Nov 232020
 

Sooner or later in these reviews, I always end up circling back to Velier, and for preference, it’s usually the rums from the Age of the Demeraras.  It’s not that I have anything against the Caronis in their near-infinite variations, the Habitation’s pot still range, or the series of the New Hampdens, Villa Paradisetto or 70th anniversary. And I have a soft spot for even the smaller and more exactingly selected outturns of one-offs like the Courcelles or the Basseterre rums. It’s just that the Demeraras speak to me more, and remind me of the impact a then-relatively-unknown indie bottler had when it rearranged the rum landscape and worldviews of many rum aficionados back in the day. 

By the time this rum was released in 2014, things were already slowing down for Velier in its ability to select original, unusual and amazing rums from DDLs warehouses, and of course it’s common knowledge now that 2014 was in fact the last year they did so.  The previous chairman, Yesu Persaud, had retired that year and the arrangement with Velier was discontinued as DDL’s new Rare Collection was issued (in early 2016) to supplant them.

While this rum was hyped as being “Very Rare” and something special, I am more of the impression it was an experiment on the order of the four “coloured” edition rums DDL put out in 2019, something they had had on the go in their skunkworks, that Luca Gargano spotted and asked to be allowed to bottle.  It was one of four he released that year, and perhaps illustrates that the rabbit was getting progressively harder to pull out of the hat.

Still, the stats on the as-usual nicely informative label were pretty good: two barrels of serious distillates – the Versailles single wooden pot still and the Diamond metal coffey still (proportions unknown, alas) — yielding 570 bottles. A hefty strength of 57.9%; 18 years of tropical ageing while the two profiles married and learned how to live together without a divorce, and an angel’s share of about 78%.

How then, did such an unusual amalgam of a coffey still and a wooden pot still come out smelling and tasting like after so long? Like a Demerara rum is the short answer. A powerful one. This was a Demerara wooden still profile to out-Demerara all other wooden-still Demeraras (well…at least it tried to be). There was the characteristic licorice of the wooden stills, of course.  Aromatic tobacco, coffee grounds, strong and unsweetened black tea; and after a while a parade of dark fruits – raisins, prunes, black dates – set off by a thin citrus line pf lemon zest, and cumin.  Ah but that was not all, for this was followed some time later when I returned to the glass, by sawdust, rotting leaves after a rain, acetones, furniture polish and some pencil shavings, cinnamon and vanilla…quit a lot to unpack. It was fortunate I was trying it at home and not somewhere were time was at a premium, and could take my time with the tasting.

The nose had been so stuffed with stuff (so to speak) that the palate had a hard time keeping up.  The strength was excellent for what it was, powerful without sharpness, firm without bite. But the whole presented as somewhat more bitter than expected, with the taste of oak chips, of cinchona bark, or the antimalarial pills I had dosed on for my working years in the bush.  Thankfully this receded, and gave ground to cumin, coffee, dark chocolate, coca cola, bags of licorice (of course), prunes and burnt sugar (and I mean “burnt”). It felt thick and heavy and had a nice touch of creme brulee and whupped cream bringing up the rear, all of which segued into a lovely long finish of coffee grounds, minty chocolate and oranges, licorice again, and a few more overripe fruits.

Overall, not lacking or particularly shabby. Completely solid rum. The tastes were strong and it went well by itself as a solo drink. That said, although it was supposed to be a blend, the lighter column still tastes never really managed to take over from the powerful Versailles profile – but what it did do was change it, because my initial thinking was that if I had not known what it was, I would have said Port Mourant for sure. In some of the crisper, lighter fruity notes the column distillate could be sensed, and it stayed in the background all the way, when perhaps a bit more aggression there would have balanced the whole drink a bit more. 

Nowadays (at the close of 2020), the rum fetches around £500 / US$800 or so at auction or on specialty spirits sites, which is in line with other non-specific Velier rums from the Late Age clocking in at under two decades’ ageing. Does that make it undervalued, something to pounce on?  I don’t think so.  It lacks a certain clear definition of what it is and may be too stern and uncompromising for many who prefer a more clear-cut Port Mourant or Enmore rum, than one of these experimentals. If after all this time its reputation has not made it a must-have, then we must accept that it is not one of the Legendary Bottles that will one day exceed five grand – simply an interesting variation of a well known series of rums, a complete decent sipping rum, yet not really a top-tier product of the time, or the line.

(#779)(85/100)


Other notes

  • The four 2014 Velier “blended-in-the-barrel” experimentals were:
    • Port Mourant / Enmore Experimental 1998 16YO (1998 – 2014), 62.2%
    • Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1995 19YO (1995 – 2014), 62.1%
    • Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1999 15 YO (1999 – 2014), 52.3.%
    • Diamond / Versailles Experimental 1996 18 YO (1996 – 2014), 57.9%
  • DDL’s own four rums of the 2019 “coloured” series referred to above were 
    • PM/Uitvlugt/Diamond 2010 9YO at 49.6% (violet),
    • Port Mourant/Uitvlugt 2010 9YO at 51% (orange),
    • Uitvlugt/Enmore 2008 11YO 47.4% (blue)
    • Diamond/Port Mourant 2010 9YO at 49.1% (teal).

The jury is still out on how good (or not) the DDL versions are. So far I have not seen many raves about them and they seem to have dropped out of sight rather rapidly.

