Innswood: The Jamaican Rum Distillery that Time Forgot

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, Innswood, part of National Rums of Jamaica.

Ruel is very lost. He’s driven back and forth on a flat stretch of highway flanked by sugarcane fields, looking fruitlessly for our destination. The only two signs in this four-mile stretch appear to have been created during the Kennedy administration and aren’t much help. In the back of his mini-bus are ten rum-obsessed explorers anxiously checking Google maps and scanning the horizon for anything resembling a rum distillery. Ruel makes a phone call. He drives a bit further, stops, pulls over, and makes another phone call. Mind you, this isn’t his fault. He’s already proven himself a highly competent driver: The previous day he bombed through the narrow, twisty roads of Cockpit Country to deliver us to Appleton Estate with nary a missed turn. But today he has the Herculean task of finding Innswood Distillery, which clearly wants to remain undiscovered.

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Behind the Scenes at Appleton Estate with Master Blender Joy Spence

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, Appleton Estate.

The water source. At distilleries around the world, the first thing you invariably hear about their magical water source. You may be pointed towards a creek, flowing down from the Sottish highlands, as I saw at the Glenrothes, or peer down into deep, black pool emerging from a cave, like I found at the Jack Daniels distillery in Tennessee. But hands down, the most breathtaking water source that I’ve yet seen is at Jamaica’s Appleton Estate. After driving several miles on a bumpy, rutted path through cane fields, we emerge into a clearing with an oblong pond and a small pump house to the side.  A grove of trees shields the far side of the pond, and one end narrows into a stream that wanders through a grassy field, a few cows lazing about in the sun. Surely the dark, aquamarine hue of the water is a trick of the light — perhaps a reflection from the sky. But as I left the car and approached the pond’s edge, my brain slowly accepted that the water really is an almost unnatural shade of translucent blue-green.

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The water source at Appleton Estate
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Water source at Appleton Estate

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Days of Dunder: Setting the Record Straight on Jamaican Rum’s Mystery Ingredient

Hogo. Funk. The smell of overripe banana. Jamaican rum is uniquely beloved in the spirits world for its powerful, easily identifiable pungent fruitiness. Connoisseurs of Jamaican funk utter phrases like “high ester count” and “long fermentation.” But nothing gets the rum nerd more enthused than talk of “dunder,” the mysterious ingredient that allegedly makes Jamaican rum extra funky.

Exactly what comprises dunder is shrouded in mystery, but dig around a bit and you’ll find references to goat heads, dead bats, and worse, churning in a lethal, volatile mass of evil death stored in an earthen pit, presumably somewhere near the distillery for easy access. Heck, even I’m guilty of spreading these tales. Throw a few scoops of this black death into the molasses wash, and voila! Instant hogo. Or so many people think. The reality is far less simple—and way more interesting.

As part of an ACR tour of Rum Industry influencers, including Martin Cate, Camper English, Peter Holland, and Wayne Curtis, I received an intense, behind the scenes look at Hampden Estate, ground zero of high-hogo rums. Standing in the hot, dimly lit fermentation area with distillery manager Vivian Wisdom, we grilled him for nearly an hour on every aspect of how the wash that goes into Hampden’s stills is created. No detail was spared: Fermentation times, pH levels, quantities, we wanted to know all.

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Jamaican Rum Distillery Cheat Sheet

People are always asking me what my favorite bottle of rum is. I always tell that it’s like picking your favorite child. I can’t do it. But I do volunteer that funky, fruity, high-hogo Jamaican rums are what I gravitate towards most. Smith & Cross, Appleton 21, Wray & Nephew Overproof, Rum Fire. I love them all!

Sadly, as I write this, I’ve never been to a Jamaican rum distillery. That’s about to change soon though. Thanks to the Authentic Caribbean Rum program (part of WIRSPA), I’m headed to Jamaica to tour just about every operating rum distillery on the island. A true dream trip for a rum nerd like me.

I always do my homework when opportunities like this arise. I’d read about many different Jamaican distilleries, but keeping them all straight can be a challenge. Who’s still operating? Who owns them? What brands are made in each of them? To help me keep things straight, I wonked out, chasing down as many details as I could find, and compiled the results in the cheat sheet below. It’s not intended as a comprehensive history of Jamaican distilleries, nor does it cover every single associated brand. Instead, it’s about who’s currently producing rum in Jamaica, what are their most well-known brands, and a bit of relevant recent history where needed.

I’ve cited as many sources as I can via links, but it’s entirely possible some sources are out of date. If you see something egregiously wrong, don’t hesitate to drop me an email or comment. I’ll correct ASAP!

Update (4/8/2016): My post for each distillery we visited are here:

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The most important rum company you’ve never heard of: E&A Scheer – Rum Merchants to the World

Walking through the canal district of central Amsterdam can be disorienting to all your senses. The cobbled streets and sidewalks are narrow and filled with what seems an endless stream of bicycles, mobile and stationary. The 17th century-era row houses lining the canals are all similar in style and color — three stories tall and nestled tightly together as far as the eye can see. Every block looks similar to the prior block, austere but beautiful. It’s only thanks to Google Maps that we’ve located a particularly important address, a major epicenter of the rum world. From the street, though, it appears like any other nicely appointed Dutch residence; it’s only sign of what’s inside is a small polished brass plate under the doorbell Mrs. Wonk and I have found our way here on this February morning to visit the inner sanctum of E&A Scheer—a serious heavy hitter in the worldwide rum business, but one you’ve likely never heard of.

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Prohibition Hangover: How the U.S. Three Tier Distribution System Keeps You from the Spirits You Want

It’s Saturday night in Tacoma, WA and I’m perched in my usual spot at the bar at Tacoma Cabana. Tiki master Jason Alexander is showing me his latest well lineup. Strangely, there’s no Plantation rums, typically the core of his lineup. I ask about their omission. “Can’t get ‘em anymore” he says. How can this be?

Plantation parent company, Maison Ferrand has been a darling of bartenders and spirits aficionados for years, selling well-regarded brands like Plantation, Citadelle Gin, Cognac Ferrand, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, and many others. You’ll find their brands on craft cocktail menus all over the U.S. However, here in Washington State, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of Pierre Ferrand products on a bar menu or liquor store shelf in recent days. But only six months ago, the situation was very different–Ferrand’s products were readily available and pouring into cocktails in bars everywhere. So what gives? The answer is a microcosm of what’s wrong with how liquor is sold in the United States.

Up till recently, Washington stores and bars would order their Ferrand products from American Northwest, a regional wine and spirits distributor. Until one day a new distributor, Crush & Cooper of Washington LLC, announced they were the new Washington distributor for Pierre Ferrand. Hmmmm…. Order fulfillment shifted to Crush & Cooper, and things were running smoothly for months, till one day when the flow simply dried up. American Northwest had filed a lawsuit to prevent Crush & Cooper of Washington from selling a number of products previously distributed by American Northwest, including Ferrand’s. The end result for Washington State consumers (at least in the short term) is that a large number of spirits are suddenly unavailable in bars or on store shelves.

How is this possible? Why does who distributes a product matter? And why can only one distributor sell a product in a given market? If the answers to these questions are a mystery, you’re likely not yet familiar with the byzantine disaster known as the Three-Tier Distribution system. If you set out to design an efficient system for getting a wide variety of goods from producers to consumers, a la Amazon.com, it would look completely unlike today’s existing Three-Tier system. The number of players and regulations involved makes it a minor miracle that anybody in the U.S. has access to more than five brands. Let’s take a look at the Three-Tier, and see how it impacts what liquor you drink.

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