Nov 252015

Photo Courtesy of

Leave aside the hype and controversy, and try this without preconceptions. You may be surprised, intrigued and even pleased with the result.  I was, I was and I wasn’t, not entirely…but you might be.

(#242. 83/100)


If by now you are not aware that Lost Spirits out of California has developed a “molecular reactor” that supposedly mimics the ageing of a twenty year rum in six days, then you have not been paying attention (or aren’t that deep into rum geekdom).  The idea is not itself altogether new, and detractors have sniffed that snake oil sellers have been talking forever about using magical means, family recipes and all kinds of fancy methods to speed up ageing and the profile of old spirits, in products that aren’t actually aged.  Still, with the continual advances in modern tech, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that some smart guy in a garage somewhere can perhaps do such a thing. Certainly Lost Spirits makes that claim.  They have intense enthusiasm, hand built stills, and a good knowledge of chemistry and biology to assist in replicating more traditional methods of production without actually using many of them. The output is more important than the process, you might say.

The Navy Style rum they have made is a booming near-overproof rum that smartly elevates the North American drinking public’s perception of rum by issuing it at 68%, and which comes in a tall slim bottle that has an old fashioned label channelling the aesthetic design philosophy of both technology and 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery (that’s what Josh Miller called “steampunk” in his own recent review of the rum). Just to get the background out of the way, this thing is unadulterated, without additives of any kind, including colouring.  It is made from baking grade molasses and evaporated sugar cane juice (I suppose we could call that “honey”).

The nose was intriguing: an interesting fusion of very hot aromas, both familiar and strange.  Initially it presented with vanilla, prunes, black grapes, some molasses, a faint hint of anise, some oak, and a bit of clean citrus.  But sharper ethanol and less appealing mineral notes of wet charcoal and saltpetr emerged at the back end, and here I was left wondering where the meld of Jamaican dunder and fruitiness of the Demeraras and Bajans was hiding itself.

Similar thoughts came to mind as I tasted it. Yes it was bold and very heated – we could hardly expect less from a rum this strong – I just thought it was all a bit discombobulated.  There were salty, green-olive notes, some soy and grappa and red wine, all mixed up with an undercurrent of molasses.  It was quite rough, and stampeded across the palate without the finesse that other rums of that strength have shown is possible.  Adding water ameliorated that somewhat, and brought other flavours out of hiding – brown sugar, vegetals, dried grass, more undefined citrus zest, and a tang of more red grapes, caramel and molasses, all tied up with sharper oak tannins and ginger root.  The finish, as befits such a strong drink, was long and dry, with little that was new arriving onstage – oak, some wet coffee grounds, more of that strange mineral background, and a twitch of herbs.

Lost Spirits have made a rum that they want to show off as a poster boy for their technology: whether they succeeded in creating a Navy rum is questionable. There are quite a few variations of the type – Lamb’s, Pusser’s, Wood’s 100, Potter’s, the Black Tot to name but a few – so much so that true or not, right or wrong, those are the profiles that the consuming public sees and expects to be represented by the sobriquet “Navy”.  On that level, the Lost Spirit rum doesn’t come up to snuff.  And while other reviewers have remarked on the esters they sensed (which is part of the selling point of the rum, that genuflection to old-style dunder pits), I didn’t find there were that many complex spicy, fruity and floral notes that would give any of the more traditional rum makers cause to choke into their tasting glasses.

Recently mon ami Cyril of DuRhum took apart three Lost Spirits rums, and flat out declared that in his estimation they could not possibly class with the very rums they were seeking to supplant.  Both Josh at Inu-a-kena and Tiare over by A Mountain of Crushed Ice were much more positive in their evaluations, as was Serge at Whiskyfun. I am neither as displeased by Lost Spirits as Cyril was, nor as enthusiastic as my other friends – to my mind the company and its tech still have quite some way to go if they intend to take on really aged big guns made by master blenders with many generations of experience backing them up. Western nations are great proponents of the notion that technology can conquer everything, and maybe they’re right…but only sometimes.

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and give Lost Spirits credit for what they have achieved. I liked the strength and intensity, for example – LS has had the balls to take American rums past the 40% that dominates their market.  The taste was intriguing, original, not entirely bad, and there were many aspects of the profile I enjoyed. Where it fails is in its resultant product, which wanders too far afield while failing to cohere.  And therefore it falls short on its promise: the promise that they could produce a profile of any aged rum without actually ageing it. That simply didn’t happen here.  

I’m a firm believer in technology and its potential – but as with many brand new ideas and their execution, the hype so far is greater than the reality. The subtleties of a great aged rum are so multi-faceted, so enormously complex, and so chaotically intertwined with age and barrel and distillate and fermentation and even terroire, that while one day I have no doubt a combination of physics, chemistry and biology (and chutzpah) will fool a taster into believing he’s got an undiscovered masterpiece on his hands, this rum, for today, isn’t quite it.

