Dec 062018
 

 

Not only was the Antigua Distilleries’ English Harbour 1981 25 YO the very first rum review posted on this site, but for a long time it was also one of my personal top sipping rums (as well as the highest priced), and ever since, I’ve had a fond place in my heart for their work.  In 2017 I tried their new sherry matured rum and was impressed and intrigued at the directions in which they were going – but the 2012 rum issued the following year as part of the Velier 70th anniversary collection, that one was something really special. I haven’t tried the single barrel offering at 68.5% from this batch, but for my  money, this one at 66% is among the very best from Antigua I’ve ever tried.

The numbers almost tell the tale all by themselves: 1st limited cask release ever to come from the distillery; 6 years old; 26 casks (see note below); 44% angels share; 66% ABV; 70th anniversary edition; 212 g/hlpa congeners (which include more than just esters), placing it somewhere in the low end of the Jamaican Wedderburn category, or perhaps in the upper reaches of the Plummer. Distilled in 2012 on a continuous three-column still, and bottled in 2018, and with that, it’s not like we need to add anything else here, except perhaps to remark that these esters seem to have a differing nationality, because they sure don’t talk the same like the Jamaican bad boys from Long Pond

To be honest, the initial nose reminds me rather more of a Guyanese Uitvlugt, which, given the still of origin, may not be too far out to lunch.  Still, consider the aromas: they were powerful yet light and very clear – caramel and pancake syrup mixed with brine, vegetable soup, and bags of fruits like raspberries, strawberries, red currants.  Wrapped up within all that was vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and light citrus peel. Honestly, the assembly was so good that it took effort to remember it was bottled at a hefty 66% (and wasn’t from Uitvlugt).

The taste was similarly excellent, attacking strong and firm without sharpness; it was gently phenolic, with a hint of acetone, balsamic vinegar, veggie soup and crackers — nothing overpowering, though. These flavours were kept subservient to the more forward tastes of caramel, toffee, white toblerone chocolate and crushed almonds, and as I waited and kept coming back to it over a period of some hours, I noted flambeed bananas, salt butter and a very strong, almost bitter black tea. It all led to a rousing finish, quite long and somewhat dry, showing off final notes of aromatic tobacco, almonds, unsweetened chocolate, vanilla and yes, of course some caramel.

Wow! This is quite some rum. It’s well balanced, just a little sweet, tasty as all get out, and an amazing product for something so relatively young deriving from a column still – I’d say it is actually better than the 1981 25YO. It has enormous character, and I’d hazard a definitive statement and say that to mix it or add water would be to diminish your drinking experience – this is one of those hooches best had as is, honestly, and it delights and pleases and leaves you with a twinkle in your eye all through the tasting and after you’re done.  

Velier, who distributes the 2012 is not, of course, an independent bottler — if they were, they’d hype themselves out of shape, market the hell out of their own releases as Velier bottlings, and never give the kind of prominence to the distiller of origin as they have since the Age of the Demeraras. Luca has always respected the source of his rums, and felt he acted as a facilitator, an educator, bringing together three points of the triangle – his own ideas, others’ best rums and the audience’s amorphous, oft-unstated, unmet and unarticulated desires.  At the intersection of these forces lies the desire to find, to chose and to issue rums that are brilliantly assembled, superbly tasty, and exist to shed new sunshine on the land of origin in general and the distillery of make in particular. That’s exactly what’s been achieved here, with every one of their wishes being granted by what’s been trapped in the bottle for us to enjoy.

(#576)(88/100)


Other notes

  • Luca selected 27 barrels from the 2012 production of Antigua Distillers, but one was so exceptional he released it on its own at 68.5%.  The remaining 26 barrels were blended into this rum. The information is not noted anywhere but calculations suggest the outturn is just around five thousand bottles, maybe a shade more.
  • Some other reviews of this rum are from the Rum Shop Boy (scoring it 91), and Single Cask Rum (no scoring). The latter review has some good historical and background details on the company which are worth reading.
Jun 192018
 

It’s a curious fact that what might be the best all-round aged rum from Antigua is the one that is actually mentioned the least: you hear a lot about the popular 5 YO; the more exclusive 1981 25 YO comes up for mention reasonably often; and even the white puncheon has its adherents…but the excellent 10 Year Old almost seems to float by in its own parallel universe, unseen and untried by many, even forgotten by a few (I first looked at in 2010 and gave it a guarded recommendation).  Yet it is a dry and tasty and solid drink on its own merits, and if I had to recommend a rum at standard strength from the island, this one would absolutely get my vote, with the white coming in a close second (and may yet make the cut for the pantheon, who knows?).

