The island of Barbados is home to Mount Gay Rum and for a few days recently a bunch of UK bartenders.
There must be people in this world who don’t like rum, I don’t think I’ve ever met them but they must be out there somewhere. It’s what I refer to as the ‘Piers Morgan Principle’, I have no idea who likes that dick shingle but someone must, he keeps getting TV shows.
The cure for Piers love is yet to be found (a shotgun is apparently still outlawed) however when it comes to rum the solution is simple, go to the Caribbean. The moment you step out of the airport rum makes sense, I defy anyone to not like rum after a couple of days there.
BarLifeUK have been very lucky to visit a several homes of rum over the past few years, however one of the caribbean islands had evaded us; the home of the rum shack, of Greenidge, Garner and Sobers, and their current favourite export Rihanna – Barbados.
So it was with great excitement we joined the latest Mount Gay expedition to their home, with a gang of bartenders and drinks professionals.
By the time we arrived at the hotel we were very grateful to receive the first of many rum punches that would punctuate our trip. As we checked in (which mainly seemed to be done at the bar) to our beachside hotel the conversation turned to the itinerary we’d be given. It was going to be a busy couple of days exploring everything the island and the rum had to offer, we need to get ourselves sorted, but maybe first another rum punch.
In fact the first evening was spent acclimatizing at the hotel, this was a very tricky process involving a swim in the sea (well for most, we hung out at the bar with Robin Kay, not for the last time on the trip), a few drinks and a BBQ full of fish caught that day from the ocean that stretched out before us as the sun set. It was also the first chance for some of the group to try the latest addition to the Mount Gay portfolio, Black Barrel.
Black Barrel is made using a combination of single column and double copper pot distillates, as all the Mount Gay range are, however in this instance it is made using a higher proportion of the double distillate. It is also uniquely finished in charred bourbon oak barrels, helping to give the brand its name.
It is a delicious drop, potentially made even more special considering our surroundings, however as we sipped, enjoyed and chatted we had no idea just how important Black Barrel would be on the trip. If we knew what was coming we may have spent a bit more time concentrating on the rums nuances and less on finding out if they were showing the World Cup game the following evening.
Caves, Cane and Queasiness
The next morning we arose early and over breakfast it became apparent that the knowledge of what the day had in store resulted in a surprisingly sensible night, then we noticed the Scots appearing from the sun into the air-conditioned oasis.
A Scotsman in a country as sunny and tropical as Barbados is always going to be a slightly uncomfortable experience, however one look at Joey Medrington, Stuart McCluskey and Paul Graham, who resembled sweaty, confused, red faced spider monkeys, told us they hadn’t quite managed the early night option. However being the consummate professionals they are, they shovelled in some bacon and eggs before joining us in the bus for a day of adventures.
Mount Gay and the island of Barbados are inherently linked together, and the morning was going to show us just that.
Our first stop was Harrison’s Cave, which produces some of the purest water in the world and is the base of all Mount Gay Rums. It is also a fantastic way to understand the geography of the island, which is made up mainly of coral limestone. It is this coral limestone that filters the rainwater that falls on the island to create the purity of the cave water.
We travelled underground to experience the amazing cave network the water has carved out over thousands of years, the white walls dripping with water were almost indistinguishable from Joey, who was devoid of colour and dripping with sweat. We did however get to try the water straight from one of the pools and which may have saved him.
From there we enjoyed a traditional ‘Bajan’ high tea surrounded by cane fields and goats who seemed to fascinate the Scots. We also had the chance to try some fresh cane sugar as well as the molasses that it creates.
It was just as well the high tea had a positive affect as it was time to visit the distillery and meet the main man at Mount Gay, Allen Smith the Master Blender. After a quick tour of the site we got a glimpse into his world as we joined him in his lab for a blending session.
Allen took us into his world, a world which has many parallels with that of the bartender, a world where pallet is king and where millilitres make all the difference (it does seem to involve less tattoos and facial hair however).
