Jun 282020
 

On the first day and at the opening hour of the 2019 Berlin Rumfest, a motley collection of scruffy rum folks met at the back of the hall. Alex Sandu (the young Oxford-based Romanian barman who’s now making a name for himself on the Rum Barrel site) was talking with me about what it takes to manage and maintain a rum site. Indy and Jazz Singh of Rumcask and Skylark Spirits drifted by and sat down, and we all sighed rapturously with the memory of a rum session we had had at Lebensstern rum bar the evening before. Nicolai Wachmann, anonymous rum ninja from Denmark, having left us earlier to go look for junk food outside, rejoined us while still furiously chomping at the semi-masticated remains of his fifth burger, and we all amused ourselves shouting cheerful and childish insults at Gregers Nielsen, who was running the 1423 stand a few feet away. This is the way we soberly conscientious rum chums keep the flag of Rumdom flying high. People must know we take our duties seriously.

Things calmed down when Johnny Drejer approached, though, because in his fist he carried a bottle a lot of us hadn’t seen yet – the second in Romdeluxe’s “Wild Series” of rums, the Guyanese Enmore, with a black and white photo of a Jaguar glaring fiercely out. This was a 61.5% rum, 17 years old (2002 vintage, I believe), from one of the wooden stills (guess which?) — it had not formally gone on sale yet, and he had been presented with it for his 65th birthday a few days before (yeah, he looks awesome for his age).  Since we already knew of the elephantine proportions of the Wild Tiger Release 1, we all immediately tried to elbow each other out of the way in our hurry to thrust our glasses at him, and demanded our rightful shares. And to his credit, Johnny, gentleman to the last, shared generously without hesitation or charge before hastily retreating to more civilized areas of the ‘Fest where rabid aficionados would not assault his immaculate person or pinch his birthday prize, and might remember he was actually only 50.

Now, 61.5% might seem like a lot, and indeed — if you’re not ready for it —  it will try its best to take your face off. But nosing it with no more than the usual care suggests that it really is quite civilized…creamy, even.  Certainly one can inhale rich aromas of pencil shavings, butterscotch, sawdust and licorice, all standard for Enmore distillate. I can’t say I sensed much in the way of florals or citrus except as a brief background hint; most of the secondary wave consists of black bread, dark fruits, brie, cereals, almonds, anise and crushed walnuts. Maybe a whiff of mocha if you strain. 

All this is fairly common, even boilerplate. It’s on the palate that it rises to the occasion and shows some more chops.  Now the label notes it was primarily continentally aged so some tropical ageing can be inferred; it’s just shy of hot on the tongue, extremely robust, and very tasty indeed…yet also not rough or sharp.  You can taste unsweetened chocolate, anise, blancmange, salted caramel and coffee grounds to start with, and as it relaxes and opens up and you get used to its bold profile, musky, dark fruits like raisins, prunes, not very sweet but with a lot of body.  I like the damp sawdust and licorice, the way I always do in an Enmore-still rum, and the long, fragrant finish was pleasant to a fault.  Johnny, who had measured the strength of the rum and was mentioned on the label, had gotten himself a pretty nice dram.

Romdeluxe in Denmark is – or started out as – more a commercial rum club that makes private label bottlings and runs promotions, than a true independent bottler — but since they have issued several releases, I’ll call them an indie and move right on from there.  Their “Wild Series” of rums has evinced a lot of attention, not just because of its variety but because of the beauty of the stark black and white photography of the large cats with which they adorn their products.  

So far there is a tiger (R1 Hampden, Jamaica), jaguar (R2 Enmore, Guyana), puma (R3 Panama), black panther (R4 Belize), lion (R5, Bellevue, Guadeloupe) and leopard (R6 Caroni, Trinidad). I don’t know whether the photos are commissioned or from a stock library – what I do know is they are very striking, and you won’t be passing these on a shelf any time you see one.  The stats on some of these rums are also quite impressive – take, for example, the strength of the Wild Tiger (85.2% ABV), or the age of the Wild Lion (25 years).  These guys clearly aren’t messing around and understand you have to stand out from an ever more crowd gathering of indies these days, if you want to make a sale.

Still, perhaps because I’ve had so many of rums from the Enmore still, my impression is that this one doesn’t ascend to the heights. It’s a completely decent rum and at that strength you’re getting flavour and a reasonably complex profile. However, it isn’t really unique, and won’t wow your socks off – originality is not its forte, and it seems, rather, to be a restatement of much that has gone before. So it’s easy to like and appreciate, but conversely, leaves no lasting imprint on the mind.  A month from now, like just about everyone who was there that afternoon sampling this thing, you won’t recall many memorable characteristics of the rum itself, or much that made it stand out…except perhaps for the fact that it was nice. Oh yeah, and that boss design. If that’s what makes you buy it, then I guess its work is done. Me, I’m saving for some of the others.

(#740)(83/100)

May 172020
 

It sounds strange to say it, but the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, aside from ushering in changes in the whisky world, had its impacts on rums as well. What made the Society stand out back in the day and initially made its name, was the focus on single cask fullproof bottlings, which at the time was only sporadically addressed by other whisky makers (and hardly at all with rums, except perhaps by the Italians like Samaroli and Velier, who were practically unknown outside Italy). At the time I wrote about the Longpond R5.1 and the WIRD R 3.4 and R 3.5, 46% was about the most I ever saw outside of the 151s, so juice that went for broke at cask strength was eye opening.

