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.

(#708)(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.

(#698)(88/100)


Other Notes

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

Jan 262020
 

Rumaniacs Review #109 | 0695

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.
Jan 232020
 

The French-bottled, Australian-distilled Beenleigh 5 Year Old Rum is a screamer of a rum, a rum that wasn’t just released in 2018, but unleashed. Like a mad roller coaster, it careneed madly up and down and from side to side, breaking every rule and always seeming just about to go off the rails of taste before managing to stay on course, providing, at end, an experience that was shattering — if not precisely outstanding.

It is bottled by L’Esprit, the Brittany-based company that provided two of the most powerful whites I’ve ever tried (from Fiji and Guyana); and distilled by the Australian distillery Beenleigh, which is practically unknown outside of Oz, but which has been in operation since before 1884 (see other notes, below) and which I’ve mentioned briefly in two heritage Rumaniacs reviews, the Stubbs Queensland White, and the Inner Circle “Green Dot” rum. And it’s stuffed into specially hardened glass at a palate-dissolving, tears-inducing 78.1%, which is sure to  make any lover of machismo grin, flex the glutes and the pecs, and dive right in.

To say it’s hot may be understating the matter.  This thing noses like an unexpected slap from your loved one, the sweet force of which has to be watched out for and mitigated as best one can. It’s sizzling, it’s sharp and quite sweet – caramel, butterscotch, apricots, peaches and cherries in syrup…on the icing of a vanilla cake. And even with the strength I could, after a while, smell very ripe, almost spoiling mangoes and kiwi fruit, with cereals, cinnamon, and milk…plus more chopped fruit. 

The palate, well, this was very nice.  Initially it’s all passion fruit, five-finger, sorrel, tart soursop, salt caramel ice cream (Hagen-Dasz, of course).  It remains hot and sharp to a fault, which you can navigate with your sanity and glottis intact only only via paranoid caution and really small sips. It presented as nutty, creamy, fruity (of red, yellow, ripe variety, so choose for yourself), not crisp per se, just damn solid, as firm as a posturepedic mattress on sale at your local furniture store. Plus the headboard, which hits you several times, hard. Unsurprisingly, the finish is a DeMille-style biblical epic, long, hot, breathy, practically ever-lasting, leaving behind good memories of cereals, cream, salt butter, and thick ripe fruit.  These were admittedly somewhat standard, and perhaps unexceptional…but it certainly didn’t sink the experience.

I still remember how unusual the Aussie Bundaberg had been back in the day (as I recall all traumatic rum encounters) but no matter how polarizing it was, you couldn’t deny it had real balls, real character. L’Esprit’s Beenleigh was nowhere near that kind of opinion-inducing love-it-or-hate-it style, but that aside, I must say that it channels Conrad well, it’s major sound and fury, a mad, testosterone-addled wild-eyed piece of the rum zeitgeist, with wild pendulum swings from the sedate to the insane, the smooth to the storming, and a hell of a lot of fun to try. I don’t know how I missed including it in my list of the most powerful rums of the world, but for sure I’ve updated the list to make sure it’s in there.

L’Esprit remains one of my favourite independents. They lack the visibility and international reputation of better-known (and bigger) companies which have snazzy marketing (Boutique-y), a long trail of reviews (Rum Nation), ages of whisky and other experience (Samaroli) or visionary leaders of immense and towering reputations (Velier) – but somehow they keep putting out a rum here and a rum there and just don’t stop…and if they don’t always succeed, at least they’re not afraid of running full tilt into and through the wall and leaving an outline of Tristan Prodhomme behind. The Beenleigh is one of the rums they’ve put out which demonstrates this odd fearlessness, and ensures I’ll continue seeking out their rums for the foreseeable future. Both L’Esprit’s, and those of Beenleigh themselves.

(#694)(81/100)


