May 252013
 

D7K_1864

Offbeat Panamanian rum which makes a virtue out being different. People will like it or hate it for the same reasons. I come down on the side of the former.

(#164. 70/100)

***

There’s something about Panamanian rums I really like. They are not as heavy and dark and growly as Demerara rums, nor as occasionally oaky and citrus-laden as the Jamaicans, or for that matter as soft and plummy and banana-like as I’ve often noted in the Bajans. You would never imagine a Panama rum being vulgar, overbearing or obnoxious, like a cinema-goer behind you who chucks your seat, won’t shut up and then ostentatiously uses his cellphone the whole friggin’ time — just well put-together, complex and riding the fine line between too much and not enough. I think of them as the little bear in Goldilocks…whatever they come out as, it’s pretty much always just right.

A.D. Rattray, those zen like purveyors of simplicity, naturally don’t pay much attention to that, perhaps taking their lead from Cadenhead and their Spartan distillation and ageing ethos. They took rum from the Don Jose distillery in Panama (largest in the country, and home of the Varela Hermanos boys who made the Abuelos), aged it for twelve years, and then didn’t muck about with chill filtration or adding anything, just gave you whatever came out the other end.

This methodology had some disconcerting effects on the dark gold, 46% ABV finished product I was tasting here (bottle #344 from Cask #1). For one thing, the nose was quite dissimilar to most other Panamanians I’ve had thus far, up to and including the fantastic Rum Nation Panama 21 – much lighter, almost like an agricole for starters. I really had to work at this one to dissect it: bananas, strawberries, orange peel and bananas, with some sting and bite at the tail end, which I pretty much expected from a 46% rum, so no harm there. Yet there were also some dissonant notes – a faint whiff of petrol, turpentine, light perfume (I’m not making this up, seriously!). Almost no caramel or molasses scents at all. Mary, who was sampling this baby with me, opined that it reminded her of a wet baseball glove, which I concede may have been reaching just a bit. But there’s no denying that this was quite an original nose for a rum – if it had been heavier, perhaps more pungent, I think I would have liked it even more.

Things opened up some on the taste, however, mitigating some of my concerns. Medium bodied, medium sweet, medium spicy (can’t get away from that 46%, after all) — it presented a certain creaminess on the tongue, just enough. It opened into a licorice background, through which meandered delicate woody notes, white chocolate and butter (some brininess there — again, not enough to turn me off just sufficient to be noticeable). Gradually the rum blossomed out with hesitant caramel, vanilla and molasses tastes, so shy that I remarked to Mary that perhaps this was a rum aged in much-used, almost-dead oaken casks with not much piss and vinegar left in them. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the taste – it was better than the nose – but it really upended most of my expectations, perhaps because it had aspects much more commonly suggested by agricoles instead of Panamanians. Fade was as dry and heated as a middle eastern desert, and lacking any kind of distinctive closing scents of its own, beyond some chocolate, light smokiness and leather.

D3S_5945

Did I like it? Yup, quite a bit. Not as much as I was expecting, but I must confess to appreciating its sheer rawness, its unusual-ness. The ADR Panama rum was unlike the cheerful youth and sprightliness evinced by the Abuelo 7, and couldn’t hold a candle against the Rum Nation Panama 21, though it scored better than the Panama 18, also made by Rum Nation. I think this kind of underblending (is there such a word?) must be deliberate, because surely budgetary concerns were not an issue at ADR, who appear to have a dour agnosticism regarding profit margins in some of their rums, and just go ahead and make what they feel like on any given day, so long as it tastes real good.

Is the rum for young men and college students looking for a fast bender? Is it for us older farts approaching our sell-by dates? New entrants to the rum-appreciation game? Not at all. It’s for anyone who still has a sense of wonder and a feeling for blending style. This rum contains elements that have been thought out (or ignored) and has surprises right to the finish. In its own crazy way, it’s actually quite exhilarating (yeah, and strange). Sipping it for the fourth time, trying to make up my mind, I realized the I needed this sharp left turn to make me understand the differing directions a product could go – the ADR Panamanian Rum from Don Jose has been created and imagined as a new sensory location for us to inhabit. It’s a hell of a rum. It adds lustre to our notions of what can be made, by a guy who knows his stuff, from nothing but the harvested stalks of an oversized grass.

 

A:7/10 N:18/25 T:19/25 F:16/25 I:10/15 TOT: 70/100

 

Rating system

  • 40-50 Hooch. Deficient in either nose, body, flavour or finish (or all of them), barely worth a mix.
  • 51-60 Decent for a cocktail but not much else. Not meant as a sipping spirit. May make a brilliant cocktail.
  • 61-70 You might want to experiment with drinking this one neat.
  • 71-75 Good sipping rum with a few discordant notes that can still make a good cocktail. I’d prefer to sip it myself.
  • 76-80 Really excellent, top tier drink. May be unique in some way that goes against the prevailing opinion
  • 81-90 No additive or ice should ever touch such a superb offering.
  • 90+ Marriage material. Sell the Benz, ‘cause you’ll have to.

 

 

 Posted by on May 25, 2013 at 7:43 pm
Mar 302013
 

D3S_5184

A liquid, light peanut butter and jelly sandwich, heightened with unsweetened chocolate and displaying enormous smoothness and quality. Great product.

(#151. 76/100)

***

Ron Abuelo Centuria is the top of the line Panamanian rum originating from Varela Hermanos, the outfit that brought the 7 year old and 12 year old to the table, issued in late 2010 to celebrate their Centennial.

It’s said in some places to be solera-system-aged for thirty years in used bourbon barrels and in others that the blend of rums (some aged thirty years) was run through a solera: but one must always keep in mind that in any solera rum, only a small fraction of the resultant is actually that old (the math suggests it can be as little as 5% after less than ten years, and the average age of the blend trends towards seven). I make these remarks not to denigrate the product, just to inject some caution into pronouncements regarding its age.

Not that you need to know all that, because taken by itself, this is quite a product. Ensconced in a wooden and cardboard box, in a neat bottle with a decent cork, there’s very little about it that doesn’t work. Except maybe the €155 price tag: considering that only 3000 bottles were made, this may be deemed cheap to some lucky fellows who have more money than I do.

