Jul 172016
 

Lost spirits Polynesian 1

Nope, this one doesn’t quite click either.  Too many clashing tastes, none enhancing any other, and overall, too untamed. Still not entirely a bad product though.

(#286 / 81/100)

***

Let’s just wrap up the third on in the initial rums made by Lost Spirits, the Polynesian-inspired.  For those who really are not into rums, have not been paying attention, or are wondering why this small company is gathering so much press, be it known that Bryan Davis out of California makes the claim that with his proprietary technology (a ‘molecular reactor’) he can not only emulate many years’ ageing in just a few days, but any country or region’s style. It’s as if by processing the baking grade molasses and yeast that form the basis of their distillate, they can – one day – use that to produce a Velier-style Enmore, or a Foursquare Port Cask, a Havana Club or Longpond Jamaican….all within a week.

Such claims are unlikely to impress many, least of all the grand old distillers and master blenders and guys who have spent decades learning the craft of blending and ageing in the old way, and who disdain unverifiable self-proclaimed magical methods of artificial ageing (concepts which are almost as old as aged spirits themselves and are seen to be in good company with snake-oil sellers hawking their wares outside a travelling  circus).  Still, I’m fairly certain there’s a sphincter or two that’s puckering out there, since technological progression is geometrical, and while the first batch of Mr. Davis’s rums didn’t and don’t come up to scratch or deliver on the promises that they were a Navy rum, or close to a Cuban, they weren’t quite as poorly made as some have made out – they still beat many multi-column-still industrial mass-produced hooch that people buy so blindly, in such quantities, and there’s potential in the process, if it can ever be made to work right, and consistently.

This rum is something like the Cuban-inspired in that it seeks to recreate the profile of the rums from another geographical region.  I’m not sure of the point of this – it’s not like the sample set from over there is large enough to have a decent baseline to begin with, and outside of Hawaii, how many Americans have ever or even tasted a Polynesian rum? Background reading points out the fact that it is made to fit the profile of a high-ester pot still product, and indeed it is made on a copper pot still, though of course no age statement is as yet, or can be, applied to it.  It’s in all respects an unaged rum, which leads me to wonder if they didn’t mess with it by adding anything, was it the reactor that created the colour?

Lost spirits Polynesian 2Anyway, the whole pot still origin at least conformed to the profile of the smells that hit me once I opened the 66%, dark amber rum.  The action got going right away, with solid, sharp notes of wax and turpentine and acetone and shoe polish, here one second, gone the next, morphing swiftly into rotten apples, peaches left in the sun too long, and a lingering background of salty-sweet tequila oiliness that had no business being there.  This is supposedly part of the process the reactor promotes, which produces a surfeit of long chained esters — these are the source of turpentine/paint thinner flavours in high concentrations, and fruity ones when dialled down, so as far as I’m concerned this one had the dial stuck too high, and I didn’t care for it.

To taste it was a sharp sarissa of intense heat, just like any full proof rum.  That part didn’t disturb me, I just put it to one side to open up a bit and came back a few minutes later.  Well now: this was like another rum entirely, remarkably different from what the nose had advertised – quite a bit more balance here, with the waxy turpentine kept way back; overripe peaches (no real citrus tartness evident), brine, black olives, that oily tequila sweet-salt note again, dates, figs and other non-sweet ‘fruits’.  The absence of more traditionally expected tastes was somewhat surprising, and it gave the rum a distinctiveness that may become its maker’s identifying, defining signature, but the problem was that this uniqueness did not particularly translate into a quality rum that I cared for, where a central core of one flavour carried lighter and medium intensity elements of others that blended well together; the Polynesian cannot truly be termed ‘traditional’ by any stretch.  Even the finish – long and dry, redolent of (get this) olive oil soaked bell peppers as well as more dates and soya – didn’t really work well together. I like crazy for the most part, I enjoy originality and reaching for the brass ring, but there has to be a bedrock of underlying quality, of texture and taste and aromas that gels somehow: Mr. Davis is still working on that part.

So.  Good things are strength and heft and an original taste.  Bad things are those very same tastes and the way they do not come together to form a cohesive, enjoyable whole, plus a nose of too many uncontained, uncontrolled esters which allow the wrong ones to dominate. It’s also more than a little jagged to try, and little real smoothness in the mouthfeel.  It’s a mixer for sure, for the moment, and that’s how most will try it and drink it.

Matt Pietrek, commenting in the post on the Lost Spirits Cuban inspired rum, advised me that all three of the rums I’ve written about were from the initial reactor outputs, which have since been tweaked to various settings and routines in a specified order, which we can call Version  2.0. (my bottle with was bought back in early 2015, just when the process was gathering some steam). So there are new products – even whiskies, now — coming out from Lost Spirits, and the technology is beginning to spread to other companies who see either potential to bypass the Caribbean nations, or to make a fast buck, or really produce some cool rums of their own (or all at once).  Based on these three rums, it’ll still be many years before any of the old rum houses, or the European cognoscenti, need to worry that their favourite tipple will be replaced by technology that promises much, but so far, has not delivered.


Other notes

Just because I don’t (thus far) endorse or highly praise this line of rums, doesn’t mean others don’t.  North Americans are quite positive in their assessments, while European writers remain silent for now (perhaps due to availability). So some references for your research, should you be curious:

 

 

Jul 032016
 

Lost Spirits Cuban 1

Not quite there.  Yet.

