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Lush Life Podcast Transcripts: Christelle Harris – How to Make Funky Rum in Jamaica (#135)

Christelle Harris, Hampden Estate, Trelawny

Make the Hampden Sour and settle down to imbibe this transcript of my interview with Christelle Harris, Hampden Estate Rum.

The first time that our guest walked into the distillery her grandfather had acquired, she thought she was walking into a museum. Nothing had changed since the 1700’s. Christelle Harris soon realized that it was for this exact reason that Hampden Estate Rum would become so famous.

Jamaican rum is known for its “funky” esters, the compounds that give it its distinctive flavor, and Hampden Estate could possibly be the most “estery” of all Jamaican rums.  Christelle reveals why the process will never change.

This episode originally aired on November 26, 2019.

You can listen to this episode here, or any of your favorite podcatchers.

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Christelle Harris. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!

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Susan: Hello Christelle, lovely to have you here. Why don’t you start by telling me a little bit about where you grew up.

Christelle: I haven’t grown up yet – ha ha. Really, I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, and lived there until I was 14. My family was still always there, but I went to boarding school in Canada. Still, I was still at home every long weekend.

Susan: Every long weekend?

Christelle: Yes, Every long weekend!

Susan: That’s a long way to fly. Every week.

Christelle: Well, there was a direct flight..It was four hours and I’m the only child.

Susan: It’s really only four hours from Jamaica?

Christelle: From Kingston to Toronto, yes, If there is a direct flight, it’s only four hours. I was a very spoiled thing.

Susan: Did you want to go home every weekend?

Christelle:  I suppose for the first year, yes, I did. Actually, I don’t know if I’m lying or not. I can’t really remember. It was so long. It was 20+ years ago. I suppose I liked flying and my family was very over protective and they booked me in business. At 14 and 15 years old. Air Canada didn’t really card you, so even though they knew I was a minor, it was okay to drink.  They just asked do you like wine? I would say yes and they would just give me the whole bottle. I’d love it. I quite liked flying. It was a lovely experience…when you fly business class, of course. My parents were so over protective, they didn’t want me exposed to anything. Jamaica is small and my family was very big in the horse racing industry.

The horse racing industry is a business that really got a lot of attention from all demographics across Jamaica. Although I was not an owner or a trainer, my face was quite easily recognized. They didn’t want me feeling like I was identified or in a vulnerable position, so they booked me business. I suppose that was their reasoning. I didn’t really complain about this. Actually I did complain about it sometimes. It’s three times the price. What’s the point? Now it’s great to fly business all the time. I do see it as unnecessarily extravagant, though, I have to admit it’s a long flight between here and  Jamaica. if you’ve had a really rough night, you just sleep anyway.

Susan: You were in Toronto during high school, but what was it like growing up in Jamaica when you where younger?

Christelle: It was a lovely childhood, although I was actually discussing this last night, I think the opportunities for kids to enjoy themselves, like going to the park and the museum, these things don’t really exist too much at home. We do have lovely beaches though. It’s got a great culture and historically in music. I went to boarding school when I was 14 andIt was a great experience.

Susan: Did you stay there for college as well?

Christelle:  I stayed there for four years of college.

Susan: Did you think you will always stay there?

Christelle: I always knew I was going home. Perhaps it’s an only child thing. Perhaps it’s because my family is really protective and I’m so close to them. My mom and my dad, as well as my grandmother and my grandfather, who was alive at the time. He passed away eight plus years ago, but before that, he was my Macaroni, you know, I was his Plummie. I was always a bit chunky. I was very close with my mom’s side of the family who lived in Jamaica.

Susan: Did you know what you wanted to do?

Christelle: I still don’t know, my darling!!

Susan: I mean that you would end up coming back to be part of the business, the family business.

Christelle: Nobody in my family went to a university. I was the first person to go to university.  Even though I went to university, I kind of always knew I would come back and work with them, just because they had built so much already.

My mother made sandwiches and delivered them to gas stations and imported Tetra Paks to package her sandwiches in, when I was a young girl. That was her first foray into entrepreneurial-ism. Then my grandparents had all these businesses which they really built up from nothing.

