Sep 192019
 

Much of the perception of small and new companies’ rums is tied up in their founders and how they interact with the general public. Perhaps nowhere is this both easier and harder to do than in the United States – easier because of the “plucky little engine that could” mythos of the solo tinkerer, harder because of the sheer geographical scale of the country. Too, it’s one thing to make a new rum, quite another to get a Je m’en fous public of Rhett Butlers to give a damn.  And this is why the chatterati and online punditocracy barely know any of the hundreds of small distilleries making rum in the USA (listed with such patience by the Burrs and Will Hoekenga in their websites)…but are often very much aware of the colourful founders of such enterprises.

That said, even within this ocean of relative indifference, a few companies and names stand out.  We’ve been hearing more about Montanya Distillery and master blender Karen Hoskin, everyone knows about Bailey Prior and the Real McCoy line, Lost Spirits may have faded from view but has great name recognition, Koloa has been making rum for ages, Pritchard’s and Richland are almost Old Stalwarts these days, the Eastern seaboard has its fair share of up and coming little rinky-dinks…and then there’s Privateer and its driven, enthusiastic, always-engaged master blender, Maggie Campbell, whose sense of humour can be gauged by her Instagram handle, “Half Pint Maggie.”

Privateer was formed by Andrew Cabot after he walked away from his tech-CEO day job in 2008 and decided to try his hand at making a really good American rum, something many considered to be a contradiction in terms (some still do). In 2011 he opened a distillery in an industrial park in Ipswich, Massachusetts but dissatisfied with initial results sniffed around for a master distiller who could deliver on his vision, and picked a then-unemployed Ms. Cambell who had distilling experience with whiskey and brandy (and cognac), and she has stayed with the company ever since. The rum is made from grade A molasses, and is twice distilled, once in a pot and once in a columnar still, before being laid to rest in charred american oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The company’s ethos is one of no additives and no messing around, which I’m perfectly happy to take on trust.

So, all that done away with, what’s this Navy Yard rum, which was first introduced back in 2016, actually like?  

Well, not bad at all. Each of the three times I tried the rum, the first thing out the door was sawdust and faint pencil shavings, swiftly dissipating to be replaced by vanilla, crushed walnuts and almonds, salted butter, caramel, butterscotch, a touch of the molasses brush, and the faintest tinge of orange peel.  What is surprising about this admittedly standard and straightforward – even simplistic – profile is how well it comes together in spite of the lack of clearly evident spices, fruits and high notes that would balance it off better. I mean, it works – on its own level, true, dancing to its own beat, yes, a little off-kilter and nothing over-the-top complex, sure…but it works. It’s a solid, aromatic dram to sniff.

The mouthfeel is quite good, one hardly feels the burn of navy strength 57.1%…at least not initially. When sipped, at first it feels warm and oily, redolent of aromatic tobacco, tart sour cream on a fruit salad (aha! – there they were!) composed of blueberries, raspberries and unripe peaches.  Vanilla remains omnipresent and unavoidable, but it does recede somewhat and tries hard not to be obnoxious – a more powerful presence might derail this rum for good. As it develops the spiciness ratchets up without ever going overboard (although it does feel a bit thinner than the nose and the ABV had suggested it would be), and gradually dates and brine and olives and figs make themselves known. The rather dry finish comes gradually and takes its time without providing anything new, summing up the whole experience decently – with salted caramel, vanilla, butter, cereal, anise and a hint of fruits — and for me, it was a diminution of the positive experience of the nose and taste.

Overall, it’s a good young rum which shows its blended philosophy and charred barrel origins clearly. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that it’s well blended, the edges of pot and column merging seamlessly; it’s tasty and strong, with just a few flavours coming together. What it lacked was the complexity and depth a few more years of ageing might have imparted, and a series of crisper, fruitier notes that might balance it off better; and as I’ve said, the char provided a surfeit of vanilla, which was always too much in the front to appeal to me.

I’ve often remarked about American spirits producers who make rum, that rum seems to be something of a sideline to them, a cheaply-made cash filler to make ends meet while the whiskies that are their true priorities are ageing.  That’s not the case here because the company has been resolutely rum-focused from eight o’clock, Day One – but when I tasted it, I was surprised to be reminded of the Balcones rum from Texas, with which it shared quite a lot of textural and aromatic similarities, and to some extent also the blended pot/column Barbadian rums with which Foursquare has had such success (more Doorly’s than ECS, for the curious). That speaks well for the rum and its brothers up and down the line, and it’s clear that there’s nothing half-pint or half-assed about the Navy Yard or Privateer at all.  For me, this rum is not at the top of the heap when rated globally, but it is one of the better ones I’ve had from the US specifically.  What it achieves is to make me want to try others from the company, pronto, and if that isn’t the sure sign of success by a master distiller, then I don’t know what is.

(#658)(83/100)


Opinion

After I wrote the above, I wondered about the discrepancy in my own perception of the Navy Yard, versus the really positive commentaries I’d read, both on social media and the few reviews others had written (94 points on Distiller, for example, and Drink Insider rated it 92 with nary a negative note anywhere on FB). Now, there is as yet no reviewer or commentator outside the US who has written about the Navy Yard (or others in the line), partly because its distribution remains there; those who did really went ape for the thing, some going so far as to call it the best american rum, so why didn’t I like it more?  

The only answer I can come up with that isn’t directly related to my own palate and experience tasting rums from around the world, is that they are not coming to Privateer with the same background as others are, or I do. The sad Sahara of what is euphemistically called “rum choice” in the US, a resultant of the three-tier distribution dysfunction they amusingly call a “system”, promotes a rum selection of cheap quantity, but so denuded of real quality that when the girl next door makes something so much better than the mass-produced crap that masquerades as top-drawer rum over there, it just overloads the circuits of the local tippling class, and the points roll in like chips at a winning table in Vegas. 

