The Wild Diversity of Jamaican Rum

Morning fog over a sugarcane field at Worthy Park Estate.

No infants are weaned on espresso, and toddlers don’t turn to truffles. The young and the young of palate are more likely to gravitate toward Velveeta and Mountain Dew than stinky Epoisses and fermented pu’erh tea. But the world is full of flavors, waiting for our brains and mouths to mature and our opinions to ripen. And in the booze world, no spirit walks the line dividing fantastic from frightening quite like the rums from Jamaica.

“When you bring Jamaican rum up to your nose, there’s a primal thing at the back of your brain—‘This is what I’ve been looking for!’ ” says Matt Pietrek, a rum aficionado who documents both the scientific and the secular aspects of rum on his blog, Cocktail Wonk. “It feels organic, like it came from the earth. It’s not something that’s been carefully shepherded—it’s just there. It kicks you in a way that’s different from other rums, and in the best of them, there’s almost an element of danger. There’s something wild about it—‘Is this safe? I have to be careful about this.’ ”

Jamaica makes the fuzz box of rums, a distortion pedal that takes the simple tones of sugarcane and water and gives them a tropical buzz. Using techniques that share spiritual connection with French cheese caves, Belgian lambic breweries and Korean kimchi, Jamaica has for centuries created its own singular profile in the rum world. And increasingly, American drinkers are discovering Jamaica’s depths. Just as tastes matured from vodka to gin and from mixto tequila to single-village mezcal, rum drinkers are seeking out the flavorful fuzz that can only be found in the heavier, heartier, higher-ester rums from Jamaica—the haut goût, or hogo, that spirits historian David Wondrich writes was the 18th-century term used to describe such rums, an allusion to the rangy, rough fragrance of aging meat. Hogo? Happy to meet you.

Andrea “Prudence” Mitchell working in the sugarcane fields at Worthy Park.

“Jamaican rum has a strong appeal to craft bartenders,” says Martin Cate, owner of rum bars including Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon’s Hale Pele. “They’re looking for authenticity and tradition and heritage in spirits, in a world of so many fake stories and artificial histories.”

Cate says that some of the aspects that define the history and character of Jamaican rum—the long fermentations that result in a pungent fragrance, the use of double-retort pot stills to maintain the rum’s character, the traditional use of dunder and muck (a kind of bacterial ferment that amps up the rum’s complexity)—fit what bartenders and curious drinkers are searching for. “It’s like when someone experiences artisanal mezcal for the first time, or traditional Armagnac or Calvados—you see these traditions and heritage, and people are drawn to that. It’s interesting and enigmatic, and it’s all done on kind of a pre-industrial commercial scale.”

Jamaican rum isn’t exactly new to the U.S., of course. J. Wray & Nephew Ltd., the island’s largest producer, operates two distilleries (the Appleton distillery, which makes the rums sold under that label, and the New Yarmouth distillery, which makes Wray & Nephew), and the aged rums from Appleton have long demonstrated the island’s depth of appeal. “Jamaican rum has a rich, bold, complex character, and an intriguing funkiness ranging from subtle and sophisticated to extreme,” says Joy Spence, Appleton’s master blender. “Jamaica has the largest pot-still production in the Caribbean, and it’s pot-still rum that’s the heart and soul of all rums. The flavors we get from a pot still are distinctive and intriguing, particularly those derived from the esters and fatty acid compounds.”

A trickle of interest in Jamaican rum is now resulting in a stream of new labels in American bars—Smith & Cross first pushed hogo buttons in 2009, and now Jamaican brands like Rum-Bar and Rum Fire are being joined by brands like Plantation and by independent bottlers from around the world, all scratching rum drinkers’ itch for spirits that carry a sense of place and story. “People are looking to understand what they’re drinking, and I think that bodes particularly well for rum,” says Dave Schmier, a spirits importer and bottler who recently introduced The Funk, a high-ester rum from Jamaica’s Worthy Park distillery. “People are paying attention to rum now. It’s no longer this kind of amorphous, cheap product that you drink when you want to talk like a pirate.”

