Dec 212020
 


When non-knowledgeable list-makers who pepper the pages of equally clueless online magazines with their silly compendia ask for advice and help, I can tolerate it, but not from this guy, who I read quite a lot of and respect a whole lot more. He should not be asking, in such vague terms, to get for free what he’s paid to write.


On December 8th 2020, spirits writer Tony Sachs posed this question on the Ministry of Rum Forum on FB: “Hey all, picking your collective brain for an article I’m writing about the 21 best rums of the 21st century (so far). Quite a daunting task! I’m trying to go for a balance of delicious and historically significant. Any suggestions are welcome — they don’t have to be currently available, they just have to be great…..As you can tell, I’m just beginning the research!  Of course rhums agricole and clairins are acceptable, so… don’t be shy.” In five hours this thing picked up some 77 responses, few of which were surprising (there were 94 less than two weeks later).

At the risk of sounding like a whining puke who enjoys raining on others’ parades and taking down seemingly innocuous and innocent inquiries just because I can, I think for a famed, widely published and widely read spirits writer to ask this question suggests a problematic lack of knowledge about the very spirit he seeks to be discussing and the language used to request ideas.  There’s just so much wrong with with the question, and the whole mindset behind it. 

Consider the following points and walk with me here:

One: the question is poorly phrased and defined in such vague terms as to lead to any amount of answers.  For example: distilled in 21st century, or released for sale in the 21st century? (this has now been addressed). What does “great” mean? Who defines that? Does the statement “Agricoles and clairins are acceptable” mean that they are not to be taken seriously but can get a sympathy entry? Do spiced rums count?  What about sweetened ones? And that word “delicious” – I mean, seriously? … that opens the door up to such a level of subjectivity as to make the exercise completely pointless, because the amount candidates will simply overwhelm the number asked for. I expect more from a professional spirits writer with years of experience under his belt.

Two: The 21st century is ⅕ of the way through so it’s unclear what good such a list actually serves when we’re only 20% in (thanks, please hold your messages, I saw the escape clause of “so far”) – perhaps it’s a conflation of “coming of age” at 21 with next year and chosing that number of rums, I don’t know.  But further to that, let me point out that the real increase in both rum knowledge and rum choice has happened in the last ten years, not the last twenty.  This was enabled by the internet and social media (especially Facebook) coupled with the rise and proliferation of bloggers after around 2010 — and what it really means is that very few people have any idea of or about any “historically significant” rum released before that point (let alone a delicious one), unless it’s Velier.

Three: Leaving aside the inherent uselessness of “delicious” given its subjectivity, I doubt very many will know what a truly historically significant rum is, or, for that matter, why it is considered to be so (or should be). In other words, without the context and the statement of why, does any response to this aspect of the question have any meaning, really? Is a rum significant because it is a long time “workhorse” of the bar industry, as Jesse Torres commented? Because it is popular?  Has loads of people saying it is? Made by a favoured distiller? Again, criteria are lacking.

Four: the current social media atmosphere favours some brands above others and they get the lion’s share of the press.  I hardly need mention that these are Velier, Foursquare, Worthy Park, Hampden for the chatterati, and Appleton, St Lucia Distillers and an occasional agricole or rum from east of Greenwich for the balance. (The 77 comments mentioned above make the point: three quarters of all suggestions are from those outfits). This blinkered mindset relegates far too many rums of actual importance and great taste to the margins, unknown and uncounted — and again points to the weakness of the “ask the crowd for suggestions” mentality. You either know your own subject or you don’t – if you do you shouldn’t be asking, and if you don’t you shouldn’t be writing.

At end, what this question really is, is a variation of that endearingly innocent “What should I start with?” which abounds in the reddit rum feed.  From a beginner, I can accept it.  From a pro? …well, not so much. Speaking as a writer myself, I don’t know what good crowdsourcing such a question serves, especially for an article one is likely being paid to write in a field where one holds oneself out as knowledgeable.  Is it to get free help? Ideas? Thoughts I couldn’t come up with myself to add to those I can? Save some snooping-around time for work I should be doing, sourcing rum candidates which I, as a spirit writer, couldn’t find the time to research on my own? Sorry, snark or no snark, but I disapprove of this. It smacks of laziness.

And without even looking too hard, I can tell you pretty much what’s going to come out at the other end: Velier, Foursquare, clairins (which is Velier again), the New Jamaicans (Velier repped yet again, with Hampden), Smith & Cross, Rum Fire, maybe Appleton and Savanna, Privateer based on current comments, and a grudging few nods to one or two others. I’d be surprised if anything out of Asia, Australia, Africa or even South America makes the cut. So in the end, it’s pointless. Too much will be excluded no matter what you do and attention will be focused on trends of the day, with not enough light being shone on real long term stars that have stood the test of time over the last twenty years.

Summing up, here’s what I think: you want to write an article like that, create a catchy listicle like that, it’s at best an opinion, so you base it on serious and rigorously defined criteria; on your knowledge and your observation of the field, and your own tastings. You don’t casually farm it out to the crowd.  Because posting that question to the MoR is like wandering into a stadium of Rolling Stones fans and asking “Uhhh…who else should I be listening to?” Completely useless.  Mr. Sachs would do better to do the fieldwork himself, solo.  Then at least the result would be his own honest take, not a crowdsourced smorgasbord based on either the opinions of trend-followers, or the generous input of others who really care about the subject. A subject he should, in any event, know enough about already.

Nov 112020
 

Introduction

More and more resources are coming online even as – or perhaps because – an increasing amount of people, young and old and in between, are coming into rum.  They arrive new, or from some other spirit, and are wont to inquire “Where can I find out about…?”  The questions are always the same and after more than ten years of doing this, I sometimes think I’ve seen them all:

  • What rum do I start with?
  • If I like this, what would you recommend?
  • What’s the sugar thing all about?
  • How much?
  • What’s it worth?
  • Where can I find…?
  • What to read?
  • How? Where? When? Why? What? Who?

Several years ago (February 2016 for those who like exactitude), Josh Miller of Inu-a-Kena, who was one of the USA’s premier reviewers before he turned to other (hopefully rum-related) interests and let his site slide into a state of semi-somnolence, published an article called “Plugging into the Rum World.” This was a listing of all online resources he felt were useful for people now getting into the subculture.

Five years on, that list remains one of the only gatherings of material related to online rum resources anyone has ever bothered to publish.  Many bloggers (especially the Old Guard) put out introductions to their work and to rum and just about all have a blogroll of favoured linked sites as a sidebar, and I know of several podcasts which mention websites people can use to get more info  – it’s just that they’re scattered around too much and who has the time or the interest to ferret out all this stuff from many different locations?

Moreover, when you just make a list of links, it does lack some context, or your own opinion of how useful they are or what they provide. That’s why I wished Josh’s list had some more commentary and narrative to flesh it out (but then, as has often been rather sourly observed, even my grocery list apparently can’t be shorter than the galley proofs for “War & Peace”).

Anyway, since years have now passed, I felt that maybe it was time to kick the tyres, slap on a new coat of paint and update the thing. So here is my own detailing of all online and other resources I feel are of value to the budding Rum Geek. 

(Disclaimer: I am not into tiki, cocktails or mixology, so this listing does not address that aspect of the rumisphere).


General – Social Media and Interactive Sites

For those who are just starting out and want to get a sense of the larger online community, it is strongly recommended that one gets on Facebook and joins any of the many rum clubs that have most of the commentary and fast breaking news. There’s an entire ecosystem out there, whether general in nature or focused on specific countries, specific brands or themes.

Questions get asked and get answered, reviews get shared, knowledge gets offered, lists both useful and useless get posted, and fierce debates of equal parts generosity, virulence, knowledge, foolishness, intelligence and wit go on for ages.  It’s the liveliest rum place on the net, bar none. You could post a question as obscure as “Going to Magadan, any good rum bars there?” and have three responses before your ice melts (and yes I’ve been there and no there aren’t any).

The big FB Rum Clubs are:

Other general gathering points:

More specialized corners of the FB rum scene are thematic, distillery- or country-specific, or “deeper knowledge-bases”. Many are private and require a vetting process to get in but it’s usually quite easy. (NB: After a while you’ll realize though, that many people are members of many clubs simultaneously, and so multiple-club cross postings of similar articles or comments are unnecessary).

…there’s tons more for specific companies but those are run by industry not fans and so I exclude them. Too there are many local city-level rum clubs and sometimes all it takes is a question on the main fora, and someone in your area pops up and says, “yeah, we got one…”

The other major conversational forum-style resource available is reddit, which to me has taken pride of place ever since the demise of the previous two main rum discussion sites: Sir Scrotimus Maximus (went dark) and the original Ministry of Rum (got overtaken by Ed Hamilton’s own FB page).  Somewhat surprisingly, there are only two reddit fora thus far, though the main one links to other spirits and cocktail forums.

/r/rum This is the main site with over 25,000 readers.  Tons of content, ranging from “Look what I got today!” to relinked articles, reviews and quite often, variations on “Help!” Conversations are generally more in depth here, and certainly more civilized than the brawling testosterone-addled saloon of FB. Lots of short-form reviewers lurk on this site, and I want to specifically recommend Tarquin, T8ke, Zoorado, SpicVanDyke and the LIFO Accountant. The question “What do I start with?” is most commonly posted on this subreddit.

/r/RumSerious (Full disclosure – I am the moderator of the sub). Created in late 2020, the site is an aggregator for links to news, others’ reviews and more focused articles. Not much going on here yet but the content isn’t half bad IMHO.

/r/tiki Lots of rum subjects turn up here and it’s a useful gathering place for those whose interests in tiki and rum intersect.

I’m deliberately ignoring other social media pipelines like Instagram and Twitter because they are not crowdsourced, don’t have much narrative or commentary, and focus much more on the individual.  Therefore as information sources, they are not that handy.


Reviewers’ Blogs & Websites

On my own site I subdivide reviewers into those who are active, semi-active and dormant — here, for the sake of brevity, I’ll try to restrict myself to those who are regulars and have content going up on a fairly consistent basis. 

Reviewers

  • The Fat Rum Pirate (UK) – Wes Burgin remains the second most prolific writer of reviews out there (Serge is the first). The common man’s best friend in rum, with strong opinions – you’ll never be in doubt where he’s coming from – and tons of reviews.
  • WhiskyFun (France) – Serge Valentin is the guy who has written more reviews about rum than anyone in the world (he’s also done almost 16,000 whisky tasting notes but that’s a minor distraction, and a sideline from his unstated, undeclared true love of rums) in a brutally brief, humorous, short-form style that has been copied by many others
  • Rum Ratings – This is a user-driven populist score-and-comment aggregator.  From a reviewer’s ivory-tower perspective it’s not so hot, but as a barometer for the tastes of the larger rum drinking population it can’t be beat and shows why, for example, the Diplo Res Ex remains a perennial favourite in spite of all the negative reviews.
  • The Rum Barrel Blog (UK) – Oxford-based barman Alex Sandu used to post his reviews directly into FB until he gave in and opened a site of his own.  This guy posts mainly reviews, and he’s quite good, one of those understated people who will turn up a decade from now with a thousand tasting notes you never knew were there.
  • Single Cask Rum – Marius Elder does short form reviews of mostly the independent bottlers’ scene. What he posts is amazing, because he does flights — of similar bottlers, similar years, similar geographical places — to make comparatives clear, and the bottles in those flights are often a geek’s fond dream.
  • The Rums of the Man With the Stroller (French) – Laurent Cuvier is more a magazine style writer than a reviewer, yet his site has no shortage of those either, and he serves the French language market very nicely.  Plus, all round cool guy. The poussette has been retired, by the way.
  • Le Blog a Roger (French) – Run by a guy whose tongue-in-cheek nome-de-plume is Roger Caroni, there’s a lot more to his site than just rums…also whiskies and armagnacs. Good writing, brief notes, nice layout.
  • Who Rhum the World? (French) – Oliver Scars does like his rums, and writes about the top end consistently and well, especially the Velier Caroni and Demerara ranges.
  • Barrel Aged Thoughts (German) – A site geared primarily towards independents, and a strong love of Caronis, Jamaicans and demeraras. Nicely long form type of review style.
  • John Go’s Malternatives – John, based in the Philippines, writes occasionally on rum for Malt online magazine.  Good tasting notes — and its his background narrative for each rum that I really enjoy and which will probably remain in the memory longest.
  • Whisky Digest (FB) – Now here’s a gentleman from Stuttgart who eschews a formal website, and whose tasting notes and scores are posted on FB and Instagram only. Crisp, witty, informative, readable mini reviews, really nice stuff. Love his work.

Others

  • Du Rhum (French) – Cyril Weglarz is a fiercely independent all rounder, writing reviews, essays and even a book (The Silent Ones, see below).  He’s noted for taking down Dictador and other brands for inclusion of undeclared additives and remains the only blogger – ever – to have sent rums for an independent laboratory analysis, over and beyond using a hydrometer.
  • Rum Revelations (Canada) – Occasional and valuable content by Ivar de Laat, who is usually to be found commenting on FB’s various fora. 
  • Rum Diaries Blog (UK) – Busy with work these days, great content and reviews, some of which are quite in-depth. Doesn’t post as much as before but any time he does, it’s worth looking at.
  • Rum Shop Boy (UK) – Simon’s Johnson’s excellent website of rum reviews. Personal issues make him less prolific than before, but he assures me he has not walked away and the hits do indeed keep on comin’.
  • Rumtastic (UK) – “Another UK Rum Blog” his website self-effacingly says, and he modestly and deprecatingly considered himself a merely “awesome, ace, wicked dude” in a comment to me some time ago.  Short, brief, trenchant reviews, always good to read.
  • Master Quill (Holland) – Alex and I are long correspondents and I always read his reviews of rum, which take second place to his writing about whiskies, but are useful nevertheless.  Like most European bloggers, he concentrates mostly on the independents.
  • PhilthyRum (Australia) – I’m going to put Phil’s site on here, though it has not been updated much this year, because he’s one of the few who post about and from Australia.  Nuff said.
  • Québec Rhum – This large Francophone Canadian site is unusual in that it is actually more like a club than a single person’s interests the way so many others on this list are: within it reside rum reviews, distillery visits, master class programs and some cost-defraying merchandise.  For my money, of course, it’s the reviews that are of interest but it certainly seems to be the premiere rum club in Canada, bar none.
  • Rum Gallery (USA) – now dormant, I include it for the back catalogue, because Dave Russell has been active on the review since before 2010 and so has many reviews of rums we don’t see any more
  • Rum Howler Blog (Canada) – Chip Dykstra reviews out of Edmonton in Canada, and is one of the oldest voices in reviewer-dom still publishing. He has done rather less of rum of late than of other spirits, and remains on this list for the same reason Dave Russell does – because his reviews of rums from before the Renaissance are a good resource. Not so hot for the newer stuff or independents, though.