This is not in any way to take away from the achievement of Maggie Cambpbell and others like her, who work tirelessly every day to raise the low bar of American rumdom. Reading around and paying attention makes it clear that Ms. Campbell is a knowledgeable and educated rum junkie, making rum to her own specs, and releasing juice that’s a step above many other US brands. The next step is to make it even better so that it takes on better known Names from around the world which – for now – rate higher. Given her fierce commitment to the brand and the various iterations they’re putting out the door, I have no doubt there will be much more to come from Privateer and I look forward to the day when the company’s hooch muscles its way to the forefront of the global rum scene, and not just America’s.


Other Notes

I drew on Matt Pietrek’s deep dive for some of the biographical details, as well as articles on Thrillist, Imbibe and various posts about Privateer on FB. Details of the company, Ms. Campbell and the distillation steps can be found both Matt’s work and t8ke’s review, here.  This is one of those cases where there’s so much information washing around that a synopsis is all that’s needed here, and if your interest has been piqued, follow the links to go deeper.

Aug 122019
 

Last week, I remarked briefly on persons who are famous or excel in some aspect of their lives, who then go off an lend their names to another product, like spirits – Blackwell was one of these, George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila is another, Bailey Pryor’s Real McCoy line might be among the best known, and here is one that crossed my path not too long ago, a Hawaiian white rum made with the imprimatur of Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar who maintains a residence on Maui and has long been involved in restaurants and spirits (like Cabo Wabo tequila) as a sideline from the gigs for which he is more famous.

It’s always a toss-up whether the visibility and “fame” of such a rum is canny branding / marketing or something real, since the advertising around the associated Name usually swamps any intrinsic quality the spirit might have had to begin with. There’s a fair amount of under-the-hood background (or lack thereof) to the production of this rum, but for the moment, I want to quickly get to the tasting notes, just to get that out of the way.

First off, it’s a 40% rum, white, and filtered, so the real question is what’s the source? The back label remarks that it’s made from “first pressing of virgin Maui sugar cane” (as opposed to the slutty non-Catholic kind of cane, I’m guessing) but the YouTube video (timestamp 1:02) that promotes it suggests brown sugar (which is true) so, I dunno.  Whatever the case, it really does smell more like an agricole than a molasses-based rum: it starts, for example, with soda pop – sprite, fanta – adds bubble gum and lemon zest, and has a sort of vegetal grassy note that makes me think that the word “green” is not entirely out of place. Also iced tea with a mint leaf, and the tartness of ginnip and gooseberries.  It’s also surprisingly sharp for something at standard strength, though not enough to be annoying. 

In that promotional video, Mr. Hagar says that the most distinct thing about the rum is the nose, and I believe it, because the palate pretty much fails by simply being too weak and insufficient to carry the promise of the nose on to the tongue in any meaningful way. It’s sharp and thin, quite clear, and tastes of lemon rind, pickled gherkins, freshly mown grass, sugar water, cane juice, and with the slightly off background of really good olive oil backing it up.  But really, at end, there’s not much really there, no real complexity, and all of it goes away fast, leaving no serious aftertaste to mull over and savour and enjoy. The finish circles back to the beginning and the sense of sprite / 7-up, a bit of grass and a touch of light citrus, just not enough to provide a serious impression of any kind.

This is not really a rum to have by itself.  It’s too meek and mild, and sort of presents like an agricole that isn’t, a dry Riesling or a low-rent cachaca minus the Brazilian woods, which makes one wonder how it got made to taste that way.

And therein lies something of an issue because nowhere are the production details clearly spelled out.  Let’s start at the beginning: Mr. Hagar does not own a distillery. Instead, like Bailey Pryor, he contracts out the manufacture of the rum to another outfit, Hali’imaile Distilling, which was established in 2010 on Maui – the owners were involved in a less than stellar rum brand called Whaler’s which I personally disliked.  They in turn make a series of spirits – whiskey, vodka, gin, rum – under a brand called Pau, and what instantly makes me uneasy is that for all the bright and sparkling website videos and photos, the “History” page remarks that pineapple is used as a source material for their vodka, rum is not mentioned, and cane is nowhere noted as being utilized; note, though, that Mr. Hagar’s video mentions sugar cane and brown sugar without further elaboration, and the Hali’imaile Distilling Company did confirm they use a mash of turbinado sugar.  However, in late 2016 Hali’imaile no longer makes the Sammy’s rum.  In that year the sugar mill on Maui closed and production was shifted to Puerto Rico’s Seralles distillery, which also makes the Don Q brand – so pay close attention to your label, to see if you got a newer version of the rum, or the older Hawaiian one. Note that Levecke, the parent company of Hali’imaile, continues to be responsible for the bottling.

With some exceptions, American distillers and their rums seem to operate along such lines of “less is more” — the exceptions are usually where owners are directly involved in their production processes, ultimate products and the brands. The more supermarket-level rums give less information and expect more sales, based on slick websites, well-known promoters, unverifiable-but-wonderful origin stories and enthusiastic endorsements.  Too often such rums (even ones labelled “Super Premium” like this one) when looked at in depth, show nothing but a hollow shell and a sadly lacking depth of quality. I can’t entirely say that about the Beach Bar Rum – it does have some nice and light notes, does not taste added-to and is not unpleasant in any major way – but the lack of information behind how it is made, and its low-key profile, makes me want to use it only for exactly what it is made: not neat, and not to share with my rum chums — just as a relatively unexceptional daiquiri ingredient.

(#650)(72/100)


Other notes

  • The rum is filtered but I am unable to say whether it has been aged. The video by Let’s Tiki speaks of an oak taste that I did not detect myself.
Apr 072019
 

When a bunch of the rum chums and I gathered some time back to damage some rums and show them who was boss, one of them remarked of this rum, “Easy drinking” — which initially I thought was damning it with faint praise until I tried it myself, and continued with it three or four more times after they all staggered back to their fleabag hotels, surprised by its overall worth.  It’s not often you get to try (or be really pleased by) an indie bottling from the USA, given how much they are in love with starting whole distilleries rather than sourcing other people’s juice.

