Mar 022020
 

Every now and then we find some peculiar, almost completely unknown rum in some unlikely spot, and are struck by exactly how far flung and widespread the production of the spirit really is. I mean, if you aren’t a rumfest junkie or deep diver (and perhaps even if you are), can you recall much about Paraguayan rums?

Paraguay — one of two landlocked countries in South America (quick, name the other one) — is something of a newcomer on the international rum scene, and most of the rums they have made that are distributed abroad have only come on the scene in the last two decades — previously, just about the entire production was local, or regional. And according to some basic research, so far they have stuck with the traditional rons and not gone too far off the reservation. All that is now changing, as they begin to seek a space on the export shelf.

The Heroica we are looking at today is a rum created to take its place alongside its siblings the Black label, the Suave, and the lightly aged Anejos – it is named to commemorate the fallen heroes of the Battle of Piribebuy in August 1869 (part of the devastating Paraguayan War which that country eventually and decisively lost). Yet oddly, it is not mentioned on its website, and neither is either of the other two rums which won prizes in the International Rum Conference in 2015 and 2016.

Here’s what we know – made from rendered sugar cane juice (“honey”), fermented for 72 hours using wild yeast, column distilled, then aged in all kinds of barrels – American oak (ex-bourbon), cognac, Pedro Ximenez and also Marcuya “fruit of passion” wood from Paraguay. Once that’s done, the resultant rons are blended to form the final product. The age is currently unknown — I’ll update this paragraph if I get feedback from their marketing folks — but I’ll hazard a guess it’s medium…about 3-6 years. Little of this, by the way, is noted on the label, which only says it is a Paraguayan rum, commemorates the 1869 battle, is aged in oak vats and 40%. Wonderful. Clearly the word “disclosure” gets more lip service than real purchase over there.

All right, tasting notes. The nose begins with a standard “Cuban” profile – honey, caramel, citrus and faint molasses. These are leavened after some minutes by intriguingly deeper earthy and musky notes of damp soil and wet leaves, some salt and lighter fruits. But mostly it’s the first four — quite straightforward, not too complicated, an easy basket of soft and breathy vapours that cause no problems whatsoever.

The taste pretty much continues in that vein. It’s soft, it’s warm, it’s easy, it demands nothing, and provides a feather pillow for your taste buds. That might seem to be a disqualifier, but while it is to a certain extent simple, it also has enough edge and differences to make to display some character too. One can easily discern and separate honey, cherries in syrup, ice cream, salted nuts, citrus, molasses…underneath all that is the loamy sense of a damp, cool, leafy forest floor, both deep and sharp at the same time. There is a vague aftertaste of nuttiness and sour cream and bread, but this is relatively minor, adding little to the complexity of what’s on offer. And it finishes fast — soft, a quick whiff of toffee, nougat and candied oranges, and it’s gone.

In fine, there’s not much urgent vitality and shivering strength here, nothing to wow the socks off or blow the hair back. It lacks punch and vibrancy, is too easygoing to appeal to me (though clearly not to its adherents and national fans) and seems to want to play it safe within the overall ambit of Spanish style rons. Still, it exhibits more of interest than these remarks might suggest and I think the low strength might be key to understanding how it fails to excite the attention that it could get were it stronger, and those background tastes could come out more decisively.

Spanish-heritage-style rums from South and Central America all have a certain similarity, and while I don’t care for their light softness as much as I once did, I continue examining any new one that crosses my path in the hope of finding one that’ll rejuvenate my affection for their softer charms. This isn’t it, but just for the opportunity to dive into a new rum from a country that’s not renowned for rum and that has produced one we have not heard of before, I can’t say that trying this one was a waste of my time. Fortunately, I liked it enough, and for anyone who likes this kind of ron, I doubt they’d be disappointed in their turn.

(#705)(79/100)


Historical Background

Fortin dates from the post-1989 era and takes advantage of a change in legislation regarding alcohol at that time. From 1941 to 1989 the production and sale of alcohol (and spirits) was a state monopoly, run by the Paraguayan Alcohol Corporation in which the Government and producers both had stakes. Officially this was to rationalize standards, assign quotas, regulate competition and prevent tax evasion, but in reality it was to ensure the commercial elites went into business with the government to share in / siphon off the revenues. After Alfredo Stroessner (the last of a series of military jefes ruling since the 1930s) was toppled in 1989 the laws were relaxed and private industry began to revive.

Fortin was formed around 1993 as a sugar producer by Gustavo Díaz de Vivar, and although it started in Capiatá area to the immediate SE of the capital, Asunción, the company soon moved further east to the town of Piribebuy; after the sugar business took off, he and his son Javier Díaz de Vivar (the current president of Fortin) diversified into rum production with a multi-column still bolted onto the already existing sugar factory they had built. I have an outstanding email to them about their production methods over and above what this article provides (e.g., where does the cane and honey come from?) so an update may come if they respond.

Feb 192020
 

The strangely named Doctor Bird rum is another company’s response to Smith and Cross, Rum Fire  and the Stolen Overproof rum. These are all made or released in the USA (Stolen hails from New Zealand but its rum business is primarily in the US), but the rums themselves come from Jamaica, and there the similarity sort of breaks down, for the Doctor Bird is one of the few from Worthy Park — one of the New Jamaicans which has quietly been gaining its own accolades over the last few years — and not from Hampden or Monymusk or Longpond or Appleton.

