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
Acr_Jamaica_2016 (73 of 1156)
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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Run for the (Four) Roses – A distillery visit

CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10 ($5)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Four Roses distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, is a town with much to tell about whiskey redemption and renewal. Situated a thirty-minute drive west of Lexington, the town is bordered by the Kentucky and Salt Rivers, both supplying precious water to two iconic American bourbon brands. Wild Turkey went through a few decades where its namesake bourbon was associated with rough living lowlifes and considered bottom shelf. But that story pales compared to the rise, fall, and rebirth of Four Roses.

Four Roses
Four Roses

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Hunting American Whiskey Heritage at the Wild Turkey Distillery

CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10 ($10)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Wild Turkey distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

“Wild Turkey? Are we really going there?” Such was the response from Mrs. Wonk when I outlined this year’s march through Kentucky Bourbon distilleries. If you’re old enough, you may have an impression of Wild Turkey as being inexpensive, less-than-stellar bourbon consumed in mass quantity by hard living folks like Hunter S. Thompson. That said, when those impressions were forming, bourbon and rye were less exalted than they are now, in the midst of the current whiskey craze, where folks pay exorbitant premiums for bottles labeled as the current “hot ticket.”  The upside to the current enthusiasm is that Wild Turkey’s reputation, helped in part by the Russell’s Reserve lineup, has shot up again. Thus I was able to construct a convincing argument to Mrs. Wonk that a visit was essential.  (Not that there was much discussion, she notes.

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Checking Out Woodford Reserve’s Distillery

CocktailWonk Rating: 7.5/10 ($10)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Woodford Reserve distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

Kentucky Horse Fields near Woodford Reserve.
Kentucky Horse (& Deer) Fields near Woodford Reserve.

It’s a rainy second day of our Great 2015 Bourbon Crawl. Having blazed out of the Buffalo Trace parking lot, we make a quick sprint south through Frankfort, KY, via Route 60.  Eventually turning off the highway, we find ourselves in over-the-top beautiful horse country, like in the movies or that one time of year that you watch horse racing on Derby Day. Kentucky horse breeder estates, rolling green grass, wooden fences, barns larger and nicer than most houses in our Seattle neighborhood, a private training track, and the occasional (no doubt irrationally expensive) thoroughbred horse. If we weren’t rushing to make the noon tour at Woodford Reserve, we’d have pulled over and gawked. But bourbon and copper pot stills beckon us toward the distillery. In the Cocktail Wonk book, a pot still trumps rolling hills any day.

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