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In the Cayman Islands, the clear Caribbean water contains one of the world’s greatest sunken treasures: rum.
By Joshua M. Bernstein
Few things can drive a man to drink like a family vacation, especially a family vacation in paradise.
For nearly 15 years, my parents have spent a week each winter in the Cayman Islands, a trio of Caribbean isles situated south of Cuba. The largest is Grand Cayman, which is known for banking, beaches, and scuba diving. My folks love spelunking the sea’s depths to spot sharks, eels, and brightly hued fish. I never dug diving, which means my vacations were spent reading detective novels and sipping watery lagers. Maybe I’m a madman, but I started skipping the Caymans. I sought boozy adventure elsewhere. In Mexico’s dusty Valladolid, I swam in cenotes—subterranean swimming holes—then sipped Xtabentún, a honey liqueur flavored with anise seed. Morocco meant Stork lager and fried chickpeas in Casablanca, while I spent every waking hour in Vietnam imbibing low-alcohol bia hoi, aka “fresh beer.” Winter meant indulging my thirst for adventure.
Then my wife and I had Violet. Babies, babies. Blah, blah. I won’t bore you with parenthood minutiae, except to say that daughters are excellent excuses to drink. Most days I match my kid bottle for bottle. Drinking. Diapers. My day job. Which meant more drinking. I needed a vacation. “Bring Violet to the Caymans,” my mom said on the phone last spring. “We’ll be able to watch her so you can have a break.”
We secured Violet’s passport and in mid-December flew to Grand Cayman. When staying on the island, there are two distinct routes. If you favor nightlife and luxury resorts, head to highly developed Seven Mile Beach, on the island’s west end. Far more relaxed is the east end, which was our resort’s location. Here, the white-sand beach is raked at daybreak, the hot tub is stress-meltingly warm, and the seaside snorkeling is sublime. Just one thing could better the setting. “I need to make an alcohol run,” I told my mom, passing her my daughter.
I headed to the closest liquor store, five minutes away on foot. As a drinks journalist I love sampling indigenous alcohols, be it virility-spiking rice wine made with animal penises (thanks, China!) or Kazakhstan’s koumiss, a fermented horse’s milk that tastes like Dumpster-aged Champagne. The Cayman Islands lack such distinct national treasures. Local beers are essentially variations on light lager, so I stocked my cart with Caybrew. At the liquor wall, I faced rows of imported rums from Barbados, Cuba, and especially Jamaica. I reached for Appleton, then stopped.
What was this? Adorned with an old-timey diving illustration, Seven Fathoms was a Cayman-distilled rum, the first I’d seen. Doubly curious was that the rum was aged underwater. I bought a bottle and, back at the resort, promptly poured a jigger. It smelled sweet, like butterscotch laced with almonds, and tasted even better: a smooth ride across vanilla, citrus, and chocolate. It was time to dive deep into Seven Fathoms’s story.
I caught a ride into George Town, the Cayman Islands’ capital. After winding down Bronze Road, lined with low-slung houses and vividly painted vans, I reached the gunmetal-gray home of Cayman Spirits Company. The sweetly rotting scent of fermentation hung in the air, like a drunken god’s favored cologne.
I entered the bright tasting room and met the distillery’s founders, Nelson Dilbert and Walker Romanica. Dilbert was solidly built, with glasses and a laugh as fast as his hair was short, while Romanica wore a wide grin and a polo shirt, looking a bit like a Wall Streeter on holiday. Which is not too far from the truth. After growing up in the Caymans, Romanica, whose family owns a preeminent dive company, moved to New York City to work in finance. When the financial waters turned choppy, he returned home to team up with his childhood friend. Dilbert, whose father founded a large liquor-store chain, ran a local brewpub. The duo combined their strengths to create Cayman Spirits, which would be a decidedly different distillery. “If that looks like ice buckets glued together, it’s because it is,” Dilbert laughed, pointing out his company’s first still.
Since it was impossible for a fledgling distillery to battle rum behemoths on price, availability, or marketing, “we decided to compete against them in terms of quality and creating a new product,” Romanica says. “We really wanted to create something special.” They hit history books, discovering that bygone drinkers paid more for barrels of rum that had sailed across an ocean. Constant rocking and swaying helped spirits steadily interact with the wood, accelerating flavor extraction and aging. The phenomenon also occurred on land. Romanica notes that the Bacardi family credited its Cuban rum’s success to the warehouse’s location near train tracks. “Every hour the train would roll by and literally shake the barrels,” Romanica says. “We saw this theme repeated in a number of stories, and we wanted to come up with a way to agitate our barrels using what we had available to us naturally—the ocean.”
Literally. The recipe starts with desalinated seawater and imported sugarcane juice mixed with local cane juice. (The Caymans lack a large-scale sugarcane industry.) “I like to think of [our twist on the traditional recipe] as an infection,” Dilbert says. “It allows us to have our own terroir and flavors.” After cooking up a batch, the friends filled used bourbon barrels with rum and submerged the casks beneath the clear Caribbean. Early results were a learning experience. “These hoops will eventually disintegrate after about a year, and you will get a bunch of fish drunk,” Romanica says. In time, they perfected the process, attaching barrels to sand-embedded rebar so they float upward to 42 feet—seven fathoms. Exactly how remains a secret. “We have a way of protecting these barrels so that they’re not directly exposed to the salt water,” is all Romanica will allow. Since the first bottles of Seven Fathoms were released in 2008, the company has made a splash locally and internationally. That’s partly due to necessity, as the islands only have around 60,000 full-time residents. “Once you take over Cayman, that’s it,” Romanica says. “It’s the rest of the world that grows your company.” And Cayman Spirits keeps growing. The distillery has rolled out flavored Governor’s Reserve rums, Gun Bay Vodka, and liqueurs named after H. H. Hutchings, who let rumrunners during Prohibition stop in Cayman to resupply. I decide to follow suit. I acquire several more rums and amble toward the exit.
“Before you go,” Dilbert says, “you need to try Seven Fathoms through a Vaportini.” He pulls out a pint glass containing a tea candle, which he lights. He tops it with a hollow glass sphere, adds several splashes of rum, and passes me a glass straw. When the rum heats up, he explains, I need to inhale the fumes—all flavor and buzz, the booze instantly reaching my bloodstream. “Well, I am on vacation,” I say, grabbing the straw and taking a big hit of holiday fun.