Feb 192020
 

The strangely named Doctor Bird rum is another company’s response to Smith and Cross, Rum Fire  and the Stolen Overproof rum. These are all made or released in the USA (Stolen hails from New Zealand but its rum business is primarily in the US), but the rums themselves come from Jamaica, and there the similarity sort of breaks down, for the Doctor Bird is one of the few from Worthy Park — one of the New Jamaicans which has quietly been gaining its own accolades over the last few years — and not from Hampden or Monymusk or Longpond or Appleton.

The quirky Detroit-based Two James Distillery — whose staff include, variously, an ex-guitar-maker, ex-EMT, ex-Marine and ex-photographer and who state openly and tongue-in-cheek that they have no problems with people stalking them on social media — is a full-fledged distillery, with a 500-gallon (1892 liter) pot still leading the charge.  But while they produce gin, rye whiskey, bourbon and vodka on that still, it’s really irrelevant here because – again, like Stolen – they didn’t bother to make any rum themselves but imported some barrels from Worthy Park. This is a departure from most American distillers styling themselves rum makes, many of whom seem to think that if they have a still they can make anything (and are at pains to demonstrate it), but few of whom ever think of buying another country’s spirit as Stolen and Two James have.

That aside, moving on: Worthy Park you say?  Okay. What else? Pot still, of course, 50% ABV, so that part is good.  Hay yellow. It’s finished in moscatel sherry casks, and that kinda-sorta bothers me, since I retain bad-tempered memories of an over-finished Legendario that was well-nigh undrinkable because of it – though here, given the zero reading on a hydrometer, it’s more likely the finishing was a short one, and not in wet casks.

Certainly the sherry influence seemed to be AWOL on initial sniffing, because my first dumbfounded note-to-self was wtf is this? Salt wax bomb just went off in the glass.Sharp funk is squirting left and right, acetones, furniture polish, rotting bananas, a deep dumpster dive behind an all night take-out joint. Harshly, greasily pungent is as good as any to describe the experience. Oh and that’s just for openers. It gives you kippers and saltfish, the sweet salt of olive oil, varnish, paint thinner. Thank God the fruits come in to save the show: sharp nettlesome, stabbing, tart unripe green bastards, to be sure – gooseberries, five finger, green mangoes, soursop, apples, all nose-puckering and outright rude.  But overall the sensation that remains on the nose is the brine and rotting fruits, and I confess to not having been this startled by a rum since my initial encounter with the clairins and the Paranunbes

Thankfully, much of the violence which characterizes the nose disappears upon a cautious tasting, transmuted by some obscure alchemy into basic drinkability.  It stays sharp, but now things converge to a sort of balance of sweet and salt (not too much of either), crisp and more fruity than before. There’s wood chips, sawdust, varnish, glue, retreating to a respectable distance. Sweet soya sauce, vegetable soup, dill and ginger, gherkins in a sweet vinegar, followed by a parade of crisp fruitiness. Pineapple, lemon peel, gooseberries, green apples, all riper than the nose had suggested they might be, and the finish, relatively swift, is less than I would have expected — and simpler — given the stabbing attack of the nose.  It provides salt, raisins, the citric spiciness of cumin and dill, exhaled some last fruity notes and then disappears.

Well now, what to make of this? If, as they say, it was finished in a sherry cask, all I can say is too little of that made it through. The light sweet muskiness is there, just stays too far in the background to be considered anything but a very minor influence, and aside from some fruity notes (which could just as easily come from the rum’s own esters), the sherry didn’t habla. Maybe it’s because those Jamaican rowdies from the backdam kicked down the door and stomped it flat, who knows? The strength is perfect for what it is – stronger, and morgues might have filled up with expired rum drinkers, but weaker might not have exhibited quite as much badass.

I think the challenge with the rum, for people now getting into Jamaicans (especially the New ones, who like their pot stills and funky junk dialled up to “11” ) might be to get past the aromas, the nose, and how that impacts what is tasted (a good example of how polarizing the rum is, is to check out rumratings’ comments, and those on Tarquin’s sterling reddit review. This is a rum that needs to be tried carefully because to the unprepared it might just hit them between the eyes like a Louisville Slugger. Personally I think a little more ageing or a little more finishing might have been nice, just to round things out and sand the rough edges off a shade more – this is, after all, not even a six year old rum, but a blend of pot still rums of which a 6YO is the oldest. And those high-funk, ester-sporting bad boys need careful handling to reach their full potential. 

The Jamaicans have been getting so much good press of late – especially Hampden and WP – but the peculiarity of this fame is that it’s sometimes thought you can just buy a barrel or ten from them, bottle the result and voila! – instant sold-out. Yeah, but no. Not quite. Not always. And no, not here.

