Jun 172019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#633)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • According to 1423, the rum was freshly distilled in 2018 and aged for six months in four 40 litre casks, then blended together, rested and issued outside the normal release cycle, in November 2018, as a sort of individual bottling.
  • All ageing done in Europe
  • A week after this review came out, Flo of Barrel aged Thoughts posted a comparison of six DOK rums including this one (in German), which is worth going through.
Dec 242018
 

My own personal memories of the Hampden Overproof will always be combined with the Tasting of the Century in London, where we tried those magnificent old rums the Harewood 1780, St James 1885, Bally 1924 and Skeldon 1978…and the two new Hampdens. Truth to tell, my focus was so fiercely on that geriatric quartet, that I had little time to pay attention to the twins….time kind of ran out on me, and I could barely do them justice. So knowing I had the bottles in Berlin, I waited until October and then dealt with them there again.

Velier, as is now quite well known, has dibs on the distribution of Hampden rums from 2018 (and, I think, 2019) through their new organization of La Maison & Velier.  Both the 46% and the 60% versions of the rum are the same, the former just being diluted down, so in this review I’ll be talking about the overproof version, although the notes are the same for either, with the strength being the only true variable.

Technical schtick for the rum curious: what we have here is a rum based on fermentation with wild yeast, distilled in 2010 on a double retort copper pot still; the ageing was fully tropical for eight years and it was bottled in 2018; the level of esters was not disclosed except insofar as to note it was “very high”; and of course, no additives of any kind, not sugar, not colouring, nothing.  All of which, by the way, is on the hugely informative label that in its graphic detail is somewhat at odds with the famed Spartan labels of yore, but never mind. One thing that isn’t on the label is the outturn, but the source was 31 barrels, so assuming a 6% angel’s share per year, we can estimate that around 10,000 bottles were released into the global market.

What always surprises me about Hampden rums is how relatively restrained they are, irrespective of the strength.  You expect that say, from an exquisitely blended Appleton, and certainly do not from Zan Kong’s Worthy Park offerings which cheerfully lunge out of the bottle like a hungry face-hugger, yet Hampdens find a sweet spot between the two that is nothing short of delectable.  The nose is a combination of soft and crisp, initially redolent of pencil shavings, paraffin, varnish and sawdust, bitter chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, damp, freshly turned earth and tar, and, like many such strong rums, rewards patience as these aromas develop, and then fade.  They are then replaced by green grapes, unripe mangos, and lots of sharper, unripe-but-sweet fruits, balsamic vinegar, sweet gherkins and a very nice background of aromatic tobacco and port-infused cigarillos.

Ah, and the taste – really nice.  Strong and bordering in sharp, yet even at 60% ABV it presents as amazingly controlled, even moderate.  The tastes are all there, deep and intense, rolling easily and crisply across the palate, yet not so ester-heavy as might be inferred from the label.  You’d laugh when I say that I tasted well-oiled leather and sweaty shoes, and then take comfort in more traditional flavours of brine, olives, maggi cubes, cardboard, black bread and cereals (there’s a sort of creamy aspect to the whole experience I found very pleasing), which formed a bed upon which dates, figs, crisp peaches and pears and mangoes rested easily, dusted over with a lovely hint of cumin and cinnamon and lemon peel, leading into a crisp, snappy finish that sumed things up nicely, mostly with sharper fruits and crushed hazelnuts, lemon zest and that odd bit of tar from the nose making a belated appearance (perhaps out of mischief).

It’s possible that gently diluting the rum to about 55% from 60% might make it more approachable and an easier drink: for my money, it’s damn near perfect for what it is, a really well blended Jamaican which even Sandor Clegane might like, something that enhances the street cred of both estate and country.  It requires, like all full-proof, dunder-squirting yardies, some patience; it’s a drink to savour, not swill, and is an exemplary rum in almost all aspects of its profile.

I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that my appreciation for righteously funky Jamaicans vacillates between Worthy Park and Hampden (though it must be acknowledged that Plantation is making inroads, and the Compagnie’s New Yarmouth rums also deserve a place at the table).  It’s when you try something as powerful and tasty as this that you understand why the comparisons can and need to be made. We are living in a Golden Age of new Jamaican rums, where pole position is being taken over and held by exactingly made blends produced by the distillery of origin, retaining all their unique heritage and profiles, rather than an unknown mix marketed under the uninformative sobriquet of “Jamaican rum”.

What seems to have happened is that after years and decades of somnolence, rum aficionados gradually got acquainted (or re-acquainted) with estate-specific rums from Jamaica that weren’t Appleton as a consequence of  the efforts of the continental independents.  Through the limited single cask releases of a few hundred bottles here and there, we began to recognize the individuality, the idiosyncrasy – the sheer dynamism – of Monymusk, of New Yarmouth, of Worthy Park…and of Hampden. That gradually-building groundswell of appreciation has turned into a roaring wave in 2018, and this edition of a really superlative rum is the result – thousands of bottles, not just a few hundred, all coming from Hampden, all made and developed and aged there, and meant for all of us who love the massive taste bombs out of the island. It is, in my own estimation, one of those rums whose reputation will only increase with the passage of the years, and to have tasted the first versions out of the gate was and remains nothing less than a privilege.

