Aug 092020
 

Black Tot day came and went at the end of July with all the usual articles and reviews and happy pictures of people drinking their Navy Rum wannabes. Although it’s become more popular of late (a practice I’m sure rum-selling emporia are happy to encourage), I tend not to pay too much attention to it, since several other countries’ navies discontinued the practice on other days and in other years, so to me it’s just another date. And anyway, seriously, do I really need an excuse to try another rum? Hardly.  

However, with the recent release of yet another ‘Tot variant (the 50th Anniversary Rum from the Whisky Exchange) to add to the ever-growing stable of Navy Rums purporting to be the Real Thing (or said Real Thing’s legit inheritors) and all the excited discussions and “Look what I got!” posts usually attendant upon the date, let’s look at Pusser’s Gunpowder Proof which is an update of the older Blue Label rum, jacked up to a higher strength.  

Sorry to repeat what most probably already know by now, but the antecedents of the rum must be noted: the name derives from the (probably apocryphal but really interesting) story of how the navy tested for proof alcohol by checking it against whether it supported the combustion of a sample of gunpowder: the weakest strength that would do that was deemed 100 proof, and more accurate tests later showed this to be 57.15% ABV.  However, as Matt Pietrek has informed us, real navy rums were always issued at a few degrees less than that and the true Navy Strength is 54.5%.  Which this rum is, hence the subtitle of “Original Admiralty Strength”. Beyond that, there’s not much to go on (see below).

That provided, let’s get right into it then, nose forward.  It’s warm but indistinct, which is to say, it’s a blended melange of several things — molasses, coffee (like Dictador, in a way), flambeed bananas, creme brulee, caramel, cereals.  Some brown sugar, and nice spices like cinnamon, vanilla and ginger cookies.  Also a bit of muskiness and brine, vegetables and fruits starting to go bad, dark and not entirely unpleasant.

The blended nature of the flavours I smelled do not translate well onto the palate, unfortunately, and taste muffled, even muddled.  It’s warm to try and has is points – molasses, brown sugar, truffles, caramel, toffee – but secondary components (with water, say) are another story.  It’s more caramel and brown sugar, vanilla and nuts — and seems somehow overthick, tamped down in some fashion, nearly cloying…even messed with. Even the subtle notes of citrus, bitter chocolate, black tea, dates, and a bite of oakiness and tannins at the medium-long back end don’t entirely rescue this, though I’ll admit it’s decent enough, and some additional final faint hints of ginger and cumin aren’t half bad.

The problem is, I really don’t know what this thing really is. I’ve said it’s just the older Blue Label 42% made stronger, and these days the majority of the blend is supposedly Guyanese, with the label describing it as a “product of Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados”. But I dunno – do these tasting notes describe a bit of any Versailles, Port Mourant or Enmore profile you’ve had of late?  In fact, it reminds me more of a stronger DDL 12 or 15 year old, minus the licorice and pencil shavings, or some anonymous WIRD / Angostura combination . Because the blend changed over time and there’s no identifying date on the bottle, it’s hard to know what the assembly is, and for me to parrot “Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados” is hardly Pulitzer-prize winning research. And, annoyingly, there is also no age statement on the black label, and no distillation information at all — even Pusser’s own website doesn’t tell you anything about that. Seriously?  We have to be satisfied with just this?  

Hydrometer test result courtesy of TheFatRumPirate.com

Anyway, let’s wrap up with the opinion on how it presents: short version, it’s a good ‘nuff rum and you’ll like it in either a mix or by itself. I was more or less okay with its discombobulated panoply of tastes, and the strength worked well.  Still, I found it oddly dry, even thin at times (for all the sweet and thick background), and given that Wes rated it at 7g/L of something-or-other, I have a suspicion that the rum itself was merely blah, and has then been added to, probably because it was just young  distillate from wherever that needed correction. The brand seems to have become quite different since its introduction and early halcyon days, before Tobias passed it on — and paradoxically, the marketing push around all these new variations makes me less eager to go forward, and much more curious to try some of the older ones.

