By: Hanifa Sekandi
It is a warm summer night in Montego Bay. The sound of the ocean, the harmonious steel drums, sand beneath your toes, and laughter allow you to forget your worries while you clutch your cocktail in one hand. You have most likely never given much thought to that velvety smooth texture and golden color, the fermented by-product of sugarcane. It’s the drink that is unequivocally the life of the party. So infamous it deserves a special place in your holiday baked goods: rum. There is no better way to describe Jamaican-made rum than simply sublime.
For some, it is the best accompaniment for plantain, callaloo, ackee and saltfish. Perhaps you prefer it while you dine on curry goat or spicy jerk chicken? It is the spirit that is bar-none, best sipped on the rocks. You feel the heat of this distilled spirit immediately pulsing through your entire body with just one sip. Rum, a Jamaican classic spirit with deep historic roots enlivens you and exhilarates you. You can fuss with it, add a little this or a little that but, rum revelers know it’s simply good just the way it is. What makes Jamaican rum so good?
As you sample your way through the best of Jamaican rum you will learn quite quickly that each rum carries its own secret. This is why so many bar carts around the world carry more than one from a few of Jamaica’s acclaimed rum estates.
The Beginning of Jamaican Rum
It was Christopher Columbus, in 1494, who brought sugarcane to the shores of Jamaica. This birthed an industry that although not as robust in size as it once was, still thrives today. With all things good, there is another side that is not as sweet. The production of rum in Jamaica began in 1655. It was brought over by British colonialists who imported the art of rum-making from Barbados. Under British rule, rum was made by the hands of enslaved labor. The mass production of rum during this time in Jamaica led to its popularity around the world. There were approximately 148 rum distilleries in Jamaica in 1893. When slavery was abolished in the 1800s the free and now finally autonomous rum laborer, was free to live as one should. This emancipation led to a decline in rum production.
Where is rum today in Jamaica? In 1893 approximately 31, 555 acres of sugarcane was cultivated by sugar estates that housed and operated distilleries. Even with the reduction of the scale of production and rum mills, Jamaica produces 50 million liters of rum yearly. With only six remaining rum distilleries sugarcane, the oldest running industry in Jamaica is still a predominant labor source with the employment of over 50,000 people. Jamaican rum makers produce large and diverse varieties of rum that are distributed around to world to more than 70 countries. The six remaining rum distilleries are Worthy Park Estate, Appleton Estate, Long Pond Distillery, Clarendon Distillery, and Innswood Distillers Limited. The later three distilleries are owned by the National Rums of Jamaica.
Making Jamaican Rum
Who knew sugarcane is the key ingredient to this deep rich spirit? With no sweetness on the palate when sipped that one would discern if they chewed on sugarcane. The process of making Jamaican rum is quite intriguing. Molasses, partially responsible for rums golden color is a sweet syrup with a thick consistency. Perhaps you have used it as an alternative sweetener. Blackstrap molasses is full of minerals and vitamins. With that said, a shot of
rum is not your new multivitamin replacement! This rich thick sweet syrup comes to life when sugarcane juice is boiled until it is crystallized and then fermented. In the case of gold-hued rums, the color begins to take hold by using oaken casks to age the clear liquid which turns color due to the tannins from the oak. On average Jamaican rums age close to seven years. A process that differs when making another popular spirit, white rum.
Deeper-toned rums are made from the dunder or skimmings from vats used to boil the sugar and molasses. What makes each rum unique are the expertly blended elements that will determine the flavor profile and aromas. For example, the addition of caramel when aging commences creates a silkier and darker liquor. It’s these little nuances that create a vast difference between one rum to another although they may appear similar in appearance.
A full-bodied rum is aged in casks that have great depth and are large in size. These casks, “puncheons”, can hold approximately 111.6 gallons. The difference between light and full-bodied rums is fermentation. In the case of full-bodied rum, slow fermentation is required, and this is referred to as wild fermentation. Light-bodied rum mostly produced in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico undergoes a process called cultured fermentation where yeast is derived from raw material. The aging period for these lighter-colored and dry rums is under four years. In some cases, light-bodied rums are aged for only one year.
Who Is Joy Spence?
The First Woman Master Blender?
Appleton Estates is the oldest sugar estate and one of Jamaica’s six thriving rum distilleries. It is where Joy Spence, their Chief Chemist since 1981 and the first woman Master Blender, has been
making her incomparable mark in the global rum market. She has a Masters’ degree in Analytical Chemistry from Loughborough University. Spence was under the helm of the previous Appleton Estates Master Blender, Owen Tulloch for over 16 years who mentored her. During this time, she was able to use her passion for chemistry to become a world-renowned blender.
In 1997 Spence, unbeknownst to her at the time, became the first woman master blender. At this time, there were no other women designated with this accolade. This show-stopping rum that Spence has been creating for over 35 years draws its sweet soft taste from the limestone-filtered spring water it uses from the Black River, the longest river in Jamaica. This distillery is located in a favorable area with limestone hills and an ecological system that works perfectly to nurture the abundance of greenery. Due to this natural irrigation sugarcane is easy to grow.
Joy Spence is credited for masterfully blending two rums that made Appleton famous. The 8-Year-Old Reserve and “50-Year-Old which is according to Appleton Estates “the world’s oldest barrel-aged rum that has been bottled and sold. “The Appleton Estate 8-Year-Old Reserve, a full-bodied rum is probably one of the most recognized rum brands at your local liquor store. You have most like experienced its robust aroma and flavorful smooth notes. Sold at a price point that will make your jaw drop, something this good does not come cheap, the Appleton Estate 50 Year Old — Jamaica Independence Reserve rum by Spence will have you singing the best I ever had.
Notable Jamaican Rums
Appleton Estate 12-Year-Old Casks
Did you know the number on the front of the bottle is the number of years the rum has been aged? Yes, this is true. With so much variety offered by Appleton selecting your favorite rum is not an easy task. Once you have been introduced to one of their rums you will find yourself wanting to explore the entire repertoire. This 12-year aged rum has a smooth dark chocolate flavor and the sweet smell of almonds; you may catch hints of caramel. Best enjoyed on ice or just on its own. When you sip on one of these rums you are stepping into the magical world of Master Blender Joy Spence.
Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve
Rum-making began at this estate in 1741. Most people describe this rum’s flavor as earthy, citrusy, and spicy. An interesting combination that also includes other notes such as toffee, cinnamon, and cloves. Although it serves well on its own, it proves to be an excellent carrier of cocktails since it cuts through without overpowering other ingredients. Worthy Park Estates is a distillery that honors tradition and as a result, distill their rums in a traditional Jamaican Pot.
Hampden Estate Pure Single Jamaican Rum
Wild fermentation is the method used to make Hampden’s pure single rums. There is no sugar added during this process. Their Pure Single Jamaican rum aged for eight years carries a lot of heat. Its strong spicy, earthy herb-like taste with a touch of citrus, banana, and caramel strikes the palate with tremendous strength and also warms the senses. Serve over ice and sip slowly. This is the best way to go with this rum.
Long Pond Distillery — 18-Year-Old 2000 Mezan
Hopefully, the price tag does not scare you away from this vintage 18-year old Jamaican rum. This rum slowly ages and matures in a bourbon oak cask. As you can imagine, a lot of rich flavor and aromas embody this spirit. Its sharp ginger and tropical fruity notes along with a warm and spicy base create a nice finish.