Jun 282018
 

In Part I of this short series I described the trends within and position of the rumworld as it existed before Velier began issuing its Demerara rums, and in Part II provided a listing and some brief commentary of the rums themselves, as they were released.  In this conclusion, I’ll express my thinking regarding their influence, and also give an epilogue of some of the characters mentioned in Part I.


So, what made the Age? In a time when independent bottlings were already in their ascendancy, why did this one series of rums capture the common imagination to the point where many of the issues have become unicorns and personal grail quests and retail for prices that, on the face of it, are almost absurd?  And what was their impact on the wider rumiverse, then and now?

Part of their fame is certainly the proselytizing dynamism and enthusiasm of Luca Gargano himself. He is born storyteller, very focused and very knowledgeable;  when you meet him, you can tell he is enraptured with the subject of rum. He travels constantly to private tastings and rumfests, and is well regarded and well known around the world. The rise of Velier is in no small part attributable to the business acumen and personal force of this one man and the dynamic team of Young Turks he employs in his offices in Genoa.

But Luca aside, I think that the Age was what it was because it really was a first, on many differing levels. It broke new ground, created (or legitimized) many new trends, and demonstrated that the rum folks would buy top quality rums even with a limited outturn.  

One has only to look at the way things were and the way things are to see the influence they had, and while it’s perfectly acceptable to state that Velier was only one aspect of the momentous changes in the world and the rum industry — that it was all inevitable anyway, and maybe they were just lucky bystanders who shone in reflected light of greater awareness — I contend that the Demerara series serves a useful marker in rum history that influenced much of what subsequently came along, and which we now take for granted and indeed, expect from a good rum

The Demerara rums released by Velier were several notches in quality above the equivalent rums produced almost anywhere else and entrenched the issue of tropical ageing as a viable way of releasing top quality rum, because aside from the major brands releasing their aged blends (often at 40-46%), it was almost unheard of to have tropically aged rums of such age produced at cask strength and so regularly. Almost without making a major point of it, the Age enhanced the concept of “pure”, and solidified the idea of “full proof” that otherwise might have taken much longer to get to develop.

The series pointed the way to the future of Foursquare rums, Mount Gay cask strengths, the El Dorado Rares, as well as English Harbour’s and St. Lucia Distillers’ new and more powerful expressions.  They provided an impetus for the re-invigorating of Jamaican distilleries, some of which were all but unknown if not actually defunct, and it could be argued that there is a line of descent from the estate-based Demerara full-proofs to the movement of these Jamaican distilleries to not just sell in bulk abroad, but to issue estate-specific marques of their own.

The Age also moved the epicenter of the top-echelon rums (not always the same as super-premiums) away from aged blends (like El Dorado’s own 21 and 25 year old rums, or Appleton’s 21 and 30 year olds) to single-barrel or limited-edition, estate-specific full proofs.  It gave the French agricoles a boost via Velier’s subsequent collaboration with Capovilla (which is not to downplay the impact of the hydrometer tests mentioned below), and provided small, new rum outfits like Nine Leaves and US micro-producers the confidence that their rums made to exacting specifications, at a higher strength and without additives had a chance to succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace.  

And the Age led to a trend in increased participation of independents and private labels in the greater rum world: new or concurrently existing companies like Hamilton, EKTE, Transcontinental, Compagnie des Indes, Bristol Spirits, Mezan, Duncan Taylor, Secret Treasures, Svenska Eldevatten, Kill Devil, Excellence Rum, L’Esprit, as well as the older ones like the Scottish whisky makers, Plantation, Rum Nation, BBR, and Samaroli, are its inheritors (even if their inspiration was not a direct one and they might argue that they had already been doing so before 2005). Nowadays its not uncommon to see annual releases of many different expressions, from many different countries, instead of just a few (or one).

It would be incorrect to say that the Age of the Demeraras proceeded in isolation from the larger rum world.  While these Demeraras were being made, others were also gathering a head of steam (Silver Seal and Samaroli are good examples, which is why their older bottlings are expensive rarities on par with Veliers in their own right). All the larger independent bottlers increased their issue of stronger rums from around the world.  And I suggest that the work they have done when considered together has led to two of the other great divides in the rum world – cask strength versus standard, and continental (European) ageing versus tropical. To some extent Velier’s Demeraras raised awareness and provided some legitimacy for this trend if not actually initiating it.

Drejer, hydrometers, sugar and the fallout…

One other aspect of the rumworld not directly related to the Age detonated in late 2013 and early 2014, and must be considered. That was the work of the Finland’s ALKO and Sweden’s Systembolaget, closely followed by Johnny Drejer, in analyzing the contents and ABV levels of rums. They used a hydrometer to measure the actual ABV as the instruments displayed, and compared that against the labelled ABV – any difference over and beyond some kind of normal variation was an additive of some kind that changed the density. In the main, that was caramel or sugar in some form or other, and possibly glycerol and/or other adulterants.

Five short years ago, nobody on the consumer side of things ever thought to do such a test.  Who could afford that kind of thing with a commercial lab? — and if the producers were doing such analyses, they weren’t publishing. For years before that, there had been rumours and dark stories of additives going around,  it’s just that public domain evidence was lacking.  Many producers – excepting those prohibited by law from messing around – denied (and had always denied) additives outright, or spouted charming stories about secret cellars and stashes, family recipes, old traditions and rum heritage.   Most of the remainder hedged and never answered questions directly. 

When the Scandinavians started publishing their results, the roof blew off — it quite literally changed the rum landscape overnight. For the first time there was proof — clear, testable, incontrovertible proof — that something was being added to some very old and well-regarded rums to change them. Almost at once Richard Seale of Foursquare used his regular attendance at international rumfests to speak to the issue (as did Luca Gargano), and he, Johnny Drejer, Wes Burgin, Rum Shop Boy, 4FineSpiritsCyril of DuRhum, and Dave Russell proved that with some inexpensive home apparatus, you could do your own testing that would at the very least prove something else was in your favourite juice (though not what it was). All the blogs linked above now maintain lists of rums and measurements of the ABV differences and the calculated dosage.

That direct measurement of, or reference to, a hydrometer test for ABV discrepancies has become a key determinant of honesty in labelling.  Conversations in social media that speak to rums known to have been “dosed” (as the practice has come to be called) are more likely than any other to end in verbal fisticuffs and name-calling, and has created one of the three great divides in the world of rum drinkers.

This may be seen to be at best peripheral to the Age, but what hydrometer tests and the emergent purity movement did, was instantly (if indirectly) provide enormous legitimacy to the entire Velier Demerara line and those of many of the European indies, as well as the whole pure-rums concept Luca had been talking about for so long. With the exception of the pre-2005 releases, the credibility of these rums was solidified at once, and the increasingly positive word of mouth and written reviews moved them to almost the pinnacle of must-have rums. I’m not saying other rums and producers didn’t benefit from the movement – Jamaican, Bajan and St Lucian rums in particular were were more than happy to trumpet their own purity, as did practically every independent bottler out there – just that Velier reaped a lot of kudos almost without trying, and this helped raise awareness of their Demerara rums. It’s an aside to the main thrust of this essay, but cannot be entirely ignored either.


Epilogue

Many of the players in this short history are still with us, so here’s an update.

The El Dorado 15 remains a staple of the rum drinking world to this day in spite of its now well-publicized dosage.  It has received much opprobrium for the lack of disclosure (DDL has never commented on the matter) and has slipped somewhat in people’s estimation to being a second tier aged product.  Yet it remains enormously popular and is a perennial best seller, a rum many new entrants to the field refer to as a touchstone, even though DDL has moved to colonize the space Velier pioneered and begun issuing cask strength limited bottlings from the stills themselves in 2016 (the 1997 anniversary editions at 40% were essays in the craft but predated the Age and were never continued).

Photo (c) A Mountain of Crushed Ice

Ed Hamilton has withdrawn somewhat from his publishing and promotional work, and the Ministry of Rum website is a shadow of its glory days, with most of the traffic and rum-chum interaction shifting to Facebook, where his group is one of the top five in the world by user base.  Mr. Hamilton is a distributor of many distilleries’ rums into North America and in 2010 began to issue the Hamilton line of rums from around the Caribbean, all pure, all at cask strength. I quite liked the little I’ve tried.

Independent bottlers continue proliferating in Europe and all follow the trail of the Age – full proof, estate (or country) specific rums.  When from Guyana, it is now standard practice for the still to be referenced, with the “Diamond” moniker being perhaps the most confusing.

The internet has enabled not just one rum forum on one website, but a whole raft of international rum review websites from the USA, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and the UK.  Oddly, the Caribbean doesn’t have any. There are also news aggregators and online shops in a quantity that astounds anyone who saw it develop in so short a time. Aside from private sales on Facebook, websites are now one of the most common ways to source rums as opposed to walking into a shop. The many Facebook rum clubs  are the sites of enormously spirited discussions – these clubs (and to a lesser extent reddit) are the places to get the fastest response to any rum question, and the best in which to take a beating if you profess admiration for a dosed rum. 

Johnny Drejer and the others mentioned above are still updating rum sugar lists. They cover most common rums. The test is now considered almost de rigueur. It has its detractors – it can be impacted by more than just sugar, temperature variations affect the readings, it can be fooled by higher actual ABV being labelled as less, and you never know quite what’s been added – but it remains one of the strongest tools in the ongoing battle to have additives or dosage disclosed properly.

Luca Gargano of Velier, April 2018, Genoa

Velier has grown into one of the great distributors, enablers and independents of the rumworld (though they remain at heart a distributor), and not rested on their laurels, but gone from strength to strength. Luca, always on the lookout for new and interesting rums, scored a massive coup when he picked up thousands of barrels from the closed Trinidadian distillery Caroni in 2004. Velier has been issuing them in small batches for years, so much so that it could be argued that as the sun of appreciation set over the Age of Demeraras, it rose on the Age of Caroni (at least in the public perception). He has championed artisanal rums from Haiti and anywhere else where traditional, organic and pure rums are made. He has forged partnerships and fruitful collaborations with producers around the world.  One, with Richard Seale of Foursquare resulted in the conceptual thinking behind the Exceptional Series, as well as the collaborations of Habitation Velier, which are tensely awaited and snapped up fast by enthusiastic and knowledgeable rum folks. He has an involvement with Hampden out of Jamaica, and when the 70th Anniversary of Velier rolled around in 2017, partnered up with many producers to get special bottlings from them to mark the occasion. Velier has grown into a company with a scores of employees, and a turnover hundreds of times greater than that with which it began.

I appreciate this sounds like something of a hagiography, but that is not my intention.  The purpose of this long essay and this wrap-up, is simply to place the Demerara rums issued during those years at the centre of great changes in our world.  (Not the Caronis, because I contend that the appreciation for them took much longer to gestate; not so much the Rhum Rhum line done with Capovilla, since they remain something of a niche market, however popular; and certainly not the one-offs like the Basseterre 1995 and 1997 or the Courcelles 1972, which were too small and individualistic).  The Age’s rums did not create all the trends noted above single-handedly. But certainly they had a great influence, and this is why we can correctly refer to an Age, even if it is just to mark the time when a series of exceptional bottlings were made.

It is my belief that what the Demerara series of rums did was to point the way to possibilities that were, back then, merely small-scale, limited or imperfectly executed ideas, waiting to be taken to the next level. Velier came in, took a look around and re-imagined the map, then went ahead and showed what could be done. Certainly, like most innovators, Luca built on what came before while amending and modifying it to suit his own personal ideas; others contributed, and Velier did not work outside the great social and spirituous trends of its time. But somehow, Luca more than most gathered the strands of his imagination and used them to tie together all the concepts of rum making in which he believed.  In doing so he produced rums which remain highly sought-after, and used the credibility they engendered to put his stamp firmly on the industry. We live in the world that he and his rums helped to bring about. Whatever your opinions on the influence of the Age, we had what we had before they appeared, and now we have what we have which is better. The work is worth acknowledging, and respecting. It is to our regret that the Age was over before we even properly acknowledged its existence.

