In 2013, when John Watling’s Distillery opened on Nassau’s Buena Vista Estate—a lush former plantation that was featured in the James Bond film “Casino Royale”—it was the only rum distillery in the Bahamas. Four years earlier, Bacardi had pulled its operations from the island, making the Bahamas the only place in the West Indies not producing its own rum.
Pepin Argamasilla, a former global director for Bacardi, saw an opportunity. He, along with four other founders, all from longtime rum-producing families, got to work making the spirit they knew and loved.
John Watling’s Distillery (named for the 16th-century English buccaneer nicknamed The Pious Pirate for his propensity for avoiding plundering or gambling on the sabbath) makes 300 bottles of rum a day. And that’s just the way Argamasilla likes it.
“We’re trying to redefine what Bahamian rum is, with a combination of continuous-still spirits (like the Spanish) and pot-still ones (like the British),” says Argamasilla. “When you taste them, they aren’t as pungent as the English yet still have that pot-still taste in the background.”
Strolling across the manicured lawns dotted with palm trees and into the restored estate, which flaunts a wraparound porch and shutters that match the hue of some of the most stunning waters anywhere in the Caribbean, it’s easy to fall in love with the place. Even more so after you belly up to the mahogany bar at the distillery’s Red Turtle Tavern and taste through the expressions by themselves or in cocktails.
Since the Bahamas doesn’t have a sugar cane industry, two distinct distillates (heavier “firewater” and lighter, more neutral “kill devil”) are sourced from other islands—a fact that Argamasilla is completely transparent and unapologetic about.
“Distillation is all about separating liquids based on science,” he says. “But the art comes in with how it’s manipulated, filtered, blended and aged.” The rums are filtered through local charred coconut husks. The firewater is then aged in American ex-bourbon barrels for up to five years, while the kill devil is sometimes aged along with the firewater to create blend-ready spirits.
But don’t expect to see age statements on bottles, as Argamasilla thinks comparing the rapid aging process on a hot and humid island to that of Scotland or France just isn’t fair. Here, approximately 4 percent is lost each year to the angel’s share, and barrels aren’t topped off.
The end result is four expressions that marry the best of the distilling heritage from several influences. The light-bodied pale rum is aged for two years, with notes of wood, citrus, herbs and sugar cane. The smooth, medium-bodied amber rum sees three years in barrel, with hints of vanilla and walnuts and a spicy finish. The full-bodied single barrel is matured four years and bottled at cask strength of 66.2 percent. And the Buena Vista rum blends rums that are up to five years in age, with a luscious body, rich fruit character and soft warming finish.
And while plastic cups of artificially sweet Bahama Mamas sipped poolside may not leave you with a crafty impression, the Bahamas actually has a storied cocktail culture, formed in part because of the U.S.–Cuban trade embargo.
Starting in 1961, American tourists accustomed to some pretty kick-ass drinks in Havana were forced to find alternative yet similar vacation destinations.
The Nassau Beach Hotel’s perfectly timed opening on Cable Beach a few years prior to the embargo meant that Americans were eager to share recipes from Cuban watering holes they used to frequent, including the Daiquiri, which became ubiquitous on, and synonymous with, the Bahamas.
Today, Daiquiris here run the gamut from the perfectly balanced classic version at the Red Turtle Tavern to fruitier, more colorful ones at spots like The Daiquiri Shack, a breezy, unassuming shack located in Nassau next to a parking lot and an open-air market. Here, photos and postcards from guests completely fill the wood-paneled walls, signed T-shirts hang from the ceiling, and you can just about always hear the blender churning out rum, ice and fresh-fruit Daiquiris. (The mango one is pretty incredible, but the watermelon-lime is the house favorite.)
And then there are rum drinks like the Bossa Nova, created by Nassau Beach Hotel head barman Cecil E. Roberts as an homage to the dance (and listed in “Le Larousse des Cocktails” by Fernando Castellon). It shakes white rum with Galliano liqueur, apricot brandy and pineapple and lemon juice, served in a Collins glass over cracked ice with fruit. Or the Rum Dum, a rum sour created 40 years ago by Wilfred Sands, at that time a bartender at the exclusive Lyford Cay Club in New Providence, who today serves as mixologist at John Watling’s.
Head to resorts on Cable Beach and beyond, and you’ll also find a smattering of elevated rum sips. At Black Angus, the steakhouse at the Mélia Nassau Beach all-inclusive resort, the Bahamian Pasión is a mélange of tangy, sweet and vanilla notes, shaking John Watling’s amber rum with lime, passion fruit and cane sugar.
But if a trip to the islands isn’t in the cards right now, you can always whip up authentic concoctions during a staycation, as John Watling’s just launched online U.S. sales.