Hampden Estate Distillery

The House of Jamaican Funk

cherrypicking some history

The Mekka of ester-nerds and people who love good rum in general. The Hampden Estate distillery is a must visit for anyone who likes jamaican rum.

Like many, the distillery started as a sugar plantation. The plantation started its operation around 1753 in the Trelawny Parish under scottish rule. In 1779 the iconic Great House was built, it was used as a rum store until the early 1900’s. then the Great House became the residence of the estate’s owners and eventually reaching its final stage as subject for the label art of the Distillery bottlings in 2019.

In 1827, ownership of the estate changed to Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson (better known by his initials DOK). And through a marriage into the Kelly-Lawson family Mr Farquarson came to posses the estate.

With the 21st century coming around, it was once again time for a change in management. This time the new owner was the Sugar Company of Jamaica. As the name might suggest, the main focus of the company was sugar. All of the rum produced in the distillery were exported to Europe for blending.

The last and current owners are the Hussey family. They took over in 2009 under the name of Everglades Farm Ltd. through a public bid for the estate. Since then they’ve focused on the heritage of the place and more importantly (for us) on rum. This focus paid of in 2018 when they finally released the first fully Jamaican aged home bottled Hampden rums.

The inner workings

Fermentation

When the molasses enters the distillery it’s mixed with water, dunder (the “leftovers” of previous distilling runs), sugar cane vinegar and muck (a mixture of bagasse (crushed cane), bacteria, acid and who knows what else, which often has been laid to rest underground). This mixture will then be put in the fermenting vats and laid open for the wild yeasts in the air to react with it.

Hampden does not use cultivated yeast strains as they let the environmental yeasts do their work. Fermentation lasts for about 8-15 days, here is when it becomes a mash. After 10 days the process of creating alcohol through fermentation stops, this is when the mixture starts to oxidize more and mainly esterfication happens.

As esters are the result of acids colliding and combining with alcohols, so the longer the mash is fermented, the more esters are created over time.

Distillation

Hampden Estate Distillery only distills only with double retort pot stills. A batch distillation process which creates a heavier and fuller palate than its alternative, the column still.

There are 4 stills at the moment. The oldest of which is a John Dore, which was installed in the 1960’s. The three other stills are: Vendome (1994), Forsyths (2010) and TNT (2016). More stills are under construction or have been built by now.

If you see any wrong information or find that there’s information lacking, don’t hesitate to contact me:

Links for more information.

Here are some links to other bloggers who have done amazing blogging and amazing pieces on the more technical parts of the spirit.

Bloggers in general

Anything from The Cocktail Wonk

On distillation

Great essays by The Lone Caner

On esters

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Solera method

History & method

The solera method or systema solera originates from Spain and more specifically the Xérès (Jerez) region and is used for the aging of its well-known fortified wine: Sherry.  

This is an aging system that blends between ages to say it extremely simplified. In the Solera method barrels are stacked on top of each other in rows, called criaderas. The barrels with the oldest sherry are on the bottom and are called the solera level (solera loosely meaning floor or ground). The barrels with the second-oldest sherry are on top of these and on top of those barrels are yet another row of slightly younger sherry, there can be up to 14-20 layers of criaderas or layers depending on the type of sherry. For the example provided by a beautiful tattoo of a good friend of mine (who adores sherry) I’ll be using 3 rows, so the solera level and 2 criaderas

Afbeelding met tatoeage, persoon, binnen, man

Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving

Every time sherry is taken from the bottom row for bottling, these barrels are filled up with sherry from the row above, and so on. The barrels are never fully emptied therefore you get a perpetual and constant flavor profile and quality. The younger sherry will blend with the older sherry and so the whole of these 2 will be a slightly younger sherry.

The amount of liquid taken from the barrels can vary, so the ratio of young to old sherry can be different every time

This also means that theoretically there can be some part of the liquid from the beginning of the aging process left in the current blend.

On the Solera level you then have a sherry that has an age range or a calculated average age. This is possible through very closely monitoring how much sherry is moved from what row at what age, all of this is very complicated so I won’t to this kind of math myself (later I’ll try my hand at a simpler equation though).

The sherry in the solera level will then be bottled and is ready for drinking.

Specific age statement in sherry are quite rare as opposed to whisky, rum or other aged spirits. And here starts the controversy with rum that’s been aged using the Solera method.

The problem

The next part is mostly personal opinion supported by facts.

The problem in the rum world has to do with the addition of age statements. I -like many others- will focus on the punching bag of rum geeks: Zacapa 23. I’m not going to discuss the quality, adulteration or in this rum or those like it, since this is not the article to do so. What I will discuss is the 23 on that label and their aging system.

So… whenever you look at a bottle of Zacapa, a 23 will be prominently displayed on the label. Officially Zacapa says this is not a specific age statement, since this is the age of the oldest rum in the ‘solera’ (which in Zacapa’s case isn’t even a real solera) blend of 6 to 23 year old. This is like saying a 30 year old smoker is 60 since his lungs are those of a 60 year old, but he’s not… he’s 30… okay. Not the best comparison, I know, but it’s just to make my point clear.

In the world of spirits, it’s expected that when a number is placed center stage on a label it’s the minimum age. This is thanks to the strict regulations surrounding whisky. With solera aging, following this rule would do no justice to the rum since it’s a completely different version of aging than static aging and blending. In my opinion there remain 2 honest options then, you mention an average age/ an age range, and clearly mentioned it (not on the back label). Or you don’t mention any age at all, just like Santa Teresa does with it’s 1796 (you must be really dense to believe 1796 has anything to do with the rum’s age).

Back to Zacapa. Next to their highly confusing bordering-to-lying age statement they also don’t really use the Solera method. Even though it does says so on the bottle.

Afbeelding met binnen, koken, muur

Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving

As you can see in this chart, from Zacapa themselves this isn’t even remotely the same as the traditional solera method. And it’s just extremely confusing.

I don’t know if it’s just my tiny 22 year old brain, but damn… there are a lot of arrows and barrels to keep track of. I honestly believe this is a system Zacapa has worked on long and hard to develop to get a consistent rum. BUT IT ISN’T SOLERA! So don’t label it as such.

Conclusion

Okay, I kind of got on a rant there. But to conclude:

Systema solera is a beautiful, easy and effective way of aging your liquid with an admirable consistency. In sherry, this creates amazing tipples and it can do the same in other spirits, such as rum. What we do have to take into consideration is the age statements that are put on bottles. If they show something that can obviously be mistaken as an age, we’ve got a problem of misleading the consumer towards misinformation and they’ll buy a product that’s actually worth less than what they’re lead to believe.

If however you use this method and honestly market your product to the consumer, I salute you. Because solera rums can and are lovely drinks indeed. Rums such as the aforementioned Santa Teresa 1796 are great rums in their own right and I truly enjoy drinking them now and then. Here the saying “drink what you like, but know what you’re drinking” pops into mind. If producers are honest about their product, and the quality of their rums are still what consumers want, sales won’t drop. The only thing producers do is increase transparency. This will be highly appreciated by casual drinkers and rum geeks alike.

-Robin Pollet, just a guy who likes rum

If you think/know I’m completely wrong (factual, or in my opinions), or have anything to add. Please feel free to contact me with constructive feedback at the.rum.robin@gmail.com

I love to be proven wrong 😊