In closing, I should mention that the Age of Velier’s Demeraras was only called that when it was over (and for the record, it was by the Danish blogger Henrik Kristoffersen who first used the term in a Facebook post in early 2016). And even if you don’t believe the Age was so central, or had the sort of rum-cultural impact as I think they do, I believe there’s no gainsaying that the sheer quality of rums that were issued for those nine years supports the idea that there was once an Age, that it really did exist…and the current crop of rums from this company remain at a similar level of quality as those first old and bold ones which were once considered too expensive.  It’s great that even now with all their rarity, we can sometimes, just sometimes, still manage to drink from the well of those amazing Demeraras, and consider ourselves fortunate to have done so.

***


This series elicited an interesting discussion on Reddit regarding topical ageing vs continental, here.

Jun 272018
 

Part II – The Rums

Photograph (c) Rumclubfrancophone.fr

2005 – The Age Begins

In Part 1 I gave a rather lengthy rundown of the events and trends leading up to the unofficially named Age.  There was a reason for that – because I wanted to make it clear how the rum landscape was altered after those rums were issued.  And to do that we needed to get a sense of what it was like before.

To briefly recap, the pieces were in place, at the intersection of culture and history and personality:

  • the world was becoming more interconnected and knowledgeable as a result of the proliferation of internet enabled websites and blogs, books being written and the Ministry of Rum website; in short, communications had undergone a sea change.
  • rums had moved from being primarily blends and cocktail fodder to sharing space on shelves with generously aged expressions;
  • people were starting to know more and had more choice; independent bottlers helped move that along, as did the emergent rum festival scene started by the Miami Rum Renaissance
  • and Luca Gargano, having bought a small Genoese spirits-distribution concern, started issuing a relatively large number of Guyanese rums, which were relatively unsucessful but which crystallized his thinking on what he felt the characteristics of good rums were.

Now, we could argue that since the world was ripe for an expansion of cask strength single editions from all points of the compass (the concept was not, after all, particularly new), that Luca Gargano just did it with more verve and panache, and that everyone else was going to do it anyway.  The development was inevitable. History is replete with stories of groundbreaking ideas being developed simultaneously in multiple places (Newton and Leibnitz with calculus; Darwin and Wallace with evolution; Einstein and Hilbert with relativity…and so on). 

Maybe so.  But I argue that nobody ever did it better, or in such volume and he was there at the right time with the right rums, just as interest was catching on. The rumworld was ready for something new and interesting and dynamic, and Luca filled the niche both in what he produced and who he was.

The Rums, by date of issue

As noted in Part 1, after a few years of developing the company and broadening its portfolio, Velier began its move to craft spirits in 1992 (which may not be a coincidence), by beginning its selection of barrels of rum for its brand.  This led, in 1996, to the issuance of three Guyanese rums – all issued at 40% (see next paragraph) and using a third partly bottler (Thompson & Co.).  All were continentally aged.

Note the two editions of the Diamond 1975 at different strengths. I double checked the labels and the images, and yes they clearly note the separate ABV. This then was the first demonstration of something Velier would become famous for: issuing the same rum at varying power (though likely from different casks), which culminated in the multitudinous variations of the Caronis that so amuse, enthrall and irritate the accountants.

  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 – 1996), 40%
  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 – 1996), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1985 21YO (1985 – 1996) 40%
  • Versailles 1991 5 YO (1991 – 1996), 40%

Luca was dissatisfied with this, and four years later tried again, with three more rums from Guyana.  These were bottled by a Holland-based subsidiary of DDL themselves (called Breitenstein), because by this time Velier’s association with DDL had become much firmer and it was felt to be more cost effective – though they remained continentally aged.  Of particular note was Luca’s find of the LBI marque, quite rare, though which still produced it remains an open question. The Enmore also comes in for mention because of its strength – it was the first attempt to issue at full proof…why he did not follow on from this concept here is unknown, but considering that the Damoiuseau 1980 only got released two years later, perhaps it was nerves, or caution, or simply a lack of confidence (though that would seem doubtful to anyone who’s ever met the man).


By the time the third batch of rums was issued in 2002, now all at 46%, Luca knew something had to change. While he was happy with the ages of the rums — on three separate occasions rums had been released at close or equal to 20 years — they were continentally aged and simply not exciting enough, unique enough, in a field where other independents were issuing similar versions, if not in such quantity. But they were all sipping at one well, that of the European brokers, and he felt he had to get his rums from the source. It was this 2002 series that began to do exactly that: all three rums were fully tropical-aged and selected directly from DDL’s Guyana warehouse, which was a first for any independent bottling to that time. Luca himself dates the Age from this release season, though he admits he lacked the courage to go completely full-proof for it, and told me that Yesu Persaud would probably not have countenanced it either at the time.

As an aside, attention should be drawn to the label design – each release season (1996, 2000 and 2002) is clearly distinct from the others. The wild and joyously near-abstract paintings echoed local artists, and we would not see their like again until Simeon Michel was contracted to provide the artwork for the clairins many years later.

  • Albion 1984 18 YO (1984 – 2002), 46%
  • Diamond 1982 20 YO (1982 – 2002), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1982 20YO (1982 – 2002), 46%

Photo (c) Ministry of Rum

My feeling is that the classic portion of the Age started in 2005. The now famous black bottles and simplified labels were introduced in that year and remained constant for nearly a decade. The level of detail on those labels was unprecedented, by any maker, at any time, for any rum. For the first time consumers got the year of distillation and bottling; the casks, the outturn, the strength, the still and the marque, even (sometimes) the angel’s share. And serious strength was on display for once, real full proof, from-the-barrel power.

In the years leading up to 2005, Luca forged a firm personal alliance with DDL (and its chairman, Yesu Persaud).  They showed him select barrels from their ageing warehouse and he chose some to bottle. 2005’s Diamond and Uitvlugt releases are considered good rums but they were relatively young and lacked an element of gravitas.  But one day as he was walking with Mr. Persaud through the ageing warehouse, he spotted five or six barrels mouldering quietly in a corner. They were from a long defunct distillery of the Skeldon estate (the easternmost estate in Guyana – the distillery is long closed though it still makes sugar), and their age took his breath away.  He tried the 1973 and it was such an impressive dram that he almost begged to be allowed to bottle it as it was. For the only time in this partnership, permission was granted and he was allowed bottle all the barrels himself, and the 1973 proved to be one of the most amazing rums ever issued (myth has it that he also got the single barrel of the Caputo 1973 at this time, but that’s another story entirely).

Photo (c) Barrel-Aged-Mind

The three barrels of the Skeldon 1978 were a different matter.  There was insufficient volume to make a decent outturn (whatever that might mean, given that the 1973 only produced 544 bottles from four barrels), and so it was mixed in with some 1973 — and therefore this is a blend, not a rum conforming to Velier’s usual standards.  Still, all of these rums were tropically aged and released at cask strength, and this was what he wanted. (I have heard another story that DDL themselves blended the 1973 and 1978 and didn’t tell him, admitting it only when pressed because he recognized a difference in the profile after the fact).


2005 and 2006 together saw the issuance of not only eight different Guyanese rums but nine and eight Caronis respectively.  None of these received especially wide acclaim or attention, though my feeling is that the 1991 Blairmont was definitely one of the better rums I’ve tried from the stable and the one occasion I tried (without notes) the PM 1993, it was equally impressive, though relatively young compared to its siblings issued in those two years.


2007 was an odd year, when everything issued was under ten years old, which may just have been a function of what was put in front of Luca to inspect and select. The first Versailles rum since 1996 was issued in 2007, and somehow another LBI rum was found – it would prove to be the last.

In this year some of the first reviewing websites began to go live: however, these were primarily American, with one – Refined Vices – from Australia, and showed the slowly building interest in quality rums (perhaps also aided by the Miami Rum Renaissance which had just started two years ealier). But while rums commonly available in North America formed the bulk of the writing on such sites at this stage, the European bottlings Velier was making received little or no attention, and remained on sale primarily in Italy.


When it came to releases, 2008 was a banner year for the company, when eight Demerara rums were issued at once. Yet widespread acceptance remained elusive: costing out at over a hundred euros per bottle, most consumers in Europe, where distribution was primarily limited, felt this was still to expensive (bar the Italians, who I was told were snapping them up). One can only imagine how frustrating this must have been to Luca, who knew how good they were. The standouts from this year’s collection were undoubtedly those amazing 1970s Port Mourants, which are now probably close to priceless, if they can even be found. (And even the others are becoming grail quests – I saw an online listing in June 2018 for the Albion 1983, at close to two thousand euros).


Something interesting happened in 2010, overlooked by many, ignored by the rest.  For the first time reviews of the Velier Demeraras start to appear in the blogosphere, and they were all from Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun.  He had begun in 2009 with a raft of generally available rums, and in 2010 issued his first review of Velier rums — Enmore 1988 and 1990, Albion 1989, Uitvlugt 1990 and Blairmont 1991. And…nobody noticed; those who did hardly cared. He was a whisky guy daring to dabble in rums?  Shame on him. The reviews sank out of sight; nobody else would write about these spectacular rums for nearly three years and modesty be damned, when the next round of reviews were published, they were mine.

That same year Velier only issued two rums, though I have not been able to establish why such a small release. (The Blairmont was offered for sale in June 2018 on FB for €2300, for those who’re interested in pricing their collection).


2011 was another skinny year, with only three rums being released, two of which were from Albion. Why DDL would sell off barrels of defunct distilleries like LBI, Blairmont or Albion is a curious window into their commercial mindset at the time – it’s possible that they simply didn’t see any margins in such niche products which might cost more to bring to market than they would sell for,though Velier clearly showed this was not so.  Since Velier maintained a low profile outside Italy, they probably didn’t see such rums adding value to the DDL brand, and were okay letting them go. The Albion 1994 is particularly fine piece of work and I’ve heard it bruited about that 2018/2019 Release 3 of the DDL Rares will have one.


The Diamond and Port Mourant releases from the 2012 season were rums Luca liked a lot…but when he saw three barrels from Uitvlugt marked UF30E (for East Field #30 – perhaps the first incidence of parcellaire (a specific parcel of land within a terroire) ever found) he immediately snapped them up and produced 814 bottles.  It remains, in the opinion of this writer, one of the best Guyanese rums ever made, perhaps even better than the Skeldon 1973. The PM 1997 was also a very very good piece of work, but could not eclipse the UF30E and it’s just a shame that I never managed to try the 30+ year old Diamond.


Nothing was issued in 2013 (the reasons remain obscure), and by the time the 2014 came around, things were slowing down: although we did not know it, the end was drawing nigh. While still being shown barrels to choose from, Luca felt the quality and age was no longer as spectacular as the early rums he had found just a few years before (that might be because he cleared out all the best juice already, I humorously remarked to him some years later). This led to some experimentation of various blends (Diamond-Versailles, PM-Diamond and PM-Enmore) which were positively received, but whose interesting development was never followed up on. That said, these have become as pricey and hard to find as any other of the classic Demeraras – and, reputedly, every bit as good.

Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 – 2014), 53.1%
Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 – 2014), 64.1%
Uitvlugt 1996 18 YO (1996 – 2014), 57.2%
Uitvlugt 1997 17 YO (1997 – 2014), 59,7%
Port Mourant / Enmore Experimental 1998 16YO (1998 – 2014), 62.2%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1995 19YO (1995 – 2014), 62.1%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1999 15 YO (1999 – 2014), 52.3.%
Diamond / Versailles Experimental 1996 18 YO (1996 – 2014), 57.9%

(Note that in 2014 and 2015, when the Velier Demeraras were beginning to become more well known, both Cyril of DuRhum and Henrik of RumCorner were starting to write about them — both described the Enmore 1995 from the 2011 season — and it was from that point that the Europeans started to sit up and take notice and prices began their climb as Velier’s reputation gained momentum.)

In late 2014 DDL’s chairman, with whom Luca had had such a sterling relationship, retired, and within months the new chairman informed him (Luca) that they themselves would be releasing “Gargano-style” rums, and the arrangement Velier had with DDL would come to an end. The rums listed above are therefore among the last ever issued by the collaboration (until the 70th Anniversary bottling in 2017, which falls outside the scope of this essay).

Nothing was released in 2015, and in 2016 Demerara Distillers came out with the Rare Collection.  This led to a lot of grumbling and online vituperation – some thought it a cheap shot by DDL – but in the main, such annoyance as was expressed focused mostly around the pricing, which was felt to be exorbitant (and continues this day, with the 2018 El Dorado 12 year old wine finished editions which are also considered to be overpriced).  But what the Rares did was seal the fate of the Velier Demeraras.  Once those came out the door, we knew that there would never be any more.

