Telling the story of Barbados rum–and of rum itself–is impossible without referencing Mount Gay. The distillery operations at its Barbados site are arguably the oldest and longest running in existence. Spanning nearly four centuries, Mount Gay has something to say about every era of rum’s existence.
In October 2018, I visited Barbados as a guest of Mount Gay. It was my second trip to the island, but my first since becoming a hard-core rum wonk. This second trip provided unprecedented access that was unthinkable to me just five years prior. I returned home with tons of photos and stories to share, but my journey didn’t end there. Once home I burrowed deep into the little-known corners of the Mount Gay story, as well as the history of Barbados rum in general.
Much of what I assembled regarding the Barbados rum story appears in an earlier article, the Barbados Rum Cheat Sheet. You’ll find it has a substantial amount of Barbados rum history, including the rise and fall of the distilleries, as well as merchant brands of the twentieth century. With that setup in place, here I’ll focus on Mount Gay’s story without needing to re-explain the basics of Barbadian rum. The Cheat Sheet holds a lot of great information, so I highly suggest reading that first.
Mount Gay’s brand is well-known to today’s rum drinkers of all stripes. Their entry-level Eclipse expression is found in bars everywhere and has strong ties with the sailing community. At the other end of the spectrum, Mount Gay’s 1703 expression brings together rums of up to thirty years aging to showcase some of the best the rum world has to offer. Like nearly all rums aged and bottled in Barbados, you will find nary a crystal of sugar or other sweetening in the Mount Gay range.
Mount Gay has recently branched out into limited release bottlings, such as the Origins series, highlighting how production choices impact flavor. Another, the Mount Gay XO “Peat Smoke” release, is finished in Port Charlotte Islay whisky casks for three months and then bottled at cask strength. (Bruichladdich and their Port Charlotte brand are owned by Remy Cointreau, so it makes sense that Mount Gay would use their casks for this release.)
With the preliminaries aside, let’s wind the clock back a few centuries to the beginning of the Mount Gay story.
Colonial Era History
Although Mount Gay branding makes a big deal of being the world’s oldest continuously operating distillery going back to 1703, records have recently been found which appear to date distillation on the plantation site even further back in time.
That year is 1654, only four years following the first known records mentioning rum by name. Back then, rum distillation was just one aspect of plantation life, and there were no standalone distilleries like we have today.
The distillery resides in the parish of St. Lucy, near the northern tip of the island. Originally, the plantation was known as Mount Gilboa. The documents from 1654 are incredibly difficult to read but contain several key phrases indicating that rum distillation was going on. In particular, it refers to the Mount Gilboa land owned by the Sober family:
This indenture made the one and twenty day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and fifty four
Three coppers one still with mill complete
The meaning of “one still” is obvious enough, but the term “coppers” warrants an explanation. Coppers are large shallow pans where sugar cane juice was heated to drive off the moisture and cause the sucrose to crystalize.
Excerpts from the 1703 document (from which the brand makes its 1703 claim) are shown here as well. This document also an extreme challenge to read. The key excerpts are these:
…of the Island of Barbados Esq on the sixth and twentieth day of February in the year of our Lord God one thousand seven hundred and three command
deed to will on all the moveable parts of two stone wind mills and the stone work and fitt timber of the farm and the land they stand on and one boiling house with seven coppers one curing house and one still house and the land they stand on…
It’s a bit more detailed than the earlier 1654 document and shows evidence that the site went from three to seven coppers in just under fifty years.
Like the hundreds of other plantations that dotted the island in the 1600s through 1800s, the Mount Gilboa/Mount Gay plantation passed through various ownerships. The exact blow-by-blow of who owned and when doesn’t add much to the story for today’s readers, so I’ll only briefly reference it.
In 1747 the plantation was bought by John Sober. As was common then, plantation owners often assigned day-to-day management duties to someone else. For Mount Gilboa, one of these managers was Sir John Gay Alleyne, a baronet, politician, and Speaker of the House of Assembly of Barbados. The Sober family was so impressed with Alleyne that after he passed in 1801, the family renamed Mount Gilboa to Mount Gay. Why not Mount Alleyne? There already was a Mount Alleyne on the island, so they went with his middle name – Gay. And a future brand is born.
For the first 250 years of its existence, Mount Gay plunked along like all the other plantations with a small attached distillery. However, as described in the Cheat Sheet, by the late 1890s, Mount Gay was becoming something special. Times were very tough for plantations due to foreign competition and costly duties paid to England, the mother country. Many plantations had shut down, and those that remained struggled to sell molasses and rum at a profitable price.
Mount Gay was an exception to that grim scenario, as called out in an 1897 report by the West India Royal Commission. A snippet of an interview session on Barbados went like this:
Question: I believe a superior rum is made at Mr. Gay’s, St. Lucy, which commands a good price. I presume the maker finds it pay?
