Note: This article originally published in the spring 2020 issue of Canadian Traveller magazine and our writer's trip took place months prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. We encourage travellers to resume international travel only when safe.
WHEN THE OPPORTUNITY to join a trip dubbed “The Ultimate Rum Run” presented itself, this bourbon-drinking traveller thought “probably not for me.” Sure, I enjoy poolside mojitos and the odd piña colada well enough, but when was the last time I reached for a bottle of the sailor spirit? Sometimes spiced, frequently mixed and often disguised in cocktails, it occurred to me that I didn’t even know whether l liked rum or not. I hoped a visit to Barbados and Bermuda would introduce me to a rum worth drinking unadulterated by syrups, sweeteners and soda. Travelling by private jet didn’t hurt either.
Chester Browne, Mount Gay Rum global brand ambassador
“IT’S QUITE IMPOSSIBLE TO TALK ABOUT rum without talking about Barbados,” says Chester Browne, Mount Gay Rum’s affable global brand ambassador. “Because Barbados is the birthplace of rum.”
Recognized as the world’s oldest commercial rum distiller, Mount Gay Rum in beautiful Barbados is an appropriate place to kick off the ultimate rum run.
Seated in the distiller’s handsomely appointed Great House, Browne deconstructs the spirit for us. Rum is made from molasses, a by-product of the sugarcane industry; gold rum gets its colour from the barrel-aging process (typically in a once-used American bourbon barrel) and white rum is young and unoaked. In the early days of distillation, rum went by many names, including Kill-Devil (for its sometimes-toxic levels of ethanol) and “a hot hellish liquor."
“But it was also called ‘rumbullion’ because of the rumpus way one behaved after consuming it,” Browne says with a mischievous grin.
To understand the origins of rum and its significance to the region, one must look to the ocean. For centuries, the British Royal Navy sourced rum from the British West Indies, transporting it back to London and then resupplying colony-bound ships. Sailors received a daily “tot,” a noon time, spirits-raising rum ration – a tradition I’m shocked to learn was only retired in 1970. Following the months-long ocean transits, navy men noticed the barrel-transported rum that arrived in England no longer tasted like a hot hellish liquor. Tempered by the barrel, it was smooth, complex and flavourful.
“It was a total mistake that we benefit from today,” Browne says.
He leads us outside, across a sliver of the 129-hectare property laden with “lush, big, fat, gorgeous sugarcane” (the sexiest crop description I’ve ever heard) to the true source of Mount Gay Rum: a 91-metre well.
Coral-filtered Bajan water
“This is what makes Mount Gay Rum so precious,” Browne expounds with dramatic flair. “You are standing at the very first drop of Mount Gay Rum… Every drop comes from this source, which started over 300 years ago. It’s coral-filtered Bajan water entirely free from impurities.”
All that preciousness just to mix it with Coca-Cola, I think to myself.
OUR NEXT STOP ON THE RUM RUN BRINGS US TO St. Nicholas Abbey plantation and distillery. We drive through a tunnel of mahogany trees to reach its historic Great House, one of three remaining Jacobian mansions in the Western Hemisphere. Inside, the rooms are decorated with period furniture, curio, taxidermy and portraits of men in gold frames. The House is nothing short of a picture into the privileged life of plantation owners, circa 1658. History is reason enough to visit but the rum is a tasty garnish.
St. Nicholas Abbey | Larry Warren leads a tasting
In the tasting room, we meet the Abbey’s current owner, Barbadian Larry Warren. Fearing that the Abbey would “end up as a condominium project if we didn’t intervene,” the Warren family acquired the property in 2006. A rum distillery was installed to financially substantiate the property as a multi-attraction heritage destination. Rum isn’t the main attraction, but it’s a whole-hearted endeavour.
“We will not increase our production beyond our capacity to do it in a traditional way, hand-produced and hand-bottled,” Warren explains.
Production is limited, indeed. Warren tells me the Abbey produces just 600 or so 10-bottle cases in a year. It’s such a limited supply that he estimates 98 per cent is sold through their front doors.
Warren starts our five-glass tasting with a sip of sugarcane syrup, then young white rum. As I tip the glass to my lips, I half-anticipate it to conjure memories of rum-induced college hangovers. Instead, it’s smooth, with notes of marshmallow and buttery overripe banana. I don’t feel compelled to drink it neat – clear spirits are best suited for mixing, anyway – but I learn that the softness of this white rum is due in thanks to the 37-square-metres of copper compacted into the Abbey’s still, through which vapour is forced.
