Jan 272016
 
LUCA-900x411

Photo (c) 2013 congresodelron.com

Luca sounds tired.  The boss of Velier has just returned from Cape Verde off the coast of Senegal, where he was investigating small rum producers like in Haiti, has been caught up in the online discussions of the “Rare” issues, gave an interview to DuRhum (in French), and is now on his way to Morocco to attend some business and help shoot a documentary, before heading off to Cape Verde again.  I catch him in the back of a taxi, but he’s willing to talk a little.  Truthfully, when it comes to rums, the man is always ready to talk, and it’s never just a little.  Maybe that’s one reason he and I get along.

We discuss his interview with Cyril, but my own interest is much more focused, and gradually we get to what I want to talk about — DDL’s new Velier replacements, called the “Rare Collection” and I had opined that premature news of their introduction could have been handled better. Commercial considerations had prevented Luca from going on record before this, but apparently DDL have now given him their blessing, and he knows I want facts rather than speculations.

“I honestly wanted to tell you back in December, when your “Wasted Potential” article came out,” he says. “But we (DDL and myself) had agreed nothing would be said about the Rare Collection until the time for official press releases and introductions came around.  So I had to be quiet.”

“It happens,” I shrug, stifling my rush of petty irritation, since, like most people, I hate being wrong. “Why don’t you step me through the sequence of events regarding the issue?”

He settles into what I call his ‘presentation’ voice and talks nonstop for several minutes. Much to my surprise, the conception of these three rums goes back to January 2015, a full year ago.  Following the retirement of Yesu Persaud, the new CEO of DDL (Komal Samaroo) met with Luca and told him they were going to make ‘Gargano-style’ rums themselves following the full-proof, single-still, limited-edition principles, and as such the ability of Velier to bottle from DDL’s stocks would cease. “But I have to be clear,” Luca said. “Aside from the Skeldon, I never ever just walked into the warehouse and sampled at random and said I wanted this barrel or that barrel – I always and only got shown a limited selection by DDL and chose from them. And the vintages were getting younger all the time – I was hardly ever seeing stuff younger than the early 2000s any more.”

He’s admitted it before, and confirmed that initially the situation made him sad – it was something like seeing your own child grow up and move out of the house – but proud as well.  It showed that there was real potential by a major distiller to go in this direction, and that the full-proof concept was a viable commercial proposition. And it made sense for DDL to fold these rums into the larger el Dorado brand.

“Which would in any case always be associated with you,” I cut in. “For the foreseeable future, DDL’s full proofs will live in your shadow.”

“That’s not important,” he says earnestly. “It’s not about ego for me.  It’s about rum: authentic, honest, tropical aged, full proof rum. If DDL makes them, the rumworld is just as well served, because good rums are being made and sold.”

“One could argue that DDL let you take the risk and open the market and then moved in to capitalize on your success,” I point out.  I’m not on anyone’s side on this matter and I know business is business (it’s not personal, right?).  DDL didn’t get to be what it was without some very sharp people at the top, and while I am surprised it took this long for them to get in on the action, they are finally doing something.

I can almost see him shaking his head. “No. Because it’s their rum. I always insisted that DDL was mentioned on our labels – because I never felt it was ‘mine’…the name of Velier was only ever in the fine print at the back. I found a few diamonds, sure, but never pretended to own the mine, you know?  And I did the same for the Clairins.”  I think he’s being just a bit disingenuous here, personally, because one does not become a successful businessman without at least a little talent, aggro and braggadocio, and I suspect he knows perfectly well how synonymous his name has become with full proof rums in general, and Demeraras in particular.  But I let it pass, and he continues.

rare-mads-1

Photo (c) Mads Heitmann, Romhatten

“So by November of 2015 a lot of the work was done – the selection of the vintages, the label mockups.  Some samples went out to Europe –“

“Hang on,” I interrupt. “Exactly how much were you involved in all this?”

“Not at all.”

“Seriously?”

“No.  I did not select the barrels, I did not choose the vintages, I had nothing to do with advertising or label design. All I knew was that there would be an Enmore, a PM and a Versailles. By the time I received samples in December, it was all complete, and my only involvement was as the distributor for Italy.”

“Why are they only being sold only Europe?”

He hesitates a moment and I can sense him choosing his words with some care. “DDL is a Guyanese company,” he says at last. “And I think their information gathering and knowledge relate and are geared more to the North American market than the European one.   In North America it’s always been difficult to introduce new spirits into their states-segmented markets; and there has never been a really strong movement or tradition or knowledge of craft full-proofs.  It was only lately — with Samaroli and a few others becoming available, with online media like Facebook, with the reviews of English language rum bloggers — that the profile of such rums has increased and the potential more fully understood. But in Europe full-proofs have always sold well and been widely appreciated – indeed that has always been my primary market. So it made sense to start there.”

“With the potential to cross the Atlantic in the future?”

He shrugs.  “That’s for DDL to decide.  I hope so.”

“So we’re in December now. My own article on the missed opportunities of DDL came out around that time.”

“Yes, and a lot of people read it.  And I wanted to contact you to advise you that there were indeed new single-still rums coming out.  But my arrangement with DDL forbade that, so…”

I’m still a little miffed about the matter, but it’s water under the bridge and there’s nothing I can do except admit I got it wrong and move on.

“Why do you think DDL never responded to my article, or contacted me?”

“I have no idea.”

“Because it strikes me as strange that a major new bottling is being issued to the market, and there was no advance knowledge, no teasers or sly hints or even massive advertising to stimulate interest.”

“Well, they did send some samples to one of the Rumfests late in the year – I believe to Belgium – “

“And it received almost no publicity at all.”

“It was just for evaluation purposes, I think, not an advertising campaign to kick off the release. That was supposed to come in this year.”

Well, DDL is run by some smart people, and I suppose they have reasons for what they do and how they do it.  However,  I also believe they are underestimating the force-multiplying power of social media in a big way and maybe my mind just works differently since I’m a consumer as well as a writer, not a company marketing guru.

