In late April of this year, my boyfriend, Alex and I went on our first paid vacation together to Puerto Rico because airfare was reasonable and neither of us had been. Saga, a life-logging app that automatically serves as an electronic diary, recording where you go and what you do, funded the land portion of our rum tour around Puerto Rico and all we had to do was cover airfare.
The goal of the excursion was to try as much local rum that we could and the cocktails that Puerto Ricans commonly create with the liquor.
After exploring the old town and the fort in San Juan, we headed to a very unassuming local bar for our first rum tasting. The place oddly happened to be in a touristy area near where the cruise ships arrive, although it didn’t seem like the place cruise tourists might wander into. The bar is called Colmado Bar Moreno and the crowd was just as you would expect a dive-bar to be midday. The bar doubled as a convenience store and included everything you might need for a party and the morning after, snacks, cigarettes, candy and Advil. We joined the few drunk patrons sitting at the bar and tried Palo Viejo rum with coke as suggested by the bartender. The drinks were stiff but the rum was smooth and refreshing. We sat and chatted for a bit and lost $1 playing some strange and ancient slot machines that we didn’t understand. I wouldn’t order food here (and we didn’t), although I would come here for a strong, cheap drink any day.
After walking around for almost 8 hours during the day, we went out for rum tasting while indulging in the Puerto Rican nightlife.
At Orale Guey Mexican Bar & Grill in Condado we asked the bartender for rum and pineapple juice and told him about our rum trip and how we wanted to try all of Puerto Rico’s rums. He insisted on making us a drink with “special” rum. At first I thought it might contain weed since it was 4/20, but it was Caliche rum mixed in a fruity mystery cocktail. The small bar attracted many local Puerto Ricans with its lively atmosphere, blaring top 40 and reggaeton songs I had missed since my last time in Latin America. Definitely come here for some tasty and affordable cocktails and loud music.
After the lively Orale Guey Bar, we headed to Sea View Beach Bar to get our fix of fancy, beachy cocktails. A local dive bar is not the place to order blended drinks so although this place was more expensive I ordered a ridiculous piña colada and Alex ordered a decent mojito and as far as I could tell, both of our drinks were made with Ron Llave Supremo.
The next day we rented a car near the airport and made our first stop on our way to Ponce at the Bacardí Distillery about a 20 minute drive from San Juan (also possible to travel by boat).
The Bacardí Distillery tour is free, parking is free and after you arrive at the lush grounds, you will see a large canopy where you receive your tour tickets and 2 free drink tickets each.Between us we tried Bacardí’s classic gold and silver varieties and the black razz and grand melon. I personally like the gold better, but different types should be mixed with particular drinks. For instance, the silver compliments fruity drinks better, gold is much better for Cuba Libres (rum, coke and lime) and the 8 year aged rum is best sipped straight neat or over ice.
The tour itself wasn’t extremely special but they showed a short film, had a replica of the founder Facundo Bacardi’s office in Cuba and there was a room with a bar in it where they showed you how to make Bacardi cocktails.
The Bacardi website has a really useful collection of cocktail recipes if you are ever wondering which type of rum tastes best in what drink.
After spending a night in Ponce at a quaint Airbnb in a Puerto Rican version of Edward Scissor hand’s neighborhood, listening to the tiny Coqui frogs croak all night, we spent the entire day relaxing at Playa Santa in Guanica (the beach). Perfect weather and we brought a cooler with lunch, beer and got a lot of reading and swimming in.
At night we stopped by the boardwalk on the coast of Ponce for a stroll and to drink rum of course. A variety of Don Q in a strong drink is the norm here. We had a Cuba Libre with Don Q Anejo at El Pilon Borincano.
The next morning we said goodbye to our Airbnb host, Cesar. I definitely recommend staying with him if you find yourself in Ponce: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/430470 And if you haven’t tried Airbnb yet it is an amazing alternative to hostels/hotels!
The rum tour continued with this castle in Ponce. It was rum that built this castle turned museum overlooking all of Ponce. A rum tycoon and his family started sugar production on the island and eventually rum production in Ponce. The Serralles label now produces more than 65% of the rum consumed in this Land of Rum. The castle which is really just a giant mansion was built in the 1930s and stayed in the family until eventually being sold to the city and converted into a museum. Before the tour began, the bartender gave us a free shot of Serralles’ Don Q Cristal even though it was 11am. The tour itself, while not free, ($7) was thorough, informative and the guide was super nice and knowledgable. Afterwards I asked our guide about rum in Puerto Rico and what her favorite drinks were and she made both of us a drink with Blackbeard, Serralles’ variety of spiced rum mixed with a little Coco Rico, a Puerto Rican coconut soda. It was amazing and the only spiced rum we tried on the island.
Note that the regular tour hours are Wednesdays 9:30 am – 5:00 pm and Thursday-Sunday 9:30 am – 5:30 pm and call for groups of 15 or more: (787) 259-1774
Destileria Serralles, Inc. The old, abandoned distillery
David, a friend of my boss who we met for dinner in Ponce, had told us about the old rum distillery that was abandoned in 1994 and had many buildings still standing near the Ponce Airport. After going on the castle museum tour, we had seen original photos of the enormous grounds of the plantation and factory and were drawn to seeing the original area. We went driving around in search of the old grounds and found them! Amazing dilapidated buildings and machinery everywhere and even the original sign for the plantation which became more of a functioning town back in its prime. It had its own currency system, grocery stores, laundry mat etc. Such a cool historical site I’m glad we went out of our way to find and thankful we had a car!