Which is not to say that Smooth Ambler, the West Virginia outfit that made it (and then never made another) isn’t a distillery – it is.  But like most American spirits makers, they are into whiskies, not rums, and one can only speculate that given the components of this thing are reputed to date from 1990 and earlier, that to make it at all they must have gotten a pretty good deal on the distillate, and it’s to our regret that they themselves commented that it was a one time deal for them, as “we don’t make rum.”  

That out of the way, tasting notes. Nose first: take your pick on the terms — rancio, hogo, dunder, funk — it’s all there.  Rich and sharp fruits. Red currants, pomegranates, rotten bananas and a milder form of fruits thrown on the midden that haven’t completely spoiled yet.  Caramel, vanilla. I actually thought it was a muted Hampden or Worthy Park, and it was only after it opened for a bit that other aspects came forward – vanilla, caramel and some tannics from the oak, which is not surprising since part of the blend comes from (what is assumed to be) 75% Appleton’s column distilled 1990 stock (so 23 YO, given this was bottled in early 2014) and another 25% from a pot still dating back, according to them, 1985. No idea where it was aged, but for its richness, I’d almost say tropical.

Palate and nose diverged rather markedly in one key aspect – the characteristic Jamaican funk took a serious back seat when I tasted it, and became much more balanced, really quite approachable, if losing somewhat of its individuality and craziness that so characterizes Jamaican high-ester screamers.  Some of the acidic fruits remained – green apples, sultanas, cider, bitter chocolate, vinegar — but with some attention one could easily discern soy, olives and brine as well, to say nothing of sweeter, softer fruits like tinned peaches and apricots in syrup. Plus maybe a bit of cumin, smoke and lemon peel.  There is a layer of nuttiness, caramel and toffee underneath all that, but it serves more as a counterpoint than a counterweight, being too faint to catch much glory. Much of this stayed put on the finish which was soft yet spicy, just on the rough side of being tamed completely, with cumin, nuts and fruits closing things off, perhaps without bombast, but at least with a little style.

It’s a tough call, what to think of something like this.  The balance is good, and oddly enough it reminds me more of a Jamaican and Cuban blend than a meld of two Jamaican houses.  The strength at 49.5% is also spot on, residing in that pleasant area that is more than standard strength without tearing your tonsils out as a cask strength sixty-percenter might. There’s a lot here that a bourbon fancier might enjoy, I think, and while it won’t take on the big Jamaican players we now know so well, it’ll give a good account of itself nevertheless. I thought it an interesting rum and a very sippable dram for those who want to try something a little different, and as I finished my fifth glass, I could only think that yes, my friend was right when he said I had to try it; and that it was a crying shame Smooth Ambler didn’t care enough about rums to follow up with what they had achieved on their first go through the gate.

(#614)(84/100)


Other notes

Both the Rum Barrel (on Facebook) and The Fat Rum Pirate commented on its excessive oakiness, but I felt it was just fine myself.

Mar 062019
 

So here we have a rum I’ve never heard of before, made by an outfit called Florida Caribbean Distillers (FCD) in (where else?) Florida. For those with better memories than mine, if the company name sounds familiar, it should be – this is the same one that is contracted to make the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5 Florida rum I wrote about a few months ago.

FCD is located halfway between Orlando and Tampa: they control the Club Caribe Distillery in Puerto Rico, as well as distilleries in Lake Alfred and Auburndale (both in Florida – the latter distillery produces this rum).  They are the oldest continuously running distillery in the US, being formed in 1943, and (somewhat to my surprise) said to be the largest rum producer in the US, bottle all rum for Cruzan and several smaller labels for contract clients including cruise lines and duty free shops as well as providing distillation, storage, ageing and bottling facilities as part of their service.

They make a bunch of other spirits as well – liqueurs, wines, vodkas, whiskies et al, which means that focus on true batch and artisanal production is not part of the programme. So if you’re looking for some kind of pot-still originality from a leaky, farty backwoods micro-distillery run by a grizzled old salt legalizing his moonshine, or a spanking new copper thing bolted together by an eager-beaver yuppie with the ink barely dry on his MBA and a strong minor in ecological distilling, well, this isn’t really either of those things.

What it is, is a blend of “select rums” aged two years in sherry casks, issued at 42% and gold-coloured. One can surmise that the source of the molasses is the same as the Noxx & Dunn, cane grown in the state.  Everything else on the front and back labels can be ignored, especially the whole business about being “hand-crafted,” “small batch” and a “true Florida rum” – because those things give the misleading impression this is indeed some kind of artisan product, when it’s pretty much a low-end rum made in bulk from column still distillate; and I personally think is neutral spirit that’s subsequently aged and maybe coloured (though they deny any additives in the rum).

Anyway, tasting notes: the nose is the best part, stop reading if that’s all you need. Nutty cereals and salt crackers with cream cheese.  Citrus, flowers, brine and pickled gherkins in balsamic vinegar.. Soft and creamy, quite unaggressive, but tasty enough. Some white chocolate, brown sugar, cinnamon, but the overarching aromatic notes are the salt of maggi cubes and avocados.

To taste it’s disappointing, and leaves me wondering where the sherry influence went and hid itself. There’s some good stuff going on when you smell it, but to taste it wimps out and goes flat as spit on a hot rock.  There’s traces of oaken tannins, salt, caramel, a hint of white fruits, grapes, unsweetened chocolate. Also cereals, nuts, toffee, with a faint line of citrus twittering in the background, nothing really noticeable unless you concentrate.  All in all, it’s actually quite simple, and tastes very young, even a bit harsh, untamed (and not in the way an unaged white does). This jagged bite carries over into the finish as well, which really could use some taming, and gives little beyond some very light fruits and florals, and a last briny note.

