No story about rum and sugar would be complete without a huge chapter on Jamaica. Always a bit neglected by the Spaniards, who predominantly grew tobacco on Jamaica, it took Admiral Penn and the Britons to conquer the island in 1655 to rear it to the sugar dynasty and pirate haven it has become known for. Their first major move was to build the trading hub of Port Royal at the site of what’s now Kingston, which quickly grew to the largest and richest city in the entire Caribbean. In a sense it wasn’t much more than a shantytown. Pirates and privateers, with their loot and ‘special’ attitude reigned supreme while the remainder of the city’s residents were made up of merchants, prostitutes, mercenaries and riff-raff.
At the beginning of the 18th century the island experienced an enormous agricultural transformation in which more and more land was seized to plant sugar and coffee. It is said that more than 800 plantations grew sugar during the crops heyday and as we are well aware of, where there was sugar, there was rum. According to Tristan Stephenson, “Jamaica still had 110 distilleries in 1901 and over than 12,000 hectares of arable land dedicated to growing sugarcane”. Today, only six of them are left, five if we exclude Port Morant due to its unknown status (not to be confused with the Guyanese Port Mourant still).
While some of the Jamaican distilleries eventually also acquired column stills, this movement was less pronounced than in the rest of the Caribbean. Tradition and flavourful products still play a very prominent role on the island.
The incredibly flavourful high ester rums are to a large extent the byproduct of a German tax hike on foreign rum. Germans already had a penchant for Jamaican rum but as the market started to grow, the German Empire levied higher import duties for rum from Jamaica. The rum “producers” in Germany were clever though: Instead of keeping on buying the same old rum at higher prices, they asked the distillers on Jamaica to produce more flavourful rums, i.e. rums with a higher ester count. These would be mixed with neutral alcohol at home. The result is the well-known “Rumverschnitt”. Fittingly, the unblended, more concentrated rums have been labelled “German-” or “Continental Flavoured”. Crucially, this allowed many Jamaican plantations to shift their focus to rum distillation in response to the slump in global sugar prices at the end of the 19th century. Moreover, it helped some of them to invest in more efficient production techniques for sugar. It’s no coincidence that Jamaica is now home to the most efficient processor of sugar in the world (Worthy Park).
McFarlane (1947) provides the following classification scheme for Jamaican rums based on their ester count:
- Common Clean 80-150 parts per 100,000 alcohol
- Plummer 150-200 parts per 100,000 alcohol
- Wedderburn 200-300 parts per 100,000 alcohol
- Flavoured 700-1600 parts per 100,000 alcohol
What’s striking is the gap between Wedderburn and Flavoured. My guess is that rums that would fall into this range simply did not exist back then. Only the first three categories were deemed drinkable or sellable and Flavoured was solely intended to be exported and blended with neutral alcohol. But that’s only speculation of course. In 1934, the Jamaican authorities capped the legal ester count at 1600.
On top of that, the distilleries typically have their very own marks to denote a rum’s ester range. Nowadays, these are usually given in grams per hectoliters of absolute alcohol (g/hlaa).
What follows are small profiles of Jamaica’s distilleries as well as lists of tasted and reviewed bottlings.