Aug 302020
 

Rumaniacs Review #120 | 0757

Each of the 1931 series has some sort of tweak, a point of uniqueness or interest, to make it stand out. The first two, in my estimation at least, were fairly conservative pot-column blending experiments (but very well done). The Third Edition added some sugar to a blend of all four stills and upped the complexity some. By the time they got to 2014, it was clear there was a gleeful maniac running free and unsupervised in the blending area, and he used a bit of just about everything he had in the lab (including agricole rhum, the first made from sugar cane juice at SLD since the 1930s), in an effort to create the ultimate complex blend that only a 9-Dan Master Blender from some insanely intricate solera system could possibly unravel. But oh man, what he created was stunning for a rum bottled at such a quiet 43%.

Brief background: there are six releases of the 1931 rums, one per year between 2011 and 2016, each with its blend of aged pot and column still distillates. In 2017 the 1931 moniker was folded into the Chairman’s Reserve part of the portfolio and it effectively ceased production as a brand in its own right. For the historically minded, the “1931” refers to the year when the Barnard family’s Mabouya Distillery was founded near Dennery – it merged with the Geest family’s Roseau distillery in 1972 to create the modern St Lucia Distillers.

Once again, the St. Lucia distillers site gives zero info on the blend, but direct communication with them provided everything we might want. The blend breakdown is below the tasting notes, and I should note a smidgen of sugar (about 4-6 g/L according to Mike Speakman, who also provided the breakdown). 

Colour – Gold

Strength – 43%

Nose – Damn, but here, the brine and licorice notes are so distinct it’s almost sweaty. Brine and olives, salty caramel ice cream, some vanilla.  Honey, leather, some smoke, molasses-soaked brown sugar.  I particularly liked the light twist of lime and mint which offset thicker aromas of bananas and peaches. 

Palate – The balance of the various flavours permeating this thing s really very good.  The tart acidity of sour cream and fruit melds deliciously with softer, creamier flavours — think lemon meringue pie but with bags more apricots, peaches, green grapes, lime and apples. The salt caramel and molasses is present but unobtrusive, and while the agricole element remains faint, it is there, and maybe just shy. A flirt of vanilla and aromatic tobacco round off a very satisfying profile.

Finish – Shortish, mostly vanilla, lemon zest, light chocolate, and whipped cream.

Thoughts – Whoever made this blend is a genius.  Of the six St. Lucians I had on the go that day, only one eclipsed it (and not by much).  It’s admirable and amazing how much flavour got stuffed into a rum released at a strength that too often is seen as its own disqualifier. I can’t speak for the 1931 #5 and #6, but of the first four, this is, for me, undoubtedly the best.

(86/100)


The components of this blend are as follows:

89% molasses-based.

46% Column still, of which:

  • 6% Aged 11 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 9% Aged 9 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 9% Aged 7 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 9% Aged 9 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 7% Aged 7 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 3% Aged 9 years (Port cask)
  • 3% Aged 9 years (Port cask)

11% from a Pot/Column blend:

  • 50% from John Dore 1. Aged for 10 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 50% from a Column still. Aged for 10 years (Bourbon cask)

32% from a pot still of which:

  • 13% Aged for 15 years, from John Dore 1 (Bourbon cask)
  • 5% Aged for 9 years, from John Dore 2 (Bourbon cask)
  • 7% Aged for 10 years, from Vendome (Bourbon cask)
  • 7% Aged for 9 years, from John Dore 1 & Vendome (50% each) (Bourbon cask)

11% Sugar cane juice based (Agricultural rhum).

  • Aged for 6 years from John Dore pot still (Bourbon cask)

Summary of blend

  • 13% Aged for 15 years
  • 6% Aged for 11 years
  • 18% Aged for 10 years
  • 36% Aged for 9 years
  • 16% Aged for 7 years
  • 11% Aged for 6 years.
  • 94% aged in Bourbon casks
  • 6% aged in Port casks.
  • 51.5% Column Still
  • 33.0% Pot Still John Dore 1
  •   5.0% Pot Still John Dore 2
  • 10.5% Pot Still Vendome

The six editions of the range are colour coded and reviewed as follows:

  • 2011 1st edition – pale yellow [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2012 2nd edition – lavender [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2013 3rd edition – turquoise [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2014 4th edition – black [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2015 5th edition – magenta [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2016 6th edition – coral [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]

A complete flight of all six at once was done and written about by Phil Kellow of the Australian blog Philthy Rum in 2018. 

Aug 262020
 

Rumaniacs Review #119 | 0756

It’s important that we keep in mind the characteristics and backstories of these St. Lucian rums, even if they were discontinued within the memory of just about everyone reading this.  And that’s because I feel that before we turn around twice, another ten years will have passed and it’ll be 2030, and sure as anything, someone new to rum will pipe up and ask “What were they?” And I don’t want us all to mourn and bewail, then, the fact that nobody ever took notes or wrote sh*t down just because “wuz jus’ de odder day, mon, so is why you tekkin’ worries?” That’s how things get lost and forgotten.

That said, no lengthy introduction is needed for the 1931 series of rums released by St. Lucia Distilleries. There are six releases, one per year between 2011 and 2016, each with its unique and complex blend of pot and column still distillate, and each with that blend and their ages tweaked a bit. In 2017 the 1931 moniker was folded into the Chairman’s Reserve part of the portfolio and it effectively ceased production as a brand in its own right. For the historically minded, the “1931” refers to the year when the Barnard family’s Mabouya Distillery was founded near Dennery – it merged with the Geest family’s Roseau distillery in 1972 to create the modern St Lucia Distillers.