It occurs to me that with respect to communication, the premature release of information on the Rares must have caught everyone off guard. “So now we come to 2016,” I say, following that thought. “Your company somehow issued a webpage link to show these rums as becoming available, on January 13th.  Then it disappeared.  What happened?”

His embarrassment is palpable over the long distance telephone line. “That was a mistake,” he says ruefully.  “My graphics people worked so fast that the mockup and catalogue update were all done ahead of time.  They didn’t bother to check with me before posting it up, because they didn’t see anything special about a new item on the catalogue…we do, after all, add stuff constantly. I was in Cape Verde then, away from communications, and as soon as I came out and realized what had happened, I pulled the link immediately.  By then the news was all over the place.”

rare-mads-2

Photo (c) Mads Heitmann, Romhatten.

“And then?”

He lets out a deep breath. “The story went viral in the online rum community.  You know this, you followed it.”

Indeed I had. The story flashed around the world in less than a day. Wes at the FatRumPirate pushed out an article on the three rums on the 15th; a Danish blogger, Mads Heitmann, was able to get a complete set of the three bottles and reviewed the PM 1999 ln the 19th. And on top of that, he posted prices on his site and on Facebook, which went viral as fast as the original post from Velier’s site, and changed the entire direction of the story. The news was well and truly out there and could not be called back, which demonstrates what I mean about the power of Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and all the rest.

“But none of it had any more to do with me,” Luca argues. “I made my sincere apologies to DDL, explained to them that the initial, unpriced, posting was an error I tried to correct and not a leak of any kind.  I was waiting for a green light from them to make a public announcement and start publicizing.”

I suppose I can accept that, since all my notes and private discussions support it. “The story now started to get bigger than just you, because aside from the annoyance of the rum community about the releases just popping out of nowhere, which is a minor matter, they now had to contend with the pricing.  And that was no small thing – it was deemed exorbitant.”

“Your article didn’t help,” he says, half laughing, half accusing, referring to the essay I then wrote on January 20th, where I both complained about the introduction and expressed my hopes for their quality.

The conversation seems to have come around to the point where I’m the one answering questions instead of him; still, the point is valid. “I wasn’t trying to. At the time I was pretty put out. DDL should have read the tea leaves and done damage control immediately, gotten ahead of this story.  Back then, I solicited their input without response.  Okay, I’m small fry, a small blogger in a wide world of them, and it was an opinion piece, and yet I don’t think I was wrong; and this was now an issue affecting consumers all over the map – somebody should have stood up, posted online, gotten involved, calmed the waters.”

“I can’t speak to that,” he responds, with a note of finality.

The cost per bottle is of interest to us as consumers, so I persist. “What can you tell me about the price, on the record?”

PM 1999 Romhatten

Picture crop (c) Romhatten.dk

“I think the Danish numbers are high,” he admits. Privately, I had thought so too, and the KR6500+ (~€870) initially quoted on January 19th for all three bottles together has in fact been reduced in some online shops in Denmark.  Factor in the very high alcohol taxes in that country, and the base shop prices (before markups) to consumers are probably closer to expectations.  Still high, but relatively more affordable.

“The price in Italy will likely be around the level of equivalent Veliers, plus maybe 10-15%.  But I can’t say that for sure across Europe, because I sell only in Italy, to shops, not to individuals, and taxes and markups vary.  But they are not as expensive as you made out to be.”

Since I’ve argued that price is a function of brand awareness and exclusivity as well as production costs, I ask the question that’s been bugging me all this time.  “What’s the outturn of the range?”

“About 3,000 bottles for each expression is my guess. I’m not entirely sure of the exact numbers”

“And future issues?”

“I can’t say: I’m hearing that maybe an annual release of two bottlings, with about the same quantity as these.”  Which gives us all hope, I think.  Two is not as good as four or five, yet I don’t know that many full-proof rum lovers who would complain too much. At least they’re getting something.

The answers are getting shorter, and I sense we may be coming to the end of this conversation.  I only have one more. “You’re distributing the rums in Italy, and have had a long association with DDL.  You’re hardly a disinterested party. But as a simple lover of rum, putting aside any bias as much as you can, what do you think of the Rare Collection?”

There’s a smile in his voice as he notes the care of my phrasing. Or maybe he’s just thinking of these rums, his now-grown children, with fondness, and delights at an opportunity to speak of them. “I received samples in December 2015, and Daniele (Biondi) and I tried them together with five or six other Enmores, Port Mourants and Versailles rums we had from previous years.  And I am telling you, these are every bit as good.  They lost nothing, and preserve everything in my principles – tropically aged, no additives, single-still, cask strength.  The taste is amazingly good, and I think they are great additions to the full proof Demerara lineup.  It may be too early to tell, but if they continue to issue such rums in the future, these first editions may one day be worth quite a bit, the same way my first bottlings appreciated on the secondary markets.”

His tone has that evangelical fervor, the ring of utter personal conviction, that always characterizes his public presentations, and I gotta admit, the enthusiasm is infectious. He may or not be right, and others may disagree with his assessment in the months and years to come – but there’s no doubt he really believes they’re that good.  I’ve heard him speak that way about his other rums and rhums as well, and we know Velier’s track record, so perhaps we should just take it at face value.  Until shops actually start selling them and we start seeing reviews out there, not much more to be said.  I think we’re just about done here.

I scratch my head, look at my notes and questions, and realize an hour has gone by. Luca is now buying organic apples for his pretty wife through the taxi window, waiting to see if there’s anything else, but he’s covered it all for me, filled in most of the blanks.  What little information I have from DDL confirms most of this. So I give him my regards and thanks, we exchange notes on our movements around the world in 2016 and agree to see if we can meet up somewhere, have a relaxed session and maybe drink a sample or ten.  And, of course, as always, to talk rums.

