Time sure flies when you’re having rum, I mean, fun. 2019 was the inaugural staging of the Jamaica Rum Festival and social media would not let me live it down that I missed it! The pictures looked epic and even my friends and colleagues were speaking about it for days. Thus, I eagerly anticipated the second staging, knowing that the event would be here to stay given all the success it had in its first showcasing and I was not left disappointed. The Caribbean produces some of the world’s best rums and our history is intricately intertwined with the spirit. Rum production dates back from the 17th century on plantations where my enslaved African ancestors toiled to produce this lovely liquor from sugarcane and its by-product molasses, and rum became the region’s chief export product after muscovado sugar.
Slavery has been abolished for over a century and sugar is no longer king, but the rum still flows strong. Jamaican rums range from clear overproof “white” rums to the deep flavourful golden varieties aged for years in oak barrels. Rum is woven into our culture, added to our cakes and sorrel at Christmas, used as a folk remedy for the common cold and even at our wakes to give our deceased loved ones a good “send-off” and honour the spirits. Our government has finally decided that the beauty and history of our rum deserves to be recognized in a big way and so the Jamaica Rum Festival was born, a two-day event which celebrates the world-renowned Jamaican spirit, culture, art, food, music and most importantly, the rum. Sit back and enjoy this comprehensive review which captures the festival down to every last inebriating drop!
All roads led to the Hope Botanical Gardens in Papine, St. Andrew on Saturday February 29 and Sunday March 1. Pre-sold tickets costed $2,000 JMD while a weekend pass was available for $3,500. It was well worth buying your ticket in advance as gate prices were higher, but just know that pre-sold goes like hot bread so secure your ticket at least one week in advance. Parking was available at the garden and also at UTECH with a free shuttle provided to and from. After a quick search to ensure you had no weapons on your person, entry into the venue was seamless. Gates opened at 1pm and the festival ran until 11pm with 10 hours of rummy goodness.
I went on Sunday at about 2:30pm. Admission came with a complimentary souvenir mug, 4 chits which allowed you to redeem 4 2-oz rum or cocktail samples from a wide selection of booths at your choosing, a chit to redeem your complimentary 8-oz bottle of water from WATA and a fan to cope with the sultry afternoon weather, that thankfully improved after a light drizzle.
I was impressed with the organization of the event. They had two bathroom tents with at least a dozen porto-potties and a central hand-washing station, because they understood what alcohol does to urinary frequency. The crowd was huge but I seldom felt claustrophobic, and the tents were grouped into categories, namely the CB Food Village, artisan village with local entrepreneurs displaying their crafts, and the seminar and rum tents.
Those who love a good Instagram-worthy spot would’ve had a field day with the elegantly decorated venue. Honestly, I have to commend their attention to detail. That extra money spent on decor gave them so much free promotion (including this post, but feel free to sponsor me next year, ha!). I don’t think anyone who uses social media attended this festival and could resist the urge to take and upload a picture under the entrance tunnel.. or in the swing chairs.. or next to the faux grass background.. or next to the cut-outs!
The CB Food Village
The best of Jamaican street food was on display with booths from Happy Foods Soups, Sharkies Seafood Restaurant, Pink Apron, Murray’s Fish and Jerk Hut, Bad Dawg Sausages and pan chicken vendors. The food offerings included but were not limited to soups, escoveitch fish, festival, bammy, loaded nachos, sandwiches, hotdogs and jerk pork and chicken. Sora Japanese Cuisine was also included and served sushi for foodies with a wider palate and vegan/vegetarian options were available by several booths. You couldn’t even escape the rum here; many chefs infused their dishes with the alcoholic beverage. Debit/credit cards were widely accepted, something which is sadly not the status quo at many food pop-ups and festivals across the island as yet. Coco Cola was not to be left out of the mix, serving free popsicles of iconic rum-and-coke to thirsty patrons.
Picnic style seating complete with red checkered tablecloths was available and the smoky irresistible aroma of meat jerking over pimento wood permeated the entire venue. The village had its own entertainment from Jamaican Youtuber and influencer Rushane Campbell, a.k.a. @rushcam, a lively presenter who led numerous giveaways, and chaired the hot-dog and pan chicken eating competitions.
Pink Apron is currently my favourite food truck in Jamaica, run by a young and vibrant chef Charissa alongside her doting husband Timothy Skyers. Their chicken loaded nachos were delicious and while not filling (I mean.. nachos isn’t usually a filling meal), was worth the $800. The wait for the pan chicken though was horrendous as the chefs just could not keep up with the crowds, but eventually my friends and I got through with the cheapest filling meal available, a quarter chicken and festival which costed a reasonable $500.
The Artisan Village and Rum Booths
There were lots to see and do in this section of the festival. Hand crafted jewelry, photographs, paintings, sketches, handcrafted bags, brightly printed clothes and many interesting trinkets were on sale from local merchants, but I steered clear of most after seeing the prices. Plus, we were here for the rum anyway like most other patrons. Thus, the tents drawing the most attention here were those offering samples of rum or rum-spired treats, and of course any offering giveaways. Who nuh love freeniss?
Remember those chits with the 2-oz complimentary samples I mentioned earlier? Those samples were redeemable at the Appleton, J Wray & Nephew, Hampden, Monymusk and Worthy Park booths, Jamaica’s main distilleries which have survived till the 21st century. My favourite sample came from Appleton Estate. The tiny samples were more like shots however, compared to the 6-oz free samples which they gave last year.
