Jan 172019
 

Rumaniacs Review # R-089 | 590

This spite of a light white — to give it its full name, the “Clarke’s Court Superior Refined Grenada Light Rum” – should not be confused with either the current version of the Superior Light being released at 40%, or the best selling and much better Pure White at 69%.  The one here is an older version of the rum, column distilled (Ed Hamilton’s 1995 book Rums of the Eastern Caribbean mentions a two-column still in operation around that time), aged for under a year, filtered to clarity and meant as a low level mixer.  You could argue that it’s meant to take on the Bacardi Superior with which it shares several characteristics, and perhaps it’s a holdover from the light rum craze of the sixties and seventies when cocktails made with such rums were all the rage.

As always when dealing with rums from even ten years back, there’s a dearth of information about the various iterations over the years and decades, and I lack the resources to go to Grenada and ask in person. Still, given that I bought this as a mini, and part of a single lot of rums dating back at least ten years, the “2000s” range of when it was made appears reasonable — and since there are other, more current 43% Superior Light rums from Clarke’s with Grenada shown as green on the label, it may even pre-date the turn of the century.  It’s unlikely that the recipe is seriously different.

Colour – White

Strength – 43%

Nose – Dusty herbal smell, very light, with faint notes of curry and massala. Fennel and rosemary, and a whiff of cardboard.  Provides some brine, sweeter fruity hints (pears, white guavas), and coconut shavings after some minutes.  Quite a vague nose, mellow, unaggressive, easy going.

Palate – Does something of an about face when tasted – turns slightly oaky, which is odd sicne it’s only been aged for a year or less, and then filtered to nothing afterwards.  As with the nose, probably best to wait a little – then some shy nuances of sugar water, apples and pears peek out, accompanied by coconut shavings again, and a touch of raw sugar cane juice.

Finish – Short, light, breezy, faint.  Mostly light fruits, flowers, and pears.

Thoughts – These kinds of whites are (or were) for easy beachfront sipping in a fruity cocktail of yesteryear, or in a local dive with a bowl of ice and a cheap chaser, to be taken while gettin’ tight in the tropical heat over a loud and ferocious game of dominos.  Nowadays of course, there are many other options available, more powerful, more intense, more pungent — and a rum like this is unlikely to be found outside back-country beer-gardens, tourist bars or in an old salt’s collection.  I mourn its loss for the lack of information on it, but not for its milquetoast taste.

(70/100)

Jan 152019
 

Before considering the €300+ price tag, or grumbling about Rum Nation’s penchant for adding something extra to (some of) its rums, give the last Supreme Lord Jamaican rum from 1991 a whiff, a sniff and a snort. Sip a dram. Take your time with it. Enjoy. Because it’s simply outstanding, and even in concert with eight other Jamaicans that were on the table the day I tried it, it held up in fine style.  

Part of that derives from the extended “sherry finish” — though since it spent eleven years in oloroso casks I’d suggest it’s more a double maturation in the vein of Foursquare’s Exceptionals than a finish of any kind. And that influence makes itself felt right away, as scents of sweet rich honey, fleshy stoned fruits (peaches, apricots), raisins, leather, oak and vanillas in perfect balance boil out of the glass. There’s quite a bit of funk – sharp green apples mixing it up with rotting bananas – just less than you’d expect.  And here’s the peculiar thing — one can also sense molasses, caramel, a slight tannic tang and a flirt of licorice, and when that comes sauntering through the door, well, you could be forgiven for thinking this was actually a slightly off-kilter Demerara instead of something from Monymusk.

And for anyone who enjoys sipping rich Jamaicans that don’t stray too far into insanity (the NRJ TECA is the current poster child for that), it’s hard to find a rum better than this one.  The 55.7% strength is near perfect. It demonstrates great thickness, excellent mouthfeel, admittedly somewhat sweet, but very clean and distinct (which is to say, not near-smothered by a blanket of softening additives which so demeans many of El Dorado’s aged offerings) to allay my concerns about dosing. It tastes of Thai lemon-grass soup or a green curry (both for veggie saltiness and the sharper line of citrus), without ever losing the core heat and fruity over-ripeness of the bananas, soft fruit, black cherries, grapes and that faint whiff of licorice.  It has solid closing notes of hot black tea, more fruits (same ones), and is pleasantly, luxuriously long-lasting, reasonably firm, yet loses none of its snap and vigour.

What puts this rum over the top is the balance and control over the various competing elements of taste and smell; it’s really quite good, and even the finish – which sums up most of the preceding tasting elements – showcases that care and attention paid to assembling the profile.  It’s kind of a shame that only 750 bottles were issued and now, nearly three years after being issued, it retails for so much. But consider: when I tried it, it edged out the SL VII, held its own (and then some) against the Ping 9, Albrecht Trelawny, CDI Worthy Park 2007 8 YO, and cruised with ease past the AD Rattray 1986 25 YO.  If there was one rum that gave it serious competition, it was the EKTE 12, half as old and just as good (and also from Monymusk).

