Oct 302018
 

My friend Henrik from Denmark told me once that he really dislikes the rums of WIRD. “There’s just something off about them,” he grumbled when we were discussing the output from Little England, the development of the Foursquare Exceptionals, and the Velier collaborations.  On the other hand, another rum-kumpel from Germany, Marco Freyr, has no problems with them at all, and remarked that he could absolutely pinpoint any Rockley Still rum just by sniffing the glass (I have since come the the conclusion that he’s absolutely right).  Coming to this Bristol Spirits rum after a long session of Bajan bruisers made by the Compagnie, Cadenhead and Foursquare themselves, I can sort of see both points of view, but come down more on the positive side, because I like the variety of tones and tastes which indie WIRD rums provide.  And this one? I liked it quite a bit.

We hear so much about the rums of Mount Gay, St. Nicholas Abbey and Foursquare, that rums made by/from WIRD often get short shrift and scant mention.  It’s not even seen as a true distillery of the sort that makes its own name and marks its own territory (like Foursquare, Hampden, Worthy Park or DDL do, for example). But WIRD does exist, even if the majority of its rums come to us by way of the European independents (most of its output is sold as either bulk stock to brokers, goes into the Cockspur brand, or to make the coconut-rum-liqueur Malibu which for some obscure reason, Grandma Caner simply can’t get enough of).  

The brief technical blah is as follows: bottled by Bristol Spirits out of the UK from distillate left to age in Scotland for 26 years; a pot still product (I refer you to Nikos Arvanitis’s excellent little essay on the Rockley still if you want to do more research), distilled in 1986 and bottled in 2012, finished in sherry casks for an indeterminate period. The strength remains at the Bristol Spirits standard 46% ABV, which makes it very approachable to the mainstream who want to explore further into how rums from Barbados can differ from each other. 

And differ it does. No smooth, well-constructed melange of pot and column still product here, redolent of spices and soft fruits.  Oh no. For openers, this rum’s nose was meaty: like licking a salty maggi cube dropped into a pot of chicken stock liberally dosed with sweet soy sauce.  All of this develops over time (fortunately, because I had soup for lunch and didn’t want any in my glass as well) into waxy pungency leavened with a sort of sweet rich fruitiness (cherries, ripe peaches, apples) which then further combined with a forceful sherry/madeira finish that at times verged on being overdone….even medicinal.  The nose was so at odds with everything I had alongside it, that one could be forgiven for thinking this was not a Bajan rum at all…it nosed that different.

Still, it was much better to taste than to smell.  It was warm and reasonably smooth, though with a bite here or there to remind you it wasn’t fully tamed; its tastes were of caramel, dollops of thick dark honey on fresh toasted dark bread, camomile, thyme and cough drops. Iodine and medicinals are thankfully held way back (a pencilled-in line, not a brightly coloured oil by Frazetta, you might say).  Also burnt sugar, stewed apples and some ripe cherries and the tart tastiness of soursop, ginnip and sour cream rounded things off, before lapsing into a relatively short, fruity, and honey-like finish that breathed easy fumes and then hurriedly exited the scene.

Overall, it was a rich rum, full bodied, a little oaky, quite fruity after opening up, and that sherry influence — perceptible but in no way overwhelming — was enjoyable.  In fact, the overall integration and balance of this thing is really quite good, and it provides a pleasing counterpoint to more popular and better known rums from the island, which by itself makes it worth a try.  One does not have to be a deep-dive Bajan rum aficionado, parsing the minutest details of different vintages, to appreciate it for what it is, a well made Bajan rum that dares to go off on a tangent.

There’s a reason I want WIRD rums to continue to make it to the public glassware, even if it’s just second hand, via the independents (now that Maison Ferrand has taken over, it’s only older rums from European brokers they’ll get, I’m thinking).  They’re different, very different, existing in some kind of joyous parallel universe where mothballs, fruits and cloves mix it up in a dusty spice cupboard and the result is peculiarly drinkable. They are, in their own way and possibly because of their relative obscurity, fascinatingly off-base. I haven’t met many so far, but those I’ve tried I’ve liked, and sure hope more will turn up in my glass in the years to come.

(#562)(86/100)


Other notes

Oct 182018
 

As noted in the Mount Gay XO revisit, that company ceded much of the intellectual and forward-looking territory of the Bajan rum landscape to Foursquare — in the last ten years, correctly sensing the shifting trends and tides of the rumworld, Richard Seale bet the company’s future on aspects of rum making that had heretofore been seen as artistic, even bohemian touches best left for the snooty elite crowd of the Maltsters with their soft tweed caps, pipes, hounds, and benevolent fireside sips of some obscure Scottish tipple.  He went for a more limited and experimental approach, assisted in his thinking by collaboration with one of the Names of Rum. This has paid off handsomely, and Foursquare is now the behemoth of Barbados, punching way above its weight in terms of influence, leaving brands such as Cockspur, St. Nicholas Abbey and Mount Gay as big sellers, true, but not as true innovators with real street cred (WIRD is somewhat different, for other reasons).

Now, I make no apologies for my indifference to Foursquare’s current line of Doorly’s rum – that’s a personal preference of mine and a revisit to the 10 and 12 year olds in 2017 and again in 2018 (twice!) didn’t change it one iota, though the 14 YO issued at somewhat higher strength in 2018 looks really interesting. I remain of the opinion that they’re rums from yesteryear that rank higher in memory than actuality; which won’t disqualify them from maybe being key rums in their own right, mind you….just not yet.  But as I tried more and more Bajans in an effort to come to grips with the peculiarity of the island’s softer, more easygoing rum, so different from the fierce pungency of Jamaica, the woodsy warmth of Guyana, the clear quality of St Lucia, the lighter Cuban-style rums or the herbal grassiness of any French West Indian agricole, it seemed that there was another key rum of the world lurking in Little England, and I’d simply been looking with too narrow a focus at single candidates.

I don’t believe it’s too soon after their introduction to make such a claim, and argue that leaving aside Habitation Velier collaborations like the Triptych, Principia or the 2006 ten year old, the real new Key Rums from the island are the Exceptional Cask Series made by Foursquare.  They are quietly high-quality, issued in quantity, still widely available – every week I see four or five posts on FB that someone has picked up the Criterion or the Zinfadel or the Port Cask – reasonably affordable (Richard Seale has made a point of keeping costs down to the level consumers can actually afford) and best of all, they are consistently really good.  

Richard Seale – for to speak of him is to speak of Foursquare – has made a virtue out of what, in the previous decade of light-rum preferences, could have been a fatal regulatory block – the inability of Bajan rum makers to adulterate their rums (the Jamaicans operate under similar restrictions).  This meant that while other places could sneak some caramel or sugar or vanilla or glycerol into their rums (all in the name of smoothening out batch variation and enhancing quality, when it wasn’t “our centuries old secret family recipe” or a “traditional method”), and deny for decades that this was happening, Barbados was forced to issue purer, drier rums that did not always appeal to sweet-toothed, smooth-rum-loving general public, especially in North America. It was at the stage where importers were actually demanding that island rum producers make smooth, sweet and light rums if they wanted to export any.

What Foursquare did was to use all the rum-making options available to them – experimenting with the pot still and column still blends, barrel strategy, multiple maturations, various finishes, in situ ageing – and market the hell out of the result.  None of this would have mattered one whit except for the intersection of several major new forces in the rumiverse: the drive and desire for pure rums (i.e., unadulterated by additives); social media forcing disclosure of such additives and educating consumers into the benefits of having none; the rise and visibility of independents and their more limited-release approach; and the market slowly shifting to at least considering rums that were issued at full proof, and hell, you can add the emergent trend of tropical ageing to the mix. Foursquare rode that wave and are reaping the benefits therefrom.  And let’s not gild the lily either – the rums they make in the Exceptional Series are quite good…it’s like they were making plain old Toyotas all the while, then created a low-cost Lexus for the budget-minded cognoscenti.

