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.

Apr 072019
 

When a bunch of the rum chums and I gathered some time back to damage some rums and show them who was boss, one of them remarked of this rum, “Easy drinking” — which initially I thought was damning it with faint praise until I tried it myself, and continued with it three or four more times after they all staggered back to their fleabag hotels, surprised by its overall worth.  It’s not often you get to try (or be really pleased by) an indie bottling from the USA, given how much they are in love with starting whole distilleries rather than sourcing other people’s juice.

Which is not to say that Smooth Ambler, the West Virginia outfit that made it (and then never made another) isn’t a distillery – it is.  But like most American spirits makers, they are into whiskies, not rums, and one can only speculate that given the components of this thing are reputed to date from 1990 and earlier, that to make it at all they must have gotten a pretty good deal on the distillate, and it’s to our regret that they themselves commented that it was a one time deal for them, as “we don’t make rum.”  

That out of the way, tasting notes. Nose first: take your pick on the terms — rancio, hogo, dunder, funk — it’s all there.  Rich and sharp fruits. Red currants, pomegranates, rotten bananas and a milder form of fruits thrown on the midden that haven’t completely spoiled yet.  Caramel, vanilla. I actually thought it was a muted Hampden or Worthy Park, and it was only after it opened for a bit that other aspects came forward – vanilla, caramel and some tannics from the oak, which is not surprising since part of the blend comes from (what is assumed to be) 75% Appleton’s column distilled 1990 stock (so 23 YO, given this was bottled in early 2014) and another 25% from a pot still dating back, according to them, 1985. No idea where it was aged, but for its richness, I’d almost say tropical.

Palate and nose diverged rather markedly in one key aspect – the characteristic Jamaican funk took a serious back seat when I tasted it, and became much more balanced, really quite approachable, if losing somewhat of its individuality and craziness that so characterizes Jamaican high-ester screamers.  Some of the acidic fruits remained – green apples, sultanas, cider, bitter chocolate, vinegar — but with some attention one could easily discern soy, olives and brine as well, to say nothing of sweeter, softer fruits like tinned peaches and apricots in syrup. Plus maybe a bit of cumin, smoke and lemon peel.  There is a layer of nuttiness, caramel and toffee underneath all that, but it serves more as a counterpoint than a counterweight, being too faint to catch much glory. Much of this stayed put on the finish which was soft yet spicy, just on the rough side of being tamed completely, with cumin, nuts and fruits closing things off, perhaps without bombast, but at least with a little style.

It’s a tough call, what to think of something like this.  The balance is good, and oddly enough it reminds me more of a Jamaican and Cuban blend than a meld of two Jamaican houses.  The strength at 49.5% is also spot on, residing in that pleasant area that is more than standard strength without tearing your tonsils out as a cask strength sixty-percenter might. There’s a lot here that a bourbon fancier might enjoy, I think, and while it won’t take on the big Jamaican players we now know so well, it’ll give a good account of itself nevertheless. I thought it an interesting rum and a very sippable dram for those who want to try something a little different, and as I finished my fifth glass, I could only think that yes, my friend was right when he said I had to try it; and that it was a crying shame Smooth Ambler didn’t care enough about rums to follow up with what they had achieved on their first go through the gate.

(#614)(84/100)


Other notes

Both the Rum Barrel (on Facebook) and The Fat Rum Pirate commented on its excessive oakiness, but I felt it was just fine myself.

Mar 122019
 

Rumanics Review #93 | 0607

The Appleton Special is not yet a true Rumaniacs rum, since it’s still commonly available – it was, for quite a long time, one of the most common low-end starter rums available in North America and Europe, so it’s more than likely that one can still find a bottle.

However, in 2016 it was retired from active service and put out to pasture, to be replaced by the not-quite-as good J. Wray Jamaica Gold rum – I think they tweaked the blend somewhat since the taste is almost, but not quite, similar.  So, since it is no longer in production and gradually will disappear, I include it in this series rather than the main body of the reviews.

As far as I know, this is a blend of very young rums (less than five years old, and my own feeling is  two years and less), pot and column still blend, and an entry level rum made for mixing with whatever you have on hand.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 40%

Nose – Funk and dunder, warm bordering on hot.  Bananas, brine, olives, plus citrus peel, flambeed bananas, some nuts, molasses and faint rubber. Sharp and light at the same time. I suppose one could add some water to bring out the nuances, but at 40% I didn’t bother.  It’s meant for cocktails, so that’s where it shines more.

