Hints To The Young Jamaica Sugar Planter By Robert Hibbert (1825)

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This book, for the most part, is plainly racist and not worth anyone’s time. I am going to extract the small section on distilling which builds some consensus of practices for the era and call it a day. There are just a few odd practices worth nothing. My notes are in bold which should make skimming it fast. Something fascinating that we see is that notes from the estate were often copied and sent monthly to England. If this practice was kept up, there are likely dusty libraries out there which contain most of the details. Granted, I don’t think they would be much help for understanding 19th century rum. This era is earlier that I typically am interested to cover and I don’t think anything gets too interesting until well into the second half of the 19th century.

Hints to the young Jamaica Sugar Planter By Robert Hibbert (1825)

The still house is the station of the highest grade to the book keeper, as it is upon his care that the quantity of rum is made. The overseer of course gives his directions in this, as in all other cases, but so much depends on cleanliness and minute attention that a large return of rum spirit is not undeservedly a merit in the superintendent of the still house. I am sorry however to add, that to obtain this good character unworthy means are sometimes resorted to of increasing the quantity of sweets such as sending down rich skimmings from the boiling house and indeed going so far as to empty the tache into the skimming tub instead of the cooler; and as the commander of the still house holds the key of the rum, he has ample means of bribing anyone to his purpose.

The still house should be furnished with two stills, one suppose of a thousand gallons and one of five hundred gallons, and with twelve cisterns or vats of one thousand gallons each, commensurate with the size of the larger still. Whether vats or cisterns are most desirable I cannot say; I have tried them both and I confess that I am content to put up with what I find my predecessors have left me. Vats are objectionable as most expensive, but then they are more easily cleaned, and any defect in them is more easily detected; in some cases, but those rarely, they may be placed sufficiently high for their contents to be drawn off into still; on other occasions the liquor must be pumped into the still; this is no great gain, as when the vats are high, the ingredients must be pumped into them, and being somewhat difficult of access, the different materials are often not thoroughly mixed. The vats, if made of two inch cedar plank are strong and lasting, and not subject to imbibe an unpleasant taint. The cisterns are placed in a square of mason work of which three sides are formed by the walls of the building so that there is only one side to build; they are placed three in a row one way, and four the other, and are made of strong square frames of wood, against which thick planks of wood are put, and are kept in their places by the intervening spaces between the cisterns being rammed very carefully with clay, so that they hold as tight as a bottle and are little exposed to injury when once properly fixed. Besides these vessels, there must be a cistern to receive the molasses; a vat of five hundred gallons or more to receive the low wines, which are the spirits drawn from the first distillation of the prepared liquor; a cistern to hold the dunder, and a tank to keep the worms of the still cool. It is also necessary to have a rum store adjoining with a sufficient number of butts to receive the rum, and to keep it, till it can be sent in puncheons to market, besides what may be wanted for the use of the estate.

The liquor is generally set at twelve per cent, sometimes higher, but never lower than ten per cent, that is, one gallon of sweets to nine gallons of water; supposing that nothing but molasses and water were mixed, they would be exactly in this proportion. But the skimmings from the boiling house are to a certain extent introduced, and their richness will vary inversely, as is the care of the boiler; even the washings of the coppers are not neglected; in short, every thing that contains a particle of sweets is sent down to the still house; to these must be added the dunder, the name given to the remnant of the contents of the low-wine still, after all the spirit is extracted.

The book keeper is bound to keep a journal of his proceedings; in this is inserted the number of the cistern when set, the per centage, and the ingredients forming that per centage. Suppose dunder washings and skimmings two, tainted cane juice one, molasses nine, making together twelve per cent; the day is also noted when the liquor from the cistern is distilled, and the number of gallons of low-wines extracted from it. In like manner, the produce from the rum-still is duly noted, so that both the book-keeper and his overseer must be sensible, if there be any thing wrong, where any alterations are to be attempted.

The liquor when set low, works more readily, but then there is a waste of labour and of fuel; on the contrary when set high the return of spirit is not always proportionably great.

