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.
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.