Palate – All the hits come out to play: vanilla, orange peel, watermelon juice, brine, avocados.  Some apple cider and green grapes, plus light underlying notes of bitter salt caramel and molasses.  Weak and undernourished, really, but they’re there and the longer one sticks with it, the more pronounced they become.

Finish – Short, mostly caramel, brine, vanilla and funk

Thoughts – Oddly, I liked it better than the new J. Wray Gold.  It’s a subtle kind of thing. Some of the rough edges the Gold retained were less evident here.  It was slightly better integrated, and it could – with some effort – be had neat (though I would not recommend that).  In fine, it’s a fully competent mixing agent, with enough character to wake up a cocktail, yet possessing a fine edge of refinement that incrementally lifts it above its successor.

(74/100)

Mar 102019
 

In the previous review of the Florida Caribbean Distillers industrially-produced Florida Reserve 2 year old rum, it was treated and written about with some disdain, because as far as I was concerned, it had nothing to make it stand out at all.  It was a low rent mass-produced column-still rum that did exactly nothing to distinguish itself and could at best be used to spike a drink with alcohol, without leaving any trace of itself behind, not even a grin.

Move on now to another minimally aged rum marketed to the masses, cheaply priced, easily available (at least, in Toronto, which was where I sourced it), and you can see what a difference there is. I’m not talking about intrinsic quality so much as distinctiveness; nor do I contend that the J. Wray Gold is some kind of hidden masterpiece, because it rubs shoulders in the same sort of downmarket liquor store shelves where you might find the Reserve, and is a mass market rum just like it….but does have its points.

The J. Wray Gold is nothing particularly new – for years it was sold as the Appleton Special Jamaican rum, and this new version got issued in 2016 as a rebranding effort (though why they bothered escapes me – maybe it’s to distinguish it from the slightly more upmarket Appleton range of rums).  For what it’s worth, I tried them side by side, and felt they tasted somewhat similar, scored somewhat similar, but were definitely not the same – so the recipe was likely tweaked some in the rebranding. What is also peculiar is that there is actually not much information available on what makes it up: the most I can ascertain is that it’s a mix of pot and column still distillate, 40% ABV, and (my opinion) is probably very young – maybe two years old or so, maybe even less.

I make this last observation because of its unrefined nature. Even at standard strength, it noses rather raw and jagged, even harsh.  There are initial aromas of light glue, rotten bananas and some citrus, light in tone but sharp in attack. It also smells a little sweet and vanilla-like, with vague florals, apple cider, molasses, dates, peaches and dates, with the slightest rtang of burnt rubber coiling around the back there somewhere. But it sears more than caresses and it’s clear that this is not a lovingly aged product of any kind.

It is, however, somewhat more distinct on the taste.  The sharp and uncouth nature doesn’t abate, that’s a given, and funky notes persist – rotting fruit, ripe landfill steaming after a tropical rain (yeah, I know what that sounds like), overripe fruit and bananas, honey, brine, vanilla and some molasses and caramel.  It’s not very well integrated and though I mention these flavours, the truth is that they are still underwhelming (a function of the strength) and the roughness on the tongue makes it unsuited for any kind of sipping drink. The finish is unspectacular- short, salty, nutty with some citrus and vanilla thrown in, and overall, very faint, quickly gone.

This is not a ringing endorsement by any means — I can’t say I cared for it, really.  But for good or ill, it was a rum you couldn’t easily forget once you tried it because of those very same attributes. It excites opinion, not indifferent yawns. Sure it’s a rough ‘n’ ready backcountry bottom-feeder, perfect for a pick-me-up hip flask to be taken into the dodgy areas of Scarborough when you’re liming with your squaddies down at the local rumshop. It’s cheap, it’s raw, and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an entry level hooch.

Yet at the same time you can sense the nascent quality it has, which emerges more fully as you work up the line of the company’s products. It has something, some small spark of artistry, of appeal, of uniqueness. Poor as it rates next to pricier upscale rum from J. Wray / Appleton, it does show what some distillation chops and blending ability can bring to the table with a set of people who know what they’re doing, even at the bottom end of the range. Oh sure it won’t class with an aged Hampden or Worthy Park, and I think even the V/X exceeds it. So okay, it fails, maybe….but to me, it fails with authority. And that’s why, though scoring them almost the same,  I would prefer an honestly made piece of dreck like this, over something more smoothly anonymous like the FCD Florida Reserve.

