Jul 122018
 

These days, anyone finding a rum three decades old had better hold on to it, because they’re getting rarer all the time.  As prices for the 1970s and 1980s rums climb past the fourth digit, locating one can be an equally fortunate and frustrating exercise…depending on how it turns out. As to why Velier chose to issue two rums of the same distillation and aging dates, at two different strengths, well, we know he has done this before, most famously with the entire Caroni line and some of the pre-Age Demerara rums.

Of course, it’s possible that Velier in this instance worked on the principle of taking a the entire outturn and bottling some at cask strength and the remainder at a more quaffable proof appealing to a broader audience.  That’s reasonable, I guess (L’Esprit does the same) – yet although the 54% Courcelles 1972 and this 42% version share the same years, there’s a difference in that the 54% was laid to rest in steel vats for nearly two additional years, and both are referred to as the dernière distillation which suggests that a bunch of barrels were involved, each with its own peculiarities.

And those peculiarities are important because they make this softer rhum individual on its own merits and different from its brawnier frere. Take the nose for example: it’s lovely and sweet, light without actually being delicate. It presents bags of light fruit – pears, ripe apples, watermelons, cherries – that go on forever, to which are added soft red-wine notes, honey, thyme and a drizzle of hot caramel on vanilla ice cream.  In a way it reminds me a lot of the Savanna 15 Year Old Porto Finish from Reunion (haven’t written about this yet), but somewhat deeper even so, because the scents grow richer over time in spite of its relatively low proof point and their overall mildness.

Tasting a rum like this is a mixed experience – one appreciates the subtlety, but strains to pick apart the notes. That said, it’s quite good, with lovely clear and clean notes of light fruitiness – pears again, watermelon again, some grapes, raisins and ripe mangoes, set off by softer nuances that speak of nougat, white chocolate, a flirt of coffee, rosemary, caramel, vanilla, thyme and some florals. It also has a background of honey that I quite enjoy with a profile like this because it strengthens the whole in a quiet kind of way, provides a bed for the rest of the flavours to emerge onto and do their thing. About the weakest point of the whole experience may be how it ends – the finish is short and faint, a zephyr following from a stiff breeze, with just some barely discernible floral and fruity hints and a bit of orange zest and tart yoghurt, and then it’s all over.

After writing up my notes, I keep coming back to how differently it presents when rated against the 54% version – it’s like they are different branches from the tree, growing in different directions while still conforming to underlying and similar standards (many of the tasting components, for example, are quite similar). The 42% iteration, I have to somewhat reluctantly note, is less when placed next to its masterful stronger sibling.  On its own, with nothing else to compare it to, it’s quietly, subtly brilliant and will not disappoint the casual drinker. But side by side, its potential clarion call is muted and dialled down, it is deferential and says much less…and when it does, it whispers.

(#528)(86/100)


Other notes

  • The Courcelles distillery in Grande Terre (one of the two “wings” of Guadeloupe island) was established in the 1930s and closed way back in 1964 when the then owner, M. Despointes, transferred the inventory and equipment to another distillery, that of Ste Marthe. They continued using Courcelles’s pot still and distilled this rum in 1972.  This is probably the last year any Courcelles distillate was made – I’ve never been able to find one produced more recently.
  • Distilled in 1972 and set to age in 220 liter barrels until 2003.  Outturn is unknown
  • The profile does not suggest an agricole, and since Guadeloupe is not AOC compliant, it probably derives from molasses. The taste certainly suggests it.
  • About that strength differential – in my essay about the Age of the Demeraras, I remarked that the first three releases of Velier Demeraras were all issued at standard proofs because Luca was nervous about moving too fast with releasing >50% cask strength rums.  I suspect that he had similar feelings about the 42% version of the Courcelles, which was why it was bottled first – two years later, just when he was putting out the full proof Skeldons in 2005, he went full bore with the rest of the Courcelles stock and never looked back.
Jul 102018
 

Now that Americans can bring back Cuban booze without sanction, it’s likely that their rums will get a boost in sales, and if the Havana Club trademark war ever gets resolved – though I doubt it will happen any time soon – then we’ll see many more on the market.  However, at this period in time, over and above the big names from the island like Santiago de Cuba or Havana Club, to get seriously aged juice that’s really from Cuba, we still have to look primarily at the independents for now.

One of these is Kill Devil, named — as any rummie can tell you — after the old term for rum used in its infancy in the Caribbean many centuries ago.  Kill Devil is is the rum brand of the whiskey blender Hunter Laing, and they’ve been around since 1949 when Frederick Laing founded a whisky blending outfit in Glasgow.  In 2013, now run by descendants, the company created an umbrella organization called Hunter Laing & Co, which folded in all their various companies (like Edition Spirits and the Premier Bonding bottling company). As far as my research goes, the first rums they released to the market – unadulterated, usually at 46%, unfiltered – came in 2016, and they have issued releases from Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Fiji and this one from Cuba.  One imagines that they read the tea leaves and real.ized there was some money to be made in rums as well as whiskies, though by coming into the market so relatively late, they’re butting heads with a lot of other new entrants – good for us as consumers, for sure, perhaps not quite as rosy-cheeked for them.

