Just In 👉 Tiffany's New York Bar Unveils Mars Tsunuki Yakus...

Spotlights and Deep-Dives

A Spirit So Funky, So Fierce, You Cannot Ignore: Hampden Estate Rum

Distillery Spotlight: Hampden Estate Rum Distillery

Region: Trelawny Parish, Jamaica, The Caribbean

 

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the funkiest of them all?

 

 

Before the world began appreciating sipping rums, rums were already the backbone of certain popular cocktails. But if you're asking what rum is best for creating the most exotic and potently flavoured Tiki cocktails like the Mai Tai, Zombie or Jungle Bird, the answer would surely point towards funky Jamaican rums that pack an oomph.

 

Tiki culture saw a revival in the West in the 2010s.

 

And if there’s only one Jamaican rum producer you are to be familiar with, it would have to be Hampden Rum from the Hampden Estate.

 

The road to the Hampden Estate in Trelawny Parish (Source: Hampden)

 

Hailing from the deep, dark, forested corners of Trelawny Parish, Hampden’s bold and brazen liquid began swaggering its way into the hearts and minds of rum lovers, Tiki enthusiasts and drinkers who fancy themselves Hunter S. Thompson-types. A wild spirit with an untamed and almost intimidating funk – Hampden Rum – captured the essence of the early 2010s Tiki culture revival, eventually becoming an icon that embodies the very soul of Jamaican rum traditions.

 

Perfect for Tiki cocktails, the muscular and intensely estery Hampden Rum Fire and the watered-down Hampden Gold were the first two unaged expressions released by Hampden Estate in 2011 and 2012, which immediately won awards (Source: Fat Rum Pirate, Rum Collective)

 

A coming-of-age bottling released several years later in 2018 – the beloved Hampden Overproof is one of the first two aged rums released by Hampden Estate in 250 years. Previous aged Hampdens would have been bottlings by independent bottlers, not by the distillery itself.

 

For a white-collared person visiting a sleek cocktail bar in a developed city, the closest thing they could get to tropical escapism is a taste of a funky rum-based Tiki cocktail. What is this funkiness that we speak of? Short of pouring a dose of Hampden Rum Fire down your throat, I could only get you to picture the raw, primal energy of a jungle with rotting pineapples and month-old bananas, the naked pungency of near-rancid cheese or nail polish remover, and the unbridled chaos of these almost-foul aromas swirling together in an awe-inspiring whirlwind dance.

That, my friend, is what Jamaicans call “hogo”. It’s a terroir-driven funkiness in rums that has become the quintessential character of traditional Jamaican rums. A heavy, in-your-face explosion of exotic overripe fruits and pungency that sets it apart from the tame and inoffensive rums of lesser courage.

But to understand how the Hampden funk came to be, we are required to venture into the bizarre world of Trelawny-style rum-making.

 

Deliciously chaotic rum-making ways

 

Built in 1779, the Great House is a centrepiece of Hampden Estate (Source: Hampden)

 

Hampden’s distillery itself is a step back in time, unchanged since the 1700s. The Boiling House, where fermentation occurs, resembles a damp, dingy dungeon and has barely been cleaned for over two centuries – bear with me as I explain why.

 

Fermentation occurs in The Boiling House on the Hampden Estate (Source: Cocktail Wonk)

 

Open-top fermentation tanks at Hampden’s Boiling House (Source: Hampden)

 

Hampden uses a wild yeast fermentation process where the rum wash is fermented in large crusty wooden vats that are exposed at the top. While whisky or beer makers tend to use at least some identified strains of yeast, Hampden ferments entirely from environmental yeasts and bacteria present in the 250-year-old fermentation area. This creates an ominous, bubbling fermentation vat, rich of alcohols, acids, esters and other pungent compounds. Both a terrible and awesome sight to behold.

 

Closer look at the nasty stuff on the top of the fermentation vats (Source: Dan Biondi)

 

The walls of the facility are dark brown, the equipment covered in a layer of gunk. But this fermentation environment and its microbiome must be preserved to give Hampden rums their unmistakable flavour and funkiness. If you take things into your own hands and begin power-washing the entire facility, you would likely find yourself dragged out and arrested for ruining Jamaica’s biodiversity.

Wade further into the murky waters of rum-making lore, you’ll stumble upon dunder pits and muck graves – an arcane part of Trelawny-style rum fermentation where this mad alchemy reaches its most sinister zenith.

