Barbados is known globally as the home of pop-singer Rihanna, outstanding cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers, and the birthplace of the best rums on the planet.
The French will tell you that you haven’t gone to Paris until you tasted their wines and, similarly you cannot visit Barbados without experiencing the island’s great variety of rums and tasty foods.
Barbadians, like most of our Caribbean neighbours, place a high priority on the enjoyment of food and drinks, and rum has grown over time to be an important part of the country’s culture, pride and industry.
As much as savouring the taste of fine rum is one of the island’s social traditions, evidenced by the fact that many Barbadians sit down for a chat with “a bottle of brown or silver” on the table, rum has also been a multi-million-dollar export industry for the island.
Over the past 400 years, rum has undergone an evolution from a raw spirit concocted for slaves and enjoyed by masters to a beverage savoured by connoisseurs. It has medicinal, spiritual, psychological and social value, which has been widely documented as well as extolled in a variety of calypso and folk songs over many years.
This was certainly reinforced during the recent 2014 Crop Over season as local singer Omar “Gorg” Sobers, reputed for his rum songs over the past 10 years, emerged Party Monarch and the most popular calypsonian in Barbados this year with a tune which also praised the virtue of rum as a faithful friend and consoler after a failed relationship.
“My woman left me… but I got my rum”, he sang.
Historical accounts trace the early production of rum in Barbados back to the second half of the 17th century after sugar cane was introduced to the island in the 1630’s.
British colonists, who settled the island in 1627, soon began to cultivate sugar cane in the decades that followed and this made the island’s leading plantation owners and planters spectacularly rich.
Barbados quickly emerged as one of the most precious colonial possessions of the British Empire by the 18th century. This was mainly due to its easterly geographical location, which made it a prime stop for ships from Europe and Africa, and the rapid growth of its sugar-based economy.
Sugar cane and rum production flourished side by side over centuries, as the rum was made from the sugar-cane by-product of molasses, and the island established a rich heritage as the birthplace of some of the world’s best known and best loved rums.
Since the 17th Century, Barbados rum has held great value and appeal and was enjoyed by even kings and queens. Legendary writer Charles Dickens was said to savour it in punch; Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, mixed it into omelets; and Queen Victoria of England sipped it in navy grog.
The first President of the United States, George Washington, after visiting Barbados in 1751 and being exposed to liquor like none other, was said to have insisted on a barrel of Barbados rum at his 1789 inauguration.
Today, there are four distilleries in Barbados, and the island has retained the global reputation for its high quality rums through superior skills and major advances in the distillation process that has made the island famous for over 350 years.
Mount Gay, which began production in the northern part of Barbados in 1703, is both the world’s oldest commercial distillery and branded rum, but other Bajan brands such as Cockspur Fine Rum, Doorly’s XO, Stades and ESA Fields are also internationally recognised.
Not surprisingly, the small island of Barbados boasts an estimated 1,000 rum shops across its 166 square-miles, underscoring the reality that you are never far from a good drink.