It is a known fact that Barbados’ early economy was built on sugar cane and rum. But how much do you really know about the rum industry, more specifically the history behind the various brands of rum?
As sugar and rum season got underway here last night, local historian Morris Greenidge regaled industry representatives, visitors and locals alike with stories of the early companies, during the first lecture of the season.
The production of rum in Barbados dates back to the 1600s, and early trade in the commodity was centered on Roebuck Street, The City. However according to Greenidge, until the 1870s very few merchants were comfortable using the word ‘rum’ in their advertising.
“Even in 1895, WTE Richards and Hinds quite modestly mentioned “wine and spirits dealers”. Next door to them at numbers 2 and 3, in 1898, close to the beginning of the 20th century, LB Carter advertises as general importer, plantation and hardware suppliers, wines and spirits, manufacturers of white falernum.
“Nobody is using the word ‘rum’ in their advertising. But they had the labels, most of those companies. Some of them were eponymous. They expected that their family names and reputations would have been enough to satisfy the buying public of the quality and integrity of the product. Their name was their brand,” he told the audience at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society.
He noted that various businesses, including M.S Sainsbury, H.A. Cheeseman, James O and James A Tudor, H.B Kitch, the old W.T.E Richards and L.B Carter, “did not survive into modernity even though their names were used in their advertising”. These were just some of the rum traders operating there at the time.
According to him, it was only later that two early black partners, Edwin Stuart and Joseph Sampson, used their initials on ‘S and S Rum’. So too did a famous white partnership “that had emerged from the shy 1850s purveyors of spirits, WL Johnson and Company”.
“Outside of the Roebuck and Palmetto region there are also memories of others, including the centuries-old firm of SP Musson and Son, which became a founding member of the Big Six [group of companies] that consolidated as the Barbados Shipping and Trading Company in 1920.
“Musson actually had its own rum blend, and for a time it was located in the Hincks Street [The City] building next to the fisheries department. The Musson brand was labelled ‘Pirates Rum’,” Greenidge noted.
Being the prosperous sugar producer that it was, there were, at one stage, over 700 sugar plantations on the island.
“By the 1960s only three traditional stills remained, and then there were two. The Barbados Distilleries Ltd, owned by DaCosta and company, and located at what is now Esso in Black Rock. The three big oil tanks have replaced the big rum tanks.
“That left the old West Indian Rum Refinery which is now calling itself correctly the West Indian Rum Distilleries on Brighton’s Beach and the timeless Mount Gay distilleries at Church Hill, St Lucy.”
As the industry continued to evolve, Greenidge said, in more recent times after 1995, RL Seale, under Sir David Seale, started a new distillery at Foursquare, St Philip and St Nicholas Abbey started a boutique operation at Cherry Tree Hill, St Peter.
He hailed the contribution of Mount Gay Distilleries and RL Seale to the heritage of the Barbados rum industry.
“Much earlier than the 1703 date that you see on the labels for Mount Gay, there was a constant and consistent rum operation at Mount Gilboa, now called the Church Hill in St Lucy . . . . This is the oldest, continuous rum distilling operation on the entire planet.
“Mount Gay has now gone global and we should be extremely proud,” Greenidge added.
In the case of RL Seale and Company, that entity’s foray into distillation came in 1995 “when Sir David Seale had already enhanced the heritage and history of Barbados rums by framing throughout the years, many of those old labels which I talked about and whose owners had companies that had gone defunct.
“The mere fact of Sir David rescuing those brands of the past and continuing to bottle them as well as his own 1927 RL Seale brand to satisfy ancient Bajan taste buds, as well as to preserve a huge chunk of the heritage of Barbados rum, that act in itself was worthy of a knighthood, and worthy of our continued adulation,” he said, adding that a permanent gallery of remembrance ought to be established in honour of those who have contributed to the success of the industry.
“Allan Smith at Church Hill has the nose and the discerning palette and one of the world’s finest master blenders.
“On the other end of the island at Foursquare, Richard Seale has applied scholarship with ultramodern technology. And as a young master distiller, he helps to keep Barbados rightfully on the forefront of production of some of the world’s finest spirits,” Greenidge said.
The second lecture is scheduled for February 10, when Richard Seale of Foursquare will speak on the topic: The history of Barbados Rum.