Originally published in the June 2022 Issue of the Old Town Crier Magazine This is the unedited version
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page. – St. Augustine
I don’t feel like I’m in the Caribbean, I feel like I’m in France. That’s the best way to describe St. Barthelemy, or St. Barths. The island is part of the French West Indies and is located near St. Martin, part of which is also French. Our villa sits on the side of a mountain. Almost every villa here sits on the side of a mountain. The view is stunning. Island mountains rising out of the perfect blue Caribbean Sea. The local language is French, many of the islanders are from France. Most of them speak some English as well. But alas, my Kitchen Spanish will be of no help to me here. And I used all my French on our first day: bonjour, merci, and toilet. I’m not sure that toilet even counts. Oh, and buku. I learned that one from Vietnam movies.
The mountains here are very steep. I grew up outside of Pittsburgh. And I’ve hiked the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I’m used to winding mountainous roads. But I’ve never seen anything like these. The road leading up to our villa can be best described as a spiral staircase that turns in several different directions. It’s that tight, that steep, and that winding. And to make things even more exciting, it’s a two-way street which is barely wide enough for one car. The cars here are mostly small, which is helpful. I ask our driver what happens if a car is coming the other way. He says that they figure it out. Unlike in the States, everyone here drives very cautiously and courteously. The terrain demands it. Even with my mountain road experience I find these roads unnerving. My New Orleans raised wife finds them terrifying.
We flew into St. Martin and took a ferry to St. Barths. As the ferry arrives in the town of Gustavia, the sites are astounding. Amazing large yachts dot the harbor. Beautiful buildings are everywhere. Lovely villas are scattered on the mountainsides. I note the shops that line the street adjacent to the dock: Hermes, Prada, Dior. And everyone is dressed accordingly. Even the dock hands are wearing collared shirts that are tucked into pressed shorts. I’m sure this island has a poorer section, but it is not on display here. This is not like any Caribbean Island I have ever seen. This is the Hamptons of the Caribbean, but with a European flare. Wealthy French and Americans vacation here. Once we settle into our villa, and I settle into my first cigar, I can hear a rooster crowing over the hill from us. I look over to see a mother goat and her kid kneeling and drinking from our pool. Clearly, I am in the Caribbean. And it’s wonderful.
The culture in the French West Indies is a little different from other Caribbean islands. The main drink of choice here is wine. And, like the other islands, rhum is popular. (I will use the French spelling, rhum, for this article.) The wines are mostly French and American, and they are not cheap. The local currency is the Euro, but American dollars are also accepted. You find the common Caribbean beers: Caribe, Presidente, Red Stripe, etc. St. Barths does have its own craft beer. I try it. It’s nothing that I want to write about. Bourbon is available and I do have a couple during my trip. But craft rhum and Cuban cigars are this island’s treasurers.
During my second night on the island, I had the pleasure of meeting Eddy Stakelborough, the owner of Eddy’s Ghetto restaurant. Don’t let this restaurant’s name fool you, this place is beautiful. It’s a superb casual dining experience, French food with an island twist. A TGIFridays this is not. It is obvious that Eddie is an islander by his appearance. He is thin and tanned with grayish hair pulled back in a ponytail and a well-trimmed grayish beard. He is dressed very casually in shorts, a pull over linen island shirt, and flip flops. He even wears flip flops in his kitchen, something that would never be allowed in the States. I love the laid-back island attitude. Eddie visits our table twice. He is charming and loquacious, typical qualities of most restaurateurs. He opened Eddies Ghetto in its current location in 1995. I know that Jimmy Buffet, one of my favorite singers/song-writers, loves this island and visits it often. I ask if they have met. It ends up that they are friends. Eddie is a very cool guy. Since I want to explore rhums, I ask Eddie if he is a rhum drinker. He says not really, then takes me to the bar and gives me a great twenty-minute rhum recommendation. Eddie likes rhums from Martinique. He states that they are the best and drink that they drink like cognac. We taste a St. Clement Rhum Agricole XO, reviewed later in this article. The St. Clement rhum we are tasting is an Agricole Rhum. Homere Clement, the founder of St. Clements Distillery in Martinique, was an early advocate of Agricole Rhum.
