Jan 122019
 

Hampden has been getting so much press of late that it’s only fair to have a look at the other products of the island, of which, these days, there are no shortages. For a long time these distilleries — with names geeks could recite in their sleep, like New Yarmouth, Innswood, Clarendon, Long Pond Monymusk, Worthy Park, Hampden — laboured in relative obscurity, living in J. Wray’s gargantuan shadow, selling mostly bulk rum abroad, or for the local market.

Somehow, though, the distilleries remained alive, and so did their names, their rums. While I’m by no means disparaging or downplaying the emergent reputations of these distilleries over the last half-decade or so as they began selling rums under their own brands, tropically aged and made in Jamaica (rather than just being a resource for others to tap), I think one of the reasons the layperson is even aware of them is because of the independent bottlers out of Europe, who for decades issued the occasional cask strength or watered down single-barrel release and kept the lesser-known marques of Jamaica alive.  (And that goes especially for WP, which was shuttered from 1960 to 2007.)

Most of the time, such bottlers never bothered with identifying the distillery of origin. Often it was just “Jamaica rum” and that was it. But in line with the recent interest in stills and distilleries (which perhaps originated in the Age of Velier’s Demeraras), the independents became more forthcoming with where their juice originated on the island.

This brings us to the Compagnie des Indes, founded in 2014 by Florent Beuchet, who, with the exception of their blends like the Dominador or Caraibes, has always placed rather more information than less on the labels of their rums – including that first set of cask strength bruisers marked “Denmark only”, which have caused nerds conniption fits and allowed the lucky Danes to preen unashamedly while glugging their personalized full proof juice. This one, distilled in 2007 (the first year of WP’s re-opening after being modernized) and bottled in 2016 at a solid 54.9%, was continentally aged and limited to 307 bottles, all of which ended up in Denmark.

Trying the rum in 2016, against its spectacular 7 year old brother (also from WP’s 2007 output) and again for this review, I was reminded how full proof Jamaican rums seem to step up their game and be ahead of living room strength rums by a country mile. It was lighter on the nose than the RN Supreme Lord 7 and Supreme Lord 8 which were also on the table that day; slightly funkier too, though restrained compared to the rutting jocks of the Hampdens or NRJ rums. Aromas of honey, dates, apricots, tart soursop and green grapes mixed it up nicely with some brine and olives, and a sly hint of flowers emerged after adding a few drops of water.

The palate was where it shone. It was warm, spicy and very clear, tasting immediately of brine, light nail polish remover, and also of lemon sherbet and mango ice cream. It presented firmly on the tongue, somewhat sharp without any jagged edges of confusing or conflicting tastes; as it opened it provided flavours of paint thinner, varnish and sweeter acetones, accompanied by light funk, vanilla, slightly bitter oaky tannins, which were in their turn superseded (but not eclipsed) by some caramel and brown sugar, dill and lemon zest. Really good balance, really well put together. It ended with a delightfully long and cruising finish, warm and solid, providing mostly tart background notes of half ripe mangoes, peaches, some caramel, and the vaguely bitter strength of some very strong black tea sweetened with condensed milk.

Worthy Park rums are interesting variations on the Jamaican style. Appletons are well made, elegant blends with a laid back sort of profile, while Hampdens are fiercely luxurious funk bombs, and Monymusk and New Yarmouth seem to exist on another plane of existence altogether (perhaps because they are relatively less well known). Worthy Park rums, though (those that I’ve tried, anyway) are light, crisp and clean, ester-rich, with delicate and precise lines of commingled flavour coiling through each and every one of them, only occasionally exploding into something more aggressive, and usually resting on a softer background that makes for a lovely sip.

Now, their own new tropically aged rums issued over the last few years are small masterworks (I think), yet we should not ignore the sterling efforts of the choices the independent bottlers made either, both before and during the current Jamaican Renaissance. This excellent rum is a good example of why that statement can be made, be absolutely true, and it burnishes and elevates the reputation of a distillery that is finally getting the respect it should have had long ago. I’ll be trying quite a few more of their rums in the months and years to come, that’s for sure.

