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 Gargano 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

  • Other bloggers have tried the Skeldon 1978, and their opinions are worth noting: this would be Cyril of DuRhum who described it in January 2015, and Marco Freyr of Barrel Aged Mind in September of 2014. Both remarked on the same slight bitterness I noted, with varying opinions on it.
  • Links to other articles on the Rum Tasting of the Century (to be updated as other bits and pieces appear):

 

 

Sep 102018
 

How this blanc J. Bally succeeds as well as it does is a source of wonder.  I tried it and was left blinking in appreciation at its overall quality. Like all Bally rums made these days, it’s AOC certified, half pure alcohol (50% ABV), and unaged (rested for a few months in stainless steel tanks before bottling), and I honestly expected something a lot more aggressive than it actually was.  In that ability it had to walk the tightrope between ageing and no aging, between too strong or too weak, between jagged edges and smooth gentling lies a lot of its appeal.

Some time ago when I wrote a small roundup of  21 Great Whites, I remarked on the fact that most of the best white rums out there are bottled without any ageing at all, right as they come dripping off the still.  Whatever filtration such rums are subjected to, is to remove sediment and detritus, not the sort of chill filtration, reverse osmosis or activated charcoal filters that leave an emasculated and flaccid excuse for a rum behind, which is then relegated to the poor-doofus-cousin shelf of a barman’s cabinet, used only for cheap mixes.  You certainly would not want to drink one of those indifferent, milquetoast whites neat to savour the nuances, which is why they have inexorably slipped to the bottom of the rankings of white rums in general, their place taken by purer, cleaner, stronger stuff — like this cool Martinique product.

Bally no longer exists as an independent, completely integrated entity in its own right. After being acquired by Remy Cointreau in the 1980s, the distillery operations were closed and shifted to the centralized Simon Distillery, though the original recipes for their rhums remains intact, and sugar production continues at Lajus, as does the bottling and ageing up the road at Le Carbet. As with many French island products, it retains a certain cult following, and a cachet all its own.  Suffice to say they have made some really good rums, and this one may either be the real deal poised for mass market export or some kind of off-the-wall local tipple trotted out for exposure at various Rumfests (which is where I tried it, mostly out of curiosity). It’s reasonably widely available, especially in Europe.

Well, that out of the way, let me walk you through the profile.  Nose first: what was immediately evident is that it adhered to all the markers of a crisp agricole. It gave off of light grassy notes, apples gone off the slightest bit, watermelon, very light citrus and flowers.  Then it sat back for some minutes, before surging forward with more: olives in brine, watermelon juice, sugar cane sap, peaches, tobacco and a sly hint of herbs like dill and cardamom.

The palate was more dialled down, less aggressive…tamer, perhaps; softer. And that’s saying something for a 50% rum.  It was sleek, supple, smooth and sweet, and went down easy. Tastes suggested fanta and 7-Up in an uneasy combination with rained-upon green grass.  A little menthol, thyme and sugar water. A sort of light fruitiness pervaded the drink – watermelon juice, white guavas, pears, combined with sugar water, underneath which lurked a cheeky element of brine that never entirely came out and took over, and was hinted at, never outright disclosed.  Finish was nothing special – a little salt, a little sugar, a little water, a little fruit, but not hot at all, mostly an easy going wave goodbye as it exited the premises.

There’s little to complain about here, and much to admire.  To me, what sets this rum apart is its how many things it accomplishes in the same bottle, the same shot.  Unlike many whites that are now making headlines, Bally’s blanc doesn’t want to rip your face off or try to show off its package in an effort to show it’s bigger, bolder and more badass than all the others.  It’s also an uncommonly restrained white rum, retaining both elements of its youth, as well as having its rough edges sanded down a shade. It’s a white rhum that is demonstrably an agricole, a vibrantly young sprout of some character and depth, and tailor-made for both those now dipping their toes into the white-rum sea (and don’t want anything too savage), and those who like white agricoles on general principles. That it does all these things at once and with such unassuming style, is nothing short of a tiny miracle.