Now let’s be clear – if one considers a really pure rum made as being entirely from one country (or island), from a specific pot or column still, deriving from a single plantation or estate’s own sugar cane, molasses/juice, fermented on site, distilled on site, aged on site, then the Exceptional Series aren’t quite it, being very good blends of pot and column distillate, and made from molasses procured elsewhere. And while sugar and caramel are not added, the influence of wine or port or cognac barrels is not inconsiderable after so many years…which of course adds much to the allure. But I’m not a raging, hot-eyed zealot who wants rums to be stuck in some mythical past where only a very narrow definition of spirits qualifies as a rum – that stifles innovation and out of the box thinking and eventually quality such as is demonstrated here inevitably suffers.  I’m merely pointing out this matter to comment that the Exceptionals aren’t meant to represent Barbados as a whole (though I imagine Richard wouldn’t mind it if they did) – they’re meant to define Foursquare, to snatch back the glory and the street cred and the sales from other Bajan makers, and from the European re-bottlers and independents who made profits over the decades with such releases, and which many believe should remain in the land of origin.

But all that aside, there’s another aspect to this which must be mentioned: perhaps my focus still remains to narrow when I speak of the ECS and the company and the island.  In point of fact, given the incredible popularity and rabid fan appreciation for the series – outdone, perhaps, only by the mania for collaborations like the 2006, Triptych and its successors – it is entirely likely that the Exceptional Cask series is a Key Rum because the rums have to some extent had a global impact and strengthened trends which were started by The Age of Velier’s Demeraras, developed by Foursquare and now coming on strong in Jamaica – tropical ageing, no additives, cask strength.  So forget Barbados…these rums have had an enormous influence far beyond the island. They are part of the emergent trend to produce rums that are aimed between the newbies and the ur-geek connoisseurs and won’t break the bank of either.

Perhaps this is why they have captured the attention of the global rum crowd so effectively – for the Exceptional Series rums to ascend in the estimation of the rum public so quickly and so completely as to eclipse (no pun intended) almost everything else from Barbados, says a lot.  And although this is just my opinion, I think they will stand the test of time and take their place as rums that set a new standard for the distillery and the island. For that reason I decided not to take any one individual rum as a candidate for this series, but to include the entire set to date as “one” of the Key Rums of the World.


The Rums as of 2018

Note – I have not reviewed them all formally (though I have tasting notes for most). All notes here are mine, whether published or unpublished.


Picture (c) Henrik Larsen, from FB

Mark I“1998” 1998-2008 10 Year Old, Bourbon Cask, 40%, 15,000 bottles

This rum remains unacquired and untasted by me.  Frankly I think that’s the case for most people, and even though the outturn was immense at 15k bottles worldwide, that was ten years ago, so it’s likely to only be found on the secondary market. That said, I suspect this was a toe in the water for Foursquare, it tested the market and sought to move in a new direction, perhaps copying the independents’ success without damaging the rep or sales of the RL Seale’s 10 YO, Rum 66 or Doorly’s lineup.  The wide gap between 2008 and 2014 when the Port Cask came out suggests that some more twiddling with the gears and levers was required before Mark II came out the door, and Richard himself rather sourly grumbled that the importers forced him to make it 40% when in point of fact he wanted to go higher…but lacked the leverage at the time.

Mark II — “Port Cask Finish” 2005-2014 9YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 6yr-Port, Pot/Column Blend 40%, 30,000 bottles

Six years passed between Mark I and Mark II, and a lot changed in that time. New bloggers, social media explosion, wide acknowledgement of the additives issue. With the Premise, the PCF Mark II remains the largest issue to date at 30,000 bottles worldwide. Not really a finished rum in the classic sense, but more a double aged rum, with the majority of the time spent in Port Casks.

N – Rubber and acetone notes, fading, then replaced by a smorgasbord of fruitiness: soft citrus of oranges, grapes, raisins, yellow mangoes, plums, vanilla, toffee; also some spices, cinnamon for the most part, and some cardamom.

P – Soft and relatively wispy.  Prunes, vanilla, black cherries, caramel.  Some coconut milk and bananas, sweetened yoghurt.

F – Short, smooth, breathy, quiet, unassuming. Some fruits and orange peel with salted caramel and bananas

T – Still lacked courage (again, the strength was an importers’ demand), but pointed the way to all the (better) Exceptional Cask Series rums that turned up in the subsequent years.

Mark III“2004” 2004-2015 11 YO, Bourbon Cask, Pot/Column Blend, 59%, 24,000 bottles

In 2015 two rums were issued at the same time, both 11 years old.  This was the stronger one and its quality showed in no uncertain terms that Foursquare was changing the game for Barbados.

And the Velier connection was surely a part of the underlying production philosophy – we had been hearing for a year prior to the formal release that Richard Seale and Luca Gargano were turning up at exhibitions and fests to promote their new collaboration. Various favoured and fortunate tasters posted glowing comments on social media about the 2004 which showed that one didn’t need a massive and expensive marketing campaign to create buzz and hype

N – Clean and forceful, love that strength; wine, grapes, red grapefruit, fresh bread, laban, and bananas, coconut shavings, vanilla, cumin and cardamom.  Retasting it confirmed my own comment “…invite(s) further nosing just to wring the last oodles of scent from the glass.”

P – Brine and red olives. Tastes smoothly of vanilla and coconut milk and yoghurt drizzled over with caramel and melted salt butter. Fruits, quite strong and intense – red grapes, red currants, cranberry juice – with further oak and kitchen spices (cumin and coriander).  

F – Clear and crisp finish of oak, vanilla, olives, brine, toffee, and nougat.

Mark IV“Zinfadel” 2004-2015 11 YO Bourbon & Zinfadel casks, Pot/Column Blend 43%, 24,000 bottles

Not one of my favourites, really.  Nice, but uncomplicated in spite of the Zinfadel secondary maturation.  What makes it a standout is how much it packs into that low strength, which Richard remarked was a deliberate decision, not forced upon him by distributors – and that, if nothing else, showed that the worm was turning and he could call his own shots when it came to saying “I will issue my rum in this way.”

N – Light, with delicate wine notes, vanilla and white toblerone. A whiff of rotting bananas and fruits just starting to go.  Tart yoghurt and sour cream and a white mocha, with fruits and other notes in the background – green grapes, raisins, dark bread, ginger and something sharp.

P – Opens with watery fruits (papaya, pears, watermelon, white gavas), then steadies out with cereals, coconut shavings.  Also wine, tart red fruits – red currants, cranberries, grapes. Light and easy.

F – Quite pleasant, if short and relatively faint. fruits, coconut shavings, vanilla, milk chocolate, salted caramel, french bread (!!) and touch of thyme.

T – A marriage of two batches of rums: Batch 1 aged full 11 years in bourbon barrels; Batch 2 five years bourbon barrels then another six in ex-Zinfadel.  The relative quantities of each are unknown.

Mark V “Criterion” 2007-2017 10 YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 7yr-Madeira, Pot Column Blend 56%, 4,000 bottles

My feeling is that while the “2004” marked the true beginning of the really good Exceptionals, this is the first great ECS rum – all the ones before were merely essays in the craft before the mastery of Mark V kicked in the doors and blew off the roof, and all the others that came after built on the reputation this one garnered for itself. It was, to me, also the most individualistic of the various Marks, the one I have no trouble identifying from a complete lineup of Mark II to Mark VIII

N – Red wine, fruits, caramel in sumptuous abandon.  Oak is there, fortunately held back; breakfast spices, burnt sugar, nutmeg, cloves.  Also apples, grapes, pears, lemon peel, bitter chocolate and truffles.

P – Flambeed bananas, creme brulee, coffee, chocolate, it tastes like the best kind of late-night after-dinner bar-closer. Fruit jam, dates, prunes, crushed nuts (almonds) and the soft glide of honey in the background.  Delectable

F – Long. Deep, dark, salt and sweet together. Prunes and very ripe cherries and caramel and coffee grounds..

