The ghost of gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S Thompson is never far away from the life of a spirits journalist. And this was certainly the case when Neil Hennessy-Vass traveled to Barbados to visit Foursquare Distillery with a copy of of the good doctor’s The Rum Diary under his arm. Producers of the Doorly’s range of aged rums, Foursquare is often referred to as the best rum producer in the world – well that’s what our hack thought when he was handed a glass and told to drink whatever he wanted to… What could possibly go wrong?
“I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don’t know if I can fulfil it tomorrow, or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader. That is my promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”
Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary
Rum is one of those drinks that has a history, a rich, glorious and complex history that starts with somebody (probably a washed-up sailor) finding out that molasses, which was initially used as ballast in shipping, actually had another use – to ferment and create rum.
So it was to the island of Barbados, that mixed sceptre of beauty and sun on the edge of the Atlantic and the Caribbean, first stop from Europe, home to pirates, plantation owners and the odd superstar that I had to head. The east coast is driven with wild storms during the season, hardly populated, barren, stark and surf that people travel the world to ride. The west coast, a bastion of wealth, luxury and chic, it’s here that you’ll find the world’s superstars lapping up the legendary beach service at Sandy Lane Hotel and the mega yachts languishing in the calm blue waters off Bridgetown.
I make it my business whenever possible to taste alcohol professionally ‘off duty’ as it were (don’t scoff, my world is like a real job, but with exceptional perks) and, as Hunter once said…
“I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.”
Rum may have been invented (is that the right word for something close to religion in the West Indies?) by Mount Gay in Barbados but there are plenty of other outfits on the island who, in my mind, demonstrate a dedication and passion that is far removed from a polished visitor centre experience, wham bam thank you ma’am.
Take Foursquare, a family-run firm full of enthusiasm for the real deal. I called in for a personal tour of their distillery. And this is why I knew they were the ones to watch and write about…
Picture the scene, I’m shown into a room they call their tasting area where they allow the great and the good to see what they’ve been up to. The door opens, it smells of rum, no surprise there but, as I walk in, before me are the remains of a what looks like the previous night’s Bacchanalian revelry. Bottles opened, glasses and measures strewn across the really large table, vessels in various states of capacity of brown. Yes, a party had been thrown for sure. I asked was there a celebration last night? as I looked under the table fully expecting to see a late straggler or two comatose with smiles on their faces. “Oh no” said Gayle Seale, their global rum ambassador “Sorry about the mess, no we just had a tasting yesterday and it was quite a long one.”
Moving swiftly on as if this was normal (maybe it is … I so live on the wrong island if that’s the case) the glasses were cleared, fresh ones appeared and I was told casually “Just try anything you want.” I can’t stress enough how unusual this is at a tasting, they are usually prescribed events, starting with the entry level of whatever they offer, then slowly moving up (while the quantity of liquid reduces despondingly) until you hit their particular apex.
This was the most pleasant free-for-all possible. Not only did I wander around their world of rum at my own pace I found the story developing at an interesting rate. Questions asked and answered in a way that a PR would be pulling their hair out in the first five minutes. The lesson was clear to me. These guys are hiding nothing, it’s all good and they really don’t mind what your particular poison is, they were selling nothing but believing in everything.
“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” Hunter S. Thompson
Set in eight acres, that in a previous life was a sugar plantation, the distillery embodies what is cool about rum, Barbados and indeed Foursquare. You can wander around as a visitor, just follow the footsteps painted on the ground. You’ll find the whole process on display, no hidden sections, no barriers it’s refreshing to say the least.
I really could have spent a month there (maybe I will in another life …) so I didn’t try as many rums as I’d have liked. The quality of rum coming out of the island has something to do with the pure water they use here. Built on coral the water naturally filtrates to produce a balanced, clean taste. Using Bourbon barrels (mostly Jack Daniels) they us a two-pot Dutch distillation. Their waste CO2 even gets sold onto one of the cola brands that you might well mix with a lesser rum.
Doorly’s is the main brand Foursquare produce but they have a few others like the Exceptional Cask Selection comprising of 11 releases, early birds snaffled most of it but you can still find some at auction. Still available is Sagacity XI, a 12-year-old blend of ex-Bourbon and ex-Madeira cask-matured rum that leads with vanilla but is quickly followed by middle eastern fruits, dates, figs, murmurating in the mouth offering a kaleidoscope of fruit and ebbing out with an oaky reprise.
This my friends is the world of rum. These are notes that make my heart sing.
The guardians of rum at Foursquare have more than one trick up their sleeve. That last offering will set you back around £48 a bottle and well worth it but, if you’re feeling lucky and your arms aren’t short, then try out the Doorly’s 14-year-old. This will raise the spice level, you’ll have black pepper, a condiment to the rich oak. Warming and long lasting this was one of my favourites – but don’t be fooled by age. Their 12-year-old is no mean slouch offering dates, raisin and again a peppering of bell pepper. This oily, sweet, fruity, spicy number could well be your best friend on a sandy cove as the sun sets, or beside that fireside hearth in the Cotswolds as you glance out over the frosted farmland.
There are no sweeteners, flavourings or any other nonsense adulterating these beautiful bottles of nectar, only spirit caramel to give an even presentation. The common starting point for all of Foursquare’s exported rums is fermented molasses; that’s then distilled in double-retort copper pot still or a two-column continuous Coffey still. Barrels are mostly bourbon, American white oak but they sometimes branch out with alternatives such as Madeira and sherry, scraping and re-charring the barrels after a few years.
These guys have around 42,000 barrels ageing right now, good news for us but even better for the angels. In this part of the world they inherit a share of between 6%-9%. If you’re going to be a celestial being then there are few places as good as above Barbados. Live a little and try something new, rum is such an undiscovered universe. I’ll leave the final words to Hunter S. Thompson
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
The Doorly’s range is imported by Marussia Beverages, and so the option to buy direct is here – firstname.lastname@example.org. The full range is available from Speciality Drinks. All the big distributors such as Venus, Matthew Clark etc. will have most (if not the entire) of the range.