Sep 102020
 

It’s been many years since the first of those blended dark-coloured UK supermarket rums dating back decades crossed my path – back then I was writing for Liquorature, had not yet picked up the handle of “The ‘Caner”, and this site was years in the future.  Yet even now I recall how much I enjoyed Robert Watson’s Demerara Rum, and I compared it positively with my private tippling indulgence of the day, the Canada-made Young’s Old Sam blend — and remembered them both when writing about the Wood’s 100 and Cabot Tower rums.

All of these channelled some whiff of the old merchant bottlers and their blends, or tried for a Navy vibe (not always successfully, but ok…).  Almost all of them were (and remain) Guyanese rums in some part or all. They may be copying Pusser’s or the British heritage of centuries past, they are cheap, drinkable, and enjoyable and have no pretensions to snobbery or age or off-the-chart complexity.  They are a working man’s rums, all of them.

Watson’s Trawler rum, bottled at 40% is another sprig off that branch of British Caribbean blends, budding off the enormous tree of rums the empire produced. The company, according to Anne Watson (granddaughter of the founder), was formed in the late 1940s in Aberdeen, sold at some point to the Chivas Group, and nowadays the brand is owned by Ian McLeod distillers (home of Sheep Dip and Glengoyne whiskies). It remains a simple, easy to drink and affordable nip, a casual drink, and should be approached in precisely that spirit, not as something with pretensions of grandeur.

I say “simple” and “easy” but really should also add “rich”, which was one of the first words my rather startled notes reveal.  And “deep.”  I mean, it’s thick to smell, with layers of muscovado sugar, molasses, licorice, and bags of dark fruits.  It actually feels more solid than 40% might imply, and the aromas pervade the room quickly (so watch out, all ye teens who filch this from your parents’ liquor cabinets). It also smells of stewed apples, aromatic tobacco, ripe cherries and a wedge or two of pineapple for bite. Sure the label says Barbados is in the mix, but for my money the nose on this thing is all Demerara.

And this is an impression I continue to get when tasting it. The soft flavours of brown sugar, caramel, bitter chocolate, toffee, molasses and anise are forward again (they really wake up a cola-based diet soda, let me tell you, and if you add a lime wedge it kicks).  It tastes a bit sweet, and it develops the additional dark fruit notes such rums tend to showcase – blackberries, ripe dark cherries, prunes, plums, with a slight acidic line of citrus or pineapple rounding things out nicely.  The finish is short and faint and wispy — no gilding that lily — mostly anise, molasses and caramel, with the fruits receding quite a bit. A solid, straightforward, simple drink, I would say – no airs, no frills, very firm, and very much at home in a mix.

It’s in that simplicity, I argue, lies much of Watson’s strength and enduring appeal — “an honest and loyal rum” opined Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun in his review. It’s not terrible to drink neat, though few will ever bother to have it that way; and perhaps it’s a touch sharp and uncouth, as most such rums aged less than five years tend to be. It has those strong notes of anise and molasses and dark fruit, all good.  I think, though, it’s like all the other rums mentioned above — a mixer’s fallback, a backbar staple, a bottom shelf dweller, something you drank, got a personal taste for and never abandoned entirely, something to always have in stock at home, “just in case.” 

Such rums are are almost always and peculiarly associated with hazy, fond memories of times past, it seems to me.  First jobs, first drunks, first kisses, first tastes of independence away from parents…first solo outings of the youth turning into the adult, perhaps. I may be romanticizing a drink overmuch, you could argue…but then, just read my first paragraphs again, then the last two, and ask yourself whether you don’t have at least one rum like that in your own collection.  Because any rum that can make you think that way surely has a place there.

(#759)(82/100)

Jun 082020
 

Part of the problem The major problem I have with this rum is that it simply tastes artificial – “fake,” in today’s updated lexicon – and that’s entirely aside from its labelling, which we’ll get into in a minute.  For the moment, I’d suggest you follow me through a quick tasting, starting with a nose that reminds one disconcertingly of a Don Papa – oak, boatloads of vanilla, icing sugar, honey, some indeterminate fleshy fruits and more vanilla. This does not, I’m afraid, enthuse.   

In spite of its 46.5% strength (ah, the good old days when this was considered “daring” and “perhaps a shade too strong”), the taste provided exactly zero redemption.  There’s a lot going on here — of something —  but you never manage to come to grips with it because of the dominance of vanilla. Sure there’s some caramel, some molasses, some ice cream, some sweet oatmeal cookies, even a vague hint of a fruit or two (possibly an orange was waved over the spirit as it was ageing, without ever being dropped in) – but it’s all an indeterminate mishmash of nothing-in-particular, and the short finish of sweet, minty caramel and (you guessed it) vanilla, can at best be described as boring. 