(#606)(73/100)

Feb 192019
 

Just reading the label on the Very Old Captain makes me think (rather sourly) of yesteryear’s uninformed marketing copy, Captain Morgan advertisements and the supposedly-long-debunked perception that rum is fun, a pirate’s drink, redolent of yo-ho-hos and sunny tropical beaches. Even after so many years of so many companies and writers seeking to raise the bar of quality hooch, we still get assailed by such pandering to the least common denominator and what’s perhaps more discouraging, there are many who’ll buy it on that basis alone.

Lest you think I’m just having a bad hair day, consider what the label says above and below that faux-piratical name: “Very Old” and “Artisan Crafted Dark Rum”.  Well, it’s not very old, not artisanal, crafted has very little meaning, “artisan crafted” is not what it suggests, dark is not an indicator of anything except colour (certainly not of quality or age or purity), and that leaves only one word that can be construed as true: “rum”. One wonders why it wasn’t just left at that.

Now, this is a Philippine dark rum, blended, which the company website notes as being “the equivalent of 8 years”.  Since they issue an actual 8 year old and 12 year old that are clearly stated as being such, what’s the issue with saying what this thing is without the waffling? The Philippine Daily Inquirer had an article dating back to 2015 that said it was actually five years old and no mention of a pot still was made either there or on Limtuaco’s wesbite, although the back label speaks helpfully to the matter (“We blend premium rum from molasses with pot still rum” – as if somehow the two are different things) and BespokeManBlog mentioned it the same year when writing enthusiastically about the rum. Limtuaco was clear in the blurb of the 8YO that it had some pot still action and did not do so for the VOC, so I think we can reasonably posit it’s a blend of pot and column, and the whole business of “batch” and age-equivalency can be dispensed with.

My snark on disclosure aside, what was the standard-proofed dark gold rum actually like to smell and taste and drink?

Well, somewhat better than my remarks above might imply. It nosed off the line with nail polish, some acetones and sharp flowery-fruity tones, and a lot of spices – ginger, cumin, cinnamon. This was followed by apples, green grapes and unripe peaches mixed in with vanilla and some caramel, but the truth is, it all seemed just a bit forced, not real (or maybe I was suspicious as well as snarky), lacking something of the crisp forceful snap of a true pot still product.

Palate? Sweet, with white guavas and green grapes at first. Warm and somewhat faint, which is expected at that strength, with gradually emerging notes of molasses, vanilla, masala, and peaches in syrup. It’s all very mild and laid back, little oakiness or tannins or bitterness, hardly aggressive at all, which raises additional questions.  The finish provided little of consequence, being soft and easy and gone in a flash, leaving behind rapidly fading memories of light acetones and watery fruits. And breakfast spices.

Given that our faith in the company’s background notes has been somewhat eroded, what it means is that we can’t tell if the rum is for real — and the tastes that seemed somewhat artificial and added-to have no basis in our mind’s trust, in spite of the company website’s denials that they indulge the practice.  Yet since it is positioned as something special and premium (“high-end”), I expect more disclosure from then, not less, and to tell me that it derives from blackstrap molasses and is 40% ABV is hardly a fount of information, now, is it? The fact that they make some of their spirits from neutral alcohol that’s then processed just ensures reviews like this one.

But that aside, let’s just rate the rum itself. I don’t feel it’s really anything near to the kind of high-end as they tout, and my personal opinion is one of relative indifference, sorry. I think it’s an eminently forgettable rum, largely because there’s nothing really serious to it, no depth of distinctiveness or character that would make you remember it. To its credit, that also means there’s nothing overtly traumatic about the rum either, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement. For my money, it’s not a rum that would excite serious interest and enthusiasm from the hardcore, and even serious amateurs are likely to sip it, feel okay with it, and then move on to something with a little more oomph that they might actually recall the next day. Maybe like the Screech.

(#600)(72/100)


Other Notes

  • My remarks above notwithstanding, one has to consider the audience for which it is made.  As far as I know it’s primarily for sale in Asia, where softer, smoother, sweet-profiled (and spiced up) rums are more common and liked.  
  • The score does not reflect my dissatisfaction with the labelling and marketing, only the way it tasted. 
  • The company was formed in 1852 by a Chinese immigrant to the Phillipines, Lim Tua Co, who began the business by making herb infused medicinal wines.  The family continues to run the company he started, and now makes over 30 different products, including local blends and foreign brands manufactured under license.  It has three bottling, processing and aging plants as well as many warehouses in Manila, though information on its stills and how they make their rums remains scanty.
  • As always, a big hat tip to John Go, who is my source for many Asian rums I’d not otherwise find.  Thanks, mate.