Jan 292017
 

Two year old fire in a bottle

#339

You’d think that after running through a set of FourSquare products over the last few months (here, here, here and here), that I’ve more or less covered what I wanted to and moved on.  Yeah…but no such luck. Still got a few more to come, starting with a representative of one of the most hotly anticipated rum “series” in recent memory: the Habitation Velier outturns of very young rums, you remember the ones, those with the cool pics of the stills of origin on the labels. They are primarily from the Big Three – Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana — and while they are aimed at the general market, my own feeling is that it’s hardcore aficionados who are more likely to enjoy them, not those who are beginning their own personal journey of rum discovery.  You’ll see why in a minute.

This series of rums has several reasons for existing.  To begin with, as Velier’s reputation grew over the last five years Luca Gargano wanted to move along from the issuance of full proof, single still, aged-beyond-all-reason rums whose prices were climbing geometrically, and to collaborate more with other distilleries so as to get newer and more affordable juice out the door.  Second he wanted to prove that young rums could be every bit as exciting as the hoary old grandfathers (in rum years) with which he had originally established Velier’s street cred.  Third, he wanted a showcase for his proposed new rum classifications, the so-called Seale-Gargano system developed with himself and Richard Seale (or should it be the Gargano-Seale system?) which is gradually picking up some traction (though not outright acceptance…yet).  An lastly, of course, just to laugh out loud, shake things up a tad, and make some hot-snot new rums that one could get excited about, which existed in their own universe not overshadowed by the oldsters from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

So, the details of this Bajan popskull from FourSquare: it’s a pale yellow two-year-old (actually two years eleven months according to 4S), issued at a rip-snorting frisson of sixty four degrees of unapologetically badass proofage, pot-still derived, and aged in 370-liter cognac barrels, which may be the single element that raised its profile above that of a standard young overproof and into the realms of some kind of inspired insanity.  And I use the term carefully, because anyone thinking that somehow Velier and 4S waved a magic wand and wove a masterpiece of smooth Bajan silk that took nearly three years to make, would have been in for something of a rude awakening if they tried it with that preconception in mind.  It wasn’t anything of the sort.  Sniffing it for the first time was like inhaling an incandescent blaze of sheet lightning.

“Wtf is this?!” I remember asking myself in dumbfounded amazement as I jotted down my notes. It was hot vanilla and caramel shot through with flashes of brine and olives, all on top of a pot-still impregnated glue-gun. Swirling notes of black pepper, licorice and crushed nuts stabbed through here and there, with an amalgam of cooking spices bringing up the rear – salt and lemon pepper, a little paprika thrown in for good measure, a smorgasbord of sweet and salt and tartness.  It wasn’t entirely harmonious (are you kidding?) but a very distinct nose, suggesting that maybe FourSquare should experiment more with solo pot still rums instead of blending pot and column in their standard lineup.

Moving cautiously into the taste, I tried it neat first, then with water, and similarly intense flavours rose up and smote me righteously both times. Something of salty-oily tequila tastes were first off,  like a Maggi cube (or Knorr, if you’re in Europe) in veggie soup; nuts, dates and peaches followed, interspersed with background hints of rubber and wax, all very very intense and very firm, individual and discrete.  Water did help to tame this beast (to be honest, I took some masochistic pleasure in the sheer force of this thing and added it more out of curiosity) – that allowed some of the sweetness to finally emerge at the backend, though that was more like a thin vein of licorice, burnt sugar and cream than a caramel-toffee mother lode.  I must concede that for a rum this young, it had quite a flavour set – even the finish, which was surprisingly short (and dry) didn’t repeat the experience, but added a few extra hints of kero, fruit, black bread and kräuterquark (ask the Germans), plus a final flirt of honey.  I was left feeling enthused (and quite a bit breathless) at the end of it all, and tried it again a few more times over the next few days, just to see whether the experience mellowed at all with time (it didn’t).

Whew!  This is a hell of a rum. I’m going to go on record as stating it might be better approached not only with some care, but also without illusions and absolutely not as your first foray into rums of any kind. It is a bold, burning, singular rum of real strength and a really crisp profile which would not necessarily appeal to lovers of the kinds of hooch that FourSquare and St Nick’s and Mount Gay have been putting out for decades, because it’s not soft, and it’s not tolerant and it’s not easy.  What it actually is, is a young product that hits both your expectations and your palate like a well swung sledgehammer and upends both.  Perhaps I’ve had so many rums in my time that I’m somewhat jaded and am on the lookout for stuff that goes off in different directions, but you know, that’s not what we have here, because it’s unmistakably the real deal.  It’s quite simply, unique: and in tasting it, I got a forceful reminder of all the amazing directions a rum could go, when made by masters who could actually dream, and dare, of making it.

(87/100)

Other notes

The bottle (a sample thereof) came my way courtesy of Henrik of RumCorner at the follow-up to the Berlin RumFest in 2016, sometimes called “The ‘Caner Afterparty”. As he lovingly extracted it from his haversack that afternoon (being careful to snatch it back if our pours got to heavy, which meant a lot of snatching was going on), Henrik told me that he had been hanging around the agricole stand when Richard Seale passed by; immediately a small crowd gathered and a discussion group started (and knowing the two of them, at least, it could not have been anything other than intense).  When the group dispersed, Richard casually took the bottle, which he had had in his hands the whole time, and handed it over to Henrik without any intro or comment whatsoever. Gotta love them rum folks, honestly.

Dec 302016
 

A spectacular rum from FourSquare (and Velier), perhaps the best Bajan they’ve ever made.