Answer: Mr. Gay makes a good redistilled rum, and commands at the moment 4d [four pence] per gallon more than other distilleries.
(Note: I believe that “Mr.” should have been transcribed as “Mt.” in the report. I have left the text as it was written.)
Subsequently, a chart of redistilled rum shows that Mount Gay made nearly half of the island’s redistilled rum. In this context, redistilled means two passes through the double-retort pot still.
In the end, Mount Gay was the only Barbados plantation distillery to survive to the present day.
The Ward Era
The next era of Mount Gay began in the early twentieth century and continued for nearly a century: The Ward era. It’s challenging to keep all the names and dates of the Ward era straight, and existing historical sources are often contradictory. However, with the assistance of Frank Ward, Jr., what follows should be reasonably correct.
In 1908, Aubrey Fitzosbert (AF) Ward acquired Fairfield Plantation, the first of many plantations on Barbados that he would purchase. By 1913 Ward also owned Harrison’s and Ashton Hall plantations. In 1918, he acquired the 385-acre Mount Gay plantation. Eventually all his plantations were organized under the control of Fairfield and Mount Gay Ltd.
At some point (often reported as 1926), Ward and his partner John Hutson created a company called Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd. The purpose of the company was blending and bottling the rums made at the St. Lucy distillery. It was a legally separate company so as to not run afoul of the law preventing distilleries from selling rum directly to consumers. This blending/bottling company (the facility still exists today) is in Bridgetown, the capitol of Barbados, twenty-five kilometers from the St. Lucy distillery.
For the next fifty years or so, the primary business enterprises of AF Ward and his descendants were these two companies:
- Fairfield and Mount Gay Ltd. – The plantation lands and distillery in St. Lucy
- Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd. – The Mount Gay brand, including blending and bottling
When Aubrey Ward passed on in 1948, his ownership stake in Fairfield and Mount Gay Ltd. was distributed among his many children. Even today, many descendants of Aubrey retain small stakes in that company.
However, AF’s ownership stake in Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd. passed on to just two of his children, Lisle and Darnley Ward, who continued to operate the brand for many decades. Lisle focused on the distillery and Darnley on marketing.
In 1975, with the continued decline of the sugar industry on the island, Fairfield and Mount Gay Ltd. further split into two companies:
- Fairfield Investments Ltd. – The plantations
- Rum Refinery of Mount Gay – The St. Lucy distillery
In 1980 Mount Gay Distilleries (the brand) sold a sixty percent ownership stake to Foremost-McKesson, their American distributor. Fast forward to 1988, when McKesson sold off its spirits portfolio as “21 Brands, Inc.” A year later in 1989 French spirits conglomerate Rémy Martin (now Rémy Cointreau) bought 21 Brands, and with it majority ownership of Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd. To be very clear, Rémy then owned the Mount Gay brand but not the means of production, i.e., the Rum Refinery of Mount Gay. The Rum Refinery continued under Ward family control.
In time, Darnley and Lisle Ward entrusted the management of the enterprise to Lisle’s son Llewellyn (Louis) Ward. Louis retired in the early 1990s, passing control to Carl Ward, one of AF Ward’s youngest sons. In 1998 Frank Ward’s son, Frank Ward, Jr., joined the family business and by 2005 was named managing director. If Frank Jr.’s name rings a bell, it’s because he was also chairman of WIRSPA from 2007 to 2017. (WIRSPA is the trade organization of rum producers in 12 CARICOM countries and the Dominican Republic.)
By 2005 the Rum Refinery of Mount Gay (the distillery) was in dire financial straits, and a substantial investment in equipment was deemed necessary. Unfortunately, the various shareholders (including some Ward family members) couldn’t agree on a plan forward for several years. Eventually, improvements were agreed upon in 2010. Unfortunately, by that point more challenges faced the distillery. In late 2013, Frank reluctantly paused production at the distillery, a move that was widely misreported as the Mount Gay brand shutting down. The reality is that the brand owner (Rémy Cointreau) had plenty of aged stock on hand to continue for quite some time.
Nonetheless, in 2014 the board of the Rum Refinery of Mount Gay sold majority control of the company to Rémy Cointreau for US $9.5 million. This gave Rémy control over the entire Mount Gay pipeline. As we’ll see later, Rémy pressed hard on the accelerator shortly afterward.
The Last Ward
An interesting aside to the distillery story at this juncture is that prior to the 2014 acquisition, Rémy’s contract with the Rum Refinery of Mount Gay did not include exclusive rights to all the distillery’s capacity. Around 2007 Frank Ward, Jr., began setting aside certain amounts of rum for other projects.
