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.
Sep 222020
 

Let’s start at the beginning.  Skotlander rum is not made in Scotland, but in Denmark, for the very good reason that the founder, Anders Skotlander, is a Dane with the name. Denmark has long been known (to me, at any rate) as home of some of the most rum-crazy people in Europe, and Anders decided to walk the walk by actually creating some of his own, in 2013. He purchased a Müller copper pot still, sourced sugar cane molasses and in 2014 released 1000 bottles of RUM I, a white, at 40%. It promptly won a gold medal at the Miami rum festival that year; and in 2015, where both RUM I and an infused RUM III were entered, the former won Best in Class White Rum, and the latter a gold for Premium White (alongside Plantation 3 and Nine Leaves Clear, which says something about the categorization of whites in those more loosely defined times). 

In the year since then, Anders Skotlander has pushed to stay not only relevant but original.  He has sourced molasses and cane juice from around South America, experimented with different barrels, has used unusual storage places (like a bunker, or a century old schooner) to chuck those barrels, and has expanded the range to include spiced and botanical rums, whites, aged rums, agricole rums and even high ester rums. He’s up to Skotlander 10 right now (a 59.5% blend) and the website provides an enormous amount of information for each. And the labels, informative as they are, are masterpieces of Scandinavian minimalism which make some Velier labels seem like over-decorated roccoco indulgences in comparison.

Rums made from scratch by some small new micro-distillery in a country other than the norm are often harbingers of future trends and can bring – alongside the founders’ enthusiasm – some interesting tastes to the table, even different spirits (<<cough>> ‘Murrica!!). But Skotlander, to their credit, didn’t mess around with ten different brandies, gins, vodkas, whiskies and what have you, and then pretended they were always into rum and we are now getting the ultimate pinnacle of their artsy voyage of discovery. Nah. These boys started with rum, bam! from eight o’clock, day one. 

Which, after this long preamble, brings us to the very interesting Skotlander RUM V Batch #1 (1400 sømil), a rum made from molasses sourced in Brazil which are fermented for thirty days (in Denmark), pot still distilled (also in Denmark), aged in four PX barrels onboard the schooner “Mira” for about a year during which it sailed 1400 nautical miles (get it?) and then 704 bottles were unleashed on an unsuspecting public in 2016 a muscular 61.6% ABV. 

At that proof point you can expect, and you get, serious intensity. The nose is really hot and spicy – clearly it spend the entire voyage happily  sharpening its fangs.  It is clean and snarly, presenting a profile nothing like a Cuban, Bajan, Mudland, or Jamaican rum.  It has fruits, yes, deep, dark orange and red-purple ones: black and red grapes, apples, unripe prunes and apricots, red grapefruits, though sorting them out is a near-impossibility. It also smells of smoke, dusty hay, a touch of vanilla and brown sugar, molasses, salted caramel – if I had to guess blind I’d say it resembles a pot-still, jacked-up St. Lucian or Saint James more than anything else.

After the near-hysterical clawing of the aromas, the palate calms down somewhat.  It remains sharp – at that strength, how could it not? – and drips with the winey, sherry-influenced flavours.  Red grapes, grapefruit again, tart apples.  There is also some caramel, candied oranges and truffles (!!), with crisp cider and citrus notes dominating…but not entirely successfully. Really, I wrote with some amused bewilderment, “…this is like a barely aged seriously overproofed agricole mixing it up with a Guyanese High Wine”.  It does have a lot going on — subsequent sips at the glass, with and without water, evidences stewed apples, fruit salad, watermelons, pineapples, strawberries, so a fair bit of esters in here. This is also evident on the close, which, while long and fragrant with candied oranges, salt caramel, smoke, vanilla and pineapples, lacks neat balance between the salt, sweeet, musky, crisp and tart elements.

I write a lot about “distinctiveness” and “uniqueness” in assessing both familiar and unfamiliar rum houses’ offerings. This has it – to an extent. You can sense an really cool and original product coming into focus, even as it takes care not to skate too far to the edges of what is known and understood. But it does kind of mash untidily together, and the complexity it could be showcasing more successfully gets lost, even muddled as it careens heedlessly from one profile to the next.  You could taste it several times and each time your interpretation would be slightly different, which in this case is both a recommendation and a cautionary heads-up. It’s a bold and interesting rum by my standards, however, and on that basis, even if I’m late to the party, I think I’ll keep my eye on the company, and go find me some more to try.