(#588)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • For further reading on Jamaican rum distilleries, a good starting point is The Wonk’s Jamaican Cheat Sheet.
  • As far as I know the distillation apparatus is a Forsythe’s copper pot still
Dec 242018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#582)(89/100)


Other Notes

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

Dec 092018
 

Habitation Velier’s second edition of the distillate derived from Mount Gay, known as the Last Ward — a nod to the Ward family who ran Mount Gay for over a hundred years — retains much of what makes its 2007 sibling so special, but is a distinct and wonderful rum in its own right, if not entirely superseding its predecessor.  It comes close though, and does that by simply being a Barbados rum that blends a triple distilled pot-still distillate of uncommon grace and strength into something uniquely itself, leading us to wonder yet again (and probably muttering a fervent prayer of thanks at the same time) how such a rum could have been conceived of by a company that was always much more into traditional aged and blended fare.

Since much of the background data of the Last Ward was covered in the review of the 2007, here are the simple technical details for those who are into their numbers: triple-distilled in 2009 on a double retort pot still, laid to rest in ex-bourbon casks, completely aged in Barbados, and bottled in 2018 at 59% ABV after losing 64% to the angels. Oddly, the outturn is unknown…I’m still working on confirming that.

Right, so, well….what’s this rich golden-hued lass all about?  Any good?

Oh yes…though it is different – some might even sniff and say “Well, it isn’t Foursquare,” and walk away, leaving more for me to acquire, but never mind.  The thing is, it carved out its own olfactory niche, distinct from both its older brother and better known juice from St. Phillip. It was warm, almost but not quite spicy, and opened with aromas of biscuits, crackers, hot buns fresh from the oven, sawdust, caramel and vanilla, before exploding into a cornucopia of cherries, ripe peaches and delicate flowers, and even some sweet bubble gum. In no way was it either too spicy or too gentle, but navigated its way nicely between both.

The palate was similarly distinct and equally pleasant. Unlike the 2007 here was not a hard-to-separate (but delicious) melange of tastes folding into each other, but an almost crisp series of clearly discernible flavours, smooth and warm. There were ripe fruits – cider, apples, cherries, peaches – followed by almonds, cereals and vanilla, before doing a neat segue into salted butter, leather and a crisp snort of light citrus giving it some edge.  And then it faded gently into leather, smoke, fruits and lemon peel, exiting not so much with a flourish as a satisfied sigh that made one hasten to fill another glass just to get some more. A completely solid, well-made rum that would not be out of place with rums many times its age which get far more press.

Overall, it’s a rum hard to fault.  It’s smooth. It’s firm. It’s tasty.  It’s complex. It sells at a price that won’t break the bank and gives a bang-to-buck ratio that enhances its accessibility to the general audience out there who have always loved Mount Gay’s rums.  Perhaps after experiencing the originality and haunting quality that was the 2007 it’s hard to be so seminal a second time. But however you view it, from whatever angle you approach it, it’s a lovely rum based on solid antecedents and great traditions, and while I can’t speak for the greater rum-loving public out there, I know I loved it too, and would not be averse to splurging on a couple more bottles.

(#577)(87/100)

Dec 062018
 

 

Not only was the Antigua Distilleries’ English Harbour 1981 25 YO the very first rum review posted on this site, but for a long time it was also one of my personal top sipping rums (as well as the highest priced), and ever since, I’ve had a fond place in my heart for their work.  In 2017 I tried their new sherry matured rum and was impressed and intrigued at the directions in which they were going – but the 2012 rum issued the following year as part of the Velier 70th anniversary collection, that one was something really special. I haven’t tried the single barrel offering at 68.5% from this batch, but for my  money, this one at 66% is among the very best from Antigua I’ve ever tried.

The numbers almost tell the tale all by themselves: 1st limited cask release ever to come from the distillery; 6 years old; 26 casks (see note below); 44% angels share; 66% ABV; 70th anniversary edition; 212 g/hlpa congeners (which include more than just esters), placing it somewhere in the low end of the Jamaican Wedderburn category, or perhaps in the upper reaches of the Plummer. Distilled in 2012 on a continuous three-column still, and bottled in 2018, and with that, it’s not like we need to add anything else here, except perhaps to remark that these esters seem to have a differing nationality, because they sure don’t talk the same like the Jamaican bad boys from Long Pond

To be honest, the initial nose reminds me rather more of a Guyanese Uitvlugt, which, given the still of origin, may not be too far out to lunch.  Still, consider the aromas: they were powerful yet light and very clear – caramel and pancake syrup mixed with brine, vegetable soup, and bags of fruits like raspberries, strawberries, red currants.  Wrapped up within all that was vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and light citrus peel. Honestly, the assembly was so good that it took effort to remember it was bottled at a hefty 66% (and wasn’t from Uitvlugt).

