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.
Taking a gamble, Ruel slowly drives down a rutted dirt road lined with sugar fields, some harvested, some waiting to be harvested. The cane looks a bit thin and like it could use a cool drink and a spell in the shade, which is nowhere to be found in the harsh mid-morning sun. We pass a woman and her dog who pay no attention to our bus full of camera-wielding rum nerds. Traveling a bit further we pass aluminum-sided trailer homes with a general vibe of abandonment. Each minute leads us closer to the thought that the distillery may have vanished into the surrounding cane fields, like a Jamaican version of Atlantis.
Finally we spy a black, three-story structure rising up from the fields. The corrugated siding bears a passing similarity to the column still houses I’ve seen at Kentucky bourbon distilleries. This looks promising. Getting closer, we see it’s adjacent to several other squat, unadorned buildings appearing to date back to at least the early 1960s. The feel of abandoned buildings emanates, save for a few modern cars parked nearby. The only building that looks like it’s been the recipient of paint since the turn of the millennium has a sign for Old Reid Unique Jamaica Rum. That elicits gasps from our group. In a bus full of Jamaican rum-fiends, nobody had ever heard of Old Reid. Things are starting to look up! We’ve found Innswood!
Innswood is one of three facilities belonging to National Rums of Jamaica, a sort of receivership for Jamaican distilleries that otherwise would have failed if left to fend for themselves. Go back 120 years, and there were close to 150 rum distilleries in Jamaica. Hard times, plus a glut of Jamaican rum over the following decades, led many to close or consolidate. For many years, distilleries made as much rum as they could sell, and the resulting surplus of Jamaican rums drove prices lower and lower. In the 1960s, rum manufacturers banded together to coordinate prices and production to attempt to stabilize the rum market–the rum equivalent of OPEC. Some distilleries stopped producing altogether. As I write this, there are only five active rum distilleries in Jamaica: Appleton, New Yarmouth, Clarendon, Hampden, and Worthy Park.
So how does Innswood come into this story? Its life as an active distillery was relatively short, started in 1959 by the Edwin Charley brand and lasting only a few decades until it ceased production around 1992. However, one source says “NRJ was forced to rationalize its distillation capacity with the closure of Innswood Distillery Limited on the 31st December 1996 due to loss of markets. ” It’s very difficult to track down information about operations at Innswood during these years, but we did learn that in addition to rum, the distillery also made Gordon’s Gin as well.
Fast forward to 2006. A consortium of strange bedfellows come together to form the National Rums of Jamaica (NRJ), the holding company of Innswood, Clarendon, and Long Pond. These three unusual partners each hold a one-third stake in the NRJ:
- The Jamaican government, in the form of the National Sugar Company
- West Indies Rum Distillery – From Barbados, best known for Cockspur rum
- Demerara Distillers Limited – From Guyana, best known for El Dorado rum
As things currently stand, Clarendon (which we visited later in the day) makes all of the rum for NRJ, while Innswood functions as the aging and blending facility. As for Long Pond, work is currently underway to bring it back online as a distillery.
Finally spilling out of the bus, we crowd into a small building the size of a cafe. Inside, where it’s blessedly air conditioned, are about eight distillery employees packed in tight quarters. The person we’re here to see in Derrick Dunn, a quiet man in his early 70s who projects a calm air of authority. He started at Innswood in 1970, eventually working as the distillery manager. Today he’s the master blender for Monymusk, the house brand of National Rums of Jamaica, with his office here at Innswood.
Our group of ten crowd around Derrick as he tells us the early history of the distillery and National Rums of Jamaica. He’s soon joined by Craig Nicholson, an outgoing man who appears to be in his 30s who’s an apprentice blender for Monymusk. He started as a shift manager at Clarendon in 2008 before moving into the apprentice blender role at Innswood in 2011. Craig will lead our tour while Derrick provides color commentary.
Our first stop, a short walk from the office, is a cement-sided, corrugated tin roof building, one of three buildings where rum is aged at Innswood. Dozens of barrels are on display, some in racks and others on the floor. Two large spirit receiver tanks lurk against the back wall. Derrick explains that NRJ barrels their rum at around seventy percent ABV. Derrick had more tidbits to share, but I had wondered off, captivated by the photogenic scenes, including a chalkboard where daily stats on rum production were recorded decades ago, now covered in cobwebs and dust. It makes me imagine what all the activity in the building looked like when the distillery was producing rum.
