Nestled deep in the Queen-of-Spain valley of Trelawny, Jamaica lies the Hampden Estate. Hampden Estate was established in 1753, and still produces rum to this day using centuries’-old traditions with just a few modern upgrades. This relatively small sugarcane estate and rum distillery occupy roughly 3,500 acres and have remained in continuous operation for over 260 years, making some of the world’s most sought after and award-winning rums. Their aged rums are bottled as Hampden Estate rums, while their unaged rum is sold as Rum Fire white overproof rum. Interestingly enough, majority of the rum produced by this estate is exported to Europe, and the waitlist for a shipment of Hampden rum can be as long as two years. Very little is available on the local market so many Jamaicans are unfamiliar with the Hampden brand, but the Hampden Estate Rum Tour will change that.
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Starting from Kingston, my friends and I set off for the 2 hour 30 minutes’ drive to Hampden via the North-South Highway, then across the parish of St. Ann into Trelawny. Google Maps was very helpful in making the correct turn from the highway and it’s more or less a straight road through some rural Trelawny communities such as Wakefield. These roads are pothole-riddled, and the road in the last 10 minutes of the drive through sugarcane fields is unpaved. We were greeted by this palm tree-lined driveway and an entrance gate.
We drove through the gates, and right up to the inconspicuous visitor centre and small parking lot. Beautiful peacocks and peahens roam the grounds, and one in particular isn’t friendly towards shiny cars, but there was always a staff member watching over the cars to prevent that rascal peacock from doing any damage. After parking, hands were sanitized and temperatures checked as per CoVid-19 protocols, and we had to record this on a waiver of sorts. Masks are mandatory.
Reservations are preferred and each tour lasts roughly two hours. Afternoon tours (that is, later than midday) can be facilitated on request. Comfortable shoes are required as a bit of walking is involved. The tour costs $3,000JMD per person for locals, but can be $4,000 with lunch included. The non-local rate is US$50 per person.
Touring the Hampden Estate
Can you think of a better way to start a rum tour than with a glass of ice-cold rum punch? I can’t! They NEED to bottle this rum punch, honestly. There was a very pleasant complexity in the flavour profile of this rum punch. My friends and I took guesses on the probable ingredients such as cloves, cinnamon, pimento (allspice) alongside fruit punch and Hampden rum (of course), but our cheeky tour guide who also created the blend left us none the wiser. I’d keep that recipe a secret too. It’s the best rum punch I’ve ever had, and I’m grateful we got refills.
As we sipped on our rum punches, our tour guide led us on a quick history lesson about Jamaica or more like a refresher for us since we were all locals. She told us about the estate’s history as well, mentioned its current owners, and explained why the Hampden Estate Great House is still standing. Afterwards, we visited the distillery, got a sneak peak of the fermentation house and saw how pot still distillation works. What I found very interesting though is how Hampden established their unique flavours. The estate rests on top of a water table and has its own natural spring water and dam which goes into making its rums. The rest comes from their sugarcane and molasses, yeast and dunder. Dunder is the liquid left back in the boiler after distilling rum. This is the first rum tour I’ve ever done which stressed the importance of dunder in achieving authentic rum flavour. Waste not, want not.
Hard hats are required inside the factory. Recording and photography are restricted or even prohibited in some areas. Your tour guide will advise. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the aging house as that’s currently off-limits. I would’ve loved to see the warehouse with hundreds of American oak barrels enhancing the complexity of Hampden rum, aged in the hot and humid Trelawny climate for eight years. This can be considered as equivalent to roughly twenty-five years of aging in the cooler European climate. The only disadvantage of aging rum in the Caribbean three times as fast as Europe is greater rate of evaporation from the barrels.
The Hampden Greathouse
After leaving the factory, we got to pass by the striking greathouse and admire its beautiful colonial architecture. We weren’t allowed inside the house as it’s been converted into a private residence for the owners when they visit, but it was still great to admire the building’s exterior. I fell in love with the building– perhaps because it was a pleasant surprise. Most greathouses from this side of Jamaica had been burnt down in the 1831 Christmas slave rebellion which led to our emancipation just 2 years later, but the slaves left this one standing because its owners had been good to them.
Fun Fact: In 1955, the old boiler house of the estate was donated by the owners of Hampden to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus to be used as the University Chapel. The beautiful Georgian building was dismantled block by block, each building stone was meticulously numbered, then transported to the UWI and reassembled. It took three years to complete the task.
Lunch options were either jerk chicken or jerk pork with rice and peas or festival. We washed down lunch with more rum punch, while listening to and admiring the noisy peacocks.
Sampling the Rum
It wouldn’t be a rum tour without sampling the rums, right? The two we got to taste were the award-winning smooth Rum Fire white overproof rum and the Hampden Estate Gold. The Rum Fire is 63% abv and had a great kick, or punch, or fire if you will. Swirling the glass and inhaling the fiery aroma stung my eyes a bit and it certainly warmed the alimentary canal as it went down. This is the type of rum that one should drink with a chaser such as Ting, a Jamaican grapefruit soda. On the other hand, Hampden Estate Gold is aged for eight years in oak barrels and takes on caramel hues and delicate notes of vanilla, tropical fruits and toasted nuts and spices. These flavours are naturally acquired during the aging process as no sugar, tannins, caramel, flavourings, colourings or other additives are added to the rums. This is the kind of rum one can drink neat or on the rocks, but of course this rum can also be used for cocktails such as our welcome rum punch.
Last but not least, we got to sign a guest book and browse the gift shop where I purchased a bottle of Rum Fire Rum and two branded rock glasses as souvenirs. They also have wine glasses, T-shirts, caps and other memorabilia, as well as limited bottles of aged rums starting at US$189.
All in all, Hampden was a great trip and a well-needed break. My only criticisms were that I wish we got a more thorough immersion into the art and history of the rum-making process from sugarcane to cup (or “grass to glass” as another estate puts it), and I wish we got some sort of keepsake at the end such as a small souvenir-sized bottle of rum. Nonetheless, I encourage everyone to check out Hampden, and try spotting their rums in your favourite liquor store or grocery aisle! I marvel at the exclusiveness of this estate’s rum. Touring the grounds for a few hours and admiring the architecture felt like a privilege.
Written by Rochelle Knight
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‘Til next time!
Disclaimer: This trip was sponsored by Hampden Estate, but all opinions voiced are my own.