In Jamaica, History and Identity Convene in Rum

A cooper at Appleton Estate, Jamaica / Photo courtesy of Appleton Estate

Alexander Kong thinks that Jamaican rum has a certain “funk” that simply cannot be found in other rums.

“Jamaican rum, like our food and music, has a personality that shines through,” he says, “The rum is reflective of that persona and goes hand-in-hand with the whole Jamaican vibe.”

Kong is the commercial sales manager at Worthy Park Estate, a distillery situated in St. Catherine parish, some 40 miles from Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. Worthy Park is the number one employer for area residents, he says.

For many Jamaicans, homegrown companies like Wray & Nephew, Appleton and Rumabar are not just brands, and rum is not just a drink. Rum is part of the island’s identity, with huge historical, cultural and economic impact.

Rum is “intwined in the culture of the island,” says Kong. “We use it in tinctures when we are ill, or to toast the loss of life. We must look at it from all the other cultural and economic aspects that it supports.”

Worthy Park Estate Jamaica rum
Worthy Park Estate, Jamaica / Photo by Max Kelly

Some believe that Jamaica has more rum bars per square mile than any other country in the world. Statistically, the agricultural industry is among the country’s largest employers, and the major crop is sugarcane, essential to rum. Spirit exports add around $145.3 million to the Jamaican economy and, according to data, account for 50% of alcohol sales on the entire island.

Jamaica’s limestone soil is perfect for growing sugarcane, which can be made into molasses, one of the key ingredients in rum. The molasses is fermented in large casks, known as puncheons, and then distilled in pot stills to produce a heavy, robust spirit.

Worthy Park estate rum distillery Jamaica
Worthy Park Estate distillery / Photo by Max Kelly

The industry began to take off in the 17th century, after Jamaica was colonized by Great Britain. British plantation owners, known as “sugar barons,” enslaved their workforce and were thus able to make enormous profits by trading sugarcane without paying for labor.

The rum industry declined following the 1838 emancipation of enslaved people as a result of the Slavery Abolition Act, first passed by British Parliament in 1833. Without forced labor, many plantations saw profits plummet and were forced to closed. Today, five of the original plantations still stand: Appleton Estate, Hampden Estate, Worthy Park Estate, Long Pond and Clarendon.

For many Jamaicans, homegrown companies like Wray & Nephew, Appleton and Rumabar are not just brands, and rum is not just a drink.

“Because of colonization, the history of the island is rooted in sugar, and rum is just one of the byproducts of this,” says Kong. “So, it’s just grown hand-in-hand with the community and the island, and become part of the culture.”

Production then picked up again in the 20th century. Rum became highly sought in the U.S. and for a time, America relied on Cuba for its supply. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution and ensuing embargo, Americans turned to other Caribbean islands. Jamaican distilleries boomed once more.

Sugar cane Appleton Jamaica
Sugar cane fields at Appleton Estate, Jamaica / Photo courtesy Appleton Estate

In the early 20th century, after he saw the potential of rum sales, Tania Parchment’s great-grandfather began his own alcohol distribution company in Jamaica’s Manchester Parish.

“I have fond memories of going there and helping with the business when I was on school holidays,” she says “I remember being shocked at how much money we were making. We sold truckloads, after truckloads, after truckloads of Wray & Nephew, and any other rum that was produced in Jamaica. We would open at 6:00 a.m., and by 2:00 p.m., we would close the business down because we’d made so much money.”

10 Boundary-Pushing Bottles of Rum

Like Kong, Parchment believes the history and quality of her national spirit has special significance for Jamaicans.

“Rum just has a way with everybody,” she says. “In Jamaica, we know our rum is good quality because we’ve been consuming it for so many years and we’ve been involved in making it happen.”

Published on August 10, 2021
Topics: Drinks History