We landed to heavy rain. Not quite the beaming sunshine we were waiting for – but, as we made our way off the plane, the warm refreshing drops were appreciated after our 8 hour flight. Barbados had already got a gold star for its welcome.
Sure, we could have thrown our hands in the air and shouted “cheese on bread” (..Bajan slang, trip in-joke) but the beauty of tropical islands like Barbados is that these bad boys last mere seconds and then you’re back in the basking sunshine. It wouldn’t be the lush land we know and love without these scattered showers and Barbados wouldn’t have its name. The word Barbados stems from “bearded ones”, a name given to the shortleaf fig trees which resemble bushy beards that grow en masse over there (yes, that’s the tree on their flag – good pub quiz fact for ya).
SO, needless to say we welcomed these showers with open arms – just like everyone on the island did to 12 loud UK bartenders, thirsty for Mount Gay rum. The Tamarind, our home for the next four nights (which came with free crabs in the bathroom), even had rum punch ready and waiting for us before we could put our bags down – they knew us too well. And, with Miguel and Darrio as our tour guides (and stand-up comedians) for the next 5 days, we were clearly in VERY safe hands.
Bossing It With Black Barrel
It was clear that Mount Gay Black Barrel was going to be the life and soul of this party (they were the whole reason we were lucky enough to be there in the first place). The beauty of Black Barrel is that it’s smooth enough to sip, yet its killer in cocktails. Whether it was enjoyed in an old fashioned looking over the dramatic views of world famous The Cliff Restaurant or sipped straight from the bottle, on the beach outside the John Moore Rum Shop watching the sunset, it didn’t matter, it would always taste first class.
The Cliff is the best restaurant on the island so we dressed to impress and were ready to indulge. The restaurant has impressive billowing flames flickering into the night sky, highlighting the huge fish circling in the clear blue sea below. We had our own section of the restaurant (presumably to keep our rowdy group away from the people who had booked this MONTHS in advance and were probably about to propose). There, we were lucky enough to enjoy a delicious three course meal paired with gorgeous rum cocktails, before indulging with some Mount Gay 1703 while puffing away on cigars. Ballers.
John Moore Rum Shop is one of more than 1500 rum shops in Barbados (they’re always right by a church – we like their style). They’re the social hub of the island, a place to relax with mates over a bottle of rum or five. We did just this, most evenings – the perfect place for a sundowner. These sessions were usually followed by pool acrobatics back at the hotel ranging from dodge ball, surfing, handstand comps and human pyramids. Strong team effort for each.
Sipping rum punches on a private catamaran called ‘Jammin’ with music blaring was probably one of the most awesome settings of all. We had a day swimming through old shipwrecks (kudos Claire and Luke) and mingling with turtles. It really isn’t until you head out on a boat and look back at the island, that you remember and appreciate just how breathtaking Barbados is. Just like the postcards, but a tad wonkier after the free flowing rum.
After distillery tours, Harrison’s Cave excursions, safari rides through cane fields, and an awesome rum blending session with the legendary Master Blender, Allen Smith (who’s been bossing his role since 1991) we felt more than ready for the first ever UK final of the Mount Gay Black Barrel competition.
Game Faces Ready
Mount Gay and BarLifeUK had travelled around the UK over the last 6 months to pick this sterling line up. All 12 bartenders had individually won the heat in their city, so they knew their drinks were good, but this was crunch time. You could feel attitudes shift that morning – friendships were on pause and game faces were on. There were no cries for “CAL”, less squawks from Claire, and Matt didn’t even hold the ceiling of the cab as we made our way to The Cliff Beach House, our stage for the day.
What a ridiculously outstanding backdrop. The sea stretched as far as the eye could see, with white sandy beaches at each side. Nerves disintegrated at this point – they had already won by being here. This comp was a pretty big deal and was the talk of the town. Being the first of its kind meant everyone knew about it, and most industry people were coming down to watch. No pressure.
The Finalists were:
Timmy Falzon – Mahiki, London Luke Ridge – Dandelyan, London
Luke Riley- Popolo, Newcastle
Dan Bovey – Be At One Bar Bristol
Chelsie Bailey – The Milk Thistle, Bristol
Clare Morrow – Mojo, Leeds
Niall McGloin – Smokestack, Leeds
Adam Binnersley – Mojo, Manchester
Matthew Soares – Cloud 23, Manchester
Cal McMillan – Guy’s Restaurant, Glasglow
Miran Chauhan – Bon Vivant, Edinburgh
Dave Mulholland – Love and Death, Belfast
Everyone brought a fierce game and served outstanding cocktails with awesome stories behind them. We had sailors, touching tales about great-grandfathers and mother’s cooking secrets (or “Miguel’s Mamma’s hot sauce” in Binners’ case, which had a beastly kick to it..). Matt even found a link to Manchester’s cotton industry with his Mr Mercer’s Cotton Peculiar – a hard shake with a splash of ginger beer to top, which went down a right treat in that humidity. Luke got the crowd going, as usual, becoming a lyrical maestro with a limerick that included the three key phrases “Original Spirit”, “Handcrafted” and “Bold” in a pretty impressive Bajan accent during his “Barbados or Bust”, and we had brand knowledge fired at us from all angles – these guys had all done their homework.
With the drinks being of such an insane calibre, the deliberations went round in circles. It was impossible to fault anyone, so it all came down to the drink that made you step back and say “ooh” – in this case it was Dan Bovey from Bristol with his ‘Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik’. 50ml black barrel, 25ml Harvey’s signature 12, 25ml Bbq’d pineapple falernum and 4 dashes black tea infused angostura bitters, all served in a “Bacoo bottle”. The Bacoo is a type of genie. When you find and open a corked bottle washed up on the beach, you let it out and it grants you wishes. I wish I found one of those beauts during our stay because my wish would have been to never return to London.
So, Dan won a holiday back here in January, but for the rest of us it was our last night on the island and we had to make the most of it. We all had one last supper, a huge BBQ buffet where we stuffed our faces for the inevitable booze up coming our way at The Red Door Lounge, in Holetown. The after party was full of bartenders from the island, press and cameramen (dear Lord, we hope videos don’t surface). Rum flowed, memories were made and this trip of a lifetime drew to a close.
Back To Reality
As we drove to the airport the next day, fresh coconuts in hand and one fat hangover that we had been prolonging all trip, it was time to reflect. We sped past the Chattel houses, rum shops, churches and beaches and couldn’t help but wonder if they’d notice if we never jumped on the plane.
The hospitality was out of this world, the setting was truly magical, the rum was exceptional and to top it off we had a killer group that helped make these five amazing days in paradise extra special. Like Darrio had told us – it’s the people that make Barbados what it is.
A HUMONGOUS thank you to Mount Gay, Darrio for all his jokes, facts and voice-overs, Miguel for welcoming us to his home town, and arranging everything spectacularly (and his beautiful rendition of Madonna ‘Like a Virgin’ at karaoke), Paul for being the best driver in town and Matt for generally putting up with us. This trip was a DREAM. Here’s to many more years of this fantastic competition!!