(#582)(89/100)


Other Notes

Luca Gargano has made it clear that these are not Velier rums – his company is just the distributor.  I chose to believe his fingerprints are on the bottles nevertheless, most likely in the selection of which 31 barrels made up the blend.  However, in accordance with his wishes regarding attribution, I have not referred to this as a “Velier Hampden Estate Overproof Rum.” Though I think many of us harbour our own thoughts on the matter.

Dec 132018
 

 

There all sorts of fascinating things about this rum, whose age and rarity and limited outturn makes it almost impossible to find (and as for actually getting a full bottle? I dreams me dreams, kid).  It’s aged more than thirty years. It was issued for the Hong Kong market. And it’s from Hampden, certainly one of the most interesting companies making rums in Jamaica today. Compagnie des Indes is one of those rare indie outfits that seems to be able to smell these oddly compelling forgotten casks squirrelled away in dusty warehouses someplace, and the only regret is that we can never seem to lay paws on them before they’re all gone (unless, perhaps, you’re Danish).

You’d be hard pressed to do a search on this baby and find anything about it, so let me fill in some blanks that I got after emailing Florent Beuchet, the boss over the Compagnie des Indes, that French independent I’ve been following with great interest and affection for some years. It was of pot-still origin, distilled December 1983 and bottled in November 2017, so a whisker under 34 years old (when was the last time we saw something like that?). It was continentally aged, one barrel, and its origin came as a result of Florent meeting one of the biggest importers of Burgundy wines in Hong Kong, striking up a conversation and then partnering for this very unique release. In fact, it was special enough that the Compagnie eschewed the standard bottles and went with fancy decanters instead, exactly 250 of them (of which a mere 12 are being sold in Europe through a shop in Paris called L’Univerre Paris, the rest in Hong Kong) — each was apparently filled by hand and wax-sealed by Florent himself before being put into a handsome French Oak wooden box to await a lucky buyer.

Photo (c) Compagnie des Indes

For me, it’s a neck and neck race on any given day, whether I like Hampden better than Worthy Park or the other way round, and how Monymusk, Long Pond and New Yarmouth vintages fit into the pantheon (I like to think Appleton exists in a sort of gentler parallel universe than these).   Most of the time Hampden has a slight edge in my estimation (though not always), and a rum like this shows why.

Consider how it smells.  There’s enough funk and raw estery aromas to gladden the heart of any Jamaican rum lover, and it’s warm bordering on hot, initially redolent of dark rotting fruits, raw tobacco, cigarette tar, petrol, pencil shavings and a sort of damp earthy mustiness.  It deserves some patience and time, and once it opens up the softer and more delicate smells start to become more noticeable – dill, a fine line of mint/thyme, and fruity notes of apples, grapes, raisins, bananas and overripe pineapple. And it doesn’t stop there, because after an hour or two I notice overripe oranges, olives, a light brininess, grass, and lightly seasoned vegetable soup — plus deep caramel and molasses and toffee providing a remarkably stable undercurrent.  It’s been a long time since I have tried something so crowded and complex, yet none of these aromas seemed to be excessive – the balance among them all was phenomenal

It provides quite a kick to the palate as well, and very little of the assembly failed in any way, or was diminished over time.  It was bottled at 54.1%, and presents a solid series of characteristic Jamaican flavours, being oily, salty, acidic and rough – all at the same time.  The crisp and fruity ester-notes do what they always do when left to stand for some hours – become sharp and blade like. But they’re also giving off tastes of damp earth, mustiness, and are just a tad bitter, leavened by white pepper, burnt sugar, caramel and bags of fruits (apples, raisins, unripe mangoes, pears and pineapples). Oh and gherkins in vinegar, some tannins and unsweetened chocolate — not enough to spoil it, but sufficient to take the lead and dominate the softer balancing flavours of vanilla, flowers, and caramel. It’s very distinct and delicious, edging a little over the top, like the Cambridge or TECC from Long Pond was; and it will, I think be appreciated for precisely those reasons. It ended with a flourish, it must be said, really well – long, dry, aromatic, sweet, earthy, with light oil, petrol and rubber notes, plus thyme, and apples.  The taste and finish last for hours, it’s that lingering, and I was and remain quite impressed with the way that nearly 34 years of continental ageing didn’t ruin the thing with excessive oakiness.

Strictly speaking, I think it’s unfair to categorize or compare independents’ single barrel rums the same way we would something that Christelle Harris or Zan Kong make, something tropically aged that their own hands had touched, blended and made in large batches instead of a couple hundred bottles.  Because aside from being made for different audiences, stuff like this is very limited, and exactingly chosen based on the talents and preferences of that single buyer in selecting his casks. In that lies the appeal of the single cask bottling.

