Jun 132019
 

Photo (c) Romdeluxe

Romdeluxe in Denmark is more a commercial rum club that makes private label bottlings and runs promotions around the country, than a true independent bottler — but since they do several releases, I’ll call them an indie and move right on from there.  Earlier, in May 2019, they lit up FB by releasing this limited-edition high-ester funk-bomb, the first in their “Wild Series” of rums, with a suitably feral tiger on the label. I can’t tell whether it’s yawning or snarling, but it sure looks like it can do you some damage without busting a sweat either way.

This is not surprising.  Not only is this Jamaican bottled at one of the highest ABVs ever recorded for a commercially issued rum – growling in at 85.2%, thereby beating out the Sunset Very Strong and SMWS Long Pond 9 YO but missing the brass ring held by the Marienburg – but it goes almost to the screaming edge of Esterland, clocking in, according to the label, at between 1500-1600 g/hlpa (the legal maximum is 1600)….hence the DOK moniker. Moreover, the rum is officially ten years old but has not actually been aged that long – it rested in steel tanks for those ten years, and a bit of edge was sanded away by finishing it for three months in small 40-liter ex-Madeira casks.  So it’s a young fella, barely out of rum nappies, unrefined, uncouth and possibly badass enough to make you lose a week or two of your life if you’re not careful.

Knowing that, to say I was both doubtful and cautious going in would be an understatement, because the rum had a profile so ginormous that cracking the cap on my sample nearly lifted the roof of of the ten-storey hotel where I was tasting it (and I was on the second floor). The nose was, quite simply, Brobdingnagian, a fact I relate with equal parts respect and fear.

The crazy thing was how immediately sweet it was – a huge dose of fleshy fruits bordering on going bad for good, creme brulee, sugar water, honey, raisins and a salted caramel ice cream were the first flavours screaming out the gate (was this seriously just three months in Madeira?). It was huge and sharp and very very strong, and was just getting started, because after sitting it down (by the open window) for half an hour, it came back with vegetable soup, mature cheddar, brine, black olives, crisp celery, followed by the solid billowing aroma of the door being opened into a musty old library with uncared-for books strewn about and mouldering away. I say it was strong, but the nose really struck me as being more akin to a well-honed stainless-steel chef’s knife — clear, and glittering and sharp and thin and very very precise.

The clear and fruity sweet was also quite noticeable when tasted, combining badly with much more mucky, mouldy, dunder-like notes: think of a person with overnight dragon’s breath blowing Wrigley’s Spearmint gum into your face on a hot day.  It was oily, sweaty, earthy, loamy and near-rank, but damnit, those fruits pushed through somehow, and combined with vanilla and winey tastes, breakfast spices, caramel, some burnt sugar, prunes, green bananas and some very tart yellow mangoes, all of which culminated in a very long, very intense finish that was again, extremely fruity – ripe cherries, peaches, apricots, prunes, together with thyme, mint lemonade, and chocolate oranges.

Whew!  This was a hell of a rum and we sure got a lot, but did it all work?  And also, the question a rum like this raises is this: does the near titanic strength, the massive ester count, the aged/unaged nature of it and the final concentrated finish, give us a rum that is worth the price tag?

Me, I’d say a qualified “Yes.” On the good side, the Wild Tiger thing stops just short of epic. It’s huge, displaying a near halitotic intensity, has a real variety of tastes on display, with the sulphur notes that marred the TECA or some other DOKs I’ve tried, being held back.  On the other hand, there’s a lack of balance. The tastes and smells jostle and elbow each other around, madly, loudly, without coordination or logic, like screeching online responses to a Foursquare diss. There’s a lot going on, most not working well together. It’s way too hot and sharp, the Madeira finish I think is too short to round it off properly – so you won’t get much enjoyment from it except by mixing it with something else – because by itself it’s just a headache-inducing explosive discharge of pointless violence.

Then there’s the price, about €225. Even with the outturn limited to 170 bottles, I would hesitate to buy, because there are rums out there selling at a lesser cost and more quaffable strength, with greater pedigree behind them.  Such rums are also completely barrel-aged (and tropically) instead of rested, and require no finishes to be emblematic of their country.

But I know there are those who would buy this rum for all the same reasons others might shudder and take a fearful step back. These are people who want the max of everything: the oldest, the rarest, the strongest, the highest, the bestest, the mostest, the baddest.  Usefulness, elegance and quality are aspects that take a back seat to all the various “-estests” which a purchaser now has bragging rights to. I would say that this is certainly worth doing if your tastes bend that way (like mine do, for instance), but if your better half demands what the hell you were thinking of, buying a rum so young and so rough and so expensive, and starts crushing your…well, you know…then along with a sore throat and hurting head, you might also end up knowing what the true expression of the tiger on the label is.

(#632)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It’s not mentioned on the label or website but as far as I know, it’s a Hampden.
  • Like the Laodi Brown, the Wild Tiger Jamaican rum raises issues of what ageing truly means – it is 10 years old, but it’s not 10 years aged (in that sense, the label is misleading).  If that kind of treatment for a rum catches on, the word “aged” will have to be more rigorously defined.