Well, fast forward some years and what I saw as groundbreaking in 2012 is now standard practice, and while the Society has expanded its rum selection to 50+ (all at fullproof), its lustre has been eclipsed somewhat in the competing glare of the many other rum makers (indies or producers) who are doing the same thing, and who, let’s face it, specialize in rum – they don’t see it as an adjunct to their main business. That and the SMWS’s pricing model, of course, which many can’t or won’t pony up for (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Society and buy my bottles).

But anyway, preamble aside, let’s keep on disassembling the R-11.x series of rums released by the Society, with the second release from Worthy Park distillate, which is called, without irony and perhaps tongue-in-cheek, “Absolutely Fabulous!”  Like the R11.1, it is 57.5% ABV, distilled in 2010 and bottled in 2017, 309-bottle outturn from ex-bourbon barrels.  And like that one, it’s nice and original.

The nose – sweet, fruity, subtly different from the R11.1. Orange zest, papaya, pineapple, ripe yellow mangoes, plus toblerone, white pepper, honey, cereals, and again that sly hint of glue coiling around the background.  It remains dusty, but also laden with spices like cinnamon, massala, crushed black peppers and there’s a subtle oily iodine-like smell wafting around that really makes the thing original. There’s a slight suggestion of rubber, not so much like a vulcanizing shop in hot weather as an old basketball’s air leaking out.  Like I said – original. I guess it takes all kinds.

The palate presents as hot and quite dry, a little wine-y, and also salty – brine and olives, and even salt fish with a few good ‘obstacles’ of cassava and eddoes.  It’s funky and a bit off the reservation, I grant, but there’s more: well-oiled leather, aromatic tobacco, sweet chilis and cucumbers and apple cider – I really didn’t know what to make of it, except that it sort of makes you smile and try some more, see if there’s any other element of crazy hanging around waiting to ambush your tongue. Here I did add some water and it quietened down and other flavours crept out, including the fruit that the nose had promised: pineapple, mangoes, unripe peaches, caramel, nutmeg, toffee and the acrid smoke of water-doused fire, if you can believe it. Finish was nice and long, somewhat bitter, mostly tobacco, leather, smoke, not too much in the way of sweetness or fruits except for a whiff of Fanta that permeated the entire experience.

This rum is clearly from the same tree as the R11.1 but seems like a different branch…and good in the same way, and its own way. That musky salt fish and iodine was odd to say the least (if not entirely unpleasant)…and what it shows is that rums made at the same time and aged for the same period – probably in the same place – can have discernibly different profiles.  Worthy Park sold the SMWS a number of barrels (none of the SMWS bottlings come from Scheer) so there’s both tropical and continental ageing in these things. And what it demonstrates is that like for all other indie bottlers, getting several barrels means one has the opportunity (takes the risk?) of having one barrel be different than its neighbor but both showing something of the character of the source estate. For my money, the R11.1 worked, and made my ears perk up, and my nose twitch. The SMWS took a chance with the R11.2 and it paid off, because this one, happily, does the same thing…not fabulously, perhaps, but with originality, and very nicely indeed.

(#727)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • Serge Valentin scored this 88 points and felt that were it not for two off notes it would have hit 90
  • RumShopBoy, the only other person in the rumisphere who has written about the SMWS bottlings, rated it 74/100 on a 0-100 scale, so his evaluation is about the same as mine.  His comments are worth noting: “This is not as good as Worthy Park’s Single Estate Rums that are commercially available. Although those editions do not carry age statements, they are more refined blends that are easier to drink. That leads me to my biggest problem with this rum… it is a real challenge to enjoy it properly. There is no doubting the quality of the rum and its production but it is hard to really enjoy it. Unusually for me, I found it needed some water to make it more enjoyable.”
May 142020
 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is no longer, as outlined in the brief biography of the organization, quite any of those things, not really.  It has offices way beyond Scotland, it’s not restricting itself to bottling malts, has moved past releasing only whiskies, and can just barely be considered a society (more of an independent bottler). This is especially so since they have begun to not just buy aged casks from whisky producers but also new-make spirit so they can age their own.

This last development has not yet occurred in the fields of their rums, though it wouldn’t really influence my purchasing decisions – I’ve been a fan for years, ever since I was fortunate enough to snap up three of their rums in Canada in 2013. That’s around the time when they started to take rums even marginally more seriously than before, and now in 2020, they have 13 different distilleries’ rums, of which the R 11.1 represents one of the New Jamaicans many fans are currently salivating over.

The Society is no stranger to Jamaica – the very first release R1.1 was a Monymusk, and thereafter they added R5 (Longpond, from 2012), R7 (Hampden, from 2016) and in 2017, they scored with Worthy Park as R11. And since I’ve unconscionably ignored the ‘Park for quite some time, I think I’ll begin the slow accretion of SMWS rum reviews with them – also because they’re pretty damned good. This one is a relatively young 7 years old, bottled in 2017 at a firm 57.5% (308-bottle outturn) and has the evocative title of “Spicy Sweet Goodness”, which is very much in line with the Society’s equally amusing and puzzling label descriptions that many have drunk themselves in to stupors trying to understand or follow.

