Oct 252017
 

#396

Since 2013 when I first wrote about the A.D. Rattray Panama rum from Don Jose, the lack of any real effort by Panamanian rum makers like Origines or Varela Hermanos (among others) to go full proof, issue single barrel, well-aged, or year-vintage bottlings has made me lose a lot of my initial appreciation for that country’s rums and I don’t seek them out with the enthusiasm of previous years.  There’s just too much mystery and obfuscation going on with Panamanian distillate, and other rums which crossed my path more recently, like the Malecon 1979, Canalero, and Ron Maja were relative disappointments.  

That leaves the independents to carry the flag and showcase some potential, and there aren’t many of those, compared to the tanker-loads of juice coming to the market from Jamaica, Guyana or Barbados.  One of the last I tried was Dirk Becker’s Rum Club Private Selection Panamanian 15 year old issued in 2016 (it hailed from Don Pancho’s PILSA facilities), which I thought gave the country’s rums a much needed shot in the arm and showed that a rum aged for fifteen years and bottled north of 50% was a really good product.  That same year I tried this one: Christian Nagel’s 11 year old rum which was sourced from Varela Hermanos (home of Abuelo), distilled on a column still in May 2004, aged in Panama and then bottled at 52.7% in Germany in June 2015 — and came with an outturn of a measly 247 bottles.  

Like Rum Club’s offering, it wasn’t bad, being a solidly built piece of work, light in the manner of the Panamanians generally, the strength adding more intensity to the profile.  There was a clear sort of white wine fruitiness on the nose – pineapples, pears, some tartness, a little caramel – wound around with a thread of citrus, all in a very good balance. To call it “easy” might be to undersell it – it edged towards the crispness of a dry Riesling without ever stepping over and that made it a very good experience to smell.

There’s nothing to whinge about the palate: it started out with the big players of lemon peel, caramel, and vanilla, with some spiciness of oak well under control. It feels and tastes a mite heavy, somewhat sweet, which suggesting some dosing — however, I was unable to confirm this, and neither was the bottler, Christian Nagel, who was emphatic that he himself had added nothing and expressed his frustration to me at his inability to find an unmessed-with rum from Panama, or a rum where the chain of production-evidence is clear and unambiguous. The finish was short and a little sweet, with crisp fruitiness, more lemon peel, pears, and cherries, all very low key and over quickly.

Christian Nagel, who founded Our Rum & Spirits, is not exactly an independent bottler in the normal sense of the word (or, he didn’t start out that way back in 2014 when he bottled his first one), because the rum business is, for him, a sideshow to his restaurant which serves rums as part of the menu.  Yet he keeps cropping up at the Berlin Rumfest, and has multiple bottlings from Guyana, Barbados, Panama and Jamaica, and in 2017 carted off a few medals to add to his stash and burnish his reputation as someone who knows how to pick his casks….so my opinion is that he’s becoming more of a bottler than he started out as, which is good for all of us.

Overall, the rum presented as perfectly serviceable, very drinkable, but I felt it lacked originality and real top-notch quality. Certainly cask strength Panamanian rums like this one are a step above the wussy forty percenters which corner the market in North America, because by being that way they are more assertive, and allow smells and tastes to be more clearly defined and appreciated. So they are, overall, somewhat better. Still, when it comes right down to it they continue to lack…well, adventure, character. A particular kind of oomph. I always get the impression the distillers are stuck in the fifties, when light Spanish column-still distillate was the rum profile du jour. When one considers the rip-snorting island products coming off the estates these days, the mad-scientist ester-squirting power bombs that get issued, each racing to see which can be more original, Panamanians just fizzle. This one is better than most, but it still doesn’t entirely make me rush to go out and buy a whole raft more.

(84.5/100)

Apr 202017
 

“Dale paso al placer” reads the bottle label, which translates into “Give way to pleasure.”  Obeying that would encourage me to give away the bottle.

#358

If the Panamanians (and other rums made in the light Spanish style), don’t up their act soon, I have a feeling they’ll be left behind in an era where tougher, more muscular, and more original rums — many of which are pot still based — are being made both by independent bottlers and more farsighted big distillers in other parts of the Caribbean.  There’ll always be a market for standard strength rums – low price and easy sort-of quality ensures that every hormonal teenager and up-and-coming rum junkie usually cuts their teeth on one of them – yet I believe that the emphasis is slowly shifting from buttercup to beefcake: they are the new premiums, and margins will shift to favour them…and those who don’t get with the program may very well find their rums relegated to third tier supermarket tipple.

