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.
Hampden Estates is much more than its insane fermentation facility however. It’s also majestic pot stills, picturesque tropical grounds, and a beautiful great house, making it one of the absolute highlights of our group’s four-day crawl through six Jamaican rum distilleries.
Hampden Estate lies within the lush, beautiful Queen of Spain valley in the Trelawny parish of northwest Jamaica. As early as 1753 it operated as a sugar plantation, and by 1779, an enormous mansion with a first-floor rum storage facility overlooked the grounds. For more than 250 years, Hampden remained in the hands of just two families, making and selling bulk rum to resellers and blenders. A few examples of Hampden’s older rums are still available from independent bottlers–a prime example being the Berry Bros. & Rudd Hampden 1990, absolutely one of the funkiest rums in my collection.
Hampden plays a crucial part in one of the best stories regarding Jamaican Rum culture. In times past, distillery workers would illegally make off with the heads and tails cuts from the stills, full of undesirable congeners that you don’t want in your finished rum. This far below market grade “rum” was consumed by locals and acquired a dedicated following, becoming known as John Crow Batty Rum. In Jamaica, the John Crow is a vulture, and batty is slang for posterior or “ass,” to be slightly crude. Put them together, and you’ve got rum that locals associated with the taste and smell of a vulture’s backside. You can still buy rum in this style in Jamaica today– Charley’s J.B. from Wray & Nephew, for example, along with Rum Fire, which I’ll address shortly.
By 2003, Hampden Estate had fallen on hard financial times, and the government of Jamaica stepped in to an ownership role, having assumed some of Hampden’s debt in a bid to preserve hundreds of local jobs. Jamaica’s minister of agriculture said at the time: “Hampden factory was archaic and it appears the owners were not re-investing, and as such, the estate was not profitable.” While not so great for an owner trying to run a business, it makes Hampden a treasure trove for rum historians and aficionados like our group.
In 2009, after a long legal battle involving the prior owning family, the Jamaican government sold Hampden at public auction to the Hussey family, operating under the mantle of Everglades Farms Ltd. The family has a long business history in Jamaica, including hotels, horses, and retail. Andrew Hussey is the director of Everglades Farms, and his niece Christelle Harris is the director of marketing for Hampden Estate. Everglades Farms, not coincidentally, also owns the Long Pond sugar factory, but not the Long Pond distillery itself.
Since taking over Hampden, the Husseys have set out an ambitious plan to raise Hampden’s profile and profitability. In addition to continuing bulk rum sales to blenders like Amsterdam’s E&A Scheer, they’ve introduced three new rums: Rum Fire, Rum Fire Velvet, and Hampden Gold. Rum Fire is an unaged overproof ester-bomb that at 126 proof goes head to head with Wray & Nephew Overproof. During our visit, we heard that Rum Fire’s ester count is over 500 PPM, easily putting it in the upper 0.1 percent of funky rums available.
Rum Fire Velvet and Hampden Gold (neither available here in the U.S. currently) are also unaged, with significantly lower ester levels than Rum Fire, but nobody would ever confuse for anything other than full-blooded Jamaican rums. This was vividly demonstrated to me upon returning home from Jamaica. Picking up my suitcase at baggage claim in Seattle, it seemed dry to the touch but emanated a strong and clearly unmistakable Jamaican rum odor. The victim: A single bottle of Hampden Gold, which had sacrificed its structural integrity so that the other twelve bottles packed therein might live.
Beyond just selling their new-make rum under the Hampden label, the Husseys also immediately started aging some of their rum, although it’s not yet available commercially. Currently it’s spent around six years in the barrel, and I can’t wait to see how they come out.
Early in our expedition, we dubbed our group the Dundercats, obsessing about dunder and its mythical properties that allegedly gives Jamaican rum its super-funktacular character. Somebody mentioned that of all our planned distillery visits, Hampden would be our best bet to actually see and talk about dunder. Thus we are a very excited group, full of anticipation, faces pressed to the bus windows as we arrive after a three-hour drive across Jamaica.
It’s hard to miss Hampden’s entrance – a long, photogenic driveway lined on both sides with King Palms–but miss it we do, our driver making a wrong turn a few miles earlier. After a several mile drive through a sugar cane field, we finally arrive at Hampden’s back gate. No matter, we get situated and make the proper trek down the driveway. Bounding out of the bus, we dash over to the Hampden Estate sign (dominated by an actual pot still) for the obligatory rounds of “stillfies” and group photos.
