The sun sinks into the horizon and the Caribbean Sea glows a fiery orange, its light edging the tall clouds in bright pink. A few surfers, silhouetted against this backdrop, carve smooth lines down the face of curling waves. A waiter hands me a rum punch the same colour as the sky and my vacation officially begins.

I’m at Taboras Restaurant in The Fairmont Royal Pavilion on the Platinum Coast of Barbados and I’ve earned this drink. I was down a few sets in pre-breakfast tennis and, after repeated dunkings, mastered paddleboarding by noon. Admittedly, the afternoon spent napping on the beach between bouts of crossword challenges wasn’t exactly high-performance sport, but I did swim 20 laps before heading to the bar for my favourite Caribbean drink.

Rum punch is the loftiest destiny to which any rum could aspire. The alchemic result of blending the spirit with lime juice, simple syrup, nutmeg and ice turns these basic ingredients into liquid gold. In fact, “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak” is the classic incantation for creating it. I’ve sampled versions all over Barbados – from roadside shacks to five-star resorts – and have developed a personal list of favourites that covers just about all of these bases. I know what I like, but I wanted to learn more about this definitive Bajan beverage.

So, on my latest trip to the island, I paid a visit to the distillery of Mount Gay, home of the oldest rum brand in existence. As I wait for the tour to begin, dreadlocked bartender Christopher fields urgent calls for frothy pink drinks, running two blenders simultaneously. I ask him which Mount Gay rum he prefers in punch. “Most people go with the Eclipse,” he says, referring to the gold-standard dark rum. “But if you’ve never had it with Eclipse Silver, you should try it like that.” He’s right: the clear flavour of the white rum softens the sweetness of the drink and sharpens the taste, though it lacks some of the complexity of a dark-rum version.

Our tour guide, despite looking like a teenager with her complex and sculptural arrangement of braids, soon whips a motley brigade of sunburned tourists into line and through the in-house museum. She explains that Barbadians have been making rum since 1703 and, while the equipment has changed, much of the process remains the same. Sugar cane is juiced and boiled into molasses before being diluted with water. Yeast is added to this mixture to start the fermentation. After a few days the liquid is heated and the alcohol (which boils at a lower temperature) is separated from the water. This process results in rum, but the aging process in whisky barrels gives dark rum its distinct character. “Go ahead and put your nose in the barrel,” she suggests. The heady smell of ripe bananas, sweet almonds and vanilla reminds me it’s time for a drink.

Fortunately, one of my favourite spots is just up the road. I enter Daphne’s, the Caribbean outpost of the posh London restaurant that captures the proper British vibe that still thrives in pockets on this island. It’s the kind of dining room where I’m not surprised to see a six-year-old with blond ringlets, wearing a ruffled pink ball gown, order the duck breast (“Rare, thank you very much,”) as she sips San Pellegrino from a wine glass. I’ll stick to the more laid-back, grown-up bar, where the rum punch comes in a tulip glass so perfectly chilled that beads of condensation immediately form on the outside.

Where Daphne’s represents the chic Caribbean playground of the rich and beautiful, my next stop encapsulates the island’s more, shall we say, rustic side. Although you’d never mistake it for fancy, the sleepy fishing village of Oistins is transformed on Friday nights into the best party on the island. Experience tells me to abandon my taxi several blocks before the market, as traffic has ground to a halt. The carnivorous smell of dozens of barbecues and the low thud of bass notes is all the map I need to find my way there. There’s a duel underway, with half a dozen limber young dancers throwing moves to an irresistible Rihanna remix (the pop star is a nearly ubiquitous choice here, on her home island). I grab a rum punch from the nearest vendor. Poured from a plastic bottle, it isn’t a glamorous version, but it’s mighty powerful and has an honest, unpretentious flavour that is very Bajan. I head back for a second and a third. Before the night is through, I’ll pick up a few new dance moves of my own.

The next afternoon, headache slowly dissipating, I cross over to the northern part of the island and seemingly go back in time. The narrow road is lined on both sides with the thick stems of towering sugar cane. In the distance the heavy coral tower of an ancient windmill, now shorn of its blades, comes into focus. I turn up a long driveway onto the grounds of St. Nicholas Abbey, lush with large philodendrons, mottled orchids and ancient mahogany trees. This Jacobean mansion, one of only three in the Western Hemisphere, has been turned into a living museum that provides a snapshot of how life was lived here in the 17th century. I’m here to see how rum used to be made. The Abbey recently started to make its own rum in a new distillery in an almost historical way, which contrasts with the state-of-the-art production facility at Mount Gay. When it comes to rum, it doesn’t get much more old school than a working steam mill, which is exactly what I find on the grounds behind the house.

The Rube Goldberg-esque arrangement of gears and cogs is used to extract juice from sugar cane. The syrup-thick liquid flows directly into fermentation pots where it rests until it’s ready to be distilled in customized copper pots so polished and shiny they reflect the palm trees outside. After about 10 years in former bourbon barrels the rum gets bottled. The finished spirit tastes of pineapple, vanilla and brown butter. Maybe it’s the surroundings, but I think I even pick up some hibiscus. A fine sipping rum like this is probably too special to mix into a rum punch, but Barbadians do it anyway and it works: complex, gently sweet and spicy with bitters. I hold the empty glass up to my ear and imagine I can hear the ocean.

While history and distillation science are all fine and good, this is Barbados, after all, and the ocean calls. Crane Beach, with its pink sand and playful waves, is regularly listed as one of the best in the world. I rent a lounge chair and umbrella from one of the local vendors and try my luck at body surfing before being persuaded to climb up a nearby cliff for a thrilling leap into the heaving water. Having survived the plunge, I’ve earned another rum punch.

At a small wooden hut erected at the edge of the sand where it gives way to jungle, I find Junior, a grey-haired Rasta with the physique of an Olympic sprinter. “I make the best rum punch on the island,” he drawls, and I challenge him to prove it. Drink in hand, I take a long stroll down the beach, up and over some coral rocks and around a dusty outcropping, eventually discovering an abandoned stretch of sand. Raising my cup to the sky, I toast this moment and drain the last drop.

Originally published in Fairmont magazine.