Mar 112018


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

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

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

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

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

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


Feb 262018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Other notes

  • Outturn is unknown
  • Background history of the company can be found at the bottom of the 1995 review
Jan 282018


The History Collection 1715 “Isle de France” Cuvée Spéciale, in spite of being made from cane juice, reminded me rather more of an El Dorado rum than a true agricole, and with the History Collection’s 1814 “Mauritius” Cuvée Grande Reserve we’re looking at today, similar thoughts occurred to me…albeit about a different country. Perhaps that’s the marker of a rum that lingers in the mind and titillates the senses – it reminds you of something, but pinning it down proves elusive…and then it turns out to be quite a distinct product in its own right, as this one is.

So, that said, and similarities aside, it’s instructive to assess the achievement of St. Aubin in producing a rhum that — even at 40%  — was no slouch to sample: it had the same rich and fruity aromas of the Isle de France, brown sugar, cherries in syrup, pineapple, peaches, apricots, vanilla, and to distinguish it from its sibling (perhaps), also a series of coffee and musty, sawdust-y, cereal-y back-end notes.  Sprinkled with raspberries.  What with a hint of chocolate in there someplace, I was actually moving away from comparing the nose to an El Dorado, and relocating myself to Colombia, know what I mean?  This thing was like a crisper Dictador 20 with just enough of the agricole background shimmering through to provide a clue as to its origins.

The nose told a tale that would be repeated right down the line, and what I smelled was pretty much what I tasted, with a few variations here and there.  It was light and clean, yet displaying darker, muskier spicier notes as well: vanilla, coffee, licorice and some sharp tannins, with the musty long-disused-attic tastes remaining.  Some fruits – peaches and cherries for the most part – stayed in the background.  The core was anise and sawdust and unsweetened chocolate, and overall it presented as somewhat dry.  Quite nice — if it fell down at all it was in the finish, which was more licorice and chocolate, thin tart fruits (gooseberries perhaps) and after a few hours, it took on a metallic tang of old ashes doused with water that I can’t say I entirely cared for.

Some background. The date on the bottle (1814) relates to the the Treaty of Paris signed at the end of the Napoleonic Wars by the warring nations of Europe, and it was this treaty which gave Guadeloupe back to France (it had been ceded to Sweden (!!) for a while), but which also formally confirmed Mauritius to be a colony of Great Britain (who had held it since 1810). I was informed that the rhum is cane juice based, 30% pot still 10 year old from 2004, and 70% column still (stored for six years in an inert inox tank), — which therefore does not makes the rum a 10 year old in spite of the bottling in 2014, and so I have had to retitle and amend this post, after checking with St. Aubin directly. Oh and there are 5218 bottles in the outturn, so probably enough for anyone who wants one to get one.

As noted on the Ile de France, by the way, you should expect some dosing here (caramel and “natural flavours”, not sugar, I was informed), and that’s evident after some switching back and forth between a true agricole and this one…not enough to mess it up, but noticeable enough after a while.  On the plus side it gentles the whole experience down a mite, makes it smoother and quieter and more sippable for those who like softer profiles to their rums (plus of course, sweeter ones); on the negative side it dampens and mutes a profile which doesn’t really need that kind of tampering – it’s good enough as it stands.  Underneath the muffling effect of the caramel addition, you can sense what it was and what was there, but it’s like listening to music underwater…the full impact and effect of the symphony is lost. And that’s a shame because I’d be much more interested to see what it was like when pure – based on the quality of what I was sampling, that was probably quite something.


Other notes

As stated above, current versions of the rum are only partly 10 years old, although the components remain the same as older ones – the 10 YO pot still component replaces the 7 YO portion. The label on the bottle I was sold was an older one which is now being changed to eliminate the age statement.  So even if your label says 7, you’re not precisely getting that.

Jan 212018


The current focus on the Caribbean’s rums to some extent obscures interesting developments taking place elsewhere – for example the new Madeira rum from Rum Nation, French Guiana’s Toucan…and rums from St. Aubin in Mauritius, which are not particularly new, but certainly lack wider appreciation, perhaps because they don’t make it to the festival circuit as much as others do.  Anyway, this rum, the Isle de France 1715-2015 is part of their “History Collection”, bottled at 40% for a wider commercial market, and commemorates the year of establishment of French rule over Isle de France for the French East India Company — prior to that it was named L’Ile Maurice, and was a haven for pirates, smugglers and the all-round lawless (in which it parallels the Caribbean, maybe) from whom all of us low-rent rum reviewers claim descent when in our cups.

