Mar 302013
 

 

A spiced Rumzilla. Interesting taste, lacking the cheer and laughter of the 151 proofers, and has nothing of the insane charm of the SMWS Longpond 81.2%

(#135. 75/100)

***

Few “rums” scare me like the Stroh 80 does. It’s like a Tuzemak on steroids, with much of the same obscurely vegetal and spiced choice of flavour profile, boosted by the resident blast bunny to a massive 160 proof that’s as comfortable on the nose and tongue as a prostate exam given by Captain Hook. Stroh’s drone-delivered plastique of an overproof has always has been, to me, as self-aggrandizing as the suicide wings served with waivers I have to sign at my local bar. It is an absurdly large proof driving a rum that is to sophisticated tippling as a sledgehammer is to stone-carving — a tool way too crude to do anything more than destroy everything in its path.

It fails as a sipping rum of course, entirely because of its strength (even though that’s is how I had to try it). In fact, some argue it fails as a rum period, because it’s not made directly from sugar cane juice or molasses. Mixing this rum is not only recommended, but encouraged, because if you have it by itself, it’s a bit like choosing a triple espresso instead of a single latte. It makes your drink just a shade … savage.

The Stroh 80 is a spiced, unaged spirit and not a spiced, aged rum – therein lies something of my disdain for it as a rum. One could reasonably ask what’s the difference, my response being that a rum is not made from sugar beets (as Stroh is reputed to be), is aged (even if only for a year), and Stroh’s lacks anything of the character all rums possess. I mean, observe the nose – after the initial blast of characteristic overproof plastique and plasticine and rubberized fumes dissipate and you recover some of your sanity (and find your nose again), what you’ll get is not caramel or burnt sugar or anything remotely resembling what you may be used to – but cinnamon, root beer, ginger and christmas cake spices, wrapped up in a hellacious burn.

And on the palate, it’s so strong it’s like getting a tattoo done on your tongue with a rusty set of needles by a guy who’s already high on this stuff. Your tongue will numb and turn into pterodactyl hide on the spot and your throat will feel it’s been savaged by a velociraptor. Sure you’ll get strong, amazingly intense sensations of black tea, ginger snaps, Tanti Merle’s christmas spices, some dried fruit (raisins and cherries for the most part), and a blast of cinnamon off the scale. It’s also oddly buttery, creamy, which is kind of interesting, and unusual. You may enjoy this. But at end, the titanic nature of the drink just overwhelms: as I also noted in the SMWS Longpond 9 year old, 160 proof is simply excessive and serves no sane purpose beyond bragging rights (though the Sunset Very Strong 84.5% seemed to have found a way to work around that). The finish is about all I find truly epic, because, like with all overproofs, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, and is surprisingly pain free (perhaps because I had already completed my writhing pain dance and had nothing left to scream about) – it’s heated and so long that one sip did me for ages. I kept thinking I’d been pilfering Santa’s cookies an hour later.

Stroh is an Austrian spirit, made by the Klagenfurt company since 1832, and available in variations ranging from 38% through to 80%. It was probably made from sugar beets deriving from an ethanol base to which spices were added because Austria-Hungary had no tropical colonies of its own to provide the raw stock. I’ve read that currently they use sugar-cane derived ethanol, yet when I was doing the Stroh 54 review some time back, I was advised by a reader that it’s still sugar beet based, so there may be some clarification required here. In any event, Stroh is sold as such and meant primarily as a cocktail ingredient to make Flaming B-52s, jagertee, traditional Austrian pastries, and other strong punches where some oomph is required. And of course, it’s great for chest puffing exercises by all Austrians.

The great thing about rums is that there is a real lack of agreed-upon international standards and classifications (and enforcement of those standard that do exist), and so just about anyone can make something from molasses or sugar cane or what have you, call it a rum, and who is to say different? The really bad thing about rums is that there is a real lack of agreed-upon international standards and classifications (and enforcement of those standard that do exist), and so just about anyone can make something from molasses, sugar cane and what have you, call it a rum, and who is to say different? That’s part of the problem with the 80, which is so far off the scale that all the unprepared can do is shudder, retch yesterday’s breakfast onto the dog, and reach for the Doorly’s. Stroh’s – probably feeling they wanted to take the crown of the overproofs – distilled a drink for the Junkers class as a test for their manhood, meant to render any besoffner comatose on the spot.

