Mar 112018


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.


Mar 032018


Rumaniacs Review #075 | 0492

Revisited over nearly three years, the seemingly underproofed 43% 2005 Neisson has grown in my estimation; indeed, it wasn’t until I was doing up my tasting notes that I recalled the initial review (R0273 / 86 points) done back in 2015, and realized that it was even better than I recalled, back when Neisson was still too strange, too new to my agricole experience, for its qualities to shine through.  Good thing the Sage sent us some more to try, then, because perhaps now I can be more enthusiastic about it.

Colour – Amber

Strength – 43%

Nose – Starts off by being a traditional Neisson nose, all tequila, olives, brine, caramel and citrus, very well handled, nothing excessive, all in harmony.  Then things start to get interesting. Pears and hard yellow mangoes (the sort Guyanese like having with salt and a really hot pepper), chocolate, some soya.  Also tobacco, peaches, fennel and rosemary, and the thick scent of a bouquet of roses on Valentine’s Day.

Palate – Interesting three card trick here: it’s both solid and light and creamy all at the same time, and that’s not something I see often.  Salt butter, more mangoes, papayas, watery pears, citrus peel (lemon rather more than lime, I’d say), flowers, aromatic cigars and coconut dusted white chocolate.  The briny aspect takes a back seat, which is good because it allows a faint note of caramel to emerge as well.  Just lovely.

Finish – 43% isn’t going to give up much, and so the fade is short…but also quite aromatic.  Citrus, salty caramel ice cream, ripe green apples and pears.  And a hint of coffee again. It doesn’t come to an end with either a bang or a whisper, but sort of a quiet, easy lingering fade that makes you want to savour the experience.

Thoughts – After running past nine Neissons blind, it came as somewhat of a surprise to me to appreciate that this one, with the weakest ABV of the lot (by a small margin), was also the best.  There’s something about the way the bits and pieces of its profile meld and merge and then separate, giving each a small and defined moment of sunshine on nose and palate, that is really quite lovely. It’s tasty, it’s complex, it’s smooth, it’s all ’round good. It’s one of those rums I bought on a whim, was excellent then…and has grown in stature for me ever since.  Rightfully so.


  • WhiskyFun reviewed this rhum a few months back in a multi-rum session, here….he scored this one at 92. Future Rumaniacs reviews of the Neisson line, when others get around to them, will be posted here. Also, Laurent “The Man with a Stroller”, gave it a French language, unscored review (part three his four-part Neisson roundup, see Parts [1][2][3][4]), which is well worth a read.
Feb 262018


Don’t get so caught up in the Velier’s 70th Anniversary bottlings, their dwindling Demeraras or the now flavour-of-the-month Caronis, that you forget the one-offs, the small stuff, the ones that don’t make waves any longer (if they ever did).  Just because the Damoiseau 1980, Courcelles 1972, Basseterre and Rhum Rhum lines don’t make headlines while the aforementioned series do, is actually a good reason to try and find them, for they remain undiscovered treasures in the history of Velier and are often undervalued, or even (gasp!) underpriced.

One of these delightful short form works by La Casa di Gargano is the Basseterre 1997, a companion to the Basseterre 1995, which I thought had been an excellent agricole (scored 87), if, as I mentioned in the review, somewhat overshadowed by other aspects of Luca’s oevre.  I had sourced them both, but for some reason got sent two of the 1995 and none of the 1997, and was so pissed off that it took me another two years to grudgingly spring the cash for another 1997 (if you’re interested, I gave a Danish friend the extra 1995, unopened).

The two Basseterre rhums have an interesting backstory.  Back in the mid 2000s, Velier had its relationship with Damoiseau in place and Luca, as was (and is) his wont, struck up a friendship with Sylvain Guzzo, the commercial director of Karukera, and asked him to sniff around for some good casks elsewhere in Guadeloupe. In these cynical and pessimistic times we cast the jaundiced eyes of aged streetwalkers at remarks like “he did it for me entirely out of friendship, not money” but knowing Luca I believe it to be the unvarnished truth, because he’s, y’know, just that kind of guy. In any event, some barrels from Montebello were sourced, samples were sent and a deal struck to issue them under Velier’s imprimatur.  Luca is by his own admission a lousy painter, and therefore worked with a young architectural student from a university in Slovenia to design the labels with their abstract artwork and was going to use the Montebello name on them…before that company saw the Velier catalogue, had a lawyer issue a cease and desist order, and that plan had to change on the spot.  So after considering and rejecting the name “Renegade” (maybe that would also have created problems) the label was quickly amended to “Basseterre” and so it was issued.

