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There’s something poetic about rum: ambrosia squeezed from the cane’s rugged stalk, perfume of the Tradewinds captured in a glass, nectar as dark and seductive as a tropical night. Ever since a Barbadian entrepreneur first commercialized it in the 17th century, the spirit has symbolized bravado and panache—everything from the swaggering buccaneer’s swill to the fuel for the jungle juice you mixed in college dorm rooms.
Regardless of what your impression of the spirit is, there’s no denying that modern rum is in a class of its own. In fact, top-shelf picks like Mount Gay 1703, vie with the likes of Pappy Van Winkle or Laphroaig for complexity, refinement, and sheer sensory indulgence. To sip superb rum is to unravel a riddle on your palate, to discover notes as varied as pipe tobacco, cinnamon, orange peel, and gardenia flowers. And, for my money, the very best rum still comes from its place of origin: Barbados.
ABV: 43 percent (86 proof)
Where it’s available: Available online via Reserve Bar
Mount Gay’s 1703 Master Select
No one knows who first figured out how to ferment sugarcane juice into booze, but Sir John Gay Alleyne, a 17th-century British settler in Barbados, was the first to study, systematize, and refine the craft of rum-making in a modern sense. John Gay intuited that Barbados, with its excellent water, breezy climate, and lush soil, would be the ideal island to elevate rum, previously deemed crude fire water, into a spirit as noble as the whiskeys he knew back in England. Mount Gay Rum, John Gay’s legacy, proves that his bet was right.
Today, Mount Gay is one of the most recognizable spirits brands—in large part for its sponsorship of the America’s Cup, the world’s premier sailing regatta. Helmed by Trudiann Branker, Mount Gay’s first female master blender, Mount Gay’s collection covers a wide range of styles with rums ranging from white, aged, spiced, and rum creams. And while a bottle of Mount Gay Black Barrel or XO will make any rum aficionado wax eloquent, the distillery’s pièce de résistance is the 1703 Master Select, which is a blend of exceptional vintages each at least 10 years old.
“1703 Master Select is sophisticated and elegant rum, and I’m proud to have signed my name to the collection,” Branker says. “Unlike our other Mount Gay expressions, 1703 was a limited annual release. As time goes on, this bottle will be harder and harder to find, so if you see one, pick it up!”
The mystique of 1703 Master Select begins with the island’s special spring water. While most of the Caribbean consists of either volcanic islands or sandy atolls, Barbados sits atop an enormous pile of ancient coral. This coral-derived subsoil, microscopically porous, filters rainwater exceptionally well, removing impurities while adding minute levels of desirable minerality. Barbados is less suitable than other islands for large-scale sugarcane production, but a few delicate heirloom varieties take to Bajan soil better than anywhere else. A hand-selected sugarcane harvest from Barbados and nearby islands makes a clear distillate that turns a dark amber hue after aging for years in American oak barrels. These rums are then blended with painstaking care into 1703 Master Select.
What does 1703 Taste like?
1703 pours a deep copper color in the glass, with twinkles of red and gold in the light. The first whiff teleports you to a breezy Caribbean beach, with elegant notes of vanilla, banana, and mocha tantalizing the olfactory nerves. Less prominent are subtle aromas of apricot, spearmint, and tropical flowers. On the palate, a symphony of raisins, spice, and toast flavors unfolds. Slightly viscous in texture, the 1703 coats the mouth for a few delightful moments after each sip. Here is a rum that never needs a mixer—sip it neat or maybe with an ice cube or two.
Why You Should Add 1703 to Your Bar Cart
Like a score of Pappy or Talisker, this is a bottle to open on special occasions like a reunion with a cherished friend, the first night in a new apartment, or perhaps to toast a romantic or professional milestone. Those who relish bourbon will find an easy affinity with fine rums—both spirits emphasize notes like vanilla, brown sugar, and baking spices.
And if you make it down to Barbados, spend some time in the island’s ubiquitous rum shops, the wooden-framed beach bars hawking ice-cold beer, cigars, and of course, plenty of rum. Chatting with the old-timers about their favorite pours is sure to teach you more about rum than any guide you’ll find in spirits journals.
All photos courtesy Richard Wadely / Mount Gay