Jul 192017
 

#378

No matter how many other estates or companies make and market Jamaican rum, it’s a fair bet that when it comes to recognition, Appleton has cornered the market in their own land, much like DDL has in Guyana, or how FourSquare is currently dominating Barbados.  Recently I ran a few Appletons past each other (it’s one of the few decent rums one can get in the rum wasteland that is Toronto), and while the 21 year old, Master Blender’s Legacy and 30 year old are not on sale there, the rebranded “Rare Blend” 12 year old was.

Re-tasting the rum after a gap of some eight years was eye-opening.  My first encounter with it as a reviewer was back in 2009 and the short, unscored essay #5 came out in January 2010.  Things have changed in the intervening years – my palate developed, tasting became more nuanced, preferences underwent alterations…and from the other side, the rum and the bottle were worked over.  It was not the same rum I tried back then, nor like older versions from the 1980s and 1970s.  But what was not so evident to me then and which is clear to me now, is that the Appleton 12 year old rum in all its iterations over the years, is one of the core rums of the island and the style, a sort of permanent marker that almost defines “Jamaica rum”.  If one ever asks me in the future, what rum from there should one get first, or which rum should serve as a cornerstone of the Jamaican shelf, I’m going to point at it and say, “That one.”

This is because of its overall solidity of its assembly.  Consider how the nose presented, warm, just short of sharp, well constructed and pleasantly complex – it started with molasses, bananas, cream cheese, brine and dates, some citrus, cinnamon and apples just starting to go.  It provided a little oak (not much), and some tar, anise, vanilla and brown sugar, all very tightly and distinctly constructed – an excellent representation of everything Appleton stumbles a little on with their younger iterations, and which they amp up — not always as successfully — in the older ones.

The real key to capturing the rum’s essence is is the taste. How it feels in the mouth, how it develops over time. The palate is not particularly different from what one sensed on the nose, and I don’t think that was the intention – what it did was consolidate the gains made earlier, and build gently upon them, to provide a sipping experience that is a great lead-in to new drinkers wanting something upscale, without disappointing the hard core whose taste buds are more exacting.  It was smooth and velvety, the characteristic Jamaican funk present and accounted for (without actually becoming overbearing).  Salty caramel ice cream, stewed apples, citrus, cinnamon, gherkins in brine, vanilla and tannins for a little edge (perhaps a shade too much, but I wasn’t complaining).  After some time one could sense the background of rotting bananas, some herbals and perhaps a whiff of dill. The finish, while short, was warm and mellow, and gave up a last whiff of dates, caramel, more brine, and overall I’d say the rum was not overly complex, but the balance between the various components simply could not be faulted.  That’s what makes it a good all-round mid-tier rum.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that the 12 is a fantastic 95-pointer on par with or better other exceptional Jamaicans which I have scored high in the past.  It’s not.  It lacks their individuality, their uniqueness, their one-barrel dynamism and exacting natures, so no, it’s not that.  What makes it special and by itself almost be able to serve as a stand-in for a whole country’s rums, is that it encapsulates just about everything one likes about the island at once without shining at any one thing in particular or pissing anyone off in general.  It’s a rum for Goldilocks’s little bear – it’s not too hot and not too passive; not too massively funky, yet not too dialled-down either; no one aroma or taste dominates, yet the final product is of a remarkably high standard overall, self-evidently, almost emphatically, Jamaican.  Best of all, it’s affordable for what it provides, and I consider it one of the best price-to-quality rums currently extant.  In short, while it may not be the best rum ever made in Jamaica, it remains a quiet classic on its own terms, and one of the key rums in any rum lover’s cabinet.

(84/100)

Jan 192017
 

Photo (c) shopsampars.com

#337

Just about every rum junkie has heard of the J. Wray & Nephew 63% Overproof, Appleton’s flagship white lightning and that’s likely the variation that most people know about and have tried.  But since the 1990s, there’s been a local hooch, the Charley’s J.B. White Overproof (made by the Trelawny Rum Company which Appleton controls), primarily marketed in the backcountry…at that time it was aimed at rural farmers and considered a sort of 2nd tier tipple.  In 2015 the company decided to issue it to the urban market perhaps because people in the cities were getting annoyed at those wussy little forty percenters they had to suffer though, wondering why “dem lucky bredren in de backdam gettin’ all dat good bashwar”, and wanted to get something from near by Cockpit Country that would pack more animal in its jock.  And aside from actually stating that the Charley’s JB is a “Trelawny blend,” I’m not sure there’s much difference between it and the JW&N 63%.  Most people who’ve tried it just love the thing for its fiery, fruity and powerful taste.

Photo Courtesy of Matt Pietrek, the Cocktail Wonk

Like DDL’s High Wine, or the Rum Nation Pot still white 57% — and of course the Haitian clairins —  it channels a sort of barely contained ferocity. No easy lead up here: the rum puts you in the middle of the action immediately, with the very first sniff of the cap when cracked, so it’s probably a good idea to go easy for the first few minutes and let the alcohol burn off a mite.  Do that and you sense salty, fusel oil fumes, with sharp rubber, acetone, musty cardboard and leather vying to see which can skewer your schnozz the fastest. It stays sharp, and is like breathing the inside of a vulcanizing shop in hot weather, but it does develop well (if grudgingly), and aside from a weird glue aroma, a watery fruity punch of bananas, citrus, unripe green apples is also there, tied up neatly with the rich scent of new leather shoes still in the wrapping paper.