These were the thoughts running through my mind as I sampled the Canalero Añejo, which was a 40% Panamanian rum bearing Don Pancho Fernandez’s fingerprints.  That’s no surprise, since he is the master blender for SER Alcoholes, the company that makes it.  SER Alcoholes, whose name is nowhere noted on the label of the rum, is a group of companies now owned by the Grupo Pellas (SER stands for Sugar, Energy, Ethanol, Rum so an “E” is missing there someplace) and operates out of Las Cabras de Pese in Herrera Province in south central Panama where their plant is located. As far as my research goes, it’s a column-still rum based on molasses, and there’s little information online about it beyond that, not even age (I was told it was three years old).

In the smell and taste of this rum, there were aspects of many other Panamanians coiling beneath, somewhat dampening down any originality it may have possessed at the inception. Take the nose: simple and straightforward, spicy and clear, with little beyond some molasses, light citrus and a few fruity hints (mostly raisins and ripe cherries).  The palate was also similar in this way, with more sweet molasses, again some fruitiness of cherries and raisins, perhaps a flirt of vanilla, and even less citrus than the nose.  It was extremely light in texture, hardly worth remarking on, had no real complexity or distinctiveness – it was tough to come to grips with because there was so little going on.  Five minutes after I tasted it I would have been hard pressed to pick it out of a lineup.  Even the finish was like that: short, easy, indistinct and very forgettable.  In other words, a young pup, the runt of the litter, which enthused me not at all, not because it was bad, but because it just didn’t have much of anything.

To me, this is a commercial supermarket rum for those who just want to go on a bender without major effort or expenditure.  It’s soft, it’s light, it’s a rum and beyond that, quite unremarkable. The Ron Maja, Ron de Jeremy, and the Malecon 1979, for all their similarity, were better, the Abuelos were a step up, and the independents’ wares are a class apart entirely.

There are a lot of Panamanians which I’ve enjoyed over the years, many of which are decent markers of the style, reasonably well made, soft and easy to drink. Don Pancho is more or less the poster boy for the entire country because of his extensive consulting work and advice provided to various makers from there.  But perhaps no one person, no matter how esteemed, should have such an outsized influence on an entire region’s production because what it results in is a quiet weakening of true innovation (such as is exemplified by the various distilleries of Jamaica and the French islands, who seem to enjoy making whatever crazy hooch they feel like on any given day while squabbling for bragging rights amongst themselves); and that makes many Panama rums subtly like all the others, with variations being almost too minor to matter – you taste one, you’ve tasted most. Hardly a recipe for maximizing sales or energizing the tippling class to buy every one they can lay hands on.  With respect to the Canalero Añejo, trying it once was quite enough for me since this is a rum where nothing much really happened.  Twice.

(72/100)

Feb 172017
 

A very good Panamanian, with deeper flavours than usual.

#343

Panamanians and other spanish-style rum makers are doing themselves serious injury in their contortions to stay “Latin” or “Cuban” or “Spanish” and justify dosing and/or the lack of provision of details behind their work as matter of course. The recent Rumporter interview with Mario Navarro where he did precisely that, lit up Facebook like the 4th of July, and is just one recent example…but it’s been coiling behind just about every major Latin American or Panamanian release dating back to, oh, the Santa Teresa Bicentenario, the Panamonte XXV and last year’s Arome 28.

Still, the fact is that whether we like it or not, rums made in Central and South America generally, and Panama more specifically, are – and have almost always been – geared towards a buying public that dials in precisely those coordinates: light, easy, 37-40%, lots of blending and barrel strategy, some solera style production, with maybe a pinch or two of other stuff thrown in for good measure to smoothen things out. They don’t give a damn about the movement towards greater transparency or purity.  Massive avatars of aggro are not their thing, and it lies with independent bottlers, almost all out of Europe, to up the ante in both these departments.

