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

Jul 022018
 

The question that arises when drinking a rum that is 10 years old is whether the relatively placid 40% strength helps or hurts given our rather more discerning palates these days. The blended Jamaican XO from last week’s review, with its indeterminate age and provenance, succeeded modestly in spite of its wispiness because somehow the tastes still came through and provided a showcase for the style…and for its price it was a strong low-end contender that punched above its weight.  While the 2005 10 YO we’re looking at today is also bottled at that strength – subsequent editions are a bit stronger – it is quite a few rungs up the ladder. In fact, it’s a quietly successful offering from Mezan, and should not be passed over by those who disdain anything except cask strength juice.

Speaking immediately about the nose, even though the strength was the same, the 10 year old presented as much more emphatic and distinctive than the XO.  Bananas and lemons, brine, olives, vague sweetness. Time helped to some degree and after a while one could sense cherries, a little funkiness, unsweetened chocolate and a continual background of orange peel, all of which remained light and relatively unaggressive, but quite clear.

The taste was the part I liked this most, because it was light and clear…kinda flirty chirpy, even sprightly.  The 40% does no damage to the palate and is actually quite pleasing in its own understated way. Green grapes, apples, cider, raspberries, tart unsweetened yoghurt, chocolate and nuts underscored by the thin line of citrus peel, and supported by a faint but noticeable set of fleshier fruits (not-quite-ripe apricots and peaches and mangoes) – the funkiness of esters was there, just dialled down, which distanced it somewhat from more traditional hard-core Jamaicans that are getting all the press these days. The weakness of the rum as a whole was probably the finish, which was really too short and fine, and added nothing particularly new to the fruit basket or the tastes – some citrus, cherries, green apples and that’s about it.

Overall, I liked it but the distinctiveness of the estate profile refused to come through that general mildness, which is, of course, something of a fail mark for a country whose rums have been getting a lot of attention in the last few years.  A few extra points of proof would have helped a lot, I think — and indeed, Mezan have issued a 46% version of the Worthy Park 2005 in 2017 which I have not tasted, but which is likely to address the issue (this one was a 2015 bottling).

The finish and aftertaste of the Mezan 2005 (though not the nose and palate) to some extent suggest why some people do not entirely go for softer proof and continental ageing, which is what I believe this is. That final part of the experience is simply too nondescript and inconspicuous and over far too quickly.  But we should not be too quick to trumpet “tropical ageing only!” like it was some kind of universal truth, because we should keep in mind the sterling Worthy Park 7 YO 53% from the Compagnie des Indes, which was a better rum in every way and was also aged in Europe (note also Wes’s admiration for the 2015 10 YO Worthy Park from Kill Devil).  Also the fact that overall for its price, this is a pretty good rum for those who want to know more about the Jamaican style of Worthy Park without getting their faces ripped off by a hot blast of esters bolted to a cask strength bitch slap. On that level, I’d say it’s a qualified success.

 

(#524)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Worthy Park re-opened for business in 2005 after not having produced any rum since the sixties, so this is from the first year of issue.
  • Distillate comes from molasses and a Forsythe copper pot still.  Actual place of ageing is unknown, but I’m thinking it’s the UK, or maybe partial in both UK and Jamaica.
Jun 192018
 

It’s a curious fact that what might be the best all-round aged rum from Antigua is the one that is actually mentioned the least: you hear a lot about the popular 5 YO; the more exclusive 1981 25 YO comes up for mention reasonably often; and even the white puncheon has its adherents…but the excellent 10 Year Old almost seems to float by in its own parallel universe, unseen and untried by many, even forgotten by a few (I first looked at in 2010 and gave it a guarded recommendation).  Yet it is a dry and tasty and solid drink on its own merits, and if I had to recommend a rum at standard strength from the island, this one would absolutely get my vote, with the white coming in a close second (and may yet make the cut for the pantheon, who knows?).