(#283 / 83/100)

***

Lost Spirits, if you recall, is the company that produced a set of rums of varying strengths last year – polynesian, navy, colonial, and this one – which are processed by their proprietary “reactor” to emulate the taste profile of rums aged for many years, while only being days old.  This is one of the three I bought, the “Cuban Inspired” version, bottled at a growlingly powerful 75.5% and properly labelled “151”.  151s are generally mixers (unlike, say, the SMWS beefcakes), which strikes me as an odd choice to produce – because if one is trying to showcase the ageing potential of the reactor, why make a rum that people have never seen as an aged product? Perhaps it is to try and recreate the taste markers of the style as well – if that’s what was attempted, I stand here before you telling you that the system still needs more work.

That said, let’s just get the stats and background out of the way: the Cuban Inspired is made from baking grade molasses — much like, I guess, Pritchards’ — water and yeast, some interesting tricks with nitrogen deprivation, no additives or colouring, some ageing in charred and toasted American oak barrels, and filtration through a coconut husk filter. So as 151s go, something of a diversion.  I was therefore quite curious whether a Cuban-style profile could be made via technology instead of actually in Cuba.

The light bronze rum nosed quite kinetically, of course, which at that strength was to be expected. Sharp, hot scents of brine, figs, olive oil and tequila led things off with some of the waxy, glue and petrol notes of some serious pot still action.  I set it aside to let the spicy alcohol fumes evaporate, and when I went back to it ten minutes later, things settled down a bit and the scents were much more interesting: huge molasses and burnt sugar, cocoa and vanilla notes were the backbone, upon which rested a sharper, less intense secondary aromas of coarse dry breakfast cereal and stale orange peel that’s been sitting in the sun for too long. Interesting and quite intriguing, for sure, though there’s something lacking here, a sort of middle section to bridge the gap between the sharp higher notes and the deeper and more solid underpinnings.

Putting aside the sheer oomph of this thing – for sure, given its intensity at that strength, I sipped very carefully – I was surprised how much there was on the palate: molasses soaked brown sugar, butterscotch (way too much of these three elements), salt butter, fresh baked dark russian bread (I used to buy one daily for a year straight back in my working days in the ‘Stans).  Too hot and untamed to sip really well, it was damned rough on the tongue.  With water, matters settled down, and additional flavours of overripe plums and peaches, more tequila and olives in brine emerged, weirdly mixed with hot black tea and yes, that stale orange peel made a comeback, all finishing off with a very long exit as befits an overproof, and last hints of wood and sawdust and an old, lovingly polished leather bag.

Lost Spirits Cuban 2So there’s the tasting notes.  Opinion? Well, it has quite a lot of action, that’s for sure.They sort of whirl around in a melee of unfocussed aggression, like a war-movie battle scene where the director is too much in love with his shaky-cam, making nonsense of any attempt to come to grips with an underlying structure.  Tastes just exist, and they do not come together in any kind of layering or synthesis, and where each one should be informing, supporting and melding with others, here what we have is a bunch of rabid individualists who do not know the meaning of teamwork. And honestly, there’s over-dominance by molasses and vanilla and butterscotch – it’s deep and it’s nice and it’s pervasive…perhaps too much so.

Plus – where’s the Cuban by which it was supposedly inspired? I’ve had a few from the island in my time, and the Spanish style, which so many in Central and South American rum-makers have copied over the centuries, was not particularly self-evident in this rum.  Usually, rectified column still spirit further amended by careful barrel ageing is a defining marker; but I didn’t get any of that clean, dry, light, flowery profile with coy hints of molasses and citrus dancing their own little tango, bound together by easy fruitiness – quite the contrary, this was a rapier turned into a fruit-smeared butterscotch bludgeon, not all of which worked. 

Whether we like it or not, when a rum is labelled as something, we expect from our past experiences of similar rums for the promise implicitly made on that promo to be honoured.  As with the Navy 68% I tried before I didn’t feel that really occurred (I sampled alongside the Navy and the Polynesian, and the Cuban resembled the former quite a bit) .  There’s little of the Santiago de Cuba or Havana Club here, to me. I’m giving it the score I do because of originality, some very interesting tastes, and then taking away some points for lack of coherence (but not for not being a Cuban – that one is an irrelevancy and I mention the matter only because the label does).  I like what Bryan Davis is doing, admire his dedication and passion and love of  technology which he is bringing to bear on a very old process, but still feel the process needs work.  From that perspective, it was real smart to call this a “Cuban Inspired” rum.

***

Other notes

I know this review will be somewhat divisive (it’s not meant to be dismissive), so here are some references to give you more positive points of view, if you’re interested:

May 182016
 

Nine Leaves French 2

A love note to the concept of kaizen

(#274 / 84.5/100)

***

It’s an old joke of mine that Nine Leaves’ staff consists of  a master blender, office assistant, purchasing agent, bottler, General Manager, brand ambassador and sales office, and still only has one employee.  This was and remains Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who single-handedly runs his company in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan, and basically issues some very young rums (none are older than six months) on to the world market. The unaged whites in particular are getting all sorts of acclaim, and I have one to write about in the near future.

Back in December 2014 I wrote about the six-month-aged 2014 French Oak, which I thought intriguing and pleasant to drink, though still a bit raw and having some issues in the way the flavours blended together.  Running into Mr. Takeuchi again a year later, I made it a point to try that year’s production, the The American Oak “Spring 2015” and this “Autumn 2015” … and can happily report that Nine Leaves, in its slow, patient, incremental way, is getting better all the time (and as a probably unintended side-effect, has made me buy a few more Japanese rums from other companies just to see how they stack up).