#332

***

This is a rum that screaming aficionados were waiting for like fans at a Justin Bieber or Beyonce concert (or the Rolling Stones, maybe), and no write-up of the thing could be complete without mentioning the unbelievable sales pattern it displayed…in my entire rum-purchasing experience, I’ve never seen anything like it. The Velier/FourSquare collaboration was making the rounds of various masterclasses in festivals around the world for almost a year before actually going on sale, and then, when it became available in August 2016 (primarily in Europe), it sold out in fifteen minutes.  All this without a single formal review being issued, just word of mouth.

The only comparator in recent memory that I can think of might be the Panamonte XXV, which also flew off the shelves, and which also illustrates how far along the rum world has come in less than five years.  When I got that one, it was considered one of the best rums of its kind, receiving raves across the board – and indeed, for its age (25 years), strength (40%) and price ($400) it was well positioned at the top of the food chain…back then.  But even in 2012 many of us aficionados had moved on past the self imposed 40% limitation, and while the Panamonte was certainly a good product, it was also, perhaps, a high water mark for standard proof rums – people who know enough and have enough to want to drop that kind of coin, have by now migrated past that anemic proofage and demand cask strength, definitively pure rums which are made by trusted sources.  This is why Arome’s five hundred bottle outturn of their new Panamanian 28 year old, about which not much is known aside from the marketing campaign and some FB dustups, is likely to be met with indifference from those who actually know their rums (though not from those with money), while 2400 bottles of FourSquare’s ten year old have become unavailable faster than you can say “wtf” in Bajan.

And once the bottle gets cracked, you can understand why.  Because it’s an amazing rum, sold at a (low) price that would be an insult if it wasn’t so good, for something that ticks all the boxes: cask strength, check; no additives, check; issued in collaboration with one of the most famous names in the pure-rumworld, check; by a distillery long known for championing a lack of additives, check; by being trotted out at exclusive masterclasses where word of mouth made it a must-have, check.  This thing is like an exquisite small foreign film that gains accolades in the filmfest circuit  before heading off to the oscars and cleaning up there and at the box office.

Can any rum really live up to such expectations?  I don’t know about you, but it sure upended mine, because my first reaction when I opened it and sniffed was a disbelieving “what the f…?” (in Bajan).  It banged out the door with the kinetic energy of a supercar popping the clutch at 5000 rpm, blowing fierce fumes of briny olives and caramel and oak straight down my nose and throat, before someone slammed on the brakes and eased off.  What I’m trying to put over in words is something of the power of the experience, because it blasted off fast and furious and then settled down for a controlled, insane smorgasbord of nasal porn – nougat, white toblerone, peaches, citrus peel, chocolate, coffee grounds, cinnamon, enough to drive a Swiss confectioner into hysterics.  The creaminess of the nose was simply astounding – it was almost impossible to accept this was a 62% rum, yet it purred smoothly along without bite or bitchiness, scattering heady aromas of fruity badass in all directions – prunes, plums, blackcurrants and dark olives.  

And meanwhile, the taste of the rum, its glissading force across the palate, simply had to be experienced to be believed.  Not because it was all sound and fury and stabbing tridents of Poseidon, no (although it was powerful, one could not simply ignore 62% ABV), but because it was such a controlled strength.  And what emerged from within the maelstrom of proof was amazingly tasty – apricots, plums, raisins, blueberries, cinnamon, rye bread with butter and honey, all creamy and chewy to a fault (and that was just the first five minutes).  With water even more came boiling to the surface: dark grapes and an enormous array of fruity and citrusy notes, tied up in a bow with more caramel, coffee grounds, black unsweetened chocolate paprika…man, it was like it didn’t want to stop.  Even the finish upended expectations, being neither short and fleeting, nor overstaying its welcome, but almost perfect, with some floral hints, an interesting driness, and some nuttiness to accompany all that had come before, pruned down to a fierce minimalism emphasizing both heft and subtlety at the same time.

It would be arrogant in the extreme for me to say this is the best rum ever made in Barbados, since I haven’t tried every rum ever made in Barbados.  But I can and must say this – the rum points the way to the future of top-class Bajan popskull just as surely as the Velier Demeraras did for the Guyanese, and is, without a doubt, the very best Barbados rum I’ve ever tried. It’s a magnificent rum that leaves all its forebears, even those from the same distillery, limp and exhausted. This rum’s titanic flavour profile satisfies because it gets right what its previous (and lesser) earlier versions from FourSquare failed to come to grips with. It is impossibly Brobdignagian, a subtlety-challenged brown bomber, and to fully savor the current rum’s character, we as drinkers must first connect with its predecessor’s lesser-proofed antecedents.  That’s why I went through other rums from the company before cracking the 2006.  Somehow, after years of 40% milquetoast from  Barbados, here, finally, two giants of the rum world came together and got this one absolutely right.  It deserves every accolade that rum drinkers and rum writers have given it.

