Barbados is often referred to as the Birthplace of Rum. You can make the case for cane spirits appearing elsewhere before Barbados–for example, in Brazil a century or so earlier, or even in India–but Caribbean rum as we know it today is considered to have started in Barbados, before spreading rapidly to other islands.
In October of 2018, I made my second spirited journey to Barbados. I’d learned a lot about rum in the five years since my prior visit, and I was determined to absorb as much rum knowledge as possible. On that front, it was a smashing success – I collected lots of facts, stories, and trivia, along with a radically reshaped perspective on how Barbados rum evolved over the centuries.
I have lots to share about the individual Barbados distilleries and their associated brands. But In keeping with my Cocktail Wonk habit of first creating island-specific “cheat sheets,” I wrote what follows to put as much essential history and other information out on the table first. I’ll link to specific distillery write-ups as they follow.
The essential character of current Barbados rums is frequently described as well-balanced and expertly aged; rums like Mount Gay X0, Doorly’s 12, and Plantation Barbados 5 are prime examples. This balance is achieved with a blend of pot and column distilled rum, with most blends having more column than pot.
Contrast this to Jamaica and Guyana, which are renowned for their pungent, heavy, pot-stilled rums. Likewise, in comparison to Spanish heritage rums like Bacardi or Havana Club, Barbadian rums offer a bit more heft and body, from the pot still components.
If you were to draw a rum flavor map as a triangle, with heavy pot still rums in one corner, light column still rums in another, and earthy agricoles in the third, the typical Barbados rum would sit somewhere in the middle. Classic Barbadian rums are refined, “middle of the road” rums, not hewing too far toward a particular extreme.
Around 1627, the British colonized Barbados and were soon growing cotton and tobacco. By 1637, with the aid of the Dutch, sugarcane was introduced and turned out to be an extremely high value commodity.
By the 1640s, Barbados residents were distilling rum, or what was then called “kill devil,”–described as a “hott (sic), hellish and terrible liquor.” Theories differ about who first distilled on Barbados: Some say it was the Dutch arriving from Brazil, others contend it was the Scots and Irish. (I shall not attempt to reconcile that question here.)
After living on Barbados from 1647 to 1650, British author Richard Ligon wrote in detail about life in Barbados in 1657, including several pages on sugar cane processing and rum making:
The first time it comes over the helm, it is but small, and is called Low-wines; but the second time, it comes off the strongest Spirit or Liquor that is potable.
However, Ligon did not refer to the spirit as “rum,” but rather as “kill-divell.”
The earliest citable reference to rum on Barbados lands is found in a lease agreement for 150 acres in St. Phillip, dating to 1650:
four new strong mastick Indigo flats and four large mastick cisterns for liquor for Rum
Within a few decades, Caribbean rum was well underway. Production on Barbados boomed, as it did on neighboring islands like Jamaica and Martinique. As famed modern Barbados distiller Richard Seale says, “It is the scale that is important. Until about the 1680s, Barbados’ production of sugar and rum vastly exceeded the other islands.”
Distillation then was entirely using pot stills, as continuous distillation (e.g. the column still) wasn’t invented until the late 1820s. Even after the column’s introduction, distillation in the English Caribbean colonies remained resolutely pot-still based, for the most part. Why mess with a winning formula?
For the next 250 years or so, Barbados functioned like other Caribbean islands – primarily as a garden for crops and rum, traded for the benefit of their European mother country, in this case, England.
According to Seale, for most of the nineteenth century, the Barbados rum market was primarily for domestic consumption, with little spirit leaving the island. Exports picked up a bit around the 1930s; Seale believes this might have been due to U.S. Prohibition. Exports held steady for a few decades, and then escalated in the 1980s.
Up till the early 1890s, Barbados sugar plantations and their associated rum distilleries hummed along much as they had for many years. However, conditions were growing challenging in Barbados, as this excerpt from the 1897 Report of the West India Royal Commission lays out:
[Question] No. 2: How many stills have closed within the last five years, and to what cause is this ascribed?
Answer: Eight stills have closed during the last five years, all of which were small stills, producing from 3,000 to 10,000 gallons per year. Five of the above stills were plantation stills… Planters have also, for many years, found it more convenient to dispose of their molasses to the merchant for shipment to America than to make rum for which, except for a limited quantity, there was no market.
Another cause why the small distiller cannot compete is, that the West India Rum Refinery, which started in 1893, is gradually obtaining command of the rum trade of this Island, the class of spirit which this refinery produces at one distillation being purer than the other distilleries can produce, except by the process of redistillation. The small distiller thereby finds great difficulty selling his rum, except at a price that does not pay
Simply put, Barbadian distillers were facing falling prices for their rum, as production increased elsewhere. They were further hurt by high duties leveled against them by their parent country.
However it’s the second paragraph that highlights a sea change to Barbadian rum: The West Indies Rum Refinery, or as it’s known today, the West Indies Rum Distillery.