I didn’t get any buzz from the samples, and this tempted me to purchase one of the cocktails which Appleton had on sale for $500 up, BUT I didn’t. Thankfully my friend convinced me to spend my $500 on a rum seminar instead and this literally made the entire day’s experience for me– something which was totally unexpected given that the word seminar just sounded like work and hence, BORING, but I couldn’t have been any more WRONG!
There are several seminars running throughout the course of the day with the last ones starting at 6:30pm. Spaces go really quick– in fact, by the time I signed up at about 3pm, several were already sold out. The ones which caught my eye first were gone and while I’m ashamed to say this now given how great a time I had, I ‘settled’ for the J Wray and Nephew “Wray Culture In A Cup” seminar. Each attracted at cost of $500.
My seminar began at 6:45pm, 15 minutes after the slated starting time of 6:30pm given a few technical difficulties which they wanted to make right before admitting us into the tent, but their friendly courteous staff kept coming outside to apologize and reassure us that the wait would be worth it. We didn’t have much choice anyway.
The friendly host welcomed us and broke the ice. He subsequently played a brief slideshow which shared the company’s history, including who is this mysterious nephew of J Wray, then opened the floor to Captain MixoKidd, an award-winning and talented mixologist whose various bottle and flaming stunts kept us entertained. He’s also a good teacher, because look at the delicious things he made us whip up below. My favourite was the Bob Marley shot. We added red syrup to the shot glass to form the base of the cocktail, then he taught us how to tilt the glass and carefully add in the creme de banana, creme de menthe and of course the Wray & Nephew white overproof rum. We then added a tups of the rum to the surface and lit it, creating what’s known as the flaming Bob Marley. What an adrenaline rush it was to complete the shot with a straw and without burning your tongue! Wow-eee! I drank two of these shots and I think that’s where I crossed the line, not that anything happened. I just ended up feeling woozier than I’d planned to feel considering I was on-call the next day. I had to wait for several hours before leaving too considering I had to drive myself home, but I was thoroughly entertained at the concert while I waited. Drink responsibly friends!
I got a cap, souvenir cup and sugarcane from this seminar and to take home the rest of my 200ml white overproof rum flask which was provided to each guest for making the cocktails.
Sunday night featured acts like Freddie McGregor, Cocoa Tea, Capleton, Indie Allen and Kymani Marley. Reggae mixed with rum is quintessentially Jamaican and irie-ness at its finest. Kymani sang some of his own hits plus borrowed from other artistes such as his father Bob, while Capleton the fire-boss did well, what he’s known for– blazing up the fire and imparting a tonne of energy to the crowd even if you can’t understand a thing he’s saying (love you Capleton, I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. Once he starts jumping, it’s over). Anyway, It’s amazing to think I got all this experience plus a decent 4-hour concert at the end for a mere $2,000 and I left the festival feeling very satisfied.
Elle’s Tips for Jamaica Rum Festival 2021
- Arrive early before parking gets too hectic or worse, the freebies run out. You’d think they’d produce enough souvenir mugs for the number of tickets they printed but no, no they did not.
- Sign up for your seminar from early! Like you MUST take a seminar or two– they are the highlight of the event. Your liver may only be able to handle one though– you get so much liquor. There’s zero need to buy cocktails, the ones you’ll be taught to make are so much more satisfying and you get like 3 or more included in the $500 seminar cost, while only one for the same price if you purchase at the rum booths. I’m afraid I won’t get a seat at one next year since I’m spilling the beans, so save me a seat if you reach early please? Like sign me up, and pay for my ticket. I’ll reimburse. 🙂
- Purchase a pre-sold weekend pass if you plan to attend both days. The acts each night are different so that’s two great concerts plus rum and rum-spired activities all weekend long.
- Carry a tote bag to stash all your free goodies, and make sure you come prepared with bottled water and hand sanitizer.
- Close toes shoes are preferable as it can get pretty dusty, and also a cap or hat will protect you from the sun. It gets pretty hot even in February/March.
- Legal drinking age of alcohol in Jamaica is 18 years or older.
- Lastly, I can’t stress it enough. DRINK RESPONSIBLY! Also, don’t drink on an empty stomach. That never ends well.
Not sure if it’s the rum talking or not, but I wrote this post 100% sober and am still completely satisfied with the festival. My only critiques are the tiny size of the samples, and of course freebies running out for patrons who arrived in the evening just in time for the concert. I don’t think it’s too hard to ensure you make enough cups to match the number of tickets printed and sold. Also, the chefs need to be better prepared to handle the crowds or perhaps they needed more chefs. Chicken was running out way too often by the pan chicken booth, leaving long queues of impatient hangry patrons.
All in all, the Jamaican Rum Festival is here to stay and with a second staging even more successful than the last, it’s clear that this festival has now earned a place among the echelons of Jamaica’s annual highly anticipated events. I rate the experience five stars, ☆☆☆☆☆. Can you believe my only regret was not getting a picture in the Appleton chair swing with the ball pen below? 😅
Did you enjoy the rum festival too? Sound off in the comments section. Also, if you missed this year’s staging, fret not. There’ll be next year. 🙂
If you enjoyed my recap of the experience, share the article so your family & friends can enjoy it too.
‘Til next time! ✌🏽
Read next: The Joy Spence Appleton Rum Estate Experience.