Still, with the proliferation of the independents and the rise of special limited edition rums over the last twenty years — and the near annual releases of new rums from all the familiar regions by old and new companies — we’re in danger of losing some of that sense of  wonder we once felt as we rediscovered those fascinating rums from the 1970s and 1980s that Velier, Samaroli, Moon Imports, Rum Nation, G&M, A.D. Rattray and others were putting out the door. We see bottlings aged ten years, or in their teens, or (heaven forbid) even twenties and take that as a given.  But occasionally, just occasionally we get hit by something unexpected. Like the Velier NRJ rums. Like a small Fijian gem from TCRL, or an amazing rum from Antigua Distillery. And like this one, three decades of sweet fire, fury and funk trapped in a bottle, which emphatically demonstrates, like those others do, how some magic still exists in 2018, and can still, with some luck, be found.

(#578)(89/100)

 

Mar 152017
 

#349

If I didn’t know better, I’d almost suggest this was a clairin.  It was so potent and pungent, so powerful in taste and profile, that I had to double up the amount of controls I was tasting it with, just to make sure it really was a Jamaican rum and not some uncured white lightning out of Haiti.  If you ever thought that Jamaicans were getting too easy, or you were getting bored with the regular run of Appletons, allow me to recommend (cautiously) this amazing white popskull from Hampden estate, which was gifted to me by Gregers and Henrik in the 2015 ‘Caner Afterparty, just so they could see my eyes water and my palate disappear while they laughed themselves silly.

Can’t say I blame them.  Now, you would imagine that when a bunch of us grog-blog boyos get together, it’s a genteel sort of affair in a discreet private club, brogues and black tie in evidence as we dignifiedly pass glasses around, and reverently open bottles like the Longpond 1941 or a Trois Rivieres 1975 while making sober and snooty judgements in hushed tones about nose and palate and so on.  Yeah…but no.  What actually goes on is that a pack of noisy, rowdy, scruffy reviewers from all points of the compass descends on a dingy apartment, each loudly and aggressively shoving their newest acquisitions onto the table, demanding they be opened and tried (twice!), and a sort of cheerful one-upmanship is the name of the game.  Quality doesn’t come into it, shock value does, and boy oh boy, did they ever succeed in taking the crown on this one.

I mean, just sniff this rum.  Go on, I dare ya. It was a 63% ABV salt-and-petrol concussive blast right away.  Forget about letting it breathe, it didn’t need that: it exploded out of the starting blocks like my wife spotting a 90%-off sale, and the immediate pungency of fusel oils, brine, beeswax, rotten fruit, wet cardboard, and sausages frying on a stinky gas fire took my schnozz by storm and never let go. Merde, but this was one hot piece of work.  Frankly, it reminded me of the JB Trelawny rum and Appleton’s own Overproof, also bottled at 63%, and oddly, of the Sajous. I immediately added a few clairins to the Jamaican controls on the table, and yes, there were discernible differences, though both shared some emergent flavours of sugar water and pickled gherkins and maybe some sweeter red olives – and the tartness of green apples and a bit of lemon.  But as for any kind of “standard” profile?  Not really.  It was having too much fun going its own way and punching me in the face, and represented Hampden in fine style.

Oh and this was not limited to the nose.  Tasting it was as exhilarating as skydiving with a parachute your ex-girlfriend just packed.  Again, the first impression was one of sharp heat (warning – trying this with your cigar going in the other side of your mouth is not recommended), and then there was a curious left turn into what was almost agricole territory – watermelon, flowers, sugar water, as hot and crisp and creamy as a freshly baked Danish cookie.  It was only after adding some water that a more ‘Jamaican’ set of notes came out to grab the brass ring – more olives, salted avocados and overripe fruit, wax, some very faint floor polish, tied together with the tiniest hint of citrus, vanilla and leather, before it all dissipated into a lovely, long, warm finish that coughed up some closing notes of sweet soya and teriyaki before finally, finally, passing into the great beyond of boring tasting notes in a notebook.

Whew!  This was a hell of a rum. I apologize in advance for sounding elitist, but really, the regular run of rum drinkers should approach this rum with some caution, or water it down or push it into a mix, lest it colour one’s perception of unaged white hooch forever.  I have a feeling it was made to appeal to those who want vibrant, pot-still full-proofs with real edge and a ginormous series of hot-snot flavour notes that take a smart right turn from reality.  Yes, of course it’ll make a cocktail that would stop just short of self-combustion (and there might lie its mainstream appeal rather than for masochistic nutcases who proudly drink it neat), but I submit that for the adventurous among you, taking it by itself is quite some experience, one that should not be missed.  It’s hot, it’s massive, it’s tasty, and for sure the makers weren’t kidding when they put the word “fire” in the title.  If the amount of amazed and joyful expletives (in seven languages) during a tasting is a measure of a rum’s appeal, then this one has to be one of the funnest, craziest rums I’ve sampled in quite some time, and I recall it with great fondness even after all this time.

(82/100)

Other notes

  • Made by and at Hampden estate, whose history is covered on their webpage
  • Triple distilled heavy pot still rum.  There’s no notation on age, but for my money, it has not been aged at all, another similarity it shares with the clairins
  • Not sure what the difference is between the straight “Rum Fire” and the “Rum Fire Velvet” – maybe it’s just the label, maybe it’s the triple distillation.