A different level of information is available for the blend contained in this one versus others: in short, the St. Lucia distillers site gives us zero. Which is peculiar to say the least, since the 3rd Edition is quite interesting. For one, it’s a blend of rums from all the stills they have – the Vendome pot still, the two John Dore pot stills and the the continuous coffey still, all aged individually in American oak for 6-12 years. However, nowhere is the age mentioned, and that appears to be a deliberate choice, to focus attention on the drinking experience, and not get all caught up in numbers(so I’ve been told). And, in a one-off departure which was never repeated, they deliberately added 12g/L of sugar (or something) to the rum, probably in a “Let’s see how this plays” moment of weakness (or curiosity). 

Colour – Dark gold

Strength – 43%

Nose – Rather dry, briny with a sharp snap of cold ginger ale (like Canada Dry, perhaps).  Then a succession of fruits appear – oranges, kiwi fruits, black grapes – plus licorice and some molasses.  Reminds me somewhat of Silver Seal’s St. Lucia dennery Special Reserve. Some sawdust and wet wood chips, quite pungent and with a nice dark citrus though-line, like oranges on the edge of going off.

Palate – Ginger again, licorice, citrus peel, molasses, vanilla and a chocolate cake, yummy.  Fruits take a step back here – there’s some kiwi and grapes again, not strong, lemon meringue pie, bubble gum and tinned fruit syrup.  Also a trace of vegetable soup (or at least something spicily briny), bolted to an overall creamy mouthfeel that is quite pleasing.

Finish – Sums up the preceding.  Ginger cookies, cereal, fruits, rather short but very tasty

Thoughts – It’s better than the 2nd Edition, I’d say, and tasted blind it’s hard to even say they’re branches off the same tree. A completely well done, professionally made piece of work.

(83/100)


The six editions of the range are colour coded and reviewed as follows:

  • 2011 1st edition – pale yellow [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2012 2nd edition – lavender [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2013 3rd edition – turquoise [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2014 4th edition – black [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2015 5th edition – magenta [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2016 6th edition – coral [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]

A complete flight of all six at once was done and written about by Phil Kellow of the Australian blog Philthy Rum in 2018.

Aug 232020
 

Rumaniacs Review #118 | 0755

It’s been years since I sipped at the well of a “1931” St. Lucian rum – at that time the 2011 First Edition was all that was available and I gave it a decent write up (I liked it) and moved on to the Admiral Rodney, Chairman’s Reserve and other products the company made. However, I never lost my interest in the range and over the years gradually picked up more here and there, with a view to one day adding them to the Key Rums of the World as a set: but since they are limited and no longer very available commercially (and may even be slowly forgotten), the Rumaniacs is where they will have to rest.

There are six releases of the “1931” series, one per year between 2011 and 2016, each with a different coloured label, each with its blend of pot and column still distillate, and their ages, tweaked a bit. In 2017 the 1931 moniker was folded into the Chairman’s Reserve part of the portfolio and it effectively ceased production as a brand in its own right. For the historically minded, the “1931” refers to the year when the Barnard family’s Mabouya Distillery was founded near Dennery – it merged with the Geest family’s Roseau distillery in 1972 to create the modern St Lucia Distillers.

The St. Lucia distillers site gives this information on what’s in here: casks from 2004, 2005 and 2006 were used (but not how many). These include

  • casks containing 100% coffey still distillates matured in a combination of American white oak casks and port casks
  • casks with 100% pot still distillates aged in American white oak
  • casks with 50/50 blends of pot/coffey still aged in American white oak. 

The blend was assembled and then placed back into American white oak casks for a period of three months for a final marriage before being bottled. It almost sounds ungrateful of me, after so many years of bitching I want more detail, to wonder what the proportions of each are, but what the hell, I remain pleased we get this much.

Colour – Mahogany

Strength – 43%

Nose – Salty, even briny, with an accompanying sweet crispness of a nice (but tamped down) Riesling. Fanta, sprite and citrus-forward soda pop. Some bad oranges, green grapes and apples, plus watery light fruits (pears, watermelons) and vanilla, a trace of chocolate.  Not much heavy aroma here, but a fair bit of light and sprightly fragrance.

Palate – Soft and easy to drink, just a bit of edge and barely any sharpness.  Rather tame. Sweet, floral and with lots of ripe white fruits bursting with juice.  Melons and mangoes, some background heavier notes, tobacco, chocolate, nutmeg – a nice combo, just lacking intensity and any serious pungency (which is a good thing for many).

Finish – Short, wispy, easy, not much more than what the palate gave.  Some citrus, cumin, soda, tobacco. 

Thoughts – Somehow it seems gentler than any of the other St. Lucia 1931 rums I’ve tried, less assertive, less rough, more tamed. It has a fair bit going on with the varied tastes and notes, but it comes off as not so much complex as “needlessly busy”.  That could just be nitpicking, though, for it is indeed quite a nice sipping rum and a good exemplar of the blender’s skill.

(82/100)


The six editions of the range are colour coded and reviewed as follows:

  • 2011 1st edition – pale yellow [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2012 2nd edition – lavender [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2013 3rd edition – turquoise [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2014 4th edition – black [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2015 5th edition – magenta [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2016 6th edition – coral [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]

A complete flight of all six at once was done and written about by Phil Kellow of the Australian blog Philthy Rum in 2018.