Tasting it more or less continues the experience and I am here to assure you that yes, to some extent, it really does smoothen out…just a little (well, it is 63% ABV, so you can’t expect too much).  Sweet watery pears, white guavas, watermelon, cucumbers, some dill and rosemary, squash segue their way across the tongue.  The crisp tartness of the nose mellows into something more akin to plums and blackcurrants with a flirt of gooseberries thrown in, if you can believe it, but just add a little water (coconut water might be better), and the feral beast goes quiescent in labba time.  The finish? Nothing shabby – nice, long, fruity, estery, sugar water and soursop ice cream, plus the faintest bit of rubber and smoke. Overall, it’s a crude iron axe, not a sword made from Damascus steel, and that’s apparent all the way through….but “little axe does chop down big tree” as my great aunty Sheila always used to tell me so sanctimoniously.

Frankly, I’m amazed that Quazi4Moto, my correspondent on reddit, agreed to spot me a sample (many, many thanks to the man for sending it along).  This isn’t the best white ever made by a long shot, and it shows its cheerful working class origins clearly…but it sure is a unique one, a taste bomb of savage, raw quality, and if it belonged to me and I knew I wasn’t going back for rice and peas any time soon, I’m not entirely convinced if I’d have shared it myself.

See, I’m aware it’s powerful and uncouth and needs some dialling down, and them crazies who quaff it neat are clearly purveyors of over-the-cliff machismo who are afraid of absolutely nothing; and to be sure, it proudly struts a massive codpiece of taste that falls this side short of a mess, and which will curl your toes without busting a sweat. But you know, in its own way it’s a really freakin’ cool white rum. So what if it’s untamed and maybe too sharp?  So what if it growls down our throats as if mixed with undiluted tiger blood? It’s in no way a bad hooch, and those who make it past their initial despite might find themselves – like me — breathing hard, grinning stupidly, and nodding that yeah, they’ll take another shot.  Maybe two.

(82/100)

Other Notes

According to the Cocktail Wonk’s informative post, in the good old days, such rural backwoods rums were undesirably-congener-rich heads and tails cuts pilfered from the distillery process, which gave rise to the humorous grumble that it tasted “like a John Crow batty” (in Jamaican creole it refers to a vulture’s ass…quite poetic, yes?).  I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the initials CJB of the rum are the same, if out of order.  I can’t find much data on who Charley was, or what J.B actually stands for.  Maybe I’ll have to go to Jamaica to find out.

Mar 302013
 

Pretty good all rounder, marred somewhat by an excessive spiciness that lends itself well to a cocktail without enhancing the rum as a sipping spirit.

(#129 . 77/100)

***

 Appleton’s Reserve rum from J. Wray & Nephew (in business since 1825) out of Jamaica — recently in the news for its 50 year old rum as well as a controlling stake of the main Trinidadian conglomerate being acquired by Campari — is a product that is an order of magnitude better than the entry-level V/X, assuming you use it for what I think it’s meant for: a mixer. The V/X, which is from the low end of the scale of Appleton’s products, is not meant to be a sipping spirit (though of course you can) and the Reserve is a step up from there (still has a cheap tinfoil cap, mind). Yet it still hasn’t broken into the category of rums you can pleasurably have neat – that, in my opinion, begins with the quite excellent 12 year old (although the cap remains the same).

The Reserve is a blend of twenty different Appleton pot-still and column-still rums aged for an unspecified period (I’ve heard eight years) in Jack Daniels barrels. Given that Appleton does not have a five year old rum – an odd omission in its lineup, I think – I find the eight years possible, but surprising that it is not mentioned as such right up front, since rums between five and ten years of age are often referred to as hitting the sweet spot before the blender’s art kicks in to start masking and smoothening out the inevitable oak prescence of ageing beyond that point

Initial arrival of this amber rum was quite sharp, and the characteristic Appleton signatures of orange zest and citrus were evident right away. Once it settled, one could perceive some winey notes commingled with bananas, cloves, caramel and burnt sugar…and an oakiness I really didn’t care much for.

That oak (something I’ve whinged about as far up the food chain as the 21 and 30 year old) made the taste of the medium bodied Reserve somewhat less than it could have been, because really, it was a shade sharp and raw. Uncouth and unlettered, one might say. There was a smoky background that started to come out, enhanced by vanilla, butterscotch and maybe nutmeg and cinnamon to go along with the citrus notes, yet those tannins imparted a sharpness to the whole which I did not find appealing – in fairness, I must simply concede that the V/X was sharper and thinner still, so this one certainly won out by being incrementally better.

As for the finish, it was as short and biting as a pissed off Shetland and to my mind, nothing really earthshaking – it’s about what I would expected taking into account the foregoing, although with some ice to tame it down a shade, it became a lot better, with a sly butterscotch and cinnamon close (I don’t really recommend this, by the way, but that’s a personal thing).

Summing up, then, I think that for all my complaining about the spiciness of the whole, the Reserve is a step up from the V/X. It has the characteristic Appleton taste profile for those who like it, slightly dialled down. It’s edging gently (but not quite all the way) into the territory of rums one can reasonably drink by themselves…is just a shade too heated and biting for true enjoyment in this manner. The problem this creates for the Reserve is that it makes it neither fish nor fowl – I can get a cheaper, decent mixing agent in the V/X, and a better sipping rum at a reasonable price in the twelve year old…which leaves the Reserve sitting — like a forlorn second child not knowing whether to play with its older sibling’s friends or younger one’s dolls — rather uncomfortably in the middle.