Comment

These days I don’t usually comment on the price, but in this case there have been disgruntled mumbles online about the cost relative to the age, to say nothing of the packaging with that distinctive “10” suggesting it’s ten years old.  Well, strictly speaking it is that old, but as noted before, just not aged that much and one can only wonder why on earth people bothered to arrest its development at all by having it in steel tanks, for such an unusually long time.

So on that basis, to blow more than €200 on a rum which has truly only been aged for three months (by accepted conventions of the term) seems crazy, and to set that price in the first place is extortionate. 

But it’s not, not really. 

At that ABV, you could cut it by half, make 340 bottles of 42% juice, and sell it for €100 as a finished experimental, and people would buy it like they would the white Habitation Veliers, maybe, for exotic value and perhaps curiosity.  Moreover, there are no reductions in costs for the expenses of advertising, marketing and packaging for a smaller bottle run (design, printing, ads, labels, boxes, crates, etc) so the production cost per bottle is higher, and that has to be recouped somehow.  And lastly, for a rum this strong and obscure, even if from Hampden, there is likely to be an extremely limited market of dedicated Jamaica lovers, and this rum is made for those few, not the general public…and those super geeks are usually high fliers with enough coin to actually afford to get one when they want one. 

I’m not trying to justify the cost, of course, just suggest explanations for its level.  Not many will buy this thing, not many can, and at end maybe only the deep-pocketed Jamaica lovers will. The rest of us will have to be content with samples, alas.

 

May 222019
 

Let me run you past the tasting notes of this lower-proofed, higher-aged companion rum to the Laodi White I wrote about last time. It was an amber-coloured 42% which was aged, according to the rep at the 2019 rhumfest in Paris, for 5 years in French oak…so it seemed like it would be relatively tame and mild, taking into account the milquetoast strength and a barely-enough aging regimen (at least, compared to its unaged 56% blanc bro’).

But it wasn’t. To begin with, the nose – well, that was quite a nose, a Cyrano de Bergerac of rum noses.  It was big, it was odd, it was startling and overall rather impossible to ignore. It smelled of old bookcases and old books in a disused manor-house library, of glue holding tattered paper together, of dark furniture and its varnish, and of a gone-to-seed aristocrat smoking an aromatic cigar while wearing a pair of brand new leather brogues still reeking of polish.  It was a rum that was so peculiar that it encouraged equally peculiar phrasing just to describe it properly…at least at the inception. And after a while it did settle down to somewhat more traditional notes, and then we got a basketful of dark, ripe fruits – prunes, plums and apricots set off by the brighter and chirpier red currants and pomegranates, behind which lurked a faint aroma of coffee and unsweetened chocolate and a very pleasant nutty hint.

It smelled light and delicate, and dark and heavy, all at the same time, and one could only wonder what the thing could possibly taste like after such an entrance.  “Flavourful” is one word that could be used without apology. The dustiness of age receded into memory and a nicely solid rum emerged and snapped into focus. It tasted of caramel, toffee, blancmange, white chocolate, almonds, coffee, vanilla, breakfast spices, cinnamon – all the expected hits, I guess you could say.  But it took a step up once the fruits come marching in, because then there was a balanced offset of tart fruits to the firm and thick tastes that came before: prunes and plums, as well as guavas, overripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, green peas (not a fruit, I know) – and a much stronger shading of coffee grounds, as if this thing was channelling Dictador or something.  It never quit went went away, that coffee taste, even on the finish, which was well balanced but far too short, ending with a final exhale, a last shuddering sigh, of fruit and caramel and vanilla, and then was gone.

So, all in all, a surprisingly aromatic rum from Laodi. Just to recap very briefly, this is a Laos-located, Japanese-run distillery on the Thai border, who are perhaps more known for their flavoured low-proof “marriage” rums (coming in coffee, plum, coconut, passion fruit and sugar cane varieties); they use a vaccuum-distillation machine to produce a rhum from cane juice at 47% or so and then rest it in stainless steel tanks for up to five years for the Brown rhum.

Yet they do not use actual barrels in their production process. “Ageing in oak barrels requires means that we do not have,” said Mr. Ikuzo Inoue to Damien Sagnier in a 2017 interview, and so, in an interesting departure from the norm, the company uses a different technique – it dumps French oak chips into the vat (this is also mentioned casually and without elaboration on their website) and that provides the “aged” profile, which, after all, is just the interaction between wood and spirit.  By varying the amount of chips, and the amount of char they have (and so the surface area in contact with the spirit), it is therefore possible to extract a rhum at the other end which has a more intense profile than an equivalently barrel-only-aged product.

What this means is that by common parlance, the rum is not aged at all – it is infused. Moreover, the process – both distillation and infusion – means that elements of the profile deriving from oxidation and evaporation are lacking, and there is a minimal angel’s share from the steel vats. To their credit, nowhere does Laodi say that their rhum is “aged X years” and I think the terminology used by the rep in response to my questions was not meant to imply true ageing.  It does raise some flags, though, because there is no real regulation of or accepted terminology for this kind of flavour enhancement / infusion / ersatz ageing process. The closest one can get is the process of using boisé in cognac, or creative enhancement often imputed to low-rent rum brands. Laodi might not have intended it, but surely this methodology will create food for thought for regulators and commentators in the years to come.