When we arrive at the 12- and 15-year vintages, I do something I’ve never done in my adult life: I invite rum to linger on my palate. Notes of cinnamon, pine and tobacco mix on the nose and I carefully tease apart currant and orange. I’m in no rush to let it go but a medley of nutmeg and fruity brown sugar greets me on the finish. For once, rum is not hot, nor hellish.
Embraer Legacy 450 | © AdamFallwell
FLYING BETWEEN BARBADOS AND BERMUDA is, frankly, a buzzkill for the travelling public. It takes 14 hours and requires a layover in Miami. My direct AirSprint flight gets me there in three. It’s an over-the-top luxurious experience that I’ll remember every time I buckle into a cramped economy class seat on a commercial flight.
When I arrive at Fairmont Southampton, I am confronted by a sight that makes my eyes widen: male knee cleavage, everywhere. Executive men are outfitted in pressed shirts, blazers and dress shoes, shorts and socks pulled high up their calves. I can’t get over it. Whose rum-soaked fashion idea was this?
Later that night, I take a seat next to Andrew Holmes, brand director for Gosling’s Rum. It’s here in the cellar of the 330-year-old Waterlot Inn where our band of thirsty rum seekers will enjoy a five-course dinner paired with Bermuda’s favourite homegrown brand of rum.
It’s an enlightening meal – and not just because Holmes helps me see the Bermuda short uniform not as a socksforward styling but as a suit, hemmed at the knees. “You know, for ventilation.”
An exquisite parade of dishes marches forth from Chef Gerardo Say Colmenares’ kitchen. First, a stuffed morel mushroom atop a smoked polenta cake with duck rillette is paired with Gosling’s Gold Seal Rum. Next, I explore a mâche salad of prosciutto, brie, figs and black truffles alongside Gosling’s Amber Rum, which is only sold on-island.
Between bites, I learn that, absent fresh groundwater, Bermuda relies entirely on rainfall for its drinking water. Homes here have a unique, stepped limestone roof (imagine a white step pyramid) that funnels rainwater down a gutter into an underground tank.
“Rainwater is critical to our survival on the island,” Holmes emphasizes. “We import pretty much everything in Bermuda. Rum and babies are the only thing we make here – everything else comes in 20-foot shipping containers.”
I chuckle, thinking of the sanctity of Mount Gay’s coralfiltered artisanal water. Meanwhile, in Bermuda, rum’s primary ingredient unceremoniously dumps from the sky.
A typical roof in Bermuda
Over my shoulder, a Waterlot server produces a wooden case. From it, I select a knife. I melt for the 21-day dry aged steak with trumpet mushrooms and blackberry jus that’s set in front of me, but it’s while sipping on the Gosling’s 15-year, single-barrel Papa Seal rum that time slows. It’s served neat; no ice, no mix, no superfluous distractions.
I let each sip flood my palate, draining each drop in a reluctant trickle down the back of my throat.
And to think, four days ago I didn’t even know if I liked rum.
But this is no ordinary rum. Papa Seal would be considered top shelf liquor – if it had had the chance to hit the shelf. In 2018, just 12 barrels of Papa Seal were released, 11 of which were sold directly to private customers in the United States. One barrel was reserved for sale in Bermuda. It sold out in 45 minutes on a Tuesday morning. Islanders who showed up to claim theirs at noon were, understandably, a little salty.
With no Papa Seal left in stock, I ask Holmes where this evening’s vintage comes from. In the low light of the Waterlot cellar, Holmes squints while inspecting the bottle’s label before reading aloud: “EMBG personal barrel.”
We’re drinking a bottle pinched from the private stash of CEO Edmund Malcolm Burns Gosling.
I take another sip of the pirated nectar with what can only be described as the rumpus satisfaction of a modern-day rum runner.
When You Go:
The Ultimate Rum Running package is an exclusive trip offered by Fairmont and Calgary-based AirSprint Private Aviation. An eight-guest package starts at $185,000 and includes private round-trip jet travel from any North American gateway to Bermuda and Barbados, luxury accommodations at Fairmont Royal Pavilion and Fairmont Southampton, behind-the-scenes rum tastings at Gosling’s, Mount Gay and St. Nicholas Abbey, rum-inspired spa treatments, exclusive rum-paired dinners, charter sailing excursions and more. And yes, Papa Seal is included.
Disclosure: Our editor's experience was hosted by Fairmont and AirSprint Private Aviation. All opinions are her own.