History of Rum in Barbados


Keith Miller

May 16, 2024

 As recorded by Richard Ligon in his benchmark book, ‘A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados’, by the time he arrived in 1647, the island was already producing a potent sugar-cane spirit on a commercial scale. Based on Ligon’s first-hand observations, all the bigger plantations had their own distilleries and sales of the cane spirit accounted for a significant proportion of their income. This is truly quite remarkable given the fact that sugar cane cultivation had only recently been introduced, just a decade or so after settlement in 1627.

Ligon clearly didn’t have too high an opinion of this rudimentary alcoholic beverage, describing it as, “Kill-Devil … a hott, hellish and terrible liquor … infinitely strong, but not very pleasant in taste”. However, later in the book, he does concede that by the time he left the island, distillation methods had started to improve. Coincidentally, it was in that same year, 1650, that the earliest recorded use of the word ‘rum’ was included in a lease agreement for the sale of 150 acres at Three Houses Plantation in St. Philip. Thereafter, various other forms of the name ‘rum’ start to appear, including ‘rumbullion’, which is a word from Devon in England that refers to the kind of uproar created by a large crowd of noisy people.

Illustration courtesy Mount Gay Rum

As early as 1655, Royal Navy ships serving in the Caribbean adopted rum to replace beer for the sailors’ daily alcohol allocation, and the famous ‘Rum Ration’ was born. This also gave rise to the sailors’ coining the word ‘rumbustion’. To verify the strength of the rum, the crew would pour some onto gunpowder and try to light it. If the rum was too diluted, the gunpowder would not ignite. If it did ignite, then the rum had been ‘proved’. And that is the origin of the old alcohol proofing system. Given the procedure involved, it seems logical to assume that the sailors combined the words rum and combustion to give ‘rumbustion’.

 By 1740, the navy’s standard rum ration allowance was half-a-pint of rum per day for each of the officers and men. But that was drastically reduced in the interest of better health and safety by Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon, who ordered that the “half-pint of rum to be daily mixed with a quart of water”. Needless to say the men were not at all happy, and from that day on they labelled the weakened mixture of water and rum as ‘Grog’, in reference to Vernon’s nickname ‘Old Grogram’, because of the Grogram coat he liked to wear. The rum ration continued in the Royal Navy until it was abolished in 1970, after 315 years. Interestingly, to this day, Bajans of a certain vintage still talk about ‘firing a grog’, meaning to drink a rum.

As Barbados rum became increasingly more refined and palatable, it rapidly became the preferred tipple of a wider audience, especially visiting Royal Navy and merchant sailors who often took a supply back home with them. This in turn created greater demand overseas, most notably in Britain and British North America. In the case of the latter - the future America and Canada - Barbados rum was heavily traded in exchange for lumber, manufactured goods, and food items such as flour, corn and salt fish. However, when the American War of Independence broke out, all trade between mainland US and Barbados was banned, causing the island’s rum industry to virtually collapse. Nevertheless, with smugglers maintaining a limited supply, rum soon became the beverage of choice for privileged Americans, including none other than George Washington who had taken a liking to it when he visited Barbados as a 19-year-old. When Washington was elected as the first President of the United States in 1789, he specifically ordered Barbados rum to be served at his inauguration. 

Image from the George Washington movie about his trip to Barbados in 1751

In more modern times, Barbadian rum exports boomed when the US Government’s Prohibition Laws outlawed alcohol in 1920. Sales went from 4,000 gallons to 150,000 gallons in just two years, most of it recorded as being sold to the Bahamas, where ‘Rum Runners’ would collect it for delivery to mainland America. Ironically, prohibition re-introduced Barbados rum to the American market and exports continued to grow after the ban on alcohol was lifted in 1933. 

With regard to the domestic market, at the turn of the 19th century Barbados passed legislation that banned rum distillers from bottling their own rum.  Seeing an opportunity, wholesale traders bought rum in bulk and bottled it themselves, creating their own brands, many of which still exist today: ESA Field, Doorly’s, Cockspur, Alleyne Arthur, and the recently revived Perkins and Sons. Around 1925, Mount Gay – owned at the time by A.F. Ward and his partner John Hutson – successfully overcame the new legislation by establishing a second company called Mount Gay Distilleries Limited, specifically to blend and bottle rum produced at their rum distillery in St Lucy, making them the sole owner of the trademark. Having been producing rum in St. Lucy since 1703, Mount Gay qualifies as the world’s oldest continuous rum distillery still in operation today. Now owned by Remy Cointreau, Mount Gay Rum is widely recognised as one of the world’s very top brands, as evidenced by its numerous international awards.

Sugar Cane being harvested at Mount Gay

The other two major distilleries currently operating in Barbados are West Indies Rum Distillery, WIRD, and Foursquare Rum Distillery. WIRD was founded by the Stade brothers in 1893, at which time they introduced the first column still to Barbados. The multi-award-winning Foursquare Distillery is owned by R.L Seale, which started out as a Bridgetown commission agent in Roebuck Street, bottling and selling rum. Since building and opening their own distillery in 1995, Foursquare has developed into a highly respected producer of premium quality rum. So much so, that Foursquare’s CEO and Master Distiller, Richard Seale, has earned the distinction of being chosen as the International Wine and Spirit Competition’s Industry Champion for 2023.

On a more modest scale, in 2006 St. Nicholas Abbey, one of only three existing Jacobean plantation houses in the Western Hemisphere, became the first rum producer to resurrect the old Barbadian tradition of producing high-quality rum entirely on site, from field to bottle, using sugar cane grown on the estate, crushed and boiled into syrup, then distilled into rum. Since then, both Mount Gay and Foursquare Distilleries have followed suit, investing heavily in their infrastructure and plant, to once again directly link rum production to the sugar estate. 

In tandem with this paradigm shift, several of the island’s rum producers have applied for a Certified Geographical Indicator, a CGI, to officially identify what constitutes 100% genuine Barbados Rum. If successful, this will be another exciting step forward for the small island of Barbados that developed the world’s first rum industry almost 400 years ago.