All that aside, for me as a reviewer, I have to ask, does it work?  I’d say yes it does – I mean, there were a lot more flavour elements coming out of the Brown than I was expecting.  I think the rhum is tasty, a bit on the weak side, too thin at the end and needs some more boosting, but a pleasant cane juice spirit that tastes aged (Mr. Sagnier himself remarked that he could not tell the difference), and is more enjoyable than that age suggests it might be.  The issues it raises, though, are likely to trouble rum chums long after the bottle they bought is finished and they move on to the next one.

(#626)(82/100)


Other notes

Some of the questions that occurred to me as I was writing the last paragraphs on the subject of using wood chips were:

  • Does it fly in the face of the standard and accepted ways that ageing is defined? (the rum does, after all, rest for the requisite number of years in a vat, according to Laodi).
  • Will it be derided and decried by those who adhere to a more traditional way of ageing rum and consider it a form of cheating?  
  • How many chips are considered the equivalent of one barrel’s surface contact area? How big do they have to be? And, if you want to go to the extreme, why not just use boise or wood powder
  • Is there a limit?
  • Is it forbidden in any way? Is it legal?

I’m not sure. No standard I’ve read addresses any of these issues, not really. Before the sugar and additives debate took over, it was often mentioned (or accusations were made) that extra wood chips were added to barrels of some rums to make the flavour more intense, but this gradually fell out of public consciousness in favour of dosing, additives and wet barrels. I believe that at bottom, ageing can be defined as the complex interaction of wood and spirit over time, and whether the wood is on the outside (barrels) or the inside (chips) can be seen as a matter of terminology, semantics and fine parsing of regulations by the pedants.

But that obscures the fact that a barrel is a barrel, of known and uniform size and internal surface area, a common and well-understood standard used the world around for centuries. Wooden chips or sticks are a totally different thing, and adding an undisclosed amount of chips to an inert vessel just doesn’t seem to be the same, somehow, especially since there are no standards governing how they are, or can be, used. 

May 052019
 

Rumaniacs Review #097 | 0621

As far as I can tell, Dr. Sangster arrived in Jamaica to lecture at UWI in 1967, got sidetracked into the rum business, and died in 2001. During his time on the island, Dr. Sangster did more to popularize rum cream and spiced / infused rums (pineapple, coconut, orange, etc – there were some 20+ varieties) than promote pure rums themselves, but he was also known for his blends, like Conquering Lion Overproof and this one, the Old Jamaica DeLuxe Gold which is definitely off the grid and, in a curious way, also quite modern.

It is unknown from where he sourced his base stock.  Given that this DeLuxe Gold rum was noted as comprising pot still distillate and being a blend, it could possibly be Hampden, Worthy Park or maybe even Appleton themselves or, from the profile, Longpond – or some combination, who knows? I think that it was likely between 2-5 years old, but that’s just a guess.  References are slim at best, historical background almost nonexistent. The usual problem with these old rums. Note that after Dr. Sangster relocated to the Great Distillery in the Sky, his brand was acquired post-2001 by J. Wray & Nephew who do not use the name for anything except the rum liqueurs.  The various blends have been discontinued.

Colour – Gold-amber

Strength – 57%

Nose – Opens with the scents of a midden heap and rotting bananas (which is not as bad as it sounds, believe me).  Bad watermelons, the over-cloying reek of genteel corruption, like an unwashed rum strumpet covering it over with expensive perfume.  Acetones, paint thinner, nail polish remover. That is definitely some pot still action. Apples, grapefruits, pineapples, very sharp and crisp.  Overripe peaches in tinned syrup, yellow soft squishy mangoes. The amalgam of aromas doesn’t entirely work, and it’s not completely to my taste…but intriguing nevertheless  It has a curious indeterminate nature to it, that makes it difficult to say whether it’s WP or Hampden or New Yarmouth or what have you.

Palate – Salty black olives, a shade sharp and tannic, with cinnamon caramel, vanilla.  Develops into something fruity and flowery. Sharp and rough flavours in need of better balance and sanding down, very like the JB Charley, if that had ever been aged and boosted up with some additional esterification.  Dirthy, earthy, loamy, musky, sweaty, meaty. Really quite an original, and if that was what Sangster was after — to amp up the ester count and then twist it to make it scream — he sure succeeded.

Finish – Shortish, dark off-fruits, vaguely sweet, briny, a few spices and musky earth tones.

Thoughts – I could not help but think of the Velier Longponds, especially the last two, because the Sangster’s is not a rum most people would like unless they were wading hip-deep into the Jamaican dunder pits and loved the resultant hogo bombs. It falls into the same category as the TECC (but not quite the TECA which is reliably reported to hail from a parallel rumiverse) – a regular high ester funky hogo-centric bastard that’s been tilted ever-so-slightly into near madness without completely losing its charm. It’s not my thing and I won’t score it to the rafters…but major points for the sheer defiant courage  it took to bottle rotting garbage badassery without apology.

(78/100)

Mar 122019
 

Rumanics Review #93 | 0607

The Appleton Special is not yet a true Rumaniacs rum, since it’s still commonly available – it was, for quite a long time, one of the most common low-end starter rums available in North America and Europe, so it’s more than likely that one can still find a bottle.

