The Spirit of Barbados
The magic and the very essence of the Caribbean, distilled and bottled.
Barbados' sugary sand beaches, aquamarine waters and cheek-caressing trade winds are merely the appetisers – it also happens to be where some of the world's finest rums are produced.
17 January, 2020
The island of Barbados, 34km by 22km, dangles on the far-eastern tip of the Caribbean Island chain, a coral charm dangling along a volcanic necklace. This popular tourist destination may be relatively small in size, but in the world of rum, it's massive. In fact, Barbadians were the first to concoct the hearty cane liquor in the mid-17th century – and it was around that time, that the word 'rum' - an abbreviation of 'rumbullion'- was coined in the 'tippling houses' of the capital, Bridgetown, where life was certainly rumbustious.
It's estimated that back then, the average man on Barbados drank around 75 litres of rum per year. Today, if a Barbadian asks you to 'fire one' or 'have a snap', it’s an invitation to one of the local, colourful watering holes that convey the local spirit as fluently as Dublin's pubs speak of the Irish and Paris cafés parlez Francais.
There are around 1500 rum shops on Barbados, give or take and they're found in every village and town, and at almost every crossroads or street corner where people pass by. As we begin to explore the island, driving along narrow, winding country lanes often fringed with billowing stalks of sugar cane, we can't help but notice these vibrant establishments that dot the roadside.
It's a Saturday afternoon in Barbados’ northern-most parish St Lucy, and we stop off to check out one of the island's typical rum shops. Inside Kiddie's Bar, accompanied by a reggae soundtrack it’s a bustling scene – customers play cards, dominoes or warri (a version of backgammon), while others hang out at the bar ordering drinks and chatting about cricket.
There are around 1500 rum shops on Barbados, give or take and they're found in every village and town, and at almost every crossroads or street corner where people pass by
Barbadians are gracious and approachable people, and visitors can drop into any bar anytime to ‘lime’ with the locals
“The traditional way of drinking rum is to have a 'snap' poured into a shot glass, and then straight down the hatch,” says Kiddie's regular, Rupert London, who lived in his namesake city for a dozen years. “Barbados' pub scene has some similarities to London's – but it’s a lot warmer and more colourful here." He orders a flask of Mount Gay Eclipse and proudly slides a couple of full glasses across to his new acquaintances.
Rum shops, contrary to the name also sell beer and double up as convenience stores offering foodstuffs (for example tinned goods, crackers and corned beef etc), but some also sell local dishes such as 'rice and stew', 'cou-cou and flying fish' and 'fish cakes and cutters' to mention just a few. The majority of rum shops are sponsored by big name drinks companies like Guinness, Heineken, Banks (the island's own hugely popular beer), Johnnie Walker, Absolut and, of course, Mount Gay. Shop exteriors are often painted with huge, brightly-coloured logos, and interior walls are festooned with posters of scantily-clad models beckoning patrons to enjoy their brands. "It’s to encourage people to try other drinks, but most people end up sticking to rum or beer," Rupert tells us.
Barbadians are gracious and approachable people, and visitors can drop into any bar anytime to ‘lime’ with the locals. Liming is a word we hear plenty of times as we travel around the island, and means recreation, socialising and relaxing with friends.
No Barbados rum experience is complete without learning how the precious elixir is created. On the outskirts of Bridgetown, amid the palm-fringed turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea is the Mount Gay Rum Distillery & Visitor’s Centre – where the world's oldest rum brand was born over three centuries ago. A displayed legal document dated 20th February 1703 specifies "two stone windmills...one boiling house with seven coppers, one curing house and one still house" on the Mount Gay Estate – all equipment essential for making one thing: rum.
“Barbadians still love their rum," says our tour guide Janelle Jones as she walks and talks us through the various stages of rum production in which high-quality sugar cane and Barbados spring water are distilled and then aged in charred oak barrels. After the tour, she announces with a twinkle in her eye, that there will be a taste test in the distillery bar and an opportunity to sample a selection of rums.
Behind the distillery bar stands Christopher Breedy, who possesses a manner and line of patter as smooth as the liquor itself. "There are three basic steps in evaluating a rum," he tells us. "Appearance, aroma and taste." He holds a glass of Extra Old up to the light. “Look at the legs on this. Some people call them tears, but we like to look at legs round here. "Sweet perfection in a glass."
Behind the distillery bar stands Christopher Breedy, who possesses a manner and line of patter as smooth as the liquor itself
The ever-powerful Atlantic waves of the east coast provide one of the world’s finest surfing arenas, especially the village of Bathsheba
Away from the island's rum culture, there are plenty of other things to see and do. A plethora of water-related sports and activities are on offer, including excellent scuba diving and snorkelling amongst a treasure trove of marine life and underwater sights. The steady trade winds provide excellent sailing conditions and you can charter a yacht or catamaran or rent smaller craft.
The ever-powerful Atlantic waves of the east coast provide one of the world’s finest surfing arenas, especially the village of Bathsheba – which is home to a small, churning bay known as the Soup Bowl (the Barbados National Surf Championship is held here every November). Sport fishing is also popular and local boats are available for charter, some with full crew and gear if necessary. A wide range of fish is possible quarry with key target species being tuna, wahoo, sailfish, mahi-mahi and the infamous blue marlin.
We spend our last night on the island’s south coast (about 12 kms south of Bridgetown) in the historic old fishing village of Oistins, a great place to chill out and lime with the locals. During the day the centre of the village is buzzing with fishermen selling their catch at the bustling seaside fish market. There’s really only one street in Oistins, so there’s no point in rushing and that’s the culture of the village. In the evening, the street is lined with fish fry vendors and the Friday Fish Fry at Oistins makes for a fun and lively scene, plus its a top notch spot for a solid local meal at an honest price, and of course a shot of rum or two…
Want to ensure you always receive the latest news and features from Audi? Subscribe now to the Audi Magazine newsletter.