Oct 192020
 

If one rates popularity or the reach of a brand by how many joyful fanboys post pictures of their latest acquisition on social media and chirp how lucky they are to have gotten it, surely Velier’s oeuvre leads the pack, followed by Foursquare, and after them come trotting Kraken and Bumbu and maybe an agricole or two from Martinique.  Nowhere in this pantheon (I use the term loosely) is Bristol Spirits to be found – yet, in the late 1990s right up to the mid 2010s, Bristol was releasing some very good juice indeed, including the near legendary 30 year old Port Mourant 1980 and some rums from the 1970s that were just joys to sample.

In fact, so popular were they, that the company even ventured out into blends and spiced rums, like the Caribbean Collection (Trinidad), Mauritius cane juice rhum, Bristol Black and so on. They released rums from Haiti, Mauritius, Peru, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Cuba, Barbados (Rockley 1986, lovely stuff) and raised the profile of the islands’ rums just as the wave of the rum renaissance was breaking. Not for them the single barrel approach – most of the time they followed Rum Nation’s ethos of mixing several barrels into one release.

Since then, Bristol has fallen somewhat out of favour —  I think Mr. John Barratt may be retiring, if not already withdrawn from the rum scene — and it’s rare to see their bottles for sale outside of an auction, where their prices vary directly with age, from £1800 for a 1974 Demerara to as little as £45 for a 2003 Cuban. This 1985 Versailles was bottled in 1998 at a time when nobody knew a damned thing about the stills, and back then probably sank without a trace – nowadays, it’ll cost you five hundred quid, easy.

The Versailles wooden single pot still is one of the three wooden heritage stills (the Savalle is a fourth but not of wood) now housed at Diamond estate where DDL has its headquarters.  It’s distillate is usually blended with others to produce blends with distinctive profiles, yet for years many bottlers have tried to issue them on their own, with varying results – and it is my contention that it takes real skill to bring the raw untrammelled ferocity of a cask strength wooden pot still hooch to some level of elegance sufficient to create a disturbance in the Force.

Bristol, I think, came pretty close with this relatively soft 46% Demerara.  The easier strength may have been the right decision because it calmed down what would otherwise have been quite a seriously sharp and even bitter nose.  That nose opened with rubber and plasticine and a hot glue gun smoking away on the freshly sanded wooden workbench.  There were pencil shavings, a trace of oaky bitterness, caramel, toffee, vanilla and slowly a firm series of crisp fruity notes came to the fore: green apples, raisins, grapes, apples, pears, and then a surprisingly delicate herbal touch of thyme, mint, and basil. Marius of Single Cask, who wrote a good evaluation of a number of Versailles 1985 vintages, commented on a marzipan hint, but I didn’t get that at all.

The taste, though, was where I think it really came into its own. It was just lovely: lots of fruit right off – pears, apples, peaches, guavas, kiwi, both ripe and unripe, crisp and fleshy and a contrast in opposites. The herbs remained, though somewhat muted now, and a delicately clear and sharp line of citrus ran in and out of the profile, like a really good dry Riesling punctuated by tart green grapes; and a drop or two of rather unnecessary water revealed a background touch of unsweetened yogurt to balance everything off. Really nice to taste, moving sedately to a finish no less impressive, but acting more or less as a summation of the entire experience, adding just a dry burnt sugar note that was very pleasing.

Overall its a very good Versailles, one of the better ones I’ve tried. Unlike Marius I thought the strength was not a negative but a positive (he felt it was excessively diluted), because otherwise other sharper and less savoury aspects might have taken precedence and upset the fragile balance upon which my personal appreciation of the rum rested.  Nowadays we consider the “low” ABV somewhat wussy, but remember, at that time in the nineties, to release a rum at 46% was  considered recklessly daring – even ten years later, people were still telling Foursquare not to release the ECS Mark I 1998 at more than standard strength. 

ABV aside, what I did feel was the barrel didn’t have enough of an effect, overall, and it could have rested for a few more years without harm, and indeed, been even better afterwards. Marco Freyr of Barrel Aged Mind who wrote about the rum himself in 2014 and was the source of the sample, thought that much of the youthful freshness of the original distillate was maintained and could have been aged longer without harm.  But clearly, both he and Marius really liked the thing, as did I. It’s a wonderful expression from the year, and even if there are older Versailles rums out there (like Bristol’s own 1985 22 Year Old which I’d dearly love to sample one day), to try this one from the dawn of rum’s ascent to the heights, when the wooden stills were just rising to prominence and attention, is an experience not to be foregone.

(#770)(87/100)

Oct 052020
 

Although just about every conversation about the Hamilton 151 remarks on its purpose to replicate the Lemon Hart 151 as a basic high proof bar-room mixer, this is a common misconception – in point of fact its stated objective was to be better than Lemon Hart. And if its reputation has been solidly entrenched as a staple of that aspect of the drinking world, then it is because it really is one of the few 151s to satisfy both rum drinkers and cocktail shakers with its quality in a way the LH did not always. 

Back in the late 2000s / early 2010s Lemon Hart — for whatever reason — was having real trouble releasing its signature 151, and it sporadically went on and off the market, popping back on the scene with a redesigned label in 2012 before going AWOL again a couple of years later. Aside from Bacardi’s own 151, it had long been a fixture of the bar scene, even preceding the tiki craze of the mid 1930s (some of this backstory is covered in the History of the 151s).  Into this breach came Ed Hamilton, the founder of the Ministry of Rum website and its associated discussion forum, author of Rums of the Eastern Caribbean and an acknowledged early rum guru from the dawn of the rum renaissance.  As he recounts in a 2018 interview (from around timestamp 00:41:50), he decided to create his own line of Demerara rums, both 86 and 151 proof and while barred from using the word “Demerara” for trademark reasons, he did manage to issue the new rums in 2015 and they have been on the market ever since. 