As for Sancti Spiritus, this is a Cuban distillery also known as Paraiso, dating from 1946 (there is some dispute here – another source says 1944) that is located almost dead center in the island.  Much of what is known of their rums comes from independents like Compagnie des Indes, Cadenhead, Bristol Spirits, Secret Treasures, Samaroli, Duncan Taylor, Isla del Ron and Renegade, implying a substantial export market of bulk rum to Europe.  But they also make rums of their own under the Santero brand, like the Añejo Blanco, Carta Blanca 3 YO, Palma Superior, Añejo Ambarino, Añejo Reserva, Carta Oro 5YO, Añejo 7YO and Firewater (none of which I’ve tried, to my detriment). And I’ve heard it said they supply Havana Club as well, so there’s no shortage of places for anyone with an interest to get some.

Some brief stats, for the propellerheads like me: the single-cask rum here is from the above-noted distillery, coloured pale gold, distilled in 1999 and bottled in 2016, with 362 bottles released.  And it has a strength of 46%, similar to rums issued by Renegade and L’Esprit and others, keeping it within reach and tolerance of the greater rum drinking audience.

That may be, but it was still quite a forceful piece of work to smell, much more so than I was expecting, and would perhaps come as a surprise to those who are used to softer, milder Bacardis as “Cuban style” exemplars. Presenting rather dry and spicy – almost hot – it seemed to steer a course somewhere between a light molasses column still rum, and the grassier and more vegetal notes of an agricole…without actually leaning towards either one. It had a mix of cherries, peaches and tart soursop, unsweetened yoghurt, vanilla, oak, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a very faint line of citrus running through the whole thing. It felt somewhat schizophrenic, to be honest – both acidic (in a good way) as well as lightly creamy – and that made it intriguing to say the least.

As it was sipped, it became somewhat less creamy than the nose had intimated – “sprightly” might be a good word as any to describe it. It was quite clean in the mouth, tasting of green grapes, apples, cider, mixed up with something of the saliva-flooding crisp tartness of red currants, or lemons just starting to go off. What made it stand out was the background notes of light flowers,caramel, vanilla, bananas, ginnips, and wet dark brown sugar, plus those spices again, mostly cinnamon. The finish was also quite elegant, and left memories of light caramel and fudge, oakiness and vanilla, with a little citrus for bite. It lacked a certain roundness and smooth planing away of rough edges, but I suggest that’s a good thing – it made it its own rum rather than a milquetoast please-as-many-as-you-can commercial product you’ll forget tomorrow morning.

Overall, the rum shows that even with all our bitching about pot still rums being better and yet not represented often enough, there’s little that’s bad about a column still spirit when done right, and the Kill Devil is a good example.  Even though I don’t know at what strength it came off the line, I feel that whatever complexities seventeen years of ageing imparted managed to provide an end result that was quite a nice rum (Cuban or otherwise). Which likely demonstrates that if we want to have a good column still experience from a juice aged in continental climes, there are certainly candidates for your coin out there, and as long as you come to grips with its slightly odd personality, this is one of them.

(#527)(84/100)

Jul 072018
 

These days Jamaican rums which were previously and mostly blending fodder are getting not only a new lease on life but a resurgence of their reputation that is so massive and enthusiast-driven that it’s led to the re-emergence of names like Longpond, Worthy Park, Clarendon, Inswood, Monymusk, New Yarmouth, Hampden Estate (and others),  that might be giving Appleton some sleepless nights. Lovers of the style can’t seem to get enough of them, which goes a long way to demonstrating public boredom with pallid blended meh-rums that have suffused much of the consuming landscape for the last decades. People were and are simply looking for something more exciting, more distinctive…and Jamaicans are filling that niche very nicely indeed.

In 2017 the French company Compagnie des Indes issued a New Yarmouth rum which excited raves across the Jamaican rum loving cognoscenti (I have yet to try it myself), and in 2018 Velier issued two Hampdens themselves – both lit up Facebook like the Fourth of July.  And that’s not even counting the other Worthy Park and Hampdens which have come to market in the last few years. The Hampden I’m looking at today is a bit more modest, however – it is one Compagnie edition of about twenty from the island that were released up to 2017 (of which four were from Hampden).

In terms of background, it’s a 43% rum, pot still origin, barrel #JH46, distiilled in 2000 and bottled in 2016, 339 bottles, sourced in Europe (probably Scheer) – and if you’re really interested I dragged some others from the island to act as controls: the Mexan XO, the Mezan WP 2005, another two Compagnie rums – the Longpond 12 YO (44%) and the Worthy Park 7 YO (53%). Because I was curious how well the Hampden would fare against both other estates, and other strengths.

