Sep 262018
 

Few are unaware of the existence of the J. Bally 1929 – for those who troll the online shops it remains one of the few very old bottlings from inter-war Gilded Age times to remain available…if one has over two grand kicking about to buy it.The Bally 1924, on the other hand, is a whole lot rarer – I can’t remember the last time I saw one coming up for discussion, let alone sale. And one could argue that its heritage is much more gold-plated – it’s the first vintage from J. Bally. I’ve tried quite a few from this bottler, one dating back to the 1960s, but to try the very first?  That might be worth a kidney right there.

This bottle being such a piece of heritage, a little history is in order. J. Bally was named after Jacques Bally, a graduate of a top engineering school in Paris, the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (ECP, founded in 1829) – he snapped up the Lajus Plantation on Martinique in 1917, a mere fifteen years after Mount Pelee erupted, when memories of that disaster were still fresh and land prices were cheap (Lajus, founded in 1670, was already in foreclosure, having gone bankrupt after the 1902 disaster). By 1920 he had installed new steam engine, fixed up the salvageable equipment he could and (legend has it) pretty much built his own column still from scratch.  In that same year the nearby Habitation Dariste owned by the the Gronier family went bankrupt and Bally bought it in 1923 and moved the distillery equipment to Lajus to augment his own machniery. In 1930, by which time he was already laying away rum stocks to age, he also had a hand in designing the signature pyramidical and square bottles which became so associated with Bally in later years. The rhums Bally made were very popular, sold well, and the company remained in business until the 1980s when Remy Cointreau acquired it, at which point production was shut down at Lajus and moved to Domaine du Simon where (as far as I know), it’s still being made, with cane from Lajus. Note that in 2003 La Martiniquaise bought out Saint James and Bally (to add to their rum portfolio which already contained the brands of Depaz, Dillon, Negrita and Old Nick) which is why the Remy Cointreau’s webpage makes no mention of either one now.

Aside from being made so long ago, what makes the 1924 special is that it was the initial release of an aged rhum from Bally, and one of the first of its kind in the French West Indies, if not the first. Jacques Bally took inspiration from cognac and eau-de-vie makers in France and was apparently the first to consider ageing Martinique rhums in oak. This provided the initial release of his rums in the 1920s with a depth of quality that made them extremely popular and well-known, and one can just imagine all the other distilleries on the island rushing to copy the idea. The inevitable question arises, how old is the 1924 vintage?  “More than six years,” said Luca in a text to me, and that makes sense if the bottle that houses it was only designed and made in 1930. We can leave it there with only one other great unknown, and that’s how many bottles were released – and nobody knows that any longer, sorry. I hit a brick wall on that one.

Enough of the pedantic stuff. How was it to taste, eliminating all the baggage of history and heritage and rarity the rhum came with? It’s one thing to sing high praises because it’s from so far back, but a cold review is somewhat more challenging, especially considering the august company in which I tried it – the Tasting of the Century in September 2018.  You can bet that I was paying real close attention and took a long time with my glass on this one, if only so I wouldn’t be embarrassed when real writers came out with their own notes.

Nose first: nice! For all its age, the Bally 1924 could have come off the line last year and you’d never know it.  It smelled of fresh squeezed apple juice, pears with oodles of sweet light aromas, flowers, sugar water and watermelon, out of which emerged a nice melange of crushed walnuts, fanta, lemon zest, crisp yellow mangoes and cumin.  If you were tasting it blind you’d swear this was an agricole you could pick up online for some reasonable coin – like the Harewood 1780, it presented a profile not a hundred miles removed from something produced today.

Bottled at 45% ABV, the Bally 1924, for all the noble pedigree granted by being made so far back, in many ways resembled Bally rhums from past decades’ that I went through three years ago. It was slightly sharp on the palate, and as clean and clear as any of its descendants.  Apples, cider, brine and olives came smoothly off the assembly line, bolted on to emergent flavours of pears in syrup, green grapes, spices, more lemon zest, leather, a touch of vanilla and nougat and a vague hint of grass, black tea, earthy musk, and rosemary. The overall balance, cleanliness of the mouthfeel was excellent, and the ageing had definitely sanded down any rough edges – it was quite simply a pleasant drink to have, fading easily into a smooth finish that provided little that was new, just a languorous recap of the highlights – peaches, pears, mangoes, lemon zest, watermelon and sweet flowers and herbs and a pinch of cumin. A neat and near-perfect little agricole, coming together beautifully.

