Sep 162019
 

Going back to familiar rums we liked back in the day is something in the nature of revisiting the comfort food of our youth. The memories are strong and consoling, recalling a time of less snark, less cynicism and a whole lot more enjoyment. Surely such positively-associated, fondly-remembered rums deserve a place on the high-scorers list? The problem is, that’s all some of these are – memories.  The reality, informed by a more discerning palate and more varied experience, tends to deflate such candidates and show us both what we liked about them then, and maybe don’t so much, now.

Which brings me to the Zafra 21 Master Reserve which is almighty peculiar in that I tried it a lot in the early years, yet never took notes on it…and almost nobody else in the current rum-reviewing landscape has either.  Back then, I really liked Panamanian rums, before their overall placid sameness eroded my enjoyment and other, more exciting, forceful, original rums came to dominate my pantheon. Taste-wise, I always associated and linked the Zafra — perhaps subliminally — to Diplomatico, Zaya and Zacapa – and (to a lesser extent) to Dictador and Santa Teresa.  They all share certain similarities…a smooth velvety mouthfeel, sometimes solera production, with an oft-accompanying sweetness so characteristic of the type…and a kind of amazing longevity and popularity. I mean, just take a gander at the notes on Rum Ratings – almost 80% of the 201 respondents give it a score of 8 or better. That’s far from the massive 1,472 ratings of the Zacapa 23 or the 1,721 of the Diplo Res Ex, but it shows something of the way popular opinion bends for these soft Latin-style rums.

Still, it’s been many years, so has anything except my hairline and chubbier corpus changed in any significant way here? For example, is it still made the same way?  Does it still taste as easy-going and slickly-smooth as my recollections suggest? 

Based on research I had done at the time, and again for this essay, I’d say it is.  It remains a rum whose original blend dating back to 2009 when it was first released, has not appreciably changed.  It’s a Panamanian column-still rum created by Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez who is better known for both his moniker “The Minister of Rum” (not to be taken seriously, since there is no such position), and a true 21 year old aged in bourbon barrels – though trust issues such as those which afflict other aged Panamanians in these sadly suspicious times might make one take that with a pinch of salt.  In yet another odd thing about the rum, nobody has ever done a hydrometer test on it and post-2010, good look finding a reviewer who’s written anything (back then the reviews were mostly positive, but of course Johnny Drejer had yet to upend the rumiverse for us).

Yet for its adherents the Zafra 21 YO remains a popular — if faded — star, and people like it, and trying the gold-brown rum makes it clear why this is the case.  At 40% it’s hardly going to blow your socks off, and when inhaled, there was nothing I wasn’t already expecting: caramel, creme brulee, dark fruit, leather, sawdust.  There were subtler notes of cinnamon, vanilla, brown sugar and ginger. The problem with it – for me at any rate – was that it was just too faint – it smelled watered-down, weak, with hardly any kind of serious enjoyment available for the nose, and complexity of any kind was just a vanished dream.

Nothing about the palate and mouthfeel greatly impressed me either, though I must admit, it was nice. Inoffensive might be the kindest word I can come up with to describe the faint driness, saltiness and sweetness, too vague to make a serious impression (and I was trying this first thing in the morning before a single rum greater than 45% had crossed my glass).  Caramel, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon led off, with some additional brown sugar, treacle, molasses. Trying to elicit and identify the fruity notes was as pointless as sniffing an orchard shut down for the winter. It simply had no edge, and stayed light, warm and smooth, with a finish that was short, sweet and light, with light oak, vanilla, pancake syrup and some peanut butter.  Big yawn. How 21 years of ageing in the tropics can impart so little character is the great weakness of the rum, and raises all kinds of flags to the wary.

Look, the Zafra 21 is a completely comfortable drink, like a worn pair of familiar slippers and if that lights up your wheelhouse, go for it, you won’t be disappointed.  The thing is, that’s all you get – it’s something of a one-trick pony, lacking in excitement or oomph of any kind. Thinking I was being unduly critical, I sampled nothing but 40% rums all day and then returned, but it still failed to impress. It’s one of those rums we enjoy for its unaggressive nature and decent profile, but sooner or later, when we have moved on and come back to it, we realize that the nose is anemic, the taste boring, the complexity a let down and the finish lacking any kind of fire.  Then we sit back and wonder how we ever loved it so much at all.

(#657)(75/100)

Sep 122019
 

This is a rhum to drive you to tears, or transports of ecstasy, because it’s almost guaranteed that either you’ll regret you never tried it (though you’ll only know that after you do), or fall in lust with it immediately, then bang yourself over the head for not buying more when you did.  It’s a white rhum screwed tight to a screaming 60%, unaged, and made, Lord save us, from St. James’s old pot stills — which created a juice so unlike anything else from the island that people crossed themselves when they saw it, it couldn’t be labelled as an AOC, could not even be designated as Martinique rhum, and all we get is the almost embarrassed note that it’s made from “French Antilles.” 