(#548)(84/100)

Sep 082018
 

The Enmore wooden coffey still is one of the most famous in the rumiverse, and is linked indelibly with Guyana and DDL.  Somewhat subtler than the Port Mourant double wooden pot still and more elegant than the Versailles single wooden pot, rums deriving from it don’t always succeed – I believe it takes real skill to make a top-end 90-point rum from its output. But when it works well and is done well — as this one does and is — then it shines. It’s an unfortunate thing that DDL did such low key marketing for the Rares 2.0, because to my mind, the second release is better than the first, and this Enmore is the best of the lot.  I’ve been harsh with DDL in the past, but just as I’ve given them hard card for fallin’ down ‘pon de wuk, praise for success must be equally prominent, since they deserve it here. And this a very good rum indeed.

Distilled at a rough and ready 57.2% (a sniff less than the PM 1997 from last week), the Enmore Rare is a true 20 year old rum, aged in Guyana between 1996 and 2017, and each and every one of those years is on display for the discerning drinker.  Consider first the nose — for that kind of strength, the aromas presented as almost gentle, and gave the PM that was tried alongside it a run for its money. They were not sharp and rough at all, rather, rich and pungent with pencil shavings and fresh sawdust, mixing things up with harsh coffee grounds, bitter chocolate, vanilla and a little nail polish.  This was followed by a very rich blancmange and creme brulee, molasses, caramel, flowers and mint, in a sensuous amalgam of soft and sweet and crisp and musky, really well balanced off. I must admit I blinked a bit and then dived in again – it was unusual for me to detect quite that much in the first ten minutes, but yes, there they were, and I enjoyed them all.

The rum also tasted remarkably well, suggesting a texture that eased across the tongue with both firmness and edge (not as easy to describe as to try), and at no point did it lose any of the qualities the nose advertised.  The sawdust and sharper pencil shavings remained, and here the fruitiness emerged as a more dominant actor – cherries, raisins, fried sweet bananas, ripe apples, black grapes, and even some red olives (they’re not quite as salty as the green ones).  Not content with that panoply, the Enmore proceeded to cough up creme brulee, light anise and molasses, flowers, coconut shavings and a sort of musky driness that reminded me of rain falling on parched ground, all ending up in a finish that was a neat high-wire act between the muskier and sharper flavours, without tumbling over the edge to either side  – fruits, citrus, coconut shavings, coffee, caramel and vanilla, with a nice background of thyme.

The entire experience was excellent. It lacked real full-proof force and fury while simultaneously being just the slightest bit untamed and edgy, and at all times giving a balanced series of delicious flavours with which I had little fault to find. Honesty compels me to admit that I wondered about additives, and while I have no idea whether it has been dosed or not (I was unable to test it), the overall profile muted any such concerns for me (while not eliminating them entirely – DDL has yet to earn my unquestioning trust; though for the record, the Rares have mostly been known as being unmessed with).

As noted above, DDL’s consistent and continual lack of engagement with the rum blogosphere is as mystifying as the quiet release of the Rares 2.0.  Aside from a small blurb here or there, I can’t remember seeing a serious blanket-all-the-channels press release from them, not for the Rares, not for the 2016 15 YO “finished” series, or for the 2018 12 YO series. About the only consistent thing is that all are seen as overpriced.  And that’s a shame, because leaving aside the standard strength tipple which I don’t buy much of any more, the Enmore 1996 really is a damn’ fine dram. Yes it costs some stiff coin, but come on, it’s twenty years of tropical ageing with what must be a massive angel’s share and the result is simply superb.  In my opinion, it’s the best of its kind DDL have made to date.

Summing up, the Enmore, then, excites equal parts annoyance and respect: respect because it’s so good and we can now all heave a sigh of relief that DDL is putting cool tropical juice out for the geek crowd; and annoyance because we hardly knew it was out there and remain mostly unaware how good it is.  Oh well. At least the wondering is over, the mystery solved: we know DDL can make these rums exceptional when they really try. Just don’t blink, or you’ll miss it when it comes out in your local liquor emporium.

