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A Visit to Mount Gay Distillery

A Visit to the Mount Gay Rum Distillery

Mount Gay Distillery and barrel warehouse

At left, the distillery; at right, one of the barrel houses

If you arrive on Barbados via cruise ship, your “visit to Mount Gay” would likely consist of a trip to the lovely visitor’s center in Bridgetown. There you could learn about the rum, buy some souvenirs, have a drink, and a bite to eat. But one thing you wouldn’t get to see is the place where the rum is actually made, for the distillery itself is located in the northern part of the island, and generally not open to visitors.

Founded in 1703, Mount Gay (now owned by Remy Cointreau) is the oldest continuously operating rum company in the world. A deed listing a pot still is the evidence that backs this claim.  More than three centuries later, Mount Gay is far more advanced than it was at its inception, but in many ways, it has remained the same.

Mount Gay Sugar Cane Plantation

We began our tour in the cane fields adjacent to the distillery. The 356 acres of cane were purchased by the company in the Summer of 2015, and resulted in the reunification of a business formerly wholly owned by the Ward family. (The Wards bought the plantation and distillery in 1918, and suggested rum had been made there since the 1660s.)

Raphael Grisoni & Fitzroy Smith

Raphael Grisoni & Fitzroy Smith

In the cane fields, we were joined by Mount Gay’s Fitzroy Smith and Managing Director Raphael Grisoni. There among the young cane, we learned that crop season lasted roughly from January or February until May. The cane can be harvested three to four times before it needs to be replanted (they do not burn the cane fields on Barbados) and the crops are rotated with sweet potato and cotton periodically to promote soil health.  The company’s estate cane fields can produce sugar and 5,000-6,000 metric tons of molasses per year, which represents a little more than half of the molasses required for their annual rum production (the balance comes from Guyana and other sources on Barbados).  The Mount Gay sugar cane is processed at the government-owned Portvale Sugar Factory in Saint James, from which they take the second boil molasses to make their rum.

There are currently four varieties of cane on the estate, but now that they are vertically integrated, Grisoni is working with the West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station to select additional cane varieties that yield different flavor profiles. The Station has over 3,000 varieties cataloged, but until now their primary concerns were with varieties that provided high sugar content and pest resistance.

Fitzroy cutting cane for us to chew on

To the second boil molasses, Mount Gay adds water from their own coral limestone well and a yeast strain they cultivate on-site. The fermentation takes 30-36 hours in open wooden fermenters (they are in the process of replacing the fermenters with new Limousin oak). The fermented wine is then fed into either their continuous column still or one of their four copper pot stills.

We weren’t treated to a visit of the column still, but we were able to get up close and personal with the copper pot stills, which come from Scotland and Spain, and are heated with internal steam coils. Their capacity ranges from 1300-1500 gallons. By blending the pot and column distillates, Mount Gay achieves its signature character which is simultaneously complex and approachable.

Pot stills at Mount Gay, Spanish at left, Scottish at right

Pot stills at Mount Gay: Spanish at left, Scottish at right

Tasting the rum directly of the pot still was a real treat (they go to about 82% ABV). The distillate was incredibly fruity and delicious.

Fresh distillate from the Mount Gay pot stills

Fresh distillate from the Mount Gay pot stills

After learning about the cane and the distillation, it was time to meet one of the rum world’s iconic master blenders: Allen Smith. Like Fitzroy and Raphael, Allen was incredibly gracious with his time and invited us into his laboratory to learn a bit about his craft.

At right, Neil Morris of WIRSPA introduces Mount Gay Master Blender Allen Smith, left

At right, Neil Morris of WIRSPA introduces Mount Gay Master Blender Allen Smith, left

Once in the lab, Allen quizzed the group about rum production and tried to get to the heart of what makes a good rum blend. Given the group’s hardcore rum tendencies, he spent considerable time showing us (through tasting various blends) why the column distillate was such an important part of their rum. Allen also extolled the virtues of Mount Gay’s lack of age statements, which gives him the freedom to create great tasting blends year after year. After some additional instruction and a barrage of questions, we embarked on our own rum blending exercise whereby we attempted to make a blend of three rums to suit our own palates. Upon completion of the blending exercise, Allen and Fitzroy were kind enough to dip our bottles in wax for the long trip home.

The author's combination tasting/blending station in the lab at Mount Gay

The author’s combination tasting/blending station in the lab at Mount Gay

After the blending exercise was complete, we headed out to the adjacent barrel warehouse to see where the base rums in our blends had come from. We were soon inside a building 200 feet long by 80 feet wide, and surrounded by barrels of delicious rum stacked six pallets high. This warehouse held about 11,000 barrels of Mount Gay’s 40,000 total barrels.

 

Inside one of the barrel aging warehouses at Mount Gay

Inside one of the barrel aging warehouses at Mount Gay

Once inside, we learned that the rum goes into the barrels at 65%-75% ABV, and the evaporation rates were similar to those elsewhere on the island: 10%-11% in the first year, and 6%-7% thereafter. Barrels are used three times before being discarded.

Before leaving, the group got to spend some more time with Raphael Grisoni and inquire about upcoming releases. When asked about the rumors of a potential sugar cane juice-derived rum from Mount Gay, Grisoni was adamant that this was not happening. He went on to say that Mount Gay’s history was built on molasses, and that would not change. He did say, however, that we may see a “light” molasses-based rum in the future. Additionally, we were told that 2016 will bring two releases that will allow the general public to do a bit of blending on their own, as they will be releasing a 100% pot still rum (good for Mount Gilboa fans) and a 100% column still rum. Look for these five to seven year-old rums to hit US shelves in October, 2016.

Mount Gay was probably the biggest surprise of the trip for me. Because I had grown up seeing their rum everywhere, I made the assumption that it was a large outfit, and the Remy Cointreau purchase reinforced that notion of a faceless corporate entity. In short, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mount Gay is essentially the same size as Foursquare in terms of still house and barrel storage, and the entire operation is run by relatively few people. People with passion for their craft, and with the exception of the Managing Director, a very long history on the island. Color me impressed.

Editor’s note: This trip was sponsored by the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers Association (WIRSPA) under the auspices of the Authentic Caribbean Rum Certification (ACR) Program.  After completing the free 4-hour certification course in San Francisco, I submitted an application for, and was accepted into the Full Certification program in the Caribbean. As part of the inaugural class, we visited six Caribbean rum distilleries and one sugar factory across three countries in four days. I highly recommend taking the free certification class when it comes to a town near you. It’s quite informative, but best of all, it qualifies you to apply for the Full Certification program in the Caribbean (also free of charge).

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