(#702)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • “Doctor Bird” is not a person, and is not supposed to be “Dr. Bird.” It is, in fact, the national bird of Jamaica, a swallow-tail humming bird, only found there. Folklore has it that it was named because of the resemblance of its black crest and long bifurcated tail to the top hat and tails worn by country doctors back in the old days.
  • Big hat tip to Cecil Ramotar, ex-QC part-time rum-junkie, who made sure I got a sample of the rum to try.
Feb 052020
 

Hampden is now one of the belles du jour of the New Jamaicans, but it’s been on the horizon for much longer than that, though sadly much of its output from the Elder Days was sold outside Jamaica as a sort of miscellaneous bulk item, to be bastardized and mixed and blended and lost in the drab ocean of commercial rums that made up most of what was sold up to ten years ago. Never mind, though, because these days they’ve more than made up for that by issuing rums under their own estate brand, getting the single-barrel limited-edition treatment from Velier, and getting better every time I try ‘em.

This BBR bottling predates those more recent tropically-aged estate releases and hearkens back to what I sort of suspect will be a fond memory for the annually increasing number of Old Rum Farts – those days when all of Hampden’s output was sent for further ageing and bottling to Europe and only independents were releasing them at cask strength.  Berry Brothers & Rudd, that famed spirits establishment which has been in existence in London through just about all of Britain’s imperial and post-war history, certainly channels that genteel, old-world sense of style, with its prim and near-Edwardian-style labels.

What those labels don’t give us is enough data – by our rather more exacting current standards anyway.  We know it’s Jamaican, Hampden, distilled in 1990, 46% ABV, and from the osmosis bleeding through Facebook, we also know it’s a completely pot still rum, bottled in 2007, a continentally-aged 17 year old.  Marius of Single Cask Rum whose article on Hampden is worth a read for the curious, wrote that the 1990 bulk export batch – there was only one or two a year, rarely more – was of marque C<H> “Continental Hampden”, which would place it in the high range of ester-land… 1300-1400 grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol (g/hlpa); only the DOK is higher, going to the legal maximum of 1500-1600.

From those statistics we can expect something pretty dense and even feral, bursting with flavour and happily squirting near-rancid and over-fruity esters from every pore. It does indeed do that when you nose the yellow rum, but initially what you smell is a lot of glue, rubber, new vinyl, the fake upholstery of a cheap car and, more than anything, it reminds me of sliding a brand new 33 LP fresh out of its sleeve. Then there’s wax, sugar water, light fruits – pears, guavas, papaya – nougat, orange peel and an interesting sub-channel of sake and tequila, some brine and olives, followed up at the last by lemon meringue pie with a good bit of crust and creaminess thrown in for good measure.

(c) Barrel Aged Mind, with thanks to Marco Freyr

Yet overall, it’s not fierce and demanding and overdone. The palate, like the nose, also demonstrated this admirable self-control, and together with the lower strength, this allowed the glittering blades of over-fruity sharpness that usually distinguishes such rums, to be dialled down and savoured more than feared or watched out for. The profile was coruscating notes in a complex almost-sour fruit salad consisting of pineapples, kiwi fruit, green grapes, unripe apples and pears, sprinkled over with cardamom and a pinch of camomile.  It is also rich and creamy, tastes a bit nutty, and the lemony background went well with the vaguely salty background that gave the whole thing a tequila like aspect that somehow worked really well. The finish was medium long, mostly wrapping up the show content to stay pretty simple and straightforward – lemon zest, salt butter, pineapple, caramel and a twist of vanilla. Lovely.

Summing up, the BBR Hampden is not like the high end muscle-beach monsters of the TECC and the TECA, or even a dialled down DOK; nor is it like those New Jamaicans high-proofs that are coming out now, which sport lots of tropical ageing and dense, deep profiles. You can spot the core DNA, though, because that’s too distinct to miss – it’s gentler, lighter, yet also crisply fruity and very precise, just not as forceful as those 60%-and-over ester fruit bombs.  I wonder whether that’s the strength – probably, yes.  

But if you’ll forgive the metaphysical license here, what it really does is evoke and bring to my mind long unthought memories: of rummaging through and inhaling the scent of just-arrived vinyl LPs in Matt’s Record Bar in GT when I was a kid with no money; of overstuffed sofas and armchairs covered with thick smelly plastic sheeting, resting in old wooden houses with Demerara shutters and Berbice chairs where the men would sip their rums and “speak of affairs” on hot Saturday afternoons and me hanging around hoping for a sip and a word. The Japanese have a word for this – natsukashii – which refers to some small thing that brings you suddenly back to fond memories — not with longing for what’s gone, but with an appreciation of all the good times. I don’t want to make out that this is the experience others will have, just that this is what it did for me — but  in my opinion, any rum that can do this even half as well, for anyone, is definitely worth a try, even leaving aside the lovely scents and tastes which it presents.

