Cigar and Spirits — Gary Sheffield Special Edition
Change Language:
Allen Smith & Mount Gay Rum
Helen Gregory

Barbados is synonymous with the history of rum, and one rum in particular: Mount Gay. A rum crafted from the pristine sugarcane and coral-filtered water that has long made Barbados a haven for rum lovers. If there is a person who embodies the spirit of rum today it is Master Blender Allen Smith, a Barbadian who comes as close to rum royalty as anyone who works with this glorious spirit. Smith shared with us what it takes to make one of the world's most award-winning rums and to carry forth the legacy of rum in the birthplace of this treasured spirit.

Smith has been with Mount Gay since 1990. He has received the world’s most distinguished awards for his accomplishments with Mount Gay, but like the spirit that he has crafted for over 20 years, Smith brings strength of character and purpose to his work that transcends a quest for awards and feels more timeless. Mount Gay Rum, the oldest brand of professionally distilled rum, has been made in Barbados since 1703, and is, as Smith reminds us, “not just any rum, this is the world’s best.” Smith is keenly aware of the responsibility he carries as Master Blender for this storied estate. “This means a lot to me,” he reveals, “it is a reflection of the complete trust in one’s ability to deliver our rums consistently, and to develop new products.”

Smith’s sense of pride extends over centuries of tradition. Barbados is blessed with the perfect climate to grow sugarcane and the perfect water filtered through the island’s coral reef bed. First planted in 1637, sugar thrives in the exceptional Barbadian climate, basking in sunshine and swayed by cool breezes. By 1720, Barbados, the “Rum Island,” had become the principal producer of sugarcane, and one of the richest colonies in the world.

Local planters learned to transform the finest cane into “liquid gold,” the rich, fragrant molasses that becomes rum. Sailors travelling across the Atlantic would return to ports worldwide with barrels of Mount Gay Rum as a trophy for making the long sea voyage – and as proof of their good taste. After three centuries of experience, Smith’s unique understanding of rum has been passed down through generations of skilled hands before him.

“It’s no secret,” shares Smith, “the art of making great rum lies in the hands of the blender.” Blending is a signature of fine spirits the world over; rum in cask, just like a fine cognac, scotch or bourbon, acquires a signature character and flavor profile that is the mark of excellence. Smith continues, “The art of blending rum is the ability to combine different types and maturities of spirits so that the characteristics of each are expressed to the desired extent, while the liquid as a whole remains harmonious and appealing.”

And blended rum from oak casks is what Mount Gay is all about. A visitor to the home of Mount Gay in the serene northern parish of St. Lucy will be impressed by the science of distillation. Mount Gay is one of the few distillers to combine column and pot still distillation, to achieve a balance of intense, deep, rich extraction with more delicate, nuanced flavors. But really, it is the barrel room that takes one’s breath away. Smith notes, “We are a relatively small producer in the grand scheme of things, but our products are still made in the traditional way.”

A respect for tradition requires patience. Mount Gay is aged in Kentucky white oak casks formerly used in the production of Bourbon whiskey, lightly charred to impart a precise balance of sweet oak, smoky flavor and rich amber color. Hundreds of oak casks marked in chalk with the age and profile of the blend lie stacked in neat rows, waiting for the hand of the blender to marry their contents with one another.

With casks as old as 40 years, the air is permeated with the fresh smell of evaporated spirit, as Barbados jealously reclaims a portion of her famed rum every day. The heat and humidity of the Caribbean (a year of aging in Barbados takes two to three times longer in Scotland), brings even more urgency to Smith’s talent as a blender and acute awareness of his surroundings.

One of Smith’s greatest accomplishments, and a jewel in the crown of the Mount Gay portfolio, is Mount Gay Rum Extra Old. Smith speaks of this marque in highly personal terms. A voluptuous spirit, Mount Gay Rum Extra Old is a perfect example of the finesse that only time can bring; a blend of 8 to 15-year old rums, the color is amber-brown with brilliant highlights. A slightly smoky aroma that recalls charred Kentucky barrels is followed by sweet, fruity notes such as banana, and mature spice aromas of sandalwood, amber, and cedar balanced with chocolate and mocha.

