Funk, hogo, esters: Hampden Estate is on the ascendancy as a cult favourite among the rum cognoscenti. Distilled dives deep into the dunder to learn more about how this Jamaican rum gets its funk on.
Words by Wayne Curtis
Photography by Franz Marzouca
Walking through the fermentation room of Hampden Estate conjures many words, but sterile is not one of them, a fact confirmed by Vivian Wisdom, the proud manager of this venerable rum distillery, housed on one of Jamaica’s oldest sugar estates.
The space is a dusky confusion of heavy beams and thick pipes encrusted with a sooty patina of age, stitching together ancient wooden fermentation tanks that seem to remain intact through some sort of dimly remembered loyalty. Troughs extend out from beneath tanks, housing a dark and sinister liquid known somewhat grimly as ‘muck’. Shafts of light come in through unpatched holes in the roof, illuminating the webs of large spiders – many large spiders – which sit unperturbed, projecting a proprietary air that only comes after a residency of many generations. No one seems quite sure of the role spiders play in preserving the character of Hampden’s rum, but the consensus is that it’s best to leave them alone. The building itself is laden with indigenous yeasts and microbes that are the harbingers of fullness and flavour, a microenvironment nurtured over a couple of hundred years by its immediate habitat. This is terroir in the extreme, and home to one of the most revered names among aficionados of traditional, full-bodied Jamaican pot still rum.
This Dickensian setting could not be more at odds with the distillery’s idyllic surroundings, a warren of wild yeast, spores and fungus nestled among palm fronds and sugar cane fields in the serenity of the Queen of Spain Valley in Trelawny Parish. That less than an hour’s drive away beachgoers contemplate the sand and surf of Montego Bay – Planter’s Punch in hand – only serves to underscore the dichotomy.
Yet despite its stately great house, tree-lined driveway, and lush, tropical grounds, Hampden Estate’s production facility remains a living museum: a full-scale Victorian reproduction of traditional Jamaican rum-making, largely unchanged since the eighteenth century, using techniques and equipment almost as ancient. It also lays claim to making some of the best and most distinctive rum anywhere in the West Indies, and is on the ascendancy to becoming a cult favourite among rum connoisseurs, some of whom draw comparisons to Port Ellen and Ardbeg, arguably two of Scotch whisky’s most hallowed names.
The plantation itself was established in 1753 as a sugar mill. It was a time of nearly insatiable demand in Europe, and the West Indies provided the fertile soils and ideal climate for growing cane, along with a burgeoning slave trade that provided the necessary labour. Like many other sugar plantations, Hampden Estate built a distillery on-site to convert the dross of molasses into the gold of rum.
The estate minted a small fortune for the proprietors but come the late 1800s rum exports fell, in no small part due to an increase in German tariffs that stemmed the flow of Jamaican rum to the continent. At the urging of Herbert Henry Cousins, then Jamaican minister of agriculture, the distilleries responded by improvising their production techniques to introduce a new style of high-ester rum, a concentrated spirit that allowed distillers to pack more flavour into the same amount of liquid.
The distilleries of northern Jamaica in particular embraced this new funk, the word that most easily describes the intensity and aroma of high esterification. With names like amyl acetate and ethyl butyrate, esters are the organic compounds that give rise to the majority of flavour in spirits, the latter of which has a richly pleasing aroma of overripe pineapple, one of the hallmarks of Jamaican rum.
Hampden Estate is thought to be among the first to have developed a high-ester rum, and German blenders clamoured for this new marque of dense, funky distillate marketed during the era as ‘High Continental Style’. When diluted with the near-neutral beet spirit distilled in Germany, it made for a passable rum-facsimile that sidestepped the steep import tariffs. These high-ester Jamaican rums also found a market for non-potable purposes that continues to this day, most notably adding fullness and nuance to candy, perfume and tobacco, among other products.
Come the 1950s, ‘Common Clean’ rums – the moniker given to the lighter, sweeter style popular at present – began to dominate consumer palates. The advent of column stills found distillers producing lighter rums alongside traditional pot still spirit, and blending the two styles. Though Hampden continues to this day to use pot stills exclusively, demand for Jamaica’s heavy, complex rums quickly subsided. At Hampden Estates this downturn came to a head in 2002 after a series of defaulted loans found the Jamaican government seizing control of the distillery, despite a private ownership of over 250 years that had spanned just two families.