Anecdotes aside, what have we got here? A Guadeloupe column-distilled 49.2% ABV rhum from the Carrere distillerie more commonly called Montebello, located just a little south of Petit Bourg and in operation since 1930.  Curiously, it’s a blend: of rhum agricole (distilled from cane juice) and rhum traditionnel (distilled from molasses).  Aged…well, what is the age?  It was put in oak in 1997 then taken out of the barrels in 2006 (again, just like the 1997 edition) and placed in an inert vat until 2008 for the two divergent strains to marry.  So I’m calling it a nine year old, though one could argue it sat for 11 years even if it was just twiddling its thumbs for two. And as noted above, there’s a reason why Sylvain’s name is on the back label, so now you know pretty much the same story as me.

Even now I remember being enthused about the 1995, though it had issues with how it opened.  That level of uncouth seemed to be under greater control here – it was somewhat sharp, sweet and salty at the same time, just not in a messy way.  The lighter sweet started to become more noticeable after it began to morph into honey and floral notes, plus anise, a little cumin, and softer, riper fruits such as bananas.  Under that was a nice counterpoint of well-behaved (if the term could be applied without smiling) acetone and rubber and an odd ashy kind of smell which was quite intriguing.  In fine, the nose was a really nice and complex to a fault, quite impressive.

I also had no fault to find with the palate which reminded me right off of creamy Danish cookies and a nice Guinness.  A little malty in its own way. It was very clear and crisp to taste, with brine, aromatic herbs (dill, parsley, coriander), spices (cumin leavened with a dusting of nutmeg), honey, unsweetened yoghurt, and a light vein of citrus, out of which emerged, at the end, some coffee grounds and fleshy, ripe fruits, all of which was summed up in a really good fade, dry and well balanced, that went on for a surprisingly long time, giving up gradually diminishing notes of anise, coffee, fruits and a little citrus.

The rum really was quite a good one, better than the 1995, I’d suggest, because somehow the complexity was better handled and it was faintly richer. It’s great that they are not well known, which keeps them available and reasonably priced to this day, but it’s too bad there were only two of these made, because unlike the Demeraras or Caronis there is not a great level of comparability to go on with.  Be that as it may, the fact remains that these smaller editions of more limited bottlings — which don’t have the hype or the glory of the great series for which Velier is justly famed — are like Stephen King’s short stories tossed off between better known doorstopper novels like “It”, “Duma Key”, “The Stand” or The Gunslinger Cycle. Yet can we truly say that “Quitters Inc” “The Ledge” or “Crouch End” are somehow less?  Of course not. This thing is a sweet, intense song on the “B” side of a best selling 45 – perhaps not as good as the bestseller which fronts it, but one which all aficionados of the band can justly appreciate. And speaking for myself, I have no problem with that at all.


Other notes

  • Outturn is unknown
  • Background history of the company can be found at the bottom of the 1995 review
Feb 202018

Rumaniacs Review #074 | 0490

Almost the last of the Neissons in the current Rumaniacs lineup – and nothing at all wrong with this one either, because Neisson’s overall quality has been remarkably consistent throughout the various samples, and while there are variations in minor points throughout, the bottom line is that aged or young, strong or easy, they are all – all – of a high standard.  My love for French Island rums trends more towards Guadeloupe, but if I ever saw a Neisson from Martinique sitting on the shelf, it would always be one I gave serious consideration to buying, because I know it’ll be a cut above the ordinary, every time, no matter which one it happens to be.

Colour – Dark Gold

Strength – 45.8%

Nose – It’s hot on the initial nose, this one, quite spicy, with bitter chocolate, coffee grounds and salt caramel notes to lead in with. As is normal, resting for a few minutes allows the secondary aromas to come forward – peaches, apricots, ripe red cherries, anise and a background line of citrus and unsweetened yoghurt.  Some tequila, salt and dark damp Demerara sugar, just a bit

Palate – Umm, I like this one.  More chocolate, a little sweet – it’s warm to taste, but the spice and sharp has been dialled down some.  Sweet soya, orange peel, also coke and fanta (a kind of soda pop taste), more coffee grounds, and very little of the more herbal, grassy flavour, though some of that does poke its head up here or there like a shy gopher from its hole.  There’s also some camphor like medicine to be noted, leavened with softer hints of coconut cream and maybe bananas.

