Anyone who knows me or reads my rum reviews knows that my two favourite places for rum are Jamaica and Barbados. So, when I was away in Jamaica in December 2016, it was a given that I would be making a rum pilgrimage to a distillery.
Having twice visited Appleton on previous visits to Jamaica, I wanted to go somewhere new and being a fan of Hampden’s awesome rums, the logical choice was to go to pot-still-heaven, Hampden Distillery in Trelawny, which is around a 45 minute or so drive from where we were staying in Rose Hall, near Montego Bay.
I met Hampden’s distillery manager, Vivian Wisdom at RumFest 2016. It was a chance meeting – I was espousing the virtues of Hampden rums and mentioning my intention to visit Hampden during my forthcoming visit to Jamaica to a fellow Rum University student, and was approached by an, at-the-time, anonymous Vivian who I think was impressed with my promotion of his rums and love of all things Hampden. This fortuitous encounter lead to my Hampden distillery experience being so amazing…Here is what happened!
Once I arrived in Jamaica, I made contact with Vivian who in true laid-back Jamaican fashion said to me “no problem man, come any time.” I took him at his word and planned a Monday afternoon visit. Following a trip to Dunn’s Falls in the morning, I called Vivian and left a voicemail confirming we were on our way. Our taxi driver, Winston, drove us through the parish of Trelawny along some seriously bad roads to Hampden. Upon arrival, things did not seem right! The gates were shut, there were no signs of life, other than a security guard over at the staff entrance. We approached the guard and were told “no tours today, tours are only on Tuesday and Friday.” A collective family sigh followed, surely not a wasted journey.
I asked the security guard if Vivian Wisdom was working today and was told to wait while he called “Mr. Wisdom.” About five minutes later, Vivian arrived at the gates with a huge welcoming smile. A warm handshake and quick chat later and we were told to drive back to the entrance where Vivian would personally give us a tour. And what a tour…..
The first thing you notice about Hampden is the location. It is beautiful! The area is quiet and secluded with acres and acres of pastures, cane fields and stunning views. Set within the Queen of Spain Valley, the Hampden Estate spans approximately 3,500 acres and can trace rum production back to 1753.
Once inside Vivian and a guide offered us a rum punch made with Hampden overproof rum. Whilst it was a bit on the sweet side, we had an early tasting of the amazing flavours of Hampden’s rums.
Vivian and his guide proceeded to lead us around the grounds of Hampden, explaining the history of the distillery, plantation and owners. We toured around historic artifacts as well as a burial ground that is ‘home’ to the former owners.
Hampden is well known for producing very funky Jamaican 100% pot still rums. It is the high ester count from these pot stills that give Hampden rums such unique flavours that are highly sought after throughout the rum world. Below are some pictures I took of these infamous stills with number 3 in the foreground.
Of course, one of the most unique aspects of Jamaican rum production is dunder. But what exactly is dunder? I asked Vivian who was very proud of it and saw it as very important in his rum’s production. Also referred to as “stillage”, he explained that after distilling rum, there are some remnants left over in the pot and that is dunder. Included in it are bacterias and dead yeast cells that help to create the high ester flavours so prominent in Hampden’s rums. Contrary to mythology, there are no dead goat heads or such nonsense in dunder. The “muck” coming out of it – this was Vivian’s term for it, and let’s be honest, that is what it looks like, was being pumped into a huge tank, or pit covered in disgusting looking bubbles. I could not help but stare and was enticed by the aromas – a mixture of molasses, burning, dried fruits, distillation fumes as well as some rather pungent and unpleasant aromas too. Fascinated to see this in action, I took a short video of Hampden’s dunder pit.
After viewing the stills and dunder pit, Vivian escorted us to his office, lab, tasting room, man-den – basically, one room fulfilling all of these functions.
Vivian opened a whole range of unlabeled bottles and passed them around for a nosing and tasting. As an experienced Hampden drinker, this was an amazing experience for me and my father-in-law, although for my wife and mother-in-law who are not rum-drinkers, they really did find the Hampden esters very overpowering and like nothing they had experienced rum-wise before. Amongst the tastings was something really special…..A sneak preview/tasting of two rums that Hampden have supplied to Luca Gargano at Velier for bottling/sale early in 2017. Wow, I cannot wait to get hold of a full bottle (or six) as these were full throttle Hampden ester-funk.
We returned to the official tour area and the welcome bar where we had started our tour and had some tastings of the mainstream Hampden Rum Fire and Rum Gold. I declined the additional water the guide was adding to the rums. She was somewhat surprised until Vivian explained that I am used to tasting cask strength rum and so the 63% Rum Fire came as no surprise. It is quite a vegetal, grassy rum but the name “fire” is appropriate – this rum is so powerful that I think it would work well in cocktails as opposed to being drunk on its own.
And so, our tour and visit to the wonderful Hampden Distillery came to a close. I signed the Hampden Visitors Book (below), thanked Vivian and said our goodbyes or hopefully, merely au-revoir as I hope to be return again in the future.
Vivian was a superb host and we cannot say thank you enough for his time and effort in showing us around Hampden. I raise a tot of single-cask Hampden to you and the amazing pot-still rums from a truly special artesenal rum producer.