The taste was similarly excellent, attacking strong and firm without sharpness; it was gently phenolic, with a hint of acetone, balsamic vinegar, veggie soup and crackers — nothing overpowering, though. These flavours were kept subservient to the more forward tastes of caramel, toffee, white toblerone chocolate and crushed almonds, and as I waited and kept coming back to it over a period of some hours, I noted flambeed bananas, salt butter and a very strong, almost bitter black tea. It all led to a rousing finish, quite long and somewhat dry, showing off final notes of aromatic tobacco, almonds, unsweetened chocolate, vanilla and yes, of course some caramel.

Wow! This is quite some rum. It’s well balanced, just a little sweet, tasty as all get out, and an amazing product for something so relatively young deriving from a column still – I’d say it is actually better than the 1981 25YO. It has enormous character, and I’d hazard a definitive statement and say that to mix it or add water would be to diminish your drinking experience – this is one of those hooches best had as is, honestly, and it delights and pleases and leaves you with a twinkle in your eye all through the tasting and after you’re done.  

Velier, who distributes the 2012 is not, of course, an independent bottler — if they were, they’d hype themselves out of shape, market the hell out of their own releases as Velier bottlings, and never give the kind of prominence to the distiller of origin as they have since the Age of the Demeraras. Luca has always respected the source of his rums, and felt he acted as a facilitator, an educator, bringing together three points of the triangle – his own ideas, others’ best rums and the audience’s amorphous, oft-unstated, unmet and unarticulated desires.  At the intersection of these forces lies the desire to find, to chose and to issue rums that are brilliantly assembled, superbly tasty, and exist to shed new sunshine on the land of origin in general and the distillery of make in particular. That’s exactly what’s been achieved here, with every one of their wishes being granted by what’s been trapped in the bottle for us to enjoy.

(#576)(88/100)


Other notes

  • Luca selected 27 barrels from the 2012 production of Antigua Distillers, but one was so exceptional he released it on its own at 68.5%.  The remaining 26 barrels were blended into this rum. The information is not noted anywhere but calculations suggest the outturn is just around five thousand bottles, maybe a shade more.
  • Some other reviews of this rum are from the Rum Shop Boy (scoring it 91), and Single Cask Rum (no scoring). The latter review has some good historical and background details on the company which are worth reading.
Dec 022018
 

Rumaniacs Review #087 | 0574

As with the Bucaneer rum in R-086, the Old Fort Reserve rum is from St. Lucia Distillers, and while it won an award in the 80-proof light category in an (unknown) 2003 “Rumfest”, it was withdrawn from the company’s lineup in that same year.  Bucaneer did not fit the portfolio as the company had decided to concentrate on brands like Bounty; and the Old Fort Reserve had a similar fate – it was overtaken by the Chairman’s Reserve brand.  What this means, then, is when you taste an Old Fort (and you are interested in such historical matters) then you are actually trying the precursor to one of the better known current St Lucia marks.

Although somewhat overtaken by developments in the rum world in the new century, back in the 1980s and 1990s, the Old Fort was considered to be the premium rum of the distillery, and was blended in such a way as to represent the best the company had to offer. As far as I know, it was 6-8 years old, matured in ex-bourbon casks (Note – the original Chairman’s Reserve was aged for 4½ years and then aged a further six months after blending so if the philosophy from Old Fort was continued then my ageing figures may be in error – I’m checking on that).

Colour – Gold

Strength – 40%

Nose – A little sharp, but also sweet, fruity (apricots, orange marmalade, ripe apples), dusty, dry with just a little honey, brine and pickled gherkins in the background.  Somewhat earthy and “dirty” at the tail end.  A nice nose, though demonstrating more promise than actuality.

Palate – Diluted syrup decanted from a tin of peaches.  Pears, cucumbers, sugar water, watermelon, and a nicely incorporated deeper tone of molasses and caramel.  Still somewhat briny, which gives it a touch of character that I liked, and some gently emerging notes of dill and cumin round off what these days is an unaggressive profile, but which back in the day was considered top of the line.

Finish – Longer than expected for standard proof, dry, dusty, salty finishing off with molasses and light fruits.