 

Mar 302013
 

Though not as in your face as its older brother, it’s still too oaky for me.  It’ll be the bees knees for anyone who prefers a rum with a drier mouthfeel, less sugar and more tannins in their rums than I do. This one’s all about opinion.

(#123. 83/100)

***

The Appleton Estate 21 year old rum has been around long enough for most reviewers to have had a chance to check it out…in my case, I simply never got around to it, having been less than enthused about the Master Blender’s Legacy, the blend of which it said the 21 forms the backbone.  Plus, there are so many other good 21 year old rums out there at a lesser cost (the El Dorado 21 and the Juan Santos 21 to name just two) that I haven’t felt the need to shell out the C$130 for it.

Be that as it may, the 21 is the one of the first of the company’s premium rums (the Legacy, 30 and 50 year old are the others, and others will argue the 12 year old should be on the list as well), and deserves notice.  Presentation wise it’s nothing special – tin can enclosure, and the same bottle and the same pressed on tin cap as the entry level V/X (a good mixing rum if there ever was one), which always struck me as odd given its supposed cachet as a top flight spirit.

The initial not-too-spicy nose of this 43% dark copper-coloured rum were deep and winey, with rich scents of dried fruits that almost, but did not quite descend to the depths of a wine-based spirit. Faint vegetal and herbal notes, with almost none of the signature citrus that are supposedly the hallmark of many of Appleton’s rums.  After settling down a bit, the pleasurable aromas of burnt sugar (not caramel) and light flowers made themselves shily known.

On the palate, as I have noticed in the past (and here), there was a certain driness in the medium bodied rum, something astringent, mitigated just enough by a heated smoothness that was far from unpleasant, yet transformed the 21 into something more akin to a cognac, also a characteristic of the El Dorado 15, as some have observed (mi padre being one of them). After a while, the sweet began to emerge from hiding in tandem with faint lemon rind and nutty notes (pecan? walnut?), and upon further opening, the 21 became a bit smoky, the sweet was overpowered, though a subtle whiff of vanilla could be noted coiling around the other tastes. I’d judge it bit better than the Legacy on that score, and the relatively long fade, which was a neat sandwich of orange peel, cinnamon and oak, cemented my opinion.

That said, I’m not entirely enamoured of the prevalence of the sharper oak tannins, which held, to me, a somewhat unhealthy dominance over the other, subtler flavours that never quite got their chance in the sun: I sensed they were there, but the defense was too strong.  The copper-still-made rum is a blend of molasses-based rums aged a minimum of 21 years in used Jack Daniels barrels, and so are others of similar age, yet with no other comparable product is the drinker fended away from more complex flavours (and bashed over the head quite as insouciantly) as here. Similar concerns over time have led me to downgrade my initially high opinion of the 30 year old.  The 21 costs enough and is premium enough, limited enough, for us as drinkers who fork over our cash to expect something more.

The thing is, I have a high opinion of Appleton and their products, the company’s longevity and even their rare and pricier bottlings (the 50 is a case in point, though I’ll never buy it) – what is happening more and more often is that I prefer to stick with their lower-tier products and use those as mixing agents for a pleasant late-in-the-week sundowner, rather than incur my wife’s not inconsiderable wrath and buy an overpriced hooch which after the dust has settled, simply does not deliver on its promise.

Now that’s just depressing.

 

Mar 272013
 
The press release photo…

A truly wonderful rum which is simply too expensive for regular drinkers, in spite of its quality. It’s just too out of reach for us proles, alas.

(#120 / 90.5/100)

*

“I have left instructions in my will,” growled Kanflyer on the Ministry of Rum, echoing the sentiments of many, “For my grieving (?) widow to take the insurance settlement, find a bottle of this and toast my memory with my friends…both of them. There is no way I could spend $5k on a bottle of rum while I’m still kicking around.” In two humourously pithy sentences Kanflyer (may his glass never be empty) encapsulated the rank and file’s opinion on Appleton’s most heavily hyped and most expensive production rum ever, the Independence Reserve.

Appleton’s 50 year old Jamaican Independence Reserve rum is so audacious that when I call it a vanity project, all you can really do is admire a company crazy enough to make it. Even with its vanishingly small production run of eight hundred bottles, you have to concede that here’s a product that really has no reason to exist at the price point of US$5000, which puts the 58-year-old Longpond at one fifth the price to shame.

The cost of this one bottle is high enough to make me a small one-man special interest group with some hefty clout in the capital.  For the price, I could fund the Whisky Pilgrim on ATW for a decade, buy enough Bacardi to keep me drunk until the Rapture, all the Renegades that will ever be made and just about all the El Dorado and Rum Nation rums currently in production (maybe twice). Quite frankly, there’s nothing that I know about to which I can seriously compare it unless it’s the 37 year old Courcelle from Guadeloupe, or the 58 year old Longpond from G&M (and frankly, I really wish people would stop saying that the 50 the oldest rum available in the world, because even if the Longpond isn’t the only other one, the fact that it’s there at all put a lie to Appleton’s press statement).

So it’s perhaps almost anticlimactic to discuss the characteristics of the rum (I was given a sample to try by Andrew of the KWM and had it again – twice – at a tasting event), but let’s forge on regardless.  The nose of the dark copper fifty year old began with notes of hay and grasses, and dark brown sugar melting in the tropical heat.  Freshly cut tobacco leaves, raisins, a hint of cherries.  My seven year old, who wanted to know what Daddy was doing, sniffed, opined “vanilla” and walked away.  But what coiled out and took over the balance was a kind of luxuriously heavy honey scent that really was quite heavenly. It blew away the thirty year old like yesterday’s news.

