Mar 192019
 

Whether or not you can place Reunion on a map, you’ve surely heard of at least one of its three distilleries: Savanna, and that high-ester still of theirs that’s driving rum geeks into transports of ecstasy.  Yet for almost the same time, there have been two other distilleries on the island, Riviere du Mat (which made the delicious Millesime 2004 and XO rums) and the oldest of the three, another family owned outfit called Isautier, which I wrote about in a brief bio a few days back

Isautier, among all their punches and arranges, make an interesting selection of aged rums as well – the entry level 40% Barrick (3 months aged), plus 5 / 7 / 10 year old rums; and their top of the line “Louis & Charles Isautier” Cuvee 70, released at 45% ABV.  It comprises a blend of 15 year old aged agricole rum, and a 7 year old molasses-based rum. The bottle does not bear an age statement, and it’s simply marketed as a premium rum of the line, going for around eighty euros.

Like Guadeloupe half a world away, Reunion does not have an AOC designation, and its remoteness and relatively small land area makes it impractical to go fully with either molasses-based or cane-juice distillates, and so they occasionally mix and match their blends from both.  This makes them less “pure” and clearly identifiable rums…but also quite tasty, as the profile of the L&C demonstrated.

When I nosed the glass, it occurred to me that it was a somewhat toned-down version of Savanna’s Lontan grand arome series (which I tasted in tandem). I mean that in a good way because high ester rums are not always or necessarily meant as sipping drinks, so one that dials down the noise and goes to the middle of the road can present really well – like the less in-yer-face Hampdens, Worthy Parks, or  NRJ Vale Royal and Cambridge did. In any event, the aromas purred sleepily out of the bottle and there were quite a lot of them: pineapples, pears, strawberries, freshly chopped apples.  No salt, brine, olives here, but some coffee grounds, nutmeg and bitter chocolate, which complemented the fruits quite well. At 45% the whole nose was warm and well controlled, no complaints there (except that I wished for something with more oomph, really).

The taste was surprisingly easy, creamy, almost. Some lemon meringue pie, coffee and chocolate again, and then the rest of the fruit brigade slowly rolled in and took over: pineapples, fresh green apples, soursop, gooseberries, ripe black cherries and five-finger, very ripe – in other words, the sweet of the various fruits was there, but so was a kind of low-key tart sourness that provided some interesting counterpoint and character.  If I had to make a point of it, the finish is probably the least interesting, because it repeated what came before without going any place new, but overall, it was warm and fruity, and perhaps one could not expect too much more from a placid rum that had already gone as far as it could, no matter that it was in absolutely no hurry to get there.

What worked against the rum (for me) was the relatively low strength which watered down what could have been a much richer series of smells and tastes. The dilution makes the barrels go further and the greater rum-purchasing public served better, sure — more consumers will buy a rum which isn’t cask strength and doesn’t try to rip their face off — but it does mute it too, and this to some extent lessens the experience.  Perhaps that is why Isautier themselves remark that the rum be considered a digestif, an after-dinner drink. But admittedly, that’s my own thing and for the most part, I don’t think anyone who tries this product from Reunion and Isautier will either have anything to complain about, or have any trouble distinguishing it from the other big guns coming out of the still-too-little-known island in the Indian ocean.

(#609)(84/100)


Other notes

Although the type of still from which these components derive goes unmentioned, the company website speaks to a steam injected column still which produces distillate with concentrations as high as 89% ABV (used for the traditionnel rums) and 70% (for whites and more agricole-styled rums).

Feb 252019
 

Just to reiterate some brief details about HSE (Habitation Saint-Étienne), which is located almost dead centre in the middle of Martinique.  Although in existence since the early 1800s, its modern history properly began when it was purchased in 1882 by Amédée Aubéry, who combined the sugar factory with a small distillery, and set up a rail line to transport cane more efficiently (even though oxen and people that pulled the railcars, not locomotives). In 1909, the property came into the possession of the Simonnet family who kept it until its decline at the end of the 1980s. The estate was then taken over in 1994 by Yves and José Hayot — owners, it will be recalled, of the Simon distillery, as well as Clement —  who relaunched the Saint-Étienne brand using Simon’s creole stills, adding snazzy marketing and expanding markets.

