A Caribbean adventure
The 3rd of June 2013 marked a special day in the lives of 6 soon to be rum experts and 3 communications and marketing experts. We met bright and early on the Monday morning at Gatwick Airport. Feeling slightly worse for wear, I met the team for a coffee and we chatted about the pending trip.
The time had come and we were off to Barbados to participate in an enlightening educational experience into the world of Authentic Caribbean Rum. Together with the management team at WIRSPA we were due to meet with all the key producers of ACR, to mark the re- launch of the Authentic Caribbean Rum Marque.
It was going to be my third time to the region. I had been fortunate to have had two previous visits to Jamaica. One of those visits was an incentive reward for winning a competition for selling lots of Appleton Estate VX Rum. I had already been baptised in the world of great Caribbean Rum as a result of this trip. This trip was an important factor in my education of Rum; it built my passion for this fascinating product, and really got me excited about the world of Rum.
My goals were set and my focus was clear, I had to absorb as much information as possible and learn from the plethora of experienced heads that were going to be present at all of the varied activities that were planned. This was of course made harder by the chronic jet lag but aided by the fact I was the only person in our group that was fortunate enough to get an upgrade on the flight!
Upon arrival in Barbados the weather was hot, sticky and humid. It was over cast and muggy. We definitely in the Caribbean! Our short journey to the hotel was spent taking in the surroundings. I travel a lot and always enjoy gazing into the unknown. I was struck by the island’s overwhelming beauty. It was not what I expected. It felt tropical but did not look it.
We checked into our hotel and were greeted with what was the first of many Rum Punches for the trip. We sat in the sun, listened to the sea lapping the shore line and knew we were in for a treat. Within a few hours we were briefed by Neil Morris and knew the agenda for the week. While the rest of day one was to be a relaxed affair, we were going to have a big second day. We went for a swim, had a great dinner on the beach front and called it an early night.
Waking up on day two I realised the jet lag had seriously kicked in. Our day meeting all the officials for the various producers was going to be interesting feeling the way I did. I enjoyed a hearty breakfast by the beach and felt anxious and excited about the day ahead. The conference began with words from many of the senior WIRSPA committee. We listened to very important words from Dr Frank Ward, Vaughn Renwick and Neil Morris. I was beginning to understand even more about the importance of what lay ahead. This campaign was all about communicating messages. Very key and critical messages about ACR. I was clear about the challenges that lay ahead for me and my fellow Rum Expert Panel Members.
The various talks and presentations finished and we went into a brisk tasting and briefing of several of the brands we were going to be working with. This was a key opportunity to get behind the brand and meet the people involved in the production/management of many of the great products we were going to be working with. Throughout my time in the drinks industry, whenever I have been in the company of producers, I have always felt closer and more drawn to a brand. It was no different this time round. Some of the individuals were real characters. They loved their Rums and spoke with heart and passion. I was quickly learning that what made some of these brands different from some of the global juggernauts, was that these products had rich history and heritage and people with larger than life personalities. For me it was clear that ACR was all about the people behind it, and the people from these brands tell a great story. The stories are real and vivid. They add perspective and weight to the whole campaign to create awareness. It was clear and apparent that I was going to need to convey these stories and this passion.
We moved on to tours of the West Indies Rum distillery, where Cockspur rum is made and afterwards to the Mount Gay Visitor centre. The interesting debate of minimum age statements was opened up on our visit to the West Indies Rum distillery. We were greeted by the intoxicating aroma of molasses. It filled the air. The team were clear in stating that the true essence of Cockspur was based on the expertise of the team and their ability to make masterful blends. They do not use age statements. The distillery was big and very industrial in appearance, located on the idealic Barbados coastline. It produces lots of bulk Rum in addition to the Cockspur brand. We were guided through an interesting tasting. My preferred Rum was the V.S.O.R expression. Small note to self never put your nose near the opening of a fermenter again. Wow, you get an incredible head rush and dizzy feeling from the reaction that is given off.
Our session with Chester at the Mount Gay Visitor centre was inspiring, fun and educational. He is one those people blessed with playful and exuberant Caribbean personality. Whilst he pitched a more consumer style session, as opposed to a more serious bartender/expert style session, it remained very structured and helpful.
Our day was not over. We went back to the hotel for an important reception where several key dignitaries spoke and we further indulged in the plethora of Rums that the various producers owned. It was a special night which really encapsulated the community that WIRSPA had managed to create. Opinions and passion ran high, as we spoke to many distinguished individuals. What a night!
