Rum awaits you just about anywhere you go in the Caribbean, but no destination is quite as rum-soaked as San Juan, Puerto Rico. While much of the island is still recovering from the devastation from Hurricane Maria nearly six months ago, San Juan is slowly getting back on its feet. Hotels and bars are open, and the beaches are a beautiful as ever. All it’s missing is you. So throw on your drinking shoes and go support the best rum-loving community in the Caribbean.
Clocking in at No. 31 in the 2016 World's Best Bars list, La Factoría is a must-visit. Located in Old San Juan, the cavernous compound of a venue boasts four distinct bars within it, the newest of which is a de facto speakeasy that punches out amazing classic cocktails.
Each bar takes on a life of its own, emphasizing everything from wine to dancing. Up at the front bar, expect a buzzy atmosphere with pitch-perfect rum drinks and hands-on hospitality. "Everyone that sits here is family," says head bartender Carlos Irizarry, as he serves one of the bar's signature Spiced Rum Old Fashioned, tantalizingly made with Don Q Gran Añejo rum.
The InterContinental San Juan is a beachfront hotel located along Isla Verde. Plan ahead and the hotel will be glad to set up a private cocktail class and tutorial with head bartender Jaders Calcaño, who has competed in and won a variety of cocktail competitions on the island and internationally.
"The hotel gives me the support I need to continue growing," he says. So while down at the pool bar you might find slightly modified but still traditional tropical staples, when you get his full attention, the creative wheels start turning.
That might lead to a drink such as the Back in Thyme Daiquiri, adding tamarind juice, chocolate bitters and thyme to a Daiquiri. Or the Piña Colada, using coconut water and fresh pineapple juice, along with lemongrass syrup, black sesame seeds and a frothy whipped cream and egg white topping.
The Icaro team behind La Factoría unveiled this addition in the bustling La Placita de Santurce neighborhood. Expect a mix of tropical and Tiki drinks—and if you didn't realize those were different categories, you'll quickly pick that up here.
JungleBird is a relatively small space compared to the mega-warehouse of La Factoría, opening up more creative cocktail possibilities. "The thing with La Factoría is you can't make the cocktails too complicated," says bartender Chuck Rivera, who's a partner in the venture alongside Roberto Berdecía and Leslie Cofresí. "JungleBird is a little more laid-back."
Laid-back, sure, but expect the music to keep thumping to five in the morning if you can make it that far. As for the drinks themselves, you'll find a deep lineup of rum specials loaded with house-made ingredients.
San Juan is home to Bacardí, and the brand's visitors center offers a range of tours and experiences with plenty to drink along the way. You can learn to make cocktails and taste your way through the vast lineup of rums, including several distillery-exclusive bottlings. To spend an hour or two there, as you should, is to see the art of large-scale rum production at its best.
But Bacardí isn't the only distillery on the island. Just 15 minutes away, in Bayamón, Ron del Barrilito is a tiny operation with a cult status (buy a local bartender a shot of Ron del Barrilito 3 Stars, and you’ll be sure to gain favorite-customer status). You can pay homage with a visit, but you should call ahead to coordinate, since it's a small family operation.
Of course, you'll want to find some time to get outdoors and drink underneath the San Juan sun. Head to the outdoor market space called Lote 23, which opened at the end of 2016. Rum libations await at Caneca Coctelería Movil, an Airstream bar also run by the Icaro team.
Cocktails are the right mix of easy and elevated and clock in at a cool $7. There are both frozen drinks and cocktails over ice, and the “Suavecitos” section of the menu features low-ABV refreshers. For a one-and-out, try the Missionary’s Downfall, made with brandy, pineapple, lime and Don Q rum.
While you're there, fill your belly with mofongo (a fried plantain dish popular on the island) or any number of Puerto Rican staples from the other vendors. Don't pass up the fried chicken tenders and sandwiches at Hen House, though; chef Pierre Saussy's brined chicken delivers an otherworldly duo of flavorful juiciness tucked inside crunchy fried coating.
Plan to spend an entire afternoon here, enjoying music performances, art demos, great food and all the Airstream-prepared cocktails you can handle.