Dec 312017
 

Although I always have controls on hand when writing a review, it’s not always clear in my writing how they all relate to each other, since the individual essay speaks to just a single rum.  However, I’m a firm believer in doing flights of multiple rums, whether horizontally (several rums of similar age or provenance), or vertically (where a single maker’s entire range is evaluated up and down the age or strength scale).  Such exercises are useful in that they permit similarities and differences to snap more clearly into focus, and perhaps some interesting judgements can be made on that basis.

Some time back when I was out in the real world, I spent some time doing a white rum run-through (this led to one of my favourite lists, the 21 Great Whites), a Jamaican flight (still to be written up) and this one of nine rums from Barbados.  The selections were not standard-strength or more commercially available rums like St. Nicholas Abbey, Mount Gay, Doorly’s or Fousquare, but mostly independents and limited releases: since such caskers possess attributes of strength and individuality which I felt to be incompatible with larger-volume blends existing in their own space and time; and they appeal to a different grouping of rum lovers than the specific rums tried here.  This may reduce its usefulness to some (aside from the fact that I could have made the list much longer), but certainly some limited conclusions could be drawn from the exercise nevertheless.  I’ve dispensed with my notes, thoughts and observations on each rum (that was not the purpose of the session) but the full length essay on each is linked where available, and will provide any additional background information these quick tasting notes don’t have.

So without further ado, here they are in my final post of 2017. Enjoy.


Cadenhead Mount Gay 2000-2008 8 YO BMMG 66.3%

Nose – Hot and fierce. Honey, flambeed bananas, nutmeg and peaches, salty caramel.  Gets a little sweeter over time, very distinctly so with water.

Palate – Sharp, hot. Bananas, caramel and burnt sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Tart fruits are there but take a back seat to softer ones.  Water is almost required here since it allows the lighter fruity notes to emerge more distinctly

Finish – Not so impressive – dry and medium long, but for the intensity there’s surprisingly little going on here

(84.5/100)

Cadenhead Green Label 2000-2010 10YO Mount Gay 46%

Nose – Acetone, nail polish, quite light. Bananas are back, also nutmeg and peaches, a flirt of caramel, and in fact it is quite similar to the BMMG above.  It is pleasant and light, with honey and some salty caramel remaining as the backbone, interestingly melded with some ashes and charred wood, and some medicinal notes I didn’t care for.

Palate – Salt and sweet caramel, sweet soya.  Those hospital smells translated to the palate also, not successfully IMHO.  Green tea, some pears and light fruits, chocolate and the honey almost disappears. The easy strength works well here.

Finish – 46% betrays itself into a short, light fade, mostly florals, honey, caramel and a dash of citrus rind.

(82/100)

Isla del Ron 2000-2013 Mount Gay 12 YO 61.6%

Nose – Mount Gay really does seem to have something of a profile all its own, leaning towards honey, bananas, light caramel, acetone, some rubber and a bit of brine.  Some sweet syrupy smells like mixed fruit in a can.  Resting didn’t add much to this one.

Palate – For all its heat and power, there wasn’t much going on here as one would expect.  Vanilla, brine, mint, chocolate with watery fruits (watermelon, papaya, white guavas), but all quite vague.

Finish – Long, salty-caramel-ice-cream; almonds, walnuts, vanilla, brine and an olive or two. Quite tame.

(83/100)

Compagnie des Indes 2006-2016 Foursquare 9 YO 62.1%

Nose – Olive oil in a nice garden salad, oddly enough, but sweeter florals permeate the nose as well, nicely integrated strength and balance with acetone, cherries and peaches, red grapes and Moroccan olives.

Palate – Nice! Caramel and licorice, fried bananas, apricots, chocolate and light coffee grounds. It’s 62.1% yet this is hardly felt.  Apples and some lemon zest round out an excellent profile

Finish – Longish, with cider, apples, salted butter, light molasses.  It’s a bit sharp, and with water it gets toned down very nicely indeed, at the expense of some of its distinct flavours.

(87/100)

Habitation Velier 2013-2015 Foursquare ~2 YO 64%

Nose – Power, lots of power here, leading in with pink rock salt and tomato-stuffed olives. Rubber, glue, vanilla ice cream drizzled over with hot caramel and chocolate. Lemons, cumin, sweet paparika and pepper. There’s a little wine-iness in the background, but this is very faint, almost unnoticeable.

Palate – Salty olive oil and soya, like a rich vegetable soup impregnated with lemon grass, cumin and dill. Nuts, dates and peaches, rubbery and wax notes, not all playing entirely harmoniously together, though for sheer originality it’s certainly worth a second (or third) try.  Water helps here.  Sweetness returns, caramel, fruits, herbs, really quite an experience.

Finish – Surprisingly short.  Creamy.  Dark sesame-seed bread plus herbs, caramel, honey, sweet olives. Points for originality, if nothing else, and not one you’re likely to forget anytime soon.

(87/100)

Foursquare 2005-2014 9 YO Port Cask Finish 40% (Exceptional Cask Series)

Nose – Rubber and acetone to start, fruity notes quite distinct. Grapes, oranges, tangerines (not lemons).  Vanilla, toffee, cinnamon.  Smells like a slightly amped-up Doorly’s 12 YO, showcasing what that could have been with more barrel work, because this one is younger than the Doorley’s, almost the same strength…but better.

Palate – Wish it was stronger, as that intriguing nose does not efficiently deliver tastes in equal measure: mixed fruits in a salad bowl sprinkled with brown sugar, raisins, cherries, bananas, some coconut (I liked that) and charred wood.

Finish – Short, warm, almost light.  Certainly it’s easy. A few fruity notes, some toffee, blancmage, orange zest. It works, but not as well as it might have.

(82/100)

Compagnie des Indes 2000-2016 Foursquare 16 YO 62%

Nose – Luscious.  Black grapes, prunes, plums, honey, tinned fruit salad syrup simply without excess cloying-ness which might have ruined it. 62% is remarkably well controlled, even gentle.  Sweet red olives, fried bananas, hot black tea.

Palate – Very well done, dry intense, quite rich.  Acetone (fading fast), honey, black tea sweetened with condensed milk, cherries, apricots and even some rosemary.  An interesting combination of delicacy and heft, and that’s quite a trick for any rum to pull off.

Finish – Long, rich, fruity, zesty, includes some of those sweet cooking herbs.  Doesn’t quite ignite, however, and the components don’t mesh as well as they might. That said, still a rum to savour neat, in spite of its strength.

