Supplementary 19th century Rum History

Long ago I looked at what I was doing in the context of information art which I got turned on to from Leonard Koren. The post was on barrel aging and quite a lot of people read it. Aging here was told through a tax case in Maryland in 1954 and quite a lot of money rode on this case so the explanation was just so sublimely organized.

I’ve wanted to become an information artist but have pretty much failed so far. I have come up with silly pieces like a blog quality survey of academic gin literature which is just a bunch of links to rare content and my half assed commentary and then I just came up with colonial pissing contests with the great Agricola, W.F. Whitehouse where I simply cropped a PDF into a little narrative with small amounts of commentary.

Well here I am again. The last project turned up a staggering amount of additional books that somehow need organized sort of like an annotated bibliography. There’s no great story but I am hoping to fill in some pieces of the creation of heavy rum styles between W.F. Whitehouse’s meditations of 1843 and the Jamaican Experiment station in 1905. I guess I’m just hoping to pollinate better writers than myself and give them new ideas for tracking down primary documents.

Many people have thought of 19th century rums as primitive, and some where, but so many were made at the hands of great Victorian scientists who were rapidly applying the latest discoveries of the day to the task. But something sort of happened with heavy rums when you read the reports of the Jamaican Experiment station in 1905. The rigor seemed like it fell apart and the generation of pioneers like Whitehouse and Leonard Wray either died or got fat & rich and were no longer steering the ship. Whatever was set into motion, high ester rums, fetching high prices that made Jamaican rum relevant in the competitive era of continuous distillation, needed to be rediscovered and reverse engineered. Some estates could still make them and some couldn’t. New estates couldn’t just start making them. Some wondered whether it was terroir or process. Those on the experiment station in 1905 referenced no Victorian geniuses that came before them and gave the impression that the most highly regarded rums were the works of lucky primitives.

“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.”

This wasn’t written in any linear fashion and now, which is actually at the end, I’d say do not read on unless you’ve been referred here by a search term. I spent considerable time reading everything and putting this together. I actually gave up on inputting quite a few sources, but they weren’t really that important. The reason I gave up is because I found the next Victorian genius to spend hours on, and in the most unlikely place. Hint: It’s Percival Greg!

The great starting point for 19th century rum research is:

(1890) H. Ling Roth, A guide to the Literature of Sugar

[This is a pretty epic Victorian annotated bibliography. It is easy to search through on google for “rum” or “distill”. Most of the titles referenced here were found within but unfortunately a few of the most interesting are still undigitized and I’m sure there is still tons of sources inside which I’ve missed.]

(1847) John McCulloch, Observations on the manufacture of Rum

[This is a short work and not too much happens here.]

(1848) Leonard Wray, The Practical Sugar Planter: A complete account of the cultivation and Manufacture of the Sugar Cane.

The rum store is shown to be sixteen feet by thirty-six feet; which, small as it appears, is quite large enough in these days, when rum is sold as quickly as possible after it is made.

Rum butts have, of late years, become rather scarce in colonial rum stores, owing to the necessity there exists for bringing to market, as soon as possible, the rum made on estates: hence it very frequently happens that the spirit is carried from the can-pit direct to the puncheon, or hogshead; there coloured, and at once sent off, either to market or to the port, for shipment, without going into the rum butt at all.

[this is the first major Jamaican text after the works of Whitehouse and even mentions him in the dedication. apparently aged stocks of high ester rum wasn’t a thing yet or was it?]

(1852) G. Arnabaldi, The tourists guide to the chief towns and villages of the Island of Jamaica

The following remarks were obtained from the late Mr. Robert McLeod, better known under the signature of “Old Rum.” His plan to raise the fermentation was by forming a liquid paste of flour, cream of tartar, and salt, and putting a pint into the mixing vat, which was repeated if necessary. It may be observed, that six pounds of the common chew-stick, boiled in one gallon of water, to every 500 gallons of mixture, and thrown into the mixing vat, will nearly answer the same purpose. After the liquor is in full fermentation, it is recommended that its temperature be tested with a thermometer, and when it is found not to vary more than two deg. in 24 hours, it should then be run, instead of as at present allowing the liquor to become dead, whereby the alcohol rises to the surface and escapes in vapour, and frequently the liquor becomes sour. It will be found of great benefit to test the temperature very often, because the fermentation working so well, it will deceive many parties by the apparent fermentation, but by testing it very often with the thermometer, and finding it not varying more than two degrees in 24 hours, and still continuing in fermentation, it should be run immediately.