However, in 2016 it was retired from active service and put out to pasture, to be replaced by the not-quite-as good J. Wray Jamaica Gold rum – I think they tweaked the blend somewhat since the taste is almost, but not quite, similar.  So, since it is no longer in production and gradually will disappear, I include it in this series rather than the main body of the reviews.

As far as I know, this is a blend of very young rums (less than five years old, and my own feeling is  two years and less), pot and column still blend, and an entry level rum made for mixing with whatever you have on hand.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 40%

Nose – Funk and dunder, warm bordering on hot.  Bananas, brine, olives, plus citrus peel, flambeed bananas, some nuts, molasses and faint rubber. Sharp and light at the same time. I suppose one could add some water to bring out the nuances, but at 40% I didn’t bother.  It’s meant for cocktails, so that’s where it shines more.

Palate – All the hits come out to play: vanilla, orange peel, watermelon juice, brine, avocados.  Some apple cider and green grapes, plus light underlying notes of bitter salt caramel and molasses.  Weak and undernourished, really, but they’re there and the longer one sticks with it, the more pronounced they become.

Finish – Short, mostly caramel, brine, vanilla and funk

Thoughts – Oddly, I liked it better than the new J. Wray Gold.  It’s a subtle kind of thing. Some of the rough edges the Gold retained were less evident here.  It was slightly better integrated, and it could – with some effort – be had neat (though I would not recommend that).  In fine, it’s a fully competent mixing agent, with enough character to wake up a cocktail, yet possessing a fine edge of refinement that incrementally lifts it above its successor.

(74/100)

Mar 102019
 

In the previous review of the Florida Caribbean Distillers industrially-produced Florida Reserve 2 year old rum, it was treated and written about with some disdain, because as far as I was concerned, it had nothing to make it stand out at all.  It was a low rent mass-produced column-still rum that did exactly nothing to distinguish itself and could at best be used to spike a drink with alcohol, without leaving any trace of itself behind, not even a grin.

Move on now to another minimally aged rum marketed to the masses, cheaply priced, easily available (at least, in Toronto, which was where I sourced it), and you can see what a difference there is. I’m not talking about intrinsic quality so much as distinctiveness; nor do I contend that the J. Wray Gold is some kind of hidden masterpiece, because it rubs shoulders in the same sort of downmarket liquor store shelves where you might find the Reserve, and is a mass market rum just like it….but does have its points.

The J. Wray Gold is nothing particularly new – for years it was sold as the Appleton Special Jamaican rum, and this new version got issued in 2016 as a rebranding effort (though why they bothered escapes me – maybe it’s to distinguish it from the slightly more upmarket Appleton range of rums).  For what it’s worth, I tried them side by side, and felt they tasted somewhat similar, scored somewhat similar, but were definitely not the same – so the recipe was likely tweaked some in the rebranding. What is also peculiar is that there is actually not much information available on what makes it up: the most I can ascertain is that it’s a mix of pot and column still distillate, 40% ABV, and (my opinion) is probably very young – maybe two years old or so, maybe even less.

I make this last observation because of its unrefined nature. Even at standard strength, it noses rather raw and jagged, even harsh.  There are initial aromas of light glue, rotten bananas and some citrus, light in tone but sharp in attack. It also smells a little sweet and vanilla-like, with vague florals, apple cider, molasses, dates, peaches and dates, with the slightest rtang of burnt rubber coiling around the back there somewhere. But it sears more than caresses and it’s clear that this is not a lovingly aged product of any kind.

It is, however, somewhat more distinct on the taste.  The sharp and uncouth nature doesn’t abate, that’s a given, and funky notes persist – rotting fruit, ripe landfill steaming after a tropical rain (yeah, I know what that sounds like), overripe fruit and bananas, honey, brine, vanilla and some molasses and caramel.  It’s not very well integrated and though I mention these flavours, the truth is that they are still underwhelming (a function of the strength) and the roughness on the tongue makes it unsuited for any kind of sipping drink. The finish is unspectacular- short, salty, nutty with some citrus and vanilla thrown in, and overall, very faint, quickly gone.

This is not a ringing endorsement by any means — I can’t say I cared for it, really.  But for good or ill, it was a rum you couldn’t easily forget once you tried it because of those very same attributes. It excites opinion, not indifferent yawns. Sure it’s a rough ‘n’ ready backcountry bottom-feeder, perfect for a pick-me-up hip flask to be taken into the dodgy areas of Scarborough when you’re liming with your squaddies down at the local rumshop. It’s cheap, it’s raw, and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an entry level hooch.

Yet at the same time you can sense the nascent quality it has, which emerges more fully as you work up the line of the company’s products. It has something, some small spark of artistry, of appeal, of uniqueness. Poor as it rates next to pricier upscale rum from J. Wray / Appleton, it does show what some distillation chops and blending ability can bring to the table with a set of people who know what they’re doing, even at the bottom end of the range. Oh sure it won’t class with an aged Hampden or Worthy Park, and I think even the V/X exceeds it. So okay, it fails, maybe….but to me, it fails with authority. And that’s why, though scoring them almost the same,  I would prefer an honestly made piece of dreck like this, over something more smoothly anonymous like the FCD Florida Reserve.