(86/100)

Foursquare 2006-2016 Single Blended Rum 62%

Nose – As good as I remember, as amazing. Nougat, white toblerone, cream cheese; peaches, strawberries and cream, citrus rind, and a majestic panoply of darker berries and fruits. Just a lovely nose.

Palate – Dried apricots and mangoes; rich brown honey spread on toasted black bread. Cherries, overripe grapes, lemon zest and all this retains great pungency over long periods. Hard to believe, with its smoothness and assembly, that this is north of 60% ABV.

Finish – Surpisingly easy; warm, not sharp.  Quite fruity and creamy, both soft and tart at the same time.  The integration is excellent, the balance superb.

(91/100)

Bristol Spirits Rockley Still 1986-2012 26 YO 46%

Nose – Meaty, chewy, salty maggi-cubes.  Brine, olives, salted caramel. Wow, quite a left-turn.  Where was the sherry? Sweeter fruit and some waxy pungency take their own sweet time coming out, plus honey and nuts after maybe ten minutes.

Palate – Much better to taste than to smell.  Caramel, weak molasses, dollops of dark honey, cough drops, leather, rye bread.  Also bitter chocolate, burnt sugar, stewed apples and the tartness of firm white unripe fruit – apples, ginnip, soursop, that kind of thing.

Finish – Short, fruity, honey-like, with additional notes of polish on old leather. Great balance

(86/100)


Having tried these few, then, what can one say about the lot?

Well, to begin with, I believe that with some practice one can indeed pick out the Mount Gay from a Foursquare rum, though I can’t pretend this is a statistically significant sample set, and I wasn’t trying them blind, and most of the reviews had already been written. Also, spare a thought for WIRD’s Rockley Still from Bristol Spirits, which is something of an outlier in this listing dominated by the other two big guns.  In October 2017 when Marco Freyr (of Barrel Aged Mind) and I were talking and sampling like cash-rich newbs in the rumshop, he remarked that there was no way – ever! – he could mistake a Rockley Still rum.  The profile was simply too distinct from the other Bajan makers, and while at the time I didn’t entirely agree with him, further tastings of other WIRD rums (not on this list, sorry) showed that in all likelihood, with a large enough sample set, yeah, he was absolutely right – even under the influence of the sherry casks in which it was aged, it was markedly different and particular to itself, and strength had nothing to do with it.

It’s clear that quality, enjoyment and a high ranking does not rest on age, or strength, or finishing and not on fancy barrel strategy.  None of these attributes in isolation automatically makes for a good rum…a relatively youthful cognac-aged Habitation Velier ranked very well against a lesser proofed other-barrel-aged rum like the Foursquare Port Cask.  And the higher power of the 8 YO Cadenhead BMMG only marginally improved it over the older, but weaker, Green Label, neither of which had any ageing in other barrels than the norm.  The Danish cask strength CDI Foursquare rums were also quite good in spite of one being almost double the age of the other. So clearly, age has its limitations, as does the type of barrel or finishing regimen used, or the strength.

But push them into combination with each other and you’ve really got something.  The Foursquare Velier collaboration of the almost legendary 2006 ten year old pressed all the right buttons at once, and this is why even on this go-around, it beat out all the competitors.  It’s simply as spectacular now as it was then, and while it’s not the best Bajan ever made (I haven’t tried every Bajan ever made), it remains a high water mark for sure and demonstrated that when judiciously applied, with verve and skill and style, the intersection of the three components results in some awesome juice.

Lastly, it is no secret that 2017 has pretty much been the year of Foursquare (Velier might dispute that given the enthusiasm over its 70th Anniversary special issues) — and I don’t just mean the company, but its rums in general, whether released by them or other independents. This small selection of nine rums from Barbados show why this is so. That’s not to take anything away from the others, which all scored reasonably well and are credit to the island’s rum making heritage.  But certainly Richard Seale is riding high at the moment, and it remains to be seen whether the other brands from Barbados will step up to the high standards he is setting, or get relegated to second tier status for the foreseeable future.  For that reason alone, the next years’ developments will make watching Barbados rums evolve a fascinating experience.

Dec 212017
 

#472

The question that arises in my mind when I try something from Foursquare at standard strength is whether it would be better stronger, or whether it succeeds on its own merits as it stands.  Long time readers of this site (both of you, ha ha) will know of my indifference to the Doorly’s XO, the R.L. Seale’s 10 YO and the Rum 66 12 Year Old, but ever since Alex over at Master Quill glowingly endorsed the Doorly’s 12 YO (and noted he didn’t buy the XO because of my review), I’ve been curious how it would fare – especially when compared with the Exceptional Cask series like the Zinfadel, Port and Criterion, let alone those amazing Habitation Velier collaborations.

The Doorly’s brand was acquired by Foursquare in 1993, and it’s possible that the emergence of the El Dorado 15 YO the year before (it was one of the first aged premium rum brands regularly and plentifully issued by a major house) might have had something to do with that; and much of Mr. Seale’s blending philosophy and barrel strategy made famous by Foursquare’s more recent rums is still  demonstrated in the Doorly’s lineup, though I feel it’s currently being overshadowed by the Exceptionals, relegating it to something of an also-ran in a connoisseur’s cabinet. It’s a blend of pot and column still rum, some 90% of which was aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and 10% in Madeira casks (12 years in each). The final result is married for a short time (no details on how long) and then bottled.

I think that a lot of how you approach this rum and finally rate it will depend on where you stand regarding rums as a whole, and where you are in your personal journey.  You like the Jamaican and Guyanese, or high power whites, or 55% agricoles?  This might strike you as subtler, quieter, perhaps even bland.  Prefer cask strength rums made by the indies, or Foursquare themselves? This one is likely to leave you frustrated at the untapped potential that never quite emerges. On the other hand, if growling ABV monsters and fierce pungency are not your thing, it would probably appeal in spades, be deemed a damned fine rum — and indeed, it is well regarded and held in high esteem by many, as a result of dialling into precisely those coordinates.

Well, let’s taste it and find out, then.  Nose first: it was a clear, quiet smelling experience, a stripped-down blunted Swiss army knife of almost-sharp twittering flavours led by a buttery salt caramel, burnt sugar, a bit of soft citrus (oranges rather than lemons), unripe cherries, pomegranate, cinnamon and nutmeg.  What sharpness there was seemed to be more imparted by the wood, as it listed towards some oak influence, and maybe vanilla.  Overall aromas were well integrated, and while for me it presented some of the same issues as the XO — too thin, too faint, too delicate — it wasn’t totally derailed by them either.

