In The Spirit
By Philip Watson
There is one regular visitor to Barbados who, on arrival, has a ritual from which he rarely deviates. On the way to his favourite west coast hotel, he asks his taxi driver to stop at a simple local bar in a traditional Bajan chattel house. The building is little more than a wooden shack with a corrugated roof; inside there is a basic bar with a makeshift countertop and a couple of stools.
Yet to this American aficionado of Barbados, this classic “rum shop” is the quintessence of the warmth, flavour and spirit of the island. “Now I’ve arrived,” he has been heard to say, as he takes his first sip of Mount Gay rum and Seven Up. “Now I’m back in Barbados.”
Rum has been part of the rich history and identity of the island for more than 350 years. British author Richard Ligon first mentioned the drink when he arrived on Barbados in 1647, describing the spirit as “rumbullion, alias kill-divill… a hott hellish and terrible liquor”. Rum bullion was soon shortened to “rum”, and today it remains a lifeblood of the island.
“Rum is one of the pillars of Bajan culture,” says Antoine Houdebine, who, up until October, was managing director in Barbados of Rémy Cointreau, the French owners of Mount Gay. “People grow up tasting it in cakes and cooking and then in rum shops; it’s in Bajans’ blood.”
The drink also has strong historical associations with seafaring and the Royal Navy. Eighteenth-century sailors would prove their skills by bringing back a barrel of Bajan rum, as Barbados was considered one of the most challenging islands in the Caribbean to reach. Even today, Mount Gay sponsors more than 100 sailing regattas around the world. Rum also served as a popular medium of exchange and a regular target for pirates.
Rum is a distilled from the molasses of a crop that still grows in abundance throughout the island: sugarcane. The spirit is produced in a variety of styles. Light or white rums are mostly served with mixers such as soda, lemonade, Coke and ginger ale, or used in cocktails – in particular, the famed and often deceptively potent rum punch. Golden, dark, aged and premium rums are usually taken straight, on the rocks, or with a little water on the side. Some rums are even flavoured with ingredients such as mango, vanilla, coconut and lime.
While the Caribbean is the undisputed centre of global rum production, with almost every major island creating its own distinct brand and style, Barbados lays claim to producing one of the world’s oldest and finest rums: Mount Gay, first distilled on the island in 1703. Several varieties are created by skilfully blending single and double distilled rums of different ages, and storing them for up to 12 years in aged oak barrels from Kentucky in the United States.
The result is a rum that is smoother, lighter yet more full-bodied than many others in the Caribbean. Mount Gay Extra Old, for example, has a subtle sweetness, a warm aroma, and a rich amber hue. Rum experts talk of the drink’s “harmonious fusion of vanilla and bitter almond, with a hint of smoky wood in the nose”.
“In a blind tasting, Extra Old compares favourably with a very good cognac or whisky,” says Antoine Houdebine. “Barbados is a small island and the only way it can compete in the world is to target and reach for international excellence. People who come to Barbados expect the very best.”
For all its long history and timeless tradition, rum has become a seriously fashionable drink over the past few years. In London, several hip bars and restaurants have begun championing rum, including Asia de Cuba at the St Martins Lane hotel, which has its own Rum Bar with a large selection of “sipping” (rather than mixing) rums; Sir Terence Conran’s celebration of all things Cuban, Floridita; and buzzing Caribbean restaurant and rum bar, Cottons, which claims to stock every rum produced in the world.
Even James Bond has given rum his imprimatur. In any early scene from Casino Royale, during which Daniel Craig enters a casino in the Bahamas, Bond eschews his trademark martini in favour of “a large Mount Gay and soda”.
In 2007 Mount Gay was also rated the favourite rum of America’s “rich and famous”. The rum was chosen as the winner of the Luxury Institute’s “Luxury Brand Status Index” during a survey of premium rums among wealthy US consumers. Mount Gay was praised for its “consistently superior quality, uniqueness and exclusivity, and consumption by those who are admired and respected”.
“I think people are getting tired of all these flavourless white spirits like vodka,” says Antoine Houdebine. “They want a drink that is different and more authentic.”
Barbados offers plenty of opportunities for visitors looking to sample and learn more about rum first-hand. The island’s three main rum producers, Mount Gay, Cockspur and Foursquare, all offer distillery tours, visitor centres and gift shops.
Perhaps the best way to experience rum, however, is to visit one of the island’s 1,200 or so rum shops. Mostly housed in old, brightly painted chattel houses, these “tippling houses” (as they were once called) were first licensed on the island in 1652, shortly after rum production began.
Many rum shops have been family owned for generations and they are much more than simply bars; they are often part grocery shop, restaurant, beach cafe, music venue, meeting place and community centre.
Rum is a definitively social drink, and in rum shops you buy the spirit in different sized bottles, not by the glass, to make it easier for sharing. Rum shops have an atmosphere that is at once friendly, laid-back and egalitarian. This is where the fisherman hangs out with the local police chief, the electrician with a national politician.
Like in any good bar or pub, conversation is paramount, with talk often turning to the major issues of the day. Cricket and politics are rum shop staples, with debates often getting passionate and lively.
“Rum shops are a microcosm of Bajan life,” says Antoine Houdebine. “If want to understand anything about Bajan culture, then the best thing you can do is to go to a rum shop and spend a lot of time listening.”
The Rum Man’s Favourite Rum Shop
Antoine Houdebine’s favourite place to drink rum is John Moore’s bar in Weston in the west coast parish of St James.
One of the oldest rum shops on the island, the bar is located just along the beach from a fish market that supplies its small kitchen with fresh flying fish, snapper and kingfish. You can’t miss it; the shop is brightly painted in the red and white colours of its commercial sponsor – ironically enough, Smirnoff vodka.
John Moore has a convivial front bar that serves the island’s local Banks beer as well as fine rums such as Foursquare’s Old Brigand, Cockspur Five Star and Mount Gay Extra Old. The staff here also mix a mean rum punch.
There is almost always a good mix of regulars, locals, travellers and visitors. So popular was the bar with former Barbadian prime minister Owen Arthur that at weekends, rather than staying in his official residence in Bridgetown, he used to hang out here.
Discussions at John Moore can get heated and dialects thick to the point of incomprehension, yet the mood is always respectful. Underneath a sign that reads “bar flies and loafers keep out” is another that warns “indecent and filthy language will not be tolerated”.
The menu includes local dishes such as pepper pot, cou-cou, salt fish, split peas and rice and sweet potatoes. John Moore also occasionally serves “pudding and souse”, a traditional Bajan dish comprising the head and trotters of a pig that are boiled and then pickled with onion, cucumber and pepper.
Caribbean games such as draughts, warri, and especially dominoes are played in the back room. You’ll know if a game of dominoes is in full swing; the counters are slapped down onto vinyl-topped tables like exploding firecrackers.
Two other rum shops worth checking out…
Nigel Benn Aunty Bar, Shorey Village, St Andrew. Run by the welcoming and entertaining aunt of Barbadian British boxer Nigel Benn, this rum shop is lined with photographs of Benn and other celebrity visitors.
Fishermans Pub and Beach Bar, Queen Street, Speightstown, St Peter is a low-key beachside watering hole and occasional live music venue popular with locals and tourists alike.
* Island Safari (246-429 5337) offers a day-long 4×4 rum shop tour that visits John Moore, Nigel Benn and several other bars every Saturday.
© Philip Watson, 2008/2021