Which is why one should be grateful for the Rum Club in issuing this fifteen year old. For all its relative rarity and obscurity, you still get something more (informationally speaking) than the Malecon 1979 I wrote about with such disdain last week. First of all, the rum is made by the “RumClub”, which is very unhelpful until you check the fine print and understand that it’s the bottling arm of the Rum Depot in Berlin, which in turn is run by the man behind the Berlin Rum Fest, Dirk Becker.  This is the second edition, available from 2016, a fifteen year old cask bottled at 51.3% (the first edition was issued for the 2015 rumfest, a single cask ten year old at 51.1%).  The source barrel comes from the same aged stock as Don Pancho’s Origines (PILSA) which makes it a column still product, and kudos to Dirk for not wimping out and diluting the thing. One barrel, 411 bottles with no information about additives but I’m suspecting some caramel to get that dark colouration.

To be honest, I’ve not been very enthused of late with Panama, so most of the time I buy other stuff which interests me more.  But a cask strength variation piqued my curiosity, and once I sniffed the darkish red-brown rum, it met with my instant appreciation.  The nose was rich and almost deep with a plethora of dark fruits – plums, prunes, black grapes, licorice, and even some olives thrown in to provide a whiff of brine and some barely perceptible breakfast spices.  It really was quite lovely.

The palate proved to be equally well done, being on the heavier side of “light” and benefitting from the higher proof point.  Black cherries again, very ripe, blackberries blueberries, black cake, caramel and crème brulee. Oh this was nice!  It even suggested a certain creaminess, with a light dusting of vanilla, coffee, cinnamon and nutmeg, and while it had a mouthfeel and texture of some weight and heat which would make one think adding water was a good idea, I found that doing so took the quality down so geometrically that it’s probably best to dispense with that altogether.  After the enjoyment I took from the preceding, the finish was disappointing – short, sweet, some caramel and fruity notes, not much else.  Too bad.

Yet overall the rum was a very good one, lacking just some complexity and a finish of note to score higher. Just about everything works properly here. The rum is not overaged, and unburdened by any excessive oaken influence.  It’s decently rich and flavourful, with a forceful, distinct profile within the confines of its lighter Cuban heritage, and while I accept that different drinkers have different preferences, my own are simply that a rum should not adhere to any kind of limitation but be bottled at the power that enhances and displays its inherent qualities.  Which this more or less did.

When one tries this 51.3% fifteen year old bruiser in tandem with a cupcake rum like the Malecon (bottled at 40%), the failings of the latter snap more clearly into focus, even though the former is half the age. In all respects, the 15 is simply better. Bigger, bolder, badder, better. It showcased what Panama rums could be if they wanted to.  The Malecon and Panamonte XXV and their ilk positioned themselves as fine old boys at the top of their food chains and boasted of their quality…then along came the Rum Club which answered with this impressive rum, providing rum lovers with something of what they had been missing.  And made an irrefutable response to all the notions of “premium” that its predecessors had claimed for themselves, but did not entirely earn.

(85/100)

Other notes

“Rum Club” was the name of an unadvertised speakeasy sort of bar Dirk Becker opened up back when he was getting into rum in a big way and before he opened up the Rum Depot (it boasted 300+ different rums for its patrons).

Feb 152017
 

#342

Considering that the Seleccion Esplendida was pushed out as both a specific year’s production and an enormously aged near-thirty-year-old rum – a breed getting rarer all the time now that collectors, enthusiasts and rum lovers are snapping up the old 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s vintages – it’s somewhat surprising how little of a rep the brand or the rum itself actually has.  I mean, when was the last time you saw anyone rhapsodizing about it, anywhere? Perhaps that’s because for something that old we kind of expect to see it issued at cask strength in a limited edition of some kind accompanied by smart marketing, none of which occurred here (the company, Caribbean Spirits, doesn’t even appear to have a website).

Let’s pass on that for the moment though, and simply go with what we have here.  For what it’s worth, I was somewhat ambivalent about this pink-brown 40% column still product out of Panama, partly for its proof point, partly for how it sampled and partly for the price (around €200 these days).  Panamanian rums are a subset of the Cuban style of rum-making, molasses and column still derived and generally light and faintly citrusy, and this rum adhered to the profile (to a point) without major deviations, but also without striking out into the sort of amazing directions one could possibly hope for in a rum nearly three decades old.