***

Other notes

This was not a formal interview.  It was a discussion between the two of us, which is why I wrote it the way I did. From his perspective, it was to some extent also publicity.  It’s no coincidence that this and Cyril’s more formal interview came out so close together.  Had I not written the two other essays about DDL already, I would not have bothered, but this wraps things up and substitutes such opinions and guesses as I have expressed, with more factual information.

The formal release of these rums for sale with all the marketing blitz, brass bands and bunting is supposed to be the end of January / early February  2016.

 

 

Jan 202016
 

Rare Collection

“I hope for them that the rums are good,” muttered Cyril darkly, as a bunch of us exchanged comments on the newest DDL offerings.  We should have been happy, but we weren’t, not really.  Few of us rum watchers were.

Back in December 2015, I read the tea leaves spectacularly wrong and suggested that DDL would not be issuing single-still Velier-style full proofs any time soon.  A month later they did: an Enmore 1993, Versailles 2002 and PM 1999.  I’m actually kinda surprised nobody ragged my tail about my utter inability to forecast what might even have been a foregone conclusion after the age of Velier’s Demeraras abruptly ended. So yeah, I munching a big crow sandwich right now.

Still: if you’re not deep into rums, perhaps the way the blogosphere erupted at the news of DDL’s full-proof “Rare Collection” might have taken you aback. A link to an article on Velier’s site went viral almost immediately on the FB pages of la Confrere, Global Rum Club, Ministry of Rum; even some blogs made mention of it. People who loved Velier’s Demeraras, and who snapped up indie bottlings of Guyanese rums for ages, were happy as a Caner who fell into the vat, that DDL had finally started to “tek front.”

But as time went on, it became clear that there were several issues with the three bottlings named above, and all of them pointed to what I maintain are deficiencies in DDL’s strategic (or marketing) arm.  They misread the public sentiment and displayed no real current knowledge of what drives purchases of upscale “super-premium” rums.  They came at the wrong time, at the wrong price, with too little information and with the wrong fanfare.

Consider:

There was absolutely no forewarning at all (see footnote 1).  The picture and a brief notation in Italian went up on the Velier website (it has now disappeared) and that was it. And not even in time to make the Christmas season, where traditionally liquor sales peak.  As of this writing (January 20th) they are still not represented on El Dorado’s own website (although the deceased Mr. Robinson remains as a valued member of the team). DDL’s Facebook page has nothing, and questions I raised in private messages to them went unanswered.  Wow. Who on earth is in charge of getting the message out over there?

Along with the lack of warning, there was no mention of three key points that anyone selling a rum about which there is great anticipation should reasonably consider:

    1. Where were these to be distributed/sold?
    2. What would the price be?
    3. How many bottles were issued?

So essentially, until the Danes at Romhatten got their hands on a set and started writing about them (the PM received a 96 rating), few people knew where they could be had.  Most online stores still don’t carry them. It was later established they would not be sold in North America. And when it was understood that they averaged out at €290 a bottle in Denmark and Germany, whereas most independent bottlings of the same ages cost between a €100-200 on the primary market, the grumbles got louder.

Leaving out production costs and taxes, two things drive a bottle’s price way up – age (to some extent, though I have paid an arm and a leg for a seven year old from 1980), and more than that, rarity.  The two together create monsters like the Appleton 50 year old ($4500/bottle) for example.  One of the reasons a Velier Skeldon 1978 pushes prices past the thousand euro mark on the secondary market, is because there are so few out there.

However, DDL has not marketed the rums with indie-bottler-level pricing to titillate the market and grab initial market share and establish their own reputation for great full proof rums, separate from that of Velier; they gave no hint of how many bottles were issued; they advertised not at all, and to add insult to injury, are staying mum on the fora where they can engage their fans and the general public. All of this suggests that we are being asked to pay very high prices for an unproven product of uncertain commonality. If a hundred bottles had been issued that would be one thing….ten thousand would be quite another matter.

Consider this key point also – Luca was the recipient of a decade of goodwill for his full proof lines, aided and abetted by issuing rums that were very very good.  The man had an enviable track record, made almost no dogs, and had no dishonour or disrepute attached to his product (like DDL got when hydrometer tests began to show the inclusion of unreported sugar to their standard aged rums), and as a result, people were willing to buy his products blind, almost at any price, knowing they would get something that had a good chance of being an excellent drink and a worthwhile investment. And to his credit, Luca provided all the info up front, and never priced his rums to the point where this kind of essay became necessary.

DDL maybe felt that “if we issue it they will come.”  Given the explosion of interest in the new line, they were certainly correct there, and they themselves have many decades of goodwill of their own to tap into, deriving from the El Dorado line of rums (if not the Single Barrel expressions).  So I’m not saying DDL makes bad rums (quite the opposite in fact).  And believe me, I’m not pissy because I read the future wrong.  In fact, I have already bitten the bullet, put my money where my mouth is, and bought all three of these releases at those crazy prices.  I look forward — keenly — to reviewing them.  

What I am is annoyed with the stumbles of a company for which I have great regard, and which should know better. You don’t issue expensive rums after the holiday season, when purses are scrawny and credit card bills are due. The pricing and the lack of information are sure to piss off more serious rum lovers (and writers) who make purchasing decisions carefully.  One spends twenty bucks on a whim…not three hundred. And think about this also: when bloggers to whose opinions people attend say they will not buy these rums because they are too pricey or difficult to get (as several have already told me), their audience gets turned off too, and sales will inevitably diminish. If this happens and DDL believes there’s no market for full proofs, well, then, what do you think they will do? Cancel the entire line, maybe?

So yeah, I’m a little miffed with DDL’s new rums, much as I applaud the fact that they’re issued at all.  Only time will tell whether the price they’ve set is justified.  In the meantime, they’d better start providing us consumers with more information, not less.  And those rums had better be damned good. 

