Sep 192018
 

Every rum drinker who’s been at it for a while has a personal unicorn.  It might not always be some hoary old grandfather of a rum, forgotten by all but barking-mad rum nerds, or the miniscule output of a distillery no-one now remembers (like the Heisenberg Distillery) — sometimes it’s just a rum that’s hard to get and isn’t for sale in local markets. Occasionally it’s even one they possess already but which evokes strong positive memories.

One of mine has always been the Skeldon 1978, which was too rare or too expensive (usually both) for me to acquire. It finally became available to try at the Tasting of the Century that Luca Gargano tacked on to the formal launching of the new Hampden Estate rums in September 2018, and to say I jumped at the chance would be to understate the matter, not just because of the Skeldon itself, but because of the chance to try it in the company of blogging friends, along with other amazing rums.

The history of the Skeldon 1978 bottling from a long-dismantled Savalle still is an odd one: the plantation is on the far eastern side of Guyana and the distillery has been shut down since 1960, though the original sugar factory’s remains continue to moulder away there, now replaced by a modern white elephant.  It’s possible that the Savalle still which made it was taken elsewhere (Uitvlugt is the unconfirmed suspect) and this distillate hails from there rather than Skeldon — but certainly the “SWR” barrels ended up at Diamond, where Luca Gargano saw them gathering dust in the warehouse and convinced Yesu Persaud (the chairman of DDL at the time) to part with them.  The 4-barrel 544-bottle outturn of the 1973 Edition was issued as was, but when the prototypes of the 1978 came to Genoa for final tasting, Luca noted something different in them, and later he challenged Mr. Persaud on what they were – and it was admitted that the three barrels of 1978 were deemed insufficient (whatever that means) and they mixed in some leftover 1973. Luca was so pissed off that he sat on both editions for almost a year before finally issuing them to the market in early 2006, and what we are getting is a 688-bottle blend, the precise proportions of which are unknown — I was told the 1973 component was quite minimal.

Fortunately, whatever the mix, the rum was (spoiler alert) almost as stunning as the 1973, which is the only other rum to which it can perhaps be compared.  In the large balloon glasses we were given it smelled dark and pungently rich, and Lordie, there was so much of it. Chocolate, coffee, deep anise and molasses, raisins, some floral notes, fleshy fruits, honey, crushed walnuts, nougat, cream cheese, unsweetened yoghurt and light olives. Tired yet?  Too bad, there’s more – bread, cloves and vanilla, and then, after about half an hour, the thing turned chewy: boiled beef bouillon, lentil soup, maggi cubes, marmite and more molasses and burnt sugar, all held together with some delicate herbs, very much in the background. Gregers and I looked at each other and almost in unison we laughed and said “We gotta get us some glasses like these.”

Although things at the Tasting were going faster than I was able to write (and listen), this was not a rum I wanted to be hurried with after waiting so long, and certainly it’s one with which to take one’s time. It unfolded gradually on the tongue, almost languorously and even at 60.4%, it was amazing how entirely under control it remained the entire time. Most of the tastes in the nose carried over, primarily anise, coffee and bitter chocolate, oranges, strong black tea, cumin, and that lentil soup / beef broth meatiness I remarked on earlier.  But there were also more muted, subtler hints of papaya and fleshy fruits, aromatic tobacco, flambeed bananas and salty caramel. A rather dry note of over-roasted nuts came into play at the back end, a slight indeterminate bitterness (something like a manager who can never compliment your work without a closing criticism), but fortunately the muskier fruit and creamy notes ameliorated it for the most part. And while the finish was more a last bow on the stage than a true epilogue that added a few extra fillips of flavour, it was in no way disappointing, leaving me with a memory of coffee, nougat, salt caramel ice cream, fruits, raisins, licorice and light chocolate oranges.

This was quite a rum, to be sure, and while I don’t think it quite eclipsed the Skeldon 1973, it sang its own distinct tune, hot and delicious, yet paradoxically quite clean and clear, with powerful tastes bolted on to a profile of generous complexity. In fine, the Skeldon 1978 is a black drop of Guyanese-Italian oomph in a bottle, and making it a blend didn’t hurt it one bit. It’s a well-made rum, produced with care and affection, and through the alchemy of its selection, turned a mere rum into a Rum, big, bold, badass….one to be remembered. To have tasted it in tandem with other amazingly old rums and in the company of old (and new) friends, was an experience I’m not likely to be forgetting any time soon.  