(#698)(88/100)


Other Notes

Two other reviewers have looked at  this rum in the past:

Dec 302019
 

Rumaniacs Review #107 | R-0688

Lemon Hart is known for their Navy rums and 151 overproofs, the last of which I tried while still living in Canada when it was briefly re-issued. But they did dip their toes into other waters from time to time, such as with this 73% Gluteus Maximus wannabe from Jamaica they released while the brand was still listed under the address and label of the United Rum Merchants — which, if you recall, was a 1946 combine of Lemon Hart (owned by Portal, Dingwall & Norris), Whyte-Keelings and Lamb’s. A year later, URM became part of sugar giant Bookers which had substantial interests in British Guianese plantations and distilleries, and was amalgamated into Allied-Domecq in the early 1990s.

This kind of torqued-up Jamaica rum was not particularly unusual for LH to make, since I found references to its brothers at similar strengths dating back to a decade or two earlier — but the labels from the 1950s and 1960s were much more ornate, with curlicued scrollwork and and older vibe to them which this does not have.  The Golden Jamaica Rum was also released at 40% — predating Velier’s habit of releasing the same rum at multiple proofs which drives accountants into hysterics — though at no point was the source estate or plantation or age ever mentioned. We must therefore assume it was a blend, very common at that time (we occasionally forget that single cask, single estate or even single still special releases from a particular year at cask strength are relatively recent phenomena).

Colour – Dark amber

Strength 73% ABV

Nose – Original, I’ll grant it that.  Hot, and very spicy. Crushed nuts and the sawdust of dried oak planks, plus a sort of dusty, mouldy room. Good thing that was just for openers. Dates, figs, olives and not-so-sweet fruits, bitter chocolate. I let it stand for a half hour while trying other rums and it became much more approachable – sweeter, darker fruits with a touch of licorice and low-level funk, bananas, spoiling mangoes and bananas, green apples, gherkins, peaches…not bad.  It’s kind of snappy, preppy, crisp, especially once the hogo-like aromas take on more prominence.

Palate – Waiting for this to open up is definitely the way to go, because with some patience, the bags of funk, soda pop, nail polish, red and yellow overripe fruits, grapes and raisins just become a taste avalanche across the tongue.  It’s a very solid series of tastes, firm but not sharp unless you gulp it (not recommended) and once you get used to it, it settles down well to just providing every smidgen of taste of which it is capable.

Finish – Long, sweet, fruity, briny and darkly sweet. Really quite exceptional and long lasting.

Thoughts – This reminds me more of a modern, proofed-up Appleton than anything else.  It lacks the pungent pot-still estate-specific originality of the New Jamaicans, which of course is completely proper since at the time it was made, tepid blends were all the rage. For anyone who desires a different rum from “modern standard”, this one ticks all the boxes.  

Too bad it’s out of production – I mean, Lamb’s and Lemon Hart and other such supermarket brands that have survived into the modern era get a bad rap for producing the same old boring blended blah these days, but when they were in their prime, issuing souped-up superrums that took no prisoners and tasted off the scale, it’s easy to see why the brands were so popular. It’s because they weren’t as timid, took their chances, and showed they knew their sh*t. As this rum proves, and their modern descendants so rarely do.

(83/100)

Oct 302019
 

Few except deep-diving, long-lasting rum geeks now remember Murray McDavid, the scotch whisky bottler that acquired Bruichladdich in 2000, and created a rum label of the same name at the same time. Most who spot the distinctive slender bottles with the steel-gray enclosures and red-patterned labels just see an older independent bottler and move along (some might stop for a taste, especially if they pay attention to the dates on the bottles). The MM line is long defunct, folded into the Renegade line in 2006 – Mark Reynier, the man behind it all, put into practice some of the ideas he had had regarding rum releases but liked the idea of creating a completely separate brand for rums…and therefore MM as a rum brand was discontinued. Renegade Rum Company was formed to take its place and continued the evolution of Mr. Reynier’s ideas before itself disappearing in 2012 (temporarily – there’s more info in the company bio, here).

What we see with Murray McDavid rums is an idea in embryo.  Renegade to some extent gave a better-known foundation to the emergent single barrel, finishing, limited edition rum releases, but a simpler form of such an indie bottling ethos was already in play years earlier by MM, just around the same time as Velier’s Demeraras were being issued over in Italy. MM releases are hard to find now after so many years (there are only five as far as I could determine) but they do exist, remaining unsold or popping up for auction, largely because few know what they are, or if they deserve their price tags.

