Jul 082015
 
Photo copyright Prichards Distillery

Photo copyright Prichards Distillery

I’ve given Prichards somewhat of a bruising with my indifferent reviews of the Fine and the Crystal, but let me assure you that the Private Stock is quite a leap forward: because while the others were essays in the craft, this one got it absolutely right.

(#221. 86/100)

***

Prichard’s company website entry for their own supposed top-of-the-line rum is massively unforthcoming, if not outright unhelpful.  I mean, here’s a rum I want to write about with enthusiasm and knowledge so as to inform the readers, share my wonder, and yet a key data point is missing – how old is the thing?

Perhaps I should be grateful that we do have the following: pot still rum, made from the same Louisiana Grade A Fancy molasses as the other Prichard rums, in an effort to recreate the colonial style of rums as they were made back in the day; aged in charred 15-gallon new white oak barrels; and ⅔ lossses to the angels were sustained.  Based purely on these facts and the way it tasted, I’m going out on a limb until Prichards responds to me, and suggest the rum is a ten-to-fifteen year old.  Oh, and it has a nifty bottle quite different from the other rums in the lineup, again to separate it from the crowd.

And separated out it should be, because while none of the lingering suspicions I have about them loving bourbon more than rum have been allayed, I put all such notions aside: things started swimmingly from the moment I poured the amber rum into a glass and took a snoot.

It had a billowing, solid, fruity nose.  Again that cheese and crackers scent I seemed to find in all three Prichards tried so far (and that’s a brie, by the way, not a cheddar); warm and easy-going, with the 45% strength well tamed.  The molasses were held in check and presented as a burnt sugar and light anise smell, not anything raw and unrefined; sugary notes emerged, vanillas (again, quite restrained), with some unidentified fleshy ripe fruits lurking, unidentified, in the background. Raisins, maybe, and some dark ripe cherries.

I liked the taste as well. It was warm but not hot, powerful as the contents of a Transformer’s trousers, smooth and very well balanced.  Here the fruits that the nose suggested were allowed to shine – blackcurrants, blackberries dusted with sugar and doused with the slightest bit of zest; and also plums, dates, figs, cinnamon, rosemary…with smoke, and leather and oak flexing their biceps at the back end, without trying to take over the joint.  Complexity and balance which the Fine (and the Silver) had failed to do, were achieved with grace here.  And the finish did not disappoint – the 45% was really the right choice for the Private Stock, and while there was nothing new to introduce in terms of taste and scent and last lingering notes, the aforementioned harmonies did not tear themselves to shreds and go off the reservation, but died with a sort of slow voluptuous sigh that left you with great memories and the desire for another sip.

The curious thing about the Private Stock is that it is being released in really limited quantities and not at all in retail or online stores – if you want this thing, you have to go to the distillery to get it, and therefore I envy people like Jared (he shared a comment or two on FB with me about Prichards, thanks mate), who lives down the road from the joint and can go get some whenever he feels the need. I don’t know what’s behind that strategy, but if they were to release this on the open market, they might have to put up a sign saying “Only one per customer, please.”

Over the years, I have not had that many rums from US producers that enthralled me, and to some extent that has made me somewhat cynical about what is being made over there (not least the stubborn fixation with 40%). We are so accustomed to industrial American rums that exist only as middling-quality liquid conduits for social diversion, that it comes as something of a shock – a pleasant one to be sure – to find one in which the simplicity of its construction, the balance of its components and the tastiness of its content, makes a statement for itself.  That’s no small feat, and is the reason why I think it’s a really excellent product, deserving an unqualified recommendation.This rum will give other craft makers a real run for their money. It’s that good.

***

Afterword: As I was editing this review for final posting, I lost patience with emails, picked up the phone and called Prichards directly, probably waking somebody up in the process: the very pleasant lady who answered told me without any waffling around that the Private Stock is a blend of rums aged 12-14 years.

Jul 012015
 

D3S_8946

Neither attempt — to make an ersatz agricole (from molasses) or a white mixing agent to take on the more established brands — really works.

(#220. 78/100)

***

Prichard’s is that outfit from Tennessee which has been quietly and busily putting out rums for nearly twenty years, ever since Phil Prichard decided to make rum in whiskey country.  And while it is now common for new entrants to the market to sell white unaged rum from their stills to cover startup costs and provide cash flow while they wait for more favoured stocks to mature, Mr. Prichard didn’t do anything of the sort, and so his white rum – called Crystal – came later to his company’s portfolio (the first review I’ve seen is dated around 2007).

