Report On Excise Restrictions By Mr. J. Steele, 1903

Follow along: IG @birectifierRecently, someone from across the world requested a copy from me of this 1903 document by J. Steele which for some reason was not listed in Kervegant’s bibliography. They may not have been able to acquire it because of country restrictions on google even thought it is in the public domain. The document is hosted here by google, but also available as a PDF. I recently hosted a bunch of important public domain documents regarding rum production that had country restrictions making them impossible to view in many rum producing regions.

The document is an incredible survey of rum production but not from the usual perspective. Steele was an excise officer so much of his writing concerns very specific issues like how spirits are physically locked up and where pipes are run in a way that they could not be accessed for illicit spirits collection as well as methods of record keeping. At the same time, we get a sense of the level of investment in 1903 which was generally lacking and we see unique descriptions of rum producing areas like St. Kitts that aren’t typically mentioned in the literature.

If it helps any historians, this 1902 survey (published in 1903) provided updated information on the number of distilleries in operation for each country. The previous major survey was the Royal Commission of 1897 and since then there was tremendous industry consolidation. Steele tempers many of his recommendations for excise control by the fact that the industry was going to continue to consolidate. Many of the control mechanisms would be subsidized by government so the logic was why pay if companies are going out of business any way.

The first country described by Steele is Jamaica. We strike gold on page 8:

Steele created the official recommendation that led Allan and Ashby to do systematic studies of Jamaica rum starting just a few years later. It is not spelled out but these studies were motivated by both inconsistency and inefficiency. The dirty secret of many heavy rums of the era was wash ABV that today we would consider non viable for distillation (more on that in a future post). The product was also inconsistent with some distilleries harnessing fission yeasts while others were using budding yeasts.

Steele gives us some candid comments that we can reflect on because we know what comes next with Allan, Ashby and beyond:
Was Steele aware of the work of Percival Greig who discovered fission yeasts in Jamaica less than a decade earlier? As we will see later, Steele spars with Greig later in Trinidad of all places…

No yeast is used in Jamaica which is not produced spontaneously in the wort which is fermented. Assuming the discovery of the most favourable yeast as made, how is the spontaneous* production of yeast in the wort to be mastered so as not to neutralize the action of the cultivated yeast? The addition of select or cultivated yeast will not, that I can see, interfere with the usual decomposition or fermentation that now takes place, and will take place in the future, and if it be necessary to eliminate from the wort something, say skimmings, the quantity of rum obtained may be increased, which is doubtful, but probably at the expense of its quality. In short it might and probably would, no longer be Jamaica rum.

*Note—In using the term “spontaneous” in this connection it is intended only to convey that vinous fermentation in the wort does not, as in this country, require the addition of yeast or other ferment.

In the years that followed, Jamaica developed a yeast service that sent out pure culture fission yeasts to distilleries at the beginning of the season. I have one of these yeast which was collected in 1912 and sent to an international yeast library. We do know according to the J.A.S.T. journals that by mid century all the work from Allan and Ashby had been forgotten and the yeast service long discontinued. At the same time we know that Hampden has continued maintaining fission yeasts the whole time.

Steele gives us the state of German rum at the beginning of the 20th century on page 9:

There is the further question of the manufacture of German rum, which is produced fitfully at present, and not in such a way as to be obtained consecutively and as a matter of course. Looking at the present methods of manufacture it is absolutely impossible that it could be otherwise. This kind of rum brings from 6s. to 7s. 6d. a gallon, and it is surprising that makers of it—all of them not certainly poor men (one with about a dozen estates)—have not had the matter investigated for themselves, and I frankly confess that I cannot see that it is fair to the general community to assist such cases at the public expense. This rum is practically all sent to Europe, some to France, but mostly to Germany. It is a very oily spirit, unfit for drinking by itself, and supposed to be used in Germany in making factitious, or imitation, rum out of potato spirit. Indeed, it is referred to in the West Indies as being used in France as a basis for imitation wines. This use I scarcely credit. It is understood that the demand for the article abroad is somewhat limited, and that any great increase in the output might, probably would, create a glut which might lead to reduced prices.

We’re in the 20th century and high ester rum production is still erratic and has yet to consolidate down to only Hampden and Long Pond (at this point from also Vale Royal, George, Kew, and Cambridge and likely that was it out of 108 operating distilleries).

On page 18, Steele gives us the wild statistic that the absolute quantity of rum consumed in the UK has stayed the same for decades while the population has increased by 50% and also while there has been a major fall in rum value estimated to be from 30-50%. You wonder how long Steele’s career has been and how much of that he has personally witnessed. Was he a fan of rum so when the opportunity arose volunteered to survey the motherland of rum?

British Guiana is next and the description of their stills are worth a look. There is also a note that they used no skimmings in their ferments. They used spontaneous ferments but had them completing in as fast as 36 hours.

Page 29 gives us an incredible description of what a spirits retailer held in Georgetown in 1903.

I was present at a stocktaking on the premises of one of these spirit retailers in Georgetown. There were at least 15,000 bottles of all kinds, ranged on shelves and elsewhere, containing rum, wine, brandy, whisky, &c. There were also a considerable number of standing casks, large and small, callipered, it was said, for capacity, in evidence. The dips of these casks were taken in some cases through the middle of the head, others close to the chimb. Some six bottles were taken to represent the rum, in, say, 7,000 bottles of rum, for strength. I assume for capacity that the bottles were taken as six to the gallon as they were not measured in my presence. All spirits in stock except rum are disregarded.

I read that, got thirsty, and had to pour myself a drink!

In the Trinidad section we find the same Percival Greig who discovered fission yeasts at work in Jamaica in the very late 1890’s sparring with Steele over excise issues. I learned from Richard Seale that Greig ended up in Trinidad, but I’ve never found another document that has pointed that out or somehow I’ve just missed that fact. Anything regarding Greig is very cool history so I look forward to learning more.

