Island craft: Mount Gay rum’s Barbadian story

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Zoe Fryday travels to Barbados, the home of Mount Gay rum

If you’ve ever visited Barbados, you’re probably familiar with the expression ‘island time’, whereby everything moves at a slower, more leisurely pace. Frankly, there’s no surprise why it’s so relaxed. This beautiful part of the Caribbean boasts a glorious sunny climate, paradisiacal beaches and stunning natural wonders – all influencing the laid-back, happy-go- lucky nature of its inhabitants. The island may be tiny, but its heritage is mighty. From the seventeenth century, Barbados has built an empire on sugar production, cultivating its natural by-product – molasses – to create some of the finest rum on the planet.

The distillation of rum is an inextricable part of Barbadian culture and history, and Mount Gay epitomises this. Set on a quaint hilltop in the parish of St Lucy, the iconic rum distillery is widely acknowledged as the oldest in the world, with its origins dating back as far as the year 1703. Mount Gay is named after Sir John Gay Alleyne, a distinguished businessman and MP who managed the estate to great success on behalf of his friend John Sober for many years. He pioneered the refinement of rum production – his legacy deeply influencing the reputable identity of the brand we see today.

Over three centuries later, the same trademark methods spearheaded by Sir John Gay are used to craft Barbados’ signature spirit, which can be found in almost every rum shop on the island and is distributed to all corners of the globe. Heralding its roots, a bottle of rum from 1780 takes pride of place at the distillery, sitting amidst a captivating collection of historic memorabilia – many of which references the brand’s roots in maritime culture. It is thought that sailors proved their passaged to the Caribbean by returning to Europe with a barrel of Barbadian rum. For this brand, the past will never be forgotten. “Mount Gay represents culture, tradition, people, expertise and a truly magical island,” says Miguel Smith, European brand ambassador for Mount Gay. “We want to share with the world our values of honesty and transparency through unadulterated Barbados rum.”

Time is the key stimulus; the grounding foundation of Mount Gay’s development cycle and craft. It all begins with water. Unlike many other Caribbean islands, Barbados is not volcanic, and instead composed of deep ocean sediments overlaid by coral limestone. This porous stone acts as a natural filter for the groundwater deep beneath the island, making for some of the purest water available. This is paired with the rich, quality Barbadian sugarcane harvested from the expansive 320-acre Mount Gay estate to yield molasses. Fermentation begins when the molasses and coral filtered water are combined with a proprietary strain of yeast. This develops the personality of the spirit. Mount Gay uses two fermentation methods: in a controlled environment and in the open air. Following this, the fermented liquid is distilled in traditional copper pot and column stills, before the aging, or as Mount Gay like to call it, maturation process begins.

As the doors to the enormous storage unit at the distillery grounds open, you’re instantly hit with a sensational, sweet, sugary aroma. Here, hundreds of barrels, aged from one to 30 years, and sourced from different parts of the world, fill the space from floor to ceiling. Today, Mount Gay rums are matured in charred white oak barrels, previously used to hold American whiskey. The process of maturation is unpredictable, due to the tropical climate of the Caribbean, so every year, the result is unique.

Mount Gay’s discerning master blender Allen Smith applies these different aged rums, experimenting with single and double-distillates to create new bold, harmonious and tasty expressions. From the complex, fruity and smoky notes of the signature Eclipse to the bold, oaky flavours of Black Barrel, which has gone through a second maturation in charred bourbon casks, every Mount Gay rum is individual in its flavour profile. Presenting an opulent blend of spirits aged for 8 to 15 years, Extra Old is rich, oaky and sharp, offering notes of ripe banana, toast, vanilla, pastry and warm spice, while the exclusive 1703 Oak Cask Selection nurtures aromas of oak and sweet caramel. To make this exclusive blend, Allen selected some of the rarest and most noteworthy barrels.

Craft is clearly the driving force behind this remarkable, authentic brand. Every bottle of Mount Gay in existence represents a journey. There is an intimate appreciation of time, echoed through its 300 years of craftsmanship through to the brand’s convival ethos of time well spent with friends. “When you see all the aspects of what we’re doing in order to produce Mount Gay, there’s complexity and the process is full of craft to deliver a rum of high quality and high complexity,” says Raphaël Grisoni, managing director at Mount Gay Distilleries.

For the entire Mount Gay family, it’s all about awareness and education. “Education is not one day to another – it takes time and it takes people,” adds Raphaël. “I don’t think there’s a better tool than a one to one with a bartender. There’s nothing better than telling the story properly. We want to help people understand the diversity of our stills, our produce and of course, the craft and art of the master blender. The aspiration for us is really to continue to innovate. We want to continue to offer diversity of new taste and new experience with the rum.”

Mount Gay press trip 2019

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