Finish – Short and easy, caramel and citrus that remind me of those chocolate oranges.  It’s a little sharp, adding a few extra fruits and lemon grass to round out the experience.

Thoughts – Some issues with the assembly here.  Not entirely enthused about the way all the various flavours careen off each other instead of holding hands and coming together. It may also be the brashness of high-spirited youth where heat and spice and integration are still being worked on.  But what the hell.  It’s still a pretty decent and complex dram for anyone who enjoys the style.


Feb 132018

Rumaniacs Review #073 | 0488

So here we’re moving Neissons into the 2000’s series of rums and leaving the 1990s behind.  Those were pretty good, all of them, so did that track record of cool continue?  I think so.  What strikes me about all these Neissons of whatever age or provenance, is their overall consistency.  There are points of difference in all of them, of course, but I would be hard pressed to do a blind horizontal tasting and be able to tell you which one was which – they all cluster around the same level of quality. And no matter which one you get, there’s hardly a dog in the lineup, and if one or two don’t ascend to the heights, that’s still no reason to give them a miss.

Colour – Amber

Strength – 43.1%

Nose – This is well assembled, presenting light melded aromas of tequila (including the salt and lemon) and brown sugar, dusted with herbs: dill, sage and a little thyme.  The brininess is held back nicely and with the citrust zest threading through it, what I recall most clearly is a Thai curry with lime leaves thrown in.  Aside from these more dominant scents, there’s also some peaches, cucumbers…and a waft of a delicate perfume, like Anaïs-Anaïs, maybe.  Overall, a really good nose.

Palate – The lightness continues, if somewhat at right angles to what the nose suggested, even if much of the good was retained. Aromatic tobacco, fireplace ashes, vanilla, those herbs again, sweet red olives (the brine, it should be noted, as with the nose, was dialled down here), lemon peel, tumeric and cumin.  Although the 43.1% is a delicate in terms of the components, overall the mouthfeel seems a little rough, and I no longer wonder that it wasn’t made a shade stronger.

Finish – Light and somewhat short, no surprise.  Sugar water infused with green tea, cumin, a little fruitiness and flowers.

Thoughts – Not the best of the lot, no.  It’s got some character, a little roughness, and somewhat less of the fine integration of the 1993 (R-069) or 1994 (R-070).  But for something this young to be as good as it is, now that’s a fine feat by any yardstick.


Laurent hasn’t dealt with this one in his four-part Neisson roundup (see Parts [1][2][3][4]), but WhiskyFun did indeed look at it in his multi-rum session, here. He scored it 86.

Feb 042018

Photo shamelessly cribbed from


Ever notice how on the British West Indies there are just a few or just one big gun per island or country — like DDL, Appleton, Mount Gay, Foursquare, Angostura, St Lucia Distilleries, St Vincent Distillers, Rivers Royale, and so on — while the smaller islands from the French side like Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Mauritius seem to have little outfits all over the place?  I don’t know what’s behind that – maybe it has to do with the commercial cultures of each sphere.  Whatever the case, one can’t fault the results of multiple distillers competing fiercely for global bucks and worldwide street cred, because it all redounds to the benefit of us rum chums, and these distillers sure haven’t let a few centuries of experience wither on the vine and be forgotten.

Consider, for example, J.M., which is among the last of the family operated independent distillers operating on Martinique: the initials refer to Jean-Marie Martin, a previous 19th century owner, and the estate has its origins with the famed Pere Labat way back in the 1700s, though it has changed hands several times since then.  With the surge of interest in agricoles over the last five years or so their profile has been raised somewhat, with good reason – what they make is damned fine: I’ve tried three of their rums so far, none of which scored less than 86, and this one, issued at 47.2% is just as good as the others.