There was no mistaking the lemon-yellow Hampden for anything but a Jamaican, that was for sure. The nose was slightly sweeter than the Mezans and the CdI Longpond, very clear, redolent of cherries, tart fruits, green apples, rotting banana funk, overripe mangoes, together with a fine line of citrus carving through the whole thing – a medium ester rum, I hazarded, and very crisp and clean to smell.

On the palate, I didn’t think it could quite beat out the CdI Worthy Park (which was half its age, though quite a bit stronger); but it definitely had more force and more uniqueness in the way it developed than the Longpond and the Mezans. It started with cherries, going-off bananas mixed with a delicious citrus backbone, not too excessive. After ten minutes or so it opened further into a medium sweet set of fruits (peaches, pears, apples), and showed notes of oak, cinnamon, some brininess, green grapes, all backed up by delicate florals that were very aromatic and provided a good background for the finish.  That in turn glided along to a relatively serene, slightly heated medium-long stop with just a few bounces on the road to its eventual disappearance, though with little more than what the palate had already demonstrated. Fruitiness and some citrus and cinnamon was about it.

Overall, a solid, tasty Jamaican rum, presenting somewhat younger than its physical years.  It was continentally aged, so the rich voluptuousness of a tropically-aged rum was not its forte. Some of its rough edges were sanded away while leaving enough to give it some character: its strength was right, I think, and it lacked some of the furious brutality of younger ester bombs from the estates, without losing any of its elemental character.  Not all high-ester, funk-driven, dunder-squirting rums are meant for such neat sipping (as has been remarked on before, such intensely flavoured Jamaicans are often used as flavouring agents in other blended rums). But as a rum by itself, tasted and evaluated on its own, this fifteen year old is a very pleasant sipping dram that retains just enough edge to make it a very good experience to have by itself, or to perk up whatever cocktail you feel like adding it to.

(#526)(86/100)


Other notes

For a pretty good historical and production-level rundown on Hampden estate, the Cocktail Wonk’s 2016 article covers just abut everything.

Jul 052018
 

Photo from Angostura website

What’s surprising about this white triple-filtered column-still overproof – which keeps company with 151s like the Bacardi or Cavalier and others – is that it is not a complete fail, though it does resemble a massive ethanol delivery system that forces you to consider whether a visit to your place of worship is required before it comes alive and does a chestburster on your mosquito physique. It has a few points of interest about it, in spite of its fiery heat and hard punch…and I say that grudgingly, because overall, I don’t see much to shout about.

Part of the problem is the indifference with which – to me – it seems to be made.  I blame the triple filtration for this state of affairs. No real effort appears to have been pushed into elevating it beyond a high proof cocktail ingredient, and one gets this impression right away when (very carefully) nosing it, where the lack of any real complexity is disappointing.  Oh sure, it’s hot and sharp and very intense, but what did you expect? And what do you get for your trouble? — not much beyond sugar water, a few briny notes, some red olives and a small amount of acetones and coconut shavings. And maybe a green grape or two. In short, as West Indians would say, mek plenty plenty noise, but ain’ got enuff action.

The palate is usually where such overproofs really get into gear, pump up the revs and start laying rubber on your face.  Certainly that happened here: as a lip-burn and tongue-scorcher, it’s tough to beat. It presented as very oily and briny and what sweet there was sensed on the nose vanished like a fart in a high wind. There were tastes of dates, figs, soya and vegetable underlain with a weird kind of petrol undertone (quite faint, thankfully). Some nail polish and new paint slapped over freshly sawn lumber – but very little in the way of fruitiness, or a more solid underpinning that might make it a more interesting neat pour.  And the heat just eviscerates the finish, which, although giving some more sweet and salt, sugar water, soya, watermelon (at last – something to praise!), is too faint and dominated by the burn to be really satisfying.

Of course, this is a rum not meant to have by itself – few rums boosted to 75% and over really are, they’re meant for bartenders, not barflies. Too, stuff at that strength is treading in dangerous waters, because there are really only two options open to it: don’t age it at all (like the Neisson L’Esprit 70° Blanc and Sunset Very Strong 84.5%) and showcase as much of the youthful vigour and original taste as one can; or age it a little – not the one or two years of the Bacardi 151, but something more serious, like the SMWS Longpond R5.1 81.3% or the Barbados R3.5 74.8% or the really quite good R3.4 75.3%.

As a puncheon, named after the oversized barrels in which they were stored, this was developed in the early part of the last century as a cheap hooch for the plantation workers and the owners.  It was never really meant for commercial sale – yet for some reason it turned out so popular that the Fernandes (the family enterprise which originally made it on the Forres Park estate) issued it to market, and even after Angostura took over the company, they kept it as the only entrant in the insane-level-of-proof portion of their portfolio.

