Sep 162019
 

Going back to familiar rums we liked back in the day is something in the nature of revisiting the comfort food of our youth. The memories are strong and consoling, recalling a time of less snark, less cynicism and a whole lot more enjoyment. Surely such positively-associated, fondly-remembered rums deserve a place on the high-scorers list? The problem is, that’s all some of these are – memories.  The reality, informed by a more discerning palate and more varied experience, tends to deflate such candidates and show us both what we liked about them then, and maybe don’t so much, now.

Which brings me to the Zafra 21 Master Reserve which is almighty peculiar in that I tried it a lot in the early years, yet never took notes on it…and almost nobody else in the current rum-reviewing landscape has either.  Back then, I really liked Panamanian rums, before their overall placid sameness eroded my enjoyment and other, more exciting, forceful, original rums came to dominate my pantheon. Taste-wise, I always associated and linked the Zafra — perhaps subliminally — to Diplomatico, Zaya and Zacapa – and (to a lesser extent) to Dictador and Santa Teresa.  They all share certain similarities…a smooth velvety mouthfeel, sometimes solera production, with an oft-accompanying sweetness so characteristic of the type…and a kind of amazing longevity and popularity. I mean, just take a gander at the notes on Rum Ratings – almost 80% of the 201 respondents give it a score of 8 or better. That’s far from the massive 1,472 ratings of the Zacapa 23 or the 1,721 of the Diplo Res Ex, but it shows something of the way popular opinion bends for these soft Latin-style rums.

Still, it’s been many years, so has anything except my hairline and chubbier corpus changed in any significant way here? For example, is it still made the same way?  Does it still taste as easy-going and slickly-smooth as my recollections suggest? 

Based on research I had done at the time, and again for this essay, I’d say it is.  It remains a rum whose original blend dating back to 2009 when it was first released, has not appreciably changed.  It’s a Panamanian column-still rum created by Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez who is better known for both his moniker “The Minister of Rum” (not to be taken seriously, since there is no such position), and a true 21 year old aged in bourbon barrels – though trust issues such as those which afflict other aged Panamanians in these sadly suspicious times might make one take that with a pinch of salt.  In yet another odd thing about the rum, nobody has ever done a hydrometer test on it and post-2010, good luck finding a reviewer who’s written anything (back then the reviews were mostly positive, but of course Johnny Drejer had yet to upend the rumiverse for us).

Yet for its adherents the Zafra 21 YO remains a popular — if faded — star, and people like it, and trying the gold-brown rum makes it clear why this is the case.  At 40% it’s hardly going to blow your socks off, and when inhaled, there was nothing I wasn’t already expecting: caramel, creme brulee, dark fruit, leather, sawdust.  There were subtler notes of cinnamon, vanilla, brown sugar and ginger. The problem with it – for me at any rate – was that it was just too faint – it smelled watered-down, weak, with hardly any kind of serious enjoyment available for the nose, and complexity of any kind was just a vanished dream.

Nothing about the palate and mouthfeel greatly impressed me either, though I must admit, it was nice. Inoffensive might be the kindest word I can come up with to describe the faint driness, saltiness and sweetness, too vague to make a serious impression (and I was trying this first thing in the morning before a single rum greater than 45% had crossed my glass).  Caramel, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon led off, with some additional brown sugar, treacle, molasses. Trying to elicit and identify the fruity notes was as pointless as sniffing an orchard shut down for the winter. It simply had no edge, and stayed light, warm and smooth, with a finish that was short, sweet and light, with light oak, vanilla, pancake syrup and some peanut butter.  Big yawn. How 21 years of ageing in the tropics can impart so little character is the great weakness of the rum, and raises all kinds of flags to the wary.

Look, the Zafra 21 is a completely comfortable drink, like a worn pair of familiar slippers and if that lights up your wheelhouse, go for it, you won’t be disappointed.  The thing is, that’s all you get – it’s something of a one-trick pony, lacking in excitement or oomph of any kind. Thinking I was being unduly critical, I sampled nothing but 40% rums all day and then returned, but it still failed to impress. It’s one of those rums we enjoy for its unaggressive nature and decent profile, but sooner or later, when we have moved on and come back to it, we realize that the nose is anemic, the taste boring, the complexity a let down and the finish lacking any kind of fire.  Then we sit back and wonder how we ever loved it so much at all.

