Among Jamaican rum aficionados, two names hold almost mythical allure: Plummer and Wedderburn. They’re known as old, obsolete Jamaican rum marques from a glorious time when all Jamaican rums were chock-full of funky flavors and hogo.
The main reason most aficionados know these names today is thanks to Smith & Cross, the gateway Jamaican rum for many people. Its dark blue label proudly declares, “PURE POT STILL – PLUMMER & WEDDERBURN.”
But what exactly do “Plummer” and “Wedderburn” mean?
Dig a bit with Google and you’ll find references to pages (like mine) that describe each as having a specific ester level range. To wit:
- Plummer (150-200 gr/hL AA)
- Wedderburn (200-300 gr/hL AA)
* gr/hL/AA is shorthand for “grams per hectoliter of absolute alcohol.” See this story for background.
Being able to attach a concrete number to a name creates a sense of knowledge among some enthusiasts; people fixate on those values, calling a modern rum a “Plummer” or a “Wedderburn” based entirely on a reported ester level.
This is silly.
Historical texts paint a more complicated, nuanced perspective, so step into your time machine and set the dial for London in the early 1800s.
The Wedderburn Family
There’s no shortage of people named Wedderburn about. It’s a not uncommon Scottish surname, with many Wedderburns of importance in their homeland over the centuries. This matters because when a text mentions a name like “John Wedderburn,” you have to ask, Which one?
Our story starts with John Wedderburn of Spring Garden and St. Marylebone (1743-1820). He lived for a time in Jamaica and owned more than a few plantations there, including Spring Garden, Mount Edgecombe Penn, Paradise Penn, Prospect, Bluecastle, Jerusalem, Moreland, Hill’s Mountain, Burnt Savannah, and Retreat.
In 1789 he returned to England, where he continued as a West India merchant and erstwhile absentee owner of Jamaican estates. In 1799 John Wedderburn was one of 353 people who subscribed (invested) £500,000 toward building the West India docks, which became ground zero of the British rum trade for the next 150 years.
John Wedderburn was the senior partner in the firm of Wedderburn & Co., based on Leadenhall Street in London. His tenure was from approximately 1803 until his death in 1820. John’s son James joined the firm around 1810. Another member of the firm was Andrew Wedderburn Colvile, who served as chairman of the West India Docks as well as governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The history of the London Wedderburn family business circa 1800 is extremely convoluted; common first names such as John, James, and so forth were reused in repeating lineage across generations. People came and went from the family business, and the business names changed repeatedly as partners arrived and departed.
In 1896, Alexander Dundas Ogilvy Wedderburn wrote, The Wedderburn Book – A History of the Wedderburns in the counties of Berwick and Forfar. In chapter three, “The Wedderburn Firm and Suit,” he walks through the history of Wedderburn & Co., including the travails of a long-running lawsuit. The narrative as presented (excerpted below) is extremely challenging to understand, so let’s move on.
A very early trade reference to Wedderburn & Co. appears in the February 3, 1806, Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser:
WANTED TO CHARTER
WO SHIPS of 400 to 450 tons register, well found, and coppered, to bring home cargoes of sugar, rum, and other produce, from the port of Savannah-la-Mar, Jamaica.
Apply to Wedderburn and Co. No. 35, Leadenhall-street
Another very early reference to Wedderburn and rum appears in that same publication on December 24, 1817, in an advertisement posted by George Henekey:
A year later in the October 22,1819, Stamford Mercury, and ad for a company called WB Blunsum states: “Fine Old Jamaica (Wedderburn’s) Rum”
For our purposes here, the key takeaway is that between 1800 to 1830, “Wedderburn” had become common terminology as a well-respected West India merchant trade name.
Turning now to the Plummer question, we find a certain Thomas Plummer (1749-1818). Plummer was also a West India merchant and a fellow subscriber to build the West India Docks. He was also a member of Parliament from 1802-1803.
As with the Wedderburn family business, Thomas’ son John Plummer (1780-1839) joined his father’s enterprise. Thomas also served with the West India Docks committee, and one source indicates he stood against the emancipation of slaves in British colonies.
In an interesting twist, one of the earliest references (1843) to rum advertised as “Plummer’s” calls out “PINE APPLE JAMAICA RUM”. Rest assured, other references to Plummer’s didn’t mention pineapple.
In time, and a few decades after “Wedderburn’s rums” became commonly advertised, “Plummer’s rums” began appearing, although a bit less frequently.
Altogether, less biographical data is available about Thomas and John Plummer; no family member came along later to write a book about them. Also, Plummer is a very common surname, so piecing together a complete story is challenging.
Plummer and Wedderburn as Merchants
An 1823 Parliamentary report features an early of reference to both Plummer & Co. and Wedderburn & Co. together. Of note, it specifically calls them out as rum merchants, with dates as early as 1797.
It indicates that Wedderburn & Co. was the largest rum importer at the time, while Plummer & Co. resided toward the lower end of the scale. Other names of note on the list are Milligan and Hibbert, both of whom were primary drivers in establishing the West India Docks.
Plummer & Wedderburn in the 1800s: Styles, not Marques
The names Plummer and Wedderburn appear quite frequently in spirits advertising in newspapers throughout Britain in the 1800s. Looking at the collective whole, it’s quite apparent that the terms Plummer and Wedderburn were used to describe a style of Jamaican rum and did not refer to a single marque from a single distillery.
This 1836 advertisement makes the above point quite clear:
Conceptually, one could match up the Jamaican estates owned by the Wedderburns with the marques above. We shall not attempt that feat here.
