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Jamaica, a fun people with Rum to match

Daniele Biondi

Jamaica is without a doubt one of the most interesting countries for rum lovers, and also one of the most fun locations in the Caribbean.

Jamaican_people.jpgI was there in June of 2013, and trust me when I says that what makes Jamaica so amazing is its people, the Jamaicans, Yeah man! Going out alone and being surrounded by silence is not an option… within just a few minutes you find yourself involved in a crazy reggae dance party, or having a discussion on the best drink to be paired with jerk chicken. Everywhere, from Kingston to Montego, rum is very well known, loved, and in fact is the national pride.

The history of Jamaican rum started in 1655 when Cromwell conquered the island from Spaniards, helped by buccaneers who settled in Port Royal and branched out to the rest of the island, playing “rumbullion” and drinking hot and hellish rum! For centuries Jamaican rum was the top supplier for the Royal Navy, and in general for trade business with Britain and Europe.

Time passed and the world changed, but not too much in the case of Jamaica. In fact, the tradition of Jamaican rum is strongly rooted in its history and unwavering to this day. This makes Jamaican rum unique for many reasons, as the island is still fully cultivated with sugarcane:

azucar.jpg1) Almost all of the distilleries have sugar production in proximity or is owned by the same property, which is very important for diversity in production.

2) Fermentation is unique, maintaining the same spontaneous process for centuries.

3) Distillation using the original pot still method still employed (or is even exclusive) to all producers.

4) Moreover, except for the world-recognized Wray and Nephew and Appleton rum, Jamaica rum has always been produced and sold in bulk only, without a real brand. Producers are bulk suppliers so every distillery has a wide range of alcohol available. Rums are made using a variety of methods, employing old traditional processes to new modern technologies. It was only a few years ago that they all started to create their own brands. Today it is especially interesting to take a look at and taste their new (white or young) rums.

Wray and Nephew Overproof 63° is the absolute local market leader.  It’s a strong drink, but very well balanced. It’s also the national spirit – the everyday drink from the mountains to the capital that everyone loves and grew up with. That being said, Jamaicans are used to strong experiences!

I began my visit with J Wray & Nephew.  Their Appleton Estate rums have been produced since 1749 in the beautiful Nassau Valley at the most famous distillery on the island. Appleton is made with both column and pot stills, and thousands of barrels of stock ensuring the maturation of very, very aged rum. Just this year Appleton introduced its ultra-premium 50 year limited edition!

I continued my trip moving on to Clarendon (the southern part of the island) with my friend, Taxi Driver Andre, which really got me into the Jamaican mindset – feelings, values, slang vocab and all! We arrived close to Lionel town at the mythical Monymusk distillery, now Clarendon distillery.  Thanks to Mr. Neil Glasgow and his staff I was able to see all of the processes involved in rum making. It was amazing to discover that one of the most famous distilleries of bulk rum in the world, the supplier of hundreds of rum and blends for ages now, still has dozens of wooden fermentation vats and two old pot stills!  It is truly a treat to see such an old tradition preserved, in the same plant that also uses super modern column stills!  Using molasses purchased from the adjacent Monymusk sugar factory, CDL establishes two different rum productions – the “old heavy” one and the “modern light” one. With the old heavy production the fermentation process is spontaneous. Here, the natural yeast is combined in wooden vats and the heavy wash goes through double pot distillation. This production process results in a high ester range of rum, form 600 to 1500 ester.

The other is a short and light fermentation, with a light wash for both pot still distillation ( to have medium ester range ) and new triple column still (for lightest rums).

After over a century of bulk production, in 2012 Clarendon started to market its own proper brand, Monymusk, named after the historical Sugar Factory. The brand´s White is an overproof 63° like traditional white Jamaican rums. Its taste is very smooth, meaning that it is probably completely pot still distilled. The brand´s Classic Gold is a blend of pot and column still rum, aged 3 to 4 years.

Once I got back to Kingston, I was invited by Wray and Nephew to go see The Contender, which is a boxing contest program and the hottest Reality TV Show in Jamaica. The high attendance and after show was unbelievable, full of reggae and lots of Overproof and white-cranberry!

The following day I went to check out Worthy Park Estate, which is located at the 1670 plantation in the beautiful Lluidas Vale in the heart of the St. Catherine Parish. Only three families have managed it over three centuries, by the Clarke family since 1918. The estate’s core activity is sugar production. The distillery was shut down in the 50s (after decades of selling in bulk only), but was opened again in 2005 in order to diversity business. Apart from rum production, WPE is the largest sugar producer, with 3600 hectares of property, mostly cultivated with sugarcane. It is so huge that it is easily spotted on Google Earth!

I had a meeting with Gordon Clarke, family owner and director of the distillery. Gordon is very proud of the new success of his Rum Bar Rum 65° Overproof, which is becoming more and more popular on the island and is starting export. Worthy Park Estate Gold is a very nice, intense, and balanced 4 year old rum, representing the best Jamaican pot still aged rum in the current market. The most important technical aspect of note at WPE is that they cultivate their own yeast. This is done through two different fermentations, Light and Heavy, using the “pied de cuve” method. Both washes go to the beautiful golden Scottish copper pot still, no column stills this time.

