The Dunder-Fueled Underbelly of Home Distilling

Making liquor illegally at home isn't easy. Making rum at home in the old Jamaican style—pot stills, fermenting pits and malodorous but essential dunder—is even more challenging. Lauren Mowery on home distilling's most hardcore subset.

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.

“My dunder pit is a 60L barrel with the top cut off,” wrote Monkeyman88, a Homedistiller.org community member. He, along with several other respondents, requested anonymity due to legal concerns. “This is a hobby I love,” wrote Firewater during an email exchange, “and I don’t want to risk losing everything due to some antiquated laws,” adding, defiantly, “it’s legal to make beer and wine and distilling should be no different.” Free membership sites like Homedistiller.org or NZhomedistiller.org.nz provide a platform for likeminded spirits lovers to share in the nuances of their pastime, like dunder cultivation for rum making.

“It sits in the shed uncovered,” said Monkeyman88 of his dunder pit. “There used to be banana peels in there … a few egg shells, a few dozen flies and about a million sand flies. There is a nice, thick, spongy mold floating on top.”

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. Founder of the iStill, van Eijk, who goes by “Odin” on community forums, first encountered Jamaica’s oldest, most prolific brand, Appleton Estate, while visiting a client in Australia. “It was the 21-year-old,” he says. “After drinking that, I knew ‘big taste’ was the style I wanted to make.”

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 a 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. (For the record, Appleton Estate master blender Joy Spence attributes the big flavors in her rum blends to her pot stills, not dunder, which she claims not to use.)

Rum Monkey, a self-proclaimed rum-swilling sailor, said he initially planned to recreate a simple amber style akin to Mount Gay, but quickly developed a fascination with yeast and esters. “For me, dunder has a special kind of magic, the kind where you must cede control to the natural world of things—of microbes, fungi and molds,” he explained. Rather poetically, he described its function as an institutional memory bank. “It carries traces of your earlier efforts both good and bad. It speaks to the molasses and sugars used to form it. It carries the character of the yeast from the previous ferments. With each passing batch you take something from the dunder pit and you give something back, never entirely the same but always in the same vein.”

The Toronto-based home distiller will upgrade his five-gallon storage pails to a 200-liter barrel, but the illegality of his pastime and his cool-climate Canadian location create problems. “It’s bad enough you have all this still gear to store, operate and hide, but now this dunder pit,” he says. “Where do you keep such a barrel without arising suspicion? And frozen dunder is no good.”

Perhaps if the molasses-based spirit from the birthplace of reggae had more prevalence in the retail market, home distillation might prove less alluring—less necessary. Yet few producers honor the Caribbean isle’s heritage style. Only a recently resurrected UK producer, Smith & Cross, pays homage to the famous ester-y rums of the past with its “Plummer and Wedderburn” blend (the age-old British names for different ester intensities), an assertive expression steeped in ripe banana and orange peel, spiced with clove and cinnamon.

“Smith & Cross was born from the suggestion of David Wondrich to find and revive the market for a late 19th-, early 20th-century pure pot-still style reflected in the character of the cocktails and tiki drinks of the time,” explains Eric Seed, founder and principal of Haus Alpenz, a spirits importer and distributor. He thinks the current lack of similarly modeled rums is a result of a market that prefers a strong barrel imprint “mirroring developments in cognac and Scotch.” Traditional Jamaican rum underwent barrel aging for smoothing and finishing, and less for impartation of oak flavor, too much of which would mask the spirit’s essence.

Scofflaw status notwithstanding, even if superior commercial booze existed, according to Rum Monkey it would still not supplant the education and exhilaration he gets from moonshining. “Both history and the creative impulse inspire me. Taking the long journey—replete with risks of capture, imprisonment and making bad booze—forces me to research and hone a craft that mankind has undertaken for some 400 years.”

A former New York litigator, Lauren Mowery fled the soul-crushing practice of insurance law to photograph and write about life’s pleasures full-time. She is weekly wine and caffeine columnist for The Village Voice, and author of the award-winning blog Chasing the Vine. Her work has appeared in Wine & Spirits Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur and Men’s Journal, among others.

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