Alive & kicking
Mount Gay rum is over 300 years old – but is still producing innovative new blends with real punch. As the last bottles of its special independence rum sell out, Geoffrey Dean visited the Barbados distillery to find out the secrets of their success
Look closely the next time you’re at Grantley Adams International. Go into the duty-free shops and scour the shelves. Because you may just be lucky enough to find a bottle of Mount Gay’s eye-catching XO Cask Strength. At the time of writing, the Barbados airport was the only place on the island where this special blend was still available. But maybe not for long…
Mount Gay made just 3,000 bottles of this very old, remarkable rum in November last year, to honour the 50th anniversary of Bajan independence in November 2016. That Mount Gay, one of Barbados’s great institutions and the world’s oldest rum producer, created XO Cask Strength was a fitting celebration.
“Our name honours the pioneering spirit of Sir John Gay, a man who made it his imperative to improve upon the character and quality of rum.” So said Allen Smith, Mount Gay’s current master blender, when I paid a visit to the St Lucy distillery in the north of Barbados. In the 18th century, the estate was a tale of two Johns: John Sober owned it, but was an absentee landlord in England, so appointed his friend John Gay to run it. The latter did such a good job that, when he died in 1801, the family named the plantation after him.
Starting in 1703 with one pot still (a legal deed dated 20 February that year confirms the existence of a ‘pot still house’ on the sugar-cane plantation), the company now has four pot and two column stills. It also has 331 acres of its own sugar cane, from the molasses of which Mount Gay rums are made. In all, around 600,000 cases are produced each year, with 85% of those exported. Two-thirds of those exports go to the USA.
At the distillery, I met both Allen Smith and a former master distiller, Reynold Hinds, known to all as ‘Blues’. While Smith joined Mount Gay in 1991, Blues has been with the distillery since 1965, when he was just 16. Working his way up through the ranks, Blues became one of the great experts on pot distillation. “The ‘hearts’ are what we want to take out, and knowing when they are ready is the key,” he told me, referring to the components of the distillate that give the real character of the rum. “I look for a certain smell. I can’t define it – I just know it. The machine doesn’t help you.”
Barrels of fun
As master blender, Smith hand-selects pot- and column-distilled rums from Mount Gay’s oldest reserves, and blends them. For the 2016 release of 1703 Master Select he dipped into as many as 55 different casks – all matured for between ten and 30 years. “You use your column stills as your base,” he said. “If I have 100,000 litres of column, then I’d add 50,000 litres of pot. Column is lighter, cleaner and smoother, while pot is robust, like a wild beast: you want some of that, but not too much.”
The rums are matured at the distillery in four warehouses, each of which houses 12,000 barrels. Every barrel is topped up every three years – around 30% is lost to evaporation over that time. Used bourbon casks from Kentucky remain the preferred maturation vessels, but sherry butts from Spain make up about 5% of the 48,000 barrels on site. The water comes from the estate’s well, which plunges almost 100m into the earth. It has been used since 1703, and provides water that is rich in minerals, having been filtered through the island’s coral rock.
“Our focus is always on quality,” Smith added, continuing to discuss how the rums are matured using different casks. “The casks from the cognac houses are an experiment – it’s early days with them but so far we’ve seen some very interesting results.”
He also told me how the demands of his job have altered. “My role has changed more to PR, and I spend a bit more time abroad. Before, it was more of a lab-based position. But I do have to make sure the stocks we have are suitable for making our different blends. We do five blends – one being white – as well as special editions.”
That brought us onto the latest special edition, the XO Cask Strength, and the philosophy behind it. It’s similar in price to the company’s premium 43% abv 1703 Master Select – around US$150-185 a bottle – but, at over 63% abv, is much stronger.
“We are the grandaddy of rum production, and I think we have a responsibility to the world to let them know we are the grandaddy,” Smith chuckled. “Other rum houses have produced over-proof rums, but we found that the focus for those rums was basically the alcoholic part of the thing – the burn. We produced a very high-quality rum that just happens to be 63%. It’s all about balance – roundness, smoothness, aromatics and flavour. It’s sold really well. Apart from the airport here, there are a few bottles still available in the UK and the USA.”