(#657)(75/100)

Apr 202017
 

“Dale paso al placer” reads the bottle label, which translates into “Give way to pleasure.”  Obeying that would encourage me to give away the bottle.

#358

If the Panamanians (and other rums made in the light Spanish style), don’t up their act soon, I have a feeling they’ll be left behind in an era where tougher, more muscular, and more original rums — many of which are pot still based — are being made both by independent bottlers and more farsighted big distillers in other parts of the Caribbean.  There’ll always be a market for standard strength rums – low price and easy sort-of quality ensures that every hormonal teenager and up-and-coming rum junkie usually cuts their teeth on one of them – yet I believe that the emphasis is slowly shifting from buttercup to beefcake: they are the new premiums, and margins will shift to favour them…and those who don’t get with the program may very well find their rums relegated to third tier supermarket tipple.

These were the thoughts running through my mind as I sampled the Canalero Añejo, which was a 40% Panamanian rum bearing Don Pancho Fernandez’s fingerprints.  That’s no surprise, since he is the master blender for SER Alcoholes, the company that makes it.  SER Alcoholes, whose name is nowhere noted on the label of the rum, is a group of companies now owned by the Grupo Pellas (SER stands for Sugar, Energy, Ethanol, Rum so an “E” is missing there someplace) and operates out of Las Cabras de Pese in Herrera Province in south central Panama where their plant is located. As far as my research goes, it’s a column-still rum based on molasses, and there’s little information online about it beyond that, not even age (I was told it was three years old).

In the smell and taste of this rum, there were aspects of many other Panamanians coiling beneath, somewhat dampening down any originality it may have possessed at the inception. Take the nose: simple and straightforward, spicy and clear, with little beyond some molasses, light citrus and a few fruity hints (mostly raisins and ripe cherries).  The palate was also similar in this way, with more sweet molasses, again some fruitiness of cherries and raisins, perhaps a flirt of vanilla, and even less citrus than the nose.  It was extremely light in texture, hardly worth remarking on, had no real complexity or distinctiveness – it was tough to come to grips with because there was so little going on.  Five minutes after I tasted it I would have been hard pressed to pick it out of a lineup.  Even the finish was like that: short, easy, indistinct and very forgettable.  In other words, a young pup, the runt of the litter, which enthused me not at all, not because it was bad, but because it just didn’t have much of anything.

To me, this is a commercial supermarket rum for those who just want to go on a bender without major effort or expenditure.  It’s soft, it’s light, it’s a rum and beyond that, quite unremarkable. The Ron Maja, Ron de Jeremy, and the Malecon 1979, for all their similarity, were better, the Abuelos were a step up, and the independents’ wares are a class apart entirely.

There are a lot of Panamanians which I’ve enjoyed over the years, many of which are decent markers of the style, reasonably well made, soft and easy to drink. Don Pancho is more or less the poster boy for the entire country because of his extensive consulting work and advice provided to various makers from there.  But perhaps no one person, no matter how esteemed, should have such an outsized influence on an entire region’s production because what it results in is a quiet weakening of true innovation (such as is exemplified by the various distilleries of Jamaica and the French islands, who seem to enjoy making whatever crazy hooch they feel like on any given day while squabbling for bragging rights amongst themselves); and that makes many Panama rums subtly like all the others, with variations being almost too minor to matter – you taste one, you’ve tasted most. Hardly a recipe for maximizing sales or energizing the tippling class to buy every one they can lay hands on.  With respect to the Canalero Añejo, trying it once was quite enough for me since this is a rum where nothing much really happened.  Twice.

(72/100)

Feb 172017
 

A very good Panamanian, with deeper flavours than usual.