Thoughts – It’s unexceptional by today’s standards, and its successor the Chairman’s Reserve (especially the Forgotten Cask variation) is better in almost every way. But as a historical artifact of the way things were done and how rum brands developed on St. Lucia, it really is a fascinating rum in itself.

(77/100)


Other reviews by various members of the Rumaniacs can be found at the website, here.

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.
Oct 092018
 

L’Esprit, if you recall, is that little independent bottler in Brittany which is run by Tristan Prodhomme, and has the peculiar distinction of usually issuing the same rums in two iterations – a diluted, more numerous version at a lower proof for the general market, and another more limited one at cask strength (from the same barrel(s) for those who prefer a rum with some fangs.  They don’t range too far afield and stick with the regular rums of the pantheon – from Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Panama and so on, with an occasional divergence to Nicaragua and Belize and Haiti.

In the sense that L’Esprit is an independent bottler, they conform to most of the markers of the European indie scene – they regularly buy a few barrels from Scheer, issue a limited bottle set, and have an annual outturn.  They’re not out to reinvent the wheel, just to sell good quality hooch. What (to me) distinguishes them is the quality of what they push out the door, and even with the young rums, like this 8 Year Old Jamaican from Worthy Park, the quality of what they selected is self evident.

Speaking of Worthy Park: it is located in the parish of St. Catherine, and, like other Jamaican estates, is having something of a renaissance as the wave of tropically-aged, estate-made rums gathers steam – leaving aside Habitation Velier’s rums, they themselves have made quite a few interesting ones of their own (I have detailed files…).  Much like Hampden, they pride themselves on cool ester counts and their Forsythe’s double retort pot still delivers in spades when it comes to good rums. Like other Caribbean rum companies, they sell bulk rum abroad (mostly to Scheer), which is something of a double edged sword – other companies capitalize on the WP name and take the value-added revenue for themselves, but on the flip side, it allows WP to have a revenue stream, and introduces a far wider public to the qualities of their rums in a world where distribution arrangements can be a pain for a local company to negotiate.

So, given how many Jamaicans are on the scene these days, how does this young, continentally aged 55.9% golden rum fare?  Not too shabbily. It’s strong but very approachable, even on the nose, which doesn’t waste any time getting started but announces its ester-rich aromas immediately and with authority: acetone, nail polish and some rubber plus a smell of righteous funk (spoiling fruits, rotten bananas, that kind of thing).  Its relative youth is apparent in the uncouth sharpness of the initial aromas, but once one sticks with it, it settles into its own special groove, calms itself down and does a neat little balancing act between sharper scents of citrus, cider, apples, hard yellow mangoes and green grapes, and softer ones of bananas, cumin, vanilla, marshmallows and cloves.

The palate was rich as well, no surprises, though again, it started out quite sharp, almost jagged, spicy and hot.  The rum developed from sharp to soft much as the nose did, with many of the same flavours – brine, furniture polish, herbs, brine and olives to start with, green grapes, apple cider, aromatic tobacco and unsweetened dark chocolate, which gradually relaxed into a fruity cornucopia of overripe bananas and mangoes and apricots and guavas and pineapples, all bound up with vanilla, sugar water, a little caramel (very light), crackers, fanta and sprite.  As for the finish, that was very good, very long, very fruity, very soft…the slow meandering of a river that started out as a torrent of raging white water but was now serenely pushing out to sea without haste.

Overall, I was quite surprised at how much there was going on here.  For a rum this youthful and aged in Europe to boot, I expected more savagery and less control, fewer softened edges and more from the sharper side of the barrel.  Yet the oak remained in the background the whole while, the fruitiness and funk danced across the senses, and while the complexity and balance were both very well handled, it’s the development of the rum over two hours that held my attention.  It started off like a boss and then just…well, it just chilled and showed you a good time. In that it exceeded the Mezan WP 2005 which was older, while falling short of the exceptional Compagnie des Indes Jamaica WP 2007, which was younger.

Of the Jamaican rums now gaining greater appreciation, I must confess to my own liking for Hampdens – they’ve consistently scored higher (when taken in aggregate) than Appleton or Monymusk or Worthy Park, of which I have not had that many.  That this single rum could make me both discover and re-evaluate that unconscious preference, and encourage me to buy more from the estate – whether independently made or from WP itself, tropically aged or continental – is to the credit of both Tristan who released it, and Worthy Park who made it. It’s a quietly amazing rum that’s really a blast to try.

