on the rum
Every destination comes with preconceptions. For Barbados, that’s idyllic white sand beaches, clear blue skies and an easy-going vibe lubricated by punch made with local rum.
For once, perception meets reality head-on. A seven-night cruise with Silversea Silver Spirit starts and finishes in the island’s capital of Bridgetown and affords experiences of some of the jewels of the southern Caribbean, as well as some of the region’s finest rums along the way.
Sites to visit
Bridgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage site where African, West Indian and English roots make for a cosmopolitan and diverse history and present. Its historic garrison, St Nicholas Abbey, George Washington House – the only destination outside the US that he visited – vie with the neo-Gothic Parliament buildings, National Heroes Square and more for time on any visitor’s itinerary.
Then there’s the oldest synagogue in the western world, built in 1654 and St Michael’s Cathedral, built in 1665, destroyed in a hurricane and subsequently rebuilt in 1780.
In addition to the elegant, historic monuments, there’s Carlisle Bay and its dazzling golden sands, the waterfront cafes of the Careenage and the scores of restaurants serving everything from traditional Bajan cooking to Mediterranean, Japanese and much more besides. The national dish is flying fish and cou cou, a dish of ground cornmeal cooked with stock, okra and onions, along with many of the herbs and spices that helped make the island’s fame and fortune.
It’s time to rum
Another aspect of culture of which Barbadians are fiercely – and justifiably – proud is their rum. Although there are many pretenders to the throne, it’s generally acknowledged that Mount Gay takes home the bragging rights as the world’s oldest rum distillery still in operation. Its heritage dates back to 1703.
Molasses had always been in abundance on Barbados and when settlers arrived they brought with them a basic knowledge of brewing and a legendary thirst. Sir John Gay, a business and civic leader, was then asked by the brilliantly named John Sober for help in managing a distillery. Together they began producing the product still known today as Mount Gay Rum.
The Mount Gay Visitor Centre welcomes global guests on one of five tours including the Signature Rum Tour and the Super Premium Rum Tasting Tour where you are taken on a journey to discover its history and the craftsmanship behind some of its finest bottles. All are blends and none are pronounced as vintages, as its motto reads, “It’s ready when it’s ready".
That’s not to say that there aren’t exclusive vintages elsewhere: a bottle of Jamaica’s J Wray rum from 1946 once set a buyer back a cool US$54,000 (RM232,300). At Mount Gay, the standout is Black Barrel, a drop which ends its days in charred oak barrels that previously held bourbon. Pepper, vanilla, currants and spice are the top notes above the beautiful burnt caramel.
Silver (Spirit) Lining
The Silver Spirit cruise subsequently took in six islands in six nights, the perfect chance for first-timers to the Caribbean keen to get a flavour of the islands’ identity – and their rums. Among shore excursions, distilleries are always a popular option, but with barely 350 passengers on board, they always feel bespoke in experience and approach.
Martinique’s Rhum Agricole Clement is enchanting, thanks in no small part to the island’s proudly French heritage as much as the tour of the extensive grounds and beautiful old plantation house that serves as the setting for a tasting. First comes advice on how best to savour their amber-hued nectars, “Hold the stem – never the glass. Swill the glass to let the alcohol vapours out and then smell the different notes – vanilla, caramel, ginger and many more."
Of the island’s seven operational distilleries, only Clement remains family-run, using pure sugar cane and not molasses. Uniquely, it is the only rum distillery anywhere to hold France’s renowned AOC label, putting it in the same category as cognac or champagne. The most notable vintages include 1952, 1956 and 1970, while its non-vintage old rums are aged in oak between 18 months and 15 years.
From Francophone Martinique to Grenada, a small island with a big personality
Clarke’s Court is arguably its proudest export, each bottle containing more than eight decades of distilling, ageing and blending experience. As is often the case, the main draw in the distillery visit comes in the tasting rooms where their light, dark, flavoured, aged and overproof are all lined up to taste and purchase. Pure White is molasses-based and 69 per cent proof, winner of multiple international awards and drunk locally with a dash of bitters.
Although the rums perhaps lack the finesse of Mount Gay or Clement, the infectious enthusiasm of the staff – not to mention the island’s hugely welcoming people – make it another brilliant stop following the Caribbean rum trail.