Other notes:

Control rums this time around were a few old Demeraras, the BBR Jamaica 1977, Woods 100 and of course the Black Tot. It’s in the comparison that the LS Navy 68% snaps more clearly into focus and you see where it both succeeds and falls short.

Note that Navy rums, according to Mr. Broome’s informative booklet on the ‘Tot, only had a small percentage of the blend come from Jamaica (sailors didn’t like it).  Yet most of the online literature on Lost Spirits places great emphasis on how they are recreating the resultant profile of dunder pits and high ester counts (more or less associated with Jamaica), when in fact this was not the major part of the navy style of rum.

Nov 242015

Port Mourant 1974 cropRumaniacs Review 012

The Velier retrospectives continue.  So sad they’re out of production, and that DDL aren’t letting Luca take any more barrels from their old stocks.  The dinosaurs like this one continue to be collector’s items…the good Lord only knows where the 1972 is at these days. I last looked at this lovely rum back in 2013, when I was able to get a bottle into Calgary (bought in 2012, don’t get me started on the headaches that took), and its rep has only grown since then.

Colour – mahogany

Strength 54.5%

Nose – Just lovely, so very distinctive. The DDL Single Barrel PM is both younger and less intense, and showcases what they could do if they had the courage Velier displayed here. Cardboard, anise, cherries and prunes lead off. That characteristic dark licorice and raisins emerge over time, even the tang of some balsamic vinegar, and wafting through all that is the smell of musty old books.  That may not sound appealing, but trust me on this…it is.

Palate – All we have expected, all we have been led to await, comes straight to the fore here. It’s like all PMs ever made, just a bit boosted and with a character just individual enough to be its own. Heated and a little jagged, smoothening out only after a few minutes. Licorice, tar and the fruity mix inside a dark black cake.  Part of what makes this rum so impressive is the overall texture – luscious may under-describe how well the PM melds on the tongue.  With water, some sweetness creeps slyly in, caramel and toffee and cinnamon emerge, and though it is somewhat dry, what we are left with is the fruits, the wood, the tar, the magical amalgam that spells Port Mourant.

Finish – less succulent than I recalled…it’s a little bit dry, and very nicely heated.  Even at 54.5% (which may be the perfect strength for what has been bottled), the fade goes on for ages, leaving some cinnamon, anise, light brown sugar and almonds to remind you to have some more.

Thoughts – A solid, fantastic old rum, one of those aged offerings that sets its own standards, and against which other PMs are measured. I’d never say no to another bottle, or even another taste. And I’ll never stop complaining to DDL that this is where they should put some effort.


Nov 162015


Looks like water but goes down like a charge of cheerfully boosted C4. You won’t mistake it for any other rhum…except maybe its cousins.

(#241 / 84.5/100)


Full of get-up-and-go instilled by the momentous encounter that was the Sajous, I sprang for both the Casimir and the Vaval (plus a Sajous of my own) at the first available opportunity.  Because come on, originality and going off the reservation in the rum world are vanishing ideals, and it’s not often that a rhum is so amazingly, shockingly off-base that it’s in another ballpark altogether.

Such a rhum was the Clairin Vaval, produced by Fritz Vaval of Haiti in his charmingly old school column still — made, if you can believe it, with leather trays and a condenser made from old petrol cans. Luca Gargano of Velier, while gaining greater fame for his own rums and his push for a clearer classification system for the spirit, was the man behind the attempt to bring the Haitian clairins to a wider audience a couple of years ago.  Good for him for using his bully-pulpit for such a cause.  Because while the clairins are not to everyone’s taste, I can tell you with some assurance that they are among the wildest, angriest and most rip-snorting rums available…and also, to my mind, ferociously, laughingly good.  You can almost imagine the Fritz’s fiendish giggles in your mind, as you gaze at your glass the first time you try the Vaval and give vent to a disbelieving “Putain mais c’était quoi ça?”

By now I was more familiar with, and expecting, the initial salt wax nose-bomb, so after experiencing that (I hesitate to say enjoying, since that might stretch credulity to the point of disbelief), I paid rather more attention.  There were fusel oil and kerosene backbones to this colourless liquid, mixed in with gherkins, vinegar and garlic (really!). The pungency of the rhum was as ripe and randy as the Sajous, and only grudgingly gave way to vanilla, sugar water, freshly sliced cucumbers and a sort of clear lightness of watermelons and maybe pineapples – very very light fruit, being hammered home by strong overtones of an unaged pot still product.

The palate was much the same, just more of it. Oily and salty and somewhat rubbery on the first attack, with sweet water backing it up.  Very strong and almost sharp, of course — it was 52.5% after all — but not raw or pestilentially fierce, not seeking only hurt.  Rather, it was thick and warm and almost fatty.  Once the first tastes move on and it opened up (helped with a little water), billowing and very heated tastes of breakfast spices, white sugar, olives, fresh-cut grass, a flirt of vanilla and some more of that kerosene made themselves felt.  Dynamically, assertively, full-throatedly so. You kind of have to breathe deep after each sip when sampling this rhum. The finish was long and not a bit dry, closing the show with some lemon zest and an odd hint of pickles with all the various leaves floating around in it. Trust me, the flavours linger for a hell of a long time on this one, and you almost want it to.