(91/100)

Other notes

  • To tell the complete story of its disappearance from the online and physical shelves, some subsequent observations: the 4S 2006 began turning up on ebay shortly thereafter, and aside from the bitterness of pure rum aficionados who could not get any without liquidating their retirement fund, I’ve heard it bruited about that the its disappearance was because speculators bought every bottle for resale on the secondary market…and even more pernicious rumours about how general public wasn’t even the target market – bars and bulk buyers were.  Whatever the real story is, it would be a useful case study in how to move new product in a hurry.
  • Distilled 2006 in copper double retort pot still, aged three years in bourbon barrels and seven years in cognac casks and bottled in 2016. 62% ABV, 2400 bottle outturn. The “single blended rum” appellation is derived from the proposed Gargano classification system where the origin still is given prominence over the material or country/region of origin. Here it is a single still’s blended  product (based on double maturation).
  • Whose rum is this, Velier or FourSquare?  Velier’s Demeraras, I felt, were always Veliers, because DDL gave Luca some barrels to chose from and he bottled what he felt was right without much further input from them.  Here, my impression is that Richard Seale and Luca Gargano worked closely together to make the rum, and so I attribute it to both.
Dec 282016
 

A rum that comes together in unexpected but ultimately satisfying ways

#331

Finishing remains a hit or miss proposition for rum makers. Rum Nation’s finished Demeraras are pretty good, El Dorado’s 15 year old expressions in various wine finishes kinda work (in spite of the sugar adulteration), while neither the Legendario’s muscatel reek or the Pyrat’s orange liqueur nonsense ever appealed to me (and never will).  So what’s there to say about the port finished 2005 issued by FourSquare as part of their “Exceptional” series?

A few good things, a few not-so-good ones.  FourSquare is far too professional, too competent and too long-lived an outfit to make a really bad rum, though of course they do make some rums to which I’m personally indifferent.  Here the good stuff lies in the preparation and core stats, the less than good comes from the proof and a bit of what comes out the other end. But all that aside, I believe it’s a waypoint to the future of FourSquare, when taken in conjunction with the Zinfadel finished 11 Year Old (43%), the 2004 Cask Strength (59%), and the 2013 Habitation Velier collaboration (64%).

The stats as known – column and pot still rum, nine years old, distilled at FourSquare in 2005, bottled in June 2014, having spent three years in bourbon casks, and then another six in port casks, some caramel added for colouring, with an outturn of around 12,000 bottles, issued at 40%.  One wonders how ⅔ of total ageing time in port barrels can possibly be interpreted as a “finish” of any kind, because for my money it’s a double-aged rum, something akin to the Dos Maderas 5+3 or 5+5 rums – but all right, maybe it’s merely an issue of terminology and I’m not a total pedant in these matters, so let’s move on.

Starting out, the smell suggested that it was made at right angles to, and amped up from, the more traditional FourSquare rums like Rum 66, the R.L. Seale’s 10 Year old or even the Doorley’s. To my mind it was a lot of things that those weren’t, perhaps due to the unconventional (for FourSquare) ageing and cask regimen – everything here was more distinct, clearer, and a cut or two above those old stalwarts.  Initially there were some faint rubber and acetone notes, after which the fruit basket was tossed into the vat – black grapes, citrus zest (orange or tangerines, not lemon), prunes, plums, vanilla, toffee and a dusting of earthy grassiness, cinnamon and maybe nutmeg.  Not as forceful as a cask strength monster, no, yet pleasant to experience.

Most drinkers take their spirits at living room strength and won’t find any fault with 40% but for me the decision to bottle such an interesting rum at that ABV suggests a lack of confidence in whether to taking the plunge by stepping over the full proof cliff, or continue with tried and true profiles, tweaking just a bit to sniff out the market reaction. The downside to that decision is that some of the awesome promise of the nose was lost.  The smorgasbord of the fruit remained, dialled down, delivering prunes, dark ripe cherries, plus bananas, coconut shavings, nuts, brine, and the deep sugar cane aromas from fields that have just been burnt, all in well controlled balance and warming the tongue without assaulting it, leading to a quiet, short finish that lingered without presenting anything new.  So – good…but still underwhelming.

What is perhaps surprising is that the rum works as well as it does at all – 6 years in port casks would normally be excessive since it’s less a finishing than an entire profile switcheroo – WhiskyFun, tongue in cheek as always, remarked it might better be called a bourbon start than a port finish. In fine, it all comes together well, and it is a lovely rum, which is why the encomiums roll in from all points of the compass.  But since I know FourSquare has more up its sleeves than just its arms, I also know they can do better…and in the years between this rum’s issue and now, they have.

The 2005 is therefore not a rum I have problems recommending (especially for its very affordable price point). I simply posit that it’s a scout to the beachhead, a precursor, an exercise in the craft, not the ultimate expression — and scoring it to the stratosphere as many have done, is giving consumers the impression that it’s the best buy possible….which it isn’t.  

Because, like its zinfadel cask finished brother, what this rum really is, is the rum equivalent of John the Baptist, not trying to garner any of the laurels for itself, just waiting and preparing the way for the extraordinary rum that was yet to come. 

In August 2016, it did, and that’ll be the subject of my last review for 2016.

(82/100)

Other notes

I let my glass rest overnight, and it developed a milky, cloudy residue after several hours.  Maybe it was not filtered?  I’d like to know if anyone else had a similar experience with theirs.

Dec 262016
 

When a rum makes you want to try its stronger brother, you are left asking whether it has failed or succeeded.

#330

It must be a preference thing.  My son the Little Caner (rapidly becoming the Big Caner) loves chocolate ice cream but detests the salted caramel Haagen-Dasz I scarf by the bucketload (before being noisily sick in the outhouse). My father (Grampy Caner) can’t get enough of El Dorado 15 year old yet I can’t get him to touch a full proof without shuddering. As for me, while I enjoy rums from around the Caribbean, have never been able to get a grip on Bajan rums as a whole – Mount Gay and FourSquare in particular – in spite of all the other critical plaudits that these companies garner from other corners of the rumiverse.  

