Nov 152018
 

Smaller Caribbean islands can be sleepy sorts of places where (partly in my imagination, partly in my boyhood experiences) old, lovingly-maintained Morris Oxfords and Humber Hawks sedately roll down leafy, sun-drenched boulevards reminiscent of the colonial era, and pass rumshops on every corner where men slap down dominos and drink paralyzingly powerful local white lightning with coconut water while discussing Sobers, Kanhai, Lloyd and Lara from the Windies’ long-past glory days with plenty “suck-teet” and “styupsin” and “cuss-up”.

All right so that’s a bit of poetic license, but in my youth, it really was like that up and down the coasts and the banks of the Demerara, and the only difference with any of the Caribbean islands might have been that the rums.  Guyana preferred the amusingly named Superior High Wine (three lies in one), in In Jamaica it would be J. Wray 63% white (what else could it be?), Grenada would have gone maybe for Rivers, or Clarke’s white – and in Curacao, it’s not a stretch to think of the rum of choice being the low-strength “Platinum White” from San Pablo. The cars, rumshops, and dominos (maybe even the cricket convo) would probably remain the same all over, though.

The San Pablo rums may indeed be the most popular brand in Curacao as they claim, but to a beady eyed rum junkie, or one raised on more feral white lightning, their Platinum White is mild cheese indeed, milder even than the Gold rum that is its closest sibling, and that one had all the aggro of a somnolent keebler elf.  It is also 40% ABV, and while their website says almost nothing about the production methodology, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that (a) it’s a column still distillate and (b) it’s been aged just a bit before being filtered through charcoal to remove any residual colour…which implies it may actually be the gold itself, minus the brown.

And that creates a rum of uncommon docility.  In fact, it’s close to being the cheshire cat of rums, so vaguely does it present itself.  The soft silky nose was a watery insignificant blend of faint nothingness. Sugar water – faint; cucumbers – faint; cane juice – faint; citrus zest – faint (in fact here I suspect the lemon was merely waved rather gravely over the barrels before being thrown away); some cumin, and it’s possible that some molasses zipped past my nose, too fast to be appreciated.

Taste?  Nope, no joy there either.  It’s warm with the faint prickliness of alcohol, and the flavours were again were tranquil, quiet and inoffensive – almost unnoticeable.  Sugar water, some cane juice, pears, a curl of lemon rind, cumin, and again that curious and meek sense of molasses which never quite came out and announced itself.  And the finish? Nothing there, largely because it was over so quickly that there was no time to sense much behind the diffident sugar water and cucumbers

If one has tried nothing but 40% rums one’s entire life, this may work out better, I suppose.  It doesn’t for me. My personal issue is that the column still light distillate, the standard strength and the filtration eviscerate the most vital and living portions of the rum. I am not demanding a pot still, unaged and unfiltered product (thought they could certainly do worse), just a slightly stronger rum with more character. The Platinum White is made to be, and should be, drunk in a mix of some kind – it may be unfair of me to judge it by more stringent standards such as that of asking that it stand by itself without adornment in a cocktail – but I’ve had better 40% column-still, filtered whites, and feel that for all its uniqueness at being from Curaçao (how many of us can say we’ve had a rum from there, right?), it missed an opportunity to make itself a one-of-a-kind little rumlet with its own profile and character.  A rum which would be gunned down by tourist and local and rumgeek with equal joy and appreciation, over dominos and heated convo in a quiet rumshop somewhere…and a reputation that would be as eagerly sought out as a Rivers, a High Wine or a J. Wray 63%.

(#568)(64/100)


Other Notes

Brief historical notes of the San Pablo can be found in the “Gold Label” rum review.

Nov 132018
 

Let’s move away from the full proofed rums released by indies and the major Caribbean companies, and switch over to something we don’t see very often, rums from the smaller islands —  these traditionally sell well to the tourist trade and within their local markets, but don’t make much of a splash elsewhere. Some are considered undiscovered steals, and the internet is rife with throwaway comments on personal blogs and travel sites about some rum nobody ever heard about being the best they ever had.

One of these is the golden 40% San Pablo rum out of the Dutch West Indies (also known as the Dutch Caribbean, Caribbean Netherlands or Netherlands Antilles – the name refers to the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, Saint Maarten, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba), which likes to call itself Curaçao’s favorite local tipple, a claim hardly likely to be disputed by any resident for patriotic reasons, or by any passing-through cruise-line tourist who might not know any better.

Rum (or Ron) San Pablo is an odd name for a Dutch island product: all becomes clear when you understand it’s actually a rum originally made in Cuba.  Like Bacardi, after being nationalized after the Cuban revolution, Justo Gonzalez brought his last aged stocks and the recipe to his importer on Curaçao and went into business with him to continue the brand (see a slightly more detailed history, below). The rum, then, is actually a transplanted Cuban product in the light Spanish style, and very likely column still produced (a factoid I had trouble confirming but it seems a reasonable assumption) – it continues to be made to this day — the exact distillery is something of a mystery — with distilled water, imported molasses from South America (no further info as to where precisely).  It first got introduced to the US in 2005, and has more or less dropped out of sight since then.

Sampling the rum says a lot for how far rum and consumers have come since those days. For its time it was undoubtedly the bees’ knees, and even as late as 2008 (around the time when it made a small ripple in the emerging blogosphere) people were complimenting its delicacy and smooth taste.  But nosing the pale yellow 40% rum ten years down the road demonstrates its similarities to a low-rent Bacardi rather than establishing any kind of personal individuality or pedigree. It is very delicate, very light, with soft aromas of molasses, cane sap, citrus, caramel and vanilla. It has a nice little woodsy note to it, sawdust maybe, and also a light line of tobacco which segues in and out without ever becoming dominant.

Because of its living room strength and light style of production, it is very difficult to come to grips with it on the palate, especially when compared to the falling sea-cans of oomph represented by full proof island rums — against those the San Pablo is almost like a wispy lace handkerchief versus a purse made from a crocodile’s back. The delicacy and faintness of the profile is at fault here: one can sense honey, cucumbers, citronella, sugar water, aromatic tobacco and cloves, but that’s me after serious concentration in a controlled environment with an hour to spend on the exercise, and who’s got time for that when ordering a rum in a bar somewhere? The finish is just more of the same – light, sweet, warm, soft, mostly vanilla and honey and some sweet breakfast spices, with just a hint of molasses and a sliver of lemon zest, and then it’s gone in a flash.

A rum like this should, I suppose, be taken for what it is – a delicate, quiet drink meant to be chucked into a minibar or a cocktail with equal facility.  I think it’s a rum initially made for Americans in a pre-”Real-Rum” era when all that the local producers in the Caribbean were hoping for was to copy Bacardi, or to  make their own hooch to dump into an exotic fruity free-for-all so it could have some kick.  On that level I suppose it succeeds.  On any other level, it’s a rum to take note of simply because few of us have tried it, and, at the end, I consider it a pretty undistinguished product that makes no waves outside its island of origin, and doesn’t seem to want to.