 

A barrel of rum dunder (Source: ABC Landline)

 

You see, like most Jamaican rum makers, Hampden goes through a very long process of fermentation – about 8 to 15 days at Hampden – to maximise ester count and achieve the signature Jamaican funk. For reference, the Guyanese Diamond Distillery and Trinidad Distillers Limited uses a 1 to 2 day ferment. But Hampden takes this to the next level by adding a secret ingredient called dunder (or what distillery workers call “muck”).

 

Dunder vats at the Hampden Estate (Source: Cocktail Wonk)

 

Dunder is a residual molasses-like liquid left in a pot still after distilling rum. At Hampden, dunder is taken out of the stills and left to evolve into “muck” in an adjoining room. Into these muck pits, distillery workers throw in yet more remnants of previous distillations, spent sugar cane, fruit waste and various other organic materials. Under the hot Jamaican weather, this creates an unholy stew of bacteria and wild yeasts. These muck pits have a thick, putrid smell that goes “beyond belief” and is “impossible to put into words” according to Matt Pietrek who visited the facility.

Occasionally, muck is poured into a hole in the ground, sinisterly called a “muck grave.” There, the mixture is left for years to further evolve and take on more unholy forms.

 

The Hampden 8 Marks Collection at Whisky Live Singapore 2022 

 

Muck used by Hampden’s distiller to make the various Hampden marks of different flavour profile and ester counts (discussed in further detail with the 8 Marks collection here). Different quantities of muck is added to the wash prior to distillation, ready to impart their virile and potent flavours upon the virgin rum.

Exactly what goes into these muck pits is a mystery and Hampden’s trade secret. Funnily enough, it is also a thing of fascination with rum lovers. Rumours whispered through the sugarcane fields still speak of rotting goat heads, bat carcasses and other malevolent creatures being thrown into the muck pits to promote even more biological activity, their decaying forms add a touch of the macabre to an already strange brew.

 

A “muck grave” at the Hampden Estate (Source: Dan Biondi)

 

From a biology standpoint, protein-rich materials (read: animal carcasses) could have been used by a Jamaican distiller to add additional nutrients and grow specific bacteria in the pit. But it’s hard to defend such practices considering modern sanitation expectations.

If you ask Hampden’s distillery guides about dead animals in their jungle stew, they would laugh off your questions and assure you that Hampden does nothing of that sort. Sure, Hampden’s muck pits smell potent and look scary. But the distillery mainly adds innocuous materials such as cane juice, composted jackfruits, bananas and naseberry for instance.

So why the oddly specific rumours then? The official position: such stories were probably falsely circulated by distillers in very early days when competition amongst Jamaican distilleries was stiff. The intent was to throw off the competitors and make them ruin their muck pits with horribly wrong ingredients, or so Hampden says.

Whether these grisly stories are fact or fiction, Hampden’s use of muck pits only deepen the mystique surrounding them and set it apart from many other rum distilleries. It is one of the last few producers still working in the same manner as it has been for over 250 years. Interestingly, some baijiu distilleries on the other side of the world also use a similar method of cultivating dunder pits to make their baijiu more estery.

 

Hampden is one of only two Jamaican distilleries using purely pot stills – the other being Worthy Park (Source: Hampden)

 

Hampden’s process after fermentation is comparatively easier to stomach. Hampden is well known for being one of only two Jamaican distilleries using purely pot stills and a discontinuous method of distillation. The fermented wash is transferred to the still house and distilled in pot stills, making the Hampden distillate a heavy and oily put still rum.

The Great House of Hampden Estate stands tall, a bastion of Jamaican rum-making tradition. Its dedication to old methods, and their refusal to tame the wild heart of dunder, has created a rum so bold and funky that deserves a place in the pantheon of iconic Caribbean rum producers.

So far, we have described the methods used by owners of Hampden Estate. Yet, Hampden's success in recent memory is really a tale of two hands coming together. Its owners played the first part of perfecting this deliciously chaotic style, but the popularisation of Hampden as a premium single estate rum is owed to Italian bottler Velier SpA.

 

The legendary people who popularised Hampden

Hampden has been producing rum continuously for over 200 years but never struck the same level of success it began enjoying in the 2020s.

The Estate was founded in 1753 by Scotsman Archibald Sterling, making it one of Jamaica’s oldest distilleries. Ownership was handed from one family to another – from the Sterlings to Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson, then to George Farquharson.

