With the current era of rum gathering steam toward a golden age, an exciting by-product is the ready availability of full-throated, hogo-licious Jamaican rums. The intense, overripe banana and pineapple notes of Jamaican rum are bewitching and, truth be told, trigger a subconscious recognition of something primal. Names like Hampden Estate, Long Pond, and Worthy Park roll off the tongues of hardcore Jamaican enthusiasts, who collect dozens of special bottlings for their rum bunkers.
It’s worth noting that Appleton Estate has made polished, world class Jamaican rum for decades. However, their rums are too refined for the funk-obsessed crowd who worships at the altar of Smith & Cross and Rum Fire.
High hogo Jamaican rum may not be for the everyday drinker, but for the rabid Jamaican connoisseur, Hampden Estate rums hold the same allure as the Laphroaig and Lagavulin peat-bombs have for the single malt Scotch dramsters. Replace the peat bogs and kiln floors of Scotland with dunder and muck pits of Jamaica and it’s clear that rum hyper-enthusiast can wonk-out just as much as the single malt geeks do. More on that in a moment.
For those blessed with access to indie-bottled rums and the credit limit to purchase them, high-ester, cask-strength, limited edition releases like Italian indie-bottler Velier’s HLCF (Hampden Estate) and Compagnie des Indes Jamaica New Yarmouth fly off the shelves as quickly as the annual Pappy van Winkle bourbon release. But even at lower price points, funk acolytes with their ears to the ground have plenty to be excited about – think Mezan XO, Doctor Bird, and Stolen Overproof – for righteous hogo at a reasonable price.
All of this is to say that Jamaican enthusiasts have found, if not a cornucopia of funktastic offerings, at least a steady stream of Jamaican rum releases to keep the palate sated. Ultimately, there are only a handful of operating Jamaican distilleries, and their profiles become well-known and familiar in time. With the Jamaican itch finally being scratched, it’s only natural to wonder what’s next. Where do we go from here?
A Wonky Aside on Ester, Dunder, and Muck
Esters, the chemical compounds that smell and taste of fruit, are the cornerstone of rum flavors. (Read more about them here.) During fermentation, esters creation can be supercharged by the addition of “dunder” and/or “muck.” While these words are frequently thrown about by Jamaican rum enthusiasts, the vast majority of them don’t have a solid understanding of what they are.
While dunder might be imagined as some sort of voodoo-enhanced mystery ingredient, it’s really just the thick liquid remaining in the still after distillation. Distillers know it as stillage, and the French term for it is vinasse.
The high acid content of dunder supercharges the production of esters to levels not found in most rums. Going a step beyond dunder is muck — the combination of dunder and other organic compounds like fruit, which is left to putrefy into an unholy, unimaginably foul smelling sludge. A large dollop of muck in the fermentation vat alongside the molasses boosts ester production into the stratosphere.
(Important aside: Not all Jamaican distilleries use dunder and/or muck. At least two do: Hampden Estate and Long Pond. Appleton Estate and Worthy Park say they don’t use dunder or muck.)
While Jamaica is particularly known for its dunder- and muck-driven ester bombs, it’s never had a lock on dunder/vinasse usage. It’s clear from this excerpt from Eugène Boullanger’s 1909 book Industries agricoles de fermentation, distillerie agricole et industrielle, alcools, eaux-de-vie de fruits, rhums. The translated text reads:
In the rhumeries of Martinique … molasses and water was mixed with vinasse in the following proportions: Molasses, 10 to 15 liters; water, 35 liters; vinasse, 70 to 50 liters. …
In Jamaica, the composition is as follows: molasses, 100 liters; vinasse, 400 liters; washing water, 250 liters; water, 250 liters.
In Haiti, 12 liters of molasses are used for 55 liters of water and 33 liters of vinasse…
It is the same in Reunion Island, where we sometimes add a little vinasse, without exceeding the proportion of 30 to 35 percent.
In short, we have evidence of dunder usage in Martinique, Reunion Island, and Haiti. So if it’s funky, high ester rums we’re after, let’s start our search there!
Vive la France!
Although possessing a very different flavor profile than classic Jamaican rum, the sugar-cane juice rhums of Martinique and Guadeloupe also pack a hugely aromatic punch. In fact, Martinique’s AOC regulations specify a minimum level of volatile compounds, i.e. flavor components, per liter of rhum. In essence, any bottle of AOC-labeled rhum agricole is guaranteed a minimum flavor level.
