Feb 152021
 

Remember Lost Spirits? No? This was the company that made rumbles a few years ago, by using a proprietary “flash ageing” process developed by its founder, Bryan Davis, to promote “super fast ageing”. In theory, the chemical reactor Davis built would create a spirit that would taste like a twenty year old mature product, when in fact only a week old. Most sniffed condescendingly, made remarks about charlatans and snake oil sellers, sneered about how it had been tried and failed many times throughout history (usually to con the unwary and fleece the innocent) and walked away…but I was intrigued enough to buy their three initial attempts. Those were not all that hot, although I heard subsequent editions with tweaked settings produced better results.  But the hoopla faded and I heard little more about it and I was not interested enough to follow it up (an article was posted in the NYT in February 11th this year that spoke about the efforts of several companies to currently pursue this Holy Grail.)

That didn’t stop Lost Spirits from hitting the bricks to try and jack up some interest via licensing, and Rational Spirits out of South Carolina teamed up with Mr. Davis, who has continuing to tinker with the technology. In 2017 they released a Cuban Inspired rum, the second generation after Lost Spirits’ own, at a breathtaking 70.5% ABV – its stated purpose was to replicate pre-Revolutionary pot still Cuban rum profiles, and use that as a springboard to do similar magic with many near-dead or all-but extinct rums (like Appleton’s legendary 17 Year Old, perhaps). Weeellll…okay.  Let’s see what we have here, then.

First of all, the actual origin spirit of the rum is somewhat murky.  Master of Malt, Distiller.com and Andrew Abrahams all mention the pot still business, but it’s nowhere stated where that came from or who distilled it; there’s loads of this in the marketing materials which all online stores quote, and they helpfully also include Grade “A” molasses base and charred cask ageing, but hardly inspire my confidence. Since Rational is now out of business and its website leads to a gambling site, not a lot of help to be gotten there. Moreover, the “Cuban style” even in pre-1960 times was considered a light distillate made on column stills (for the most part) so there’s some issues there — would anyone even recognize what came out the other end?

So let’s try it and see. Nose is, let me state right out, great. Sure, it’s rather rough and ready, spurring and booting around, but nicely rich and deep with initial aromas of butterscotch, caramel, brine, molasses.  A nice dry and dusty old cardboard smell is exuded, and then a whiff of rotten fruits – and, as the Jamaicans have taught us, this is not necessarily a bad thing – to which is gradually added a fruity tinned cherry syrup, coconut shavings and vanilla. A few prunes and ripe peaches. Hints of glue, brine, humus and olive oil. It smells both musky and sweet, with anise popping in and out like a jack in the box. Glue, brine, humus and olive oil. So all in all, a lot going on in there, all nicely handled.

It starts, however, to falter when tasted, and that’s in spite of that very powerful proof. The caramel, chocolate, toffee, vanilla and butterscotch carries over. To that is added some aromatic tobacco, rather dry, plus polished well-cured leather. A drop or two of water releases additional notes of citrus and deeper molasses (perhaps a bit too much of the latter, methinks). Aside from faint dark dried fruit, most of what I taste is the non-sweet kind – dates, figs, olives. Very little sweet here, more of spices and leather. The finish is simple enough – it’s long though, and quite hot and spicy (“brutal” remarked Paul Senft, in his review) – mostly vanilla, a bit of fruit, caramel and molasses, plus one last filip of anise.

So, it started really well, and then just lay down, heaved a sigh, farted and then expired, but fatally, it never really enthused me.  It felt more like any reasonably decent low-brow young wannabe rum — made honestly, but less like a Cuban than the bastard offspring of a rather uncouth lightly-aged Versailles hooch and a low-grade but high-proofed Hampden. The nose was fantastic, by the way, which raised hopes, but then all that goodwill drained away, because sipping and tasting invited confusion, leading to outright disappointment.  

In fine, my opinion was that running it through this “flash-ageing” process neither helped nor hindered, because who could tell what the fermentation, charred barrels and the origin-still imparted, versus the tech? And the Cuban-inspired part? Not hardly. Best to ignore that aspect for now and drop the expectation down the toilet, because it’s nothing of the kind.  Take your time nosing it and enjoy that part of the experience to the fullest, because after that, there’s not much of interest going on or heading your way, except a really speedy drunk.

(#802)(79/100)


Other Notes

  • The Wonk has probably written the most about Lost Spirits, here’s a tag for all his articles on the subject. They express no opinion on the technology, but just report on the story up to around 2018.
  • Originally, I scored it 81 as a rum, but ended up by subtracting a couple of points for not making anything remotely resembling a Cuban.  This is an interesting point to think about, when considering a reviewer’s score – it’s not all and always about intrinsic quality excluding all other factors, but also about the expectations he walked in with. I try not to let such secondary issues affect my judgement but in some cases it’s unavoidable, such as here. The re-creation of an old Cuban mark is so much a part of the mythos of this rum it cannot be disentangled from the critique.
  • The whole business about superfast ageing led me down some interesting thought-lines and rabbit holes.  I expanded upon them in an opinion piece separate from this review a few days later.
Feb 082021
 

Rumaniacs Review #123 | #800

Here is a rum that defies easy tracing.  It predates us all, and almost everything about it remains educated conjecture and guesswork — even the name, assuming it has one.  It was bought by the German firm of Gerb. Hoff Weinkeller in 1941 from Wilhelm Roggemann in Hamburg (essentially that’s what the typewritten text on the label says – WR were wine and spirits merchants, no longer extant); Rene van Hoven, in whose collection the bottle currently sits gathering yet more dust, told me that all the research he had done on tax stamps, invoices, bills of sale and assorted other paper chases, suggested it had been bottled in the pre-WW2 years at least a decade earlier. I’ll take that on faith until I can find out different.