(#764)(82/100)


Other notes:

  • The Rum Renaissance gold medal awarded in 2014 was second prize (platinum is first), and was won for being “Best In Class” for white rum.  At the time white rums were not stratified between aged or unaged, filtered or not, pot or column, and there are no records how many other rums were judged in that category.  Still, for a rum not even in existence a year before, that’s not a bad showing given it was up against all other white rums, and not a subclass.
  • Skotlander V Batch #2 is slightly older, about two years, released around 2018, aged on the same schooner while it sailed for 2200 nautical miles.  The same emptied ex-sherry ex-Batch 1 barrels were reused. 
  • Here’s a chocolate-voiced promo video about Skotlander
  • Thanks to Gregers and Henrik, the Danes who twigged me on to this company and their rums.
Jul 302020
 

Although the unrealized flashes of interest and originality defining the Mexican Ron Caribe Silver still make it worth a buy, overall I remain at best only mildly impressed with it. Still, given the opportunity, it’s a no-brainer to try the next step up the chain, the 40% ABV standard-strength five year old Añejo Superior. After all, young aged rums tend to be introductions to the higher-end offerings of the company and be the workhorses of the establishment – solid mixing ingredients, occasionally interesting neat pours, and almost always a ladder to the premium segment (the El Dorado 5 and 8 year old rums are good examples of this).

Casa D’Aristi, about which not much can be found outside some marketing materials that can hardly be taken at face value, introduced three rums to the US market in 2017, all unlisted on its website: the silver, the 5YO and 8YO. The five year old is supposedly aged in ex bourbon barrels, and both DrunkenTiki and a helpful comment from Euros Jones-Evans on FB state that vanilla is used in its assembly (a fact unknown to me when I initially wrote my tasting notes).  

This makes it a spiced or flavoured rum, and it’s at pains to demonstrate that: the extras added to the rum make themselves felt right from the beginning.  The thin and vapid nose stinks of vanilla, so much so that the bit of mint, sugar water and light florals and fruits (the only things that can be picked out from underneath that nasal blanket), easily gets batted aside (and that’s saying something for a rum bottled at 40%). It’s a delicate, weak little sniff, without much going on. Except of course for vanilla.

This sense of the makers not trusting themselves to actually try for a decent five year old and just chucking something to jazz it up into their vats, continues when tasted. Unsurprisingly, it starts with a trumpet blast of vanilla bolted on to a thin, soft, unaggressive alcoholic water. You can, with some effort (though who would bother remains an unanswered question) detect nutmeg, watermelon, sugar water, lemon zest and a mint-chocolate, perhaps a dusting of cinnamon.  And of course, more vanilla, leading to a finish that’s more of the same, whose best feature is its completely predictable and happily-quick  exit.

It’s reasonably okay and a competent drink, but feels completely contrived and would be best, as Euros remarked in his note to me, for mixes and daquiris.  Yes, but if that’s the case, I wish they had said what they had done and what it was made for, right there on the bottle, so I wouldn’t waste my time with such an uninspiring and insipid fake drink.  What ended up happening was that I spent a whole long time while chatting with Robin Wynne (of Miss Things in Toronto) while puzzledly keeping the glass going and asking myself with every additional sip, where on earth did all the years of ageing disappear to, and why was the whole experience so much like a spiced rum? (Well yeah, I know now).

So, on balance, unhappy, unimpressed. The rum is in every way an inferior product even next to the white.  I dislike it for the same reason I didn’t care for El Dorado’s 33 YO 50th Anniversary – not for its inherent lack of quality (because one meets all kinds in this world and it can be grudgingly accepted), but for the laziness with which it is made and presented, and the subterranean potential you sense that is never allowed to emerge.  It’s a cop-out, and perhaps the most baffling thing about it was why they even bothered to age it for five years.  They need not have wasted any time with barrels or blending or waiting, but just filtered it to within an inch of its life, stuffed it with vanilla and gotten…well, this. And I’m still not convinced they didn’t.

(#748)(72/100)


Other Notes

Since there is almost nothing on the background of the company I didn’t already mention in the review of the Silver, I won’t rehash any of it here.

Jul 262020
 

If you believe the marketing blah (which I don’t) then here we have a nice little white rum made by a small craft company, located in the Yucatan peninsula town of Merida, in Mexico. The premises are built on the remains of an old sugar making hacienda and thirty employees labour diligently to hand prepare every bottle. They probably sing as they do so. I dab a single tear from my eye at such tradition-respecting, old-school rum making.  It warms the cockles of my pickled and cynical old heart, truly.

And, the rum is quite nice for what it is – 40%, charcoal filtered, a wannabe Bacardi Superior, perhaps. It smells just dandy too, starting off nice and dry, with brine and some red olives.  It opens up to aromas if sugar water, fleshy, very ripe white fruits, some citrus, and perhaps a date or two.  Mostly though, you get a sense of sweet, vanilla, citrus and light salt.

