One former bartender finds his way to Bermuda, an island built for imbibing

Maybe it was Hemingway who sparked my romance with rum, or maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t Hemingway that made me reach for it at the end of the bartending shifts of my young (and then not-so-young) life working at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles. But the intrigue stuck. Seven years and what feels like a lifetime later, I leapt at the chance to explore Bermuda and learn more about its drink of choice from the other side of the bar.

fried seafood at the Swizzle Inn in Bermuda

I had no frame of reference for Bermuda, but any assumptions I had went straight out the window when I got there. It’s a place of its own breed perched on an ancient lava flow; it’s culturally composed of ingredients from around the world, and a river of rum runs through it.

There were no natives when the British vessel Sea Venture grounded in Bermuda in 1609—the shipwreck said to have inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest. What unfolded was a history quite different from the islands 1,000 miles to the south. Like a Darwinian finch of nations, Bermuda evolved into something truly unique through its isolation. Outside influences are prevalent––the lingering aura of British colonialism, the reggae on the radio, the Jamaican jerk chicken on restaurant menus––but on closer inspection you’ll soon see things that are distinctly Bermudian.

Our first stop on the island was the Swizzle Inn, a cozy pub coated with decades of graffiti, stickers, and dollar bills. I got my first taste of the rich and flavorful Bermudian fish chowder, a bouillabaisse-like soup with a far more serious stock than you’d expect from bar food, served alongside glistening beer-battered onion rings and a pitcher of rum swizzle. This signature drink of Bermuda was invented in 1932 and is made with Goslings Black Seal and Gold Seal rums and orange, pineapple, and lemon juices, along with fruit liqueur and falernum “among other ingredients.” Essentially, the rum swizzle is their take on a rum punch: refreshing, potent, and far too easy to drink.

It’s impossible to talk about rum in this part of the world without acknowledging the painful history of the sugarcane plantations with which rum once went hand in hand. The rum that flows through Bermuda is produced and distilled far to the south, including that which is blended and bottled by Goslings. Bermuda was never an island of sugar plantations, though they did grow a fair bit of tobacco. People of color brought to Bermuda included indentured servants of British colonists, enslaved people brought by privateer vessels that used Bermuda as a base, and even Native Americans whom the English exiled here. People of color now make up 54 percent of the island’s population, and mixed into this diaspora are the descendants of Irish prisoners shipped here in the 17th century. Everyone seems to know everyone, due in part to the fact that the island is only 24 miles long and on average less than 1 mile wide. 

goslings rum making a cocktail in Bermuda

This narrow fishhook-shaped footprint also means you’re never more than a mile from the ocean. We stayed near the tip of the fishhook at Cambridge Beaches, a sprawling waterfront resort in a quiet setting with traditional Bermudian cottages overlooking the iridescent blue water. The stepped-roof cottages topped with layers of lime paint are the island’s sustainable method of obtaining fresh water. The roof collects the rain, the lime purifies it, and pipes divert it to tanks. One hundred percent of Bermuda’s water is acquired from the sky, and it’s the reason they call a downpour “tank rain.” (They even have tank rain-scented candles here.)

On our first night in Bermuda we were invited to dinner at Bloomfield, the Gosling family home since 1860. James Gosling set sail from Kent, England, in 1806 with 10,000 GBP of merchandise bound for America. But the ship was sidetracked by bad weather, the charter expired, and he ended up landing in Bermuda. Thus began a rum dynasty that is still going strong 217 years later.

Goslings‘ current CEO, Malcolm Gosling Sr., grew up in the home and now lives there with his wife, Caroline. We were joined by their son, Malcolm Gosling Jr., and his wife, Lee. Andrew Holmes, Goslings‘ brand director, was also there as rum expert and bartender. We feasted on filet mignon and drank Goslings’ flagship rum, Papa Seal, so named for Malcolm Gosling Sr.’s nickname, while he regaled us with stories about his friend and fellow Bermudian, actor Michael Douglas. Never in my life have I been invited to a family dinner like that. But that’s just how Bermuda rolls. “Why give a handshake when you can give a hug?” seems to be the law of the land.

Hiding out in historic spots of Bermuda

The next day, my wife and I zipped and jostled in a tiny electric car down the road to Woody’s Sports Bar and Restaurant for one of the most famous local dishes: the Bermuda fish sandwich—fried local fish, American cheese, and coleslaw on raisin bread. Who says cheese and seafood don’t mix? Somehow it all works, especially when washed down with a ginger beer.

For our final night in Bermuda, Holmes took us out to a restaurant in our hotel, the Sunken Harbor. There, bartender Daniel Moik set fire to cocktails and meticulously built his takes on the mai tai, the rum swizzle, and the Dark ‘n Stormy in giant goblets and wide-mouthed porcelain fish cups. The Dark ‘n Stormy is a cocktail trademarked by Goslings. By definition, if you’re drinking one, it’s got Goslings Black Seal rum in it along with the ginger beer.  

Moik is Bermuda native who goes by the nickname Dreadlock—not that he has them; Bermuda bestows nicknames on everyone. Head chef Keith DeShields is also a Bermuda native, and his menu includes local dishes like Bermuda shark hash and poached Bermuda turbot, but also more continental fare like a honey-glazed duck breast and beef tenderloin with balsamic braised mushrooms.

Bermuda is that rare beautiful and tropical place where the locals actually want and need you to visit right now. Covid hit Bermuda hard. But now that things are open, it’s time for us to return. I went for the rum—but it’s the people that make me want to go back.

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