(#606)(73/100)

Nov 242018
 

Rumaniacs Review #086 | 0571

Ed Hamilton, in his 1995 book Rums of the Eastern Caribbean, made mention of the Buccaneer rum as a regular part of the St. Lucia Distillers lineup, but nowadays the rum is no longer in production – the last reference to it was an award given to it in the 2003 Rum Fest (which fest it was is somewhat open to conjecture), and a notation that it was discontinued, later confirmed by Mike Speakman that it was in the same year.  So we can assume that the Buccaneer I tasted is at best an early 2000s rum, no later. An interesting point is that Hamilton wrote of it as being 43%, but both the label photo in his book and my sample came in at 40%.  It’s likely that both variations existed, depending on the market in which it sold (i.e., US versus Europe) – DDL did the same with its El Dorados, for example.

[As an aside, Buccaneer is a title used by several rums over the decades: I found references to a Buccaneer Superior White, a blend of Bajan and Guyanese rum (Buccaneer Vintners, UK); another from Maryland USA (Majestic Distilling) that touted its origin as Virgin Island rum; and a Buccaneer matured rum from Ghana, made by Gihoc Distilleries in Accra, but the background of which is too lengthy to go into here.]

Colour – Dark Gold

Strength – 40%

Nose – Honey, molasses, brine, olives, and the richness of ripe prunes, very arm and smooth.  It’s a little sharp to begin with (it settles after five minutes or so), and has some interesting background aromas of gherkins, cucumbers, pears and a sort of salt-sour tang that’s difficult to pin down precisely but is by no means unpleasant.

Palate – Oily, salty and sweet all at once.  Tastes a little rougher than the nose suggested it might be, but is also quite warm after one adjusts. Pineapple, cherries, mangoes, followed on by dates, molasses, honey and brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla.

Finish – Medium long, and here the molasses and burnt brown sugar notes really come into their own.  Also some light fruitiness, aromatic tobacco and vanilla, but these are buried under the molasses, really.

Thoughts – Certainly a rum from yesteryear.  Nowadays the big guns from St. Lucia Distilleries are the 1931 series, the Admiral Rodney, the Chairman’s Reserve (and its offshoot the “Forgotten Casks”) and some of the cask strength offerings of the Independents (including Ed Hamilton himself). The writing had been on the wall for the wide variety and range of the distillery’s rums even back in the 1990s as they focused on core competencies, consolidation and better-selling brands.  It’s kind of a shame, because this rum was quite a decent dram – but I like to think that all they learned in all the decades since they made them, has now been incorporated into the excellent series of standard proofed rums they make now.  In that sense, the Buccaneer still lives on.

(80/100)

Nov 132018
 

Let’s move away from the full proofed rums released by indies and the major Caribbean companies, and switch over to something we don’t see very often, rums from the smaller islands —  these traditionally sell well to the tourist trade and within their local markets, but don’t make much of a splash elsewhere. Some are considered undiscovered steals, and the internet is rife with throwaway comments on personal blogs and travel sites about some rum nobody ever heard about being the best they ever had.

One of these is the golden 40% San Pablo rum out of the Dutch West Indies (also known as the Dutch Caribbean, Caribbean Netherlands or Netherlands Antilles – the name refers to the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, Saint Maarten, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba), which likes to call itself Curaçao’s favorite local tipple, a claim hardly likely to be disputed by any resident for patriotic reasons, or by any passing-through cruise-line tourist who might not know any better.

Rum (or Ron) San Pablo is an odd name for a Dutch island product: all becomes clear when you understand it’s actually a rum originally made in Cuba.  Like Bacardi, after being nationalized after the Cuban revolution, Justo Gonzalez brought his last aged stocks and the recipe to his importer on Curaçao and went into business with him to continue the brand (see a slightly more detailed history, below). The rum, then, is actually a transplanted Cuban product in the light Spanish style, and very likely column still produced (a factoid I had trouble confirming but it seems a reasonable assumption) – it continues to be made to this day — the exact distillery is something of a mystery — with distilled water, imported molasses from South America (no further info as to where precisely).  It first got introduced to the US in 2005, and has more or less dropped out of sight since then.

Sampling the rum says a lot for how far rum and consumers have come since those days. For its time it was undoubtedly the bees’ knees, and even as late as 2008 (around the time when it made a small ripple in the emerging blogosphere) people were complimenting its delicacy and smooth taste.  But nosing the pale yellow 40% rum ten years down the road demonstrates its similarities to a low-rent Bacardi rather than establishing any kind of personal individuality or pedigree. It is very delicate, very light, with soft aromas of molasses, cane sap, citrus, caramel and vanilla. It has a nice little woodsy note to it, sawdust maybe, and also a light line of tobacco which segues in and out without ever becoming dominant.

Because of its living room strength and light style of production, it is very difficult to come to grips with it on the palate, especially when compared to the falling sea-cans of oomph represented by full proof island rums — against those the San Pablo is almost like a wispy lace handkerchief versus a purse made from a crocodile’s back. The delicacy and faintness of the profile is at fault here: one can sense honey, cucumbers, citronella, sugar water, aromatic tobacco and cloves, but that’s me after serious concentration in a controlled environment with an hour to spend on the exercise, and who’s got time for that when ordering a rum in a bar somewhere? The finish is just more of the same – light, sweet, warm, soft, mostly vanilla and honey and some sweet breakfast spices, with just a hint of molasses and a sliver of lemon zest, and then it’s gone in a flash.

