Ruminsky

Oct 182018
 

As noted in the Mount Gay XO revisit, that company ceded much of the intellectual and forward-looking territory of the Bajan rum landscape to Foursquare — in the last ten years, correctly sensing the shifting trends and tides of the rumworld, Richard Seale bet the company’s future on aspects of rum making that had heretofore been seen as artistic, even bohemian touches best left for the snooty elite crowd of the Maltsters with their soft tweed caps, pipes, hounds, and benevolent fireside sips of some obscure Scottish tipple.  He went for a more limited and experimental approach, assisted in his thinking by collaboration with one of the Names of Rum. This has paid off handsomely, and Foursquare is now the behemoth of Barbados, punching way above its weight in terms of influence, leaving brands such as Cockspur, St. Nicholas Abbey and Mount Gay as big sellers, true, but not as true innovators with real street cred (WIRD is somewhat different, for other reasons).

Now, I make no apologies for my indifference to Foursquare’s current line of Doorly’s rum – that’s a personal preference of mine and a revisit to the 10 and 12 year olds in 2017 and again in 2018 (twice!) didn’t change it one iota, though the 14 YO issued at somewhat higher strength in 2018 looks really interesting. I remain of the opinion that they’re rums from yesteryear that rank higher in memory than actuality; which won’t disqualify them from maybe being key rums in their own right, mind you….just not yet.  But as I tried more and more Bajans in an effort to come to grips with the peculiarity of the island’s softer, more easygoing rum, so different from the fierce pungency of Jamaica, the woodsy warmth of Guyana, the clear quality of St Lucia, the lighter Cuban-style rums or the herbal grassiness of any French West Indian agricole, it seemed that there was another key rum of the world lurking in Little England, and I’d simply been looking with too narrow a focus at single candidates.

I don’t believe it’s too soon after their introduction to make such a claim, and argue that leaving aside Habitation Velier collaborations like the Triptych, Principia or the 2006 ten year old, the real new Key Rums from the island are the Exceptional Cask Series made by Foursquare.  They are quietly high-quality, issued in quantity, still widely available – every week I see four or five posts on FB that someone has picked up the Criterion or the Zinfadel or the Port Cask – reasonably affordable (Richard Seale has made a point of keeping costs down to the level consumers can actually afford) and best of all, they are consistently really good.  

Richard Seale – for to speak of him is to speak of Foursquare – has made a virtue out of what, in the previous decade of light-rum preferences, could have been a fatal regulatory block – the inability of Bajan rum makers to adulterate their rums (the Jamaicans operate under similar restrictions).  This meant that while other places could sneak some caramel or sugar or vanilla or glycerol into their rums (all in the name of smoothening out batch variation and enhancing quality, when it wasn’t “our centuries old secret family recipe” or a “traditional method”), and deny for decades that this was happening, Barbados was forced to issue purer, drier rums that did not always appeal to sweet-toothed, smooth-rum-loving general public, especially in North America. It was at the stage where importers were actually demanding that island rum producers make smooth, sweet and light rums if they wanted to export any.

What Foursquare did was to use all the rum-making options available to them – experimenting with the pot still and column still blends, barrel strategy, multiple maturations, various finishes, in situ ageing – and market the hell out of the result.  None of this would have mattered one whit except that for the intersection of several major new forces in the rumiverse: the drive and desire for pure rums (i.e., unadulterated by additives); social media forcing not only disclosure of such additives and educating consumers into the benefits of having none; the rise and visibility of independents and their more limited-release approach; and the market slowly shifting to at least considering rums that were issued at full proof, and hell, you can add the emergent trend of tropical ageing to the mix. Foursquare rode that wave and are reaping the benefits therefrom.  And let’s not gild the lily either – the rums they make in the Exceptional Series are quite good…it’s like they were making plain old Toyotas all the while, then created a low-cost Lexus for the budget-minded cognoscenti.

Now let’s be clear – if one considers a really pure rum made as being entirely from one country (or island), from a specific pot or column still, deriving from a single plantation or estate’s own sugar cane, molasses/juice, fermented on site, distilled on site, aged on site, then the Exceptional Series aren’t quite it, being very good blends of pot and column distillate, and made from molasses procured elsewhere. And while sugar and caramel are not added, the influence of wine or port or cognac barrels is not inconsiderable after so many years…which of course adds much to the allure. But I’m not a raging, hot-eyed zealot who wants rums to be stuck in some mythical past where only a very narrow definition of spirits qualifies as a rum – that stifles innovation and out of the box thinking and eventually quality such as is demonstrated here inevitably suffers.  I’m merely pointing out this matter to comment that the Exceptionals aren’t meant to represent Barbados as a whole (though I imagine Richard wouldn’t mind it if they did) – they’re meant to define Foursquare, to snatch back the glory and the street cred and the sales from other Bajan makers, and from the European re-bottlers and independents who made profits over the decades with such releases, and which many believe should remain in the land of origin.

But all that aside, there’s another aspect to this which must be mentioned: perhaps my focus still remains to narrow when I speak of the ECS and the company and the island.  In point of fact, given the incredible popularity and rabid fan appreciation for the series – outdone, perhaps, only by the mania for collaborations like the 2006, Triptych and its successors – it is entirely likely that the Exceptional Cask series is a Key Rum because the rums have to some extent had a global impact and strengthened trends which were started by The Age of Velier’s Demeraras, developed by Foursquare and now coming on strong in Jamaica – tropical ageing, no additives, cask strength.  So forget Barbados…these rums have had an enormous influence far beyond the island. They are part of the emergent trend to produce rums that are aimed between the newbies and the ur-geek connoisseurs and won’t break the bank of either.

Perhaps this is why they have captured the attention of the global rum crowd so effectively – for the Exceptional Series rums to ascend in the estimation of the rum public so quickly and so completely as to eclipse (no pun intended) almost everything else from Barbados, says a lot.  And although this is just my opinion, I think they will stand the test of time and take their place as rums that set a new standard for the distillery and the island. For that reason I decided not to take any one individual rum as a candidate for this series, but to include the entire set to date as “one” of the Key Rums of the World.


The Rums as of 2018

Note – I have not reviewed them all formally (though I have tasting notes for most). All notes here are mine, whether published or unpublished.


Picture (c) Henrik Larsen, from FB

Mark I“1998” 1998-2008 10 Year Old, Bourbon Cask, 40%, 15,000 bottles

This rum remains unacquired and untasted by me.  Frankly I think that’s the case for most people, and even though the outturn was immense at 15k bottles worldwide, that was ten years ago, so it’s likely to only be found on the secondary market. That said, I suspect this was a toe in the water for Foursquare, it tested the market and sought to move in a new direction, perhaps copying the independents’ success without damaging the rep or sales of the RL Seale’s 10 YO, Rum 66 or Doorly’s lineup.  The wide gap between 2008 and 2014 when the Port Cask came out suggests that some more twiddling with the gears and levers was required before Mark II came out the door, and Richard himself rather sourly grumbled that the importers forced him to make it 40% when in point of fact he wanted to go higher…but lacked the leverage at the time.

Mark II — “Port Cask Finish” 2005-2014 9YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 6yr-Port, Pot/Column Blend 40%, 30,000 bottles

Six years passed between Mark I and Mark II, and a lot changed in that time. New bloggers, social media explosion, wide acknowledgement of the additives issue. With the Premise, the PCF Mark II remains the largest issue to date at 30,000 bottles worldwide. Not really a finished rum in the classic sense, but more a double aged rum, with the majority of the time spent in Port Casks.

N – Rubber and acetone notes, fading, then replaced by a smorgasbord of fruitiness: soft citrus of oranges, grapes, raisins, yellow mangoes, plums, vanilla, toffee; also some spices, cinnamon for the most part, and some cardamom.

P – Soft and relatively wispy.  Prunes, vanilla, black cherries, caramel.  Some coconut milk and bananas, sweetened yoghurt.

