Ruminsky

Apr 172015
 
rum-caroni-1994-18-anni

Photo courtesy of Velier

 

This Caroni isn’t the strongest one in the rumosphere but it conforms to most of the expectations taste-wise – a shade more dark and it could probably be used to surface a road somewhere. A good to great exemplar from the closed distillery.

(#211. 87/100)

***

This is one of five or six rums I bought in an effort to raise the profile of the now-defunct Caroni Distillery from Trinidad. That it was made by Velier didn’t hurt either, of course, because almost alone among the rums makers out there, Luca Gargano has the distinction of making just about all of his rums at cask strength, and everything he’s made thus far I’ve liked.  And at 55% ABV, it may just be accessible to a wider audience, assuming it can ever be found in the jungle of Caronis Velier makes (I bought mine from Italy for a lire or two under €80).

Because Caroni has now been closed for over a decade, its products are getting harder to find as stocks run down — when we start seeing expressions dated from the year 2000 and greater, the end is near, and purely on that basis they may be good investment choices for those inclined that way.  Bristol Spirits and Rum Nation and some other craft makers have issued rums from here before, but Velier probably has the largest selection of this type in existence (sometimes varying strengths from the same year), and I know I’ll never get them all…so let’s stick with this one, and waste no further time.

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Presentation is slightly different than the stark zen minimalism of the Guyanese rums; here it came with a black and white box, nice graphics, and all the usual useful information: distilled in 1994, aged 18 years (fourteen in Trinidad, thereafter in Guyana), bottled 2012, 6943 bottles from 23 barrels.  Plastic tipped cork (these are coming into their own these days, and are hardly worthy of comment any longer except by their absence), black bottle, decent label, and, I have to mention, when I poured it out, it was quite the darkest Caroni I’d tried thus far, which had me rubbing my hands together in glee.

I appreciate higher proofed spirits topping 60%, yet I couldn’t fault what had been accomplished in this instance with something a few points lower: the rich aromas of this dark blonde rum led off immediately with licorice and candied apples, strong and full fruity scents mixing with sharper tannins of oak; there was some burnt rubber and plastic hiding in there someplace, like a well insulated rubber truncheon to the face.  It was pleasant and full and rich, pervaded by a both deep and heated lusciousness.  The longer I let it stand, the more I got out of it, and recall with pleasure additional notes of burnt sugar, rosy, floral scents, cedar and pine…and, as if to tip me a roué’s leering wink, a last laugh of mint flavoured bubble gum (no, really – I went back to the glass four times over two days to make sure I wasn’t being messed with).

As if to make up for its mischievousness, the Caroni 1994, aged for eighteen years in oak barrels in Trinidad and Guyana, turned serious with a hint of mean on the palate.  Sharp, salty, briny tastes led right off. It was a spirituous assault on the tongue, so bright and fierce that initially it made me feel like I’d just swallowed an angry blender.  Fortunately, that smoothened out over time, and became gentler (if a term like that could be applied to such a concussive drink) – a buttery, creamy profile emerged from the maelstrom, merging seamlessly with oaken tannins, licorice, vanillas, aromatic pipe tobacco, some fresh tar; and more caramel and burnt sugar  tastes, that were stopped just shy of bitterness by some magic of the maker’s art.  And the long and lasting finish was similarly bold and complex, bringing last memories of nuts, tannins and hot black tea to leaven the caramel and anise I detected.

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As we drink this powerful shot, we come to grips with a certain essential toughness of the maker, an unsubtle reminder of a man who makes no small rums, but feral, mean, blasting caps that glance with indifference at the more soothing exemplars which pepper all the festivals and tasting events. It’s big, blunt, intimidating and seemingly impervious to dilution (I can only imagine what the stronger version is like). This Caroni is not subtle but then, Velier doesn’t really do milquetoast, preferring bold in-your-face statements to understated points of please-don’t-hurt-me diffidence.  So I’d suggest that it’s not a rum for everyone…but in its elemental power of proof lies its appeal: to those who are willing to brave it, and to those who enjoy an occasional walk on the wild side with a rum as fascinating and excellent as this one.

Other notes

Look again at the outturn for that year and that strength: just shy of 7,000 bottles from 23 casks.  And that’s only 1994. When you consider the sheer range of the Caronis Velier has already put out the door, and the sadly slim pickings (thus far) from other craft makers, you begin to get an inkling of exactly how much stock Velier has managed to pick up.

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Apr 082015
 

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Another, slightly lesser brother from the same mother. It stands in the shadow of the company’s magnificent 34 Year Old.

(#210 / 85/100)

***

It’s possible that Bristol Spirits decided to play it safe (again) with the 43% expression from the closed Caroni Distillery of Trinidad…y’know, give it a wider audience than the drop-down-dead-of-old-age 34 year old 1974 variation which would dig a deep hole in both your wallet and your marriage. Or maybe that’s how the barrel played out when it came time to bottle the liquor (notice that 2008 was the same year they produced the 1974, so both were issued simultaneously). It’s good, but in my own opinion, could have been a shade better — their contention that they’re happy with the strength at which they issue their rums always struck me as taking the road more commonly travelled instead of breaking out to chart their own path.

Which is not to say that anyone buying the 19 year old will be disappointed. Even the appearance is quietly dramatic and eye catching, and adheres to Bristol’s standards: a psychedelic orange label on a barroom bottle with a plastic tipped cork, all housed in a cool black torpedo tube lettered in silver. I love Velier’s minimalism, but must concede I have a soft spot for Bristol as well.

Anyway, the rum itself: column-still produced, it was a dark golden brown liquid in the glass, displaying slow, chubby legs draining away down the sides. At 43% it was mellow to smell, dense and almost heavy with dark cherries, hibiscus blooms, licorice and a touch of brown sugar and molasses.  Yet at the same time it was also quite clean on the nose, warm, without any overweening alcohol sharpness that would have debased the rather luscious aroma.

