It’s been known as Eau-de-vie de Molasses, Rumbullion, Aguardiente de Cana and Kill Devil. It comes from the plant known botanically as saccharum. It used to be the tipple of Caribbean workers, low-life sailors and pirates. Today it’s simply called rum. And like many other distilled spirits around the world, the high-end, superpremium rums are where the action is—and where the best tastes are found.
Ever since Christopher Columbus introduced sugar cane to the West Indies in 1493, the plant (originally from Papua, New Guinea) has thrived in the Caribbean climate, and sugar production takes place on many islands. For centuries the by-product of this process—molasses—has been fermented and distilled to make rum. The distillers eventually began making better quality blended rums. When Jamaican distillers put these in oak barrels destined for England—Jamaica’s former colonial ruler—it was discovered that barrel aging greatly improved the quality of the rum.
Appleton Estate is the oldest sugar estate and distillery in Jamaica. The estate owns 11,000 acres in the Nassau Valley in St. Elizabeth parish. This is described as the “heart of Jamaica’s sugar cane belt.” The mornings are warm and sunny in this wide, flat valley surrounded by mountains, and throughout most of the year there are tropical showers, usually at 2 p.m. The resulting soil is rich in nutrients and the sugar cane plants achieve maturity (10-12 feet in height) in about 10 months. Harvesting at Appleton Estate is done both the old fashioned way—back-breaking labor by men with machetes—and with modern mechanical harvesting machines.
Appleton rum pot stills
The distillery at Appleton uses both the old-style, traditional, copper-lined small batch pot stills and modern column stills. Appleton Estate Master Blender Joy Spence (the industry’s first female master blender) explained that the pot still method produces a “more aromatic, fuller, flavorful and complex” rum than the column method.
Spence, who became fascinated with chemistry at age 13, studied the subject at the University of the West Indies and the University of Loughborough in the U.K. She joined Appleton Estate in 1981 as Chief Chemist, eventually becoming fascinated by the art of creating rum. She combined her knowledge and passion for chemistry with a newfound love of rum. She said the blending of different barrels of aged rum is “where art meets science.”
As rums age in Appleton’s warehouse they pick up esters and flavors from the wood as the liquid passes back and forth, into and out of the barrel staves. Cellulose creates sweetness; tannins the color and woody flavors; and the flavors of vanilla, coffee and cocoa are brought to the rum. And, like distilled products everywhere, there is loss due to evaporation—the “angel’s share.” The difference in the warm tropical climate of Jamaica, however, is that there is much more rapid loss. Spence explained that rum in the barrels evaporates at a rate of 6% per year, as opposed to the more normal two percent in cooler climates, such as Scotland. “One year of aging for us,” she said, “is like three years in a cold climate.” Thus, the rum can be blended at an earlier age than Scotch or other whiskies that improve by aging.
Appleton Estate Master Blender Joy Spence
Appleton Estate Jamaican Rum, a maker of rum since 1749, released the newest addition to its product line in New York on January 30 with the release of Appleton Estate Reserve Jamaica Rum. Created by Spence, Reserve is a blend of 20 rums. It is deep amber in color from aging in charred, 40-gallon oak barrels. Its bouquet has been described as that of brown sugar, apricot and orange peel notes with a hint of vanilla. The taste is rich, complex, nutty and woody. It’s a smooth, rounded, soft and mellow rum ideally suited for sipping neat or on the rocks. There’s no reason not to mix Reserve in a cocktail, but it’s so nice all by itself.
Additional rums in the Appleton Estate portfolio include Appleton Estate V/X (the flagship), Appleton Estate Extra, Appleton Estate 21-Year-Old (a wonderful, rare and expensive rum), Appleton Special Rum and Appleton White Rum.
Gregg Glaser is the editor of Yankee Brew News and the News Editor of All About Beer Magazine. He writes about beer, saké, spirits, cider and mead for many other publications.