Jamaican Rum – all you need to know

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Joy Spence, master blender at Appleton Estate, was special guest at the latest Whisky Exchange tasting to share her favourite bottles and to spread the word about Jamaican rum.

Appleton Estate 1

Appleton Estate is located in Jamaica’s Nassau Valley in the west of the country

About Jamaican Rum

The story of Jamaican rum began in 1749, with the establishment of Appleton Estate, although the site itself dates even further, to 1665, when the British took Jamaica from the Spanish. By the late 19th century, there were more than 100 rum distilleries in Jamaica, but now there are just a handful.

Joy Spence: ‘We have daily rain showers at 2.30pm, so if you come to Appleton after midday, bring your brolly – we don’t have to worry about irrigation! We send our rums to Kingston on a windy, treacherous road. Many times I’ve had to pull over to let one of our trucks past, and I’ve imagined the newspaper headlines: Master blender killed by her own rum tanker!

How is it made?

Appleton stills

Pot-still rums are more robust and full-bodied than those made in column stills

The way rum is made varies considerably, but it starts with sugar cane. In Jamaica, rum is made with molasses, the thick, sticky liquid left over once the sugar-cane juice has been boiled and the sugar crystals removed. Pot-still rums are a Jamaican speciality – big-flavoured, robust rums with more ‘funk’ than their Caribbean cousins, particularly compared with rum from Spanish-speaking islands.

Joy: ‘Many years ago, sugar was known as the king and rum as the prince, but now things have reversed. We use 10 varieties of sugar cane, giving us fruity and buttery notes. From 10 tons of sugar cane, we get one ton of sugar, and from that, we get 360 bottles of rum, so rum is the best-value-for-money spirit!’

How is it matured?

Evaporation of spirits happens at a much higher rate in the Caribbean compared with Europe – 6% a year, compared with just 2% in Scotland so in theory, a 25-year-old Caribbean rum will show the same level of maturation as a 75-year-old Scotch single malt. Jamaican distilleries regularly check fill levels of their barrels and top them up with rums of the same age to limit evaporation.

Joy: ‘We age our rum in American white oak barrels because we want those beautiful vanilla notes. The longer it spends in barrel, the more the vanilla influence and the smoother the rum becomes. In Jamaica, we have tropical ageing – the wood moves day and night, pulling out flavours at a rapid rate.’

What does it taste like?

Generally speaking, the longer a rum is aged, the more complexity it will have. White rums typically are clean, fresh and fruity but still pack a punch, whereas golden and dark rums will gain character from the barrel they are aged in, typically picking up spicy, toasty notes.

Joy: ‘Jamaica is known for its rich, complex, full-bodied rums. We have the largest stock of aged rum in the Caribbean. Our latest rum, Joy, has a beautiful top note of orange peel wrapped with ginger, vanilla, coffee, cocoa, butterscotch and almond. The finish is all brown sugar.’

How to serve it

Rum is one of the most versatile spirits around, and works brilliantly served long with a mixer or turned into a cocktail – think of the Daiquiri, Mai Tai and Dark ‘n’ Stormy. Well-aged rums deserve to be sipped neat, however, for their full complexity to be enjoyed.

Joy: ‘Our Signature Blend is the ultimate mixer for any cocktail. It works really well with cranberry juice, and also with Ting grapefruit soda, or with ginger beer – the Jamaican Mule. Our Reserve Blend is the first blend I ever created and is great served with fresh coconut water – in Jamaica we call that the ‘Epic’ serve! And the 21 Year Old? Just sip it – you wouldn’t make a cocktail with it.’

The Life of a Jamaican Rum Master Blender

Joy Spence

Joy Spence is celebrating 20 years as Appleton Estate’s master blender

Joy joined Appleton as chief chemist in 1981, and rose through the company before being appointed master blender in 1997. She admits that she’d never even taken a sip of rum before joining Appleton, but quickly acquired a taste for it…

Joy: ‘Everybody in Jamaica says they want my job, because apparently, I just drink all day! But I can tell you that I walk home in a straight line! To be a master blender, you must have excellent sensory skills, a great knowledge of how the product is manufactured, and some PR expertise, because you’re the face of the brand.’

To mark Joy’s 20th anniversary as Appleton Master Blender, a new top-notch rum has been launched: Joy.

A blend of rums aged for 25-35 years, the result is rich and incredibly complex, with notes of espresso, crème brûlée, tropical fruit and cinnamon. Joy said: ‘For the new bottling, I told the company I needed purple somewhere on the box, because it’s my favourite colour. And the bottle shape? I wanted to keep it simple but also emphasise my hips!’

To see our complete rum range, please click here.

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