To taste, the Caroni 1989 would not be described as “heavy,” as opposed to a full-proofed Demerara hailing from a wooden still, or a massively aged Jamaica rum flinging dunder and funk in all directions, both of which really could be. It was, in point of fact, a curious and delicious melange of textures that accurately navigated to being a medium bodied rum without actually being a pussyfooted one-hit-wonder. A column still distillate produced this?  Wow. Rich — but not overwhelming — notes of anise, fleshy fruit on the edge of ripeness, brown sugar, licorice, some molasses started things going, and after opening up you could tell the shared DNA of the 1974 (which I was tasting side by side): it was a less aggressive, easier version of that growling geriatric Trini. There were faint tastes of black olives, smoke, tannins and smoke, mixed in with road tar (this actually sounds worse than it is, trust me). I could not detect any of that salt and nuttiness that I remarked on the 1974 and it was a very pleasant drinking experience all ‘round…until the end.

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I’m going to spare a word about what to me was a disappointing finish for something so aged.  It was lacklustre in a way that was surprising after the quality of what had come before, and which diminished the positive impact of the preceding nose and palate.  This is where the 43% works against the rum and lessens the overall experience I’m afraid (some may disagree).  Sure it was clean and warm, even a shade dry, on the exit, with caramel and vanilla and smoky notes to finish things off…but it displayed a too-short attitude of good-enough “git-’er-dun” that offended me in a vague way. So yeah, the 43% does make a difference (just as 35% or 55% would).

I’m sort of conflicted on this Caroni.  I certainly liked it enough: it’s a rambunctious, delicious rum with a great profile and sleek, supple tastes to it — but which chokes a little on the back end.  The question is – as it must be – whether it’s as good as the 34 year old expression, or just different.  It’s probably leaning more to the latter. At the end, while it’s not quite as remarkable as its sibling, if you’re on a budget and want a Caroni, this one is an absolutely decent buy (I paid €130 for it), and you won’t feel short-changed if you spring for the thing, my whinging on the finish aside. Because it’s a Caroni and because I wanted to give the distillery some exposure, I bought it (and four or five others from various makers)…yet personally, I’d prefer to wait and save for something a bit more mature, something…well, beefier.  Like the 1974. Even at 46%, that one at least had some of the courage of its convictions.

 

Mar 312015
 

D3S_9014

A clean, warm and smooth rum from Peru, which is extremely accessible to anyone who doesn’t like cask strength rums.

(#209. 86/100)

***

Into the shadowed world of dronish and often-boring label design, the screaming green of the Peruano stands out like a neon tarantula on a wedding cake.  It’s an assault on the visual cortex that can’t help but make you catch your breath, mutter an amused “wtf?” and move in for a closer look. Not that this has anything to do with the quality of the rum inside, of course.  I merely bring up the point to remark on the fact that originality in any form is a vanishing breed in the rum world and we should be grateful for such small winks from the craft makers even if it’s only a marketing plug.

Bristol Spirits is an independent bottler out of the UK which started life in 1993, and is therefore something of a recent entrant to the field (Cadenhead, by contrast, has been around for over a hundred and fifty years).  Their barrel selection from the various countries around the Caribbean has created an enviable track record of limited bottlings; I’ll always have good memories of the Port Mourant 1980, and the 1970s era editions remain on my must-have list. They don’t seem to hew to any particular ageing philosophy – some of their older bottlings were aged in the UK, while others, like this one, were kept in situ.

Anyway, the obligatory opening remarks out of the way, what have we got here? An eight year old, molasses-based, column-still rum from Peru, made from the blend of eight barrels (distillery not mentioned) which were then aged at altitude in used bourbon casks before being shipped to Europe. And bottled at what for an independent bottler, seems a rather low-strength 40% (with some exceptions, they make most of their rums at 43-46%)…however, they noted in an email to me that they were quite happy with that proof.

Nosing the blonde spirit gave some clues as to why the decision may have been made in this instance: it was soft, clean…almost delicate. No pot still could have created something this light and unaggressive (my opinion). Initial smooth scents of hay and vegetal flavours gave way to more luscious soft fruit – peaches, ripe dark cherries, even a touch of mocha, but all very restrained, even shy.  It was a rum that if you really wanted to dissect it, you really had to put some effort in.

As I poured it out and sampled it for the first time, I wondered what Bristol was trying to do here – make a competitor to Rum Nation’s Millonario 15, maybe?  It shared many of the characteristics of that product: light to medium body, slightly sweet, immediately redolent of white guavas, flowers and a smooth cream cheese.  But then it went its own way, and I noted a slight sharp whiff of bitterness emerging, bright and clear like the inlay on a ginsu knife.  It was at odds with the easy-going nature of what had come before, while not entirely detracting from it – it provided, in fact, a kind of pleasing counterpoint, because the balance of the competing elements was pretty good.  Adding water opened up more fruits, vanilla, some oak influence and a whiff of dry tobacco. For a standard strength rum it also exited well, though this was short, shy, bright, a little sharp, as if a can of peaches in syrup had been sprinkled with some cinnamon and lemon juice.

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Independent bottlers tend to be more associated with cask strength behemoths than such laid-back fare, so I was not entirely sure what Bristol’s intentions were, with this Peruvian eight year old. Their recent foray into spiced rum territory makes me worry that perhaps they are abandoning their craft-bottler, limited-edition ethic that produced such incandescent gems as the PM 1980, and now they are swinging for easier sales by diluting down to 40% (they didn’t specifically address that point in they communique to me, and I had not asked).  On the other hand, the rum is gentle, even elegant (I had similar feelings about the Juan Santos 21 year old), and so perhaps this was something that had to be done lest additional proofage obliterate the subtler harmonies of what I detected.

Be that as it may, for anyone who likes standard strength rums without too much intensity or in-yer-face attitude, this is a good one.  I’d be surprised if more editions from Peru don’t follow this one out the door, in the years to come. Because even with its limited outturn, I think a lot of people will enjoy it, and it leaves us all with another colourful tile in the worldwide mosaic of rum…if the label didn’t already provide that, of course.

***

Other notes

Based solely on the profile, I suspect this hails from the same distillery as the Millonario 15 and XO (Rum Nation never identified it); which implies it was from the Cartavio boys in Trujillo. On the other hand those rums are soleras and this one is not, and Trujillo is at sea level on the coast while Bristol noted the ageing took place at altitude: so the question remains open.  For the record, Bristol declined to provide the distillery name or the number of bottles issued, but Fabio Rossi via Henrik from Denmark (see comments below) did acknowledge the source.