News Sites and Newsletters

Not much news out there, the older sites have all been subsumed into the juggernaut that is Facebook.  There do remain some holdouts that try to stem the tide of the Big Blue F and here are a few

  • RumPorter – This site is in French, Spanish and English, and has both a paid and free section. The articles are well written and well researched and may be the best online magazine dealing with rum that is currently extant.
  • Coeur de Chauffe (French) – Magazine-style deep-dive content, curated by Nico Rumlover (which I suspect is not his real name, but ok 🙂 ).
  • Got Rum? – US-based ad-heavy magazine which publishes monthly. Paul Senft, one of the only remaining US rum reviewers left standing, posts his reviews here, and historical essays are provided by Marco Pierini. The rest is mostly news bits and pieces, of varying quality.
  • Floating Rum Shack – Pete Holland’s personal site, quite apart from his day job as a UK rum educator, brand ambassador and suave Fabio-esque model for the labels of That Boutique-y Rum Company. Of particular interest is his annual listing of the dates of the world’s rum festivals (much disrupted in 2020, of course).
  • The Rum Lab – There’s a website for this, with useful stuff like the Rum Connoisseur of the week, various infographics and news…my own preference is to subscribe to the newsletter which delivers it to your inbox every week.  Good way to stay on top of the news if you don’t think FB is serving you up the rum related stories you like.

© istock.com/Rassco

Online Research, Technical, Background & History

Once you get deeper into the subculture, it stands to reason you’re going to want to know more, and social media is rarely the place for anyone who needs to go into the weeds and count the blades. And not everyone writes, or wants to write, or reads just about reviews, the latest rums, their rumfest visits – some like the leisurely examination of a subject down to the nth degree.

  • Cocktail Wonk – Without question, freelance writer Matt Pietrek is the guy with the widest span of essays and longform pieces on technical and general aspects of the subject of rum, in the world. In his articles he has covered distillery visits and histories, technical production details, in-depth breakdowns and translations of governing regulations like GIs and the AOC, interviews and much more. Sooner or later, everyone who has a question on some technical piece of rum geekery lands on this site.
  • Rum Tasting Notes – This is not a website, but a mobile application and is a successor to the lauded and much-missed site Reference Rhum.  It is an app allowing you to input your tasting notes for whatever rums you are working with, to make a collection of your own and to curate it … but its real value lies in being a database, a reference of as many rums as can be input by its users.  Currently, there are over 7,000 rums in the library.
  • American Distillery Index – Produced by Will Hoekenga (not the last time he turns up here) as part of the American Rum Report, it lists every distillery he could find in the USA by state, provides the website, a list of their rums and some very brief historical notes. There is an Australian Distillery Index that I use when doing research, but it’s not as well laid out.
  • Sugar Lists – This is a subject that continues to inflate blood pressures around the world.  Aside from the “wtf, is that true?” moments afflicting new rum drinkers, the most common question is “Does anyone have a list of rums that contain it?” Well, no.  Nobody does.  But many have hydrometer readings that translate into inferences as to the amount of additives (assumed to be sugar), and these are:
  • The Boston Apothecary – Very technical articles on distillation.  The September 2020 article was called “Birectifier Analysis of Clairin Sajous,” so not airport bookstore material, if you catch my drift.
  • Peter’ Rum Labels out of Czhechoslovakia defies easy categorization.  It’s one of the most unique rum-focused sites in the world, and one of the best for what it is: a compendium of pictures of labels from rum bottles.  Ah, but there’s so much more: distillery and brand histories, obscure vintages and labels and producers….it’s an invitation to browse through rum’s history in a unique way that simply has no equal.

Podcasts / Videos

  • Five minutes of rum – 87 (for now) short and accessible episodes about specific rums plus a bit of text background, some photos and cocktails. If time is of essence, here’s a place to go.
  • Single Cast (French) – The big names of the Francophone rhum scene – Benoit Bail, Jerry Gitany, Laurent Cuvier, Christine Lambert, Roger Caroni – run these fortnightly podcasts, which make me despair at the execrable quality of my French language skills. Great content.
  • Ralfy – Well, yes, Ralfy does do primarily whiskies on his eponymous vlog and rum takes a serious back seat. He does do rums occasionally, however, and his folksy style, easy banter, and barstool wisdom are really fun to watch (or just listen to), whether it’s in a rum review, or an opinion piece.
  • Zavvy.co – A video platform which co-founders Federico Hernandez and Will Hoekenga (remember him from the American Rum Index?) intended as a live streaming tool for rum festivals, repurposed after COVID-19 shattered the world’s bar industry and cancelled all rumfests.  Now it is a weekly series of interviews and discussions with members of the industry
  • ACR has some really useful virtual distillery tours and “Rum Talk” sessions with distillery people 
  • Rumcast – This podcast was very busy from April to August of 2020, then declined, probably due to the attention switching to Zavvy (Will Hoekinga is part of it, so that may be why).
  • Global Rum Room (FB) – This is a place where every Friday, rumfolk from around the world just hang out and sh*t talk, using a Zoom link.  The link is usually posted weekly and to be found in the group page. It’s a private group, so an invitation is needed.
  • Rum on the Couch – Dave Marsland, who runs the UK based Manchester Rum Festival, hosts brief conversational look-what-I-got videos and reviews of mostly one bottle at a time. He reminds me a lot of The Fat Rum Pirate’s informal written style. He really does, quite often, review from his couch. Lots of information and opinion presented in an easygoing style.

Specific Articles

Even within the fast moving rum community where things change on a daily basis, some articles stand out as being more than a flash in the pan and stand the test of time. Most bloggers content themselves with reviews and news, and a few go further into serious research or opinionating. Here some that bear reading:

  • Tarquin Underspoon’s List of what Rums to Start With.  Every boozer and every blogger sooner or later addresses this issue, and the lists change constantly depending on who’s writing it, and when. This is one of the best.
  • The Cocktail Wonk’s article on E&A Scheer. This is the article that allowed laymen to understand what writers meant when they spoke about “brokers” buying bulk rum and then selling it to independent bottlers.  It introduced the largest and oldest of them all, Scheer, to the larger public in an original article nobody else even thought to think about.
  • The History of Demerara Distilleries, written by Marco Freyr of Germany, is the most comprehensive, heavily referenced, historically rigorous treatise on all the Guianese sugar plantations and distilleries ever written. No one who wants to know about what the DDL heritage still are all about can pass this monumental work by. The ‘Wonk has a two-part Cliff-notes version, here and here which is less professorial, based on his visits and interviews.
  • Josh Miller’s well written piece on the development of Rhum Agricole.
  • [Shameless plug alert!] The Age of Velier’s Demeraras. My own favourite, a deeply researched, deeply felt, three-part article on the impact Velier’s near-legendary Demerara rums had on the larger rumiverse. Two others are the History of the 151s, and the List of Miscellaneous Rum Trivia.

Shopping Sites

Well, I can’t entirely ignore the question of “Where can I get…?” and get asked it more often than you might imagine. However, there are so many of sites nowadays, that I can’t really list them all.  That said, here are some of the major ones I know of that other people have spoken about before.  I’ll add to them as I try more, or get recommendations from readers.

(Note: listing them here is not an endorsement of their prices, selections or shipping policies; nor have I used them all myself, and they may not ship to you).

USA

EU & UK

Canada


The Final Question

I wanted to address the one question that comes up in my private correspondence perhaps more often even than “Where can I find…?” or “Have you tried…?”.  

And that’s “How much is this bottle worth?” 

Aside from the trite response of It’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay, there is no online answer, and I know of no resource that provides it as a service outside of an auction house or a site like RumAuctioneer where the public will respond by bidding, or not. One can, of course, always check on the FB rum fora above, post a picture and a description and ask there, and indeed, that is nowadays as good a method as any.  Outside that, don’t know of any.

So, that said, I never provide a website resource or give a numerical answer, and my response is always the same: “It is worth drinking.” 


Summing up

When I look down this listing of online resources (and below in the books section), I am struck by what an enormous wealth of information it represents, what an investment of so many people’s time and effort and energy and money.  The commitment to produce such a cornucopia of writing and talking and resources, all for free, is humbling.  

In the last eleven years since I began writing, we have seen the rise of blogs, published authors, rum festivals, and websites, even self-bottlings and special cask purchases by individuals who just wanted to pass some stuff around to friends and maybe recover a buck or two.  New companies sprung up.  New fans entered the field.  Rum profiles and whole marketing campaigns changed around us. The thirst for knowledge and advice became so great that a veritable tsunami of bloggers rose to meet the challenge – not always to educate the eager or sell to the proles, but sometimes just to share the experience or to express a deeply held opinion. 

It’s good we have that. In spite of the many disagreements that pepper the various discussions on and offline, the interest and the passion about rum remains, and results in a treasure trove of online resources any neophyte can only admire and be grateful for.  As I do, and I am.


Appendix – Books On Rum

Books are not an online resource per se, so I chose to put them in as an appendix.  I do however believe they have great value as resources in their own right, and not everything that is useful to an interested party can always be found online.

Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of reference materials in the old style format.  No matter how many posts one has, how many essays, how many eruditely researched historical pieces or works of staggeringly unappreciated genius, there’s still something about saying one has published an actual book that can’t be beat. Here’s a few that are worth reading (and yes, I know there are more):

  • Rums of the Eastern Caribbean (Ed Hamilton) – Released in 1995 at the very birth of the modern rum renaissance, this book was varied survey of as many distilleries and rums as Mr. Hamilton found the time to visit over many years of sailing around the Caribbean. Out of print and out of date, it’s never been updated or reprinted.  Based on solid first hand experience of the time (1990s and before), and many rum junkies who make distillery trips part of their overall rum education are treading in his footsteps. (It was followed up in 1997 by another book called “The Complete Guide to Rum”).
  • Rum (Dave Broom) – This 2003 book combined narrative and photographs, and included a survey of most of the world’s rum producing 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: Jamaican, Guyanese, Bajan, Spanish and French island (agricole). 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).
  • Atlas Du Rhum (Luca Gargano) – A coffee-table sized book that came out around 2014. Unfortunately only available in Italian and French for now.  It’s a distillery by distillery synopsis of almost every rum making facility in the Caribbean and copies the format of Broom’s book and the limited focus of Hamilton’s, and does it better than either. Beautifully photographed, full of historical and technical detail.  Hopefully it gets either a Volume 2 or an update for this decade, at some point, and FFS let’s have an English edition!
  • French Rum – A History 1639-1902 (Marco Pierini).  This is one of those books that should be longer, just so we can see what happened after Mont Pelee erupted in 1902.  Still, let’s not be ungrateful.  Going back into the origins of distilled spirits and distillation in the Ancient World, Marco slowly and patiently traces the evolution of rum, and while hampered by a somewhat professorial and pedantic writing style, it remains a solid work of research and scholarship.
  • The Silent Ones (Cyril Weglarz) – Few books about rum’s subculture impressed and moved me as much as Cyril’s. In it, he toured the Caribbean islands (on his own dime), and interviewed the people we never hear about: the workers, those in the cane field, the lab, the distillery.  And provided a portrait of these silent and unsung people, allowing us to see beyond superstar ambassadors and producers, to the things these quieter people do and the lives they lead.
  • Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki (Martin & Rebecca Cate) – Addressed to the cocktail and tiki crowd in 2016 (as is self evident from the title) the reason I include this book here is because of the Cates’ proposal for another method classification for rums that goes beyond the too-limited styles of Dave Broom, and is perhaps more accessible than the technical rigour of the one suggested by Luca Gargano. Jury is still out there. Other than that, just a fun read for anyone into the bar and mixing scene.
  • Minimalist Tiki (Matt Pietrek) – If I include one, I have to include the other.  Matt self published his book about matters tiki in 2019, and again, it is a book whose subject is obvious.  Except, not really – the section about rum,  its antecedents and background, the summing up of the subject to 2019, is really very well done and pleasantly excessive, maybe ⅓ of the whole thing. The photos are great and I’m sure to learn a thing or two about mixing drinks in the other ⅔. For now, it’s the bit about rum I covet.
  • Rum Curious (Fred Minnick) – Building on the previous book by the Cates, this takes rum in its entirety as its subject, and covers history, production, regulations, tastings, cocktails and more. It’s a great primer for any beginner, still recent enough to be relevant (many of the issues it mentions, like additives, disclosure, labelling, regulations, remain hotly debated to this day), though occasionally dated with some of the rums considered top end and very weak in global rum brands from outside the Caribbean.
  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails (Wayne Curtis) – This is a book about rum, cocktails and American history.  It is not for getting an overview of the entire rum industry or the issues that surround it, or any kind of tasting notes or reviews.  But it is an enormously entertaining and informative read, and you’ll pick up quite a bit around the margins that cannot but increase your appreciation for the spirit as a whole.
  • A Jamaican Plantation: The History of Worthy Park 1670-1970 (Michael Craton & James Walvin) – A deep dive into the history of one of the best known Jamaican distilleries.  (I’m sure there are others that speak to other distilleries and plantation, but this is the one I happen to have, and have read).
  • The Distillers Guide to Rum (Ian Smiley, Eric Watson, Michael Delevante) – For a book that came out in 2013, it remains useful and not yet dated.  As its title indicates, it is about distillation methodology, and there is some good introductory rum material as well.  If you want to know about equipment, ingredients, fermentation, blending, vatting, maturation, that’s all there – and then there’s supplementary stuff about the subject (styles, bars, cocktails, etc) as well, making it a useful book for anyone who wants to know more about that aspect of the subject.
Sep 022020
 

As the memories of the seminal and ground breaking Demeraras fade and the Caronis climb in price past the point of reason, and the smaller outturns of Velier’s limited editions vanish from our sight, it is good to remember the third major series of rums that Velier has initiated, which somehow does not get all the appreciation and publicity so attendant on the others, or climb in price so rapidly on secondary markets.  

This is the Habitation Velier collection, which to my mind has real potential of joining the pantheon of Caronis and those near-legendary Guyanese rums which are so firmly anchored to the Genoese company of Velier’s reputation. And I advertise the importance of the series in this fashion because its uniqueness tends to fly under the radar – they’re seen as secondary efforts released by a major house, and take third or fourth place in most people’s estimation, behind other more famous “black bottle” series. Sometimes they’re even seen as repositories for leftover stuff that Velier has in stock that would not fit any of the other limited editions – Warren Khong, 70th Anniversary, Indian Ocean Stills, Villa Paradisetto, Hampdens, and so on. Mitch Wilson, introducing Luca in a May 2020 interview, didn’t even see fit to mention them as something special.

But they are.  And I contend that ignoring them or relegating them to also-ran status would be denying their importance and does them a disservice – the Habitation line is really quite special on a number of fronts. For, consider these points:

The thirty releases of the collection (so far, as of 2020) remain a world class showcase for pot still expressions only, and no bottler – producer or independent, ever – has taken a chance on focusing so clearly and significantly on just this one specific segment of rums. And, unlike most independent bottlers who release distillate made on no-matter-what-still, let’s-just-take-a-good-barrel, this series eschews both the still/barrel point of view or the geographical specificity of the Demeraras and Caronis, and it takes as its subject matter pot rums from anywhere (Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Marie Galante, USA), issuing both aged and unaged rums…often from major houses who have never released such rums themselves. Best of all, the damned things are just fine, the quality remains high, and in a time of ever increasing prices, they have stayed relatively affordable (though still pricey in comparison to a standard rum from any of the representative distilleries – in this they fail the Stewart Affordability Conjecture).

The question is, why did Velier bother? It’s not as if many of these rums or producers are unknown and indies have put out pot still rums for ages (alongside much other good hooch). Why create an entirely separate brand for this stuff, a new series of bottles, an entirely new design look?