According to my email exchanges with the company, the rhum was produced from the harvest of 2005, and is a blend of two rhums – pot still (30%) aged ten years aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and column still (70%) stored in inert inox tanks; both distillates deriving from cane juice .  As a further note, although sugar was explicitly communicated to me as not being added, caramel and “natural aromas” were – so some variation from the pure is to be expected and I don’t doubt that hydrometer tests will show the dosage.

Certainly the caramel component was noticeable, and not just in the colour, which was quite dark – almost mahogany. The nose presented with sweet toffee notes almost immediately, and what was remarkable about it was also the surprising richness of it all – fruity to a fault, licorice, brown sugar, pineapple and peaches, balanced off (not entirely successfully) with oak and bitter chocolate.  The rhum smelled sweet, like overripe oranges and bubble gum and that to some extent was intriguing…just somewhat overpowering after a while.

Fortunately it smelled more saccharine than it tasted.  The palate was quite good, rather dry, and much more robust than I had been expecting from a standard strength product – sweetish, yes, also containing coconut shavings, pineapple, more peaches, light citrus, caramel and chocolate, coffee grounds, nougat, and – this is where I felt it faltered – also too much vanilla.  The oak took a backseat here, the bitterness of the nose not so much in evidence and the finish was warm, short with bubble gum, licorice and dry, woody notes that were pleasant, just disappeared too swiftly.

Overall, this is quite a pleasant rhum, and strangely enough, given its cane-juice antecedents, it reminded me a lot of the El Dorado rums, particularly the 12 year old, where the dosage was also quite obvious; and it’s somewhat of a kissing cousin to the El Dorado 15 year old with respect to its panoply of flavours, specifically the licorice and chocolate.  I think that attempts may have been made to emulate some of the high ester profile of the Savanna rums without blatantly ripping them off, and the dosage smoothened things out and provided some balance.  At end, it’s a perfectly respectable mid-tier rum which is likely to find great favour in North America, perhaps less so in Europe.

History always fascinates me, so a few details here: the Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s; they also make the Lazy Dodo brand which I waxed lyrical about last year). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles.

It’s a personal opinion of mine that alongside St. Lucia and Reunion, Mauritius is another one of those undiscovered countries we should be watching. Every day we read about the Jamaicans, Guyanese and Bajans; we regularly get another release from the famous rhum makers out of Martinique and Guadeloupe; and we kinda wish we could get more from St. Vincent and Grenada and other smaller Caribbean islands to round out the area, sure. However, let that not blind you to treasures made on the other side of Africa, on this small, rather-off-the-beaten-track island.  Chamarel, New Grove, Penny Blue and Lazy Dodo rums are all good products, enlarging the scope of what rums are — but my advice is, don’t ignore the St Aubin rums either, because however middling my notes are, they have some pretty interesting wares, and deserve a good hard look by those who want something different and tasty, yet also not too far removed from the profiles of better known rums. It’s just close enough to more familiar products to evince a nod of appreciation and vague recall, while being a memory that remains tantalizingly elusive  “Tastes oddly familiar,” I wrote after sampling the Cuvée Spéciale, “But damned if I remember precisely which one.”  And that’s exactly as it should be.


Jan 032018


“A few years ago, these rums [Zacapa and Diplo Res Ex] were seen as the baseline for all other rums to be judged.  No longer.”  Thus wrote Wes Burgin over at the Fat Rum Pirate in an excellent July 2017 post suggesting that with social media and education, enthusiasts were becoming more knowledgeable and less apt to accept adulterated rums than ever before.

Yet in spite of that ideal, in spite of the ever-expanding knowledge-base of rums the world over, the Diplo remains enormously popular. It’s unlikely that there’s any rum drinker out there – junkie or not – who didn’t at some point have a fling with this plump Venezuelan señora.  Just about all rum writers have done a thing on it. Like the Bacardis, El Dorados and Zacapas, it’s one of those rums one can find just about anywhere, and for the new people coming to rum cold, it remains a staple, if not always a favourite.  

