The Long Pond Chronicles, Part 5: Rum Yesterday and Today

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When I first started publishing these papers I was a little nervous because there were small bits of dirty laundry. Would they be well received and help the rum industry develop enthusiasm? From the feedback I’ve gotten, the answer is yes. A few parts that I thought would bore people really excited a few. A buyer of bulk rum wrote that they were particularly into the sales parts because they are now one of those characters.

A lot of cool information was revealed which I think will support the early and mid 20th century vintage bottle market. I immediately found a few old bottles listed on the auction sites that we now can say a lot more about. Any time we can tell more of a story, we add a lot of value.

There were a lot of big takeaways that deserve to be reiterated:

My initial fear is that we were going to see Seagrams destroy a part of the old heritage rum industry where instead they may have strengthened it in many ways. I previously thought they were going to consolidate many of the marks where in actuality they reinforced them and expanded production because they maintained the old sales relationships so well. Captain Morgan, it turned out, was not made from premium Long Pond so much as Innswood and other common clean spare parts bought through the Rum Pool. Seagrams invested in the Long Pond estate where previous owners were incapable and likely raised the standard of living for its employees which was initially below the industry average. We even saw it spelled out that vatting rum by producers was a substitute for true investment in expanding production of unique marks.

Something that struck me when we saw the end of the brewers vatting their rums from distinct marks as well as the myriad independent bottlers in favor of mass market blends was the death of all the expertise (even if it came with superstition). Blending knowledge and appraisal is now in the hands of too few people. As lovely and brilliant as many of the “master” blenders are, we lose a ton of culture creation when you can count them all on your fingers. One solution is that overly tight corporate structures need to loosen up and empower more of their employees to act as public intellectual like is seen in the wine industry.

Another major takeaway is that we saw Jamaica producing tons of common clean rum with nothing but pot stills which challenges present notions that pot stills guarantee a heavy rum such as a wedderburn or plummer. We do not give enough attention to the ferments in rum discourse even when we know we have a major potential difference in yeast species as well as presence of bacteria among other variables. Garbage in, garbage out is always the rule. Sadly these documents did not tell us any specifics about Long Pond’s ferments, but the future of rum lies in giving it more attention.

In many of the parts we see the sad state of cooperage traditions in Jamaica rum. Half way through the century and there appears to be no real tradition. We even see many customers receiving their first barrels as opposed to repeatedly re-used and re-coopered puncheons and it receives no special attention. To my knowledge, after this era there are no systematic studies that look at traditions of spirit maturation for rum that remotely compare to the attention American whiskey was given. This has incredible bearing on the formation of a GI. My limited understanding is that there were some attempts to limit cooperage in a GI but that was backed away from because they didn’t make sense and possibly blocked new avenues for local employment.

It no longer seems surprising that producers like Hampden and for the most part Long Pond never bottled there own rum. I have seen this quirk chalked up to extractive colonialism but the answer may be a lot more complicated. Specialty marks from these two producers were in incredible demand and there was room for prices to be bid up despite the market being flooded with common clean rum. However, mid century, colonialism had left Jamaican industry across many sectors stagnant with no producer able to make capital intensive investments to increase production. It took a giant like Seagrams to revive and expand Long Pond and it didn’t appear to be easy.

It is often claimed that bulk rum sales are extractive colonialism and that the majority of value was added by firms who could do maturation themselves creating an outsized low risk return relative to the original producers but that may have to be rethought at least for this era. We even saw Seagrams repurchasing surplus aged rum back at a discount because buyers were superstitious and clinging to rigid blending ideas. Sometimes new make spirit fetched more than stuff aged three years by a producer. The sales data we saw adds quirks to the extractive colonialism notion, but the present day situation may be a different story especially as markets for fine rum emerge. There are lots of reasons to pursue tropical maturation with the main one being that it may yield superior sensory results.

What about the future of books on rums? We just gave authors a ton of information to dazzle readers hungry for the story of rum. No one outside of the whispering gallery had ever seen every mark and who produced it for this era. We also better know how to frame what came next. Now that we are past the 1950’s, we are in oral history territory where there are still quite a few people alive who can tell us what came next directly from their own lips. Oral histories become incredibly important as the pandemic threatens the lives of the elderly who still hold incredible knowledge that hasn’t been passed down.

