Sep 212017
 

#388

Marco Freyr, in between his densely researched articles on Barrel-Aged-Mind, indulges himself with tasting independent bottlers’ wares, all at cask strength.  Marco does not waste time with the featherweight Bacardis of this world – he goes straight for the brass ring, and analyzes his rums like he was a Swiss watchmaker looking for flaws in the Vacheron Constantin Reference 57260.  Some time back he shipped me some Bajan fullproofs – being amused, perhaps, at my earlier work on Mount Gay’s XO, and feeling I should see what others did with their juice, both now and in the past.  This is not to diminish Richard’s or the Warren’s output – yeah, right – simply to call attention to decent rums made elsewhere on the island, which was the same line of reasoning behind my writing about the Banks DIH rums from Guyana to contrast against the DDL stuff.

Anyway, in that vein here’s the second of a few full proof rums from Little England I want to run past you.  This one is also from Cadenhead — not one of their M-for-massive iterations that knock you under the table and leave the weak-kneed trembling and crossing themselves, but from the Green Label collection.  A 2000-2010 ten-year-old bottling, issued at a relatively mild 46% and therefore much more approachable by those who prefer standard-proof rums. I’m not always a fan of the Green Labels – their quality is inconsistent, as the Laphroaig-aged Demerara implies and the 1975 Demerara emphatically refutes – but there aren’t that many Bajan rums out there made by the indies to begin with (aside from FourSquare’s juice), so we should take at least try one or three when they cross our path.

Nose first: for a ten year old aged in Europe, it was quite fruity and sweet and the first smells that greeted me were a mild acetone, honey and banana flambee, with spices (nutmeg and cloves), some fruitiness (peaches, pears) and caramel.  Allowing for the difference in power, it was similar to the BMMG we looked at last week, though its nasal profile whispered rather than bellowed and lacked the fierce urgency that a stronger ABV would have provided.  The fruits were overtaken by flowers after some minutes, but throughout the tasting, I felt that honey, caramel and bananas remained at the core of it all, simple and distinct.

To some extent this continued on the tasting as well. With a strength of 46% the Green Label didn’t really need water, as it was light and warm enough to have neat (I added some later) and the golden rum didn’t upend any expectations on that score. It was initially very sippable, presenting both some brine and some caramel sweet right away, right up to the point where – what just happened here? – it let go a series of medicinal, camphor-like farts that almost derailed the entire experience. These were faint but unmistakeable and although the subsequent tastings (and water) ameliorated this somewhat with green tea, a little citrus, more honey, caramel, and chocolate, it was impossible to ignore completely.  And at the close, the 46% resulted in a short, breathy finish of no real distinction, with most of the abovementioned notes repeating themselves.

I’ve had enough FourSquare rums, made by both them and the independents, to believe that Marco was correct when he wrote that he doubted this rum was from them, but instead hailed from Mount Gay – much more than Doorly’s or Rum66 or the more recent FS work, it shared points of similarity with the Cadenhead’s BMMG cask strength as well as the 1703 from Mount Gay itself.  And like him, I thought there was some pot still action coiling around inside it, even if Cadenhead obdurately refused to divulge much in the way of information here.  

At the end, though, whatever the source, I didn’t care much for it. With the BMMG I remarked it was too raw, perhaps too strong for its (continental) ageing and could use some damping down, a lesser strength – not something I say often.  Here, to some extent the opposite was true: it was mild and medium-sweet, floral and fruity and had it not been for that blade of medicine in the middle, I would have rated it quite a decent Bajan rum, a credit to Mount Gay (if not entirely rivalling the 1703). As it was, combined with the overall lack of punch and depth, it finishes as a rum I’d not be in a hurry to buy again, because it’s too deprecating to qualify as a fullproof bruiser and the taste doesn’t take up enough of the slack to elevate it any further.  

(82/100)

Marco’s unscored 2012 German-language review, from the same bottle as the sample he sent me, can be found on his wesbite, here.