The rum continues along the path set by all the seven Supreme Lords that came before it, and since I’ve not tried them all, I can’t say whether others are better, or if this one eclipses the lot.  What I do know is that they are among the best series of Jamaican rums released by any independent, among the oldest, and a key component of my own evolving rum education.

It is with some sadness that I also note that just as it was the first cask strength SL, it is likely to be among the final ones to be issued, as it represented some of the last barrels of seriously aged Jamaican stocks held by Fabio Rossi.  He retained some Long Pond to make the superlative blended 30 year old a year or two back, and his attention is now more on the Rare Collection which supplant the Aged series…but whether you like the more recent offerings or the older ones, the pricier ones or the entry level iterations, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Supreme Lord rums (as well as their cousins the aged Demeraras), are among the top rums Rum Nation ever issued. And this one ranks right up there with the best of them.

(#589)(89/100)

Jan 122019
 

Hampden has been getting so much press of late that it’s only fair to have a look at the other products of the island, of which, these days, there are no shortages. For a long time these distilleries — with names geeks could recite in their sleep, like New Yarmouth, Innswood, Clarendon, Long Pond Monymusk, Worthy Park, Hampden — laboured in relative obscurity, living in J. Wray’s gargantuan shadow, selling mostly bulk rum abroad, or for the local market.

Somehow, though, the distilleries remained alive, and so did their names, their rums. While I’m by no means disparaging or downplaying the emergent reputations of these distilleries over the last half-decade or so as they began selling rums under their own brands, tropically aged and made in Jamaica (rather than just being a resource for others to tap), I think one of the reasons the layperson is even aware of them is because of the independent bottlers out of Europe, who for decades issued the occasional cask strength or watered down single-barrel release and kept the lesser-known marques of Jamaica alive.  (And that goes especially for WP, which was shuttered from 1960 to 2007.)

Most of the time, such bottlers never bothered with identifying the distillery of origin. Often it was just “Jamaica rum” and that was it. But in line with the recent interest in stills and distilleries (which perhaps originated in the Age of Velier’s Demeraras), the independents became more forthcoming with where their juice originated on the island.

This brings us to the Compagnie des Indes, founded in 2014 by Florent Beuchet, who, with the exception of their blends like the Dominador or Caraibes, has always placed rather more information than less on the labels of their rums – including that first set of cask strength bruisers marked “Denmark only”, which have caused nerds conniption fits and allowed the lucky Danes to preen unashamedly while glugging their personalized full proof juice. This one, distilled in 2007 (the first year of WP’s re-opening after being modernized) and bottled in 2016 at a solid 54.9%, was continentally aged and limited to 307 bottles, all of which ended up in Denmark.

Trying the rum in 2016, against its spectacular 7 year old brother (also from WP’s 2007 output) and again for this review, I was reminded how full proof Jamaican rums seem to step up their game and be ahead of living room strength rums by a country mile. It was lighter on the nose than the RN Supreme Lord 7 and Supreme Lord 8 which were also on the table that day; slightly funkier too, though restrained compared to the rutting jocks of the Hampdens or NRJ rums. Aromas of honey, dates, apricots, tart soursop and green grapes mixed it up nicely with some brine and olives, and a sly hint of flowers emerged after adding a few drops of water.

The palate was where it shone. It was warm, spicy and very clear, tasting immediately of brine, light nail polish remover, and also of lemon sherbet and mango ice cream. It presented firmly on the tongue, somewhat sharp without any jagged edges of confusing or conflicting tastes; as it opened it provided flavours of paint thinner, varnish and sweeter acetones, accompanied by light funk, vanilla, slightly bitter oaky tannins, which were in their turn superseded (but not eclipsed) by some caramel and brown sugar, dill and lemon zest. Really good balance, really well put together. It ended with a delightfully long and cruising finish, warm and solid, providing mostly tart background notes of half ripe mangoes, peaches, some caramel, and the vaguely bitter strength of some very strong black tea sweetened with condensed milk.

Worthy Park rums are interesting variations on the Jamaican style. Appletons are well made, elegant blends with a laid back sort of profile, while Hampdens are fiercely luxurious funk bombs, and Monymusk and New Yarmouth seem to exist on another plane of existence altogether (perhaps because they are relatively less well known). Worthy Park rums, though (those that I’ve tried, anyway) are light, crisp and clean, ester-rich, with delicate and precise lines of commingled flavour coiling through each and every one of them, only occasionally exploding into something more aggressive, and usually resting on a softer background that makes for a lovely sip.