In the first part of this saga I explained that I may write a fifth part that looks at the Jamaica rum landscape described by Hugh Barty-King. Rereading the chapter more puzzle pieces came together which I was not astute enough to pick up on and this regards Edwin Charlie which came to Seagrams with their Myers purchase we saw in part 3. In 1892, Edwin Charlie decided to make a lighter blend leading him to build the Innswood estate. The estate and brand somehow became separated but a supply relationship persisted that led Seagrams to reboot the Edwin Charlie brand in Jamaica after it stopped in 1920 and to be the foundation for Captain Morgan. In 1983, the Edwin Charlie Trust was still a shareholder in the Innswood distillery.

In the 3000 pages I reviewed, I remember a lot of documents related to Edwin Charlie but they were mainly about corporate formation and not strategy for reviving the brand or inventory. I was not quick enough to pick up any significance and probably passed up a few things which may have helped our understanding. It is a very big story! I flagged the Edwin Charlie references in part 3 and one thing we see is that it was a very small part of Myers at the time which is not surprising. Barty-King tells us Edwin Charlie white label went off the market in 1920 when the company was sold to Myers but returned in 1955 when Seagrams acquired Myers. It became the best selling non-clear rum on the island and the label may currently be owned by Appleton, but I’ve never seen a modern vesion. That is quite an interesting precedent for reviving an old label. Maybe it can justify reviving the Dagger rum brands (with full disclosure [and celebration] if they used any outside marks like Hampden).

Barty-King tells us:

“With so many marks of rum available, Jamaica was a natural hunting ground for entrepreneurs who wanted to make their own selection, and blend, bottle and market their own brands of rum. The Pool encouraged them to come as a way of expanding the production of Jamaica rum. One came from Switzerland, the Compania Rum Basel, who in 1943 established The Rum Company (Jamaica) Ltd and launched their ‘Coruba’ and ‘Sugar Mill’ brands. They were sold, not only on the island, but exported to Britain, Canada, the South Pacific, the Far East and the Arabian Gulf. The Rum Company also became well established in Singapore.”

The Rum Company does appear in the papers but never a mention of Coruba. They are mentioned as being significant to the continental rum trade. They also don’t appear to do enough business with Sherriff to support a significant brand, but always consider that one puncheon of high ester rum can be stretch to become 10 puncheons of consumable rum. Another explanation is that as a buying member of the Rum Pool they were able to satisfy their demand for common clean rum but because of the allocation system, had to go through Sherriff to get access to heavier marks. These marks were not sold freely at auction to the highest bidder. Access went through long standing relationships because of the industry’s interest in stability and troubles with production expansion. Selling rum was as capital intensive as producing it so to create long term stability the industry sought to work with conservative firms with staying power. “Hunting ground” may not have been the correct descriptor for such a slow motion industry.

Barty-King mentions that Seagrams may have entered the Rum Pool as a primary buyer before acquiring Long Pond:

“Another operator whom the Pool admitted as a primary buyer came from Canada. In 1945 Samuel Bronfman’s vast Distillers Corporation—Seagrams Ltd— set up Captain Morgan Rum Distillers in Jamaica. They began as blenders of spirit from various distilleries which they bottled and marketed as ‘Captain Morgan Rum’; but obtained their own sources of the raw material when in 1953 they purchased the Long Pond sugar estate and rum distillery. As proof of their bona fides Seagram signed a five year contract with the Pool. Other primary buyers were also offered five year contract but were reluctant to take them up. The practice of selling rum through commission house and brokers was discontinued in 1946 when sales were make directly to buyers. The basis of pricing was switched from liquid to proof gallons, and payment was made, no longer by volume, but by strength.”

This last comment is quite interesting. If pricing moved from liquid gallons to proof gallons, did this create any incentive to change the way rum was distilled or barreled? In the previous system there may have been an incentive to distill at a relatively lower ABV. Maybe someday we will find industry discussion regarding this significant change.

