J.S. Tells of Rum, Jamaica 1871

Alongside Patrick Neilson in the 1871 edition of The Sugar Cane was this account by an author signed J.S. I’m supposed to be putting down my investigations on rum to focus on the Houghton Street Foundry, but I could not resist.

The J.S. account is of a slightly different perspective, so it may be helpful to comb through it and see how it lines up. J.S. seems relatively less focused on rum production and more involved with cane cultivation and sugar production. Half of J.S.’s article is about cultivation issues before going into rum production, but I’ll skip that.

Leaving the sugar to drain, let us return to the millhouse to collect materials for the distillery. Mill-bed trash, sour, or rat-spoiled cane, suckers, &c., are all collected and ground for the purpose of making rum. Then from the boiling-house is taken the trash and lees from syphons, and skimmings from the coppers. All these meet and mingle in a large receiver, or mixing vat, which is continually ebbing and refilling, and kept fermenting. From this a certain quantity is put in the bottom of each vat or cistern to be set up, generally about 250 gallons to a vat of 1000, which with 475 gallons Dunder, 200 gallons of water, and 75 gallons molasses, will make up a vat of liquor standing thus by Long’s saccharometer (which shows degrees of specific gravity above water, and about 7½ to 1 of Baumé’s scale):

For starters, these guys were smart and he goes on to crush math with fractions like a savant. Anyone in Jamaican operating at the birth of rum’s stylistic identity was well educated.

J.S. is also describing a system very much like Patrick Neilson’s where the trash cistern is being used as a sort of yeast/bacteria generator and that footing is used to setup the entire wash. He writes sort of clinically and does not sing the praises of the individual raw materials like Neilson.

The above should take about six days to ferment, and is an average specimen of the wash set and distilled here; but on each side of this average there are considerable variations, some setting at so low a degree of gravity that fermentation is over in two days—others so high that is may take two weeks. This can be done without materially interfering with the percentage of sweets added, or return of spirit produced, the dunder being the medium effecting this, which may be kept at any standard of gravity from 20 to 60.

Maybe we should reference Rum, Osmotolerance, and the Lash. Without changing the percentage of sweets, a.k.a. fermentable sugars, other variables can extend or shorten the duration of fermentation. Arroyo really pushes an understanding of this to the max.

Such differences in the mode of treating wash does not fail in producing corresponding variations in the quality of rums—that from the waterish and quickly fermented liquor being of a harsh and bare alcoholic odour; while the other, even new from the still, will smell mild and full-bodied. It is nevertheless asserted that the former turns out the more drinkable article by age, as is said to be the case of whisky of a similar stamp distilled from raw grain. Notwithstanding the superior character of Jamaica rum in general, there arises baffling dissimilarities in the flavour and value of rums made even on neighboring estates—the price realised for one being sometimes nearly double that of the other. That such differences would give rise to various speculations as to their cause, as well as endeavours at competition, is but natural to infer. Such endeavours have not been few, nor unattended in single instances with fair results, but the theories alighted on by experimentalists are varied and incongruous. The means adopted are principally confined to the treatment of the wash in fermentation. Pursuing the course indicated by the fact that better rum being producing by slow fermentation, the direction has been followed to the utmost limit consistent with a reasonable sacrifice of quantity and quality. Such sluggish fermentations are often induced as to present  not only unmistakable signs of a highly acetous, but an apparently morbose process, which instead of dissipating—as might be inferred of a rapid process—tend to fix, develop, or dissolve (as chemical investigation might determine) the aromatic principle (or substance containing such) constituting the valued flavour. Were the result attending this rather hazardous experiment always a success, we might be contented to abide by the conclusion that this aroma is entirely the effect of a certain process of fermentation; but as such fails to be the fact, the more natural supposition seems to be that it is a peculiarity incidental to certain soils, extracted principally by the albuminous matters of the cane juice and sent in the skimmings to the still-house.

#morboseprocess Here we she admission of “experimentalists”, probably of the like of Neilson, who are developing the early Jamaican rum process. At the very end J.S. also notes the importance of skimmings.

In commendation of this it may be stated that flavour is always strongest in the bottom part of the wash in the fermenting vat, when the albumen and yeast, &c., have subsided after fermentation. It is to be remarked, however, that rums of the most natural and most valued flavours are made in the most ordinary way, and without any effort of forcing, which fact directs and strengthens the belief that flavours may be intercepted, but not directly forced, by fermentation. I believe the water used in setting to have more connection in imparting flavours than is generally allowed. It is beyond dispute that the superiority of Scotch Glenlivat and Irish Poteen whiskies is owing to the soft, mellow, sweetish waters derived from surrounding peat bogs, and using in mashing and brewing. These whiskies are to all others what Jamaica is with rum.