The quirky Detroit-based Two James Distillery — whose staff include, variously, an ex-guitar-maker, ex-EMT, ex-Marine and ex-photographer and who state openly and tongue-in-cheek that they have no problems with people stalking them on social media — is a full-fledged distillery, with a 500-gallon (1892 liter) pot still leading the charge.  But while they produce gin, rye whiskey, bourbon and vodka on that still, it’s really irrelevant here because – again, like Stolen – they didn’t bother to make any rum themselves but imported some barrels from Worthy Park. This is a departure from most American distillers styling themselves rum makes, many of whom seem to think that if they have a still they can make anything (and are at pains to demonstrate it), but few of whom ever think of buying another country’s spirit as Stolen and Two James have.

That aside, moving on: Worthy Park you say?  Okay. What else? Pot still, of course, 50% ABV, so that part is good.  Hay yellow. It’s finished in moscatel sherry casks, and that kinda-sorta bothers me, since I retain bad-tempered memories of an over-finished Legendario that was well-nigh undrinkable because of it – though here, given the zero reading on a hydrometer, it’s more likely the finishing was a short one, and not in wet casks.

Certainly the sherry influence seemed to be AWOL on initial sniffing, because my first dumbfounded note-to-self was wtf is this? Salt wax bomb just went off in the glass.Sharp funk is squirting left and right, acetones, furniture polish, rotting bananas, a deep dumpster dive behind an all night take-out joint. Harshly, greasily pungent is as good as any to describe the experience. Oh and that’s just for openers. It gives you kippers and saltfish, the sweet salt of olive oil, varnish, paint thinner. Thank God the fruits come in to save the show: sharp nettlesome, stabbing, tart unripe green bastards, to be sure – gooseberries, five finger, green mangoes, soursop, apples, all nose-puckering and outright rude.  But overall the sensation that remains on the nose is the brine and rotting fruits, and I confess to not having been this startled by a rum since my initial encounter with the clairins and the Paranunbes

Thankfully, much of the violence which characterizes the nose disappears upon a cautious tasting, transmuted by some obscure alchemy into basic drinkability.  It stays sharp, but now things converge to a sort of balance of sweet and salt (not too much of either), crisp and more fruity than before. There’s wood chips, sawdust, varnish, glue, retreating to a respectable distance. Sweet soya sauce, vegetable soup, dill and ginger, gherkins in a sweet vinegar, followed by a parade of crisp fruitiness. Pineapple, lemon peel, gooseberries, green apples, all riper than the nose had suggested they might be, and the finish, relatively swift, is less than I would have expected — and simpler — given the stabbing attack of the nose.  It provides salt, raisins, the citric spiciness of cumin and dill, exhaled some last fruity notes and then disappears.

Well now, what to make of this? If, as they say, it was finished in a sherry cask, all I can say is too little of that made it through. The light sweet muskiness is there, just stays too far in the background to be considered anything but a very minor influence, and aside from some fruity notes (which could just as easily come from the rum’s own esters), the sherry didn’t habla. Maybe it’s because those Jamaican rowdies from the backdam kicked down the door and stomped it flat, who knows? The strength is perfect for what it is – stronger, and morgues might have filled up with expired rum drinkers, but weaker might not have exhibited quite as much badass.

I think the challenge with the rum, for people now getting into Jamaicans (especially the New ones, who like their pot stills and funky junk dialled up to “11” ) might be to get past the aromas, the nose, and how that impacts what is tasted (a good example of how polarizing the rum is, is to check out rumratings’ comments, and those on Tarquin’s sterling reddit review. This is a rum that needs to be tried carefully because to the unprepared it might just hit them between the eyes like a Louisville Slugger. Personally I think a little more ageing or a little more finishing might have been nice, just to round things out and sand the rough edges off a shade more – this is, after all, not even a six year old rum, but a blend of pot still rums of which a 6YO is the oldest. And those high-funk, ester-sporting bad boys need careful handling to reach their full potential. 

The Jamaicans have been getting so much good press of late – especially Hampden and WP – but the peculiarity of this fame is that it’s sometimes thought you can just buy a barrel or ten from them, bottle the result and voila! – instant sold-out. Yeah, but no. Not quite. Not always. And no, not here.

(#702)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • “Doctor Bird” is not a person, and is not supposed to be “Dr. Bird.” It is, in fact, the national bird of Jamaica, a swallow-tail humming bird, only found there. Folklore has it that it was named because of the resemblance of its black crest and long bifurcated tail to the top hat and tails worn by country doctors back in the old days.
  • Big hat tip to Cecil Ramotar, ex-QC part-time rum-junkie, who made sure I got a sample of the rum to try.
Feb 172020
 

Barceló has slipped somewhat in our mental map of rum companies to watch, which comes as no surprise to those noting the current dominance which the Big Countries and the Big Names have in defining what we “should” be drinking. But ⅓ of the “Three Bs” of the Domincan Republic has been around for a while, releasing their light Spanish-style rons day in and day out, and if their primary markets are elsewhere than the homes of the online commentariat who flog Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados almost without pause, then at least their level of expertise shows no sign of flagging.

Given I rated the company’s Anejo a rather dismissive 61 in 2011 and shrugged off the previous 38% Imperial edition (not the same as this one) with 78 a couple of years later, that last remark might sound strange.  But just because lighter column-still rons released at less-than-living-room-strength don’t turn my crank does not mean I don’t appreciate what they’re trying to do — I just wish they’d read the tea leaves and try harder and go stronger, if you catch my drift. 

