Aug 032018
 

Photo pilfered with permission (c) Simon Johnson, RumShopBoy.com

Over the years, there has developed a sort of clear understanding of what the El Dorado 15 YO is, deriving from the wooden stills that make up its core profile – that tastes are well known, consistently made and the rum is famed for that specific reason. Therefore, the reasoning for expanding the range in 2016 to include a series of finished versions of the 15YO remains unclear.  DDL may have felt they might capitalize on the fashion to have multiple finishes of beloved rums, or dipping their toes into the waters already colonized by others with double or multiple maturations. On the other hand, maybe they just had a bunch of Portuguese wine barrels kicking around gathering dust and wanted to use them for something more than decorations and carved chairs.

Few people – including us scriveners –  will ever have the opportunity or desire to try the entire Finished line of rums together, unless they are those who attend DDL’s marketing seminars, go to Diamond in Guyana, belong to a rum collective, have deep pockets or see these things at a rum festival.  The price point makes buying them simply unfeasible, and indeed, only two writers have ever taken them apart in toto – the boys in Quebec, and the Rum Shop Boy (their words are an excellent supplement to what I’ve done here).

Here are the results in brief (somewhat more detail is in the linked reviews):

El Dorado 15 YO Red Wine Finish – 78 points

Lightly sweet with licorice, toffee and fruity notes on the nose. Cherries, plums, raisins and watermelon on the palate, all staying quiet and being rather dominated by salt caramel and molasses.

El Dorado 15 YO Ruby Port Finish – 80 points

Opens with acetones and light medicinal aromas, then develops into a dry nose redolent of peanut butter, salt caramel, fruits, raisins, breakfast spices and some brine. The taste was rather watery – pears, watermelons, caramel, toffee, anise and cognac filled chocolates.

El Dorado 15 YO White Port Finish – 76 points

Very mild, light brown sugar nose, some caramel, brine, sweet soya. Taste was similarly quiescent, presenting mostly citrus, coffee, chocolate, bananas, and of course, molasses and caramel toffee.

El Dorado 15 YO Dry Madeira Finish – 80 points

Nice: soft attack of sawdust and dark fruit: plums, pears, raisins, black grapes. Leavened with ripe orange peel, peaches and olives before muskier aromas of toffee and chocolate take over. Citrus disappears on the palate, replaced by salted butter and caramel drizzled over vanilla ice cream.  Also bananas, kiwi fruit, oranges gone off, cinnamon and cloves. Nice, but weak.

El Dorado 15 YO Sweet Madeira Finish – 81 points

Marginally my favourite overall: noses relatively darker and richer and fruitier than just about all the others except the “Dry” – delicate nose of peaches, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, caramel, peanut butter, cherries in syrup, candied oranges, bitter chocolate. Soft palate, quite dry, oak is more forward here, plus raisins, cloves and cinnamon carrying on from the nose, and the fruitiness of peaches in syrup, cherries, plus toffee, salt caramel.

El Dorado 15 YO Sauternes Finish – 78 points

Subtly different from the others. Nose of aromatic tobacco, white almond-stuffed chocolate and nail polish, then retreats to salty caramel, molasses, vanilla, cherries, raisins, lemon peel and oak, quite a bit of oak, all rather sere. Palate retains the  tobacco, then vanilla, chocolate, coffee, molasses and quite a bit more dried dark fruit notes of raisins, plums, dates, and a quick hint of anise. The oak is quite noticeable, and the rum as a whole is quite dry.


Unsurprisingly, there are variations among those who’ve looked at them, and everyone will have favourites and less-liked ones among these rums — I liked the Sweet Madeira the best, while one Facebook commentator loved the Ruby Port, Simon much preferred the White Port Finish and Les Quebecois put their money on the Dry Madeira.  This variation makes it a success, I’d say, because there’s something to please most palates.

The Finished range of rums also make a pleasing counterpoint to the “Basic” El Dorado 15 Year Old…something for everyone.  But taken as a whole, I wonder – my overall impression is that the woodsy, musky, dark profile of the Port Mourant double wooden pot still, which is the dominant element of the ED 15, is affected — but not entirely enhanced — by the addition of sprightly, light wine finishes: the two are disparate enough to make the marriage an uneasy one.  That it works at all is a testament to the master blender’s skill, and some judicious and gentler-than-usual additions to smoothen things out – the Standard ED-15 clocks in at around 20 g/L of additives (caramel or sugar), but these are substantially less. Which is a good thing – it proves, as if it ever needed to be proved at all, that DDL can forego sweetening or caramel additions after the fact, with no concomitant loss of quality or custom (why do I have the feeling they’re watching Foursquare’s double matured Exceptional Cask series like a hawk?).

What the series does make clear is that DDL is both courageous enough to try something new (the finishing concept), while at the same time remaining conservative (or nervous?) enough to maintain the continuing (if minimal) addition of adulterants. DDL of course never told anyone how popular the Finished Series are, or how the sales went, or even if the principle will remain in force for many years.  Perhaps it was successful enough for them, in early 2018, to issue the 12 year old rum with a similar series of finishes.

All the preceding remarks sum up my own appreciation for and problems with the range. None of them eclipse the 15 year old standard model (to me – that is entirely a personal opinion); they coexist, but uneasily. There are too many of them, which confuses – it’s hard to put your money on any one of them when there are six to chose from (“the paradox of choice”, it’s called).  Their exclusivity is not a given since the outturn is unknown. The unnecessary dosage, however minimal, remains. And that price! In what universe do rums that don’t differ that much from their better known brother, and are merely labelled but not proved to be “Limited,” have an asking of price of more than twice as much?  That alone makes them a tough sell. (Note – the 12 year old Finished editions which emerged in 2018 without any real fanfare, also had prices that were simply unconscionable for what they were). The people who buy rums at that kind of price know their countries, estates and stills and don’t muck around with cheap plonk or standard proofed rums. They may have money to burn — but with that comes experience because wasteage of cash on substandard rums is not part of their programme.  They are unlikely to buy these. The people who will fork out for the Finished series (one or all) are those who want a once-in-a-while special purchase… but that doesn’t exactly guarantee a rabid fanbase of Foursquare-level we’ll-buy-them-blind crazies, now, does it?

My personal opinion is that what El Dorado should have done is issue them as a truly limited series of numbered bottles, stated as 16-17 years old instead of the standard 15, and a few proof points higher.  Had they done that, these things might have become true collector’s items, the way the 1997 single still editions have become. In linking the rums to the core 15 year old while making them no stronger, not explosively more special, and at that price, they may have diluted the 15YO brand to no great effect and even limited their sales.  But at least the rums themselves aren’t crash-and-burn failures, and are pretty good in their own way. We have to give them points for that.

Jun 282018
 

In Part I of this short series I described the trends within and position of the rumworld as it existed before Velier began issuing its Demerara rums, and in Part II provided a listing and some brief commentary of the rums themselves, as they were released.  In this conclusion, I’ll express my thinking regarding their influence, and also give an epilogue of some of the characters mentioned in Part I.


So, what made the Age? In a time when independent bottlings were already in their ascendancy, why did this one series of rums capture the common imagination to the point where many of the issues have become unicorns and personal grail quests and retail for prices that, on the face of it, are almost absurd?  And what was their impact on the wider rumiverse, then and now?

Part of their fame is certainly the proselytizing dynamism and enthusiasm of Luca Gargano himself. He is born storyteller, very focused and very knowledgeable;  when you meet him, you can tell he is enraptured with the subject of rum. He travels constantly to private tastings and rumfests, and is well regarded and well known around the world. The rise of Velier is in no small part attributable to the business acumen and personal force of this one man and the dynamic team of Young Turks he employs in his offices in Genoa.

But Luca aside, I think that the Age was what it was because it really was a first, on many differing levels. It broke new ground, created (or legitimized) many new trends, and demonstrated that the rum folks would buy top quality rums even with a limited outturn.  

One has only to look at the way things were and the way things are to see the influence they had, and while it’s perfectly acceptable to state that Velier was only one aspect of the momentous changes in the world and the rum industry — that it was all inevitable anyway, and maybe they were just lucky bystanders who shone in reflected light of greater awareness — I contend that the Demerara series serves a useful marker in rum history that influenced much of what subsequently came along, and which we now take for granted and indeed, expect from a good rum

The Demerara rums released by Velier were several notches in quality above the equivalent rums produced almost anywhere else and entrenched the issue of tropical ageing as a viable way of releasing top quality rum, because aside from the major brands releasing their aged blends (often at 40-46%), it was almost unheard of to have tropically aged rums of such age produced at cask strength and so regularly. Almost without making a major point of it, the Age enhanced the concept of “pure”, and solidified the idea of “full proof” that otherwise might have taken much longer to get to develop.

The series pointed the way to the future of Foursquare rums, Mount Gay cask strengths, the El Dorado Rares, as well as English Harbour’s and St. Lucia Distillers’ new and more powerful expressions.  They provided an impetus for the re-invigorating of Jamaican distilleries, some of which were all but unknown if not actually defunct, and it could be argued that there is a line of descent from the estate-based Demerara full-proofs to the movement of these Jamaican distilleries to not just sell in bulk abroad, but to issue estate-specific marques of their own.

The Age also moved the epicenter of the top-echelon rums (not always the same as super-premiums) away from aged blends (like El Dorado’s own 21 and 25 year old rums, or Appleton’s 21 and 30 year olds) to single-barrel or limited-edition, estate-specific full proofs.  It gave the French agricoles a boost via Velier’s subsequent collaboration with Capovilla (which is not to downplay the impact of the hydrometer tests mentioned below), and provided small, new rum outfits like Nine Leaves and US micro-producers the confidence that their rums made to exacting specifications, at a higher strength and without additives had a chance to succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace.  

And the Age led to a trend in increased participation of independents and private labels in the greater rum world: new or concurrently existing companies like Hamilton, EKTE, Transcontinental, Compagnie des Indes, Bristol Spirits, Mezan, Duncan Taylor, Secret Treasures, Svenska Eldevatten, Kill Devil, Excellence Rum, L’Esprit, as well as the older ones like the Scottish whisky makers, Plantation, Rum Nation, BBR, and Samaroli, are its inheritors (even if their inspiration was not a direct one and they might argue that they had already been doing so before 2005). Nowadays its not uncommon to see annual releases of many different expressions, from many different countries, instead of just a few (or one).

It would be incorrect to say that the Age of the Demeraras proceeded in isolation from the larger rum world.  While these Demeraras were being made, others were also gathering a head of steam (Silver Seal and Samaroli are good examples, which is why their older bottlings are expensive rarities on par with Veliers in their own right). All the larger independent bottlers increased their issue of stronger rums from around the world.  And I suggest that the work they have done when considered together has led to two of the other great divides in the rum world – cask strength versus standard, and continental (European) ageing versus tropical. To some extent Velier’s Demeraras raised awareness and provided some legitimacy for this trend if not actually initiating it.

Drejer, hydrometers, sugar and the fallout…

One other aspect of the rumworld not directly related to the Age detonated in late 2013 and early 2014, and must be considered. That was the work of the Finland’s ALKO and Sweden’s Systembolaget, closely followed by Johnny Drejer, in analyzing the contents and ABV levels of rums. They used a hydrometer to measure the actual ABV as the instruments displayed, and compared that against the labelled ABV – any difference over and beyond some kind of normal variation was an additive of some kind that changed the density. In the main, that was caramel or sugar in some form or other, and possibly glycerol and/or other adulterants.

Five short years ago, nobody on the consumer side of things ever thought to do such a test.  Who could afford that kind of thing with a commercial lab? — and if the producers were doing such analyses, they weren’t publishing. For years before that, there had been rumours and dark stories of additives going around,  it’s just that public domain evidence was lacking.  Many producers – excepting those prohibited by law from messing around – denied (and had always denied) additives outright, or spouted charming stories about secret cellars and stashes, family recipes, old traditions and rum heritage.   Most of the remainder hedged and never answered questions directly. 

When the Scandinavians started publishing their results, the roof blew off — it quite literally changed the rum landscape overnight. For the first time there was proof — clear, testable, incontrovertible proof — that something was being added to some very old and well-regarded rums to change them. Almost at once Richard Seale of Foursquare used his regular attendance at international rumfests to speak to the issue (as did Luca Gargano), and he, Johnny Drejer, Wes Burgin, Rum Shop Boy, 4FineSpiritsCyril of DuRhum, and Dave Russell proved that with some inexpensive home apparatus, you could do your own testing that would at the very least prove something else was in your favourite juice (though not what it was). All the blogs linked above now maintain lists of rums and measurements of the ABV differences and the calculated dosage.

That direct measurement of, or reference to, a hydrometer test for ABV discrepancies has become a key determinant of honesty in labelling.  Conversations in social media that speak to rums known to have been “dosed” (as the practice has come to be called) are more likely than any other to end in verbal fisticuffs and name-calling, and has created one of the three great divides in the world of rum drinkers.

This may be seen to be at best peripheral to the Age, but what hydrometer tests and the emergent purity movement did, was instantly (if indirectly) provide enormous legitimacy to the entire Velier Demerara line and those of many of the European indies, as well as the whole pure-rums concept Luca had been talking about for so long. With the exception of the pre-2005 releases, the credibility of these rums was solidified at once, and the increasingly positive word of mouth and written reviews moved them to almost the pinnacle of must-have rums. I’m not saying other rums and producers didn’t benefit from the movement – Jamaican, Bajan and St Lucian rums in particular were were more than happy to trumpet their own purity, as did practically every independent bottler out there – just that Velier reaped a lot of kudos almost without trying, and this helped raise awareness of their Demerara rums. It’s an aside to the main thrust of this essay, but cannot be entirely ignored either.


Epilogue

Many of the players in this short history are still with us, so here’s an update.

The El Dorado 15 remains a staple of the rum drinking world to this day in spite of its now well-publicized dosage.  It has received much opprobrium for the lack of disclosure (DDL has never commented on the matter) and has slipped somewhat in people’s estimation to being a second tier aged product.  Yet it remains enormously popular and is a perennial best seller, a rum many new entrants to the field refer to as a touchstone, even though DDL has moved to colonize the space Velier pioneered and begun issuing cask strength limited bottlings from the stills themselves in 2016 (the 1997 anniversary editions at 40% were essays in the craft but predated the Age and were never continued).

Photo (c) A Mountain of Crushed Ice

Ed Hamilton has withdrawn somewhat from his publishing and promotional work, and the Ministry of Rum website is a shadow of its glory days, with most of the traffic and rum-chum interaction shifting to Facebook, where his group is one of the top five in the world by user base.  Mr. Hamilton is a distributor of many distilleries’ rums into North America and in 2010 began to issue the Hamilton line of rums from around the Caribbean, all pure, all at cask strength. I quite liked the little I’ve tried.

Independent bottlers continue proliferating in Europe and all follow the trail of the Age – full proof, estate (or country) specific rums.  When from Guyana, it is now standard practice for the still to be referenced, with the “Diamond” moniker being perhaps the most confusing.

The internet has enabled not just one rum forum on one website, but a whole raft of international rum review websites from the USA, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and the UK.  Oddly, the Caribbean doesn’t have any. There are also news aggregators and online shops in a quantity that astounds anyone who saw it develop in so short a time. Aside from private sales on Facebook, websites are now one of the most common ways to source rums as opposed to walking into a shop. The many Facebook rum clubs  are the sites of enormously spirited discussions – these clubs (and to a lesser extent reddit) are the places to get the fastest response to any rum question, and the best in which to take a beating if you profess admiration for a dosed rum. 

Johnny Drejer and the others mentioned above are still updating rum sugar lists. They cover most common rums. The test is now considered almost de rigueur. It has its detractors – it can be impacted by more than just sugar, temperature variations affect the readings, it can be fooled by higher actual ABV being labelled as less, and you never know quite what’s been added – but it remains one of the strongest tools in the ongoing battle to have additives or dosage disclosed properly.

Luca Gargano of Velier, April 2018, Genoa

Velier has grown into one of the great distributors, enablers and independents of the rumworld (though they remain at heart a distributor), and not rested on their laurels, but gone from strength to strength. Luca, always on the lookout for new and interesting rums, scored a massive coup when he picked up thousands of barrels from the closed Trinidadian distillery Caroni in 2004. Velier has been issuing them in small batches for years, so much so that it could be argued that as the sun of appreciation set over the Age of Demeraras, it rose on the Age of Caroni (at least in the public perception). He has championed artisanal rums from Haiti and anywhere else where traditional, organic and pure rums are made. He has forged partnerships and fruitful collaborations with producers around the world.  One, with Richard Seale of Foursquare resulted in the conceptual thinking behind the Exceptional Series, as well as the collaborations of Habitation Velier, which are tensely awaited and snapped up fast by enthusiastic and knowledgeable rum folks. He has an involvement with Hampden out of Jamaica, and when the 70th Anniversary of Velier rolled around in 2017, partnered up with many producers to get special bottlings from them to mark the occasion. Velier has grown into a company with a scores of employees, and a turnover hundreds of times greater than that with which it began.

