Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Past and Present: A Tour of Hampden Estate

Entrance to Hampden Estate
The road to Hampden Estate is a bumpy ride not unlike many back country roads in Jamaica. The entrance is marked by little more than a retired sugar cane press. We approach a majestic row of trees lining each side of the road that brings us to the distillery. Sugar cane fields surround us as far as the eye can see. On the way, we pass over a narrow creek (see photo) almost hidden in the dense vegetation. Immediately my nose fills with aromas of rum, but more than that. It's that big bold pot still kind we love in Jamaican rums. The passing of this liquid landmark or rather olfactory threshold brings us to the home of one of the oldest sugar estates in Jamaica, dating back to 1753. Today, under direction of the Hussey Family, this historical site has a bright future, heated up by their relatively new white overproof rum called, RumFire.

Hampden Estate creek
After being promptly greeted by Christelle Harris, Director of Marketing (not to mention a former Miss Jamaica World Runner-up), her mom, Angie Hussey-Harris and the General Manager of the distillery, Mark Middleton, our guides for the tour, we are off. Ignoring the digital cameras and smart phones present, I look around and am transported back several hundred years to an earlier Jamaica. Time travel is possible...and I am back to give you that account. I don my hard hat and the distillery tour begins!

Age old agricultural methods are used in the fermentation processes. Environmentally sustainable
One of the muck pit grave sites

practices such as employing  muck pits outside, 100% recycling of dunder and composting fruits such as jackfruit, banana and naseberry, are used to culture and continually preserve the ideal yeast. This specific yeast and its nurtured interaction during the fermentation process is key in forming the product desired. That product being full of beautiful esters which gives the rum much of its unique bouquet and flavor profile. Let's have a closer look!

Fermentation Container
(top view)
If you have toured a fermentation area before, you know the smells can be intense with just a few vats. At Hampden Estate we pass through dozens of fermentation containers! Molasses is the primary ingredient used in this process to produce the ethanol in RumFire. We learn each batch ferments for 7 days, and is then left to sit for an additional 7 days before going to the still. Throughout this area we see many of the old previously existing containers slowly undergoing thoughtful repairs and renovation.

Fermentation Container
(side view)
For example, we learn local Jamaican cedar is used to replace boards on vats that leak. Each piece of wood is sealed together with banana leafs; no other adhesives necessary. Both are locally sourced and effective. In addition, many of the materials used in the distillery are taken from pre-existing structures on the estate. This distillery is green folks and on its way to becoming carbon neutral. Nice! Once ready, the fermented liquid (wash) is transferred to the pot stills for distillation. Onward and upward to the stills!

Pot Still #3
There are four pot stills with capacities ranging from 5000 to 2000 gallons. The largest is located away from the other three near the muck pits outside. RumFire is distilled entirely from pot stills. In addition to the unique yeast, terrior and type of distillation, water is another factor influencing the profile of a rum. The water used for fermentation and distillation is sourced from a spring high on a hilltop in the Cockpit Country. Apparently gravity alone is sufficient to move the water by pipe down to the distillery. The sugar cane fields require no irrigation due to the ideal and predictable weather conditions in the Queen of Spain Valley. The very large aquifer below the Trelawny surface provides the water needed for most other purposes on site.

Pot Still #3
Just before leaving the stills, we walk past the secured area where the rum is collected, tallied and government fees are assessed. (see photo) On our way to the lab, I realize
why, at every distillery I tour, I always see smiles on the workers' faces inside the lab. Who doesn't love quality assurance? To be sure, Mark takes us into their high tech lab for a brief educational tasting on the marks (no pun intended) they test for and the analysis involved. Part of it entails human palates. Tasting rum samples? Okay, if I must!

Mark discussing the bottling facility
We taste several different samples varying in ester concentration. High ester rums are their forte. He explains the distillery was acquired only three years ago and they now supply bulk high ester rums to several markets internationally. RumFire, their first bottled product, was released in March 2011. In less than a year, RumFire has been recognized and won awards in the UK and USA respectively. It is clear this operation is about quality and success. Mark entertains our questions and fills any information gaps about the chemistry in the liquids we are sipping. Rum is fun!

The bottling plant is located on site in an adjacent room. The shining stainless steel filling, sealing and labeling machines are clean and new looking. My eyes are distracted by the RumFire labels, quite attractive. (see photo) I begin to feel like a young kid again looking at cool stickers to collect. These labels aren't scratch and sniff, but what they represent is being poured into glasses locally at an increasing rate. At present, we are told they are moving 150 cases daily. RumFire is distributed by Red Stripe, and like Sean Paul's hit,
ever blazin' is right!

We walk around outside and view the remnants of the pre-existing burnt down sugar mill structures of the Jamaica Sugar Company. The history throughout the site is ubiquitous. Angie is quick to fill us in on the details and her family's involvement. Her passion and intensity are admirable. The sugar cane harvest begins in February and a portion of the the harvested sugar cane is pressed for the juice. The sugar cane press used provides a 60% yield. We are told that presently only 3000 acres are being used for sugar cane fields; a fraction of the land available. The sugar cane juice is also used in their fermentation process, but primarily for producing the ester content in the rum. Note the sugar cane juice's distinct function in contrast to that of the molasses, producing ethanol, as mentioned previously. Touring the distillery in its infancy is a unique opportunity. As the demand for larger quantities of RumFire increases, the capacity and ability appears to be already in place to supply it. No problem mon!

Hampden Great House
We ended the tour at the Hampden Great House with a cold bottle of Red Stripe. Relaxing on the veranda is a real treat. Its views and breezy openings illustrate their architectural purpose while watching the tall sugar cane blow in the distance. The basement was, at one point in time, used for rum storage. The house has just started undergoing a renovation of sorts to meet the needs of the family. Its grandeur and style are impressive. A great house for a party indeed!

A big thank you to Mark, Angie and Christelle for being gracious hosts and taking their time to provide an insightful rumtastic tour! Respect!!


  1. Looking at the equipment available today, it can be difficult to imagine how different wine making used to be. One thing's for sure, whether the old way or the new way, the important thing is that fine wine is the result.


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