May 242020
 

No one these days needs any introduction to the Real McCoy series of rums, which Bailey Pryor released in 2013 in conjunction with Foursquare Distillery (another name requiring no elaboration). He was inspired, so the founder’s myth goes, to try his hand at rum after making a documentary on the Prohibition rum runner of yore for whom the phrase “The Real McCoy” is named, since said gent gave pure value for money and didn’t try to gyp his customers.  You could almost say that this is the first instance of a Barbados rum being given a name that supposedly touts its attributes, which is now ascending to the heights of polysyllabically pretentious ridiculousness…but never mind. 

Although Mr. Pryor initially released a 3YO and a 5YO and a 12 YO McCoy rum, somehow the gap-filler of an 8 or 10 year old was not addressed until relatively recently when the 10 year old started to go on sale in the USA (around 2017), issued as a limited edition of 3000 bottles. It was a blend of pot and column still Foursquare distillates aged for between 10-12 years in charred ex-bourbon and virgin oak (the proportions of pot:column and 10:12 years remain unknown, though it’s noted that a rather larger pot still component is present) and bottled at 46%.

You’d think that with that kind of mix-and-match combination of several elements – char, age, oak casks, stills – you’re in for a flavour rollercoaster, but you’re not, not really.  The nose was simply….less (and that’s not because of the 46%, as I was trying it with a set of equal-or-lesser-proofed rums). Basically, there was too much bitter woody smells in the mix, which elbowed out – or at least dominated – the softer aromas for which Barbados is better known. So while I could sense some vanilla, fleshy fruits (ripe mangoes, cherries, papaya), bananas, honey and some light cumin, the real problem was how little of that managed to crawl out from the rock of the woody foreground.

On the palate, the slightly higher strength worked, up to a point.  It’s a lot better than 40%, and allowed a certain heft and firmness to brush across the tongue.  This then enhanced a melded mishmash of fruits – watermelon, bananas, papaya – plus cocoa butter, coconut shavings in a Bounty chocolate bar, honey and a pinch of salt and vanilla, all of which got shouldered aside by the tannic woodiness. I suspect the virgin oak is responsible for that surfeit, and it made the rum sharper and crisper than those McCoy and Foursquare rums we’re used to, not entirely to the rum’s advantage. The finish summed of most of this – it was dry, rather rough, sharp, and pretty much gave caramel, vanilla, light fruits, and some last tannins which were by now starting to fade.  (Subsequent sips and a re-checks over the next few days don’t appreciably change these notes).

Well, frankly, this is not a rum that turns my crank.  While respecting the proficiency and heritage of their long history of rum production, I’ve not cared overmuch for Barbados rums as a whole – too many are just “okay,” lacking unique individuality in too many instances, and it takes a rum like the Plenipotenziario or the 2006 10 Year Old or the Criterion or the Mount Gay Cask Strength to excite my interest…which isn’t much given how many rums are made on the island. 

There’s also the odd fixation with blends that remains puzzling to me since it would seem that in today’s climate of rum appreciation, more aged 100% pot still rums from Fousquare or Mount Gay or WIRD would lend lustre to the island and enhance its variety and terroire to a greater extent than a series of recurring and juggled-tweaked blends would — because right now it’s just the skill and rep of the master blenders that keeps bored yawns of “I’ve had this before” at bay (this is a cruel but true observation about human nature). Fortunately, there are indicators that this is changing – Mount Gay has pot still rum on its current lineup, Foursquare and WIRD both have some on the to-do list, and the Habitation Velier Foursquare pot still rum showed off the potential, so this sub-category is not being ignored completely. 

But for now, this rum doesn’t really work for me. It’s a lesser son of greater sires, a minor Foursquare rum in all ways that matter – nose, taste, finish, the works. It’s one of the few instances where, for all its greater-than-usual pot still makeup and ten years of ageing, I have to ask in some puzzlement What were they thinking? And if I were to give it one of those facile latin names that seem to be gaining traction these days, I’d call it Tantum Odiosis, because that’s really all it is. Now that’s a veritas for you.

(#729)(79/100)

Oct 222019
 

This is a rum that has become a grail for many: it just does not seem to be easily available, the price keeps going up (it’s listed around €300 in some online shops and I’ve seen it auctioned for twice that amount), and of course (drum roll, please) it’s released by Richard Seale.  Put this all together and you can see why it is pursued with such slack-jawed drooling relentlessness by all those who worship at the shrine of Foursquare and know all the releases by their date of birth and first names.

But what is it? Well, to go by the label, it’s the result of a selection of some of the 1985 rum barrels belonging to the Alleyne Arthur reserves; and for the curious, Alleyne, Arthur & Hunte were also once merchant bottlers in Barbados (they made the original Old Brigand and the Special Barbados Rum); they acquired Doorly’s in the 1970s and were themselves taken over by Foursquare in 1993. Now, in 1995 the source rum – a pot and column still blend – which had been aged for ten years by that point, was vatted, and three barrels were left over from that exercise.  These three barrels were aged for a further six years (Richard said that “they sat for a bit – [three barrels were] small enough to forget about”) and finally decanted in 2001, into about 400 bottles – at the time the idea was to create a premium release, but they just stood there gathering dust “for no more reason than we never came up with the premium packaging.” Finally, after seeing Velier’s releases, Richard realized that premium labelling and dressing up was not really required, that simplicity was its own cachet, and the audience preferred a simple bottle and clear explanation…and in 2015, the 16 year old rum hit the market at last.

