Oct 302018
 

My friend Henrik from Denmark told me once that he really dislikes the rums of WIRD. “There’s just something off about them,” he grumbled when we were discussing the output from Little England, the development of the Foursquare Exceptionals, and the Velier collaborations.  On the other hand, another rum-kumpel from Germany, Marco Freyr, has no problems with them at all, and remarked that he could absolutely pinpoint any Rockley Still rum just by sniffing the glass (I have since come the the conclusion that he’s absolutely right).  Coming to this Bristol Spirits rum after a long session of Bajan bruisers made by the Compagnie, Cadenhead and Foursquare themselves, I can sort of see both points of view, but come down more on the positive side, because I like the variety of tones and tastes which indie WIRD rums provide.  And this one? I liked it quite a bit.

We hear so much about the rums of Mount Gay, St. Nicholas Abbey and Foursquare, that rums made by/from WIRD often get short shrift and scant mention.  It’s not even seen as a true distillery of the sort that makes its own name and marks its own territory (like Foursquare, Hampden, Worthy Park or DDL do, for example). But WIRD does exist, even if the majority of its rums come to us by way of the European independents (most of its output is sold as either bulk stock to brokers, goes into the Cockspur brand, or to make the coconut-rum-liqueur Malibu which for some obscure reason, Grandma Caner simply can’t get enough of).  

The brief technical blah is as follows: bottled by Bristol Spirits out of the UK from distillate left to age in Scotland for 26 years; a pot still product (I refer you to Nikos Arvanitis’s excellent little essay on the Rockley still if you want to do more research), distilled in 1986 and bottled in 2012, finished in sherry casks for an indeterminate period. The strength remains at the Bristol Spirits standard 46% ABV, which makes it very approachable to the mainstream who want to explore further into how rums from Barbados can differ from each other. 

And differ it does. No smooth, well-constructed melange of pot and column still product here, redolent of spices and soft fruits.  Oh no. For openers, this rum’s nose was meaty: like licking a salty maggi cube dropped into a pot of chicken stock liberally dosed with sweet soy sauce.  All of this develops over time (fortunately, because I had soup for lunch and didn’t want any in my glass as well) into waxy pungency leavened with a sort of sweet rich fruitiness (cherries, ripe peaches, apples) which then further combined with a forceful sherry/madeira finish that at times verged on being overdone….even medicinal.  The nose was so at odds with everything I had alongside it, that one could be forgiven for thinking this was not a Bajan rum at all…it nosed that different.

Still, it was much better to taste than to smell.  It was warm and reasonably smooth, though with a bite here or there to remind you it wasn’t fully tamed; its tastes were of caramel, dollops of thick dark honey on fresh toasted dark bread, camomile, thyme and cough drops. Iodine and medicinals are thankfully held way back (a pencilled-in line, not a brightly coloured oil by Frazetta, you might say).  Also burnt sugar, stewed apples and some ripe cherries and the tart tastiness of soursop, ginnip and sour cream rounded things off, before lapsing into a relatively short, fruity, and honey-like finish that breathed easy fumes and then hurriedly exited the scene.

Overall, it was a rich rum, full bodied, a little oaky, quite fruity after opening up, and that sherry influence — perceptible but in no way overwhelming — was enjoyable.  In fact, the overall integration and balance of this thing is really quite good, and it provides a pleasing counterpoint to more popular and better known rums from the island, which by itself makes it worth a try.  One does not have to be a deep-dive Bajan rum aficionado, parsing the minutest details of different vintages, to appreciate it for what it is, a well made Bajan rum that dares to go off on a tangent.

There’s a reason I want WIRD rums to continue to make it to the public glassware, even if it’s just second hand, via the independents (now that Maison Ferrand has taken over, it’s only older rums from European brokers they’ll get, I’m thinking).  They’re different, very different, existing in some kind of joyous parallel universe where mothballs, fruits and cloves mix it up in a dusty spice cupboard and the result is peculiarly drinkable. They are, in their own way and possibly because of their relative obscurity, fascinatingly off-base. I haven’t met many so far, but those I’ve tried I’ve liked, and sure hope more will turn up in my glass in the years to come.

