Barbados: Sand, Sun, Rum, Sugar, and Foursquare

It seems like it was a lifetime ago, but the lingering sun tan tells me the trip was just a few days ago.  Still it’s past time for me to share a few thoughts on my trip to Barbados…it hasn’t seen the last of me.

As I approach retirement, my leisure travel is focused on parts of the tropical world where I want to live… at least spend considerable time.  There are plenty of places to investigate and until now, the evaluation of each destination has been: “Glad I came, but won’t be back” or “I’d come back here.”  Now there’s a new grade… the Bajan grade: I Will Be Back.

Barbados may not be the wealthiest country in the Caribbean, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a friendlier place.  Evidently Bajan families still teach manners. Eye contact is welcomed, speaking to strangers is common, and smiling is unavoidable. The only “unfriendly” parts of the country are the few roads that are crowded and narrow with large buses and trucks seemingly flying down the road from the opposite direction… on the wrong side of the road, seemingly trying to force you into the trees.  But even in that environment, Barbados accommodates its tourists.  Locals know that vehicles with an “H” on the vehicle license plates are rental cars, and universally offer a little patience and hospitality to those drivers.  (In some places in the US, that label would be in invitation for locals to rip the drivers off, but in Barbados it was a sign to make the driver welcome)  Everywhere we went, we were met with cheerful greetings, huge smiles, and offers of hospitality.  Given the honest friendliness of Bajan strangers, it should not have been a surprise how warm and welcoming Richard Seale was while  showing off Foursquare Distillery and being so generous with his  time. My visit to Foursquare was by far my favorite memory of the trip.

Tropical beaches and breezes are enough to put a destination on my list of possible retirement homes, but having the chance to tour a couple of distilleries in the birthplace of rum, and particularly having the chance to meet Richard Seale, put Barbados at the top of the list for this year’s winter break.  By the way, Barbados certainly is suitable, but this post is about my Foursquare visit.

In case you didn’t know, Fred Minnick is right; Foursquare Makes the World’s Best  Rum, but I’m afraid I was a little behind in recognizing that truth.  If I had been aware sooner, I’d have a couple of bottles in the Rum Locker which have  instead become my white whales.  I hadn’t really heard about Foursquare until five years or so ago, but that early introduction didn’t make me aware enough to know what to look for or what to buy. Since then I’ve come to agree with Mr. Minnick about the 2006 and I’ve become a follower and collector of every Foursquare product I can get my hands on.  Although I had R.L Seale’s in the Rum Locker for 10 years or so, I didn’t make the connection to the Distillery and its other rums until about 5 years ago.  Telling the story of making the connection will embarrass me again, as I did to by telling it  to Richard, but it’s worth it to digress…

Sometime around 2012 I was looking for bottles of Rhum Agricole to add to the Rum Locker, and was introduced to a brand called 10 Cane. I liked the price (under $25), liked the bottle, and trusted the bar manager who recommended it.  I bought a bottle, tried it, liked it, and bought another.  Then, I learned that I had the “new bottle” design, and  of course then I set off unsuccessfully to find one of the old ones. Surprisingly,  it seemed to have disappeared entirely from my local shops. A little research showed me the brand was created by LVMH, and the French company was having trouble getting returns on their investment.  One hopeful article I read pointed to Foursquare Distillery and Richard Seale as being the chosen savior of the brand as LVMH intended to close production in Trinidad and move it to Barbados and Foursquare.

Everything I found about the move and the status of the 10 Cane Brand heaped praise on Sir David & Richard Seale, and Foursquare. And That’s how I finally made the connection between the fine black bottle with the crooked neck and the distillery it came from.  I have to admit to a bit of confusion about branding… Foursquare, R. L. Seale’s, Doorly’s…  I wasn’t quite sure where to find the spirits that such a fine distillery was producing, nor even exactly what to look for, but I was quite happy with my pretty bottle of R.L. Seale’s 10 Yr Old.  But oh how I wish I had known about the 1998 Exceptional Cask, and the 2006 when it was released.  But at the time, 5 years ago, it was 10 Cane that I was looking for.