That was some drink.  It was only as I tried it in concert with the other two that its own individuality became more clearly discernible – on its own, or tasted apart, they might all seem quite similar, but they’re not, not really.  Each is as distinct as an adjacent piano key note. Like the Sajous or the Casimir, I would not recommend this unreservedly to the larger population of the rumworld; I would however suggest that if you can, give it a try, very gently, just to see where rum could go if it really felt like it.  Because these gents from Haiti may be the last surviving remnants of microdistillers who make rhum in a totally old fashioned, organic way and you could argue that you’re seeing what rhum was like in its infancy when you try one.

There’s something about clairins that defies easy description.  They’re so pungently, tartly original, so immensely weird, and yet so absurdly tasty, all at the same time. The nose is enough to swat away an angry bear, sure, but that taste…oh man.  There I was at 2am, on a cool, crisp October night on a balcony in Berlin, switching from one clairin to the other, making my notes, enjoying the heat, revelling in the tastes, and I felt something unusual, and you know what?  It might have been happiness.

Other notes:

Made from freshly hand-harvested blue cane, utterly organic, utterly unaged. The cane juice is fermented with wild yeast. Fresh of the column still. Nothing added, nothing taken away. No filtration.

Mr. Vaval’s operation is called Arawak’s Distilleries – it’s been in operation since 1947, and is located near Cavaillon in Haiti’s southern horn, close by Les Cayes. It’s apparently just a couple of cinder-block rooms and a corrugated zinc roof.  It contains a still, some small fermentation tanks and a small crushing mill, all on the grounds of an old colonial maison surrounded by twenty acres of Madame Meuze cane.

I have to share this one with you. Remember how Luca’s own photos embraced the Velier Caroni labels? Well, he took the work of Mr. Simeon Michel (a well-known Haitian artist) for the bright artwork of the Sajous and Casimir labels, but the Vaval bottle design has a different story.  Some years ago, Luca was speaking to an old Genoese taxi driver about rums (he talks to everyone about rums – you gotta wonder about his pillow talk sometimes, honestly), mentioned Haiti and clairins, and the guy turned out to be a long-retired sailor who had been to the half-island and acquired some local artwork, back in the 1960s.  Luca, for the right to scan this painting and use the image on the bottle, paid the man an undisclosed sum…and with six bottles of the first edition of the Vaval.


Nov 122015

Cacique Antiguo 1

Supposedly more premium, but not a whole lot better than the 500.

(#240 / 84/100)


Here’s a poster child of why a rum reviewer has to have the beady-eyed practicality of a jaded streetwalker. Age, style, marketing, pamphlets, labels, word of mouth, all count for nothing, and all is evaluated without recourse to what anyone else says.

After reviewing the €35 Cacique 500 as well as the Veroes Añejo from Venezuela, and checking around to see what else I could buy from that country, I felt it was only fair to pick up something a little higher up on the value chain (but only one), just to see how the Cacique brand developed as it got older: the Antiguo, selling for around €61, is a 12 year old rum aged in French white oak (Bordeaux, it’s been said) and quite an interesting rum, if not particularly ground breaking in any way: it does however present somewhat better than its predecessor.

My bottle was a cardboard-box-enclosed chubby flagon with a metal wrapped cork topping, so evidently the makers took some time to make the appearance match its marketing pedigree.  All good there.  It poured out a golden brown spirit with a nose that was light and easy, utterly unaggressive, redolent of perfumed bouganvilleas, lavender and honey. It was quite pleasant, except perhaps even smelling it suggested an overabundance of sugary sweetness, a cloying scent of, well, too many flowers.  And it was still a little lacking in the intensity I prefer. Still, it settled down very nicely after some minutes (I was tasting some other rums at the time, so sat it down and came back later) – it got warmer and more solidly aromatic after ten minutes or so. Some nuts, tarts with strawberries but more tart than berry, cereal…you know, like those Danish butter cookies with some jam in the center.  And even some lemon peel lurking in the background.

The taste was a country mile ahead of the nose.  At 40% I more or less expected a tame, soft drink, and I got that, as well as an unusually sharp introduction which fortunately faded away quickly, leaving just warmth. It was still a very light bodied rum – I suppose we could call it ‘Spanish style’ – flowery, delicate to taste. I want to use the word ‘round’ to describe how the texture felt in the mouth, coating all corners equally, but let’s just say it provided the sensation of a thin honey-like liquid, warm and mild, quite tasty, too luscious to be dry.  A pinch of salt, a dab of butter, a spoon of cream cheese, mixed in with a cup of sugar water and honey, a squeeze of lime, and a grating of nutmeg and crushed walnuts.  It was good, I went back a few times and recharged the glass (in a period spanning several days), just not something to rave over.  Admittedly, what I’ve described wasn’t all – over time and with a little water, some oak peeked out from under the sweet skirts, vague peaches and molasses, and an odd, woody, even anise note popped in and out of view, here now, gone a second later.  The finish was something of a let down – medium short, a little dry, flowers, some salt butter and a shade of vanilla; unexceptional really.