Whether Hamilton 151 has replaced or superseded the Lemon Hart is an open question best left to an individual’s personal experience, but to compare them directly is actually apples and oranges to some extent, because the LH version blends Guyanese, Jamaican and Barbados rums while Hamilton’s is Guyanese only – though likely a blend of more than one still.  But certainly there’s at least some significant element of the wooden stills in there, because the profile is unmistakable.

It is, in short, a powerful wooden fruit bomb, one which initially sits and broods in the glass, dark and menacing, and needs to sit and breathe for a while.  Fumes of prunes, plums, blackcurrants and raspberries rise as if from a grumbling and stuttering half-dormant volcano, moderated by tarter, sharper flavours of damp, sweet, wine-infused tobacco, bitter chocolate, ginger and anise. The aromas are so deep it’s hard to believe it’s so young — the distillate is aged around five years or less in Guyana as far as I know, then shipped in bulk to the USA for bottling. But aromatic it is, to a fault.

It’s also hard to see the Hamilton 151 as “only” a bar-based cocktail mixer when one tries it like I did, neat. The taste is very strong, very powerful — given the 75.5% ABV, caution is of course in order —  yet not sharp so much as firm, a flavoured cricket bat stroking the tongue, tasting thirty proof points lower. There’s the piquance of ginger, red wine, raisins, dark fruits, followed by vanilla, caramel, cloves, licorice, pencil shavings, and cedar planks, melding an initially simple-seeming rum profile with something more complex and providing a texture that can be both coked up or had by itself.  Me, I could as easily sip it as dunk it into a double espresso, and then pour that over a vanilla ice cream.  Even the long lasting finish gives up a few extra points, and it closes the experience with dark red cherries, plums and prunes again, as well as coriander, cumin, cloves and toffee. Pretty good in comparison to a lot of other 151s I’ve tried over the years.

Frankly, I found the rum revelatory, even kind of quietly amazing.  Sure, it hit on all the expected notes, and the quality didn’t ascend to completely new heights (though it scaled several rises of its own).  But neither did it collapse and fall like a rock. In its own way, the rum redefined a good 151, moving it away from being a back-alley palate-mugger, to more of a semi-civilized, tux-clad thug. It might not be as good as a high-proofed ultra-aged Velier from the Age….but it wasn’t entirely removed from that level either. Drinking it, standing on the foothill of its taste, you can see the mountaintop to which it could aspire.

(#767)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • You’ll note the careful use of the word “Demerara” on the label. This was to get around the trademark issue which prevented the use of the term “Demerara Rum.” The rum is trademarked…the river is not.
  • Thanks and a tip of the trilby to Cecil, old-school ex-QC squaddie, for sending me a more-than-generous sample.

 

Sep 302020
 

In spite of rums from various 1970s years having been issued throughout that period (many are still around and about and surfacing every now and then at wallet-excavating prices), it is my contention that 1974-1975 were the real years that disco came to town.  No other years from the last century except perhaps 1986 resonate more with rumistas; no other years have as many Demeraras of such profound age, of such amazing quality, issued by as many different houses.  I’d like to say I’ve lost count of the amount of off-the-scale ‘75s I’ve tasted, but that would be a damned lie, because I remember them all, right back to the first one I tried, the Berry Brothers & Rudd PM 1975. I still recall the rich yet delicate solidity of the Norse Cask, the inky beauty of the Cadenhead Green label 40.6%, the black licorice and sweet tobacco of the Rendsburger, Velier’s own 1975...and now, here is another one, dredged up by another Italian outfit we never heard of before and which, sadly, maybe we never will again. Unlike Norse Cask, it has not vanished, just never bothered to have a digital footprint; in so doing it has left us only this equally overlooked and forgotten bottle of spiritous gold, and some more recent bottlings known only to ur-geeks and deep-divers.

For the kitch, I’m afraid there is not much. Thanks to my impeccably fluent lack of Italian, I can tell you it’s a 1975 Port Mourant that was bottled in 2007, and it appears to be one of those single barrel releases often indulged in by importers – this time an Italian outfit called High Spirits, which doesn’t exist beyond its odd one-page website that leads nowhere and says nothing – see below for some notes on this.  The rum is 56.1%, dark red brown….

…and smells absolutely magnificent. The aromas are, in a word, loaded. The distinctiveness of the PM still comes through in a wave of aromatic wine-infused cigarillos’ tobacco, coffee, bitter chocolate and, yes, licorice. You pause, enjoy this, sniff appreciatively, dive in for Round 2 and brace for the second wave.  This emerges after a few minutes: and is more musky, darker in tone shot through with jagged flashes of tarter sharper notes: muscovado sugar, molasses, plums, blackberries, ripe black cherries, bananas, all the best part of, oh, the Norse Cask, of which this is undoubtedly the equal.  And then there’s a bit extra for the fans, before the taste: cinamon, vanilla, herbs, and (I kid you not) even a touch of pine resin.

And the profile, thank God, doesn’t let us down (think of what a waste that would have been, after all this time). People like me use the nose a lot to tease out flavour-notes but the majority of drinkers consider only the taste, and here, they’ll have nothing to complain about, because it continues and underlines everything the smells had promised. Again, thick and pungent with bark and herbs and fruit: plums, dark ripe cherries, ripe mangoes, bags of licorice, and an interesting combo of mauby and sorrel. Caramel and toffee and chocolate and cafe-au-lait dosed with a generous helping of brown sugar and whipped cream, each flavour clear and distinct and outright delicious – the balance of the various soft, sharp, tart and other components is outstanding.  Even the finish does the rum honour – it’s long, fragrant and lasting and if it could be a colour, it would be dark brown-red – the hues of licorice, nuts, raisins, dates, stewed apples and caramel.