The culmination of over three centuries of tradition, Mount Gay Rum Extra Old is a rum to be savored with a cigar of equal pedigree. Which cigar will match best? According to cigar pairings expert Michael Herklots, Executive Director of Retail and Brand Development for Nat Sherman: “Rum is one of my all-time favorite spirits to pair with a cigar.”

Herklots finds inspiration in the warm, complex aroma of Mount Gay Rum Extra Old, served neat. “Though wonderfully smooth on the palate, there is a natural heat affect when enjoying any high alcohol spirit. To embrace the rum’s character, and find a match that goes hand in hand, you need to find a cigar that can stand up to the strength of the rum’s alcohol, but won’t overpower the nuances of flavor.”

“I’d recommend some of the more popular Nicaraguan cigars of today.” Mr. Herklots continues, “These cigars tend to be more linear in nature, as they tend to utilize only (or mostly) Nicaraguan tobaccos in their blends, delivering common characteristics that are richer and fuller bodied in nature. The typical flavors of Nicaraguan-based blends are frequently earthier, darker notes, as well as spiciness, coffee and cocoa. In this example, the flavors of the cigars should more than likely fill in the blanks of the rum’s flavors while still holding up in strength. If you want something that requires a little less attention, opt for a fuller bodied cigar with a Connecticut Broad leaf Maduro wrapper. The natural sweetness of this great tobacco will embrace the sweetness of the rum, while allowing the other flavors to still provide a ‘dialogue’ on the palate.”

Allen Smith’s advice holds as true for cigar pairing as it does for his overarching philosophy: “We operate on a very simple principle. In this business, traditional is best.”

Mount Gay Rum Extra Old can be savored as a sipper well into the night, or blended into a favorite cocktail. For a tribute to the Barbadian spirit try the “Old Bajan” or “Mount Gay Punch Royal.”

"These two original Mount Gay cocktail creations are from celebrated cocktail historian and writer David Wondrich"

Old Bajan

Some boats are more, let’s say, “comfortable” than others. This simple variation on the Old-Fashioned makes a cocktail that is more luxury motor yacht than sloop-rigged cruiser.

Place 3 or 4 ice cubes in a rocks glass.

1 ½ oz. Mount Gay Rum Extra Old

½ oz. Cointreau

2 dashes Angostura bitters

2 oz. Brut Champagne or Sparkling Wine

Place 3 or 4 ice cubes in a rocks glass. Stir in ingredients. Top with sparkling wine and twist a thin-cut swatch of lime peel over the top.

Mount Gay Rum Punch

This traditional recipe that serves 6-10 people incorporates lemon oil, port wine and, of course, Barbados rum, a favorite then and now. The result is rich, smooth and very festive, whatever the occasion.

16 oz. (2 cups) Mount Gay Extra Old Rum

8 oz. (1 cup) ruby port*

4 oz. (½ cup) superfine sugar (“Sugar in the Raw”)

4 oz. (½ cup) fresh-squeezed, strained lemon juice (the juice of 3-4 lemons)

16 oz. (2 cups) cold water

The peel of 2 lemons, each cut in a ½-inch wide spiral with a vegetable peeler (try to get only the peel and not the white pith)

1 whole nutmeg

A quart-sized block of ice or large ice cubes

In a gallon-sized punch- or mixing-bowl, muddle the lemon peels and the sugar together and let sit for at least 90 minutes. Juice the lemons and enough more to yield 4 oz. (½ cup) of strained juice. Muddle the peels again and add the lemon juice, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add the rum, the wine and the water and stir again. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. To serve, add a 1-quart block of ice to punch bowl (or add large ice cubes to individual glasses) and grate ¼ of a whole nutmeg over the top. Ladle into small cups.

A dry red wine may be used instead of the port, in which case a little more sugar may have to be added, to taste.