I did eventually find a couple of bottles on a clearance table someplace in South Carolina for about $15.  I was resigned as it looked as though 10 Cane had disappeared from shelves everywhere with no press release nor announcement from LVMH what was happening.  So it  was fascinating to me to hear the story from Richard’s perspective.  He had actually been involved with the beginning of the brand long before I had heard of  it.  It was about that point that I wanted to crawl into a hole, as Richard told me I was the first person that had told him I  actually liked the rum. Yeah, that’s right.  I told the person I most respect in the world of rum that a rum he rejected as terrible was one of  my favorites… The worst was hearing how terrible he thought it was after telling him I had looked high and low for it when it disappeared.  Regardless, I was excited to hear the inside story of the phantom rum.  Besides, I’ve been embarrassed before and can take it.

Of course once I got  home I had to pour myself a dram…  I’m not ashamed to like it, but it is entirely unremarkable, it’s not a very good  representation of an Agricole, and is  certainly not in the league with any aged rums, but it’s not the worst pour in the Rum Locker. I’m not going to dump it.  Side by side with any Foursquare rum it loses, but it’s not a sugar bomb and beats Bacardi Superior… which isn’t saying a whole  lot.  Still, I  can see how Richard didn’t want his name and reputation attached to it.  But the experiment with LVMH  can’t be completely disappointing as the groundwork for the project eventually led to a much sought after Foursquare release.  And Foursquare is what I should be talking about.

Wanted to stay until this cane was a 12 year old bottle of rum
More Magic happening inside those barrels

Driving up to Foursquare Heritage Park, depending on which direction you arrive, you’ll pass through fields of enormously tall sugar cane and come upon one of the open ageing warehouses… and yes they do… They do it  right!

The grounds of the distillery are more a park than  they are a manufacturing facility.  Lawns are manicured, the buildings are a mix of modern and historical, and all are well maintained. There are meandering walkways that take you between all of the buildings, a playground for kids and the smells of the magic happening inside are divine. It’s a beautiful place, as you’d expect from a man and company who strive to be environmentally friendly… Yes, They do it right!

Due to an accident on the way to the distillery the road we were on was closed and I had to find a way around.  Thankfully for GPS and Waze (which worked astonishingly well on the roads and paths of the entire island) we were only 10 minutes late for our meeting with Richard. As luck would have it we came upon him right at the entrance to the Modern Distillery, which was originally  the old plantation sugar factory.`

Immediately entering the fermentation room you are enveloped with the unmistakable smell of molasses.  I was struck with the cleanliness of the whole facility, but particularly in the room where the fermentation is going on.  Although the distillery is set up so that  you can self-guide your own tour, we were lucky to have Richard lead the way and narrate through the entire process… Fermentation, Distillation, Ageing, Bottling and shipping. The downside of  having the man himself lead the tour was that I was more focused on what he was saying than in taking the number of photos that I’d have liked, but I am not complaining.

Foursquare’s Columns

Now, the fermentation room was nice, but as some of you know, the real magic in Caribbean Rum is performed through the distillation and ageing of the spirit… Ageing of the Spirit… (even the language of

Foursquare’s Pot Still

rum is spiritual.) So when I saw the signs pointing to the Still and the Alembique, my pulse rate picked up.  I was mildly surprised at how tight the space was around the pot still.  I had a great idea of what the still looked at… and I absolutely love the greens and blues throughout the distillery… but the space was small.  I had  imagined the chance to step back and get a grand photo  of this majestic apparatus… the photo version of the Habitation Velier label… but with a standard lens or even the wider angle lens on the iPhone camera, that view wasn’t possible.  Still there was no mistaking I was looking at the heart of some of the fabulous rums that are sitting in the my Locker.