(#547)(90/100)

 

Aug 272018
 

Let’s move away from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia and Guyana for a bit, and go back to a company from Haiti and an independent bottler out of France for whom I have a great deal of respect and affection: Barbancourt and L’Esprit respectively.  L’Esprit, as you may recall from its brief biography, is a small outfit from Brittany run by Tristan Prodhomme, who has the smarts to issue all of his rums in pairs – one version at cask strength in a small outturn from the barrel, and the remainder (usually from the same barrel) at a diluted 46%, aimed at the somewhat more sedate rum drinkers who prefer not to get their glottis ravaged by something north of 60%.  That this kind of canny rum release has real commercial potential can perhaps be seen in Velier’s 2018 release of the twin Hampden rums with a similar paired ABV philosophy.

Even if you include the clairins, Barbancourt is the best known name in rum out of Haiti, and perhaps the most widely appreciated rum from the half-island by dint of being the most easily available (and affordable). It’s usually the first Haitian rum any new rum explorer tries, maybe even the first French island rum of any kind (though they are not referred to as agricoles).  Over the years they have, like many other estates and distilleries, sent rum to Europe in bulk in order to keep themselves afloat, though for some reason indie bottlings of Haitian rums aren’t quite as common as the big guns we all know about – perhaps they send less stock over to Scheer or something?

The bare statistics are brief and as follows: column still product, continentally aged; distilled 2004 and released in 2016 at a brobdingnagian 66.2% (its lesser proofed twin which is quite similar is bottled at 46% and 228 bottles were issued but about the full proof edition here,  I’m not certain – less, for sure, maybe a hundred or so).  Pale yellow in colour and a massive codpiece of a nose, deep and intense, which should not present as a surprise at all. It was quite aromatic as well – one could sense bananas, vanilla, prunes and fruit, with a nice counterpoint of citrus to set these off. Like many rums released at cask strength, it rewarded patience because after a while back-end smells of cream cheese, dark bread, brine, olives, nail polish, plastic bubble wrap (freshly popped), paint became much more evident, though fortunately without taking over entirely

The rather dry-ish taste was an odd experience, somewhat at an angle to what could be expected after smelling it: for one thing, it was more briny, and for another it actually had hints of pimento and pickled sweet gherkins. What distinguished it was its heat and uncompromising brutality. The flavours – which after a while included brine, florals, rubber, petrol and a meaty sort of soup (and we’re talking strong, simple salt beef here, not some delicate Michelin-starred fusion) – were solid and distinct and took no prisoners whatsoever.  That it also presented some sweeter, lighter notes of white fruit (pears and white guavas for example) was both unexpected and welcome, because for the most part the thing was as unsparing and unadorned as congealed concrete – though perhaps more tasty. As for the finish, well, that eased off the throttle a tad – it was sharp, dry, long, briny with more of those light florals, fruitiness, nail polish and freshly sliced bell peppers, and left you in no doubt that you had just tasted something pretty damned huge.

At this stage in the review I could go off on a tangent and ruminate on the difference between continental and tropical ageing, or how the added commercial value moves away from poor islands of origin to European brokers and independent bottlers, with perhaps an added comment or two on Barbancourt’s history, L’Espirt itself, and a witty metaphor or three to add to those already expressed and tie things up in a nice bow.  Today I’ll pay you the compliment of assuming you know all this stuff already, and simply end the review by saying this rum is quite a flavourful beast, exciting the sort of admiration usually reserved for the sleek brutality of an old mechanical swiss watch. It’s delicate even within its strength, clear, dry, and perhaps excessively eye-watering and tongue-deadeningly intense to some. But even though it’s jagged as a blunt cutlass, my personal opinion is that it does Haiti and Barbancourt and L’Esprit no dishonour at all, and is a hell of a full proof drink to savour if you can find it.

