Observations on the manufacture of sugar and rum in Jamaica. London 1843.

BIGGS (J.) — Observations on the manufacture of sugar and rum in Jamaica. London 1843.

This excerpt relating to Jamaica rum production was from a citation collected by Kervegant that I have only recently tracked down. What is unique is that production for many in that era was a train wreck with producers frequently destroying their stills by allowing sediment encrustations to overheat the copper. We also see mention of John K. Wedderburn, Esquire of Wedderburn rum fame and that the author, the civil engineer John Biggs had been working for him since 1823. This implies that Wedderburn was a progressive producer and making advancements that set himself apart. It almost appears that his original claim to fame may simply be having rum that was reliably not burnt.

One of the other things this document may make a case for, with its complaints of burnt and foul product, is that there was an era of proto-rum before genuine rum ever came along. I mark genuine rum only starting with the great distill-off between Jamaica’s the great Agricola W.F. Whitehouse and the Irish interloper O’Keefe peddling a patent distilling process from the Continent. Everything before this event, and its ensuing reflection on production, is merely proto-rum. Because we are mainly concerned with how recognizable their stuff was from what we consume today, prior use of the term “rum” does not matter much. There just may have been a century of proto-rum.

The distill off takes place in the spring of 1843 over the course of three months. Part of O’Keefe’s process was pitching yeast as well as using instruments that are presumably hydrometers. These yeast may not have been pure enough or a match for tropical conditions. O’Keefe eventually loses and Whitehouse goes on to meditate on his own technique by publishing a series of essays.

[The original document is fairly short, but I only chose to publish the parts relating to distillation. Notice this document is published after the distill-off.]


The numerous accidents to large and expensive Stills, have induced me to turn my attention to this department of the manufacture of Colonial Produce, for the prevention of such accidents, and introducing a cheaper description of still—viz. Cast Iron. To effect this purpose, I propose working them by high-pressure steam. As to high-pressure-steam being capable of running rum, there is no doubt—as I ran a few puncheons at Retreat Estate, the property of John K. Wedderburn, Esquire, in 1823, by the waste steam of a high-pressure steam engine, at a distance of two hundred and sixty feet from the engine: the temperature of this steam could be very little above the boiling-point. This plan I was obliged to abandon, as the back pressure retarded the working of the engine, from the number of bends in the pipes necessary to convey the steam to the still. The rum was much prized for the purity of the spirit.

The advantages of this description of Still over the common still will be as follows:—

First,—It will be impossible to impart that flavour so detrimental to the spirit, (of being still-burnt),—as these stills can never, under any circumstances, acquire a higher temperature than 240°: at this temperature, it will be impossible for any charring of the sediment to take place. When this charring occurs, a gas is formed, combined with a volatile oil, which so completely mixes with the spirit, that nothing but age and exposure, by leaving the casks open, will get rid of it—a process that is attended with a loss of strength and quantity, in proportion to the time exposed. Even afterwards, the burnt flavour will remain : distilling over-again has no effect; so that when a Planter wishes to procure a particularly good puncheon of rum, he is obliged to put up what is called “middle runnings.” This is done as follows:—the still is allowed to run for some time, till all the empyreumatic oil has come over with the first of the spirit, which it invariably does; then, having a puncheon ready, ten or fifteen gallons is received into it, of the required strength—say 35 overproof—this is the outside he can depend on: so that to procure ninety imperial gallons of this superior spirit, he must run at least eight or ten stills. This is very tedious work; and it is evident, that in a crop of forty puncheons, not above two hundred and forty gallons of this superior spirit can be obtained. But by the still and process here proposed, I have hopes that the spirit will all be of the same mild and pure quality, and would, I think, in one month, be better flavoured than rum run in the common way after being exposed for twelvemonths. I have frequently known stills with an encrustation of more than one-inch thickness, from the adhesion of burnt sediment to the bottom of the still; this prevented the liquor from coming in contact with the bottom, so that it becomes red-hot, and was, of course, soon destroyed. There are upwards of ten stills, on properties within the circuit of a few miles, that have been destroyed in this manner: these stills cost from £400 to £500 each.

Second,—The form of this still, and manner of discharging the lees, render it impossible for any sediment to remain in it; and, as a further security, the lees of the retort are made to flow through it, and completely cleanse it. As the low wines contain no sediment, the retort will be always clean, and the mandoor need scarcely ever be removed. If the bottom of a still once becomes encrusted, no care or attention, on the part of the distiller, can prevent the spirit having a burnt flavour. In many instances it is imparted in the following manner:—on discharging the still, very often the fire is not damped in a proper manner before the still is drawn off, so that, the bottom being eight or nine inches higher at the centre than at the leggings, the spent lees leave that part for sometime exposed to a dry heat, ere the remainder of the rum is run off, and the sediment resting on it is charred from a portion of the bottom becoming red hot; and thus, before the new charge is admitted, the mischief is done—consequently, the burnt flavour is immediately imparted to this charge, and, in the course of distillation, to the spirit. This can never take place with the steam-still, as the heat applied will not be sufficient to decompose the sediment, however long it may be exposed to its action. Some improvers of stills claim a greater quantity of spirit, in favour of their suggestions; this I do not, as I am aware that no more spirit can be extracted than the wash contains; but I think this still as capable of effecting a perfect separation of the spirit, as any still at present in use; at the same time, it is less costly, and fully as simple in its operation.