Nose first: cherries, dark chocolate, coffee, walnuts and vanilla came right out of the initial pour of the bronze mahogany liquid. Really quite nice, but I suspect there may be some alien DNA in the Centuria somewhere, because after moving on and settling into a creamy, deep burnt sugar and caramel bedrock, there were some discordant background notes that melded uneasily with the core scents so well begun: salt biscuits and a certain musty driness (without being particularly arid) that just seemed, I dunno, out of place. It wasn’t enough to sink the Bismarck, but it wasn’t expected either.

D3S_5195

The rum raised the bar for premiums by being phenomenally smooth, mind you. Bitch and bite were long forgotten dreams on the palate, as on the nose: the Centuria may lack the furious, focussed accelerative aggro of a Porsche, but that isn’t its purpose (especially not at 40% ABV) — it’s more a fully tricked-out Audi sedan, as smooth and deceptive as proverbially still waters. Caramel, nougat and burnt sugar flavours led in, followed by a slow segue into a combined smoky, salt/sweet set of tastes reminding one of pecans and dried fruits like dates and figs, not fleshier ones like peaches. In fact, this became so pronounced as to almost dismember the sweeter notes altogether (but not quite,which is to its real credit – great balance of the competing flavours was evident here).

The exit is more problematic: though quite long for a rum bottled at standard strength, there’s something of that buttery caramel salty-sweet tang that doesn’t quite click for me. Yes it was pleasantly heated and took its time saying adios, which is fine — I just didn’t care for the musky, flavours so remniscent of a peanut-butter-and-chocolate energy bar. I should hasten to add this is a personal thing for me, so you may like this aspect much more than I do. And I can’t lie – it’s a damned fine rum, a more-than-pleasant fireplace drink on a nippy night, leading to deep kisses and warm embraces from someone you’ve loved for a very long time.

D3S_5199

I often make mention, with top end rums that cost three figures and up, about elements of character. What I mean by this is that the complexity of the parts should lead to a harmonious commingling of the whole in a way that doesn’t repeat old profiles, but intriguingly, fascinatingly, joyously seeks a new tier of its own, for better or worse. The Centuria has character for sure, and what that does is make it different, albeit in a manner that may polarize opinion, especially at the aforementioned back end.

Still, this rum would have, as many overpaid management types in my company would say, all the key performance indicators identified, the drivers nailed down and quantified, all the basic boxes ticked. But then there’s the fuzzier stuff, the weird stuff, the stuff that some guys would call “over and beyond” or “elevated performance”, boldly going where no executive has gone before. In this Anniversary edition rum made by a solid company with quite a pedigree, it’s clear that they’ve succeeded (all my bitching about the off-notes aside). This is an excellent sipping rum where components come together really well, are dead serious about their task of pleasing you, and have taken time out to address some real complex subtleties. This is not the best rum of its kind ever made – my own preference on the Panamanians edges more perhaps towards the Rum Nation Panama 21 — but if you’re buying what Varela Hermanos is selling, they sure won’t short change you.

***

Other notes

The business about the Centennial is somewhat confusing: Varela Hermanos traces its origins back to 1908 when Don José Varela Blanco founded the Ingenio San Isidro sugar mill, the first in Panama, with alcohol distillation beginning in 1936. So I’m unclear how this rum was first issued in late 2010 to commemorate a hundred years of operations.

According to online remarks made by others, but not represented on the bottle or its box, the Centuria contains no additives for colouring or flavour.

A:8/10 N:20/25 T:20/25 F:16/25 I:12/15 TOT: 76/100

Rating system (somebody asked, so here it is, and yes, I know it’s out of synch with everyone else)

  • 40-50 Hooch. Deficient in either nose, body, flavour or finish (or all of them), barely worth a mix.
  • 51-60 Decent for a cocktail but not much else. Not meant as a sipping spirit. May make a brilliant cocktail
  • 61-70 You might want to experiment with drinking this one neat. Good “either/or” drink.
  • 71-75 Good sipping rum with a few discordant notes
  • 76-80 Really excellent, top tier drink.
  • 81-90 No additive or ice should ever touch such a superb offering.
  • 90+ Marriage material. Sell the Benz, ‘cause you’ll have to.
 

 

 

 Posted by on March 30, 2013 at 10:00 am
Mar 302013
 

D3S_4328

Come on now, be honest, why did you really buy this product?

(#148. 60/100)

 ***

How can one ignore the advertising and marketing behind something as evocatively (or crassly) named as Ron de Jeremy, distributed by One-Eyed Spirits? There is almost nothing I can write that would not in some way be seen by the average reader as a mandingo-esque, pornographic allusion. I think the best — nay, perhaps the only — way I can approach this review is to do a full one-eighty course change, sink deep into the netherworlds of geekdom and nerd nirvana, and reference a great epos of wishful manhood. This is, of course, Star Trek.

Think of this rum as an off-kilter riff on that ultimate TV bromance. This is you and your best buddy playing with phasers and electrocuting Horta in your spare time, because, when you get down to it, Ron de Jeremy is not for drinking by yourself — so who else to try it with than some friend whose sense of humour mirrors your own and who won’t laugh at your new ears and deadpan Sheldonisms? This is a rum born to be shared and snickered over, which is why the younger and more rebellious crowd of rum drinkers probably laughed themselves into a collective sneezing fit and bought it like tribbles were on sale that day.

Ensconced in a bottle remniscent of the English Harbour 10 year old, numbered (mine is bottle number 23124…but of how many?) it’s fairly simply designed (I always like that), and for those used to seeing Ron Jeremy as a fatter, ageing prescence on a TV show or on photographs, the younger hand drawn visage will be a bit startling. We can all agree, I’m sure, that his face is not the selling point, though. Maybe it’s his ears.

Ron de Jeremy presented such a queerly discombobulated dissonance between nose and palate that it almost seemed like two people, one of whom is in the throes of pon-farr. This started as early as when it was opened and I got an immediate hit of stale Gorn sweat – for me, with my memories of life in the tropics, it presented like the bitter whiff of anti-malarials in a bush hospital. A vaguely bitter, herbal, grassy lead-in remniscent of dried-out sugar-cane stalks (and quinine) was the first thing out the door. And however much it then mellowed out – and it did – however much it transmorgified into caramel, burnt sugar, toffee and butterscotch, it had already mind-melded with me and that made my opinion less than it might have been.