Now, their own new tropically aged rums issued over the last few years are small masterworks (I think), yet we should not ignore the sterling efforts of the choices the independent bottlers made either, both before and during the current Jamaican Renaissance. This excellent rum is a good example of why that statement can be made, be absolutely true, and it burnishes and elevates the reputation of a distillery that is finally getting the respect it should have had long ago. I’ll be trying quite a few more of their rums in the months and years to come, that’s for sure.

(#588)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • For further reading on Jamaican rum distilleries, a good starting point is The Wonk’s Jamaican Cheat Sheet.
  • As far as I know the distillation apparatus is a Forsythe’s copper pot still
Jan 092019
 

Rumaniacs Review #088 | 0587

You’d think that a rhum issued less than fifteen years ago would still be reasonably available – you’d be wrong. This amazing leather-labelled, oak-aged 15 year old agricole from J.M. (Martinique) is almost impossible to find, and if you do, it’s not cheap.  It’s long since vanished from J.M.’s online shop, and I finally ended up tracking a bottle down in Switzerland, where it was a fetching a cool five hundred bucks or more, which just goes to show it’s not just other people’s money the Swiss are squirrelling way.  One can only wonder how many (or how few) bottles of J.M.’s juice made up this millésime, or how good it was, for it to disappear so completely.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 45.8%

Nose – Starts off with a small bang of rubber and acetones. Then sweet peppers, floral notes; turns out it’s also chock full of strawberry bubble gum, vanilla, herbs, apple cider, unripe papaya, cherries and something deeper and darker that stays well in the background….spoiled mangoes, maybe.  Really nice, but it doesn’t reveal its secrets easily.  You could nose this for an hour (which I did) and still come up with some last wispy and near-unidentifiable note.  Because it’s just lovely, a nice departure from heavier Jamaicans, Guyanese or Bajans.

Palate – Not quite as rich as the nose, which is a factor of the strength. Okay, I’ll cut it some lack for now, let’s see how that works out. Flowers, sweet fruits, vanilla, leather and aromatic pipe tobacco. Watermelon, grass and sugar water, also dill, rosemary and sage.  The rum’s textire is smooth and warm, there’s very little sharpness here, and the balance among all these subtle flavours is damned fine.

Finish – Not too inspiring, somewhat weak and nothing really new.  It’s light and breathless as if, having used up all its energy providing the nose and palate, it had little left to cough up.  Flowers, light fruits, watermelon and pears, and a little vanilla.

Thoughts –  Some concentration and work required here, but it’s rewarded right up to the finish.  It’s all very light, that’s all – and has a snappy sort of crispness that makes every flavour stand out clearly – you could spend a whole afternoon sipping casually away and then wonder when the bottle went dry. The close is disappointing though, and leaves one wanting more – it’s too good to be indifferent to it, but too indifferent to be really good.  Other than that, this is a really fine piece of work by J.M. — the way it smells and tastes, and possibly the limited outturn, goes a long way to explaining how come the thing is so rare…and so expensive.

(85/100)


Other notes

I’ve written about other J.M. rhums before this and provided some brief biographical notes of J.M.’s background in each, but if you want more details, the Wonk-in-Residence has his usual in-depth recap here, and here.

Jan 072019
 

After the initial flurry of articles attendant on the forming of the first new distillery / rum brand in Martinique in, oh, I don’t know, forever, there’s been a surprising drop in attention for A1710. The big guns like Neisson, Bally, HSE, Trois-Rivieres, Depaz et al, with decades (or centuries) of brand awareness underlying their name and fame, continue to issue their excellent agricole rums, of course, but it’s almost like A1710 dropped by the wayside.  Yet this tiny outfit makes rums with a lot of zip, zap, zowee and swoosh, and should not be ignored just because it’s small.

A1710 is the first attempt in a long time to shake up Martinique’s well known rum industry, being created in 2016 as a micro-distillery for Habitation Le Simon (not to be confused with the distillery of Simon, though they’re close by), which rubs shoulders with Clement on the mid eastern side of the island.  The estate’s roots go back to 1710 when the founder, Jean Assier, arrived on the island (hence the “A” in the title) and founded the sugar plantation, which seems to have been family owned and operated as a sugar estate ever since. Yves Assier de Pompignan, the 50-year-old who created the brand and founded the distillery in 2016, first made a career in stationery and office supplies before accepting his True Calling, perhaps channelling the family heritage — a great-grandfather owned the current factory of Saint-James, a grandfather owned of rum brand, his father is a cane agronomist and he has connections with the Hayot family as well.

What distinguishes the small distillery is that it did not chase the AOC designation (they have creole column still, ferment juice for around five days and reap cane year round, to name some points of divergence), and its organic focus, which eschews the more mechanized bulk approach taken by bigger competitors.  I usually nod and smile at such statements, but when the results are as good as these, who am I to rain on their parade? Besides, it’s canny – there’s a market for such niche products made as free from technological interference as possible, and I’m sure A1710 knew and bet on that. 

