Mar 192019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#609)(84/100)


Other notes

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

Mar 132019
 

By today’s standards, Brugal, home of the very good 1888 Gran Reserva, made something of a fail in the genus of white rums with this Blanco.  That’s as much a function of its tremblingly weak-kneed proof point (37.5%, teetering on the edge of not being a rum at all) as its filtration which makes it bland to the point of vanilla white (oh, wait….). Contrast it with the stern, uncompromising blanc beefcakes of the French islands and independents which blow the roof off in comparison: they excite amazed and disbelieving curses — this promotes indifferent yawns.

To some extent remarks like that are unfair to those who dial into precisely the coordinates the Blanco provides — a light and easy low-end Cuban style barroom mixer without aggro or bombast, which can just as easily be had in a sleepy backroad rumshop someplace without fearing for one’s health or sanity after the fact. But they also encapsulate how much the world of white rums has progressed since people woke up to the ripsnorting take-no-prisoners braggadocio of modern blancs, whites, clairins, grogues and unaged pot still rhinos that litter the bar area with the expired glottises of unwary rum reviewers.

Technical details are actually rather limited: it’s a rum aged for two years in American oak, then triple filtered, and nothing I’ve read suggests anything but a column still distillate.  This results in a very light, almost wispy profile which is very difficult to come to grips with.

Take the nose – it was so very faint. Being aware of the proof point, I took my time with it and teased out notes of Sprite, Fanta, sugar water, and watermelon juice, mixed up with the faintest suggestion of brine.  Further sphincter-clenching concentration brought out hints of vanilla and light coconut shavings, lemon infused soda water, and that was about all, which, it must be conceded, didn’t entirely surprise me.

All this continued on to the tasting.  It was hardly a maelstrom of hot and violent complexity, of course, presenting very gently and smoothly, almost with anorexic zen-level calm.  It was thin, light and lemony, and teased with a bit of wax, the creaminess of salty butter, coconut shavings, apples and cumin — but overall the Blanco makes no statement for its own quality because it has so little of anything.  Basically, it’s all gone before you can come to grips with it. Finish? Obviously the makers didn’t think we needed one, because there wasn’t really anything there.

The question I ask with rums like the underproofed Blanco is, who is it made for? – because that might give me some idea of why it was made the way it was. I mean, the Brugal 151 was supposed to be for cocktails and the premium aged anejos were for sipping, so where does that leave something as milquetoast as this?  Me, if I was hanging around with friends in a hot tropical island backstreet, banging the dominos down with a bowl of ice, cheap plastic tumblers and this thing, I would probably enjoy having it on the rocks. On the other hand, if I was with a bunch of my fellow rum chums, showing and sharing my stash, I’d hide it out of sheer embarrassment.  Because compared with the white rums which impress me so much more, this isn’t much of anything.

(#608)(68/100)


Other notes

Company background: Not to be confused with Dominica, the Dominican Republic is the Spanish speaking eastern half of the island of Hispaniola…the western half is Haiti.  Three distilleries known as the Three Bs operate in the DR: Bermudez in the Santiago area, the Santo Domingo distillery called Barcelo, and Brugal in the north coast. Brugal, founded in 1888, seems to be the largest, perhaps as a result of being acquired in 2008 by the UK Edrington Group (they are the makers of Cutty Sark, and also own McCallan and Highland Park brands), and perhaps because Bermudez succumbed to internecine family squabbling, while Barcelo made some ill-advised forays into the hospitality sector and so both diluted their focus, to Brugal’s advantage.  

There are other blancos made by Brugal: the Ron Blanco Especial, Blanco Especial Extra Dry, the 151 overproof, and the Blanco Supremo.  Only the Supremo is listed on their website (accessed March 2019) and seems to be available online, which implies that all others are discontinued. That said, the production notes are similar for all of them, especially the 2 year minimum ageing and triple distillation.

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)

Mar 062019
 

So here we have a rum I’ve never heard of before, made by an outfit called Florida Caribbean Distillers (FCD) in (where else?) Florida. For those with better memories than mine, if the company name sounds familiar, it should be – this is the same one that is contracted to make the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5 Florida rum I wrote about a few months ago.

FCD is located halfway between Orlando and Tampa: they control the Club Caribe Distillery in Puerto Rico, as well as distilleries in Lake Alfred and Auburndale (both in Florida – the latter distillery produces this rum).  They are the oldest continuously running distillery in the US, being formed in 1943, and (somewhat to my surprise) said to be the largest rum producer in the US, bottle all rum for Cruzan and several smaller labels for contract clients including cruise lines and duty free shops as well as providing distillation, storage, ageing and bottling facilities as part of their service.