White rhums like this have a strong and cheerfully disreputable DNA, going back right to the beginning when all the various estates and plantations had was leaky, farty stills slapped together from cast-aside copper, steel dinner plates and maybe a leather shoe or three. We’ve had primitives like this before – the Sajous and the Paranubes come to mind, Sangar from Liberia, MIM from Ghana, South Africa’s Mhoba, the Barik rhums from Moscoso’s jury rigged column still, and even Habitation Velier’s Foursquare and TECA whites, and that mastodon of the L’Esprit from Guyana.  Yet I assure you, this innocent and demure looking pale yellow-white was on a level all its own, not just because of its origins, but because it hearkens back to rum’s origins while not forgetting a single damn thing St. James have ever learned in over two hundred years, about how to make sh*t that knocks you flat.

And also because, man, did this thing ever smell pungent — it was a bottle-sized 60-proof ode to whup-ass and rumstink.  A barrage of nail polish, spoiling fruit, wood chips, wax, salt, and gluey notes all charged right out without pause or hesitation, spoiling for a fight. Even without making a point of it, the rhum unfolded with uncommon firmness into aromas of sweet, grassy herbals.green apples, sugar water, dill, cider, vegetables, toasted bread, a sharp mature cheddar, all mixed in with moist dark earth, sugar water, biscuits, orange peel. And the balance of all of them was really quite good, truly.

Could the palate live up to all that stuff I was smelling? I got the impression it was sure trying, and it displayed an uncommon lack of roughness and jagged edges for something at that strength (the L’Esprit 85% white had a similar quality, you’ll recall).  It slid smoothly across the tongue before hijacking it with tastes of sugar water, white chocolate, almonds cumin, citrus peel and brine. Then, as if unsatisfied, it added ashes, warm bread fresh from the oven, ginger snaps, cloves, soursop…in all that time it never crossed into something excessively sweet or allowed any one element to dominate the others, and while it lacked the true complexity of a rhum I would call “great”, it didn’t fall much short either, and the finish wrapped things up with a flourish – warm, really long, with ginger, cinnamon,  herbs, citrus peel and bitter chocolate and sea salt.

Until 2019, the Coeur de Chauffe — “the Heart of the Distillation” — was an underground cult rum limited to no more than 5000 liters per year, sold only on Martinique itself. It is, in point of fact, not an AOC rhum at all since it is a pot still product. Having tried it twice now and come to grips with its elemental nature, I think of it as a throwback, an ancestor, an old-style white agricole from Ago. I appreciate it’s a rhum that will likely find only a niche audience and is not for the sweet-toothed who love gentler products; but anyone who loves his juice should one day try sampling something like this, if only to experience new tastes, or old ones expressed in different ways.  I drank it with St. James’s own more traditional Fleur de Canne 50% and some of DePaz’s work — yet somehow, even though they were all good, all tasty, it’s this one I remember for its fire and its taste and its furious energy. Clearly something so pungent and unique could not be kept hidden forever, and for all those looking for something interesting, perhaps even an alternative to some of Jamaica’s funky bad boys, well, here may just be the droid you’re looking for.

(#656)(86.5/100)

Sep 092019
 

Usually, I don’t worry about not acquiring all those aged, rare or otherwise amazing rums that make the social headlines, since I know that most exceed the reach of my scrawny purse, my ability to beg, or the extent my nonexistent wheedling skills.  Too, after ten years of this, I’ve been fortunate enough to try so many rums that many of my personal unicorns have been tried and written about. Therefore I know it will strike many as rather peculiar that for the last two years I’ve been hunting for two very special rums issued by Tristan Prodhomme – and this one was the one I wanted most

Why?  Because L’Esprit, in making the great white shark of the Diamond 2017, did Velier one step better, creating a rum whose stats would make just about every writer reflexively haul out the word “beast” and be correct to use it, whose profile not just encourages but demands adverbial density — and which I’m convinced will stand the test of time to become a baseline for all the makes-no-sense-but-by-God-we’re-glad-to-have-tried-it white rums that will be issued from now until the Rapture.  It’s nobody’s unicorn but my own, and I’ve been looking for it since the day it got issued.

The Diamond white was confirmed to me as being a Port Mourant unaged pot still rum; it sat there, dissolving a stainless steel tank between 2017 and 2018, until Tristan, in a fit of madness, joy, bravery or unbridled enthusiasm (maybe all these at once) engendered by the birth of his son Edgar in 2017, decided to commemorate the event by releasing 276 bottles at 85% – and I don’t know what happened, but they seemed to sink without a trace. But with the rise of white rums as taste-stuffed forces in their own right, I certainly hope others will get a chance to try something as torqued-to-the-max as this one is.

I’ll get straight to it, then, and merely mention that at 85% ABV, care was taken – I poured, covered the glass, waited, removed the cover, and prudently stepped way back.

Which was the right thing to do because a rapidly expanding blast wave of rumstink assailed me without hesitation.  An enormously pungent cloud of wax and brine and tequila notes hit me broadside, so hot and fierce that somewhere in the basement I heard the Sajous weep. It was a massively powerful, sharp and meaty nose, squirting aromas with the cheerful abandon of a construction haul truck which knows nobody is likely to argue with it for the command of the road. Brine, olives, dates and figs and some sort of faintly rank meat was what I got straight off, batted aside by the smells of licorice, light molasses, sugar water and flowers, before bags and bags of fruit took  over. Ripe yellow guavas, mangoes, papaya, avocado, overripe oranges, pears…the rum just wouldn’t stop spitting out more and more as time went on.