Smith says there’s plenty more scope for creating new blends. “We will always do special rums in the future, though we don’t announce them,” he said. “But watch this space, because we’re a dynamic, exciting company. We might be 300-plus years old, but we still have some kick in us! It’s nice to be able to bring new products to market, and even nicer to have people in the market anticipating the arrival of these products.”
The perfect blend
The Cask Strength XO was blended from casks matured for as long as those used for the 1703 Master Select. “For the 1703 we wanted an extension of our portfolio to compete in terms of quality with some of the best brown spirits of the world – cognacs, whiskies, brandies, you name it,” Smith continued. “What’s very noticeable about the 1703 is that the very high proportion of pot-stilled rum gives it notes that are probably not very typical of rum. To me, it’s like an expensive cognac – but better.”
When tasting the 1703, I detected spice, smoke, apricot and toffee on the nose, while on the palate I found delightful notes of dark molasses, leather, caramel and cocoa combined to give a fabulously long finish. As for the XO Cask Strength, I never got to taste it – there was none available. But I was told that hints of ripened fruit, warm spice and toasted almond “should dance across your palate when a small ice cube is added”.
If both the 1703 and XO Cask Strength are for after-dinner sipping, Mount Gay’s everyday, anytime drinking rums are consumed in generous quantities in Barbados’s rum shops. There are some 1,800 of these lively places dotted around the island, many near churches – to allow husbands to stop off there while their wives go to worship, so the locals told me. You can’t buy individual shots of rum at the rum shops, which sell only by the 37cl bottle. So if you can’t drink it all, you share it – and you’ll surely find there are plenty of takers.
The Eclipse (US$12-14), which is aged for between two and seven years, is the most popular quaffing rum. It is generally mixed with tonic, soda or water by Bajans. Visitors love to drink it in a rum punch – the classic beach-bar sundowner.
There are tastings at Mount Gay Visitor Centre in Bridgetown, which attracts up to 700 visitors per week. Niasha Sobers, in the centre’s giftshop, summed up Mount Gay’s enduring appeal: “Some people come through the door not smiling – but they are always smiling when they go. After they have tasted the rums, people leave happier.”
Mount Gay the ideal way
It might sound like teaching an old dog new tricks, but here’s the expert’s advice on EXACTLY how to drink Barbados’s favourite rum!
01 Drink it straight
The rum should be at room temperature to encourage it to open up. Try Black Barrel – it’s very versatile and perfect served over ice in a rocks glass
02 Perfect the classic
For the ideal rum and cola, make The Jackal: Mount Gay Black Barrel (50ml), Fever Tree cola (125ml), lime wedge, nutmeg
03 Make a simple cocktail
A good everyday drinker is the Black Storm: Black Barrel (50ml), ginger ale (125ml), orange wedge
04 Impress your friends
For something fancier, serve an Old Fashioned: Mount Gay XO (50ml), two dashes of Angostura bitters, teaspoon of sugar, orange peel, orange slice, maraschino cherry
05 Try something special
The connoisseurs’ choice is Mount Gay 1703 Master Select. Just one batch is released annually. Best drunk neat, in a rocks glass
Need to know
Where to stay: The author stayed at Santosha (St Andrew; www.santoshabarbados.com), Port St Charles (St Peter; www.portstcharles.com) and Infinity on the Beach (Christ Church; www.infinityonthebeach.com).
What to do: The Mount Gay Visitor Centre in Bridgetown offers five tours: Signature (daily, US$15); Super Premium Rum Tasting (daily, US$25); Bajan Buffet Lunch (Tuesday & Thursday, US$70); Cocktail (Wednesday & Friday, $65); Rum & Food Pairing (Monday & Saturday, US$70). www.mountgayrum.com