Barbados is considered to be the birthplace of rum, since the earliest records of this sugarcane spirit are associated with this island. Naturally, several of the top attractions in Barbados revolve around experiencing rum. For example, most visitors to the island enjoy relaxing on a Barbados beach with a rum cocktail like a Corn and Oil or Rum Punch. Even the best beer on the island, 10 Saints Beer is a premium lager aged in rum barrels.
Visiting a rum distillery is also on the Barbados Bucket List for many visitors, and for those visitors there are two popular options;
The Foursquare Rum Distillery in Saint Philip has a self-guided tour that ends at their Copper Still Bar where guests can taste and buy some of the rum that is produced, blended, and aged on location. This includes the Foursquare Exceptional Cask Series, a range of rum considered by experts to be among the best rum in the world.
At Bridgetown, Mount Gay Rum Distilleries offers a variety of experiences at the Mount Gay Visitor’s Center all centered around an introduction to the brand followed by a tasting. Optional additions to the tour include a traditional Barbadian lunch prepared by their in-House chef, and a cocktail class guided by their team of mixologists. After learning about the historic origins of the oldest rum brand in the world, guests can learn how to make Mount Gay cocktails or indulge in an unlimited Bajan Buffet Lunch.
Barbados is also noted for the many heritage sites on the island. Tourists sometimes walk around Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison, admiring well-preserved Colonial buildings without looking down and observing that even the ground has historical significance. This is because many streets in Bridgetown are paved with ballast bricks from sailing vessels that arrived on the island in the seventeenth and eighteenth Century. Many structures from the early Colonial period also remain intact on the island, preserved and protected by the Barbados National Trust.
Heritage and Rum come together at Saint Nicholas Abbey, one of many former historic houses that now serves as a tourist attraction in the Caribbean. Built in 1658, Saint Nicholas Abbey is among the last Jacobean Mansions in the Western Hemisphere. Beyond just being a well preserved plantation house, Saint Nicholas Abbey is unique because artisanal rum is produced on site.
In its long and storied history, the Plantation went through a variety of owners and name changes. One of the most notable owners was Sir John Gay Alleyne; the man who was so adept at managing the production of rum that Mount Gay Rum, the world’s oldest brand of rum, is named in his honor. It was actually this owner who introduced rum production to the Plantation as a way of making it economically sustainable. He was also responsible for several changes to the house, including a staircase made by the notable cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale. While visitors are not allowed to walk up this staircase, they can look up and observe the Grandfather Clock that has stood on the landing since 1759.
At the time that Sir John owned the Plantation, the name was actually Nicholas Plantation. The Saint Nicholas Abbey name came about around one hundred years later when owner Sarah Cumberbatch married Charles Cave and the couple decided to combine the existing name with the place where the couple married; “Bath Abbey” and the name of the Parish in England that the Cumberbatch family originally hailed from; “Saint Nicholas Parish”.
Every room in the Great House is fully furnished with antique furniture. In the dining room, a Coalport Porcelain set is laid on a table built with Barbadian Mahogany in 1850. Each piece in the set was hand-painted with an Amari Pattern taken from Japanese silk.
Another interesting piece of furniture is the Burlington Gentleman’s Chair, manufactured in 1935 by Foot & Company. It’s capable of fully reclining and it includes a stand for a book, a footrest, a reading lamp and more. It was advertised as the “Ideal Easy Chair” during its limited production.
Outside of the Great House, Ballast bricks pave the walkway leading to the Terrace Café and Souvenir Shop. The walkway is shaded by a thorny Soapbox tree that’s over 400 years old. The Terrace Café serves Barbadian Street Food like fish cakes as well as molasses cookies, freshly brewed coffee and more. On entering, the waitress hands everyone a cup of rum punch. I decline for now since I’m more interested in tasting the premium rum that’s produced on the estate.
Saint Nicholas Abbey uses syrup that comes from the Estate’s cane fields to produce rum in a modern pot still. By using only a pot still, their methods are different from both Mount Gay Rum Distillery and Foursquare Rum Distillery and reflect a more traditional approach to rum making. In keeping with their traditional approach, freshly cut cane is hand-fed into a steam mill where it’s crushed so that the sweet cane juice can be extracted and then evaporated. This is another point of difference between Saint Nicholas Abbey and the other Barbadian rum distillers who typically use molasses to make their rum.
“Speyside Gold” a yeast developed for grain whisky is added and the syrup is allowed to ferment for a few days before being transferred to their German hybrid pot still, affectionately called “Annabelle”.
Batch distillation methods means that their rum can be considered to be “pure single rum” and because their syrup comes from one estate, it is a “single estate rum”. Their aged rums are also filled from a single cask at a time, making them all “single barrel rum”. It’s easy to understand how every single bottle of rum produced by Saint Nicholas Abbey is unique and why it is presented in such a prestigious bottle.
Their entry-level product is Saint Nicholas Abbey White Rum; an unaged and unfiltered spirit that captures the essence of traditional Barbadian rum making. Regarded by many as one of the best white rums in the world, it has a sweet aroma and a taste dominated by light minerality and notes of candied fruits and marshmallows.
Saint Nicholas Abbey 5 Year Old Rum is matured on location at the estate. Like their other aged rums, visitors who wish to make a purchase have the option of hand-filling their custom engraved bottle and then sealing it with a stopper carved from estate-grown mahogany. This rum has the same sweet notes as the white rum but there’s a spicy aroma and each velvety smooth sip showcases incredible depth and complexity for such young rum.
The final rum sampled is completely different to the previous two. Saint Nicholas Abbey 12 Year Old Rum is not made on the estate, instead it was distilled and blended at the Foursquare Rum Distillery where it also spent eight years maturing before being re-casked and moved to the Abbey.
Saint Nicholas Abbey 12 Year Old Rum is quite similar in character to other rums from Barbados like Doorly’s 12 Year Old, Mount Gay XO or some of the Foursquare Exceptional Cask Series. Notes of caramel nuanced by a spicy oak subtlety manage to showcase the best of the Barbadian Rum Style. This same molasses based blend is also used in their older products like Saint Nicholas Abbey 18 Year Old, and Saint Nicholas Abbey 20 Year Old Rum.
With a cup of rum punch finally in hand, it’s time to explore the estate properly. Nearby, Guinea Fowl roam the flower and herb garden. Further away, expansive fields of cane rustle in the evening breeze. On the distant Hills there are towering palm trees and some of the first mahogany trees to be planted in Barbados.
It is a picturesque setting, perfect for a wedding or similar event but the beauty belies a complicated legacy of tourism attractions like Saint Nicholas Abbey. Places like this were built with forced labor and brands like Saint Nicholas Abbey Rum contribute to the colonial nostalgia that seems to dominate current rum enthusiast culture. As Plantation tourism in the American South sees a shifting narrative, it is possible that this tour will be drastically different in the next few years.
Free beer while in Barbados was sponsored by 10 Saints Beer, a lager beer aged in rum casks that’s perfect for relaxing on the beach on the island where rum was invented.