Jan 032018
 

#475

“A few years ago, these rums [Zacapa and Diplo Res Ex] were seen as the baseline for all other rums to be judged.  No longer.”  Thus wrote Wes Burgin over at the Fat Rum Pirate in an excellent July 2017 post suggesting that with social media and education, enthusiasts were becoming more knowledgeable and less apt to accept adulterated rums than ever before.

Yet in spite of that ideal, in spite of the ever-expanding knowledge-base of rums the world over, the Diplo remains enormously popular. It’s unlikely that there’s any rum drinker out there – junkie or not – who didn’t at some point have a fling with this plump Venezuelan señora.  Just about all rum writers have done a thing on it. Like the Bacardis, El Dorados and Zacapas, it’s one of those rums one can find just about anywhere, and for the new people coming to rum cold, it remains a staple, if not always a favourite.  

That is, of course, due to both its very affordable price, and because of is sweet placidity.  You don’t want expensive indie aggro? A light, easy-going drink? Something to relax with? Complex enough for Government work? No thinking required? Here’s your solution. That’s also the reason why it drops off the radar of those people who grow to take their rums seriously (if it doesn’t drive them into transports of righteous rage).  Diplomatico – marketed as Botucal in Germany, named after one of the farms from which the cane comes, though it’s exactly the same product – never bothered to punch it up, never worried about cask strength, never deigned to lose the dosing or adulteration, and sells briskly day in and day out.  The deep-diving rum chums just shake their heads and head for the exits to buy the latest indie casker, and discussions on Facebook about the matter are more likely than any other to end up in verbal fisticuffs.

Yet consider for a moment the page of this rum in the populist-driven, crowd-sourced “review” site RumRatings.  A top-end, well-known, mid-priced unadulterated rum issued at full proof like, say, the Foursquare Criterion has 13 ratings on that site. The Triptych has 11. The 2006 10 Year Old has 4, and the most popular Foursquare rum is the 9 year old 2005 Port Cask Finish with 71.  The Diplomatico in contrast has over 1,200, with most rating it between 8 and 9 out of 10 points. 

Surely neither longevity, nor rank please-as-many-as-possible populism are solely responsible for such a disparity. There’s got to be more to it than just that, a reason why it regularly appears on people’s answers to the constant question “What to start with?” — and I’m sorry but not everyone drinks a few hundred rums a year like us writers and festival junkies, and it isn’t enough to simply shrug, sniff condescendingly and say “some people just don’t know good rums.” If it is – as I suggest – a rum worth revisiting, then such popularity and esteem requires a cold, beady-eyed re-consideration.  We have to understand whether it has something more in its trousers, something subtle, that excites that kind of appreciation. It was in an effort to understand what lay behind the popularity of the Diplo that I deliberately sourced a bottle in Berlin in late 2017, and while my controls were a few stronger, purer rums from the Latin side, to my surprise the Diplo didn’t entirely choke even when ranked against them (I shall now pause for the incredulous expressions of indignation to pass), though for sure it never came close to exceeding any and raced to the bottom in fine style.

Part of all this is its relative simplicity compared to fierce and pungent rums now taking centre stage. The nose was a straightforward sweet toblerone, toffee, vanilla, butterscotch and caramel, very light and easy and butter-smooth, with what complexity there was being imparted by spices aimed at the sweet side – rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg – and a little nuttiness, and a hint of light fruit, all of which took real effort to separate out.  Hardly the most complex or intriguing smell ever to waft out of a rum bottle, and the vanilla and caramel were really too dominant to provide the sort of excellence the maker trumpets for itself.

Similar issues affect the palate.  Smooth – yes, warm – yes, comfortable – undoubtedly.  There was a little oak mixing things up here, but mostly the taste was muscovado sugar and caramel, vanilla, light fruits of indeterminate nature, and those same spices from the nose (cinnamon being at the forefront) with nothing particularly new or adventurous leading one into undiscovered territory.  Overall, even on the finish, and then judged overall, it had little beyond a pleasant, warm sort of sweet unaggressive nature only marginally redeemed by a light tart fruity note here or there, and the edge imparted by a little oak. Beyond that, it was way too sweet for my palate as it stands right now, and in conjunction with the controls it actually sinks even further because the dampening effect of the additions becomes self evident.

So, that adulteration. It’s been measured at 30-40 g/L of whatever-it-is, which puts it in the same league as The El Dorado 12 and 15, Rum Nation Millonario and the Cartavio XO, all of which, back in the day, I enjoyed, and all of which have subsequently slipped in my estimation in the years between then and now, and been relegated to what I refer to as “dessert rums.” But what exactly are they adding to their rum?  Back in 2010 when I wrote my original unscored review, the Distilleries Unidas website made tangential mention of flavouring additives (“Only…rich aromas and flavours are used to manufacture rums…” — this comment no longer appears); and Rob Burr remarked on the 2012 Inuakena review that a Venezuelan rum liqueur called Haciendo Saruro is added to the blend, but without corroboration (it was assumed he was speaking from insider knowledge).  So I think we can take it as a given that it’s been tarted up, and it’s up to each person who tries this rum to make up their own minds as to what that means to them. Personally, I no longer care much for the Diplomatico and its ilk.  It presents no real challenge.  It simply isn’t interesting enough and is too sweet and easy. That, however, obscures the key point that people like it precisely for those reasons. It sells well not in spite of these deficiencies (as they are, to me), but because of them…because the majority of drinkers consider these very same drawbacks as points of distinction, and if you doubt that and the unkillability of sweet, check out the hundreds of comments in response to “Don’t treat people like snobs because they like sweet rums” post on FB in December 2017. Since I’m not arrogant enough to believe that my tastes and my palate matter more, or should take precedence over others, I can simply suggest that people try more rums to get a feel for more profiles before praising it to the high heavens as some kind of ur-rum of the Spanish style.