Other Notes

  • Sugar cane growth had been encouraged in Queensland by the Sugar and Coffee regulations in 1864, the same year as the Beenleigh plantation was established (it was named after its founders’ home in England). Initially sugar was all it produced, though a floating boat-based distillery called the “Walrus” did serve several plantations in the area from 1869 and made rum from molasses – illegally, after its license was withdrawn in 1872, continuing until 1883 when it was beached.  Francis Gooding, one of the founders, purchased the onboard still and gained a distilling license in 1884 from which time such operations formally began in Beenleigh. Through various changes in ownership, Beenleigh as a distillery continued until 1969 when it shut down because of falling demand, then relaunched in 1972 under the ownership of Mervyn Davy and his sons; they didn’t hold on to it long and sold it to the Moran family in 1980, who in turn disposed of a controlling share to Tarac Industries in 1984. All the post-1969 owners added to the facilities and expanded the distillery’s production to other spirits, and it was finally acquired in 2003 by VOK Beverages a diversified drinks company from South Australia, in whose hands it remains.
  • Tristan confirmed that this rum was completely pot-still. Although the majority of Beenleigh’s rums come from a column still, the old copper pot still they started with all those years ago apparently is still in operation – I would not have thought a pot still could get a proof that high, but apparently I’m out to lunch on that one. Other than that, it is not a single cask but a small batch, and technically it is a 3 YO, since it spent three years in wooden casks, and two extra years in a vat.
Jan 202020
 

In spite of being “just” a consultant, Pete Holland of The Floating Rum Shack is so completely identified with the rums of the cheekily named That Boutique-y Rum Company, that we sometimes overlook the fact the outfit is actually part of Atom Brands which runs the Masters of Malt online spirits establishment. The curious matter of his being seen as the face of the brand can be directly traced to two things – his consistent promotional work for TBRC online and off, and the irreverent paintings by Jim’ll Paint It that adorn the labels of the bottles, many of which feature Peter himself.

In a field ever more crowded with new bottlers, new distilleries and new (supposedly improved, but not always) offerings from the old houses, all vying for our limited attentions spans and slim, wife-approved budgets, one can hardly fault such an in-your-face marketing strategy, you can only admire how well it’s done. It helps, of course, that Peter really is a fun guy to hang out with, drink with and make jokes with (or at) – and that the rums the company has released so far have been pretty damned good.

Take this one, which proves that TBRC has a knack for ferreting out good barrels. It’s not often you find a rum that is from the French West Indies aged beyond ten years — Neisson’s been making a splash recently with its 18 YO, you might recall, for that precise reason.  To find one that’s a year older from Guadeloupe in the same year is quite a prize and I’ll just mention it’s 54.2%, aged seven years in Guadeloupe and a further twelve in the UK, and outturn is 413 bottles. On stats alone it’s the sort of thing that makes my glass twitch.

Still, with the facts out of the way, what’s it like?

Very nice…if a little off the beaten track. Now here is a rum based on a batch of molasses (so it’s not a true cane juice agricole), and it starts off not with grassy and herbal and citrus aromas, but with crackers, caramel, and breakfast cereal (Fruit Loops, I say, from the experience of buying tons of the stuff for the Baby Caner back in the day).  Which I like, don’t get me wrong…once I adjust my mental compass away from agricole territory. The nose also displays toffee, nougat, nuts, almonds and mixes that up with a softly emergent slightly sharp and piquant fruity bouquet that’s quite simply delectable. The balance among all these elements is really good, negotiating that fine and tricky line between muskiness, sweetness, crispness and sharpness in a way we don’t often see.

The palate confirms that we’re not dealing with a cane juice rum in any way – the wood is more evident here, there’s some resin-like backtaste, smoke, vanilla, molasses and brine, offset by light flowers, and a sort of subtle fruity sweetness. The fruits are kinda tough to pick apart – some red grapes, I suppose, pears, papaya – it’s all very light and just a tad acidic, so that the combined profile is one of a seriously good rum, concluding with a reasonably long finish that is sweet, salt, wine-y, and crisp, just the slightest bit sour, and overall a really welcome dram to be sipping after a tough day at the rumfest.  

Guadeloupe rums in general lack something of the fierce and stern AOC specificity that so distinguishes Martinique, but they’re close in quality in their own way, they’re always good, and frankly, there’s something about the relative voluptuousness of a Guadeloupe rhum that I’ve always liked. Peter sold me on the quality of the O Reizinho Madeiran a while back, but have my suspicions that he has a soft spot for this one as well.  Myself, I liked it a mite better, perhaps because there was just a bit more going on in the background and overall it had a shade more complexity which I appreciated. It’s a really delectable dram, well aged, damned tasty and one to share with all your friends.

(#693)(87/100)


Other Notes

Peter told me that the label was a little misleading. The initial image on the bottle I tried makes a visual reference to the (Gardel) distillery on Marie Galante, but it was actually distilled at Damoiseau’s Le Moule facility, from a batch of molasses rum produced on their creole column. The label has been redrawn and there’s a movement afoot to re-label future iterations — Rev 2.0 adds Peter to the artwork and pokes a little fun at the mistake.

