Nov 252015
 
LP_Navy

Photo Courtesy of duRhum.com

Leave aside the hype and controversy, and try this without preconceptions. You may be surprised, intrigued and even pleased with the result.  I was, I was and I wasn’t, not entirely…but you might be.

(#242. 83/100)

***

If by now you are not aware that Lost Spirits out of California has developed a “molecular reactor” that supposedly mimics the ageing of a twenty year rum in six days, then you have not been paying attention (or aren’t that deep into rum geekdom).  The idea is not itself altogether new, and detractors have sniffed that snake oil sellers have been talking forever about using magical means, family recipes and all kinds of fancy methods to speed up ageing and the profile of old spirits, in products that aren’t actually aged.  Still, with the continual advances in modern tech, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that some smart guy in a garage somewhere can perhaps do such a thing. Certainly Lost Spirits makes that claim.  They have intense enthusiasm, hand built stills, and a good knowledge of chemistry and biology to assist in replicating more traditional methods of production without actually using many of them. The output is more important than the process, you might say.

The Navy Style rum they have made is a booming near-overproof rum that smartly elevates the North American drinking public’s perception of rum by issuing it at 68%, and which comes in a tall slim bottle that has an old fashioned label channelling the aesthetic design philosophy of both technology and 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery (that’s what Josh Miller called “steampunk” in his own recent review of the rum). Just to get the background out of the way, this thing is unadulterated, without additives of any kind, including colouring.  It is made from baking grade molasses and evaporated sugar cane juice (I suppose we could call that “honey”).

The nose was intriguing: an interesting fusion of very hot aromas, both familiar and strange.  Initially it presented with vanilla, prunes, black grapes, some molasses, a faint hint of anise, some oak, and a bit of clean citrus.  But sharper ethanol and less appealing mineral notes of wet charcoal and saltpetr emerged at the back end, and here I was left wondering where the meld of Jamaican dunder and fruitiness of the Demeraras and Bajans was hiding itself.

Similar thoughts came to mind as I tasted it. Yes it was bold and very heated – we could hardly expect less from a rum this strong – I just thought it was all a bit discombobulated.  There were salty, green-olive notes, some soy and grappa and red wine, all mixed up with an undercurrent of molasses.  It was quite rough, and stampeded across the palate without the finesse that other rums of that strength have shown is possible.  Adding water ameliorated that somewhat, and brought other flavours out of hiding – brown sugar, vegetals, dried grass, more undefined citrus zest, and a tang of more red grapes, caramel and molasses, all tied up with sharper oak tannins and ginger root.  The finish, as befits such a strong drink, was long and dry, with little that was new arriving onstage – oak, some wet coffee grounds, more of that strange mineral background, and a twitch of herbs.

Lost Spirits have made a rum that they want to show off as a poster boy for their technology: whether they succeeded in creating a Navy rum is questionable. There are quite a few variations of the type – Lamb’s, Pusser’s, Wood’s 100, Potter’s, the Black Tot to name but a few – so much so that true or not, right or wrong, those are the profiles that the consuming public sees and expects to be represented by the sobriquet “Navy”.  On that level, the Lost Spirit rum doesn’t come up to snuff.  And while other reviewers have remarked on the esters they sensed (which is part of the selling point of the rum, that genuflection to old-style dunder pits), I didn’t find there were that many complex spicy, fruity and floral notes that would give any of the more traditional rum makers cause to choke into their tasting glasses.

Recently mon ami Cyril of DuRhum took apart three Lost Spirits rums, and flat out declared that in his estimation they could not possibly class with the very rums they were seeking to supplant.  Both Josh at Inu-a-kena and Tiare over by A Mountain of Crushed Ice were much more positive in their evaluations, as was Serge at Whiskyfun. I am neither as displeased by Lost Spirits as Cyril was, nor as enthusiastic as my other friends – to my mind the company and its tech still have quite some way to go if they intend to take on really aged big guns made by master blenders with many generations of experience backing them up. Western nations are great proponents of the notion that technology can conquer everything, and maybe they’re right…but only sometimes.

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and give Lost Spirits credit for what they have achieved. I liked the strength and intensity, for example – LS has had the balls to take American rums past the 40% that dominates their market.  The taste was intriguing, original, not entirely bad, and there were many aspects of the profile I enjoyed. Where it fails is in its resultant product, which wanders too far afield while failing to cohere.  And therefore it falls short on its promise: the promise that they could produce a profile of any aged rum without actually ageing it. That simply didn’t happen here.  