Let us also concede that a rum like this has its place. On the negative side are all the issues raised above.  On the plus side of the ledger, for those who like these things, there is sweetness, smoothness and a stab at complexity.  It works fabulously as a standalone sipping drink when concentration and thought is not desired or required.  It’s not entirely an over-sugared mess like, oh, the A.H. Riise Navy rum. It makes a decent introduction to neat rums for those raised on over-spiced, over-flavoured rums or who came up through the ranks trying rums like Kraken, Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry or Don Papa.  As one of the first steps in the world of rum, this ron remains a tough one to beat, and that’s why it should be on the list of anyone who is assembling the first home bar, and should be considered, for good or ill, one of the Key Rums of the World…even if, sooner or later, all true rum fans will inevitably move beyond it.

(74/100)

Feb 032017
 

#340

Cachaças are, as any rum pundit is aware, those cane juice based rums that are not called agricoles because they are made in Brazil rather than the French Caribbean islands. Geography aside, they have two major points of difference – one, they are often age in Brazilian woods of one kind or another, and two, those that are available outside Brazil are almost all made to be mixed in a caipirinha, not to be had neat. I’ve heard that over a thousand varieties made domestically, and the best of them are sold only there, and many top end aged variations exist… unfortunately few, if any, are ever exported, which creates the illusion that they are low end rums as a whole, and to this day they take second place to aged agricoles.  Which is a shame, really, for it denies the rum world of potentially world beating products.  

Thoquino is a company formed in 1906 by Thomaz de Aquino, and is located in Sao Joao de Barra, the Campos area just north of Rio de Janeiro, where sugar cane cultivation goes back to the earliest colonization of Brazil in the 16th century and which is considered the “traditional” area from which the best cachaças originate. The company has its own sugar cane fields, which apparently is somewhat unusual for a Brazilian distilling company, and which allows it to control and integrate the entire process from cultivation to the final product, in-house. The spirit derives from fresh pressed cane juice which is fermented for an unusually long eight days, and then double distilled (I suspected it is filtered as well); there is no information available on any ageing, and since normally both age and the wood in the barrels is proudly trumpeted to the heavens, I’d suggest this is a zero year old. No information on stills is available.

Having written all the above, how’s the rum?  Well, nosing the clear 40% spirit made  it clear that it stemmed from the same family tree as the Haitian clairins and the Capo Verde grog, if not quite as raw or brutal aggressive; and I formed the sneaking (if entirely personal and unconfirmed) suspicion that it hailed from a creole coffey still.  It smelled sweet, yes, with black pepper, oil and brine in there somewhere (sort of tequila-like but with less salt), sharp and uncompromising as a zealot’s hot glare.  Over time it turned vegetal, with more pronounced aromas of sugar water, citrus and (get this!) cinnamon rolls hot from the oven.

The taste was initially quite lovely, rolling light and sweet and (relatively) smooth across the tongue.  It wasn’t complex in any way, but it was pleasing in its own understated fashion.  There were some flowers and fleshy fruits —  pineapple, bananas — in an uneasy mix with sharper pepper and citrus rind, sort of held together by the vegetal sugar water, and in the background there lurked the toned-down notes of olives and brine, held under tight control, leading to a short, sweet, light and overall unexceptional fade.  

As tasting notes went, the cachaça more or less confirmed its antecedents without trying to break the mould.  Since it was advertised and marketed specifically as a caipirinha agent, perhaps it would be churlish expect a top end spirit here, and indeed, the company does make an aged version (aged in Jetiquiba wood) which I have not tried. So all in all, a straightforward mixing agent then.

Still, maybe it’s time for some enterprising rum maker to take a plunge and start promoting the best of the cachaças in the western markets.  Not the good quality young stuff, but the really amazing rums which only Brazilians are aware and which remain unknown to the majority.  Bert Ostermann of the German company Delicana has tried with limited success to do so, some independent bottlers like L’Espirit have issued the occasional aged bottle, and we need more.  Although the Thoquino and others I’ve tried may not quite be there (yet),  we should keep an eye on Brazil in the years to come, for their rums point the way to another facet of the ever changing rumiverse.  If Luca ever decides to go there, watch out.

(77/100)

Mar 162016
 

D3S_3649

More tamed Peruvian sunshine.

(#261. 84.5/100)

***

It’s been quite a few months since I picked up a Rum Nation product to write about.  This is not to say that they have either lapsed in sleep or are resting on the laurels of past achievements, since just the other day they put out some promo materials for two new Guadeloupe rums I’m going to keep an eye out for.  However, today I wanted to look at one of their other countries’ offerings, the Peruano 8 year old.

Aficionados are no strangers to rums from that country: both the Millonario XO and Millonario 15 soleras hail from there, Bristol Spirits pushed out an 8 year old Peruvian I quite liked, and Cartavio continues to issue rums such as their own XO Solera — all of which adhere to the medium-to-light, easygoing and sweet profile that excites admiration and despite in equal measure depending on who’s talking.  This one matches most closely with the Bristol Spirits version, and that was no slouch…it made me reconsider my decades long love affair with pungent Jamaican and Demerara rums (just kidding).

