Sam Vincent imbibes the heady atmosphere and famous rum of the Caribbean island.
Squat-bottomed and narrow-necked, the island of Barbados is said to resemble a ham - or a pear if you're vegetarian. But a more apt appraisal of its shape would be an antique jug o' pirate's rum, crudely fashioned on a potter's wheel and sealed with a cork.
Barbados, the easternmost island of the Caribbean, is the birthplace of every sea dog's favourite poison. The first known English reference to rum occurred 24 years after Britain's settlement of the island when, in 1651, an unknown visitor described its "chief fudling" as a "hot, hellish and terrible liquor" distilled from sugar cane. Six years later, adventurer Richard Ligon, the first of many English tourists to visit Barbados, observed of rum: "The people drink much of it, indeed too much, for it often layes [sic] them asleep on the ground and that is accounted a very unwholesome thing."
In spite (or perhaps because) of these side-effects, by the mid-18th century rum's popularity had transcended location and class; what had started as the slaves' salvation from the horrors of the plantation had become a key ration of the British navy, prized loot for pirates and the spirit of choice for aristocrats on both sides of the Atlantic. (A young George Washington treated the constituents of Frederick County, Virginia, to 28 gallons of Barbadian rum punch upon his election to the colonial legislature in 1758. Thus we might have the rum barrel to thank for the practice of pork barrelling.)
Barbados's glory days as a sugar powerhouse are long gone but the island's reputation for rum remains as strong as ever. It houses four of the world's biggest rum distilleries and several boutique ones. Nationally, Barbadians knock back a head-splitting 6000 bottles of the liquor a day.
I've come to the island intent on finding the tastiest tot - or perhaps its most "unwholesome thing". My journey begins at the start of the rum story: the plantation. As the first landfall west of Africa, Barbados was the left-hand tip of history's most infamous triangle, in which sugar and its byproducts were sent to Europe and New England, manufactured goods to Africa and an estimated 12 million African slaves to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries.
On the back of slavery, fabulous sugar fortunes were amassed and plantation "great houses" were built. The grandest still standing on Barbados is St Nicholas Abbey, a Jacobean manor surrounded by towering cabbage palms, a stand of gnarled mahogany and 162 hectares of sugar cane.
I'm met at the mansion entrance by Simon Warren, the heir to the property and guide to its many daily visitors. With polished boots, khaki pants and the skin of a white man who has spent his life in the tropics, Warren looks every bit the West Indian planter of old, though mercifully he wears a mobile phone on his belt, not a whip.
"My family's been on the island since the start," he says in his Barbadian brogue, an accent somewhere between cricketer Viv Richards and an exaggerated Cockney.
Though a descendent of the island's "plantocracy", Warren says his family acquired St Nicholas only a decade ago, with the aim of restoring and preserving it for future generations of Barbadians. (It isn't an abbey at all, just a nickname that stuck.)
Sugar production in Barbados reached its height in the 18th century, then was overtaken by large-scale production in bigger countries. Warren and his family have turned to boutique rum production. In St Nicholas's old syrup factory, organic cane juice from the property is fermented then distilled in an antique still, a process in which the alcohol is evaporated from the juice, then re-condensed and collected. The concentrate is transferred to oak barrels previously used to store Kentucky bourbon, to be aged for up to 12 years.
It is unusual to use cane juice as a base for rum instead of molasses (a plentiful byproduct of the sugar-refining process). This style is usually restricted to the French-speaking Caribbean islands and is said to result in a more aromatic finish. When I ask why his family chose to use juice, Warren stares at me as if I arrived in last night's downpour. "Obviously man, because it be easier! No messin' about extractin' molasses; we jus' concentrate on da good stuff!"
As he proudly shows me a framed letter of thanks from the newly wedded Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (St Nicholas rum was a gift from the Commonwealth of Barbados), I sample a tot of 10-year-old rum, dark as treacle and smelling of tobacco. It is full-bodied, super sweet and has a rounded finish.
If St Nicholas Abbey is Barbados's most stately residence, my next stop is one of its more modest. In a mildewed shack at the island's centre I find a friend of a friend, Keith Laurie, with his pride and joy: what is said to be the Caribbean's largest private rum collection. He's friendly and loquacious and I like him immediately. "I bin drinkin' rum fa' near on it 50 years, so I guess you could call me an expert," he jokes.
Laurie, 78, can't remember when he started the collection and he's lost count of how many bottles it comprises but he remembers how each rum tastes and, as I inspect his cobwebbed shelves of liquid gold, he describes some of the highlights. There's a Haitian spiced rum ("a particularly fine drop"); a Jamaican dark one ("dangerous, like the country"); a white rum from Grenada ("you must try it, it's bloody awful", which is true); and even a familiar bottle adorned with a polar bear ("Why do you Australians make such bad rum when you have so much sugar?").
His favourite? Laurie is quick to name the Barbadian brand Mount Gay (pronounced "Mt Gear") as the finest rum distiller in the world. The best, he says, is Mount Gay's Extra Old blend, which is aged for up to 17 years. "Smooth and delicious," Laurie says, "it not need no chaser."
Thus armed with a recommendation, I head to a national institution found on every Barbadian street corner: the rum shop. Part grocery store, part pub, rum shops come in different shapes and sizes yet always have three elements: colourful hand-painted beer ads, plenty of banter and the sweet, wet smell of rum.
On Laurie's advice I visit John Moore Bar just north of the island's capital, Bridgetown. Outside on a bench, a distinctly drunk group of men play dominoes beside the lapping Caribbean Sea; inside I pull up a stool at a bar decorated with a stuffed turtle, tins of Spam and a fading poster of a buxom blonde. My Mount Gay Extra Old comes in a 700-millilitre bottle and is served with a glass, a bowl of ice cubes and a teaspoon. On a particularly muggy afternoon even by Barbadian standards, it is the perfect refreshment.
Beside me sits Dennis, a fit 70-year-old dressed in a dapper suit and shiny shoes. When I compliment him on his youthful looks he beams and declares: "It cos the rum agree with me!" Dennis has just come from a funeral. When I ask where, he gestures out the shop door to a pretty wooden church behind us, painted watermelon pink. It's said that Barbados has as many churches as rum shops, often on the same street. The combination might seem strange but are the two institutions all that different? As Lord Byron wrote in his poem Don Juan: "There's nought, no doubt, so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion."
Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Qantas, American Airlines, Contours Travel and the Barbados Tourism Association.
Getting there American Airlines has a fare to Bridgetown from Sydney and Melbourne for about $3175 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Los Angeles on Qantas (about 14hr), then to Miami (4hr 45min) and then to Bridgetown (3hr 25min). Australians do not require a holiday visa but the US transit requires travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Touring there Melbourne-based Contours Travel specialises in small-group tours of Latin America and the Caribbean. Phone 1300 135 391, see contourstravel.com.au.
Drinking there St Nicholas Abbey, at Cherry Tree Hill, Parish of St Peter, is open Sunday-Friday, 10am-3.30pm. Entry is 35 Barbadian dollars ($16) and includes a plantation tour, rum punch on arrival and house rum tastings; see stnicholasabbey.com.
John Moore Bar is at Highway 1, Weston, St James Parish. Phone +246 422 2258.
Mount Gay Visitors Centre, at Spring Garden Highway, Brandons, St Michael Parish, has hourly tours on weekdays 9.30am-3.30pm, which include rum tastings. Entry price 35 Barbadian dollars; see mountgayrum.com.
More information See visitbarbados.org.