What do I think on balance? Well, I sure wouldn’t drink this sucker neat for anything except to write this review: it could be weaponized with too little additional effort. On the other hand, I do like that creamy, spiced up profile for its uniqueness, yes; and the finish is biblical. And to be fair, Stroh’s is quite clear that they don’t make this as a sipping, er, rum. But if you’re feeling like you need to impress the fraulein over in the ecke, and try drinking it that way, be warned: Stroh 80 really does dislike you, does not want to be taken solo, and it will hurt you. My recommendation is simply to leave it in the punch bowl for which it was made, and not risk damage to your liver by guzzling it on its own.

**

Mar 272013
 

 

A gentle, easygoing underproof rum-wannabe. There’s nothing really outstanding about it, and it’s too weak to appeal to me personally: like other Asian rums, however, it does have a taste all its own, and for those who don’t like forty-or-greater percenters, this one will satisfy.

(#108. 74/100)

***

Is this a rum at all? Liquorature is littered with comments from both the purists (who disdain any additions) and the tolerant (who don’t mind), and the bone of contention between them is always the same: can a spirit be made from less than 100% cane juice, with additives for taste and profile, and still call itself an inheritor of the seafaring tradition and swishing cutlasses — a rum?

The first real lightning rod for this discussion came from the Tanduay 12 year old rum, and here is another one that is sure to reopen that argument, because the Mekhong product, named for the river running along the Thai border, clearly and boldly states its antecedents front and center: 95% cane extract, 5% from rice, plus caramel and a “secret” recipe of herbs and spices. And also – nowhere does it say it is anything but a spirit…Mekhong lays no claim to being a rum at all. So what I’m going to do is simply make these facts known, and place the rum (yes, I will call it that) in the same league as the Tuzemak and the Tanduay. Decent products, nice taste, no other place to categorize ‘em, welcome to the rum family.

Mekhong as a whole doesn’t really impress me, in spite of a few features that are a cut above average. The bottle is undistinguished, with a lurid red and yellow label that is sure to catch your attention in the local rum shelf. Tinfoil cap, standard bottle, nothing special here, unless it’s the clear statement of ingredients that El Kapitan so likes to see. Knowing his predilection for rums to be rums, I think I’ll pre-empt him and say flat out that a lot of people will not consider this to be one, not just because it’s not 100% cane juice or molasses, and also because of all the extras, but mostly because the makers themselves don’t.

As a 35% likker, I didn’t expect much, and I didn’t get much: on the nose it was a shade musty, with herbal and grassy notes (I felt I was in a tropical jungle glade, to be honest), and additional hints of vanilla.  As befitted an underproof, it was soft and easy and made no demands.  Quite gentle, actually.

The arrival was along similar lines.  One might almost say it was lazy: soft and sweet and slow to come forth, with vanilla, caramel, dark sugar and that herbal, grassy note taking something of the edge there spirit(and nicely so).  I think I noted some ginger, maybe citrus, but these were backseat drivers, not the equivalent of my wife’s more in-your-face front-seat aggro.  As for the fade, well, it faded.  There was nothing there to really speak of…what little there was hinted of nuts and more vanilla, but I’d be lying if I said I was anything but indifferent about it.  See, this is where the 35% works against the spirit: as a gentle cocktail mixer (which is how many drink it) with delicate tropical ingredients, it’ll probably work – as a sipper in its own right, it’s…well, it’s a shade wussy.  Keep in mind though, I’m used to stuff north of 40% (including the Lemon Hart 151 which was a gobsmacking 75.5%), so your mileage, depending on what you like, may vary. No offense to the Thais, but West Indian would probably snicker a little at this one.

Mekhong Thai spirit is a product of the Bangyikhan distillery located on the outskirts of Bangkok, and is Thailand’d first domestically produced (and branded) spirit, first created in 1941. It had its origin with James Honzatko, who was an avid brewer and eventually began producing his favourite whisky on a large scale. After Honzatko’s death, his close friend Peter Sawer took over the brewing of Mekhong and was ultimately responsible for its mass production. It’s an interesting point that Mekhong is marketed in Asia as a whiskey even if the label doesn’t say so, but it is of course nothing of the kind (so relax, Maltmonster). The distillery itself goes back a lot further, however: Bangyikhan considers itself Thailand’s first distillery, constructed in 1786 by King Buddha Yodfah Chulaloke at the mouth of the Klong Bangyikhan Canal, the canal eventually lending its name to the distillery. It was owned at various times by different parts of the Thai government, until 1957 when the private sector began taking over. In 2000, it was acquired by the Thai Beverage Company.