D3S_3650Anyway, the Peruano 8: an dark gold-copper coloured rum, clocking in at 42% ABV, and deriving from the Trujillo gents who also make the Cartavio XO. Fabio told me once that some years back he was seeking a very light, delicate rum to take on Zacapa, and thought he found it in Peru, in the Pomalca distillery which also produces the Cartavio on what looks like a muticolumn still.  The initial rums he got from there formed the Millonario 15 and XO rums, and these were successful enough for him to issue a Peruvian in its own right, aged for eight years in bourbon casks. No more mucking about with soleras here.

I certainly approved.  Rums like this are easy going and don’t want to smack you over the head with the casual insouciance of a bouncer in a bar at the dodgy end of town, and sometimes it’s a good thing to take a breather from more feral and concussive full proof rums.  This one provided all the nasal enjoyment of a warm chesterfield with a couple of broken springs: lightly pungent and aromatic, with a jaggedly crisp edge or two. Cherries, apricots, cloves, nutmeg, some vegetals, chocolate, a slice of pineapple, and sugar water and cucumbers.  Kinda weird, but I liked it – the smells harmonized quite well.

The palate was pleasant to experience, and brought back to memory all other Peruvians that came before.  The light clarity — almost delicacy — was maintained and demonstrated that it is possible to sometimes identify different rums made from the same source…here it was almost self-evident.  Tannins, vanillas, fruits, brown sugar (too much of this, I thought), some caramel, all melding into each other; peaches in unsweetened cream, some easy chocolate and pineapple flavours and a tart cherry and citrus blast or two allowing a discordancy to draw attention to the softness and lightness of the others. What so distinguished this rum and the others from Peru (including Bristol Spirits’ own Peruvian 8) is the way the various components balanced off so no single one of them really dominated…it was like they had all learned to live together and share the space in harmony.  Finish was perfectly fine (if short): sweet, warm, and very much like a can of mixed fruits in syrup just after you open it and drain off the liquid.

I’ve unwillingly come to the conclusion that many Spanish style rums — and particularly these from Peru which I’ve tried to date — almost have to be issued at par proof points.  There’s something about their overall delicacy which mitigates against turbocharging them too much. The Millonario XO went in another direction by the inclusion of sugar (for which many have excoriated it), but one senses that were it and its cousins be too strong, it would destroy the structural fragility of the assembly that is their characteristic, and they would simply become  starving alley cats of glittering savagery and sharp claws, and that does no-one any favours

The downside of that approach is that it limits the use such a rum can be put to.  Rums this light don’t always make good cocktails, are more for easy sipping (that’s my own personal opinion…you may disagree), and to some extent this drives away those guys who prefer the dark massiveness of a 60% full proof.  Still, I’ve made the comment before, that I drink different rums depending on how I’m feeling, and for a pleasant sundowner on the beach when it’s time to relax and unwind (and I’m not unduly pissed off at the universe), this one ticks all the boxes and is a pleasant reminder that not all rums have to beat you over the glottis to get your attention.

Other notes:

It could just be me, but I think there’s something else lurking in the background of this rum.  It’s slightly deeper and smoother in profile, and definitely sweeter, than the Bristol Spirit’s rum which is the same age. Some subtle dosage, perhaps? No idea.  If so, it really wasn’t needed…it actually detracts from the profile.

Fabio considers this another one of his entry-level rums, and whenever he says that, I always laugh, since his products are usually a cut above the ordinary no matter what they are.

Nov 122015
 

Cacique Antiguo 1

Supposedly more premium, but not a whole lot better than the 500.

(#240 / 84/100)

***

Here’s a poster child of why a rum reviewer has to have the beady-eyed practicality of a jaded streetwalker. Age, style, marketing, pamphlets, labels, word of mouth, all count for nothing, and all is evaluated without recourse to what anyone else says.

After reviewing the €35 Cacique 500 as well as the Veroes Añejo from Venezuela, and checking around to see what else I could buy from that country, I felt it was only fair to pick up something a little higher up on the value chain (but only one), just to see how the Cacique brand developed as it got older: the Antiguo, selling for around €61, is a 12 year old rum aged in French white oak (Bordeaux, it’s been said) and quite an interesting rum, if not particularly ground breaking in any way: it does however present somewhat better than its predecessor.

My bottle was a cardboard-box-enclosed chubby flagon with a metal wrapped cork topping, so evidently the makers took some time to make the appearance match its marketing pedigree.  All good there.  It poured out a golden brown spirit with a nose that was light and easy, utterly unaggressive, redolent of perfumed bouganvilleas, lavender and honey. It was quite pleasant, except perhaps even smelling it suggested an overabundance of sugary sweetness, a cloying scent of, well, too many flowers.  And it was still a little lacking in the intensity I prefer. Still, it settled down very nicely after some minutes (I was tasting some other rums at the time, so sat it down and came back later) – it got warmer and more solidly aromatic after ten minutes or so. Some nuts, tarts with strawberries but more tart than berry, cereal…you know, like those Danish butter cookies with some jam in the center.  And even some lemon peel lurking in the background.