One of Jamaica’s many roadside rum bars.

Dunder Road

The factors that make Jamaican rum so unique are the very things that others would consider faults. All spirits aim for a balance between the pure and the impure, with the “pure” gauged as straight ethanol and water, and the “impure” covering everything else, included under the blanket term of congeners. Vodka’s at the extreme end of the spectrum, bumping as close to purity as possible, while all other spirits draw their particular flavors and nuances from congeners—from the chemical compounds contributed by botanicals during gin distillation, to the fatty acids carried through the pot still when making whisky, to the influence of wood during barrel aging.

While things like higher alcohols and volatile acids fit under the congener umbrella, of particular interest to drinkers of Jamaican rum are the chemical compounds known as esters, formed by the convergence of an alcohol and an acid. Ethyl acetate (also used as a solvent) is the most typical ester found in rum, but a range of other chemical compounds can be found in the spirit. These esters give aromas and flavors across the spectrum, most particularly fruit flavors like grapes and berries, bananas and pineapple. Jamaican producers learned early on that such naturally occurring compounds could be coaxed to appear in larger concentrations—through longer and less-controlled fermentation, and by creating conditions suitable for ester formation. Whereas many rum-producing islands may ferment their wash anywhere between one and three days, higher-ester Jamaican rums may ferment anywhere between one and three weeks, or even longer.

Dunder is basically stillage—the dark goop left behind after a pot-still distillation run—that contributes to the flavor of the rum.

And then there’s muck and dunder. “Muck and dunder—mystery ingredients!” Pietrek says. “The reality is it’s kind of like sour-mash bourbon. Esters come from alcohol and acid—you’re making alcohol during the ferment, and you can add more acid to juice it along.” Dunder is basically stillage—the dark goop left behind after a pot-still distillation run—and it’s rich in such acids. “You throw this highly acidic stuff in there, and it binds and creates more esters. The wash comes out with much higher esters than a typical ferment elsewhere.” But is there a way to crank up the esters even more? Absolutely—via the substance with the appealing name muck. Muck is essentially a biologically rich bacterial culture akin to a “mother” of vinegar, nurtured along for generations, a brew of molasses, cane juice, dunder and other organic substances, its sugar content sometimes nudged with the addition of bananas or pineapples or jackfruit.

When muck is added to a ferment, it produces a biochemical kaboom. “Muck throws even more interesting stuff in there,” Pietrek says. “Esters are like a matrix—here are the alcohols, and here are the acids,” he says, drawing lines in the air with his hands. “You throw different acids in there, you get whole other esters as a result.” The end result can be a spectacularly pungent rum, with an ester count (calculated as the number of grams of esters per hectoliter of pure alcohol) that may reach into the thousands. (By comparison, a light Puerto Rican rum may carry an ester count of less than 20.)

These higher-ester spirits are what earned Jamaican rum its reputation. To accommodate a high level of duties and taxes, importers in Germany (once a huge market for Jamaican rum) would bring in small amounts of rum with a very high ester load and use it to flavor a more neutral spirit to give it a rum quality. The practice led to the development of a system of marks (or marques), which used scales of ester content with evocative Bertie Wooster–ish names: Common Clean, Plummer, Wedderburn, High Continental. This practice of selecting and blending different rum marks is part of Jamaican rum’s heritage, and similar approaches are still used today. Eric Seed at Minnesota-based Haus Alpenz refreshed the practice in 2009 when he selected a blend of marks from Hampden Estate to introduce as Smith & Cross, a hogo-heavy mix that helped spark renewed interest in Jamaican rums. And importers and blenders in the Netherlands and France still use high-ester Jamaican rum to add hogo hustle to mixes of lighter and richer-tasting rums.

Vivian Wisdom at Hampden Estate.

