Understanding Hampden: the 8 Marks Collection tasting kit


11 aprile 2023

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For the first time in its history Hampden Estate is offering an opportunity to taste all the characteristic Hampden marks in sequence. 

The tasting kit box set offers eight Hampden rum variants and contains information on the eight different raw material and process combinations which produced them, as well as certain significant chemical analysis data examined by means of gas chromatography. It is thus a one-of-a-kind tasting tool offering the chance to gain a full understanding of the incredible diversity of the eight marks of this great Jamaican rum and what makes each one so different from all the others, within the distillery’s expressive range. 

Historic introduction: what marks are and their origins

In the early 19th century Jamaica was the world’s largest rum producer, with more than one hundred sugar factories and adjoining distilleries. Like other former British colonies - Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana - Jamaica was effectively an exclusive rum supplier for European blenders. This means that, at the time, no distillery in the colonies was commercially bottling rum and there was no conception of smooth sipping rums and even less of ageing. The colonies sold their rums in bulk to European blenders who mixed them together to make their own blends. These blenders bought a range of rums from many distilleries and took the fresh rum to Europe for blending and ageing. These various origins made for diverse styles, breathing life into limitless combinations which blenders could use to create brands to sell on European markets.

For their part the distilleries made a range of rums because, within the blending tradition, the individual liquids were used to give rums personality and flavor and make blends. Traditionally all distilleries thus had a portfolio of rum formulas which were sold in bulk. Each made its own formulas by combining different raw materials, managing fermentation time frames and varying the distilling process. 

Then, like today, these formulas were classified on the basis of their aroma mixtures deriving from various types of aromatic molecule compounds called congeners. Combinations of these contributed to defining a liquid's identity and were measurable in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol (g/hL AA). 

Like all other colonial distilleries, then, Hampden Estate traditionally made various versions of liquids, each of which was - and still is - recognizable via what are known as ‘marks’ or ‘marques’. 

These are effectively acronyms marking barrels in the distillery, as distillery managers needed to mark barrels for the purposes of identifying the rum in them. Many of the meanings of these acronyms have been lost, but they were often simply distillers’ initials or abbreviations for the characteristics of the rum in them.

In any event, then like today, each individual mark indicated a specific liquid with the differences between them being mainly the non-alcoholic substances in them, which give rums their aromas. So, marks are essentially names for the various aromas which each distillery produced and these were historically sold as individual aromatic components to be combined in blends. 

Hampden’s aromas

Jamaican rums have always been famous and much sought after for their high ester levels. And Hampden is especially well known for its extraordinary aromas. Put simply, these are similar to flavors. As Luca Gargano often says, after umami we might go as far as to codify Hampden's as a new flavor. In fact, Hampden's rums were - and still to some extent are - used in perfume shops, as well as to make other liqueurs, bitters and drinks. These are spirits which could also have been catalogued as rum extracts, as this was what effectively took place at the time. Paradoxically, those unfamiliar with the rum world sometimes do not even consider these to be rums.

When, for example, in certain German-speaking areas, i.e., Germany and Austria, rum stopped being imported directly from Jamaica - primarily because of overly high import duties on spirits - but the demand for rum was still there, the Jamaican rums were so high in esters that they could be used to flavor neutral spirits produced domestically to taste like rum. This is how Verschnitt originated, as a rum-flavored spirit made in Germany from 5% pure Jamaican rum with 95% of a local spirit called Primasprit, diluted with water. The real Jamaican rum was thus no more nor less than a powerful flavoring essence in this case. 

The vast majority of Jamaican rums are used in very different ways now, though, as we know. It is now the highest expression of the island's terroir for both sipping alone and in mixology. And as far as the latter is concerned, it is an ingredient capable of revolutionizing mixing because the lion's share of the spirits now encompassed within the rum category are now a world away from how rums should be. In working process and raw material, and thus in tasting and chemical terms, many of these more closely resemble vodkas than rums. 

Hampden’s 8 marks: the kit

The Hampden marks box set is a fun experiential collection designed to give buyers an insight in one thing above all: the fact that a single distillery can produce a grand total of eight different rums, ‘simply’ by playing around with the raw materials. 

If we asked an average rum aficionado what Jamaica’s main raw material is, he or she would probably say molasses, but this is an oversimplification. The Hampden tasting kit helps people to grasp the difference fermentation can make, to start with, and thus the aroma complexity and diversity ancestral expertise and centuries of history within a single distillery can produce. Learning that different ester levels can make for different aroma profiles is potentially of use in many contexts. In mixology, for example, the presence of esters is relevant to cocktail making, with volatile substances making for very unusual taste stratifications in drinks and producing pronounced aromas even before tasting. Aromas can thus be used as an essence to aromatize a glass as well. 

This also applies to food, as rum can be an interesting ingredient. As we have already seen, a partnership with Cascina Vittoria has led to Hampden showing itself to be an excellent panettone aromatizer.

And then there's the matter of mixing culture itself. This collection is also a good way of increasing bartenders’ understanding of how drinks used to be, which can be of use when they want to emulate or revisit historic cocktails. 

Using historic recipes, in fact, always presents us with the problem of whether we can be sure we are using the right raw materials. There is no doubt, for example, that today’s limes are not the same as those of two centuries ago, but what about the spirits themselves? How can we be sure we are using the right ones? In most cases the answer is that we are certainly not using the same rums, and the most glaring example of this is the distilleries making modern-style rum, perhaps using multi-column distilling systems and filtering, which destroys the original aromatic and flavor complexities. 