For my money, the Florida Old Reserve Rum is not strong enough to make a statement, not old enough to demonstrate real complexity, not distinct enough in any way to perk up a cocktail; and the sherry cask ageing?….well, it’s something of a challenge to find traces of it at all. Tried blind, I doubt you’d notice its absence (or presence, or care). What it seems to be is something of a product that showcases what the distillery can do for others and maybe to bootstrap industrial scale rum making so effectively done by Bacardi.  Well, say what you will about The Bat, they at least can make decent rums. Here, I’d say that a lot more work needs to be done.

What really amazes me, in doing my background notes, is that the Beverage Tasting Institute gave the rum 93 points in 2014 and 88 in 2016.  Leaving aside the drop in scores over a two year span, one can only wonder what sort of sample set they had and what they were comparing it against, to give such a rating to something this unexceptional. If it was up to me I’d never drink the Reserve neat, and mix it without ceremony — always assuming I bought a bottle in the first place, and that’s really unlikely, now that I’ve tried it.  

(#605)(72/100)

Dec 282018
 

Just as we don’t see Americans making too many full proof rums, it’s also hard to see them making true agricoles, especially since the term is so tightly bound up with the spirits of the French islands.

Agricole, let it be remembered, is the French term for agricultural rums made from pure sugar cane juice, and called such to distinguish them (not without a little Gallic disdain, to be sure) from traditionnels, or traditional rums, which are made from molasses, a by product of the sugar making process. For the most part, having much to do with the finances, molasses rums are much preferred by producers, because the issues of storage and spoilage which afflicts cane juice (it can go bad in just a few days) – that’s one reason why agricoles are closely associated with actual sugar estates with a distillery nearby – not always easy in a country the size of the USA where there is much greater separation between the two.

In the case of St. George’s, a 1982-established California distillery much better known for its gins, absinthes, vodkas and whiskies, they get their fresh cut cane from Imperial Valley just to the east of San Diego along the Mexican border, and when a load comes in, they crush it immediately, add the yeast and ferment (duration unknown) before running it through a pot still (Josh Miller spoke of a hybrid pot/column still when he visited them in 2013 but St. George’s wrote to me and said “pot” for sure).  The resultant spirit is rested for a short while in stainless steel tanks, with some being drawn off to age for a few years in oak, the rest being bottled at 43%. My version was based on the 2014 harvest according to the sample info, and was therefore issued in that year.

On the nose…oy!  What was this? Vegetable soup, or (take your pick) meatballs, dumplings, dim sum or spring rolls…that kind of thing.  Also vinegar, soy, pickles and fish sauce, a pot of brine and what felt like three bags of olives. Behind all that is a sharp edge, like a red wine gone off somehow, and whatever fruits there were took a reluctant step back – so much so that the first thoughts that ran through my mind as I smelled the rum was it was a low rent clairin that tried for the brass ring but ran out of steam.  Still – nice. Adventurous. Different. I like that in a white rum.

Alas, the palate, after that jarringly original overture that so piqued my interest, seemed to go to sleep, a function of the 43% ABV maybe, and a reminder that pungent rums like unaged whites don’t always succeed when dialled down to a somnolent standard strength.  Still, it did wake up after I ignored it for a bit, and gave a twitch of sugar water and watermelons, fresh-cut pears, vanilla and citrus, very light and very pleasant. Yes there was a sort of creaminess and black bread, behind which lurked the brine and olives (lots of both), but the rum seemed to have problems deciding whether it wanted to be a crowd pleaser or something truly original such as the nose had promised, and the finish – long, dry, salty, lightly fruity, sweetly watery – just followed the palate into a docile conclusion.

Truth is, the whole experience was schizophrenic – it started off with fire and smoke and major f**ken attitude, then just lost its mojo and sagged against the wall.  For all the unbalanced helping of crazy with which it opened, I liked that off-kilter nose a lot better than everything that followed because it showed all the potential that failed to be realized later on. An unaged pot-still white should be a little off-base – anything else and you have a mere cocktail ingredient and there are already enough of those around.

That said, it’s not that I actively disliked the rum…just that I felt there was nothing serious here: nothing badass that dared to offend…or inspire (say what you will about the TECC and TECA rums from NRJ and their barking-mad taste profiles, they had real balles).  So, at end, it’s a light alcohol with great promise (how it smelled) and too little follow-through (palate and finish). Cyril of DuRhum reviewed this same edition, scored it at 77 and provided some great details on the company, and it was tasty enough to make Josh Miller wax rhapsodic in 2013 when he visited the place, tried some and recommended it highly both by itself and in a Ti-punch (you need to read his 10/10 scored review as a serious counterpoint to mine and Cyril’s) – but here I have to be somewhat less enthusiastic based on my own tasting five years down the road.

(#583)(76/100)


Other notes

  • Neither this rum or its lightly aged brother is listed on the St. George’s website.  When I touched base with them, they sadly informed me that because of the difficulty of acquiring fresh cane, they have ceased rum production for “a number of years,” though they remain on the lookout for new and stable sources.  For the moment, they’re not making any.
  • An irrelevant aside to this review is that I inadvertently tried it twice: once in 2017 based on a sample sent to me (totally blind) by John Go; and the second time in 2018, this time one I bought on a whim.  In both cases my tasting notes were practically identical, and so was my score.  I think this is an innovative, intriguing rum from the US which can and should be tried if possible.

 

Dec 222018
 

We don’t much associate the USA with cask strength rums, though of course they do exist, and the country has a long history with the spirit.  These days, even allowing for a swelling wave of rum appreciation here and there, the US rum market seems to be primarily made up of low-end mass-market hooch from massive conglomerates at one end, and micro-distilleries of wildly varying output quality at the other. It’s the micros which interest me, because the US doesn’t do “independent bottlers” as such – they do this, and that makes things interesting, since one never knows what new and amazing juice may be lurking just around the corner, made with whatever bathtub-and-shower-nozzle-held-together-with-duct-tape distillery apparatus they’ve slapped together.