(#562)(86/100)


Other notes

Oct 252018
 

No, that’s not another typo in the title, it’s just the way the bottle spelled “rum” so I followed along even if it is an agricole-style product and by convention it might have been better termed “rhum” (though the words mean the same thing – it’s purely a matter of perception).  Since looking at the Engenho Novo aged rum last time, I thought it would be fitting to stick with the island of Madeira and see what one of their whites would be like, especially since I had been so impressed with the RN Jamaican Pot Still 57% some years ago….would this one live up to to the rep the Caribbean one garnered for itself?

There’s an outstanding email to Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation about the Ilha da Madeira white, because, curiously, there isn’t much to go on as regards the background aside from the obvious: we know it is 50% ABV and made from cane juice in a column column still in Engenho’s facilities (same as the which also produce the “Nova”, which is to say, the reconstituted William Hinton). It’s unclear whether it’s unaged and unfiltered, or lightly aged and then filtered to clarity…and if the latter case is what happened, then what kind of casks. We’re not sure what the “Limited edition” on the label actually means. And, as always with RN, there’s also the question of any additions. We can however infer that based on the chubby, stubby bottle and label style, that the rum is part of their standard lineup and not the higher-proofed, higher-quality, higher-priced Rares (as an aside, I hope they never lose the old postage stamps incorporated into the design), and possibly from the word “crystal” used in their website materials, that it has been filtered. But I’ll amend the post once I hear back from them.

Anyway, here’s what it was like. The nose of the Ilha da Madeira fell somewhere in the middle of the line separating a bored “meh” from a more disbelieving “holy-crap!”.  It was a light melange of a playful sprite-like aroma mixed in with more serious brine and olives, a little sweet, and delicate – flowers, sugar water, grass, pears, guavas, mint, some marzipan. You could sense something darker underneath – cigarette tar, acetones – but these never came forward, and were content to be hinted at, not driven home with a sledge. Not really a brother to that fierce Jamaican brawler, more like a cousin, a closer relative to the Mauritius St. Aubin blanc (for example). What it lacked in pungency it made up for in both subtlety and harmony, even at 50%.

It was also surprisingly sippable for what it was, very approachable, and here again I’ll comment on what a good strength 48-52% ABV is for such white rums.  It presented as sweet and light, perfumed with flowers, pears, green grapes and apple juice, then adding some sour cream, brine, olives and citrus for edge. There were some reticent background notes as well, cinnamon mostly, and an almost delicate vein of citrus and ginger and anise. It tasted both warm and clean and was well balanced, and the finish delivered nicely, redolent of thyme, sweet vinegar dressing on a fresh salad, and green grapes with just a touch of salt.

Average to low end white mixers – still occasionally called silvers or platinums, as if this made any difference – are defined by their soft, unaggressive blandness: their purpose is to add alcohol and sink out of sight so the cocktail ingredients take over. In contrast, a really good white rum, which can be used either for a mixed drink or to have by itself if one is feeling a little macho that day,  always has one or more points of distinction that sets it apart, whether it’s massive strength, savagery, rawness, pungency, smooth integration of amazing tastes, funk, clarity of flavour or whatever.

Honestly, I expected more of the latter, going in: something fiercer and more elemental…but I can’t say what was on display here was disappointing. In October 2018, when I asked him what rums he had that was of interest, Fabio actually tried to steer me away from this one (“It’s good, but not so interesting,” he laughed as he pulled down a Rare Caroni).  But I disagreed, and think that what it really comes down to is that it’s a solid addition to the white portion of the rum spectrum and certainly a step above “standard”. It’s tasty and warm, and manages the cute trick of being dialled down to something really approachable, while still not forgetting its more uncouth antecedents. And if it is not of the pungent power that can defoliate a small patch of jungle, well, it may at least blanch a leaf or two, and is worth taking a second look at, if it crosses your path.