Having observed a frailty of the nose, I was prepared for something similar on the palate.  Sampling it confirmed the matter: it remained weak and that seriously impaired the delivery of both texture and taste.  Yet hang on, hold up a minute…it was reasonably complex and tasty too.  It led off with clear caramel notes, vanilla, some brine, faint molasses, an olive or two. Also chocolate, bananas, indeterminate fruits, creamy salted butter, toffee, some oakiness for bite and finally the nutmeg and cinnamon returned for a quick twirl on the dance floor. So that part was pretty good.  However, I was utterly unenthused by the quick finish, which seemed to be as wispy as a debutante’s handkerchief and provided nothing of consequence – oak, leather, a little tobacco and straw, more caramel and a vague winy note that intrigued but was gone way too quick. Sorry, but that finish was a big yawn-through….I blinked and it was gone.

Everything about the rum seems to showcase the dialled-down approach that was in vogue ten years ago but has now been overtaken by events and developments in the larger rumworld. That it’s a well-made, serviceable, standard-proof rum for those who have never gone further (and don’t want to), I concede, no issues.  It’s 12 years old, it has some subtleties and interesting tastes (the taste is quite good), goes well in a cocktail or solo, piques the interest and the palate nicely.  What it lacks is panache, style, heft, clarity, intensity….it misses the mark on real character. It remains a rum of enduring popularity, of course, but leaves a deep core rum fun wondering wistfully what it might have been. And then turning to the Criterion to find out.

(81/100)


Other notes

Nov 062017
 

#398

Everyone has a favourite Foursquare rum and the nice thing is, like most large large brands, there’s something for everyone in the lineup, which spans the entire gamut of price and strength and quality. For some it’s the less-proofed rums still issued for the mass market, like Rum 66 or Doorly’s; for others it’s the halo-rums such as the Triptych and 2006 ten year old.  However, it my considered opinion that when you come down to the intersection of value for money and reasonable availability, you’re going to walk far to beat the Exceptional Cask series. And when Forbes magazine speaks to your product, you know you’re going places and getting it right, big time.

The Criterion 2007 ten year old (Mark V) released this year is the fifth and latest of these rums, following from the Bourbon Cask 1998-2008 10 YO (Mark I), Bourbon Cask 2004-2015 11 YO (Mark II),  Port Cask 2005-2014 9 YO (Mark III), and the Zinfadel Cask 2004-2015 11YO (Mark IV).  It’s quite a step up from the Port Cask, without ascending to the heights of the 2006 10 year old or other rums of its kind.  For those who don’t already know, the Criterion is a pot-still and column-still blend, and while the ageing regime (three years in ex-bourbon casks and seven years in very old Madeira casks) is fine, it also subtly change the underlying DNA of what a pure Bajan rum is.

Let me explain that by just passing through the tasting notes here: let me assure you,the Criterion is pretty damned good – actually, compared to any of the lesser-proofed Doorly’s, it’s amazing.The sumptuousness of a Louis XIVth boudoir is on full display right from the initial nosing.  Even for its strength – 56% – it presented with the rich velvet of caramel, red wine (or a good cognac).  Oaky, spicy and burnt sugar notes melded firmly and smoothly with nutmeg, raisins, and citrus peel, cardamon and cloves, and there was a glide of apple cider on the spine that was delectable.  The longer I let it breathe, the better it became and after a while chocolates, truffles and faint coffee emerged, and the balance of the entire experience was excellent.

Tasting it, there was certainly no mistaking this for any other rum from Barbados: the disparity with other rums from the island which my friend Marco Freyr remarked on (“I can detect a Rockley still Bajan rum any day of the week”) is absolutely clear, and as I taste more and more Foursquare rums, I understand why Wes and Steve are such fanboys. The rum is a liquid creme brulee wrapped up in salt caramel ice-cream, then further mixed up with almonds, prunes, cherries, marmalade, cider and nutmeg, remarkably soft and well-behaved on the tongue. Coffee and chocolate add to the fun, and I swear there was some ginger and honey floating around the back end there somewhere.  It all led to a finish that was long and deeply, darkly salt-sweet, giving last notes of prunes and very ripe cherries with more of that caramel coffee background I enjoyed a lot.  

So, in fine, a lovely rum, well made, well matured, nicely put together.  No wonder it gets all these plaudits.  My feeling is, retire the Doorly’s line – this stuff should absolutely have pride of place.

Here’s the thing, though. Purists make much of ‘clean’ rums that are unmessed with, exemplars of the style of the country, the region and the estate or maker.  By that standard this rum and its brothers like the Zinfadel and the Port are problematical because none of these are actually ‘pure’ Bajan rums any longer… all this finishing and ageing and second maturation in second or third-fill barrels is watering down and changing what is truly “Barbados” (or perhaps Foursquare). What these rums really are, are a way of getting around the adulteration prohibitions of Bajan law….adding taste and complexity without actually adding anything that would qualify as obvious adulteration (after all, what is ex-bourbon barrel ageing but the same thing with a more “accepted” cask?).  So for the pedant, one could argue that the series is more a high end experiment and what comes out the other end is no longer a pure Barbadian hooch but a double or triple matured blended rum based on Bajan/Foursquare stocks….a subtle distinction and so not quite the same thing.

Maybe.  I don’t care.  My work here is to describe what I taste and offer an opinion on the product as it stands, not its underlying production philosophy: and the bottom line is, I enjoyed the experience and liked it, immensely – it blew the socks off the Doorly’s 12 year old I also tried that day, and makes me want to get all the Exceptional Cask series, like yesterday, and put dibs on all the ones coming out tomorrow.  The Criterion is drinkable, sippable, mixable, available, accessible and all round enjoyable, and frankly, I don’t know many rums in the world which can make that statement and still remain affordable.  This is one of them, and it’s a gem for everyone to have and enjoy.

