Day two at the Barbados Rum Experience meant a double dose of distilleries: Mount Gay and St Nicholas Abbey. The tours were so comprehensive we’ve decided to split the blogs up and come back to the latter at the end of the week. So today is Mount Gay Day!
What everybody knows about Mount Gay rum is that it’s the oldest rum distillery in the world, dating back to 1703. For context, Littlemill claims to be Scotland’s oldest licensed distillery going back to 1772 and it’s about 305 years older than the first cat meme. The date 1703 comes from a deed found but records also show that rum was being made here as early as 1654 on what was then known as Mount Gilboa by the amazingly named Sober family from the UK. They weren’t the ones making what was known back then as Kill Devil, Rumbullion, or demon water as they were absentee landlords. One notably good distillery manager was Sir John Gay Alleyne who was honoured after he died by John Sober by giving the distillery his name. There was already a Mount Alleyne, and you couldn’t very well bottle something called Sober Rum, could you?
Our tour today began referencing this illustrious past, with Mount Gay being described as a hallowed place, the cradle of rum, and a living museum, one you can touch with rummy artefacts and records dotted around. It was not lost on our group that we were invited into the actual working distillery itself, not the visitor centre about a twenty-minute drive away, to relive a history you can only live here. Happily for the consistency of this blog series, the first thing estate rum manager Maggie Campbell wanted to talk about happened to pick up right where Richard Seale left off yesterday, concerning molasses from Barbados and trying to recapture the golden age when it was world-renowned.
Campbell says there’s lots of factors that made the Bajan stuff stand out, like regular rain and little hurricane season which allows for an even growth, or the gentle breezes at harvest time that would have powered the windmills to grind cane. At its peak in 1846, there were 506 windmills in Barbados, second only to the Netherlands in the world. Barbados was also where techniques like the ‘Jamaica Train’ process were invented and the first place to use sugar cane byproduct (bagasse) as fuel, while the salty sea air and unique bright white limestone clay soil had, and continue to have, an obvious impact, all of the above leading to quality molasses that presented a sense of place. We know this because we tasted it, both local and imported molasses side-by-side. The former was lighter, sweeter, and more floral while the latter is darker, chocolatey, and more bitter.
Making molasses Bajan
Today, Mount Gay imports 80% of its molasses, with the rest being Bajan product including estate-grown crop. The surrounding area was once full of Trinidadian sugar cane brought in by demand from the sugar industry, but after purchasing the land in 2015, Mount Gay undertook a huge process to replant with Bajan cane. On the implantable hilly half of the estate are food forests, orchards of Bajan cherries and passion fruits, bee hives, and a solar farm. It’s a small first step, but what was old is new again as Mount Gay is now farming and crushing its own supply of molasses, trying to capture how rum was made back in 1703.
A three-roller mill crushes the sugar cane to extract the juice very gently to mirror how it would have been done by windmill power. The juice is then simmered into a syrup and transferred into vacuum pans where the syrup is again simmered slowly to drive out moisture and cause the sucrose to crystalise. There’s no fixed plan of what to do with the byproduct sugar, but Campbell’s talk of making a good Daiquiri with it suggests it can be effectively repurposed. The syrup is sent to a centrifuge where it is spun to create small batches of molasses, as this mill operates at 1/100th the size of Worthy Park, for context.
The molasses is then held in 15-feet deep stone vats that can hold 100 tonnes. The younger molasses looks like caramel, the longer it rests the more it reduces and forms a thick black crust. It’s not ageing or fermenting though, it’s an antibacterial product that looks after itself and whatever falls in, stays. I can’t do justice to the smell that fills the air, but the best I can do is say the aroma is thick, sticky, treacley, and reminds me of Christmas. Terroir is also impacted by the mineral-rich water, sourced from a 300-feet deep well. What was originally a sinkhole is government-protected and this supply is the reason a distillery is here in the first place.
