On a visit to St Nicholas Abbey on a sunny afternoon this week, one could be forgiven for thinking they had gone back in time to Barbados’ colonial days when sugar production was at its peak.
On arrival at the Abbey on the tranquil Cherry Tree Hill in St Peter, visitors were greeted by ‘Lady Susannah Nicholas’, one of the owners of the plantation, and some of her slaves, who re-enacted a typical day on a sugar plantation.
They were then treated to a tour of the great house, before proceeding to the steam mill for a first-hand view of cane grinding.
This latest tour of the historic Abbey was held under the theme Canepiece to Cask: Stories from St Nicholas Abbey, was part of activities planned for this year’s Sugar and Rum season, which is being hosted by the Barbados Tourism Product Authority, to highlight the contribution of the two commodities to the development of the local economy.
Like other sugar plantations on the island, St Nicholas Abbey has a rich history. Built in 1658, it was one of two adjacent properties originally owned by British planters Benjamin Berringer and John Yeamans. The plantation changed hands several times among British owners before being acquired by Barbadian Larry Warren in 2006.
Today, the 400-acre plantation is the only rum distillery in Barbados that utilizes traditional methods to produce a single cask rum.
“We grind sugar cane three days a week, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, so you get to see 1890s steam mill crushing sugar cane, the distillery and the bottling plant as well where we bottle and package rum and our other products,” Anjelic Joseph, tour guide, and Assistant to the general manager, told Barbados TODAY.
“A lot of what we do here [is done] the old school way, plantation-style. So we have our own sugar cane fields, it’s about 400 acres in total, and that’s the property. About 225 acres we still use for the cultivation of sugar cane. So the sugar cane fields you passed here on your way in are part of the property.
“We harvest our sugar cane by hand, we don’t use any machinery to harvest them. That’s because the steam mill needs the long pieces of sugar cane to feed through the mill. The machinery cuts it up into bits and pieces and that will not work for us,” she added.
The Abbey operates as a boutique distillery, so the rum is mainly sold here in Barbados. However Joseph explained that it is also available in other countries, namely Denmark, Italy and Canada, as well as England.
“On average we produce about 45 barrels per year. It’s hard exactly to say how many rum bottles we do sell as well, well we do get from the barrels because the longer rum is aged, the more we lose to evaporation. Sometimes you get less, sometimes you get more,” she explained.
The rum is aged in oak barrels imported from Kentucky, in which bourbon was previously stored.
“They’re charred on the inside, so that is where the rum extracts its flavour and its colour as well, because the longer a rum is aged, the darker and smoother it gets. So all rum is white when it’s distilled, it’s the ageing process that makes it darker,” Joseph said.
She added the property has undergone some changes since it was purchased by Warren, in a bid to improve production.
“When our present owner bought the property, the steam mill had not worked for over 100 years. We also did not have a distillery here. He put in the distillery after he bought the place and he sourced the parts, because the steam mill, that was made in Fletchers Derby in England. So he sourced the parts, he got the engineers to come down and they worked on getting the steam mill back up and running.”
Tuesday’s visitors were just part of a regular stream of tourists and locals at the Abbey. According to Joseph, some days they welcome as many as 400 people eager to learn about its rich history.
Today, St Nicholas Abbey is one of the oldest houses in Barbados. The plantation house is one of only three Jacobean styled mansions in the Western hemisphere, with Drax Hall great house here in Barbados being the second.
Lady Susannah and her slaves may no longer be part of the plantation’s current story, but their history lives on as Barbados’ sugar industry continues to evolve.