As for the taste, well, wow.  My tongue was battered hard and fast with the sheer range of what was on display here. Being unaged and issued as a white didn’t hurt it or diminish it in the slightest, I assure you, because the integration was so well done that it actually tasted twenty proof points lower. It was redolent of brine.  Of salt fish with Guyanese chilis (ask Gregers about those, I dare ya). Of wax, floor polish, olives. Of licorice. Of fresh scallions in a vegetable soup (I know, right?). Only when these dissipated did more regular flavours timidly come out to let me know they existed…flowers, fruits, lemon meringue pie, raisins, pears, oranges, bitter chocolate, cucumbers and watermelon.  I had this glass going for two hours and it was every bit as pungent at the end as it had been at the beginning, and the finish – epic, long-lasting, hot, spicy – was similarly strong, diminished itself not one bit, and provided closing memories of sweet soya, brine, swank, pears and other light fruits. It was almost a disappointment when the experience was finally over. And lest you think my own experience is a little over-enthusiastic, Jazz Singh from Skylark got poured a shot of this thing at 4pm, and was still tasting, mumbling and drooling rapturously about the profile five hours later when we shoehorned him into an Uber. It’s that kind of rum.

The best thing about it may well be that it reminds us of the sheer range of what rums are, how over-the-top and off-the-scale they can be, even as so many rum makers try to inhabit the inoffensive centre. There are few indies or producers out there who would dare bottle something this feral as single mindedly as Tristan has done here – only the Habitation Velier whites immediately spring to mind.  It’s an unaged white badass that boasts an impeccable pedigree from one of the most famous stills in the world, it has a proof nearly off the scale, and is not for the meek, the beginner, or the careful. One either dives in and takes the entire shot, or not at all — because the Diamond white is a stunner, a slayer, a majestically vulgar shot of pure canecutter sweat, proofed and jacked to the max, and if it’s not one of the best rums I’ve had all year, I can absolutely assure you it will always rank among the most memorable.

(#655)(85/100)


Other notes

I keep score, and the Diamond takes its place among the growliest overproofs ever issued.  I’ve tasted the following:

Sep 062019
 

If Diplomatico’s Distillery Collection No.1 (the one from the kettle still) was a garden sprinkler trying to be a fire hose, then this one is no more than a quick leg-lift against the tree.  It is a decent enough rum for the style, but lacks any kind of serious chops to make it rise above its more famous and distinct Distillery Collection siblings, or even that perennial favourite of the tippling class, the Diplo Res Ex. And that makes its price-point and supposed street cred a dubious proposition at best.

The Distillery Collection is an attempt by Diplomatico to capitalize on their various stills, much as St. Lucia Distillers or DDL do. The rums also function — maybe — to deflect attention away from their traditionally added-to products of the line, or even to break into previously untapped and dismissed niche markets for the more discerning rum drinkers. Unlike the No.1 which comes from a pot still, the No.2 owes its origin to a straight-out French-made Barbet column still, which leads one to wonder what the purpose was, because what came out the other end wasn’t anything we haven’t had before.

I’m not kidding. The nose was lighter than the No.1 — no shocks there, though the ABV was the same in both, 47%. Some smokiness, light oak, salt caramel ice cream, tobacco, molasses and some brine but it lacks any kind of acidic bite of (say) citrus, and there is barely any of the fruitiness that would have made it better.  You’ll sense the vague sweetness of bananas, squash, papaya, melons – those neutral fruits which add little to the experience – maybe an apple starting to go, and will have to be content with that.

Unsurprisingly, the palate dials into those same coordinates: it’s warm, light, smooth, unaggressive, with the musky tastes of muscovado sugar, molasses, caramel, toffee, toblerone (the white kind). Then it falters, not because of these things, but because of the stuff that’s not there, the tart balancing notes, the sharper parts of the profile that are notable only for their lightness or complete absence – florals, fruits, oakiness.  Sometimes a reasonably robust proof point rescues or bolsters such deficiencies – not here. It all leads to a lacklustre finish of medium length which displays no closing notes one would hurry back to the glass to experience: it had some salt caramel, light and overripe fruit notes, some vanilla, and it was all quite light and – dare I say it? – indifferent.

Ivar de Laat, the Dutch-born FB-commentator who recently began his own site Rum Revelations, made an interesting comment on the No.1 and Diplomatico – that they were light rum makers and it would be too much to expect them to make big and bold rums without a massive internal cultural change…which he felt was unlikely given that such rums are their style, the one upon which their revenues rested. And “as long as it’s making them money, I don’t see why they should change it.” 

That’s the subtle trap of these rums, because if producers only make what sells, then there’d be ten times as many dosed rums out there (pure rums at high proof have to be really good to be sellers to succeed, because their prices are higher). We are being offered incremental change at a premium, but without real improvement or major difference. It’s cosmetic. In the case of the No.2, it’s plain boring. I could live with such a deficiency in the pot still No.1 which was at least interesting, if ultimately stopping short of being a rave recommendation.  But in a column still product being marketed with pizzazz and hooplah and a tantara of trumpets…naaah.  

