Making Rum in Nassau Paradise Island: The Story of John Watling’s Distillery
Rum in The Bahamas
Like most Caribbean island nations, rum is deeply embedded in the history and culture of The Bahamas. It’s been distilled from sugar cane since the 17th century and, thanks to Nassau Paradise Island’s proximity to Florida, rum-runners made a handsome profit ferrying Bahamian rum to the United States during prohibition.
The Buena Vista Estate
Even the location of John Watling’s Distillery is steeped in history. In fact, February 10,, 2019 was The Buena Vista Estate’s 230th anniversary.
The stunning estate that is now home to John Watling’s Distillery dates back to 1789 when the Royal Governor of The Bahamas granted the land to the Honorable John Brown, Esquire as thanks for his loyal service and dedication to Nassau and The Bahamas. The center building was renovated and hosted the House of Assembly and Governor’s Council for close to a decade.
In 1801, the land surrounding The Buena Vista Estate was divided into lots that would eventually be sold to freed slaves who populated the area, which became known as Delancy Town. It’s unclear who exactly owned and inhabited the estate during this period but by 1851 it was in the hands of Reverend William Woodcock. Members of the church would run the property until later in the century when it would be purchased by various prominent members of state including Sir Charles George Wadpole, (Chief Justice of The Bahamas) William Hart-Bennett, (Colonial Secretary) and Sir Joseph Brown (Member of the House of Assembly).
In the early 20th Century, The Buena Vista Estate continued to exchange hands—and grow in value—many times. Canadian Harold James Petrie purchased it in 1918 for 1,500 British pounds. When he sold it to American buyers Edward and Patricia Toothe in 1921, the price was $15,000. The Toothes would modernize the estate, adding one of the first telephones on the island at the time—the phone number of The Buena Vista Estate was 2, the number at Government House being 1. By 1933, the house had a full staff including cooks, gardeners, footmen, butlers, and maids. When Edward Toothe died, his wife converted the house into a hotel and restaurant and it became the first major establishment on the island to be staffed entirely by Bahamians.
By the 1960s, The Buena Vista Estate—then known as The Buena Vista Club—was a Bahamian hotspot, with its restaurant lauded as one of the best in the West Indies. A look at the guest register from this period is like reading a who’s who. Royalty, politicians, and celebrities—everyone who was anyone was at The Buena Vista Club! In 1966 The Buena Vista Estate was sold and passed through several different owners before being purchased by Stan Bocus. Under Bocus’ ownership, the Club’s heyday continued, with the guest list including Eddie Murphy, Jimmy Dean, Regis Philbin, and Andre Touissaint—one of Calypso music’s most famous musicians.
In 2003, The Buena Vista Estate was featured in the James Bond film Casino Royale starring Daniel Craig. Shortly after the film’s opening scene was filmed (featuring The Buena Vista Estate as an embassy in Madagascar) the estate was sold to the National Insurance Board.
Cheers to John Watling’s
After years of extensive renovation, The Buena Vista Estate opened as John Watling’s Distillery in 2013. Pink sand from Cat Island and Andros was brought in to filter the rainwater used in all of John Watling’s rum. (Keep your eyes out for the hand-cut well, which was constructed some time between 1789 and 1833, likely by slaves, similar to the nearby Queen’s Staircase. More than 4,000 cubic feet was displaced during the well’s construction and it contains two feet of fresh water.)
What’s in a Name?
John Watling’s is named after a 17th Century buccaneer nicknamed Pious Pirate, because he observed the Sabbath and forbade all forms of gambling aboard his ships. He was quite active and well known throughout the Caribbean and along the coast between 1680 and 1703. Around 1709 he sailed for San Salvador and named it after himself. In fact, the island remained Watling Island until 1925.
Making John Watling’s Rum
Every bottle of John Watling’s rum starts with hand-cut, fresh-pressed sugar cane molasses that is then filtered with charcoal made from local carbonized coconut husks. These fine distillates are sourced from across the Caribbean and aged in white oak bourbon barrels for up to five years. As the distillates mellow and age in their barrels, up to ten per cent of the liquid’s volume evaporates through the rum barrels each year—called “the angel’s share”. Nassau’s tropical climate speeds up the aging process, so even though John Watling’s rum is aged for five years, its taste and flavor development is comparable to that of a 12-year-old Scotch whisky.
John Watling’s Master Blender carefully monitors the aging process, using his expert knowledge (and proprietary techniques) to determine when the rum has been aged to perfection and is ready for bottling.
Once it’s met the Master Blender’s standards, the rum is bottled using the least amount of mechanization possible to ensure quality and the care of a hand-crafted touch. Finally, each bottle is adorned with sisal from Andros and Cat Island—a durable fiber traditionally used to make rope and twine.
Types of Rum
John Watling’s, known as “the spirit of The Bahamas”, produces four different kinds of rum at its distillery: pale rum, amber rum, Buena Vista rum, and single barrel rum.
Pale Rum – Smooth and light-bodied, this hand-blended rum is aged for two years in Bourbon barrels, resulting in rum with a woody character and dry finish.
Amber Rum – Medium-bodied, exceptionally smooth with a warm, peppery finish. This hand-blended rum is barrel-aged for three years resulting in flavors of vanilla and nut with a toasted woody and walnut aroma.
Buena Vista Rum – Smooth and harmonious, this blended rum is aged for five years in Bourbon barrels, creating a rum with rich notes of caramel, oak, and vanilla.
Single Barrel Rum – Bottled from the barrel at cask strength after a four-year aging period, John Watling’s single barrel rums are unique, full-bodied, and exceptionally smooth.
Visit John Watling’s Distillery in Nassau
Experience the history of The Buena Vista Estate and the care of the rum distillation process with a free tour of John Watling’s Distillery. The estate is open from 10am-6pm seven days a week, with the exception of Fridays when it closes at 9pm. Tour the property, get a first-hand look at the production and bottling process, enjoy a complimentary sample of piña colada and rum at the onsite Red Turtle Tavern.
“A must see quick trip — The grounds and old buildings are beautiful. Feels like a step back in time.”
— rfemgen, Trip Advisor
“The property is beautiful and very well preserved. Our tour guide Doyle was very informative and humorous. We toured the Watling’s home, the 74-foot well, the actual distillery, and got the chance to smell and taste the different aged rum. My husband and I highly recommend the Estate Lemonade with the 2-3 year old aged rum. It was very delicious.”
— KompassionateDr, TripAdvisor
“Best piña colada ever!!”
— sunkissedmel, TripAdvisor