So, negative on the nose, Keptin. Was the palate any better? I thought it was. Quite decent, actually. Medium bodied, a little aggro right up front. Briny, not-so-sweet and heated to start, a shade harsh – an 18 year old Panamanian it was not – then once it hit what passed for warp in its own universe, it evinced a rather pleasant vanilla sweetness, commingled with oak, leather and walnuts (hush, ye snickerers). Medium long fade with a last jarring sweet bath-soap note warping in from nowhere. It may have pretended not to be of a piece with the initial aromas, but clearly, they went together like Spock and the other guy. Essentially, the rum started one way and finished another…maybe I should call it Seven of Nine.

D3S_4332

Ron de Jeremy “Adult” Rum is a Panamanian, distilled by the boys at Varela Hermanos who make the Abuelos (or so I’ve been told), hewing to the line of several other Panamanians in my possession, if not quite as good as many. It is near in profile if not in scent to the Abuelo 7. Don Pancho Fernandez of Zafra Rserve fame has been involved in the production of this rum…and here again I make mention of the palate-level similarity all these Panamanians seem to possess (in my own opinion), which perhaps illustrates the drawbacks of having one person, no matter how experienced and well known and qualified, driving the taste profile of so many rums. I like Panamanians a lot, but the ones available to me are similar enough — bar minor variations — that I am in danger of shrugging and moving on out of sheer boredom.

You’d be surprised, though: overall, in spite of its cost of about $40 here in Canada, I’m thinking it’s worth the extra credits. Because for all its failure at the start, it’s a decent, workmanlike rum, better than quite a few others I’ve had over the years. An intriguing, if not necessarily good nose, a decent palate and a fade not to be sneezed at.

I may not believe a company vulgar enough to call itself “One-Eyed Spirits” can bring something this decent to the table right out of the gate. But I can’t always write about what I wanted in a rum, but must address what I actually got — and on that level my opinion is a positive one. Set aside the nonsense of a porn star shilling for a rum just because of his name, put away any preconceptions you have of the marketing message, ignore its opening salvo, strip away all that — and what you’re left with is a Panama rum, one that’s not too shabby, whose quality, like that of the Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Casks, barely succeeds in spite of its advertising, but not because of it.

 

***

 (Detailed scoring to come)

 Posted by on March 30, 2013 at 9:50 am
Mar 302013
 

Bottled evening sunset. Among the best of all the 40% Panamanian rums I’ve tried thus far.

(#145. 74/100)

***

The Panamonte XXV has, since its introduction, received such rave reviews across the board – it may be one of the most critic-proof rums ever made – that it’s led one reviewer (who I note has not done a formal write up or, perhaps, even tried it) to complain vociferously and with unbecoming language about the lemming like behavior of the bloggers who are supposedly in the pockets of the industry and who put over-the-top positive spins on the rum in order to promote it for their own (inferred) nefarious purposes. I don’t agree with this attitude – there are far too few writers out there who love and promote rums, so we should encourage the reviewers, not viciously diss them – but there’s no question that for a really expensive product, perhaps we should really take a hard look and not be too swayed by cachet or price just because it has cachet and price.

Bearing that in mind, and given that I had dropped $400+ on a bottle of the good stuff last year, I felt it right to check how it rated against other rums of either similar age, similar provenance or similar profile, like the Arctic Wolf did in his famous dissing of the Appleton 30. So I ran the Panamonte XXV past the Cadenhead Panama 8 year old, the Rum Nation Panama 18 and 21 year old, the Ron de Jeremy and the Panama Red Overproof, as well as the Abuelos 7 and 12. And just to make life interesting, I added the El Dorado 25 40%, because of its age.

The Panamonte, right off, had a bottle that was impressive…a flagon, more like, gold-tipped-cork and fancy lettering (same as the St Nicholas Abbey rums, just different etching and cork), all ensconced in a two-piece box that you’d better hold carefully, ‘cause if the snaps on either side break while you wrestle it one-handed, the bottom might just pop out like a stock market bubble, and all your hard earned money will go the way of your portfolio. But it’s kinda faux-handmade retro-cool, and I always liked that. Nothing irritates me more than a super premium, highly priced rum, coming in a shabby, cheap-ass, cardboard paper box (though I must concede the overall put-together-ness of the box wasn’t all that great either) .

The rum itself was amber and copper in hue. Soft and warm, the initial scents curling lazily from the glass were well behaved, rather dense clouds of honey, lightly toasted walnuts (or were those pecans?), blossoms like lilac petals, dark fruits like raisins, plums, just-barely-ripe peaches and bananas. Soft fruits, not citrus, and that set the stage for a rum that was not at all sharp, but as comforting as a feather bed in the winter. Maybe with your plump, soused spouse in it.

The Panamonte XXV may be among the smoothest, most unagressive medium-bodied rums I’ve ever tasted, which is both a good or a bad thing depending on your personal preferences. The arrival stroked the palate with the gentle touch of honey – maybe maple syrup is a better descriptor – as soft as your favourite pooch’s begging eyes: stroke me, master, because I love you. Evolving nuances of coconut shavings, nutmeg, caramel, cinnamon, cumin, a light dusting of caramel and sugars followed through, enhanced by some light tobacco and leather notes – and hardly any oak or citrus spiciness asserting itself.  Quite a change from the aridity and powerful eff-off of the Velier Albion 1994. It had an extraordinary balance that allowed no one taste to hold the high ground or dominate the profile at the expense of any other. It was, in fine, a rum that could be dreamily sipped and savoured all evening long. It might actually be a conversation stopper, for who on earth would want to do anything except make gurgling noises of enjoyment while trying to extract that very last nuance of flavour from it? As for the finish, well, one should not expect anything too epic from 40%, yet even here, warm and breathy aromatic hints of fleshy fruits and tobacco with a sly hint of oak and unsweetened chocolate were the last things to titillate the senses…before I poured yet another glass.