Notes

  1. Inadvertently, I’m sure, the Guyanese daily Stabroek News actually mentioned these three rums…back in November 4th, 2015. It is clearly stated in that article that they would only be sold in Europe.
Dec 152015
 

Single_Barrels

Introduction

In 2015 it became widely known that DDL was severing its relationship with Velier, and Luca Gargano would no longer have access to their warehouses. With that simple statement, the Age of Velier’s Demerara Rums appeared to have come to an end. In October of that same year, I reviewed the three single barrel expressions DDL issued back in 2007, and the notes in that write up were so voluminous that I split them apart to form the basis of this essay.

My thinking went like this: when you think of all the advantages DDL enjoys in the international marketplace – brand visibility and recognition, market penetration, and the great stills like PM and EHP, to name just three – you begin to realize just how curious those three rums actually are. And how much they say about the ethos and thrust of the company’s rum strategy (or lack thereof).

Velier showed that there was a real market for such full proof, limited edition rums.  You’d think that with the Scots and the Italians’ decades-long love affair with issuing PMs and Enmores and what have you, that this largely untapped market would be aggressively exploited by the company supplying the actual rum, but no, DDL has let Moon Imports, Samaroli, Velier, Rum Nation, Secret Treasures, Silver Seal, Duncan Taylor, and many others, garner the accolades and the money while they concentrate on the core El Dorado range.

Background

The ICBU, EHP and PM expressions remain the only still-specific rums DDL have ever created since the el Dorado line burst on the scene in 1992. DDL, as you would recall, have a number of pot and columnar stills – some of wood, some very old, all producing interesting variations of taste; the El Dorado line blends various proportions of output from these stills.  Craft bottlers who have bought barrels made from the stills have long issued limited expressions like PM, EHP, ICBU,  LBI, Blairmont, Versailles, Skeldon (Velier remains the acknowledged champion in this regard), and the speed at which they sell and the high prices they command on the secondary market demonstrates the enormous cachet they have.  

Yet DDL has, as of this writing (December 2015), refused to go further with developing this gaping omission in its lineup. They told me a few months ago that I should wait for great things coming out later in 2015, and then issued the “new” 15 year old rums with various finishes.  An evolutionary stopgap, I thought (then and now) — not a radical departure, not a revolution, not great, and not particularly new.  They still don’t have millesimes or annual releases or special stills’ rums of any consequence. The three amigos referenced above are also not marketed worth a damn to exhibit their singular nature, or to take advantage of their remarkable provenance or their accessible proof point. They are priced quite high for rums that don’t have an age statement – together, they cost me north of US$300, and not many people are going to buy such relatively pricey rums unless they are really into the subculture.  So here are some initial problems DDL created for themselves: the age, the year, the outturn, none of this is on the label. Why is the year of distillation and age and bottle count not shouted from the rooftops?  Age confers cachet in any spirit; single stills’, single years’ output even more so.  What’s the holdup with DDL providing such elementary information? Actually, what’s the holdup in creating an entire line of such remarkable rums?

Independent bottlers are the leaders in this field, and there’s enormous interest for these expressions. That single post of mine about the three rums clocked a reach of 400 on FB, and 20 likes on the site, in less than an hour (trust me, that’s fast and furious going for a niche audience such as we writers have).  So knowing that limited release rums sell fast to the cognoscenti, knowing the power of social media, and using my experience as a sort of quasi baseline, I ask again…what’s stopping DDL?

Problems

The very specificity of these rums may be their undoing in the wider rum world, because it is connoisseurs and avid fans and rabid collectors who are most likely to buy them, appreciate them, and understand the divergent/unusual taste profiles, which are quite different from the more commonly available (and best-selling) El Dorados like the 5, 8, 12, 15, 21 and 25 year old. To illustrate further, how many casual rum drinkers even know there are multiple stills at Diamond, and can can name more than the PM or EHP?  One could taste the three single barrel rums, and immediately realize that they certainly aren’t standard sippers or the usual cocktail fodder — which is something of  double edged sword for rum makers, who like to be different….but not too different.

Too, it’s possible that seeing the niche interest these expressions developed over the years which Velier then expanded into a worldwide phenomenon, that the boys on the Top Floor were scared dickless and shut that sucker down fast, lest it bite into profits of more dependable rums….rather than seeing it as an opportunity. I have a feeling relative margins of various products were and are involved here.

Then there’s hard consumer cash: such DDL-made single barrel expressions are by their very nature more expensive and get more so as we climb the age ladder, but there’s another reason they cost so much – DDL never made more, or issued them in great quantity (it’s unknown what the year of the batch is, and I’m not even sure how many were made, let alone whether DDL ever issued more beyond that 2007 year, or ever will again).  

Another reason to scratch my head wondering what they’re thinking.  Are they ignoring the signs of rums’ expanding popularity and the increasing sophistication of the drinking classes, so evident all around them? Or are they simply oblivious? 

General economic musings

Now I know something about how products in a manufacturing environment are priced.  There’s all the input costs of raw materials, plus labour charges, storage costs, prep costs and marketing and distribution and shipping (using various bases of allocation for overheads), to come up with a unit production cost (i.e., what it cost to make each individual bottle).  Depending on the sophistication of the accounting / costing system and the methodology employed, the profit margin is fixed and the rum is released to the market. The brokers, intermediaries, governments, bulk buyers and stores will add fees and markups and taxes to the base selling price, and the result is the €80 to €100 (give or take) which the consumer pays for a middle aged, single barrel expression with 1000 bottles or so issued by an independent bottler. So perhaps this is a lot easier for an independent operation which buys rums from brokers, than it is for a vertically integrated multinational like DDL which has canefields, sugar factories, distillation apparatus, a huge labour force and a supply chain network that is large and far-flung.   

Now, that means the entire revenue stream from such a specific, limited rum is likely to be €100,000 or less…does anyone believe that it “only” costs that amount to shepherd a rum for ten years through all its stages for a company that is as vertically integrated from cane to cork, as DDL?  Not a chance.  Smaller bottlers have it easier since they buy one small set of already-aged barrels at a time, low infrastructure costs, and have a skeleton staff; and this is both their advantage and disadvantage because they lose economies of scale while having a limited output in a barrel that may not succeed after ageing (and lose a lot to the angels in the process), while at the same time being able to pick exactly the barrels they want.

