In 2018, there was a major event in the rum world billed by its organizers as the “Rum Tasting of the Century”. The event was the global launch of the new Hampden Estate Rum being distributed by La Maison & Velier. Rum from the Hampden Estate was by no means new; the Jamaican plantation had been producing rum for over two hundred years. Their rum however, was never bottled and sold under their own name. Instead, it was purchased by bulk buyers who would blend with rum from other producers, before bottling and selling under various brand names.

The attendees of the Rum Tasting of the Century were gathered to taste not one, but two of the first Hampden Estate Rums, along with several old and rare rums from across the Caribbean. The pinnacle of the experience however, was an opportunity to sample a Barbados rum dated to 1780. Not only was it the most expensive bottle of rum ever sold, it was also the oldest dated rum in existence.

This bottle was among others found in the cellar of a Yorkshire country house built by Barbadian sugar planter Henry Lascalles in the 18th century, and discovered by his descendent in 2011. Although valued at around £800 per bottle, they sold for several times more than that when auctioned by Christie’s. According to an organizer of the Rum Tasting of the Century there was some difficulty in getting an auction house to handle the sale, as “there was some worry that the bottles were related to the slave trade.” He says however, that an investigation into its provenance revealed that there was no connection to slavery.

Slavery in Barbados ended in 1834, just like it did in the rest of the British Caribbean. This rum was produced half a century before the Emancipation Act was passed, and several decades before the largest slave rebellion in Barbados’ history. Even the current owners of Harewood House have acknowledged that their ancestors actively participated in the slave trade, and built their fortune on forced labour. Tara Inniss, a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of the West Indies says that it is “one hundred percent likely” that this rum was made by enslaved people. The organizers of the Rum Tasting of the Century were clearly being dishonest about this rum having no connection to slavery.

Present at this tasting was Matt Pietrek aka Cocktail Wonk, an award-winning writer on rum history, who also serves as the Community Envoy of the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers Association. Pietrek regularly debunks misleading statements made by rum companies, and often attempts to clear up misconceptions about rum. Also present was Christelle Harris, the director of marketing for Hampden Estate. Harris is a vocal member of a small group of rum producers known as the Guardians of Rum calling for more transparency and honesty in the rum industry. Neither Pietrek nor Harris has ever addressed the blatant lie told at the Rum Tasting of the Century.

Seemingly emboldened by their success at getting away with this lie, the organizers of The Rum Tasting of the Century continue to demonstrate a nonchalant attitude towards the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean, and its relevance to the history of rum. One of them who owns Black Tot Rum held an event celebrating Imperialism and Colonial nostalgia that ended with an afterparty on Emancipation Day. The other, who is the owner of Italian rum company Velier, made remarks romanticizing underdevelopment in Haiti, and he compared being asked to wear a mask during Covid with being forced into chattel slavery.

Are these rum companies complicit in whitewashing the complicated legacy of rum in the Caribbean? Is it time for the Caribbean to start holding them accountable?