White rums (or “clear” or “silver”, or “blanc”, pick your moniker) come in three varieties, to my mind: agricoles, cachacas and white mixers. The question to me was which target the Crystal was taking aim at, and if it succeeded at any. The evocatively named rum is apparently distilled five times using the same sweet Louisiana molasses as the Fine Rum, which is a major selling and marketing point for the company; it is unaged and comes straight from the barrel (though I’m curious – if it was utterly unaged, what was it doing in a barrel in the first place, but never mind).

Anyway, one thing I remarked on right away after pouring it out, was a certain clear crispness to the nose.  No real complexity here: green apples and vanilla for the most part, and remarkably sweet to smell: the origin molasses were detectable in spite of the filtration. The vanilla was really quite overpowering, though, even if  some cream and saltiness emerged at the back end…overall, nothing too difficult to tease out.

Even at 40% it kinda grated on the palate: it was sharp, too raw – that was the lack of ageing making itself felt.  It wasn’t precisely light either, and the initial clarity of the nose dissipated early, to become a slightly heavier, oilier drink.  When it opened up, other, less appealing tastes stepped up to show themselves off – still a lot of sugar and vanillas, yes, but also harsher iodine and metallic notes, with some crackers and brie teasing the senses without ever taking centre stage. And it was oddly dry as things wrapped up, with those vanillas and fresh-cut green apples returning to take a last look around before disappearing in a short finish.

D3S_8946-001

I review all spirits as if they were meant to be had neat – right or wrong, that’s my cross to bear in an attempt to use the exact same methodology to evaluate every rum I try.  To have different techniques in evaluating different rums based on any idea of what a rum should be used for (sipping drink, cocktail ingredient) is to introduce a bias, if not outright confusion.

So by the standard of whether it works as a neat rum, then, the Crystal doesn’t succeed (and even Prichard’s website doesn’t imply otherwise and plugs it as a mixer).  The very slight acidity of the fruit I tasted, mixed up with the lingering molasses, the vanilla, the jarring metallic notes, creates a discordant taste profile which destroys the sipping experience.  As a cocktail ingredient, then? Probably much better.  Not with a coke though – something sharper is needed to take the vanillas off, so I’d suggest ginger beer, lime, Angostura bitters, something in that direction. Prichard’s own website gives some examples.

Since I’m not into tiki or cocktail culture, such white, bland, filtered rums don’t do much for me, and that’s why in over five years I’ve reviewed almost none (I’ve gotten hammered on them quite often, mind you).  This one’s okay, I guess: it’s just a sweet-molasses-based silver, lacking sufficient complexity or blending artistry to make it as a solo drink. My low score should not be seen as a blanket indictment, then, since its failure as a neat sample does not invalidate it as a cocktail ingredient where it may shine more. I’ll leave it to experts in that field to argue the case for the Crystal, which unfortunately I myself could not and cannot make.

 

Jun 282015
 

D3S_8944

A paradox of the mid range: a pot still rum that fails at very little…except perhaps excitement.

(#219. 81/100)

***

I’ve been writing and rewriting this review for almost three months: each time I came to grips with it, I thought of something else to add (or delete), or some new and interesting product eclipsed the Prichard’s and made me want to publish that first. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, maybe.

Prichard’s has been in business since 1996 when they became the first new distillery in Tennessee since the 1940s and have quite a stable of output, including some interesting rum products to their name – they produce three real rums, one spiced rum, three flavoured rums….plus six whiskies and five liqueurs.  So, as with many such outfits in the ‘States, I occasionally wonder if their love isn’t primarily given elsewhere and they make true rums only in order to branch out a little.  However, the website and interviews suggest the opposite, so maybe I’ve got it wrong. And I don’t mind that…I’m just curious about it.

Small companies making rum in the USA sometimes try to recreate the American rums of yore by varying their input or production methods.  In this case, Prichard’s use not blackstrap molasses (the black sticky residue after most of the sugar has been extracted), but sweet Louisiana Grade A molasses, of the sort that could be put on your pancakes the morning after.  The rum is then aged for four years in fifteen-gallon barrels of new oak (another point of departure from more traditional techniques) Whether that works or not is up to the individual.  I don’t think it’s all bad, just not something I’d remember enthusiastically a week from now either. It somehow results in a symphony of ho-hum in spite of some off-kilter moments.