Luca Gargano, the boss of Velier, speaks of a time as recently as 2013 (at the time he was just introducing his own system but it had not gained much traction yet) — when in the confusion of the rum world regarding classifications, too much rum was lumped into the class of agricoles, and a catchall category of “rum” that encompassed everything else.  But in that huge collective bucket were many different kinds, including artisanal, small batch rums, “the equivalent of pure single malts.” He envisioned Habitation Velier as a separate branch of his company which would focus exclusively on this subset but made with less fuss and bother and priced more reasonably than the already escalating major bottlings he was getting known for.  

My own feeling is also that he followed the same principle he had with his occasional off-hand one-offs like the Basseterres or the Courcelles, or the original Damoiseau 1980 – he was enthusiastic about them and wanted to show them off (as I have rather wryly observed before, sometimes that’s all it takes, with him). Plus, I’m convinced that he also had some unusual pot still distillate on hand — from Barbados, Guyana, Worthy Park and Marie Galante, etc  — and perhaps felt that releasing them as individual black bottles wouldn’t cut it [see note 1]. The Haitian clairins and the Capovilla collaborations were established with their own distinct looks, and those lines served their own specific purposes, so it made sense to start from scratch and go with a completely new design for a set of rums which could be launched and expanded on in future years, that would concentrate on the uniqueness of pot stills, and include first run rum from new estate distilleries (he was already negotiating with Hampden [see note 2] for their distillate at the time).

The result was a series as distinctive as any previously issued, which channelled much of the same individualistic design ethos as the classics. They were flat 70cl bottles, dark ones for aged rums, transparent for white unaged ones to start (not consistently, but often). They had that subtle hip flask vibe, where you almost felt you could put it in your back pocket like a flattie of old and nip at it for the rest of the day.  The labelling was even better than the Demeraras of the Age (my opinion only) — those original ones almost redrew the labelling map with their near unprecedented level of detail (the name of the distillery, the dates of make, the still, the strength, the outturn) but the proposed Habitation Velier design would provide more, much more.  

For example not only did you get all that, but you were told of the distillate source, the ester or congener level (a geek godsend, surely), its sugar free nature, and were treated to a beautifully rendered watercolour of the original pot still that made it, plus some words on that still, and as if that weren’t enough, where it was aged (tropics) and the angel’s share. In point of fact, the only thing missing here was the bottle outturn, which strikes me as an almighty curious omission given Luca’s mania for providing more rather than less. But when I touched base with him to ask that specific question, he said it had been a deliberate decision, so as to prevent the bottles becoming collector’s items and having the street price rise beyond all sanity in flippers’ and speculators’ hands on the secondary market(see note 3).

Luca Gargano has been a fixture on the rum world for so long that people don’t always remember that there was a time when he was a smallish importer, and “just” another newb indie bottler with odd, even controversial, ideas and his rums were considered obscure and too expensive.  These days his name is known everywhere rums are drunk (and collected). But paradoxically, it’s gotten to the point where the generation of rum drinkers who have emerged in the last five years don’t remember the seminal nature of his earlier work, just see the currently available ones, and I was asked in mystification just the other week “What Demerara rums?” by a man whose memories begin with Caroni and move into the Hampdens and Habitations. To some extent the HV line allows them to participate in the uniqueness of some of Velier’s early work and ethos… but without paying four figures for the privilege.

I have come to the conclusion that the impressive rums of the house, coupled with Luca’s uncompromising perception of what he terms a pure rum, often overshadows an aspect of his character not often discussed, and that’s the one of an educator.  I know of no other rum maker in the world who so consistently releases rums that under normal circumstances have almost no possibility of being big sellers or future grail quests, but does so simply because they interest him and he wants to show off their qualities to interested rum chums, and maybe just because he damn’ well can.  Daniele Biondi in an August 2020 round-table discussion, remarked on a similar point relating to Velier’s desire to always present something unique and different with the HV line, even from established distilleries whose work we know quite well.

Such rums were the Guyanese La Bonne Intention (LBI) rums from 1995 and 1998; the Indian Ocean stills’ rums; the Basseterre 1995 and 1997, the Courcelles 1972, the 2019 NRJ quartet with that growly beast of the TECA, or even the granddaddy of them all, the original fullproof Damoiseau 1980 which he released so nervously. And ask yourself, who on earth, which casual drinker, would ever buy the quartet of the Monymusk EMB and MMW Tropical vs Continental Ageing — which would certainly not appeal to anyone for their price —  given what they were issued to achieve? Any one of these other rums could be seen as emblematic of Luca’s desire to showcase aspects of imperfectly demonstrated or understood rumlore. But what has in fact happened to them is that those one-offs appeal to the micro-segment of rumgeeks and deep divers, not the greater rum drinking population at large who are enamoured of great names like Port Mourant and Hampden and Foursquare…but not so much the smaller ones. 

The HV series, then, are perhaps more aimed at that midrange bunch of relatively knowledgeable drinkers, influencers and anoraks, rather than for some high priced connoisseur’s market (where money but not knowledge is more often the real coin of the realm) or the deep-diving über-dorks (where exacting command of micro-detailed minutiae is). They are, in that sense, a useful bridge between more commonly appreciated rums, and those that require a bit more experience, perhaps, to fully appreciate — and can therefore be had and enjoyed and argued over by both long-time aficionados and new-to-the-club rumgeek wannabes.

Lastly, there’s the impressive amount of “firsts” which the HV line has demonstrated: as noted, they were completely distillery-aged pot-still rums, many never seen or released before (like the Foursquare 2013); the first estate bottling from Worthy Park (2005) and the only WPM (2006) mark bottled to date; first Hampden marks like HLCF, OWH, LROK, HGML, LFCH, DOK; first vintage Mount Gay pot still (Last Ward); first PM unaged unfiltered white from Guyana…and so on.  I mean, say what you will and disagree if you must, but that’s quite an accomplishment for any rum maker to produce in such quantity, so quickly.

Taking all this into account, the Habitation Velier range is, in my opinion, near unique – a major, wide-ranging series of paradoxically specific rums, to be seen as such. Aside from the common thread of their pot still origins, there’s little to tie them together. They span the gamut of all rums, all countries, all styles, all ages, all strengths and will only expand as the years pass. There’s hardly a weak one in the bunch, and some are simply stunning. One day I can even see them being reference rums, enabling people to get a grip on regional pot still profiles from around the world.

Of course, picking out any single one of them as a representative of all is an exercise in futility — everyone has a favourite, a preferred vintage, a personal pet love in the line, and this relates directly to the intersection of broad range, amazing variety and needs-a-little-effort approachability. Somehow this one line of rums, overlooked and sometimes even dismissed in favour of Veliers’ more famous limited editions, presses way more buttons than initially seems to be the case, and only grows in stature with time. I deem them not only Key Rums Of the World when considered as a class…but also among the most important series of rums ever made.


Other Notes

  1. In a promotional video interview posted in 2019 but surely made before that year, Luca spoke about the HV rums; originating philosophy, and the original Habitation Velier rums were on display in the now famous black bottles, with special multicoloured “classic” labels.  These designs were never implemented, and were released as standalone black bottles, though still labelled as HV for some reason.
  2. When the Hampden rums started to come on the market in 2016-2017, the best part of the ageing crop was siphoned off to Velier’s “dark bottle range” (my term, not theirs), as a consequence of their perhaps being perceived as more premium. But this has not lessened the stature of those selected for the HV series and while their value has grown – the June 2020 RumAuctioneer auction had the Hampden HGML 2010-2019 9 YO finish up at £230 for example – quite an appreciation over the original price.
  3. I have the outturn of quite a few releases of the range, and in line with Luca’s desire not to promote speculation, I am electing not to publish them.
  4. There are links to only seven rums whose reviews have been published here, to 2020.  More exist and are planned for publication soon, enough to allow me to justify the whole line as an inclusion in the Key Rums series.
  5. Photos taken from and used courtesy of Velier and Habitation Velier facebook pages and official websites. I messaged Luca directly for some of the background details.

Habitation Velier Rums – By Country

Reunion

  • Savanna Reunion Pure Single Rum White HERR (2018) 62.5% 

Marie Galante

Guyana

USA

  • Privateer New England Pure Single Rum 2017 3 YO (2020) 55.6%

Barbados

Jamaica

  • WP Forsyths Pot Still Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO (2005-2015), 57.8%
  • WP Forsyths Pot Still 502 Jamaica Pure Single White Rum (2015), 57%
  • WP Forsyths 151 Proof Jamaica Pure Single White Rum (2015), 75.5%
  • WP Forsyths Pot Still Jamaica Pure Single Rum (WPM) 11 YO (2006-2017), 57.5%
  • WP Forsyths Pot Still Jamaica Pure Single Rum White (WPE) (2017), 57%
  • WP Forsyths 151 Proof Jamaica Pure Single White Rum (2017), 75.5%
  • WP Worthy Park Jamaica Pure Single Rum 2007 10 YO 59%
  • WP Worthy Park Jamaica Pure Single Rum 11 YO WPL (2009-2020) 60.4%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO LROK (2010-2016)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO HLCF (2010-2016) 68.5%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum <>H White (2018)(Whisky Live Paris)
  • Hampden  Jamaica Pure Single Rum LROK White (2018) 62.5%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2010-2019) (Salon du Rhum)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO HGML (2010-2019) 62%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 7 YO LFCH (2011-2018) 66%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO C<>H (2010-2020) 68.5%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO LROK (2010-2020) 62%

Habitation Velier Rums – By Year of Bottling

2015

  • Muller LL IV / 3177 Pure Single Agricole Rhum White (Marie Galante) (2015) 59%
  • Port Mourant Still Guyana Pure Single White Rum (2015), 59.0%
  • Foursquare Pot Still Barbados Pure Single Rum 2 YO (2013-2015), 64%
  • Foursquare Pot Still Barbados Pure Single White Rum (2015) 59%
  • WP Forsyths Pot Still Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO (2005-2015), 57.8%
  • WP Forsyths Pot Still 502 Jamaica Pure Single White Rum (2015), 57%
  • WP Forsyths 151 Proof Jamaica Pure Single White Rum (2015), 75.5%
  • Monymusk EMB 248 Jamaica Pure Single Rum White (2015), 59%

2016

  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO LROK (2010-2016)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO HLCF (2010-2016) 68.5%

2017

2018

  • Savanna Reunion Pure Single Rum White HERR (2018) 62.5%
  • Last Ward (Mount Gay) Barbados Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2009-2018) 59%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum <>H White (2018)(Whisky Live Paris)
  • Hampden  Jamaica Pure Single Rum LROK White (2018) 62.5%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 7 YO LFCH (2011-2018) 66%
  • Long Pond “STCE” White (2018) 62.5%

2019

  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2010-2019) (Salon du Rhum)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO HGML (2010-2019) 62%
  • Long Pond “TECA” 2005 14 YO (2005-2019) 62%
  • Monymusk EMB 2010-2019 9 YO (2019) 62%

2020

  • Privateer New England Pure Single Rum 3 YO (2017-2020) 55.6%
  • Mount Gay Barbados Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2011-2020) 52.3%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO C<>H (2010-2020) 68.5%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO LROK (2010-2020) 62%
  • WP Worthy Park Jamaica Pure Single Rum 11 YO WPL (2009-2020) 60.4%

 

Apr 232020
 

Introduction

Brutta ma buoni is an Italian phrase meaning “ugly but good”, and as I wrote in the SMWS 3.5 “Marmite” review, describes the oversized codpieces of the “151” types of rums very nicely indeed. These glute-flexing ABV beefcakes have been identifiably knocking people into stupors for at least since the 1930s and possibly even before that — and while they were never entirely good, when it came to serving up a real fast drunk with a hot-snot shot of whup-ass, they really couldn’t be beat. Flavours were often secondary, proof-power everything.

Everyone involved with rums — whether bartender, barfly or boozehound — knows what a “151” is, and they lend themselves to adverbial flights of fancy, humorous metaphors and some funny reviews. They were and are often conflated with “overproof” rums – indeed, for a long time they were the only overproofs known to homo rummicus, the common rum drinker – and their claim to fame is not just a matter of their alcohol content of 75.5% ABV, but their inclusion in classic cocktails which have survived the test of time from when they were first invented.  

But ask anyone to go tell you more about the 151s, and there’s a curious dearth of hard information about them, which such anecdotes and urban witticisms as I have mentioned only obscure. Why, for example, that strength?  Which one was the first?  Why were there so many? Why now so few? A few enterprising denizens of the subculture would mention various cocktail recipes and their origin in the 1930s and the rise of tiki in the post war years.  But beyond that, there isn’t really very much, and what there is, is covered over with a fog suppositions and educated guesses.

Mythic Origins – 1800s to 1933

Most background material regarding high-proof rums such as the 151s positions their emergence in the USA during the Great Depression – cocktail recipes from that period called for certain 151 proof rums, and America became the spiritual home of the rum-type. What is often overlooked is that if a recipe at that time called for such a specific rum, by name, then it had to already exist — and so we have to look further back in time to trace its origins.  

1873 Australian newspaper ad for Lemon Hart (Rum History FB page)

That line of thinking brings us to Lemon Hart, probably the key company behind the early and near-undocumented history of the 151s. It had to have been involved since, in spite of their flirting with bankruptcy (in 1875) and changes in ownership over the years, they were as far as I am aware, among the only ones producing anything like a widely-sold commercial overproof in the late 1800s and very early 1900s (quite separate from bulk suppliers like Scheer and ED&F Man who dealt less with branded bottles of their own, but supplied others in their turn). Given LH’s involvement with the rum industry, they had a hand in sourcing rums from the West Indies or from ED&F Man directly, and this made them a good fit for supplying other British companies. Their stronger rums and others’, so far as I can tell, tended to just be called overproofs (meaning greater than 57% for reasons tangential to this essay but related to how the word proof originated to begin with¹)…but not “151”.

Navy rums were considered the beefcake proofed rums of their day, and certainly stronger ones did exist – the 69% Harewood House Barbados rum bottled in 1780 is an example – but those that did were very rarely commercially bottled, and probably just for estate or plantation consumption, which is why records are so scant. The real question about rums bottled north of 57% was why bother to make them at all?  And what’s that story that keeps cropping up, about a British / Canadian mercantile concern having something to do with it?

Earliest record of a 151 rum. the Canadian HBC – 1934, Montana, USA

Here’s the tale: the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1670, and was not only the first great trading concern in North America – it had its origins in the fur trade and trading posts of the British-run northern part of the continent – but for some time was almost a quasi-Government of large parts of the vast territories that became Canada. Their chain of trading posts morphed into sales shops which also sold alcohol – but as Steve Remsberg remarked in relating this possibility, the story (without proof, ha ha) goes that rums with proof strengths or lower were insufficient for the business of the HBC in the 1800s: it froze in the deep cold above the Arctic Circle, and so something with more oomph was required (mind you, at that time they sold mostly brandy and gin, not rum so much, but I have no doubt that rum was also part of their overall alcoholic portfolio given their Canada’s long history with rum, and HBC’s identification with it later). 

Lemon Hart had a strong presence in the colonies (it was big in Canada and huge in Australia through the late 1800s to early 1900s, for example), possessing connections to the main importer of rum and the Caribbean rum industry, and can reasonably be construed to have been involved in bootstrapping these efforts into an even stronger version of their regular rums to address HBC’s requirements, a theory I put forward because there really wasn’t any other company which was so firmly identified and tied to the rum-type in years to come, or so suitably positioned to do so for another major British mercantile concern². There is, unfortunately, no direct evidence here, I just advance it as a reasoned conjecture that fits tolerably well with such slim facts as are known. It is equally possible that HBC approached major rum suppliers like Man independently….but somehow I doubt it.

