Nov 132018
 

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

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

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(or Ron) San Pablo is an odd name for a Dutch island product: all becomes clear when you understand it’s actually a rum originally made in Cuba.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

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

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

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

(#567)(66/100)


Other Notes

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

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

Oct 072018
 

It’s odd that the fourth Exceptional Cask Series rum issued by Foursquare out of Barbados was issued at such a low proof.  The “1998” and “Port Cask” Marks I and II were both released at 40%, but the very good “2004” Mark III went higher, much higher (59%) and carved itself a solid niche all its own – in contrast to the emerging ABV-creep, the Zinfadel dialled itself down to a relatively mild 43%.  Perhaps, since both came out in 2015 it was felt to be a smart move to have one rated G just to offset the R-rated predator that was the “2004”, or to appease the importers who made Foursquare issue the first two Marks at 40%. Which would make sense, though for my money it remains an incrementally lesser offering from the House of Seale’s ECS, (an opinion I hold largely because of the great stuff that emerged after this one).

The Zinfadel 11 Year Old is a blend of batches of rums: one was aged for five years in bourbon casks and then another six in zinfadel barrels, and then married with another batch that had spent the full eleven years in bourbon casks.  Unusual for the time (2015), Richard Seale went around in person to the various international rumfests, masterclasses and private tastings, and started his engagement on social media (he does this more than any other primary producer I’m aware of), trumpeting the fact that nothing was added, the rums weren’t filtered and the casks were dry, dry, dammit – not wet or with residual wine sloshing around (an old trick to flavour rum more definitively).

Well, Zinfadel is a sweet wine, and its influence was sure to be noticeable, whether the barrels are wet or dry or damp – the real question was whether that influence created a profile that worked, or was too dominated by one or other component of the assembly. Nosing it for the first time suggested it was a bit of both though leaning more to the former – it was lighter than the Real McCoy 12 Year Old I was trying alongside it (that one was 46%, versus 43% for the Zin which may have accounted for that), with delicate wine notes, vanilla and white toblerone gradually overtaken by some rotting bananas and fruits just starting to go.  I liked its attendant creamy aroma, of yoghurt and sour cream and a white mocha, which grew tarter and fruitier over time – green grapes, raisins, dark bread, plus some spices, mostly ginger, cloves and cardamom

Tasting revealed somewhat less clothing in the suitcase, though it was quite a decent rum to sip (mixing it is totally unnecessary) – it was a little sharp before settling down into a relative smooth experience, and tasted primarily of white and watery fruits (pears, watermelon, white gavas), cereals, coconut shavings, sweet wine, and had a sly hint of tart red fruiness that was almost, but not quite sour, behind it all – red currants, cranberries, grapes.  It was quite light and easy and escaped being an alcohol-flavoured water in fine style – not bad for something at close to standard strength, and the touch of sweet fruitiness imparted by the Zin barrels was in no way overdone. Even the finish was quite pleasant, being warm, relatively soft, and closing off the show with some tart fruitiness, coconut shavings, vanilla, milk chocolate, salted caramel, french bread (!!) and touch of thyme.

Overall, quite an impressive dram for something so relatively staid in its strength.  The nose is really the best part of it, though it does promise quite a bit more than the taste eventually delivers.  With the light tastiness of the three parts – aroma, palate and finish – it’s easy to see why it remains a fan favourite.  And while it’s not one of my favourites of the Exceptional Cask Series (so far the Criterion holds that honour for me), it beat out the Real McCoy 12 YO handily, is within spitting distance of the 2004, and is a worthy addition to the canon of the Exceptionals. I’d buy it again…and the nice things is, three years after its release, I still can.

(#556)(83/100)

Oct 042018
 

Following on from the 2008-issued, dropped-out-of-sight, no-we-didn’t-see-it Exceptional Cask Series Mark I, Foursquare issued the 9 year old Port Cask Finish ECS Mark II in 2014 (and in a neat piece of humorous irony, it didn’t mention Mark-anything on the label, and wasn’t really a finished rum). And in 2015 the game changed with the solid triumph of the 2004 Mark III.