(#543)(86/100)

Aug 182018
 

Over the years I’ve gone through a few Pacific island rums and while appreciative of their inventiveness, wasn’t entirely chuffed about them.  They had elements I liked and elements I didn’t, and on balance while they were workable rums, nothing to really get excited about…unless it was the Mana’o white, which was quite an animal, though it reinforced my appreciation for white rums rather more than it did for Tahiti.  In 2017, though, the Transcontinental Rum Line put out this 8 Year Old rum and when I tried it earlier this year, I was blatted into next week. I literally was so ensorcelled by the peculiar quality of the rum that I kept the glass recharged for five days, and kept coming back to it after each daily tasting session, just to see if I could come to grips with what made it so striking.

TCRL – the “Transcontinental Rum Line” – is the indie arm of la Maison du Whiskey out of Paris formed in 2016 and, like Compagnie des Indes with their evocative name, are using the title to tap into a myth pool of celluloid memories and old time images in our minds.  Seeing the label and hearing the name, we can pretend we’re in Edwardian times and travel on the old transcontinental ships of yore (that most of us would either have been serving the upper crust, crammed into steerage or cleaning the bilges is an inconvenient and unacknowledged side issue, because, y’know, downers like that don’t sell no rum).  Anyway, like all independents they issue rums at cask strength, provide all the now-normal exhaustive details on origin, strength, angel’s share…and one more. They are the only independent who, as far as I know, state exactly how much of their ageing is tropical, and how much continental (<1 year in this case for tropical, >7 years for continental).

That said, the still which produced this pale yellow 57.19% ABV rum remains an open question, though my personal belief is that it’s a column still product.  It certainly noses that way – aside from presenting as a fierce little young rum, it lacks something of the depth and pungency of a pot still spirit. However, that doesn’t matter, because it’s damn fine on its own merits – brine, olives, paint, turpentine, acetones, fresh nail polish, more brine and gherkins, and that’s just the beginning.  It has aspects that are almost Jamaican, what with a bunch of prancing dancing esters jostling for attention, except that the smell is not so crisply sweet. It develops very nicely into smoke, leather, linseed oil for cricket bats, more brine and oily smoothness. Like a set of seething rapids finished with the messing around, it settles down to a much more refined state after half an hour or so.

Although the nose was arresting enough in its own way, it was the tasting that made me sit up and take more notice. Smooth and quite strong, it tasted with force and originality, like its trousers were stuffed with midichlorians. Initial flavours were honey, glue, bananas, followed up with pears, coffee and coconut shavings.  Also, coming back to it over time, one can sense the slight syrupy sweetness of tinned peaches but with a moderating and welcome pinch (or three) of salt too (this eventually gets all huffy and walks away). Smoke, leather, some oaky bitterness, well controlled – I mean, it kept getting better and better as the hours ticked by, which was one reason I kept it on the go for so long.  Everything about it just came together really well, and while it did display some sharper notes and serrated edges that gave away its relative youth, I liked it for all its raw and uncouth power. Even the finish was quite original and showed its ongoing development, nice and long, dry, fruity, thick, and briny all at once, set off by a tiny breath of salted caramel ice cream.

The longer I spent with the rum, the more I appreciated it.  It has some ageing and it shows, yet also remembers its youth with zest and a sort of feisty exuberance that sets off the barrel time in fine style.  The esters and the brine and fruits and oak come together in a combination that other Fijian rums have attempted, not always successfully – here it works, and works really well.  It’s a bit unrefined here and there, lacks some polish – think of it as a Tiger Bay bad boy eating at the Ritz if you will – but even where it falters, it doesn’t fully fail. For all its faults, and fortunately there aren’t that many, this young Fijian 8 year old, for some peculiar reason, is one of the most memorable rums I’ve tried all year. TCRL really came out with a winner on this one.

(#540)(87/100)


Other notes

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.

Jul 122018
 

These days, anyone finding a rum three decades old had better hold on to it, because they’re getting rarer all the time.  As prices for the 1970s and 1980s rums climb past the fourth digit, locating one can be an equally fortunate and frustrating exercise…depending on how it turns out. As to why Velier chose to issue two rums of the same distillation and aging dates, at two different strengths, well, we know he has done this before, most famously with the entire Caroni line and some of the pre-Age Demerara rums.