(Wonky aside: Esters are only a subset of the volatile compounds measured for French rhums. Thus, you can’t directly compare Jamaican rum ester counts with the volatile component measurements cited for agricole rhums. The measured ester level of rum will almost always be lower than the volatile component measurement.)
While Jamaican rum is all about overripe fruit notes, rhum agricole is grassy, earthy, and savory. Nose a glass of unaged rhum agricole, and the cane stalk aroma practically whacks you across the forehead.
Odds are, if you’re obsessed with Jamaican funk, you probably already know about rhum agricole, but I’m mentioning it here for completeness sake and for another reason: The discussion of rhum agricole leads us to a much more exotic style of rum made on Martinique – Grand Arôme.
While sugar cane-based rums are the order of the day in the French West Indies, Martinique’s Le Galion is the last remaining distillery working primarily with molasses. While they make a few decent budget-oriented rums, it’s their Grand Arôme that’s particularly interesting– essentially the French version of funky Jamaican rum.
Like their Jamaican counterparts, Le Galion’s Grand Arôme gets its flavor from extended fermentation and the use of vinasse. Unlike pot-distilled high ester Jamaican rum, Le Galion’s Grand Arôme is column distilled, albeit in a still specially designed for a more flavorful result. (This coeur-de-chauffe post has some great additional background on the Le Galion distillery.)
Unfortunately, Le Galion’s Grand Arôme is almost exclusively sold in bulk to blenders such as E&A Scheer, who use it in small quantities as top notes in various blends, as well as reselling it for use as concentrated flavor and aroma in tobacco, candy, and pastries. One place you’ll find Grand Arôme is in Denizen’s Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of Jamaican rums and Grand Arôme. The Denizen blend was crafted to replicate the rum flavors that Martin Cate believes were used in the revised Trader Vic’s Mai Tai recipe after the Wray & Nephew 17 year rum of the original 1944 recipe was completely consumed.
Grand Arôme, Part Deux
If you’re determined to taste a Grand Arôme style rhum, your best bet is to go farther afield than the Caribbean — all the way to the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Madagascar. On the relatively tiny Reunion Island (also part of France, as are Martinique and Guadeloupe), you’ll find a handful of distilleries, including Distillerie de Savanna. Being a French territory, agricole style cane juice rhums are the order of the day.
While Savanna makes traditional rhum agricoles, what we’re after is Savanna’s Lontan and HERR lineups. The Lontan range rums have a long fermentation using dunder and are column distilled – a classic Grand Arôme. The HERR, on the other hand, cranks everything up to eleven, using both dunder and an extra slug of specifically chosen bacteria to send the ester levels off the charts. The HERR is also pot distilled, traditionally the domain of high-ester rums.
At 40 percent ABV, unaged Lontan has a nice bouquet of fruit on the nose, with some similarities to the Jamaican overproofs like Wray & Nephew and Rum Fire. However, the dominant overripe banana notes found in many Jamaican rums is replaced by roasted pineapple and leather. It’s simultaneously both very familiar ground for Jamaican enthusiasts, yet very different.
The 57 percent ABV unaged version bursts out of the bottle and snaps your head back with a pineapple explosion. You’d smell less pineapple if you showered in pineapple juice. Truth be told, I might just prefer this rum over any other overproof white rum.
Moving to the aged Savanna expressions, the Millésime 2007 Lontan is aged for eight years in ex-Cognac casks and bottled at 60.4 percent ABV. The nose is only a dull roar compared to the unaged Lontan, and the cask finishing rounds off the most extreme edges of the pineapple notes. Given lots of time in the glass, it smooths out a bit and the dried fruit flavors come forward. It’s still an 800 pound gorilla of a rhum, however.
As for the HERR, aged for ten years in ex-Cognac and bottled at 63.8 percent, it hits your taste buds and stomps them repeatedly until they beg for mercy. Having tasted Hampden Estate DOK (see below) on several occasions, the Savanna HERR has a similar entry, an almost chemical solvent character that’s impossible to describe: Neither fish, nor fowl, nor anything else familiar. In time, a bit of mint strolls by in the background. A good while longer, as your taste buds and nasal passages finally stagger back to life, along comes a blast of … wait for it… Brach’s strawberry flavored hard candy. Lance over at the Lone Caner describes it as strawberry bubble gum, but I’m sticking with strawberry candy.
Simply put, the Savanna HERR is proof that no matter how much you enjoy something, you can take it too far. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the HERR. Rather, it’s exactly what it sets out to be: an exercise in extremes, an untamed monster. I can’t call it a pleasant sipper to enjoy on the verandah after a long day.
