Every camera in the room is trained on a lone man struggling to open a rather plain brown glass bottle, unlabeled except for a paper tag around its neck. The red wax sealing the neck is not giving way easily to his run of the mill corkscrew. Sukhinder Singh, co-owner of The Whiskey Exchange, has opened countless rare and historic bottles in his time, but this bottle of obviously very old bottle is vexing him.
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.
Hogo. Funk. The smell of overripe banana. Jamaican rum is uniquely beloved in the spirits world for its powerful, easily identifiable pungent fruitiness. Connoisseurs of Jamaican funk utter phrases like “high ester count” and “long fermentation.” But nothing gets the rum nerd more enthused than talk of “dunder,” the mysterious ingredient that allegedly makes Jamaican rum extra funky.
Exactly what comprises dunder is shrouded in mystery, but dig around a bit and you’ll find references to goat heads, dead bats, and worse, churning in a lethal, volatile mass of evil death stored in an earthen pit, presumably somewhere near the distillery for easy access. Heck, even I’m guilty of spreading these tales. Throw a few scoops of this black death into the molasses wash, and voila! Instant hogo. Or so many people think. The reality is far less simple—and way more interesting.
As part of an ACR tour of Rum Industry influencers, including Martin Cate, Camper English, Peter Holland, and Wayne Curtis, I received an intense, behind the scenes look at Hampden Estate, ground zero of high-hogo rums. Standing in the hot, dimly lit fermentation area with distillery manager Vivian Wisdom, we grilled him for nearly an hour on every aspect of how the wash that goes into Hampden’s stills is created. No detail was spared: Fermentation times, pH levels, quantities, we wanted to know all.