Mar 042021
 

If two rums from the same company were made the exact same way on the same still, there are just a few things that would explain any profile variations. There’s the still settings themselves, because one rum might have different “cuts” than the other, or from higher or lower plate; there’s the proof point, stronger or weaker, at which either is bottled; and then there’s the barrel strategy, which is to say, the barrel itself and the duration of the rum’s slumber therein.

Last week I looked at a 12 year old Flor de Caña Nicaraguan rum from Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, which came off their column still in some undisclosed year and was then aged in ex-bourbon barrels in Central America for more than a decade before being diluted down to a milquetoast 40%.  The 335 bottles of this Nicaraguan rum released by the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society were also 12 years old but allowed to flex the glutes at a solid 55% ABV, was in so many ways a better rum that one can only wonder at the difference. After all, isn’t tropical ageing supposed to be better? Stuff made at the distillery of origin from cane to cork should be benefiting from the voodoo of location, yet clearly that didn’t happen here.

I mean, consider the profile from start to finish.  This SMWS rum was deep and forceful from the get go.  Caramel and toffee melded well with a woody component.  Dark fruits and raisins waft across the nose and combined with some apple cider, threatens to overwhelm the smell…but the toffee, caramel, oak, chocolate and tart yoghurt end up carrying the day.  It’s a bit sweet, with some bitterness after a while, and an emergent strain of coconut and marzipan, with the whole thing getting both darker and sweeter the longer it’s nosed

Palate?  Not bad at all. It’s woody, more so than the Flor de Caña product (and this is something  about their rums many have commented on before); caramel and bitter chocolate wrestle for dominance with dark Russian peasant bread. “It’s kind of like a thin Blairmont and without the complexity,” remarked my friend Marco, who was tasting it unenthusiastically with me (he was not a fan). I disagree there, because when you leave the rum alone for a while (okay fine, I forgot about it and checked it again an hour later, so sue me) it actually provides some nice notes of coffee, brown sugar, apples and vanilla – these temper the slight oaky bitterness we sensed, and while overall I think it is rather simple and the finish just repeats the chorus of notes from above, it’s a pretty powerful statement for the company…and what it could be doing.

I have no way of knowing in which year the Flor 12 was made – company-made blends like that stay stable for long periods and are tweaked to make them that way – and so a comparison between a continentally aged rum from a single barrel selected by a whisky maker, and a blended, easier product continuously being made by the distillery, lacks true comparability or real meaning; and will without question taste differently.

And yet, and yet….perhaps it should not taste that different. The shared DNA should be clear, there should be points of similarity that would permit a reasoned comparison to be made, the family tree to snap into focus. Here, that’s hard. If pressed, I’d say I felt this one was less like the 12 and more akin to the superlative blue-bottled 15 year old “21” I’ve always liked — but that one was also quite different from other Flor products (it was an anniversary bottling, never repeated).

So taking all that into account, what made the SMWS rum from Nicaragua so relatively good? Maybe they really were made at different times and in different ways and came off the still already more like second cousins than brothers. But assume for a minute that they were the same up to that point:  given the similarity in age, similarity in barrels and assumed sameness off the still, the only thing left to consider is the wide divergence of the proof point, and the ageing location. The 40% TA variant is faint, lacklustre and ultimately boring – it in no way provides the complexity and solidity of tastes the CA 55% does.  

I’m not trying to make a case for continental over tropical (aside from pointing out how pointless the discussion is from a taste perspective) – but I will go on record for suggesting that maybe one reason Flor de Cana can’t seem to increase its market share or get a bigger footprint on the connoisseur’s mindset, is because they have not had the guts to stake out the full proof market for their products, or even issue a limited edition series of single cask releases. And what that means is that other, smaller independents are stealing the thunder and reaping the rewards that by right should have been theirs. All because they couldn’t be bothered to move away from the traditional philosophy of their blenders.

(#806)(85/100)


Other notes’

  • Simon over at the Rum Shop Boy liked the rum, and made some interesting comments in his conclusions: he suggested that its quality disproves the oft-cited myth that lighter column still spirits require dosage to be truly palatable; and also, that a higher proof is a completely acceptable way of delivering more flavour punch to the rum.
Mar 012021
 

Nearly ten years ago, I was rather indifferent to Flor de Cana’s 12 year old rum.  It wasn’t as cool as the older expressions like the 18 for sipping, and was outdone by the 7 year old for a more assertive a cocktail. The 12 YO made a decent drink…except insofar as I thought it was somewhat unfinished mid range rum which didn’t seem to be either flesh or fowl. 

A decade has now passed, and the brand has lost both brownie points and market lustre with consumers. The 2015 Chronic Kidney Disease matter has died down, but the peculiar and more lasting damage of their age statements continues. In fine, the age statement number on the label was phased out after around 2014 (when Wes Burgin first noted it in his middling-scored review) and now just says “7” or “12” or 18” without further clarification.  Of course, even then they were touting that silly “slow aged” moniker, which I regarded then and now with the same sort of impatience.  What on earth do they think this means, honestly? That the world spins more slowly for this thing?

