Rum deal

Drink - Victoria Moore on how to get caned in Barbados

"See that thread of blue smoke coming up between the trees," says the driver, pointing languorously towards the northerly horizon. From the back seat, I can just about make it out. "That's one of the three sugar refineries on the island. And the sugar cane, it's just about ready for harvesting. They'll start on Monday."

We are driving down a narrow lane away from the airport in Barbados. On each side, the sugar cane rises ten feet high, the demerara colour of its woody-looking base yielding to green leafy shoots higher up. When the first settlers landed in Barbados in 1627, sugar - or "white gold", as it came to be called because of the wealth it brought to the island - was in great demand in Europe. Sugar plantations flourished on Barbados's coral soil (the other Caribbean islands are volcanic). Today, sugar cane capable of producing 60,000 tonnes of sugar annually covers 30,000 acres of the island.

According to our driver, most of the sugar cane in Barbados is now harvested by machine. At the Mount Gay rum visitor centre in Bridgetown, the island's capital, they prefer to swaddle the local industry in a blanket of tradition by claiming that it is reaped predominantly by hand. But everyone agrees on one thing: sugar cane is the most important crop. Until the 1990s, when tourism and manufacturing surpassed it, the economy depended on sugar; that being the case, Barbadians are raised virtually from the cradle on the rum made from the island's sugar cane.

White rum, dark rum, golden rum. Rum punch, fruit daiquiris, rum and coke, pina colada, rum with coconut, rum with lime. Jerk chicken, rum cakes, bread-and-butter pudding. Rum was invented in Barbados and, in one guise or another, its thick, almost sweet, vanilla-wood-bitter-almond smell is never far away. It is said that the name of rum (originally called rumbullion) is related to the words "rumbustious" and "rumpus", both of which describe the behaviour of someone who has drunk too much of it.

Rum is made from molasses (or black treacle, if you prefer), a by-product when sugar is refined, which is fermented with yeast and naturally filtered rainwater. When distilled to a firewater of almost pure alcohol, it is as colourless and clear as morning dew. White rum, such as Bacardi, is made by diluting and blending this product. A golden hue comes from the white-oak barrels with charred insides in which it is aged. Often these barrels have been imported from Kentucky, where the bourbon-makers use them only once. Rum-makers are less fastidious and use them five or six times before selling them off at local markets, where the poorest Barbadians snap them up, fill them with water and leave to stand for as long as it takes (usually about three weeks) for the water to leech the last particles of rum out of the oak boards. Then the resultant "swish" is drunk as a kind of rum-lite.

It sounds revolting, but there's no accounting for taste. After all, while coloured rum is somewhat out of fashion in Britain, we do enjoy white rum mixed with coconut in the form of Malibu. Barbados is responsible for that, too: every drop of alcohol in Malibu, although bottled across the world, comes from this small island.

As far as I'm concerned, Malibu is one of the foulest drinks I have ever had the misfortune to taste; however, since it was launched in 1985, thousands, possibly millions, of Britons have not agreed with me. The manager of the visitor centre (a gaudy, plastic and concrete place) at the Malibu distillery in Barbados told me that only the Spanish consume more Malibu per person per year than the British. And watch out, because Malibu is test-marketing a sickly-sweet new drink: Malibu with lime. So far, only the Barbadians and the French are "privileged" to have it, but I can't think that we will go without for long.

It is a long way from the oak-aged rum, Old Brigand, that my taxi-driver confessed was his favourite, and from the "snaps" (shots) of rum that intersperse games of cards and dominoes in rum bars across the island. And thank goodness for that.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you