(#751)(82/100)


Other Notes

  • There are several other dates for cessation of the rum ration: the New Zealand navy eliminated the practice in 1990, the Royal Canadian Navy in 1972, Australia way back in 1921, and the USA in 1862. 
  • Some other reviews of the Gunpowder Proof are from Rumtastic, Drinkhacker, Ruminations, GotRum magazine, Rum Howler, Reddit and Reddit again). None of the other well-known reviewers seem to have written about it.
  • Matt Pietrek’s series of articles on Navy rums are required reading for anyone really interested in all the peculiarities, anecdotes, debunks and details surrounding this popular but sometimes misunderstood class of rums.
May 202020
 

Rumaniacs Review #115 | 0728

This rum is a companion of the various UK merchant bottlers’ rums which were common in the 1970s and 1980s. Examples are Lamb’s 70º Demerara Navy, Four Bells Finest Navy Rum, Mainbrace, Red Duster Finest Navy, Old Vatted Demerara rum, and so on.  Many are made by now defunct companies and were Navy wannabes, or traded in on the name without being anything of the kind.

This one is an oddity since it was made by United Rum Merchants, that conglomerate which had swallowed up Lamb’s, Keelings and Dingwall Norris: they did supply rums to the navy at one point, and this rum, made from a blend of Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad rums, lacks only the proof to be considered a Navy rum. Except it is clearly not labeled as such, so we’ll just accept it as a blended rum and move on.

Dating: Made when the UK was still trying to go beyond the degrees proof (in 1980) but while this process was still not complete; and while United Rum Merchants was still located in Tooley Street, London and not yet taken over by Allied Domecq in the early 1990s. At this stage in the recent history of rum, blends were still the way to go – so like the Lamb’s 70º “Navy” it is a blend of rums from Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad.  The proportions and distilleries are, of course, unknown.

One further point: the rum is extremely dark, so colouring is involved, and since the hydrometer notes the strength at 36.48% ABV, we can assume about 13g/L of added something-or-other.

Colour – Very dark brown

Strength 40% ABV (36.48% ABV as measured)

Nose – Meaty, gamey, salty.  Are we sure this is 40% ABV?  Feels more robust than that.  Great aromas, though – molasses, caramel, brown sugar, raisins.  Also some acetones and light tart fruits like gooseberries, soursop, to which is added a sort of bitter herbal note, and dark fruits going bad.

Palate – Much softer, one can relax here. Woody notes, molasses, brown sugar.  What acidity and tartness there was on the nose is here much subdued, and not sweet, but thick and dusty and a bit ike sweet soya.

Finish – Adjectives jump off the page: short dry, dark, thick, salty, not-sweet, redolent of molasses, brown sugar, caramel, nuts. That’s a fair bit, but let’s face it, it’s all somewhat standard.

Thoughts – It’s a surprise that a blend of four different countries’ rums — which I usually view with some doubt if not skepticism or outright dislike – works as well as it does.  It’s not a world beater and displays rather more ambition than success.  But it isn’t half bad, coming as it does from a time when indifferently made blends were all the rage. 

Other – There’s some Guyanese Enmore or Port Mourant in there, I’d say, Bajan WIRD is logical for the timeframe and Jamaicans, well, who knows. I’d almost hazard a guess the gaminess in the nose comes from Caroni not Angostura, but I have no evidence outside my senses. That might work for empiricist philosophers like Locke and Hume, but won’t budge the rationalists on whose side I come down on here…so we’ll leave it as unanswered for now.

(78/100)

May 072020
 

Rumaniacs Review #114 | 0724

These days, the only way to get some of the lesser-known rums from the last century that were made by small merchant bottlers in vanishingly small quantities, is to know an old salt, be friends with a collector like Steve Remsberg, bag an estate sale, have an elderly relative who was into rum but isn’t any longer, find a spirits emporium that forgot about their inventory, or — lacking all these as I do — troll around the auction sites.

It’s in this way that you find odd rums like the Red Duster Finest Navy rum, bottled in the 1970s by the company of J. Townend & Sons. That company officially got its start in 1923, but if you look at their filings you’ll realize they took over the assets of spirits merchant John Townend, which is much older.  That company was formed in Hull around 1906 by John Townend, and over four successive generations has become a fairly substantial wine and spirits distributor in England, now called The House of Townend. Unsurprisingly, they dabbled in their own bottlings from time to time, but nowadays it would appear they are primarily into distribution.  Rums like the Red Duster have long been discontinued, with this one gone for thirty years or more.