(88/100)

Sep 292017
 

#390

After messing round with other Bajan rums for a while, I finally came to the Compagnie des Indes FourSquare 9 year old, and had to concede that even setting aside the headline-grabbing 2006 or Triptych or Criterion releases, this was what I was looking for and which almost none of the three other caskers — the Cadenhead BMMG and 10 year old and the Isla del Ron — had not provided.  Mount Gay’s indie fullproof bruisers were certainly interesting and made powerful statements for their distillery of origin, but either Florent picked more judiciously than Cadenhead or the Isla del Ron, or the 4S juice in this instance was simply better…because for a nine year old rum aged in Europe, it really was a tasty piece of work.

There’s a full bio of the Compagnie des Indes available, so suffice to say I need only add that the Florent’s outfit is still going full blast in 2017, and has added to its stable of standard strength rums every year, as well as taking notes from the happiness of the gloating Danes up north (and the envy of everyone else) and began releasing cask strength variations starting from 2016 onwards, to the relief and applause of the less fortunate proles who previously had to beg and genuflect and possibly hock the family jewels to get themselves some.  This Danish-edition rum was a rip snorting 62.1% and one of 227 bottles with the original distillation in 2006 and bottled in 2016 (Barrel #MB45), and now you know pretty much all you need to be going along with aside from the tastes, and we’re going there right now

Right away, the aromas of salty, oily brine (like a really good olive oil) and florals emerged, better integrated than all the other Bajans which were being tried alongside it; and for 62.1% the control over the release of all that sharpness was amazing, because it seemed actually quite gentle for the strength, like a tiger pretending to be a tabby (water helps even more).  Other delectable scents emerged over time – acetones, cherries, peaches in a light syrup, more olives, cherries, even some bananas and raisins here and there – it was really quite nice and the best part was, it lasted for a good long time.

I  thoroughly enjoyed the taste as well: something of a Demerara seeped delicately into the profile here, some deeper caramel and licorice tastes, mixed in with fried bananas, red olives brine, and yes, peaches in cream, cherries and some tart apricots, plus a green apple slice or three, all covered over with  drizzle of lime.  And again I’m forced to mention that the control over intensity and stabbing pitchforks of proof was again masterful: concrete solid, massively rooted in rum fundamentals, assertive and aggressive like a boss, and tasty as all get out.  Even the finish did not falter: longish, very warm, with closing notes of cider, apples, salted butter and caramel, florals and fruit, all coming together and concluding the night’s entertainment with a nice exclamation point.  And a bow.

It always makes me wonder who gets the kudos when a rum like this succeeds.  After all, one could argue that CDI just decanted a third party barrel from FourSquare and bottled and sold it, so shouldn’t all the hosannas go to Richard Seale’s boys, and hence increase their sales?  Well, kind of. Certainly there’s no gainsaying the overall quality of rums from the distillery of origin (even if the ageing was likely done in Europe by Scheer)…yet as we observed with the indie Mount Gay rums we tried before, cask strength and a respected house name do not always a superlative rum make.  The discernment and selection of the guy doing the choosing of which  barrel to buy, also comes into play and I think they did well here, really well.  I’m not a dedicated FourSquare deep diver and uber-fan like my friends Steve James, The Fat Rum Pirate and Rum Shop Boy (they know every one of Richard’s bottlings ever made, by their first names), but even I have to say that  this sub ten year old rum aged in Europe does both the Compagnie and FourSquare damn proud…and given its quality, deservedly so.

(87/100)

 

Jan 292017
 

Two year old fire in a bottle

#339

You’d think that after running through a set of FourSquare products over the last few months (here, here, here and here), that I’ve more or less covered what I wanted to and moved on.  Yeah…but no such luck. Still got a few more to come, starting with a representative of one of the most hotly anticipated rum “series” in recent memory: the Habitation Velier outturns of very young rums, you remember the ones, those with the cool pics of the stills of origin on the labels. They are primarily from the Big Three – Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana — and while they are aimed at the general market, my own feeling is that it’s hardcore aficionados who are more likely to enjoy them, not those who are beginning their own personal journey of rum discovery.  You’ll see why in a minute.

This series of rums has several reasons for existing.  To begin with, as Velier’s reputation grew over the last five years Luca Gargano wanted to move along from the issuance of full proof, single still, aged-beyond-all-reason rums whose prices were climbing geometrically, and to collaborate more with other distilleries so as to get newer and more affordable juice out the door.  Second he wanted to prove that young rums could be every bit as exciting as the hoary old grandfathers (in rum years) with which he had originally established Velier’s street cred.  Third, he wanted a showcase for his proposed new rum classifications, the so-called Seale-Gargano system developed with himself and Richard Seale (or should it be the Gargano-Seale system?) which is gradually picking up some traction (though not outright acceptance…yet).  An lastly, of course, just to laugh out loud, shake things up a tad, and make some hot-snot new rums that one could get excited about, which existed in their own universe not overshadowed by the oldsters from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

So, the details of this Bajan popskull from FourSquare: it’s a pale yellow two-year-old (actually two years eleven months according to 4S), issued at a rip-snorting frisson of sixty four degrees of unapologetically badass proofage, pot-still derived, and aged in 370-liter cognac barrels, which may be the single element that raised its profile above that of a standard young overproof and into the realms of some kind of inspired insanity.  And I use the term carefully, because anyone thinking that somehow Velier and 4S waved a magic wand and wove a masterpiece of smooth Bajan silk that took nearly three years to make, would have been in for something of a rude awakening if they tried it with that preconception in mind.  It wasn’t anything of the sort.  Sniffing it for the first time was like inhaling an incandescent blaze of sheet lightning.

“Wtf is this?!” I remember asking myself in dumbfounded amazement as I jotted down my notes. It was hot vanilla and caramel shot through with flashes of brine and olives, all on top of a pot-still impregnated glue-gun. Swirling notes of black pepper, licorice and crushed nuts stabbed through here and there, with an amalgam of cooking spices bringing up the rear – salt and lemon pepper, a little paprika thrown in for good measure, a smorgasbord of sweet and salt and tartness.  It wasn’t entirely harmonious (are you kidding?) but a very distinct nose, suggesting that maybe FourSquare should experiment more with solo pot still rums instead of blending pot and column in their standard lineup.