Mark VI“2005” 2005-2017 12 YO, ex-bourbon, Pot/Column Blend, 59%, 24,000 bottles

The 2005 was an alternative to the double maturation of the Criterion, being a “simple” single aged rum from bourbon casks, and was also a very good rum in its own way.  A solid rum, if lacking something of what made its brother so special (to me, at any rate – your own mileage might vary).

N – Deep fruity notes of pears, plums, peaches in syrup (though without the sugar, ha ha). Just thick and juicy.  Cream cheese, rye bread, cereals and osme cumin to give it a filip of lighter edge

P – Very nice but unspectacular: tart acidic and fleshy fruit tastes, mostly yellow mangoes, unripe peaches, red guavas, grapes raisins and a bit of red grapefruit.  Also a delicate touch of thyme and rosemary, with vanilla and some light molasses to wind things up.

F – Long and aromatic, fruits again, rosemary, caramel and toffee.

T – Not crisp so much as solid and sleek, without bite or edge. It lacks individuality while being a complete rum package for anyone who simply wants a strong, well-assembled and tasty rum

Mark VII“Dominus” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-cognac, Pot/Column Blend, 56%, 12,000 bottles

N – Dusty, herbal, leather, with smoke, vanilla, prunes and some ashy hints that were quite unexpected (and not unpleasant).  Turns lighter and more flowery after an hour in the glass, a tad sharp, at all times crisp and clear. It’s stern and uncompromising, a sharply cold winter’s day, precise and dry and singular.

P – Solid, sweetish and thick, very much into the fruity side of things – raisins, grapes, apples, fleshy stoned stuff, you know the ones. Also dates and some background brine, nicely done. A little dusty, dry, with aromatic tobacco notes, sour cream, cardboard, cereal and … what was this? … strawberries.

F – Quietly dry and a nice mix of musky and clear.  Mostly cereals, cardboard, sawdust, together with apples, prunes, peaches and a sly flirt of vanilla, salty caramel and lemon zest.

T – Quite distinct and individualistic, one of the ECS that can perhaps be singled out blind.

Mark VIII“Premise” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Sherry, Pot/Column Blend, 46%, 30,000 bottles

N – If the Dominus was a clear winter’s day, then the Premise is a bright and warm spring morning, redolent of flowers and a basket of freshly picked fruit.  Cumin, lime and massala, mixed up with apricot and green apples (somehow this works) plus grapes, olives and a nice brie. A bit salty with a touch of the sour bite of gooseberries, even pimentos (seriously!).

P – Very nice, quite warm and spicy, with a clear fruity backbone upon which are hung a smorgasbord of cooking spices like rosemary, dill and cumin. Faintly lemony and wine notes, merging well into vanilla, caramel and white nutty chocolate.

F – Delicately dry, with closing notes of caramel, vanilla, apricots and spices.

T – Too good to be labelled as mundane, yet there’s an aspect of “we’ve done this before” too. Not a rum you could pick out of a Foursquare lineup easily.

Summary

These tasting notes are just illustrative and for the purposes of this essay are not meant to express a clear preference of mine for one over any other (though I believe that some drop off is observable in the last couple of years). It is in aggregate that they shine, and the way they represent a higher quality than normal, issued over a period of many years. You hear lots of people praising the Real McCoy and Doorly’s lines of rums as the best of Barbados, but those are standard blends that remain the same for long periods.  The Exceptionals are a different keg of wash entirely – each one is of large-but-limited release quantity, each is different, each shows Foursquare trying to go in yet another direction. Crowdsourced opinions rarely carry much weight with me, but when the greater drinking public and the social-media opinion-geeks and the reviewing community all have nothing but good to say about any rum, then you know you really have something that deserves closer scrutiny. And maybe it’s worth running over to the local store to buy one or more, just to see what the fuss is all about, or to confirm your own opinion of this series of Key Rums.  Because they really are that interesting, that good, and that important.


Other Notes

I am indebted to Jonathan Jacoby’s informative graphic of the Fousquare releases and their quantities which he posted up on Facebook when the question of how many bottles were issued to the market came up in September of 2018.  It is the basis of the numbers quoted above. Big hat tip to the man for adding to the store of our knowledge here.

Big thank you and deep appreciation also go out to Gregers, Henrik and Nicolai from Denmark, who, on 24 hours notice, managed to get me samples of the last three rums so I could flesh out the tasting notes section of this essay on the Marks VI, VII and VIII.  You guys are the best.

Oct 072018
 

It’s odd that the fourth Exceptional Cask Series rum issued by Foursquare out of Barbados was issued at such a low proof.  The “1998” and “Port Cask” Marks I and II were both released at 40%, but the very good “2004” Mark III went higher, much higher (59%) and carved itself a solid niche all its own – in contrast to the emerging ABV-creep, the Zinfadel dialled itself down to a relatively mild 43%.  Perhaps, since both came out in 2015 it was felt to be a smart move to have one rated G just to offset the R-rated predator that was the “2004”, or to appease the importers who made Foursquare issue the first two Marks at 40%. Which would make sense, though for my money it remains an incrementally lesser offering from the House of Seale’s ECS, (an opinion I hold largely because of the great stuff that emerged after this one).

The Zinfadel 11 Year Old is a blend of batches of rums: one was aged for five years in bourbon casks and then another six in zinfadel barrels, and then married with another batch that had spent the full eleven years in bourbon casks.  Unusual for the time (2015), Richard Seale went around in person to the various international rumfests, masterclasses and private tastings, and started his engagement on social media (he does this more than any other primary producer I’m aware of), trumpeting the fact that nothing was added, the rums weren’t filtered and the casks were dry, dry, dammit – not wet or with residual wine sloshing around (an old trick to flavour rum more definitively).

Well, Zinfadel is a sweet wine, and its influence was sure to be noticeable, whether the barrels are wet or dry or damp – the real question was whether that influence created a profile that worked, or was too dominated by one or other component of the assembly. Nosing it for the first time suggested it was a bit of both though leaning more to the former – it was lighter than the Real McCoy 12 Year Old I was trying alongside it (that one was 46%, versus 43% for the Zin which may have accounted for that), with delicate wine notes, vanilla and white toblerone gradually overtaken by some rotting bananas and fruits just starting to go.  I liked its attendant creamy aroma, of yoghurt and sour cream and a white mocha, which grew tarter and fruitier over time – green grapes, raisins, dark bread, plus some spices, mostly ginger, cloves and cardamom

Tasting revealed somewhat less clothing in the suitcase, though it was quite a decent rum to sip (mixing it is totally unnecessary) – it was a little sharp before settling down into a relative smooth experience, and tasted primarily of white and watery fruits (pears, watermelon, white gavas), cereals, coconut shavings, sweet wine, and had a sly hint of tart red fruiness that was almost, but not quite sour, behind it all – red currants, cranberries, grapes.  It was quite light and easy and escaped being an alcohol-flavoured water in fine style – not bad for something at close to standard strength, and the touch of sweet fruitiness imparted by the Zin barrels was in no way overdone. Even the finish was quite pleasant, being warm, relatively soft, and closing off the show with some tart fruitiness, coconut shavings, vanilla, milk chocolate, salted caramel, french bread (!!) and touch of thyme.

Overall, quite an impressive dram for something so relatively staid in its strength.  The nose is really the best part of it, though it does promise quite a bit more than the taste eventually delivers.  With the light tastiness of the three parts – aroma, palate and finish – it’s easy to see why it remains a fan favourite.  And while it’s not one of my favourites of the Exceptional Cask Series (so far the Criterion holds that honour for me), it beat out the Real McCoy 12 YO handily, is within spitting distance of the 2004, and is a worthy addition to the canon of the Exceptionals. I’d buy it again…and the nice things is, three years after its release, I still can.

(#556)(83/100)

Oct 042018
 

Following on from the 2008-issued, dropped-out-of-sight, no-we-didn’t-see-it Exceptional Cask Series Mark I, Foursquare issued the 9 year old Port Cask Finish ECS Mark II in 2014 (and in a neat piece of humorous irony, it didn’t mention Mark-anything on the label, and wasn’t really a finished rum). And in 2015 the game changed with the solid triumph of the 2004 Mark III.

