In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a tour organized by WIRSPA and their Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) program. What follows is my take on one of the distilleries we visited–in this case, Long Pond.
Ruel, our intrepid bus driver, has been through a lot. On a normal day, he ferries busloads of people to hotels, resorts, and tourist sites. However, our five-day visit to Jamaican distilleries has been–quite literally –off the beaten path for him. He’s handled an ever-increasing set of oddball circumstances so far, not the least of which was locating a building with no apparent address in the middle of a sugar cane field. But today goes beyond even that. We are idling at the entrance of what may be the Holy Grail of Jamaican distillery visits. The mood on the bus is tense as Ruel negotiates with a gate guard. Beyond the chain link fence is what looks to be an abandoned factory, surrounded by sugar cane fields. The guard is completely flummoxed–she’s heard nothing about letting in a busload full of tropical shirt wearing rum junkies.
A garbage truck rumbles up to next us. We on the bus take note of the (non-driving) garbage workers taking swigs from bottles of overproof Jamaican rum. They’re let through the gate. More time passes. Ruel makes a phone call. The guard makes a phone call. Neil Morris, our ACR ambassador, makes a phone call. More waiting. We’re tantalizingly close to the Long Pond distillery, which wasn’t on our scheduled list of distillery visits. However, thanks to yesterday’s successful visit to Clarendon, Long Pond’s sister facility, Neil had managed to pull strings and get permission to poke our nose through Long Pond’s door and peek at the stills. After what seems like an eternity, the guard opens the gate. Victory! We’re in—and have literally no idea what to expect. After all, it really does appear deserted.
Long Pond’s history in the Trelawny parish of northwest Jamaica dates back to 1753, when both a sugar factory and rum distillery were created here. Originally, Long Pond wasn’t much different than any of hundreds of similar distilleries that dotted the Jamaican countryside. Over the years, hard times in the sugar industry caused waves of consolidation, leaving fewer sugar estates and associated rum distilleries operating, but with substantially more sugar cane land under the control of the surviving estates. Today there are only five operating rum distilleries in Jamaica. As recently as 2011, Long Pond was the sixth.
Long Pond is about an eighteen mile drive from Hampden Estate, also in the Trelawny parish, and the two estates share a parallel path through history. Both started around 1750 and grew in size by taking over surrounding sugar estates. Both are known as the source for John Crow Batty rum (see my Hampden write-up for a lovingly detailed history of the risqué name) made from heads and tails pilfered and bottled by distillery employees and consumed by locals. In more recent decades, Hampden and Long Pond have evolved through several ownership changes as the Jamaican government first assumed control, then later divested them to private or semi-private investor groups. Today, Everglades Farms, which owns Hampden Estate, also owns the sugar factory portion of Long Pond–but not Long Pond distillery.
There’s very little written history regarding the Long Pond distillery, and it can be confusing keep track of ownership of its sugar operations vs. the distillery. As early as 1878, it was owned by J.B. Sherriff & Company Limited, a Scottish company which also owned the Bowmore distillery on Islay for a number of years. However, other sources point to a 1921 acquisition by Sherriff. In 1944, the Seagrams Company launched their Captain Morgan rum brand, utilizing Jamaican rum from various small Trelawny estates it had snapped up. To help ensure a consistent supply, Seagrams bought Long Pond from the Jamaican government in 1953. Two years later, the nearby Vale Royale estate was folded into Long Pond.
In 1977, the Jamaican government took control of Long Pond, later divesting it in 1993 to a consortium of financial companies and individuals. In 2006, it was bundled, along with the Clarendon distillery and Innswood aging facilities, to create National Rums of Jamaica (NRJ), which is owned in equal parts by:
- The Jamaican government, in the form of the National Sugar Company
- Goddard Enterprises, the parent company of the West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados
- Demerara Distillers Limited, of Guyana
Today, only Clarendon produces rums for the NRJ. The Long Pond distillery was shut down in 2012 as the result of environmental concerns – specifically that waste dunder can’t be processed sufficiently to make it safe to dispose of. However, as we learned during our visit, NRJ is optimistic that it can be reopened in mid-2016. Our group, while certainly wanting this to be true, was less optimistic on the timing.
