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Barbados; The Cradle of Rum

By Danielle Tatarin

Seeing sugar cane fields in the flesh is a beautiful experience.  The green lush stalks lazily wave in the wind creating a feeling of relaxation just by watching the green waves gently rolling.  The fields of cane are green and crisp with a hint of sweetness in the air surrounding them.   The required use of sugar cane as the fermentable source for the production of rum has made this crop flourish since its introduction to the West Indies in the late part of the 15th century.  Although rum is made in many parts of the world, Barbados and the Caribbean are considered to be the cradle where rum has developed its rich history alongside the sugar industry.

To travel to the Caribbean and experience the hospitality while learning about the history and production of rum is an amazing experience.  At the distilleries, the salty ocean air mixed with fermenting molasses is one that the senses will not soon forget.  Walking through the distilleries in the afternoons the aroma of Rum in all of its states leads the way.   From West Indies Rum Distillery, to Mount Gay to St Nicolas Abbey to Foursquare Distillery each spirit has a different and interesting story to tell.   It’s difficult not to become enchanted by the history of the cane and stories of rum.  The warm sweet salty rum soaked air of Barbados is magnificent.  The heavy air comes thanks to the angels taking their share, those Barbadian angels are some of the luckiest spirit angels. They float away with 6-10% of the share in each barrel.

Before learning and tasting Barbadian rums, there are nuances behind the historic spirit one needs to become familiar with.  The cane is the common denominator as is the land and climate.  The soils on the island are clayey and rich in lime and phosphates.  The cane generally spends around 2 years in the ground before harvesting and although the sugar cane is processed the style and richness of the rums from Barbados is felt. Each distillery’s spirit and process as experienced from field to wash to still to barrel is different as the air in each part of the island.  Yet there is a similarity that comes through with each spirit rendering them unique but at the same time friends sharing the same space. 

The historic Mount Gay Rum lays claim to having the oldest documented rum distillery in the Caribbean and the world, founded in 1703.   Sir John Gay Alleyne was a known amongst his community as a leader and philanthrophist.  Respected amongst his peers he is also known to have spoken out against slavery.  Looking at the history of Rum, the dark facts about its infancy are that the rum was a product of slavery and vice versa, slavery was a product of rum.  As the Rum industry grew in the West Indies the need for cheap labour grew.  Sugar cane was harvested by hand, an arduous and labour intensive task.  What was once known as the triangle trade, ships would come from Africa filled with slaves and be traded for molasses in the West Indies, then to New England where the molasses would be traded for rum and finally back to Western Africa where the cycle would repeat itself.  It wasn’t until the 1800’s when the embargos on the slave trade were imposed that the trade route was abandoned. 

Barbados an original colony of the British and early producer of rum became known for a style of rum coveted by sailors, pirates and socialites.  Apparently George Washington was said to have ordered a barrel of Barbadian rum for his inauguration in 1789.  The coveted rum didn’t start out as delicious and in fact was first described by a 17th century writer as “hot, hellish and terrible”, it was only a few years later that the method of aging in barrels was found to soften the spirit.   Soon the rums were described as “smoother on the tongue” by way of ageing in oak barrels. The popularity of Mount Gay Rum amongst sailors has been a constant since the brands inception during the early ages of rum production.  As an expression of Barbadian Rum, Mount Gay can be described as floral and fruity with hints of vanilla, smoke, toasted oak and spice.   It has a long sweet but spicy toasted oak finish.  Paired with coconut water on a beach, it could be the perfect pairing if one is truly enjoying island time. 

Where Mount Gay has history, St. Nicolas Abbey could be argued as one of the most beautiful setting for rum distilleries on Barbados.  It too has a rich history, dating the house back to 1658 when it was built by Colonel Benjamin Beringer, the property is know as one of the oldest surviving plantations on the island.  The original boundaries of the plantation are still intact claiming over 400 acres of flowing sugar cane fields, mahogany forests, tropical oasis and lush gardens.  The house is actually one of three remaining rare 17th century style Jacobsen mansions.    The elegance of the setting prepares the palate for a unique small batch spirit created by the Warren family to preserve the island’s heritage.  They consulted with one of the industry’s leading Master Distillers, Richard Seale of Four Square Distillery, to assist in creating their authentic recipe.  The white rum and all of the rum for that matter, produced at St. Nicolas Abbey are some of the most unique and beautiful expressions of the spirit.  The rum is produced from sugar cane grown on the property and uses a single crushing in a steam mill to extract the sugar cane juice, which is reduced to sugar cane ‘honey’.  Their fermentation process takes 6 days in 1500L tanks using and a Scotch Whisky yeast to produce a unique cane wine for distillation in their special hybrid pot/column still named Annabelle for double distillation.  After the distillation the spirit is not chill filtered, only water is added to produce a gorgeous white rum deliciously fit for bottles or into barrels where it is aged to produce some of the worlds best single barrel rum.  The small bottling line where the final product is finished is a hybrid of old and new with technology and artisan methods and antique décor in a small house on the property where everything done by hand, be it labeling or filling of each bottle.    The aromas from the spirit are warm and inviting with honey, tropical fruit and creamy butter leading the way.  Then on the palate, spices, papaya, citrus and melon are present alongside a peppery finish that is delightfully complex. 

While St. Nicolas Abbey has history and beauty wrapped into a neat package, Foursquare Distillery has technology and know how of Richard Seale at the helm.  Like all the previous noted plantations the history of Foursquare goes all the way back to 1636 where it is built on the site of a former sugar factory.  RL Seale purchased the factory site and installed state of the art stills as well as designed the distillery to reduce the environmental impact of the spirits produced here.  Such as the capturing of carbon dioxide during fermentation and operating multiple column stills in partial vacuum to reduce the heat produced.  Richard is a wealth of knowledge on all things rum and meeting him one gets schooled on categorization of rums and well everything rum in general from fermentation to distillation to bottling, sitting with Richard is an experience and education that will help you discern each sip of rum you take after in a different light.  Doorly’s XO Rum produced by Foursquare distillery is a delicious blend of rums no less than six years old finished in Oloroso Sherry casks.  On the nose hints of banana, caramel and sherry come through.  On the palate the spiciness of the island comes through in allspice, cinnamon and pepper that gives way to banana and citrus with the accompaniment of oak and sherry.

Last but not least on the tour of distilleries in Barbados, the West Indies Rum Distillery is located near the ocean with spectacular views of the azure waters glistening in the tropical sunlight and palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze.  One of the largest and most industrial of the Barbadian distilleries, West Indies Rum Distillery produces Cockspur Rum and the successful Malibu Coconut liqueur.    They boast the most modern 4 column continuous still in the Caribbean giving them the production capacity of 150,000 cases per year.  Walking through the distillery seeing the fermentation tanks, one needs to take caution not to inhale too deeply in front of the gigantic steel tanks for fear of becoming overwhelmed by the gasses being released.  Looking down through the grated floor to the ground far below one takes caution and holds the rails high in the air suspended on a track at the top of 4 stainless steel 230 cubic meter capacity fermenting tanks.  The fact that you are high above ground, one gets an idea of the sheer volume of spirits created from 60 tonnes of molasses per batch of fermentation at the distillery which runs 24-7, 365 days a year. 

Rums produced in the Caribbean under the ACR standards are defined as spirit distilled from the fermentable sugars derived from the sugar cane plant and distilled below 96% abv.   ACR rums are unique in the world of rums where as they do not permit the use of flavourings.  By celebrating the unique tastes of the island through many expressions and styles of rum, the craftsmanship and history of rum one can see how Barbadian rum sets the bar for other rums to follow.

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

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