(#560)(83/100)


Other Notes

From the 2017 release season

Oct 222018
 

The mark of the successful long-term independent bottler in the public perception rests upon two main pillars – one is of course the quality of the rums they put out the door (and perhaps, how consistently); and the other is the level of originality they bring to the game.  By that I mean how often do they stray from the mainstream of the standard pantheon and go in new directions, seek out different maturations, different ages, different barrels, different distilleries (or whole countries). It is because Velier nails both of these aspects that they are as successful as they are, though I would certainly not discount Samaroli, Compagnie des Indes or Rum Nation (among others).

Rum Nation, also from Italy, has been somewhat out of the public eye of late, but the point about originality does apply to them – think back on the Jamaican White 57% rum, for example, or the Supreme Lord series, or the 20+ year old Demeraras, or their Peruvian and Guatemalan rums, the latter of which most other indies don’t often go near. In the last few years Fabio Rossi, the founder of the brand, went in yet another direction by issuing a new limited-edition series called the “Small Batch Rare Rums” … and one of them was this intriguing little number from Madeira, from a distillery called Engenho Novo – they are the boys behind the William Hinton brand of rums which have recently become more available in Europe over the last few years.

I’ll provide some more background detail in the Other Notes below, but for the moment let’s just read off the fact sheet for the rum which is very helpfully provided on the Rare Rums website and on the bottle label itself. This is a cane juice distillate and can therefore be classed as an agricole-style rhum; distilled 2009 and the four barrel outturn from a column still was aged in Madeira casks, providing 570 bottles in 2017, with a strength of 52%.

For those not into their lighter spirits, “Madeira” is a fortified wine made in the Portuguese islands of Madeira off the African coast, and can be either dry or sweet.  Given the entire ageing period of the rum took place in such casks, I expected to see a substantial divergence from both an aged agricole or any other kind of “standard” ex-bourbon-barrel profile. In fact, swirling the dark brown rum in the glass made me wonder if some caramel hadn’t been added to colour it…or whether the casks were completely dry of wine before pouring the good stuff in to age.

Still, the nose delivered, if not precisely that clear-grassy-herbal aroma characteristic of the French islands.  Oh no. This was more like one of those mated with a drowsy Demerara from Port Mourant: it smelled of dark ripe cherries and coca cola, fleshy stoned fruits and red licorice, plus unsweetened cooking chocolate, hot black tea, raisins and wasn’t that a bit of brine and olives down the back end?  Sure it was. And very nice too.

And even at 52%, after an initial whiff of its cane juice origins — it began somewhat fresh and crisp before relaxing — the rum proceeded quite softly on the palate, and suggested a taste reminiscent of a stack of old books in a dusty library nobody now visits, the dry mustiness of barnyard hay.  This was set off by the taste of a Haagen-Dasz dulce de leche ice cream (the Little Caner loves that stuff and I pinch it from his tub every chance I get), as well as brine, more olives, licorice, prunes, red wine, citrus peel, cider and the vague tartness of gooseberries and unsweetened yoghurt.  It was quite rich and flavourful, a nice drink, finishing with with warm notes of cherries, raisins, a little herbal, and cider, salt caramel and sour cream.

So where does that leave us?  Well, with a rather peculiar product.  It is unique in its own way, giving you the odd-but-pleasant experience of tasting a well-assembled agricole-Demerara blend, or maybe a molasses-based Guadeloupe rhum.  That may be a Madeiran thing – I can’t tell, since I have not had enough from there to make the claim with assurance (yet). But in any event, Rum Nation doesn’t make bad rums – they’re too professional an outfit for that, and I’ve thought so ever since I ran into them in 2010 and bought that entire year’s output at once. They stratify their products into the starter rums, sweeter ones (the Millonarios), high-end aged rums (the Demeraras and Jamaicans) and these higher proof Rares for the cognoscenti. This one isn’t the best or most original rum they’ve ever made, but it does show Fabio Rossi forging ahead in his own way to expand his company’s range, producing new and fascinating rums for us all to try — and it’s definitely a rum to sample if you’re ever bored with the regular islands’ rums and want to try something different…but not too different.