Just as a side note, there are two variations of the Millesime 2000 – one was bottled in 2009 at 47.2%, which is this one, an eight year old; and another one bottled in 2016 at a lighter 41.9%, a fifteen year old.  The one I have is something of a premium edition, a numbered bottle meant to celebrate the arrival of the 2000s, silver-wrapped green bottle and enclosure, pretty cool looking.  Samples came courtesy of (and with thanks to) Cyril of DuRhum and Laurent of “Poussette” fame, and I’ve pilfered Cyril’s picture to give you a sense of how it looks.

What was surprising about the AOC rum was how it nosed more traditionally – creme brulee and cheesecake to start with, backed up by a very light line of acetone and furniture polish (!!)…not quite the profile I was expecting.  Still, these aromas developed over time to a more commingled crushed apple juice, together with honey, raisins, cream soda, nutmeg and cinnamon, and it was all quite delicate and clear — only after about fifteen minutes or so did additional fruits, herbs and the characteristic grassy and citrus smells start to poke through, adding some nuts and light oak to the whole mix.

Tastewise it was just lovely.  Light and perfumed – the strength was perfect for what it presented –  with lots of delicate breakfast spices, grass, citrus, herbs, smoke, leather and woods.  Florals were more noticeable here, frangipani and hibiscus, plus a more salty profile taking the front seat as well – brine, olives, cream pie crust, cereals, toblerone, white chocolate and almonds.  It was very well balanced off between these tastes, and was not so much crisp as simply well integrated and easy.  The fruits in particular were hard to distinguish…they existed the notes of green grapes, some apples and pears took some time to ferret out, and I felt the vanilla became somewhat over-dominant towards the end, obscuring other aspects which worked better.  The finish gave no cause for complaint, though — short, as was to be expected, with nutmeg, vanilla, aromatic tobacco, orange zest and some more light fruits.

Overall, this was one of the better agricoles I’ve had over the years. It was another one of those JM rhums which defined itself by being quietly unique in its own way, while never entirely losing touch with those aspects of the agricole world which make them such sought after products in their own right.  Our senses are led gently through its composition, the high points hinted at without being driven home with a bludgeon and it has a quiet voluptuousness which is never punched up or intrusive. This is a rum we don’t tipple or swill or cautiously sip – we sample its languourous charms, enjoy the experience, and glide through to an appreciation of its construction.  And when it’s over and the glass is empty, we may not entirely recall the experience with clarity…we just know we would be fools if we didn’t pour ourselves another glass. It’s that kind of rhum.


Jan 072018

Rumaniacs Review #067 | 0476

Neisson out of Martinique must have had a particularly good year in 1991, because there’s no shortage of rhums bearing that number, up to and including the Armada Millesime and the 1991-2001 edition, both of which are rarer than hen’s teeth and fetch four figure prices.  Matters are confused somewhat by the various editions being of similar strength (45.3% in this case) and not always being clear (on the bottle label at least) as to which year it was bottled, leaving the specific edition and true age somewhat in doubt. This one, according to my Rumaniacs’derived sample, is from 1997, making it a 6 year old rhum.

For a quick recap, Neisson is not only  the smallest distillery in Martinique, and possibly the last remaining truly independent one, but also one of the most distinctive, something I’ve remarked on before with all the rums I’ve been fortunate enough to try so far. Let’s see if a few more can add some data to the oeuvre.

Colour – Amber-gold

Strength – 45.3%

Nose – Starts easy, yet with enough bite to announce itself.  Salty pecans, licorice, caramel and raisins (not really the opening I was expecting from an agricole, to be honest).  It’s also light with florals, some nuttiness and a blade of pungent crushed lime leaves running through it. Grasses and herbs stay well back, and it morphs nicely into a sort of fanta-orange juice blend, combining snap with tastiness.

Palate – Pleasingly light and quite crisp, the agricole origins are more clear here, more forcefully expressed. Orange peel, coffee, bitter chocolate, brine and some oak.  There’s less salt here than others I’ve tried, and a background of coca-cola and peaches in cream that don’t integrate as well…yet, somehow, it all still works

Finish – Grasses, cane juice, brine, white pepper and still a vague memory of lime leaves remains to tease and promise. Nice!