F – Short, smooth, breathy, quiet, unassuming. Some fruits and orange peel with salted caramel and bananas

T – Still lacked courage (again, the strength was an importers’ demand), but pointed the way to all the (better) Exceptional Cask Series rums that turned up in the subsequent years.

Mark III“2004” 2004-2015 11 YO, Bourbon Cask, Pot/Column Blend, 59%, 24,000 bottles

In 2015 two rums were issued at the same time, both 11 years old.  This was the stronger one and its quality showed in no uncertain terms that Foursquare was changing the game for Barbados.

And the Velier connection was surely a part of the underlying production philosophy – we had been hearing for a year prior to the formal release that Richard Seale and Luca Gargano were turning up at exhibitions and fests to promote their new collaboration. Various favoured and fortunate tasters posted glowing comments on social media about the 2004 which showed that one didn’t need a massive and expensive marketing campaign to create buzz and hype

N – Clean and forceful, love that strength; wine, grapes, red grapefruit, fresh bread, laban, and bananas, coconut shavings, vanilla, cumin and cardamom.  Retasting it confirmed my own comment “…invite(s) further nosing just to wring the last oodles of scent from the glass.”

P – Brine and red olives. Tastes smoothly of vanilla and coconut milk and yoghurt drizzled over with caramel and melted salt butter. Fruits, quite strong and intense – red grapes, red currants, cranberry juice – with further oak and kitchen spices (cumin and coriander).  

F – Clear and crisp finish of oak, vanilla, olives, brine, toffee, and nougat.

Mark IV“Zinfadel” 2004-2015 11 YO Bourbon & Zinfadel casks, Pot/Column Blend 43%, 24,000 bottles

Not one of my favourites, really.  Nice, but uncomplicated in spite of the Zinfadel secondary maturation.  What makes it a standout is how much it packs into that low strength, which Richard remarked was a deliberate decision, not forced upon him by distributors – and that, if nothing else, showed that the worm was turning and he could call his own shots when it came to saying “I will issue my rum in this way.”

N – Light, with delicate wine notes, vanilla and white toblerone. A whiff of rotting bananas and fruits just starting to go.  Tart yoghurt and sour cream and a white mocha, with fruits and other notes in the background – green grapes, raisins, dark bread, ginger and something sharp.

P – Opens with watery fruits (papaya, pears, watermelon, white gavas), then steadies out with cereals, coconut shavings.  Also wine, tart red fruits – red currants, cranberries, grapes. Light and easy.

F – Quite pleasant, if short and relatively faint. fruits, coconut shavings, vanilla, milk chocolate, salted caramel, french bread (!!) and touch of thyme.

T – A marriage of two batches of rums: Batch 1 aged full 11 years in bourbon barrels; Batch 2 five years bourbon barrels then another six in ex-Zinfadel.  The relative quantities of each are unknown.

Mark V “Criterion” 2007-2017 10 YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 7yr-Madeira, Pot Column Blend 56%, 4,000 bottles

My personal opinion is that while the “2004” marked the true beginning of the really good Exceptionals, this is the first great ECS rum – all the ones before were merely essays in the craft before the mastery of Mark V kicked in the doors and blew off the roof, and all the others that came after built on the reputation this one garnered for itself. It was, to me, also the most individualistic of the various Marks, the one I have no trouble identifying from a complete lineup of Mark II to Mark VIII

N – Red wine, fruits, caramel in sumptuous abandon.  Oak is there, fortunately held back; breakfast spices, burnt sugar, nutmeg, cloves.  Also apples, grapes, pears, lemon peel, bitter chocolate and truffles.

P – Flambeed bananas, creme brulee, coffee, chocolate, it tastes like the best kind of late-night after-dinner bar-closer. Fruit jam, dates, prunes, crushed nuts (almonds) and the soft glide of honey in the background.  Delectable

F – Long. Deep, dark, salt and sweet together. Prunes and very ripe cherries and caramel and coffee grounds..

Mark VI“2005” 2005-2017 12 YO, ex-bourbon, Pot/Column Blend, 59%, 24,000 bottles

The 2005 was an alternative to the double maturation of the Criterion, being a “simple” single aged rum from bourbon casks, and was also a very good rum in its own way.  A solid rum, if lacking something of what made its brother so special (to me, at any rate – your own mileage might vary).

N – Deep fruity notes of pears, plums, peaches in syrup (though without the sugar, ha ha). Just thick and juicy.  Cream cheese, rye bread, cereals and osme cumin to give it a filip of lighter edge

P – Very nice but unspectacular: tart acidic and fleshy fruit tastes, mostly yellow mangoes, unripe peaches, red guavas, grapes raisins and a bit of red grapefruit.  Also a delicate touch of thyme and rosemary, with vanilla and some light molasses to wind things up.

F – Long and aromatic, fruits again, rosemary, caramel and toffee.

T – Not crisp so much as solid and sleek, without bite or edge. It lacks individuality while being a complete rum package for anyone who simply wants a strong, well-assembled and tasty rum

Mark VII“Dominus” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-cognac, Pot/Column Blend, 56%, 12,000 bottles

N – Dusty, herbal, leather, with smoke, vanilla, prunes and some ashy hints that were quite unexpected (and not unpleasant).  Turns lighter and more flowery after an hour in the glass, a tad sharp, at all times crisp and clear. It’s stern and uncompromising, a sharply cold winter’s day, precise and dry and singular.

P – Solid, sweetish and thick, very much into the fruity side of things – raisins, grapes, apples, fleshy stoned stuff, you know the ones. Also dates and some background brine, nicely done. A little dusty, dry, with aromatic tobacco notes, sour cream, cardboard, cereal and … what was this? … strawberries.

F – Quietly dry and a nice mix of musky and clear.  Mostly cereals, cardboard, sawdust, together with apples, prunes, peaches and a sly flirt of vanilla, salty caramel and lemon zest.

T – Quite distinct and individualistic, one of the ECS that can perhaps be singled out blind.

Mark VIII“Premise” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Sherry, Pot/Column Blend, 46%, 30,000 bottles

N – If the Dominus was a clear winter’s day, then the Premise is a bright and warm spring morning, redolent of flowers and a basket of freshly picked fruit.  Cumin, lime and massala, mixed up with apricot and green apples (somehow this works) plus grapes, olives and a nice brie. A bit salty with a touch of the sour bite of gooseberries, even pimentos (seriously!).

P – Very nice, quite warm and spicy, with a clear fruity backbone upon which are hung a smorgasbord of cooking spices like rosemary, dill and cumin. Faintly lemony and wine notes, merging well into vanilla, caramel and white nutty chocolate.

F – Delicately dry, with closing notes of caramel, vanilla, apricots and spices.

T – Too good to be labelled as mundane, yet there’s an aspect of “we’ve done this before” too. Not a rum you could pick out of a Foursquare lineup easily.

Summary

These tasting notes are just illustrative and for the purposes of this essay are not meant to express a clear preference of mine for one over any other (though I believe that some drop off is observable in the last couple of years). It is in aggregate that they shine, and the way they represent a higher quality than normal, issued over a period of many years. You hear lots of people praising the Real McCoy and Doorly’s lines of rums as the best of Barbados, but those are standard blends that remain the same for long periods.  The Exceptional are a different keg of wash entirely – each one is of large-but-limited release quantity, each is different, each shows Foursquare trying to go in yet another direction. Crowdsourced opinions rarely carry much weight with me, but when the greater drinking public and the social-media opinion-geeks and the reviewing community all have nothing but good to say about any rum, then you know you really have something that deserves closer scrutiny. And maybe it’s worth running over to the local store to buy one or more, just to see what the fuss is all about, or to confirm your own opinion of this series of Key Rums.  Because they really are that interesting, that good, and that important.


Other Notes

I am indebted to Jonathan Jacoby’s informative graphic of the Fousquare releases and their quantities which he posted up on Facebook when the question of how many bottles were issued to the market came up in September of 2018.  It is the basis of the numbers quoted above. Big hat tip to the man for adding to the store of our knowledge here.