(#559)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Wes, who reviewed it back in January 2018, rated it as 50% ABV on his hydrometer, which equates roughly to 10g/L dosage, give or take.
  • The sugar factory and distillery was founded in 1845 by William Hinton; it reached a peak production of 600 tons of cane processed per day in 1920, but closed in 1986 (no reasons are given on their website, but perhaps falling sugar prices contributed, or the expense of maintaining extensive sugar cane fields).  It was restarted by Hinton’s heirs in 2006 as Engenho Novo de Madeira.
Oct 092018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#557)(86/100)


Other notes

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

 

 

Sep 192018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#550)(90/100)


Other notes

 

 

Aug 272018
 

Let’s move away from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia and Guyana for a bit, and go back to a company from Haiti and an independent bottler out of France for whom I have a great deal of respect and affection: Barbancourt and L’Esprit respectively.  L’Esprit, as you may recall from its brief biography, is a small outfit from Brittany run by Tristan Prodhomme, who has the smarts to issue all of his rums in pairs – one version at cask strength in a small outturn from the barrel, and the remainder (usually from the same barrel) at a diluted 46%, aimed at the somewhat more sedate rum drinkers who prefer not to get their glottis ravaged by something north of 60%.  That this kind of canny rum release has real commercial potential can perhaps be seen in Velier’s 2018 release of the twin Hampden rums with a similar paired ABV philosophy.

Even if you include the clairins, Barbancourt is the best known name in rum out of Haiti, and perhaps the most widely appreciated rum from the half-island by dint of being the most easily available (and affordable). It’s usually the first Haitian rum any new rum explorer tries, maybe even the first French island rum of any kind (though they are not referred to as agricoles).  Over the years they have, like many other estates and distilleries, sent rum to Europe in bulk in order to keep themselves afloat, though for some reason indie bottlings of Haitian rums aren’t quite as common as the big guns we all know about – perhaps they send less stock over to Scheer or something?

The bare statistics are brief and as follows: column still product, continentally aged; distilled 2004 and released in 2016 at a brobdingnagian 66.2% (its lesser proofed twin which is quite similar is bottled at 46% and 228 bottles were issued but about the full proof edition here,  I’m not certain – less, for sure, maybe a hundred or so).  Pale yellow in colour and a massive codpiece of a nose, deep and intense, which should not present as a surprise at all. It was quite aromatic as well – one could sense bananas, vanilla, prunes and fruit, with a nice counterpoint of citrus to set these off. Like many rums released at cask strength, it rewarded patience because after a while back-end smells of cream cheese, dark bread, brine, olives, nail polish, plastic bubble wrap (freshly popped), paint became much more evident, though fortunately without taking over entirely

The rather dry-ish taste was an odd experience, somewhat at an angle to what could be expected after smelling it: for one thing, it was more briny, and for another it actually had hints of pimento and pickled sweet gherkins. What distinguished it was its heat and uncompromising brutality. The flavours – which after a while included brine, florals, rubber, petrol and a meaty sort of soup (and we’re talking strong, simple salt beef here, not some delicate Michelin-starred fusion) – were solid and distinct and took no prisoners whatsoever.  That it also presented some sweeter, lighter notes of white fruit (pears and white guavas for example) was both unexpected and welcome, because for the most part the thing was as unsparing and unadorned as congealed concrete – though perhaps more tasty. As for the finish, well, that eased off the throttle a tad – it was sharp, dry, long, briny with more of those light florals, fruitiness, nail polish and freshly sliced bell peppers, and left you in no doubt that you had just tasted something pretty damned huge.

