Feb 142019
 

Photo (c) Excellence Rhum

Few profiles in the rum world are as distinctive Port Mourant, deriving from DDL’s double wooden pot still in Guyana. Now, the Versailles single wooden pot still rums always struck me as bit ragged and fierce, requiring rare skill to bring to their full potential, while the Enmores are occasionally too subtle: but somehow the PM tends to find the sweet spot between them and is almost always a good dram, whether continentally or tropically aged.  I’ve consistently scored PM rums well, which may say more about me than the rum, but never mind.

Here we have another independent bottling from that still – it comes from the Excellence Collection put out by the French store Excellence Rhum (where I’ve dropped a fair bit of coin over the years). Which in turn is run by Alexandre Beudet, who started the physical store and its associated online site in 2013 and now lists close on two thousand rums of all kinds.  Since many stores like to show off their chops by issuing a limited “store edition” of their own, it’s not an illogical or uncommon step for them to take.

It’s definitely appreciated that it was released at a formidable 60.1% – as I’ve noted before, such high proof points in rums are not some fiendish plot meant to tie your glottis up in a pretzel (which is what I’ve always suspected about 151s), but a way to showcase an intense and powerful taste profile, to the max.

Certainly on the nose, that worked: hot and dry as the Sahara, it presented all the initial attributes of a pot still rum – paint, fingernail polish, rubber, acetones and rotten bananas to start, reminding me quite a bit of the Velier PM White and a lot fiercer than a gentler ultra-old rum like, oh the Norse Cask 1975. Once it relaxed I smelled brine, gherkins, sauerkraut, sweet and sour sauce, soya, vegetable soup, some compost and a lot of licorice, vanilla; and lastly, fruits that feel like they were left too long in the open sun close by Stabroek market.  Florals and spices, though these remain very much in the background. Whatever the case, “rich” would not be a word out of place to describe it.

If the aromas were rich, so was the palate: more sweet than salt, literally bursting with additional flavours – of anise, caramel, vanilla, tons of dark fruits (and some sharper, greener ones like apples).  There was also a peculiar – but far from unpleasant – hint of sawdust, cardboard, and the mustiness of dry abandoned rooms in a house too large to live in. But when all is said and done, it was the florals, licorice and darker fruits that held the heights, and this continued right down to the finish, which was long and aromatic, redolent of port-infused cigarillos, more licorice, creaminess, with a touch of rubber, acetones…and of course more fruits.

While PM rums do reasonably well with me because that’s the way my tastes bend, a caveat is that I also taste a whole lot of them, and that implies a PM rum had better be damned good to excite my serious interest and earn some undiluted fanboy favour and fervor….and a truly exemplary score.  I started into the rum with a certain indulgent, “Yeah, let’s see what we have this time” attitude, and then stuck around to appreciate what had been accomplished. This is not the best of all Port Mourants, and I think a couple of drops of water might be useful, but the fact is that any rum of its family tree which I have on the go for a few hours and several glasses, is by no means a failure. It provides all the tastes which showcase the country, the still and the bottler, and proves once again that even with all of the many variations we’ve tried, there’s still room for another one.

(#599)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • Major points for the back label design, which provides all the info we seek, but forgot to mention how many bottles we get to buy (thanks go to Fabien who pointed me in his comment below, to a link that showed 247 bottles).
    • Distilled May 2005, bottled April 2017.
    • Angel’s share 31%
    • 20% Tropical, 80% Continental Ageing
Feb 042019
 

Last October, I ran into Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack at the Berlin Rum Fest (literally – I tripped and nearly fell into his shelf of rums, and he saved them by interposing himself so they would not be damaged, even if I was).  Although we, as long-existing rum bloggers, knew of each other — all of us know each other in the Oasis — we had only met once before, so I bee-lined over to see what he was doing. It turned out he was stewarding the line of rums from the cheekily named “That Boutique-y Rum Company” (hereinafter referred to as TBRC) a division of Atom Brands, which in turn runs the Master of Malt online spirits shop (and which also self releases and self reviews the Cornelius Ampleforth rum, if you recall). Pete steadied me, indicated the whole range on display, and asked what I wanted to try.

I looked at all the familiar countries, ignoring most, looking for the unusual, not the standard – something the brand has done that takes us into new territory to awe and enthuse (the way Foursquare has done with the ECS, L’Espirt is doing with its 2019 whites, Rum Nation did with the Supreme Lords, and Velier did with…well, just about everything).  These days, I want something weird, off-kilter, new, exciting, different – and still tasty.

Alongside the Bajan, Mudland, Jamaican and other suspects (all of which had arresting and brightly-drawn, brightly-coloured labels that took Bristol Spirits’ colour scheme out back and whupped it), there was one from Travellers (Belize) and Bellevue (Guadeloupe)…this looked promising.  But after five minutes of chatting, I was having difficulty making a decision so, I asked him: “If you had one rum out of this entire selection you’d want me to try, which one would it be?”

Now you could tell that Pete, who is a consultant for the company, not an ambassador, really liked pretty much everything, which is why he kept his glass on the go the entire time from different bottles (under the pretext of helping out the bright-eyed but inexperienced rum chums swirling around the booth). “Yes mon, me drinkin’ de same rum dat me showin’ you, so it gotta be good,” you could easily imagining him saying as he avoided braining passers-by with his tasting glass using graceful moves of the arm, never spilling a drop.  So I was curious what his own favourite was, shorn of the need to sell anything to me.

He hesitated, seeing the trap, but then grinned, sipped again, and then pointed at a bottle off to the side, sharing the same colour scheme as the Enmore and the Bellevue. It was from O Reizinho, a Madeiran outfit of which I knew nothing except that it was from Madeira (which, as an aside, is an EU-recognized agricole producer). “That one.”  And without losing his glass in the one hand, he proceeded to pour me a shot with the other, hefty enough to render me catatonic, then stood back to observe the results (much the way The Sage had done years back when I had tried my first clairin, the Sajous).