And just like that, the Age was over.


Other Notes

In Part III I’ll wrap up this short series by assessing the trends and impact which the Age had (at least in my opinion), and provide an epilogue.

 

Jun 252018
 

Part 1 – Influences & Developments to 2005

Introduction

Take a look at the rum world in 2018, and several aspects jump out immediately.  The top-end rums getting most of the press and user approbation are almost all rums issued at cask strength; many, if not most, are made by an ever-increasing stable of independent bottlers, with Foursquare being one of the few primary producers making such strong rums as part of their core lineup, and others hastening to catch up.  Rums are often being made “pure,” which is to say without additives, labels are much more informative than ever before, and unaged whites are becoming more and more popular (and appreciated). The major large-company rum brands of ten years ago – many of which were and are aged blends – remain enormously popular but have almost all been relegated to second-tier status in the eyes of knowledgeable aficionados. And the dissemination of information regarding rums – whether via news stories, magazine click-bait, blogs, review sites, Reddit forums or Facebook rum clubs – has enabled the trend in this direction exponentially.

When one considers the state of the rum world prior to 2005, this ninety-degree turn in the drinking habits of the tippling class seems well nigh unprecedented.  It is my considered opinion that the Demerara (and to a lesser extent the Caroni) rums issued by Velier in the years 2005 to 2014 were instrumental in altering the rum landscape in a way few rums before ever had, or ever will again. To this day, many consider them among the best rums from Guyana ever issued, and that includes the independents (of which Velier was surely one in spite of being primarily an importer). Many of the concepts we take for granted when choosing top-shelf rums from Guyana – indeed, from anywhere – were encapsulated and brought to a wider audience by the Demerara series.  We live in the world they helped make, and it is our loss that they ceased being issued almost before we even properly acknowledged their existence.

In this first portion of a rather long three-part essay I’m going to look at the trends, influences and developments that I believe laid the foundations for what is unofficially called the Age of Velier’s Demeraras. I argue that these were the release of the El Dorado 15 year old in 1992, the rise of the internet, three books, a website, proliferating independent bottlers in Europe — all of which led to a more informed and rum-educated drinking cadre, some of whom went on to form the first websites devoted to rums and reviews. Also, oh yes….there was a small Italian importer….

As it was then…

The rum world in the 1980s was a rather staid one, moving along very much as it had for years before.  Major rum companies from around the Caribbean were issuing more or less the same rums they had been for decades – then as now, 40% ABV was practically a standard, age almost uniformly under ten years (if mentioned at all), and the market was full of familiar brands, similar recipes, incremental development, and with column still blends being the majority of sales.

As with all such general conditions, there were exceptions at the margins. Many small companies “made” rum for sale around the world – but they were really rebottlers and independents, not primary producers with sugar estates and/or distilleries of their own. Too, 40% was a common sort of strength (especially in the United States), but not an absolute.  The French Caribbean islands made more than their fair share of rums around 50% ABV and rums made for export to European countries often boosted the strength to 43-48%

When it came to market domination, Bacardi was the undisputed leader, and lighter Spanish-style rums seemed to be everywhere – I even found them and not much else in Central Asian bazaars in the early 1990s.  Most rums in production at the time were considered mixing drinks at best, which was a state of mind deriving from the misconception that it was a pirate’s booze, a sailor’s hooch, a drink to have fun with…not something to be taken seriously. Not to be had by itself, or to be savoured on its own. Unlike, for instance, whisky.

Although some independent bottlers issued more seriously aged rums in limited quantities, they didn’t expand production or really take it further – the market was a small one, and such bottlings were mostly bought by whisky aficionados and some hard core rum enthusiasts-cum-collectors, who were intrigued by the variations –people like Steve Remsberg, profiled here and here or Luca Gargano, or Martin Cate or the Burrs.  Rum culture in the general public — both in perception and consumption — was primarily about cocktails, the mythmaking of Hemmingway-esque muscularity…today’s social-media-enabled rum clubs, where reviews of the latest bottling of a favoured company go up in days, hours or even minutes after formal release, where minute variations of favourite styles or individual rums are endlessly bickered over, and where discussions about additives erupt every other post, were not even a cloud on the horizon.

This is not to say a wide variety of rums was not being made – quite the opposite. South and Central America had a long and proud history of rum production.  Companies like Varelas Hermanos, Vollmer, Zacapa, Zaya, Dictador, Travellers, Flor de Cana, Juan Santos, and Cartavio were issuing softly blended and solera-style rums since the early 1900s and some even predated the turn of the century. Cachacas had been made for hundreds of years in Brazil. In the East there were almost unknown rums from India and Thailand and Indonesia. Cuba had its national production arm sending rums to Scheer and began working hand in hand with Pernod Ricard to produce the Havana Club line in the 1990s; and while booted out of Cuba itself, Bacardi was selling rums by the tankerload globally (largely due to subsidies provided by the US government).  The French islands, with their plethora of small and fiercely individualistic distilleries sold primarily to the European market (France in particular), and even with the slow demise of sugar and rum production, distilleries in Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Guyana, Antigua and Barbados (to list but some) struggled gamely on. 

Aged rums from the pre-1990s eras were on the market, sure, and there was no shortage of them….but one had to look carefully for the specific trees in the forest (nowadays even more so when most exist in private collections or in memory alone).  Fernandes Distillery in Trinidad made the Ferdi 10 Year Old from as far back as the 1930s and was still making it in the 1960s and 1970s; Appleton produced a 12 year old and a 20 year old from way back in the 1960s, issued a limited 25 year old in 1987,  and old gaffers will remember the Dagger 8 Year Old and Three Dagger Jamaican 10 Year Old from J. Wray, also hailing to the 1930s; and going back even further in time, Jamaica at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886 by Sir Augustus J. Adderley lists 10, 15, 25 and 31 year old rums from merchant bottlers like D. Finzi & Co. and Wray and Nephew (before they acquired Appleton). I know there was an 18 year old “Old New England Rum” from the USA in 1934; Beenleigh in Australia made a five year old rum (and supposedly supplied the Royal Navy); Banks DIH in Guyana made a five year old as far back as the 1950s (though I don’t know when the 10 year old first appeared). La Favorite on Martinique had a ten year old back in the 1950s and 1960s, but like most agricole makers, were much more into millesime rhums, and while I’m sure the agricoles had more than my research uncovered, their naming convention of vieux, tres vieux and XO makes it difficult to see what is aged beyond, say, six to ten years. Most aged rums around the world seemed to be ten years old or less.  A twenty year old was unheard of, thirty the stuff of dreams. (We had to wait until 1999 for the G&M 58 year old, another ten years for the Courcelles 37 year old).

Anyway, much of the primary producers’ rum production went to Europe in bulk (a lot went to E&A Scheer, which was and remains one of the largest brokers buying rum stock in the world) and was then blended into European producers’ rums, of which there were many, none of which achieved any sort of lasting fame (unless it was the navy style of rum made by UK companies like Watsons for the local market).  And so the West Indian distilleries consolidated, shuttered, closed, changed focus, modernized, diversified, found new markets…and somehow the rum continued to flow.

But underneath this relatively placid existence of blends and unquestioning rum-is-fun-no-questions-need-be-asked, several seemingly unrelated events occurred which were to lay the foundations of whole new directions for the rum world.

1992 and the El Dorado 15 Year Old

In 1992, what proved to be an enormously influential rum came on the scene – the El Dorado 15 Year Old and its brothers up and down the line, the 5, 12 and 21 and (later) the 25s. It may not seem so now, when so many aged brands are sold around the world, and where every distillery has a few in its portfolio.  But it sure was then.

Bearing in mind the (very) abridged list of older rums mentioned above, it doesn’t entirely surprise me that whatever the age, few or none seemed to ever make a huge worldwide splash. The market wasn’t there, the connoisseurship was lacking, and information interchange was by magazines and snail mail, not the internet (see below). People just didn’t know enough and had few avenues open to self-education that characterizes today’s fanboys. Remember also, most of the aged rums were issued by small rebottlers in Europe or their agents in the producing countries/islands on behalf of the originating distilleries, and that kept outturn relatively small.  Independents like Samaroli and Veronelli had been making such rums since the 1970s, and Scottish whisky makers and re-bottlers certainly issued their fair share, though they were rare in the pre-1992 era.

And a downside to the independents was that they didn’t always made it clear where they originated – bought directly from the distillery of origin, or through a European broker like Scheer. Only occasionally was it unambiguously stated where the ageing had taken place. They varied from expression to expression, and long term consistency was rare. They were not always specific, and commonly labelled as “aged” or “country” rums – Superior Rum, Extra Old Rum, Barbados Aged Rum, Guyanese Rum, Jamaican Rum, and so on. The concept of making the estate the selling point was almost ignored. Many were, in fact, blends of uncertain age, mixing several estates’ marques into a single product. The consumer was certainly not helped to make an informed choice in the matter because exclusivity was the key selling point – you took what you got, trusted the skill of the producing company, and were grateful.

What made the El Dorado 15 (and its brothers) so seminal is that for the first time and over an extended period, a rum was made the same way every time, with an outturn not of a few hundred bottles, but in the tens and hundreds of thousands, year in and year out.  Consumers were getting a true fifteen year old rum of distinctive taste and consistent profile, not some supposedly exclusive and high-priced limited edition of a “Manager’s Reserve” or “Private Family Stock” or “My Dog Bowser’s Anniversary Blend.” Now anyone could buy this rum, which was a cut above the ordinary, had really cool antecedents, and was an absolute riot to drink neat.  Best of all, the El Dorado 15 was approachable – it retailed at an affordable price, had a taste the average consumer would like (toffee, caramel, licorice, citrus and raisins remain in the core profile), could be mixed, swilled or sipped, had great marketing and was issued an unthreatening 40%. The greater rum drinking audience went ape for it.

Within a few years, just about every primary rum producer with a well known brand caught the wave, and the 1990s and 2000s saw an explosion of older rums.  Companies all over the western hemisphere rushed to bring out aged expressions, and such rums soon became staples of many companies’ lines (and Appleton finally got the respect for its 12 YO it deserved, as well as beginning the regular issuing of older variations). The South and Central American and Spanish Caribbean islands’ rum makers took their time with it: they were blenders for the most part, a few solera-style makers, and they saw no reason to go full bore in this direction (many still don’t).  The French islands with their millesime approach and their own ideas on what constituted a good aged rum dabbled their toes, but with a few exceptions (I saw a 12 YO dating back to the 1970s once, so they certainly existed) they rarely ventured over ten years old – and bearing in mind the quality of what they achieved and the recognition their brands already had and have always maintained in their primary markets, it was and remains hard to fault them for this choice.

So the aged rum market almost by default landed, and has remained, with some exceptions, in the British West Indies, led by Appleton and also DDL, the company whose work would produce the next great wave of rums ten years down the road….but not under its own banner.

Books

One development that also raised the profile of rum was the publishing of three books — two in the early 1990s, the other nearly ten years later. To some extent they have been overtaken by events, yet they remain quiet classics of the genre, and carried with them not only the promise of other books written in the decades that followed, but a resurgence of interest in rums as a whole. They remain cornerstones of the literature, not least because they were among the first to try and provide a deeper background to the variety of rums represented without overwhelming the readers in technical minutiae of the rum-making process most neither wanted nor understood.

Released in 1995, Ed Hamilton’s book “Rums of the Eastern Caribbean” was a rich and varied survey of as many distilleries and rums as Mr. Hamilton found the time to visit and try over many years of sailing around the Caribbean.  Because of its limited focus, it lacked a global perspective, but it was a treasure trove of information of the rum producing world in the eastern Caribbean at that time, it was based on solid first hand experience, and many rum junkies who make distillery trips part of their overall rum education are treading in his footsteps. If nothing else, it elevated the knowledge of the curious and made it clear that there was an enormous breadth in rums, so much so that historical info aside, anyone could find something to please themselves. (It was followedup in 1997 by another book called “The Complete Guide to Rum”).