(#550)(90/100)


Other notes

  • Other bloggers have tried the Skeldon 1978, and their opinions are worth noting: this would be Cyril of DuRhum who described it in January 2015, and Marco Freyr of Barrel Aged Mind in September of 2014. Both remarked on the same slight bitterness I noted, with varying opinions on it.
  • Links to other articles on the Rum Tasting of the Century (to be updated as other bits and pieces appear):

 

 

Aug 272018
 

Let’s move away from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia and Guyana for a bit, and go back to a company from Haiti and an independent bottler out of France for whom I have a great deal of respect and affection: Barbancourt and L’Esprit respectively.  L’Esprit, as you may recall from its brief biography, is a small outfit from Brittany run by Tristan Prodhomme, who has the smarts to issue all of his rums in pairs – one version at cask strength in a small outturn from the barrel, and the remainder (usually from the same barrel) at a diluted 46%, aimed at the somewhat more sedate rum drinkers who prefer not to get their glottis ravaged by something north of 60%.  That this kind of canny rum release has real commercial potential can perhaps be seen in Velier’s 2018 release of the twin Hampden rums with a similar paired ABV philosophy.

Even if you include the clairins, Barbancourt is the best known name in rum out of Haiti, and perhaps the most widely appreciated rum from the half-island by dint of being the most easily available (and affordable). It’s usually the first Haitian rum any new rum explorer tries, maybe even the first French island rum of any kind (though they are not referred to as agricoles).  Over the years they have, like many other estates and distilleries, sent rum to Europe in bulk in order to keep themselves afloat, though for some reason indie bottlings of Haitian rums aren’t quite as common as the big guns we all know about – perhaps they send less stock over to Scheer or something?

The bare statistics are brief and as follows: column still product, continentally aged; distilled 2004 and released in 2016 at a brobdingnagian 66.2% (its lesser proofed twin which is quite similar is bottled at 46% and 228 bottles were issued but about the full proof edition here,  I’m not certain – less, for sure, maybe a hundred or so).  Pale yellow in colour and a massive codpiece of a nose, deep and intense, which should not present as a surprise at all. It was quite aromatic as well – one could sense bananas, vanilla, prunes and fruit, with a nice counterpoint of citrus to set these off. Like many rums released at cask strength, it rewarded patience because after a while back-end smells of cream cheese, dark bread, brine, olives, nail polish, plastic bubble wrap (freshly popped), paint became much more evident, though fortunately without taking over entirely

The rather dry-ish taste was an odd experience, somewhat at an angle to what could be expected after smelling it: for one thing, it was more briny, and for another it actually had hints of pimento and pickled sweet gherkins. What distinguished it was its heat and uncompromising brutality. The flavours – which after a while included brine, florals, rubber, petrol and a meaty sort of soup (and we’re talking strong, simple salt beef here, not some delicate Michelin-starred fusion) – were solid and distinct and took no prisoners whatsoever.  That it also presented some sweeter, lighter notes of white fruit (pears and white guavas for example) was both unexpected and welcome, because for the most part the thing was as unsparing and unadorned as congealed concrete – though perhaps more tasty. As for the finish, well, that eased off the throttle a tad – it was sharp, dry, long, briny with more of those light florals, fruitiness, nail polish and freshly sliced bell peppers, and left you in no doubt that you had just tasted something pretty damned huge.

At this stage in the review I could go off on a tangent and ruminate on the difference between continental and tropical ageing, or how the added commercial value moves away from poor islands of origin to European brokers and independent bottlers, with perhaps an added comment or two on Barbancourt’s history, L’Espirt itself, and a witty metaphor or three to add to those already expressed and tie things up in a nice bow.  Today I’ll pay you the compliment of assuming you know all this stuff already, and simply end the review by saying this rum is quite a flavourful beast, exciting the sort of admiration usually reserved for the sleek brutality of an old mechanical swiss watch. It’s delicate even within its strength, clear, dry, and perhaps excessively eye-watering and tongue-deadeningly intense to some. But even though it’s jagged as a blunt cutlass, my personal opinion is that it does Haiti and Barbancourt and L’Esprit no dishonour at all, and is a hell of a full proof drink to savour if you can find it.

(#543)(86/100)

Aug 252018
 

Although the Compagnie des Indes has a few very well received multi-island blends like the Tricorne, Boulet de Canon, Caraibes and the Domindad, my appreciation of their work is so far given more to individual islands’ or countries’ rums.  There’s something about their specificity that makes the land of origin snap clearly into focus in a way a blend doesn’t (and doesn’t try to, really). That’s not a criticism by any means, just a direction in which my preferences bend, at least for now.

After having gone through a few Fijian rums recently, I finally arrived at this one, which could not beat out the hauntingly magnificent TCRL 2009 8 Year Old, but which came a very close second and was in every way a very good rum.  It was also from South Pacific Distilleries (the only distillery on Fiji and a subsidiary of the Asutralian Foster’s group) with a 244-bottle outturn from one cask, ¾ continentally aged, a blend of pot and column still, bottled at a hefty, snarling 66.8% – it is of course one of those rums issued as a one-off series for Denmark in a pre-cask-strength CdI rumiverse (the cask strength editions from CdI started to appear around Europe in 2017 as far as I can tell, which disappointed a lot of Danes who enjoyed the bragging rights they’d held on to up to that point).