Here we have a rum (or ron) that ticks all the usual boxes: it’s a molasses-based spirit run through a 5-column still, then aged 10 years in American oak and given a further two years’ ageing (I hesitate to use the word “finishing” for a secondary maturation that long) in French Château d’Yquem barrels. There are no additives according to their blurbs, which must be a recent thing, since it had been tested on initial (2011) release at 27g/L, but ok. When it first came out, the outturn was supposedly some 9,000 bottles annually, but the latest information I was given in 2017 was that it sold so well that this has now been upped to around 20,000.

There’s more details and notes which I’ll go into below, but this is enough to be going on with for the moment, let’s run through the tasting:

Nose first. Well, while conceding its soft warmth and easy languid charm, the truth is there’s not much really going on, nasally speaking: some citrus mixed up with deep caramel and brown sugar, and an intriguing scent of vanilla, charred barrels and burnt sugar and the ashiness of a dying coal fire.  Sweet, reasonably robust – better than the sub-40% stuff I’ve had from them before – but lacking real complexity that would enthuse me more.

The palate rewards rather more attention.  It’s warm and easy-going on the tongue, texture is nice. Great after-dinner sip to go with the ice cream. It tastes initially of caramel, ripe and mild yellow fruits without any aggro, raisins, prunes, and some faint licorice, ginger and vanilla. The 43% is a welcome boost from the milquetoast nonsense of the 37.5% expression, but in a way also serves to draw attention to its own limitations, because in a rum like this we’re looking for complexity, some punch, and a certain individuality that boosts the mildness of its light-distillate origins – and that simply isn’t here.  This is even clearer on the finish, which is soft, quick and puffs away like steam – it provides no additional insight into why you should buy the rum to begin with.

Without completely dissing the Barcelo – I know it is made for an audience who are completely dialled into, and in tune with, its laid-back profile, and they are the ones who provide its core audience and keep sales robust – let me just suggest that like many rums of its ilk, it doesn’t deliver enough. It lacks panache, oomph, a certain force.  It teases without coming through, and is too people-pleasing for real risk, too generic for specificity. That’s its downfall for the rum enthusiast, and, paradoxically, its raison d’être for those with more tolerant, inclusive and less exacting standards.

(#701)(81/100)


Other Notes

  • The Imperial has always been a 10 year old since I first tried it (and as far as I could tell, ever since it was first made back in 1980; but in 2011 Barceló brought together squirrelled-away casks of this 10 YO and matured them a bit further, to create the Imperial Premium Blend, later re-christened the 30 Anniversario, and started slapping the numeral “30” on the central circle of real estate on the bottle.  This does not intimate that it is 30 years old, but that it’s the 30th anniversary of the first issue of the Imperial. 
  • All Barceló rons are made in the Dominican Republic (not in Dominica – the two are separate nations), where the company shares the island with the other two “B”s – Bermudez and Brugal, both of which are older. Barceló Export Import has been in business since 1930, has always been a rum producer, and remains to this day a privately held company run by men who bear the name still.  Julian Barceló, the founder, hailed from Spain – the name is actually Catalan, though I read he was from Mallorca himself – and arrived in the DR in 1929. His company soon became a very large and profitable enterprise, expanding his line of products to differing rums starting in 1935. By the 1980s the company became one of the biggest in the country, and expanded its market base by aggressively promoting exports – Spain was and continues to be a prime market for the rums.
Feb 032020
 

The Okinawan Helios Distillery came to greater attention (and reknown) of the western rum scene in 2019, when they presented a white rum and a 5 Year Old that were impressive right out of the gate.  Perhaps we should not have been surprised, given that the company has been in the business since 1961 – it is supposedly the oldest such distillery in the country. Then, it was called Taiyou, and made cheap rum blends from sugar cane, both to sell to the occupying American forces, and to save rice for food and sake production. In the decades since, they’ve branched out, but always continued making the good stuff, and you can’t be in rum for nearly sixty years and not pick up a thing or two. To me, the only question is why they waited so long to move west make a splash.

Aside from beers and awamori, for which they are better known in Japan, rums make up a good portion of the portfolio, with the 5YO and white leading the charge – both, as noted, are pretty good.  But in the back room skunkworks there was always the desire to go further, and age longer, as I was told in Paris in 2019 when a commercially-complete but as-yet-officially-unbottled sample was passed over the counter for me to try.  Most distillers would go in easy increments up a graded “age-curve” – you know, 10 years old, maybe 12, or 15 or something like that. Not these boys. They went right up to 21 and planted their flag firmly there.

And they had reason to. The rum was a noser’s delight, soft and yet firm, with a remarkably well balanced amalgam of caramel, ripe (but not overripe) fruits, cola, fanta, citrus…and that was just in the first thirty seconds. I stared at in some wonder – I’d never seen or tried a Japanese rum this old, and had thought that perhaps the company’s experience in making aged whisky would make it more malt-like than rum-like – but no, this thing was uniformly all round excellent. As if to prove the point, when I left it standing and came back to it there were also notes of bitter chocolate, Danish butter cookies, sweet aromatic tobacco, leather, and smoke. And behind all that, like a never-materializing thundercloud, there was a vaguely rank and hogo-y meatiness, sensed rather than directly experienced, but rounding out the nasal profile nicely.

Clearly twenty one years of careful maturation in ex-bourbon barrels had had its effect, and had sanded off the rougher edges evident on the aromas of both the Teeda 5YO and the white.  Did this continue when tasted?  

Photo (c) Nomunication website.