Some of this rum was sold under the Mount Gilboa label as both unaged and aged expressions. They are triple distilled — three passes through the distillery’s double retort pot stills. (Yes, you read that correctly–I’ve confirmed it with Frank, Jr.) One hundred percent pot still Barbados rum is an extreme rarity these days, so it’s not surprising that the relatively small outturn of Mount Gilboa rum was snapped up by knowledgeable rum-heads.
Beyond the Mount Gilboa release, Ward sold off the remainder of his aged stock to a certain well-known rum company, which in turn sold a portion of it to another well-known rum company. While I’m not privy to all the details, it’s safe to say that some of this rum appears in Velier’s 2007 and 2009 cheekily named “Last Ward” releases.
The Mount Gay Eclipse Mystery
Various sources indicate that the Eclipse name first appeared on a bottle of Barbados rum circa 1911–its name refers to the solar eclipse of May 9,1910. While the Eclipse name is now synonymous with Mount Gay, 1911 was seven years before AF Ward bought the Mount Gay plantation. As such, it’s not clear what distillery supplied the rum in those early bottles, or when Eclipse was folded into the Mount Gay entity. As mentioned in the cheat sheet, there were many merchant-bottled Barbados rum brands in the early 1900s, and they were commonly acquired by other brands.
The Rémy Cointreau Era
Although Rémy Cointreau’s 2014 purchase gave it full control over the distillery and brand, they didn’t stop there. As you’ll recall, the Ward family had incrementally split up Aubrey Ward’s enterprise, including the plantation assets. Rémy set out rebuild Mount Gay, including reacquiring the original cane fields to supply part of the distillery’s molasses needs. In 2014 Rémy purchased the Oxford plantation land that adjoins the distillery. A year later, they purchased the original Mount Gay Plantation land for $4.9 million.
On the cane fields it now owns, Rémy targets ecologically prudent cane farming, working closely with the West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station. Each field grows only a single variety of cane and is irrigated entirely from rainfall. The vinasse (agricultural waste from distillation) is carefully applied to the fields as fertilizer.
The company has engaged the Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC) to process the cane, keeping the molasses separate from other molasses made by BAMC. The molasses returned by BAMC to Mount Gay is Grade A / first strike, meaning only one sugar extraction. While this special Mount Gay plantation molasses is just a fraction of what the distillery needs, you can expect it to be used in batches of “estate” rums that will appear in the future.
Rémy has also invested in upgrading the distillery equipment, most recently the reconditioning and recommissioning of a single-column, one-hundred-percent copper Coffey still last used in 1976. Also new since the acquisition is a beautifully designed and interactive visitor’s center, chock full of rum books, photographs, a bar for small events, and–my personal favorite–a bottle of Harewood House rum, distilled in 1780.
The Mount Gay Distillery Today
As longtime readers should expect, any distillery visit will eventually turn into a detailed geek-out on its operations. What follows are my observations of the distillery as it appeared in late 2018.
As you approach the heart of the St. Lucy distillery, you pass a series of four rectangular buildings. Squat and rectangular with pitched roofs, the buildings at first look to be made of white bricks covered in gray and black splotches. (The urge to pressure wash is strong.) However, an up-close examination shows the structures are built from coral limestone, the same material used for many of the island’s buildings. The gray and black splotches are distillers mold, common to any distillery. It grows quite quickly on these buildings because within each is a stash of approximately 12,000 casks of rum, slumbering away and making the angels quite happy. In total, Mount Gay holds approximately 46,000 casks undergoing aging, which they say is the most of any distillery on the island.
At the end of the road sits the hub of distillery operations. With the visitor’s center as our base of operations, longtime brand ambassador Chesterfield Browne took us through distillery operations in the usual order – from cane fields to aging.
Hopping in the back of truck (fitted with seats and seatbelts, thankfully), we set out rumbling through the fields of Oxford plantation. The first stop was the stone remnants of an old windmill used to drive cane crushing rollers centuries ago. Subsequent stops took us into the cane fields, where we watched a worker demonstrate cane cutting technique.
Back at the distillery, we trekked several hundred yards to check out the wellhouse that supplies limestone-filtered water for the distillery’s operations.
A few yards from the visitor’s center is a molasses shed, where several huge, open-topped stone cisterns are sunk into the ground. A walkway across the top of the cisterns lets you peer down into them; some are empty, others partially filled. The smell of molasses is both overwhelming and heavenly. Wire screens on either side of the walkway prevent you from falling to an Augustus Gloop-like sticky demise.
Outside the stillhouse door are several large pieces of a copper column still. I learned later that the still was an early 1940s-era Coffey still, installed following a 1941 fire and later decommissioned in 1976. It had been recently been refurbished and was awaiting installation during our visit. (In mid-December of 2018 it resumed operation.)
