Dunder being pumped at Hampden Estate

Dunder being pumped at Hampden Estate

Jamaican rum: Funky alchemy

30 May, 2023

Tyler Zielinski makes the pilgrimage to Jamaica’s Hampden Estate, where natural production methods for rum have long been employed.

Microbial magic.” It’s the phrase that lived rent-free in my overstimulated brain as I toured the unruly, hallowed grounds of Hampden Estate distillery – the spiritual home of high hogo, or ‘funky’ Jamaican rums located in the country’s north western Trelawny parish. For Jamaican rum aficionados, a visit to Hampden, where rum production methods are as natural as they come, is an essential pilgrimage.

“When you walk into Hampden, it is unlike walking into any other distillery,” says Dawn Davies MW, head buyer of The Whisky Exchange, recalling her experience at the historic distillery. “It is the only time in a distillery that I felt like I was walking into a unique ecosystem that was actually living and breathing – there really is a sense of place, or even terroir there.”

Most distilleries are multi-sensory experiences by default; from the raw material to fermentation, distillation, ageing, and through to the finished spirit in the glass there are plenty of things to taste, smell, feel, see and hear. But Hampden Estate, where seemingly little has changed since it was founded in 1753, is sensory overload.

Flora, fauna, bacteria, native yeasts and other fungi are teeming throughout the estate. The property comprises the distillery and fermentation buildings, along with a quaint visitor centre, historic great house, sugarcane fields and even a couple of squawking resident peacocks that are known to comically wreak havoc around the property as they please.

It’s the entrance gate to the distillery where the senses are abruptly awakened. Novel pungent aromas oscillate every few metres: vomit (a telltale sign of butyric acid’s presence), intricately earthy and sweet dunder (stillage, or the remnants of the distillation process often used in fermentations for Jamaican rum) and a cuvée of organic smells difficult to pinpoint, some of which have an aroma like literal hot garbage.

The average person would be tempted to turn around and run away at this point, but in-the-know enthusiasts persist. The foul aromas are a primer for what’s to come next: the fascinating, age-old production methods that create one of Jamaica’s most exciting, high-ester (read: flavourful) rums.

Immersed in the funk

“At the heart of Hampden Estate lies its fermentation house – this is where the magic happens,” says Dean MacGregor, rum ambassador for Speciality Brands, an agency that represents Hampden Estate in the UK. “No stainless steel and lab coats are found here.” In the rickety structure, rays of sunlight slip through the wooden beams overhead, softly lighting the main room filled with two rows of open-air fermentation tanks crafted from local cedar wood.

Within each tank, a unique rum recipe ferments for between seven and 15 days. At Hampden, the raw ingredients used, in varying ratios depending on the recipe, are local limestone-filtered dam water, dunder, cane vinegar made from estate-grown sugarcane, molasses, wild yeast, and the mysterious muck (more on this imminently). Once distilled, each of these fermented rum recipes yields a distinct “marque” of rum that ranges from light to heavy depending on the fermentation time and components used. These marques are labelled and categorised by their ester levels, which, simply put, indicate the concentration of flavour compounds within a certain volume of spirit.

Each Jamaican distillery, whether it be the well-established Appleton Estate, Worthy Park or the like has a unique set of marques it produces for blending and/or bottling, and each marque offers a distinct set of flavour characteristics based on the fermentation and distillation methods employed.

One of the ways that Hampden Estate differentiates itself from other producers is in its sole reliance on wild airborne yeast — as opposed to a commercial, or cultured yeast strain — to inoculate each wash, regardless of whether the goal is to create a light or heavy rum.

“Over centuries, the fermentation house and vats have cultivated their own microbial environment, or yeast and mould spores,” explains MacGregor. “This distinctive environment helps add flavour and the formation of tasty, fruity esters to each ferment.” Distilleries such as Long Pond and Worthy Park also use wild yeast, but only to inoculate their heavier rum washes. This distinction is a significant factor in the shaping of Hampden Estate’s distillery character.

Below the raised wooden walkway that parts the rows of bubbling fermentation vats is a trough filled with a tantalisingly toxic, bacteria-charged sludge. This is Hampden’s secret sauce, better known as the aforementioned muck, which is a terroir-laden element composed of dead yeast, acids, decaying vegetation, stillage and other microbial life.

“[For Hampden Estate’s heavier marques, muck] comes in after the initial alcoholic fermentation ends… to create a blockbuster finale,” says Matt Pietrek, renowned rum expert and author of Modern Caribbean Rum. “The muck induces a secondary bacterial fermentation that creates more complex flavour molecules that evoke banana, pineapple… and even petroleum products at sufficiently high levels.” For Hampden Estate’s higher-ester marques that call for muck, the ferments may take up to an additional two weeks to complete.

In the lot behind the rickety fermentation building, there are more spectacles to be seen. Bees swarm around the piles of hand-cut, estate-grown sugarcane, which are left to spontaneously ferment until the sugars transform into cane vinegar – one of the vital ingredients mentioned earlier that’s used during the fermentation process to spur on esterification (ie, the production of flavour compounds in the ferments).

Nearby, dunder is pumped into a tank for future use. Most Jamaican distilleries repurpose dunder as fertiliser (endearingly referred to as ‘fertigation’) for the sugarcane fields. But Hampden Estate and Long Pond store theirs to get more use out of their dunder, repurposing it to add complexity in their fermentations – the latter using the stillage specifically for its heavier marques.

Extraordinary stills

Around the rest of the grounds at Hampden Estate, the overgrowth of tropical plant life has seemingly taken over old scrap metal, a defunct John Deere tractor, and other fixtures. “What makes the estate special is that it isn’t pristine and new, but that it is living history, decades of rum-making brilliance in gloriously magical form that is on display in the amazing flavours of the rums,” says Davies.

Inside the distillery building, Hampden Estate’s double retort pot stills, a rarer type of still responsible for retaining the most flavour from the bacteria-charged washes that fill the kettles, are equally as extraordinary compared to the fermentations. But the true magic is in the terroir.

If someone who didn’t know better stumbled upon Hampden Estate, they might think that the rustic distillery was no longer in operation; but on the contrary, the distillery is thriving. And it’s a result of its 200-year-old cultivated microbial environment and traditional fermentation methods, proving that sometimes it’s best to leave the complexities of nature to its own devices.

As Hampden Estate continues to draw attention from rum and whisky drinkers alike, it proves that there’s more love to come for the rest of Jamaica’s budding rum distilleries, Long Pond, Clarendon and Worthy Park in particular.

“Twenty years ago, Jamaican rum was practically on life support outside of J Wray & Nephew,” says Pietrek of the parent company of, most notably, Appleton Estate and Wray & Nephew. “Since then, Hampden Estate, Worthy Park and National Rums of Jamaica [which includes Clarendon and Long Pond distilleries] have come on strong, benefiting from the craft cocktail movements’ interest in old-school Jamaican hogo.” As premium single cask rums and cocktail-focused bottlings continue growing in popularity, the category, which outsold whisky in the UK for the first time in modern history in 2022, is poised to prosper with Jamaica leading the way.

“I look forward to the continuation of the quality from all the distilleries,” says Davies. “The future is hugely exciting for Jamaican rum as the quality and the passion is there to drive it forward.”

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