So I give it 75, which is on the median between good and bad.  It’s a rum that tastes like one and technically can be had without a problem — it would be incorrect for me to penalize what is not a really crappy product, and which many will like (assuming they can afford it, or want to). Its true failure lies in the expectations it raises and the price it commands, without deserving either. When it comes to the loosening of my purse strings, then, like Bartleby, I think I’ll chose not to.

(#654)(75/100)

Sep 042019
 

Outside the independents who release from all points of the compass, the rums du jour are the New Jamaicans, the pot still Bajans, the wooden-still Guyanese, the fancy St Lucian still-experimentals, French island aged and unaged rums, new Asian whites, grogues and of course the clairins (and we’re all waiting for Renegade).  In the maelstrom of so many releases, Latin rums as a class are less popular than in their heydey, outside their countries of origin, and even I tend to view them with some impatience at times, wondering when they’re going to get back in the game with some sh*t-kicking romper-stomper of their own.

Although Diplomatico’s Reserva Exclusiva sells well and remains popular, the company’s online buzz as a whole has sagged in recent years. Efforts to revive the global awareness of the Diplo-brand with exclusive premiums like the Single Vintage or the Ambassador may have succeeded —  but the absence of any stories or articles or reviews or gleeful “I got this!” photos on social media suggests a rather more downbeat story for the company that was once known as Problemático. Their success is therefore hard to gauge in an increasingly crowded and informed marketplace spoiled for choice at every price point (and every additive point, the wit suggests).

Things took an interesting turn around 2017 when No.1 and No.2 versions of the “Distillery Collection” were trotted out with much fanfare. The purpose of the Collection was to showcase other stills they had – a “kettle” (sort of a boosted pot still, for release No.1), a Barbet continuous still (release No.2) and an undefined pot still (release No.3, released in April 2019). These stills, all of which were acquired the year the original company was founded, in 1959, were and are used to provide the distillates which are blended into their various commercial marques, and  until recently, such blends were all we got. One imagines that they took note of DDL’s killer app and the rush by Jamaica and St Lucia to work with the concept and decided to go beyond their blended range into something more specific. 

We’ll look at the No.1 today.  This derives from cane “honey” (which is just rendered cane juice), aged for six years in American oak, a 5000 bottle outturn of 47% ABV. The question of course, is whether it deserves the cachet of “premium” and the price it commands, and whether it displaces the perennial front runner, the DRE (marketed as ‘Botucal’ in Germany).

So, briefly, tasing notes, then.  Nose: started off promisingly with some pencil shavings, fresh and damp sawdust, followed by brine, good olive oil and leather.  These aromas were balanced off with overripe cherries, citrus, apples, ripe grapes, which in turn provided a backdrop for heavier, muskier notes of caramel, molasses and oatmeal cookies. So definitely a step away from the more standard fare, and the 47% ABV helped give the nose a firmness and coherence that a lesser proof would not have.

I also liked the palate — up to a point. It was warm and fragrant and yeasty as bread fresh out of the oven. One could taste vanilla, treacle, oatmeal with chocolate chips and butter, a nice creamy/cereal-y sort of amalgam, and fruits then popped up — light apples, pears, watermelon, raisins, that kind of thing — combining with a delicate citrus line, leading to a short, arm, inoffensive finish that was mostly vanilla, faint brine and fruity notes, all vanishing quite quickly.

Out of six Spanish/Latin-type rums I ran past each other that day when I had nothing better to do, this Diplomatico surprised me by scoring, in aggregate right up there with the Santiago de Cuba 25 YO.  That was unexpected, almost unprecedented given the disparity in ages. The strength had something to do with it (40% SdC vs 47% Diplo), but overall the Diplo No.1 – even within its limitations – is simply more intriguing, and more original, while the Santiago was, well, very much in the vein of much we had seen before (though quite well done, let me hasten to add).

In the past, I expressed hope for a more aggressive, rough-n-tough new rum to elevate the Latin rum category. This isn’t it. For all its new-age thinking, even 47% isn’t enough, and neither is the pot still, not entirely — because although the rum is admittedly different,  one gets the impression that the creators are still too in love with their softer Spanish rums to abandon their more soothing profiles entirely, go the whole hog and aim for a growly glute-flexing pot-still brute clocking in at 50% or greater. In trying to be all things to all people —  gain credit for something uniquely new while not pissing off the loyalists — they steered a middle course which allowed for a decent new rum to emerge….just not one that blew up the stage, the stills and everyone within a radius of fifty yards. And that’s a shame, because that’s what I wanted.

(#653)(83/100)

Aug 182019
 

The French islands provide a reviewer with a peculiar problem when trying to pick a single rum as being a “Key” anything. This is largely because Martinique and Guadeloupe are alone in the world in possessing such a gathering of world-famous rum distilleries in such a concentrated geographical space (a comparison to Islay, say, is not entirely out to lunch). Several Caribbean islands have a single large distiller (St. Lucia, Trinidad) or two (Grenada) or a few (Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica), and Haiti of course comes up for special mention — but none have so many whose names resound through the rumiverse.  So how to pick just one?

The selection of the first of what will be several candidates from the French islands – because to limit oneself just to one or two or even three is to do the entire subset of agricole rums an enormous disservice – is made even more difficult by the fact that Guadeloupe is not seen as a “pure” agricole maker. This is primarily because, of course, they sometimes mess around with both molasses and cane juice styles of rhum, and have never actively sought the AOC designation which so enhances the street cred of rhums from Martinique.

