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 indepedently….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, 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, but I 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, but had had the foresight to diversify their company even before that, and had operations 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.

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, 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.  The point is, even at such indifferent levels of quality, they’re not going anywhere, and if their heydey 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 151 (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)
  • 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)
  • 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:

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.  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%

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 85.6% still strength, as noted by a guy in reddit.

(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.


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.

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.

Jun 282018
 

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


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

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

But Luca aside, I think that the Age was what it was because it really was a first, on many differing levels. It broke new ground, created (or legitimized) many new trends, and demonstrated that the rum folks would buy top quality rums even with a limited outturn.  It summed up, codified and expanded principles of the rum world the way Citizen Kane did for film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drejer, hydrometers, sugar and the fallout…

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

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

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

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

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


Epilogue

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

The El Dorado 15 remains a staple of the rum drinking world to this day in spite of its now well-publicized dosage.  It has received much opprobrium for the lack of disclosure (DDL never commented on the matter of dosage until an interview with Shaun Caleb in 2020, and for the record the practice is being phased out) and has slipped somewhat in people’s estimation to being a second tier aged product.  Yet it remains enormously popular and is a perennial best seller, a rum many new entrants to the field refer to as a touchstone, even though DDL has moved to colonize the space Velier pioneered and begun issuing cask strength limited bottlings from the stills themselves in 2016 (the 1997 anniversary editions at 40% were essays in the craft but predated the Age and were never continued).

Photo (c) A Mountain of Crushed Ice

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

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

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

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

Luca Gargano of Velier, April 2018, Genoa

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

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

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

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

***


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

Jun 272018
 

Part II – The Rums

Photograph (c) Rumclubfrancophone.fr

2005 – The Age Begins

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

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

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

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

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

The Rums, by date of issue

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Photo (c) Ministry of Rum

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

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

Photo (c) Barrel-Aged-Mind

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

And just like that, the Age was over.


Other Notes

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

 

Jun 252018
 

Part 1 – Influences & Developments to 2005

Introduction

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

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

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

As it was then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1992 and the El Dorado 15 Year Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books

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

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

 

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

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

The Internet

To some extent the remarks here are a subset of larger cultural shifts around the world which were enabled by the internet and the world wide web itself.  Access was available in 1995, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it became over the subsequent decades. The internet enabled web pages, those pages enabled blogs, blogs became review sites and fora for interaction — and all of it created a communications revolution for rum lovers.  What this allowed and promoted was a new understanding of the spirit, a grasp of its enormous stylistic range and geographical dispersion, as well as quick dissemination of information on rums, brands, companies, personalities, reviews, and opinions. It’s no accident that the sugar imbroglio (see a brief discussion in Part 3) arose only after the internet permitted such exponential interaction and news-exchange among drinkers; or that the first rum festivals began springing up just as the first review sites did, in the mid 2000s.  The importance and impact of the web on rum appreciation simply cannot be overstated.

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

Ed Hamilton and the Ministry of Rum

It took years after its launching in 1995 for the Ministry of Rum to acquire the central status it held for the next decade, and in its heyday it was one of the key places for aficionados to meet and share information (Capn Jimbo’s site was the other), and likely the most popular.  While it possessed a fair amount of articles and searchable information on distilleries, brands and countries – a first at that time, and a godsend to the researchers – the real basis for its influence and popularity was the forum and discussion area, and, to a lesser extent, the Connoisseur’s Cabinet where occasional reviews would be posted (with Ed’s permission – and for the record he refused it to me when I asked after passing review #50, noting – correctly – that too many new and aspiring writers folded after a couple of years). At its peak, there would be new discussion threads and posts springing up daily, sharing information, raising issues, offering advice and opinions.  Even now in 2018 there’s a steady trickle of people on that site, posting “Hi I’m a new rum lover from ____”.

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

Independent Bottlers / Private Labels

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luca Gargano and Velier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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