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Catching up with Christelle Harris of Hampden Estate Distillery

Interviews

03.12.2019

Find out more about ground-zero for Jamaican funk, Hampden Estate.

Find out more about ground-zero for Jamaican funk, Hampden Estate.

Find out more about ground-zero for Jamaican funk, Hampden Estate.

Hampden Estate is one of the oldest sugar plantations in Jamaica. If you are into funky, fruity and complex Jamaican rums, then you will have heard of Hampden, who are  known for their popular high-ester style rums. We caught up with Director at Hampden Estate, Christelle Harris, to discuss everything from Hampden's unique production process, Jamaica's Rum GI to the first time Luca Gargano tasted a tropically aged Hampden.

1. Jamaica is renowned worldwide for creating some of the most distinctive and full-bodied examples of rum. What do you believe makes both Jamaican rum and Hampden rum in particular so special?

Hampden Rum is indeed very special.

This is mostly simply explained by revealing the five pillars (5 objective and fundamental considerations) of Hampden Rum:

1- Hampden Spring Water- Since its founding, Hampden has used water from a spring, 2.5 miles away from the distillery, for all its production needs. Hampden rum would not be the same if the water were different.

2- Wild Fermentation & High Esters- Hampden fermentation lasts between 8 and 15 days in open-air cedar vats, thanks to the wild yeasts that live and reproduce in the various rooms of the fermentation house. This particular method of fermentation is one of the integral factors influencing Hampden’s ability to consistently produce what is reputed to be the world’s most in-demand high-ester rum.

3- Pot Still Only- the double retort pot still is the classic Jamaican rum still. Hampden is one of the last surviving distilleries that still uses discontinuous distillation to produce its rums. The distillation process takes about seven (7) hours and the rum comes out at about 82% abv.

4- Tropical Aging Only- Hampden had historically only ever sold its un-aged rum directly to European and American traders, with different marks, indicating different levels of esters. Only after the acquisition of the distillery by the Hussey Family in 2009, did barrels start to be filled and aged at Hampden. The oldest barrels containing liquid under the ‘Hampden Estate’ brand date back to 2010. The aging process takes place in 190-litre ex-bourbon casks. Up until December 2019, the firm has 2,700 of these, and is on schedule to fill another 6,000 barrels within 12-24 months, following the completion of an additional aging warehouse currently seeing completion. 

5- Sugar Free & Natural Colour

2. Jamaica received geographical indication (GI) approval for its rum. Why do you believe that this is so important in todays rum market?

In its most basic terms, a Geographical indication seeks to protect and preserve a particular product that can only be produced in that particular place of origin in a particular way. The Jamaica Rum G.I. is more necessary and important in today’s rum market than ever before. 

We need to be able to categorize and sell rums under rules, that have been predetermined by historical practices, maintained by current authentic producers- according to the rules of the places of origin of the rums, and recognized as such by importing countries. 

If this is done, the GI for Jamaica rum will have succeeded in preserving and protecting that which is Jamaica Rum, while allowing for continued diversity within the category of rum, as it is recognized internationally.

3. Hampden is one of the oldest sugar estates in Jamaica, and has developed a cult-following from rum connoisseurs and aficionado's in Europe who have caught the 'high ester/funky' rum bug. Is it true that Hampden is relatively unknown in Jamaica itself?

It is true that Hampden is relatively unknown in Jamaica.

Until the last decade, there was only one easily and widely recognizable name in the rum world, locally.

This entity was responsible for the production of the brands J.Wray & Nephew and Appleton, which would become internationally recognized products…..rightfully so, might I add. The same happened in Jamaica. All the other rum being produced was being exported in bulk for sale overseas. No other brand was being produced, much less built.

4. For those who perhaps don't know, the Hussey family acquired Hampden in 2009 via a public auction as a result of a divestment of assets by the Jamaica Sugar Company. At this point, did you retain existing workers and their skillset, existing machinery/production techniques and any maturing stock?

Every effort was made to retain as much that was true to the fabric of Hampden as possible. Existing workers and their skill sets were retained as much as was possible. The existing machinery was kept in production as much as it could be, but much of it had to be re-tooled to maximize production and efficiencies. The basic infrastructure was retained as much as it could have been, with small improvements being introduced where they could be. For example, the floor of the pot still area (which is elevated) was a board floor, with many pieces rotting, and potentially dangerous to any staff member carrying out duties or a visitor lucky enough to be on a distillery tour. We chose to use (predominantly) recovered metal from the junkyard to rebuild the pot still floor and connecting staircases, creating a safer working environment for the staff and our enthusiastic visitors. 