Strictly speaking, the rum is not that strong – “only” 49.7%, which is a couple of whiskers away from standard. It was made in Madeira, which intrigued me, as I really enjoyed the Engenho Novo rums made by Hinton and Rum Nation; and it was a pot still rum, an unaged rum, and a “white,” all pluses in my book.  And anyway, how could you not want to sample a rum named “The Kinglet”? I know I did, and not just because of his recommendation.

It didn’t disappoint, starting out with a firm aroma of salt and wax, very powerful.  Earth mustiness, cardboard, loam, olives, bags of salt. Like a clairin, but softer. Fresh and deep, edging “crisp” by a whisker, and while the herbal notes of dill and grass and fresh sugar cane sap were there, they were not so much dominant as coexistent with the other notes mentioned before. A really outstanding set of aromas, I thought, with an excellent balancing act carried off in fine style.

And the taste, the mouthfeel – wow, really nice.  Warm, sweet, dry and fruity, with raspberries, bananas, pineapple, papaya, salt olives all dancing their way across the tongue, without any sharp nastiness to spoil the enjoyment: I like rums north of 60%, of course, but there was no fault to be found in the strength that was chosen here because even at that low power, it thrummed across the palate and still managed to provide a clear demo of all the proper notes.  Excellent sipping dram as long as you’re okay with a not-so-furious amalgamation of sweet-brine-soya-miso-soup admixture. If it faltered some, it was on the finish – and for the same reason the nose and palate were so good, i.e., the muted strength. That didn’t invalidate it (to me), and it was pleasant, sweet, soft, warm, firm and fruity, with just a little edge carrying over to complete the experience.

O Reizinho means “Little King” or “Kinglet” depending on whose translator you use, and is a small distillery perched on a hillside on Madeira’s east coast by Santa Cruz.  It is run by Joao Pedro Ferreira, who returned from a sojourn in South Africa some years back to go into the rum business with his father. They source cane locally, crushing it in one pass only (no messing around with a 2nd pass or adding water) and then let it stand in a week-long fermentation period.  Then it’s run through a wood-fired steam-injected pot still, which on a good day can provide a dozen runs. So French island nomenclature notwithstanding, this is an agricole spirit, and it adheres to all the markers of the cane juice rhums, while providing its own special filip to the style.

Initially, to get things going for the first release, TBRC bought some of those rums from a broker (Main Rum) the way so many new and old independents did and do.  But this one was bought direct from O Reizinho, and the intention in the future is to continue to do so, and to go with both aged and unaged products from this tiny distillery.  If they keep bottling — and TBRC keeps issuing — juice as fine as this, then all I can say is that the future is a bright one for them both, and I look forward to trying as much as I can from TBRC’s extended range of rums generally, and O Reizinho specifically.  They’ve enthused me that much with just this one rum.

(#596)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Batch 1 of this rum is 487 bottles
  • Just for the record, I really enjoyed the brightly coloured, lighthearted design of the labels, which are a nice counterpoint to the minimalist “facts-only” labels currently in vogue. The artist is from the outfit Jim’ll Paint It (FB Link)(Website)- ATOM brands came up with the brief, then Jim brought it to life.  In his work he reminds me somewhat of Jeff Carlisle, who did “Another Night at the Warp Core Cafe.
Jan 152019
 

Before considering the €300+ price tag, or grumbling about Rum Nation’s penchant for adding something extra to (some of) its rums, give the last Supreme Lord Jamaican rum from 1991 a whiff, a sniff and a snort. Sip a dram. Take your time with it. Enjoy. Because it’s simply outstanding, and even in concert with eight other Jamaicans that were on the table the day I tried it, it held up in fine style.  

Part of that derives from the extended “sherry finish” — though since it spent eleven years in oloroso casks I’d suggest it’s more a double maturation in the vein of Foursquare’s Exceptionals than a finish of any kind. And that influence makes itself felt right away, as scents of sweet rich honey, fleshy stoned fruits (peaches, apricots), raisins, leather, oak and vanillas in perfect balance boil out of the glass. There’s quite a bit of funk – sharp green apples mixing it up with rotting bananas – just less than you’d expect.  And here’s the peculiar thing — one can also sense molasses, caramel, a slight tannic tang and a flirt of licorice, and when that comes sauntering through the door, well, you could be forgiven for thinking this was actually a slightly off-kilter Demerara instead of something from Monymusk.

And for anyone who enjoys sipping rich Jamaicans that don’t stray too far into insanity (the NRJ TECA is the current poster child for that), it’s hard to find a rum better than this one.  The 55.7% strength is near perfect. It demonstrates great thickness, excellent mouthfeel, admittedly somewhat sweet, but very clean and distinct (which is to say, not near-smothered by a blanket of softening additives which so demeans many of El Dorado’s aged offerings) to allay my concerns about dosing. It tastes of Thai lemon-grass soup or a green curry (both for veggie saltiness and the sharper line of citrus), without ever losing the core heat and fruity over-ripeness of the bananas, soft fruit, black cherries, grapes and that faint whiff of licorice.  It has solid closing notes of hot black tea, more fruits (same ones), and is pleasantly, luxuriously long-lasting, reasonably firm, yet loses none of its snap and vigour.

What puts this rum over the top is the balance and control over the various competing elements of taste and smell; it’s really quite good, and even the finish – which sums up most of the preceding tasting elements – showcases that care and attention paid to assembling the profile.  It’s kind of a shame that only 750 bottles were issued and now, nearly three years after being issued, it retails for so much. But consider: when I tried it, it edged out the SL VII, held its own (and then some) against the Ping 9, Albrecht Trelawny, CDI Worthy Park 2007 8 YO, and cruised with ease past the AD Rattray 1986 25 YO.  If there was one rum that gave it serious competition, it was the EKTE 12, half as old and just as good (and also from Monymusk).

The rum continues along the path set by all the seven Supreme Lords that came before it, and since I’ve not tried them all, I can’t say whether others are better, or if this one eclipses the lot.  What I do know is that they are among the best series of Jamaican rums released by any independent, among the oldest, and a key component of my own evolving rum education.