I’m a firm believer in technology and its potential – but as with many brand new ideas and their execution, the hype so far is greater than the reality. The subtleties of a great aged rum are so multi-faceted, so enormously complex, and so chaotically intertwined with age and barrel and distillate and fermentation and even terroire, that while one day I have no doubt a combination of physics, chemistry and biology (and chutzpah) will fool a taster into believing he’s got an undiscovered masterpiece on his hands, this rum, for today, isn’t quite it.

Other notes:

Control rums this time around were a few old Demeraras, the BBR Jamaica 1977, Woods 100 and of course the Black Tot. It’s in the comparison that the LS Navy 68% snaps more clearly into focus and you see where it both succeeds and falls short.

Note that Navy rums, according to Mr. Broome’s informative booklet on the ‘Tot, only had a small percentage of the blend come from Jamaica (sailors didn’t like it).  Yet most of the online literature on Lost Spirits places great emphasis on how they are recreating the resultant profile of dunder pits and high ester counts (more or less associated with Jamaica), when in fact this was not the major part of the navy style of rum.

Also… just because I don’t (thus far) endorse or highly praise this line of rums, doesn’t mean others don’t.  North Americans are quite positive in their assessments, while European writers thus far remain silent (perhaps due to availability). So some references for your research, should you be curious:

Oct 222015
 

Black tot 1

Bottled history.  Nothing more, nothing less.

(#237. 87/100)

***

“The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good,” remarked Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I remembered that bit of wisdom before embarking on our tryst with this rum.  And to ensure that my long anticipation for the Tot wasn’t bending my feeble mind (I bought the bottle 2014, and tasted it for the first time almost a full year later) I tempered my judgement by trying it three times, with the Skeldon 1973 32 year old, BBR 1977 36 year old, a Velier Caroni and the Samaroli Barbados 1986.  Just to be sure I wasn’t getting too enthusiastic you understand. I had to be sure. I do these things so you don’t have to.

As much as the G&M Longpond 1941, St James 1885 or the J. Bally 1929, to name a few, the near-legendary Black Tot Last Consignment is one of the unicorns of the rum world.  I’m not entirely convinced it should be so – many craft makers issue releases in lots of less than a thousand bottles, while some 7,000 bottles of this are in existence (or were).  Nor is it truly on par with some of the other exceptional rums I’ve tried…the reason people are really willing to shell out a thousand bucks, is that whiff of unique naval pedigree, the semi-mystical aura of true historical heritage.  A rum that was stored for forty years (not aged, stored) in stone flagons, and then married and bottled and sold, with a marketing programme that would have turned the rum into one of the absolute must-haves of our little world…if only it wasn’t quite so damned expensive.

I don’t make these points to be snarky. After all, when you taste it, what you are getting is a 1960s rum and that by itself is pretty nifty.  But there’s an odd dearth of hard information about the Tot that would help an average drinking Joe to evaluate it (assuming said Joe had the coin). About all you know going in is that it come from British Royal Navy stocks left over after the final rum ration was issued to the Jolly Jack Tars on Black Tot Day (31st July, 1970 for the few among you who don’t weep into your glasses every year on that date), and that it was released in 2010 on the same day. No notes on the rum’s true ageing or its precise components are readily available.  According to lore, it supposedly contains rums from Barbados, Guyana (of course), Trinidad, and a little Jamaica, combining the dark, licorice notes of Mudland, the vanillas and tars of the Trinis and that dunderesque whiffy funk of the Jamaicans.  And, the writer in me wants to add, the fierce calypso revelry of them all. Complete with mauby, cookup, doubles, rice and peas, pepperpot and jerk chicken.

Black Tot 1

All that aside, the rum’s presentation is exceptional. A wooden box of dark wood (walnut? oak?). A booklet written by Dave Broom on the background to the rum. A copper plated tot container. A tot ration card facsimile. And a bottle whose cork was covered with a hard, brittle wax sealant that Gregers, Cornelius and Henrik laughed themselves silly watching me try to cut off. The bottle itself was a stubby barroom style bottle with a good cork.  No fault to find on the appearance, at all.  Believe me, we were all raring to try this one.

The aromas first: at 54.3%, I expected more sharpness than the Tot exhibited, and enjoyed the deep and warm nose. Initially, anise and slightly chocolate-infused fumes billowed out of our glasses in well controlled balance.  Cardboard, musty hay, caramel and some tar and tobacco juice (maybe that was the Trinis speaking up?) followed swiftly.  The official literature suggests that the Jamaican part of the blend was minimal, because sailors didn’t care for it, but what little there was exerted quite a pull: dunder and a vaguely bitter, grassy kind of funk was extremely noticeable.  Here was a rum, however, that rewarded patience, so it was good that our conversation was long and lively and far-reaching.  Minutes later, further scents of brine and olives emerged, taking their turn on the stage before being replaced in their turn by prunes, black ripe cherries, leavened with sharper oak tannins, and then molasses, some caramel, smoke, and then (oddly enough), some ginger and dried smoked sausages snuck in there. It was very good…very strong with what we could term traditional flavours.  Still, not much new ground was broken here. It was the overall experience that was good, not the originality.