The taste was a country mile ahead of the nose.  At 40% I more or less expected a tame, soft drink, and I got that, as well as an unusually sharp introduction which fortunately faded away quickly, leaving just warmth. It was still a very light bodied rum – I suppose we could call it ‘Spanish style’ – flowery, delicate to taste. I want to use the word ‘round’ to describe how the texture felt in the mouth, coating all corners equally, but let’s just say it provided the sensation of a thin honey-like liquid, warm and mild, quite tasty, too luscious to be dry.  A pinch of salt, a dab of butter, a spoon of cream cheese, mixed in with a cup of sugar water and honey, a squeeze of lime, and a grating of nutmeg and crushed walnuts.  It was good, I went back a few times and recharged the glass (in a period spanning several days), just not something to rave over.  Admittedly, what I’ve described wasn’t all – over time and with a little water, some oak peeked out from under the sweet skirts, vague peaches and molasses, and an odd, woody, even anise note popped in and out of view, here now, gone a second later.  The finish was something of a let down – medium short, a little dry, flowers, some salt butter and a shade of vanilla; unexceptional really.

You’re going to buy and enjoy this one for the taste, I think, not how it ends. That midsection is decent and lifts it above what I thought were lacklustre beginnings and endings, and perhaps more attention should be paid to beefing this rum up a little.  It is a perfectly serviceable 40% rum, and I’ve read many Venos extolling its virtues online.  

But it’s nearly twice the price of the 500, and not twice as good. I look for certain things in a rum, and this didn’t provide all that many of them.  I’m unclear for how many years this rum has been in production: fairly recently, I think, though it has been noted that the traditions behind the company go back many decades.  For now I can say that what the Cacique Antiguo has shown us is relatively new (and interesting), but that, in fine, doesn’t mean that what they have presented is news.

Other notes

I’ve gone into the company and production background a little in the 500 essay, so I won’t repeat it here.

There’s a lot of the profile of the Santa Teresa 1796 here, or maybe the Diplomaticos.  Too bad I didn’t have them around to do a comparison, but it would be instructive to try that one day.

Mar 312015
 

D3S_9014

A clean, warm and smooth rum from Peru, which is extremely accessible to anyone who doesn’t like cask strength rums.

(#209. 86/100)

***

Into the shadowed world of dronish and often-boring label design, the screaming green of the Peruano stands out like a neon tarantula on a wedding cake.  It’s an assault on the visual cortex that can’t help but make you catch your breath, mutter an amused “wtf?” and move in for a closer look. Not that this has anything to do with the quality of the rum inside, of course.  I merely bring up the point to remark on the fact that originality in any form is a vanishing breed in the rum world and we should be grateful for such small winks from the craft makers even if it’s only a marketing plug.

Bristol Spirits is an independent bottler out of the UK which started life in 1993, and is therefore something of a recent entrant to the field (Cadenhead, by contrast, has been around for over a hundred and fifty years).  Their barrel selection from the various countries around the Caribbean has created an enviable track record of limited bottlings; I’ll always have good memories of the Port Mourant 1980, and the 1970s era editions remain on my must-have list. They don’t seem to hew to any particular ageing philosophy – some of their older bottlings were aged in the UK, while others, like this one, were kept in situ.

Anyway, the obligatory opening remarks out of the way, what have we got here? An eight year old, molasses-based, column-still rum from Peru, made from the blend of eight barrels (distillery not mentioned) which were then aged at altitude in used bourbon casks before being shipped to Europe. And bottled at what for an independent bottler, seems a rather low-strength 40% (with some exceptions, they make most of their rums at 43-46%)…however, they noted in an email to me that they were quite happy with that proof.

Nosing the blonde spirit gave some clues as to why the decision may have been made in this instance: it was soft, clean…almost delicate. No pot still could have created something this light and unaggressive (my opinion). Initial smooth scents of hay and vegetal flavours gave way to more luscious soft fruit – peaches, ripe dark cherries, even a touch of mocha, but all very restrained, even shy.  It was a rum that if you really wanted to dissect it, you really had to put some effort in.

As I poured it out and sampled it for the first time, I wondered what Bristol was trying to do here – make a competitor to Rum Nation’s Millonario 15, maybe?  It shared many of the characteristics of that product: light to medium body, slightly sweet, immediately redolent of white guavas, flowers and a smooth cream cheese.  But then it went its own way, and I noted a slight sharp whiff of bitterness emerging, bright and clear like the inlay on a ginsu knife.  It was at odds with the easy-going nature of what had come before, while not entirely detracting from it – it provided, in fact, a kind of pleasing counterpoint, because the balance of the competing elements was pretty good.  Adding water opened up more fruits, vanilla, some oak influence and a whiff of dry tobacco. For a standard strength rum it also exited well, though this was short, shy, bright, a little sharp, as if a can of peaches in syrup had been sprinkled with some cinnamon and lemon juice.

D3S_9017

Independent bottlers tend to be more associated with cask strength behemoths than such laid-back fare, so I was not entirely sure what Bristol’s intentions were, with this Peruvian eight year old. Their recent foray into spiced rum territory makes me worry that perhaps they are abandoning their craft-bottler, limited-edition ethic that produced such incandescent gems as the PM 1980, and now they are swinging for easier sales by diluting down to 40% (they didn’t specifically address that point in they communique to me, and I had not asked).  On the other hand, the rum is gentle, even elegant (I had similar feelings about the Juan Santos 21 year old), and so perhaps this was something that had to be done lest additional proofage obliterate the subtler harmonies of what I detected.

Be that as it may, for anyone who likes standard strength rums without too much intensity or in-yer-face attitude, this is a good one.  I’d be surprised if more editions from Peru don’t follow this one out the door, in the years to come. Because even with its limited outturn, I think a lot of people will enjoy it, and it leaves us all with another colourful tile in the worldwide mosaic of rum…if the label didn’t already provide that, of course.