Two fermentations, two distillations
There are two fermentations that place here, a controlled environment and an open-air alternative. For the former, they pitch selected yeast into a pre-fermenter container and then move the fully-grown yeast into a new container for fermentation. The Brix, temperature, and pH are heavily observed for 36-48 hours in French oak fermenters to ensure they reach the desired levels to create an exact wash. If there’s a mistake, it’s thrown out and they start again.
Outside on the hills of St Lucy, there are five wooden vats where the open-air fermentation takes place. The propriety yeast is used here too, but the environment controls its growth. Barbadian flavour is breathed in by the vats in a singular atmosphere benefitting from the presence of natural yeast, adding flavour to the wash that will only be partly lost in distillation.
The two washes are combined and ready to be distilled and Mount Gay also has two options here, pot or column still distillation. The former occurs in a pair of Scottish (6,000-litre capacity) and a pair of Spanish (4,000-litre capacity) double retort pot stills, where rum is double distilled and condensed with a worm tub, or the pot still cooling tank as it’s called here. The condenser is actually the oldest part of the distillery dating back to the 18th century, and is so cool for worm tub nerds like us to see. Downstairs is the spirit safe where we nosed some new make, full of aromas of chocolate, almond, brown apples and banana, and an unmistakable molasses element like treacle cake.
Restoration and maturation
In the column still, copper plates compose the chambers, while the wash enters near the top and sinks. The still is heated from the bottom causing alcohol vapours and other volatile molecules to rise and when they make contact with the plates they condense. The heavier elements that make up the aromatics are left behind, creating a lighter, more concentrated and consistent spirit that has light citrus and fruit flavours.
The pride of the distillery is an entirely copper Coffey still dating to the 40s that was last operational in 1976. Staff would drink straight off the still such was the quality of the spirit that run off it, which was akin to agricole or clairin in style. For years the still lay strewn in pieces across the distillery site, but in 2018 it was reconstructed, in part with the help of former master distiller Reynold ‘Blues’ Hinds who worked here from 1965 when he was 15 until his death in 2020. It now runs about three times a year and needs a proprietary wash to work. While it’s currently not present in any rum on the market, some special editions using spirit made in this still are on the way.
Mount Gay rum is matured across four bond warehouses with 44,000 barrels on site currently, but a new warehouse is under construction with an additional 20,000 capacity. It’s mostly bourbon casks here as well as some Cognac and a few experimental varieties like Madeira for occasional releases and/or research purposes. Each barrel is graded from A (first-fill) to D based on its previous use, while a white sticker means pot still and red sticker means column still, as the two are never aged combined. The average temperature in Barbados is 30 degrees Celsius (the record low is an enviable 16) and spirit ages about five times faster than it does in Scotland, so hearing that there is rum as old as 30 here was a pleasant surprise.
Shooting straight and here’s to 320 more!
Arguably the biggest treat of the day was getting to taste 11-year-old column and 10-year-old pot still rum straight from the cask to appreciate the blending components that master blender Trudiann Branker will use in XO Triple Cask Blend. The former was presented at 61.9% ABV from a Grade A bourbon cask and was sublime. Slap a Velier label on that bad boy and you could name a price. It has a full fruity bouquet from the column full of tropical congeners paired with oaky vanilla, mocha, coconut, and caramel.
The pot still sample was pulled at 61.3% ABV from a Grade D bourbon cask and a different beast entirely, so refined and mellow. The fruitiness is green apple and apricots, there’s aromatic spice, tobacco, and a slight hint of funk. The ability to distil and select this quality of pot still is what makes Mount Gay, according to Branker. Once again, you could bottle this without any adulteration and it would be snapped up (hopefully some independent bottlers are getting the hint).
Our tour ended on this high note, with Branker noting that next year is the 320th (!) anniversary and hinting that we can expect premium releases to celebrate. This is in keeping with the impression I got today from Mount Gay, a distillery with a hell of history but one that is looking forward, investing in capacity and terroir while gearing up for big things. It demonstrates faith in the rum category as a whole and in rum made in Barbados, but also that nobody here is trading on heritage alone. On the basis of the love, detail, and respect this generation of rum makers approach their craft with that we’ve seen today, another 320 years could well be on the cards.