(#567)(66/100)


Other Notes

The company lore states that a local Curaçao importer, August Damian Jonckheer, began bringing in the San Pablo brand as far back as 1945: no search I was able to construct allowed me to trace the San Pablo brand before that, even though all websites I trolled through are clear that Señor Justo Gonzales was making this rum for many years before that.  Although Gonzalez — like many of the Cuban distilling families — played both ends against the middle in the 1950s by supporting both Batista (in order to keep operating) and Castro (just in case), once the Cuban Revolution was a done deal Castro nationalized all the distilleries – the Bacardi saga is probably the best known. The story goes that after Gonzales importuned Castro not to take over San Pablo, recounting his many donations to the cause, Fidel wrote him a cheque for that very amount on the spot and went ahead anyway. Gonzalez cut a fast deal with A.D.Jonckheer to buy the 150 barrels of rum he had ageing in Cuba (but that immediate payment should be withheld), fled the island with his recipe, and went into partnership with Handelmaatschappij (AD’s company), and formed the Aruba Distilling Company, with a bottling facility on Curaçao. In the 1970s Gonzales sold his share of the ADC to Jonckheer, a situation that continues to this day with A.D.’s descendants, and with the original recipe intact.

It is unknown which distillery currently makes the rum – it was suggested that an outfit on Bonaire does. Also unknown is where the molasses originates, and how long it has been aged.  I’ve sent a message to Curacao to see if I can get some answers, and will update this post with any additional information as or if it becomes available.

Nov 112018
 

So now we are the fourth and last ester-boosted rums issued in 2018 by Velier from the distillery of Long Pond in Jamaica, and in a strange way it sums up the preceding three rums in a way that emphasizes many of the best parts and tones down the excesses of all of them.  This is all the more curious a statement since it has the highest ester counts of the quartet, and one would expect the massive taste-bomb effluent of the TECA to be jacked up a few notches more…to “12”, maybe. And yet it doesn’t. It’s a really interesting rum.

By now the background of this series of rums is covered in the previous three reviews (see other notes below for the recap), so here we can just dive straight in, pausing only to note that this rum is of the category “Continental Flavoured,” has 1500 g/hlpa, the highest of the series, and that would make anyone who already tried the decomposing rhino of the TECA a little cautious.  No need. It has many of the same components as the TECA, but more tamed and less intense. Again, it started off with aromas of burlap, wet jute sacks, ammonia and acetones, but while present, they much more restrained than before. Furniture polish, rubber, plastic and whiff of that chewy hogo without going over the top. Oh and the fruits – nice and deep without being either too crisp or too sharp. Peaches in syrup, cherries, ripe apples, spoiling mangoes, caramel, toffee, vegetable soup, sweet soya. See what I mean? – it’s actually rather good if one can get past the meatiness of the background, and the funk and dunder are forceful enough to make a statement for themselves but don’t hog the whole show.

The palate was good as well. Strong and sharp, very fruity, with oranges, apples, soursop, unripe strawberries, green grapes and grapefruit offset with softer richer, riper tastes of pineapples and peaches.  Vanilla, some very sharp and bitter oaken notes (surpirsing for something so relatively young). You’re still sipping this in the same fragrant hair salon as the TECA — ammonia, nail polish remover, remember those? — but at least it’s not so crowded and the dead dog out back seems to have been removed.  Placticene. Also marshmallows, sour cream, and a rather more powerful set of deep musky floral notes than any of the other rums in the series (roses and lilies). Lastly, to finish things off, some licorice and bubble gum, light brine and furniture polish and fruits and funk. All in really good balance, long and fragrant, meaty and chewy without the meat, so to speak.

Because of its toned-down but still expressive nature, I’d have to say this high-ester funk bomb is an enjoyable drink and a Jamaican hogo-lover’s dream, without being quite as approachable to general audiences as the Vale Royal or the Cambridge, which I would suggest are better for those who want to dip their toes into the Jamaicans from Velier without taking a bath in the furious tastes that characterize either the TECA or the TECC.  Ivar de Laat from Toronto remarked on the TECA as being a reference rum for him, and he’s probably right about that one, but when it comes to really torqued up rums that want to show off the ripped abs of their massive ester levels, I’d suggest the TECC is probably a better one to appreciate.

(#566)(86/100)


Summing up / Opinion

When it comes down to it, my scores reveal something of my opinions on the four NRJ expressions from Long Pond. I liked the Vale Royal and Cambridge a lot; they were tasty and new and gave a nice background to other Jamaican profiles. The TECA will appeal to diehard core rum-junkies, specifically those who really know and love Jamaicans, can’t get enough of da funk and da hogo and want to see things cranked up to the max (you could argue these are the same kinds of people who go nuts over the high-peat-laden Octomores). The TECC on the other hand might actually be the best one to try if you want elements of all of these rums at once. It’s still a flavour bomb, quite meaty, just not at the level of its older brother.

The audience for the four rums will, I think, be divided into two similar groupings. The easy drinkers and Velier collectors will inevitably be drawn to the first two, the Vale Royal and the Cambridge.  Those who have been following Velier for years and sense what Luca has done may well prefer the latter two rums because they will be seen for what they are, examples of reference rums for Jamaica based on near highest ester counts available.  Neither side will be right, or wrong.

***

So, clearing away the dishes: as I noted in the first review, the Vale Royal, these four rums are useful to drink as a quartert, one after the other, because they do provide insight into how esters can (and do) impact the Jamaican profile (which is not to take away anything from either Hampden or Worthy Park, both of which indulge themselves in similar pursuits). That caution need be exercised is probably a superfluous point to make, not just because of the strength of the rums (62.5%), but because different components of the chemicals provide very different tastes and not all those would be to the liking of everyone.  Personally, I think the four NRJ expressions are among the most unique rums ever to come out of Jamaica, running the gamut from drinkable to formidable to certifiable. When Richard Seale remarked a few months ago that the DOK-level rums are not for drinking straight but are meant as flavouring agents, he knew exactly what he was talking about and I can only confirm that these are poster children for the concept.

Like the clairins issued back in 2014, these are meant (I believe) to prove a point, not to please the greatest number of rum drinkers (pointless given their limited outturn) or to show off a blender’s skill (the ECS series have dibs on that already and in any case these are pure pot still rums, not pot/column blends) – they’re a showcase of what Jamaican rums can be.  That doesn’t necessarily make them good for everyone (or the best), but man, are they ever original. I can truly and with some emphasis say that I’ve not tried their like before.

And truth to tell, we need original in this world of bland retreads, we need exciting rums, new rums, different rums, made by courageous people who are willing to go right out into the screaming edge of rum production.  Such people demonstrate – for good or ill – how varied rums can be, and deserve praise and encouragement, even if we shudder sometimes and draw back from some of their more excessive outturns.

I think what Luca was going for here was not a sipping rum at all – he said as much in an off hand comment in London not too long ago.  What he was aiming at was education and demonstration (of both hogo and Long Pond) as well as a sort of fiendish delight in issuing yet another set of rums we haven’t yet seen much of.  Has he succeeded? I think so. Leaders in any field must bridge the divide between their personal vision and their adherents’ experiences: bend too far towards the former and one risks losing the audience entirely, tilting too far the other way just makes for more of the same old blah.  I think these rums straddle the uneasy space between those two ideals in a way that is nothing short of impressive.