The rum itself, created just after the Second World War by Charles Townend (grandfather of current company’s Managing Director, also named John) is a blend of Guyanese and Jamaican rum, not further specified – so we don’t know the proportions of each, or the source distilleries (or stills)  Perusing the paperwork suggests it was always and only for sale within the UK, not export, and indeed, they were kind enough to get back to me and state that “As the company was unable to expand its five-strong off licence chain due to licensing restrictions, he [Charles Townend] concentrated on establishing spirit brands that he could sell to the pub and restaurant trade.  He shipped large quantities of old rum which he blended himself in the cellars at Cave Street, Hull, from where the company traded at the time. He then broke down the rum before bottling it.”

And in a neat little info-nugget, the label notes that the name “Red Duster” came from the house of that name wherein the company once had its premises in York Street, Hull (this address and a red brick industrial-style building still exists but is taken up by another small company now).  But that house in turn was named after the Red Ensign, or “Red Duster” which was the flag flown by British Merchant ships since 1707.

Colour – Reddish amber

Strength – 70° / 40% ABV

Nose – All irony aside, it smells dusty, dry, with red and black cherry notes and some wood shavings.  Molasses, plums going overripe and – if you can believe it – sorrel and mauby (these are a red plant and a bark used for making infused drinks in parts of the West Indies).  This gives the rum an amazingly peculiar and really interesting taste that resists easy categorization.

Palate – Sweet, dry, dusty, spicy. Fruity (dark stuff like prunes and plums) with a touch of lemon.  There’s some more cherries and overripe blackberries, but overall it  tastes thin and weak, not aggressive at all.  Some mild licorice brings up the back end, like me ambling late to a meeting I don’t want to be in.

Finish –  Surprise surprise, it’s a long and fruity finish with a good dollop of vanilla and molasses, and it presents a deep, sweet and slightly dry conclusion. Not thick and solid, a little wispy, really, but still nice.

Thoughts – Blunt force trauma is not this rum’s forte, and why they would feel it necessary to release a rum with the sobriquet of “Navy” at 40% is a mystery.  It was just and always a tipple for the eating and pubbing public, without pretensions to grandeur or historical heritage of any kind.  Just as well, because it lacks the character and force of today’s rums of this kind, and attempting to disassemble the origins is pointless.  If they had pickled Nelson in a barrel of this stuff, he might well have climbed out and thrown his own self overboard before making it halfway home…but the humourist in me suggests he would have had a last sip before doing so.

(78/100)


Other Notes:

  • My hydrometer tested this out at 40.59% ABV, so on that basis, it’s “clean”.
  • The age is unknown, and it is a blend
  • My thanks to the House of Townend’s Hanna Boyes, who provided welcome information on the historical section of the post.
Feb 092020
 

Rumaniacs Review #110 | 0700

Lemon Hart needs no further introduction, since the brand is well known and reasonably regarded – I’ve written about quite a few of their products.  Their star has lost some lustre of late (though one of their recent 151 releases from 2012 or thereabouts found much favour with me), and it’s interesting that Ed Hamilton’s own line of 151s was specifically introduced to challenge the equivalent LH, if not actually supplant it.  With so much going on at the high end of the proof-list these days, it’s good to remember what Lemon Hart was capable of even as little as 40-50 years ago, and revel in the courage it takes to crack a bottle released at 75.5% ABV.

(The bottle is from the late 1960s / early 1970s based on label design, the “40 fl ozs” volume descriptor (switched over in mid 1970s) and the spelling of “Guyana” which was “British Guiana” until 1966.  I’ve elected to stick with 1970s as a reasonable dating.)

Colour – dark amber

Strength 75.5%.

