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.
Earlier in the day prior to visiting Clarendon, we spent several hours at the former Innswood distillery. Inswood is the yin to Clarendon’s yang–Clarendon is a hyper-modern industrial plant creating millions of gallons of bulk rum each year. A small fraction of that rum travels to Innswood, a historic distillery frozen in the 1950s, barely one-tenth the size of Clarendon, and living out its retirement years as an aging and blending facility. After aging, the rum emerges as Monymusk Plantation Rum.
Both facilities are part of the National Rums of Jamaica. But understanding exactly what NRJ constitutes can be a challenge. The simplest explanation is that NRJ is as an equal, three-way partnership set up in 2006 between:
- The Jamaican government, in the form of the National Sugar Company
- Goddard Enterprises, the parent company of the West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD) in Barbados
- Demerara Distillers Limited, of Guyana
Update: In 2017, France’s Maison Ferrand (owner of Plantation Rum) purchased WIRD from Goddard, which includes their 1/3 ownership of NRJ. Effectively, this means Plantation Rum has 1/3 ownership of NRJ, including the highly sought after Long Pond stocks and future distillates.
The National Rums of Jamaica partnership currently owns three facilities that have all been distilleries at one time or another:
To muddy things up, Clarendon (but not the other two facilities) is only 73 percent owned by NRJ. The remaining 27 percent is owned by NRJ’s biggest customer and the world’s largest spirits conglomerate, Diageo. While you might initially dismiss Diageo’s investment as just another business deal, allow me to lay down some history connecting Diageo’s partial ownership of Clarendon back to the days shortly after WWII, the heyday of Jamaican rum.
Circa 1953, the Seagram Company purchased the Long Pond distillery from the Jamaican government to help ensure a steady supply of rum for their recently introduced Captain Morgan brand. Many years later, Seagram hit hard times, so their portfolio got parted out to healthier players. The Captain Morgan brand ended up in the hands of Diageo in 2001. Fast forward to today, and some of Diageo’s Captain Morgan rum is still produced in Jamaica, albeit at Clarendon, Long Pond’s sibling facility. Despite the fact that Long Pond is not currently producing as I write this, you can see the seventy year history weaving together Captain Morgan and Clarendon.
The astute reader might know that Diageo has an enormous distillery in St. Croix that produces Captain Morgan rum. It’s generally accepted that Diageo established the St. Croix distillery to take advantage of U.S. tax breaks for rums produced in the US Virgin Islands. However, there’s no tax break for St. Croix rum if it’s exported to Europe. As such, the European version of Captain Morgan uses rum from Clarendon, rather than from Diageo’s St. Croix facility. And just to confuse the Captain Morgan story, if you purchase a bottle in Jamaica like I did, that version of the Captain is made by J. Wray & Nephew, not Diageo, since Diageo doesn’t own the Captain Morgan trademark in Jamaica.
But back to Clarendon. From a distance, the distillery and adjoining Monymusk Sugar factory rise up from the vast, flat fields of cane that extend for miles in all directions. Nearby is Lionel Town, population approximately 5,000. It’s safe to assume that many residents are employed by Clarendon or Monymusk Sugar. Although Clarendon is only three miles from the ocean, it feels landlocked, with nary a water source in sight.
We stepped off our bus at the main gate, with the distillery’s gleaming column still looming over everything else. Picking up blue safety helmets was an excellent idea, as I managed to walk into several low-hanging pipes during our visit. We assembled near the spray ponds to meet Neil Glasgow, the distillery’s Operations Manager. Wearing dress pants, a crisp white dress shirt, and matching white safety helmet, Neil paints a picture of experience and authority. The distillery may be hot and factory-like, but Neil and staff appear to always be dressed for a meeting with the top brass at a moment’s notice.
Starting from the top, Neil explains that Clarendon operates between January and October each year, making approximately 12 million liters of absolute alcohol in that period. An 80 proof rum is only 40 percent alcohol, so the actual volume of finished rum is quite a bit higher. A back of the envelope calculation indicates 30 million liters of rum, or approximately forty million 750ml bottles. Capacity-wise, Clarendon is easily among the top tier rum distilleries in the world.
How much of its distillate does Clarendon ship off to Diageo? Approximately 90 percent of it, we’re told. Diageo takes the new-make spirit from Clarendon and ages it at their own facilities. Not all of Diageo’s take from Clarendon goes into Captain Morgan, though. Diageo has another little brand you may have heard of–Myers, anybody? As for the remaining ten percent of Clarendon’s distillate, some becomes Monymusk Plantation rum, the house brand of NRJ. The remaining is sold in bulk to Jamaican brands like Port Royal and Smatt’s.
Clarendon is essentially two independent distilleries in one. The older section, built in 1949 (another source says the rum distillery was built in 1938), houses the pot stills and associated fermentation tanks to supply the pot stills. The newer section contains the column stills and associated fermenters.
Back when NRJ was formed in 2006, the European Union and other investors committed millions of dollars to upgrade Clarendon’s facility, including purchasing new stills. The new column still and fermentation building, which opened in 2009, are the most visible evidence of this upgrade. Neil tells me that the original column stills were sold off as scrap metal, which explains why we didn’t see them during our visit.