The wholly-Bourbon-cask-aged Mark I 10 YO “1998” was, in my opinion, a toe in the water, issued at a meek 40% and seemed like a way to test whether a different blending philosophy could be used to move away from the RL Seale’s 10 YO, Rum 66, Doorly’s XO and 12 YO rums without replacing them entirely. The Port Cask Finish released six years later in 2014 wasn’t getting too adventurous with its strength either, but it did show where Foursquare’s thinking was heading: a pot/column blend aged three years in bourbon barrels, six in port barrels.  As I recall from the year it came out, it made a modest kind of splash – “an interesting new direction for Foursquare” went one supercilious FB comment – but the madness of today’s sell-out-before-they-go-on-sale had to wait a little longer to gain real traction.

By 2015, Foursquare’s strategy clicked into place with the introduction of not one but two new rums, the milquetoast 43% Zinfadel Mark IV for the sweet-toothed and general soft-rum-loving audience, and something more feral for the fanboys – the 2004 11 YO Mark III, a straight-up bourbon-cask-aged rum, also a pot/column blend, unleashed at a muscular 59%.

That strength provided the 2004 with a crisp snap on the nose that was quite a step up from anything from the company I had tried before.  It was fruity, precise and forcefully clean in a way that clearly demonstrated that a higher proof was not a disqualifier for greater audience appreciation.  It smelled of wine, grapes, red grapefruit and mixed that up with scents of sourdough bread, unsweetened yoghurt and bananas. As if that wasn’t enough, after standing for a while, it exuded aromas of coconut shavings, irish coffee,vanilla, cumin and cardamom that invited further nosing just to wring the last oodles of scent from the glass.

Sometimes a proof point closing in on 60% makes for a sharp and searing experience when tasted – not here.  With some smooth blending skill, it remained warm-verging-on-hot, going down without bitchiness or spite. It tasted smoothly of vanilla and coconut milk and yoghurt drizzled over with caramel and melted salt butter. It developed a smorgasbord of fruits – red grapes, red currants, cranberry juice – with further oak and kitchen spices like cumin and coriander bringing up the rear.  There was even some brine and red olives making themselves quietly known in the background (the brine came forward over time), and while the finish wasn’t all that long, it provided a clear finish of oak, vanilla, olives, brine, toffee, and nougat, and was in no way a let down from what had come before, and I enjoyed this one a lot

The day I tried it, this rum was in some really good Bajan company, lemme tell you, and it held its own in fine style – so yes, that’s an unambiguous endorsement. Overall, the 2004 was a solid, well-constructed rum with a panoply of tastes that could hardly be faulted. It was way ahead of anything Foursquare had made before, instantly pushed the “standard” 4S/Seale/Doorly lines into second-tier status, and to my mind did more than any other single rum to mark Foursquare’s future ascendance and reputation on the Bajan rum scene. It pointed the way to the superlative 2006 10 Year Old, the excellence of the Criterion Mark V, and all the other Exceptional Casks to come, like the 2005, the Dominus and the Premise.

Best of all, continuing a philosophy Foursquare have adhered to ever since for the Exceptionals, it wasn’t priced out of sight — and those who saw it for what it was and managed to buy a bottle or a case, had very little to complain about, because the rum was and remains on the short list of Foursquare’s real good ‘uns. Their best rums, whether made alone or with the Habitation, mix controlled passion and cheerful excess, uninterested in any kind of subtle statements, and you know what? — with this one, Richard may even have cracked a smile as he made it.

(555)(85/100)

 

Sep 162018
 

The Harewood Barbados rum from 1780 which was trotted out with a tantara of trumpets and a choir of angels at the Tasting of the Century held in London on September 13th, 2018, will probably stand the test of time as the oldest rum that any reviewer or rum aficionado will ever be able to try – not old in terms of ageing (which in this case is unknown), just with respect to how very long ago it was made. It was exceptional in so many respects that it even eclipsed the launch of the Hampden rums which (together with Ms. Harris’s stunning red ensemble) were ostensibly the real reason for the get-together of so many journalists and rum bloggers.

Given the social media blast which attended that day, many of the facts about the Harewood (bow head, doff cap, genuflect) are now reasonably well known, but since I’ve been following the story since the story broke in 2013, I’ll recap them briefly here. The Harewood estate in Yorkshire was built on the fortune of one Henry Lascelles who arrived in Barbados in 1711, and who within twenty years had built a small empire founded on sugar and banking.  In 2011, his descendant Mark Lascelles found 28 cobweb- and filth-encrusted bottles in the cellar of Harewood House and after ascertaining that they were rums, auctioned them off in two lots. The entire (first) collection of twelve handblown bottles sold for £80,000 at Christie’s in 2014, though the buyers were not disclosed by the Daily Mail which reported on the matter. Sleuthing around informs me that Hedonism Wines of London bought one and then resold it for $17,350 to Wealth Solutions who put a capsule into each edition of their collection of 100 Rum Watches within the “Spirits Watches” collection, and the rum has been dubbed the most expensive in the world. Obviously either LMDW or Velier (or both) bought another (or several) and maybe the Whisky Exchange took a third, hence their listing.  But who cares? This is beyond history, beyond heritage. This is the rum from further back in time then any of us proles were ever likely to try.

And just look at the Bad Boys of Rum who were called in to help taste it: John Gibbons, Gregers Nielsen, Wes of The Fat Rum Pirate, Steve James of the Rum Diaries Blog, Matt Pietrek the Cocktail Wonk, Pete Holland from the Floating Rum Shack and Tatu Kaarlas of Refined Vices were all there trying this thing at the same time I was — and let me tell you, it was a  kinetic experience to hang out with some of the best known writing personages of the rumiverse, and be able to cheerfully talk and sample and poke fun at each other all at the same time.

Photo courtesy of Matt Pietrek The Cocktail Wonk

In fine, the amazing company aside, it was a fantastic rum. I swear that as we started I regarded the rum with the dark cynicism of an observer of the current American political scene. No way could any rum live up to the hype of the bare stats – 1780; found by accident; oldest from Barbados; most expensive ever; ancient; pure; a window into Ago. “Please God, let this not be an epic fail,” I muttered to myself as I walked over to the tasting to join the Collective. I need not have worried.

The very first — almost disbelieving — notes I wrote down in my book were “How can a rum from that far back smell so modern?”  The aroma was like a top end cask strength rum issued today – decant into a new bottle, slap a fancy label and some words on it, and it could be something you see on a shelf in your local spirits emporium boasting a chubby price tag. It started off musty and dusty, something like the Samaroli 1948 West Indian rum.  It smelled of glue, sawdust, cedar wood, crushed walnuts, grapes and orange marmalade, all of which came together in an extraordinary balance. It developed into rotting apples, sour cream, gherkins in vinegar, before doing a switcheroo and becoming dry and phenolic. It had briny notes, minty notes, licorice notes, hints of molasses, olives, wood chips, aromatic tobacco, light fruits, clean herbs (almot agricole-like)….and this was all in the first ten minutes. The 69% strength at which it was bottled gave everything, and held back nothing, and I had a sneaking suspicion that if I were to strap it onto my bathtub and add wheels, I could set lap records at the Nurburgring.