But DDL doesn’t have this issue – they have the infrastructure to age much more than just a few barrels at a time, and there are opportunities for a millesime approach, yearly issues, and yes, single-still aged output from multiple barrels, totalling many thousands of bottles.  The economics favour DDL’s daring to go in this direction, I think, especially at higher levels of output of which they are clearly capable. (Even some limited test marketing would make sense, I think…to the USA, I would suggest, because you wouldn’t believe the volume of wistful emails I get from that country, asking me where I got mine and how can they get some?)

Still, more subjective matters do start to come into play.  For new products without a purchasing history behind them and issued in limited quantities, it’s a risk, a big one, to invest a decade or more in ageing, take the hit from the angels and losses on barrels that don’t work after all that…then bottle perhaps 15% of the original volume, price high and hope sales will follow. Distributors and shops will also not want to give shelf space or prominence to stuff they are unsure will move in volume. Also, new products can cut into the sales of the old dependables upon which all cash flow is based (and which may subsidize loss leaders like the single barrels, which can be uneconomical at first).

But it is my contention that DDL doesn’t need to do this: the path has already been blazed by the independent bottlers; and DDL / El Dorado (and the famed stills) is one of the more recognized, widely sold brands in the rum universe.  Velier has shown the model can succeed. We know for a fact that a ten year old Demerara rum from a single still (at any strength between 45-65%) can reasonably sell for €100 / US$120 and maybe even more.  And the prices escalate with both age and exclusivity, using existing distribution channels and marketing strategies already in place. DDL has spent decades building up its brand and distribution, so these are sunk costs that work to the advantage of selling more, rather than less, of the single-still expressions, even if issued 40% and not cask strength. 

el_dorado_bottlerange

Photo copyright lovedrinks.com

What’s on DDL’s strategic mind?

What this leaves us with is a number (depressing) conjectures about DDL’s short and medium term strategy.

  1. The cash cows of the aged rums which blend the stills’ outputs will continue
  2. Experiments with different cask finishes will gather some steam, concentrating, in my opinion, on the El Dorados 12, 15 and 21 years old (I doubt the 25 year old will be tampered with unless it is to make it stronger).
  3. Yes, spiced rums will continue, maybe even be expanded.  They sell briskly, much to the annoyance of many purists.
  4. The single barrel, still-specific rums may be re-started, but most of the wooden-still outputs will continue to be favoured for producing the 8, 12, 15, 21 and 25 year old blends, and not for anything more specialized.
  5. DDL will make no sudden moves into new (rum) product lines.  The company simply does not seem to be structured to allow experimental development.  That’s why agile little companies like Compagnie des Indies can survive and even make money….using DDL’s rums.

In other words, we can expect the status quo to continue for quite some time. They shut Velier out, but gave us nothing to replace it.

Of course, this is all me being pissy.  I know some of the guys over there, spent many years in Guyana, love the place, like their rums.  It annoys me no end that they almost never respond to emails, provide little beyond marketing materials when they do, have on their website a man gone to the rumshop in the sky many moons ago, and just continue doing the same old thing year after year: as I said, the new finishes on the 15 year old do not really impress me, though I do want to try them (I’m a reviewer after all). 

I think this indifference to smaller market segments is a mistake, however. Because three major trends are gathering a serious head of steam in our world:

  1. Aged scotch is rising in price faster than people can keep up; and as the industry frantically tries to sell NAS whisky to make up for the shortfall of suitably aged reserves, malt-lovers will move more and more to craft rums, especially where profiles are similar. Increasing sales of craft rums and the emergence of more and more small rum-producing companies suggests this trend is well underway, so where is DDL’s response? (Observe the farsightedness of Richard Seale partnering up with Velier in the 2015 release season, a position DDL could have had for the asking given their past association with Luca Gargano)
  2. In about five years, as rum penetrates a critical mass of drinkers who demand unadulterated, cask strength, limited edition, well made products, DDL will likely have revisit the decision to divert its stock to more craft-based offerings and reduce the blends (either that or increase output across the board, and with sugar’s woes in Guyana, that might be problematic…or another opportunity) .  Whether they have sufficient aged rums available at that point to both satisfy the blended-aged market, and something more exclusive, only they can know.  But sooner or later, they will have to start.
  3. The USA cannot keep on subsidizing Bacardi and their ilk forever.  Too many US citizens are already squawking all over social media about how the best rums are never to be found in their location and when they are, the price differential is too great between those and the subsidized rums.  Once they start agitating for reform of subsidies and tax breaks, other countries take the matter to the WTO, and fairer tax regimens and tariffs are passed – and sooner or later this will happen – then craft rums will become more competitive, and the US market will explode.  DDL had better be ready to increase its market share there when this happens. If all they have is the same old menu and live off past glories, then they will fall behind other, nimbler, smarter companies with a more diversified (or focussed) portfolio.

Summing up.

The three single barrel expressions of DDL’s impressive stable point to more serious structural deficiencies of their medium term planning with respect to rums.  They are too weak, too few, and marketed too poorly in a time of an increasingly educated, knowledgeable drinking class. I’m not saying independent bottlers’ craft expressions are the wave of the future – but I do contend that they will get a larger and larger slice of the market in the years to come, and it seems that DDL is poorly positioned to take advantage of this.  If I was on their team, the first thing I’d do is stop selling bulk rum from the wooden stills to anyone, hoard it all, and start issuing high proof, low volume, carefully selected, suitably aged rums in very limited, exclusive markets. 

But nothing I’ve read and heard and seen suggests this is on DDL’s planning horizon. There is a subtle sense of complacency involved here, along the lines of “We have the stills, we have the sugar cane, we have the storage space, and tons of old rums.  We can adapt whenever we chose.”

