Food & Drink

In search of Black Gold at Mount Gay, the world’s oldest rum distillery

Following the death of his father, Darren Sital-Singh set off on a quest to the world’s oldest distillery to try and discover more about his dad through their shared love of rum

My father and his family came to the UK from Jamaica in 1956, a few years after Windrush, and so rum was, naturally, the spirit of choice at home. Rum and black (AKA blackcurrant cordial) was his go-to drink while we gathered round the TV on a Friday evening.

Darren Sital-Singh’s father, Roy, in 1973

My brother and I mixed cocktails from his home bar, desperately trying impress with our mixology skills. Our signature drink was concocted from peach/mango/orange juice, Ribena, Angostura bitters and of course, plenty of dark rum. I’m sure his smiles were of appreciation rather than fear.

My family’s history with rum goes back even further. My great uncle honed his skills as a hotel bartender in Jamaica (where he was befriended by Errol Flynn, but that’s a story for another time) and perfected our family rum punch recipe. He usually used rum from the Appleton Estate, the oldest of Jamaica’s sugar-cane estates. Whenever there was a family gathering, huge batches of his punch were mixed in bowls, buckets and whatever else we had to hand with the aim of bringing good times. My wedding party wouldn’t have been the same without it.

These days my palate has matured, and I enjoy more serious, premium, sipping rums from Nicaragua, Guatemala or Venezuela. I take them neat, in a thick tumbler that makes me feel that I’ve finally become a man of sophistication.

Sadly, my father passed away last November, and a long-held family tradition was continued with a toast of Wray & Nephew’s overproof white rum. It’s the sort that sends flames blasting out of your eyes and ears, thus proving worthy of its original name, ‘kill-devil’.

‘It was a rare chance to pay homage to the man who introduced me to the great sup’

As you might be able to tell, my father took his rum very seriously. So, when the opportunity came to visit Mount Gay’s distillery in Barbados, the world’s oldest rum distillery, it represented a rare chance to pay homage to the man who introduced me to the great sup, as well as broaden my understanding of rumbullion and find out why the fun-time spirit isn’t taken more seriously.

mount gay

Rum is inexorably linked to the boom in colonial sugar production. Leftover, inky, rich molasses were distilled into spirit, a nice little sideline to make some extra cash. There’s a reason why Barbadian molasses was known as ‘Black Gold’.

Mount Gay’s roots trace back three centuries, making it not only the oldest rum in the world, but the oldest continually produced spirit in the world. The distillery’s been on the same site, a hilltop in St Lucy, since 1703. Originally named Mount Gilboa, it was renamed after Sir John Gay Alleyne who took on the management of the distillery for a friend.

Rum changes flavour per distillery, and is rich and complex, like a family tree. Mount Gay is not the same as Appleton, for example, because the island itself contributes to its flavour and character. Unlike most of the Caribbean, Barbados, the easternmost island, is formed of coral limestone, resulting in exceptionally pure water. The molasses Mount Gay use are selected to give the rum its base flavour notes of ripe banana, sweet almond, mocha and vanilla. Then the liquid goes through two types of fermentation – controlled environment and open-air, five huge wooden vats breathing in Barbadian flavour. It’s the open-air fermentation that gives the rum its distinct quality.

mount gay

There’s a saying in the rum industry – ‘maturity is earned, age is not’. They’re not just referring to my drinking habits. Those familiar with Scotch recognise 12 years as the age of credibility, when the drink has developed a full flavour.

But in tropical Caribbean climates like my father’s in Jamaica, the lines are more blurred. The climate means one year could mature a rum to the equivalent of three years or as few as nine months; as well, rums evaporate at a rate of five times that of a cognac or whisky due to the heat. Distilleries in the Caribbean call the lost liquid the duppy (a local word for spirit or ghost) share – one of the biggest costs of rum production in the region.

Rum might be the spirit of choice in my family, but I had to wonder why, given the skill behind premium rum production, it isn’t more popular. According to Mount Gay’s Managing Director, Raphael Grisoni, the answer is simple: awareness.

mount gay

‘After World War Two, the Scotch Whisky Association was created and spent a lot of money and energy promoting the drink,’ he says. ‘Scotch’s popularity is the result of decades of education and product placement. Don’t forget, in Dr No, the first James Bond, a movie that was showcased all across the US, Sean Connery asks for a Scotch.’

Clearly such open endorsements from one of the world’s most influential fictional characters have a huge impact. In more recent times in Casino Royale, Daniel Craig orders a Mount Gay and soda.

Britain is finally clocking on to the good thing my father always knew, because rum sales are on the rise. Annual sales of rum in the UK topped £1billion for the first time last year according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, putting it up there alongside whisky and gin.

Sipping it in Bardados seemed the only fitting tribute for a legend of a man.