There’s just so much here.  It’s so rich, smooth, warm, complex, inviting, tasty, sensual and outright delicious. Just as you put down the glass and finish scribbling what you optimistically think is the final tasting note, you burp and think of yet another aspect you’ve overlooked. Yes, High Spirits probably bought the barrel from a broker or an indifferent Scottish whisky maker who passed it by, but whoever selected it knew what they were doing, because they found and teased out the muscular poetry of the core distillate that in other hands could (and in its knock-offs sometimes does) turn into a schlocky muddled mess.

At end, over and beyond how it tasted, I find myself coming back to that age. Thirty two years. Such rums are getting rarer all the time. Silver Seal and Moon imports and Cadenhead and G&M occasionally upchuck one or two in the twenties, and yes, occasionally a house in Europe will issue a rum in the thirties (like CDI did with its 33YO Hong Kong Hampden, or those 1984 Monymusks that are popping up), but the big new houses are mostly remaining in the teens, and tropical ageing is the new thing which further suggests a diminution of the majority of aged bottlings. To see one like this, with the barrel slowly seeping its influence into the rum over three decades from a time most rum lovers were unborn and the rumworld we live in undreamt, is an experience not to be missed if one ever has the chance.

(#766)(91/100)


Other Notes

  • My thanks to Gregers, Pietro and Johnny for their help on this one, the pictures and background, and, of course, for the sample itself.
  • If I read the label right, it’s possible that as few as 60 bottles were issued.
  • For a recap of several 1975 Port Mourant rums, see Marius’s awesome flight notes on Single Cask.
  • High Spirits is a small Italian importer of whiskies and rums and moonlights as an occasional bottler. It is run by a gentleman by the name of Fernando Nadi Fior in Rimini (NE Italy), and he is an associate and friend of Andrea Ferrari and Stefano Cremaschi of Hidden Spirit and Wild Parrot respectively. High Spirits has quietly and primarily been dealing in whiskies and very occasional limited bottlings of rum since the formation of the company after the dissolution of the previous enterprise, Intertrade Import in the 1970s, but is still mostly unknown outside Italy.
  • I’ve often wondered about the prevalence of 1974 and 1975 Guyanese rums, so many of which were Port Mourant, We don’t see 1970s PM rums that often to begin with (Velier has a 1972, 1973 and other years as well, but they’re an exception), yet for some reason these two years seems to be unusually well represented across the various companies’ lines, and I doubt that’s a coincidence.  Somehow, for some reason, a lot of barrels from Guyana went to Europe back then and yet for few other years from that decade. Hopefully one day we’ll find out why.

Sep 102020
 

It’s been many years since the first of those blended dark-coloured UK supermarket rums dating back decades crossed my path – back then I was writing for Liquorature, had not yet picked up the handle of “The ‘Caner”, and this site was years in the future.  Yet even now I recall how much I enjoyed Robert Watson’s Demerara Rum, and I compared it positively with my private tippling indulgence of the day, the Canada-made Young’s Old Sam blend — and remembered them both when writing about the Wood’s 100 and Cabot Tower rums.

All of these channelled some whiff of the old merchant bottlers and their blends, or tried for a Navy vibe (not always successfully, but ok…).  Almost all of them were (and remain) Guyanese rums in some part or all. They may be copying Pusser’s or the British heritage of centuries past, they are cheap, drinkable, and enjoyable and have no pretensions to snobbery or age or off-the-chart complexity.  They are a working man’s rums, all of them.

Watson’s Trawler rum, bottled at 40% is another sprig off that branch of British Caribbean blends, budding off the enormous tree of rums the empire produced. The company, according to Anne Watson (granddaughter of the founder), was formed in the late 1940s in Aberdeen, sold at some point to the Chivas Group, and nowadays the brand is owned by Ian McLeod distillers (home of Sheep Dip and Glengoyne whiskies). It remains a simple, easy to drink and affordable nip, a casual drink, and should be approached in precisely that spirit, not as something with pretensions of grandeur.

I say “simple” and “easy” but really should also add “rich”, which was one of the first words my rather startled notes reveal.  And “deep.”  I mean, it’s thick to smell, with layers of muscovado sugar, molasses, licorice, and bags of dark fruits.  It actually feels more solid than 40% might imply, and the aromas pervade the room quickly (so watch out, all ye teens who filch this from your parents’ liquor cabinets). It also smells of stewed apples, aromatic tobacco, ripe cherries and a wedge or two of pineapple for bite. Sure the label says Barbados is in the mix, but for my money the nose on this thing is all Demerara.

And this is an impression I continue to get when tasting it. The soft flavours of brown sugar, caramel, bitter chocolate, toffee, molasses and anise are forward again (they really wake up a cola-based diet soda, let me tell you, and if you add a lime wedge it kicks).  It tastes a bit sweet, and it develops the additional dark fruit notes such rums tend to showcase – blackberries, ripe dark cherries, prunes, plums, with a slight acidic line of citrus or pineapple rounding things out nicely.  The finish is short and faint and wispy — no gilding that lily — mostly anise, molasses and caramel, with the fruits receding quite a bit. A solid, straightforward, simple drink, I would say – no airs, no frills, very firm, and very much at home in a mix.

It’s in that simplicity, I argue, lies much of Watson’s strength and enduring appeal — “an honest and loyal rum” opined Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun in his review. It’s not terrible to drink neat, though few will ever bother to have it that way; and perhaps it’s a touch sharp and uncouth, as most such rums aged less than five years tend to be. It has those strong notes of anise and molasses and dark fruit, all good.  I think, though, it’s like all the other rums mentioned above — a mixer’s fallback, a backbar staple, a bottom shelf dweller, something you drank, got a personal taste for and never abandoned entirely, something to always have in stock at home, “just in case.” 