I appreciate this sounds like something of a hagiography, but that is not my intention.  The purpose of this long essay and this wrap-up, is simply to place the Demerara rums issued during those years at the centre of great changes in our world.  (Not the Caronis, because I contend that the appreciation for them took much longer to gestate; not so much the Rhum Rhum line done with Capovilla, since they remain something of a niche market, however popular; and certainly not the one-offs like the Basseterre 1995 and 1997 or the Courcelles 1972, which were too small and individualistic).  The Age’s rums did not create all the trends noted above single-handedly. But certainly they had a great influence, and this is why we can correctly refer to an Age, even if it is just to mark the time when a series of exceptional bottlings were made.

It is my belief that what the Demerara series of rums did was to point the way to possibilities that were, back then, merely small-scale, limited or imperfectly executed ideas, waiting to be taken to the next level. Velier came in, took a look around and re-imagined the map, then went ahead and showed what could be done. Certainly, like most innovators, Luca built on what came before while amending and modifying it to suit his own personal ideas; others contributed, and Velier did not work outside the great social and spirituous trends of its time. But somehow, Luca more than most gathered the strands of his imagination and used them to tie together all the concepts of rum making in which he believed.  In doing so he produced rums which remain highly sought-after, and used the credibility they engendered to put his stamp firmly on the industry. We live in the world that he and his rums helped to bring about. Whatever your opinions on the influence of the Age, we had what we had before they appeared, and now we have what we have which is better. The work is worth acknowledging, and respecting. It is to our regret that the Age was over before we even properly acknowledged its existence.

In closing, I should mention that the Age of Velier’s Demeraras was only called that when it was over (and for the record, it was by the Danish blogger Henrik Kristoffersen who first used the term in a Facebook post in early 2016). And even if you don’t believe the Age was so central, or had the sort of rum-cultural impact as I think they do, I believe there’s no gainsaying that the sheer quality of rums that were issued for those nine years supports the idea that there was once an Age, that it really did exist…and the current crop of rums from this company remain at a similar level of quality as those first old and bold ones which were once considered too expensive.  It’s great that even now with all their rarity, we can sometimes, just sometimes, still manage to drink from the well of those amazing Demeraras, and consider ourselves fortunate to have done so.

***


This series elicited an interesting discussion on Reddit regarding topical ageing vs continental, here.

Jun 272018
 

Part II – The Rums

Photograph (c) Rumclubfrancophone.fr

2005 – The Age Begins

In Part 1 I gave a rather lengthy rundown of the events and trends leading up to the unofficially named Age.  There was a reason for that – because I wanted to make it clear how the rum landscape was altered after those rums were issued.  And to do that we needed to get a sense of what it was like before.

To briefly recap, the pieces were in place, at the intersection of culture and history and personality:

  • the world was becoming more interconnected and knowledgeable as a result of the proliferation of internet enabled websites and blogs, books being written and the Ministry of Rum website; in short, communications had undergone a sea change.
  • rums had moved from being primarily blends and cocktail fodder to sharing space on shelves with generously aged expressions;
  • people were starting to know more and had more choice; independent bottlers helped move that along, as did the emergent rum festival scene started by the Miami Rum Renaissance
  • and Luca Gargano, having bought a small Genoese spirits-distribution concern, started issuing a relatively large number of Guyanese rums, which were relatively unsucessful but which crystallized his thinking on what he felt the characteristics of good rums were.

Now, we could argue that since the world was ripe for an expansion of cask strength single editions from all points of the compass (the concept was not, after all, particularly new), that Luca Gargano just did it with more verve and panache, and that everyone else was going to do it anyway.  The development was inevitable. History is replete with stories of groundbreaking ideas being developed simultaneously in multiple places (Newton and Leibnitz with calculus; Darwin and Wallace with evolution; Einstein and Hilbert with relativity…and so on). 

Maybe so.  But I argue that nobody ever did it better, or in such volume and he was there at the right time with the right rums, just as interest was catching on. The rumworld was ready for something new and interesting and dynamic, and Luca filled the niche both in what he produced and who he was.

The Rums, by date of issue

As noted in Part 1, after a few years of developing the company and broadening its portfolio, Velier began its move to craft spirits in 1992 (which may not be a coincidence), by beginning its selection of barrels of rum for its brand.  This led, in 1996, to the issuance of three Guyanese rums – all issued at 40% (see next paragraph) and using a third partly bottler (Thompson & Co.).  All were continentally aged.

Note the two editions of the Diamond 1975 at different strengths. I double checked the labels and the images, and yes they clearly note the separate ABV. This then was the first demonstration of something Velier would become famous for: issuing the same rum at varying power (though likely from different casks), which culminated in the multitudinous variations of the Caronis that so amuse, enthrall and irritate the accountants.

  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 – 1996), 40%
  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 – 1996), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1985 21YO (1985 – 1996) 40%
  • Versailles 1991 5 YO (1991 – 1996), 40%

Luca was dissatisfied with this, and four years later tried again, with three more rums from Guyana.  These were bottled by a Holland-based subsidiary of DDL themselves (called Breitenstein), because by this time Velier’s association with DDL had become much firmer and it was felt to be more cost effective – though they remained continentally aged.  Of particular note was Luca’s find of the LBI marque, quite rare, though which still produced it remains an open question. The Enmore also comes in for mention because of its strength – it was the first attempt to issue at full proof…why he did not follow on from this concept here is unknown, but considering that the Damoiuseau 1980 only got released two years later, perhaps it was nerves, or caution, or simply a lack of confidence (though that would seem doubtful to anyone who’s ever met the man).


By the time the third batch of rums was issued in 2002, now all at 46%, Luca knew something had to change. While he was happy with the ages of the rums — on three separate occasions rums had been released at close or equal to 20 years — they were continentally aged and simply not exciting enough, unique enough, in a field where other independents were issuing similar versions, if not in such quantity. But they were all sipping at one well, that of the European brokers, and he felt he had to get his rums from the source. It was this 2002 series that began to do exactly that: all three rums were fully tropical-aged and selected directly from DDL’s Guyana warehouse, which was a first for any independent bottling to that time. Luca himself dates the Age from this release season, though he admits he lacked the courage to go completely full-proof for it, and told me that Yesu Persaud would probably not have countenanced it either at the time.

As an aside, attention should be drawn to the label design – each release season (1996, 2000 and 2002) is clearly distinct from the others. The wild and joyously near-abstract paintings echoed local artists, and we would not see their like again until Simeon Michel was contracted to provide the artwork for the clairins many years later.

  • Albion 1984 18 YO (1984 – 2002), 46%
  • Diamond 1982 20 YO (1982 – 2002), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1982 20YO (1982 – 2002), 46%

Photo (c) Ministry of Rum

My feeling is that the classic portion of the Age started in 2005. The now famous black bottles and simplified labels were introduced in that year and remained constant for nearly a decade. The level of detail on those labels was unprecedented, by any maker, at any time, for any rum. For the first time consumers got the year of distillation and bottling; the casks, the outturn, the strength, the still and the marque, even (sometimes) the angel’s share. And serious strength was on display for once, real full proof, from-the-barrel power.

In the years leading up to 2005, Luca forged a firm personal alliance with DDL (and its chairman, Yesu Persaud).  They showed him select barrels from their ageing warehouse and he chose some to bottle. 2005’s Diamond and Uitvlugt releases are considered good rums but they were relatively young and lacked an element of gravitas.  But one day as he was walking with Mr. Persaud through the ageing warehouse, he spotted five or six barrels mouldering quietly in a corner. They were from a long defunct distillery of the Skeldon estate (the easternmost estate in Guyana – the distillery is long closed though it still makes sugar), and their age took his breath away.  He tried the 1973 and it was such an impressive dram that he almost begged to be allowed to bottle it as it was. For the only time in this partnership, permission was granted and he was allowed bottle all the barrels himself, and the 1973 proved to be one of the most amazing rums ever issued (myth has it that he also got the single barrel of the Caputo 1973 at this time, but that’s another story entirely).

Photo (c) Barrel-Aged-Mind

The three barrels of the Skeldon 1978 were a different matter.  There was insufficient volume to make a decent outturn (whatever that might mean, given that the 1973 only produced 544 bottles from four barrels), and so it was mixed in with some 1973 — and therefore this is a blend, not a rum conforming to Velier’s usual standards.  Still, all of these rums were tropically aged and released at cask strength, and this was what he wanted. (I have heard another story that DDL themselves blended the 1973 and 1978 and didn’t tell him, admitting it only when pressed because he recognized a difference in the profile after the fact).


2005 and 2006 together saw the issuance of not only eight different Guyanese rums but nine and eight Caronis respectively.  None of these received especially wide acclaim or attention, though my feeling is that the 1991 Blairmont was definitely one of the better rums I’ve tried from the stable and the one occasion I tried (without notes) the PM 1993, it was equally impressive, though relatively young compared to its siblings issued in those two years.


2007 was an odd year, when everything issued was under ten years old, which may just have been a function of what was put in front of Luca to inspect and select. The first Versailles rum since 1996 was issued in 2007, and somehow another LBI rum was found – it would prove to be the last.

In this year some of the first reviewing websites began to go live: however, these were primarily American, with one – Refined Vices – from Australia, and showed the slowly building interest in quality rums (perhaps also aided by the Miami Rum Renaissance which had just started two years ealier). But while rums commonly available in North America formed the bulk of the writing on such sites at this stage, the European bottlings Velier was making received little or no attention, and remained on sale primarily in Italy.


When it came to releases, 2008 was a banner year for the company, when eight Demerara rums were issued at once. Yet widespread acceptance remained elusive: costing out at over a hundred euros per bottle, most consumers in Europe, where distribution was primarily limited, felt this was still to expensive (bar the Italians, who I was told were snapping them up). One can only imagine how frustrating this must have been to Luca, who knew how good they were. The standouts from this year’s collection were undoubtedly those amazing 1970s Port Mourants, which are now probably close to priceless, if they can even be found. (And even the others are becoming grail quests – I saw an online listing in June 2018 for the Albion 1983, at close to two thousand euros).


Something interesting happened in 2010, overlooked by many, ignored by the rest.  For the first time reviews of the Velier Demeraras start to appear in the blogosphere, and they were all from Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun.  He had begun in 2009 with a raft of generally available rums, and in 2010 issued his first review of Velier rums — Enmore 1988 and 1990, Albion 1989, Uitvlugt 1990 and Blairmont 1991. And…nobody noticed; those who did hardly cared. He was a whisky guy daring to dabble in rums?  Shame on him. The reviews sank out of sight; nobody else would write about these spectacular rums for nearly three years and modesty be damned, when the next round of reviews were published, they were mine.

That same year Velier only issued two rums, though I have not been able to establish why such a small release. (The Blairmont was offered for sale in June 2018 on FB for €2300, for those who’re interested in pricing their collection).


2011 was another skinny year, with only three rums being released, two of which were from Albion. Why DDL would sell off barrels of defunct distilleries like LBI, Blairmont or Albion is a curious window into their commercial mindset at the time – it’s possible that they simply didn’t see any margins in such niche products which might cost more to bring to market than they would sell for,though Velier clearly showed this was not so.  Since Velier maintained a low profile outside Italy, they probably didn’t see such rums adding value to the DDL brand, and were okay letting them go. The Albion 1994 is particularly fine piece of work and I’ve heard it bruited about that 2018/2019 Release 3 of the DDL Rares will have one.


The Diamond and Port Mourant releases from the 2012 season were rums Luca liked a lot…but when he saw three barrels from Uitvlugt marked UF30E (for East Field #30 – perhaps the first incidence of parcellaire (a specific parcel of land within a terroire) ever found) he immediately snapped them up and produced 814 bottles.  It remains, in the opinion of this writer, one of the best Guyanese rums ever made, perhaps even better than the Skeldon 1973. The PM 1997 was also a very very good piece of work, but could not eclipse the UF30E and it’s just a shame that I never managed to try the 30+ year old Diamond.


Nothing was issued in 2013 (the reasons remain obscure), and by the time the 2014 came around, things were slowing down: although we did not know it, the end was drawing nigh. While still being shown barrels to choose from, Luca felt the quality and age was no longer as spectacular as the early rums he had found just a few years before (that might be because he cleared out all the best juice already, I humorously remarked to him some years later). This led to some experimentation of various blends (Diamond-Versailles, PM-Diamond and PM-Enmore) which were positively received, but whose interesting development was never followed up on. That said, these have become as pricey and hard to find as any other of the classic Demeraras – and, reputedly, every bit as good.

Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 – 2014), 53.1%
Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 – 2014), 64.1%
Uitvlugt 1996 18 YO (1996 – 2014), 57.2%
Uitvlugt 1997 17 YO (1997 – 2014), 59,7%
Port Mourant / Enmore Experimental 1998 16YO (1998 – 2014), 62.2%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1995 19YO (1995 – 2014), 62.1%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1999 15 YO (1999 – 2014), 52.3.%
Diamond / Versailles Experimental 1996 18 YO (1996 – 2014), 57.9%

(Note that in 2014 and 2015, when the Velier Demeraras were beginning to become more well known, both Cyril of DuRhum and Henrik of RumCorner were starting to write about them — both described the Enmore 1995 from the 2011 season — and it was from that point that the Europeans started to sit up and take notice and prices began their climb as Velier’s reputation gained momentum.)

In late 2014 DDL’s chairman, with whom Luca had had such a sterling relationship, retired, and within months the new chairman informed him (Luca) that they themselves would be releasing “Gargano-style” rums, and the arrangement Velier had with DDL would come to an end. The rums listed above are therefore among the last ever issued by the collaboration (until the 70th Anniversary bottling in 2017, which falls outside the scope of this essay).

Nothing was released in 2015, and in 2016 Demerara Distillers came out with the Rare Collection.  This led to a lot of grumbling and online vituperation – some thought it a cheap shot by DDL – but in the main, such annoyance as was expressed focused mostly around the pricing, which was felt to be exorbitant (and continues this day, with the 2018 El Dorado 12 year old wine finished editions which are also considered to be overpriced).  But what the Rares did was seal the fate of the Velier Demeraras.  Once those came out the door, we knew that there would never be any more.

And just like that, the Age was over.


Other Notes

In Part III I’ll wrap up this short series by assessing the trends and impact which the Age had (at least in my opinion), and provide an epilogue.

 

Jun 252018
 

Part 1 – Influences & Developments to 2005

Introduction

Take a look at the rum world in 2018, and several aspects jump out immediately.  The top-end rums getting most of the press and user approbation are almost all rums issued at cask strength; many, if not most, are made by an ever-increasing stable of independent bottlers, with Foursquare being one of the few primary producers making such strong rums as part of their core lineup, and others hastening to catch up.  Rums are often being made “pure,” which is to say without additives, labels are much more informative than ever before, and unaged whites are becoming more and more popular (and appreciated). The major large-company rum brands of ten years ago – many of which were and are aged blends – remain enormously popular but have almost all been relegated to second-tier status in the eyes of knowledgeable aficionados. And the dissemination of information regarding rums – whether via news stories, magazine click-bait, blogs, review sites, Reddit forums or Facebook rum clubs – has enabled the trend in this direction exponentially.

When one considers the state of the rum world prior to 2005, this ninety-degree turn in the drinking habits of the tippling class seems well nigh unprecedented.  It is my considered opinion that the Demerara (and to a lesser extent the Caroni) rums issued by Velier in the years 2005 to 2014 were instrumental in altering the rum landscape in a way few rums before ever had, or ever will again. To this day, many consider them among the best rums from Guyana ever issued, and that includes the independents (of which Velier was surely one in spite of being primarily an importer). Many of the concepts we take for granted when choosing top-shelf rums from Guyana – indeed, from anywhere – were encapsulated and brought to a wider audience by the Demerara series.  We live in the world they helped make, and it is our loss that they ceased being issued almost before we even properly acknowledged their existence.

In this first portion of a rather long three-part essay I’m going to look at the trends, influences and developments that I believe laid the foundations for what is unofficially called the Age of Velier’s Demeraras. I argue that these were the release of the El Dorado 15 year old in 1992, the rise of the internet, three books, a website, proliferating independent bottlers in Europe — all of which led to a more informed and rum-educated drinking cadre, some of whom went on to form the first websites devoted to rums and reviews. Also, oh yes….there was a small Italian importer….

As it was then…

The rum world in the 1980s was a rather staid one, moving along very much as it had for years before.  Major rum companies from around the Caribbean were issuing more or less the same rums they had been for decades – then as now, 40% ABV was practically a standard, age almost uniformly under ten years (if mentioned at all), and the market was full of familiar brands, similar recipes, incremental development, and with column still blends being the majority of sales.