Martinique has its own distilling rules for Agricole, similar to the way the U.S. has bourbon laws and Germany has beer purity laws. This is the French West indies signature rhum. Agricole rhum is made from sugar cane juice instead of using the more common molasses or sugar for the process. Sugar cane juice is easier to extract and gives you more rhum. An XO label means that the rhum is at least six years old and aged “in a combination of virgin and re-charred oak barrels.”
I have one cube of ice cube in my rhum. Eddie drinks his neat. He tells me that they use St. Clement Rhums to make Ti’ Punch. “Really? That’s great!” I reply. “And just what is Ti’ Punch?“
Eddie chuckles and explains.
Ti’ Punch is a French West Indies tradition. The name means “small punch.” It is traditionally made with a shot of rhum, a small amount of lime juice and zest, and sugar. Agricole rhum is traditionally used in Ti’ Punch. The recipes can vary slightly. Other fruit juices can be added on top of the lime, and cane sugar is commonly used. Eddy has several different Ti’ Punches on his menu. It’s like a daiquiri, but much smaller. They considered it an aperitif. I try a couple during my visit. The drink is tasty but beware. Ti’ Punch is strong. You’re basically doing a shot of rhum with lime and sugar.
I spent a week in St. Barths with my family. For me, it was a week of sipping fantastic rhums and smoking Cuban cigars. I know, life is rough. There are no words that can justly describe the beauty of this island. I strongly recommend that you visit this paradise. It is an extraordinary experience.
Tim’s Whiskey and Cigar Recommendation
This month’s recommendations are rhums, not whiskeys. Both are available in the States.
Clement Rhum Vieux Agricole XO – I want to start by thanking Eddy. This rhum is great! I get fruit sweetness on the nose, some apricot, mango, passion fruit, and even grape. The flavor on the palate is all fruit and delightful. Along with the apricot and mango, you get melon, figs, pear, oak, and a hint of raspberry. The tastes blend wonderfully together. The finish is subtle but sweet with vanilla and a bit of brown sugar.
Reimonenq Rhum Vieux Premiere Cuvee – The bartender at Nikki Beach, a fun and beautiful beach bar, tells me that he usually doesn’t poor this rhum for Americans because of its strength. I look at the bottle, it’s 40% ABV, or 80 proof. I smile and reply “I’m a bourbon drinker. I’ll be fine.” He laughs. “Yes. I think you will be.” The Rhum is a beautiful amber color. It has some spice on the nose with banana, licorice, and tobacco. On the palate it is still a touch spicy, but the sugarcane comes through with a ton of fruit flavor that blends nicely. Vanilla seems to be common on the back taste of most of these rhums. There are also hints of oak and leather. It’s fantastic.
According to current U.S. law, you can now bring back up to 200 Cuban cigars from another country for personal use. The best store to buy your Cuban cigars, no matter where you are, is La Casa Del Habano. They are retail chain licensed by the Cuban Government to purchase directly from them. They have locations everywhere, except the U.S. of course. Their cigars are always legit, no fakes. In St Barths, fake Cubans are not a concern. The same cannot be said about other places. Can you say Mexico? Always do your research before you buy Cubans. You want to pay for quality, not a brand name. Here are a couple that I enjoyed while in the islands. Sorry, these cigars are not available in the States. I guess you’ll have to travel to paradise to get one. Or you can have a friend bring one back. But I recommend that you travel.
Romeo Y Julieta Short Churchill, Habana – Romeo Y Julieta has long been the quintessential Cuban cigar. The company has several variations of its famous original Churchill. The Short Churchill is by far the best of these. The flavors blend wonderfully together. You get hay on the initial puff. Afterwards, chocolate on the early tastes, then red wine, apple, and toffee come through, but none of them dominate. It’s a delightful smoke and well worthy of its 92 Cigar Aficionado rating.
Hoyo De Monterrey, Epicure Especial, Habana – The draw on this cigar is easy and smooth. It is very light. Roasted almonds and coffee coming through at the beginning. As the smoke continues, cedar, butter, and berries are present. At the end, peppers, caramel, and citrus come into play. This is a great afternoon smoke. As I discovered on a few afternoons in St. Barths. Cigar Aficionado gives it a well-deserved 94 rating.