Oct 302019
 

Few except deep-diving, long-lasting rum geeks now remember Murray McDavid, the scotch whisky bottler that acquired Bruichladdich in 2000, and created a rum label of the same name at the same time. Most who spot the distinctive slender bottles with the steel-gray enclosures and red-patterned labels just see an older independent bottler and move along (some might stop for a taste, especially if they pay attention to the dates on the bottles). The MM line is long defunct, folded into the Renegade line in 2006 – Mark Reynier, the man behind it all, put into practice some of the ideas he had had regarding rum releases but liked the idea of creating a completely separate brand for rums…and therefore MM as a rum brand was discontinued. Renegade Rum Company was formed to take its place and continued the evolution of Mr. Reynier’s ideas before itself disappearing in 2012 (temporarily – there’s more info in the company bio, here).

What we see with Murray McDavid rums is an idea in embryo.  Renegade to some extent gave a better-known foundation to the emergent single barrel, finishing, limited edition rum releases, but a simpler form of such an indie bottling ethos was already in play years earlier by MM, just around the same time as Velier’s Demeraras were being issued over in Italy. MM releases are hard to find now after so many years (there are only five as far as I could determine) but they do exist, remaining unsold or popping up for auction, largely because few know what they are, or if they deserve their price tags.

Briefly, the facts: it’s a tawny gold rum, from Hampden as noted on the very informative label (another thing MM/Renegade started to provide concurrently with Velier), distilled 1992 and bottled 2005.  Ageing was in ex bourbon casks, with additional finishing in port casks but without any indication of how long – subsequent practice with Renegade suggests some months only. And it was 46%, the standard to which MM/Renegade adhered throughout their short lives.

Tasting notes: definitely Jamaican, that hogo and funk was unmistakable, though it seemed more muted than the fierce cask strength Hampdens we’ve been seeing of late. It smelled initially of pencil shavings, crisp acetones, nail polish remover, a freshly painted room and glue.  After opening up, I went back some minutes later and found softer aromas – red wine, molasses, honey, chocolate, and cream cheese and salted butter on fresh croissants, really yummy. And this is not to ignore the ever-present sense of fruitiness – dark grapes, black cherries, ripe mangoes, papayas, gooseberries and some bananas, just enough to round off the entire nose.

No surprises on the palate, just variations on the Hampden theme: it wasn’t harsh or super sharp or powerful (at 46% we could hardly expect that).  I tasted glue, sweet honey, very ripe red grapes, a really nice initial attack. It developed over time, presenting molasses, salt caramel, cream cheese on toast, coffee grounds, and the sharp lightness of green apples and hard yellow fruit kept pace with all the others. The finish was short but it was at least aromatic, mostly ripe fruits, some flambeed bananas, and that peculiar mix of hogo, fruit going off and sharp-sweet acidic notes that to me characterize Jamaican pot still expressions. As an observation, the influence of the port casks seemed quite minimal to me and didn’t detract from, or derail, the core Jamaican profile in any significant way.

Reading this, a jaded and experienced Jamaican rum lover might suggest it’s more of the same old thing, differing only in the details. True. However, I think that seen at a remove of so many years from when it was made, its originality — that singular distinctiveness of the pot still distillate in particular, as ameliorated by the finishing — is harder to make out, because we’re so used to it. It’s not the best Hampden rum ever released, but it’s a perfectly serviceable and drinkable version on its own merits, and for its strength, quite good.

We are in the middle of a golden age of rum making experimentation, where pot and column still blends, multiple maturations and fancy finishes are much more common and much more sophisticated…and much better, perhaps. Mr. Reynier’s “Additional Cask Evolution” — which he pioneered with the five MM releases and then took further with Renegade — was ahead of its time and never really caught on with the greater rum public.  My own feeling is that when one has a good distillate and uses the finishing judiciously to enhance rather than overwhelm, then it doesn’t matter how long ago the rum was bottled – it’s a fine rum to sample.  

This rum, showing off a Hampden HLCF years before the estate became more famous, is worth trying (or buying) whether you’re into Jamaicans specifically or rums from the past generally.  It shows how good the lesser-known pot still estate-Jamaicans always were, and how fortunate we are that they remain available and affordable and approachable to this day.  On both a historical and practical basis, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to taste it.