Maybe.  It will probably be neither so easy or quite so quick.  A small outfit dealing in a few barrels at a time, sure.  A monolith like DDL?  One can only wonder.  And, in the case of me and my rum-chum friends, hope a little.

Update January 2016

This article was overtaken by events, of course.  In January 2016, DDL announced that they would indeed issue three cask-strength expressions, an Enmore, a PM and a Versailles.  No word on issue volumes.  The youngest would be about ten years old and for the moment sold only in Europe.  So the timing of my essay, as well as my conclusions, really sucked…too bad.  Still, I’d rather be wrong and get some good rums to buy, rather and be right and get none. I hope this is a forerunner of many aged rums to come from DDL, and that they live up to the high standard Luca set.

Aug 252015
 

Bloggers 1

Bloggers 2

 

“I don’t read a lot of blogs because, well, most of them are written by people who aren’t qualified to piss in the ocean,” remarked Ed Hamilton on his blog The Ministry of Rum on July 7th 2015.  To say I was surprised at such a blanket indictment of the majority of the rum blogging community would be an understatement.  He’s not the only one to make such a statement in the recent past: when I wrote a five part series on how to start reviewing rums earlier this year, in an effort to provide some advice on new bloggers who often cease operation after a short while, I got a snarling response from another writer, who suggested that there are too many incompetents writing as it is (myself among them) and more should not be encouraged.

I simply don’t understand this attitude.  It originates from persons who themselves write a lot, opiniate even more, and have a large body of words on their sites (which obviously pass muster by their own definitions of “qualified”), yet they seem to feel that almost all other websites, discussions, opinions and reviews, are a waste of internet space.  I can sort of understand Sir Scrotimus Maximus in Retirement Land, since he despises everyone (and spews a vomitus of condescending and negative opinions just about every day), but Mr. Hamilton, for whom I have a great deal of respect, is a more puzzling enigma.  Especially given his well-known dedication to rum, and the oft expressed moan abut rum not having enough visibility and fighting an uphill battle against other more established tipples.

To make my own position clear: I myself have nothing but distaste for short, ignorant, non-knowledgable click-bait written by writers for online spirits magazines (see here, here, here, here and here for some examples).  Too often they display an abysmal ignorance of rums in general, and make lists of rums that would be amusing if they weren’t so uninspiring.  But I don’t think this is what Sir Scrotimus or Mr. Hamilton were referring to.  Nor do I believe that they are talking about news stories.  Or cocktail sites and writers for them. No, when they refer to monkey mutterings and blogs, they are talking about reviewers.  And since I’m one of them, I think I’ll take up cudgels on behalf of myself and others in my field.

To begin with, who qualifies as a “good” writer?  For my money, this would be someone who writes with prose that engages the reader; who has a good understanding of the industry; who crafts decent tasting notes on the rums that are tried; expresses an informed opinion; has a body of rums to refer to, and self-evidently is involved in not only increasing his own knowledge but that of his readers.

Are there truly none of such writers around? Sure there are.  Henrik from Denmark keeps getting better all the time and that’s in his second language; Marco Freyr from Barrel Aged Mind in Germany is a historian par excellence with enormously detailed articles on the rums he tries; Josh Miller of Inuakena writes well, tastes well and goes far afield whenever it pleases him; Cyril from duRhum fills in with great reviews of more obscure fare, especially agricoles; Steve James of Rum Diaries writes great reviews in depth; The Fat Rum Pirate writes accessible notes for the common man with lots of opinions and off-hand facts, primarily for the UK crowd, and lovingly tends to the low-end and mid-range.  I enjoy Laurent’s work on Les Rhums de l’homme à la Poussette. Dave Russell of the Rum Gallery is a long running stalwart, and while Chip and I happily trade emails back and forth about our differences in opinion, the man does put out a welter of rum reviews that North Americans in particular take seriously.

Why do we need more of such people?

Because, dear reader, there still aren’t enough. Not really.  Excluding cocktail blogs which speak to rum as a secondary enterprise, there are less than twenty focused rum reviewing sites in the whole world. I can’t think of many which are run on a commercial basis.  And yet we constantly complain about rum taking second place to whisky in the minds of the tippling class, not having exposure, people not “getting” the variety it represents.  Well, having more writers who raise the profile would therefore be a good thing, wouldn’t it?

It is online writers like Johnny, Cyril, Dave and Wes who are spearheading the fight against improper labeling, undisclosed sugar and additives and outright deceptive marketing practices. Would less reviewers have the same effect? Not at all.  Because then we’d just be left with the polarizing negativisms of Sir Scrotimus.

We also need more writers because they are the ones who call attention to the rums of the world in a time of declining advertising budgets and quality magazine writing about rums. Yes there’s the RumPorter, and yes there’s Got Rum…but there are scores of such publications on whisky or wine, so we’re supposed to be happy with a mere handful  on our tipple of choice? Hell no.  We need dozens, not just a couple. Reviewers, bloggers and online writers fill this void. You can disagree with what they write, but at least they’re out there providing information. Why would having fewer somehow be seen as better?

Even assuming the statements of these two gentlemen were correct (and I dispute that) they both ignore the obvious question: where are the “qualified writers,” if the ones I mentioned above aren’t representative? No please, educate me.  Who are they?  For whom do they write?  What are their blogs?  Are they active and engaged in the rumworld? Are they the few book authors who exist? To toss out generalized comments about the chattering underclass who supposedly don’t know what they’re doing seems grossly unfair to me, without listing them and their opposite numbers who are worth reading.  If you are going to use your platform to diss someone, by all means provide a list of those who do fit your personal criteria.  More than two, please, and in the same post as your takedown, not elsewhere on your site. Negatives are one thing, but if you have no positives to contribute then your argument lacks substance. More, there’s a puritan ethos of understated censorship wafting through those two comments I find disturbing…y’know, Write what I like, or you’re an idiot.

