The final day of the Barbados Rum Experience had Adam in a reflective mood as he attended the last raft of seminars.
If there’s anything you can say about the Barbados Rum Experience, it’s that it does what it says on the tin. This has been a week about Bajan rum. It’s the only Barbadian event dedicated exclusively to the rum industry of Barbados, and huge effort and organisation have gone into the purpose of educating the participants on its production, heritage, and culture in a bid to greater appreciate the spirit and elevate its status so it is known as one of the finest in the world.
All of this has been enjoyed by participants from Barbados as well as America, Canada, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, and more. And both natives and those who are guests on this beautiful island very much experienced a week not just in Barbados, but concerning it. The festival has been as much about Barbados as it has been about rum, whether that’s been deep dives into its history, anthropology, or customs, or the cuisine, cocktails, and conversations provided by the locals.
This was evident in a seminar from noted Bajan professor of medicine and former senator Sir Henry Fraser. His talk was littered with personal anecdotes, medical expertise, and notes from academic records that concerned the history of booze culture in Barbados. There was discussion on the role of rum in the social lives of agricultural workers as well as a charting of the decline of the rum shop as a casualty of modern convenience.
An experience of Barbados and rum
Elsewhere, Dr. Geoff Ward brought expertise in Bajan water to the table, showing how its soft limestone geology meant access to the kind of quality H2O that rum makers have been accessing for generations or how something as humble as a site like Beckles Spring can be a catalyst for seismic change simply because of an accessible and plentiful supply of fresh water.
It’s easy to assume that it was simply spirit quality that built Bajan rum. But the reason why the modern infrastructure of rum began on such a small island, and why Barbados and its capital Bridgetown became the focal point of the British empire during the mid-18th century, is also due to factors like geologic formation, access to fresh water, an efficient shipping system, and its eastern position making it a relatively safe haven from much of the naval conflict that was a feature of the period.
Somebody who knows all about Bajan rum is Richard Seale, who returned with a comprehensive explanation of the difference between batch and continuous distillation. Given we were at Foursquare yesterday I’ve updated that blog with the relevant information, which was considerable. The bottom line is this: the man is fascinating, and it’s no surprise he makes rum of quality given his vast and impassioned expertise.
Rum as resistance
Dr. Tara Inniss was also back to discuss the enslaved burial ground at Newton, Christ Church in the south of the island. The site along the side of a sugar cane field is the largest and earliest slave burial ground discovered in Barbados, which has been nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. She defines it as a key archaeological site for our understanding of the lives of the enslaved in the Caribbean as the only extant communal excavated slave burial ground in a sugar plantation context in the western hemisphere.
Dr. Inniss’ research details how rum and sugar were modes of resistance for the slaves with records showing the community was known for its theft and illegal marketing of cane and rum and she explains how they were a major backdrop for stories of fetes on the estate while plantation managers were away. Her summation is that Newton Burial Ground is part of the legacy that is the sugar landscape and a testimony to the enslaved Africans who worked, died, and were buried on the plantation.
At the conclusion of the week, I’m left slightly reeling from the sheer depth and breadth of knowledge that has been extolled. The Barbados Rum Experience is not so much a rum festival as a scholarship from a university that just happens to have the best-stocked student bar ever and a five-star beach location.
Looking forwards and back
That said, there were a couple of things I would have liked to see. For example, bartenders. They are the most consistently engaged ambassadors of their local spirit and I would like to have heard about their experience. One location I was made aware of was Rum Vault Barbados, which houses 150 rums and offers rum flights and tastings with multi-course dining options and rum pairings. Their approach of selling Bajan rum to locals by treating it like wine is an interesting perspective, and while the seminars this week were superb it wouldn’t hurt to hear more from those directly within the drinks business and actually selling rum on the island.
Outside of the seminars, the other stars of the show were the distilleries which were strongly represented throughout. Although Gayle and her son Christian Seale were the obvious front-facing organisers running the event, they were as much cheerleaders for Mount Gay and St Nicholas Abbey despite their obvious Foursquare connection. There is clearly a community built on rum here and one that promises to deliver for the industry.
Which would appear to be in rude health. Dr. Drayton on the first day said that all of us here were advocates for Barbados’ most charismatic ambassador: rum. In truth, it’s not a hard sell. This week has been the story of everything that goes into booze, a mighty blend of humanity. Although if you still need convincing that Barbados rum deserves to be experienced, nothing could convert you more than how bloody good it tastes.