Jamaica Rum with the Honorable H.H. Cousins (1907)

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I’ve cried wolf many times, but this 1907 paper is the most amusing and requisite writing on Jamaican rum I’ve come across. It delves into all the politics and economics then even manages to explore some of the tasting terms used by brokers of Jamaican rum in their glory days. Herbert Henry Cousins was a character and noted for writing in a “lucid style” by Nature in 1910:

H. H. Cousins, Jamaica’s first director of agriculture, was also a post card collector. Parts of the collection can be seen here.

Something really unique is how Cousins put in perspective the capacities of the North side distilleries. He even singles out a single firm. Because their fermentations lasted multiple weeks, they needed staggering fermentor capacity relative to still capacity.

Government Analytical and Agricultural Chemist, Jamaica.

To deal with this matter in a manner adequate to its importance, and up to the standard of thoroughness to which the members of this Conference are accustomed in the treatment of the subjects brought before them, would involve a communication of such length as to be beyond all reasonable limits on this present occasion. Subject to Sir Daniel Morris’ approval, I have in preparation another paper, for publication in the West Indian Bulletin, in which the general subject of rum is more fully dealt with, and a summary of the outcome of the investigations that have been made upon it by the officers of the Sugar Experiment Station in Jamaica, together with a report prepared by the late Fermentation Chemist, Mr. C. Allan, B.Sc, of his observations during his three years’ study of the micro-organisms of rum, are presented.

I now propose with your kind indulgence to attempt a brief description of the miscellaneous types of sugar-cane spirit included under the generic name ‘Jamaica rum,’ and to illustrate this by submitting a series of typical samples for your examination.

As in all special industries, we have our trade secrets in the manufacture of Jamaica rum, and it is notorious that the rum trade is one of the most jealous and unapproachable of business interests.

It would not be fair, therefore, to attempt to disclose before such a gathering as this, any special secrets which it has been our lot to discover in the course of the investigations into the problems of rum manufacture, that have been made in Jamaica during the past three years. At the same time, I do not fear the competition of the other sugar-producing colonies with Jamaica in the manufacture of rum, and I am satisfied that the planters in this island have everything to gain, and very little to risk, by the fullest possible inquiry into all branches of the rum industry. Jamaica rum is, to a large extent, the natural outcome of local conditions that are apparently unique, and it is not to be expected that the laborious and slow minutiae of a high-flavoured rum process could ever form pare of the industrial working of a large sugar factory in Cuba or in British Guiana.


To understand the wide differences in the quality of Jamaica rum, we must first recognize that there are three distinct classes of rum produced in the island, each adapted for a particular market, and each judged by a different standard of excellence.

To answer the question—’ What is a good Jamaica rum?’ involves a second inquiry: ‘To what class of Jamaica rum do you refer?’ The three classes are as follows :—
(1) Rums for home consumption, or ‘local trade quality.’
(2) Rums for consumption – in the United Kingdom, or ‘home trade quality.’
(3) Rums for consumption on the continent, or ‘export trade quality.’

Each of these grades of rum meets the requirements of a special market, and is judged by a different standard of quality. I would particularly urge that these three markets, being self-contained, do not compete one with the other, and that the idea that the producers of export quality are thereby prejudicing the sales and commercial success of the ‘home trade ‘ qualities is entirely without foundation.

So far as I have been able to arrive at the facts, the commercial spheres of the three classes of rums are entirely distinct, and there is no reason to believe that the production of high-flavoured rums for blending on the continent is in any way prejudicial to the interests of the home trade Jamaica rums consumed in the United Kingdom.

Each class of rum is entirely legitimate, and there is no reason whatsoever why the makers of different types of Jamaica rum should be jealous one of the other. Again, any competition between individual estates is also without reasonable basis. Unless an article is producible in adequate quantity, and with sufficient variety of quality to enable the variable tastes of consumers to be catered for, no satisfactory trade can be developed.