1935 Fairbanks Daily News (Alaska, USA) ad

Whatever the truth of the matter, by the early 1900s some kind of overproof “style” — no matter who made it — is very likely to have become established across North America, and known about, even if a consistent standard strength over 57% had not been settled on, and the term “151” might not have yet existed. Certainly by 1914 the strength had been used – it just wasn’t called “151,” but “32 Overproof”.  (If we assume that proof was defined as 100º (57.14% ABV) then 32 Overproof worked out to 132º proof and the maths makes this 75.43%…close enough for Government work for sure). Unsurprisingly, this was also the Hudson’s Bay Company, which marketed such a 32 Overproof in British Columbia as far back as 1914.

The Daily Colonist, Victoria, Vancouver Island B.C, 01 May 1914

However, I suggest that such high-powered rums would have remained something of a niche spirit given their lack of branding and advertising, and they might have stayed in the shadows, were it not for the enactment of the Volstead Act in the USA and similar legislation in Canada after the restrictions of the First World War.

That drove the category underground…while simultaneously and paradoxically making it more popular. Certainly the strength of such a rum made it useful to have around…from a logistical standpoint at least.  Because quite aside from its ability to get people drunker, faster (and even with its propensity to remain liquid at very low temperatures of the North), from a shipping perspective its attraction was simply that one could ship twice as much for the same cost and then dilute it elsewhere, and make a tidy profit. 

Although direct evidence is lacking, I am suggesting that sometime between 1920 and 1933 (the dates of American Prohibition) a consistent strength was settled on and the title “151” was attached to rums bottled at 75.5%, and it was an established fact of drinking life, though maddeningly elusive to date with precision. Cocktail recipes now called for them by name, the public was aware, and the title has never disappeared.

The Strength

So why 151?  Why that odd strength of 75.5%, and not a straight 70%, 75% or 80%? We can certainly build a reasonable chain of supposition regarding why overproofed spirits were made at all, why Lemon Hart and HBC made something seriously torqued-up and therefore why subsequent cocktails called for it…but nailing down that particular number is no longer, I believe, possible.  It’s just been too long and the suppositions too varied, and records too lacking.

1938 Ron Rico advertisement

One theory goes that some US state laws (California and Florida specifically) required that proofage (or a degree higher) as the maximum strength at which a commercial consumable drink could be made — this strikes me as untenable given its obvious limitations, and in any case, it’s a factoid, not an explanation of why it was selected. Ed Hamilton of the Ministry of Rum suggested that the strength was roughly the output strength of a historic pot still – distillate would have come off after a second pass or a retort at about 75% abv — but since Puerto Rico was making rums at that strength without any pot stills quite early on (Ron Rico advertised them for being useful for cooking, which is an intriguing rabbit hole to investigate) this also is problematic. Alternatively, it might have been the least dangerous yet still cost-effective way of shipping bulk rum around prior to local dilution, as noted above. Or because of the flash point  of a 75% ethanol / 25% water mix is about the ratio where you can set it on fire without an additional propellant or heating the liquid (also technically unlikely since there are a range of temperatures or concentrations where this can happen). And of course there’s Steve Remsburg’s unproven but really cool idea, which is that it was a strength gradually settled on as rums were developed for HBC that would not freeze in the Arctic regions.

All these notions have adherents and detractors, and none of them can really be proven (though I’d love to be shown up as wrong in this instance). The key point is that by 1934, the 151s existed, were named, released at 75.5%, and already considered a norm – and interestingly, they had become a class of drinks that were for the most part an American phenomenon, not one that grew serious legs in either Asia or Europe. How they surged in popularity and became a common part of every bar’s repertoire in the post-war years is what we’ll discuss next.

Tiki, the Beachcomber, Lemon Hart et al – 1934-1963

In spite of the 151s’ modern bad-boy reputations — as macho-street-cred testing grounds, beach party staples, a poor man’s hooch, where one got two shots for the price of one and a massive ethanol delivery system thrown in for free — that was a relatively recent Boomer and Gen X development. In point of fact, 151s were, for most of the last ninety years, utilized as cocktail ingredients, dating back to the dawn of the tiki era started in the 1930s and which exploded in the subsequent decades. And more than any other rum of its kind, the rep of being the first 151 belonged to the famed Lemon Hart 151, which was specifically referenced in the literature of the time and is the earliest identifiable 151 ancestor.

So if there was ever a clear starting point to the 151s’ rise to prominence, then it had to have been with the repeal of American Prohibition in 1933 (Canada’s Prohibition was more piecemeal in execution and timing of implementation varied widely among  provinces, but in almost all cases lasted less than a decade, during the ‘teens and 1920s).  Within a year of the US repeal, both Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company liquor division and the UK rum supplier Lemon Hart had made 151-proof rums, explicitly naming them as such (and not as some generic “overproof”), and positioning them for sale in the advertisements of the time. 

This came about because of the opening of Don’s Beachcomber, a Polynesian themed restaurant and bar in Hollywood, run by an enterprising young man named Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gant, who subsequently changed his name to Donn Beach to jive with the renamed “Don the Beachcomber” establishment.  His blend of Chinese cuisine, tropical-themed rum cocktails and punches and interior decor to channel Polynesian cultural motifs proved to be enormously influential and spawned a host of imitators, the most famous of whom was Victor Bergeron, who created a similar line of Tiki bars named Trader Vic’s in the post war years, to cater to renewed interest in Pacific islands’ culture.

The key takeaway from this rising interest in matters tropical and tiki, was the creation of ever more sophisticated cocktails using eight, nine, even ten ingredients or more. Previous 19th and early 20th century recipes stressed three or four ingredients, used lots of add-ins like vermouth and bitters and liqueurs, and at best referred to the required rums as “Jamaica” or “Barbados” or what have you. Then as now, there were no shortage of mixes – the 1932 Green Cocktail book lists 251 of them and a New York bartender’s guide from 1888 has nearly two hundred. 

Extract from Don the Beachcomber 1941 drinks menu

What distinguished Beach and Bergeron and others who followed, was their innovative and consistent use of rums, which were identified in some cases by name (like the Lemon Hart 151 or the Wray & Nephew 17 year old), with several now-classic cocktails being invented during this period: the Zombie, the Mai Tai, the Three Dots and a Dash, the Blue Hawaii and the 151 Swizzle, among others.  Not all these required high proof rums, but two – the Zombie and the Swizzle – absolutely did, and by 1941, the Beachcomber’s rum list had several 151 variants including branded ones like Lemon Hart, Lownde’s, and Trower’s….and yes, HBC.

Initially the Lemon Hart 151 was the big gun in the house and was explicitly referenced in the recipes of the time, like for the Zombie, which Beachbum Berry spent so much time tracking down.  But if one were to peruse the periodicals of the day one would note that they were not the only ones advertising their strong rums: in the mid to late 1930s: the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company liquor arm, and a Puerto Rican brand called Ron Rico (made just as the Serralles’ firm just as they launched the Don Q brand with a newly acquired columnar still – they acquired Ron Rico in 1985) were also there, showing the fad was not just for one producer’s rum, and that a market.existed for several kinds.

The forties’ war years were quiet for 151s, but by the 1950s — with post-war boom times in the USA, and the rise of the middle class (and their spending power) — their popularity began to increase, paralleling the increase in awareness of rums as a whole. Tens of thousands of soldiers returned from duty in the Pacific, movies extolled the tropical lifestyle of Hawaii, and members of the jet set, singers and Hollywood stars all did their bit to fuel the Polynesian cultural explosion.  And right alongside that, the drinks and cocktails were taking off, spearheaded by the light and easy Spanish style blends such as exemplified by Bacardi. This took time to get going, but by the early 1960s there was no shortage of 151 rums — from Puerto Rico in particular, but also from Jamaica and British Guiana —  to rank alongside the old mainstays like Lemon Hart.

The Era of Bacardi – 1963-2000

It may be overstating things to call these years an era of any kind: here, I simply use it as a general shorthand for a period in which 151s were no longer exotic but an established rum category in their own right, with all their attendant ills.

As with most ideas that make money, sooner or later big guns and small come calling to join the party.  Bacardi had its problems by being ousted from Cuba in 1960, yet had had the foresight to diversify their company even before that, and operated  in Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the USA. After the dust settled, they made their own 151 in the lighter Cuban style – at the time it was made in Brazil before production shifted to Puerto Rico, and its low and subsidized price made it a perennially popular rum popskull.  It was widely available and affordable, and therefore soon became the bestselling rum of its type, overtaking and outselling all other 151 brands such as the Appleton 151 white, or the Don Q 151 made by the Serralles boys in Puerto Rico and those that had existed even earlier. 

The official basis of the popularity of 151s remained the cocktails one could make with them.  Without searching too hard, I found dozens of recipes, some calling for the use of Bacardi 151 alone, with names as evocative as “the Flatliner”, “Four Horsemen”, “Backfire on the Freeway”, “Superman’s Kryptonite” and “Orange F*cker”.  Obviously there were many more, and if Bacardi seemed ubiquitous after a while, it was because it was low-cost and not entirely piss-poor (though many who tried it neat over the years might disagree).

One other demographic event which propelled 151s to some extent was the rise of the western post-war Baby Boomer generation and its successors like Gen-Xers who had known little privation or want or war in their lifetimes.  These young people raised on Brando-esque machismo and moody Dean-style rebellion, had disposable income and faced the enormous impact of American popular culture — for them, 151s served another purpose altogether, that of getting hammered fast, and seeing if one could survive it…some sort of proof-of-manhood kind of thing. Stupidity, hormones, youth, party lifestyle, the filmic romance of California beaches, ignorance, take your pick. For years – decades, even – this was the brush that tarred 151s and changed their popular perceptions.

In all that happy-go-lucky frat-boy party reputation combined with the allure of easily-made, inexpensive home-made concoctions, lay the seeds of its destruction (to Bacardi, at any rate).  People got hurt while under the highly intoxicating influence of killer mixes, got into accidents, did stupid and dangerous things. 151s were highly flammable, and property damage was not unheard of, either by careless handling or by inexpert utilization of the overproofs in flambees or floats. Unsurprisingly in a litigious culture like the USA, lawsuits were common.  Bacardi tried to counter this by printing clear warnings and advisories on its labels, to no avail, and finally they decided to pull the plug in 2016 in order to focus on more premium rum brands that did less harm to their reputation.

That singularly unspectacular happening (or non-happening) was accompanied in the subsequent months and years by retrospectives and newsbytes, and a peculiar outpouring of feelings by now-grown-up man-children who, from their home bars and man-caves, whimsically and poetically opined on its effect on their lives, and – more commonly – the tearful reminiscences of where they first got wasted on it, and the hijinks they got up to while plastered. It did not present the nobility of the human race in its best light, perhaps, but it did show the cultural impact that the 151s, especially Bacardi’s, had had.

151s in the New Century – a decline, but not a fall

The discontinuation of Bacardi’s big bad boy obscured a larger issue, which was that these rums had probably hit their high point in the 1980s or 1990s, when it seemed like there was a veritable treasure trove of now-vanished 151 brands to choose from: Carioca, Castillo, Palo Viejo, Ron Diaz, Don Lorenzo, Tortuga and Trader Vic’s (to name a few). It was entirely possible that this plethora of 151s was merely a matter of “me too” and “let’s round out the portfolio”.  After all, at this time blends were still everything, light rum cocktails that competed with vodka were still the rage, neat drinking was not a thing and the sort of exacting, distillery-led rum making as now exists was practically unheard of (we had to wait until the Age of Velier’s Demeraras to understand how different the world was before and after that point).

But by the close of the 1990s and the dawn of the 2000s, blends — whether high proof or not — already showed a decline in popular consciousness.  And in the 2010s as independents began to release more and better high-proofed single-barrel rums,  they were followed by DDL, Foursquare, St. Lucia Distillers, Hampden, Worthy Park and other makers from countries of origin, who started to reclaim their place as rum makers of the first instance. Smaller niche brands of these 151s simply disappeared from the rumscape.

The fact was, in the new century, 151s were and remained tricky to market and to promote.  They exceeded the flight safety regulations for carrying on some airlines (many of whom cap this at 70% ABV, though there are variations) and the flammability and strength made many retailers unwilling to sell them to the general public. There was an ageing crop of people who grew up on these ferocious drinks and would buy them, sure, but the new generation of more rum-savvy drinkers was less enamoured of the style.

Which was not surprising, given the ever-increasing panoply of selections they had. The growing indifference of the larger drinking public to 151s as a whole was aided by the explosion of rums which were also overproofs, but not quite as strong, and – more importantly – which tasted absolutely great.  These were initially IB single barrel offerings like those of the SMWS or L’Esprit or Velier, and also juice from the Seychelles (Takamaka Bay), Haiti (the clairins), Martinique (Neisson L’Esprit 70º), and the highly popular and well-received Smith & Cross, Rum Fire, Wray & Nephew 63% White, Plantation OFTD, and on and on.  These served the same purpose of providing a delicious alcoholic jolt to a mix (or an easy drunk to the rest), and were also affordable – and often received reviews in the internet-enabled blogosphere that the original makers of the 151s could only have dreamed about.

Photo montage courtesy of and (c) Eric Witz from FB, Instagram @aphonik

Many such producers of 151s have proved unable or unwilling to meet this challenge, and so, gradually, they started to fade from producers’ concerns, supermarket shelves, consumers’ minds…and became less common. Even before the turn of the century, mention of the original 151s like Hudson’s Bay, Lownde’s and Trowers had vanished; Bacardi, as stated, discontinued theirs in 2016, Appleton possibly as late as 2018 (the Three Dagger 10YO 151 pictured above was gone by the 1960s), and many others whose names are long forgotten, fell by the roadside way before then. Nowadays, you hardly see them advertised much, any more.  Producers who make them – and that isn’t many – are almost shamefacedly relegating them to obscure parts of their websites, same as retailers tucking them away in the back-end bottom shelf. Few trumpet them front and centre any longer. And on the consumer side, with drinkers and bartenders being spoiled for choice, you just don’t see anyone jumping up on social media crowing how they scored one…except perhaps to say they drank one .

But the story doesn’t end here, because some producers have indeed moved with the times and gone the taste-specific route, gambling on bartenders and cocktail books’ recommending their 151s from an ever-shrinking selection. 

Lemon Hart was, of course, the poster child for this kind of taste-specific Hulkamaniac of taste – they consistently used Demerara rum, probably Port Mourant distillate, for their 151, and even had a Jamaican 73% rum that boasted some serious flavour chops.  Internal problems caused them to falter and cease selling their 151 around 2014, and Ed Hamilton (founder of both the website and the Facebook page “the Ministry of Rum”) jumped into the breach with his own Hamilton 151, the first new one of its kind in years, which he released in 2015 to great popular acclaim.  The reception was unsurprising, because this thing tasted great, was all-Guyana product and was aimed at a more discriminating audience that was already more in tune to rums bottled between 50%-75%.  And that was quite aside from the bartenders, who still needed 151s for their mixes (as an aside, a rebranded Lemon Hart 151 was released in 2012 or thereabouts with a wine red label).  Even Velier acknowledged the uses of a 151 when they released a Worthy Park 151 on their own as part of the Habitation Velier line of pot still rums (and it’s great, btw). And in an interesting if ultimately stalled move that hints a the peculiar longevity of 151s, Lost Spirits used their Reactor to produce their own take on a Cuban Inspired 151– so irrespective of other developments, the confluence of strength, flexibility of use and enormity of taste has allowed some 151s to get a real lease on life.