Background notes

(With the exception of the estate section, all remarks here are the same for the four reviews)

This series of essays on the four NRJ rums contains:

In brief, these are all rums from Long Pond distillery, and represent distillates with varying levels of esters (I have elected to go in the direction of lowest ester count → highest, in these reviews). Much of the background has been covered already by two people: the Cocktail Wonk himself with his Jamaican estate profiles and related writings, and the first guy through the gate on the four rums, Flo Redbeard of Barrel Aged Thoughts, who has written extensively on them all (in German) in October 2018. As a bonus, note that a bunch of guys sampled and briefly reviewed all four on Rumboom (again, in German) the same week as my own reviews came out, for those who want some comparisons.

The various Jamaican ester marks

These are definitions of ester counts, and while most rums issued in the last ten years make no mention of such statistics, it seems to be a coming thing based on its increasing visibility in marketing and labelling: right now most of this comes from Jamaica, but Reunion’s Savanna also has started mentioning it in its Grand Arôme line of rums.  For those who are coming into this subject cold, esters are the chemical compounds responsible for much of a given rum’s flowery and fruity flavours – they are measured in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol, a hectoliter being 100 liters; a light Cuban style rum can have as little as 20 g/hlpa while an ester gorilla like the DOK can go right up to the legal max of 1600 at which point it’s no longer much of a drinker’s rum, but a flavouring agent for lesser rums. (For good background reading, check out the Wonk’s work on Jamaican funk, here).

Back in the day, the British classified Jamaican rums into four major styles, and many estates took this a few steps further by subdividing the major categories even more:

Standard Classification

  •  Common Clean 50-150 gr/hlpa
  •  Plummer 150-200 gr/hlpa
  •  Wedderburn 200-300 gr/hlpa
  •  Continental Flavoured 700-1600 gr/hlpa

Exactly who came up with the naming nomenclature, or what those names mean, is something of a historian’s dilemma, and what they call the juice between 301 to 699 gr/hlpa is not noted, but if anyone knows more, drop me a line and I’ll add the info.  Note in particular that these counts reflect the esters after distillation but before ageing, so a chemical test might find a differing value if checked after many years’ rest in a barrel.

Long Pond itself sliced and diced and came up with their own ester subdivisions, and the inference seems to be that the initials probably refer to distilleries and estates acquired over the decades, if not centuries.  It would also appear that the ester counts on the four bottles do indeed reflect Long Pond’s system, not the standard notation (tables.

RV                        0-20
CQV                    20-50
LRM                    50-90
ITP /LSO            90-120
HJC / LIB         120-150
IRW / VRW    150-250
HHH / OCLP    250-400
LPS                  400-550
STC❤E             550-700
TECA            1200-1300
TECB            1300-1400
TECC            1500-1600

The Estate Name:

It’s unclear whether the TECC stands for Tilston Estate, one of the estates that got subsumed into Long Pond in the wave of consolidations in the 1940s and 1950s (this is the theory to which Luca subscribes), or for Trelawny Estates, the umbrella company created in the 1950s before being taken over by the Government and renamed National Rums of Jamaica.  This is where some additional research is needed – nobody has written (so far) on the meaning of the “CC”, though given the Long Pond marks listed above, it’s reasonable to suppose it’s Tilston/Trelawny Estate, Continental Type C (as opposed to “A” or “B” with progressively higher ester levels. The various histories of Long Pond written by Barrel Aged Thoughts, the Cocktail Wonk and DuRhum provide useful background reading, though they do not settle the mark designation issue conclusively one way or the other.

Note: National Rums of Jamaica is not an estate or a distillery in and of itself, but is an umbrella company owned by three organizations: the Jamaican Government, Maison Ferrand of France (who got their stake in 2017 when they bought WIRD in Barbados, the original holder of the share Ferrand now hold) and Guyana’s DDL.

Nov 072018
 

“Pungent f*cker, isn’t it?” smirked Gregers, responding to my own incredulous text to him, when I recovered my glottis from the floor where the TECA had deposited and then stomped it flat. Another comment I got was from P-O Côté after the Vale Royal review came out: “Can’t wait to read your thoughts about the TECA…!! … Hard to describe without sounding gross.” And Rumboom remarked on a taste of “sweat” and “organic waste” in their own rundown of the TECA, with another post elsewhere actually using the word “manure.”

I start with these varied comments to emphasize that I am not alone in believing that the TECA is a rum you hold in your trembling hands when surveying the reeking battlefield of the zombie apocalypse.  I’m a fairly fit old fart of some mental fortitude, I’ve tasted rums from up and down the quality ladder…but the TECA still left me shell-shocked and shaking, and somewhere I could hear Luca sniggering happily and doing a fist pump. Partly or completely, this was because of the huge ester level the rum displayed -1200 gr/hlpaa (remember, 1600 is the maximum legal limit after which we enter “easily-weaponizable” territory), which the makers, staying within the traditional ester band names, refer to as “Continental Flavoured” but which I just call shattering.

In sampling the initial nose of the third rum in the NRJ series, I am not kidding you when I say that I almost fell out of my chair in disbelief. The aroma was the single most rancid, hogo-laden ester bomb I’d ever experienced – I’ve tasted hundreds of rums in my time, but never anything remotely like this (except perhaps the Japanese Seven Seas rum, and I’d thought that one was a contaminated sample; now, I’m not so sure). All of the hinted-at off-the-wall aromas of the Cambridge were present here, except they were gleefully torqued up – a lot. It smelled like the aforementioned tannery gone amok or the hair salon dumping every chemical on the floor (at once) – it was a massive blurt of sulphur, methane, rubber and plastic dissolving in a bubbling pool of ammonia.  It smelled like hemp rope and decomposing wet jute bags, joined by something really rancid – rotting meat, microwaved fish, and three-day-old roadkill marinating on a hot day next to the asphalt machine. There was the scent of a strong soy-flavoured vegetable soup and spoiling chicken tikka, raw onions and sweat. The clear, fruity ester background was so intense it made the eyes water and the nose pucker, cold and clear and precise, giving rather less enjoyment than a furious bitch slap of sharp pineapples, gooseberries, ginnips, unripe mangoes, salmiak, green apples.  I know this sounds like a lot, but the rum’s nose went so far into uncharted territory that I really spent a long time on it, and this is what was there. And at the end, I really couldn’t say I enjoyed it – it was just too much, of everything. Hogo is what this kind of rotten meat flavour is called – or rancio or dunder or whatever — but for my money, it stands for “Ho God!!”

So that’s bad, right? Reading this, you’d think so.  But courage, Sir Knight, hoist up thy codpiece and taste it.  The very first expression in that section of my notes is a disbelieving “WTF?” … because it simply dumbfounded me – where did all the crazy-ass crap go?  It tasted of soda pop – coke, or fanta – persimmons and passion fruits and red currants, sharp and tasty. Salt, brine, bags of olives, plastic, rubber, vanilla, licorice all rubbed shoulders in a melange made pleasant just by comparing it to the trauma of what went before. The rancio and spoiling meat hogo retreated so fast it’s like they just vapourized themselves.  The flavours were powerful and intense, yes – at 62.5% ABV they could hardly be anything else – and you got much of the same fruitiness that lurked behind the funk of the smells, mangoes, tart gooseberries, red currants, unsweetened yoghurt and sour cream. But the real take away was that the nose and palate diverged so much. Aside from the sharp fruits and receding vegetable soup, there was also pistachio nuts, a sort of woodsy cologne, and even some over-sugared soda pop.  And when I hit the finish line, it exhaled with a long sigh redolent of more pistachios, vanilla, anise, soy, olives and a veritable orchard of rotting fruits and banana skins.