But even so, I like the rhums of Guadeloupe (Grande Terre and Basse Terre and Marie-Galante) — a lot. To me, the work of Gardal, Karukera, Bielle, Longueteau, Severin, Bellevue, Montebello, Pere Labat, Reimonenq, Capovilla and Damoiseau are as good as any the world over, and behind them all still reverbrates the majestic quality of Courcelles, the one that switched me on to agricoles all those years ago when the Little Caner was not yet the Big Caner and I was just getting serious about French island hooch.

So why start with Damoiseau?  The easiest answer is to say “Gotta begin someplace.” More seriously, it’s certainly one of the better known brands from there, the leading producer on Guadeloupe; back in 2016 I remember Josh Miller awarding their white 55% first place in his agricole challenge; years before that, Velier gained confidence to issue more full proof rums by releasing their excellent 1980 version at 60.3% (the first such strong rum in their portfolio); Matt Pietrek suggested the Damoiseau 4 year old Réserve Spécial VSOP was a great rum to have for under US$45 and a good ambassador for the country’s rum-making tradition; and lastly, I simply have good memories of most of their work I’ve tried.  But for me, the VSOP is a bit young and rough, and my affection is given to the very slightly older version which we shall get into without further ado.

Made from cane juice and then aged in ex-bourbon casks, Damoiseau has the occasional peculiarity (in my eyes, at least) of making aged rhums that don’t always or completely showcase the crisp herbal sweet grassiness we have come to associate with agricoles. Here, that isn’t the case at all…up to a point. The cane-juice-derived 5YO, which is near to standard strength (42% ABV) and therefore very approachable by those who want to dip their toes, is remarkably clean and yet still full-bodied for that strength. Immediately there is vanilla, a little oakiness, pears, prunes and the light notes of some pineapple slices.  Also cane sap and sugar water, flavoured with a dusting of cinnamon. And, oddly, a nip of molasses, brown sugar and caramel in the background, which I can’t explain, but find pleasing nevertheless.

The palate isn’t quite as sterling as the nose, though still a cut above normal: a little thin, perhaps – blame it on the 42%, which is, let’s face it, somewhat lacklustre against the shining vibrancy of the whites, so often torqued up to 50%. The rhum tastes a little dry, a little briny, with vanilla, dates, prunes, blackberries and dark grapes leading in, followed by some florals, crisp oak notes, breakfast spices, cereals…and again, that strange hint of caramel syrup and molasses poured over fresh hot pancakes flitting behind all the other tastes.  It’s a perfectly nice drink for all that, and the finish is a fitting conclusion: nice and long with oily, salty and tequila notes, to which are added light oakiness, vanillins, fruits and florals, nothing specific, nothing overly complex just the entire smorgasbord sailing into a serene conclusion.

Personally, I’d suggest that some extra strength would be useful, but by no means does that disqualify the Damoiseau 5 Year Old as a good all-rounder, equally at home in a mix of some kind or by itself. You can tell it’s been aged, it’s slightly sweet and has the requisite fruits and other flavours combining decently, and the rhum navigates its way between a light and heavy profile quite nicely. That slight touch of caramel or molasses was something I liked as well  — if memory serves, it was a similar ”contaminant” that prevented the 1980 from being released as appellation-compliant and that was why it was sold to Velier, but whether in this instance that’s deliberate or my imagination is anyone’s guess. All I can say is that for me it was there, and it did not detract but enhanced.

So at the end, the 5YO ticks all the boxes we look for in such a rhum. Young as it is, it’s a tasty, unique product from Damoiseau; it’s of reasonable strength — and therefore doesn’t frighten those now moving out of their comfort zones and getting into different styles, with some stratospheric ABV or a profile of off-the-wall lunacy; and best of all for those who just want to nibble at its edges without biting the whole thing, the price point is right on the midpoint between two other candidates for the position. It’s slightly more expensive than the VSOP, but more elegant; and cheaper than the 8 YO but more versatile.  Any of these three could be a rum that celebrates Guadeloupe, but for my money and what I want out of a rhum like this, the 5 YO is the one that nails it.

(#652)(83/100)

Aug 142019
 

Damn but this rum is strong. Standard strength among the cognoscenti has been drifting up from 40% to nearly 50% (give or take), with the low sixties selling well, and the high sixties occasionally spotted running in the wild.  But over 70% ABV, and we’re entering more rarefied territory. When people see one of these, they cross themselves like Supes when he sees green kryptonite. A sip of one, and you know what it’s like to be t-boned by a fully-armoured SUV carrying a banana-republic dictator. And all his no-neck bodyguards.

What’s all the more astounding about L’Esprit’s Guyanese Diamond 11 year old which was released at 71.4% ABV and hit the shelves about three years ago (and sank without a ripple) is how really, surprisingly, forehead-smackingly good it is. It’s the sort of rum that makes me want to rush straight over to your table, babbling and drooling, waving my hands wildly in the air and suggesting — nay, demanding — that you take a sip, just to see if I was out to lunch, or telling you the God’s honest.