It may simply be an Asian thing, but rums don’t seem to be a drink of the region the way whiskies are identified with Scotland, gins with the english, vodka with the Russians or rums with the Caribbean.  That’s unfortunate, since the sugar cane grasses originated in that region and you’d expect they’d be going great guns there.  However, given the startling originality (I didn’t say I liked it) of the Australian Bundie, the overall solidity of the Phillipine Tanduay and the impressive quality of the Indian Old Port, I know the expertise and quality is there.  Here’s to hoping that the Thais spread out and go for stronger, more distinctive spirits that can really be called rums….I for one will certainly be buying if they do.

 

Mar 262013
 

First posted 11 July 2011 on Liquorature and the Rum Connection

(#080)

***

This review first appeared in two parts on the Rum Connection website, here.  It is reposted here with minor corrections and amendments. It’s a bit of a rant, I’m afraid, and somewhat overlong…it speaks to my disappointment in what has been touted as an ultra-premium, but isn’t.

I enjoy the Pyrat’s XO rum about as much as I do the leisurely explorations of my favourite proctologist: the thing is a perennial dust-gatherer on my shelf, and I finally traded it away to the Arctic Wolf in Edmonton. And when one considers the abysmal regard I have for its enormous tangerine nose, one could reasonably ask what business I had shelling out four times as much to buy the brand’s top-end product, the Cask 1623.  Truth is, it was like a splinter lodged in my mind for over a year, and no matter how many times I passed it squatting smugly there behind a glass case, I could never get rid of the impression it was sneering at me and calling me a puling, whining cheapskate.  So the other day when I had some disposable income, I finally said to hell with it, and got ‘er.

Pyrat’s is a product of the Anguilla Rums company.  This is an establishment with its own origin story (whether true or not, it’s still fun reading) regarding a travelling seaman called CJ Planter who fell in love with an island girl who may have been the illegitimate daughter of a plantation owner and a local lady who dabbled in witchcraft.  CJ eventually began a rum-making concern which, it must be emphasized, did not create rums from scratch, but blended rums from elsewhere (which continues today – I imagine this is because Anguilla, a beautiful but tiny speck in the Caribbean which if you sneezed at the wrong time you’d miss as you flew over it, lacks the resources to have full blown sugar cane plantations on the available land).  Subsequent digging suggests that the Pyrat brand is actually owned by a Nevada outfit called the Patron Spirits Company, and they have a line of spirits products that extends from Patron tequila, to Ultimat vodka, to liqueurs, and rums. So do they own the Anguilla company?  Don’t know…probably they are acting as marketing and distribution agents for the factory, which, as  Ed Hamilton of the Ministry of Rum notes, was shut down in 2010. Note that the rum is now made from DDL’s rum stock from Guyana, and given the shutdown in Anguilla, it’s very likely that the blending takes place in Guyana as well (I was not able to definitely confirm this beyond the anecdotal, but Arctic told me they definitely bottle it there, so it seems reasonable).

Be that as it may, I must commend them for the mere look of the package.  I’m a sucker for a good presentation; it’s part of the overall aesthetic, I argue, much to the disgust of the various maltsters of my acquaintance, who refuse to be sidetracked by such mundane matters and make no bones about chucking wrapper, box and bunting as soon as they buy a bottle of anything. Here, Pyrat’s delivers, and this is as it should be for a self-annointed “ultra-premium” rum costing north of two hundred bucks. The hand blown bottle is encased in a wooden box (the Pyrat homepage says cedar, but I notice one reviewer says walnut, and from the lack of an aroma, walnut is my take also), and around its neck is a medallion with the patron saint of fortune tellers and bartenders, Hoti.  And there’s a hand lettered label signed by the master blender.  Pretty cool.

The rum is a dark amber colour, and has a heavy look to it. The cork is a real cork, no extras or plastic anything. And as soon as I opened the stopper, I knew I’d been had. Well, perhaps not – perhaps I’d allowed myself to be had in my eagerness to try something new at the supposed top end of the scale. The nose wafted out and it was immediately clear that customers of the XO had written in and started a campaign to assure Pyrat’s that the citrus they had sensed in the XO — the very thing I had disliked so much about it – was for wussies and they demanded something with just as much or more orange heft: and Pyrat’s complied.  Open the botle and the waft of an orange grove comes right at you.