My grandfather was a farmer. My grandmother was always by his side. When my mom did her sandwich business, then they decided that they would open a pharmacy. My mom used to go to the pharmacy and she learned how to do payroll over the phone with a friend of my grandfather’s who was an accountant. She kind of did everything by hand. It was all pen and paper, and if you’re lucky with a calculator. That’s how they built everything. That’s what I grew up seeing. I started working when I was eight, it was Christmas Eve!

It was a convenience store, drug store, a gift shop, they had one free cash register because somebody didn’t turn up or they were on the floor or something. I went on the cash register and I didn’t really know what to do, but I was starting to cashing and bagging items.

When I was young and my mother always said, you want to go to the mall and hang out? Hang out. What is this hanging out? It’s for losers. We don’t do that. You come into work. If I wasn’t willing to go to tennis practice, which I used to do every Saturday and Sunday, even during the summer, I’d go to tennis practice in the day, go home and take a shower, then go to work.

Susan: So that work ethic was built into your family.

Christelle: This is always what I did. So even though I went to university, I had the opportunity, but there was nothing that really struck a chord with me, that ignited a fire. I did always like having an audience, but I didn’t really know where to channel that. In Jamaica, at the time when I was growing up performing, performance arts wasn’t really there. There wasn’t that much of an opportunity to really explore that.  When I was in university, yes, I used to dance. I spent probably more time in the dance studio, then I did in the lecture halls, maybe equal time.

I did discover a passion there, but I was quite heavy. I was a close to 200 pounds, and I was 17, so I was a chunky monkey.  Even though I was good at it and I did start late, it wasn’t really something that I thought I could pursue as a career, which perhaps in retrospect, that was probably a good thing. When I went back to Jamaica after university, I felt that it was a very different experience to being in Toronto, where I could walk anywhere, go anywhere on tube, on the public transportation, and kind of just not have to answer to anyone.

My parents didn’t even allow me to get my driver’s license in Jamaica until I was 25 because, no that’s a lie. I was 21, but, long story. I’m not going to get into that one. But they didn’t want me to go anywhere except for work. I went from home to work.

I live with my grandmother, so I was always monitored. She has cameras at home. When I come home late at night, she wakes up the next morning and she says, so how was it last night? I saw you come in at two o’clock. Who were you with? Haha! For God’s sake, I’m 35 years old. I’m 36 now. Give me a little bit of a break. She’s actually very nonjudgmental about her questions.

Susan: I’m sure anyone who lives with their parents that would get that.

Christelle:  Yeah, and she has cameras but she says she doesn’t have them inside the house, but she has them on the outside. The monitor is in her own room. I ask her she can you sleep like that? The light is shining so bright. She says, that’s how I like it. Yes, because you like to watch everything in your life. Since I still live with my grandmother, it’s always very exciting.

Susan: Do they always have rum in their life at that point or when you were young?

Christelle: No. Rum is actually one of our most recent businesses. So, as I said, when I was growing up, there was a pharmacy business and, before I was born, there was a dry cleaning business. There are nine branches and one head office, one plant.  Then there was a boutique hotel operation that we acquired in 2001. We also added a gaming room, where there’s no live dealers, so it’s all electronically operated gaming machines.

We built from that. There’s now five locations of that, after that, then we went into rum. My grandfather, who was a farmer when he was younger, his father was a farmer as well. He was a boy at the time when sugar was king in Jamaica, and it was always his lifelong dream to own a sugar planation. The opportunity came up, the government was divesting their assets because they couldn’t make the sugar.

Sugar factories in Jamaica were not profitable. So they were divesting some of these assets. We put in a bid and my family won the bid for this sugar factory. With this Long Pond sugar factory came a rum distillery. Hampden Rum Distillery – what on earth is this? Hampden Rum Distillery and nobody’s ever heard of it. The only thing we’ve ever heard of in Jamaica is Appleton and Wray & Nephew, two brands that were really established when I first went home.

Walking into Hampden was like walking into the scene from a Charles Dickens novel. There were cobwebs everywhere. It was like I was walking into something from the 17th century.

Susan: Was it working?

Christelle: Oh yes, this distillery that nobody had ever heard of was working. I had no idea what the hell it was producing because nobody had ever heard of it. Turns out that Hampton was producing rum in bulk. Shipping across to Europe, not aging in Jamaica, but shipping it straight off over to Europe, and it was an extremely profitable, but because it was linked to this sugar factory. So it was not actually linked to the sugar factory. They’re two completely separate entities. Geographically, they’re 45 minutes away from each other. They have nothing to do with each other. The bid to buy the sugar factory – the rum distillery was thrown in. I guess to sweeten the deal because, perhaps the government knew the sugar industry in Jamaica had been on a decline for some years now.

And in fact, since then, we’ve had to close down the sugar factory, because we were losing so much every year that we couldn’t continue to sustain the losses. The other businesses that we had that were successful were subsidizing our losses in the sugar factory. After some years, we really couldn’t do it anymore.We shut it down two years now. we went through a redundancy exercise, which was very expensive. We were trying to avoid doing that for some years. But after a while, you know, you’re losing every year and you have to cut your losses at some point.

Sugar was not so sweet, but Hampden Rum Distillery, that we knew nothing about and that we had definitely underrated, at the time has turned out to be my passion for sure, and turned out to be a very successful business. I’m really happy that even though we didn’t know anything about it at the time.

We could have made some decisions that would have changed everything about the framework of what happens at Hampden Estate. We looked at it and we thought nothing here has changed pretty much since the 17th, since 1753, the production process is the exact same. I admit I didn’t really see it. It looked like it was a bit frozen in time.

Susan: I was just going to say it’s like you bought a museum.

Christelle: It was frozen in time. It really was, so much so, that when you’re walking around on the ground where the pot stills are, which is where the distillation happens, there were board floors that you really felt like you could fall through at any point in time. That’s one thing that we changed.

Susan: Health & safety!

Christelle: We had to ensure that our workers would stand and not hurt themselves. We took some scrap metal that we found in the yard and resurfaced that area, for example. In the fermentation area, we were very careful not to change anything that we didn’t have to because that, all of that, the cobwebs and the board floors, is actually part of the environment. And the environment is absolutely necessary to what makes our liquid, our liquid.

Susan: You said it was being sold to Europe. What was it? What would happen to it once it left Jamaica?

Christelle: It’s still being sold to Europe. We inherited those relationships and we maintain those relationships. Once it’s sold to Europe, these bulk buyers are using it for a bunch of different things. They’re making blends for other buyers. An independent bottler or a third party will go to them and say, I want to create this rum brand and this is the profile I want created for me. And they’ll use some of our rum or maybe all of our rum in there. We don’t really know. It might be a huge house. It might be an independent who’s going in for the first time. They also sell to the,  confectionary industry, sweets, sugar, food flavorings, perhaps for savory items. It’s not just necessarily sweet stuff. Also the perfume industry, cosmetic.

There’s a reason why Hampden is so well known. It’s for our esters, Esters are really a unit of measurement of scent, aroma, flavoring, and Hampden is very popular within that industry apparently.

Susan: It was doing so well being sold out of Jamaica. Why did you then decide to start your own label?

Christelle: At the time when we bought the distillery, 10-years-ago, when that deal went through,  My grandpa said, well, if the bulk rum is so profitable, as a bulk rum item that’s not even aged here, why don’t we start putting it down in barrels here because maybe they’re aging over there.

We didn’t even really know what they were doing.  It took us a few months to find out, or to at least even ask the right question. Sometimes you don’t know what’s happening because you don’t even know what questions to ask. My grandpa thought if it’s being aged overseas and we’re selling so much overseas, it must be good for something. So we started putting on barrels at that time. And that’s why we now have what we have. But we also went into the bottled rum industry and we started with a product called Rum Fire, which is an overproof. We did it over proof because we wanted the consumers in Jamaica to have a gauge. We wanted them to be able to understand what they were drinking. Wray & Nephew, which is a staple, which I did not grow up drinking. Well, maybe I started drinking when I was 18 or a little younger, but Wray & Nephew is a great product. And we knew that if we bottled it at the same strength, at least the consumer would be able to understand from experience how it was to be drunk.

So we started with product and I decided that I wanted to take this thing international. So I started doing all the rum shows.

Susan: With Rum Fire?

Christelle: Yes, with Rum Fire. That was a huge learning process for me, I mean, I’ve learned so many lessons from that. The first rum show I went to, I didn’t even have any decorations for my stand. I didn’t know how it worked. Captain Morgan’s actually built a ship inside this exhibition center, and here I am with my three walls, my three white walls of my stand. And I’m like can I go buy a Jamaican flag from somewhere in London.

Susan: How many years ago was that?

Christelle: That was 10. I think. It was a huge learning experience for me and something that, I mean. you can’t pay for that.

Susan: Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to rum itself and growing up in Jamaica and drinking rum?

Christelle:  You know, when I was growing up, I don’t really know if it’s the same way, well, being an only child and being very close to my parents, I didn’t really do much without them. I was very overprotected. I didn’t get the chance to go out, like all my friends did. My friends would go to parties on the weekends. And if I went to a party, my dad would take me. My dad was a little bit of a party-er, so it was okay. I didn’t really mind. Sometimes my mom would take me. My mom was much more strict and the disciplinarian. But I give her a lot of credit for, or respect for a lot for that.

Susan: Was there rum in the house?

Christelle: Yeah, there was. Well, I mean, we imbibe.

Susan: Was there a specific rum that you always drank?

Christelle: There was nothing except for, at the time, nothing except Appleton and Wray & Nephew.

Susan: Was it always around?

Christelle: It’s not necessarily just rum in a Jamaican household. There’s vodka. There’s not so much gin whenI was growing up, but there was vodka, there was rum and there was wine. When I was growing up, the wine scene in Jamaica was not as developed as it is now. We actually have a pretty good wine scene in Jamaica. We have some good importers. The rum scene. Yeah. I grew up drinking rum.

Susan: You really had to teach yourself everything about this product that you were creating?

Christelle: Absolutely!  When we came up with Rum Fire, I thought I knew so much about rum because I had grown up drinking it. I had the opportunity to drink, it wasn’t that the States where I couldn’t drink rum or even London, even here, I suppose, but I was drinking rum since I was 14 and it wasn’t a big deal.  The drinking age in Jamaica, the legal drinking age is 18, but at the time, nobody carded me, this just doesn’t happen.

I came here with Rum Fire, really thinking I knew a lot about rum, and for the first few years when I walked into a room and I started to talk about rum, I realized how little I knew. People would ask me questions I couldn’t even understand. I couldn’t understand what the questions meant. It was like they were speaking a different language. I’ve learned a lot. I know a lot more now than I knew then, but I continue to learn every day. Because I’m certainly not a chemist or I didn’t do very well in science at school. Every time somebody like Maggie Campbell or Richard Seale opens their mouth, there’s gold nuggets being dropped and I catch them.

Susan: They’re very scientific.

Christelle: They are, and I have so much respect for them and I consider myself absolutely privileged to even be in the same room as them, much less have a chance to offer an opinion.

Susan: After Rum Fire, did you think, okay, that’s it. We’re only going to make Rum Fire now.

Christelle: When my grandpa was alive, he passed away eight years ago, but when he was alive, he said, let’s start putting out rum. So when the rum got to about three years old, we wanted to try and find a buyer because we weren’t going to develop our own brand. I think we had already learned at that point in time that it was really difficult to build your own brand and we didn’t necessarily have the resources nor the knowhow to do something, like an aged rum.

We didn’t really know where to go with it, so we wanted to try and sell this in bulk, and we were not getting any bites at the price that we were asking, which we thought was a very fair price for the rum in bulk. My uncle wanted to sell it at the price that he was getting offered at, and I said, okay, Andrew, please. Andrew is the CEO of my group – my mom’s brother. I said, Uncle Andrew, please just give me a year. Give me 12 months. Let me go back to Europe. Let me go back to the rum shows and let me speak to some people. At that time, I met Richard Seale. I met him before, but I really started to have a relationship with him.

It was about four years ago that I met Luca Gargano and my mom brought some samples to UK Rum Fest. He tasted one and he was blown away and then he tasted another, and he said, wow, if you have 50 barrels of this, I’ll marry you tomorrow. I looked at my mom and say I think we have about 200 barrels of this, right? She says, yes. I think it’s 200 of that mark. I told him we have 200 and the man grabbed my face and kiss me in front of everybody. I have never been so mortified in in my life. I was mortified at the time, but that was the beginning of a great relationship.

Susan: So you had this treasure that you didn’t even realize yet.

Christelle: Yeah. So be honest. Even though I had been a part of the rum industry for some time, I’ve been going to shows. I’d met a lot of people. There really were Hampden heads. They were so obsessed. I didn’t, in retrospect, I did not really understand at the time. I thought it was cool, butI knew I wasn’t getting something. Now obviously that I understand how the production of our rum, in the context of rum in general. I get it.

Susan: Can you tell us a little bit about that.

Christelle: So we haven’t changed anything about our production process since the 1700’s and that can’t be really said for, I don’t think, very many of the sellers in the world at all. Everything in our process is absolutely the same. Our water is absolutely necessary to our production. We don’t add anything to our rum after distillation. The releases that we’ve done, our aged rum,  it’s the first time in history of Hampden that there has been a tropical aged, a distillery, aged rum in a bottle produced by Hampden Estate. So although all these rum connoisseurs and rum craze fanatics all over the world have been seeking Hampden and obsessed with Hampden. They were getting Hampden in the bottle from independent bottlers sourcing Hampden that we were shipping out in bulk, but it was being aged in Europe.

There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s how Hampden built its reputation.That’s why all these people are so obsessed with it. That’s what we’ve built a reputation on, but they never had the opportunity to have tropical aged Hampden before. It’s difficult to describe Hampden and, even if I were to go into the technical aspects of what makes a liquid so important and so unique, you kinda have to go there to be able to understand it. There’s this thing called dunder. There’s thes things called muck pits. We have muck pits at Hampden. It’s basically our insurance policy. It’s the reason why Hampden can’t be transported anywhere else. When we first took over and there was this air of mystery around it, nobody quite understood how Hampden Rum was made.

That was because nobody did interviews like this. Nobody spoke about it. Nothing was ever written about because it was always being shipped in bulk. The people working at home, they never realized how important Hampden was to the international framework of rum. There were these stories, mythical stories. There was this symbology around Hampden, as well, there were these ridiculous stories about what went into Hampden Rum. So when we took over and when I started to have visitors come down, I asked the distiller at the time, Why is it that we don’t talk about the process of rum making it happen?

Then he said, well, to be honest, there’s no reason why we can’t. Because even if we were to tell everybody exactly how we make Hampden Rum, there’s no way that it could be made anywhere else in the world. He had worked at other distilleries in Jamaica and he had tried to reproduce Hampden at other distilleries, and in the same vein he had tried to reproduce other distilleries rum here. It just can’t be done because what happens at Hampden is an absolute jewel,

Susan: What happens at Hampden stays at Hampden, forget Vegas.

Christelle: There’s no way to transport our production methods. There are these pits that run underneath the fermentation house, for example, and those are called the muck pits, that can’t be transported anywhere else. Even if you were to take a sample out of there and try to use that as a starter for another fermentation batch, that couldn’t happen. It just wouldn’t work. You’d end up getting something great probably, but it’s not Hampden Rum. All of those things combined made me say, well, let’s just start telling the world about our production process. Let’s invite people in to see it.

Susan: How long ago was this?

Christelle: Four or five years ago. Once I started to understand that it could not be replicated, there was no reason to keep it secret. We should share it with the world because it really is an industry treasure, not just a national treasure, but an international industry treasure. That’s what I decided to do, and that’s what we’ve done. And that’s why now we have a product that is being appreciated in the way it ought to be. We have great partners that have access to international distribution that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own.  I’m really grateful for the opportunity and I know that we have a dedicated following already built on the credibility of my partners. From here, I know that we will only get stronger because the rum industry is on the rise.

Susan: Now you’ve made me really thirsty. Should we open a bottle?

Christelle: Absolutely!

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