Moving cautiously into the taste, I tried it neat first, then with water, and similarly intense flavours rose up and smote me righteously both times. Something of salty-oily tequila tastes were first off,  like a Maggi cube (or Knorr, if you’re in Europe) in veggie soup; nuts, dates and peaches followed, interspersed with background hints of rubber and wax, all very very intense and very firm, individual and discrete.  Water did help to tame this beast (to be honest, I took some masochistic pleasure in the sheer force of this thing and added it more out of curiosity) – that allowed some of the sweetness to finally emerge at the backend, though that was more like a thin vein of licorice, burnt sugar and cream than a caramel-toffee mother lode.  I must concede that for a rum this young, it had quite a flavour set – even the finish, which was surprisingly short (and dry) didn’t repeat the experience, but added a few extra hints of kero, fruit, black bread and kräuterquark (ask the Germans), plus a final flirt of honey.  I was left feeling enthused (and quite a bit breathless) at the end of it all, and tried it again a few more times over the next few days, just to see whether the experience mellowed at all with time (it didn’t).

Whew!  This is a hell of a rum. I’m going to go on record as stating it might be better approached not only with some care, but also without illusions and absolutely not as your first foray into rums of any kind. It is a bold, burning, singular rum of real strength and a really crisp profile which would not necessarily appeal to lovers of the kinds of hooch that FourSquare and St Nick’s and Mount Gay have been putting out for decades, because it’s not soft, and it’s not tolerant and it’s not easy.  What it actually is, is a young product that hits both your expectations and your palate like a well swung sledgehammer and upends both.  Perhaps I’ve had so many rums in my time that I’m somewhat jaded and am on the lookout for stuff that goes off in different directions, but you know, that’s not what we have here, because it’s unmistakably the real deal.  It’s quite simply, unique: and in tasting it, I got a forceful reminder of all the amazing directions a rum could go, when made by masters who could actually dream, and dare, of making it.

(87/100)

Other notes

The bottle (a sample thereof) came my way courtesy of Henrik of RumCorner at the follow-up to the Berlin RumFest in 2016, sometimes called “The ‘Caner Afterparty”. As he lovingly extracted it from his haversack that afternoon (being careful to snatch it back if our pours got to heavy, which meant a lot of snatching was going on), Henrik told me that he had been hanging around the agricole stand when Richard Seale passed by; immediately a small crowd gathered and a discussion group started (and knowing the two of them, at least, it could not have been anything other than intense).  When the group dispersed, Richard casually took the bottle, which he had had in his hands the whole time, and handed it over to Henrik without any intro or comment whatsoever. Gotta love them rum folks, honestly.

Dec 302016
 

A spectacular rum from FourSquare (and Velier), perhaps the best Bajan they’ve ever made.

#332

***

This is a rum that screaming aficionados were waiting for like fans at a Justin Bieber or Beyonce concert (or the Rolling Stones, maybe), and no write-up of the thing could be complete without mentioning the unbelievable sales pattern it displayed…in my entire rum-purchasing experience, I’ve never seen anything like it. The Velier/FourSquare collaboration was making the rounds of various masterclasses in festivals around the world for almost a year before actually going on sale, and then, when it became available in August 2016 (primarily in Europe), it sold out in fifteen minutes.  All this without a single formal review being issued, just word of mouth.

The only comparator in recent memory that I can think of might be the Panamonte XXV, which also flew off the shelves, and which also illustrates how far along the rum world has come in less than five years.  When I got that one, it was considered one of the best rums of its kind, receiving raves across the board – and indeed, for its age (25 years), strength (40%) and price ($400) it was well positioned at the top of the food chain…back then.  But even in 2012 many of us aficionados had moved on past the self imposed 40% limitation, and while the Panamonte was certainly a good product, it was also, perhaps, a high water mark for standard proof rums – people who know enough and have enough to want to drop that kind of coin, have by now migrated past that anemic proofage and demand cask strength, definitively pure rums which are made by trusted sources.  This is why Arome’s five hundred bottle outturn of their new Panamanian 28 year old, about which not much is known aside from the marketing campaign and some FB dustups, is likely to be met with indifference from those who actually know their rums (though not from those with money), while 2400 bottles of FourSquare’s ten year old have become unavailable faster than you can say “wtf” in Bajan.

And once the bottle gets cracked, you can understand why.  Because it’s an amazing rum, sold at a (low) price that would be an insult if it wasn’t so good, for something that ticks all the boxes: cask strength, check; no additives, check; issued in collaboration with one of the most famous names in the pure-rumworld, check; by a distillery long known for championing a lack of additives, check; by being trotted out at exclusive masterclasses where word of mouth made it a must-have, check.  This thing is like an exquisite small foreign film that gains accolades in the filmfest circuit  before heading off to the oscars and cleaning up there and at the box office.

Can any rum really live up to such expectations?  I don’t know about you, but it sure upended mine, because my first reaction when I opened it and sniffed was a disbelieving “what the f…?” (in Bajan).  It banged out the door with the kinetic energy of a supercar popping the clutch at 5000 rpm, blowing fierce fumes of briny olives and caramel and oak straight down my nose and throat, before someone slammed on the brakes and eased off.  What I’m trying to put over in words is something of the power of the experience, because it blasted off fast and furious and then settled down for a controlled, insane smorgasbord of nasal porn – nougat, white toblerone, peaches, citrus peel, chocolate, coffee grounds, cinnamon, enough to drive a Swiss confectioner into hysterics.  The creaminess of the nose was simply astounding – it was almost impossible to accept this was a 62% rum, yet it purred smoothly along without bite or bitchiness, scattering heady aromas of fruity badass in all directions – prunes, plums, blackcurrants and dark olives.  

And meanwhile, the taste of the rum, its glissading force across the palate, simply had to be experienced to be believed.  Not because it was all sound and fury and stabbing tridents of Poseidon, no (although it was powerful, one could not simply ignore 62% ABV), but because it was such a controlled strength.  And what emerged from within the maelstrom of proof was amazingly tasty – apricots, plums, raisins, blueberries, cinnamon, rye bread with butter and honey, all creamy and chewy to a fault (and that was just the first five minutes).  With water even more came boiling to the surface: dark grapes and an enormous array of fruity and citrusy notes, tied up in a bow with more caramel, coffee grounds, black unsweetened chocolate paprika…man, it was like it didn’t want to stop.  Even the finish upended expectations, being neither short and fleeting, nor overstaying its welcome, but almost perfect, with some floral hints, an interesting driness, and some nuttiness to accompany all that had come before, pruned down to a fierce minimalism emphasizing both heft and subtlety at the same time.