Big thank you and deep appreciation also go out to Gregers, Henrik and Nicolai from Denmark, who, on 24 hours notice, managed to get me samples of the last three rums so I could flesh out the tasting notes section of this essay on the Marks VI, VII and VIII.  You guys are the best.

Oct 112018
 

In the last decade, several major divides have fissured the rum world in ways that would have seemed inconceivable in the early 2000s: these were and are cask strength (or full-proof) versus “standard proof” (40-43%); pure rums that are unadded-to versus those that have additives or are spiced up; tropical ageing against continental; blended rums versus single barrel expressions – and for the purpose of this review, the development and emergence of unmessed-with, unfiltered, unaged white rums, which in the French West Indies are called blancs (clairins from Haiti are a subset of these) and which press several of these buttons at once.

Blancs are often unaged, unfiltered, derive from cane juice, are issued at muscular strengths, and for any bartender or barfly or simple lover of rums, they are explosively good alternatives to standard fare – they can boost up a cocktail, are a riot to drink neat, and are a great complement to anyone’s home bar…and if they occasionally have a concussive sort of strength that rearranges your face, well, sometimes you just gotta take one for the team in the name of science.

The Longueteau blanc from Guadeloupe is one of these off-the-reservation mastodons which I can’t get enough of. It handily shows blended milquetoast white nonsense the door…largely because it isn’t made to sell a gajillion bottles in every low-rent mom-and-pop in the hemisphere (and to every college student of legal age and limited means), but is aimed at people who actually know and care about an exactingly made column-still product that has a taste profile that’s more than merely vanilla and cloves and whatever else.

Doubt me?  Take a sniff. Not too deep please – 62% ABV will assert itself, viciously, if you’re not prepared. And then just think about that range of light, crisp aromas that come through your schnozz.  Speaking for myself, I noted freshly mown grass, sugar cane sap bleeding from the stalk, crisp apples and green grapes, cucumbers, sugar water, lemon zest, brine, an olive or two, and even a few guavas in the background.  Yes it was sharp, but perhaps the word I should use is “hot” because it presented an aroma that was solid and aggressive without being actually damaging.

Taste? Well, it’s certainly not the easy kind of spirit you would introduce to your parents, no, it’s too badass for that, and individualistic to a fault.  Still, you can’t deny it’s got character: taking a sip opens up a raft of competing and distinct flavours – salt, olives, acetones, bags of acidic fruit (green grapes and apples seem to be the dominant notes here), cider, lemon zest again, all toned down a little with some aromatic tobacco and sugar water, cumin, and even flowers and pine-sol disinfectant (seriously!).  That clear and almost-sweet taste runs right through into the finish, which is equally crisp and fragrant, redolent of sugar water, lemons and some light florals I couldn’t pick apart.

There you are, then. Compare that to, oh, a Bacardi Superior, or any filtered white your barman has on the shelf to make his usual creations.  See what I mean? It’s a totally different animal, and if originality is what you’re after, then how can you pass something like this by? Now, to be honest, perhaps comparing a visceral, powerful white French island rhum like this to a meek-and-mild, easygoing white mixing agent like that Bacardi is somewhat unfair — they are of differing styles, differing heritages, differing production philosophies and perhaps even made for different audiences.

Maybe. But I argue that getting a rum at the lowest price just because it’s the lowest isn’t everything in this world (and in any case, I firmly believe cheap is always expensive in the long run) – if you’re into this curious subculture of ours, you almost owe it to yourself to check out alternatives, and the Longueteau blanc is actually quite affordable. And for sure it’s also a beast of a drink, a joyous riot of rumstink and rumtaste, and I can almost guarantee that if you are boozing in a place where this is begin served, it’s one of the best blanc rhums in the joint.

(558)(85/100)


Other Notes

Oct 092018
 

L’Esprit, if you recall, is that little independent bottler in Brittany which is run by Tristan Prodhomme, and has the peculiar distinction of usually issuing the same rums in two iterations – a diluted, more numerous version at a lower proof for the general market, and another more limited one at cask strength (from the same barrel(s) for those who prefer a rum with some fangs.  They don’t range too far afield and stick with the regular rums of the pantheon – from Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Panama and so on, with an occasional divergence to Nicaragua and Belize and Haiti.

In the sense that L’Esprit is an independent bottler, they conform to most of the markers of the European indie scene – they regularly buy a few barrels from Scheer, issue a limited bottle set, and have an annual outturn.  They’re not out to reinvent the wheel, just to sell good quality hooch. What (to me) distinguishes them is the quality of what they push out the door, and even with the young rums, like this 8 Year Old Jamaican from Worthy Park, the quality of what they selected is self evident.

Speaking of Worthy Park: it is located in the parish of St. Catherine, and, like other Jamaican estates, is having something of a renaissance as the wave of tropically-aged, estate-made rums gathers steam – leaving aside Habitation Velier’s rums, they themselves have made quite a few interesting ones of their own (I have detailed files…).  Much like Hampden, they pride themselves on cool ester counts and their Forsythe’s double retort pot still delivers in spades when it comes to good rums. Like other Caribbean rum companies, they sell bulk rum abroad (mostly to Scheer), which is something of a double edged sword – other companies capitalize on the WP name and take the value-added revenue for themselves, but on the flip side, it allows WP to have a revenue stream, and introduces a far wider public to the qualities of their rums in a world where distribution arrangements can be a pain for a local company to negotiate.

So, given how many Jamaicans are on the scene these days, how does this young, continentally aged 55.9% golden rum fare?  Not too shabbily. It’s strong but very approachable, even on the nose, which doesn’t waste any time getting started but announces its ester-rich aromas immediately and with authority: acetone, nail polish and some rubber plus a smell of righteous funk (spoiling fruits, rotten bananas, that kind of thing).  Its relative youth is apparent in the uncouth sharpness of the initial aromas, but once one sticks with it, it settles into its own special groove, calms itself down and does a neat little balancing act between sharper scents of citrus, cider, apples, hard yellow mangoes and green grapes, and softer ones of bananas, cumin, vanilla, marshmallows and cloves.

The palate was rich as well, no surprises, though again, it started out quite sharp, almost jagged, spicy and hot.  The rum developed from sharp to soft much as the nose did, with many of the same flavours – brine, furniture polish, herbs, brine and olives to start with, green grapes, apple cider, aromatic tobacco and unsweetened dark chocolate, which gradually relaxed into a fruity cornucopia of overripe bananas and mangoes and apricots and guavas and pineapples, all bound up with vanilla, sugar water, a little caramel (very light), crackers, fanta and sprite.  As for the finish, that was very good, very long, very fruity, very soft…the slow meandering of a river that started out as a torrent of raging white water but was now serenely pushing out to sea without haste.

Overall, I was quite surprised at how much there was going on here.  For a rum this youthful and aged in Europe to boot, I expected more savagery and less control, fewer softened edges and more from the sharper side of the barrel.  Yet the oak remained in the background the whole while, the fruitiness and funk danced across the senses, and while the complexity and balance were both very well handled, it’s the development of the rum over two hours that held my attention.  It started off like a boss and then just…well, it just chilled and showed you a good time. In that it exceeded the Mezan WP 2005 which was older, while falling short of the exceptional Compagnie des Indes Jamaica WP 2007, which was younger.

Of the Jamaican rums now gaining greater appreciation, I must confess to my own liking for Hampdens – they’ve consistently scored higher (when taken in aggregate) than Appleton or Monymusk or Worthy Park, of which I have not had that many.  That this single rum could make me both discover and re-evaluate that unconscious preference, and encourage me to buy more from the estate – whether independently made or from WP itself, tropically aged or continental – is to the credit of both Tristan who released it, and Worthy Park who made it. It’s a quietly amazing rum that’s really a blast to try.

