New Mount Gay Series Returns to Rum’s Roots
After a short but intense marketing campaign teasing a surprise years in the making, Mount Gay has announced the first annual release of the Single Estate Series. It’s essentially a sibling to the Master Blender Series, which are also annual releases of limited availability rums at a premium price. The first Single Estate release ticks all the boxes for rum geeks, and we’ll look at all the technical specs shortly. But to truly understand the Single Estate series, brushing up on some essential backstory is important.
Back to the Future
As you’d expect with “Single Estate” in the name, all of the sugarcane used to make this series will originate on Mount Gay-owned land adjoining the distillery.
While some view “single estate” as a marketing buzzword, it’s somewhat amusing to realize that for the first two centuries it was made, all Caribbean rum was single estate. From the 1600s to the 1800s, thousands of sugarcane estates populated the Caribbean colonies, each focusing on producing crystalized sugar. Rum was an adjunct crop to sugar production, and whatever money came from rum sales typically went toward the estate’s operating expenses. The typical estate consisted of agricultural land, a sugar mill, a boiling house, and a small rum distillery. Everything was self-contained; the sugarcane grown at the estate was processed entirely within the estate.
From the mid-1800s onward, Caribbean sugarcane economics and the self-contained estate model came under immense economic pressure. Sugar made from beets started economically competing with Caribbean cane sugar and induced a sea change in Caribbean rum distilling and sugar production. The sugar glut caused prices to drop and made many Caribbean estates unprofitable.
Concurrently, the Industrial Revolution brought massive improvements in the efficiency and scale of sugarcane processing. Large central factories using the latest technology processed the sugarcane from dozens of small estates surrounding the factory. Sugarcane estates that once did everything in-house gave way to streamlined specialization. Farmers sold their sugarcane crops to the central sugar factories. Much of the molasses byproduct from central sugar factories was sold to rum distilleries far bigger than any single estate could operate. In many cases, the sugar factories operated an adjacent rum distillery themselves.
Since this sea change started in the mid-1800s, Caribbean sugarcane economics have been brutal for farmers and mill owners. With depressing regularity, another Caribbean sugarcane factory ceases operations, unable to compete with sugar from Central America or farther afield. When this happens, fewer and fewer Caribbean rum makers have a direct agricultural connection to their molasses.
To highlight just how dire things have become, Appleton recently shuttered its sugar factory that supplied the adjacent distillery with molasses. Likewise, Guyana’s sugar factories once supplied Demerara Distillers with all the molasses they required while also exporting molasses to distillers in other countries. Today, Demerara Distillers must augment its locally-made molasses with imported molasses. Similar tales have played out in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, St. Lucia, and other Caribbean locales.
All of the above highlights that Caribbean sugarcane agriculture isn’t something a rum producer jumps into lightly. When factoring in all their end-to-end costs, Mount Gay will pay substantially more for their estate-grown molasses than they can purchase it for on the open market. However, such an agricultural investment may be profitable if they can turn that molasses (or cane syrup) into a product that commands a high enough price. What’s a sufficiently high price? We’ll return to that later.
As a quick aside, it’s interesting to note that all four Barbados distilleries (Mount Gay, West Indies Rum Distillery, Foursquare, and St. Nicholas Abbey) own their sugar milling equipment and have guaranteed access to annual sugarcane crops. While each is taking a somewhat different approach, it’s clear that they all see value in using local sugarcane, even if it may cost more upfront.
Setting the Stage for Single Estate
The Single Estate series was an audacious eight-year project that started shortly after Rémy Cointreau purchased the Mount Gay distillery in 2014. (Rémy purchased the Mount Gay brand in 1989.) I learned of Mount Gay’s single estate ambitions during a 2019 press trip where we toured the Oxford Plantation land that adjoins Mount Gay’s land. Between 2014 and 2015, Rémy Cointreau purchased both the Oxford and original Mount Gay lands. In 2015, the company planted sugarcane on 190 acres; the first harvest was in 2016.