It is with some sadness that I also note that just as it was the first cask strength SL, it is likely to be among the final ones to be issued, as it represented some of the last barrels of seriously aged Jamaican stocks held by Fabio Rossi.  He retained some Long Pond to make the superlative blended 30 year old a year or two back, and his attention is now more on the Rare Collection which supplant the Aged series…but whether you like the more recent offerings or the older ones, the pricier ones or the entry level iterations, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Supreme Lord rums (as well as their cousins the aged Demeraras), are among the top rums Rum Nation ever issued. And this one ranks right up there with the best of them.

(#589)(89/100)

Jan 122019
 

Hampden has been getting so much press of late that it’s only fair to have a look at the other products of the island, of which, these days, there are no shortages. For a long time these distilleries — with names geeks could recite in their sleep, like New Yarmouth, Innswood, Clarendon, Long Pond Monymusk, Worthy Park, Hampden — laboured in relative obscurity, living in J. Wray’s gargantuan shadow, selling mostly bulk rum abroad, or for the local market.

Somehow, though, the distilleries remained alive, and so did their names, their rums. While I’m by no means disparaging or downplaying the emergent reputations of these distilleries over the last half-decade or so as they began selling rums under their own brands, tropically aged and made in Jamaica (rather than just being a resource for others to tap), I think one of the reasons the layperson is even aware of them is because of the independent bottlers out of Europe, who for decades issued the occasional cask strength or watered down single-barrel release and kept the lesser-known marques of Jamaica alive.  (And that goes especially for WP, which was shuttered from 1960 to 2007.)

Most of the time, such bottlers never bothered with identifying the distillery of origin. Often it was just “Jamaica rum” and that was it. But in line with the recent interest in stills and distilleries (which perhaps originated in the Age of Velier’s Demeraras), the independents became more forthcoming with where their juice originated on the island.

This brings us to the Compagnie des Indes, founded in 2014 by Florent Beuchet, who, with the exception of their blends like the Dominador or Caraibes, has always placed rather more information than less on the labels of their rums – including that first set of cask strength bruisers marked “Denmark only”, which have caused nerds conniption fits and allowed the lucky Danes to preen unashamedly while glugging their personalized full proof juice. This one, distilled in 2007 (the first year of WP’s re-opening after being modernized) and bottled in 2016 at a solid 54.9%, was continentally aged and limited to 307 bottles, all of which ended up in Denmark.

Trying the rum in 2016, against its spectacular 7 year old brother (also from WP’s 2007 output) and again for this review, I was reminded how full proof Jamaican rums seem to step up their game and be ahead of living room strength rums by a country mile. It was lighter on the nose than the RN Supreme Lord 7 and Supreme Lord 8 which were also on the table that day; slightly funkier too, though restrained compared to the rutting jocks of the Hampdens or NRJ rums. Aromas of honey, dates, apricots, tart soursop and green grapes mixed it up nicely with some brine and olives, and a sly hint of flowers emerged after adding a few drops of water.

The palate was where it shone. It was warm, spicy and very clear, tasting immediately of brine, light nail polish remover, and also of lemon sherbet and mango ice cream. It presented firmly on the tongue, somewhat sharp without any jagged edges of confusing or conflicting tastes; as it opened it provided flavours of paint thinner, varnish and sweeter acetones, accompanied by light funk, vanilla, slightly bitter oaky tannins, which were in their turn superseded (but not eclipsed) by some caramel and brown sugar, dill and lemon zest. Really good balance, really well put together. It ended with a delightfully long and cruising finish, warm and solid, providing mostly tart background notes of half ripe mangoes, peaches, some caramel, and the vaguely bitter strength of some very strong black tea sweetened with condensed milk.

Worthy Park rums are interesting variations on the Jamaican style. Appletons are well made, elegant blends with a laid back sort of profile, while Hampdens are fiercely luxurious funk bombs, and Monymusk and New Yarmouth seem to exist on another plane of existence altogether (perhaps because they are relatively less well known). Worthy Park rums, though (those that I’ve tried, anyway) are light, crisp and clean, ester-rich, with delicate and precise lines of commingled flavour coiling through each and every one of them, only occasionally exploding into something more aggressive, and usually resting on a softer background that makes for a lovely sip.

Now, their own new tropically aged rums issued over the last few years are small masterworks (I think), yet we should not ignore the sterling efforts of the choices the independent bottlers made either, both before and during the current Jamaican Renaissance. This excellent rum is a good example of why that statement can be made, be absolutely true, and it burnishes and elevates the reputation of a distillery that is finally getting the respect it should have had long ago. I’ll be trying quite a few more of their rums in the months and years to come, that’s for sure.

(#588)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • For further reading on Jamaican rum distilleries, a good starting point is The Wonk’s Jamaican Cheat Sheet.
  • As far as I know the distillation apparatus is a Forsythe’s copper pot still
Dec 242018
 

My own personal memories of the Hampden Overproof will always be combined with the Tasting of the Century in London, where we tried those magnificent old rums the Harewood 1780, St James 1885, Bally 1924 and Skeldon 1978…and the two new Hampdens. Truth to tell, my focus was so fiercely on that geriatric quartet, that I had little time to pay attention to the twins….time kind of ran out on me, and I could barely do them justice. So knowing I had the bottles in Berlin, I waited until October and then dealt with them there again.

Velier, as is now quite well known, has dibs on the distribution of Hampden rums from 2018 (and, I think, 2019) through their new organization of La Maison & Velier.  Both the 46% and the 60% versions of the rum are the same, the former just being diluted down, so in this review I’ll be talking about the overproof version, although the notes are the same for either, with the strength being the only true variable.

Technical schtick for the rum curious: what we have here is a rum based on fermentation with wild yeast, distilled in 2010 on a double retort copper pot still; the ageing was fully tropical for eight years and it was bottled in 2018; the level of esters was not disclosed except insofar as to note it was “very high”; and of course, no additives of any kind, not sugar, not colouring, nothing.  All of which, by the way, is on the hugely informative label that in its graphic detail is somewhat at odds with the famed Spartan labels of yore, but never mind. One thing that isn’t on the label is the outturn, but the source was 31 barrels, so assuming a 6% angel’s share per year, we can estimate that around 10,000 bottles were released into the global market.