Balcones, a central Texan outfit from Waco named after a fault line running through the southern half of the state, is a bit more than the kind of happy backyard operation my remarks above imply — they are a primarily whiskey distilling operation, started a decade ago, and their website has a great backstory about how it all started in an old welding shop under a bridge in Waco into which, after some refurbishment, they installed copper pot stills from Portugal, and shoehorned a whisky distillery inside. And after a few years, they began to make rum as well, because, well, “We like to drink rum so why not give it a shot?” as Thomas Mote the distillery manager cheerfully remarked to me.

Okay, so let’s see if they succeeded. Consider first the nose.  For all of the 63.9% it’s quite warm and smooth: it started out with a musky scent of damp earth, a sort of mustiness that reminded me a of a warehouse chock-a-block full of old cardboard boxes, brine, salt and sweet olives.  Then it became somewhat more bourbon-like – raisins, molasses, fleshy fruits starting to go off, then caramel, nuts, butter, vanilla and ice cream. It smells curiously indeterminate – which is why detailed fruity notes can’t be listed – you know there’s a lot of stuff here, but it’s tough to come to grips with them individually.

On the palate, after exercising all the usual precautions for a rum this strong (take a rather small sip until things settle down, because the taste is sharper than the nose leads one to believe and remember, it’s a 63.9% saloon brawler that does its very best to clean the bar counter and rip your face off at the same time), I sensed a salt-rye-fruit-bourbon soupcon of flavours on the palate: a combo of salt, sweet and sour — vegetable soup, sour cream, maggi cubes and deep caramel and vanilla notes, all at once, circling each other for dominance and advantage. The fruits – papayas, very ripe peaches in syrup – were set off by muscovado sugar and light molasses without much citrus lending a sharper note (though there was some) and to which was added hazelnuts, some sweet olives and brine, dark chocolate, cherries, fading out quietly (and lengthily) to a pleasant, warm, aromatic conclusion redolent of cherries, flambeed bananas and molasses, but nothing significantly different from the tastes that had preceded it.

Balcones was swiftly and remarkably forthcoming to all the usual inquiries, noting that it was 100% pot still and used a blend of Barbados-Style Lite Molasses and Blackstrap from Louisiana and Guatemala respectively, fermented for 4-5 weeks (much longer than anything else they make), and they play around a bit with yeast and an undisclosed dunder process to add to the flavour profile. Ageing is between 2-4 years and the rum is made in annual batches of a few thousand bottles at most, and no additives of any kind (“oak and time!” they told me proudly).

Still, taking apart those tasting notes, a number of things jump out. The caramel and vanilla and molasses notes are not precisely domineering, but very much in evidence, to the point of taking over — there’s a sort of dampening effect of the musky and more solid flavours which prevent sharper, crisper, clearer ones (fruits and citrus and florals) from emerging properly and engaging. The range of tastes on show lacked the complexities one expects of even a lightly aged rum, and yes, it actually has a profile reminiscent of a rye or bourbon, maybe a tad richer and sweeter and more congener-rich….more rum-like, if you will. It’s a pretty nifty drink for that strength.  It reminds me of my first encounter with Potter’s Dark, yet it also presents as simpler than it could have been, which makes me ask myself, as I always do with such a profile and which seems to be somewhat of a characteristic of many of the US rums I’ve tried, what is it they really want to be making and was too much whisky lore infusing the rum?

I’ve remarked before that most new and smaller US distilleries seem to be more interested in making whiskies and produce rums as something of an afterthought. Whether not not that’s the case here, Balcones has evidently given the matter quite a bit more thought than usual, and come up with a product that deserves real attention (the business with the yeast and dunder points there). It’s unquestionably a rum; it’s got real fire in its jock; it’s rum-like enough to please, while also original enough to encourage a double-take, and an all-round powerhouse fun rum. I think I’m going to keep an eye on these guys going forward – there’s some interesting stuff going on in Waco, and I hope that they expend their production to a larger stable, aged more, in the years to come.  Certainly their initial full proof rums give us a lot of reason to appreciate what they’ve done so far.

(#581)(81/100)


Other notes

The Special Release is issued annually since 2013 (twice in 2014), but identifying the year is difficult.  To the best of my knowledge, mine is from the 2016 season.

Dec 162018
 

When we think of independent bottlers, all the usual suspects out of Europe usually come to mind — Velier, Rum Nation, L’Esprit, the Compagnie, the whisky boys up north who indulge themselves in the odd single cask expression from time to time, SMWS, Bristol Spirits, and the list goes on.

These well-known names obscure the fact that smaller operations — stores and even individuals — can and do in fact issue single barrel offerings as well.  For example, Kensington Wine Market in Calgary does it with whiskies quite often; a bunch of redditors recently got together and bought a cask of a 2005 Foursquare rum; and in the case of the rum under review today, K&L Wines out of California bought a single cask of Uitvlugt Savalle-still juice from an independent warehouse in Scotland, and issued it in the States.

It excites equal parts curiosity and admiration, and not just because of the retro-cool label – although that’s quite attractive. I mean, it’s not as if the US is known for independent bottlings – they’re much more into going the whole hog and creating entire new distilleries (however small). The rum is twenty years old (1994-2014), a robust 52.8% and for once seems not to have been sourced from Scheer.  The name “Faultline” is what K&L uses for its own bottlings, and I gather that The Two Davids of K&L happened to be in Scotland in early 2014 and found two Demeraras (Enmore, Uitvlugt) and a Jamaican Hampden mouldering away, and manned up and bought the lot to issue as was – not a trivial exercise for them, since (as they put it), these casks were “much more expensive than single malt whiskies despite the fact that they’re half as desirable.”