The Long Pond TECA rum from National Rums of Jamaica is a grinning ode to excess of every kind.  Given the profile I describe above (especially how it smelled) I think it took real courage for Luca to release it, and it once again demonstrates that he’s willing to forego initial sales to show us something we have not seen before, point us in a direction at odds with prevailing trends. It’s certainly unique – Luca remarked to me that it was probably the first time anyone had ever released such a high-ester well-aged Long Pond, and I agree. So far we’ve seen that the low-level-ester Vale Royal was a lovely, near-traditional Jamaican rum that edged gently away from more familiar island profiles, and the mid-level-ester Cambridge dared to step over the line and become something remarkably different, with strong tastes that almost redefined Jamaican and provided a taste profile that was breathtaking – if not entirely something I cared for.  But the TECA didn’t edge towards the line, it didn’t step over it – it was a rum that blasted way beyond and became something that knocked me straight into next week. This was and will remain one of the most original, pungently unbelievable, divisive rums I’ve tried in my entire writing career, because, quite frankly, I believe it’s a rum which few outside the deep-dive rum-junkies of the Jamaican style will ever like. And love? Well, who knows. It may yet grow on me. 

(#565)(79/100)


Background notes

(With the exception of the estate section, all remarks here are the same for the four reviews)

This series of essays on the four NRJ rums contains:

In brief, these are all rums from Long Pond distillery, and represent distillates with varying levels of esters (I have elected to go in the direction of lowest ester count → highest, in these reviews). Much of the background has been covered already by two people: the Cocktail Wonk himself with his Jamaican estate profiles and related writings, and the first guy through the gate on the four rums, Flo Redbeard of Barrel Aged Thoughts, who has written extensively on them all (in German) in October 2018. As a bonus, note that a bunch of guys sampled and briefly reviewed all four on Rumboom (again, in German) the same week as my own reviews came out, for those who want some comparisons.

The various Jamaican ester marks

These are definitions of ester counts, and while most rums issued in the last ten years make no mention of such statistics, it seems to be a coming thing based on its increasing visibility in marketing and labelling: right now most of this comes from Jamaica, but Reunion’s Savanna also has started mentioning it in its Grand Arôme line of rums.  For those who are coming into this subject cold, esters are the chemical compounds responsible for much of a given rum’s flowery and fruity flavours – they are measured in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol, a hectoliter being 100 liters; a light Cuban style rum can have as little as 20 g/hlpa while an ester gorilla like the DOK can go right up to the legal max of 1600 at which point it’s no longer much of a drinker’s rum, but a flavouring agent for lesser rums. (For good background reading, check out the Wonk’s work on Jamaican funk, here).

Back in the day, the British classified Jamaican rums into four major styles, and many estates took this a few steps further by subdividing the major categories even more:

Standard Classification

  •  Common Clean 50-150 gr/hlpa
  •  Plummer 150-200 gr/hlpa
  •  Wedderburn 200-300 gr/hlpa
  •  Continental Flavoured 700-1600 gr/hlpa

Exactly who came up with the naming nomenclature, or what those names mean, is something of a historian’s dilemma, and what they call the juice between 301 to 699 gr/hlpa is not noted, but if anyone knows more, drop me a line and I’ll add the info.  Note in particular that these counts reflect the esters after distillation but before ageing, so a chemical test might find a differing value if checked after many years’ rest in a barrel.

Long Pond itself sliced and diced and came up with their own ester subdivisions, and the inference seems to be that the initials probably refer to distilleries and estates acquired over the decades, if not centuries.  It would also appear that the ester counts on the four bottles do indeed reflect Long Pond’s system, not the standard notation (tables.

RV                        0-20
CQV                    20-50
LRM                    50-90
ITP /LSO            90-120
HJC / LIB         120-150
IRW / VRW    150-250
HHH / OCLP    250-400
LPS                  400-550
STC❤E             550-700
TECA            1200-1300
TECB            1300-1400
TECC            1500-1600

The Estate Name:

It’s unclear whether the TECA stands for Tilston Estate, one of the estates that got subsumed into Long Pond in the wave of consolidations in the 1940s and 1950s (this is the theory to which Luca subscribes), or for Trelawny Estates, the umbrella company created in the 1950s before being taken over by the Government and renamed National Rums of Jamaica.  This is where some additional research is needed – nobody has written (so far) on the meaning of the “CA”, though given the Long Pond marks listed above, it’s reasonable to suppose it’s Tilston/Trelawny Estate, Continental Type A (as opposed to “B” or “C” with progressively higher ester levels. The various histories of Long Pond written by Barrel Aged Thoughts, the Cocktail Wonk and DuRhum provide useful background reading, though they do not settle the mark designation issue conclusively one way or the other.

Note: National Rums of Jamaica is not an estate or a distillery in and of itself, but is an umbrella company owned by three organizations: the Jamaican Government, Maison Ferrand of France (who got their stake in 2017 when they bought WIRD in Barbados, the original holder of the share Ferrand now hold) and Guyana’s DDL.

Nov 052018
 

For those who are deep into rumlore, trying the quartet of the National Rums of Jamaica series issued by Velier in 2018 is an exercise I would recommend doing with all four at once, because each informs the other and each has an ester count that must be taken into consideration when figuring out what one wants out of them, and what one gets – and those are not always the same things.  If on the other hand you’re new to the field, prefer rums as quiescent as a feather pillow, something that could give the silkiness of a baby’s cheek a raging inferiority complex, and are merely buying the Cambridge 2005 13YO because it is made by Velier and you wanted to jump on the train and see what the fuss is about (or because of a misguided FOMO), my suggestion is to stay on the platform and look into the carriage carefully before buying a ticket.

This might sound like paradoxical advice coming from an avowed rum geek, but just follow me through the tasting of this 62.5% bronto, which sported a charmingly erect codpiece of 550 grams of esters (out of a max of 700 grams per hectoliter of alcohol (hlpa) — this moves it way out from the “Common Clean,” “Plummer” and “Wedderburn” categories, and somewhere in between the “Wedderburn” and “Continental Flavoured” (see other notes below), although it is formally listed as being a CF.  For comparison, the most furiously esterified rum ever made, the DOK (which is not supposed to be a drinking rum, by the way, but a flavouring ingredient for lesser rums and the Caputo 1973) runs at just about the legal limit of 1600 /hlpa, and most rums with a count worth mentioning pretty much stick in the few hundreds range.

There’s a reason for that. What these esters do is provide a varied and intense and enormously boosted flavour profile, not all of which can be considered palatable at all times, though the fruitiness and light flowers are common to all of them and account for much of the popularity of such rums which masochistically reach for higher numbers, perhaps just to say “I got more than you, buddy”. Maybe, but some caution should be exercised too, because high levels of esters do not in and of themselves make for really good rums every single time.  Still, with Luca having his nose in the series, one can’t help but hope for something amazingly new and perhaps even spectacular. I sure wanted that myself.

