THIRSTY FOR RARE LIBATIONS?
By Jennifer Hubbert
A four-day rum running trip might seem lush to some, but as writer Jennifer Hubbert discovers, if you want these exclusive rums, you’ve got to go get them yourself.
When James Gosling finally arrived at port in St. George’s, Bermuda he – and his massive cargo of alcohol – were unceremoniously dumped on the dock. It was 1806 and his trans-Atlantic booze cruise had lasted 91 listless days; it should have taken half the time. The Mercury had been chartered by his father to transport £10,000 sterling worth of wine and spirits from England to the new colonies. Becalmed at sea, the captain informed Gosling his charter was running out. An ultimatum was presented: turn back for England and face his father or sail for the closest British port. Gosling chose the latter.
“It didn’t take long for the locals to figure out what had just arrived,” Andrew Holmes tells me with a raucous laugh. “James was immediately very popular.”
I’m seated next to Holmes, Goslings Rum’s present-day brand director, at the upscale Waterlot Inn at Jew’s Bay, Bermuda for a private five-course dinner paired with Goslings rum, hosted exclusively for Fairmont and AirSprint’s Ultimate Rum Run trip.
Unlike James Gosling, it took me just a few hours to reach Bermuda. I wasn’t accompanied by an arsenal of liquor, but I arrived via charter, too. On an Embraer Legacy 450, to be precise.
Eventually, Gosling unloaded his ‘pirate ship full of booze’ (Holmes’ words, not mine) but it wasn’t until the rum-thirsty British Royal Navy arrived a few years later that the namesake rum was born. Today, Goslings is the oldest business in Bermuda, and locals drink a lot of Goslings rum – about 20,000 nine-litre cases each year.
Over my shoulder, a Waterlot server produces a wooden case. From it, I select my blade, one set in a slim, bone-coloured handle. An exquisite parade of dishes marches forth from Chef Gerardo Say Colmenares’ kitchen. First, a stuffed morel mushroom atop a smoked polenta cake with duck rillette is paired with Goslings Gold Seal Rum. I explore a mâche salad of prosciutto, brie, figs and black truffles alongside Goslings Amber Rum, which is only sold on-island. I melt for the 21-day dry aged steak with trumpet mushrooms and blackberry jus, but it’s sipping on the single-barrel Papa Seal rum that slows time for me. This is what I’ve come for.
Unlike its Goslings counterparts which are vatted blends, Papa Seal is rested in once-used American oak bourbon barrels for 15 years, then hand-bottled and hand-labelled. In 2018, just 12 barrels of Papa Seal were released, 11 of which were sold directly to private customers in the United States. One barrel was reserved for sale in Bermuda. It sold out in 45 minutes on a Tuesday morning.
With eyes closed, I let the elegant rum flood my palate. Reluctantly, I let it slowly roll off the back of my tongue. A perplexing thought pulls me from my moment of bliss.
“Andrew, which number barrel is this from?” I query.
“This is Malcolm’s personal barrel,” he replies, nonchalantly.
Upon closer inspection, I find the bottle affixed with a handwritten label reading “EMBG personal barrel.” (EMBG stands for Edmund Malcolm Burns Gosling, CEO and president of Goslings Rum).
An unnumbered barrel of Papa Seal? Forget top-shelf spirits; this rum never even hit the shelf. I take another sip of the pirated CEO nectar and I swear it tastes just that much sweeter.
Little do I know, back in my ocean-facing room at the posh Fairmont Southampton, a bottle of presidential Papa Seal has been gingerly placed on my pillow.
Little grows on Bermuda, thanks to a total absence of fresh groundwater. Holmes jokes that rum and babies are the only things made on-island – everything else arrives in a 20-foot shipping container. With limited arable land to grow anything – let alone the sugar cane needed to produce rum – Goslings must import its ‘rum wash’ from other, more fertile islands of the West Indies. Which brings our ultimate rum running trip to Barbados.
Flying between Barbados and Bermuda is, frankly, a buzz kill for the travelling public. It takes 14-hours and requires a layover in Miami. My direct AirSprint flight gets me there in two.
We touch down in Barbados and the preppiness that permeated Bermuda immediately dissipates. Here, sidewalks are optional, roads are pocked and following a rum-infused massage, I fall asleep to a chorus of operatic tree frogs.