What this all does mean, and what just about every reviewer on reddit or other fora is at pains to note (when they bother reviewing anything from Flor at all), is that the big number on the label is completely useless, if not outright deceptive. It tells you nothing of consequence, not the age, or whether it is a blend of X rums (unlikely) or whether it’s a link to the past when it was 12 years old.

With that in mind, let’s see what we have: an older 12 year old 40% rum, whose current “12” blend is no longer now what this once was; column still distilled and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. A more standard rum could not be imagined (unless maybe it’s the Appleton 12 YO or Doorly’s 12 YO).  The only reasons to try it are curiosity (always), to see if it could be a candidate for the Key Rums list (no), and to see if anything has changed from my original review (yes, but not for the better).  

I confess it did not impress now either.  The nose started out medicinal and a bit sharp.  It’s predominant characteristic was dark prunes and viscous molasses, honey, overripe cherries, a tang of salt and olives. The ageing showed up via a trace of vanilla and tannins, whose aromas stayed mostly in the background, but overall, not a particularly expressive or impressive nose.

The rum tasted mostly of caramel, treacle and molasses.  There was a trace of nuttiness and honey, a few dark and ripe fruits, nothing particularly sharp or tart.  Black olives, some brown sugar. It felt like something of a soft blanket, lacking the sharper notes of a citrus element that would have make a stronger statement and balanced things off more nicely. With some strain and patience, a touch of orange peel and unsweetened chocolate was discernible at the tail end leading into the short, dry finish, just insufficient to make a difference to the overall profile.  Not something that made it any more memorable, however. 

For my money, the 12 YO remains something of a middling work in progress, once leading to the better 18 Year Old (now the “18”) of the supposedly even more upscale “Luxury” expressions (this one is referred to as an “Ultra Premium” in its current iteration). I don’t think it merits anything near those kinds of descriptions – based on tastes alone, it encourages words like “capable,” “decent” and “mid range” but “Premium”?  No chance.

To me, it comes down to that that big number 12 on the label: without any qualifiers or explanations, it is a sign of not just shoddy marketing and the peacock-like display of a double-digit (if not an outright attempt to mislead buyers), but of a lack of faith in their own product. I have no particular issues with Flor de Cana as a whole – I admire what they’ve managed to accomplish to recover their reputation – but this rum is just not worthy, at this stage, of being included in the pantheon.  It’s too simple, too ambiguous, and it excites mostly a kind of indifference. Ten years ago it was the sort of rum I’d drink when I just wanted to get hammered, and in that sense, it’s exactly the same now

(#805)(78/100)


Other notes

  • In a time of true-aged cask-strength full-proofs as part of several primary producers’ ranges, I wonder why they insist on keeping this old work horse and not rebrand it as a true 12 year old, and/or goose the proof a bit?  For that matter, why not issue a complete range of high-octane full proofs?  To stick with the advertising of yesteryear at a time when the world has already changed so much strikes me as odd, to say the least.  Perhaps, like DDL, they regard that kind of thing as a loss-leading indulgence of the independent bottlers, not something they really care about themselves.
  • Both TWE and MoM keep on naming their entries for the rum as if it were a true-aged rum, when the label clearly says nothing of the kind.
Feb 222021
 

Rumaniacs Review #124 | 0803

There were several varieties of the standard white Havana Club mixer: strengths varied from 37.5% to 40%, the labels changed from saying “El Ron de Cuba” to “Mix Freely” and in the early 2000s this old workhorse of the bartending scene, which had been in existence at least since the 1970s and produced all over the world, was finally retired, to be replaced by the Anejo Blanco. 

From the label design I’m hazarding a guess mine came from the early 1990s (it lacks the pictures of the 1996 and 1997 medals it won that were added later) but as it was part of a collection from much earlier and the design changes were stable for long periods, it may be from the late eighties as well (the HC sun began to be coloured red in the early 1980s which sets an earliest possible dating for the bottle). As far as I know it was a column still product aged for no more than 18 months, filtered to white and made in Cuba.

Colour – White

Strength – 40%

Nose – Very light, fragrant and delicate. Sugar water, coconut shavings (and actual coconut water), watery pears.  A touch of light vanilla, watermelon and cucumbers, and an almost industrial sort of aroma to it that is supposed to double for “alcohol,” I guess, but feels too much like raw spirit to me. Without practice this could come off as a serious no-nose kind of rum.

Palate – Meh. Unadventurous.  Watery alcohol.  Pears, cucumbers in light brine, vanilla and sugar water depending how often one returns to the glass.  Completely inoffensive and easy, which in this case means no effort required, since there’s almost nothing to taste and no effort is needed. Even the final touch of lemon zest doesn’t really save it.

Finish – Short, faint and undistinguished, complete non-starter. By the time you think to ask “Where’s the finish?” it’s already all over.