When the estate ran into financial troubles under the Farquharsons in the early 2000s, the state-owned Sugar Company of Jamaica assumed ownership. But SCJ too, was deemed to have operated it poorly, and the Estate was thus sold to Jamaican horse racing magnate Lawrence F.C. Hussey in 2009.

 

Take a look at a couple of Hampden Estate’s marks and you would notice that at least six of them are dedicated to the Estate’s past owners (Source: Hampden)

 

When the Hussey family took over in 2009, the distillery did not come with any aged stocks of rum. The Hussey family, at which point, made a decision that was probably the biggest contributor to Hampden's success – to begin barrel ageing the distillery's rum.

 

 

The decision to begin aging Hampden's rums on-estate was a pivotal one that laid the ground for its success. (Image Source: Loop Jamaica)

 

They began aging their rums in earnest in 2010 (hence prior to that vintage, aged Hampden rum would not have been matured by the distillery itself and would most likely be continentally aged, having been sold to bottlers in unaged bulk). The choice to age their own rum meant that the distillery could in earnest begin to create a brand for themselves through their own products. 

 

Luca Gargano, the chief of Velier SpA, began seriously looking into Jamaican rums after encountering Hampden (Image Source: Lone Caner)

 

Around the same time, Italian wine and spirits bottler Velier SpA with its CEO Luca Gargano had already cemented its reputation as a bona fide force in the rum world. He had built a reputation unmatched by any other, having led the success of the Demerara rums of Guyana and the Caroni rums of Trinidad. Yet Velier had up until its involvement with Hampden, largely left out Jamaica. This was as most Jamaican rum producers were in the business of selling bulk white rums.

The Hussey family’s decision to personally age Hampden rums had fully ripened in 2017. Under Luca’s recommendation, La Maison & Velier (a joint venture between Velier and La Maison du Whisky) purchased the distillery’s entire aged stock of rum and the global distribution rights for Hampden.

 

When these two bottles first came out, you best believe the fervour was real. (Image Source: LM&V)

 

The first two Hampden Estate official bottlings of aged rum were launched in collaboration with Velier in 2018 – they were a 46% ABV 8 Years Old expression and a 60% ABV Overproof expression.

This was a historic event in the rum world for many reasons.

For much of Hampden’s history dating back to the 1700s, its rums were primarily sold in bulk to blenders, independent bottlers and as a Tiki cocktail alcohol. The distillery was not widely recognized outside the circle of bartenders and die hard rum aficionados. The launch of Hampden Estate’s first aged rums finally brought attention to their exceptional aged rums, their unique production methods and the fact that this rums could be enjoyed outside of a Tiki cocktail.

This was also in a way, a revolution for rum world. Just as the arrival of Islay single malts revolutionised the whisky industry in the 1980s and shifted consumer focus to single malts, Luca Gargano foretold that Hampden’s launch would similarly bring greater attention to the appreciation of a single distillery’s unique craftsmanship and terroir in the rum world.  

And finally, for Luca Gargano personally, the presentation of these Hampden OBs in broad-shouldered black Velier bottles held huge significance. After a de-colonisation of the Caribbean, that a distinguished Jamaican rum house would formally appoint a foreign entity as its emissary was probably the highest known affirmation that Velier could receive as an independent bottler.

 
The first launch of an on-estate aged Hampden in over 250 years called for a commensurately grand event that involved a “Rum Tasting of the Century”. (Image Source: Rum Diaries)

 

To kick off the launch, La Maison & Velier organised what was called the tasting of the century - a lineup that would include the oldest dated rum in existence, a Harewood 1780 Barbados rum; a Saint James 1885, which ranks as one of the oldest rums ever sold; along with a Martiniquais Bally 1924, a Guyanese Skeldon 1978 and then of course the two newly released aged green and orange-labelled Hampdens.

 

To be part of a flight that included the oldest dated rum amongst many incredible vintage bottlings, tells you something about Velier's belief of the Hampden OB's significance. (Image Source: Rum Diaries)

 

These two iconic Hampden OB expressions, the centerpiece of the Tasting of the Century, continue to be widely available (and very affordably so) from most spirits specialist stores.

And so we have briefly laid out the ingredients for Hampden's modern popularity. Such an unusually crafted and memorable-tasting rum was singularly brought to the consumer’s attention and made incredibly accessible for the average drinker to purchase. 