You’re going to buy and enjoy this one for the taste, I think, not how it ends. That midsection is decent and lifts it above what I thought were lacklustre beginnings and endings, and perhaps more attention should be paid to beefing this rum up a little.  It is a perfectly serviceable 40% rum, and I’ve read many Venos extolling its virtues online.  

But it’s nearly twice the price of the 500, and not twice as good. I look for certain things in a rum, and this didn’t provide all that many of them.  I’m unclear for how many years this rum has been in production: fairly recently, I think, though it has been noted that the traditions behind the company go back many decades.  For now I can say that what the Cacique Antiguo has shown us is relatively new (and interesting), but that, in fine, doesn’t mean that what they have presented is news.

Other notes

I’ve gone into the company and production background a little in the 500 essay, so I won’t repeat it here.

There’s a lot of the profile of the Santa Teresa 1796 here, or maybe the Diplomaticos.  Too bad I didn’t have them around to do a comparison, but it would be instructive to try that one day.

Nov 082015

UF30E 1985 cropRumaniacs Review 011

Time to address the brontosaurii of Velier for a few Rumaniacs write ups, since the samples are there. UF30E is a bit “young” for inclusion into the Rumaniacs pantheon, but it is out of production, so let’s have it. The code stands for Uitvlugt Field #30 East, or some such, which would puzzle even someone from Mudland (like, umm…well, me).  Never mind.  With an outturn of 814 bottles from three barrels, it remains one of the best rums from Velier I’ve ever sampled.  And while I thought had overpraised it back in 2013, it turns out I may have sold it short, given others’ responses to it in the years between then and now.

Colour – darkish amber

Strength – 60.7%

Nose – Nothing changed between then and now…it’s still amazing.  Heated, dark, viscous, heavy on the nose, molasses, prunes, dark chopped fruit, blackcurrants,  dates, and black cake. After opening somewhat, these opening salvoes were followed by lighter tones of flowers, chocolate, some anise. Rich and powerful and not at all astringent or bitchy.

Palate – The balance of the various components competing for your olfactory and labial attention is extraordinary. The  Velier PM 1974 is fantastic too, but for different reasons, and something of a one-trick pony in comparison to the sheer variety that was going on here: sweet and salt, teriyaki chicken (minus the bird but with all the veg), molasses, more fruits, green apples, a little smoke and leather and aromatic cigarillos, and those aromatic hints of what, rosewater? orange juice?  Whatever it was, it was great. Even 60.7%, which would normally scare the trees into shedding their autumn leaves, was remarkably well handled.  You got hit with the power, sure…you didn’t mind it, is all.

Finish – sums up everything that has come before.  Long, lasting and pungent, not dry. Nuts, flowers, some sweet soya, molasses, a shade of caramel. The thing doesn’t want to leave, honestly.

Thoughts – Brilliant all-round rum which pushes all the right buttons for me. Still makes me regret I didn’t buy more when I had the chance. Since it was issued back in 2011 with a reasonable outturn, it’s probably more than likely it’s still available somewhere.


Nov 052015

C de I Indonesia 1

In Berlin in 2015, I tasted thirty or so rums at the RumFest. But I only bought one. This one.

(#239 / 86/100)

Why did I get this rum?

Well, occasionally I get bored with rums that seem to go noplace special, don’t venture beyond their own self prescribed limits. I like originality, the whiff of something new. And so I go far afield and back in time, sniffing out old rums — a 30+ year old Demerara, maybe), different ones (clairins anyone?) and those from varied locations like, oh, Madagascar. I’m still looking for Swaziland; was enthralled to know that Ocean’s picked up some rum from Africa for their Indian edition, had to go after Fiji rums when I found them. Indonesia was definitely a cut above the ordinary.  So there was that.

Also, when I first reviewed Compagnie des Indes’s Cuban fifteen year old rum a few months ago, I remarked that if they continued making rums like that one, they would be one of the craft makers whose entire line I wanted to try. When Florent Beuchet (the founder of Compagnie des Indes) showed me the green bottle, both my interests intersected and came into play at once – my desire to try a rum made in a country from where I had not seen anything before, and my wanting to try more of the Compagnie’s work.

Some background: sugar cane has long been thought to originate in the far east, and the first alcohols made with it supposedly derive from Indonesia itself, so this was what Florent was saying when he told me that it was a variation of rum’s grandfather, Batavia arrack. The fermentation began with yeast of white rice (strange, but I’ve heard weirder things). Five casks produced this 267 bottle outturn and it came from an unnamed, undisclosed distillery – I tried to get Florent drunk enough so he would tell me but no dice. It was aged for three years in Indonesia, and another seven in Europe. Arrack, like clairin, is not usually aged. Florent told me it was a sugar cane distillate from a column still, and untampered-with.