The Panamonte XXV is a Panamanian molasses-based rum aged for 25 years in used oak barrels (standard), and is a product of the same crew who brought you the above-average Panama Red I looked at not too long ago – Jim Wasson of Panamonte, and “Don Pancho” of Zafra, Panama Red and Ron de Jeremy…er, fame. It shares something of the generalized softness I sensed in the other Panamanians like the Abuelo 12 or the Rum Nation Panama 21 (the RN 18 is a tad more aggressive), but lacks the youthful yobbishness of the Cadenhead. And it’s different from the El Dorado 25 year old 40%, being not quite as dark or deep, and a shade less sweet (that’s a good thing, by the way). It’s probably better than all of them, though I’d say the RN 21 showcases a little more risk.

So forget my remark about being “critic-proof” – this rum is critic-obliterating. Stripped of the marketing hype (“…every single drop…” – yawn) it’s not hard to see why, because think of all the levels on which it succeeds so swimmingly – it’s smooth, it’s gentle, it tastes great, it releases its character in measured teasing doses, and is bottled at a cushy 40%. What’s not to like? I mean, it’s as if in some backroom office, a blending engineer and management type set out to tick all the boxes, making sure the greatest mass of taste was catered to (they emulated Bacardi, perhaps), and then ratcheting it all up a notch or five and pricing it to match. It makes perfect commercial sense to issue this twenty five year old as it has been, because this is the way most will try it and like it and buy it.

Personal opinions follow – you may ignore this section.

For me, it may simply be too much of a good thing.

This is where I have to tread warily, and be clear about the rationale for my ambivalence. For what it is – a 40%, aged rum – it’s brilliant, so its intrinsic quality is not at issue (and my score reflects that). It may be about as good as any such product can or will ever get. So if the rum is so good, you ask, why the beef and bitching? Because, reader, although I haven’t tried as many rums as the Burr Brothers, Dave Russell, Ed Hamilton, or the Arctic Wolf, I have tried a lot and thought deeply about why some appealed to me but not others, tried to understand why I liked stuff I didn’t before, or dislike stuff I once loved. And there you have it – it’s not the rum that has changed, it’s me.

I’ve moved on from commonly available, widely appreciated, well known products that are good to great, from soft and warm and smooth 40% rums, to rums that are stronger, more intriguing, that have the cheerfully experimental insanity of, oh, a seventies Lambo. Rums that encourage some discernment, some thinking.  Rums that don’t give a sweet rat’s behind about running with the crowd. Rums that are really different yet still succeed, somehow (unlike Downslope Distilling’s misguided attempt at a six month old wine aged rum). The Panamonte XXV is without doubt one of the best – if not the best – of the Panamanian rums bottled at 40% I’ve ever tried, and for sure I’ll be sharing it with all my friends when they come over.

But it would have been greater still, I believe, had its makers had the courage to think a little more out of the ticked boxes they were intent on filling, the way Rum Nation, Velier’s full proof line, or even the Scottish rum makers do (this is why the RN Demerara 23 is better than the El Dorado 25, for example); if it could stand out from all the commercial supersellers that fly off the shelves so briskly — and go for something awesome, snarling and unique, that would rear head and shoulders above any other similarly aged product. Something that would not be a merely incremental bettering of its forebears, but a true game changer that people would whisper about in awe and envy, with bowed heads and bated breath, every time they timidly approached the mere wrapping paper that once embraced it.

Which is too bad, really, because what it leaves us with is that while I can express my unbridled admiration for the XXV, what I can’t do is rave from the mountaintops about it.

A:9/10 N:19/25 T:20/25 F:16/25 I:10/15 TOT: 74/100

 Posted by on March 30, 2013 at 9:42 am
Mar 302013
 

 

A victory of Nurture versus Nature. 

(#143. 63/100)

***

The Panama Red (named for some lady of possible legend in a story too long to go into here but which you can certainly google) is perhaps better categorized as a full proof rum, something between about 47-70%. I make the distinction in order to separate such rums from the standard strength of 38-46% and those we tend to think of as real overproofs, the 71-85% range. However, since it is termed an overproof in most reviews, I’ll just make the observation and move on.

Of all the stronger variations of rum I’ve tried - Cabot Tower, the various 151s, the awesome DDL Albion 1994 60.4% and the raging monster of Longpond 9 – this one may be among the most beguiling (not necessarily the best), largely because it upended many of my expectations. It is so well made that one might, on a first try, feel he was drinking a standard strength rum and only know the difference after attempting to rise a few glasses later and toppling in an unceremonious heap (but hopefully saving the bottle).

The first thing I noticed when comparing the rich red-brown Panama Red against other Panamanians on my shelf (the Rum Nation 18 and 21 year old, Cadenhead 8, Panamonte XXV and the Abuelo 12) is how almost perfumed the nose was. The others were solid rums in their way, with interesting profiles – especially the Rum Nation 21 and the Cadenhead – yet once the searing alcohol fumes blew away from this one, it evinced a remarkably different scent of jasmine, nutmeg, honey, nougat, cinnamon and nuts to go along with the slight caramel and burnt sugar under-notes. Of course, as one might expect from a more intensely proofed product, it was a bit sharp, just not unpleasantly so….another surprise.

And the palate was also very different, quite strong: there was something really light and springy, almost cheerful about it. I find that many high-test rums tend to be somewhat navy in character – more taste is added at the deep end to mask the fangs of alcohol. Not here. Spicy citrus and orange marmalade, sweet honey, white chocolate, figs and sharp yellow fruit – more like almost-ripe firm yellow mangos than bananas – and a sort of candied orange chocolate mixing it up with a very slight smokiness of leather and tobacco and oak. A little ginger, cinnamon and baking spices, really nice, and unusually smooth for such a strong rum — not on the level of, oh, the Panamonte XXV – that would be lying – but smooth enough for a 54% drink. I should point out that all these varied flavours are much more pronounced if you do a comparative tasting, as I did. And the finish was lovely, long and heated: oak tannins, tobacco and a last sly hint of orange peel slinking away into your memory and taking residence there.

