Jan 212018
 

#481

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

According to my email exchanges with the company, the rhum was produced from the harvest of 2005, which makes it a ten year old (though this is nowhere mentioned on the bottle itself – I’m taking that on trust) and is a blend of two rhums – pot still (30%) and column still (70%) deriving from cane juice aged in ex-bourbon barrels.  As a further note, although sugar was explicitly communicated to me as not being added, caramel and “natural aromas” were – so some variation from the pure is to be expected and I don’t doubt that hydrometer tests will show the dosage.

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

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

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

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

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

(83/100)

Jan 032018
 

#475

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(74/100)

Dec 212017
 

#472

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

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

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

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

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

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

(81/100)


Other notes

Dec 132017
 

#468

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(89/100)


Other notes

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

 

Dec 072017
 

#466

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

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

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

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

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

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

(80/100)


Other notes

Bottle #84 of 300.

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


Opinion

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

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

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

Dec 022017
 

#464

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(82/100)

Nov 272017
 

#462

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

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

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

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

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

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

(90/100)


Other notes

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

Nov 122017
 

#399

For decades Mount Gay was considered the premium rum of Barbados, and rested its claim to fame, among other things, on being the oldest rum distillery in the Caribbean (there are papers stating its antecedents going back to the mid 1600s).  Its flagship 1703 was the halo rum of the island and the XO was perhaps the standard mid-priced high-quality Barbados rum with which everyone was familiar – and certainly Sir Scrotimus’s hating on anyone who didn’t champion that rum didn’t hurt (after all, why else would he be such a dick about it if it wasn’t good, right?).  Back when I started writing this was an ongoing situation, and while many extolled the virtues of Doorly’s or Cockspur, Mount Gay was firmly in the driver’s seat as it related to defining the Barbados rum brand.

Now, nearly ten years later, it is Mount Gay which is playing catch up.  They, like DDL and many other national-level brands, misread the tea leaves and came late to the party initiated by the nimble, fast-moving independent bottlers – aged, cask strength bottlings, fancy finishes, single barrel or millesime expressions…all this must have caught them so off guard that it wasn’t until 2016 or so that an effective response could be mounted with the XO Cask Strength (a very good rum, by the way).  

Be that as it may, even for those coming to the rum scene now with so many other options on the table (Foursquare being the largest and best from the island), one cannot simply ignore the XO.  It remains widely available, very affordable, and pretty much the same as it used to be — the 8-15 year old blend has undergone alterations over the years, sure, but the taste remains recognizably the same; the bottle is now the sleek ovoid one introduced some years ago; and in the Caribbean and the Americas it is remains a perennial best seller.  Many new writers and emergent rum junkies cut their baby rum teeth on it, even if in Europe most indulgently pass it by in favour of more exciting rums to which they have access.  And while its star may be fading in the heat of increased competition, this in no way diminishes what it is – a key rum of Barbados, setting the standard for a long time, almost defining the style for an entire region.  All current rums from there to some extent live in its (waning) shadow.

Is it still that good, or, was it ever as amazing as the wet-eyed hot zealots claimed?  I didn’t think so back in the day (as I’ve noted, my preferences don’t always run to indeterminate Bajans, really), but as this series grew shape in my mind and the mental list of candidates grew, I knew it was due for a re-taste and a re-evaluation, and Robin Wynne of that fine Toronto bar Miss Things stepped forward to provide a hefty sample a few months ago when I came sniffing around (and as an irrelevant aside, you could do worse than drop into the joint, because it’s a great bar to hang out in and Robin loves to help out with an interesting pour for the rabid).

Much of my seven year old mental tasting memory of the 43% rum remained the same: the nose began with a smoky sort of butterscotch and toffee flavour, quite soft and easygoing, underlain with a gentle current of coconut shavings and bananas.  Its softness was key to its appeal, I thought, and as it stood there and opened up, some brine, avocado, salty caramel, dates and nutmeg crept out. It was just complex enough to enthuse without losing any balance or being too sharp.