Smelling it was like wallowing in a spring meadow. A great balance of softness and sharpness started things off; delicate flowery notes were immediately evident, with vegetal and citrus scents coming right behind. It didn’t have the dusky heaviness of fleshy fruits, just lighter ones…an Indian mango, half ripe, lebanese grapes (love those). It even evinced some gentle brininess, green olives at the back end. but the overall impression was one of delicacy and a sort of easy-going unaggressive character (maybe it was Canadian).

I liked the taste and mouthfeel a lot (which is why I had three samples of this thing as I badgered poor Florent about his company while trying three others at the same time). Conditioned as I was to somewhat more elemental Demerara and Jamaican rums, I found the graceful texture of well-tempered 43% with its firm and sprightly backbone quite intriguing. So, it was light, sweetish, delicate. The tastes of dill and green tea, and sugar cane juice fresh-pressed came out. It was a little herbal and grassy too (and there was a nice counterpoint of lemongrass winding through the whole thing) but these tastes didn’t overwhelm, just stayed well within the overall construction without trying to elbow anything else out of the way. The fade was a bit short, and quite aromatic, with some unripe peaches and new-mown lemongrass tidying things up.


The Compagnie des Indies Indonesia 10 year old is no macho body builder of a drink, redolent of anise, power, sweat and dunder – it’s too tidy and well-behaved for that, and not strong enough. Still, if your tastes go in the direction this rum takes, it’s kinda brilliant in its own way. It’s a lovely, tasty, dancer of a rum – not the lead ballerina by any stretch…perhaps somebody in the second row who catches your eye and smiles at you. A rum which I think, after a few sips, you’ll remember with fondness for the rest of your life, and maybe hope that other makers make more of.

Other notes

Presentation is standardized across the line.  Green bottle, old fashioned label, plastic tipped cork.  Not much to find fault with here.

267-bottle outtturn. Distilled December 2004, bottled March 2015.  This makes it the second batch, since there are pictures online with an issue date of 2014

Oct 282015

Saint James 1885 cropRumanicas Review 010

Yes, you read that right. 1885.  Holy molasses this thing is old. How can anyone even begin to assess a spirit that was made so incredibly long ago? I’m literally in awe.

What was going on back then anyway? Sino French war in Vietnam; the Mahdist army overran Khartoum and killed General Gordon; AT&T was incorporated in New York; Gottlieb Daimler patented his engine; the North West rebellion in Canada; the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York harbour; the Third Anglo-Burmese war…and St. James began bottling its vintages that year, same year as they introduced the square bottle. It may be the very first ever made, anywhere.

At around £6000 per bottle, all one can say is “ouch,” be grateful for the sample, and dive in on bended knee with head reverently bowed.

Colour – dark brown, almost black

Strength – 43%

Nose – Dark dark dark and so very plush. Made me feel I was sinking into an old Chesterfield. Plums, dark grapes, figs and black olives without the salt. Some vegetal in the background (really far in the bushes). Deep and thick, smoky, dusty.  Not very sugary at all, and had some essence of tart and juicy overripe pears. Then soy sauce and teriyaki, mixed with dark molasses soaked brown sugar. Fresh and heavy, both at the same time.

Palate – Warm, full-bodied, thick and heavy. Must have been made before the French islands moved full time to cane juice. Dark prunes and cherries in syrup…and yet, and yet…where’s the sugar? Treacle, bitter chocolate, pancakes and maple syrup, a cereal note in there somewhere, maybe rye bread. Molasses, plums and pomegranates, a flirt of anise, some oakiness but nothing excessive. Incredibly deep and tasty, amazingly well balanced.

Finish – Short and warm.  Some last notes of licorice, molasses and raisins, and some dry earthy mustiness to wrap it all up.

Thoughts – It was a fantastic rhum (rum?). Can’t imagine what a more leisurely tasting spanning many days would be like.  The depth of the thing is amazing, and I felt it worked well even for a more modern palate: it was quite a remarkably rich and complex beast, and it felt almost sacrilegious to drink it at all.

Other – No idea how long it was aged prior to bottling. According to Antique wines & Spirits, it was bottled in 1952. Can it truly be 67 years old? No, not really.  According to Benoît Bail who spoke to the master blender at St. James, all the 1885 stocks were in fact destroyed in the eruption of Pelee in 1902.  Some bottles of the 1885 were over in Europe and Pernod Ricard (when they took over the distillery), was able to locate many of them in Amsterdam, Paris and London, and sent them back to Martinique, where there were still on sale at St. James into the 1990s. The master blender was of the opinion that the rhum itself was/is 8-10 years old, not more.

Also, the different taste of the rums from that time (until the 1930s) arises because the cane juice was heated (not boiled) at around 40°C before fermenting it.



Oct 262015

St. Nick's 15 3

An expensive, luxurious, silky, almost-heavy, near-masterpiece of assembly. This dethrones the $400 Panamonte XXV as maybe the best 40% rum I’ve ever tried. For half the price.