With regard to the export qualities, I have received the most convincing assurance that the danger of the future of this trade lies not in over- but in under-production.


The most sensitive barometer of the material prosperity of the population of Jamaica is to be found in the Collector General’s returns of the rum duties.

Those of you who visited Port Antonio on Saturday might have observed mural notices to the effect that ‘rum ruins’ —a statement which is not open to question when the rum consumed and the cubic capacity of the consumer are to any large extent in an inverse ratio, and in favour of the liquor.

When we consider, however, that the local consumption of rum does not exceed three or four bottles per head per annum, the Jamaican cannot be charged with ruining himself with rum to any great extent.

From the point of view of the revenue and the administration of government, it is only to be regretted that our people are unable to afford the luxury of consuming three or four.times as much rum as they do at present, so that a marked reduction in taxation could be effected. While rum remains the wine of the country, so far as the lower orders in Jamaica are concerned, nothing is so striking to an observer of the habits of the upper classes, as the very large extent to which imported Scotch whisky (some of it very recent, very fiery and of very patent-still quality) has displaced rum. The high-class trade in old rums of delicate softened flavour, which were formerly so highly thought of by the planters and moneyed classes, has largely disappeared, and it would probably be most difficult to obtain a choice mark of an old rum, which has not been blended, from any spirit merchant in Jamaica today. Blends are the order of the day, and the public house trade is the chief field in which the local quality of rum is employed.

For this purpose a light rum that will age or mature very rapidly is a great desideratum. These rums are mainly produced in Vere and St. Catherine, and are the result of light settings and a quick fermentation. The stills are heated with steam coils, and double retorts are used.

The ether content of these rums varies from a minimum of 90 parts per 100,000 volumes of alcohol to about 300 parts. The bulk of this spirit would average from 180 to 220 parts of ethers. It will be noticed from the samples submitted for inspection that these rums have a delicate pleasant aroma, and when broken down with water yield a light type of residual flavour which is markedly inferior to that of the rums in Glass II.

The basis of flavour of these rums is principally due to acetic ether, while the characteristic flavour and aroma of each estate’s mark, appear to be due in every case to traces of the ethers of the higher acids, and, in a less degree, to traces of caprylic alcohol and other higher alcohols of an aromatic nature.


These are sometimes alluded to as ‘public house rums’ and represent the class of spirit which is required for the use of the spirit trade in the United Kingdom as ‘Jamaica rum.’ Owing to the strenuous efforts of Mr. Nolan, the protector of Jamaica rum in the United Kingdom, much interest has recently been shown by the retailers and consumers at home in genuine ‘Jamaica rum.’ The rums of the class to which I now refer, and which constitute the bulk of the rum exported from Jamaica, represent the type of spirit which Mr. Nolan is seeking to advertise, and to protect from fraudulent adulteration, and from the competition of spurious Jamaica rum in the United Kingdom.

It was at one time considered that an analytical standard of ethers could be fixed whereby a genuine Jamaica rum could be differentiated from a patent-still colonial rum or a blended Jamaica rum. While, however, the beat types of ‘home trade rums’ contain 300 to 500 parts of ethers, and the great bulk of the rum exported from Jamaica is well above a standard of 200 parts of ethers, there are certain marks of rum (and among them some of stout body and attractive quality) which are as low as 100 parts of ethers. Except in cases of gross adulteration, therefore, purely analytical evidence is not of much avail in deciding whether a rum be a genuine Jamaica rum or not. A proposal to prohibit the exportation of any rums below a standard of 200 parts of ethers was seriously considered by the planters last year, but was thought to be unfair to individual estates, and eventually was abandoned.

The formation of a Jamaica rum syndicate whereby a monopoly of this article is sought by a corporation to enable a higher price to be obtained has recently been effected. If the syndicate can carry through its undertakings, an increased price to the retailer of 1d. per bottle of genuine Jamaica rum would suffice to secure the planters an additional 6d. per gallon for their rum, and provide a fund of £30,000 a year for advertising the merits of ‘Jamaica rum.’