At this stage in the review I could go off on a tangent and ruminate on the difference between continental and tropical ageing, or how the added commercial value moves away from poor islands of origin to European brokers and independent bottlers, with perhaps an added comment or two on Barbancourt’s history, L’Espirt itself, and a witty metaphor or three to add to those already expressed and tie things up in a nice bow.  Today I’ll pay you the compliment of assuming you know all this stuff already, and simply end the review by saying this rum is quite a flavourful beast, exciting the sort of admiration usually reserved for the sleek brutality of an old mechanical swiss watch. It’s delicate even within its strength, clear, dry, and perhaps excessively eye-watering and tongue-deadeningly intense to some. But even though it’s jagged as a blunt cutlass, my personal opinion is that it does Haiti and Barbancourt and L’Esprit no dishonour at all, and is a hell of a full proof drink to savour if you can find it.

(#543)(86/100)

Aug 252018
 

Although the Compagnie des Indes has a few very well received multi-island blends like the Tricorne, Boulet de Canon, Caraibes and the Domindad, my appreciation of their work is so far given more to individual islands’ or countries’ rums.  There’s something about their specificity that makes the land of origin snap clearly into focus in a way a blend doesn’t (and doesn’t try to, really). That’s not a criticism by any means, just a direction in which my preferences bend, at least for now.

After having gone through a few Fijian rums recently, I finally arrived at this one, which could not beat out the hauntingly magnificent TCRL 2009 8 Year Old, but which came a very close second and was in every way a very good rum.  It was also from South Pacific Distilleries (the only distillery on Fiji and a subsidiary of the Asutralian Foster’s group) with a 244-bottle outturn from one cask, ¾ continentally aged, a blend of pot and column still, bottled at a hefty, snarling 66.8% – it is of course one of those rums issued as a one-off series for Denmark in a pre-cask-strength CdI rumiverse (the cask strength editions from CdI started to appear around Europe in 2017 as far as I can tell, which disappointed a lot of Danes who enjoyed the bragging rights they’d held on to up to that point).

It was obvious after one tiny sniff, that not one percentage point of all that proofage was wasted and it was all hanging out there: approaching with caution was therefore recommended. I felt like I was inhaling a genetically enhanced rum worked over by a team of uber-geek scientists working in a buried government lab somewhere, who had evidently seen King Kong one too many times.  I mean, okay, it wasn’t on par with the Marienburg 90 or the Sunset Very Strong, but it was hot. Very hot. And also creamy, deeper than expected, even at that strength. Not quite thin or evisceratingly sharp like oh, the Neisson L’Espirit 70°, and there was little of the expected glue, brine and dancing acetones (which makes me suspect it’s a column still rum, to be confirmed) – and man, the clear, herbal crispness of an agricole was so evident I would not have been surprised to find out that cane juice was the source (all research points to molasses, however).  After my eyes stopped swimming, I jotted down further notes of citrus, peaches, tart unsweetened fresh yoghurt, and it was of interest that overall (at least on the nose), that creaminess and tartness and citrus acidity blended together quite well.

Things got interesting on the palate: again it was hot enough to take some time getting used to, and it opened with a pronounced nuttiness, sour cream, nutmeg and ginger. Over half an hour or so other flavours presented themselves: fleshy fruits, (dark cherries, peaches, apricots) and further musky spiciness of cloves, tumeric and cinnamon. Molasses, toffee, butterscotch.  Plus wax, sawdust and pencil shavings, bitter chocolate and oak….wow.  After all that, I was impressed: there was quite a lot of rabbit squirming around in this rum’s jock, in spite of the strength and heat. Even the finish was interesting: strikingly different from the Duncan Taylor or the Rum Cask Fijians (both of which were clearer, crisper, sharper) the CdI 11 YO showcased a sort of slow-burning languor –  mostly of fleshy fruits, apples, some citrus, candied oranges – which took time to develop and ended with the same soft undertone of molasses and caramel as had characterized the palate.

Let’s sum this up as best we can. I think the sharper tannins kind of detracted (just a little) because the softer notes were not enough to balance them off and produce a pleasing combination.  Even so, such a discombobulation made for an element of off-the-wall that was actually quite enjoyable because you keep going “huh?” and trying it some more to see where on earth the thing is going.  So it succeeded on its own terms, and was quite individual on that level.