(#238. 88/100)


It’s been just over four years since I reviewed the St. Nicholas Abbey’s 8, 10 and 12 year olds, and I liked them all, a lot. They were soft, warm, well-made Bajan rums (initial distillate provided by R. L. Seale of Four Square), redolent of much history and heritage — the plantation itself is as much of interest as the rum they make. Ever since then I’ve been trying to get my hands on the other products I knew were coming: alas, the additional products the Warrens told me about never arrived in Calgary, and they came too late to other markets for me to obtain them before I moved away.

Never mind. That’s what RumFests are for. After being poured a glass or three, I spent a most convival half hour in Berlin in 2015 irritating an enormously helpful Mr. Simon Warren with endless questions and remarks about his rums, and finally gave the poor chap some peace by first calibrating on the five year old, trying some ten, and then launching into the golden-hued fifteen for which I had waited so long.

These rums were a sequence of very similar products, each a little bit different and perhaps better than its predecessor, and each certainly more complex than the one that preceded it. That’s not entirely a surprise, since the remains of the 8 and 10 were what comprised the 12, and the 12 was aged even further into the 15 (the five year old can’t be brought into this discussion since it was made completely in-house). The 10 was very much like I remembered. Soft, warm,some interesting stuff going on under the hood, and if I wished they were stronger (as I usually do these days), there was very little fault to find with what was presented.

St. Nick's 15 1

The 15 ratcheted things up a notch. At 40% ABV, I wasn’t expecting any kind of hurricane-force F5 taste bomb, and I didn’t get one. What I did get was a nose of uncommon warmth and softness, where lush, deep flavours gently swirled around and released themselves over the half hour I spent letting it breathe. Soft molasses and bananas started things off, as dense as an El Dorado that decided to take the day off. A little spiciness, not enough to matter, followed up by some nuttiness of almonds in chocolate, raisins, ripe black grapes and raisins, some orange peel…and was that coconut, a flirt of cinnamon at the back end? Yes it was.

The taste continued on very pleasantly from the nose. Here some more heat was evident, well toned down (well, it is only 40%), a velvet blanket drawn across the taste buds. Bananas and molasses and raisins started the party, followed by smokier, drier hints of aromatic pipe tobacco and an old leather satchel, more almonds, vanilla, caramel, nougat. A bit of coffee and a last bit of citrus became detectable after a while. It was, in fine, a rum that encouraged leisurely appreciation, a languorous conversation, fond memories. And the finish was very much in line with all that – as well as the softer caramel, vanilla and toffee (again, there was that vague spiciness of orange peel), it honestly felt like I was having a weird mocha-infused eclair. Sweet? Yes – but all held very carefully in balance, not overwhelming, and certainly not taking over the show. It was a rum I enjoyed thoroughly, and thought it a worthy addition to the pantheon.

The bottle adhered to the same ethos as produced previous younger editions, being the marvellously etched, squarish flagon surmounted by a mahogany enclosed cork. Apparently you can get custom etching and a cut rate price on refills, if you take your own bottle to the Abbey, up in St. Peter’s parish of Barbados. The rum is completely aged on the premises in used bourbon barrels – research shows it is initially aged for eight years at a high proof strength (65%), and then the barrels are batched and rebarrelled for an additional seven years to make the fifteen. The bottles themselves are individually filled from each barrel – it’s not like the entire output is married and then used to fill the bottles all at once…so some variation is likely to occur here.

St. Nick's 15 2

Tastes aside, the St. Nicholas Abbey 15 year old is not a raw, brawny, uncouth monster that jumps out to assault you with a roaring plethora of screaming-sharp, precise and intense flavours from the moment you uncork the bottle. It is, rather, a gentle, warm drink to have with a cigar, the evening papers and in the warm afterglow of a kiss from the wife. Its genius arises from the way the tastes that do exist meld together into an firm melange of uncommon complexity, with just enough heat to remind you it’s a rum, accompanied by a texture and mouthfeel that was silk and velvet and spice all at once.

I remember thinking that day, finalizing my detailed notes and giving the harried-looking (but still polite) Mr. Warren a chance to escape, that I really wish I knew what the eight year old 65% tasted like prior to rebarrelling for the next seven years – I have a feeling it would be exceptional. But given that few rum makers could make a 40% rum this good at all, I concluded, perhaps comfort could be found by merely having another substantial dram poured into my glass, walking off to the corner, and enjoying it in an overstuffed armchair as restful as the rum while watching other aficionados walk past.

And that’s exactly what I did.

Other Notes

The history of the Abbey is covered in my initial essays on the younger rums, and can also be found on their excellent website.

Oct 222015

Black tot 1

Bottled history.  Nothing more, nothing less.

(#237. 87/100)


“The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good,” remarked Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I remembered that bit of wisdom before embarking on our tryst with this rum.  And to ensure that my long anticipation for the Tot wasn’t bending my feeble mind (I bought the bottle 2014, and tasted it for the first time almost a full year later) I tempered my judgement by trying it three times, with the Skeldon 1973 32 year old, BBR 1977 36 year old, a Velier Caroni and the Samaroli Barbados 1986.  Just to be sure I wasn’t getting too enthusiastic you understand. I had to be sure. I do these things so you don’t have to.