There’s a sullen, sulky heaviness to it when it pours into your glass that reminds you of a lighter-coloured El Dorado – and the legs were relatively slow and fat as they slid down the sides, so that part was good. But nosing it was about as subtle as the grapefruit scene with Mae Clark in 1931’s “Public Enemy”.  Yes, I got vanilla (and I had to strain for that); yes there were subtler hints of cherries and flowers here (more strain), under which moved the darker scent of burnt brown sugar – but there was nothing overly dramatic that grabbed my snoot, no I-see-Vishnu moment, no heavenly chorus of angel who should attend the opening of such a purportedly premium product. What was self evident was, as I’ve noted, that damned scent.

The citrus background was more muted than in the XO, but still far too prevalent and bashed the others into a sort of torpid insensibility – it’s like an orange Chuck Norris came through the joint, belted out a roundhouse kick to the face, and all the other smells fell down, twitching feebly.

***

The palate?  No redemption, I’m afraid, and by now I was wondering – what the hell was going on? Did some disgruntled vet pop a few hundred rinds into the still? The liquid was thicker and oilier than other rums I’ve tried, and coated the tongue like it wanted to be a delivery system for a few fascinating flavours the master blender had pulled out of his hat; there was a sweet and lasting flavor, but what the hell was it? A liqueur?

I was tasting a smoothly sweetish spirit and a commingled taste of various almost impossible-to-discern elements dominated by orange marmalade flavor.  Again I got the annoyingly faint background tastes the nose had hinted at, without any of them having the courage to tek front and show us who was boss. The floral scents dimmed more than shimmered, the caramel-molasses and burnt sugar taste faded almost entirely, and what I was left with was something that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be…too sweet for a rum, not complex enough for a high-end. Excuse me fellas. I thought there was supposed to be rums here. This was what two hundred drops of my sweat had bought?

And don’t believe I was entirely mollified by the excellent fade, the only thing I don’t have a whinge about. The 1623 goes down very well, without serious burn or scratch, and even a non-rum-drinker might like that part: my 72 year old father-in-law took a sniff, smacked his gums, sipped it down and allowed it may even eclipse the standard Russian rotgut he preferred (talk about damning with faint praise there), while observing it had too much sugar, as if I should shoot off to Anguilla immediately and take them to task about the matter. In fact, I did send an email down there (and to Patron) asking about the taste and the sugar, which has thus far remained unanswered.

Pyrat’s Cask 1623, also known as Cask 23 for people who can’t be bothered to write the whole thing, is a blend of rums aged up to 40 years.  Note the careful phrasing on the Pyrat website: “We distill the dark amber spirit in limited quantities, ageing its smooth distinctive blend of premium Caribbean rums in oak barrels for up to 40 years.” What that means to me is that the oldest rum in the blend is 40 years old (not the youngest) and there’s no information regarding what proportion is that old.  About all I’ve read online is that the average age of the blends of pot-still and column-still rums that make the 1623, is 23 years. Even the barrels are a bit dodgy – I’ve heard of the usual bourbon barrels, of course, and rumours of barrels that once held orange liqueur. So maybe that’s what it is. Caveat Emptor.

Honesty compels me to note that Pyrat’s 1623 won the 2007 Ministry of Rum tasting competition, but speaking for this puppy, I can only wonder how on earth that happened. Let me put it to you this way: if you were handing out prizes for distinctiveness, then Bundie, Old Port, Pyrat’s XO and maybe Legendario would come out top – you could taste them blind and know what you were getting because they are so unique in taste, so different: but that difference does not translate into real quality, and frankly, I think Pyrat’s is teetering on the edge of not being a rum at all, what with all that extra stuff they must be chucking into the ageing barrels with such languid insouciance.

So there we have it. Unimpressive.  I know I sound a little miffed, perhaps even a shade snarky. But I’m feeling let down, more than a little annoyed.  Actually, I’m plenty mad.  This rum is such a disappointment – it’s a forty dollar rum in a hundred dollar package, selling for two hundred.  Some might argue that I like the sugar-caramel-molasses taste in my rums, and just as I like that taste, so there are others out there who prefer peats, and others who will like orange or sherry or what have you.  No harm no foul.  Yet, I disagree: the whole selling point of Islay whiskies is that unmistakeable peatiness; with rums it’s the core of caramel and burnt sugar enhanced by the varying notes imparted by climate (Bundie or Old Port spring to mind immediately), distillation techniques, ageing and the barrels used.  In the top end of rums, there is an underlying harmony, a sort of zen marriage of all good things that come together like a Porsche 911 GT3.  Sure it blasts off with you, but in a good way. All is in balance. You don’t mind getting your faced ripped off at 6500 rpm and 200mph because you are utterly ensorcelled by the sheer unbridled harmony of the components meshing together like they were lubricated in distilled angels’ tears.