A rum like this should, I suppose, be taken for what it is – a delicate, quiet drink meant to be chucked into a minibar or a cocktail with equal facility.  I think it’s a rum initially made for Americans in a pre-”Real-Rum” era when all that the local producers in the Caribbean were hoping for was to copy Bacardi, or to  make their own hooch to dump into an exotic fruity free-for-all so it could have some kick.  On that level I suppose it succeeds.  On any other level, it’s a rum to take note of simply because few of us have tried it, and, at the end, I consider it a pretty undistinguished product that makes no waves outside its island of origin, and doesn’t seem to want to.

(#567)(66/100)


Other Notes

The company lore states that a local Curaçao importer, August Damian Jonckheer, began bringing in the San Pablo brand as far back as 1945: no search I was able to construct allowed me to trace the San Pablo brand before that, even though all websites I trolled through are clear that Señor Justo Gonzales was making this rum for many years before that.  Although Gonzalez — like many of the Cuban distilling families — played both ends against the middle in the 1950s by supporting both Batista (in order to keep operating) and Castro (just in case), once the Cuban Revolution was a done deal Castro nationalized all the distilleries – the Bacardi saga is probably the best known. The story goes that after Gonzales importuned Castro not to take over San Pablo, recounting his many donations to the cause, Fidel wrote him a cheque for that very amount on the spot and went ahead anyway. Gonzalez cut a fast deal with A.D.Jonckheer to buy the 150 barrels of rum he had ageing in Cuba (but that immediate payment should be withheld), fled the island with his recipe, and went into partnership with Handelmaatschappij (AD’s company), and formed the Aruba Distilling Company, with a bottling facility on Curaçao. In the 1970s Gonzales sold his share of the ADC to Jonckheer, a situation that continues to this day with A.D.’s descendants, and with the original recipe intact.

It is unknown which distillery currently makes the rum – it was suggested that an outfit on Bonaire does. Also unknown is where the molasses originates, and how long it has been aged.  I’ve sent a message to Curacao to see if I can get some answers, and will update this post with any additional information as or if it becomes available.

Sep 262018
 

Few are unaware of the existence of the J. Bally 1929 – for those who troll the online shops it remains one of the few very old bottlings from inter-war Gilded Age times to remain available…if one has over two grand kicking about to buy it.The Bally 1924, on the other hand, is a whole lot rarer – I can’t remember the last time I saw one coming up for discussion, let alone sale. And one could argue that its heritage is much more gold-plated – it’s the first vintage from J. Bally. I’ve tried quite a few from this bottler, one dating back to the 1960s, but to try the very first?  That might be worth a kidney right there.

This bottle being such a piece of heritage, a little history is in order. J. Bally was named after Jacques Bally, a graduate of a top engineering school in Paris, the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (ECP, founded in 1829) – he snapped up the Lajus Plantation on Martinique in 1917, a mere fifteen years after Mount Pelee erupted, when memories of that disaster were still fresh and land prices were cheap (Lajus, founded in 1670, was already in foreclosure, having gone bankrupt after the 1902 disaster). By 1920 he had installed new steam engine, fixed up the salvageable equipment he could and (legend has it) pretty much built his own column still from scratch.  In that same year the nearby Habitation Dariste owned by the the Gronier family went bankrupt and Bally bought it in 1923 and moved the distillery equipment to Lajus to augment his own machniery. In 1930, by which time he was already laying away rum stocks to age, he also had a hand in designing the signature pyramidical and square bottles which became so associated with Bally in later years. The rhums Bally made were very popular, sold well, and the company remained in business until the 1980s when Remy Cointreau acquired it, at which point production was shut down at Lajus and moved to Domaine du Simon where (as far as I know), it’s still being made, with cane from Lajus. Note that in 2003 La Martiniquaise bought out Saint James and Bally (to add to their rum portfolio which already contained the brands of Depaz, Dillon, Negrita and Old Nick) which is why the Remy Cointreau’s webpage makes no mention of either one now.

Aside from being made so long ago, what makes the 1924 special is that it was the initial release of an aged rhum from Bally, and one of the first of its kind in the French West Indies, if not the first. Jacques Bally took inspiration from cognac and eau-de-vie makers in France and was apparently the first to consider ageing Martinique rhums in oak. This provided the initial release of his rums in the 1920s with a depth of quality that made them extremely popular and well-known, and one can just imagine all the other distilleries on the island rushing to copy the idea. The inevitable question arises, how old is the 1924 vintage?  “More than six years,” said Luca in a text to me, and that makes sense if the bottle that houses it was only designed and made in 1930. We can leave it there with only one other great unknown, and that’s how many bottles were released – and nobody knows that any longer, sorry. I hit a brick wall on that one.

Enough of the pedantic stuff. How was it to taste, eliminating all the baggage of history and heritage and rarity the rhum came with? It’s one thing to sing high praises because it’s from so far back, but a cold review is somewhat more challenging, especially considering the august company in which I tried it – the Tasting of the Century in September 2018.  You can bet that I was paying real close attention and took a long time with my glass on this one, if only so I wouldn’t be embarrassed when real writers came out with their own notes.

