Words by: Jane Ryan
At the helm of one of the oldest rum brands in existence is Master Blender Allen Smith. Spending his days on the small island of Barbados, he's been looking after Mount Gay's maturation and blending for the past 20 years. Whilst overseeing the heritage and craft of the rum, Allen also drives the brand forward, experimenting and creating new expressions. His latest is the newly launched Mount Gay Black Barrel.
"There is no average day for me. I don't go into the same office and do the same job day in, day out. Which is what makes my job so interesting, and worthwhile. Under the overarching brand of Mount Gay I wear a lot of different hats; sometimes I'm looking at samples, checking how the rum is aging, other days I can be found in the lab, researching and developing new styles and expressions.
The Caribbean is my home, I grew up in Jamaica and even though I left in 1981 for university in England, I always wanted to come home. Having studied biochemistry and microbiology I ended up staying in the UK until 1990 when I decided to come back and make a future on one of the islands.
I bought a one way ticket to Barbados, where I had lived as young boy for three years till 1967. I didn't exactly dive straight into work, after nearly ten years in the UK I decided to have a two month holiday, which I spent enjoying the Caribbean sunshine, before I saw a job ad for an assistant in the laboratory at Mount Gay. Did I know about rum before I landed the job? I grew up in Jamaica so yes, I definitely knew about rum. Especially the drinking part of it.
My first day at Mount Gay was 20 years ago now. Time has flown by so quickly that I don't think about the years I've been here. With Mount Gay there has been so much scope for development that I had the chance to grow. A lot of my work I've learnt from personal experience here and from my time in the lab, I also learnt a lot under Jerry Edwards, the previous Master Blender. And we take feedback from experts and most importantly the people who drink our spirits.
Being a Master Blender has so many facets, but easily my favourite part of the job is creating new products. We do a lot of product development, now more so than ever. Once I know what the marketers and experts are looking for, when they see the gap in the market, then it's very easy to start running. Of course I do my own developments and hope that someday soon I'll have created a blend that the market is ready and waiting for. I've certainly got a few tricks up my sleeve.
How I drink Mount Gay is very reflective of what mood I'm in. For sipping quietly I'll have an XO on the rocks. If I'm out and about enjoying Barbados's night life I'll have Black Barrel with ginger. The culture here has really embraced cocktails, especially in the hotels, and it's interesting to see my rums being used as a catalyst for great drinks.
People in the Caribbean do drink rum, I know it gets said we all thrive on imported spirits like whisky and cognac but rum is the main spirit. If they have a choice and want more expensive imported stuff then we'll enjoy other categories. It is a social thing though. At a local watering hole you'll see Caribbean people sat around, discussing life, politics, anything really, and they're all sipping on shots of rum. Obviously in the tourist-style clubs it's the other extreme.
Mount Gay has been around for 300 years, so there's a big legacy to live up to. But I hope my part of this legacy is more than one product. I'm hoping for more than that. Never sleep, never rest on your laurels just because once you've done something. That said, I'm intensely proud of Black Barrel.
At the end of the day rum is produced all over the world, and the majority of it is very similar. With Black Barrel I was looking for a taste that was fresh, exciting and had a lot to offer rum drinkers as well as bourbon drinkers, whisky drinkers and cognac drinkers. I wanted a rum that would mix well in cocktails and could be enjoyed by everyone, so it's fair to say that Black Barrel is the result of a lot of work, both from myself and my team.
When I'm not aging and blending rum I really enjoy table tennis. I used to play football and cricket but nowadays I'm mostly a spectator of those sports. I'm not the world's worst table tennis player, I'm in the second division, but I love the game, there are no worries when you're concentrating, it's all about your hand-eye coordination and technique. I cook every Sunday and the kids always look forward to my meals. So that's what I do, watch the kids grow up, go to the beach, enjoy the Caribbean life.
I love what I do, and Mount Gay is a company I'd like to reach retirement working for. After that, well in Barbados, anything could happen."