And after all is said and done, the white rum they make is excellent.  Just nosing this 2017-issued 54.5% product makes that clear: it’s sparkly, sprightly sugar water with a light tinge of brine. Olives, nail polish remover, turpentine, floor wax, freshly sawn lumber and sawdust.  Cider gherkins and apple cider. Very impressive because it never loses sight of the creole still origins and even after half an hour it still coughs up some earthy notes, well polished leather and a lovely thread of green apples.

Moving on, the flavour profile on the palate is nothing short of impressive. It comes smooth and warm across the tongue, providing warm notes of sugar water, watermelon, papaya, licorice, sweet bonbons, grass, and pungent lime leaves in a thai curry.  The rhum displays real potency without overcrowding the taste buds with either too much power or excessive complexity, a perfect combo of sweet and salt and herbals in a complex interplay of citrus, grass, cilantro and 7-up. It’s almost cachaca-like, minus the bitterness of strange Brazilian woods. The finish was okay but things start to slow down here, and it (fortunately) stops just shy of being bland – the heat carries off some of the taste and closing aromas but there was lime leaves, gherkins and sugar water, getting sweeter and more delicate (but always crisp) over time. It reminded me a lot of the J. Bally Blanc agricole, but was a smidgen better, I’d say.

When Cyril of DuRhum rendered one the first online opinions of A1710 and both their 2016-edition whites and aged rum selection, he wrote honestly (and disparagingly) about the flowery marketing push and the price, especially the aged ones. Fast forward a year or two and the online-store costs for the 2017 white written about here are pretty much in line with others of their kind; and the marketing, well, every company under the sun trumpets its niche advantage and special something – I yawn through the usual adjectives and hyperboles anyway so it doesn’t trouble me unless it’s an out-and-out falsehood and has no real info behind it. Putting that aside, what I appreciated about A1710 was the courage it took to open the eighth distillery on the island at all, against some formidable competitors.  What emerged at the other end was a white rum of real quality which possessed a solid taste profile and whether known or not, can take its place without apology alongside all the other blancs that may be better known and sell more. That’s a real achievement, for a company this young.

(#586)(85/100)

Jan 022019
 

There must be something about the French that just leads them into starting little rum companies in other countries. There was Hembert Achard and Anne-Francois Houzel who formed Whisper Rums from Antigua; David Giallorenzo of Issan; and Marine Lucchini and Thibault Spithakis of Chalong Bay. And of course there’s Toucan, which, if you recall from my posts of a year ago, is a relatively new entrant to the field of rums, yet distinguished itself (in my eyes at least) by making the really nifty-but-underpowered Toucan No. 4, as well as being from French Guiana, a place we have not seen or heard of enough when it comes to rums.

All these companies are small, discreet and self-effacing…almost humble.  Oh sure, they use social media and have slick, marketing-heavy websites and show up on Facebook feeds off and on – who doesn’t, these days? – but what distinguishes them (to me) is both their relatively low-key digital footprint, and their equally unhyped but surprisingly good young rums.  Especially the white ones, which I simply can’t get enough of. In this case, the 50% blanc.

Toucan makes a vanilla (I think this is No. 1), the Boco spiced rum No. 2, the No. 4 slightly aged rum and but for my money this 50% white is the best of the lot. It’s made from cane juice processed at French Guiana’s St. Maurice distillery, and then shipped to Toulouse where it stays in neutral steel tanks until ready for bottling, after being reduced to 50%.

What’s nice about it is immediately summarized by a nose of uncommon delicacy and (oddly) also of heft.  It smelled of sweet light fruit – pears, watermelon, green grapes – but also of salty brine and olives, furniture polish, and something barely noticeable yet also…meatier.  In that it reminded me of the Novo Fogo, though with rather more emphasis and braggadocio, due in no small part to the 50% ABV it was bottled at.

The palate continued that unhurried unfolding or flavour.  It was smooth and pleasant (with a little nip from the strength, no getting away from that), initially tasting of fanta and 7-up, light citrus peel, pears again, a few indeterminate ripe fruits, and (get this) those salt-and-vinegar pringles chips. It was aromatic and redolent of these, and the salt and the sweet and the fruity notes melded nicely in a minor key that didn’t overwhelm, just led slowly down to a gentle finish which gave last hints of marzipan, sugar water, toblerone and nougat.

I must admit that furiously raw clarity of flavour and a powerful terroire profile is not this rhum’s thing.  In fact, it’s rather restrained, almost demure, with each flavour shyly coiling out of the mix to tease and titillate before quietly subsiding, much like many of those Asian white rums I’ve been trying of late – Issan, Vientiane, Chalong Bay, Laodi. Like them, the Toucan white straddles the divide between too much and too little, between pillow and hammer, and finds the balancing point between them all.  It’s an unassuming but really good white rum, one of an increasing number of unsung heroes of the blancworld which one should try for no other reason than to be pleased by something that wants to do nothing else.