Sep 142017
 

Photo (c) Barrel-Aged-Mind

 

#387

Mount Gay out of Barbados is somewhat in the background of Bajan rum-making these days, maybe feeling like Huzur in Satyajit Ray’s 1958 classic “The Music Room”.  Understandable, since all the headlines these days are about the 2006 ten year old, the Criterion, Triptych and all the other amazing FourSquare releases.  And that’s a shame because there are some interesting indie bottlings out there from the island, as well as Mount Gay’s own recent cask strength work which I’ll get to one of these days.

Today, then, let’s discuss the mastodon of the Cadenhead BMMG 66.3% which was pot-still distilled in 2000 and bottled eight years later…consequently, it somewhat predates the Golden Age of Cask Bottlings through which it could be argued we’re living – no doubt that’s why few who don’t follow Marco’s work or aren’t Cadenhead fans have heard of the thing.  As is usual with Cadenhead, there’s no info on what the four letters mean, but since we’re all smart fellows here (anyone who braves my convoluted parenthetical phraseology almost has to be), I think we can hazard a guess that the “B” is for Barbados, the “MG” is for Mount Gay, which only leaves the mystery letter of the second “M” – and I’m going to suggest “Massive” as a reasonable identifier, because 66.3%, whew, that’s not exactly milquetoast now, is it?  Oh and as usual, one can infer zero additives or other mucking about – that’s standard for the Big C.

Photo (c) Barrel Aged Mind

That out of the way, let’s dive right into the nose without further ado.  At first sniff it was definitely not a Jamaican or a Guyanese rum – it was redolent of flambeed bananas, honey, nutmeg and peaches, rich and pungent…and that was a good thing, because at that strength it would otherwise have been way too serrated for anyone’s nose to take easily and even as it was, it really took some adjustment.  This was one of those occasions where I added some water even before tasting to see what would happen, and this coaxed out some additional salty caramel and cherries in syrup at the back end, plus oak and faint licorice, mangoes….and coffee, which surprised me, since it’s not an aroma I commonly associated with Little England.

As for the palate, well, sharp is sharp and this one carved its way down my gullet with intent to rearrange my insides.  There were bananas and caramel, vanilla, nutmeg and oak, those were easy takeaways – one had to get past the power to find more, and here again water did help.  Once it settled down (or I did), I sensed more coffee, fruits – mangoes, papayas, cherries for the most part, clear and distinct at first but then they took a backseat and caramel, almonds, nutmeg and slightly sweeter coffee notes took center stage.  Although it sort of worked, it just seemed, overall to be a bit too jagged, too raw – it was hard to decide whether dialling down the volts would have made it better, or ageing it for longer, because continental ageing for a “mere” eight years doesn’t exactly smooth out the rough notes, the way an equivalent in Barbados might have.  This was more clear on the finish, which one really had to be careful with because it was long, and quite intense, very hot, leaving us with vanilla, some oak, yet more coffee and some background off-key nuttiness which didn’t blend well, and was fortunately not there for a long time.

Lonely, austere and brutal as an Edward Hopper painting, this is not a rum for the weak-kneed, proof-challenged or saccharine inclined. It’s frenziedly, almost rabidly assertive, and though I am giving it a guarded recommendation, I must also point out that somewhere along the line the balance was a bit off and the tastes didn’t play that well together.  Part of the issue (surprisingly, for a cask-strength lover like me) is the strength – here 66.3% really is a bit much.  Intense and powerful for sure, with all that this implies — but we must guard against the notion that just because some 65-70% juggernauts are so great, that high proof automatically confers great quality without question. This is not a rum that walks up to you and then sits down for a chill on the beach waiting for your inevitable appreciation…on the contrary, it’s a furious frontal assault of proof on the senses, and afterwards, picking oneself off the floor, one might be left wondering whether something less strong, something slightly older, might not have been better, and more easy to come to grips with, after all.

(84.5/100)


Other Notes

  • Last time I checked this was retailing around €150 online.
  • This was a sample sent to me by that historian par excellence, Marco Freyr of Barrel-Aged Mind when he wanted me to get exposure to some differing takes on the Bajan rums, some time back.
Apr 132017
 

Photo (c) Steve James @ RumDiaries used with permission 

“Super Premium”? Not at all…but still quite a tasty dram. Surprised they didn’t call it a “Navy”.