With that in mind I picked up a bunch of Bajans back in 2015 and put them through an exhaustive wringer then, and again in 2016, just to see whether the passage of years changed anything. To some extent, the experience dispelled a few preconceptions, while confirming others.  In fine, it’s a decent 40% sipping rum that breaks no new ground and could, I think, be pushed to higher strength without losing anything in the process.(And indeed, there is a recent series of 2016 releases of the 66FR which are both cask strength (50%) and slightly stronger than mine here (42%) as well as a new 6 year old, so for sure I’m not done trying FourSquare’s offerings any time soon.)

FourSquare Distillery was the last remaining family owned outfit in Barbados until St. Nicholas Abbey opened up for a business nearly a decade ago.  The “66” in the moniker refers to the Barbados Independence Act of 1966, when Little England severed its colonial ties with Britain, while the “Family Reserve” reflects its origins in that small part of the company’s production which had heretofore been reserved for the Seale family (or so the marketing materials suggest).  The rum is a blend of column and copper pot still distillate, with a 65% ABV spirit set to age in white oak barrels for twelve years when already married – in other words, the blend is not done after ageing, but before…the reverse of the process most other makers follow when producing blended rums.

Certainly the blending regimen and the age did their work reasonably well. The nose was very smooth and warm, with light, almost delicate notes of wax, brine and paint leading off, which  disappeared quickly. A solid blast of brown sugar took their place, plus slightly off tastes of overripe fruit, smoke and dusty cardboard. After some minutes, the final smells emerged – lilacs and other flowers, a very faint fruitiness, with nuts and more smoke at the back end. Reading this might make it sound like a cornucopia of olfactory bliss, but the fact is that it was all really really faint – it took ages to pick them out, and there’s simply not enough going on here to make it memorable in any meaningful way.

Still, the palate of this copper brown rum was decent.  A spicy lead-in presenting immediate flavours of vanilla, toffee, butter, and yes, that salted caramel ice cream I always liked, offering bitter, salt and sweet in equal proportion. Some peaches and whipped cream, nuts, more flowers and an interesting coconut undercurrent that emerged slowly, almost grudgingly after adding some water.  The oak was there, but well controlled and not overbearing. The best thing about the rum was the smooth creaminess of the otherwise rather thin profile, vaguely salty and estery at the same time, leading to a good finish for a 40%, medium long, with peanut butter and delicate flowery notes.  There was a sort of clean elegance to the whole thing, reminding me somewhat of a Glendronach, or a Speysider, and has much in common with the Cockspur 12 year old. But, in the main, for me, it lacked oomph and assertiveness which I preferred more.  That makes it better for those who don’t care for cask strength rums, I would suggest, or long drinks for those in the cocktail circuit.

Summing up the experience, then, I felt then (and now) that for a 12 year old, it presented as far too restrained, even somewhat underwhelming.  Just doesn’t seem to push any buttons, being content to stay in the middle of the road and not piss anyone off by going off the reservation.  It has an element of okay, of settling for the middle, of “let’s leave it there, then” that is surprising for a rum aged this long.  Part of it is the 40%, of course which the market preferred back in the day when it was first released, and as far as I’m concerned it’s a rum for those who like their sipping drinks easier, with less aggro, not for today’s more demanding or discerning drinkers who might want and prefer a more robust and aggressive cask strength Bajan bruiser.

In the past, as little as ten years ago, where nobody was talking about sugar or additives and producers across the board were dosing with enthusiasm and without declaration, the Jamaicans and Bajans were forced by their countries’ laws to eschew additives of any kind.  This made many of their rums appeal to a minority who understood and appreciated purity, while the majority got their taste buds hacked and cultivated by adulterated products.  But that couldn’t last. The clamour for disclosure blew up when ALKOL, Johnny Drejr and others started posting their statistics and showed the Emperor was buck naked for all to see.  Suddenly those makers who had always been bound to make pure rums became the belles of the ball, and were lauded for their honesty and adherence to tradition.

That was all fine, but somewhere in all this brouhaha the whole issue of whether all of their products were good drinks got lost…in other words, the pendulum swung a little too far the other way, and to my mind, this rum and some others too often got a free pass. You’ll search long and hard to find a review – any review – of Bajan products that is in any way short of simpering adoration. But the fact is that there are better rums from the island out there and frankly, it’s the cask strength version of this rum that I think will be the new standard for Rum 66 in the years to come — it won’t be this exemplar of a pre-sugar, pre-fullproof time, no matter how bright it shines in the memories of those who remain wedded to that more innocent and less discerning era.

(80/100)

Just as some of my fellow reviewers make no secret of both their admiration and enjoyment of Bajan rums, I had to be clear about my personal ambivalence. So for those who want other opinions, here are two of them.

 

Oct 292016
 

rl-seale-full

Overrated.  Apologies to lovers of the rum, but it’s a mediocre ten year old in a cool bottle.

#312

The R.L. Seale 10 year old is a sort of old stalwart in the pantheon of Barbados hooch.  Sooner or later everyone passes by it, and it’s considered a benchmark against which, in the past, many Barbadian rums were rated, one of the basket of rums that defined the entire Bajan style.  In this day of independent bottlers and full proof offerings, to say nothing of FourSquare’s own tinkering and varied expressions, it starts to show something of its age.  And I’ve never been entirely won over by it…not then, not now.