(#584)(83/100)

Dec 302018
 

Take this as less a review, than a description of my experience with a rum I didn’t know what to do with.

*

I have been sitting on this review for over a year, alternately confused and disgusted and wondering and puzzled.  It was a rum like nothing I’d ever had before, tawdry and smelly and meaty, an open sewer of a rum, a discarded tart’s handkerchief, yet I could not believe it could actually be so.  No reputable company – no company period – would willingly release such a product into the wild without reason, so what was I missing? Was it me and a degraded sense of smell and taste? Was it – as initially described in my notes – one of the worst hogo-laden bastards ever made, was it a contaminated sample…or a vanguard of the the taken-to-weaponizable-extremes dunder detonations of the New Jamaicans?

It took the Velier-issued NRJ TECA specifically for me to go back to this one sample (sent to me by that connoisseur of Asian rum junkies, John Go, who I’m sure is grinning at my experience) and give it another shot a year later, and perhaps it was also the complete faith I had that Luca Gargano would never release a substandard rum, which made me finally come to grips with the TECA’s Japanese equivalent and understand that perhaps they had been ahead of the curve all along. Or perhaps not.

Because for the unprepared (as I was), the nose of this rum is edging right up against revolting. It’s raw, rotting meat mixed with wet fruity garbage distilled into your rum glass without any attempt at dialling it down (except perhaps to 40% which is a small mercy). It’s like a lizard that died alone and unnoticed under your workplace desk and stayed there, was then soaked in diesel, drizzled with molten rubber and tar, set afire and then pelted with gray tomatoes.  That thread of rot permeates every aspect of the nose – the brine and olives and acetone/rubber smell, the maggi cubes, the hot vegetable soup and lemongrass…everything.

And much of that smell of sour funk persists on the taste (you better believe I was careful with it, even at standard strength), though here I must say it’s been transmuted into something more bearable.  It’s hot and thin and sharp, reminding me of Chinese 5-spice, coriander, aji-no-moto and ginger with a little soy and green onions sprinkled over a good fried rice, plus sugar water and watery fruits like papaya and pears.  Under it all is that earthy and musky taste, not so evident but always there, and that to some extent spoils the overall experience – or enhances it depending on your tolerance for high levels of dunder in your rum. The finish was relatively short and intermediate, with some teriyaki and sweet soya and very faint molasses…and the memory of that lizard.

All right so that sounds like crap right?  Sure it does. My initial sentiments were so negative I was afraid to score the damn thing.  I had never had an experience of such intensity before, of such off-the-wall tastes that I could not seriously associate with rums.  And for the record, nobody else I spoke to (those who had tried it) felt the same way about it.

So it became a question of seeing who made it and how it was made, to see if that shed any light on the matter. I talked to a few of my correspondents in Japan and came up empty.  Yes they knew of the rum, no they had not heard any reports of anything such as I described, and no there was nothing particularly unusual about the production methods employed by Kikusui Shuzo distillery on Honshu, using Shikoku sugar cane which they process on a column still and age for three years.  In fact, these boys are the ones making the Ryoma 7 year old rum, which I remembered having similarly odd (if not as feral) smells and tastes, but much gentler and much better integrated into the overall drink. Seven Seas rum is now imported into Germany, but I can’t entirely rid myself of the feeling that it’s really not meant for the export market, which might explain why it’s not mentioned much.  On the other hand, maybe rum reviewers are keeling over left and right after a sip but before they get anything to print, so who knows?

Anyway, enough of the snark.  Bluntly, I tried the Seven Seas in 2017 and didn’t like it and felt it was over the top, a badly made product that was off on balance, complexity and taste.  In 2018 Velier’s National Rums of Jamaica convinced me there was method behind the madness, I had perhaps been ignorant and too harsh and that something in the production methodology paralleled the high congener and ester levels of the TECA, even if I could find no confirmation of the matter.  Because of the uncertainties I’m going to officially leave it as unscored, because I feel my original 65 was too low but I don’t know enough and feel too ambivalent to rate it higher. Assuming my ideas are correct, then I’d ramp it up to 74….but no more. Even properly made as a true rum, it’s not enough to convince me I want to buy the bottle. I’m fully prepared to accept that my experience may have been unique to me; and I love the funky Jamaican style — but neither point is quite enough to make me want to risk this Japanese rum a third time.

(#585)(Unscored)

Dec 282018
 

Just as we don’t see Americans making too many full proof rums, it’s also hard to see them making true agricoles, especially since the term is so tightly bound up with the spirits of the French islands.

