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.

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.