Thoughts – It’s sort of surprising that the salty-oily tequila notes I’ve commented on before are very subdued here, but I’m not complaining, because for a six year old to present this well, is a pleasant experience.  I started my first session by rating it at 83, but it grew on me and I revised that score upwards. Though given that Neisson is adhering to the AOC standards and doesn’t mess around with additives and continues to make excellent rhums year in and year out, perhaps I shouldn’t have expected any less.


Since we all got our samples together but Serge is faster on the draw, WhiskyFun took a gander at a bunch of Neissons a few months back (same as I’ll be doling out over the next weeks) in a multi-rum session, here. All the Rumaniacs reviews of the Neissons will be posted here.

Dec 132017


Velier’s Last Ward is an elegaic and haunting rum that evokes memories of old times and old places, yet is brought smack bang up to date for the modern connoisseur and rum lover.  It is a summing up of all things Mount Gay that matter if you’re in tune with it, just a really good rum if you’re not, and is one to savour and appreciate and enjoy no matter what your state of mind or preference in rum.  One can only wonder, with all the great distilleries that are represented in the independent bottlers’ more popular and better-known wares, how a small batch production like this one was ever conceived of, let alone made it out to the general marketplace.  It is one of the best rums from Mount Gay not actually sold under the brand.

The “Last Ward” is about as evocative a title for a rum as I’ve ever come across.  It breathes of Barbados, of history and of rum. It speaks to the Ward family who ran Mount Gay for over a century (Aubrey Ward acquired it in the early 1900s) and still appear to have involvement with the company which was officially in existence since 1703 (unofficially much before that) and acquired in 1989 by Remy Cointreau. Frank Ward started producing a brand called Mount Gilboa in 2007, naming it after the original plantation and distillery before it had been renamed in 1801 after Sir John Gay Alleyne, whom John Sober had inveigled to manage the new company when he had bought it in 1747.

Did all that history and age and heritage translate into a rum worth drinking?  It’s not always the case, of course, but here the answer is a firm yes. It started with the nose, where the very first word of my notes is “Wow.” It was smooth and heated, handling the 59% ABV quite well, smelling of furniture polish, leather, light flowers, bags of white chocolate, nougat, toblerone, coffee grounds and salt caramel.  It was aromatic enough to make me think of a warmer, softer Savanna Lontan, to be honest, and continued with almonds, pecans and vanilla, all of which harmonized into a nose one might not initially pick out as specifically Bajan, but which was definitely worth spending some time with.

The palate developed with somewhat more force, being sharp and intense without losing any of the aromatic character I liked so much on the nose.  Oak took more of a leadership role here, and behind it coiled flavours of flowers, citrus and marzipan. Letting it stand for some time (and later adding some water) cooled it down and allowed other components to emerge – bon bons, more caramel, coconut shavings, bananas, white chocolate, tied together with a vague complementary sweetness which made the whole experience a very approachable one. The sharpness and intensity which began the taste was almost totally morphed to something quieter and by the time the finish arrived.  And that was very pleasant indeed, long lasting, sweet, with caramel and vanilla walking a fine line next to orange peel and nuttiness.

Almost everything about the production details is stated clearly on the label in a fashion that shames brands who indifferently genuflect to the concept (like for instance the Dictador Best of 1977, remember that?): double retort pot still origin; triple distilled in 2007, aged ten years in Barbados with an angel’s share of 65%, no sugar, issued at a robust 59% ABV. About the only thing missing is in what kind of barrels it was aged in, but those are ex-bourbon, so now you know as much as I do. (As an aside for those who like such details, the still is made by McMillan from Scotland, who are still in business making copperware for distilleries the world over, and have been ever since their founding in 1867).

Mount Gay has now started producing its cask strength series of the XO (63%) which I thought was very good, a German indie called Rendsburger made a 1986 Rockley Still 18 year old rum I quite liked, and we’ve been trying WIRD rums for years now — these demonstrated with emphasis and aplomb what could be done even if you didn’t hail from Foursquare…and this rum is as good as almost all of them. Just about everything works here, comes together right – it finds the intersection of a name redolent of memory, a presentation in quiet pastels, all married to a profile of strength, reasonable complexity, and, dare I say it? – even beauty.  