(#671)(84/100)

Oct 232019
 

For all the faux-evasions about “a historic 250 year old Jamaican distillery” and the hints on the website, let’s not dick around – the Stolen Overproof is a Hampden Estate rum. You can disregard all the marketing adjectives and descriptors like “undiscovered”, “handmade” etc etc and just focus on what it is: a New Jamaican pot still rum, released at a tonsil-chewing 61.5%, aged six years and remarkably underpriced for what it is.

The Stolen Overproof has gotten favourable press from across the board almost without exception since its launch, even if there are few formal (i.e., review-website based) ones from the US itself — perhaps that’s because there’s no-one left writing essay-style rum reviews there these days except Paul Senft, and shorter ones from various Redditors (here, here, here and here). In my opinion, this is a rum that takes its place in the mid-range area right next to Rum Bar, Rum Fire, Smith & Cross and Dr. Bird — and snaps at the heels of Habitation Velier’s 2010 HLCF, of which this is not a cousin, but an actual brother. 

If you doubt me, permit me to offer you a glass of this stuff, as my old-schoolfriend and sometime rum-chum Cecil R. did when he passed me a sample and insisted I try it. You’d think that Stolen Spirits, a company founded in 2010 which has released some underwhelming underpoofs and “smoked” rums was hardly one warrant serious consideration, but this rum changed my mind in a hurry, and it’ll likely surprise you as well.

The nose was pure Jamaica, pure funk. It was dusty, briny, glue-y and wine-y, sharp and sweet and acidic. and redolent of a massive parade of fruits that came stomping through the nose with cheerful abandon. Peaches in syrup, near-ripe mangoes, guavas, pineapple, all dusted with a little salt and black pepper.  It held not only these sharpish tart fruits but raisins, flambeed bananas, red currants, and as it opened further is also provided the lighter crispness of fanta, bubble-gum and flowers.  

The rum is dark gold in the glass, 61.5% of high-test hooch and a Hampden, so a fierce palate is almost a given.  Nor did it disappoint: it was sharp, with gasoline ((!!), glue, acetones and olive oil charging right out of the gate.  It tasted of fuel oil, coconut shavings, wet ashes, salt and pepper, slight molasses, tobacco and pancakes drenched in sweet syrup, cashew nuts…and bags and bags of fruit and other flavours, marching in stately order, one by one, past your senses – green apples, grapes, cloves, red currants, strawberries, ripe pineapples, soursop, lemon zest, burnt sugar cane, salt caramel and toffee.  Whew! That was quite a handful. Even the finish – long and heated – added something: licorice, bubble gum, apples, pineapple and damp, fresh sawdust.

Whew!  That’s quite a rum, representing the island in really fine style. I mean, the only way you’re getting closer to Jamaica without actually being there is to hug Christelle Harris in Brooklyn (which won’t get you drunk and might be a lot more fun, but also earn you a fight with everyone else around her who was thinking of doing the same thing).  Essentially, it’s a Jamaican flavour bomb and the other remarkable thing about it is who made it, and from where.

The Stolen Overproof is an indie bottling — the company was formed in 2010 in New Zealand, and seems to be a primarily US based op these days — and the story I heard was that somehow they laid hands on some barrels of Hampden distillate way back in 2016 and brought it to market. This is fairly recently, you might say, but even a mere three years ago, Hampden was not a household name, having just launched themselves into the global marketplace, and Velier’s 2010 6 YO HLCF only reached the greater rum audience in 2017 – apparently this rum is from the same batch of barrels.  The Stolen is still relatively affordable if you can find it (US$18 for a 375ml bottle), and my only guess is that they literally did not know what they had and put a standard markup on the rum, never imagining how huge Jamaica rum of this kind would become in the years ahead. 

When discussing Bacardi’s near-forgotten foray into limited bottlings, I remarked that just because you slap a Jamaican distillery name on a label does not mean you instantly have a great juice. But the reverse can also be true: you can have an almost-unobserved release of an unidentifed Jamaican rum from a near-unknown third-tier bottler, and done right and done well, it’ll do its best to wow your socks off. This is one of those.

(#669)(85/100)


Other Notes

60,000 1/2 sized 375ml bottles were issued, so ~22,500 liters. All ageing was confirmed to be at Hampden Estate.


Opinion, somewhat tangential to the review….

If you want to know why I generally disregard the scorings and opinions on Rum Ratings, searching for this rum tells you why.  This is a really good piece of work that’s been on the market for three years, and on that site and in all that time, it has garnered a rich and varied total of six scores – one 9-pointer, three at 7 points, one of 4 … and Joola69’s rating of 1. “Just another Jamaican glue and funk rum” he sneered rather contemptuously from the commanding heights of his 2,350 other rum ratings (the top choices of which are mostly devoted to Spanish/Latin column still spirits). If you want a contrary opinion that indicts the New Jamaicans as a class, there’s one for you.