The wholly-Bourbon-cask-aged Mark I 10 YO “1998” was, in my opinion, a toe in the water, issued at a meek 40% and seemed like a way to test whether a different blending philosophy could be used to move away from the RL Seale’s 10 YO, Rum 66, Doorly’s XO and 12 YO rums without replacing them entirely. The Port Cask Finish released six years later in 2014 wasn’t getting too adventurous with its strength either, but it did show where Foursquare’s thinking was heading: a pot/column blend aged three years in bourbon barrels, six in port barrels.  As I recall from the year it came out, it made a modest kind of splash – “an interesting new direction for Foursquare” went one supercilious FB comment – but the madness of today’s sell-out-before-they-go-on-sale had to wait a little longer to gain real traction.

By 2015, Foursquare’s strategy clicked into place with the introduction of not one but two new rums, the milquetoast 43% Zinfadel Mark IV for the sweet-toothed and general soft-rum-loving audience, and something more feral for the fanboys – the 2004 11 YO Mark III, a straight-up bourbon-cask-aged rum, also a pot/column blend, unleashed at a muscular 59%.

That strength provided the 2004 with a crisp snap on the nose that was quite a step up from anything from the company I had tried before.  It was fruity, precise and forcefully clean in a way that clearly demonstrated that a higher proof was not a disqualifier for greater audience appreciation.  It smelled of wine, grapes, red grapefruit and mixed that up with scents of sourdough bread, unsweetened yoghurt and bananas. As if that wasn’t enough, after standing for a while, it exuded aromas of coconut shavings, irish coffee,vanilla, cumin and cardamom that invited further nosing just to wring the last oodles of scent from the glass.

Sometimes a proof point closing in on 60% makes for a sharp and searing experience when tasted – not here.  With some smooth blending skill, it remained warm-verging-on-hot, going down without bitchiness or spite. It tasted smoothly of vanilla and coconut milk and yoghurt drizzled over with caramel and melted salt butter. It developed a smorgasbord of fruits – red grapes, red currants, cranberry juice – with further oak and kitchen spices like cumin and coriander bringing up the rear.  There was even some brine and red olives making themselves quietly known in the background (the brine came forward over time), and while the finish wasn’t all that long, it provided a clear finish of oak, vanilla, olives, brine, toffee, and nougat, and was in no way a let down from what had come before, and I enjoyed this one a lot

The day I tried it, this rum was in some really good Bajan company, lemme tell you, and it held its own in fine style – so yes, that’s an unambiguous endorsement. Overall, the 2004 was a solid, well-constructed rum with a panoply of tastes that could hardly be faulted. It was way ahead of anything Foursquare had made before, instantly pushed the “standard” 4S/Seale/Doorly lines into second-tier status, and to my mind did more than any other single rum to mark Foursquare’s future ascendance and reputation on the Bajan rum scene. It pointed the way to the superlative 2006 10 Year Old, the excellence of the Criterion Mark V, and all the other Exceptional Casks to come, like the 2005, the Dominus and the Premise.

Best of all, continuing a philosophy Foursquare have adhered to ever since for the Exceptionals, it wasn’t priced out of sight — and those who saw it for what it was and managed to buy a bottle or a case, had very little to complain about, because the rum was and remains on the short list of Foursquare’s real good ‘uns. Their best rums, whether made alone or with the Habitation, mix controlled passion and cheerful excess, uninterested in any kind of subtle statements, and you know what? — with this one, Richard may even have cracked a smile as he made it.

(555)(85/100)

 

Oct 012018
 

Rumaniacs Review #84 | 0554

This blast from the past which the eponymous founder of the Samaroli once named as his favourite, is one of the rums at the very tip of the spear when it comes to ageing, and shows once again that rums aged past the third decade are extremely unlikely to ever come from the tropics, in spite of vaunted halo rums like the Appleton 50 Year Old or the current trend to dismiss continental ageing out of hand.  As a protest against the relics of colonial economics I can accept the promotion of tropical, but in terms of quality coming out the other end, the argument is harder to make, though this rum is not necessarily the best example to trot out when discussing the matter on either side.

Oddly, for all its fame and historical cachet, not much is known about the West Indies 1948 rum, and what we have comes primarily from two sources. The first is Cyril of DuRhum, who in turn got it from Pietro Caputo (a rum lover from Italy), and he received the info directly from Sylvio Samaroli in late 2016 when they were sharing some glasses.  The few facts we get from this (and the bottle) is that it’s a blend of rums from Martinique and Jamaica. The second is Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun, who commented that “it was said” and “other sources” mentioned, that it was Jamaican Longpond mixed together with some Bajan Blackrock. All other sources agree that 800 bottles were issued, 49% ABV, aged in Scotland.  I’ll stick with 43 years of age instead of 42.