And got it, right from the initial nosing of this kinetic rum, which seemed to be straining at the leash the entire time I tried it, ready to blast me in the face with one of the most unique profiles I’ve ever tried.  Christ!…It started off with tons of dry jute sacks, dusty cardboard and hay – and then went off on a tangent so extreme that I swear it could make a triangle feel it had more than a hundred and eighty degrees. It opened a huge can of sensory whup-ass with the full undiluted rumstink of an unventilated tannery going full tilt (yes, I’ve been in one), the sort of stark pungency one finds in a hairdressing salon using way too much nail polish remover, and a serious excess of ammonia and hair relaxant…all at the same time. I mean, wow! It’s got originality, I’ll give it that (and the points to go with it) but here is one place where the funk is really a bit much.  And yet, and yet….alongside these amazingly powerful fragrances came crisp, clearly-defined fruits,mostly of the sharper variety – pineapple, gooseberries, five-finger, soursop, unripe mangoes, green grapes, red currants, olives, brine, pimentos…I could go on.

What makes the rum so astounding – and it is, you know, for all its off-the-wall wild madness – is the way it keeps developing.  In many rums what you get to smell is pretty much, with some minor variation, what you get to taste. Not here. Not even close. Oh the palate is forceful, it’s sharp, it’s as chiselled as a bodybuilder’s abs, and initially it began like the nose did, with glue, ammonia and sweet-clear acetone-perfume bolted on to a hot and full bodied rum.  But over time it became softer, slightly creamy, a bit yeasty, minty, and also oddly light, even sweet. Then came the parade of vanilla, peaches, ginger, cardamom, olives, brine, pimentos, salty caramel ice cream, freshly baked sourdough bread and a very sharp cheddar, and still it wasn’t done – it closed off in a long, dry finish laden with attar of roses, a cornucopia of sharp and unripe fleshy fruits (apricots, peaches, apples), rotting bananas, acetones, nail polish and lots and lots of flowers.

I honestly don’t know what to make of a rum this different.  It provides everything I’ve ever wanted as an answer to tame rum makers who regularly regurgitate unadventurous rums that differ only in minute ways from previous iterations and famed older blends.  This one in contrast is startlingly original, seemingly cut from new cloth — it’s massive, it’s feral, it makes no apologies for what it is and sports a simply ginormous range of flavours. It cannot be ignored just because it’s teetering on the wrong side of batsh*t crazy (which I contend it does).  Luca Gargano, if you strain your credulity to the limit, can conceivably make a boring rum…but he’s too skilled to make a bad one, and I think what he was gunning for here was a brown bomber that showcased the island, the distillery, the marque and the ester-laden profile.  He certainly succeeded at all of these things…though whether the rum is an unqualified success for the lay-drinker is a much harder question to answer.

You see, there’s a reason such high ester superrums don’t get made very often.  They simply overload the tasting circuits, and sometimes such a plethora of intense good things is simply too much.  I’m not saying that’s the case here because the balance and overall profile is quite good – just that the rum, for all its brilliantly choreographed taste gyrations, is not entirely to my taste, the ammonia-laden nose is overboard, and I think it’s likely to be a polarizing product – good for Jamaica-lovers, great for the geeks, not so much for Joe Harilall down the road. I asked for new and spectacular and I got both.  But a wonderful, amazing, must-have rum? The next Skeldon or 1970s PM, or 1980s Caroni? Not entirely.

(#564)(84/100)


Background notes

(With the exception of the estate section, all remarks here are the same for the four reviews)

This series of essays on the four NRJ rums contains:

In brief, these are all rums from Long Pond distillery, and represent distillates with varying levels of esters (I have elected to go in the direction of lowest ester count → highest, in these reviews). Much of the background has been covered already by two people: the Cocktail Wonk himself with his Jamaican estate profiles and related writings, and the first guy through the gate on the four rums, Flo Redbeard of Barrel Aged Thoughts, who has written extensively on them all (in German) in October 2018. As a bonus, note that a bunch of guys sampled and briefly reviewed all four on Rumboom (again, in German) the same week as my own reviews came out, for those who want some comparisons.

The various Jamaican ester marks

These are definitions of ester counts, and while most rums issued in the last ten years make no mention of such statistics, it seems to be a coming thing based on its increasing visibility in marketing and labelling: right now most of this comes from Jamaica, but Reunion’s Savanna also has started mentioning it in its Grand Arôme line of rums.  For those who are coming into this subject cold, esters are the chemical compounds responsible for much of a given rum’s flowery and fruity flavours – they are measured in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol, a hectoliter being 100 liters; a light Cuban style rum can have as little as 20 g/hlpa while an ester gorilla like the DOK can go right up to the legal max of 1600 at which point it’s no longer much of a drinker’s rum, but a flavouring agent for lesser rums. (For good background reading, check out the Wonk’s work on Jamaican funk, here).

Back in the day, the British classified Jamaican rums into four major styles, and many estates took this a few steps further by subdividing the major categories even more:

Standard Classification

  •  Common Clean 50-150 gr/hlpa
  •  Plummer 150-200 gr/hlpa
  •  Wedderburn 200-300 gr/hlpa
  •  Continental Flavoured 700-1600 gr/hlpa

Exactly who came up with the naming nomenclature, or what those names mean, is something of a historian’s dilemma, and what they call the juice between 301 to 699 gr/hlpa is not noted, but if anyone knows more, drop me a line and I’ll add the info.  Note in particular that these counts reflect the esters after distillation but before ageing, so a chemical test might find a differing value if checked after many years’ rest in a barrel.

Long Pond itself sliced and diced and came up with their own ester subdivisions, and the inference seems to be that the initials probably refer to distilleries and estates acquired over the decades, if not centuries.  It would also appear that the ester counts on the four bottles do indeed reflect Long Pond’s system, not the standard notation (tables.

RV                        0-20
CQV                    20-50
LRM                    50-90
ITP /LSO            90-120
HJC / LIB         120-150
IRW / VRW    150-250
HHH / OCLP    250-400
LPS                  400-550
STC❤E             550-700
TECA            1200-1300
TECB            1300-1400
TECC            1500-1600

The Estate Name:

Like the Vale Royal estate and Long Pond itself, Cambridge was also located in Trelawny Parish and has a history covered in greater depth by BAT, here, so I’ll just provide the highlights in the interests of keeping things manageable. Founded in the late 18th century by a family named Barrett (there’s a record of still being in the hand of an Edward Barrett a generation later), it closed its doors just after the Second World War in 1947 by which time another family (or the name-changed original one) called Thompson owned the place. It’s unclear whether the mark STCE (Simon Thompson Cambridge Estate according to the estimable Luca Gargano) was maintained and used because physical stills had been brought over to Long Pond at that time, or whether the Cambridge style was being copied with existing stills.

Whatever the case back then, these days the stills are definitely at Long Pond and the Cambridge came off the a John Dore double retort pot still in 2005.  The label reflects a level of 550 g/hlpa esters which is being stated as a Continental Flavoured style, but as I’ve remarked before, the level falls in the gap between Wedderburn and CF.  I imagine they went with their own system here.

Note: National Rums of Jamaica is not an estate or a distillery in and of itself, but is an umbrella company owned by three organizations: the Jamaican Government, Maison Ferrand of France (who got their stake in 2017 when they bought WIRD in Barbados, the original holder of the share Ferrand now hold) and Guyana’s DDL.