Like all rums brewed to such heights of strength, it sustains a level of intensity that most full-proof rums can barely maintain for even five minutes, just without many (or any) of their redeeming features.  That’s part of the problem for those who want a neat and powerful drink that’ll fuel their car or blow their hair back with equal ease – because there’s a difference between an overproof that uses extreme strength to fulfill an artistic master blender’s purpose, as opposed to one that just issues it because they can’t think of anything better to do. Unfortunately, here, this is a case of the latter being taken a few steps too far.

(#525)(73/100)


Other notes

  • While the Forres Puncheon I review here is made by Angostura, its antecedents date back much further, to the original company that created it, Fernandes: and that was so fascinating that I have devoted a separate biography of the Angostura-acquired  Fernandes Distillery to it, as it was too lengthy for inclusion in this review.
  • Sample provided by my correspondent Quazi4moto, who’s turned into something of a rum fairy of samples these days.  Big hat tip to the man.
Jul 022018
 

The question that arises when drinking a rum that is 10 years old is whether the relatively placid 40% strength helps or hurts given our rather more discerning palates these days. The blended Jamaican XO from last week’s review, with its indeterminate age and provenance, succeeded modestly in spite of its wispiness because somehow the tastes still came through and provided a showcase for the style…and for its price it was a strong low-end contender that punched above its weight.  While the 2005 10 YO we’re looking at today is also bottled at that strength – subsequent editions are a bit stronger – it is quite a few rungs up the ladder. In fact, it’s a quietly successful offering from Mezan, and should not be passed over by those who disdain anything except cask strength juice.

Speaking immediately about the nose, even though the strength was the same, the 10 year old presented as much more emphatic and distinctive than the XO.  Bananas and lemons, brine, olives, vague sweetness. Time helped to some degree and after a while one could sense cherries, a little funkiness, unsweetened chocolate and a continual background of orange peel, all of which remained light and relatively unaggressive, but quite clear.

The taste was the part I liked this most, because it was light and clear…kinda flirty chirpy, even sprightly.  The 40% does no damage to the palate and is actually quite pleasing in its own understated way. Green grapes, apples, cider, raspberries, tart unsweetened yoghurt, chocolate and nuts underscored by the thin line of citrus peel, and supported by a faint but noticeable set of fleshier fruits (not-quite-ripe apricots and peaches and mangoes) – the funkiness of esters was there, just dialled down, which distanced it somewhat from more traditional hard-core Jamaicans that are getting all the press these days. The weakness of the rum as a whole was probably the finish, which was really too short and fine, and added nothing particularly new to the fruit basket or the tastes – some citrus, cherries, green apples and that’s about it.

Overall, I liked it but the distinctiveness of the estate profile refused to come through that general mildness, which is, of course, something of a fail mark for a country whose rums have been getting a lot of attention in the last few years.  A few extra points of proof would have helped a lot, I think — and indeed, Mezan have issued a 46% version of the Worthy Park 2005 in 2017 which I have not tasted, but which is likely to address the issue (this one was a 2015 bottling).

The finish and aftertaste of the Mezan 2005 (though not the nose and palate) to some extent suggest why some people do not entirely go for softer proof and continental ageing, which is what I believe this is. That final part of the experience is simply too nondescript and inconspicuous and over far too quickly.  But we should not be too quick to trumpet “tropical ageing only!” like it was some kind of universal truth, because we should keep in mind the sterling Worthy Park 7 YO 53% from the Compagnie des Indes, which was a better rum in every way and was also aged in Europe (note also Wes’s admiration for the 2015 10 YO Worthy Park from Kill Devil).  Also the fact that overall for its price, this is a pretty good rum for those who want to know more about the Jamaican style of Worthy Park without getting their faces ripped off by a hot blast of esters bolted to a cask strength bitch slap. On that level, I’d say it’s a qualified success.

 

(#524)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Worthy Park re-opened for business in 2005 after not having produced any rum since the sixties, so this is from the first year of issue.
  • Distillate comes from molasses and a Forsythe copper pot still.  Actual place of ageing is unknown, but I’m thinking it’s the UK, or maybe partial in both UK and Jamaica.
Jun 242018
 

Tasting the Mezan XO is best done by trying it in conjunction with other rums of its strength (about 40%) because it’s a deceptively mild and seemingly reticent sort of product – so if you taste it with some stronger drinks it falters. It coyly presents as a weak and diffident product, and it’s only after sticking with it for a while that its attributes snap more clearly into focus and you realize how good it really is. I started out thinking it was simply too mild and too little was going on there, but by the end of the session I was a lot more appreciative of its quality.

Mezan is an independent bottler out of the UK, formed by a gent named Neil Matthieson who ran a spirits distribution company since the 1980s and used it as the parent company for Mezan in 2012 (he is the managing director of both). Following the usual route for an independent, they source barrels of various rums from around the world and bottle them in limited editions.  However, in the XO they have opted for issuing a blend of rums from Jamaica – not from single distillery, but from several, and The Fat Rum Pirate notes it as having two components from Worthy Park and Monymusk (there are others, unidentified) and Steve James over at the Rum Diaries blog wrote that he heard that the youngest part of the blend is four years old. I myself was told by a rep that all components of the blend were in the 18-24 months range, but that might have been just for the rum from my batch number (#4997).  I’d suggest ageing is continental.