Colour – Dark Amber / Mahogany

Strength – 49%

Nose – Dusty, salty, like a disused barn redolent of hay, sawdust and old leather harnesses. Licorice, cardboard, some light apple cider, dry sherry and very ripe grapes. Amazingly thick, almost chewy nose.  There are also some sugary and additional fruity notes, but the overall impression is one of a spice pantry with loads of masala and cumin and one too many mothballs. It’s very different from most rums I’ve tried and reminds me somewhat (but not entirely) of the Saint James 1885, and also of a Jamaican-Guyanese blend.  

Palate – Very much more positive than the nose, yet I cannot rid myself of that musty smell of old cupboards in an abandoned house. Salt and sweet and musk all in balance here, like a very good sweetened soya in vegetable soup. Brine, olives, fresh fruit, cereals, more cardboard, more licorice (restrained, not overwhelming), and a faint medicinal or menthol-ly snap at the back end. Leaving it for an hour or so reveals more – leather, aromatic tobacco, prunes, blackberry jam, masala and paprika and tumeric.  It’s not thick or strong enough to be called massive, but very interesting nevertheless, and absolutely an original.

Finish – Nice and long, dusty, dry, aromatic.  Leather, port-infused cigarillos, olives, sweet red bell peppers, paprika.  More vegetable soup, olives.

Thoughts – Original, but not overwhelming, and that dustiness…dunno, didn’t work for me. The people who would buy this rum (or pinch it from their rich uncle’s cellar) won’t be swayed by my tasting notes or my score, of course. It pains me to say it but that remark demonstrates that what we look for in ultra-aged spirits — and often buy — is not the epitome of quality but the largest number, in a sort of testosterone-enhanced misconception that allows one to say “Mine’s bigger” (I’m as guilty of this as anyone).  Leap-before-you-look purchasing like that allows soleras and blended rums with a couple of impressive digits to continue selling briskly day in and day out, and, in this case, for a rum that was made seventy years ago to become a desperately sought must-have.

All that aside, while I like it, I don’t think it’s superlative.  It was tried utterly and absolutely blind, not even knowing what it was, and I came away not wholly enthused — so this really is as honest an opinion as you can get.  The commingling of the components is nicely done, the balance spot-on, but the dustiness and driness and spices don’t entirely click, and some of the tastes seem to clash instead of running together in harmony with each other. And so, for my money, I don’t think cracks 90.  Too bad.

(85/100)


Other Notes

  • Here are some other reviewers’ notes on the same rum:
  • This was not a regular sponsor-supplied sample. Mine came from John Go in the Phillipines, unlabelled, unidentified, mixed in with another bunch of curiosities he knew interested me, none of which he identified until after I tried them.
Sep 292018
 

Having dispensed with the age-shattering, wallet-busting Heritage Rums of the Tasting of the Century, let’s go to something a little less aged, a little less up-market, a little less well-known, and not at the same level of age or quality — something from, oh, the US.  The resurgence of rum and concomitant explosion of small micro-distilleries there suggests that sooner or later we’ll find something from over the pond and south of 49 that’ll wow our socks off.

Certainly this rum suggests that it can and implies that it does — when you peruse the website for the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5, it leaves you with the distinct impression that it’s lovingly handmade by a team of unsung experts working to redefine the category as we know it.There are glitzy photos, weather for various parts of Florida, notes that it is unadded-to and unadulterated, made from Florida molasses, aged in Florida in American oak barrels, and it’s all very positive.  “A team of craftsmen with almost a century of knowledge believe that a blend of 2, 4 and 5 years produces the most consistent and drinkable of spirits” they remark, evidently not believing either the names of these craftsmen or consistently good older rums from anywhere else are worth mentioning.

Well, never mind my snark, let’s just dive right in and taste the thing. Like many lightly-aged blends it was gold in colour and edged timidly above the standard strength with 43% ABV.  The initial nose presented crisply and with a light fruitiness (pears, apples and apricots). It didn’t develop much beyond that, though after half an hour I could sense some vanilla, nuts, brown sugar, flowers and raspberries – and it got sharper, edgier, over time, not less, which is usually the hallmark of a very young rum, or very active barrels (they use once-used ex-bourbon barrels for ageing).