Perhaps starting with the aromas might make the point clearer: initially the amber liquid as decanted from the squat long-necked bottle presented clearly, with chocolate and toffee leading the fray.  A little patience, a drop of water, and spices began to come forward – cardamon, fennel, apples, a cherry or two, and sly twitch of lemongrass for zest – before being blattened into the ground by a ridiculous amount of emerging iodine, leather, caramel, burnt brown sugar that dominated the nose from there on in.

The rum was medium bodied, neither fierce nor fawn.  It slid smoothly on the palate, just a little bit of burn from the standard proofage. I dunno, it seemed diffident, good ‘nuff, like a Three Bears of a rum, neither too much or too little.  Again mocha and dark chocolate, coffee, toffee.  And after it opened up, black grapes, overripe apples, more iodine, and a thin kind of vanilla thread through the whole business, with anise, molasses and caramel really taking ownership at this point and carrying the whole experience through to a lacklustre finish with just more of the same — unexceptionally so, in my opinion.

That grayness of my opinion has to do with the fact that while the Prichard’s Fine Rum  is a workmanlike product by any standard — competently made and reasonably executed — it doesn’t have that extra edge of oomph that excites.  It lacks any single shining point of distinction or originality upon which I can hang my hat and say “this part is freakin’ great,” hence my continual suspicion, however unjustified, that bourbon is what they really want to be making, and rum is an indifferent afterthought. Still…that it’s a drinkable, even sippable rum, with perhaps a shade too much Grade A hanging around in there, but worth the outlay — that’s all beyond dispute; it’s the question of whether it’s a must-have that’s is a bit more open to doubt.

See, some rums trumpet their badassery to the world, while others tick over quietly like swiss watches, the undercurrents of their quality self-evident to those who look and enjoy.  Here’s a rum that neither leaves you turning cartwheels in transports of drunken exuberance, nor shaking your head sadly as you mumble about a piece of junk you wasted time trying – but walking away from the experience, remarking to your friend, “That, mon ami, is a plain old rum.”

 

Mar 302013
 

D3S_4328

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

(#148. 80/100)

 ***

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.

 

***

 

Mar 302013
 

Fair warning: the wine is strong on this one.

(#137. 71/100)

***

I would like to wax rhapsodic on this 40% rum; spout literate encomiums to its puissance and scintillating quality, write heady metaphors with words like “ambrosia,””zoweee!” and “wtf”. I’d like to share with you, reader, the happiness of Unicaworld (“would place this alongside my good Martinique rums on my top shelf”) or the Whatsnewinbooze blog (“…a great product from a new distillery…” and “This is an absolute must try…”) or the remarks of the Big Kahuna, when he referred to this rum as one of two shining standouts he tried from Downslope Distilling.

Unfortunately I can’t. And the short version is that in my opinion the rum, sorry to say, doesn`t work. At all.

Have you any idea how frustrating that is? Here I am, tasting rums in their tens and hundreds on mostly my own dime, month in and month out, fighting the long defeat in a desperate championing of rums in a resolutely whisky drinking country (and as part of a primarily whisky drinking book club), plaintively trumpeting the case for distilleries to go beyond, seek new horizons, rise above 40%, push the envelope, experiment…and now this rum comes along from an enthusiastic bunch of guys in Colorado who’re trying to do everything I ask for, and it…just….fails. Aaargh. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, honestly.

Downslope Distilling is an outfit set up in Colorado in 2008 partly because of some peculiar laws regarding making and distributing spirits in that state, and partly as a consequence of the rabid interest of its founders in producing what one might term craft spirits: reading around I get the impression their real interest is whiskey and vodkas, perhaps gins, with rums almost an afterthought, but maybe that’s just me. At end, I see it as a logical evolution of micro-breweries which took off in popularity some years back. Hey, we can make a decent beer…let’s try something different.

Now, with respect to its rums, DD uses unprocessed Maui cane sugar as the base from which to distil its blend, running it through a pot still twice, and then, without any filtration, chucks it right into a barrel that once held wine – each barrel used (or set of barrels) held a different wine so output is not only limited to several hundred bottles per individual run, but widely divergent from batch to batch depending on the wine it once held. I suspect that the bottle I got was aged in Merlot casks from the Napa valley (other bottlings are aged in Tokaji casks which is a sweet dessert wine from Hungary, or in California Chardonnay casks).