We were each tasked with creating our own Mount Gay blend and were handed a bottle of single column and bottle of double copper pot distillates to blend together. With just those two bases the differences in everyones finished products was remarkable.
Although BarLifeUK didn’t get to try all of the personal blends we were particularly impressed by the skills of Jess Cheeseman and Milos Popovic. For the record ours was pretty bad.
Without the worry of picking the barrels used, deciding when those barrels are ready or how much of a certain age has to be included we were already out of our depths. The skills needed to blend spirits was becoming blindingly obvious and after lunch we were going to learn just how intense the process is.
Black Barrel Blending
We were warned we were going to have to work after lunch, a warning that was generally met with laughter, however the more often it was mentioned the more we began to worry. Allen had been saying he was overworked and needed some help with the blending, he was joking though, he had to be joking, who would actually let a bunch of degenerate bartenders loose in a distillery?
As it turned out they would….. We were ushered into one of the many aging houses at the distillery where a selection of barrels had been laid out for us. We were each charged with opening up and syphoning off from our own barrels, before labeling the samples.
Back in the laboratory we were paired up (BarLifeUK got an almost fully recovered Joey) and informed that we were choosing the barrels for the next run of Black Barrel. Yep you read that right, those crazy fools at Mount Gay were letting us pick the barrels that would make up the next batch of Black Barrel to hit the UK shores.
Allen was, understandably, slightly more serious in the afternoon, after all it was his reputation he had put into our hands and the fear slowly spread across his face as the group found putting on lab coats hilarious.
The good news was we were not in complete control, each barrel had a control sheet which Allen had previously worked out, this ensured that every time he picked a barrel for a blend it matched the flavour profile of the original barrels he used in the original blend. The idea was that each pairing had to decide how close our barrel was to the control barrel using a series of tasting profiles such as Vanilla, Smoky, Ripe Banana, Floral and Citrus (all in all there were 26 parameters).
If our barrel was close to the control parameters then it was allowed to go in, if not it was binned. Most of the barrels made the grade however a couple were not close enough to count. Most significantly Rich Hunt (working on his own as a result of being a naughty boy) had a barrel of the double pot still which he described as a ‘superb rum’, one which he would happily have bottled and sold at Trailer, but it scored too highly against the control and was therefore not allowed to be included.
Allen will be double checking our findings but he seemed please at the end of the day and our blend of Black Barrel will be hitting the shores soon, we can’t wait to try it. It was a fantastic experience that we will remember for a very, very long time.
Dinner & Drinks
The evening was to be spent at the truly remarkable restaurant The Cliff run by ex-London Tiki bartender and generally lovely French man Papa Jules. The food was superbly matched to different Mount Gay cocktails and with views of rays, sharks and ‘big fish’ in the lit sea underneath it was something pretty special.
On route to this slice of dining paradise our island hosts had taken us to one of Barbados’ famed Rum Shacks. The group had been pestering non-stop about this from within 10 seconds of arriving on the island and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
As we drove around Barbados in our minivan Mount Gay Ambassadors Chester Browne (who lives in Barbados) and Miguel Smith (who was born there) had been filling us in on the islands rich history. One of our favourite facts to come out of this was that there are more churches on Barbados than there are days in the year and almost exactly the same amount of rum shacks.
The simple reason for this is every church has a rum shack next door, it seems the men aren’t so keen on going to church. The women don’t trust them to stay at home either so bring them along every Sunday and drop them off in the shack next door whilst they do their worshipping thing – a kind of boozy daycare.
At the end of the service the women pick them up and the both go home full of the spirit!! (Thanks for that one Chester).
These Rum Shacks are exactly as you imagine them, small little huts on the side of the road with a bar serving rum (which seemed to be mainly of the Mount Gay variety) and occasionally some food. After a few minutes there a quick look around showed that our group were a lot more comfortable donating to a tip tray than a collection plate.
The rest of the night happened, we drank rum, some people may have gone swimming, some people may have seen a sunrise, but that’s all just rumours….