[This text contains a chapter on Arnabaldi’s improved saccharometer which doubles as a spirit hydrometer and is calibrated for use in tropical climates. Arnabaldi also dispenses with some of the advice he got from a friend, Old Rum. Nothing is exactly unprecedented here but it does show the use of a starter for the fermentation. Even though Arnabaldi is a famous distiller, he prefers to write about edible birds and fishing.]

(1856) The Agricultural Distiller’s Handbook: The Method of distilling from Beet-root

[White house often mentioned what he had learned from reading a French text on distilling from beet root. Sugar beets were big competition to Caribbean sugar-cane and towards the late 19th century challenged sugar-cane viability. This text details the Leplay system of distilling beet root which is staggeringly brilliant. The beets are sliced and fermented whole in bags, then distilled the same way while getting an economical yield. This keeps all the nutritional value left in the beet in a solid form that is pretty much sterilized. The beet solids drain their liquid and form a block compared to cheese. Farmers would then use the slices through the winter as animal feed. All the byproduct would therefore get the highest value and be in the easiest format to use. That is a hard idea to compete with if you are just making neutral spirits. The pressure was on. Ideas like this were a big catalyst for the rise of high ester rum.]

(1862) International exhibition, 1862, reports of the Juries

[On PDF page 343 all from Jamaica though so many places participated
countless rums
prune dram
chili vinegar
orange liqueur
pine wine
ginger wine
pimento dram
wray & co exhibited an orange liqueur
this is one of those international spirits awards that you see on some labels. The wine & spirits sections starts on PDF page 320 and its particularly interesting. The judges comment on how they made many discoveries of great new stuff and there is a sort of optimism. countless things I’ve never heard of before.]

(1864) Charles Tovey British & Foreign Spirits: Their History, Manufacture, Properties, Etc.

[This book has an awesome chapter on rum and is often cited by many contemporary writers. I’ll pick out some choice ideas]

The word is derived from the Spanish redunder

Dr. Higgins’s plan of suspending a basket-full of lime stone in the Wash tuns to counteract acidity, has not been found successful.

Bolingbroke speaks highly of the quality of the Rum manufactured in the colony of Demerara, where distillation has since been carried to a high state of perfection by the perseverance and skill of several scientific men, who have caused the Rum of this district, and that of Essequibo, to be as much prized in the American market as Jamaica is preferred in the English market. But, we may say, that occasionally fine Demerara Rums reach a better price than Jamaica of average quality, not only in London, but in Liverpool and other provincial markets.

Pine Apple Rum is supposed by the uninitiated to be the produce of the pine apple after undergoing fermentation and distillation. This is a mistake. The impression originated in the practice of some of the planters in olden time, who mixed the juice of the pine apple with Rum to impart to it the characteristics which are conferred by age. The effect of the slight acid and well flavoured saccharine in the fruit would give an agreeable flavour and fragrance to the Spirit, but it would be too costly for the low prices realised by Rum in the present day. [I think the Blackwell rum is pretty much a pineapple rum]

“They talk of a common experiment here (Jamaica), that any animal’s liver put into Rum grows soft, but not so in Brandy, whence they auger the last is less wholesome than the first, but their experiment, if true, proves no such thing. Rum I think, may be said to have all the good and bad qualities of Brandy or any fermented or vinous Spirit.”

Those exposed to the elements, to cold winds and rain, seem to have a natural partiality for Rum;

* Sloane’a Jamaica, Vol. I., p. 30. London, 1707.

The report says, in the department of Jamaica there were 178 Exhibitors, to whom were awarded fifty-two Medals, and Honourably Mentioned fortythree others. The numerous specimens of fine Rum exhibited by Jamaica afford ample proof of the skill and intelligence of the producers of Rum in that island, and render it unnecessary to dwell upon the subject, beyond noticing the specimens exhibited by the Hon. W. Hosack, Mr. G. Arnaboldi, Mr. C. Gadpaille, and the Hon. B. Vickers.

[I’ll pick out some names I know from the mentions:]

G. Arnaboldi. Rum. Very fine and good.
P. Espeut.—Rum. Very good, full of character
Gibraltar Estate (Metcalfe).—Rum. Very fine, clear, and full of character.
John Wray and Co.—Rum of ten, fifteen, and twenty-five years old. Very good, soft, and fragrant.