Half as desirable?  To American audiences maybe, but I submit that were they to try this thing, the scales would be rather more evenly adjusted.  The nose of an Uitvlugt rum, deriving as it does from a Savalle column still, is a great counterpoint to the woodsy Enmore and PM and Versailles rums (the UF30E remains one of the best Guyanese rums ever made, in my own estimation) — here it delivered quite well. It began with a nose of old leather shoes, well polished and long broken in. It provided smoke, a faint rubber background, and after opening up, the light florals of a fabric softener and freshly sun-dried laundry.  There were more traditional aromas of caramel, vanilla, molasses, cumin, tea leaves and aromatic tobacco, with rich deep fruits (peaches, apples, apricots) dancing around these smells, but never overwhelming them.

The palate was also very approachable and tasty. Soft and warm, tasting of brine and red Moroccan olives (they’re slightly sweeter than the green ones); leather and wooden floors, old and well worn and well polished, so to speak. Fruitiness is again generally light – green grapes, peaches, some lemon zest, raisins – resting well on a bed of salty caramel, butter and cinnamon.  Overall, not too concentrated or overwhelming, and the strength is just about perfect for what it does. It teases and doles out delicate, clear notes in a sort of delicate assembly that invites further sipping, and the finish goes in yet other directions: dry and somewhat tannic, hinting at strong black unsweetened tea, oakiness, some raisins and stewed apples, toffee, toblerone and coffee grounds. Plus a last whiff of those fruity hints to round things out.

There’s not really a true periodic stable of such rum releases by K&L who are more into an “as and when” approach, and therefore such bottlings are, I submit, more like personalized number plates lending street cred to the issuer…something like vanity rums. Fun to get, fun to drink, interesting to have, great to taste, cool to point to — but not really meant to build a brand or a rum-issuing company: K&L is after all a liquor emporium, not an outfit specializing in indie bottlings. So a rum like this serves to draw attention to the store that sells them, providing a sort of exclusive cachet that you can only get if you shop there.  Well, that’s fair, I don’t rain on capitalism – but it does make that kind of release something of a one-off. It doesn’t support a wider array of brands or draw attention to other rums released by the same company, since there aren’t that many to be going on with.

That doesn’t invalidate the Uitvlugt 1994 though.  It’s lovely. It exists, smells the way it smells, tastes as it does, and is a real nice piece of work. I think what it points to is something often ignored by the larger American rum tippling public and the press —  that they have the same potential to issue good single-barrel, limited-edition, cask-strength rums as anyone else…and come up with something pretty nifty at the back-end when they try. This rum, limited as it is and even with its price tag, is really quite good…and single barrel or not, I’m sure the Davids weren’t disappointed with what they got.  I know that I wasn’t.

(#579)(85/100)


  • Big thank you to Quazi4Moto for the sample. It’s taken a while, but I got to it at last.
Sep 292018
 

Having dispensed with the age-shattering, wallet-busting Heritage Rums of the Tasting of the Century, let’s go to something a little less aged, a little less up-market, a little less well-known, and not at the same level of age or quality — something from, oh, the US.  The resurgence of rum and concomitant explosion of small micro-distilleries there suggests that sooner or later we’ll find something from over the pond and south of 49 that’ll wow our socks off.

Certainly this rum suggests that it can and implies that it does — when you peruse the website for the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5, it leaves you with the distinct impression that it’s lovingly handmade by a team of unsung experts working to redefine the category as we know it.There are glitzy photos, weather for various parts of Florida, notes that it is unadded-to and unadulterated, made from Florida molasses, aged in Florida in American oak barrels, and it’s all very positive.  “A team of craftsmen with almost a century of knowledge believe that a blend of 2, 4 and 5 years produces the most consistent and drinkable of spirits” they remark, evidently not believing either the names of these craftsmen or consistently good older rums from anywhere else are worth mentioning.

Well, never mind my snark, let’s just dive right in and taste the thing. Like many lightly-aged blends it was gold in colour and edged timidly above the standard strength with 43% ABV.  The initial nose presented crisply and with a light fruitiness (pears, apples and apricots). It didn’t develop much beyond that, though after half an hour I could sense some vanilla, nuts, brown sugar, flowers and raspberries – and it got sharper, edgier, over time, not less, which is usually the hallmark of a very young rum, or very active barrels (they use once-used ex-bourbon barrels for ageing).

Taste-wise, not bad.  It felt something like a cross between a light Spanish style anejo and a weak Demerara without distinctly adhering to the profile of either.  Dry and crisp, it was not entirely easy on the palate — that’s the uncouth youth coming through — tasting mostly of light white fruits (guavas, pears, that kind of thing), pecans, coffee, oak and leather, and gradually developed those fruity notes the nose had hinted at – raspberries and very ripe cherries, all overlain with tannins, breakfast spices and light molasses.  The finish, quite short and sharp, was more sweet-ish, with some bitter chocolate oranges, vanilla, brown sugar and quite a bit of oak bite.

My take is that the pot still part doesn’t provide a good balance to the lighter column still portion, the age is still too young, and I felt that the oak was really overactive, exacerbating the driness and slight bitterness beyond the point of being totally approachable – though I say this as an evaluator taking it neat (as I must), not a mixing guru, for whom such a profile would probably shine more. Not a rum to sip really, more one to mix up into a cocktail of some kind.  According to Robin Wynne, that sterling barman running Miss Thing’s in Toronto who spotted me the bottle in the first place, “…I [would make] an Old Fashioned with it, or swapping out bourbon in a Vieux Carre with it. Also makes a great rum negroni…” So there are some suggestions for those inclined in that direction.

