Jamaica's Hampden Estate Rum Distillery in Photos
My first visit to Hampden Estate was as part of a WIRSPA-hosted tour of Jamaican distilleries in 2016; many of the Hampden Estate photos in Modern Caribbean Rum are from this visit. Things change though, so this past November, Mrs. Wonk and I braved many exceedingly rough backcountry roads to revisit Jamaica’s distilleries. A few of my photos from this more recent Hampden Estate visit are annotated below. The prior post on this site has photos from our Long Pond visit earlier that day.
While Hampden’s appearance hadn’t changed dramatically since my 2016 visit, there was plenty to see with fresh eyes. Two 23,000 liter (5000 imperial gallons) double retort stills were installed circa 2020, increasing Hampden’s batch distillation capacity to the same level as Appleton’s. Two recently built aging warehouses enable a significant quantity of rum on-site for the first time in the estate’s history.
There’s little doubt that the investments in upgrading and upscaling capacity were driven by a surge in interest in Hampden’s rum. Once available only via independent bottlings and little known outside of the rum supergeek community, Hampden’s distribution partnership with La Maison & Velier has brought Hampden’s rum to a much wider global audience. A series of limited edition releases, including an annual Great House expression and the recently released 8 Marks Collection, have rum collectors at a fever pitch.
Speaking of marks, Hampden’s most famous mark is the highest ester rum Hampden makes and is known as DOK. Before entering the distillery, we made a short trek to a tiny enclosed graveyard where people from Hampden’s past slumber. Among them is Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson, the estate’s proprietor around the turn of the 20th century. The aforementioned mark takes its name from Kelly-Lawson’s initials.
Visitors enter the distillery proper by way of a red double swing gate. As you can probably guess, it’s an obligatory photo stop.
Just past the gate and under a tin roof resides a 5,000-gallon Vendome double retort installed in 1994. It’s one of five double retort pot stills in Hampden’s portfolio and the only one standing alone, away from the other stills.
Hampden’s stillhouse is a low-slung, open-sided rectangular structure. Wooden dunder tanks along the structure’s eastern edge are visible as you approach.
Inside the stillhouse structure, steps lead to an elevated platform for up-close-and-personal views of Hampden’s four newest double retorts, each 23,000 liters in capacity. Horizontal pipes travel overhead between each kettle and a row of concrete dunder cooling tanks. Once suitably cooled and clarified, some of the dunder goes into the mash of subsequent fermentations, while the rest is used as fertilizer on nearby cane fields after treatment.
At the center of the distillery complex is another oblong, low-slung building holding dozens of wooden fermentation vats. With over 100,00 liters of distillation capacity and a multi-week fermentation protocol, many vats are necessary to keep the stills busy. We couldn’t take photos inside the fermentation building, but I took a decent photo while standing in the doorway.
An adjoining structure too big for our group to visit holds yet more fermentation vats, the muck pit, and the mixing hall. However, my photos from that visit are on pp. 344-345 of Modern Caribbean Rum and my Cocktail Wonk writeup of that trip.
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The highlight of my visit wouldn’t have warranted a second glance from most visitors. In an inset between two buildings, steam rose from metal tanks at ground level. Just behind, a large metal tub was perched on a concrete pedestal. Busy taking photos, I was only half-paying attention until our guide mentioned lime, salt, and drying. In a flash, I realized he was describing a portion of the Cousins process for making high-ester rum.
Patented by Island Chemist H.H. Cousins in 1906, the process goes beyond using dunder, cane acid, and muck in the fermentation. It involves adding calcium oxide, aka lime, to the liquid lees remaining in the high wine retort after distillation. The lime causes the more complex acids to precipitate out as lime salts, which are dried into a semi-solid mass via evaporation. During preparations for subsequent distillations, a portion of the dried lime salts are dissolved into the high wine charge to dramatically increase the presence of these complex acids in the retort during distillation.
The above is an extremely simplified description, and I won’t attempt to go any deeper here. However, Cousin’s instructions are available online, and the above picture corresponds to the “Liming the Lees” and “Evaporating the Limed Lees” sections. Unless you’re well-versed in organic chemistry, they won’t make much sense, though.
Outside the distillery fence a large cement pond contains an odd-looking concrete structure. The structure is the shell for the cooling tower used by Hampden’s sugar factory when it operated. Today, the pond is a fish sanctuary. Water from the distillery’s distillation condensers flows through the pond but doesn’t appreciably heat the water. No sous vide fish here!
Hampden’s aging warehouses, inaugurated in 2022, are about 100 meters from the distillery core. Currently, 4,500 casks are undergoing aging, with that number growing slowly over time. (Hampden still sells most of its rum as unaged bulk rum.) The vast majority of casks here are ex-bourbon, as you’d expect. Between stacked pallets of ex-bourbon casks is a set of larger casks — some possibly ex-sherry casks. Some bear a Velier logo; no surprise, given Luca Gargano’s deep involvement with Hampden.
To cap off our visit, we group tasted several unaged high ester Hampden rums at distillation strength. One had (shhhh… don’t tell anyone!) an ester level around 3,000 gr/hlAA. You can thank the Cousins process for creating a rum at that exceedingly high ester level.
The remainder of this post is background information on Lond Pond’s history excerpted from Modern Caribbean Rum. The book also contains substantial technical information regarding Hampden’s rum production process.
Hampden Estate Overview
Of all of Jamaica’s distilleries, Hampden Estate remains the closest to what it looked like a century or more ago. Its majestic pot stills, dunder tanks, muck pit, picturesque tropical grounds, and beautiful great house make it an essential pilgrimage for Jamaican rum enthusiasts.
Hampden lies within the lush Queen of Spain valley in the Trelawny parish. It was a sugar plantation by 1753, and distillation likely soon followed. By 1779, the Hampden great house, which overlooks the estate grounds, featured a ground-level rum store. For its first 250 years, the estate changed family ownership only once. During those many decades, the estate produced and sold unaged rum in bulk; there was no aging nor any Hampden Estate branded rum.
Hampden Estate was in financial distress at the turn of the twenty-first century, and in 2003 the Jamaican government assumed ownership of the estate. Jamaica’s minister of agriculture noted:
Hampden factory was archaic, and it appears the owners were not re-investing, and as such, the estate was not profitable.
After a legal battle with the prior owners ended in 2009, the government sold Hampden to the Hussey family, who operate it as part of Everglades Farms Ltd. The Husseys own numerous businesses in Jamaica, including hotels, horses, and pharmacies. The estate purchase also included Long Pond’s sugar factory, but not the Long Pond distillery.
The Husseys set out to raise Hampden’s profile and profitability. A first step was launching the Rum Fire brand while continuing their bulk rum sales; they also began putting down rum for aging. In 2018 the Hampden Estate brand launched in partnership with La Maison & Velier. Previously, any aged rum labeled as Hampden Estate would have come from an independent bottler.
In 2020, the Husseys made additional investments in distillery capacity, including the purchase of two new pot stills, .which increased the distillery’s capacity to at least 1.4 million LAA annually.
On the estate grounds is a small family graveyard where several of the estate’s prior owners and family now rest. Of particular note is the grave site of Dermot Owen Kelly- Lawson, Hampden’s owner in the early twentieth century. His initials, DOK, are also the name of Hampden’s highest ester marque, with an ester level of 1,500-1,600 gr/hlAA.