Palate-wise it was also reasonably well put together. Seven years ago I thought it somewhat sharp, but by now, after imbibing cask strength juggernauts by the caseload, I’m a more accustomed to heftier beefcakes and here, then, the XO faltered somewhat (which is a factor of my palate and its current preferences, not yours).  Much of the nose returned for an encore: vanilla, nutmeg and a delicious caramel smokiness, more nougat, toffee, and some salt crackers.  Bananas, papayas and some cinnamon made themselves known, with a little nuttiness and coffee grounds and molasses providing some depth, all leading to a short, warm and (unfortunately) rather bland finish that merely repeated the hits without presenting anything particularly new. It lacks something of an edge of aggressiveness and clarity of expression which might make it rank higher, but in fairness, its overall quality really can’t be faulted too much.

Anyway, so there we have it.  A perfectly well-made, well-assembled, mid-tier rum with really good price-to-value ratio for anyone who wants a very decent rum to add to the shelf, good for either mixing or some sallies into the sipping world. That I remain only mildly enthusiastic about it is an issue for me to deal with, not you, though I honestly don’t know if we can expect off-the-scale magnificence from a Key Rum, since then it would likely fall foul of the Caner’s “3-A” Rule: it must be Available, Affordable, and Accessible.  The Mount Gay XO not only ticks each of those boxes but has something else that has never really lost its lustre in all the years – a reputation for consistent quality and worldwide brand awareness.  Those attributes combined with its pleasing taste profile may well be priceless, and give it a solid place in the pantheon, as one of those rums which any aficionado should try at least once in his long journey of rum appreciation.

(83/100)


Other Notes

If it wasn’t so pricey and hard to lay paws on (3000 bottles issued), I would have said the Mount Gay Cask Strength 63% should have dibs on this entry. That’s an outright exceptional Bajan rum.

Oct 282017
 

#397

In late 2010 an interesting rum crossed my path, one of my first from Asia, the Phillipine Tanduay Superior 12 year old, which I thought was quite a nice rum at a time when double-digit aged rums were often beyond the reach of my slender purse (or the interest of importers).  Re-reading that review after a seven-year gap I wouldn’t change much…maybe the word “excellence” in the final summing-up is a bit to enthusiastic (blame it on my youth and inexperience if you wish).  What’s interesting about the review is the observation about the sort of oiliness displayed by the DDL aged expressions which subsequent tests (unavailable at the time) showed to be locally-traditional, profile-pleasing, unacknowledged adulteration – but that 84-point score for the  T-12 remains, I believe, quite reasonable for its time. These days I’d probably rank it somewhat lower.

To this day Tanduay remains generally unavailable in the west, in spite of being one of the major brands in Asia, the most popular in the Phillipines, and among the top five by volume of sales in the world.  Yet they are one of the older concerns in Asia, being formed back in 1854 when some local Spanish entrepreneurs in the Phillipines formed Inchausti Y Cia – the company was mostly into shipping and fibre production and acquired a pre-existing distillery in 1856 so as to vertically integrate their sugar export business with distilled spirits. Tanduay rums have been around, then, for a long time (one of them won a gold medal in the Exposition Universal in Paris in 1876) and like many national brands as they grew, they came to dominate their local market with a large swathe of alcoholic beverages (including brandy, vodka and gin). While there are some US sales, not many bloggers have written about these rums, which may be too low-key or hard to find, to attract much interest.  Most comments I see are by people returning from the Phillipines, or who live(d) there.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to remedy this shortfall: in late 2017, a new FB aficionado and occasional commentator called John Go offered to send me some samples from around the region in exchange for some of my own, and the Tanduay 1854 was one of them. The cheerfully sneaky gent numbered his six unlabelled samples, so I had no clue what I was getting and that means that the notes below are my blind ones.

