Oct 112018
 

In the last decade, several major divides have fissured the rum world in ways that would have seemed inconceivable in the early 2000s: these were and are cask strength (or full-proof) versus “standard proof” (40-43%); pure rums that are unadded-to versus those that have additives or are spiced up; tropical ageing against continental; blended rums versus single barrel expressions – and for the purpose of this review, the development and emergence of unmessed-with, unfiltered, unaged white rums, which in the French West Indies are called blancs (clairins from Haiti are a subset of these) and which press several of these buttons at once.

Blancs are often unaged, unfiltered, derive from cane juice, are issued at muscular strengths, and for any bartender or barfly or simple lover of rums, they are explosively good alternatives to standard fare – they can boost up a cocktail, are a riot to drink neat, and are a great complement to anyone’s home bar…and if they occasionally have a concussive sort of strength that rearranges your face, well, sometimes you just gotta take one for the team in the name of science.

The Longueteau blanc from Guadeloupe is one of these off-the-reservation mastodons which I can’t get enough of. It handily shows blended milquetoast white nonsense the door…largely because it isn’t made to sell a gajillion bottles in every low-rent mom-and-pop in the hemisphere (and to every college student of legal age and limited means), but is aimed at people who actually know and care about an exactingly made column-still product that has a taste profile that’s more than merely vanilla and cloves and whatever else.

Doubt me?  Take a sniff. Not too deep please – 62% ABV will assert itself, viciously, if you’re not prepared. And then just think about that range of light, crisp aromas that come through your schnozz.  Speaking for myself, I noted freshly mown grass, sugar cane sap bleeding from the stalk, crisp apples and green grapes, cucumbers, sugar water, lemon zest, brine, an olive or two, and even a few guavas in the background.  Yes it was sharp, but perhaps the word I should use is “hot” because it presented an aroma that was solid and aggressive without being actually damaging.

Taste? Well, it’s certainly not the easy kind of spirit you would introduce to your parents, no, it’s too badass for that, and individualistic to a fault.  Still, you can’t deny it’s got character: taking a sip opens up a raft of competing and distinct flavours – salt, olives, acetones, bags of acidic fruit (green grapes and apples seem to be the dominant notes here), cider, lemon zest again, all toned down a little with some aromatic tobacco and sugar water, cumin, and even flowers and pine-sol disinfectant (seriously!).  That clear and almost-sweet taste runs right through into the finish, which is equally crisp and fragrant, redolent of sugar water, lemons and some light florals I couldn’t pick apart.

There you are, then. Compare that to, oh, a Bacardi Superior, or any filtered white your barman has on the shelf to make his usual creations.  See what I mean? It’s a totally different animal, and if originality is what you’re after, then how can you pass something like this by? Now, to be honest, perhaps comparing a visceral, powerful white French island rhum like this to a meek-and-mild, easygoing white mixing agent like that Bacardi is somewhat unfair — they are of differing styles, differing heritages, differing production philosophies and perhaps even made for different audiences.

Maybe. But I argue that getting a rum at the lowest price just because it’s the lowest isn’t everything in this world (and in any case, I firmly believe cheap is always expensive in the long run) – if you’re into this curious subculture of ours, you almost owe it to yourself to check out alternatives, and the Longueteau blanc is actually quite affordable. And for sure it’s also a beast of a drink, a joyous riot of rumstink and rumtaste, and I can almost guarantee that if you are boozing in a place where this is begin served, it’s one of the best blanc rhums in the joint.

(558)(85/100)


Other Notes

Oct 092018
 

L’Esprit, if you recall, is that little independent bottler in Brittany which is run by Tristan Prodhomme, and has the peculiar distinction of usually issuing the same rums in two iterations – a diluted, more numerous version at a lower proof for the general market, and another more limited one at cask strength (from the same barrel(s) for those who prefer a rum with some fangs.  They don’t range too far afield and stick with the regular rums of the pantheon – from Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Panama and so on, with an occasional divergence to Nicaragua and Belize and Haiti.