Think I jest?  Well, maybe a bit.  Still…just crack the bottle and give it a smell, if you please.  Release the halitotic pachyderm. What you immediately get from this is a thick bellowing snort of licorice, wood sap, chocolate and coffee, varnish, freshly baked bread liberally coated with salt butter, vanilla and molasses, all the thick and musky notes Guyana is famous for.  It’s just huge, solid as a sledge and as hard-hitting, and that’s before the sweet marshmallows and dark fruits kick in – dates, raisins, peaches, plums, black cake. Oh yeah, and in the background there’s some glue, paint, varnish, turpentine, all lurking behind like toughs in an alleyway, knuckle dusters at the ready

As for the taste, well: that was suitably shattering, and humorous metaphors and masochism aside, the truth is that taking it neat is kind of fun. It’s thick and heavy and intense – of course it is – but by no means undrinkable, and one can spend a whole hour separating out the tasting notes: what I got was caramel ice cream, molasses, Danish butter cookies and maple syrup, followed by chocolate, coffee grounds, vanilla, licorice, freshly ground black pepper, a little brine, and with water these emerge much more forcefully.  The strength mutes the vague sweetness a bit, and the overall balance is excellent, with complex interlocking elements that I really enjoyed. When I got to the finish, I was almost sorry the experience was over: it was long and hot but not viciously sharp, exhaling chocolate, caramel, cocoa, raisins, and a vein of sweet dark sugar running through the whole experience like a blade.

Based on how it initially nosed, I started out believing this was a wooden still — by the end, I was no longer so sure. The profile actually reminded me more of the Uitvlught 1996, or even DDL’s new 2018 Skeldon and Albion Rares (and, perhaps in a stretch, the old ones). After all, although the rum is labelled “Diamond”, all the stills are located at the estate of the same name these days, so it could mean anything.  In the end Tristan did confirm that the rum was pure Diamond-column-still hooch, and given the flexibility of what can come off that thing, I can only assume that they dialled in the settings to “Uitvlught”, set it to “11” and pulled the trigger.  

DDL ceased exports of bulk rum from the wooden stills a year or two back, and the word has seeped out to the Rumiverse that we’d better get existing wooden still indie rums from Guyana quick time, because one day they’ll run out.  Yet if rums of such quality as L’Esprit has found here can come off the other still, and continue to be exported for independents to bottle and rum lovers to enjoy, then I think we need have no fear that one day we’ll be without pure, cask strength, unique rums from Guyana.  L’Esprit has almost never disappointed me with their selections, and this rum, if you can still find it with its limited outturn of 166 bottles, and take a risk with its power, is really damned good and worth seeking out, even if you do flatten a city block or two after you try it.

(#651)(89/100)


Other Notes

  • Distilled 31 May 2005, bottled May 2016. Confirmed as being column still. Red brown colour.
  • Ageing in Europe, not tropical
  • I think that L’Esprit’s sample bottles are really quite superlative, but that’s just me
Aug 122019
 

Last week, I remarked briefly on persons who are famous or excel in some aspect of their lives, who then go off an lend their names to another product, like spirits – Blackwell was one of these, George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila is another, Bailey Pryor’s Real McCoy line might be among the best known, and here is one that crossed my path not too long ago, a Hawaiian white rum made with the imprimatur of Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar who maintains a residence on Maui and has long been involved in restaurants and spirits (like Cabo Wabo tequila) as a sideline from the gigs for which he is more famous.

It’s always a toss-up whether the visibility and “fame” of such a rum is canny branding / marketing or something real, since the advertising around the associated Name usually swamps any intrinsic quality the spirit might have had to begin with. There’s a fair amount of under-the-hood background (or lack thereof) to the production of this rum, but for the moment, I want to quickly get to the tasting notes, just to get that out of the way.

First off, it’s a 40% rum, white, and filtered, so the real question is what’s the source? The back label remarks that it’s made from “first pressing of virgin Maui sugar cane” (as opposed to the slutty non-Catholic kind of cane, I’m guessing) but the YouTube video (timestamp 1:02) that promotes it suggests brown sugar (which is true) so, I dunno.  Whatever the case, it really does smell more like an agricole than a molasses-based rum: it starts, for example, with soda pop – sprite, fanta – adds bubble gum and lemon zest, and has a sort of vegetal grassy note that makes me think that the word “green” is not entirely out of place. Also iced tea with a mint leaf, and the tartness of ginnip and gooseberries.  It’s also surprisingly sharp for something at standard strength, though not enough to be annoying. 

In that promotional video, Mr. Hagar says that the most distinct thing about the rum is the nose, and I believe it, because the palate pretty much fails by simply being too weak and insufficient to carry the promise of the nose on to the tongue in any meaningful way. It’s sharp and thin, quite clear, and tastes of lemon rind, pickled gherkins, freshly mown grass, sugar water, cane juice, and with the slightly off background of really good olive oil backing it up.  But really, at end, there’s not much really there, no real complexity, and all of it goes away fast, leaving no serious aftertaste to mull over and savour and enjoy. The finish circles back to the beginning and the sense of sprite / 7-up, a bit of grass and a touch of light citrus, just not enough to provide a serious impression of any kind.

This is not really a rum to have by itself.  It’s too meek and mild, and sort of presents like an agricole that isn’t, a dry Riesling or a low-rent cachaca minus the Brazilian woods, which makes one wonder how it got made to taste that way.