There’s almost nothing going on with rum in Antigua that is original or unique to the island itself.  Even back in the old days, they would import rum and blend it rather than make it themselves. Since 1932 one distillery has existed on the island and produces most of what is drunk there using imported molasses – the long operational Antigua Distillery, which produced the Cavalier brand of rums and the English Harbour 5 and 25 YO  They used to make one called Soldier’s Bay, now discontinued, and a colourful local gent called “Bushy” Baretto blends an overproof he sources from them and then drags it down to 40% in a sort of local bush variation he sells (in Bolan, a small village on the west side of the island).

Since the source of all this rum made by Antigua Distilleries is imported molasses, there is no specific style we can point to and say that this one is “key” anything.  Also, they are using a double column still and do not possess a pot still, or a lower capacity creole still such as the Haitians use, which would distill alcohol to a middling 60-70% strength instead of 90%+ basis of their range that wipes out most of the flavours.  So again, not much of a key rum based on concepts of terroire or something real cool that is bat-bleep-crazy in its own way and excites real admiration.

With respect to AD’s other rums up and down the range — the 65% puncheon remains a somewhat undervalued and fightin’ white brawler; the (lightly dosed) 25 Year Old is too expensive at >$200/bottle and remains a buy for money-bagged folks out there; and the 5 YO has too much vanilla (and I know it’s also been messed with somewhat). Since 2016, the company has moved towards stronger, near-cask-strength rums, is experimenting with finishes like the sherried 5 YO and a madeira, and I know they’re doing some work with Velier to raise their street cred further, as well as sourcing a pot still.  But none of this is available now in quantity, and that leaves only one rum from the stable, which I have been thinking about for some years, which has grown in my memory, but which I never had a chance to try or buy again, until very recently. And that’s the 10 year old.

The nose begins with an astringent sort of dryness, redolent of burnt wood chips, pencil shavings, light rubber, citrus and even some pine aroma. It does get better once it’s left to itself for a while, calms down and isn’t quite as aggressive.  It does pack more of a punch than the 25 YO, however, which may be a function of the disparity in ages – not all the edges of youth had yet been shaved away. Additional aromas of bitter chocolate, toffee, almonds and cinnamon start to come out, some fruitiness and vanilla, and even some tobacco leaves.  Pretty nice, but some patience is required to appreciate it, I’d say.

The most solid portion of the rum is definitely the taste.  There’s nothing particularly special about any one aspect by itself  – it’s the overall experience that works. The front end is dominated by light and sweet but not overly complex tastes of nuts, toffee, molasses, unsweetened dark chocolate and cigarette tar (!!). These then subside and are replaced by flowery notes, a sort of easy fruitiness of apples, raspberries, and pears, alongside a more structured backbone of  white coconut shavings, dates, oak, vanilla, caramel. The finish returns to the beginning – it’s a little dry, shows off some glue and caramel, strong black tea. Oddly, it also suggests a herbal component and is a little bitter, but not so much as to derail the experience. Quite different from the softer roundness of the 25 YO, but also somewhat more aggressive, even though the proof points are the same.

So if one were to select a rum  emblematic of the island, it would have to be from this company, and it would be this one.  Why? It lacks the originality and uniqueness of a funky Jamaican, or the deep dark anise molasses profile of the Demeraras, or even the pot still originality of the St Lucian rums.  It actually resembles a Spanish style product than any of those. By the standards of bringing something cool or new to the table, something that screams “Antigua!” then perhaps the puncheon white should have pride of place.  But I feel that the 10YO is simply, quietly, unassumingly, a sturdy and well-assembled rum, bringing together aspects of the other three they make in a fashion that just succeeds. It is at bottom a well made, firm, tasty product, a rum which is pretty good in aggregate, while not distinguished by any one thing in particular. Perhaps you won’t hear the island’s name bugled loudly when you sip it…but you could probably hear it whispered; and on the basis of overall quality I have no problems including it in this series.

