpetbagger.

The Cruzan facility sits on the same sugar plantation where it began. While the founding family remains involved, the distillery is owned by Beam Suntory, the Japanese-owned, Chicago-based booze conglomerate of which Jim Beam is just one component.

The historic Cruzan plantation house provides offices, and a historic cane mill sits at the entrance surrounded by the flags of the nations that have flown over the island.

On a recent distillery tour, visitors got to taste raw molasses, the feedstock of rum, running off tanker trucks. In an open-air fermentation house, massive open tanks of molasses bubble, creating a molasses/alcohol liquid that heads to distillation, after which it is blended to proof and aged in used Jim Beam barrels. The finished product heads to Kentucky to be bottled or flavored, which makes sense given the cost of shipping to and from St. Croix.

The tour, which costs a token $5, ends with two cocktails and samples of four or more rums, straight-up.

With coconut and vanilla character dominating, Cruzan’s clean, affordable, aged light rum is outstanding and has long been my house rum. Cruzan Estate Diamond Blackstrap Rum is an oaky, earthy, aged rum with loads of character.

I’m leery of flavored spirits, and Cruzan is pushing a flavored line. Its flavored rums, at about 20 percent alcohol (half the typical), work, though. More than any base spirit, rum invites fruit flavor.

Cruzan’s fruity rums are featured in one of the island’s signature drinks, the Cruzan Confusion, which has as many as five flavored rums and a house juice blend or punch. Another commonly seen cocktail is the Painkiller, usually rum with pineapple juice, cream of coconut and orange juice on ice dusted with nutmeg.

Most rum cocktails on the islands are fruity, sweet, “tiki” drinks. I found myself enjoying the moderate sweetness of lime and rum in the original daiquiri.

You’ll certainly see the Captain behind the bar, available should someone call for it. Local bartenders may even say, in hushed tones, that it is fine rum. But nothing is more Cruzan than Cruzan rum.

DAVID FALCHEK, executive director of the American Wine Society, reviews wines each week.