With the introductory remarks taken care of, we split into two smaller groups, ours heading to the pot stills first, the other group navigating the multi-story column still. Our first stop was the fermentation tanks used for the pot still rum. Clarendon makes two different marques of pot still rum, light and heavy. The molasses for the lighter rum is fermented for a relatively short time in twenty-four open-air metal fermentation tubs. (They reminded me of similar tanks found in Kentucky bourbon distilleries.)
Molasses destined for heavier rum spends significantly more time fermenting, starting with a several week stay in excessively “rustic,” open-air wooden fermentation tanks covered with a picturesque layer of what seems to be fungus and mold. A thick layer of bio-mass floats on top of the mash. The heavy-rum mash then spends additional time in the aforementioned metal tanks, fermenting for about a month in total. The end result of the heavy pot still rum fermentation is rum that’s up to 550 gr/hlAA, and known as MLC (Monymusk Light Continental.)
Clarendon’s pot still capacity comes from two huge double-retort pot stills. While that sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to Appleton’s five 5,000-gallon pots. Nonetheless, the two stills produce three million liters of absolute alcohol per year, 25 percent of the total output. The older still, made by Vendome in Louisville, Kentucky, is 20,000 liters, or approximately 5,300 gallons. The more modern still, delivered in 2009 from India’s Disti-Chem, holds 6,600 gallons and is fully automated.
In using a pot still, cuts to separate the heads, hearts, and tails must be made. In whiskey distilleries, the pipes, valves, bowls, and hydrometers for this task are enclosed in a glass-sided brass box known as a spirit safe, and are immediately recognizable as such. At Clarendon, the same fundamental process occurs, although an untrained eye might not observe it as spirit safe in the classic sense—it is a rather unimpressive collection of tubes and knobs. After passing through the stills and making the cuts, finished rum emerges from the pot still process at 85 percent ABV.
Our final stop in Clarendon’s pot still section was the blending area, with its many multi-thousand gallon tanks. Not much was going on, so we didn’t dwell too long. Walking back to the newer part of the operation, we passed an enormous truck-sized, oil-fired boiler and a similar-sized turbine, which generates power for the distillery. I also spotted some seriously large-scale liquid water treatment equipment. Distilleries use unimaginable amounts of water!
Pot stills crossed off our checklist, we headed to the newer column still area. Both the fermentation building and column still structure are framed with brightly painted metal posts and beams. Although the structures are minimal and open to the elements, both are covered with a roof. After climbing several sets of exterior stairs, we emerge onto a metal grid bridge, two stories above the ground. One end of the bridge connects to the modern, five-column still, the other leads to the upper level of the fermentation structure.
Stepping into the fermentation area, my eyes immediately focus on an open, rectangular metal box, about twenty feet long by six feet wide. A thick brown pool of fermented molasses flows steadily lengthwise across the top. Rubberized “fingers” below the surface help separate the solids from the liquids as the fermented molasses flows by. At the end of the journey across the box, the lighter liquid drops into a trough akin to a rain gutter and disappears down a pipe to the side. Only this lighter liquid goes through the column still.
The majority of the fermentation is dominated by four 200,000 liter (53,000 gallon) enclosed fermentation tanks that each stand two stories high. Because we’re on the upper platform, we can look through a small open door on the top and see the fermenting molasses. Adjacent to the fermentation structure is a villa-sized box that looks like a home air-conditioning unit, only a hundred times larger. It’s a heat exchanger used to cool the fermenting molasses. If it gets too hot, it won’t ferment properly and will yield less rum.
From our perch two floors up, we look down into the spray pond a few yards beyond the heat exchanger. The spray pond removes excess heat from the column still’s cooling water by spraying the hot water through nozzles rising vertically from a large, shallow pool. When the hot water sprays into the air, the increased surface area causes evaporation and cools the water before falling back into the pool, ready for reuse. When active, the spray pond simultaneously exudes the whimsicality of a public fountain and the brute efficiency of industrial process.
Although we weren’t able to clamber around the column still, we did have a bird’s-eye view of it from the upper level of the fermentation structure. Early in our visit, Neil shared that Clarendon makes three column still marques. This column still portion generates nine million liters of alcohol per year, which is 75 percent of Clarendon’s total output. The still can be configured for a number of purposes, including pure ethanol productions.
Wandering among the fermentation tanks, I spy a plaque on the wall referencing Clarendon’s co-funding by the European Union. Nearby is the column still office and laboratory, which Peter Holland and I stepped into, hoping for any sort of air conditioning. A friendly employee greeted us and demonstrated their PC-based automation and control systems.
After several glorious hours poking around the pot and column still areas, we were melting in our safety helmets, so without any complaint we climbed back onto our blissfully cool rum bus for a short ride to the nearby NRJ offices, where a traditional Jamaican lunch awaited us. Neil Glasgow and several of his staff who assisted on our tour also joined us, –and we peppered them with more questions.
Having toured both Innswood and Clarendon on the same day, our officially scheduled visits to NRJ facilities were complete. NRJ’s third distillery, the legendary Long Pond, was not to be, as it’s been closed for several years now. However, during our NRJ-centric day, the Duppies must have sensed our longing for Long Pond and set plans in motion. Stay tuned!