Other notes

Based solely on the profile, I suspect this hails from the same distillery as the Millonario 15 and XO (Rum Nation never identified it); which implies it was from the Cartavio boys in Trujillo. On the other hand those rums are soleras and this one is not, and Trujillo is at sea level on the coast while Bristol noted the ageing took place at altitude: so the question remains open.  For the record, Bristol declined to provide the distillery name or the number of bottles issued, but Fabio Rossi via Henrik from Denmark (see comments below) did acknowledge the source.

Marco on Barrel Aged Thoughts has a company profile and product listing for Bristol Spirits (in German), for those who are interested in other aspects of the company.

Mar 302013
 

Attempts a fine balance, but topples ever so slightly at both beginning and end.

(#144. 83/100)

***

I had this 40% seventy-dollar Colombian rum after a fiery Indian food-fest served by the January Liquorature host who had selected Rohinton Mistry’s epic book, and really, what was I thinking? – the fiery heat muffled and deadened the taste buds…but it says a lot for Dictador that even under the assault of such tongue-numbing spices, I was still able to appreciate it. And after coming home, I tried it on and off over the next week just to nail down the nuances.

Coffee. Yeah, that’s what the nose led in from, immediately, like Juan Valdez was tapping me on my shoulder: not aggressively so, just…making hisself felt. Hola, amigo. Que tal? The overall balance between this cafe and the brown sugar, toffee, nougat and cinnamon was impressive as all get-out, because what you got was a subtle melody enhanced by additional notes that supported and defined it without overwhelming the thing. Note this, however: I gave it to my snub-snooted and far-too-clever son to sniff, and he pointed out an oddly discordant, and very faint rubbery note, not enough to spoil anything, but sufficient to throw me off. Plus it was smooth and heated (just enough), and though I have gone on record as getting somewhat snooty about 40% rums, here I think that strength was just right.

This is largely because the Dictador 20 is a solera, and made from (rather confusingly named) “sugar cane honey,” according to their website. Sugar cane honey is simply the rendered down juice resulting from pressing the cane, but with sexier, warmer connotations, mostly marketing-derived. Soleras, at least from the several I have tried, are also a bit smoother and sweeter than the norm, hence the perennial favouritism shown to Zacapa 23, Rum Nation 15 and others of their ilk. I’m not sure that making them stronger wouldn’t shred some of their underlying structural frailty – they are bottled at pretty much the correct strength for what they are, I think, though you can take that as just my opinion. Here it worked swimmingly.

The profile was quite professionally workmanlike: unlike the Juan Santos line, which hews to a more subtle palate that you have to work at to dissect, the Dictador was definitely a rum, a smooth and heated one, a shade astringent, just sweet enough (less than most soleras, more than most “standard” rums people mix or drink) and arriving with notes of caramel, some oak spice, nougat again, and nutmeg and cinnamon dusting around the edges. After I had let it rest for a bit, more earthy flavours came out – truffles, dark chocolate, unsweetened cocoa. Quite chewy and solid, actually, coating the tongue like an electric blanket with the voltage turned up. Not the most unusual or intriguing rum I’ve ever tried, no – but among the most solidly-crafted. The fade was perhaps this rum’s weakest point, short and generally lackluster, indolent without malice, leaving behind the memory of toffee, caramel notes, and a last flirt of licorice…but at least it didn’t try to maul me.

The Dictador line of rums includes the 12 (I keep seeing it floating around, but haven’t gotten around to buying it) as well as the XO “Insolent” and XO “Perpetual”, which at the least are intriguingly named…I might wan to try them just for those names alone. The line originates from the aforementioned “honey” which is then distilled partly in copper pot stills, and partly in continuous column stills, and then aged in oak barrels using the solera system – so what you are getting is a product where the oldest part of the blend is 20 years, not the youngest. I should note that I absolutely love the zen of the black bottle: very chic, very stark, impossible to miss on a shelf. The Distileria Colombiana which produces it is located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, at Cartagena de Indias, and was formed in 1913 by Don Julio Arango Y Ferro, whose ancestor (the eponymous Dictador) began commercial rum production in the 18th century.

Overall, I like the Dictador, but can’t say I’m entirely won over by it. It’s a straightforward, unadventurous rum that takes itself more seriously than  it should, and gains a lot of brownie points for cool presentation – now, I know I give points for appearance and “how it looks” (and have taken more flak than you would believe for that attitude), but, like with every pretty girl that ever worked with or for me, in any office for the last thirty years, here’s the bottom line: if you can’t do your job professionally and well, your appearance matters not a damn.  So, perhaps this is what it is: the Dictador 20 is not so much brilliant as simply, conservatively solid in its display of rum making fundamentals. It is a well made, well-tasting solera rum that somehow finds a reasonable harmony between its earthy maturity, and the the sweetness and sprightliness of youth, but which misses the boat in overall enjoyment (for me). Over time, familiarity has made me move away from the better known Zacapa 23 and embrace slightly more unusual and less-familiar solera rums: the Dictador 20 may be neither unusual, nor less familiar, but that it is a decent, above-average rum to have on your shelf is beyond question.

What a pity that this isn’t enough to eclipse the other soleras in my collection.

 

Mar 272013
 

 

Too light for a five year old, and almost too delicate to be a rum at all.

(#114.  74/100)

***

It says a lot for my collection and where I store it that occasionally, in pawing around searching for a possible Friday night sundowner, I run across a bottle I forgot was there and which is not even opened, let alone reviewed. Such is the case with the Juan Santos 5 year old, which is the last of the Colombian rums from this lineup yet to be addressed (the others are the Café, the 9 year old12 and 21).