According to what research I’ve cobbled together, the Panama Red is produced from sugar cane grown in Las Cabras de Pese in Panama (the distillery for Panamonte is also located there). The rum, made from molasses, is a blend of stocks aged in the usual ex-Bourbon casks for up to five years — oddly, the official website makes no mention of the real ageing: Jim Wasson, the CEO of Panamonte, was kind enough to provide the detail. Anyway, it’s all well and good. Yet to me – and I may be totally wrong about this, so feel free to make up your own mind or point me in the definitive direction of a refutation) – this kind of ageing does not normally impart a taste quite this rich, such a cornucopia of chirpy, limbo-dancing flavours to what is essentially a rather young rum. Now, because the interaction of oak and wood and climate, to say nothing of subsequent blending, is such a complex one, I hesitate to suggest that it’s been spiced and simply not mentioned…but I feel it is. Not that I mind – I’d just like to know for sure one way or the other. After all, given the wild popularity of spiced rums these days, there should be no issue with labelling it as such (which was the argument given by my Edmontonian rum chum, who suggested that this was why it wasn’t noted – because it isn’t).

The Panama Red is made by the same crew who make the brilliant Panamonte XXV, were involved with the Ron de Jeremy (tailor made for giggles and crude mandingo jokes), and perhaps even the same original stock as the RN Panama 18 and 21 (I’m on the fence about the Abuelos). There’s something in the subtle alchemy of all these rums – many of which have had the hand of Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez of Zafra fame touch them at some point in their development – that suggests a common ancestor coiling lazily beneath them all. Which just goes to show how masterful blending and ageing can begin from a similar base and then make something spectacular out of it. The nurture here may really be more important than the nature.

Perhaps what I really appreciate about the Panama Red is its overall smoothness, unusual in an oomphed-up rum, and its lovely palate and mouthfeel. Almost everyone I’ve met who has sampled it, expressed some level of astonishment at these characteristics, and all rated it higher than usual. And while I’m no lemming, and cast a more-than-unusually jaundiced eye on spiced rums as a whole (even assuming this is one) I must concede its quality, and give it a recommendation myself. Whether you want to mix it with something to create a subtle, taste-drenched tropical cocktail, or simply take it by itself so you and it can tango in tandem as I did, there is no question that if you like Panamanians, want something stronger, and are on a bit of a tight budget, the Panama Red is a pretty good buy.

***

 

A:4/10 N:16/25 T:17/25 F:16/25 I:10/15 TOT: 63/100

 Posted by on March 30, 2013 at 9:36 am
Mar 272013
 

 

***

A more rambunctious, slightly less cultured younger brother of the same company’s 21 year old rum –  complex, hearty, smooth and a full-out tonsil-pleaser.

(#113.  66/100)

*

If the Rum Nation Panama 18 year old had been released on its own without further statement, as it first was in 2000 (I got the 2010 release), it would have been a success by any yardstick, and indeed I make no bones about this – it’s damned good.  It does not fail next to its older sibling…it’s simply a shade different.  And though the 21 year old is better (yes it is), this should not diminish the achievement of Rum Nation in making the 18 at all.

As if in counterpoint to the faux-silver-lined box of the 21, the 18 comes in a standard cardboard enclosure with a peephole, much like a three dimensional equivalent of the buff envelope containing your gas bill, though undoubtedly more pleasant to receive. The bottle was a straightforward barroom style one, with a plastic cork saying nothing in a particular.  Presentation, therefore, was kept minimal, which, for an eighteen year old product, I found surprising – any other maker would have trotted out the dancing girls and razamatazz, but perhaps Fabio felt he had more and even better stuff in the pipeline, and so took even this excellent product and kept things stripped-down.

And that might make you believe it’s the red haired bastard stepchild, perhaps lacking something (maybe legitimacy?). Nope, no such thing. Red gold in the glass, those faint sulphury notes that seem to be the defining characteristic of Rum Nation’s products I’ve tried wafted up at me, slightly heated, and pungent, mixed in with mellow notes of soft sweet peaches and just a mischievously sharp hint of oaky zest to tweak your schnozz. A shade more, oh…assertive. What a nice nose you have granny.

The arrival of the medium bodied rum came with a tantaraa of trumpets: dark chocolate, tobacco, well-cured leather. It was more tart than the 21, a shade briny, with a soft hint of the ocean, and as dry as a Brit expat’s sense of humour.  An odd combination, and in no way offensive.  Perhaps a better word would be distinctive.  The oaky background of the pungent nose remained, and united with the aforementioned tastes that were tempered with honey and licorice notes. I loved this rum at first taste nearly a year ago, and still think it’s quite the bees knees. Maybe it was because it was aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks – I’ve noticed that such multiple cask ageings tend to impart slightly more complex notes (not good in every case, but here, yes).

Finish was softly heated and gently assertive, like a father’s hug, bringing in the last fumes of aromatic leather and dark chocolate.  I believed then as I do now, that the 21’s finish is better, but let no-one kid you about the 18 – it’s very very good, and since it costs around a third less than that admirable product, you could do worse than splurge on it.  Fortunately, neither is so expensive that you have to pawn your kidneys to get one.

Varela in Panama makes this rum for Rum Nation, and here I should make a couple of notes for those who are interested in such things: 1. something like six to eight thousand bottles are made annually, and there’s a run for each year, noted on the bottle 2. Caramel is added at the beginning of the ageing process to the barrels, said caramel made fresh on site, from the same sugar cane as the rum itself and at the same time (does this qualify as an additive? seems a bit of a gray area) 3. All ageing is done in Panama; and 4. This was one of Rum Nation’s first products (the company was formed in 1999 and the first issue of this rum was in 2000), and I think that on the basis of its innovation and quality, it helped establish the company as one to watch.

So here is a rum that in the opinion of this writer, will one day be seen as rightfully taking its place with El Dorado, Juan Santos, Mount Gay, Appleton and others. Rum Nation’s Panama 18 is a sunshine rum that perpetrates a brilliant, splendid and useful shell game on us as drinkers: it is a not quite ultra-premium rum that’s an absolute riot to drink.  Mix it if you want to, but come on, why would you? When that kind of Aphrodite-like body beckons to you alone, well my friends, it might almost be a sin not to dance.

A:6/10 N:17/25 T:18/25 F:15/25 I:10/15 TOT: 66/100

 

 

 

 Posted by on March 27, 2013 at 8:07 pm
Mar 272013
 

Drink this and weep. Who would have thought the El Dorado 21 or the Juan Santos 21 might have serious competition? For a whisker over $100, Rum Nation’s Panama 21 year old rum will titillate your palate, lift your spirits and be your best friend for life.

