A movement is brewing to honor the history of St. Kitts and bring rum production back to the Sugar City. Only this time with locals at the helm.
ST. KITTS — Drinking rum is a rite of passage in the Caribbean. It symbolizes a voyage, the spirit of community, and promise of good times in the sun.
But the free-flowing golden spirit is rarely poured with a chaser explaining the history of colonization and centuries of slavery that were the backbone of the islands' economies. Without slaves, there would have been no sugar cane plantations, no prosperous rum distilleries.
On his second voyage to the New World in 1493, Christopher Columbus named the island he found, then inhabited by the Carib people, Saint Christopher, in honor of his patron saint. In due time, English settlers established a colony on the west coast of the island, shortening the name to St. Kitts and launching a brutal genocide of the Caribs. In what was an all too familiar story of the New World at the time, the colonizers imported African slaves to clear rainforests and plant sugar cane — AKA "white gold."
St. Kitts' fertile soil and tropical climate were ideal growing conditions that resulted in high yields of the crop. By 1775, more than 200 estates and 68 sugar plantations filled the island, which had earned the nickname "Sugar City" and a newfound status as one of the wealthiest British colonies.
St. Kitts and sister island Nevis achieved independence in 1983. Sugar cane production remained strong until 2005 when global competition forced factories to shutter. Within a few years, lush and powerful rainforests had overtaken the sugar cane fields, absorbing them — and their history — back into the land.
Today, that's all changing. A movement is brewing to restore rum production on the island and reinvigorate an industry with new standards — the Kittitian way.
Earlier this year, I was invited to become a rum master and an inaugural graduate of the Kittitian Rum Master program. The new immersive experience, created by the tourism board, showcases locals who have founded their own distilleries. They are writing a new chapter of the rum story and lobbying to bring sugar cane farming back to the island.
I began my journey by venturing deep into the rainforest to Wingfield Estate, whose history runs deep: One of four St. Kitts sites with original Amerindian petroglyphs, it was the first plantation in the English West Indies from 1625. Once owned by an ancestor of Thomas Jefferson, the land initially grew tobacco and indigo until sugar cane took over in the 1650s. In 1970, British expat Tom Widdowson fell in love with the island and purchased the site, which by then had been overtaken by the neighboring forest reserve. With the help of archeologists, in 2010 Widdowson began excavating the property and discovered the remains of a distillery — an intact aqueduct, chimney, boiling house, and kiln — along with original 1681 inscriptions signed by Jefferson's forebear, making it the oldest surviving rum distillery in the Caribbean on record.
Tom's son Jack, who was born and raised on the island, now oversees the property and all archeology projects. "When my father and I stumbled upon the 17th-century distillery, we were filled with a sense of excitement and possibility," he tells me as we walk the grounds. "We saw the potential to not only revive the tradition of rum production on the island but also do it in a way that was economically sustainable and environmentally responsible."
In 2019, Jack founded Old Road Rum, a spirit aged and bottled on the site of Wingfield Estate, with no added color, sugars, or flavors: In other words, the kind of rum that would have been distilled on the site in the past. "For me, rum is more than a drink. It's a connection to my heritage and a way to preserve a rich historical tradition." Visitor tours of the estate showcase the masonry of the original rum distillery and the rum-making process from four centuries ago.
After our tour, we cooled off with cocktails from Alfie's Bar, named after the estate’s last known master distiller, a slave from the Congo who worked for 30 years in the 1800s. "We want to highlight his story, uncover the history as it is largely untold, and bring it forward the right way," Jack says, as we sip the caramel-y concoction. "But it's not just about preserving history for its own sake. We believe that rum production can be a catalyst for economic growth and sustainable development on the island. By creating jobs for local people, supporting the local agriculture sector, and promoting tourism, rum production can have a positive impact on the entire community."
In the years to come, Jack plans to lobby for the return of sugar cane farming on the island to revive all aspects of rum production at Wingfield Estate, further supporting the local community and writing a new chapter of rum history for the island.
Roger Brisbane of Hibiscus Spirits, another leader in the neo-rum movement, leads mixology classes for the Rum Master Program at his distillery located at Spice Mill, his restaurant at Cockleshell Beach. His handcrafted rum is infused with locally grown roselle hibiscus, otherwise known as sorrel.
