We delve into the exciting and evocative world of high ester rums, with their bewildering array of new flavours, and their rich traditions and history.
To think that before I had tried a high ester rum, I had lived my life in ignorance of the initially bewildering, sometimes familiar, but ultimately addictive array of aromas and flavours that this special group of alcohols has to offer. What a gift I have received!
Esters are a group of alcohols that exist in nature and are at least partly responsible for the aromas of many fruits, for example. In high ester rums one of the dominant esters will tend to be ethyl acetate, which can express itself as green apple, pear, medicinal notes, or solvents like nail polish remover. Another common ester is ethyl butyrate, which is distinctly tropical, and most often associated with pineapple.
One thing is clear, the first time you approach a high ester rum from the Trelawny region of Jamaica, you are assaulted with an array of such compounds and aromas. The experience can be a melting pot of tropical fruits, caramels, seed oils, glues, vanillin’s, herbaceous notes, marine aromas, solvents, burnt rubbers and oak! Michael Jackson (the late, great beer and whisky writer) once wrote, the timid miss out on much. And these rums are not for the timid!
The whisky fraternity, however, is increasingly being drawn into this new world of flavour, completely different from the flavour “pantry” offered in scotch. A high ester rum might be comparable in intensity (and polarisation for that matter) as a highly peated Islay whisky, but it is a completely different bouquet of flavours. How exciting!
Easters are formed in 3 keys ways in the world of aged spirits:
- During fermentation. Yeast choice is key here, and some yeasts will naturally produce more esters than others as part of their metabolic process. Extended wild fermentations (involving bacteria) also produce acids which are a key pre-cursor to ester development through distillation.
- During distillation. Esters can form any time an alcohol comes into contact with a certain group of acids. During distillation there is plenty scope for the alcohol vapours (ethanol), to mix and bind with acids from wild fermentation and form esters.
- During maturation. During aging in barrel, ester formation is much slower, and can be the result of oxidation of ethanol, which can form more pre-cursors for ester production. Tannic acid from wood can be drawn into spirit, lowering the pH and creating favourable conditions for slow ester development. These reactions also seem to be enhanced in tropical aging environments.
Wild, open vat fermentations at Hampden, Trelawny Region, Jamaica.
Hampden have been producing continuously for more than 250 years! Given all these variables and their myriad co-dependencies in ester production, it is clear that this mastery has been hard earned over generations. Long before the science of ester production caught up with them, the master distillers had been passing down their knowledge earned through trial and error, and traditional techniques, of how to really dial up ester production in rum.
These rums speak of place and carry a distinct signature through their releases. They have provenance, are essentially wild in nature, and labour-intensively made. They transport me, and I am utterly addicted.