Barbados GI: Heritage matters

Geographical Indicators (GIs) are a hot topic in the global spirits industry, particularly in the Caribbean. Shay Waterworth investigates.

Many argue they protect and add value to a product through provenance and quality guarantee – think Scotch whisky. However some believe they can be restrictive and limit innovation – again, think Scotch. Nevertheless it is far easier to edit an existing GI than it is to establish a new one, particularly when the reputations of existing brands are at stake.

The British colonisation of Barbados in the 17th century was largely driven by the sugar craze in Europe, but following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and the decline of the sugar industry, it was rum production that took over as the island’s most popular commodity.

Originally the local sugar mills made just pot-stilled rums, until German engineer George Stade built the West Indies Rum Refinery in 1893 – later renamed the West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD) – which introduced the column still to Barbados. From the 1930s onwards the exports of Barbados rum began to pick up and to this day WIRD is responsible for the majority of the island’s rum production.

In 1996 the RL Seale company, one of WIRD’s biggest customers at the time, opened the Foursquare Rum Distillery where it now produces its namesake brands as well as other rums including Doorly’s. Alongside these two producers are Rémy Cointreau’s Mount Gay, the oldest commercial rum distillery in the world, and St Nicholas Abbey, a small-scale producer launched in the 2000s.

With just four distilleries on the island, an all-inclusive and productive GI should, in theory, be a straightforward development, but this is far from the case. In late 2019, Mount Gay, Foursquare and St Nicholas Abbey proposed their own GI to the Barbados government, which, according to its regulations, would force WIRD to remove ‘Barbados’ from some of its rum labels.

“Barbados is the birthplace of rum, so it is important that all distilleries using the ‘Barbados rum’ name adhere by the rules and are transparent when it comes to how their rum is crafted,” says Mount Gay MD Raphaël Grisoni.

“There is no restriction against making non-compliant rums, but they would not bear the ‘Barbados rum’ GI name and seal. Rum distilleries across the world look up to Barbados as the industry leader and it is imperative that we continue to be transparent with how our rums are made and stick to those rules within which each distillery can express their style.

“The GI will help the Barbados rum reputation differentiate from non-genuine products, like some today that blend with other provenance rum, add sugars to round the taste, flavour to accentuate vanilla or other flavour profiles, and use rum distilled in Barbados and aged abroad. We open ourselves up to the possibility of having any brand use ‘Barbados rum’ in their name, which will detract from over 300 years of rum-making expertise.