I estimate that a capital of £500,000 is required to ensure the full operation of this scheme. It must be remembered that if a puncheon of rum be sold for £10, the British revenue charges amount to £75, and the corporation will require a capital of £85 before the puncheon of rum can be dealt with as a commercial article. A large trading capital to allow of credits to publicans and other customers would be necessary. If this enterprise could be floated by interesting a large number of retailers in the shares of the company, as was done by the Guinness flotation, it is reasonably certain that a great success could be achieved.

The best rums for the home trade are made in Westmoreland, while some very fine rums are also produced in Clarendon, St. James, and Trelawney, which fall in this category.

These rums are generally produced by a slower type of fermentation than the local trade rums, and some of the best marks are produced in ground cisterns, and are slightly flavoured by the addition of some sour skimmings to the fermented materials. These rums are characterized by a high standard of heavy residual body. These are mainly ethers of acids of high molecular weight. These acids are not producible from sugars, and are almost absent in rums other than Jamaican, which are produced from diluted molasses without dunder or acid skimmings, and distilled in patent stills. Our investigations indicate that these higher acids result from the bacterial decomposition of the dead yeasts found in our distillery materials in Jamaica, and I am forced to the conclusion that the adherent yeasts in the old ground cisterns have a good deal to do with the fine flavour of many of these home trade rums.

When in London recently in the office of the leading broker who handles Jamaica rum, I was shown samples of the chief marks of home trade rums which were considered to set the standard of quality. ‘We do not want ethers, but a round rummy spirit,’ said this broker. I was pleased to find, however, that the marks selected as standards were all of high ether content (from 300 to 450 parts of ethers). They had, however, a very good standard of heavy residual body, and the blend of flavours was both mellow and full.

A trade expert in Jamaica, from whom I have obtained help on various occasions, writes me : ‘The earmarking of rum is to my idea a mistake, as any one with the least elementary knowledge of spirits knows that a blend is better than a naked spirit, always provided the blender knows his business.’

So far as the rum syndicate is concerned, there is no reason whatever why our Jamaica rums should not be blended one with another in order to get a round, full, and attractive blend; and it is to be presumed that this would be necessary in the development of the bottling trade.

The samples of home trade rums submitted have been selected from a large number as representative of this class of Jamaica rum. As compared with the local trade rums, it will be noted that they have a stouter, fuller, and more fruity aroma, and that when broken down with water, the spicy residual flavour is strongly marked.

It was impressed upon me in London by the trade experts that the planters in Jamaica should recollect that, as the duty payable on rum in England was about eight times that of its value to the planter, it was a most serious matter for the buyers at home if any fault should be found with the rum after it had been cleared from bond. Points that required attention were: (a) cloudiness on dilution; (b) a burnt flavour; (c) excessive obscuration.

We have found the chief cause of cloudiness in Jamaica rums to be due to high settings, and such an intensity of bacterial action that higher alcohols are produced in excess. The charge of wines in the retort being inadequate to fractionate these impurities, they enter into the rum and cause cloudiness on dilution. To remedy this fault, insist on the distiller testing the spirit with water before accepting it as rum. All cloudy distillate should be set aside for high wines. The fermentation should then receive attention, and, if necessary, the vats should be limed to secure a clearer fermentation.

The burnt flavour too, is common in the case of fire-heated stills. It is frequently quite unnoticeable in the sample until it has been freely diluted with water. I am convinced from the results obtained at Shrewsbury estate in Westmoreland, that all home trade rums could with advantage be distilled in stills heated by a steam coil. Burnt rum should then be unknown. The fetish of the ‘direct fire,’ that still lingers in the minds of Scotch whisky distillers has no basis at all where Jamaica rum is concerned, since any excessive firing results in a most serious injury to the spirit produced.