Briefly, the facts: it’s a tawny gold rum, from Hampden as noted on the very informative label (another thing MM/Renegade started to provide concurrently with Velier), distilled 1992 and bottled 2005.  Ageing was in ex bourbon casks, with additional finishing in port casks but without any indication of how long – subsequent practice with Renegade suggests some months only. And it was 46%, the standard to which MM/Renegade adhered throughout their short lives.

Tasting notes: definitely Jamaican, that hogo and funk was unmistakable, though it seemed more muted than the fierce cask strength Hampdens we’ve been seeing of late. It smelled initially of pencil shavings, crisp acetones, nail polish remover, a freshly painted room and glue.  After opening up, I went back some minutes later and found softer aromas – red wine, molasses, honey, chocolate, and cream cheese and salted butter on fresh croissants, really yummy. And this is not to ignore the ever-present sense of fruitiness – dark grapes, black cherries, ripe mangoes, papayas, gooseberries and some bananas, just enough to round off the entire nose.

No surprises on the palate, just variations on the Hampden theme: it wasn’t harsh or super sharp or powerful (at 46% we could hardly expect that).  I tasted glue, sweet honey, very ripe red grapes, a really nice initial attack. It developed over time, presenting molasses, salt caramel, cream cheese on toast, coffee grounds, and the sharp lightness of green apples and hard yellow fruit kept pace with all the others. The finish was short but it was at least aromatic, mostly ripe fruits, some flambeed bananas, and that peculiar mix of hogo, fruit going off and sharp-sweet acidic notes that to me characterize Jamaican pot still expressions. As an observation, the influence of the port casks seemed quite minimal to me and didn’t detract from, or derail, the core Jamaican profile in any significant way.

Reading this, a jaded and experienced Jamaican rum lover might suggest it’s more of the same old thing, differing only in the details. True. However, I think that seen at a remove of so many years from when it was made, its originality — that singular distinctiveness of the pot still distillate in particular, as ameliorated by the finishing — is harder to make out, because we’re so used to it. It’s not the best Hampden rum ever released, but it’s a perfectly serviceable and drinkable version on its own merits, and for its strength, quite good.

We are in the middle of a golden age of rum making experimentation, where pot and column still blends, multiple maturations and fancy finishes are much more common and much more sophisticated…and much better, perhaps. Mr. Reynier’s “Additional Cask Evolution” — which he pioneered with the five MM releases and then took further with Renegade — was ahead of its time and never really caught on with the greater rum public.  My own feeling is that when one has a good distillate and uses the finishing judiciously to enhance rather than overwhelm, then it doesn’t matter how long ago the rum was bottled – it’s a fine rum to sample.  

This rum, showing off a Hampden HLCF years before the estate became more famous, is worth trying (or buying) whether you’re into Jamaicans specifically or rums from the past generally.  It shows how good the lesser-known pot still estate-Jamaicans always were, and how fortunate we are that they remain available and affordable and approachable to this day.  On both a historical and practical basis, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to taste it.

(#671)(84/100)

Oct 232019
 

For all the faux-evasions about “a historic 250 year old Jamaican distillery” and the hints on the website, let’s not dick around – the Stolen Overproof is a Hampden Estate rum. You can disregard all the marketing adjectives and descriptors like “undiscovered”, “handmade” etc etc and just focus on what it is: a New Jamaican pot still rum, released at a tonsil-chewing 61.5%, aged six years and remarkably underpriced for what it is.

The Stolen Overproof has gotten favourable press from across the board almost without exception since its launch, even if there are few formal (i.e., review-website based) ones from the US itself — perhaps that’s because there’s no-one left writing essay-style rum reviews there these days except Paul Senft, and shorter ones from various Redditors (here, here, here and here). In my opinion, this is a rum that takes its place in the mid-range area right next to Rum Bar, Rum Fire, Smith & Cross and Dr. Bird — and snaps at the heels of Habitation Velier’s 2010 HLCF, of which this is not a cousin, but an actual brother. 

If you doubt me, permit me to offer you a glass of this stuff, as my old-schoolfriend and sometime rum-chum Cecil R. did when he passed me a sample and insisted I try it. You’d think that Stolen Spirits, a company founded in 2010 which has released some underwhelming underpoofs and “smoked” rums was hardly one warrant serious consideration, but this rum changed my mind in a hurry, and it’ll likely surprise you as well.

The nose was pure Jamaica, pure funk. It was dusty, briny, glue-y and wine-y, sharp and sweet and acidic. and redolent of a massive parade of fruits that came stomping through the nose with cheerful abandon. Peaches in syrup, near-ripe mangoes, guavas, pineapple, all dusted with a little salt and black pepper.  It held not only these sharpish tart fruits but raisins, flambeed bananas, red currants, and as it opened further is also provided the lighter crispness of fanta, bubble-gum and flowers.  