Nose – Holy hell, this thing is intense.  Blackcurrants, molasses, raisins, licorice, dark ripe fruits galore, and even more molasses.  It’s like they poured the deepest darkest flavours imaginable from some kind of rum gunk residue into a barrel, let it steam for a while, and then grudgingly decided this might be a mite too powerful for the unwary, and added some flowers and crisp white unripe fruits – sharpish pears and green apples, that kind of thing. Then, still dissatisfied, found a way to soothen the final nose with some additional vanilla, caramel, light briny aromas and some musty-dusty scents of long unopened books

Palate – Even if they didn’t say so on the label, I’d say this is almost completely Guyanese just because of the way all the standard wooden-still tastes are so forcefully put on show – if there was anything else in there, it was blattened flat  by the licorice, plums, prunes and cloves bearing down like a falling Candy of the Lord.  It remains musky, deep and absolutely massive right to the end, and even adds some salted caramel ice cream, Danish butter cookies, almonds, cloves and crushed nuts to the mix, plus maybe a bit of citrus.

Finish – Suitably epic for the strength. Hot, long, fruity, wi th molasses, vanilla, caramel and licorice, a bit of floral lightness and aa closing whiff of lemon peel.

Thoughts – It’s unclear how much the rum has been aged — I’d suggest 2-3 years, unlikely to be more than five. Stuff this young and at this kind of strength is (or was) commonly used for mixed drinks, but the truth is that with the amount of glute-flexing, teeth-chomping action going on here, nobody would blame you if you cracked a bottle, poured a shot, and started watching 1980s Stallone or Schwarzenegger movies – what my irascible father would call “dem akshun-pakshun film” – in between pretending to work out with your long disused barbells.

(85/100)

Jan 262020
 

Rumaniacs Review #109 | 0696

It may be called a Navy rum but the label is quite clear that it’s a “Product of Guyana” so perhaps what they were doing is channelling the Pussers rums from forty years later, which also and similarly restricted themselves to one component of the navy rum recipe. The British maritime moniker has always been a rather plastic concept – as an example, I recall reading that they also sourced rums from Australia for their blend at one point – so perhaps, as long as it was sold and served to the Navy, it was allowed the title. Or maybe it’s just canny marketing of an un-trademarked title, which is meant to describe a style of rum as it was commonly understood back then.

It’s unclear when this particular rum was first introduced, as references are (unsurprisingly) scarce. It was certainly available during the 1970s, which is the earliest to which I’ve managed to date this specific bottle based on label inclusions. One gentleman commented on the FRP’s review “This was the Rum issued to all ships up until the demise of the Merchant Navy (British Merchant Marine) in 1987. We didn’t receive a tot of rum like the Royal Navy, instead we had our own run bars (officers bar, crew bar). The label with the bells was changed sometime in the early/mid 80’s to a brown coloured label with a sailing ship.” Based on some auction listings I’ve seen, there are several different variations of the label, but I think it is safe to say that this red one dates back from the late 1970s, early 1980s at the latest.

An older label: note the HMS Challis under the bells, which I was unable to trace

Challis, Stern & Co. was a spirits wholesaler out of London that was incorporated back in 1924 –  like many other small companies we have met in these reviews, they dabbled in occasional bottlings of rum to round out their wholsesaling business, and were making Four Bells rum since the 1960s at least (I saw a label on Pete’s Rum Pages with “product of British Guiana” on the label, as well as a white from post-independence times), and in all cases they used exclusively Guyanese stock. There are glancing references to an evolution of the rum in the 1980s primarily based on how the labels looked and the auctioneers’ info listings – but it seems clear that by then it was in trouble as it ceased trading in 1989 and were taken over in 1991 by the Jackson family who run wine dealers Jackson Nugent Vintners, and they then wrapped it up without fuss or fanfare in 2006 (Challis had been classified as “dormant” for their entire tenure). It remains unclear why they bothered acquiring it unless it was to gain control of some tangible or intangible asset in which they were interested (I have an email to them to check).

Colour – Amber

Strength – 42.9% (75 proof old-style)

A “half” of Four Bells, what Guyanese would call a “flattie”. Fits nicely into a hip pocket

Nose – Quite definitely a Guyanese rum, though with odd bits here and there. Caramel, salt, butter, rye or sourdough bread with a touch of molasses and anise and flowers and fruits, none of which is very dominant. Prunes, dates, overripe cherries and the musky softness of fried bananas.  Also pencil shavings and sawdust at the back end.