Yes indeed. Granted 43% was hardly cask strength (the 48% official version would likely be more emphatic), but the tastes were as smoothly crisp as anyone could hope for, with a creamy, salt-buttery lead-in that was almost silky.  The wood influence was clear – vanilla, smoke, leather – yet not overbearing; the bitter tannins run which could have run amok in something this old were tamed well. Standard and well-defined notes of an aged Caribbean molasses-based rum paraded across the palate one after the other – stoned ripe fruits, caramel, toffee, strong black tea, port-infused tobacco – and bags of delicately handled spices like cinnamon and cumin jeteed around them.  These were set off by cola, and light licorice and meaty hints, just enough to make themselves known, before the whole thing came to an end in a gentle finish of all these flavours coming on to the stage for one last bow in a sort of integrated unison that had me asking for seconds and thirds and vowing to get me a bottle when it finally became available.

That bottle has now been released. One of 2500, says Nomunication, and they mention a price tag of 28,000 yen, which is about ‎€240. I imagine it’ll be a bit more expensive by the time it gets over to America or Europe when taxes, tariffs and transport are tacked on — but I think it’s really worth it, especially since it’s stronger, and older than anything we’re likely to see from Japan that isn’t a whiskey. Tasting it, I was reminded of a well-made Damoiseau, or other rums from Guadeloupe – with it’s own quirks and originality, not adhering to a regimen or a strictly enforced code, but simply made with passion and without additives and with a whole lot of skill, in a country that keeps making ‘em better al the time.

(#697)(90/100)


Other Notes

  • The official release of the  21 Year Old Rum is 48% ABV, while the sample I tried was 43%, one of three bottles made for the festival circuit in 2019.  I was told back then that no changes were envisaged to what I was sampling – the blend had been “locked” – aside from tinkering with the strength; so I’ll take it on faith that any difference between what I based my notes on and what’s out there for sale, is minimal.
  • The 5 Year Old review has a brief background on the distillery and some notes on its methods of production. As far as I know this is a rum from molasses, and comes from a stainless steel pot still.
Jan 162020
 

Rumaniacs Review 0108 | 0692

This rum is a companion of the Lamb’s 70º Demerara Navy and other UK rums made by various merchants bottlers, e.g. Four Bells Finest Navy Rum, Mainbrace, Black Heart, Red Duster Finest Navy, Old Vatted Demerara rum, and so on.  It’s admittedly a treat to try them and trace their dusty, almost-forgotten companies of origin.

This Navy wannabe was made when the UK had moved beyond the degrees proof (in 1980) but while United Rum Merchants was still located in Tooley Street, London and not yet taken over by Allied Domecq in the early 1990s. At this stage in the recent history of rum, blends were still the way to go, and if anything had a name-recognition factor, it was certainly “Demerara rum”, which this presumed to be. Alas, that’s all we really get – so while the label helpfully notes it is a blend of rums from Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad, do not hold your breath waiting for a dissertation or scholarly analysis of the proportions, the ageing, or even which stills or distilleries made up the blend. Such details are long lost or long buried.

Colour – Dark Amber

Strength – 40% ABV

Nose – Quite a bit different from the strongly focussed Demerara profile of the Navy 70º we looked at before – had the label not been clear what was in it, I would have not guessed there was any Jamaican in here. The wooden stills profile of Guyana is tamed, and the aromas are prunes, licorice, black grapes and a light brininess. After a while some salt caramel ice cream, nougat, toffee and anise become more evident.  Sharp fruits are held way back and given the absence of any kind of tarriness, I’d hazard that Angostura provided the Trinidadian component. 

Palate – Sweet, medium-thick and quite pungent, which is nice for a 40% rum. It’s mostly pears, anise and caramel that jockey for attention – everything else is a second order effect.  It’s briny off and on but not of sea water or an olive, more like butter or caramel. It’s nicely dry, with some dark fruits coiling restlessly around and about, all quite indeterminate.

Finish – Quite nice.  One does not expect a long denouement with a standard strength rum, of course, yet even by that low standard this isn’t bad, being dry, leathery, not very sweet or dark, and some prunes, dates, and blackberries.

Thoughts – It’s a rather tame blend, maybe aged a wee bit, lacking any kind of single-mindedness of taste or smell…which may have been the point, as the official Navy recipe was never a static thing, and (for example) the Jamaican portion kept varying based on the opinions of the day. It’s milder and not overwhelmed by either the funky Jamaican or the dour, wood-forward Demerara components, and that’s its selling point and strength.  I do like uncompromising Port Mourant based rums, but this one isn’t half bad for what it is.

(81/100)(#692 | R-0108)

Dec 152019
 

After all these years, there isn’t an average imbiber who hasn’t tried the Venezuelan Santa Teresa Ron Antiguo de Solera 1796 (to give its full and somewhat unwieldy title) at least once.  It’s a solera rum which usually sets alarm bells ringing for those who want both more disclosure and less additives, but somehow Santa Teresa has managed, through all the years, to navigate the treacherous shoals of too much or too little and remained a consistent, if not top tier, favourite of the entire tippling class. Given the rancour and fury that often attends such rums by the social media commentariat, that’s no mean achievement.

Consider: there are nine separate micro-reviews on reddit for this thing, and on the RumRatings site, it has 437 ratings, of which more than 80% rate it 7 points or higher. Online magazines and aggregators like Distiller, Flaviar, Tastings, WineMag, Got Rum, Drink Hacker and Proof 66 have written extensively about its voluptuous charms. Even the blogosphere has always looked at it, always reviewed it, sometimes as one of their first rum reviews. Alex of the Rum Barrel, The Fat Rum Pirate, myself, the Rum Howler, Refined Vices, Ralfy, All At Sea, Rum Shop Boy, Rum Diaries Blog, Rum Gallery, Inu A Kena…all of us between 2006 and 2019 have, at some stage, tried the thing, and its popularity shows no sign of fading. If there was ever a gateway rum for the Latin style that isn’t from Panama or Cuba, then this is it (the Diplo may be another).