When I poured this light blonde spirit into my glass, what I smelled from three paces was a cloying reek of enormously beefed up Muscatel grapes, as if the Legendario from Cuba had enhanced itself by snorting enough coke to keel over a Himalayan yak. I mean, it was so pervasive that I could barely make out anything else – not even the usual burnt sugar and caramel notes that so characterize most rums. That’s not surprising, since they use sugar, not molasses to begin with, so to some extent what we’re getting here is an agricole. It was raw and harsh and burning, grudgingly gave up a hint of nutmeg and grassy notes, before morphing into a wine on the edge of turning to vinegar, or overripe oranges just starting to go. Sharp and unappealing to me.

I was not reassured by the palate either: yes the wine aged rum was sweet, but also briny, and as sharp and grasping on the tongue as a vindictive ex-wife’s lawyer. It was dry as a bone and even after several minutes, all one could ascertain taste-wise was more grapes and more table plonk — way, way too much — that flooded the taste buds with their own omniscience so intensely that eventually I just had to give up, because nothing was gonna make it through those three hundred Spartans of wine. About the only thing that even marginally redeemed what I was tasting was the attendant finish, quite long, with banana, cinnamon and bitter wine notes. Not enough to save it. If they had not labelled the rum as such, I wouldn’t have known it had it been placed before me blind.

Part of the issue here is the ageing. Rums are aged in oak for years – at least one, preferably three to five, and good ones for many more – and then finished in wine casks for a few months. To try and combine the two processes for six months in barrels that impart such enormous influence is too little of one and too much of the other, and it sinks this drink utterly. No, really – it’s too raw to have neat, and I could not find a mix that even remotely ameliorated the overarching wine bedrock. This is a product in need of severe oak support for at perhaps another five years. It was a mistake to issue it so early, since what it accomplished was to give startup rum makers a bad name and makes buyers avoid rum-creating micro-distillers on principle (to the detriment of all of us boozers). Compare this hastily issued rum to the years of preparation Rum Nation did prior to issuing their first products in 1999, or St Nicholas Abbey in the late 2000s, and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

In fine, Downslope Distilling’s wine aged rum is too sharp, too young and too far out to lunch for me to even admire its adventurousness much as I usually applaud such efforts. What this padawan needs is a Yoda to guide it to adolescence, and a little less enthusiasm from online writers or distillery visitors who should be more stinting with their praise and more comparative in their approach (come on, are you seriously trying to tell me this rum compares magnificently to a top Martinique agricole? gimme a break). In years to come, Downslope Distilling may grow into something, and I really hope they do, because at least they’re trying, and have the advantage of enthusiasm, obsession, perhaps even love for what they do (so more power to them for that); however, right now, they’d do better to be more self-critical about the hooch they’re passing off as quality. They may have thought they were putting some James Brown into their spirit: what they got was his sweat instead of his style.

 

***

Because this is a small distillery not really that well known, and because I’m quoting directly, I’m including my references here:

http://unicaworld.com/foodwinekitchen/foods-and-wines/wines-and-spirits/5917/wine-weirdos-and-downslope-distilling-barrel-aged-rum/  “…would place this alongside my good Martinique rums on my top shelf.” As well, the “James Brown” comment.

http://whatsnewinbooze.blogspot.com/2010/05/downslope-distilling-wine-barrel-aged.html “…This is a great product from a new distillery…” and “This is an absolute must try…”

http://www.bigkahunabrew.com/2012/02/downslope-distilling-centennial-colo.html The Big Kahuna commented that this was “…wonderful with two shining standouts…” referring to both this one and a vanilla flavoured variant.

 

Mar 302013
 

 

Light gold rumlet, lightweight in what counts, with an oddly discombobulated flavour.

(#128. 75/100)

***

Some time ago I reviewed an intriguing product out of Hawaii, the Kōloa Gold Rum, which impressed me by having some interesting (if thinner than average) flavours emerging out of an utterly unaged rum. The Old Lahaina “Original Formula” Premium Gold Rum is another in this vein, with a similar taste profile, yet somehow it failed to come up to snuff, where the Kōloa succeeded (both companies produced their first rums in 2009).

Maui Distillers began construction of their distillery in 2003 around Maui’s plantation town of Paia, where the HC&S plantation leased them an old building on the site of the Old Paia Sugar Mill. According to their website, rum is distilled on two steam-fired 500-gallon pot stills originally built for the Boston New England Rum Company in 1946, one of which has a multi tray fractionating column added to it (I suspect to increase the output, and decrease variation in that output…the bugbear of pot stills’ batch production methodology).