Overall though, it seems to me that no one rum I’ve tried from South Pacific Distillers has a lock on the country or distiller’s profile that characterizes either beyond any shadow of a doubt.  In point of fact, those which I’ve tried to date are each different from the other, in ways both big and small, and that makes it difficult to point to any of them and say “Yeah, that’s a real Fijian rum” — maybe I’ll have to find a few Bounty rums for that.  Still, for the moment, let me sum up this Fijian by stating that as long as you don’t mind getting a rum that wanders with furious velocity from the centre line to the verge and then into a wall, all with a near joyous abandon, a rum which has curious and slightly unbalanced tastes that somehow still work…well, this is definitely a rum to try. It’s a rum that grows on you with each sip, one that you could easily find yourself trying deceptively often, and then wondering confusedly, a few weeks or months down the road, why the hell bottle is empty already.

(#542)(85/100)

Aug 182018
 

Over the years I’ve gone through a few Pacific island rums and while appreciative of their inventiveness, wasn’t entirely chuffed about them.  They had elements I liked and elements I didn’t, and on balance while they were workable rums, nothing to really get excited about…unless it was the Mana’o white, which was quite an animal, though it reinforced my appreciation for white rums rather more than it did for Tahiti.  In 2017, though, the Transcontinental Rum Line put out this 8 Year Old rum and when I tried it earlier this year, I was blatted into next week. I literally was so ensorcelled by the peculiar quality of the rum that I kept the glass recharged for five days, and kept coming back to it after each daily tasting session, just to see if I could come to grips with what made it so striking.

TCRL – the “Transcontinental Rum Line” – is the indie arm of la Maison du Whiskey out of Paris formed in 2016 and, like Compagnie des Indes with their evocative name, are using the title to tap into a myth pool of celluloid memories and old time images in our minds.  Seeing the label and hearing the name, we can pretend we’re in Edwardian times and travel on the old transcontinental ships of yore (that most of us would either have been serving the upper crust, crammed into steerage or cleaning the bilges is an inconvenient and unacknowledged side issue, because, y’know, downers like that don’t sell no rum).  Anyway, like all independents they issue rums at cask strength, provide all the now-normal exhaustive details on origin, strength, angel’s share…and one more. They are the only independent who, as far as I know, state exactly how much of their ageing is tropical, and how much continental (<1 year in this case for tropical, >7 years for continental).

That said, the still which produced this pale yellow 57.19% ABV rum remains an open question, though my personal belief is that it’s a column still product.  It certainly noses that way – aside from presenting as a fierce little young rum, it lacks something of the depth and pungency of a pot still spirit. However, that doesn’t matter, because it’s damn fine on its own merits – brine, olives, paint, turpentine, acetones, fresh nail polish, more brine and gherkins, and that’s just the beginning.  It has aspects that are almost Jamaican, what with a bunch of prancing dancing esters jostling for attention, except that the smell is not so crisply sweet. It develops very nicely into smoke, leather, linseed oil for cricket bats, more brine and oily smoothness. Like a set of seething rapids finished with the messing around, it settles down to a much more refined state after half an hour or so.

Although the nose was arresting enough in its own way, it was the tasting that made me sit up and take more notice. Smooth and quite strong, it tasted with force and originality, like its trousers were stuffed with midichlorians. Initial flavours were honey, glue, bananas, followed up with pears, coffee and coconut shavings.  Also, coming back to it over time, one can sense the slight syrupy sweetness of tinned peaches but with a moderating and welcome pinch (or three) of salt too (this eventually gets all huffy and walks away). Smoke, leather, some oaky bitterness, well controlled – I mean, it kept getting better and better as the hours ticked by, which was one reason I kept it on the go for so long.  Everything about it just came together really well, and while it did display some sharper notes and serrated edges that gave away its relative youth, I liked it for all its raw and uncouth power. Even the finish was quite original and showed its ongoing development, nice and long, dry, fruity, thick, and briny all at once, set off by a tiny breath of salted caramel ice cream.