(#557)(86/100)


Other notes

  • A really good intro to Worthy Park comes from the pen of Steve James, here, as well as the Cocktail Wonk, here.
  • Most of the Worthy Park rums that have garnered attention of late have been the Habitation Velier expressions there are also Worthy Park’s own rums which were issued in 2017 to really positive feedback.  Transcontinental Rum Line, Mezan, Rum Nation, Bacardi (Single Cane brand), and some other smaller indies from around Europe have bottled rums from there as well.
  • L’Esprit’s presentation cases of small square 100ml bottles can’t be beat.  I’ve seldom seen any minis so sleekly attractive.

 

 

Sep 242018
 

By now just about anyone in touch with the rum blogosphere on social media is aware of the add-on to the Hampden Rums launch hosted by La Maison-Velier in September 2018: the “Rum Tasting of the Century” — though I believe the words “…so far” were were silently tacked on by some of us participants, hoping against hope for another (better, older) one before we get laid to rest like Nelson in a cask of DOK.  Nor are many unaware of the four aged unicorn rums we were privileged to try as part of the Tasting – Skeldon 1978, Bally 1924, Harewood House 1780, and the subject of this revisit, the Rhum des Plantations St. James 1885. 

I’d had the luck and good fortune to sample the St. James before and have written about it as part of the Rumaniacs.  This of course cut me absolutely zero slack with the attending Collective – because for all our camaraderie and friendship (online and off), we’re a cheerfully competitive bunch of people, and like to get our personal opinions settled (no others being as good as our own, naturally) before even acknowledging that someone else may have tried a particular rum in front of us.

Still, we had to get facts, and a lot of our preliminary conversations and subsequent texts and messages revolved around the data points, which are as follows: the rhum was made in 1885 on Martinique, and derived from cane juice that was boiled prior to fermentation.  Although the exact age is unknown, it was certainly shipped off the island before Mount Pelée erupted in 1902 and destroyed all stocks there, so at an absolute maximum it can be 17 years old. This is, however unlikely – few rums or rhums were aged that long back then, and the opinion of the master blender of St James (Mark Sassier) that it was 8-10 years old is probably the best one (Cyril of DuRhum has some additional details in his 2016 review) . Following the eruption of the volcano, the only remaining bottles were in Europe and gradually unsold ones were acquired (many from the cellars of Bardinet) and sent back to Martinique and put on sale.  Luca, who was a brand ambassador for St. James at one time, eventually acquired (or so legend goes) about 300 bottles in the 1980s. One of them, 47% ABV as tested in 1991, stood before us in a conference room in the Four Seasons in London overlooking theThames, awaiting our attention.

The first thing everyone remarked on about this rhum was the colour – a dark dark dark mud brown.  The second thing was the aroma. Without doubt this remained one of the richest rum smells of my own experience: it was redolent of coffee, licorice, coca-cola, bitter chocolate, coconut shavings accompanied by enormous notes of molasses.  There were, after some additional minutes, some light fruits and florals and lemon peel, but overall, it reminded one of nothing so much as a Demerara rum, not an agricole, and a really heavy, thick Demerara at that.

Though my tasting memories of the first 1885 rum I had tried three years earlier had faded somewhat, I still remembered much of the core profile, and these were back for an encore, with the same dull richness that made it so memorable back then. Bitter chocolate, nougat, nuts, grated coconut and coffee led off the charge, with flanking movements of licorice, caramel, coke and the noticeable leather and oak tannins that spoke to some ageing.  Fruits again – pears, orange zest, plums, blackberries. The texture on the tongue was heavy, stopping just short of cloying, and I must remark on the fact that it was overtaken a little too much by the forceful molasses tastes. Still, it was a great sip, and the rum glided smoothly to the finish with last notes of earthy mustiness, roasted chestnuts, molasses (of course), fast-fading fruitiness, dates and chocolate.

What a difference a mere three years makes.  In 2015 my sample of the Saint James 1885 got rated 90, and I commented favourably on its depth and complexity.  Certainly, compared to the rhums against which it was being tried that day (Barbancourt 25 YO and 15 YO, La Martiniquaise Rhum Pur, La Favorite 1990, and J. Bally 6 YO) and my own experience with uber-old spirits to that point, it was a score I have no problems defending.  However, since then I’ve tasted and gone into depth with and written about another 300+ rums, and quite aside from wry commentaries about not having a life, it’s clear that both increased experience and different comparators do make a difference in assessing the same rum years later.