 

Dave Broom’s 2003 book “Rum” was a coffee-table sized book that combined narrative and photographs, and included a survey of the rum producing nations and islands and regions to that time.  It was weak on soleras, missed independents altogether and almost ignored Asia, but had one key new ingredient – the introduction and codification of rum into styles.  Then as now, the debate over how to classify rum was a problem.  Colour was still used as a main marker and gradation of type (the additives and coloration debate had yet to reach wide attention, and was all but unknown to the drinking public), stills were not considered a way to distinguish rums.  Mr. Broom’s contribution to the field was to at least attempt to stratify rums: in his case, regions that had broad similarities of production and profile: Jamaican, Guyanese, Bajan, Spanish and French island (agricole) styles. Cachacas were not brought into the classification and there was no real way to incorporate multi-regional blends or rums from outside the system (like, oh, Australia) – but it was an remains enormously influential, though by now somewhat dated and overtaken by events (he issued a follow-up “Rum: The Manual” in 2016, the same year as “Rum Curious” by Fred Minnick came out).

What these books did was make rum interesting and more appreciated in the eyes of the larger public, in a pre-internet world where whisky prices were just starting to climb.  They showcased something of the variety that rum provided, and educated many neophyte rum lovers into the foundations of their favourite drink. It showed them the varieties and differences and production methods that allowed a more sophisticated understanding of the spirit.  Rum was clearly not just some blended bathtub moonshine for the sweet-toothed who didn’t appreciate a single malt, or a bland and boring mixing agent — but a spirit with a long and technically rigorous, geographically broad-based history that deserved mention, if not respect.

The Internet

To some extent the remarks here are a subset of larger cultural shifts around the world which were enabled by the internet and the world wide web itself.  Access was available in 1995, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it became over the subsequent decades. The internet enabled web pages, those pages enabled blogs, blogs became review sites and fora for interaction — and all of it created a communications revolution for rum lovers.  What this allowed and promoted was a new understanding of the spirit, a grasp of its enormous stylistic range and geographical dispersion, as well as quick dissemination of information on rums, brands, companies, personalities, reviews, and opinions. It’s no accident that the sugar imbroglio (see a brief discussion in Part 2) arose after the internet permitted such exponential interaction and news-exchange among drinkers; or that the first rum festivals began springing up just as the first review sites did, in the mid 2000s.  The importance and impact of the web on rum appreciation simply cannot be overstated.

It took more time for the first write ups of Velier to come out the door on such websites, but before that happened there came one website that proved to be enormously influential, which all bloggers from that era remember.

Ed Hamilton and the Ministry of Rum

It took years after its launching in 1995 for the Ministry of Rum to acquire the central status it held for the next decade, and in its heyday it was one of the key places for aficionados to meet and share information (Capn Jimbo’s site was the other), and likely the most popular.  While it possessed a fair amount of articles and searchable information on distilleries, brands and countries – a first at that time, and a godsend to the researchers – the real basis for its influence and popularity was the forum and discussion area, and, to a lesser extent, the Connoisseur’s Cabinet where occasional reviews would be posted. At its peak, there would be new discussion threads and posts springing up daily, sharing information, raising issues, offering advice and opinions.  Even now in 2018 there’s a steady trickle of people on that site, posting “Hi I’m a new rum lover from ____”.

In these days of Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard, Tumblr, Pinterest, blogs, aggregators, instant messaging and full-time online presences, it’s difficult to remember how groundbreaking this trend actually was. Now rum lovers did not have to create websites (a difficult and often confusing task in the early 2000s) and then hope that they would be found – they could simply post on the Ministry.  Many of the older names in the rum writing game started their careers by commenting – extensively – here. This one original website did more than most other avenues to help disseminate information and news about rum, and introduced the vocal, dedicated fans to one another, a process that has accelerated with the advent of social media.

Independent Bottlers / Private Labels

If you put aside the 151 overproofs that Bacardi, Lemon Hart, Cruzan, Don Q, Goslings, Matusalem and a handful of others were releasing, the limited edition “cask strength” market was all but nonexistent until a decade ago, and these 75.5% mastodons were all you got.  All were considered cocktail bases, not rums in their own right: they were certainly not premiums. Such cask-strength rums as were considered a cut above the ordinary were mostly issued by independents, not by major producers (who limited themselves to powerful cocktail mixers like the 151s), and the independents weren’t looking to make overproofs but echoed whisky maker’s full-proof ethos.

Almost alone in the world, then, the Europeans issued a few high-proof bottlings, released by re-bottlers and spirits companies such as Cadenhead, Gordon & MacPhail, A.D. Rattray, Berry Brothers & Rudd among others; as well as smaller concerns like EH Keeling, Nicholson, Watson’s, Vaughan, Sangster, Baird-Taylor, Gilbey & Matheson, Henry & White, Lemon Hart, A.A. Baker (among others). The Germans had their own such companies such as those around Flensburg (Rendsburger, Dethleffson and Berentzen Brennereien for example, who made long forgotten rums under brand names like Asmussen, Schmidt, Nissen, Anderson and Sonnberg). And there was a scattering here and there, like Walter Reid in Australia, la Martiniquaise and Bardinet in France, a smattering of Americans…and quite a few small outfits in Italy.

It was a lonely occupation for these rebottlers and small operations, because the rums they created – whether aged, blended, high-proofed or all these at once – never really sold very well even at standard strength.  Fabio Rossi, who started Rum Nation in 1999, told me it took more than two years to sell the first Supreme Lord and Demerara series of rums he started off with; and as recently as 2012, one could get the entire Velier Caroni outturn to that point for a couple thousand euros (on ebay’s Italian site), a situation which could certainly not happen today.  It was the hard-to-shake perception of rum as not being “premium” that was at the bottom of it, a situation it took another ten years to rectify, and it was the small, nimble companies who we now refer to as “independents” who led the way.

A word should be spared for the work of the Martinique and Guadeloupe rum producers which don’t conform to the title of independents, but which also laid some of the groundwork for the renaissance of strong and singular rums that was about to take off.  These small estate distilleries sold their rums primarily on the local market and exported to France through their own distribution arms there. Among all their lightly aged rums and blends and whites, they also and occasionally produced millesimes which were specific years’s limited productions, bottled when such outturns were considered a cut above the ordinary. And while these were never very consistent (each one was different from the last), never really aged beyond all reason, only occasionally issued beyond 50% – they did showcase that a particular year’s output of rum might be considered a connoisseur’s drink and could be said to be grand-uncles of the single barrel releases by others.  And that is why the Clement 1952 and 1976, the Damoiseau 1953, Bally 1939 and 1960 and 1970, Montebello 1948 remain hugely expensive, yet still-sought-after exemplars of craft rum making by the producers of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

However, it’s the Italian companies which were to some extent key to the emergent Age, because although many were simply importers and distributors, some also dabbled in blending and reissuing of rums under their own labels.  They created the culture of Italian independents that dated back to the 1960s when sweetened “rhum fantasias” were in vogue in Italy, produced by companies like Pagliarini, Toccini and Seveso; they were accompanied by importers and rebottlers (Veronelli, Soffiantino, Martinazzi, Pedroni, and Guiducci are just a few examples) which led to their more successful inheritors, Samaroli, Moon Imports, Silver Seal and Velier, just about all who started with single barrel whiskies before turning their attention to rums.

Which leads us to that little importing company from Genoa, and its owner – Luca Gargano.

Luca Gargano and Velier

In the 1980s, Velier was a small family-owned Genoese spirits distributor with perhaps a quarter million dollars a year turnover and a staff of less than ten.  It had been formed in 1947 by Casimir Chaix and concerned itself primarily with importing and distributing wines, spirits, brandy, tea and cocoa. Luca Gargano changed all that by buying it in 1986, when he was still only in his twenties.  He had been a very young brand ambassador for St. James (from Martinique) and the experience had left him with a deep appreciation for rums, especially artisanal ones. When the time came for him to start a company of his own, he used Velier as a vehicle for his deeply held beliefs and the outpouring of his ideas.

Luca, who came from a family that was both close to the land and well connected in Italian commercial and political society, had spent years traversing the Caribbean in his time with St. James.  His filial connection with traditional farming and agriculture, his observation of the way technology was changing the world (not necessarily for the better), his feelings about politicians and the slanted biases of the news, led him to create his now-famous Five Principles: nothing happens in specific chunks of time; newspapers and the media are there for sales and not truth; politicians are in it for themselves; telephones tie you to themselves but offer little except conversations that were better and more enjoyably conducted in person; and why stress out about driving a car when one can use taxis?  And as a consequence he stopped watching TV, didn’t waste his time with newspapers or personal vehicles, chucked away his watch and never bothered with a cell phone of his own.

But there was a sixth principle, not often stated, yet deeply held.  And that was that food and drink should be as natural as possible, organic, free from the interferences of technology, fresh from the land.  When one applies that to food it’s one thing, but few before him sought to apply the concept to rums (except perhaps out of necessity). He felt that rum should be bottled as it either came off the stills or out of the ageing barrel without further messing around.  He may have known more than we did in those more innocent times, because although it is now common knowledge that many old favourites which came to the market in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s were dosed with additives, back in the day there was a lot more trust going around between consumers and producers.

Whatever the case, Luca wanted to put his name on pure rums that were as close to the still as possible, and if aged, fresh out of the barrel.  He started by finding some old Guyanese rums, continentally aged, and put them out the door in 1996, with a further set of three in 2000. Neither entirely satisfied him, because the first set was diluted down to 40% and the second to 46%.  A third series was released in 2002, also at 46% by which time he was in a better position to negotiate barrels with DDL.

And he needed to go further with his ideas on rums, because these early Demerara rums, to put it bluntly, made no mark, no splash, and fell flat.  They sold, but not well (I’ve been able to pick a few up as late as 2017), and in any event were not exactly what he wanted. The continental ageing and dilution in particular dissatisfied him — he felt something of the intrinsic character of the underlying distillate that showcased the stills and their uniqueness, had been lost.  He pulled in his horns, gave it some thought and was much more personal and involved in his future selections. He wanted to issue a rum that was at the full proof of the barrel, not some milquetoast please-the-most rum which he himself did not appreciate.

He was still wrestling with whether this was a workable commercial concept when he found a stored 18 year old rum at Damoiseau in Guadeloupe which was so spectacular, that he released it at 60.3% ABV in 2002, crossing his fingers as he did so.  The success of the Damoiseau 1980 made it clear that among people who knew their stuff, such rums would sell and find their own audience and he not limit himself in the future, as he had with the past three releases.

He issued no new rums for the next three years, and then emerged with the next outturn in 2005.  Four rums, one of them almost a legend. The Age can be said to have begun here.

In Part 2 I’ll look at the rums of the Age, and in Part 3 make some points about the aftermath of their issue and revisit some of these “historical” figures to see where they’re at in 2018.


Notes

Much of this is written based on my own writing and thinking and life experiences, though I have dipped into other bloggers’ published work here and there (like Matt Pietrek’s essay on Scheer and Marco Freyr’s background essays on Barrel Aged Mind). The research done in writing my own rum reviews and company biographies for nearly ten years has provided much of the remainder.

It’s hard to find people whose memories stretch back that far, to recapture the flavour of what the pre-1990s rum world was like – so some artistic license has been used to describe those times, though the facts are as accurate as I could make them.

The section on older aged rums and independents is by no means exhaustive.  It’s surprising how difficult it is to find exactly when a particular ten- or twelve- or fifteen-year-old rum first emerged on the scene, and to find discontinued variations becomes an exercise in real Holmesian diligence. I used my own photographs from Velier’s 4000+ rum warehouse for some of the examples in this section, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Peter’s Rum Labels in Czechoslovakia, which is an amazing resource, the best one of its kind in the world. I hope that people with large rum collections built up over many decades will one day allow people like me access to their stocks – to photograph and catalogue them (and maybe even to try a few) and for sure to write about them, as I do for the Rumaniacs. Too much history is being lost just because we don’t know enough, forgot too much, and never thought to record things properly.

Needless to say, if any mistakes or errors (especially of omission) are noted, please let me know and I’ll make amendments where required.

Mar 272018
 


Both of my eagle-eyed Constant Readers probably observed that I skipped the 400th review essay last year: I brought the 60+ Rumaniacs reviews into the numbering and so jumped right past it, but in any case, 500 seemed like a better number to be going on with.  Am I happy to reach this milestone? Oh yes. But that I have done so is a testament less to my own efforts, than those of readers, commentators and friends who continually provide encouragement and advice (and lots of corrections and criticisms). Even Mrs. Caner graces my work with an occasional nod of distant approbation in a “don’t let this get to your head, buddy” kind of way (which from her is a raving declaration of love) while suggesting I pass the glass so she can try the latest juice as well. And the 13-going-on-30, far-too-clever, hyper-intelligent Little Caner is now beginning to get curious about the whole thing himself, and tags along where he can, lending his nose if allowed. So that’s kind of cool too.

