“Hi – we’re Cadenhead. We’re whisky makers doing rums on the side one cask at a time, and we’re stuck firmly in the last century. But we make some really crazy s**t that you know you want to try. Here…have a sip of this drag-strip devouring retro-cool V-12 high test. You’re gonna love it.” (First posted February 3rd, 2012)
Comparing the Cadenhead philosophy with that of the giants like Bacard and Diageo is a little like comparing Terrence Malik films with Michael Bay’s, or a haiku with Paradise Lost. Instead of beating you over the head with all possible volume sold to the widest variety of consumers, Cadenhead is small, tightly focussed on its principles, and has vanishingly small sales of its rum product, which are all made with what seems to be a dour middle finger to the commercial rum establishment. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single commercial rum maker who takes this kind of minimalist, puritanical approach to making rum (unless it’s Bruichladdich with their Renegade line and the occasional Gordon & MacPhail offering and both have prettier presentations). I mean, Cadenhead seems almost aggressively indifferent to how the world at large reviews its rums. It’s like they say “Like it or lump it, laddie…we’ll keep makin’ it just like this.” That’s positively West Indian.
William Cadenhead & Co, now owned by J A Mitchell & Co of the Springbank distillery in Campeltown, have a reputed enormous stock of matured Demerara and other rums, and constantly replenish their wares through a rum broker to ensure continual supplies from obscure and not-so-obscure distilleries in the West Indies. They bottle one oaken cask’s offering at a time and then the “run” is done. My inquiries didn’t yield any answers as to which distillery in Panama was the source of the spirit, so we will have to remain in the dark on this one.
However, one thing you can say is that Cadenhead don’t frig around with wussie forty percenters. They chuckle into their sporrans, shake their heads at the weakness of the young, and issue beefcakes of rum, then trumpet the fact long and loudly. 46% cask strength, bam. Sniff that, me son.
The Panama 8 year old is pungent and deeply aromatic on a first assessment. I noted last week that Kōloa Gold had a strange scent that one really had to work at to see it was a rum at all – Cadenhead’s Panama 8 is exactly the opposite, being very obviously a rum with an aggressive attitude redolent of burnt sugar, molasses, toffee, bonbons and perhaps allspice. There was little in the way of secondary, lighter (or “cleaner”) flavours, not that it needed them – this was a serious nose that didn’t have time to muck about.
The medium bodied gold rum was also quite excellent on the palate. The arrival, as befitted a cask strength offering, was a shade sharp on the initial taste, and then mellowed out very nicely – then the dark burnt sugar, the caramel and nougat started to come to the fore; after opening up some more, other soft flavours began to gently emerge like little ballerinas not sure of their reception on the stage: vanilla, chocolate, a good wine-soaked cigarillo, the lightest perfume of flowers. And yes, before you ask, a bit of briny spice on the back end. The finish was long and lasting and wafts of chocolate, leather, tobacco and sugars fought genteely for dominance. After the odd non-specificity of the Kōloa Gold, I must confess to being very taken with this rum which had no time to pretend it was anything other than what it was. A rum, and a rough ‘n’ tough ‘un at that.
What impressed me about the Cadenhead here was its depth. It’s difficult for me to put this precisely, but what I’m describing is a measure of the intensity and dark heat of the mingling flavours as they chased each other down one side of my nose, out onto the tongue and then up the throat. I’ve noted before that overproofs deliver a whallop of flavours a standard 40% rum just doesn’t – in this aged eight year old rum, the company has somehow tamed a raging spirit right out of the cask with nothing more than distilled water.
A rum like the Panama 8 has to be approached with a certain mindset: there’s no point in thinking that this is a mixing agent or a sweet Caribbean tipple at a holiday resort. It is, on the contrary, a rum made by a whisky maker to an exacting principle best described as “keep it simple.” Panama 8 has no colouring or other additives, is not chill filtered, is as close to the output of a barrel as you can imagine – and therefore can truly be said to be an expression of what an unadulterated rum should be. This won’t find favour with many rum aficionados whose palates are accustomed to smoother, more carefully blended fare. But if you want to know what a rum is before a blender starts tinkering with it, then this is surely the place to start.
Addendum: in 2010 I tried the 12 year old Demerara variation from Cadenhead and didn’t like it, scoring it low. I don’t have any of the rum left to compare against the Panama, but I stand by the score as it was back then. In fairness, given how much I like this one, the Demerara 12 may deserve a re-try to see if it’s me that’s changed, or the rum really was that unimpressive.