There are also numerous references to Wedderburn’s “finest” or “first” marques, such as this one.
Interestingly, this 1869 advertisement adds “Hawthorne’s celebrated marks,” alongside Plummer’s and Wedderburn’s.
The name “Shedden’s” also appeared in the same context alongside Plummer and Wedderburn marques:
In an 1887 report on the Colonial and Indian Exhibitions, we get a hint of something deeper. Note the Plummers’ description: “F<>G.” This is an estate rum marque. A 1923 advertisement by Fred L. Myers & Sons indicates it belongs to Friendship estate in Jamaica. However, there is no clear connection between the Plummer family and Friendship estate.
Other trade circulars of the era reference other estate mark for Plummer that is “FW”, rather than “F<>G”. Also, the Wedderburn marque given is “M over IW”:
The key point of all these excerpts is that Plummer and Wedderburn were indicative of a particular style of rum, rather than a prescribed ester level. Many different estate marques were sold as Plummer or Wedderburn rum.
After about 1880, the use of the names Plummer and Wedderburn in spirit trade advertisements tailed off.
At no point in any 1800s era documents I’ve found are ester levels or pungency used in classifying rums as Plummer or Wedderburn style, nor have I yet found any Plummer or Wedderburn references in Jamaican texts of the 1800s or very early 1900s. Thus, the data suggests that Plummer and Wedderburn were names used by the British rum trade; they do not appear to be have been in use by the Jamaicans of that era.
Plummer & Wedderburn in the 1900s
The earliest reference to Plummer and Wedderburn from a Jamaican source I’ve found so far is in the Nov. 5, 1921, edition of the Kingston Gleaner:
Sir, — We have read Mr. James Charley’s letter in your issue of the 3rd inst. Mr. Charley’s rums are not usually sold for local consumption. Being mainly of the Wedderburn and Plummer varieties, they command a better price in foreign markets.
FRED L. MYERS & Son
A few years later, on July 19, 1927, the Kingston Gleaner provided some tantalizing insights into what Plummer and Wedderburn are:
The principle rums made in Jamaica are:–
(1) “German” rums — these are rich in ethers which are mainly extracted by the German Chemists, so I am told, and be residue sold (mixed, it is alleged, with potato spirit) to the West African market as Jamaican rum. These also called “Tea” rums as they were brought by Russians for adding to tea.
(2) “Plummer and Wedderburn” rums from Westmoreland and surrounding districts. These are rich flavored rums, too rich for some palates; they are the most frequent in the English market.
(3) “Common Clean” rum this is the kind generally favored in the North part of the island, and appears to be one that conforms more or less to a regular standard of production.
Westmoreland is a parish in southwestern coast of Jamaica; once known for its rums, it has no active distilleries today.
For much of the early 1930s, the Jamaicans debated the future of their rum industry and in 1934 formed the Jamaican Spirits Pool to regulate production across distilleries. Extensive discussions went down regarding the classification of Jamaican rums, but an assignment of ester levels to specific types of rum was not part of the proceedings.
After extensive searching, the earliest reference I can locate to specific ester levels associated with Plummer and Wedderburn rums is the 1947 paper, The Chemistry of Rum Production, by J.R. McFarlane, chief chemist at Caymanas Estates Ltd. in Jamaica:
With regard to the four main types, the ester content is usually given as :—-
Common Clean 80 — 150 parts per 100,000 alcohol.
Plummer . . .. 150 -— 200 ,, ,,
Wedderburn 200 — 300 ,, ,,
Flavoured. 700 —1600 ,, ,,
Ethyl acetate comprises more than 98 per cent of the total esters present in rum, ethyl butyrate about 1 per cent., and a mixture of higher esters the remainder.
Thus we at least have some confidence that the mapping of Plummer and Wedderburn to specific ester levels has a Jamaican pedigree.
Of note in McFarlane’s ester ranges is the gap that exists between 300 and 700 gr/hL AA. The famed Jamaican chemist H.H. Cousins in a 1906 paper dubbed rums in this range ”Tea Rums,” used on the European continent to give body to afternoon tea. However, Cousin’s designation is at odds with the 1927 Kingston Gleaner article that lumps “tea rums” in with higher ester “German” rums made for blending with neutral sprits—Rum Verschnitt. My money is on Cousins having it right.
To wrap this all up:
- The Plummer and Wedderburn names are of British origin, not Jamaican.
- They do not appear to have been commonly used in Jamaica until the early twentieth century.
- The association between ester levels and the Plummer and Wedderburn names was a later development, well past the heyday of bold Jamaican rums.
- Plummer and Wedderburn are styles, not distillery marques like HLCF, TECC, or VRW.
As a bit of editorial commentary, ester levels are just one small part of the overall flavor equation. The Jamaicans measured the presence of only one ester, ethyl acetate, and it’s not even the most interesting ester. Other esters, such as ethyl butyrate are far more interesting, even though they occur at much lower levels.
In short, fixating on whether a rum is 180 gr/hL AA (a “Plummer”), or 220 gr/hL AA (a “Wedderburn”) means you’re likely missing the bigger picture.
There are plenty more rabbit holes to dive into on this topic. Hopefully these highlights will have stoked your interest for further research and exploration.
In contemplating and writing this piece, I owe a debt of gratitude to David Wondrich for his always on-point and helpful insights. His writing has inspired me for years, so it’s been a thrill to share notes and spitball theories with him.