Still, if I had to do a pitch as to why I started and continue to run a free site, which costs me a lot in terms of both time and money, I’d be hard pressed to give you an answer that isn’t seen as either specious or self-serving bullsh*t. Certainly it provides no income, and I’ve taken a fair bit of flak in social media for some of my opinions, so what’s keeping things going?

Part of it is habit.  It’s a pleasant routine that I’ve fallen into, and I enjoy the writing, the tasting, the constant surprises and informational rabbit holes that any deep interest constantly reveals.  I like the people (on all sides of the divide), the honest curiosity of new entrants to the field. I like the fact that even such a niche interest makes me think and consider my opinions carefully, and enriches my store of knowledge. I like the whole forward-looking nature of the enterprise…it’s like I never get to the bottom of the rum glass, there’s always something new and different and obscure to research or find out or enjoy.

Any plans for the future, over and beyond what’s already being done?  Nothing grandiose. Cachacas are getting a bigger slice of my attention (still quite a few to write about), and I want to spend some time researching and writing about rums from Africa and Asia.  Expanding the Makers lineup continues to be a work in progress, and for sure I intend to acquire and re-taste a number of rums in my mental list of the Key Rums of the World (the effort is not stalled, by the way, just requires samples which are not with me right now).  Some general non-fiction essays are in my mind, informational reference pieces of the sort Matt Pietrek and Josh Miller do better and more often than I do. All this keeps me interested and motivated and eager to go over the next hill and see that odd new distillery on the other side.  Which I’ll continue to do as long as the purse holds out and Mrs. Caner concurs.

Over the years, a few of my friends interested in getting into the writing game told me that when the sheer bulk of work is considered, the established “names” out there who get the lion’s share of the attention, the long term nature of it…well, they’re a little intimidated and it reduces their motivation.  And that’s a fair comment – when I started posting in January 2010 after months of personal writing, the blogging and review landscape was quite small, so the carving out of a personal niche was somewhat easier to do. But I tell them all to not worry about it — just begin. It’s for you, right? You’ve been on FB for four-plus years already, haven’t you? Think what could have been accomplished had you started then. All it needs is one small review at a time, month in and month out, never stop, do it because you like it, be as unkillable as a cockroach and just keep plugging away.  That’s what I did, and still do now, and here we are. At 500.

 


As always, some observations on the state of the rum world…

The Additives Issue

If we think the whole business of additives is going away, we should think again.  Oh sure, it’s been written to death and I think the public awareness is there now, in a way it was not five years back. But any time some new rum aficionado starts talking on FB about how she or he liked the Kraken, Pyrat’s, Don Papa et al, there is no shortage of vociferous responses that take umbrage and it starts all up again.  Personally, I don’t and never will believe undisclosed additives are a good thing (and I’ll say that until they plant me), but I also feel that too often the so-called “dude, let me tell you what you’re *really* drinking” conversation degenerates into a sort of genteel elitist superciliousness that puts the blame in the wrong corner – that of the consumer, not the producers; and ignores the fact that many people (even those who know their rums) sometimes simply prefer a sweet mishmash of sugar laden crap.  

On the other hand, from the producers side, two small label changes give me hope – Pyrat’s stopped calling itself a rum and the Kraken now clearly says it has sugar and is a spiced rum.  Maybe the fierce debates on Facebook have created this awareness on the part of those who make rums, but even with this light through the clouds, Wes’s and Richard’s observations remain on point – it’s not enough, the matter should never be dropped, and people should always be asking the hard questions, whenever they buy and at all the festivals. Producers in particular should have the honesty to declare additives in their rums and Governments should make that a requirement through regulatory enforcement; and if consumers have any responsibility at all, it’s to educate themselves on the matter and vote with their wallets if they feel strongly enough one way or the other.

Websites

Several new sites I now visit on a fairly regular basis popped up over the last couple of years (on top of the old stalwarts). One of the best of these may be Single Cask Rum out of Germany (writing in English), which doesn’t do scoring but tastes flights almost every time to offer comparisons and insights. Another now-not-so-new reviewer I like a lot (he appeared up just after I posted the 300th review update) is RumShopBoy from the UK, and if you have not already gone over to Simon’s site to check out his work, trust me, it’s worth it (I particularly recommend his series on the St. Lucia 1931 rums, the El Dorado 15 YO “fancy finish” rums, and the more recent SMWS bottlings). Other sites that attract my attention are Quebec Rhum and  A la Découverte du Rhum and Le Blog a Roger (all in French), Rumtastic from the UK (he doesn’t assign scores), Rumlocker from the USA (some interesting commentaries and essays) and several other magazine format sites, all of which I‘ve linked to. I’ve also been twigged to a Japanese-language site called Sarichiiii, which somehow managed to compile a tasting roster of over 350 rums without making a ripple and I think it’s worth a look, though Google translate does make reading a chore, and navigation is tedious because of the large photos.

A corresponding (and somewhat depressing) trend over the last couple of years is the drying up of review sites particular to the North American scene (though the absence or slow decline of sites from other parts of the world is just as bad).  In its place I’ve noticed that micro reviews are now springing up, primarily on Facebook and Reddit, and this for me personally, is an incremental contribution to the field, but not one with which I’m particularly satusfied. Facebook posts get buried in a day unless there are comments and constant likes, Reddit isn’t far behind, and neither really create a body of reference work which sites like those of Wes, Steve, Marco, Matt, Josh, Paul, Laurent, Cyril, Henrik, Dave and others, represent. There’s no background info on these micro-posts, no really well deliberated and expressed opinions (except by fleeting here-today-gone-tomorrow commentary by others), no understanding or sense of the evolution over time in the mind of the poster.  Just tasting notes, a score and that’s more or less it. Serge Valentin can get away with that kind of brevity, but not many others can. Few of these posts hold my attention, or are ones I care to return to, the way I do for any of the websites run by the people noted above — because those writers provide information, not just data. So if a person can write a bunch of such mini-reviews, why not start a website? – it’s cheap and sometimes even free to do.

Lastly I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that aside from Tiare (who doesn’t do rum reviews very often, to our detriment) and the Rum Wench out of Australia (now silent since May 2016), and Yuuka Sasaki, the lady who runs the Japanese site remarked on above, there are no female writers in our small club of whom I’m aware (I would like to be corrected on this if someone knows better), and really wish there were. And also, I live in hope that writers located in Africa and Asia begin to contribute to the body of knowledge we all share, since they’re the ones who know what’s going on in their backyard in a way western writers can’t match and don’t often try to.

Greater appreciation of white full proof rums

Remember that post about the 21 Great Whites?  Originally I had intended to stop at ten and thought this would be enough, but the list grew and grew and finally the brakes simply had to be applied before I hit fifty and lost my audience entirely.  But what that list and the response to it showed was that the release of the blanc rhums and clairins are no mere flash in the pan. Leaving aside filtered white mixing rums of no particular interest to me (I’m not a bartender or a cocktail guru, to whom such rums are almost like bread and butter staples), these rip snorting high-test white rums are young and often unaged, powerful tasty and of a quality out of all proportion to their age. Habitation Velier had quite a few of these, the clairins are still coming on strong, the French Islanders always had them, and perhaps now they are simply becoming better known and more appreciated than before.  I look forward to many more in the future.

The longform essay

As a lover of doorstopping histories, multi-kilo books, series in multiplicate and all forms of well-researched knowledge, how could I ignore the more frequent postings of long pieces exploring single topics? I’ve done a few of my own, Wes Burgin opined quite frequently, but for sheer consistency, Matt Pietrek of the Cocktail Wonk is the gold standard (he’s the opposite of WhiskyFun in his own way), together with Paul Senft of RumJourney, Cyril of DuRhum, and of course Josh Miller of Inu-a-Kena, who still doesn’t write enough and whose essay on the history of agricoles was one of my favourites of 2017.  Pieces I particularly liked since #300 are:

Flipping

Perhaps the most acknowledged and admired story in the last couple of years has been the emergence of Foursquare as a rum powerhouse, easily eclipsing Mount Gay, WIRD, El Dorado, Appleton and St Lucia Distilleries as the source of really good fullproof rum, turning what could have been a major impediment to growth (the strictures of Barbadian law regarding purity and additives) into a major selling point.  Intellectually partnering with Luca Gargano didn’t hurt either, of course.

But an unanticipated side effect of this success has been the explosion of flippers — speculators who buy as much of a new release as they can and then turn around and sell it on secondary markets (which are now a real feature on Facebook as well as eBay).  We first noted this when all of the 2006 10 Year Old disappeared from online shelves five minutes after becoming available and then turning up on eBay a day later at highly inflated prices.  So bad did this become that Richard Seale, in an impressive and direct effort at damage control, arranged for personal couriers all over the world to deliver bottles at standard prices to those who were fortunate enough to get one. To say I was astounded at a major primary producer taking on what must have been incredible personal inconvenience, would be to understate the matter.

The whole business of flippers strikes rum lovers as distasteful, since they do not regard rums as an investment but as something to treasure and enjoy, a social lubricant, a matter for scoring brownie points with friends when measuring their collections — and most buy rums for the sheer love of the spirit (believe me, they share generously too).  So to have them disappear and require sourcing at twice the price is seen as extortionate. This however obscures the fact that flippers have existed for years – I bought the Skeldon 1973 from one of them – and they will remain a fixture of the landscape, so unless marketing and sales distribution rules change, we may just have to suck it up if we can’t get the juice through regular channels.  That’s capitalism for you.

A further unanticipated – and perhaps more welcome – development following right along, is what I call micro flipping – the sale of samples online (so far I’ve only seen this on Facebook).  I believe this will likely become a major source of samples for curious people who are interested in checking out new rums, but not entirely willing to part with major money for all rums bottled for an entire line.  So certainly I see this as a better  situation than whole-bottle flipping, like that post about some joker buying six Principias the other day which had Steve James go practically nuclear. But perhaps it’s too early to see if this is a temporary thing, or something that will cause online and other stores to reconsider their marketing strategy.

Minor Statistics

Here are some stats for those who, like me, are into their numbers:

  • This site represents over five thousand man-hours utilized in buying, sourcing, talking, tasting, noting, writing, thinking, attending rumfests and other tastings, as well as paying attention to the larger rumworld on FB and website postings by others, responding to comments and emails. For a comparison, note that a working year (52 weeks of five 8-hour days and no vacation) is about 2000 hours annually.
  • An expense bill that’s long past five figures. That includes not only rum purchases, but books, postage, travel time and entrance fees. Because Mrs. Caner is probably reading this, you’ll forgive me if I don’t give you the precise number.
  • Almost half a million words when all essays, musings and meanderings are added to the reviews themselves.  For a numerical (but not literary quality) comparison, War and Peace has around 600,000, Gone with the Wind has a shade over 410,000
  • Post with the lifetime highest hits: the Velier biography beat out the previous #1, the Bacardi 151 (which slipped to #4) probably due to an updated reposting last year; #2 and #3 remain equally consistent and surprising – the Stroh 80 from Austria (not really a rum)  and the Cuban La Occidental Guayabita del Pinar (also a somewhat debatable spirit). The least read rum review ever remains the Canadian Momento, a mere handful of views after many years of being available. I have honestly given up wondering what drives a review to be popular.  Is it a hot-snot new bottle review, is it quality of language, rarity, age, style, FB caches not reporting visitors? Who knows? Maybe it’s just dumb luck.
  • Fastest climbing post ever was the divisive and somewhat controversial selection of the Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva as one of the key rums of the world, followed by 9 Bajans and 21 Great whites and a biography of Renegade Rums. If nothing else, it shows that the interest in the diversity of rum and its background is in no danger of diminishing.

