I am now in the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo to be precise. Santo Domingo is a rough-around-the-edges sort of a place. The initial impression was lousy. Who appreciates arriving near midnight after delayed flights with no hotel booked, getting dumped by a taxi driver in a run-down area of town with no street lighting, discovering nobody speaks English and your Spanish teachers were a pack of lousy scam artists, and finally ending up in a roach-infested doss house called “El Refugio de Pirata”. No, really. That’s what it was called. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
A change of hotels and a couple of days time has seen the place grow on me a little. What’s not to like about a city where rum is thoughtfully sold in bottles ranging from dainty (in rum terms) 350ml affairs up to 1.5 liter monsters fit for a pirate king? Comparatively speaking rum is also rather cheap. In the supermarket 200 pesos (about US$6) gets you either a six pack of average beer or a 750ml bottle of quality rum. The little rum bottles mean you can cheaply sample a wide range of rums. I went and bought all four of the regular Brugal rums: the Blanco, Canta Dorada, Anejo, and Extra Viejo. I will post a tasting soon. Most locals seem to drink beer though. Go figure.
My first true Caribbean rum experience was enjoyed with lunch (a Cuban sandwich – a ‘Cubano’ seems to be a lightly toasted baguette with cheese, pork and ham) in a little corner bar on the east end of the pedestrian street that runs through the old town. I had a Brugal Extra Viejo in a brandy snifter, with an iced coke on the side. The midday heat compelled me to dump the rum in the coke after a few sips. That sort of behavior seems criminal, but the stuff is ubiquitous here so who cares?
Tonight I checked out the Brugal Rum Festival de Merengue. I first sensed this festival was happening while walking along the pedestrian drag this morning. I saw several statuesque black models strolling along dressed in Brugal Rum outfits. Something was up. A little later I was in a cafe having brunch and couldn’t help noticing that the newspaper being read by the guy sitting beside me contained a big advertisement for a four day Brugal Rum festival. This guy was rather interesting. He carried himself with a supremely leisurely air and was literally dripping with gold. Besides his gold-ornamented spectacles and the numerous gold rings adorning his fingers, he was the only customer in the shop drinking out of a gold rimmed espresso cup. God knows what was going on there, but I suspect he accessorized by stashing a personal cup behind the counter. Anyway, all credit to him.
After breakfast I took a walk around town and did some tourist stuff. I checked out the cathedral of Santo Domingo (the oldest cathedral in the New World), Christopher Columbus’s palace, and the palace of the subsequent colonial governors. All of these places were interesting. The incredible thing was just how old they were. I think the cathedral dated back to 1511 – nearly 500 years in other words. Christopher Columbus’s palace was even older. Half a millennia is old anywhere, but somehow feels even older in the New World.
While checking out Christopher Columbus’s palace I noticed a stage being setting up for the Brugal Rum Festival. The Brugal Rum Festival was happening right below where Columbus used to live. Since Columbus died before rum got started I doubt he would have approved. Perhaps a sherry or Madera festival would have been more appropriate? I wandered down to ask the workers what the story was and they told me to come back at eight in the evening.
I did so.
I got to the festival just before 10 pm to find things in full swing.Â In fact, things were swinging so fully that many of the locals were content to just hang off the edges of the event. Christopher Columbus’s palace was a popular vantage point for those who only wished to look down on proceedings from a distance. There was a stage, a crowd of enthusiastic dancers, and a dozen or so drink tents. I worked my way down the hill, wormed through the dancers, and headed for the drink tents. Most of the tents had no drink menus on display and it was not at all clear what you were supposed to order. Rows of small Brugal bottles glowered at me menacingly. Surely you didn’t order rum by the bottle? Many people were doing just that though. I found a tent offering mixed drinks. I think the drink I ordered was called a “Mantilla” or similar. From what I could see it contained Brugal white rum, fruit punch, grenadine, more rum, and a dash of anise liqueur. It was overly sweet but quite good. The guy who mixed it warned me it would be good, saying something to the effect that everything he mixed was exceptionally fine. I couldn’t disagree. I passed near his tent again a little later and he screamed at me to come over, whereupon the pair of us confirmed for a second time that his drink was bueno. He was enthusiastic about his job.
I left the festival and walked back up the hill and past Columbus’s palace to the plaza. There was a Spanish restaurant with a flamenco show happening so I took a table there. It seemed a good time to give Ron Barcelo Imperial a try. Ron Barcelo Imperial is very good rum. The rum tastes like the best parts of a perfectly prepared Spanish flan (i.e. a creme caramel). It has the perfect mix of caramel and sweetness. Normally I wouldn’t consider caramel an exciting taste in rum. Ron Barcelo is an exception, filling the mouth with a caramel that is beautifully complex, sweet and rounded, with hints of tobacco smoke. I sipped the rum, watched the dancers, fished the ice cubes out of the rum before it became too diluted, and sipped the rum some more. The Dominican flamenco dancers, the rum, and the plaza beside the palace of Christopher Columbus combined to create something far from home yet familiar.