Marco on Barrel Aged Thoughts has a company profile and product listing for Bristol Spirits (in German), for those who are interested in other aspects of the company.

Mar 242015
 

D3S_9061


Young, rambunctious, uncoordinated, somewhat raw, and a riot in a mix of any kind.  Even neat it has a funky, raw charm all its own. In that, it’s an agricole all the way through.

(#208. 83/100)

***

The J Bally Ambrè Agricole is a young rhum that is still finding its legs, and places its origins in an estate on Martinique that stretches back to 1670, when the Lajus sugar plantation was founded.  It was one of those rhums from a company that has long had its place in the roll call of honour of the French West Indies – HSE, Trois Rivieres, Damoiseau, La Favourite, Courcelles, JM, La Mauny, Neisson are some others. I wish it was easier to find outside of Europe – I sure never saw anything like it in Canada when I lived there.

The eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902 completely destroyed parts of the island, and decimated its economy for years.  By the time Jacques Bally (no relation, ha ha) started sniffing around for opportunities fifteen years later, Lajus was already bankrupt and in receivership, and he bought it for a fire sale price. He shifted the emphasis away from sugar and towards the production of rhums, and in a daring innovation (for that or any other time) introduced quirky bottle shapes like the triangular one of the 7 year old, or the square blocky shape of this subject.  Within a few years the rhums of Bally were known over the island and were receiving good reviews worldwide.

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The blocky square shape of the Ambre was retained through the years to this day.  I wish they had not surmounted it with a cheap-ass tin foil cap, though….consciously or unconsciously it says something about the overall value the makers place on the rhum within.  Still, it had a lovely colour when sunlight beamed through it, and slow thick legs draining down the glass edge, and that gave me hope.

Nor was I disappointed: the Ambrè had what I can only call an amazing nose.  Yes it was light, grassy, herbal and vegetal.  I expected that.  Yes, it was heated, even sharp – for a rhum aged three or four years and issued at 45% ABV, it was a given that a soft feather brush wasn’t on the cards.  What I really enjoyed was the depth and pungency of the aromas, and how, after a while, they gave up generous secondary scents of distinct plums, peaches and ripe yellow mangoes.  I don’t know if it’s something about agricoles specifically, but many that I’ve tried seem to have this really strong intro, sharp and pungent and assertive (for good or ill), often quite complex even in the young ‘uns.

Tastewise, I didn’t feel it brought quite as much to the table: the Ambrè was medium heavy, with a decent textural sensation on the tongue, and the 45% gave it some heft and spiciness.  Here some of the mouth puckering driness and aggro I’ve also noted in several agricoles was evident, as was a a funky sweet grassiness hearkening back to fresh cut cane in the field after the fires have come through.  Sweet fruits like pineapple and (again) overripe mangoes were evident, which with some concentration could be further deconstructed into vanilla, some faint leather (probably deriving from the oak in which it was aged), cloves and rosemary, tightly bound into a central grassy, sap-like core.  And it all faded into a peppery, dry and clear finish with those same herbal notes, that was a bit too harsh for my personal taste. I imagine that the older expressions would smoothen things out more.

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These days, J. Bally no longer exists as an independent, completely integrated entity in its own right. After being acquired by Remy Cointreau in the 1980s, the distillery operations were closed and shifted to the centralized Simon Distillery, though I gather that the original recipe for its rhums remains intact, and sugar production continues at Lejus, as does the bottling and ageing up the road at Le Carbet. As with many French island products, it retains a certain cult following, and a cachet all its own.  The Ambrè may not be at the top of the line, but as a representative of unique agricole style of rhums, and AOC controlled, it hews to all the old traditions that made it so well known in past decades.

The J. Bally is as original and peculiar an agricole as I’ve had; it’s certainly right there in the wheelhouse of other famed agricoles, and your affinity for it will depend on your willingness to surrender to its style and tone and appreciate a slightly raw smacked-on-peyote vibe.  You may describe it variously as “dry”, “vegetal”, “sprightly” if you enjoy it, and “dry,” “vegetal” and “sprightly” if you don’t — the adjectives you add will show your feelings.  It’s all about perception and patience, I think, and while not entirely falling under its spell, I didn’t begrudge the time it took sample the supple charms of this young, not-quite-tamed rum from Martinique.  It was quite an enjoyable experience and I look forward to climbing up the age-value chain to see how the older expressions develop.

***

Other notes:

Unfiltered, unadulterated.  Aged in oak for 3-4 years

Mar 182015
 
D3S_8975

Not my best rum photo ever: I had set the shutter speed too slow…

 

This is definitely a rum to chillax with. A solid, relaxed and very pleasant Salvadorean rum which should be given some attention…even if it’s actually from Panama.

(#207. 83/100)

***

Assume you were a new outfit in a country A and were making a new rum whose brand was once owned and which was once made, by your family; you sourced distillate from another country, B; used that country B’s facilities to make and age the finished product; and hired a Master Blender, also from that B country.  Now, the question is, whose rum is it? A or B? This is not nearly as academic an exercise as it seems, because Ron Maya purports to be a rum from El Salvador, yet the sugar cane and distillate hail from Panama, the rum is aged in Panama, and the ‘recipe’ for the final blend comes courtesy of Don Pancho Fernandez, also associated with the Panamanian industry.

When I ran across the rum at the Berlin 2014 Rum Festival (where it won a Bronze medal for 11-14 year old rums), the company representative was quite clear about the matter without any prompting. She told me frankly that the purpose of making both this product and its younger 8-year old sibling (also an award winner in Madrid in 2014), was to kickstart a long-dormant rum industry in El Salvador generally, and for the family that owned the brand specifically. The issue is not entirely without precedent – for example, Pyrat’s no longer has much, if anything, to do with Anguilla, St Nicholas Abbey sourced its original stocks  from FourSquare, and many Caribbean Islands’ companies buy molasses from Guyana…and you sure never see that anywhere on various labels. (My opinion is below).

That out of the way, what are we to make of the twelve year old rum aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and issued at a soothing unaggressive 40%? It was housed in a squat green bottle, decent plastic tipped cork, and marked with a bare minimum of information on the label – including that “El Salvador” moniker – and poured out in a bright golden liquid. It smelled like what it was, a soft, easy-going, medium-bodied rum, with vanillas, some brown sugar and coconut politely jostling for my attention. There was no aggressiveness at all here, and my initial opinion was that it was a good all-rounder: it could just as easily be a mixer, had neat, or over ice for those who preferred it that way. Still, given its rather gentle aroma, I’m not sure how much any mix would add to its value…a cola or ginger beer might just shred the thing.

