In 1856, there were 158 distilleries in Barbados. The introduction of still licenses, rum duty and the prohibition of distillers retailing their own rum, all of this together with the economic malaise of the period, would see this number fall to just 23 by 1888. Rum making in the 19th century differed from today in two particular ways. Back then, a rum distiller would have a direct link to a sugar estate and the rum produced came from the sugar cane grown on the attached estate. Related to this direct link, rum was distilled from both fresh juice as well as molasses and possibly sugar cane syrup, each of which would have been produced on the very same sugar estate which operated its own boiling house.
Today, we tend to think of Barbados rum as being made exclusively from molasses, in contrast to rum directly from sugar cane juice, the latter being something peculiar to the French Islands. This is actually a modern construct. In the late 19th century, Barbados was as famous for its molasses as Demerara was for its sugar. The Barbadian rum distiller would use valuable molasses sparingly mixed with sugar cane juice. The latter might come from ‘rum canes’, so called because the juice was low in sucrose - but high in simple sugars - and better directed to the still than the boiling house.
Barbados rum making would take its modern shape around the turn of the century. It was impacted from within its own industry by the adoption of the more efficient column still, but the change was also externally driven by the shift in Barbados to central sugar factories.
As late as 1910, Barbados had 339 plantations, each of which had their own sugar works. By 1921, 19 central factories had been created and this would increase to 31 by 1930. By 1939, there were 33 vacuum pan sugar factories, up from just 9 vacuum pan factories in 1897. This shift meant that no longer could an individual sugar estate make its own rum. They did not grind their own canes, they sent their cane to the nearest central factory. To make rum, one would have to source molasses in bulk from the central sugar factory. The new vacuum pan factories made the cheaper ‘pan molasses’ and this would be the ideal raw material for making rum over the more expensive traditional ‘fancy molasses’ for which Barbados was famous.
The advent of central vacuum pan factories went hand in hand with the development of the column still. A typical pot still, hitherto the method by which rum had been made since the mid-1600s, might have a charge of 2,500 litres distilled over 7 to 9 hours before emptying, cleaning and recharging. The continuously operating column still could distil 2,500 litres in one hour, hour after hour. Central factories producing ‘pan molasses’ on an industrial scale could generate the volume of raw material to feed a column still to produce rum on an industrial scale. By the late 1930s, there were just three distilleries, all of which operated a column still. The link between sugar estate and rum distiller had been broken. Rum was now made exclusively from molasses sourced from a central factory. Distillers, still prohibited from retailing their own rum, would sell it in bulk to the merchants in Roebuck Street, Bridgetown, for maturation, blending and bottling. Nearly all Barbados brands are derived from their creation by Bridgetown merchants.
Despite its superior efficiency, distillers never gave up on their pot stills - no doubt responding to the demands of the blenders. Modern Barbados Rum is a blend of pot and column distilled rums. Pot still rums are today considered an indispensable component of the Barbados Rum style. Barbados is among just a handful of spirit making regions with an unbroken centuries-old legacy of the pot still. Barbados distillers refused to wholly give up their costly pot rums.
They would also refuse to wholly give up Barbados sugar cane.
From 1971, the Barbados sugar industry has been in decline. From a high of over 200,000 tonnes in the mid-60s, production of raw sugar had fallen to 50,000 tonnes in 1992. Less sugar means less molasses and the rum distillers faced a scenario where there was not enough local molasses output to meet rum production demand. Immediate problems require immediate solutions, and, for the first time, the island imported molasses to meet demand. Fortunately, Barbados cane varieties which pervade the region are milled using the same process and equipment as our local mills. Having long broken the link between estate and distillery, molasses from central factories had become somewhat of a homogenous input, and Barbados distillers seamlessly integrated regional molasses into local rum making.
The upside to any crisis is the opportunity - perhaps the requirement - to innovate. But in this precious local artisanal craft, the opportunity was to return to our roots. The crisis in the sugar industry continues with sugar output falling to just 5,000 tonnes in 2022. Faced with the thought that the famous rum making provenance of Barbados may cease to grow sugar cane, the rum distillers took matters into their own hands.
When Larry Warren returned St Nicholas Abbey to rum making again in 2006, he did so by milling the cane grown on the estate into sugar syrup from which their rum is distilled. Fresh juice has a short shelf-life and boiling to syrup to preserve it is an ancient practice of the small distiller. It is still done today in Haiti. For one distiller, the link between estate and rum was restored, and Barbados returned to making rum direct from sugar cane instead of solely from molasses. Motivated by a desire to return the link between Mount Gay rum and the Mount Gay sugar estate, in 2015 the Remy Cointreau owned distillery acquired the 331-acre estate that surrounded the distillery, reuniting the historical sugar cane estate with its original distillery. Group CEO Valérie Chapoulaud-Floquet explained:
“We saw this unique opportunity as a sign to pursue our goal to create a true luxury rum brand. Here in Barbados, we now gather together all the elements to foster the legacy of Mount Gay Distilleries: authenticity, history and terroir, with a single-estate rum, a genuine Barbados historical ‘chateau’.”
After initially subcontracting the local Portvale mill to process their estate cane, in 2022 Mount Gay commissioned a new sugar factory, the first to be built on the Island since 1980, to mill its estate grown cane to molasses and sugar - the former to make their rum, the latter as by product. A new paradigm for Barbados sugar cane.
In 2016 at Foursquare, motivated to preserve Barbados as a sugar cane growing country, to restore the link between a sugar estate and its rum, and finally to once again blur the lines between molasses and cane juice rums as it was in the past, we began taking syrup from the mill at St Nicholas Abbey. In 2018, we commissioned our own mill and milled cane from nearby Ashbury Plantation. In 2020 we added a second mill and in 2021 we acquired 20 acres of cane surrounding the Foursquare distillery for the planting of specialist varieties more suited for the making of rum than raw sugar. Today, all rum from Foursquare is made by blending rums from molasses, both local and imported, and locally milled fresh cane juice.
The distillers have demonstrated the ability to turn a local agricultural output into high value-added finished products with global renown. The contrast with the bulk raw sugar industry is a lesson for Government that the Island can and must move away from providing commodity output for value-added in the developed world.
Barbados Rum has not merely returned to its roots, but set in place practices to preserve, enhance and protect the provenance of Barbados Rum.