Others are less interesting, or less specific and may just exist to round out the portfolio – Don Q from Puerto Rico makes a 151 to this day, and Tilambic from Mauritius does as well; El Dorado is re-introducing a new one soon (the Diamond 151, I believe), and Cruzan (Virgin Islands), Cavalier (Antigua), Bermudez (Dominican Republic), and Ron Carlos (USA) have their 151s of varying quality.  Even Mhoba from South Africa joined the party in late 2020 with its own high ester version. The point is, even at such indifferent levels of quality, they’re not going anywhere, and if their heyday has passed us by, we should not think they have disappeared completely and can only be found, now, in out of the way shops, auctions or estate sales.

Because, somehow, they continue. They are still made. Young people with slim wallets continue to get wasted on this stuff, as they likely will until the Rapture. People post less and review 151s almost not at all, but they do post sometimes — almost always with wistful inquiries about where to get one, now that their last stock has run out and their favourite brand is no longer available.  151s might have run out of steam in the larger world of tiki, bartending and cocktails as new favourites emerge, but I don’t think they’ll ever be entirely extinct, and maybe that’s all that we can hope for, in a rum world as fast moving and fast changing as the one we have now.


Notes

  1. See my essay on proof
  2. Two other possibilities who could have developed a strong rum for HBC were Scheer and ED&F Man.  
    1. Scheer was unlikely because they dealt in bulk, not their own brands, and mercantile shipping laws of the time would have made it difficult for them to ship rum to Britain or its colonies. 
    2. ED&F Mann also did not consider itself a maker of branded rum, though it did hold the contract to supply the British Navy (Lemon Hart was their client, not a competitor). But by the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s, they already had diversified and became more of a major commodities supplier, so the likelihood of them bothering with developing a rum for HBC is minimal (assuming that line of thinking is correct
  3. I have a reference from the Parramatta Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate dated
    May 11, 1901 (Parramatta, NSW, Australia) that refers to a 33% Overproof Lowndes’ Rum, which, if using metric proofs, works out to 76% ABV exactly and also sheds light on how far back the Lownde’s brand name goes.
  • I am indebted to the personal assistance of Martin Cate, Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry, Matt Pietrek, and the writings of Wayne Curtis, for some of the historical and conjectural detail of the early days of the 151s. Needless to say, any mistakes in this text or errors in the theories are mine, not theirs.

1970s Cruzan 151, used with kind permission of Jason Cammarata Sr.

The List

There is almost no rum company in existence which really cares much about its own history and when its various rums were first released, changed, reblended, remade, re-issued, nothing. Nor, since the demise of ReferenceRhum website, is there a centralized database of rums, to our detriment. So one has to sniff around to find things, but at least google makes it easier.

There is a huge swathe of time between the 1930s and the 1990s, when rum was a seen as a commodity (referred to as merely  “Jamaican” rum or “Barbados rum,” for example, in a generalized and dismissive context), and practically ignored as a quality product.  Unsurprisingly records of the brands and rums were not often kept, so the list below is not as good as I’d like it to be. That said, here are those 151s I have managed to track down, and a few notes where applicable. I make no claim that it’s exhaustive, just the best I could do for now. I’d be grateful for any additions (with sources).

  • Admiral’s Old J 151 Overproof Spiced Rum Tiki Fire
  • Aristocrat 151
  • AH Riise Old St Croix 151 (1960s; and from reddit page. A “St Croix Rum” was referred to in 1888 Bartender’s Guide without elaboration
  • Appleton 151 (Jamaica)
  • Bacardi 151 black (various production centres)
  • Bacardi 151 (standard, discontinued 2016)
  • Barbarossa 151 (USA)
  • Bermudez 151 (Blanco and “standard”)(Dominican Republic)
  • Barcelo 151 Proof (Dominican Republic)
  • Bocoy 151 Superior Puerto Rican Rum
  • Black Beard’s Overproof 151
  • Bocador 151
  • Brugal 151 Blanco Overproof (Dominican Republic)
  • Cane Rum 151 (Trinidad & Tobago)
  • Carioca 151 (post Prohibition)
  • Caribaya 151
  • Castillo Ron Superior 151 Proof
  • Cavalier 151 (Antigua)
  • Cockspur 5-Star 151 Rum (Barbados, WIRD, Herschell Innis, made 1971-1974)
  • Cohiba 151 (USA)
  • Comandante 151 Proof Small Batch Overproof Rum (with orange peel)(Panama)
  • Conch Republic Rum Co. 151 Proof (USA, Florida Distillers Co.)
  • Coruba 151 (Jamaica)(74%)
  • Cruzan 151 (2YO)(White and gold varieties) (US Virgin Islands)
  • Cut to the Overproof (Spiced) Rum 75.5%
  • Diamond Reserve Puncheon Demerara Rum 75.5% (Guyana)
  • Don Q 151 (3YO blend)(at least since the 1960s)(Puerto Rico – Serralles)
  • Don Lorenzo 151 (Todhunter-Mitchell Distilleries, Bahamas, 1960s-1970s)
  • El Dorado 151 (Guyana)(Re-issue 2020s)
  • El Dorado Superior High Strength Rum (DDL USA Inc, 1980s)
  • Explorer Fire Water Fine Island Rum 150 proof (St. Maarten, made by Caroni)
  • Goslings Black Seal 151 (Bermuda)
  • Hamilton 151 (Guyana/USA)(2014)
  • Hamilton 151 “False Idol” (Guyana/USA)(2019)(85% Guyana 15% Jamaica pot still)
  • Hana Bay Special 151 Proof Rum (Hawaii USA, post 1980s)
  • Havana Club 151 (post Prohibition)
  • Habitation Velier Forsythe 151 (Jamaica, WP)(2015 and 2017)
  • Inner Circle Black Dot 33 Overproof Rum (Australia 1968-1986, pre-Beenleigh)
  • James’s Harbor Caribbean Rum 151
  • Lamb’s Navy Rum 151 (UK, blend of several islands)
  • Largo Bay 151
  • Lemon Hart 151 (possibly since late 1880s, early 1890s) (Guyana/UK)
  • Lost Spirits Cuban Inspired 151 (USA)(2010s)(Limited)
  • Mhoba Strand 151º (South Africa)(High Ester, Glass-Cask blend)
  • Monarch Rum 151 Proof (Monarch Import Co, OR, USA – Hood River Distillers)
  • Mount Gay 151 (Barbados)
  • Old Nassau 151 Rum (Bahamas)
  • Palo Viejo 151 Ron de Puerto Rico (Barcelo Marques & Co, Puerto Rico – Serralles)
  • Paramount “El Caribe” 151 Rum (US Virgins Islands )
  • Portobelo 151º Superior Rum (Panama)
  • Puerto Martain Imported West Indies Rum (75.5%)(Montebello Brands, MD USA)
  • Pusser’s 151 (British Virgin Islands)
  • Ron Antigua Special 151 Proof (US Virgin Islands, LeVecke Corporation)
  • Ron Diaz 151 (Puerto Rico / USA)
  • Ron Carlos 151 (Puerto Rico / USA)(Aged min of 1 yr)
  • Ron Corina 151 (USA, KY)
  • Ron Cortez Dry Rum 151 (Panama)
  • Ron Matusalem 151 Proof “Red Flame” (Bahamas, 1960s-1970s)
  • Ron Rey 151 (post Prohibition)
  • Ron Palmera 151 (Aruba)
  • Ron Rico 151 (Puerto Rico)(post-1968 a Seagrams brand, marketed in 1970s in Canada; bought by Serralles in 1985)
  • Ron Ricardo 151 (Bahamas) from before 2008
  • Ron Roberto 151 Superior Premium Rum (Puerto Rico / USA)
  • Three Dagger 10YO Jamaica Rum (J. Wray & Nephew), 151 proof (1950s)
  • Tilambic 151 (Mauritius)
  • Tortuga 151 Proof Cayman Rum (1980s-1990s)
  • Trader Vic’s 151 Proof Rum (World Spirits, USA)

Sources

Some rum list resources

Bacardi’s discontinuing the 151

Don the Beachcomber, recipes, the rise of Tiki and post-Prohibition times

Cocktails

Other bit and pieces

 

Jan 282020
 

Photo courtesy of romhatten.dk

The El Dorado Rare Collection made its debut in early 2016 and almost immediately raised howls of protest from rum fans who felt not only that Velier had been hosed by being evicted from their state of privileged access to DDL’s store of aged barrels, but that the prices in comparison to Luca’s wares (many which had just started their inexorable climb to four figures) were out to lunch at best and extortionate at worst. 

The price issue was annoying — at the time, DDL had no track record with full proof still-specific rums, or possessed anything near the kind of good will for such rums as Velier had built up over the years 2002-2014 in what I called the Age of Velier’s Demeraras; worse yet, given the disclosures about DDL’s practice of additives, to release such rums as pure without addressing the issue of dosage, and at such a high cost, simply entrenched the opinion that DDL was stealing a march on Velier and hustling to make some bucks off the full-proof, stills-as-the-killer-app trend pioneered by Luca Gargano.

It is for all those reasons that the initial rums of Release I — the PM, EHP and VSG marques, corresponding to the 12, 15 and 21 year old blends El Dorado had made famous — were received tepidly at best, though I felt they weren’t failures myself, but very decent products that just lacked Luca’s sure touch. Henrik of Rum Corner didn’t much care for the Port Mourant and discovered 14g/L of additives in the Versailles, the Fat Rum Pirate dismissed the Versailles himself while middling on the PM and loving the Enmore, and Romhatten out of Denmark, the first to review them (here, here, and here), provided an ecstatic shower of points and encomiums. Others were more muted in their praise (or condemnation), perhaps waiting to see the consensus of developing critical opinion before committing themselves.

Release II in 2017 consisted of a further Enmore and a Port Mourant, with the additional of a special Velier 70th Anniversary PM+Diamond blend.  By this time most people had grudgingly resigned themselves to the reality that the Age was over and were at least happy that such Demerara rums were still being issued — and even if they did not bear the imprimatur of the Master, it was self evident that Release II corrected some of the defects of the initial bottlings, got rid of the polarizing Versailles (which takes real skill to bring to its full potential, in my opinion), and the Enmore they made that year turned out to be a spectacular rum, clocking in at 90 points in my estimation.  That said, R1 and R2 didn’t really sell that well, if one judges by their continuing availability online as late as 2019.

Release III was something else again.  Although once more issued without fanfare or advertising (one wonders what DDL’s international brand ambassadors and marketing departments are up to, honestly), the word about R3 spread almost as swiftly as the initial news of the first bottles in 2016. This time there were four bottles – and although almost nothing has been written about the Diamond “twins” except, once again, by Romhatten (here and here), the other two elicited much more positive responses: an Albion (AN), and a Skeldon (SWR).  Neither estate (I’ve been to both) has a distillery onsite any longer, since they were long dismantled and/or destroyed – but the marques are famous in their own right, especially the Skeldon, whose 1973 and 1978 Velier editions remain Grail quests for many.

Speaking for myself, I’d have to say that with the Third Release, DDL has put to rest any doubts as to the legitimacy of the Rare Collection being excellent rums in their own right. They’re damned fine rums, the ones I’ve tried, up to the level of the RII Enmore 1996. I can’t tell whether the R1 series will ever become collector’s prized pieces or sought-after grail quests the way the original Veliers have become – but they’re good and worth finding.  Note that they remain, not just in my opinion, overpriced and this may account for their continuing availability.

It’s almost a movie trope that horror movies first exist as true horror that scare the crap out of everyone, devolve into lesser boo-fests, and end up in sad comedies and unworthy money-grab rip-offs as the franchise passes its sell-by date. I don’t think the Rares will end up this way, because DDL has made it known that they will no longer export bulk rum from the wooden stills, instead holding on to them for their own special releases and blends…so, clearly they are betting on still-specific rum into the future – though perhaps not always at cask strength. The 15 year old wine finished series and its companion 12 year old set, the new Master Distiller’s collection at standard strength which showcase the stills, all point in this direction.

And this is a good thing, as the stills DDL is so fortunate to possess are unique and they make fantastic rums when used right, and with skill.  One can only hope the pricing starts to be more reasonable in the years to come, because right now it’s too early to call them must-haves, and with the cost of them, they might not get the audience that would make them so. They are certainly better than the vastly overpriced 15YO and 12 YO wine-finished rums at standard strength.

Epilogue

Will the Rares survive? In late 2019, four colour-coded bottles which were specifically not Rare Collection items, began to gather some attention online:

  • PM/Uitvlugt/Diamond 2010 9YO at 49.6% (violet),
  • Port Mourant/Uitvlugt 2010 9YO at 51% (orange),
  • Uitvlugt/Enmore 2008 11YO 47.4% (blue)
  • Diamond/Port Mourant 2010 9YO at 49.1% (teal).

None of these were specific to a still, and each was priced at €179 in the single online shop in online where they are to be found. All were blends (aged as such in the barrel, not mixed post-ageing), and all sported some reasonable tropical years. It is unclear whether they are meant to supplement the single-still ethos of the super-specific Rares, or supplant them. As of this writing I have yet to taste them myself (the order is in, ha ha).

Whatever the case, DDL certainly has taken the indie movement seriously and seen the potential of what the Age demonstrated – one can just hope their pricing system starts to show more tolerance for the skinny purses of most of us, otherwise they’ll be shared among aficionados rather than bought for their own sake. And there they’ll remain, on the dusty shelves of small stores, looked at and admired, perhaps, but not often purchased.


The Rare Collection Rums

I have been fortunate enough to buy and review many of the Collection so far, and for those who wish to get into the specifics, the reviews are linked here:

In January 2021, the UK based NW Rum Club did a complete review of the entire Rare Collection (releases I, II and III), and it’s worth a look, very informative, talking about the releases, and the stills.

Dec 042019
 

Ten years ago, overproof rums (which I mentally designate as anything 70% ABV and above even though I’m well aware there are other definitions) were limited to the famed 151s – juice at 75.5%, often lightly aged, and designed as mixing agents of no particular distinction or sophistication. “Something tossed off in between more serious efforts,” I wrote once, not without a certain newbie disdain.  They were fun to write about, but hardly “serious.”

But then over the years a strange thing happened – some producers, independents in particular, began releasing rums at serious cask strength and many were powerful and tasty enough to make the shortcomings of the 151s evident, and interest started to go in a different direction – stronger, not tied to a number, and either unaged or straight from the cask after some years.  I don’t know if there was a sort of unspoken race to the top for some of these kinds of rums – but I can say that power and seriously good taste were and are not always mutually exclusive, and man, they just keep on getting better. They became, in short, very serious rums indeed.

Clearly the interest in knowing about, owning or just trying such record-setting rums is there. There was a re-post of the not-really-very-good 2018 Unsobered “Definitive” list of the strongest rums in the world the other day that got some attention, and an amazing amount of traction and commentary was showered on Steve Leukanech’s FB Ministry of Rum comment thread of the Sunset Very Strong the same week, and there’s always a bunch of good humoured and ribald commentary whenever someone puts up a picture of the latest monster of proof they found in some backwater bar, and tried.

