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With its white sandy beaches and turquoise seas, the Caribbean island of Barbados is a dream destination for holidaymakers, and it’s also the spiritual home of rum. Fiona Sims explores the island and its national drink
Blue paint is peeling off the sea spray-soaked wooden and tin-roofed shack. Cans of tuna (a far healthier bar snack to soak up booze than pork scratchings) are stacked five deep next to precariously placed speakers belting out reggae. There’s a clack and clatter of dominoes being played by a dozen men wearing flip-flops, while a girl in a yellow dress pours punch into a plastic cup. Welcome to the Barbados rum shop.
If you want to experience the real Barbadian deal, forget the glitzy international bars that abound on the island and head instead to one of its 1,600 rum shops. There’s a saying in Barbados: we take pride that your eating and drinking experience is the same as it is at home. All well and good, but I couldn’t see the point of eating pasta in Paynes Bay, or sipping Champagne in St James. I wanted to experience something more authentically Caribbean – and Barbados is the easiest island to get to, and get around.
Plus it runs on rum. Sugar and rum are an integral part of the island’s psyche. Barbados was where the English discovered that they could make their fortune in sugar, and they put rum on the map – this is as close to rum’s spiritual home as you will get. But it has a much darker side, too – rum folk were also slavers, pirates and smugglers, which just adds to its mystique. I wanted to know more.
Although there are many definitions of what constitutes rum, in a nutshell it’s the spirit distilled from the fermented sugars derived from the fresh juice or molasses extracted from the sugar cane plant. The Spanish and Portuguese brought sugar cane with them to the newly discovered Caribbean islands in the early part of the 15th century. By the end of the 17th century, the French, English and Dutch had also developed a taste for it – and we haven’t looked back.
Today, Mount Gay is one of the big three rum producers on the island, along with the West Indies Rum Distillery (home of Malibu and Cockspur) and Foursquare. The Mount Gay Rum Visitor’s Centre in St Michael offers a fascinating tour that explains how rum is made. But I particularly loved my visit to the Foursquare Rum Distillery and Heritage Park in St Philip. We bumped along potholed roads, past endless fields of sugar cane, picturesque but ramshackle villages and impeccably turned-out schoolchildren, before arriving at the Caribbean’s most modern rum plant, run with passion by charismatic owner Richard Seale.
They offer self-guided tours here, so you can go at your own pace, poking your head pretty much anywhere. In the mahogany-panelled boardroom I bumped into Seale and took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. Does rum differ from island to island? Does where the sugar cane grows make a difference? ‘It makes a small difference, yes, but it’s how we actually make the rum that makes us all different,’ he explained.
The sugar cane is ready to be cut from February with the harvest finishing in June or July. The canes are then turned in to rum using one of two methods. The juice from the crushed sugar cane can be fermented and distilled as it is, but it is more common to boil it into a syrup, which leaves a black, gooey gunk called molasses. This is then diluted with water before undergoing fermentation and distillation.
After distillation rum can be matured or ‘aged’ in oak barrels – how long it spends in the barrel and how many times the barrel is used both play a part in the final character. The climate, too, plays a part. Standing in the humid heat of the barrel room at Foursquare you can fully appreciate the speedy ageing process – some say that one year of maturation in the Caribbean is equivalent to three years in a cooler climate.
Finally, the aged rums may be blended, which is done to achieve balance and elegance. Each rum is blended to an individual recipe, some even combining rums from different stills, distilleries, ages, barrel types and even countries. Rum is complex stuff, but that doesn’t stop it being one of life’s simple pleasures to drink.
So taking advice from taxi drivers and shop owners on the best places to savour rum, I enjoyed hard cokes (rum and coke) made with Mount Gay Extra Old at the
John Moore bar in Weston, St James – where the former Barbadian PM likes to drop by. I tried Foursquare’s Old Brigand with ginger ale at the bright blue-and-green-painted Hercules Bar at Oistins
Fish Market on the south coast. Then I sampled Cockspur Five Star (the island’s most popular rum) with soda water and a slice of lime at Dicia’s, opposite the post office,
a bit further down the road.
If you’re there on a Friday night make sure you head to Oistins Fish Fry, which kicks off as the sun goes down on the south coast. Get a measure of the fish available at the next-door market earlier in the day, as you watch fishmongers fillet box after box of flying fish, tuna, swordfish, mahi-mahi, barracuda and parrot fish. Then head to Mo’s stall for blackened snapper and a side order of rice and peas, washed down with a rum punch.
Rum punch is also on offer at another Barbados must-do – a catamaran tour (with lunch and punch) of the west coast, passing the flashiest villas, broken up by cove after cove of white sandy beaches. If you’re lucky you’ll find yourself snorkelling with turtles, flicking you gently with a flipper as they dive between your legs.
You can understand why I’m already planning my next trip – especially since St Nicholas Abbey’s has just opened its new distillery, making it the fourth rum producer on the island. Head north and you’ll hit a driveway lined with mahogany trees and an imposing Jacobean plantation house with rum distillery attached – complete with a stream-driven mill, the last in the Caribbean – all beautifully renovated by local architect Larry Warren. It easily trumps any other attraction the island has to offer, and be sure to visit the café to sample Warren’s mother’s molasses cookies – it’s worth making the trip for them alone.
Get the sand between your toes at this beach hang-out that serves up crisp calamari with spicy mayo and blackened local snapper. Wash it down with an array of local rums, but watch out for the coconuts falling overhead.
The best Caribbean cooking in Barbados (try the crab backs and pepperpot stew), scoffed on chef/owner LaurelAnn Morley’s pale blue shuttered deck. Her rum punch is legendary.
Spend the afternoon on the sea spray-soaked deck sampling local rum. Soak up the alcohol with a great-value lunch buffet including national dish flying fish and cou-cou.
A smart cocktail bar with an impressive line-up of 150 rums selected from all over the Caribbean by affable bar manager David Barker, who makes a mean piña colada.
There’s a line-up of 87 rums from all over the Caribbean, including all the best from Barbados, in this fancy Caribbean-influenced restaurant that scores full marks for service.
A blend of rums that are aged in charred American oak barrels for between five and eight years, Angostura lies at the core of Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival spirit.
Taste: a warming mix of chocolate, spice, vanilla and toasted oak flavours.
The oldest distillery in Jamaica, the Appleton Estate is located in the stunning Nassau Valley in the parish of St Elizabeth. The V/X is its flagship, a blend of 15 different aged rums. Taste: brown sugar, light spice, dried fruits and orange peel.
Produced in Barbados at the West Indies Rum Distillery since 1884, Cockspur was founded by a Danish immigrant, Valdemar Hanschell, who ran a ship chandlery in Bridgetown. A smooth rum with a spicy back kick – drink it neat, over ice or with a mixer. Taste: sherry and honey aromas on the nose, with cinnamon spice and a buttery finish.
Distilled on the east bank of the Demerara river, using a wooden Coffey still and wooden pot stills to give a distinctive flavour, before being aged for a minimum of 15 years in small oak barrels. Taste: dark coffee, candied orange, almonds, dark chocolate and rich vanilla.
In the early 20th century a number of rum shops got together to form the Antigua Distillery. English Harbour 5 Year Old is one of a range of premium aged rums it produces, distilled in copper stills and matured in oak barrels. Taste: rich apple, coconut and hints of cinnamon.
All the above rums are available online from www.thewhiskyexchange.com, while www.thedrinkshop.com stocks a wide range. Or buy them at the Whisky Exchange at Vinopolis (1 Bank End, SE1; 020 7403 8688). Vinopolis is also home to the Rum Experience installation, which explains how rum is made.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2009