What always surprises me about Hampden rums is how relatively restrained they are, irrespective of the strength.  You expect that say, from an exquisitely blended Appleton, and certainly do not from Zan Kong’s Worthy Park offerings which cheerfully lunge out of the bottle like a hungry face-hugger, yet Hampdens find a sweet spot between the two that is nothing short of delectable.  The nose is a combination of soft and crisp, initially redolent of pencil shavings, paraffin, varnish and sawdust, bitter chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, damp, freshly turned earth and tar, and, like many such strong rums, rewards patience as these aromas develop, and then fade.  They are then replaced by green grapes, unripe mangos, and lots of sharper, unripe-but-sweet fruits, balsamic vinegar, sweet gherkins and a very nice background of aromatic tobacco and port-infused cigarillos.

Ah, and the taste – really nice.  Strong and bordering in sharp, yet even at 60% ABV it presents as amazingly controlled, even moderate.  The tastes are all there, deep and intense, rolling easily and crisply across the palate, yet not so ester-heavy as might be inferred from the label.  You’d laugh when I say that I tasted well-oiled leather and sweaty shoes, and then take comfort in more traditional flavours of brine, olives, maggi cubes, cardboard, black bread and cereals (there’s a sort of creamy aspect to the whole experience I found very pleasing), which formed a bed upon which dates, figs, crisp peaches and pears and mangoes rested easily, dusted over with a lovely hint of cumin and cinnamon and lemon peel, leading into a crisp, snappy finish that sumed things up nicely, mostly with sharper fruits and crushed hazelnuts, lemon zest and that odd bit of tar from the nose making a belated appearance (perhaps out of mischief).

It’s possible that gently diluting the rum to about 55% from 60% might make it more approachable and an easier drink: for my money, it’s damn near perfect for what it is, a really well blended Jamaican which even Sandor Clegane might like, something that enhances the street cred of both estate and country.  It requires, like all full-proof, dunder-squirting yardies, some patience; it’s a drink to savour, not swill, and is an exemplary rum in almost all aspects of its profile.

I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that my appreciation for righteously funky Jamaicans vacillates between Worthy Park and Hampden (though it must be acknowledged that Plantation is making inroads, and the Compagnie’s New Yarmouth rums also deserve a place at the table).  It’s when you try something as powerful and tasty as this that you understand why the comparisons can and need to be made. We are living in a Golden Age of new Jamaican rums, where pole position is being taken over and held by exactingly made blends produced by the distillery of origin, retaining all their unique heritage and profiles, rather than an unknown mix marketed under the uninformative sobriquet of “Jamaican rum”.

What seems to have happened is that after years and decades of somnolence, rum aficionados gradually got acquainted (or re-acquainted) with estate-specific rums from Jamaica that weren’t Appleton as a consequence of  the efforts of the continental independents.  Through the limited single cask releases of a few hundred bottles here and there, we began to recognize the individuality, the idiosyncrasy – the sheer dynamism – of Monymusk, of New Yarmouth, of Worthy Park…and of Hampden. That gradually-building groundswell of appreciation has turned into a roaring wave in 2018, and this edition of a really superlative rum is the result – thousands of bottles, not just a few hundred, all coming from Hampden, all made and developed and aged there, and meant for all of us who love the massive taste bombs out of the island. It is, in my own estimation, one of those rums whose reputation will only increase with the passage of the years, and to have tasted the first versions out of the gate was and remains nothing less than a privilege.

(#582)(89/100)


Other Notes

Luca Gargano has made it clear that these are not Velier rums – his company is just the distributor.  I chose to believe his fingerprints are on the bottles nevertheless, most likely in the selection of which 31 barrels made up the blend.  However, in accordance with his wishes regarding attribution, I have not referred to this as a “Velier Hampden Estate Overproof Rum.” Though I think many of us harbour our own thoughts on the matter.

Dec 222018
 

We don’t much associate the USA with cask strength rums, though of course they do exist, and the country has a long history with the spirit.  These days, even allowing for a swelling wave of rum appreciation here and there, the US rum market seems to be primarily made up of low-end mass-market hooch from massive conglomerates at one end, and micro-distilleries of wildly varying output quality at the other. It’s the micros which interest me, because the US doesn’t do “independent bottlers” as such – they do this, and that makes things interesting, since one never knows what new and amazing juice may be lurking just around the corner, made with whatever bathtub-and-shower-nozzle-held-together-with-duct-tape distillery apparatus they’ve slapped together.

Balcones, a central Texan outfit from Waco named after a fault line running through the southern half of the state, is a bit more than the kind of happy backyard operation my remarks above imply — they are a primarily whiskey distilling operation, started a decade ago, and their website has a great backstory about how it all started in an old welding shop under a bridge in Waco into which, after some refurbishment, they installed copper pot stills from Portugal, and shoehorned a whisky distillery inside. And after a few years, they began to make rum as well, because, well, “We like to drink rum so why not give it a shot?” as Thomas Mote the distillery manager cheerfully remarked to me.

Okay, so let’s see if they succeeded. Consider first the nose.  For all of the 63.9% it’s quite warm and smooth: it started out with a musky scent of damp earth, a sort of mustiness that reminded me a of a warehouse chock-a-block full of old cardboard boxes, brine, salt and sweet olives.  Then it became somewhat more bourbon-like – raisins, molasses, fleshy fruits starting to go off, then caramel, nuts, butter, vanilla and ice cream. It smells curiously indeterminate – which is why detailed fruity notes can’t be listed – you know there’s a lot of stuff here, but it’s tough to come to grips with them individually.