Before you all spontaneously combust, please put down your electronic pitchforks and burning i-phone torches, and hold your emails, FB posts, twitter feeds, hashtags and any other forms of online vituperation. I’m fully aware I’m swimming against the tide on this one — just try to find a negative review of a FourSquare rum online…I dare ya —  but perhaps a review that goes against the grain should be considered just because it does that, not be thrown away with yesterday’s fish.

rl-seale-labelYears ago, in 2010,  I wrote a distinctly unflattering portrait of the Doorley’s XO (I have yet to try the 12 YO).  In subsequent years I always and uneasily thought it was the surety (maybe the arrogance?) of a beginner that made my opinion what it was (I called the Doorley’s the “Prince Myshkyn of rums”), and given the critical plaudits and encomiums Mr. Seale has gotten since then, to say nothing of his remark to me that I just did not appreciate pure, unadulterated rum (in other words, the added sugar of other, higher-scoring rums had skewed my perspective)…well, let’s just say I was curious what a gap of several years’ experience would do, and so ran a bunch of Barbadian rums past each other to see how this and the Rum66 and the 2015-2016 editions stacked up.

The darkish gold rum, bottled at 43% was light, almost delicate, redolent of delicate white flowers and too much fabric softener.  There were thin hints of caramel, salted butter and vanilla coiling around underneath that, with some cider, cinnamon, nutmeg and crushed nuts following that.  And dry, surprisingly so. So once again, taste wasn’t the issue for me, the understated nature of it was – the whole was just too damn timorous, like it was too shy to come out and actually make a statement (the very issue I had with the Doorley’s).

Things improved on the palate, where the 10 year old proved somewhat sharper and spicier than the Rum 66 I was trying alongside it, but at least displayed something more than vague whiffs and promises without delivery. It was sweet and salt at the same time, fried bananas in olive oil, peanut butter spread on warm French bread — for originality the rum sure went off in some strange directions, to its credit — with faint tar and oak and vanilla undertones mixing it up with apples and maybe some more nuts, ending up with a finish that was short, flirty and faint, that gave nothing original to remember it by.  

All in all, it lacked punch and heft and compared poorly against the five controls I had  in place to rate it. The much ballyhooed honesty of the rum was beyond question – it was clearly not adulterated in any way, which was great, allowing the core profile to come through, but it just didn’t have that emphasis and clarity, the overall integration of complex flavours making their statement, which I preferred and continue to prefer. For its price and intended audience, it’s a good buy (which is why it sells well and continues to receive plaudits to this day) — all the same, I contend that FourSquare has shown in 2015 and 2016 what they’re really capable of when they try. Their port cask, their white and the spectacular 2006 10 year old, are all miles ahead of this one.  They address all my issues with firmness, power, clarity, integration, assembly, balance, and are just plain better rums than the R.L. Seale’s 10 YO.

And that’s why those rums will absolutely get my money in the future, while this one simply won’t.  I’ve had better, both from Barbados, and from FourSquare.

80/100

Other online reviewers don’t share my indifference, and love this thing.  To be fair, I include their reviews here so you can get other opinions:

Aug 282016
 

Real McCoy 5

Understated five year old mixing material

(#298 / 77/100)

***

Last time around I looked with admiration at the St. Nicholas Abbey 5 Year old, suggesting that in its unadorned simplicity and firmness lay its strength…it didn’t try to do too much all at the same time and was perfectly content to stay simple. It focused  on its core competencies, in management-speak.  Yet that same day, just minutes apart, I also tried the Real McCoy, another Bajan five year old, and liked it less. Since both rums are from Barbados, both are unadulterated, and both five years old, it must be the barrels and original distillate.  As far as I know the St Nick’s is from their own pot still, and the McCoy from a blend of pot-column distillate out of FourSquare, and they both got aged in bourbon barrels, so there you have the same facts I do and can make up your own mind.

Just some brief biographical facts before I delve in: yes, there was a “real” McCoy, and as the marketing for this series of rums never tires of telling you, he was a Prohibition-era rumrunner who would have made Sir Scrotimus weep with happiness: a man who never dealt with adulterated rum (hence the “real”) didn’t blend his stuff with bathtub-brewed popskull and never added any sugar, and bought occasionally from FourSquare, back in the day.  Mr. Bailey Prior, who was making a documentary about the chap, was so taken with the story that he decided to make some rums of his own, using Mr. Seale’s stocks, and has put out a 3 year old white, a 5 year old and a 12 year old.

real-mccoy-rg2-useSo here what we had was a copper-amber coloured 40% rum aged for five years in used Jack Daniels barrels, which presented a nose that was a little sharp, and initially redolent of green apples and apricots.  It was slightly more aromatically intense than the 3 year old (which I also tried alongside it), and opened up into additional notes of honey, dates, nuts, caramel and waffles. The issue for me was primarily their lack of intensity. “Delicate,” some might say, but I felt that on balance, they were just weak.

Similar issues were there on the palate. It was easy, no real power, and reminded me why stronger rums have become my preference.  However, good flavours were there: cider, apples, citrus, sharpness, balancing out vanilla and vague caramels.  There were almost none of the softer fruits like bananas or fleshier fruits to balance out the sharper bite, and this was reinforced by the oak which came over in the beginning (and took on more dominance at the back end)….so overall, the thing is just too light and unbalanced. This is what proponents of the style call genuine, what lovers of 40% Bajans will name “excellent”, and what I call uninteresting. Overall, and including the short, light, here-now-gone-in-a-flash finish, it displayed some of the same shortcomings I’ve associated with many younger and cheaper rums from Little England – there just wasn’t enough in there for me to care about.

