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How do you feel about the hotel welcome drink? Here I am in sunny Barbados, just arrived in the lobby, jet-lagged and cloaked in winter clothes, when a waiter rolls up with a tray of luridly coloured cocktails. Normally I pass on such delights but not in the Caribbean. In this balmy region, the rum punch has to be the finest drink ever to emerge from behind the filing cabinets in reception. They vary considerably, of course, but the message is clear: listen up traveller, you’re on holiday!
Another excuse to down one is that it counts as historical research. Barbados is considered the birthplace of rum, with the first reference to distillation here as early as 1631. “Rumbullion”, as it was first called, is made from fermented molasses, a by-product of sugar-making. The Mount Gay distillery in St Lucy, once owned by a family called Sober, has manufacturing records stretching back to 1703.
Three centuries on, rum is having a resurgence. Spiced varieties are now the fuel du jour at student parties, while premium-aged sipping rums vie with cognacs and whiskies as after-dinner tipples. Many Caribbean islands produce rum but Barbados is one of the best places to befriend it. For a start, the drink is central to daily life. The island is only 21 miles by 14 and its roads blaze with brightly painted rum shops that sport beguiling names such as Vernon’s Cosy Bar and Sandra’s Spot to Stop. (Never call them shacks – despite how some look, these are bars that traditionally double as convenience stores.) According to the local tourist office, there are some 1,500 of them.
The Barbados rum industry has an engaging heritage. Mount Gay’s “Eclipse” label, for example, dates from 1910 and was named to mark a solar eclipse over the South Pole that year. I learn this, and much more, at the company’s visitor centre near Bridgetown, which runs 45-minute tours that are a slick blend of explanation, tasting and marketing. For something less commercial, with lovely treacle smells and towers of oak barrels, I recommend a trip to RL Seale’s family-run Foursquare Distillery amid the cane fields of St Philip. Every time I visit it feels like a ghost distillery, as you follow a self-guided trail through a modern plant that ends in a bar and shop set in a 1737 distilling house. Here, visitors can investigate premium rums such as Doorly’s XO, which is aged in sherry casks, and curiosities such as Falernum, a sweet, velvety mix of syrup, lime and spices invented in 1890. The name derives from the Roman wine falernian, although my guide has a rival interpretation. “It was to teach non-drinkers to drink,” explains Dario Folkes. “Y’know, for learn’em.”
Foursquare produces more than 30 rums and is helping with connoisseur varieties now being handcrafted at St Nicholas Abbey, a Jacobean house in St Peter built in 1658. Bottled in an etched glass decanter with mahogany cork, its 12-year single cask rum, B$160 (£49), makes a smart gift to take home and is indicative of how Bajans are tuning into the world’s growing interest in all things rum.
Beach hotels such as Cobbler’s Cove and the Colony Club put a complimentary bottle of house-made rum punch in guests’ rooms, and this season the latter has launched a guided “Rum Revealed” tour that visits producers and shops before concluding with a cocktail-making lesson. Joining a tour, I find its greatest value comes from the access it brings to places most visitors would never hear of, such as the Village Bar in Lemon Arbor, where the menu is a roll-call of Caribbean specialities such as pudding and souse (sweet potato and pig bits), buljol (salted cod) with pickled shrimp, and sea cat (octopus). We later stop for more rum at the Nigel Benn Aunty Bar in Shorey, where the engaging owner, seventysomething Lucille Hall, puts her vitality down to a daily tot of rum and fresh goat’s milk.
“Rum shops take us back to what we know,” says Kenny Hewitt, a fishmonger I meet at the Bay Tavern in Martin’s Bay. Today, Bajans shop in supermarkets but they still value their rum shops as a place to meet. This is most evident from the crowds that sneak here on Thursday afternoons to drink, talk, tuck into grilled snapper and listen to reggae beneath the palms.
We order a 375ml “flask” of Mount Gay Eclipse Silver with ice and mixers for B$20 (£6), then sit in the sun discussing everything from local politics to the reason why very few Bajans smoke (education, apparently). “Are we liming?” I ask, referring to the popular Caribbean pastime that my Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage defines as “an unorganised social gathering to pass the time away in chat and banter”. We are. And as this historic drink seeps through me and I admire the beauty of the waves crashing in the sunlight, I realise that, heaven forbid, I’m relaxing. And that’s the secret of Barbados: just say yes to that first rum punch, and you’ll soon get into the spirit of the place.
A seven-night package costs from £2,046 per person including flights from London Gatwick, transfers and breakfast. The “Rum Revealed” tour costs £149