Barbados – The birthplace of Rum
As we draw towards Winter, you may find yourself looking for comforting spirits to put some fire in you and keep the frost at bay. Why not think of the Caribbean as you do it too, to maintain that mental warming image.
It was around this time last October that this very thought occurred to me as I sat on a Barbadian beach dreading the return to the UK. Time for a rum tour to get stocks for the chilly homecoming! Now, Barbados is spoilt for choice on rum tours with Mount Gay being the most obvious and most prominent: Mount Gay Eclipse in particular was in every nook and cranny of the hotel. Mount Gay is believed to be the oldest working rum distillery in the world, founded in 1703, so seemed like a good choice. However, whilst I do like their rum, I have tried it before and fancied something a little less corporate, something more boutique and traditionally reflective of Barbadian distilling.
This led me to St Nicholas Abbey (as well as parental recommendation I have to admit), a 17th century plantation house that is frozen in time. Interestingly enough, Sir John Gay Alleyne, manager of Mount Gay at the time purchased the property in the 1720s. Filled with contemporary furnishings and portraits, a number of impressive seashell mosaics and ornaments as well as taxidermy pieces do really take you back. Adding to this, an old steam engine on the Heritage Railway, complete with a turning circle, toots around the place taking you to some fantastic views over the East of the island. If you are lucky, you’ll spot the odd monkey swinging about in the nearby trees and get to pull the whistle string. Mind the flakes of ash on your white shorts if you’re at the front though!
After the train ride and getting round the chickens at the house station, the tour began with a walk through the manicured house gardens and a very good tour of the house itself. Outside they have a 400-year-old tree and a number of friendly Cockatoos and Macaws. The distillery itself is of course there as well, right next to a functioning 19th century steam mill. St Nicholas Abbey’s main point of difference is the traditional pot still distillation method, in the affectionately known Annabelle. The water used comes from the plantation’s well for added purity whilst the method helps create a series of complex flavours and maintains the lighter ones for greater nuance. The room is packed full of barrels of rums of varying ages. Behind the distillery shed you can see the stone bastion of the old corn mill giving a real sense of the passion for tradition preserved here.
After this, you loop back round to the main event, the tasting room. Truth be told, I cannot recall each one we tasted (whoops) but the standout rum we were able to taste was undoubtedly the 15yr old (and of course the most expensive). It was a decadent rum with notes of sugar and toffee as well as banana, mango, vanilla and oak. One I was most impressed by however was the white rum. I am rarely a white rum fan, finding most to be a little on the paint stripper side. Yet this rum tasted of nothing other than marshmallows and fruit. It actually had flavour. And yes, marshmallows are genuinely very dominant in this rum giving it a sweeter, mellowed down edge on the alcohol. The standard 5-year-old rum was also very good, and the one I went home with (partly because it was on the more affordable side). Molasses, vanilla, mocha, fudge and fruit all culminate in a lovely drop. What’s more, you can get a free engraving at the distillery making either a great gift or fantastic memento with loved ones.
So, whilst I would have liked to go to Mount Gay, I feel I made the right decision. The traditional process, plantation grounds steeped in history of the good and the very bad of the industry and passion of the rum distillers all made it an experience quite unique. Not to mention the friendly distillery cats and terraced café for lunch! If you are heading to Barbados, make this part of the itinerary, whether to try and buy rum or just get a piece of island history.
Updated 23rd October 2023