Leaving aside the stills, I’m at a loss to quantify the reason why the St Nick’s presented so much more forcefully and firmly than the McCoy given their (relative) commonality of origin and age and lack of additives. The McCoy five gave every impression of being dialled-down, and has too little character or force of its own, no indelible something that would single it out from its peers: the El Dorados for all their sugar at least have some wooden still action going on in there, the St. Nick’s is firm and unambiguous, and even the Angostura five has some aggro underneath its traditional profile  But all we get from the McCoy is a sort of wishy washy weakness of profile and a failure to engage.  Torque it up a little and we might really have something here…until then, into the mix it goes.

 

Aug 242016
 

St Nicks 5 yo single cask (a)

Might be heresy to say so, but I thought it better than the same company’s eight year old.

(#297 / 82/100)

***

One of the reasons why the St. Nicholas Abbey Five year old gets the full etched-bottle treatment of the 8, 10, 12, 15 and 18 year olds (which are all remarkably good for 40% rums and earned good reviews from across the spectrum, including mine), is because the company is justifiably proud of this being the first rums they made from entirely their own matured stocks.  Previously they were ageing FourSquare rums to make the originals noted above — the ten may be one of the best mid-range 40% rums I’ve tried — but the five is entirely their own juice, as will be all other aged rums they produce in the years to come (once the 4Sq stuff runs out for the really old rum, of course…already the abbey has run out of 15, or so I’ve been told).

I’ve gone into the bio of the company before and they themselves have great info about the plantation on their website, so I won’t rehash that, except to make one observation: if you have an empty bottle of St. Nick’s, and you take it to Barbados on a distillery visit, they’ll refill it for you for half price with whatever age of their rum you want….and add some more etching to personalize it, for free, if you ask. It’s on my bucket list for that. My wife just wants to visit the place and walk around, it’s so pretty.

St Nicks rums

Anyway, a 40% golden coloured rum, coming off a pot still with a reflux column (from notes I scribbled while Simon Warren was talking to me about it, though the company website says pot only), aged five years in used oak barrels, so all the usual boxes are ticked.  It displayed all the uncouth, uncoordinated good-natured bumptiousness we have come to expect from fives: spicy, scraping entry of alcohol on the nose — the edges would be sanded off by a few years of further ageing, of course — with aromas of flowers, cherries, licorice, a twitch of molasses, a flirt of citrus peel and vanilla, each firm and distinct and in balance with all the others. 40% made it present somewhat it thin for me, mind, but that is a personal thing.

And, thin or not…that taste.  So rich for a five. It was a medium bodied rum, somewhat dry and spicy, redolent of fleshy fruits that are the staples of a good basket – the soft flavours of bananas, ripe mangoes and cherries mixing it up with the tartness of soursop and green apples and more of that sly citrus undercurrent.  With water (not that the rum needed any), the heretofore reticent background notes of molasses, toffee, vanilla, smoke and oak emerged, melding into a very serviceable, woody and dry finish. 

Again, I noticed that it was not a world beating exemplar of complexity – what it did was present the few notes on its guitar individually, with emphasis and without fanfare. It’s a five year old that was forthright and unpretentious, a teen (in rum years) still growing into manhood, one might say.  And in that very simplicity is its strength — it can go head to head with other fives like the El Dorado any time.  It’s quite good, and if it lacks the elemental raw power and rage of unaged pot still products, or the well-tempered maturity of older, higher-proofed ones, there’s nothing at all wrong with this worthwhile addition to the Abbey pantheon.

Other notes

The business about the ‘single cask’ requires some explanation: here what the Abbey is doing is not blending a bunch of barrels to produce one cohesive liquid and then filling all their bottles from that blend, but decanting barrel to bottle until one barrel is done and then going to the next barrel in line and decanting that….so if this is indeed so, there’s likely to be some batch variation reported over time (the bottles have no numbering or outturn noted).  My notes were scribbled in haste that day when Simon was telling me about it almost a year ago, and the website makes no mention of it, but Simon confirmed this was the case.

The 5 year old rum is dedicated to Simon’s newborn twins, who, in a nice concurrence of art and work and life (or cosmic fate), were the first Warrens to be born into the Abbey … just as the Abbey was releasing a new generation of rum. That’s pretty cool by any standard.

Aug 032016
 

CDI Caraibes 1

Lack of oomph and added sugar make it a good rum for the unadventurous general market.

(#293 / 82/100)

***

Your appreciation and philosophy of rum can be gauged by your reaction to Compagnie des Indes Caraïbes edition, which was one of the first rums Florent Beuchet made.  It’s still in production, garnering reviews that are across the spectrum – some like it, some don’t. Most agree it’s okay.  I think it’s one of the few missteps CDI ever made, and shows a maker still experimenting, still finding his feet.  Brutally speaking, it’s a fail compared to the glittering panoply and quality of their full proof rums which (rightfully) garner much more attention and praise.

To some extent that’s because there is a purity and focus to other products in the company’s line up: most are single barrel expressions from various countries, unblended with other rums, issued at varying strengths, all greater than the anemic 40% of the Caraïbes… and none of them have additives, which this one does (15g/L of organic sugar cane syrup plus caramel for colouring).That doesn’t make it a bad rum, just one that doesn’t appeal to me…though it may to many others who have standards different from mine.  You know who you are.

I know many makers in the past have done blends of various islands’ rums — Ocean’s Atlantic was an example — but I dunno, I’ve never been totally convinced it works. Still, observe the thinking that went into the assembly (the dissemination of which more rum makers who push multi-island blends out the door should follow).  According to Florent, the Caraïbes is a mix of column still rums: 25% Barbados for clarity and power (the spine), 50% Trinidad & Tobago (Angostura) for fruitiness and flowers, and 25% Guyanese rum (Enmore and PM) for the finish. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask what the relative proofs of the various components were. The unmixed barrels  were aged for 3-5 years in ex-bourbon casks in the tropics, then moved to Europe for the final marriage of the rums (and the additives).