Things got rather more assertive as I tasted it (and I went back to it twice that day when no-one was looking just to confirm my initial impressions) – the lightness of the nose gave way to a taste that was more solid.  Soft fleshy fruits, vanilla, a flirt of citrus were in evidence, followed by peaches and ripe apples and smoke.  And again that hint of lemon zest and perhaps even a bit of ginger, for a fillip of complexity. It was very Panamanian, or Latin if you wish – there were aspects of it that reminded me of similarly serene Peruvian and Colombian rums I’ve had, and could be confused with an Abuelo 12 (which was heavier), Juan Santos 12 (a shade lighter), or even Rum Nation’s 18 year old (a bit more complex).  The finish was smooth, warm and quite docile, providing pleasant reminders of what had gone before it.

Maja is trying to jump start an indigenous rum industry, and have created a very good rum from stocks which have all been aged twelve years (it’s not a blend of various ages).  To do this properly, what they have to do is grab some market share from more established companies, and hew to the standard proof line. My own feelings on 40% are not new: still, putting aside such a personal predilection, I believe that the Ron Maja 12 year old is a solid mid-tier rum whose great strength will be its overall delectability and versatility, if not true passion (it’s really not the kind of rum that inspires solo trans-Atlantic voyages in a bathtub, for example, or grandly-declaimed love from the rooftops by misguided lovelorn swains).

It’s simply good, and what it brings to the table is accessibility (many will really enjoy its laid-back profile), overall quality, and lack of in-your-face bite.  It’s a well-made, smooth and warm drink, with enough going on within that you’ll never doubt that it still remembers it’s a rum. And at 40% and €45 per bottle, you really won’t have a problem drinking it neat, which for me is a pretty good recommendation.

Other notes:

  • The Rumporter online magazine has a small article on this rum here, in French.

http://www.rumporter.com/fr/magazines/numero-3

  • I have an outstanding email in play to Ron Maja, where they promised to get back on to me regarding more history and background; when received, I’ll update this post.

Opinion

While appreciating the logistics and other problems Maja no doubt has undergone in bringing its product to market, I am going on record as disapproving of the labeling exercise – it ignores the reality of what this rum really is, and touches on larger issues of truth in advertising and presentation. The founding family and originator of Ron Maja is from El Salvador – is this enough to make it a Salvadorean rum when everything that comprises it except the owners, is from somewhere else?

For this to be presented as being what it supposedly is, I believe that some part of the production process has to be in El Salvador (like the Islands mentioned above have ageing and blending facilities in their territories, or St Nick’s is aged and bottled at the Abbey).  The cane, the molasses, the distillation or the bottling…something.  This may just be a fig leaf to add that touch of respectability or verisimilitude, but it would give consumers a better idea of what it is they are getting for their money.

Mar 112015
 

D3S_9323-001

An assembly of two rums that are great on their own, made even better by being blended before ageing.

(#206. 91/100)

***

Permit me a brief box-ticking here: Velier issues cask strength monsters akin to top end whiskies (but which cost less); they hearken to individual distilleries, sometimes to individual stills within that distillery; and Luca Gargano, the maitre, has stocks of Guyanese rums and the Trini Caronis that beggar the imagination; and while occasionally there are rums that don’t quite ascend to the brilliance of others, the overall oevre is one of enormous collective quality. Here, Velier has taken something of a left turn – this rum is what Luca calls an “experimental”.  Which is to say, he’s playing around a bit.  The price of €150 is high enough to cause a defense contractor to smile, and reflects the rums rarity – only 848 bottles are in existence (as an aside, compare this price to the 7000 bottles or so of the thousand-dollar Black Tot).

Blending of rums to produce the final product which makes it to our shelves usually takes place after they have slept a while in their wooden beds.  Ever-willing to buck the trend and go its own way, Velier blended the core distillates (from the Port Mourant double-pot still, and the Enmore wooden Coffey still) right up front, and then aged the mix for sixteen years (it’s a 2014 release).  The theory was that the disparate components had a chance to meld from the beginning, and to harmonize and age as one, fully integrating their different profiles.  It’s a bit of a gamble, but then, so is marriage, and I can’t think of a more appropriate turn of phrase to describe what has been accomplished here

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Appearance wise, box is decent; bottle and label were utterly standard, as always seems to be the case with Velier – they have little time for fancy designs and graphics, and stick with stark minimalism.  Black bottle, white label, lots of info, plastic tipped cork, surrounding a dark amber rum inside. When that rum poured, I took a prudent yet hopeful step backwards: prudent because I didn’t feel like being coshed over the head with that massive proof, hopeful because in remembering the PM 1974 and the Skeldon 1973, I was hoping that the aromas would suffuse the atmosphere like the police were quelling a good riot nearby.

I wasn’t disappointed on either score. That nose spread out through the room so fast and so pungently that my mother and wife ran to me in panic from the kitchen, wondering if I had been indulging in some kind of childish chem experiment with my rums. It was not as heavy as the Damoiseau 1980 which I had had just a few hours before (I was using it and the Bristol Caroni 1974 as controls), but deep enough – hot, heavy to smell and joyously fresh and crisp.  Tar, licorice and dried fruits were the lead singers here, smoothly segueing into backup vocals of black bread and butter, green olives, and a riff of coffee and smoke in the background. It had an amazing kind of softness to it after ten minutes or so, and really, I just teased myself with it for an inordinately long time.

Subtlety is not this rum’s forte, of course – it arrived on the palate with all the charming nuance of a sledgehammer to the head, and at 62.2% ABV, I was not expecting anything else. So it wasn’t a drink for the timid by any stretch, more like a hyperactive and overly-muscular kid: you had to pay close attention to what it was doing at all times.  It was sharp and heavy with molasses and anise at the same time, displayed heat and firmness and distinct, separable elements, all at once: more molasses, licorice, chopped fruit, orange peel (just a bit), raisins, all the characteristic West Indian black cake ingredients.  Adding some water brought out cinnamon, black grapes, ginger, flowers, tannins and leather, with some aromatic smoke rounding out an amazingly rich profile.