Nov 042018
 

This whole week I’ll be looking at the quartet of stern, forbidding black and white bottles of the National Rums of Jamaica, which have excited a slowly rising conversation on social media as pictures get posted and more and more people try them.  Certainly, they’ve got all the Jamaican rum punditry in transports already (plus they are issued by Velier, which is clear from the minimalist label and box design). All four will be written about in a sequence, because there’s simply no way to speak to them individually at long intervals without missing the point, which is that they’re part of an integrated set, and to understand one means to try and understand all – each informs the other. Because there’s a fair bit of background involved in these rums, below each post will have a longer-than usual “Background notes” section detailing notes common to all, and defining some terms, below the review.

The Vale Royal is probably the most traditional rum of the NRJ series, and for the reasonably wide-tasting rum drinker, the best one to start with, as will become clear when we move through the four-rum series.  It also has the lowest ester-count among the set, which might give you an inkling of how they all progress (you’d think that….but no). Bottled at 62.5%, as they all are, it derives from a double retort pot still, is 12 years old, tropically aged (of course) and is made in the Wedderburn style, with an ester count of 150 grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol (g/hlpa) — out of a max of 250 for this classification — which is not the standard accepted one for Jamaicans as a whole, but Longpond’s own.  That makes it a very approachable rum, very tasty, yet paradoxically not entirely a rum I could immediately assign to Jamaica, the way one could, for example, a Worthy Park, an Appleton, or a Hampden — though admittedly we have more experience with those and therefore know them somewhat better (this is a personal opinion, though).

Consider first the nose.  Frankly, I thought it was lovely – not just because it was different (it certainly was), but because it combined the familiar and the strange in intriguing new ways. It started off dusty, musky, loamy, earthy…the sort of damp potting soil in which my wife exercises her green thumb.  There was also a bit of vaguely herbal funk going on in the background, dry, like a hemp rope, or an old jute sack that once held rice paddy. But all this was background because on top of all that was the fruitiness, the flowery notes which gave the rum its character – cherries, peaches, pineapples, mixed with salt caramel, vanilla, almonds, hazelnuts and flambeed bananas. I mean, that was a really nice series of aromas.

On the palate the strength showed its fangs and let’s face it, at 62.5% it’s got monster power hidden under the hood, and a little patience was required.  It was sharp, sweet, flowery and estery to a fault, and somehow that dry earthy note disappeared almost entirely, probably edged out by the sheer force of all the other flavours that took over – this is perhaps one of those rums where a little water is really required.  I didn’t get much without the addition, but with a few drops there was a cloudburst of flowery flavours and sharp fruits: pears, apples, cider, green grapes, raisins, unripe mangoes, tart yoghurt and sour cream, nuts, vanilla, anise and even some yeasty bread just to shake things up.  And the finish, well, that was excellent – long, flavourful, fruity, sweetly flower-like, and took forever to die down, coughing up a last note of bitter chocolate, crushed hazelnuts, vanilla and sharp unripe fruits just to show that even on the back end it meant business and had a bit ore to smack you down with..

For my money, this is a pretty great rum. It is well aged, well balanced, and has the funky note and that fruity estery profile – neither to excess – that drives lovers of Worthy Park and Hampden into orgasmic throes of onanistic ecstasy.  It also has originality and character in that it isn’t afraid to add a few extra things into the mix that might seem startling at first – these are new and original and yet not overdone. In fine, it has almost everything I want from a rum that purports to break the mould and show us something different – old tastes combined with new and intriguing flavours that somehow don’t call that much attention to themselves, all put together into something peculiarly its own.  What it presented was an interesting melange of both Jamaican and something else, with a sly wink and an arrow pointing at the other, more ester-boosted rums in the series…for both good and ill. And that will become clearer as we progress through the line.

(#563)(87/100)


Background notes

(With the exception of the estate section, all remarks here are the same for the four reviews)

This series of essays on the four NRJ rums contains:

In brief, these are all rums from Long Pond distillery, and represent distillates with varying levels of esters (I have elected to go in the direction of lowest ester count → highest, in these reviews). Much of the background has been covered already by two people: the Cocktail Wonk himself with his Jamaican estate profiles and related writings, and the first guy through the gate on the four rums, Flo Redbeard of Barrel Aged Thoughts, who has written extensively on them all (in German) in October 2018. As a bonus, note that a bunch of guys sampled and briefly reviewed all four on Rumboom (again, in German) the same week as my own reviews came out, for those who want some comparisons.

The various Jamaican ester marks

These are definitions of ester counts, and while most rums issued in the last ten years make no mention of such statistics, it seems to be a coming thing based on its increasing visibility in marketing and labelling: right now most of this comes from Jamaica, but Reunion’s Savanna also has started mentioning it in its Grand Arôme line of rums.  For those who are coming into this subject cold, esters are the chemical compounds responsible for much of a given rum’s flowery and fruity flavours – they are measured in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol, a hectoliter being 100 liters; a light Cuban style rum can have as little as 20 g/hlpa while an ester gorilla like the DOK can go right up to the legal max of 1600 at which point it’s no longer much of a drinker’s rum, but a flavouring agent for lesser rums. (For good background reading, check out the Wonk’s work on Jamaican funk, here).

Back in the day, the British classified Jamaican rums into four major styles, and many estates took this a few steps further by subdividing the major categories even more:

Standard Classification

  •  Common Clean 50-150 gr/hlpa
  •  Plummer 150-200 gr/hlpa
  •  Wedderburn 200-300 gr/hlpa
  •  Continental Flavoured 700-1600 gr/hlpa

Exactly who came up with the naming nomenclature, or what those names mean, is something of a historian’s dilemma, and what they call the juice between 301 to 699 gr/hlpa is not noted, but if anyone knows more, drop me a line and I’ll add the info.  Note in particular that these counts reflect the esters after distillation but before ageing, so a chemical test might find a differing value if checked after many years’ rest in a barrel

Long Pond itself sliced and diced and came up with their own ester subdivisions, and the inference seems to be that the initials probably refer to distilleries and estates acquired over the decades, if not centuries.  It would also appear that the ester counts on the four bottles do indeed reflect Long Pond’s system, not the standard notation (tables.

RV                        0-20
CQV                    20-50
LRM                    50-90
ITP /LSO            90-120
HJC / LIB         120-150
IRW / VRW    150-250
HHH / OCLP    250-400
LPS                  400-550
STCE             550-700
TECA            1200-1300
TECB            1300-1400
TECC            1500-1600

The Estate Name:

Vale Royal was a distillery located in Trelawny Parish, just like Longpond, and has a history covered in great depth by BAT, here. The long and the short of it is that it was founded in 1776 under the name of “Walky Walk” (poetic,yes?) before being retitled Vale Royal in the early 1800s. The estate managed to survive after the abolition of slavery, but a combination of falling sugar prices and a movement of consolidation led to the sale of the estate to Longpond in 1959, with the marque of VRW remaining as a memento of its glory days when it stood for “Vale Royal Wedderburn” – though as noted above, this edition, produced at Longpond’s facilities, should rightly be called a Plummer under Standard Notation, since it has 150 g/hlpa, not the required 200-300, but evidently decided to go with its own system.

Note: National Rums of Jamaica is not an estate or a distillery in and of itself, but is an umbrella company owned by three organizations: the Jamaican Government, Maison Ferrand of France (who got their stake in 2017 when they bought WIRD in Barbados, the original holder of the share Ferrand now hold) and Guyana’s DDL.

