“Muck Hole” Not “Dunder Pit”

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This post is coming up on its 6th anniversary so I may as well spruce it up because it is still shared widely. Back in the day no one talked about muck, they only spoke of dunder, the residue left in the still after distillation. It was a big deal when we found “muck holes” in the old literature and it captivated a lot of imagination.

The muck hole is a cistern where spent yeast are stored in heritage Jamaica rum fermentations for a type of refermentation so that extra aroma can form and it can be recycled to boost, if not turbo charge, rum aroma. There are lots of finer points and even reasons why rum can do this but not other spirits. There are also differences of opinion on how best to use muck. Some ideas are described in the literature that are not currently practiced (to my knowledge) and then some ideas exist as theoretically possible and I guess we could start practicing them.

To my knowledge, besides S. F. Ashby over 100 years ago, no microbiologist has ever surveyed the muck pit. Jamaica had a tradition of maintaining them with the minimum of science and a big reason may have been because fancy scientists (high as a kite on Pasteur) were feared to come in and clean everything up. The few operations that could use them productively could also make nice profits, so why teach others?

But that isn’t really the end of the story. At the turn of the 20th century, during the golden era of Jamaica rum development, on the other side of the world, a guy named E. Bauer was developing a method for using lactic acid bacteria to peptonize yeast and make a commercial yeast extract. Muck ends up being essential peptonized yeast, but also a little more than that. Yeast bodies are built of aroma compounds in the form of long chain acids that can become esters. Bauer was not too interested in these compounds so he separated them by distillation which produced something like an essential oil others called Bauer oil.

I first came across the Bauer oil term before I knew of E. Bauer and his extract when some distillers wrote a paper about an oil accumulating in the lowest plates of a continuous distillation column below the draw point. This is where high boiling point stuff builds up. They even said it changed color as it accumulated and no doubt sort of stared at them through a site glass. They took this oil out and analyzed it, finding it was long chain acids and esters. They obvious thought it was derived from yeast because they named it after Bauer. You don’t need to use muck to get Bauer oil, but you do need it when you want a lot of it!

Since Bauer, the production of yeast extract has evolved to be a lot more efficient and less aromacentric. Jamaica on the other hand has kept up with pursuing aroma, maintaining muck pits, even if they never documented the science.

I actually have a lab scale muck pit and I’ve been taking a lot of measurements observing it even though I have not figured out how to wield it in a finished product. I recently analyzed my muck with the birectifier and found Bauer oil!

Making muck is one thing while using it is another. Actually, making muck can also be challenging, but I was given a secret that does not belong to me so I can not tell you about it, but it does make beautiful muck. Mine, at its best, smells like peach.

Using muck is a different story and there are a few options. I recently sat down with a distiller from Jamaica and we had a little two person heavy rum symposium [May 2020]. I’ve collected and translated all the important rum papers but this guy has lived it which is a lot better! He kept saying: “No, no on, we don’t do that. Its a lot easier than that.” And of course, he did not tell me what exactly they did. It can be hard to tell if there are more things that are truly secrets or something he would show me but not tell me if I actually showed up in Jamaica.

In my understanding, the most classic way to use muck is as the acid drops to salt out the Bauer oil acids with alkaline lime and then transfer those locked up salts to a vinegar cistern where they will be released when acetic acid trades places in the salts with the more desirable Bauer oil acids. This new turbo vinegar is added to the ferment and was called flavour. Well, supposedly no one does that anymore. It is also hard to keep track of and becomes a little bit of a hope and prayer. I’ve known of American producers to try and no one was successful.

In the next, way you peptonize the yeast then you sort of add it to your ferment as a yeast extract and nutrient source. However, multiple perils await. No doubt you are bringing bacteria that could mess up your ferment. There is dirty and then extra dirty… Second, and particularly important, if not a secret; you must have a fission yeast. Using yeast extract increases fusel oil which is typically in surplus and needs cut away during distillation. If you used a common budding yeast, you would have way too much fusel oil and you would have to cut too much aroma away. Jamaica is special because many distilleries have learned to use fission yeasts that are below average fusel oil producers. So you go below average plus more from the muck effect and you are back to average while getting all the extra Bauer oil! It only works if you can make it work!

