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The key to Allen
Published:  19 February, 2018

Mount Gay master blender Allen Smith is a history buff whose own ancestorial history is hidden from him. He talks to Hamish Smith about his love for the past and how he came to rum


ALLEN SMITH IS NOT an open book, which makes trying to read him that bit more interesting. Unlike many modern master blenders, who brim with hyperbole and self-aggrandisement, he seems a shy, modest man – in a way that makes you trust what he says and believe that he actually likes to get his hands dirty producing the rum he represents. He is very much the long-serving technical type, whose role has gradually – and possibly begrudgingly – been subsumed by marketing obligation.

Meeting him in London in a swanky new hotel, I get the sense he endures rather than relishes the travel, long-haul dinners and public speaking that his role now demands. But that’s not to say he is grumpy or impolite – Smith seems the agreeable sort who’ll find the good in most situations.

The UK, though, is never a chore to visit, he says. Two of his five children are based there and it is also where he spent a good chunk of his life. You wouldn’t know it from his velvety Bajan accent, but Smith was born in the UK and holds a British passport. He grew up in Jamaica and Barbados but spent his early 20s in Reading, working for a government research institute and studying biochemistry and microbiology.

When he returned to Barbados in 1990, having been away almost a decade, it wasn’t the homecoming you might imagine. There was no extended family waiting for him at the airport – it was meant to be a surprise – only an immigration officer who found a man on a British passport with a one-way ticket and no clear idea of where he intended to live. He was nearly turned away from his own country.

Repatriated, Smith was qualified to the hilt but jobless and poor. A few weeks later though, he found a position in the sugar industry. Not a career but a move that would pave the way for what would be. Smith’s next move was to a lab assistant’s job with Mount Gay Distilleries – that was in 1991. But for a year-long stint with Coca-Cola (“it bored me to tears”), he has been with Mount Gay for the best part of three decades. It’s no wonder his bosses want to parade him around – at 57, Smith is Mount Gay living history.

It’s when the conversation turns to this very subject, history, that Smith’s eyes light up like LEDs. He’s far less interested in his own journey than the journey of rum. Indeed, there are few subjects like it – to talk of rum’s history is to talk of the sugar industry, the colonialisation of the New World and slavery. “I’m a history buff. The history of rum is a fascinating story which impacted so many lives,” he says.