Five year old rums can be considered as good introductions to a maker’s rum range, because they are not cheap mixing blends that have an indifference to their ageing bordering on the contemptuous. On the contrary, they are aged for the requisite five years, some care is taken in the blend of fives that make the final product, and they serve as useful, low-level introductions to the better rums up the scale (though some argue that they are in many cases excellent and even better rums in and of themselves, more so than the pricier products). Think of five year olds, then, as the spiritous equivalent of a decently tricked-out Toyota Corolla…it’s cheap, it’s reliable, it works well, it’s extremely versatile, and you can go up or down the value chain from there.

The flip side of this last comparison is that a Corolla is, let’s face it, just a bit bland. There’s no oomph to the thing, no exhilarating who’s-your-Daddy-now moment. The Juan Santos 5 was a bit like that, and if you doubt me, just nose the hay-coloured, medium bodied spirit. There is almost nothing here to be analyzed at all, and when I did so four or five times, the scents were so light that about all I could pick out were traces of vanilla, faint burnt sugar notes, and the barest hint of cinnamon. The upper ranges of the this line shared similar issues, yet in those there was a sense of underlying structural complexity where firmness of taste had not been eviscerated as much, and that presented in the sort of fine noses which this one seems to be still searching for.

On the palate things weren’t redeemed much: the lightness of the medium bodied rum noted above carried over into the general mouthfeel — which, while gentle and almost soft with just the faintest bite of youth to it, gave practically nothing back to the taster. Citrus zest, the same sly vanilla hint, and barely a trace of what one might loosely term a “rum profile.” It presented some briny notes at the end, but my contention is, so what? The rum faded well and long, was a bit heated and spicy, with that salty trace persisting, but again, no new tastes or sensations emerged even at this last stage of the game, beyond those already identified.

I confess to being disappointed. It was too bland to be a sipper, too tame, too difficult to tease tastes from, and while mouthfeel and fade were good, the lack of clear complex flavours sink this baby for me as a sipper. So, can it be a decent mixer? Well, maybe – whatever additional ingredients are added had better be the equivalent of pastel shades, because clear and strong cocktail additions would shred the subtle tastes the rum does have. A cola would probably terminate the poor thing with extreme prejudice.

I’m going to give this rum 74 points, primarily for aspects which I think are cool and work well (relative smoothness, good fade, lovely mouthfeel for something so young are high points). But given the quality of other members of the food chain – five year old rums in general and older members of the Juan Santos line in particular – to me that’s damning it with faint praise. I went in really wanting to praise the Juan Santos Five (not least because I loved its older relatives), but alas, stayed only long enough to bury it.

 

 

Mar 272013
 

A good, and very pricey ultra-premium solera, the top of the food chain from Santa Teresa A.J. Vollmer in Venezuela.  I’m going to go on record as thinking it’s too much price for too little premium.

(#112. 84/100)

***

The  $315 Santa Teresa Bicentenario solera rum is made by the privately owned Venezuelan outfit A. J. Vollmer, who also produce the 1796 rum (also a solera, and about which I was unenthused at the time…it may be due for a revisit).  It’s a rum I have avoided for over two years in spite of its premium cachet, and because of its price.  Every time I’ve tried it (four times to date) it reminds me somewhat of a fellow I once met on my sojourns, who dressed sharply, was educated at an Ivy League university, and was, alas, a bit of a bore. Pricily dressed and well put together…just not that interesting.

The bottle I had was labelled #5820 and given that only about a thousand liters a year are made, and since the product (according to the Spanish edition of Wikipedia and other sources) was introduced in 1996 as part of the company’s bicentennial, you could be forgiven for assuming this one was issued around 2002…but personally I find that doubtful.  KWM only got this batch about two years ago, and I don’t think it’s been mouldering around for eight years prior somewhere else (it remains an unanswered question).  Still, the bottle, however startling (some might say ugly), is distinctive, and while I didn’t have the box it should have come in, pictures I’ve seen suggest it is pretty cool.

Santa Teresa Bicentenario is a solera, and therefore has a whole range of column- and pot-still, aged rum components in it — 80 year old product was noted without any indication of the average age, and the whole blend is aged some fifteen years in oak barrels; as the premium product of its line, it had all the hallmarks of care and love given to it: for the price, could it be otherwise? It was, for all that ageing, still somewhat light in the glass, a darkish golden colour with thin legs running down the sides.  On the nose it presented itself with a light aroma containing citrus, light and white woods, white flowers, pineapple and a slight hint of dark berries in cream, caressing as a baby’s breath on your cheek.


The overall quality on the palate led on from there: soft and gentle, without a hint of the astringency of a stepmother’s ire. It was put together well enough that separating out individual tastes was as tough as analyzing the Juan Santos 21: about the most I was able to discern was vanilla, faint breezes of brown sugar, and a certain overall creaminess. Perhaps blackberries, and that’s reaching. To me it was just a bit too light and delicate (while nowhere near the effeminate nature of the Doorly’s).  And this continued on to the fade, which was long and billowy and lasting, yet so soft that one barely knew it was there at all.

Rating this baby is a bitch. I can tell the work that went into smoothening out the intermarried solera components, and the fifteen years of ageing that blend was well done, because the smoothness is there, as it should be for any premium product.  Yet the Bicentenario failed somehow, perhaps in the flavours being so light and commingled that I had little idea what it was I was tasting beyond the obvious.  In short, I felt the rum had too little character, ballescojones, or whatever Venezuelans call badassery.