Built in 1893 by a German engineer named George Stade, the West Indies Rum Refinery brought column distillation to the island–and on huge scale. By 1896, West Indies produced more than half of the island’s rum, and that percentage kept growing. Located just a few miles north of Bridgetown, the distillery was the first large scale facility on the island, and distilled molasses that was brought in. Prior distilleries were smaller scale, situated on plantations, and used molasses and cane juice from the plantation’s own sugar cane mill.
By the early 1900s very few plantation style distilleries remained. Mount Gay is the only well documented example, and even they added column distillation to their repertoire in time. This was as early as the 1920s, suggests Frank Ward, Jr., the last of the Ward family who owned Mount Gay for nearly a century before its acquisition in 2014 (more on this later).
The interesting thing about the West Indies Rum Distillery is that it did not service a specific brand – and there was no West Indies Rum Distillery branded rum. Rather, the distillery was effectively a communal resource that nearly all the Barbados brands came to depend on. In fact, in 1901 West Indies issued stock shares which many rum brand owners purchased, thus making West Indies partially owned by its customers, including familiar names such as R.L. Seale and Martin Doorly. This is an important point I’ll return to below.
It’s worth noting that the West Indies Rum Distillery wasn’t just a column distillery; it acquired pot stills and a chamber still within its first few decades. Thus, the distillery could supply batch and continuous (pot and column) distillates, both of which remain important elements in premium modern-era Barbadian rum.
Very close to the West Indies Rum Distillery, another fairly large distillery popped up. The exact date of its founding is unknown, but occurred prior to 1938. The company, known as Barbados Distilleries Ltd., owned at least two stills, including a fairly large column. Not much can be found about this distillery; it was listed for sale in 1971, and a 1976 text implies that it was still active.
It’s generally agreed that during the second half of the twentieth century, West Indies dominated Barbados rum. Mount Gay and Barbados Distilleries Ltd. also supplied rums to brands, but it’s believed that West Indies was the primary supplier to Barbadian rum brands. So influential was West Indies that its founder’s name, Stades, become nearly synonymous with Barbados rum and appeared on many Barbadian rum labels.
Fast forward to the 1970s, when the pace of Barbadian rum history picks up–beginning with big changes to Mount Gay, the iconic Barbadian brand.
The recent history of Mount Gay recent is murky, in part because of some confusing company names. The short synopsis is that in the early twentieth century, there were two companies related to Mount Gay rum:
- Fairfield and Mount Gay Ltd.: Owned the distillery in St. Lucy and a number of surrounding plantations, but did not bottle or sell rum.
- Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd.: Bottled and sold Mount Gay Rum; this company owned the Mount Gay brand but not the distillery and plantations.
In 1975, Fairfield and Mount Gay Ltd. split into two companies. Fairfield Investments took the plantations. The other company, named The Rum Refinery of Mount Gay, owned the St. Lucy distillery. Following the split, two companies became three:
- Fairfield Investments Ltd. – The sugar cane plantations
- Rum Refinery of Mount Gay – The St. Lucy distillery
- Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd. – The Mount Gay brand
In 1980, a majority percentage of Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd. (“the brand”) was sold to a foreign interest, and by 1989 it was in the hands of Rémy Martin (now Rémy Cointreau.) Put another way, Rémy owned the brand but not the means of production. This set the stage for Rémy’s eventual complete takeover, described below.
In the early 1990s, the Malibu brand contracted with West Indies to supply rum. Although initially a small brand, Malibu met with skyrocketing success, and with it the need to purchase more and more rum. This commitment to Malibu production made it harder for West Indies to supply all its customers until it added yet another column still in 1995.
Around the same time, the R.L. Seale company, one of West Indies’ biggest customers, concluded that it needed to take rum production into its own hands. They purchased the shuttered Foursquare sugar factory and converted it into the modern Foursquare Rum Distillery, which opened in 1996. It also increased the number of operating distilleries on the island from two to three.
In 2006, a fourth Barbados rum distillery entered the scene: Preservation architect and Barbados native Larry Warren purchased the St. Nicholas Abbey estate, including cane fields, with the intent to preserve it for future generations. Naturally rum was a part of historic sugar cane estates: To kickstart his rum offerings, Warren purchased already aged stock from the Foursquare distillery and continued to age it alongside his own freshly distilled rum, produced from a small batch still. Today the estate offers a gamut of rums, from unaged to twenty years.
In 2013, the Rum Refinery of Mount Gay ran into financial troubles and closed for a bit. Many press pieces erroneously reported that the Mount Gay brand was going under, which wasn’t the case–owner Rémy Cointreau had plenty of aged stock to work with. Nonetheless, in 2014 the Rum Refinery of Mount Gay was sold to Rémy Cointreau, thus giving them control of the entire Mount Gay supply chain. More recently the company acquired the Oxford Plantation, which was an original part of the Mount Gay holdings.