As regards obscuration, there is now a demand for fully coloured rums (say No. 19 on Lovibond’s scale) with an obscuration not exceeding 1¼ to 1½ per cent, of proof spirit. This is readily attainable if care be taken in preparing the colour.


Jamaica has long been famed for its rum, and a certain proportion of the crop has for very many years found its way to the markets of Europe. Thirty or forty years ago, a trade in high-class drinking rums was carried on with the continent; and I recently interviewed in Hamburg a merchant who had in former days done a good trade in choice marks of Jamaica drinking rums. He bemoaned, however, that this trade had practically ceased since 1889, when the German Government raised the duty on Jamaica rums from a very low rate to the relatively high one that now obtains, which is equivalent .to about 8¢. per liquid gallon. From that time the entry into Germany of Jamaica rums, suitable for direct consumption, has been made almost impossible. The low rates of excise on the domestic potato and grain spirits render the competition of home trade qualities of Jamaica rums with the German spirits out of the question under present conditions.

To the firm of Finke & Co., of Kingston and Bremen, and the enterprising planters of the north side of the island, belong the credit for having met this obstructive tariff by the development of a considerable trade in high-flavoured rums, of such remarkable blending power that they could stand the high import duty, and yet be utilized by the German blenders for producing a blended rum capable of competing with local distilled spirits subject to a merely nominal excise.

It is no exaggeration to say that to this enterprise alone is due the survival of the small estates on the north side, despite their great disadvantages as sugar-producing estates under the stringent conditions of the sugar market during the past ten years. There is much unreasonable prejudice against this industry among planters who are interested in home trade rums; and it has often been suggested that these high-flavoured rums are merely adulterants, and gain a profit at the expense of the genuine common clean drinking rums.

If these rums were used for blending with silent spirit in the United Kingdom, to produce blends that were sold as Jamaica rum, there would be some ground for this view; but so far as evidence can be obtained, it would appear that these rums are all used on the continent, and are not in competition with home trade rums at all.

As the only discrimination in the United Kingdom against our colonial spirit is the surtax of 4d. per gallon, there is no adequate inducement to the blenders to use high-flavoured rums at high prices for the English market.

The evidence of Mr. Steele, C.B., and of the official statistics of the German importations of Jamaica rums, all indicate that our high-flavoured rums, even when sold in London, or shipped to buyers in London, eventually pass on to the continent either in the original puncheons, or as vatted rums.

These export rums are commonly known as German flavoured rums in Jamaica, and are produced by a process that could only be adopted on a small estate with a relatively enormous distillery capacity. Instead of thirty hours’ fermentation, as in the case of a Demerara or Trinidad rum, these German-flavoured rums demand a fermenting period of fifteen to twenty-one days.

The yeasts at work are of the fission type entirely, and the whole process is operated under intensely acid conditions. It is remarkable that these fission yeasts should be able to attenuate a liquor with an acidity of 3 per cent., while the oval budding yeast may be paralyzed with an acidity of less than one-fifth of this amount.

These flavoured rums contain, as might be expected, a relatively high proportion of ethers. Some makes are as low as 600 or 700 parts of ethers, but are, as a rule, relatively rich in heavy-bodied ethers, and are possessed of great stretching power.

The finer qualities contain some 1,000 to 1,200 parts of ethers, and occasional samples may even attain a standard of 1,500 or 1,600 ethers. We have found that about 97 per cent, of these ethers are acetic ether, about 2 per cent, consist of butyric ether, traces of formic ether may be present, and from ½ to ¾ per cent, of the total consists of heavy ethers derived from acids of high molecular weight.

It is upon this small trace of heavy ethers that the chief character, and, indeed, the commercial value of a high-flavoured rum depend.

As a rule the presence of high ethers is also associated with that of higher alcohols of a peculiar spicy and attractive fragrance.

