Wine: Spirit of a bygone era

The mysterious tale of heavily cobwebbed bottles unearthed in Harewood House’s cellars as told by Christine Austin.


It was the colour of pure gold, bright and glinting in the glass. This liquid had been in the bottle for more than 200 years yet it still tasted of sunshine and of its origins. This was just a tiny sip of history.

I was in the dining room at Harewood House, with David Lascelles, the eighth Earl of Harewood, and his brother Mark and on the long polished table there was a heavy, old bottle. This was just one of a cache that had been discovered in the cellars some months before but it has taken a lot of detective work to find out its history and the key to its origins is tied up in the whole history of the Lascelles family.

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“Apparently the occasional bottle used to be brought out at Christmas, but when we talked about the contents of the cellar with my father it was never mentioned,” said Mark. However, a recent effort to explore the wine cellar and list its contents had resulted in this discovery.

For those of us who live in regular houses it seems strange to lose track of the contents of a cellar, so I set off to explore. Down the stone steps, through one iron door, then through another door into the first cellar, all binned out with disappointingly empty brick compartments then through two more doors into the second cellar which was clearly built to accommodate large stocks of wine, and now sadly running well below capacity. High on a shelf, well out of reach and covered in the most amazing black mould, so that the shape of the bottles was barely discernible, was the rest of the collection of bottles.

Local wine merchant Andy Langshaw, from Harrogate Fine Wine, was called in to take a look and it was he who lifted down the first bottles and started to wash off the accumulated cobwebs of 200 years. The cork was very fragile but had survived, with the level in the bottle well down in the shoulder. Once in the glass the guessing started. At first it was thought to be Madeira, then brandy, and then Andy said: “‘I think it is rum”.

At that point someone cleared the cobwebs from an enamelled bin label hanging above the bottles. Slightly rusting but still clear, the label said “Cane Spirits”. Harewood House was built in the late 18th-century by the Lascelles family whose fortunes were based on the sugar trade with Barbados. In those days it is highly unlikely that any family member ever went down into the cellar but meticulous records have been kept over the centuries, most notably by the first steward at Harewood, Samuel Popplewell, who recorded each bottle in and out of the cellars in a fine legible hand.

In a record that is dated July 10, 1805 there is clear reference to 80 bottles of rum in the cellars with a note indicating the Barbados estate that they came from. There is even a record of buying the corks to bottle this rum from the cask it was shipped in.

Decades later, along with a fine collection of Lafite, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild there are still 70 bottles of Cane Spirits dated 1780 in stock. “In all the cellar books the Cane Spirits have been listed as being in the same place in the cellar,” said Mark. “We have a record of those bottles from the date they arrived to the present time.”

Now there are just 45 bottles on the shelf, and of those 24 are “useable”.

The corks have been pulled and the contents tasted. Some are dark rum, others light, and some bottles have been sacrificed to top up others. Still in their original bottles, with new corks and new wax capsules, 12 bottles – six of Light Cane Spirit and six Dark – will go for auction on December 12 at Christies in London. The estimate is that they will sell for around £600 to £800 a bottle, but because of their undoubted provenance they could go higher. This is quite possibly the oldest rum in the world. It is not known exactly which estate the rum came from because those records were lost in the London Blitz, but it is known that in around 1780 the Lascelles family owned an estate that eventually became the Mount Gay estate. All sugar plantations had their own distilleries so this is estate grown and distilled, then stored in Yorkshire for 200 years.

With a large house to support, an injection of cash from the sale of two-century old rum could come in handy but the money raised from the sale is to go to charity.

“The family fortune came from the Caribbean and for many years we have been dealing with the legacy of that trade,” said David Lascelles. “In 2007 we worked with Geraldine Connor, a Trinidadian who lived locally, who put on a Caribbean musical spectacular based on Handel’s Messiah. She was a larger than life character and she brought a unique and lively production to Harewood. Sadly she died in 2011 but her work continues in the foundation named after her and the proceeds from the sale of the cane spirits will go to that foundation.” It is quite likely that these bottles will go the Far East where there is great competition to own the exclusive, the rare and the very expensive. Whether anyone will actually sit down and enjoy the contents of the bottle is doubtful. They are quite likely to sit on a shelf to be looked at and admired but I really hope that the buyers of this unique rum will uncork their prize and share this experience with other people. They should allow the liquid to roll around the glass, gradually releasing its amazing ethereal aromas that blend nuts, figs and light earthy tones, then sip it, experiencing the way the flavour spreads out across the palate, echoing the warmth of the Caribbean and still hinting at the sweetness of molasses sugar. At the same time they should spare a thought for the people who grew the cane, worked on the plantation and distilled this rum all those years ago. Their memories survive in this gorgeous treasure.