Jan 152017
 

Excellent young sherry-finished rum

#335

There’s a special place in my heart for English Harbour rums from Antigua, and always will be. The company’s masterful 25 year old 1981, while dropping some in my estimation over the years, remains a touchstone of my reviewing experience (it was also Review #001).  Their five-year- and ten year old variations were pleasing and decent drinks that were like a mix of Bajan and Spanish rums, yet distinct from either; and I’ve always felt they were good introductions to the spirit, even if I myself have moved on to purer, stronger rums, which was one reason I enjoyed their Cavalier Puncheon.

For years that was pretty much it for English Harbour, a company formed in 1932 from the pooled resources of five Portuguese businessmen. They branched out into other liqueurs and spirits to some extent, but the rum range which developed from the original Cavalier brand has remained essentially unchanged and it was for this they were best known internationally.  However, in 2016 they decided to rock the boat a little and on the festival circuit in that year, they introduced an interesting variation on their Five, a harbinger of things to come.

This particular rum is a blend that started life as the original column-still five year old (which my friends and I, back in 2009, really enjoyed); aged in ex-bourbon casks for the proper time, it was then finished for two months in sherry casks prior to bottling in March 2016 — there are plans to add oloroso, port and zinfadel finishes in the future, so they are taking some ideas from both FourSquare and DDL in this respect. Once the ageing and finishing process was complete, some ten year old was added into the blend (no idea how much) to create the final product.  What it is, therefore, is something of an experimental rum.  English Harbour has read the tea leaves and seen that there is money to be made and new customers to be won, in releasing rums as a higher proof point with some finishing: perhaps not cask strength, and perhaps not limited edition, just something to flesh out the staid brogues of its portfolio that may now be considered to be showing its age in a time of fast moving innovations in the rum world. Time to move into some sportier models. Nikes maybe, or Adidas.

Have they succeeded in boosting the original five year old into a new and exciting iteration?  I think so…it is, at the very least, better – retasting that venerable young rum in tandem with this one made me remember why I moved away from it in the first place – the 40%, the somewhat dominant vanilla and its rather simple I-aim-only-to-please profile.  There is a lot to be said for messing about, even with a previously winning formula.

Just take the aromas on the rum, for example – what the original five was all about was soft, easy vanillas and some caramels, with a few fruits dancing shyly around in the background, all cheer and warmth, simple and amiable, went well with a mix. This one was a few rungs up the ladder – part of that was the strength, of course (46%) and part was the finishing; there were immediate notes of sherry, smoke, blackberries, jam (I kept thinking of Smuckers), all of which pushed the vanilla into the background where it belonged (without banishing it entirely). There was simply more flavour coming through at the higher proof point, which showed in developing notes of cherries, pineapple and apples that appeared with some water. Nothing aggressive here, and it retained some of that laid-back softness which so marked out its cousin, while having a subtly more complex profile that snapped into focus more clearly as I tasted each side by side.

As for the palate, very nice for a five…in short, yummy.  The youthful peppiness was retained – there was some spiciness on the tongue here – buttressed by a kind of roundness and complexity, which I’m going to say carried over from the added ten year old.  Caramel, oak, vanilla, smoke, burnt sugar, a nice mix of softer fruits (those pineapple, pears and ripe cherries came over nicely) with those of a more tart character (green apples and orange zest) adding a nice filip.  It’s a great little rumlet, closing things off with a short and dry finish that I wish went on longer, even if it didn’t add anything new to the overall experience.  It’s a young rum, that much was clear – yet the blending was handled well, and I just wondered, as I always do these days when something this soft crosses my path, whether it was added to or not (I was told no).  

Thinking over the experience, I think this rum is really an essay in the craft, not yet the final rum English Harbour will release formally in the months (or years)  to come – for the moment it’s not even represented on their website.  EH are testing the idea out on the festival circuit, checking for feedback, positioning it as a development of pre-existing ideas into the market, to see whether riding the wave of newly-popular, higher-proofed, finished rums can carry the company’s sales into the new century.  I certainly hope they succeed, because this is quite a striking rum for its age, and will likely win over some new converts, while being sure to please old fans of the brand. For any five year old, that’s saying something.

(83/100)

Mar 262013
 

Solid all round rum, probably better than most ten year olds around.

First posted 25 September 2010 on Liquorature.