That is, of course, due to both its very affordable price, and because of is sweet placidity.  You don’t want expensive indie aggro? A light, easy-going drink? Something to relax with? Complex enough for Government work? No thinking required? Here’s your solution. That’s also the reason why it drops off the radar of those people who grow to take their rums seriously (if it doesn’t drive them into transports of righteous rage).  Diplomatico – marketed as Botucal in Germany, named after one of the farms from which the cane comes, though it’s exactly the same product – never bothered to punch it up, never worried about cask strength, never deigned to lose the dosing or adulteration, and sells briskly day in and day out.  The deep-diving rum chums just shake their heads and head for the exits to buy the latest indie casker, and discussions on Facebook about the matter are more likely than any other to end up in verbal fisticuffs.

Yet consider for a moment the page of this rum in the populist-driven, crowd-sourced “review” site RumRatings.  A top-end, well-known, mid-priced unadulterated rum issued at full proof like, say, the Foursquare Criterion has 13 ratings on that site. The Triptych has 11. The 2006 10 Year Old has 4, and the most popular Foursquare rum is the 9 year old 2005 Port Cask Finish with 71.  The Diplomatico in contrast has over 1,200, with most rating it between 8 and 9 out of 10 points. 

Surely neither longevity, nor rank please-as-many-as-possible populism are solely responsible for such a disparity. There’s got to be more to it than just that, a reason why it regularly appears on people’s answers to the constant question “What to start with?” — and I’m sorry but not everyone drinks a few hundred rums a year like us writers and festival junkies, and it isn’t enough to simply shrug, sniff condescendingly and say “some people just don’t know good rums.” If it is – as I suggest – a rum worth revisiting, then such popularity and esteem requires a cold, beady-eyed re-consideration.  We have to understand whether it has something more in its trousers, something subtle, that excites that kind of appreciation. It was in an effort to understand what lay behind the popularity of the Diplo that I deliberately sourced a bottle in Berlin in late 2017, and while my controls were a few stronger, purer rums from the Latin side, to my surprise the Diplo didn’t entirely choke even when ranked against them (I shall now pause for the incredulous expressions of indignation to pass), though for sure it never came close to exceeding any and raced to the bottom in fine style.

Part of all this is its relative simplicity compared to fierce and pungent rums now taking centre stage. The nose was a straightforward sweet toblerone, toffee, vanilla, butterscotch and caramel, very light and easy and butter-smooth, with what complexity there was being imparted by spices aimed at the sweet side – rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg – and a little nuttiness, and a hint of light fruit, all of which took real effort to separate out.  Hardly the most complex or intriguing smell ever to waft out of a rum bottle, and the vanilla and caramel were really too dominant to provide the sort of excellence the maker trumpets for itself.

Similar issues affect the palate.  Smooth – yes, warm – yes, comfortable – undoubtedly.  There was a little oak mixing things up here, but mostly the taste was muscovado sugar and caramel, vanilla, light fruits of indeterminate nature, and those same spices from the nose (cinnamon being at the forefront) with nothing particularly new or adventurous leading one into undiscovered territory.  Overall, even on the finish, and then judged overall, it had little beyond a pleasant, warm sort of sweet unaggressive nature only marginally redeemed by a light tart fruity note here or there, and the edge imparted by a little oak. Beyond that, it was way too sweet for my palate as it stands right now, and in conjunction with the controls it actually sinks even further because the dampening effect of the additions becomes self evident.