Good thing the palate exceeded the nose.  Here the strength came into its own – the Tot was a borderline heavy rum, almost mahogany-dark, quite heated on the tongue, with wave after wave of rich dark unsweetened chocolate, molasses, brown sugar, oak deftly kept in check.  Thick meaty flavours (yeah, there were those smoked deli meats again). It was a bit dry, nothing to spoil its lusciousness.  We put down our glasses, talked rum some more, and when we tried it again, we noted some salty, creamy stuff (an aggressive brie mixing it up with red peppers stuffed with cheese in olive oil, was the image that persisted in my mind).  Nuts, rye bread, some coffee. And underlying it all was the mustiness of an old second hand bookstore straight out of a gothic novel.  I enjoyed it quite a bit.  I thought the finish failed a little – it was dry, quite long, so no complaints on that score – it just added little more to the party than the guests we had already seen. Smoke, tannins, aromatic tobacco, some molasses again, a little vegetal stuff, that was about it.  Leaving aside what I knew about it (or discovered later), had I tasted it blind I would have felt it was a rather young rum (sub-ten-year-old), with some aged components thrown in as part of the blend (but very well done, mind).

Which may not be too far from the truth. Originally the rum handed out in the 18th and 19th centuries was a Barbados- or Jamaican-based product.  But as time went on, various other more complex and blended rums were created and sold to the navy by companies such as Lamb’s, Lemon Hart, C&J Dingwall, George Morton and others. Marks were created from estates like Worthy Park, Monymusk, Long Pond, Blue Castle (all in Jamaica); from Mount Gilboa in Barbados; from Albion and Port Mourant in Guyana; and quite a few others. Gradually this fixed the profile of a navy rum as being one that combined the characteristics of all of these (Jamaica being the tiniest due to its fierce pungency), and being blended to produce a rum which long experience had shown was preferred by the sailors. E.D.&F. Man was the largest supplier of rums to the navy, and it took the lead in blending its own preferred style, which was actually a solera – this produced a blend where the majority of the rum was less than a decade old, but with aspects of rums much older than that contained within it.

The problem was that the depot (and all records about the vats and their constituent rums) was damaged, if not outright destroyed during the 1941 Blitz.  In effect this means that what we were looking at here was a rum, blended, and aged solera style, that was in all likelihood re-established in the 1940s only, and that means that the majority of the blend would be from the sixties, with aged components within it that reasonably date back to twenty years earlier. And that might account for the taste profile I sensed.

So now what?  We’ve tasted a sorta-kinda 1960s rum, we’ve accepted that this was “the way rums were made” with some serious, jowl-shaking, sage nods of approval. We’ve established it has a fierce, thick, dark taste, as if a double-sized magnum of Sunset Very Strong ravished the Supreme Lord VI and had a gently autistic child. It had a serious nose, excellent taste, and finished reasonably strong, if perhaps without flourish or grandeur.  The question is, is it worth the price?

Now Pusser’s bought the recipe years ago and in theory at least, they’re continuing the tradition.  Try their Original Admiralty Blend (Blue Label), the Gunpowder Strength or the fifteen year old, and for a lot less money you’re going to get the same rum (more or less) as the Jolly Jack Tars once drank. Why drop that kinda cash on the Tot, when there’s something that’s still being made that supposedly shares the same DNA?  Isn’t the Pusser’s just as good, or better? Well, I wouldn’t say it’s better, no (not least because of the reported 29 g/l sugar added). But at over nine hundred dollars cheaper, I have to wonder whether it isn’t a better bargain, rather than drinking a bottle like the Tot, with all its ephemeral transience. (Not that it’s going to stop anyone, of course, least of all those guys who buy not one but three Appleton 50s at once).

So this is where your wallet and your heart and your brain have to come to a compromise, as mine did. See, on the basis of quality of nose and palate and finish – in other words, if we were to evaluate the rum blind without knowing what it was – I’d say the Black Tot last Consignment is a very well blended product with excellent complexity and texture.  It has a lot of elements I appreciate in my rums, and if it fails a bit on the back stretch, well, them’s the breaks. I’ll give what I think is a fair score that excludes all factors except how it smells, tastes and makes me feel. Because I have to be honest – it’s a lovely rum, a historical blast from the past, and I don’t regret getting it for a second.