The rum is dark gold in the glass, 61.5% of high-test hooch and a Hampden, so a fierce palate is almost a given.  Nor did it disappoint: it was sharp, with gasoline ((!!), glue, acetones and olive oil charging right out of the gate.  It tasted of fuel oil, coconut shavings, wet ashes, salt and pepper, slight molasses, tobacco and pancakes drenched in sweet syrup, cashew nuts…and bags and bags of fruit and other flavours, marching in stately order, one by one, past your senses – green apples, grapes, cloves, red currants, strawberries, ripe pineapples, soursop, lemon zest, burnt sugar cane, salt caramel and toffee.  Whew! That was quite a handful. Even the finish – long and heated – added something: licorice, bubble gum, apples, pineapple and damp, fresh sawdust.

Whew!  That’s quite a rum, representing the island in really fine style. I mean, the only way you’re getting closer to Jamaica without actually being there is to hug Christelle Harris in Brooklyn (which won’t get you drunk and might be a lot more fun, but also earn you a fight with everyone else around her who was thinking of doing the same thing).  Essentially, it’s a Jamaican flavour bomb and the other remarkable thing about it is who made it, and from where.

The Stolen Overproof is an indie bottling — the company was formed in 2010 in New Zealand, and seems to be a primarily US based op these days — and the story I heard was that somehow they laid hands on some barrels of Hampden distillate way back in 2016 and brought it to market. This is fairly recently, you might say, but even a mere three years ago, Hampden was not a household name, having just launched themselves into the global marketplace, and Velier’s 2010 6 YO HLCF only reached the greater rum audience in 2017 – apparently this rum is from the same batch of barrels.  The Stolen is still relatively affordable if you can find it (US$18 for a 375ml bottle), and my only guess is that they literally did not know what they had and put a standard markup on the rum, never imagining how huge Jamaica rum of this kind would become in the years ahead. 

When discussing Bacardi’s near-forgotten foray into limited bottlings, I remarked that just because you slap a Jamaican distillery name on a label does not mean you instantly have a great juice. But the reverse can also be true: you can have an almost-unobserved release of an unidentifed Jamaican rum from a near-unknown third-tier bottler, and done right and done well, it’ll do its best to wow your socks off. This is one of those.

(#669)(85/100)


Other Notes

60,000 1/2 sized 375ml bottles were issued, so ~22,500 liters. All ageing was confirmed to be at Hampden Estate.


Opinion, somewhat tangential to the review….

If you want to know why I generally disregard the scorings and opinions on Rum Ratings, searching for this rum tells you why.  This is a really good piece of work that’s been on the market for three years, and on that site and in all that time, it has garnered a rich and varied total of six scores – one 9-pointer, three at 7 points, one of 4 … and Joola69’s rating of 1. “Just another Jamaican glue and funk rum” he sneered rather contemptuously from the commanding heights of his 2,350 other rum ratings (the top choices of which are mostly devoted to Spanish/Latin column still spirits). If you want a contrary opinion that indicts the New Jamaicans as a class, there’s one for you.

Certainly such rums as the gentleman champions have their place and they remain great sellers and crowd pleasing favourites. But really good rums should — and do — adhere to rather higher standards than just pleasing everyone with soft sweet smoothness, and in this case, a dismissive remark like the one made simply shows the author does not know what good rums have developed into, and, sadly, that having scored more than 2000 rums hasn’t improved or changed his outlook.  Which is bad for all those who blindly follow and therefore never try a rum like these New Jamaicans, but good for the rest of us who can now get more of the good stuff for ourselves. Perhaps I should be more grateful.

Oct 172019
 

Although it’s older, Samaroli is somewhat eclipsed these days (by Velier), and is sometimes regarded as being on the same tier as, say, Rum Nation, or L’Esprit (though the comparisons are at best inexact).  With the passing of its eponymous founder, there is no single person around whom aficionados can rally, no-one to show the flag, to enthusiastically promote its rums and excitedly show off the best and newest thing they have going (not that he was doing much of that in the years immediately prior to his passing, but still…). It survives in the regard of many – myself among them – on the basis of the heritage and reputation Sylvano left behind, beautiful label design, and some really kick-ass selections.

Still, good selection or not, at the top end of the single-barrel, limited-outturn value chain, picking barrels can be a hit or miss proposition by minute increments of quality or preference. Although it’s a good rule of thumb, it does not necessarily follow that just because one release in one year is good, that all others from the same year would be of a similar level of excellence. The lesson was brought home the other day when a bunch of us tried the 2016 Samaroli 24 YO from Jamaica, which was distilled in the same year – 1992 – as the near-sublime Samaroli 25 year old 2017 edition we’d had just a few months before (and which was used as a control in subsequent tastings).

