A Taste of The World’s Oldest Rum Distillery

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Mount Gay has been producing rum on Barbados for more than 300 years, and is today the oldest continuously functioning rum distillery in the world. Owned by the French spirits company Remy Cointreau since 2014, Mount Gay this past spring announced its new and first-ever female Master Blender. Cheers recently joined a group of U.S. journalists to learn more about the rum, the Barbados terroir and Mount Gay’s history.

Harewood House rum from 1780.

The visit covered the sugar cane fields, rum aging warehouses, mixing lab, as well as the Mount Gay visitor’s center that displays rum books, historic photographs and a bottle of Harewood House rum from 1780. It also included a stop at one of Barbados’ 12,000 rum shops, where the local Barbados denizens, or Bajans, gather to socialize over a cocktail or glass of rum.

The secret sauce: water

But the rum education started with a trip to the enter uplands of the island to Harrison’s Cave, a limestone cavern with streams, pools and waterfalls as well as stalactites, stalagmites and other kinds of calcite deposits. The pure, calcium-rich water on Barbados is essential to the rum’s production, says Mount Gay’s longtime brand ambassador Chesterfield Browne.

What’s more, the underground water resource is key to the Island’s history. The Portuguese were the first to arrive and gave the island its name: Barbados means “bearded ones,” after the bearded trees. But when they didn’t see any surface water, the Portuguese explorers left. “There’s plenty of water on Barbados, but it’s underground,” Brown says.

The English would later claim the island and set up farms, primarily tobacco plantations at first. But Barbados’ rich soil and reliable rainfall proved ideal for growing sugar cane. There was great demand for sugar at the time. And after it was discovered that the fermented molasses by-product from the sugar–production process made for a spirited beverage, demand for rum surpassed that of sugar.

Mount Gay, founded in 1703, was originally called the Mount Gilboa Plantation/Distillery. It was renamed for Sir John Gay Allyn, who managed the plantation for owner John Sober.

Improvements and experimentation

Remy Cointreau has been making a number of improvements to and investments in Mount Gay. For instance, Mount Gay now has one of just three full copper Coffey stills in the world; the other two are in Scotland. The still, which had been still last used in 1976, was reconditioned and officially recommissioned in December 2018.

Mount Gay’s copper Coffey still.

The rum is made from 100% molasses with a proprietary yeast for Mount Gay. In addition to the core Mount Gay Eclipse gold rum, expressions include Black Barrel, matured in ex-American whiskey casks and finished in aged heavily charred ex-bourbon casks. Created in 2012, Black Barrel is “a rum with spicy character, not a spiced rum,” Brown says.

XO (originally known as Extra Old) is a blend of pot and column rums, aged between eight and 15 years, while 1703 is a blend of rums aged between 10 and 30 years old. Mount Gay has also branched out into limited-release bottlings, such as the Origins series, highlighting how production choices impact flavor.

The brand launched its Master Blender Collection luxury series last year with Mount Gay XO Peat Smoke, a blend of column and pot still rums. Aged for eight to 15 years in American oak barrels, the rum then matured for an additional six months in ex-Islay peated whisky casks.

Mount Gay’s four warehouses hold about 4,000 barrels of aging rums. The warm Caribbean weather ages spirits about three times faster than comparable spirit in cooler climates such as Scotland.

The company uses ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, ex-Cognac and ex-Scotch casks to age its rum expressions. “The beauty of being owned by Remy is the barrel share—and the knowledge share,” says Raphaël Grisoni, managing director of Mount Gay since July 2008.

Mount Gay Master Blender Trudiann Branker.

Aging brings out the flavors in column-still rum and calms down the flavors in pot-still rum, which can be perceived as too bold and too dry, says Master Blender Trudiann Branker. She officially took over as Master Blender in April, succeeding Allen Smith, who had been with Mount Gay for more than 25 years.

Branker had studied under Smith for five years, “so there was a considerable transfer of knowledge,” says Grisoni. “The human factor is essential” in rum production, he says, from distilling to selecting blends.

The second expression in the Master Blender series—and Branker’s first in the role—is the Master Blender Collection: Pot Still. The 10-year-old vintage highlights how rum has been made in double retort pot stills for more than 200 years.

Branker wanted to showcase true Barbadian pot-still style. The resulting limited-edition rum celebrates the terroir of Barbados, not to mention Mount Gay’s considerable history.

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