The takeaway from the Savanna rhums? Rest assured, the French island distilleries are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the Jamaican hogo-bombs.
Onward to Haiti
Back in the Caribbean, Haitian Clairin is rapidly gaining mindshare with the r(h)um crowd, thanks in large part to Luca Gargano and Velier. Clairin is essentially rhum agricole made the way it was hundreds of years ago: in numerous small distilleries in rural villages using a bare minimum of technology. With wild yeast fermentation and very basic, old-school distilling equipment, Clairin is rhum agricole’s raw, untamed cousin. And it’s delicious!
Having attended Luca Gargano’s talk on Clairin at Tales of the Cocktail 2015, I was already familiar with the basics of clairin and owned a full set of the expressions available in the U.S. Then one day, La Maison & Velier’s Kate Perry told me about a new clairin expression: Le Rocher. Unlike the other Velier bottled clairins, it’s cane syrup-based, so it won’t have the same intense grassy notes as the rhum agricoles and the other clairins. Since it’s not yet available in the U.S. as I write this, I made sure to pick up a bottle in Paris.
The back label of the Le Rocher (translated from French) says: “…Clairin Le Rocher is produced using cane syrup, produced with natural juice, and adding about 30 percent of vinasse from the previous distillations during fermentation: an archaeological example of the production method of the French colonies, influenced since 1785 by the technique developed by the British in Jamaica, the “dunder-style.”
Further inquiries turn up that it’s made from three different cane varietals and is pot distilled a single time to bottling proof–i.e., it’s not diluted for bottling. Basically, the Le Rocher is dunder-charged, pot-stilled rum, closer in production method to Jamaican style rum than cane-juice based rhum agricole. Color me excited!
The Le Rocher noses very fruity, like a Jamaican, but without the overripe banana aspect. The second night I tried it, I smelled paprika – most unusual! The taste is suitably intense, darting among fresh fruit, apple-cider vinegar tones, and a flash of leather before finishing with peppery notes. I think of it as the love-child of two revered rum-making cultures.
Finally, let’s return to Jamaica to ensure we’ve thoroughly scouted out all the funk sources. Of the Jamaican distilleries, Hampden Estate in the Trelawny parish has a special place in the hearts of enthusiasts, primarily because it specializes in high-ester marques. Rums like Velier’s “Diamond H – <H>” and HLCF expressions, Barrell Rum’s Batch 001, and even the unaged Rum Fire have forever linked the Hampden name to high-ester flavor bombs. Hampden’s DOK marque, with an ester level of 1600 g/hL AA, is the funkiest allowed by Jamaican law. Exceedingly rare in the wild, in its pure, unblended and unaged form, DOK is a challenge to consume beyond a few sips; I can vouch for this firsthand.
While Hampden Estate and its muck pit gets the lion’s share of high ester attention, its Trelawny neighbor Long Pond also specializes in high-ester rums and uses a muck pit. Marque for marque, up to Jamaica’s legal ester limits, Long Pond matches Hampden Estate. Where Hampden has HLCF (500-700 g/hL AA), Long Pond has STC^E (550-700 g/hL AA). And Hampden’s DOK (1500-1600 g/hL AA) is matched by Long Pond’s TECC (also 1500-1600 g/hl AA).
While Hampden’s marques receive the most attention – Velier uses the marque as the expression name — Long Pond’s marques can also be found on store shelves. However, beyond a few indie-bottlings, you’ll mostly find Long Pond in blends like Plantation’s OFTD Overproof. However, Velier seems to be releasing some high-ester Long Pond marques as well later in 2018.
The wildcard of Jamaican funk is New Yarmouth, Appleton Estate’s sister distillery, which is also owned by Campari/Wray & Nephew. Campari holds information about New Yarmouth very close, and only an exceedingly small number of non-employees have been allowed in. However, several reliable sources have indicated New Yarmouth is also capable of producing ultra high-ester rums. If you’re among the lucky few who’ve tried the Compagnie des Indes Jamaica New Yarmouth, you know it’s true!
True connoisseurs of Jamaican hogo go to extremes to acquire ever more exotic and rare funk-bombs. However, the primal aromatic sensations that draw you into Jamaican rums have other manifestations, as we learned above. There may be yet more example of high ester, funk-bombs yet to be discovered, and I’ll be on the lookout.
It’s a testament to rum’s diversity and the dedication of artisan producers that these ancient production techniques still exist in a world ever dominated by the big players. The best way to ensure these gems live for future generations is to seek these rums out and buy them, thus ensuring the continued financial viability of this style of rum production. In short, get hunting!