Anyway, housed in a thick bar-room style bottle, the Old Lahaina opened its presentation with a herbal, grassy nose that was a shade heated and yet oddly unaggressive at the same time. Delicate is a term I’d use. As it opened up I smelled citrus peel and freshly peeled tangerines mixed with white flower petals….and some faint honey whiffs. My son took a sniff, compared it to the Kōloa and said “Same, Daddy…Lahaina is a bit stronger.” (All he did was sniff, before you ask).

Ummm…okay. Moving along, the coppery brown and amber coloured Lahaina was surprisingly astringent on the palate, dry, sere, a shade briny, and not as sweet as most rums. I wondered whether it had been aged or not (I doubted it). Initially it was hard to pick anything out from under the briny backnote, but gradually vague tastes of vanilla and honey made themselves known, until they were overpowered by – get this – rye bread and creamy butter (I am not making this up!). I tried it again and again over three days, but no, there it was. It’s a first for me, I assure you.

The finish was heated, and a little too raw, the exit too sharp, and much too short – you could barely make out more than a faint cinnamon spice at the back end. It wasn’t bitchy, you understand, and didn’t hate me or claw at me on the fade, it was just…indifferent. It shares a lot with the Koloa, which also had a fade utterly lacking in melodrama.

Really, this was just uninspiring. I liked that the scents and flavours were a shade stronger than the Kōloa, just not what the tastes actually were. Maui Distillers claim that each batch is hand blended and each variety (Dark, Gold or Silver) made from an in-house developed formula. Meh. What I have noticed is that these two rums, which I tasted side by side to effect a decent comparison, have certain characteristics in common: a mouthfeel more delicate than usual, some harshness, and an overall lightness that may either come from a lack of ageing, or the specific characteristics of the Hawaiian sugar and molasses used – or both. I make the comment because I’ve noticed that other rums from other lands outside the Caribbean or Central America (like Old Port DeluxeBundaberg or Tanduay) also have marked differences in taste that I sometimes attribute to the variation in base ingredients and cultivation…a sort of terroire-specific thing.

As a mixer the Old Lahaina Gold is pretty good and can do well in whatever bar serves mai-tais and tiki drinks (its relative lack of sweetness makes it particularly suited that way). Me, my evolution goes towards rums I can sip by themselves and enjoy alone without enhancement. So while I can make a very good cocktail with this so-called premium rum, were I to come upon it neat in a glass I’d probably scurry for the pantry hunting for the chaser right away, no matter what the website tells me about it being equally a mixer and a sipper. Because that one I really don’t believe.

 

 

Mar 262013
 

***

Impressive sipping-quality light rum from a region you’d almost expect to have many more darker variations. If your tastes run into the stronger and more distinct profiles, this may be a bit too subtle, being more more shy in its release than most. But it is well worth it.

First posted 29 January 2012 on Liquorature

(#091. 82/100)

***

Most of us drink rum originating from the West Indies that are aged in oak barrels, and so we make certain assumptions about our taste profiles: this is why, when we come across a rum from India (Old Port deluxe), Australia (Bundaberg), the Phillipines (Tanduay) or elsewhere, we can immediately sense, without putting it in so many words, that there’s something different about it. There’s a subtlety of otherness in the mouthfeel, the aroma, the taste (especially the Bundie, but never mind) which immediately perks up our beaks. My own theory is that this relates to the different climates and soils in which the source sugar cane is grown or maybe even different barrels. Who knows?

The rums of a relative newcomer to the rum world stage, Kōloa, seem to possess some of this characteristic. Made on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i by the Kōloa Rum Company, they utilise crystallized sugar derived from cane grown in the west of the island in the shadow of Kauai’s Mt. Wai`ale`ale, in what may be the wettest place on earth (for the rumgeeks among us, the yeast strain used in fermentation supposedly hails from Guadeloupe). The distillation itself takes place in a 1210-gallon, 1947-made copper still (much better for imparting subtle tastes to the end product than a modern stainless steel variation) which was trained, trucked and shipped all the way from Pennsylvania – it is composed of a pot still combined with a seven-plate column still and condenser, and the company makes small batch, twice distilled rums using it.

