Joe Petch: The Mount Gay Rum Academy Trip

Intrepid BarLifeUK blogger Joe Petch recently came back from Barbados and has shared his adventure with us.

It all began in on a rainy Wednesday morning in November last year; miserably dark skies, sideways rain and a bitterly cold breeze was the only thing standing between my house and the airport.

Grinning with excitement I stood in the puddles wearing my beige chinos and a white T-shirt, seemingly out of place next to all the sleepy commuters in gloves and winter jackets. I didn’t care though, I was going to Barbados! Meeting the nine other travellers and our “oh so sensible” tour guides – Miguel Smith and Alvin Saal from Mount Gay Rum – we were now waving goodbye to the general grey that is London and officially on our way.

Nine hours later we were approaching the tiny island of Barbados; I say tiny as upon some further investigation I discovered that you can fit three islands of its size into the area of London. It also has an almost identical population to the borough of Hackney.

A couple of differences when comparing the two besides the obvious 35-40 degree heat is that people here do not wear skin tight jeans and large frame glasses in a bizarre attempt to compete in a “who can look like the biggest ****** competition”. The other is that locals here are genuinely friendly regardless of whether you know them or not, both a big tick in my book!

­Upon arrival we had clearly already missed rum ‘o’ clock! (Something I had pointed out to a fair few people on the plane via the message service on our passenger T.V’s). So with no more time wasting we started to make up for it around the pool. Local rum and beer was flowing well before our luggage had even seen our rooms and by the time we had considered unpacking the sun had gone down and we had finished off the poolside bars stock of Mount Gay rum punch – good effort.

A welcome meal followed at the Tamarind Cove Resort, which was hosted by Chester Brown (18yrs in service! He’s a true pioneer of global brand ambassadorship as we know it today) and global brand manager, Marc McCollin. Best cocktail of the night was of course The Bajan Iced Tea (Replace all the regular Long Island spirits with larger measures of different Island Rums, Enjoy!).

Caves & Rum Shops

An intense schedule followed with a “no excuses” 8:15am meet the next morning, I could only think one thing… this was going to be a VERY long day. None the less a 7am swim in the Caribbean Sea was almost as good as a strong coffee (and yes I did get up, I have witnesses and everything).

Some may say this was only possible due to the fact not enough rum was consumed; others would say that we made up for it. If the swim, coffee or insanely good breakfast didn’t set you up for the day, then defending your grub from the barrage of tiny, very hungry, opportunistic Hummingbirds would. I didn’t mind, purely because they weren’t the crazy, tramp-like London pigeons that we all know and despise back home.

On the way to our first location we drove though The Parish of St. Thomas and one of the highest points of the Island (1,120ft). It was at this point we discovered a couple of things about island life; why were there always Rum Shops (rum bars) next to churches? Turns out most women go to church on a Sunday, 75% of men don’t.

Women like to know where there men are, so drop them off on the way to church and everybody gets to leave a bit later with a bit of spirit inside them, genius!

The other was that everyone seems to know each other, I completely lost track of how many times the bus driver, Chester or Miguel shouted “Hey” at a passersby, knowing all their names, and even asking how the family was.

We arrived at Harrisons Cave, 2.3km of winding caves that were naturally formed with the island which is under one million years old (young for a Caribbean island) when tectonic plates crashed. For those of you who know a bit more about the Caribbean you’ll recall that the majority of the islands were made through volcanic activity, meaning the ground is very different.

These caves are therefore made up predominantly, of coral and limestone. This entire natural underground cave system is the key to the island’s clean water, all rainfall flows through the ground and into huge underground reservoirs that are over 96% in natural purity (much more than our own Thames Valley’s Finest). For those of you who are slightly less interested in biogenic sedimentary rock formation and calcium deposition then just think of this island as a giant natural Britta water filter.

Due to the cave’s sheer size and natural beauty it is often locally referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. As we set off down the mine shaft the tour guide said that “it may be a little wet in places”, this was followed by us all instantly discovering what it would be like if it rained indoors. The vast caverns and underground lakes are hard to put into words, their ancient history told by the formation of the huge stalactites and stalagmites that consume the space, each taking around 100-years to grow a mere inch!

Our next stop was afternoon tea in some of the plantation cane fields. Here we used a tool called a “bill” to cut the cane and remove its leaves. You could tell the fields were ripe as a feather duster-like shoot called an ‘arrows’ rose from the top of the plants, signifying the plants’ full sugar content. Chester recalled when he was younger hiding in the cane fields with friends and endlessly chewing so much of the stuff that you ended up with a “stomach so sweet you can’t walk!”

Technical Tasting with Allen Smith

The location for our tasting wasn’t a showy tourist room or visitors centre, it was Allen Smith’s on-site rum blending laboratory. Allen is the master blender for Mount Gay Rum and has been for 10yrs. He explained how Mount Gay was renowned globally as the “Rum that Invented Rum” in relation to it being the oldest commercial Rum distillery in the world.