Nose first. Yep, it’s definitely a Worthy Park and a pot still rum, such as I remember with such fondness from the Compagnie des Indes’s two 2007 WP editions, the 7YO and the 8YO, both of which were really good. It’s sweet and crisp and snaps across the nose with a light and sharp esteriness: my first written notes are “fruits, flowers and honey on white bread, wow!” But there’s also a light glue background, some cereals, ginger, cumin, lemon peel and pineapple all coming together in a very precise amalgam where each note is completely distinct. It has the freshness of a newly sun-dried white sheet with the sunshine still aromatic upon it.

This is one of those rums where the taste is even better than the nose. What it does is settle down a bit, and if it loses something of the initial clean clarity that nose displayed, well, it gains a bit in depth and overall complexity. The white bread has now been toasted, the cereal is almost like Fruit Loops, but the honey (thankfully) remains, golden and tawny and thick. These core notes are joined by brown sugar, toblerone, almonds, fleshy fruits like papaya, peaches, apricots and ears, as well as a peculiar background of beef bouillon, maggi cubes and crackers and (if you can believe it) powdered laundry detergent, y’know, like Tide or something. The light citrus (it really does remind me of Fanta at times) is there to balance everything off, acting as something of an exclamation point to the palate. The medium-lasting finish is surprisingly simple in comparison to the smorgasbord we just waded through, but it is elegant and has the main food groups well represented – fruity, sweet, salty and tart, all at the same time. 

Well, this was quite something. I liked it a lot. I have no idea how so much was stuffed into the ex-bourbon barrel the rum was aged in, especially given such a young age and what was (I believe) a continental ageing regimen. There are discordant bits here and there (minor ones) in the way the flavours don’t always harmonize completely; and sure, you can taste the youth in its brash liveliness and the initial sharply crisp attack – yet I’m not convinced that a few more years would have done much more than enhance it marginally. 

Most of the rums I’ve tried from WP are relatively young, and relatively good — it seems to be a real peculiarity of the estate to produce rums that other companies ageing their rums for twice as long would have been proud to bottle. In fine, the SMWS R11.1 is a jaunty young rumlet, made with verve and style by an outfit which seems somehow to regularly put out single-digit aged rums – for themselves and for others – which are consistently and uniformly better than conventional wisdom says they should be. To do that is to Worthy Park’s credit. To recognize it and bring it to us, is that of the SMWS.

(#726)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • Inadvertent loss of my original photo required me to make some adjustments which I’ll replace when I retake that picture.
Apr 202020
 

It’s not often we see a multi-country or multi-style blend released by an independent bottler. The trend in IBs in recent years has more been towards the exacting individuality of a single cask from a single place (or a single still, in the case of the Guyanese rums). And that makes sense, especially for up-and-coming new micro-indies, who work with one barrel at a time, for economic reasons if nothing else.

That hasn’t stopped some companies from trying to push the envelope, of course, in the never ending Red Queen’s race to wring a few extra points of taste out of a barrel. Finishes or second maturations or fancy-cask ageing regimes have been the most common method and have grained broad (though not always uncritical) acceptance — that technique is practiced by many companies, old and new, large and small (like Renegade, or Foursquare). Blends from multiple stills, pot and column, are more common now than they used to be. And in some cases, blends have indeed been made by IBs, though quite specifically — multiple barrels from a single distillery. Velier, Rum Nation and others have all practiced this, quite successfully.  In a more restricted fashion, they follow the blending practices of the large international producers who keep their house marques stable for long periods and deal in hundreds or thousands of barrels.

Occasionally this tried and true recipe has been tampered with more fundamentally.  Navy rums from whoever have mixed up Guyanese, Jamaican and Trini pieces in differing proportions on an effort to cash in on the famed profile.  A few brave souls have messed around with different “style” blends, like mixing British and French island rums, or bringing Spanish-style rons to the party. The winning entry so far might be Ocean’s Distillery, which mixed nine different rums from across the Caribbean to produce their Atlantic Edition, for example.

1423, the Danish indie, has taken this concept a step further with their 2019 release of a Brazil / Barbados carnival — it comprised of 8- and 3-year old Foursquare rums (exact proportions unknown, both column still) to which was added an unaged cachaca from Pirassununga (they make the very popular “51” just outside Sao Paolo), and the whole thing left to age for two years in Moscatel wine casks for two years, before being squeezed out into 323 bottles at 52% ABV.

What we would expect from such an unusual pairing is something of an agricole-Bajan marriage. Those are devilishly tricky to bring off, because the light, clean, crisp cane juice taste of an unaged cachaca needs careful tending if it wants to balance itself off against the molasses profile of an aged column-still Foursquare. 

What surprised me when nosing it, is how little of the cachaca was noticeable at all – because it was new make spirit none of those peculiar Brazilian woods were part of the aromas, but neither was any sort of serious cane juice clarity. I smelled caramel, chocolates, a bit of light lemon zest, some ginger, and weak molasses.  When rested somewhat longer, there were dates, brine, some low-key fruity notes, brown sugar, even a touch of molasses. Were you to sniff it blind you would not be entirely sure what you were getting, to be honest. Not a Barbados rum, for sure.