I think that part of the issue is that such qualified reviewers are somehow expected to spring to life overnight like Athena from Zeus’s brow, and wow us with their Kiplingesque prose, incredible depth of knowledge and scintillating wit, right out of the gate.  But in a world where nobody (well, almost nobody) gets paid for writing about rum  – and to my mind the greater proportion of rum writers write for love, not money – I think it says a lot for the dedication  and devotion of rum aficionados who are also reviewers that they do as much as they do for free.  This is somehow a bad thing?

So it’s my considered opinion that the two comments above do the writing community a disservice.  Yes there is an unmet need for more writers who provide their own perspective and writing style and knowledge. Yes we could use some more professional authors who do more than just blog about cocktails and the tiki culture.  We could have more reference materials and other information out there that raises the bar for the expected knowledge of a rum blogger. We need that kind of talent for those who write about rums specifically, not as an afterthought or a sideshow.  And the reviewers and bloggers that are so casually dismissed, are the ones that provide, as best they can, this level of commitment and growing expertise.  Because nobody else is.

In summary, it’s a shame that opinion makers and commentators like these two, instead of trying to raise the bar with mentorship and good advice for the new blood and existing writers, resort to such unfortunate takedowns.  But you know, Mr. Hamilton called it right: he doesn’t read those he doesn’t like.  Maybe there’s a word of wisdom for us all in that.

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 Mind’s 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

 

Mar 032015
 

Introduction

There are a lot of people who write engagingly and have an interest in rum, and some of them, not unnaturally, want to start their own website regarding matters of the cane. Some want to review rums; others want to blog about cocktails; in other cases the new bloggers address themselves to spirits in general.  After a while, hits go up, production goes up, and the site takes off.  And then, in some cases, it slides into a moribund state of somnolescence.

It’s because I wish we had more rummies out there that I decided to put together some thoughts on what it actually means to set up and contribute to a review site.  Because fair is fair, it’s always great to have new blood constantly providing their input – but I would like to have longevity as well.

See, it’s hard to stay the course for more than a few years. It’s easy to get sidetracked, and life has a way of getting in your way: it just…happens. So the interest is sometimes just lost, the new baby is born, the job gets more intense, the attacks too depressing, the expenditure too high, the site-hits too few. But you can always recognize the consistent long timers and know their websites, because not only do they turn up on every search you have, but they frequently blogroll each other.  Somehow they’ve achieved balance and harmony…zen you might say.

Anyway, the points here strike me as reasonable recommendations for those who are thinking of starting their own rum reviewing site.  It’s long, so I’ve broken it out into five parts. Feel free to comment on your own ideas, from your own experiences.

 

Part 1

***

1. Have a sense of how you want to write – clearly, concisely, briefly, starkly…or perhaps something more lengthy.  The briefer you are, the more frequently you will almost be expected to write.  Also, what do you want to write?  Just tasting notes, or something more? Opinion, price, star rating, distillery info…get this straight in your head first.

2. Understand why you are starting the journey.  Do you do this for love, to share your journey, for money, for freebies and the personal back bar, for street cred, to educate fellow rum lovers, to get a job, to round out a profession, to enhance your bartending skills…or simply because you enjoy writing and rum equally?  I know examples of all of these types. Be honest with yourself about why you started, because that impacts on both your writing style and your longevity. And your personal life, surprising as this may sound.

3. Be clear in your writing about your intentions, and, by extension, be honest when you write.  Your remarks will be valuable to others seeking assistance and clarity, but they will also want to know when you’re stating a fact, or expressing an opinion.

4. All impressions to the contrary, this is not a cheap hobby or pastime (and it’s my personal belief this eventually sinks a lot of potential bloggers who begin with such great hopes and intentions).  In spite of what you may think, store owners and distributors will not immediately rush in joyous exuberance to your house in order to ply you with samples, and your friends and family usually won’t provide you with the really top tier stuff. So it will cost you money.  If you are coming at this from the perspective that you’ll get free bottles to amend your purse and expand your home bar, that you will be invited on junkets to tour distilleries and attend tastings on someone else’s coin, well, you could be…eventually (or if you actively and aggressively engage with industry).  But you won’t get as many as you think unless you really write a lot and well.  So if you’re committed, you’ll be spending quite a bit of your own money at the inception in order to populate your site with reviews that hopefully others will find irresistible. My own recommendation would be to start small and see if you can keep it up (and to see if the spouse objects). Don’t go spending hundreds of dollars or Euros or whatever, on top-tier rums just because you can (see also part 4, regarding where to start).

5. Following from that, establish your personal policy towards free commercial samples early on and stick to it. This is always and only a matter of objectivity and perceived conflict of interest.  It’s human nature to distrust of positive reviews written about a company-supplied sample. At end, it comes down to whether you, in all honesty, feel you can write objectively about a rum – especially something that sucks – when presented to you for nothing by an industry rep (I do not speak of friends or family). Some of my friends see this as a way of defraying the inevitable expenses, others adamantly defend their objectivity, and this is fine – it’s their writing, not mine. I simply feel that if you do accept an industry sample (or the guy who runs your local liquor shop), then just be honest and state it in your review.

6. And you really should have a scoring system from the beginning (whether you publish the score or not).  There are quite a few different methods out there.  Pick one that you think you can work with for a long time, and start from your very first review (though I would also suggest sampling ten or twenty rums, then scoring them against each other first, just to see how the system works). This is more important than you think, because people really pay attention to scores and will ask questions; also, you can band your reviews together in ranges, as the body of work grows. (See also Part 3 where I go into scoring a bit more).

7. Don’t stop.  Build a rhythm and stick to it.  I’m not entirely sold on today’s blogworld where if nothing gets posted for three days, the site dies…on the other hand I do believe in regular updates.  The RumHowler can do three a week, the FatRumPirate is going great guns, and I try to do one a week, but no matter what, just keep ‘em coming.  And after you pass fifty, then a hundred, then even more, don’t get bored or discouraged, just keep on doing it (if you must take a break, as many of us do, put up a note saying ‘Out of Office’ for the faithful readers).  This has implications for the development of your personal style, your persistence, and your longevity – if you can’t keep up the programme you’ve set for yourself (whatever that might be), then maybe how you write has to be adjusted.