(#111. 78/100)

***

We are always wrestling – philosophically speaking – with change. And as we get older, we who instituted change, embraced it, championed it…we regret the passing of the old ways which we once loved, but perhaps not well enough to preserve, and now can only remember. I think this way on occasion, and regret the accelerating movement of years, and fall into a reverie the Japanese call mono no aware, which describes a wistfulness about the transience of things.  That’s the state in which my mind was, on the rather depressing day I cracked the Rum Nation Panama 21. It is a single domain product, with a limited production run from a company of which I am a rabid Trekkie-style fanboy. I liked their products so much on a single taste that I bought one of everything they had made, and then went back and stocked up on a couple extra of my favourites. They really are that good.

Consider. Genuflecting rather disdainfully at the “I don’t want to be dinged extra for packaging” Rum Nation placed it in a sturdy, silver-wrapped cardboard enclosure that hugged the elegantly shaped decanter tightly. Forget the box, though – the bottle itself was admirable in shape and contour, and bears out my contention that the overall aesthetic must be considered as part of your experience (and my review), especially as you climb the dollar scale.

Things started swimmingly once I poured it out. Panama rums are not quite as heavy as Demeraras, yet this one evinced slow, fat legs of an impressive oiliness (as opposed to the rather anorexic agricoles I’ve never learned to appreciate properly). Fruity, soft, sweet scents billowed up immediately, intermingled with that faint hallmark rubberiness remniscent of supercar doughnuts on the tarmac (but nowhere near so aggressive or overwhelming as to be offensive, let me hasten to add – it added a nice touch of distinctiveness). This lovely nose further evinced traces of light flowers and perhaps a shade of smoke. Heavenly, truly.

It was on the palate that I realized I was sampling something quite special: smooth and silky, yet aggressive too (I half-expected it to be bottled at 43% or greater based solely on that observation, but no…); the rum tasted of cherries, peaches, freshly scooped-our tangerines, and by some weird alchemy, also aromatic pipe tobacco and well-cured leather. The Panama 21 was also a shade dry, exactly enough to counterbalance the sweetness which would otherwise have become cloying. The mouthfeel? … simply outstanding, both gentle and assertive at the same time. All of this led to a lasting, smooth fade that was heated and the slightest bit oaky: the rum was aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, all in the Varela plantation of Panama, to which some small amount of caramel is added at the time the barrel is filled, made from the same sugar as the rum itself (and from the same plantation’s cane)

Rum Nation out of Italy focuses on the upper segment of the market, with aged rums originating from specific plantations, aged to their own specifications and with phenomenal blending. I hope these rums seriously break into the North American market, because currently the main sales are in Europe (lucky people). Fabio Rossi, the owner, has taken on the Scotch whisky makers who dabble in rums and is pressing hard on their heels. His stated credo is to make high end, limited edition rums and does he ever deliver. If I had a comment here, it would simply be that I think he should make them a shade stronger…maybe 43% or 46%.

In summary, then the Panama 21 year old is an excellent, lovely rum, reasonably affordable for its age – it shares a price point with two other superlative rums: the El Dorado 21 and the Juan Santos 21. Because the rum is a limited annual production run (perhaps 8000 bottles or so per year) it’s kind of depressing that once this stuff is gone, much like the Caroni I so enjoyed, or the Port Ellen that serious maltsters weep over, then it’s gone forever, and we’ll never see its like again. How sad is that?

So, as noted in my opening paragraph, I sometimes fall into a bad funk. But, more often than the above statement might imply, I also take great joy in beauty and a blaze of excellence, of glory, however ephemeral. A perfectly composed photograph, a raunchy limerick, my daughter’s laughter, a golden-red sunrise, a moment of pure silence in a vast landscape, a piece of prose wittily and exactly written, a snatch of music that raises the hairs on my arm. And in the appreciation of a limited edition rum that exceeds all expectations, has that inexplicable complexity and balance and smoothness that revises my notions of quality…however fleeting its existence may be. That’s why this rum, for the brief shining moments I tasted it and savoured it and wondered at it, gave me a blaze of transcendence that comes all too rarely.

I fall into mono no aware on occasion, yes. But I don’t have to stay there, or let it consume me into melancholy — Rum Nation’s Panama 21 year old rum is one reason why this is absolutely true.

A: 8/10 N:19/25 P:20/25 F:19/25 I: 12/15 TOT 78/100

 

 

 

 

 

 Posted by on March 27, 2013 at 8:05 pm
Mar 272013
 

***

“Hi – we’re Cadenhead.  We’re whisky makers doing rums on the side one cask at a time, and we’re stuck firmly in the last century.  But we make some really crazy s**t that you know you want to try.  Here…have a sip of this drag-strip devouring retro-cool V-12 high test. You’re gonna love it.” (First posted February 3rd, 2012)

(#101. 67/100)

***

Comparing the Cadenhead philosophy with that of the giants like Bacard and Diageo is a little like comparing Terrence Malik films with Michael Bay’s, or a haiku with Paradise Lost. Instead of beating you over the head with all possible volume sold to the widest variety of consumers, Cadenhead is small, tightly focussed on its principles, and has vanishingly small sales of its rum product, which are all made with what seems to be a dour middle finger to the commercial rum establishment. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single commercial rum maker who takes this kind of minimalist, puritanical approach to making rum (unless it’s Bruichladdich with their Renegade line and the occasional Gordon & MacPhail offering and both have prettier presentations).  I mean, Cadenhead seems almost aggressively indifferent to how the world at large reviews its rums. It’s like they say “Like it or lump it, laddie…we’ll keep makin’ it just like this.”  That’s positively West Indian.

William Cadenhead & Co, now owned by J A Mitchell & Co of the Springbank distillery in Campeltown, have a reputed enormous stock of matured Demerara and other rums, and constantly replenish their wares through a rum broker to ensure continual supplies from obscure and not-so-obscure distilleries in the West Indies. They bottle one oaken cask’s offering at a time and then the “run” is done. My inquiries didn’t yield any answers as to which distillery in Panama was the source of the spirit, so we will have to remain in the dark on this one.