All this did not entirely work for me, so I turned to the tasting, where tawny brown flavours mixed themselves up in abundant profusion.  The palate was not sweet or clear, so much, but like having a dessert meal of dates, nuts, nougat, and a strong latte doing a tango with a weak mocha.  The moscatel wine finish was problematic because here it become much more assertive, and provided a sweet red-grape and floral background that contradicted, rather than supported, the softer muskier flavours which had come before.  And as before, separating out the Barbados component from the Brazilian one ended up being an exercise in frustration, so I gave up and concentrated on the finish. This was relatively tame, medium long, mostly latte, breakfast spices, ginger, some pears, nothing really special.

When I asked why such an odd blend, Joshua Singh of 1423 remarked that they had such success with a Calvados aged rum in a previous advent calendar, that they thought they would try expanding the concept, and more were likely coming in the years ahead. Clearly 1423 were after a more adventurous taste-profile, and wanted to push things, go in interesting directions. Well…“interesting” this certainly was.  “Successful”, not so much, unfortunately. But for a company that has bottled as many good rums as they have, I think it might be worth following them down a dead-end rabbit hole once or twice, for the destination at least, if not the journey.

(#720)(79/100)

Apr 162020
 

Photo (c) Henrik Kristoffersen, RunCorner.dk

1974 was clearly a good year for barrel selection by the Scottish whisky maker Gordon & MacPhail.  So good in fact that they were able to release several exceptional rums from that year – one was in 1999, the near spectacular 25 year old, which my Danish friends kicked themselves for missing when it came up for a tasting one year in Berlin. They got their own back at me by locating this slightly older version that was laid to sleep in the same year, emerged 29 years later (in 2003), and which is also a quietly amazing aged Demerara rum — every bit as good as its predecessor. 

It’s too bad we don’t know enough about it.  Oh, there’s all the usual labelling information that would have been satisfactory a short time back: 50% ABV, distilled in 1974, bottled in 2003 from two casks (#102 and #103), and that’s certainly better than what I grew up having to be satisfied with back in the day.  But we’re greedy wretches, us rum writers, and now I want to know where it slumbered and which still it came from, what the total bottle-outturn was, and how much time it spent ageing where. That I don’t have such info is something of a minor irritant, but we forge ahead with what we have.

Where the still is concerned, we can certainly guess from the profile.  I mean, just nose the thing – heaven. Deep, fruity, wooden-still action all the way. Anise, blackberries, oak, ripe tart apples and overripe cherries, apricots and prunes.  This is followed by molasses, dust, hay, well-polished leather upholstery, aromatic tobacco…and coffee grounds, lots of ‘em. An excellent nose, very rich, very pungent, very dark. 

It tastes as good as the nose leads one to expect, and may even exceed the nose.  The rum is a very dark brown, bottled at 50% ABV, just about the perfect strength for something so old and thick: enough to bring the flavours out with authority and some kick, not so strong as to burn you in the process. Here, the dark fruit panoply continues: blackcurrants, cherries, overripe mangoes. That’s joined by coffee, unsweetened chocolate, licorice, molasses, nougat, nuts and caramel. And then there’s a subtle third layer, very delicate, hinting of cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel and a freshly baked load of rye bread. The balance of the thing among these three components is really quite something, and if I had a whinge, it’s that the dry and warm finish, flavourful as it is – tobacco, leather, caramel, coffee, anise and breakfast spices – feels somewhat…less. It sums up everything that came before quite well, but brings nothing new to the party for a rousing encore, and is a. A minor point, really.

My first guess would be that the rum is from the double wooden PM pot still, because it lacks the rough wildness of the Versailles, or the slightly more elegant nature of the Enmore (which also tends to have a bit more lumber — at least a few pencils — in the jock, so to speak).  But really, at this age, at this remove, does it really matter except for us who want every single detail? I call it a Demerara, as G&M do, and am happy to have been given the opportunity to try it.

Henrik Kristofferson, who runs that somnolent and suspirant site Rum Corner (and the source of the sample) remarked in his own review that with rums this old, from that far back and for this rarity, price-to-value calculations are meaningless, and he’s right.  This is a rum that’s available now probably only through sample networks, which makes it unlikely that anyone will ever get a complete bottle (let alone a complete set of all the 1974s G&M have released) unless it pops up for auction again. But I must admit, it’s good. In fact, it’s as good as the other one I tried, nearly on par with some of the Velier Demeraras from the Age, or Cadenhead’s 33 YO or Norse Cask’s amazing 32 YO (both from 1975). I wouldn’t go so far as to tell anyone who sees a bottle for many hundreds of pounds, Euros, dollars or whatever, to go drain the back account immediately and buy the thing…but if you can get a taste, get it.  Get it now, and get fast, because rums like this are a dying, vanishing breed, and it’s an experience worth savouring, to see how the rums of today compare against hoary geriatric whitebeards of yesteryear, like this one. We may not see their like again any time soon.

(#719)(89/100)


Other notes

There was a third G&M 1974 bottled released in 2004 that went for auction at around £600 in 2017 which gives you some idea how these three-decade-old vintages are appreciating, and yet another one released in 2005.

Apr 132020
 

Of all the Central American rums I’ve tried, Nicaraguan rums from the Flor de Caña facilities probably are the least like that light Spanish style so popularized by Bacardi. They inhabit a tasting style niche that isn’t quite Latin (or Cuban, if you will), but something that blends the light column still taste with something a bit deeper and richer. It makes for a nice amalgam, though it must be said that their own rums don’t always showcase that effectively, and sometimes it takes an indie to make the point with a single barrel expression. Not as a rule, not consistently, but occasionally, like here, yes.