While Long Pond’s output has been traditionally sold as bulk rum for blending, there are a few examples of pure Long Pond rum available from independent bottlers. At the top of my bucket list is the Gordon & Macphail 1941 Long Pond, which is well into the thousands of U.S. dollars for a single bottle. Slightly less expensive are releases such as the Mezan 2000 Long Pond and the Duncan Taylor 2000 Long Pond. A bit more obscure, unless you know the backstory above, is my treasured Vale Royale 2002 Wedderburn from Bristol Classic Rum.
The original word from the NRJ management was that we’d be allowed a quick look inside the distillery. However, to our good fortune, we were greeted by Long Pond plant manager Kevin Barnett, a tall, man in his mid-thirties, who exudes efficiency, who graciously gave us a lengthy tour of the facilities, far beyond our initial expectations.
Once inside the distillery gate we first get an up-close view of the 200,000 gallon molasses tank that looms over the distillery driveway. A few yards away we spot more signs of life–a few workers resting in the shade of an awning.
Stepping into a large brick building opposite the molasses tank, we spied five large pot stills lined up on an elevated platform, a corrugated tin roof overhead. Kevin informs us that there are five pot stills here from Vendome and John Dore. Four hold 3,500 gallons each, while the fifth holds 1,500 gallons. The building is silent. We’re the only people present.
Climbing the platform’s stairs, we find ourselves face-to-face with the pot stills and their accompanying low- and high-wine retorts. Pipes, twisted metal, ladders, and more elevated walkways are everywhere, giving the surreal impression of a pot-still playground–a parent’s nightmare, but a rum wonk’s dream. All the stills and retorts are in various states of repair (or disrepair). Some have what looks like concrete insulation breaking apart and falling off. One pot is missing its top element, which lies nearby on the floor. We’re allowed to scamper up and down the ladders, which makes for great panoramic shots and even better “stillfie” opportunities.
Reluctantly leaving our pot-still playground, we move on to the blending area, filled with numerous multi-thousand gallon metal tanks, including a 40,000 gallon monster. A short walk leads to the wash preparation area, filled with huge blending vats and tanks. It’s here where all the ingredients come together prior to distillation. It was a bit disconcerting to see an 1,800 gallon tank labeled “Acid Tank,” but prior research leads me to believe its acetic acid (i.e., vinegar), a common ingredient in Jamaican rum wash.
Most Jamaican distilleries use a combination of pot and column stills, and Long Pond is no different. Up a rather steep, scary set of stairs, we emerge into a room resembling a long-abandoned, Soviet-era nuclear power plant control room. Hulking yellow painted panels hold an array of oversized dials and gauges. A few yards away, a vintage twin-column still towers skyward.
The doors at each plate level bear the words “Blairs” and “Glasgow.” Some digging turns up that Blairs was a Glagow-based maker of sugar machinery and distilling equipment; based upon the name and company chronology, this still was probably made sometime between 1930 and 1948. From a distance, the columns look to be in good shape–good enough that you imagine firing it up. Up close though, a section of one column appears to have had a major blowout. Although not unexpected, it did make me sad that this still will likely never function again.
Prior to leaving the main distillery building, we climb up to another elevated level opposite the bank of pot stills. From there we see them all in profile, along with collecting tanks on the level below. This level also holds the distillery laboratory, the equipment inside looking unused for quite some time–not surprising as the distillery hasn’t been operational for several years.
Before boarding the bus for the long ride back to Kingston, I make a quick run over to the spray pond, once used to drain heat from water warmed during the distillation process, but now sitting silent in the hot Jamaican sun. In my mind’s eye, it wasn’t hard to image huge plumes of spray dancing in the Jamaican sunlight.
Even though Long Pond hasn’t been active for several years now (and is in need of some serious love), it was still an amazing experience and privilege to see. Economic hardships prevented it from being turned into a hyper-modern factory, so it currently functions as a de-facto museum piece–a glimpse into what a Jamaican rum distillery looked like in its prime, around the time of the Second World War. Searching the internet, I can’t find any photos documenting Long Pond’s interior, so I’m very excited to share my photos here – a glimpse into Jamaica’s rum past. And while I absolutely hope Long Pond comes back online to produce rum once again, it will likely be after significant upgrades that sweep away much of the history that we were so lucky to experience.