Also, it supposedly came from Jamaica, was bottled in a Burgundy wine bottle and rated 60% ABV.  I was told that no, it is not a verschnitt – that is, a neutral alcohol to which a high-ester Jamaican rum was added for kick, as was the practice in Germany and Eastern Europe back then. At that strength it might have equally been an “original overseas pure rum” (as the label claims)…or not. Don’t ask which distillery made it and inquiring after the age is pointless. Sorry, but sometimes, that’s all we have, and we take what we can get.

Colour – Dull amber

Strength – Supposedly 60% ABV per the label

Nose – Rubber and plasticine, dusty books. In fact it reminds me of an ancient second hand or antique bookstore where the aroma of glue from the bindings, and the delicate disintegrating yellow pages of unread tomes, pervades the whole place. Lots of fruits break in after some minutes – strawberries, bubble gum, fanta, oranges, overripe peaches, and also honey, molasses and a rich lemon meringue pie. It felt hot and heavy but somehow managed to avoid real raw ethanol sharpness, for which one can only be grateful

Palate – Hot, spicy, creamy, lots of stuff going on here.  Like the amazing Harewood House rum from a century and a half earlier, the taste is extraordinarily vibrant.  Molasses, damp brown sugar, soursop and unsweetened yoghurt, orange peel, sweet soya sauce.  And fruits, lots of fruits – yellow sweet mangoes, kiwi, pomegranates, peaches, yummy.  Did I mention a dusting of cinnamon and cumin?

Finish – Medium long, quite aromatic. Gets a bit rougher here, but the fruits and spices noted above see this thing out in fine style. An additional light layer of coconut and lemon zest in there, perhaps.

Thoughts – “It’s very alive,” remarked Rene to me, and I could not but agree.  The storage had evidently been impeccable, because that same week I’d tried another 1930s rum (from Martinique) of which less care had been taken, and it had been a complete disaster. This rum is not so much a Jamaican — I would not pretend to you that it screamed the island’s name as I tried it — as simply a very good, very sprightly rum that managed to stay awake and not fall flat.  And it demonstrated that even back then in the rum dark ages, perhaps it wasn’t really all that dark, and they were making some pretty good juice then too. Wish I knew more about it.

(84/100)


Other Notes

  • If you’re ever at a rumfest where Rene Van Hoven is hanging his hat, I strongly recommend you go pay his booth a visit.  The man has some very old rums from way back when, that are just fascinating to try; and his background research is usually spot on. Check out the website, and his instagram page.
Dec 232020
 

Here’s my personally imaginative take on how the (fictitious) Board of Blenders from Consorcio Licorero Nacional (CLN) presented their results to the good folks at Rum of Panama Corp (registered in Panama in 2016) about the rum they intended to make for them at Las Cabras in Herrera.

“We will make a true Panamanian Rum to represent the year the Canal was opened in 1914!” they say, high fiving and chest bumping themselves in congratulation at this perspicacious stroke of marketing genius.

“But CLN is originally from Venezuela, isn’t it?” comes the confused question.”Shouldn’t you perhaps pay homage to something from there?”

“The company is now registered in Panama, in San Miguelito, so, no.” The answer is confident. “The rum will be made at a Panamanian distillery. We will make it appeal to the masses by making it a column still light rum, but also appeal to the connoisseur crowd and beef it up to a higher strength.”

Ersatz Venezuelan patriotism is forgotten. This smells like sales. “Great!  How much?”

“41.3%” they reply, with the quietly confident air of “it’s settled” that Joe Pesci showed when he told Mel Gibson that a banker’s fee of 2% was standard, in Lethal Weapon II.

Brows knit. “Shouldn’t that be stronger?”

A twitch of moustaches, a shake of heads. This heresy must be swiftly extirpated. “That might scare away the masses, and they’re the ones we want buying the rum, as they’re the ones who move cases.”

“Ah.”

“And look, we will age it, a lot!” say the blenders brightly

Heads perk up. “Oh wonderful.  We like ageing.  How long, how old?”

“15 to 22 years.”

“That’s not bad. Except, of course, we’ve only been in business for four years, so…”

“Oh no worries.  Nobody will check. There’s that one reviewing doofus in the Middle East who might, but nobody really reads his blog, so you’re safe. And, on our website, we’ll say it’s a rum aged “up to 22 years”, so that will give you no end of credibility. People love rums aged more than twenty years”

“Isn’t that called…well…lying?”

“Not at all. It’s a blend of rums, we’ll have aged rums between those years in the blend, we’ll never say how much of each, so it’s completely legit. Better than saying 15 years old, don’t you think?”

“Well…if you say so.”

Paternal confidence is displayed. “You can’t lose: the rum is light, it’s old, the age is unverifiable but completely true, it has a cool name and date as part of the title, it’s sweet, and the production is so complex nobody will figure out who really is behind it, so nobody gets blamed…” More bright smiles all around, followed by toasts, handshakes, and the go-ahead is given.


Or so the story-teller in me supposes. Because all jokes and anecdotes aside, what this is, is a rum made to order. Ron 1914 touts itself as being a 15-22 YO blended rum,“Distilled in the province of Herrera and bottled at the facilities of CLN in Panama City.” CLN was formed in 1970 by five Venezuelan businessmen and deals with manufactured alcoholic products, though nowhere I’ve searched is there a reference to a distillery of their own. In this case it’s clear their using Las Cabras, proud possessor of a multi-column industrial still that churns out mucho product on demand. 

