Bottled in 2004 at a lukewarm 43%, Bristol Spirits have somehow transcended the living room strength of this classic 30 year old rum and produced one of the best Jamaicans of its kind. Even under some time pressure, I still had that glass on the go for two full hours, smelling it over and over, tasting it in the tiniest of sips again and again, comparing, retasting, rechecking, making more and more notes, and in the fullproof company of Guyanese and Jamaicans I was trying alongside it, it was a standout of no mean proportions. We simply do not see rums of this kind any longer – we can with some effort get 15-20 year olds, we may be able to source a few rums in their twenties, but when was the last time you were fortunate enough to try a thirty year old rum?
Bristol Spirits are no stranger to old stocks, of course. There was the masterful Port Mourant 1980 and that sublime Caroni 1974, to name but two. These days, they’ve sort of settled into a groove with more sober-minded middle-aged rums, and while I would never say that what they produce now is not up to scratch — what they put out the door is both imaginative and interesting — none of them have that aura of gravitas mixed up with a ballsy “looky here!” middle-finger-to-the-establishment braggadocio…or yes, the restrained majesty, which three decades of ageing confers on this rum.
Because it was clear that every aspect of that age was wrung out and lovingly extracted from the single originating barrel. No attempt was made to hold a thing back, and this was evident right away on the aroma, which dumbfounded me by being much more complex and even pungent for what – let’s face it – is not the world’s most badass rum strength. It was just so deep. It started out with the richness of burnt leaves and charred canefields after the ritual firing, smouldering in a tropical twilight; caramel, toffee, nutty nougat, almonds, burnt brown sugar, tied together with oak and slightly bitter tannins that did not detract but enhanced. What fruits there were — raisins, prunes, plums for the most part — kept a cool kind of distance which supported the aromas noted above without supplanting them, and around them all was a weird amalgam of melons, squash and citrus zest that I was at a loss to pin down at first…but trust me, it worked. Anyone who loves rums (and not just Jamaicans) would go ape for this thing.
The taste was similarly top-notch, and while I would be hard-pressed to tell you the profile screamed “funk” or “dunder” or “Jamaican”, I must also tell you that what was presented had so much to offer that the rum skated past such concerns. It started out with traditional dark caramel, a little glue and warm dark fruit – raisins, black cake, tamarind – and then went for broke. Over two hours it developed tastes of honey, cherries, flowers, charred wood, ashes and hot damp earth after a rain, underlain with a sort of laid back but crisp flavours of green apples, lemon zest and nuts, and finished off with a surprisingly long fade redolent of raspberries and ripe cherries and vanilla. Quite frankly, one of the reasons I kept at it for so long was simply that I found myself more and more impressed with it as time went on: to the very end it never stopped developing.
As with many really good rums – and yes, I call this one of them – there’s more to it than simple tasting notes. The mark of a rum / rhum / ron which transcends its provenance and age and goes for something special, is one that either makes one ponder the rumiverse while drinking it, or one that brings up clear associated memories in the mind of the reviewer – to some extent both were the case here. It was not clearly and distinctively a Jamaican rum, and I wondered how the distinctive profile of the island was so muted here….was it the long ageing in Europe, the original barrel, a peculiarity of the distillate, or the still itself? And as time went on I stopped worrying about it, and was drawn back into my memories of my youth in the Caribbean, the scent of burning canefields, fresh pressed cane juice on shaved ice sold by a snow-cone vendor outside Bourda, and the first taste of a local hooch in a beergarden down the coast served neat with a bowl of ice. Such things are in themselves irrelevant, but also part and parcel of what makes this rum, to me, quite special, the more so since it happens so rarely.
So, yeah, I’m a drooling fanboy (was it that obvious?). But how could I not be? You have to experience the emphatic boom trapped within the otherwise standard proof to understand my enthusiasm. Muted yes; quiet yes; not as intense – of course. One cannot outrun one’s shadow and get out from under 43%. But just smell the thing, taste the thing, savour the thing — like some of the Compagnie’s rums, it makes a great case for Continental ageing. You could almost imagine some half-crazed, giggling bottler, half-in and half-out the barrel with a tiny teaspoon and clean white cloth, trying to get the very last drop out just to make sure that nothing was wasted. Given what was achieved here, assuredly none of it was. It’s just half a shot shy of great.
There is no data on the originating estate. I’m guessing here, but believe it’s either a Longpond or a Monymusk, just on the taste. If anyone has more info, feel free to correct me on this one.