I think part of that is because there’s nothing excessive about it.  Nor is there anything overly modest. It certainly evades the trap of turning into an over-sugared mess, or one where that’s all you taste, because the sweet, such as it is, is kept completely in the background.  An August 2019 hydrometer test – mine – rates it as 36.96% ABV, which translates into 12g/L – not good, but hardly earth shaking when compared to other latin rums which have twice or three times that much, and many earlier reviews and tests actually showed none at all (this suggests either batch variation or an evolution in production philosophy); a Santa Teresa rep as recently as 2018 in an interview with Simon Johnson, stated flat out they don’t adulterate their rum.  So, if you accept that, the only complaint that could be raised against it is that it really should be a few points stronger.

The nose is different from my admittedly fading tasting memories of ten years ago, when I first sampled it at a Liquorature get together in Calgary. Then I felt it had mostly standard South American aged rum components – vanilla, caramel, honey, light fruits, all rather low key.  Now the blend presented otherwise: I was tasting glue, sugar cane sap, floor polish, varnish right up front, and I know that wasn’t any part of what I was smelling before.  The 40% ABV still makes it too weak to mount an effective and aggressive nasal assault, and that is an issue they will have to address sooner or later – but at least, with some effort I also sensed very ripe apples, apricots, cherries in syrup, plus a dusting of cinnamon, molasses, caramel, and a little bite from oak, unsweetened dark chocolate and light orange peel.

It’s inoffensive in the extreme, there’s little to dislike here (except perhaps the strength), and for your average drinker, much to admire.  The palate is quite good, if occasionally vague – light white fruits and toblerone, nougat, salted caramel ice cream, bon bons, sugar water, molasses, vanilla, dark chocolate, brown sugar and delicate spices – cinnamon and nutmeg.  It’s darker in texture and thicker in taste than I recalled, but that’s all good, I think. It fails on the finish for the obvious reason, and the closing flavours that can be discerned are fleeting, short, wispy and vanish too quick.

When rated against other rums of its type, the main competitors are the Zacapa, Zafra, Diplomatico Res Ex, the Kirk and Sweeney, or even the Millonario XO or Dictador. But I always found K&S to be too fixated on a particular “cinnamon-lite” profile; Diplo, Zafra and Zacapa were oversugared in comparison; and the Millonario XO was too excessive in both areas, as was Dictador with that coffee note it likes so much. Other producers of rums similar to the 1796 — solera or otherwise — are simply too small and lack market share, and impinge hardly at all in the larger popular consciousness (Don Q and Bacardi are different for other reasons). 

But I believe that after all the years since 1996 when it was introduced (for Santa Tersa’s 200th Anniversary), there are good reasons it remains a fixture in the global rumscape and a perennial popular seller.  As noted above, it can be found just about everywhere in a way that other Caribbean rums aren’t always; it’s extremely well known, and remains affordable to this day (around US$40 or so) — which is good for any average Joe who can’t always get or afford a New Jamaican or Barbadian or St. Lucian or Guyanese rum. Moreover, it just tastes good enough for most and can be used as a gateway rum for Latin/Spanish style rums in general and Venezuelan ones in particular.  Of course, like most gateway rums, if you stick around long enough you’ll inevitably think one day that it’s too weak, too easy and too simple and move smartly along to the next milestone on the journey…but for anyone now starting and not looking to go anywhere, this is as lovely a Key Rum of the World as any on the list before it.

(#684)(78/100)


Other Notes (adapted from 2010 review)

Santa Teresa distillery is located in Venezuela about an hour east of the capital, Caracas, on land given by the King of Spain to a favoured count in 1796. The estate ended up in the hands of a Gustavo Vollmer Rivas, who began making rum from sugar produced on nearby estates – owned by other Vollmerses –  in the late 1800s. The Santa Teresa 1796 was produced in 1996 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the estate land grant, and, produced by the solera method.

In the solera process, a succession of barrels is filled with rum over a series of equal aging intervals (usually a year). One container is filled for each interval. At the end of the interval after the last container is filled, the oldest container in the solera is tapped for part of its content (say, half), which is bottled. Then that container is refilled from the next oldest container, and that one in succession from the second-oldest, down to the youngest container, which is refilled with new product. This procedure is repeated at the end of each aging interval. The transferred product mixes with the older product in the next barrel.

No container is ever drained, so some of the earlier product always remains in each container. This remnant diminishes to a tiny level, but there can be significant traces of product much older than the average, depending on the transfer fraction. In theory traces of the very first product placed in the solera may be present even after 50 or 100 cycles. In the Santa Teresa, there are four levels of ageing. And the final solera is topped up with “Madre” spirit, which is a young blend deriving from both columnar and pot stills.  Seems a bit complicated to me, but sherry makers have been doing it for centuries in Spain, so why not for rum? The downside is, of course, that there’s no way of saying how old it is since it is such a blend of older and younger rums. The marketing for the 1796 says the rum has components of between 4 to 35 years of age in it.

Dec 082019
 

If you want to know why American supermarket rums (sometimes called “value rums” which is two lies at once) get such short shrift from so many rum folks, one like this is enough to explain the general indifference. It’s milquetoast, vague, with not a single point of interest, and that’s including the equally lackluster promotion that surrounds it.

Let’s start at the beginning.  What is it, who makes it, where’s it from? We must begin with the label, which unfortunately just makes me want to cringe.  No really. 