Black Adder had done some intriguing work with their 12 YO back in 2015, and the Compagnie des Indes has released another Nicaraguan single barrel rum I quite liked, the 2004-2016 11 YO which illustrated the depth of such rums nicely. That one was fruit-forward with background notes of tobacco and spices, and possessed a certain plush softness I wasn’t expecting (previously my experience had been with Flor de Caña’s main line of commercial blended rums). So I was curious how a 17 year old rum from the Compagnie ranked against those two, and whether that additional five or six years of ageing (continental) made a discernible difference.

It did, I think. It almost seemed like there was some pot still action going on behind the scenes, upon a first sniff – rubber, salt, esters and acetone, a little paint thinner. Also a nice olive and briny note, set off by sweeter aromas of tinned peaches or apricots in syrup. Some nuts and cereals backed up the chorus, and the real takeaway was the impressive manner in which the balance among these competing aspects was maintained, with no single scent dominating the experience. Even a vague salty rottenness of of overripe cashew fruit (the ones with the external seeds), added rather than detracted from the overall complexity and it was quite a bit better than the 2004 11 YO I brought out of mothballs to do the comparison.

On the palate the rum started off with something of a different vibe: the estery fruitiness I had smelled changed to a delightful sprightly young bubble gum, mint and menthol combo which opened the show in fine style.  The rum felt thinner than the nose had suggested, and sharper, but that was likely just a function of the high ABV (64.9%) and again, it felt like it had more richness and depth than either the Blackadder or the 11 YO I was using as comparators.  With water, additional notes crept out: honey, dates, nougat and apricots (minus the tin or the syrup this time). There were some vague sensations of oak tannins, aromatic tobacco, caramel, vanilla and a little bit of molasses backing things up, leading to a very long, dry finish of fruits, nuts, honey and coconut shavings.

My personal opinion is that some water might be useful to aid in taming the beast and bringing out subtler flavours that might otherwise be cowed (and there are a lot of those). This is one of those cases where perhaps toning the rum down to an ABV more in the mid-fifties might have paid dividends: nevertheless, I can’t complain with what Florent has achieved here, which is to coax a sterling profile out of a difficult and complex high proofed spirit. And although the Danes were the only ones who got this rum at this strength back in the day, Nicaraguan rums at full proof remain a staple of the Compagnie’s releases, all of which can trace their descent back to the quality of what was envisioned five years ago, in this deserving and near unnoticed release.

(#718)(85.5/100)


Other notes

  • 240 bottle outturn, from Barrel #NCR-30
Mar 092020
 

In a time of exploding visibility of masterful ladies in the rum world – Joy Spence, Maggie Campbell, Trudiann Branker, Karen Hoskins, Dianne Medrano, and so many others – it’s good to also remember Chantal Comte, who bottled her first rum in 1983 (it was a Depaz, and possibly even this one, though I’m still tracking that down), who has fiercely and doggedly stuck with her first love of the French islands’ rums in all the years from then to now.  She is, in my opinion, along with Tristan Prodhomme, one of the undiscovered treasures of the indie bottling scene. 

Yet her rhums remain peculiarly elusive: it’s rare to find a review of anything the woman has released, let alone any of the older bottlings, and this in spite of the fact that the quality of her wares is beyond dispute.  A few years ago a newspaperman in Trinidad wrote about a secret handshake that united the underground lovers of Luca’s Caronis, but the statement really should be applied to hers – and most especially for the one she herself considers her favourite, the Depaz 1975, which is almost as good as the utterly spectacular Trois Rivieres 1980 I was fortunate enough to find all those years ago..

The full and rather unwieldy title of the rum today is the Chantal Comte Rhum Agricole 1975 Extra Vieux de la Plantation de la Montagne Pelée, but let that not dissuade you.  Consider it a column-still, cane-juice rhum aged around eight years, sourced from Depaz when it was still André Depaz’s property and the man was – astoundingly enough in today’s market – having real difficulty selling his aged stock. Ms. Comte, who was born in Morocco but had strong Martinique familial connections, had interned in the wine world, and was also mentored by Depaz and Paul Hayot (of Clement) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Martinique was suffering from overstock and poor sales.. And having access at low cost to such ignored and unknown stocks allowed her to really pick some amazing rums, of this is one.

Still, if we disregard the bottle and just do the pour, the mud-brown liquid does not, at the inception, inspire. That misleading first impression lasts about as long as it takes the nose to take the first sniff. Because it’s thick, it’s fruity, it’s juicy and it feels solid enough to get your teeth into.  The whole thing is a smorgasbord of fruits – ripe pineapple and mangoes for sure, pears, white guavas and papaya (all the light hits of the agricole pantheon)…but also more dark fruits than we usually associate with rhums – black grapes, kiwi fruits, rich plums, dates. No tartness here, though a whiff of citrus peel pervades the background, just a combined fruit smoothie in harmonious combination with a trace of molasses, cereal and chocolate brownies

And that’s not all: the palate is equally complex and well-crafted, and at 45% – usually a middling strength which can be too soft or delicate or thin if done indifferently or badly – it expands the tableaux of observable notes. It melds the soft smell of old leather satchels with pears, herbs, spices, coffee grounds and a touch of brine, and if you hang around long enough the light acidity of citrus peel and tartness of sour cream coil behind and lend some texture and depth.  Which is to say nothing of the delicate grassiness and softer caramel hints that you can almost, but not quite, taste – they are sensed rather than experienced, and just enhance the supple, smooth drinking experience. I would have preferred the finish to be a little longer and perhaps a shade more emphatic, but overall, the closing notes of prunes, apricots, ginger, 5-spice and light sugar water was quite enough to give the rhum a lovely, low-key send off. 