When I started sniffing around, the reps in Toronto were very helpful in providing additional information which is not on the webpage, and the story behind the brand is  somewhat more prosaic (and to my mind, rather more interesting) than what’s on public display. Noxx & Dunn is a relatively new rum on the American scene, created a few years ago by a group of individuals who used to be part of Appleton’s salesforce and were let go when Campari acquired it.  They formed their own little outfit called The Tall Tale Spirit company, and this is their only product (so far). It’s meant, as far as I’m able to determine, as a barroom mixer. The rum is primarily (but not totally) column still distillate, the blend of which is a trade secret but kept reasonably constant in order to make for a consistent taste profile.  Note that TTS don’t actually own or operate a distillery, or grow sugar cane or anything – the distillation is done by Florida Caribbean Distillers and the source is molasses from the cane grown in that state (see “other notes” below). What we have at the other end of the process, then, is a blended two-year-old rum with added components of rums four and five years old, made under contract to TTS’s specifications. Also on the plus side, there are no additives, it’s 43% and it’s fully aged in Florida in the usual American ex-bourbon oak barrels.

Overall, this is the sort of rum that is fine in a bar – which is where I found it – but not for greedily savoured home-consumption or sharing with the rum chums to show off one’s incredible perspicacity in sleuthing out undiscovered steals. Not to diss the makers, who evidently are pouring some real passion into their work, but I think it’s like many other such rums from the USA that aren’t entirely multi-column-still flavoured ethanols: too afraid to go where the flavours might actually lead, too timid to amp it up a few volts and really provide a mixer with balls or a sipper with style. It’s just shy of being a true original and that’s a shame for something that’s otherwise quite intriguing.

(#553)(78/100)


Other notes

  • As noted, the Noxx & Dunn is a contract “private label” operation, not a cane-to-cork producer. The distillery of origin is Florida Caribbean Distillers, located halfway between Orlando and Tampa: they control the Club Caribe Distillery in Puerto Rico, as well as distilleries in Lake Alfred and Auburndale (both in Florida), and provide distillation, storage, ageing and bottling facilities as part of their service.
  • Only one other review of this exists, by the Rum Howler, here.  He liked it a lot more than I did, so his opinion is worth noting, given my own more middling score.
May 182017
 

Photo (c) Quazi4moto from his Reddit post. This is the exact bottle the sample was taken from

#365

Just about everyone in the rum world knows the name of Ed Hamilton. He was the first person to set up a website devoted to rum (way back in 1995), and many of us writers who began our own blogs in the 2000s or early ‘teens — Tiare, Tatu, Chip, myself and others — started our online lives writing in and debating on the forums of the Ministry of Rum. He has written books about rum, ran tasting sessions for years, and is now a distributor for several brands around the USA.  A few years ago, he decided to get into the bottling game as well…and earned quite a fan base in North America, because almost alone among the producers in the US, he went the independent bottler route, issuing his juice at cask strength, thereby helping to popularize the concept to a crowd that had to that point just been mooning over the indie output from Europe without regularly (or ever) being able to get their hands on any.

This rum was distilled in 2004 on a Vendome pot still by St. Lucia Distillers, who also make the Admiral Rodney, 1931, Forgotten Casks and Chairman’s Reserve, if you recall. They have both a Vendome pot still and a John Dore  pot still (as well as a smaller one, and the rums mentioned above are made by blending output from all in varying proportions) – Mr. Hamilton deliberately chose the Vendome distillate for its complexity and lack of harshness, and its source was from Guyanese molasses fermented for five days.

With my usual impeccable timing, I moved away from Canada at that exact time, and never managed (or seriously attempted) to pick up any of the Ministry of Rum Collection, since my attention was immediately taken up with agricoles and the European independents. However, one correspondent of mine, tongue in cheek as always, sent me an unidentified sample (“St. Lucia” was all the bottle said), and after tasting it blind, being quite impressed and writing up my notes, I asked him what it was. Obviously it was this one, a nine year old bottled at a rip-snorting 61.3%.  And it really was something.

On the nose, the high ABV was hot but extremely well behaved, presenting wave after wave of the good stuff.  It started off with rubber and pencil shavings, old cardboard in a dry cellar, some ashy kind of minerally smell, coffee, cumin and bitter chocolate…and then settling down and letting the rather shy fruits tiptoe forwards – raisins, some orange peel, peaches and prunes, all in balance and well integrated.  No fault to find here – I was unsure whether a standard proof drink would have been quite as good (in fact, probably not).  Throughout the whole exercise – I had the glass on the table with some others for a couple of hours – there was some light smoke and burnt wood, which fortunately stayed in the background and didn’t derail the experience.

As for the palate, wow – if gold could be a taste, that was what it was.  Honey and burnt sugar, salty caramel all mixed up with flowers, more chocolate and the citrus peel.  The tannins from the barrel began to be somewhat more assertive here, but never overbearing.  In fact, the balance between these components was really well handled.  With water, deep thrumming notes of molasses and anise shook the glass, leading to grapes, pineapple, acetone (just a little), aromatic tobacco and olives in brine; and throughout, the rum maintained a firm, rich profile that was quite excellent.  Somewhere over the horizon, thunder was rolling.  And as for the finish, here it stumbled a little on the line – long as it was, the tannics became too sharp; and while other closing hints remained firm (mostly molasses, caramel and brine plus maybe a prune or two) overall some of the tempering of one taste with another was lost.  

But I must note that the rum is a damned good one.  I think it’s a useful intro rum for those making a timorous foray into cask strength, and for those who wanted more from the Admiral Rodney or the 1931 series, this might be everything they were looking for from the island.

Some years ago I ran several of the standard proof St Lucia Distillers rums against each other, observing that while they were quite good, they also seemed to be missing a subtle something that might elevate their profile and quality, and allow them take their place with the better known Bajans, Jamaicans and Guyanese.  As the rum world moved on, it is clear that in small, patient, incremental steps — perhaps they were channeling Nine Leaves — St. Lucia Distillers, the source of this rum, were upping the tempo, and it took a few European indies and one old salt from the US, to show what the potential of the island was, and is. St. Lucia may have been flying somewhat under the radar, but I’m here telling you that this is a lovely piece of work by any standard, admirable, affordable and — I certainly hope — still available.

