FUNCHAL, Portugal (Reuters) - The Portuguese island of Madeira is best known for its eponymous fortified wine, but it was not always king of drinks alone — there was rum, too.
The island, out in the Atlantic and closer to the northwest coast of Africa than Lisbon, still has a few rum distilleries. And the spirit is widely found diluted in the fruity ponchas, or punches, that pervade tourist bars.
But the number of distilleries on the island is now less than a handful — a shadow of what it was some 200 years ago when there were an estimated 50 sprouting from the sugar cane plantations. Few visitors now think of rum as they would in, say, the Caribbean.
“People come and they say ‘You have rum?’” said Roberto Andrade, who runs the Madeira Rum House in island capital Funchal’s Zona Velha, or old town.
Andrade is doing his bit to persuade them yes. His emporium is half-bar, half-museum and completely dedicated to Madeira’s “demon rum”.
Two of Andrade’s walls are covered with rum bottles, around 200 of them from distilleries extant and gone. Some are full, some empty and some half-way between.
Tucked between them are artefacts from the old sugar trade, including a hand-cranked cane crusher from which the island’s old sugar and its juice was extracted.
Madeira rum is “rhum agricole”, meaning it is made directly from cane syrup, rather than “rhum industriel”, which comes from the byproduct molasses. It is also matured in Madeira fortified-wine casks.
A treasure box of rum-themed history is at hand at Andrade’s shop-cum-museum. It is loaded with stamps, trivia and old tourist postcards showing cane-cutting, barrels of rum, and the shipping that carried it off.
One card, addressed to a house in England and extolling the author’s holiday in Madeira, was dated a few days before World War 1 broke out.
Madeira missed most of it, although German submarines did bombard Funchal and sink some ships in the harbor.
As for actually drinking the rum, Andrade serves almost anything in his collection, ranging from 5 euros a shot to 10 euros for special editions.
There is a flight on offer too for those willing to risk a wobble home — a substantial taster of four rums ranging from white to aged dark, from sweet to dry.
Madeira’s rum business fell on hard time partly as a result of the decline in sugar plantations — cane was introduced in the mid-15th century on orders from Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator, but declined to next to nothing after the 17th century when Portugal’s then-colony Brazil began to dominate.
But Andrade says the island has also done very little to push the product.
“If you don’t promote, nobody buys,” he said, adding that Madeira rum became mainly used for the traditional ponchas rather than a sipping spirit like whisky or brandy.
That may be slowly changing. Distillery Engenho Novo Da Madeira has in recent years taken its product to rum shows in London and Berlin.
Madeira also now has its own rum festival — a series of tastings and master classes and what one online magazine quaintly calls “rum talk”.
Reporting by Jeremy Gaunt, Editing by William Maclean