Of course, it’s possible that Velier in this instance worked on the principle of taking a the entire outturn and bottling some at cask strength and the remainder at a more quaffable proof appealing to a broader audience.  That’s reasonable, I guess (L’Esprit does the same) – yet although the 54% Courcelles 1972 and this 42% version share the same years, there’s a difference in that the 54% was laid to rest in steel vats for nearly two additional years, and both are referred to as the dernière distillation which suggests that a bunch of barrels were involved, each with its own peculiarities.

And those peculiarities are important because they make this softer rhum individual on its own merits and different from its brawnier frere. Take the nose for example: it’s lovely and sweet, light without actually being delicate. It presents bags of light fruit – pears, ripe apples, watermelons, cherries – that go on forever, to which are added soft red-wine notes, honey, thyme and a drizzle of hot caramel on vanilla ice cream.  In a way it reminds me a lot of the Savanna 15 Year Old Porto Finish from Reunion (haven’t written about this yet), but somewhat deeper even so, because the scents grow richer over time in spite of its relatively low proof point and their overall mildness.

Tasting a rum like this is a mixed experience – one appreciates the subtlety, but strains to pick apart the notes. That said, it’s quite good, with lovely clear and clean notes of light fruitiness – pears again, watermelon again, some grapes, raisins and ripe mangoes, set off by softer nuances that speak of nougat, white chocolate, a flirt of coffee, rosemary, caramel, vanilla, thyme and some florals. It also has a background of honey that I quite enjoy with a profile like this because it strengthens the whole in a quiet kind of way, provides a bed for the rest of the flavours to emerge onto and do their thing. About the weakest point of the whole experience may be how it ends – the finish is short and faint, a zephyr following from a stiff breeze, with just some barely discernible floral and fruity hints and a bit of orange zest and tart yoghurt, and then it’s all over.

After writing up my notes, I keep coming back to how differently it presents when rated against the 54% version – it’s like they are different branches from the tree, growing in different directions while still conforming to underlying and similar standards (many of the tasting components, for example, are quite similar). The 42% iteration, I have to somewhat reluctantly note, is less when placed next to its masterful stronger sibling.  On its own, with nothing else to compare it to, it’s quietly, subtly brilliant and will not disappoint the casual drinker. But side by side, its potential clarion call is muted and dialled down, it is deferential and says much less…and when it does, it whispers.

(#528)(86/100)


Other notes

  • The Courcelles distillery in Grande Terre (one of the two “wings” of Guadeloupe island) was established in the 1930s and closed way back in 1964 when the then owner, M. Despointes, transferred the inventory and equipment to another distillery, that of Ste Marthe. They continued using Courcelles’s pot still and distilled this rum in 1972.  This is probably the last year any Courcelles distillate was made – I’ve never been able to find one produced more recently.
  • Distilled in 1972 and set to age in 220 liter barrels until 2003.  Outturn is unknown
  • The profile does not suggest an agricole, and since Guadeloupe is not AOC compliant, it probably derives from molasses. The taste certainly suggests it.
  • About that strength differential – in my essay about the Age of the Demeraras, I remarked that the first three releases of Velier Demeraras were all issued at standard proofs because Luca was nervous about moving too fast with releasing >50% cask strength rums.  I suspect that he had similar feelings about the 42% version of the Courcelles, which was why it was bottled first – two years later, just when he was putting out the full proof Skeldons in 2005, he went full bore with the rest of the Courcelles stock and never looked back.
Jul 102018
 

Now that Americans can bring back Cuban booze without sanction, it’s likely that their rums will get a boost in sales, and if the Havana Club trademark war ever gets resolved – though I doubt it will happen any time soon – then we’ll see many more on the market.  However, at this period in time, over and above the big names from the island like Santiago de Cuba or Havana Club, to get seriously aged juice that’s really from Cuba, we still have to look primarily at the independents for now.