At the Hampden Estate distillery in Trelawny parish on the north side of Jamaica, master distiller Vivian Wisdom and his team make some of the highest-ester rums on the island. Hampden Estate is one of only two of Jamaica’s six operating distilleries to still use traditional muck pits, and Hampden also eschews the use of commercial yeast. (Long Pond Distillery, one of two distilleries owned by National Rums of Jamaica—a joint partnership between the Jamaican government, Guyana-based Demerara Distillers Limited and France-based Maison Ferrand—also uses muck pits, and resumed operation last year after a roughly five-year closure, though a fire in July halted production for the forseeable future.) Instead, at Hampden the dunder-laced wash is left to ferment for two weeks in open cedar tanks, letting natural airborne yeast distinctive to the area transform the murky mix into material for the still. This long, leisurely fermentation—along with the characteristics from the yeast and muck, and the gentle distillation via pot still—means the rums from Hampden could send ester levels cresting above 7,000.

Not that you’ll ever see them. A 1934 law set the legal maximum at 1,600 grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol for taxation purposes, and Hampden produces some rums at the higher end of the range for use in blending (as well as for the production of perfume and chocolate). Marks in Hampden’s laboratory range from the relatively austere “Diamond” H, with an ester range between 900 and 1,000 and which offers a long, rangy finish, to the potent DOK, which bumps up against the legal limit and promises a face-melting blast of pyrotechnic funk, a savory soy umami layered beneath high, searing notes of tropical fruit. (The highest-ester rums bottled for consumption typically have ester counts below 600.)

The ester number offers a way to gauge a Jamaican rum’s funkiness, but higher numbers don’t translate to better rums—such high-ester spirits are made for being blended into other things in small quantities, not consumed on their own. But that hasn’t stopped an independent bottler from putting DOK into a bottle and selling it to dunderheads. “You can make parallels between the high-ester junkies and those who are looking for whiskies so peaty that they’ll scare everybody else away,” says Dave Schmier.

Canebrake

As the flow of Jamaican rum into the U.S. increases, a larger part of that stream is coming from Worthy Park Estate. Originally established in 1670, Worthy Park produced rum for more than 200 years before shutting its distillery in 1962. Owned by the Clarke family (no relation) since 1918, the estate continued to raise sugarcane for its sugar factory, and in 2005, current owner Gordon Clarke built a state-of-the-art distillery and resumed rum production.

Cane fields fill nearly 4,000 acres of the estate’s almost 10,000 acres (which include the surrounding mountains and the floor of the valley), and at 1,200 feet above sea level, the valley is warm during the day and cool at night, with a blanket of fog in the morning. On a late-spring day, the cane harvest is underway; the fields are first burned to remove the loose, knife-sharp leaves and to drive away rodents and insects, then workers enter the fields to harvest the cane. Around 80 percent of Worthy Park’s cane is hand-harvested by workers wearing soot-stained clothing, swinging broad machetes to first chop the cane at its base, then remove the upper tip.

Barrels at Worthy Park.

Although Worthy Park operates an on-site sugar factory, which results in a supply of its own molasses (as well as sugar for the Jamaica Gold brand), a binding arrangement with other producers means that it must first sell the molasses to a common pool, Caribbean Molasses, and then purchase the molasses back, without it ever leaving the estate. This molasses is used in Worthy Park’s distillery, where the estate makes both low-ester and high-ester rums, the esters produced via long fermentation (as long as three weeks, for the high-ester tanks) and a local yeast culture cultivated in tanks outside. “We don’t use muck pits, we don’t use dunder or anything else,” says Gordon Clarke. “We’re happy at a level of 700 to 900.”

Worthy Park began introducing its rum into the U.S. earlier this year. In addition to its Rum-Bar brand—a modestly priced selection of white, gold and unaged overproof blends aromatic with fruity esters, and perfectly suited for cocktails—it began exporting its Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve, a rich blend of 6-, 8- and 10-year-old rums. A 12-year-old Worthy Park rum may be on American shelves before the end of this year.