Were these rums merely dependent on acetic and butyric ethers for their peculiar value, it is obvious that our trade would be at the mercy of any and every competitor.

The higher ethers, however, have such an intensity of aroma and flavouring power that they entirely dominate all other constituents ; and the more we study the chemistry and the manufacture of German rums the more convinced do we become of the great difficulties in the way of reproducing them at will.

No two estates produce the same character of flavour. The differences are due to the variation in the bacterial flora, and these again are dominated by the differences in the composition of the material fermented, and the conditions under which it exists.

This manufacture is peculiarly precarious and erratic, both as to yields and to quality of produce. It is no unusual thing to find successive batches of rum from the same estate, apparently produced under identical conditions, varying in value from 8¢. to 4¢. per gallon. When the complicated process is studied, and the entire absence of all rational control is realized, it is only surprising that the results are not far less uniform than they are.

The trade in these rums puts a high premium on the judgement of the buyer, and the science of rum smelling is found in its highest refinement in the valuation of high flavoured rums. To attain a high measure of efficiency, long training and experience are necessary. A delicate or highly sensitive nose is not so necessary as a faculty for the memory of smells. A good flavoured rum presents to the sense of smell a blend of various distinct types of smell in a proportion that is both attractive and satisfying to the trained nose.

Ah analytical faculty must be developed whereby the ingredients may be sorted out, and approximately appraised by the trained nose under various headings.

Thus a good standard of acetic ether, associated as a rule with a high standard of ethers and intensity of flavouring power, is appraised under the heading ‘pepper’ or ‘rasse,’ that is, breed. This is best appreciated when the spirit is smelt before being diluted. Butyric ether gives a delicate fruity flavour, and rums deficient in this ingredient are sometimes described by brokers as ‘stalky.’

Homologues of caprylic ether are apparently the constituents of the pine-apple flavour; while ‘ fruit’ and ‘butter’ are other characteristic types of smell that reside in the heavy residual ethers.

The heavier ethers are more readily appreciated when the rum is diluted with an equal volume of water. This dilution at once reduces the vapour tension of the acetic ether, which then becomes greatly reduced in pungency, while the heavy oily ethers come out and assert their remarkable predominance.

We must regard the acetic and butyric ethers merely as media for the conveyance of the heavy smell of the residual ethers, and as being of very secondary importance in themselves, although constituting 99 per cent. of the total ethers in the rum.

The chemists present will, I think, concede that the chemistry of the residual and characteristic flavours of these rums is a matter of very serious difficulty to investigate, owing to the extremely minute proportions in which these intensely aromatic compounds exist in the rum.

I will now circulate for your examination a series of samples of German-flavoured rums illustrating the various types at present being produced in Jamaica.

The blenders on the continent would purchase five or six of these different rums, and blend them into a general purpose mixture, capable of being blended with silent spirit to give a blended rum of attractive style, quality, and flavour.

It would appear that the bulk of the so-called rum consumed on the continent of Europe is prepared from artificial essences, and that the trade in ‘Kunot rum ‘ has been detrimental to the interest of the Jamaica high-flavoured rum. The experiment station has been experimenting—with some success —in the direction of increasing the blending value of these rums so that they can compete on more equal terms with the sophisticated article on the continent.

An experiment has been carried out at Hampden estate in St. James to test this matter, and although the commercial results are not yet complete, we have every reason to believe that in the direction of increasing the blending power of our flavoured rums must lie the future of this industry.


9 thoughts on “Jamaica Rum with the Honorable H.H. Cousins (1907)

  1. I read the line in the article “I estimate that a capital of £500,000 is required to ensure the full operation of this scheme.”. I was curious what £500,000 in 1907 would equal now in value. I found two calculators that would go back that far for the pound. The first estimated the value to be £41,996,069.46. The second estimated the value to be £62,500,000.00. TLDR Distilleries are and have always been expensive.

  2. Gorgeous article about jamaican rum. Thanks a lot for enlightment ;)

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