(#522) (83/100)

Jan 152017
 

Excellent young sherry-finished rum

#335

There’s a special place in my heart for English Harbour rums from Antigua, and always will be. The company’s masterful 25 year old 1981, while dropping some in my estimation over the years, remains a touchstone of my reviewing experience (it was also Review #001).  Their five-year- and ten year old variations were pleasing and decent drinks that were like a mix of Bajan and Spanish rums, yet distinct from either; and I’ve always felt they were good introductions to the spirit, even if I myself have moved on to purer, stronger rums, which was one reason I enjoyed their Cavalier Puncheon.

For years that was pretty much it for English Harbour, a company formed in 1932 from the pooled resources of five Portuguese businessmen. They branched out into other liqueurs and spirits to some extent, but the rum range which developed from the original Cavalier brand has remained essentially unchanged and it was for this they were best known internationally.  However, in 2016 they decided to rock the boat a little and on the festival circuit in that year, they introduced an interesting variation on their Five, a harbinger of things to come.

This particular rum is a blend that started life as the original column-still five year old (which my friends and I, back in 2009, really enjoyed); aged in ex-bourbon casks for the proper time, it was then finished for two months in sherry casks prior to bottling in March 2016 — there are plans to add oloroso, port and zinfadel finishes in the future, so they are taking some ideas from both FourSquare and DDL in this respect. Once the ageing and finishing process was complete, some ten year old was added into the blend (no idea how much) to create the final product.  What it is, therefore, is something of an experimental rum.  English Harbour has read the tea leaves and seen that there is money to be made and new customers to be won, in releasing rums as a higher proof point with some finishing: perhaps not cask strength, and perhaps not limited edition, just something to flesh out the staid brogues of its portfolio that may now be considered to be showing its age in a time of fast moving innovations in the rum world. Time to move into some sportier models. Nikes maybe, or Adidas.

Have they succeeded in boosting the original five year old into a new and exciting iteration?  I think so…it is, at the very least, better – retasting that venerable young rum in tandem with this one made me remember why I moved away from it in the first place – the 40%, the somewhat dominant vanilla and its rather simple I-aim-only-to-please profile.  There is a lot to be said for messing about, even with a previously winning formula.

Just take the aromas on the rum, for example – what the original five was all about was soft, easy vanillas and some caramels, with a few fruits dancing shyly around in the background, all cheer and warmth, simple and amiable, went well with a mix. This one was a few rungs up the ladder – part of that was the strength, of course (46%) and part was the finishing; there were immediate notes of sherry, smoke, blackberries, jam (I kept thinking of Smuckers), all of which pushed the vanilla into the background where it belonged (without banishing it entirely). There was simply more flavour coming through at the higher proof point, which showed in developing notes of cherries, pineapple and apples that appeared with some water. Nothing aggressive here, and it retained some of that laid-back softness which so marked out its cousin, while having a subtly more complex profile that snapped into focus more clearly as I tasted each side by side.

As for the palate, very nice for a five…in short, yummy.  The youthful peppiness was retained – there was some spiciness on the tongue here – buttressed by a kind of roundness and complexity, which I’m going to say carried over from the added ten year old.  Caramel, oak, vanilla, smoke, burnt sugar, a nice mix of softer fruits (those pineapple, pears and ripe cherries came over nicely) with those of a more tart character (green apples and orange zest) adding a nice filip.  It’s a great little rumlet, closing things off with a short and dry finish that I wish went on longer, even if it didn’t add anything new to the overall experience.  It’s a young rum, that much was clear – yet the blending was handled well, and I just wondered, as I always do these days when something this soft crosses my path, whether it was added to or not (I was told no).  

