I sit with snow lightly falling outside and a cold wind blowing. I sip my rhum infused with a tang of tea and lemon, and my mind meanders back to the balmy beaches and warm salty breezes of the island of St. Martin in the Lesser Antilles.
You may wonder why I’m using the spelling of rum with an h. I admit to being a bit confused on this point. Our Toppers Distillery tour guide, Cristina, on St. Martin, said that “rhum” was how it used to be spelled back in the early days. An internet search tells me that rum is made from molasses, while rhum is made directly from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice. However, Cristina tells me that Topper’s rhum is made from molasses.
In any event, this rhum is exquisite – sinfully smooth and way too easy to drink. It needs no other ingredients to cushion the tongue.
We toured the Toppers Distillery on St. Martin a few weeks ago. After plying us with a rhum punch, Cristina described the history of rum to us and how the distillery makes its beverages. She invited us to taste many samples of the handcrafted rhums that are mixed on-site. These include white chocolate-raspberry, mocha, banana-vanilla-cinnamon, coconut, a white rhum, and a spiced rhum. All were delicious, even to one member of our tour who had a past bad experience with a rum and coke drink.
The first rhum we tasted was my favorite, and it’s what I am drinking now. It has the unappetizing name of Nelson’s Blood. It also has an unappetizing story behind it, but it tastes so good! Cristina told us that it’s named after British Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was regarded as one of the greatest naval commanders in history. He was killed at age 47 by a French sharpshooter during the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. Too important to be buried at sea, his body was transported back to England for a state funeral.
To preserve Nelson’s body for the trip, it was put into one of the casks of rum (I’ve also heard that it could have been brandy) that the crew habitually drank as part of their daily rations. Cristina told us that once Nelson’s body reached England and the cask was opened, those doing the opening were surprised to find that the rum had disappeared. Apparently, the sailors had drunk the rum. Ewwwww!
Rest assured, Topper’s Nelson’s Blood rhum does not taste like a dead body. I assume the tea and lemon flavors were added to it as a nod to the Admiral’s British heritage. We only brought one bottle of rhum home with us, and this one was it. That’s how good it is.
As we listened to this fascinating tale, blue-eyed, dark-skinned “Topper” himself poked his head inside the room and Cristina introduced him. Meeting one of the owners was cool. He and his wife moved to St. Martin from Boston. They made mixed rum drinks for guests at their restaurant. Their guests liked the drinks so much that the couple decided to produce a supply for local restaurants and stores. In 2008, they commercialized the brand and won many awards. They moved to their current facility in 2012.
Back on our tour, Cristina explained how the inside of the rum storage barrels are charred and treated in various ways to elicit different flavors. Then we moved onto the distillery’s small lab, where they create the tasty fruit and spice mixes that are added to the rhum. These natural flavors are hand-mixed in five-gallon buckets. It was also in this room where Russ got drafted into cooking us a mandarin chicken dish with a rhum sauce. With Cristina’s coaching, he created a delicious tropical dish that we all got to taste. By this time, we were all a bit tipsy, so it was good to have a few bites of solid food in our stomachs.
After that, we meandered over to the bottling room, which was surprisingly small for such a large operation. Russ’s daughter had the honor of pushing the “start” button on the assembly line. It can fill six bottles at a time. The colorful bottle sizes vary a bit, so Cristina showed us how they use syringes of rhum to equalize the liquid levels in the bottles.
Then it was my turn to participate in the tour. After the swing top closures are in place atop the bottles, a clear plastic safety seal is applied. This is done with a small heat-sensitive shrink-wrap piece of plastic using high-tech equipment like your hands and hair blow dryer. I volunteered to seal a bottle and it was a piece of cake. (Or, a bottle of rhum, if you prefer.)
Our tour over, we perused their gift shop and ate lunch in the attached restaurant and bar, which features a wonderful view of Simpson Bay. We topped it off with a dessert of gelato from the distillery’s gelateria.
If you’re ever in St. Martin, Topper’s Rhum Distillery tour is a must! It’s a way of bringing a bit of the island home with you.