Taste-wise, not bad.  It felt something like a cross between a light Spanish style anejo and a weak Demerara without distinctly adhering to the profile of either.  Dry and crisp, it was not entirely easy on the palate — that’s the uncouth youth coming through — tasting mostly of light white fruits (guavas, pears, that kind of thing), pecans, coffee, oak and leather, and gradually developed those fruity notes the nose had hinted at – raspberries and very ripe cherries, all overlain with tannins, breakfast spices and light molasses.  The finish, quite short and sharp, was more sweet-ish, with some bitter chocolate oranges, vanilla, brown sugar and quite a bit of oak bite.

My take is that the pot still part doesn’t provide a good balance to the lighter column still portion, the age is still too young, and I felt that the oak was really overactive, exacerbating the driness and slight bitterness beyond the point of being totally approachable – though I say this as an evaluator taking it neat (as I must), not a mixing guru, for whom such a profile would probably shine more. Not a rum to sip really, more one to mix up into a cocktail of some kind.  According to Robin Wynne, that sterling barman running Miss Thing’s in Toronto who spotted me the bottle in the first place, “…I [would make] an Old Fashioned with it, or swapping out bourbon in a Vieux Carre with it. Also makes a great rum negroni…” So there are some suggestions for those inclined in that direction.

When I started sniffing around, the reps in Toronto were very helpful in providing additional information which is not on the webpage, and the story behind the brand is  somewhat more prosaic (and to my mind, rather more interesting) than what’s on public display. Noxx & Dunn is a relatively new rum on the American scene, created a few years ago by a group of individuals who used to be part of Appleton’s salesforce and were let go when Campari acquired it.  They formed their own little outfit called The Tall Tale Spirit company, and this is their only product (so far). It’s meant, as far as I’m able to determine, as a barroom mixer. The rum is primarily (but not totally) column still distillate, the blend of which is a trade secret but kept reasonably constant in order to make for a consistent taste profile.  Note that TTS don’t actually own or operate a distillery, or grow sugar cane or anything – the distillation is done by Florida Caribbean Distillers and the source is molasses from the cane grown in that state (see “other notes” below). What we have at the other end of the process, then, is a blended two-year-old rum with added components of rums four and five years old, made under contract to TTS’s specifications. Also on the plus side, there are no additives, it’s 43% and it’s fully aged in Florida in the usual American ex-bourbon oak barrels.

Overall, this is the sort of rum that is fine in a bar – which is where I found it – but not for greedily savoured home-consumption or sharing with the rum chums to show off one’s incredible perspicacity in sleuthing out undiscovered steals. Not to diss the makers, who evidently are pouring some real passion into their work, but I think it’s like many other such rums from the USA that aren’t entirely multi-column-still flavoured ethanols: too afraid to go where the flavours might actually lead, too timid to amp it up a few volts and really provide a mixer with balls or a sipper with style. It’s just shy of being a true original and that’s a shame for something that’s otherwise quite intriguing.

(#553)(78/100)


Other notes

  • As noted, the Noxx & Dunn is a contract “private label” operation, not a cane-to-cork producer. The distillery of origin is Florida Caribbean Distillers, 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), and provide distillation, storage, ageing and bottling facilities as part of their service.
  • Only one other review of this exists, by the Rum Howler, here.  He liked it a lot more than I did, so his opinion is worth noting, given my own more middling score.
Sep 262018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#552)(86/100)


Other Notes

Sep 192018
 

Every rum drinker who’s been at it for a while has a personal unicorn.  It might not always be some hoary old grandfather of a rum, forgotten by all but barking-mad rum nerds, or the miniscule output of a distillery no-one now remembers (like the Heisenberg Distillery) — sometimes it’s just a rum that’s hard to get and isn’t for sale in local markets. Occasionally it’s even one they possess already but which evokes strong positive memories.

One of mine has always been the Skeldon 1978, which was too rare or too expensive (usually both) for me to acquire. It finally became available to try at the Tasting of the Century that Luca Gargano tacked on to the formal launching of the new Hampden Estate rums in September 2018, and to say I jumped at the chance would be to understate the matter, not just because of the Skeldon itself, but because of the chance to try it in the company of blogging friends, along with other amazing rums.