In the sense that L’Esprit is an independent bottler, they conform to most of the markers of the European indie scene – they regularly buy a few barrels from Scheer, issue a limited bottle set, and have an annual outturn.  They’re not out to reinvent the wheel, just to sell good quality hooch. What (to me) distinguishes them is the quality of what they push out the door, and even with the young rums, like this 8 Year Old Jamaican from Worthy Park, the quality of what they selected is self evident.

Speaking of Worthy Park: it is located in the parish of St. Catherine, and, like other Jamaican estates, is having something of a renaissance as the wave of tropically-aged, estate-made rums gathers steam – leaving aside Habitation Velier’s rums, they themselves have made quite a few interesting ones of their own (I have detailed files…).  Much like Hampden, they pride themselves on cool ester counts and their Forsythe’s double retort pot still delivers in spades when it comes to good rums. Like other Caribbean rum companies, they sell bulk rum abroad (mostly to Scheer), which is something of a double edged sword – other companies capitalize on the WP name and take the value-added revenue for themselves, but on the flip side, it allows WP to have a revenue stream, and introduces a far wider public to the qualities of their rums in a world where distribution arrangements can be a pain for a local company to negotiate.

So, given how many Jamaicans are on the scene these days, how does this young, continentally aged 55.9% golden rum fare?  Not too shabbily. It’s strong but very approachable, even on the nose, which doesn’t waste any time getting started but announces its ester-rich aromas immediately and with authority: acetone, nail polish and some rubber plus a smell of righteous funk (spoiling fruits, rotten bananas, that kind of thing).  Its relative youth is apparent in the uncouth sharpness of the initial aromas, but once one sticks with it, it settles into its own special groove, calms itself down and does a neat little balancing act between sharper scents of citrus, cider, apples, hard yellow mangoes and green grapes, and softer ones of bananas, cumin, vanilla, marshmallows and cloves.

The palate was rich as well, no surprises, though again, it started out quite sharp, almost jagged, spicy and hot.  The rum developed from sharp to soft much as the nose did, with many of the same flavours – brine, furniture polish, herbs, brine and olives to start with, green grapes, apple cider, aromatic tobacco and unsweetened dark chocolate, which gradually relaxed into a fruity cornucopia of overripe bananas and mangoes and apricots and guavas and pineapples, all bound up with vanilla, sugar water, a little caramel (very light), crackers, fanta and sprite.  As for the finish, that was very good, very long, very fruity, very soft…the slow meandering of a river that started out as a torrent of raging white water but was now serenely pushing out to sea without haste.

Overall, I was quite surprised at how much there was going on here.  For a rum this youthful and aged in Europe to boot, I expected more savagery and less control, fewer softened edges and more from the sharper side of the barrel.  Yet the oak remained in the background the whole while, the fruitiness and funk danced across the senses, and while the complexity and balance were both very well handled, it’s the development of the rum over two hours that held my attention.  It started off like a boss and then just…well, it just chilled and showed you a good time. In that it exceeded the Mezan WP 2005 which was older, while falling short of the exceptional Compagnie des Indes Jamaica WP 2007, which was younger.

Of the Jamaican rums now gaining greater appreciation, I must confess to my own liking for Hampdens – they’ve consistently scored higher (when taken in aggregate) than Appleton or Monymusk or Worthy Park, of which I have not had that many.  That this single rum could make me both discover and re-evaluate that unconscious preference, and encourage me to buy more from the estate – whether independently made or from WP itself, tropically aged or continental – is to the credit of both Tristan who released it, and Worthy Park who made it. It’s a quietly amazing rum that’s really a blast to try.

(#557)(86/100)


Other notes

  • A really good intro to Worthy Park comes from the pen of Steve James, here, as well as the Cocktail Wonk, here.
  • Most of the Worthy Park rums that have garnered attention of late have been the Habitation Velier expressions there are also Worthy Park’s own rums which were issued in 2017 to really positive feedback.  Transcontinental Rum Line, Mezan, Rum Nation, Bacardi (Single Cane brand), and some other smaller indies from around Europe have bottled rums from there as well.
  • L’Esprit’s presentation cases of small square 100ml bottles can’t be beat.  I’ve seldom seen any minis so sleekly attractive.