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Man this thing was an immense drink. I said I expected three profiles, but it was practically impossible to separate them out, so well were they assembled. There was just no way I could say how much came from PM, and how much from Enmore (Velier provided no information on the ratios of one to the other, merely remarking that the Enmore is dominant). It was the sort of rum that when you fully drop the hammer on it — which is to say, drink a gorilla-sized two ounce shot, hold it down for a few seconds, before slugging it down and asking for a refill — its flavours bang away at your throat like the Almighty is at the door (and pissed at you). Even the finish displayed something of that brooding Brando-esque machismo – long lasting, heated, with closing notes of strong black slightly-bitter tea, raisins and anise. It is a brilliant bit of rum-making, and answers all questions people have when they wonder if 40% is the universe. When I see my friends and commentators and reviewers and ambassadors wax rhapsodic over spiced rums and the standard proof offerings from the great and old houses, all I want to do is smile, hand them one of these, and watch their reaction.

Sooner or later, no matter how many rums I try, I always circle back to Velier. I think of the company’s products almost like James Bond films, following familiar territory time after time, differing only in the details.  It’s always fun to try a new expression of an estate specific Guyanese rum, if only to see what madness La Casa Luca has come up with this time. And here, I think we may just have the brilliance of a film like Skyfall, with its originality and uniqueness intact, hearkening back to all that has come before, recalling not only all the old glories of times past, but the remarkable synthesis of those same elements, combined into something startlingly and wonderfully new.

That was a film to treasure…and for the same reasons, so is this rum.

***

Other notes

  • Velier has also issued a Diamond+PM 1995 blend in 2014, for which I have detailed notes but not yet written the review.
  • This was the third of four samples Luca Gargano sent to me personally in September of 2014 when he heard I would be in Europe in October of that year. He has agreed that I pay for them either in cash, or with a really good, high priced dinner in Paris.
Mar 062015
 

Part 5

Part 5 – Keeping things going

So let’s sum up the preceding four parts.[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

  1. Understand what you’re getting into, and why you’re doing it
  2. Go with a comfortable writing style that suits you
  3. Design a nice look to your site
  4. Know how to taste, score, note and write (and practice a lot)
  5. Know your rums and the larger world around them
  6. Sample around extensively (safely!!! I am not advocating rampant boozing)
  7. Be courteous
  8. Be consistent

If you’ve made it to fifty or more reviews, passed a year of writing, then it’s reasonable to assume this is no longer a mere hobby, but something a shade more serious.  Still, as time and rums pass by, interest flags and it’s perhaps no longer as much fun as it used to be…more like work. God, do I have to do another one of these? Been dere, dun dat.

The most common comments I hear from other bloggers, and often experienced myself, are these:

(a)    Site hits are too few and too fickle, showing massive variations

The more you write and the more you are active online, the more hits come your way.  Of course, this presupposes some level of quality in your work, and a network of contacts who recommend your site and people who share taste, and your way of expressing it.

However, never underestimate the power of online “boosting” either. Now, if your perspective is one of “If I build it they will come” and you’re writing to speak of your experiences, your journey, without reference to how many others see what you’ve done…then letting your site sit there, idling gently, building word of mouth, is just as good as any other.

Online promotion is for people who can’t wait, are impatient to get visibility, and understand the hits multiplier that social networks enable. When you put something up, distribute and share on twitter, G+, post on the Rum forum on reddit, use Facebook to like and share, post to StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, Tumblr…these things can – in the short term at least – double and triple your site hits. The flip side is some people will inevitably see it as crass, whatever that means given the reputation of the drink we’re discussing.

(b)   Comments are few and far apart

Really, this is irrelevant. People comment when they feel like. You can certainly try to be controversial, write opinion pieces seeking engagement, create a forum for comments like the Ministry of Rum or the RumProject, be active on the FB fora, but here again, it simply takes time to get the volume.

(c)    The damn thing is too expensive

Good point.  It is pricey.  Go cheaper and build “review volume”, and remember this – you will never be able to taste them all, and there will always be an old monster you really wanted that will never be yours. At the forefront, keep in mind why you are here – if your goals have changed and this is not worth the cash, shutter the house and walk away. As a balm, I also refer you to my rather humorous take on affording your favourite tipple, which I name the “El Dorado Problem”, here.

(d)   It takes too much of my time

It can be done if you ration your time appropriately. And of course, if your commitment and persistence is there. Just for the record: I have a full time job in a foreign country; a family that has demands on my time; other interests and hobbies; a social life (such as it is); I’m studying for a professional accreditation; I’m learning another language.  I balance all this with my writing. If a lazy sod like me can do all this, there should be no reason why you can’t.

(e)   Bottles or samples acquisition sucks.  I’ve cleaned out all locals shops and bars

Create a sample-exchange network if you can (this suggests you have something someone wants and local postage laws permit it); interface with distilleries or brand reps; buy abroad and ship to yourself. Aggressive industry solicitation (“I’d like to review your products on my site…”) will work, and for sure, good relations with store owners is enormously useful – they often allow you to try heels for nothing, (like Dirk Becker’s store in Berlin, and Andrew Ferguson in Calgary always did for me, bless ‘em.)

(f)     People cannot be made to have an interest in rum no matter the effort

This is your job to fix. Consider yourself a rum ambassador.  Spread the gospel.  Those that don’t like rums are sadly misguided lambs in need of a shepherd to lead them to the cool green grass of the True Faith.

But all that aside, there are many ways to keep your interest from fading, and some of the things you can do at various times are:

1. Attend as many tastings or festivals as you can, and then write about them. Hell, run your own. At the very least you will meet people and get tasting notes for expensive rums you might not otherwise be able to afford or find.

2. Read the blogs from around the world; European ones often speak to rare and very old craft rums about which we can only dream.  Google translate does a decent job for those who are not multi-lingual, which is most of us.

3. Comment on others’ blogs (but really, do this if you have something to say, not just because you want to generate hits for yourself), join the Facebook page, start your own…make friends, even if only online.

4. Send and/or share samples on your own cognizance, of rums which you have that others might not. I’ve given away more than half of the Skeldon 1973, for example, and my PM 1980 is long gone down the gullets of the Liquorature Collective, including (to my utter delight) the Rum-despising Maltmonster and his Hippie acolyte.