It would be arrogant in the extreme for me to say this is the best rum ever made in Barbados, since I haven’t tried every rum ever made in Barbados.  But I can and must say this – the rum points the way to the future of top-class Bajan popskull just as surely as the Velier Demeraras did for the Guyanese, and is, without a doubt, the very best Barbados rum I’ve ever tried. It’s a magnificent rum that leaves all its forebears, even those from the same distillery, limp and exhausted. This rum’s titanic flavour profile satisfies because it gets right what its previous (and lesser) earlier versions from FourSquare failed to come to grips with. It is impossibly Brobdignagian, a subtlety-challenged brown bomber, and to fully savor the current rum’s character, we as drinkers must first connect with its predecessor’s lesser-proofed antecedents.  That’s why I went through other rums from the company before cracking the 2006.  Somehow, after years of 40% milquetoast from  Barbados, here, finally, two giants of the rum world came together and got this one absolutely right.  It deserves every accolade that rum drinkers and rum writers have given it.

(91/100)

Other notes

  • To tell the complete story of its disappearance from the online and physical shelves, some subsequent observations: the 4S 2006 began turning up on ebay shortly thereafter, and aside from the bitterness of pure rum aficionados who could not get any without liquidating their retirement fund, I’ve heard it bruited about that the its disappearance was because speculators bought every bottle for resale on the secondary market…and even more pernicious rumours about how general public wasn’t even the target market – bars and bulk buyers were.  Whatever the real story is, it would be a useful case study in how to move new product in a hurry.
  • Distilled 2006 in copper double retort pot still, aged three years in bourbon barrels and seven years in cognac casks and bottled in 2016. 62% ABV, 2400 bottle outturn. The “single blended rum” appellation is derived from the proposed Gargano classification system where the origin still is given prominence over the material or country/region of origin. Here it is a single still’s blended  product (based on double maturation).
  • Whose rum is this, Velier or FourSquare?  Velier’s Demeraras, I felt, were always Veliers, because DDL gave Luca some barrels to chose from and he bottled what he felt was right without much further input from them.  Here, my impression is that Richard Seale and Luca Gargano worked closely together to make the rum, and so I attribute it to both.
Dec 282016
 

A rum that comes together in unexpected but ultimately satisfying ways

#331

Finishing remains a hit or miss proposition for rum makers. Rum Nation’s finished Demeraras are pretty good, El Dorado’s 15 year old expressions in various wine finishes kinda work (in spite of the sugar adulteration), while neither the Legendario’s muscatel reek or the Pyrat’s orange liqueur nonsense ever appealed to me (and never will).  So what’s there to say about the port finished 2005 issued by FourSquare as part of their “Exceptional” series?

A few good things, a few not-so-good ones.  FourSquare is far too professional, too competent and too long-lived an outfit to make a really bad rum, though of course they do make some rums to which I’m personally indifferent.  Here the good stuff lies in the preparation and core stats, the less than good comes from the proof and a bit of what comes out the other end. But all that aside, I believe it’s a waypoint to the future of FourSquare, when taken in conjunction with the Zinfadel finished 11 Year Old (43%), the 2004 Cask Strength (59%), and the 2013 Habitation Velier collaboration (64%).

The stats as known – column and pot still rum, nine years old, distilled at FourSquare in 2005, bottled in June 2014, having spent three years in bourbon casks, and then another six in port casks, some caramel added for colouring, with an outturn of around 12,000 bottles, issued at 40%.  One wonders how ⅔ of total ageing time in port barrels can possibly be interpreted as a “finish” of any kind, because for my money it’s a double-aged rum, something akin to the Dos Maderas 5+3 or 5+5 rums – but all right, maybe it’s merely an issue of terminology and I’m not a total pedant in these matters, so let’s move on.

Starting out, the smell suggested that it was made at right angles to, and amped up from, the more traditional FourSquare rums like Rum 66, the R.L. Seale’s 10 Year old or even the Doorley’s. To my mind it was a lot of things that those weren’t, perhaps due to the unconventional (for FourSquare) ageing and cask regimen – everything here was more distinct, clearer, and a cut or two above those old stalwarts.  Initially there were some faint rubber and acetone notes, after which the fruit basket was tossed into the vat – black grapes, citrus zest (orange or tangerines, not lemon), prunes, plums, vanilla, toffee and a dusting of earthy grassiness, cinnamon and maybe nutmeg.  Not as forceful as a cask strength monster, no, yet pleasant to experience.

Most drinkers take their spirits at living room strength and won’t find any fault with 40% but for me the decision to bottle such an interesting rum at that ABV suggests a lack of confidence in whether to take the plunge by stepping over the full proof cliff, or continue with tried and true profiles, tweaking just a bit to sniff out the market reaction. The downside to that decision is that some of the awesome promise of the nose was lost.  The smorgasbord of the fruit remained, dialled down, delivering prunes, dark ripe cherries, plus bananas, coconut shavings, nuts, brine, and the deep sugar cane aromas from fields that have just been burnt, all in well controlled balance and warming the tongue without assaulting it, leading to a quiet, short finish that lingered without presenting anything new.  So – good…but still underwhelming.

What is perhaps surprising is that the rum works as well as it does at all – 6 years in port casks would normally be excessive since it’s less a finishing than an entire profile switcheroo – WhiskyFun, tongue in cheek as always, remarked it might better be called a bourbon start than a port finish. In fine, it all comes together well, and it is a lovely rum, which is why the encomiums roll in from all points of the compass.  But since I know FourSquare has more up its sleeves than just its arms, I also know they can do better…and in the years between this rum’s issue and now, they have.

The 2005 is therefore not a rum I have problems recommending (especially for its very affordable price point). I simply posit that it’s a scout to the beachhead, a precursor, an exercise in the craft, not the ultimate expression — and scoring it to the stratosphere as many have done, is giving consumers the impression that it’s the best buy possible….which it isn’t.  

Because, like its zinfadel cask finished brother, what this rum really is, is the rum equivalent of John the Baptist, not trying to garner any of the laurels for itself, just waiting and preparing the way for the extraordinary rum that was yet to come. 

In August 2016, it did, and that’ll be the subject of my last review for 2016.

(82/100)

Other notes

I let my glass rest overnight, and it developed a milky, cloudy residue after several hours.  Maybe it was not filtered?  I’d like to know if anyone else had a similar experience with theirs.

Dec 262016
 

When a rum makes you want to try its stronger brother, you are left asking whether it has failed or succeeded.