At the end, though, what really made it stand out in my mind, was the pleasure I had in sharing such a piece of rum heritage with my friends.  I have cheaper rums that can do the trick just as easily.  But they just wouldn’t have quite the same cachet. The same sense of gravitas. The overall quality. And that’s what the money is for, too.

Other notes:

I’m aware this review is a bit long. I tend to be that way, get really enthusiastic, when a rum is very old, very pricey or very very good. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one applies here.

Aug 052013
 

D7K_2782

 

Rich, simply flavoured, overproofed Navy-style rum that has a skinnier corpus than expected

(#176. 80/100)

***

There’s nothing much I can tell you about Wood’s Rum Distillery itself because there’s not much online about it (and my books barely speak to the big names so what hope is there for the small ones?), but the brand did exist for over a century before being acquired by William Grant in 2002 – these are the boys who also own Sailor Jerry and the OVD rum brands and supposedly dabble in minor whiskies like Glenfiddich and Balvenie (or so rumour has it). I wish, on the strength of what I tasted here, that I knew more about the company’s origins and how it got into the Navy rum market in days of yore. It’s perhaps kind of appropriate that I bought it at Heathrow, Britain’s largest modern equivalent to the old ports.

The first noticeable, unmistakeable aromas that billowed forth as I cracked the cheap tinfoil cap, were huge, in-your-face biffs of molasses, licorice and coffee. They were deep and dark and rich and had it not been for the rather raw profile overall, I could be forgiven for thinking the rum was an old Demerara from Enmore, or even a Dictador 20 on steroids. Which is not too surprising, because Woods made a rum here which took the characteristic dark pot still distillates from DDL in Guyana (one source suggests some column distillate is used as well, about which I have my doubts, but okay), aged them in oak for up to three years and then bottled the result without gelding the poor thing to 40%…but remained at a chest-hair-curling 57%. Drink this neat and you’ll feel like a hobbit drinking with Treebeard. So good for them, methinks. The intensity remained, the darkness persisted, in any kind of cocktail the tastes stayed true, and frankly, Navy rums should be a tad more oomphed up than the norm, otherwise they wouldn’t (to my mind anyway) be Navy rums.

D7K_2783

What about the taste? Well, pretty much what you would expect, all in all (come on, were you really expecting a swan to emerge from an eighteen-quid duckling?). Woods 100 was a dark red, almost black rum — which had been part of the initial attraction for me — poured inkily into the glass, and when sipped conformed as closely to the anticipated profile as one James Bond movie does to another: spicy, rich, dark melange of flavours promised by the nose. And these were the same molasses, burnt sugar, coffee and licorice overtones, which buried the subtler elements as completely as an alpine avalanche. Sure, I found sly and supple hints of chopped fruits, cinnamon, vanilla, ripe cherries and cashews, but not enough to really stand out…the balance was all towards the dominant notes. The finish was, as befitted an overproof, long and lasting, giving more of the molasses and burnt sugar, quite heated and a shade dry. But, of course, with claws.

It should be pointed out that I felt the rum teetered on the edge of being medium bodied, because it was harsher on the tongue and one the fade than I had anticipated, thinner (perhaps I’ve been spoiled by El Dorados)…there’s an element of rawness to it, a lack of refinement and couth which points to the short maturation. Still, it’s young, it’s brawny, it’s cheap, it’s not like I should expect a miracle: like any young stud, strength is the selling point, not staying power or finnesse.

There are many rums like Wood’s on my shelf, which says a lot for my affections when it comes to sweaty, prole-centric, cane-cutter rums I don’t necessarily sip. Cabot Tower 100, Favell, Young’s Old Sam are the first that spring to mind, but also Robert Watson, some of the old Enmores (better made, older and smoother but not quite as cheerily nutso as this ‘un), Pusser’s or Lamb’s. I’d place this one about on par with the Cabot’s (which scored 78).

D7K_2784

But y’know, Demerara rum seem to be good no matter what, and that is particularly true of the wooden pot still products. Whether they are made to sip and savour (like BBR’s Port Morant 1975 or Bristol Spirits PM 1980) or to get one hammered (all the others named above), they all have that deep, rich fruity molasses note within their variations, and this one stands forward to take its place loudly and proudly (even obnoxiously) among all the others. The fact that many online shop-commentaries resound with the plaudits of ex Royal Navy men who esteem Woods above just about any other Navy rum says all, I think, that needs to be said about this cheerful, powerful, unpretentious cask-strength rum.

 

Other notes

In passing, why name it “100” when it’s actually 114 proof? Well, here I’d refer you to my essay on poofage, but in fine, in the old maritime days, 100 proof was a measure of the least (most diluted) ratio of alcohol to water which would still support the combustion of gunpowder. And that equated to about 57% ABV.

 

 

 

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