Thinking over the experience, I think this rum is really an essay in the craft, not yet the final rum English Harbour will release formally in the months (or years)  to come – for the moment it’s not even represented on their website.  EH are testing the idea out on the festival circuit, checking for feedback, positioning it as a development of pre-existing ideas into the market, to see whether riding the wave of newly-popular, higher-proofed, finished rums can carry the company’s sales into the new century.  I certainly hope they succeed, because this is quite a striking rum for its age, and will likely win over some new converts, while being sure to please old fans of the brand. For any five year old, that’s saying something.

(83/100)

Sep 062016
 

Whisper 1

A very light and pleasant mixing rum from two French students who decided they wanted to make rums themselves instead of letting English Harbour get all the glory

(#300)

***

There is probably a lesson in the differences between the new 28 year old Arôme and the Whisper Antigua rum – one was “created” (I use the word loosely) by a member of the 1%, for the 1%, with very little information provided for rabble rousers like us and nothing but disdain for the 99%.  The other is a youngish two-or-so year old rum made by a couple of brash young French entrepreneurs who lived in Antigua, loved rum, and want to push something interesting out the door, using minimal marketing and no condescension (and too, maybe they felt English Harbour had had the corner to itself for too long).

Antigua & Barbuda is a group of islands located just to the north of Guadeloupe (not to be confused with Barbados about 500 km further south). This island is a former British colony and after gaining independence in 1981 remained part of the British Commonwealth, which is why the Queen remains the head of state.  And, of course, for us rummies, its main claim to fame outside the beaches – the Antigua Distillery, which makes the various Cavalier Expressions (the puncheon and 151), and the English Harbour 5, 10 and 25 year olds)

Hembert Achard and Anne-Francois Houzel, are (or were) young French students who travelled to Antigua frequently, and like many expats, fell in love with the place and its rums.  They finally decided to make one of their own, and started very low key – sourcing their distillate from Antigua Distillery, they aged it in ex bourbon casks for around two to three years, and it first came on the market in late 2015 (I tasted it in Paris in early 2016).  Whisper wasn’t quite in the ballpark of the older expressions from the venerable distillery, but that’s not to disparage the qualities it did have, which were perfectly serviceable and immensely enjoyable, thank you very much.  Which just goes to show you don’t have to dress in a tux and tails and be a hundred in rum years, or be backed up by a sneering marketing campaign, to achieve a modicum of class.

I’d suggest that this rum is better than the EH 5 year old, because it was a little less in love with enticing casual users with easy tastes (vanilla and maybe sugar, in that case). Gold in colour, bottled at 40%, it started the nose off with floral scents, quite deep, and honey-like aromas.  There were some sharp and spicy notes, vanilla and ripe plums, perhaps a ripe peach or two, and a sly rubber note underlying it all, like an opened box of rubber bands. I quite liked it.

On the palate, nothing bad, nothing special, and, in fact, quite enjoyable: a little thin to start, a little sharp, very light and clean (almost like some agricoles, but without the grassiness) – it was actually quite crisp.  The flavours came out in genteel profusion: honey, cherries, peaches, the vaguest sense of brine and olives, some nuttiness and more florals…and as it developed it went all soft and cuddly and in spite of its youth, I felt it was teetering right on the edge of being sipping quality without quite being there.  This same warmth and softness of a feather bed followed into the close, which was quite short and departed with all the speed of an impersonal goodbye kiss, presenting last hints of pecans and vanilla.

So a very nicely made introductory rum that doesn’t reach for the stars.  Okay, so it lacks some body, it remains sharp and a little harsh here and there, so for easy sipping, maybe not one’s first choice. As far as I know nothing was added to it.  It’s just that underlying it all are some really good tastes, subtle and well balanced at the same time.  Not for these two people the crass marketing of a $600 extravaganza whose provenance is causing FB rum netizens hissy fits – they have made a simple, low-end, starter-kit rum, which hold enormous promise for what I hope are further aged expressions to be issued in the years to come.

(81/100)

Other notes

  • Some history of the Antigua Distillery is covered in the Cavalier 1981 review
  • I love these little anecdotes: in France there is an expression which says when something is tasty, good, elegant, that it’s a murmure aux papilles (a whisper on the mouth). The phrase came to mind when the makers tasted their product for the first time after almost three years aging….and chose that to name their rum.