Agricole, let it be remembered, is the French term for agricultural rums made from pure sugar cane juice, and called such to distinguish them (not without a little Gallic disdain, to be sure) from traditionnels, or traditional rums, which are made from molasses, a by product of the sugar making process. For the most part, having much to do with the finances, molasses rums are much preferred by producers, because the issues of storage and spoilage which afflicts cane juice (it can go bad in just a few days) – that’s one reason why agricoles are closely associated with actual sugar estates with a distillery nearby – not always easy in a country the size of the USA where there is much greater separation between the two.

In the case of St. George’s, a 1982-established California distillery much better known for its gins, absinthes, vodkas and whiskies, they get their fresh cut cane from Imperial Valley just to the east of San Diego along the Mexican border, and when a load comes in, they crush it immediately, add the yeast and ferment (duration unknown) before running it through a pot still (Josh Miller spoke of a hybrid pot/column still when he visited them in 2013 but St. George’s wrote to me and said “pot” for sure).  The resultant spirit is rested for a short while in stainless steel tanks, with some being drawn off to age for a few years in oak, the rest being bottled at 43%. My version was based on the 2014 harvest according to the sample info, and was therefore issued in that year.

On the nose…oy!  What was this? Vegetable soup, or (take your pick) meatballs, dumplings, dim sum or spring rolls…that kind of thing.  Also vinegar, soy, pickles and fish sauce, a pot of brine and what felt like three bags of olives. Behind all that is a sharp edge, like a red wine gone off somehow, and whatever fruits there were took a reluctant step back – so much so that the first thoughts that ran through my mind as I smelled the rum was it was a low rent clairin that tried for the brass ring but ran out of steam.  Still – nice. Adventurous. Different. I like that in a white rum.

Alas, the palate, after that jarringly original overture that so piqued my interest, seemed to go to sleep, a function of the 43% ABV maybe, and a reminder that pungent rums like unaged whites don’t always succeed when dialled down to a somnolent standard strength.  Still, it did wake up after I ignored it for a bit, and gave a twitch of sugar water and watermelons, fresh-cut pears, vanilla and citrus, very light and very pleasant. Yes there was a sort of creaminess and black bread, behind which lurked the brine and olives (lots of both), but the rum seemed to have problems deciding whether it wanted to be a crowd pleaser or something truly original such as the nose had promised, and the finish – long, dry, salty, lightly fruity, sweetly watery – just followed the palate into a docile conclusion.

Truth is, the whole experience was schizophrenic – it started off with fire and smoke and major f**ken attitude, then just lost its mojo and sagged against the wall.  For all the unbalanced helping of crazy with which it opened, I liked that off-kilter nose a lot better than everything that followed because it showed all the potential that failed to be realized later on. An unaged pot-still white should be a little off-base – anything else and you have a mere cocktail ingredient and there are already enough of those around.

That said, it’s not that I actively disliked the rum…just that I felt there was nothing serious here: nothing badass that dared to offend…or inspire (say what you will about the TECC and TECA rums from NRJ and their barking-mad taste profiles, they had real balles).  So, at end, it’s a light alcohol with great promise (how it smelled) and too little follow-through (palate and finish). Cyril of DuRhum reviewed this same edition, scored it at 77 and provided some great details on the company, and it was tasty enough to make Josh Miller wax rhapsodic in 2013 when he visited the place, tried some and recommended it highly both by itself and in a Ti-punch (you need to read his 10/10 scored review as a serious counterpoint to mine and Cyril’s) – but here I have to be somewhat less enthusiastic based on my own tasting five years down the road.

(#583)(76/100)


Other notes

  • Neither this rum or its lightly aged brother is listed on the St. George’s website.  When I touched base with them, they sadly informed me that because of the difficulty of acquiring fresh cane, they have ceased rum production for “a number of years,” though they remain on the lookout for new and stable sources.  For the moment, they’re not making any.
  • An irrelevant aside to this review is that I inadvertently tried it twice: once in 2017 based on a sample sent to me (totally blind) by John Go; and the second time in 2018, this time one I bought on a whim.  In both cases my tasting notes were practically identical, and so was my score.  I think this is an innovative, intriguing rum from the US which can and should be tried if possible.

 

Dec 242018
 

My own personal memories of the Hampden Overproof will always be combined with the Tasting of the Century in London, where we tried those magnificent old rums the Harewood 1780, St James 1885, Bally 1924 and Skeldon 1978…and the two new Hampdens. Truth to tell, my focus was so fiercely on that geriatric quartet, that I had little time to pay attention to the twins….time kind of ran out on me, and I could barely do them justice. So knowing I had the bottles in Berlin, I waited until October and then dealt with them there again.

