It is only fitting that in the birthplace of rum, you will find a place especially designed for you to fully embrace and indulge in a glass of the liquid gold. That place is the Barbados rum shop. It is regarded as a Barbadian institution, and these shops dot the landscape of the island. In every parish and community, rum shops can be found, serving a variety of rums and other spirits from Barbados and around the world. However, the role and lure of the rum shop transcend commercial activity, and it is a place alive with the culture of the Caribbean rum and Barbados.
The History and Characteristics
It is estimated that there are over 1500 Barbados rum shops on the island, and the history of these shops dates back almost 300 years. Understandably, the development of rums from Barbados and the rum trade on the island has had a symbiotic relationship with the local means of distribution. At its inception, a rum shop was a tiny bar, in the form of either a stand-alone building or attached to the owner’s house, operating as a means of providing supplemental income to the household.
Physically the stand-alone rum shops are very distinguishable. Apart from the signage and name, which was usually associated with the owner, the structure mimics that of the Barbadian chattel house.
Chattel houses are built in an iconic architectural style, that dates back to the post-emancipation era on the island. During this period, workers on the plantations had to find a means of providing shelter for themselves and their families.
The tall gabled roof was standard as well as the three doors at the front that made up the entrance. The colours were usually bright or an odd hue which made it stand out. On the inside, basic trappings were used. A counter for serving, maybe a few bar stools and on the shelves - a variety of Caribbean Rums and other liquor. As years passed, the shops added to their features, primarily in the form of branding. Major alcohol distributors would brand these shops with their logos and colours. Additionally, the proprietors depending on their shops’ popularity made improvements to the physical space by adding more seating, offering entertainment and food.
Although we have established that most rum shops in Barbados carry specific architectural characteristics, each shop, on more in-depth inspection, has its own unique personality. This personality and uniqueness is shaped mostly by the owner, the location and its expected patrons. Furthermore, each shop is traditionally known for a particular feature. For instance, one shop may be famous for karaoke, another for its food while another may be known for the people. Like any other commodity, depending on what you are in the mood for, there is a rum shop to satisfy your needs.
What can you find at a Barbados rum shop?
One thing for sure is that you can find rum at the rum shops in Barbados, filled with Caribbean rum brands, in all shapes and sizes from a wide range of islands - but quite naturally the local brands are most popular. One should know, however, that unlike other bars where you order drinks primarily by the glass, at the Rum Shop you traditionally buy the bottle. Each size has been given a unique name, for instance, a 'Mini' is the smallest size, followed by the 'Flask' and then the 'Pint and a Half'.
It is also common to see a group of friends sharing a flask, starting with one bottle. If tradition is followed, each friend gets an opportunity to buy one, then one flask of Barbados rum will turn into many.
Apart from the Barbados rum and the other strong liquor, you will find an assortment of sodas (or as Bajans like to call them, “soft drinks”) snacks & cutters. Now, it has been established that certain 'soft drinks are used as a mixer or what is called a 'chaser'. The popular choices are cola, ginger ale, tonic water and water. However, feel free to experiment until you find the combination that you like.
A cutter is something else that you will commonly find! It’s not a knife or a utensil! It is a sandwich, where the sliced bread is replaced by something like a large flavourful dinner roll and your choice of filling. At the rum shop, typical filling options are cheese (not the kind you get at home) fishcakes, fish, or Bajan ham. The food options have changed over time but still, hold to Barbadian tradition in terms of Bajan favourites. As the locals would say, you need a good “base” to soak up the rums from Barbados. Therefore, you will find rice & peas, macaroni pie, baked pork, chicken, beef stew and local fish. On Saturdays, the Barbadian delicacy Pudding and Souse is also popular. But whatever your choice you are guaranteed a hearty, delicious meal at reasonable prices.
The third most important thing you will find at the shop ( let's be honest Rum takes the number 1 spot, followed closely by food) is the expression of Barbadian Culture. Beyond the serving of drinks and food, the rum shop serves as a keeper and promoter of the Barbadian way of doing things. Many robust debates have been had while drinking rum. Politics, of course, makes up the bulk of the conversations, however, local gossip filters through. If you want to know about anything or anyone in the village, true or not, the rum shop in the area is the keeper of all knowledge. Despite the intensity of the debates though, it does not take away from the friendliness of the staff and patrons, who have grown accustomed to the antics, arguments and noise and hold firm to the notion that when all is said and done we all just came to 'drink ah rum’.
The Bajan Rum Shop, a structural feature on the Barbadian landscape, intertwined in the social fabric of its culture. Men became boys there, and topics were debated there, friendships that last a lifetime started there. More importantly, the culture of a people is kept safe there.
Best Rum Shops on the Island
To recommend the best Barbados rum shop would start a massive debate, one which should be held at one of the shops - while drinking Barbados rum. However, some have risen in popularity over time and have become regular watering holes for visitors and locals. Here are ten that you should pay a visit to on your next trip to the island.
The Bush Bar - Pile Bay, St Michael (off Spring Garden Highway)
The Bay Tavern - Martins Bay, St Joseph
St Elmo's Bar - Moon Town, Half Moon Fort, St Lucy
Fisherman's Pub - Queen Street, Speightstown, St Peter
John Moore's Bar - Weston, St. James (Highway 1)
Lexie's Bar - Oistins, Christ Church (fish vendors market)
Hercules Bar - Oistins, Christ Church
Braddy's Bar - Six Men's, St. Peter
Kermit’s Bar - Thornbury Hill, Christ Church
The Village Bar (aka Lemon Arbor) - Lemon Arbor, St. John
It is truly an experience that one should have when visiting Barbados, it is good fun with great people and even better rum.