Rum Regatta: Mount Gay Race Keeps Liquor Afloat

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In 1936, five trading schooners went head to head in a treacherous race around the island of Barbados. The winner would receive her weight's worth in gold and bragging rights to rivals and prospective clients seeking the fastest shipping vessel for their precious cargoes. The crew that came in last, however, did not go away empty-handed, or so the story goes. They got to walk away with a barrel of local rum: a not-too-shabby consolation prize by any standards.

The rum shops are not shops, per se, but rather easygoing neighborhood bars, often painted in the colors of Mount Gay or whatever brand has shelled out for the price of the paint job.

The race was repeated, although not every year, until 1957, when the losing prize was abolished. (Two boats, allegedly, stayed out for two days trying to come in last.) Since then, the Round Barbados Boat Race was held some years and forgotten others. But two weeks ago, 75 years after it first took place, the race was revived with a powerful sponsor behind it: Mount Gay, the oldest continuously operating rum producer in the world, which sponsors some 130 regattas worldwide. With last week's race, a friendly competition that the organizers hope will evolve into a high-profile regatta, it launched an initiative to bring competitive sailing to Barbados.

The island has long been associated with sailing and rum. Early explorers were said to bring home a barrel of Barbadian rum as proof that they'd successfully completed passage to the New World. In the 1980s, Mount Gay turned its red-branded baseball caps, printed with its logo— the map of the island, always— into a sailor's badge of honor. The hats, seemingly cheap and unremarkable swag, have become, among sailors, more coveted than the spirit they're meant to promote. Red caps have been spotted on the heads of such recognizable sailors as Ted Kennedy and Walter Cronkite, and on eBay for hundreds of dollars. They are not sold in stores, not even in the Mount Gay Visitor's Center's gift shop in Barbados. The only way to obtain one is to enter a Mount Gay regatta.

At the Mount Gay Visitor's Center, however, you will find branded T-shirts, glasses, bar mats, and other items. There is also, of course, no shortage of rum to buy, including large plastic jugs for safe transport back home in checked luggage. Speaking to native Barbadians, you find that people are proud of the brand and its renown, although Mount Gay's more premium releases, including its Extra Old, 1703, and the forthcoming-to-the-U.S. Eclipse Black, can be out of reach for many locals. Pop in to any of the neighborhood rum shops on the island and you'll find people drinking one of the local brands, including Cockspur and E.S.A. Field.

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The rum shops are not shops, per se, but rather easygoing neighborhood bars, often painted in the colors of Mount Gay or whatever brand has shelled out for the price of the paint job. The shops, in return for sporting company colors, get a break on the cost of liquor. Patrons tend to order their rum by the flask, along with a bowl of ice and the desired mixer on the side. A popular order is a "black and tonic," or dark rum and tonic. A rum shop might also be stocked with an array of chips and other snacks, to keep the belly well insulated during day-long sipping. At any given time of day, you'll find Barbadians— mostly men— enjoying a rum, or local Banks beer, shooting the breeze and hoping to catch a bit of one in the tropical heat.

I stopped by a typical rum shop in the parish of St. Thomas to taste Eclipse Black, a dark rum blended with greater amounts of seven-year-aged pot-still rum than the original Eclipse, which more column-distilled and young rums. The result was a deeply caramelized spirit, with charred molasses and spice notes. Rich, but not as refined as the 1703, which was created to compete with fine cognacs and scotches.

As Atlantic contributor Wayne Curtis detailed in his seminal book, And a Bottle of Rum, sailing and rum have long gone hand in hand. From the pirates who lent their personas to bottle labels to the British Royal Navy's practice of dispensing rum rations to its fleet, the spirit's history is tied to the sea. It's also directly linked to Barbados, considering the evidence that it was invented on the island. On January 21, a 30-foot SuperCat sailboat called Silver Bullet circumnavigated the island in 5 hours and 9 minutes, the fastest time that day, but not in history. (The same boat holds the record at 4 hours, 40 minutes, set in 2004.) If Mount Gay succeeds in transforming the friendly Round Barbados Boat Race into a high-profile regatta, it will be reinforcing the bond between sailing and rum and the island of Barbados. At the very least, it'll be giving something back to the place that gave us rum.

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Chantal Martineau covers food, wine, and spirits for such titles as Saveur, Imbibe, and The Village Voice. More

Chantal Martineau is a Montreal native now based in New York who writes about food, wine, and spirits for such titles as Saveur, Imbibe, and The Village Voice.
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