The story of rum is indelibly associated with the Caribbean, its past and present. So much so that every island takes as much pride in its respective rum as its national flag. Is Mount Gay better than El Dorado or is Appleton the best? This is a perpetual debate on the isles.

It is believed that rum was first fermented from molasses – a byproduct of sugar-refining – on the Caribbean plantations in the 17th century. Pirates drank a lot of it, which explains why the liquor is invoked in Long John Silver’s pirate song in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). Today, each rum – arrived at through a process of distilling, ageing and blending – appears to evoke its region of origin within the Caribbean.

While there’s history and sentiment attached to plain rum, a few adventurous sorts, including brands, have been blending it with fruits or spices for a century. Initially, like Caribbean cricket before the Clive Lloyd-era, flavoured rum was seen as being too much fun and not enough substance. But it’s overcome that reputation in recent years, leading to more experimentation and flavours ranging from orange peel to butterscotch.

Chai Rum, as the name suggests, is a similar story of fusion – suturing the West Indian creation with Indian heritage. It is made by a process arrived at by its two creators – Kiran Akal and John Fleming – whereby the rum is blended with traditional Caribbean herbs and tea flavours from Darjeeling’s tea gardens. For now, it is sold online and in a few restaurants, stores and bars in the United States and Ireland.

Kiran Shiva Akal.
Kiran Shiva Akal.

Chai Rum reflects Akal’s own story in many ways. He is a scion of Trinidad and Tobago’s Naipaul-Capildeo family and nephew of Nobel laureate VS Naipaul. Naipaul’s maternal grandfather, Pundit Capildeo, travelled to Trinidad as an indentured labourer in 1894 from his village in Uttar Pradesh, and was responsible for constructing the famous Lion House in Chaguanas town in 1926. Akal’s mother, Savitri Naipaul Akal, is the daughter of Seepersad and Droapatie Naipaul.

In a conversation with Scroll.in, Kiran Shiva Akal talks about the idea of Chai Rum, its possibilities, and how his background inspired him in this journey of creation. Edited excerpts:

What was the idea behind Chai Rum?
The idea was to write a new chapter in the history of a spirit that traces the use of fermented sugarcane juice back to ancient India or China, followed by the first fermentation from molasses, possibly in Barbados, in the 17th century. There has been a dearth of true innovation in the rum space, with experimentation largely in flavoured or spiced rums.

We wanted to apply thought, care and craft into an innovative process that would mark a true evolution in the rum experience. The historical provenance of this spirit as well as my family’s journey produced the answer: marry the narrative of the East Indies to the West Indies, the story of tea and flowers to sugarcane and molasses. The raw spirit was yearning for a sophistication that could come from the complex art blended teas and flowers.

What made you and John Fleming change careers to create flavoured rum?
Sometimes, career changes or additions are not planned. What started as an exciting experiment [Akal won a grant to develop this product from the Government of Trinidad and Tobago] quickly grew into something serious. Three years ago, the government offered grants to entrepreneurs and creators who could make something new – a product that would emerge in part from the country’s resources, and lead to a product accepted, and recognised worldwide. Fleming and I had stumbled upon something transformative for rum.

I am a creative director working for companies like Disney and Warner Music, though I had studied medicine at university. Fleming was a physician’s assistant specialising in spinal surgery. He was inventing medical devices and I was, well, just always creating. As we experimented with early rum formulae and processes, we became, without realising it, drawn into the exciting world it opened up. We met chefs, sommeliers, hoteliers and people interested in real creativity in the food and drink space. We both loved food and travel. So things fell into place in the best way.

You are part of one of Trinidad’s most influential families. How did the milieu at home affect or inspire you?
It’s been fortunate… Early exposure to conversation, ideas, talent and ability is something very special. I can say I understood too, that it can be a choice. The story of my grandfather and his bookcase and my grandmother with barely an extra shilling – all narrated in my mother’s book – living a life that elevated all of their children is proof that privilege does not lie in financial fortune. It is found in attitude and priority.

I grew up surrounded by people with the right attitudes and priorities and I appreciate it every day. My mother’s book, The Naipauls of Nepaul Street describes a life, very different to the one I have experienced, and it is a revealing window into this attitude and priority that I speak of, even in the face of poverty.

What memories do you have of your uncle VS Naipaul, who passed away recently? In your mother’s book, there are a few photos showing your uncle and his wife Patricia Hale talking to you and your siblings on a visit to your parents’ house in the 1980s. Do you remember any of that time?
I have many memories of my uncle. The good ones are his enormous laugh, the smell of [his] pipe tobacco, his paisley dressing gown (I aspired to own one) and a sense of humour, particularly in narrating anecdotes of people he had met. We did roar with laughter.

The picture you speak of is of a time when schools were closed because of polio in Trinidad. Uncle Vido and aunty Pat were with us at our home in Valsayn. One of many visits, often extended. With school shut, aunty Pat took to teaching us Greek mythology and botany, using my mother’s beautiful garden. I remember it fondly. There was a prize at the end. They gave it to Siri, my younger sister. I still, to this day, tell Siri that it was out of pity.

Uncle Vido was not an easy man and his temper and meanness to his mother [Droapatie Naipaul] upset me to my core. He was deeply flawed but his influence on my desire to do something and become someone, outweigh my absolute intolerance of his cruelty. I think I came to understand that he struggled in a way, to be as effortlessly comfortable as he would have liked to be, in the society in which he found himself.