The history of the Skeldon 1978 bottling from a long-dismantled Savalle still is an odd one: the plantation is on the far eastern side of Guyana and the distillery has been shut down since 1960, though the original sugar factory’s remains continue to moulder away there, now replaced by a modern white elephant.  It’s possible that the Savalle still which made it was taken elsewhere (Uitvlugt is the unconfirmed suspect) and this distillate hails from there rather than Skeldon — but certainly the “SWR” barrels ended up at Diamond, where Luca  saw them gathering dust in the warehouse and convinced Yesu Persaud (the chairman of DDL at the time) to part with them.  The 4-barrel 544-bottle outturn of the 1973 Edition was issued as was, but when the prototypes of the 1978 came to Genoa for final tasting, Luca noted something different in them, and later he challenged Mr. Persaud on what they were – and it was admitted that the three barrels of 1978 were deemed insufficient (whatever that means) and they mixed in some leftover 1973. Luca was so pissed off that he sat on both editions for almost a year before finally issuing them to the market in early 2006, and what we are getting is a 688-bottle blend, the precise proportions of which are unknown — I was told the 1973 component was quite minimal.

Fortunately, whatever the mix, the rum was (spoiler alert) almost as stunning as the 1973, which is the only other rum to which it can perhaps be compared.  In the large balloon glasses we were given it smelled dark and pungently rich, and Lordie, there was so much of it. Chocolate, coffee, deep anise and molasses, raisins, some floral notes, fleshy fruits, honey, crushed walnuts, nougat, cream cheese, unsweetened yoghurt and light olives. Tired yet?  Too bad, there’s more – bread, cloves and vanilla, and then, after about half an hour, the thing turned chewy: boiled beef bouillon, lentil soup, maggi cubes, marmite and more molasses and burnt sugar, all held together with some delicate herbs, very much in the background. Gregers and I looked at each other and almost in unison we laughed and said “We gotta get us some glasses like these.”

Although things at the Tasting were going faster than I was able to write (and listen), this was not a rum I wanted to be hurried with after waiting so long, and certainly it’s one with which to take one’s time. It unfolded gradually on the tongue, almost languorously and even at 60.4%, it was amazing how entirely under control it remained the entire time. Most of the tastes in the nose carried over, primarily anise, coffee and bitter chocolate, oranges, strong black tea, cumin, and that lentil soup / beef broth meatiness I remarked on earlier.  But there were also more muted, subtler hints of papaya and fleshy fruits, aromatic tobacco, flambeed bananas and salty caramel. A rather dry note of over-roasted nuts came into play at the back end, a slight indeterminate bitterness (something like a manager who can never compliment your work without a closing criticism), but fortunately the muskier fruit and creamy notes ameliorated it for the most part. And while the finish was more a last bow on the stage than a true epilogue that added a few extra fillips of flavour, it was in no way disappointing, leaving me with a memory of coffee, nougat, salt caramel ice cream, fruits, raisins, licorice and light chocolate oranges.

This was quite a rum, to be sure, and while I don’t think it quite eclipsed the Skeldon 1973, it sang its own distinct tune, hot and delicious, yet paradoxically quite clean and clear, with powerful tastes bolted on to a profile of generous complexity. In fine, the Skeldon 1978 is a black drop of Guyanese-Italian oomph in a bottle, and making it a blend didn’t hurt it one bit. It’s a well-made rum, produced with care and affection, and through the alchemy of its selection, turned a mere rum into a Rum, big, bold, badass….one to be remembered. To have tasted it in tandem with other amazingly old rums and in the company of old (and new) friends, was an experience I’m not likely to be forgetting any time soon.  

(#550)(90/100)


Other notes

 

 

Sep 022018
 

Back in early 2018, when I wrote about the Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, Ivar de Laat, one of the rum chums in Toronto, grumbled “I wish Mount Gay would be a little bolder. I find it all too friendly and not daring enough.”  Were he to try this one — at the time he had not — he might possibly reconsider the first part of that statement….but not necessarily the second. Because the XO Cask Strength is equally friendly as its lesser proofed predecessor…and definitely bolder.  Much bolder. And in that lies its attraction – that and its limited-edition premium cachet.