(#557)(86/100)


Other notes

  • A really good intro to Worthy Park comes from the pen of Steve James, here, as well as the Cocktail Wonk, here.
  • Most of the Worthy Park rums that have garnered attention of late have been the Habitation Velier expressions there are also Worthy Park’s own rums which were issued in 2017 to really positive feedback.  Transcontinental Rum Line, Mezan, Rum Nation, Bacardi (Single Cane brand), and some other smaller indies from around Europe have bottled rums from there as well.
  • L’Esprit’s presentation cases of small square 100ml bottles can’t be beat.  I’ve seldom seen any minis so sleekly attractive.

 

 

Oct 072018
 

It’s odd that the fourth Exceptional Cask Series rum issued by Foursquare out of Barbados was issued at such a low proof.  The “1998” and “Port Cask” Marks I and II were both released at 40%, but the very good “2004” Mark III went higher, much higher (59%) and carved itself a solid niche all its own – in contrast to the emerging ABV-creep, the Zinfadel dialled itself down to a relatively mild 43%.  Perhaps, since both came out in 2015 it was felt to be a smart move to have one rated G just to offset the R-rated predator that was the “2004”, or to appease the importers who made Foursquare issue the first two Marks at 40%. Which would make sense, though for my money it remains an incrementally lesser offering from the House of Seale’s ECS, (an opinion I hold largely because of the great stuff that emerged after this one).

The Zinfadel 11 Year Old is a blend of batches of rums: one was aged for five years in bourbon casks and then another six in zinfadel barrels, and then married with another batch that had spent the full eleven years in bourbon casks.  Unusual for the time (2015), Richard Seale went around in person to the various international rumfests, masterclasses and private tastings, and started his engagement on social media (he does this more than any other primary producer I’m aware of), trumpeting the fact that nothing was added, the rums weren’t filtered and the casks were dry, dry, dammit – not wet or with residual wine sloshing around (an old trick to flavour rum more definitively).

Well, Zinfadel is a sweet wine, and its influence was sure to be noticeable, whether the barrels are wet or dry or damp – the real question was whether that influence created a profile that worked, or was too dominated by one or other component of the assembly. Nosing it for the first time suggested it was a bit of both though leaning more to the former – it was lighter than the Real McCoy 12 Year Old I was trying alongside it (that one was 46%, versus 43% for the Zin which may have accounted for that), with delicate wine notes, vanilla and white toblerone gradually overtaken by some rotting bananas and fruits just starting to go.  I liked its attendant creamy aroma, of yoghurt and sour cream and a white mocha, which grew tarter and fruitier over time – green grapes, raisins, dark bread, plus some spices, mostly ginger, cloves and cardamom

Tasting revealed somewhat less clothing in the suitcase, though it was quite a decent rum to sip (mixing it is totally unnecessary) – it was a little sharp before settling down into a relative smooth experience, and tasted primarily of white and watery fruits (pears, watermelon, white gavas), cereals, coconut shavings, sweet wine, and had a sly hint of tart red fruiness that was almost, but not quite sour, behind it all – red currants, cranberries, grapes.  It was quite light and easy and escaped being an alcohol-flavoured water in fine style – not bad for something at close to standard strength, and the touch of sweet fruitiness imparted by the Zin barrels was in no way overdone. Even the finish was quite pleasant, being warm, relatively soft, and closing off the show with some tart fruitiness, coconut shavings, vanilla, milk chocolate, salted caramel, french bread (!!) and touch of thyme.

Overall, quite an impressive dram for something so relatively staid in its strength.  The nose is really the best part of it, though it does promise quite a bit more than the taste eventually delivers.  With the light tastiness of the three parts – aroma, palate and finish – it’s easy to see why it remains a fan favourite.  And while it’s not one of my favourites of the Exceptional Cask Series (so far the Criterion holds that honour for me), it beat out the Real McCoy 12 YO handily, is within spitting distance of the 2004, and is a worthy addition to the canon of the Exceptionals. I’d buy it again…and the nice things is, three years after its release, I still can.

(#556)(83/100)

Oct 042018
 

Following on from the 2008-issued, dropped-out-of-sight, no-we-didn’t-see-it Exceptional Cask Series Mark I, Foursquare issued the 9 year old Port Cask Finish ECS Mark II in 2014 (and in a neat piece of humorous irony, it didn’t mention Mark-anything on the label, and wasn’t really a finished rum). And in 2015 the game changed with the solid triumph of the 2004 Mark III.

The wholly-Bourbon-cask-aged Mark I 10 YO “1998” was, in my opinion, a toe in the water, issued at a meek 40% and seemed like a way to test whether a different blending philosophy could be used to move away from the RL Seale’s 10 YO, Rum 66, Doorly’s XO and 12 YO rums without replacing them entirely. The Port Cask Finish released six years later in 2014 wasn’t getting too adventurous with its strength either, but it did show where Foursquare’s thinking was heading: a pot/column blend aged three years in bourbon barrels, six in port barrels.  As I recall from the year it came out, it made a modest kind of splash – “an interesting new direction for Foursquare” went one supercilious FB comment – but the madness of today’s sell-out-before-they-go-on-sale had to wait a little longer to gain real traction.

By 2015, Foursquare’s strategy clicked into place with the introduction of not one but two new rums, the milquetoast 43% Zinfadel Mark IV for the sweet-toothed and general soft-rum-loving audience, and something more feral for the fanboys – the 2004 11 YO Mark III, a straight-up bourbon-cask-aged rum, also a pot/column blend, unleashed at a muscular 59%.

That strength provided the 2004 with a crisp snap on the nose that was quite a step up from anything from the company I had tried before.  It was fruity, precise and forcefully clean in a way that clearly demonstrated that a higher proof was not a disqualifier for greater audience appreciation.  It smelled of wine, grapes, red grapefruit and mixed that up with scents of sourdough bread, unsweetened yoghurt and bananas. As if that wasn’t enough, after standing for a while, it exuded aromas of coconut shavings, irish coffee,vanilla, cumin and cardamom that invited further nosing just to wring the last oodles of scent from the glass.

Sometimes a proof point closing in on 60% makes for a sharp and searing experience when tasted – not here.  With some smooth blending skill, it remained warm-verging-on-hot, going down without bitchiness or spite. It tasted smoothly of vanilla and coconut milk and yoghurt drizzled over with caramel and melted salt butter. It developed a smorgasbord of fruits – red grapes, red currants, cranberry juice – with further oak and kitchen spices like cumin and coriander bringing up the rear.  There was even some brine and red olives making themselves quietly known in the background (the brine came forward over time), and while the finish wasn’t all that long, it provided a clear finish of oak, vanilla, olives, brine, toffee, and nougat, and was in no way a let down from what had come before, and I enjoyed this one a lot

The day I tried it, this rum was in some really good Bajan company, lemme tell you, and it held its own in fine style – so yes, that’s an unambiguous endorsement. Overall, the 2004 was a solid, well-constructed rum with a panoply of tastes that could hardly be faulted. It was way ahead of anything Foursquare had made before, instantly pushed the “standard” 4S/Seale/Doorly lines into second-tier status, and to my mind did more than any other single rum to mark Foursquare’s future ascendance and reputation on the Bajan rum scene. It pointed the way to the superlative 2006 10 Year Old, the excellence of the Criterion Mark V, and all the other Exceptional Casks to come, like the 2005, the Dominus and the Premise.

Best of all, continuing a philosophy Foursquare have adhered to ever since for the Exceptionals, it wasn’t priced out of sight — and those who saw it for what it was and managed to buy a bottle or a case, had very little to complain about, because the rum was and remains on the short list of Foursquare’s real good ‘uns. Their best rums, whether made alone or with the Habitation, mix controlled passion and cheerful excess, uninterested in any kind of subtle statements, and you know what? — with this one, Richard may even have cracked a smile as he made it.

(555)(85/100)

 

Oct 032018
 

“Only one human has ever defeated a Minbari fleet in battle.  He is behind me; you are in front of me.  If you value your lives, be somewhere else.” Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari to Earth Alliance attack fleet, Season 3.