According to Matt in his longform essay about the XO, Mr. Matthieson prefers to bottle at a strength in the low forties.  This has both positive and negative aspects – it becomes more accessible to people not used to cask strength rums, but at the price for the enthusiasts of weakening its clarity.  The nose of the XO makes this clear – it’s nice and aromatic…but thin, very thin. Sure, there are notes of pot still funkiness, brine, olives, dunder, rotten fruit, some plastic – it’s just that they’re faint and light and too wispy. That delicacy also permits the alcohol forward note to be more dominant than would otherwise be the case, and it presents more as something spicy and raw, than a delicate and nuanced rum.

The palate permits the low strength to come into its own, however.  Once one waits a while and allows oneself to get used to it, the flavours become quite a bit more distinct (though they remain light). Esters, overripe bananas and some nail polish to begin with, moving into a smorgasbord of rather light sweetness, plastic, brine, citrus and green apples – a sort of combination of fruits both fresh and “gone off”. Somehow this all works. And I think that the rum deserves a second and a third sip to pry out the nuances.  The finish is no great shakes, short and sharp and spicy with more crisp fruits and brine, but so quick that the memory one is left with is more of a young and feisty rum than a seriously aged one.

Certainly the overall impression one is left with is of a young blend, possessing enough complexity to warrant more careful consideration. No need to mix this if you don’t want to, it’s decent as is, as long as chirpy young Jamaicans are your thing.  As a Jamaican representative rated against the pantheon of better known and perhaps more impressive rums, though, it reminds me more of young and downmarket Appletons or J. Wray offerings than anything more upscale.

What makes the rum a standout is its price. Retailing in the UK at around £30 and of a reasonably plentiful outturn, it’s clear that the XO is an inexpensive way to get into the Jamaican style. There’s a lot of noise online the estate-specific rums like Monymusk, Clarendon, New Yarmouth, Worthy Park and Hampden (and that’s aside from Appleton itself), but not everyone always wants to pay the price for cask strength bruisers or indie bottlings that are so distinctly focused.  When it comes to an affordable, living-room strength blended rum that is middle-of-the-road funky and estery and works well as both a sipping drink or an ingredient into something more complicated, the Mezan Jamaican XO may be a very good place to start, no matter how you like drinking it. And at the very least, it won’t unduly dent your wallet if your own opinion turns out to be less than stellar.

(#523)(82/100)

Jun 192018
 

It’s a curious fact that what might be the best all-round aged rum from Antigua is the one that is actually mentioned the least: you hear a lot about the popular 5 YO; the more exclusive 1981 25 YO comes up for mention reasonably often; and even the white puncheon has its adherents…but the excellent 10 Year Old almost seems to float by in its own parallel universe, unseen and untried by many, even forgotten by a few (I first looked at in 2010 and gave it a guarded recommendation).  Yet it is a dry and tasty and solid drink on its own merits, and if I had to recommend a rum at standard strength from the island, this one would absolutely get my vote, with the white coming in a close second (and may yet make the cut for the pantheon, who knows?).

There’s almost nothing going on with rum in Antigua that is original or unique to the island itself.  Even back in the old days, they would import rum and blend it rather than make it themselves. Since 1932 one distillery has existed on the island and produces most of what is drunk there using imported molasses – the long operational Antigua Distillery, which produced the Cavalier brand of rums and the English Harbour 5 and 25 YO  They used to make one called Soldier’s Bay, now discontinued, and a colourful local gent called “Bushy” Baretto blends an overproof he sources from them and then drags it down to 40% in a sort of local bush variation he sells (in Bolan, a small village on the west side of the island).

Since the source of all this rum made by Antigua Distilleries is imported molasses, there is no specific style we can point to and say that this one is “key” anything.  Also, they are using a double column still and do not possess a pot still, or a lower capacity creole still such as the Haitians use, which would distill alcohol to a middling 60-70% strength instead of 90%+ basis of their range that wipes out most of the flavours.  So again, not much of a key rum based on concepts of terroire or something real cool that is bat-bleep-crazy in its own way and excites real admiration.

With respect to AD’s other rums up and down the range — the 65% puncheon remains a somewhat undervalued and fightin’ white brawler; the (lightly dosed) 25 Year Old is too expensive at >$200/bottle and remains a buy for money-bagged folks out there; and the 5 YO has too much vanilla (and I know it’s also been messed with somewhat). Since 2016, the company has moved towards stronger, near-cask-strength rums, is experimenting with finishes like the sherried 5 YO and a madeira, and I know they’re doing some work with Velier to raise their street cred further, as well as sourcing a pot still.  But none of this is available now in quantity, and that leaves only one rum from the stable, which I have been thinking about for some years, which has grown in my memory, but which I never had a chance to try or buy again, until very recently. And that’s the 10 year old.