Though Mount Gay remains a major producer of quality Bajan rums and has a brand awareness quotient that’s pretty damned high (I named the standard XO one of the Key Rums of the World, remember), you get the sense that with the eyes of the rum world being dragged constantly to regard only Foursquare, it’s slipping in status.  Well, maybe. My own feeling is that this nicely presented edition is an answer to those who want the XO hauled into the current world of limited, full proof juice without reinventing Barbados rums in any particular or fundamental way.

You can’t fault the presentation or the stats (though you might balk at the price). The ovoid bottle is nicely labelled with the bottle number and Allen Smith’s signature, comes in a handsome wooden box with a small booklet in it that speaks to the rum. It doesn’t state the outturn on the label, but it’s 3000 bottles, a rum to mark fifty years of independence though itself it is not that old, being a blend of pot and column still rums aged between 8-15 years old (just like the regular XO, even if one gets the impression that certain select barrels were chosen here).  And of course the main selling point, the 63% ABV, Mount Gay’s first serious foray into these strong and dangerous rum currents.

Even ignoring the premium nature of it, the strength makes it a step up, because the entire profile is more powerful, more aggressive…much more solid. The assertive attack of the nose was a clear indicator that Mount Gay wanted to produce something to appeal to those who desired precisely that: it was hot and had a certain kind of fierce yet musky aroma redolent of a stable – dry, dusty hay, and leather. It developed further into caramel, nuts, almonds and dates and was very pleasantly deep and rich after opening up, with a fine line of bananas, peaches, light licorice, cognac and grapes lending a solid background to the smell, all really nicely done.

That high-proof solidity of taste was also evident on the palate, though here some sharpness could not be avoided at 63%. Initial flavours of carmel and vanilla, blended with some light fruits (grapes, bananas, peaches) which lent some balance, but which faded oddly and quietly and rapidly away – surprising for something so strong. But as a consolation there were also notes of coconuts, licorice, burnt sugar, almonds, cumin, oak, eucalyptus, and something faintly minty, gone in a flash.  Even the finish showed that some care and attention had been paid – it was long, dry, and left memories of hot and very strong black tea, caramel, oak, crushed almonds and vanilla.

A very nice, solid rum – if I had to sum it up in the fewest possible words I’d say it’s a cranked up and better XO (which I tried alongside it, mostly out of curiosity).  There’s nothing at all wrong with it – indeed, as noted above, it’s quite good – but conversely and paradoxically, nothing intensely exciting or exceptional about it either.  Certainly it has somewhat of a longer and more muscular leopard’s tail in its trousers, but it twitches much the same.

Because of the similarity in profile and naming, it’s almost impossible to get away from the inevitable comparison of the Cask Strength XO to the venerable and very well known standard version. The question is, I suppose, whether its worth five times as much, considering it’s “only” half again as strong, the profile is similar, the outturn is limited and the ageing is about the same (strip away the premium part and it may just be an undiluted XO).  Still, I don’t think premium rums can or should be approached from this kind of coldly mathematical perspective, since any product’s value (and quality) diverges geometrically away from price the higher one goes. The Mount Gay XO Cask Strength is a perfectly serviceable rum, solid, sober, strong, traditional, tasty, totally in line with its forebears – it’s may be buying at least once, even at the price, just for that, especially if one is into the Bajan canon. But if you’re looking for “daring” as well as “bold,” you may have to wait a little longer before the company puts one like that out the door. This rum is only halfway there.

(#545)(85/100)

Aug 142018
 

Rumaniacs Review #081 | 0538

In Barbados, back in the early 1900s, distillers and bottlers were by a 1906 law, separate, and since the distilleries couldn’t bottle rum, many spirits shops and merchants did — Martin Doorly, E.S.A. Field and R.L. Seale were examples of this in action. On the other side, in the early 1900s a pair of immigrant German brothers, the Stades, set up the West Indies Rum Refinery (now known as WIRD) and all distillate from there carried the mark of their name.

In 1909 Mr Edward Samuel Allison Field established E.S.A. Field as a trading company in Bridgetown and over time, using WIRD distillate, released what came to be referred to as “see through rum”, also called “Stade’s” which sold very well for decades.