#330

It must be a preference thing.  My son the Little Caner (rapidly becoming the Big Caner) loves chocolate ice cream but detests the salted caramel Haagen-Dasz I scarf by the bucketload (before being noisily sick in the outhouse). My father (Grampy Caner) can’t get enough of El Dorado 15 year old yet I can’t get him to touch a full proof without shuddering. As for me, while I enjoy rums from around the Caribbean, have never been able to get a grip on Bajan rums as a whole – Mount Gay and FourSquare in particular – in spite of all the other critical plaudits that these companies garner from other corners of the rumiverse.  

With that in mind I picked up a bunch of Bajans back in 2015 and put them through an exhaustive wringer then, and again in 2016, just to see whether the passage of years changed anything. To some extent, the experience dispelled a few preconceptions, while confirming others.  In fine, it’s a decent 40% sipping rum that breaks no new ground and could, I think, be pushed to higher strength without losing anything in the process.(And indeed, there is a recent series of 2016 releases of the 66FR which are both cask strength (50%) and slightly stronger than mine here (42%) as well as a new 6 year old, so for sure I’m not done trying FourSquare’s offerings any time soon.)

FourSquare Distillery was the last remaining family owned outfit in Barbados until St. Nicholas Abbey opened up for a business nearly a decade ago.  The “66” in the moniker refers to the Barbados Independence Act of 1966, when Little England severed its colonial ties with Britain, while the “Family Reserve” reflects its origins in that small part of the company’s production which had heretofore been reserved for the Seale family (or so the marketing materials suggest).  The rum is a blend of column and copper pot still distillate, with a 65% ABV spirit set to age in white oak barrels for twelve years when already married – in other words, the blend is not done after ageing, but before…the reverse of the process most other makers follow when producing blended rums.

Certainly the blending regimen and the age did their work reasonably well. The nose was very smooth and warm, with light, almost delicate notes of wax, brine and paint leading off, which  disappeared quickly. A solid blast of brown sugar took their place, plus slightly off tastes of overripe fruit, smoke and dusty cardboard. After some minutes, the final smells emerged – lilacs and other flowers, a very faint fruitiness, with nuts and more smoke at the back end. Reading this might make it sound like a cornucopia of olfactory bliss, but the fact is that it was all really really faint – it took ages to pick them out, and there’s simply not enough going on here to make it memorable in any meaningful way.

Still, the palate of this copper brown rum was decent.  A spicy lead-in presenting immediate flavours of vanilla, toffee, butter, and yes, that salted caramel ice cream I always liked, offering bitter, salt and sweet in equal proportion. Some peaches and whipped cream, nuts, more flowers and an interesting coconut undercurrent that emerged slowly, almost grudgingly after adding some water.  The oak was there, but well controlled and not overbearing. The best thing about the rum was the smooth creaminess of the otherwise rather thin profile, vaguely salty and estery at the same time, leading to a good finish for a 40%, medium long, with peanut butter and delicate flowery notes.  There was a sort of clean elegance to the whole thing, reminding me somewhat of a Glendronach, or a Speysider, and has much in common with the Cockspur 12 year old. But, in the main, for me, it lacked oomph and assertiveness which I preferred more.  That makes it better for those who don’t care for cask strength rums, I would suggest, or long drinks for those in the cocktail circuit.

Summing up the experience, then, I felt then (and now) that for a 12 year old, it presented as far too restrained, even somewhat underwhelming.  Just doesn’t seem to push any buttons, being content to stay in the middle of the road and not piss anyone off by going off the reservation.  It has an element of okay, of settling for the middle, of “let’s leave it there, then” that is surprising for a rum aged this long.  Part of it is the 40%, of course which the market preferred back in the day when it was first released, and as far as I’m concerned it’s a rum for those who like their sipping drinks easier, with less aggro, not for today’s more demanding or discerning drinkers who might want and prefer a more robust and aggressive cask strength Bajan bruiser.

In the past, as little as ten years ago, where nobody was talking about sugar or additives and producers across the board were dosing with enthusiasm and without declaration, the Jamaicans and Bajans were forced by their countries’ laws to eschew additives of any kind.  This made many of their rums appeal to a minority who understood and appreciated purity, while the majority got their taste buds hacked and cultivated by adulterated products.  But that couldn’t last. The clamour for disclosure blew up when ALKOL, Johnny Drejr and others started posting their statistics and showed the Emperor was buck naked for all to see.  Suddenly those makers who had always been bound to make pure rums became the belles of the ball, and were lauded for their honesty and adherence to tradition.

That was all fine, but somewhere in all this brouhaha the whole issue of whether all of their products were good drinks got lost…in other words, the pendulum swung a little too far the other way, and to my mind, this rum and some others too often got a free pass. You’ll search long and hard to find a review – any review – of Bajan products that is in any way short of simpering adoration. But the fact is that there are better rums from the island out there and frankly, it’s the cask strength version of this rum that I think will be the new standard for Rum 66 in the years to come — it won’t be this exemplar of a pre-sugar, pre-fullproof time, no matter how bright it shines in the memories of those who remain wedded to that more innocent and less discerning era.

(80/100)

Just as some of my fellow reviewers make no secret of both their admiration and enjoyment of Bajan rums, I had to be clear about my personal ambivalence. So for those who want other opinions, here are two of them.

 

Oct 292016
 

rl-seale-full

Overrated.  Apologies to lovers of the rum, but it’s a mediocre ten year old in a cool bottle.

#312

The R.L. Seale 10 year old is a sort of old stalwart in the pantheon of Barbados hooch.  Sooner or later everyone passes by it, and it’s considered a benchmark against which, in the past, many Barbadian rums were rated, one of the basket of rums that defined the entire Bajan style.  In this day of independent bottlers and full proof offerings, to say nothing of Foursquare’s own tinkering and varied expressions, it starts to show something of its age.  And I’ve never been entirely won over by it…not then, not now.

