A few miles inland from the prime tourist attractions of beaches, restaurants, bars and nightlife, Barbados has a world-leading drinks business of which it can be truly proud.
As hummingbirds dart among the shrubs between the restored centuries-old buildings of a former sugar factory, it can be easy to forget this is a manufacturing campus for premium spirits.
The Foursquare distillery is perhaps an unlikely power base for a rum revolutionary such as Richard Seale, a fourth-generation producer.
This month, opens another chapter in the Foursquare story with the bottling of Principia, his latest premium single blended rum, which comes soon after the brand was named Rum Producer of the Year at the prestigious International Spirits Challenge 2017.
The initial white spirit, derived from molasses and the limestone-filtered water typical of Bajan rum-making, was distilled in 2008. Nine years of maturation have followed, three in ex bourbon and six in former sherry casks. In the 5,400 bottles being filled, it will be a hefty 62 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), and retail at €125 for 70cl.
In the run-up to bottling, Seale is understandably not tempted to speculate too much on the detailed character of Principia from the cask samples he has meticulously monitored. But he does tell me it “is the softest rum I have ever done”.
I expect a complex experience to rival any single-malt whisky, prime cognac or armagnac: a hallmark Foursquare mix of outstanding balance, with wood and spice on the nose, tropical fruits and oak, and a silky mouthfeel.
Seale is deeply aware of the Scottish and Irish heritage of rum-making in Barbados, and in a personal tour of the Foursquare plant is understandably proud of the stills, copper double-retort pot and the twin-column coffey, central to his craft.
He invites me to cup a little 80 per cent distillate in my hands and enjoy the aroma. Despite the high alcohol content, the innate attraction of the sugary sweetness comes through, and he says that is the inherent lure of premium rum.
In 1995 the company, then led by his father and horseracing devotee Sir David, gambled on backing a long-term winner – purchasing a wreck of a sugar factory whose oldest building dates from the early 1700s. The younger Seale readily admits that many people in the trade thought they were crazy. But they had a vision for a site big enough to accommodate every step of premium rum-making.
Maturation happens in barrels in huge open-sided warehouses. While the angels’ share – the amount of alcohol that evaporates – is far bigger in Barbados than, say, in Scotland, maturation is far quicker at the ambient higher temperatures.
Nine years in cask at Foursquare could be equivalent to 27 in a chilly Highlands site. And it now also has a state-of-the-art bottling plant on site, which combines the latest Italian technology with hands-on attention to detail in labelling and presentation.
The business was initially based on acquisitions, particularly Doorly’s rum and John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, a lime-laced alcoholic cordial with almonds and cloves, used in corn’n’oil, a simple cocktail with rum and ice, or to pep up a beer.
Since then, Seale has become an evangelist for a fundamental shift in how rum is perceived and classified. He points out it is ludicrous to lump together the sugary white products at the bottom end of the market with the extraordinary cask expressions that Foursquare and other houses are creating.
He says that the blanket rum classification that persists to this day is as illogical as the chaotic one-label-covers-everything of Scotch 50 years ago. Since then, malt whisky has established itself with sophisticated identities for discerning consumers. Seale longs to see premium rum raised its rightful place in the world pantheon of complex darker spirits alongside great whiskies, cognacs and armagnacs.
He has a true ally and advocate in Luca Gargano, of Velier, an Italian company that is one of the leading independent bottlers of rum.
At the end of my visit, Seale – already fantastically generous with his time, given his hectic schedule at Foursquare and about to travel to New York and then London for rum events – invited me into the Foursquare tasting room.
I was particularly impressed by Triptych, bottled a year ago, and so called because of its maturation in three barrel types: ex bourbon (one year), ex madeira (two) and virgin American oak (nine). Like Principia, it was in a limited run of 5,400 bottles. At 56 per cent ABV, it is to be sipped respectfully – with, as an option, perhaps the tiniest drop of water.
Triptych, a beautiful amber colour, has vanilla and exotic fruits on the nose, and a woody complexity. I told Seale it would be perfect in front of a roaring fire back in England at Christmas time. He seemed content with that.
After Principia, the next premium product from the Foursquare stable is Destino – a name inspired by the shared direction of Seale and Gargano. An initial release of a few hundred bottles of this 14-year-old is planned for November 2018.
Seale, while extremely serious about his craft, easily pokes fun at some of the wider industry’s pretentiousness. He says: “I hate the word ‘finished’. It has become so clichéd. Destino will have had 12 years in ex madeira casks and two in ex rum. So I could say I will be producing a rum-finished rum.”