Strictly speaking, this is a rum that could easily be mistaken for an earlier Exceptional Casks release (say, the 1998, or the 2004). The nose, warm and firm, is well tamed and really well rounded.  It smells of molasses, nuts and ripe orange peel. There are also flambeed bananas, Irish coffee, apricots, some smoke and a trace of wet wood coiling around in the background, but at 43% it is well tamed and quite easy, a real sipping drink with no qualifications.  

The nose is fine, but this is one of those occasions when the palate does more.  It’s as dry and silky rough as a cat’s raspy tongue, not sweet, just firm, with just enough edge to make you think of a tux-sporting East-end hood. The acidic and tart notes are held way back with softer and muskier tastes up front: oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies, biscuits, cereal, and crushed walnuts.  Again the sweet is kept under control, and spices like cumin and massala are hinted at, together with candied oranges, rosemary and a trace of fennel. The finish is also quite good, surprisingly durable for a rum bottled at such a tame strength, and again I am reminded of the Mark 1 or Mark II as a comparator.

So definitely a rum to try if you can get a hold of it. It opens a window on to the profile of rums made in Barbados in the 1980s before the rum renaissance, by a company no longer in existence and continued by their successors and inheritors.  When we discussed it, Richard remarked that he could never quite recreate it, because he didn’t know what was in the blend – it was leftovers from the vatting, the “recipe” never written down, created by a now-retired blender. And while he undoubtedly regrets that, his eyes are set on the horizon, to all the new rums he is working on creating now and in the future, and all those who love Barbados rums will undoubtedly follow him there. But for those lucky enough to get a bottle, a sample, or a sip of the 1985, I’m sure a fond memory will be spared for this one-of-a kind bottling too. However recent, it is still a part of history trapped in a bottle, and should perhaps be tried for that reason alone, quite aside from its tasty, languid and easy going charms.

(#668)(84/100)

Sep 192019
 

Much of the perception of small and new companies’ rums is tied up in their founders and how they interact with the general public. Perhaps nowhere is this both easier and harder to do than in the United States – easier because of the “plucky little engine that could” mythos of the solo tinkerer, harder because of the sheer geographical scale of the country. Too, it’s one thing to make a new rum, quite another to get a Je m’en fous public of Rhett Butlers to give a damn.  And this is why the chatterati and online punditocracy barely know any of the hundreds of small distilleries making rum in the USA (listed with such patience by the Burrs and Will Hoekenga in their websites)…but are often very much aware of the colourful founders of such enterprises.

That said, even within this ocean of relative indifference, a few companies and names stand out.  We’ve been hearing more about Montanya Distillery and master blender Karen Hoskin, everyone knows about Bailey Prior and the Real McCoy line, Lost Spirits may have faded from view but has great name recognition, Koloa has been making rum for ages, Pritchard’s and Richland are almost Old Stalwarts these days, the Eastern seaboard has its fair share of up and coming little rinky-dinks…and then there’s Privateer and its driven, enthusiastic, always-engaged master blender, Maggie Campbell, whose sense of humour can be gauged by her Instagram handle, “Half Pint Maggie.”

Privateer was formed by Andrew Cabot after he walked away from his tech-CEO day job in 2008 and decided to try his hand at making a really good American rum, something many considered to be a contradiction in terms (some still do). In 2011 he opened a distillery in an industrial park in Ipswich, Massachusetts but dissatisfied with initial results sniffed around for a master distiller who could deliver on his vision, and picked a then-unemployed Ms. Cambell who had distilling experience with whiskey and brandy (and cognac), and she has stayed with the company ever since. The rum is made from grade A molasses, and is twice distilled, once in a pot and once in a columnar still, before being laid to rest in charred american oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The company’s ethos is one of no additives and no messing around, which I’m perfectly happy to take on trust.

So, all that done away with, what’s this Navy Yard rum, which was first introduced back in 2016, actually like?  

Well, not bad at all. Each of the three times I tried the rum, the first thing out the door was sawdust and faint pencil shavings, swiftly dissipating to be replaced by vanilla, crushed walnuts and almonds, salted butter, caramel, butterscotch, a touch of the molasses brush, and the faintest tinge of orange peel.  What is surprising about this admittedly standard and straightforward – even simplistic – profile is how well it comes together in spite of the lack of clearly evident spices, fruits and high notes that would balance it off better. I mean, it works – on its own level, true, dancing to its own beat, yes, a little off-kilter and nothing over-the-top complex, sure…but it works. It’s a solid, aromatic dram to sniff.

The mouthfeel is quite good, one hardly feels the burn of navy strength 57.1%…at least not initially. When sipped, at first it feels warm and oily, redolent of aromatic tobacco, tart sour cream on a fruit salad (aha! – there they were!) composed of blueberries, raspberries and unripe peaches.  Vanilla remains omnipresent and unavoidable, but it does recede somewhat and tries hard not to be obnoxious – a more powerful presence might derail this rum for good. As it develops the spiciness ratchets up without ever going overboard (although it does feel a bit thinner than the nose and the ABV had suggested it would be), and gradually dates and brine and olives and figs make themselves known. The rather dry finish comes gradually and takes its time without providing anything new, summing up the whole experience decently – with salted caramel, vanilla, butter, cereal, anise and a hint of fruits — and for me, it was a diminution of the positive experience of the nose and taste.