In 1962 Seale’s acquired E.S.A. Field and continued to bottle a dark and a white rum under that brand (which is why you see both their names on the label) – the white was humourously referred to as a drink with which to “Eat, Sleep And Forget.” In 1977 the bottling of ESAF was moved to Hopefield (in St. Phillip), so that places this specific rum between 1977 and 1996, in which year the distillate was switched to Foursquare and the mark of “Stades” was discontinued. These days the brand is not made for export, and only sold in Barbados, in a very handsome new bottle. Richard Seale points out it’s the most popular rum in Barbados.

Colour – White

Strength – 43%

Nose – Dusty, plastic and minerally, like dead wet campfire ashes. Lots of off-ripe fruits and toffee, but also sugar water, watermelons and pears, iodine and medicine-y notes, all of which exist uneasily together and don’t really gel for me.

Palate – Sort of like a vegetable soup with too much sweet soya, which may read more bizarre than it actually tastes.  Bananas and so the queer taste of wood sap.  Kiwi fruit and pears, some brine and again those off-ripe sweet fleshy fruits and a sharp clear taste of flint.

Finish – Medium long, something of a surprise.  Dry, and after the fruits and toffee make themselves known and bail, also some flint and the sense of having licked a stone.

Thoughts – Odd rum, very odd. Given the preference of the drinking audience back then for more “standard” English rum profiles – slightly sweet, medium bodied, molasses, caramel and fruits – the tastes come off as a little jarring and one wonders how this came to be as reputedly popular as it was  Still, it’s quite interesting for all that.

(79/100)


Other notes

Thanks to Richard Seale, who provided most of the historical background and (lots of) corrections. Ed Hamilton’s Rums of the Eastern Caribbean contributed some additional details, though as was pointed out to me rather tartly, there are occasional inconsistencies in his work.

 

Aug 122018
 

Given my despite and disdain for the overhyped, oversold and over-sugared spiced-alcoholic waters that were the Phillipine Don Papa 7YO and 10YO, you’d be within your rights to ask if I either had a screw loose or was a glutton for punishment, for going ahead and trying this one. Maybe both, I’d answer, but come on, gotta give each rum a break on its own merits, right? If we only write about stuff we like or know is good, then we’re not pushing the boundaries of discovery very much now, are we?

All this sounds nice, but part of the matter is more prosaic — I had the sample utterly blind. Didn’t know what it was. John Go, my cheerfully devious friend from the Phillipines sent me a bunch of unlabelled samples and simply said “Go taste ‘em,” without so much as informing me what any of them where (we indulge ourselves in such infantile pursuits from time to time).  And so I tasted it, rated it, scored it, and was not entirely disappointed with it.  It was not an over sugared mess, and it did not feel like it was spiced up to the rafters — though I could not test it, so you’ll have to take that into account when assessing whether these notes can be relied upon or not.

That said, let’s see what we are told officially. Bleeding Heart Rum company issued 6000 bottles of the Rare Cask in 2017 at 50.5% ABV – which is immediately proved to be a problem (dare I say “lie”?) because this is bottle #8693 –  and just about all online stores and online spirits articles speak to how the rum has no filtration and no “assembly”…well, okay. One site (and the label) called it unblended, which of course is nonsense given the outturn. Almost all mention the “STR” – shaved, toasted and roasted – barrels used, which we can infer to mean charred. There’s no age statement to be found.  And there’s no mention of additives of any kind, the stuff which so sullied the impressions of the 7 and 10 year old: and although I have been told it’s clean, that was something I was unable to test for myself and wouldn’t trust if it came from them (see opinion below). You can decide for yourself whether that kind of outturn and information provision qualifies the tag of “Rare Cask.”  It doesn’t for me.

With all that behind us, what’s it like? Well, even with the amber colour, it noses very lightly…it’s almost relaxing (not really normal for 50% ABV). Somewhat sharp, not too much, smells of sweet tinned peaches in syrup, with spices like nutmeg and cinnamon being noticeable, plus floral notes, vague salt crackers, bitter chocolate, vanilla and oatmeal cookies.  My notes speak of how delicate it noses, but at least the thick cloying blanket of an over-sweetened liqueur does not seem to be part of the program. In its own way it’s actually quite precise and not some vague mishmash of aromas that just flow together randomly.