Clearing away the dishes – this is not a rum that revels in strength and furious points of power.  It lacks decisive and clearly discernible tastes like funk or woodsiness. What it does do, and well, is subtly combine the component profiles while at all times allowing the drinker to pick up some element that pleases, and identify it precisely within the amalgam. It’s interesting that Ms. Comte remarked once that she felt a product (rums) so complex and of such quality could not – should not! – possibly be overlooked or despised the way it was, just around the same time as Luca Gargano was coming to similar conclusions over at Saint James: one gets the impression she’s followed that principle ever since, of not worrying about singular taste profiles, but more pleasing symphonic harmonies.

Anyway, the Depaz 1975 is, at end, a rum that reminds us what a long journey agricoles have made since back in the 1980s when it came out.  It starts off by seeming quite ordinary, an agricole like many others we’ve tried — then it gathers force and power, it gets better with every passing sip, and by the time you’re done it will take its place as one of those rums you can’t imagine yourself forgetting. Deservedly so, in my opinion, for here is one of a series of bottlings which raised the bar for the French Caribbean islands, indie bottlings and La Maison de Chantal, and forced everyone to sit up and pay attention. We have never forgotten, and they have never looked back, and that’s all as it should be.

(#709)(89/100)


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to Sascha Junkert and Johnny Drejer for their forbearance – they both know why 🙂
  • Outturn unknown, exact age unknown – I think it’s around 8-10 years old.  A query is pending.
Feb 122020
 

What a difference the passage of years makes. In 2010, a mere year after my long rum journey began, I came across and wrote about the Cadenhead 12 YO and gave it a rather dismissive rating of 76, remarking that while I liked it and while it had some underlying harmony, the decision to mature it in Laphroaig casks led to “not a rum, but some kind of bastardized in-the-middle product that isn’t fish or fowl.”

Later I began searching for it again, having in the interim gained rather more respect for what Cadenhead was doing.  The Campbelltown-based company of course doesn’t need an introduction these days – famed more for its whiskies, it has for decades also dabbled in limited edition rum releases as part of its “Green Label” line, the best of which might be the near-legendary Guyanese editions of the 1975, the 1972 and the as-yet unsourced but highly-sought-after 1964. Over the years they have released many editions of several countries’ rums, always unfiltered and unadded-to, and it’s become something of a recent running gag that they always put three- or four-letter character codes on their rums’ labels, of which even they no longer recall all the meanings.

Anyway, this was a 12 year old, continentally-aged Guyanese rum (no still is mentioned, alas), of unknown outturn, aged 12 years in Laphroaig whisky casks and released at the 46% strength that was once a near standard for rums brought out by AD Rattray, Renegade, Cadenhead and others. The brevity and uninformativeness of the label dates the rum somewhat (modern iterations provide quite a bit more), but let’s just run with what we have here.

Nose first: short version, it’s interesting, a very strange amalgam of Demerara rum, agricole and a peaty whisky. It smells of rubber and wax, vaguely medicinal and iodine-like, is slightly sweet, quite light and there are more than a few yellow fruits parading around – pineapple, crisp Thai mangoes, green apples drizzled with lemon juice and tartly unsweetened yoghurt. After resting it goes a little nutty and leathery, but the real effects of ageing are minimal, and vanilla and oaky notes are to all intents and purposes, absent.

The taste was better, and again there’s that peculiar agricole-ness to the initial experience – sweet sugar water, lemonade, brine, olives, and a lot of crisp white fruits.  It feels somewhat thin and rough on the tongue even with a “mere” 46% of proof, and could perhaps have used some additional ageing to round things off. The medicinal and peaty tastes were faint and walked off the stage after a while, to be replaced by aromatic tobacco, cheap wet coffee grounds used one too many times, cereal, all tied together by some cereal-like tastes, cinnamon and nutmeg.  That said, if you’re hunting for traditional Demerara rum flavours like molasses, licorice and caramel, search elsewhere – they sure aren’t here. Finish was great though – hot, creamy and chewy. Very tasty, a good blend of yoghurt, pears, apples, lychees, grapefruit and fruit loops cereal.

So, what did I think? At the risk of boring you to tears, permit me this digression. When he was younger and we were discussing such matters, the Little Caner could never understand why I reread books (often several times) which I’d read before (often several more times).  “You know what you’re getting,” he argued, with all the eloquence and conviction of a ten year old, “You know the plot, the background, everything. So why?” And then he would favour me with that pitying look that only young teens can master, which they save for their apparently doddering and drooling older relatives, would shake his head at my self-evident stubborn obtuseness, and then add his coupe-de-grace: “Do you expect the book to change or something?”