 

 

Oct 072018
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#556)(83/100)

Oct 042018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(555)(85/100)

 

Oct 012018
 

Rumaniacs Review #84 | 0554

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

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

Colour – Dark Amber / Mahogany

Strength – 49%

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

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

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

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

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

(85/100)


Other Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#553)(78/100)


Other notes

  • As noted, the Noxx & Dunn is a contract “private label” operation, not a cane-to-cork producer. The distillery of origin is Florida Caribbean Distillers, located halfway between Orlando and Tampa: they control the Club Caribe Distillery in Puerto Rico, as well as distilleries in Lake Alfred and Auburndale (both in Florida), and provide distillation, storage, ageing and bottling facilities as part of their service.
  • Only one other review of this exists, by the Rum Howler, here.  He liked it a lot more than I did, so his opinion is worth noting, given my own more middling score.
Sep 262018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#552)(86/100)


Other Notes

Sep 242018
 

By now just about anyone in touch with the rum blogosphere on social media is aware of the add-on to the Hampden Rums launch hosted by La Maison-Velier in September 2018: the “Rum Tasting of the Century” — though I believe the words “…so far” were were silently tacked on by some of us participants, hoping against hope for another (better, older) one before we get laid to rest like Nelson in a cask of DOK.  Nor are many unaware of the four aged unicorn rums we were privileged to try as part of the Tasting – Skeldon 1978, Bally 1924, Harewood House 1780, and the subject of this revisit, the Rhum des Plantations St. James 1885. 

I’d had the luck and good fortune to sample the St. James before and have written about it as part of the Rumaniacs.  This of course cut me absolutely zero slack with the attending Collective – because for all our camaraderie and friendship (online and off), we’re a cheerfully competitive bunch of people, and like to get our personal opinions settled (no others being as good as our own, naturally) before even acknowledging that someone else may have tried a particular rum in front of us.

Still, we had to get facts, and a lot of our preliminary conversations and subsequent texts and messages revolved around the data points, which are as follows: the rhum was made in 1885 on Martinique, and derived from cane juice that was boiled prior to fermentation.  Although the exact age is unknown, it was certainly shipped off the island before Mount Pelée erupted in 1902 and destroyed all stocks there, so at an absolute maximum it can be 17 years old. This is, however unlikely – few rums or rhums were aged that long back then, and the opinion of the master blender of St James (Mark Sassier) that it was 8-10 years old is probably the best one (Cyril of DuRhum has some additional details in his 2016 review) . Following the eruption of the volcano, the only remaining bottles were in Europe and gradually unsold ones were acquired (many from the cellars of Bardinet) and sent back to Martinique and put on sale.  Luca, who was a brand ambassador for St. James at one time, eventually acquired (or so legend goes) about 300 bottles in the 1980s. One of them, 47% ABV as tested in 1991, stood before us in a conference room in the Four Seasons in London overlooking theThames, awaiting our attention.

The first thing everyone remarked on about this rhum was the colour – a dark dark dark mud brown.  The second thing was the aroma. Without doubt this remained one of the richest rum smells of my own experience: it was redolent of coffee, licorice, coca-cola, bitter chocolate, coconut shavings accompanied by enormous notes of molasses.  There were, after some additional minutes, some light fruits and florals and lemon peel, but overall, it reminded one of nothing so much as a Demerara rum, not an agricole, and a really heavy, thick Demerara at that.

Though my tasting memories of the first 1885 rum I had tried three years earlier had faded somewhat, I still remembered much of the core profile, and these were back for an encore, with the same dull richness that made it so memorable back then. Bitter chocolate, nougat, nuts, grated coconut and coffee led off the charge, with flanking movements of licorice, caramel, coke and the noticeable leather and oak tannins that spoke to some ageing.  Fruits again – pears, orange zest, plums, blackberries. The texture on the tongue was heavy, stopping just short of cloying, and I must remark on the fact that it was overtaken a little too much by the forceful molasses tastes. Still, it was a great sip, and the rum glided smoothly to the finish with last notes of earthy mustiness, roasted chestnuts, molasses (of course), fast-fading fruitiness, dates and chocolate.