Once inside the visitor’s center and tasting room, we meet Andrew Hussey, CEO of Everglades Farms (and Hampden), who greets us warmly and answers our initial deluge of questions. Peppie, the estate’s very warm and engaging tour manager, refreshes us with tasty and blessedly funky welcome punch. Mounted on wall near the entrance, it’s impossible to miss the Johnny Black Bud statue, which commemorates the story of “John Crow Batty” rum and relates it to present day Rum Fire.
Before setting out to see the distillery and estate grounds, Vivian Wisdom joins our group. Vivian (yes, he’s a man) is the distillery manager and possessor of a fantastic James Bond character name, should the need ever arise. After Vivian and Peppie get us situated with our oh-so-fashionable blue hard hats, we were off! Walking along the estate’s driveway toward our first stop, it’s nearly impossible to not stop to snap photos of the beautiful, droopy banana trees, the bird sanctuary, and the timeless exterior of the great house.
Our first stop is the small family graveyard, where several of the estate’s prior occupants now permanently reside. Of particular excitement to me was the grave of a certain Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson, Hamden’s distiller around the turn of the twentieth century. To understand my excitement, you need to go back to my review of Denizen rum. During my discussion with Denizen’s Nicholas Pelis, he mentioned a fantastically funky, almost undrinkable “DOK rum” from Jamaica. My Google searches turned up next to nothing about it. Fast forward to this past February, while visiting E&A Scheer in Amsterdam, I was able to nose a glass of the DOK rum, but still no explanation of the DOK moniker. Finally, standing in Hampden’s graveyard, it made sense: DOK are the initials of Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson.
A short distance away is the main distillery building, a low-slung, two-level affair with open sides and a corrugated tin roof. Entering, I spy one of Hampden’s pot stills, its downward sloping neck feeding into the first of two retorts. The bottommost kettle portion of the still is accessible at ground level, while six feet above, an open-grid metal floor creates a second level from which the pot still’s door and the retort tanks are easily accessible.
Hampden has four pot stills from three continents: Two Forsyths from Scotland, a Vendome from Kentucky, and the last from T&T Engineering in South Africa. The largest of the stills holds 5,000 gallons, on par with the stills we saw at Appleton and Clarendon earlier in the trip. All are heated by coils inside, rather than direct firing from underneath. During our visit, however, none were operating as they were undergoing maintenance. Hampden is one of only two operating Jamaican distilleries that are pot still only.
Still at ground level, we walk by the base of each still, heads ducked down to avoid hitting the low ceiling. None of us had any idea what was coming as we step up a few steps through an opening into a dimly lit area. As my eyes adjust to the light, I am dumbstruck, as if stepping back in time to the 1700s. A few stray beams of sunlight poke through the ceiling, and mist swirls around us. Everything is dark, dark brown. The wood planks and stone walls are covered with a thick layer of fungus and cobwebs. Sunk into the floor, two large wooden vats churn a vast quantity of brown liquid (rum wash), being prepared for the stills. The smells are…unpleasant. Wildly so. It’s the stuff of dystopian nightmares.
At this point, any right thinking person would have beat a hasty retreat from whence they entered. Our group, however, stood there slack-jawed, as if it were the best Christmas morning imaginable. We were seeing the rum making experience as it was 150 years prior. Not in a hyper-modern factory, nor in a polished, family-friendly presentation, but raw, gritty, dirty, smelly rum-making – the way it really was, rather than as portrayed on a rum label. Hollywood couldn’t have created a grittier, dungeon-like scene.
Here, we learn that Hampden ferments its molasses entirely from air-borne yeasts–no extra yeast is added. It’s these omnipresent yeast and mold spores, fostered by the rich, ahem, biology of the fermentation area that create the stew of acids, alcohols, and esters that make Jamaican rum so particularly flavorful. If you were to power-wash everything in sight, in mere seconds you would destroy an environment cultivated over hundreds of years, that makes Hampden’s rums the flavor explosions that they are.