And that was just the nose.  Tasting it elevated my opinion even more.  The strength was totally bearable and not sharp or vinegary or nasty in the slightest – oh sure it was fierce and strong and hot and dry, but it was a full proof rum and this was par for the course – what was remarkable was its overall sippability (is that a real word?). Initial flavours were of light sugar water, apples and watermelon juice (that agricole touch again), acetones, more tobacco, nail polish, grapes, licorice, light molasses, fried bananas and dark chocolate.  It also had a texture and taste of unsweetened fresh yoghurt drizzled with olive oil, the musky taste of hummus and pea soup and dark yeasty bread, which gradually retreated into a sort of subtle fruitiness, of orange marmalade, pears and the crispness of unripe yellow mangoes. It was the sort of rum that simply got better as it rested and opened up in the glass, and while I was trying hard not to pay attention to the soft conversation and chirps of delight from my compadres left, right and opposite, I don’t think my appreciation was limited to myself alone.  Even the finish was not a let down, and provided a proper ending to the rum – long, aromatic, redolent of light anise and furniture polish, dust, hay and some oak, bitter chocolate, nuts and a last hint of fruitiness too laid back to identify precisely.

In summary…wow!  Honestly, if it was commercially available, it should come loaded with a book of quotations that had nothing but expletives, together with a thesaurus listing all the equivalents to the word “awesome”, just in case one’s vocabulary isn’t up to the task.  Would I recognize it blind? Is it representative of Barbados at all? I don’t know – probably not. What I think is that it’s a rum trembling right on the edge of being off the scale.

The Harewood 1780 is, to me, one of the most paradoxical rums I’ve ever tried, because with a very few exceptions, almost nobody who could afford it could possibly appreciate it, and just about nobody who can appreciate it could possibly afford it (one exception, as all are aware, is Luca Gargano, who organized this epic event and about whom no more need be said). Moreover, aside from being the oldest rum in existence (for now) the rum is amazing in one other respect — it adheres to a profile so modern that were one to taste it without knowing what it was (fat chance, I know), it would not be out of the realms of possibility to give it a great score and then ask wonderingly which new independent on the rum scene made this damned thing.

But we couldn’t try it blind – and much as I tried to not let the heritage and age of this rum sway my mind and my scoring, the fact of the matter was that the panoply of tastes and the complexity of the whole experience could not be denied.  We who sat down that day and tried this rum were privileged beyond all measure to have a window opened up into the way rums tasted back then, how they were different from now…yet also curiously the same. For all the changes that have occurred in the industry and the technology between 1780 and 2018, the truth is that the current inheritors of the tradition of quality rum-making aren’t that far away from what was once being made. And that is all to the credit of both those who came before, and those who make rums now.  

(#549)(94/100)


Other notes

  • There were some moral some issues with selling a rum made by the labour of slaves – a way around the matter was found by donating all the proceeds of the sales to charity.
  • Since the modern columnar still had not been invented at the time, it stands to reason the rum was made on a pot still of some kind.
  • The rum was distilled in two forms, according to Christie’s – “Light” and “Dark”, with apparently differing taste profiles.  Whether the terms were used for colours or an actual distillation technique is unknown, but it’s with some dismay that I now have to see if in my lifetime I can find a sample of the “Dark”. The Light tested at 69.38% ABV and the Dark at 57.76% (page 40 of Christie’s catalogue)
  • Links to other articles on the Rum Tasting of the Century (to be updated as other articles appear):

 

Sep 022018
 

Back in early 2018, when I wrote about the Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, Ivar de Laat, one of the rum chums in Toronto, grumbled “I wish Mount Gay would be a little bolder. I find it all too friendly and not daring enough.”  Were he to try this one — at the time he had not — he might possibly reconsider the first part of that statement….but not necessarily the second. Because the XO Cask Strength is equally friendly as its lesser proofed predecessor…and definitely bolder.  Much bolder. And in that lies its attraction – that and its limited-edition premium cachet.

Though Mount Gay remains a major producer of quality Bajan rums and has a brand awareness quotient that’s pretty damned high (I named the standard XO one of the Key Rums of the World, remember), you get the sense that with the eyes of the rum world being dragged constantly to regard only Foursquare, it’s slipping in status.  Well, maybe. My own feeling is that this nicely presented edition is an answer to those who want the XO hauled into the current world of limited, full proof juice without reinventing Barbados rums in any particular or fundamental way.

You can’t fault the presentation or the stats (though you might balk at the price). The ovoid bottle is nicely labelled with the bottle number and Allen Smith’s signature, comes in a handsome wooden box with a small booklet in it that speaks to the rum. It doesn’t state the outturn on the label, but it’s 3000 bottles, a rum to mark fifty years of independence though itself it is not that old, being a blend of pot and column still rums aged between 8-15 years old (just like the regular XO, even if one gets the impression that certain select barrels were chosen here).  And of course the main selling point, the 63% ABV, Mount Gay’s first serious foray into these strong and dangerous rum currents.

Even ignoring the premium nature of it, the strength makes it a step up, because the entire profile is more powerful, more aggressive…much more solid. The assertive attack of the nose was a clear indicator that Mount Gay wanted to produce something to appeal to those who desired precisely that: it was hot and had a certain kind of fierce yet musky aroma redolent of a stable – dry, dusty hay, and leather. It developed further into caramel, nuts, almonds and dates and was very pleasantly deep and rich after opening up, with a fine line of bananas, peaches, light licorice, cognac and grapes lending a solid background to the smell, all really nicely done.

That high-proof solidity of taste was also evident on the palate, though here some sharpness could not be avoided at 63%. Initial flavours of carmel and vanilla, blended with some light fruits (grapes, bananas, peaches) which lent some balance, but which faded oddly and quietly and rapidly away – surprising for something so strong. But as a consolation there were also notes of coconuts, licorice, burnt sugar, almonds, cumin, oak, eucalyptus, and something faintly minty, gone in a flash.  Even the finish showed that some care and attention had been paid – it was long, dry, and left memories of hot and very strong black tea, caramel, oak, crushed almonds and vanilla.

A very nice, solid rum – if I had to sum it up in the fewest possible words I’d say it’s a cranked up and better XO (which I tried alongside it, mostly out of curiosity).  There’s nothing at all wrong with it – indeed, as noted above, it’s quite good – but conversely and paradoxically, nothing intensely exciting or exceptional about it either.  Certainly it has somewhat of a longer and more muscular leopard’s tail in its trousers, but it twitches much the same.

Because of the similarity in profile and naming, it’s almost impossible to get away from the inevitable comparison of the Cask Strength XO to the venerable and very well known standard version. The question is, I suppose, whether its worth five times as much, considering it’s “only” half again as strong, the profile is similar, the outturn is limited and the ageing is about the same (strip away the premium part and it may just be an undiluted XO).  Still, I don’t think premium rums can or should be approached from this kind of coldly mathematical perspective, since any product’s value (and quality) diverges geometrically away from price the higher one goes. The Mount Gay XO Cask Strength is a perfectly serviceable rum, solid, sober, strong, traditional, tasty, totally in line with its forebears – it’s may be buying at least once, even at the price, just for that, especially if one is into the Bajan canon. But if you’re looking for “daring” as well as “bold,” you may have to wait a little longer before the company puts one like that out the door. This rum is only halfway there.

(#545)(85/100)

Aug 292018
 

Rumaniacs Review #083 | 0544

Here’s a Doorly’s five year old rum that predates their acquisition by Foursquare in 1992.  Note the Alleyne, Arthur & Hunte script at the bottom – they were also a merchant bottler in Barbados (they made the original Old Brigand and the Special Barbados Rum), who acquired Doorly’s in the 1970s and were themselves taken over by Foursquare in 1993. So the best we can date this specific Doorly’s rum is within that period (I’ll place it in the 1980s). The fascination is, of course, in how the product from back then compares against the Doorly’s 5YO made by Foursquare now, though unfortunately I’ve not tried the current iteration, so I’ll have to wait until I pick one up.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 43%

Nose – Warm and fruity, fairly similar in general terms to other Doorlys’ from modern times, or even the Real McCoy, though I think it may be a smidgen better – perhaps because its more straightforward, more simple, and doesn’t try for serious complexity.  Notes of peaches meld nicely with cherries, dates, molasses and flambeed bananas.

Palate – Intensity and clarity gets dialled down a notch, though it’s still quite flavourful, and dry. Sugar water and white fruits, pears, watermelon.  Cherries and peaches become evident after a while, with some saltiness (not much). There’s a nice hint of strawberries and unsweetened yoghurt in the background.