Thoughts – By today’s standards, this venerable white is unimpressive.  Current Havana Club variants like the 3YO Anejo Blanco or the Verde are slightly more taste-driven on their own account, and have a life over and beyond the cocktail circuit since they possess a smidgen of individual character. This is too much of a backgrounder, too anonymous, to appeal.  

Note however, that it is completely consistent with its purpose which was to liven up a mojito or a daiquiri, not to appear on one of my lists of white rums (here and here) that stand tall alone.  At the time, this was what such blancos were made for and what made them sell. That this one fails by today’s more exacting standards for white rums, is hardly its fault. We changed, not it.

(74/100)


A picture of some of the silver dry series over the decades, from the FB site HC Sammlung Hamburg

Jan 182021
 

We’ve been here before. We’ve tried a rum with this name, researched its background, been baffled by its opaqueness, made our displeasure known, then yawned and shook our heads and moved on. And still the issues that that one raised, remain. The Malecon Reserva Imperial 25 year old suffers from many of the same defects of its 1979 cousin, most of which have to do with disclosure and some of which have to do with its nature. It astounds me that in this day and age we still have to put up with this kind of crap.

The little we know from wikirum (this is slightly more than four years ago when I wrote about the Malecon 1979) is that the Don Jose distillery in Panama is the producer – this is the same Varela Hermanos gents who make the popular and well known Abuelo brand. Malecon’s actual ownership as a company or a brand is as hard to track down as before – all the website contact information points to distributors, not owners and their own press information section stops in 2016 and they apparently never participated in any events past 2017, which, coincidentally, is when I first tried their stuff. Their FB page (there’s only one, for the German market) is a bit more active but mostly represents marketing blah, not one of engagement with customers and fans. I read somewhere that the owner is an Italian who likes Cuban style rum and worked with Don Pancho to come up with this range of rums, which is as good or as useless as any other story without corroboration.  (Honestly, with Panama rums these days, I hardly care any more – it’s gotten that bad).

Anyway, profile-wise, there is really very little to shout about with respect to how it tastes.  I can save you some trouble – unadventurous, simple, easy are the adjectives which come to mind.  The nose is quiet and soft: chocolate milk, anise, caramel, some creaminess of ice cream, vanilla, nougat.  There is very little fruitiness to balance this off with some tart flavours – a whiff of citrus peel maybe, a grape or two, not much more and maybe a touch of black tea.

The palate is similarly soft and similarly straightforward. It’s got more chocolate milk and and perhaps a touch of coffee grounds. A smidgen, barely a smidgen of oak and citrus, a sly taste of tangerines; it’s not very sweet (which is a plus) and sports some brine and Turkish olives and a touch of slight bitterness, which I’m going be generous and say is an oak influence that saves it from being just blah.  Finish is okay I guess. Gone too quickly of course, no surprise at 40% ABV and leaving at best the sense of some black tea with too much condensed milk in it, that doesn’t entirely hide the fact that it’s too bitter.

Many will like a rum like this. Tipplers of soft favourites like the Abuelo 7, RN Panama 18 YO, El Dorado 12 YO, the Santa Teresa 1796 or the Diplomatico line would have no issues here at all. Overall, though, from my perspective, aside from bigger Panamanian brands with some actual muscle behind their products (think Abuelo or Origenes), there’s little coming out of the country that either surprises or interests me and this is just another one of them. They’re straightforward rums of little pizzazz (this may be by intent), and while the Malecon 25 is a decent Panamanian, there’s little to distinguish it from a distillate a decade younger.

But, for a rum for which a premium is set because of the supposed ageing of 25 years, that’s not a thing people should be saying about it, because it creates negative expectations for both the brand and the whole country and makes real rum lovers look elsewhere. Let’s hope that in the years to come, this small nation’s rums and their industrial-sized producers can up the ante, make better and more transparent juice and so address the changing tastes of the global audiences better.  Then they could reclaim some of their reputation, which rums and companies like this one have treated with such cavalier disdain, and so carelessly.

(#795)(77/100)


Other notes

  • Lest you think I’m being unfair, others were similarly dismissive: WhiskyFun’s Serge said “isn’t much happening here” though he liked it better than other Malecons, and scored it 78; while his partner in rum, Angus (another rum lover who just doesn’t know he is), didn’t think it was good from a technical side either, and rated it 64. Brian over on /r/reddit gave it a harshly middling score of 53/100, which is just about how I rank it as well (on my own scale). Alex over at Master Quill, the source of the sample I was trying, rated it 82 and also commented on the resemblance to an Abuelo. The best info relating to the brand is probably RumShopBoy’s review of the range from mid 2020, and I recommend it highly (his points score for the 25YO was 55/100).
  • There are two enclosures, one with a wooden box, one with a cardboard one.  The rum is the same in both cases as far as I am aware. I was sent a sample from the wooden-box bottle, which was released first, back in 2016 or so before they switched to cheaper cardboard a few years later.
  • Treat the age statement with caution, as it is unverifiable. Any company this hard to track down doesn’t make provision of the benefit of the doubt an easy task.
Jan 112021
 