However, one thing you can say is that Cadenhead don’t frig around with wussie forty percenters. They chuckle into their sporrans, shake their heads at the weakness of the young, and issue beefcakes of rum, then trumpet the fact long and loudly. 46% cask strength, bam. Sniff that, me son.

The Panama 8 year old is pungent and deeply aromatic on a first assessment. I noted last week that Kōloa Gold had a strange scent that one really had to work at to see it was a rum at all – Cadenhead’s Panama 8 is exactly the opposite, being very obviously a rum with an aggressive attitude redolent of burnt sugar, molasses, toffee, bonbons and perhaps allspice. There was little in the way of secondary, lighter (or “cleaner”) flavours, not that it needed them – this was a serious nose that didn’t have time to muck about.

The medium bodied gold rum was also quite excellent on the palate. The arrival, as befitted a cask strength offering, was a shade sharp on the initial taste, and then mellowed out very nicely – then the dark burnt sugar, the caramel and nougat started to come to the fore; after opening up some more, other soft flavours began to gently emerge like little ballerinas not sure of their reception on the stage: vanilla, chocolate, a good wine-soaked cigarillo, the lightest perfume of flowers. And yes, before you ask, a bit of briny spice on the back end. The finish was long and lasting and wafts of chocolate, leather, tobacco and sugars fought genteely for dominance. After the odd non-specificity of the Kōloa Gold, I must confess to being very taken with this rum which had no time to pretend it was anything other than what it was. A rum, and a rough ‘n’ tough ‘un at that.

What impressed me about the Cadenhead here was its depth. It’s difficult for me to put this precisely, but what I’m describing is a measure of the intensity and dark heat of the mingling flavours as they chased each other down one side of my nose, out onto the tongue and then up the throat. I’ve noted before that overproofs deliver a whallop of flavours a standard 40% rum just doesn’t – in this aged eight year old rum, the company has somehow tamed a raging spirit right out of the cask with nothing more than distilled water.

A rum like the Panama 8 has to be approached with a certain mindset: there’s no point in thinking that this is a mixing agent or a sweet Caribbean tipple at a holiday resort. It is, on the contrary, a rum made by a whisky maker to an exacting principle best described as “keep it simple.” Panama 8 has no colouring or other additives, is not chill filtered, is as close to the output of a barrel as you can imagine – and therefore can truly be said to be an expression of what an unadulterated rum should be. This won’t find favour with many rum aficionados whose palates are accustomed to smoother, more carefully blended fare. But if you want to know what a rum is before a blender starts tinkering with it, then this is surely the place to start.

 

***

Addendum: in 2010 I tried the 12 year old Demerara variation from Cadenhead and didn’t like it, scoring it low. I don’t have any of the rum left to compare against the Panama, but I stand by the score as it was back then. In fairness, given how much I like this one, the Demerara 12 may deserve a re-try to see if it’s me that’s changed, or the rum really was that unimpressive.

A:5/10 N:18/25 T:19/25 F:17/25 I:8/15 TOT: 67/100

 

 Posted by on March 27, 2013 at 5:41 pm
Mar 262013
 

***

First posted 18th December 2011 on Liquorature.

(#089. 59/100)

Much as I like the Grandpa 12 rum, I must concede that somehow, by a subtle mismatch of flavour, nose, body, complexity and overall profile, this otherwise excellent rum just fails to attain greatness.  That’s not to say this is not a really good product, because it is – and at a price most of us can afford, you wouldn’t go wrong adding it to your shelf. The middle tiers, that is.

***

One problem with liking a rum is that the rum as a rule doesn’t really like you back. In fact, the converse is true: the more you indulge your appreciation for one, the more you suffer for that presumption (usually with a Godzilla-sized headache) – no rum will ever crawl into your bed, buy you that Porsche you wanted, remember your birthday, or care that you have an anniversary.

A second issue is that rums you might deem worthy of your love cost cold hard cash, and a lot of it (much like real spouses do). Now this is not a problem for professional spirits reviewers who obtain samples from all and sundry, or for a Google founder who might want a new 911 GT3 – it is, on the other hand, a rather bigger deal if you are a mere working joe like yours truly, on a limited budget. Perhaps the solution is to tread lightly: enjoy what you can for what it is, and don’t go too far off the reservation in fawning over any one product. Keep dreamin’ of the good stuff and enjoy the diamonds in the mud you can occasionally uncover.

Like this one from Panama – the Abuelo 12 year old, which was one third of the rum selection in October 2011 for what is traditionally Liquorature’s sole rum-only evening: mine. I’ve made it a practice to know nothing about any of the three rums I always offer to my guests so that their discovery is also mine. Ron Abuelo was definitely the pick of the evening on that score not because it was exceptional per se, but more because it was overall an utterly all-round above-average product

Aside from the almost impossible to get Centuria, this is the oldest rum in the stable of Varela Hermanos SA of Panama, who have been in business of rums since 1908 when Don José Varela Blanco went operational with the first sugar mill in the then recently formed Republic of Panama. In 1935 the site began to distill sugar cane juice for the production of liqueurs, and since then the company has been expanding its range into a wide variety of different spirits products. They distil the 40% 12 year old from estate grown cane in the usual barrels that once held bourbon; it won the 2009 Ministry of Rum tasting competition for Premiums, the first year it was marketed, and followed that up with a double gold from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And probably deserves it – if after a hundred-plus years of working with spirits the company still doesn’t know what it’s doing, I’d be amazed.

Appearance wise, ostentation was kept to a minimum, as probably befits a $48 rum – cardboard box of no distinction, embossed dark brown bottle hiding the golden rum within; platic tipped cork, seated tightly as my six-year-old’s fist on pocketmoney day.

The golden copper-bronze rum had remarkably slow legs which spoke well for its viscocity; the nose was initially spicy, and this faded quickly and transmuted into a rich honey-vanilla and burnt sugar accents that opened up later into subtle hints of flowers and cherries, with a sweet woody background and perhaps something subtler – that of new-mown hay, maybe some grapefruitor other citrus rind. It reminded me a bit of the Mount Gay XO and the Flor de Cana 7 in that respect.