Well. How to score something like this? Well, I’m going to give it a solid endorsement — not that this means anything given its mythical near-unicorn status. But I should note in passing that for all its quality, the Bally 1924 strikes me more as an essay in the craft of agricole than a completely finished product that stands the test of time. It shows what they were before the snapped into focus in the last few decades of the AOC regs.

Perhaps it’s unfair to rate a rhum made nearly a hundred years ago to the standard of today when so much has changed in the interim — and for sure others around the table that day loved it (Matt rated it as his personal favourite for the evening).  To round things up: the Harewood 1780 presented a startlingly modern profile that went in its own brilliant direction way, strong, forceful, distinct; the Skeldon 1978 couldn’t rise above its elder brother but was still quite an amazing drink; and the Saint James 1885 was a rum made in a style quite different from agricoles as a whole, unique and interesting.  The Bally is caught in a limbo between the modern versions of the spirit, and the old ways of the 1885 – that’s in no way a failure, just that the competition is more fierce because we’ve had so many rums that are so similar to it.

But you know, whatever the score, there’s a certain cachet, even honour, in having been able to try a quartet of such grail-quest rums, so old, so rare, so absolutely stinking of rum history, so generously shared.  The Tasting of the Century might one day be exceeded (though I can’t for the life of me imagine what rums would comprise version 2.0); but whether that happens or not, I’ll always be happy to have tried the Bally — because it was one of those rhums that pointed the way to the modern era of cane juice rhums, so exactingly made, so proudly issued, so excellent to drink.  The Saint James 1885 might be the doddering grandaddy of the French island rhum style, but the 1924 with its crisp and clear profile taking us back to the beginning of the modern era, is surely its godfather.

(#552)(86/100)


Other Notes

Sep 242018
 

By now just about anyone in touch with the rum blogosphere on social media is aware of the add-on to the Hampden Rums launch hosted by La Maison-Velier in September 2018: the “Rum Tasting of the Century” — though I believe the words “…so far” were were silently tacked on by some of us participants, hoping against hope for another (better, older) one before we get laid to rest like Nelson in a cask of DOK.  Nor are many unaware of the four aged unicorn rums we were privileged to try as part of the Tasting – Skeldon 1978, Bally 1924, Harewood House 1780, and the subject of this revisit, the Rhum des Plantations St. James 1885. 

I’d had the luck and good fortune to sample the St. James before and have written about it as part of the Rumaniacs.  This of course cut me absolutely zero slack with the attending Collective – because for all our camaraderie and friendship (online and off), we’re a cheerfully competitive bunch of people, and like to get our personal opinions settled (no others being as good as our own, naturally) before even acknowledging that someone else may have tried a particular rum in front of us.

Still, we had to get facts, and a lot of our preliminary conversations and subsequent texts and messages revolved around the data points, which are as follows: the rhum was made in 1885 on Martinique, and derived from cane juice that was boiled prior to fermentation.  Although the exact age is unknown, it was certainly shipped off the island before Mount Pelée erupted in 1902 and destroyed all stocks there, so at an absolute maximum it can be 17 years old. This is, however unlikely – few rums or rhums were aged that long back then, and the opinion of the master blender of St James (Mark Sassier) that it was 8-10 years old is probably the best one (Cyril of DuRhum has some additional details in his 2016 review) . Following the eruption of the volcano, the only remaining bottles were in Europe and gradually unsold ones were acquired (many from the cellars of Bardinet) and sent back to Martinique and put on sale.  Luca, who was a brand ambassador for St. James at one time, eventually acquired (or so legend goes) about 300 bottles in the 1980s. One of them, 47% ABV as tested in 1991, stood before us in a conference room in the Four Seasons in London overlooking theThames, awaiting our attention.

The first thing everyone remarked on about this rhum was the colour – a dark dark dark mud brown.  The second thing was the aroma. Without doubt this remained one of the richest rum smells of my own experience: it was redolent of coffee, licorice, coca-cola, bitter chocolate, coconut shavings accompanied by enormous notes of molasses.  There were, after some additional minutes, some light fruits and florals and lemon peel, but overall, it reminded one of nothing so much as a Demerara rum, not an agricole, and a really heavy, thick Demerara at that.