The rum starts slowly.  I don’t get much at the inception. Bananas, ripe; pineapples, oversweet; papayas, dark cherries, nice….and a touch of beetroot, odd. Not my thing, this rather thin series of tastes — it develops too lethargically, is too dim, lacks punch. I wait ten minutes more to make sure I’m not overreacting…perhaps there’s more? Well, yes and no. These aromas fade somewhat, to be replaced by something sprightly and sparkling – fanta, sprite, red grapefruit, lemon zest – but overall the integration is poor, and doesn’t meld well and remains too lazily easygoing, like some kind of clever class wiseass who couldn’t be bothered.

Palate is good, I like that, though perhaps a few extra points of strength would have been in order (my opinion – your own mileage will vary).  Still, it’s tasty – vanilla, green peas, pears, cucumbers, watermelon, sapodilla and kiwi fruits, grapes.  Low key, almost delicate, but well assembled, tasting nice and clean, a sipper’s delight for those who like reasonably complex faux-agricoles that are light and crisp and not dour, heavy brontosaurii of flavour that batten the glottis flat. The finish wraps things up with a flourish, and if short, it at least displays a lightly sweet and fruity melange that describes the overall profile well. 

The distillery of origin of this Moon Imports’ 1998 Guadeloupe rum (from their “Moon Collection”) is something of a mystery, since the “GMP” in the title does not fit any descriptor with which I am familiar. It could possibly be Gardel, which Renegade quoted as a source with their 11 YO 1998 rum, also released at 46%…but Gardel supposedly shut down in 1992, and afterwards Damoiseau / Bellevue was said to have used the name for some limited 1998 releases.  But it remains unclear and unproven, and so for the moment we have to leave that as an unresolved issue, which I’ll update when better info comes in.

(Photo taken from eBay; note that many Bellevue releases from Moon Import have almost exactly the same design)

Slightly more is known about Moon Import, the Italian company from Genoa that released it. Its origins dating back to 1980 when an entrepreneur named Pepi Mongiardino founded the company: he had worked for Pernod, Ballantine’s and Milton Duff in the 1970s, tasting and testing high end single malts. When that business took a downturn, he took some opportune advice from Sylvano Samaroli on how to set up a business of his own, and used a reference book to check which whiskies were not yet imported to Italy.  He cold-called those, leading to his landing the contract to import Bruichladdich. Initial focus was (unsurprisingly) whiskies — however it soon branched out from there into many other spirits, including rum, which came on the scene around 1990, and it followed the tried and true path of the independent bottler, sourcing barrels from brokers (like Scheer) and ageing them in Scotland. Label design was often done by Pepi himself, popularizing the concept of consistent individual designs for “ranges” that others subsequently latched on to, and from the beginning he eschewed 40% ABV in favour of something higher, though he avoided the full proof cask strength rum-strength model Velier later made widespread.

That all out of the way, the core statistics of this rum are that it was column distilled in 1998 (but not in or by Gardel); probably from molasses as the word agricole is nowhere mentioned and Guadeloupe does use that source material in the off-season; aged in Scotland for twelve years and released in 2010, at a comfortable strength of 46% ABV. Like Samaroli and Mark Reynier at the old Renegade outfit, Mongiardino feels this strength preserves the suppleness of the spirit and the development of a middling age profile, while balancing it off against excessive fierceness when drunk.

By the standards of its time and his philosophy, I’d say he was spot on.  That does not, however, make it a complete success in this time, or acceptable for all current palates, which seem to prefer something more aggressive, stronger, something more distinct, in order to garner huge accolades and higher scores. It’s a rum that opens slowly, easily — even lazily — and gives the impression of being “nothing in particular” at the inception.  It develops well, but never really coalesces into a complete package where everything works.  That makes it a rum I can enjoy sipping (up to a point), and is a good mid-range indie I just can’t endorse completely.

(#793)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks again to Nicolai Wachmann for the sample. The guy always has a few tucked in his bag for me to try when we get together at some rumfest or other. Remind me to bug him for a picture of the bottle.
  • 360 bottle outturn
Jan 072021
 

The Masters of Malt blurb for the Grenada-distilled Clarke’s Court No. 37 rum contains two sentences that make one both smile and ask more questions. A “blended Caribbean rum” which is “the thirteenth limited release rum from Clarke’s Court.” And as if trying to top that, they go on to say “The rum was designed to be supplied to exclusive social events” and both just reek of some marketing intern making ad copy in his sleep, evidently unable to come up with anything more interesting about this equally lackadaisical rum.

