Barbados’ Bold Quest To Claim the “Birthplace of Rum”

March 24, 2023

Barbados’ Bold Quest To Claim the “Birthplace of Rum”

From its sinister beginnings, Barbados’ rum is steeped in a rich and complicated legacy that today’s local rum producers are on a mission to reclaim..

Words by Zahra Spencer
Photography by Katrina Frederick

Editor’s Note: This story is published in The Legacy Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.

Around four centuries ago, an island about half the size of New York City was one of the largest sugar producers in the world. One hundred sixty-six square miles of almost entirely flat terrain, a favorable climate, and an easily-replenished, cheap workforce in the form of enslaved Africans made Barbados one of the earliest and most successful sugar exporters globally.

With nothing but the Atlantic Ocean between Barbados and the west coast of Africa, the island was typically the first stop on the slave trader’s journey, where the enslaved Africans who survived the brutality of the Middle Passage were traded and sold into the plantation economy, producing sugar for the European market. By the mid-1600s, Barbados was the jewel in England’s colonial crown, producing around 600,000 pounds of sugar in a harvest cycle, with sugar exports constituting 90% of the country’s total exports.

This is the context from which rum was born—a byproduct of sugar production. After sugar cane juice is boiled to create sugar, a thick, dark, sticky substance remains—known as molasses—which forms the main ingredient in rum. Back then, due to its crude production, rum was known by names like “kill-devil,” with a local Barbadian publication describing it as a “hot, hellish and terrible liquor.” In his writings, 17th-century explorer John Josselyn referred to it as “that cursed liquor,” known as “Rum, Rum-bullion, or kill-Devil,” which was “stronger than spirit of wine, and [drawn] from the dross of sugar and sugar canes.” Today, we describe it in Barbados as liquid gold.

Liquid gold is indeed an apt descriptor, not only because of the spirit’s sun-kissed hue, but because when it comes to rum, Barbados is home to many firsts. The earliest mention of the word “rum” dates to a lease agreement written on March 30, 1650, at Three Houses plantation in St. Philip, Barbados. Similarly, Mount Gay Rum distillery’s oldest surviving company is dated 1703, making it the oldest continually-operational distillery the world. This also makes Mount Gay Rum the oldest rum in the world.

Add it all up and it becomes clear that Barbados has a credible claim to the title of “birthplace of rum.” While this is certainly culturally significant, it is also economically significant—something rum producers on the island are keenly aware of.

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At present, around 200,000 cases of rum are consumed domestically in Barbados, but between the four major distilleries on the island (West Indies Rum Distillery, Foursquare Rum Distillery, St. Nicholas Abbey, and Mount Gay Rum), the production capacity is closer to four million cases. The general consensus among rum producers on the island is that it doesn’t serve anyone’s greater interest, producer or consumer, to have locals consume more rum—as such, the rum houses have turned their focus to the export market.

Rum exports currently contribute a little under $40 million USD to Barbados’ GDP of about $4.3 billion, which means the industry has the potential to really be economy-boosting. For a country with a stifling debt-to-GDP ratio and an overreliance on tourism as its primary industry and source of foreign exchange, increased rum exportation has the capacity to shift the economic landscape.

And so, “the birthplace of rum” was born. Or, perhaps more accurately, reborn—now no longer just a fun fact, but part of a larger campaign to differentiate and market Barbados rum to the world.

There are several tangible examples that reflect this shift. For instance, in 2016, the Barbados Food, Wine and Rum Festival was rebranded to include only food and rum to place greater emphasis on rum as an integral part of the local cultural landscape. Most significantly, however, has been the pursuit of a geographical indicator (GI) for Barbados rum.

At present, without the GI certification, Barbados rums exported abroad can be altered and diluted with other rums from other sources and still be marketed as “Barbados rum.” This includes the addition of sugars and other flavorings, which are traditionally not part of the island’s rum. As it stands, the current proposed GI application outlines that “Certified Barbados Rums will be required to be distilled, matured and bottled in Barbados, free of adulteration.”

A GI will ensure that Barbados rums in export markets are subject to the same rigorous standards at home, thereby protecting the reputation of Barbados rum, as well as linking the essential characteristics of the rum to its geographical origin. This means, for instance, using only Barbados water in the production process, and ensuring the entire aging process occurs in Barbados. This will further ensure that the full economic value of Barbados rum is accrued domestically by consolidating most of the value chain in Barbados.

The pursuit of the GI has been a contentious one, as West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD) has expressed that the requirements in the current GI application are too restrictive. The distillery, which is owned by French spirits company Maison Ferrand, believes the application should allow for the use of any kind of water source, any type of cask for aging, and that the rum can be aged anywhere, provided it has been aged for one year in Barbados. At an impasse, the three other rum producers, who account for 90% of rum produced in Barbados, have been forced to submit the GI application without the inclusion of WIRD.

Essentially, the GI comes down to ownership—both in the literal and symbolic sense. When the violent origins in which Barbados’ rum is steeped are considered, as well as the country’s extensive legacy of economic exploitation by way of colonialism, the GI is really about ensuring that a nation that consists almost entirely of descendants of enslaved people experience the tangible benefits of the rum industry as deeply as possible. 

More symbolically, the GI sends an important message both to Barbadians and to the world. There is no need to export any part of our process abroad in any attempt to improve the product because it doesn’t get any better than right here. We are the birthplace of rum. 

In the press release announcing the GI application, CEO of Mount Gay Rum Raphaël Grisoni made a statement: “We are proud that 90% of Mount Gay Rum is bottled in Barbados by Barbadians.” And it is an important one worth noting, because like WIRD, Mount Gay is also owned by a foreign company, Rémy Cointreau

As a small island with limited resources, it is difficult to escape outside investment, so that means we must be vigilant and fastidious when it comes to guarding our heritage and traditions. Barbados rum simply does not exist without Barbados. And without Barbados, perhaps rum would not exist at all.

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