Just a brief recap: the rum was distilled in a Forsythe copper pot still, double distilled, using sugar cane juice from cane grown in Okinawa, so the rum is an agricole in all but name. Mr. Takeuchi himself decides when and how to make the cuts so that the heart component is exactly what he wants it to be. The rums are then aged for six months in the noted barrels, which are all new, and lightly toasted, according to a note Mr. Takeuchi sent me..

Nine Leaves French 1

The French Oak “Autumn 2015” rum was a bit lighter in hue than the American Oak version I tried alongside it, and also a little easier on the nose…and smoother, even rounder to smell, in spite of its 48% strength. There was a subtly increased overall depth here that impressed – though admittedly you kinda have to try these side by side to see where I’m coming from.  Aromas of fanta, orange, cinnamon, vanilla were clear and distinct, as clean and clear as freshly chiselled engravings, and after a while, sly herbal and grassy notes began to emerge…but so little that one could be forgiven for forgetting this was an agricole at all. This was something I have enjoyed about Nine Leaves’s rums, that sense of simultaneous delicacy and heft, and the coy flirtation between molasses and agricole profiles, while tacking inobtrusively to the latter. 

The profile on the palate continued on with that subtle dichotomy – it was slightly sweet and quite crisp, beginning with some wax and floor polish background, well controlled. Sugary, grassy tastes of cane juice, swank, vanilla, some oak, dill and incense led off, and while it displayed somewhat more sharpness and a little less body than the roundness of the nose had initially suggested, further softer notes of watermelon, cucumbers and pears helped make the experience a bearable one. As with the American, there was a chirpy sort of medium-long finish, as the rum exited with dry, bright, clean flavours of citrus, breakfast spices, some cinnamon and maybe a touch more of vanilla. It was clearly a young rum, a little rambunctious, a little playful, but overall, extremely well behaved.  I sure can’t tell you which agricole is exactly like it – Nine Leaves inhabits a space in the rum world uniquely its own, while never losing sight of its rummy antecedents.  That’s always been a part of its charm, and remains a core company competence.

Clearly Nine Leaves is slowly, patiently improving on its stable of offerings. I spent a few hours checking for news that the company intends to issue progressively more aged rums without result – it seems that the current idea is to continue with gradually improving the young rums that area their bread and butter (though I know that Yoshi has a few barrels of the good stuff squirrelled away in his warehouse someplace that he isn’t telling us about, and will issue a two year old American oak rum as a limited edition at some point).  I can’t fault the concept, and if a new distiller can make rums this decent, and improve a little bit every year, you can just imagine what they’ll be putting out the door within the decade. Until then, we could do a lot worse than try one of these lovely seasonal issues Nine Leaves makes.

Kampei!

Other notes

  • Because of some obscure tax regulations in Japan regarding spirits three years old, Nine Leaves is unlikely to issue really aged rums for the foreseeable future
  • The French Oak cask rums are now no longer being produced.
Apr 092016
 

D3S_3629

Bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts will get more out of this than I ever will. It redefines the word “understated.”

(#265. 74/100)

***

Knowing how I have never been entirely satisfied with rums from Barbados, I decided to buy a few about which many have waxed rhapsodic, followed that up with trying as many as I could at the 2015 Berlin rumfest, and continued on the theme by begging my friends in Europe for samples of their personal stocks of independent bottlers’ Bajans.  Let’s see if I can’t get to the bottom of why — with just a few exceptions — they don’t titillate my tonsils the way so many others have and do.

Such as this white three year old from the “Real McCoy” company, which is using stocks from Foursquare. Others have written about Bill McCoy, a Prohibition era rumrunner who never adulterated his stocks (some of which came from, er, Foursquare, according to a documentary made by Bailey Pryor).  Apparently Mr. Pryor was so enthused by what Bill McCoy had done that he approached Richard Seale with a view to creating a modern equivalent: and after some time, the 3 year old white, a 5 year old and a 12 year old were out the door in 2014.  This one is a blend of copper pot and column still distillate, 40% ABV, aged in American ex-bourbon oak, and an offering to bartenders and barflies and mixologists everywhere.

D3S_3629-001

Part of my dissatisfaction with filtered white rums meant for mixing was demonstrated right away by the aromas winding up through my glass: I had to to wait around too long for anything to happen. The nose was warm and faintly rubbery, with some faint tannins in there, sugar water, light cream,and a green olive hanging around with maybe three marshmallows.  A flirt of vanilla loitered around in the back there someplace but in fine, I just couldn’t see that much was going on. “Subtle” the marketing plugs call it. “Pusillanimous” was what I was thinking.

To be fair, a lot more started jumping out of the glass when the tasting started.  It was crisper and clearer and firmer than the nose, a little peppery, more vanilla, cucumbers, dill, ripe pears, sugar cane sap.  It’s not big, it’s not rounded, and the range of potential tastes was too skimpy to appeal to me.  Skimpy might work for a bikini, but in a rum it’s a “Dear John” letter, and is about as enthusiastically received.  The finish?  Longish – surprisingly so, for something at 40%, though still too light. More sugar and dill, guavas and pears, and that odd olive made a small comeback. I’m sorry, guys, but this isn’t my thing at all. I want more.

Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to kick off the Barbados tour with a filtered white 3 year old.  It was thin, watery, too weak, and the tastes struggled to get out and make themselves felt.  Maybe it’s the charcoal filtration that takes out some of what I like in my rums.  The profile is there, you can sense it, just not come to grips with it…it’s tantalizingly just out of reach, and like the Doorley’s XO, it lacks punch and is simply too delicate for my personal palate.  For its price point and purpose it may be a tough rum to beat, mind you, but my personal preferences don’t go there. And having had white rums from quite a few makers who revel in producing fierce, joyous, in-your-face palate shredders, perhaps you can understand why something this easy going just makes me shrug and reach for the next one up the line.

 

Feb 132016
 

Nine Leaves American 2

Little Lord Fauntleroy in a bottle.

(#256 / 84/100)

***

Back in 2014 I first encountered rums from the Japanese company Nine Leaves, and was impressed enough to not only write about the company in one of my Makers profiles, but resolved to not let Mr. Takeuchi’s work escape me a second year in a row.  So said, so done…I’ve tried four more of the company’s rums, and begin working through the resultant reviews with the American Oak version, bottled in Spring 2015.

As an aside, Mr. Takeuchi has certainly managed to elevate his company’s profile in 2014-2015.  Presenting in Rome, Berlin, UK and Miami (and I’m sure there are others), his rums have won prizes at various festivals, Europe remains an expanding market, and one can only wonder at what this company will be like in ten years. Production methods remain the same as before: Okinawan sugar cane, cane-juice basis, careful selection of cuts to bring out the best of the distillate, and six months ageing in either French oak or American oak.  There are stocks now laid down to age for longer periods, but it will be some years before we see these.  Let’s focus on what we have today.

The American Oak release was a light gold rum aged for the requisite six months. That its initial nasal profile resembles a pot still agricole came as no surprise, because, well, it was. In fact, it immediately reminded me of a gelded clairin — and I mean that as a sort of compliment, because the fierce and raging “yo’ mama!” attitude of the Haitian popskull was transmuted here into a more genteel “May I take your coat sir?” primness that somehow worked out okay. In other words, the 50% ABV didn’t smack me or try to stab me, but came across as warm-to-hot, waxy, briny and olive-y, quite dry, light, with none of the intense pungent oiliness that so mark unaged pot still whites. That six months ageing worked reasonably well, and it developed very nicely with additional scents of cucumbers, sugar water and light flowers that served to tame the background notes of turpentine and floor polish. It really was quite well done

Nine Leaves American 1

On the tongue, more spice could be noted. After trying it carefully for a few minutes, I was, to be honest, left scratching my head – there were salt, bitter, and sweet components in evidence, all at once; and that same light sweetness and almost-but-not-quite anorexia of the nose came through in the mouthfeel, somewhat to its detriment.  Flowers, swank, vanilla, oak, cucumbers in a green salad (sans dressing), and then an amusing fanta and orange peel tango started going on at the back end.  It was a young, light, frisky and well behaved rumlet, which faded gently into an easygoing, warm finish that was a little dry, but kept the party going with orange zest, delicate white flowers and a lack of aggro I found impressive for a rum this young, bottled at such a relatively high strength.

Civilized is a word I suppose can be used to describe it. It lacks real deep solidity and maturity I prefer in my rums (y’know, like Jamaicans or Demeraras which land on your palate like an anvil dropped from ten feet up), but its construction is almost playfully elegant.  Yes, there was a shade too little ageing, yes the French oak version is even lighter in texture, yes, perhaps it was too dialled down…but you know, I really don’t know that many producers who can take a rum this young and maintain a balance between the intensity of a full-out, pot-still, zero-year-old white, and something a little older…who can make something so interesting out of it.  Maybe it’s the double distillation, maybe it’s the pot still, the light ageing regime, the cuts, the casks or something, but I’m not complaining too loudly. This is a pretty damned good young rum, and I’m sure glad I tried it.

Nov 252015
 
LP_Navy

Photo Courtesy of duRhum.com

Leave aside the hype and controversy, and try this without preconceptions. You may be surprised, intrigued and even pleased with the result.  I was, I was and I wasn’t, not entirely…but you might be.

(#242. 83/100)

***

If by now you are not aware that Lost Spirits out of California has developed a “molecular reactor” that supposedly mimics the ageing of a twenty year rum in six days, then you have not been paying attention (or aren’t that deep into rum geekdom).  The idea is not itself altogether new, and detractors have sniffed that snake oil sellers have been talking forever about using magical means, family recipes and all kinds of fancy methods to speed up ageing and the profile of old spirits, in products that aren’t actually aged.  Still, with the continual advances in modern tech, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that some smart guy in a garage somewhere can perhaps do such a thing. Certainly Lost Spirits makes that claim.  They have intense enthusiasm, hand built stills, and a good knowledge of chemistry and biology to assist in replicating more traditional methods of production without actually using many of them. The output is more important than the process, you might say.

The Navy Style rum they have made is a booming near-overproof rum that smartly elevates the North American drinking public’s perception of rum by issuing it at 68%, and which comes in a tall slim bottle that has an old fashioned label channelling the aesthetic design philosophy of both technology and 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery (that’s what Josh Miller called “steampunk” in his own recent review of the rum). Just to get the background out of the way, this thing is unadulterated, without additives of any kind, including colouring.  It is made from baking grade molasses and evaporated sugar cane juice (I suppose we could call that “honey”).