One of these is Kill Devil, named — as any rummie can tell you — after the old term for rum used in its infancy in the Caribbean many centuries ago.  Kill Devil is the rum brand of the whiskey blender Hunter Laing, and they’ve been around since 1949 when Frederick Laing founded a whisky blending outfit in Glasgow.  In 2013, now run by descendants, the company created an umbrella organization called Hunter Laing & Co, which folded in all their various companies (like Edition Spirits and the Premier Bonding bottling company). As far as my research goes, the first rums they released to the market – unadulterated, usually at 46%, unfiltered – came in 2016, and they have issued releases from Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Fiji and this one from Cuba.  One imagines that they read the tea leaves and realized there was some money to be made in rums as well as whiskies, though by coming into the market so relatively late, they’re butting heads with a lot of other new entrants – good for us as consumers for sure, perhaps not quite as rosy-cheeked for them.

As for Sancti Spiritus, this is a Cuban distillery also known as Paraiso, dating from 1946 (there is some dispute here – another source says 1944) that is located almost dead center in the island.  Much of what is known of their rums comes from independents like Compagnie des Indes, Cadenhead, Bristol Spirits, Secret Treasures, Samaroli, Duncan Taylor, Isla del Ron and Renegade, implying a substantial export market of bulk rum to Europe.  But they also make rums of their own under the Santero brand, like the Añejo Blanco, Carta Blanca 3 YO, Palma Superior, Añejo Ambarino, Añejo Reserva, Carta Oro 5YO, Añejo 7YO and Firewater (none of which I’ve tried, to my detriment). And I’ve heard it said they supply Havana Club as well, so there’s no shortage of places for anyone with an interest to get some.

Some brief stats, for the propellerheads like me: the single-cask rum here is from the above-noted distillery, coloured pale gold, distilled in 1999 and bottled in 2016, with 362 bottles released.  And it has a strength of 46%, similar to rums issued by Renegade and L’Esprit and others, keeping it within reach and tolerance of the greater rum drinking audience.

That may be, but it was still quite a forceful piece of work to smell, much more so than I was expecting, and would perhaps come as a surprise to those who are used to softer, milder Bacardis as “Cuban style” exemplars. Presenting rather dry and spicy – almost hot – it seemed to steer a course somewhere between a light molasses column still rum, and the grassier and more vegetal notes of an agricole…without actually leaning towards either one. It had a mix of cherries, peaches and tart soursop, unsweetened yoghurt, vanilla, oak, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a very faint line of citrus running through the whole thing. It felt somewhat schizophrenic, to be honest – both acidic (in a good way) as well as lightly creamy – and that made it intriguing to say the least.

As it was sipped, it became somewhat less creamy than the nose had intimated – “sprightly” might be a good word as any to describe it. It was quite clean in the mouth, tasting of green grapes, apples, cider, mixed up with something of the saliva-flooding crisp tartness of red currants, or lemons just starting to go off. What made it stand out was the background notes of light flowers,caramel, vanilla, bananas, ginnips, and wet dark brown sugar, plus those spices again, mostly cinnamon. The finish was also quite elegant, and left memories of light caramel and fudge, oakiness and vanilla, with a little citrus for bite. It lacked a certain roundness and smooth planing away of rough edges, but I suggest that’s a good thing – it made it its own rum rather than a milquetoast please-as-many-as-you-can commercial product you’ll forget tomorrow morning.

Overall, the rum shows that even with all our bitching about pot still rums being better and yet not represented often enough, there’s little that’s bad about a column still spirit when done right, and the Kill Devil is a good example.  Even though I don’t know at what strength it came off the line, I feel that whatever complexities seventeen years of ageing imparted managed to provide an end result that was quite a nice rum (Cuban or otherwise). Which likely demonstrates that if we want to have a good column still experience from a juice aged in continental climes, there are certainly candidates for your coin out there, and as long as you come to grips with its slightly odd personality, this is one of them.

(#527)(84/100)

Jul 052018
 

Photo from Angostura website

What’s surprising about this white triple-filtered column-still overproof – which keeps company with 151s like the Bacardi or Cavalier and others – is that it is not a complete fail, though it does resemble a massive ethanol delivery system that forces you to consider whether a visit to your place of worship is required before it comes alive and does a chestburster on your mosquito physique. It has a few points of interest about it, in spite of its fiery heat and hard punch…and I say that grudgingly, because overall, I don’t see much to shout about.