What a difference a mere three years makes.  In 2015 my sample of the Saint James 1885 got rated 90, and I commented favourably on its depth and complexity.  Certainly, compared to the rhums against which it was being tried that day (Barbancourt 25 YO and 15 YO, La Martiniquaise Rhum Pur, La Favorite 1990, and J. Bally 6 YO) and my own experience with uber-old spirits to that point, it was a score I have no problems defending.  However, since then I’ve tasted and gone into depth with and written about another 300+ rums, and quite aside from wry commentaries about not having a life, it’s clear that both increased experience and different comparators do make a difference in assessing the same rum years later.

On that basis, I’m going to rank it a few points lower this time, but in truth, the score is meaningless for a rhum this rare and that expensive and from so far back.  I think that for anyone who has opportunity to try a rum made over a hundred years ago, it’s enough to simply say that they drank it. It’s a window into perceiving French island’s rhum before agricoles became agricoles, before the AOC, before the production methodologies of today.  It promotes understanding of how rum has developed and changed over the decades and centuries, and if one is left with a single thought after the fact, it’s that it was and remains an experience to rival few others in our long journey of rum appreciation. That alone might be worth all the points anyone could ever give it.

(#551)(87/100)


Other Notes

Sep 192018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#550)(90/100)


Other notes

 

 

Sep 162018
 

The Harewood Barbados rum from 1780 which was trotted out with a tantara of trumpets and a choir of angels at the Tasting of the Century held in London on September 13th, 2018, will probably stand the test of time as the oldest rum that any reviewer or rum aficionado will ever be able to try – not old in terms of ageing (which in this case is unknown), just with respect to how very long ago it was made. It was exceptional in so many respects that it even eclipsed the launch of the Hampden rums which (together with Ms. Harris’s stunning red ensemble) were ostensibly the real reason for the get-together of so many journalists and rum bloggers.

Given the social media blast which attended that day, many of the facts about the Harewood (bow head, doff cap, genuflect) are now reasonably well known, but since I’ve been following the story since the story broke in 2013, I’ll recap them briefly here. The Harewood estate in Yorkshire was built on the fortune of one Henry Lascelles who arrived in Barbados in 1711, and who within twenty years had built a small empire founded on sugar and banking.  In 2011, his descendant Mark Lascelles found 28 cobweb- and filth-encrusted bottles in the cellar of Harewood House and after ascertaining that they were rums, auctioned them off in two lots. The entire (first) collection of twelve handblown bottles sold for £80,000 at Christie’s in 2014, though the buyers were not disclosed by the Daily Mail which reported on the matter. Sleuthing around informs me that Hedonism Wines of London bought one and then resold it for $17,350 to Wealth Solutions who put a capsule into each edition of their collection of 100 Rum Watches within the “Spirits Watches” collection, and the rum has been dubbed the most expensive in the world. Obviously either LMDW or Velier (or both) bought another (or several) and maybe the Whisky Exchange took a third, hence their listing.  But who cares? This is beyond history, beyond heritage. This is the rum from further back in time then any of us proles were ever likely to try.

And just look at the Bad Boys of Rum who were called in to help taste it: John Gibbons, Gregers Nielsen, Wes of The Fat Rum Pirate, Steve James of the Rum Diaries Blog, Matt Pietrek the Cocktail Wonk, Pete Holland from the Floating Rum Shack and Tatu Kaarlas of Refined Vices were all there trying this thing at the same time I was — and let me tell you, it was a  kinetic experience to hang out with some of the best known writing personages of the rumiverse, and be able to cheerfully talk and sample and poke fun at each other all at the same time.

Photo courtesy of Matt Pietrek The Cocktail Wonk

In fine, the amazing company aside, it was a fantastic rum. I swear that as we started I regarded the rum with the dark cynicism of an observer of the current American political scene. No way could any rum live up to the hype of the bare stats – 1780; found by accident; oldest from Barbados; most expensive ever; ancient; pure; a window into Ago. “Please God, let this not be an epic fail,” I muttered to myself as I walked over to the tasting to join the Collective. I need not have worried.