As much as the G&M Longpond 1941, St James 1885 or the J. Bally 1929, to name a few, the near-legendary Black Tot Last Consignment is one of the unicorns of the rum world.  I’m not entirely convinced it should be so – many craft makers issue releases in lots of less than a thousand bottles, while some 7,000 bottles of this are in existence (or were).  Nor is it truly on par with some of the other exceptional rums I’ve tried…the reason people are really willing to shell out a thousand bucks, is that whiff of unique naval pedigree, the semi-mystical aura of true historical heritage.  A rum that was stored for forty years (not aged, stored) in stone flagons, and then married and bottled and sold, with a marketing programme that would have turned the rum into one of the absolute must-haves of our little world…if only it wasn’t quite so damned expensive.

I don’t make these points to be snarky. After all, when you taste it, what you are getting is a 1960s rum and that by itself is pretty nifty.  But there’s an odd dearth of hard information about the Tot that would help an average drinking Joe to evaluate it (assuming said Joe had the coin). About all you know going in is that it come from British Royal Navy stocks left over after the final rum ration was issued to the Jolly Jack Tars on Black Tot Day (31st July, 1970 for the few among you who don’t weep into your glasses every year on that date), and that it was released in 2010 on the same day. No notes on the rum’s true ageing or its precise components are readily available.  According to lore, it supposedly contains rums from Barbados, Guyana (of course), Trinidad, and a little Jamaica, combining the dark, licorice notes of Mudland, the vanillas and tars of the Trinis and that dunderesque whiffy funk of the Jamaicans.  And, the writer in me wants to add, the fierce calypso revelry of them all. Complete with mauby, cookup, doubles, rice and peas, pepperpot and jerk chicken.

Black Tot 1

All that aside, the rum’s presentation is exceptional. A wooden box of dark wood (walnut? oak?). A booklet written by Dave Broom on the background to the rum. A copper plated tot container. A tot ration card facsimile. And a bottle whose cork was covered with a hard, brittle wax sealant that Gregers, Cornelius and Henrik laughed themselves silly watching me try to cut off. The bottle itself was a stubby barroom style bottle with a good cork.  No fault to find on the appearance, at all.  Believe me, we were all raring to try this one.

The aromas first: at 54.3%, I expected more sharpness than the Tot exhibited, and enjoyed the deep and warm nose. Initially, anise and slightly chocolate-infused fumes billowed out of our glasses in well controlled balance.  Cardboard, musty hay, caramel and some tar and tobacco juice (maybe that was the Trinis speaking up?) followed swiftly.  The official literature suggests that the Jamaican part of the blend was minimal, because sailors didn’t care for it, but what little there was exerted quite a pull: dunder and a vaguely bitter, grassy kind of funk was extremely noticeable.  Here was a rum, however, that rewarded patience, so it was good that our conversation was long and lively and far-reaching.  Minutes later, further scents of brine and olives emerged, taking their turn on the stage before being replaced in their turn by prunes, black ripe cherries, leavened with sharper oak tannins, and then molasses, some caramel, smoke, and then (oddly enough), some ginger and dried smoked sausages snuck in there. It was very good…very strong with what we could term traditional flavours.  Still, not much new ground was broken here. It was the overall experience that was good, not the originality.

Good thing the palate exceeded the nose.  Here the strength came into its own – the Tot was a borderline heavy rum, almost mahogany-dark, quite heated on the tongue, with wave after wave of rich dark unsweetened chocolate, molasses, brown sugar, oak deftly kept in check.  Thick meaty flavours (yeah, there were those smoked deli meats again). It was a bit dry, nothing to spoil its lusciousness.  We put down our glasses, talked rum some more, and when we tried it again, we noted some salty, creamy stuff (an aggressive brie mixing it up with red peppers stuffed with cheese in olive oil, was the image that persisted in my mind).  Nuts, rye bread, some coffee. And underlying it all was the mustiness of an old second hand bookstore straight out of a gothic novel.  I enjoyed it quite a bit.  I thought the finish failed a little – it was dry, quite long, so no complaints on that score – it just added little more to the party than the guests we had already seen. Smoke, tannins, aromatic tobacco, some molasses again, a little vegetal stuff, that was about it.  Leaving aside what I knew about it (or discovered later), had I tasted it blind I would have felt it was a rather young rum (sub-ten-year-old), with some aged components thrown in as part of the blend (but very well done, mind).