For starters, it’s noted as a “Caribbean Style rum”. That’s about as useful as perfumery to a hog, as Tolstoy once remarked. Clearly the makers assume a level of ignorance of their customer base that is off the scale, since exactly what is that?  Even Dave Broom in his seminal book “Rum” where he addressed that very question, backed away in horror at lumping all rums from the region together as “Caribbean.” So, we talking Guyana, Cuban, French Island, Jamaican, Barbadian? Nope. Won’t work. Useless.

Next word: “Black”. Baby Rum Jesus help us.  Long discredited as a way to classify rum, and if you are curious as to why, I refer you to Matt’s takedown of the matter, and anyway – the rum isn’t black, but dark brown.  Then “A smooth Caribbean flavour with a distinctive taste for every palate.” Clearly we’re living back in Henry Ford’s time, where you can have any taste you want as long as it’s black.  The irony of the statement is compounded by the fact that if it’s really distinctive, it cannot by definition appeal to every palate. 

About the only thing we can take as a reasonable fact is the bottom part, where we see the rum is bottled by the “Ron Carlos Company de Licores, Auburndale Florida.”.  Excellent. Who’re they? Google it and you’ll be directed to Florida Caribbean Distillers which is a massive industrial facility producing 188 proof near-neutral spirit (from various sources including cane) and reselling as bulk that around the world. And if the company name sounds familiar, it should be – this is the same multi-column-still factory contracted to make the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5 Florida and the Florida Old Reserve rum I wrote about a year or two back.

Clearly this does less than enthuse me, but the Caner is nothing if not moronically persistent in the face of absurdity, so I gird up my loins and hoist my trusty glass and take one for the team so that you lot won’t have to.

It starts off in unspectacular fashion with very light caramel, chocolate, coffee and flambeed bananas.  Some molasses pokes its head up like a gopher scanning for predators, then disappears, and there’s some citrus chittering waway in the background, too faint to make any kind of statement or balance off the thicker aromas in any significant way.  You can sorta kinda sense some bubble gum and soda pop, sweet and fleeting, and that’s about it. About par for a 40% column still rum, to be honest.

The palate sinks the rum further.  Oh, it’s so bad, so weak, so thin, so forgettable. All the notes from the nose prance and clump around with cement overshoes and no balance – chocolate, coffee, nougat, caramel, molasses and some raisins, and after a few hours (here’s where I started to reach out in desperation) some kiwi fruit and papayas. It’s a near neutral, all-neutered spirit, and whether they aged it or not is irrelevant, really – it’s just plain boring. As for the finish, well, it’s finished.  It’s so faint as to be nonexistent, and I’m at a loss to tell you what it is I just had.  

There’s something going on here under the hood – I think.  It’s really a question of whether you’re sensitive enough to spot it and then, if you scale that hurdle, can identify what it is you got, ‘cause this sucker isn’t giving up anything easy.  You’ll strain long and hard to make this rum wannabe surrender its unexceptional secrets, and frankly, I don’t think it has much to give up in the first place (except maybe a dash of alcohol into a cheap punch). Even if you’re on a budget, you can find better for the same price, and as for me, if I was in a bar this was all they had, I’d pay ‘em to make me not drink it.

(#682)(72/100)


Other notes

  • On proof66, in a 2018 comment, it notes that “All Ron Carlos Rums now are being made in Puerto Rico by Club Caribe Distllers and bottled in Florida.” The poster opined that they’re better now than they were, and give Bacardi a run for its money.  I chose to doubt that. 
  • As a point of interest, FCD controls the Caribe Distillery. Their primary market for rums is cruise lines, duty free shops, bulk sales elsewhere and contract rum creation (like Scheer does), alongside many other distilled spirits and brands.
  • Given the absence of current references to the Black rum reviewed here, it’s possible that it morphed into the “Dark” and was further rebranded into the “Gold”, but evidence is somewhat lacking. I still have not been able to ascertain whether it’s been aged, but from the profile, I would suggest maybe one or two years.
  • Neutral alcohol, neutral spirits spirits, or rectified spirits, are generally  considered to be alcohol at 95% ABV or greater.
Dec 012019
 

Rumaniacs Review #106 | 0681

Mainbrace Rum is a Guyanese and Barbados blend released by Grants Wine and Spirits Merchants of London, one of many small emporia whose names are now forgotten, who indulged themselves by selling rums they had imported or bought from brokers, and blended themselves. It is unknown which still’s rums from Guyana were used, or which estate provided the rum from Barbados, though the balance of probability favours WIRR (my opinion). Ageing is completely unknown – either of the rum itself, or its constituents.

The Mainbrace name still exists in 2019, and the concept of joining two rums remains. The fancy new version is unlikely to be associated with Grants however, otherwise the heritage would have been trumpeted front and centre in the slick and one-page website that advertises the Guyana-Martinique blended rum now – in fact, the company that makes it is completely missing from the blurbs. 

So what happened to Grants? And how old is the bottle really?

The “Guyana” spelling sets a lower post-independence date of 1966. Grants also released a Navy Rum and a Demerara Rum – both from Guyana, and both at “70º proof”.  The address is written differently on their labels though, being “Grants of Saint James” on the Demerara label (Bury Lane is in the area of St. James, and a stone’s throw away from St. James’s Street…and BBR). Grants was still referring to itself as “of St. James” first (and until 1976 at least), but I think it’s the 40% ABV that’s key here, since that only came into effect in the mid 1980s in the UK.  