Such rums are are almost always and peculiarly associated with hazy, fond memories of times past, it seems to me.  First jobs, first drunks, first kisses, first tastes of independence away from parents…first solo outings of the youth turning into the adult, perhaps. I may be romanticizing a drink overmuch, you could argue…but then, just read my first paragraphs again, then the last two, and ask yourself whether you don’t have at least one rum like that in your own collection.  Because any rum that can make you think that way surely has a place there.

(#759)(82/100)

Sep 072020
 

Cadenhead just refuses to depart the rum scene, which is probably a good thing for us.  We see rums too rarely from Berry Bros & Rudd, Gordon & MacPhail or AD Rattray, who were among the first introductions many of us ever had to fullproof single cask rums (even if they were sadly misguided whisky bottlers who didn’t know where or what the good stuff truly was). And there’s Cadenhead, persistently truckin’ away, releasing a bit here and a bit there, a blend or a single cask, and their juice goes up slowly but steadily in value (e.g. the fabled 1964 Uitvlugt which sold on RumAuctioneer a few months back for a cool three grand).

Cadenhead has always marched to its own tune and idiosyncratic, offbeat bent.  They never really created a consistent feel for their rums, and had a number of different rum lines, however small, however similar (or peculiar). There’s the blended one-off of the Classic Green Label rum, there is the whole “standard” Green Label range with their cheap-looking, puke yellow/green labelling design and occasional playful experimentation; there’s the green box and more professional  ethos of the 1975 Green Label Demerara, and then there’s the stubby yellow- label “dated distillation” bottlings of the single casks, which carries three- or four-letter marques on them, about which I have always joked they themselves never knew the meanings.

Usually I go after the single casks, which seem to be made with more serious intent.  But the lower-end Green Labels have some interesting ones too, like that Laphroaig finished Demerara 12 YO, or the Barbados 10 YO (no it’s not a Foursquare).  Even the Panama 8 YO had its points for me, back when I was still getting a handle on things. So to see a 25 year old “Guyanan” rum (that term irritates me no end) is quite enough to get my attention, especially since this is the top end of a small range-within-a-range that also has an 8 and a 15 year old. Alas, age aside, there are few details to be going on with – no still, no year of distillation or bottling, no outturn.  It is 46% and non filtered, not added to, and I think we can take it for granted that it’s continentally aged.

As with all Guyanese rums where the provenance is murky, part of the fun is trying to take it apart and guessing what’s inside when it’s not mentioned.  The nose gives a few clues: it’s warm and fruity, with ripe prunes and peaches right up front.  Some nuttiness and sweet caramel and molasses the slightest bhoite of oak.  But none of the distinctive wooden-still glue, pencil shavings, sawdust and anise are in evidence here. Actually I find the smell to be rather underwhelming – hardly the sort of power and complexity I would expect from a quarter century in a barrel, anywhere.

Perhaps redemption is to be found when tasting it, I mutter to myself, and move on actually drinking what’s in the glass. Mmmm….yeah…but no. Again, not quite spicy – initial tastes are some toffee, toblerone and gummi bears, dark fruits (prunes, plums and raisins for the most part, plus a slice of pineapple, maybe an apple or two).  Molasses, smoke, leather, a touch of licorice, brine, olives.  With a drop of water, it gets drier and a tad woody, but never entirely loses the thinness of the core profile, and this carries over into the finish, which is sharp and scrawny, leaving behind the memory of some fruits, some marshmallows, some softer white chocolate notes, and that’s about it.

Leaving aside the paucity of the labelling, I’d say this was not from any of the wooden stills, and very likely an Uitvlugt French Savalle still rum.  There seems to be quite a bit of this washing around Cadenhead in the late 1990s, so I’ll date it from there as a sort of educated guesstimate. 

But with respect to an opinion, I find the rum something of a disappointment.  The deeper notes one would expect from a Guyanese rum are tamped down and flattened out, their majestic peaks and valleys smoothened into a quaffable rum, yes, but not one that does much except exist.  Part of the problem for me is I honestly don’t think I could tell, blind, that this thing was 25 years old, and therefore the whole point of ageing something that long (no matter where) is lost of the drinker can’t sense and enjoy the voluptuous experience and rich complexity brought about by chucking something into a barrel until it’s old enough to vote. With this 25 year old, Cadenhead implicitly promises something that the rum just doesn’t deliver,  and so it is, while drinkable, not really one of their stellar must-haves.

(#758)(82/100)


Other notes

It’s surprising how there is almost no reference to this rum online at all.  It suggests a rarity that might make it worth getting, if the taste was not a factor.

Aug 092020
 

Black Tot day came and went at the end of July with all the usual articles and reviews and happy pictures of people drinking their Navy Rum wannabes. Although it’s become more popular of late (a practice I’m sure rum-selling emporia are happy to encourage), I tend not to pay too much attention to it, since several other countries’ navies discontinued the practice on other days and in other years, so to me it’s just another date. And anyway, seriously, do I really need an excuse to try another rum? Hardly.  

However, with the recent release of yet another ‘Tot variant (the 50th Anniversary Rum from the Whisky Exchange) to add to the ever-growing stable of Navy Rums purporting to be the Real Thing (or said Real Thing’s legit inheritors) and all the excited discussions and “Look what I got!” posts usually attendant upon the date, let’s look at Pusser’s Gunpowder Proof which is an update of the older Blue Label rum, jacked up to a higher strength.  