8. My personal taste is for adding information on the maker as part of the overall review.  Obviously this makes for a longer essay and gets redundant when you’ve reviewed several products by the same outfit.  If you are a master of the short form, then this method won’t fly. For myself, it adds to my knowledge and, I feel, that of the reader.  If you decide to go this way, ensure you state outright where your info is sketchy (especially when several sources are contradictory, as often happens)

Tomorrow – Part 2

Feb 052015
 

200

 

***

Who would have thought, that when Liquorature first started as a small club in 2009, that the rum reviews portion of its website would split off into its own, let alone ever surpass a hundred reviews? With the review of Rivière du Mât Rhum Vieux Traditionnel Millésime 2004, some three years after passing the 100th write-up and more than five years into it, I have reached the next milestone, the 200th, and I have to admit, it would have been faster if I had not stopped writing for a year when I moved to the Middle East.  It’s not the best in the world by volume (and never will be), yet it still gives me a small sense of accomplishment to have even done this much.

The opening of this site in 2013 was a major shift in the shared review philosophy we had followed on Liquorature.  It was inevitable: like anyone who produces a fair amount of mental product on his own time and with his own dime, I wanted a display case for that and that alone (I’m not much of a community person and don’t do things by committee — the “Lone” in my title is not an accident, and exists on several levels of meaning). The reactions and feedback from our small subculture and miscellaneous passers-by have been generally positive and gratifying, in some cases surprisingly so.  Even when I was on an extended absence in 2013/2014, the hits kept ticking over fairly constantly (if minimally), suggesting that there was a small audience for my eclectic and eccentric writing. I have made no major changes to the site design-wise, except for allowing people to find a rum by name, by maker and by country — I deemed ages, colour categories and styles to be too limiting, if not actually vague, and so stuck with simplicity.

Two developments on the 1st One Hundred which I noted at the time and which continue were the adding of scores and the cessation of accepting, let alone soliciting, industry samples, a policy which I have followed with exactly two exceptions ever since.  I don’t pretend this makes me better than anyone, it simply speaks to my fear of undue influence in the latter case, and (in the former) my desire for calibration and rankings in a collection that is now quite extensive.  Much to my chagrin, I found that descriptions alone didn’t tell the tale of any given rum, and developed a scoring system that worked for me, and which I use to this day. In the coming year, I know I will discard the 0-100 rating with 50 as a median, and move towards a relatively more standardized system whereby 90+ is top end, and an average score will fall around 70-80…I just have to recalculate and recalibrate two hundred reviews to do it, and that’s no small task. (Update March 2015 – I have now rescored and recalibrated all reviews to fall in line with the more accepted 50-100 system)

Also: I still write the same way, still put as much as I feel like into a review, and provide as much information as possible in a one-stop-shopping approach for the reader.  I am in awe of others’ pithy one-liners, and think Serge’s haikus of tasting notes on WhiskyFun are brilliant, but I lack their abilities in this area and must play to my own predispositions and abilities.

As time went on, my palate changed and moved more towards stronger rums.  At the very beginning I decried rums with too much burn and whisky-like profiles.  This approach had to be modified as I tasted more and more and built up a collection I was able to use to cross-taste.  I was already thinking that 40% was too limiting back in 2011, but in 2012 I went to Berlin and bought and tasted the rums of a spectacular company called Velier for the first time, and they convinced me that full-proof, cask strength rums in the 50-65% range, when made right, deserved their own place in the sun.  In 2014 that opinion was solidified at the Berlin RumFest, where so many rums were full proofed that finding a forty percenter was actually not that easy. These days, given my proximity to Europe, that’s most of what I can get anyway, and I’m not unhappy with it.

I also gained a fondness for agricoles and their lighter, cleaner profiles, though they will be unlikely to ever surpass my love for Mudland products, good as they are.  The really good agricoles from the pre-1990s are, alas, very rare and quite pricey. Still, I persevere – aside from Dave Russell’s Rum Gallery, too few reviewers outside France and Italy (L’homme a la Poucette and DuRhum come to mind) really push out or have serious quantities of agricole reviews. So there’s definitely some opportunity to champion them, I think, and who can call themselves rum reviewers and ignore such a wide swathe of product?  Availability might be the problem: Josh Miller from Inu a Kena bemoans his selection in the USA, for example and I know Chip in Edmonton has the same issue.

I started a new and very occasional series called “The Makers” inspired by a conversation the Hippie and I had many years ago, and which I felt had real potential to provide more information to the reader. With whatever information I can glean online and from my books and conversations, I try to put together a biography of the companies that make rums, and (if at all possible) a list of all their products.  To that I added another section called “Opinions” because there are many issues confronting the rum industry and general and bloggers in particular, upon which I at least want to comment.  Still a work in progress.

The one other aspect of the experience of reviewing rum and rhum that has taken off in the last couple of years is the friends I’ve made, the contacts.  To say I have been startled by this development is an understatement because in the first years I worked almost in isolation…but pleased and touched as well. Henrik, Cyril, Marco, Francesco, Luca, Fabio, Curt, Maltmonster, Gregers, Steve, Josh, Chip and all the others… muchas gracias to you all. I get helpful comments, offers to share samples, clarifications, info and all kinds of assist when stuck for a detail or a path forward.  Rum Folks…they’re great guys, honestly.

So here’s looking forward to my next hundred, then.  I know I’m playing a catch-up game with the guys like Serge, Dave and Chip, and it’s not always and only about the numbers.  The important thing is that it remains interesting to me, I like the writing and the research and the back-and-forth…and I still revel the pleasure at discovering a really great rum, previously unknown, about which I can craft an essay that hopefully makes people think about it, appreciate it and maybe laugh a little.

Cheers to all of you who’ve read this far and this long..

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