Lastly, a new Grants of Saint James was incorporated in 1993 in Bristol, and when I followed that rabbit run, it led me to Matthew Clark plc, a subsidiary of C&C Group since 2018, and there I found that they had acquired Grants around 1990 and at that point it looks like the brand was retired – no references after that date exist. And so I’ll suggest this is a late 1980s rum.

Colour – Dark Amber

Strength – 40% ABV

Nose – Very nice indeed, you can tell there’s a wooden still shedding its sawdust in here someplace.  Cedar, sawdust, pencil shavings, plus fleshy fruits, licorice, tinned peaches, brown sugar and molasses. Thick and sweet but not overly so. That Guyanese component is kicking the Bajan portion big time in this profile, because the latter is well nigh unnoticeable…except insofar as it tones down the aggressiveness of the wooden still (whichever one is represented here).

Palate – Dry and sharp. Then it dials itself down and goes simple. Molasses, coca-cola, fruit (raisins, apricots, cashews, prunes).  Also the pencil shavings and woody notes remain, perhaps too much so – the promise of the nose is lost, and the disparity between nose and palate is glaring.  There is some salt, caramel, brown sugar and anise here, but it’s all quite faint.

Finish – Short, sweet, aromatic, thick, molasses, brown sugar, anise, caramel and vanilla ice cream.  Nice, just too short and wispy.

Thoughts – I could smell this thing all day, because that part is outstanding – but the way is tasted and finished, not so much. I would not have pegged it as a blend, because the Guyanese part of it is so dominant.  Overall, the 40% really makes the Mainbrace fall down for me – had it been dialled up ten proof points higher, it would have been outright exceptional.

(#681 | R0106)(82/100)


Historical Note

Anyone who’s got even a smattering of nautical lore has heard of the word “mainbrace” – probably from some swearing, toothless, one-legged, one-eyed, parrot-wearing old salt (often a pirate) in some movie somewhere. It is a term from the days of sail, and refers to the rope used to steady – or brace – the (main)mast, stretching from the bow to the top of the mast and back to the deck. Theoretically, then, “splicing the mainbrace” would mean joining two pieces of mainbrace rope – except that it doesn’t.  Although originally an order for one of the most difficult emergency repair jobs aboard a sailing ship, it became a euphemism for authorized celebratory drinking afterward, and then developed into the name of an order to grant the crew an extra ration of rum or grog.

Other

Hydrometer rates it 36.24% ABV, which works out to about 15 g/L additives of some kind.

Nov 142019
 

Three years ago I tried and later wrote a review of the 8-year-solera Cihuatán rum from El Salvador (bottled at 40%), and noted rather disappointedly that “this was a remarkably quiet rum.”  Essentially, I regarded it with some indifference. At the time, Paul Senft of Rum Journey and I were trading notes and he told me they had a 12 year solera variation slated to be released, and Cihuatán themselves told me they were working on some more limited editions of their own.

Well, I moved on, liking but not completely won over by the brand at that point, and while I never did source the 12 year solera, I kept a weather eye open for anything they made that might pop up in years to come.  Then in 2019, I caught wind of the special Nikté limited release — though one would perhaps be forgiven for asking what is so terribly limited about 17,914 bottles — and resolved to try it for a number of reasons. One it was a follow-up to the 2017 review to satisfy my own curiosity, two it was made by a maestra ronera, Gabriela Ayala, and that deserves respect and more than just a passing acknowledgement; three, it was issued at north of standard, stronger than the usual Latin rums I’ve tried in the past made by primary producers; and four I just wanted to see if it really was special. Marketing works on impressionable young minds like mine.

The name of the rum (or ron, if you will) relates back to the Mayan motif that has been part of the brand from the inception: Cihuatán comes from the name of an ancient Mayan settlement that once existed very close to where the distillery is currently located.  It translates into “next to the woman”, referring to a mountain nearby which looks like a sleeping woman in silhouette.  The original glyph on the label (Tlaloc, the Mayan god of water) has been replaced by the moon goddess (Ix Chel), and a feminine version of the flower known as Sac Nicté in Nahuat (“sac” means white) as her stylized floral twin, all in homage to Kay Nikté, the Mayan festival of flowers. And I have to concede, that’s one really pretty label, colourful and well laid out – if the intention was to get me to see it on a shelf and stop, stare and maybe buy it, yeah, they succeeded pretty well there.

Based on its tasting, however, the case of unquestioning purchase is harder to make for those who have been part of the rum renaissance over the last ten years, and who prefer something more powerful and distinct (although not for those for whom it was made, perhaps). The ron is decidedly Spanish/Latin in style and influence and the strength — 47.5%, unusual for a rum from Central  America — only marginally raised it in my estimation. Consider first the nose – it was quite sweet, with scents of marshmallows, caramel, vanilla, ice cream and flowers (really light jasmine), and the warmth and depth of a loaf of bread fresh from the oven. What it was, was soft, and easygoing – quite an achievement for a rum dialled-up as this was. I had expected something a bit fiercer, but no…

Anyway, the taste was firm, but the soft easiness did not go away and to some extent that lessened the experience for me. It presented little in the way of aggression and was like chomping down on a freshly laundered feather pillow – there were sweet floral notes (jasmine again), the crisp smell of laundry detergent, delicate spices – dill, nutmeg – some lemon zest, cumin, tempered and somewhat eclipsed by heavier flavours of butterscotch, toffee, bitter chocolate and caramel, ending with the soft exhaling sigh of a finish that didn’t give much more, mostly caramel, nutmeg, sweet delicate flowers and a touch of light white fruits. 