If I had any note of caution to sound about the matter, it’s that those who like fierce and brutal purity in their cask strength rums might not entirely appreciate one which is firm rather than sharply distinct, and rather more diffuse and melded together in a way that makes individual notes lack a certain clarity; and the pot still heritage is not as evident as I might have liked – but to me that’s a minor whinge….overall, this thing is good. The Last Ward is a like a WIRD rum taken out to left field and torqued up to just about the max, and represents a triumph of the imagination as much as the better known Foursquare Exceptional Cask series or Mr. Seale’s collaborations with Velier. It may not entirely beat the Foursquare 2006 10 year old, but believe me when I say that that is no reason to leave it on any shelf where you see it.


Other notes

Both The Fat Rum Pirate and Single Cask Rum, whose reviews are also available, noted that it derived from 19 of the oldest barrels remaining. Luca got back on to me and aside from confirming the 19 barrel number, said the actual outturn was 4,746 bottles.


Nov 212017


The nose of the seven year old 57.3% Bielle is deceptive in the extreme, quiet and camouflaged, and sneaks up on you like a spec ops team on dawn patrol through a foggy jungle.  At first there’s not much…vague hints of grass, sap and sweet honey. Maybe some herbs, an earthy sort of musk. A flower or two.  It’s all very commonplace for a Guadeloupe rhum and you might think after a few seconds of careful sniffing, “What, is this all there is?” …before it opens up and then it’s like Major T.J. Kong cheerfully went on the offensive big time, with a fusillade of additional smells emerging as if from ambush: citrus, herbs, dill and cloves zipping around, followed by the solid crump-crump of honey, more caramel and eucalyptus oil. Whew! The Bielle 2007 might have started inoffensive and easy but it sure knew how to make up for lost time once it got going.

And if the nose is a gradually unfolding escalation, well, the palate is like a full scale battle joined between opposing forces in love with all their laser-guided precision artillery. It was sharp and light and furious all at once, a bombardment of delicious flavours, throwing shards of flowers, honey, wet green grass, bananas, pears, watermelon, olives, and cane juice sap with all the insouciance of a bird-colonel in the suck testing out his latest hi-tech toys.  Add a little water and spices emerge, precisely, forcefully, tastily – cinnamon and nutmeg for the most part, some cloves, as well as sugar water, and even a touch of brine.  And it all leads to a long and rather sharp denouement, crisp and yet warm, redolent of caramel, citrus, tannins and smoke. Bit of a comedown, here, balance was slightly off, sharpness a tad too much…we may have burnt the rum in order to save it, Cap’n.

Okay, so this is perhaps overly metaphorical for a rum review, an armchair rumwarrior’s idle fascination with military exercises (though at least it’s a fun digression from standard tasting notes, I suggest).  But the tastes and sensations were there, as described, and any rum that can inspire such daydreams is worth a look, right? It presents as quite a fascinating piece of work, and those were the thoughts that ran through my mind on an afternoon when I perhaps had too much time on my hands. Each morsel of flavour arrived precisely, pirouetted, fired off a volley, shouldered arms and then marched off. It was great.

Bielle is not a company whose wares I’ve seen or tried much of – in fact, that was the reason I bought this one (and the Dillon, from last week).  Located just south of dead centre on the tiny island of Marie Galante (itself south of Guadeloupe), Bielle was a small sugar plantation dating back to the late 1700s, named after Jean-Pierre Bielle (he also owned a coffee shop), which went through a series of owners and went belly-up in the 1930s; it was eventually sold to a local landowner, Paul Rameaux, which did nothing to revive its waning fortunes.  1975 marked a revival of Bielle when la Société d’Exploitation de la Distillerie Bielle (SEDB) took over the assets, and nowadays a nephew of Mr. Rameaux, Dominique Thiery, runs the small distillery.  So, it’s another small outfit from the French West Indies about whom only the islanders themselves and the French seem to know very much.  But y’know, after trying this just-short-of-phenomenal young rhum, I’m jealous as all get-out and kicking myself, because where has this thing been all my life while I was dancing with the rhums from elsewhere?  I’d better get some more from there, and quickly, because I’ll tell you, this is a distillery making rhums which deserve some serious attention.


Other notes

Velier issued a rhum from Bielle as part of their 2017 70th Anniversary, also from 2007.