This particular rum, then, comes from a company with a long history and impeccable Martinique pedigree.  It is an AOC millésimé – a rum issued in relatively small quantities, from the output of a specific year’s production, considered to be a cut above the ordinary (2005 in this case) and finished in Sauternes casks.

Given that it is nine years tropical ageing plus another year in the Sauternes casks, I think we could be expected to have a pretty interesting profile — and I wasn’t disappointed (though the strength did give me pause).  The initial smells were grassy and wine-y at the same time, a combination of musk and crisp light aromas that melded well. There were green apples, grapes, the tart acidity of cider mixed in with some ginger and cinnamon, a dollop of brine and a few olives, freshly mown wet grass and well-controlled citrus peel behind it all.  

Well now.  That was a pretty nifty nose.  How did the palate rate?

Very well indeed, I thought.  It was a smooth and solid piece of work for its proof point, with clear, firm tastes proceeding in sequence like a conga line – light acetones and flowery notes to begin with, then bubble gum, ripe cherries and plums.  The profile proceeded to display some sharpness and herbals — citrus, cider, well-aged sharp cheddar, a touch of apricots and almost-ripe peaches together with softer honey and ginger. What distinguished it and made it succeed, I think, is the delicate balancing act between sweetness and acidity (and a trace of salt), and even the finish – grapes, honey, cane juice and wet grass for the most part – displayed this well assembled character. It impressed the hell out of me, the more so since I walked in expecting so much less.

The other day I wrote about a similarly-aged, light rum from Don Q, which I remarked as being somewhat too easy and unchallenging, bottled at a low 40%; and while competently made, simply not something that enthralled me.

On that basis, you might believe that I simply disdain any and all such low-proof rums as being ultimately boring, but now consider this 41% agricole from Habitation Saint-Étienne as a response.  It emphatically demonstrates to anyone who believes standard strength can only produce standard junk, that a rum can indeed be so relatively weak and still have some real quality squirming in its jock. And with respect to the HSE 2005, that’s a statement I can make with no hesitation at all, and real conviction.

(#602)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • This rhum should not be confused with the others in the “Les Finitions du Monde” series (like Chateau La Tour Blanche or Single Malt finish labelled as exactly that), which are also 2005 millesimes, but not bottled in the same month, have other finishes, and different labels.
  • According to Excellence Rhum, this 2005 edition is the successor to the 2003 Millesime which is no longer produced.  
  • The outturn is unknown.
  • Nine (9) years aging, plus from 12 months of finishing in Château La Tour Blanche barrels, 1st Cru Classé de Sauternes.
Feb 242019
 

It’s a peculiarity of the sheer volume of rums that cross my desk, my glass and my glottis, that I get to taste rums some people would give their left butt cheek for, while at the same time juice that is enormously well known, talked about, popular and been tried by many….gets missed.

One of these is the Don Q series of rums out of Puerto Rico made by the Serrallés family who, like Old Facundo, hailed from Catalonia and came to Puerto Rico in around 1820.  In the 1830s they established a sugar plantation on the outskirts of Ponce in South-Central Puerto Rico and in a short time became very successful, exporting sugar to the US, France and the UK; in 1865 they started to manufacture rum on a pot still brought over from France (see “other notes” below), though the various brands they produced were short lived and not really big sellers.  In response to that, in 1932 they launched the Don Q brand as a way of breaking into the more premium sector, as well as expanding local market share, followed by new distillation apparatus installed in 1935 (one imagines the pot still was marginalized after this, if not discontinued entirely). The rums of the line proved to be enormously popular, overtaking Bacardi which was seen as a foreign brand and not as refined.

These days it is considered the best selling rum in its home turf, exported all over the world, and the recipe remains consistent with the original developed so long ago.  In the current environment where unadulterated rums get a lot of praise, it also grabs brownie points for having none itself.

Technical details: distilled on a column still, 40% ABV, gold colour, no additives. According to their website, the Gran Añejo “contains rums aged between 9 and 12 years, and solera rums aged up to 50 years” which means that by accepted parlance it’s a blend, 9 years old.