The nose begins with an astringent sort of dryness, redolent of burnt wood chips, pencil shavings, light rubber, citrus and even some pine aroma. It does get better once it’s left to itself for a while, calms down and isn’t quite as aggressive.  It does pack more of a punch than the 25 YO, however, which may be a function of the disparity in ages – not all the edges of youth had yet been shaved away. Additional aromas of bitter chocolate, toffee, almonds and cinnamon start to come out, some fruitiness and vanilla, and even some tobacco leaves.  Pretty nice, but some patience is required to appreciate it, I’d say.

The most solid portion of the rum is definitely the taste.  There’s nothing particularly special about any one aspect by itself  – it’s the overall experience that works. The front end is dominated by light and sweet but not overly complex tastes of nuts, toffee, molasses, unsweetened dark chocolate and cigarette tar (!!). These then subside and are replaced by flowery notes, a sort of easy fruitiness of apples, raspberries, and pears, alongside a more structured backbone of  white coconut shavings, dates, oak, vanilla, caramel. The finish returns to the beginning – it’s a little dry, shows off some glue and caramel, strong black tea. Oddly, it also suggests a herbal component and is a little bitter, but not so much as to derail the experience. Quite different from the softer roundness of the 25 YO, but also somewhat more aggressive, even though the proof points are the same.

So if one were to select a rum  emblematic of the island, it would have to be from this company, and it would be this one.  Why? It lacks the originality and uniqueness of a funky Jamaican, or the deep dark anise molasses profile of the Demeraras, or even the pot still originality of the St Lucian rums.  It actually resembles a Spanish style product than any of those. By the standards of bringing something cool or new to the table, something that screams “Antigua!” then perhaps the puncheon white should have pride of place.  But I feel that the 10YO is simply, quietly, unassumingly, a sturdy and well-assembled rum, bringing together aspects of the other three they make in a fashion that just succeeds. It is at bottom a well made, firm, tasty product, a rum which is pretty good in aggregate, while not distinguished by any one thing in particular. Perhaps you won’t hear the island’s name bugled loudly when you sip it…but you could probably hear it whispered; and on the basis of overall quality I have no problems including it in this series.

(#522) (83/100)

Jun 172018
 

#521

Somehow, after a big splash in 2015-2016, Indonesian rums came and left the scene with equally and almost startling suddenness.  Although Haus Alpenz has been making a Batavia Arrack Van Oosten for many years (even decades, perhaps), it is a niche spirit, really, and not many know of it, and no, I haven’t tried it. My first encounter with the arracks came when I bought the Compagnie des Indes Indonesia rum in 2015 (and quite liked it), and within the year By The Dutch put this fascinating product out the door and then occasional photos began making the rounds on FB of Naga and Nusa Cana rums.  Shortly thereafter Matt Pietrek wrote one of his deep dives into the By the Dutch rum, and yet after all that, somehow they have almost vanished from the popular consciousness.

Perhaps it’s the renaissance of Bajan and Jamaican rums in those same years that stole the show, I don’t know – certainly over the last years the various social media are fuller of Bajan and Jamaican rum pictures and commentaries than just about anything else. Maybe it’s physical distribution, festival absences, word of mouth, Facebook posts (or lack thereof).  Whatever the case for its lack of mindshare, I suggest you give it a try, if only to see where rum can go…or where it has already been.

Part of what makes arrack interesting is the way it is fermented. Here some fermented red rice is mixed into the yeast prior to addition to the molasses and water (up to 5%), which undoubtedly impacts the final taste.  I was told by a By the Dutch rep that this particular spirit derives from sugar cane juice and fermented red rice cake, and is then twice distilled: once in a pot still, producing a distillate of about 30% ABV, and then again in another pot still to around 60-65%.  At that point it is laid to rest in barrels made of teak (!!) in Indonesia for a number of years and then shipped to Amsterdam (Matt implies it’s to Scheer) where it is transferred to 1000L oak vats. The final arrack is a blend of spirits aged 8 months, 3, 5 and 8 years, with the majority of the spirit being 3 and 5 years of age and bottled at 48% ABV.

A production process with so many divergent steps is sure to bring some interesting tastes to the table. It’s intriguing to say the least.  The nose, even at 48%, is remarkably soft and light, with some of that pot still action being quite evident in the initial notes: rotting banana skins, apples gone off and some funky Jamaican notes, if perhaps not as intense as a Hampden or worthy Park offering.  This then slowly — almost delicately — released light citrus, watery fruit and caramel hints, chamomile, cinnamon, green tea and bitter chocolate and a sort of easy sweetness very pleasing to smell.