It was obvious after one tiny sniff, that not one percentage point of all that proofage was wasted and it was all hanging out there: approaching with caution was therefore recommended. I felt like I was inhaling a genetically enhanced rum worked over by a team of uber-geek scientists working in a buried government lab somewhere, who had evidently seen King Kong one too many times.  I mean, okay, it wasn’t on par with the Marienburg 90 or the Sunset Very Strong, but it was hot. Very hot. And also creamy, deeper than expected, even at that strength. Not quite thin or evisceratingly sharp like oh, the Neisson L’Espirit 70°, and there was little of the expected glue, brine and dancing acetones (which makes me suspect it’s a column still rum, to be confirmed) – and man, the clear, herbal crispness of an agricole was so evident I would not have been surprised to find out that cane juice was the source (all research points to molasses, however).  After my eyes stopped swimming, I jotted down further notes of citrus, peaches, tart unsweetened fresh yoghurt, and it was of interest that overall (at least on the nose), that creaminess and tartness and citrus acidity blended together quite well.

Things got interesting on the palate: again it was hot enough to take some time getting used to, and it opened with a pronounced nuttiness, sour cream, nutmeg and ginger. Over half an hour or so other flavours presented themselves: fleshy fruits, (dark cherries, peaches, apricots) and further musky spiciness of cloves, tumeric and cinnamon. Molasses, toffee, butterscotch.  Plus wax, sawdust and pencil shavings, bitter chocolate and oak….wow.  After all that, I was impressed: there was quite a lot of rabbit squirming around in this rum’s jock, in spite of the strength and heat. Even the finish was interesting: strikingly different from the Duncan Taylor or the Rum Cask Fijians (both of which were clearer, crisper, sharper) the CdI 11 YO showcased a sort of slow-burning languor –  mostly of fleshy fruits, apples, some citrus, candied oranges – which took time to develop and ended with the same soft undertone of molasses and caramel as had characterized the palate.

Let’s sum this up as best we can. I think the sharper tannins kind of detracted (just a little) because the softer notes were not enough to balance them off and produce a pleasing combination.  Even so, such a discombobulation made for an element of off-the-wall that was actually quite enjoyable because you keep going “huh?” and trying it some more to see where on earth the thing is going.  So it succeeded on its own terms, and was quite individual on that level.

Overall though, it seems to me that no one rum I’ve tried from South Pacific Distillers has a lock on the country or distiller’s profile that characterizes either beyond any shadow of a doubt.  In point of fact, those which I’ve tried to date are each different from the other, in ways both big and small, and that makes it difficult to point to any of them and say “Yeah, that’s a real Fijian rum” — maybe I’ll have to find a few Bounty rums for that.  Still, for the moment, let me sum up this Fijian by stating that as long as you don’t mind getting a rum that wanders with furious velocity from the centre line to the verge and then into a wall, all with a near joyous abandon, a rum which has curious and slightly unbalanced tastes that somehow still work…well, this is definitely a rum to try. It’s a rum that grows on you with each sip, one that you could easily find yourself trying deceptively often, and then wondering confusedly, a few weeks or months down the road, why the hell bottle is empty already.

(#542)(85/100)

Aug 182018
 

Over the years I’ve gone through a few Pacific island rums and while appreciative of their inventiveness, wasn’t entirely chuffed about them.  They had elements I liked and elements I didn’t, and on balance while they were workable rums, nothing to really get excited about…unless it was the Mana’o white, which was quite an animal, though it reinforced my appreciation for white rums rather more than it did for Tahiti.  In 2017, though, the Transcontinental Rum Line put out this 8 Year Old rum and when I tried it earlier this year, I was blatted into next week. I literally was so ensorcelled by the peculiar quality of the rum that I kept the glass recharged for five days, and kept coming back to it after each daily tasting session, just to see if I could come to grips with what made it so striking.

TCRL – the “Transcontinental Rum Line” – is the indie arm of la Maison du Whiskey out of Paris formed in 2016 and, like Compagnie des Indes with their evocative name, are using the title to tap into a myth pool of celluloid memories and old time images in our minds.  Seeing the label and hearing the name, we can pretend we’re in Edwardian times and travel on the old transcontinental ships of yore (that most of us would either have been serving the upper crust, crammed into steerage or cleaning the bilges is an inconvenient and unacknowledged side issue, because, y’know, downers like that don’t sell no rum).  Anyway, like all independents they issue rums at cask strength, provide all the now-normal exhaustive details on origin, strength, angel’s share…and one more. They are the only independent who, as far as I know, state exactly how much of their ageing is tropical, and how much continental (<1 year in this case for tropical, >7 years for continental).

That said, the still which produced this pale yellow 57.19% ABV rum remains an open question, though my personal belief is that it’s a column still product.  It certainly noses that way – aside from presenting as a fierce little young rum, it lacks something of the depth and pungency of a pot still spirit. However, that doesn’t matter, because it’s damn fine on its own merits – brine, olives, paint, turpentine, acetones, fresh nail polish, more brine and gherkins, and that’s just the beginning.  It has aspects that are almost Jamaican, what with a bunch of prancing dancing esters jostling for attention, except that the smell is not so crisply sweet. It develops very nicely into smoke, leather, linseed oil for cricket bats, more brine and oily smoothness. Like a set of seething rapids finished with the messing around, it settles down to a much more refined state after half an hour or so.