Palate – Dry, with a most peculiar aroma of sweet rubber.  I know how that sounds, but I like it anyway, because there was a certain richness to the whole experience.  Sweet red wine notes, backed up with caramel, dark chocolate, nougat and nuts. Quite a solid texture on the tongue, slightly sweet and rounded and without any bitterness of oak (the age is unknown).

Finish – Short and dry, but enjoyable.  Mostly caramel, toffee, sawdust and pencil shavings,

If I had to guess, I’d say this was an Enmore or the French Savalle still.  Be that as it may, it goes up well against modern standard-strength DDL rums because it presents as very restrained and toned down, without every losing sight of the fact that it’s a rum.  Nowadays of course, you can only get a bottle from old salts, old cellars, grandfathers or auctions, but if you find one, it’s not a bad buy.

(81/100)


Other Notes

  • Taken literally, the “four bells” name is an interesting one. In British Navy tradition, the strikes of a ship’s bell were not aligned with the hour. Instead, there were eight bells, one for each half-hour of a four-hour watch – four bells is therefore halfway through any one of the Middle, Morning, Forenoon, Afternoon, Dog or First watches (good that someone knew this, because eight bells would have been an unfortunate term to use for a rum, being used as it was to denote end of watch” or a funeral). All that said, the design of the four bells on the label could equally be representative of four founders, or be something more festive, so maybe this whole paragraph is an aside that indulges my love of historical background.
  • Proof and ABV – In 1969 the UK government created the Metrication Board to promote and establish metrification in Britain, generally on a voluntary basis. In 1978 government policy shifted, and they made it mandatory in certain sectors. In 1980 that policy flip-flopped again to revert to a voluntary basis, and the Board was abolished, though by this date just about all rum labels had ABV and the proof system fell into disuse – and essentially, this allows dating of UK labels to be done within some broad ranges.
Jan 162020
 

Rumaniacs Review 0108 | 0693

This rum is a companion of the Lamb’s 70º Demerara Navy and other UK rums made by various merchants bottlers, e.g. Four Bells Finest Navy Rum, Mainbrace, Black Heart, Red Duster Finest Navy, Old Vatted Demerara rum, and so on.  It’s admittedly a treat to try them and trace their dusty, almost-forgotten companies of origin.

This Navy wannabe was made when the UK had moved beyond the degrees proof (in 1980) but while United Rum Merchants was still located in Tooley Street, London and not yet taken over by Allied Domecq in the early 1990s. At this stage in the recent history of rum, blends were still the way to go, and if anything had a name-recognition factor, it was certainly “Demerara rum”, which this presumed to be. Alas, that’s all we really get – so while the label helpfully notes it is a blend of rums from Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad, do not hold your breath waiting for a dissertation or scholarly analysis of the proportions, the ageing, or even which stills or distilleries made up the blend. Such details are long lost or long buried.

Colour – Dark Amber

Strength – 40% ABV

Nose – Quite a bit different from the strongly focussed Demerara profile of the Navy 70º we looked at before – had the label not been clear what was in it, I would have not guessed there was any Jamaican in here. The wooden stills profile of Guyana is tamed, and the aromas are prunes, licorice, black grapes and a light brininess. After a while some salt caramel ice cream, nougat, toffee and anise become more evident.  Sharp fruits are held way back and given the absence of any kind of tarriness, I’d hazard that Angostura provided the Trinidadian component. 

Palate – Sweet, medium-thick and quite pungent, which is nice for a 40% rum. It’s mostly pears, anise and caramel that jockey for attention – everything else is a second order effect.  It’s briny off and on but not of sea water or an olive, more like butter or caramel. It’s nicely dry, with some dark fruits coiling restlessly around and about, all quite indeterminate.

Finish – Quite nice.  One does not expect a long denouement with a standard strength rum, of course, yet even by that low standard this isn’t bad, being dry, leathery, not very sweet or dark, and some prunes, dates, and blackberries.