Different versions and blends of rums from Worthy Park increasingly populate bar menus: rum expert and importer Ed Hamilton prepares his own blend of ester-laden Worthy Park rums for his Hamilton Jamaican Gold and Jamaican Black rums (the rums share an identical formula, the only difference is added caramel coloring for the black rum), and Hamilton Jamaican Blond—an aged version of the gold/black base blend with an added dose of one-year-old rum to brighten the mix—was just introduced in July.

Other blends of Worthy Park’s rums can be found under the labels for Doctor Bird, which is barrel-finished in Moscatel casks and then bottled by Detroit-based Two James Spirits, and Schmier’s rum project, The Funk, which puts the rum’s high-ester character right in its name. Such practice is somewhat mirrored by La Maison & Velier, a partnership between Paris-based La Maison du Whisky and the Italian importer Velier, which has long purchased small lots of individual barrels from throughout the Caribbean and sold the rum to connoisseurs and collectors. This fall, they are introducing Forsythes WP 502 into the U.S., a rum made to Velier’s specifications (calling for a three-week ferment, among other things) at Worthy Park, and sold unaged at a robust 115 proof, as well as a clock-cleaning 151 proof. The “WP” in the name is a nod to the distillery, and the “502” indicates how Velier is planting the flag when it comes to ester counts. “There are 502 grams of impurities [per hectoliter of pure alcohol]—but very nice impurities!” says Daniele Biondi, the sugarcane spirits manager at La Maison & Velier. “Impurities are what make you and I different.”

France-based Plantation Rum has also increasingly turned to Jamaica, both for its vintage bottlings as well as rum for blends, such as its signature dark rum and its overproof Plantation O.F.T.D. In 2017, Maison Ferrand, which makes Plantation, formalized the arrangement by buying into a partnership in National Rums of Jamaica, giving the company a partial ownership stake in two of Jamaica’s six currently operating rum distilleries: Long Pond and Clarendon (as well as Innswood, a nonoperational distillery now being used for aging and blending). This fall, Plantation introduces its newest permanent addition, Xaymaca Special Dry, named using the indigenous Arawak term for the island, and composed of pot-still rums from the two distilleries, aged in Jamaica and in France and bottled with an approachable (yet still tantalizingly pungent) ester count of about 156.

Celine’s Restaurant at Hellshire Beach (left); the bar in Mama Flo’s restaurant.

Feeling Punchy

It’s cocktail hour at Jrum Stop Chill Spot, a rum bar on the side of the highway near Worthy Park Estate. Inside the shipping container–size bar—painted yellow, black and green, with bits of aluminum foil tucked into gaps in the metal ceiling and a giant Rum-Bar logo on its exterior—the owner, Anne Marie Thomas, details the primary drinks on offer: rum and water, rum and Ting (a Jamaican grapefruit soda that pairs spectacularly well with high-ester overproof rum), rum and Pepsi. Thomas says that most rum bars in Jamaica are owned and run by women—“We’re just more laid-back,” she says—and then slides a small flask of Wray & Nephew and a plastic bottle of Ting across the bar before scooping ice from a picnic cooler into plastic cups and leaving everything else up to the customer.

There are an estimated 20,000 rum bars like this in Jamaica—shipping containers and shacks, roadside stands all lined together, basically anywhere you can put up a counter big enough to hold a cup of rum—and determining an exact number is likely impossible. Permits are required, of course, though enforcement is lax; owners who haven’t yet filed their paperwork can post a sign, “It is my intention to file for a license,” then open the door for business.

Jamaican rum’s eye-opening hogo made it a valued ingredient during the golden age of punch, and that same pop of pungency earned Jamaican rum a spot in many early bar guides. In the 20th century, with the advent of the tiki bar, Jamaican rum moved into a fresh heyday, its funk and its florals operating in concert with other rums from throughout the Caribbean, and offering a savory counterpoint to layers of fruits and spice. “Jamaica is still doing it the old way, with all those esters and impurities that give it that rummy taste, that funk, that pirate-juice aspect,” says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, tiki historian and author, and owner of Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans.