So, some background then. The rum is called “Austrian Empire Navy Rum” and originally made by Albert Michler, who established a spirits merchant business in 1863, four years before the Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire…so he had at best four years to create some kind of naval tradition with the rum, which is unlikely. Since the company started with the making of a herbal liqueur before moving into rums, a better name for the product might be “Austro-Hungarian Navy Rum” – clearly this doesn’t have the same ring to it, hence the modern simplification, evidently hoping nobody cared enough to check into the datings of the actual empire. For the record, the company which had been based in Silesia (in Czechoslovakia) limped on after WW2 when the exodus of German speaking inhabitants and the rise of the communists in 1948 shuttered it. The new iteration appears to have come into being around 2015 or so.

There are no records on whether the Austrian or Austro-Hungarian Navy ever used it or was supplied by the Michler distillery.  Somehow I doubt it – it was far more likely it followed in the tradition of rum verschnitt, which was neutral alcohol made from beets, tarted up with Jamaican high ester DOK, very popular and common around the mid to late 1800s in Germany and Central Europe. The thing is, this is not what the rum is now: a blended commercial product, it’s actually a sort of hodgepodge of lots of different things, all jostling for attention – a blended solera, sourced from Dominica, aged in french oak and american barrels “up to 21 years,” plus 12-16 months secondary ageing in cognac casks …it’s whatever the master blender requires. It cynically trades in on a purported heritage, and is made by a UK based company of the same name located in Bristol, and who also make a few other “Austrian Navy” rums, gin, absinthe and the Ron Espero line of rums. 

That anything resembling a rum manages to crawl out of this disorganized blending of so many disparate elements is a sort of minor miracle, and I maintain it’s less a rum than the cousin of the Badel Domaci, Tuzemak, Casino 50⁰ and other such domestic “Rooms” of Central Europe….even if made in Britain. It is therefore very much made for its audience: it will likely find exactly zero favour with anyone who likes a purer experience exemplified by modern Caribbean rums and new micro distilleries the world over, but anyone who likes sweet supermarket rums (possibly spiced up) will have no issue with it at all.  I’m not one of the latter, though, since I personally prefer to stick with reputable houses that make, y’know, real rums. 

(#734)(70/100)


Other notes

The company website makes no mention of additives or spices.  My sense that it is a rum with stuff added to it is my interpretation based on the taste profile and not supported by any published material.

May 312020
 

Rumaniacs Review #116 | 0732

Dry Cane UK had several light white rums in its portfolio – some were 37.5% ABV, some were Barbados only, some were 40%, some Barbados and Guyanese blends.  All were issued in the 1970s and maybe even as late as the 1980s, after which the trail goes cold and the rums dry up, so to speak.  This bottle however, based on photos on auction sites, comes from the 1970s in the pre-metric era when the strength of 40% ABV was still referred to as 70º in the UK. It probably catered to the tourist, minibar, and hotel trade, as “inoffensive” and “unaggressive” seem to be the perfect words to describe it, and II don’t think it has ever made a splash of any kind.

As to who exactly Dry Cane (UK) Ltd were, let me save you the trouble of searching – they can’t be found. The key to their existence is the address of 32 Sackville Street noted on  the label, which details a house just off Piccadilly dating back to the 1730s. Nowadays it’s an office, but in the 1970s and before, a wine, spirits and cigar merchant called Saccone & Speed (established in 1839) had premises there, and had been since 1932 when they bought Hankey Bannister, a whisky maker, in that year. HB had been in business since 1757, moved to Sackville Street in 1915 and S&S just took over the premises. Anyway, Courage Breweries took over S&S in 1963 and handed over the spirits section of the UK trade to another subsidiary, Charles Kinloch – who were responsible for that excellent tipple, the Navy Neaters 95.5º we have looked at before (and really enjoyed).

My inference is therefore that Dry Cane was a financing vehicle or shell company or wholly owned subsidiary set up for a short time to limit the exposure of the parent company (or Kinloch), as it dabbled in being an independent bottler — and just as quickly retreated, for no further products were ever made so far as I can tell. But since S&S also acquired a Gibraltar drinks franchise in 1968 and gained the concession to operate a duty free shop at Gibraltar airport in 1973, I suspect this was the rationale behind creating the rums in the first place, through the reason for its cessation is unknown. Certainly by the time S&S moved out of Sackville Street in the 1980s and to Gibraltar (where they remain to this day as part of a large conglomerate), the rum was no longer on sale.