Overall, it’s a good young rum which shows its blended philosophy and charred barrel origins clearly. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that it’s well blended, the edges of pot and column merging seamlessly; it’s tasty and strong, with just a few flavours coming together. What it lacked was the complexity and depth a few more years of ageing might have imparted, and a series of crisper, fruitier notes that might balance it off better; and as I’ve said, the char provided a surfeit of vanilla, which was always too much in the front to appeal to me.

I’ve often remarked about American spirits producers who make rum, that rum seems to be something of a sideline to them, a cheaply-made cash filler to make ends meet while the whiskies that are their true priorities are ageing.  That’s not the case here because the company has been resolutely rum-focused from eight o’clock, Day One – but when I tasted it, I was surprised to be reminded of the Balcones rum from Texas, with which it shared quite a lot of textural and aromatic similarities, and to some extent also the blended pot/column Barbadian rums with which Foursquare has had such success (more Doorly’s than ECS, for the curious). That speaks well for the rum and its brothers up and down the line, and it’s clear that there’s nothing half-pint or half-assed about the Navy Yard or Privateer at all.  For me, this rum is not at the top of the heap when rated globally, but it is one of the better ones I’ve had from the US specifically.  What it achieves is to make me want to try others from the company, pronto, and if that isn’t the sure sign of success by a master distiller, then I don’t know what is.

(#658)(83/100)


Opinion

After I wrote the above, I wondered about the discrepancy in my own perception of the Navy Yard, versus the really positive commentaries I’d read, both on social media and the few reviews others had written (94 points on Distiller, for example, and Drink Insider rated it 92 with nary a negative note anywhere on FB). Now, there is as yet no reviewer or commentator outside the US who has written about the Navy Yard (or others in the line), partly because its distribution remains there; those who did really went ape for the thing, some going so far as to call it the best american rum, so why didn’t I like it more?  

The only answer I can come up with that isn’t directly related to my own palate and experience tasting rums from around the world, is that they are not coming to Privateer with the same background as others are, or I do. The sad Sahara of what is euphemistically called “rum choice” in the US, a resultant of the three-tier distribution dysfunction they amusingly call a “system”, promotes a rum selection of cheap quantity, but so denuded of real quality that when the girl next door makes something so much better than the mass-produced crap that masquerades as top-drawer rum over there, it just overloads the circuits of the local tippling class, and the points roll in like chips at a winning table in Vegas. 

This is not in any way to take away from the achievement of Maggie Cambpbell and others like her, who work tirelessly every day to raise the low bar of American rumdom. Reading around and paying attention makes it clear that Ms. Campbell is a knowledgeable and educated rum junkie, making rum to her own specs, and releasing juice that’s a step above many other US brands. The next step is to make it even better so that it takes on better known Names from around the world which – for now – rate higher. Given her fierce commitment to the brand and the various iterations they’re putting out the door, I have no doubt there will be much more to come from Privateer and I look forward to the day when the company’s hooch muscles its way to the forefront of the global rum scene, and not just America’s.


Other Notes

I drew on Matt Pietrek’s deep dive for some of the biographical details, as well as articles on Thrillist, Imbibe and various posts about Privateer on FB. Details of the company, Ms. Campbell and the distillation steps can be found both Matt’s work and t8ke’s review, here.  This is one of those cases where there’s so much information washing around that a synopsis is all that’s needed here, and if your interest has been piqued, follow the links to go deeper.

Aug 072019
 

The Blackwell Fine Jamaican rum is the result of another one of those stories we hear these days, about somebody with good intentions, oodles of spare cash, and some street cred in another creative field of endeavour (music, movies, TV, writing, master of the universe, Wall Street, take your pick), deciding they can make [insert product name here] just because (a) they always liked it (b) they have eaten / drunk / smoked / worn / read / watched / experienced it for many years and (c) they want to immortalize their own preference for said product.  “How difficult can it be?” you can almost hear them asking themselves, with a sort of endearing innocence. When that kind of thing is done well and with focus, we get Renegade. When done with less, we get this.

With all due respect to the makers who expended effort and sweat to bring this to market, I gotta be honest and say the Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum doesn’t impress. Part of that is the promo materials, which remark that it is “A traditional dark rum with the smooth and light body character of a gold rum.” Wait, what?  Even Peter Holland usually the most easy going and sanguine of men, was forced to ask in his FB post “What does that even mean?” I imagine him nobly restraining the urge to add an expletive or two in there, because colour has been so long dismissed as an indicator of a rum’s type or an arbiter of its quality. 

Still, here’s the schtick: it’s a 40% ABV throwback to yesteryear’s mild rums, a blend of pot and column still rums from that little hoochery J. Wray, and no age statement: it has indeed been aged (in ex bourbon barrels), but I’ve heard 2-4 years ageing, one guy at the 2019 Paris fest  told me “around five” and in a review from back in 2014, The Fat Rum Pirate noted it was “only aged for 1 year”. We’re going to have to say we don’t know, here. Though I question whether it’s important at all, since everything about it suggests it is not meant as a sipping rum, more a cocktail ingredient, and some rough edges and youthful notes are tolerated characteristics in such a product.  

An inviting dark red-amber colour, the first sharp and hot notes out the glass are caramel, molasses, light vanilla, not much like the younger Appletons, any of them. There’s a wisp of seaspray whisking a single olive into your face, some raisins, black cake and cinnamon – but funk, rotting bananas, spoiling fruit?  Nah, dem ting gaan AWOL, don’ go lookin’. To be honest, as something that trumpets the fact that it’s a Jamaican rum, it seems to be in no hurry to actually smell like one. 

