In the Caribbean, rum is cheaper than milk. When Europeans started colonizing the islands hundreds of years ago, they set up sugar cane plantations, using slave labor, and started an industry that has lasted to the present day. Fortunately, without slave labor anymore. When you take a tour around Saint Kitts or Barbados, you can find sugar cane growing like weeds. Several islands have their own rum distilleries, although most of the islands have dramatically cut back on or mostly stopped their sugar production.
Rum is made from fermented molasses, which is squeezed out of the sugar cane plant and boiled. My brother-in-law made fermented molasses a few years ago, and I think the results came out... interesting. (I didn't get to try it.) The fermented product is then distilled one or two times, yielding almost pure ethanol. I have smelled this stuff, and it is enough to knock you out. I don't think it would be palatable.
At this point, the rum is aged in casks for a short time or a long time to gain flavor, texture and color (color comes from oak casks, many of which are reused from whiskey makers). Light rums, such as the fruit flavored kind you might buy from companies like Malibu, are generally not aged for long, are aged in stainless steel, or in oak and then filtered to remove the color. The tastes are sweet and the alcohol content relatively low. Dark rums are aged much longer, and develop complex flavors during this aging period. Most rum producers offer dark rums in various prices and ages, and the alcohol content tends to be much higher. While you could probably chug a light rum (if you're into that sort of thing), dark rums are more suited to sipping. Swirl them around in a brandy snifter or wine glass, and appreciate the aromas and legs before enjoying the complex flavors.
Bacardi is a giant rum making company that started in Cuba. Although they like to promote their roots, they are actually headquartered in Bermuda, with another location in Puerto Rico (among other places). I've toured the Bacardi factory twice, they have a free tour which presents a history of the company and two free drinks from their outdoor bar. If you are a rum drinker living in the US, chances are good that you've drank Bacardi. It's presence in liquor stores and bars is ubiquitous. They have an enormous variety of flavored light rums, and some higher end dark rums. [Bacardi Homepage | Wikipedia]
Barbados is home to Mount Gay rum, the oldest rum company in the world. I got to take a tour of their company this year, with a format very similar to Bacardi's. My father decided to try a glass of their 1703 for about $20, which has aged for 10 to 30 years. (Most bottles of rum don't come from a single cask, but are blends from many casks, hence the 20 year time span on the age.) While I probably wouldn't be able to drink a glass of it, the 1703 was the smoothest dark wine I have ever sipped. I would have to rank it as the best rum I've ever drank, although I really haven't tried many premium dark rums. [Mount Gay Homepage | Wikipedia]
Down the street from Mount Gay is Malibu, another familiar name for US based rum drinkers. Their coconut light rum is great for mixing with pineapple juice into a "light" piña colada. I toured Malibu in 2008, and don't remember much of the tour other than the tasting. We tasted their dark rums which go under the label Cockspur. I found the Cockspur rums to be slightly on the unpalatable side, so I was relieved when the third item in the tasting was Malibu's coconut rum. [Malibu Homepage | Wikipedia]
Besides rum, I found it interesting that nearly every island I toured had their own brewery. Although Jamaica's Red Stripe could be found at local bars (alongside alcohol free international behemoth Coca Cola), the local brands are always available. Maybe coming from the US where everything is sourced to the cheapest area of production, I found it strange that each island would make beer instead of merely importing it from a central island. But this allowed me to sample many of the local brews.
In Puerto Rico, Medalla Light is what's on tap. Actually, I had it in a can. This was the first beer I drank in a can. If I ever had Bud Light (I haven't), I'd probably make a quick comparison, so for now I can just say they taste similar based on Jeff's tasting experience. I tasted the Medalla Light at a small shack out near Fajardo. Everyone else in my family got the rum punch, and based on their reactions I'm glad I settled for the cheap beer. There's something to be said for predictability. [Medalla Light Homepage | Wikipedia]
We toured Banks brewery in Barbados as it's not far from Mount Gay's headquarters. I thought it was cool that we actually got to see their production and bottling floor although it was at least 95oF and extremely loud. Having only seen Harpoon's relatively tiny bottling operation here in Boston, getting to see this one was interesting. They bottle a lot of stuff at this brewery, not just the beer. They're actually licensed to produce Guiness for the island, and they also make shandys as well as alcohol free malt beverages. How did Banks Beer taste? The same as all the other beers I tried. Bud Light? [Banks Homepage | Wikipedia]
Jeff and I didn't spend much time in Saint Lucia, but we did stop by a bar before getting back on the cruise ship. I got a piña colada, and he got a Piton. On asking Jeff to remark about the beer, he notes that it was superb for thirst-quenching in the relentless heat and humidity, but the taste was nothing remarkable. [Piton Homepage]
In Saint Kitts our taxi driver stopped to show us a landmark, and we hopped out to buy him a Sprite at the soda stand. They were also selling Carib which my dad and Jeff tried. I opted for the grapefruit soda Ting which I'd had on my previous trip to Saint Kitts. Apparently Carib is headquarted in Trinidad and Tobago, but has regional breweries on several other islands. [Carib Homepage | Wikipedia] [Ting Homepage | Wikipedia]
As far as I know, there aren't any wineries in the Caribbean. I could see how growing grapes there would be difficult, but I think it would be amazing to make wine out of their limitless quantities of tropical fruits. Jeff and I entertained wild fantasies of setting up shop in Saint Kitts, making wine from bananas, pineapples, coconuts, canepas, mangos, guavas and papayas.