Thoughts – It’s a rather tame blend, maybe aged a wee bit, lacking any kind of single-mindedness of taste or smell…which may have been the point, as the official Navy recipe was never a static thing, and (for example) the Jamaican portion kept varying based on the opinions of the day. It’s milder and not overwhelmed by either the funky Jamaican or the dour, wood-forward Demerara components, and that’s its selling point and strength.  I do like uncompromising Port Mourant based rums, but this one isn’t half bad for what it is.

(81/100)(#692 | R-0108)

Oct 272019
 

Rumaniacs Review #102 | 0670

The moniker of Navy Rum is one of the most recognized rum names on the planet, aided and abetted by Pusser’s supposed recreation of the rum after Black Tot Day.  The Black Tot Rum (the old one retailing for a thousand bucks, not the new recreation just released in 2019) certainly helped, and over the years, we have seen the odd old decanter or jug or bottle or what have you, go on sale (the UK government was the seller) – some were actual flagons of Navy stocks that had been left over after 1970s, unlabelled, and found their way into the hands of collectors – this is one such. 

This small write up is based on a flagon of Navy Rum bought by Rene Van Hoven in Germany. He has dated it to around 1954 and it’s rated at about 55% ABV, and this is one of those times we’re going to have to take it on faith that he has the backup paperwork to substantiate what he told me. Note that it’s possible that it’s from the same stocks as were bonded in Germany, and which Wes Burgin wrote about in 2016, here.

 

Colour – Dark Brown

Strength – ~55%

Nose – This is a PM or Versailles distillate right up front – perhaps not a majority but certainly a good part of the blend. Molasses, pencil shavings, cedar, sawdust, glue, anise, rubber.  It’s very warm and completely solid, but not sharp, eminently drinkable (which may have been the point). Brown sugar, acetones, furniture polish follow, underlain by a sort of rotting fruit note, mixed in with a damp forest and moldy moss-covered logs, tar, burnt sugar, ashes and coffee.  It’s pungent, dusty, musty and quite powerful to nose. There’s a mustiness and dry cereal nuttiness (plus a smorgasbord of dark fruits) to it all, and that elevates this rum, I think, adding a layer of complexity and edge.

Palate – If there’s any Jamaican or Trini here, it’s in the bright fruity notes and the tar and petrol, and they’re all blatted flat by molasses, cedar, sawdust, cereal, nuts and enough pencil shavings to cover Babe the Blue Ox.  Behind that is concentrated black cake like Tanti used to make, with bags of raisins, rum-soaked chopped fruits, prunes, salted caramel, syrup, rich cherries, and plums. There are still some acetones and nail polish and glue and rotting fruit here, but they are like counterpoint, bringing up the rear and don’t distract, just add to the pungency.

Finish – Long, pungent and aromatic. A last flirt of the pencil, molasses, coffee, bitter chocolate and of course the prunes and raisins and caramel ice cream sprinkled with nuts

Thoughts – It reminds me a lot of the overproofed 1970s Lemon Hart Demerara Rum I tried a few days earlier. That said, I don’t know if they simply made blends in different proportions back in the day, or whether the progression to rums today has changed the underlying distillate in some fashion.  All I know is that like the Harewood House 1780 rum, it’s spectacular and remarkably modern. The profile is dense and rich and pungent and were you to taste it blind, you’d think it was made by an old rum house, just last year. It’s one of the tastiest rums I’ve had in ages.

(0670 | R-0102)(90/100)

Oct 092019
 

Rumaniacs Review #099 | 0663

Alfred Lamb started making his signature dark rum from West Indian raw stock in 1849 in London; it was initially aged in cellars below the Thames, which is why you still see occasional bottles of “London Dock” gathering dust on store shelves here or there, rubbing shoulders with various branded Navy rums, white rums and spiced rums, and it’s all a big yawn through these days.  The current owner of the Lamb’s name, Pernod Ricard, markets it as a downmarket grocery-store kind of rum, and the days of something like the 1949 Special Consignment are long gone.