There’s almost nothing going on with rum in Antigua that is original or unique to the island itself.  Even back in the old days, they would import rum and blend it rather than make it themselves. Since 1932 one distillery has existed on the island and produces most of what is drunk there using imported molasses – the long operational Antigua Distillery, which produced the Cavalier brand of rums and the English Harbour 5 and 25 YO  They used to make one called Soldier’s Bay, now discontinued, and a colourful local gent called “Bushy” Baretto blends an overproof he sources from them and then drags it down to 40% in a sort of local bush variation he sells (in Bolan, a small village on the west side of the island).

Since the source of all this rum made by Antigua Distilleries is imported molasses, there is no specific style we can point to and say that this one is “key” anything.  Also, they are using a double column still and do not possess a pot still, or a lower capacity creole still such as the Haitians use, which would distill alcohol to a middling 60-70% strength instead of 90%+ basis of their range that wipes out most of the flavours.  So again, not much of a key rum based on concepts of terroire or something real cool that is bat-bleep-crazy in its own way and excites real admiration.

With respect to AD’s other rums up and down the range — the 65% puncheon remains a somewhat undervalued and fightin’ white brawler; the (lightly dosed) 25 Year Old is too expensive at >$200/bottle and remains a buy for money-bagged folks out there; and the 5 YO has too much vanilla (and I know it’s also been messed with somewhat). Since 2016, the company has moved towards stronger, near-cask-strength rums, is experimenting with finishes like the sherried 5 YO and a madeira, and I know they’re doing some work with Velier to raise their street cred further, as well as sourcing a pot still.  But none of this is available now in quantity, and that leaves only one rum from the stable, which I have been thinking about for some years, which has grown in my memory, but which I never had a chance to try or buy again, until very recently. And that’s the 10 year old.

The nose begins with an astringent sort of dryness, redolent of burnt wood chips, pencil shavings, light rubber, citrus and even some pine aroma. It does get better once it’s left to itself for a while, calms down and isn’t quite as aggressive.  It does pack more of a punch than the 25 YO, however, which may be a function of the disparity in ages – not all the edges of youth had yet been shaved away. Additional aromas of bitter chocolate, toffee, almonds and cinnamon start to come out, some fruitiness and vanilla, and even some tobacco leaves.  Pretty nice, but some patience is required to appreciate it, I’d say.

The most solid portion of the rum is definitely the taste.  There’s nothing particularly special about any one aspect by itself  – it’s the overall experience that works. The front end is dominated by light and sweet but not overly complex tastes of nuts, toffee, molasses, unsweetened dark chocolate and cigarette tar (!!). These then subside and are replaced by flowery notes, a sort of easy fruitiness of apples, raspberries, and pears, alongside a more structured backbone of  white coconut shavings, dates, oak, vanilla, caramel. The finish returns to the beginning – it’s a little dry, shows off some glue and caramel, strong black tea. Oddly, it also suggests a herbal component and is a little bitter, but not so much as to derail the experience. Quite different from the softer roundness of the 25 YO, but also somewhat more aggressive, even though the proof points are the same.

So if one were to select a rum  emblematic of the island, it would have to be from this company, and it would be this one.  Why? It lacks the originality and uniqueness of a funky Jamaican, or the deep dark anise molasses profile of the Demeraras, or even the pot still originality of the St Lucian rums.  It actually resembles a Spanish style product than any of those. By the standards of bringing something cool or new to the table, something that screams “Antigua!” then perhaps the puncheon white should have pride of place.  But I feel that the 10YO is simply, quietly, unassumingly, a sturdy and well-assembled rum, bringing together aspects of the other three they make in a fashion that just succeeds. It is at bottom a well made, firm, tasty product, a rum which is pretty good in aggregate, while not distinguished by any one thing in particular. Perhaps you won’t hear the island’s name bugled loudly when you sip it…but you could probably hear it whispered; and on the basis of overall quality I have no problems including it in this series.

