He Once Scouted Jamaican Beaches for 'Dr. No.' Now, His 007 Rum Will Appear in 'No Time to Die.'

Justin Kirkland
·6-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy - Shutterstock
Photo credit: Courtesy - Shutterstock

From Esquire

Chris Blackwell has, intentionally or not, been in the business of James Bond for 60 years. Over a Zoom call in October, as I begrudgingly welcomed colder weather and earlier sunsets, the background of Blackwell's screen was Goldeneye, the sunny Jamaican property author Ian Fleming once occupied while writing the Bond books. Though 83 years old, Blackwell came across like a young man, eager to tell stories about how this life came to be: how he founded Island Records and how he picked up the mantle of his family's rum business. How he had the opportunity to join the James Bond movie franchise... and how he turned it down.

But first and foremost, this call is about the rum. Specifically, the limited-edition 007 variation of Blackwell rum, which debuted this month. When No Time To Die (eventually, hopefully) hits theaters in April, it's the 007 Blackwell rum that fans will see Daniel Craig sipping in a Jamaican villa. The spirit itself is dark with a rich, oaky sweetness. Blackwell's team recommends combining it with passionfruit and orange, but honestly, it's best the way Bond drinks it: on the rocks. A slight variation of a family recipe, this rum feels like the culmination of a very long journey. Because, again, Blackwell and I were meant to talk about rum, but when so much of your life is entrenched in the world of Bond, things tend to go in the way of 007.

The rum business Blackwell stumbled into dates back well beyond his years. To 1825, in fact, when his grandfather and great uncle started Jamaican rum company Wray and Nephew, which thrived during Blackwell's childhood on the island. "I'd go with my mom to the office sometimes when she'd go down for a meeting or something like that. So from early on, I had connections in rum," Blackwell says. But his life in Jamaica was founded on more than rum. His mother, Jamaican heiress Blanche Blackwell, happened to be a muse and lover of Fleming's—though Blackwell speaks of Fleming as if he were more of a friendly neighbor. Blackwell regularly crossed paths with the author until he left to be educated in England. It didn't go well, and after a disastrous stint in accounting, Blackwell returned to Jamaica and served as a personal assistant to Jamaica's then-governor, Sir Hugh Foot.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

That connection to Fleming came in handy in 1961. "Fleming was in Jamaica, and I would see him quite a lot," Blackwell says. "So when the film was going to be shot—the first film, Dr. No—he actually called me and asked me [if I] would like some kind of job in it." The role he landed was a tour guide of sorts, taking the production team around and suggesting places to shoot. And Jamaica is as much of a character in Dr. No as any actor; it was the island that offered a backdrop for Honey Ryder as she appeared out of the ocean, as well as the Crab Key where so many of the fights were filmed. When asked if he'd be interested in joining the Bond production team fulltime, Blackwell was between options: attach himself to a movie series based on books written by a family friend, or take an investment from his family to create the music label he dreamed of. He consulted a fortune teller out of Kingston who suggested he follow the music. But Bond was never far outside of Blackwell's orbit.

For those who have followed Blackwell's career, they know he likely made the best choice. Cofounder of Island Records, Blackwell is responsible for discovering some of the most prolific Jamaican artists in history, including Bob Marley and Toots and the Maytals, while also scouting massive British talent like Steve Winwood, Robert Palmer, and Cat Stevens. As the label exploded, Marley almost bought Fleming's Goldeneye estate at Blackwell's suggestion. A year later, in 1976, Blackwell bought it instead. Under Blackwell's ownership, the single-home, ranch-style estate with a private beach was expanded into a series of villas so luxurious that it inspired the name of a Brosnan Bond film years later. But don't mistake that for a Blackwell endorsement. When asked for his favorite Bond, Blackwell immediately responded that it was Sir Sean Connery, who he had met during the filming of Dr. No. The two remained friends until Connery's passing last month.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Funny story about that. In the '80s, Blackwell offered to host Connery at an apartment building he owned in the Bahamas, where he had a recording studio. Connery stayed for a while, but was eventually forced to relocate. As Blackwell remembers it, he was in the Bahamas recording with Grace Jones. "Every time Sean walked in or out of the building, she'd be whistling [the James Bond theme]. And Sean said, 'Listen, I got to check out. This is too much.'"

In the years since, Blackwell has pulled back from the music spotlight. No one would blame the 83-year-old for slowing down. Island Records is now owned by Universal Music Group. Twenty-four Bond films have been released since Blackwell scouted locations for Dr. No. But Blackwell is a worker, so in a bit of an homage to family members passed, he made the decision to wade into the rum space in 2008 upon the advice of friend and advertising executive Richard Kirschenbaum, who told him dark rum would be "the next big thing." Blackwell remembers telling Kirschenbaum, "Look, if I'm going to do something with rum, I really want to see if I can do it with the company that my grandfather and grand uncle used to own." So under the same umbrella as Wray and Nephew, Blackwell started Blackwell Dark Rum.

The creation of the special-edition 007 rum was serendipitous, according to Blackwell. No Time to Die marks the first time that a Bond film has been shot in Jamaica since 1973's Live and Let Die. "I'd helped a little bit by speaking with the powers that be in Jamaica, how they should help as much as they could to have the film come back to Jamaica," he recalls. For Bond fanatics, it's a return to the franchise's earliest years—a way to honor 25 movies. "We were pleased to assist in the production team with supplying Blackwell rum for the filming of Bond's house in Jamaica. We created a special bottle in celebration of it." From that came the bottle that can be owned by fans; the contents aren't too shabby either.

Blackwell offers up a stereotypically English option for rum drinkers in winter. "Let me tell you, the best thing you can do is a warm rum punch." One part lime, two parts sugar, three parts rum. Fill the rest with hot water. But that recipe is of no use to him right now. He remains steadfast in Jamaica, with the sunshine and the rum and the Bondian paradise that we watch in films to get us through the long, cold months. And though we're not getting the next chapter of Bond's journey until April, there's at least a bit of it to drink up now, created in part by the man who was sure that 60 years ago, he'd passed on this little story about a British spy.

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