They make a bunch of other spirits as well – liqueurs, wines, vodkas, whiskies et al, which means that focus on true batch and artisanal production is not part of the programme. So if you’re looking for some kind of pot-still originality from a leaky, farty backwoods micro-distillery run by a grizzled old salt legalizing his moonshine, or a spanking new copper thing bolted together by an eager-beaver yuppie with the ink barely dry on his MBA and a strong minor in ecological distilling, well, this isn’t really either of those things.

What it is, is a blend of “select rums” aged two years in sherry casks, issued at 42% and gold-coloured. One can surmise that the source of the molasses is the same as the Noxx & Dunn, cane grown in the state.  Everything else on the front and back labels can be ignored, especially the whole business about being “hand-crafted,” “small batch” and a “true Florida rum” – because those things give the misleading impression this is indeed some kind of artisan product, when it’s pretty much a low-end rum made in bulk from column still distillate; and I personally think is neutral spirit that’s subsequently aged and maybe coloured (though they deny any additives in the rum).

Anyway, tasting notes: the nose is the best part, stop reading if that’s all you need. Nutty cereals and salt crackers with cream cheese.  Citrus, flowers, brine and pickled gherkins in balsamic vinegar.. Soft and creamy, quite unaggressive, but tasty enough. Some white chocolate, brown sugar, cinnamon, but the overarching aromatic notes are the salt of maggi cubes and avocados.

To taste it’s disappointing, and leaves me wondering where the sherry influence went and hid itself. There’s some good stuff going on when you smell it, but to taste it wimps out and goes flat as spit on a hot rock.  There’s traces of oaken tannins, salt, caramel, a hint of white fruits, grapes, unsweetened chocolate. Also cereals, nuts, toffee, with a faint line of citrus twittering in the background, nothing really noticeable unless you concentrate.  All in all, it’s actually quite simple, and tastes very young, even a bit harsh, untamed (and not in the way an unaged white does). This jagged bite carries over into the finish as well, which really could use some taming, and gives little beyond some very light fruits and florals, and a last briny note.

For my money, the Florida Old Reserve Rum is not strong enough to make a statement, not old enough to demonstrate real complexity, not distinct enough in any way to perk up a cocktail; and the sherry cask ageing?….well, it’s something of a challenge to find traces of it at all. Tried blind, I doubt you’d notice its absence (or presence, or care). What it seems to be is something of a product that showcases what the distillery can do for others and maybe to bootstrap industrial scale rum making so effectively done by Bacardi.  Well, say what you will about The Bat, they at least can make decent rums. Here, I’d say that a lot more work needs to be done.

What really amazes me, in doing my background notes, is that the Beverage Tasting Institute gave the rum 93 points in 2014 and 88 in 2016.  Leaving aside the drop in scores over a two year span, one can only wonder what sort of sample set they had and what they were comparing it against, to give such a rating to something this unexceptional. If it was up to me I’d never drink the Reserve neat, and mix it without ceremony — always assuming I bought a bottle in the first place, and that’s really unlikely, now that I’ve tried it.  

(#605)(72/100)

Feb 242019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#601)(81/100)


Other notes

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

Feb 192019
 

Just reading the label on the Very Old Captain makes me think (rather sourly) of yesteryear’s uninformed marketing copy, Captain Morgan advertisements and the supposedly-long-debunked perception that rum is fun, a pirate’s drink, redolent of yo-ho-hos and sunny tropical beaches. Even after so many years of so many companies and writers seeking to raise the bar of quality hooch, we still get assailed by such pandering to the least common denominator and what’s perhaps more discouraging, there are many who’ll buy it on that basis alone.

Lest you think I’m just having a bad hair day, consider what the label says above and below that faux-piratical name: “Very Old” and “Artisan Crafted Dark Rum”.  Well, it’s not very old, not artisanal, crafted has very little meaning, “artisan crafted” is not what it suggests, dark is not an indicator of anything except colour (certainly not of quality or age or purity), and that leaves only one word that can be construed as true: “rum”. One wonders why it wasn’t just left at that.