All these elements come together in a very impressive product which, while not being quite as crazy as a the Ozzy Osbourne inspired bat-shredding Bundaberg, is easily discernible from the regular Caribbean or Central American products I see more regularly.

Bought on a whim (I buy a lot on whims, largely because Calgary being what it is, if I don’t get it now, I may not get it tomorrow), I was more than pleased with the result. The rum itself was pale gold – nearly straw-coloured – with a light-medium body, and initially I almost confused it with an agricole (trust me – an agricole this was definitely not). The bottle was topped by a plastic screw-top, was fully transparent, and the label was plain white and relatively simple, though not minimalist.

The scent immediately hinted at a rum determinedly taking its own course in life: soft, a shade delicate, subtle. I swear that at the beginning I had zero clue what the thing actually was, there was so little normal nose on the liquid. Gradually, on opening up, certain elements began to make their prescence felt: white flowers, cherries, a vague herbal and grassy background mixed up with creamy caramel. But very little darkness from molasses, oddly enough.

It’s the palate that made this rum an excellent buy. There was some spice to it, and a bit of medicinal background; thankfully these were minor detours from an overall extraordinary arrival: a creamy soft butteriness on the tongue, merging into vanilla, nuts, honey and delicate caramel, chocolate and perhaps bananas. The thing seemed to have no real “rum taste” to it at all, by which I mean the usual burnt sugar / caramel / molasses combo – and it worked wonderfully. Smooth and easy and different. Wow. I liked this taste so much I didn’t even bother to try mixing it, just took one glass, another, then asked myself why the bottle was half empty. The fade was, admittedly, somewhat more anticlimatic – it was medium long, with an exit of faint citrus and fleshy pineapple notes, some honey and rained-on new-mown hay drying in the sun. Gentle and easy all round. Not excellent, but pretty damned good.

What makes Kōloa Hawaiian rum so special is that the rum I describe above was not aged at all. This meant that the flavour profile had no elements deriving from oak barrels (maybe that was why I got no “rum taste”?), and relied wholly and solely on its own ingredients, its own strengths and the skills of Kōloa’s blenders. That skill must be quite something given what I tasted.

Kōloa is one of those distilleries about which I have more information than I know what to do with – the opposite is usually true. Let me wrap it up this way: given the Hawaiian islands’ long involvement with sugar and the sea, it’s no surprise that rum has been part of the maritime culture for a very long time.  What is surprising is that this brand of rums is the first legally distilled popskull ever made on Kaua’i. The company was incorporated in 2001 and it took years for them to jump through all required bureaucratic hoops to get up and running in 2009. In their very first year of operations they won a Gold Medal at the 2010 Rum Renaissance in Miami for their Dark Rum (and again in 2011), and then another medal for this one in the 2010 Polished Palate Rum Festival awards. The word started filtering out that there was a new distillery to watch for, out of Hawaii. On the basis of this one, I’d say that word is entirely justified.

 

 

Mar 262013
 

Whaler’s Rare Dark Reserve Rum is all characteristics and no character: smell without nose, burn without body and aggressiveness bordering on the obnoxious without actually delivering on any of the promises it makes.  Don’t let the tempting scent fool you.  That’s most of what you’re gonna be getting.

(First posted 11th December 2010)

(#058. 71/100)

***

Whaler’s Rare Reserve Dark rum is not, as its advertising might imply, made in Hawaii.  Its website certainly suggests the connection by touting the traditional recipe used by whalers in the old days, copied from native islanders’ own rum production on Maui and perhaps infused with vanilla beans once used to rattle around in bottles, meant to entice whales to come closer. An amusing tale which may even be true. Be that as it may, the rum takes its name from the hardy sailors who once plied the Pacific searching for the whales to decimate and made rum on the side when stopping for R&R in the islands.

For a bottle costing less than $25, you can’t expect too much, and indeed, it doesn’t deliver too much.  In that sense, it is not, like the Tanduay, an undiscovered steal: it’s just a low level rum.  What makes it stand out from the crowd is a nose of real power.  Open this bottle and just let it stand there: it’s like somebody let off a butterscotch bomb in the room (and lest you think I’m exaggerating, I tasted this with a group of Scotiabank employees, and one of them smelled it twenty feet away in less than threee seconds…before I poured a single glass). I have gradually been corrupted into using a glencairn glass, but truth is, you don’t need something snooty for Whaler’s – what you really need is a gas mask to filter the thing out.

