29 Sep 2009Blog

Island warmth, flavour and spirit

by Philip Watson

Barbados’s rum shops are the perfect distillation of the island’s warmth, flavour and spirit. There are 1200 or so around the island, mostly housed in old, brightly painted chattel houses, and they are much more than simply local bars.

First licensed on the island in 1652, shortly after rum was first manufactured, rum shops have often been family owned for generations and they perform many functions: as well as serving alcohol, they are part grocery shop, restaurant, beach cafe, music venue, meeting place and community centre.

Rum is a definitively social drink in the Caribbean, and in rum shops you buy the spirit in different sized bottles, not by the glass, to make it easier for sharing. The atmosphere is at once friendly, laid-back and egalitarian. This is where the fisherman hangs out with the local police chief, the electrician with a national politician.

Like in any good bar or pub, conversation is paramount, with talk often turning to the major issues of the day. Cricket and politics are rum shop staples; debates are respectful though often passionate and lively. It’s fun to just stand by and listen.

My favourite place to drink rum on Barbados is John Moore’s bar in Weston in the west coast parish of St James.

One of the oldest rum shops on the island, the bar is located just along the beach from a fish market that supplies its small kitchen with fresh flying fish, snapper and kingfish. You can’t miss it; the shop is emblazoned in the red and white colours of its commercial sponsor – ironically enough, Smirnoff vodka.

John Moore has a convivial front bar that serves the island’s local Banks beer as well as fine rums such as Foursquare’s Old Brigand, Cockspur Five Star and Mount Gay Extra Old. The staff here also mix a mean rum punch.

There is almost always a good mix of regulars, locals, travellers and visitors. So popular was the bar with former Barbadian prime minister Owen Arthur that at weekends, rather than staying in his official residence in Bridgetown, he often used to hang out here.

The menu includes local dishes such as pepper pot, cou-cou, salt fish, split peas and rice and sweet potatoes. John Moore also occasionally serves “pudding and souse”, a traditional Bajan dish comprising the head and trotters of a pig that are boiled and then pickled with onion, cucumber and pepper.

Caribbean games such as draughts, warri, and especially dominoes are played in the back room. You’ll know if a game of dominoes is in full swing; counters are slapped down onto vinyl-topped tables like exploding firecrackers.

Philip Watson, contributing editor, Esquire, London