Berry says that heavy, dark Jamaican rums were an essential aspect of old tiki drinks, offering a type of density and character that other rums just couldn’t. And Jamaican rum’s boldness played a vital role, too, supporting other big-flavored ingredients. “Pineapple, cinnamon, allspice—they’re assertive flavors, they do a little dance with that heavy, pungent rum—they sort of like each other, so they don’t fight.”

Berry says some of the more intense higher-ester rums aren’t particularly suited for these classic recipes, but aged rums with milder ester levels—such as Rum-Bar Gold or Hamilton’s Jamaican Gold—fit more cleanly into the role historically filled by Jamaican rum. Other drinks may benefit from even older, even lower-ester blends of Jamaican rum, a spot long filled by the rums from Appleton. “Appleton has the blending expertise to produce these really sophisticated, polished rums that are really versatile,” says Martin Cate. “You can use these rums in a huge range of applications—it’s still full-flavored, but it’s got a really nice oak character, so it’s good served neat or as a substitute for whiskey in stirred drinks. And nobody has aged stocks like Appleton—they have a gold mine of good aged rums.”

The J. Gaze from Zig Zag in Seattle uses white overproof Jamaican rum with lime, pineapple syrup and Angostura biters.

Though the higher-ester rums do have their place in cocktails, Cate says. “What you get to do with those rums is flex with them,” he says. “You can just use them, like in a Daiquiri, or you can go the tiki route and split it—maybe use an ounce and a half of a pretty nice column-still rum, and a half-ounce of something like Rum Fire, and it provides a terrific accent. It adds a little touch to really make a drink sing.”

Smith & Cross helped reintroduce bartenders to the role of high-ester Jamaican rum, and how it can stand up to other aggressive ingredients like Campari, as in the Kingston Negroni. But Eric Seed says high-ester rums shine best in some of the simplest preparations. “Look at the flavor, that hogo, the fruit notes that come from Jamaican rum,” Seed says. “Look to their main drink for it—it’s Wray & Ting. When you take something high ester and blend it with a strong fruit juice or fruit soda, it’s really simple, and really cool. When you have something that’s high-ester with a lot of character, you don’t need a lot of it to add a lot of dimension to otherwise simple drinks.”

Between the nuanced aged blends from Appleton and the high-ester storm from brands like Rum Fire, American drinkers are being exposed to a wider spectrum of Jamaican rums, which makes Martin Cate happy. “Europe has had the pleasure of these rums for a long time, but it’s all new to us—but it’s great news to us,” he says. “It helps elevate the overall category. It shows that rum has huge flexibility and diversity, and throws a Molotov cocktail at all the terribly flavored garbage that we’ve had shoved at us for so many years. Here’s stuff with a story to tell, with a regional specialty. That appeals to bartenders, and to consumers looking for authenticity, and for cultural exploration, to learn more about the history of the world’s spirits.”

And just as our palates mature from Nestle Quik to Valrhona, which opens up worlds of flavor possibilities, Jamaican rum follows a similar path, leading drinkers from the mild, safe harbor of neutral spirits toward the danger and drama of the open sea. “We’re coming from a generation that was largely started on vodka, so introducing funk and hogo and esters, it was quite a stretch,” says Eric Seed. “But this voyage of discovery, is it altogether different from how we learn about cheese? We start with something simple, processed and highly refined, and work our way to something more rustic, and deep and diverse in flavor. Over time, you stop calling it stinky cheese and you see it for what it is.”


Like what you see? Get more of the best of liquid culture when you sign up for our bi-monthly magazine. Subscribe now and save up to 59%—it’s just $21.95 for one year or $32.95 for two years. Click here for details.