The palate is equally indeterminate, and its unique characteristics may be youthful sharpness and jagged edges, to say nothing of its overall rough feel on the tongue. Even at 40% that’s no fun, but once it relaxes (which happens quickly) it becomes easier – at the cost of losing what tastes it initially displayed into a vague melded mist of nothing-in particular. These were fruits, dark ones, black cake, molasses, cinnamon, lemon peel, fading fast into a rough and hurried finish that was sweet, with some licorice, bananas, lemon peel and a couple of  raisins. Frankly, I thought it something of a yawn through, but admittedly I say this from the perspective of a guy who has tasted growly old bastards bottled north of 60% from the New Jamaicans. Anyway, it reminds me less of a Jamaican rum than one like Cruzan or Gosling’s, one of those blended every-bar-has-one dark mixing rums I cut my teeth on decades back.

With respect to the good stuff from around the island — and these days, there’s so much of it sloshing about —  this one is feels like an afterthought, a personal pet project rather than a serious commercial endeavour, and I’m at something of a loss to say who it’s for.  Fans of the quiet, light rums of twenty years ago? Tiki lovers? Barflies? Bartenders? Beginners now getting into the pantheon? Maybe it’s just for the maker — after all, it’s been around since 2012, yet how many of you can actually say you’ve heard of it, let alone tried a shot?  

The real question is, I suppose, what other rum-drinking people think of it. I may be going too far out on a limb here, but my personal opinion is that Not much is the most likely answer of the kindhearted, and Nothing at all is the response of the rest. Me, I’m with those guys.

(#649)(69/100)


 

Other notes

  • The Blackwell brand was formed by Mr. Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) and Mr. Richard Kirshenbaum (CEO of NSGSWAT, a NY ad agency), back in 2012. The Blackwell rum derives from a blend of pot and column distillate made by J. Wray and Nephew, developed with the help of Joy Spence, and is supposedly based on a Blackwell family recipe (secret and time honoured, of course — they all are) which hails from the time the Lindo family (who are related directly to Mr. Blackwell) owned J. Wray & Nephew. In 1916 Lindo Brothers & Co. bought J. Wray, and picked up the Appleton sugar estate at the same time. The whole edifice was merged into one company, J. Wray and Nephew Ltd, and it existed for nearly a hundred years until 2012, when the Campari group bought the company.
  • The words “Black Gold and “Special Reserve” on the label are marketing terms and have no bearing on the quality of the rum itself, or its antecedents.
May 272019
 

When you really get down to it, Pusser’s claim to fame rests on two main planks. The first is that it is they are the true inheritors of the actual British Navy rum recipe after Black Tot Day in 1970.  The second is that they follow it.

Unfortunately, neither is completely true, depending on how you look at the background.

With respect to the first point, any research done on Navy rums shows that Lyman Hart, Lamb’s and ED&F Man, among others, sold rums to the Royal Navy back in the 1800s (Man became the major supplier in the 1900s, though I don’t think they were the sole source even then), and it is highly unlikely they were consistent in what they provided.  Moreover, the rum (from whatever source) was always a blend, and the components did not stay rock solid stable for centuries. In fact, according to the booklet about the Black Tot accompanying the bottle and written by Dave Broom, the Navy rum of the 1940s had been a complex blend – kind of solera – and over the centuries the Jamaican component had continually been reduced because of its funky taste which sailors did not like.  Moreover there’s that modern tested-for adulteration of Pusser’s — 29 g/L additives by some estimates — which surely was not part of the original recipe no matter who made it.

Secondly, the very fact that the recipe was tweaked more than once — as recently as 2008 it was supposedly a blend of five West Indian rums — shows up the fallacy of completely buying into the idea this is a true heritage rum: it’s hardly an inheritor of a tradition that once included Guyanese, Jamaican, Trini and maybe even Bajan rums, which progressively got reduced down to Guyana and Trini components, and now is Guyana only. Even by 2018, one could taste that the blend was favouring Guyanese distillate and that might taste good, but wasn’t exactly the Royal Navy recipe now, was it?  

So, strictly speaking, neither statement holds water.  The Gunpowder Proof Black Label is probably closer to the way navy rums used to be made, but yet somehow, in spite of all that, it’s the 15 YO which people remember, which they refer to as one of the touchstones of their early drinking experiences.  The thing is utterly unkillable and regularly turns up on the various Facebook fora with delighted chirps and snazzy photographs and the pride of some person who has either bought one for the first time, or tried it for the first time. It is also one of the most reviewed of the entire Pusser’s line, with just about every writer sooner or later passing by to talk about it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for some examples, almost universally positive)

And why shouldn’t they?  It’s a fifteen year old rum issued at a relatively affordable price, and is widely available, has been around for decades and has decent flavour chops for those who don’t have the interest or the coin for the limited edition independents.

So what was it like?  The tasting notes below reflect the blend as it was in April 2018, and this is different to both the initial rum I tried back in 2011 and again in 2019 when the “new and improved” Guyana-only blend crossed my path.