Yeast extract is a nutrient derived from yeasts that can be turned around to feed new yeast. Typically this is only used these days in the first stages of growing yeast starters and then you switch to various ammonia salts which are carefully regimented. Using yeast extract in the form of muck is pretty abstract. Most scientists would not even want the challenge because its so unstructured yet Jamaica wins.

There are yet other ways to use muck hypothesized and discussed at the symposium, but they must be left for the future of rum.

Jamaica never really crossed paths with Bauer and I don’t think anyone there today knows his name, but I do think “Bauer oil” as a term should stick. Muck leads to big flavors and no doubt there are many ways to skin the cat pushing boundaries with the technique. I’d like to think I’m making a lot of progress with it, but I’ve still got a ways to go.

[I don’t know much about that boutique-y rum company, but they seem to know whats up.]

[This is the old post from 2014]

The previous post contains an account of making Jamaican rum from a 1911 text on Cane Sugar from a renowned sugar technologist at the experiment station of the Hawaiian sugar planters association. The account very briefly explains the various cisterns used for preparing all parts of the sugar wash and uses the (new to me) term muck hole as opposed to the term dunder pit which many rum talkers like to throw around. True, Jamaican rums had dunder added [and this it turns out is ripened with bacterial fermentations], which just implied stillage, but they also had a quotient added called flavour, which is the legendary re-fermented portion. Not all of Jamaica made heavy, flavoured or German rums, they also made clean rums. Many people today are confused on what style of rum is represented by Wray & Nephews OP or Trelawny OP. They are unique relative to other clear rums, but probably do not see any of the flavouring technique.

“If common clean rum is being made, stick to common clean and never allow things to drift in the directions of making flavoured rum in the pious hopes that you may wake up some day to find that you have become famous by making flavoured rum where it was never made before. You are much more likely to find an enfuriated Busha awaiting to tell you that your services are no longer required on that estate.”

Searching google books for “muck hole”, many great explanations of Jamaican rum production come up as well as one particular old text that is basically the holy grail tell-all of Jamaican rum making at the beginning of the 20th century. I do not not believe this text is known to popular culinary or even the new distilling scene.

Report on the experimental work of the sugar experiment station (1905)

The text is pretty amazing and has staggering amounts of data on experiments conducted. The PDF was scanned poorly and is not searchable, but the content is so historically significant I might be tempted to re-type parts of it over so they are easier to use. Previously, I did not believe there were any works this scholarly being done at this time period concerning rum. It almost seems more advanced than works concerning whiskey or brandy and isn’t listed in any bibliographies that I know of. There is even an appendix of “Lectures on fermentation in relation to Jamaica rum as delivered at the Course for Distillers at the government laboratory in 1906 by Charles Allan, B.Sc.” (PDF p. 284). A likely reason for the advanced nature of the content relative to works of the same time by Scottish researcher S.H. Hastie is that Allan had carte blanche access to whatever he wanted with no legal restrictions unlike Hastie who was severely constrained by the rules of the excise officers.

The text is a compendium of three sections written over three years and at the end of each section rum production is discussed and the author’s handle on the subject gets better and better until finally he pretty much unlocks the secrets of muck hole bacterial fermentations.

Solids from the dunder go into the muck hole. These solids, which are pretty much completely composed of high acid spent lees, undergo a particular bacterial fermentation which produces increased amounts of fatty acids, notably butyric. The muck hole is essentially a pH sensitive bio reactor that is started and stopped constantly by the addition of alkaline lime marl. Besides stalling out with too low a pH, if the muck hole was neglected, the prized fatty acids would continue to break down into simpler molecules like acetic acid, but when lime is added and the pH rises, fatty acids are also locked up as salts. Muck can be drawn off or more dunder solids added and the process restarted. Many rum talkers claim the content of the pits could be decades old but I suspect the break down of chemical compounds into undesirable forms would not permit this and the contents rather were/are at most only from the previous season’s production.