So, that adulteration. It’s been measured at 30-40 g/L of whatever-it-is, which puts it in the same league as The El Dorado 12 and 15, Rum Nation Millonario and the Cartavio XO, all of which, back in the day, I enjoyed, and all of which have subsequently slipped in my estimation in the years between then and now, and been relegated to what I refer to as “dessert rums.” But what exactly are they adding to their rum?  Back in 2010 when I wrote my original unscored review, the Distilleries Unidas website made tangential mention of flavouring additives (“Only…rich aromas and flavours are used to manufacture rums…” — this comment no longer appears); and Rob Burr remarked on the 2012 Inuakena review that a Venezuelan rum liqueur called Haciendo Saruro is added to the blend, but without corroboration (it was assumed he was speaking from insider knowledge).  So I think we can take it as a given that it’s been tarted up, and it’s up to each person who tries this rum to make up their own minds as to what that means to them. Personally, I no longer care much for the Diplomatico and its ilk.  It presents no real challenge.  It simply isn’t interesting enough and is too sweet and easy. That, however, obscures the key point that people like it precisely for those reasons. It sells well not in spite of these deficiencies (as they are, to me), but because of them…because the majority of drinkers consider these very same drawbacks as points of distinction, and if you doubt that and the unkillability of sweet, check out the hundreds of comments in response to “Don’t treat people like snobs because they like sweet rums” post on FB in December 2017. Since I’m not arrogant enough to believe that my tastes and my palate matter more, or should take precedence over others, I can simply suggest that people try more rums to get a feel for more profiles before praising it to the high heavens as some kind of ur-rum of the Spanish style.

Let us also concede that a rum like this has its place. On the negative side are all the issues raised above.  On the plus side of the ledger, for those who like these things, there is sweetness, smoothness and a stab at complexity.  It works fabulously as a standalone sipping drink when concentration and thought is not desired or required.  It’s not entirely an over-sugared mess like, oh, the A.H. Riise Navy rum. It makes a decent introduction to neat rums for those raised on over-spiced, over-flavoured rums or who came up through the ranks trying rums like Kraken, Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry or Don Papa.  As one of the first steps in the world of rum, this ron remains a tough one to beat, and that’s why it should be on the list of anyone who is assembling the first home bar, and should be considered, for good or ill, one of the Key Rums of the World…even if, sooner or later, all true rum fans will inevitably move beyond it.


Dec 212017


The question that arises in my mind when I try something from Foursquare at standard strength is whether it would be better stronger, or whether it succeeds on its own merits as it stands.  Long time readers of this site (both of you, ha ha) will know of my indifference to the Doorly’s XO, the R.L. Seale’s 10 YO and the Rum 66 12 Year Old, but ever since Alex over at Master Quill glowingly endorsed the Doorly’s 12 YO (and noted he didn’t buy the XO because of my review), I’ve been curious how it would fare – especially when compared with the Exceptional Cask series like the Zinfadel, Port and Criterion, let alone those amazing Habitation Velier collaborations.

The Doorly’s brand was acquired by Foursquare in 1993, and it’s possible that the emergence of the El Dorado 15 YO the year before (it was one of the first aged premium rum brands regularly and plentifully issued by a major house) might have had something to do with that; and much of Mr. Seale’s blending philosophy and barrel strategy made famous by Foursquare’s more recent rums is still  demonstrated in the Doorly’s lineup, though I feel it’s currently being overshadowed by the Exceptionals, relegating it to something of an also-ran in a connoisseur’s cabinet. It’s a blend of pot and column still rum, some 90% of which was aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and 10% in Madeira casks (12 years in each). The final result is married for a short time (no details on how long) and then bottled.

I think that a lot of how you approach this rum and finally rate it will depend on where you stand regarding rums as a whole, and where you are in your personal journey.  You like the Jamaican and Guyanese, or high power whites, or 55% agricoles?  This might strike you as subtler, quieter, perhaps even bland.  Prefer cask strength rums made by the indies, or Foursquare themselves? This one is likely to leave you frustrated at the untapped potential that never quite emerges. On the other hand, if growling ABV monsters and fierce pungency are not your thing, it would probably appeal in spades, be deemed a damned fine rum — and indeed, it is well regarded and held in high esteem by many, as a result of dialling into precisely those coordinates.

Well, let’s taste it and find out, then.  Nose first: it was a clear, quiet smelling experience, a stripped-down blunted Swiss army knife of almost-sharp twittering flavours led by a buttery salt caramel, burnt sugar, a bit of soft citrus (oranges rather than lemons), unripe cherries, pomegranate, cinnamon and nutmeg.  What sharpness there was seemed to be more imparted by the wood, as it listed towards some oak influence, and maybe vanilla.  Overall aromas were well integrated, and while for me it presented some of the same issues as the XO — too thin, too faint, too delicate — it wasn’t totally derailed by them either.