It got better when I tasted it, because the strength came out more clearly – not aggressive, just very solid and crisp at the same time, sweet and clear, almost like an agricole with some oak thrown in for good measure.  The pot still origins were distinct, and taste of sweet fruits gone over to the dark side were handled well: apples, citrus, pears, gherkins, the very lightest hint of olives, more tea, green grapes, with cooking spices dancing around everything, mostly nutmeg and cinnamon.  Even the finish was quite aromatic, lots of esters, bananas, apples, cider and a sort of grassiness that was more hinted at than forcefully explored.

As an alternative to more commonly available rums, this one is good to try at least once. It doesn’t smack you in the face or try to damage your glottis – it’s too easy or that – and works well as both a sipping drink (if your tastes go that way), or something to chuck into a mai-tai or a negroni variation. One of the reasons why it should be tried and appreciated is because while it has tastes that suggest a Jamaican-Bajan hybrid, there is just enough variation here to make it a fascinating drink on its own merits, and shows again how rum is simply the most versatile, varied spirit available.   Plus, it’s quite a nifty rum by itself, sweet enough for those who like that, edgy enough for those who want more.

Now, with respect to the rum news all being about the western hemisphere’s juice: I don’t begrudge the French, Spanish or English Caribbean rum makers their glory — that would be deeply unpatriotic of me, even if one discounted the great stuff the islanders are making, neither of which is an option. There’s a reason they get just about 75% of the press, with the independents and Americans (north and south) getting the remainder.  But I just want to sound a note of caution about the blinkers such focus is imposing on our rumsight, because by concentrating on nothing but these, we’re losing sight of great stuff being made elsewhere – on the French islands, St Lucia, Grenada, Mexico, Japan…and Indonesia. From companies like By the Dutch. A stern and forbiddingly solid cask-strength rum this is not – but it’s original within its limits, eminently sippable for its strength, it’s an old, even ancient drink made new, and even if one does not immediately succumb to its languorous charms, I do believe it’s worth taking out for a try.

(84/100)


Other notes

The bottle clearly says “aged up to 8 years”.  Understand what this means before you think you’re buying an 8 Year Old rum.

Jun 132018
 

#520

Since we’re talking about Nine Leaves again, let me just issue this brief review of another of the 2016 editions, the American Oak 2 year old.  This was something of a departure for the company and its genially low-key one-man owner, master blender, accountant, chief salesman, procurement officer, distiller, bottler, secretary, and maybe even floor cleaner, and the departure is in that it’s aged for so long.  

Most of the time Yoshiharu Takeuchi (who holds all of the positions noted above plus maybe a few others) releases rums in a six month cycle for the Angel’s Half expressions, and annually for the unaged “Clear” ones. This one is, however, aged for two years – it was the first “real” aged edition he made, and it was put to rest almost at the same time Nine Leaves opened for business.  Why two years? Because it’s the maximum a rum can be aged in Japan, he told me, before heavier taxes start to kick in, noting also that this is why for the moment older rums will not be part of the Nine Leaves’ stable.

Be that as it may, the 50% 2YO pot still rum should be seen as a companion piece to the Encrypted, which came out in the same year, and was also two years old.  However, the Encrypted was a two year old finished blend (of four rums), and this rum was a straight two year old without any other barrels aside from the American oak. I tried it together with the that and the Angel’s Half 6-month from last week, at the same time… and somewhat to my surprise, I liked this one best.

The nose rather interestingly presented hints of a funky kind of fruitiness at the beginning (like a low rent Jamaican, perhaps), while the characteristic clarity and crisp individualism of the aromas such as the other Nine Leaves rums possessed, remained.  It was musky and sweet, had some zesty citrus notes, fresh apples, pears and overall had a pleasing clarity about it. Plus there were baking spices as well – nutmeg and cumin and those rounded out the profile quite well.

Palate, short version, yummy. Some sugar water, vanilla, cereals and those spices again, cider and apple juice.  No brine here, no olives, more like a kind of tartness, akin to unsweetened fresh yoghurt. And a minerally iodine peat-bog taste lurked in the background, which fortunately stayed there and wasn’t so aggressive as to derail the experience.  It was quite smooth, with some edge and rawness, but well controlled, closing things off with a finish that was quiet, clear and relatively easy, redolent mostly of acidic fruits, apples, cider, oranges and a bit of vanilla.  That’s a rather brief set of tasting notes, but I assure you, the experience was well worth it.

When I posted the Angel’s Half notes last week on reddit, one person asked me whether what I described was typical for Nine Leaves.  Based on these three Nine Leaves rums from 2016, I’d have to say yes – but even with rums so relatively similar and from the same tree, there were points of individuality that made them distinct in their own right.  Of the three, this one was my favourite – it provided reasonable complexity, clarity, enjoyment, retained its sprightly youth and vigour, while suggesting how the ageing sanded off the rough edges.  For a two year old rum made on the other side of the world, this thing is quite an achievement, and demonstrates yet again that a rum doesn’t have to be aged up to wazoo or come from a famed Caribbean estate to make a solid and favourable impression on anyone who tries it.

