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. Hampden only ever sold bulk and did not sell any rums direct to indies like Stolen, so it’s a good bet that the ageing is continental.


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.
Jul 152019
 

Rumaniacs Review #098 | 0642

Everything about this rum is fascinating, and while there are gaps in its provenance, there’s still more available than some other rums in this series we’ve looked at. Note that it comes from the same timeframe as the Sangster’s Jamaican (R-097), but this one is much better and has more convoluted historical antecedents.

A.A. Baker & Co was founded back in 1898 by Arthur and Arnold Baker (and their cousin George) in Trieste, which at the time was the fourth largest city of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and their main trading port and shipbuilding centre (it later got annexed into Italy, where it remains, for reasons too complex for a rum review).  These gentlemen were forerunners of today’s independent bottlers, producing various rums deriving from the West Indies, Australia and Central America (as well as cognacs and whiskies), which were sourced by trading with ships that stopped over in Trieste. It still exists to this day, producing the Battle Axe Jamaican and other blended rums, though the Bakers have long since sold out to other (Italian) owners and the company moved to Gorizia, a ways up the road.

This 2-liter bottle is tricky – Nicolai Wachmann, who generously provided me with the sample, was told it was from the 1960s by the person he had sourced it from, but most of the pictures found online from a recent auction, suggest it was from the 1970s.  Neither is the age mentioned anywhere, or which estate in Jamaica was the source of the rum, so what we are left with is the rather impressive proof, and questions we wish — not without regret — had more answers.

Colour – gold

Strength – 60%

Nose – Even if I didn’t know it was Jamaican going in, I would have guessed. Glue, acetone, funk,rotting bananas and orange peel, brine, paint, and that’s just the first ten seconds.  There’s also the damp sawdust of freshly-sawn lumber, ginger, nail polish, aged balsamic vinegar and some good soup under all that. But once it opens it also settles down and the fruits begin to take over, like apples, grapes, mangoes…and at the last, some slightly rotten meat.

Palate – Well, at that strength, it’s not a surprise that it attacks with ferocity; it’s hot and sharp and (oddly) even a little sweet.  Salt, brine, black pepper, olives, and the vague mintiness of a cough syrup, including the medicinal aspect of it. Fortunately the gaminess of the nose is very much in the background here, and what one gets after some time is a rich – if scrawny – panoply of sharp and tart fruit flavours mixed up with some oddball elements. A touch of toffee and blancmange, quite faint, complete this picture.

Finish – Long, hot and very spicy.  Lots of spices and herbs here: ginger, dill, thyme, as well as caramel, vanilla and unripe apples and other sharp fruits.

Thoughts – Not very full bodied or musky, presents as somewhat thin and very clear.  The strength for what is probably a rather young rum may be excessive for true appreciation, but even so, for the 1970s when light rums were all the rage, it took guts to make this thing at all. 

Obviously the production methodologies of the estates have changed somewhat since this rum was made, or it’s a blend of multiple marques.  Maybe both. Whatever the case, identifying which distillery in Jamaica produced it is not easy – I’d hazard a guess that there’s some pot still in here (but not all) and that there’s Longpond and maybe Worthy Park in the blend – but it’s all a guess, because, who knows for sure? And that’s a real shame, because with the ascendancy of the New Jamaicans these days, how cool would it be to say you had one of their rums, dating back fifty years or more?

(#642 | R-098)(83/100)

Jun 172019
 

It’s remarkable how fast the SBS line of rums have exploded onto the rumconsciousness of the world. This is a series released by 1423, the same Danish outfit which made the really quite elegant 2008 Mauritius rum I wrote about with such love a while back, and has received enormously positive word of mouth on social media for the last year or so.  The only similar company I can call to mind that rose so quickly in the public’s esteem would be the Compagnie des Indes, which shared a similarly exacting (and excellent) sense of which barrels to choose and which rums to bottle.