Distilled from molasses and aged in the standard used oak barrels, the rum is a blend of twenty rums whose minimum age is fifty years.  Distilling it to 45% was the right decision, I think – had it not been a little overproofed, I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much (I was tasting it with the Appleton Reserve, the 21 year old and the 30 all together).  It had a medium body, and arrived with a luscious taste of fresh honey and nuts (no, not Cheerios), and had a deep and dark mouthfeel like velvet, no sting or bite, just a warm, slow heat that gradually revealed notes of cinnamon and lemon zest.  Yes there were oaky notes on this baby, just not as evident and unwelcome as the thirty turned out to have, and just the right amount of sugar in the rum gave it an excellent and harmonious balance.  The fade was long and lasting, redolent of leather and smoke and a faint nuttiness.  An excellent – no, a phenomenal – product all around, and while it may not be worth every penny of five grand, if you can get a taste, don’t pass it up.

Here’s the thing.  It’s a good rum, a great rum…perhaps even brilliant one.  Appleton have somehow managed to weed out the overbearing oakiness that to some (I have gradually become one of them) marred the 30 year old. It may lack the stern, uncompromising beefiness of cask strength offerings I’ve been sampling recently, yet the 45% strength is good for what it attempts, which is to be intense, flavourful and a damned good drink. I liked it a lot. It handily shows any 46% Renegade Rum the door.

But I honestly don’t know who is supposed to drink this rum, because at close to $200 per shot, I know I couldn’t, and actually, I’m not even convinced it is meant to be anything other than a collector’s piece for oligarchs, politicians, ambassadors, industry CEOs and the rich and powerful (and crass). Even Joy Spence remarked “This will emphasise the ‘premium-ness’ of Appleton. It’s a halo for the other brands of the estate to bring them up.” So it’s an advertisement rather than something for wide distribution, the way the Nikon F6 film camera is…great stuff, far too pricey and ultimately, kinda useless. This is a luxury rum on steroids, a sort of flagship marquee that bellows “Here I am!” to the world, like a pig-ignorant over-decorated geriatric driving a Lambo, ostentatiously tooting the horn at a traffic light.  It’ll provide the company, marketers, bloggers, reviewers and its fortunate owners with exactly what they desire, yes: but whether it’s exactly what they deserve…well, that’s quite another matter.

***

Other notes:

Tasted together with Appleton Reserve, 21 yr old 43%, 30 yr old 43%, El Dorado 25 43%

This rum review was long enough that I didn’t bother describing the presentation – I justified this breach of reviewing etiquette by telling myself that every press release and news article has already mentioned it, so I didn’t have to.  I may change that in a while after my backlog is taken care of.

Wait a while…I read in a Jamaican paper that Appleton is going to produce a 100 year old rum in 2062.  Pardon me if I don’t start saving for that.

 

Mar 262013
 

First posted January 21st, 2011 on Liquorature

(#064)

Good rum, solid mid-tier sipper, but if you like something a bit more biting and clearly defined my take is for you to stop messing around and get the 21-year old, which is one of the cores of this one. It’s like buying a Boxster just because you’re too cheap to get the 911, and hoping the ladies don’t notice. Watch for the twitchy ride in either case.

***

The heart of this Jamaican rum produced by J. Wray and Nephew is a 21 year old rum blended with an 18, 15 and 12 year old (according to that valuable source, Michael from Willow Park – and here I need to post an addendum, that Chip Dykstra of the Rumhowler blog told me in late 2010 that Appleton reps had told him the 30-year old is also part of final blend), and the resultant is aged in oak barrels once used for Jack Daniels. For a rum that is this old and at almost at the top of its price range (~$100, compared to ~$135 for the 21 year old, and ~$320 for the 30 year old), I have to admit to being somewhat let down by its presentation: a cheaply made tin concealing the same old bottle with just a different coloured label is not my way of advertising one of the premium products of my line. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that presentation isn’t everything (just observing the way I dress should disabuse anyone of the notion that I have to have the outside match the inside) – it’s just that for the price of this baby, one expects…a little more. And in my review of rums, I find this issue across all of Appleton’s wares.

That said, I admired the deep bronze colour of the decanted liquid in a clear glass, and the aroma hinted enticingly of burnt sugar and (oddly enough), of maple syrup — not something I associate with the Caribbean, really. Perhaps a little pear. A sip and a taste revealed no major disappointment: mellow, smooth, rich on the tongue, with some nip from citrus peelings, and an odd sharpness on the backend . If one looks, one can discern the hints of oak, and vanilla, even some honey. It was a good rum: you could almost taste the way the younger rums enhance the central older one.

The finish is long and smooth, and then, somehow, it just falls short of being a really top rum by having the body fail and thin out (I can think of no other way to express this feeling) and turn bitchy on the way down, like an expensive courtesan who resents what she is and scratches you for your trouble after you’ve forked over and put out. Honestly, the finish ends on a whiskey note that is totally unexpected and not entirely welcome. I appreciate the craft that went into making this blend, and look forward to one day trying the Limited Edition 30-year old, but for something this close to being excellent, it’s a cruel letdown. It goes all the way to 99%, and then quits. Aaargh.

And this isn’t just me. This is the second of three really superior rums I had on hand for the April 2009 session, and yet it was pipped in the opinions of the participants by not only the Flor de Cana 18 year old, but the 12 year old Zaya (a poke in the eye for those who believe age confers quality so far as the good stuff is concerned)

Maybe the packaging wasn’t lying after all.