This bottle likely comes from the late 1970s: there is an earlier version noted as being from “British Guiana” that must have dated from the 1960s (Guyana gained independence n 1966) and by 1980 the UK largely ceased using degrees proof as a unit of alcoholic measure; and United Rum Merchants was taken over in 1984, which sets an absolute upper limit on its provenance (the URM is represented by the three barrels signifying Portal Dingwall & Norris, Whyte-Keeling and Alfred Lamb who merged in 1948 to form the company).  Note also the “Product of Guyana” – the original blend of 18 different rums from Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad pioneered by Alfred Lamb, seems to have been reduced to Guyana only for the purpose of releasing this one.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 40% (since 100º proof was ~ 57.14%, then mathematically 70º proof = 40% ABV)

Nose – Yes, definitely Guyanese and for sure one of the wooden stills, PM or Versailles. Dark, rich and molasses based, with sawdust, pencil shavings, redolent of caramel, fudge, lemongrass, licorice, citrus, dates, tobacco leaves and green grapes.

Palate – “Thick” is not out of place to describe it.  Or maybe “juicy”. It’s sweet, dark, rich and dense with great mouthfeel for standard strength. A mix of both light and dark fruits – pears, peaches, prunes, mint leaves, and fresh pancakes drizzled with syrup.

Finish – Mid length, nothing special, but a nice firm exit.  

Thoughts – It’s not the most complex thing around, but if the straightforward pleasures of a mixer or simple sipper are your thing, this won’t disappoint.  It’s not trying to redefine Demerara and gives a decent account of Guyana and the stills, if less of the Navy style. Something of a one-trick pony, then, and that it’s a good pony at only that one trick is just our loss.

(0663 | R-099)(80/100)

Sep 192019
 

Much of the perception of small and new companies’ rums is tied up in their founders and how they interact with the general public. Perhaps nowhere is this both easier and harder to do than in the United States – easier because of the “plucky little engine that could” mythos of the solo tinkerer, harder because of the sheer geographical scale of the country. Too, it’s one thing to make a new rum, quite another to get a Je m’en fous public of Rhett Butlers to give a damn.  And this is why the chatterati and online punditocracy barely know any of the hundreds of small distilleries making rum in the USA (listed with such patience by the Burrs and Will Hoekenga in their websites)…but are often very much aware of the colourful founders of such enterprises.

That said, even within this ocean of relative indifference, a few companies and names stand out.  We’ve been hearing more about Montanya Distillery and master blender Karen Hoskin, everyone knows about Bailey Prior and the Real McCoy line, Lost Spirits may have faded from view but has great name recognition, Koloa has been making rum for ages, Pritchard’s and Richland are almost Old Stalwarts these days, the Eastern seaboard has its fair share of up and coming little rinky-dinks…and then there’s Privateer and its driven, enthusiastic, always-engaged master blender, Maggie Campbell, whose sense of humour can be gauged by her Instagram handle, “Half Pint Maggie.”

Privateer was formed by Andrew Cabot after he walked away from his tech-CEO day job in 2008 and decided to try his hand at making a really good American rum, something many considered to be a contradiction in terms (some still do). In 2011 he opened a distillery in an industrial park in Ipswich, Massachusetts but dissatisfied with initial results sniffed around for a master distiller who could deliver on his vision, and picked a then-unemployed Ms. Cambell who had distilling experience with whiskey and brandy (and cognac), and she has stayed with the company ever since. The rum is made from grade A molasses, and is twice distilled, once in a pot and once in a columnar still, before being laid to rest in charred american oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The company’s ethos is one of no additives and no messing around, which I’m perfectly happy to take on trust.

So, all that done away with, what’s this Navy Yard rum, which was first introduced back in 2016, actually like?  

Well, not bad at all. Each of the three times I tried the rum, the first thing out the door was sawdust and faint pencil shavings, swiftly dissipating to be replaced by vanilla, crushed walnuts and almonds, salted butter, caramel, butterscotch, a touch of the molasses brush, and the faintest tinge of orange peel.  What is surprising about this admittedly standard and straightforward – even simplistic – profile is how well it comes together in spite of the lack of clearly evident spices, fruits and high notes that would balance it off better. I mean, it works – on its own level, true, dancing to its own beat, yes, a little off-kilter and nothing over-the-top complex, sure…but it works. It’s a solid, aromatic dram to sniff.