When Ambassador Delenn utters these words after a major space battle, and at a time when it seems utter destruction of Babylon 5 is imminent and despair abounds, one can barely resist jumping on the couch and doing a clenched fist “yeah!”  Which I’m sure you’ll admit is not a common occurrence in TV dramas of any kind, and it says something about the emotional power of this often overlooked sci-fi series. Because Babylon 5 created a world so immersive, storytelling so strong, identification with the characters and narrative situation so remarkably complete, that one felt an energy and emotional connection to its characters, similar to that which Star Trek fans had for Mr. Spock, say.

The show, which ran for five years between 1993 to 1997,  was a sprawling, operatic indulgence in world building, as seamlessly constructed as the Star Trek or Star Wars universes, and positioned itself between the character-driven style of the former and the grand themes of the latter. What it also did, and which is not generally acknowledged, was to point the way towards the golden age of long-form television through which we are now living.

In the years before (and during, and after) it aired, the episodic formula of TV was alive and well and had been the standard for decades. One could watch a series, or jump into it, at pretty much any point and miss nothing.  Characters in such series were often very similar from one year to the next, few showing any kind of massive variation, let alone development. Of course, daytime soaps were plotted over many years, but they ground on in a kind of never ending continuity that replaced old and resolved situations with new ones (or twisted the same old ones into new shapes); in contrast B5 was envisioned from the very beginning as having a five year story arc, to be shown over five seasons, with each season telling the story of what happened in a calendar year.  Long term planning was done at the inception, not as the show went on, and this allowed storylines or character arcs that were set up in Season 1 or 2 to not be crucial, or developed, or resolved, until much later in the series (which fortunately allowed the show to skate over some occasionally weak writing and pacing problems).

In this way it was miles ahead of more popular pop-cultural icons where the creators seemed to make things up as they went along, without a clear end game in sight, and pointed to a viable alternative to episodic television where one could jump in at any time and never get lost.  Eschewing this format and sticking with the long form, J. Michael Straczynski (JMS from here on) plotted out his epic completely, and moved seamlessly towards his conclusion so well that he was able to weather the loss of a lead character in Season 1 and the near-cancellation of the series in Season 4 and still manage to continue the series and bring it to a proper end a year later.

***

To summarize the plot is difficult, but let’s do what we can. Set in the 2200s, the B5 galaxy consisted of various space-faring races.  Humans, of course. An older, and somewhat more technologically advanced race called the Minbari who were deeply ritualized. Two other major races were the Centauri (modelled after a mix of ancient Rome and revolutionary France with crazier hairstyles), and the Narns (humanoids with brown skin and leopard spots who had been conquered by the Centauri and who had only recently won their freedom and were now expanding aggressively).  These two, exemplified by their respective ambassadors, were highly antagonistic towards each other and were joined by a League of Non-Aligned Worlds made up of a number of smaller spacefaring races who in turn provided backdrop, and swelled an episode or two here and there.  And lastly, there were the mysterious Vorlons who were far more technologically advanced than anyone else…but about whom nobody knew much, since they always wore “encounter suits” to hide their appearance and prevented excursions into their own space.

Ten years before the events of the series in 2258, there had been a major war between Earth and Minbar in which almost resulted in the annihilation of the human race before the Minbari inexplicably surrendered on the cusp of complete victory.  At around the same time the Narns rebelled against the Centauri Empire and won their freedom – the two remained bitter enemies ever since, fighting inconclusive skirmishes and jousting for influence and power with the lesser races. After the chaos of the Earth-Minbari conflict, it was decided to set up a space station in neutral territory to act as a sort of United Nations of the galaxy to prevent future carnage. Babylon 1, 2 and 3 were either sabotaged or destroyed, and B-4 mysteriously disappeared twenty four hours after going operational.  At the beginning of the series, then, tensions, while remaining high, were managed in a sort of uneasy, fragile peace.  But gradually that peace was beginning to unravel, and a strange new race of enormous hostility and destructive power (they were appropriately called “the Shadows”) was moving quietly, building allies and interfering in the agendas of the races to deliberately provoke conflict.  Wars large and small were breaking out everywhere, and simultaneously there were problems on earth as a sinister group of (Earth) Government telepaths called the PsiCorps came to power behind the scenes, and Earth began to slide into an Orwellian dictatorship after the assassination of the president at the end of Season 1.

Over the course of the five seasons, all major and many minor characters were drawn into the great war that the Shadows unleashed, and their personalities and lives were altered in often surprising, unexpected ways. The ambitious Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari became Emperor but found redemption, his mortal enemy G’Kar became a revered spiritual leader, the Minbari ambassador Delenn changed her genetic makeup and found love, and the station Captain became a commander, a general and a statesman. The station Doctor found humility, the Commander of the station unrequited love, the Security Chief became a businessman. And such developmental arcs were not limited to the small “main” cast, but given to many other smaller roles that in other shows would have not received such depth of treatment (as G’Kar notes presciently in season 1, “Nobody here is exactly what they seem.”) The Vorlons and the Shadows have their rationales, twisted as they may be.  Alfred Bester the PsiCop is a smirkingly evil sort-of villain played by Walter Koenig (better known as Ensign Chekhov) has appalling yet also rational reasons for what he does; Talia Winters the telepath reveals a depth of humanity not immediately evident; Vir Cotto grows from a bumbling idiot in the first season to his boss’s conscience (and later, emperor himself); a throwaway Narn character from an earlier episode becomes G’Kar’s bodyguard, and later disciple. A Minbari warrior leader utterly opposed to Ambassador Delenn proves to have greater depths than suspected.  And so on.

All this is played against a technological setting that actually makes sense. Faster than light travel is accomplished by the use of “jump gates” or “jump points” which serve as conduits to hyperspace, a concept so ubiquitous in science fiction that one can hardly fault the creators for not looking for something more original. Babylon 5 creates gravity for itself by the use of rotating sections, which is scientifically sound. Medicine, weapons, computers, spacecraft and communications are similar to our current world, just made a little more advanced for the setting. Time travel is treated with respect and is organic to the story, not just some quick one-episode trick. It’s perfectly believable all the way through.  Moreover, there is a backdrop of galactic history here — of empires risen and fallen, of old races and young ones, differing cultures, religions and mind sets — that is nicely integrated into the overall tapestry of the core story.

Babylon 5 suffered by being – inevitably – compared to Star Trek,  the other sci-fi TV series that dominated the channels at that time.  ST: The Next Generation copied the episodic format of the Original Series (as did Star Trek Voyager which premiered two years later); and in concept B5 was more like Deep Space 9, which was often thought to be a rip off of B5.  To some extent the B5 Universe is different in conception and execution from that more famous creation, however.  The emphasis was on grand movements of galactic history and the shift of people’s characters over time; of politics, religion, fanaticism, rise, fall, strength, weakness, honour, love, hate, good, evil.  And indeed, the B5 characters were more flawed, much less noble, made mistakes, suffered enormous tragedy, in a way the many other universes simply never explored. The social constructs were grittier and less rosy; war was considered almost a normal state of affairs, as was poverty and prejudice; and the different races had distinct personalities and religious beliefs that were fleshed out over a long period. Even the special effects and production design were different, giving the show a look and feel that quite original (though by today’s standards, primitive). In its examination of smaller, greater and even galactic themes, it pushed the boundaries for science fiction in ways that had not previously been done, and if it had been, then nowhere on this scale or (I argue) this well.

Certainly there is a derivative feel to the series.  Behind the sweep of storytelling of empires rising and falling, wars won and lost, characters suffering love or loss or death, lie the great archetypes of our historical storytelling tradition.  The hero on a quest, the lady fair, the venerable teacher who dies, evil villains and creatures and deeds most foul.  Reality while adhered to, often takes second place to visual momentum: I mean consider the Shadow vessels – in no way can they be termed logical in design (one wonders where the crew, if any, bother to sit, or where they fit into the fighters), but man, just look at them.  They are instantly recognizable as evil, and may actually be the scariest warships ever seen on TV.  So, who cares about the practicality?  They work at the level of our subconscious race memories, where we fear the darkness and creepy crawly spiders.