My list of rum discoveries and appreciated rums in between #300 and #500.  So as to keep this short I’ve just linked to the reviews and provided a small blurb for each. Not all are high scoring rums, but my appreciation for what they tried to do and accomplished remains undiminished, and the remain in my memory long after I wrote the review and moved on (which may be the perfect criterion to determine a good rum). In no order:

  • Rum Nation Small Batch Port Mourant 1995 21 Year Old
    • Yes, I like Port Mourant.  They’re all so rich, fruity, pungent, dark and all-round delicious. This one takes it up a level or two and is a worthy successor to the various twenty something year old Demeraras Rum Nation used to issue and which I also liked back in the day. This one is better, and not just because of its cask strength.
  • Foursquare (Velier) 2006 10 Year Old Barbados Rum
    • A simply amazing rum from Barbados. Absolutely gorgeous. I haven’t tasted the Principia or the newer Exceptionals, but they’ve got to be really damned good to beat what this rum does so casually, as if it was no bodderation at all.

 

  • L’Esprit Guadeloupe 1998 12 Year Old Rhum
    • L’Esprit is the little engine that could and may be one of the future collectors’ grails, if they continue this way.  This rhum from Bellevue operates on several levels at once, just about all of them firm and tasty.

 

  • Savanna HERR Millésime 2006 10 Year Old Rum
    • Brutal, sharp, ripe with bags of fruits and esters and happy to show every single one of them off at the same time. It takes some time to come to grips with it and identify all the stuff going on under the hood.

 

  • Savanna Lontan Grand Arôme Vieux 2004 12 Year Old
    • The HERR was a smorgasbord of everything Savanna could throw into a rhum: this one was softer, more muted, but no less complex. And I argue it’s even better because it just wants to showcase a proportion of its potential really well, rather than everything at once and dilute your focus

 

  • Bristol Spirits Jamaica 1974 30 Year Old Rum
    • Not as much funkiness as one might expect from a Jamaican.  It’s just dark, deep and rich, thick with mouth watering flavours, in spite of what at first sight might seem like a doubtful 43% ABV. A wonderful rum from Ago.

 

  • Velier Courcelles 1972 31 Year Old Rhum Vieux
    • The original Courcelles was magnificent, and this one is just as good.  Flavours come and go, and the complexity and overall balance were as good as what I remembered. Hard to get a hold of, of course – most of the older Veliers are, nowadays – but if you can, absolutely worth it.

 

 

 

  • Rum Nation Small Batch Jamaica 1986 30 Year Old
    • It’s probably been dosed, but this is one of those cases where the results still rise above that: this is one lovely Jamaican, bottled at a warm 48.7%, three special years’ rums from Longpond.

 

 

 

 

  • Toucan No. 4 Rum
    • A new rhum from French Guiana.  Simple, straightforward, mild at 40%, really well put together.  Does itself proud by not trying to be too much, or all things to all people.

 

  • Rum Fire “Velevet” Jamaican White Rum
    • Fierce, uncompromising, full-proof white rum bursting with esters and power from every pore. Flavourful and searing, and may be best for mixing, but trying it on its own is also quite an experience

 

  • Whisper Antigua Gold Rum
    • Just a sweet, humble little rumlet.  Doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, and is a nice starter spirit that does everything right in a low-key, unassuming manner. In fact, it’s grown in my estimation and tasting memories since I first tried it

 

Honourable mention has to go to the following who could just as easily have made this list

 


So, there we have it, a roundup of the rumworld and one reviewer’s place in it as best as I can summarize the situation. Most likely there’ll be another one at #750, if I last that long.  Probably, since I don’t see the exercise ceasing any time soon.  After all, it’s still fun, right?

In passing this personal milestone, I’d like to thank all the rum-loving people who come by here and read, whether agreeing with my assessments, writing style, opinions, verbosity, or not.  Gratitude also goes out to the many correspondents and commentators who engage in thoughtful, heated and passionate discourse on the many Big Questions, or even just one small one. And, of course, a big hat tip the producers – primary or independent – who keep upping the ante in terms of what they make and the way in which they make it, and provide a rich lode of material for us writers to mine and discuss with like-minded folks. It takes all of us together to make up the rumiverse.

All the best

The Lone Caner

Mar 062015
 

Part 5

Part 5 – Keeping things going

So let’s sum up the preceding four parts.[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

  1. Understand what you’re getting into, and why you’re doing it
  2. Go with a comfortable writing style that suits you
  3. Design a nice look to your site
  4. Know how to taste, score, note and write (and practice a lot)
  5. Know your rums and the larger world around them
  6. Sample around extensively (safely!!! I am not advocating rampant boozing)
  7. Be courteous
  8. Be consistent

If you’ve made it to fifty or more reviews, passed a year of writing, then it’s reasonable to assume this is no longer a mere hobby, but something a shade more serious.  Still, as time and rums pass by, interest flags and it’s perhaps no longer as much fun as it used to be…more like work. God, do I have to do another one of these? Been dere, dun dat.

The most common comments I hear from other bloggers, and often experienced myself, are these:

(a)    Site hits are too few and too fickle, showing massive variations

The more you write and the more you are active online, the more hits come your way.  Of course, this presupposes some level of quality in your work, and a network of contacts who recommend your site and people who share taste, and your way of expressing it. The CocktailWonk suggested finding one’s niche in an increasingly crowded writers’ market, which is a good idea – writing in a way, and about subjects, which no-one else is.

However, never underestimate the power of online “boosting” either. Now, if your perspective is one of “If I build it they will come” and you’re writing to speak of your experiences, your journey, without reference to how many others see what you’ve done…then letting your site sit there, idling gently, building word of mouth, is just as good as any other.

Online promotion is for people who can’t wait, are impatient to get visibility, and understand the hits multiplier that social networks enable. When you put something up, distribute and share on twitter, G+, post on the Rum forum on reddit, use Facebook to like and share, post to StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, Tumblr…these things can – in the short term at least – double and triple your site hits. The flip side is some people will inevitably see it as crass, whatever that means given the reputation of the drink we’re discussing.

(b)   Comments are few and far apart

Really, this is irrelevant. People comment when they feel like. You can certainly try to be controversial, write opinion pieces seeking engagement, create a forum for comments like the Ministry of Rum or the RumProject, be active on the FB fora, but here again, it simply takes time to get the volume.

(c)    The damn thing is too expensive

Good point.  It is pricey.  Go cheaper and build “review volume”, and remember this – you will never be able to taste them all, and there will always be an old monster you really wanted that will never be yours. At the forefront, keep in mind why you are here – if your goals have changed and this is not worth the cash, shutter the house and walk away. As a balm, I also refer you to my rather humorous take on affording your favourite tipple, which I name the “El Dorado Problem”, here.

(d)   It takes too much of my time

It can be done if you ration your time appropriately. And of course, if your commitment and persistence is there. Just for the record: I have a full time job in a foreign country; a family that has demands on my time; other interests and hobbies; a social life (such as it is); I’m studying for a professional accreditation; I’m learning another language.  I balance all this with my writing. If a lazy sod like me can do all this, there should be no reason why you can’t.

(e)   Bottles or samples acquisition sucks.  I’ve cleaned out all locals shops and bars

Create a sample-exchange network if you can (this suggests you have something someone wants and local postage laws permit it); interface with distilleries or brand reps; buy abroad and ship to yourself. Aggressive industry solicitation (“I’d like to review your products on my site…”) will work, and for sure, good relations with store owners is enormously useful – they often allow you to try heels for nothing, (like Dirk Becker’s store in Berlin, and Andrew Ferguson in Calgary always did for me, bless ‘em.)

(f)     People cannot be made to have an interest in rum no matter the effort

This is your job to fix. Consider yourself a rum ambassador.  Spread the gospel.  Those that don’t like rums are sadly misguided lambs in need of a shepherd to lead them to the cool green grass of the True Faith.

But all that aside, there are many ways to keep your interest from fading, and some of the things you can do at various times are:

1. Attend as many tastings or festivals as you can, and then write about them. Hell, run your own. At the very least you will meet people and get tasting notes for expensive rums you might not otherwise be able to afford or find.

2. Read the blogs from around the world; European ones often speak to rare and very old craft rums about which we can only dream.  Google translate does a decent job for those who are not multi-lingual, which is most of us.

3. Comment on others’ blogs (but really, do this if you have something to say, not just because you want to generate hits for yourself), join the Facebook page, start your own…make friends, even if only online.

4. Send and/or share samples on your own cognizance, of rums which you have that others might not. I’ve given away more than half of the Skeldon 1973, for example, and my PM 1980 is long gone down the gullets of the Liquorature Collective, including (to my utter delight) the Rum-despising Maltmonster and his Hippie acolyte.

5. Start a rum club of your own with like minded souls.

I’ve been doing this since 2009, and my interest is maintained by new rums, new friends, correspondents, festivals, and being part of something I feel is of worth.  I find that staying in touch generates reciprocal goodwill and increases my engagement with the larger community. And the writing, of course, keeps me busy too.  At the end, it comes down to you and what you are prepared  to do, and how seriously, or long term, you view the activity. Like any long term endeavour, you should love what you do, know what you’re about, take pride in it, and be professional.  Have a sense of humour about it all, and keep the wheels turning.   It can, with some effort, be a pastime or vocation that stretches into decades.

Hopefully these comments will give a sense of what it takes to remain that way.

***

Thanks and a big hat tip for helping me out with parts of, and background to, this essay go to:

  • Henrik Kristoffersen of RumCorner for massive investment of time and effort to comment and make this better. I stole some of his remarks.
  • TheFatRumPirate for portions of his starter-rum list
  • Josh Miller of Inuakena for a read through and encouragement.
  • All the online rum writers who over the years have candidly discussed their experiences with running a blog.
  • The Little ‘Caner, nine-year-old scion of Clan ‘Caner, who helped me with the cartoons, lent me his pencils (“Colour inside the lines, Dad!”); and the beautiful, long-suffering  Mrs. Caner, who loves me still, even if I spend too many evenings writing stuff like this.

 

 

 

Mar 052015
 

 

Part 4

 

Part 4 – Which rums to start with

In conceptual and generalized terms, this series has so far covered the startup philosophy, the website and postings, and added pointers on sampling and reviewing.  Today I move into more familiar territory.

I have a feeling quite a few people were waiting for this post.  Alas, no, this isn’t entirely what you thought it would be, because making such a list is a tricky, even controversial, subject to opinions varying as widely as the Pacific.

I’d suggest that you begin with what’s available to you easily and at a relatively low cost – those that open a new site not unnaturally tend to begin with what’s already in the cabinet, for example, and it seems that one really great rum is usually what kickstarts the inspiration process.  Now yes, this will relegate you to reviewing the old standby rums everyone knows about and which have been written on by many before you…but it also provides you with a solid base from which to start, good writing experience, and a sense of the their relative characteristics, one to the other. More, if you begin from the low end then you’ll appreciate better, older rums more as and when they cross your path – you have a good basis for comparison.  And you can calibrate better – by seeing what others have written on the same rum, you see what you may have missed (or what they have), and gain additional perspective and confidence. It helps even more with rare or limited editions that have no precedent: try finding reviews of the SMWS rum bottlings, for example…what on earth can they reasonably be compared to, if you have ‘em right off the bat?

What this is about then, is getting a firm grounding in the core rums of the world and what they taste like, and how they differ: El Dorado, Flor de Cana, Appleton, Mount Gay, FourSquare, Havana Club, Bacardi (yes, Bacardi), Clemente, Abuelo, Goslings, Diplomatico, Barbancourt, St. James, as well as standard mixers like Lamb’s, Meyer’s, Trader Vic’s, and so on (this listing is merely illustrative).  It also introduces you to the various styles upon which some place enormous emphasis – Demerara, Jamaican, Latin/Spanish/Cuban, Bajan, Agricoles and what have you (the FatRumPirate has a good section on his website devoted to this kind of stratification). If the subject and the act of reviewing is at all important to you, you kinda have to know this stuff. Rum 101, folks. You cannot be a reviewer with street cred, demanding respect, if you don’t have the basics down.

I thought long and hard before deciding against providing  detailed list of rums one could begin with because no matter how extensive, I’ll either leave something out, or include one that others disagree with; and have compromised by providing a list of companies making rums that are well known, mostly available, reasonably well-regarded (at least they’re not hated) and fairly representative.  It’s up to you to decide what your palate and your wallet can stand, and which ones in the value chain to get.

So, the rums made by the companies below are not a listing of rums with which to start your reviewing life, or a rum bar – although you could do worse –  simply ones that gives a reasonably broad base of styles and makes.  They therefore comprise a key component of a reviewer’s mental arsenal for evaluating rums. (Note I am deliberately leaving out specific rums from the eastern hemisphere, and independent bottlers. This is not to imply that they are somehow less, however.)