And therein lies something of an issue because nowhere are the production details clearly spelled out.  Let’s start at the beginning: Mr. Hagar does not own a distillery. Instead, like Bailey Pryor, he contracts out the manufacture of the rum to another outfit, Hali’imaile Distilling, which was established in 2010 on Maui – the owners were involved in a less than stellar rum brand called Whaler’s which I personally disliked.  They in turn make a series of spirits – whiskey, vodka, gin, rum – under a brand called Pau, and what instantly makes me uneasy is that for all the bright and sparkling website videos and photos, the “History” page remarks that pineapple is used as a source material for their vodka, rum is not mentioned, and cane is nowhere noted as being utilized; note, though, that Mr. Hagar’s video mentions sugar cane and brown sugar without further elaboration, and the Hali’imaile Distilling Company did confirm they use a mash of turbinado sugar.  However, in late 2016 Hali’imaile no longer makes the Sammy’s rum.  In that year the sugar mill on Maui closed and production was shifted to Puerto Rico’s Seralles distillery, which also makes the Don Q brand – so pay close attention to your label, to see if you got a newer version of the rum, or the older Hawaiian one. Note that Levecke, the parent company of Hali’imaile, continues to be responsible for the bottling.

With some exceptions, American distillers and their rums seem to operate along such lines of “less is more” — the exceptions are usually where owners are directly involved in their production processes, ultimate products and the brands. The more supermarket-level rums give less information and expect more sales, based on slick websites, well-known promoters, unverifiable-but-wonderful origin stories and enthusiastic endorsements.  Too often such rums (even ones labelled “Super Premium” like this one) when looked at in depth, show nothing but a hollow shell and a sadly lacking depth of quality. I can’t entirely say that about the Beach Bar Rum – it does have some nice and light notes, does not taste added-to and is not unpleasant in any major way – but the lack of information behind how it is made, and its low-key profile, makes me want to use it only for exactly what it is made: not neat, and not to share with my rum chums — just as a relatively unexceptional daiquiri ingredient.

(#650)(72/100)


Other notes

  • The rum is filtered but I am unable to say whether it has been aged. The video by Let’s Tiki speaks of an oak taste that I did not detect myself.
Aug 072019
 

The Blackwell Fine Jamaican rum is the result of another one of those stories we hear these days, about somebody with good intentions, oodles of spare cash, and some street cred in another creative field of endeavour (music, movies, TV, writing, master of the universe, Wall Street, take your pick), deciding they can make [insert product name here] just because (a) they always liked it (b) they have eaten / drunk / smoked / worn / read / watched / experienced it for many years and (c) they want to immortalize their own preference for said product.  “How difficult can it be?” you can almost hear them asking themselves, with a sort of endearing innocence. When that kind of thing is done well and with focus, we get Renegade. When done with less, we get this.

With all due respect to the makers who expended effort and sweat to bring this to market, I gotta be honest and say the Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum doesn’t impress. Part of that is the promo materials, which remark that it is “A traditional dark rum with the smooth and light body character of a gold rum.” Wait, what?  Even Peter Holland usually the most easy going and sanguine of men, was forced to ask in his FB post “What does that even mean?” I imagine him nobly restraining the urge to add an expletive or two in there, because colour has been so long dismissed as an indicator of a rum’s type or an arbiter of its quality. 

Still, here’s the schtick: it’s a 40% ABV throwback to yesteryear’s mild rums, a blend of pot and column still rums from that little hoochery J. Wray, and no age statement: it has indeed been aged (in ex bourbon barrels), but I’ve heard 2-4 years ageing, one guy at the 2019 Paris fest  told me “around five” and in a review from back in 2014, The Fat Rum Pirate noted it was “only aged for 1 year”. We’re going to have to say we don’t know, here. Though I question whether it’s important at all, since everything about it suggests it is not meant as a sipping rum, more a cocktail ingredient, and some rough edges and youthful notes are tolerated characteristics in such a product.  

An inviting dark red-amber colour, the first sharp and hot notes out the glass are caramel, molasses, light vanilla, not much like the younger Appletons, any of them. There’s a wisp of seaspray whisking a single olive into your face, some raisins, black cake and cinnamon – but funk, rotting bananas, spoiling fruit?  Nah, dem ting gaan AWOL, don’ go lookin’. To be honest, as something that trumpets the fact that it’s a Jamaican rum, it seems to be in no hurry to actually smell like one. 

The palate is equally indeterminate, and its unique characteristics may be youthful sharpness and jagged edges, to say nothing of its overall rough feel on the tongue. Even at 40% that’s no fun, but once it relaxes (which happens quickly) it becomes easier – at the cost of losing what tastes it initially displayed into a vague melded mist of nothing-in particular. These were fruits, dark ones, black cake, molasses, cinnamon, lemon peel, fading fast into a rough and hurried finish that was sweet, with some licorice, bananas, lemon peel and a couple of  raisins. Frankly, I thought it something of a yawn through, but admittedly I say this from the perspective of a guy who has tasted growly old bastards bottled north of 60% from the New Jamaicans. Anyway, it reminds me less of a Jamaican rum than one like Cruzan or Gosling’s, one of those blended every-bar-has-one dark mixing rums I cut my teeth on decades back.