A very subtle admission happens here when J.S. grapples with intercepting versus forcing flavours. My reading is that there is an admission of peculiar character other than esters which is rum oil. Esters are forced by the #morboseprocess while rum oil is thought to be intercepted and dissolved from products like the skimmings. Rum oil has been bred out of our rums but when you find it, you’ll know it. Esters can be faked in contrived ways, as I’ve stated so many times before, but rum oil is nearly divine. Rum oil is produced during fermentation through the hydrolysis of glycosides (a discovery first reported on this blog but pretty much stolen from the latest Cognac literature) and many variables such as a long fermentation, and even a resting stage, increase the potential to split the glycosides. Please see: Mezan XO challenge.

Skimmings communicate in a far greater degree than molasses the characteristic stamp to rum. A spirit made of pure molasses and water would scarcely be rum; and instances are familiar of molasses having been removed from one place and distilled at another, which, with different skimmings, have produced an entirely different rum.

This is a powerful statement that parallels much of what was said by Neilson and draws into question the greatness of New England rums. The current naive generation of new New England rums scarcely have any rum character and this I believe is what J.S. is talking about. However, decades later, Harris Eastman Sawyer would enter the fray in New England, and judging by his few writings as well as his sales to the tobacco industry, Eastman was able to make a rum purely from molasses that had that peculiar character.

Among other efforts to impart a flavour may be noticed that of adding certain odorous ingredients to the wash previous to distillation, or lucious fruits during fermentation. Of distillation little need be said. The apparatuses used are the common still for wash and generally retorts for the high and low wines. Low still heads are approved of as admitting more free passage for essential oils, but with these caution must be used in firing, so as not to force over bad oils which ought to remain in the lees, and at the same time prevent foul running. The running should be conducted slowly so as to cause the spirit to arrive perfectly condensed and cool. Flavour is always strongest in the first half of the spirit from the still, and it is sometimes the practice to put this up separately, and ship it under a different brand from the other.

For starters, we are catching up with some of Jamaican rum’s infamous  myths, but without much specificity. We also see that J.S. was conscious of the shape of the still head influencing the flavor of the distillate (low still heads). Foul running likely implies an overly rapid boiling creating foam that spills over through the condensor and into the distillate. Isolating for sale the first half of the distillate is a primitive form of super fractionation I’ve talked abut in the past where distillates are chopped up into more than the traditional fractions and reassembled as specific products. The big incentive of it here is because the taxes are so atrociously high and the market is fairly efficient. German buyers are happy to bid up the price based on how far they can stretch the concentrate, and the tax will be the same no mater what, so there is a big incentive to remove anything neutral from the rum. The reason this doesn’t really work in producing a truly great product is because the most valued congener, rum oil, is not in the first half, but rather a product that appears in the second half alongside fusel oil (hence benefit of colder fermentations).

That rum has not only been the staple and principle support of the many ill paying estates during bad years, but has acted indirectly as a barrier to the introduction of improvement in sugar manufacture, even on highly remunerative properties, there can be little reason to doubt. Proprietors when asked to adopt such and such an improvement, or send out certain new machinery, at once become jealous of the quality and proportion of their rum, and answer “no,” making such excuses as that they expect greater improvements to be arrived in course. The invention of the concrete process—the latest stride in advance—was not in the direction of Jamaica, unless for exceptional estates producing rum, so poor in quality as to be of the remotest consideration.

The concrete process is where cane juice is vacuum concentrated into bricks. No molasses is separated. Jamaica was very slow to adopt new sugar producing efficiencies because it, at the time, was far more successful in rum producing than anyone else. Producers were putting high value on byproducts like quality molasses or skimmings that were less rum beneficial in more sugar efficient processes.

Not only is ordinary rum netting £15 per puncheon, sometimes a more profitable article than sugar, but high classed brand at £18 to £25 per puncheon∗ in such cases make sugar quite a secondary consideration, and often attempt the turning of such an undue proportion of materials down to the still house as to seriously affect the value of the rum itself. So long as this state of matters continues, there is little likelihood of an sudden changes in our boiling houses here, yet it is to be hoped, as well as expected (especially should the recent favourable years continue, with returning confidence and capital to the island), that as the old taches and syphons become “burned out,” more advanced methods of manufacture will be adopted, having for their object the turning of cane juice to the best possible account, in the direction of its more legitimate end—namely sugar.


Trelawny, Jamaica,
23rd January, 1871.

J.S. appears to think that rum is morally inferior to sugar production and morality somewhat has an influence on the economics of can cultivation. This moral sentiment had profound influence on other islands and was the reason rum production never took off on Hawaii. No doubt there are quite a few other examples.

All in all, J.S. seems quite aware of all the ins and outs of rum production with an ear to the ground, but he is no experimentalist like Patrick Neilson. A deeply flawed moral conviction keeps his interest always with sugar over rum and that is just sad.

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