I went to Barbados for one reason—rum.
Mention rum and the average person thinks of fruity drinks with tiny umbrellas. Granted, I’ve enjoyed my fair share of umbrella-laden rum and Cokes, daiquiris, pina coladas, and planters’ punches, but there’s more to the sweet toxin than I’d realized.
I’ve been to the islands enough to know that rum—the delicious, slightly sweet distilled spirit made from sugar cane by-products—is the Caribbean beverage of choice. I knew that the tipple of sailors and pirates has historically been the lifeblood of the islands. What I didn’t know, however, was that the lively “Kill-Devil” has been underrated.
An appreciation of rum is spilling beyond the tropics. Rum snobbery has become down right trendy. Even James Bond broke tradition by ordering a mojito (the lime, sugar, mint and rum beverage, introduced 100 years ago in Cuba) in Die Another Day in lieu of his trademark vodka martini.
I’d been dispatched to Barbados—considered the birthplace of rum distillation in the Caribbean—with the dubious task of reporting on the state of the island’s most recognized commodity.
I began my “research” at the John Moore Bar, a ramshackle waterfront rum shop in St. James, just a few miles from Cobblers Cove hotel, my luxurious home-base for the week. In Barbados the rum shop is the place where locals gather not only to eat or drink but also to gossip, discuss politics and cricket (an island obsession), or play games (usually dominoes). It’s the local coffeehouse, tavern or village pub; a natural community center and cultural icon for the past 400 years.
I mentioned my interest in rum to David, the friendly driver from Cobblers Cove who greeted me at the airport, and he suggested I drop by the John Moore Bar. The notorious rum shop is known to attract everyone from neighborhood residents and Bajan (as the natives refer to themselves) fishermen to the prime minister who’s said to stop by to say hello to “the boys.”
It should’ve occurred to me that “the boys” might not extend their welcome to outside visitors, especially those of the female variety. Traditionally the domain of men, the rum shops are more often owned or operated by women than frequented by them: “Men in de rum shop; women in de church,” the saying goes. But I’d been advised that if I really wanted to learn the drinking habits of Bajans, then I’d have to experience the rum shops firsthand.
It was 2 p.m. on a hot and humid afternoon when I wandered in. Initially I had to pick my way through a barrier of unfriendly glares to the bar’s back room for a seat. I’d been directed to the rear of the shop, I discovered later, by a customer who’d assumed I was there to use the bathroom. The tiny bar, perched above a fine white-sand beach and a stones-throw from the surf, seemed to operate in two different time zones. The front bar, open to the street, bustled with locals coming and going. But in the back, where heavy-eyed men sat atop stools before small wooden tables dotted with near-empty bottles of rum—or as was the case with one patron, laid out along a narrow wooden bench—a languorous mood presided.
Just about the time I realized I’d have to order at the bar, the proprietor, John Moore Jr., strolled back to introduce himself and asked if I’d like a drink. Playing it safe, I ordered a cold Banks, the local beer and second most popular brew (behind rum) on the island. Mr. Moore, dressed in a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, was friendly and unpretentious. Soon the boisterous conversation, which had stilled upon my arrival, resumed and I’d become part of the scene. They asked where I was from. I asked about island life. We talked of politics, the weather, and of course, rum.
As a half hour turned into an hour, I nursed along my refreshing bottle of Banks. In the second hour I graduated to a glass of rum, Mount Gay Extra Old. Served neat like a fine whisky, brandy or cognac, I sipped the amber colored nectar while savoring its slight fragrance of sugar and the rich pallet of oak. I wasn’t the only one taking it slow, in fact not many were drinking at all. It was obvious that these guys come to the rum shop as much to pass the time in congenial company as for the drink.
Every culture has its watering holes where locals gather, a place where people can be themselves, where they go to gossip, solve the world’s problems and enjoy each other’s company. In my New Mexican hamlet, that place is the coffeehouse. In Barbados, it’s the rum shop.
Depending on whom you ask, the 21-mile-long by 14-mile-wide island claims anywhere from 500 to 5,000 rum shops. Whatever the number, it’s obvious the island has a serious case of rum fever. Bajans boast that the tradition of rum-making began in Barbados, but that’s subject to argument among rum connoisseurs. What is certain, however, is that rum was first produced on the island not long after the British settled there in 1627 and has been distilled in Barbados ever since.
The development of the rum industry resulted from the exuberant growth of sugar cane. Brought to the West Indies in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, sugar cane revolutionized the Caribbean’s economy and the drinking habits of both the Old and New Worlds. By the seventeenth century, sugar cane had become a major cash crop and colonists discovered that a by-product of the sugar making process (molasses) could be fermented and then distilled into a forceful and fiery beverage they called “Barbados waters.”
The first rums were raw fire waters, considered suitable only for the lower classes (small farmers, traders, and sailors) and as tonics for slaves to ward off disease or take the edge off the heat. A seventeenth century visitor to Barbados called it “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.” Over the years improved distillation methods and aging has elevated the once rough and ill-tempered spirit into the ranks of a fine Whisky, Cognac, Brandy or Bourbon suitable for even the most discerning palates.
Today, visitors to Barbados can learn the history of rum at the island’s three rum distillers: Mount Gay Rum Visitor’s Center; Heritage Park and Four Square Distillery; and Malibu Beach Club and Visitor Center. Each offer rum tours and tasting.
Perhaps the best way to experience the story of rum is a visit to the source — the sugar factory. At the Portvale Sugar Factory—one of only two remaining factories in operation today, a small cry from some 300 factories that once dotted the island—our tour plunged into the ear-shattering, sweet and steamy atmosphere of the factory floor. A stark contrast to the slick Hollywood-style presentations put on for tourists by the distilleries, the tour had us scrambling atop high walkways among the cane cutters, mashers and boilers. Nowhere had history come alive more for me than in the boiling, Dickensian factory. If you want to include the sugar factory in your rum-immersion itinerary, time your visit, it’s only in operation during the spring harvest (approximately February to May).
It’s not necessary to endure sweltering sugar factories, wander among the distilleries’ pungent vats of fermenting molasses, or even hang out in the local rum shop to appreciate rum. Indeed, most aficionados imbibe their penchant for the ‘comforting waters’ in the form of a tasty cocktail or sipped slowly to the soothing backdrop of waves lapping upon a palm-lined beach.
It was only a niggling journalist’s conscience that prevented me from restricting my rum research to the cozy confines of the bar and terrace restaurant at Cobblers Cove. From the delicious rum punch offered to every guest upon arrival to a rum enhanced menu at the resort’s award-winning Terrace restaurant, rum features prominently in the resort’s amenities.
Cobblers’ Classic Rum Punch
4 parts strong: dark rum
3 parts sharp: lime juice
2 parts sweet: simple sugar syrup
1 part weak: ice
Dash of Angostura bitters and freshly ground nutmeg
Serve well chilled with lots of ice
No “yo ho ho” required.
For information: Visit the Barbados Tourism Authority at Barrbados.org