Tell well-heeled travellers you had dinner in a rum shop and you can see disbelief cross their faces. But oh, what they miss. Dinner at Braddies Bar in Bath Village on the outskirts of St. Lawrence Gap in Barbados was one of the best I had during my stay on the island, not to mention Santia Bradshaw, manager/owner, made me feel right at home.
Barbados’s ubiquitous rum shops, nearly as old as rum itself, are ingrained in its culture. I discovered firsthand these little bars are where Bajans “lime” – relax – with friends over a good meal, a spot of rum, great conversation and a game of dominos.
While it’s not every night you’ll find Santia – an attorney and Member of Parliament – behind the counter at Braddies, the shop remains an important part of her life. Like politics, the family rum business is in her blood. In the late 1980s, her father Delisle (Braddie) Bradshaw, while a member of parliament, bought Dover Bar and Grocery. But it wasn’t until he retired in 1991, that he and his wife Shirley began serving meals under his name. Braddies soon became famous across the Caribbean – both for Delisle’s knowledge of current affairs, which he dispensed from his place behind the bar, and for Shirley’s pork chops and chicken wings, prepared with a special blend of spices, herbs and seasonings.
Braddies’ signature rum punch – made with a mix of dark (Mount Gay Rum Eclipse) and white (Mount Gay Rum Silver) – is one of the best I have had in the Caribbean. Marvin Mondore, chef and bar keep extraordinaire, makes more than a mean rum punch, though. While I chatted with Santia, we sampled his delicious piping-hot, crunchy fish cakes and enjoyed a generous portion of tender, grilled marlin with sides of sweet potato wedges and a fresh, mixed green salad. Our talk ran from the joys of running a rum shop to politics, the importance of giving back to the community and how Barbados is underutilizing singer Rihanna’s popularity beyond her financial commitments. The grilled marlin dinner with fish cakes and a rum punch costs about $20.
Aside from politics, you’ll find Bajans frequently talk about religion and rum. It’s a bit of a dichotomy that a nation of deeply religious people have built an economy on what was originally referred to as “kill devil.” But most agree that this most easterly island in the Lesser Antilles, recognized as the birthplace of the spirit made from sugar cane molasses since the founding of Mount Gay in 1703, has benefited economically and culturally from it. While British merchant sailors are credited for discovering rum – the byproduct of sugar cane fermenting in the ships’ holds on the long journey to England – the story actually began some 60 years earlier when 300 or so Dutch Jews, fleeing persecution in Dutch Guiana (Suriname) 950 kilometres south, brought to Barbados the know-how and equipment, trade routes and financing needed to establish a prosperous sugar industry.
While I didn’t get around to doing everything, I did manage to get a sense of what rum means to this island nation.
On the Barrel to Bottle Tour, renowned local historian Morris Greenidge carries tourists back to a time when the Royal Navy of England and the British Garrison of the West Indies held sway and city merchants in the rum trade were starting out. Walking the historic downtown area of Roebuck Street – now brimming with clothing shops, fast-food outlets and tattoo parlours – I have to lean in to hear which family-owned rum brands such as R.L. Seale owned what and which shops belonged to early black entrepreneurs in the grocery and pharmaceutical businesses. At the corner of Palmetto and Roebuck, saved till last, Greenidge reveals the spot where Captain Rumball’s tavern once stood — significant because it’s believed this is when “kill-devil” was renamed “rumball-ion,” hence rum.
Aside from rum shops, distillery tours are a great way to sample various types of rum and acquire a few serving tips.
St. Nicholas Abbey, located in the northeast, has had a succession of owners, about which tour guides regale visitors with tales of murder and intrigue. In 1947, squeezed by competition and low profits, the Abbey was forced to shut down, and remained closed until Barbadian architect Larry Warren and his wife Anna Warren purchased it in 2006, and with their sons Simon and Shea, lovingly restored the 1650 plantation house and distillery. The family has chosen to make rum the old-fashioned way: Sugar cane grown on the plantation is crushed in an 1890 steam mill, and aged in the Abbey’s distillery.
At the Rum & Sugar Bond, which houses a museum, shop and rum tasting bar, our guide informs us we should skip white rum when it’s offered on tours “because it’s what’s in rum punch.” The Abbey’s award-winning white rum, we’re told, is original Barbadian see-through rum, fermented in a pot and column still on the property, then kept in stainless steel tanks for three months.
At the tasting bar, Simon Warren passionately shares notes about the rum waiting to poured from beautifully etched bottles. The Five-Year-Old, made from white rum and aged in bourbon barrels, hints of vanilla and mocha on the nose and palate, but the white pepper we’re told is on the finish escapes me. The 12-Year-Old, an amber-hued molasses-based rum bottled straight from the barrel, mingles spice, chocolate and tobacco, with hints of bitter orange. As for the Single Cask 18-Year-Old, we have to take his word that it is the best, because at $400 for a 750 ml bottle, this rare vintage rum isn’t for sampling.
Mount Gay Rum Distilleries visitors’ centre regularly hums with activity. The world’s oldest rum producer, established in 1703, is a regular stop for cruise passengers coming into the nearby Bridgetown Cruise Terminal. A glass of rum punch in hand, we browse a small museum room housing old rum bottles, a typewriter and an eye-catching wall of baseball caps faded to various shades of red. If you’re thinking “great souvenir,” you better be prepared to compete in and complete a sailing regatta sponsored by Mount Gay, because they aren’t for sale. After watching a short film on the history of Mount Gay, everyone’s ready to taste the goods.