Sorry to repeat what most probably already know by now, but the antecedents of the rum must be noted: the name derives from the (probably apocryphal but really interesting) story of how the navy tested for proof alcohol by checking it against whether it supported the combustion of a sample of gunpowder: the weakest strength that would do that was deemed 100 proof, and more accurate tests later showed this to be 57.15% ABV.  However, as Matt Pietrek has informed us, real navy rums were always issued at a few degrees less than that and the true Navy Strength is 54.5%.  Which this rum is, hence the subtitle of “Original Admiralty Strength”. Beyond that, there’s not much to go on (see below).

That provided, let’s get right into it then, nose forward.  It’s warm but indistinct, which is to say, it’s a blended melange of several things — molasses, coffee (like Dictador, in a way), flambeed bananas, creme brulee, caramel, cereals.  Some brown sugar, and nice spices like cinnamon, vanilla and ginger cookies.  Also a bit of muskiness and brine, vegetables and fruits starting to go bad, dark and not entirely unpleasant.

The blended nature of the flavours I smelled do not translate well onto the palate, unfortunately, and taste muffled, even muddled.  It’s warm to try and has is points – molasses, brown sugar, truffles, caramel, toffee – but secondary components (with water, say) are another story.  It’s more caramel and brown sugar, vanilla and nuts — and seems somehow overthick, tamped down in some fashion, nearly cloying…even messed with. Even the subtle notes of citrus, bitter chocolate, black tea, dates, and a bite of oakiness and tannins at the medium-long back end don’t entirely rescue this, though I’ll admit it’s decent enough, and some additional final faint hints of ginger and cumin aren’t half bad.

The problem is, I really don’t know what this thing really is. I’ve said it’s just the older Blue Label 42% made stronger, and these days the majority of the blend is supposedly Guyanese, with the label describing it as a “product of Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados”. But I dunno – do these tasting notes describe a bit of any Versailles, Port Mourant or Enmore profile you’ve had of late?  In fact, it reminds me more of a stronger DDL 12 or 15 year old, minus the licorice and pencil shavings, or some anonymous WIRD / Angostura combination . Because the blend changed over time and there’s no identifying date on the bottle, it’s hard to know what the assembly is, and for me to parrot “Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados” is hardly Pulitzer-prize winning research. And, annoyingly, there is also no age statement on the black label, and no distillation information at all — even Pusser’s own website doesn’t tell you anything about that. Seriously?  We have to be satisfied with just this?  

Hydrometer test result courtesy of TheFatRumPirate.com

Anyway, let’s wrap up with the opinion on how it presents: short version, it’s a good ‘nuff rum and you’ll like it in either a mix or by itself. I was more or less okay with its discombobulated panoply of tastes, and the strength worked well.  Still, I found it oddly dry, even thin at times (for all the sweet and thick background), and given that Wes rated it at 7g/L of something-or-other, I have a suspicion that the rum itself was merely blah, and has then been added to, probably because it was just young  distillate from wherever that needed correction. The brand seems to have become quite different since its introduction and early halcyon days, before Tobias passed it on — and paradoxically, the marketing push around all these new variations makes me less eager to go forward, and much more curious to try some of the older ones.

(#751)(82/100)


Other Notes

  • There are several other dates for cessation of the rum ration: the New Zealand navy eliminated the practice in 1990, the Royal Canadian Navy in 1972, Australia way back in 1921, and the USA in 1862. 
  • Some other reviews of the Gunpowder Proof are from Rumtastic, Drinkhacker, Ruminations, GotRum magazine, Rum Howler, Reddit and Reddit again). None of the other well-known reviewers seem to have written about it.
  • Matt Pietrek’s series of articles on Navy rums are required reading for anyone really interested in all the peculiarities, anecdotes, debunks and details surrounding this popular but sometimes misunderstood class of rums.
Aug 052020
 

The Cadenhead 1964 Port Mourant is one of the great unicorns of our time, a rum whose 36 years of ageing sail majestically across the senses, impervious and indifferent to the up-and-coming claimants for the crown of “oldest” and “strongest’ and “bestest” and “mostest”.  Not since the Age of Velier have we seen anything like this and in some ways it supersedes even those behemoths we had all ignored back in the day, because they were “too expensive.”

And expensive this is: in June 2020 a variant bottle of this thing (bottled in 2000, 70% ABV) was bid up past all reason on Rum Auctioneer until it went under the hammer for a cool £3,000, which makes it pricier than rums from the 1930s and 1940s sporting amazing pedigrees of their own (though still less than a Velier Skeldon 1978). There’s another one now available in the August auction (the one I’m writing about here, bottled in 2001). Such prices dissuade all but the most foolhardy, the deep-pocketed or those who “clan-up” — and rightfully so, for surely no rum is worth that kind of coin, and who in this day and age has it anyway? 

And those stats, whew! 36 years old, pre-independence 1964 distillation (this, when finding anything from as recently the 1980s is already a problem fraught with the potential susurration of rapidly emptying wallets), Port Mourant distillate at a time when it was still at Uitvlugt, 69.3% of turbo-charged thrust – these things suggest an extraordinary rum, which usually fills me with dread as a reviewer: for, how could any rum live up to that kind of hype? Yet somehow, against my fears,  Cadenhead has indeed released something exceptional.  

Consider the nose: I loved it. It smelled like it was reared in an ultramodern Swiss lab and fed a diet of woodchips from DDLs stills and given only liquid molasses runoff to drink to dilute the raw caramel. It was a smoothly powerful rush of wood, well-polished old leather, smoke, licorice peas, stewed apples, prunes, and oak tannins. No rubber, no acetone, no paint stripper, just controlled thick ferocity. Some salted caramel, and molasses, flowers and as I stayed with it the subtler aromas of fennel, rosemary, masala and cumin and a twist of lemon zest all emerged. 