Richard is understandably en garde about criticism thrown towards Caribbean rum makers, especially from some on the Continent and elsewhere  possessing an unwarranted arrogance.  While explaining Foursquare’s processes he was at times defensive, but at the same time, proud in describing what makes Caribbean Rum, particularly Foursquare Rum, so special.  His passion is unmistakable.  He makes great rum and he knows it.  More importantly, he knows exactly why his rum is great. Richard is as genuine as anyone can be in talking about his craft.  He spoke with full confidence, and without any hint of exaggeration, while explaining the clear superiority of Caribbean Rum.  I agree with him.  Rum has the best story, it’s the best tasting most complex spirit, and the poor former colonies of the West Indies get no  respect for the extraordinary spirits they produce, at least no respect from their self-declared betters in Europe. There’s not an insincere atom in his make-up.  Were I in his shoes, at times I’d be genuinely puzzled that others don’t see the absolute truth in front of them.  He doesn’t think he’s right, he knows it regarding  superior quality and value of the product he produces.  Refreshingly, there’s not a marketer nor salesman walking in his shoes, but a unique and genuine artisan, scientist, and skilled craftsman who cares deeply that he remain true to his ideals. He seems to have the tendency to be overly serious, but judging from the couple of times a knowing smile creased his face, my guess is that he’s simply a bit guarded with acquaintances, and is a bit gregarious around those he’s closest to.   You can tell he genuinely appreciates it when his artistry is enjoyed and his mastery is recognized, as we all do, but it hasn’t made him cocky.  As much as anyone can be both modest and supremely confident, Richard Seale is. 

We talked… that is he spoke, I listened and asked a question or two… and I learned about Foursquare rum making, Caribbean rum making, Caribbean history, charcoal  filtering, ageing after blending, barrel types, history of different barrel types, the decline of the Barbados sugar industry… and so much more.  As I sit here now, I wish there’d been a filmmaker following us around. It was such a pleasure to spend a bit of time with such a smart, creative man who has my utmost respect. I do need another visit to the distillery to walk around and really look at the place, as it seems I may have missed a lot. But I’m deeply grateful for the experience.

I spent so much time concentrating on what he was saying, I missed snapping photos and really taking in the place, equipment, people and things around us.  I did love being around the barrels though.  Having Richard open a just-emptied barrel  for us to smell was a special treat… It’s no wonder that rum has been used so often as a fragrance.  

<sarcasm> I also looked long and hard for the leaky barrels as there should have been hundreds of them, plus there wasn’t a zebra barrel in sight.  </sarcasm>  but what I did see was an amazing sight of countless barrels teasing me with thoughts of the delights that would one day make it to my Rum Locker.

Eventually Richard invited us into his  tasting room for the extra special treat for the day… and it was more than the rum we tasted, it was the chance to sit and talk rum with one  of the true masters. One seemingly insignificant routine made a particular impression on me and has lead me to want a new feature in my next home.  During the time we spent talking and tasting a variety of rums, we kept our same glasses. Before every pour of  a sample, Mr. Seale would poor a small bit into the glass, swirl it around to “rinse” it, and then flick that small bit of rum into the air in front of us.  I want a room that I can just toss rum onto the floor and not be concerned about anything other than enjoying the aroma it produces.

I can’t thank Richard enough for the time spent tasting the whole current line of special rum.  Port Cask, 2004, Zinfandel Cask, 2006, Triptych, Criterion, Principia, Destino, Veritas… Although we weren’t able to buy anything there, I was able to wet my whistle enough to know what I’m looking forward to.  Until that afternoon, 2006 had been my favorite, but I think Fred Minnick may have to reevaluate his best rum in the world article and add a fourth perfect spirit to his list. The Destino was absolutely delightful. I look forward to getting a bottle or two  as soon as possible. And to Richard, I can only express my gratitude for a truly enjoyable and memorable afternoon.  I will be back.

I may not have been able to buy that elusive bottle of the Velier 70th Anniversary Destino with the pretty label, but I didn’t come home empty handed. While I’ll have to wait for the Destino, and while the 2006 remains a white whale for me to chase around the world, take a look at the other goodies that filled a suitcase on the way home. So, thank you Barbados a beautiful island, thank you Foursquare the maker of the world’s finest rum, and thank you Richard Seale, a true gentleman.