As with all such general conditions, there were exceptions at the margins. Many small companies “made” rum for sale around the world – but they were really rebottlers and independents, not primary producers with sugar estates and/or distilleries of their own. Too, 40% was a common sort of strength (especially in the United States), but not an absolute.  The French Caribbean islands made more than their fair share of rums around 50% ABV and rums made for export to European countries often boosted the strength to 43-48%

When it came to market domination, Bacardi was the undisputed leader, and lighter Spanish-style rums seemed to be everywhere – I even found them and not much else in Central Asian bazaars in the early 1990s.  Most rums in production at the time were considered mixing drinks at best, which was a state of mind deriving from the misconception that it was a pirate’s booze, a sailor’s hooch, a drink to have fun with…not something to be taken seriously. Not to be had by itself, or to be savoured on its own. Unlike, for instance, whisky.

Although some independent bottlers issued more seriously aged rums in limited quantities, they didn’t expand production or really take it further – the market was a small one, and such bottlings were mostly bought by whisky aficionados and some hard core rum enthusiasts-cum-collectors, who were intrigued by the variations –people like Steve Remsberg, profiled here and here or Luca Gargano, or Martin Cate or the Burrs.  Rum culture in the general public — both in perception and consumption — was primarily about cocktails, the mythmaking of Hemmingway-esque muscularity…today’s social-media-enabled rum clubs, where reviews of the latest bottling of a favoured company go up in days, hours or even minutes after formal release, where minute variations of favourite styles or individual rums are endlessly bickered over, and where discussions about additives erupt every other post, were not even a cloud on the horizon.

This is not to say a wide variety of rums was not being made – quite the opposite. South and Central America had a long and proud history of rum production.  Companies like Varelas Hermanos, Vollmer, Zacapa, Zaya, Dictador, Travellers, Flor de Cana, Juan Santos, and Cartavio were issuing softly blended and solera-style rums since the early 1900s and some even predated the turn of the century. Cachacas had been made for hundreds of years in Brazil. In the East there were almost unknown rums from India and Thailand and Indonesia. Cuba had its national production arm sending rums to Scheer and began working hand in hand with Pernod Ricard to produce the Havana Club line in the 1990s; and while booted out of Cuba itself, Bacardi was selling rums by the tankerload globally (largely due to subsidies provided by the US government).  The French islands, with their plethora of small and fiercely individualistic distilleries sold primarily to the European market (France in particular), and even with the slow demise of sugar and rum production, distilleries in Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Guyana, Antigua and Barbados (to list but some) struggled gamely on. 

Aged rums from the pre-1990s eras were on the market, sure, and there was no shortage of them….but one had to look carefully for the specific trees in the forest (nowadays even more so when most exist in private collections or in memory alone).  Fernandes Distillery in Trinidad made the Ferdi 10 Year Old from as far back as the 1930s and was still making it in the 1960s and 1970s; Appleton produced a 12 year old and a 20 year old from way back in the 1960s, issued a limited 25 year old in 1987,  and old gaffers will remember the Dagger 8 Year Old and Three Dagger Jamaican 10 Year Old from J. Wray, also hailing to the 1930s; and going back even further in time, Jamaica at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886 by Sir Augustus J. Adderley lists 10, 15, 25 and 31 year old rums from merchant bottlers like D. Finzi & Co. and Wray and Nephew (before they acquired Appleton). I know there was an 18 year old “Old New England Rum” from the USA in 1934; Beenleigh in Australia made a five year old rum (and supposedly supplied the Royal Navy); Banks DIH in Guyana made a five year old as far back as the 1950s (though I don’t know when the 10 year old first appeared). La Favorite on Martinique had a ten year old back in the 1950s and 1960s, but like most agricole makers, were much more into millesime rhums, and while I’m sure the agricoles had more than my research uncovered, their naming convention of vieux, tres vieux and XO makes it difficult to see what is aged beyond, say, six to ten years. Most aged rums around the world seemed to be ten years old or less.  A twenty year old was unheard of, thirty the stuff of dreams. (We had to wait until 1999 for the G&M 58 year old, another ten years for the Courcelles 37 year old).

Anyway, much of the primary producers’ rum production went to Europe in bulk (a lot went to E&A Scheer, which was and remains one of the largest brokers buying rum stock in the world) and was then blended into European producers’ rums, of which there were many, none of which achieved any sort of lasting fame (unless it was the navy style of rum made by UK companies like Watsons for the local market).  And so the West Indian distilleries consolidated, shuttered, closed, changed focus, modernized, diversified, found new markets…and somehow the rum continued to flow.

But underneath this relatively placid existence of blends and unquestioning rum-is-fun-no-questions-need-be-asked, several seemingly unrelated events occurred which were to lay the foundations of whole new directions for the rum world.

1992 and the El Dorado 15 Year Old

In 1992, what proved to be an enormously influential rum came on the scene – the El Dorado 15 Year Old and its brothers up and down the line, the 5, 12 and 21 and (later) the 25s. It may not seem so now, when so many aged brands are sold around the world, and where every distillery has a few in its portfolio.  But it sure was then.

Bearing in mind the (very) abridged list of older rums mentioned above, it doesn’t entirely surprise me that whatever the age, few or none seemed to ever make a huge worldwide splash. The market wasn’t there, the connoisseurship was lacking, and information interchange was by magazines and snail mail, not the internet (see below). People just didn’t know enough and had few avenues open to self-education that characterizes today’s fanboys. Remember also, most of the aged rums were issued by small rebottlers in Europe or their agents in the producing countries/islands on behalf of the originating distilleries, and that kept outturn relatively small.  Independents like Samaroli and Veronelli had been making such rums since the 1970s, and Scottish whisky makers and re-bottlers certainly issued their fair share, though they were rare in the pre-1992 era.

And a downside to the independents was that they didn’t always made it clear where they originated – bought directly from the distillery of origin, or through a European broker like Scheer. Only occasionally was it unambiguously stated where the ageing had taken place. They varied from expression to expression, and long term consistency was rare. They were not always specific, and commonly labelled as “aged” or “country” rums – Superior Rum, Extra Old Rum, Barbados Aged Rum, Guyanese Rum, Jamaican Rum, and so on. The concept of making the estate the selling point was almost ignored. Many were, in fact, blends of uncertain age, mixing several estates’ marques into a single product. The consumer was certainly not helped to make an informed choice in the matter because exclusivity was the key selling point – you took what you got, trusted the skill of the producing company, and were grateful.

What made the El Dorado 15 (and its brothers) so seminal is that for the first time and over an extended period, a rum was made the same way every time, with an outturn not of a few hundred bottles, but in the tens and hundreds of thousands, year in and year out.  Consumers were getting a true fifteen year old rum of distinctive taste and consistent profile, not some supposedly exclusive and high-priced limited edition of a “Manager’s Reserve” or “Private Family Stock” or “My Dog Bowser’s Anniversary Blend.” Now anyone could buy this rum, which was a cut above the ordinary, had really cool antecedents, and was an absolute riot to drink neat.  Best of all, the El Dorado 15 was approachable – it retailed at an affordable price, had a taste the average consumer would like (toffee, caramel, licorice, citrus and raisins remain in the core profile), could be mixed, swilled or sipped, had great marketing and was issued an unthreatening 40%. The greater rum drinking audience went ape for it.

Within a few years, just about every primary rum producer with a well known brand caught the wave, and the 1990s and 2000s saw an explosion of older rums.  Companies all over the western hemisphere rushed to bring out aged expressions, and such rums soon became staples of many companies’ lines (and Appleton finally got the respect for its 12 YO it deserved, as well as beginning the regular issuing of older variations). The South and Central American and Spanish Caribbean islands’ rum makers took their time with it: they were blenders for the most part, a few solera-style makers, and they saw no reason to go full bore in this direction (many still don’t).  The French islands with their millesime approach and their own ideas on what constituted a good aged rum dabbled their toes, but with a few exceptions (I saw a 12 YO dating back to the 1970s once, so they certainly existed) they rarely ventured over ten years old – and bearing in mind the quality of what they achieved and the recognition their brands already had and have always maintained in their primary markets, it was and remains hard to fault them for this choice.

So the aged rum market almost by default landed, and has remained, with some exceptions, in the British West Indies, led by Appleton and also DDL, the company whose work would produce the next great wave of rums ten years down the road….but not under its own banner.

Books

One development that also raised the profile of rum was the publishing of three books — two in the early 1990s, the other nearly ten years later. To some extent they have been overtaken by events, yet they remain quiet classics of the genre, and carried with them not only the promise of other books written in the decades that followed, but a resurgence of interest in rums as a whole. They remain cornerstones of the literature, not least because they were among the first to try and provide a deeper background to the variety of rums represented without overwhelming the readers in technical minutiae of the rum-making process most neither wanted nor understood.

Released in 1995, Ed Hamilton’s book “Rums of the Eastern Caribbean” was a rich and varied survey of as many distilleries and rums as Mr. Hamilton found the time to visit and try over many years of sailing around the Caribbean.  Because of its limited focus, it lacked a global perspective, but it was a treasure trove of information of the rum producing world in the eastern Caribbean at that time, it was based on solid first hand experience, and many rum junkies who make distillery trips part of their overall rum education are treading in his footsteps. If nothing else, it elevated the knowledge of the curious and made it clear that there was an enormous breadth in rums, so much so that historical info aside, anyone could find something to please themselves. (It was followedup in 1997 by another book called “The Complete Guide to Rum”).

 

Dave Broom’s 2003 book “Rum” was a coffee-table sized book that combined narrative and photographs, and included a survey of the rum producing nations and islands and regions to that time.  It was weak on soleras, missed independents altogether and almost ignored Asia, but had one key new ingredient – the introduction and codification of rum into styles.  Then as now, the debate over how to classify rum was a problem.  Colour was still used as a main marker and gradation of type (the additives and coloration debate had yet to reach wide attention, and was all but unknown to the drinking public), stills were not considered a way to distinguish rums.  Mr. Broom’s contribution to the field was to at least attempt to stratify rums: in his case, regions that had broad similarities of production and profile: Jamaican, Guyanese, Bajan, Spanish and French island (agricole) styles. Cachacas were not brought into the classification and there was no real way to incorporate multi-regional blends or rums from outside the system (like, oh, Australia) – but it was an remains enormously influential, though by now somewhat dated and overtaken by events (he issued a follow-up “Rum: The Manual” in 2016, the same year as “Rum Curious” by Fred Minnick came out).

What these books did was make rum interesting and more appreciated in the eyes of the larger public, in a pre-internet world where whisky prices were just starting to climb.  They showcased something of the variety that rum provided, and educated many neophyte rum lovers into the foundations of their favourite drink. It showed them the varieties and differences and production methods that allowed a more sophisticated understanding of the spirit.  Rum was clearly not just some blended bathtub moonshine for the sweet-toothed who didn’t appreciate a single malt, or a bland and boring mixing agent — but a spirit with a long and technically rigorous, geographically broad-based history that deserved mention, if not respect.

The Internet

To some extent the remarks here are a subset of larger cultural shifts around the world which were enabled by the internet and the world wide web itself.  Access was available in 1995, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it became over the subsequent decades. The internet enabled web pages, those pages enabled blogs, blogs became review sites and fora for interaction — and all of it created a communications revolution for rum lovers.  What this allowed and promoted was a new understanding of the spirit, a grasp of its enormous stylistic range and geographical dispersion, as well as quick dissemination of information on rums, brands, companies, personalities, reviews, and opinions. It’s no accident that the sugar imbroglio (see a brief discussion in Part 2) arose after the internet permitted such exponential interaction and news-exchange among drinkers; or that the first rum festivals began springing up just as the first review sites did, in the mid 2000s.  The importance and impact of the web on rum appreciation simply cannot be overstated.

It took more time for the first write ups of Velier to come out the door on such websites, but before that happened there came one website that proved to be enormously influential, which all bloggers from that era remember.

Ed Hamilton and the Ministry of Rum

It took years after its launching in 1995 for the Ministry of Rum to acquire the central status it held for the next decade, and in its heyday it was one of the key places for aficionados to meet and share information (Capn Jimbo’s site was the other), and likely the most popular.  While it possessed a fair amount of articles and searchable information on distilleries, brands and countries – a first at that time, and a godsend to the researchers – the real basis for its influence and popularity was the forum and discussion area, and, to a lesser extent, the Connoisseur’s Cabinet where occasional reviews would be posted. At its peak, there would be new discussion threads and posts springing up daily, sharing information, raising issues, offering advice and opinions.  Even now in 2018 there’s a steady trickle of people on that site, posting “Hi I’m a new rum lover from ____”.

In these days of Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard, Tumblr, Pinterest, blogs, aggregators, instant messaging and full-time online presences, it’s difficult to remember how groundbreaking this trend actually was. Now rum lovers did not have to create websites (a difficult and often confusing task in the early 2000s) and then hope that they would be found – they could simply post on the Ministry.  Many of the older names in the rum writing game started their careers by commenting – extensively – here. This one original website did more than most other avenues to help disseminate information and news about rum, and introduced the vocal, dedicated fans to one another, a process that has accelerated with the advent of social media.

Independent Bottlers / Private Labels

If you put aside the 151 overproofs that Bacardi, Lemon Hart, Cruzan, Don Q, Goslings, Matusalem and a handful of others were releasing, the limited edition “cask strength” market was all but nonexistent until a decade ago, and these 75.5% mastodons were all you got.  All were considered cocktail bases, not rums in their own right: they were certainly not premiums. Such cask-strength rums as were considered a cut above the ordinary were mostly issued by independents, not by major producers (who limited themselves to powerful cocktail mixers like the 151s), and the independents weren’t looking to make overproofs but echoed whisky maker’s full-proof ethos.

Almost alone in the world, then, the Europeans issued a few high-proof bottlings, released by re-bottlers and spirits companies such as Cadenhead, Gordon & MacPhail, A.D. Rattray, Berry Brothers & Rudd among others; as well as smaller concerns like EH Keeling, Nicholson, Watson’s, Vaughan, Sangster, Baird-Taylor, Gilbey & Matheson, Henry & White, Lemon Hart, A.A. Baker (among others). The Germans had their own such companies such as those around Flensburg (Rendsburger, Dethleffson and Berentzen Brennereien for example, who made long forgotten rums under brand names like Asmussen, Schmidt, Nissen, Anderson and Sonnberg). And there was a scattering here and there, like Walter Reid in Australia, la Martiniquaise and Bardinet in France, a smattering of Americans…and quite a few small outfits in Italy.

It was a lonely occupation for these rebottlers and small operations, because the rums they created – whether aged, blended, high-proofed or all these at once – never really sold very well even at standard strength.  Fabio Rossi, who started Rum Nation in 1999, told me it took more than two years to sell the first Supreme Lord and Demerara series of rums he started off with; and as recently as 2012, one could get the entire Velier Caroni outturn to that point for a couple thousand euros (on ebay’s Italian site), a situation which could certainly not happen today.  It was the hard-to-shake perception of rum as not being “premium” that was at the bottom of it, a situation it took another ten years to rectify, and it was the small, nimble companies who we now refer to as “independents” who led the way.

A word should be spared for the work of the Martinique and Guadeloupe rum producers which don’t conform to the title of independents, but which also laid some of the groundwork for the renaissance of strong and singular rums that was about to take off.  These small estate distilleries sold their rums primarily on the local market and exported to France through their own distribution arms there. Among all their lightly aged rums and blends and whites, they also and occasionally produced millesimes which were specific years’s limited productions, bottled when such outturns were considered a cut above the ordinary. And while these were never very consistent (each one was different from the last), never really aged beyond all reason, only occasionally issued beyond 50% – they did showcase that a particular year’s output of rum might be considered a connoisseur’s drink and could be said to be grand-uncles of the single barrel releases by others.  And that is why the Clement 1952 and 1976, the Damoiseau 1953, Bally 1939 and 1960 and 1970, Montebello 1948 remain hugely expensive, yet still-sought-after exemplars of craft rum making by the producers of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

However, it’s the Italian companies which were to some extent key to the emergent Age, because although many were simply importers and distributors, some also dabbled in blending and reissuing of rums under their own labels.  They created the culture of Italian independents that dated back to the 1960s when sweetened “rhum fantasias” were in vogue in Italy, produced by companies like Pagliarini, Toccini and Seveso; they were accompanied by importers and rebottlers (Veronelli, Soffiantino, Martinazzi, Pedroni, and Guiducci are just a few examples) which led to their more successful inheritors, Samaroli, Moon Imports, Silver Seal and Velier, just about all who started with single barrel whiskies before turning their attention to rums.

Which leads us to that little importing company from Genoa, and its owner – Luca Gargano.