Clearly unsatisfied with just that, it toughened up something serious when tasted.  It showcased less a sense of shuddering sharpness aiming only to inflict careless pain, than the surefooted solidity of a Mack truck piloted high high speed by a really good stuntman.  It’s creamy, hot, redolent of caramel, sweet bon bons and molasses.  Anise.  Whipped cream in a fruit salad of raisins, prunes and caramelized apples.  Just a flirt of salt, and also some pine-sol mixing it up with soft flowers, coffee grounds and macadamia chocolate cookies. None of the ageing was wasted, and it did exactly what it meant to, no more, no less, with grace and power and the sense of complete control at all times. Even the finish demonstrated this: it was enormously long lasting, coming together at the last with a sort of burly, brutal rhythm of toffee, toblerone, almonds, coffee and citrus that shouldn’t work, but somehow manages to salvage real elegance from all that rough stuff and full, firm tastes.  It’s a great conclusion to a seriously well aged rum.

The Cadenhead Uitvlugt 1964 followed all the traditional ways an indie has of producing a rum, except then it proceeded to dial it up to 11, added steroids, horse tranqs and industrial strength factory cleanser, and released it to just about zero acclaim (I mean, have you ever herd of it?).  It’s excellence lay in how it came together over time, I think – it started at a low idle, then gained force as it moved along. The early tasting notes and impressions could come from any one of a dozen rums, but as it developed we see a great original product coming into focus, something we have perhaps tried before, and which remains buried in the recesses of our tasting memories, but which we rarely recall being done this well.

So, circling back to the original point, is it worth the money?  If you have it, yes, of course.  If you don’t, maybe you can dream, as I did, of scoring a sample. “To me this is the Holy Grail” remarked Gregers Nielsen when we were discussing the bottle, and now, having tried it, I can completely understand his unrequited love (or should that be lust?) for it.  Maybe, if I could, I’d pawn the family silver to get it as well — but in the meantime, for now, I was simply happy to have received the generosity of Alex Van Der Veer, and toasted him happily as I drank this really quite superlative piece of rum history.

(#750)(91/100)


Other notes

It goes without saying this is continentally aged,  The outturn is unknown.

Aug 032020
 

The three wooden stills now all gathered at DDL’s Diamond facility are called Heritage stills, their wooden greenheart components regularly serviced and replaced, and the questions they pose about the matter of Theseus’s ship are usually ignored. That’s not really important, though, because they may be the three most famous stills in existence, and the taste profiles of the rums they create are known by all dedicated rumistas, who enjoy nothing more than relentlessly analyzing them for the minutest variations and then bickering about it in a never-ending cheerful squabble.

My own preference has always been for the stern elegance of the Port Mourant, and the Enmore coffey still produces rums that are complex, graceful and sophisticated when done right.  But the Versailles still is something of an ugly stepchild – you’ll go far and look long to find an unqualified positive review of any rum it spits out.  I’ve always felt that it takes rare skill to bring the rough and raw VSG pot still profile to its full potential…none of the familiar indies has had more than occasional success with it, and even Velier never really bothered to produce much Versailles rum at the height of the Age.

This brings us to the Danish company 1423: it makes many mass-market rums for the broader supermarket shelves in Europe, but is perhaps better known worldwide for its boutique rum arm the Single Barrel Selection, which specializes in single cask, limited bottlings. These aim squarely at the connoisseurs’ palates and wallets, and have gained a quiet reputation (and a following) for their quality rums and geographical range.  The Diamond 2003 is a case in point – it’s 12 years old (bottled in 2015), has a finish in marsala casks, comes off the Versailles single wooden pot still and is bottled at a completely solid 62.8% with an outturn of 264 bottles. And it’s quite a hoot to drink, let me tell you

“Something is rotten in the State of Diamond,” I wrote cheerfully after a good deep sniff, “…and just enough to make it interesting.” Which was quite true – it smelled of fruits and vegetables starting to go off, and added some deep oak tannins which thankfully did not get overbearing but receded rapidly.  To this was added almonds, peaches, prunes, anise, strawberries, some light vanilla and raisins, all tied together in a neat bow by a briny note and some zesty citrus.  

The palate was also quite good, irrespective of how much (or how little) additional taste the finish provided.  It had the creaminess of salted caramel ice cream, the dark fruitiness of raisins and prunes and black cake and overall struck me as a deceptively simple, very solidly-constructed rum. The good stuff came from around the edges – you could sense some fennel and licorice and vanilla, and perhaps some nuttiness, red wine, indian spices and cloves, all dancing around that central pillar without taking center stage themselves. The finish didn’t try for anything new or exotic, but was content to sum up all that had gone before, and gave last notes of toffee, cumin, masala spice, caramel, dark fruits and brine, a nice sweet-salt amalgam, without any sharpness or bite on the exit at all.  Nice.

There has been occasional confusion among the stills in the past: e.g. the SBS Enmore 1988 which I am still convinced is a Versailles; but this is (in my opinion) neither a PM nor an Enmore and if there’s any further confusion it may derive from the marsala cask whose influence is faint, but enough to skew one’s mind away from a pure VSG kind of aroma.

And it’s good, very good indeed. Even Duncan Taylor with their 27 YO 1985 couldn’t better it, DDL’s own Rare Release wasn’t significantly better (I’ve heard the Mezan and Samaroli variations are excellent but have not tried them). But it seems to me that the VSG marque is really not meant to be a standalone except for purists and deep divers – it works much better as part of a blend, which is indeed what DDL uses it for in its aged releases, rarely issuing it on its own.  