  • Bacardi (no matter what you think of them, they make decent rums)
  • Angostura (Trinidad)
  • El Dorado (Guyana)
  • Appleton (Jamaica)
  • Flor de Caña (Nicaragua)
  • Mount Gay (Barbados)
  • R.L.Seale / 4-Square (Barbados)
  • Havana Club (Cuba)
  • Matusalem (Dominican Republic)
  • Diplomatico (Venezuela)
  • Brugal, Barcelo and Bermudez (Dominican Republic)
  • Travellers (Belize)
  • Goslings (Bermuda)
  • Cockspur (Barbados)
  • Pusser’s (BVI)
  • Abuelo (Panama)
  • Agricoles – Barbancourt, St James, Neisson, HSE, Karukera, J. Bally, Clemente, Karukera, are examples…there are many others
  • Soleras like Zafra, Dictador, Zacapa, Santa Teresa
  • Spiced Rums like Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry’s, Kraken and so on
  • Overpoofs like the various 151 rums made by Appleton, Bacardi, Lemon Hart et al
  • Non Caribbean rums from anywhere (Australia, Thailand, India, Phillipines, Fiji, etc), even if they may not strictly be rums according to general accepted convention. The constant arguments of what constitutes a “true” rum is unlikely to be solved anytime soon, so you should also understand why the Phillipine Tanduay, Czech Tuzemak or Thai Mekhong raise the blood pressure of the puritans.

I tell all people asking me about what to begin with, to start the journey with one or two fantastic examples to show what rum can be, but then concentrate on writing initially about the low end of the market and work up. And I would strongly advise the prospective reviewer against going for, and writing about, the top end, oldest, most prestigious and/or most expensive rums right away, or those from independent bottlers who make rums that are often off the scale.  Even if you can afford them or your friends press them upon you, put them away for analysis and review later.  I know this sounds totally bat-bleep-crazy, but until you get your basics down and understand the rank and file of commercially available commonality, know your own tastes and how good sub-ten-year-olds can be, you will not be able to properly rate, appreciate or score a premium (or conversely, you may score it too enthusiastically).

Worse, it will colour all your perceptions of the good and commonly available rums forever, and this will be reflected in your writing. Buying top-end aged rums from their makers, or sourcing quality hooch from outfits like Rum Nation, Cadenhead, AD Rattray, Samaroli, Silver Seal or Velier and skipping entry-level grog altogether, is something of a one-way bridge; in comparison, more affordable and younger offerings will seem less, when in fact they really aren’t, just different, and are often good markers of their styles. From my own experience, I can freely admit that I should never have bought the Appleton 30 so quickly; or, much as I have always loved it, the English Harbour 1981.

Tomorrow – Keeping things going, and a wrap up

 

Mar 052015
 

Part 3

 

Part 3 – Sampling, and the review itself

In the first part of this series I discussed figuring out how to get your head around what to write, and followed that up in Part 2 with some general remarks on how to deal with your actual website postings. Today I continue in a similar vein about tasting, scoring and the conceptuals of a review.

***

When I taste I scribble my initial notes immediately; then I have to retaste, usually with other rums in play as controls or comparators, then score.  Then I have to turn the whole thing into a coherent essay, including research, background and photographs. The re-edits can sometimes take days. Then, and only then, do I post on this site.

Some pointers that work for me and which I’d recommend – the list is not entirely for more casual bloggers, but who’s to say what’s useful and what’s not? As always, find your own method with which you’re comfortable.

1. I’m not going to go in depth on how to nose and taste, hold the glass, dip your beak, etc.  The subject has been covered by many others before, and you’ll find a way that works for you. However, a good glass, not a tumbler, is recommended.  I used to needle my friend Curt of ATW about pinching his daughter’s Barbie glass collection, but there’s no question that a good tasting glass is part of a reviewer’s arsenal for really getting into a rum’s profile.  Sure you can use a whisky glass, plastic cup or tumbler, but remember: you’re a reviewer, not a backyard boozer gunnin’ ‘em down over the grill. It almost presupposes a slightly more structured approach to assessing a spirit.

2. Train yourself to know how to identify what you are tasting and smelling. (Practice in the kitchen, on the spouse’s spices, in open air markets, anywhere there’s a plethora of aromas to tease out of the air).  Pay attention to your nose, because that’s where most of the taste comes from.

3. Sample blind if you can, and in conjunction with other rums that are your personal baselines for the type.  In other words, have three or four glasses in front of you, but with different rums in them, including the current subject, and sample them together  without knowing which is which. The point is to be as democratic and unbiased as possible. I usually ensure that the comparators – all previously reviewed and scored – are of similar styles, or ages. Because the first time you try a really top-tier highly-aged rum costing upwards of two hundred bucks, your enthusiasm can really cloud your judgement, and you may be tempted to give it a free pass just because it is what it is, if no controls are in place to temper your exuberance.

4. Do the occasional vertical tasting of an entire distillery’s line, if you can get them (and afford them); or try horizontally, as with taking five ten year olds and run them past each other.  You don’t necessarily have to write about it – it does increase your experience and relative understanding, though, and there’s nothing at all bad about that.

5. Have or develop a taste memory for rums of similar types and your scoring for them, so you can assess the current sample against such previous reviews.  (Henrik from Denmark told me that he has a mental map of a control group of rums which he knows extremely well, and he uses those as reference points to do his scoring).

6. Learn and practice how to write quick notes (this works well in a public environment like shops or festivals, or perhaps your friends’ pads), and how to score on the fly, even if a little potted (be comforted, it gets easier).

7. Every review should have, at a minimum, a description of the rum (name, type, age if known, country of origin, producing outfit, and proofage); words relating to colour, possibly viscosity (“legs”); nose, taste (with and without water added) and finish.  Anything after that is an optional extra – stuff such as if it has been added to, filtered, how it makes a cocktail, company bio, what other rums it reminded you of; comparisons, price, source (pot still, column still, cane juice, molasses) and so on.

8. As noted before, whether you write in clipped sentences, brief notes, stream-of-consciousness or lengthy prose is up to you.

9. Have a score sheet. This would list the things you feel need to be evaluated: nose, taste and finish are the three most common.  Some add (and score) presentation, balance and/or overall enjoyment.  (My sheet has additional space for comments and the notes on the actuality of what I’m sampling…as well as what I’m thinking while I do it. Every now and then I go back through my old notes, but I’m odd that way).

10.   Score appropriately and consistently. Scoring is always an issue – many use a system which starts at fifty and goes to a hundred; others use a four star, or five-bottle or ten point system.  Mind, I started with the naive idea I could avoid scoring altogether and let the narrative speak for the product.  Yeah…but no. It’s really not a good idea to leave scores out. Sometimes that’s all people come to a review to see.

11. Jot down key words that occur as you try the latest subject.  Try and isolate specific aromas and tastes, the way it feels on the tongue, or when you slug it down.  How it changes as it sits for a while, after you add water, or an ice cube. Feel free to be as metaphoric as you wish – language should be pushed around a bit. Good writing in reviews is, I think, an undervalued art form, no matter how some people complain about excessive verbiage. (It’s also a personal belief of mine, unshared by many, that a review should say something about the author and his/her perspective on life, even express a philosophy, which is why I write the way I do).

The easiest reviews to write, the ones that just flow without seeming effort, are the ones you are most enthused about, whether for superlative rums or really bad ones.  This is because both your emotions and intellect are engaged and this makes for a better writing experience.  I’ve always found the hardest reviews to be the ones that relate a rum that is mid range…nothing special.  Only practice can take you beyond that hump, because most rums will indeed fall into this section of the bell-curve.

12. Do not be afraid to call a dog when you find one. Tasting is a subjective thing, true. You tend to get a sense for the good or great rums, and as time goes on your personal palate will likely bend you to one profile more than others, something which should also be noted up front (I have a thing for Demeraras and higher-proofed rums, for example, and the RumProject has made no secret of its utter conviction that un-messed-with rums that are in the mid-age sweet-spot range are the only ones anyone should be drinking). But you will find bad ones too.  We all do.

When you’re reviewing something from a new outfit you really want to succeed, tasting a rum about which everyone else in the blogosphere spouts ecstatic hosannas and encomiums; when you’re writing about some aged and rare and expensive dream-rum, even a so-called “exemplar of the style” — then if you disagree and dislike it, it absolutely does not means that you have to go with the flow, or even waffle around with weasel-words.

If you can take the time to describe why you love a rum, then the opposite holds true as well; you show respect to both the consumers and the makers when you can clearly explain why you think some well-advertised, supposedly well-made product, isn’t what it claims to be. Do not do the humble, self-deprecating cop-out of stating a dislike for a rum with the short comment about this being nothing more than an opinion, and “I’m-an-amateur-and-I-write-for-amateurs” – as if this somehow says all there needs to be said; if you have an opinion for good or ill, you must be able to argue your case.  An uninformed opinion is worthless, and people who do more than just look at scores do actually want to know why you feel this way).

Last note:

For four different styles of writing, compare the brutally minimalist ethic of Serge Valentin on WhiskyFun; the informative memoranda of Dave Russell on RumGallery; the utterly consistent verbiage and brevity of the RumHowler; and Barrel Aged Mind’s Deep Field of research. There’s a niche for everyone, depending on style. No one way will ever be correct, or please everyone.

Tomorrow: Which rums to start with

Mar 042015
 

Part 2

Part 2 – The Website, writing and your postings

Yesterday I wrote about getting the mental philosophy of what you’re doing straight, sort of like getting your battle preparations right. In this part, I speak to your website, your writing and the attitude towards interacting with the world.

In no particular order of importance, then:

1. Hardly needs to be said, but design your website for the long term, and organize your space neatly.  This is one of those elementary things that is often and surprisingly overlooked. Maximize useful space at the left and right with widgets, links, categories or what have you. Trust me, it’s hard to do this when you have a hundred posts or pages that need to be reorganized. And think about it – as a reader, don’t you want to easily locate the information you’re after?

2. Modern media influences content: I write for large screens, not ipods. If you think your target audience is the latter, shorter, crisper reviews are more likely your thing. My friend Henrik remarked to me “Consider using a platform that supplies smartphone or tablet apps for better mobile experiences.  That is the sole reason I chose Blogspot, which has an app that reformats the writing for mobile screens.”

3. Font should be large enough to be readable immediately, and pleasing to the eye (at the very least your own, since it’s yours). The same goes for color schemes, graphics overlays, backgrounds, and so on. Try not to put yourself in a situation where your site layout becomes a nuisance. That will just piss off or scare off readers, or, worse, makes your site seem unserious. On the other hand, be reasonable about it too, since you cannot possibly please everyone (this site was once impatiently accused of being “too busy”, for example).

4. If you must have ads on your site, keep them low-key and discreet. Speaking purely for myself, I don’t often visit “noisy” sites that have pop ups, graphics, gifs all over the place. They dilute my focus and detract from what I want to know, which is the rum itself..

5. Have more than just two or three reviews to start with.  A site populated with many reviews will be more interesting than  just a few.  I had twenty to start, and added three a week for the first few months through a blizzard of writing. Even this, in my rearview-mirror opinion, was too little. However, if you are just doing this to chronicle a personal journey and add notes and reviews and remarks as you experience them, then of course a more meandering path with less quantity is perfectly okay. Alternatively, go live with what you have but don’t advertise it, and get feedback from trusted sources, correct your inconsistencies and adjust as required.

6. Take decent pictures of the products you review.  Seriously, poor photography palls my overall enjoyment of a review (though crap writing irritates me more).  Take pride in what you do. No, you do not come off as One of the Lads by taking low-res, poorly composed, off-kilter, badly-lit photographs.  Because you’re not one of the lads: you’re holding yourself out to be something of an expert, someone whose opinion is worth reading – a poor picture does you no favours. It’s all about perception. Happily, it’s not really difficult to do.

7. Copyright everything.  You might think this is trivial, it’s free publicity when someone cribs your stuff — it’s really not. Without such protection, anyone can use the product of your mind and pass it off as his own without you being able to say or do anything about it. If you don’t care, then this is a moot point.