Part of the problem is the indifference with which – to me – it seems to be made.  I blame the triple filtration for this state of affairs. No real effort appears to have been pushed into elevating it beyond a high proof cocktail ingredient, and one gets this impression right away when (very carefully) nosing it, where the lack of any real complexity is disappointing.  Oh sure, it’s hot and sharp and very intense, but what did you expect? And what do you get for your trouble? — not much beyond sugar water, a few briny notes, some red olives and a small amount of acetones and coconut shavings. And maybe a green grape or two. In short, as West Indians would say, mek plenty plenty noise, but ain’ got enuff action.

The palate is usually where such overproofs really get into gear, pump up the revs and start laying rubber on your face.  Certainly that happened here: as a lip-burn and tongue-scorcher, it’s tough to beat. It presented as very oily and briny and what sweet there was sensed on the nose vanished like a fart in a high wind. There were tastes of dates, figs, soya and vegetable underlain with a weird kind of petrol undertone (quite faint, thankfully). Some nail polish and new paint slapped over freshly sawn lumber – but very little in the way of fruitiness, or a more solid underpinning that might make it a more interesting neat pour.  And the heat just eviscerates the finish, which, although giving some more sweet and salt, sugar water, soya, watermelon (at last – something to praise!), is too faint and dominated by the burn to be really satisfying.

Of course, this is a rum not meant to have by itself – few rums boosted to 75% and over really are, they’re meant for bartenders, not barflies. Too, stuff at that strength is treading in dangerous waters, because there are really only two options open to it: don’t age it at all (like the Neisson L’Esprit 70° Blanc and Sunset Very Strong 84.5%) and showcase as much of the youthful vigour and original taste as one can; or age it a little – not the one or two years of the Bacardi 151, but something more serious, like the SMWS Longpond R5.1 81.3% or the Barbados R3.5 74.8% or the really quite good R3.4 75.3%.

As a puncheon, named after the oversized barrels in which they were stored, this was developed in the early part of the last century as a cheap hooch for the plantation workers and the owners.  It was never really meant for commercial sale – yet for some reason it turned out so popular that the Fernandes (the family enterprise which originally made it on the Forres Park estate) issued it to market, and even after Angostura took over the company, they kept it as the only entrant in the insane-level-of-proof portion of their portfolio.

Like all rums brewed to such heights of strength, it sustains a level of intensity that most full-proof rums can barely maintain for even five minutes, just without many (or any) of their redeeming features.  That’s part of the problem for those who want a neat and powerful drink that’ll fuel their car or blow their hair back with equal ease – because there’s a difference between an overproof that uses extreme strength to fulfill an artistic master blender’s purpose, as opposed to one that just issues it because they can’t think of anything better to do. Unfortunately, here, this is a case of the latter being taken a few steps too far.

(#525)(73/100)


Other notes

  • While the Forres Puncheon I review here is made by Angostura, its antecedents date back much further, to the original company that created it, Fernandes: and that was so fascinating that I have devoted a separate biography of the Angostura-acquired  Fernandes Distillery to it, as it was too lengthy for inclusion in this review.
  • Sample provided by my correspondent Quazi4moto, who’s turned into something of a rum fairy of samples these days.  Big hat tip to the man.
Jun 192018
 

It’s a curious fact that what might be the best all-round aged rum from Antigua is the one that is actually mentioned the least: you hear a lot about the popular 5 YO; the more exclusive 1981 25 YO comes up for mention reasonably often; and even the white puncheon has its adherents…but the excellent 10 Year Old almost seems to float by in its own parallel universe, unseen and untried by many, even forgotten by a few (I first looked at in 2010 and gave it a guarded recommendation).  Yet it is a dry and tasty and solid drink on its own merits, and if I had to recommend a rum at standard strength from the island, this one would absolutely get my vote, with the white coming in a close second (and may yet make the cut for the pantheon, who knows?).

