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Rum’s origins are diffuse and unrecorded, but its first permanent roots are anchored in the coral limestone rock of 17th-century Barbados. The island’s literal foundation distinguishes Barbados from its many volcanic neighbors. Its fresh water is filtered through that stone, becoming the foundation of its rum.
If you love authentic rum and the white sand beaches on which it should be drunk, Barbados is the destination for you. An icon of Caribbean rum from its earliest days, the island is still home to some of its best producers, as well as many inimitable places to enjoy a glass or two, including the local answer to the pub, the rum shop.
The Rum Shop
These neighborhood bars are scattered across Barbados and also sell booze to-go. Most offer rum and beer, and many carry a full range of spirits. Bottles of rum come in three sizes, with ice and mixers on the side. Make no mistake, these aren’t craft cocktail spots but no-nonsense watering holes that serve the community, with strong regular crowds.
But rum shops can be a moving target. They regularly change owners and names or just disappear. The favorite haunt of generations can be gone by the time you visit. The only real solution is to perform your own recon missions. This is greatly simplified as each rum shop is brightly painted through the largesse of brands: red for Banks beer, green for Heineken or Stag beers, red and yellow for Mount Gay rum, white for Malibu rum, cream and red for Old Brigand rum and on and on, always sporting the company logo on every available surface. Unfortunately, this means the bars’ own identities often take a back seat. It’s a matter of controversy for rum shop traditionalists, especially as the brands winning the most territory seem to be beer.
However, at least one of those beers, Banks, is a crucial addition to your tippling toolbox. While nothing to raise the pulse of the beer snob, this low-alcohol refresher is perfect after a sweaty stomp in the sun, with a more refined taste than the typically bland modern American lager. Banks will see you through until you’re ready for the next glass of rum.
Another reason to visit rum shops? They’re often home to Barbados’ local refinement of the sandwich, known as the cutter: a soft roll (called “salt bread”) split and filled with everything from fried eggs to fried flying fish to ham and cheese to liver pâté.
Rum Road Trippin’
At just 170 square miles, all of Barbados is within your grasp no matter where you’re laying your head. In every direction is natural beauty, centuries of culture and many bottles of celebrated Barbadian rum. While the island is not short on international-caliber resorts that offer similar experiences to their counterparts all over the world, easy trips along Barbados’ highways will reveal what makes it special.
There are four distilleries operating today on Barbados: Foursquare, Mount Gay, St. Nicholas Abbey and West Indies Rum Distillery. Mount Gay runs a popular visitors’ center in Bridgetown, the most commercial of the enterprises. Foursquare is a basilica dedicated to the distilling arts. St. Nicholas is housed in the most historic, downright stunning venue. The West Indies plant, recently purchased by Maison Ferrand for its expanding Plantation rum operations, is situated right on the beach as if in a rum drinker’s dream, but it’s not currently open to the public.
These are a few suggested trips that take in the best the nation has to offer the rum enthusiast.
Bridgetown and Environs
The capital of Bridgetown houses the Mount Gay Visitor Experience, a solid beginning for any rum adventure. By all means, absorb its specific vision of history, but for a greater context, make your way to the outskirts of town and the Barbados Museum & Historical Society.
Barbados’ path has been a winding one, often widely divergent from the rest of the Caribbean, and both your trip and your understanding will be enhanced with what you find here. Pause in the museum shop for a soft drink with rich, local, herbal flavors like mauby and sorrel.
On a recent visit to Barbados, I found my rum shop spirit animal. Yours may be elsewhere. But for me, it was along Bay Street in the small, unassuming shack of Jenny’s Bar. Surrounded by glossy but sleepy tourist traps, Jenny’s has a vibrancy even from the street. Stepping inside, you’re immediately thrust into a calypso sing-along accompanied by Banks beers and bottles of Mount Gay XO.
Saint Lawrence Gap
East of Bridgetown is Barbados’ most developed tourist area, and at its epicenter is the nightlife haven of Saint Lawrence Gap, where seemingly every structure houses a restaurant, bar or hotel, all within close range to some of the loveliest beaches on the island. The area can be light on traditional rum shops and heavy on tourist traps. There are notable exceptions, of course.
Hal’s Car Park Bar is one of the finest examples of a bar paying homage to a parking lot. A long bar covered by a vinyl awning and surrounded by a metal fence, it’s an outdoor patio frequented for its thrice-weekly karaoke events.
