The Tortuga rum cake is one of the Caribbean’s most popular souvenirs, ubiquitous on beach-bound cruise ships and souvenir-shop shelves. Made with lashings of rum and an even larger measure of family devotion, Tortuga’s story is a tale of dogged determination against all odds. The humble business that began with a few plastic-wrapped slices has evolved into a family-run multinational empire, offering droves of Caribbean visitors an authentic taste of the Cayman Islands.
In 1987, former pilot and Jamaican transplant Robert Hamaty — also a newly minted rum entrepreneur, having founded the Tortuga Rum Co. three years earlier — was having dinner with friends visiting from Jamaica. “My wife, Carlene, had a family recipe for the cakes, which she served for dessert,” he recalls. One of the guests, a pilot friend of Robert’s, said, “To hell with the rum; do something with the rum cake!”
The Hamatys first began selling the cakes (named after the islands’ original moniker) to restaurants and distributing hand-wrapped slices through local gas stations. Production began in earnest in 1990, when they opened their first bakery, but transforming a homemade cake into a commercial product wasn’t easy. While cheesecloth and plastic-wrap packaging worked fine for the local market, it was woefully inadequate for large-scale shipping; cakes had a limited shelf life and often lost their shape in transit. So as distribution expanded, Robert implemented a vacuum-packing process that preserved the cakes’ integrity and freshness.
The family faced an enormous challenge a year later: Hamaty’s heart was failing, permanently sidelining him from his career as a pilot and threatening to derail Tortuga’s operations. But the patriarch was not to be defeated. “My mission statement for the company is simple,” he says. “Failure is not an option.” The family kept Tortuga going, and Hamaty survived on medication and sheer force of will until a 1996 heart transplant restored his health. Just three months after the operation, Hamaty was back at Tortuga Rum Co.
In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan — a catastrophe Hamaty has called “the Caymans’ 9/11” — forced the family to evacuate. Upon their return, the distraught owners tried to locate missing employees and repair their heavily damaged factory, also joining relief efforts for the island. Staff at Tortuga’s Miami warehouse coordinated the shipment of medical and cleaning supplies, food, bedding and generators, while the company’s bakeries in Jamaica and Barbados picked up the production slack. The Grand Cayman facility opened just two months after the hurricane, in time to fulfill holiday-season orders.
But the Hamatys’ trials and triumphs may be beside the point for fans of the uniquely Caribbean confection. Heady with rum poured straight from oak barrels (they never use bottled rum), it has an intense sweetness that satisfies sugar cravings. Its texture is moist and dense, and the cake keeps almost forever (shelf life is six months to a year, indefinite when refrigerated). While the original golden is still the bestseller, you can mix it up with chocolate, coconut, banana, pineapple and Key lime flavors too. The cinnamon-raisin makes an indulgent breakfast, and the Blue Mountain-coffee-flavored cake offers a caffeinated kick.
Online sales, begun in 1998, mean that fans can taste the Caymans anywhere. Six-packs of small cakes, as well as bronze, silver or gold memberships that keep the rummy desserts coming for three, six or 12 months, make delicious holiday gifts.
But Hamaty, ever the expert marketer, is quick to point out his products’ year-round versatility. The cakes, he notes, are perfect “in any season, for any reason.”
Tortuga Rum Cakes