On the palate, after exercising all the usual precautions for a rum this strong (take a rather small sip until things settle down, because the taste is sharper than the nose leads one to believe and remember, it’s a 63.9% saloon brawler that does its very best to clean the bar counter and rip your face off at the same time), I sensed a salt-rye-fruit-bourbon soupcon of flavours on the palate: a combo of salt, sweet and sour — vegetable soup, sour cream, maggi cubes and deep caramel and vanilla notes, all at once, circling each other for dominance and advantage. The fruits – papayas, very ripe peaches in syrup – were set off by muscovado sugar and light molasses without much citrus lending a sharper note (though there was some) and to which was added hazelnuts, some sweet olives and brine, dark chocolate, cherries, fading out quietly (and lengthily) to a pleasant, warm, aromatic conclusion redolent of cherries, flambeed bananas and molasses, but nothing significantly different from the tastes that had preceded it.

Balcones was swiftly and remarkably forthcoming to all the usual inquiries, noting that it was 100% pot still and used a blend of Barbados-Style Lite Molasses and Blackstrap from Louisiana and Guatemala respectively, fermented for 4-5 weeks (much longer than anything else they make), and they play around a bit with yeast and an undisclosed dunder process to add to the flavour profile. Ageing is between 2-4 years and the rum is made in annual batches of a few thousand bottles at most, and no additives of any kind (“oak and time!” they told me proudly).

Still, taking apart those tasting notes, a number of things jump out. The caramel and vanilla and molasses notes are not precisely domineering, but very much in evidence, to the point of taking over — there’s a sort of dampening effect of the musky and more solid flavours which prevent sharper, crisper, clearer ones (fruits and citrus and florals) from emerging properly and engaging. The range of tastes on show lacked the complexities one expects of even a lightly aged rum, and yes, it actually has a profile reminiscent of a rye or bourbon, maybe a tad richer and sweeter and more congener-rich….more rum-like, if you will. It’s a pretty nifty drink for that strength.  It reminds me of my first encounter with Potter’s Dark, yet it also presents as simpler than it could have been, which makes me ask myself, as I always do with such a profile and which seems to be somewhat of a characteristic of many of the US rums I’ve tried, what is it they really want to be making and was too much whisky lore infusing the rum?

I’ve remarked before that most new and smaller US distilleries seem to be more interested in making whiskies and produce rums as something of an afterthought. Whether not not that’s the case here, Balcones has evidently given the matter quite a bit more thought than usual, and come up with a product that deserves real attention (the business with the yeast and dunder points there). It’s unquestionably a rum; it’s got real fire in its jock; it’s rum-like enough to please, while also original enough to encourage a double-take, and an all-round powerhouse fun rum. I think I’m going to keep an eye on these guys going forward – there’s some interesting stuff going on in Waco, and I hope that they expend their production to a larger stable, aged more, in the years to come.  Certainly their initial full proof rums give us a lot of reason to appreciate what they’ve done so far.

(#581)(81/100)


Other notes

The Special Release is issued annually since 2013 (twice in 2014), but identifying the year is difficult.  To the best of my knowledge, mine is from the 2016 season.

Dec 092018
 

Habitation Velier’s second edition of the distillate derived from Mount Gay, known as the Last Ward — a nod to the Ward family who ran Mount Gay for over a hundred years — retains much of what makes its 2007 sibling so special, but is a distinct and wonderful rum in its own right, if not entirely superseding its predecessor.  It comes close though, and does that by simply being a Barbados rum that blends a triple distilled pot-still distillate of uncommon grace and strength into something uniquely itself, leading us to wonder yet again (and probably muttering a fervent prayer of thanks at the same time) how such a rum could have been conceived of by a company that was always much more into traditional aged and blended fare.

Since much of the background data of the Last Ward was covered in the review of the 2007, here are the simple technical details for those who are into their numbers: triple-distilled in 2009 on a double retort pot still, laid to rest in ex-bourbon casks, completely aged in Barbados, and bottled in 2018 at 59% ABV after losing 64% to the angels. Oddly, the outturn is unknown…I’m still working on confirming that.

Right, so, well….what’s this rich golden-hued lass all about?  Any good?

Oh yes…though it is different – some might even sniff and say “Well, it isn’t Foursquare,” and walk away, leaving more for me to acquire, but never mind.  The thing is, it carved out its own olfactory niche, distinct from both its older brother and better known juice from St. Phillip. It was warm, almost but not quite spicy, and opened with aromas of biscuits, crackers, hot buns fresh from the oven, sawdust, caramel and vanilla, before exploding into a cornucopia of cherries, ripe peaches and delicate flowers, and even some sweet bubble gum. In no way was it either too spicy or too gentle, but navigated its way nicely between both.

The palate was similarly distinct and equally pleasant. Unlike the 2007 here was not a hard-to-separate (but delicious) melange of tastes folding into each other, but an almost crisp series of clearly discernible flavours, smooth and warm. There were ripe fruits – cider, apples, cherries, peaches – followed by almonds, cereals and vanilla, before doing a neat segue into salted butter, leather and a crisp snort of light citrus giving it some edge.  And then it faded gently into leather, smoke, fruits and lemon peel, exiting not so much with a flourish as a satisfied sigh that made one hasten to fill another glass just to get some more. A completely solid, well-made rum that would not be out of place with rums many times its age which get far more press.

Overall, it’s a rum hard to fault.  It’s smooth. It’s firm. It’s tasty.  It’s complex. It sells at a price that won’t break the bank and gives a bang-to-buck ratio that enhances its accessibility to the general audience out there who have always loved Mount Gay’s rums.  Perhaps after experiencing the originality and haunting quality that was the 2007 it’s hard to be so seminal a second time. But however you view it, from whatever angle you approach it, it’s a lovely rum based on solid antecedents and great traditions, and while I can’t speak for the greater rum-loving public out there, I know I loved it too, and would not be averse to splurging on a couple more bottles.

(#577)(87/100)

Nov 292018
 

Now here’s an interesting standard-proofed gold rum I knew too little about from a country known mostly for the spectacular temples of Angor Wat and the 1970s genocide.  But how many of us are aware that Cambodia was once a part of the Khmer Empire, one of the largest in South East Asia, covering much of the modern-day territories of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Viet Nam, or that it was once a protectorate of France, or that it is known in the east as Kampuchea?