5. Start a rum club of your own with like minded souls.

I’ve been doing this since 2009, and my interest is maintained by new rums, new friends, correspondents, festivals, and being part of something I feel is of worth.  I find that staying in touch generates reciprocal goodwill and increases my engagement with the larger community. And the writing, of course, keeps me busy too.  At the end, it comes down to you and what you are prepared  to do, and how seriously, or long term, you view the activity. Like any long term endeavour, you should love what you do, know what you’re about, take pride in it, and be professional.  Have a sense of humour about it all, and keep the wheels turning.   It can, with some effort, be a pastime or vocation that stretches into decades.

Hopefully these comments will give a sense of what it takes to remain that way.

***

Thanks and a big hat tip for helping me out with parts of, and background to, this essay go to:

  • Henrik Kristoffersen of RumCorner for massive investment of time and effort to comment and make this better. I stole some of his remarks.
  • TheFatRumPirate for portions of his starter-rum list
  • Josh Miller of Inuakena for a read through and encouragement.
  • All the online rum writers who over the years have candidly discussed their experiences with running a blog.
  • The Little ‘Caner, nine-year-old scion of Clan ‘Caner, who helped me with the cartoons, lent me his pencils (“Colour inside the lines, Dad!”); and the beautiful, long-suffering  Mrs. Caner, who loves me still, even if I spend too many evenings writing stuff like this.

 

 

 

Mar 052015
 

 

Part 4

 

Part 4 – Which rums to start with

In conceptual and generalized terms, this series has so far covered the startup philosophy, the website and postings, and added pointers on sampling and reviewing.  Today I move into more familiar territory.

I have a feeling quite a few people were waiting for this post.  Alas, no, this isn’t entirely what you thought it would be, because making such a list is a tricky, even controversial, subject to opinions varying as widely as the Pacific.

I’d suggest that you begin with what’s available to you easily and at a relatively low cost – those that open a new site not unnaturally tend to begin with what’s already in the cabinet, for example, and it seems that one really great rum is usually what kickstarts the inspiration process.  Now yes, this will relegate you to reviewing the old standby rums everyone knows about and which have been written on by many before you…but it also provides you with a solid base from which to start, good writing experience, and a sense of the their relative characteristics, one to the other. More, if you begin from the low end then you’ll appreciate better, older rums more as and when they cross your path – you have a good basis for comparison.  And you can calibrate better – by seeing what others have written on the same rum, you see what you may have missed (or what they have), and gain additional perspective and confidence. It helps even more with rare or limited editions that have no precedent: try finding reviews of the SMWS rum bottlings, for example…what on earth can they reasonably be compared to, if you have ‘em right off the bat?

What this is about then, is getting a firm grounding in the core rums of the world and what they taste like, and how they differ: El Dorado, Flor de Cana, Appleton, Mount Gay, FourSquare, Havana Club, Bacardi (yes, Bacardi), Clemente, Abuelo, Goslings, Diplomatico, Barbancourt, St. James, as well as standard mixers like Lamb’s, Meyer’s, Trader Vic’s, and so on (this listing is merely illustrative).  It also introduces you to the various styles upon which some place enormous emphasis – Demerara, Jamaican, Latin/Spanish/Cuban, Bajan, Agricoles and what have you (the FatRumPirate has a good section on his website devoted to this kind of stratification). If the subject and the act of reviewing is at all important to you, you kinda have to know this stuff. Rum 101, folks. You cannot be a reviewer with street cred, demanding respect, if you don’t have the basics down.

I thought long and hard before deciding against providing  detailed list of rums one could begin with because no matter how extensive, I’ll either leave something out, or include one that others disagree with; and have compromised by providing a list of companies making rums that are well known, mostly available, reasonably well-regarded (at least they’re not hated) and fairly representative.  It’s up to you to decide what your palate and your wallet can stand, and which ones in the value chain to get.

So, the rums made by the companies below are not a listing of rums with which to start your reviewing life, or a rum bar – although you could do worse –  simply ones that gives a reasonably broad base of styles and makes.  They therefore comprise a key component of a reviewer’s mental arsenal for evaluating rums. (Note I am deliberately leaving out specific rums from the eastern hemisphere, and independent bottlers. This is not to imply that they are somehow less, however.)

  • Bacardi (no matter what you think of them, they make decent rums)
  • Angostura (Trinidad)
  • El Dorado (Guyana)
  • Appleton (Jamaica)
  • Flor de Caña (Nicaragua)
  • Mount Gay (Barbados)
  • R.L.Seale / 4-Square (Barbados)
  • Havana Club (Cuba)
  • Matusalem (Dominican Republic)
  • Diplomatico (Venezuela)
  • Brugal, Barcelo and Bermudez (Dominican Republic)
  • Travellers (Belize)
  • Goslings (Bermuda)
  • Cockspur (Barbados)
  • Pusser’s (BVI)
  • Abuelo (Panama)
  • Agricoles – Barbancourt, St James, Neisson, HSE, Karukera, J. Bally, Clemente, Karukera, are examples…there are many others
  • Soleras like Zafra, Dictador, Zacapa, Santa Teresa
  • Spiced Rums like Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry’s, Kraken and so on
  • Overpoofs like the various 151 rums made by Appleton, Bacardi, Lemon Hart et al
  • Non Caribbean rums from anywhere (Australia, Thailand, India, Phillipines, Fiji, etc), even if they may not strictly be rums according to general accepted convention. The constant arguments of what constitutes a “true” rum is unlikely to be solved anytime soon, so you should also understand why the Phillipine Tanduay, Czech Tuzemak or Thai Mekhong raise the blood pressure of the puritans.

I tell all people asking me about what to begin with, to start the journey with one or two fantastic examples to show what rum can be, but then concentrate on writing initially about the low end of the market and work up. And I would strongly advise the prospective reviewer against going for, and writing about, the top end, oldest, most prestigious and/or most expensive rums right away, or those from independent bottlers who make rums that are often off the scale.  Even if you can afford them or your friends press them upon you, put them away for analysis and review later.  I know this sounds totally bat-bleep-crazy, but until you get your basics down and understand the rank and file of commercially available commonality, know your own tastes and how good sub-ten-year-olds can be, you will not be able to properly rate, appreciate or score a premium (or conversely, you may score it too enthusiastically).