Now, that distillery has its own brand of rum, the Cana Brava, but also makes rum for clients: therefore brands like Zafra, Nativo, Grander note themselves as being from there – in that, then, the distillery operates like Florida Distillers who makes the completely forgettable Ron Carlos series of rums I’ve written about before.

And, unfortunately, made a rum equally unlikely to be remembered, because nosing it, your first thought is likely to be the same as mine: lights on, nobody home. There’s just so little going on here, and that’s not a function of the standard strength. There is basically some faint molasses, vanilla, a few unidentifiable fruits – not overripe, not tart, just fleshy and sweet – and an odd aroma of icing sugar. And a whiff of caramel and molasses, though don’t quote me on that – you might miss it.

The taste is also completely uninspiring. It’s so soft and easy you could fall asleep in it, and again, there’s too much vanilla, ice cream, sugar water and anonymous fruit here to lend any kind of spirit or style to the experience. Yes, there’s some caramel and molasses at the back end, but what good does that do when all it represents is a sort of “good ‘nuff” standard profile we’ve had a jillion times before in our journey? And the finish is just like that, short, breathy, a touch of mint, caramel, vanilla, anad again, just a snoozefest. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Ron 1914 was a low end spiced rum, and, for those of you who may be in doubt, that’s not a compliment.

The purpose of a rum like this escapes me.  No, honestly.  What’s it for?  In this day and age, why make something so soft and anonymous?  It doesn’t work well as a mixer (a Bacardi white or gold could just as easily do the job for less, if a cost-effective alcoholic jolt was all you were after) and as a sipper, well, come on, there’s way better value out there.

It’s always been a thing of mine that a good Spanish-style ron doesn’t have to enthuse the cask strength crowd with a wooden still in its DNA, or by squirting dunder and funk from every pore – because knowledgeable drinkers of its own style will like it just fine.  They’re used to standard strength and get that subtlety of tastes imparted almost solely by barrel management and smart ageing. But I submit that even they would take one taste of this thing, put down the glass, and walk away, the way I wanted to on the day I tried it in a VIP tasting. I couldn’t do that then, but you can, now. See you.

(#788)(70/100)

Dec 212020
 

The Cuban-made Vacilón brand was launched in 2016 (as a relaunch of an apparently very popular brand from the 1950s) and has been making the rounds of the various rum festivals off and on.  It’s part of the brand’s “luxury range” of 15 / 18 / 25 year old rums, which is fine, except that  as usual, there’s very little to actually go on about the production details – which remains one of the more annoying things about latin rons in general, hardly unique to Cuba. 

Suffice to say, it is made by Destilería Heriberto Duquesne attached to the local sugar mill located in Remedios in the north-central coast of Cuba under the overlordship of Cuba’s government entity Tecoazúcar. Founded in 1844 and previously known as Santa Fe, this is a distillery that produces pure alcohol as well as export rum, and makes the Vigia and the Mulata rum brands — so consolidating the information we have from those (here and here) we can say with some assurance that it’s a column still light rum, aged in ex-bourbon barrels…and that barrel strategy, coupled with skilful blending by the roneros, is behind its taste profile, not any kind of terroire or pre-distillation techniques or pot still component. 

How does that all come together when it’s time for the theory to take a backseat? Judge for yourself. Personally, I found the strength to be anemic at 40%.  It allowed aromas of caramel, nuts, flowers, coffee and cocoa to come through, just not with any kind of punch or assertiveness. Some light fruits — watermelon, papaya, guava, nothing too bold — shyly tiptoed on to the stage but at the first sigh of appreciation they panicked and ran back off again.

Tasting it made it clear this is a soft, warm sipping rum to be had by itself, and savoured that way – even ice might destroy its fragile and delicate construction.  That’s both its appeal and (for me) it’s downfall – I tasted caramel, butterscotch, bon bons, a bit of hazelnut, lemon zest, cumin and dill, a touch of ripe pear and that was it. The finish…well, it trailed off like an unfinished sentence, trending towards silence without ever having drawn attention to itself.  Which is, I must concede, about what I had expected (though not what I had hoped for) and which defined the rum as a whole.

Let me be clear – the Vacilón is a perfectly “nice” rum. On the surface, based on the label, it hits all the high points. It’s from Cuba, home of a long and proud tradition of rum making stretching back centuries. It is fifteen “true” years old.  And if it’s only 40% well, cask strength isn’t the rumiverse and standard strength rums should not be looked down upon just because they lack the spirituous equivalent of Ahnold’s biceps in his prime. 

Except that that was not the way the experience unfolded. I can live with the faint, quiet, wispy proof, I just needed to focus more, and harder, to tease out the tasting notes.  But it was simply unexciting, lacking appeal, not making any kind of serious statement for its own uniqueness and quality. It could have been five years younger and not been appreciably different. Why in this day and age they didn’t at least try to jolly it up to maybe 43% or 46% remains one of those unanswered questions to which rons have yet to respond.  Maybe it’s because they sell quite enough of what they do already and see no reason to change.