(#093. 84.5/100)

***

I’ve been a little reticent about trying English Harbour Reserve ten year old, and have put it off for over a month now.  Its younger sibling the Five is such a good mixer and all round rum (it’s been a favourite of the club for some time), and its older brother the 25 is such a powerhouse in its own right, that it seemed almost like trying to make a good aged rum go up against…well, practically a pair of low and high end juggernaughts. And then, there was always the thing that I absolutely hate trying a new rum alone..it’s so much more fun when I can bounce my ideas off someone like the Bear as we get continually more sloshed together.  Our spouses have a hard time containing their laughter as we come up with ever more flowery adjectives to describe out latest object of taste

Be that as it may, I bought this $100 (Can) rum at the local emporium of Willow Park, largely because the bottle I knew existed in Co-Op had disappeared by the time I got around to snagging it, and so, fearing a rum drought of the good stuff (and the jeers of the Maltmonster as he tauntingly raised his current single malt to toast me), I bought the only one they had.  The fact that WP subsequently posted a few more bottles on the shelf suggests my fears were unfounded, but it’s better to be safe with stuff like this. The bottle sat in my pantry for a full four weeks before I finally lost patience with both my own pansiness and my non-materializing guests, and finally cracked it.

I’m a fan of minimalism – the whole Japanese concept of beauty in simplicity appeals to me: the EH10 follows this theme, coming in the same bottle as the EH25, but with a simpler cork stopper, and a lovely, bare-bones label that says what it is without embellishment or hoo-rahs.  In that sense it beats the pants off any other label I’ve ever seen. And the container itself is a solid, non-nonsense straight-lined bottle that harks back to simpler time.  Can’t help but admire that.

The rum is a deep brown-red-gold, like a transplanted flame-haired lassie from Cork.  The legs sliding down the glass when it is straightened are slow and fat and oily, and I have to say I was quite taken with the rum already.  The nose was very impressive. As I expected, it was less harsh than the EH5 and less refined than the EH25, but in this lay its strength, too. Remember, the Ten is a blend of rums aged ten to twenty-five years that have been aged in the usual used oak barrels that once held bourbon, and it takes something from those blends, and adds to that the oaken tannins from the barrels.  Not quite as much care has been taken to mute the wood (the 1981 25 yr old is extraordinary for the balance it achieves with the same elements), but what the 10 has done is create a powerfully complex nose, one where its comparative youth grants it more character than otherwise might have been the case.  Consider: on the first intake, you get soft brown sugar, toffee and caramel hints.  Let it breathe a minute then try again. This time you get a faint citrus, vanilla, some oak or other sweet wood, and now the burnt sugar starts coming at your in soft billowy waves. On a third try, you get those deep notes of molasses and see how all these components come together.  I called my wife and asked her to double check.  She added some fruit to what I had discerned, confirmed most of what had detected, and then went to get the 25 for a quick comparison…and here comes the interesting thing: the 25 is softer, smoother, more refined and interesting – bit it also had a delicate floral hint which the 10 lacked (and more complexity to boot).  Wow.  I couldn’t believe it: while not as good as the 25, the ten year old was giving the El Dorado 15 a run for its money.

Tasting it was another interesting experience. The English Harbour Reserve is soft and smoky on the palate, but it’s not oak I was tasting…something else, some freshly mown green grass or sugar cane leaves, or new sawn lumber of some aromatic kind. The cinnamon hint and spices come straight out, I get notes of mocha and light coffee and perhaps fruit of some kind; and the overall feel is rich, viscous and smooth.  There is just enough sugar to go with the molasses taste to make the experience a voluptuous one, and lose those cognac-like notes that (to me) so diminishes older, more expensive rums (after all, if I wanted a cognac…).

The finish is just a bit too bitchy, a tad too scratchy, to be appropriately classified as fully smooth – it claws rather snidely on the way down (with one claw, not five, so it’s not as bad as this sentence suggests) – but don’t get me wrong: it’s medium long, and the rum takes obvious glee in leaving you with a reminder it was there.  Overall, I think this rum is top class for its age: perhaps it’s a tad expensive for that age, though I’m sure there will be no shortage of opinions on that score as time goes on.  I think I can live with that, however.

The ten year old is a replacement for what once used to be the English Harbour Extra Old, which is now discontinued.  The stocks for that rum – the 1981 vintage now exclusively used for the 25 – were being rapidly depleted by the under-priced extra old’s popularity.  The spine of the EH10 is in fact the 25, yes…just less of it, and it’s bolstered by the various other rums, the youngest of which is the ten.