Having observed a frailty of the nose, I was prepared for something similar on the palate.  Sampling it confirmed the matter: it remained weak and that seriously impaired the delivery of both texture and taste.  Yet hang on, hold up a minute…it was reasonably complex and tasty too.  It led off with clear caramel notes, vanilla, some brine, faint molasses, an olive or two. Also chocolate, bananas, indeterminate fruits, creamy salted butter, toffee, some oakiness for bite and finally the nutmeg and cinnamon returned for a quick twirl on the dance floor. So that part was pretty good.  However, I was utterly unenthused by the quick finish, which seemed to be as wispy as a debutante’s handkerchief and provided nothing of consequence – oak, leather, a little tobacco and straw, more caramel and a vague winy note that intrigued but was gone way too quick. Sorry, but that finish was a big yawn-through….I blinked and it was gone.

Everything about the rum seems to showcase the dialled-down approach that was in vogue ten years ago but has now been overtaken by events and developments in the larger rumworld. That it’s a well-made, serviceable, standard-proof rum for those who have never gone further (and don’t want to), I concede, no issues.  It’s 12 years old, it has some subtleties and interesting tastes (the taste is quite good), goes well in a cocktail or solo, piques the interest and the palate nicely.  What it lacks is panache, style, heft, clarity, intensity….it misses the mark on real character. It remains a rum of enduring popularity, of course, but leaves a deep core rum fun wondering wistfully what it might have been. And then turning to the Criterion to find out.


Other notes

Dec 132017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Other notes

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


Dec 072017


“Sample #18 reminds me of a Don Papa,” grumbled a Phillipine friend of mine, who was blind tasting some samples I had sent over to Quezon City. “Hot distillate on the nose, very sweet.” In those few words he encapsulated something of my own unease about the Dictador rums out of Colombia, because while hydrometer tests reveal no adulteration for the 12 and 20 year soleras, and probably none for the Insolent and Perpetual (they measure 3-4 g/L which is within the margin of error), the plain fact is that they simply taste too damned sweet…a characteristic of most solera-style rums I’ve tried.  Which would lead any cynical rumhound, in these sad and suspicious times, to posit that maybe they understated the actual ABV so that a hydrometer test would register exactly what the label says.

Given that the zero-additives-registered 12 and 20 somewhat predated the current sugar imbroglio, one could make the case they’re not pulling a fast one, but the question refuses to go away — because when Cyril tried the “Best of 1978” version it came out as 17 g/L and even if this were not the case, when you try this rum from a year earlier, you cannot help but feel that there’s more in its trouser pockets than a pair of hands.  That does not make it entirely bad, and since many have said nice things about it, perhaps it’s merely one you should be wary about buying if your personal palate does not run to the lighter, sweeter Spanish style of rums in general, or soleras in particular. And if you want to know exactly what you’re buying, well, that’s a matter for my opinions down below this review.

Anyway, tasting notes: all those who have tried the various Dictador expressions have remarked on the coffee undertones: that remained strong here as well – it’s something of a Dictador signature. It was soft and rounded, exhibiting gentle, creamy notes of sweet blancmange, bon bons and caramel.  There was something of a red wine background here, raisins, and a vague fruitiness that was maddeningly elusive because it never quite emerged and came to the fore with any kind of authority.  The nose therefore came through as something of a sleeping beauty behind a frosted glass case – I could sense some potential, but was never quite able to get the kiss of life from it…the liqueur note to the smells, while not as overpowering as on the 20, kept getting in the way.

Things were slightly more impressive to taste, because here the strength of 45.5% worked better, and it presented as a little edgy, a little jagged, if lacking that smooth purring of velvet which we might have expected (and the ease of which were other defining characteristics of the 12 or the 20 along with that over-sweetened coffee which wouldn’t go away) – this, to the 1977’s credit, added some character: chocolate, coffee (again), cumin, a light lemony flirt of coriander, ginger, even sweet red paprika: but the core of it all remains the caramel-coffee.  Ultimately, however, it remained relatively uncomplex, fragile…even weak — the flavours were somewhat unassertive, flat, jittered around too much and fell away too quickly.  My personal opinion was that it lacked punch and staying power, which was most to be remarked on the finish which was a quick burst of caramel, coffee, chocolate and oaken heat mixed up with some black tea….and then it was gone.  Poof.