Offering this extraordinary rum without telling clients all this would thus be an oversimplification. And the only way of doing this is to offer all eight variants at their absolute best, i.e., white rums. We know how important wood is to aged rums but it is precisely because of this, in educational terms, that it is also undeniable that wood deprives white rums of their maximum expression, namely the fresh state. 

A careful tasting of white rums shows not only that there was a great liquid there even before barrel ageing but also, as a natural consequence, that there can be no great aged rum without a great white base: barrels are not miracle workers. 

It is by no means obvious that a white spirit can possess such qualities. Even the most experienced bartenders can be surprised by the complexities of white rums such as these, and be amazed that they have not spent time in barrels. The idea that it is barrels which give rum its character (and then decolor them) is so ingrained, in fact, that we can lose track of the process upstream of this and thus the central importance of two factors in particular: fermentation and the terroir chain. 

And the terroir in this case is so subtle and delicate that even water in its purest state plays a fundamentally important part. If we took even just the water out of the Hampden equation, we would lose the microbiological complexity needed to create the chemical environment required for fermentation, generating the results which end up in the glass. 

This is why the academic elements in this kit have been conceived of as a guide to accompany empirical tastings. Combining information with sensory analysis is the best way to experience and comprehend the whole spectrum of brands produced at the Hampden Estate. 

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The esters are the result of the interaction between acids and alcohols during both fermentation and the distilling process. For Jamaican rums, it is the first fermentation phase which is determinant. Many esters generate aromas similar to those we perceive as fruit and flowers. Ethyl acetate is the lightest and most volatile. It is not especially aromatic but it always predominates, accounting for 90 to 98% of total esters and acting as a vector for other, more aromatic, esters. These esters - each one heftier than the next - bring floral and fruity notes such as green apple and pear and then more intense citrus, pineapple and banana flavors (brought by ethyl butyrate and isoamyl alcohol) characteristic of Hampden's historic marks.

The more substantial esters such as lactic acid and “capr-” can conjure up red fruits, coconut, sweet fruit or creamy and butter notes. But rather than a precise family of esters bringing specific nuances, it is the combination of all of these which generates the eight different identities and profiles. These esters are less volatile and usually do not evaporate, and it is thus in the mouth rather than the nose that we perceive them. The combination of all these elements defines the various identities and profiles of the eight marks. 

It is important to bear in mind that this innovative tasting and comparison exercise will always be subjective and each taster will perceive the aromas and flavors differently. Esters are present in such minimal quantities that even if we take them all together, trying to perceive and analyze each of them singly would make no sense. Tasting conditions such as temperature - 20° C is recommended - and the volatile nature of rum can have a significant impact on each taster's experience. 

Hampden Estate is seen as a custodian of the traditional Jamaican rum-making style because it still uses an incredibly complex fermentation process. Alcoholic fermentation can last several days, depending on mark. Next comes a secondary acetic fermentation in which the dead wash is left to rest in open tanks for many further days, to further improve esterification.

The rum is distilled in Double Retort Pot Stills. Hampden Estate manages six pot stills and each of these can be used to produce any one of the eight marks. The distilling process has less effect than fermentation on the end product and primarily serves to bring out the complexity and intensity generated during fermentation. Each of the eight marks also has the same final ABV.

Five raw materials are used in variable quantities to make the marks. The six original marks were made with all five raw materials. Sugars, nutritional substances and acids are thus used in fermentation together with the right type and quantity of natural bacteria to express increasing intensity levels. The two most recent marks - OWH and LFCH - use only two of the five raw materials.

marks

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CH.jpg
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OWH Outram W. Hussey
LFCH Lawrence Francis Close Hussey
LROK Light Rum Over Kelly
HLCF Hampden Light Continental Flavoured
<> H Hampden
HGML Hampden George MacFarquhar Lawson
C<>H Continental Hampden
DOK Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson

OWH

OWH is one of Hampden’s most recent marks, having been created by the Hussey family in the first decade of the 21st century. It is the lightest mark, but a faithful expression of the Hampden style all the same.

LFCH

LFCH is the other more recent mark invented by the Hussey family. Like OWH, it is made with molasses alone, but a longer fermentation enables it to develop a complex equilibrium of many different esters.

LROK

LROK is a historic mark, created at the end of the 19th century and dedicated to the Owen-Kelly family, then owners of Hampden Estate. From LROK onwards all five raw materials are used.

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HLCF

HLCF can be viewed as the threshold for the higher ester profiles and this too has deep roots in the history of Hampden Estate’s reputation as a high-ester but balanced rum.

< > H

The <>H mark expresses a high percentage of the intense flavors produced by ethyl butyrate, such as ripe bananas and pineapple, which are highly characteristic of the Hampden style. This mark is certainly the starting point for highly concentrated profiles.

HGML

With its high aromatic concentration levels and greater intensity, HGML was originally used for export market blending. It predominates with ethyl butyrate esters.

C < > H

Its extreme intensity makes C<>H a rare mark. Its production process is similar to HGML’s and its aroma profile is similar but its ester levels are even higher.

DOK

DOK is the highest ester-content rum at Hampden Estate and the whole of Jamaica. A legendary mark, DOK reaches the highest legal ester-content levels for rum. Tasting DOK is an extreme but extremely informative experience.

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