The irony about popularity is that the thing itself must necessarily penetrate the mainstream consciousness - which is to say that those who know it best, the cognoscenti, must necessarily be disenfranchised by its widespread embrace. It can't be a little secret kept within the whispers of those in the know. It has to be butchered by the man on the street, with its lid bust wide open, sometimes recklessly poured into a glass of cola. To be an insider's secret is to be the outsider's nobody. Everyone has to know about it, even if most know nothing about it.

 

(Image Source: Hampden)

 

Since that 2018 launch, as mentioned, Hampden's core range has become widely available, and its portfolio has expanded to include special limited edition releases (as one does when it is sufficiently popular) and single cask releases. Of the original offerings, the white Rum Fire was kept, and the estate has continued to sell bulk unaged rums to brokers. Unsurprisingly, LM&V has its dibs on all estate-aged Hampden's, which only LM&V is entitled access to.

To welcome the rum community to the modern Hampden, the distillery decided to put out their first special release series - the Hampden Great House Distillery Edition. Sort of like a party favour or door gift of sort. The Great House Distillery Edition reflects the classic house style of Hampden, and has since become an annual thing. People mark their calendars and rush down to their local specialty shops for it. Well, I did at least.

 
Hampden's bottlings have hit mainstream consciousness - they're a thing now. (Image Source: Hampden)

 

It has thus far featured a blend of various marks and ages, with the 2022 Edition being a blend of 74% of the 2019 3 Year Old mid-ester HGML mark and 26% of the 2011 11 Year Old low-ester LFCH mark.

We've chronicled in brief Hampden's meteoric rise to fame, and lest we forget, Hampden's recent success is actually a surprisingly recent phenomenon. While it is but one style from a rich category of many different styles of Caribbean rum, this extraordinary funky, wild and untamed spirit had been instrumental in helping Velier premiumise the category and thrust the world of single estate rums into the international limelight.

So let us raise our glasses to the strange and wonderful world of insane flavours and rum-making in Jamaica. To the dunder pits, the bat carcasses, and the goat heads, whether real or imagined. Another toast is also due to the present day owners of Hampden Estate and the great people of Velier. These people embraced the wild, unhinged heart of Trelawny Parish in Jamaica, and distilled it into a spirit so funky, so fierce, that it simply cannot be ignored.

 

Recommended Expressions

Entry Level

One cannot go wrong by simply focusing on the core range bottlings from Hampden. They can usually be found at accessible price-points, and they showcase Hampden’s funk bomb through a good range of different interpretations.

Definitely hit up Hampden’s Great House releases as these tend to showcase more balance, more well-roundedness and vibrant fruitiness. The earlier bottlings of the Great House series are said to be some of the best OB Hampden expressions available – in particular the Great House 2019 and 2020 releases.

 

 

Of course, the classic Hampden Estate bottlings are not to be forgotten. For best experience, taste these two bottlings as a contrasting pair. You would immediately recognise the comparatively smoother Hampden 8 Years Old expression (read our contributor’s review) and punchy, toasty, intensity of the Hampden HCLF Classic.

 

 

The Hampden Pagos is part of Luca Gargano’s bold project to make Hampden “the Macallan of rums”. These bottlings have been exclusively matured in sherry casks, which while unusual and strays from old rum-making traditions, produces a very intense and vibrant spiced jammyness. The earliest release strays pretty far from Hampden’s classic profile, but would speak very well to a classic sherry-bomb whisky lover.

 

 

Mid-Range

It would be amiss to leave out Habitation Velier’s Hampden offerings. These tend to be rarer and hence more highly sought-after. That said, they are not always designed to be well-rounded sippers, and are intellectually geared towards the rum connoisseur, often times with very singular explorations of how specific Hampden marks would express their distinctiveness when bottled individually. If you have a firm preference for only smooth and round rums, some of these bottlings might offend your palate.

 

 

Of these HV Hampden releases, some of our favourites are:

  • Habitation Velier Hampden C<>H 2010 (tropical fruits, green fruit tartness and complex savoury notes) – Read our contributor’s review here
  • Habitation Velier Hampden 2010 HLCF/LROK (massively brash, fruity flavours)
  • Habitation Velier Hampden 2010 HLCF (heavy, incredibly complex but also really spicy)

 

Top Shelf

For top-shelf well-aged Hampdens, we would have to look to renowned independent bottlers, almost all of which are continentally aged Hampdens.

 

 

Some of our favourites include:

 

 

@CharsiuCharlie