That of course is their privilege – rums like this do have their fans and markets. But as long as rons’ makers only keep trotting along the same old track at the same old pace, they’re only ever going to end up getting dismissive reviews like this one, and placing themselves in the “also-ran” finishing spot. Or even further back in the listings, which is something of a shame for an otherwise decent product on which maestros roneros expend so much time and effort. I think they can do better for today’s audiences, and they should at least give it a try, instead of recreating blends that were popular the 1950s but which are no longer as much in fashion now as they were back then.

(#787)(76/100)

Nov 022020
 

There are quite a few interesting (some would say strange) things about the Rhum Island / Island Cane brand, and the white rums in their portfolio.  For one thing, the rhums are bottled in Saint Martin, only the second island in the Caribbean where two nations share a border – the Netherlands and France in this case, for both the constituent country of Sint Maarten (south side) and the Collectivité de Saint-Martin (north side) remain a part of the respective colonizing nations, who themselves don’t share a border anywhere else.

Secondly, there is neither a sugar or rum making industry on Saint Martin, which until 2007  was considered part of – and lumped in with – the overseas région and département of Guadeloupe: but by a popular vote it became a separate overseas Collectivité of France. Thirdly, the brand’s range is mostly multi-estate blends (not usual for agricoles), created, mixed and bottled in Saint Martin, and sources distillate from unnamed distilleries on Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante. And the two very helpful gents at the 2019 Paris Rhumfest booth — who kept filling my tasting glass and gently pressing me to try yet more, with sad, liquid eyes brimming with the best guilt trip ever laid on me — certainly weren’t telling me anything more than that.

That said, I can tell you that the rhum is a cane juice blanc, a blend whipped up from rhums from unnamed distilleries on Guadeloupe, created by a small company in St. Martin called Rhum Island which was founded in 2017 by Valerie Kleinhans, her husband and two partners; and supposedly conforms to all the regulations governing Guadeloupe rhum production (which is not the AOC, btw, but their own internal mechanism that’s close to it).  Unfiltered, unaged, unadded to, and a thrumming 50% ABV. Single column still.  Beyond that, it’s all about taste, and that was pretty damned fine.

I mean, admittedly the nose wasn’t anything particularly unique – it was a typical agricole – but it smelled completely delicious, every piece ticking along like a liquid swiss watch, precisely, clearly, harmoniously.  It started off with crisp citrus and Fanta notes, and that evocative aroma of freshly cut wet grass in the sun.  Also brine, red olives, cumin, dill, and the creaminess of a lemon meringue pie.  There is almost no bite or clawing at the nose and while not precisely soft, it does present as cleanly firm.

Somewhat dissimilar thoughts attend the palate, which starts out similarly…to begin with.  It’s all very cane-juice-y — sugar water, watermelons, cucumbers and gherkins in light vinegar that are boosted with a couple of pimentos for kick. This is all in a minor key, though – mostly it has a herbal sweetness to it, sap and spices, around which coils something extra…licorice, cinnamon, something musky, bordering on the occasionally excessive.  The rhum, over time, develops an underlying solidity of the taste which is at odds with the clean delicacy of the nose, something pungent and meaty, and and everything comes to a close on the finish, which presents little that’s new – lemon zest, cane juice, sugar water, cucumbers, brine, sweet olives – but completely and professionally done.

This is a white rhum I really liked – while it lacked some of the clean precision and subtlety of the Martinique blanc rhums (even the very strong ones), it was quite original and, in its own way, even new…something undervalued in these times, I think. The initial aromas are impressive, though the muskier notes it displays as it opens up occasionally detract – in that sense I rate it as slightly less than the Island Rhum Red Cane 53% variation I tried alongside it…though no less memorable. 

What’s really surprising, though, is how easy it is to drink multiple shots of this innocent looking, sweet-smelling, smooth-tasting white, while enjoying your conversation with those who nod, smile, and keep generously recharging your glass; and never notice how much you’ve had until you try to express your admiration for it by using the word “recrudescence” in a sentence, and fall flat on your face.  But trust me, you’ll have a lot of fun doing it right up until then. 

(#774)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The name of the company that makes it is Rhum Island — this doesn’t show on the label, only their website, so I’ve elected to call it as I saw it.
  • This rhum was awarded a silver medal in the 2018 Concours Général Agricole de Paris
  • Shortly after April 2019, the labels of the line were changed, and the bottle now looks as it does in the photo below. The major change is that the Rhum Island company name has more prominently replaced the “Island Cane” title

Photo provided courtesy of Rhum Island

Oct 212020
 

Before delving into the (admittedly interesting) background of Tres Hombres and their “fair transport” concept, let’s just list the bare bones of what this rum supposedly is, and what we do and don’t know.  To begin with, it’s unclear where it’s from: “Edition No. 8 La Palma” goes unmentioned on their webpage, yet Ultimate Rum Guide lists a rum with the same stats (41.3% ABV, la Palma, Solera) as Edition No. 9, from the Domincan Republic.  But other La Palma rums made by Tres Hombres list the named rums as being from the Canary islands – Aldea, in point of fact, a company we have met before in our travels. Beyond that, sources agree it is a blended (solera) rum, the oldest component of which is 17 years old, 41.3% and the three barrels that made up the outturn spent some time sloshing around in barrels aboard a sailing ship (a 1943-constructed brigantine) for which Tres Hombres is renowned.

Well, Canary Islands or Dominican Republic (I’ll assume The Hombres are correct and it’s the former), it has to be evaluated, so while emails and queries chase themselves around, let’s begin. Nose first: kind of sultry and musky.  Green peas developing some fuzz, old bananas, vanilla and grated coconut, that kind of neither too-sweet nor too-salt nor too-sour middle ground.  It’s a little spicy and overall presents as not only relatively simple, but a little thin too, and one gets the general impression that there’s just not much gong on.