Regarding the 1950’s Barty-King mentions that with the transition to central factories small pot stills were replaced with larger ones and we saw that when Seagrams was buying a new 1500 gallon pot still to expand production at Long Pond. Hampden still operates a 2000 gallon pot still installed in 1960 and has multiple 5000 gallons units installed well after Barty-King surveyed the industry.

Barty-King chooses to mention Mosaic Disease and new varietals which we come across in the early appraisal of the Long Pond estate.

“When the old species of sugar cane came liable to Mosaic Disease, it was replaced by resistant varieties, which ensured reasonable stability in sugar production and therefore rum distilling. In 1951 the public taste, according to WL Barnett, ‘appears to demand a rum having good body but without the persistent aroma of the earlier makes although attention to a sufficiency of flavour is still of importance’.

At the time of purchase by Seagrams, Long Pond lagged the industry in tackling Mosaic Disease. To expand production, they immediately had to start investing in replanting.

Barty-King remarks on Hampden:

“Leading supplier of the heavy ‘continental flavoured’ Jamaica rum, which had by law to the be the ‘real’ rum element in German rumverschnitt was the Hampden Estate (managing director in 1983, OK Tonsingh). It was where HH Cousins, the 19th century Government Chemist, had had his laboratory. No rum was bottled at Hampden; almost all their ‘DOK’ mark was shipped in bulk to primary buyers in Germany, though a little of it found its way to New Zealand and South Africa.”

It is incredibly important to note that Hampden was the big beneficiary from research work by Ashby and H.H. Cousins but I don’t think it is fair to call Cousins a 19th century chemist. Much of the work responsible for the enduring Hampden style likely came to be at the beginning of the 20th century and that should be celebrated because this work was incredible. Jamaica at one point in the early 20th century even had a yeast service supplying distilleries with fission yeasts at the beginning of the season. We see it recognized in the mid century J.A.S.T. journals that remembrance of any of that early 20th century work had faded by the 1950’s.

Barty-King gives us a mention of TTL Rum Bottlers Ltd which started in 1956. TTL (sometimes seen as TT/L), it turns out, is not some random corporate initials but rather a common clean rum mark with “distinctive flavour” from Llandovery and likely existed long before 1956. Could the distinctive flavour be rum oil? Was TTL the most significant mark to be bottled as what some now call a pure single rum?

Barty-King’s parting words:

“Symbiotic action between bacteria and yeast”

The constant factor through the good and the bad years was the quality of Jamaica rum. Its producers had bowed belatedly to the public taste which seemingly behind their backs had sheered away from heavy-bodied, rich-flavoured rum towards lighter types, of more subtle and delicate aroma. Not until the end of the 1950s did they start modifying traditional processes by the introduction of continuous stills who light spirit could be mixed with heavy liquor of the old pot stills. They were now paying for their tardiness, but it had in no way detracted from the unique characteristics which the world had become accustomed to associate with Jamaica Rum. Whatever the brand and wherever distilled, Jamaica Rum was still divided into four types according to body and flavour. The light-bodied types made from molasses were known as Common Clean, though as long ago as 1958 the Spirits pool was ‘hoping that in the very near future the derogatory term “Common Clean” which has up to now applied to the lighter types of rums will have been forgotten’. Instead they wanted them to be known as Light-Medium, Light and Extra Light Rum. Heavy bodied Wedderburn and medium-bodied Plummer Type were made with a combination of cane juice, skimmings, and ‘Syrup Bottoms’ with molasses. Common to all processes was what the Sugar Manufactuers Association in 1964 called ‘advantitious fermentation’.

Wild yeasts indigenous to the particular region are allowed to inoculate and convert the carbohydrate mixture or wort into the alcoholic and congener mixture from which rum is distilled. Thus in a fermentation more than a single type of yeast may be found and in the case of the Continental Flavoured Rum the special body and flavour is actually the result of symbiotic action between certain types of Bacteria and Yeasts. (Production of Jamaica Rum, Kingston, Jamaica 12 August 1964)

I don’t want to say too much more but one thing that struck me after seeing the early trouble of Seagrams managing the Long Pond estate is that somehow the marks were enchanted and survived the turmoil. Something special was going on that could not be held back and somehow enough organization was even arranged to expand it.

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