Jan 152017

Excellent young sherry-finished rum


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.


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



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.


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.