Leaving the first aging warehouse, we arrive at the main entrance of the three story structure we’d seen from the roadway. Nearby, a single cooper bangs away on the staves of a rum barrel, working to repair it for another round of rum aging. Showing an unusually keen interest, Peter Holland managed to score an entire stave from the cooper, which presented him with an interesting challenge later when packing his suitcase to depart Jamaica.
Peering into the stillhouse from the outside, the interior is in complete disarray. No majestic column stills reaching skyward to be found. Instead, there’s a layer of mangled scrap metal and rusty barrel hoops. It certainly doesn’t look like we’d be allowed in. Eventually, someone made the first tentative steps inside, and sensing opportunity, the rest of us followed. Mouths agape, as if we’d found an underground temple, we surveyed the wreckage. What once were second and third level floors are now just a lattice of beams. We quickly focused on two huge metal semi-spheres, partially covered by rusted barrel hoops. Wow! It’s a pot still, broken apart, laying on its side. We’ve found the Gordon’s Gin still! Martin Cate joked later about taking it back as a permanent set piece at Whitechapel, his gin palace in San Francisco.
Reluctantly leaving the stillhouse, we moved to the blending building, where barrels of rum are brought together into vats and diluted with demineralized water.
Adjoining the blending area is a locked section of the building. Not just locked, but double-locked. It’s the bond area, where dutiable goods are stored prior to taxes being paid. Derrick holds the key for only one of the locks. Luckily, the Jamaican spirits excise officer, who’d we’d met previously at the office, has been tailing our group and proffers the other key. Once opened, we peek in to see cases of finished Monymusk rum stacked high on pallets. Derrick informs us that in addition to duties like unlocking the bond warehouses, the excise officer’s job also includes verifying the age of rums that go into any Jamaican rums carrying an age statement.
Walking across the road to another aging warehouse, it’s hard to miss the bulldozer. It’s obviously not been used for many years, as there’s serious foliage emanating from every open space. This second warehouse is much bigger than the first, and the barrels are stacked much higher. The swoon-inducing angel’s share of aging Jamaican rum enters our nostrils. We immediately decide we’re in no hurry to leave. And take our time we do. The big open entrances let the sunlight into the otherwise dark building, facilitating the oh-so-cliché picture of rum barrels bathed in sunlight from the outside.
Earlier, Craig had spoken about the various marques (i.e. rum recipes) that NRJ makes. He rattled off several three letter acronyms that didn’t make sense at the time. Here in the warehouse, I spot “MLC” on the end of a barrel and asked about it. Craig shares that it means “Monymusk Light Continental,” an ester-heavy rum in the 1000 PPM range. At Clarendon later in the day, we saw the ultra-long fermentation process used to make rums such as the MLC marque.
Our tour wraps up back at the headquarters building. The ten of us, plus Derrick cram into his office, which realistically holds four people. On one wall, shelves overflow with assorted rums. Some are NRJ production samples, easily identifiable by the white label and clear contents, the others are finished products, including NRJ’s full set of Monymusk rums. The Monymusk line has several expressions which effectively go head-to-head with the Appleton/J. Wray lineup. Look closely at Derrick’s shelves and you’ll notice other obscure Jamaican rum brands distilled by NRJ, including Smatt’s and Port Royal. As for the Smirnoff Green Apple and Citrus vodka on the shelves, I cannot explain. With this many rum-maniacs in close proximity to so much rum, an impromptu, shoulder-to-shoulder tasting session was inevitable. Verdict? We love Monymusk!
After such a fun, unexpected journey into the past, we happily would have talked rum with Derrick and Craig for hours. But we have a long drive to another distillery in store for us, so reluctantly we depart, along with a generous gift of Monymusk Special Reserve for each of us. Numerous group shots and selfies are taken before re-boarding the rum bus. Our next stop is Clarendon, where Monymusk rums and a whole lot more are distilled. Coming up next: The full story of our incredible experience at Clarendon, another part of the NRJ family but a wildly different facility and experience!