Today’s seminars concerned hard truths, myth-busting, and lots of sugarcane as we spent another day in Barbados deepening our understanding of rum.

Welcome back to our coverage of the Barbados Rum Experience, the third day of which saw us return to the conference room for seminars. So far, nobody has really said anything about pirates or parties, not even to dismiss these classic rum stereotypes. It hasn’t really needed to be addressed. This is rum nerd Mecca, and people here are clearly very passionate about the real history of rum and the Caribbean. 

The simple beauty of sugar

Sugar’s a pretty big part of that. Yes, the raw material of rum was the subject of our first seminar of the day from Dr. Richard Drayton who returned to trace the labour and capital-intensive story of the sweet from New Guinea via Buddha, Islamic science, alchemical magic, claims to the New World, mercantilism, Caribbean production, and the future of sugar in Barbados. 

Next up was agricultural manager at Mount Gay distilleries, Jacklyn Broomes. She manages the sugarcane there so appropriately her chosen topic was also the crop. Broomes broke down the biology of sugar cane, from its characteristics, propagation, and cultivation as well as the way it impacts the chemistry of rum. The two experts very much took the rum-loving crowd back to school, who are now surely excellent pub quiz team members if sugar ever comes up.  

Across both seminars, the story of sugarcane unveiled what a fascinating grass it is. We learned about its biological makeup and how this allows the cane to supercharge sunlight into glucose and fructose. We saw how it became a measure of wealth during the early modern period equivalent to gold and silver due to how precious and in demand it was. Then there’s practical implications of growing and cultivating sugarcane. Farmers have to appreciate each variety’s yield and sucrose content, how adaptive it is to mechanical harvest, how immune it is to disease, how prone it is to rat damage, or how it germinates. That’s not even the full list.

Every strain has its strengths and weaknesses, and of course for the modern grower, there’s also sustainable measures like implementing organic initiatives on typically small islands without access to the required resources to consider. The core of the rum industry is people who work on all of the above to ensure there is a crop that can create our tasty grog. It’s not possible without them. 

Barbados Rum Experience

Agricultural manager at Mount Gay distilleries, Jacklyn Broomes

Recognising raw material and hard truths

It’s also timely because conversations concerning the raw material of booze are becoming more prevalent. Even in the five years I’ve been doing this gig, factors like fermentation, mashing, grain bill, and the sourcing and character of the raw material are increasingly becoming the focus of discussion. Terroir has already featured in both BRE blogs this week (and now a third) and it’s clear that plenty in Barbados are understanding the future of molasses production is rum. There’s talk here about the potential for sugarcane varieties to be showcased in rum similar to what we see from distilleries like Waterford or in mezcal. So far, sugar has taken more of a stage here in Barbados just three days in than it ever did in Willy Wonka’s gaff. 

Where people would have been more interested in cask profiles, for example, the debate here was alive in how sugar defines the spirit character of rum and how key the culture around it was to shaping the Caribbean. The drinks world can act like the extent to which the market for sugar and rum changed the world and was at the centre of the bloody, complex, and challenging road to modernity is none of our business. But we can’t know or deal with Barbados rum without comprehending the molasses market that enabled it and how it was linked with its intense, violent colonisation and the construction of modern ideas of racism.

Questioning how we understand rum is very much the point of the Barbados Rum Experience, ultimately. So full marks there. Dr. Frederick Smith was back to do his bit by talking about rum, slavery, and resistance in Barbados. We touch on it at times, but it’s not a conversation that’s put front and centre enough in this industry. Much like the story across the Caribbean, Barbados’ prosperous sugar landscape was built on the back of slaves and the foundations of rum production too were enabled by forced labour on plantations. It’s a history that underpins so much of the development of the modern world and, as such, is an issue that deserves so much more than just a note in one article so we will revisit the topic in full later many times. But suffice to say, a tot of rum should never be taken without an acknowledgment of the exploitation that was present as the foundations of the industry were laid.

rum slaves

Slaves load rum barrels in Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823) by William Clark. Image credit: British Library

Essential truths and busting myths

We concluded the day with Ian Burrell, global rum ambassador, hosting a panel dedicated to busting rum myths featuring Dr. Smith and Dr. Drayton as well as the returning Dr. Lennox Honychurch and University of West Indies history professor Dr. Tara Innis. We start by asking why Barbados, despite being small with just a handful of distilleries, still qualifies as an industry. The panel is unanimous in its conclusion that it is, due to the value both economic and cultural that it provides and the quality of the spirit made (it’s not the size, but how you use it, as Dr. Honychurch quips).  

Other sticky topics include questioning whether Barbados is the home of rum. Dr. Drayton supports the idea, saying it was the first to scale up sugarcane production and comparing it to football in England. The English weren’t the first to kick a ball, but they were the people who created the structure and identity that defines the sport today. “Who makes the rules gets to claim the game,” as Dr. Drayton summarises. 

Then came a biggie: rum has no rules. Burrell asks the room if any spirit category is governed by an international strict set of rules, not just country regulations, and lists various laws that exist within rum-producing nations. A fair point, but worth considering that it is here in Barbados that is pushing for a GI and Jamaica Rum has recently been successful in the same endeavour, so those within the industry see a need for greater clarity than at least what we have now. This was also a focus of debate, with the panel bemoaning the ease at which pretender rum can pass as Bajan and believing that it is possible to create a body of legislation that ensures the consumer knows what they are buying without creating too many restrictions. 

Barbados Rum Experience

Panel time!

Big debate

That fed into the next debate on categorisation. Colour was pretty quickly dismissed as a means to present rum, as was the classification of calling rum English, French, or Spanish style due to its colonial connotations. The Gargano approach was touched upon, with proof levels, aging, provenance, and source of the blend agreed as being good indicators, but we didn’t reach a consensus today, which was always going to be a big ask.

Slavery and plantation history were also discussed again, with Dr. Innis, in particular, delivering a stirring and nuanced speech on the need for Caribbean countries to own this discussion and ensure it as the forefront of rum dialogue, but also to appreciate that merely imbibing rum today does not condone this past and to understand it is a product of the Caribbean that has a post-emancipation history too.

It’s obvious that rum has a lot of big questions to answer still as a category but the conversations are happening and there is an appetite for the spirit to seize the day in what many are proclaiming as its era. My day, however, is done. Hopefully, somebody here knows where I can get a rum.