Adjoining the mixing area are a phalanx of wooden tubs, each several thousand gallons in volume. Some are full with a thick, dark liquid, topped by a thick layer of fungus. The thick, putrid smell, which was bad before, is now beyond belief and impossible to put into words. Vivian explains that the tubs contain dunder – what’s left in the stills after a distillation run; the distiller’s term for it is “stillage.” Within the rum enthusiast community, stories of dunder are wrapped in mystique – tales of pits filled with goat heads, dead bats, and whatnot, stored in the bare ground, and eventually mixed with fermented molasses to create an extra funky rum. But dunder as we’re experiencing it here at Hampden is much more innocuous. Smelly to be sure, but no goat heads in sight.
Unable to resist the opportunity, I ask Vivian point-blank about the dunder stories. He patiently explains that while there is indeed a seething cesspool of acids used in some Jamaican rum production, they refer to it as “muck,” rather than dunder. Muck, that magic elixir, is a carefully cultivated brew of bacteria and acids which is mixed in to fermented molasses, cane juice, and yes, dunder to create the wash that’s distilled. The muck provides a huge slug of acids that serve as the starting point for fruity, yummy esters. Staring down into Hampden’s toxic, bubbling muck pit, a rotting bat carcass seems like it would be just another day at the office (not that Hampden uses them). If you’re particularly obsessed with muck and dunder (like I am), be sure to read my earlier post that dives quite a bit deeper into Hampden’s muck and dunder story.
Not all of Hampden’s rum batches strive for a super-high ester count like DOK rum, however. After all, DOK is primarily used as a flavor and aroma source in candies and tobacco, as well as blending into other rums in small quantities—it’s not the sort of rum you’d want in any glass, on any day, no matter your proclaimed love of funk. Like all Jamaican distilleries, Hampden makes a number of marques with different flavor profile and ester counts.
With great reluctance, we leave the fermentation area. Our incentive to keep moving, however, is a visit to the upper floor of the still area, where we’re able to walk around at eye level, peer into open still doors, and scope out the low- and high-wine retort tanks up close. Off to the side is a square pool holding new dunder, fresh off the stills. It will soon make its way to the wooden tanks we saw earlier. Across from the stills is a metal gate, beyond which is the distillery’s tax excise area.
We lingered as long as we could among the stills until we are beckoned to our next stop. Emerging from the stillhouse, we poke around a small enclosed courtyard populated by liquid holding tanks and two very old stone buildings, which appear to be used for blending.
Once the last straggler is extricated from the stillhouse, we wedge ourselves into Hampden’s laboratory room. While spare in adornment, the presence of gas chromatograph machines and other scientific equipment is a huge change from the rather rustic, old-school stillhouse. Normally the lab holds perhaps four people comfortably, so with the ten rummys in our group plus Peppie and Vivian, the room was, shall we say, a bit cramped.
Around the room are sample bottles of distillate, the white labels indicating each rum’s marque name, the ester count, and who purchased that batch. I recognize almost all of the purchasers, including E&A Scheer. Vivian and Peppie set to work, pulling together a set of interesting samples for us to try, including the aforementioned DOK rum. With an ester count in the 1600 range, the DOK’s nose is extremely pungent and strong. It tastes of Rum Fire, but much raunchier, for lack of a better term. Even I can’t imagine taking more than a sip or two.
For the final portion of our tour, Peppie leads us through several levels of the Hampden great house. On the second level’s wrap-around patio, several large peahens parade around as if they owned the place. Rather than being preserved as a museum, the house is in active use by the Hussey family as a sort of weekend getaway. Everything is reasonably original, except for the furniture which was upgraded in the not-too-distant past. We were allowed to poke around in all of the rooms, including a very stately dining room, but photography was discouraged, so alas, I can’t share anything here.
The grounds around the Hampden’s visitor center are well landscaped with plenty of shade. It’s not hard to imagine kicking back and enjoying the beautiful Trelawny scenery while sipping a Rum Fire punch. We did exactly that during our lunch, graciously provided by the Hampden folks. We would have loved to stay longer, except that we had an important appointment: A few miles down the road from Hampden is the legendary but sadly shuttered Long Pond distillery. Having been granted special permission by the National Rums of Jamaica head honchos to poke our nose in the door, we weren’t about to miss our chance. Stay tuned for my full report!