“Thin and somewhat sharp on the nose,” my notes on this 15-year old blended, golden rum go, “But very interesting…could have been a bit stronger.” It was indeed an intriguing aroma profile – briny and a little vinegary, like salt biscuits smeared with a little marmalade, plus musty sawdust and spicy notes – tumeric and cardamon and cumin – redolent of a disused pantry left unattended for too long.  What may have been the most interesting thing about it was that there were surprisingly few real molasses or “rummy” smells, though some caramel emerged after a while: overall it was far simpler than I had been expecting for something this aged.

That changed on the palate, which was better (the reverse of the situation with many Caribbean rums where the nose is often richer and more evocative) – I had few complaints here aside from the feeling that 43-46% might have done the rum more favours. Mostly caramel, vanilla, some breakfast cheerios with milk lightly sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon, some cumin, citrus and oak.  Mildly sweet, a little dry, some pineapples and bananas, with additional late-blooming flavours of brine, sweet soya, and finished quickly, without fuss, short, thin, sharp and just more citrus, vanilla, caramel to wrap things up.  

Overall it was workmanlike, not overly complex – it is well constructed, flavours are distinct, balance is fine…but there just isn’t much of anything to really write home about, no singular point of excellence. It’s simply a good 15 year old bottled at 40%, and could easily have been better with some beefing up or imaginative barrel strategy or finishing regime, and I think for a rum this old and at the top of the food chain for the company, that’s not an unreasonable critique to make. Sure it may be primarily for the East where softer fare is de rigueur…but one can always seek to raise the bar too.

Still, let’s give Jack his jacket: compared to the high-test-swilling elephant in the rum room right now (the Don Papa 7 and 10 year old, which I and others excoriated for being mislabelled spiced and oversugared syrups), the 1854 is quite a bit better. Johhny Drejer calculated 5g/L of additives, which is right on the margin of error (0-5 g/L is considered to be effectively zero) and that is evident in the way it goes down.  I think for all its relative simplicity and unadventurousness, it is tasty and straddles an interesting line between various different rum profiles; and has not only real potential but is an affordable, decent product that gives other fifteen-year-old standard-proof rums a run for their money..

(81/100)

Many thanks to John Go…FWIW, the Tanduay is #5

Oct 052017
 

#392

As the years roll by, I have come to the conclusion that the last decade will be regarded as the Golden Age of Rum – not just because of Velier, Silver Seal, Moon Imports, Rum Nation, Ekte, Samaroli, Compagnie des Indes, Secret Treasures (and all their cousins), but also because of the amazing writers who have emerged to chronicle their adventures with rum.  Somehow, social media and blogging software have formed a nexus with rum makers that allowed previously niche brands to simply explode onto the stage, raising awareness and knowledge to unprecedented heights.

However, an unanticipated side effect of this increase in knowledge and experience (even if only vicarious) is that buyers are more than ever leaving the what I term “national” brands like Mount Gay, El Dorado, Flor de Cana and Appleton to go venturing into the new, the esoteric or the independent. Few of the established brands have managed to meet this challenge – Foursquare with its cask strength releases and Velier collaboration is one, Grenada has had one or two overproofs floating around, and DDL certainly tried (timidly to be sure) with the Rare Collection.  Mount Gay is getting in on the action, and no doubt the Jamaicans are just building up a head of steam, and you can see Diplomatico, St. Lucia Distilleries and many others jumping aboard.

This leaves an old standby premium blended rum, the El Dorado 21, in something of a limbo.  It’s too old to ignore, too cheap to pass by, but lacks something of the true premium cachet…an affliction shared by, oh, the Flor de Cana 18.  That cachet can be conferred, for example, by purity: but it sure isn’t that – it’s not from any one of the famed stills, and various measurements suggest between 16-33 g/L of additives presumed to be caramel or sugar.  Alternatively, it could ascend in the estimation based on limited availability, and that isn’t the case either, since it is nowhere near as rare as the 25 YO editions, and isn’t marketed that way either. Nor does it go for broke and get released at a stronger proof point. Yet, for all that cheap premium reputation it has, I submit we should not throw it out just yet and pretend it’s some kind of bastard stepchild not worthy of our time.  Revisiting it after a gap of many years made me more aware of its failings…but also of its quality for those who aren’t too worried about either its strength or adulteration. One simply has to approach it on its own terms and either ignore it or take it as it is.