Although the nose was arresting enough in its own way, it was the tasting that made me sit up and take more notice. Smooth and quite strong, it tasted with force and originality, like its trousers were stuffed with midichlorians. Initial flavours were honey, glue, bananas, followed up with pears, coffee and coconut shavings.  Also, coming back to it over time, one can sense the slight syrupy sweetness of tinned peaches but with a moderating and welcome pinch (or three) of salt too (this eventually gets all huffy and walks away). Smoke, leather, some oaky bitterness, well controlled – I mean, it kept getting better and better as the hours ticked by, which was one reason I kept it on the go for so long.  Everything about it just came together really well, and while it did display some sharper notes and serrated edges that gave away its relative youth, I liked it for all its raw and uncouth power. Even the finish was quite original and showed its ongoing development, nice and long, dry, fruity, thick, and briny all at once, set off by a tiny breath of salted caramel ice cream.

The longer I spent with the rum, the more I appreciated it.  It has some ageing and it shows, yet also remembers its youth with zest and a sort of feisty exuberance that sets off the barrel time in fine style.  The esters and the brine and fruits and oak come together in a combination that other Fijian rums have attempted, not always successfully – here it works, and works really well.  It’s a bit unrefined here and there, lacks some polish – think of it as a Tiger Bay bad boy eating at the Ritz if you will – but even where it falters, it doesn’t fully fail. For all its faults, and fortunately there aren’t that many, this young Fijian 8 year old, for some peculiar reason, is one of the most memorable rums I’ve tried all year. TCRL really came out with a winner on this one.

(#540)(87/100)


Other notes

Aug 172018
 

Kill Devil is the rum brand of the whiskey blender Hunter Laing, who’ve been around since 1949 when Frederick Laing founded a whisky blending company in Glasgow.  In 2013 the company created an umbrella organization called Hunter Laing & Co, into which they folded all their various companies (like Edition Spirits and the Premier Bonding bottling company). The first rums they released to the market – with all the now-standard provisos like being unadulterated, unfiltered and 46% – arrived for consumers in 2016, which meant that this rum from the South Pacific Distillery on Fiji, was issued as part of their first batch (oddly, their own website provides no listing of their rums at all aside from boilerplate blurbs). When the time came for me to decide what to sample, the 17 YO Cuban from Sancti Spiritus was one, and this was the other, because let’s face it, you can always get a Jamaican, Bajan, Trini or Mudland rum plus several agricoles whenever you turnaround, but Fiji is a bit rarer.  

Pale gold in colour – though darker than the Cuban – the Kill Devil Fijian rum came out in 2016 and continued the recent upsurge in issuance of independent bottlers’ Fijian rums, and stuck with the relatively modest 46% ABV so as not to scare too many people off.  Like most indies’ releases, it was also pretty limited, a mere 355 bottles from a single cask, European ageing, but thus far I’ve been unable to ascertain whether it’s a pot still or column still product.

Never mind, though.  Like most rums from the Pacific which I’ve tried, this one was off woolgathering in its own time zone, not only different from the Caribbean and Latin rums but from other Fijians – not entirely sure how they do that.  Consider: the nose began with a clear scent of papier-mâché (wtf, right?) – sort of starchy and floury – as well as cereals like fruit loops without the milk. That was the just beginning, however, and things smoothened out over time (which was a good thing) – it added yoghurt, tart and somewhat sour fruits, some funkiness of a Jamaican wannabe, cloves, fanta, lemon rind and the sweetness of freshly cut pineapple mixing in the background with some softer briny notes.

On the palate the fruits started to take over, tart and a unripe, like ginnips and soursop together with ripe mangoes, pineapple and cherries in syrup right out of a can – there was hardly any of the brininess from the nose carrying over, and as it developed, additional hints of pears, watermelon, honey, and pickled gherkins were clearly noticeable.  It was warm and crisp at the same time, quite nice, and while the long and heated finish added nothing new to the whole experience, it didn’t lose any of the flavours either; and I was left thinking that while different from other Fijians for sure, it seemed to be channelling a sly note of Jamaican funk throughout, and that was far from unpleasant….though perhaps a bit at odds with the whole profile.

Overall, I quite liked the rum, particularly the understated element of funkiness in the background. Although the pantheon of Caribbean rums was in no danger of being dethroned by it, I get the impression with every Fijian rum I’ve sampled, that even if South Pacific themselves aren’t making any world beaters (yet), the independents are amusing themselves by continually, if incrementally, raising the bar.  Every year I seem to find a new Fijian rum out there which pushes things, just a little – adds a small something extra, goes out into left field a little further, plays about a tad longer. The Kill Devil 14 YO Fijian rum doesn’t exactly set the world on fire for me, but there’s little to complain about, since it shows that the Caribbean doesn’t have complete dibs on good rums and holds great promise for the future. It’s a neat addition to our mental inventory of rums from the Pacific.