Luca Gargano and Velier

In the 1980s, Velier was a small family-owned Genoese spirits distributor with perhaps a quarter million dollars a year turnover and a staff of less than ten.  It had been formed in 1947 by Casimir Chaix and concerned itself primarily with importing and distributing wines, spirits, brandy, tea and cocoa. Luca Gargano changed all that by buying it in 1986, when he was still only in his twenties.  He had been a very young brand ambassador for St. James (from Martinique) and the experience had left him with a deep appreciation for rums, especially artisanal ones. When the time came for him to start a company of his own, he used Velier as a vehicle for his deeply held beliefs and the outpouring of his ideas.

Luca, who came from a family that was both close to the land and well connected in Italian commercial and political society, had spent years traversing the Caribbean in his time with St. James.  His filial connection with traditional farming and agriculture, his observation of the way technology was changing the world (not necessarily for the better), his feelings about politicians and the slanted biases of the news, led him to create his now-famous Five Principles: nothing happens in specific chunks of time; newspapers and the media are there for sales and not truth; politicians are in it for themselves; telephones tie you to themselves but offer little except conversations that were better and more enjoyably conducted in person; and why stress out about driving a car when one can use taxis?  And as a consequence he stopped watching TV, didn’t waste his time with newspapers or personal vehicles, chucked away his watch and never bothered with a cell phone of his own.

But there was a sixth principle, not often stated, yet deeply held.  And that was that food and drink should be as natural as possible, organic, free from the interferences of technology, fresh from the land.  When one applies that to food it’s one thing, but few before him sought to apply the concept to rums (except perhaps out of necessity). He felt that rum should be bottled as it either came off the stills or out of the ageing barrel without further messing around.  He may have known more than we did in those more innocent times, because although it is now common knowledge that many old favourites which came to the market in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s were dosed with additives, back in the day there was a lot more trust going around between consumers and producers.

Whatever the case, Luca wanted to put his name on pure rums that were as close to the still as possible, and if aged, fresh out of the barrel.  He started by finding some old Guyanese rums, continentally aged, and put them out the door in 1996, with a further set of three in 2000. Neither entirely satisfied him, because the first set was diluted down to 40% and the second to 46%.  A third series was released in 2002, also at 46% by which time he was in a better position to negotiate barrels with DDL.

And he needed to go further with his ideas on rums, because these early Demerara rums, to put it bluntly, made no mark, no splash, and fell flat.  They sold, but not well (I’ve been able to pick a few up as late as 2017), and in any event were not exactly what he wanted. The continental ageing and dilution in particular dissatisfied him — he felt something of the intrinsic character of the underlying distillate that showcased the stills and their uniqueness, had been lost.  He pulled in his horns, gave it some thought and was much more personal and involved in his future selections. He wanted to issue a rum that was at the full proof of the barrel, not some milquetoast please-the-most rum which he himself did not appreciate.

He was still wrestling with whether this was a workable commercial concept when he found a stored 18 year old rum at Damoiseau in Guadeloupe which was so spectacular, that he released it at 60.3% ABV in 2002, crossing his fingers as he did so.  The success of the Damoiseau 1980 made it clear that among people who knew their stuff, such rums would sell and find their own audience and he not limit himself in the future, as he had with the past three releases.

He issued no new rums for the next three years, and then emerged with the next outturn in 2005.  Four rums, one of them almost a legend. The Age can be said to have begun here.

In Part 2 I’ll look at the rums of the Age, and in Part 3 make some points about the aftermath of their issue and revisit some of these “historical” figures to see where they’re at in 2018.


Notes

Much of this is written based on my own writing and thinking and life experiences, though I have dipped into other bloggers’ published work here and there (like Matt Pietrek’s essay on Scheer and Marco Freyr’s background essays on Barrel Aged Mind). The research done in writing my own rum reviews and company biographies for nearly ten years has provided much of the remainder.

It’s hard to find people whose memories stretch back that far, to recapture the flavour of what the pre-1990s rum world was like – so some artistic license has been used to describe those times, though the facts are as accurate as I could make them.

The section on older aged rums and independents is by no means exhaustive.  It’s surprising how difficult it is to find exactly when a particular ten- or twelve- or fifteen-year-old rum first emerged on the scene, and to find discontinued variations becomes an exercise in real Holmesian diligence. I used my own photographs from Velier’s 4000+ rum warehouse for some of the examples in this section, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Peter’s Rum Labels in Czechoslovakia, which is an amazing resource, the best one of its kind in the world. I hope that people with large rum collections built up over many decades will one day allow people like me access to their stocks – to photograph and catalogue them (and maybe even to try a few) and for sure to write about them, as I do for the Rumaniacs. Too much history is being lost just because we don’t know enough, forgot too much, and never thought to record things properly.

Needless to say, if any mistakes or errors (especially of omission) are noted, please let me know and I’ll make amendments where required.

Jun 222018
 

In early May 2018, following on from a much-envied and jealously-regarded Velier Port Mourant tasting, Nicolai Wachmann and Gregers Nielson busied themselves with some of the new rums issued for Velier’s 70th Anniversary.  These six full-proof rums – carefully chosen from well-known distilleries in Japan, St Lucia, Barbados, Mauritius, Marie Galante (Guadeloupe) and Jamaica – were distinguished by vivid and colourful artwork on their labels, done by a Singaporean artist named Warren Khong.  Strikingly visual in design, the series of rums immediately became known as the “Warren Khong” range, and have excited approbation in equal parts for their look, and their taste.

The following interview and notes are all from the two gentlemen’s efforts, in their own words. And so, the introduction being over, let’s hand off the flight to my Danish friends.


Last year Velier SpA celebrated its 70th anniversary, and if you’re reading this, my bet is that this would be old news to you. Nevertheless, Luca Gargano made certain that most of the rum community was, and still is, saving up money to buy all the exciting new rums that are being released during 2017 and 2018 in celebration of this milestone in the company’s history.

One of the releases is a series of six rums named after an artist from Singapore – Warren Khong.

But who is this Warren guy and how did he come about lending his name to such an awesome collection of rum?

Well we didn’t have a clue and our parents didn’t either, so we decided to do some research online and then write and ask him personally, in order to understand the connection.

W. Kong 2015 (c) Timeout.com

 

Warren Khong bio:

Warren was born in Singapore back in 1984, studied art in Singapore and has previously worked with LMDW on other spirits labels. So this is by no means the first time he has lent his name to the spirits world.

Warren Khong situates his practice primarily in the field of painting, researching its concepts and its relation to surface and materiality – from selected surfaces to light, colour and reflection, he also explores spaces and site specificity as well as the intangible or immaterial, proposing for material as Idea, as a methodology towards artmaking.

Khong graduated with a Master of Arts, Fine Arts from the La Salle College of the Arts, Singapore in partnership with Goldsmith’s College, University of London. He has had five solo exhibitions, the most recent being Light-Space (In collaboration with Urich Lau) at Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film, Singapore and Whitewash at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, also in Singapore. Selected group exhibitions included In Praise Of Shadows at the Art, Design and Media Gallery at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Supernatural at Gajah Gallery, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, both in 2017.

Warren Khong’s Kuruizawa design

With regards to LMDW, Warren’s art works were used for their first Artist range of whiskies, as well as the Artifices range of Karuizawa whiskies.

How and when did you end up creating the artwork for this series of rum?

I was asked by Luca during Whisky Live Singapore 2016 if I would be willing to create a series of paintings to be used as rum labels. He was very enthusiastic about it, and I agreed. I started working on the paintings early of 2017.

Is there an underlying meaning or theme behind the artwork and choice of colours?

All Luca had asked for was that I used a brighter colour palette so as to reflect the Caribbean heritage of his rums for the bottlings, to which I agreed. As for any underlying meaning in the paintings, it happens through the execution of it. Let me further elaborate. I believe that in the distillation process, it is very controlled [and] exacting, without much room for mistakes; yet the end result is that you have rum, which is a wonderful, multi-layered drink with so many various notes that comes together in spectacular fashion. I draw a parallel there with how I approached the painting of these works. A number of colours, paint swirls, drops and the like, which appear as though somewhat random yet able to come together as a visual whole and the application of each drop of paint is controlled and exact, right where it is meant to be, non accidental.

Did you get to chose which rums got which artwork/colour?

Nope, nor would I have wanted that. I think it more fitting that Luca was the one who did the pairings!

Did Luca ask you to drink rum before painting the art?

Nope, nor would I have. I don’t drink when making my art, it would have affected my ability to create exactly what I had wanted to create. I drank after the works were done of course!

Do you enjoy rum yourself and have you tasted the rums from the Warren Khong series?

Yes, I enjoy rum myself. In fact, I am happy to say that Luca was the one who introduced it to me, and it was love at first taste. Unfortunately, I have not yet tasted any from the series.

Are you aware of the amount of hype the Warren Khong series has stirred within the rum community?

No, I am not. But I am very flattered to hear about it and am glad to have been a part of it!


And back to the tasting…

Why focus on the Khong Collection you may ask? Well, it’s been one the most hyped series of rum to be released the past year’s time and it seems that not many people have actually sat down and tasted the entire collection in one sitting. So we thought, why not make this happen and as we had access to the entire collection, we decided to do just that.

The facts:

  • The range consists of 6 different bottlings from 6 very different regions and distilleries.
  • In total, the Khong Collection officially boasts 4615 bottles.
  • The average abv of the Khong Collection is 60.31%
  • The average age is 7 years (mainly tropical)
  • The rarest is Nine Leaves Encrypted with 249 bottles
  • The largest outturn is Diamond <H> with 1659 bottles (but seems to be the most popular, so good thing it was “plentyfull”.

Nicolai preparing to do battle….

TASTING NOTES:

A word of note:

This tasting session did not set out to directly compare these six rums in order to find an overall winner. That would be like having six grandmothers compete in different disciplines of athletics and choosing the supreme winner – slow, not interesting and pointless in terms of style and origin.

What we’ve tried to do is taste the rums and rate them independently, while taking into consideration what we’ve previously tried from the various distilleries/regions, and how we found the quality and feel of the rum overall.

As such, we may have favourites amongst them, but we completely acknowledge that this is 100% subjective and therefore not necessarily something everyone else agrees upon (but you ought to agree with us, naturally!)

The grades given are a calculated average of our individual grades. This is simply because we couldn’t agree on a mutual score for each rum (hence why our individual scores are also stated), and therefore we thought, an average would demonstrate the final score more fairly.

In hindsight, we didn’t have a reference rum to kick start the tasting, so a re-tasting would be interesting at some point.

Anyway, enough talk and time for the results:

 


Chamarel Pure Single Rum Agricole 6 YO 2011-2017 55.5%

(Mauritius, 2 casks, ex-French Oak)

Nose – Citrus and grassy notes combined with an almost cake-like vanilla influence kicks off the experience. The alcohol is pleasant and almost subtle considering the strength. In the far back, hay begins to take form – thoughts of walking into a barn full of hay pallets and moist air springs to mind, with a basket of citrus fruits and green apples. Only brief whispers of lightly caramelised oak and vanilla seem to give evidence to the barrel ageing. After a good swirl, hints of lemon thyme , rosemary and perhaps white pepper, but only subtle. After some more time, elements of medicine cabinet (gaze and pills) emerge as well.

Mouth – Peppery spiciness, dry cake, fruity sweetness, orange zest

Finish – Mix of fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary, ripe apricots, Limoncello (sweet lemon liqueur) and anis. Cedar tree and light wood spice with mild white pepper and vanilla sugar. Bitter orange zest and light tannins finish off combined with a melange of the sweetness from all the fruity notes and dried cake.

Thoughts – Super charming and complex rum in its own right. We were both taken by surprise and fell in love with it’s charm, balance and super integrated alcohol. It passes quickly, but while it’s there, it’s a great acquaintance. Despite all the goodness, it remains just a tad to simple and easy, to make it truly exceptional. But for what it is, this could be a stable in our home bar any day.

Points:    84 (Gregers 86 / Nicolai 82)

 

Bielle Rhum Vieux Agricole 10 YO 2007-2017 55%

(Marie Galante, single cask, ex-Bourbon)

Nose – Cedar tree, cigar box, green grapes, hints of acetone, there’s an almost yogurt naturelle kind of acidity present; also toasted wood, vanilla, caramelised brown sugar and liquorice powder. The nose is super dry – you almost feel your mouth being rid of moisture just by smelling the rum.

After some time, it begins to develop “Matador Mix” aromas (Danish mixed sweets consisting of fruity wine gums, liquorice, caramelised sugar coatings and coconut in an elegant balance). Incredibly complex and just seems to develop new notes as time passes.

Mouth – Spicy, peppery, pungent alcohol, but not aggressive. It’s sweet and dry at the same time with a nice texture and feel. This rum caresses your tongue and mouth, it’s like a thai massage where you are crunched by a petite beautiful woman.

Finish – The wood spice, cedar tree. oak and tannins give way to more sweet aromas of acidic sweet fruit, liquorice and burned caramel. It lingers for a good time and keeps the flavours rolling in an ever complex plethora of sweet, spicy and dry elements.

Thoughts – Fantastic balance throughout. The dry impression in the nose loses ground to a wonderful sweetness, partly in the mouth yet most apparent in the finish.

Points:    90 (Gregers 91 / Nicolai 89)

Mount Gilboa Pure Single Rum 9 YO 2008-2017 66%

(Barbados, 3 casks, ex-French brandy)

Nose – The high alcohol itches the nostrils a little. Flat Coca Cola is the first thing that springs to mind (in Denmark back in the 80s and 90s, we had small cartons of coke flavoured juice, but without carbon dioxide); immediately afterwards, oak and woodspice appears with nutmeg, allspice, black pepper – one almost expects it to be a super dry sensation judging from the tannins. Dried apricots, dates, dried – almost roasted – coconut begins to emerge.

Mouth – Burnt treacle, oak and tannins, black pepper. Feisty alcohol burn.

Finish – The tannins and oak dominate the finish in a bitter way. A rich sweetness joins in and mellows out the dry bitterness, a sweetness difficult to define, leaving us wondering if it’s down to the high 66% abv. It’s a complex field of wood spice, pepper, tannins, spicy peppers, a cigar box, leather and a profound sweetness which to us resembles caramelised burnt treacle.

This sweetness lingers to the very end along with the rest of the spicy herbal and wooden notes.

Thoughts – We both agreed that this rum would have been incredible to try a year or two ago. The wood has made its appearance just a wee bit to dominant for our liking, with the bitter finish taking down the points. Having said that, it still beats the old Mount Gilboa bottlings by far, for which it deserves credit.

Points:    81 (Gregers 82 / Nicolai 80)

Nine Leaves Pure Single Rum “Encrypted” 3 YO 2014-2017 64.8%

(Japan, single cask, ex-wine)

Nose – Caramelised Bergamot and metallic citrus hints. Limoncello and an almost Sambuca-ish anise background. Elderflower and floral notes. The wine casks shine through with notes of apple vinegar and an oxidised sherry feel. It shows the young age, but incredibly complex and balanced nonetheless. So very different from what we expected. The metallic notes are very dominant – which may be an acquired taste?

Mouth – Perfumed, sweetness, tannin-ish dryness. Hot yet smooth and delicate.

Finish – Wow… this is a wave of floral notes: Elderflowers, rose water, rose pepper and a super balanced kick from the alcohol. The wine cask-notes are there again, with ripe green grapes and fresh oaky tannins. Only vague hints of vanilla seem to come through. The rum lingers in the mouth for some time and keeps reminding you of all the different flavours it’s thrown your way.

Thoughts – This is just a massive surprise! So young, yet superbly integrated. The mix of flavours are completely new and different, yet insanely appealing, delicious and juicy. Who the hell saw that coming? Without doubt, the best rum Yoshiharu has produced so far – huge kudos for this rum, Yoshi!

Points:    88 (Gregers 89 / Nicolai 87)

 

St. Lucia Pure Single Rum 7 YO 2010-2017 58.6%

(St. Lucia, single cask, ex-bourbon)

Nose – Pot still… this is dirty, full of everything you’d expect from the John Dore 2. It’s a plethora of fusel notes – motor oil, acetone, varnish and rubber with small whiffs of smoke (but in a good way). Oak and woodspice is present with fragrances of thyme and rosemary. But at the same time, you are met with baskets full of dried pineapple, mango and papaya, juicy raisins, dried apricots and hints of lime. In the far back menthol and fresh pepper notes.

Mouth – Dry…tannin-rich, sweet, spicy, hot and wonderfully dirty.

Finish – Woaaa… Minerality, motor oil, acetone, fusel notes and smoky aromas from the ageing in barrels. Sweetness in terms of preserved prunes, raisins, star anis, treacle. The oak and woodspice lingers on in the background, but balanced and submissive compared the rest of the flavours. After some time, sweet pipe tobacco, leather and cedar tree notes appear in a bizarre mix with fresh green grass and herbs.

Thoughts – This is filthy good rum. It’s insanely complex, throwing fusel notes, fruits, minerals, herbs and spices at you while wrapping it all up in dry tannins and alcohol, making sure everything is kept in balance. It’s concentrated, complex end requires your attention if you’re to enjoy it fully, yet allows for a mellow drink as well. Beautiful! And at last, a rum we agreed on, and scored exactly the same.

Points:    91 (Gregers 91 / Nicolai 91)

<H> Pure Single Rum 7 YO 2010-2017 62%

(Hampden, Jamaica, 5 casks, ex-bourbon)

Nose – Hampden, no doubt about it. This is much richer and thicker in the nose than for instance the HLCF, but almost just as pungent.  Overripe banana, succulent pineapple and mango, funky esters, acetone and varnish. The fruity elements are all overripe, on the verge of decomposing (vaguely reminding us of the Savannah’s HERR). There’s also a buttery richness to it with cinnamon and peach. Lavender soap/oil.

Mouth – Acidity, spicy sweetness (almost like the asian ginger sweets) pungent alcohol

Finish – Overripe bananas, pineapple, ester funkiness, fruit candy, dry tannins, toasted oaky vanillins. Ginger candy is back with the sweet and peppery hot touch – and with that, it fades out incredibly quick, makes a Houdini and disappears. Only a residue of the overripe bananas and some esters linger behind, and with that ciao ciao, no more.

Thoughts – Perhaps we had too high expectations of this rum, being huge fans of high ester Hampden rums. And although you cannot compare the <H> mark with HLCF from the Habitation Velier series, the HLCF just delivers so much more. In fine, this is far from the best Hampden out there in our opinion. Other Hampden fans will no doubt like it, but for us, it’s just not quite there.

Points:    87 (Gregers 86 / Nicolai 88)


Summary of scores

  • Chamarel 84
  • Bielle 90
  • Mount Gilboa 81
  • Nine Leaves 88
  • St. Lucia 91
  • Hampden <H> 87

Conclusion

So what exactly do we have here and should Mr. Khong be proud of this rum collection carrying his name? The answer is to the later is hell yes!

What we have here is a remarkable portrayal of (mostly) pure single rums. Each a fantastic example of the region and distillery it derives from and demonstrates yet again that neither age nor region is a definitive marker for quality – and that with judicious selection and decanting at just the right age, young rums can just as easily be superlative.

Are they the best of the best? In some cases perhaps, but this is very much in the eye of the beholder. What we’ve experienced since this tasting, is just how diverse feelings are towards each of these expressions. Encrypted surprised us in an immensely positive way, St Lucia was as anticipated and fully lived up to our high expectations. Chamarel was the charming sweetheart that you could venture back to every day. Bielle hit the spot, for both of us, and just delivered, period. Mount Gilboa, not our favourite of the lot, but after trying it with some added water and letting it stand for a good 30-60 minutes, this rum developed into something much more complex and fruity – alas, this is not taken into consideration here. Hampden, it’s a good rum by any account, but for us, far from the best of its kind out there. Then again, not sure how many <H> Hampdens we’ve actually tried before, so this of course should be taken into consideration as well.

At the end of the day, this series is worth every penny and showcases a diverse series of locally aged rums from exceptional producers and countries. How can you not appreciate something like that?

Gregers & Nicolai

Jun 032018
 

Rating a rum against comparators is an invaluable tool for any reviewer because it allows differences and similarities, strengths and weaknesses to not only snap into focus more clearly, but to buttress one’s memory of other rums tried in times gone by. And although Guyanese rums are losing some of their lustre these days as the Age of Velier’s Demeraras fades to black and Foursquare is the name du jour, DDL’s killer app is still going strong, and the various permutations of the stills’ output may be the most recognizable, distinctive rum style around (bar perhaps the current Jamaicans or Reunion islanders’ work).  So when a halo rum comes around, it needs to really be run through the wringer to ensure a proper placement on the leaderboard.

For those who felt I was being unfair to DDL and their 50th Anniversary rum, or overly critical of the El Dorado 25 Year Old from 1988, let me show you what it was up against that day and give you a rum flight of as-yet-mostly-unwritten-about Demeraras which will be posted in the months to come. I don’t do enough of these and always enjoy doing a lineup for the curious; and here I think it might be a useful piece of background reading for the 25 and 50. And indeed, the more I wrote about the results, the more occurred to me…I hope you find my remarks below the thumbnails informative and not overly lengthy.

So here we are.  Note these are just tasting notes, with few opinions, and no scores – those can be found on the full reviews.  The purpose here is to rank them against each other and provide some conclusions for examination and discussion.


El Dorado Rare Collection PM <SVW> + Diamond Velier 70th Anniversary 16 YO

54.3%, tropical ageing

N – Perfumed rum.  No, really. Hot pencil shavings, rubber, sawdust and the flowery notes of esters looking for Jamaica.  It noses sweet and fruity, in a really intense way. Develops into a musky, fruity and deep series of aromas, including strawberries in cream, vanilla and a little licorice.

P – Strong spices: nutmeg and cinnamon. Also caramel, coffee, creme brulee, molasses and anise. Goes deeper and fruitier as it opens up – raisins, ripe apples, peaches.  Also woody, sweet sawdust (I know that sounds weird) and lighter flowers.

F – Lovely, long, lingering, lasting.  Molasses and coffee are dominant, with subtler flowers and fruity backgrounds, and a bit of candied oranges and mint.

El Dorado Rare Collection 2nd Batch Port Mourant 1997 20 YO

57.9%, tropical ageing

Nose – A more elemental version of the Velier 70 PM <SVW>, perhaps a smidgen better because it is more focused. Represents the PM profile in fine style, a little dialled down and not as furious as some others I’ve had. Bags of dark fruit – raisins, dark grapes, dates – anise, vanilla, flowers, also peaches and prunes and plums, very deep, very rich.

Palate – Coffee, sawdust and pencil shavings are instantly and initially dominant, but fade over time, replaced with more of those dark fruit notes of blackberries, plums and prunes, all very ripe. Background flavours of coconut and chocolate ameliorate these, taming it a little without obscuring the sharper flavours. Easy to sip, warm rather than sharp.

Finish – Spices emerge here, mostly cinnamon.  Also oakiness (not too much), coffee grounds. Bitter chocoolate, anise and vanilla, some lighter fruits.  

El Dorado Rare Collection 2nd Batch Enmore 1996 20 YO

57.2%, tropical ageing

Nose – For a rum at cask strength, this Enmore is almost gentle.  Rich, pungent aromas of freshly sawn lumber, damp sawdust. The smells of coffee, chocolate and vanilla are offset somewhat by a nice sweet acetone background.  Softer blancmange and creme brulee provide a soft contrast and it’s almost like a gentle PM.

Palate – Soft and generally quite approchable, without losing any of the qualities imparted by the robust proof.  Fruits are forward this time – cherries, raisins, grapes, fried sweet bananas, and that haunting memory of hot dry earth being hit by summer raindrops.  More caramel and molasses, quite genteel in its own way. Can’t help but wonder about dosage, but lacked the equipment to test for it, and frankly, I have to admit that this works really really well in spite of such questions.

Finish – Long and langurous, giving back some musty, musky flavours that are mostly raisins, anise and vanilla.

El Dorado 1988 25 YO

43%, tropical ageing

Nose – Warm, well rounded, with opening notes of coconuts, bananas, molasses, caramel and some anise. Some fruits emerge almost reluctantly – raisins, prunes, fleshy apricots.  Too much sweetness, it smells thick in a way that is just short of cloying

Palate – Sweet and thick. Vanilla, molasses, caramel, some licorice.  White chocolate, flowers, indeterminate fruits, a little citrus. It’s all very tamped down and muffled, and the adulteration is clear and evident, lending a liqueur-like aspect to the entire experience.

Finish – Unclear, melded and something of a nonexistent affair. Some caramel and toffee, a bit of citrus. Short and very sweet.

El Dorado 50th Anniversary 33 YO

43%, tropical ageing (33 YO)

Nose – Rich, well balanced.  Deep aromas of molasses and licorice and raisins.  Coffee grounds, cherries, vanilla, leather, some smokiness, followed after opening up with salt caramel and ripe fleshy fruits.

Palate – More of that salt caramel, pencil shavings, apples, guavas, more licorice, chocolate and coffee, plus a little citrus for bite and some vanilla.  The sweetness starts to become more noticeable here, and the promise of what it started out as, is lost.

Finish – Short, rather easy (possibly a function of the relatively low strength).  Molasses, toffee, white chocolate and anise for the most part

Velier Uitvlugt 1996 “Modified GS” 18 YO

57.2%, tropical ageing

Nose – Refined, gentle and easy, and that’s not something I say about Velier’s or cask strength bruisers very often. Very distinct: molasses, brown sugar, caramel and vanilla t start.  Adds licorice and a lot of dark fruits (mostly prunes and plums, I would say). Some light citrus peel and brine.

Palate – Somehow the nose is easy while the taste is sharp, not sure how that happened. Salt caramel, brine, olives, brown sugar, combining with tart fruits: red currants, apples, raspberries, prunes, as well as smoke and well-worn and oft-polished leather.

Finish – Crisp, distinct and clear. Orange peel, vanilla, molasses and some of the fruits noted from the plate returning for a last bow.

Habitation Velier PM White Unaged

59% (unaged)

N – Sharp and fierce, almost jagged.  Rubber, sugar water, watermelon, pears, nuts and fruits. No caramel or toffee flavours here.

P – Vegetable soup and salt beef with brine and olives. Also licorice, leather, flowers, floor polish.  Some green apples, lime zest and an odd vanilla twist. Complex, crisp, clear, seriously intense. Not for everyone, but for those who like it – oh yeah.

F – Long and dry.  Soy sauce, more veggie soup, sugar water.

Velier Port Mourant 1972 36 YO

47.8%, tropical and continental agein

Nose – Heavenly.  Sweet deep raisins and licorice, soya, coffee, bitter chocolate, leather and smoke.  There’s just so much going on here it’s amazing. White pepper, dates, light briny notes, aromatic tobacco, overripe cherries.

Palate – Licorice right up front in fine style, blended in with vanilla, some light caramel and white pears.  Flowers, sawdust, ripe mangoes, raisins, black grapes, oak…the nose wasn’t lying, I could go at this for another couple of hours.

Finish – All of the above.  Plus some mint.


Having given you a precis of each of these rums, let’s just sum up the ranking (scoring will be in the full reviews, since that’s not the purpose of this flight):

  • 1st  – Velier PM 1972 36 YO
  • 2nd – El Dorado Rare 2nd Batch Enmore 1996 20 YO
  • 3rd – Habitation Velier PM White Unaged
  • 4th – El Dorado PM+Diamond Velier 70th Anniv 16 YO
  • 5th – El Dorado Rare 2nd Batch PM 1997 20 YO tied with Velier Uitvlugt 1996 18 YO
  • 7th – El Dorado 50th Anniversary 33 YO
  • 8th – El Dorado 1988 25 YO

What can we glean from such a lineup, small as it may be?  

Well, first of all, this is a flight that could be done blind and the lower proofed El Dorados (the 33 YO and 25 YO) would have stood out immediately, with the 1988 falling down dead last because of its additives and less complex profile when compared to the 50th Anniversary, which itself was given away by both strength and dosage.  Also, the PM White would have been self explanatory; and the Uitvlugt 1996 because of its “non-PM/EHP” taste profile could easily be identified. The depth and colour and rich taste of the Velier 1972 would distinguish it in any company, so the only real difficulty would be to separate out the Enmore from the other El Dorado Rares, and then figure out which was the PM+Diamond and which the pure PM – in point of fact, I did indeed do this tasting blind, though I knew the 8 rums which were in the mashup.

To me it’s clear that DDL has exactly zero need to adulterate its aged rums. The Enmore was really quite a lovely piece of work and the unaged PM white makes the point even more clearly.  In this day and age, given the quality of the Rares and the track record of Velier in issuing ultra-aged rums from DDL (and remember, Luca never got to choose freely, just from what DDL themselves allowed him to see, implying that they knew of old stashes squirrelled away elsewhere which they thought of using themselves one day), there is simply no need for adulteration.  Taming cask strength blends with distilled water would, I think, be quite enough. Yet DDL keeps on churning out the dosed Old Dependables — the 12, 15, 21 and the really-quite-oversugared 25 year olds from 1980, 1986 and 1988 — perhaps because they really are such dependable sellers and if it ain’t broke why fix it, so why mess with a good cash cow? But I honestly hope they will one day reduce or eliminate the practice entirely – it’s an exercise in pandering to the audience, and the days for that are behind us (my opinion).

Of particular note is the PM unaged white, which is admittedly a rather fearsome drink to have on its own. Habitation Velier created this entire “unaged white” series for one purpose – to showcase familiar rums from various countries (or estates), but with the twist that this was the original state of the juice as it came dripping off the still, and how excellent (in their opinion) they were, even in that nascent unaged condition.  Having had oodles of PM rums over the last ten years, I can absolutely assure you that it may be hot and fierce, but many of the markers we look for in that profile are there, right from the get-go – in the various aged expressions in this lineup we see the many branches of the tree that this elemental seed grows into.

The Uitvlugt 1996 also comes in for some mention – it’s easier and quieter and lighter than the others (which is why it can be picked out with relative ease), and it may be one of the better all-round sipping rums which is specifically not from a wooden still.  Myself, I really enjoy the licorice and woody notes of the PM, VSG and EHP, but that should not blind anyone to the quality of what the other stills can do.

The stories I heard about the second batch of the El Dorado Rare Collection being better than the first are really true – they are. Not by leaps and bounds, no, but incrementally and demonstrably so nevertheless (I wish I could have tested them for dosage, even so).  If the third batch (it’s now in prep, three marques, all interesting) keeps at this level of quality, then all those who rent their robes and gnashed their teeth about the booting out of Velier in 2015 can at least be comforted that there is some kind of replacement on the horizon, even if, with their usual odd marketing, DDL never lets on what the outturn is (or was). There remains one caveat…I’m still seeing them on store shelves and online rum emporia too often, and that to me suggests they are not selling well…so I think some price adjustment had better be made and a more targeted marketing strategy laid out — because if they see poor sales then no distributor or store will want them and then DDL might just give up the whole idea…which is not exactly what any of us want to see.

Lastly, note the preponderance of topical ageing here; and in particular, the bifurcated ageing of the PM 1972 which was the top rum of the day. Luca is a fierce believer and proselytizer of laying barrels to rest in the tropics – and always has been – and scorns continental ageing that so many independents go for when plumbing the works of Scheer for their European indie bottlings.  The 1972 shows that other approaches are possible and work in spectacular fashion. Me, I’m somewhat on the fence about this and lack his dynamic laser-like focus on tropical only (though of course, we approach the matter from differing perspectives). Brutally quick tropical maturation gives quick returns and amazingly rich and robust profiles, but I’ve had enough really interesting continentals of similar equivalent age (1 yr tropical can be said to be 5-6 yrs continental, give or take) to appreciate the quieter subtleties they impart as well. And as I remarked humorously to him some time ago, there’s no way we could have ever gotten a Longpond 58 year old rum in the tropics (an Appleton 75 due in 2037 and an El Dorado 75 in 2041 will let us see if this is true).

Anyway, the rankings I’ve done show how the preceding paragraphs impact the placement and hint at the eventual scoring, to be added in here when the real reviews are written.  Age and the still and strength are less indicators of quality on their own than complexity and originality of taste and the way these come together in a cohesive whole. No one element dictates quality, they all do. The PM white is unaged but beat both the 43% offerings; it is stronger than all the rest, but slipped in relation to the Rares, and the 1972 was standard proof (almost) but came out on top.  Just about every rum tried (aside from the sweetened abominations of the 25 and 33) scored in the high eighties and snapped at the heels of the exceptional Velier 1972.  Now that’s a wonderful rum, and it’s not that it fails, but that others succeeded and are getting better all the time…and that probably shows the full proof concept and aged rum ideas Velier gave us, have been learned by DDL (now if they could only forego that damned dosage…).  

If nothing else, this brief look at eight rums from Guyana demonstrates to us all that the future remains a bright and vibrant and experimental and interesting one for Demerara rums, and they won’t be relegated to second class status any time soon. And that should give us all reason to hope for more in the years to come…even if they’re not the Veliers we remember so fondly.

Mar 272018
 


Both of my eagle-eyed Constant Readers probably observed that I skipped the 400th review essay last year: I brought the 60+ Rumaniacs reviews into the numbering and so jumped right past it, but in any case, 500 seemed like a better number to be going on with.  Am I happy to reach this milestone? Oh yes. But that I have done so is a testament less to my own efforts, than those of readers, commentators and friends who continually provide encouragement and advice (and lots of corrections and criticisms). Even Mrs. Caner graces my work with an occasional nod of distant approbation in a “don’t let this get to your head, buddy” kind of way (which from her is a raving declaration of love) while suggesting I pass the glass so she can try the latest juice as well. And the 13-going-on-30, far-too-clever, hyper-intelligent Little Caner is now beginning to get curious about the whole thing himself, and tags along where he can, lending his nose if allowed. So that’s kind of cool too.

Still, if I had to do a pitch as to why I started and continue to run a free site, which costs me a lot in terms of both time and money, I’d be hard pressed to give you an answer that isn’t seen as either specious or self-serving bullsh*t. Certainly it provides no income, and I’ve taken a fair bit of flak in social media for some of my opinions, so what’s keeping things going?

Part of it is habit.  It’s a pleasant routine that I’ve fallen into, and I enjoy the writing, the tasting, the constant surprises and informational rabbit holes that any deep interest constantly reveals.  I like the people (on all sides of the divide), the honest curiosity of new entrants to the field. I like the fact that even such a niche interest makes me think and consider my opinions carefully, and enriches my store of knowledge. I like the whole forward-looking nature of the enterprise…it’s like I never get to the bottom of the rum glass, there’s always something new and different and obscure to research or find out or enjoy.

Any plans for the future, over and beyond what’s already being done?  Nothing grandiose. Cachacas are getting a bigger slice of my attention (still quite a few to write about), and I want to spend some time researching and writing about rums from Africa and Asia.  Expanding the Makers lineup continues to be a work in progress, and for sure I intend to acquire and re-taste a number of rums in my mental list of the Key Rums of the World (the effort is not stalled, by the way, just requires samples which are not with me right now).  Some general non-fiction essays are in my mind, informational reference pieces of the sort Matt Pietrek and Josh Miller do better and more often than I do. All this keeps me interested and motivated and eager to go over the next hill and see that odd new distillery on the other side.  Which I’ll continue to do as long as the purse holds out and Mrs. Caner concurs.

Over the years, a few of my friends interested in getting into the writing game told me that when the sheer bulk of work is considered, the established “names” out there who get the lion’s share of the attention, the long term nature of it…well, they’re a little intimidated and it reduces their motivation.  And that’s a fair comment – when I started posting in January 2010 after months of personal writing, the blogging and review landscape was quite small, so the carving out of a personal niche was somewhat easier to do. But I tell them all to not worry about it — just begin. It’s for you, right? You’ve been on FB for four-plus years already, haven’t you? Think what could have been accomplished had you started then. All it needs is one small review at a time, month in and month out, never stop, do it because you like it, be as unkillable as a cockroach and just keep plugging away.  That’s what I did, and still do now, and here we are. At 500.

 


As always, some observations on the state of the rum world…

The Additives Issue

If we think the whole business of additives is going away, we should think again.  Oh sure, it’s been written to death and I think the public awareness is there now, in a way it was not five years back. But any time some new rum aficionado starts talking on FB about how she or he liked the Kraken, Pyrat’s, Don Papa et al, there is no shortage of vociferous responses that take umbrage and it starts all up again.  Personally, I don’t and never will believe undisclosed additives are a good thing (and I’ll say that until they plant me), but I also feel that too often the so-called “dude, let me tell you what you’re *really* drinking” conversation degenerates into a sort of genteel elitist superciliousness that puts the blame in the wrong corner – that of the consumer, not the producers; and ignores the fact that many people (even those who know their rums) sometimes simply prefer a sweet mishmash of sugar laden crap.  

On the other hand, from the producers side, two small label changes give me hope – Pyrat’s stopped calling itself a rum and the Kraken now clearly says it has sugar and is a spiced rum.  Maybe the fierce debates on Facebook have created this awareness on the part of those who make rums, but even with this light through the clouds, Wes’s and Richard’s observations remain on point – it’s not enough, the matter should never be dropped, and people should always be asking the hard questions, whenever they buy and at all the festivals. Producers in particular should have the honesty to declare additives in their rums and Governments should make that a requirement through regulatory enforcement; and if consumers have any responsibility at all, it’s to educate themselves on the matter and vote with their wallets if they feel strongly enough one way or the other.

Websites

Several new sites I now visit on a fairly regular basis popped up over the last couple of years (on top of the old stalwarts). One of the best of these may be Single Cask Rum out of Germany (writing in English), which doesn’t do scoring but tastes flights almost every time to offer comparisons and insights. Another now-not-so-new reviewer I like a lot (he appeared up just after I posted the 300th review update) is RumShopBoy from the UK, and if you have not already gone over to Simon’s site to check out his work, trust me, it’s worth it (I particularly recommend his series on the St. Lucia 1931 rums, the El Dorado 15 YO “fancy finish” rums, and the more recent SMWS bottlings). Other sites that attract my attention are Quebec Rhum and  A la Découverte du Rhum and Le Blog a Roger (all in French), Rumtastic from the UK (he doesn’t assign scores), Rumlocker from the USA (some interesting commentaries and essays) and several other magazine format sites, all of which I‘ve linked to. I’ve also been twigged to a Japanese-language site called Sarichiiii, which somehow managed to compile a tasting roster of over 350 rums without making a ripple and I think it’s worth a look, though Google translate does make reading a chore, and navigation is tedious because of the large photos.

A corresponding (and somewhat depressing) trend over the last couple of years is the drying up of review sites particular to the North American scene (though the absence or slow decline of sites from other parts of the world is just as bad).  In its place I’ve noticed that micro reviews are now springing up, primarily on Facebook and Reddit, and this for me personally, is an incremental contribution to the field, but not one with which I’m particularly satusfied. Facebook posts get buried in a day unless there are comments and constant likes, Reddit isn’t far behind, and neither really create a body of reference work which sites like those of Wes, Steve, Marco, Matt, Josh, Paul, Laurent, Cyril, Henrik, Dave and others, represent. There’s no background info on these micro-posts, no really well deliberated and expressed opinions (except by fleeting here-today-gone-tomorrow commentary by others), no understanding or sense of the evolution over time in the mind of the poster.  Just tasting notes, a score and that’s more or less it. Serge Valentin can get away with that kind of brevity, but not many others can. Few of these posts hold my attention, or are ones I care to return to, the way I do for any of the websites run by the people noted above — because those writers provide information, not just data. So if a person can write a bunch of such mini-reviews, why not start a website? – it’s cheap and sometimes even free to do.

Lastly I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that aside from Tiare (who doesn’t do rum reviews very often, to our detriment) and the Rum Wench out of Australia (now silent since May 2016), and Yuuka Sasaki, the lady who runs the Japanese site remarked on above, there are no female writers in our small club of whom I’m aware (I would like to be corrected on this if someone knows better), and really wish there were. And also, I live in hope that writers located in Africa and Asia begin to contribute to the body of knowledge we all share, since they’re the ones who know what’s going on in their backyard in a way western writers can’t match and don’t often try to.

Greater appreciation of white full proof rums

Remember that post about the 21 Great Whites?  Originally I had intended to stop at ten and thought this would be enough, but the list grew and grew and finally the brakes simply had to be applied before I hit fifty and lost my audience entirely.  But what that list and the response to it showed was that the release of the blanc rhums and clairins are no mere flash in the pan. Leaving aside filtered white mixing rums of no particular interest to me (I’m not a bartender or a cocktail guru, to whom such rums are almost like bread and butter staples), these rip snorting high-test white rums are young and often unaged, powerful tasty and of a quality out of all proportion to their age. Habitation Velier had quite a few of these, the clairins are still coming on strong, the French Islanders always had them, and perhaps now they are simply becoming better known and more appreciated than before.  I look forward to many more in the future.

The longform essay

As a lover of doorstopping histories, multi-kilo books, series in multiplicate and all forms of well-researched knowledge, how could I ignore the more frequent postings of long pieces exploring single topics? I’ve done a few of my own, Wes Burgin opined quite frequently, but for sheer consistency, Matt Pietrek of the Cocktail Wonk is the gold standard (he’s the opposite of WhiskyFun in his own way), together with Paul Senft of RumJourney, Cyril of DuRhum, and of course Josh Miller of Inu-a-Kena, who still doesn’t write enough and whose essay on the history of agricoles was one of my favourites of 2017.  Pieces I particularly liked since #300 are:

Flipping

Perhaps the most acknowledged and admired story in the last couple of years has been the emergence of Foursquare as a rum powerhouse, easily eclipsing Mount Gay, WIRD, El Dorado, Appleton and St Lucia Distilleries as the source of really good fullproof rum, turning what could have been a major impediment to growth (the strictures of Barbadian law regarding purity and additives) into a major selling point.  Intellectually partnering with Luca Gargano didn’t hurt either, of course.

But an unanticipated side effect of this success has been the explosion of flippers — speculators who buy as much of a new release as they can and then turn around and sell it on secondary markets (which are now a real feature on Facebook as well as eBay).  We first noted this when all of the 2006 10 Year Old disappeared from online shelves five minutes after becoming available and then turning up on eBay a day later at highly inflated prices.  So bad did this become that Richard Seale, in an impressive and direct effort at damage control, arranged for personal couriers all over the world to deliver bottles at standard prices to those who were fortunate enough to get one. To say I was astounded at a major primary producer taking on what must have been incredible personal inconvenience, would be to understate the matter.

The whole business of flippers strikes rum lovers as distasteful, since they do not regard rums as an investment but as something to treasure and enjoy, a social lubricant, a matter for scoring brownie points with friends when measuring their collections — and most buy rums for the sheer love of the spirit (believe me, they share generously too).  So to have them disappear and require sourcing at twice the price is seen as extortionate. This however obscures the fact that flippers have existed for years – I bought the Skeldon 1973 from one of them – and they will remain a fixture of the landscape, so unless marketing and sales distribution rules change, we may just have to suck it up if we can’t get the juice through regular channels.  That’s capitalism for you.

A further unanticipated – and perhaps more welcome – development following right along, is what I call micro flipping – the sale of samples online (so far I’ve only seen this on Facebook).  I believe this will likely become a major source of samples for curious people who are interested in checking out new rums, but not entirely willing to part with major money for all rums bottled for an entire line.  So certainly I see this as a better  situation than whole-bottle flipping, like that post about some joker buying six Principias the other day which had Steve James go practically nuclear. But perhaps it’s too early to see if this is a temporary thing, or something that will cause online and other stores to reconsider their marketing strategy.

Minor Statistics

Here are some stats for those who, like me, are into their numbers:

  • This site represents over five thousand man-hours utilized in buying, sourcing, talking, tasting, noting, writing, thinking, attending rumfests and other tastings, as well as paying attention to the larger rumworld on FB and website postings by others, responding to comments and emails. For a comparison, note that a working year (52 weeks of five 8-hour days and no vacation) is about 2000 hours annually.
  • An expense bill that’s long past five figures. That includes not only rum purchases, but books, postage, travel time and entrance fees. Because Mrs. Caner is probably reading this, you’ll forgive me if I don’t give you the precise number.
  • Almost half a million words when all essays, musings and meanderings are added to the reviews themselves.  For a numerical (but not literary quality) comparison, War and Peace has around 600,000, Gone with the Wind has a shade over 410,000
  • Post with the lifetime highest hits: the Velier biography beat out the previous #1, the Bacardi 151 (which slipped to #4) probably due to an updated reposting last year; #2 and #3 remain equally consistent and surprising – the Stroh 80 from Austria (not really a rum)  and the Cuban La Occidental Guayabita del Pinar (also a somewhat debatable spirit). The least read rum review ever remains the Canadian Momento, a mere handful of views after many years of being available. I have honestly given up wondering what drives a review to be popular.  Is it a hot-snot new bottle review, is it quality of language, rarity, age, style, FB caches not reporting visitors? Who knows? Maybe it’s just dumb luck.
  • Fastest climbing post ever was the divisive and somewhat controversial selection of the Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva as one of the key rums of the world, followed by 9 Bajans and 21 Great whites and a biography of Renegade Rums. If nothing else, it shows that the interest in the diversity of rum and its background is in no danger of diminishing.

My list of rum discoveries and appreciated rums in between #300 and #500.  So as to keep this short I’ve just linked to the reviews and provided a small blurb for each. Not all are high scoring rums, but my appreciation for what they tried to do and accomplished remains undiminished, and the remain in my memory long after I wrote the review and moved on (which may be the perfect criterion to determine a good rum). In no order:

  • Rum Nation Small Batch Port Mourant 1995 21 Year Old
    • Yes, I like Port Mourant.  They’re all so rich, fruity, pungent, dark and all-round delicious. This one takes it up a level or two and is a worthy successor to the various twenty something year old Demeraras Rum Nation used to issue and which I also liked back in the day. This one is better, and not just because of its cask strength.
  • Foursquare (Velier) 2006 10 Year Old Barbados Rum
    • A simply amazing rum from Barbados. Absolutely gorgeous. I haven’t tasted the Principia or the newer Exceptionals, but they’ve got to be really damned good to beat what this rum does so casually, as if it was no bodderation at all.

 

  • L’Esprit Guadeloupe 1998 12 Year Old Rhum
    • L’Esprit is the little engine that could and may be one of the future collectors’ grails, if they continue this way.  This rhum from Bellevue operates on several levels at once, just about all of them firm and tasty.

 

  • Savanna HERR Millésime 2006 10 Year Old Rum
    • Brutal, sharp, ripe with bags of fruits and esters and happy to show every single one of them off at the same time. It takes some time to come to grips with it and identify all the stuff going on under the hood.

 

  • Savanna Lontan Grand Arôme Vieux 2004 12 Year Old
    • The HERR was a smorgasbord of everything Savanna could throw into a rhum: this one was softer, more muted, but no less complex. And I argue it’s even better because it just wants to showcase a proportion of its potential really well, rather than everything at once and dilute your focus

 

  • Bristol Spirits Jamaica 1974 30 Year Old Rum
    • Not as much funkiness as one might expect from a Jamaican.  It’s just dark, deep and rich, thick with mouth watering flavours, in spite of what at first sight might seem like a doubtful 43% ABV. A wonderful rum from Ago.

 

  • Velier Courcelles 1972 31 Year Old Rhum Vieux
    • The original Courcelles was magnificent, and this one is just as good.  Flavours come and go, and the complexity and overall balance were as good as what I remembered. Hard to get a hold of, of course – most of the older Veliers are, nowadays – but if you can, absolutely worth it.

 

 

 

  • Rum Nation Small Batch Jamaica 1986 30 Year Old
    • It’s probably been dosed, but this is one of those cases where the results still rise above that: this is one lovely Jamaican, bottled at a warm 48.7%, three special years’ rums from Longpond.

 

 

 

 

  • Toucan No. 4 Rum
    • A new rhum from French Guiana.  Simple, straightforward, mild at 40%, really well put together.  Does itself proud by not trying to be too much, or all things to all people.

 

  • Rum Fire “Velevet” Jamaican White Rum
    • Fierce, uncompromising, full-proof white rum bursting with esters and power from every pore. Flavourful and searing, and may be best for mixing, but trying it on its own is also quite an experience

 

  • Whisper Antigua Gold Rum
    • Just a sweet, humble little rumlet.  Doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, and is a nice starter spirit that does everything right in a low-key, unassuming manner. In fact, it’s grown in my estimation and tasting memories since I first tried it

 

Honourable mention has to go to the following who could just as easily have made this list

 


So, there we have it, a roundup of the rumworld and one reviewer’s place in it as best as I can summarize the situation. Most likely there’ll be another one at #750, if I last that long.  Probably, since I don’t see the exercise ceasing any time soon.  After all, it’s still fun, right?

In passing this personal milestone, I’d like to thank all the rum-loving people who come by here and read, whether agreeing with my assessments, writing style, opinions, verbosity, or not.  Gratitude also goes out to the many correspondents and commentators who engage in thoughtful, heated and passionate discourse on the many Big Questions, or even just one small one. And, of course, a big hat tip the producers – primary or independent – who keep upping the ante in terms of what they make and the way in which they make it, and provide a rich lode of material for us writers to mine and discuss with like-minded folks. It takes all of us together to make up the rumiverse.

All the best

The Lone Caner

Dec 312017
 

Although I always have controls on hand when writing a review, it’s not always clear in my writing how they all relate to each other, since the individual essay speaks to just a single rum.  However, I’m a firm believer in doing flights of multiple rums, whether horizontally (several rums of similar age or provenance), or vertically (where a single maker’s entire range is evaluated up and down the age or strength scale).  Such exercises are useful in that they permit similarities and differences to snap more clearly into focus, and perhaps some interesting judgements can be made on that basis.

Some time back when I was out in the real world, I spent some time doing a white rum run-through (this led to one of my favourite lists, the 21 Great Whites), a Jamaican flight (still to be written up) and this one of nine rums from Barbados.  The selections were not standard-strength or more commercially available rums like St. Nicholas Abbey, Mount Gay, Doorly’s or Fousquare, but mostly independents and limited releases: since such caskers possess attributes of strength and individuality which I felt to be incompatible with larger-volume blends existing in their own space and time; and they appeal to a different grouping of rum lovers than the specific rums tried here.  This may reduce its usefulness to some (aside from the fact that I could have made the list much longer), but certainly some limited conclusions could be drawn from the exercise nevertheless.  I’ve dispensed with my notes, thoughts and observations on each rum (that was not the purpose of the session) but the full length essay on each is linked where available, and will provide any additional background information these quick tasting notes don’t have.

So without further ado, here they are in my final post of 2017. Enjoy.


Cadenhead Mount Gay 2000-2008 8 YO BMMG 66.3%

Nose – Hot and fierce. Honey, flambeed bananas, nutmeg and peaches, salty caramel.  Gets a little sweeter over time, very distinctly so with water.

Palate – Sharp, hot. Bananas, caramel and burnt sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Tart fruits are there but take a back seat to softer ones.  Water is almost required here since it allows the lighter fruity notes to emerge more distinctly

Finish – Not so impressive – dry and medium long, but for the intensity there’s surprisingly little going on here

(84.5/100)

Cadenhead Green Label 2000-2010 10YO Mount Gay 46%

Nose – Acetone, nail polish, quite light. Bananas are back, also nutmeg and peaches, a flirt of caramel, and in fact it is quite similar to the BMMG above.  It is pleasant and light, with honey and some salty caramel remaining as the backbone, interestingly melded with some ashes and charred wood, and some medicinal notes I didn’t care for.

Palate – Salt and sweet caramel, sweet soya.  Those hospital smells translated to the palate also, not successfully IMHO.  Green tea, some pears and light fruits, chocolate and the honey almost disappears. The easy strength works well here.

Finish – 46% betrays itself into a short, light fade, mostly florals, honey, caramel and a dash of citrus rind.

(82/100)

Isla del Ron 2000-2013 Mount Gay 12 YO 61.6%

Nose – Mount Gay really does seem to have something of a profile all its own, leaning towards honey, bananas, light caramel, acetone, some rubber and a bit of brine.  Some sweet syrupy smells like mixed fruit in a can.  Resting didn’t add much to this one.

Palate – For all its heat and power, there wasn’t much going on here as one would expect.  Vanilla, brine, mint, chocolate with watery fruits (watermelon, papaya, white guavas), but all quite vague.

Finish – Long, salty-caramel-ice-cream; almonds, walnuts, vanilla, brine and an olive or two. Quite tame.

(83/100)

Compagnie des Indes 2006-2016 Foursquare 9 YO 62.1%

Nose – Olive oil in a nice garden salad, oddly enough, but sweeter florals permeate the nose as well, nicely integrated strength and balance with acetone, cherries and peaches, red grapes and Moroccan olives.

Palate – Nice! Caramel and licorice, fried bananas, apricots, chocolate and light coffee grounds. It’s 62.1% yet this is hardly felt.  Apples and some lemon zest round out an excellent profile

Finish – Longish, with cider, apples, salted butter, light molasses.  It’s a bit sharp, and with water it gets toned down very nicely indeed, at the expense of some of its distinct flavours.

(87/100)

Habitation Velier 2013-2015 Foursquare ~2 YO 64%

Nose – Power, lots of power here, leading in with pink rock salt and tomato-stuffed olives. Rubber, glue, vanilla ice cream drizzled over with hot caramel and chocolate. Lemons, cumin, sweet paparika and pepper. There’s a little wine-iness in the background, but this is very faint, almost unnoticeable.

Palate – Salty olive oil and soya, like a rich vegetable soup impregnated with lemon grass, cumin and dill. Nuts, dates and peaches, rubbery and wax notes, not all playing entirely harmoniously together, though for sheer originality it’s certainly worth a second (or third) try.  Water helps here.  Sweetness returns, caramel, fruits, herbs, really quite an experience.

Finish – Surprisingly short.  Creamy.  Dark sesame-seed bread plus herbs, caramel, honey, sweet olives. Points for originality, if nothing else, and not one you’re likely to forget anytime soon.

(87/100)

Foursquare 2005-2014 9 YO Port Cask Finish 40% (Exceptional Cask Series)

Nose – Rubber and acetone to start, fruity notes quite distinct. Grapes, oranges, tangerines (not lemons).  Vanilla, toffee, cinnamon.  Smells like a slightly amped-up Doorly’s 12 YO, showcasing what that could have been with more barrel work, because this one is younger than the Doorley’s, almost the same strength…but better.

Palate – Wish it was stronger, as that intriguing nose does not efficiently deliver tastes in equal measure: mixed fruits in a salad bowl sprinkled with brown sugar, raisins, cherries, bananas, some coconut (I liked that) and charred wood.

Finish – Short, warm, almost light.  Certainly it’s easy. A few fruity notes, some toffee, blancmage, orange zest. It works, but not as well as it might have.

(82/100)

Compagnie des Indes 2000-2016 Foursquare 16 YO 62%

Nose – Luscious.  Black grapes, prunes, plums, honey, tinned fruit salad syrup simply without excess cloying-ness which might have ruined it. 62% is remarkably well controlled, even gentle.  Sweet red olives, fried bananas, hot black tea.

Palate – Very well done, dry intense, quite rich.  Acetone (fading fast), honey, black tea sweetened with condensed milk, cherries, apricots and even some rosemary.  An interesting combination of delicacy and heft, and that’s quite a trick for any rum to pull off.

Finish – Long, rich, fruity, zesty, includes some of those sweet cooking herbs.  Doesn’t quite ignite, however, and the components don’t mesh as well as they might. That said, still a rum to savour neat, in spite of its strength.

(86/100)

Foursquare 2006-2016 Single Blended Rum 62%

Nose – As good as I remember, as amazing. Nougat, white toblerone, cream cheese; peaches, strawberries and cream, citrus rind, and a majestic panoply of darker berries and fruits. Just a lovely nose.

Palate – Dried apricots and mangoes; rich brown honey spread on toasted black bread. Cherries, overripe grapes, lemon zest and all this retains great pungency over long periods. Hard to believe, with its smoothness and assembly, that this is north of 60% ABV.

Finish – Surpisingly easy; warm, not sharp.  Quite fruity and creamy, both soft and tart at the same time.  The integration is excellent, the balance superb.

(91/100)

Bristol Spirits Rockley Still 1986-2012 26 YO 46%

Nose – Meaty, chewy, salty maggi-cubes.  Brine, olives, salted caramel. Wow, quite a left-turn.  Where was the sherry? Sweeter fruit and some waxy pungency take their own sweet time coming out, plus honey and nuts after maybe ten minutes.

Palate – Much better to taste than to smell.  Caramel, weak molasses, dollops of dark honey, cough drops, leather, rye bread.  Also bitter chocolate, burnt sugar, stewed apples and the tartness of firm white unripe fruit – apples, ginnip, soursop, that kind of thing.

Finish – Short, fruity, honey-like, with additional notes of polish on old leather. Great balance

(86/100)


Having tried these few, then, what can one say about the lot?

Well, to begin with, I believe that with some practice one can indeed pick out the Mount Gay from a Foursquare rum, though I can’t pretend this is a statistically significant sample set, and I wasn’t trying them blind, and most of the reviews had already been written. Also, spare a thought for WIRD’s Rockley Still from Bristol Spirits, which is something of an outlier in this listing dominated by the other two big guns.  In October 2017 when Marco Freyr (of Barrel Aged Mind) and I were talking and sampling like cash-rich newbs in the rumshop, he remarked that there was no way – ever! – he could mistake a Rockley Still rum.  The profile was simply too distinct from the other Bajan makers, and while at the time I didn’t entirely agree with him, further tastings of other WIRD rums (not on this list, sorry) showed that in all likelihood, with a large enough sample set, yeah, he was absolutely right – even under the influence of the sherry casks in which it was aged, it was markedly different and particular to itself, and strength had nothing to do with it.

It’s clear that quality, enjoyment and a high ranking does not rest on age, or strength, or finishing and not on fancy barrel strategy.  None of these attributes in isolation automatically makes for a good rum…a relatively youthful cognac-aged Habitation Velier ranked very well against a lesser proofed other-barrel-aged rum like the Foursquare Port Cask.  And the higher power of the 8 YO Cadenhead BMMG only marginally improved it over the older, but weaker, Green Label, neither of which had any ageing in other barrels than the norm.  The Danish cask strength CDI Foursquare rums were also quite good in spite of one being almost double the age of the other. So clearly, age has its limitations, as does the type of barrel or finishing regimen used, or the strength.

But push them into combination with each other and you’ve really got something.  The Foursquare Velier collaboration of the almost legendary 2006 ten year old pressed all the right buttons at once, and this is why even on this go-around, it beat out all the competitors.  It’s simply as spectacular now as it was then, and while it’s not the best Bajan ever made (I haven’t tried every Bajan ever made), it remains a high water mark for sure and demonstrated that when judiciously applied, with verve and skill and style, the intersection of the three components results in some awesome juice.

Lastly, it is no secret that 2017 has pretty much been the year of Foursquare (Velier might dispute that given the enthusiasm over its 70th Anniversary special issues) — and I don’t just mean the company, but its rums in general, whether released by them or other independents. This small selection of nine rums from Barbados show why this is so. That’s not to take anything away from the others, which all scored reasonably well and are credit to the island’s rum making heritage.  But certainly Richard Seale is riding high at the moment, and it remains to be seen whether the other brands from Barbados will step up to the high standards he is setting, or get relegated to second tier status for the foreseeable future.  For that reason alone, the next years’ developments will make watching Barbados rums evolve a fascinating experience.

Nov 012017
 

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All apologies to those who like the Bacardi Superior, Lamb’s White and other filtered, smooth, bland (dare I say boring?) 40% white rums in their cocktails, or who just like to get hammered on whatever is cheap to get and easily available – but you can do better.  For anyone who likes a massive white rum reeking of esters and funk and God only knows what else, one of the great emergent trends in the last decade has surely been the new selection and quality of white rums from around the world.  Almost all are unaged, some are pot still and some are column, they’re usually issued at north of 45%, they exude badass and take no prisoners, and in my opinion deserve more than just a passing mention.

Now, because aged rums get all the press and are admittedly somewhat better tasting experiences, white (or ‘clear’ or ‘blanc’) rums aren’t usually accorded the same respect, and that’s fair – I’d never deny their raw and oft-uncouth power, which can be a startling change from softer or older juice.  They aren’t always sipping quality rums, and some are out and out illogical and should never see the light of day. Yet we should never ignore them entirely.  They are pungent and flavourful beyond belief, with zesty, joyful profiles and off-the-reservation craziness worthy of attention, and many compare very favourably to rums costing twice or three times as much.

So let me just provide the curious (the daring?) a list of some white rums I’ve tried over the last years.  It’s by no means exhaustive, so apologies if I’ve left off a personal favourite – I can only list what I myself have tried. And admittedly, not all will find favour and not all will appeal – but for sheer originality and gasp-inducing wtf-moments, you’re going to look far to beat these guys.  And who knows?  You might even like a few, and at least they’re worth a shot.  Maybe several.

(Note: I’ve linked to written reviews where available.  For those where the full review hasn’t been published yet, some brief tasting notes. Scores are excluded, since I’m trying to show them off, not rank them, and in any case they’re in no particular order).


[1] Clairin Sajous – Haiti

If creole still haitian white rums not made by Barbancourt had a genesis in the wider world’s perceptions, it might have been this one and its cousins. In my more poetic moments I like to say the Sajous didn’t get introduced, it got detonated, and the reverbrations are still felt today.  There were always white unaged popskulls around – this one and the Vaval and Casimir gave them respectability.

[2] J. Bally Blanc Agricole – Martinique

What a lovely rum this is indeed.  J. Bally has been around for ages, and they sure know what they’re doing. This one is aged for three months and filtered to white, yet somehow it still shows off some impressive chops.  The 50% helps for sure.  Apples, watermelon, some salt and olives and tobacco on the nose, while the palate is softer than the strength might suggest, sweet, with fanta, citrus, thyme carrying the show. Yummy.

[3] St. Aubin Agricole Rhum Blanc  – Mauritius

New Grove, Gold of Mauritius and Lazy Dodo might be better known right now, but Chamarel and St Aubin are snapping at their heels.  St. Aubin made this phenomenal pot still 50% brutus and I can’t say enough good things about it. It has a 1960’s-style Batman style salad bar of Pow! Biff! Smash!  Brine, grass, herbs, salt beef and gherkins combine in a sweaty, hairy drink that is amazingly controlled white rhum reminiscent of both a clairin and a Jamaican.

[4] DDL Superior High Wine – Guyana

Nope, it’s not a wine, and it sure isn’t superior.  I’m actually unsure whether it’s still made any longer – and if it is, whether it’s made on the same still as before. Whatever the case, Guyanese swear by it, I got one of my first drunks on it back in University days, and the small bottle I got was pungent, fierce and just about dissolved my glass. At 69% it presents as grassy, fruity, and spicy, with real depth to the palate, and if it’s a raw scrape of testosterone-fuelled sandpaper on the glottis, well, I’ve warned you twice now.

[5] Novo Fogo Silver Cachaca – Brazil

Fair enough, there are thousands of cachacas in Brazil, and at best I’ve tried a couple of handfuls.  Of the few that crossed my path, whether aged or not, this one was a standout for smooth, sweet, aromatic flavours that delicately mixed up sweet and salt and a nice mouthfeel – even at 40% it presented well. Josh Miller scored it as his favourite with which to make a caipirinha some time back when he was doing his 14-rum cachaca challenge. Since it isn’t all that bombastic or adversarial, it may be one of the more approachable rums of its kind that is – best of all – quite widely available.

[6] Neisson L’Espirit 70° Blanc – Martinique

Breathe deep and easy on this one, and sip with care.  Then look at the glass again, because if your experience parallels mine, you’ll be amazed that this is a 140-proof falling brick of oomph – it sure doesn’t feel that way. In fact there’s a kind of creaminess mixed up with nuts and citrus that is extremely enjoyable, and when I tried (twice), I really did marvel that so much taste could be stuffed into an unaged spirit and contained so well.

[7] Rum Fire Velvet – Jamaica

Whew!  Major tongue scraper. Massive taste, funk and dunder squirt in all directions. Where these whites are concerned, my tastes tend to vacillate between clairins and Jamaicans, and here the family resemblance is clear.  Tasting notes like beeswax, rotten fruit and burnt sausages being fried on a stinky kero flame should not dissuade you from giving this one a shot at least once, though advisories are in order, it being 63% and all.

[8] Charley’s JB Overproof (same as J. Wray 63%) – Jamaica

A big-’n’-bad Jamaican made only for country lads for the longest while, before townies started screaming that the boys in the backdam shouldn’t have all the fun and it got issued more widely on the island. Very similar to the J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof with which it should share the spotlight, because they’re twins in all but name..

[9] Nine Leaves Clear 2015 – Japan

If Yoshiharu Takeuchi of the Japanese concern Nine Leaves wasn’t well known before he released the Encrypted for Velier’s 70th Anniversary, he should be. He’s a Japanese rum renaissance samurai, a one-man distillery operation, marketing manager, cook and candlestick maker – and his 50% unaged whites are excellent.  This one from 2015 melded a toned down kind of profile, redolent of soap, cinnamon, nutmeg, apples and other light fruits, and is somewhat better behaved than its Caribbean cousins…and a damned decent rum, a velvet sleeve within which lurks a well made glittering wakizashi. (the 2017 ain’t bad either).

[10] Cavalier Rum Puncheon White 65% – Antigua

Same as the 151 but with little a few less rabbits in its jock.  Since the Antigua Distiller’s 1981 25 year old was review #001 and I liked it tremendously (before moving on) I have a soft spot for the company…which shouldn’t dissuade anyone from trying this raging beast, because in it you can spot some of those delicate notes of blackberries and other fruit which I so enjoyed in their older offerings.  Strong yes, a tad thin, and well worth a try.

[11] Rum Nation Pot Still White 57% – Jamaica

One of the first Independents to go the whole hog with a defiantly unaged white.  It’s fierce, it’s smelly, it’s flavourful, and an absolute party animal. I call mine Bluto. It’s won prizes up and down the festival circuit (including 2017 Berlin where I tried it again) and with good reason – it’s great, attacking with thick, pot still funk and yet harnessing some delicacy and quieter flavours too.