A few minutes away, a bar with solid food and drink but a more iconoclastic musical selection is Scoopie’s Jazz, where the owner often holds court with his pals on the patio. And when you’ve finally been worn down by the allure of upmarket restaurants, your best bet is Primo Bar & Bistro, with modern decor, Caribbean-inflected Italian cuisine and an excellent rum selection on the back bar.
Holetown and Speightstown
Known as Barbados’ Platinum Coast, the west is where a reported 18 billionaires and a host of wannabes spend their time. Almost all of the nation’s tourism occurs in the south and west, so you’ll have no trouble learning about places to go there. But they’re not usually full of history—only of ambition.
An important exception is the universally loved John Moore Bar, a waterfront rum shop respite from glamorous gastronomy, galleries and golfing. Find relief on the coast road midway between Speightstown and Holetown.
If you’ve seen photographs of Barbados, odds are they were of the coast near Bathsheba. Its natural standing stones carved by the sea are national icons, and you can view them at your leisure with rum firmly in hand.
Some of the best cooking in Barbados occurs here at Dina’s Bar and Cafe, where Dina herself presides over a menu of classics, dominated by grilled and fried fish. The prices are a bit high, but you’ll forgive all when your steaming plate of kingfish is presented. On the side are Barbadian classics such as fresh salad, beans and rice, fried plantains and macaroni pie—a spicy version of baked mac and cheese. Don’t forget the bright yellow pepper sauce, but test your resilience first.
When it’s time for a proper post-lunch drink, head down the road to the Sea Side Bar, facing out onto the blue horizon. Efficiently served beers and bottles are its business, whether you gather around the bar with local surfers or bask out on the patio. It also does a swift trade in Styrofoam containers of fish and sides. One man stood at the bar collecting a tower of takeaways for his kids. “That’s families,” he said. “They make you share.”
Admiring Barbados rum without knowing about Foursquare is like digging both Paul Newman and Robert Redford but never getting around to watching “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” R. L. Seale & Co., which owns and operates the Foursquare distillery, a producer known for brands such as Doorly’s, The Real McCoy, R. Seale’s, E.S.A. Field and many others, including a recent line of rarities under the Foursquare name.
The distillery is an unprecedented opportunity for the rum nerd, as it eschews a carefully curated PR presentation for a self-guided tour that allows you to scrutinize the actual factory where rum is being made right that minute. Wander around and gaze at the machinery and massive stacks of barrels. There are explanatory placards, and workers will take a moment to answer your questions. The surrounding park includes a quirky collection of antique equipment mingled within a children’s playground, a folk craft museum and a tasting room, where the true bounty awaits. Many of these rums are hard to find in the U.S., so stock up and avoid a lifetime of regret.
St. Nicholas Abbey
Of the three remaining English Jacobean mansions in the western hemisphere, two are in Barbados, and one is open to the public. Nicholas Abbey, built in 1658, is a postcard-gorgeous pile in the midst of a lush countryside. The current owners, the Warren family, have not just restored the architectural majesty of the property but also its status as a working sugar plantation and rum distillery, as it was for hundreds of years.
The most elegant of Barbados’ working rum factories also stands out for its unique approach to manufacturing, bottling its rum directly from the barrel, without blending. Its rum is of high quality and only available on the premises, but if your suitcase is already straining, pick up a bottle of its outstanding sugar syrup for concocting your own baked goods and cocktails.
A short jaunt north from the Abbey is the truly wondrous North Point, a must-see for any visitor. Here, the waves from both the Atlantic and Caribbean crash mightily against the coral cliffs of the island in apocalyptic fashion. It’s a breathtaking sight, but it doesn’t stop there. Millennia of wave action have worn away a sea cave suitable for your exploration or even swimming (if the weather cooperates). The Animal Flower Cave is so called for its colonization by that combination of animal and flower better known as the sea anemone.
What does that have to do with rum, you may ask? Like every good natural monument, on top of the cave is a great restaurant, itself worthy of the trip. The rum punch is excellent, and a range of well-executed rum mixed drinks are available. Try the fish cakes and the best cutters you’ll eat on top of a cave while Herculean waves cavort for your pleasure.
When You’re Back Home
Keep that Barbados feeling going. You may have left the island, but you don’t have to stop drinking its produce. Today, rum punches are everywhere on Barbados, while historically the native beverage of choice was the Corn ’n’ Oil, a deceptively simple combination of aged rum and the mysterious Barbadian liqueur known as falernum. It’s easy to mix up at home to relive your Barbados adventure whenever necessary.