Let’s move away from the full proofed rums released by indies and the major Caribbean companies, and switch over to something we don’t see very often, rums from the smaller islands — these traditionally sell well to the tourist trade, the minibars of cheap hotels and within their local markets, but don’t make much of a splash elsewhere. Some are considered undiscovered steals, and the internet is rife with throwaway comments on personal blogs and travel sites about some rum nobody ever heard about being the best they ever had.
One of these is the golden 40% San Pablo rum out of the Dutch West Indies (also known as the Dutch Caribbean, Caribbean Netherlands or Netherlands Antilles – the name refers to the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, Saint Maarten, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba), which likes to call itself Curaçao’s favorite local tipple, a claim hardly likely to be disputed by any resident for patriotic reasons, or by any passing-through cruise-line tourist who might not know any better.
Rum (or Ron) San Pablo is an odd name for a Dutch island product: all becomes clear when you understand it’s actually a rum originally made in Cuba. Like Bacardi, after being nationalized after the Cuban revolution, Justo Gonzalez brought his last aged stocks and the recipe to his importer on Curaçao and went into business with him to continue the brand (see a slightly more detailed history, below). The rum, then, is actually a transplanted Cuban product in the light Spanish style, and very likely column still produced (a factoid I had trouble confirming but it seems a reasonable assumption) – it continues to be made to this day — the exact distillery is something of a mystery — with distilled water, imported molasses from South America (no further info as to where precisely). It first got introduced to the US in 2005, and has more or less dropped out of sight since then.
Sampling the rum says a lot for how far rum and consumers have come since those days. For its time it was undoubtedly the bees’ knees, and even as late as 2008 (around the time when it made a small ripple in the emerging blogosphere) people were complimenting its delicacy and smooth taste. But nosing the pale yellow 40% rum ten years down the road demonstrates its similarities to a low-rent Bacardi rather than establishing any kind of personal individuality or pedigree. It is very delicate, very light, with soft aromas of molasses, cane sap, citrus, caramel and vanilla. It has a nice little woodsy note to it, sawdust maybe, and also a light line of tobacco which segues in and out without ever becoming dominant.
Because of its living room strength and light style of production, it is very difficult to come to grips with it on the palate, especially when compared to the falling sea-cans of oomph represented by full proof island rums — against those the San Pablo is almost like a wispy lace handkerchief versus a purse made from a crocodile’s back. The delicacy and faintness of the profile is at fault here: one can sense honey, cucumbers, citronella, sugar water, aromatic tobacco and cloves, but that’s me after serious concentration in a controlled environment with an hour to spend on the exercise, and who’s got time for that when ordering a rum in a bar somewhere? The finish is just more of the same – light, sweet, warm, soft, mostly vanilla and honey and some sweet breakfast spices, with just a hint of molasses and a sliver of lemon zest, and then it’s gone in a flash.
A rum like this should, I suppose, be taken for what it is – a delicate, quiet drink meant to be chucked into a minibar or a cocktail with equal facility. I think it’s a rum initially made for Americans in a pre-”Real-Rum” era when all that the local producers in the Caribbean were hoping for was to copy Bacardi, or to make their own hooch to dump into an exotic fruity free-for-all so it could have some kick. On that level I suppose it succeeds. On any other level, it’s a rum to take note of simply because few of us have tried it, and, at the end, I consider it a pretty undistinguished product that makes no waves outside its island of origin, and doesn’t seem to want to.
The company lore states that a local Curaçao importer, August Damian Jonckheer, began bringing in the San Pablo brand as far back as 1945: no search I was able to construct allowed me to trace the San Pablo brand before that, even though all websites I trolled through are clear that Señor Justo Gonzales was making this rum for many years before that. Although Gonzalez — like many of the Cuban distilling families — played both ends against the middle in the 1950s by supporting both Batista (in order to keep operating) and Castro (just in case), once the Cuban Revolution was a done deal Castro nationalized all the distilleries anyway – the Bacardi saga is probably the best known. The story goes that after Gonzales importuned Castro not to take over San Pablo, recounting his many donations to the cause, Fidel wrote him a cheque for that very amount on the spot and went ahead regardless. Gonzalez cut a fast deal with A.D. Jonckheer to buy the 150 barrels of rum he had ageing in Cuba (but that immediate payment should be withheld), fled the island with his recipe, and went into partnership with Handelmaatschappij (AD’s company), and formed the Aruba Distilling Company, with a bottling facility on Curaçao. In the 1970s Gonzales sold his share of the ADC to Jonckheer, a situation that continues to this day with A.D.’s descendants, and with the original recipe intact.
It is unknown which distillery currently makes the rum – it was suggested that an outfit on Bonaire does. Also unknown is where the molasses originates, and how long it has been aged. I’ve sent a message to Curacao to see if I can get some answers, and will update this post with any additional information as or if it becomes available.