Finish – Short, dry, lightly fruity and creamy, with a dusting of crushed almonds thrown in.

Thoughts – I tried it alongside the Doorly’s XO and 12 Year Old, and it held up really well against those two.  Maybe it was made in simpler times, with less experimentation of the plates on the stills, less blending of pot and column distillate, I don’t know.  It just presented as a straightforward rum in whose simplicity lay its strength. I liked it a lot.

(82/100)


Opinion

The more of these short-form rum retrospectives I write and the further back in history I go the more my sense of frustration grows.  While it is certainly easier to do one’s research on current rums and companies than it must have been for the earlier book writers like David Broom or Ed Hamilton, what makes me despair is how much has already been lost. To name two off the top of my head, just try researching Dethleffson or Sangster-Baird in depth and see how far that gets you.

If nobody is on record as documenting (for example) when the Banks DIH 10 year old first appeared, or when this Doorly’s came out, or background notes on the Three Daggers Jamaican rums, then all we are left with is the labels on Peter’s site in the Czech Republic, the bottles in private collectors’ warehouses, these few write-ups….and nothing else.  My friends and colleagues in the rum world take a lot of time and care documenting distillery visits, estate histories, the development of rums in whole countries…but not many ever get into the granularity of the history of an individual rum or its brand.

As a lover of both rum and history, all I can say is that leaves us all poorer, and perhaps it’s time for producers, distillers, amateur and professional writers, to start taking this undervalued niche of the rumiverse more seriously and making it available outside of company archives (assuming those exist). Knowing who Foursquare and Doorly’s and Alleyne, Arthur & Hunte are and how they came together is one thing.  Knowing which rums they made and when they were issued, is quite another. And my personal opinion is that we need such details to be available publicly — because let’s face it, we can’t always be running to Richard every time we have a question on a Bajan rum.

Dec 312017
 

Although I always have controls on hand when writing a review, it’s not always clear in my writing how they all relate to each other, since the individual essay speaks to just a single rum.  However, I’m a firm believer in doing flights of multiple rums, whether horizontally (several rums of similar age or provenance), or vertically (where a single maker’s entire range is evaluated up and down the age or strength scale).  Such exercises are useful in that they permit similarities and differences to snap more clearly into focus, and perhaps some interesting judgements can be made on that basis.

Some time back when I was out in the real world, I spent some time doing a white rum run-through (this led to one of my favourite lists, the 21 Great Whites), a Jamaican flight (still to be written up) and this one of nine rums from Barbados.  The selections were not standard-strength or more commercially available rums like St. Nicholas Abbey, Mount Gay, Doorly’s or Fousquare, but mostly independents and limited releases: since such caskers possess attributes of strength and individuality which I felt to be incompatible with larger-volume blends existing in their own space and time; and they appeal to a different grouping of rum lovers than the specific rums tried here.  This may reduce its usefulness to some (aside from the fact that I could have made the list much longer), but certainly some limited conclusions could be drawn from the exercise nevertheless.  I’ve dispensed with my notes, thoughts and observations on each rum (that was not the purpose of the session) but the full length essay on each is linked where available, and will provide any additional background information these quick tasting notes don’t have.

So without further ado, here they are in my final post of 2017. Enjoy.


Cadenhead Mount Gay 2000-2008 8 YO BMMG 66.3%

Nose – Hot and fierce. Honey, flambeed bananas, nutmeg and peaches, salty caramel.  Gets a little sweeter over time, very distinctly so with water.

Palate – Sharp, hot. Bananas, caramel and burnt sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Tart fruits are there but take a back seat to softer ones.  Water is almost required here since it allows the lighter fruity notes to emerge more distinctly

Finish – Not so impressive – dry and medium long, but for the intensity there’s surprisingly little going on here

(84.5/100)

Cadenhead Green Label 2000-2010 10YO Mount Gay 46%

Nose – Acetone, nail polish, quite light. Bananas are back, also nutmeg and peaches, a flirt of caramel, and in fact it is quite similar to the BMMG above.  It is pleasant and light, with honey and some salty caramel remaining as the backbone, interestingly melded with some ashes and charred wood, and some medicinal notes I didn’t care for.

Palate – Salt and sweet caramel, sweet soya.  Those hospital smells translated to the palate also, not successfully IMHO.  Green tea, some pears and light fruits, chocolate and the honey almost disappears. The easy strength works well here.

Finish – 46% betrays itself into a short, light fade, mostly florals, honey, caramel and a dash of citrus rind.

(82/100)

Isla del Ron 2000-2013 Mount Gay 12 YO 61.6%

Nose – Mount Gay really does seem to have something of a profile all its own, leaning towards honey, bananas, light caramel, acetone, some rubber and a bit of brine.  Some sweet syrupy smells like mixed fruit in a can.  Resting didn’t add much to this one.

Palate – For all its heat and power, there wasn’t much going on here as one would expect.  Vanilla, brine, mint, chocolate with watery fruits (watermelon, papaya, white guavas), but all quite vague.

Finish – Long, salty-caramel-ice-cream; almonds, walnuts, vanilla, brine and an olive or two. Quite tame.

(83/100)

Compagnie des Indes 2006-2016 Foursquare 9 YO 62.1%

Nose – Olive oil in a nice garden salad, oddly enough, but sweeter florals permeate the nose as well, nicely integrated strength and balance with acetone, cherries and peaches, red grapes and Moroccan olives.

Palate – Nice! Caramel and licorice, fried bananas, apricots, chocolate and light coffee grounds. It’s 62.1% yet this is hardly felt.  Apples and some lemon zest round out an excellent profile

Finish – Longish, with cider, apples, salted butter, light molasses.  It’s a bit sharp, and with water it gets toned down very nicely indeed, at the expense of some of its distinct flavours.

(87/100)

Habitation Velier 2013-2015 Foursquare ~2 YO 64%

Nose – Power, lots of power here, leading in with pink rock salt and tomato-stuffed olives. Rubber, glue, vanilla ice cream drizzled over with hot caramel and chocolate. Lemons, cumin, sweet paparika and pepper. There’s a little wine-iness in the background, but this is very faint, almost unnoticeable.

Palate – Salty olive oil and soya, like a rich vegetable soup impregnated with lemon grass, cumin and dill. Nuts, dates and peaches, rubbery and wax notes, not all playing entirely harmoniously together, though for sheer originality it’s certainly worth a second (or third) try.  Water helps here.  Sweetness returns, caramel, fruits, herbs, really quite an experience.

Finish – Surprisingly short.  Creamy.  Dark sesame-seed bread plus herbs, caramel, honey, sweet olives. Points for originality, if nothing else, and not one you’re likely to forget anytime soon.

(87/100)

Foursquare 2005-2014 9 YO Port Cask Finish 40% (Exceptional Cask Series)

Nose – Rubber and acetone to start, fruity notes quite distinct. Grapes, oranges, tangerines (not lemons).  Vanilla, toffee, cinnamon.  Smells like a slightly amped-up Doorly’s 12 YO, showcasing what that could have been with more barrel work, because this one is younger than the Doorley’s, almost the same strength…but better.

Palate – Wish it was stronger, as that intriguing nose does not efficiently deliver tastes in equal measure: mixed fruits in a salad bowl sprinkled with brown sugar, raisins, cherries, bananas, some coconut (I liked that) and charred wood.

Finish – Short, warm, almost light.  Certainly it’s easy. A few fruity notes, some toffee, blancmage, orange zest. It works, but not as well as it might have.

(82/100)

Compagnie des Indes 2000-2016 Foursquare 16 YO 62%

Nose – Luscious.  Black grapes, prunes, plums, honey, tinned fruit salad syrup simply without excess cloying-ness which might have ruined it. 62% is remarkably well controlled, even gentle.  Sweet red olives, fried bananas, hot black tea.