Now that’s not to say we’re sure, when all is said and done, the nose nosed, the palate palated and the finish finished, that we’re entirely clear what we had.  Certainly it was some of something, but was it much of anything?  I’m going to have to piss off some people (including maybe even my compadre in the Phillipines) by suggesting that yes, I think it was…better, at least, than the preceding remarks might imply, or than I had expected going in.  For one thing, while it was sweet, it was not excessively so (at least compared to the real dentist’s wet dreams such as Don Papa 7, or the A.H. Riise).  It had reasonably nice tastes and smells, so as a dessert rum or smooth, sweet sipping experience, this will do the job.  It delivers for all those who like that profile — and from what I am led to understand by many correspondents of mine, this is the style that is preferred in South and Central America, and the Spanish Caribbean, hence its enduring popularity.  

So here’s what I’ll do. If you like this kind of thing, add five points to my score.  If you detest soleras, sweeter rums or underpowered blended drinks, subtract five.  Either way, you’ll probably come out with the perfect number to represent your own feelings on the matter.  Me, I rate it as a middling decent rum which needs less sweet, less coffee, more disclosure, more complexity…and the courage to stop with the solera moniker, call it a blend, age it for the full monty, and for sure add quite a bit of extra oomph. Then I might buy not just a bottle, but a case.


Other notes

Bottle #84 of 300.

In a curious coincidence, the Cocktail Wonk posted an informative article on the whole business of soleras for Punch Magazine just the other day. That and DuRhum’s (French) article on Dictador are useful background reading to my opinion below.


The “Best of 1977” sounds real good, but is ultimately useless as any kind of standard by which to measure it since no additional information is given as to how old it is, even in solera terms.  I wish I could tell you it’s 1977-2016 or 1950-1977 or something, but there’s simply nothing to go on here. Dictador do themselves no favours in this matter by consistently naming their rums as “Aged 12 years” or “Aged 20 years” (with “solera” in much smaller typeface on the label), when of course they are nothing of the kind by commonly accepted parlance – the oldest rum in the blend is that old  not the youngest, there is no mention of how much of that age is included, and even the average age is a matter of conjecture. It may be legal, but it is somewhat deceptive too. The same issue afflicts the “Best of…” series and dilutes their effectiveness in all the ways that matter to those who want to know what they’re buying.  Because we really don’t know, and can’t tell.

Quite aside from ageing (or lack thereof) consider the the whole question of tasted-but-untested additives. The “Best of…” series are an informational sinkhole of gargantuan proportions, an exercise in enormous frustration. Henrik Kristoffersen nailed it in November 2017 on the Global Rum Club forum where he asked where this stuff came from and were they really sitting on barrels from as far back as 1966 for this long? Others chipped in asking how ageing any barrels that long could possibly leave anything behind after the angels took their bite of the pizza.  Still others noted the same barrel reference on both the Best of 1981 and the Best of 1966 bottle labels.  Then there were the discussions on whether anything was actually distilled by Dictador or whether they (like Hechicera, also from Colombia) sourced distillate from around the continent.  And then there was Cyril’s take-no-prisoners French-language article on Dictador as a whole, which did not leave either the company or their big gun looking too good.

If this isn’t a poster child for the application of The Rum Chum’s First Law (“Drink what you like…know what you drink”) I don’t know what is. It sips well if you like that profile, but God help you if you want to find out what it’s made of, how old it is, or where it comes from.  And before you think that I’m being unreasonably snarky, note that a discussion like this is not a mere academic rum geek pastime – knowing what you’re looking at allows you to rate and assess its price in your local shop (it goes for north of $200, and the 1966, labelled as “51 years,” is closing in on €500).  If you can’t find out whether the damned thing is five years old or fifty, whether it’s pot or column, solera or true-aged, added-to or clean…then the producer has betrayed his trust with you; and you’re within your rights to not only demand more, but to ask the hard questions of anyone who is trying to regurgitate a bunch of marketing folderol without actually saying much of anything. For sure we’re not getting the whole story here and since we don’t know what we’re buying, I’d suggest you leave this review and opinion, with me having spent my coin so you don’t have to spend yours.