Fun In The Sun
After the intensity of the previous day, day two was a wholly more relaxing affair, with most of the morning and early afternoon on the ocean waves aboard a catamaran (with bar of course).
Rarely have we seen a group of people take to relaxing so quickly and easily as this bunch did, before the anchor had been hauled in and the main brace had been…. braced?… the deck was festooned with pasty skinned bodies each holding onto a rum punch.
As the boat skimmed across the clear water the beer tap came on line and Rich produced a kids watering can for punch distribution and Pepijn Abeele took on music duties with some local tunes which gain kudos from the crew (if not some of the older members of the group!). I think it’s fair to say we were in the island spirit by then.
The boat also allowed a couple of snorkeling excursions with the first allowing us to get up close and personal with some of the island’s most loved residents, sea turtles. Watching these elegant creatures majestically and effortlessly move through the water was even more enjoyable next to the flailing limbs and air gasping of our group.
The snorkeling was particularly enjoyed by Dawn Davies and Anna Sebastian who had both successfully managed to spend every spare second of their time at the hotel with either a drink in hand or submerged neck deep in the sea, in a lot of incidences they had pulled them off simultaneously. It would be conjecture to suggest they were behind the start of the boat diving competition, but they are certainly the most likely culprits.
The afternoon saw the bartenders back on dry land doing what they do best, knocking up some cocktails and BarLifeUK back to doing what we do best, drinking them.
At the Mount Gay visitor center we were confronted by a table full of local fresh fruit and herbs as well as plenty of bottles of Mount Gay. Once divided into three teams they were tasked with creating a cocktail and a story about their time on the island including certain key words.
Each team went about things slightly differently. One team decided to ‘reacquaint’ themselves with the rums, one got pretty geeky about it and one thought long and hard about their story. We won’t tell you who won as we don’t want to open up any old wounds but needless to say we drank them and a few more cocktails before we left.
This was to be our last night in Barbados but we were treated to a beach barbeque and an impromptu game of volleyball to laugh at….. sorry watch, before we had to worry about that. Not since, well earlier that day, had so many limbs been flailing in so many directions. Apart, of course, from the ever patient and lovely Shani Leacock who had been looking after us all week who just happened to be on the Barbados ladies volleyball team and Oskar Kinberg who had been hiding a fierce serve behind a bottle of rum all week!
The barbecue, like all the food we had during our trip was local, fresh, tasty and exceptional. The drinks, like all the drinks we had during our trip were strong, rummy, tasty and exceptional. The banter, like all the banter we had on our trip was average.
Before we left we had one last stop to make and one more person to laugh at. The person was Bruce Govia, who as a Trinidadian had informed us all on the boat that he didn’t burn he just went brown. It appeared he forgot to tell his skin that, you have rarely seen a redder man in your life, even his chest hair was singed.
Our final stop was at a rum shack opposite the airport called Pug’s which as well as being a bit of an institution in Barbados held special importance to Adam ‘Buble’ Glover, who had been entertaining us with his dulcet tones for the past few days. He had a photo which had been taken many years ago of his dad and friends stood outside the bar, a photo we recreated.
Pug’s was a fitting end to the trip (for those who made it – a few may have been a little over tired), with a final cheers of Mount Gay Rum and some fresh coconut water to set us up for the long flight home.
By this point you are probably wondering what you have to do to get yourself on a trip like this, you’re probably wondering why this sort of thing never seems to happen to you. Well good news folks.
This was the first trip of a new initiative called the Mount Gay Rum Apprentice Program. This program is designed to get bartenders emerged in the world of Mount Gay, to understand where the rum comes from, its history and the history of its beautiful home.
As well as a series of events in the UK hosted by the inaugural Apprentice group the program will be extended over the coming weeks, months and years to ensure that more and more bartenders will be experiencing what we did. So you see, this can be you.
For more information speak to your local Mount Gay rep and when you’re sitting on the beach with a Black Barrel in your hand, have a sip for us.
A big thanks to everyone at Mount Gay in Barbados for looking after us so well and Craig Ogden and his team at Remy Cointreau for such a superb trip.