(#522) (83/100)

May 232018
 

Rumaniacs Review #079 | 0514

No, you read that right.  This bottle of a 1990s rum, from a company I never heard of and which no exercise of masterly google-fu can locate, which has a map of Jamaica on the label and is clearly named a Momymusk – this old and rare find says it’s a “Demerara” rum. You gotta wonder about people in them thar olden days sometimes, honestly.

W.D.J. Marketing is another one of those defunct English bottlers (I was finally able to find out it was English, released another Monymusk aged 9 years, and has been long closed, on a Swiss website) who flourished in the days before primary producers in the islands took over issuing aged expressions themselves.  What they thought they were doing by labelling it as a Demerara is anyone’s guess.  Rene (of “Rarities” fame) said it was from the 1990s, which means that it was issued when Monymusk came under the West Indies Sugar Company umbrella.  And although the label notes it was distilled in Jamaica and  bottled in England, we also don’t know where it was aged, though my money is on continental ageing.

Colour – Pale gold

Strength – 46%

Nose – Yeah, no way this is from Mudland.  The funk is all-encompassing. Overripe fruit, citrus, rotten oranges, some faint rubber, bananas that are blackened with age and ready to be thrown out.  That’s what seven years gets you. Still, it’s not bad. Leave it and come back, and you’ll find additional scents of berries, pistachio ice cream and a faint hint of flowers.

Palate – This is surprisingly sharp for a 46% rum.  Part of this is its youth, lending credence to the supposition that the ageing was continental. Fruits are little less rotten here…maybe just overripe. Bananas, oranges, raspberries, all gone over to the dark side.  A touch of salt, a flirt of vanilla, but the primary flavours of sharp acidic fruits and compost (and your kitchen sink grinder) take over everything. In short, it showcases a really righteous funk, plays hardass reggae and flirts a fine set of dreads.

Finish – Damned long for 46% (I’m not complaining), the sharpness toned down.  Gives you some last citrus, some peppercorns, a ginnip or two, and for sure some soursop ice cream.

Thoughts – What an amazing young rum this is. Too unpolished to be great, really, yet it has real quality within its limitations. If you’re deep into the varietals of Jamaica and know all the distilleries by their first names, love your funk and rejoice in the island’s style, then you might want to try sourcing this from Rene next time he drifts into your orbit. This thing will blow your toupee into next week, seriously.

(84/100)


Other notes

My notes have this as a 1960s rum, and Rene got back to me stating it was from the 1990s.  It’s very odd for a rum made that relatively recently, to have almost no internet footprint at all for both itself or its company of origin.

Apr 292018
 

Rumaniacs Review #076 | 0506

Ron Zacapa from Guatemala, now owned by Diageo, has been a poster boy for adulteration, over-sweetness and confusing (misleading?) labels for the entire time I’ve been reviewing rums.  The current late-2010s edition of the Centenario 23 (first introduced in 1976 and now dropping the “Años”) is still a crowd favourite…but here we have an older vintage, back when the wrapped bottle was still in vogue (Rum Nation copied it for the Millonario 15 when Zacapa discontinued it some years ago)…and if scuttlebutt is to be believed, this thing really is 23 years old, before they started solera-izing it in the current iterations. But about that I have my doubts – I respectfully submit it was always a solera, and it’s just that as everyone found out about it the label had to be changed.

Colour – Amber

Strength – 40%

Nose – Quite thick and rich, redolent of brown sugar, chocolate, molasses and coffee. Not overly complex, little in the way of additional flavours, except for some toblerone, vanilla, cinnamon and honey.  Some sherry and vague fruity notes.

Palate – Soft, very easy, almost no bite at all – I’d call it unadventurous. Walnuts and raisins mixing it up with chocolate and toffee with a little alcohol.  A faint bitterness of black tea, some honey, vanilla, a few raisins, brown sugar, caramel, cinnamon….overall, not so much tamed as simply easy, no effort required. However, note that it’s not as sweet as the current versions available on the market, just sweet enough to be noticeable.