The nose, for example, certainly has lots of stationery: ruber, pencil erasers, pencil shavings.  Also sawdust, citrus, lumber – reminds me a lot of the Port Mourant or Versailles distillate, if a little dumbed down. After some time, molasses crept timidly out the back end with caramel, toffee, ginger and vanilla hiding in its skirts, but their overall reticence was something of a surprise given my tasting memories — I seem to recall them as much more forward.  Blame it on increasing age, I guess – mine, not the rum’s.

By the time it got around to tasting, the Guyanese component of the blend was much more evident, definitely favouring the wooden pot stills’ aggressive taste profiles. Glue, rubber, nail polish, varnish were the tastes most clearly discernible at the inception, followed by bitter chocolate and damp sawdust from freshly sawn lumber.  It’s beneath that that it shines even at the paltry strength – creme brulee, warm caramel dribbled over vanilla ice cream, coffee and molasses, with just a hint of dark fruits (raisins, plums) and indistinct floral notes tidying things up. The finish, as is normal for standard proof spirits, is fairly short but nicely rounded, summarizing the aforementioned tastes and smells – caramel, vanilla, flowers, ginger, anise, raisins, dark fruits and pineapple for the most part.  The added whatever-it-is makes it sweet and nicely rounded and a decent sip – non-rum-junkies would likely find favour with that, while deep-diving rum chums would equally sniff and say it’s over-sweetened and dampened down, with the good notes being obscured.

Well, each to his own, I guess.  My notes here aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. At the end of it all, it is a tasty all-round rum for most, which survives in people’s tasting memories in spite of its adulteration, and constantly gains new (young) acolytes because of it. My own opinion is that while Pusser’s sells well, its glory days are behind it.  It has not maintained the core blend, being forced by market pressures to simplify the components rather than keep them in play. They have extended their line over the years to add to the stable with the gunpowder proof, various strengths and other iterations, spiced versions and this to some extent dilutes the brand, good as they may all be.

So why do I call this a key rum?  Because it is a good rum which should be remembered and appreciated; because it hewed and hews as close to the line of the old navy rums as we’re ever likely to get; because it’s 15 years old and still affordable; and because for all its blended nature and therefore indeterminate origins, it’s just a well-made, well-aged product with a whiff of true historical pedigree and naval heritage behind it. Even now, so many rums down the road,  I remember why I liked it in the first place.

And aside from all that, even if you don’t buy into my premise, and dislike the brand dilution (or expansion), and even with all the competition, Pussers still has a lustre and brand awareness that can’t be shrugged off.  Almost all bloggers sooner or later pass by and check it out, some more than once. It is a milestone marker on anyone’s journey down the myriad highways of rum. It remains relevant because no matter how many pretenders to the throne there are, this one company supposedly does actually have the (or an) original recipe for the navy rum, and if they chose to change it over time, well, okay.  But the 15 year old remains one of the core rums of the lineup, one of the best they made and make, and nobody who tries it as part of their education, is ever likely to completely put it out of their minds, no matter how far past it they end up walking to other milestones down the road.

(#627)(83/100)

May 132019
 

Everything you research on Naga is likely to make you rend your robes with frustration at what little you do manage to dig up. Yet paradoxically, everything you do find out about the rum itself seems guaranteed to keep you reading, and make you buy it, if no other reason than because it seems so damned interesting. The label seems designed specifically to tantalize your curiosity.  Perusing it, you can with equal justification call it “Naga Batavia Arrack” (“made with Indonesian aged rum” says the script, implying there it’s arrack plus rum), or “Naga Double Cask rum” or “Naga Java Reserve Rum” or simply go with the compromise route.  And each of those would, like the mythical elephant to the blind men, be somewhat correct.

It’s a Batavia Arrack from Indonesia, which means it a rum made from molasses and a red rice yeast derivative (just like the arrack made by By the Dutch). Both Naga’s 38% version with a different label, and this one, are a blend of distillates: just over half of it comes from pot stills (“Old Indonesian Pot Stills” puffs the less-than-informative website importantly, never quite explaining what that means) with a strength of 65% ABV; and just under half is 92% ABV column still spirit (the ratios are 52:48 if you’re curious). The resultant blend is then aged for three years in teak barrels and a further four years in ex-bourbon barrels, hence the moniker “double aged”.  In this they’re sort of channelling both the Brazilians with their penchant for non-standard woods, and Foursquare with their multiple maturations

Whether all this results in a rum worth acquiring and drinking is best left up to the individual.  What I can say is that it demonstrates both a diversity of production and a departure from what we might loosely term “standard” — and is a showcase why (to me) rum is the most fascinating spirit in the world….but without the rum actually ascending to the heights of must-have-it-ness and blowing my hair back.  In point of fact, it is not on a level with the other two Indonesian rums I’ve tried before, the Compagnie des Indes Indonesia 2004 10 YO and the By The Dutch Batavia Arrack.

Follow me through the tasting: the nose is initially redolent of brine and olives, and of cardboard, and dry and musty rooms left undusted too long. That’s the beginning – it does develop, and after some time you can smell soy, weak vegetable soup, stale maggi cubes, and a faint line of sweet teriyaki, honey, caramel and vanilla.  And, as a nod to the funkytown lovers out there, there is a hint of rotten fruits, acetones and spoiled bananas as well, as if a Jamaican had up and gone to Indonesia to take up residence in the bottle…and promptly fell asleep there.

