Many countries have deep ties to alcohol, but few share a connection as extensive and intimate as the one between Barbados and rum. The early attempts at colonizing Barbados were met with little success, as cash crops like cotton and tobacco were already well-established on other islands. It wasn’t until the mid-1600s that a new group of immigrants revolutionized the economy of the island. Jewish settlers in Dutch Brazil were forced to flee after the colony was captured by Portugal amid the Inquisition. The newcomers arrived with expertise in sugarcane rearing, propelling the settlement of Barbados into one of the world’s largest sugar producers—and finally, a prolific producer of world-class rum.
The History of Rum in Barbados
Molasses, a by-product of sugar production, was originally seen as a waste product. It wasn’t until those working the sugar plantations discovered its intoxicating effects upon fermentation that the syrup was set aside for use. Production of rum, known in Barbados as "kill-devil," took many attempts to refine, with the 17th-century account of Bajan rum describing it as "a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor." Despite this glowing review, rum production took off throughout the settlement, with Barbados producing top-quality molasses called Black Gold through careful selective breeding. Modern-day Bajan distiller Mount Gay holds the record for oldest rum distillery on earth, with their earliest recorded deed dating back to 1703.
Methods of rum production vary throughout the world, with most regions using molasses as their distillate, while a few create rhum agricole, using pressed sugar cane as their principal ingredient. Distilleries in Barbados fall into the former category, while one distillery takes advantage of a local resource that’s distinct to the country.
While a large portion of the Caribbean islands were formed by volcanic activity, Barbados is composed mainly of coral limestone, driven upwards over time through plate tectonics. Due to its distinct geological makeup, rivers and lakes rarely form throughout the island. Water instead runs through the porous coral crust and collects in underground caverns. The coral acts as a purifier, ensuring that all aquifers contain high-quality drinkable water. This water provides a steady source of potable water for the citizens of Barbados, while distilleries use the water to impart a more mineral-rich flavor on their products.
The Best Barbados Rum to Try
It’s impossible to discuss Bajan rum without highlighting the island’s flagship brand, Mount Gay. The company bears the name of Sir John Gay Alleyne, an 18th-century Barbadian politician, and philanthropist. In the mid-1700s, he was tasked by his colleague John Sober to preside over the Mount Gilboa Plantation, a sugar production site located by the northern tip of the island. John Alleyne revolutionized the business, enacting methods such as crop rotation to maximize sugar yield. Alleyne was so effective, in fact, that the distillery was named in his honor shortly after his death in 1801.
Today, Mount Gay has grown into a driving force in the Caribbean rum industry, employing distinct production elements including the integration of coral-filtered spring water, open fermentation in French oak, and double copper pot distillation.
Several other rum brands operate within Barbados, as well. Cockspur Rum, clad in a label featuring a red rooster, has existed within the country since the late 1800s, while Foursquare is an independently-owned distillery dating back to the 1920s. Plantation Rum, a brand producing spirits in several countries throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, also has a base within Barbados. Other rums, including Malibu, are produced north of Bridgetown at West Indies Rum Distillery.
Where to Drink Rum in Barbados
No trip to Barbados is complete without setting foot in one of the country’s many rum shops. One might equate a rum shop to a cross between a convenience store and a dive bar, where locals visit to stock up on daily supplies and hold lengthy discussions over a bottle of the spirit. In addition to rum, visitors can experience local Bajan cuisine, sampling dishes like cod cakes and flying fish.
Those seeking out a more formal introduction to Bajan rum might enjoy a visit to one of the island’s rum brands. More ambitious travels could take the trek up north to Mount Gay, while other companies offer tours as well, including West Indies Rum Distillery, or Foursquare, whose tours are self-guided and free of charge.