Certainly such rums as the gentleman champions have their place and they remain great sellers and crowd pleasing favourites. But really good rums should — and do — adhere to rather higher standards than just pleasing everyone with soft sweet smoothness, and in this case, a dismissive remark like the one made simply shows the author does not know what good rums have developed into, and, sadly, that having scored more than 2000 rums hasn’t improved or changed his outlook.  Which is bad for all those who blindly follow and therefore never try a rum like these New Jamaicans, but good for the rest of us who can now get more of the good stuff for ourselves. Perhaps I should be more grateful.

Oct 172019
 

Although it’s older, Samaroli is somewhat eclipsed these days (by Velier), and is sometimes regarded as being on the same tier as, say, Rum Nation, or L’Esprit (though the comparisons are at best inexact).  With the passing of its eponymous founder, there is no single person around whom aficionados can rally, no-one to show the flag, to enthusiastically promote its rums and excitedly show off the best and newest thing they have going (not that he was doing much of that in the years immediately prior to his passing, but still…). It survives in the regard of many – myself among them – on the basis of the heritage and reputation Sylvano left behind, beautiful label design, and some really kick-ass selections.

Still, good selection or not, at the top end of the single-barrel, limited-outturn value chain, picking barrels can be a hit or miss proposition by minute increments of quality or preference. Although it’s a good rule of thumb, it does not necessarily follow that just because one release in one year is good, that all others from the same year would be of a similar level of excellence. The lesson was brought home the other day when a bunch of us tried the 2016 Samaroli 24 YO from Jamaica, which was distilled in the same year – 1992 – as the near-sublime Samaroli 25 year old 2017 edition we’d had just a few months before (and which was used as a control in subsequent tastings).

Let me just run you through the tasting notes, because this really was quite an impressive dram in its own right. Quiet and almost sleepy, it was dusty, dry, sweet and tart to begin with, like a long-unaired spice cupboard. Gradually the fruity notes of peaches, pineapple, gooseberries and cherries built up force until they took over, combining well with licorice, citrus peel aromatic tobacco, even a hint of sherry; and behind all that was the restrained funk of rotting bananas, a sort of quiet gaminess, and the medicinal sweetness of cherry-flavoured cough syrup.  

The palate was where the action really was, and fortunately it didn’t display any kind of brute force, or the sort of over-oakedness that more than two decades sometimes provides. In fact, it was remarkably drinkable, and there was a lot going on: brine, olives, flowers, licorice, peaches in syrup, cherries were the main components, backed up by citrus, mint, lemongrass, green grapes, stewed apples, bananas going off, earthy and meaty … and there was a weird salty gaminess carrying over from the nose that was vaguely like a sausage starting to spoil. How all that integrated with the fruits and flowers is a mystery, yet somehow it did, though I have to confess, the balance wasn’t quite as neat as the nose suggested it would be.  The finish was a bit sharp, but elegant and complex, with fruits, nuts and some salt lasting nicely and then fading.

This was really well put together. There was absolutely nothing intrinsically wrong with the 2016 24 YO, and it didn’t fail: it was a strong, tasty rum in its own right, represented Hampden like a boss, and it scored high (with me, as well as with Marius, who looked at earlier in 2019 and awarded it 87 points, while remarking he felt it should have been decanted earlier).  But good as it was, the general consensus was that the 1992 25 year old was simply better. Better balanced, better integrated, better tasting, smelling, the whole nine yards. The 2016 lacked a little something, an extra fillip of integration and overall enjoyment that was subtle, yet noticeable when sampled in conjunction with its brother. 

In short, the 2017 had us searching our thesaurus for suitable adjectives (and expletives) and was one of the best Jamaican rums we’d ever tried. The 2016 — distilled the same year, and bottled a year and 2% ABV apart — made us nod appreciatively, mark it up as a really good rum to have, and one to recommend…but also move on to the next one in our session. 

(#666)(88/100)


Other notes

  • The label doesn’t state it, but as far as I know it’s pot still.
  • 240 bottles released. This is #29
  • 54% ABV, European ageing

 

Sep 302019
 

People are paying very close attention to the new Renegade distillery being constructed in Grenada, largely because of the reputation of its founder, Mark Reynier, and the endorsement which his project of making pure rums has gotten from other luminaries on the rum scene. Josh Miller has written about the status of construction, Luca Gargano of Velier and Richard Seale of Foursquare have both remarked on his anticipation of what Grenadian rums will eventually emerge from it, and there are regular updates on the company’s FB page on how things are going over there on the Spice Island.

