The task was equally tempting and daunting. A seductively lit wall of three dozen different flavors of “bush rum” with color and variety to surpass Baskin-Robins: tropical fruits like pineapple, orange and passionfruit; mysterious local herbs and spices like chook chook and pueve; and truly bizarre-looking concoctions like avocado and “tobac zombie.” Over the course of three nights at the RumFire Hotel Bar at the brand new Cabrits Resort & Spa Kempinski on the island of Dominica I thought, could I try them all?
When the sugar plantation owners in Barbados and Jamaica learned that the molasses byproduct of their refineries could be fermented in the 17th century, rum became the ubiquitous liquor of the Caribbean. And although rum distilleries throughout the region quickly realized they could age the rum in barrels and add spices for a richer, more complex flavor, the people of Dominica took things to the next level.
At nearly every bar in the small island nation (pronounced Dom-in-EE-ka), you’ll find Bush Rum—bottles of overproof rum from local distilleries infused with just about every herb and fruit that grows on the island. The tradition stems from the use of herbs for medicinal purposes—they were combined with the rum as a sort of tincture to cure a variety of ailments. So just about every bush rum comes with recommended medicinal effects. The anise-like Nannie “helps improve your memory and decrease muscle pain,” according the listings at RumFire. Lemon grass “helps lower your cholesterol.” Ginger “helps prevent nausea and aids digestion.” And then there are the Dominica favorites you can find all around the island: the power shot from “local herbs” that will, as one bartender up in the mountains promised, “put the booster in your rooster” (if you’re looking for a natural Viagra alternative); and the ubiquitous “under-the-table rum,” infused with either CBD oil or straight-up weed.
The resort’s assistant general manager Ali Kandag built his new hotel bar around this Dominica tradition with recipe suggestions from locals and rum made right on the island. Like many homes and businesses on Dominca, Macoucherie Distillery was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017, but is back producing rum from sugar cane using a hydro-powered press. Kandag approached Macoucherie’s Don Shillingford with the idea of an upscale bush rum bar, and Shillingford loved it, volunteering to gather herbs from around his relatives’ properties to ensure a level of authenticity to the offerings.
The result is a gorgeous display of 36 different infusions of a 96-proof barrel-aged Macoucherie rum, each aged for a couple of weeks (herbs don’t take as long as the fruits). The variety and novelty makes for a tremendously fun drinking experience. And over the course of three nights last week, with much encouragement from both friends and staff, I became the first guest to taste them all. I’m pretty sure under Caribbean Pirate Law, that means I now own the bar. Regardless, here’s what I learned.
The passion fruit on Dominica is excellent, and this translates well to both daiquiris and bush rum. It was my favorite of the fruited bush rums, which also included orange, lemon, grapefruit, pineapple, papaya, honeydew, watermelon, maraschino cherry and star fruit. The citrus varieties were also very tasty, but the pineapple was almost cloyingly sweet and the cherry tasted like cough syrup. The two melons were among the subtlest flavors, allowing the potent aged base rum to pop through. The guava was another of my favorites, with just the right amount of sweetness.
The selection includes common spices like rosemary, thyme, cinnamon and peppermint, and those all tasted as you would expect. The herbs are all very strong and almost overpowering if you’re not prepared. The more exotic herbs ranged from savory spices like “chook chook” and “pueve,” to the bitter Moringa, to the very anise-flavored l’absent and nannie, which tasted almost like a shot of Fernet. The sorrel had a pleasant hibiscus intensity. And my favorite of all the single shots was probably the lemongrass, which paired beautifully with the oak-aged base rum.
RumFire offers some truly strange flavors to mixed results. The avocado was one of my least favorite. But I was surprised to really love flavors like chili pepper, garlic and the scariest-looking concoction—”Tobac Zombie”—a pitch-dark liquid that looked like it’d been soiled with cigar ash but had a slight buttery sweetness to balance any smoke. The beet was just kind of peculiar. Cane sugar just tasted like the base rum was turned up to 11. The ginger was as potent as many of the ginger-based candies found in the islands. The garlic tasted like you’d want a little piece of bread to dip in it. And the coffee was wonderfully potent enough to hint at Kandag’s Turkish heritage. Finally, in addition to the offerings at RumFire, I couldn’t leave the island without trying the infamous under-the-table rum, which, of course, smelled and tasted a lot like ganja.
With Kandag’s help, we also began experimenting with combination flavors—a cinnamon pineapple shot was much more balanced and enjoyable than either of them separately. I also tried sorrel star fruit and a triple cinnamon passion fruit guava, that were both very interesting. But the best version of Bush Rum I had all week was a combination of lemongrass + ginger we dubbed Sally Rum after its inventor. Pouring the sweeter rums first, we created beautiful layering in the shot glass.
I left Dominica with a bottle of Macoucherie and plenty of ideas to recreate my own Bush Rum back in the States. If you’re in Dominica or one of the neighboring islands where the tradition has spread, I highly recommend you try a few flavors. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, 37.
Josh Jackson is the co-founder and editor-in-chief (and sometimes Caribbean booze correspondent) of Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter here.