The palate, though, is better, even a little assertive.  Certainly it’s firmer than the nose led me to expect. A trace briny, and also quite sweet, in an uneasy amalgam akin to tequila and sugar water.  Definite traces of ripe pears and soft apples, cardamom and vanilla.  Some other indiscernible fruits of no particular distinction, and a short and rather sweet finish that conferred no closing kudos to the rum. It’s as easily forgettable and anonymous as a mini-bar rum in a downmarket hotel chain, and about as exciting.

Tres Hombres is now up to No. 34 or something, includes gin in the lineup, still do some ageing onboard for a month or so it takes to cross the Atlantic and certainly they have not lost their enthusiasm — they include rums from Barbados, DR and the Canary islands. Whether this part of their business will carry them into the future or forever be a sideline is, however, not something I can answer at this time – the lack of overall publicity surrounding their rums, suggests they still have a ways to go with respect to wider consciousness and acceptance.

And with good reason, because to me and likely to others, complexity and bravura and fierce originality is not this rum’s forte – smoothness and easy drinkability are, which is something my pal Dave Russell has always banged me over the head about when discussing Spanish style rums, especially those from the DR – “they like their stuff like that over there!” And so I mention for completeness that it seems rather delicate and mild – the low strength is certainly responsible for some of that – and not completely displeasing….just not my personal cup of tea. 

(#771)(75/100)


Other Notes & Background

This is one of those cases where the reviewer of the rum has to firmly separate the agenda and philosophy of the company (laudable, if somewhat luddite) from the quality of the rum they sell. In no way can the ideals of one be allowed to bleed over into the perception of the other, which is something a lot of people have trouble with when talking about rums made by producers they favour or who do a laudable public service that somehow creates the uncritical assumption that their rums must be equally good.

Tres Hombres is a Dutch sailing ship company begun in 2007 by three friends as a way of transporting cargo — fair trade and organic produce — across and around the Atlantic, and they have a sideline running tours, daytrips and instructional voyages for aspiring old-school sailors.  In 2010, while doing some repairs in the DR, they picked up 3000 bottles of rum, rebranded it as Tres Hombres No. 1 and began a rum business, whose claim to fame was the time it spent — after ageing at origin — abroad the ship itself while on the voyage.  Not just old school, then, but very traditional…more or less. The question of where the rum originated was elided – only URG mentions Mardi S.A. as the source, and that’s a commercial blending op like Oliver & Oliver, not a real distillery.

What the Tres Hombres have done is found a point of separation, something to set them apart from the crowd, a selling point of distinction which fortunately jives with their environmental sensibilities. I’m not so cynical as to suggest the whole business is about gaining customers by bugling the ecological sensitivity of a minimal carbon footprint – you just have to admire what a great marketing tool it is, to speak about organic products moved without impact on the environment, and to link the long maritime history of sailing ships of yore with the rums that are transported on board them in the modern era.  

Oct 152020
 

The Reddit /r/rum forum gets far too little attention and kudos for what it accomplishes.  It acts as a useful backup for (and provides a deeper well of knowledge than) the fleeting one-sentence commentary on Facebook from which I have gradually withdrawn more and more.  Most of the really intelligent and literary rum discussions take place here, and that’s not even counting the witty short-form text-only reviews of T8ke and Tarquin_Underspoon, LIFO_Accountant and all the others who post here. 

In 2018 one of the moderators suggested to the redditors that perhaps we all, as a collective, get a cask and bottle it as a “Reddit-only” edition, to be sold at a minimal markup. He would look after cask purchase, bottling and labelling and then put it up for sale on FineDrams for us – our involvement would be in the selection of which casks.  Redditors were also asked to put some names in a hat to form a small tasting committee and, full disclosure, I was asked to be one of them – to my disappointment, I had to decline due to my geographical difficulties (I was pissed, let me tell you). Samples from barrels of rum from several countries (Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana) which matched the price criteria were sent around, blind, and eventually the tasting committee picked this one from Foursquare, a nice sharply chubby little 13 year old. Unsurprisingly, I sprung for a bottle (as I have for all subsequent editions — the reddit rum forum seems to have turned into a tiny indie all by itself) which was around €75 or so.

Briefly, it’s a pot-column blend, continentally aged, single cask, 266 bottles, not chill-filtered, no fancy finishing as far as I’m aware, red gold, and a muscular 63% ABV.  I particularly liked the label, which the designers (yet other redditors) put together with a sort of stark simplicity that clearly suggested they thought Velier was far too overdecorated with fripperies of baroque ostentation and should be shown what “minimalism” really meant.  Not sure what was behind the XXX (hush, ye snickerers) but whatever, and the “One” was a neat touch, suggesting other editions to come much like the Danish indie Ekte, and it’s No. 1 and No. 2 and so on.  It’s a cool looking bottle, unlikely to be available any longer given its small outturn — if you can find it, it’s a decent addition to the canon, though it won’t supplant the ECS or 4S-V Collaborations in people’s affections any time soon, fans being who they are.

All right, so let’s dive right in. Nose first. Musty, dark and fruity notes right off the bat, sweet and tart, very intense (no surprise, given that strength). It had a touch of brine, balanced off by vanilla, coconut shavings and a nice creamy mocha, freshly ground coffee beans, plus brie with dark peasant bread.  Perhaps it was mean to be breakfast alternative, a sort of all-in-one experience: I mean, you were getting a real balanced start-your-morning diet here – fruit, toast, cheese, coffee. The aroma was very deep and intense, but also rather sharp initially, and it took time to calm down and open up the kitchen.