Samai is a Khmer word for modern (it has subtleties and shades of meaning beyond that), and is the name given to a rum brand made by the only distillery in the country, a relatively new effort from a young company. It was formed by Daniel Pacheco and Antonio Lopez De Haro, a pair of young Venezuelan expats in 2014, who (the storyteller in me supposes) missed their home country and wanted to make an effort to bootstrap a local rum industry in a place more used to beer and rice wine and teuk thnout chhou (a whiskey-like spirit similar to Thailand’s Mekhong).

Made from locally grown cane and distilled in a pot still and aged for between one and two years, it is also, I should note, added to – it’s actually something of a flavoured rum, since a touch of honey from Ratanakiri (a province in Cambodia known for its very tasty honeys) is also added.  Too, the ageing is done in american and french oak and sherry casks, and while the company website makes no mention of how this is accomplished, I am assuming that various barrels of rum with these various woods, are all married together for the final product, which gives it an interesting flavour profile, to say the least.

All right, so we have a new distillery, a new rum, and no notes.  Let’s run through it and provide some for the curious.

Nose first.  As befits the strength and the production methodology, it’s soft, salty, and reminded me of fish sauce and miso soup.  It was also musky, musty, dry and kind of thick, with aromatic tobacco, sweet soya and molasses coiling beneath it, sort of a combination of maggi cubes, brown sugar, and raisins – intriguing to say the least.  Some very ripe fruit (babanas, pineapples) that edged towards rottenness, without ever stumbling over into spoilage. I tasted it blind and thought it was a standard proofed (it was), and it reminded me of a cross between a cheap rough darker Demerara rum (say, DDL’s 5YO, Young’s Old Sam or Watson’s) and a low-ester Jamaican.

A higher strength might have not worked as well for this rum, and given it a harshness which would not have succeeded quite as nicely as it did – as it was, it tasted nice and smooth, warm and sweet, with just enough bite behind the demure and easy facade to show it wasn’t 100% milquetoast.  The palate suggested biscuits, cereals, molasses, brown sugar, vanilla, caramel, winey notes, a melange of difficult-to-nail-down fruits – not excessively complex, but enough going on to be intriguing. It accomplished the odd trick of seeming more sweet than it was, partly because of the thickish mouthfeel and texture, and was set off by a few sly touches all its own – some brine, sharpness and that background of syrup, probably from the sherry and honey influence.  It was, shall we say, very pleasant and unintimidating, ending with a quietly impressive and surprisingly long finish, dry, dusty, somewhat sweetish, with a touch of fruit salad set off by cumin and masala.

Well now, what to make of a rum like this? It does not line up directly with any style one can immediately pinpoint, which is part of its attraction — I’d say that it’s geared towards the softer South/Latin American / Cuban or eastern palates (I was reminded of the Batavia Arrack, Amrut and Mekhong rums, for example, but not Fiji or the Japanese).  The Samai Gold rum has perhaps more sweet than lovers of purer Jamaican, St Lucian or Bajan would prefer, but if you’re into DDL’s lower-proofed rums, Plantation rums or other Asian ones, this one would be right in your wheelhouse, and much as I usually sniff at sweeter rums these days, I can’t deny that with its slightly off-kilter tastes, it’s quite a nifty drink, partly because it is, in its own way, something of an original.

Rums like the Samai showcase again the pleasure one can have in exploring iterations in the spirit, in a way that is simply lacking in most others.  It’s like a voyage of discovery that encompasses the whole world — each continent, each country, each distillery that makes rum, has some interesting variation on the theme. The under-the-radar Cambodian rum written about here is intriguingly different, tasty to a fault and gentle enough to appeal to a broader audience.  And all that while maintaining a sort of unique taste profile all its own, adding yet another brick to the impressive and fascinating global structure that is Rum. 

(#572)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to John Go, who supplied the sample.
Nov 272018
 

Thailand doesn’t loom very large in the eyes of the mostly west-facing rum writers’ brigade, but just because they make it for the Asian palate and not the Euro-American cask-loving rum chums, doesn’t mean what they make can be ignored; similar in some respects to the light rums from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama and Latin America, they may not be rums du jour, yet they continue to produce for their own local audiences and sell very nicely worldwide, thank you very much.  There’s a market for the profile, and given the enormous population of Asia, it’s no surprise that they can make rums for themselves, and sell them, without always worrying too much about the hot topics of purity, additives, ageing and terroire that are so much discussed elsewhere.

That’s not to say that Issan, the company that makes this low-key white rum, doesn’t adhere to such principles.  They certainly do. Located just a short distance from the Laotian border in the north east of Thailand, a stone’s throw from the town of Vientiane (which makes its own rum), Issan uses handcut, hand-peeled cane (grown without herbicides or pesticides, sourced from its own farm and from small farmers around the area), its own strain of yeast, and a small copper pot still imported from Europe.  Like the French Caribbean islands, cane is cut and pressed to cane juice and set to ferment within 48 hours (for 3-4 days), and the waste cane is used as both fuel and fertilizer in an effort to be both ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable. The operation is somewhat more primitive than Chalong Bay (for example), but one can’t argue with the philosophy of artisanal production espoused by founder David Giallorenzo, a Frenchman from Abruzzo, who relocated to Thailand to start Issan in 2011 after a career in the financial services industry.

With export licenses taking a year to put together, the still arriving in December 2013, the next year started with just under a thousand bottles of production, and then initial exports were limited to a thousand bottles to France, Italy, Switzerland, Andorra and Belgium.  This was not large, but the company got a boost in 2014 when it won a silver medal in Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition (again in 2016), as well as bronze and gold medals in the Paris Rhumfest in 2015. By 2018, the target was ten thousand bottles of production, new stills had been ordered (for greater capacity) and with continued market increase in Europe and exposure by online magazines and bloggers, its rumprint is sure to escalate in the years to come.

Aged rums (or rhums, if you like) are not a major part of the program at this stage (though they do age their rums for a minimum of six months which suggests some level of filtration), and the one I tried was their 40% white, about which I’d heard quite a bit over the years but never got a chance to try — John Go sent it to me, knowing of my fondness for juice from Asia.  And for a product that was more or less still in swaddling clothes compared to its agricole competition in the Caribbean, it wasn’t half bad.