Many things go into my opinion of a rum – smoothness, sweetness, driness (or not), blend proficiency, complexity and intermarriage of subtle (or striking) flavours, and how well it goes with itself, with ice, or as a mixer. It should be observed that I get no end of a hard time from the Maltsters in my circle, whose snobby zealotry about how no single malt worthy of its name is ever contaminated by ice or anything icky like a mix is legendary.  To some extent they have a point – the mark of a good whisky is how well it stands by itself, and – mistakenly or not – they apply the same standards to rums. But this is to misunderstand rums, I think, because ever since they were first made, they have been mixed in some fashion, and this is as much a part of their heritage and character as the peat used to enhance malted barley…so to me, there is no derision in noting a rum is an excellent mixer. Which this is, price notwithstanding.

Overall, then, how did I like it? Oh, quite a bit, and not just because of its well-known, much admired siblings.  Taking all the above remarks into account, I’d say that on ice or in a mixed drink, the English Harbour Reserve Ten Year old is one well-made, almost brilliant drink.  It’s really good neat, but I don’t think everyone will like it that way (many will, I hasten to point out). It seems a bit ungrateful to say it doesn’t do well in this way, when it succeeds and is top class on so many other levels (taste, richness, body) but the finish is a bit sharp, and I do believe that if you’re willing to mix the thing, you won’t be disappointed, and will have one of the more expensive cocktails you’ve ever tasted.

Is that worth shelling out a hundred bucks for? Tough call.  The stellar El Dorado 21 year old is slightly less than that, as is its fifteen year old.  The dry, cognac-like Clemente XO is in the same price range, and the Cruzan Single Barrel and Zaya 12 are both cheaper.  All are good.  So on that basis, I’d have a tough time telling you to run out there and get this one if money is your sole concern.  But my belief is that if you’re looking to buy something in this price range, you either know your rums or you don’t, and if you’ve come this far, drunk this much, had your share of popskull and low end hooch, you wouldn’t be going wrong if you forked out the green to buy this ten year old dark-gold gem.

 

A:8/10 N:17/25 T:19/25 F:14/25 I:9/15 TOT: 67/100

 

Mar 232013
 

First posted 30 January 2010 on Liquorature. #010

***

Wow!  What a surprisingly mellow, well rounded piece of work this was.  English Harbour is aged a minimum of five years in whiskey or bourbon barrels, but there was none of the whiskey taste that so characterizes the Renegade product line, which I have gone on record as not really appreciating.  This stuff is good for its age and price.

For the gathering of January 2010, it was the nominated rum alongside two whiskeys, and, to everyone’s surprise, this thing held up against older, more expensive drinks and was the first bottle to be drained. Of course, everyone had heard of my sterling review of the English Harbour 25 year old, but to have the five year compete favourably for its price range was unheard of.

The nose was the faintest bit sharp, and there was the same hint of vanilla, caramel and coconut I recall from its more expensive sibling. I seemed to get a slight trace of cherry. Neat it was unprepossessing, sweet in the way rums are, but the flavour was enhanced on the rocks.  There was that slight taste of burnt sugar and sweet molasses and fruitiness on the palate that went down very nicely. Strictly speaking, it’s a bit too harsh to be classified as a really good rum, but it’s a damn sight better and smoother than the XM five year I spent so many of my years drinking, and gives the Appleton 12 some serious competition for flavour.

But the thing is, the real kicker comes from what happens when you dilute it about 2:1 (rum: coke).  It was unbelievable: suddenly there was this extraordinary burst of fruitiness and caramel flavour, the cherry and woodsmoke hints went nuts, the nose got vibrant with vanilla and a faint nuttiness, and I just drank that down and poured another to make sure the first time hadn’t been a fluke. I saw Bob having a similar reaction, and indeed, it was between the two of us that we polished off most of the bottle. Neat or on the rocks, the finish is reasonably long lasting and keeps the sweetness running around the back of your throat with a little burn that mars it, for me…but not enough to make it a bad rum, just a five year old.

English Harbour hails from Antigua, and this five year old seems to be real value for money, going from the prizes the rum has won in the last decade (Double Gold – San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2004 and 2005, Gold Medal – Beverage Testing Institute 2005, 2006 and Forbes Magazine – Worlds 10 Most Remarkable Rums 2006).  Given that it may even have enticed a few of the peat heads and whiskey lovers in our group to reconsider their prime allegiance, I might almost say it is priceless for its low cost (but that’s just me).  Whatever their personal experiences with this unprepossessing five-year was, I can honestly say that for the age and price, this has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the rum world I have had thus far,  and it makes me intent on hunting out other specimens from this distillery to try in the future.