One thing that was non-negotiable in the takeover of the production and operations at Hampden, was the techniques…..this could have had a much different ending.

As most Jamaicans had never heard of Hampden Estate before, neither had the Hussey family; well, perhaps it was mentioned loosely in a historically-steeped conversation about when ’sugar was King’, but I doubt much thought went into what made Hampden different. So once the family assumed ownership, they did what any new proprietor would have done…..look at the numbers. It was a steep learning curve, and the decisions made could have been very different, and devastating to the world of rum. Had the decision been made to ’throw in a couple column stills’ or ‘ramp up production’ or ‘add some commercial yeast’ or 'do away with the seemingly unnecessary long-fermentation’ (or change anything really), Hampden could and would have lost a lot of what was unique to Hampden.

5. Hampden has a very unique and special production process, can you share a little more about this, what actually(!) goes into your muck-pits and why your unique process is so important in creating the distinctive Hampden end result.

Dunder is quite simply put- the ‘stillage’- what is left in the pot stills after a distillation run. At Hampden, it is retained in wooden vats for use in subsequent fermentations.

In much of my reading and exchanges with rum enthusiasts, I’ve noticed that when speaking of or referring to  dunder and muck (when speaking of Hampden), they seem to be used interchangeably. Muck and dunder are however, not synonymous.

Muck is a brew of bacteria and acids which is mixed into fermented molasses, cane juice and dunder to create the wash that is distilled. It provides acids that serve as the starting point for fruity esters.

6. How do you differentiate between different Hampden cask marks and what variables you play around with to change the final result?

The Hampden marks are acronyms and are classified by their correspondence to the ester range of that particular mark (or marque).

As I have been influenced by one of my mentors in rum, Luca Gargano, I will digress to tell a story.

It was October 2015 and the setting was the UK Rumfest. I had been a part of the rum world for a few years now, and was on a first name basis with most of the rum elite. I felt like I had something to bring to the table. No seriously, I FINALLY HAD SOMETHING SPECIAL to bring to the table. My mother, Angeline Harris, had come to join me in London, and at my request, had brought with her samples of our aged rums. There were varying ages and marks of what I knew at the time was special. It was only in time however, that I would come to understand how important this first-ever tropical-aged Hampden rum would become. After giving some of my favorite and very highly respected rum ‘friends’ a taste of these secret liquids, I was encouraged to get Luca to try it. I remember Ian Burrell telling me, ‘Christelle, this is really good….you should get Sukhinder to taste it’. I very shyly obliged, and squealed with excitement when Sukhinder tasted it and responded ’Now, if you bottle this, I would love to carry it. It's delicious.’ Then I took it to Luca, after being encouraged by Richard Seale. He tasted the first two, and if memory serves me correctly, they may have been higher ester marks, aged at 2 and 3 years respectively. With each liquid he tasted, his eyes grew bigger with excitement. The third one he tasted was a lower ester mark at 4 years. His eyes did not widen for long this time, but he followed with the statement ‘If you have 200 barrels of this, I marry you tomorrow’. We had more than 200 barrels, but I did not marry Luca. Instead, Luca and Hampden would become partners in rum, and the liquids he tasted that day, hand-delivered by my mother, at the back of a seminar room at the UK Rumfest are likely in the first ever tropical-aged releases from Hampden Estate.

7. What is your favourite Hampden rum, and other than Hampden what else would we find in your drinks cabinet?

My favorite Hampden Rum is the newest release, The Hampden Great House- Distillery Edition. The nose on it is absolutely divine, and at 59% abv, it surprises with a beautiful, pungent, yet elegant finish. 

Other than Hampden, you’ll find Worthy Park, Appleton, Foursquare, St.Nicholas Abbey and tons of wine in my drinks cabinet. 

8. 2018 was a big year for Hampden, as after 265 years you finally released rum under your own name. What can we expect to see in the future from Hampden?

2018 was a huge year from Hampden.

In the future, you can expect to see less of the word Hampden being used on brands that are not being released by us, more exciting limited releases for the connoisseurs and rum enthusiasts, and Hampden Estate Pure Single Rum and its subsequent expressions more readily available in your favorite bars and restaurants as well as in your favorite shops.

 

A big thanks to Christelle for catching up with us and providing some fascinating insights into Hampden Estate. If you're interested in exploring the range (including Christelle's favourite!), visit our current auction here.

Eilidh Jack

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