The Appleton Estate is the oldest and most famous sugar estate and distillery in Jamaica in continuous production, and has been handcrafting some of the finest rum in the world since 1749 at its single 11,000-acre estate (with 3,700 acres of sugar cane) in the Nassau Valley in the parish of Saint Elizabeth. Acquired decades ago by J. Wray & Nephew Ltd., Appleton produces probably the most famous of the Jamaican rums exclusively using sugar cane from the estate itself.
Barbados' Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd. claims the title of world's oldest rum producer, with processing equipment dating back to 1703. Appleton Jamaica (1749) is the second oldest, and Martinique's St. James rum is third (1765). Although the first known documentation of rum production at Appleton dates to 1749, the origins of the Estate date back as far as 1655 when the British captured Jamaica from the Spaniards.
Sugar cane first arrived with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493. And the Spanish Conquistadors brought with them the knowledge and skills for rum-making. With the English, Dutch, Spanish and French colonizing the Caribbean during the 1600s, rum soon became the foundation of the Caribbean economy.
By 1893, more than 30,000 acres of sugar cane were under cultivation in Jamaica and nearly 90% of it belonged to estates with their own sugar mills and distilleries – 148 distilleries in all! By the time of World War II, there were only 25. Today there are fewer than ten distillers and/or bottlers in Jamaica, but technological advancements still enable the island to produce up to 13,000,000 gallons (or 50,000,000 liters) of rum annually. That’s a lot of rum!
The Appleton Estate factory alone can produce up to 160 tons of sugar per day and its distillery has a capacity of 2,600,000 gallons (or 10,000,000 liters) of rum on an annual basis produced from both copper pot and column stills. The Estate's sugar cane is harvested by machine as well as in the old-fashioned manner—by men with machetes. The rum is stored and fermented in hand-made oak casks.
A bit about rum
Rum must be made from sugar cane and distilled in a country in which sugarcane grows, although it can be aged and bottled anywhere. It’s derived either from the molasses created as part of making sugar (Rhum Industriale as in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries) or directly from the sugar cane juice (Rhum Agricole common in the French islands, such as Haiti, and South America, primarily Brazil (Cachaca)). We will deal with Jamaica’s Rhum Industriale process here.
The irony is that this valuable product comes from a waste product of refining sugar – “blackstrap” molasses! Blackstrap molasses is very thick, dark and sticky. It’s a bit bitter even though it still contains about 55% of the un-crystallized sugar. It also contains lots of the original impurities of the sugar which help give the rum its characteristic flavors and aroma. It takes about 1 ½ gallons of molasses to make one gallon of rum.
The molasses is next mixed with water until it has about 15% sugar content and then fermented with yeast. The mineral content of the local waters and the specially-cultured yeasts greatly affect the final characteristics and quality of the rum. Then this mixture is distilled and aged.
Aging makes the rum smoother and more complex. This was discovered when more rum was being produced than consumed and the excess had to be stored in oak casks. It was also shipped off to England, Spain and France in these casks. They found that the rum took on color from the wood as well as a superior taste. The flavor develops in the cask more quickly than a whiskey or brandy due to the hot weather. And most of the color comes from the wood, although caramel is sometimes added. Of course, about 6% of the rum evaporates through the wood – in Jamaica, this is called “Duppy’s Share” (a duppy is a Jamaican ghost or spirit).
Rum ages very quickly due to the high temperatures in the Caribbean – about 3 times the speed of Scotch or Cognac. So 7-year-old rum will have the same qualities as a 21-year-old Scotch! Even white rums might be aged for three years or so and then the color is filtered out using charcoal.
Rums must be bottled at a strength no lower than 37.5% alcohol by volume, although some can be as high as 85%. Rums are classified as white/light/silver (clear), gold/amber, dark/black, premium-aged, and overproof (strong - over 57% alcohol by volume; not for the faint-hearted!). Quality is determined by age and aging process; older rums are more intensely flavored. Rum produced in Jamaica must follow the English law of minimum ageing which mandates that the age indicated on the bottle’s label must be the age of the youngest rum in the blend. The vast majority of rums are blended from a mix of styles, ages and types, and much of the rum made in Jamaica is exported to blenders and bottlers outside the country.
The latest at Appleton
The latest aged rum from J. Wray and Nephew Ltd., specially blended by Master Blender, Joy Spence, the world’s first female Master Blender, is always available only at the distillery. If you’re visiting anywhere in the southwest part of Jamaica, be sure to pick up a bottle of the new Appleton Estate Exclusive Edition!
The World Spirits Awards takes place annually in Klagenfurt, Austria and has an international jury of tasters with many years of experience. In 2009, Appleton Estate Reserve earned their honor of “Best in Category – Rum”. In 2010, Appleton was one of 13 awarded the “World-Class Distillery” distinction, to honor “their work and distinction for flawless products” along with five gold medals, two of those in the top 10 (Appleton Estate V/X and Appleton 21). Appleton Rum and Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum were awarded a Grand Gold Award at the 2011 World Quality Selections organized by Monde Selection. Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum was honored with the International High Quality Trophy for consistently turning in gold and Grand Gold Award performances at the awards.
On June 7, 2012, Appleton launched a very rare, 50-year old limited edition rum to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's independence as a nation. Only 800 bottles of Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum 50 Year Old Independence Reserve were created. It's believed to be the oldest rum available for sale in the world.
You can visit the distillery in Jamaica and enjoy the guided “Rum Tour” of the facilities. Then try a sample! Not a rum drinker? Use this Jamaican cure the next time you have a cold or flu – pour a handful of rum into the palm of your hand, wipe your face with it, then wait 5 minutes, place that hand near your nose and inhale gently. This is sure to get rid of those little germs in no time!
Appleton also has a newly redesigned website with lots of information as well as a mobile application that allows you to download cocktail recipes to your smartphone!