Mar 222013
 

*

This was for me, for many years, one of the top five commercially available rums in the world, and quite frankly, the makers should sue Disney for claiming they are the happiest  place on earth: ’cause when I drink this, I am.  Not to be missed, even for the price. Four stars, triple A, I don’t care what you call it, this thing is simply awesome.

First posted on Liquorature, January 2010.

(#001/Unscored)

***

After gathering a ton of notes on rums from all points if the compass for almost a year, it seemed appropriate to begin my official rum reviews with what is arguably the best – and the second-most expensive – rum I’ve ever tasted to this point. Now I cheerfully admit to being something of a peasant and have no compunctions about using an expensive rum to dilute my cheap-ass coke if I think it a bit harsh, but for something this exclusive it almost seemed like sacrilege to let anything dilute it.

My friend Keenan and I were doing a rum run at Willow Park to stock up for a wings night (he who gets the largest raise buys the wings).  For those who have never heard of it, Willow Park in Calgary may just be as Curt has described it – the best liquor store in Western Canada.  Now Curt speaks from the misguided perception of his whisky-love (for which I have found the strength to forgive him), but there is little doubt that I have found more and better vintages of God’s water, more consistently, here than anywhere else. Browsing around, I saw this pricey bottle, read the label, hesitated and then, overcome by a fit of madness, bought the thing.  It was all I could do not to wince as the price rang up (and if you think this is dumbass, just read my review of the Appleton 30 year old)

It was well that I parted with the bucks, I think, because even a lifetime of boozing didn’t prepare me for the quality of this baby…packaging, bottle, appearance, legs, colour, drink – all were uniformly top of the scale.  I reverently cracked the sealed wax over the cork (Keenan’s wife laughed at us and our seriousness), bared our pates and bowed our heads, and took a neat sip each. And sat still, a little awed. This was, without question, the smoothest rum I’ve ever had in my life, one of the very few I’ve had without ice, and, at $200 for that bottle, it’s really pricey, but worth every penny. I’d have to say Keenan’s appreciation wasn’t far behind mine.

English Harbour 1981 is distilled by Antigua Distillery Limited from fermented molasses and bottled in 2006. It’s aged 25 years in used whisky and bourbon barrels and the subtle notes come through in the nose and taste. The copper and dark cedar color is sealed in with a wax-seal cork stopper that, when sniffed, gives a gentle nose of smoky wood followed by black cherry and currants. The initial taste doesn’t disappoint with more dry wood, caramelized dark fruit and roasted cashew in the body. And so, so smooth, it’s unbelievable – first rum I have ever had without even a smidgen of bite on the way down. The finish is dominated by smoky wood balanced with cinnamon and soft nutmeg tones. It’s like a liquid Hagen-Dasz caramel ice cream. If I ever get another one and feel like parting with that much money for the benefit of the peat-lovers, it’ll make the club for sure.

Highly, highly recommended if you can afford it (it runs into the El Dorado Problem, unfortunately, but in a pinch, the English Harbour 5-year isn’t half bad either at one-eighth the cost – I’ve got the review here as well). If only to apprise one’s palate of what rums can be at the top of the scale, buying this 25 year old is something a rum-lover should do at least once in his life.

Other notes:

This is totally irrelevant but in 2011 I snagged four more of these babies because a local shop mislabelled them at the price of the 5-Year Old. I can virtuously claim to have shared three of those bottles with others over the years.

The core of this rum is the Cavalier 1981 rum made by the same company. In 2014 I asked a brand rep about it and he admitted that they had underestimated how good the Cavalier was – when they did, they had enough left for the 5712 bottles that made up this rum.

750ml of 40%. Bottle #552 of 5712.

Update March 2013: This rum has, of course, been superceded in my affections and appreciation of quality, which was inevitable given how many rums I’ve tried and written about. I still think, though, that if one was to make any list of the top five rums in the world, this one should be somewhere on that list.

Update October 2014: tasted this again at the Berlin Rumfest and scribbled some notes.  Even given the evolution of my tastes to stronger and more intricate, original profiles, I’d still give this a solid 89 points. It loses two for lack of intensity at 40%, but the complexity of what is there remains stellar.

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