(86/100)

Other notes

  • Vendome is a company, not a type of still, and dates back to the first decade of the 1900s, building on experience (and customers) dating back as far as the 1870s when Hoffman, Ahlers & Co. were doing brisk business in Louisville (Kentucky).
  • Aside from the eight St. Lucian rums in the portfolio, The “Hamilton Collection” includes Jamaican and Guyanese  rums.  The Hamilton 151 is specifically intended to be better than (not to supplant) the Lemon Hart 151 which was out of production at the time.
  • Kudos, thanks and a huge hat-tip to Quazi4moto, who sent the sample.  He was, you might remember, the gent who sent me the Charley’s J.B. white rum I enjoyed a few months ago.
Jul 172016
 

Lost spirits Polynesian 1

Nope, this one doesn’t quite click either.  Too many clashing tastes, none enhancing any other, and overall, too untamed. Still not entirely a bad product though.

(#286 / 81/100)

***

Let’s just wrap up the third on in the initial rums made by Lost Spirits, the Polynesian-inspired.  For those who really are not into rums, have not been paying attention, or are wondering why this small company is gathering so much press, be it known that Bryan Davis out of California makes the claim that with his proprietary technology (a ‘molecular reactor’) he can not only emulate many years’ ageing in just a few days, but any country or region’s style. It’s as if by processing the baking grade molasses and yeast that form the basis of their distillate, they can – one day – use that to produce a Velier-style Enmore, or a Foursquare Port Cask, a Havana Club or Longpond Jamaican….all within a week.

Such claims are unlikely to impress many, least of all the grand old distillers and master blenders and guys who have spent decades learning the craft of blending and ageing in the old way, and who disdain unverifiable self-proclaimed magical methods of artificial ageing (concepts which are almost as old as aged spirits themselves and are seen to be in good company with snake-oil sellers hawking their wares outside a travelling  circus).  Still, I’m fairly certain there’s a sphincter or two that’s puckering out there, since technological progression is geometrical, and while the first batch of Mr. Davis’s rums didn’t and don’t come up to scratch or deliver on the promises that they were a Navy rum, or close to a Cuban, they weren’t quite as poorly made as some have made out – they still beat many multi-column-still industrial mass-produced hooch that people buy so blindly, in such quantities, and there’s potential in the process, if it can ever be made to work right, and consistently.

This rum is something like the Cuban-inspired in that it seeks to recreate the profile of the rums from another geographical region.  I’m not sure of the point of this – it’s not like the sample set from over there is large enough to have a decent baseline to begin with, and outside of Hawaii, how many Americans have ever or even tasted a Polynesian rum? Background reading points out the fact that it is made to fit the profile of a high-ester pot still product, and indeed it is made on a copper pot still, though of course no age statement is as yet, or can be, applied to it.  It’s in all respects an unaged rum, which leads me to wonder if they didn’t mess with it by adding anything, was it the reactor that created the colour?

Lost spirits Polynesian 2Anyway, the whole pot still origin at least conformed to the profile of the smells that hit me once I opened the 66%, dark amber rum.  The action got going right away, with solid, sharp notes of wax and turpentine and acetone and shoe polish, here one second, gone the next, morphing swiftly into rotten apples, peaches left in the sun too long, and a lingering background of salty-sweet tequila oiliness that had no business being there.  This is supposedly part of the process the reactor promotes, which produces a surfeit of long chained esters — these are the source of turpentine/paint thinner flavours in high concentrations, and fruity ones when dialled down, so as far as I’m concerned this one had the dial stuck too high, and I didn’t care for it.

To taste it was a sharp sarissa of intense heat, just like any full proof rum.  That part didn’t disturb me, I just put it to one side to open up a bit and came back a few minutes later.  Well now: this was like another rum entirely, remarkably different from what the nose had advertised – quite a bit more balance here, with the waxy turpentine kept way back; overripe peaches (no real citrus tartness evident), brine, black olives, that oily tequila sweet-salt note again, dates, figs and other non-sweet ‘fruits’.  The absence of more traditionally expected tastes was somewhat surprising, and it gave the rum a distinctiveness that may become its maker’s identifying, defining signature, but the problem was that this uniqueness did not particularly translate into a quality rum that I cared for, where a central core of one flavour carried lighter and medium intensity elements of others that blended well together; the Polynesian cannot truly be termed ‘traditional’ by any stretch.  Even the finish – long and dry, redolent of (get this) olive oil soaked bell peppers as well as more dates and soya – didn’t really work well together. I like crazy for the most part, I enjoy originality and reaching for the brass ring, but there has to be a bedrock of underlying quality, of texture and taste and aromas that gels somehow: Mr. Davis is still working on that part.

So.  Good things are strength and heft and an original taste.  Bad things are those very same tastes and the way they do not come together to form a cohesive, enjoyable whole, plus a nose of too many uncontained, uncontrolled esters which allow the wrong ones to dominate. It’s also more than a little jagged to try, and little real smoothness in the mouthfeel.  It’s a mixer for sure, for the moment, and that’s how most will try it and drink it.

Matt Pietrek, commenting in the post on the Lost Spirits Cuban inspired rum, advised me that all three of the rums I’ve written about were from the initial reactor outputs, which have since been tweaked to various settings and routines in a specified order, which we can call Version  2.0. (my bottle with was bought back in early 2015, just when the process was gathering some steam). So there are new products – even whiskies, now — coming out from Lost Spirits, and the technology is beginning to spread to other companies who see either potential to bypass the Caribbean nations, or to make a fast buck, or really produce some cool rums of their own (or all at once).  Based on these three rums, it’ll still be many years before any of the old rum houses, or the European cognoscenti, need to worry that their favourite tipple will be replaced by technology that promises much, but so far, has not delivered.


Other notes

Just because I don’t (thus far) endorse or highly praise this line of rums, doesn’t mean others don’t.  North Americans are quite positive in their assessments, while European writers remain silent for now (perhaps due to availability). So some references for your research, should you be curious: