The third largest island by area in the Caribbean, Jamaica is also the most mountainous of the islands with elevations over 7000 feet or 2300 meters, Settled by Taino Indians from South America about 1000 BC, Xamayca was named 'land of wood and water.' By the time the island was claimed by Spain in 1494, the Arawaks controlled the island but it wasn’t until 1509 that the first Spanish settlement was established on the island in Spanish Town. The Spanish brought sugar cane from Hispaniola but the crop wasn’t widely cultivated by the Spanish settlers until the next century when export prices for the commodity increased.
In 1664 William Penn was sent by the Oliver Cromwell to seize Hispaniola for England, but after failing to oust the Spanish Penn retreated to sea, sailed downwind to Jamaica and successfully bested the Spanish on the north coast of the island and claimed Jamaica for England. In 1670 the Spanish finally relinquished their claim on the island in the Treaty of Madrid and the English moved into Spanish Town which had become a substantial stronghold for pirates. Under English rule, Port Royal, a narrow spit of land on the south coast of the island which was unfit for agriculture but was important for defense of Spanish Town from a naval attack, continued as a haven for privateers, buccaneers and pirates.
By providing a safe haven for his seafaring comrades, the English Governor Henry Morgan was able to dissuade the Spanish from reclaiming the island while conserving his resources. Carrying English letters of marque, Henry Morgan organized raids against the Spanish at Portobello, Panama and Maracaibo establishing his reputation and attracting more privateers and pirates to the south coast of Jamaica. Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692 that was seen by many Christians of the time as God’s revenge for the debauchery that had become accepted by the Port Royal’s inhabitants.
In the waning years of the 17th century and the end of the golden age of piracy, sugar became the dominant crop on the lush island. In the 18th century, Jamaica became the most important sugar-producing island in the Caribbean and the site of numerous slave revolts that eventually led to the limited English abolition of slavery in 1834 under a plan that was scraped in 1838 when all slaves were freed.
While sugar in Jamaica continues to decline in terms of total tonnage and as a percentage of the gross national product, rum and other value added products are being recognized as important features of Jamaica’s future. Long known for it’s heavy styled rum produced in pot stills that were traditionally blended with other lighter bodied rums in Europe and then sold in the export market, today Jamaican rums are earning a reputation for their own quality. Both the sugar and rum industry in Jamaica are governed by the government in a system where sugar and molasses are produced by government and privately owned mills, sold to the national pool and then the molasses is repurchased by the distilleries. Since its inception in the 1970s, the system has been tweaked in a concerted effort to maintain the quality of sugar exports and maintain the best prices for these commodities on the world market. Unfortunately, the cost of maintaining and improving sugar works is beyond the profits to be realized and the government, which owns most of the sugar mills on the island, doesn’t have the investment money needed to continue to operate these mills in this declining market.
Though the immediate future of the Jamaican sugar industry is uncertain, there is no doubt about the future of the growing market for Jamaican rum.
In the local market, white, overproof rum rules. There are more than a handful of clear rums bottled at between 60 and 65% abv for the local market but Wray & Nephew White Overproof is the most popular by a large margin, and the only of these overproof rums which is exported.
On Jamaica, gold rum is the name applied to aged spirits though some of these are more than 20 years old. The Jamaican palate favors one of the heaviest styles in the islands which isn’t surprising considering that there are more pot stills operating on Jamaica than any other Caribbean island.