The nose was intriguing: an interesting fusion of very hot aromas, both familiar and strange.  Initially it presented with vanilla, prunes, black grapes, some molasses, a faint hint of anise, some oak, and a bit of clean citrus.  But sharper ethanol and less appealing mineral notes of wet charcoal and saltpetr emerged at the back end, and here I was left wondering where the meld of Jamaican dunder and fruitiness of the Demeraras and Bajans was hiding itself.

Similar thoughts came to mind as I tasted it. Yes it was bold and very heated – we could hardly expect less from a rum this strong – I just thought it was all a bit discombobulated.  There were salty, green-olive notes, some soy and grappa and red wine, all mixed up with an undercurrent of molasses.  It was quite rough, and stampeded across the palate without the finesse that other rums of that strength have shown is possible.  Adding water ameliorated that somewhat, and brought other flavours out of hiding – brown sugar, vegetals, dried grass, more undefined citrus zest, and a tang of more red grapes, caramel and molasses, all tied up with sharper oak tannins and ginger root.  The finish, as befits such a strong drink, was long and dry, with little that was new arriving onstage – oak, some wet coffee grounds, more of that strange mineral background, and a twitch of herbs.

Lost Spirits have made a rum that they want to show off as a poster boy for their technology: whether they succeeded in creating a Navy rum is questionable. There are quite a few variations of the type – Lamb’s, Pusser’s, Wood’s 100, Potter’s, the Black Tot to name but a few – so much so that true or not, right or wrong, those are the profiles that the consuming public sees and expects to be represented by the sobriquet “Navy”.  On that level, the Lost Spirit rum doesn’t come up to snuff.  And while other reviewers have remarked on the esters they sensed (which is part of the selling point of the rum, that genuflection to old-style dunder pits), I didn’t find there were that many complex spicy, fruity and floral notes that would give any of the more traditional rum makers cause to choke into their tasting glasses.

Recently mon ami Cyril of DuRhum took apart three Lost Spirits rums, and flat out declared that in his estimation they could not possibly class with the very rums they were seeking to supplant.  Both Josh at Inu-a-kena and Tiare over by A Mountain of Crushed Ice were much more positive in their evaluations, as was Serge at Whiskyfun. I am neither as displeased by Lost Spirits as Cyril was, nor as enthusiastic as my other friends – to my mind the company and its tech still have quite some way to go if they intend to take on really aged big guns made by master blenders with many generations of experience backing them up. Western nations are great proponents of the notion that technology can conquer everything, and maybe they’re right…but only sometimes.

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and give Lost Spirits credit for what they have achieved. I liked the strength and intensity, for example – LS has had the balls to take American rums past the 40% that dominates their market.  The taste was intriguing, original, not entirely bad, and there were many aspects of the profile I enjoyed. Where it fails is in its resultant product, which wanders too far afield while failing to cohere.  And therefore it falls short on its promise: the promise that they could produce a profile of any aged rum without actually ageing it. That simply didn’t happen here.  

I’m a firm believer in technology and its potential – but as with many brand new ideas and their execution, the hype so far is greater than the reality. The subtleties of a great aged rum are so multi-faceted, so enormously complex, and so chaotically intertwined with age and barrel and distillate and fermentation and even terroire, that while one day I have no doubt a combination of physics, chemistry and biology (and chutzpah) will fool a taster into believing he’s got an undiscovered masterpiece on his hands, this rum, for today, isn’t quite it.

Other notes:

Control rums this time around were a few old Demeraras, the BBR Jamaica 1977, Woods 100 and of course the Black Tot. It’s in the comparison that the LS Navy 68% snaps more clearly into focus and you see where it both succeeds and falls short.

Note that Navy rums, according to Mr. Broome’s informative booklet on the ‘Tot, only had a small percentage of the blend come from Jamaica (sailors didn’t like it).  Yet most of the online literature on Lost Spirits places great emphasis on how they are recreating the resultant profile of dunder pits and high ester counts (more or less associated with Jamaica), when in fact this was not the major part of the navy style of rum.

Also… just because I don’t (thus far) endorse or highly praise this line of rums, doesn’t mean others don’t.  North Americans are quite positive in their assessments, while European writers thus far remain silent (perhaps due to availability). So some references for your research, should you be curious:

Oct 152015
 

Sunset 1Hulk no like puny rum.  Hulk smash. The last and strongest of the overproof howitzers batters my glass.

(#235. 84/100)

***

It’s a giant of a drink, the most powerful commercial rum ever made, a gurgling frisson of hot-snot turbo-charged proofage.  0.5% additional points of proof and the black clothes squad with silenced helicopters and full SWAT gear would be rapelling down to my apartment searching for weaponized rum. It skirts jail-time illegality by a whisker, and I can truly say the only reason I bought it was anal-retentive machismo and the desire to say I had. Like every 151 ever made (but more so), it was a drink to be feared the way Superman crosses himself when he sees Kryptonite

The Sunset Very Strong Rum is equal parts amazing and puzzling. For one thing, it’s not entirely clear why St. Vincent makes such a juggernaut.  Bragging rights, maybe? Even with their proof-point, 151s are vastly more popular, and more common, so what’s the point of this one?  About all it could reasonably be used for, after all is (a) a killer cocktail or mixer like the Vincentian “steel bottom” (a man-sized chug from the local Hairoun beer, then top the bottle back up with the rum, pleasant on a hot day, but only one or two or your day would be done) (b) the fastest drunk ever (c) an economical boozer for those without deep pockets, since one gets two 40% bottles for every one of these, and (d) an excuse to use lots and lots of colourful metaphors.

