Photo courtesy of John Watling's
Photo courtesy of John Watling’s

Five years ago, the rum well ran dry in the Bahamas.

Bacardi’s, which operated a distillery in the capital of Nassau for nearly a half-century, shut down its facility, leaving the Bahamas as the only country in the West Indies that didn’t produce its own rum.

Fortunately, the situation has been remedied with the 2013 launch of John Watling’s, a boutique rum distillery named after a notorious 18th century British buccaneer.

The opening of the family-run distillery, whose five owners are cousins –– including two sets of brothers –– is part of a renewed local focus on the drink. In February, I attended Nassau’s inaugural Rum Festival, where I discovered Watling’s, currently sold only within the Bahamas. Plans are underway for the festival, which featured music, local food and extensive rum tastings, to return for its second edition in 2015.

After sampling the Watling’s products at the festival, I wanted to get a first-hand look at where it’s produced: a more than 200-year-old estate overlooking the city’s downtown harbor.

The Buena Vista estate was built for John Brown, who served as King George III’s counsel for the Bahamas, then changed hands many more times over the next century-and-a-half. By the late 1940s, it had become a hotel and restaurant that proved a popular draw for celebrities from the entertainment and political worlds, notably Joan Crawford, Robert F. Kennedy and Robert Mitchum.

Photo by Nicole Pensiero
Photo by Nicole Pensiero

The property also served as the location for scenes in the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale, starring Daniel Craig. By the time Bond left, the estate had fallen into considerable disrepair, necessitating a 16-month restoration to bring it back to its former elegance. The place now sports an Old World vibe, from decorative touches such as vintage World War I recruitment posters for the British forces, to the fact that it lacks Wi-Fi or electrical outlets to charge electronic devices.

I enjoyed perusing a self-guided exhibit on the history of the Bahamas and the property itself, seeing where the hand-crafted rum is bottled and checking out unique touches, like a 74-foot-deep limestone well believed to have been carved by slaves in the late 1700s.

The expansive gift shop of course features the distillery’s three styles of rum –– Pale, Amber and Buena Vista –– along with souvenir items like glassware, tote bags and T-shirts. Even better is to taste the rum in action, whether through various libations at the facility’s Red Turtle Tavern bar, which holds a weekly Friday night happy hour, or paired with a meal in the lunch-only eatery, Crave. (A high-end restaurant is also in the works for the building’s second floor.)

As John Watling’s co-owner Pepin Argamasilla told me, the goal is to get visitors to “slow down, relax and have an actual conversation with each other.”

It worked for me.

2 replies on “Nassau: Rum Returns to the Bahamas”

  1. We “stumbled” upon Watlings last May while on a cruise.We met Pepin and he led us to the Rum Promised Land! We have since made it a point to cruise to Nassau as often as we can and will be there next week. The Buena Vista estate is beautiful and begs you to stay awhile and relax while having some libation. We know everyone by name and are greeted warmly whenever we return. We call this our home away from home

  2. we went to see this during a cruise on the Carnivel Pride Feb7-14th, the cruise sucked was cold and rough all but a few days, and was only really warm(in the low/mid 70’s) 1 day…

    but the Rum was AMAZING, well the 5 year old rum is, its $55 a bottle or around $106 for 2(10% discount for buying 2), well worth it, and im not much of a drinker, this rum has its own flavor thats very noticeable when you sample it in their bar.

    you can sample all 3 rums for $6.50 or each one for $3.50 each…. my advice is to get the 3 pack, have a couple/few people with you, each of you sample the rum, a “slurp” where you get the flavor allover your tong is great…

    the drinks in the bar are 50% rum or more….then whatever else goes in it…what we did was all sampled the rums, each got a drink, then…after everbody sampled we each put one of the extra rums in our drinks though the 5yo stuff was the most enjoyed as it truly is a craft item and has its own uniq flavor…and was mostly sampled up….

    of my party of 4(my parents and uncle) had a good time….the distillery is a much better experiance then the straw market…much more relaxed….but the around the outside of the straw market..there are some truly amazing craft items, stuff made from wood carved right there..from figures of animals and creatures to walking sticks/staffs….wish i had more spending money for the trip… ALWAYS HAGGLE….dont go if you cant haggle…

    oh one last tip for this visit, take a cab, i was told by a group we met there, who had taken a cab, that it was 15-20usd round trip…perhaps less if you get your driver a drink at the bar…

    its much safer and more enjoyable NOT to walk it(we walked it…well i was on a mobility scooter due to health issues…but it was still…not really a fun walk/scoot…to many cars and crazy drivers…)

    we decided if we do that trip again, we will take a cab.

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