(#539)(85/100)


 

Aug 062018
 

There’s a story I heard years ago, that of the many rums from his company, Silvano Samaroli’s own personal favourite was one of the first ones he bottled, the West Indies 1948.  Who am I to rain on a story like that, speaking as it does of a man currently residing in the Great Distillery in the Sky, and a rum from so far back in time that most of us weren’t even a twinkle in our Daddy’s eyes, made when the world was an utterly different place?  But for my money, of all the rums I’ve tried from this Italian outfit and from Jamaica (and that’s quite a few), this one is among the very best. To cut straight to the chase and save you all a lot of reading time, I think it is a sublime drinking experience for anyone who treasures Jamaican rums.

That might sound like a startling assertion, but it has a lot to do with the assembly, much with the balance, and for sure the overall complexity: and that started right with the initial nosing, which started slow, gathered momentum, and turned what we initially and indulgently thought was VW Beetle into a growling Veyron wannabe. 

Although the initial scents wafting easily from the glass are of paint thinner, acetones, rubber and some pencil shavings, for once these didn’t overwhelm or detract, but acted as a counterpoint to the rest of the nasal riches which followed – warm unsweetened chocolate, nougat, hibiscus flowers in full bloom, dust, dried coffee grounds, more light flowers with clear, delicate notes of something remarkably akin to freshly done laundry drying in the sun. Cedar, aromatic woody notes, honey tobacco.  God, was this thing ever going to stop? Nope, there was more – a light dusting of brown sugar soaked in molasses, and vanilla. If you’re looking for funk, well, it’s there, but for once content to be a bit player and not chew the scenery.

And the taste, the palate, the way it comes together, it’s masterful.  At 52% it’s downright near damned perfect – the the balance between mouth puckering citrus plus laid back funk, and easier, softer flavours is unbelievably well done.  Soda pop, honey, cereal, red currants, raspberries, fanta and orange zest dance exuberantly cross the tongue, never faltering, never allowing any one piece to dominate. Like an exquisitely choreographed dance number, the molasses, vanillas and fruits (peaches, yellow plums, pears, ripe yellow Thai mangoes) tango alongside sharper notes of citrus, lemon zest, overripe bananas, sandalwood and ginger. Even the finish is spectacular – just long enough, just sharp enough, just mellow enough, allowing each of the individually discerned flavours of fruits, toffee, chocolate and citrus to come out on stage one last time for a bow, before fading back and making way for the next one

It seems almost superfluous to go through the factoids surrounding it so let’s be brief: it is from Hampden , though this is nowhere evident on the label (I picked that up online); pot still, continentally aged, bottled at 52% in 2017 from a single barrel (Cask #19, which means nothing to most of us) of 1992 stocks, 228 bottles issued, and there you are.

I don’t know what they did differently in this rum from others they’ve issued for the last forty years, what selection criteria they used, but I must be honest – the 1992 came close to blowing out my circuits. It’s restrained but powerful, and the sometimes-overdone flavour profiles of other high ester rums, has been toned down and handled with real attention and care.  I can’t remember the last rum that excited me so much, that enthused me so much, right off the bat.  Okay, that’s crap, there was the UF30E and the Sajous and the BBR 1977…but you get the point. I had to try it several times in the course of a single evening trying to poke holes into it, trying to find a flaw that would unravel the experience, make it more mundane, bring it to the level of other rums, but no, it stayed as spectacular at one in the morning, as it was six hours earlier when my friends and I cracked it.

These days, with independent bottlers proliferating as they have, each one trying to outdo the other with a remarkable rum from yesteryear, and with Scheer’s old hoards being plundered like King Tut’s personal rum chamber, with old rums becoming impossible to find and harder to buy, I honestly believed my days of finding an undiscovered treasure were over.  After trying the Samaroli 1992, I knew I was dead wrong…and happy to be so. There are still amazing rums out there to be found, often flying beneath the radar, teased out with a little luck, delving deep trenches in your wallet. This is one of them, a rum that shows what can be done when a bottler’s great selection crosses paths with a rum sleuth’s dogged persistence…and results in me writing about a rum that is made with what — in my opinion — is more than a small dose of pure magic.

(#535)(92/100)

Jul 122018
 

These days, anyone finding a rum three decades old had better hold on to it, because they’re getting rarer all the time.  As prices for the 1970s and 1980s rums climb past the fourth digit, locating one can be an equally fortunate and frustrating exercise…depending on how it turns out. As to why Velier chose to issue two rums of the same distillation and aging dates, at two different strengths, well, we know he has done this before, most famously with the entire Caroni line and some of the pre-Age Demerara rums.

