On the path to protecting Barbados rum

Following a trip to Barbados, Steve Rush explains what makes the island country’s rums so unique – and why its producers are pushing for the recognition their drink deserves

Words by Steve Rush

The island of Barbados has seen its 150 distilleries shrink down to the four that remain today

No sooner do you arrive at Grantley Adams airport in Barbados than does rum make known its proud position on the island. You’re guaranteed to pass a multitude of billboards advertising the world-famous spirit from the minute you’ve left the airport, and the likelihood is that you’ll also pass a number of colourful and aesthetically eclectic rum shacks and shops, a must-visit for a fish cutter sandwich and a flask of the good stuff.

Rich, rounded and sumptuously smooth, Barbados rums are mostly blended, produced using a combination of pot and column still rums. They’re a far cry from the likes of the gutsy, funky and ester-led (but equally delicious) pure pot still offerings from Jamaica, with the incorporation of lighter, softer and fruitier column-still rums providing a wealth of opportunities to blenders. This is particularly advantageous when a distillery is producing a range of different rum brands – as is inevitably the case for an island that, over the course of the past century, has seen its 150 distilleries shrink down to the four that remain today.

Foursquare sign
Foursquare Distillery stands on the site of an old sugar factory in south-eastern St Philip

Of course, Barbados is the birthplace of rum, with the introduction of sugarcane to the island in the 16th century, records of molasses distillation going back to the 17th century, and its oldest commercial rum distillery in operation since 1703. At one stage, rum distillation would have taken place on pretty much all of the plantations on the island, but with the introduction of still licences and the Rum Duty act in 1906 changing the way rum could be sold – plus the economic turbulence and eventual decline of the island’s sugar cane industry – the number of distilleries started to dwindle.

At one stage, rum distillation would have taken place on pretty much all of the plantations on the island

Nevertheless, there’s a huge variety to explore on today’s scene, thanks not only to the craft of blending but also to the island’s unique terroir: from the type of soil in which the sugarcane grows to the ranging scale of coral limestone influences on the island’s water supply. I was able to see this for myself on a recent trip to the country, visiting the three rum producers that have been seeking to protect Barbados rum since 2016.

A sugarcane mill at Foursquare

Island terroir

Located in an almost triangle-shaped formation, Barbados’s rum distilleries are a testament to the specific terroir of their respective parts of the island. Take Mount Gay Distillery, for example, located within the lush, green country and sugarcane-filled fields in the northern St Lucy parish. It holds the claim to fame of being the oldest rum producer in the world, having been in operation since 1703. The distillery, which has been owned by Remy Cointreau since 1989 and is now headed up by its first female master distiller Trudiann Branker, is steeped in rich rum history. Not only does it house its original well, fermentation house, distillation house and bonds, it also has a magnificent molasses house, which before you even enter exudes an alluring thick and sugary aroma. The molasses boast a profile refined through generations of sugarcane harvests, their influence evident in every bottle’s rich base notes of toffee and caramel.

An aged Barbados rum would be comparable to a Scotch whisky two or three times its years

Bought by local architect Larry Warren in 2006, St Nicholas Abbey Distillery is located in the northern parish of St Peter in the grounds of one of only three Jacobean Great Houses in the Western Hemisphere. He and his family have transformed it into a heritage attraction and working plantation with its own steam railway, which allows you to take in the Great House, as well as what must be one of the island’s most spectacular views of Cherry Tree Hill. The distillery itself is small and quaint – producing a fraction of the island’s rum – and feels more like a working museum.

A still at Mount Gay, the world's oldest rum producer

Using sugar cane juice, which is stored as syrup to ensure year-round production, St Nicholas Abbey produces a range of stunning small-batch aged-statement and cask-strength rums that offer an extra spiciness in addition to the rich roundness you expect from Barbados rum. Given that the rate of cask maturation in the Caribbean is considerably faster than that of the UK, due to its tropical climes, an aged Barbados rum would be comparable to a Scotch whisky two or three times its years. It shows in the St Nicholas Abbey 12 Year Old Cask Strength, which expresses notes not too dissimilar to that of a single malt of at least 25 years of age, from oak to vanilla, chocolate, spice and tobacco.

And then there’s Foursquare Distillery, located on the site of an old sugar factory in the south-eastern parish of St Philip. Although founded in 1996 by R. L. Seale & Co Ltd, the family-owned company has nearly 100 years’ experience in blending and bottling rum on the island. The grounds as you enter the Foursquare Distillery are almost Disneyland-esque, but the still house has a more industrial look and feel when compared to the others on the island, reflective of the distillery’s embrace of the latest distillation technology.

While each distillery can boast its own unique qualities, they are all unified in one aim: to gain Geographical Indications status for Barbadian rum

In addition to producing some of the world’s most renowned rums, including the much-revered Exceptional Cask Selection, the distillery also produces a whole range of heritage brands including R. L . Seale’s, Doorly’s, Old Brigand and E.S.A. Field. Foursquare uses one type of fermentation for its rums in a two-step, temperature-controlled process, with molasses added gradually over a 20-hour period. The distillery also blends its rums both before and after ageing. This all plays its part – along with quality molasses, plus the resulting distillate and cask management – to create the full-flavoured Barbados rums Foursquare is famous for.


Protecting Barbados rum

While each of these distilleries can boast of its own unique qualities, they are unified in one aim: to gain GI status for the island’s rum. For Barbados, this would mean all rum would have to be fermented, distilled, matured and bottled on the island – free of adulterating additions – in order to carry the ‘Barbados Rum’ name on its bottles.

‘Anytime you create something of value, it needs to be protected,' says Richard Seale

As followers of rum may well be aware, complications have come to the campaign courtesy of West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD). The island’s second oldest distillery is home to Planteray Rum (formerly Plantation Rum), which is only initially aged in Barbados before being sent to France for a further period of maturation. However, the three distilleries I visited are now pushing ahead with their quest for the country’s GI status without WIRD’s inclusion, and are confident they’ll be rewarded.

‘Anytime you create something of value, it needs to be protected,’ says Foursquare CEO and master blender Richard Seale, who has been a huge driving force behind the country’s push to have its rum formally recognised. Not only do Seale and his fellow campaigners believe that GI status will bring a boost to Barbados rum among drinkers – a precious product of people and place that deserves to have its future protected as much as its past is preserved – but the hope is that it will continue to elevate the overall reputation of a spirit that the island gave to the world.