[12] Kleren Nasyonal Traditionnal 22 Rhum Blanc – Haiti

Moscoso Distillers is the little engine that could – I suspect that if Velier had paused by their place back when Luca was sourcing Haitian clairins to promote, we’d have a fifth candidate to go alongside Sajous,Vaval, Casimir and La Rocher. Like most creole columnar still products made in Haiti, it takes some palate-adjustment to dial in its fierce, uncompromising nature properly. And it is somewhat rough, this one, perhaps even jagged. But the tastes are so joyously, unapologetically there, that I enjoyed it just as much as other, perhaps more genteel  products elsewhere on this list.

[13] Toucan 50% Rhum Blanc Agricole – French Guiana

This new white only emerged in the last year or two, and for a rum as new as this to make the list should tell you something.  I tried it at the 2017 Berlin rumfest and liked it quite a bit, because it skated the line between brine, olives, furniture polish and something sweeter and lighter (much like the Novo Fogo does, but with more emphasis)…and at 50% it has the cojones to back up its braggadocio. It’s a really good white rhum.

[14] Rum Nation Ilha de Madeira Agricole 2017

Lovely 45% white, with an outstanding flavour profile.  Not enough research available yet for me to talk about its antecedents aside from it being of Madeira origin and “natural” (which I take to mean unaged for the moment).  But just taste the thing – a great combo of soda pop and more serious flavours of brine, gherkins, grass, vanilla, white chocolate.  There’s edge to it and sweet and sour and salt and it comes together reallly well.  One of those rums that will likely gain wide acceptance because of being toned down some.  Reminds me of both the Novo Fogo and the St. Aubin whites, with some pot still Jamaican thrown in for kick.

[15] A1710 La Perle

A1710 is a new kid on the block out of Martinique, operating out of Habitation Simon.  This white they issued at 54.5% is one of the best ones I’ve tried.  Nose of phenols, swank, acetones, freshly sawn lumber, bolted onto a nearly indecently tasty palate of wax, licorice, sugar water, sweet bonbons and lemongrass.  It’s almost cachaca-like…just better.

This list was supposed to be ten but then it grew legs and fangs, so what the hell, here are a few more Honourable Mentions for the rabid among you…

[16] Marienburg 90% – Suriname

This is Blanc Vader. With two light sabers. Admittedly, I only included it to showcase the full power of the blanc side.  It’s not really that good.  However, if you have it (or scored a sample off me) then you’ve not only gotten two standard proofed bottles for the price of one but also the dubious distinction of possessing full bragging rights at any “I had the strongest rum ever” competition.  Right now, I’m one of the few of those.

[17] Sunset Very Strong Overproof 84.5%)

The runner up in the strength sweepstakes. Even at that strength, it has a certain creamy delicacy to it which elevates it above the Marienburg.  Overall, it’s not really suited for anything beyond a mix and more bragging rights — because the hellishly ferocious palate destroys everything in its path. It’s a Great White, sure…like Jaws.

[18] St. Nicholas Abbey Unaged White – Barbados

This is another very approachable white rum, unaged, a “mere” 40% which blew the Real McCoy 3 year old white away like a fart in a high wind. Part of it is its pot still antecedents.  It’s salty sweet (more sweet than salt) with a juicy smorgasbord of pretty flavours dancing lightly around without assaulting you at the same time.  A great combo of smoothness and quiet strength and flavour all at once, very approachable, and much more restrained (ok, it’s weaker) than others on this list.

[19] Vientain Loatan – Laos

Probably the least of all these rhums in spite of being bottled at 56%, and the hardest to find due to it hardly being exported, and mostly sold in Asia. On the positive side is the strength and the tastes, very similar to agricoles.  On the negative some of those tastes are bitter and don’t play well together, the balance is off and overall it’s a sharp and raw rhum akin to uncured vinegar, in spite of some sweet and citrus.  Hard to recommend, but hard to ignore too.  May be worth a few tries to come to grips with it.

[20] Mana’o Rhum Agricole Blanc – Tahiti

Not so unique, not so fierce, not so pungent as other 50% rums on this list, but tasty nevertheless.  Again, like Rum Nation’s Ilha de Madeira, it’s quite easily appreciated because the 50% ABV doesn’t corner you in an alley, grab you by the glottis and shake you down for your spare cash, and is somehow tamed into a more well-behaved sort of beast, with just a bit of feral still lurking behind it all.

[21] La Confrérie du Rhum 2014 Cuvée Speciale Rhum Blanc – Guadeloupe

A hot, unaged, spicy 50% blanc, with an estery nose, firm body and all round excellent series of tastes that do the Longueteau operation proud.  It’s lighter than one might expect for something at this strength, and overall is a solid, tasty and well-put-together white rhum. La Confrerie is a quasi-independent operation run by Benoit Bail and Jerry Gitany and they do single cask bottlings from time to time – their focus is agricoles, and all that knowledge and promotion sure isn’t going to waste.


So there you have it, a whole bunch of modern white rums spanning the globe for you to take a look at (as noted above, I’ve missed some, but then, I haven’t tried them all).  

I used to think that whites were offhand efforts tossed indifferently into the rum lineup by producers who focused on “more serious work” and gave them scant attention, as if they were the bastard offspring of glints in the milkman’s eye. No longer.

Nowadays they are not only made seriously but taken seriously, and I know several bartenders who salivate at the mere prospect of getting a few of these torqued up high-tension hooches to play with as they craft their latest cocktail.  I drink ‘em neat, others mix ‘em up, but whatever the case, it is my firm belief you should try some of the rums on this list at least once, just to see what the hell the ‘Caner is ranting on about.  I almost guarantee you won’t be entirely disappointed.

And bored?  No chance.


Other notes

Consider this a companion piece to Josh Miller’s excellent rundown of 12 agricoles, taken from his perspective of how they fare in a Ti Punch.

Aug 222017
 


So the other day a guy on reddit wrote that he was was due for surgery and bored out of his mind and could us redditors perhaps post some facts about rum which he didn’t know?  Well, now, that was a challenge, and while I may have missed the US National Rum Day, the idea took hold of me and after jotting down maybe ten or fifteen points of my own, I sent off a blast to all my rum chums, asking them for small anecdotes and trivia and facts they might know of,  which are not all that well known

In the interests of full disclosure, it must be confessed that I’m a nut for inconsequential information-nuggets – many of them, throwaway or useless factoids though they may be, are often the first threads that lead right down the rabbit hole into the labyrinth where great gnarled old stories are to be found, like abstract minotaurs who prey upon my free time and interests and happily consume both.

So here’s a list – our list – of a whole raft of such trivial pursuit winners, which won’t be unknown to rabid cognoscenti but which are interesting nevertheless; compiled for the benefit of  MaxwellHouse5, and I’m hoping his surgery went well, and my huge thanks and hat tips to all those rum lovers out there who added to it.

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  • The country with the most distilleries in it is Haiti, with over 500 (I’ve heard it may be much higher).  Most of these are backyard, backhouse, Mom-and-Pop operations and sell to the local market.
  • The strongest commercially available rum is made in Suriname (90% ABV)
  • Sugar cane originated in South-East Asia, not the Caribbean
  • Although rum is made from sugar cane (juice, syrup (“vesou”), molasses), the distilled spirit is sugar free.
  • A Muslim from Persia (now Iran) named Muhammad ibn Zakaria Razi invented the first pot still, called an alembic, in the 9th Century AD.  He was the first to write, draw and describe it, and it should be noted that it lacked a cooling ‘coil’ for a condenser and used a tube instead; moreover, it was not used for distillation of alcohol. The principle of distillation was, mind you, known for centuries before that.
  • The slang word for rum – “grog” – was named after a coat worn by a British Admiral.  The same Admiral was who George Washington’s estate was named after.
  • In Germany, cheap supermarket hooch that isn’t very good (except for a headache)  is referred to as “fusel”, which comes from the word “fuselstoff” (for fusel oils).
  • The first website devoted to rum was created (as far as I can tell) in 1995.
  • Luca Gargano, the famed boss of Velier, does not wear a wristwatch, own a cellphone or drive a car. He can…but choses not to.  As a further aside, Tatu Kaarlas, the Finn who runs the Australian rum wesbite Refined Vices, doesn’t wear a watch either.
  • The Coffey (or columnar) still in its original form was not invented by Aeneas Coffey, but by Robert Stein, whose 1828 still was in turn channelling Sir Anthony Perrier’s patented 1822 whiskey still. Aeneas perfected the design of both.
  • The Zacapa 23 is not 23 years old, and the Opthimus 25 ain’t 25.
  • The only successful armed takeover of an Australian Government was called the Rum Rebellion (though whether it really had anything to do with rum has been questioned) and overthrew William Bligh…yes, that William Bligh.
  • Rum used to be distilled (illegally) in small boats off the coast, in Australia
  • The South Pacific Distillery on Fiji is actually owned by the Coca-Cola Company (it’s part of their diversification strategy)
  • One of the reasons copper stills are so popular among rum makers is because they effectively remove sulphur compounds from the wash
  • Although copper stills are very common, stainless steel stills are also used.  However, there are two stills in Guyana which are made out of wood, and they are the only ones in the world.
  • Almost all boilers on the estates in Martinique run on bagasse, the residue of cane crushing. The eco-champ might well be Rivers Royale in Grenada, which uses a water wheel for crushing cane.
  • The French call their sugar cane juice rhums agricoles (or agriculturals) and rather disdainfully refer to molasses based rums as Industrielles. Every rum maker who uses molasses, in turn, calls their rums “the best.”
  • The revamped Barik Distillery in Haiti was built from scrap metal which included washing machines and car doors.
  • Due to its inland location, St Lucia Distillers receives its molasses deliveries from tankers that anchor in Roseau Bay via a 2km long pipeline that follows the Roseau River. These molasses are from Guyana, and the story goes that when one such shipment was held up some years ago, causing a shortage of rum, riots nearly broke out.
  • In Barbados each still is given a Registration number. Even if removed from use, the still number is never re-assigned to a different still…which would sure as hell interest the guys who obsess over which still produced Velier’s famed Demeraras.
  • Barbados has four Rum Distilleries, but only St. Nicholas Abbey uses fresh pressed sugar cane juice for their rums; they do, however, reduce it to syrup first.
  • The initial rums of St. Nichloas Abbey were sourced from FourSquare, until their own stocks matured.  They are primarily in the original 10, 12, 15 and 18 year old rums.
  • The most expensive commercially available rum in the world is the Appleton Estate 50 year old (retails for around US$5000 when it can be found). Honourable mention goes to the El Dorado 50th Anniversary bottling (which is not 50 years old) at around $3,500. The “commercial” criterion excludes the single bottle of a 1940s J. Wray & Nephew (US$54,000), the 20-bottle Angostura Legacy (US$25,000), the ~US$6,000 St James 1885 or the 1780 Barbados rums found at Harewood.  It also excludes the secondary market values of rums like the Velier Skeldon 1973, or the 1-bottle outturn of the Caputo 1973 which may well be priceless.
  • The rum which has been aged the longest remains the Gordon & MacPhail 1941 Longpond, at 58 years, bottled in 1999.  For the deep-pocketed, it sells for around two thousand euros these days.
  • According to the Spirits Business, Bacardi remains the top selling rum brand, with Tanduay (Phillipines) and McDowell (India) in 2nd and 3rd.  Both of the latter sell primarily to their local markets and Asia.  There’s a story that Tanduay buys pot still rum from DDL to mix in small quantities into its rums,  but this is unconfirmed.
  • In Jamaica, Captain Morgan is made by J. Wray & Newphew (i.e., Appleton).  In the USA, if one strictly adheres to the TTB rules, Captain Morgan is not a rum at all.
  • The last distillery on the small island of Montserrat closed in the 1950s.  It was called Farrell’s Estate.
  • Social media, engagement and festival speakers have pushed the matter of additives and adulteration to become perhaps the single most-discussed issue in the rum world.  However, adulteration of rum has been around at least since the 18th century and is nothing new.  (It’s good that we’re not letting tradition get in the way of reforming the practice).
  • Pusser’s rum is named after the purser, that gent who was in charge of giving sailors their daily tot in the British Royal Navy
  • The daily rum ration (the ‘tot’) began in the British Navy because of the inability to source brandy from France, which was often at war with Britain. Beer took up too much space.  Lemon or lime juice was often added to rum to combat scurvy, which is why Brits were sometimes called ‘Limeys’.  The German navy used sauerkraut (”sour herbs”, mostly pickled cabbage) for the same purpose, hence the pejorative “kraut.”
  • Guyana, which was called British Guiana prior to independence in 1966, and home of the famous El Dorado brand, was once a Dutch colony.  As was New York.
  • Epris, one of the larger distilleries in Brazil, is now distilling primarily fermented rice for vinegar and sake…in Brazil!
  • With respect to the 2-, 3- and 4-letter codings on Cadenhead’s rums, nobody – including Cadenhead – actually knows what they all mean.  One online wit supposed the Trinidadian rum moniker TMAH stood for “Too much alcohol here,”
  • Black Tot Day is generally taken to be July 31st every year, and commemorates (mourns?) the date in 1970 when rum rations were discontinued in the British Royal Navy.  However, the US abolished it far earlier in 1862 (!!).  And the Canadian Navy only stopped the practise in 1972 (March 30th), and the New Zealanders (bless their hearts for holding out as long as they did) finally bowed to the inevitable and ceased the ration in 1990 (28th February, but couldn’t they have waited until April 1st?)
  • The progenitor of all rums is supposedly arrack, made in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) with yeast strains mixed in with fermented red rice
  • Batavia Arrack is used in the spirits market to this day, but also as a flavour/aroma enhancer in the confectionary, tobacco and perfume industries.
  • Jim Beam (the whiskey maker out of the US, whose parent company is Beam Suntory) owns and bottles Cruzan rum
  • There are very few rum producers who have an actual Solera system like the one used in sherry production (this is where the solera method comes from). Santa Teresa in Venezuela and Cartavio in Peru are some of the only producers who uses a Solera to produce some of their rums. Almost all other producers who claim to be making soleras, are in fact just blending rums.
  • Although the term “Angel’s Share” is commonly used in rum to denote the losses due to evaporation during the ageing process, this is actually ported over from the whisky world.  Some parts of the Caribbean use the term “Duppy’s share” – a duppy being a sort of malevolent spirit who drink’s honest people’s rum (among other assorted evils); the word is of Bantu origin.
  • On Game of Thrones, whisky is never mentioned…but rum often is.  Mr. Clegane is not a fan.
  • In spite of the amusingly named Rumdoodle Peak – which is, alas, not named after rum of any kind – Antarctica remains the one continent where rum is not made commercially…though I’m sure someone has a bathtub over there and is brewing some.
  • The fastest selling rum in Compagnie des Indes entire stable of expressions is the Boulet de Canon No. 2, which is a blend.
  • In Jamaica, it is mandatory for distilleries to buy molasses from the government, which in turn buys it on the global commodities exchanges. This led to the following bizarre situations: in 2016, Jamaican distilleries had to distill molasses from Fiji that the government sold them, as it was cheaper…and the government sold the homegrown Jamaican molasses to other countries. And, Worthy Park had to sell its own molasses to the government…and then buy it back for distillation.
  • The Swedish Government initially refused to sell and distribute Compagnie des Indes Caraibes rum, as they felt the picture on the label promoted slavery.  The situation was resolved when it was proven that the picture hearkened back to a period after slavery had been abolished
  • 1% of Alcohol duties collected on any rum imported to the United States is returned to every American distiller producing rum (a big part therefore going to Baccardi). Which means that every bottle of rum coming from around the world and sold in the USA effectively subsidizes and helps the American rum producers to grow against imported rums.
  • “Virgin sugar cane juice” (or honey) is a marketing term for reduced – boiled down – sugar cane juice. It’s nothing special, except in so far that it allows the honey to stay fresh longer without spoiling, as pure juice would.
  • Ageing rum in ex-Bourbon barrels is actually quite recent, being mentioned as a new practice back in the 1940s.  Before that different barrels were used: fortified wine, port and sherry barrels.  Also madeira barrels were likely used back in the 17th and 18th centuries because Madeira was a regular shipping stop on the way to and from the British West Indies and the spirit was popular there at the time.

So there you have it.  Feel free to add a few of your own, or send me a PM to include it.  It’s a lighthearted break from the seriousness of our world and I sure hope MaxwellHouse5 liked it.

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A lot of patient, funny, knowledgeable people helped put this together, or I’ve sourced the points from their published / posted work, or their notes to me.  In no order, thanks to Josh Miller, Marco Freyr, Alex Van Der Veer, Tatu Kaarlas, Cyril Weglarz, Steve James, Paul Senft, Robin Wynne, Gaetan Dumoulin, Laurent Cuvier, Steve Leukanech, Rob Burr, Matt Pietrek, John Gibbons, John Go, Johnny Drejer, Florent Beuchet, Luca Gargano, Fabio Rossi, Richard Seale, Marcus Stock, and if I’ve left anyone out, really sorry, send me a note and I’ll add you to the Roll of Honour.