In its influences, some are quite clear. Christian motifs are quite obvious, and plentiful. JMS took much inspiration from the Lord of the Rings: the Third Age, the Rangers, the Shadows, Lorien, Zahadum (a play on Khazad Dum), as well as a hero who falls to death there and is revived by a greater and older power, the uniting of two long sundered branches of life by a marriage in the present (like Aragorn and Arwen)…and with many other small details that are a wink to Tolkien.  There are also references to Arthurian legend, as in the naming of Mr. Morden, Exacalibur or the episode “A Late Delivery From Avalon”. JMS named his series after the Baylonian creation myth and the conflict between order and chaos, not only in the show’s title, but in the opposing philosophies of the two great older races. Shakespearean quotations are sprinkled throughout. The great machine of the Krell from “Forbidden Planet” is winked at. A nod to Alfred Bester’s novel “The Demolished Man” is there for those who are familiar with sci-fi and Earth’s slide to a surveillance state echoes “1984” quite obviously.

***

If the show had weaknesses, one of them was certainly the lengthy setup in Season 1 which required far too many standalone episodes that did not always fit neatly into subsequent seasons, and the loss of Michael O’Hare to illness forced the removal of his major character and replacement with the talented Bruce Boxleitner, who at first seemed too boyish for the role but inhabited it so well it’s impossible to think of anyone else doing it. Season 5 had a tacked-on feel mandated by the show’s near cancellation  in its fourth year, so JMS had to truncate several storylines and telescope others. Claudia Christian, another major character, left the show at this time, and all these issues meant that some continuity was unavoidably lost.  Essentially, Season 2 through 4 were the core of it all, and remain the most watchable, the most riveting — with 1 and 5 more like essential bookends required for full understanding but not as enjoyable. The important thing to understand is that individual episodes might be problematic, but taken as a whole, there is a remarkable sense of JMS knowing exactly what he was doing every step of the way.

I also argue that for all its pacing problems — certain aspects of the long story take too long to set up and are resolved too quickly, or unsatisfactorily, though fortunately the whole remains strong – that the series managed to maintain coherency and consistency under these pressures, and still manage to deliver on 90% of what its creator envisioned, is some kind of miracle in modern TV entertainment. Unfortunately, unlike the other two franchises mentioned, B5 never really succeeded in becoming a touchstone of modern culture.  Perhaps this was because it was too ahead of its time, and in its own way, perhaps even too quirky.  Producers feared to alienate audiences who could not come in at any point and know what was going on (as they could with Star Trek).  B5 was a show that required continuous viewing over a long period in the days before Netflix and DVDs and binge watching whole seasons.

The show did however spawn a number of TV movies (the best was a prequel called “In the Beginning”) and even a spinoff series called Crusade, which was cancelled before it even went on TV, though thirteen episodes had been filmed and eventually aired in 1999.  Babylon 5 had a life in comics, novels and games, the last of which it could be said to have influenced rather more than any of the others.  But nowadays I think it’s been relegated to a second tier production that lives on in occasional syndication but without the cultural impact I felt it could have had if, say, it came out now (which is unlikely). Another twenty years, it’ll be forgotten except by older fans.

It’s possible that a show like Babylon 5 may never be made again.  Star Wars and Star Trek can work within their visual and cultural parameters precisely because of their near unassailable position  in pop culture and the collective consciousness of the audience.  But other sci fi series have a harder time of it.  Battlestar Galactica went the route of realistic “hard” sci-fi and was one of the better ones, partly because of superior special effects and partly due to a solid multi-year story arc with a clear ending.  “The Expanse” is another, perhaps even better – it’s also long-form in nature. But Babylon 5, with its grand themes is less on a level with those, lacks their hard-core engineering reality – it’s part of a myth pool, and cheerfully plunders mankind’s darkest fears, its earliest legends, its most powerful and enduring stories, to weave a complex tale of its own. The shakiness of its special effects to modern eyes, its occasionally poor writing, and its failing in comparison to other sci-fi series, should never blind one to either the trail it blazed for TV sci-fi, or the overall narrative excellence it displayed.  I still think it’s one of the best of its kind ever made, and maybe that’s why I watch it without regret, shame or apology every few years from start to finish.  My family regards this exercise in self-indulgence with a sort of he’s-at-it-again patience, but what the hell, it’s just that kind of experience.


Some references and additional notes

Oct 012018
 

Rumaniacs Review #84 | 0554

This blast from the past which the eponymous founder of the Samaroli once named as his favourite, is one of the rums at the very tip of the spear when it comes to ageing, and shows once again that rums aged past the third decade are extremely unlikely to ever come from the tropics, in spite of vaunted halo rums like the Appleton 50 Year Old or the current trend to dismiss continental ageing out of hand.  As a protest against the relics of colonial economics I can accept the promotion of tropical, but in terms of quality coming out the other end, the argument is harder to make, though this rum is not necessarily the best example to trot out when discussing the matter on either side.

Oddly, for all its fame and historical cachet, not much is known about the West Indies 1948 rum, and what we have comes primarily from two sources. The first is Cyril of DuRhum, who in turn got it from Pietro Caputo (a rum lover from Italy), and he received the info directly from Sylvio Samaroli in late 2016 when they were sharing some glasses.  The few facts we get from this (and the bottle) is that it’s a blend of rums from Martinique and Jamaica. The second is Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun, who commented that “it was said” and “other sources” mentioned, that it was Jamaican Longpond mixed together with some Bajan Blackrock. All other sources agree that 800 bottles were issued, 49% ABV, aged in Scotland.  I’ll stick with 43 years of age instead of 42.

Colour – Dark Amber / Mahogany

Strength – 49%

Nose – Dusty, salty, like a disused barn redolent of hay, sawdust and old leather harnesses. Licorice, cardboard, some light apple cider, dry sherry and very ripe grapes. Amazingly thick, almost chewy nose.  There are also some sugary and additional fruity notes, but the overall impression is one of a spice pantry with loads of masala and cumin and one too many mothballs. It’s very different from most rums I’ve tried and reminds me somewhat (but not entirely) of the Saint James 1885, and also of a Jamaican-Guyanese blend.  

Palate – Very much more positive than the nose, yet I cannot rid myself of that musty smell of old cupboards in an abandoned house. Salt and sweet and musk all in balance here, like a very good sweetened soya in vegetable soup. Brine, olives, fresh fruit, cereals, more cardboard, more licorice (restrained, not overwhelming), and a faint medicinal or menthol-ly snap at the back end. Leaving it for an hour or so reveals more – leather, aromatic tobacco, prunes, blackberry jam, masala and paprika and tumeric.  It’s not thick or strong enough to be called massive, but very interesting nevertheless, and absolutely an original.

Finish – Nice and long, dusty, dry, aromatic.  Leather, port-infused cigarillos, olives, sweet red bell peppers, paprika.  More vegetable soup, olives.

Thoughts – Original, but not overwhelming, and that dustiness…dunno, didn’t work for me. The people who would buy this rum (or pinch it from their rich uncle’s cellar) won’t be swayed by my tasting notes or my score, of course. It pains me to say it but that remark demonstrates that what we look for in ultra-aged spirits — and often buy — is not the epitome of quality but the largest number, in a sort of testosterone-enhanced misconception that allows one to say “Mine’s bigger” (I’m as guilty of this as anyone).  Leap-before-you-look purchasing like that allows soleras and blended rums with a couple of impressive digits to continue selling briskly day in and day out, and, in this case, for a rum that was made seventy years ago to become a desperately sought must-have.

All that aside, while I like it, I don’t think it’s superlative.  It was tried utterly and absolutely blind, not even knowing what it was, and I came away not wholly enthused — so this really is as honest an opinion as you can get.  The commingling of the components is nicely done, the balance spot-on, but the dustiness and driness and spices don’t entirely click, and some of the tastes seem to clash instead of running together in harmony with each other. And so, for my money, I don’t think cracks 90.  Too bad.