It may be traditionally inoffensive to smell, but it did have a surprise or two on the palate, which was to its credit. I was resigned to just another white mixer’s delight which was willing to stay on board with the program and not rock the boat, and then…papaya dusted with paprika and pimento?  Huh?  I laughed with surprise (doesn’t happen often, you can be sure), and gave points for originality on the spot. It was quite interesting to taste further, too – hot vegetable soup, dill, maggi cubes, a nice salt and sweet soya rush, with some background molasses, heavy vanilla and ice cream, leading to a surprisingly long finish for something at 40%. The salt beat a hasty retreat, leaving just the creamy sweet vanilla ice cream flavoured with a touch of herbs and dry, musty spices.  

So…not bad, which leaves the final opinion somewhat conflicted. The overall profile was interesting and I liked its too-quickly-gone flashes of masochism, and so that must be acknowledged.  Is it good enough to take on some of the more claw- and fang-equipped heavy hitters of the white rum world I’ve looked at before?  No, not at all. But it’s nice, it’s generally inoffensive and has a few interesting points to its assembly. So as a cheap white mixer, perfectly okay, so long as that’s all you’re after.

(#747)(78/100)


Opinion / Company background

At first sight it’s easy to assume that we know so little about Ron Caribe or the self-styled little artisanal company that makes it it, because of our resolute concentration on the West Indies, to say nothing of the lessening of interest in lighter rum styles. Easy as pie to have an average so-so product from a small outfit fall off our collective consciousness, and let’s face it, Mexico does not loom large in the pantheon of Rumistas Mundial Inc.

Except that the more I looked into this the less I actually knew. Consider. The website named on the bottle (roncasrbemx.com) has been let lapse. Okay – that happens. But the website of the home company, Casa D’Aristi (which has apparently been in operation since 1935 and which makes mostly liqueurs) makes no mention of rums at all, and yet there are supposedly three in the portfolio – this silver, and a 5YO and 8YO. The address on the website leads to an intersection of roads where no such business exists and the map point coordinate is a stretch of road with no Hacienda on it. A google search on the yellow brick building in the company website leads to a pair of travelocity reviews that make no mention of a distillery (just of a rum tasting), and the company site again. Dig deeper and we find out that Casa D’Aristi is a new “umbrella brand” that incorporates the brands of another company called Grupo Aamsa which seems to be a retailer and agent of some kind, in the business of making and distributing all sorts of spirits, including beer, wine, vodka and rum, and can only be traced to a store elsewhere in the city of Merida in Yucatan.  

Sorry, but at this point I lost all patience and interest. No commercial product should be this hard to track down and all it leaves me with is a sense of disillusionment – it’s so much like the 3rd party assembly of a Ron Carlos line that it hardly seems worth the bother.

So I’m just going to tell you what little else I know about the rum. I assume it’s column-still distillate trucked in from somewhere else (because of it was anything else that would have been trumpeted to high heaven as evidence of its “craft” and “small batch” street cred).  According to one website it’s aged — “rested” might be a better word — six months in neutral oak barrels (I must assume this means they are completely used up third- or fourth-fill ex-bourbon barrels with nothing more than a weak word to add), and then charcoal filtered to make it even more flavourless than before. And DrunkenTiki, which probably had the most detail of any website I looked at, suggested it was made with vanilla. 

It’s part of any review to tell you all this in case it impacts your decision-to-purchase and your judgement of the rum and so you need to know the nonsense that any casual search will turn up.  Personally I believe the ethos and philosophy – and professional pride – of any producer is usually demonstrated right there on the label and supplementary materials for the aficionado, and there’s little to be impressed with on that score with this outfit. You can drink the Ron Caribe and like it, of course – as I’ve noted above, it has some good points to it — but knowing anything about it, now that’s a non-starter, which to me makes it a non-buyer.

Jul 132020
 

The Old Monk series of rums, perhaps among the best known to the Western world of those hailing from India, excites a raft of passionate posts whenever it comes up for mention, ranging from enthusiastic fanboy positivity, to disdain spread equally between its lack of disclosure about provenance and make, and the rather unique taste. Neither really holds water, but it is emblematic of both the unstinting praise of adherents who “just like rum” without thinking further, and those who take no cognizance of cultures other than their own and the different tastes that attend to them.

That’s unfortunate — because we should pay attention to other countries’ rums.  As I remarked in a rambling interview in early July 2020, concentration on the “Caribbean 5” makes one ignore other parts of the world far too often, and make no mistake, rum really is a global spirit, often indigenously so, in a way whisky or gin or vodka are not.  One of the things I really enjoy about it is its immense variety, which the Old Monk, Dzama, Batavia Arrack, Bundaberg , Mhoba, Cor Cor, Juan Santos and Bacardi (to list just a few examples from around the world) showcase every bit as well as the latest drooled-over Hampden or Foursquare.