After my visit to WPE, I went to Montego Bay in the parish of Trelawny in the very heart of sugarcane and rum. Once there, I met up with Donovan Chong who is a local sales rep for Wray & Nephew, a knowledgeable professional within his business, and is recognized as a fun friend to all at MoBay! Needless to say, we got distracted yet again by crazy reggae dancing and Overproof cocktails at Margarita Ville, the top club in town.

The mainstream drink in Jamaica is JB, son of Jan Crow Batty or Cullu Cullu. This drink has a very strong heritage linked to ”stolen” 86% abv spirits that came straight from the factory when both distilleries in Trelawny were owned by the government, and for that reason were controlled little. JB brand 63% abv is produced by W&N buying alcohol from Hampden, and even Hampden has its own brand of JB at 63%, which is called in slang “The Red Face.” It is a popular drink, completely not available in places where tourists frequent. Let me just say that from the organoleptic point of view (even though organoleptic is not really a Jamaican word!) Jan Crow Batty is very strong, but at the same time so full of aromas it seems balanced – It´s a smooth punch, something that makes you feel like a real Jamaican!

Early the next day while driving through Trelawny I found myself lost in an ocean of sugarcane fields only to arrive at a palm tree lined driveway, that which marked the entrance to the Hampden Estate: Queen of Spain Valley, 40’ east from Montego.  Surely this is most traditional distillery in Jamaica, and probably the one that follows most ardently the old production traditions in all of the Caribbean! I think it is the Shangri La for everyone who loves rum and old tradition.

Dating back to 1743, the Everglades Farms Company (owned by the Hussey family) bought the 5,600 acres estate in 2009, also purchasing the Long Pond Sugar Factory. Although Long Pond Distillery is still owned by NRJ (National Rum of Jamaica), Everglades was able to acquire the Hampden rum factory that was previously owned by the government.

Hampden is renowned throughout Jamaica’s rum history for its full, intensely flavourful heavy pot still rums.  Known for its bulk rums, in 2011 it started with Rum Fire White overproof and in 2012 launched its Golden Rum. Hampden exports from 400,000 and 500,000 litres of proof alcohol per year to Europe and South Africa.

I was able to secure a meeting with plant manager Paul Harris and the general manager Mark Middleton. Thanks to them I visited the whole plant and I stealthily noted their secrets…

The distillery receives molasses from both Hampden Sugar Factory and Long Pond Sugar Factory. Fermentation at Hampden is completed in more than fifty old wooden vats, which they´ve left “old style” like they are known for. They use natural yeast only, almost the only ones in the Caribbean! The water (and wash) pipelines are still on the ground, made of stones and concrete. The wash is a blend of molasses, sugarcane juice, water and dunders. Yeah man, Hampden is one of  the only distillery that is still using dunders. These are the by-products of batch of distillation, are full of organic components, and are great to add to fermentation wash to boost the process and to develop high esters.

Moreover, Hampden still uses the ancient method of leaving some rum in an underground canal and adding a mixture of water, organic by-products, and “mock,” which is the residual part of the fermentation vats (every year vats are cleaned and residual parts are pulled out and put underground for three to four years until becoming a paste or the “mock”).  In these vats the mixture “works” and is mixed with a wooden traditional stick to make it “live” and blend.

Underground ‘graves’ are filled with mock and everything is left there for years. The mixture is covered with bagasse. When the time is right, they pull out some of the mixture and add it to the underground canal.  Moreover, to push higher and higher esters, jackfruits, bananas, and other fruits are added to a mother fermentation vat, and liquid is periodically added to the canal too.  Distillery staff constantly test and experiment. Everything is then distilled with 3 pot stills (2 operating regularly). I got into a deep discussion with Paul and Mark regarding the reason for aromas and the full intensity of the products. Despite the name, Rum Fire is a super smooth white Overproof, meaning that Hampden really knows how to produce many different rums and stay on top and differentiate themselves.

Right after my Hampden visit I took a short trip to Clarks Town to go to the Long Pond Sugar Factory (owned by Everglades Farms) and also went to Long Pond Distillery, owned by NRJ. Long Pond is not currently operating as of November 2012 because it is undergoing maintenance and updates.  Nonetheless, hundreds of sleeping wooden fermentation vats spark a sublime sensation.  Walking around I could feel a both fascinating and mysterious energy around me. The five big pot stills with huge retorts are so stylish and vintage that they really are old art masterpieces. Long Pond Rum is another mythical place for Europe, known for its legendary blends of old rums fought for in collector inner circles in the 90s, and even a few years ago. Everything started here, another Caribbean temple.

It´s easy for me to understand now why Jamaica holds the title for matching the world´s most fun people with oldest traditions of rum making.

‘The views expressed above are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of WIRSPA Inc’.
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