Three things make Jamaica in general — and Worthy Park and Hampden in particular — the current belle du jour for rums.  One there’s the fairy tale story of old and noble rum houses in previously shabby circumstances rising phoenix-like from the ashes of near closure and bankruptcy, to establish their own brands and not just sell bulk.  Two, there’s that thing about pure rums, pot still rums, traditionally made, from lovingly maintained, decades-old equipment, eschewing anonymous blends. And three, there’s the ever-expanding circle of rum enthusiasts who simply can’t get enough of the dunder, the hogo, the rancio, that funky flavour for which the island is famous.

By that standard, this rum presses all the right buttons for Jamaican rum lovers.  It has much in common with both the Wild Tiger rum, and the NRJ series released by Velier last year, and some of the Habitation Velier rums before that.  It’s a Hampden rum, massively ester-laden at close the the bleeding max of 1600, thereby earning the marque of DOK (which actually stands for Dermot Owen Kelly-Lawson, a Hampden distiller who died in 1934). It’s unaged except for six months’ rest in PX barrels, and released at a firm but not obnoxious 59.7% ABV – more than good enough for Government work.

Now me, after the shattering experiences with the TECA and TECC (and to some extent the Wild Tiger), I approached it cautiously.  I spoke gently, kept my head bowed low, and did not make eye contact immediately. Maybe the PX casks’ ageing ameliorated the furious acid-sweet and rotting rancio of such high ester funk bombs, but I wasn’t taking any chances. It might have ninja knives hidden behind the demure facade of the minimalist labelling.

I needn’t have worried. The nose started off with the dust of old clothes cupboards with one too many mothballs, leavened with fruits, lots of fruits, all sweet and acidic and very sharp (a hallmark of the DOK, you might say).  Pineapples, yellow mangoes, ripe apricots and peaches, cashews, and soursop all duelled for bragging rights here. It’s what was underneath all those ripe and rotting and tear-inducing aromas that made it special – because after a while one could sense acetones, glue, nail polish, damp sawdust mixed in with white chocolate, sour cream, and vanilla in a nose that seemed to stretch from here to the horizon. I had this rum on the go for three hours, so pungent and rich were the smells coming from it, and it never faltered, never stopped.

And the palate was right up there too.  Not for this rum the thick odour of mouldering rancio which occasionally mars extreme high-ester rums – here the sherry influence tamed the flavours and gave it an extra dimension of texture which was very pleasant (and perhaps points the way forward for such rums in the future).  The tastes were excellent: sweet honey, dates and almonds, together with licorice, bitter chocolate, cumin, a dusting of nutmeg and lemon zest. As it opened up, the parade of fruits came banging through the door: dark grapes, five-finger, green apples, pineapples, unripe kiwi fruit, more soursop, more lemon zest…merde, was there anything that was not stuffed in here? As for the finish, really good – long, dry, hot, breathy.  Almost everything I had tasted and smelled came thundering down the slope to a rousing finale, with all the fruits and spices and ancillary notes coming together…a little unbalanced, true, a little sharp, yes, a shade “off” for sure, but still very much an original.

Summing up then. The SBS Jamaican 2018 is a Hampden rum, though this is nowhere mentioned on the label.  It’s a furiously crisp and elegant drink, a powerfully and sharply drawn rum underneath which one could always sense the fangs lying in wait, biding their time.  I noted that some of its tastes are a bit off, and one could definitely taste what must have been a much more pronounced hogo. The sherry notes are actually more background than dominant, and it was the right decision, I think, to make it a finish rather than a full out maturation as this provides roundness and filler, without burying the pungent profile of the original.

The other day I was asked which of the Jamaican high ester funky chickens I thought was best: the TECC, the Wild Tiger, or this SBS version.  After thinking about it, I’d have to say the Wild Tiger was rough and raw and ready and needed some further taming to become a standout – it scored decently, but trotted in third. The real difficulty came with the other two.  On balance I’d have to say the TECC had more character, more depth, more overall maturity…not entirely surprising given its age and who picked it. But right behind it, for different reasons, came the SBS Jamaica. I thought that even for its young age, it comported itself well.  It was tasty, it was funky to a fault, the PX gave it elegance and a nice background, and overall it was a drink that represented the profile of the high ester marques quite well.