And so, seeing that, I thought I would recap my experience with a (hopefully better) list of those explosive rums that really are among the strongest you can find.  I won’t call mine “definitive” – I’m sure there’s stuff lurking around waiting to pounce on my glottis and mug my palate someplace – but it’s a good place to start, and better yet, I’ve tried most and so there’s a brief blurb for each of those.  I began at 70% and worked my way up in increasing proof points, not quality or preference.

Hope you like, hope you can find one or two, and whatever the case, have fun…but be careful when you do.  Some of these rums are liquid gelignite with a short fuse, and should be handled with hat respectfully doffed and head reverently bowed.


Neisson L’Esprit Blanc, Martinique – 70%

Just because I only have one or two agricoles in this list doesn’t mean there aren’t others, just that I haven’t found, bought or tried them yet.  There are some at varying levels of proof in the sixties, but so far one of the best and most powerful of this kind is this fruity, grassy and delicious 70% white rhino from one of the best of the Martinique estates, Neisson. Clear, crisp, a salty sweet clairin on steroids mixed with the softness of a good agricole style rum.

Jack Iron Grenada Overproof, Grenada – 70%

Westerhall, which is not a distillery, assembles this 140-proof beefcake in Grenada from Angostura stock from Trinidad, and it’s possibly named (with salty islander humour) after various manly parts. It’s not really that impressive a rum – an industrial column-still filtered white rarely is – with few exceptional tastes, made mostly for locals or to paralyze visiting tourists. I think if they ever bothered to age it or stop with the filtration, they might actually have something interesting here.  Thus far, over and beyond local bragging rights, not really.

L’Esprit Diamond 2005 11 YO, Guyana/France – 71.4%

L’Esprit out of Brittany may be one of the most unappreciated under-the-radar indies around and demonstrates that with this 11 year old rum from the Diamond column still, which I assumed to be the French Savalle, just because the flavours in this thing are so massive.  Initially you might think that (a) there can’t be much flavour in something so strong and (b) it’s a wooden still — you’d be wrong on both counts. I gave this thing 89 points and it remains the best of the 70%-or-greater rums I’ve yet tried.

Takamaka Bay White Overproof, Seychelles – 72%

This Indian Ocean rum is no longer being made – it was discontinued in the early 2000s and replaced with a 69% blanc; still, I think it’s worth a try if you can find it. It’s a column still distillate with a pinch of pot still high-ester juice thrown in for kicks, and is quite a tasty dram, perhaps because it’s unaged and unfiltered.  I think the 69% version is made the same way with perhaps some tweaking of the column and pot elements and proportions. Yummy.

Plantation Original Dark Overproof 73 %.

Also discontinued and now replaced with the OFTD, the Original Dark was the steroid-enhanced version of the eminently forgettable 40% rum with the same name (minus “overproof”). Sourced from Trinidad (Angostura), a blend of young rums with some 8 YO to add some depth, and briefly aged in heavily charred ex-bourbon casks with a final turn in Cognac casks. Based on observed colour and tasting notes written by others, I think caramel was added to darken it, but thus far I’ve never tried it myself, since at the time when it was available I didn’t have it, or funds, available.  I’ll pick one up one of these days, since I heard it’s quite good.

Lemon Hart Golden Jamaican Rum (1970s) – 73%

Since this rum – whose antecedents stretch back to the 1950s – is no longer in production either, it’s debatable whether to include it here, but it and others like it have been turning up at the new online auction sites with some regularity, and so I’ll include it because I’ve tried it and so have several of my friends. Blended, as was standard practice back then, and I don’t know whether aged or not…probably for a year or two. The taste, though – wow. Nuts, whole sacks of fruits, plus sawdust and the scent of mouldy long-abandoned libraries and decomposing chesterfields.

Longueteau Genesis, Guadeloupe – 73.51%

Not a rhum I’ve had the privilege of trying, but Henrik of the slumbering site RumCorner has, and he was batted and smacked flat by the enormous proof of the thing: “…overpowers you and pins you to the ground…and that’s from a foot away,” he wrote, before waxing eloquent on its heat and puissance, licorice, salt, grass and agricole-like character.  In fact, he compared to a dialled-down Sajous, even though it was actually weaker than the Genesis, which says much for the control that Longueteau displayed in making this unaged blanc brawler. As soon as I was reminded about it, I instantly went to his dealer and traded for a sample, which, with my logistics and luck, should get in six months.

SMWS R3.5 “Marmite XO”, Barbados/Scotland – 74.8%

Richard Seale once fiercely denied that Foursquare had anything to do with either this or the R3.4, and he was correct – the rum came from WIRD. But there’s no dishonour attached to that location, because this was one strongly-made, strongly-tasting, well-assembled piece of work at a high proof, which any maker would have been proud to release. I liked it so much that I spent an inordinate amount of time lovingly polishing my language to give it proper respect, and both review and rum remain among my favourites to this day.

Forres Park Puncheon White Overproof, Trinidad – 75%

Meh. Cocktail fodder. Not really that impressive once you accept its growly strength.  It used to be made by Fernandes Distillery before it sold out to Angostura and maybe it was better back then.  The slick, cool, almost vodka-style presentation of the bottle hides the fact that the column still rum which was triple filtered (what, once wasn’t enough?) only tasted glancingly of sweet and salt and light fruits, but lacked any kind of individual character that distinguishes several other rums on this list (above and below it). 

SMWS R3.4 “Makes You Strong Like a Lion” Barbados/Scotland – 75.3%

The L’Esprit 2005 got 89 points, but this one came roaring right behind it with extra five points of proof and lagged by one point of score (88). What an amazing rum this was, with a rich and sensuously creamy palate, bags of competing flavours and a terrific finish; and while hot and sharp and damned spicy, also eminently drinkable.  Not sure who would mix this given the price or sip it given the proof. It’s a ball-busting sheep-shagger of a rum, and if it can still be found, completely worth a try or a buy, whatever is easier.

All the various “151” rums (no need to list just one) – 75.5%

It may be unfair of me to lump all the various 151s together into one basket.  They are as different as chalk and cheese among themselves – just see how wildly, widely variant the following are: Habitation Velier’s Forsythe 151 (Jamaica), Brugal (blanc), Tilambic (Mauritius), Lost Spirits “Cuban Inspired” (USA), Bacardi (Cuba), Lemon Hart (Canada by way of Guyana), Cavalier (Antigua), Appleton (Jamaica), and so on and so on.  What unites them is their intent – they were all made to be barroom mixers, quality a secondary concern, strength and bragging rights being the key (the Forsythe 151 may be an exception, being more an educational tool, IMHO).  Well, maybe. If I had a choice, I’d still say the Lemon Hart is a long standing favourite. But they all have something about them that makes them fun drinks to chuck into a killer cocktail or chug straight down the glottis.  (Note: the link in the title of this entry takes you to a history of the 151s with a list of all the ones I’ve identified at the bottom).

Inner Circle Cask Strength 5 YO Rum (Australia) – 75.9%

This is a rum with a long history, dating back to the 1950s when the “Inner Circle” brand was first released in Australia. It was bottled in three strengths, which in turn were identified by coloured dots – Underproof (38-40%, the red dot), Overproof (57% or so, green dot) and 33 Overproof (73-75%, black dot).This last has now been resurrected and is for sale in Oz — I’ve not so far managed to acquire one.  I’ve heard it’s a beast, though — so the search continues, since I’m as vain as anyone else who boasts about sampling these uber-mensches of rum, and don’t want the Aussies to have all the fun.

L’Esprit Beenleigh 2013 5YO Australian Rum – 78.1%

Australia adds another to the list with this European bottling of rum from the land of Oz.  It’s a sharp knife to the glottis, a Conrad-like moment of stormy weather.  What surprises, after one recovers, is how traditional it seems, how unexceptional (aside from the power) – you walk in expecting a Bundie, say, but emerge with a seriously strong Caribbean-type rum.  That doesn’t make it bad in any sense, just a very interesting overproof from a country whose rums we don’t know enough about..

[75] Stroh 80, Austria – 80%

Apparently Stroh does indeed now use Caribbean distillate for their various proofed expressions, and it’s marginally more drinkable these days as a consequence.  The initial review I did was the old version, and hearkens back to rum verschnitt that was so popular in Germany in the 19th and early 20th century.  Not my cup of tea, really. A spiced rum, and we have enough real ones out there for me not to worry too much about it. It’s strong and ethanol-y as hell, and should only be used as a flavouring agent for pastries, or an Austrian jägertee

Denros Strong Rum, St Lucia – 80%

A filtered white column still rum from St. Lucia Distillers, it’s not made for export and remains most common on the island. It is supposedly the base ingredient for most of the various “spice” rums made in rumshops around the island, but of course, locals would drink it neat or with coconut water just as fast.  So far I’ve not managed to track a bottle down for myself — perhaps it’s time to see if it’s as good as rumour suggests it is.

SMWS R5.1 Long Pond 9 Year Old “Mint Humbugs”, Jamaica/Scotland – 81.3%

This is a rum that knocked me straight into next week, and I’ve used it to smack any amount of rum newbs in Canada down the stairs.  Too bad I can’t ship it to Europe to bludgeon some of my Danish friends, because for sure, few have ever had anything like it and it was the strongest and most badass Jamaican I’ve ever found before the Wild Tiger roared onto the scene and dethroned it. And I still think it’s one of Jamaica’s best overproofs.

L’Esprit South Pacific Distillery 2018 Unaged White – 83%

Strong, amazing flavour profile, pot still, unaged, and a mass of flavour.  I’m no bartender or cocktail guru, but even so I would not mix this into any of the usual simple concoctions I make for myself….it’s too original for that. It’s one of a pair of white and unaged rums L’esprit made, both almost off the charts.  Who would ever have thought there was a market for a clear unaged white lightning like this?

Sunset Very Strong, St. Vincent – 84.5%

The rum that was, for the longest while, the Big Bad Wolf, spoken of in hushed whispers in the darkened corners of seedy bars with equal parts fear and awe. It took me ages to get one, and when I did I wasn’t disappointed – there’s a sweet, light-flavoured berry-like aspect to it that somehow doesn’t get stomped flat by that titanic proof. I don’t know many who have sampled it who didn’t immediately run over to post the experience on social media, and who can blame them? It’s a snarling, barking-mad street brawler, a monster with more culture than might have been expected, and a riot to try neat.

L’Esprit Diamond 2018 Unaged White – 85% 

Just about the most bruisingly shattering overproof ever released by an independent bottler, and it’s a miracle that it doesn’t fall over its strength and onto its face (like, oh the Forres Park, above). It does the Habitation Velier PM one better in strength though not being quite as good in flavour.  Do I care? Not a bit, they’re brothers in arms, these two, being Port Mourant unaged distillates and leaves off the same branch of the same tree. It shows how good the PM wooden still profile can be when carefully selected, at any strength, at any age.

Romdeluxe “Wild Tiger” 2018, Jamaica/Denmark – 85.2%

Wild Tiger is one of three “wildlife” series of rums released thus far by Romdeluxe out of Denmark, their first and so far their strongest. It gained instant notoriety in early 2019 not just by it handsome design or its near-unaged nature (it had been rested in inert tanks for ten years, which is rather unusual, then chucked into ex-Madeira casks for three months) but its high price, the massive DOK-level ester count, and that screaming proof of 85.2%. It was and is not for the faint of heart or the lean of purse, that much is certain. I cross myself and the street whenever I see one.

Marienburg 90, Suriname – 90%

Somewhere out there there’s a rum more powerful than this, but you have to ask what sane purpose it could possibly serve when you might as well just get some ethanol and add a drop of water and get the Marienburg (which also makes an 81% version for export – the 90% is for local consumption).  There is something in the Surinamese paint stripper, a smidgen of clear, bright smell and taste, but this is the bleeding edge of strength, a rum one demerit away from being charged with assault with intent to drunk — and at this stage and beyond it, it’s all sound and fury signifying little. I kinda-sorta appreciate that it’s not a complete and utter mess of heat and fire, and respect Marienburg for grabbing the brass ring.  But over and beyond that, there’s not much point to it, really, unless you understand that this is the rum Chuck Norris uses to dilute his whisky.

Rivers Antoine 180 Proof White Grenadian Rum – 90%

I’ve heard different stories about Rivers’ rums, of which thus far I’ve only tried and written about the relatively “tame” 69% – and that’s that the proof varies wildly from batch to batch and is never entirely the strength you think you’re getting.  It’s artisanal to a fault, pot stilled, and I know the 69% is a flavour bomb so epic that even with its limited distribution I named it a Key Rum. I can only imagine what a 90% ABV version would be like, assuming it exists and is not just an urban legend (it is included here for completeness).  If it’s formally released to the market, then I’ve never seen a legitimizing post, or heard anyone speak of it as a fact, ever.  Maybe anyone who knows for sure remained at Rivers after a sip and has yet to wake up.


Late Breaking Additions and Honourable Mentions

Unsurprisingly, people were tripping over themselves to send me candidates that should make the list, and there were some that barely missed the cut – in both cases, I obviously hadn’t known of or tried them, hence their inadvertent omission.  Here are the ones that were added after the initial post came out, and you’ll have to make your own assessment of their quality, or let me know of your experience.

Old Brothers Hampden 86.3% LROK White Rum

360 bottles of this incredibly ferocious high ester rum were released by a small indie called Old Brothers around 2019 , and the juice was stuffed into small flasks of surpassing simplicity and aesthetic beauty. Even though I haven’t tasted it (a post about it on FB alerted me to its existence). I can’t help but desire a bottle, just because of its ice-cold blonde-femme-fatale looks, straight out of some Hitchcock movie where the dame offs the innocent rum reviewer right after love everlasting is fervently declared.

Maggie’s Farm Airline Proof – 70%

Maggie’s Farm is an American Distillery I’ve heard a fair bit about but whose products I’ve not so far managed to try.  Their cheekily named Airline Proof clocks in at the bottom end of my arbitrary scale, is a white rum, and I expect it was so titled so as to let people understand that yes, you could in fact take it on an airplane in the US and not get arrested for transporting dangerous materials and making the world unsafe for democracy.

DOK – Trelawny Jamaica Rum – Aficionados x Fine Drams – 69% / 85.76%

Here’s a fan-released DOK for sale on Fine Drams, and while originally it oozed off the still at 85.76% and close to the bleeding max of esterland (~1489 g/hLPA), whoever bottled it decided to take the cautious approach and dialled it down to the for-sale level of 69%.  Even at that strength, I was told it sold out in fifteen minutes, which means that whatever some people dismissively say about the purpose of a DOK rum, there’s a market for ’em. Note that RomDelux did in fact release 149 bottles at full 85.76% still strength, as noted by a guy in reddit here, and another one here.

(Click photo to expand)

Royal Hawaiian Spirits 95% Rum

In May 2020 the RHS Distillery on Maui (Hawaii), which rather amusingly calls itself the “Willie Wonka of alcohol” applied for TTB label approval for a 95% rum which immediately drew online sniffs of disapproval for being nothing more than a vodka at best, grain neutral spirit at worst – because at that strength just about all the flavour-providing congeners have been stripped out.  Nevertheless, though the company seems to operate an industrial facility making a wide range of distilled spirits for all comers (very much like Florida Distillers who make Ron Carlos, you will recall), if their claim that this product is made from cane is true then it is still a rum (barely) and must be mentioned.  I must say, however, I would approach tasting it with a certain caution…and maybe even dread. For sure this product will hold the crown for the strongest rum ever made, for the foreseeable future, whatever its quality, or lack thereof.