Let me just run you through the tasting notes, because this really was quite an impressive dram in its own right. Quiet and almost sleepy, it was dusty, dry, sweet and tart to begin with, like a long-unaired spice cupboard. Gradually the fruity notes of peaches, pineapple, gooseberries and cherries built up force until they took over, combining well with licorice, citrus peel aromatic tobacco, even a hint of sherry; and behind all that was the restrained funk of rotting bananas, a sort of quiet gaminess, and the medicinal sweetness of cherry-flavoured cough syrup.  

The palate was where the action really was, and fortunately it didn’t display any kind of brute force, or the sort of over-oakedness that more than two decades sometimes provides. In fact, it was remarkably drinkable, and there was a lot going on: brine, olives, flowers, licorice, peaches in syrup, cherries were the main components, backed up by citrus, mint, lemongrass, green grapes, stewed apples, bananas going off, earthy and meaty … and there was a weird salty gaminess carrying over from the nose that was vaguely like a sausage starting to spoil. How all that integrated with the fruits and flowers is a mystery, yet somehow it did, though I have to confess, the balance wasn’t quite as neat as the nose suggested it would be.  The finish was a bit sharp, but elegant and complex, with fruits, nuts and some salt lasting nicely and then fading.

This was really well put together. There was absolutely nothing intrinsically wrong with the 2016 24 YO, and it didn’t fail: it was a strong, tasty rum in its own right, represented Hampden like a boss, and it scored high (with me, as well as with Marius, who looked at earlier in 2019 and awarded it 87 points, while remarking he felt it should have been decanted earlier).  But good as it was, the general consensus was that the 1992 25 year old was simply better. Better balanced, better integrated, better tasting, smelling, the whole nine yards. The 2016 lacked a little something, an extra fillip of integration and overall enjoyment that was subtle, yet noticeable when sampled in conjunction with its brother. 

In short, the 2017 had us searching our thesaurus for suitable adjectives (and expletives) and was one of the best Jamaican rums we’d ever tried. The 2016 — distilled the same year, and bottled a year and 2% ABV apart — made us nod appreciatively, mark it up as a really good rum to have, and one to recommend…but also move on to the next one in our session. 

(#666)(88/100)


Other notes

  • The label doesn’t state it, but as far as I know it’s pot still.
  • 240 bottles released. This is #29
  • 54% ABV, European ageing

 

Oct 142019
 

At the opposite end of the scale from the elegant and complex mid-range rum of the Appleton 12 year old – a Key Rum in its own right – lies that long-standing rum favourite of proles and puritans, princes and peasants — the rough ‘n’ tough, cheerfully cussin’ and eight-pack powerful rippedness of the  J. Wray & Nephew White overproof, an unaged white rum bottled at a barely bearable 63%, and whose screaming yellow and green label is a fixture in just about every bar around the world I’ve ever been in and escorted out of, head held high and feet held higher.

This is a rum that was one of the first I ever wrote about back in the day when I wasn’t handing out scores, a regular fixture on the cocktail circuit, and an enormously popular rum even after all these years.  It sells like crazy both locally and in foreign lands, is bought by poor and rich alike, and no-one who’s ever penned a rum review could dare ignore it (nor should they). I don’t know what its sales numbers are like, but I honestly believe that if one goes just by word of mouth, online mentions and perusal of any bar’s rumshelf, then this must be one of the most well regarded Jamaican (or even West Indian) rums on the planet, as well as one of the most versatile.

Even in its home country the rum has enormous street cred.  Like the Guyanese Superior High Wine, it’s a local staple of the drinking scene and supposedly accounts for more than three quarters of all rum sold in Jamaica, and it is tightly woven into the entire cultural fabric of the island. It’s to be found at every bottom-house lime, jump-up or get-together.  Every household – expatriate or homeboys – has a bottle taking up shelf space, for pleasure, for business, for friends or for medicinal purposes. It has all sorts of social traditions: crack a bottle and immediately you pour a capful on the ground to return some to those who aren’t with you. Have a housewarming, and grace the floor with a drop or two; touch of the rheumatiz? – rub dem joints with a shot; mek a pickney…put a dab ‘pon he forehead if he sick; got a cold…tek a shot and rub a shot. And so on. 

This is not even counting its extraordinary market penetration in the tiki and bar scene (Martin Cate remarked that the White with Ting is the greatest highball in the world). There aren’t many rums in the world which have such high brand awareness, or this kind of enduring popularity across all strata of society.  Like the Appleton 12, it almost stands in for all of Jamaica in a way all of its competitors, old and new, seek to emulate. What’s behind it? Is it the way it smells, the way it tastes? Is it the affordable price, the strength? The marketing? Because sure as hell, it ranks high in all the metrics that make a rum visible and appreciated, and that’s even with the New Jamaicans from Worthy park and Hampden snapping at its heels.