Why not a “Grenadian” rum, one wonders. And, if this is the 13th edition, why is it called No. 37? Is it related to the possible year of establishment of Grenada Distillers Ltd? Unlikely, because the 1998 book  Grenada: Island of Conflict by George Brizan notes that as being 1936, though admittedly the Clarke’s own website notes the factory as becoming operational in 1937. An anniversary of independence? But that was 1974 so 37 years later would be 2011. Dave Russell of the Rum Gallery probably nailed it when he said it was issued to commemorate independence, and the 300th year of establishment of St. George’s (not strictly right – it was started much earlier – but the star-shaped Fort Royale, later St George’s, was indeed completed in 1710).

Where are the other 12 editions, then? Or No. 1 through No. 36? No records exist. Further research reveals that it’s a blend, released in 2010 and was aged for 8 years in oak barrels, and with current editions of the No. 37 blend also being released at 12 years of age. The Ultimate Rum Guide remarks it was married and then rebarreled with more fruit flavour infused (oh oh…) but this is backed up nowhere else except in hydrometer tests, which also point to additives. Lastly, while the Fat Rum Pirate noted his assumption as being a pot and column still blend, His High Wonkiness says there’s only a two-column still at Grenada Distillers, with which they occasionally make some heavier rum from plates lower down in the column and mix that into the lighter stuff from plates higher up.

Picture copyright Charlene Gooding, from Pinterest

It’s a good thing I did this research after I did the tasting, because all these questions and backstories that filled in the sadly lacking label and website info, came later, and didn’t influence my initial opinion. Alas, that opinion wasn’t all that terrific either. Which is odd in itself, because the experience started out quite solid – the nose, for example, was warm, a little spicy, and smelled initially of molasses bubble gum and soda pop.  Quite sweet smelling, and got deeper than the above might imply or the strength would suggest. Nice tropical fruit basket too – guavas (the red ones), bananas, mangoes, watermelon, gherkins, plus toblerone white, almonds.  Nicely creamy.  Some soft salty notes, like dates and figs.  Creme brulee and caramel.  Irish coffee. So…nice.

It’s on the palate that it sinks, and some of the falsity shines through.  Weak and wispy to a fault. Bubble gum and fanta.  Light citrus, pears, more mangoes and guavas, but oddly muted, as if they aren’t sure they’re supposed to be here (this is usually a good indicator of tampering). White chocolate, crushed almonds, a hint of nutmeg, nuts, vanilla, some salt caramel ice cream. There’s even some light fresh (and I swear I’m not making this up) laundry detergent kinda taste. Overall, just unimpressive, with a finish that has to knock twice to make sure it’s heard, let alone noticed, and gives little beyond some miscellaneous fruits and a bit of tart yoghurt to let us know it was ever even there.

It’s a peculiarity of the rum that it said it was limited, but never actually how limited – the label has a bottle number, but not a “…out of xxx bottles” statement. So it’s hard to say what’s special or limited about the whole thing, especially as it continues to be made to this day and the year of distillation of the bottle one has is not mentioned.  Moreover I can almost guarantee that few reading this know anything about it unless they went on a cruise down to the island themselves, or — like me, Chip, Dave and Ed — date back from those days a decade or more back, when the standards for both rums and labels were very much less exacting than they are now and we accepted what we got with gratitude at getting anything at all.

However that was then, and those same easy standards and low strength fail the rum in this day and age.  It’s nice enough for the unadventurous and indifferent but in no way is it as premium as it makes out it is.  It’s weak, it’s not well assembled, the years it slept actually seem like less, and it’s been added to. Therefore, to me, it’s an average rum of no distinction or special individuality — and so I think I’ll close this already-overlong review by just giving it an average sort of score. 

(#792)(77/100)

Jan 042021
 

The Dzama 6 year old rum from the island of Madagascar sits between the modest 3 and 5 year old rums, rubs shoulders with an 8 YO, and looks up to the more exclusive 10 YO and 15 YO expressions; the company has been busy expanding the range since I first tried their 3 year old back in 2014. Unsurprisingly, the local market share of the company’s spirits is a massive 60% or so – they make a bit of everything alcoholic and are a very diversified drinks conglomerate – their prime market remains Madagascar itself with exports to Europe, some states of the USA and Canada. That said, it has never quite caught on with the rum drinking crowd the way the rhums of the French Caribbean islands, or Mauritius or Reunion have. 

That might result from the appearance of vanilla and other spices in the flavour profile, though the makers deny any additives on any but the clearly marked spiced variations of the line (like the Vanilla). Company founding legends state that the original genesis of the cane was in the small northwestern island of Nosy-be where supposedly the oils and perfumes of the various botanicals to be found there (vanilla, cloves, pepper are often cited) leach from their roots into the soil and are intermixed with the cane plants’ own root systems, into their stems, and thence to the ultimate distillate. I’m no chemist or botanist, but one could just as easily wonder why similar processes aren’t observed on the spice island (Grenada) for example.