Which is not to say, I’m afraid, that this rum from India deserves unstinting and uncritical accolades as some sort of natural backcountry traditional spirit made in The Old Way for generations. To begin with, far too little is known about it.  Leaving aside the very interesting history of the Indian company Mohan Meakin, official blurbs talk about it being made in the “traditional manner” and then never say what that actually is. No production details are provided, either on the bottle or the company website –  but given its wild popularity in India and the diaspora, and its massive sales numbers even in a time of demise (2016 – ~4 million cases) it suggests something made on a large scale, with an ageing process in place. Is it truly a blend of various 12 year old rums, as some sources suggest? No way of knowing, but at the price point it sells for, it strikes me as unlikely. Beyond that and the strength (42.8% ABV), we have nothing.

That means we take the rum as it is almost without preconceptions, and indeed, the initial notes of the smell are promising: it’s thick and solid, redolent of boiled sweets, caramel bon bons, crushed walnuts, bitter cocoa, coffee grounds, ashes, molasses, brine, even some olives.  But it’s too much of the sweet, and it smells – I’m choosing this word carefully – cloying.  There is just too much thickness here, it’s a morass of bad bananas, sweet molasses and brown sugar rotting in the sun, and reminds me of nothing so much as jaggery, such as that which I recall with similar lack of fondness from the Amrut Two Indies.  But as a concession there was a bit of brine and clear cane juice, just insufficient to enthuse.

The sensation of thickness and dampening was much more pronounced on the palate, and I think this is where people’s opinions start to diverge.  There’s a heavy and furry softness of texture on the mouthfeel, tastes of molasses, coffee, cocoa, with too much brown sugar and wet jaggery; it reminds me of a hot toddy, and I don’t say that with enthusiasm.  It’s a cocktail ready-made and ready to drink, good for a cold day and even a citrus hint  (which rescues it from being a completely cloying mess) doesn’t do enough to rescue it from the bottom of the glass. And the finish, well, noting to be surprised at – it’s short, it’s sweet, it’s thick, and it’s thankfully over very quickly.

I can’t rid myself of the feeling something has been added here.  Sugar, caramel, spices, I don’t know. Wes at the FRP did the hydrometer test on it and it came up clean, yet you can’t taste this thing and tell me it’s as pure as Caesar’s Jamaican wife, not even close. In point of fact, though, what this rum reminds me of is its cousin the Amrut Two Indies, the Nepalese Kukhri (though not as sweet), a low-end Jamaican Rum (Myer’s, Appleton V/X maybe, or even a less interesting el Dorado 12 Year Old.  Because of the profile I describe, it can certainly be had by itself or mixed into a sugar-free cola very nicely and therein lies, I suspect, much of its appeal as a spirit in Asia.

In Asia maybe – but not in Europe. The bartender at the Immertreu Bar in Berlin showed some surprise when I selected it from his back shelf, and shook his head with evident disappointment. “For this, you don’t need a tasting glass” he sniffed, not even bothering to hide his disdain.  And after I had smelled, tasted and tried it, then looked askance at the glass, he shrugged…”I told you so.” He didn’t understand that had to try the rum whether or not I believed him, but to be honest, this was one of those occasions where I wish I had listened harder.  Back in the 1970s and 1980s Old Monk may have outsold all other brands in India, and ten years later could even price itself higher than Bacardi in Germany, and outsell it….but those glory days, I’m afraid, are gone. The world has moved on. Old Monk hasn’t, and that’s both its attraction and its downfall to those who try it for the first time, and go on to either love it or hate it. Few of these, however, will remain completely indifferent.

(#745)(79/100)


Other Notes

  • I am assuming a column still product derived from molasses or jaggery.  Online background suggests it is a blend of 12 year old rums, but the official website makes no such claim and neither does the label, so I’ll leave it as a blended aged rum without further elaboration. 
  • Whether it was distilled past 90% or taken off the still before that is equally unknown. The cynic in me suggests it might be flavoured ethanol, not just because of the taste, but also since the company never actually says anything about the production process and this invites both suspicion and censure in this day and age.
  • The bottle shape is not all glass – from the shoulders up it is plastic.
  • Who the figure of the monk represents is unclear. One possibly apocryphal story suggests there was a British monk who used to hang around the factory where Mohan Meakin’s rums were made and aged, shadowing the master blender – his advice was so good that when Old Monk was first launched the name and bottle were based on him. Another story goes it was the idea of one of the founders, Ved Mohan, who was inspired by the life of Benedictine monks. And a third variation is that it’s actually H.G. Meakin who took over the Dyer Brewery and distillery in 1887 and formed Dyer-Meakin.
  • Wikipedia, the Times of India, Business Today and Mid-Day.com (an Indian online paper) say the brand was launched in 1954, and some European marketing material says 1935.  I think 1954 is likely correct.
  • The XXX in the title refers to “Very-Extra-Good-Something” and is not meant to be salacious.
  • The bottle shape was unique enough for me to give it a mention in the disposable clickbait list of 12 Interesting Bottle Designs.
  • A detailed biography of Mohan Meakin is available here.
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