This is the year of rum, don’t you know? According to data from CGA by Nielsen IQ, rum sales surpassed £1billion in the UK in 2022, landing the category a bigger market share than whisky. The increase in premium brands to rival Scotch and Cognac, the demand for flavoured and spiced rum, and its versatility in cocktails are all contributing to this golden era.
But rum is also a deeply evocative spirit, one that can be an ambassador of its home at its best, like it is for Barbados. It’s this connection that prompted the creation of The Barbados Rum Experience, a week-long festival dedicated to illuminating all aspects of the spirit’s culture, history, and production to move beyond the ‘pirates and parties’ reputation.
In November 2022, I was in attendance at the island’s sole event dedicated exclusively to the rum industry of Barbados, a year after something of a soft launch inaugural show curbed by COVID restrictions. A more comprehensive schedule and freedom to enjoy everything the island has to offer was in store, split into two main portions: three days of talks from experts, and two days visiting Mount Gay, Foursquare, and St Nicholas Abbey Distillery.
The former is not just about lessons in rum. The big stories are not shied away from, with honest discussion about the island’s drinking culture and the history of slavery. We cannot tell the story of rum without understanding the role plantation economics played in its development. The experience aims to illuminate a wider Caribbean story, covering subjects such as biology, geology, anthropology, and more.
From the conference room of the Radisson Aquatica, a classroom of students from Barbados to America, the UK and beyond, ingest it all like giddy school kids seeing the TV rolled into the room. With top notch speakers that include rum luminaries such as Prof. Richard Drayton, Prof. Fred Smith, and renowned Barbadian distiller Richard Seale, the coverage is so comprehensive you feel as if you’ve just spent a year at the university of rum – with the added bonus of a beach outside your door and rum flowing freely.
As any good drinks writer will tell you, a spirit is best enjoyed in the distillery where it’s made, however, and the three trips are undoubtedly the highlight of the Barbados Rum Experience. Behind the scenes access, exclusive tours, and generous tastings are enjoyed first at Mount Gay, where we witness the island’s giant enter its 320th anniversary by investing in capacity and gearing towards more terroir-led production. Foursquare opens its doors to show you the no-nonsense approach that made it the rum drinker’s rum, while St Nicholas Abbey stands out as the premier tourist destination. Come for the sights, stay for the rum.
When you understand how connected rum is to this island, you realise that to visit Barbados and fail to take in the distilleries and their creations would to be visit Champagne and avoid the vineyards and taste of bubbles. It’s my first visit here and our hosts, led dutifully by Gayle and Christian Seale, are keen to ensure every joy of Barbados is seized. My first experience of the island is a night drive from the airport followed by a rum punch in the hotel lobby. It sets a tone. Rotis from the nearby Indian Grill and fish sandwiches from Cuzz’s are so good they’re frequented more than once.
The cuisine, customs, and charm of Barbados are not an additional extra, but a core element of the experience. If you’re new to rum, Barbados, or a lover of both from near or afar, the Barbados Rum Experience will open your eyes, pour you a drink, and leave you in no doubt you are in the home of one of the finest spirits in the world. Just take a sip.