Where I’m going with this is to establish that some care and thought actually went into the blend.  That it didn’t work may be more my personal predilections than yours, hence my opening remark.  But consider how it sampled and follow me through my reasoning.  The nose, as to be expected, channelled a spaniel’s loving eyes: soft and warm, somewhat dry, if ultimately too thin, with some of the youth of the components being evident.  Flowers, apricots, ripening red cherries plus some anise and raisins, and unidentifiable muskier notes, it was pleasant, easy, unaggressive.

The mouth was quite a smorgasbord of flavours as well, leading off with cloves, cedar, leather and peaches (a strange and not entirely successful amalgam), with vanilla,  toffee, ginger snaps, anise and licorice being held way back, present and accounted for, very weak.  The whole mouthfeel was sweeter, denser, fuller, than might be expected from 40% (and that’s where the additive comes into its own, as well as in taking out some sharper edges), but the weakness of the taste profile sinks the effort.  Rather than smoothening out variations and sharpness in the taste profile, the added sweeteners smothers it all like a heavy feather blanket. You can sense more there, somewhere…you just can’t get to it.  The rum should have been issued at 45% at least in order to ameliorate these effects, which carried over into a short, sweet finish of anise and licorice (more dominant here at the end), ginger and salted caramel ice cream from Hagen Dasz (my favourite).

CDI Caraibes 2

All right so there you have it.  The 40% is not enough and the added sugar had an effect that obstructed the efforts of other, perhaps subtler flavours to escape.  Did the assembly of the three countries’ rums work?  I think so, but only up to a point. The Guyanese component, even in small portions, is extremely recognizable and draws attention away from others that could have been beefed up, and the overall lightness of the rum makes details hard to analyze. I barely sensed any Bajan, and the Trini could have been any country’s stocks with a fruity and floral profile (a Caroni it was not).

In fine, this rum has more potential than performance for a rum geek, and since it was among the first to be issued by the company, aimed lower, catered to a mass audience, it sold briskly.  Maybe this is a case of finance eclipsing romance…no rum maker can afford to ignore something popular that sells well, whatever their artistic ambitions might be. Fortunately for us all, as time rolled by, CDI came out with a truckload of better, stronger, more unique rums for us to chose from, giving something to just about everyone.  What a relief.

 

Jun 222016
 

SMWS R3.5 1

A big ‘n’ badass Bajan rum, brutal enough to be banished to Netflix, where Jessica Jones and Daredevil occasionally stop by Luke Cage’s bar to have some.

(#281 / 86/100)

***

“They may be more throwaway efforts than serious exemplars of the blenders’ arcane arts,” I remarked once of one of the 151s with which I amused myself.  The SMWS on the other hand, does this stuff with the dead seriousness of a committed jailbird in his break for freedom.  They have no time to muck around, and produce mean, torqued-up rum beefcakes, every time. So be warned, the “Marmite” isn’t a rum with which you good-naturedly wrestle (like with the 151s, say) – you’re fighting it, you’re at war with it, you’re red in tooth and claw by the time you’re done, and afterwards you’re somehow sure that the rum won.  You may feel exhilerated just surviving the experience

Behind the user-friendly façade of the muted camo-green bottle and near-retro label of unintended cool, lies a rum proudly (or masochistically) showcasing  74.8 proof points of industrial strength, the point of which is somewhat lost on me – because, for the price, who’s going to mix it, and for the strength, who’s going to drink it?  It’s eleven years old, aged in Scotland, and hails, as far as I’ve been able to determine, from the Rockley pot still owned the West Indies Rum Distillery, making it a cousin of the Samaroli Barbados 1986 and the SMWS R3.4 10 year, old and thereby setting the stage.

SMWS R3.5 2The hay blonde rum oozed intensity right from the moment it was cracked. It was enormous, glitteringly sharp, hot, strong and awesomely pungent – the very first scents were acetone, wax, perfume and turpentine, so much so I just moved the glass to one side for a full ten minutes.  That allowed it to settle down into the low rumble of an idling Lambo, and gradually lighter notes of flowers, lavender, nail polish, sugar water and olives in brine came through, though very little “rummy” flavours of caramel and toffee and brown sugar could be discerned. It was clear nothing had been added to or filtered away from this thing.

Having experienced some rums qualifying as brutta ma buoni (which is an Italian phrase meaning “ugly but good” and describes such overproofs perfectly) I was very careful about my initial sip.  And with good reason – it was hellishly powerful. Incredibly thick and coating on the tongue. Massive, razor-sharp flavours of brine, cherries, more olives, some dried fruits, watermelon, and that weird combination of a cucumber sandwich on rye bread liberally daubed with cream cheese.  Christ this was hot – it was so over the top that were you to drink it in company, you wouldn’t be able to hear the guy next to you screaming…he’d have to pass you a note saying “OMFG!!!”.  Yet that’s not necessarily a disqualification, because like the 3.4, there was quite a bit of artistry and complexity going on at the same time. I have never been able to follow the SMWS’s tasting notes (see the label), but concede I was looking for the marmite…it was just difficult to find anything through that heat.  Once I added water (which is a must, here), there it was, plus some nuttiness and sweetness that had been absent before.  