The Sunset Very Strong is made by St Vincent Distillers, formed from Mt. Bentnick Estate which had its genesis at the turn of the 20th century; in 1963 it was sold to the government and renamed the St. Vincent Distillery. This company was itself resold to a private concern in 1996 but the name was retained and they remain in operation to this day.  The SVS originates from a two column stainless steel still – I am unclear whether the molasses comes from Guyana or new cane crops planted on the island, and nowhere is it mentioned whether any ageing takes place at all. (I’ve heard that it’s unaged, though I believe it is, just a bit).

I can tell this is boring to non-history buffs. Seriously, you want tasting notes on this thing?  To be honest, I don’t quite know where to start, since drinking the rum neat is an exercise in futility (no-one else ever will).  But whatever….

Sunset 2The (cautiously assessed) nose was extremely sharp, a glimmering silver blade of pure heat.  For all that, once the bad stuff burned off, I was amazed by how much was going on under the hood.  Initially, there was an explosion of an abandoned Trojan factory installed in the Batcave, fresh cut onions, sweat and oil, crazy crazy intense. Stick with it, though, is my advice – because it did cool off (a little).  And then there were vanilla aromas, some cane sap, coconut shavings and red ripe cherries, a subtle hint of butter lurking in the background. I looked at the glass in some astonishment, quite pleased with the scents that emerged where I had expected nothing but rotgut, and then moved on to taste.

Before you sip, a word of warning.  Move your cigar to the side. Make sure no sparks are nearby. Literally, take a tiny drop at a time. A teensy tiny one.  84.5% is so incredibly ferocious that even that small drop coated the entire tongue with a massive heated oiliness. And it was even a bit creamy.  Wow.  White chocolate, butter biscuits, philadelphia cream cheese on wonder bread, vanilla ice cream, nuts, nougat, toblerone, all dialled up to “11” (make that “12”).  To call this rum sharp or chewy might understate the matter. It had so much maxillary oomph that it might well cause the shark in Jaws to go see his therapist, yet it was remarkable how much I enjoyed it. As for the fade, well, come on, what were you expecting? Long and dry as speeches my father makes at other people’s weddings.  Ongoing notes of vanilla, butter, white chocolate (nothing new here).  But those few, clear tastes went on for ages – I think my automatic watch might run down before the closing notes of the SVS dissipate. And before you ask – yes, I really liked this thing.

At 84.5% ABV, the SVS is brutal, amazing, interesting, tasty, and will always be the most powerful rum of its kind…in shadowed corners of near-abandoned bars I’ve heard it whispered that it once tore an Encyclopedia Brittanica collection in half with its bare hands while simultaneously curing the common cold and giving birth to Def Leppard and AC/DC (at the same time). In the overproof rum pantheon, the Sunset Very Strong sits at the extreme top, next to that crazy bastard next door who claims to have brewed something stronger in his grandmother’s bathtub.

But as psychotic as it is, I can’t help but think this is what we’ve been looking for from the world of badass white full-proofs. It’s wholly ridiculous, impractical to a fault and so completely preposterous that it revels in its own depravity. Frankly, that’s just what a powerful Hulk-sized rum should do. And depending on your level of crazy, it’s either a blessing or a curse that the Sunset Very Strong Rum will rarely be seen beyond the walls of a local watering hole’s private stocks, amused fanboys’ homebars…or, perhaps, mine.

Other notes:

  • I must stress that originality is not the SVS’s forte.  The Clairins out of Haiti, for example are quite a bit more off the beaten track (if not as strong).  The SVS is actually a very traditional white rum, akin to Grenada’s Clarke’s Court or Guyanese High Wine, and serves primarily a local market (exports are relatively minimal outside the Caribbean).  Unlike those two, it’s merely torqued up to the maximum legal point and that provided the flavours it did contain with such intensity that it became a sort of masochistic reflex just to try it that way. But it was meant as a mixer, not a sipper, and should be tried that way, I think.
  • This rum is the most popular spirit on the island, and is often seen as the kill-divil of overproof choice in many other small Caribbean islands catering to the tourist trade. It is almost always mixed. Word has it that it’s so popular in St Vincent, that when stocks ran out after a shipment of Guyanese molasses was held up at the port, riots nearly ensued.
  • A year or so after I tried this rum, I scored one even more powerful – the Surinamese Marienburg 90%.  That one was stronger, but I liked this one better.
  • Thanks to Robert Bradley for the note on the SVG “steel bottom” variation.

 

Jul 012015
 

D3S_8946

Neither attempt — to make an ersatz agricole (from molasses) or a white mixing agent to take on the more established brands — really works.

(#220. 78/100)

***

Prichard’s is that outfit from Tennessee which has been quietly and busily putting out rums for nearly twenty years, ever since Phil Prichard decided to make rum in whiskey country.  And while it is now common for new entrants to the market to sell white unaged rum from their stills to cover startup costs and provide cash flow while they wait for more favoured stocks to mature, Mr. Prichard didn’t do anything of the sort, and so his white rum – called Crystal – came later to his company’s portfolio (the first review I’ve seen is dated around 2007).

White rums (or “clear” or “silver”, or “blanc”, pick your moniker) come in several varieties, to my mind: agricoles (of which clairins are a subset), cachacas and white mixers, with a new field of unaged pot still whites beginning to gather a head of steam. The question to me was which target the Crystal was taking aim at, and if it succeeded at any. The evocatively named rum is apparently distilled five times using the same sweet Louisiana molasses as the Fine Rum, which is a major selling and marketing point for the company; it is unaged and comes straight from the barrel (though I’m curious – if it was utterly unaged, what was it doing in a barrel in the first place, but never mind).