The section on Grenada is worth pursuing if you are going to contemplate the stunning state of the art distillery that just started there by the Renegade team. It is interesting to see that they had no provision to sample spirits for quality unless they wanted to pay up for an excise attendant. If that was the case, how could you learn, grow, and improve quality? Steele was also skeptical of their closed top fermenters…

St. Vincent used double retort pot stills just like Jamaica and had distilleries I’ve never heard of such as Argyle, Diamond, and Arnos Vale. Strong names!

On page 53 we see descriptions of the early “West India Rum Distilleries Company” set up by Stades and acknowledgement he designed his own continuous still.

Stade’s distillery, commonly referred to as WIRD these days, at the time seemed to be interested in ultra efficient distilling practices and was also achieving 36 hour ferments. On page 54, Steele notes: “Besides, the article produced is not rum. It is simply a neutral spirit that may be blended with whisky, or for that matter with brandy, without imparting to either a rum flavour.” No doubt, there wasn’t much flavor, but I don’t really trust the authors opinions. He mentions that Stades sterilized their molasses and had an apparatus to grow their yeasts in pure culture which was an early type of bioreactor. Many were introduced to these ideas by Rafael Arroyo decades later but Stades was likely a pioneer. The reason UK distillers did not use pure yeast apparatuses and UK brewers did, as noted by the author, was because distillers bought cropped yeast from brewers. Steele criticizes closed fermenters used by Stades which again makes his opinions suspicious.

Steele always seems to be quick to mention Stades by name, but on page 56 he mentions: “In the large distillery” and I think the reference may be to Mount Gay. They had to two 1500 gallon pot stills and were about to erect two more! They also used the slow fermentation process.

Police assigned for excise supervision in Dominica get drunk frequently no doubt because the rum was very good… That section is worth a look.

Montserrat is quite interesting and Steele arrives there after the rum industry has been killed off by too stringent rules. He goes on the explain the circumstances.

Antigua is another island that had setups resembling Jamaica but likely without the renown. With so many Jamaica copycats, why no success worth mentioning?

Page 66:

On the other hand the plant is in such a hopelessly wretched condition, that I fear if the Ordinance of 1900 be applied, and strictly enforced, it will lead to the discontinuance of more distilleries, an undesirable result, seeing that molasses is a drug in the market.

How do we interpret this? If you stress out the distillers and they become uneconomical and close, all the molasses which has no where else to go will end up in the hand of illicit distillers?

St. Kitts-Nevis, page 67, just speaks to me, is a must read, and builds on an emerging theory:

I visited a distillery belonging to this gentleman not far from Basseterre, and never saw anywhere such a filthy and broken down looking place. Filthy everywhere. Filthy outside the fermenting room. Filthy inside. In the yard it was difficult to get over the stagnant and pestilential matter that one met with everywhere. The spirit store is dark and filthy, oozy and dripping from above, owing to the overflow from the fermenting vessels, slimy below, and stinking. So much was this the case that the distiller had, contrary to Ordinance, to fill the casks of rum outside the door on a spot elevated somewhat above the prevailing filth. Surely the Government should have power to shut up such a noisome place until it is put into a sanitary condition. How any Government official can take stock of spirits in such a hideous place I am a loss to know.

First off, but how was the rum? I always like to say: “There is nothing finer than rum as we make it” and that extends to here. Steele describes filthy distilleries everywhere and the emerging theory is that it is important to maintain a wild biome capable of unique aroma creation. Lactic acid bacteria (among others) is not created equal. Some is capable of producing rum oil while some is not. More feral types may be the best and the biome of civilization, the literal kitchen sink, may taint a distillery’s heritage biome injecting dominant strains of LAB that contribute nothing to aroma and merely reduce yield. In some of my personal explorations with Jamaica style processes, I’ve had character worthy of Jamaica and then lost it. Likely my kitchen sink biome tainted the heritage biome I used a clever Jamaican trick to establish. It may be as important to learn to restart a heritage biome as it is to learn to not taint it. You think you don’t need sterile gloves when you mess with dirty ferments, but you just might. Hopefully I can say more in a future post. This distiller in St. Kitts may have known exactly what he was doing.

On page page 73 and 74 we get to see a sample form prepared by the author that reveals some lost marks from defunct Jamaican distilleries!

M/LV from Ewing’s Caymana in St. Catherine was actually noted as a lost mark in Myer’s mid century inventory! They held puncheons of that mark from 1906 and 1907!

We get some closing thoughts from Steele on page 81:

I am not in a position to offer, although frequently asked, any advice by which to expedite the process of producing spirits in Colonies working by the slow process of fermentation. It is not at all difficult to hasten fermentation, if one could be satisfied that the increase in output would not be at the expense of quality. Once the source of the flavour characteristics of rum is discovered (and this important subject should occupy the serious attention of the Government Analyst(s), it will then be possible to think of what may be done with safety. My own impression is, that the slow process has much to do with the flavour and quality of rum, and I have a difficulty in attributing these, as some do, to the better supply of water, &c. But all this should be decided, and I have no doubt will be, by chemical analysis. And I should say for the scientific staff I have met in the islands, including British Guiana, that I am gratified to be able to testify to their devotion to the interests of these Colonies and to the strength of their desire to do whatever is possible to benefit the people. The cane and other experiments I have seen carried out, not in botanical gardens alone, but in the fields here, there, and in so many places, not in small patches but in considerable areas, struck me forcibly as evidence of a great scientific work which is in course of being accomplished for these Colonies.

There are factoids galore in this survey and I could highlight so many things, but haven’t the time.

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