8. Do not let naysayers get you down.  There are always people who utterly disagree, pretend their opinions are the Lord’s Own Gospel, want to take you down a peg, leave a negative comment, or show off how much more than you they know.  They exist, they like doing it, so you must accept that and move on.  You’re in the public domain, and therefore fair game. Myself, I moderate comments on my site (my friend Curt on ATW does not).  My attitude is, if you don’t like, or disagree with, something that’s been written, comment courteously, without condescension and snarkiness, and don’t be patronizing…or don’t comment at all. Alternatively, you can use your own site to rebut and insult me (as one person already does, but in his defense, he despises everyone who doesn’t see the world his way, equally).

9. So, keep it civil, and refrain from constant negativity – in your responses, but also in your actual writing.  There are some bloggers in other liquor spheres that relish taking the low road, are big, brutish, oafish and in your face (one whisky blogger used so much profanity and was so abusive, it utterly appalled me, and I never went there again). I don’t see much percentage in this myself.  It’s shock therapy, it’s off-putting, and it alienates more thoughtful readers. And it’s those readers that engage with you, comment articulately and keep your interest from flagging.

10.  Know your field. Write about everything on the subject that catches your fancy.  Distilleries, wish lists, yuck-lists, thoughts on controversial topics, how-tos, tips&tricks…have a sense of the larger world around your passion. I have no particular interest in amarii, but Josh Miller’s excellent four-part series on the subject was fascinating and I was glad that he, a rum reviewer, took the time to take a left turn. The same goes for Steve James’s series on St. Lucia Rums and the ur-text of Marco’s work on Guyanese distilleries.

11. If you take a picture from the web, or a quote, attribute it properly.  Ask first if you can, it’s a simple courtesy – I’ve gotten caught out with this a few times, which is why I take my own photos, and put website links to quotes used.

12. Take the long view. Do not get upset by a lack of site visits.  It takes time to build an audience, even more for rums, which have nowhere near the extensive and rabid fanbase of whiskies (though it does have one self-annointed, self-appointed High Priest). Again, this goes to commercialism inherent or absent from your site, and your constant, occasional or indifferent promotion through social media. (See also Part 5, keeping things going)

Tomorrow – Sampling and the review itself

 

Mar 032015
 

Introduction

There are a lot of people who write engagingly and have an interest in rum, and some of them, not unnaturally, want to start their own website regarding matters of the cane. Some want to review rums; others want to blog about cocktails; in other cases the new bloggers address themselves to spirits in general.  After a while, hits go up, production goes up, and the site takes off.  And then, in some cases, it slides into a moribund state of somnolescence.

It’s because I wish we had more rummies out there that I decided to put together some thoughts on what it actually means to set up and contribute to a review site.  Because fair is fair, it’s always great to have new blood constantly providing their input – but I would like to have longevity as well.

See, it’s hard to stay the course for more than a few years. It’s easy to get sidetracked, and life has a way of getting in your way: it just…happens. So the interest is sometimes just lost, the new baby is born, the job gets more intense, the attacks too depressing, the expenditure too high, the site-hits too few. But you can always recognize the consistent long timers and know their websites, because not only do they turn up on every search you have, but they frequently blogroll each other.  Somehow they’ve achieved balance and harmony…zen you might say.

Anyway, the points here strike me as reasonable recommendations for those who are thinking of starting their own rum reviewing site.  It’s long, so I’ve broken it out into five parts. Feel free to comment on your own ideas, from your own experiences.

 

Part 1

***

1. Have a sense of how you want to write – clearly, concisely, briefly, starkly…or perhaps something more lengthy.  The briefer you are, the more frequently you will almost be expected to write.  Also, what do you want to write?  Just tasting notes, or something more? Opinion, price, star rating, distillery info…get this straight in your head first.

2. Understand why you are starting the journey.  Do you do this for love, to share your journey, for money, for freebies and the personal back bar, for street cred, to educate fellow rum lovers, to get a job, to round out a profession, to enhance your bartending skills…or simply because you enjoy writing and rum equally?  I know examples of all of these types. Be honest with yourself about why you started, because that impacts on both your writing style and your longevity. And your personal life, surprising as this may sound.

3. Be clear in your writing about your intentions, and, by extension, be honest when you write.  Your remarks will be valuable to others seeking assistance and clarity, but they will also want to know when you’re stating a fact, or expressing an opinion.

4. All impressions to the contrary, this is not a cheap hobby or pastime (and it’s my personal belief this eventually sinks a lot of potential bloggers who begin with such great hopes and intentions).  In spite of what you may think, store owners and distributors will not immediately rush in joyous exuberance to your house in order to ply you with samples, and your friends and family usually won’t provide you with the really top tier stuff. So it will cost you money.  If you are coming at this from the perspective that you’ll get free bottles to amend your purse and expand your home bar, that you will be invited on junkets to tour distilleries and attend tastings on someone else’s coin, well, you could be…eventually (or if you actively and aggressively engage with industry).  But you won’t get as many as you think unless you really write a lot and well.  So if you’re committed, you’ll be spending quite a bit of your own money at the inception in order to populate your site with reviews that hopefully others will find irresistible. My own recommendation would be to start small and see if you can keep it up (and to see if the spouse objects). Don’t go spending hundreds of dollars or Euros or whatever, on top-tier rums just because you can (see also part 4, regarding where to start).

5. Following from that, establish your personal policy towards free commercial samples early on and stick to it. This is always and only a matter of objectivity and perceived conflict of interest.  It’s human nature to distrust of positive reviews written about a company-supplied sample. At end, it comes down to whether you, in all honesty, feel you can write objectively about a rum – especially something that sucks – when presented to you for nothing by an industry rep (I do not speak of friends or family). Some of my friends see this as a way of defraying the inevitable expenses, others adamantly defend their objectivity, and this is fine – it’s their writing, not mine. I simply feel that if you do accept an industry sample (or the guy who runs your local liquor shop), then just be honest and state it in your review.

6. And you really should have a scoring system from the beginning (whether you publish the score or not).  There are quite a few different methods out there.  Pick one that you think you can work with for a long time, and start from your very first review (though I would also suggest sampling ten or twenty rums, then scoring them against each other first, just to see how the system works). This is more important than you think, because people really pay attention to scores and will ask questions; also, you can band your reviews together in ranges, as the body of work grows. (See also Part 3 where I go into scoring a bit more).

7. Don’t stop.  Build a rhythm and stick to it.  I’m not entirely sold on today’s blogworld where if nothing gets posted for three days, the site dies…on the other hand I do believe in regular updates.  The RumHowler can do three a week, the FatRumPirate is going great guns, and I try to do one a week, but no matter what, just keep ‘em coming.  And after you pass fifty, then a hundred, then even more, don’t get bored or discouraged, just keep on doing it (if you must take a break, as many of us do, put up a note saying ‘Out of Office’ for the faithful readers).  This has implications for the development of your personal style, your persistence, and your longevity – if you can’t keep up the programme you’ve set for yourself (whatever that might be), then maybe how you write has to be adjusted.

8. My personal taste is for adding information on the maker as part of the overall review.  Obviously this makes for a longer essay and gets redundant when you’ve reviewed several products by the same outfit.  If you are a master of the short form, then this method won’t fly. For myself, it adds to my knowledge and, I feel, that of the reader.  If you decide to go this way, ensure you state outright where your info is sketchy (especially when several sources are contradictory, as often happens)

Tomorrow – Part 2

Feb 052015
 

200

 

***

Who would have thought, that when Liquorature first started as a small club in 2009, that the rum reviews portion of its website would split off into its own, let alone ever surpass a hundred reviews? With the review of Rivière du Mât Rhum Vieux Traditionnel Millésime 2004, some three years after passing the 100th write-up and more than five years into it, I have reached the next milestone, the 200th, and I have to admit, it would have been faster if I had not stopped writing for a year when I moved to the Middle East.  It’s not the best in the world by volume (and never will be), yet it still gives me a small sense of accomplishment to have even done this much.

The opening of this site in 2013 was a major shift in the shared review philosophy we had followed on Liquorature.  It was inevitable: like anyone who produces a fair amount of mental product on his own time and with his own dime, I wanted a display case for that and that alone (I’m not much of a community person and don’t do things by committee — the “Lone” in my title is not an accident, and exists on several levels of meaning). The reactions and feedback from our small subculture and miscellaneous passers-by have been generally positive and gratifying, in some cases surprisingly so.  Even when I was on an extended absence in 2013/2014, the hits kept ticking over fairly constantly (if minimally), suggesting that there was a small audience for my eclectic and eccentric writing. I have made no major changes to the site design-wise, except for allowing people to find a rum by name, by maker and by country — I deemed ages, colour categories and styles to be too limiting, if not actually vague, and so stuck with simplicity.

Two developments on the 1st One Hundred which I noted at the time and which continue were the adding of scores and the cessation of accepting, let alone soliciting, industry samples, a policy which I have followed with exactly two exceptions ever since.  I don’t pretend this makes me better than anyone, it simply speaks to my fear of undue influence in the latter case, and (in the former) my desire for calibration and rankings in a collection that is now quite extensive.  Much to my chagrin, I found that descriptions alone didn’t tell the tale of any given rum, and developed a scoring system that worked for me, and which I use to this day. In the coming year, I know I will discard the 0-100 rating with 50 as a median, and move towards a relatively more standardized system whereby 90+ is top end, and an average score will fall around 70-80…I just have to recalculate and recalibrate two hundred reviews to do it, and that’s no small task. (Update March 2015 – I have now rescored and recalibrated all reviews to fall in line with the more accepted 50-100 system)

Also: I still write the same way, still put as much as I feel like into a review, and provide as much information as possible in a one-stop-shopping approach for the reader.  I am in awe of others’ pithy one-liners, and think Serge’s haikus of tasting notes on WhiskyFun are brilliant, but I lack their abilities in this area and must play to my own predispositions and abilities.

As time went on, my palate changed and moved more towards stronger rums.  At the very beginning I decried rums with too much burn and whisky-like profiles.  This approach had to be modified as I tasted more and more and built up a collection I was able to use to cross-taste.  I was already thinking that 40% was too limiting back in 2011, but in 2012 I went to Berlin and bought and tasted the rums of a spectacular company called Velier for the first time, and they convinced me that full-proof, cask strength rums in the 50-65% range, when made right, deserved their own place in the sun.  In 2014 that opinion was solidified at the Berlin RumFest, where so many rums were full proofed that finding a forty percenter was actually not that easy. These days, given my proximity to Europe, that’s most of what I can get anyway, and I’m not unhappy with it.

I also gained a fondness for agricoles and their lighter, cleaner profiles, though they will be unlikely to ever surpass my love for Mudland products, good as they are.  The really good agricoles from the pre-1990s are, alas, very rare and quite pricey. Still, I persevere – aside from Dave Russell’s Rum Gallery, too few reviewers outside France and Italy (L’homme a la Poucette and DuRhum come to mind) really push out or have serious quantities of agricole reviews. So there’s definitely some opportunity to champion them, I think, and who can call themselves rum reviewers and ignore such a wide swathe of product?  Availability might be the problem: Josh Miller from Inu a Kena bemoans his selection in the USA, for example and I know Chip in Edmonton has the same issue.

I started a new and very occasional series called “The Makers” inspired by a conversation the Hippie and I had many years ago, and which I felt had real potential to provide more information to the reader. With whatever information I can glean online and from my books and conversations, I try to put together a biography of the companies that make rums, and (if at all possible) a list of all their products.  To that I added another section called “Opinions” because there are many issues confronting the rum industry and general and bloggers in particular, upon which I at least want to comment.  Still a work in progress.

The one other aspect of the experience of reviewing rum and rhum that has taken off in the last couple of years is the friends I’ve made, the contacts.  To say I have been startled by this development is an understatement because in the first years I worked almost in isolation…but pleased and touched as well. Henrik, Cyril, Marco, Francesco, Luca, Fabio, Curt, Maltmonster, Gregers, Steve, Josh, Chip and all the others… muchas gracias to you all. I get helpful comments, offers to share samples, clarifications, info and all kinds of assist when stuck for a detail or a path forward.  Rum Folks…they’re great guys, honestly.

So here’s looking forward to my next hundred, then.  I know I’m playing a catch-up game with the guys like Serge, Dave and Chip, and it’s not always and only about the numbers.  The important thing is that it remains interesting to me, I like the writing and the research and the back-and-forth…and I still revel the pleasure at discovering a really great rum, previously unknown, about which I can craft an essay that hopefully makes people think about it, appreciate it and maybe laugh a little.

Cheers to all of you who’ve read this far and this long..