Tastewise, a 50-50 combo of salty elements (brine, olives, a maggi cube) and sweet ones – fruits (bananas, soft yellow mangoes, some overripe citrus), caramel, honey, fudge, plus a strong latte and bitter chocolate. More wood on the taste than had been sensed on the nose, and with the heat and sharpness carrying over, it made for a sip to have with caution, not abandon. This was one rum I would have preferred a little less powerful and indeed, with water it settled down and coughed up some raisins, dates, and pancake syrup notes. The finish was long on fruits, sweet, hot and aromatic, but added little to what had come before – mostly vanilla, chocolate, ripe sharpish bubble gum and pineapple that suggested (but did not speak loudly about) funk.

To be honest, I’m surprised it worked as well as it did. The vanilla was too dominant for me, the citrus peel note kicked in too late, and the flavours seemed somewhat uncoordinated, lacking a coherent through-line – it jumped haphazardly from one note to another in a sort of playfully chaotic jumble that somehow and pleasingly worked. In a way it reminded me of a low-rent ECS bottling (the 2004 or 2005 maybe, it shares some DNA with the former for sure), but at end, it must be judged on its own, for what it is. In that vein, not bad. It adheres to Foursquare’s blending philosophy, while daring to be occasionally different, haring off on a tangent like a not-quite-housebroken puppy let off the leash once or twice, before docilely returning to the profile that makes it recognizably a product of its famed distillery of origin.

(#761)(83/100)


Other notes

  • For the avoidance of all doubt, I am not advocating having this rum for breakfast for any who might inadvertently misinterpret my remarks above. Dinner for sure, though.
  • I would link to T8ke and Tarquin’s and others’ reddit profiles, but they post other stuff on other fora so that it’s not really feasible.  But trust me.  What they write is worth it.
  • After this went up, T8ke commented that the XXX was not meant to be salacious or speak to any kind of multiple distillation: “The ‘XXX’ was another exercise in stark simplicity. General zeitgeist and cartoons are loaded with ‘moonshine: XXX’ bottles to convey that “hey, this has alcohol in it”. Same idea with XXX bottlings. This is rum. It’s alcoholic. Here’s everything you need to know and nothing you don’t. Drink up.”
Oct 122020
 

Every now and then you come across a rum in its nascent stages which you just itch to write about — even if it’s not (yet) for sale. The Mim from Ghana was one such, an aged St. Aubin was another, and last year, Reuben Virasami (currently tending bar in Toronto) passed on a new Vietnamese rhum that I felt really deserved rather more attention than it got (even from those who made it). 

In brief, two expat Frenchmen, Jérémy Marcillaud and Nicolas Plesse, seeing all that lovely cane growing in Vietnam, were looking around for something to do with it and decided – without a lick of experience or any concept of the difficulties – to start a small distillery and make some juice.  Perhaps they were inspired by the new Asians like Mia, Vientiane, Laodi, Issan, Chalong Bay or Sampan — who can tell? — and got their little outfit L’Arrangé off the ground; designed and had an inox stainless steel pot still built locally (they call it “The Beast”); contracted local farmers to supply cane, and proceeded through trial and error and many attempts over 6-8 months, to finally get some cane-juice agricole-style rhum that was actually worth bottling, and drinking (in December 2016). 

Their aim was always to make a white rhum but they found rather more immediate success using the spirit for fruit infusions and arrangés (hence the name), and, as Jeremy told me when I contacted him, to export a good white requires a rather more scaled-up enterprise (and better economies of scale) than they were capable of doing at that time.  As such, they sold their spiced rhums and arrangés to local bars and tried to raise visibility via the Saigon Rum Club and the city’s rum festival…but for my money, it’s that base white rhum they made that captures my interest and hopefully one day can be a commercially successful endeavour for these guys.

L’Arrange Company Logo

So, no fancy label or bottle pic to go with the article this time – as I said, it’s not for sale. That said, these are the basics: it’s a cane juice rhum, pot still, rested for four months (sorry, ye detail-mongers, I forgot to ask about the yeast, though it seems to be a combination of locally available and wild yeast), squeezed off the still at 70% ABV then diluted to 55%. After that it goes into whatever products they’re playing with that day. Me, I tried my sample neat.

The smell is definitely suggestive of pale pot still rumstink: salt, wax, glue, olives and a trace of peeling rubber on a hot day on the highway.  It turns sweet later, though it remains rough and sharp, and provides aromas of watermelons, papayas, ripe mangoes, and just a touch of passion fruit. While it’s not quite as civilized to sniff as some of the other Asian whites mentioned above, it isn’t far behind them either.

The same thing goes for the palate. It’s rough and jagged on the tongue, but has a delicious and oily thick sweet tang to it: papaya, pineapple, mangoes, sugar water, strawberries, more watermelons. There is a sort of crisp snap to it, combining sugar, flowers,citrus peel, brine — even some very faint hints of vegetable soup.  Finish was short, intense, sharp and redolent of flowers, citrusd, sugar water and thyme.

Overall, this rhum is not one you would, on balance, rate as highly as others with more market presence.  You would likely try it blind, shrug and remark as you walked away “Meh – it’s just another white rhum. I’ve had better” And that makes sense, for its shortcomings haven’t all been ironed out yet – it’s rough and sharp, the balance is a bit off (tilts rather more to the sour and salt than co-existing harmoniously with the sweet and umami). But I feel that might simply be inexperience at making a pure single white rhum and their being okay with producing one made for adding fruit and spices to, not to drink by itself.