The distillery was inadvertently acquired by the Hussey family through Everglade Farms in 2009, bundled as part of the purchase of the Long Ponds cane fields and sugar factory auctioned off by the government. A century-old family firm with roots in dairy farming, the Husseys had been involved in agriculture, cattle, racehorses, hotels and casinos, but had experience of neither sugar nor rum. In a bid to return to their agrarian roots, they purchased the Long Pond lot, and found themselves in possession of the nearby Hampden Estate distillery.
So rum distillers they became. Resurrecting the distillery turned out to be surprisingly easy, needing fewer upgrades than assumed. And after polling Hampden’s wholesale customers, some with supply contracts dating back more than fifty years, the verdict was unanimous: nothing at Hampden Estate should change.
Rum from Hampden Estate is lauded as extraordinary, a funky, fruity, high-ester spirit that few others have been able to replicate. Even among Jamaican rum it stands alone, an historic artifact that continues to shine among the true rum seekers. To ensure its continuity, the family recruited Vivian Wisdom as distillery manager, a former employee branded as the ‘brains behind the operation’. Wisdom had left to work for another distillery some years before but was convinced to return as someone who understood Hampden’s uniqueness.
As a rule Jamaican rum distinguishes itself with a more flavourful, higher ester content, accomplished by two techniques: first, by extra-long fermentation. And second, by using ‘dunder’ to ensure that the wash going into the still is rich in organic acids, the precursors to esters.
While some rum distillers prefer a quick fermentation – as little as twenty-four hours – at Hampden the primary fermentation lasts about two weeks, which allows esters to climb to about 500 or 600 parts per million (ppm). It’s then left for an additional week of secondary fermentation, after which esters can soar as high as 1700 or 1800 parts per million, to the cusp of potable, though the legal limit for export is 1600ppm, a rum known to Hampden customers
as DOK and primarily used as a flavouring component.
Hampden’s medium-ester rums – classified as LROK – clock in at 300-400 ppm, while its ester-rich big brother is labelled as HLCF, and weighs in between 500 and 600 ppm. To keep all that rum fermenting with varying levels of esters, Hampden has notably more fermentation tanks than other distilleries – it’s a veritable farm of ancient and open wooden tanks (some nearly a century old) that are rarely cleaned, as the microorganisms that live within the wood also help create those distinctive flavours.
The second technique to create esters is the use of ‘dunder’, a term of longstanding confusion that has been defined variously in different places. But in Jamaica it refers simply to spent stillage – the slops left in the pot still when distillation is complete. Wisdom’s theory is that
the reference comes from an African word, ‘dunda’, which refers to its pungent smell.
Many distilleries will discard stillage; in Scotland it’s called draff and gets spread on fields or fed to livestock. At Hampden, the dunder is tweaked. It’s kept in vats, to be reused as part of the mixture for setting the fermenter. Cane juice which has been allowed to ferment to vinegar
is added, to provide an acidic medium for fermentation. And finally, a pail of ‘muck’ is added before distillation, to recharge the dunder, as Wisdom puts it.
Muck you ask? That dark and sinister liquid seen in the troughs beneath the fermenters? That’s muck. It’s stillage that’s been left to sit out in the open for weeks or months, attracting millions of microbes and bacterial cells. As those microorganisms feast, they produce a stew of acids, nascent esters waiting to form during distillation and ageing as they react with ethanol to produce Jamaican rum’s trademark aromas and flavours.
Muck is so essential to the process that some of it is stored long-term in trenches in the field – about the size of a human grave, according to Wisdom – which is covered over with spent sugar cane stalks. But that’s mostly employed as a back-up – like keeping extra sourdough starter in the woodshed in the event one’s house burns down. This muck is added to freshly fermented wash which is a mixture of dunder, vinegared cane juice, molasses and water,"
Wisdom explains. The result is a wash with a relatively low 4% abv, making this a gloriously inefficient way to make rum. But it’s among the best ways to produce rum with a distinctive, outsized flavour – one that’s slowly gaining traction with rum fans around the world.