 

Mar 262013
 

Originally Posted 25 December 2010.  Photo courtesy of Chip Dykstra’s Rum Howler Blog

(#061)

***

Let’s assume that there is a place where goodness reigns, the evil get punished, all kittens get rescued from trees and lotteries are won by the deserving. Trust me when I tell you that the Appleton 151 does not hail from here. This raging brown liquid is the Rum of Sauron. No, it’s Sauron’s dark effluent after he drinks the Rum of Sauron. Wussie whiskies such as the cask strength 60-percenters run crying to their mommies when the 151 approaches.

Appleton 151 is a dark, sinful, bottled morals charge, a mischievous indecent wink against our perceptions of rum. It takes no prisoners, expresses itself in four letter words, and is unashamedly, unapologetically vulgar. It’s a barbarian trying to eat with a knife and fork. You show this fella in public, you’ll either be arrested on sight or be accosted on every street corner being furtively, wistfully or eagerly asked “Where the hell can I get me some of that?”

The 151 series from an y maker may be the ne plus ultra of overpoofs. Rums like this will never really be made fresh or new again. While I may be exaggerating just a smidgen, it is my considered opinion that distilling and blending techniques have now gotten sophisticated enough for overproofs to be taken seriously as drinks in their own right, and not just bases and mixers and cooking ingredients. You see, although generations of gleeful blenders and traumatized drinkers think otherwise, the purpose of an overproof is not really to cause you pain or get you drunk: it’s to deliver a concentrated flavor unobtainable anywhere else, at any other strength.

As an example, take the Appleton’s nose. I wouldn’t recommend this, but this is what I did and you’re welcome to try: take a hearty sniff of this sour Klingon sweat. A massively alcoholic man-eating lion will leap fiercely at your defenseless snoot. You will fall back, feet excavating spade sized trenches from the ground, pounding frantically on your chest, not the least because your breastbone feels like it’s now somewhere behind your spine. Once the fire goes out and the spirit fumes have finished raping your beak, in between bouts of delirium you will remember that there was a deep caramel taste, a cinnamon shot, and a scratch of vanilla. Really. Personally, I think you’d be lucky to find your sinuses again (ever), but you see what I mean? The nose is a Godzilla of flavor if you stick with it and move through the pain.

Knowing it was my duty to take one for the team and complete the review in an appropriately stiff-upper-lip fashion, I sipped it when I managed to draw a thimble of oxygen into my seared chest and the uranium spill in my lungs reached its natural half life. This roughly equates to rapidly following up stupidity with an act of irredeemable idiocy. You’d think by now I’d learn to mix this stuff, but no…I had to take the taste neat, and a good sized one at that. Never let it be said, guys, that I wasn’t there for you when it counted.

Big friggin’ mistake. A lake of fire exploded. The sobriety I had fondly embraced became the sobriety I had just left behind. There was a concussive cchuuuff of vanilla, caramel and light citrus that scaped across my tongue just before I lost track of ten minutes of my life in one searing amnesiac flash. My tongue writhed like a serpent doing a rain dance, my tonsils vapourized, and my head spun as rapidly as if I had just been hooked up to the high-speed paint shaker at Home Depot. I lost twenty IQ points, and I swear the Appleton 151 caused my DNA to devolve on the spot. Ugh mug kook aagh.

I don’t know about you, but me, I gave up. Forget nose, forget taste, forget finish. Like all highly overproofed rums out there, there’s simply no point to it. It’s got a ferocious taste, sure, but let’s be honest: the 151 is not meant to be a garden party sipper or socializing enabler. Tasting notes are pointless here.

Because, guys, come on: all of you who are reading this and snickering, none of you ever tried this stuff for its bouquet, or aroma or its elegant fade, redolent of whatever-the-hell-they-added. You didn’t drink it because your Tanti Merle made a great Black Cake from it, and her eggnog was to die for. You drank it because you were young, because you were high on life, and because you wanted to get loaded as fast as possible. Because it was your passport to manhood among The Boys, because Grampi always had it, because la petite femme over there on the floor of the bottom-house Old Years party was giving you the eye and might kiss you later if she thought you had some balles. You drank it then because it was your rite of passage to all other rums that came after, and you drink it now because you want to remember the bright sharp days of your youth when the world was an apple in your mouth. So forget this review. Just put it away, pour a shot and enjoy the rum as a high test mixer.

***

Addendum:

In my more imaginative (some may call this drunken) moments, I like to spare a thought to that doyenne of master blenders, the Nefertiti of the Noble Spirit, and the queen we rumsters all worship: Joy Spence, the creative force at Appleton. Love the lady. Never met her. Drink all her hooch. I like to imagine her in the bowels of the Appleton estate, in a dark, dank, Lovecraftian cavern, a huge pyrex beaker the size of my first apartment bubbling and burping and farting over a superannuated Bunsen burner as she cackles and stirs the evil concoction within. A last flick of her wrist and the wing of bat and eye of newt joins the wart of toad and egg of..well, whatever. A raven screams shrilly somewhere, the cavern rumbles, lightning flashes, and the liquid within the beaker burns fierce green, then bright red, then fades to clear brown. Joy purrs happily, smirks, stirs one more time and draws off the resultant golden bile which is the ambrosia for her legions of the demented.

And calls it Appleton 151.

Yeah. That’s pretty much the way it’s gotta be made.

Mar 262013
 

 

First reviewed December 1st, 2010 on Liquorature. (#052)

The V/X is an ostentatious shot across the bows of Bacardi – it may be one of the world’s best mixing, use-for-anything rums that you will have no trouble picking up anywhere, but the spicy sting in the tail makes it unsuitable for sipping.