All of this melded into a finish that was, as expected, suitably epic….it went on and on and on, holding up the flag of the overproofs in fine style, giving up flavours of hot black tea, pears, more florals, and a final hint of the caramel that had been so conspicuously absent throughout the tasting. I had it in tandem with the 3.4 (and the R5.1, though not strictly comparable), and liked the earlier Bajan a bit more.  But that’s not to invalidate how good this one is – about the only concession I have to make is that really, 74.8% is just a tad excessive for any kind of neat sipping. Overall?  Not bad at all – in fact it grew one me.  There was a lot more going on over time — so quietly it kinda sneaks up on you — than the initial profile would suggest, and patience is required for it.

SMWS R3.5 3

In trying to explain something of my background to my family (a more complicated story than you might think), I usually remark that no West Indian wedding ever really wraps up before the first fistfight erupts or the last bottle of rum gets drained.  The question any homo rummicus reading this would therefore reasonably ask, then, is which rum is that? Well…this one, I guess. It’s a hard rum, a tough rum, a forged steel battleaxe of a rum. It maybe should be issued with a warning sticker, and I honestly believe that if it were alive, it would it could have Robocop for lunch, yark him up half-chewed, and then have him again, before picking a fight in Tiger Bay.  It’s up to you though, to decide whether that’s a recommendation or not.

May 252016
 

D3S_3878

A blue-water rum for the Navy men of yore.

(#275 / 86/100)

***

This may be one of the best out-of-production independent bottlings from Ago that I’ve had.  It’s heavy but no too much, tasty without excess, and flavourful without too many offbeat notes.  That’s quite an achievement for a rum made in the 1970s, even more so when you understand that it’s actually a blend of Guyanese and Bajan rums, a marriage not always made in heaven.

I’ve trawled around the various blogs and fora and articles looking for references to it, but about all I can find is that (a) Jolly Jack Tars swear by it the way they do Woods or Watson’s and (b) it’s supposedly slang for undiluted Pusser’s navy rum.  “Neaters” were the undiluted rum served to the petty officers onboard ship; ratings (or regular sailors if you will), were served with a measure of rum famously known as the tot, which was a quantity of diluted rum called grog, and if you don’t know the terms, well, brush up on your reading of rums.

The rum is bottled at 95.5º proof, and one has to be careful what that means – it’s not actually half that (47.75%) according to modern measures, but 54.5%. And that’s because originally 100 proof rum was actually 57% and so….well, you can do the math, and read a previous essay on the matter to get the gist of it. Beyond that, unfortunately, there’s very little information available on the rum itself — proportion of each country’s component, and which estate’s rums, for example — so we’re left with rather more questions than answers.  But never mind. Because all that aside, the rum is great.

D3S_3876

I have to admit, I enjoyed smelling the mahogany coloured rum. It’s warmth and richness were all the more surprising because I had expected little from a late ’60s / early ’70s product ensconced in a faded bottle with a cheap tinfoil cap, made by a defunct company. It started off with prunes, pepsi-cola (seriously!), molasses, brown sugar and black tea, and developed into cherries and purple-black grapes – complexity was not its forte, solidity was.  The primary flavours, which stayed there throughout the tasting, were exclamation points of a singular, individualistic quality, with no attempt at subtlety or untoward development into uncharted realms. In the very simplicity and focus of its construction lay its strength. In short, it smelled damned good.

The heavy proofage showed its power when tasted neat.  Neaters was a little thin (I guess the nose lied somewhat in its promise) but powerful, just this side of hot.  No PM or Enmore still rum here, I thought, more likely Versailles, and I couldn’t begin to hazard where the Bajan component originated.  Still, what an impressive panoply of tastes – flowers, cherries again, some brown sugar and molasses, coffee grounds, watermelon.  The softness of the Bajan component ameliorated the fiercer Guyanese portions of the blend, in a way that I hadn’t seen before, and boy, did that ever work. It was smooth and rattling at the same time, like a mink-overlaid machine gun. With some water added, a background of fried banana bread emerged, plus more brown sugar and caramel, salt butter, maple syrup and prunes, all tied up in a neat bow by a finish that was just long  enough and stayed with the notes described above without trying to break any new ground. So all in all, I thought it was a cool blast from the past.

D3S_3877A well made full proof rum should be intense but not savage.  The point of the elevated strength is not to hurt you, damage your insides, or give you an opportunity to prove how you rock it in the ‘Hood — but to provide crisper, clearer and stronger tastes that are more distinct (and delicious).  When done right, such rums are excellent as both sippers or cocktail ingredients and therein lies much of their attraction for people across the drinking spectrum.  Perhaps in the years to come, there’s the potential for rum makers to reach into the past and recreate such a remarkable profile once again.  I can hope, I guess.

Company bio

Charles Kinloch & Son were wine and spirits merchants who were in existence for almost a hundred years when they joined the Courage Brewery group in 1957.  That company had been around since 1757 and after many mergers and acquisitions was itself taken over by the Imperial Tobacco Group in 1972, eventually passing to the Foster’s Group in 1990.  In 1995 Scottish & Newcastle bought Courage from Foster’s and it changed hands again in 2007 when Wells & Young’s Brewing company bought all the brands under that umbrella.  By then Navy Neaters had long been out of production, Kinloch was all but forgotten, and the current holding company now is more involved in pubs and beers in the UK than in rums of any kind.

Other notes

The rum had to have been made post-1966, given the spelling of “Guyana” on the label. Prior to that it would have been British Guiana.

The age is unknown.  I think it’s more than five years old, maybe as much as ten.

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