Day three was soon upon me. I had parted company with the fellow panel. They had the pleasure of visiting some other islands, and I had to do a swift island tour with my driver Beardy. The agenda was clear; stop one, the Mount Gay Rum Refinery, stop two, St Nicholas Abbey, and stop three, Four Square distillery. I exchanged lots of chat with Beardy. He is knowledgeable man with great character. He talked to me about the history of Barbados and his time working and living here. It was also helpful that he pointed out lots of landmarks and areas of interest and importance.
I arrived at the Mount Gay Rum refinery greeted by a smiling gentleman called Oscar Waithe. He is in charge of the laboratory and ensures quality of distillation and fermentation. My time spent with him went into technicalities of all parts of the Rum making process. I saw the end stages of a container of molasses being emptied, and saw the aggressive nature of fermentation in the open fermenters. It was aggressive and very lively. The distillery was old and well- worn. It had a sense of nostalgia. It was not modern. But then for the world’s oldest Rum brand I am not sure if that would be appropriate. The tour was comprehensive and thoroughly enjoyable. It was and honour and a pleasure to have met with Oscar.
With time the only obstacle we moved on to St Nicholas Abbey. An old sugar plantation, with a wonderful rich colourful history. The site was made all the more beautiful by its setting deep within a dense forest and surrounded by sugar fields. This was picture perfect and very reminiscent of a bygone era. Central to all of this was a stunning old house that was owned by the plantation owner in the old days. I watched a fascinating DVD that showed the old ways of life in a sugar plantation. I drank 3 phenomenal rums. St Nicholas Abbey White, 10 years old and the very exclusive 15 year old. I saw one of the most incredible small yet modern stills, which is a hybrid of a copper pot and copper single column. Her name is Annabelle. What topped that, was the fact she was on and was distilling. I had never seen a column still in full flow. The column had glass windows at each plate, seeing this really bought the complicated process to life. The building next door to the still housed a very special old steam operated sugar crushing mill. I truly had stepped back in time. I took stock for moment and spoke to one of the employees whose job it was to make fresh sugar cane honey. The collection of old artefacts was remarkable. Old sugar cane juice boiling pots and other things I cannot even begin to describe. The abbey only currently produces the white rum out of the three expressions in the family of Rums. The re-launch of production at the Abbey was aided by Richard Seale from Four Square Distillery. He helped them with the process of concentrating the pressed sugar cane juice used to make the White Rum. It allows the fresh juice to have an extended shelf life. This was a totally new process to me. It was not something that I previously knew about. It was great to find out, that the team at the abbey were busy laying down many barrels of Rum, with a view to hopefully building stock of aged Rums for the future. It was a remarkable property that left me in a state of admiration. I felt happy to have seen such a great place.
We stopped for lunch at a great coastal restaurant. The pulled pork sandwich was great. We drove down a winding coast road and then I fell asleep. The heat and full belly had taken their toll. We arrived at Four Square distillery. I was greeted by the owner Richard Seale. The property was grand and vast. A long drive way and flat open land that was surrounded large cane fields. It was impressive to say the least. The buildings were modern and the general up keep was phenomenal. It was a truly great site that had the visitor at the heart of its function. It was a far cry from the quaint and artisanal operation at St Nicholas Abbey, and was a very different entity to the Mount Gay Rum refinery. It was also all self-contained. It has the entire process all in one place, from fermentation to final bottling. Not many rum brands can boast this complete control over all the processes involved in making Rum. I had a great tour with Richard. He is a true pioneer. His opinions were strong and his views on Rum were structured and very assured. His ideas about the ACRM were also interesting. The distillery was modern and full of bespoke creations. Richard’s stills were completely unique and he made sure he pointed this out. He really is a true master craftsman. It was great to talk shop with him. I enjoyed a sampling of his range of Rums. You can taste the labour of love that goes into his products. I was particularly touched when he gave me a taste of his new expression Doorly’s 12 year old. I was even happier when he presented me with a full bottle to take home. It truly is a great drop and is already getting acclaim from Drinks experts.
I headed back to the hotel and bid Beardy farewell. It was a great day. A casual dinner at a Restaurant in town, and as few Rum and Gingers ended a memorable day. It had been a great trip. The words whistle stop and whirl wind don’t quite sum up the feeling I had. It was a truly breath-taking leap into the project. As sad as I was to be leaving the next day, a final lunch by Bridgetown in the sunshine was a relaxing and pleasant finish to the trip. Although the Caribbean leg of this campaign was over the fun has only just begun.
‘The views expressed above are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of WIRSPA Inc’.