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, Clarendon, part of National Rums of Jamaica.
Rum isn’t always pretty. Awash with images of tropical islands, sugar cane glistening in the morning sun, majestic pot stills, and silent warehouses full of angels taking their share, most people rarely encounter the mass scale and industrial process side of things: Stainless steel fermentation tanks holding 50,000 gallons of molasses. House-sized heat exchanger units. Towering multi-story column stills that look they wandered off from an oil refinery.
Much as we might imagine that all rums are made in picturesque distilleries like St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados, with barrels resting a few yards away, the reality is that the vast majority of rums–even highly regarded ones–are produced in almost unimaginable bulk and shipped around in tanker trucks. Nary an aging warehouse in sight. This is the side of the rum world we got to see at Clarendon Distillers Limited (CDL) in Jamaica.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.