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.
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.
Construction of the new distillery began in 2005, and by 2007 Worthy Park’s first rum was being bottled–an unaged overproof called Rum Bar that goes head-to-head with other overproofs from Jamaica, including Wray & Nephew, Monymusk, and Rum Fire. They also wisely began putting away barrels for aging, and today they sell Rum Bar Gold, a four year expression.
Although 90 percent of their sales are to the local Jamaican market, Worthy Park also sells rum in bulk to independent bottlers and blenders. Here in the U.S., the Hamilton Jamaican Gold and Black both originate from Worthy Park. Bacardi recently released a line of Single Cane Estate Rums into travel retail, with the Jamaican expression sourced from there as well. The Mezan 2005 Jamaica is yet another example, and of course there’s E&A Scheer, the large Amsterdam based rum blender, which seems to have a particular fondness for Worthy Park distillate.
The ride from Kingston to Worthy Park takes a long time–much longer than you might expect from looking at the map. With our mobile Rum Command Center– i.e. the minibus–we’ve navigated up and down over enough twisty mountain roads that we’ve stopped paying attention to the scenery, until we round a corner near the summit of a foothill. There, beneath a vibrant blue sky, we overlook a lush valley painted green with sugar cane fields. A bold red sign near a tree proclaims, “The Vale of Lluidas Vale – Worthy Park – Patented November 28th, 1670.” A quick Google image search makes it clear that this a very popular spot to take photos. It’s breathtaking in a way that photos can’t convey, however. In the distance, we see a clump of building that must be the distillery.
Soon we’re rumbling through the estate grounds, passing tractors pulling giant open-sided trailers stacked high with freshly cut cane. As we pull up to the visitor’s center, Gordon Clarke and Alex Kong, the export sales manager for Worthy Park, are waiting for us. Once inside and cooled off, Gordon and Alex provide us with the key facts about the sugar plant and distillery. The highlights:
- Records show that Worthy Park was distilling rum as far back as 1741, although the official records indicate its founding a few years hence.
- Gordon Clarke’s great grandfather, a professional turnaround expert of sorts, purchased the facility in 1918.
- The original distillery stopped production in 1960.
- Worthy Park is the most efficient processor of sugar cane in the Caribbean. Where most factories take eleven tons of cane to make one ton of sugar, Worthy Park only needs nine.
- The Rum Bar brand celebrates the cultural heritage of the rum bars that are everywhere across Jamaica.
Before heading out to see the facility, Gordon and Alex pour samples of the Worthy Park products. In addition to their biggest seller, Rum Bar overproof, we also taste the Gold rum (four year aged) and Rum Cream. They also import vodka from Europe for sale under the Rum Bar brand. An extra special treat this day was tasting the as- yet unreleased older-age rum (currently eight years) that will likely go out under the Worthy Park name, rather than Rum Bar.
Leaving the joyously cool visitor’s center, we take a five minute walk to the sugar factory. Along the way we soak in the panoramic view of surrounding sugar cane fields, as well as an up-close and personal encounter with cane trucks being weighed before delivering freshly cut stalks to the outskirts of the factory. At the factory office, we don the ever-fashionable white safety helmets–always a great idea, but makes for an even more overheated experience.
Just outside the factory entrance is a giant bin, kept full by a steady stream of tractors hauling trailers of just-weighed cane. It’s here that the cane enters the factory pipeline. Overhead, a giant claw slides back and forth on a horizontal beam, picking up clumps of cane and transporting them to a chute. From there the cane passes by a rotating pole studded with blades that begins the process of turning hard cane stalk into three very different end products.
Entering the factory, it’s sensory overload as we’re blasted by noise, smell, and intense heat. We encounter a seemingly endless series of stages, which ultimately yields raw sugar, dark molasses, and bagasse, a biomass that resembles sawdust and is burnable as a fuel source. The overall impression of the sugar factory is of an endless pipeline of solids and liquids, relentlessly moving from one side of the factory to the other. I can’t even being to describe each step in any detail, but at a high level, these are the main parts:
- The solid cane matter is crushed and mixed with hot water to create a pulp that’s squeezed through grooved, cylindrical presses to extract the sugar content in liquid form.
- The solid material is separated from the liquid.
- The liquid is heated to remove water content and crystalize the sugar.
- The thick liquid is spun in centrifuges, which separate the raw sugar (i.e. sucrose) from the molasses.
The crushing and extraction part of the factory brings to mind a cartoon factory. Gears taller than a human spin endlessly, driving other gears of all shapes and sizes. It’s hard to imagine that the straw-like, pulpy mass that shuffles through the pipeline will turn into sweet sugar and rum. Be sure to not miss the videos at the very end of this post!
The unloved biomass known as bagasse is quite fascinating. Gordon scoops up and holds out a handful for us to examine. It’s has the look and texture of slightly moist sawdust. Although it seems obvious once you think about it, I was astounded by how much the factory creates — the pit of bagasse completely dwarfs the full-sized Caterpillar bulldozer employed to move it around.
The boiling, liquid section of the factory is chock full of huge tanks, holding vast quantities of dark liquid in various states of concentration. In some tanks, agitator blades moved slowly through the liquid. The liquid in one tank had the color and thickness of melted chocolate, bringing to mind Charley and the Chocolate factory in a boozy alternate universe.
For the most part, the sugar factory stages looks like they might have 80 years ago. However, the section holding the centrifuges looks a bit more modern. Resembling a bank of oversized washing machines with a shaft emerging up from the middle, they spin the murky liquid at high speed, separating the crystalized sugar from the molasses. They appear to be fully automated, starting and stopping cycles every few minutes.