Colour – White

Strength – 40% ABV

Nose – Light and sweet; toblerone, almonds, a touch of pears. Its watery and weak, that’s the problem with it, but interestingly, aside from all the stuff we’re expecting (and which we get) I can smell lipstick and nail polish, which I’m sure you’ll admit is unusual.  It’s not like we find this rum in salons of any kind.

Palate – Light and inoffensive, completely bland.  Pears, sugar water, some mint. You can taste a smidgen of alcohol behind all that, it’s just that there’s nothing really serious backing it up or going on. 

Finish – Short, dreary, light, simple. Some sugar again and something of a vanilla cake, but even that’s reaching a bit. 

Thoughts – Well, one should not be surprised.  It does tell you it’s “extra light”, right there on the label; and at this time in rum history, light blends were all the rage. It is not, I should note, possible to separate out the Barbadian from the Guyanese portions. I think the simple and uncomplex profile lends credence to my theory that it was something for the hospitality industry (duty free shops, hotel minibars, inflight or onboard boozing) and served best as a light mixing staple in bars that didn’t care much for top notch hooch, or didn’t know of any.

(74/100)

May 072020
 

Rumaniacs Review #114 | 0724

These days, the only way to get some of the lesser-known rums from the last century that were made by small merchant bottlers in vanishingly small quantities, is to know an old salt, be friends with a collector like Steve Remsberg, bag an estate sale, have an elderly relative who was into rum but isn’t any longer, find a spirits emporium that forgot about their inventory, or — lacking all these as I do — troll around the auction sites.

It’s in this way that you find odd rums like the Red Duster Finest Navy rum, bottled in the 1970s by the company of J. Townend & Sons. That company officially got its start in 1923, but if you look at their filings you’ll realize they took over the assets of spirits merchant John Townend, which is much older.  That company was formed in Hull around 1906 by John Townend, and over four successive generations has become a fairly substantial wine and spirits distributor in England, now called The House of Townend. Unsurprisingly, they dabbled in their own bottlings from time to time, but nowadays it would appear they are primarily into distribution.  Rums like the Red Duster have long been discontinued, with this one gone for thirty years or more.

The rum itself, created just after the Second World War by Charles Townend (grandfather of current company’s Managing Director, also named John) is a blend of Guyanese and Jamaican rum, not further specified – so we don’t know the proportions of each, or the source distilleries (or stills)  Perusing the paperwork suggests it was always and only for sale within the UK, not export, and indeed, they were kind enough to get back to me and state that “As the company was unable to expand its five-strong off licence chain due to licensing restrictions, he [Charles Townend] concentrated on establishing spirit brands that he could sell to the pub and restaurant trade.  He shipped large quantities of old rum which he blended himself in the cellars at Cave Street, Hull, from where the company traded at the time. He then broke down the rum before bottling it.”

And in a neat little info-nugget, the label notes that the name “Red Duster” came from the house of that name wherein the company once had its premises in York Street, Hull (this address and a red brick industrial-style building still exists but is taken up by another small company now).  But that house in turn was named after the Red Ensign, or “Red Duster” which was the flag flown by British Merchant ships since 1707.

Colour – Reddish amber

Strength – 70° / 40% ABV

Nose – All irony aside, it smells dusty, dry, with red and black cherry notes and some wood shavings.  Molasses, plums going overripe and – if you can believe it – sorrel and mauby (these are a red plant and a bark used for making infused drinks in parts of the West Indies).  This gives the rum an amazingly peculiar and really interesting taste that resists easy categorization.

Palate – Sweet, dry, dusty, spicy. Fruity (dark stuff like prunes and plums) with a touch of lemon.  There’s some more cherries and overripe blackberries, but overall it  tastes thin and weak, not aggressive at all.  Some mild licorice brings up the back end, like me ambling late to a meeting I don’t want to be in.

Finish –  Surprise surprise, it’s a long and fruity finish with a good dollop of vanilla and molasses, and it presents a deep, sweet and slightly dry conclusion. Not thick and solid, a little wispy, really, but still nice.

Thoughts – Blunt force trauma is not this rum’s forte, and why they would feel it necessary to release a rum with the sobriquet of “Navy” at 40% is a mystery.  It was just and always a tipple for the eating and pubbing public, without pretensions to grandeur or historical heritage of any kind.  Just as well, because it lacks the character and force of today’s rums of this kind, and attempting to disassemble the origins is pointless.  If they had pickled Nelson in a barrel of this stuff, he might well have climbed out and thrown his own self overboard before making it halfway home…but the humourist in me suggests he would have had a last sip before doing so.

(78/100)


Other Notes:

  • My hydrometer tested this out at 40.59% ABV, so on that basis, it’s “clean”.
  • The age is unknown, and it is a blend
  • My thanks to the House of Townend’s Hanna Boyes, who provided welcome information on the historical section of the post.
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