"Growing up in St. Kitts, I marveled at the sugar plantations,” Roger tells me over fried conch by the beach. “At the large green fields of sugar cane blowing in the wind for miles upon miles, growing up the mountain side." Passionate about reviving sugar cane production, he adds, "I hope the Rum Master Program will bring to light — to tourists, to politicians, to people making decisions in agriculture — that we should revive small fields in locations that matter. To drive through a sugar cane field or to visit a rum factory or make your own is a way of honoring our ancestors and passing on our heritage to future generations."
It's not only the born-and-raised locals who are stepping in to help restore rum production on St. Kitts. "We were just a normal New Jersey family when we stepped out of a small airplane on St. Kitts in 1985 and smelled sweet green sugar cane,” says Zach Brinley, co-founder of Brinley Gold Shipwreck Rum, a family-owned distillery of flavored rums crafted on the island for thirty years.
"The Caribbean is rum country, just as northern California is wine country. Yet the majority of tourists and cruise passengers know very little about its history aside from watching pirate movies,” he says. We are tasting his rum at Fairview House and Botanical Gardens, another stop on the Rum Master tour. "Rum has been made legally or illegally for centuries. It's been a part of the islands since they were inhabited. My family has three decades of history here, and we find ourselves in a position to help the island by increasing exposure around the world of the connection of rum to St. Kitts and keeping production local."
At the end of the program, I proudly earned my RumMaster certificate. I had expected a future of saddling up to any tiki bar and knowing a light rum from a spiced rum with my eyes closed. I left with something much richer: a realization and understanding that one drop of sugar could start a movement and mobilize a community. When you drink a glass of rum on St. Kitts, it's not just about the buzz. It’s a way to immerse yourself in the island's rich cultural heritage. By uncovering and honoring their (at turns painful) history, these locals are creating — and celebrating — a new chapter for the community. There's always time to plant a new seed. I'll cheers to that.
Where to Stay on the Island
Tucked above the lush rainforest between the dormant Mount Liamuiga volcano and the Caribbean Sea, Belle Mont Farm embraces buzzy hospitality trends — "sustainable," "eco-friendly" — but gives them actual meaning. Twice a week, guests are invited to the garden — views of Nevis and the surrounding islands in the background — for farm-to-table dinners made with produce from the on-site farm. Guest accommodations spread across the property are private cottages with outdoor clawfoot tubs and lap pools. When I arrived, a light rain began to fall. I filled up the tub, poured a glass of Old Road Rum, and listened to the rainforest come alive in the mist as monkeys scurried along the pool. It was heaven.
For those who would rather be on the ocean, Park Hyatt Saint Kitts on a secluded beach of Banana Bay has all the requisite vacation frills: swimming pools, superfood facials, beach bars, and a laid-back beach atmosphere.
Perched above the Caribbean Sea on Palmetto Point is Sunset Reef St. Kitts, a new, seven-suite boutique hotel with sustainability at the forefront. The hotel relies completely on solar power and a geothermal system, with hydrogen generators, wind turbines, and triple-filtered reverse osmosis water machines in the one- to four-bedroom suites. A path through the lush gardens leads to a beach bar and elevated beach with cabanas. There's also a yoga deck, restaurant and bar, and a cold plunge pool.
More of the St. Kitts Bounty
St. Kitts has some of the richest, most fertile soil in the Caribbean — that’s which is why the rum is so good. You can taste the bounty at Ital Creations at the Fari Organic Farm, run by Judahfari, a Rastafarian who inherited his green thumb from his grandfather, who has lived on the island since the '60s. Judahfari tends to the bountiful onsite garden at his vegetarian restaurant, serving all kinds of fresh veggies and fruit from kale to moringa and bananas.
Perched 1500 feet above sea level is Liamuiga Natural Farms, another impressive local coffee and citrus farm that serves daily lunch from the garden.
Caribelle Batik, located on the same site as Wingfield Estate, honors another local tradition: handmade wax-resist dyeing, an ancient Indonesian craft that made its way to St. Kitts 400 years ago. During a visit, you can learn about the process and history of batik and practice the technique by making patterned napkins to bring home.
Ready to Become a Rum Master?
The Kittitian Rum Master program is a three-hour experience offered weekly on Wednesdays. The tour begins at Wingfield Estate with a lesson led by Jack Widdowson on the history of rum on St. Kitts and production — from stalk to sip — and a tour of the property. At the end, guests bottle their own Old Road Rum to take home. The tour continues to Spice Mill, home of Hibiscus Spirits, with Roger Brisbane to learn how to create spiced rum and the methodology of creating classic rum cocktails. To sign up, visit “The Joys of Rum” on stkittstourism.kn.