***

It’s always the same: the cobbler’s kids have no shoes, the accountant doesn’t do his own taxes, and this reviewer doesn’t review a rum he’s been drinking for years.  I mean, you’d think by now I would have rounded off the Appleton section by at least attempting a review of the V/X, which may arguably be one of the best known and most consistently purchased rums in Calgary.  Some fifty four reviews along, and I still haven’t bothered, even though I have a 1.75L jug in my house at all times for those occasions when I don’t feel like paying attention, or when forty-plus guests arrive and I need something that will go well for everyone, and with which all are familiar.

From the preceding remarks you’ll gather that Appleton’s V/X is pretty much a working man’s drink, a mixer, blue-collar for sure, suitable for those who don’t want to indulge in the more premium lines, don’t have the bling to blow, or simply don’t care.  And that’s perfectly fine – hell, do you honestly believe that everyone who likes rum only goes for the top end, all the time? The thing is, the V/X, for what it is, is good.  It makes no pretensions to grandeur; does not make any claims to a premium or sipper status, and represents the Appleton Estate well.  In this one entry-level rum, you find all the hints, tastes and blending choices which get progressively more pronounced and refined as you go up the scale of the Appletons.

The bottle is the standard bottle with which everyone is familiar. Rounded, thick waisted, fat-battied, well known. The copper-red-brown rum has a medium body, blended from fifteen different rums matured in oak barrels that previously held Jack Daniels (not bourbon).  In the glass it lacks real viscosity and demonstrates thin legs that trail rapidly down the sides.  I know it’s not much of a sipper, but I follow the usual procedures: and on the nose, after I let the glass stand a bit to open up and the sharpness of the initial sniff wears off, there is the brown sugar and caramel, mixed with that slight perfume of citrus which is the Appleton signature (like bananas on the Mount Gay). The smell is sharp and pungent, and you feel something a bit more raw than the rungs further up the ladder: all pretty much par for the course.  On the palate the rum is not smooth (were you seriously expecting it to be? come on, be serious), but the citrus notes balance well with the burnt sugar, caramel and a slightly fruity tang. I’ve heard some people taste nuts, but not me.

What you do get is that slight bitterness from the oaken tannins that so characterizes the Appleton rums, and in this entry level rum, it comes earlier. It continues through to a spicy finish that is more sting than burn (for those who ask what the difference is, a sting is like sharp cat’s claws, short, sharp and painful; a burn is more like a mellow kind of deep, long lasting not-quite-pain which is like a hot cup of tea carving its way into your system), and for this reason, it’s no surprise that Appleton V/X is more mixer than sipper.  Some brave souls might like it with just ice, which is fine: it’s more complex the more you stick with it, and for this reason, I want to express my opinion that it’s one of the more underrated rums around.  A mixer, yes…but still underrated, like the English Harbour five, for example.

Almost everyone I know in Canada has, at one time or another, tasted the V/X. It is a constant feature at parties (thrown by people of any nationality), and one of those staples of the drinking season one remembers fondly as one moves up the quality scale.  Like Bacardi, it is a rum made to please many: it has good body, a unique taste, and is good to mix with just about anything.  You won’t want to drink the V/X straight – it’s not designed for that – but in any kind of cocktail (and even just the old standby of rum and coke), it performs superbly, each component of the drink enhancing the other; you can simply stretch out on the veranda, watch the sun set and forget your worries for a bit, with a glass of this excellent bottom-feeder in your hand.  And I say that because I do that on just about every Friday evening, and it’s the V/X I reach for the most often when I do.

Mar 242013
 

Raw white overproof, fun to drink mix or celebrate with…as the Jamaicans have long since known.

First posted 01 November, 2010. #045

***

To be honest, I’m not entirely clear why people – aside from binge drinkers, students and serial alcoholics, whose motives are clearer — bother to drink white overproofs straight on a regular basis.  The taste is simply too raw for real appreciation, in my opinion (though I have had several “full proof” rums which avoid this sharp stiletto to the palate, so it’s by no means a hard and fast rule).  But I suppose they’re like those long distance runners who believe that twenty six miles is for sissies, and run ultra marathons instead. Tail end of the bell curve, or something like that. Or maybe they got used to in their youth in an old-country beer garden, or some trading post-cum-rumshop in the backdam; or believe it makes them more macho; gets them high faster; mixes better.  Who the hell knows? If it’s one thing I’ve discovered in writing these reviews, is that there is as wide a variety of tastes as there are rums, and what is derided by one may be equally praised (fulsomely so) by another.

Whatever the case, there is actually a pretty good market for overproof rums among drinkers: overproofs are supposedly for cocktail bases and cooking purposes, but that never stopped anyone I ever met, male or female: one of my most enduring memories of working (and boozing) in the bush is a young Amerindian girl, passed out dead drunk on the Baramita airstrip, a bottle of Brazilian 99% alcool clutched tight in her left hand, and I know men who simply pace themselves better with strong spirits than with weak ones.  That said, as I was researching and reading online readers’ fora about Stroh 54 (and 80), Bacardi’s 151 and the Clarke’s Court Pure White, knowing what I knew about Guyanese “High Wine” and now writing about the J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof, it seems to me that some people simply prefer it. And that’s perfectly proper.