Plantation Extreme No. 4 Jamaica (Clarendon) 35 YO 74.8%

Plantation should not be written off from consumers tastes simply because it gets so much hate for its stance on Barbados and Jamaican GIs.  It must be judged on the rums it makes as well, and the Extreme series of rums, which take provision of information to a whole new level and are bottled at muscular cask strengths, every time (plus, I think they dispensed with the dosage).  This one, a seriously bulked up Jamaican, is one of the beefier ones and I look forward to trying it not just for the strength, but that amazing (continental) age.

Dillon Brut de Colonne Rhum Blanc Agricole 71.3%

An unaged white rhum from Martinique’s Dillon distillery, about which we don’t know enough and from which we don’t try enough.  This still-strength beefcake is likely the strongest they have ever made or will ever make…until the next one, and Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack twigged me on to it (that’s his picture, so thanks Pete!) remarking “Once you try high proof, is it ever possible to go back?” A good question.  I probably need to find this thing just to see, and for sure, if it comes up to scratch, it’ll make my third list of great white rums when the time comes.

Velier Caroni 1982 Heavy 23 YO (1982 – 2005) 77.3% | Caroni 1985 Heavy 20 YO (1985 – 2005) 75.5% | Caroni 1996 Heavy 20 YO (1996-2016)(Cask R3721) Legend” 70.8%  | Caroni 1996 Heavy 20 YO (1996-2016)(Cask R3718) Legend” 70.8%  | Caroni 1996 “Trilogy” Heavy (1996 – 2016) 70.28%

Five of Velier’s legendary Caronis make this list, all clocking in at 70% ABV or greater.  They are, unsurprisingly, hard to get at reasonable prices nowadays, and to some extent there’s a real similarity among them all, since they are varied branches off the same tree.  Once hardly known, their reputation and their cost has exploded over the last five years and any one of them would be a worthy purchase – and with its mix of fusel oil, dark fruits, tar, wood chips and no shortage of amazing flavours, I’d say the 77.3% gets my vote for now. Serge thought so too, back in the day….but beware of the price tag, which recently topped £2600 just a few months ago at auction.

rockch12 (2)Cadenhead Single Cask Black Rock WIRR 1986-1998 12 YO 73.4%

Another rum I have not gotten to try, one of the varied editions of the famed 1986 Rockley pot still from WIRD. At a stunning 73.4% this is a surprisingly hefty rum to have come out of the 1990s, when rum was just making its first baby steps to becoming more than a light Cuban blend wannabe. Few have managed to try it, fewer still to write about it.  Marius of Single Cask (from whom I pilfered the picture) is one of them, and he, even though not entirely won over by it, still gave the rum a solid 87 points.

Saint James Brut de Colonne Rhum Agricole Blanc BIO 74.2%

After having tried Saint James’s titanically flavoured pot still juice, it’s a no-brainer that this 100% organic unaged white rum powered by 74.2% of mad horsepower is something which I and any lover of white column still juice has to get a hold of.  Stuff like this makes the soft light white mixers of the 60s scurry home to hide in their mama’s skirts, and will cheerfuly blow up any unprepared glottis that doesn’t pay it the requisite respect.  I can’t wait to try it myself.


If I had to chose the best of the lot I’d have to say the Neisson, the SMWSs and the L’Esprits vie for the top spots, with the Wild Tiger coming in sharp right behind them, and I’d give a fond hat-tip to both the old and new Lemon Harts.  This is completely subjective of course, and frankly it might be better to start with which is worst and move up from there, rather than try and go via levels of force, as I have done.

Clearly though, just because some massively-ripped and generously-torqued overproof rum is aged for years, doesn’t means it is as good or better than some unaged white.  Depending on your tastes, both can be amazing…for sure they’re all a riotous frisson of hot-snot excitement to try. On the flip side, the Marienburg suggests there is an upper limit to this game, and I think when we hit around 90% or thereabouts, even though there’s stronger, we ram into a wall — beyond which lies sh*t-and-go-blind madness and the simple lunacy of wanting to just say “I made the strongest” or “I drank it.” without rhyme or reason. I know there’s a 96% beefcake out there, but so far I’ve not found it to sample myself, and while it is a cardinal error to opine in advance of personal experience in these matters, I can’t say that I believe it’ll be some earth shaking world beater. By the time you hit that strength you’re drinking neutral alcohol and unless there’s an ageing regiment in place to add some flavour chops, why exactly are you bothering to drink it?

But never mind. Overproofs might originally have been made to be titanic mixers and were even, as I once surmised, throwaway efforts released in between more serious rums.  But rums made by the SMWS, Romdeluxe, L’Esprit and others have shown that cask strength juice with minimal ageing, if carefully selected and judiciously issued, can boast some serious taste chops too, and they don’t need to be aiming for the “Most Powerful Rum in the World” to be just damned fine rums. If you want the street cred of actually being able to say you’ve had something stronger than any of your rum chums, this list is for you.  Me, I’d also think of it as another milestone in my education of the diversity of rum.  

And okay, yeah, maybe after drinking one of these, I would quietly admire and thump my biscuit chest in the mirror once or twice when Mrs. Caner isn’t looking (and snickering) and chirp my boast to the wall, that “I did this.” I could never entirely deny that.


Other notes

  • In my researches I found a lot of references to the Charley’s JB Overproof Rum at 80% ABV; however, every photo available online is a low-res copy of the 63% version which I wrote about already, so I could not include it as an entry without better, umm, proof.
  • Thanks to Matt, Gregers and Henrik who added suggestions.
Sep 262019
 

Around two years back, I put up a list of those favourites of the mixing class, the white rums, and listed 21 examples I considered memorable up to that point. Back then, I contended that they might or might not be aged, but for pungency, strength, uniqueness and sheer enjoyment, they were an emerging trend that we should pay attention to.  And indeed, happily, in the time since then, we have seen quite a few new and interesting variations for sale, not least among the new micro distilleries that keep popping up. They must be thanking their lucky stars for this strong undercurrent of appreciation, because it allows unaged rums right off the still to be available for sale immediately – and be wanted! – rather than have to try to break into the mixing market with some kind of ersatz Bacardi knockoff in an effort to make cash flow

For the most part, I ignore bland mixing rums in my reviews, but that’s not because they’re bad, per se.  After all, they serve their purpose of providing an alcoholic jolt without question…just without fanfare or style, or uniqueness of any kind.  They are, to me, plain boring – complete yawn-throughs. In point of fact, providing alcohol is just about all they do, and like a chameleon, they take up the taste of whatever else is chucked into the glass. That’s their raison d’etre, and it would be incorrect to say they’re crap rums just for toeing the line of their creators.

Still: my own rather peculiar tasting desire is different, since I’m not a tiki enthusiast or a boozehound.  When it comes to whites, I’m a screaming masochist: I want snarling growling bastards, I want challenge, I want a smackdown of epic proportions, I want to check out that reeking dutty-stink-bukta over there that may be disgustingly strong, may have the foul stench of Mr. Olympia-level strength, may reek of esters and might pour undiluted sulphur and hogo and rancio and God only knows what else all over my schnozzola and my palate.  It’s perfectly all right to hate ‘em…but by God, I won’t be bored, because like those big-’n’-bad porknockers and bushmen I used to work with in my youth, while they might garb themselves in a glorious lack of sophistication, they’re honest and they’re strong and they’re badass, and they’ll give you the shirt off their backs without hesitation.

Not all rums listed below necessarily conform to those admittedly off-kilter personal standards of mine.  And sure, you might hate one or more (or all), and very likely have favoured candidates of your own which you’ll berate me for not listing.  Let’s just say that they’re all worth trying, some maybe only the one time, others quite a bit more. If you have not dipped your toes in here yet, then I hope you get to enjoy them, one day, as much as I did when I first got assaulted by their sometimes-rabid charms.


Martinique – Saint James pot still white rum (60%).  Surely this has been one of the most interesting rums of any kind (not just a white) of recent times, even though it’s been in production for many years.  Largely this is because most of the Martinique whites we try are from column stills – this one is from a pot still, takes no prisoners and is pungent, beefy and an all-round massive piece of work for a cocktail, or for the brave to sip neat.

Guyana – El Dorado 3 Year Old white rum (40%).  While it’s an oldie that is more of a standard rum than a real exciting new one, it remains a mid-tier favourite with good reason – because it derives from a blend of the wooden stills’ output, and even if it is filtered after ageing to make it colourless, even if it’s a “mere” living room strength, much of the elemental power of the stills still bleeds through. And that makes it a rumlet for a lesser god, so to speak.

Guyana-Italy. And yes, the Habitation Velier Port Mourant unaged white rum (59%) must come in for mention right alongside its softer cousin from DDL.  What a steaming, ferocious, tasty white this is. Salty, waxy, fruity, with anise and complexity to spare, it’s a wordless masterclass in appreciating the wooden stills, trapped in a single bottle. Velier sure raised the bar when it devoted a whole series of their HV rums to the blanc side.

Thailand – Issan (40%).  A contrast to the HV-PM above is difficult to imagine. Issan is a soft, mild, not too fierce sundowner.  Its charms are in ease and languor, not in some kind of rabid attack on your face like Velier prefers.  Even with that though, it showed great potential, a serious set of tastes, and if one walks in expecting little but a sweetened almost-liqueur, one is in for a welcome surprise.  If it ever goes higher than 40%, it’ll be an even better deal.

Guadeloupe – Longueteau Rhum Blanc Agricole 62°. If it had not been for Neisson’s L’Esprit 70%, or L’Esprit’s 85% mastodon of the Diamond, this might have had bragging rights for power, since most whites are 48-58% ABV and shine at that strength.  This one aimed higher, dared more and is a complete riot to have by itself, adhering to much of what we love about the unaged agricoles – the grassy, herbal, fruity notes, mixed in with a little pine-sol and a whole lot of attitude.

Mexico – ParanubesWhite Rum (54%). This is the closest to a clairin I’ve tried that isn’t from Haiti, and it possesses a glute-flexing character and Quasimodo-addled body second to none.  Unless you’re into clairins and mescals, please use caution when trying it; and if you can’t, don’t send me flaming emails about how the salt, wax, wet ashes, gherkins, and chilis created a melange of  shockingly rude baddassery that nearly collapsed your knees, stuttered your heart and loosened your sphincter. It’s as close to a complete original as I’ve tried in ages.

Grenada – Rivers Royale White Overproof. Retasting this 69% hard-charger was like rediscovering ancient whites, pure whites, pirate-grog-level whites, made in traditional ways.  It’s still not available for sale outside Granada, and I may have been premature naming it a Key Rum of the World. But if you can, taste it — just taste it — and tell me this is not one of the most amazing unaged clear rums you’ve ever had, melding sweet and salt and fruit and soup and a ton of other stuff I have no names for.  It’s a pale popskull nobody knows enough about, and that alone is reason to seek it out of you can. There’s a stronger version that never makes it off the island even in traveller’s suitcases

Madeira-Italy – Rum Nation Ilha da Madeira (50%). Madeira rums can use the “agricole” moniker and they do, but alas, are still not widely known, and therefore it’s up to the indies to raise their profile in the interim.  One of the first was Rum Nation’s 50% white from Engenho, which walked a fine line between “Z-z-z-z” and “WTF?” and came up with something both standard and queerly original. If it had a star sign, my guess would be would be Gemini. (Note: this entry is a re-taste because it was also on the first 2017 list and I had subsequently checked it out again).

Madeira-UK – Boutique-y Reizinho White Agricole (49.7%). The Boutique-y boys’ Reizinho comes from another indie, freshly minted and given lots of visibility by its enormously likeable rep, Pete Holland of Ye Olde Rum Shack (rumour has it that whenever brings his beautiful wife and cute-as-a-button daughter to a fest, sales jump 50% immediately); they chose well with their first such rum, and one of their selections became a standout of the whites in Paris 2019.  This one

Guyana-France – L’Esprit White Collection “PM” (85%). One of the most powerful rums ever unleashed (no other word will do) on defenseless rum drinkers, not quite eclipsing the HV PM above, but coming close and serving as another indicator that the wooden heritage stills at Diamond preserve their amazing taste profiles even when fresh off the stills. 85% ABV, and it means business, with licorice, caramel, vanilla, dark fruits and God only knows what else bursting out of every pore. I call mine “Shaft”.

Martinique – HSE Rhum Blanc Agricole 2016 (Parecellaire #1)(55%). I would not pretend that I can pick out the difference between various parcels of land which make up such atomized micro-productions.  Who cares, though? The rum is good with or without such details – it’s sweet, fragrant, fruity and has some old sweat-stained leather shoes ready to kick ass and take names. Tons of flavour and complexity, oodles of enjoyment.

Reunion-Italy – Habitation Velier HERR.  Merde I liked this. 62.5% of pure double distilled pot-still Harley-riding, jacket-sporting, leather-clad bad boy from the High Ester Still.  So flavourful and yet it loses nothing of its cane juice origins. Unaged, unmessed-with, bottled in 2017 and a serious rum from any angle, at any time, for any purpose. Savanna’s decision not to do away with the still that made this, back when they were modernizing, was a masterstroke. We should all be grateful.

Cabo Verde – Vulcao Grogue White (45%).  Based on its back-country pot-still antecedents, I was expecting something much more feral and raw and in-your-face than this ended up being. But it was lovely – gentle at the strength, packed with tasty notes of fruit, sugar water, brine and mint, channelling a delicious if off-beat agricole rhum and a character all its own.  I’d drink it neat any day of the week, There are others in the range, but this one remains my favourite

Haiti-Italy – Clairin Le Rocher (2017)(46.5%). For my money, the Le Rocher is the most approachable clairin of the four issued / distributed by Velier to date, the most tamed, the richest in depth of taste – and that’s even with the mounds of plastic that open the show. These develop into a glorious melange of fruits and veggies and herbs and citrus that’s a testament to Bethel Romelus’s deft use of syrup and a variation of dunder pits to get things moving.

South Africa – Mhoba White Rum (58%). There’s an upswell of interest in making rums in Africa, and one of South Africa’s newbies is Mhoba. Again we have an entrepreneur – Robert Greaves – practically self-building a micro-distillery, using a pot still and the results are excellent, not least because he’s gone straight to full proof without mucking about at 40%. Tart, fruity, acidic, hot, spicy, creamy, citrus-y….it’s an amazing initial effort, well worth seeking out.

Liberia – Sangar White (40%). Staying with Africa we have another pot still white rum contrastingly released at living room strength (because its initial prime market will be the US) and that succeeds well in spite of that limitation. It’s light, it’s tasty, and snorts and prances like a racehorse being held on a tight rein, and shows off brine, wax, olives, flowers and a nice smorgasbord of lighter fruits which harmonize well. A really good sipping drink, with just enough originality to make it stand out

Cabo Verde – Musica e Grogue White (44%). Clearly we have some Renaissance men making rum over on Cabo Verde, because not only are Jean-Pierre Engelbach and Simão Évora music lovers, but their careers and life-stories would fill a book. Plus, they make a really good white grogue in the same area as the Vulcao (above), crisp and yet gentle, firm and clear, with flowers, fruits and citrus coming together in a pleasant zen harmony.

