The first thing that you notice at the Appleton Rum factory is the smell of fermentation. It reminded me of our days standing on South American docks, where spilled grain unloaded from cargo ships was left to rot in the baking sun. Its not a pleasant smell, but one that reminded us that we were about to begin a tour of an active distillery and learn a little about how Jamaica’s most famous rum is made. This is really the only organised, touristy thing we’ve done in Jamaica, but everyone recommended it for the free-flowing rum, the hospitality, and the copious amounts of food they share to keep you from passing out in a drunken heap! The party started early at around 9am with a drink steward handing out rum punch and sandwiches on the bus at the start of our 2.5 hour trip from Kingston to St Elizabeth Parish on the island’s south coast. 9am was a bit early for me to start on the rum!
The approach to the Appleton estate is through a fertile valley where they grow acres of cane sugar, right next to the factory that distills the rum today. Watching workers in the fields, it was not hard to imagine a very similar scene being played out two hundred years ago, back in the dark days of Jamaica’s colonial past.
Little of the dark side is covered by the tour and the plantation house has long gone, but a few artifacts remain on the estate from past days: vintage delivery trucks, hand-carved grinding stones, and this little donkey who demonstrated how cane juice was once extracted:
I’d already had a little sip of rum-laced coffee by the time we got to the donkey. Standing there in the blazing hot sun, I was immediately dizzy and glad that I didn’t drink anything else on the bus. Next we moved onto his modern counterpart—large industrial cane grinders and storage bins where the juice is extracted and stored before move on to the distillers.
Next door in the distillery building it was burning hot, which is probably why I forgot to take photos. Here the juice is boiled and, via a condenser, the steam is collected as clear alcohol. The rum then goes on to be stored in barrels to age.
After the rum production tour, we went inside to learn more about the artistry of rum-making and to taste different blends. This, of course, was the best bit, especially as we had already had two rounds of carbohydrate-heavy meals on which it could land. I found the youngest rum undrinkable — rot gut, really — but its the cheapest and understandably the most popular. The vintage blends of more than 12 years, were more for sipping and too cloying for me. Fortunately, I found I liked the regular reserve the most, the rum that we have been drinking all along.
They then served more food and more rum before we staggered to the bus. Not everyone had been as conservative as me, and enthusiastic, drunken karaoke belted out from the back of the bus for the ride home. They had a good time and so did we, although I probably had a better morning the following day! Appleton did a great job of hosting and I highly recommend the tour if you ever come to Jamaica.*
*At the current time of writing the distillery is closed to the public until November 2017 for extensive renovations.