This was a very exciting birectifier examination because I had just returned from Kingston, Jamaica and met the creator Vivian Wisdom of Hampden. We were speaking at the same Conference. Vivian was speaking of high ester rum production from first hand experience and I was speaking a day later from the perspective of all the literature I’ve collected (There are some things to reconcile).
Vivian’s talk made Rum Fire all the more exciting. How often do you have the opportunity to get into the mind of a brilliant and audacious rum producer? Most producers are notoriously silent (which does them no favors).
The talk starts with:
“This is different”
I should set the scene a little bit. This is Lallemand’s Alcohol School which is a technical program for commercial distillers. Pretty much everyone in the room besides myself is either a microbiologist or a production employee at a large scale Caribbean rum operation. The whole week was pretty technical with seminars on optimizing yeast nutrients and others on continuous column distillation aimed at operators. It was incredible to see in the room who was taking notes furiously and when.
On Thursday everyone was rapt up in this talk. What goes on at Hampden is incredible, even to many other producers. They break a lot of rules everyone else lives by.
Vivian mentioned all the things you read about in the earliest publications of the Experiment Station; pH as low as 3, 15 to 21 day ferments, and spontaneously occurring yeasts.
One thing he goes into that is still shrouded in mystery even after the talk is the role of the cane vinegar. They make a lot of vinegar for the highest ester rums. Somehow when the vinegar is mixed back into their batición, it creates enough longer chain fatty acids that are worth all the acetic acid (which is possibly salted out with lime and/or converted to ethyl acetate). The cane vinegar is something I had previously written off as nothing more than pre advent of sulfuric acid and thus obsolete. There may be a lot more to the vinegar and I’ve got some ideas.
We then heard some great anecdotes on the water used at Hampden and how it unapologetically comes from above ground where it likely has a bacterial flora. “Embrace everything”, Vivian says. They have tried well water and it just wasn’t Hampden. This reminded me of S.H. Hastie’s early 20th century anecdote of water use in Scotch distilleries.
“You have to be brave”
He then describes a rose pedal smell in Hampden.
“If its missing, its not a Hampden rum.”
He discusses a sacrifice of efficiency which I also brought up in my presentation. For the Grand Arôme rum style, I declared that alcohol is often incidental. When the first question came in it was about consistency.
“There is a science to the art you know.”
Another question leads to discussing spontaneous fermentation. He does not like the term wild yeasts because he thinks of fleas. He thinks of brettanomyces. The moderator chimes in and asks Vivian if he thinks he uses a Pombe yeast. He is not sure, he thinks its a saccharomyces yeast.
After the talk, we discussed the Pombe yeasts and how the ability to harness them has been maintained while the ability to differentiate them as unique has been lost. (The literature is a starting point to reconciling this and celebrating Pombe.) This is where Vivian is incredible because he has a genius level of curiosity. I propose Pombe because I’ve merely read it in the books and he doesn’t debate me, but is ready to take in anything that will help him advance his art.
Eventually, after the day’s lectures, we went and took a look at the birectifier which he had missed seeing on monday. (The gears were turning!) I was told some incredible tales of experimenting to the point it almost gets him in trouble. Established rum distillers rarely experiment, but it is a hallmark of the greatest winemakers. To have the imagination for experimentation in distillation is extraordinary. Few even know what questions they can ask.
I had wanted to examine Rum Fire a while ago, but after quickly polishing off the bottle I had, distribution seemed to be dropped in Massachusetts. I actually looked in 10+ liquor stores and could not find another bottle. Luckily, I was able to get one at Duty Free on my return flight. This rum hails from one of the most legendary properties of the world and is made by one of the greatest rum distillers of his generation.
Hampden is unique. To my knowledge, they have only ever produced specialty bulk rum and have never produced a ready to drink product for consumers. From what I’ve heard, they’ve never even aged rum (which they’re starting to do). If you find an aged Hampden, and they’re around, someone else aged it. Hampden also has no continuous still and only has double retorts. This all makes Rum Fire a great departure that requires imagination, technical acuity, and also begs some questions. Is the product solely from their own stills? or is their pot still product blended down with someone else’s column still product to make it more approachable? I wasn’t smart enough to ask in Jamaica. The lack of gustatory acidity in the last fractions hint that the spirit is a blend of pot and column. However, the birectifier stillage has distinct gustatory acidity so maybe its just distilled at a fairly high proof.
The stillage begs another question. It seemed ever so slightly pricked to use a wine term. Does it contain free acetic acid and did it get there by cane vinegar? These rums have a spectrum of techniques to pursue aroma, so who know if cane vinegar is used in all of their ferments or just the heaviest.
Does it use a Pombe yeast? I’d love to know, but nothing in the distillate can tell… or can it? Every ordinary thing in this distillate was in the usual place and was very comparable to Wray & Nephews until we come to its fraction 5. Rose pedal? Vivian’s words were coming to life:
“If its missing, its not a Hampden rum.”
If they get rose pedal in every mark, does Pombe always participate in this character? I was completely reminded of the fraction 5 from a plum eau-de-vie, but Rum Fire had other extra details. It was also quite concentrated and hard to take in. Upon further dilution of the fraction, and upon leaving and returning to experience it, all that extra dimension attributed to rum oil was coming forward. I’m itching to go a step further and apply the sulfuric acid test and see if I can subtract the esters to reveal more of the aroma attributed to rum oil.
[Sulfuric acid test of Rum Fire birectifier fraction #5 organoleptically reveals presence of rum oil]
Rum Fire is like Wray & Nephews, but with so many more style points. It is still however a heady, top heavy, Jamaica style overproof rum. These aren’t for everybody and you have to angle yourself to see beyond the ethyl acetate. I suspect with slight maturation in the barrel we’ll see more approachable expressions. Hampden is definitely onto something in their first foray into consumer rum. Rum Fire is a great achievement and an accessible glimpse into one of the most distinct productions of the world.
After examining a 24 year old example, I had a lot of questions for this rum. Would I find more of that singular character? (Yes).
Fraction 1: Seems very concentrated, more than the average spirit. Non-culinary aromas with no other singular character.
Fraction 2: Concentrated to the point of non-culinary character. No singular character.
Fraction 3: Very neutral, but with a slight residual character that is hard to focus on.
Fraction 4: Definite fusel oil. Very much the wraith and not pleasant on the palate. I’d weight this as on par with many whiskies.
Fraction 5: Quite concentrated with a sharpness. Almost like the esters are so concentrated they overshadow. Very much resembles a fruit eau-de-vie fraction 5. I can see how Vivian would throw out a rose petal descriptor. Upon a little extra dilution an extra dimension exposes itself that could likely be labelled rum oil.
Fraction 6: A unique character I’m having a hard time describing. Not negative. No distinct gustatory acidity.
Fraction 7: Similar character to fraction 6. No gustatory acidity.
Fraction 8: The faint character continues. Faint gustatory acidity.
Stillage: Faint trace of acetic acid. Definite gustatory acidity.