[Arnaboldi is an interesting person to follow and he did invent the Jamaican Saccharometer which is calibrated for tropical room temp. Espeut is mentioned by whitehouse as someone that influenced his processes. Gibraltar I have seen mentioned as a place of employment but I thought it was meant the European place, apparently its an estate. John Wray really crushed it with the only unique mention for an older product, but the math doesn’t add up. In his text of 16 years prior he mentions not having stores because they sold it as quick as they made it. But maybe the 1860’s mark the beginning of the aged rum era.]

(1882) C.G.W. Lock, G.W. Wigner, & R.H. Harland, Sugar growing and refining

[There is a great chapter on the distillation of rum. They make it seem like all rum is colored, even old rum. They even mention how its a shame when old rum is not colored correctly. Charcoal filtration is described in the beginning of the chapter. A process of neutralizing the fatty acids in new make rum is also described.]

The consumption of rum is steadily declining in England, its place being taken by gin.

[Later in the chapter where it gets more technical there is mention of adding sulphuric acid to beet sugar fermentations which is an idea that eventually trickles into sugar-cane molasses fermentations, but maybe not yet].

“Dunder” is the fermented wash after it has undergone distillation, by which it has been deprived of the alcohol it contained. To be good, it should be light, clear, and slightly bitter ; it should be quite free from acidity, and is always best when fresh.
[Free of acidity here, I’m sure means acetic acid.]


(1894) Bulletin of the Botanical Department, Jamaica Volumes 1-2

“Rum Analysis By Percival H. Greg.

I do not think I am wrong in saying, that the smell of rum, really good rum that is, is one of the most delicious scents that can be imagined. There is in addition something so peculiar and undefinable about it ; it is so different from the smell of any other spirit that the more we smell it, the more we are puzzled to say to what its aroma is really due.”

[This work is particularly interesting and I should probably highlight it someday by itself. He references German books I haven’t heard of before like : Ueber Cognak, Rum and Arak by Dr. Eugene Sell. A lot of curiosity is shown and even explanations of what all the figures means in a really accessible way. There is even analysis of early Cuban rums and rums with a price compared to the ester content and more unique data than I’ve ever seen before. Search through the document for “Percival” because he contributes numerous papers. The last paper, A contribution to the study of the production of the aroma in rum is particularly unique and is probably the first look at fermenting sugarcane with a pure yeast culture for the sake of aroma. Another thing to note is that this is Percival H. Greg, but he doesn’t appear in any part of the works of the experiment station while a Percival W. Murray does. All the names add up to a very significant amount of scientist working to advance Jamaican Rum.]

(1902) James Henry Stark, Stark’s Jamaica Guide

[An awesome section begins at chapter XVII Agriculture & Climate and explains what happened in the period where slavery ended up to 1902. Parts of the text make various types of agriculture seem very precarious and explains the repurposing of buildings away from sugar product in the face of beet sugar competition. All the competition discussed in near every reference makes it seem like high ester rum production was critically important to stay relevant.] 

(1908) Jamaica. Dept. of Agriculture Bulletin, Volumes, 5-6

“The Jamaican Rum Company of 442 Keizersgracht, Amsterdam, which was advertising a so-called Jamaica Concentrated Rum and offering to give a Jamaica Government Laboratory Certificate.

A memorandum submitted from the Chemist on the subject stated that the certificate was perfectly authentic and was given to the owner of Hampden Estate to enable him to overcome the baseless and uninformed prejudice of brokers and merchants in London.”

“High Ether Rum—The secretary read letter from the Secretary of the Northside Sugar Planters’ Association asking when the report on the High Ether experiment at Hampden could be expected, and stating that the members of the Association would be glad to accept the offer of the Island Chemist to attend at their next meeting on the 5th January, next at 2 p.m. in the Court house, Falmouth, so as to receive the suggestions he proposed to put forward.”

[there are only a few mentions of rum in this document but it shows the government was invested in high ester rum production.]

“Dunder, a term unfamiliar to the ear of a European distiller, is the lees or feculencies of former distillations serving all the purposes of yeast in the fermentation. It is derived from a Spanish word redunder, the same as redundans in Latin, and is well known among the planters in the West Indies.”

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