Nov 062017


Everyone has a favourite Foursquare rum and the nice thing is, like most large large brands, there’s something for everyone in the lineup, which spans the entire gamut of price and strength and quality. For some it’s the less-proofed rums still issued for the mass market, like Rum 66 or Doorly’s; for others it’s the halo-rums such as the Triptych and 2006 ten year old.  However, it my considered opinion that when you come down to the intersection of value for money and reasonable availability, you’re going to walk far to beat the Exceptional Cask series. And when Forbes magazine speaks to your product, you know you’re going places and getting it right, big time.

The Criterion 2007 ten year old (Mark V) released this year is the fifth and latest of these rums, following from the Bourbon Cask 1998-2008 10 YO (Mark I), Bourbon Cask 2004-2015 11 YO (Mark II),  Port Cask 2005-2014 9 YO (Mark III), and the Zinfadel Cask 2004-2015 11YO (Mark IV).  It’s quite a step up from the Port Cask, without ascending to the heights of the 2006 10 year old or other rums of its kind.  For those who don’t already know, the Criterion is a pot-still and column-still blend, and while the ageing regime (three years in ex-bourbon casks and seven years in very old Madeira casks) is fine, it also subtly change the underlying DNA of what a pure Bajan rum is.

Let me explain that by just passing through the tasting notes here: let me assure you,the Criterion is pretty damned good – actually, compared to any of the lesser-proofed Doorly’s, it’s amazing.The sumptuousness of a Louis XIVth boudoir is on full display right from the initial nosing.  Even for its strength – 56% – it presented with the rich velvet of caramel, red wine (or a good cognac).  Oaky, spicy and burnt sugar notes melded firmly and smoothly with nutmeg, raisins, and citrus peel, cardamon and cloves, and there was a glide of apple cider on the spine that was delectable.  The longer I let it breathe, the better it became and after a while chocolates, truffles and faint coffee emerged, and the balance of the entire experience was excellent.

Tasting it, there was certainly no mistaking this for any other rum from Barbados: the disparity with other rums from the island which my friend Marco Freyr remarked on (“I can detect a Rockley still Bajan rum any day of the week”) is absolutely clear, and as I taste more and more Foursquare rums, I understand why Wes and Steve are such fanboys. The rum is a liquid creme brulee wrapped up in salt caramel ice-cream, then further mixed up with almonds, prunes, cherries, marmalade, cider and nutmeg, remarkably soft and well-behaved on the tongue. Coffee and chocolate add to the fun, and I swear there was some ginger and honey floating around the back end there somewhere.  It all led to a finish that was long and deeply, darkly salt-sweet, giving last notes of prunes and very ripe cherries with more of that caramel coffee background I enjoyed a lot.  

So, in fine, a lovely rum, well made, well matured, nicely put together.  No wonder it gets all these plaudits.  My feeling is, retire the Doorly’s line – this stuff should absolutely have pride of place.

Here’s the thing, though. Purists make much of ‘clean’ rums that are unmessed with, exemplars of the style of the country, the region and the estate or maker.  By that standard this rum and its brothers like the Zinfadel and the Port are problematical because none of these are actually ‘pure’ Bajan rums any longer… all this finishing and ageing and second maturation in second or third-fill barrels is watering down and changing what is truly “Barbados” (or perhaps Foursquare). What these rums really are, are a way of getting around the adulteration prohibitions of Bajan law….adding taste and complexity without actually adding anything that would qualify as obvious adulteration (after all, what is ex-bourbon barrel ageing but the same thing with a more “accepted” cask?).  So for the pedant, one could argue that the series is more a high end experiment and what comes out the other end is no longer a pure Barbadian hooch but a double or triple matured blended rum based on Bajan/Foursquare stocks….a subtle distinction and so not quite the same thing.

Maybe.  I don’t care.  My work here is to describe what I taste and offer an opinion on the product as it stands, not its underlying production philosophy: and the bottom line is, I enjoyed the experience and liked it, immensely – it blew the socks off the Doorly’s 12 year old I also tried that day, and makes me want to get all the Exceptional Cask series, like yesterday, and put dibs on all the ones coming out tomorrow.  The Criterion is drinkable, sippable, mixable, available, accessible and all round enjoyable, and frankly, I don’t know many rums in the world which can make that statement and still remain affordable.  This is one of them, and it’s a gem for everyone to have and enjoy.