#356

Bottled at an assertive but not excessive 50%, the Svenska Eldvattan Weiron is a blended rum out of Sweden made by the same happy bunch of guys who are behind the Rum Swedes lineup, which I’ve never tried but about which I’ve heard many good things.  That said, they don’t limit themselves to rum, and are primarily into bottling various whiskies, with a gin and a tequila or two for good measure.  This one is rather daringly called the “Super Premium Aged Caribbean Rum” which I’m sure has more than one rum junkie itching to see if it actually lives up to what few independent bottlers would dare to claim, not least because (a) nobody can actually define the term precisely and (b) there’s tons of rums out there which probably deserve the appellation more.

Getting the basics out of the way, the rum was issued in early 2015; part of the blend is Jamaican, part is Bajan, and there is more that remains unidentified.  However, to please the above-mentioned junkie, there are no additives, no chill filtering, and the individual components were all matured at the distilleries of origin, which unfortunately remain unknown to this day.  As an aside the Weiron seems to be turning into its own little lineup, as various other editions are being issued (like some Caroni and Nicaragua single cask, fullproof expressions).  Beyond that, there’s not much to tell you, not even the outturn, or the age of the bits and pieces; and there’s something about the bottle’s stark presentational ethos that suggests the Swedes felt that Velier obviously had far too much flower-child frippery and ridiculous ostentation in their overlabelled and overdecorated bottles.  Either that or they’re channelling Ikea, who knows?

Photo (c) Steve James @ RumDiaries used with permission

When smelled, one can instantly sense some pot still action going on here, as evidenced by the swiftly fading paint thinner and shoe polish aromas, although it didn’t hang around long enough to be a core component of the nose.  Still, there was cardboard, cream cheese, molasses and crispy crackers, both sweet and salt at the same time in a very nice balance.  It was manageably spicy, and took its own sweet time getting to the point, and after some minutes, darker fruit began to emerge, caramel, raisins, together with some nuttiness and leather, and perhaps a touch of toffee and vanilla, all bound together by an undercurrent of lemon peel and faint funkiness that pointed to the Jamaican more than any kind of Bajan influence.

It was on the palate that it came into its own and made more of a statement.  Warm and smooth, with a firm little burn for a 50% rum, and amazingly well assembled.  Cherries, olives, cumin, cardamom, brown sugar were the initial flavours, tied up in a bow with some very faint citrus and licorice.  With water the citrus disappeared, replaced by a good aged cheddar and black bread, more raisins, bananas, plus some herbal background of fennel and rosemary, and closing off with a lovely medium-long finish of fruit, more anise and sharper oaky tannins.  Overall, I had to admit, this wasn’t bad at all, and just wish I knew more about it – Steve James, who loved the rum and sent me the sample, felt it set a new benchmark for multi-island blended hooch, and though I was not quite as enraptured as he was, even I have to admit there was a lot of really good stuff going on here, and at its price point it’s well worth it.

Mostly these days I’m at that stage in my rum journey where blends don’t do much for me as they once did, and I want and prefer the product of a single distillery, bottled as is.  For example, I think the 2007 single-still expressions from DDL are better than their aged blends, and efforts to marry off disparate profiles like Oceans Distillery did with their Atlantic edition, or Amrut with their Two Indies didn’t entirely work for me (perhaps the Black Tot is the exception that proves the rule).  For a profile as distinct as Jamaica to be mixed up with a Bajan (and whatever the additional piece(s) was/were) the resultant has to be damned good to get my vote and my score.  Still, all that aside, in this particular case the lack of information works for the rum rather than against it, because it forces one to walk in blind without preconceptions and simply try what’s on offer.  On that basis alone, then, I’d say the Swedes have done a pretty good job at creating a fascinating synthesis of various countries’ rums, and produced something of their own whose moniker of “Super Premium” may be more hope than reality and which may not be greater than the sum of its parts…but is not necessarily less than those either.

(85/100)

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.

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