Macaws and steam trains aren’t what you’d expect to see at a distillery, but then St. Nicholas Abbey isn’t your average rum maker. After visiting the old giants of Bajan rum at Mount Gay, heading north to the island’s newer boutique rum distillery feels like quite the contrast. The word distillery doesn’t quite encompass what this place is. One of the premier tourist attractions in Barbados, St. Nicholas Abbey boasts a restored Jacobean-style mansion, manicured gardens, a museum, a dining area surrounded by jungle, exotic birds, and more including an actual steam train.
What you see first is the great house, built by Colonel Benjamin Berringer in 1658. But this impressive sight was never a religious institution, despite the name. This is a plantation. Here slaves, predominately from Africa and, to a lesser degree, prisoners and indentured servants from Ireland and Scotland, worked the land farming sugarcane and making rum. ‘Free men’ are recorded working here for a pittance even after slavery was abolished in 1833. This place is a beauty spot on the bright face of Barbados, but also a sobering reminder that rum’s story is often an ugly one.
During our tour we hear about this history, complete with records and artefacts. A reproduction of ledgers showing the prices paid for individual men and women, while the abbey has an ongoing archaeological program, managed by the College of William and Mary, places special focus on artefacts related to slave life on the plantation. There are some odd choices, however. In one room, portraits of former slavers are still hung and, instead of contextualising the splendour of the house and their rank with the reality of whose blood and sweat it was built on, there’s quaint remarks about one of them being the ancestor of Benedict Cumberbatch as well as a portrait of the current owner. We understand that plans are in place to upgrade the house museum to convey more about the slaves’ life and contributions.
370 years of history
There’s so much history here. One interesting record is a survey taken between 1717 and 1721 that lists 870 estates and 320 windmills used for sugar production in Barbados, including what was known then as Dottin Plantation. The name Nicholas comes from George Nicholas, husband to the founder’s granddaughter, Susanna. The story is actually quite amazing. Berringer was killed in a duel with his neighbour, Sir John Yeamans, who then married Berringer’s widow and is said to have claimed the abbey as his. The Colonel’s children took the matter to court in 1669 and won, so Yeamans moved to British America with his wife, where they helped found South Carolina.
The Nicholas Family sold the plantation to Joseph Dottin and it found its way to Sir John Gay Alleyne (of Mount Gay fame) in October 1746, where his considerable knowledge of rum distillation would have been invaluable. It’s not clear exactly when rum production ceased initially, but history shows that St. Nicholas was no longer a functioning plantation by 1947, over 300 years after cane was first cut here. The house passed by marriage to Charles Cave in 1834 and his family owned the abbey until 2003 when Lt. Colonel Stephen Cave OBE passed.
This brings us to the new era of St. Nicholas Abbey, led by Barbados native and noted architect Larry Warren. His career has been one of specialising in historical preservation, and since 2006 his family have overseen restoration to create a heritage attraction, cultural centre, and self-supporting sugar works. They’ve fixed up the great house, installed a distillery and bottling facility, and added the St. Nicholas Abbey Heritage Railway. Take it up Cherry Tree Hill 850 feet above sea-level and see the best view in all of Barbados.
Making St. Nicholas Abbey rum
The vision to preserve the plantation and turn it into a visitor attraction actually dates back to 1983 when the last steam mill of its kind in Barbados dating back to 1890 was brought to St. Nicholas Abbey by a venture between the Canadian High Commission, Colonel Cave, and the Barbados National Trust. The Warrens saw this project through, restoring and re-commissioning the mill which is now used to grind sugar cane for St. Nicholas Abbey’s rum production.
A select variety of sugar cane unique to the plantation is crushed to extract the juice and then fed to a vacuum evaporator which reduces and pasteurises it to create a syrup commonly known as ‘sugar cane honey’. This can be stored for future rehydration to ensure year-round production since the Barbados crop season is only from February to June. St. Nicholas Abbey is the only independent processor of sugar cane for the production of cane syrup. An on-site well and mill pump provide clean water.
Fermentation takes five days in 3000-litre tanks and the yeast brings all the bacteria necessary as the refined syrup is coming in so clean. Larry tells us that he put a lot of effort into understanding the complexity of pH levels and temperature control in the fermentation on advice from Foursquare rum maker Richard Seale, and more emphasis is put on this stage than in distillation. It reflects in the spirit I feel, which we’ll come back to later.
Distillation takes place in small batches in Annabelle, a traditional pot still with a rectifying column tailored to produce a light rum at 92% ABV, which is diluted to 65% for ageing, some of which occurs in a cellar where the pigs used to be kept. The new make rests for three months in stainless steel tanks before being transferred into bourbon barrels by Larry himself. Located in the highlands, the plantation enjoys cooling trade wind breezes that aid maturation but it’s still the Caribbean, so the contents of the barrels are removed and re-barrelled after three years to ensure an even characteristic to the vintage. Older barrels are also preferred for that subtle interaction. There’s no adulteration whatsoever of the rum, including no blending, with everything from cane to bottling done here at the micro-distillery.
Part of an experience
Warren did what many do when starting a distillery and bought in some stock to get things going (from Foursquare, no less) but any St. Nicholas Abbey bottling from post-2012 will be its own, like the 5 Year Old as well as the unaged products. We’re told by 2025 the full range will be St. Nicholas Abbey, and there are goals to make rum as old as 30 and 40-years-old. The distillery is also the custodian of eleven bottles of 20-year-old and four bottles of 25-year-old Foursquare rum. There’s no concrete plan in place of what to do with them, but even knowing they exist is exciting stuff.
What you won’t ever likely see from St. Nicholas Abbey is a high volume of rum, however. The production here is tiny, with the distillery only producing about 40 barrels a year and Larry says only about 10 are sold. Hence why it’s pricey stuff. There’s also no plan to expand either as the Warrens have tried to create a distillery that’s part of a wider experience. You can buy the rum outside of Barbados, including from us, but the real ambition is to bring people into this historical space and let the rum help tell the story.
We got to try some of it, including a sample of St Nicholas Abbey White Rum to take home and taste (everything tastes good in the distillery it’s made in, particularly in Barbados). It’s creamy and fruity, and while it’s not agricole, it does have some of that vegetal brightness too. What I like most is that it’s distinctively different from Mount Gay and Foursquare rum. How close it is to what was made here over the centuries is impossible to say, but I think the island benefits from having a space that brings the culture, craft, and (often dark) history of rum to the fore so comprehensively. St. Nicholas Abbey is certainly one of the most unique distilleries I’ve ever seen. It has its own train, for goodness sake.