(86/100)


Other notes

The rum’s label could use some work.  It states it’s an Angel’s half but neither the year nor the ageing are clearly noted, which inevitably leads to some confusion.  Also, the only way to tell it’s different from the 6 month old is the yellow label for the 2YO, as opposed to the white one on the 6-month. I think Yoshi has corrected this in subsequent releases, though one remains perennially unsure what the release quantity is.

Jun 112018
 

#519

Ever since Yoshiharu Takeuchi began his one-man Japanese rum-making outfit called Nine Leaves, I’ve kept a weather eye on his work, and think his two-year-old rums and the Encrypted – both the original and the one issued for Velier’s 70th Anniversary in 2017 – have been remarkably good rums for juice under five (and in some cases under one) years old.

Arguably the aspects of Mr. Takeuchi’s work that have brought him to the attention of a greater audience in the Americas — though he’s been well known, and moving around, in the European festival circuit since 2014 — is the release of the Encrypted as noted above, and his current attendance at the Miami Rum Renaissance in 2018…from where Juan Marcos Chavez Paz, a correspondent of mine and a member of the Consumers Jury for the last couple of years, sent me a note yesterday expressing his amazed admiration for the quality of what Nine Leaves does with such short ageing periods.

Aside from the occasional two-year-old, Nine Leaves’ bread and butter is the regular outturns of rums which he puts to rest for a mere six months before bottling, in either American oak or Limousin casks. He calls them “Angel’s Half”, which I think is a understated and humorous play on the strength, the ageing and the pilferage of the angels. What this brief stint in the barrels accomplishes is to preserve much of the unaged fire of a white spirit, while also getting the benefit of what Martin Cate would call “light ageing.”  However, since these are coming out twice a year, it’s a tough task to try and get them all…the distillery opened in 2013 and while it may not seem to be a problem to get a “mere” twenty or so expressions, trust me, it is.

The rum under discussion today is the light yellow Nine Leaves ‘Angel’s Half’ (American oak aged) pot still rum issued in 2016 – not messed around with, bottled at a robust, throat-clearing 50% and as with all the rums from the company I’ve tried so far, it’s a solid, tasty piece of work for something aged less than a year.

And that’s the part at which I kind of marvel.  I honestly don’t know how he stuffs as much into these rums as he does.  The nose, for example, gave an initial sensation of a wet stone and minerals (!!), salt, sweet peas (I’m not making this up, honest), before relaxing with the weird stuff and presenting something a tad more traditional – sherry, brine, an olive or two, watermelon, pears and a light kind of sweetness that’s quite pleasing.  And quite assertive, but without actually crossing over into rough.

The palate was deceptive, because although the dominating flavour at first sip was swank and a freshly sliced watery pear, it evolved subtly over time, in spite of what appeared to be a certain light delicacy behind which reticent flavours hid and never wanted to emerge. Wait a while and take your time, as I did – since, once it opened up, crisp, solid tastes were to be found. Brine, olives, gherkins, cucumbers to start, mellowing out into light fruits, a bit of lemon zest, nutmeg (very faint), guavas and just a suggestion of creaminess I could not nail down more precisely.  Surprisingly, the finish was rather short for something bottled at 50%, and was quite dry, somewhat less than nose and palate suggested could be found. Some watery fruits, a bit of brine, the sweet line of citrus and spice, and that was that.

Thinking about the rum as I jotted down my notes, I think the key to the experience is in understanding its rather unstudied and deliberate eschewing of off-the-wall complexity.  That’s not its intention, because there’s not that much going on here, no kaleidoscopic taste-attack to the senses as defined by some of the unaged white rums I’ve written about; in a way it’s a tamed version of those, with more than enough subtlety imparted by the time spent in the barrel to elevate it (now that I consider the matter, in a way it reminded me of the unaged Kōloa Kaua’i Hawaiian Rum I tried back in 2012).  In other words, it’s two steps above merely “simple”; it’s clear and crisp and has the notes it plays, and plays those exceedingly well. I quite enjoyed it.

Conversations like the one I had with Juan makes me glad I invest the time into doing company biographies that provide background for the aficionados, because it’s clear that the interest is there and it’s really just the rums that aren’t always available.  Fortunately Yoshi-san is not slowing down and keeps the quality of his juice very high (Velier would hardly have asked him to contribute to the 70th Anniversary collection otherwise). The chance that one day boredom will set in and I stop trying Nine Leaves’ “sincerely made rums” is small indeed, especially when there’s a range of young stuff like this to be savoured. Here’s a company that will hopefully gain even greater recognition, acclaim and plaudits in the years to come than those they have already earned.

(83.5)


Other notes

  • Unsure whether this one is the Spring or Autumn release, since the label doesn’t mention it. Since I tried it in October, I’m going to suggest it’s Spring.