Inside the stillhouse is the money shot: the four glorious, instantly recognizable Mount Gay double retort pot stills. However, your first glimpse is of the bottom of the stills and retorts. Stairs take you up to a wooden deck, from which you walk right up to the upper part of the stills, retorts, and lyne arms.
The pot stills’ appearance is unlike any of the double retort stills in Jamaica. The Mount Gay stills’ domes are much flatter, with narrow necks. Two were made in Spain and two in Scotland. Their capacities are given as 4000 and 6000 liters. The Scottish stills, made by McMillan, date to the 1960s; the Spanish stills, made by Fraga SA, are from the 2000s.
One still has an extraordinarily long lyne arm. I asked Frank, Jr., later if there was a reason for this; he said it was the only way to make it fit in the building alongside the other stills. Three of the stills sit in a row, their lyne arms parallel. The still with the longer lyne arm is set farther back from the retorts, squeezed into the space between and behind two other stills.
An adjoining room holds five French oak fermentation vats, along with a 20,000-liter blending vat. Mount Gay utilizes a proprietary yeast strain, and their fermentation time for the pot still mash is thirty to thirty-six hours, after which it rests for two to seven days and undergoes a second fermentation. The wooden vats are open during this, so wild yeast also influences the outcome.
Elsewhere in the stillhouse is another column still which we unfortunately were not able to see; it produces most of the rum that goes into Mount Gay blends, especially the lighter offerings like Eclipse. According to Frank, Jr., this still replaced the 1930s-era Coffey still (which we saw in pieces outside the stillhouse). The replacement still had two columns and was subsequently updated in 2012 using parts from a vacuum still purchased from the Barcelo distillery in the Dominican Republic. We didn’t see the fermentation vats for this column still, but I was told the fermentation time is thirty to thirty-six hours without a second fermentation, typical for lighter column-still rums.
Pot and column still rums are aged separately then later blended at Mount Gay. Aging occurs within the four coral limestone warehouses seen earlier. The last of them was built just a few years ago, part of Remy’s investment upgrades. To demonstrate aging and blending, we took part in a blending session where we first selected a cask of aged column-distilled rum from a warehouse and drew a sample from it.
In the distillery’s on-site laboratory, we then created our own custom Mount Gay blend using our column distilled rum alongside some three- and seven-year aged pot still rum. If I hadn’t known differently, I might have guessed the pot still rums were cognac rather than rum. Not unexpectedly, my final blend had just a bit more pot still than your typical Mount Gay rum.
Mount Gay Expression Roundup
As we wrapped up our visit, Chesterfield took us through the main Mount Gay expressions, filling us in on some production details worth sharing here. As you might imagine, the more expensive the rum, the more pot still component it contains. While Mount Gay eschews age statements, they will share an age range.
- Silver – Mostly column still rum. Aged for six months, then charcoal filtered.
- Eclipse – A blend of pot and column still rums aged between two and seven years. Mostly column rum.
- Black Barrel – Starts very similar to Eclipse, then aged six months more in heavily charred casks. It also has a bit more pot distillate than Eclipse. Created by current Mount Gay Master Blender Allen Smith in 2012.
- XO – A blend of pot and column rums, aged between eight and fifteen years. An even higher ratio of pot to column distillate. This expression came about soon after Remy purchased the brand in 1989. They commissioned master blender Jeremy Edwards to do the first very old blend of Mount Gay. Originally it was known as Extra Old, but now goes by the XO moniker.
- 1703 – We didn’t cover this at the session. However, we learned later that it’s a blend of rums aged between ten and thirty years, with an even higher ratio of pot still rum. Created by Master Blender Allen Smith in 2009.
Toward the Future
Operating a traditional, authentic rum distillery is brutal work in today’s business climate. Giant factories with multicolumn stills can create near tasteless rum at a far lower cost than old school distilleries like Mount Gay. Most consumers don’t understand the difference between the two rums on the shelf, so often reach for the less expensive one.
Had Remy Cointreau not invested heavily in 2014, it’s entirely possible that Mount Gay would have become yet another casualty–one of many once-great distilleries not having enough capital to continue operating. But as with other properties they own, such as Bruichladdich and Westland, Remy seems willing to invest the money to let the distillery grow organically and stay authentic. This is far preferred to driving the brand and distillery into the ground while squeezing out every cent of profit.
As well, Remy’s purchase of the plantation lands around the distillery certainly wasn’t a matter of getting cheaper molasses. Nor was refurbishing an older column still when modern options are more efficient. I’m heartened to see this investment in keeping a legacy brand and distillery operating in an authentic way, and I look forward to the next generation of rums to emerge from those cane fields and that historic column still.
I would like to thank Raphaël Grisoni, Frank Ward, Jr., Kevin Farmer (Deputy Director of the Barbados Museum), and Alex Weetch for all of their very detailed assistance in putting this story together.