First comes Balvenie
Then comes Ardbeg
Then comes… Hampden in a limited distillery edition?
Here I am, a diehard single malt scotch enthusiast, writing his first review on a malt-forward website, not about the water of life, but rather the funktastic juice of Jamaica. Life is funny that way, is it not?
In some poetic fashion of things coming full-circle, one might find it mildly coincidental that around a decade ago my first Scottish whisky was the Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old. Much like a gateway drug, Balvenie brings you into the world of single malt with open arms, promising fields of gold. Eventually, Islay got the best of me, the siren songs of Caol Ila, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin all too beautiful to resist.
But where is one to go after the salty earthy peat of chilly Scotland has entered your bones?
Warm Jamaican waters, I say.
And fortunately, Hampden Distillery is a well known destination. It has been well written about from the likes of John in his review of the Hampden Pure Single Jamaican Rum to Jason in hisreview of the Kill Devil Hampden 2007 10 Year Old. Nonetheless, I believe there is still more to share, so let’s dive in.
Similar to the way Scottish malt has PPM, shorthand for parts-per-million, rum has g/hL AA, or grams per hectoliter of absolute alcohol. I might say that those in the warmer climates take their measurements a bit more seriously, so much as to providenames for specific ranges. From a theoretical 0 gr/hL AA to the highest ester level allowed for export by Jamaican law at 1600 gr/hL AA, this number will be your guide to funkytown and shipwrecks.
Hampden has long been known as an old-world style producer who does not shy away from the wild side of things. And by wild, I mean that literally, as yeasts that also prefer warm climates and a boozy beverage, are free to enjoy up to 15 days access to open cedar vats in what is known as “wild fermentation”. Their unique process also relies heavily on two things with names that perhaps tease the forthcoming scent – dunder and muck. These two are often confused, but there are big differences.
Dunder is what remains in the pot stills after distillation. Muck is a sludgy witches’ brew of bacteria that festers up acids. Sounds delicious right? Now, it’s not simply the existence of these two things that make Hampden unique, but rather what they do with them. Instead of tossing out the dunder like most distilleries do because it’s considered “by-product”, they keep it to be reused. The solids for the dunder, composed mostly of lees (dead yeast) are thrown into a muck hole along with fruit, molasses and probably somethings that we don’t want to know about. The muck is then mixed into fermented molasses, cane juice and dunder to ultimately be part of the distilled wash. Although it’s not necessary in the production of rum (I’m not familiar of other distilleries that use muck, but please enlighten me if wrong), its use helps rapidly escalate the esters that are so critical to a rum drinker’s expectation of what the unique Hampden rum tastes like.
Don’t let all this fancy talk fool you, for although I may be an insatiable consumer of weird information, I am nought but an adventurous newcomer to the wide world of rum. My first taste of Hampden was their Estate Overproof Rum, the first to be released directly from the distillery, right after it hit the shelves in 2018. It was so unlike any of the rum I had before and it immediately captivated me. Prior to that, my first introduction to the tropical spirit was when I closed out Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, but to be honest, I don’t remember much other than I thought it was amazing. My first education to quality rum came a few years later at Small Victory in Austin, Texas. After several hours of great conversation and a wad of cocktails written on receipt paper, I had learned so much. My budget was all tied up in scotch, but I had my sights set.
Fast forward some years back to Los Angeles, and a number of tropic-loving friends enlightened me to the limited-edition Great House Distillery Edition. They all told me this was the bottle to wait for, the one that should be my first bottle purchase from this venerable distillery. They cited the particular blend comprised of roughly 80% the “light” OWH, or Outram W Hussey, and roughly 20% of the Diamond H (<>H) range, which has an ester count teetering on the edge of treacherous at 900-1000 gr/hL AA. They assured me this would provide the best of both worlds. Potent, yet complex – a word not typically used to describe either muck pit scents or rum tasting notes. Blending, or marrying, if the “B word” is sacrilege, was critical here to achieve a beguiling balance of smell and taste.
Drawing further comparisons back to scotch and peat, it’s not only the effects of esters that I love. There is a twisted joy of consuming something I know many, if not most, find anywhere from simply not enjoyable to downright revolting. Yes, some of the spirits are as brash as their scents, but others, like this bottle, greatly reward your time and interest. If you should be fortunate to find yourself in front of any Hampden bottle, don’t be put off by first impressions. Heed the warning, but embrace adventure.
We, the peat heads, the ester lovers, are a small but very passionate, vocal, and fragrant group in the beverage world. Join us.
Hampden Great House – Review
Color: Light maple syrup.
On the nose: Hot and nose tingling, but not the 59% it is. Paint thinner; chemicals. Root beer & peat. Malt fermentation. A deep but not overly complex scent.
In the mouth: Over-ripe bananas dipped in fuel – not the grocery brand you put in your car, rather the high octane racing stuff – and lit on fire. Tropical fruits, particularly mango and papaya. Brown sugar chewing gum. Dark molasses with cinnamon sticks. Creme brulee. Something like a Caribbean sweet and sour sauce.
A fair pour of water greatly rounds off all the edges, particularly the funky ones, and creates some unexpected creaminess. A different beast this way, but still enjoyable.
Put your hands in the air and step away from the vehicle. This is one hot pursuit that will chase you into the night, raising your adrenaline to unimaginable levels, heightening your senses and thrilling you to no end. If the movie Drive hadn’t been made yet, this would surely be the impetus for such a film. An astounding piece of work; dark, brooding, with glorious flashes of neon and synthwave providing context and balance.
Image courtesy of Bryan.