The taste is different – here it reminds one of the El Dorado 12 (not the 15, that’s a reach) – with a strong toffee, vanilla, brown sugar and molasses backbone.  Lots of fruitiness here – raisins and orange peel, more of those tinned peaches – and also ginger, cinnamon, and bitter chocolate together with strong black tea. These latter tastes balance off the muskiness of the molasses and vanilla, and even if it has been sugared up (and I suspect that if it has, it is less compared to the others in the line), that part seems to be more restrained, to the point where it doesn’t utterly detract or seriously annoy.  The finish is surprisingly short for a rum at 50%, and sharper, mostly brown sugar, fruit syrup, caramel and chocolate, nothing new here.

So all in all, somewhat of a step up from the 7 and the 10. Additives are always a contentious subject, and I understand why some makers prefer to go down that road (while not condoning it) — what I want and advocate for is complete disclosure, which is (again) not the case with the Rare Cask. Here Bleeding Heart seem to have dispensed with the shovel and used a smaller spoon, which suggests they’re paying some attention to trends in the rum world.  When somebody with a hydrometer gets around to testing this thing, I hope to know for certain whether it’s adulterated or not, but in the meantime I’m really glad I didn’t know what I was trying.  That allowed me to be unbiased by the other two rums in the dustbin of my tasting memories when doing my evaluation, and I think this is a light-to-medium, mid-tier rum, probably five years old or less, not too complex, not too simple, with a dash of something foreign in there, but a reasonably good drink all round — especially when compared to its siblings.

(#537)(78/100)


Other Notes

According to the bottle label, the distillery of origin is the Ginebra San Miguel, founded in 1834 when Casa Róxas founded the Ayala Distillery (the first in the Philippines). Known primarily for gin, it also produced other spirits like anisette, cognac, rum and whisky, some locally, some under license. The distillery was located in Quiapo, Manila and was a major component of Ayala y Compañia (successor of Casa Róxas), which was in turn acquired by La Tondeña in 1924.

That company was established in 1902 by Carlos Palanca, Sr. in Tondo, Manila and incorporated as La Tondeña Inc. in 1929. Its main claim to fame prior to its expansion was the production of alcohol derived from molasses, instead of the commonly used nipa palm which it rapidly displaced. Bleeding Heart is associated with the company only insofar as they evidently buy rum stock from then, though at what stage in the production or ageing process is unknown.


Opinion

One of the key concepts coiling around the various debates about additives is the matter of trust. “I don’t trust [insert brand name here] further than I can throw ‘em,” is a constant refrain and it usually pops up when adulteration is noted, suspected, proved or inferred.  But the underlying fact is that we do trust the producers.  We trust them all the time, perhaps not with marketing copy, the hysterical advertising, the press releases, the glowing brand ambassadors’ endorsements, true – but with what’s on the bottle itself.

The information on the label may be the most sacred part of any rum’s background.  Consciously or not, we take much of what it says as gospel: specifically the country of origin, the distillery source, the age, whether it is a blend or not, and the strength (against which all hydrometer tests are rated).  Gradually more and more information is being added – tropical versus continental ageing, the barrel number, angel’s share, production notes, and so on.

We trust that, and when it’s clear there is deception and outright untruth going on (quite aside from carelessness or stupidity, which can happen as well), when that compact between producer and consumer is broken, it’s well-nigh impossible to get it back — as any amount of Panamanian rum brands, Flor de Cana (and their numbers) or Dictador “Best of…” series can attest (both the Best of 1977 and the Mombacho 19 review had commentaries on trust, and for similar reasons).  Also, for example, not all companies who claim their rums are soleras have been shown to really make them that way (often they are blends); and aside from spiced and flavoured rums (and Plantation) just about no producer admits to dosing or additives…so when it’s discovered, social media lights up like the Fourth of July.

This is why what Bleeding Heart is doing is so annoying (I won’t say shocking, since it’s not as if they had that much trust of mine to begin with). First, no age statement.  Second, the touted outturn given the lie by the bottle number. Third, the silence on additives. Well, they could have been simply careless, labelled badly, gave the wrong info the the PR boys in the basement; but carelessness or deception, what this means is that nothing they say now can be taken at face value, it’s like a wave of disbelief that washes over every and all their public statements about their rums. And so while I give the rum the score I do, I’d also advise any potential buyer to be very careful in understanding what it is that we’re being told the rum is, versus what it actually might be.