Palate – Very well done, dry intense, quite rich.  Acetone (fading fast), honey, black tea sweetened with condensed milk, cherries, apricots and even some rosemary.  An interesting combination of delicacy and heft, and that’s quite a trick for any rum to pull off.

Finish – Long, rich, fruity, zesty, includes some of those sweet cooking herbs.  Doesn’t quite ignite, however, and the components don’t mesh as well as they might. That said, still a rum to savour neat, in spite of its strength.

(86/100)

Foursquare 2006-2016 Single Blended Rum 62%

Nose – As good as I remember, as amazing. Nougat, white toblerone, cream cheese; peaches, strawberries and cream, citrus rind, and a majestic panoply of darker berries and fruits. Just a lovely nose.

Palate – Dried apricots and mangoes; rich brown honey spread on toasted black bread. Cherries, overripe grapes, lemon zest and all this retains great pungency over long periods. Hard to believe, with its smoothness and assembly, that this is north of 60% ABV.

Finish – Surpisingly easy; warm, not sharp.  Quite fruity and creamy, both soft and tart at the same time.  The integration is excellent, the balance superb.

(91/100)

Bristol Spirits Rockley Still 1986-2012 26 YO 46%

Nose – Meaty, chewy, salty maggi-cubes.  Brine, olives, salted caramel. Wow, quite a left-turn.  Where was the sherry? Sweeter fruit and some waxy pungency take their own sweet time coming out, plus honey and nuts after maybe ten minutes.

Palate – Much better to taste than to smell.  Caramel, weak molasses, dollops of dark honey, cough drops, leather, rye bread.  Also bitter chocolate, burnt sugar, stewed apples and the tartness of firm white unripe fruit – apples, ginnip, soursop, that kind of thing.

Finish – Short, fruity, honey-like, with additional notes of polish on old leather. Great balance

(86/100)


Having tried these few, then, what can one say about the lot?

Well, to begin with, I believe that with some practice one can indeed pick out the Mount Gay from a Foursquare rum, though I can’t pretend this is a statistically significant sample set, and I wasn’t trying them blind, and most of the reviews had already been written. Also, spare a thought for WIRD’s Rockley Still from Bristol Spirits, which is something of an outlier in this listing dominated by the other two big guns.  In October 2017 when Marco Freyr (of Barrel Aged Mind) and I were talking and sampling like cash-rich newbs in the rumshop, he remarked that there was no way – ever! – he could mistake a Rockley Still rum.  The profile was simply too distinct from the other Bajan makers, and while at the time I didn’t entirely agree with him, further tastings of other WIRD rums (not on this list, sorry) showed that in all likelihood, with a large enough sample set, yeah, he was absolutely right – even under the influence of the sherry casks in which it was aged, it was markedly different and particular to itself, and strength had nothing to do with it.

It’s clear that quality, enjoyment and a high ranking does not rest on age, or strength, or finishing and not on fancy barrel strategy.  None of these attributes in isolation automatically makes for a good rum…a relatively youthful cognac-aged Habitation Velier ranked very well against a lesser proofed other-barrel-aged rum like the Foursquare Port Cask.  And the higher power of the 8 YO Cadenhead BMMG only marginally improved it over the older, but weaker, Green Label, neither of which had any ageing in other barrels than the norm.  The Danish cask strength CDI Foursquare rums were also quite good in spite of one being almost double the age of the other. So clearly, age has its limitations, as does the type of barrel or finishing regimen used, or the strength.

But push them into combination with each other and you’ve really got something.  The Foursquare Velier collaboration of the almost legendary 2006 ten year old pressed all the right buttons at once, and this is why even on this go-around, it beat out all the competitors.  It’s simply as spectacular now as it was then, and while it’s not the best Bajan ever made (I haven’t tried every Bajan ever made), it remains a high water mark for sure and demonstrated that when judiciously applied, with verve and skill and style, the intersection of the three components results in some awesome juice.

Lastly, it is no secret that 2017 has pretty much been the year of Foursquare (Velier might dispute that given the enthusiasm over its 70th Anniversary special issues) — and I don’t just mean the company, but its rums in general, whether released by them or other independents. This small selection of nine rums from Barbados show why this is so. That’s not to take anything away from the others, which all scored reasonably well and are credit to the island’s rum making heritage.  But certainly Richard Seale is riding high at the moment, and it remains to be seen whether the other brands from Barbados will step up to the high standards he is setting, or get relegated to second tier status for the foreseeable future.  For that reason alone, the next years’ developments will make watching Barbados rums evolve a fascinating experience.

Jan 292017
 

Two year old fire in a bottle

#339

You’d think that after running through a set of FourSquare products over the last few months (here, here, here and here), that I’ve more or less covered what I wanted to and moved on.  Yeah…but no such luck. Still got a few more to come, starting with a representative of one of the most hotly anticipated rum “series” in recent memory: the Habitation Velier outturns of very young rums, you remember the ones, those with the cool pics of the stills of origin on the labels. They are primarily from the Big Three – Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana — and while they are aimed at the general market, my own feeling is that it’s hardcore aficionados who are more likely to enjoy them, not those who are beginning their own personal journey of rum discovery.  You’ll see why in a minute.

This series of rums has several reasons for existing.  To begin with, as Velier’s reputation grew over the last five years Luca Gargano wanted to move along from the issuance of full proof, single still, aged-beyond-all-reason rums whose prices were climbing geometrically, and to collaborate more with other distilleries so as to get newer and more affordable juice out the door.  Second he wanted to prove that young rums could be every bit as exciting as the hoary old grandfathers (in rum years) with which he had originally established Velier’s street cred.  Third, he wanted a showcase for his proposed new rum classifications, the so-called Seale-Gargano system developed with himself and Richard Seale (or should it be the Gargano-Seale system?) which is gradually picking up some traction (though not outright acceptance…yet).  An lastly, of course, just to laugh out loud, shake things up a tad, and make some hot-snot new rums that one could get excited about, which existed in their own universe not overshadowed by the oldsters from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

So, the details of this Bajan popskull from FourSquare: it’s a pale yellow two-year-old (actually two years eleven months according to 4S), issued at a rip-snorting frisson of sixty four degrees of unapologetically badass proofage, pot-still derived, and aged in 370-liter cognac barrels, which may be the single element that raised its profile above that of a standard young overproof and into the realms of some kind of inspired insanity.  And I use the term carefully, because anyone thinking that somehow Velier and 4S waved a magic wand and wove a masterpiece of smooth Bajan silk that took nearly three years to make, would have been in for something of a rude awakening if they tried it with that preconception in mind.  It wasn’t anything of the sort.  Sniffing it for the first time was like inhaling an incandescent blaze of sheet lightning.

“Wtf is this?!” I remember asking myself in dumbfounded amazement as I jotted down my notes. It was hot vanilla and caramel shot through with flashes of brine and olives, all on top of a pot-still impregnated glue-gun. Swirling notes of black pepper, licorice and crushed nuts stabbed through here and there, with an amalgam of cooking spices bringing up the rear – salt and lemon pepper, a little paprika thrown in for good measure, a smorgasbord of sweet and salt and tartness.  It wasn’t entirely harmonious (are you kidding?) but a very distinct nose, suggesting that maybe FourSquare should experiment more with solo pot still rums instead of blending pot and column in their standard lineup.

Moving cautiously into the taste, I tried it neat first, then with water, and similarly intense flavours rose up and smote me righteously both times. Something of salty-oily tequila tastes were first off,  like a Maggi cube (or Knorr, if you’re in Europe) in veggie soup; nuts, dates and peaches followed, interspersed with background hints of rubber and wax, all very very intense and very firm, individual and discrete.  Water did help to tame this beast (to be honest, I took some masochistic pleasure in the sheer force of this thing and added it more out of curiosity) – that allowed some of the sweetness to finally emerge at the backend, though that was more like a thin vein of licorice, burnt sugar and cream than a caramel-toffee mother lode.  I must concede that for a rum this young, it had quite a flavour set – even the finish, which was surprisingly short (and dry) didn’t repeat the experience, but added a few extra hints of kero, fruit, black bread and kräuterquark (ask the Germans), plus a final flirt of honey.  I was left feeling enthused (and quite a bit breathless) at the end of it all, and tried it again a few more times over the next few days, just to see whether the experience mellowed at all with time (it didn’t).