(85/100)


Other Notes

  • Here are some other reviewers’ notes on the same rum:
  • This was not a regular sponsor-supplied sample. Mine came from John Go in the Phillipines, unlabelled, unidentified, mixed in with another bunch of curiosities he knew interested me, none of which he identified until after I tried them.
Sep 292018
 

Having dispensed with the age-shattering, wallet-busting Heritage Rums of the Tasting of the Century, let’s go to something a little less aged, a little less up-market, a little less well-known, and not at the same level of age or quality — something from, oh, the US.  The resurgence of rum and concomitant explosion of small micro-distilleries there suggests that sooner or later we’ll find something from over the pond and south of 49 that’ll wow our socks off.

Certainly this rum suggests that it can and implies that it does — when you peruse the website for the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5, it leaves you with the distinct impression that it’s lovingly handmade by a team of unsung experts working to redefine the category as we know it.There are glitzy photos, weather for various parts of Florida, notes that it is unadded-to and unadulterated, made from Florida molasses, aged in Florida in American oak barrels, and it’s all very positive.  “A team of craftsmen with almost a century of knowledge believe that a blend of 2, 4 and 5 years produces the most consistent and drinkable of spirits” they remark, evidently not believing either the names of these craftsmen or consistently good older rums from anywhere else are worth mentioning.

Well, never mind my snark, let’s just dive right in and taste the thing. Like many lightly-aged blends it was gold in colour and edged timidly above the standard strength with 43% ABV.  The initial nose presented crisply and with a light fruitiness (pears, apples and apricots). It didn’t develop much beyond that, though after half an hour I could sense some vanilla, nuts, brown sugar, flowers and raspberries – and it got sharper, edgier, over time, not less, which is usually the hallmark of a very young rum, or very active barrels (they use once-used ex-bourbon barrels for ageing).

Taste-wise, not bad.  It felt something like a cross between a light Spanish style anejo and a weak Demerara without distinctly adhering to the profile of either.  Dry and crisp, it was not entirely easy on the palate — that’s the uncouth youth coming through — tasting mostly of light white fruits (guavas, pears, that kind of thing), pecans, coffee, oak and leather, and gradually developed those fruity notes the nose had hinted at – raspberries and very ripe cherries, all overlain with tannins, breakfast spices and light molasses.  The finish, quite short and sharp, was more sweet-ish, with some bitter chocolate oranges, vanilla, brown sugar and quite a bit of oak bite.

My take is that the pot still part doesn’t provide a good balance to the lighter column still portion, the age is still too young, and I felt that the oak was really overactive, exacerbating the driness and slight bitterness beyond the point of being totally approachable – though I say this as an evaluator taking it neat (as I must), not a mixing guru, for whom such a profile would probably shine more. Not a rum to sip really, more one to mix up into a cocktail of some kind.  According to Robin Wynne, that sterling barman running Miss Thing’s in Toronto who spotted me the bottle in the first place, “…I [would make] an Old Fashioned with it, or swapping out bourbon in a Vieux Carre with it. Also makes a great rum negroni…” So there are some suggestions for those inclined in that direction.

When I started sniffing around, the reps in Toronto were very helpful in providing additional information which is not on the webpage, and the story behind the brand is  somewhat more prosaic (and to my mind, rather more interesting) than what’s on public display. Noxx & Dunn is a relatively new rum on the American scene, created a few years ago by a group of individuals who used to be part of Appleton’s salesforce and were let go when Campari acquired it.  They formed their own little outfit called The Tall Tale Spirit company, and this is their only product (so far). It’s meant, as far as I’m able to determine, as a barroom mixer. The rum is primarily (but not totally) column still distillate, the blend of which is a trade secret but kept reasonably constant in order to make for a consistent taste profile.  Note that TTS don’t actually own or operate a distillery, or grow sugar cane or anything – the distillation is done by Florida Caribbean Distillers and the source is molasses from the cane grown in that state (see “other notes” below). What we have at the other end of the process, then, is a blended two-year-old rum with added components of rums four and five years old, made under contract to TTS’s specifications. Also on the plus side, there are no additives, it’s 43% and it’s fully aged in Florida in the usual American ex-bourbon oak barrels.

Overall, this is the sort of rum that is fine in a bar – which is where I found it – but not for greedily savoured home-consumption or sharing with the rum chums to show off one’s incredible perspicacity in sleuthing out undiscovered steals. Not to diss the makers, who evidently are pouring some real passion into their work, but I think it’s like many other such rums from the USA that aren’t entirely multi-column-still flavoured ethanols: too afraid to go where the flavours might actually lead, too timid to amp it up a few volts and really provide a mixer with balls or a sipper with style. It’s just shy of being a true original and that’s a shame for something that’s otherwise quite intriguing.

(#553)(78/100)


Other notes

  • As noted, the Noxx & Dunn is a contract “private label” operation, not a cane-to-cork producer. The distillery of origin is Florida Caribbean Distillers, located halfway between Orlando and Tampa: they control the Club Caribe Distillery in Puerto Rico, as well as distilleries in Lake Alfred and Auburndale (both in Florida), and provide distillation, storage, ageing and bottling facilities as part of their service.
  • Only one other review of this exists, by the Rum Howler, here.  He liked it a lot more than I did, so his opinion is worth noting, given my own more middling score.
Sep 262018
 

Few are unaware of the existence of the J. Bally 1929 – for those who troll the online shops it remains one of the few very old bottlings from inter-war Gilded Age times to remain available…if one has over two grand kicking about to buy it.The Bally 1924, on the other hand, is a whole lot rarer – I can’t remember the last time I saw one coming up for discussion, let alone sale. And one could argue that its heritage is much more gold-plated – it’s the first vintage from J. Bally. I’ve tried quite a few from this bottler, one dating back to the 1960s, but to try the very first?  That might be worth a kidney right there.

This bottle being such a piece of heritage, a little history is in order. J. Bally was named after Jacques Bally, a graduate of a top engineering school in Paris, the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (ECP, founded in 1829) – he snapped up the Lajus Plantation on Martinique in 1917, a mere fifteen years after Mount Pelee erupted, when memories of that disaster were still fresh and land prices were cheap (Lajus, founded in 1670, was already in foreclosure, having gone bankrupt after the 1902 disaster). By 1920 he had installed new steam engine, fixed up the salvageable equipment he could and (legend has it) pretty much built his own column still from scratch.  In that same year the nearby Habitation Dariste owned by the the Gronier family went bankrupt and Bally bought it in 1923 and moved the distillery equipment to Lajus to augment his own machniery. In 1930, by which time he was already laying away rum stocks to age, he also had a hand in designing the signature pyramidical and square bottles which became so associated with Bally in later years. The rhums Bally made were very popular, sold well, and the company remained in business until the 1980s when Remy Cointreau acquired it, at which point production was shut down at Lajus and moved to Domaine du Simon where (as far as I know), it’s still being made, with cane from Lajus. Note that in 2003 La Martiniquaise bought out Saint James and Bally (to add to their rum portfolio which already contained the brands of Depaz, Dillon, Negrita and Old Nick) which is why the Remy Cointreau’s webpage makes no mention of either one now.

Aside from being made so long ago, what makes the 1924 special is that it was the initial release of an aged rhum from Bally, and one of the first of its kind in the French West Indies, if not the first. Jacques Bally took inspiration from cognac and eau-de-vie makers in France and was apparently the first to consider ageing Martinique rhums in oak. This provided the initial release of his rums in the 1920s with a depth of quality that made them extremely popular and well-known, and one can just imagine all the other distilleries on the island rushing to copy the idea. The inevitable question arises, how old is the 1924 vintage?  “More than six years,” said Luca in a text to me, and that makes sense if the bottle that houses it was only designed and made in 1930. We can leave it there with only one other great unknown, and that’s how many bottles were released – and nobody knows that any longer, sorry. I hit a brick wall on that one.

