ST. GEORGE, Grenada -- There are lots of souvenirs you can bring back from a trip to the spice island of Grenada, but a bottle of River Antoine's strongest rum is not one of them.
"Our rum is not allowed on airplanes," explains guide Withfield Lyons. "It's too flammable."
Arguably few other Caribbean rums, if any, can top the potency of the brand, which is called Rivers Rum. At 75% alcohol by volume or 150 proof, it's nearly double most other rums, which are typically 40% alcohol or 80 proof.
But surely other bottles of alcohol people bring home on planes from trips abroad are flammable, too, I counter.
"Yes, but there's a limit," maintains Lyons.
A glance at the label on one of the bottles shows a picturesque scene with blue skies, a beach and a palm tree, offering no hint of the fire inside.
Rivers Rum can't make the claims of other Caribbean rums. It's not the world's oldest rum (that title belongs to Mount Gay of Barbados, which has been in continuous operation since 1703). Nor can it compete for quality with, say, a Cuban anejo rum, which is aged in oak barrels for seven years or longer.
Rivers produces a young rum, but what it lacks in age it makes up for in strength. The label may give the alcohol content as 75%, but in fact, it's sometimes even higher.
During the dry season, when there's less rain, the cane juice becomes more concentrated and sweet, and results in a higher alcohol content.
"We could get 86% alcohol from dry season," says Lyons. You won't find this information on the label though. Apparently, since the rum is not exported, it's not subject to strict labelling requirements.
Whether it's 75% or 86% alcohol, it seems a little goes a long way. Yet the distillery, which produces about 700 bottles a day, is having trouble keeping up with local demand!
Even if you're not a fan of rum, the distillery is worth a visit, if only for a chance to see how rum was made more than 200 hundred years ago. Established in 1785 and currently operated by three Grenada residents, the distillery has what Lyons says is "the only working water wheel in the Western Hemisphere." Go between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., to see the wheel, powered by water from the Antoine River, in motion.
Fields are still harvested by hand (though the cane is now transported by tractor not donkey) and the bottles are filled manually. Cane is loaded onto the original conveyor belt from 1785, also powered by the water wheel, and taken to the press where juice is extracted. The remains, called baggas, are used as fuel to boil the cane or sent back to the field as compost.
The tour takes you through the boiler house and fermentation room, where you learn, among other things, that it takes 40 gallons of well fermented juice to produce one gallon of drinkable rum.
Rivers Rum could save money by converting to a modern production, and operate with just 10 employees. Instead, the company continues to run the old-fashioned way, so 94 people can keep their jobs. There's also a benefit to visitors who get a fascinating and rare glimpse into traditional rum-making, complete with antique cane-crushing machinery.
At the end of the tour, we arrive at a sampling area with three of the company's rums on display. One is a rum punch (16% alcohol), another is an "airplane friendly" rum (69% alcohol) which you can take home, and the third bottle is the strongest of all, at 75% alcohol.
I opt for a "very small amount" of the latter in a plastic cup, just enough for a taste. But before the liquid even slides down my throat, my lips are on fire.
"Yowch! Water, water!" I scream.
You may not be able to take River Antoine's strongest rum on the plane, but that doesn't mean you won't be flying high after a few sips of this potent Grenadian spirit. My suggestion? Dilute with liberal amounts of fruit punch!
IF YOU GO
The River Antoine Rum Distillery is near Tivoli on the north east side of the island. Open for tours Monday to Friday 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday by appointment. Call 473-442-7109 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For general tourism information, contact the Grenada Board of Tourism office in Toronto at 416-595-1339 or grenadagrenadines.com.