Of course, it’s possible that Velier in this instance worked on the principle of taking a the entire outturn and bottling some at cask strength and the remainder at a more quaffable proof appealing to a broader audience.  That’s reasonable, I guess (L’Esprit does the same) – yet although the 54% Courcelles 1972 and this 42% version share the same years, there’s a difference in that the 54% was laid to rest in steel vats for nearly two additional years, and both are referred to as the dernière distillation which suggests that a bunch of barrels were involved, each with its own peculiarities.

And those peculiarities are important because they make this softer rhum individual on its own merits and different from its brawnier frere. Take the nose for example: it’s lovely and sweet, light without actually being delicate. It presents bags of light fruit – pears, ripe apples, watermelons, cherries – that go on forever, to which are added soft red-wine notes, honey, thyme and a drizzle of hot caramel on vanilla ice cream.  In a way it reminds me a lot of the Savanna 15 Year Old Porto Finish from Reunion (haven’t written about this yet), but somewhat deeper even so, because the scents grow richer over time in spite of its relatively low proof point and their overall mildness.

Tasting a rum like this is a mixed experience – one appreciates the subtlety, but strains to pick apart the notes. That said, it’s quite good, with lovely clear and clean notes of light fruitiness – pears again, watermelon again, some grapes, raisins and ripe mangoes, set off by softer nuances that speak of nougat, white chocolate, a flirt of coffee, rosemary, caramel, vanilla, thyme and some florals. It also has a background of honey that I quite enjoy with a profile like this because it strengthens the whole in a quiet kind of way, provides a bed for the rest of the flavours to emerge onto and do their thing. About the weakest point of the whole experience may be how it ends – the finish is short and faint, a zephyr following from a stiff breeze, with just some barely discernible floral and fruity hints and a bit of orange zest and tart yoghurt, and then it’s all over.

After writing up my notes, I keep coming back to how differently it presents when rated against the 54% version – it’s like they are different branches from the tree, growing in different directions while still conforming to underlying and similar standards (many of the tasting components, for example, are quite similar). The 42% iteration, I have to somewhat reluctantly note, is less when placed next to its masterful stronger sibling.  On its own, with nothing else to compare it to, it’s quietly, subtly brilliant and will not disappoint the casual drinker. But side by side, its potential clarion call is muted and dialled down, it is deferential and says much less…and when it does, it whispers.

(#528)(86/100)


Other notes

  • The Courcelles distillery in Grande Terre (one of the two “wings” of Guadeloupe island) was established in the 1930s and closed way back in 1964 when the then owner, M. Despointes, transferred the inventory and equipment to another distillery, that of Ste Marthe. They continued using Courcelles’s pot still and distilled this rum in 1972.  This is probably the last year any Courcelles distillate was made – I’ve never been able to find one produced more recently.
  • Distilled in 1972 and set to age in 220 liter barrels until 2003.  Outturn is unknown
  • The profile does not suggest an agricole, and since Guadeloupe is not AOC compliant, it probably derives from molasses. The taste certainly suggests it.
  • About that strength differential – in my essay about the Age of the Demeraras, I remarked that the first three releases of Velier Demeraras were all issued at standard proofs because Luca was nervous about moving too fast with releasing >50% cask strength rums.  I suspect that he had similar feelings about the 42% version of the Courcelles, which was why it was bottled first – two years later, just when he was putting out the full proof Skeldons in 2005, he went full bore with the rest of the Courcelles stock and never looked back.
Jul 102018
 

Now that Americans can bring back Cuban booze without sanction, it’s likely that their rums will get a boost in sales, and if the Havana Club trademark war ever gets resolved – though I doubt it will happen any time soon – then we’ll see many more on the market.  However, at this period in time, over and above the big names from the island like Santiago de Cuba or Havana Club, to get seriously aged juice that’s really from Cuba, we still have to look primarily at the independents for now.

One of these is Kill Devil, named — as any rummie can tell you — after the old term for rum used in its infancy in the Caribbean many centuries ago.  Kill Devil is the rum brand of the whiskey blender Hunter Laing, and they’ve been around since 1949 when Frederick Laing founded a whisky blending outfit in Glasgow.  In 2013, now run by descendants, the company created an umbrella organization called Hunter Laing & Co, which folded in all their various companies (like Edition Spirits and the Premier Bonding bottling company). As far as my research goes, the first rums they released to the market – unadulterated, usually at 46%, unfiltered – came in 2016, and they have issued releases from Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Fiji and this one from Cuba.  One imagines that they read the tea leaves and realized there was some money to be made in rums as well as whiskies, though by coming into the market so relatively late, they’re butting heads with a lot of other new entrants – good for us as consumers for sure, perhaps not quite as rosy-cheeked for them.