DOK Jamaican rums that are identified and marketed as such are a recent phenomenon, and were previously not released at all (and if they were, it was hardly mentioned). They’ve quickly formed an audience all their own, and irrespective of the sneering dismissal of the marque by some distillers who persist in seeing them as flavouring agents not meant for drinking, this is pissing into the wind — because nothing will stop the dunderheads from getting their fix, as the rapid online sellout of the SBS’s 217 bottles demonstrated.  When one tastes a rum like this one, it’s not hard to understand the attraction. So what if it does not conform to what others say a Jamaican rum should be? Who cares about it being too hogo-centric? It’s distinctive to a fault, nicely finished, well assembled and an all-round good drink — and that may be the very mark of individuality to which many a DOK made in the future can and should aspire.

(#633)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • According to 1423, the rum was freshly distilled in 2018 and aged for six months in four 40 litre casks, then blended together, rested and issued outside the normal release cycle, in November 2018, as a sort of individual bottling.
  • All ageing done in Europe
  • A week after this review came out, Flo of Barrel aged Thoughts posted a comparison of six DOK rums including this one (in German), which is worth going through.
Jun 132019
 

Photo (c) Romdeluxe

Romdeluxe in Denmark is more a commercial rum club that makes private label bottlings and runs promotions around the country, than a true independent bottler — but since they do several releases, I’ll call them an indie and move right on from there.  Earlier, in May 2019, they lit up FB by releasing this limited-edition high-ester funk-bomb, the first in their “Wild Series” of rums, with a suitably feral tiger on the label. I can’t tell whether it’s yawning or snarling, but it sure looks like it can do you some damage without busting a sweat either way.

This is not surprising.  Not only is this Jamaican bottled at one of the highest ABVs ever recorded for a commercially issued rum – growling in at 85.2%, thereby beating out the Sunset Very Strong and SMWS Long Pond 9 YO but missing the brass ring held by the Marienburg – but it goes almost to the screaming edge of Esterland, clocking in, according to the label, at between 1500-1600 g/hlpa (the legal maximum is 1600)….hence the DOK moniker. Moreover, the rum is officially ten years old but has not actually been aged that long – it rested in steel tanks for those ten years, and a bit of edge was sanded away by finishing it for three months in small 40-liter ex-Madeira casks.  So it’s a young fella, barely out of rum nappies, unrefined, uncouth and possibly badass enough to make you lose a week or two of your life if you’re not careful.

Knowing that, to say I was both doubtful and cautious going in would be an understatement, because the rum had a profile so ginormous that cracking the cap on my sample nearly lifted the roof of of the ten-storey hotel where I was tasting it (and I was on the second floor). The nose was, quite simply, Brobdingnagian, a fact I relate with equal parts respect and fear.

The crazy thing was how immediately sweet it was – a huge dose of fleshy fruits bordering on going bad for good, creme brulee, sugar water, honey, raisins and a salted caramel ice cream were the first flavours screaming out the gate (was this seriously just three months in Madeira?). It was huge and sharp and very very strong, and was just getting started, because after sitting it down (by the open window) for half an hour, it came back with vegetable soup, mature cheddar, brine, black olives, crisp celery, followed by the solid billowing aroma of the door being opened into a musty old library with uncared-for books strewn about and mouldering away. I say it was strong, but the nose really struck me as being more akin to a well-honed stainless-steel chef’s knife — clear, and glittering and sharp and thin and very very precise.

The clear and fruity sweet was also quite noticeable when tasted, combining badly with much more mucky, mouldy, dunder-like notes: think of a person with overnight dragon’s breath blowing Wrigley’s Spearmint gum into your face on a hot day.  It was oily, sweaty, earthy, loamy and near-rank, but damnit, those fruits pushed through somehow, and combined with vanilla and winey tastes, breakfast spices, caramel, some burnt sugar, prunes, green bananas and some very tart yellow mangoes, all of which culminated in a very long, very intense finish that was again, extremely fruity – ripe cherries, peaches, apricots, prunes, together with thyme, mint lemonade, and chocolate oranges.