Velier, as is now quite well known, has dibs on the distribution of Hampden rums from 2018 (and, I think, 2019) through their new organization of La Maison & Velier.  Both the 46% and the 60% versions of the rum are the same, the former just being diluted down, so in this review I’ll be talking about the overproof version, although the notes are the same for either, with the strength being the only true variable.

Technical schtick for the rum curious: what we have here is a rum based on fermentation with wild yeast, distilled in 2010 on a double retort copper pot still; the ageing was fully tropical for eight years and it was bottled in 2018; the level of esters was not disclosed except insofar as to note it was “very high”; and of course, no additives of any kind, not sugar, not colouring, nothing.  All of which, by the way, is on the hugely informative label that in its graphic detail is somewhat at odds with the famed Spartan labels of yore, but never mind. One thing that isn’t on the label is the outturn, but the source was 31 barrels, so assuming a 6% angel’s share per year, we can estimate that around 10,000 bottles were released into the global market.

What always surprises me about Hampden rums is how relatively restrained they are, irrespective of the strength.  You expect that say, from an exquisitely blended Appleton, and certainly do not from Zan Kong’s Worthy Park offerings which cheerfully lunge out of the bottle like a hungry face-hugger, yet Hampdens find a sweet spot between the two that is nothing short of delectable.  The nose is a combination of soft and crisp, initially redolent of pencil shavings, paraffin, varnish and sawdust, bitter chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, damp, freshly turned earth and tar, and, like many such strong rums, rewards patience as these aromas develop, and then fade.  They are then replaced by green grapes, unripe mangos, and lots of sharper, unripe-but-sweet fruits, balsamic vinegar, sweet gherkins and a very nice background of aromatic tobacco and port-infused cigarillos.

Ah, and the taste – really nice.  Strong and bordering in sharp, yet even at 60% ABV it presents as amazingly controlled, even moderate.  The tastes are all there, deep and intense, rolling easily and crisply across the palate, yet not so ester-heavy as might be inferred from the label.  You’d laugh when I say that I tasted well-oiled leather and sweaty shoes, and then take comfort in more traditional flavours of brine, olives, maggi cubes, cardboard, black bread and cereals (there’s a sort of creamy aspect to the whole experience I found very pleasing), which formed a bed upon which dates, figs, crisp peaches and pears and mangoes rested easily, dusted over with a lovely hint of cumin and cinnamon and lemon peel, leading into a crisp, snappy finish that sumed things up nicely, mostly with sharper fruits and crushed hazelnuts, lemon zest and that odd bit of tar from the nose making a belated appearance (perhaps out of mischief).

It’s possible that gently diluting the rum to about 55% from 60% might make it more approachable and an easier drink: for my money, it’s damn near perfect for what it is, a really well blended Jamaican which even Sandor Clegane might like, something that enhances the street cred of both estate and country.  It requires, like all full-proof, dunder-squirting yardies, some patience; it’s a drink to savour, not swill, and is an exemplary rum in almost all aspects of its profile.

I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that my appreciation for righteously funky Jamaicans vacillates between Worthy Park and Hampden (though it must be acknowledged that Plantation is making inroads, and the Compagnie’s New Yarmouth rums also deserve a place at the table).  It’s when you try something as powerful and tasty as this that you understand why the comparisons can and need to be made. We are living in a Golden Age of new Jamaican rums, where pole position is being taken over and held by exactingly made blends produced by the distillery of origin, retaining all their unique heritage and profiles, rather than an unknown mix marketed under the uninformative sobriquet of “Jamaican rum”.

What seems to have happened is that after years and decades of somnolence, rum aficionados gradually got acquainted (or re-acquainted) with estate-specific rums from Jamaica that weren’t Appleton as a consequence of  the efforts of the continental independents.  Through the limited single cask releases of a few hundred bottles here and there, we began to recognize the individuality, the idiosyncrasy – the sheer dynamism – of Monymusk, of New Yarmouth, of Worthy Park…and of Hampden. That gradually-building groundswell of appreciation has turned into a roaring wave in 2018, and this edition of a really superlative rum is the result – thousands of bottles, not just a few hundred, all coming from Hampden, all made and developed and aged there, and meant for all of us who love the massive taste bombs out of the island. It is, in my own estimation, one of those rums whose reputation will only increase with the passage of the years, and to have tasted the first versions out of the gate was and remains nothing less than a privilege.

(#582)(89/100)


Other Notes

Luca Gargano has made it clear that these are not Velier rums – his company is just the distributor.  I chose to believe his fingerprints are on the bottles nevertheless, most likely in the selection of which 31 barrels made up the blend.  However, in accordance with his wishes regarding attribution, I have not referred to this as a “Velier Hampden Estate Overproof Rum.” Though I think many of us harbour our own thoughts on the matter.