And that’s not the case here. We’ve been sold on a marketing gimmick. We’ve been fed on rarity, a carefully parsed age statement, and price (and a really odd dearth of online reviews I have difficulty comprehending – what, has no-one tasted this thing?). When I tried the English Harbour 1981, the Appleton 30 and Master’s Blend, the El Dorado 21 and 25, the G&M Longpond 1941, I could taste the underlying structural complexity and efforts to both smoothen and balance off the competing flavours.  Here, we have an inexplicable central taste of citrus that advertises its ego from the get go, practically drowns out all other flavours, and to my mind is only marginally redeemed by an extraordinary smoothness.  Ultra-premium? Yeah, it’s about as ultra-premium as a garage sale with one good item in it.

For a rum this expensive and positioning itself at the top of the rum chain, I’d suggest that they stop messing about with the Hoti medallion…and replace it with one that bears the imprint of the patron saint of shell games and snake oil sellers.

 

Mar 262013
 

Whaler’s Rare Dark Reserve Rum is all characteristics and no character: smell without nose, burn without body and aggressiveness bordering on the obnoxious without actually delivering on any of the promises it makes.  Don’t let the tempting scent fool you.  That’s most of what you’re gonna be getting.

(First posted 11th December 2010)

(#058. 71/100)

***

Whaler’s Rare Reserve Dark rum is not, as its advertising might imply, made in Hawaii.  Its website certainly suggests the connection by touting the traditional recipe used by whalers in the old days, copied from native islanders’ own rum production on Maui and perhaps infused with vanilla beans once used to rattle around in bottles, meant to entice whales to come closer. An amusing tale which may even be true. Be that as it may, the rum takes its name from the hardy sailors who once plied the Pacific searching for the whales to decimate and made rum on the side when stopping for R&R in the islands.

For a bottle costing less than $25, you can’t expect too much, and indeed, it doesn’t deliver too much.  In that sense, it is not like the Tanduay, an undiscovered steal: it’s just a low level adulterated rum made from neutral spirits.  What makes it stand out from the crowd is a nose of real, if simple, power.  Open this bottle and just let it stand there: it’s like somebody let off a butterscotch bomb in the room (and lest you think I’m exaggerating, I tasted this with a group of Scotiabank employees, and one of them smelled it twenty feet away in less than threee seconds…before I poured a single glass). I have gradually been corrupted into using a glencairn glass, but truth is, you don’t need something snooty for Whaler’s – what you really need is a gas mask to filter the thing out.

The darkness of Whaler’s is, I concede, appealing, and it sports a medium body (I expected something heavier and richer from that colour, but no…).  In the glass it sports thin legs, and that is where this kind of test proves its worth.  Consider: a strong, overpowering nose of butterscotch and vanilla through which you can dimly and imperfectly sense caramel and some sugar and pretty much nothing else.  A body that stings and burns and delivers that taste…and nothing else.  A finish that is short and thin and stings (not much, but that’s me damning it with faint praise)…and nothing else.  I’ve heard and read of rum lovers discussing “hollow” rums, which have all promise and no delivery – this is the first one I’ve ever tried.

What Whalers really is, when all is said and done and drunk, is a flavoured, spiced rum.  Not even fancy herbal stuff like, oh, the Tuzemak, or even Captain Morgan – those two have the balls to put their money where their advertisements are and don’t have airy pretensions to more than that – but just a bucketload of caramel, vanilla and butterscotch flavouring poured into some 40% rum. As a low level mixer this will be okay, I guess.  As a sipper it fails, utterly, unless you’re after a harsh liqueur of some kind, or a cocktail base.  I know I’m not, but if you are, I’d suggest a coke zero or some other non-sweet mixer: this thing is too sugary by half already and doesn’t need any further embellishment.

