Barbados rum: the spirit of the sugar cane

Andrew Marshall snaps down sweet perfection in some of Barbados’s many rum shops

  • A rum shop at Oistins on the south coast. Photograph by Paul Marshall
  • Enjoying a beer inside a Barbados rum shop. Photograph by Paul Marshall
  • This rum shop has been sponsored and painted in Absolut vodka colours. Photograph by Paul Marshall

In Barbados, the chances of finding rum wherever you go are about 1,000 per cent—one per cent for every rum shop on the island. Part pub, part convenience store, part social centre, these sugar-cane shacks are the best places to “fire one” with your friendly neighbourhood Bajans.

The island, 21 miles by 14, lies east of the Windward Island chain, a coral charm dangling on a volcanic necklace. It may be relatively small in size, but in the world of rum, it’s massive. In fact, Bajans are said to have been the first to concoct the hearty cane liquor, in the mid-17th century. It was about that time the word “rum”—an abbreviation of “rumbullion”—was coined in the tippling houses of the capital, Bridgetown, where life was certainly rumbustious.

It’s estimated that, back then, the average man in Barbados drank well over 20 gallons per year. Today, if a Bajan asks you to “down a booze,” “fire one” or “have a snap,” it’s an invitation to one of the local rum shops—colourful watering holes that convey the local spirit as fluently as Dublin’s pubs speak of the Irish.

Rum shops are found in every village and town and at almost every crossroads or street corners where people pass by. Driving along narrow, winding country lanes often fringed with billowing stalks of sugar cane, you can’t help but notice these vibrant establishments.

Saturday afternoon in Barbados’ northernmost parish, St Lucy: inside Kiddies Bar it’s a bustling scene with a reggae soundtrack. People come and go; some play cards, dominoes or warri (a version of backgammon), while others hang out at the bar ordering drinks and chatting about cricket. Through the open windows drifts the sound of dreadlocked cricketers limbering up for a friendly match.

“The traditional way of drinking rum is to have a ‘snap’ poured into a shot glass, and then straight down the hatch,” says a Kiddies regular, Rupert London, who lived in his namesake city for a dozen years. “Barbados’ pub scene has some similarities to London’s, but it’s a lot warmer and more colourful here.” He orders a flask and proudly slides a couple of full glasses across to his new acquaintances.

Rum shops sell other alcoholic drinks and double as convenience stores, offering tinned goods and snacks. The majority of shops are sponsored by big-name drinks companies: Guinness, Heineken, Banks (the island’s own hugely popular beer), Johnnie Walker, Absolut and, of course, Mount Gay rum. Exteriors are often painted with huge, brightly coloured logos, and interior walls are festooned with posters of scantily-clad models beckoning patrons to enjoy their brands.

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“It’s to encourage people to try other drinks,” says London as he downs another snap. “But most people end up sticking to rum or beer.” Every rum shop has its own character and its own patrons. Bajans are gracious and approachable people, and visitors can drop into any bar any time to lime with the locals. (Liming is a word you will hear plenty of times in the Caribbean and means recreation, socialising and relaxing with friends.)

Rum shops to sample include De Banks Garden at Bayfield, St Philip; Skeete’s Beach Bar at Martins Bay; Braddie’s Bar (close to Dover Sports Ground); Trottie’s Bar (out amongst the sugar cane—ask a local for directions on this one); and, perhaps the smallest and most intimate on the island, Iris’ Bar (opposite Browns Beach, just outside Bridgetown). Along Baxter’s Road, just north of the city centre, you’ll find a concentration of watering holes where the drinks flow freely, sidewalk vendors fry up fish, and rum shop-hoppers stay busy late into the night.

No Barbados rum experience is complete without learning how the precious elixir is created. On the outskirts of Bridgetown is the Mount Gay Rum Visitor’s Centre, where the world’s oldest rum brand was born over three centuries ago. A legal document on display, dated 20 February 1703, specifies “two stone windmills…one boiling house with seven coppers, one curing house and one still house” on the Mount Gay Estate—all equipment essential for making one thing: rum.

“Barbadians still love their rum,” says tour guide Janelle Jones as she walks and talks us through the various stages of production, in which high-quality sugar cane and Barbados spring water are distilled and then aged in charred oak barrels. After the tour, she announces, with a twinkle in her eye, that there will be a taste test and an opportunity to sample the portfolio: Eclipse Barbados Rum, sugar cane brandy and the premium offering known as Extra Old.

Behind the distillery bar stands a Samuel L Jackson look-alike, named Christopher Breedy, who possesses a manner and line of patter as smooth as the liquor itself. “There are three basic steps in evaluating a rum,” he says. “Appearance, aroma and taste.” He holds a glass of Extra Old up to the light. “Look at the legs on this. Some people call them tears, but we like to look at legs round here. “Sweet perfection in a glass.”

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The art of making rum

The process starts with the lush green fields of sugar cane. The plant takes 12–18 months to mature. It is harvested between February and June, when the sugar content reaches its peak, and taken to the sugar refinery.

Juice is squeezed from the cane fibres and heated to produce sugar crystals. The residue left over from the boiling process is a thick black syrup known as molasses.

The molasses is mixed with pure water in huge oak vats, and slowly the sugars are converted to alcohol through fermentation.

Single distillate alcohol, produced in a Coffey still, is 91 per cent alcohol by volume and possesses a subtle rum character.

A second method is that of batch distillation, through traditional pot stills that have been used since the 1700s—copper stills, very similar to those used in the production of whisky. The double-distillate- or pot-stilled rum contains less alcohol (about 86 per cent), but is more intense and robust than the single distillate. When well matured, it acquires a superb, intensely aromatic character, not unlike cognacs.

The two types of distillate are stored for several years in barrels. Once matured, the single and double distillates are expertly married by the master blender to produce various rums.

Rum recipes

Mount Gay Rum Delight

1 1/2 oz. Mount Gay Extra Old Rum
2 1/2 oz coconut cream
1 oz Cointreau
2 oz evaporated milk

Blend on high speed with ice. Garnish with nutmeg.

Regal Pleasure 300th Anniversary Cocktail

2 oz Mount Gay Extra Old Rum
1 oz Amaretto
1 oz Creme de Banana
4 oz pineapple juice

Shake and serve in a highball glass. Garnish with a pineapple spear and sprig of mint.

Christopher Breedy’s Coffee Still

2 oz Mount Gay Sugarcane Brandy
1 oz amaretto
2 oz chilled coffee
1 oz sugar

Blend all ingredients with ice at high speed and pour into a tall glass. Rim with chocolate syrup and add whipped cream on top.