As for Sancti Spiritus, this is a Cuban distillery also known as Paraiso, dating from 1946 (there is some dispute here – another source says 1944) that is located almost dead center in the island.  Much of what is known of their rums comes from independents like Compagnie des Indes, Cadenhead, Bristol Spirits, Secret Treasures, Samaroli, Duncan Taylor, Isla del Ron and Renegade, implying a substantial export market of bulk rum to Europe.  But they also make rums of their own under the Santero brand, like the Añejo Blanco, Carta Blanca 3 YO, Palma Superior, Añejo Ambarino, Añejo Reserva, Carta Oro 5YO, Añejo 7YO and Firewater (none of which I’ve tried, to my detriment). And I’ve heard it said they supply Havana Club as well, so there’s no shortage of places for anyone with an interest to get some.

Some brief stats, for the propellerheads like me: the single-cask rum here is from the above-noted distillery, coloured pale gold, distilled in 1999 and bottled in 2016, with 362 bottles released.  And it has a strength of 46%, similar to rums issued by Renegade and L’Esprit and others, keeping it within reach and tolerance of the greater rum drinking audience.

That may be, but it was still quite a forceful piece of work to smell, much more so than I was expecting, and would perhaps come as a surprise to those who are used to softer, milder Bacardis as “Cuban style” exemplars. Presenting rather dry and spicy – almost hot – it seemed to steer a course somewhere between a light molasses column still rum, and the grassier and more vegetal notes of an agricole…without actually leaning towards either one. It had a mix of cherries, peaches and tart soursop, unsweetened yoghurt, vanilla, oak, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a very faint line of citrus running through the whole thing. It felt somewhat schizophrenic, to be honest – both acidic (in a good way) as well as lightly creamy – and that made it intriguing to say the least.

As it was sipped, it became somewhat less creamy than the nose had intimated – “sprightly” might be a good word as any to describe it. It was quite clean in the mouth, tasting of green grapes, apples, cider, mixed up with something of the saliva-flooding crisp tartness of red currants, or lemons just starting to go off. What made it stand out was the background notes of light flowers,caramel, vanilla, bananas, ginnips, and wet dark brown sugar, plus those spices again, mostly cinnamon. The finish was also quite elegant, and left memories of light caramel and fudge, oakiness and vanilla, with a little citrus for bite. It lacked a certain roundness and smooth planing away of rough edges, but I suggest that’s a good thing – it made it its own rum rather than a milquetoast please-as-many-as-you-can commercial product you’ll forget tomorrow morning.

Overall, the rum shows that even with all our bitching about pot still rums being better and yet not represented often enough, there’s little that’s bad about a column still spirit when done right, and the Kill Devil is a good example.  Even though I don’t know at what strength it came off the line, I feel that whatever complexities seventeen years of ageing imparted managed to provide an end result that was quite a nice rum (Cuban or otherwise). Which likely demonstrates that if we want to have a good column still experience from a juice aged in continental climes, there are certainly candidates for your coin out there, and as long as you come to grips with its slightly odd personality, this is one of them.

(#527)(84/100)

Jul 072018
 

These days Jamaican rums which were previously and mostly blending fodder are getting not only a new lease on life but a resurgence of their reputation that is so massive and enthusiast-driven that it’s led to the re-emergence of names like Longpond, Worthy Park, Clarendon, Inswood, Monymusk, New Yarmouth, Hampden Estate (and others),  that might be giving Appleton some sleepless nights. Lovers of the style can’t seem to get enough of them, which goes a long way to demonstrating public boredom with pallid blended meh-rums that have suffused much of the consuming landscape for the last decades. People were and are simply looking for something more exciting, more distinctive…and Jamaicans are filling that niche very nicely indeed.

In 2017 the French company Compagnie des Indes issued a New Yarmouth rum which excited raves across the Jamaican rum loving cognoscenti (I have yet to try it myself), and in 2018 Velier issued two Hampdens themselves – both lit up Facebook like the Fourth of July.  And that’s not even counting the other Worthy Park and Hampdens which have come to market in the last few years. The Hampden I’m looking at today is a bit more modest, however – it is one Compagnie edition of about twenty from the island that were released up to 2017 (of which four were from Hampden).

In terms of background, it’s a 43% rum, pot still origin, barrel #JH46, distiilled in 2000 and bottled in 2016, 339 bottles, sourced in Europe (probably Scheer) – and if you’re really interested I dragged some others from the island to act as controls: the Mexan XO, the Mezan WP 2005, another two Compagnie rums – the Longpond 12 YO (44%) and the Worthy Park 7 YO (53%). Because I was curious how well the Hampden would fare against both other estates, and other strengths.

There was no mistaking the lemon-yellow Hampden for anything but a Jamaican, that was for sure. The nose was slightly sweeter than the Mezans and the CdI Longpond, very clear, redolent of cherries, tart fruits, green apples, rotting banana funk, overripe mangoes, together with a fine line of citrus carving through the whole thing – a medium ester rum, I hazarded, and very crisp and clean to smell.