The nose was very very briny, accompanied with what seemed like an entire basket of olives, and alongside that was the dry mustiness of dried rice paddy and sacking (similar to the TECC and Cambridge Jamaicans, remember those?), yoghurt, and sweet flavours – swank, mangoes, green peas fresh out of the can, very delicate fruits which had to do major lifting to get themselves past the wall of salt.  There was also some faint acidic notes which balanced things off, light citrus (tangerine, let’s say) and also cereals, biscuits and oatmeal cookies and some buttermilk, all of which got slightly sweeter after everything opens up. In other words, it took the aromas of any good agricole, and then went their own unique way with it.

The nose was pretty good — the palate was where it was somewhat weaker. This was, I suppose, to be expected — standard proof rums have to be remarkably intense to get one’s attention these days and that goes as much for whites as any other.  So – it was watery and quite light, in no way aggressive, warm and sweet, and actually quite pleasant. You could mix it, but why bother? It had the light sugar water, light lemon zest, light pears and white guavas, and light spices….cumin, a suggestion of nutmeg, little else aside from a pinch of salt.  There’s a finish of sorts, short, sweet, watery and slightly fruity, and about all that could reasonably be expected.

Still, given that I walked in expecting even less, it was a really enjoyable product, akin to a softer clairin.  My personal experience with Asian spirits suggests they tend to be less in-your-face, smoother, a shade sweeter – sometimes additives perform the function of making it palatable.  As far as I know, Issan issues what comes of the still into the bottle without any messing around except to reduce it to 40% and some filtration, and they do a pretty good job here…I can only imagine what a more potent full proof version would be like (probably knock my socks off, I’m thinking, and if they could get it past Thai legislation which forbids bottling spirits north of 40%, and out to the West, more medals would be in the offing for sure).  

The Issan isn’t out to change the rumiverse, doesn’t want to reinvent the pantheon of rums (white or otherwise), and is a left-of-straightforward, relatively light, eager-to-please white rum — and deceptive in that you only think it’s weak when you start…then it grows little fangs and shows some aggro, and you realize there’s rather more here than was immediately apparent.  It’s a neat drink, well made, a slow-burn white, perhaps made for those who walk in believing they’re getting a gentle sundowner…and are then suckered into enjoying something just a shade more potent.

(#572)(79/100)

Nov 112018
 

So now we are the fourth and last ester-boosted rums issued in 2018 by Velier from the distillery of Long Pond in Jamaica, and in a strange way it sums up the preceding three rums in a way that emphasizes many of the best parts and tones down the excesses of all of them.  This is all the more curious a statement since it has the highest ester counts of the quartet, and one would expect the massive taste-bomb effluent of the TECA to be jacked up a few notches more…to “12”, maybe. And yet it doesn’t. It’s a really interesting rum.

By now the background of this series of rums is covered in the previous three reviews (see other notes below for the recap), so here we can just dive straight in, pausing only to note that this rum is of the category “Continental Flavoured,” has 1500 g/hlpa, the highest of the series, and that would make anyone who already tried the decomposing rhino of the TECA a little cautious.  No need. It has many of the same components as the TECA, but more tamed and less intense. Again, it started off with aromas of burlap, wet jute sacks, ammonia and acetones, but while present, they much more restrained than before. Furniture polish, rubber, plastic and whiff of that chewy hogo without going over the top. Oh and the fruits – nice and deep without being either too crisp or too sharp. Peaches in syrup, cherries, ripe apples, spoiling mangoes, caramel, toffee, vegetable soup, sweet soya. See what I mean? – it’s actually rather good if one can get past the meatiness of the background, and the funk and dunder are forceful enough to make a statement for themselves but don’t hog the whole show.

The palate was good as well. Strong and sharp, very fruity, with oranges, apples, soursop, unripe strawberries, green grapes and grapefruit offset with softer richer, riper tastes of pineapples and peaches.  Vanilla, some very sharp and bitter oaken notes (surpirsing for something so relatively young). You’re still sipping this in the same fragrant hair salon as the TECA — ammonia, nail polish remover, remember those? — but at least it’s not so crowded and the dead dog out back seems to have been removed.  Placticene. Also marshmallows, sour cream, and a rather more powerful set of deep musky floral notes than any of the other rums in the series (roses and lilies). Lastly, to finish things off, some licorice and bubble gum, light brine and furniture polish and fruits and funk. All in really good balance, long and fragrant, meaty and chewy without the meat, so to speak.

Because of its toned-down but still expressive nature, I’d have to say this high-ester funk bomb is an enjoyable drink and a Jamaican hogo-lover’s dream, without being quite as approachable to general audiences as the Vale Royal or the Cambridge, which I would suggest are better for those who want to dip their toes into the Jamaicans from Velier without taking a bath in the furious tastes that characterize either the TECA or the TECC.  Ivar de Laat from Toronto remarked on the TECA as being a reference rum for him, and he’s probably right about that one, but when it comes to really torqued up rums that want to show off the ripped abs of their massive ester levels, I’d suggest the TECC is probably a better one to appreciate.

(#566)(86/100)


Summing up / Opinion

When it comes down to it, my scores reveal something of my opinions on the four NRJ expressions from Long Pond. I liked the Vale Royal and Cambridge a lot; they were tasty and new and gave a nice background to other Jamaican profiles. The TECA will appeal to diehard core rum-junkies, specifically those who really know and love Jamaicans, can’t get enough of da funk and da hogo and want to see things cranked up to the max (you could argue these are the same kinds of people who go nuts over the high-peat-laden Octomores). The TECC on the other hand might actually be the best one to try if you want elements of all of these rums at once. It’s still a flavour bomb, quite meaty, just not at the level of its older brother.

The audience for the four rums will, I think, be divided into two similar groupings. The easy drinkers and Velier collectors will inevitably be drawn to the first two, the Vale Royal and the Cambridge.  Those who have been following Velier for years and sense what Luca has done may well prefer the latter two rums because they will be seen for what they are, examples of reference rums for Jamaica based on near highest ester counts available.  Neither side will be right, or wrong.

