Friday, May 2, 2014

Mount Gay Rum & Barbados, The Birthplace Of Rum

The chief fudling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish and terrible liquor.”
--An anonymous author writing about Barbados around 1651

As I have written before, this is the first written mention of rum, which lends some credence to the theory that rum was invented on Barbados. The island of Barbados was likely discovered by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century, and the Portuguese also landed on the island soon after, yet neither decided to colonize the island. They didn't find much on the island to appeal to them. It appears though that they did name it, calling it Los Barbados, allegedly a reference to the "bearded" fig trees they found.

Around 1625, a British ship landed on Barbados and claimed the island for the King. Within a couple years, permanent settlers arrived to colonize the island. The settlers first attempted to grow tobacco but soon discovered it didn't do well. Instead, they opted to try sugar cane, emulating the Portuguese in Brazil, and it thrived. In time, Barbados would even come to dominate the sugar trade. And with all that sugar cane, they eventually created rum.

Mount Gay Rum is the oldest, continuously operated rum distillery, with written evidence extending back to February 20, 1703, making it over 300 years old. Around 1747, John Sober inherited what was then known as the Mount Gilboa Distillery. He hired Sir John Gay Alleyne to manage the distillery, which turned out to be an excellent choice. Gay improved the production process, introduced new strains of sugar cane, and improved crop yield. In addition, as Gay was antislavery, he found that he derived better rum if he paid his workers. Upon his death, Sober decided to honor all of Gay's great work by renaming the distillery after him, thus launching Mount Gay Rum.

Recently, I attended a media dinner at Forum, showcasing Mount Gay Rum and hosted by Scott Fitzgerald, their brand ambassador and "inhouse rum depletion expert."  We got to taste a couple of the rums on their own, as well as in several cocktails. During the dinner, Scott spoke about rum and Mount Gay, answering our questions, and proving to be a personable and down-to-earth host.

First, Scott set the stage, noting that he considers rum to be the most underrepresented of spirits. In many respects I agree, as there are plenty of other spirits which have claimed the spotlight. Though rum features in a number of cocktails, you rarely see anyone ordering rum on its own. For dark spirits, whiskies get far more attention, especially on their own. The perception of rum does need to change, and higher end rums need to be embraced for their complexity and taste.

Scott also mentioned that rum is not about where it comes from, but how it is made. Terroir is not really important for rum. Instead, the key elements are distillation and maturation, though I think the quality of the sugarcane is important as well. Terroir might not be important, but that doesn't mean the quality of the ingredients is unimportant. Due to the climate, Caribbean rum ages about three times faster than it would elsewhere. That means Caribbean rum will taste differently than similarly aged rum from cooler climate regions.

I was impressed with the Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum ($30), which is distilled in both a column and pot still. It is aged in ex-whiskey casks and later finished in deep, charred ex-bourbon casks. The "black barrel" refers to the black char in these barrels which enhances purification, allows a deeper access into the wood, and provides more spice notes. It is supposed to be the only rum that is finished in charred, ex-bourbon barrels. Some of the rum used in the final blend may have been aged for up to seven years.

The Black Barrel has a dark, amber color, like a fine whiskey, and if you tasted it blind, it would remind you far more of a rye whiskey than a rum. On the taste, there is a deep spice taste, caramel notes and a mild hint of vanilla. Layers of complexity, a lengthy finish (which has a touch of cinnamon), and a smooth, compelling taste. I could easily savor this rum on its own, though it would also do well in a craft cocktail. For example, we had a Black & Stormy, Black Barrel and ginger beer, and I enjoyed it very much. And at $30, this rum is an excellent value too, providing a spirit you can enjoy on its own, or in a cocktail. I think I have found a new, everyday rum.  

And as Scott said, "Rum is a social drink. It is about fun." So, buy a bottle or two of Black Barrel and invite some friends over to drink it with you.

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