On that basis, I’m going to rank it a few points lower this time, but in truth, the score is meaningless for a rhum this rare and that expensive and from so far back.  I think that for anyone who has opportunity to try a rum made over a hundred years ago, it’s enough to simply say that they drank it. It’s a window into perceiving French island’s rhum before agricoles became agricoles, before the AOC, before the production methodologies of today.  It promotes understanding of how rum has developed and changed over the decades and centuries, and if one is left with a single thought after the fact, it’s that it was and remains an experience to rival few others in our long journey of rum appreciation. That alone might be worth all the points anyone could ever give it.

(#551)(87/100)


Other Notes

Sep 022018
 

Back in early 2018, when I wrote about the Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, Ivar de Laat, one of the rum chums in Toronto, grumbled “I wish Mount Gay would be a little bolder. I find it all too friendly and not daring enough.”  Were he to try this one — at the time he had not — he might possibly reconsider the first part of that statement….but not necessarily the second. Because the XO Cask Strength is equally friendly as its lesser proofed predecessor…and definitely bolder.  Much bolder. And in that lies its attraction – that and its limited-edition premium cachet.

Though Mount Gay remains a major producer of quality Bajan rums and has a brand awareness quotient that’s pretty damned high (I named the standard XO one of the Key Rums of the World, remember), you get the sense that with the eyes of the rum world being dragged constantly to regard only Foursquare, it’s slipping in status.  Well, maybe. My own feeling is that this nicely presented edition is an answer to those who want the XO hauled into the current world of limited, full proof juice without reinventing Barbados rums in any particular or fundamental way.

You can’t fault the presentation or the stats (though you might balk at the price). The ovoid bottle is nicely labelled with the bottle number and Allen Smith’s signature, comes in a handsome wooden box with a small booklet in it that speaks to the rum. It doesn’t state the outturn on the label, but it’s 3000 bottles, a rum to mark fifty years of independence though itself it is not that old, being a blend of pot and column still rums aged between 8-15 years old (just like the regular XO, even if one gets the impression that certain select barrels were chosen here).  And of course the main selling point, the 63% ABV, Mount Gay’s first serious foray into these strong and dangerous rum currents.

Even ignoring the premium nature of it, the strength makes it a step up, because the entire profile is more powerful, more aggressive…much more solid. The assertive attack of the nose was a clear indicator that Mount Gay wanted to produce something to appeal to those who desired precisely that: it was hot and had a certain kind of fierce yet musky aroma redolent of a stable – dry, dusty hay, and leather. It developed further into caramel, nuts, almonds and dates and was very pleasantly deep and rich after opening up, with a fine line of bananas, peaches, light licorice, cognac and grapes lending a solid background to the smell, all really nicely done.

That high-proof solidity of taste was also evident on the palate, though here some sharpness could not be avoided at 63%. Initial flavours of carmel and vanilla, blended with some light fruits (grapes, bananas, peaches) which lent some balance, but which faded oddly and quietly and rapidly away – surprising for something so strong. But as a consolation there were also notes of coconuts, licorice, burnt sugar, almonds, cumin, oak, eucalyptus, and something faintly minty, gone in a flash.  Even the finish showed that some care and attention had been paid – it was long, dry, and left memories of hot and very strong black tea, caramel, oak, crushed almonds and vanilla.

A very nice, solid rum – if I had to sum it up in the fewest possible words I’d say it’s a cranked up and better XO (which I tried alongside it, mostly out of curiosity).  There’s nothing at all wrong with it – indeed, as noted above, it’s quite good – but conversely and paradoxically, nothing intensely exciting or exceptional about it either.  Certainly it has somewhat of a longer and more muscular leopard’s tail in its trousers, but it twitches much the same.