Finish – Short warm and smooth, mostly caramel, a little (very little) fruit, coffee and liqueur. Gone in a heartbeat, leaving not even a smile behind.

Thoughts – I can see why it remains a crowd pleaser, but the decision to stop with this blend and go with the “modern” Zacapas now on sale was (in my opinion) a mistake. This slightly older version of the rum is marginally better, has at least some character and isn’t destroyed by additives or sweet quite as badly.  Even so, it remains a rum to appeal to the many rather than the few, and all it remains for the dedicated is a pleasant after-dinner digestif as opposed to something to place on the top shelf.

(75/100)

 

Mar 112018
 

#495

Some time ago I called Mount Gay XO one of the Key Rums of the World, and observed that it longevity, decency and general all-purpose usefulness created a shadow in which all subsequently issued Bajan rums to some extent had to live.  Times moved on and other profiles started to take precedence in the rumiverse, but Mount Gay, however delinquent in moving into the limited edition or cask strength landscape so effectively colonized by Foursquare, did not entirely rest on its laurels, and did try to experiment here and there to see what else they could pull out of their trousers (their recent foray into flavoured categories like the Mauby is a case in point).

The Black Barrel, introduced in 2013, was one of these.  It was never quite a mainstream MG rum like the XO – which can be found practically everywhere and is known around the world – but it was and remains an interesting variation on the core concept of a pot and column still blend bottled a few points above the norm (43%).  Its claim to distinction (or at least difference) was to have a secondary ageing in heavily charred ex-bourbon barrels, and it was specifically created, according to Master Blender Allen Smith, to provide a versatile best-of-both-worlds rum – a better than average near-premium that could just as easily be used in a cocktail, and particularly to appeal to bourbon drinkers.

That might be the key to its profile, because unlike caskers and single barrel rums which almost demand to be sipped (so as to extend the enjoyment you feel you deserve after forking out three figures for one), the Black Barrel was designed to both do that or be mixed, and whether that duality and the lack of an age statement helps or not, well, that’s for every individual drinker to decide for themselves.

For me, not entirely.  For all its appearance of small batch quality (label has each bottle individually numbered and Mr. Smith’s printed signature on it), there was little to mark it out as being something exceptional – though admittedly it did diverge from the XO in its own way.  It presented an initial note of light acetones and nail polish, 7-Up and a lemon meringue pie, delicately creamy with citrus, tart apples, and a lot of vanilla, under which could be sensed some ripe bananas. “Light and frothy,” my notes went, “But where’s the exceptionalism?”

Exactly, and that was also the issue with the taste.  It came on somewhat sharply, and with some salt and very light olive-y profile (that was good), and as it opened up and I came back to it over time, further hints of apples, pears, salt caramel, almonds, coconut and bananas made their presence known.  Molasses, somewhat surprisingly, took a back seat, as did the citrus notes, both of which could be sensed but were so light as to almost disappear into the background altogether. The vanilla, on the other hand, was right there, front and center, and it all faded out fast in a rather short finish that coughed up a few last tastes of a citrus-flavoured yogurt, some woody and smoky notes, more vanilla and a final touch of caramel.  

The Mount Gay Black Barrel, then, was well made and nicely assembled – but originality was not exactly its forte. The balance tilted too heavily to the influence of the char (maybe that was the intent?), and wasn’t quite up to scratch for me.  The whole experience was also not so much light as underperfoming … more than a youngish rum (it’s actually a blend of rums aged 7-12 years) could have been expected to present. In that respect, the makers were absolutely right – the rum could just as easily be taken neat as mixed up with something to create a cool cocktail with an evocative name, redolent of Barbados.  What it meant to me when I was sorting out my thinking, was that it was mostly another rum to round out the overall portfolio of the Mount Gay line than anything so original that it would supplant the XO in the opinion of its adherents. Perhaps it would have been better off trying to be one or the other, sipper or mixer, than uneasily straddling the divide between them both.  Rums that fail at this balancing act tend to have very long shelf lives, as this one will probably have on mine.

(82/100)