 

An editorial note:

Heaven Hill distillery from Bardstown, Kentucky may be the harbinger of an accelerating trend: that of larger distillers diversifying their entire portfolios and producing more than just the spirits that once made their name.  Bacardi has stuck with rums (and has one at every price point except the stratosphere) as has J. Wray & Nephew, but research I’ve done on Tanduay, Banks DIH, DDL and of course Diageo shows that these big guns (among others) are producing vodkas, tequilas, gins, whiskies, liqueurs and just about everything else north of 30% ABV.  Even Bruichladdich and Cadenhead are now experimenting with rums as opposed to straight whisky production. And here is the Whaler’s Distilling Company, a subsidiary of Heaven Hill, producing rums in Bourbon country.

In fairness, that’s the way companies survive, by innovation and adaptation to a marketplace where drinking preferences are all over the map and changing in a heartbeat at the dictates of fashion; quality control is better and modern technologies are consistently employed for a taste that is the same bottle to bottle: none of that hit and miss approach that characterizes tiny operations making rum for local consumption on small islands. But I still kind of regret the passage from the uniqueness of such tightly focused distilleries to something more impersonal.

Mar 242013
 

First posted 26 November 2010 on Liquorature.

Herbal, different and like few other rums (we’ll be generous with the term) ever made; will add variety to cocktails and cheer to any Czechs you booze with, but my take is to exercise care when you have it neat.

(#050. 73/100)

***

We must establish from the outset that all labeling to the contrary, Tuzemak is not a rum.  This is because it is made from potatoes (some travel bloggers and websites say beets, so I’m still trying to find out which), not sugar cane, and while you might find it in the rum section, it’s simply because the Czech manufacturers have in the past included colouring and taste additives to make it more like a real rum, and called it as such.  I’m no fan of over-regulation, and the EU has whole warehouses crammed floor to ceiling with them, but in this case their ruling that to be classified and sold as rum in Europe, the thing can’t be made from pommes-de-terre, finds much favor with me.

Which is not to say I actually despise the drink I bought on a whim at willow Park the other day (my curiosity and nosiness will be the undoing of me one day, I fear). As a confirmed internationalist and pretender to cosmopolitanism, I try to take a more tolerant view of differences, and if this thing more or less looks like a brown drink, tastes sweeter than whisky and smells a bit like the good stuff, while being trumpeted as a rum in Czechoslovakia even though they have been forbidden to do so…well, I’m not averse to taking it at face value (The Last Hippie, who refuses to concede that there is any other whisky than the Scotch kind even as he snootily reviews what he terms “lesser offerings” in an effort to call himself fair, would probably be horrified at my laissez-faire attitude, but them’s the breaks).

Tuzemak actually means “domestic” in Czech, and simply refers to its down home origins (not a maid).  Previously called Tuzemsky rum, it is, like Stroh’s, something of a local institution, and made with an old, supposedly traditional recipe. Czechs are great beer drinkers, but they do like hard stuff as well: aside from the rum, there is both slivovice (a kind of plum brandy) and Becherovka, (a herbal 38% liqueur). This one seems to take the best part of tose and creates a drink for the people who never have drinks…just a drink, and then another drink and then…

Enough temporizing, then: what’s the story on the rum?

On the nose, it’s not too shabby. It’s a little pungent, a shade sharp, but as it settles, wafts of vanilla billow gently into your nose without too much sting or burn.  There is a very slight medicinal undertone that kind of spoils the taste, but not so much as to seriously detract from the overall quality, just to show it’s not an aged product.  What kind of blend it is – that is to say, what’s in it or how many differing ingredients there are – I cannot say. There’s too little information available.

The palate continues enhancing what the nose promised.  As one tastes, the vanilla becomes more pronouced, keeping in step with a gradually increasing floral note, some kind of herbs (similar to the Stroh 54) and a faint liquorice hint that blends pretty well into the overall balance.  It’s like a light sweet semi dry cognac, and for once I do not mean this in a bad way. It’s young and a little rambunctious, not too sophisticated…yet nice too, even as a low end sipper. The finish is short and dry and without serious sting or burn, the warm breath of the fumes come up the back of your throat and linger gently before dissipating

In summary, I think this is a very workmanlike entry to the genre.  I’d drink it neat, yes; but it makes a phenomenally different and pleasurable mixer too, largely due to its unusual herbal properties which give even that old faithful, the rum and coke, a uniquely different perspective.  Remember how I despised the plasticine taste of the Stroh 54?  This delectable local tipple from middle Europe avoids the pitfalls of that overproof, and is a decent rum, an interesting sipping tipple and something that I’d recommend for any who want to try something a little off the reservation.