Nose first: nice! For all its age, the Bally 1924 could have come off the line last year and you’d never know it.  It smelled of fresh squeezed apple juice, pears with oodles of sweet light aromas, flowers, sugar water and watermelon, out of which emerged a nice melange of crushed walnuts, fanta, lemon zest, crisp yellow mangoes and cumin.  If you were tasting it blind you’d swear this was an agricole you could pick up online for some reasonable coin – like the Harewood 1780, it presented a profile not a hundred miles removed from something produced today.

Bottled at 45% ABV, the Bally 1924, for all the noble pedigree granted by being made so far back, in many ways resembled Bally rhums from past decades’ that I went through three years ago. It was slightly sharp on the palate, and as clean and clear as any of its descendants.  Apples, cider, brine and olives came smoothly off the assembly line, bolted on to emergent flavours of pears in syrup, green grapes, spices, more lemon zest, leather, a touch of vanilla and nougat and a vague hint of grass, black tea, earthy musk, and rosemary. The overall balance, cleanliness of the mouthfeel was excellent, and the ageing had definitely sanded down any rough edges – it was quite simply a pleasant drink to have, fading easily into a smooth finish that provided little that was new, just a languorous recap of the highlights – peaches, pears, mangoes, lemon zest, watermelon and sweet flowers and herbs and a pinch of cumin. A neat and near-perfect little agricole, coming together beautifully.

Well. How to score something like this? Well, I’m going to give it a solid endorsement — not that this means anything given its mythical near-unicorn status. But I should note in passing that for all its quality, the Bally 1924 strikes me more as an essay in the craft of agricole than a completely finished product that stands the test of time. It shows what they were before the snapped into focus in the last few decades of the AOC regs.

Perhaps it’s unfair to rate a rhum made nearly a hundred years ago to the standard of today when so much has changed in the interim — and for sure others around the table that day loved it (Matt rated it as his personal favourite for the evening).  To round things up: the Harewood 1780 presented a startlingly modern profile that went in its own brilliant direction way, strong, forceful, distinct; the Skeldon 1978 couldn’t rise above its elder brother but was still quite an amazing drink; and the Saint James 1885 was a rum made in a style quite different from agricoles as a whole, unique and interesting.  The Bally is caught in a limbo between the modern versions of the spirit, and the old ways of the 1885 – that’s in no way a failure, just that the competition is more fierce because we’ve had so many rums that are so similar to it.

But you know, whatever the score, there’s a certain cachet, even honour, in having been able to try a quartet of such grail-quest rums, so old, so rare, so absolutely stinking of rum history, so generously shared.  The Tasting of the Century might one day be exceeded (though I can’t for the life of me imagine what rums would comprise version 2.0); but whether that happens or not, I’ll always be happy to have tried the Bally — because it was one of those rhums that pointed the way to the modern era of cane juice rhums, so exactingly made, so proudly issued, so excellent to drink.  The Saint James 1885 might be the doddering grandaddy of the French island rhum style, but the 1924 with its crisp and clear profile taking us back to the beginning of the modern era, is surely its godfather.

(#552)(86/100)


Other Notes

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 162018
 

The Harewood Barbados rum from 1780 which was trotted out with a tantara of trumpets and a choir of angels at the Tasting of the Century held in London on September 13th, 2018, will probably stand the test of time as the oldest rum that any reviewer or rum aficionado will ever be able to try – not old in terms of ageing (which in this case is unknown), just with respect to how very long ago it was made. It was exceptional in so many respects that it even eclipsed the launch of the Hampden rums which (together with Ms. Harris’s stunning red ensemble) were ostensibly the real reason for the get-together of so many journalists and rum bloggers.

Given the social media blast which attended that day, many of the facts about the Harewood (bow head, doff cap, genuflect) are now reasonably well known, but since I’ve been following the story since the story broke in 2013, I’ll recap them briefly here. The Harewood estate in Yorkshire was built on the fortune of one Henry Lascelles who arrived in Barbados in 1711, and who within twenty years had built a small empire founded on sugar and banking.  In 2011, his descendant Mark Lascelles found 28 cobweb- and filth-encrusted bottles in the cellar of Harewood House and after ascertaining that they were rums, auctioned them off in two lots. The entire (first) collection of twelve handblown bottles sold for £80,000 at Christie’s in 2014, though the buyers were not disclosed by the Daily Mail which reported on the matter. Sleuthing around informs me that Hedonism Wines of London bought one and then resold it for $17,350 to Wealth Solutions who put a capsule into each edition of their collection of 100 Rum Watches within the “Spirits Watches” collection, and the rum has been dubbed the most expensive in the world. Obviously either LMDW or Velier (or both) bought another (or several) and maybe the Whisky Exchange took a third, hence their listing.  But who cares? This is beyond history, beyond heritage. This is the rum from further back in time then any of us proles were ever likely to try.