I bring up the matter because he was sitting beside me as I went through this sample, and asked me the same question.  Given I had several dozens more to go through and the hourglass was running short, he wanted to know why I was wasting time. “Because, young zygote,” I responded, in that characteristically obscure way all the Caner Clan boys have of speaking to one another, “I’m not the same person who tried the original sample. I’m curious whether I’d like it less, more or the same as the first one, the first time.” I glanced slyly at him – “Sort of like the way, nowadays, you react differently to books you once enjoyed, but now don’t.”

He laughed, and acknowledged the point at last, and to cut further reminisces short, let me note that I appreciated the rum more than the one from all those years ago…but much of my initial opinion on its schizoid nature persists. I wasn’t entirely won over by the whisky cask ageing – rums have quite enough character of their own not to need such additional enhancement, thank you very much – but it was well assembled, well-integrated, and the Laph background enhanced rather more than detracted.  It was just that it presented at odds with what we perhaps might prefer in a Demerara rum, lacked the distinct clarity of the wooden stills…and that medicinal peatiness?…well, I’m not convinced it works completely. 

It will be up to each individual reading this review, however, to make up his or her own mind what they think of the rum; and perhaps, if they’re lucky, to come back to it a few times and see if their tastes evolve into an increased or decreased appreciation of what is, at end, quite a decent and interesting product. The way my boy has done with so many of his books.

(#700)(84/100)


Other Notes

The dates of distillation and bottling are unknown, but I’d suggest late 1990s early 2000s.

Feb 052020
 

Hampden is now one of the belles du jour of the New Jamaicans, but it’s been on the horizon for much longer than that, though sadly much of its output from the Elder Days was sold outside Jamaica as a sort of miscellaneous bulk item, to be bastardized and mixed and blended and lost in the drab ocean of commercial rums that made up most of what was sold up to ten years ago. Never mind, though, because these days they’ve more than made up for that by issuing rums under their own estate brand, getting the single-barrel limited-edition treatment from Velier, and getting better every time I try ‘em.

This BBR bottling predates those more recent tropically-aged estate releases and hearkens back to what I sort of suspect will be a fond memory for the annually increasing number of Old Rum Farts – those days when all of Hampden’s output was sent for further ageing and bottling to Europe and only independents were releasing them at cask strength.  Berry Brothers & Rudd, that famed spirits establishment which has been in existence in London through just about all of Britain’s imperial and post-war history, certainly channels that genteel, old-world sense of style, with its prim and near-Edwardian-style labels.

What those labels don’t give us is enough data – by our rather more exacting current standards anyway.  We know it’s Jamaican, Hampden, distilled in 1990, 46% ABV, and from the osmosis bleeding through Facebook, we also know it’s a completely pot still rum, bottled in 2007, a continentally-aged 17 year old.  Marius of Single Cask Rum whose article on Hampden is worth a read for the curious, wrote that the 1990 bulk export batch – there was only one or two a year, rarely more – was of marque C<H> “Continental Hampden”, which would place it in the high range of ester-land… 1300-1400 grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol (g/hlpa); only the DOK is higher, going to the legal maximum of 1500-1600.

From those statistics we can expect something pretty dense and even feral, bursting with flavour and happily squirting near-rancid and over-fruity esters from every pore. It does indeed do that when you nose the yellow rum, but initially what you smell is a lot of glue, rubber, new vinyl, the fake upholstery of a cheap car and, more than anything, it reminds me of sliding a brand new 33 LP fresh out of its sleeve. Then there’s wax, sugar water, light fruits – pears, guavas, papaya – nougat, orange peel and an interesting sub-channel of sake and tequila, some brine and olives, followed up at the last by lemon meringue pie with a good bit of crust and creaminess thrown in for good measure.

(c) Barrel Aged Mind, with thanks to Marco Freyr

Yet overall, it’s not fierce and demanding and overdone. The palate, like the nose, also demonstrated this admirable self-control, and together with the lower strength, this allowed the glittering blades of over-fruity sharpness that usually distinguishes such rums, to be dialled down and savoured more than feared or watched out for. The profile was coruscating notes in a complex almost-sour fruit salad consisting of pineapples, kiwi fruit, green grapes, unripe apples and pears, sprinkled over with cardamom and a pinch of camomile.  It is also rich and creamy, tastes a bit nutty, and the lemony background went well with the vaguely salty background that gave the whole thing a tequila like aspect that somehow worked really well. The finish was medium long, mostly wrapping up the show content to stay pretty simple and straightforward – lemon zest, salt butter, pineapple, caramel and a twist of vanilla. Lovely.

Summing up, the BBR Hampden is not like the high end muscle-beach monsters of the TECC and the TECA, or even a dialled down DOK; nor is it like those New Jamaicans high-proofs that are coming out now, which sport lots of tropical ageing and dense, deep profiles. You can spot the core DNA, though, because that’s too distinct to miss – it’s gentler, lighter, yet also crisply fruity and very precise, just not as forceful as those 60%-and-over ester fruit bombs.  I wonder whether that’s the strength – probably, yes.  