Na zdravi!

***

Mar 242013
 

First posted 30th August 2010 on Liquorature.

(#034)(Unscored)

***

When I was discoursing about rums with a Calgary Co-op liquor sales manager (in my normal sneering way, and for the usual reason), I asked about this odd little label from Austria, because, with my penetrating insight and encyclopedic knowledge, I was aware that Austria didn’t have any canefields  — Andrea from the cashier’s till was called over, and noted flatly (in that no-nonsense way that people use to inform you they know the Truth even if you’re too ignorant to), that she’d had them all, tried the lot, was Austrian into the bargain on her mother’s side, and Stroh was quite simply the best spiced rum in the world, bar none (except perhaps another Stroh). Abashed into silence and trembling meekness at this powerful and unambiguous endorsement and the fierce look of “Agree with me if you want to live,” I tried to recover my backbone from the yellow paint in which it was soaking, and bought the bottle.

This illustrates the sad state to which us rum lovers have been forced into, in this whisky loving city: we’re so desperate to try something new, that we are pitifully grateful for any new rum that passes through the local shops.  Not the low or mid range from an established maker, but something genuinely new. I ruefully concede that Stroh’s meets every criteria except one: I’m not entirely convinced it actually is a rum.  Oh, it says it is, and it has the suitable origin in sugar cane by-products, whatever those might be (originally it was made from a diluted ethanol base), but note I don’t say sugar cane juice, or molasses. The problem was that when Sebastian Stroh started making this little concoction in Klagenfurt in the early 1830s, Austria was not participating in the scramble for Africa (or anywhere else), and thus lacked tropical colonies from where they could get the raw materials.  So he added his own spices and flavour and additives in order to make an ersatz molasses taste, and created a domestic rum which eventually became something of a national tipple.  Can’t fault the Europeans for trying to make a good likker, I suppose: I just wish they wouldn’t pretend this was the real McCoy.

Stroh’s is made in several varieties: the 80% variation (who the hell would drink this firewater, honestly?), 60%, 40%…I had bought what I thought was the tamer 54% version which apparently is the most popular (I expect outraged posts stating that this is the wimpy stuff and how real men drink the 80%), and was the only bottle for sale anyway. At half a litre for $35, that’s a mid-ranger, and in spite of my doubt regarding overproofs (what’s the point, beyond cooking, creating cocktails, making college freshmen drunk faster or simply causing pain?), it did, as new rums usually do, intrigue me.  Curiosity, I fear, will be the end of me one of these days, no matter how careful I am.

Good thing I was cautious.  Scarfing Keenan’s excellent brunch the next day, I cracked the bottle and I swear the alcohol wanted to strangle me right on the spot.  I’ve had some unique and aggressive rums in my day (Bundie and Pyrat’s to start), but this took distinctiveness to a whole new level.  The smell on this thing was like – and I swear this is true – plasticine. I thought for a moment I had entered a time warp and was back in primary school dicking around with play-do. The assault on my nose was so swift and savage that I shuddered, avoided Keenan’s smirking eyes, and poured a shot at arm’s length over ice: The Hippie complains that ice closes up a drink when one should leave it open, but the poor man is a fan of civilized whisky for retired country gents and has never been boinked over the head and had his nose speared by this raging Austrian drink.  You could make out some cinnamon notes and a hint of ginger when your schnozz was reluctantly returned to you, but the truth was that I thought this a vile, underspiced and overstrength drink that should under no circumstances be had “just so.”  Forget the ice.  Forget nosing, smelling, checking for legs or anything fancy. Drown this one in cola, in sprite, in juice or anything else, and quickly.  But I must make this observation: in a cola (a lot of cola), Stroh’s tastes like a damned ginger ale. Plasticine flavoured ginger ale that gives you a buzz. Weirdest thing. Not entirely a loss, therefore.