Anyway, one thing I remarked on right away after pouring it out, was a certain clear crispness to the nose.  No real complexity here: green apples and vanilla for the most part, and remarkably sweet to smell: the origin molasses were detectable in spite of the filtration. The vanilla was really quite overpowering, though, even if  some cream and saltiness emerged at the back end…overall, nothing too difficult to tease out.

Even at 40% it kinda grated on the palate: it was sharp, too raw – that was the lack of ageing making itself felt.  It wasn’t precisely light either, and the initial clarity of the nose dissipated early, to become a slightly heavier, oilier drink.  When it opened up, other, less appealing tastes stepped up to show themselves off – still a lot of sugar and vanillas, yes, but also harsher iodine and metallic notes, with some crackers and brie teasing the senses without ever taking centre stage. And it was oddly dry as things wrapped up, with those vanillas and fresh-cut green apples returning to take a last look around before disappearing in a short finish.

D3S_8946-001

I review all spirits as if they were meant to be had neat – right or wrong, that’s my cross to bear in an attempt to use the exact same methodology to evaluate every rum I try.  To have different techniques in evaluating different rums based on any idea of what a rum should be used for (sipping drink, cocktail ingredient) is to introduce a bias, if not outright confusion.

So by the standard of whether it works as a neat rum, then, the Crystal doesn’t succeed (and even Prichard’s website doesn’t imply otherwise and plugs it as a mixer).  The very slight acidity of the fruit I tasted, mixed up with the lingering molasses, the vanilla, the jarring metallic notes, creates a discordant taste profile which destroys the sipping experience.  As a cocktail ingredient, then? Probably much better.  Not with a coke though – something sharper is needed to take the vanillas off, so I’d suggest ginger beer, lime, Angostura bitters, something in that direction. Prichard’s own website gives some examples.

Since I’m not into tiki or cocktail culture, such white, bland, filtered rums don’t do much for me, and that’s why in over five years I’ve reviewed almost none (I’ve gotten hammered on them quite often, mind you).  This one’s okay, I guess: it’s just a sweet-molasses-based silver, lacking sufficient complexity or blending artistry to make it as a solo drink. My low score should not be seen as a blanket indictment, then, since its failure as a neat sample does not invalidate it as a cocktail ingredient where it may shine more. I’ll leave it to experts in that field to argue the case for the Crystal, which unfortunately I myself could not and cannot make.

 

Dec 052014
 

D3S_8985

A Japanese pot still rum of clout and flavour, perhaps needing some more ageing to score better and reach a wider audience.

(#191. 82.5/100)

***

In five years of writing about rum, I’ve seen quite a few new rum-making enterprises come across my radar: Elements, Koloa, Downslope, Ocean’s readily spring to mind.  Now they are joined by a new outfit called Nine Leaves, which may be unique in that it’s a distillery, a bottler, and a distributor, all run by one person: Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi, who operates in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan (the company was formed in 2013).

At this point in time in their existence, Nine Leaves makes three rums: a white (called “Clear”), and two “Angel’s Half” rums – perhaps so named because Mr. Takeuchi takes half of his distillate and ages it for six months in fresh American oak barrels, and the other half for the same period in French oak.  It was the latter which I tried, largely because I was quite enamoured of the golden colour and its viscosity as it rolled down the tasting glass (not the best reason for trying a new rum, but I’ve done worse for really stupid reasons, so this almost classes as sober judgement on my part).

Speaking to Mr. Takeuchi revealed the following facts about him and his rum, which, much like the Ocean’s Atlantic edition 1997 I looked at not too long ago, is something of a labour of individual love: he’s a one man operation, who brought the distillery to life when nothing in his past (or that of his family) would suggest such a thing.  The sugar originated from Okinawa, the water used came from an underground spring in Shiga.  The barrels came from the US and France, and a Forsythe copper pot still was bought in Scotland.

So once again I was sampling a pot still product, bottled at a full proof 50%, and the theory of terroire having a detectable impact on the final product was put through its paces. Now pot stills preserve a large part of the flavour of the distillate and this bleeds over even after substantial ageing which itself adds extra layers of complexity – but with only a six month period, was it all enough?

D3S_8989

I thought so…to a point. Consider the aromas hailing from the golden-hued rum: sharp and estery, light raisins and figs, salt biscuits, butter…and all those attendant scents of rubber and wax polish, even some fresh sawn woodchips, like one was entering a brand new house fresh from the builders and still in the plastic wrapper. There were some faint background notes of caramel and vanilla, but these were waiting for a turn on the stage that didn’t materialize until the actual tasting.

Which was pleasantly intense, as befitted a 50% rum, and this is where I think some more time in the barrels might have improved the product. It was a firm, medium-bodied-verging-on-light rum, which retained some of that sharp peppery consistency of the nose; the caramel notes now came forward, incense sticks, biscuits, vanilla, coffee; and yes, the waxy, rubber tastes were there, as well as green herbs – dill, maybe (no, really). A very very original palate, fading well into a clean exit of some length, redolent of cane juice, a touch of vanilla, and a last mischievous wink of coffee grounds.

Still, unlike the Rum Nation Jamaican White Pot Still 57%, the Angel’s Half French Oak Cask somehow missed the mark of having all these flavours blend together seamlessly (and that other one, you will recall, was utterly unaged); plus, it still feels a little too raw, which I imagine further ageing would iron out.  Yet I must concede the overall experience was pretty good, which speaks well for Nine Leaves’s expertise here.

