Southern Spain with spirit

A lesser-know swathe of Andalucía offers a very rum deal indeed…

Southern Spain with spirit Cartel Puerto
By Catherine Jarvie

When you think of the coastline around Malaga in southern Spain, what springs to mind? Chances are it ain’t rum. Sun, sangria and Brits living it large in the high-rise resort towns that thread the Costa del Sol, maybe. But rum? Truth is, this pretty part of underexplored Andalucía – we’re heading a little further east here, to the Costa Tropical – has many hidden charms. And one of them is indeed the sweet nectar derived from the local sugar cane.

Flanked by mountains on one side and pretty coastline on the other, what sets this area of Spain apart is its climate. The magnificent Sierra Nevada range doesn’t just dominate almost every inland view; it forms a physical barrier that give this region a uniquely pleasant microclimate – lush and relatively mild, year-round. It makes the Costa Tropical one of the few places in the world where, in the same day, you can ski (in the Sierra Nevada’s peaks) and comfortably swim outside (at any of the coastal beaches) should the mood take you.

Fascinating, but what about the rum?

First brought to Granada by Arab sailors 1,200 years ago, sugar was the lifeblood of this region for centuries, and the town of Motril its centre (Christopher Columbus took Motril sugar cane on his second voyage to the New World and the town was once dubbed ‘little Cuba’). But while the last commercial sugar cane harvest took place here in 2006, its legacy lives on. For a solid education in its historical significance, a visit to Motril’s Pre-Industrial Sugar Cane Museum (above) will tell you everything you need to know and more. However, an education in its ‘liquid’ legacy is better still.

The Montero family has been cultivating sugar cane in Motril for generations. Owners of the only rum distillery on continental Europe, and makers of the award-winning Ron Montero rum, their visitor centre, on the outskirts of Motril, is where your real rum education begins. A one-stop rum shop, packed full of barrels and a bottling plant as well as a mini museum of the brand’s history, Bodega Ron Montero hosts regular tours and expert tastings. To celebrate the brand’s 50th anniversary this year, they’ve launched the Ruta Garstronomica del Ron – an informal food and cocktail ‘trail’ around Motril and its pretty neighbouring towns, including Almaneca and Salobrena, that features bars versed in creating the finest rum cocktails and restaurants that have created special menus to match the spirit with food.

Sounds like an education worth getting…

Indeed. Start your quest at Restaurante El Zarcillo on Motril’s Paseo de la Esplanada. Its modern Spanish menu changes seasonally (a salad of summer greens, jelly and edible flowers was a delight) and its cool interior is particularly welcoming. For a more traditional take on Spanish food, Bodegas Bonilla on Calle Santisimo offers traditional tapas, including wonderful pata negra ham and Manchego cheeses (which can be purchased in the deli next door). Washed down with a rum manhattan instead of the more obvious wine or sherry, it’s a pretty delicious – if lethal – twist on a classic.

If it’s just cocktails you’re after, then head to the beach: Hoyo 19 is a casual, welcoming beachfront bar with a mean line in mojitos. The rather more upmarket Oleaje, a little further along the coast, meanwhile, pushes a cool Balearic vibe. Newly opened and clearly designed to appeal to an international crowd, this is the kind of place the word ‘sundowner’ was invented for – and the mango daiquiris don’t disappoint.

What else is there to explore?

Still gloriously under-visited, relatively speaking, in comparison to those more notorious ‘costas’, the Costa Tropical boasts a fascinating heritage and following the ‘rum trail’ is a great way to explore it. Today’s Almunecar boasts plenty of flower-decked squares, all spilling with picture-perfect tapas bars and tavernas in an interplay of picture-postcard cobbled alleyways, but it is also a cradle of Mediterranean culture. Founded by the Phonicians in 8,000BC, it saw settlement by the Romans and, centuries later, the Moors. A visit to the imposing San Miguel Castle, high on a nearby hilltop, offers a great insight into the town’s historical significance, but is worth a visit for the stunning coastal and mountain views alone.

Salobrena, meanwhile, is a vision of white-washed houses stacked on the hill that leads up to an imposing Moorish castle in a view that’s just crying out to be immortalised on a biscuit tin. As that castle suggests, there is plenty to be learned here about the history of the region, as well as some of the most picturesque beaches along this stretch of coastline.

And presumably plenty more places to get tipsy on local rum?

But of course. Tapping into the rum experience in any of these towns is easy – simply download the rum trail app and go. And if you’re really keen to learn more, the first Rum Experience University will take place at the Hotel Salobrena in September 2013. Hosted by global rum ambassador Ian Burrell and featuring drink experts from around the world, it’s a five-day, full-body immersion in all things rum for industry types and aficionados alike. Salud!

Find out more

Ron Montero
Costa Tropical

The Rum University, 16-20 September 2013, costs £899, including all meals and accommodation.