On-Site Montserrat: Bush Rum – A Cautionary Tale
Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the thought of moonshine rum in the Caribbean. And while I hear St. Kitts and Nevis are great places to get home-distilled alcohol, also known as “Hammond”, I have yet to sample any outlaw concoctions. So, while in Montserrat, I thought I’d try to dig some up for myself. What I (somewhat regrettably) found instead, was bush rum.
Bush rum is the perfect storm of many West Indian traditions.
First, you have the bush. Throughout the Caribbean, many specific leaves, barks and roots have been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes. A little arrowroot for this, a little “love vine” for that.
Then, of course, you’ve got the rum. In this case, it’s the very rum my brother Steve mentioned just a few weeks ago: Wray & Nephew’s overproof rum. (126-proof or 63% alcohol by volume!) Saying this stuff has some kick is a major understatement.
Put those two together, mix in some family pride in having a better recipe than your neighbor, throw in a dash of the mysterious for no one wanting to reveal their unique methods, let that sit for entirely too long and you’ve got a recipe for an adventurous night on the town in Montserrat.
Sometimes, knowing the dangers is no reason not to try something.
My first taste of bush rum came late the night before Dave was set to run in the 2nd Annual Volcano Half-Marathon. I convinced him it would only help his time should he join me in a quick jaunt to a nearby bar for a sample of this unique elixir.
That bar was Mizer’s Bar in Salem. It’s a small spot, just one room. When we arrived, two young Montserratians were circling a small pool table shooting a game in silence, set against one wall a tiny TV on a shelf was blaring professional wrestling, and installed behind a small bar on the far side stood a large, imposing figure we’d soon learn was Mr. Mizer, himself.
Dave and I sidled up to the bar rather conspicuously. I inquired as to whether they had any bush rum. To this, Mizer asked “Wha you know ’bout bush rum?” I offered that I knew nothing and just wanted to give it a try. In response, a huge smile reconfigured his stern face. He reached under the bar and produced a colossal, repurposed Carlo Rossi jug positively packed with all manner of completely indistinguishable twigs and leaves. A highly suspect, black looking liquid stirred menacingly in the bottom quarter of the bottle. It looked like what you might find in a storm drain. It looked, for lack of a better word, nasty.
Shrugging Dave off, Mizer filled my cup about half-way. I eyed the brown liquid and the small amount of sediment swirling around in its shallow depths. I lifted the cup to my nose. Smelled. Looked at Mizer. He looked back at me, again wearing his stern face. It probably won’t kill me, I thought—and knocked it back.
As expected, the rum burned like hell going down, but what wasn’t expected was how incredibly powerful and almost eye-watering the taste of the bush was. I was hoping I’d be able to decode Mizer’s recipe, but it was all I could do not to have a coughing fit on my first shot… So, I ordered another… And then another.
In the end, I may not have cracked Mizer’s bush rum code (which he claimed to have learned from his grandmother while at a tender age), but what I did get was a hefty buzz and a slightly queasy stomach. I decided to try again another day and left.
My next experiment with bush rum went less smoothly.
A day later, after the race, I found myself in another bar. I’ll leave this one un-named. The owner and bartender was a wise-cracking guy who loved to tease everyone who bellied up to his bar and constantly toss around jokes. This character really appealed to me, so I figured I’d try his family blend of bush rum.
He said “Sure, man! But this is an extra limited, family-only blend.” I assumed he was giving me a hard time, but instead of a huge Carlo Rossi jug, he pulled a tiny repurposed water bottle from under his bar with its own brown contents swirling about. I was really intrigued… And more than just a little frightened. He poured me half of a small plastic cup. I asked if he was joining me. “But, of cause!” He poured himself his own cup, instructed me to smell his concoction, then shoot it. What struck me about this blend was how much smoother the taste of weeds and sticks were.
I ordered another.
Later in the evening I ordered another… Then another with a friend… Then the bartender called me over for another… Then we said we might be leaving which led to another… We didn’t leave, so there was more as celebration… Then… Well, then I lost count as the shots just kept coming.
The night certainly was a blur, but I’m pretty sure I got back to my guesthouse (Olveston House) sometime in the vicinity of 4 a.m. What wasn’t a blur, however, was how I felt just two hours later when I had to wake up for a pre-scheduled morning hike. Exhibit A:
So, should you try bush rum? Absolutely! It’s one of the many, many uncommon things to be found on the utterly uncommon island of Montserrat.
Just remember, sticks and stones may break your bones, but too many sticks, weeds and rum will make you wish you were dead.