Mount Gay, Barbados: a tour round rum’s natural home

THE heart of the Barbados rum trade is perched at the northernmost tip of this small Caribbean island. High in the mountains in the St Lucy district sits the Mount Gay refinery, surrounded by a nine feet tall sugar cane plantation and gazing out over wild Atlantic waves which crash into the Florida coast 1,600 miles away.

This is where Frank Ward, head of the refinery, comes to work every day. The rambling collection of 100-year-old brick buildings and wooden warehouses is not much to look at, but it is here where some of the best rum in the world is made.

Mount Gay, along with Appleton in Jamaica, are two of the most famous names among the 40 or so brands of rum made across the Caribbean. Among the rum cognoscenti they are admired for the subtle flavours they have consistently been able to produce for hundreds of years. Mention that you are quite partial to a Barcardi and coke every now and again and you will be politely sent to the nearest corner.

Those in the know take their rum neat, over ice, or with a splash of water. Although, to be fair, cheaper white rums are designed to be drunk with coke or punch. And if your girlfriend has left you, you are permitted to sink a double shot into your beer. This is called a bicycle in Barbados, though it is not recommended that you try riding one after a couple of these.

They have been making rum on this 166-square mile island since 1654; Mount Gay was first distilled here in 1703.

Frank Ward’s family has headed the refinery (which is confusingly where the rum is distilled) for just under a hundred years. Even though the family sold ownership of the brand to US firm the McKesson Corporation in 1981 (who in turn sold it to Rémy Cointreau in 1989), the family still hold the right to make the drink and supply it exclusively to Rémy. The French giant owns a bottling factory in the island capital Bridgetown, but the booze is made here in the mountains.

Up here, Ward – although he only employs 26 workers and uses steam powered machinery – makes 2.2 million litres, or 450,000 12-bottle cases of the golden rum a year.

Ward is a small bird-like man (who is a trained lawyer and has a PhD in toxicology from the University of Surrey) and is softly spoken. He breathes: “Golden rum is being sold as a premium product in the US and Europe over the last few years and is doing quite well in comparison to the drinks it is sold against – whisky, bourbon and cognac. In the Caribbean, over the same sort of time, Absolute Vodka has become popular.”

Rum is a simple mixture of sugar, water and yeast. Juice is extracted from sugar cane and boiled to produce thick molasses. This is then diluted with water and yeast is added for fermentation in huge bubbling industrial vats for at least two days. The sweet, heady smell in this part of the factory makes the place smell less like a place of business and more like a private club where the time has run way past midnight. After this, the liquid is heated in traditional pot stills (which can take up to nine days) or modern column stills (which takes hours). At this point the alcohol, which boils at 78 degrees centigrade, is separated off from the water, and is collected in tanks.

The rum is then put into second-hand barrels to age for anything up to 25 years or more. The most common barrels used are from the US whiskey industry, which only use their barrels once. Rum makers also use cognac barrels from France, and Ward has recently been trying to get his hands on sherry barrels.

Ward says: “The rum reacts both with the air in the barrel and draws out some of the flavours in the wood. But no one has worked out exactly what happens in that barrel over all that time.”

Around 95 per cent of Ward’s output is dedicated to Mount Gay but this does leave him some spare capacity. Over the last several years he has developed a distinctive triple distilled pot still rum called Mount Gilboa, the old name of the region.

Ward plans to up production. At the end of my a tour of the factory, his cousin Andrew Ward explains the business will buy more stills and plans to almost double output to 4.2 million litres by next year.

I did not run through the economics of the expansion with the Wards. But after tasting their fayre high on that windswept mountainside, my calculation was the more rum in the world, the better.

Mount Gilboa – A heavy Barbadian smoky rum, from the same distillery that makes Mount Gay. This rum is triple distilled for a longer finish.

Havana Club – A light dry Cuban rum. Good for drinking with friends in a bar. Sold at a number of ages including unaged, three years, seven years and 15 years.

Appleton – A fruity Jamaican rum with hints of banana and vanilla. Medium-bodied with a medium to long finish. Sold at a number of ages including seven, eight and 21 years.

Clement – A Martinique rum made from fresh sugar cane juice rather than molasses. After an initial sweetness it has a spicy dry finish, which some say is similar to Armagnac

El Dorado – Made from demerara sugar. It has medium to dry smoky finish, with hints of sherry, vanilla and coffee. It gets its smoky flavour from being distilled in wooden potstills instead of more common copper stills.