In 2017, another French company entered the Barbados rum story in a big way. After many years as a customer of West Indies, Maison Ferrand, parent company of Plantation Rum, purchased the distillery from Goddard Enterprises, the majority owner. Since Goddard also owned a one-third share of National Rums of Jamaica (including the Long Pond and Clarendon distilleries), Maison Ferrand assumed that ownership stake as well, providing a significant foothold in the Caribbean.
Today on Barbados, four distilleries are operating – two locally owned, and two owned by French companies.
West Indies Rum Distillery – The largest distillery on the island, by far. Owned by Maison Ferrand. Data I’ve seen suggests it holds 82 percent of the island’s distilling capacity.
Mount Gay Rum Distillery – Owned by Rémy Cointreau. It represents somewhere around ten percent of the island’s capacity. However, in terms of aging stock it holds a much larger share (approximately 45,000 casks), which I’m told is the largest on the island.
Foursquare Rum Distillery – Independently owned by the Seale family (R.L. Seale & Co.). Reports are that its production capacity and aging stock are in the same neighborhood as Mount Gay’s, approximately 40,000 casks.
St. Nicholas Abbey – Owned by the Warren family. Its capacity isn’t well known, but it is assuredly a very tiny fraction of the other distilleries’ capacity and stock.
In terms of visiting the facilities, only Foursquare and St. Nicholas Abbey are currently open for public tours. If you have the right connections, you may be able to land a private tour at Mount Gay or West Indies Rum Distillery. I’m told that Mount Gay plans to do small group tours of the distillery on a limited basis in early 2019. Be aware that the Mount Gay visitor’s center in Bridgetown is not the distillery.
In 1906, a Barbados law forbade distilleries from selling rum in quantities less than ten gallons. Certainly not consumer friendly! This law helped usher in an era of Barbados blenders, buying bulk rum from distilleries, then blending, bottling, and selling to consumers.
These blenders were typically merchants who sold a variety of goods in a market setting. The rums they sold were sold under their own house brand name. As you’ll see below, some of these names live on today, despite a change in who makes them.
Interestingly, the rums being made by Barbados blenders eighty years ago appear to have been very different than what’s expected of Barbados rum today. In his 1937 Foreign and Domestic Rum, U.S. Treasury chemist Peter Valaer describes it:
There is a tendency to remove as much as possible of the original character due to fermentation of cane products and substitute a new character with added ingredients. The analysis of true Barbados rum is not shown, but a formula of well-known brands consists of a mixture of distilled molasses spirit varying in proof from 145″ to 190°, sherry, Madeira or other wines, often spirits of niter, bitter almonds, and raisins.
Seale commented on these practices in a March 2018 PUNCH story:
“In the early days […] lots of additives were in play for local brands,” he says. “When we acquired the Doorly’s brand and learned the formulas, I was very influenced by the discovery that Doorly’s was pure.”
As of 2018, the operating Barbados rum distilleries are the following:
Foursquare Rum Distillery
Besides the eponymous Foursquare brand and its highly regarded Exceptional Cask series, the distillery also makes and sells the following brands directly:
- R.L. Seale
- E.S.A. Field
- Old Brigand
- Alleyne Arthur
- John D. Taylor (Falernum)
It bears noting that the R.L. Seale Company’s history includes acquiring the brands of other blenders. All of the above brands were once made with rum from West Indies, and possibly other plantation distilleries. According to Richard Seale, Doorly’s was known to have also sourced from Mount Gay. When the Foursquare distillery came on line, the brands transitioned to production exclusively at Foursquare.
Another well-known Foursquare rum made The Real McCoy. However, the brand is not wholly owned by R.L. Seale & Co. Rather, the brand is a partner brand and is bottled at Foursquare.
Mount Gay Distillery
As best known, the Mount Gay distillery now focuses exclusively on Mount Gay branded rum.
Historically, many brands have been made at West Indies Rum Distillery, but few have been directly associated with it.
The Cockspur brand is one example to the contrary. Goddard Enterprises, which previously owned West Indies, also owned Cockspur. Around the time that Goddard sold West Indies, it also sold the Cockspur brand, however the brand was not part of the distillery sale.
Plantation Rum has long been a customer of West Indies for its Barbados releases, although it also purchased aged stock from Foursquare. With Plantation now owning the West Indies distillery, you can expect many more Plantation expressions to have some component coming from the distillery.
St. Nicholas Abbey
With its tiny size, St. Nicholas Abbey distills for only its own St. Nicholas Abbey rums.
Both Foursquare and West Indies Rum Distillery supply bulk rums to other brands, as well as to E&A Scheer. A full accounting of every brand using distillates from these two distilleries is well beyond the scope of this article.
This concludes the (not so brief) overview of Barbados Rum. Hopefully even the hardcore rum geeks have learned a few new facts. In future stories I will explore the various distilleries and their history in much greater depth. Pour a dram and stay tuned.