Spirits Feature

Jamaican Rum
Opening up a new understanding of Jamaican rum, and reason to drink like Jamaicans

My hands are covered in sticky jerk sauce, pulling apart a whole lobster at the Truck Stop Grill & Bar in Kingston, Jamaica. Even though I probably could have devoured one by myself, I was sharing it with my Jamaican-born friend, Gabe. He stops mid-bite and says, “This isn’t proper without some rum.”

Sugarcane from Appleton Estate Sugarcane from Appleton Estate
Getting up from his seat—a refurbished rum barrel—he heads to the window counter lit up by Christmas lights, then returns a few minutes later with a flask, soda bottle and a bucket of ice. “Wray and Ting by the Q,” he says, referring to the flask of J. Wray & Nephew, an overproof white rum, and grapefruit-flavored Ting, a local soda. He tells me to serve myself and mix at my own risk. The rum isn’t just strong; it’s also got a distinctive scent, what the locals call hogo, a funky mix that recalls mushrooms, overripe bananas and fermenting tropical fruit.

J. Wray & Nephew, one of six distillers in Jamaica, makes one of the most popular rums on the island, but it’s never become mainstream in the US. Instead, we’ve become accustomed to the smooth, sweet wood-driven flavors of rums like Appleton Estate. But that may change soon: Now that Jamaica has established a Geographical Indication (GI) for its rums, the country’s distillers have been looking to strengthen their identity—and, increasingly, that means rums with a degree of hogo.

The Clarke family at Worthy Park are one of the new names reviving the traditional style of Jamaican rum. Owners of a 9,000-acre sugar plantation that also produced rum from the 1740s until 1962, they built a brand-new distillery in 2005 and began producing rum using many older techniques. That includes growing all of their own sugarcane for their rums, as well as fermenting the mash long and slow, without temperature control, to develop more flavor. They also favor copper pot stills over the more efficient column stills, as they produce distillates with higher concentrations of esters—compounds that add flavor.

Molasses at Appleton Estate Molasses at Appleton Estate
The ester concentration is so central to the identity of Jamaican rum, in fact, that the industry classifies rum by ester count, the lowest being Common Clean, working up in concentration through Plummer, Wedderburn and Continental Flavoured. Before the vogue for cleaner, smoother rums, Jamaicans valued concentrated, funky flavors in their rums so much that they would push up the ester counts by adding “dunder,” or post-distillation runoff, to the wort before it was distilled—or they would take it even further, and add some of the goo from their “muck pit,” a tank full of old fermenting fruit, cane juice and molasses.

View of Kingston from the Blue Mountains View of Kingston from the Blue Mountains
This is how Hampden Estate dials its rums into the Continental Flavoured category. The distillery is in the Trelawny parish, just west of Montego Bay, an area that has been known for its high-ester rums for 265 years. Most of the area’s rums, in fact, are so powerful that they have been used mainly for blending in things such as chocolates and colognes. The Harris family bought the distillery in 2009 and refocused the estate on bottling rum for drinking. Using dunder and muck from their bubbly pits, their single-estate aged rums are full of high-intensity flavor. Like Worthy Park’s entries, these rums are opening up a new understanding of Jamaican rum and opening the door for more Americans to drink like Jamaicans.

Jamaican rum ranges from fresh and fiery to mellow and well aged, and from clean to deeply funky. Here’s a guide to some of the best.

J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum

Clear and unaged, J. Wray & Nephew is the go-to sipping rum on the island. Be careful with this bottle, as the alcohol can be deceiving: It’s impressively integrated, the alcohol balanced by fruity flavors of dried mango, superripe papaya and grapefruit pith, with a hint of forest floor and mushroom. It’s perfect with grapefruit soda or in a Hemingway Daiquiri.
Imported by Campari Group, NY; $21, 63% abv

Worthy Park Rum Bar Gold Pot-Still Jamaica Rum

Jamaica’s hot, humid climate makes it possible to age spirits quickly. This rum, aged in ex-Bourbon barrels for four years, is a great example of when funk meets light age—with notes ranging from milk chocolate and cinnamon to musky strawberry—an excellent mixer in a Tiki drink.
Imported by Back Bar Project, Seattle, WA; $28, 40% abv

Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum

Distilled at Hampden Estate and bottled for importer Eric Seed, this was one of the first rums to showcase hogo in the US market. It tastes like fermenting pear and passion fruit, with notes of caramelized brown sugar, banana leaf, cinnamon and clove. It’s a bold choice to enjoy with a water back or even with a splash of cola.
Imported by Haus Alpenz, NY; $33, 57% abv

Hampden Estate Pure Single Jamaican Overproof Rum

Made from Hampden Estate’s sugarcane and distilled and aged in house, this dials the ester count into the Continental Flavoured range, among Jamaica’s most intense rums. Its funk is surprisingly easy to savor as it mellows with time in the glass, blending into notes of walnuts, flambéed bananas and coffee cake. Drink it poured over an ice cube, or use it in a variation on a flip, with Amontillado and egg.
Imported by La Maison & Velier, NY; $70, 60% abv

Appleton Estate 12 Year Rare Blend Jamaican Rum

Save Appleton’s Signature and Reserve rums for punches, and enjoy this one in a snifter. Blended from a range of aged rums, the youngest 12 years old, this is deep and rich in flavors of passion fruit and cantaloupe, toffee and marzipan, with vegetal notes to balance.
Imported by the Campari Group, NY; $40, 45% abv

Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black Rum

Ed Hamilton runs Ministry of Rum, a company dedicated to specialty rums from around the Caribbean. He commissions this one from Worthy Park, which makes it from estate-grown sugarcane, fermented for three weeks and distilled in a pot still. It’s a rich, earthy rum with mahogany scents, chestnut notes and undertones of passion fruit, mint and sweet molasses.
Imported by Caribbean Spirits, Bradenton, FL; $32, 46.5% abv

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2019.
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Tags  Rum