Friday, August 3, 2018
Making liquor illegally at home isn't easy. Making rum at home in the old Jamaican style of pot stills, fermenting pits and malodorous but essential dunder is even more challenging. Dissatisfaction with commercial products. A curiosity for chemistry. Desire for creative license. These might sound like reasonable explanations for an aspiring pizzaiolo to plunk down for a wood-fired oven in the backyard. But what about a spirits still? After all, moonshining has been outlawed or severely restricted by practically every country on the planet, except by those level-headed Kiwis. Yet, the threat of a felony conviction and fine, or worse, a jail stint hasn’t deterred a defiant global underground community of pseudonyms from sharing recipes and advice on recreating their favorite spirits. That includes an especially hardcore subset chasing Jamaica’s traditional aromatic pot-still rums, a style that employs a stinky, yeast and bacteria-laden liquid called dunder for achieving its trademark tropical perfumes.
Analogous to backset in bourbon production, dunder is the non-alcoholic by-product of a sugar-alcohol distillation left at the bottom of the still. Adding dunder to the next fermentation boosts the formation of aromatic compounds called esters; the higher the ester count, the more pungent the fruity pineapple and banana, even nail polish flavors in the rum. While the definition sounds innocuous enough, in practice, the liquid must be stored between distillations, and that’s when things get funky for the home enthusiast.
In Jamaica’s headier heydays, when nearly 150 sugar cane estates sported mills and stills (and slavery), 19th-century rum makers dug holes to house the residue. Lore has it goat heads and dead bats, along with rotting fruit, were tossed into the malodorous stew to propagate bacteria that would later alchemize into a boozy elixir. Contemporary commercial producers claim to eschew the “dunder pit” tradition in favor of tanks. Either way, illicit home distillers bent on making a punchy, full-flavored spirit, can’t exactly excavate and openly tend a cesspool along their neighbor’s fence.
Moonshiner turned commercial still manufacturer, Amsterdam-based Edwin van Eijk said that, given that dunder is an essential building block for Jamaican-style flavor, the benefits of working with it outweigh the drawbacks. Van Eijk first started experimenting with liquor recipes at his holiday house in Hungary, a country in which government tolerates such recreations and practically every family passes down, házipálinka, homemade brandy recipe to the next generation. Finding most marketplace rums too light, van Eijk searched for ways to create his own. “What my dunder adds to the taste is depth, complexity and intensity,” he said.
Fortunately, my job at Hemingway Rum Company, allows me to do some experimenting with dunder and other things necessary to make a good medium bodied rum. We are a very young operation, but it is a chance to learn about some of these time-honored rum making techniques. I hope with time, and a stronger demand for the bold Jamaican style rums will once again be available at our local liquor stores.