Flavour wise I had nothing to complain about. I liked it.  A lot. The rum was heavier and a shade thicker than the colour would have suggested: honey, nuts and caramel were there right from the get-go. The Abuelo 12 year old was not as sweet as these remarks would suggest – there was a retention of the oak there, a bratty kind of stinging insouciance that I didn’t expect from a rum aged this long.  This may have been from a shade too much oak refusing to leave, like a guest who doesn’t know the party is over. But even so it was smooth and possessing a reasonably complex profile that took time to emerge. That taste deepened on standing to slightly briny but rich molasses, and here I’d suggest that it trended toards a younger El Dorado…perhaps the ED 12 year old.

As for the fade, it was long lasting, smooth, if not entirely balanced – vanilla, tannins, dried fruits and a hint of the burnt sugars didn’t quite harmonize (but still, let me hasten to add, damned good for all that). I’d suggest that it missed being superb by some small slip of the blender’s art (or my own predilection for other profiles). But let me be clear: it’s above average and most people buying it will not be disappointed. It has points of similarity, as noted, with the Ron Zacapa (though not as smooth and not quite as sweet), Cruzan Single Barrel, Flor de Cana 7, Mount Gay XO and El Dorado 12 or younger. My take would be to have it as it is and don’t mix the thing.

I said at the beginning that rums you love are usually heartless products that give you a clonk on the head instead of returning your affection, and cost a bundle to obtain. This is true for many top-end products, but not this one: Ron Abuelo 12 year old is a reasonably gentle, occasionally-harsh-yet-loving, soft and slightly off kilter rum that doesn’t cost your left arm to get, will treat you with the respect you deserve and won’t viciously burn your precious vintage Superman comic book collection of you don’t like it. It’s moderation personified, not too much of any one thing, and delicately treads the line between too sweet and not sweet enough, between too smooth and too harsh. That probably won’t endear it fully to people with delicately attuned noses that can dissect a rum’s bouquet into fifty constituent pieces – but maybe, at end, this is a rum for the rest of us: those of us who are not Google founders or professional sample receivers, and who simply want a damned good drink that won’t bust the bank.

A:8/10 N:15/25 T:14/25 F:14/25 I:8/15 TOT: 59/100

 Posted by on March 26, 2013 at 11:29 am
Mar 262013
 

***

Better than the Ron Abuelo 12 year old, if not quite as smooth. 

First posted 18 December 2011 on Liquorature.

(#088. 62/100)

***

As a general rule, the older a rum is, the better it’s supposed to be, and price points certainly follow on from that. We pay extra dinero for the ageing, the loss the maker suffers from the angel’s share, the supposed care and expertise taken in blending and smoothening out all the aged components so as to balance out the oakiness. So you’d think the older the rum, the better, right? Not so in this case. In fact, I reviewed the 12 and the 7 year old rums side by side and had to check my results not twice, but three times – just to make sure it wasn’t a mistake (as you can imagine, during that exercise my computational aptitude went down exponentially, hence the third check to make sure).

Ron Abuelo 7 is the younger, brasher, more insouciant sibling of the top of the line Abuelo 12 year old from Hermanos Valeros about which I wrote very recently. Made from sugar cane syrup (rendered down cane juice) deriving from cane growing right by the distillery in Panama, it is distilled in a four-column still and then aged for the duration in ex-bourbon white oak casks prior to final blending – the youngest rum in the final blend is seven years old.

I have no clue why rum producers seem to think that brown, nearly opaque, bottles, are considered a plus – it hides the colour of the spirit within fron the casual brower in the shop and gives no basis of comparison even at that admittedly coarse level. Be that as it may, the amber-gold rum – it has the appearance of fresh honey – is embraced by a simple, plastic-capped bottle, no biggie there. Presentation is rock solid without flamboyance of any kind. “I’m a rum,” this thing proclaimed with low key machismo….”nuff said.”

Right off, the nose suggested that I had was something different. Without a real sting to the snooth, the Abuelo 7 revealed scents of chocolate and coffee wallowing in a caramel burnt-sugar bath. Soft, smooth and easy on the inhale, with traces of vanilla, straw and caramel. The aspects of this nose were impressively strong and distinct (not usually the case with middle-aged rums, where one often has to strain to get the slightest hint of aromas so subtle they would make Jean Baptiste Grenouille faint with the effort).

And the arrival was, simply put, excellent. Though not quite as heavy on the tongue as the 12, it’s medium to heavy body was impressive by itself, and it shared the 12’s lack of overall sweetness. However, its smoothness and overall complexity carried me past such concerns regarding sugar: I was tasting caramel, vanilla, some oakiness and a more earthy flavours, and hidden in the back end were muskier hints of leather, of damp ground steaming after a tropical rain and baked fruit enveloped in a kind of smokiness which I found delectable. All this with almost no burn at all: I wouldn’t mix this with anything, and even over ice I might not enjoy it as much. The fade was long, deep and lasting as well, and while here some spiciness started to creep in, it was not unpleasant, but more like the deep heat generated by reddening coals in your fireplace on a cold winter’s night, or exactly the right note of strength and heat you’d want as you watch the sun sink hissing into the ocean in a pleasant tropical twilight, with a glass of this stuff in your hand. What a lovely, lovely rum this was.

Were I to wax metaphorical (again), I’d suggest that what we’re talking about here is character. The difference between various movie actors portraying the same role – and the best example might be James Bond. The Abuelo 12 aspires to be Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore – exquisitely dressed, urbane, debonair, unflappable, always ready with a quip, with the culture and breeding right there out front on the lapels of the Savile Row suits – but lacking, I dunno, some kind of down to earth machismo. The Abuelo 7 is more like, oh, Connery; or better, Daniel Craig. Brooding, capable, awesomely efficient, dynamic as all get out, yet not as well-bred. I mean, with the Abuelo 7, as with Mr. Craig, you get the elemental brutality and proficiency of a well-educated street-thug. And believe me – I mean that as a real compliment. The Abuelo, on the levels described above – taste, smoothness, complexity and character – makes me hurry to see Casion Royale again, while sticking Goldeneye and Moonraker back on the shelf.

A:7/10 N:17/25 T:15/25 F:15/25 I:8/15 TOT: 62/100

 Posted by on March 26, 2013 at 11:29 am