Jamaican sugar cane


It has been suggested that sugar cane was first cultivated over 2000 years ago. In the Caribbean, it was introduced by Christopher Columbus around the late fifteenth century.

Many people, when thinking about the early days of Jamaica conjure up images of

pirate sugar cane growing

galleons, pirates like Captain Henry Morgan or the incredible impact of slavery, indentured labour and the sugar industry.

The Mona Campus of the UWI in Jamaica, occupies lands that were part of two large sugar estates: Mona and Papine. Of over 1000 acres at Mona, less than 200 were usually planted in cane. (2.471 acre = 1 hectare). During the nineteenth century, the normal yield of sugar would be around 1 hogshead per acre of cane (1 hogshead was on average 16 cwt) hence 200 hogsheads would be expected.
It has been calculated that to be economically viable a plantation needed to produce at least 200 hogshead of sugar and a few estates in Jamaica managed 600 in a good year.
At Mona however, the average seems to have been more like 80 hogsheads and this low annual yield suggests that the soils had deficiencies and the remnants of the aqueduct further suggests that droughts were a problem.

Lady Nugent, in her journal, describes her visit to the Hope Estate on the 1st Oct 1801. She indicated that the Hope Estate produced 320 hogshead of sugar annually and that because of the Hope River running through the property it was not as susceptible to drought as some of the other plantations.

Part of the Hope Estate was acquired by the Government in 1871 to establish the Hope Botanic Gardens which still exists. In addition there are now a number of Government offices and laboratories located there, including the Government Chemist, the Scientific Research Council, the Jamaica Bauxite Institute and the University of Technology.

Rum was an alternative income for the estates to sugar. By 1910, the Mona Estate had only 30 acres in cane and from this came 35 hogsheads of sugar and 30 puncheons (about 200 gallons to the puncheon) of rum. This was insufficient to keep such a large property solvent and soon after the property was sold to the Kingston General Commisioners. This completed their control of the water-rights to the Hope River, previously held by the three separate estates.

The Sugar Industry is the oldest continually operating industry in Jamaica, generating the third largest foreign exchange earnings (after tourism and bauxite--not counting illegal exports!!).

Production of Sugar in Jamaica
Factory Capacity Production(Tonnes)
  (Tonnes) 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Frome 90,000 59,108 64,078 56,534 53,117 56,978 42,515 46,546
Monymusk 65,000 42,247 32,559 22,666 19,028 27,258 9,322 18,424
Bernard Lodge 50,000 29,325 28,193 19,673 16,798 21,869 14,053 15,124
Appleton 50,000 23,291 30,706 26,707 20,882 29,267 21,404 26,327
Trelawny Sugar 30,000 15,600 8,967 9,873 10,475 10,410 4,654 9,005
St. Thomas Sugar 25,000 13,389 10,615 10,968 9,685 13,492 10,426 10,927
Worthy Park 26,000 25,188 22,339 23,066 22,552 24,566 21,833 20,958
Total 336,000 216,387* 204,478* 174,640* 152,536 183,839 124,206 147,311
* Includes Production for Hampden
Source: Sugar Industry Authority

Sugar is the largest employer of labour, directly employing more than 50,000 workers. Additionally, the industry with its renewable agricultural raw material base, has vast potential for energy generation and establishment of small, high value fermentation and sucrochemical industries.

The processing of sugar cane is one of the vital industries of the country to the extent that small pieces of cane are often found in household refrigerators for chewing. A 1791 pamphlet published in an attempt to get the people of Great Britain to abstain from West Indian sugar and rum so as to abolish the slave trade quotes the following attibuted as Cowper's Negro's Complaint.

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, Tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think ye Masters, iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial Boards,
Think how many Backs have smarted
For the Sweets your Cane affords!

cane ready for chewing

The involvement of the Chemistry Department at Mona with the industry began many years ago when the Department organised summer training courses for sugar industry laboratory technicians. Since then, the relationship has grown with the establishment of the Factory Technology Division of the Sugar Industry Research Institute (SIRI) whose laboratories were initially housed in the old Applied Chemistry building on the Mona campus. (From which the first lecture in the University was given in 1948). The Institute utilised both human and physical resources of the Department in its formative years. Courses in Sugar Cane Processing have been offered at various times at the Postgraduate level and a course is currently being offered at the undergraduate level.