So the question arises, for what are you paying this kind of money?  The storage costs of rums aged to eighty years?  Its purported exclusivity and relative rarity? Bragging rights? Probably. But three big ones (I’ve seen it go for about €150 on European webstores) just strikes me as too much.   No me gusta, amigo. I’d rather get three El Dorado 21s, or maybe a few bottles of the feisty Pusser’s 15.


Let me put it this way. I raged about the Pyrat’s Cask 23 and wrote a overlong, scathing indictment of the divergence between quality and price.  Santa Teresa is not quite in that league, because overall, it has elements to it that many appreciate and froth over, even if I don’t. It’s a decent rum, no question. The Bicentenario — pitted against premium choices like the Rum Nation’s Panama 21 (one third the price), St. Nicholas Abbey 10 year old and English Harbour 1981 25 year old — carries on its founders’ traditions of taste, clarity and lightness, good blend quality and decent value. Everything more or less works, everything fits. What’s not to like?

Please take a left turn here, because the real issue is, what’s to love? The rums we care about display characteristics which say something about ourselves that we wish trumpeted to the masses. I’m fun and unconventional (Koloa Gold). I’m big on Bay Street (Appleton 50 year old or maybe the G&M Jamaican Longpond 1941). Ask me about my retirement (Pusser’s, El Dorado 15).  I am staid and prefer to mix and just get hammered…and like meself just so (Screech).  I’m a bit nutso (Rum Nation Jamaican 25)…and so on. What does the Bicentenario say? The trust fund is ticking over? I use a discount brokerage house? I have a summer abode, a nice catamaran and drive a Volvo? By that standard, I have to stick with my assessment: good rum, overly ambitious, lacking attitude, a shade boring…and, alas, overpriced.

***

My thanks go to the Scotchguy from Kensington Wine Market, who gave me his last heel for nothing, so that I could write this review and take the photographs, without incurring the ire of my parsimonious better half.

A good write up on the company’s history, too detailed for me to abridge, is given here:

http://www.licorea.com/santa-teresa-bicentenario-aj-vollmer-venezuela-p-1069.html?language=en

Mar 262013
 
***

A low proof rum that is impressive right out of the gate, suggests quality and subtlety past compare, and then gives up and runs full tilt into the wall. What this rum might have been with some extra strength….    

First posted 6th January 2012 on Liquorature. 

(#099. 77/100)

***

Right off the bat I have to state my preferences: I am not a fan of underproofs. They have a fake air of smoothness that has less to do with a blender’s art than with a low alcohol content. Spirit imparts depth and character to a rum (as I have observed with overproofs from time to time), and the lack thereof forces the distiller all too often to make up for the shortfall with additives.

With the Colombian Ron Viejo de Caldas 8 anos (bottled at 35% according to the label), however, I may have to revise this assumption, since not only did the Colombianos age this for eight years as if in defiance of all conventions for a rum less than 40%, but the thing is actually quite a decent drink which, because of its relative weakness, can be had as is without embellishment. I can’t say this makes me an instant convert…but it does make me less of a detractor.

Ron Viejo de Caldas is made by the Industria Licorera de Caldas from Colombia. It started small, as a little known artesinal rum from the provinces, but clever marketing and its own quality have made it a more internationally known brand than heretofore. It was created by a Cuban Don Ramón Badia at the behest of the Caldas Fine Perfume and Rum company in 1926 (not as unusal as it may sound, since a good nose is key to both) and in 1959, boosted by good sales, a distillery was set up; in 2009, the company produced 25 million bottles of various rums. Nowadays, the brand is produced in Manizales, the provincial capital of Caldas, 7,200 feet above sea level. Located in the shadow of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, the distillery is now equipped with column stills and sources its sugar cane syrup from the Cauca River Valley, where sugar cane is cultivated all year round.

On the nose the first impression one gets is a kind of supple fruitiness: peaches, citrus, nectarines and maybe a ripe mango or two. Raisins and cinnamon and maybe nutmeg can barely be made out. The aroma is rich and deep and actually reminds me a bit of a good bourbon, or a rye (just a sweeter one). And upon opening up, the brown sugar notes start to dominate in a very pleasant burnt sugar I always love.

The dark copper liquid has a pleasantly heavy body, and is smooth and a shade sere: there is less sugar and and molasses on the taste than the nose suggested, and this might be because the rum is not made from molasses, but from sugar cane syrup. The ageing in bourbon barrels certainly left its mark in a slight woodsy note at the back end, and this was not unpleasant, just distinctive…a bit of character added to the gene pool, so to speak

The fade might be the weakest part of the rum, and this is where the low alcohol content shows its true colours and abandons your snoot — just as you expect a lingering smooch from what you may have thought was a lovely undiscovered gem you alone have sampled, it…disappears. No seriously. It has one of the shortest finishes of any rum I’ve ever had, and that’s something of the character that’s missing along with the true 40% or greater ABV content.

All things considered, I just don’t get why this rum had to be an underproof at all (unless I got a variant that’s not commonly exported). It has a lovely body, a terrific nose, a good tart and tasty palate, and then, just like Dick Francis’s horse all those years ago, it just falls flat on its belly and skids to a sudden sharp stop without explanation or apology. The 40% variation I did not have won a bronze medal in 2007 and a gold in the 2009 Ministry of Rum tasting competition for premium rums, but fellas, all I can say is that good as that may make it, ensure you check the label for the proof before you buy this in a duty free shop someplace, or you might be a little disappointed

I’m giving this baby 77 points on the strength of its great opening act, and had it not been for the weak conclusion, it would surely have topped 80. It reminds me of unadorned rums, subtle, complex and not too burdened with noticeable additives of any kind. I just wish I knew what the real forty percenter was like – on the strength of this one, it must be quite something.