The white I discuss here is bottled at a relatively mild 63%, which would make scotch drinkers quite happy, I suppose.  It is, as any rum aficionado can immediately tell you, manufactured by the Jamaican boys who make Appleton Estate rums: and while the Appletons are easily purchased the world over, I get the impression that this white lightning is not easily or commercially available outside the Caribbean – which is indeed where my Torontonian squaddie John had picked it up on one of his sojourns to the Islands.  It may be the single most popular rum in Jamaica, and mostly drunk mixed.

Therein lies the rub.  Drinking an overproof of any kind is not a matter of sipping it neat, or even on ice.  The J. Wray variant in this review is pretty strong, searing stuff without question: a massive, raw, ethanol delivery system that could knock a platoon out by breakfast time with one quick inhale.  At the inception the white has almost no taste: it’s pretty flavourless beyond some kind of smoky, oil-fire kero tang coiling behind the nasty burn, which means that it’ll take on the flavours of whatever you chose to mix into it. Sure you might get some hints of orange peel, licorice and a peppery kind of spiciness at the back end (nose?  what nose?), but truly, the only way to get any enjoyment at all out of something like this is to mix it, because all tastes are burned to a crisp by the spirit fire fairly fast (and in the distance I can hear the sneers of the Maltmonster as he delicately noses his favourite Ardbeg, neat).

Do that and this transparent medium body rum fares rather well, I thought (not without a little surprise). It makes a mean bastard of a Cuba Libre, a deep and strong Mai Tai that kicks the crap out of you in labba time, and I can almost guarantee that there isn’t a household of Jamaicans – expatriate or homeboys – who don’t have a bottle of this stuff kicking around.  Like Guyanese with their XM five, it has all sorts of social connotations: crack a bottle and immediately you pour a capful on the ground to return some to those who aren’t with you; have a housewarming, and grace the floor with a drop or two; touch of the rheumatiz? – rub dem joints with a shot; mek a pickney…put a dab ‘pon he forehead if he sick; got a cold…tek a shot and rub a shot.  And so on.  Of course, it must be noted that all the usual safety advisories are in order as well, given the flammability of something this close to pure ethanol.

I have gained a sort of sneaking appreciation for overproofs, including this one, because while it lacks the subtlety of a more refined 40% variation (subtlety? don’t make me laugh…the thing is like a charging brontosaurus on steroids at rutting time), it makes an intense, strong, powerfully tasting mix with whatever you decide to chase it. Try adding cola to a 40% low-ender and then to the White Overproof and try and tell me this one doesn’t have more character, more taste, more…well, cojones. It absolutely is not afraid to charge the gates and get the hell off the reservation.  When you drink J. Wray’s clear hooch, reader, there’s no ifs, ands or buts — you know Elvis has left the building; and didn’t just exit, he took off with rocket-powered, turbo-charged steel-toed boots. And a jet pack.

So if you believe that major rum producers have pussied out and are producing too many high end, over-sugared, liqueur-tasting sweet drinks (like spiced rums, underproofs or Pyrat’s) for the masses of the unwashed and the hordes of the rabble (like myself); and if you think your chest lacks sufficient cylindrical, keratinous filaments; and that you are swinging a pair of weighty ones that should be addressed by a man’s drink — well, then it’s entirely possible that you are just waiting to buy a gallon or three of this popskull, made by one company that remembers its roots and continues to distil a real rum.

Always assuming, of course, that you do not already own some.

Mar 232013
 

 

First posted May 17, 2010 on Liquorature. (#019. 88.5/100)

A smooth, complex, warm, rich and all-round-awesome creation which fails ever so slightly on the back stretch because of excessive oakiness, just enough to defer sainthood for Joy Spence.  Should be drunk in miniscule sips, with hat off, and head bowed reverentially down.

***

I’ve remarked before that there are only three ways of deciding whether to buy a rum you know nothing about and which you cannot taste to test in the shop: one, by price; two by information filtering through from others (i.e., word of mouth or one’s own research) and three, by age. One might also and reasonably concern oneself with the way it looks – both bottle and liquid – or whether the rum is old enough to have sex with itself or not, but since so many are blends, it’s not always easy to tell (and Rums have this irritating tendency not to be bound by whiskey’s strictures of stating the age of any blend as the youngest part of the blend).

Based on these admittedly half-assed standards, the best rum in the world might actually be the English Harbour 1981, because it comes in a sturdy red-maroon cardboard box, the bottle cork is a real one, not the pissy little plastic nonsense, and is sealed with old-fashioned red sealing wax (gotta love those touches, man); and it has received rave reviews from all over, as well as having a dark look and strong legs of a rum that really means business.  My imaginary friend Keenan has more than once observed (rather sourly) that he absolutely hates being dinged an extra ten bucks or more for a decidedly mediocre offering, simply because ten cents’ worth of extra whistles and bells was put on the bottle in an effort to “tart ‘er up”, as he so colourfully puts it.

So what can I say in a rum review of (hats off, and bow heads respectfully here) the Appleton Estate 30 year old?  This is a rum which is arguably at the peak of the distillers art in Jamaica. It is the most expensive rum I have ever seen. It has a bottle shape different from all the other Appleton offerings, up to and including the decent 21-year old which – horrors! – still comes in the cheapskate cylindrical tin, still has that fat-ass bottle shape of the entry level V/X and still retains the ridiculous cheap metal cap (what are these people thinking?). Now the 30-year-old has a fat cork shaped like a grizzly’s d**k. The rum is burnished copper and within the bottle dance hams two dance-hall girls past their prime would weep with envy over.  And yet, as if they heard Keenan’s grumbles, the makers put this pristine lass in the same piece-of-crap tin cylinder that embraces bottles a quarter of the price.  I don’t know who does the marketing for these boys, truly.