Dec 222018
 

We don’t much associate the USA with cask strength rums, though of course they do exist, and the country has a long history with the spirit.  These days, even allowing for a swelling wave of rum appreciation here and there, the US rum market seems to be primarily made up of low-end mass-market hooch from massive conglomerates at one end, and micro-distilleries of wildly varying output quality at the other. It’s the micros which interest me, because the US doesn’t do “independent bottlers” as such – they do this, and that makes things interesting, since one never knows what new and amazing juice may be lurking just around the corner, made with whatever bathtub-and-shower-nozzle-held-together-with-duct-tape distillery apparatus they’ve slapped together.

Balcones, a central Texan outfit from Waco named after a fault line running through the southern half of the state, is a bit more than the kind of happy backyard operation my remarks above imply — they are a primarily whiskey distilling operation, started a decade ago, and their website has a great backstory about how it all started in an old welding shop under a bridge in Waco into which, after some refurbishment, they installed copper pot stills from Portugal, and shoehorned a whisky distillery inside. And after a few years, they began to make rum as well, because, well, “We like to drink rum so why not give it a shot?” as Thomas Mote the distillery manager cheerfully remarked to me.

Okay, so let’s see if they succeeded. Consider first the nose.  For all of the 63.9% it’s quite warm and smooth: it started out with a musky scent of damp earth, a sort of mustiness that reminded me a of a warehouse chock-a-block full of old cardboard boxes, brine, salt and sweet olives.  Then it became somewhat more bourbon-like – raisins, molasses, fleshy fruits starting to go off, then caramel, nuts, butter, vanilla and ice cream. It smells curiously indeterminate – which is why detailed fruity notes can’t be listed – you know there’s a lot of stuff here, but it’s tough to come to grips with them individually.

On the palate, after exercising all the usual precautions for a rum this strong (take a rather small sip until things settle down, because the taste is sharper than the nose leads one to believe and remember, it’s a 63.9% saloon brawler that does its very best to clean the bar counter and rip your face off at the same time), I sensed a salt-rye-fruit-bourbon soupcon of flavours on the palate: a combo of salt, sweet and sour — vegetable soup, sour cream, maggi cubes and deep caramel and vanilla notes, all at once, circling each other for dominance and advantage. The fruits – papayas, very ripe peaches in syrup – were set off by muscovado sugar and light molasses without much citrus lending a sharper note (though there was some) and to which was added hazelnuts, some sweet olives and brine, dark chocolate, cherries, fading out quietly (and lengthily) to a pleasant, warm, aromatic conclusion redolent of cherries, flambeed bananas and molasses, but nothing significantly different from the tastes that had preceded it.

Balcones was swiftly and remarkably forthcoming to all the usual inquiries, noting that it was 100% pot still and used a blend of Barbados-Style Lite Molasses and Blackstrap from Louisiana and Guatemala respectively, fermented for 4-5 weeks (much longer than anything else they make), and they play around a bit with yeast and an undisclosed dunder process to add to the flavour profile. Ageing is between 2-4 years and the rum is made in annual batches of a few thousand bottles at most, and no additives of any kind (“oak and time!” they told me proudly).

Still, taking apart those tasting notes, a number of things jump out. The caramel and vanilla and molasses notes are not precisely domineering, but very much in evidence, to the point of taking over — there’s a sort of dampening effect of the musky and more solid flavours which prevent sharper, crisper, clearer ones (fruits and citrus and florals) from emerging properly and engaging. The range of tastes on show lacked the complexities one expects of even a lightly aged rum, and yes, it actually has a profile reminiscent of a rye or bourbon, maybe a tad richer and sweeter and more congener-rich….more rum-like, if you will. It’s a pretty nifty drink for that strength.  It reminds me of my first encounter with Potter’s Dark, yet it also presents as simpler than it could have been, which makes me ask myself, as I always do with such a profile and which seems to be somewhat of a characteristic of many of the US rums I’ve tried, what is it they really want to be making and was too much whisky lore infusing the rum?

I’ve remarked before that most new and smaller US distilleries seem to be more interested in making whiskies and produce rums as something of an afterthought. Whether not not that’s the case here, Balcones has evidently given the matter quite a bit more thought than usual, and come up with a product that deserves real attention (the business with the yeast and dunder points there). It’s unquestionably a rum; it’s got real fire in its jock; it’s rum-like enough to please, while also original enough to encourage a double-take, and an all-round powerhouse fun rum. I think I’m going to keep an eye on these guys going forward – there’s some interesting stuff going on in Waco, and I hope that they expend their production to a larger stable, aged more, in the years to come.  Certainly their initial full proof rums give us a lot of reason to appreciate what they’ve done so far.

(#581)(81/100)


Other notes

The Special Release is issued annually since 2013 (twice in 2014), but identifying the year is difficult.  To the best of my knowledge, mine is from the 2016 season.