Since 1991, the Department has collaborated with SIRI on a number of research projects funded by the Institute. The broad areas of interest are:

The history of Rum

The origin of the name rum is obscured, but rum has been known since the English settled in Barbados in 1627 and it has been suggested that the Spanish and Portugese were possibly involved in distilling spirits on their sugar plantations even earlier than this.

One possible derivation is from the Latin for sugar saccharum another has been given as..

the name Kill-Devill alias rumbullion was given to the first beverages in Barbados which were notably rough and unpalatable and could "overpower the senses with a single whiff" and were "a hot hellish and terrible liquor".

With time and experience, the manufacturing technique improved and a palatable and wholesome spirit emerged. In Connecticut in 1654 a General Court Order was made to confiscate..

"whatsoever Barbados liquors, commonly called rum, Kill Devill or the like"

Apparently, trade between Barbados and New England, Virginia and Connecticut, led to exchange of rum for products such as salted fish, pork and beef, flour, lumber and livestock.

The present rum refinery at Mount Gay Ltd (St Lucy) is thought to have been in operation as early as 1663.
The Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd in Bridgetown now owns the Mount Gay label and details on the history of rum in Barbados can be found on their web site at www.mountgayrum.com

Appleton of Jamaica, which dates back to 1749, is said to be the world's second oldest spirit.
The third is St James rum from Martinique, which dates back to 1765.

J. Wray and Nephew Co. Ltd., the largest producer and bottler of rums and spirits in Jamaica, began in 1825 when John Wray opened the Shakespeare Tavern on the north side of the city square in downtown Kingston. The partnership with Charles Ward, his nephew, began in 1862. Wray and Nephew and the Appleton Estate and Distillery were linked in 1917 when Wray and Nephew was purchased by the Lindo Brothers Company who the previous year had bought the Appleton Estates. They continued using the Wray and Nephew brand name and in 1996, the company was reported to have exported over US $20 million worth of products.

How does whisky compare in age?

The Strathisla Distillery (home of Chivas Regal) claims to be the oldest in the Scottish Highlands. It was founded in 1786. Glenlivet Distillery (founded by John Smith) was established in 1824. The Grant Family established a number of distilleries such as Glen Grant, Glenfiddich and Glenfarclas in the 1830's to 1880's. Clearly then, these are much more recent than West Indian Rum.

Estates and Distilleries in Jamaica

The total area of Jamaica available for sugar cane production is around 45,000 hectares which is about 4% of the total land area of Jamaica. Originally about 88% of this belonged to sugar estates which operated their own mills and distilleries. In total, there were over 600 distilleries throughout the island in the 1830's. Since then there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of estates and distilleries although the quantity of rum produced has grown.
Distribution of Sugar Factories in Jamaica
PARISH 1832 1852 1897 1966 1998 2006
St. Andrew 17 7 1 - - -
St. Thomas 82 47 7 2 1 1
St. Mary 60 41 2 1 - -
Portland 46 17 - - - -
St. Ann 32 22 7 - - -
Trelawny 84 62 33 2 2 1
St. James 89 56 21 1 - -
Hanover 59 41 15 - - -
Westmoreland 48 40 22 1 1 1
St. Elizabeth 27 13 3 2 1 1
Clarendon 70 49 18 3 1 1
St. Catherine 56 32 5 5 2 2
Jamaica 670 427 134 18 8 7
Source: Sugar Industry Authority

Some Early Production Figures from Distilleries in Jamaican Parishes
Parish 1893 1901 1912 1922 1936 1948
Dist. Gallons Dist. Gallons Dist. Gallons Dist. Gallons Dist. Gallons Dist. Gallons
St Andrew 1 10500 1 7392 - - - - - - - -
St Thomas 10 102648 4 56868 2 41496 4 109526 2 65750 2 295953
St Mary 4 35280 - - - - - - 1 31240 1 EtOH only
St Ann 8 76839 3 57372 2 32844 3 6270 2 39369 2 52327
Trelawny 26 245574 24 215948 18 129234 9 204242 4 85330 3 165678
St James 25 154308 20 90216 8 57540 7 86886 4 64982 4 168558
Hanover 16 105672 15 99540 7 60312 2 63570 1 15225 1 31447
Westmoreland 23 363972 21 356496 15 304164 8 285588 7 225264 1 449264
St Elizabeth 6 48720 4 35028 2 43848 3 54618 2 71148 2 186794
Clarendon 17 253008 13 288120 9 168420 7 258937 3 174488 4 801032
St Catherine 12 219744 5 75684 3 33600 5 303042 3 183869 5 813293
Manchester - - - - 1 5040 - - - - - -
Totals 148 1616265 110 1282664 67 876498 48 1372679 29 956665 25 2964346

What is Rum?