Dec 022017


Seen over a span of decades, it is more clear than ever that the El Dorado 15 year old is a seminal rum of our time. “It is a bridge” I wrote back in 2010 in my unscored review, remarking that it straddles the territory between the lower end twelve year old and the 21 year old, and represents a sort of intermediary in value and price and age. The best of all worlds for El Dorado, you might say, and indeed it remains, even twenty five years after its introduction in 1992, one of the most popular rums in the world for those who enjoy the Demerara style.  Any time a blog or website has a series of comments on favourite affordable rums, you can be sure it’ll find its way in there somewhere.  It cannot be easily ignored, even now in the time of independents and cask strength Guyanese monsters aged beyond all reason.

That it succeeds at so effectively colonizing our mental map of good rums bottled at living room strength is a testament to its marketing, but also its overall quality.  DDL themselves tacitly accept this by not only keeping the rum in production for over a quarter century, but chosing specifically that one to issue with a number of fancy finishes (and for a very good rundown of those, look no further than RumShopBoy’s complete analysis, and his separate conclusions, as well as the Quebec Rum’s (French) reviews the only ones available right now). My irascible father, no rum slouch himself, scorns all other rums in the El Dorado range in favour of this one. Many Guyanese exiles wouldn’t have their home bars without it.  What the actual quality is, is open to much more debate, since all rumhounds and rumchums and rabid aficionados are well aware – and never tire of saying – that there is 31-35 g/L of additives in there (either caramel or sugaring, it’s never been definitively established), and by that standard alone it should, like the 21, be consigned to an also-ran.

But it isn’t.  Somehow this rum, a blend of the PM, EHP and VSG stills – which is to say, all the wooden stills, with the PM dominant – keeps on trucking like the energizer bunny, and, love it or hate it, it sells well year in and year out, and has fans from across the spectrum.

Tasting it in tandem with the 12 year old (I’ll do a revisit of this as well soon, though not as part of the Key Rums series) and the 21, it’s clear that it possesses a bit more oomph than it’s younger sibling, in all aspects.  Not only in strength (43% ABV) and age (three years more than the 12), but also in overall quality. It noses quite well – licorice, anise, creamy caramel, bitter chocolate, leather and smoke.  Orange rind.  Some mustiness and vague salt – basically all the things that the cask strength indies demonstrate, with good complexity and balance thrown in…but somewhat more dampened down too, not as fierce, not as elemental, as what might have been the case.

The various hydrometer lists around the place have shown there’s adulteration going on in the rum, and there is no doubt that when you drink the 15 in tandem with clear, untouched rums, the softening effect of the add-ons are noticeable. What is astounding that even those levels don’t entirely sink the experience. Consider: it’s smooth and possesses depth and heat.  It starts with licorice, and adds oak, some smoke, then slowly the dark fruits come into play – prunes, raisins, black olives, overripe cherries.  There’s some honey and the faint molasses background of coarse brown sugar.  In every way it’s a better rum than the 12 year old, yet one can sense the way the flavours lack snap and crispness, and are dumbed down, softened, flattened out – the sharp peaks and valleys of an independently issued rum are noticeably planed away, and this extends all the way to the finish, which is short and sleepy and kind of sluggish, even boring: sure there’s caramel, molasses, oak, licorice, nuts and raisins again, but didn’t we just have that?  Sure we did. Nothing truly interesting here.

All that aside, I’d have to say that for all its faults, there’s a lot to appreciate about this particular rum.  Much like the 21 it rises above its adulteration and provides the new and not-so-demanding rum drinker with something few rums do – a particular, specific series of tastes that almost, but not quite, edge outside the mainstream.  It gives enough sweet to appeal to those who bend that way, and just enough of a distinctive woody-smoky-leathery profile to attract (and satisfy) those who want something heavier and more musky.  

Now, let me be clear – a superlative demonstration of the blender’s art this is not. It is not one of the fiercely pungent Jamaicans, not a lighter, clearer, crisper agricole, nor is it an easy going Cuban or Panamanian, or a well-assembled Bajan.  I think it’s eclipsed even by the single-still offerings of DDL What it really succeeds at being, is well-nigh unique on its own particular patch.  Its success rests on great appeal to the masses of rum drinkers who aren’t drinking a hundred different rums a year, and who don’t take part in the Great Sugar Debate, who just want something tasty, reasonably well made and reasonably sweet, reasonably complex, that can be either sipped or swilled or mixed up without breaking the bank.  It’s on that level that the El Dorado 15 year old succeeds, remarkably well, even now, and is a tough, well-rounded standard for any other rum of its age and proof and point of origin to beat. Or at least, in the opinions of its adherents.