Because of the similarity in profile and naming, it’s almost impossible to get away from the inevitable comparison of the Cask Strength XO to the venerable and very well known standard version. The question is, I suppose, whether its worth five times as much, considering it’s “only” half again as strong, the profile is similar, the outturn is limited and the ageing is about the same (strip away the premium part and it may just be an undiluted XO).  Still, I don’t think premium rums can or should be approached from this kind of coldly mathematical perspective, since any product’s value (and quality) diverges geometrically away from price the higher one goes. The Mount Gay XO Cask Strength is a perfectly serviceable rum, solid, sober, strong, traditional, tasty, totally in line with its forebears – it’s may be buying at least once, even at the price, just for that, especially if one is into the Bajan canon. But if you’re looking for “daring” as well as “bold,” you may have to wait a little longer before the company puts one like that out the door. This rum is only halfway there.

(#545)(85/100)

Aug 182018
 

Over the years I’ve gone through a few Pacific island rums and while appreciative of their inventiveness, wasn’t entirely chuffed about them.  They had elements I liked and elements I didn’t, and on balance while they were workable rums, nothing to really get excited about…unless it was the Mana’o white, which was quite an animal, though it reinforced my appreciation for white rums rather more than it did for Tahiti.  In 2017, though, the Transcontinental Rum Line put out this 8 Year Old rum and when I tried it earlier this year, I was blatted into next week. I literally was so ensorcelled by the peculiar quality of the rum that I kept the glass recharged for five days, and kept coming back to it after each daily tasting session, just to see if I could come to grips with what made it so striking.

TCRL – the “Transcontinental Rum Line” – is the indie arm of la Maison du Whiskey out of Paris formed in 2016 and, like Compagnie des Indes with their evocative name, are using the title to tap into a myth pool of celluloid memories and old time images in our minds.  Seeing the label and hearing the name, we can pretend we’re in Edwardian times and travel on the old transcontinental ships of yore (that most of us would either have been serving the upper crust, crammed into steerage or cleaning the bilges is an inconvenient and unacknowledged side issue, because, y’know, downers like that don’t sell no rum).  Anyway, like all independents they issue rums at cask strength, provide all the now-normal exhaustive details on origin, strength, angel’s share…and one more. They are the only independent who, as far as I know, state exactly how much of their ageing is tropical, and how much continental (<1 year in this case for tropical, >7 years for continental).

That said, the still which produced this pale yellow 57.19% ABV rum remains an open question, though my personal belief is that it’s a column still product.  It certainly noses that way – aside from presenting as a fierce little young rum, it lacks something of the depth and pungency of a pot still spirit. However, that doesn’t matter, because it’s damn fine on its own merits – brine, olives, paint, turpentine, acetones, fresh nail polish, more brine and gherkins, and that’s just the beginning.  It has aspects that are almost Jamaican, what with a bunch of prancing dancing esters jostling for attention, except that the smell is not so crisply sweet. It develops very nicely into smoke, leather, linseed oil for cricket bats, more brine and oily smoothness. Like a set of seething rapids finished with the messing around, it settles down to a much more refined state after half an hour or so.

Although the nose was arresting enough in its own way, it was the tasting that made me sit up and take more notice. Smooth and quite strong, it tasted with force and originality, like its trousers were stuffed with midichlorians. Initial flavours were honey, glue, bananas, followed up with pears, coffee and coconut shavings.  Also, coming back to it over time, one can sense the slight syrupy sweetness of tinned peaches but with a moderating and welcome pinch (or three) of salt too (this eventually gets all huffy and walks away). Smoke, leather, some oaky bitterness, well controlled – I mean, it kept getting better and better as the hours ticked by, which was one reason I kept it on the go for so long.  Everything about it just came together really well, and while it did display some sharper notes and serrated edges that gave away its relative youth, I liked it for all its raw and uncouth power. Even the finish was quite original and showed its ongoing development, nice and long, dry, fruity, thick, and briny all at once, set off by a tiny breath of salted caramel ice cream.

The longer I spent with the rum, the more I appreciated it.  It has some ageing and it shows, yet also remembers its youth with zest and a sort of feisty exuberance that sets off the barrel time in fine style.  The esters and the brine and fruits and oak come together in a combination that other Fijian rums have attempted, not always successfully – here it works, and works really well.  It’s a bit unrefined here and there, lacks some polish – think of it as a Tiger Bay bad boy eating at the Ritz if you will – but even where it falters, it doesn’t fully fail. For all its faults, and fortunately there aren’t that many, this young Fijian 8 year old, for some peculiar reason, is one of the most memorable rums I’ve tried all year. TCRL really came out with a winner on this one.

(#540)(87/100)


Other notes