Myself I don’t drink spiced rums or arrangés. I don’t have to, with all the other juice out there. Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk away from this one.  But that white…it was pungently original, yes, rough and unpolished, sure…it lacks some of the polish and sure confidence that marked, say, Mhoba (after their years of tinkering), and yet it stayed with me. Underneath was a real potential for something even better, and that’s why I am drawing attention to this little company that few outside Asia have ever heard of.  Jérémy and Nicolas might one day be successful enough to market a white, maybe even export a bit around Asia, attend a rumfest to show it off. I can hope, I guess.  And all I’m saying is that if you ever see them demonstrating their work, and one of their bottles is an unaged 55% white, you could do a whole lot worse than giving it a try, because I honestly believe it’ll be one of the most interesting things in the neighborhood that day.

(#769)(79/100)


Other notes

  • I drew on the very interesting 2018 Saigoneer interview (timestamp 00:25:14) for some of the supplementary details, and the company kindly filled in the remainder. 
  • It may be just my imagination, but the company logo reminds me of the jungle scenes of the French artist Henri Rousseau.  I quite like it.
Sep 302020
 

In spite of rums from various 1970s years having been issued throughout that period (many are still around and about and surfacing every now and then at wallet-excavating prices), it is my contention that 1974-1975 were the real years that disco came to town.  No other years from the last century except perhaps 1986 resonate more with rumistas; no other years have as many Demeraras of such profound age, of such amazing quality, issued by as many different houses.  I’d like to say I’ve lost count of the amount of off-the-scale ‘75s I’ve tasted, but that would be a damned lie, because I remember them all, right back to the first one I tried, the Berry Brothers & Rudd PM 1975. I still recall the rich yet delicate solidity of the Norse Cask, the inky beauty of the Cadenhead Green label 40.6%, the black licorice and sweet tobacco of the Rendsburger, Velier’s own 1975...and now, here is another one, dredged up by another Italian outfit we never heard of before and which, sadly, maybe we never will again. Unlike Norse Cask, it has not vanished, just never bothered to have a digital footprint; in so doing it has left us only this equally overlooked and forgotten bottle of spiritous gold, and some more recent bottlings known only to ur-geeks and deep-divers.

For the kitch, I’m afraid there is not much. Thanks to my impeccably fluent lack of Italian, I can tell you it’s a 1975 Port Mourant that was bottled in 2007, and it appears to be one of those single barrel releases often indulged in by importers – this time an Italian outfit called High Spirits, which doesn’t exist beyond its odd one-page website that leads nowhere and says nothing – see below for some notes on this.  The rum is 56.1%, dark red brown….

…and smells absolutely magnificent. The aromas are, in a word, loaded. The distinctiveness of the PM still comes through in a wave of aromatic wine-infused cigarillos’ tobacco, coffee, bitter chocolate and, yes, licorice. You pause, enjoy this, sniff appreciatively, dive in for Round 2 and brace for the second wave.  This emerges after a few minutes: and is more musky, darker in tone shot through with jagged flashes of tarter sharper notes: muscovado sugar, molasses, plums, blackberries, ripe black cherries, bananas, all the best part of, oh, the Norse Cask, of which this is undoubtedly the equal.  And then there’s a bit extra for the fans, before the taste: cinamon, vanilla, herbs, and (I kid you not) even a touch of pine resin.

And the profile, thank God, doesn’t let us down (think of what a waste that would have been, after all this time). People like me use the nose a lot to tease out flavour-notes but the majority of drinkers consider only the taste, and here, they’ll have nothing to complain about, because it continues and underlines everything the smells had promised. Again, thick and pungent with bark and herbs and fruit: plums, dark ripe cherries, ripe mangoes, bags of licorice, and an interesting combo of mauby and sorrel. Caramel and toffee and chocolate and cafe-au-lait dosed with a generous helping of brown sugar and whipped cream, each flavour clear and distinct and outright delicious – the balance of the various soft, sharp, tart and other components is outstanding.  Even the finish does the rum honour – it’s long, fragrant and lasting and if it could be a colour, it would be dark brown-red – the hues of licorice, nuts, raisins, dates, stewed apples and caramel.

There’s just so much here.  It’s so rich, smooth, warm, complex, inviting, tasty, sensual and outright delicious. Just as you put down the glass and finish scribbling what you optimistically think is the final tasting note, you burp and think of yet another aspect you’ve overlooked. Yes, High Spirits probably bought the barrel from a broker or an indifferent Scottish whisky maker who passed it by, but whoever selected it knew what they were doing, because they found and teased out the muscular poetry of the core distillate that in other hands could (and in its knock-offs sometimes does) turn into a schlocky muddled mess.

At end, over and beyond how it tasted, I find myself coming back to that age. Thirty two years. Such rums are getting rarer all the time. Silver Seal and Moon imports and Cadenhead and G&M occasionally upchuck one or two in the twenties, and yes, occasionally a house in Europe will issue a rum in the thirties (like CDI did with its 33YO Hong Kong Hampden, or those 1984 Monymusks that are popping up), but the big new houses are mostly remaining in the teens, and tropical ageing is the new thing which further suggests a diminution of the majority of aged bottlings. To see one like this, with the barrel slowly seeping its influence into the rum over three decades from a time most rum lovers were unborn and the rumworld we live in undreamt, is an experience not to be missed if one ever has the chance.

