Getting to know your rum goes way beyond sipping Piña Coladas and Mojitos at a fancy resort – especially when you have the chance to spend a few hours with Joy Spence, the Master Blender at Appleton Estate in Jamaica. Joy is a rum industry legend and has spent the last 31 years perfecting the leading rum brand in Jamaica.
Word of warning: If you're coming from Montego Bay you can expect a slow and winding two-hour drive on small roads that are not meant for much traffic. As we traveled deep into the mountains we passed dozens of small villages, abandoned buildings and seemingly homeless dogs. Our driver told us that 75 percent of Jamaicans live like this – an important reminder of what island life is really like.
The steamy, hot air hit us as soon as we opened the door. This is afterall a microclimate ideal for growing sugarcane, and it's very different from the coastal climate. Our rum experience started immediately as we chugged down the best rum punch I've ever had. It was gingery, a little sweet and golden brown. I couldn’t get anyone to reveal the recipe but I'm pretty sure it involved some molasses.
Not everyone gets to the royal treatment at Appleton and they do have normal tours going through, but we were lucky that Joy was available that day to take us behind the scenes. She ushered us into a barn to go through an in-depth presentation on the history of rum in Jamaica and what goes on at Appleton to make their rum unique. Well practiced, she chuckled as she rattled off statistics and all the historical details.
Rum and sugar production has been an important industry in Jamaica since 1749, when Appleton was founded. Today the country produces and exports 4.6 million gallons of rum each year between the six distilleries that operate there. Appleton is the largest producer with 60 percent of the Jamaican rum market.
According to Joy, the “world’s most versatile spirit” is perfect for cocktails, and also can be sipped like a fine single malts. As she went through examples of uses for vodka and Scotch and what they are best for, I realized it made sense. There isn’t another spirit that is perfect for mixing, and sipping straight – hell, even cooking. The challenge that Appleton has is that most people are not aware rums can fall into the "premium" category. It gets even more fascinating when you realize the advantages of the tropical aging process. Because of the hotter climate, the kind of maturation that would take 63 years in Scotland takes just 21 years in Jamaica. The 21-year old blend we tasted was deep amber in color, smoky with hints of orange, vanilla and oak, nice and complex – just like a fine single malt.
It all clicked for me when she explained that just like wine, terroir is incredibly important in rum. "There are few rums in the world can claim terroir," she said. The unique combination of limestone soils, a unique microclimate, the long deep “cockpit” valley, and plenty of hot sunny days with daily afternoon showers is perfect for sugar cane. And, it grows like a weed here.
Next it was time to venture beyond the security gates and into the distillery to see the real-world application of what we’d just learned. What impressed me was the amount of work that goes into each part of the process, from growing sugar cane to distillation, blending and aging. It is a business that Appleton – and for that matter, the country of Jamaica – takes very seriously.
As we ventured beyond the security gates we were ushered into the distillery, which was packed with about a dozen pot stills. I stopped to sneak a photo, and Joy explained that using a combination of both pot and column stills allows them to maximize flavors and create different styles. After distillation the rum is pumped into tankers and transported to warehouses in Kingston where it is aged, blended and bottled.
They have a few barrels at the Estate “for historical purposes.” Even though aging doesn't happen here, with all the tours going through, they still want to educate visitors on the aging process that produces the signature Appleton rum characteristics.
“It is pointless aging your rum in crap,” she said. “Appleton purchases number one select barrels used by Jack Daniels. Bourbon actually seasons the barrels for us.”
Fascinating facts about Jamaican rum and Appleton Estate:
• Appleton Estate is the oldest rum distillery in Jamaica and started producing rum in 1749
• One year aging in Jamaica will produce the same flavor intensity as three years aging in Scotland
• Age statements for whisky and Appleton Rum alike mean that the youngest part of the blend is that age – but with inconsistent international laws, this isn't necessarily true for all rums
• Jamaica law does not allow any additives, unless the rum is classified as “flavored rum.” Many other countries are able to add 2.5 percent of additives into the blend, such as caramel color and vanilla flavoring
• “Rum” on a label means the spirit must be made from fermented products of sugar cane
• Jamaica is now pursuing a geographical indicator to protect the quality standards and usage of the country name in rum branding
• Most other rum manufacturers buy molasses. Appleton is a single estate so they control everything from sugar cane production to the bottling process
• There are six distillers in Jamaica that produce 4.6 million gallons of rum
• Wray & Nephew (Appleton & New Yarmouth) produce 60 percent of Jamaica’s rum
• It takes 10 tons of sugar cane to produce 30 cases of rum
• Appleton uses both pot and column stills and all of its rum is a blend of both types
• Appleton ages rum in American oak barrels (ex-Jack Daniels)
• Appleton has 240,000 barrels aging in warehouses around Kingston
Got questions about visiting Appleton Estate? Tweet @mindyjoyce