Now, this is a Philippine dark rum, blended, which the company website notes as being “the equivalent of 8 years”.  Since they issue an actual 8 year old and 12 year old that are clearly stated as being such, what’s the issue with saying what this thing is without the waffling? The Philippine Daily Inquirer had an article dating back to 2015 that said it was actually five years old and no mention of a pot still was made either there or on Limtuaco’s wesbite, although the back label speaks helpfully to the matter (“We blend premium rum from molasses with pot still rum” – as if somehow the two are different things) and BespokeManBlog mentioned it the same year when writing enthusiastically about the rum. Limtuaco was clear in the blurb of the 8YO that it had some pot still action and did not do so for the VOC, so I think we can reasonably posit it’s a blend of pot and column, and the whole business of “batch” and age-equivalency can be dispensed with.

My snark on disclosure aside, what was the standard-proofed dark gold rum actually like to smell and taste and drink?

Well, somewhat better than my remarks above might imply. It nosed off the line with nail polish, some acetones and sharp flowery-fruity tones, and a lot of spices – ginger, cumin, cinnamon. This was followed by apples, green grapes and unripe peaches mixed in with vanilla and some caramel, but the truth is, it all seemed just a bit forced, not real (or maybe I was suspicious as well as snarky), lacking something of the crisp forceful snap of a true pot still product.

Palate? Sweet, with white guavas and green grapes at first. Warm and somewhat faint, which is expected at that strength, with gradually emerging notes of molasses, vanilla, masala, and peaches in syrup. It’s all very mild and laid back, little oakiness or tannins or bitterness, hardly aggressive at all, which raises additional questions.  The finish provided little of consequence, being soft and easy and gone in a flash, leaving behind rapidly fading memories of light acetones and watery fruits. And breakfast spices.

Given that our faith in the company’s background notes has been somewhat eroded, what it means is that we can’t tell if the rum is for real — and the tastes that seemed somewhat artificial and added-to have no basis in our mind’s trust, in spite of the company website’s denials that they indulge the practice.  Yet since it is positioned as something special and premium (“high-end”), I expect more disclosure from then, not less, and to tell me that it derives from blackstrap molasses and is 40% ABV is hardly a fount of information, now, is it? The fact that they make some of their spirits from neutral alcohol that’s then processed just ensures reviews like this one.

But that aside, let’s just rate the rum itself. I don’t feel it’s really anything near to the kind of high-end as they tout, and my personal opinion is one of relative indifference, sorry. I think it’s an eminently forgettable rum, largely because there’s nothing really serious to it, no depth of distinctiveness or character that would make you remember it. To its credit, that also means there’s nothing overtly traumatic about the rum either, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement. For my money, it’s not a rum that would excite serious interest and enthusiasm from the hardcore, and even serious amateurs are likely to sip it, feel okay with it, and then move on to something with a little more oomph that they might actually recall the next day. Maybe like the Screech.

(#600)(72/100)


Other Notes

  • My remarks above notwithstanding, one has to consider the audience for which it is made.  As far as I know it’s primarily for sale in Asia, where softer, smoother, sweet-profiled (and spiced up) rums are more common and liked.  
  • The score does not reflect my dissatisfaction with the labelling and marketing, only the way it tasted. 
  • The company was formed in 1852 by a Chinese immigrant to the Phillipines, Lim Tua Co, who began the business by making herb infused medicinal wines.  The family continues to run the company he started, and now makes over 30 different products, including local blends and foreign brands manufactured under license.  It has three bottling, processing and aging plants as well as many warehouses in Manila, though information on its stills and how they make their rums remains scanty.
  • As always, a big hat tip to John Go, who is my source for many Asian rums I’d not otherwise find.  Thanks, mate.
Feb 082019
 

Velier has always had this way of sneaking in something obscure among all their major series of rums — some smaller or very individual bottling that doesn’t so much fly under the radar as not excite quite the same rabid fly-off-the-shelves obsessiveness as, for example, the old Demeraras or Caronis.  So there are those Basseterres from 1995 and 1997, for example, or the Courcelles from 1972, or that 1954 RASC army rum I’m still searching for.

Another may well be the Very Old Royal Navy rum released in 2017.  At the time, it got quite a lot of press (and Wes and Simon were the lucky guys who got to write about it first), yet it disappeared from our mental rum-map fairly quickly, and nowadays you’ll look hard on the social media fora to find mention of it.  Its place in the sun has been taken by the Habitation whites, or Foursquare collaborations, or the National Rums of Jamaica quartet, or whatever else emerges every month from Luca’s fertile imagination. Still – I submit that it may be a forgotten steal even at its price, and when I tried it, it impressed me quite a bit.

