Worthy Park: A Jamaican Rum Distillery for the 21st Century

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, Worthy Park.

Martin Cate is about to be crushed by sugar cane. For someone so passionate about rum, it would be an entirely fitting way to check out. Luckily, Gordon Clarke, Worthy Park’s Co-Managing Director, is watching out for our group, obliviously snapping photos, and yells for us to move out of the way. Loosely held by a giant claw, SUV-sized clumps of cane stalks are traveling rapidly overhead, the occasional stalk tumbling to the ground below.

We’re witnessing firsthand what cane-to-glass really means here at Worthy Park. It’s the fourth and final day of our ACR group’s jaunt over the hilly Jamaican countryside, visiting six distillery sites all told. Each one vividly presents a different angle on the complex, 275-year history of the Jamaican rum industry. Some, like Appleton, have operated continuously from their inception have and become international marquee brands. Others, like Innswood, couldn’t compete as viable distilleries, so live on as mere husks of their former selves.

The last several decades have not been easy for the Jamaican sugar and rum industry. Worldwide falling sugar prices and larger, more efficient distillation practices elsewhere have most certainly thinned the herd. The Jamaican government and associated rum and sugar pool organizations have tried to shore up prices by consolidating estates and limiting production, leading many distilleries to shut down. One such example was Worthy Park, which stopped distilling in 1960 after making rum for the prior 220 years. While rum was no longer on the agenda, the owners of Worthy Park Estate modernized their sugar cane farming and processing methodologies, turning it into the most efficient sugar operations in the modern Caribbean.

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LLuidas Vale and Worthy Park

By 2005, Gordon Clarke, a fourth generation member of the family that owns Worthy Park, saw an opportunity to resume distillation. Having completed his MBA in Florida during the early 1990s, he’s a case study in efficiency and doing things the right way. If you randomly met Gordon on the street, Jamaica is one of the last places you’d imagine he’s from. After taking the initiative to get back into rum at Worthy Park, rather than attempting to revive the existing, obsolete distillery last used in the 1960s, Gordon set out on a path to build a very modern facility, capable of making a wide variety of rums, including the extremely funky, high-ester pot still variety that rum wonks like me crave.

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An exclusive visit to Jamaica’s historic Long Pond Rum Distillery

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.

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Ground Zero of Jamaican Funk: Going Deep at Hampden Estate

In early 2016, I toured a number of Jamaican rum distilleries as part of a group 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, Hampden Estate.

Terroir. When we hear it used, we picture the soil of a vineyard in France, the salty sea air of Islay where whisky barrels mature, or locally foraged gin botanicals in the Pacific Northwest. It’s the unique air, water, soil, and scents of a region that make a spirit special – something nearly impossible to replicate somewhere else. Terroir evokes the romance of a particular place and is frequently used by marketers to tell a tale about why their spirit couldn’t be made anywhere else. However the most unmistakably vivid example of terroir influencing a spirit’s character that I’ve yet to witness is at Hampden Estate in Jamaica–and I guarantee you’ll never find it cited in any marketing copy.

Hampden is an old-line Jamaican rum distillery, and by far the most unchanged from how it looked and operated hundreds of years ago. It produces the funkiest, highest ester rum of any Jamaican distillery, the direct result of a fermentation process that can only be described as downright frightening – a dim, hot, damp building where dirt, fungus, cobwebs and who knows what else covers every square inch of stone walls, wooden beams, and old plank floors. Brick-lined pits set into the ground swirl with opaque brown mystery fluid. Nearby, wooden vats hold thousands of gallons of spent rum wash, covered with a thick layer of organic scum. The concentration of fungal spores in the air is off the charts. During Hampden’s several-weeks long, natural fermentation process, it’s exactly these conditions that ultimately result in their instantly identifiable fruity, funky, high-hogo Jamaican rum. This is terroir in the extreme– the ambient conditions contributing to one of the most beloved and unique combination of flavors in the world of spirits. Lest you be seriously worried at this point, the distillation process does an amazing job of separating the good from the bad, leaving you with only tasty, perfectly safe Jamaican rum.

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Inside Jamaica’s Clarendon Distillery: Home to Monymusk Rum and a Certain Captain

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.

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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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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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