We sample Eclipse, Black Barrel and Extra Old Reserve Cask (XO). Made from a blend of 8- to 15-year-old barrels of mainly double pot distillates, the undertones of XO – vanilla, pastry and warm spice – and its full oak finish, make it perfect for sipping neat. Holding up the bottle, our tour guide Rhea pleads with us: “Do not put Coke in my rum.” As for the 1703 Master Select, it’s “look but don’t taste.” This year, only 12,000 bottles of this blend of copper column and pot, 10- to 30-year-old rums are being released worldwide. If a tour isn’t your style, you can cozy up to the bar at the rear of the shop for an Original Old Fashioned or a Rum Runner, or one of the dark rums served neat or over ice, before choosing one to take home.
In high season – January to April – Foursquare Copper Still offers a full, guided tour that includes the history of one of the early rum companies R.L. Seale & Company, an explanation of what the company says is the most modern and computerized distillery in the western hemisphere, and what is described as “an extensive sampling” of internationally awarded rums made here such as Real McCoy Rum, Old Brigand Rum, ESA Fields, and Doorly’s. After a cursory tour (out of season), I sampled R.L. Seale’s Finest Rum, sold in an asymmetrical black bottle fashioned after sailors flasks. If this blend of pot and column still rums aged in former bourbon casks, with additional maturation in Madeira and French oak brandy casks, is any indication of what you’ll taste, the tour is one to book.
All the fish in the sea
The advantage to being on an island with a coastline on both the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean is the endless choice of fresh fish from barracuda to flying fish, tuna, mahi mahi and marlin.
Cin Cin by the Sea was humming on my Tuesday night visit, and no wonder. There’s nowhere better to watch a dramatic sunset than from its deck overlooking the Caribbean, complete with rum cocktails and perfectly prepared seafood. I started with an appetizer of crudo of tuna with orange and cucumber, drizzled with a ginger and chili vinaigrette, and took my server’s advice on ordering the pan-fried barracuda (market fish of the day) served on leek and potato puree with toasted almond butter and vegetable ragu. A Bajan coffee – espresso with dark rum and whipped cream – proved a perfect finish to a superb meal. Expect to pay $100 to $120 for an appetizer and main course, a glass of wine and the Bajan coffee.
Coral-stone walls, eclectic artwork, and a modern Caribbean menu contribute to the relaxed island vibe at The Fish Pot at Good Harbour, further north on the Platinum coast. Its chef takes a purist’s approach to cooking, opting for fresh, local ingredients. Lulled by a tropical breeze drifting in from the Caribbean steps away, and a delicious meal of chilled carrot soup seasoned with ginger and lemongrass, followed by seared ahi tuna with collard greens cooked in coconut milk and a peanut sauce, and coconut ice cream … I didn’t want to leave. Three courses with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc costs roughly $75. And if you feel like an after dinner tipple, for an extra $7 you can get one of several good aged dark rums.
The writer was a guest of Barbados Tourism and The Crane Resort.
Mix it up
I liked the refreshing gingery Ragged Point cocktail at The Crane Resort, and just thinking about it conjures up the rocky tip north of The Crane that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, with its fading white lighthouse remaining as a sentinel of times past. Forgo the Coca-Cola, and mix up a new recipe with Barbados rum:
Ragged Point Cocktail
1 1/2 oz Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum
1 oz Sugar
3 oz Apple Juice
Muddle fresh ginger, sugar and lime. Add remaining ingredients, shake and serve.
Bar 1887, The Crane Resort
1 oz Mount Gay Eclipse
1/4 oz blackberry liqueur
1/4 oz Crème de banana liqueur
2 oz Orange juice
1/2 oz grenadine and 8 oz of crushed ice
Pour ingredients and crushed ice in a blender. Blend until slushy and pour into hurricane glass.
Mount Gay Distillery
If you go
Tours and events: Barbados Sugar and Rum Season, running from January through March, gives visitors an insight into Barbados’s rich heritage through distillery tours, the Bridgetown Barrel to Bottle walking tour, a rum pairing dinner at one of the plantation houses, or a rum themed-cooking class. For more information go to: visitbarbados.org.
Where to stay: If you’re prepared to splash out on your Barbados holiday, or visit in low season, here are two luxury resorts to consider:
The Crane Resort, St. Philip, Barbados (thecrane.com)
Located on the southeast coast, The Crane offers total relaxation and seclusion away from the hustle and bustle of the Caribbean. You’ll need to rent a car or book transportation to get to the tours and restaurants mentioned, but its sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and of Crane Beach – listed among the Top 10 in the world – are well worth the drive. Don’t forget to try the Ragged Point Cocktail at Bar 1887.
Coral Reef Club, St. James, Barbados (coralreefbarbados.com)
Located midway on the west coast, Coral Reef Club, a family run boutique resort with well-appointed rooms, cottages and suites, private plunge pools and first-class service sees many guests return each year. Order breakfast up to your suite to enjoy on your balcony or terrace, unwind and revitalize at the full-service tranquil The Spa or watch the sunset over cocktails on the beach.