The true spirit of Barbados – and its rum industry heritage


This article by Nigel Tisdall appeared in The Financial Times. Here is an excerpt. For the complete article and additional photos follow the link below.

How do you feel about the hotel welcome drink? Here I am in sunny Barbados, just arrived in the lobby, jet-lagged and cloaked in winter clothes, when a waiter rolls up with a tray of luridly coloured cocktails. Normally I pass on such delights but not in the Caribbean. In this balmy region, the rum punch has to be the finest drink ever to emerge from behind the filing cabinets in reception. They vary considerably, of course, but the message is clear: listen up traveller, you’re on holiday!

Another excuse to down one is that it counts as historical research. Barbados is considered the birthplace of rum, with the first reference to distillation here as early as 1631. “Rumbullion”, as it was first called, is made from fermented molasses, a by-product of sugar-making. The Mount Gay distillery in St Lucy, once owned by a family called Sober, has manufacturing records stretching back to 1703.

Three centuries on, rum is having a resurgence. Spiced varieties are now the fuel du jour at student parties, while premium-aged sipping rums vie with cognacs and whiskies as after-dinner tipples. Many Caribbean islands produce rum but Barbados is one of the best places to befriend it. For a start, the drink is central to daily life. The island is only 21 miles by 14 and its roads blaze with brightly painted rum shops that sport beguiling names such as Vernon’s Cosy Bar and Sandra’s Spot to Stop. (Never call them shacks – despite how some look, these are bars that traditionally double as convenience stores.) According to the local tourist office, there are some 1,500 of them.

The Barbados rum industry has an engaging heritage. Mount Gay’s “Eclipse” label, for example, dates from 1910 and was named to mark a solar eclipse over the South Pole that year. I learn this, and much more, at the company’s visitor centre near Bridgetown, which runs 45-minute tours that are a slick blend of explanation, tasting and marketing. For something less commercial, with lovely treacle smells and towers of oak barrels, I recommend a trip to RL Seale’s family-run Foursquare Distillery amid the cane fields of St Philip. Every time I visit it feels like a ghost distillery, as you follow a self-guided trail through a modern plant that ends in a bar and shop set in a 1737 distilling house. Here, visitors can investigate premium rums such as Doorly’s XO, which is aged in sherry casks, and curiosities such as Falernum, a sweet, velvety mix of syrup, lime and spices invented in 1890. The name derives from the Roman wine falernian, although my guide has a rival interpretation. “It was to teach non-drinkers to drink,” explains Dario Folkes. “Y’know, for learn’em.”

The Mount Gay distillery in St Lucy

Foursquare produces more than 30 rums and is helping with connoisseur varieties now being handcrafted at St Nicholas Abbey, a Jacobean house in St Peter built in 1658. Bottled in an etched glass decanter with mahogany cork, its 12-year single cask rum, B$160 (£49), makes a smart gift to take home and is indicative of how Bajans are tuning into the world’s growing interest in all things rum.

. . .

For the complete report go to


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s