The specs are mentioned on the label, but let’s just quickly run through the data anyway. This is a full proof rum bottled at the old standard “proof” – “Navy” strength, or 57.18%.  The word Navy hearkens back not only to this ABV, but to the fact that it tries to recreate the original blend of island rums that was issued to the British fleet back in the day – given the change in the blend over the centuries it’s probably fruitless to try, but points for the effort nevertheless. So, inside of it we have the following components:  Guyanese rum, more than 15 years old, aged in Europe (said to be Enmore but I have my doubts); Jamaica pot still rum, fully tropical-aged, more than 12 years old (Worthy Park plus a few others); and a tropically aged Caroni more than twenty years old. Now, the label also notes an average age of 17.42 years, which suggests a somewhat higher proportion of the Caroni, and the continental ageing of the Demerara points to a rather lesser influence from that part of the blend.  I’d expect to have dominant notes of Caroni, some Jamaican funk hiding behind that, and the Demerara part bringing up the rear to round things off.

The nose suggested that this wasn’t far off. Mild for the strength, warm and aromatic, the first notes were deep petrol-infused salt caramel ice cream (yeah, I know how that sounds).  Combining with that were some rotten fruit aromas (mangoes and bananas going off), brine and olives that carried the flag for the Jamaicans, with sharp bitter woody hints lurking around; and, after a while, fainter wooden and licorice notes from the Mudlanders (I’d suggest Port Mourant but could be the Versailles, not sure).  I also detected brown sugar, molasses and a sort of light sherry smell coiling around the entire thing, together with smoke, leather, wood, honey and some cream tarts. Quite honestly, there was so much going on here that it took the better part of an hour to get through it all. It may be a navy grog, but definitely is a sipper’s delight from the sheer olfactory badassery.

That complexity was also evident on the palate, which started warm, sweet and darkly bitter, like rich chocolate, and remained dry throughout.  With coffee grounds and pickles in vinegar. The Caroni side of things was there (diesel, rubber, wax, all the usual markers) but somewhat less than their predominance on the nose, and this was a good thing, since it allowed the Demerara flavours to get in on the action – dark fruit, plums, wood, raisins, licorice, flambeed bananas, cloves and cinnamon.  Even the Jamaicans took a back seat, though the funk persisted, just without force. Overall, it tasted a little creamy, with flowers and honey that can be sensed but not quite come to grips with. And the finish? Totally solid, long and lasting, black tea, anise, plums, blackberries to which was added licorice, brown sugar, and caramel drizzle over vanilla ice cream.

Wow.  It’s tough to know what to make of this, there’s so much action in the tasting experience that it could be accused with some justification, of being too busy, what with three distinct and well known profiles vying for your attention.  But I know I liked it, a lot, though also feeling that the Caroni dominance at the inception could have been toned down a shade. Overall? A worthy addition to the canon. It gives the “official” thousand-buck Black Tot a real run for its money while leaving all the other pretenders in the dust.

I say that with some irony, because Navy rums of whatever stripe are a dime a dozen, and one of the more recognized monikers in the rumworld.  A sense of ho-hum permeates the more common offerings (they’re considered medium class tipple by many), assuming they’re even made at the proper strength or have the proper combination of Caribbean components. And those blends are endlessly tinkered with – even Pusser’s, who make much of their possession of the “true” Navy rum recipe (which is a blend of several nations’ grog) recently changed the recipe of the 15 YO and Navy rum to being principally Guyanese rum, and still issued that at below par strength.  So having another one on the market doesn’t exactly shiver the timbers of the rumiverse.

But speaking for myself, I now regret not having bought a bottle back in 2017; at the time I was buying a bunch of others, including the 70th anniversary collection, and it didn’t rate that high for me.  Once I got into it, once I relaxed, let the combined flavours wash over nose and tongue, I couldn’t stop writing. It starts slow, builds up a head of steam, and then simply charges through your defenses to give an experience like few others.  It’s a terrific rum, and even if it wasn’t called “navy” and was just itself, it would still retain a special place both in my tasting memory, and on my shelf.