A few hundred yards northeast of the sugar factory, surrounded by sugar cane fields on all sides, is the modern distillery, constructed around 2005. We first stop beside a 55,000 kg (about 14,500 gallon) molasses tank, which rests on top of a scale. The tank receives fresh molasses pumped through an underground pipe which travels 1 kilometer between the sugar factory and the distillery; a radio signal from the scale controls the pump automation. A short walk away is the oil-fired boiler that produces steam for distillery operations. I inquired why they didn’t burn bagasse like the factory does, and was told that bagasse may not always be in ready supply.
For their high ester rum mash, Worthy Park uses molasses, cane juice, and crushed cane stalks from the factory. The natural yeast from these stalks provide all that’s needed for natural fermentation, eliminating the need for bulk distiller’s yeast. Fermentation occurs in four White American Oak vessels. Worthy Park makes two primary rum styles, light and high ester. The lighter style ferments in all four fermenters for thirty hours, and is temperature controlled by heat exchanger units that keep the mash at around 30 degrees C (86 degrees F). At the end of fermentation, the mash has an ABV of approximately 8.5 percent.
In contrast, the high-ester mash uses only two fermenters, takes about two to three weeks to complete, and isn’t temperature controlled. The resulting rum has an ester level of around 900 PPM, more than funky enough. The ABV of the high-ester mash is considerably lower than the 8.5 percent of the light rum. That is, what you gain in flavor, you give up in total ethanol. We heard the same explanation of esters vs. alcohol content at several other distilleries as well.
Like all Jamaican distilleries, Worthy Park has a laboratory. However, theirs was by far the most organized and well-equipped that we encountered. In addition to tiny stills, scales, and beakers, they have a full-on gas chromatograph machine for precise component analysis. I’ve written about this type of analysis previously in this post. New, these cost more than most cars. I couldn’t help but notice that it was topped by a football trophy.
On the opposite side of the building from the fermentation area is a single pot still, purchased from Forsyths in Scotland. It’s completely automated and processes 18,000 liters (about 4,750 gallons) of mash in a five to six hour cycle. The still and twin retorts rest on an elevated platform which was first assembled in Scotland (framing and all) before being disassembled and shipped to Jamaica. Gordon shared that Forsyths’ bid price was somewhat higher than a bid from Vendome, but he took the higher price in exchange for the opportunity to spend two weeks in Scotland with Chivas Brothers (another customer of Forsyths) to learn as much about the distilling industry that he could.
Currently Gordon runs the still for only half the year. However, he could easily run it year round if the demand increased. He has also planned for future expansion, leaving enough space adjunct to the still to fit a second, should the opportunity arise. Unlike every other pot still we saw in Jamaica, Worthy Park’s proudly highlights its copper, rather than covering it with some dreary dark-brown, paint-like finish. In this regard, it looks like a Scotch whisky still picked up and moved here from Scotland. Which, in fact, it was!
After four days of touring distilleries, our group had compiled quite a few residual questions about the double retorts used in Jamaican rum pot stills, so with this being our last chance, we peppered Gordon with a ton of questions. Among the things we learned:
- The heads are the first 200 to 400 liters which come off the high wine retort.
- Collection of the rum starts when the distillate begins coming off at around 85 percent ABV.
- During the rum collection phase, the ABV rises, then drops back down. Collection stops when the ABV drops below 85 percent again.
- Some of the extra low wines go back into the still for subsequent re-distillation.
- The yield is about 270 proof liters per ton of molasses in the mash.
- About 1,000 nine-liter cases of finished overproof rum can be made a day from this single still.
What’s left after each run is the dunder. Some distilleries like Hampden use the dunder as a component in subsequent mashes, but at Worthy Park it’s spread out over the cane fields as fertilizer, but only under heavily restricted conditions, so as to prevent environmental damage.
The final portion of the main building holds giant stainless steel tanks, labelled “rum butts,” where the freshly distilled rum resides. Barreling of the rum is done here, although we didn’t see that during our visit.
Behind the main distillery building are two other large buildings. The first functions as a bottling facility and storage area. The building has already been expanded once, and a second line was added. Near one of the bottling lines was a large pallet stacked high with cases of Rum Bar Rum Cream, ready for shipment. Mmm…..
The final building is the aging warehouse. Here, barrels reside vertically arrayed on pallets stacked six high. The barrels are previously used bourbon barrels from Jack Daniels in Tennessee. Several people in our group noticed that each barrel was meticulously labeled with an easily readable and information packed tag, something we hadn’t seen elsewhere– a testament to the tight ship Gordon runs.
Gordon lives on the estate in a beautiful Jamaican great house, perched on a slight rise overlooking an expansive lawn. With the sugar factory and distillery business taken care of, we head to his house for a refreshing round of drinks, followed by a top notch, authentic Jamaican lunch on the veranda. Dessert included coffee, which we could sweeten with raw sugar straight from the refinery, as well as sponge cake that we topped with a bit of the rum cream.
Worthy Park was an amazing final day of our trip. The beautiful countryside, seeing a working sugar factory, an extra-long, in-depth tour of all parts of the distillery, and an amazing farewell lunch with our new Jamaican friends. Before departing in our rolling rum shack, Gordon and Alex had one more gift for us, beyond their extreme hospitality. In addition to Rum Bar gift packs and hats for each of us, they sent us off with a gallon of rum punch to consume on our long ride back to Kingston. It should surprise nobody that we further spiked the punch shortly after opening it. With Rum Bar overproof, of course!