On the palate, I didn’t think it could quite beat out the CdI Worthy Park (which was half its age, though quite a bit stronger); but it definitely had more force and more uniqueness in the way it developed than the Longpond and the Mezans. It started with cherries, going-off bananas mixed with a delicious citrus backbone, not too excessive. After ten minutes or so it opened further into a medium sweet set of fruits (peaches, pears, apples), and showed notes of oak, cinnamon, some brininess, green grapes, all backed up by delicate florals that were very aromatic and provided a good background for the finish.  That in turn glided along to a relatively serene, slightly heated medium-long stop with just a few bounces on the road to its eventual disappearance, though with little more than what the palate had already demonstrated. Fruitiness and some citrus and cinnamon was about it.

Overall, a solid, tasty Jamaican rum, presenting somewhat younger than its physical years.  It was continentally aged, so the rich voluptuousness of a tropically-aged rum was not its forte. Some of its rough edges were sanded away while leaving enough to give it some character: its strength was right, I think, and it lacked some of the furious brutality of younger ester bombs from the estates, without losing any of its elemental character.  Not all high-ester, funk-driven, dunder-squirting rums are meant for such neat sipping (as has been remarked on before, such intensely flavoured Jamaicans are often used as flavouring agents in other blended rums). But as a rum by itself, tasted and evaluated on its own, this fifteen year old is a very pleasant sipping dram that retains just enough edge to make it a very good experience to have by itself, or to perk up whatever cocktail you feel like adding it to.

(#526)(86/100)


Other notes

For a pretty good historical and production-level rundown on Hampden estate, the Cocktail Wonk’s 2016 article covers just abut everything.

Jun 242018
 

Tasting the Mezan XO is best done by trying it in conjunction with other rums of its strength (about 40%) because it’s a deceptively mild and seemingly reticent sort of product – so if you taste it with some stronger drinks it falters. It coyly presents as a weak and diffident product, and it’s only after sticking with it for a while that its attributes snap more clearly into focus and you realize how good it really is. I started out thinking it was simply too mild and too little was going on there, but by the end of the session I was a lot more appreciative of its quality.

Mezan is an independent bottler out of the UK, formed by a gent named Neil Matthieson who ran a spirits distribution company since the 1980s and used it as the parent company for Mezan in 2012 (he is the managing director of both). Following the usual route for an independent, they source barrels of various rums from around the world and bottle them in limited editions.  However, in the XO they have opted for issuing a blend of rums from Jamaica – not from single distillery, but from several, and The Fat Rum Pirate notes it as having two components from Worthy Park and Monymusk (there are others, unidentified) and Steve James over at the Rum Diaries blog wrote that he heard that the youngest part of the blend is four years old. I myself was told by a rep that all components of the blend were in the 18-24 months range, but that might have been just for the rum from my batch number (#4997).  I’d suggest ageing is continental.

According to Matt in his longform essay about the XO, Mr. Matthieson prefers to bottle at a strength in the low forties.  This has both positive and negative aspects – it becomes more accessible to people not used to cask strength rums, but at the price for the enthusiasts of weakening its clarity.  The nose of the XO makes this clear – it’s nice and aromatic…but thin, very thin. Sure, there are notes of pot still funkiness, brine, olives, dunder, rotten fruit, some plastic – it’s just that they’re faint and light and too wispy. That delicacy also permits the alcohol forward note to be more dominant than would otherwise be the case, and it presents more as something spicy and raw, than a delicate and nuanced rum.

The palate permits the low strength to come into its own, however.  Once one waits a while and allows oneself to get used to it, the flavours become quite a bit more distinct (though they remain light). Esters, overripe bananas and some nail polish to begin with, moving into a smorgasbord of rather light sweetness, plastic, brine, citrus and green apples – a sort of combination of fruits both fresh and “gone off”. Somehow this all works. And I think that the rum deserves a second and a third sip to pry out the nuances.  The finish is no great shakes, short and sharp and spicy with more crisp fruits and brine, but so quick that the memory one is left with is more of a young and feisty rum than a seriously aged one.

Certainly the overall impression one is left with is of a young blend, possessing enough complexity to warrant more careful consideration. No need to mix this if you don’t want to, it’s decent as is, as long as chirpy young Jamaicans are your thing.  As a Jamaican representative rated against the pantheon of better known and perhaps more impressive rums, though, it reminds me more of young and downmarket Appletons or J. Wray offerings than anything more upscale.

What makes the rum a standout is its price. Retailing in the UK at around £30 and of a reasonably plentiful outturn, it’s clear that the XO is an inexpensive way to get into the Jamaican style. There’s a lot of noise online the estate-specific rums like Monymusk, Clarendon, New Yarmouth, Worthy Park and Hampden (and that’s aside from Appleton itself), but not everyone always wants to pay the price for cask strength bruisers or indie bottlings that are so distinctly focused.  When it comes to an affordable, living-room strength blended rum that is middle-of-the-road funky and estery and works well as both a sipping drink or an ingredient into something more complicated, the Mezan Jamaican XO may be a very good place to start, no matter how you like drinking it. And at the very least, it won’t unduly dent your wallet if your own opinion turns out to be less than stellar.

(#523)(82/100)