Allen Smith didn’t always know he wanted to work in the rum industry. The Master Blender at Mount Gay actually found his way to Barbados when he decided after college to buy a one-way ticket to the island to stay with his mother. A British passport holder, the folks at immigration were initially a little suspicious of the twenty-something. They interrogated him for half an hour and called his mom, whom he had neglected to tell he was coming. Luckily for him, she told officers he was, in fact, staying with her and he was let go. Otherwise, his story might be a little different.
When money started running out, Smith headed out to get a job, first working in the sugar industry for six months. When he saw an ad for a job at Mount Gay in the paper, he applied, eventually joining the company in 1991 as a Quality Assurance Assistant, working in Mount Gay’s lab.
“Working in the lab is probably the best way to progress in the company,” says Smith. “You can transition from Lab Assistant to Quality Assurance to Master Blender, which is what I did basically.”
Today, Smith is responsible for blending Mount Gay’s entire lineup of rum, a position that has been held by very few.
Part of Smith’s job is to blend together rum distilled in Mount Gay’s pot stills with those that are done in a single column. He strikes the perfect balance between those pot and single column rums, and rums that have been aging varying amounts of time in barrels to get the ultimate bottle for consumers.
“The art of blending is to have an expression where you have everything in harmony with everything else, so we tend to use the pot still a little bit sparingly,” Smith says. “Just to boost the aromaticity and the flavor and the complexity and also the retention of the pallet, but we don’t add it so it swamps the other one.”
When it comes to new blends, Smith says the amount of time they take to make varies. Most commercial blends at the company, however, start with marketers coming to him with a particular flavor they’re trying to achieve.
“It depends on what’s being asked for. I usually try to work ahead. I usually try to anticipate what they may be looking for,” says Smith. “Sometimes I can do that and get a close approximation. If I’m doing it on my own, I just work to produce blends that I like. From what I’ve found, usually what I like a lot of other people like it as well.”
As for making that perfect blend, the barrels that they use in the aging process, including the char on the inside and how long the rum stays inside, play a key role. Mount Gay uses American oak to age its rums, different chars done at different temperatures result in a different finish for the rum inside.
“For instance, if you gently heat the barrel to 50 degrees, you get a sweet oaky type aromatic,” Smith says. “If you heat to about 100-degrees, you get a lot of caramelization of the sugars in the sap, so you’re going to get the sweet caramel type aromatic.”
Wood was actually the inspiration for one of Mount Gay’s Origin Series boxes.
“We were looking at the effect of different types of wood. We matured stuff in virgin french oak barrels, and we also did it in heavily charred bourbon barrels, basically to look at the difference you can get just for placing the liquid in different types of wood,” says Smith.
That was followed by the Origin Series 2 that looked at the difference in flavor between pot still distilled rum versus single column. For those bottles, the rums were matured for the same level of time, made with the same molasses, and produced identically except for the stills.
Currently in his seventh year as Master Blender, Smith plans on sticking around for quite a bit longer. If you’ve got your heart set on a Master Blender gig, he says the best way to get it is to start at the bottom at the distillery and work your way up.
“You join the company and you work in the lab, you’re being groomed automatically,” says Smith. “You may never become the Master Blender, but you have everything you need to become the Master Blender.”