A few years ago I was sent to Geneva to write an article and there isn’t an awful lot to do in Geneva, so I ended up in a chocolatier’s workshop, stuffing my face. The elderly chocolatier wore a grey three-piece suit and carried a large gold watch in his pocket, on a chain (I doubt that. I tend to confuse Swiss chocolatiers with Swiss bankers and Swiss timekeepers in my mind. He was probably wearing an apron) and when I stopped eating, for a second, I asked him, “But where does all the chocolate come from?” and he looked at me and said:
“South America, you idiot.” (Okay, so he probably didn’t say “you idiot” but you know, Swiss bankers/chocolatiers/timekeepers, they all have those ironic smiles and inscrutable faces. He could have been thinking anything)
A few years later, I went to Venezuela, to climb a mountain and I stopped in Caracas, at a dismal coffee shop on a side street somewhere and asked for a cup of coffee, and after I’d taken my first sip, I stared at the woman sweeping the floor.
“What?” she said (Venezuelans are a little more direct than Colombians)
“This is just so good,” I said.
“We’re Italian,” she shrugged and carried on sweeping the floor.
That’s the story of Colombia, South America if you like, but mostly Colombia. We make all the best stuff but then someone has to take it from us, legally or otherwise, to make it any good. Best cacau, best coffee beans, check, yawn, check. Need someone to make it any good? Get yourself halfway around the world.
Of course, I live here now and I’m a professional worrier and I spend a good deal of time worrying about the future of Colombia and I use all these things as a measure of how well we’re doing. Apparently that’s a bit of a Communist state way of looking at things and the reason all those countries spend a fortune ensuring their athletes do well, sometimes their gymnasts, sometimes their baseball players (six Colombians in the big leagues these days, just saying) is so people like me say: “It’s okay, everybody breathe easy, we had four films at Cannes this year.”
Anyway, the latest thing that’s joined a long line of “Colombia barometers” for me is… rum.
Yep, you think that golden-coloured Caribbean nectar would be something we do quite well, given our long stretch of Caribbean coastline and propensity for a bit of rumba but no, it’s all a bit awkward there too. For a start, the only rums we seem to really drink in Colombia are Ron Medellin and Ron Viejo de Caldas and bless them, they’ve won a few medals and stuff but the world is hardly falling over itself to collect them, not when Guatamala’s Zacapa sits so smugly beside them on the shelf. I mean, both our rums are made in the coffee district and I love the coffee district, it even has palm trees, but it’s hardly what comes to mind when you picture steamy, salsary Caribbean nights, is it? The Juan Valdez donkey and a truck piled high with coffee?
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered we’re actually getting pretty good at rum, real world-beating rum and you can imagine how unsurprised I was when I discovered real, world-beating Colombian rum is near impossible to get hold of in… Colombia. Yeah baby, we make the best stuff but then you have to get yourself across the world to… yeah. Rubbish. Some kind of monopoly, money-making thing none of us want to go into but all of us understand.
Anyway, to give you a quick run down on the things we’re missing, but that should make us all feel better about the state of the nation: there are three, very good, Colombian rums that everyone is talking about (and very few of us are drinking, yes, yes, I won’t mention it again, but…)
The first is Dictador rum, which you can buy in Cartagena and I’ve no doubt it’s doing well because it involves a Colombian historical figure and, frankly, Colombian historical figures are fab. Apparently, sometime back in the 1700s, there was a guy called Severo (excellent, excellent name) in Cartagena who had some sort of job overseeing trade between the colonies and Spain. He was “good at his work” and was therefore nicknamed “The Dictator” and one of his descendants founded the company that makes this rum (apparently old Severo was partial to a drop himself, producing it and trading it) and the 20-year version won double gold at the Rum Olympics (the World Spirits Competition).
Then you have La Hechicera rum, which apparently you can buy at fancy Bogota bars and I’m sure I love this one because they sold it at the Ritz in London first and no-one knows better than the British about getting the very best of stuff that originated elsewhere (tea, gin, Egyptian death masks) It also won double gold at the Rum Olympics, this year.
Then you get Parce rum, which isn’t that Colombian but is completely Colombian because three of the guys who invented it are Americans, one of whom married a Colombian and another of whom adopted a Colombian baby. They all fell in love with Colombia and wanted to create a rum that told the country’s story. And that one is the best of all because the 12-year-old version won “Best in Show” at the Rum Olympics this year, which means it’s the best rum in the world. And for every bottle they sell, they plant a tree in the Colombian rainforest.
And you know what? I don’t even know if I like rum, I just like knowing that we’re good at stuff. So I shall be picking up a bottle of La Hechicera in London this summer and if anyone is passing through Chicago and wants to carry a bottle of Parce home with them, that would be great too, so we can all dust off a golden bottle when things are getting us down and think, it’s okay, the future’s bright… now, anyone for rum?
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.