The next morning, I rise for a run.
Just kidding. Rum is the only thing running on this trip. Instead, I admire the sun rise above the Caribbean horizon from my beachfront suite at the pink-hued Fairmont Royal Pavilion.
After breakfast, our vehicle makes the drive-up Cherry Hill and we wind through the tunnel of mahogany trees that envelopes the driveway leading to St. Nicholas Abbey plantation and distillery.
We’re welcomed by the handsome façade of The Great House, which I learn is one of just three surviving Jacobian-style mansions in the Western Hemisphere. Inside, the rooms are decorated with period furniture, curiosities, taxidermy and portraits of men in gold frames. The House is nothing short of a picture into the privileged life of plantation owners, circa 1658.
In the St. Nicholas Abbey tasting room, we meet the Abbey’s current owner, Barbadian Larry Warren. Warren, donning denim, a white linen dress shirt and smart tortoise shell frames, wears his hair drawn back in a ponytail. Warren is not a rum maker by trade, he’s an architect. Fearing that the Abbey would ‘end up as a condominium project if we didn’t intervene,’ the Warren family acquired the property in 2006. Making rum was introduced as part of the business model to sustain the Abbey as a multi-attraction heritage destination. But that doesn’t mean rum is an afterthought – far from it.
“We will not increase our production beyond our capacity to do it in a traditional way, hand-produced and hand-bottled,” says Warren. “So many times that’s said for marketing, but it’s never done.”
Production is limited, indeed. The Abbey produces just 600 or so 10-bottle cases in a given year. It’s such a limited supply, that Warren estimates 98 per cent is sold on-site. International distribution is nice, he infers, but not at all necessary.
In front of me, five glasses are laid out on a butcher’s block. I raise the first to my lips. It’s not rum, not even molasses (the traditional ingredient rum is made from), but cane syrup.
“Syrup is better. It embodies the entire sugar cane,” Warren asserts. “To make sugar you have to clarify it. And when you clarify it, you add lime and chemicals.”
He leads us into the first of four rum samples. The young, five-year-old white rum is marshmallowy on the nose and finishes as overripe, buttery banana. It’s soft, unlike the young party rums of the world that send metallic shivers down my spine. The smoothness of the Abbey’s rum comes courtesy of 400-square-feet of copper compacted into the top of the still through which vapour is forced.
Next up is the five-year-old barrel-aged rum, which introduces spicy complexities. The nose and flavour are vanilla with whispers of white pepper.
We move eagerly into the 12- and 15-year vintages, which pre-date the Abbey’s rum production, meaning they are made from molasses rather than cane syrup.
“It cannot be overstated how rare this rum is,” Warren emphasizes. “Without a doubt, there’s no aged and labelled rum in Barbados that says 20 [years] that’s totally authentic. [This rum] has lived its life entirely in a barrel – and now in your glass.”
When asked how much exists, Warren places the quantity at 25 quarter-filled barrels which will soon be combined to yield a little over six full barrels.
Tipping the last glass to my lips, notes of cinnamon, pine and tobacco mix on the nose and I tease apart currant and orange on the palate. I’m reluctant to let it go but a medley of nutmeg and fruity brown sugar greets me on the finish.
At the bottom of the glass, I’m hit with pangs of melancholy that it’s over. But therein lies the rub: the finest aged spirits exist in an ever-increasing state of scarcity.
Uncannily, Warren senses as much and offers some condolence: “In some respects, it’s like living and dying,” he says. “At the same time one is going, you’re anticipating the next generation that’s coming up.”
On the return flight home, customs clearance prompts me to think of the extraordinarily rare bottle of Papa
Seal tucked away in my suitcase. My thoughts inventory the future for milestones worthy of uncorking it. I’m coming up lean when I’m suddenly reminded of Warren’s wise words. It’s in this moment that I resolve not to covet its preciousness, but to take greater joy in the sharing of it. And what a lesson to have learned – from rum, no less.
AirSprint and Fairmont’s Ultimate Rum Run is also best enjoyed in the company of friends or family. The package – which includes the exclusive experiences above and other rum-soaked delights – accommodates up to eight guests.