The very first — almost disbelieving — notes I wrote down in my book were “How can a rum from that far back smell so modern?”  The aroma was like a top end cask strength rum issued today – decant into a new bottle, slap a fancy label and some words on it, and it could be something you see on a shelf in your local spirits emporium boasting a chubby price tag. It started off musty and dusty, something like the Samaroli 1948 West Indian rum.  It smelled of glue, sawdust, cedar wood, crushed walnuts, grapes and orange marmalade, all of which came together in an extraordinary balance. It developed into rotting apples, sour cream, gherkins in vinegar, before doing a switcheroo and becoming dry and phenolic. It had briny notes, minty notes, licorice notes, hints of molasses, olives, wood chips, aromatic tobacco, light fruits, clean herbs (almot agricole-like)….and this was all in the first ten minutes. The 69% strength at which it was bottled gave everything, and held back nothing, and I had a sneaking suspicion that if I were to strap it onto my bathtub and add wheels, I could set lap records at the Nurburgring.

And that was just the nose.  Tasting it elevated my opinion even more.  The strength was totally bearable and not sharp or vinegary or nasty in the slightest – oh sure it was fierce and strong and hot and dry, but it was a full proof rum and this was par for the course – what was remarkable was its overall sippability (is that a real word?). Initial flavours were of light sugar water, apples and watermelon juice (that agricole touch again), acetones, more tobacco, nail polish, grapes, licorice, light molasses, fried bananas and dark chocolate.  It also had a texture and taste of unsweetened fresh yoghurt drizzled with olive oil, the musky taste of hummus and pea soup and dark yeasty bread, which gradually retreated into a sort of subtle fruitiness, of orange marmalade, pears and the crispness of unripe yellow mangoes. It was the sort of rum that simply got better as it rested and opened up in the glass, and while I was trying hard not to pay attention to the soft conversation and chirps of delight from my compadres left, right and opposite, I don’t think my appreciation was limited to myself alone.  Even the finish was not a let down, and provided a proper ending to the rum – long, aromatic, redolent of light anise and furniture polish, dust, hay and some oak, bitter chocolate, nuts and a last hint of fruitiness too laid back to identify precisely.

In summary…wow!  Honestly, if it was commercially available, it should come loaded with a book of quotations that had nothing but expletives, together with a thesaurus listing all the equivalents to the word “awesome”, just in case one’s vocabulary isn’t up to the task.  Would I recognize it blind? Is it representative of Barbados at all? I don’t know – probably not. What I think is that it’s a rum trembling right on the edge of being off the scale.

The Harewood 1780 is, to me, one of the most paradoxical rums I’ve ever tried, because with a very few exceptions, almost nobody who could afford it could possibly appreciate it, and just about nobody who can appreciate it could possibly afford it (one exception, as all are aware, is Luca Gargano, who organized this epic event and about whom no more need be said). Moreover, aside from being the oldest rum in existence (for now) the rum is amazing in one other respect — it adheres to a profile so modern that were one to taste it without knowing what it was (fat chance, I know), it would not be out of the realms of possibility to give it a great score and then ask wonderingly which new independent on the rum scene made this damned thing.

But we couldn’t try it blind – and much as I tried to not let the heritage and age of this rum sway my mind and my scoring, the fact of the matter was that the panoply of tastes and the complexity of the whole experience could not be denied.  We who sat down that day and tried this rum were privileged beyond all measure to have a window opened up into the way rums tasted back then, how they were different from now…yet also curiously the same. For all the changes that have occurred in the industry and the technology between 1780 and 2018, the truth is that the current inheritors of the tradition of quality rum-making aren’t that far away from what was once being made. And that is all to the credit of both those who came before, and those who make rums now.  

(#549)(94/100)


Other notes

  • There were some moral some issues with selling a rum made by the labour of slaves – a way around the matter was found by donating all the proceeds of the sales to charity.
  • Since the modern columnar still had not been invented at the time, it stands to reason the rum was made on a pot still of some kind.
  • The rum was distilled in two forms, according to Christie’s – “Light” and “Dark”, with apparently differing taste profiles.  Whether the terms were used for colours or an actual distillation technique is unknown, but it’s with some dismay that I now have to see if in my lifetime I can find a sample of the “Dark”. The Light tested at 69.38% ABV and the Dark at 57.76% (page 40 of Christie’s catalogue)
  • Links to other articles on the Rum Tasting of the Century (to be updated as other articles appear):