(#766)(91/100)


Other Notes

  • My thanks to Gregers, Pietro and Johnny for their help on this one, the pictures and background, and, of course, for the sample itself.
  • If I read the label right, it’s possible that as few as 60 bottles were issued.
  • For a recap of several 1975 Port Mourant rums, see Marius’s awesome flight notes on Single Cask.
  • High Spirits is a small Italian importer of whiskies and rums and moonlights as an occasional bottler. It is run by a gentleman by the name of Fernando Nadi Fior in Rimini (NE Italy), and he is an associate and friend of Andrea Ferrari and Stefano Cremaschi of Hidden Spirit and Wild Parrot respectively. High Spirits has quietly and primarily been dealing in whiskies and very occasional limited bottlings of rum since the formation of the company after the dissolution of the previous enterprise, Intertrade Import in the 1970s, but is still mostly unknown outside Italy.
  • I’ve often wondered about the prevalence of 1974 and 1975 Guyanese rums, so many of which were Port Mourant, We don’t see 1970s PM rums that often to begin with (Velier has a 1972, 1973 and other years as well, but they’re an exception), yet for some reason these two years seems to be unusually well represented across the various companies’ lines, and I doubt that’s a coincidence.  Somehow, for some reason, a lot of barrels from Guyana went to Europe back then and yet for few other years from that decade. Hopefully one day we’ll find out why.

Sep 272020
 

It’s peculiar how little information there is on Smatt’s that isn’t all razzamatazz and overhyped positive posturing meant to move cases. Almost nobody has written anything of consequence about it, there’s no review of credibility out there, while the product website is a cringeworthy mass of spouting verbiage long on gushing praise and short on anything we might actually want to know. When you’re relegated to furtively checking out Rumratings and Difford’s to at least see what drinkers are saying, well, you know you’ve got an issue.  

Smatt is, according to those sources I’ve managed to check, a small-batch, boutique, Jamaican blended rum of pot and column still distillate, launched in the early 2010s. Which distillery? Unclear and unconfirmed, though it’s likely to be made by one of the companies under the NRJ banner, given the involvement of Derrick Dunn as the master blender (he started working at Innswood Distillery where he maintains an office, and is the master blender for Monymusk, the house rum of NRJ). The rum is filtered to white, released at 40% and is marketed in upscale establishments in the UK and various duty free emporia (and some online shops), which may be why it consistently maintains a low profile and is relatively unknown, as these are not places where rum geekery is in plentiful supply.

Normally, such a rum wouldn’t interest me much, but with the massive reputations the New Jamaicans have been building for themselves, it made me curious so I grudgingly parted with some coin to get a sample.  That was the right decision, because this thing turned out to be less an undiscovered steal than a low-rent Jamaican wannabe for those who don’t care about and can’t tell one Jamaican rum from another, know Appleton and stop there.  The rum takes great care not to go beyond such vanilla illusions, since originality is not its forte and it takes inoffensive pleasing-the-sipper as its highest goal. 

Consider the aromas coming off it: there’s a touch of sweet acid funkiness and herbs – sweet pickles, pineapple, strawberry bubblegum mixed in with some brine, white pepper and cereals. To some extent, you can sense bananas and oranges starting to go off, and it becomes more fruity after five minutes or so – within the limitations imposed by the filtration and that low strength – but not rich, not striking, not something you’d remember by the time you set the glass down.

The palate is, in a word, weak, and it raises the question of why it was filtered at all given that it was already quite delicate as a factor of the standard proof.  It tasted clean, very very light, and pleasantly warm, sure.  And there were pleasing, soft flavours of coconut shavings, candy, caramel, light molasses. And even some fruits, light and watery and white, like pears and ripe guavas and sugar water. Just not enough of them, or of anything else. It therefore comes as no surprise that the finish is short and sugary and sweet, a touch fruity, a little dry, and disappears in a flash

Once I drank the thing, checked my notes and assessed my opinions, I came to the conclusion that while the nose does say “Jamaican” — real quiet — it then gets completely addled and loses its way on the palate and finish and ends up as something rather anonymous. It’s not as if there was that much there to begin with at 40%, and to filter it into insensibility and flatness, to tamp down the exuberance of what an island rum can be, completely misses the point of the Jamaican rum landscape. 

Smatt’s modest self-praise of being one of the finest rums ever produced (“Considered by many as the world’s best tasting rum”) can be completely disregarded. I guess that letting it stand on its merits didn’t scream “excellence!” loud enough for the marketing folks, who clearly have at best a tangential acquaintance with rum (or truth, for that matter) but a real good sense of over-the-top adjectives. But what they’re doing by saying such things is purloining the trappings and cred of some serious, real Jamaican rum, stripping them down and selling for parts. Smatt’s is no advertisement for the island or its traditions, and while I completely accept I come at my snark from a long background of trying whites from all points of the compass (and have come to prefer strong, growly and original) that’s no excuse for Smatt’s to come out with a bland and boring rum that doesn’t even do us the favour of letting us know what it really is, while shamelessly bloviating about all the things it isn’t. Why, it’s positively Trumpian.

(#765)(78/100)


Other Notes

  • Honesty compels me to let you know that in 2015 Forbes named this as one of eight rums you should try. In 2020, the Caner is telling you it really isn’t.
  • I don’t care about the story of the pirate the rum was supposedly named after, and simply note it for completeness here.
  • Age is unknown.  I’d suggest it’s a few years old but that’s a guess based on taste and price.
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