February 16, 2008

The Law of Unexpected Consequences knows no national boundaries. Rural Mexican belts have come in a notch as tortilla prices rise in response to gasohol demand driving corn above a peso a pound on world commodity exchanges. Now the national staple of a Caribbean neighbor is threatened as well.  Beer still flows freely in Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines have weathered the annual lime shortage induced by girly drink demand as cruise ships call, yet an air of gloom hangs over the archipelago.

It’s not due to a hangover. Outbid in the molasses wars, St Vincent’s main Overproof rum distillery has shut its stills yet again.  They normally run 24-7 but have been starved of feedstock in a region abounding in cane, and normally awash in grimy treacle of the sort sugar factors sniff at,  but which serves admirably as the starting point for rum fit to fire men’s souls and dissolve a Carmen Miranda’s worth of tropical fruit tossed into a blender.

At 169 Proof, the mainstream no nonsense firewater of Saint Vincent’s rum shops shares with Jack Iron moonshine from out-island stills the power to reduce even green papayas into a semblance of a daiquiri, and to transmute ripe fruit into the sublime.  Alas,  industrial strength rums like Sunset have been vanishing from out island shelves for months on end, as every drop of molasses in the region is swallowed up by whale-sized industrial stills,  to feed the insatiable demand for fuel. Even when supplies loosen,  tankers are hard to charter,  many being bound by long term contracts to feed the Green Machine..

Hollywood is in great measure to blame. The greening of gas stations in the wake of An Inconvenient Truth has reduced the scene of Pirates Of The Caribbean   to a mid-ocean desert, with water, water everywhere and not a tot to drink. When Jack Iron smuggling falters, some on Bequia have been driven to ingesting Captain Bligh, an anemic 80 proof distillate unfit for Conservative consumption, as its label celebrates the wrong side winning a labor dispute during a marine breadfruit delivery run some centuries ago.

Totally unfit for Molotov cocktails, flaming bananas, Jaeger the or cleaning marine carburetors, the mere fact that it tastes good cannot prevail over the principle of the thing. If it contains more than half water, it really isn”€™t rum. And it isn”€™t Green either- given the energy cost of distillation, watering down rum to 80 Proof is an affront to the environmental sensibility of our age.

A celebration last June afforded some insight into the problem’s magnitude. The 35,000 Saint Vincentians are by and large friendly folk, witness the 300 gathered from around the world, to fete a local philanthropist’s 60th birthday. At ,say,  five rum punches per celebrant, per day, a barrel of serious rum can be quickly depleted.  Multiply that by 35,000, and it upwards of a million gallons of imported firewater might be needed make up the 169-proof deficit. If such a drought of domestic production spread across the Spanish Main from Belize to Barbados, a supertanker full of molasses could scarcely remedy the shortfall.

Some bad diplomatic actors see opportunity in this growing crisis. Cuba seeks to insinuate a watery liquid called Havana Club into the regions vital fluids. But from Bequia to Petit Martinique, islanders are courageously resisting attempts to dump the incombustible Cuban product, which can barely sustain the metabolism of free-born Grenadines, let alone tourists or pirate film extras. Hence the diplomatic gravity of Senor Castro’s ambassador cruising the Windward Isles. He has not come to drink Cuba Libre’s, or toast his Caudillo’s health in Shirley Temples, and he has a naval ally. One can stomach Hugo Chavez buying Russian submarines ,or sniffing the President of the United States for brimstone at the UN , but his willingness to inflict high-sulfur residual rum on his neighbors is cause for a demarche.

Crisis has descended in Carnival’s aftermath,  pre-Lenten celebrations having strained the last reserves. So it falls on New England’s patriotic rum merchants and molasses factors to recall where the Stars and Stripes were first saluted , and return the regional courtesy. It will be a black spot against those whose ancestor’s survived the Great Boston Molasses Flood if a barge load of hogsheads cannot be found to tide Antillean distilleries over until the Green gasohol crisis passes, and the threat of yet more Gore in the Caribbee subsides.


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