The longer I spent with the rum, the more I appreciated it.  It has some ageing and it shows, yet also remembers its youth with zest and a sort of feisty exuberance that sets off the barrel time in fine style.  The esters and the brine and fruits and oak come together in a combination that other Fijian rums have attempted, not always successfully – here it works, and works really well.  It’s a bit unrefined here and there, lacks some polish – think of it as a Tiger Bay bad boy eating at the Ritz if you will – but even where it falters, it doesn’t fully fail. For all its faults, and fortunately there aren’t that many, this young Fijian 8 year old, for some peculiar reason, is one of the most memorable rums I’ve tried all year. TCRL really came out with a winner on this one.

(#540)(87/100)


Other notes

Aug 172018
 

Kill Devil is the rum brand of the whiskey blender Hunter Laing, who’ve been around since 1949 when Frederick Laing founded a whisky blending company in Glasgow.  In 2013 the company created an umbrella organization called Hunter Laing & Co, into which they folded all their various companies (like Edition Spirits and the Premier Bonding bottling company). The first rums they released to the market – with all the now-standard provisos like being unadulterated, unfiltered and 46% – arrived for consumers in 2016, which meant that this rum from the South Pacific Distillery on Fiji, was issued as part of their first batch (oddly, their own website provides no listing of their rums at all aside from boilerplate blurbs). When the time came for me to decide what to sample, the 17 YO Cuban from Sancti Spiritus was one, and this was the other, because let’s face it, you can always get a Jamaican, Bajan, Trini or Mudland rum plus several agricoles whenever you turnaround, but Fiji is a bit rarer.  

Pale gold in colour – though darker than the Cuban – the Kill Devil Fijian rum came out in 2016 and continued the recent upsurge in issuance of independent bottlers’ Fijian rums, and stuck with the relatively modest 46% ABV so as not to scare too many people off.  Like most indies’ releases, it was also pretty limited, a mere 355 bottles from a single cask, European ageing, but thus far I’ve been unable to ascertain whether it’s a pot still or column still product.

Never mind, though.  Like most rums from the Pacific which I’ve tried, this one was off woolgathering in its own time zone, not only different from the Caribbean and Latin rums but from other Fijians – not entirely sure how they do that.  Consider: the nose began with a clear scent of papier-mâché (wtf, right?) – sort of starchy and floury – as well as cereals like fruit loops without the milk. That was the just beginning, however, and things smoothened out over time (which was a good thing) – it added yoghurt, tart and somewhat sour fruits, some funkiness of a Jamaican wannabe, cloves, fanta, lemon rind and the sweetness of freshly cut pineapple mixing in the background with some softer briny notes.

On the palate the fruits started to take over, tart and a unripe, like ginnips and soursop together with ripe mangoes, pineapple and cherries in syrup right out of a can – there was hardly any of the brininess from the nose carrying over, and as it developed, additional hints of pears, watermelon, honey, and pickled gherkins were clearly noticeable.  It was warm and crisp at the same time, quite nice, and while the long and heated finish added nothing new to the whole experience, it didn’t lose any of the flavours either; and I was left thinking that while different from other Fijians for sure, it seemed to be channelling a sly note of Jamaican funk throughout, and that was far from unpleasant….though perhaps a bit at odds with the whole profile.

Overall, I quite liked the rum, particularly the understated element of funkiness in the background. Although the pantheon of Caribbean rums was in no danger of being dethroned by it, I get the impression with every Fijian rum I’ve sampled, that even if South Pacific themselves aren’t making any world beaters (yet), the independents are amusing themselves by continually, if incrementally, raising the bar.  Every year I seem to find a new Fijian rum out there which pushes things, just a little – adds a small something extra, goes out into left field a little further, plays about a tad longer. The Kill Devil 14 YO Fijian rum doesn’t exactly set the world on fire for me, but there’s little to complain about, since it shows that the Caribbean doesn’t have complete dibs on good rums and holds great promise for the future. It’s a neat addition to our mental inventory of rums from the Pacific.