Before reaching Fajardo, we stopped to buy some rum at the grocery store of course so we could drink at our rented condo. It was impressive to see the shelves and shelves of available rum in the grocery store for such low prices compared to the states.
The best meal we had on the island was at Don Esteban in the center of town. Beyond friendly staff and the owner felt like family. We sat out on the outdoor patio, received a free appetizer and the fish was delectable. Not rum related in any way, but definitely go here if you get the chance.
Back at our condo we drank so much Ron del Barrilito’s 3 star which was only $21 for one of the more expensive varieties at the store! We mixed it with pineapple juice, limes and more coco rico (coconut soda). Kind of like a piña colada? Rum is so cheap in PR.
I still can’t believe we were drinking rum and coke on the beach swimming in the Caribbean Sea just 2 months ago. There was no wind and the waves were nonexistent. We spent the entire day going in and out of the water, reading and getting tan (burnt). Although not a remote beach, Playa Luqillo about a 15 minute drive from Fajardo, and was a wonderful beach to spend the day and people watch.
We checked-in to a last-minute hotel in Fajardo and grabbed dinner and more importantly drinks at the Blue Iguana, a restaurant in the hotel. The food was subpar, I did not like the fish tacos, but the drinks were great. I had two fancy cocktails because I couldn’t help myself and because our vacation was sadly coming to its end. My first dirnk was called a bushwhacker with rum, kahlua, creme de cacao, coconut and vanilla ice cream. The second was recommended to me by the bartender herself as she said it was her favorite drink. She called it an orgasm and it was similar to a bushwhacker but with amaretto added and cinnamon on top.
The next morning we checked out of the Fajardo Inn, drove through El Yunque rainforest and then headed back west towards San Juan.
Ron Del Barrilito Destileria.
I had read all about this distillery online but I could only find personal accounts-I didn’t see any official website. I tried to call them many times but the phone rang and rang. Since we needed to head towards San Juan for Alex’s coworker’s wedding (his coworker happened to be getting married while we were on vacation), we decided to follow directions to this place that I found on a forum online. We found the place amazingly enough! Unfortunately though, the gate was locked and there was no one around to ask. I tried calling many more times but never got an answer. At least we could see a bit of the grounds but I wanted to go on the property so badly!
Ron Del Barrilito being closed was such a bummer but when we realized we were only a 10 minute drive away from the Bacardi tour, we couldn’t exactly pass up a chance at more free rum drinks since we had time to kill before the wedding. Thankfully different staff members were working than our first time but we were a little worried someone would question us when we didn’t line up for the tour and instead just sat still drinking our free drinks. I tried the peach rum and the coconut rum and Alex had the 8 years and the select rum. I’m glad we went back a second time.
After spending our last evening at one of Alex’s coworker’s very DRY weddings (wish I had brought a flask of rum) we ended our last night at the Palace Hostel and went out for a last rum drink at a local dive bar nearby. We finally tried gasolina! It’s an alcoholic rum punch in a pouch and 11% alcohol. The bartender poured the contents of the pouch into a plastic cup over ice and it was actually slightly better than I was expecting and only cost $1.50! I bought Alex and I each a few and we hung out in the bar. Some ratchet Americans came in who were plastered and could hardly stand which was amusing, especially when they attempted to dance. Then we moved over back to where we started our trip at Levis restaurant for some tipsy rice and beans and fries for a total of $5.
I preferred the Palace Hostel to the Island time hostel although I really prefer couch surfing to staying in hostels I realized. We just wanted a cheap place to stay before our early flight.
Our flight home was a depressing day. We brought home a lot of Gasolina pouches and Don Q rum so fortunately the rum tour continued for a short while after our trip.
If anything, this trip made me more aware of what role giant corporations play in alcohol distilling and distribution. Just as beer in the U.S. has only a few major players that brew the majority of all beer, liquor, and rum in PR in particular has only 2 main corporations controlling all the brands. The Serralles family’s influence in the rum business is astounding and alarming at the same time. They have many offshoot brands such as Don Q Gold, Caliche, Ron Llave, Blackbeard etc. that you might not even recognize are under the Serralles name. It was extremely difficult for me to find more information about the Ron Del Barrilito distillery, how to contact them, visit, their history, etc. I would love to see more craft distilleries world-wide, I was also very interested in the legality of distilling your own rum in PR and I would like to know how difficult it is to get permits to make and distribute rum or other liquor since I learned there is this illegal liquor made from sugarcane and similar to rum but closer to moonshine called ron caña (aka Pitorro).
The rums we tried:
Ron Del Barrilito
1. 3 stars
1. Don Q Anejo
2. Don Q Cristal
4. Ron Llave Supremo
6. Blackbeard Spiced Rum
7. Palo Viejo
3. 8 years
4. Bacardi select
5. Black Razz
6. Grand Melon
7. Bacardí Gold
My favorite was Serralles’ Blackbeard Spiced Rum and Bacardi’s Gold