There’s almost nothing going on with rum in Antigua that is original or unique to the island itself.  Even back in the old days, they would import rum and blend it rather than make it themselves. Since 1932 one distillery has existed on the island and produces most of what is drunk there using imported molasses – the long operational Antigua Distillery, which produced the Cavalier brand of rums and the English Harbour 5 and 25 YO  They used to make one called Soldier’s Bay, now discontinued, and a colourful local gent called “Bushy” Baretto blends an overproof he sources from them and then drags it down to 40% in a sort of local bush variation he sells (in Bolan, a small village on the west side of the island).

Since the source of all this rum made by Antigua Distilleries is imported molasses, there is no specific style we can point to and say that this one is “key” anything.  Also, they are using a double column still and do not possess a pot still, or a lower capacity creole still such as the Haitians use, which would distill alcohol to a middling 60-70% strength instead of 90%+ basis of their range that wipes out most of the flavours.  So again, not much of a key rum based on concepts of terroire or something real cool that is bat-bleep-crazy in its own way and excites real admiration.

With respect to AD’s other rums up and down the range — the 65% puncheon remains a somewhat undervalued and fightin’ white brawler; the (lightly dosed) 25 Year Old is too expensive at >$200/bottle and remains a buy for money-bagged folks out there; and the 5 YO has too much vanilla (and I know it’s also been messed with somewhat). Since 2016, the company has moved towards stronger, near-cask-strength rums, is experimenting with finishes like the sherried 5 YO and a madeira, and I know they’re doing some work with Velier to raise their street cred further, as well as sourcing a pot still.  But none of this is available now in quantity, and that leaves only one rum from the stable, which I have been thinking about for some years, which has grown in my memory, but which I never had a chance to try or buy again, until very recently. And that’s the 10 year old.

The nose begins with an astringent sort of dryness, redolent of burnt wood chips, pencil shavings, light rubber, citrus and even some pine aroma. It does get better once it’s left to itself for a while, calms down and isn’t quite as aggressive.  It does pack more of a punch than the 25 YO, however, which may be a function of the disparity in ages – not all the edges of youth had yet been shaved away. Additional aromas of bitter chocolate, toffee, almonds and cinnamon start to come out, some fruitiness and vanilla, and even some tobacco leaves.  Pretty nice, but some patience is required to appreciate it, I’d say.

The most solid portion of the rum is definitely the taste.  There’s nothing particularly special about any one aspect by itself  – it’s the overall experience that works. The front end is dominated by light and sweet but not overly complex tastes of nuts, toffee, molasses, unsweetened dark chocolate and cigarette tar (!!). These then subside and are replaced by flowery notes, a sort of easy fruitiness of apples, raspberries, and pears, alongside a more structured backbone of  white coconut shavings, dates, oak, vanilla, caramel. The finish returns to the beginning – it’s a little dry, shows off some glue and caramel, strong black tea. Oddly, it also suggests a herbal component and is a little bitter, but not so much as to derail the experience. Quite different from the softer roundness of the 25 YO, but also somewhat more aggressive, even though the proof points are the same.

So if one were to select a rum  emblematic of the island, it would have to be from this company, and it would be this one.  Why? It lacks the originality and uniqueness of a funky Jamaican, or the deep dark anise molasses profile of the Demeraras, or even the pot still originality of the St Lucian rums.  It actually resembles a Spanish style product than any of those. By the standards of bringing something cool or new to the table, something that screams “Antigua!” then perhaps the puncheon white should have pride of place.  But I feel that the 10YO is simply, quietly, unassumingly, a sturdy and well-assembled rum, bringing together aspects of the other three they make in a fashion that just succeeds. It is at bottom a well made, firm, tasty product, a rum which is pretty good in aggregate, while not distinguished by any one thing in particular. Perhaps you won’t hear the island’s name bugled loudly when you sip it…but you could probably hear it whispered; and on the basis of overall quality I have no problems including it in this series.

(#522) (83/100)