How Mt Gay Rum Became an International Brand
Published on April 8th, 2016
by Donald Street
When I first arrived in St Thomas (ISV) in November 1956, the cheapest rum was the so called Bito rum, a 3 year old Old St Croix run sold out of a barrel in Riise’s Liquor store. Bring your own gallon bottle and it was filled for 75 cents.
There were various types of Cruzan rum available by the bottle at a very reasonable price. But what everyone really liked was Mt Gay eclipse rum in its distinctive bottle with the map of Barbados on the bottle… that is if you could find a store or bar that had it.
I well remember the first time I arrived in St Barts with my boat Iolaire in 1959. I discovered the Carriacou rum smugglers were loading up with Mt. Gay eclipse rum at $6 US for a case of 12. The decedents of these rum smugglers now race as a class in the Antigua Classic regatta. They are the subject of a wonderful award winning 88 minute film Vanishing Sail.
Mt Gay eclipse could be found throughout the eastern Caribbean but was extremely difficult to find outside the eastern Caribbean.
I had a young lawyer friend who was happy to crew for me on fall deliveries from states to the Caribbean. He would tell me to pocket his wagers, give him a ticket back to the states, pack up all his gear that he would not need until spring and ship it to the states. He would then hand carry on to the plane TWO cases of Mt Gay eclipse rum. He had to pay duty on it, but he said it was still much cheaper than buying it in New York. He also pointed out, to buy it in New York he had to find someone who sold it.
In the early 70’s a number of the “big uns” – Ticonderoga, Escapade, Royono and others (72’ was the largest size that could race in the CCA) – were in Newport, RI. The summer charter season had ended, it was too early to go south, and the skippers were getting bored.
The late Ken Mc Kenzie said, “Let’s have a race, winner gets a couple of bottles of Mt Gay.” They all still had plenty in the bilges of the various boats, and after their race they had a really good party. The next year someone did some checking and discovered 21 Club in New York City was the agent for Mt Gay. They contacted the agent and talked him into coming to Newport to see the boats, took him for a sail and told him of the race.
Again they had the race after the summer charter season ended. The representative from 21 Club arrived with a couple of case of Mt Gay eclipse rum and again there was a great party. At the party they told him of Antigua Sailing Week where the sailors gathered to race and party before departing to the four corners of the world. The representative got to thinking that throwing a party at Antigua Sailing Week would spread the word of Mt Gay eclipse worldwide.
He contacted Mt Gay Barbados. They liked the idea, threw a Mt Gay party during Antigua Sailing Week on Galleon beach, and gave out the first of the Red Hats. For a number of years, the only way you could obtain a Mt Gay red had was to sail in Antigua Sailing Week.
Having a faded Mt. Gay hat showed you were a good long term sailor. Getting the hats at the party became a bit of a rugger scrum with fisticuffs thrown in. To prevent a full scale riot from breaking out, they finally said everyone had to line up, que as the brits say, to get their red hats.
Mt. Gay started giving parties and red hats at other regattas. One couple had for many years an excellent job as they were employed by Mt Gay to sail from regatta to regatta, set up the Mt. Gay party, and give out the hats.
Mt Gay can now be purchased just about anywhere, all because a few bored charter skippers in the early 1970’s organized an informal race in Newport with the prize as some smuggled Mt Gay rum.