And just look at the Bad Boys of Rum who were called in to help taste it: John Gibbons, Gregers Nielsen, Wes of The Fat Rum Pirate, Steve James of the Rum Diaries Blog, Matt Pietrek the Cocktail Wonk, Pete Holland from the Floating Rum Shack and Tatu Kaarlas of Refined Vices were all there trying this thing at the same time I was — and let me tell you, it was a  kinetic experience to hang out with some of the best known writing personages of the rumiverse, and be able to cheerfully talk and sample and poke fun at each other all at the same time.

Photo courtesy of Matt Pietrek The Cocktail Wonk

In fine, the amazing company aside, it was a fantastic rum. I swear that as we started I regarded the rum with the dark cynicism of an observer of the current American political scene. No way could any rum live up to the hype of the bare stats – 1780; found by accident; oldest from Barbados; most expensive ever; ancient; pure; a window into Ago. “Please God, let this not be an epic fail,” I muttered to myself as I walked over to the tasting to join the Collective. I need not have worried.

The very first — almost disbelieving — notes I wrote down in my book were “How can a rum from that far back smell so modern?”  The aroma was like a top end cask strength rum issued today – decant into a new bottle, slap a fancy label and some words on it, and it could be something you see on a shelf in your local spirits emporium boasting a chubby price tag. It started off musty and dusty, something like the Samaroli 1948 West Indian rum.  It smelled of glue, sawdust, cedar wood, crushed walnuts, grapes and orange marmalade, all of which came together in an extraordinary balance. It developed into rotting apples, sour cream, gherkins in vinegar, before doing a switcheroo and becoming dry and phenolic. It had briny notes, minty notes, licorice notes, hints of molasses, olives, wood chips, aromatic tobacco, light fruits, clean herbs (almot agricole-like)….and this was all in the first ten minutes. The 69% strength at which it was bottled gave everything, and held back nothing, and I had a sneaking suspicion that if I were to strap it onto my bathtub and add wheels, I could set lap records at the Nurburgring.

And that was just the nose.  Tasting it elevated my opinion even more.  The strength was totally bearable and not sharp or vinegary or nasty in the slightest – oh sure it was fierce and strong and hot and dry, but it was a full proof rum and this was par for the course – what was remarkable was its overall sippability (is that a real word?). Initial flavours were of light sugar water, apples and watermelon juice (that agricole touch again), acetones, more tobacco, nail polish, grapes, licorice, light molasses, fried bananas and dark chocolate.  It also had a texture and taste of unsweetened fresh yoghurt drizzled with olive oil, the musky taste of hummus and pea soup and dark yeasty bread, which gradually retreated into a sort of subtle fruitiness, of orange marmalade, pears and the crispness of unripe yellow mangoes. It was the sort of rum that simply got better as it rested and opened up in the glass, and while I was trying hard not to pay attention to the soft conversation and chirps of delight from my compadres left, right and opposite, I don’t think my appreciation was limited to myself alone.  Even the finish was not a let down, and provided a proper ending to the rum – long, aromatic, redolent of light anise and furniture polish, dust, hay and some oak, bitter chocolate, nuts and a last hint of fruitiness too laid back to identify precisely.

In summary…wow!  Honestly, if it was commercially available, it should come loaded with a book of quotations that had nothing but expletives, together with a thesaurus listing all the equivalents to the word “awesome”, just in case one’s vocabulary isn’t up to the task.  Would I recognize it blind? Is it representative of Barbados at all? I don’t know – probably not. What I think is that it’s a rum trembling right on the edge of being off the scale.

The Harewood 1780 is, to me, one of the most paradoxical rums I’ve ever tried, because with a very few exceptions, almost nobody who could afford it could possibly appreciate it, and just about nobody who can appreciate it could possibly afford it (one exception, as all are aware, is Luca Gargano, who organized this epic event and about whom no more need be said). Moreover, aside from being the oldest rum in existence (for now) the rum is amazing in one other respect — it adheres to a profile so modern that were one to taste it without knowing what it was (fat chance, I know), it would not be out of the realms of possibility to give it a great score and then ask wonderingly which new independent on the rum scene made this damned thing.

But we couldn’t try it blind – and much as I tried to not let the heritage and age of this rum sway my mind and my scoring, the fact of the matter was that the panoply of tastes and the complexity of the whole experience could not be denied.  We who sat down that day and tried this rum were privileged beyond all measure to have a window opened up into the way rums tasted back then, how they were different from now…yet also curiously the same. For all the changes that have occurred in the industry and the technology between 1780 and 2018, the truth is that the current inheritors of the tradition of quality rum-making aren’t that far away from what was once being made. And that is all to the credit of both those who came before, and those who make rums now.  

(#549)(94/100)


Other notes

  • There were some moral some issues with selling a rum made by the labour of slaves – a way around the matter was found by donating all the proceeds of the sales to charity.
  • Since the modern columnar still had not been invented at the time, it stands to reason the rum was made on a pot still of some kind.
  • The rum was distilled in two forms, according to Christie’s – “Light” and “Dark”, with apparently differing taste profiles.  Whether the terms were used for colours or an actual distillation technique is unknown, but it’s with some dismay that I now have to see if in my lifetime I can find a sample of the “Dark”. The Light tested at 69.38% ABV and the Dark at 57.76% (page 40 of Christie’s catalogue)
  • Links to other articles on the Rum Tasting of the Century (to be updated as other articles appear):