The darkness of Whaler’s is, I concede, appealing, and it sports a medium body (I expected something heavier and richer from that colour, but no…).  In the glass it sports thin legs, and that is where this kind of test proves its worth.  Consider: a strong, overpowering nose of butterscotch and vanilla through which you can dimly and imperfectly sense caramel and some sugar and pretty much nothing else.  A body that stings and burns and delivers that taste…and nothing else.  A finish that is short and thin and stings (not much, but that’s me damning it with faint praise)…and nothing else.  I’ve heard and read of rum lovers discussing “hollow” rums, which have all promise and no delivery – this is the first one I’ve ever tried.

What Whalers really is, when all is said and done and drunk, is a flavoured, spiced rum.  Not even fancy herbal stuff like, oh, the Tuzemak, or even Captain Morgan – those two have the balls to put their money where their advertisements are and don’t have airy pretensions to more than that – but just a bucketload of caramel, vanilla and butterscotch flavouring poured into some 40% rum. As a low level mixer this will be okay, I guess.  As a sipper it fails, utterly, unless you’re after a harsh liqueur of some kind, or a cocktail base.  I know I’m not, but if you are, I’d suggest a coke zero or some other non-sweet mixer: this thing is too sugary by half already and doesn’t need any further embellishment.

 

An editorial note:

Heaven Hill distillery from Bardstown, Kentucky may be the harbinger of an accelerating trend: that of larger distillers diversifying their entire portfolios and producing more than just the spirits that once made their name.  Bacardi has stuck with rums (and has one at every price point except the stratosphere) as has J. Wray & Nephew, but research I’ve done on Tanduay, Banks DIH, DDL and of course Diageo shows that these big guns (among others) are producing vodkas, tequilas, gins, whiskies, liqueurs and just about everything else north of 30% ABV.  Even Bruichladdich and Cadenhead are now experimenting with rums as opposed to straight whisky production. And here is the Whaler’s Distilling Company, a subsidiary of Heaven Hill, producing rums in Bourbon country.

In fairness, that’s the way companies survive, by innovation and adaptation to a marketplace where drinking preferences are all over the map and changing in a heartbeat at the dictates of fashion; quality control is better and modern technologies are consistently employed for a taste that is the same bottle to bottle: none of that hit and miss approach that characterizes tiny operations making rum for local consumption on small islands. But I still kind of regret the passage from the uniqueness of such tightly focused distilleries to something more impersonal.

Mar 262013
 

First posted December 3rd, 2010 on Liquorature

Bacardi Black is a deep, dark rich mixer’s drink just the right side of sweet enough, but lacks the cojones to be a decent sipper on its own merits. 

(#054. 77/100)

***

The mainstays of Bacardi’s massive sales are, to my mind, the low-enders: those rums not good enough to stand on their own, but which have a bold taste, a decent body and – somewhat like Johnny Walker – sufficient overall quality to be a cut above the average.  The normal Joe who walks into a liquor store isn’t after all, looking for a life-changing experience: he’s looking for a decent drink at a good price that won’t make him void his bowels, lose his sight and tie his alimentary canal up into a complex knot.

Such a rum is the Bacardi Black, which I will tell you right out, is not a sipping rum by any stretch of the imagination (unless you like low enders to sip and cause you pain) but will liven up any drink you make with it. It’s a cocktail base, pure and simple, and should be treated as such and I must be equally honest and tell you it’s one of the best out there at its price point (less than $30 for 750ml). I should also point out, however that the Black is no longer available as the Black since it has now been replaced as the Bacardi Select rum. Dunno what difference there is between the two.

You can almost always tell tipple for the masses: with a very few exceptions, almost no care is taken tartin’ ‘er up, and this is no exception.  Tin foil cap.  Cheap label with bare minimum of facts.  A reekingly pungent nose that only reluctantly releases its claws and puffs a grudging fart of caramel into your face like a baby’s bum at the exact wrong time. A thin little toot, you understand…the Black is not a heavy dark rum.  But to some extent you are compensated by a transformation of the initial caramel whiff into light cinnamon, some bonbons, and a weakly burnt-wood belch.

The body is, as I say, not for sipping.  A tad on the thin side, tasting of oak and carmel, some vanilla and maybe nuts.  But oddly, for a rum this dark, there is a lack of boldness and assertiveness, a lack of sweet, that’s somewhat at odds with its aggressive styling and bold dark looks: it’s as if Will Smith turned into a wuss, or something.  And that finish: ugh. Lousy. Hobbesian, truth be told – nasty, brutish and short.