The question that occurred to me was, for whom and for what is this rum made? I’d suggest it’s not for freshly press-ganged sailors in the Navy of Rum Appreciation, who are only now beginning their journey, or those who prefer more standard profiles – it really is too different for that. I think it’ll make a cocktail that’ll blow your socks off, and taken neat, with its heft and remarkably different, fresh profile, aficionados who drink a lot of rum would really enjoy it (as might maltsters).

Nine Leaves is worth keeping an eye on. Mr. Takeuchi is clear about his intention of keeping his distillery going for the long term, ageing the rums for longer periods, and developing his blending skills, his market, and his entire product range. He sees his enterprise as something of a constantly tweaked, incrementally refined project. That’ll surely be something to watch, in the years to come, for a rum maker who seems to enjoy running apart from the mainstream. Because already he has a made a good rum right out of the gate — one you will assuredly not mistake for any other.


Other notes

Forsythe copper pot stills are made in Scotland by the eponymous company, and while it’s now a smaller part of their overall business, they still handcraft them (as they have since 1890).  Nine Leaves’s model is supposedly similar to the one in business at Glenmorangie.

 

Aug 092013
 

D7K_2785

 

The DDL Superior High Wine is not superior and not a wine, but will get you high without breaking a sweat.

(#177. 79/100)

***

One of the first rums I ever had as a young man was this one, and the last time I drank was it nearly thirty years ago, when I was thinking of dropping out of University, depressed about my future, and downing a whole raft of shooters in a small beer garden one still, hot afternoon, with a bowl ’ice and my one-armed friend Greg from UG. A few weeks later my life changed and put me on the path that led to where I am now. Between then and now, not much has changed: it’s still very much a low-level, overproofed white lightning meant for local consumption not export, and it’s unlikely it’ll ever be seen much outside the West Indies. And, oddly, as I prepare to move my family abroad for a few years on another life-changing experience next week, this is among the last rums I’ll review for a while.

You’d think that this makes it a mere bathtub-distilled mess for the masses, with nothing to really recommend it (the Grenadian Clarke’s Court “Bush” variation I tried some years ago is another example), but you’d be wrong. That may be because even though it is filtered and beaten and bleached to within a whisker of resembling water, it’s actually made in one of the coffey stills at Diamond (I was told #3, which I think is one of the metal ones from the estate itself). And that lends the initial nose a surprising heft, quite aside from its 69% proofage.

The nose is, as a consequence, quite spicy, and herbal…grassy almost, like a steaming, sunlit meadow after a tropical rain. Chopped light/white fruits, citrus peel (lime) and a rather startling vein of brown sugar was actually in evidence as well. Oh, I won’t kid you, this thing is a rather savage animal and won’t play *that* nice with your schnozz – but even so, there’s quite a bit more action going on there than you’d imagine from something so easy to dismiss out of hand as a local tipple

D7K_2787

This schizophrenic character between texture and taste continued on the palate, which even for 69% is a bit…uncompromising (okay, it’s raw, sandpaper for the unprepared, so watch out – but it does even out after a minute). Spicy as all get-out, medium bodied (although I confess to thinking it pulled a neat shell game on me, and seemed fuller than it was, somehow), astringent and ego-withering as my Aunt Sheila in full flow, and remarkably dry (very much like Flor de Caña’s white dry rum). There’s a subtle agricole style to the whole experience, something about the cleanliness and herbal nature of the taste. Plus, I shouldn’t forget to mention additional flavours of vanilla, cinnamon bark, burnt sugar notes and a faint hint of caramel. And let me not kid you…sure the rum is strong, and I remarked it was sharp at the beginning, but once you start getting into it (or getting high), it smoothens out quite well, and becomes, on subsequent sips, a chain mail glove grasping your glottis, not a sushi knife. The finish is, of course, quite long, quite dry, and leaves a last flirt of almonds and vanilla to remember it by.

Like I said…a somewhat schizoid rum.

High Wine is what real men and porknockers drink in the Guyanese bush and whole swathes of society down by the pint in beer gardens up and down the coast. The men mix it rarely, and get paralyzingly drunk on it in labba time before going off to find a shady lady or a girlie magazine. Not for these guys the indifferent XM 5 year old, or even the King of Diamonds 5, let alone the nobler DDL rums we all know and appreciate. They want this one — cheap, clear and bludgeoningly powerful.

As it was then, so it is now. This is a romping, stomping, cheerful soldier’s and bushman’s rum, a blue collar love note to the working classes, and will never see the tables of the rich. It’s not one you’ll ever be comfortable putting on the top shelf:  your friends will probably laugh at you were you to trot it out like your firstborn for review. All the islands and all the rum producers have rums like this one, their almost unappreciated red-haired stepchildren, not entirely legit, not made for the upper crust, just for those who need to take the edge off once in a while without mucking around with “oak”, “vanillas”, “spicy tumeric background” or “a perky little nose”. It’s too raw and uncompromising for me to really recommend it neat, but you know, if you ever went down to Mudland, you really should try a shot, just the one time — perhaps with coconut water — just so you can say you have. It’s absolutely worth it for that.


Other notes

The Rum Howler, who gave me the bottle in late 2012, remarked that this iteration made from the Coffey still #3 will be discontinued sometime and production moved to the new multi-column still, but we’re both in the dark as to exactly when that was or will be.