Whew!  This is a hell of a rum. I’m going to go on record as stating it might be better approached not only with some care, but also without illusions and absolutely not as your first foray into rums of any kind. It is a bold, burning, singular rum of real strength and a really crisp profile which would not necessarily appeal to lovers of the kinds of hooch that FourSquare and St Nick’s and Mount Gay have been putting out for decades, because it’s not soft, and it’s not tolerant and it’s not easy.  What it actually is, is a young product that hits both your expectations and your palate like a well swung sledgehammer and upends both.  Perhaps I’ve had so many rums in my time that I’m somewhat jaded and am on the lookout for stuff that goes off in different directions, but you know, that’s not what we have here, because it’s unmistakably the real deal.  It’s quite simply, unique: and in tasting it, I got a forceful reminder of all the amazing directions a rum could go, when made by masters who could actually dream, and dare, of making it.

(87/100)

Other notes

The bottle (a sample thereof) came my way courtesy of Henrik of RumCorner at the follow-up to the Berlin RumFest in 2016, sometimes called “The ‘Caner Afterparty”. As he lovingly extracted it from his haversack that afternoon (being careful to snatch it back if our pours got to heavy, which meant a lot of snatching was going on), Henrik told me that he had been hanging around the agricole stand when Richard Seale passed by; immediately a small crowd gathered and a discussion group started (and knowing the two of them, at least, it could not have been anything other than intense).  When the group dispersed, Richard casually took the bottle, which he had had in his hands the whole time, and handed it over to Henrik without any intro or comment whatsoever. Gotta love them rum folks, honestly.

Dec 302016
 

A spectacular rum from FourSquare (and Velier), perhaps the best Bajan they’ve ever made.

#332

***

This is a rum that screaming aficionados were waiting for like fans at a Justin Bieber or Beyonce concert (or the Rolling Stones, maybe), and no write-up of the thing could be complete without mentioning the unbelievable sales pattern it displayed…in my entire rum-purchasing experience, I’ve never seen anything like it. The Velier/FourSquare collaboration was making the rounds of various masterclasses in festivals around the world for almost a year before actually going on sale, and then, when it became available in August 2016 (primarily in Europe), it sold out in fifteen minutes.  All this without a single formal review being issued, just word of mouth.

The only comparator in recent memory that I can think of might be the Panamonte XXV, which also flew off the shelves, and which also illustrates how far along the rum world has come in less than five years.  When I got that one, it was considered one of the best rums of its kind, receiving raves across the board – and indeed, for its age (25 years), strength (40%) and price ($400) it was well positioned at the top of the food chain…back then.  But even in 2012 many of us aficionados had moved on past the self imposed 40% limitation, and while the Panamonte was certainly a good product, it was also, perhaps, a high water mark for standard proof rums – people who know enough and have enough to want to drop that kind of coin, have by now migrated past that anemic proofage and demand cask strength, definitively pure rums which are made by trusted sources.  This is why Arome’s five hundred bottle outturn of their new Panamanian 28 year old, about which not much is known aside from the marketing campaign and some FB dustups, is likely to be met with indifference from those who actually know their rums (though not from those with money), while 2400 bottles of FourSquare’s ten year old have become unavailable faster than you can say “wtf” in Bajan.

And once the bottle gets cracked, you can understand why.  Because it’s an amazing rum, sold at a (low) price that would be an insult if it wasn’t so good, for something that ticks all the boxes: cask strength, check; no additives, check; issued in collaboration with one of the most famous names in the pure-rumworld, check; by a distillery long known for championing a lack of additives, check; by being trotted out at exclusive masterclasses where word of mouth made it a must-have, check.  This thing is like an exquisite small foreign film that gains accolades in the filmfest circuit  before heading off to the oscars and cleaning up there and at the box office.

Can any rum really live up to such expectations?  I don’t know about you, but it sure upended mine, because my first reaction when I opened it and sniffed was a disbelieving “what the f…?” (in Bajan).  It banged out the door with the kinetic energy of a supercar popping the clutch at 5000 rpm, blowing fierce fumes of briny olives and caramel and oak straight down my nose and throat, before someone slammed on the brakes and eased off.  What I’m trying to put over in words is something of the power of the experience, because it blasted off fast and furious and then settled down for a controlled, insane smorgasbord of nasal porn – nougat, white toblerone, peaches, citrus peel, chocolate, coffee grounds, cinnamon, enough to drive a Swiss confectioner into hysterics.  The creaminess of the nose was simply astounding – it was almost impossible to accept this was a 62% rum, yet it purred smoothly along without bite or bitchiness, scattering heady aromas of fruity badass in all directions – prunes, plums, blackcurrants and dark olives.  

And meanwhile, the taste of the rum, its glissading force across the palate, simply had to be experienced to be believed.  Not because it was all sound and fury and stabbing tridents of Poseidon, no (although it was powerful, one could not simply ignore 62% ABV), but because it was such a controlled strength.  And what emerged from within the maelstrom of proof was amazingly tasty – apricots, plums, raisins, blueberries, cinnamon, rye bread with butter and honey, all creamy and chewy to a fault (and that was just the first five minutes).  With water even more came boiling to the surface: dark grapes and an enormous array of fruity and citrusy notes, tied up in a bow with more caramel, coffee grounds, black unsweetened chocolate paprika…man, it was like it didn’t want to stop.  Even the finish upended expectations, being neither short and fleeting, nor overstaying its welcome, but almost perfect, with some floral hints, an interesting driness, and some nuttiness to accompany all that had come before, pruned down to a fierce minimalism emphasizing both heft and subtlety at the same time.

It would be arrogant in the extreme for me to say this is the best rum ever made in Barbados, since I haven’t tried every rum ever made in Barbados.  But I can and must say this – the rum points the way to the future of top-class Bajan popskull just as surely as the Velier Demeraras did for the Guyanese, and is, without a doubt, the very best Barbados rum I’ve ever tried. It’s a magnificent rum that leaves all its forebears, even those from the same distillery, limp and exhausted. This rum’s titanic flavour profile satisfies because it gets right what its previous (and lesser) earlier versions from FourSquare failed to come to grips with. It is impossibly Brobdignagian, a subtlety-challenged brown bomber, and to fully savor the current rum’s character, we as drinkers must first connect with its predecessor’s lesser-proofed antecedents.  That’s why I went through other rums from the company before cracking the 2006.  Somehow, after years of 40% milquetoast from  Barbados, here, finally, two giants of the rum world came together and got this one absolutely right.  It deserves every accolade that rum drinkers and rum writers have given it.

(91/100)

Other notes

  • To tell the complete story of its disappearance from the online and physical shelves, some subsequent observations: the 4S 2006 began turning up on ebay shortly thereafter, and aside from the bitterness of pure rum aficionados who could not get any without liquidating their retirement fund, I’ve heard it bruited about that the its disappearance was because speculators bought every bottle for resale on the secondary market…and even more pernicious rumours about how general public wasn’t even the target market – bars and bulk buyers were.  Whatever the real story is, it would be a useful case study in how to move new product in a hurry.
  • Distilled 2006 in copper double retort pot still, aged three years in bourbon barrels and seven years in cognac casks and bottled in 2016. 62% ABV, 2400 bottle outturn. The “single blended rum” appellation is derived from the proposed Gargano classification system where the origin still is given prominence over the material or country/region of origin. Here it is a single still’s blended  product (based on double maturation).
  • Whose rum is this, Velier or FourSquare?  Velier’s Demeraras, I felt, were always Veliers, because DDL gave Luca some barrels to chose from and he bottled what he felt was right without much further input from them.  Here, my impression is that Richard Seale and Luca Gargano worked closely together to make the rum, and so I attribute it to both.