The mouthfeel is quite good, one hardly feels the burn of navy strength 57.1%…at least not initially. When sipped, at first it feels warm and oily, redolent of aromatic tobacco, tart sour cream on a fruit salad (aha! – there they were!) composed of blueberries, raspberries and unripe peaches.  Vanilla remains omnipresent and unavoidable, but it does recede somewhat and tries hard not to be obnoxious – a more powerful presence might derail this rum for good. As it develops the spiciness ratchets up without ever going overboard (although it does feel a bit thinner than the nose and the ABV had suggested it would be), and gradually dates and brine and olives and figs make themselves known. The rather dry finish comes gradually and takes its time without providing anything new, summing up the whole experience decently – with salted caramel, vanilla, butter, cereal, anise and a hint of fruits — and for me, it was a diminution of the positive experience of the nose and taste.

Overall, it’s a good young rum which shows its blended philosophy and charred barrel origins clearly. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that it’s well blended, the edges of pot and column merging seamlessly; it’s tasty and strong, with just a few flavours coming together. What it lacked was the complexity and depth a few more years of ageing might have imparted, and a series of crisper, fruitier notes that might balance it off better; and as I’ve said, the char provided a surfeit of vanilla, which was always too much in the front to appeal to me.

I’ve often remarked about American spirits producers who make rum, that rum seems to be something of a sideline to them, a cheaply-made cash filler to make ends meet while the whiskies that are their true priorities are ageing.  That’s not the case here because the company has been resolutely rum-focused from eight o’clock, Day One – but when I tasted it, I was surprised to be reminded of the Balcones rum from Texas, with which it shared quite a lot of textural and aromatic similarities, and to some extent also the blended pot/column Barbadian rums with which Foursquare has had such success (more Doorly’s than ECS, for the curious). That speaks well for the rum and its brothers up and down the line, and it’s clear that there’s nothing half-pint or half-assed about the Navy Yard or Privateer at all.  For me, this rum is not at the top of the heap when rated globally, but it is one of the better ones I’ve had from the US specifically.  What it achieves is to make me want to try others from the company, pronto, and if that isn’t the sure sign of success by a master distiller, then I don’t know what is.

(#658)(83/100)


Opinion

After I wrote the above, I wondered about the discrepancy in my own perception of the Navy Yard, versus the really positive commentaries I’d read, both on social media and the few reviews others had written (94 points on Distiller, for example, and Drink Insider rated it 92 with nary a negative note anywhere on FB). Now, there is as yet no reviewer or commentator outside the US who has written about the Navy Yard (or others in the line), partly because its distribution remains there; those who did really went ape for the thing, some going so far as to call it the best american rum, so why didn’t I like it more?  

The only answer I can come up with that isn’t directly related to my own palate and experience tasting rums from around the world, is that they are not coming to Privateer with the same background as others are, or I do. The sad Sahara of what is euphemistically called “rum choice” in the US, a resultant of the three-tier distribution dysfunction they amusingly call a “system”, promotes a rum selection of cheap quantity, but so denuded of real quality that when the girl next door makes something so much better than the mass-produced crap that masquerades as top-drawer rum over there, it just overloads the circuits of the local tippling class, and the points roll in like chips at a winning table in Vegas. 

This is not in any way to take away from the achievement of Maggie Cambpbell and others like her, who work tirelessly every day to raise the low bar of American rumdom. Reading around and paying attention makes it clear that Ms. Campbell is a knowledgeable and educated rum junkie, making rum to her own specs, and releasing juice that’s a step above many other US brands. The next step is to make it even better so that it takes on better known Names from around the world which – for now – rate higher. Given her fierce commitment to the brand and the various iterations they’re putting out the door, I have no doubt there will be much more to come from Privateer and I look forward to the day when the company’s hooch muscles its way to the forefront of the global rum scene, and not just America’s.


Other Notes

I drew on Matt Pietrek’s deep dive for some of the biographical details, as well as articles on Thrillist, Imbibe and various posts about Privateer on FB. Details of the company, Ms. Campbell and the distillation steps can be found both Matt’s work and t8ke’s review, here.  This is one of those cases where there’s so much information washing around that a synopsis is all that’s needed here, and if your interest has been piqued, follow the links to go deeper.

Feb 082019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#597)(88/100)


Other Notes

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

 

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