(CNN) — As the weather warms, many drinkers instinctively start reaching for bottles of rum. Long associated with tropical climates, the category conjures images of sugary sweet cocktails, brightly hued and best sipped by a beach.
This response is justifiable. Most rum available across the United States is born in the Caribbean. And the overwhelming majority of it is distilled from molasses, largely finding its way into daiquiris, mai tais and coladas.
Rum made in Jamaica continues old-school distillation methods.
DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images
But in Jamaica, the spirit assumes a quality best enjoyed on its own. It's the result of traditions unique to the island, stretching back centuries.
For fans of this particular style, sweetness is not at all what they are after. No. They want the funk -- a pungent blast of aromas and flavors known locally as "hogo." Like so many of life's great wonders, it evades easy description. Once you've held it, however, it's hard to let go.
A funky profile
"Hogo is a distinct, impossible-to-miss earthy character," explains Joy Spence, master blender for Appleton Estates. "It creates a taste profile that is unlike any other in the world. This goes back to our provenance and terroir."
More technically, it is owed to complex chemical compounds known as esters.
And you're quite familiar with them whether you realize it or not. They're responsible for the aromas and flavors attached to most fruits. You can smell their impact on any popular perfume or cologne.
And they're a byproduct of alcohol production. So when you pick out familiar food notes in a beer or spirit — bananas, pineapples, pears — it's hardly a coincidence; they likely count specific esters in common.
At the Long Pond Distillery in Jamaica's north, much care is put into producing a full-bodied, flavor-rich spirit.
Courtesy Maison Ferrand
Since at least the middle parts of the 19th century, Jamaican rum makers have championed fermentation and distillation techniques that concentrate those compounds.
"If a rum isn't rich and full of these flavors, the Jamaicans call it a 'silent spirit,' " a pejorative term according to Alexandre Gabriel, founder of Plantation Rum.
He co-owns the Long Pond Distillery in the north-central section of the island, where sugarcane farming and rum distillation have occurred side by side since 1753. "Esters are the true source of flavor, and they feed off of alcohol, but they are very tricky and complex."
To encourage their consistent cultivation, Gabriel has several tools at his disposal. For one, the distillery maintains wooden fermenters as opposed to the industry standard of stainless steel.
They impart a greater degree of funk into the molasses as it converts into alcohol. Adding several days to the fermentation period also allows the esters more time to form.
It is a costlier method that larger operations deliberately avoid. But the real secret sauce is something called dunder — the liquid left after distillation, which is thrown back into the fermenters to enhance flavor development.
Some distilleries carry that enhancement a step further — literally and figuratively.
Just outside the brewhouse, the dunder, along with other seemingly useless remnants of production, is dumped into a nondescript trench. This is the muck pit. And although it might not look like much, it is a breeding ground for the bacteria and acids that supercharge esterification. Its exact ingredients are jealously guarded by any distiller.
"You feed it organic materials like cane stalk and the leftovers from the old fermentation [known as dunder]," says Gabriel. "But I would be in big trouble if I said anything more than that."
You can tour a Jamaican rum distillery, but you probably won't get a close look at the muck pit that is a key part of the rum's creation.
Indeed, don't expect this part of production to figure into your next Jamaican distillery tour. Not that it isn't worth seeing. Depending on how geekish you are about spirits, it might be the most alluring aspect of the entire visit. But rarely would a distiller feel comfortable exhibiting this part of production to outsiders.
The mysteries surrounding its propagation are rivaled only by that of its origins.
"I'm not sure anyone knows for sure how it started," admits Wayne Curtis, author of "And a Bottle of Rum" and an expert on the history of the spirit.
"This is speculation, but it's likely that the leftover stillage was put in a waste pit that was close to the distillation because, seriously, who wants to haul that stuff into the fields? It refermented on its own, and at some point, someone realized it had become tart and acidic and might help a later fermentation that had grown sluggish. The results were ... interesting."
Muck and molasses
Through a stroke of serendipity, the muck eventually made its way back into the active production, along with the freshly fermented molasses. "Tweaking commenced, and it resulted in distinctive flavors," reasons Curtis. "And so it was formalized as part of the process."
Nowadays, the muck assumes an almost spiritual significance to those tasked with stewarding it. Among them are Hampden, New Yarmouth and Long Pond distilleries, the latter of which Gabriel reopened in 2017 after nearly five years of dormancy.
Long Pond, which Alexandre Gabriel reopened in 2017 after nearly five years of dormancy, depends on the muck pit to help with the fermentation process of the spirit.
Courtesy Maison Ferrand
According to Gabriel, locals had been feeding the muck pit, keeping it alive even as the adjoining distillery remained shuttered. After a fire broke out in July of 2018, Gabriel recalls 30 firefighters working to save the property and, specifically, to protect the muck pit. It survived unscathed.
Rum bottled here now bears a number on its back label, an "ester count" as measured by gas chromatography. Plantation's 2018 release — Xaymaca Special Dry — shows 156 grams per hectoliter. By comparison, the most pungent entries into the category can soar toward 1000g/hL.
In the words of Gabriel, "Drinking that stuff is like going to an AC/DC concert and standing right next to the pile of speakers."
Appleton Estate, for its part, has always preferred a more balanced approach. Avoiding the use of muck altogether, the house style presents a full bouquet of citrus fruit rendered through bygone distillation methods.
While other parts of the world were shifting toward the more efficient column still throughout the 19th century,, the Jamaicans largely stuck with their cumbersome copper pots. The hardware was more expensive to operate but preserved the heavier, funky notes they favored. You can see such equipment in action when touring the 270-year-old distillery.
Wooden fermenters, as opposed to the industry standard of stainless steel, are alive and well at the Long Pond Distilery.
Courtesy Maison Ferrand
"The unique shape of our copper pot stills imparts our signature orange peel top-note to each rum," says Spence. After more than 23 years on the job, she can dial it in with her eyes closed. "Distillation is a true blend of art and science in which expertise and craft play as much a role as chemistry."
To wit, Jamaicans were finding ways to bottle full-flavored rum long before the days of lab coats and chromatography.
These complex and sophisticated spirits are no different than the pricey bourbons and scotches crowding the shelves of today's bottle shops — best admired neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water.
"A classic example is full and round to the point of bursting," admires Curtis, "It can taste like something that dares you to try and tame it."
But you're much more likely to dance with it. As Spence points out, "rum is an intricate part of Jamaican culture." Counting esters, then, might ultimately prove pointless. Any rum from this part of the world is certain to sing with the soulfulness of the island that birthed it. And that measurement is off the charts.
Everything mentioned here is very widely available throughout the United States, especially Appleton — a big brand distributed by Campari. Plantation is more on the craftier side, but you'd still find it most major markets. Hampden Estate and Clarendon are perhaps the more esoteric of the ones listed.
But thanks to sites such as wine.com, even they are widely available.