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While a small cane mill adjoining the distillery was also part of Rémy Cointreau’s plans, it would take several years to build and bring online. Thus, for its initial harvests, Mount Gay worked with the Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC) to have their sugarcane processed at the Port Vale sugar factory, 14 kilometers to the south. According to Mount Gay’s master blender, Trudiann Branker, Mount Gay held off its sugarcane harvest until Port Vale was nearly done for the season. Mount Gay’s sugarcane that entered Port Vale emerged as “first boil” molasses containing more fermentable sugar than the “blackstrap” grade molasses that distilleries typically use.
Mount Gay’s sugar mill, which adjoins the distillery, finally came online in 2022. In a Zoom call with journalists, Branker stated that their mill can process up to 7 tons of sugarcane per hour compared to 120 tons at Port Vale. It’s safe to assume that the first release of a rum using only molasses made at Mount Gay’s mill will be a subsequent release in the Single Estate series. When it happens, Mount Gay will have finally come full cycle back to its past, with all aspects of the rum’s production happening within eyesight of the distillery.
It’s important to note here that this doesn’t mean all Mount Gay rum will eventually originate from the company’s sugarcane fields. Far from it! The amount of molasses available from Mount Gay’s land is a tiny fraction of the distillery’s overall needs. Even if Mount Gay used all the sugarcane currently grown on Barbados, it would likely be a stretch to keep Mount Gay’s stills running at capacity.
23 | 01 | Bn_Qa
With the Single Estate backstory suitably covered, let’s move on to the salient details of this first Single Estate Series release. The label eschews an easy-to-remember name for the cryptic “23|01|Bn_Qa”. We can assume that 23 is the year of release (2023) and that 01 indicates the first release in the series. As for the Bn_Qa, rumor has it that Bn may be short for "Bourbon,” as in ex-bourbon cask, while Qa may be “Quercus Alba,” the Latin name for white oak. Go figure…
23 | 01 | Bn_Qa is a blend of two rums, both pot distilled using molasses from the 2016 and 2017 harvests. In both cases, the fermentation was 9 days, which Branker noted is slightly longer than typical. Both distillates went into ex-bourbon casks, with the 2016 distillate aging for six years and the 2017 distillate aging for five. The rum was diluted to 55 percent ABV during blending, and no chill filtering took place. It’s exactly how I’d expect the Mount Gay team to showcase their new estate molasses: simple, straightforward, and without extraneous flourishes.
As for how it tastes, 23 | 01 | Bn_Qa doesn’t deviate too sharply from prior pot distilled releases from the distillery. It comes across as somewhat floral and fruity notes with just a slight undercurrent of heavier pot still notes. If big, beefy pot distilled rums like those made at Demerara Distillers, Hampden Estate, and Long Pond are your jam, you may find this rum a little on the lighter side despite its 55% ABV strength. But don’t get me wrong, it’s delightful to sip. Give it a few minutes to open up, and you may wonder if you’re tasting orange creamsicle.
To double-check my taste memory, I tasted it side-by-side with the 2019 Master Blender Collection (2nd Release), which is also pot distilled and issued at 48% ABV. The 23 | 01 | Bn_Qa is crisper, brighter, and more floral to my palate. However, if you like pot still heft, the 2019 release is oilier and may be more to your liking. That said, this isn’t a true apples-to-apples comparison, as the 2019 Master Blender release aged for roughly twice as long.
Branker noted that approximately 24 casks were used to age this rum. While 1,200 bottles are destined for the US market, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests those 24 casks would yield around 7,500 700 ml bottles at 55% ABV.
The 23 | 01 | Bn_Qa’s suggested retail price is $400 in the US. To put that in context, Mount Gay’s recent PX Sherry cask (Master Blender Collection) aged for 20 years and has a retail price of $270. And while prices have risen since its release, the Pot Distilled 2019 Master Blender Collection currently retails for around $200 and is pot distilled and aged 10 years, although bottled at a slightly lower ABV.
Does estate-grown grade A molasses justify the 23 | 01 | Bn_Qa’s $400 cost? That’s a question each potential buyer must assess. However, I know several rum enthusiasts who will snap up these bottles as soon as they’re available this November.
For a deeper look at early Caribbean sugarcane estate history and how the Industrial Revolution and sugar economics changed rum making, see Chapter 2 of Modern Caribbean Rum.