Nov 272017


For almost two decades, Rum Nation issued very special 20+ year old Jamaican Rums in the Supreme Lord series, always at a relatively quaffable 40-45% and with that oh-so-cool retro wooden box and jute packing that has now been discontinued; then a year or two back they decided to go with a new line, the “Small Batch Rare Rums” – this was to differentiate the cask strength line of more limited bottlings from the blended products with larger outturns, which Fabio sometimes refers to as “entry level” and which I always thought were quite good (ever since I bought the entire 2010 line at once).

One of the best of these is this appealing, approachable and near-sublime Jamaican rum, blended from three special years of Longpond’s stocks: 1985, 1986 and 1977. This is a rum issued in a limited outturn of 800 bottles, and has a presentation that places it at the top of the already fairly exclusive Rares: because while many of those are in the 10-20 year age range (there is a massive bronto of the 1992-2016 Hampden 61.6% that clocks in at 24, which I need to get real bad), this one beats them all and is at least 30 years old…and given a special presentation to match with a stylish flagon and clear printing direct on the bottle, and a neat box in which to show it off to less fortunate rum chums.

The constituent rums were aged in second fill bourbon barrels before being blended and then aged for a further six years in Oloroso casks pre-used for (an unnamed) whisky, and everything about the profile shows the best parts of all that ageing.  The nose was quite simply delicious – it dialled back the rubber and wax and furniture polish (though there was some of that) and amped up the characteristic Jamaican funk, mixing it up with bags of dark fruit – raisins, prunes, black olives for the most part.  Letting it stand gave more, much more: leather, tobacco, a smidgen of vanilla, honey, licorice, sherry, brown sugar and more raisins in a smooth smorgasbord of great olfactory construction. I walked around with that glass for over an hour and it was as rich at the end as it was in the beginning, and yes, that’s an unqualified recommendation.

Although I might have preferred a stronger, more forceful attack which 48.7% ABV did not entirely provide, there’s little I could find fault with once I actually tasted the thing.  Actually, it was as good as the nose promised and didn’t disappoint in the slightest: it began with a little unsweetened chocolate, caramel, molasses and funk,then  added olives and brine to the pot, before flooring the accelerator and revving it up to the redline.  Tumeric and paprika, light grasses and herbs, flambeed bananas, lemon peel, more raisins and prunes, both smooth and a little savage at the same time – surely something to savour over a good cigar. And the finish was excellent, just long enough, a shade dry, presenting closing notes of oak, vanilla, leather, smoke, molasses and caramel, chocolate and the vaguest hint of fruitiness and citrus to end things off with aplomb and a flourish.

The Jamaica 30 is priced to match at around four hundred dollars and therefore I can’t in fairness suggest you put yourself in hock to go get it unless you have such coin burning a hole in your portfolio.  It lands emphatically in the Fifth Avenue segment of the market, which makes it, unfortunately, mostly affordable by those who are more into showing off, rather than rum-geeks who would put it to bed next to the wife and make sure it (and not the wife) is tucked in properly.

But if you can get it, it may even be worth the outlay: this was a really nice rum. In my more imaginative moments I like to think that some years ago Rum Nation took a look at their wares and concluded that perhaps they were, with long association and decades long sales, getting, well…maybe…a shade boring?  I can just see Fabio Rossi in his warehouse morosely sucking rum out of a barrel, wondering where to go next, then raising his fist to high heaven and swearing like Scarlett, that “Mah rums will nevah be boring again!”  It’s taken years for that metaphorical flight of fancy of mine to be fulfilled, and has he ever succeeded with the Small Batch series in general, and this one in particular.  This rum is as exciting as any new rum now being made; and if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, I honestly don’t know what will. Except maybe a second bottle.


Other notes

I am unaware of any added sugar or dosing on the rum. Fabio Rossi has told me in the past that the Rares are unmessed-with, but I have not managed to ask about this one in particular yet.  A query to him is pending. Marcus Stock, a friend of mine from Germany, took a small sample of his own and it measured at equivalent ABV of 45.18% which he calculated back to 12 g/L additives.  He promised to do the test on a larger sample as a double check.