I know I’m making a case that this is just another piece of dreck.  But it’s not, really – it’s just not meant to be had neat (and my apologies to all of you who have tried it that way and liked it – but you need to trade up). As a mixer in cocktails it’s actually really good….its weaknesses are compensated for by whatever we chose to add to it.

Bacardi’s 20 million cases of annual sales are more than just a question of a stable of brands or a favourable tariff regime with the US.  They have simply, and for generations, made a damn fine series of rums.  What they lack in uber-quality and premium labelling (they have nothing to even breathe upon the Appleton 30 or DDL’s aged offerings), they make up for in volume of decently distilled spirits that appeal widely because of both their overall quality (sold cheaply) and their ubiquity. I’ve found Bacardis the world over and always affordable, almost always better than the local hooch.

By eschewing top-end and exclusive premium rums and concentrating on making a series of excellent mid- and low-tier products – like the Black and the Gold – Bacardi have essentially created what every manufacturer dreams of making just once and then selling a jillion.  Simply put, with the Black and its like, Bacardi have made the Model T of rums.

 

Mar 262013
 

First posted 17 September 2010 on Liquorature (#053)

A tentative foray, a single spy, sent into the camp of the premium rums, perhaps to scout out the territory for further invasions to come (we can hope).  Capture one and be surprised by its low price and overall quality. If Bacardi can make this one, I don’t know why they don’t come charging into the high-end market in force.

***

Maybe it’s just me, but I sometimes find stronger notes and more positive tastes at the middle and lower end of the price and snoot scale;  more premium rated rums can get their cachet from age statements, distillery snobbery and the supposed excellence and uniqueness of their maturation process…but don’t consistently please (or awe) the drinker any more than a regular rum could (sometimes even less). A lesson that does not seem to have been lost on the subject of this review: the 8 year old Bacardi.

Observe this brand.  It’s the best selling rum in the world.  It smartly moved its operations to Puerto Rico and then to Mexico in the pre-WW2 years to take advantage of favourable tariff regimes with the US, and created a marketing campaign which made it the pre-eminent tropical drink of its time.  A series of extremely capable family members (some of them in-laws) kept the voting shares and quality control up to scratch into the modern era.  And yet, it is considered fashionable today to bash the brand for its commonality and staid middle-of-the-roadishness.

Part of that is its utility.  The damned thing can be used for anything.  You can cook with it, drink it, mix it, use it as a base, an ingredient or a mixer. It has no real character except its lack of one.  It’s bland.  It’s like the a ’40s jeep or ’50s Land Rover or ’70s Toyota.  It’s the faceless English banker, the anonymous Japanese salaryman  of rums.  It is, succintly put, often seen as boring. But my lord, does it ever sell. The gold, the black, the white…they can be found everywhere

The 8-year old is something else again. Bacardi blends for the most part, but they’ve taken the time to put together this tawny golden blend of rums aged eight to sixteen years old and aged in used white oak barrels that once held sherry.  This might account for a softer and more candied nose than one might expect from what could be seen as just another young rum. It’s a tad sharp, yet not so medicinal as others I’ve had.  I’ve always meant to try it for that alone.

Tasting is a surprising delight: the slight sting to the nose disappears entirely, and a body of some substance makes sipping this without ice a definite must-try. It’s not as sweet as other rums, and the arrival on the throat is more like a dry, rich brandy, or the Bruichladdich Renegade rums.  It’s got a solid flavour profile, with traces of vanilla, nutmeg and light fruity undertones, perhaps peaches.  More to the point, it has real body, not some kind of anorexic thinness reminiscent of its cheaper cousins further down the scale.  And the finish is excellent, with a slow deep burn, not a sting: this rum is more like a decent whisky, I judge, with just enough sugar in it to keep me liking it.  A lot. I’d sip it straight with no problems, on ice without doubt, and as a mixer in any situation.

Bacardi 8 does not try for superiority (although the packaging is quite decent for its price and age…I particularly liked the cork stopper). It really is a good mid ranger, and in its own way, defines what a good rum could be if it doesn’t hanker after any kind of pretentiousness.  A superstar it’ll never be: as an all rounder, it may be one of those undiscovered steals that those who patronize the low-end rums feel is a find all their own, and they’d be right to think so. You wouldn’t be wasting your thirty-plus bucks if you dropped them on this quietly impressive product.

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