Summing up then, with all those difficulties in trapping the best profile out of a notoriously temperamental still, it’s completely to its credit that 1423 managed to wring as much flavour and class out of a relatively young Versailles distillate aged in Europe as they did.  Perhaps their 1988 Enmore was in fact from that still also, but this one is no slouch on its own terms, has less ambiguities about its origins to boot and is an all ’round fine drink to have on the shelf.

(#749)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The length of finish in marsala casks is unknown, if SBS responds to the query I sent, I’ll update.
  • Thanks to Nicolai Wachmann for the sample.
Jun 282020
 

On the first day and at the opening hour of the 2019 Berlin Rumfest, a motley collection of scruffy rum folks met at the back of the hall. Alex Sandu (the young Oxford-based Romanian barman who’s now making a name for himself on the Rum Barrel site) was talking with me about what it takes to manage and maintain a rum site. Indy and Jazz Singh of Rumcask and Skylark Spirits drifted by and sat down, and we all sighed rapturously with the memory of a rum session we had had at Lebensstern rum bar the evening before. Nicolai Wachmann, anonymous rum ninja from Denmark, having left us earlier to go look for junk food outside, rejoined us while still furiously chomping at the semi-masticated remains of his fifth burger, and we all amused ourselves shouting cheerful and childish insults at Gregers Nielsen, who was running the 1423 stand a few feet away. This is the way we soberly conscientious rum chums keep the flag of Rumdom flying high. People must know we take our duties seriously.

Things calmed down when Johnny Drejer approached, though, because in his fist he carried a bottle a lot of us hadn’t seen yet – the second in Romdeluxe’s “Wild Series” of rums, the Guyanese Enmore, with a black and white photo of a Jaguar glaring fiercely out. This was a 61.5% rum, 17 years old (2002 vintage, I believe), from one of the wooden stills (guess which?) — it had not formally gone on sale yet, and he had been presented with it for his 65th birthday a few days before (yeah, he looks awesome for his age).  Since we already knew of the elephantine proportions of the Wild Tiger Release 1, we all immediately tried to elbow each other out of the way in our hurry to thrust our glasses at him, and demanded our rightful shares. And to his credit, Johnny, gentleman to the last, shared generously without hesitation or charge before hastily retreating to more civilized areas of the ‘Fest where rabid aficionados would not assault his immaculate person or pinch his birthday prize, and might remember he was actually only 50.

Now, 61.5% might seem like a lot, and indeed — if you’re not ready for it —  it will try its best to take your face off. But nosing it with no more than the usual care suggests that it really is quite civilized…creamy, even.  Certainly one can inhale rich aromas of pencil shavings, butterscotch, sawdust and licorice, all standard for Enmore distillate. I can’t say I sensed much in the way of florals or citrus except as a brief background hint; most of the secondary wave consists of black bread, dark fruits, brie, cereals, almonds, anise and crushed walnuts. Maybe a whiff of mocha if you strain. 

All this is fairly common, even boilerplate. It’s on the palate that it rises to the occasion and shows some more chops.  Now the label notes it was primarily continentally aged so some tropical ageing can be inferred; it’s just shy of hot on the tongue, extremely robust, and very tasty indeed…yet also not rough or sharp.  You can taste unsweetened chocolate, anise, blancmange, salted caramel and coffee grounds to start with, and as it relaxes and opens up and you get used to its bold profile, musky, dark fruits like raisins, prunes, not very sweet but with a lot of body.  I like the damp sawdust and licorice, the way I always do in an Enmore-still rum, and the long, fragrant finish was pleasant to a fault.  Johnny, who had measured the strength of the rum and was mentioned on the label, had gotten himself a pretty nice dram.

Romdeluxe in Denmark is – or started out as – more a commercial rum club that makes private label bottlings and runs promotions, than a true independent bottler — but since they have issued several releases, I’ll call them an indie and move right on from there.  Their “Wild Series” of rums has evinced a lot of attention, not just because of its variety but because of the beauty of the stark black and white photography of the large cats with which they adorn their products.  

So far there is a tiger (R1 Hampden, Jamaica), jaguar (R2 Enmore, Guyana), puma (R3 Panama), black panther (R4 Belize), lion (R5, Bellevue, Guadeloupe) and leopard (R6 Caroni, Trinidad). I don’t know whether the photos are commissioned or from a stock library – what I do know is they are very striking, and you won’t be passing these on a shelf any time you see one.  The stats on some of these rums are also quite impressive – take, for example, the strength of the Wild Tiger (85.2% ABV), or the age of the Wild Lion (25 years).  These guys clearly aren’t messing around and understand you have to stand out from an ever more crowd gathering of indies these days, if you want to make a sale.

Still, perhaps because I’ve had so many of rums from the Enmore still, my impression is that this one doesn’t ascend to the heights. It’s a completely decent rum and at that strength you’re getting flavour and a reasonably complex profile. However, it isn’t really unique, and won’t wow your socks off – originality is not its forte, and it seems, rather, to be a restatement of much that has gone before. So it’s easy to like and appreciate, but conversely, leaves no lasting imprint on the mind.  A month from now, like just about everyone who was there that afternoon sampling this thing, you won’t recall many memorable characteristics of the rum itself, or much that made it stand out…except perhaps for the fact that it was nice. Oh yeah, and that boss design. If that’s what makes you buy it, then I guess its work is done. Me, I’m saving for some of the others.

(#740)(83/100)

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