Japan – Helios “Kiyomi” White Rum (40%). Nine Leaves makes what I suggest might the best white rums in Nippon, but other locals have been there longer, and some are starting to snap at its heels. Helios tried hard with this relatively tasty and intriguing white, with a 30 day fermentation period and column still output dialled down to 40% – and it certainly had some interesting, strong aromas and tastes (wet soot, iodine, brine, olives, light fruits and spices etc) even if it failed to impress overall. If they decided to up the strength and switch the source to their pot still, I think they have a shot at the brass ring – for now, it’s more an example of a “what-might-have-been” rum with some interesting stylistic touches than a really amazing product. 

French Antilles – Rhum Island “Agricultural” (50%).  This rhum is peculiar in that it is a blend, not the product of a single distillery – the source is from various (unnamed) distilleries in the French West Indies (its brother the “Red Cane” 53% is also along that vein, except it comes from distilleries in Guadeloupe and Marie Galante only). That makes it unique on this list, but one cannot fault the crisp, apple-like freshness of its taste, the way the creaminess of a tart fruit melds with the light zest of citrus and sour cream. Both this and the Red Cane are excellent, this one gets my vote by a whisker.

Viet Nam – Sampan White Overproof (54%). Much like Sangar and Issan and Mhoba above, one guy – a Fabio-channelling Frenchman named Antoine Pourcuitte – created a small distillery from scratch and is happily releasing three variations of this rum, all white, at 45%, 54% and 65%.  I only got to try the middle bear, and it blew my ears back handily – those earthy, briny, fruity aromas and the crisp snap of its tastes – olives, lemons, green apples, licorice and more – are really quite delicious. It marries “the freshness of an agricole with the slight complexity of an entry level vieux,” I wrote, and it’s good for any purpose you put it to.

Laos – Laodi Sugar Cane White Rhum (56%). A wonderful, massive delivery system for some serious juice-distilled joy. Salty, dusty, herbal, earthy and lemony smells, followed on by classic agricole-type clean grassiness and herbs, wrapped up in a creamy package that deliver some serious oomph. An enormously pleasing evolution from the same company’s original 56% Vientiane Agricole. I have no idea what else they make, just know that I want to find out.

Cabo Verde – Barbosa Grogue Pure Single Rum (45%). Given Velier’s footprint in the world of Haitian clairins, it’s a surprise they only have one grogue, and even that has hardly had any of the heavy-hitting marketing that characterized the launch and subsequent distribution of the Sajous, Casimir, Vaval and Le Rocher. It would be a mistake to exclude it from consideration, however. It has a bright and clean fruity nose, very refined, almost gentle (something like a Saint James rhum, I remember thinking).  The taste is crisper on the fruits, has some cold vegetable salad, a olive or two, green apples and lemongrass, and overall it’s a very easily sippable spirit.


So here we are, another 21 rums, all white, cane juice or cane syrup or molasses, which are worth a look if they ever cross your path. 

One thing that stands out with these rums is what a wide geographical range they cover – look at all those countries and islands they showcase, from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean (and this was after I excluded rums from the Pacific, the USA and Europe). No other spirit has ever had this kind of diversity, this kind of spread, with a profile for any taste, for any purpose.

Note also how, gradually, increasingly, pot stills are being represented – batch production is seen as inherently inefficient compared to the sheer volume a well-tended column still can generate, but the depth of flavour the former imbues its products, as well as gradually increasing efficiencies technological innovation provides.  

It’s also nice to see how full proof rums are taking center stage – many now take this to be a given and have grown up cutting their teeth on such powerful products, but I still recall when 40% was all you got and you had to pretend to be grateful: North Americans in particular still have far too much of that kind low-rent crowd-pleasing crap crowding out good stuff on their shelves.

A note should be spared for grogues.  The few that I’ve tried have been shown to be – for want of a better term – “not clairins”. They inhabit the space in between the fierce and uncompromising nature of the Haitian rhums, and the softer and more accessible Guadeloupe ones, while not being quite as clearly refined as those from Martinique.  That’s not to say I can always pick ‘em out of a blind test, or that they are somehow less (or more) than any other white rum…just that they are resolutely themselves and should be judged as such.

Asia, to my delight, keeps on throwing up new and interesting rums every year – some from new micro-distilleries, some by larger operations, but almost all of it is moving away from their softer and sweeter styles so beloved of tourists and backpacking boozers. I have yet to seriously attack Australia; and SE Asia and Micronesia continue to develop, so if I ever put out a third list, no doubt such regions will be better represented on the next go-around.

With respect to the rums here, my purpose is not to rate them in some kind of ascending or descending order, or to make a choice as to which is “best” – whatever that might mean. I just would like to make you aware, or remind you, that they exist.  The other day, a post on reddit asked about smooth agricole rhums. I read it and didn’t comment, but what the responses make clear is how many different white rums and rhums exist, and how many of them are — in people’s minds — associated with the Caribbean. I hope this second list of mine shows that there is much enjoyment to be had in sampling white rums from around the globe, no matter where you are, and that the future for the subcategory remains a vibrant and exciting one to be a part of as it unfolds.

 

Jun 232019
 

It makes no difference one way or the other what kind of bottle encloses a rum…at least not to those who just want to taste it. But let’s be honest: presentation sells, cool design is cool design and sometimes we come across rums which stand out on the shelf just because they look so different from the standard barroom bottle, akin to a wooden chess set of unrecognizable but oh-so-beautiful pieces bought in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.  And sometimes that has less to do with a fancy label than it does with the very shape of the bottle itself.

I am not making a case for any of the rums listed here to be world beaters – many are not. But as a lover of originality and distinctiveness — even beauty — in design as in every other facet of my life,  here are a few of my favourite bottles, some well known, others not so much.  

(Note: I am excluding other spirits like vodka and tequila and brandy; ignoring impressive label design which would be a separate post altogether; and I am not counting uniquely made glass decanters made by third parties for the consumer; nor am I listing, with one exception, “Special Editions” that are engraved and special crystal bottles handmade by a European design house in fancy wooden housings selling for five figures.  This list just concentrates on rum brands’ own releases, which for some reason have a bottle shape and/or design that appeals to me or may have a backstory that’s interesting to mention).

Enjoy!


St. Nicholas Abbey Rums

This might be one of the more standard non-rounded bottles out there, and I know there are some rum makers out there which use the same one.  What I like is the overall aesthetic. St. Nicholas Abbey’s detailed etching on each bottle shows the Great House, and the mahogany-tipped cork is said to come from the trees that were planted hundreds of years ago and are still there.  Moreover, not only can you get custom etching done on the premises in Barbados, but it used to be that if you brought back your bottle after emptying it, you could get it refilled at half price. What’s not to love?

The Original Renegade Rums

Velier made simplicity and bottle design and label info a standard to set one’s clock by, with those menacing black bottles and stark, informative labels. 

Yet Renegade Rums was also there with their own take on the matter: their frosted sand-etched glass bottles with the thick, wide base, and those labels that told anyone who wanted to know just about everything they wanted to know, were a godsend to those who desired more info.

It may be just me, but that simplicity and easy-on-the-eyes shape makes me consider them among the most beautifully-designed rum bottles around, even now that the line has been discontinued for so many years.

 

J. Bally Martinique Rhum – Pyramid bottle

Bally, one of the older houses on Martinique, has long been known for not only the excellence of its agricoles, but the peculiar and distinctive pyramidical shape of one of their signature bottles.  Some wags on the Masters of Malt asked rhetorically whether it had anything to do with similar cool shapes of some modern tea bags – the answer, of course, is “no.” It’s simply that this is one of the most stable shapes to have for a bottle on the table, aboard a sailing ship where movement in heavy seas must be guarded against.

DDL PM / EHP / CBU 1997 single still rums

Issued in 1997 to commemorate the cricket world cup being held in the West Indies (and a match or two in Guyana), the design of the bottles was deliberately chosen to mimic the look of a cricket bat.  They are, of course, annoyingly difficult to store, being taller than most, and also rather unstable to have standing around, like an inverse Bally from above. Still – rather unusual, reasonably original, a decent story, and a whiff of distinctiveness permeates.  (Note: The Master Blender’s Reserve 2018 releases are also using these bottles)

Pusser’s Nelson’s Blood Ceramic Yachting Decanters

One reason I loved scouting around Alberta was because it was (and remains) the only deregulated province in Canada, and that means any Mom and Pop corner shop so beloved of exiled Mudlanders, can stock undiscovered gems nobody knows anything about and which have long since vanished from the shelves of the big emporia.

Pussers sailing decanters are ceramic jugs with fancy artwork detailing the heritage of the brand and sailing and the sea.  There are several variations and sizes, all beautifully done, appealingly shaped, and sure to catch the attention of anyone passing by the shop shelf.  Which is exactly what happened to me nearly ten years ago.  Nowadays one can get one online via the Pusser’s website but it ships empty…mine was full back when I got it, and remains uncracked to this day.

R.L. Seale’s 10 Year Old.

Surely this is one of the most unusual “almost a bottle but not quite” on the market.  I always played mind games with myself about whether it was deliberately designed this way, whether it was a mistaken design that looked good enough to try (or was used to save money after the fact) – but for sure the distorted molten-then-frozen look (which Richard Seale has confirmed is a stylized sagging leather water bag) of the 10 YO remains one of the most distinctive and memorable bottles ever made. The rum inside isn’t bad either, and neither was the Olde Brigand 10 YO which preceded it, and which used the same bottle.

 

Captain Morgan’s Cannon Blast Spiced Rum

Well, spiced rum or not, 35% wussy strength or not, points have to be given for courage, in designing a bottle shaped like a bomb in a time of terrorist fears.  But come on, what modern explosive looks like that?  That’s a cannon ball, or a cartoonist’s idea of an anarchist’s 19th century grenade.

Still, I sort of admire it just because it’s different, and we don’t see enough of that.  Too bad it’s just a marketing gimmick. I suppose Captain Morgan was (again) channeling that tiresome old saw about rum being a pirate’s drink, which, given their name, is perhaps not so strange, if overused.

As a rum, not many have reviewed it.  Paul Senft, usually the most retiring and circumspect of reviewers, remarked on Distiller that it was “Definitely a rum engineered for shooting and not sipping; a rum in name only.”  Ouch.  I think they dropped this thing on their own feet there.

 

Deadhead 6 Year Old

Creepy as sh*t, the deadhead seems to channel the gleefully over the top 1992 Peter Jackson cult classic “Braindead” (and if you have a macabre sense of humour, love excess gore and haven’t seen it, you don’t know what you’ve missed and, that’s the one to see, bar none).  I mean, I honestly can’t imagine anyone with young kids keeping this thing in the house given that it speaks to the shrunken heads of primitive head hunter tribes, something its advertising gleefully mentions.

So far as its website goes, it’s made in Mexico in the southern state of Chiapas, molasses based, pot still distilled, aged six years in a combination of American oak and local wood (“Chiapas oak”) and marketed by a California company called Iconic Brands.  I’ve never tried it, though perhaps I should, just to get that bottle, and maybe a bad dream or three.

Old Monk Supreme XXX Very Old Rum

India has very few rum brands, and those few have massive market share in the subcontinent, and relatively minimal exports.  I’m unclear why, given that so few home-grown brands exist, it was felt necessary to make the Old Monk stand out as much as it does, with a bottle that is shaped like a monk and use a triple X moniker at all….ah, who cares?  It’s deprecatingly humorous, and unique in its own way. Note that there are two variations of this bottle – I’m referring to the full-body figurine of trhe Supreme XXX, but there is one for Old Monk Legend with just the head as well.

Pumpkin Face rums

Now here’s the October special, the Pumpkin Face.  It’s not to be confused with Captain Morgan’s spiced pumpkin rum “Jack-O Blast,” which is a different animal altogether (and probably worth even less).  I like the design, and while I know bars up and down North America probably have it in stock, though do question (as I did for the Death’s Head) who with kids would want this in the house on any day except Halloween.  Still, have to be honest – it is striking, and very cool to have around.

As a matter of interest, the brand sports a blend of Dominican rums of various ages (depending on which one of the four issued rums we’re talking about) with the useless statement of “Ultra Premium” accompanying some age statements that have to be considered very carefully.  Never tried any myself…at least, not yet. But if I were passing the bottle on a shelf someplace, I would do exactly what its marketing expects – stop, take a second look, and ask for a taste.  So in that sense, the design works like a charm.

 

Nepal Kukhri Rum

The “Kukhri” brand itself was created in 1959, but what really launched its awareness was 1975, when, to commemorate the coronation of King Birendra in  the distillery brought out the rum in a khukri-shaped bottle. Nearly half-a-century later, the dagger and the “Coronation” Rum it contains is still a favourite souvenir, and is exported widely.

This is the rum that made me curious about the whole subject rums in weird bottles.  I bought it (and reviewed it) simply because of that unique shape, even though I’ve never tried any before, and have heard it’s “just” a standard-proofed spiced rum.  Well, maybe. But just like those jokers who make glassware into AK-47s or pistols or even swords, whoever has the balls to make a bottle shaped like the national blade of the country deserves accolades for design-chic alone, no matter what the juice inside tastes like.  And if John Rambo had been based in the Himalayas instead of Thailand, you might have seen him rescue missionaries with a bottle of this instead of whatever he made at his forge.

Mocambo Mexican 10 YO rum

Mocambo’s parent company has been in business since the 1950s and none of their other bottles are anywhere near this kind of design.  In point of fact, these days the entire brand probably isn’t that well known – when was the last time you saw a review or discussion of one, for example? And to be honest, I’ve never tried this rum from Mexico either.  Ah, but who can deny that awesome cool-factor it possesses? A glass pistol with the cork in the muzzle? I’d buy the damned thing just so I could mount that bottle on my mantlepiece.

Bonus “After-The-Fact” Entry – Appleton’s Edwin Charley Proprietor’s Collection

Although strictly speaking this series is a presentation quality one-off costing between £150 and £200 (each), and not for general consumption or purchase, the four bottles that comprise it are so unique, it’s hard not to give them a mention. The Collection, released in 2005 is comprised of four Jamaican rums, individually numbered and bottled in hand-blown Venetian glass, with each one featuring a statuette inside the bottle itself that references one of the steps in the rum making process: a stalk of sugar cane (Foundation), the pot still (Enlightenment), the barrel (Virtue) and a human figurine of a cane-cutter (Transformation) who I’m going to call Basilton Ramnaraine, just because, you know, I can.

They are pricey and I’ve never actually seen one — Dave Russell of the Rum Gallery has written about all four and twigged me on to them, and the links above are to his reviews — and yet I think that those four bottles are items of real beauty that can take their place proudly on any shelf where they are displayed.

Honourable Mention

Perhaps a hat tip should be made to a few others that I considered but eventually did not include. There was the original straw-wrapped Zacapa, whose design was copied by Fabio Rossi for his Millonario 15 many years later.  The banana-leaf-wrapped Dzama from Madagascar.  St. James’s distinctive and much copied tall rectangular bottles with the square cross-section. And also the Belize-made Don Omario’s 15 Year Old rum in its distinctive bottle that was like a star when seen in cross-section, and the Kraken’s jug and memorable black and white design look.   But in the end I stuck with these twelve and the bonus pick.

A last word

If you want to see what craziness other spirits have come up with, check this link.

 

 

Oct 182018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Rums as of 2018

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


Picture (c) Henrik Larsen, from FB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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


Other Notes

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

In December 2020, the NW Rum Club did an 8-minute video summary of the high points of the 14-bottle range to that point (Detente).  No tasting notes, just a quick series of highlights for the curious. Worth watching.

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

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.

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