During his time the rum range has won numerous awards and in 2009 he created 1703; a blend of rums from between 10-30yrs old. It won “best Caribbean rum” 2 weeks later and more recently the International Spirits Competition Best in Class 2012, and Grand Gold at the 2012 International Monde Selection Awards.

What can I say, the man knows his rum and whilst he may not be the most outspoken man in the world, you could probably talk with him about rum for three days straight and would still be listening intently at the end.

Allen explained how he preferred a long fermentation period for the molasses and that he bottles all the rum on maturity of the barrelled rums instead of by technical age. We went through the heavy, vegetal and spicy double pot distillates that are used to compliment the crisp fresh column still ones, both new make and aged were extremely interesting and as we expected, did not relate to the finished product in many ways at all.

The ex Jim Beam and Blue Grass Cooperage charred casks had been chosen for their quality and sweet bourbon notes they give the rum during the years of maturation. We were then given a chance to blend our own XO from the vials and beakers laid out in front of us, with some of our group achieving more success than others.

We looked through one of the three aging warehouses where around 11,000 x 200ltr barrels are stacked upright, unlike in Europe where they are mainly stored sideways. I think this was a theory about not wanting your rum rolling away at any given time?

Following the obligatory game of cricket on a local Parish ground and a traditional macaroni pie lunch (just like a Mac ‘n’ Cheese, but don’t say that to the locals as they get very protective over it) we were on the move back to the hotel.

We had asked a few times about journey times around the island and it seems a rough guide to getting anywhere outside of rush hour was “about 15minutes”. However no one is in a rush here and the pace of life is certainly one we are far detached from in the UK, not to mention London.

Barbados Nightlife

This evening, unbeknownst to us, was to be a major highlight of the trip. Dinner at “The Cliff”, probably the most amazing restaurant on the island, with an old face of the London bar scene (aka Papa Jules) serving us a selection of classic rum cocktails including superb Mount Gay 1703 Manhattans.

A full pre-dinner Mount Gay range tasting commenced, my favourite being the Black – a darker 50% abv expression with deep spicy notes from a heavier use of the double pot still rums during blending. The food was nothing short of fantastic, ending off with a rum baba, served with a pipette of rum that you injected yourself into the soft cake.

Heads full of rum and stomachs fit to burst it was time for some late night entertainment, in the form of a huge outdoor club where local legendary DJ Puffy was celebrating his birthday. The guy seemed cool until the early hours when he was carried out in a very un-celebrity like manor, hilarious!

The music played well into the night, and to this day i will always remember Georgie’s renditions of “Roxanne” by The Police and somebody making the statement, “I feel like I’ve lost my shoes!”

8am is always too early when abroad, but after a ‘shades on’ breakfast we all had the pleasure of discovering that an off-road safari is NOT a cure for the night before, much to the enjoyment of Chester and the guide.

Lunch at the visitors centre was a welcome end to the bumpy roads although there’s nothing quite like driving through cane fields and along the beachfront in an open Land Rover. My favourite item available here (except the £60 1703) was the 301ml bottle of rum with a beer cap, open with intent to finish.

After a very inventive cocktail competition and further tasting, we were all back on the ball, ready for the final night of cultural enlightenment.

A private beach BBQ was held for us and we were all officially certified Rum Academy successors. We toasted with XO poured into freshly opened coconuts (one amazing drink!) and enjoyed our beachfront surroundings for the last evening.

Oistens and Home

We had heard a lot about a place called Oistens since our arrival, a small fish market during the week, however on Friday nights it’s the host of the biggest street party on the Island. I think we were all in agreement; this HAD to be done. They weren’t lying; hundreds of cheerful faces gathered in the town square, all enjoying the seriously bass heavy tunes coming from the carnival sound system.

A fair few tunes later, we headed back to the visitors centre where they hold a monthly party; a really, really good party at that! Rum and dancing was certainly on the agenda, as was sleeping on a sun lounger apparently! (Although I think I got away with pretending I was just up and about early for the morning sun).

It was time to leave the island; most of the trip will stick with me, thanks to all the photos. But so will the memory of the hospitality we received. The word hospitality doesn’t seem to exist in the Bajan vocabulary; overall the locals are just genuinely nice whether working in a hotel or out drinking with friends.

I thought at first people were being overly-friendly for extra dollars but surely the random groups dancing to a dub rig in a late night fish market weren’t after a tip? An inspiring country and a fully memorable experience all round.

Barbados is a refreshingly simple place (E.g. Holetown was a town with a hole in it and Bridgetown…..well, you get it) with amazing people and features, I will return! And in my final conclusion I can say louder and clearer than ever; I bloody love rum!