Given it’s a column still low proof, I would expect it to be a light sort of experience to smell, and indeed it was – so much so that it took real effort to disassemble.  The nose was almighty peculiar to start, redolent of charcoal, burnt wood, ashes, an overdone ox turning on a spit (seriously). I don’t know if that was intentional, just that it took me somewhat off balance; still, it developed nicely – gradually aromas of rotting bananas, overripe fleshy fruit, and even a little brine, combined with a delicate hint of orange peel.

The palate was pleasant and easy to sip, quite solid for the living room strength. Here notes of caramel, vanilla, lemon peel, apples, molasses and treacle abounded, nicely balanced. It was velvety, but also dry, vaguely sweet with some brine and well-polished leather.  What it lacked was force and emphasis, though that was to be expected, and the finish sort of limped along past the tape, providing closing notes of vanilla, nutmeg and pineapple, all very soft and light, nothing for the rum junkie to write home about, really. It’s soft and easy-going, overall.

For my money this is something of a low-rent Havana Club. Given that the main markets for Don Q are the US, Mexico and Spain (it’s exported to many more, of course), it stands to reason that over-aggressive high-ester profile and a Brobdingnagian strength are not on the cards — that’s not the Catalan style of rum-making brought over to the new world, or preferred in those markets:  That may guarantee it solid sales and great word of mouth where it sells, but I’m not sure it guarantees it future sales in places where there is already a surfeit of such rums, or where something with more character is the norm.

The Don Q, for all its understated quality and its audience in other parts of the world, demonstrates why I moved away from Spanish/Latin American column still rums.  They lack oomph and emphasis. They’re too easy, and too light (for me), require little effort and are no challenge to come to grips with. It may have taken years to come around to trying it, but now, having done so, I can’t honestly say that an amazing undiscovered gem has been missed out on.

(#601)(81/100)


Other notes

According to the company website, the still brought over from France in 1865 was a pot still, though this is odd given France’s love affair with the columns back then; but Tristan Stephenson’s 2018 book “The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution” mentions it as being a 5-tray columnar still. Once I track the discrepancy down, I’ll amend this section of the post.

Jan 222019
 

Haiti is unique as a nation because it is where the only successful slave revolt in the world took place, at the turn of the 18th century. Sadly, it is now the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and successive dictatorships, foreign interference and natural disasters have left the place in shambles.

That any businesses manage to survive in such an environment is a testament to their resilience, their determination, their ingenuity….and the quality of what they put out the door. The country has become the leading world producer of vetiver (a root plant used to make essential oils and fragrances), exports agricultural products and is a tourist destination, yet perhaps it is for rum that its exports are best known, and none more so than those of Barbancourt, formed in 1862 and still run by the descendants of the founder.

Until the mid 20th century, Barbancourt was something of a cottage industry, selling primarily to the local market.  In 1949 they relocated the sugar cane fields of the Domaine Barbancourt in the plaine du Cul-de-Sac region in the south east, and by 1952 ramped up production, increased exports and transformed the brand into a major producer of quality rum, a distinction it has held ever since.  

The rhum, based on sugar cane juice not molasses, used to be double-distilled, using pot stills in a process similar to that used to produce cognac (Dupré Barbancourt came from the cognac-producing region of Charente which was undoubtedly his inspiration); however, nowadays they use a more efficient (if less character-driven) three-column continuous distillation system, where the first column strips the solid matter from the wash and the second and third columns serve to concentrate the resultant spirit…so what is coming to the market now is not what once was made by the company.

Haiti has no shortage of other rhum producing companies – but smaller outfits like Moscoso Distillers or LaRue Distillery are much less well-known and export relatively little, (and back-country clairins are in a different class altogether)…and this makes Barbancourt the de facto rum standard bearer for the half island, and one of the reasons I chose it for this series. This is not to dismiss the efforts of all the others, or the the artisanal quality of the clairins that Velier has brought to world attention since 2014 — just to note that they all, to some extent, live in the shadow of Barbancourt; which in turn, somewhat like Mount Gay, seems in danger of being forgotten as a poster boy for Haiti, now that the pure artisanal rum movement gathers a head of steam.