If you see one of these, or hear of one for sale, then your whole drinking life to this moment comes into perfect perspective.  To buy or not to buy, that is the question. In my youth, I would have said screw it and walked away, reasoning that my hard earned dollars were better off – and would go further, afford more enjoyment – in purchasing the equivalent fifteen bottles or so if SDR tipple.  But in my dyspeptic old age, quality is so rarely seen that it almost seems a crime to let something at the top of the heap – pricewise and appearance-wise – get away just because one was being a cheapo.  This line of reasoning is a little flawed, I’ll grant you, but it got me past last Friday with no problems.

Only 1,440 bottles of the ultra-exclusive 30 year old 90-proof rum were produced from six casks. Of those, 744 went to the USA and 30 to New Zealand in 2009, and the rest got scattered around the world. The resident ruminsky at Willow Park, a gent by the name of Michael, noted that they had six in the cellar, and I saw another four at Co-op the other day, I read a post on the Ministry of Rum that 156 went to Ontario in May 2010… all of which makes one wonder where the other 500 in the world are being held. I shut my eyes tight, forked over my credit card, and one of the pricier rums ever seen by me to this point became mine.

The individual marques that make up the 30-year-old originate from small-batch copper pots and columnar stills, and were all aged a minimum of eight years, blended, and then aged for a further twenty-two years in oak barrels from Tennessee which once held Jack Daniels.  After that length of time, the great fear of the drinker and the great challenge of the blender, is how to make the resultant not become so infused with the oak that you end up with something that is no longer a rum (but not quite a whiskey).

The Bear being unavailable (or my imagination not bringing him to life, depending on whether or not you believe the man exists), and I being unable to contain my desire to crack the bottle, I hustled over to the Last Hippie’s place, knowing he was out drowning his sorrows in cheap Scotch on his backyard deck in his daughter’s pilfered Barbie cup. Just as Dumbledore had to give blood to pass into Voldemort’s hiding place, I had to endure a dram of excellent whiskey which I had no appreciation for (sorry Curt, couldn’t resist).  Then we reverently opened the 30-year-old, swirled, took a deep sniff and a sip so dainty the Queen of England would have been proud.

Wow.

The rum had real body. The colour was a burnished copper-bronze, and it had the fat, slow legs of an over-the-hill stripper. The nose was an exhilerating and subtly complex combination of orange peel (the Appleton signature), caramel, maple sugar (yes, maple), vanilla and baked pears.  On the palate the smoothness of this baby was unbelievable.  I was waiting with trepidation for the oak peg-leg to the face and a deep burn on the way down, but somehow Appleton have managed to take 30 years’ maturation in oak and de-fang the taste many might expect, to create a smooth, mellow sipper which is redolent of vanilla, caramel, burnt sugar and spices, but which lacks the sweetness some might want in their rums.  Like Renegade’s offerings, there’s no getting around an oaken component some mislike for being too in-your-face (I said it was muted, not absent) but the smoothness of the overall blend made it a phenomenal drink.  The finish is excellent, lingering in the throat, not overpowering you, just staying there and gradually dissipating with the hints of molasses and spices remaining, and a suggestion of tannins and oaken flavours that many may find excessive.  But really, a masterful piece of work. For the record, I believe Curt thought so too –  though rum isn’t really his thing, he’s generous enough to lend grudging appreciation to his friend’s madnesses when they deserve it (even if the reverse is not true).

With a rum costing this much (it is $500+ in Ontario, last time I checked), one has, after the fact, to be a little dispassionate – even cold – about one’s review. One cannot simply let one’s expenditure dictate a positive opinion.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to: that it was a rum on par with the other elephant in the room is not under dispute.  The questions is, would one buy it again – or recommend it to someone else who had the money but wasn’t sure. For example, with the $200 EH25, I would unhesitatingly say yes (and have). Was the smoothness, the subtlety of the taste, the exclusiveness of the issue, worth it? After all, if the EH25 was like having a slow love-in with your mistress, then the Appleton 30 should have been like a surprising mad romp in the sheets with a wife you’re crazy in love with.  Was it?

The bottom line is both yes and no, and one of the reasons this review is so long is because in my own meandering way, I want to be honest about my feelings regarding it. It is a lovely rum. A lovely sipper.  It’ll come out to be sampled rarely.  It is one of the smoothest rums I’ve ever had, and one of the most complex.  But in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, it falls short of true greatness.  This could be because of the crap packaging; and the slight lack of sweetness, that final nip of bitterness, which, as I have said before, is what I want in a rum, and why I don’t care for whiskey.  It has a lovely hue and colour and legs, and the body is excellent.  But perhaps in ageing it that long too much oak ended up in the taste, subtle as it was, and too much effort placed into muting that, not entirely to the advantage of the finished product. (“Too smooth!” thundered Keenan, and quickly poured himself another shot to make sure he was right). Having said all of the above, let me say that I unhesitatingly and unreservedly recommend it above any of the other Appleton offerings, and I am really in awe of what Appleton have done, as I was with the English Harbour.

I just think for that price point, it should have bowled the EH-25 for duck, and instead, got nailed for two byes. I’m paying for a limited edition, not for the ultimate quality of the rum. The Jamaicans came in with a powerhouse cricket team and the Antiguans pipped the innings.

For a rum this exclusive, this hyped and this expensive, I cannot help but call that a defeat.

A:8/10 N:22/25 T:15/25 F:19/25 I:13/15 TOT: 77/100

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