***

So, clearing away the dishes: as I noted in the first review (the Vale Royal) these four rums are useful to drink as a quartert, one after the other, because they provide insight into how esters can (and do) impact the Jamaican profile (which is not to take away anything from either Hampden or Worthy Park, both of which indulge themselves in similar pursuits). That caution need be exercised is probably a superfluous point to make, not just because of the strength of the rums (62.5%), but because different components of the chemicals provide very different tastes and not all those would be to the liking of everyone.  Personally, I think the four NRJ expressions are among the most unique rums ever to come out of Jamaica, running the gamut from drinkable to formidable to certifiable. When Richard Seale remarked a few months ago that the DOK-level rums are not for drinking straight but are meant as flavouring agents, he knew exactly what he was talking about and I can only confirm that these are poster children for the concept.

Like the clairins issued back in 2014, these are meant (I believe) to prove a point, not to please the greatest number of rum drinkers (pointless anyway, given their limited outturn) or to show off a blender’s skill (the ECS series have dibs on that already and in any case these are pure pot still rums, not pot/column blends) – they’re a showcase of what Jamaican rums can be.  That doesn’t necessarily make them good for everyone (or the best), but man, are they ever original. I can truly and with some emphasis say that I’ve not tried their like before.

And truth to tell, we need original in this world of bland retreads, we need exciting rums, new rums, different rums, made by courageous people who are willing to go right out into the screaming edge of rum production.  Such people demonstrate – for good or ill – how varied rums can be, and deserve praise and encouragement, even if we shudder sometimes and draw back from some of their more excessive outturns.

I think what Luca was going for here was not a sipping rum at all – he said as much in an off hand comment in London not too long ago.  What he was aiming at was education and demonstration (of both hogo and Long Pond) as well as a sort of fiendish delight in issuing yet another set of rums we haven’t yet seen much of.  Has he succeeded? I think so. Leaders in any field must bridge the divide between their personal vision and their adherents’ experiences: bend too far towards the former and one risks losing the audience entirely, tilting too far the other way just makes for more of the same old blah.  I think these rums straddle the uneasy space between those two ideals in a way that is nothing short of impressive.


Background notes

(With the exception of the estate section, all remarks here are the same for the four reviews)

This series of essays on the four NRJ rums contains:

In brief, these are all rums from Long Pond distillery, and represent distillates with varying levels of esters (I have elected to go in the direction of lowest ester count → highest, in these reviews). Much of the background has been covered already by two people: the Cocktail Wonk himself with his Jamaican estate profiles and related writings, and the first guy through the gate on the four rums, Flo Redbeard of Barrel Aged Thoughts, who has written extensively on them all (in German) in October 2018. As a bonus, note that a bunch of guys sampled and briefly reviewed all four on Rumboom (again, in German) the same week as my own reviews came out, for those who want some comparisons.

The various Jamaican ester marks

These are definitions of ester counts, and while most rums issued in the last ten years make no mention of such statistics, it seems to be a coming thing based on its increasing visibility in marketing and labelling: right now most of this comes from Jamaica, but Reunion’s Savanna also has started mentioning it in its Grand Arôme line of rums.  For those who are coming into this subject cold, esters are the chemical compounds responsible for much of a given rum’s flowery and fruity flavours – they are measured in grams per hectoliter of pure alcohol, a hectoliter being 100 liters; a light Cuban style rum can have as little as 20 g/hlpa while an ester gorilla like the DOK can go right up to the legal max of 1600 at which point it’s no longer much of a drinker’s rum, but a flavouring agent for lesser rums. (For good background reading, check out the Wonk’s work on Jamaican funk, here).

Back in the day, the British classified Jamaican rums into four major styles, and many estates took this a few steps further by subdividing the major categories even more:

Standard Classification

  •  Common Clean 50-150 gr/hlpa
  •  Plummer 150-200 gr/hlpa
  •  Wedderburn 200-300 gr/hlpa
  •  Continental Flavoured 700-1600 gr/hlpa

Exactly who came up with the naming nomenclature, or what those names mean, is something of a historian’s dilemma, and what they call the juice between 301 to 699 gr/hlpa is not noted, but if anyone knows more, drop me a line and I’ll add the info.  Note in particular that these counts reflect the esters after distillation but before ageing, so a chemical test might find a differing value if checked after many years’ rest in a barrel.

Long Pond itself sliced and diced and came up with their own ester subdivisions, and the inference seems to be that the initials probably refer to distilleries and estates acquired over the decades, if not centuries.  It would also appear that the ester counts on the four bottles do indeed reflect Long Pond’s system, not the standard notation (tables.

RV                        0-20
CQV                    20-50
LRM                    50-90
ITP /LSO            90-120
HJC / LIB         120-150
IRW / VRW    150-250
HHH / OCLP    250-400
LPS                  400-550
STC❤E             550-700
TECA            1200-1300
TECB            1300-1400
TECC            1500-1600

The Estate Name:

It’s unclear whether the TECC stands for Tilston Estate, one of the estates that got subsumed into Long Pond in the wave of consolidations in the 1940s and 1950s (this is the theory to which Luca subscribes), or for Trelawny Estates, the umbrella company created in the 1950s before being taken over by the Government and renamed National Rums of Jamaica.  This is where some additional research is needed – nobody has written (so far) on the meaning of the “CC”, though given the Long Pond marks listed above, it’s reasonable to suppose it’s Tilston/Trelawny Estate, Continental Type C (as opposed to “A” or “B” with progressively higher ester levels. The various histories of Long Pond written by Barrel Aged Thoughts, the Cocktail Wonk and DuRhum provide useful background reading, though they do not settle the mark designation issue conclusively one way or the other.

Note: National Rums of Jamaica is not an estate or a distillery in and of itself, but is an umbrella company owned by three organizations: the Jamaican Government, Maison Ferrand of France (who got their stake in 2017 when they bought WIRD in Barbados, the original holder of the share Ferrand now hold) and Guyana’s DDL.