Re-sampling the rum in mid-2017 – some seven and a half years after my first encounter with it – showed how both I and the world had changed.  Many of the elements I so loved back in the day remained – the nose was earthy and musky, like dry ground after a long rain, and the licorice and oaky notes came through strong, attended faithfully by molasses, butterscotch, caramel, burnt sugar, very strong chocolate.  I let it stand for a little and came back and there were bags of spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves – and slowly developing dark fruits and raisins coming through.  And yes, there was an emergent sweetness to it as well which made it easy easy easy to sniff (I was trying the 40% version, not the 43% one from Europe).

The nose showed much of what made and makes it such a popular premium rum for those whose tastes bend that way – at this point the profile was warm, enjoyable and luscious.  Problems began with the tasting.  Because while it was smooth, deep and warm, it was also thick, and by some miracle teetered on the brink of, without ever stepping over into, sweet cloyishness.  That it did not do so is some kind of minor miracle, and that as many flavours came through as they did is another.  Prunes, vanilla, creme brulee, more licorice, and salty caramel ice cream were first and remained the backbone of it, upon which were displayed hints of grapes, dates, cloves, christmas black cake, and even a smidgen of citrus sneaked slyly through from time to time.  It was great, but just too thick for me now, a shade too sweet, and the finish, well, at 40% ABV you’re not getting much, being way too short and simply repeating what had come before – frankly, I think that any rum this old had no business being released at such a paltry proof point.

Back in 2010 I scored it 88, saying what a brilliant rum it was, catering to all my tastes.  To some extent that’s still true – it’s simply that after many years of trying rums from around the world, I’m more aware of such adulteration and can spot the masking, dampening effect on the profile more easily.  I assure you, it’s by no means enough to crash and burn the experience – it’s just something I no longer care for very much, and when combined with a less than stellar strength, well…..

These days I regard the ED21 and the like with some sadness.  Not because of its sweetness and adulteration, really (that’s a given, grudgingly accepted with bad grace) — but because it reminds me of a time when I knew less, was pleased with more, regarded each new rum in the queue with excitement and interest and curiosity and yes, even joy.  It brings to mind a 1950 Frank O’Hara poem, where he wrote

“Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water.”

That’s how I felt then, and occasionally, I still burn that fiercely now.  But with experience (and perhaps a little wisdom), I had to trade away some of the excited exuberance of the beginner and accept that time – and my tastes, and indeed I myself – moved on.

Because, you see, this rum is not made for me any longer.  It is not made for Josh, Matt, Gregers, Laurent, Cyril, Steve, Johnny, Paul, Richard, Henrik, Wes, Simon, Ivar and others who have been at this for so long.  Once, in our rum-youth, we may have regarded a 21 year old like it was some kind of Everest. But we have passed beyond it in our journey, and see it now as no more than a foothill, a small peak among Himalayans.  It is made for those that follow us, for those who are now embarking on their own saga, or for the unadventurous who, like Victorian readers, prefer for now to read of the exploits of the trailblazers and pathforgers, but shy away from taking on the force and fury of a cask strength forty year old.  It is for such new drinkers that the rum is for, and one day, in their turn, they will also tread beyond it.

In the meantime, though, the El Dorado 21 is one of the key aged rums of our world, no matter how distant in our memories it lies, and no matter how much its tarted up profile has become something to decry.  We just remember that we liked it once, we enjoyed it once, and must allow those who appreciate rums for precisely those reasons, to discover it in their turn today as they walk down the path of their own rum discovery, seeking their own individual, personal, perfect El Dorado in the world of rum.

(84/100)


Other notes

Made from a blend of distillates from the Enmore wooden Coffey still, the Versailles single wooden pot still, and the French 4-column Savalle column still – for my money the Versailles is dominant.

 

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