It was light on the nose, redolent of sugar cane juice and the creaminess of rice pudding, flowers and saffron, with very little of a caramel or toffee or burnt sugar in evidence anywhere.  In fact it was rather easy and warm, with little tartness or sharpness.  It also presented with a some surprising amount of baking spices, cinnamon, vanilla, and after a while, what to me felt like an excess of cherry syrup poured straight from the can (hold the cherries).  So yes there was fruitiness and pleasant aromas, just nothing earth shaking that would make me want to break out the thesaurus. In point of fact, I was reminded somewhat of a dialed-down Panama Red, or something of the Origines series of rums (which I’ve tried but don’t have detailed notes for). But the more distinct and complex notes of the Rum Nation Panama 21 year old or 18 year old were not part of the program so far as I could tell.

The quality on the palate was certainly better once I got around to tasting it…up to a point  Overall it was soft and well rounded, again quite light, with warm flavours of fruit, aromatic tobacco, vanilla and more cinnamon, maybe a dash of nutmeg. Water wasn’t needed for something this easy, but I added some anyway and was rewarded with some black tea, a slightly more tannic and sharper series of oak and toffee hints, leading to a short and almost imperceptible finish of little distinction where the dominant notes were of cinnamon and vanilla.

Here the 40% worked to its detriment — it should have been stronger and not diluted too much, because for one it actually tasted younger and secondly some of the potential complexity was stifled under a feather blanket of wuss.  Frankly, after playing with it for some hours I just gave up on it.  It offered too little for what it advertised, and struck me more as a cupcake of a rum that would fail to impress the hardcore while probably pleasing lovers of lighter fare: in either case they’d be dropping too many pesos for something where the delivery was nowhere near the promise. If you want a Panamanian with some real huevos, I more recommend the Rum Club Private Selection Panama 15 Year Old, which, at north of 50% really gives you value for money. I’ll tell you more about that next time.

(82/100)

Opinion – you can disregard this section

The Ron Malecon 1979 is somewhat of an atypical Panamanian rum with which I have a number of issues, not the least of which is the remarkable — and disturbing –lack of background information available about the rum itself, or the outfit behind it.

Here are the few vague “facts” available. 1. The rum is attributed to Caribbean Spirits Panama Ltd, which has the official address in Cheapside, London and about which I can find nothing in Panama proper; 2. The cane used by the company is from “their own harvest”, which leads to more questions than answers; 3. The owners of the (unnamed) distillery hail from Cuba and this rum is made in the “Cuban” style; 4. It is a column-still product; 5. Don Pancho Fernandez is involved somehow, according to an Italian youtube vide.  Unfortunately I can’t place the photographs in that video to any of the three distilleries there (Carta Vieja, Ingenia San Carlos or Varela Hermanos). Given Don Pancho’s involvement, I would have expected PILSA (Provedora Internacional de Licores, S.A, established in 2000) and their distillery San Carlos, to be behind the rum (the way the label and the PILSA website speak to their Cuban antecedents suggests it), but as Master Quill pointed out in his own review of this rum a few months ago, this rum predates the distillery, so the question remains open.

When a company which produces several enormously aged expressions has nothing beyond marketing blurbs to promote them and provides little of value on the label, then all sots of doubts start to creep into a rum nerd’s mind. That says a lot for the disrepute some producers have brought upon the field.  We are getting to the point of distrusting them all, if they don’t provide detailed info, up front and every time. Country, source, still, outturn, ABV, barrels, additives and age – these are the minimum requirements many demand, and we have to be able to trust those.

How frustrating it is, then, doing research on a rum this expensive. Are Master Quill’s review and now this one, really the only write up of the Malecon available?  I hope not, but certainly it’s been a chore to find anything concrete, and even the company is damned hard to pin down aside from various notes made on sellers’ websites.  And for a rum fetching north of two hundred euros, which is supposedly aged in white oak barrels, stored in caves (!!) in Panama, for 29 years (1979-2008) – well now, perhaps you can understand my displeasure. We’re living in a time where more, not less is required of the producers of such a rum, sold for such a price. The lack of it coupled with the profile as described casts doubt on the entire age statement and provenance of the product.

Other Notes

Many thanks to L’homme à la poussette (the man with the stroller), who provided the sample.  Laurent’s French-language rum site is one of my favourite weekly stopping points as I scour the web for new reviews and articles on the subject, and we trade stuff whenever we can.

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