Palate. It was the same kind of delicate and light profile I remembered from the other two arracka mentioned above. Still, the texture was pleasant, it was pleasantly — but not excessively — sweet, and packed some interesting flavours in its suitcase: salt caramel ice cream, dill and parsley, cinnamon,sharp oak tannins, leather, some driness and musky notes, and a sharp fruity tang, both sweet and rotten at the same time – not very strong, but there nevertheless, making itself felt in no uncertain terms. Finish was relatively short, mostly light fruits, some brine, mustiness and a trace of rubber.

Summing up.  On the negative side, there is too little info available online or off for the hard facts — what an “Indonesian” pot still actually is, where the distillery is, who owns it, when was the company established, the source of the molasses and so on…this erodes faith and trust in any proclaimed statements and in this day and age is downright irritating. Conversely, listing all the pluses: it has a genuinely nice and relatively sweet mouthfeel, is gentle, tasty, spicy, somewhat complex and different enough to excite, while still being demonstrably a rum…of some kind. It just didn’t entirely appeal to me.

Because I found that overall, it lacked good integration.  The pot still portion careened into the column still part of the blend and neither came out well from the encounter; the esters, acidity and tartness really did not accentuate or bring out the contrasting muskier, darker tones well at all, and it just seemed a bit confused….first you tasted one thing, then another and the balance between the components was off.  Also, the wood was a shade too bitter – maybe that was the teak or maybe it was the liveliness of the ex-bourbon barrels. Whatever the case, the overall impression was of a product that somehow failed to cohere.

I’m fully prepared to accept that a rum from another part of the world with which we lack familiarity caters to its own audience, and is supposed to be somewhat off the wall, somewhat at right angles to conventional tastes of bloggers like me who are raised on Caribbean fare and all its imitators.  Yet even within that widely cast net, there’s stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t. This is one that falls in the middle – it’s nice enough, it kinda sorta works, but not completely and not so much that I’d rush out to get me another bottle.  

(#623)(79/100)

Apr 292019
 

El Dorado and their high-end collection, the Rares, continue to inspire head scratching bafflement – they get issued with such a deafening note of silence that we might be forgiven for thinking DDL don’t care that much about them.  Ever since 2016 when they were first released, there’s been a puzzling lack of market push to advertise and expose them to the rum glitterati. Few even knew the second release had taken place, and I suggest that if it had not been for the Skeldon, the third release would have been similarly low key, practically unheralded, and all but unknown.

Never mind that, though, let’s return briefly to the the third bottle of the Release 2.0  which was issued in 2017. This was not just another one of the Rares, but part of the stable of Velier’s hand-selected 70th Anniversary collection which included rums from around the world (including Japan, the Caribbean, Mauritius….the list goes on). We were told back in late 2015 that Luca would not be able to select any barrels for future Velier releases, but clearly he got an exemption here, and while I don’t know how many bottles came out the door, I can say that he still knows how to pick ‘em.

What we have here is a blend of rums from Diamond’s two column coffey still, which provided a somewhat lighter distillate modelled after the Skeldon mark (the Skeldon still has long since been destroyed or dismantled); and the Port Mourant double wooden pot still distillate for some deeper, muskier notes.  The proportions of each are unknown and not mentioned anywhere in the literature – all we know is that they were blended before they were set to age, and slumbered for 16 years, then released in 2017 at 54.3%.

Knowing the Demerara rum profiles as well as I do, and having tried so many of them, these days I treat them all like wines from a particular chateau…or like James Bond movies: I smile fondly at the familiar, and look with interest for variations.  Here that was the way to go. The nose suggested an almost woody men’s cologne: pencil shavings, some rubber and sawdust a la PM, and then the flowery notes of a bull squishing happily way in the fruit bazaar. It was sweet, fruity, dark, intense and had a bedrock of caramel, molasses, toffee, coffee, with a great background of strawberry ice cream, vanilla, licorice and ripe yellow mango slices so soft they drip juice.  The balance between the two stills’ output was definitely a cut above the ordinary.

Fortunately the rum did not falter on the taste.  In point of fact, it changed a bit, and where on the nose the PM took the lead, here it was the SVW side of things that was initially dominant. Strong, dark, fruity tastes came through — prunes, blackberries, dates, plums, raisins, pineapples, ripe mangoes.  After it settled down we got mature, sober, more “standard” aged-rum parts of the profile – molasses, licorice, sweet dry sawdust, some more pencil shavings, vanilla, creme brulee, caramel, almonds, white chocolate and even a hint of coffee and lemon zest. Damn but this thing was just fine.  The SVW portion is such a great complement to the muskier PM part, that the join is practically seamless and you couldn’t really guess where the one stops and the other begins. This continued all the way down to the exit, which was long, rummy and smoky, providing closing hints of molasses, candied oranges, mint and a touch of salted caramel.

There is little to complain about on Velier’s 70th anniversary Demerara. I prefered DDL’s Enmore 1996 just a bit more (it was somewhat more elegant and refined), but must concede what a lovely piece of work this one is as well.  It brings to mind so many of the Guyanese rums we carry around in our tasting memories, reminds us a little of the old Skeldon 1973, as well as the famed 1970s Port Mourants Velier once issued, holds back what fails and emphasizes what works. To blend two seemingly different components this well, into a rum this good, was and remains no small achievement.  It really does work, and it’s a worthy entry to Demerara rums in general, burnishes El Dorado’s Rare Rums specifically, and provides luster to Velier’s 70th anniversary in particular.

(#619)(88/100)


Other Notes

There’s an outstanding query to Velier requesting details on proportions of the blend and the outturn, and this post will be updated if I get the information.

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