Dunder should be racked, and the sweets from the boiling house should be cleansed of all filth, before they are used, for nothing checks the fermentation more than dirt in the liquor. Whatever is put into the cistern, should be completely dissolved in the water, and if any extraneous matter rises to the surface it should be carefully skimmed off. The liquor thus set will complete in warm weather the vinous fermentation in six days, when it falls and before the acetous fermentation can commence, it should be pumped up by a small moveable copper pump into the low-wine-still. The damp air is supposed to be injurious by delaying fermentation, and I have therefore seen the windows of the still-house glazed like those of the curing house, but I believe it to be now allowed, that a free current of air is beneficial to fermentation and should therefore be encouraged.

When a cistern has nearly fallen, but still works a little, and is not quite fit for the still, a small basket filled with broken lime stones, is sometimes suspended by a rope across a stick, so as to hang in the liquor which will cause an ebullition to take place, and will deaden the liquor in the cistern, so as to render it fit for distillation, and will at the same time throw up a scum similar to yeast, which being thrown into the cistern next about to be set, will cause an immediate fermentation. [This is an interesting fancy corrective.]

I have myself used a still of two thousand gallons, which was supposed to facilitate greatly the process of distilling; but modern improvement has shown the folly of such expense, and the broad shallow still of five hundred gallons, with a receiver fixed round the goose neck, will answer every purpose.

The liquor should be drawn by the worm from the low-wine-still till the spirit is completely extracted and till it ceases to be inflammable.

The remainder is called dunder, and should be drawn off by a cock from the bottom of the still into a receiver placed conveniently below, whence it should be racked off into another vessel, and when quite clear, should be mixed in the next cistern of liquor that is to be set. The low-wines when distilled over again in the second still are called rum. The still is suffered to run till the average produce will not do more than sink the London bubble, No. 22 [15 over proof, 65.71% ABV], when the fire of the still is stopped, and the remaining contents are returned into the low-wine butt.

There is always an unpleasant smell from the rum fresh from the still, which is supposed to arise from an empyreumatic oil formed in the distillation; it is found useful therefore to place a can having a spout like a coffee pot, not to rise so high as the brim of the can, into which the spirit falls from the worm of the still,s and thence by the spout into the pail intended to carry it to the rum store; this simple contrivance of the can is found to separate the oil from the spirit to a great degree [This resembles a common still parrot which many distillers use to float hydrometers. I have never heard of it used for another purpose such as this and am not too sure would be effective.]. The stills are sometimes placed within the still-house, and sometimes on the outside, with a shed over them. I prefer the latter, where circumstances permit, as accidents have occurred by which the still heads have been blown up. The tank is still to be mentioned, in which the still worms are laid to condense the steam, and turn it into a liquid, and in a country where the water is at a temperature of eighty and upwards, it requires a considerable quantity of it to effect the purpose. I have never seen an estate where no supply of water could be obtained except from the heavens, though there are many such, particularly in St Ann’s; in general a small stream can be obtained without much difficulty, and if it be not on a level to run into the tank, a Persian wheel or breeze pump will raise it to the desired height. Whenever the supply is short, the stream should be made to fall into a wooden pipe fixed upright in the tank, by which means the cold water falls unmixed to the bottom of the tank, and the heated water in the tank will rise to the surface and discharge itself by the proper vent. I have known a small stream in a small tank by means of such a pipe effectually to perform its duty.

I have mentioned that a regular journal is kept of the proceedings in the still house a similar journal for the same purpose is kept in the boiling-house; besides these, there is a general plantation journal kept of the proceedings of the estate, noting the employment of all on the property, the state of the weather, the occupations of the several gangs, and any occurrence on the estate. I have seen printed forms of such a journal, a copy of which was sent every month to the proprietor in England.

2 thoughts on “Hints To The Young Jamaica Sugar Planter By Robert Hibbert (1825)

  1. Another interestig read, the details of the cistern construction were interesting! I read the description of the oil seperator as described as functioning like a gravy fat seperator – the upturned spout allowing the liquor in the body to be able to seperate and keep the lighter oils at the surface and away from the draw off point. I am curious how much oil might typically be removed.

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