With respect to the good stuff from around the island — and these days, there’s so much of it sloshing about —  this one is feels like an afterthought, a personal pet project rather than a serious commercial endeavour, and I’m at something of a loss to say who it’s for.  Fans of the quiet, light rums of twenty years ago? Tiki lovers? Barflies? Bartenders? Beginners now getting into the pantheon? Maybe it’s just for the maker — after all, it’s been around since 2012, yet how many of you can actually say you’ve heard of it, let alone tried a shot?  

The real question is, I suppose, what other rum-drinking people think of it. I may be going too far out on a limb here, but my personal opinion is that Not much is the most likely answer of the kindhearted, and Nothing at all is the response of the rest. Me, I’m with those guys.

(#649)(69/100)


 

Other notes

  • The Blackwell brand was formed by Mr. Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) and Mr. Richard Kirshenbaum (CEO of NSGSWAT, a NY ad agency), back in 2012. The Blackwell rum derives from a blend of pot and column distillate made by J. Wray and Nephew, developed with the help of Joy Spence, and is supposedly based on a Blackwell family recipe (secret and time honoured, of course — they all are) which hails from the time the Lindo family (who are related directly to Mr. Blackwell) owned J. Wray & Nephew. In 1916 Lindo Brothers & Co. bought J. Wray, and picked up the Appleton sugar estate at the same time. The whole edifice was merged into one company, J. Wray and Nephew Ltd, and it existed for nearly a hundred years until 2012, when the Campari group bought the company.
  • The words “Black Gold and “Special Reserve” on the label are marketing terms and have no bearing on the quality of the rum itself, or its antecedents.
Aug 052019
 

Last week when discussing the Karukera “L’Expression” I remarked that something of the agricole-ness, the grassy and herbal notes we associate with cane juice rhums from the French islands, was missing there.  To some extent the same thing could be said of the near-5000 bottles making up the limited outturn from various “select casks” (all fourteen of them) of this Black Bottle edition – but where I gave a guarded recommendation to the 2008 Rhum Vieux, here, I have to be more enthusiastic and say it’s one of the better rhums from Karukera I’ve tried — though not necessarily one of the best agricoles, for reasons that will become clear as we go on.

The brief stats behind it: a rum from Guadeloupe, made in Esperance distillery in the Domaine du Marquisat Sainte-Marie. Column still distillate aged seven years in ex-cognac casks, decanted into 4997 bottles in 2016 at 45%. I’ve also read that the distillate comes from the same canne bleue as the L’Expression, though the 2009 harvest here; and also that it’s grown on Karukera’s estate, not Longueteau’s (the two are neighbours and co-owned). And while I no longer pay much attention to appearance, I must comment on my appreciation for the black bottle and the striking black & white label design, sure to make it stand out on a shelf dominated by brightly-coloured labels from elsewhere.

Anyway, let’s begin.  How was it? Based on how it smelled, I know that some would say it’s weak because of its near standard proofage and initially faint nose, but when sniffing it, I would say it’s actually closer to subtle.  This is a rum that takes some concentration to come to grips with, because the aromas start quietly, gently and then become increasingly crisp over time, and the experience is the better for it. There’s wood and vanilla, strong black tea and anise, which gradually develops more fruity aspects, probably from the cognac barrels: pears, mangoes, oranges, both sweet and tart.  I particularly enjoyed the late-blooming, rather delicate spices – cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, ginger plus more vanilla – and the twist of citrus zest and winey notes that suffused the overall aromas.

The palate is different though – not quite a one-eighty, but certainly a shift in direction.  Here the delicacy and subtlety was shoved aside and a more forceful profile emerged, warmer and firmer within the limitations of the proof, and all that in spite of the slightly herbal and grassy notes that were now more clearly discerned. Initially I tasted bitter chocolate, cherries in syrup, pears, mangoes, burnt sugar, black grapes, raspberries, cherries, nougat and even some background traces of molasses and honey and caramel.  Combined with those spices – nutmeg and vanilla and cinnamon, again – plus lemon zest and gooseberries, it melded tart and soft, intriguing enough to make one want to hurry through, and help oneself to more. I mean, there was really quit a lot going on here, if perhaps too much of the sweet influence of the cognac and the odd bitter tang of woodiness. The finish was fine — dry, again quite fruity, and rather short, mostly repeating the hits, more of the fruits than anything else, but always with that mellow chocolate and honey remaining in sight.

The Black Bottle 2009 has real quality and delicate sensibilities, and it adhered to many of the markers of a good rhum from anywhere: balance, complexity, a murmuring initial profile that builds to a reasonably complex palate and a decent finale. What it wasn’t was original, unique:  it didn’t showcase the island or the estate in any specific way, and the woodiness and cognac casks really held a dominance over the final product that could have been tamed more. It’s therefore too good to dismiss as “just another agricole” (as if that were possible with any of them): but just distant enough from perfect to deny it full admittance to the pantheon.

(#648)(86/100)


Other notes

Cyril of duRhum felt that the L’expression (89.5 points) was better and the Select Casks was too cognac-y (84). WhiskyFun really liked the Select Casks (88), more than L‘Expression (85)