(#539)(85/100)


 

Aug 062018
 

There’s a story I heard years ago, that of the many rums from his company, Silvano Samaroli’s own personal favourite was one of the first ones he bottled, the West Indies 1948.  Who am I to rain on a story like that, speaking as it does of a man currently residing in the Great Distillery in the Sky, and a rum from so far back in time that most of us weren’t even a twinkle in our Daddy’s eyes, made when the world was an utterly different place?  But for my money, of all the rums I’ve tried from this Italian outfit and from Jamaica (and that’s quite a few), this one is among the very best. To cut straight to the chase and save you all a lot of reading time, I think it is a sublime drinking experience for anyone who treasures Jamaican rums.

That might sound like a startling assertion, but it has a lot to do with the assembly, much with the balance, and for sure the overall complexity: and that started right with the initial nosing, which started slow, gathered momentum, and turned what we initially and indulgently thought was VW Beetle into a growling Veyron wannabe. 

Although the initial scents wafting easily from the glass are of paint thinner, acetones, rubber and some pencil shavings, for once these didn’t overwhelm or detract, but acted as a counterpoint to the rest of the nasal riches which followed – warm unsweetened chocolate, nougat, hibiscus flowers in full bloom, dust, dried coffee grounds, more light flowers with clear, delicate notes of something remarkably akin to freshly done laundry drying in the sun. Cedar, aromatic woody notes, honey tobacco.  God, was this thing ever going to stop? Nope, there was more – a light dusting of brown sugar soaked in molasses, and vanilla. If you’re looking for funk, well, it’s there, but for once content to be a bit player and not chew the scenery.

And the taste, the palate, the way it comes together, it’s masterful.  At 52% it’s downright near damned perfect – the the balance between mouth puckering citrus plus laid back funk, and easier, softer flavours is unbelievably well done.  Soda pop, honey, cereal, red currants, raspberries, fanta and orange zest dance exuberantly cross the tongue, never faltering, never allowing any one piece to dominate. Like an exquisitely choreographed dance number, the molasses, vanillas and fruits (peaches, yellow plums, pears, ripe yellow Thai mangoes) tango alongside sharper notes of citrus, lemon zest, overripe bananas, sandalwood and ginger. Even the finish is spectacular – just long enough, just sharp enough, just mellow enough, allowing each of the individually discerned flavours of fruits, toffee, chocolate and citrus to come out on stage one last time for a bow, before fading back and making way for the next one

It seems almost superfluous to go through the factoids surrounding it so let’s be brief: it is from Hampden , though this is nowhere evident on the label (I picked that up online); pot still, continentally aged, bottled at 52% in 2017 from a single barrel (Cask #19, which means nothing to most of us) of 1992 stocks, 228 bottles issued, and there you are.

I don’t know what they did differently in this rum from others they’ve issued for the last forty years, what selection criteria they used, but I must be honest – the 1992 came close to blowing out my circuits. It’s restrained but powerful, and the sometimes-overdone flavour profiles of other high ester rums, has been toned down and handled with real attention and care.  I can’t remember the last rum that excited me so much, that enthused me so much, right off the bat.  Okay, that’s crap, there was the UF30E and the Sajous and the BBR 1977…but you get the point. I had to try it several times in the course of a single evening trying to poke holes into it, trying to find a flaw that would unravel the experience, make it more mundane, bring it to the level of other rums, but no, it stayed as spectacular at one in the morning, as it was six hours earlier when my friends and I cracked it.

These days, with independent bottlers proliferating as they have, each one trying to outdo the other with a remarkable rum from yesteryear, and with Scheer’s old hoards being plundered like King Tut’s personal rum chamber, with old rums becoming impossible to find and harder to buy, I honestly believed my days of finding an undiscovered treasure were over.  After trying the Samaroli 1992, I knew I was dead wrong…and happy to be so. There are still amazing rums out there to be found, often flying beneath the radar, teased out with a little luck, delving deep trenches in your wallet. This is one of them, a rum that shows what can be done when a bottler’s great selection crosses paths with a rum sleuth’s dogged persistence…and results in me writing about a rum that is made with what — in my opinion — is more than a small dose of pure magic.

(#535)(92/100)