English Harbour rum is, safe to say, one of the well-liked rum brands that seems to fly under the radar. Despite the recent rum boom, Antigua is often forgotten when it comes to rum destinations and/or rum producers. Even the rum geeks I’m well acquainted with can be guilty of this.
Forgetting about Antigua is an understandable fault, though. This is largely due to the makers of English Harbour, Antigua Distillery Limited (ADL), being the only rum distillery left in Antigua. Plus, other Caribbean islands or countries like Barbados, Martinique, Guyana, Cuba and Jamaica seem to get most of the attention. In addition to being the only rum distillery left in Antigua, their production isn’t large. They currently only have one still, which they bought in 1991. It’s an all-copper column still from John Dore. According to the UK Importer and respected rum enthusiast, Roger Barnes, “Two of the columns were cut in half so it could fit under the roof. This technically makes their John Dore a three-column still.” This leads me to think that the John Dore originally had five columns.
I’m guessing that having only one still translates to limited production. This limited production probably results in them not needing to focus much on marketing, hence their lack of recognition.
Their original still was a Four-Column Savalle when they started in 1933. This Savalle Still is speculated to be similar to the one still being used in Guyana’s Diamond Distillery. Roger also said that part of the Savalle still was integrated into the current John Dore still, and that the Savalle was replaced for economic reasons.
I asked Roger if he could provide me with a good photo of the column still, but he said it’s impossible to have the whole of the still in one shot. As a result, instead, he was kind enough to provide me with this image:
The brand also took a bit of a hit when rum bloggers started putting various rum through hydrometer tests. This was a result of rum fans finding out a lot of rum had added sugar. Some bought hydrometer tests for home use while some were properly lab tested. Any brand that was found to have any added sugar was then instantly disliked, mainly because rum drinkers were angry or disappointed at brands for not being honest. A lot of brands claimed to not add any sugar when asked. The hydrometer tests tested their honesty, but as mentioned before in Facebook rum forums, the home hydrometer tests aren’t accurate.
English Harbour became a victim of this; it’s even possible they lost a following due to this reality. Hydrometer tests posted by well-known rum bloggers like Fatrumpirate indicate an amount of added sugar. However, Roger says English Harbour there isn’t any. Because of the respected person he is, I believe him.
The idea of ADL was born when a group of eight local Portuguese businessmen came together to buy molasses in bulk and control the distillation for their rums. Seven of these businessmen were said to be successful rum shop owners. After having raised £2,500 as capital, ADL was formed in 1932. The distillery was established in 1933 on Rat’s Island in St. John’s Harbour. There’s an image here of Rat Island, but more land has been filled since then.
If you’re surprised that Antigua has Portuguese immigrants, you’re not alone. Having never been to the Caribbean, I was surprised, too. This Taste Trinbago article was really informative, as it shed a light on how Portuguese immigrants moved to the Caribbean from Madeira starting from the mid-1800s. The presence of Portuguese culture and ancestry in the Caribbean, plus ADL’s use of only column stills, adds as well to the argument that the Colonial Classification should be forgotten. This classification disregards the presence and history of other cultures and ethnicities in the Caribbean.
As I mentioned in my “Classifying Rum” article, Colonial Classification states that former English colonies are stereotyped to use pot stills and/or traditional column stills to produce funky and full-bodied rum. This may be true for former English colonies like St. Lucia, Guyana and Jamaica, but it’s not true for Antigua, which is a former English colony. English Harbour does not use pot stills; they never did, which is why they don’t get to produce funky rum. In my opinion, their style of rum is a lot closer to Foursquare’s.
To go a bit deeper into ADL’s production, English Harbour is their premium line. The brand was first released in 1994. The five year is the most accessible of the range. It’s followed by a 10 year and the 1981 (25 year old), but I think the 1981 was a limited production. These are all ex-bourbon cask-aged, but bottled only at 40%. There are new variations of the 10 year, which are either port- or sherry-finished. Fermentation for English Harbour is said to be only 36 hours long. They also have a lower-end product called Cavalier Rum which first came out in 1947. I’m told that Cavalier is only sold in Antigua and is loved by the locals.
My mom got me a 50ml sample bottle of the English Harbour 5 when she was touring the Caribbean via cruise, and that’s what I will use for this tasting. Even so, this sample bottle isn’t my first experience with English Harbour. I’ve had it neat and in cocktails before when traveling abroad.
On the nose: A bit prickly. This is something I didn’t expect for the ABV. Behind the ethanol heat are light aromas of orange pe2els, dark-roasted coffee beans, toffee, muscovado sugar and butterscotch. In between those are very light aromas of toasted coconut chips and brandied cherries.
In the mouth: Just as prickly as on the nose. I get a warming mouthfeel with borderline medium tastes of orange peel, toffee, honey, butterscotch and muscovado sugar. In between these are light and brief tastes of paint thinner, coconut sugar syrup, vanilla and caramel. I taste no sweetness in this, which affirms my belief in Roger’s words.
A bit hot, and the finish is short. This is a simple rum with an acceptable complexity that won’t get the drinker excited. I’d sip this on some days and mix with it on others. Regardless, this isn’t a rum at which to scoff.
Recent online rum chatter is showing that Barbados rum are being recommended to whisky drinkers who are willing to give rum a go. The most common distillery and brand mentioned is Foursquare’s Doorly’s range, mainly due to their accessibility and price. This rings more true for folks based in America, where Fred Minnick is partly to blame—he claimed Foursquare as the Pappy of rum. I’m guilty of saying the same thing. Even so, there’s nothing wrong with recommending Foursquare or other Barbadian rum like Mt. Gay. They are excellent and a more wood-dominant profile is welcoming to everyone, especially bourbon drinkers.
Having said that, I feel like Foursquare is getting too much attention, and that other brands and similar styles aren’t getting due recognition. English Harbour is one brand I can think of that has a similar profile to low proof and ex-bourbon aged Foursquare rum like Doorly’s 5. So if you’re looking for something similar to Doorly’s 5, try English Harbour. Being a lesser-known brand, you’re less likely to have competition in hunting for this bottle.
Aside from being able to offer an alternative to Barbadian rum, English Harbour also shows what column stills can do when the still isn’t calibrated to produce close-to-neutral spirits similar to what Bacardi brings to the table.