(#597)(88/100)


Other Notes

  • While it’s not stated on the label, and remains unconfirmed by Velier directly, one website noted the blend as comprising Caroni, Port Mourant and Hampden.  While the source was unattributed, it’s probably correct based on the tasting.
  • Other reviews you might like to read are The Fat Rum Pirate (4 out of 5 stars) and The Rum Shop Boy (85/100)
  • Nico from Coeur de Chauffe pointed me to the 2017 Whisky Live presentation video where Luca spoke about this rum (in French, see the 15:50 mark) and noted its Jamaican components as mostly Worthy Park 2005, with a touch of New Yarmouth and Hampden.  The other pieces are Enmore 1990, and Caroni 1996.  I still have my issues with the Enmore 1990, since at that time the Versailles single wooden pot still was there and the woody notes of the profile remind me more of that than the wooden coffey still with the Enmore name.

 

Jan 202019
 

The Jack Iron rum from Westerhall is a booming overproof issued both in a slightly aged and a white version, and both are a whopping 70% ABV. While you can get it abroad — this bottle was tried in Italy, for example — my take is that it’s primarily a rum for local consumption (though which island can lay claim to it is a matter of idle conjecture), issued to paralyze brave-but-foolhardy tourists who want to show off their Chewbacca chests by drinking it neat, or to comfort the locals who don’t have time to waste getting hammered and just want to do it quick time. Add to that the West Indian slang for manly parts occasionally being iron and you can sense a sort of cheerful and salty islander sense of humour at work.

Truth to tell, the Jack Iron is not strictly a Grenadian rum – even back in the 1990s and probably for long before, it was distilled and slightly aged (three years) at Angostura’s facilities in Trinidad, before being shipped to the Spice Island for final blending and bottling. It had its antecedents in local moonshine brewed in the Grenadines to between 70% and 90%, sometimes spiced up, sometimes not, with water used as a chaser, and was usually referred to as “Jack”. (Apparently there is a 99% version of this rum called “Carriacou 99%!” floating around as well, available only on the eponymous island).

Since we’re talking about an overproof column still product made in an industrial facility with minimal ageing, the pale straw colour is understandable, and one does not go in expecting too much. This makes the initial aromas of the Jack Iron somewhat surprising, because they’re actually quite good. It smelled light, sweet and almost delicate, like raspberries dumped into pear-infused water. However, this is deceptive: it lures you into a false sense of security, and actually it’s the fin of the shark that gotcha. Much more heated and forceful aromas become noticeable after the alcohol burns off – olives, brine, gherkins, some relatively mild fruit (watermelons, pears, papaya) but none of the heavy fleshy ones.

Everything turns on a dime when it’s tasted, where the full force of the proof is brought to bear. It’s hot, fiery, fierce. Alas, that heat also takes much of the taste away as well, so all you get is sharp bite without soft taste (the Neisson L’Esprit 70⁰ Blanc found a way around this, somehow, but not here). Essentially almost all the tastes bar a few that slip through, are killed cold stone dead and it takes some real effort to discern candy floss, very light fruits (same as the nose), vague vanilla, some florals, and even the Angostura 5 YO is better than this (while being much weaker). This does not appreciably change even when water is added, by the way, and while the finish is suitably epic, and you can pick out some marzipan and vanilla and watermelon juice (and that’s if you reach), at the end it’s just long and hot and sharp. And, I confess, boring.

To some extent this rum reminds me less of Angostura’s lightly aged offerings were they to be beefed up, than of the the Marienburg 90 from Suriname, and also St. Vincent’s Sunset Very Strong. The nose is really kind of nice – delicate, herbal, floral, like a velvet-wrapped stilletto; unlike the palate, which is just a sledge, simple, bludgeoning, direct, without subtlety or complexity of any kind. Of course it’s a mix, not a sip, and it would certainly ratchet up anything into which you dump it, so there’s that I suppose.

Like many overproofs, complexity is not what it’s about — it’ll never be an international festival favourite, being the sort of rum best had in the local backcountry or on a bartender’s back shelf. It goes down much better only after a couple of shots (with chaser), when just about everything somebody says becomes a masterpiece of scintillating wit or a blindingly intelligent insight. Just be aware that such a state of affairs doesn’t last into the next morning’s headache, which is really not the rum’s fault, but your own, if you had gone late into the night with your squaddies, daring to drink it like a Grenadian.

(#591)(74/100)

Dec 222018
 

We don’t much associate the USA with cask strength rums, though of course they do exist, and the country has a long history with the spirit.  These days, even allowing for a swelling wave of rum appreciation here and there, the US rum market seems to be primarily made up of low-end mass-market hooch from massive conglomerates at one end, and micro-distilleries of wildly varying output quality at the other. It’s the micros which interest me, because the US doesn’t do “independent bottlers” as such – they do this, and that makes things interesting, since one never knows what new and amazing juice may be lurking just around the corner, made with whatever bathtub-and-shower-nozzle-held-together-with-duct-tape distillery apparatus they’ve slapped together.