A wash for a Jamaican rum is composed of sugar cane skimmings, dunder, acid, molasses, and flavour. Deconstructing all these terms is tricky and here is my best shot. Sugar cane skimmings could imply fresh sugar can juice [it is really the raft of coagulated proteins that float to the top with other stuff when you boil cane juice], which was known to be added to Jamaican rums. Dunder here is stillage from a previous distillation similar to backset used in the sour mash process and it often goes through bacterial fermentation as it is held during the season. Acid, believe it or not, implies sugar cane vinegar and its role is a clever chemistry trick I’ll discuss next. Molasses is the molasses you’d expect, and flavour, finally, is the muck.

The muck is full of lime marl/fatty acid salts which are essentially locked up in a non-volatile form and needs the acid (again also said as sugar cane vinegar) to unlock. I learned about this concept intimately when creating the Tabasco aromatized gin recipe for my Distiller’s Workbook. The acetic acid in the Tabasco needs to be locked up as a non-volatile salt using baking soda so it does not carry over into the distillate. The chemistry concepts are also masterfully explained in Peter Atkins book Reactions. In the Jamaican rum context, the addition of acetic acid to the muck changes the bonds between the lime marl and a portion of the other fatty acids releasing them to participate in future reactions such as acid catalyzed esterification. So the most common shortest chain fatty acid, acetic, trades places with the longer more noble fatty acids created in the muck hole and become linked up as salts with the lime marl.

The author gives the proportions of sample mashes but doesn’t explain how they are assembled. The muck and sugar cane vinegar could be thrown in with all the other components or left to react independently and then the newly formed lime marl/acetic acids salts separated and the more noble mixture added to the skimmings, molasses, and dunder. The latter option makes the most sense from a chemical perspective.

“Distillery work”, PDF page 471 is also worth a look.

Using google books, five more references were easily findable describing the muck hole and the use of lime. For some reason, none of the PDFs are searchable nor can text be copied and pasted from them. The two 1913 sources and the 1920 seem mostly plagiarized from each other.

The Chemical Age Volume XVIII July-December 1913

The School of mines quarterly A journal of applied science vol. XXXIV 1913

Food Products by Henry Clapp Sherman 1920

British and Foreign Spirits by Charles Tovey 1864

West Indian Bulletin Great Britain Imperial Dept. of Agriculture for the West Indies Vol. VI 1906 (this book looks especially cool!) The manufacture of Jamaican rum is discussed on PDF page 584 and is a summary of Charles Allan’s work in Jamaica which is quite good and fills in some pieces missing in the text from the experiment station. It gets interesting when he starts to paint a broader portrait and gives his opinions of the industry.

Once these imperialist chemists unlocked the secrets of the process, they also uncovered serious inefficiencies. Large amounts of sugar go wasted in each step and some processes were left to run away creating wastes. Spirits production was still very competitive back then and the authors discuss whether it was worth it to cut yields to make a higher ester product at the hopes of making a higher profit. It seems like changing distillery practices incurred more risk and often was just a break even proposition. Advances slowly moved forward over the years probably until we get to Raphael Arroyo’s work on heavy rums patented in 1945 where the techniques used today pretty much get settled.

To quote Arroyo:

It has now been found that heavy rums of excellent type and with high yields and fermentation efficiencies can be obtained by a procedure comprising:
1. The subjection of the raw material to a pre-treating operation which fits it for its intended use.
2. The selection of yeast and bacterial cultures adapted for symbiotic fermentation of heavy rum mashes.
3. The employment of optimum conditions for the production of alcohol and symbiotic fermentation for the production of aroma and flavor, wherewith to obtain high yields and fermentation efficiencies with a rapid fermentation, and a high quality of final product.
4. The employment of a proper distillation method for the resulting beers.