But if you’ll forgive the metaphysical license here, what it really does is evoke and bring to my mind long unthought memories: of rummaging through and inhaling the scent of just-arrived vinyl LPs in Matt’s Record Bar in GT when I was a kid with no money; of overstuffed sofas and armchairs covered with thick smelly plastic sheeting, resting in old wooden houses with Demerara shutters and Berbice chairs where the men would sip their rums and “speak of affairs” on hot Saturday afternoons and me hanging around hoping for a sip and a word. The Japanese have a word for this – natsukashii – which refers to some small thing that brings you suddenly back to fond memories — not with longing for what’s gone, but with an appreciation of all the good times. I don’t want to make out that this is the experience others will have, just that this is what it did for me — but  in my opinion, any rum that can do this even half as well, for anyone, is definitely worth a try, even leaving aside the lovely scents and tastes which it presents.

(#699)(88/100)


Other Notes

Two other reviewers have looked at  this rum in the past:

Jan 262020
 

Rumaniacs Review #109 | 0696

It may be called a Navy rum but the label is quite clear that it’s a “Product of Guyana” so perhaps what they were doing is channelling the Pussers rums from forty years later, which also and similarly restricted themselves to one component of the navy rum recipe. The British maritime moniker has always been a rather plastic concept – as an example, I recall reading that they also sourced rums from Australia for their blend at one point – so perhaps, as long as it was sold and served to the Navy, it was allowed the title. Or maybe it’s just canny marketing of an un-trademarked title, which is meant to describe a style of rum as it was commonly understood back then.

It’s unclear when this particular rum was first introduced, as references are (unsurprisingly) scarce. It was certainly available during the 1970s, which is the earliest to which I’ve managed to date this specific bottle based on label inclusions. One gentleman commented on the FRP’s review “This was the Rum issued to all ships up until the demise of the Merchant Navy (British Merchant Marine) in 1987. We didn’t receive a tot of rum like the Royal Navy, instead we had our own run bars (officers bar, crew bar). The label with the bells was changed sometime in the early/mid 80’s to a brown coloured label with a sailing ship.” Based on some auction listings I’ve seen, there are several different variations of the label, but I think it is safe to say that this red one dates back from the late 1970s, early 1980s at the latest.

An older label: note the HMS Challis under the bells, which I was unable to trace

Challis, Stern & Co. was a spirits wholesaler out of London that was incorporated back in 1924 –  like many other small companies we have met in these reviews, they dabbled in occasional bottlings of rum to round out their wholsesaling business, and were making Four Bells rum since the 1960s at least (I saw a label on Pete’s Rum Pages with “product of British Guiana” on the label, as well as a white from post-independence times), and in all cases they used exclusively Guyanese stock. There are glancing references to an evolution of the rum in the 1980s primarily based on how the labels looked and the auctioneers’ info listings – but it seems clear that by then it was in trouble as it ceased trading in 1989 and were taken over in 1991 by the Jackson family who run wine dealers Jackson Nugent Vintners, and they then wrapped it up without fuss or fanfare in 2006 (Challis had been classified as “dormant” for their entire tenure). It remains unclear why they bothered acquiring it unless it was to gain control of some tangible or intangible asset in which they were interested (I have an email to them to check).

Colour – Amber

Strength – 42.9% (75 proof old-style)

A “half” of Four Bells, what Guyanese would call a “flattie”. Fits nicely into a hip pocket

Nose – Quite definitely a Guyanese rum, though with odd bits here and there. Caramel, salt, butter, rye or sourdough bread with a touch of molasses and anise and flowers and fruits, none of which is very dominant. Prunes, dates, overripe cherries and the musky softness of fried bananas.  Also pencil shavings and sawdust at the back end.

Palate – Dry, with a most peculiar aroma of sweet rubber.  I know how that sounds, but I like it anyway, because there was a certain richness to the whole experience.  Sweet red wine notes, backed up with caramel, dark chocolate, nougat and nuts. Quite a solid texture on the tongue, slightly sweet and rounded and without any bitterness of oak (the age is unknown).

Finish – Short and dry, but enjoyable.  Mostly caramel, toffee, sawdust and pencil shavings,

If I had to guess, I’d say this was an Enmore or the French Savalle still.  Be that as it may, it goes up well against modern standard-strength DDL rums because it presents as very restrained and toned down, without every losing sight of the fact that it’s a rum.  Nowadays of course, you can only get a bottle from old salts, old cellars, grandfathers or auctions, but if you find one, it’s not a bad buy.

(81/100)


Other Notes

  • Taken literally, the “four bells” name is an interesting one. In British Navy tradition, the strikes of a ship’s bell were not aligned with the hour. Instead, there were eight bells, one for each half-hour of a four-hour watch – four bells is therefore halfway through any one of the Middle, Morning, Forenoon, Afternoon, Dog or First watches (good that someone knew this, because eight bells would have been an unfortunate term to use for a rum, being used as it was to denote end of watch” or a funeral). All that said, the design of the four bells on the label could equally be representative of four founders, or be something more festive, so maybe this whole paragraph is an aside that indulges my love of historical background.
  • Proof and ABV – In 1969 the UK government created the Metrication Board to promote and establish metrification in Britain, generally on a voluntary basis. In 1978 government policy shifted, and they made it mandatory in certain sectors. In 1980 that policy flip-flopped again to revert to a voluntary basis, and the Board was abolished, though by this date just about all rum labels had ABV and the proof system fell into disuse – and essentially, this allows dating of UK labels to be done within some broad ranges.
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