The Barbados Rum Experience is back and Adam is fortunate enough to be here for the ride. So he’s going to share his rum diaries from the beautiful island this week, starting with some majestic views, a comprehensive education, and a very welcome rum punch.
The first Barbados Rum Experience was last year but, in truth, people here agree this is the true inaugural show. In 2021, COVID restrictions meant police presence, speakers wearing masks and shields, and a 9pm curfew. This year there’s no such limitations, with guests able to enjoy a fuller and more refined program of rum history and experiences.
The week-long program is split into two main groups: three days of seminars with leading academics taking on the big questions and enlightening guests split by two days of distillery visits to the island’s famous rum makers: Mount Gay, Foursquare, and St Nicholas Abbey Distillery.
I was lucky enough to be invited out to report on all of the above and get behind the scenes with the everyday Barbadians who bring their greatest export to life. So I’m going to keep a rum diary throughout the week, which began the right way with a sweet and satisfying rum punch when we checked in last night. Witnessing the local racehorses being washed in the sea outside our hotel this morning wasn’t a bad way to wake up either.
The beginnings of the Barbados Rum Experience
What really fuelled my morning wasn’t the island glow, but Dr. Richard Drayton’s comprehensive talk on the importance of place. The professor of Imperial History at King’s College showed us the Caribbean from the inside through geography, culture, and what he describes as its greatest ambassador: rum. He presents Barbados as a fascinating outlier, the last extension of the ancient Andes and a coral limestone land, not a volcanic one, with biodiversity closer to South America than its Caribbean neighbours.
At the heart of any spirit is water, Dr. Drayton says, and here the water is filtered through the limestone landscape which shapes the rum that is then made. It’s an interesting point when considering the discussions around a GI for Barbados rum. Mount Gay, Foursquare and St Nicholas Abbey are all in agreement on the proposition which is strengthened when we consider just how unique the island is geologically, and by extension, the spirit it produces.
Identity is the theme of the day. Dr. Frederick Smith, an expert on alcohol in the Caribbean and author of Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History, examines rum’s escapist function in society going back to its birth on Barbados, while Dr. Lennox Honychurch, a noted historian and politician, told us a story of wealth and power in a land defined by sugar and rum by focusing on the now infamous Codrington family. Colonialism, plantation economy, climate, customs, social behavior, institutions, and of course rum, are all viewed and understood through the lens of Barbados across the course of the day.
Back to the Roots of Barbados rum
Our final speaker is intriguingly the only one who actually works in rum full-time, Foursquare CEO and master distiller and blender Richard Seale. His seminar called Back to the Roots was littered with his brand of direct and diligent rum education that’s all about the link between rum and sugar. You need the latter to make the former, obviously, and for centuries Bajan rum was made with Bajan sugar. We go back to Richard Ligon’s early 17th-century record of a rum made entirely on one estate where cane juice and molasses were processed and double distillation in copper stills took place. Seale uses this as a jumping-off point, detailed the way in which sugar production affects the health of rum-making in Barbados.
In 1910, there were 332 sugar works, but a process of centralisation over the years meant that by 1970 all factories had been consolidated into just one: the Barbados Sugar Industries LTD. The number of rum producers also shrunk into the 20th century, with the column still becoming more attractive as well as stricter tax laws, Barbados went from having 158 distillers in 1856 to just five by the 20th century. What was once a place where pot still rum was made across multiple distilleries from native sugar cane became an island with just a few distilleries importing molasses.
A sweeter future
Today, rum production massively outstrips sugar production and Seale warns that Barbados could one day make rum and not sugar cane. The three distilleries we’ll see this week are thankfully trying to correct things. St Nicholas Abbey has been making rum again since 2009 with a sugar mill processing the cane found in its surrounding fields, Mount Gay has acquired 134-hectares of land around its distillery to harvest cane and has installed a new molasses factory, and Foursquare uses some native cane and runs a mill too with Seale motivated to help that re-integration.
It’s a hopeful note worth concluding the first day of the Barbados Rum Experience. After it all, I’m left wondering how beneficial exporting the BRE model could be to other countries where rum is so inextricably linked to the island’s identity like Martinique and Jamaica. Seizing the opportunity to greater showcase what makes your own spirit unique in such a diverse category that sprawls across the world seems like something you should take advantage of. I’m also decompressing from such a comprehensive information download. Another rum punch is called for.