Worse, it will colour all your perceptions of the good and commonly available rums forever, and this will be reflected in your writing. Buying top-end aged rums from their makers, or sourcing quality hooch from outfits like Rum Nation, Cadenhead, AD Rattray, Samaroli, Silver Seal or Velier and skipping entry-level grog altogether, is something of a one-way bridge; in comparison, more affordable and younger offerings will seem less, when in fact they really aren’t, just different, and are often good markers of their styles. From my own experience, I can freely admit that I should never have bought the Appleton 30 so quickly; or, much as I have always loved it, the English Harbour 1981.

Tomorrow – Keeping things going, and a wrap up

 

Mar 052015
 

Part 3

 

Part 3 – Sampling, and the review itself

In the first part of this series I discussed figuring out how to get your head around what to write, and followed that up in Part 2 with some general remarks on how to deal with your actual website postings. Today I continue in a similar vein about tasting, scoring and the conceptuals of a review.

***

When I taste I scribble my initial notes immediately; then I have to retaste, usually with other rums in play as controls or comparators, then score.  Then I have to turn the whole thing into a coherent essay, including research, background and photographs. The re-edits can sometimes take days. Then, and only then, do I post on this site.

Some pointers that work for me and which I’d recommend – the list is not entirely for more casual bloggers, but who’s to say what’s useful and what’s not? As always, find your own method with which you’re comfortable.

1. I’m not going to go in depth on how to nose and taste, hold the glass, dip your beak, etc.  The subject has been covered by many others before, and you’ll find a way that works for you. However, a good glass, not a tumbler, is recommended.  I used to needle my friend Curt of ATW about pinching his daughter’s Barbie glass collection, but there’s no question that a good tasting glass is part of a reviewer’s arsenal for really getting into a rum’s profile.  Sure you can use a whisky glass, plastic cup or tumbler, but remember: you’re a reviewer, not a backyard boozer gunnin’ ‘em down over the grill. It almost presupposes a slightly more structured approach to assessing a spirit.

2. Train yourself to know how to identify what you are tasting and smelling. (Practice in the kitchen, on the spouse’s spices, in open air markets, anywhere there’s a plethora of aromas to tease out of the air).  Pay attention to your nose, because that’s where most of the taste comes from.

3. Sample blind if you can, and in conjunction with other rums that are your personal baselines for the type.  In other words, have three or four glasses in front of you, but with different rums in them, including the current subject, and sample them together  without knowing which is which. The point is to be as democratic and unbiased as possible. I usually ensure that the comparators – all previously reviewed and scored – are of similar styles, or ages. Because the first time you try a really top-tier highly-aged rum costing upwards of two hundred bucks, your enthusiasm can really cloud your judgement, and you may be tempted to give it a free pass just because it is what it is, if no controls are in place to temper your exuberance.

4. Do the occasional vertical tasting of an entire distillery’s line, if you can get them (and afford them); or try horizontally, as with taking five ten year olds and run them past each other.  You don’t necessarily have to write about it – it does increase your experience and relative understanding, though, and there’s nothing at all bad about that.

5. Have or develop a taste memory for rums of similar types and your scoring for them, so you can assess the current sample against such previous reviews.  (Henrik from Denmark told me that he has a mental map of a control group of rums which he knows extremely well, and he uses those as reference points to do his scoring).

6. Learn and practice how to write quick notes (this works well in a public environment like shops or festivals, or perhaps your friends’ pads), and how to score on the fly, even if a little potted (be comforted, it gets easier).

7. Every review should have, at a minimum, a description of the rum (name, type, age if known, country of origin, producing outfit, and proofage); words relating to colour, possibly viscosity (“legs”); nose, taste (with and without water added) and finish.  Anything after that is an optional extra – stuff such as if it has been added to, filtered, how it makes a cocktail, company bio, what other rums it reminded you of; comparisons, price, source (pot still, column still, cane juice, molasses) and so on.

8. As noted before, whether you write in clipped sentences, brief notes, stream-of-consciousness or lengthy prose is up to you.

9. Have a score sheet. This would list the things you feel need to be evaluated: nose, taste and finish are the three most common.  Some add (and score) presentation, balance and/or overall enjoyment.  (My sheet has additional space for comments and the notes on the actuality of what I’m sampling…as well as what I’m thinking while I do it. Every now and then I go back through my old notes, but I’m odd that way).

10.   Score appropriately and consistently. Scoring is always an issue – many use a system which starts at fifty and goes to a hundred; others use a four star, or five-bottle or ten point system.  Mind, I started with the naive idea I could avoid scoring altogether and let the narrative speak for the product.  Yeah…but no. It’s really not a good idea to leave scores out. Sometimes that’s all people come to a review to see.

11. Jot down key words that occur as you try the latest subject.  Try and isolate specific aromas and tastes, the way it feels on the tongue, or when you slug it down.  How it changes as it sits for a while, after you add water, or an ice cube. Feel free to be as metaphoric as you wish – language should be pushed around a bit. Good writing in reviews is, I think, an undervalued art form, no matter how some people complain about excessive verbiage. (It’s also a personal belief of mine, unshared by many, that a review should say something about the author and his/her perspective on life, even express a philosophy, which is why I write the way I do).

The easiest reviews to write, the ones that just flow without seeming effort, are the ones you are most enthused about, whether for superlative rums or really bad ones.  This is because both your emotions and intellect are engaged and this makes for a better writing experience.  I’ve always found the hardest reviews to be the ones that relate a rum that is mid range…nothing special.  Only practice can take you beyond that hump, because most rums will indeed fall into this section of the bell-curve.

12. Do not be afraid to call a dog when you find one. Tasting is a subjective thing, true. You tend to get a sense for the good or great rums, and as time goes on your personal palate will likely bend you to one profile more than others, something which should also be noted up front (I have a thing for Demeraras and higher-proofed rums, for example, and the RumProject has made no secret of its utter conviction that un-messed-with rums that are in the mid-age sweet-spot range are the only ones anyone should be drinking). But you will find bad ones too.  We all do.

