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BARBADOS - RUM COCKTAIL COMPETITION
Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo

High on Adventure, May 2020

Editor’s Note: In these times of sequestering at home, many aficionados may enjoy some new and interesting pastimes such as reading about the lore of rum and tasting its many iterations. Considering all the vegetables that can go into a rum drink, and since I'm of course staying at home these days, I started a vegetable garden. Yvette's Coronavirus Garden sidebar.

Rum flavors, veggies, fruit and more for Barbados rum competition
Rum flavors, veggies, fruit and more for Barbados rum competition.

They told us it would be a rum cocktail competition. And indeed, it was ... if you can picture Master Chef team challenge chaos.

Flying fingers. Slashing knives. Frantic muddling. Lots of running to grab prized ingredients. More than a little slurping.

It was a blast.

But our trip to Mount Gay Rum Distillery in Bridgetown, Barbados, was also a history lesson about rum and the West Indies.

So before we boozed, we learned.

  1703 Highest price Barbados rum at Mt Gay Distillery  

Mount Gay Rum Distillery claims to be the oldest rum distillery in the world. But it didn’t start out making rum. Actually, what islanders back in the 1600s focused on was sugarcane and there was this “useless” molasses gunk as a by-product, which they threw into the ocean.

That was, until they discovered the gunk could be distilled into an alcoholic drink.

But it was harsh and truly awful. So awful, it was called Kill-Devil.

So why, someone recently asked, did so many of those early ships carry rum in their holds?

At first it simply was ballast and something to take back home to England. But amazingly, by the time the raw, fiery drink arrived, it had mellowed into something darker, richer ... something actually drinkable. It was John Gay who figured out that it was the journey in barrels, itself, that “matured” the drink.

 
  1703 Highest price Barbados rum at Mt Gay Distillery      

Mount Gay Distillery stands pretty much where it has since 1703. Our afternoon included this history lesson and also a tasting. And all of this was capped by The Competition. But, more on that a bit later.

 

Today, Barbados is rum and rum is Barbados (with apologies to Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Philippines ....). Rum shops are the hub of every Barbados community, where folks gather to talk politics, family, and news of the day. Someone estimated there are 1,800 rum shops on this 21 by 14 mile island of 286,000 people.

“Bajan language,” said our guide, Tina Forde, shortens the words; it’s faster but also musical, with a lilt. Saturday becomes “Satduh.”

“And by the time you have the rum,” she added, laughing, “you will understand them.”

  Rum shop is the center of life on Barbados  
     
Rum shop is the center of life on Barbados
 

As for Mount Gay’s rum, it is made with “coral filtered” water and, of course, molasses. It’s aged in toasted oak former whiskey barrels. And the company sells five versions, ranging from the least expensive, a clear liquid called “Silver” up to “1703,” the top line, small batch (only 12,000 bottles in 2017) stuff that goes for $195 each bottle.

So we tasted all of them. Ok, not the rarefied 1703. But the other four.

  Local man in rum shop center of life on Barbados  

So we tasted all of them. Ok, not the rarefied 1703. But the other four.

Silver is clear with a taste that is sharp and raw. It reminded me (more apologies to both sides) of “refined” moonshine that I tasted at a legal distillery in the southern hills of Ohio.

Eclipse is a light amber and has been aged two to seven years. It’s much smoother, with a distinct banana taste that is a surprise, but good. It rolls across the top of your tongue.

Mauby was smoother, heavier, more textured with an almost spicy taste. It’s made with flavor from the bark of the tropical mauby tree and isn’t exported, so you can only get it here.

Black Barrel is aged twice and is a step smoother, richer and more complex with a slow burn and almost a bit of burnt sugar taste. This is the version most recommended for cocktails.

XO (Extra Old), aged eight to 15 years and, yes, is another notch up the smoothness scale. It really does roll off your tongue. It’s dark, rich, almost syrupy with hints of many spices and citrus.

 
 
Local man in rum shop center of life on Barbados
  It actually clung to the sides of my glass. Mount Gay calls it a sipping rum. Yes, I would happily sip this.  

As for 1703, Mount Gay’s top rum, it’s a really pretty bottle and the distillery says each is selected, bottled and labeled by hand. I really didn’t expect to get a taste.

One more stop on our tour. We watched one of their bartenders demonstrate how to not slice off our fingers with the knives, how to muddle greens for, say, a mojito, proper shaking technique and of course, the art of the gentle pour.

  Bartender at Mt Gay shows how to make a cocktail   Bartender at Mt Gay shows how to make a cocktail  
 
Bartender at Mount Gay shows how to make a cocktail
 

And, now, finally, it was time for the grand rum cocktail competition. On a back shelf, there was an array of rums, liquors, fruits, vegetables, spices and more. The group was divided into teams of four and at “go” we all ran for the goodies.

Everyone was muddling, slicing, shaking, pouring. Swigging. One of our team, with a “real” camera muttered TGAF ... Thank God for Auto Focus. That’s what we wound up naming both our team and the drink.

We concocted a ginger/lime based drink. It had freshly shaved ginger, lime, crushed pepper seeds for a kick, and a splash of bitters along with the Black Barrel run.

“Um, it needs something else,” someone said.

More lime maybe? No, more alcohol. Lots more alcohol. And then, it was a truly nice drink; one where, to us, the rum and the rest were equal partners so no one thing was overwhelmed. Honestly, I would drink this at a bar with friends.

  Barbados rum competition at Mount Gay Distillery   Slicing lime in Barbados rum competition  
 
Rum competition at Mount Gay Distillery
 
Slicing lime in Barbados rum competition
 

If this all sounds a bit pro for a bunch of amateurs who probably couldn’t shake a drink without disaster, well, that was only three of our four. We DID have a ringer in the form of our friend Peter, who in a former life was food and beverage manager for Holiday Inn.

  Three of final cocktails in Barbados rum competition  

But, alas, we didn’t win. In fact, of the five tables we came in third. SIGH.

One friend from another team later said she downgraded ours because it had too much ginger taste.

Well Team TGAF didn’t think so. But after all that tasting and sipping and wholesale swigging, who really cared. If nothing else, the four of us have a new drink to make at home. And everyone got a small gift bottle of rum.

Though, the winners’ bottles were larger.

 
 
Three of final cocktails in rum competition
     

INFO

Mount Gay Rum (https://www.mountgayrum.com/) has a number of tours and experiences including various rum tastings with and without lunch and the Cocktail Workshop, which includes the cocktail competition. That one is $70 US and includes transportation from your hotel.

     
 
 
 
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