In the Arroyo technique, no dunder or muck hole is used but rather controlled inoculation of selected bacteria in the main ferment coupled with other tightly controlled fermentation variables. Looking at the balance between tradition and innovation it wouldn’t be surprising if for the sake of tradition Jamaica used a modified version of the Arroyo method where the bacterial fermentation was relegated to some sort of tightly controlled cistern/muck hole/dunder pit. One interesting thing to note in Arroyo’s technique is the way he uses alkaline lime during production.

“The addition of the milk of lime during the initial stage of the pre-treatment process has three main purposes:

1. It prepares the medium for the development during fermentation of the most important ingredient in the aroma of heavy rums, being the essential oil or mixture of essential oils known as “rum oil.”

2. It neutralizes the free fatty acids which are always present in molasses, thus eliminating the danger of their volatization during the heating operation which immediately follows, but permitting the reliberation of these fatty acids from their calcium salts upon the sulphuric acid addition to the already cooled thick mash in the second stage of the pretreatment, so that they are then available for the formation of valueable esters later during the fermentation period and under the catalytic action of the esterase produced by the yeast.

3. The disturbance produced in the medium through the alteration of pH value occasioned by the milk of lime causes a copious precipitation of organic bases, molasses gums, and mineral ash constituents of the molasses, and this precipitation is enhanced by the action of the heat applied.

The works of the sugar cane experiment station have been of immense value and it wouldn’t be surprising if other similar works exist for the other islands, particularly those colonized by the English. Maybe there is a text out there that explains the significance and ins & outs of wooden boilers as opposed to copper [I just found this in a Barbados document].

More from the Journal of the Society of the Chemical Industry, volume 26, 1907 which features a very interesting comment section.

The first named needs no special description. “Skimmings” consist of the scum which rises during the boiling of the cane juice. Before they are allowed to undergo acid fermentation, either alone or in presence of the crushed canes (or “trash”). “Dunder” is the spent wash from the stills.

9 thoughts on ““Muck Hole” Not “Dunder Pit”

  1. Great read!

    Confirmed many of my own thoughts on rum washes.

  2. You have found a new and faithful reader. If only boutique rums shared the market presence of beam and Bacardi – the world be a better place!

  3. How did you get a hold of PDFs? It doesn’t seem like they are available on your links, only some tiny previews of a couple of pages.

  4. Hi Arne. which PDF exactly are you looking for? when I click on my link to: Report on the experimental work of the sugar experiment station (1905) I am able to download the PDF, though its a very large file. If you are having trouble getting a PDF you need, send me an email and I’d be happy to figure out how to get it to you.

    cheers! -Stephen

  5. I have been experimenting along these lines and need to get back to it. I have lab quality lime, lab quality 96% sulfuric acid, and then I have lab quality salt versions of:
    Methanoate, propanoate, butanoate, pentanoate, hexanoate, benzanoate, heptanoate, octanoate, nonanoate, and decanoate.

    Problem is I’m just not sure how to dose, in milligrams, or when the best time is (start of ferment, post-ferment staling, in the still for the cook, or maybe in a thumper/retort with the charge?). I’d like to get a feel for how milligrams of a given affect/create flavor, and then balance and ‘plan’ a blend of salts to introduce based on a tested maximum concentration limit (say no more than 45mg per gallon of wash, or 25mg in small retort, OR 35mg in large retort; then, in both retorts, or just the first, or just the second??). This would conceivably allow me to craft the profile of a rum, and I think could introduce at least a fascinating variable to inoculations with bacteria or end-around on muck.

    I believe it is, in it’s way, precisely what Hanpden does as they perfected and created their lime salts process for high ester rums.

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