Coming back at it after so many years made me remember something of its fierce and uncompromising nature which so startled me back in 2010. It’s a pot and column still blend (and always has been), yet one could be forgiven for thinking that here, the raw and rank pot-still hooligan took over and kicked column’s battie. It reeked of glue and acetones mixed up with a bit of gasoline good only for 1950s-era Land Rovers.  What was interesting about it was the pungent herbal and grassy background, the rotting fruits and funky pineapple and black bananas, flowers, sugar water, smoke, cinnamon, dill, all sharp and delivered with serious aggro.

Taste wise, it was clear that the thing was a mixing agent, far too sharp and flavourful to have by itself, though I know most Islanders would take it with ice and coconut water, or in a more conventional mix.  It presented rough and raw and joyous and sweaty and was definitely not for the meek and mild of disposition, wherein lay its attraction — because in that fierce uniqueness of profile lay the character which we look for in rums we remember forever.  Here, that was conveyed by a sharp and powerful series of tastes – rotten fruit (especially bananas), orange peel, pineapples, soursop and creamy tart unsweetened fresh yoghurt. There was something of the fuel-reek of a smoky kerosene stove floating around, cloves, licorice, peanut, mint, bitter chocolate.  It was a little dry, and had no shortage of funk yet remained clearly separable from Hampden and Worthy Park rums, and reminded me more of a Smith & Cross or Rum Fire, especially when considering the long, dry, sharp finish with its citrus and pineapple and wood-chip notes that took the whole experience to its long and rather violent (if tasty) conclusion.  

So maybe it’s all of these things I wrote about – taste, price, marketing, strength, visibility, reputation.  But unlike many of the key rums in this series, it remains fresh and vibrant year in and year out. I would not say it’s a gateway rum like the Pusser’s 15 or the Diplo Res Ex or the El Dorado 21, those semi-civilized drinks which introduce us to the sippers and which we one day move beyond.  It exists at the intersection of price and quality and funk and taste, and skates that delicate line between too much and too little, too rough and almost-refined. You can equally have it in a high-class bar in Manhattan, or from cheap plastic tumblers with Ting while bangin’ down de dominos in the sweltering heat of a Trenchtown yard. In its appeal to all the classes of society that choose it, you can see a Key Rum in action: and for all these reasons, it remains, even after all the years it’s been available, one of the most popular — even one of the best — rums of its kind ever made, in Jamaica, in the West Indies, or, for that matter, anywhere else.

(#665)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Unaged pot and column still blend
  • The colours on the label channel the colours of the Jamaican flag
Oct 102019
 

Rumaniacs Review #100 | 0664

The further back in time we go, the less we can find out about rum, not least because such things weren’t considered anything particularly premium back then and the collector’s bug is a recent phenomenon.  And even if a bottle were in fact to have survived from as far back as the 1890s – which is when this one was estimated to have been released – who would have bothered to record it, or written about it, or tried to preserve the appearance, or the label?

Well, we have what we have, so let’s see where it leads. According to the label (which itself a recreation), we are given that it’s a Jamaican rum bottled in France. It must have then been imported to New York by Greig, Lawrence and Hoyt Ltd, but when? According to Renee of Renee’s rarities (he makes a hobby of finding and tracing such dinosaurs) , it could not be dated more precisely than between 1887 and 1900 and I’ll go with that because we literally have nothing better. Secondly, what was the company? Well, that address in NW is now the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in existence since 1965, so no hope there. The company was clearly a wholesale importer based on an obscure 1943 catalog of Madeira wines they put out. I doubt the company remains in existence, as there is no current reference to it anywhere.  Dead end.

As for the rum itself. I could trace Rhum St. Germain out of Bourdeaux as a brand belonging to the company of Robert Behrend & Co. from that city.  The style of lettering of labels that are available, do support a turn of the century print date — the firm was active at this time, being a general spirits distributor, and were known for their wines —  but the problem is, there’s no label linking the specific rum to these labels, so it’s less than conclusive.  I think we could perhaps accept that this is a rum from prewar or interwar years, which could conceivably be from the turn of the century, originating in Jamaica if the label is to be trusted, bottled in France, and then reshipped to the USA.  I wish I could tell you more. But that’s it.

Colour – gold

Strength – ~40% (assumed)

Nose – A relatively light rum, sharp, crisp, not deep, lacking any kind of signature Jamaican flavour.  There are aromas of honey, sweet cherries, blackberries, strawberries, grapes. Also some faint coffee and chocolate notes which are quite pleasant, but overall, it’s thin cheese, really — a lot is going on but it’s too faint to come to grips with

Palate – Nope, not much here either.  Cherries, mangoes, ripe yellow peaches, apricots, honey, with some lighter spices and cider-like notes.  Hard to pick apart anything, so in point of fact it might be even less than the estimated 40%

Finish – Short, sweet and thin.  A bit of fruits and cinnamon and gooseberries, green apples and grapes.