That spiced profile was evident on the 3 year old and I marked it down for that (as did the Fat Rum Pirate when he looked at it some time later), thinking it too dominant.  It’s much less evident here, and in fact, this was almost a completely different rum.  It smelled of rubber, varnish and acetones, and was quite light at 45% ABV.  It had aromas of rotten bananas, fleshy fruits, and going-off apricots, mangoes and pears. That admittedly sounds rather off-putting (I assure you it really isn’t), and what quite a few people hate about such rums, we reviewers like to call it “pleasant” and “character-filled.” In fairness, I remember thinking it reminded me of a low rent Jamaican, but lacking their complete unconcern for the funk you were getting – it was, perhaps, more well-behaved.

The palate was thick, rich and sweet, even in comparison the the 3YO which showed no modesty with such aspects itself but while stronger, had also been paradoxically easier.  Here we were regaled with bananas, cherries in syrup, brown sugar, and a sort of smorgasbord of fruitiness – some tart, some just soft and mushy – and creaminess of greek yogurt sprinkled with cinnamon and cloves. Disappointingly, the finish did nothing much except lock the door and walk off, throwing a few notes of cloves, sugar, cherries, peaches and syrup behind.  Not a stellar finish after the intriguing beginning.

Whether Lucien Fohine — who founded the Vidzar, the owning company in 1980 — was right about the way local plants’ aromas came into the final distillate, or whether they catered to local palates by goosing the juice a tad, the fact is that the rum is a bit too sweet and a bit too overdone, like a nouveaux riche showing off new furs and new bling. It’s not precisely overkill, more like a loud drunk regaling a joint with loud and boring sports stories you’re not interested in – it’s distracting, even off-putting and makes the enjoyment less.

That said, it’s not precisely a bad rum either. It’s a bit like a Bacardi Gold mixing it up with a Diplo Res Ex, or some other such tasty workhorse that can be used for a number of different purposes, even a neat sip – the relatively low strength and the aforementioned tastes help there.  But for someone who knows his rums it’s a bit of a let down, and while it’s certainly pleasant as it is — cocktail gurus and professional mixologists could probably find good things to do with it —  I think I’d rather spring for the upscale aged versions that have more character and less of those distracting flavours.

(#791)(82/100)


Other Notes

Dec 282020
 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) has always had a peculiar turn when it comes to labels and tasting notes. The original bottlings didn’t always have permission to use the distillery names on the bottlings — at the time, blends were big, and distilleries did not always want their names to be associated with some off-the-wall, left-field bottle from a strange outfit, when this might shed a poor light on what they were more famed for…the consistency of their blends. This led the SMWS to the use of numerical identifiers for their outturns, and a whimsically titled name that had no relation to reality, really (almost every reviewer makes some reference to how they ignore those names, or don’t understand them).

What that does, though, is force the buyer / drinker / reviewer to actually pay attention to the product and discard preconceived notions at the door. Most will deny this to the heavens, but I firmly believe that few can divorce their expectations of a rum based on the label it sports, from the experience they expect to have, and then actually have. Which makes sense: if you see “Port Mourant” on a label, you expect to drink one, not some weird agricole or a Spanish style ron and your mind will bend that way. SMWS takes away this crutch – not completely, because by now everyone knows what the numbers mean – but enough so that the rums stands or falls upon your relatively clean experience.

So we walk into this rum, knowing only it’s from Panama. We don’t know if its from PILSA / Las Cabras or Don Jose / Varela Hermanos, the two main distilleries (my research suggests the latter); it has a 62% strength and 12 years of ageing in refill ex-bourbon barrels that resulted in 243 bottles. And that’s it.

But what these bare-bones notes don’t tell you is how impressive the dram actually is.  You’d think an industrial column still mass-produced swill can’t aspire to something greater than its origins, yet here it tries hard, it really does. The initial column-still blandness it starts out with is rescued by good barrel activity and some serious cask strength. Notes of coconut, caramel, some boot polish, licorice waft up from the glass, some blancmange, bon bons, chocolate mints and there’s even the hint of an old, well-loved and much-abused leather sofa.  After resting, it opens up to some nice truffles and chocolate notes, vanilla and florals, pineapples, oranges.  Pretty good for a region that has much fallen from favour in the last years as the New Jamaicans, Bajans and other distilling regions forge ahead.

In spite of the high ABV, which lends a fair amount of initial sharpness and heat to the tongue until it burns away and settles down, it’s actually not that fierce. It becomes almost delicate, and there’s a nice vein of fruity sweetness running through, which enhances the flavours of apples, cider, green grapes, citrus, coconut, vanilla, and candied oranges. There’s also some of that polish and acetone remaining, neatly dampened by caramel and brown sugar, all balancing off well against each other. It retains that delicacy to the finish line and stays well behaved: a touch sweet throughout, with caramel (a bit much), vanilla, fruits, grapes, raisins, citrus, blancmange…not bad at all.

I’ve been indifferent to Panamanian rums of late.  My initial enjoyment of their rums from the first years of this site’s reviews — of the Rum Nation 18 and 21 year old rums, the Abuelos (especially the Centuria) and the Panamonte XXV, none of which I would now score as high as I did back then — have given way to a more critical and rather impatient judgement as I see them treading no new ground, not issuing anything particularly interesting and staying with the same old song. These days I don’t buy many and the way Las Cabras has become a distiller-for-hire for small time brands who don’t themselves produce anything ground-shaking or innovative has done little to change that opinion.