Third,— With regard to fuel: a saving will take place in any situation, but more especially where a water-power or condensing engine is used, the whole of the fuel now used in distilling would be saved, where the still-house is not too far removed from the boiling-house, of which drawings will be sent. It is a well-known fact, that steam, applied in this manner, affords heat better than any other mode—as is proved by its effecting a saving of fuel and time in many manufactures. This still may, at all times, be kept at the temperature necessary to run it completely full to the brim, without sustaining any injury; but in the common still, the brickwork is obliged to be so regulated, as to prevent the part out of which the liquor is exhausted, from being exposed to a dry heat, which would soon destroy it-especially, at the seam where the breast and sides are united: this causes a waste of fuel, as a portion of the fire is prevented acting on the still when full, to avoid injury to it when partially exhausted by the extraction of the spirit. The heat employed for this still would not act injuriously upon lead, so that it is equally safe empty as full. I am certain, also, from the uniform steady heat applied, the charge of this still would be run off in less time. Much has been said about slow distillation improving the quality of the spirit. In this I have no faith, if fire is immediately applied to the wash-still, as there is in a cistern of 1000 gallons, when completely dead, at least four or five inches of sediment, which, by pumping, is completely mixed with the wash, and, as soon as it gets into the still, settles at the bottom. If a fierce, or even a moderate fire is applied, some portion of this sediment is charred before the still comes to a boil; thus the gas and empyreumatic oil is formed, and mixes with the wash, until the heat is sufficient to separate it with the low wines, and it is thence transferred to the spirit, wherein it remains until extracted by exposure and age. The burnt flavour, however, still remains, and can only be partially removed by percolating the spirit with charcoal.

The method of working this still is not complex, and could be managed by the most ignorant person, after a few hours’ instruction. The mode of supplying the boiler with water, is simple and certain; no waste can take place, as that condensed by the action of the atmosphere and liquor will flow back into the boiler, through the steam pipe. The risk is less, as the only part exposed to wear and tear is the boiler, which, with ordinary care and attention, will last from sixteen to eighteen years, and which, if burnt out by accident, would only cost about £30, while the cost of a copper still of the same power is from £500 to £700. If a bottom only is required for the latter, the expense is, £100 to import it, £30 for putting it in, mason’s charge for re-hanging still, £20; bricks, £4 10s.; lime, £6; making a sum total of £160. 10s.; and, after all, perhaps, the repair is imperfectly done.

The Objections to this plan are as follows:—First,—Cast iron may perhaps discolour the spirit, and render it unmarketable: Second,—the dunder (as the lees of the liquorstill are called) may cause the destruction of the still by corrosion: Third,—liability to crack when cold liquor is admitted into a hot still.

As to the First Objection.—At Prospect Estate, in Hanover, the property of John Wedderburn, Esq., in 1825, I put in a cast-iron suction-pipe to the pump for raising the low wines to the butt: this does not produce the least discoloration; but the copper vessel that receives the low wines from the worms, is kept very bright by the action of the low wines upon it, which plainly shows that they do act on copper.

Second Objection.—I laid a line of three-inch cast-iron pipes, to bring water from the pond to the engine, at Retreat Estate; these pipes cross the dunder-trench in such a manner that, during the whole crop-time, the dunder runs over them, at all temperatures, from the boiling-point downwards; they have now been laid twenty years, and that portion of the line exposed to the action of the dunder, does not show any more signs of corrosion than any other part of the pipes. This also shows that cast-iron may, with advantage and economy, be more extensively used, for the manufacture of every description of vessels required in the colonies, instead of the more expensive metals, copper and lead. It may be used for dunder-receivers, skimmings-receivers, fermenting-vats, molasses-receivers, and pumps,—Drawings of which are sent home.

Third Objection.—Cast-iron is not liable to crack by contact with a cold fluid, unless at near a red heat: as these stills can never acquire a higher temperature than 240 degrees, which is lower than red heat by 837 degrees, they cannot, therefore, sustain any injury from the admission of a cold fluid.

A model of this still is in hand, and notice will be given when it can be seen in operation.

It is my intention to return to Jamaica by the 2nd of December mail, and I shall be happy to examine any Estate with its machinery, and to report on the same, giving Estimates of Repairs and the application of the above improvements, and furnishing Drawings when necessary.

As I return to England after two months’ residence, I will attend personally to answer any inquiry on the subject of such reports.

Letters addressed to “Nepicar, near Wrotham, Kent,” will meet with immediate attention.

October 1, 1843

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