When you’re reviewing something from a new outfit you really want to succeed, tasting a rum about which everyone else in the blogosphere spouts ecstatic hosannas and encomiums; when you’re writing about some aged and rare and expensive dream-rum, even a so-called “exemplar of the style” — then if you disagree and dislike it, it absolutely does not means that you have to go with the flow, or even waffle around with weasel-words.

If you can take the time to describe why you love a rum, then the opposite holds true as well; you show respect to both the consumers and the makers when you can clearly explain why you think some well-advertised, supposedly well-made product, isn’t what it claims to be. Do not do the humble, self-deprecating cop-out of stating a dislike for a rum with the short comment about this being nothing more than an opinion, and “I’m-an-amateur-and-I-write-for-amateurs” – as if this somehow says all there needs to be said; if you have an opinion for good or ill, you must be able to argue your case.  An uninformed opinion is worthless, and people who do more than just look at scores do actually want to know why you feel this way).

Last note:

For four different styles of writing, compare the brutally minimalist ethic of Serge Valentin on WhiskyFun; the informative memoranda of Dave Russell on RumGallery; the utterly consistent verbiage and brevity of the RumHowler; and Barrel Aged Thoughts’ Deep Field of research. There’s a niche for everyone, depending on style. No one way will ever be correct, or please everyone.

Tomorrow: Which rums to start with

Mar 042015
 

Part 2

Part 2 – The Website, writing and your postings

Yesterday I wrote about getting the mental philosophy of what you’re doing straight, sort of like getting your battle preparations right. In this part, I speak to your website, your writing and the attitude towards interacting with the world.

In no particular order of importance, then:

1. Hardly needs to be said, but design your website for the long term, and organize your space neatly.  This is one of those elementary things that is often and surprisingly overlooked. Maximize useful space at the left and right with widgets, links, categories or what have you. Trust me, it’s hard to do this when you have a hundred posts or pages that need to be reorganized. And think about it – as a reader, don’t you want to easily locate the information you’re after?

2. Modern media influences content: I write for large screens, not ipods. If you think your target audience is the latter, shorter, crisper reviews are more likely your thing. My friend Henrik remarked to me “Consider using a platform that supplies smartphone or tablet apps for better mobile experiences.  That is the sole reason I chose Blogspot, which has an app that reformats the writing for mobile screens.”

3. Font should be large enough to be readable immediately, and pleasing to the eye (at the very least your own, since it’s yours). The same goes for color schemes, graphics overlays, backgrounds, and so on. Try not to put yourself in a situation where your site layout becomes a nuisance. That will just piss off or scare off readers, or, worse, makes your site seem unserious. On the other hand, be reasonable about it too, since you cannot possibly please everyone (this site was once impatiently accused of being “too busy”, for example).

4. If you must have ads on your site, keep them low-key and discreet. Speaking purely for myself, I don’t often visit “noisy” sites that have pop ups, graphics, gifs all over the place. They dilute my focus and detract from what I want to know, which is the rum itself..

5. Have more than just two or three reviews to start with.  A site populated with many reviews will be more interesting than  just a few.  I had twenty to start, and added three a week for the first few months through a blizzard of writing. Even this, in my rearview-mirror opinion, was too little. However, if you are just doing this to chronicle a personal journey and add notes and reviews and remarks as you experience them, then of course a more meandering path with less quantity is perfectly okay. Alternatively, go live with what you have but don’t advertise it, and get feedback from trusted sources, correct your inconsistencies and adjust as required.

6. Take decent pictures of the products you review.  Seriously, poor photography palls my overall enjoyment of a review (though crap writing irritates me more).  Take pride in what you do. No, you do not come off as One of the Lads by taking low-res, poorly composed, off-kilter, badly-lit photographs.  Because you’re not one of the lads: you’re holding yourself out to be something of an expert, someone whose opinion is worth reading – a poor picture does you no favours. It’s all about perception. Happily, it’s not really difficult to do.

7. Copyright everything.  You might think this is trivial, it’s free publicity when someone cribs your stuff — it’s really not. Without such protection, anyone can use the product of your mind and pass it off as his own without you being able to say or do anything about it. If you don’t care, then this is a moot point.

8. Do not let naysayers get you down.  There are always people who utterly disagree, pretend their opinions are the Lord’s Own Gospel, want to take you down a peg, leave a negative comment, or show off how much more than you they know.  They exist, they like doing it, so you must accept that and move on.  You’re in the public domain, and therefore fair game. Myself, I moderate comments on my site (my friend Curt on ATW does not).  My attitude is, if you don’t like, or disagree with, something that’s been written, comment courteously, without condescension and snarkiness, and don’t be patronizing…or don’t comment at all. Alternatively, you can use your own site to rebut and insult me (as one person already does, but in his defense, he despises everyone who doesn’t see the world his way, equally).

9. So, keep it civil, and refrain from constant negativity – in your responses, but also in your actual writing.  There are some bloggers in other liquor spheres that relish taking the low road, are big, brutish, oafish and in your face (one whisky blogger used so much profanity and was so abusive, it utterly appalled me, and I never went there again). I don’t see much percentage in this myself.  It’s shock therapy, it’s off-putting, and it alienates more thoughtful readers. And it’s those readers that engage with you, comment articulately and keep your interest from flagging.

10.  Know your field. Write about everything on the subject that catches your fancy.  Distilleries, wish lists, yuck-lists, thoughts on controversial topics, how-tos, tips&tricks…have a sense of the larger world around your passion. I have no particular interest in amarii, but Josh Miller’s excellent four-part series on the subject was fascinating and I was glad that he, a rum reviewer, took the time to take a left turn. The same goes for Steve James’s series on St. Lucia Rums and the ur-text of Marco’s work on Guyanese distilleries.

11. If you take a picture from the web, or a quote, attribute it properly.  Ask first if you can, it’s a simple courtesy – I’ve gotten caught out with this a few times, which is why I take my own photos, and put website links to quotes used.

12. Take the long view. Do not get upset by a lack of site visits.  It takes time to build an audience, even more for rums, which have nowhere near the extensive and rabid fanbase of whiskies (though it does have one self-annointed, self-appointed High Priest). Again, this goes to commercialism inherent or absent from your site, and your constant, occasional or indifferent promotion through social media. (See also Part 5, keeping things going)

Tomorrow – Sampling and the review itself

 

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