How do you get rum from sugar cane?

barrels of rum Appleton Rum Bottle

The Jamaican Excise Duty Law, No 73 of 1941 defined rum as
"spirits distilled solely from sugar cane juice, sugar cane molasses, or the refuse of the sugar cane, at a strength not exceeding 150% proof spirit".
Rum is produced from sugar cane by fermentation by yeast. The resultant "wash" has approximately 6% alcohol which after distillation produces rum as a clear, colourless liquid with about 80% alcohol and a sharp taste. White rum is essentially this product diluted to 40% alcohol. Gold rum requires aging in small (40 gallon) oak barrels. The process of aging is very complex, involving evaporation of some of the pungent volatile components, reaction of the rum with the oak wood and perhaps even the absorption of oxygen through the barrel to convert some of the alcohol to aromatic esters.

The total level of flavour components rarely exceeds 1% of the total weight (and is normally much lower) in a base of ethanol. This high concentration of ethanol presents particular problems in both sensory and analytical studies. Furthermore, the advent of gas chromatography has shown that most of the components found in potable spirits are the same and that the nuances of flavour are essentially attributable to small differences in the relative proportions of these components.

Note however that expert tasters have been known to name the district and frequently the actual estate from which the rum originated, just by the sense of taste and flavour.

In Jamaica, gold rum is generally bottled at proof strength (Imperial) which is 57 Volume % alcohol. (By comparison, 100 US proof is 50 Volume % alcohol). See the conversion chart.

Chemical composition of Rum and comparison to American Bourbon Whiskey

The following figures were found for a light-bodied rum that had been aged in charred oak barrels (previously used for aging bourbon).

Composition of Rum and American Bourbon Whiskey
Jamaican Rum American Bourbon
Age (years) 0 3 0 3
Constituents Concentration g/100L Concentration g/100L
% alcohol 80.1 78.2 77.5 75.5
total solids (extract) 0 87.6 0 136
fixed acids 0.9 8.8 0 12
volatile acids 1.1 20.9 3.2 50
Total acids 2.0 (pH=4.9) 29.7 (pH=4.5) (3.2) (62)
esters (for years, erroneously called ethers) 9.7 37.5 9.6 42.0
aldehydes 1.9 4.7 0.6 5.6
fusel oils (higher alcohols) 48 66 250 298
furfural n/d 1.6 0.12 1.42
tannins n/d 33.0 0 62

n/d= not detected


"Mona Campus, An Historical Guide", Valbees Printers Ltd, 2b Waterloo Rd. Kingston 2, Jamaica.
"Lady Nugent's Journal (of her residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805)" Ed. P. Wright, Institute of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica, 1966.
"The Story of Rum", The Sugar Manufacturers Association of Jamaica, Ltd. London, 1953.
"Address to the People of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West India Sugar and Rum", M. Gurney et. al., 8th edition, No. 128 Holborn-Hill, 1791.
"Caribbean Rum - its manufacture and quality", Technical Report No. 126, D.H. West and R. Harris, Sugar Technology Research Unit, Barbados, Sept., 1987.
"Rum", H.W. Allen, Faber and Faber, London, 1931.
"Notes on Jamaican Rum", W.L. Barnett, Government Chemist, Bulletin No. 1, The Government Printer, Duke St, Kingston, 1951.
"Review of the 1994/95 Sugar Crop", D.W. Little and J. Jaddoo, presented at the 58th Annual Conference of the Jamaican Association of Sugar Technologists" Ocho Rios, Nov 9-10, 1995.
"The development of flavour in potable spirits", J.S. Swan and S.M. Burtles, Chem. Soc. Reviews, 1978, 7(2), 201-211.
"Studies on the maturation of Jamaican Rum", I.L. Thompson, Ph.D Thesis, UWI, Mona Campus, Jamaica, 1993.
Figures for Bourbon calculated from:
S. Baldwin and A.A. Andreasen, J. Assoc. Off. Anal. Chem., 1974, 57, 940.

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Copyright © 1995-2013 by Robert John Lancashire, all rights reserved.

Created and maintained by Prof. Robert J. Lancashire,
The Department of Chemistry, University of the West Indies,
Mona Campus, Kingston 7, Jamaica.
Created Feb 1995. Links checked and/or last modified 25th November, 2013.
URL http://wwwchem.uwimona.edu.jm/lectures/sugar.html