Whew!  This was a hell of a rum and we sure got a lot, but did it all work?  And also, the question a rum like this raises is this: does the near titanic strength, the massive ester count, the aged/unaged nature of it and the final concentrated finish, give us a rum that is worth the price tag?

Me, I’d say a qualified “Yes.” On the good side, the Wild Tiger thing stops just short of epic. It’s huge, displaying a near halitotic intensity, has a real variety of tastes on display, with the sulphur notes that marred the TECA or some other DOKs I’ve tried, being held back.  On the other hand, there’s a lack of balance. The tastes and smells jostle and elbow each other around, madly, loudly, without coordination or logic, like screeching online responses to a Foursquare diss. There’s a lot going on, most not working well together. It’s way too hot and sharp, the Madeira finish I think is too short to round it off properly – so you won’t get much enjoyment from it except by mixing it with something else – because by itself it’s just a headache-inducing explosive discharge of pointless violence.

Then there’s the price, about €225. Even with the outturn limited to 170 bottles, I would hesitate to buy, because there are rums out there selling at a lesser cost and more quaffable strength, with greater pedigree behind them.  Such rums are also completely barrel-aged (and tropically) instead of rested, and require no finishes to be emblematic of their country.

But I know there are those who would buy this rum for all the same reasons others might shudder and take a fearful step back. These are people who want the max of everything: the oldest, the rarest, the strongest, the highest, the bestest, the mostest, the baddest.  Usefulness, elegance and quality are aspects that take a back seat to all the various “-estests” which a purchaser now has bragging rights to. I would say that this is certainly worth doing if your tastes bend that way (like mine do, for instance), but if your better half demands what the hell you were thinking of, buying a rum so young and so rough and so expensive, and starts crushing your…well, you know…then along with a sore throat and hurting head, you might also end up knowing what the true expression of the tiger on the label is.

(#632)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It’s not mentioned on the label or website but as far as I know, it’s a Hampden.
  • Like the Laodi Brown, the Wild Tiger Jamaican rum raises issues of what ageing truly means – it is 10 years old, but it’s not 10 years aged (in that sense, the label is misleading).  If that kind of treatment for a rum catches on, the word “aged” will have to be more rigorously defined.

Comment

These days I don’t usually comment on the price, but in this case there have been disgruntled mumbles online about the cost relative to the age, to say nothing of the packaging with that distinctive “10” suggesting it’s ten years old.  Well, strictly speaking it is that old, but as noted before, just not aged that much and one can only wonder why on earth people bothered to arrest its development at all by having it in steel tanks, for such an unusually long time.

So on that basis, to blow more than €200 on a rum which has truly only been aged for three months (by accepted conventions of the term) seems crazy, and to set that price in the first place is extortionate. 

But it’s not, not really. 

At that ABV, you could cut it by half, make 340 bottles of 42% juice, and sell it for €100 as a finished experimental, and people would buy it like they would the white Habitation Veliers, maybe, for exotic value and perhaps curiosity.  Moreover, there are no reductions in costs for the expenses of advertising, marketing and packaging for a smaller bottle run (design, printing, ads, labels, boxes, crates, etc) so the production cost per bottle is higher, and that has to be recouped somehow.  And lastly, for a rum this strong and obscure, even if from Hampden, there is likely to be an extremely limited market of dedicated Jamaica lovers, and this rum is made for those few, not the general public…and those super geeks are usually high fliers with enough coin to actually afford to get one when they want one. 

I’m not trying to justify the cost, of course, just suggest explanations for its level.  Not many will buy this thing, not many can, and at end maybe only the deep-pocketed Jamaica lovers will. The rest of us will have to be content with samples, alas.