Barbados rum is a staple of the modern spirits industry and has gained a reputation for excellence around the world. What is less well known is the economic importance of rum in the development of Barbados from its European colonization in the early 17th century to the modern day. Contrary to what many may say, rum was not invented in Barbados, it has a complicated origin story. While it was not invented on the island, it can certainly be argued that rum was first commercialized in Barbados, and that rum was a primary driver in the island’s development. The oldest operating rum distillery in the World, Mount Gay, can trace its roots back to the late 17th century Barbados, and has been constantly producing rum since 1703.
There are geographical and geological elements of the island that played a central role in the rapid early expansion of rum as a staple of the Barbados economy. Geographically, Barbados is situated 100 miles to the windward of the Lesser Antilles, making Barbados a natural gateway to the Caribbean. Merchant ships could easily reach the island, ascertain where the best markets were for their goods and easily sail to other islands. The commercial infrastructure in Bridgetown quickly grew to support the transatlantic trade, making it one of the most important port towns in the British Atlantic world. This infrastructure allowed for the easy transportation of rum to Barbados’ primary market: British North America. The geology of Barbados was as important to the formation of the Barbados rum industry as the island’s geographic location; the relatively soft limestone landscape allowed for wells to be easily sunk at individual plantations, ensuring a ready supply of fresh water that remains essential to making Barbados rum today.
The rise of the Barbadian rum industry was largely created by the need for a tradeable currency with North America. As the value of Barbados cash crops became evident in the mid 17th century, the island was subjected to almost total deforestation. Barbadians imported vast amounts of goods from North America. Non-perishable provisions such as salt fish, which is still used in Bajan cuisine today, flour and corn were staple imports. Additionally, boards for building, hoops and staves for making barrels, and the vast cornucopia of manufactured goods required for survival were imported. These items were largely paid for with rum. By the mid 18th century Barbados was exporting over 1,000,000 gallons of rum per year to North America in exchange for these goods. Of note to rum are the sheets of copper used for making the pot stills and the American white oak used to make ‘barrels suitable for rum’. This differentiation suggests that the softer American red oak, which was unsuitable for rum, was used for making sugar hogsheads, while the denser white oak was used for storing and transporting rum. The sale of rum to North America contributed greatly to offsetting the operational cost of the plantations, in some cases representing 30% of their annual income.
Barbadian rum exports virtually ceased with the onset of the American War of Independence. The collapse of the trade and drastic decline of vital provisions, coupled with a debilitating drought in the early 1770s, saw the implementation of previously discussed sustainable agricultural practices in Barbados, diversifying the land into sugar production, food production and cattle grazing land in roughly equal proportions. Rum production decreased as the more profitable sugar was prioritized. However, Barbados did retain a flourishing internal rum market into the mid 19th century. Over 500,000 gallons per year were consumed or purchased by locals, transient merchant ships crews and the local British military presence. Barbados was one of the pillars of British transatlantic power projection throughout the age of sail, and there was ample opportunity for the large numbers of sailors and seamen deployed to the island to purchase rum. Following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the Barbadian rum industry saw hard times, briefly alleviated by the disruption in Jamaican production caused by the British abolition of slavery in 1834.
During the second half of the 19th century the Barbados rum industry was obliterated by the industrialisation of sugar and successive legislative laws taxing stills, stipulating that the rum had to be sold in bulk and banning rum shops from operating at the distilleries. This hostile environment saw a 97.5% reduction in the number of distilleries on the island, from 168 in 1856 to just 4 in 1905. The Barbados rum industry was saved by the introduction of column stills, which could utilise the large volumes of molasses produced by the central sugar factories. The first column still was introduced to Barbados by the Stade brothers when they founded what is today the West Indies Rum Distillery in 1893. The second was introduced by Mount Gay in 1930.
The establishment of column stills on the island, along with the prevailing laws, saw the rise of the rum blenders in the early 20th century. The names of the most successful blenders are immortalised as modern rum brands. These blenders took advantage of Prohibition to re-enter the US market, which led to increased rum sales when Prohibition ended. The Barbadian rum export market fluctuated for much of the 20th century, seeing an upturn in the 1940s, followed by what has been described as ’The Doldrums’ in the 1970s. The close of the 20th century saw a rise in the fortunes of the export market, which has continued to grow. In 1996 R.L. Seale opened Foursquare Distillery, followed by St. Nicholas Abbey in 2006, thereby adding to the existing Mount Gay Distillery and West Indies Rum Distillery.
With four distilleries operating on the island, Barbadian rum has made a resurgence in recent years, particularly in the premium markets, where the words ‘Barbados Rum’ are recognised as a sign of excellence in the spirits world.
Geoff Ward has worked in the water industry in the Caribbean for over 15 years. He is currently completing his PhD at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, investigating the maritime and naval history of Barbados in the late 18th Century.