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Silent Witness

By Andrew Nicholls

So what is Rum?

The bartender in me is inclined to preach the word of sugarcane, molasses, fermentation, distillation and ageing. Prior to my visit to Barbados and Grenada, rum was the GREAT tasting result of a pretty controlled process made in a part of the world most of us regard to be a little piece of paradise.


2_sugarcane_field.jpgArriving at passport control in Barbados Airport I was confronted with my first example of just how relevant this liquid gold is to Caribbean culture. I handed my passport and landing card to the officer, he glanced over it, noticed I had ticked the Business box under reason for visiting Barbados and proceeded to ask, “What is your business in Barbados?” 

“Well Sir, I’m here to drink and learn about rum.” 

He glanced at me for a second and then proceeded to advise me that I should try Mount Gay XO as that was his favorite. I was about to thank him when suddenly from the booth next to us I heard another Officer yell, “Doorley’s XO…you have to try Doorley’s XO!”

 

Just then, another officer yelled out, “Try da Mount Gay XO wid da coconut water!”

 

3-field-worker.jpgUnder the joyful sound of my chuckle I thought to myself; this is by a mile the most awesome welcome to a country I have ever had. The warmth of Bajan hospitality didn’t stop there. Our driver known as Beardy (he did have an impressive beard) continued the rum chat from the airport to the hotel and in true West Indies style, was sure to throw in a bit of cricket chat here and there. Banter bounced between how to best enjoy Rum and the cricketing brilliance displayed by Bajan greats like Sir Garfield Sobers, Desmond Haynes and Malcom Marshal. To put this in perspective, I am a South African residing in The Netherlands where to be honest the average persons understanding of rum is basic at best and cricket is an insect that keeps the Dutch awake at night while on holiday in a country where the sun actually shines. My trip to paradise was to be short, but I was in a happy place…

 

Our welcome at the hotel was chilled out, cheerful and the first thing I remember hearing from the receptionist was, “Would you like a welcome glass of rum punch?”

 

The other members of ACR and I gratefully accepted our ice cold glasses of rum punch, walked passed the hotel swimming pool and straight onto the beach where we buried our feet in ridiculously white sand (honestly, as white as a rich Californian’s teeth). This is the kind of stuff bartenders dream of doing. We love the products we work with and to sip great rum on the island which gave birth to the category in the Caribbean was a moment we will never forget. Friendships were being formed and central to those friendships was the understanding that is was literally Authentic Caribbean Rum which had brought us together. Fresh off the plane, we still had no idea of just how important this liquid gold is to the great people of the Caribbean Countries. Day two would soon teach that lesson.

 

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Nine AM. Bear in mind, bartenders are creatures of the night. As someone once said, bartenders are like gynecologists; we work where others play. This is pretty true apart from the fact it takes us longer to clean up after play time than your average gyne (at least I hope thats the case…). Nine AM is early for a meeting of night creatures, but when your meeting is with many of the biggest names in rum production, you make sure you’re there on time, bright eyed and saturated with coffee. There was warmth in the room. Not in an interior design or temperature kind of way, but in a way that reminded me of decency, chivalry and an understanding of common ground. When these men and women spoke, there was passion, determination and a hint of concern. There was no talk of marketing budgets or profit margins, but instead a desire to simply teach people what Authentic Caribbean Rum really is and what makes it so special. There were differing opinions on how the best rum should be made and being a drinks geek, I started our afternoon tasting session asking each producer about their molasses, still types and ageing methods. Talking to the distillers themselves quickly made realize the human factor behind what I was tasting. This isn’t just a product, but a representation of cultures formed by a bitter sweet history and a need to forget, forgive, embrace, celebrate  and pave a future. Throughout the modern history of this region, the one common man made factor has been the exquisite liquid which was now being swirled around the inner circumference of my glass.

 

It hit me. In the space of 24 hours rum had made me laugh with officers at passport control, given me a wonderful conversation with Beardy and gifted me with the feeling of fine white sand between my toes while I got to know people I am now happy to call friends. I had met master distillers and members of political delegations and not once did I feel out of place or insignificant. In the days that followed, we visited distilleries on Barbados and I was fortunate enough to hop island to Grenada, where once again, it was the human factor (and more amazing rum) that won me over.

 

4-tractor.jpgI have visited numerous international distilleries producing many different spirits and in a world where everything is driven by someone else’s story, it was nice to be given a chance to create my own story with people of today who will reminisce with me tomorrow. Rum doesn’t tell you what to do (how it “should be consumed”), but invites you to sit by its side and simply get to know it. It’s the most daring, intimidating and enjoyable spirit to get to know because it’s down to you. You can’t pretend to be snob like the pretenses displayed by those who act significant simply because they have a glass of single malt or cognac (for the record, single malt and cognac are awesome, but some of the pseudo people who drink it…not so much) in their hand.

 

To all the wonderful people I met on this trip, I raise my glass to you and toast to a time when we’ll all look back on our stories with smiles on our faces and a well charged glass of Authentic Caribbean Rum in hand. This is our time…

‘The views expressed above are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of WIRSPA Inc.’

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