Oct 302018
 

My friend Henrik from Denmark told me once that he really dislikes the rums of WIRD. “There’s just something off about them,” he grumbled when we were discussing the output from Little England, the development of the Foursquare Exceptionals, and the Velier collaborations.  On the other hand, another rum-kumpel from Germany, Marco Freyr, has no problems with them at all, and remarked that he could absolutely pinpoint any Rockley Still rum just by sniffing the glass (I have since come the the conclusion that he’s absolutely right).  Coming to this Bristol Spirits rum after a long session of Bajan bruisers made by the Compagnie, Cadenhead and Foursquare themselves, I can sort of see both points of view, but come down more on the positive side, because I like the variety of tones and tastes which indie WIRD rums provide.  And this one? I liked it quite a bit.

We hear so much about the rums of Mount Gay, St. Nicholas Abbey and Foursquare, that rums made by/from WIRD often get short shrift and scant mention.  It’s not even seen as a true distillery of the sort that makes its own name and marks its own territory (like Foursquare, Hampden, Worthy Park or DDL do, for example). But WIRD does exist, even if the majority of its rums come to us by way of the European independents (most of its output is sold as either bulk stock to brokers, goes into the Cockspur brand, or to make the coconut-rum-liqueur Malibu which for some obscure reason, Grandma Caner simply can’t get enough of).  

The brief technical blah is as follows: bottled by Bristol Spirits out of the UK from distillate left to age in Scotland for 26 years; a pot still product (I refer you to Nikos Arvanitis’s excellent little essay on the Rockley still if you want to do more research), distilled in 1986 and bottled in 2012, finished in sherry casks for an indeterminate period. The strength remains at the Bristol Spirits standard 46% ABV, which makes it very approachable to the mainstream who want to explore further into how rums from Barbados can differ from each other. 

And differ it does. No smooth, well-constructed melange of pot and column still product here, redolent of spices and soft fruits.  Oh no. For openers, this rum’s nose was meaty: like licking a salty maggi cube dropped into a pot of chicken stock liberally dosed with sweet soy sauce.  All of this develops over time (fortunately, because I had soup for lunch and didn’t want any in my glass as well) into waxy pungency leavened with a sort of sweet rich fruitiness (cherries, ripe peaches, apples) which then further combined with a forceful sherry/madeira finish that at times verged on being overdone….even medicinal.  The nose was so at odds with everything I had alongside it, that one could be forgiven for thinking this was not a Bajan rum at all…it nosed that different.

Still, it was much better to taste than to smell.  It was warm and reasonably smooth, though with a bite here or there to remind you it wasn’t fully tamed; its tastes were of caramel, dollops of thick dark honey on fresh toasted dark bread, camomile, thyme and cough drops. Iodine and medicinals are thankfully held way back (a pencilled-in line, not a brightly coloured oil by Frazetta, you might say).  Also burnt sugar, stewed apples and some ripe cherries and the tart tastiness of soursop, ginnip and sour cream rounded things off, before lapsing into a relatively short, fruity, and honey-like finish that breathed easy fumes and then hurriedly exited the scene.

Overall, it was a rich rum, full bodied, a little oaky, quite fruity after opening up, and that sherry influence — perceptible but in no way overwhelming — was enjoyable.  In fact, the overall integration and balance of this thing is really quite good, and it provides a pleasing counterpoint to more popular and better known rums from the island, which by itself makes it worth a try.  One does not have to be a deep-dive Bajan rum aficionado, parsing the minutest details of different vintages, to appreciate it for what it is, a well made Bajan rum that dares to go off on a tangent.

There’s a reason I want WIRD rums to continue to make it to the public glassware, even if it’s just second hand, via the independents (now that Maison Ferrand has taken over, it’s only older rums from European brokers they’ll get, I’m thinking).  They’re different, very different, existing in some kind of joyous parallel universe where mothballs, fruits and cloves mix it up in a dusty spice cupboard and the result is peculiarly drinkable. They are, in their own way and possibly because of their relative obscurity, fascinatingly off-base. I haven’t met many so far, but those I’ve tried I’ve liked, and sure hope more will turn up in my glass in the years to come.

(#562)(86/100)


Other notes

Oct 282018
 

Rumaniacs Review #85 | 0561

There are three operations making rum in Grenada – Westerhall, Rivers Antoine and Clarke’s Court, the last of which was formed in 1937, operating under the umbrella of the Grenada Sugar Factory (the largest on the island) and named after an estate of the same name in the southern parish of St. George’s.  This title in turn derived from two separate sources: Gedney Clarke, who bought the Woodlands estate from the French in the late 1700s, and a bay called “Court Bay” included with the property (this in turn was originally titled “Watering Bay” because of the fresh water springs, but how it came to change to Court is not recorded). The company sold rums with names like Tradewinds and Red Neck before the Clarke’s Court moniker became the standard and I’m still trying to find out when that happened.

References to Kalypso, a 67.5% white overproof, exist until the late 1990s when it was marketed concurrently with the 69% Pure White Rum, but I can find no trace subsequent to that, and the company website makes no mention of it in the current lineup of their rums.  So I am assuming (subject to further info becoming available) that the two were similar enough in profile and strength for the production of the Kalypso to be discontinued in favour of the better known and maybe better-selling Pure. The rum is unaged and column still produced (the current distillery was constructed in the 1970s and utilizes a John Dore two-column, continuous-distillation still).

Colour – White

Strength 67.5%

Nose – Sharp and very aggressive, not surprising for that strength.  Also quite aromatic – esters, and nail polish, strawberries, pears and sour cream, to begin with.  It smells rather lighter than it is, and sweeter than it tastes, which is nice.  Leaving it to open up results in additional smells of sugar water, nutmeg and the slight bite of ginger.

Palate – Whew.  Pungent is the word to use here.  Some plastic and furniture polish, a little brine.  Most of all the light clear sweetness from the nose comes through and remains firmly in place – pears, watermelon, white guavas, papayas, with the spiced notes of nutmeg and ginger also remaining in the profile.

Finish – Hot and long lasting of course, no surprises there. Mostly light fruit and some aromatic flowers.

Thoughts – The Kalypso lacks the fierce individualism of pot still whites and really doesn’t class with the same company’s Pure White Rum which is an order of magnitude more pungent.  But it’s not bad, and taken with coconut water, bitters, cola or whatever else, it’ll juice up a mix with no problems at all, which is hardly surprising since that’s precisely what it was made for. Too bad it’s no longer available.

(80/100)

 

Oct 252018
 

No, that’s not another typo in the title, it’s just the way the bottle spelled “rum” so I followed along even if it is an agricole-style product and by convention it might have been better termed “rhum” (though the words mean the same thing – it’s purely a matter of perception).  Since looking at the Engenho Novo aged rum last time, I thought it would be fitting to stick with the island of Madeira and see what one of their whites would be like, especially since I had been so impressed with the RN Jamaican Pot Still 57% some years ago….would this one live up to to the rep the Caribbean one garnered for itself?

There’s an outstanding email to Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation about the Ilha da Madeira white, because, curiously, there isn’t much to go on as regards the background aside from the obvious: we know it is 50% ABV and made from cane juice in a column column still in Engenho’s facilities (same as the which also produce the “Nova”, which is to say, the reconstituted William Hinton). It’s unclear whether it’s unaged and unfiltered, or lightly aged and then filtered to clarity…and if the latter case is what happened, then what kind of casks. We’re not sure what the “Limited edition” on the label actually means. And, as always with RN, there’s also the question of any additions. We can however infer that based on the chubby, stubby bottle and label style, that the rum is part of their standard lineup and not the higher-proofed, higher-quality, higher-priced Rares (as an aside, I hope they never lose the old postage stamps incorporated into the design), and possibly from the word “crystal” used in their website materials, that it has been filtered. But I’ll amend the post once I hear back from them.