#343

Panamanians and other spanish-style rum makers are doing themselves serious injury in their contortions to stay “Latin” or “Cuban” or “Spanish” and justify dosing and/or the lack of provision of details behind their work as matter of course. The recent Rumporter interview with Mario Navarro where he did precisely that, lit up Facebook like the 4th of July, and is just one recent example…but it’s been coiling behind just about every major Latin American or Panamanian release dating back to, oh, the Santa Teresa Bicentenario, the Panamonte XXV and last year’s Arome 28.

Still, the fact is that whether we like it or not, rums made in Central and South America generally, and Panama more specifically, are – and have almost always been – geared towards a buying public that dials in precisely those coordinates: light, easy, 37-40%, lots of blending and barrel strategy, some solera style production, with maybe a pinch or two of other stuff thrown in for good measure to smoothen things out. They don’t give a damn about the movement towards greater transparency or purity.  Massive avatars of aggro are not their thing, and it lies with independent bottlers, almost all out of Europe, to up the ante in both these departments.

Which is why one should be grateful for the Rum Club in issuing this fifteen year old. For all its relative rarity and obscurity, you still get something more (informationally speaking) than the Malecon 1979 I wrote about with such disdain last week. First of all, the rum is made by the “RumClub”, which is very unhelpful until you check the fine print and understand that it’s the bottling arm of the Rum Depot in Berlin, which in turn is run by the man behind the Berlin Rum Fest, Dirk Becker.  This is the second edition, available from 2016, a fifteen year old cask bottled at 51.3% (the first edition was issued for the 2015 rumfest, a single cask ten year old at 51.1%).  The source barrel comes from the same aged stock as Don Pancho’s Origines (PILSA) which makes it a column still product, and kudos to Dirk for not wimping out and diluting the thing. One barrel, 411 bottles with no information about additives but I’m suspecting some caramel to get that dark colouration.

To be honest, I’ve not been very enthused of late with Panama, so most of the time I buy other stuff which interests me more.  But a cask strength variation piqued my curiosity, and once I sniffed the darkish red-brown rum, it met with my instant appreciation.  The nose was rich and almost deep with a plethora of dark fruits – plums, prunes, black grapes, licorice, and even some olives thrown in to provide a whiff of brine and some barely perceptible breakfast spices.  It really was quite lovely.

The palate proved to be equally well done, being on the heavier side of “light” and benefitting from the higher proof point.  Black cherries again, very ripe, blackberries blueberries, black cake, caramel and crème brulee. Oh this was nice!  It even suggested a certain creaminess, with a light dusting of vanilla, coffee, cinnamon and nutmeg, and while it had a mouthfeel and texture of some weight and heat which would make one think adding water was a good idea, I found that doing so took the quality down so geometrically that it’s probably best to dispense with that altogether.  After the enjoyment I took from the preceding, the finish was disappointing – short, sweet, some caramel and fruity notes, not much else.  Too bad.

Yet overall the rum was a very good one, lacking just some complexity and a finish of note to score higher. Just about everything works properly here. The rum is not overaged, and unburdened by any excessive oaken influence.  It’s decently rich and flavourful, with a forceful, distinct profile within the confines of its lighter Cuban heritage, and while I accept that different drinkers have different preferences, my own are simply that a rum should not adhere to any kind of limitation but be bottled at the power that enhances and displays its inherent qualities.  Which this more or less did.

When one tries this 51.3% fifteen year old bruiser in tandem with a cupcake rum like the Malecon (bottled at 40%), the failings of the latter snap more clearly into focus, even though the former is half the age. In all respects, the 15 is simply better. Bigger, bolder, badder, better. It showcased what Panama rums could be if they wanted to.  The Malecon and Panamonte XXV and their ilk positioned themselves as fine old boys at the top of their food chains and boasted of their quality…then along came the Rum Club which answered with this impressive rum, providing rum lovers with something of what they had been missing.  And made an irrefutable response to all the notions of “premium” that its predecessors had claimed for themselves, but did not entirely earn.

(85/100)

Other notes

“Rum Club” was the name of an unadvertised speakeasy sort of bar Dirk Becker opened up back when he was getting into rum in a big way and before he opened up the Rum Depot (it boasted 300+ different rums for its patrons).