The current label of the 8YO

Barbancourt’s rhums are not issued at full proof: they prefer a relatively tame 40-43%, and every possible price point and strength is not catered to.  The company has a relatively small stable of products: the Blanc, the 3-star 4 Year Old, the 5-star 8 Year Old and the flagship 15 year old (Veronelli’s masterful 25 year old is a Barbancourt rhum, but not issued by them).  Though if one wanted to get some, then independent bottlers like Berry Bros., Bristol Spirits, Duncan Taylor, Cadenhead, Samaroli, Plantation and Compagnie des Indes (among others) do produce stronger and more exacting limited offerings for the enthusiasts.

Yet even with those few rhums they make, whatever the competition, and whether one calls it a true agricole or not, the rhums coming from Barbancourt remain high on the quality ladder and no rumshelf could possibly be called complete without at least one of them.  After trying and retrying all three major releases, my own conclusion was that at the intersection of quality and price, the one that most successfully charts a middle course between the older and the younger expressions is the 5-star 8 year old (I looked at it last way back in 2010, as well as one earlier version from back in the 1970s) which remains one of the workhorses of the company and the island, an excellent mid-level rum that almost defines Barbancourt.

It does display, however, somewhat of a schizophrenic profile. Take the nose, for example – it almost seems like a cross between a molasses based rum and an agricole.  While it certainly possesses the light, herbal aroma of a cane-juice distillate, it also smells of a light kind of brown sugar and molasses mixed up with some bananas and vanilla (it was aged in French oak on Haiti, which may account for the latter). There’s also a sly briny background, combined with a pleasant hints of nougat and well polished leather, plus the subdued acidity of green apples, grapes and cumin.  Not all that intense at 43%, but excellent as an all-rounder for sure.

What the nose promises, the palate delivers, and yet that peculiar dichotomy continues.  It’s soft given the strength, initially tasting of caramel, toblerone, almonds and vague molasses and vanilla (again).  Brine and olives. Spices – cumin, cinnamon, plus raisins, a certain delicate grassiness and maybe a plum or two (fruitiness is there, just understated).  Nope, it doesn’t feel like a completely cane juice distillate, or, at best, if feels like an amalgam leading neither one way or the other, and the close sums all that up.  It’s medium long, with salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, a bit of raisins and plums, a fine line of citrus, a little cinnamon dusting, and a last reminder of oaky bitterness in a relatively good,  dry finish.

What makes the Barbancourt 8 YO so interesting — even unique — is the way the makers played with the conventions and steered a center line that draws in lovers of other regions while not entirely abandoning the French island antecedents. It reminds me more of a Guadeloupe rhum than an out-and-out agricole from Martinique, with perhaps a pinch of Bajan thrown in.  However, it’s in no way heavy enough to invite direct comparisons to any Demerara or Jamaican product.

So, does it fail as a Key Rum because of its indeterminate nature, or because it lacks the fierce pungency of a clairin, the full grassy nature of a true agricole?

Not at all, and not to me.  It’s a completely solid rhum with its own clear profile, that succeeds at being drinkable and enjoyable on all levels, without being visibly exceptional in any specific way and sold at a price point that makes it affordable to the greater rum public out there. Many reviewers and most drinkers have come across it at least once in their journey (much more so than those who have tried clairins) and few have anything bad to say about it.  It’s been made for decades, is well known and well regarded — not just because it’s from Haiti, but because it also has a great price to value ratio. There’s a lot of talk about “gateway” rums, cheaper and sometimes-adulterated rums that are good enough to enjoy and savour, that lead to more and better down the road. It’s usually applied to the Zacapas, Zayas, Diplos and younger rums of this world, but if you ever want to get more serious about aged agricoles, then the Barbancourt 8 YO may actually be one of those that actually deserves the title, and remains, even after all these years, a damned fine place to start your investigations.

(#592)(84/100)


Other Notes

In a curious coincidence, a post on reddit that did a brief review of this rhum went up just a few days before this was published. There are some good links contained within the commentary.

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.