Yet somehow the SMWS seems to have bucked the trend of milquetoast anonymous blends produced by the tankerload by equally anonymous brands and third parties. This 12 year old rum strikes me as a midpoint between the soft voluptuous sweetness of the Abuelo Centuria and the rather sterner and more focused AD Rattray, and is really a fine rum for anyone to try. Unless the great Panamanian distilleries up their game and go in different directions it’s unlikely they will every recover my unbridled affection from the early years – but this one gives me hope that the potential for good rums remains.  Even if it’s only in the occasional single barrel, ferreted out by some enterprising indie in Europe. We can hope, I guess.

(#789)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun didn’t dislike it, but wasn’t entirely blown away either and awarded it 78 points. Simon, over at TheRumShopBoy was more enthusiastic, to the tune of 88.
  • As usual, the name is a challenge.  Paddington is a bear beloved of British childrens’ books dating back from the 1950s, but his origin was clearly stated to be Peru, not Panama (though neither, as far as I know, have bears of any kind). So how the SMWS got from that to this is anyone’s guess…perhaps it’s his love of marmalade sandwiches, as Simon slyly pointed out.
Dec 232020
 

Here’s my personally imaginative take on how the (fictitious) Board of Blenders from Consorcio Licorero Nacional (CLN) presented their results to the good folks at Rum of Panama Corp (registered in Panama in 2016) about the rum they intended to make for them at Las Cabras in Herrera.

“We will make a true Panamanian Rum to represent the year the Canal was opened in 1914!” they say, high fiving and chest bumping themselves in congratulation at this perspicacious stroke of marketing genius.

“But CLN is originally from Venezuela, isn’t it?” comes the confused question.”Shouldn’t you perhaps pay homage to something from there?”

“The company is now registered in Panama, in San Miguelito, so, no.” The answer is confident. “The rum will be made at a Panamanian distillery. We will make it appeal to the masses by making it a column still light rum, but also appeal to the connoisseur crowd and beef it up to a higher strength.”

Ersatz Venezuelan patriotism is forgotten. This smells like sales. “Great!  How much?”

“41.3%” they reply, with the quietly confident air of “it’s settled” that Joe Pesci showed when he told Mel Gibson that a banker’s fee of 2% was standard, in Lethal Weapon II.

Brows knit. “Shouldn’t that be stronger?”

A twitch of moustaches, a shake of heads. This heresy must be swiftly extirpated. “That might scare away the masses, and they’re the ones we want buying the rum, as they’re the ones who move cases.”

“Ah.”

“And look, we will age it, a lot!” say the blenders brightly

Heads perk up. “Oh wonderful.  We like ageing.  How long, how old?”

“15 to 22 years.”

“That’s not bad. Except, of course, we’ve only been in business for four years, so…”

“Oh no worries.  Nobody will check. There’s that one reviewing doofus in the Middle East who might, but nobody really reads his blog, so you’re safe. And, on our website, we’ll say it’s a rum aged “up to 22 years”, so that will give you no end of credibility. People love rums aged more than twenty years”

“Isn’t that called…well…lying?”

“Not at all. It’s a blend of rums, we’ll have aged rums between those years in the blend, we’ll never say how much of each, so it’s completely legit. Better than saying 15 years old, don’t you think?”

“Well…if you say so.”

Paternal confidence is displayed. “You can’t lose: the rum is light, it’s old, the age is unverifiable but completely true, it has a cool name and date as part of the title, it’s sweet, and the production is so complex nobody will figure out who really is behind it, so nobody gets blamed…” More bright smiles all around, followed by toasts, handshakes, and the go-ahead is given.


Or so the story-teller in me supposes. Because all jokes and anecdotes aside, what this is, is a rum made to order. Ron 1914 touts itself as being a 15-22 YO blended rum,“Distilled in the province of Herrera and bottled at the facilities of CLN in Panama City.” CLN was formed in 1970 by five Venezuelan businessmen and deals with manufactured alcoholic products, though nowhere I’ve searched is there a reference to a distillery of their own. In this case it’s clear their using Las Cabras, proud possessor of a multi-column industrial still that churns out mucho product on demand. 

Now, that distillery has its own brand of rum, the Cana Brava, but also makes rum for clients: therefore brands like Zafra, Nativo, Grander note themselves as being from there – in that, then, the distillery operates like Florida Distillers who makes the completely forgettable Ron Carlos series of rums I’ve written about before.

And, unfortunately, made a rum equally unlikely to be remembered, because nosing it, your first thought is likely to be the same as mine: lights on, nobody home. There’s just so little going on here, and that’s not a function of the standard strength. There is basically some faint molasses, vanilla, a few unidentifiable fruits – not overripe, not tart, just fleshy and sweet – and an odd aroma of icing sugar. And a whiff of caramel and molasses, though don’t quote me on that – you might miss it.