 

Mar 262013
 

 

A steal at the price, the 21 holds its own against rums costing twice as much, and might be better known and sell more if the tag was higher.  I think of it like I do a Nissan GT-R – too cheap to be taken seriously as a supercar, but a performer that can give any of the top dogs a run for their money.  If you see it and you have the cash to spare, my recommendation is to get it.

First posted 06 August 2011 on Liquorature.

(#081)

***

The Juan Santos 21 year old is the epitome of the Santana group’s rum line. It is a poem in a bottle, a liquid symphony of brown and gold, of smell and taste, and quite possibly one of the best aged rums available for under a hundred bucks. Anywhere.

It is made in Colombia, an unappreciated nation in South America better known for narcotics and coffee, violence and political upheaval.  Yet they speak the purest Spanish in the world outside of Iberia. Democratic traditions survive in spite of FARC and narco barons that would derail many another state. Colombia is the world’s largest supplier of emeralds, possesses a dynamic and educated workforce (I know – I worked with four of them and was hugely impressed by each), and, like every country under the sun, claims its beaches are whiter and its women more beautiful than anyplace else on earth.  Now they can add another cachet to their national pride – this rum. The Santana company has been making rums in the Cuban style since 1994 – I’ve heard that it was Cubans who started the enterprise – and yet have made only limited inroads in the Canadian market.  Bacardi, Lamb’s and Screech, together with Cruzan and a few other one-rum-here-one-rum-there variations still dominate liquor shelves here, in spite of both the Arctic Wolf and myself suggesting the product is damned good value for money.

The 21 is all wrapped up in a look that does a neat jiu-jitsu on the Pyrat Cask 1623 rum, which had a phenomenal aesthetic appeal and little else.   Perhaps the trick is not to let the 21’s presentation put one off – it’s not lackluster, precisely…more like undistinguished.  The label is cluttered and busy with a pattern of muted colours (contrast that against the vivid backdrops of the Appletons, or the simplicity of the Mount Gay labels), and the bottle is, umm, just a bottle.  One might be forgiven for missing the “21” in the title altogether, and tripping over it in some surprise.  Huh?  Veinte-uno? Que es esto?

The rum itself is a light brownish gold.  It poured nicely into the glass and swirling gently showed thinner legs than I would have expected – it evidently lacked the heaviness, the oiliness which would have indicated a deeper flavor profile and a longer fade.  Still, the nose was nothing to sneeze at: it was all soft and silk, no sting and no burn, and held promising notes of toffee, brown sugar, a very delicate hint of flowers…and a bit of coffee.  Given that Juan Santos also makes a very pleasant underproof café, I found this to be no more than appropriate.

The taste was by any standards nothing short of excellent.  Juan Santos 21 arrived unheralded, with no blaring tantara of orange trumpets such as you’d find in the rather obnoxious Pyrat’s XO or 1623.  It slunk onto my palate, and stayed there. What I got was a smooth and soft liquid gold that some master blender may well have put his cojones into hock to the Almighty to produce. There was hardly any bite or burn at all – pretty good for a rum at 40% – with a remarkable depth of flavor for which the initial pour I noted above had done nothing to prepare me.  I was expecting something a tad on the thin side, maybe some citrus hints, a clear sort of taste in line with the lighter colour and clean nose – what I got was a rye-and-rum combo that was deeper, darker and more flavourful than it had any right to be.  Caramel, burnt sugar, yes, of course – but also breakfast spices, some cinnamon, that coffee again (maybe Juan Valdez is a relative?) and nutmeg lending some gentle muskiness it all. I was, to put it mildly, impressed – twenty one years in oak had been mellowed and balanced out and blended so well that it was a smooth balm to the taste buds.

And the finish was no slouch either: thin legs or no, there was enough oil left in the rum to make a lasting impression that did not bail in a hurry with a harsh knock to the tonsils, merely stayed and lingered, like an old friend whose goodbyes can take a few minutes longer than the average, simply because there’s always one last thing to say. The 21 was so smooth and so languorous, that it actually seemed to stay a lot longer than it did. There were no harsh afterburns or tastes or anything, and quite frankly, if my personal preference hadn’t been for darker rums of greater body, I’d rate this one even higher than I do – for those that like a good quality sipping rum that’s right up there, look no further, since this single ~$85 rum will give you just about everything you’re after.

In discussing the Juan Santos with the store manager at Co-op where I bought it, he remarked that for him this absolutely eclipsed the Zaya which had been his go-to tipple of choice up to that point.  I don’t quite agree it should eclipse anything, since I have a pretty good collection of rums I like as much or more than the 21, and each has their place in my life, depending on the crabbiness of my mood (I drink harsh rotgut rums with minimal cola when I’m angry) whether I want to mix it and get a pleasant buzz on (medium-tier five year olds are good for this), get loaded fast (pick any 151, alert the wife and move out) or simply watch the sun go down (any top end sipping rum of your choice). That said, there’s no question in my mind that the Juan Santos 21 year old, for its price, offers a value for money that other top guns costing twice as much (and with only incrementally greater quality) would do well to observe.  Price is no guarantor of quality, I wrote for my negative Pyrat 1623 review, meaning that a high price sometimes nets you a dog.  Here, with this rum, Juan Santos proves that the reverse is also true, and that a reasonably low cost for an aged rum is no indicator of a lack of any kind.