Which may not be too far from the truth. Originally the rum handed out in the 18th and 19th centuries was a Barbados- or Jamaican-based product.  But as time went on, various other more complex and blended rums were created and sold to the navy by companies such as Lamb’s, Lemon Hart, C&J Dingwall, George Morton and others. Marks were created from estates like Worthy Park, Monymusk, Long Pond, Blue Castle (all in Jamaica); from Mount Gilboa in Barbados; from Albion and Port Mourant in Guyana; and quite a few others. Gradually this fixed the profile of a navy rum as being one that combined the characteristics of all of these (Jamaica being the tiniest due to its fierce pungency), and being blended to produce a rum which long experience had shown was preferred by the sailors. E.D.&F. Man was the largest supplier of rums to the navy, and it took the lead in blending its own preferred style, which was actually a solera – this produced a blend where the majority of the rum was less than a decade old, but with aspects of rums much older than that contained within it.

The problem was that the depot (and all records about the vats and their constituent rums) was damaged, if not outright destroyed during the 1941 Blitz.  In effect this means that what we were looking at here was a rum, blended, and aged solera style, that was in all likelihood re-established in the 1940s only, and that means that the majority of the blend would be from the sixties, with aged components within it that reasonably date back to twenty years earlier. And that might account for the taste profile I sensed.

So now what?  We’ve tasted a sorta-kinda 1960s rum, we’ve accepted that this was “the way rums were made” with some serious, jowl-shaking, sage nods of approval. We’ve established it has a fierce, thick, dark taste, as if a double-sized magnum of Sunset Very Strong ravished the Supreme Lord VI and had a gently autistic child. It had a serious nose, excellent taste, and finished reasonably strong, if perhaps without flourish or grandeur.  The question is, is it worth the price?

Now Pusser’s bought the recipe years ago and in theory at least, they’re continuing the tradition.  Try their Original Admiralty Blend (Blue Label), the Gunpowder Strength or the fifteen year old, and for a lot less money you’re going to get the same rum (more or less) as the Jolly Jack Tars once drank. Why drop that kinda cash on the Tot, when there’s something that’s still being made that supposedly shares the same DNA?  Isn’t the Pusser’s just as good, or better? Well, I wouldn’t say it’s better, no (not least because of the reported 29 g/l sugar added). But at over nine hundred dollars cheaper, I have to wonder whether it isn’t a better bargain, rather than drinking a bottle like the Tot, with all its ephemeral transience. (Not that it’s going to stop anyone, of course, least of all those guys who buy not one but three Appleton 50s at once).

So this is where your wallet and your heart and your brain have to come to a compromise, as mine did. See, on the basis of quality of nose and palate and finish – in other words, if we were to evaluate the rum blind without knowing what it was – I’d say the Black Tot last Consignment is a very well blended product with excellent complexity and texture.  It has a lot of elements I appreciate in my rums, and if it fails a bit on the back stretch, well, them’s the breaks. I’ll give what I think is a fair score that excludes all factors except how it smells, tastes and makes me feel. Because I have to be honest – it’s a lovely rum, a historical blast from the past, and I don’t regret getting it for a second.

At the end, though, what really made it stand out in my mind, was the pleasure I had in sharing such a piece of rum heritage with my friends.  I have cheaper rums that can do the trick just as easily.  But they just wouldn’t have quite the same cachet. The same sense of gravitas. The overall quality. And that’s what the money is for, too.

Other notes:

I’m aware this review is a bit long. I tend to be that way, get really enthusiastic, when a rum is very old, very pricey or very very good. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one applies here.

Oct 192015

Bally - 6 ans 1Rumanicas Review 009

Oh, tough one to research.  Loads of 1929 and 1930s photos out there, rien on this one. Not a millesime, because J. Bally helpfully places the year on that little smiley label at the top for those.  But with that fading old-style label, maybe pre-1980s?  Earlier? Not sure.  Still, J. Bally’s original domicile on Plantation Lajus du Carbet was closed back in 1989 (current rhums are made at a consolidated site at Plantation Simon using the original recipe), so at least we have something suitably aged here.  Whatever.  It was a neat little piece of history to be trying.  Note the cheap tinfoil cap, which perhaps says something about the makers’ esteem for their own product, back in the day…makes a man happy for modern plastic. I spoke to the company history a little here.

Colour – Dark Amber/Mahogany

Strength – 45%

Nose – Heated, not sharp. Very fruity, dark stuff, at the edge of over-ripeness.  Rich and fragrant and oh-so nice. Ripe peaches and plums; apricots just starting to go like an ageing strumpet past her prime; coconut shavings and a squirt of lime juice over the lot.  Also a faint background of musky brininess and sugar, like tequila.

Palate – Nice! Medium to full bodied, firm, warm and silky to taste. Dusty old books, dark sweet chocolate (RitterSport “rum, raisins and hazelnuts,” maybe that was it). More plums, plus some squashy blueberries, plus the taste of cumin and coriander and the same salt-sweet mustiness from the nose.  All in all, very tasty, and had sufficiently heated silky mouthfeel to make it an pretty good rhum, even for only six years ageing.

Finish – warm and lasting. Great black cake and tequila closing notes.  Somehow they didn’t interfere with each other (not always the case).

Thoughts – Wish I knew when it was made.  Actually, I wish I had the whole damned bottle.





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