Thoughts: Leaves me with more doubts than anything else.  It tastes just a little like a Jamaican, and is maddeningly un-specific.  No molasses, no real grassiness, and though there’s some hints of sharper fruity flavours and sweetness that hint at something, it’s all too faint to pick apart and come to a conclusion.  Maybe the Germans weren’t the only ones to do a Verschnitt back in the day – I could get behind the theory that it’s ethanol dosed with a high ester Jamaican with no issues. It’s a pleasant rum to drink, I suppose – at least there’s that.  

(#664 | R-100)(69/100)


Other Notes

The Rumaniacs Project has lost some steam of late, but I like the idea of writing about old rums from the past as an exercise in preserving knowledge.  Since I lack the facilities of Luca and Steve to collect thousands of bottles, this is my small contribution, and I’m really happy to keep it going until I become a permanent addition to my own collection.

Oct 062019
 

There’s so many peculiar things going on with this rum it’s tough to find a convenient starting place, so let’s begin with what facts lie behind the rum itself and then go from there.  The rum is a Jamaican Worthy Park distillate from about 2010 or so, aged three to five years in american white oak casks, with an unknown (said to be limited but….) outturn dribbled into our glasses at a milquetoast 40%.

Since WP have a very recognizable branding scheme of their own, who released the rum? It’s found on the label, and it’s Bacardi, who evidently felt there was a market opportunity to go upscale and use their massive distribution network and marketing clout to steal a march on the independent bottlers who have pioneered limited bottlings in the last decade. I say “evidently”, because clearly they simply saw margins and profits, grandly called the new line a “breakthrough, contemporary innovation in the rum category” — but learned nothing about what actually made such rums special: things like serious barrel selection, serious ageing, serious strength, limited outturn, combined with a real and patiently garnered reputation for quality at the top end of the rum ladder. Just because you slap a Jamaican distillery name on a label does not mean you instantly have a great juice, as they have belatedly realized by the way this rum sank pretty much without a trace.

Which in 2019, four years after its release, I thought was odd…but only initially.  I say that because at first I quite liked the way it nosed. It was very much a WP rum, dry, fruity, rich, salty, with some olives bouncing around. Sweeter, fruitier notes emerged with time, fanta and coca cola and orange peel, and there was some background of smoke and leather as well. I jotted down that it was nicely pungent for a 40% rum. Understated but recognizable. So, thus far, not bad at all.

Trying physically, I can only assume that whoever put the final blend together must have been scared witless and sh*tless by the sheer crisp uniqueness of Worthy Park’s pot still distillate, so much at odds with the gentle ease of Cuban-style rons – and decided, therefore, it could not possibly be allowed to stand on its own but be added to to make it more…well, palatable, I guess. Better for Bacardi drinkers. And therefore added caramel or sugar or whatever, to the tune of 15 g/L.  And you could sense that when tasting it – it was, first of all, much fainter than one might expect from such a good nose. The dryness went AWOL, and instead of leading off with crisp citrus and brine, what we got was a sort of muted fruitiness, damped-down acetones, sour tobacco and polish, and a more soft and smooth and creamy taste. This was not unpleasant, but it did deviate from what we want — and hope we’re buying — in a Worthy Park rum. Moreover, though a half hour later I could sense apples, grapes, and unripe peaches, it was too muffled, and unbalanced at the back end, presenting both a kind of spiteful sharpness as well as a muddled mishmash of tastes confused and roiled by the additives, leading to a finish that was short and sharp — a kinda dreary and near-tasteless alcohol.

Overall, it’s unclear what Bacardi thought they were doing, acting as an independent bottler when they’ve always been primary producers who have their own ideas on how to make rums; with expertise in light rons, the clear-cut singularity of single (or a few) barrel selection from Jamaica does not seem to be their forte.  I’ve been passing Single Cane rums in many airports of the world for years but the 40% always put me off until finally I got one, this one…and kinda wished I hadn’t bothered.  It’s not a particularly good rum, a barely average product released at a strength that does little to showcase or capitalize on the unique heritage of its estate of origin. As a beginner’s rum it works to introduce Worthy Park, but my advice is to move beyond it to the real stuff from Jamaica as fast as possible, without wasting further time on the false promises of such an adulterated siren that treats its audience with contempt and cynically trades on a name without providing anything of its quality.

(#662)(78/100)


Other notes

  • Bacardi bought bulk rum directly from Worthy Park, and it was aged at WP. but they did their own blending.
  • The 15g/L additives number comes from the Fat Rum Pirate’s equally dismissive review of the same rum
Aug 072019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#649)(69/100)


 

Other notes

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