Of course, it was only later, doing my research and putting my notes together, that I read it was supposed to be used as a cooking ingredient for cakes and rumballs, as a cocktail base and a mixer with other things to produce smoother drinks of some power (like the B52).  It’s not a drink to be had neat (sure…now they tell me). Well, maybe.  Rums do have this thing about being equal part sippers and equal part mixers, and their plebian origins make it difficult to distinguish which is which, sometimes. I’ll be the first to concede that as an overproof rum, Stroh – any one of the overproof offerings – is not for the meek and mild or those who haven’t seen “300” at least five times.  Stroh’s is a hairy friggin’ barbarian of a drink, a dirty, nasty, screaming crazy, wielding a murderous nose-axe meant to do you serious harm and destroy your sight.  It’s one of the most distinctive liquors I’ve ever had, and while I may not like it much, I ruefully laugh as I recall my encounter with it, will give it due respect and a wide berth from here on in.  Austrians, other Europeans and Andrea are welcome to have it and enjoy it (although, what the hell, I still have to finish my bottle so Ill probably go back to be bashed around a bit one of these days when I’m in a masochistic mood), and if I have one in my house one day, I’ll serve it to him (along with the Coruba).

But I gotta tell you: I don’t care what they call it, or what its antecedents are – a rum, this one really is not.

Mar 242013
 

 

First posted 27 June 2010 on Liquorature.

(#027)(Unscored)

Overproofed, overpriced, overrated.

***

Kraken Black — the selection for the June 2010 Book Club session — is a victory of advertising over the reality of what it is, of style over substance for those who are ok with it, a low-to-middling value (~$28 Can) wrapped up in a presentation that would have you believe the price is an undiscovered steal.  A lot of people are going to drink this thing, wax loquacious at the spice, admire the darkness and say “wow!” I’m afraid, though, that’s just knee-jerk, because you take Kraken apart, and it just can’t live up to the hype.

Fair is fair: I liked the bottle, and the presentation was cool. I enjoyed seeing a rum with the stones to put a mythological creature that’s created to do a Godzilla on  ancient Greece right there front and center. The small handles I thought were affectations, but hearkened back to old seafaring days, so what the hell: points for that.  Points also for that inky black swirling rum which is by far the darkest I’ve ever seen, and therefore for sheer originality, this rum sitting on a shelf is sure to get your attention.

The rum sits in the glass and soaks up the light, letting just some dark brownish red glints through – decent middling legs, nothing special. It’s a blend, this one, a new addition to the market (Proximo Spirits from NY, which also markets Matusalem, distributes this), and bottled at 94 proof…47%  ABV. And it supposedly has something like eighteen different spices added to it.

The nose is problematic – caramel had to be added to get the colour this dark and that comes through, but so does, vanilla and toffee and chocolate…and a medicinal odour remniscent of cough medicine that is both jarring and unwelcome, and no, I do not attribute it to the 47%. Even a Glencairn glass the Hippie provided could not save the schnozz from being skewered by that hospital reek.

The taste is better. The caramel is not dominating, and lets other flavours like licorice, cinnamon and maybe nutmeg through, but for the most part all I got is a musky cloying taste of too much molasses left in (and that weird chocolate texture) that destroyed the fine balance a spiced rum needs. But I must make note of this: for a 47% rum, it’s damned smooth going down, and so I think a lot of people are going to love this rum in spite of the cough medicine taste that persists and just ruins the whole thing for me. The finish goes on for longer than expected (a definite plus) but what it does is permit the very things you don’t like to persist.

My suspicions are that with the recent resurgence of interest and popularity in quality rums, a lot of lesser wares are flooding the market in an effort to mine the vein. Nothing else explains why so many American and Canadian companies are buying all these Caribbean raw stocks and blending and distributing the results themselves (not always to the benefit of our palates, alas). When Bruichladdich, Cadenhead or A.D. Rattray put their resources and acknowledged street cred behind a rum, I’ll acknowledge the effort and result, but I can’t yet give the same cachet to the (supposedly Angostura-owned) Lawrenceburg distillery in Indiana, sorry.

So I’ve said it fails for me, but fails as what? As a sipper or a mixer? As a sipper, yes but not by as much as you’d think: it’s smooth enough and intriguing enough – cough syrup crap taste aside — for me to not to mark it below the Young’s Old Sam, or Bundie or the Coruba: though none of these has pretensions to grandeur the way the Kraken does, and if you doubt me, just compare the websites and the forum chatter among all these.  As a mixer I have to be more careful – remember, the purpose of the mix is to either fill the weaknesses of the rum, enhance the diluter, or create a synthesis of rum and additive(s) which is greater (and weaker) than the sum of its parts. Put like that, this rum shows its dichotomy and in trying to be both cocktail and sipper, pleases neither. It’s too spiced, too medicinal – too cloying –  to work well as a mixer, for coke, ginger ale or others.

And so my recommendation would simply echo old Zeus, call in Harryhausen, and issue the command to (what else?)  — release the Kraken.