Enough of the pedantic stuff. How was it to taste, eliminating all the baggage of history and heritage and rarity the rhum came with? It’s one thing to sing high praises because it’s from so far back, but a cold review is somewhat more challenging, especially considering the august company in which I tried it – the Tasting of the Century in September 2018.  You can bet that I was paying real close attention and took a long time with my glass on this one, if only so I wouldn’t be embarrassed when real writers came out with their own notes.

Nose first: nice! For all its age, the Bally 1924 could have come off the line last year and you’d never know it.  It smelled of fresh squeezed apple juice, pears with oodles of sweet light aromas, flowers, sugar water and watermelon, out of which emerged a nice melange of crushed walnuts, fanta, lemon zest, crisp yellow mangoes and cumin.  If you were tasting it blind you’d swear this was an agricole you could pick up online for some reasonable coin – like the Harewood 1780, it presented a profile not a hundred miles removed from something produced today.

Bottled at 45% ABV, the Bally 1924, for all the noble pedigree granted by being made so far back, in many ways resembled Bally rhums from past decades’ that I went through three years ago. It was slightly sharp on the palate, and as clean and clear as any of its descendants.  Apples, cider, brine and olives came smoothly off the assembly line, bolted on to emergent flavours of pears in syrup, green grapes, spices, more lemon zest, leather, a touch of vanilla and nougat and a vague hint of grass, black tea, earthy musk, and rosemary. The overall balance, cleanliness of the mouthfeel was excellent, and the ageing had definitely sanded down any rough edges – it was quite simply a pleasant drink to have, fading easily into a smooth finish that provided little that was new, just a languorous recap of the highlights – peaches, pears, mangoes, lemon zest, watermelon and sweet flowers and herbs and a pinch of cumin. A neat and near-perfect little agricole, coming together beautifully.

Well. How to score something like this? Well, I’m going to give it a solid endorsement — not that this means anything given its mythical near-unicorn status. But I should note in passing that for all its quality, the Bally 1924 strikes me more as an essay in the craft of agricole than a completely finished product that stands the test of time. It shows what they were before the snapped into focus in the last few decades of the AOC regs.

Perhaps it’s unfair to rate a rhum made nearly a hundred years ago to the standard of today when so much has changed in the interim — and for sure others around the table that day loved it (Matt rated it as his personal favourite for the evening).  To round things up: the Harewood 1780 presented a startlingly modern profile that went in its own brilliant direction way, strong, forceful, distinct; the Skeldon 1978 couldn’t rise above its elder brother but was still quite an amazing drink; and the Saint James 1885 was a rum made in a style quite different from agricoles as a whole, unique and interesting.  The Bally is caught in a limbo between the modern versions of the spirit, and the old ways of the 1885 – that’s in no way a failure, just that the competition is more fierce because we’ve had so many rums that are so similar to it.

But you know, whatever the score, there’s a certain cachet, even honour, in having been able to try a quartet of such grail-quest rums, so old, so rare, so absolutely stinking of rum history, so generously shared.  The Tasting of the Century might one day be exceeded (though I can’t for the life of me imagine what rums would comprise version 2.0); but whether that happens or not, I’ll always be happy to have tried the Bally — because it was one of those rhums that pointed the way to the modern era of cane juice rhums, so exactingly made, so proudly issued, so excellent to drink.  The Saint James 1885 might be the doddering grandaddy of the French island rhum style, but the 1924 with its crisp and clear profile taking us back to the beginning of the modern era, is surely its godfather.

(#552)(86/100)


Other Notes

Sep 242018
 

By now just about anyone in touch with the rum blogosphere on social media is aware of the add-on to the Hampden Rums launch hosted by La Maison-Velier in September 2018: the “Rum Tasting of the Century” — though I believe the words “…so far” were were silently tacked on by some of us participants, hoping against hope for another (better, older) one before we get laid to rest like Nelson in a cask of DOK.  Nor are many unaware of the four aged unicorn rums we were privileged to try as part of the Tasting – Skeldon 1978, Bally 1924, Harewood House 1780, and the subject of this revisit, the Rhum des Plantations St. James 1885. 

I’d had the luck and good fortune to sample the St. James before and have written about it as part of the Rumaniacs.  This of course cut me absolutely zero slack with the attending Collective – because for all our camaraderie and friendship (online and off), we’re a cheerfully competitive bunch of people, and like to get our personal opinions settled (no others being as good as our own, naturally) before even acknowledging that someone else may have tried a particular rum in front of us.

Still, we had to get facts, and a lot of our preliminary conversations and subsequent texts and messages revolved around the data points, which are as follows: the rhum was made in 1885 on Martinique, and derived from cane juice that was boiled prior to fermentation.  Although the exact age is unknown, it was certainly shipped off the island before Mount Pelée erupted in 1902 and destroyed all stocks there, so at an absolute maximum it can be 17 years old. This is, however unlikely – few rums or rhums were aged that long back then, and the opinion of the master blender of St James (Mark Sassier) that it was 8-10 years old is probably the best one (Cyril of DuRhum has some additional details in his 2016 review) . Following the eruption of the volcano, the only remaining bottles were in Europe and gradually unsold ones were acquired (many from the cellars of Bardinet) and sent back to Martinique and put on sale.  Luca, who was a brand ambassador for St. James at one time, eventually acquired (or so legend goes) about 300 bottles in the 1980s. One of them, 47% ABV as tested in 1991, stood before us in a conference room in the Four Seasons in London overlooking theThames, awaiting our attention.

The first thing everyone remarked on about this rhum was the colour – a dark dark dark mud brown.  The second thing was the aroma. Without doubt this remained one of the richest rum smells of my own experience: it was redolent of coffee, licorice, coca-cola, bitter chocolate, coconut shavings accompanied by enormous notes of molasses.  There were, after some additional minutes, some light fruits and florals and lemon peel, but overall, it reminded one of nothing so much as a Demerara rum, not an agricole, and a really heavy, thick Demerara at that.

Though my tasting memories of the first 1885 rum I had tried three years earlier had faded somewhat, I still remembered much of the core profile, and these were back for an encore, with the same dull richness that made it so memorable back then. Bitter chocolate, nougat, nuts, grated coconut and coffee led off the charge, with flanking movements of licorice, caramel, coke and the noticeable leather and oak tannins that spoke to some ageing.  Fruits again – pears, orange zest, plums, blackberries. The texture on the tongue was heavy, stopping just short of cloying, and I must remark on the fact that it was overtaken a little too much by the forceful molasses tastes. Still, it was a great sip, and the rum glided smoothly to the finish with last notes of earthy mustiness, roasted chestnuts, molasses (of course), fast-fading fruitiness, dates and chocolate.

What a difference a mere three years makes.  In 2015 my sample of the Saint James 1885 got rated 90, and I commented favourably on its depth and complexity.  Certainly, compared to the rhums against which it was being tried that day (Barbancourt 25 YO and 15 YO, La Martiniquaise Rhum Pur, La Favorite 1990, and J. Bally 6 YO) and my own experience with uber-old spirits to that point, it was a score I have no problems defending.  However, since then I’ve tasted and gone into depth with and written about another 300+ rums, and quite aside from wry commentaries about not having a life, it’s clear that both increased experience and different comparators do make a difference in assessing the same rum years later.

On that basis, I’m going to rank it a few points lower this time, but in truth, the score is meaningless for a rhum this rare and that expensive and from so far back.  I think that for anyone who has opportunity to try a rum made over a hundred years ago, it’s enough to simply say that they drank it. It’s a window into perceiving French island’s rhum before agricoles became agricoles, before the AOC, before the production methodologies of today.  It promotes understanding of how rum has developed and changed over the decades and centuries, and if one is left with a single thought after the fact, it’s that it was and remains an experience to rival few others in our long journey of rum appreciation. That alone might be worth all the points anyone could ever give it.

(#551)(87/100)


Other Notes