Before you all spontaneously combust, please put down your electronic pitchforks and burning i-phone torches, and hold your emails, FB posts, twitter feeds, hashtags and any other forms of online vituperation. I’m fully aware I’m swimming against the tide on this one — just try to find a negative review of a Foursquare rum online…I dare ya —  but perhaps a review that goes against the grain should be considered just because it does that, not be thrown away with yesterday’s fish.

rl-seale-labelYears ago, in 2010,  I wrote a distinctly unflattering portrait of the Doorley’s XO (at the time of this writing I had yet to try the 12 YO and finally did so in 2017).  In subsequent years I always and uneasily thought it was the surety (maybe the arrogance?) of a beginner that made my opinion what it was (I called the Doorley’s the “Prince Myshkyn of rums”), and given the critical plaudits and encomiums Mr. Seale has gotten since then, to say nothing of his remark to me that I just did not appreciate pure, unadulterated rum (in other words, the added sugar of other, higher-scoring rums had skewed my perspective)…well, let’s just say I was curious what a gap of several years’ experience would do, and so ran a bunch of Barbadian rums past each other to see how this and the Rum 66 and the 2015-2016 editions stacked up.

The darkish gold rum, bottled at 43% was light, almost delicate, redolent of delicate white flowers and too much fabric softener.  There were thin hints of caramel, salted butter and vanilla coiling around underneath that, with some cider, cinnamon, nutmeg and crushed nuts following that.  And dry, surprisingly so. So once again, taste wasn’t the issue for me, the understated nature of it was – the whole was just too damn timorous, like it was too shy to come out and actually make a statement (the very issue I had with the Doorley’s).

Things improved on the palate, where the 10 year old proved somewhat sharper and spicier than the Rum 66 I was trying alongside it, but at least displayed something more than vague whiffs and promises without delivery. It was sweet and salt at the same time, fried bananas in olive oil, peanut butter spread on warm French bread — for originality the rum sure went off in some strange directions, to its credit — with faint tar and oak and vanilla undertones mixing it up with apples and maybe some more nuts, ending up with a finish that was short, flirty and faint, that gave nothing original to remember it by.  

All in all, it lacked punch and heft and compared poorly against the five controls I had  in place to rate it. The much ballyhooed honesty of the rum was beyond question – it was clearly not adulterated in any way, which was great, allowing the core profile to come through, but it just didn’t have that emphasis and clarity, the overall integration of complex flavours making their statement, which I preferred and continue to prefer. For its price and intended audience, it’s a good buy (which is why it sells well and continues to receive plaudits to this day) — all the same, I contend that Foursquare has shown in the years after 2015 what they’re really capable of when they try. Their port cask, their white and the spectacular 2006 10 year old, are all miles ahead of this one.  They address all my issues with firmness, power, clarity, integration, assembly, balance, and are just plain better rums than the R.L. Seale’s 10 YO.

And that’s why those rums will absolutely get my money in the future, while this one simply won’t.  I’ve had better, both from Barbados, and from Foursquare.

80/100

Other online reviewers don’t share my indifference, and love this thing.  To be fair, I include their reviews here so you can get other opinions:

May 122013
 

D3S_5540

Schizoid, androgynous, curious rum. Too well made to ignore, but not appealing enough to collect.

(#161. 82/100)

***

Right during the tasting, before I had done a single bit of research or perused the label beyond the obvious, I looked at my glass, smacked my not quite toothless gums and opined loudly and dogmatically (if not quite coherently) to an empty house that this was a rum from the FourSquare distillery in Barbados.

You might well ask whether my snoot is that good (it’s not), my memory that clear (it’s not) or I knew it for sure (I didn’t). It was more a process of elimination from the Bajan rum canon – it was too clear taste-wise — and not soft enough — to be a St Nicholas Abbey, lacked the discombobulated, raw nature of the Cockspur and sure wasn’t a Mount Gay.  That didn’t leave much, no matter how or with what cask Renegade decided to finish it.

Take the opening: soft, flowery, dark sugars, bananas and unsweetened dark chocolate.  A bit sharp (it was bottled at 46%, so, okay). Red grapes just starting to go off, bananas, orange peel (not anything sharper like grapefruit or lemon), and a final flirt of cherries, yet overall, the scents married uneasily, resulting in something vaguely androgynous, neither strong or puissant enough to be a bellowing buccanneer (it waved the cutlass to genteelly for that) nor weak enough to be an underproof…it was an uneasy mix of delicacy and clarity without strength of real character (did someone say “Prince Myshkyn”?).

D3S_5543

No relief on the palate, however original it turned out to be. The medium bodied amber spirit was drier than I expected, and even a bit briny, and pulled an interesting rabbit out of the bottle…it tasted good enough, full enough, to seem more robust than it actually was. Bananas and white chocolate, a certain creaminess (like unsalted butter, really), white guavas and pecans.  I know this sounds odd, but it almost seemed a shade…crunchy. It’s the craziest thing, a sort of dichotomy between the taste and the nose that had heat and citrus-plus-grapes to sniff, yet more settled and softer to sip, finishing off with a sweet, dry exit, segueing into final notes of bananas, apricots and salt biscuits.

I have some mixed feelings on the Renegade here, admiring its professional make and the clarity of the various notes, without actually enjoying the overall experience due to a discordance in the overall marriage of constituent elements.  It’s not a bad rum at all, just not one I really felt like raving about to any who would listen.  Yet I cannot help but admire how Renegade doesn’t really care – they tried for something off the reservation, and they succeeded. It’s original, that’s for sure.

Unlike most of the Renegades I’ve tried thus far, the label gave me little to work with on the details (I like knowing as much about a rum as possible when doing the write-up). Nothing about the finishing which Bruichladdich usually likes to trumpet front and center, for example…I don’t know why, so here’s what my research (and the bottle) did bring up.  Pot still origin. Finished in Ribero del Duero casks – this is a fruity red wine from north central Spain, which explained something of the profile.  Yes, the Foursquare distillery supplied the rum, so I called it on that one…though it wasn’t until I took a hard look at the label that I saw it self-evidently mentioned.  I should get my glasses changed, or perhaps research before I drink, not after.

D3S_5538

But it’s not that any of this matters, really.  I’ve said before that Renegades are something of an acquired taste, should never be one’s first try at a rum, and are all quite fascinatingly different — this may be, as I’ve remarked elsewhere, because they are made by whisky makers for whisky drinkers with rummies perhaps as an afterthought.  They fail to craft a consistent rum from one bottle to the next (the variations in the line are occasionally awe-inspiring) but they know that the best way to approach making any of them is with a bold and unapologetic take-that attitude that finds ‘em swinging — hard — for the fences, every time, with a sort of giddy, joyous abandon one simply has to admire.  So, the end product may not always be what we expect…but man, it’s like watching a Sobers, Worrell, Lloyd or Lara on a weird day.  It’s never, ever boring.

 

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