Overall, this rum is a soft sipper’s dream, but won’t do much for a hogo-lover or wooden-still worshipper.  I’ve been warned by many in the past not to decry rums made for palates different my own, so I’ll simply make note of the matter and leave you to make up your own mind.  Personally, I think it’s better than the 8 year solera, and has more going on in its jock, but remains too soft and even too sweet and even the strength can’t entirely make up for that. Yet kudos have to be given for taking the brand in these directions to begin with – for anyone who likes the soporific, relaxed charms of the Spanish style rons, this is a step up the ladder that is a few orders more interesting, more complex and plain out better than its 8 year solera counterpart. 

(#675)(80/100)


Other notes

  • The Nikte is a blend of rums uniting 12 and 14 year old rums aged in ex-bourbon casks with a 15 year old rum aged in first-fill american oak barrels.  Cihuatan confirmed later that all components were true aged, not solera, and later told Ivar de Laat of Rum Revelations that it was also a cane juice/molasses rum blend.
  • Made by Licorera Cihuatan, a subsidiary of Ingenio La Cabaña, one of the larger sugar concerns in the country (established in around 1920).  It is a diversified company located north of San Salvador, and its main business is based on a sugar cane plantation, a sugar mill and a modern alcohol plant (built in 1999) with a multi-column still that produces various alcohols and liqueurs for both the leisure and industrial market.  Sometime in the early 2000s the company initiated their own brand, consulting with Luis Ayala (publisher of Got Rum? magazine) in the process. They began releasing the Cihuatán brand in 2015 and have added to its brand portfolio ever since. There are currently five rums in the portfolio, two stated soleras (8 and 12), an aged rum “Obsidian” and two special editions, the Nikte and the Nahual which are aged blends.
Nov 072019
 

It’s when you smell and then taste the Strand 101° (58% ABV) rum from South Africa’s Mhoba, that you begin to get an appreciation for what this relative newcomer has accomplished in so short a time. The initial punch is all pot still, all righteous reek, all the time — there’s no holding back and it’s just fascinating to inhale. It smells sharply of paint thinner, nail polish, turpentine and rancid fruit left to go bad in the sun…after a tropical rain, with the steam still coming off the ground. It contains the tartness of a lemon meringue pie mixed up with green apples and gooseberries and a flaky, buttery crust. Sugar cane sap, cider, sour cream, brine, and the rising aromas off a loaf of sourdough bread fresh from the oven.  And over all that is the clear scent of candy floss and bubble gum. I mean, is that a great beginning or what? If I closed my eyes I could hear the Wailers.

A combination of rums from a single still – part was aged, part was unaged, and blended after the fact – the taste was low key and enormously satisfying, and it reminded me of nothing so much as a slightly off-kilter Smith & Cross.  Which is not surprising, since that was exactly what they were aiming for (see below). Right away there came a blast of rotten and overripe fruits doused with caramel, then baked into a pie (yeah, I know how that sounds). Strawberries, white chocolate, apricots, bubble gum, vanilla, toffee and nuts.  There’s just enough to make for complexity, some real funkiness, yet held back enough to make for a a fascinating, well-balanced synthesis. 

Mhoba’s white was uniquely itself, while French cask suffered (only in my opinion) from trying to be too much and the elements jangled restlessly and failed to come together – here there was no such problem. Even the finish succeeded – long, dry, briny, creamy and toffee-like. There was a touch of citrus and tart sweetness, and the fruits relinquished the stage, ceding the foreground and taking a step back.

The Strand 101° was specifically designed by Knud Strand, a colourful Danish distributor who worked closely with Robert Greaves (as he had with many brands before) to bring the Mhoba line to market. What he was looking for was to create a blend of unaged and aged rum from pot stills, adhering to something of the S&C profile but from only one still (not two or more). He was messing around with samples some time back and after making his selections finally came back to two, both fullproof — one, slightly aged was too woody, with the other unaged one perhaps too funky. 

The idea to market such a rum to the South African high-end bar scene, while ensuring it would not tread on the corns of or compete with Havana Club or Bacardi (who had commercial contractual relations with many of them), and at the same time provide a balance of freshness, funkiness and woodiness. He mixed them up in varying proportions and came up with one blend that was so absolutely right that after testing it around and being given loads of plaudits, he and Greaves decided to bottle it.  And in a gesture of unusual generosity, Greaves named it after Knud, since, as he put it, “”It is your blend.”

Well, the story may have a few more steps, and maybe there’s more (or less) than I’ve recounted. What’s clear to me is how good the rum really is. Just about everything works here, the strength, the still, the cuts, the assembly, the balance between babyhood and youth, herbals and woods, the lot.  It’s a rum without doubt hewing to the path of rums of yore, while twisting things just a smidgen to highlight it own origin, its own still and its own design. If one small outfit with a tinkered pot still and some gumption can make a series of rums so well, so fast (and it really does seem to be something of a trend nowadays, doesn’t it?) then not only will the better known Caribbean houses have to make some room for this new kid and others like it, but you know what? — they may seriously have to up their game and look to their laurels, because a whole raft of such new and nimble fast-movers is coming.

(#673)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • The small South African company of Mhoba needs no more introduction after Steve James’s three part write up (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), and the more recent Rum Revelations interview, but I include the links here for completeness.
  • The blend is roughly 50-50 between the unaged high ester component and the very slightly aged part, depending on their relative concentrations. Strength is 58% which in Imperial measurements works out to 101 proof.
  • The blue and gold colours of the label were chosen in homage to the Smith & Cross Jamaican rum which was its initial inspiration.