Balcones, a central Texan outfit from Waco named after a fault line running through the southern half of the state, is a bit more than the kind of happy backyard operation my remarks above imply — they are a primarily whiskey distilling operation, started a decade ago, and their website has a great backstory about how it all started in an old welding shop under a bridge in Waco into which, after some refurbishment, they installed copper pot stills from Portugal, and shoehorned a whisky distillery inside. And after a few years, they began to make rum as well, because, well, “We like to drink rum so why not give it a shot?” as Thomas Mote the distillery manager cheerfully remarked to me.

Okay, so let’s see if they succeeded. Consider first the nose.  For all of the 63.9% it’s quite warm and smooth: it started out with a musky scent of damp earth, a sort of mustiness that reminded me a of a warehouse chock-a-block full of old cardboard boxes, brine, salt and sweet olives.  Then it became somewhat more bourbon-like – raisins, molasses, fleshy fruits starting to go off, then caramel, nuts, butter, vanilla and ice cream. It smells curiously indeterminate – which is why detailed fruity notes can’t be listed – you know there’s a lot of stuff here, but it’s tough to come to grips with them individually.

On the palate, after exercising all the usual precautions for a rum this strong (take a rather small sip until things settle down, because the taste is sharper than the nose leads one to believe and remember, it’s a 63.9% saloon brawler that does its very best to clean the bar counter and rip your face off at the same time), I sensed a salt-rye-fruit-bourbon soupcon of flavours on the palate: a combo of salt, sweet and sour — vegetable soup, sour cream, maggi cubes and deep caramel and vanilla notes, all at once, circling each other for dominance and advantage. The fruits – papayas, very ripe peaches in syrup – were set off by muscovado sugar and light molasses without much citrus lending a sharper note (though there was some) and to which was added hazelnuts, some sweet olives and brine, dark chocolate, cherries, fading out quietly (and lengthily) to a pleasant, warm, aromatic conclusion redolent of cherries, flambeed bananas and molasses, but nothing significantly different from the tastes that had preceded it.

Balcones was swiftly and remarkably forthcoming to all the usual inquiries, noting that it was 100% pot still and used a blend of Barbados-Style Lite Molasses and Blackstrap from Louisiana and Guatemala respectively, fermented for 4-5 weeks (much longer than anything else they make), and they play around a bit with yeast and an undisclosed dunder process to add to the flavour profile. Ageing is between 2-4 years and the rum is made in annual batches of a few thousand bottles at most, and no additives of any kind (“oak and time!” they told me proudly).

Still, taking apart those tasting notes, a number of things jump out. The caramel and vanilla and molasses notes are not precisely domineering, but very much in evidence, to the point of taking over — there’s a sort of dampening effect of the musky and more solid flavours which prevent sharper, crisper, clearer ones (fruits and citrus and florals) from emerging properly and engaging. The range of tastes on show lacked the complexities one expects of even a lightly aged rum, and yes, it actually has a profile reminiscent of a rye or bourbon, maybe a tad richer and sweeter and more congener-rich….more rum-like, if you will. It’s a pretty nifty drink for that strength.  It reminds me of my first encounter with Potter’s Dark, yet it also presents as simpler than it could have been, which makes me ask myself, as I always do with such a profile and which seems to be somewhat of a characteristic of many of the US rums I’ve tried, what is it they really want to be making and was too much whisky lore infusing the rum?

I’ve remarked before that most new and smaller US distilleries seem to be more interested in making whiskies and produce rums as something of an afterthought. Whether not not that’s the case here, Balcones has evidently given the matter quite a bit more thought than usual, and come up with a product that deserves real attention (the business with the yeast and dunder points there). It’s unquestionably a rum; it’s got real fire in its jock; it’s rum-like enough to please, while also original enough to encourage a double-take, and an all-round powerhouse fun rum. I think I’m going to keep an eye on these guys going forward – there’s some interesting stuff going on in Waco, and I hope that they expend their production to a larger stable, aged more, in the years to come.  Certainly their initial full proof rums give us a lot of reason to appreciate what they’ve done so far.

(#581)(81/100)


Other notes

The Special Release is issued annually since 2013 (twice in 2014), but identifying the year is difficult.  To the best of my knowledge, mine is from the 2016 season.