Not many now recall the line of Murray McDavid rums Mr. Reynier pioneered in the early 2000s while he was at Bruichladdich, though I imagine quite a few more know of the frosted glass bottles of the Renegade Rums that followed them. Excluding whisky makers who occasionally but irregularly released a cask strength rum (Cadenhead might have been the most consistent of these) Renegade did much to promote the concept of both higher-proofed rums (46%, when the standard was 40%), really spiffy bottle design, amazingly informative labelling, and that of finishes in other casks, which they called Additional Cask Evolution. In the six years starting in 2007, they released a scant 21 limited edition rums (in 53,650 bottles for my fellow retentives) and then, with a combination of imminent company sale and a dissatisfaction with available rums and casks, the whole show folded in 2012 and that was all we got.

In 2019, a “mere” seven years after the company dissolved, finding one of those distinctive bottles is something of a challenge.  They very occasionally turn up on auction sites and sample exchanges, but my own feeling is that they’re almost all gone after so many years, and those that aren’t empty are being hoarded. Which is hardly surprising for bottles with such a pedigree, and a rarity conferred by not being available for so long.  This one, for example, is a 1300-bottle outturn from the Port Mourant wooden double pot still when it was located at Uitvlugt (hence the name), aged 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels, and then finished in French oak Château d’Yquem casks.

As with all such finished Guyanese rums, the two questions one always asks are “Is it representative of the source still?” and “What kind of impact did the finishing have?” I can report that with respect to the first, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Even without knowing it was a PM distillate, the nose presented wooden pot still action right away, with a deeper, darker, muskier profile than the somewhat more elegant Enmore or Uitvlugt columnar stills might have provided.  It smelled of fresh wet sawdust, a little glue, and both meat and fruit beginning to go off. There was a subtly sweet background aromas, which was likely the wine casks’ influence, but too faint to derail the more powerful influence of ripe peaches, mangoes, apricots, raisins. What I particularly liked was the occasional whiffs of brine, olives, saltfish, dill and avocados which was integrated really well with all the others.

Tastewise the rum did something of an about turn, and initially the sweeter elements took a back seat.  Not too sharp, a bit salty, started off with brine, olives and herbs (dill and rosemary). It developed with fruity flavours – stoned yellow fruit for the most part – gradually asserting their presence, to be joined by salt caramel ice cream, dates in honey and figs, and a touch of molasses and anise rounding things out.  Finish was somewhat indeterminate, mostly caramel, licorice, brine, raisins, none too long, which one could expect from the strength. 

Certainly the wooden still component was there; the wine finish was a little less noticeable, quite subtle, and it had the sense to stay back and let the major flavours “tek front” and carry the show, enhancing them but staying well out of the limelight.  I liked the rum quite a bit, though overall it suggested the whisky-making ethos of its makers more than it did that of rum itself. I suggest that they were still experimenting at this stage, and the coherent quality of the rums issued in 2008 and 2009 was still to be locked in, but for all its whisky character, it succeeded well on its own terms

Renegade’s rums in the range were always a bit hit or miss to me: some were better than others and the finishes sometimes worked as enhancers, at others as distractions (in my opinion, anyway).  Here it was all pretty good, and while I would have preferred something a bit stronger, deeper and more voluptuous as a whole – the sort of dark full-proof PM profile I enjoy – there’s no denying that the Uitvlugt 1995, for those who manage to get one, is likely to please devotees of the malt world, as well as lovers of rum who like to see how things could be made when the gears and levers are tweaked a bit, and the rum takes a gander at the dark side without actually staying there.

(#660)(84/100)


Other notes

  • Velier was a greater pioneer of informative labelling and full proof rum strength, and did so much earlier in the 2000s than Renegade.  But at the time (2007-2012) they were known mostly in Italy and relatively unknown in the larger rum world, while Renegade had somewhat better awareness in both Europe and North America.
  • I was and remain fortunate to know Cecil, a fellow QC squaddie from Guyana days, who had this bottle (from the first year of Renegade’s issuing anything) a hefty sample of which he was able to get to me…so a big hat tip and many thanks to the man for sourcing and holding on to one for so very long.
  • I’ve looked at 11 of the company’s rums so far, for the historically curious.