The taste is also completely uninspiring. It’s so soft and easy you could fall asleep in it, and again, there’s too much vanilla, ice cream, sugar water and anonymous fruit here to lend any kind of spirit or style to the experience. Yes, there’s some caramel and molasses at the back end, but what good does that do when all it represents is a sort of “good ‘nuff” standard profile we’ve had a jillion times before in our journey? And the finish is just like that, short, breathy, a touch of mint, caramel, vanilla, anad again, just a snoozefest. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Ron 1914 was a low end spiced rum, and, for those of you who may be in doubt, that’s not a compliment.

The purpose of a rum like this escapes me.  No, honestly.  What’s it for?  In this day and age, why make something so soft and anonymous?  It doesn’t work well as a mixer (a Bacardi white or gold could just as easily do the job for less, if a cost-effective alcoholic jolt was all you were after) and as a sipper, well, come on, there’s way better value out there.

It’s always been a thing of mine that a good Spanish-style ron doesn’t have to enthuse the cask strength crowd with a wooden still in its DNA, or by squirting dunder and funk from every pore – because knowledgeable drinkers of its own style will like it just fine.  They’re used to standard strength and get that subtlety of tastes imparted almost solely by barrel management and smart ageing. But I submit that even they would take one taste of this thing, put down the glass, and walk away, the way I wanted to on the day I tried it in a VIP tasting. I couldn’t do that then, but you can, now. See you.

(#788)(70/100)

Dec 212020
 

The Cuban-made Vacilón brand was launched in 2016 (as a relaunch of an apparently very popular brand from the 1950s) and has been making the rounds of the various rum festivals off and on.  It’s part of the brand’s “luxury range” of 15 / 18 / 25 year old rums, which is fine, except that  as usual, there’s very little to actually go on about the production details – which remains one of the more annoying things about latin rons in general, hardly unique to Cuba. 

Suffice to say, it is made by Destilería Heriberto Duquesne attached to the local sugar mill located in Remedios in the north-central coast of Cuba under the overlordship of Cuba’s government entity Tecoazúcar. Founded in 1844 and previously known as Santa Fe, this is a distillery that produces pure alcohol as well as export rum, and makes the Vigia and the Mulata rum brands — so consolidating the information we have from those (here and here) we can say with some assurance that it’s a column still light rum, aged in ex-bourbon barrels…and that barrel strategy, coupled with skilful blending by the roneros, is behind its taste profile, not any kind of terroire or pre-distillation techniques or pot still component. 

How does that all come together when it’s time for the theory to take a backseat? Judge for yourself. Personally, I found the strength to be anemic at 40%.  It allowed aromas of caramel, nuts, flowers, coffee and cocoa to come through, just not with any kind of punch or assertiveness. Some light fruits — watermelon, papaya, guava, nothing too bold — shyly tiptoed on to the stage but at the first sigh of appreciation they panicked and ran back off again.

Tasting it made it clear this is a soft, warm sipping rum to be had by itself, and savoured that way – even ice might destroy its fragile and delicate construction.  That’s both its appeal and (for me) it’s downfall – I tasted caramel, butterscotch, bon bons, a bit of hazelnut, lemon zest, cumin and dill, a touch of ripe pear and that was it. The finish…well, it trailed off like an unfinished sentence, trending towards silence without ever having drawn attention to itself.  Which is, I must concede, about what I had expected (though not what I had hoped for) and which defined the rum as a whole.

Let me be clear – the Vacilón is a perfectly “nice” rum. On the surface, based on the label, it hits all the high points. It’s from Cuba, home of a long and proud tradition of rum making stretching back centuries. It is fifteen “true” years old.  And if it’s only 40% well, cask strength isn’t the rumiverse and standard strength rums should not be looked down upon just because they lack the spirituous equivalent of Ahnold’s biceps in his prime. 

Except that that was not the way the experience unfolded. I can live with the faint, quiet, wispy proof, I just needed to focus more, and harder, to tease out the tasting notes.  But it was simply unexciting, lacking appeal, not making any kind of serious statement for its own uniqueness and quality. It could have been five years younger and not been appreciably different. Why in this day and age they didn’t at least try to jolly it up to maybe 43% or 46% remains one of those unanswered questions to which rons have yet to respond.  Maybe it’s because they sell quite enough of what they do already and see no reason to change.

That of course is their privilege – rums like this do have their fans and markets. But as long as rons’ makers only keep trotting along the same old track at the same old pace, they’re only ever going to end up getting dismissive reviews like this one, and placing themselves in the “also-ran” finishing spot. Or even further back in the listings, which is something of a shame for an otherwise decent product on which maestros roneros expend so much time and effort. I think they can do better for today’s audiences, and they should at least give it a try, instead of recreating blends that were popular the 1950s but which are no longer as much in fashion now as they were back then.

(#787)(76/100)

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