Anyway, here’s what it was like. The nose of the Ilha da Madeira fell somewhere in the middle of the line separating a bored “meh” from a more disbelieving “holy-crap!”.  It was a light melange of a playful sprite-like aroma mixed in with more serious brine and olives, a little sweet, and delicate – flowers, sugar water, grass, pears, guavas, mint, some marzipan. You could sense something darker underneath – cigarette tar, acetones – but these never came forward, and were content to be hinted at, not driven home with a sledge. Not really a brother to that fierce Jamaican brawler, more like a cousin, a closer relative to the Mauritius St. Aubin blanc (for example). What it lacked in pungency it made up for in both subtlety and harmony, even at 50%.

It was also surprisingly sippable for what it was, very approachable, and here again I’ll comment on what a good strength 48-52% ABV is for such white rums.  It presented as sweet and light, perfumed with flowers, pears, green grapes and apple juice, then adding some sour cream, brine, olives and citrus for edge. There were some reticent background notes as well, cinnamon mostly, and an almost delicate vein of citrus and ginger and anise. It tasted both warm and clean and was well balanced, and the finish delivered nicely, redolent of thyme, sweet vinegar dressing on a fresh salad, and green grapes with just a touch of salt.

Average to low end white mixers – still occasionally called silvers or platinums, as if this made any difference – are defined by their soft, unaggressive blandness: their purpose is to add alcohol and sink out of sight so the cocktail ingredients take over. In contrast, a really good white rum, which can be used either for a mixed drink or to have by itself if one is feeling a little macho that day,  always has one or more points of distinction that sets it apart, whether it’s massive strength, savagery, rawness, pungency, smooth integration of amazing tastes, funk, clarity of flavour or whatever.

Honestly, I expected more of the latter, going in: something fiercer and more elemental…but I can’t say what was on display here was disappointing. In October 2018, when I asked him what rums he had that was of interest, Fabio actually tried to steer me away from this one (“It’s good, but not so interesting,” he laughed as he pulled down a Rare Caroni).  But I disagreed, and think that what it really comes down to is that it’s a solid addition to the white portion of the rum spectrum and certainly a step above “standard”. It’s tasty and warm, and manages the cute trick of being dialled down to something really approachable, while still not forgetting its more uncouth antecedents. And if it is not of the pungent power that can defoliate a small patch of jungle, well, it may at least blanch a leaf or two, and is worth taking a second look at, if it crosses your path.

(#560)(83/100)


Other Notes

From the 2017 release season

Oct 222018
 

The mark of the successful long-term independent bottler in the public perception rests upon two main pillars – one is of course the quality of the rums they put out the door (and perhaps, how consistently); and the other is the level of originality they bring to the game.  By that I mean how often do they stray from the mainstream of the standard pantheon and go in new directions, seek out different maturations, different ages, different barrels, different distilleries (or whole countries). It is because Velier nails both of these aspects that they are as successful as they are, though I would certainly not discount Samaroli, Compagnie des Indes or Rum Nation (among others).

Rum Nation, also from Italy, has been somewhat out of the public eye of late, but the point about originality does apply to them – think back on the Jamaican White 57% rum, for example, or the Supreme Lord series, or the 20+ year old Demeraras, or their Peruvian and Guatemalan rums, the latter of which most other indies don’t often go near. In the last few years Fabio Rossi, the founder of the brand, went in yet another direction by issuing a new limited-edition series called the “Small Batch Rare Rums” … and one of them was this intriguing little number from Madeira, from a distillery called Engenho Novo – they are the boys behind the William Hinton brand of rums which have recently become more available in Europe over the last few years.

I’ll provide some more background detail in the Other Notes below, but for the moment let’s just read off the fact sheet for the rum which is very helpfully provided on the Rare Rums website and on the bottle label itself. This is a cane juice distillate and can therefore be classed as an agricole-style rhum; distilled 2009 and the four barrel outturn from a column still was aged in Madeira casks, providing 570 bottles in 2017, with a strength of 52%.

For those not into their lighter spirits, “Madeira” is a fortified wine made in the Portuguese islands of Madeira off the African coast, and can be either dry or sweet.  Given the entire ageing period of the rum took place in such casks, I expected to see a substantial divergence from both an aged agricole or any other kind of “standard” ex-bourbon-barrel profile. In fact, swirling the dark brown rum in the glass made me wonder if some caramel hadn’t been added to colour it…or whether the casks were completely dry of wine before pouring the good stuff in to age.

Still, the nose delivered, if not precisely that clear-grassy-herbal aroma characteristic of the French islands.  Oh no. This was more like one of those mated with a drowsy Demerara from Port Mourant: it smelled of dark ripe cherries and coca cola, fleshy stoned fruits and red licorice, plus unsweetened cooking chocolate, hot black tea, raisins and wasn’t that a bit of brine and olives down the back end?  Sure it was. And very nice too.

And even at 52%, after an initial whiff of its cane juice origins — it began somewhat fresh and crisp before relaxing — the rum proceeded quite softly on the palate, and suggested a taste reminiscent of a stack of old books in a dusty library nobody now visits, the dry mustiness of barnyard hay.  This was set off by the taste of a Haagen-Dasz dulce de leche ice cream (the Little Caner loves that stuff and I pinch it from his tub every chance I get), as well as brine, more olives, licorice, prunes, red wine, citrus peel, cider and the vague tartness of gooseberries and unsweetened yoghurt.  It was quite rich and flavourful, a nice drink, finishing with with warm notes of cherries, raisins, a little herbal, and cider, salt caramel and sour cream.

So where does that leave us?  Well, with a rather peculiar product.  It is unique in its own way, giving you the odd-but-pleasant experience of tasting a well-assembled agricole-Demerara blend, or maybe a molasses-based Guadeloupe rhum.  That may be a Madeiran thing – I can’t tell, since I have not had enough from there to make the claim with assurance (yet). But in any event, Rum Nation doesn’t make bad rums – they’re too professional an outfit for that, and I’ve thought so ever since I ran into them in 2010 and bought that entire year’s output at once. They stratify their products into the starter rums, sweeter ones (the Millonarios), high-end aged rums (the Demeraras and Jamaicans) and these higher proof Rares for the cognoscenti. This one isn’t the best or most original rum they’ve ever made, but it does show Fabio Rossi forging ahead in his own way to expand his company’s range, producing new and fascinating rums for us all to try — and it’s definitely a rum to sample if you’re ever bored with the regular islands’ rums and want to try something different…but not too different.

(#559)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Wes, who reviewed it back in January 2018, rated it as 50% ABV on his hydrometer, which equates roughly to 10g/L dosage, give or take.
  • The sugar factory and distillery was founded in 1845 by William Hinton; it reached a peak production of 600 tons of cane processed per day in 1920, but closed in 1986 (no reasons are given on their website, but perhaps falling sugar prices contributed, or the expense of maintaining extensive sugar cane fields).  It was restarted by Hinton’s heirs in 2006 as Engenho Novo de Madeira.