Though my tasting memories of the first 1885 rum I had tried three years earlier had faded somewhat, I still remembered much of the core profile, and these were back for an encore, with the same dull richness that made it so memorable back then. Bitter chocolate, nougat, nuts, grated coconut and coffee led off the charge, with flanking movements of licorice, caramel, coke and the noticeable leather and oak tannins that spoke to some ageing.  Fruits again – pears, orange zest, plums, blackberries. The texture on the tongue was heavy, stopping just short of cloying, and I must remark on the fact that it was overtaken a little too much by the forceful molasses tastes. Still, it was a great sip, and the rum glided smoothly to the finish with last notes of earthy mustiness, roasted chestnuts, molasses (of course), fast-fading fruitiness, dates and chocolate.

What a difference a mere three years makes.  In 2015 my sample of the Saint James 1885 got rated 90, and I commented favourably on its depth and complexity.  Certainly, compared to the rhums against which it was being tried that day (Barbancourt 25 YO and 15 YO, La Martiniquaise Rhum Pur, La Favorite 1990, and J. Bally 6 YO) and my own experience with uber-old spirits to that point, it was a score I have no problems defending.  However, since then I’ve tasted and gone into depth with and written about another 300+ rums, and quite aside from wry commentaries about not having a life, it’s clear that both increased experience and different comparators do make a difference in assessing the same rum years later.

On that basis, I’m going to rank it a few points lower this time, but in truth, the score is meaningless for a rhum this rare and that expensive and from so far back.  I think that for anyone who has opportunity to try a rum made over a hundred years ago, it’s enough to simply say that they drank it. It’s a window into perceiving French island’s rhum before agricoles became agricoles, before the AOC, before the production methodologies of today.  It promotes understanding of how rum has developed and changed over the decades and centuries, and if one is left with a single thought after the fact, it’s that it was and remains an experience to rival few others in our long journey of rum appreciation. That alone might be worth all the points anyone could ever give it.

(#551)(87/100)


Other Notes

Sep 192018
 

Every rum drinker who’s been at it for a while has a personal unicorn.  It might not always be some hoary old grandfather of a rum, forgotten by all but barking-mad rum nerds, or the miniscule output of a distillery no-one now remembers (like the Heisenberg Distillery) — sometimes it’s just a rum that’s hard to get and isn’t for sale in local markets. Occasionally it’s even one they possess already but which evokes strong positive memories.

One of mine has always been the Skeldon 1978, which was too rare or too expensive (usually both) for me to acquire. It finally became available to try at the Tasting of the Century that Luca Gargano tacked on to the formal launching of the new Hampden Estate rums in September 2018, and to say I jumped at the chance would be to understate the matter, not just because of the Skeldon itself, but because of the chance to try it in the company of blogging friends, along with other amazing rums.

The history of the Skeldon 1978 bottling from a long-dismantled Savalle still is an odd one: the plantation is on the far eastern side of Guyana and the distillery has been shut down since 1960, though the original sugar factory’s remains continue to moulder away there, now replaced by a modern white elephant.  It’s possible that the Savalle still which made it was taken elsewhere (Uitvlugt is the unconfirmed suspect) and this distillate hails from there rather than Skeldon — but certainly the “SWR” barrels ended up at Diamond, where Luca  saw them gathering dust in the warehouse and convinced Yesu Persaud (the chairman of DDL at the time) to part with them.  The 4-barrel 544-bottle outturn of the 1973 Edition was issued as was, but when the prototypes of the 1978 came to Genoa for final tasting, Luca noted something different in them, and later he challenged Mr. Persaud on what they were – and it was admitted that the three barrels of 1978 were deemed insufficient (whatever that means) and they mixed in some leftover 1973. Luca was so pissed off that he sat on both editions for almost a year before finally issuing them to the market in early 2006, and what we are getting is a 688-bottle blend, the precise proportions of which are unknown — I was told the 1973 component was quite minimal.

Fortunately, whatever the mix, the rum was (spoiler alert) almost as stunning as the 1973, which is the only other rum to which it can perhaps be compared.  In the large balloon glasses we were given it smelled dark and pungently rich, and Lordie, there was so much of it. Chocolate, coffee, deep anise and molasses, raisins, some floral notes, fleshy fruits, honey, crushed walnuts, nougat, cream cheese, unsweetened yoghurt and light olives. Tired yet?  Too bad, there’s more – bread, cloves and vanilla, and then, after about half an hour, the thing turned chewy: boiled beef bouillon, lentil soup, maggi cubes, marmite and more molasses and burnt sugar, all held together with some delicate herbs, very much in the background. Gregers and I looked at each other and almost in unison we laughed and said “We gotta get us some glasses like these.”

Although things at the Tasting were going faster than I was able to write (and listen), this was not a rum I wanted to be hurried with after waiting so long, and certainly it’s one with which to take one’s time. It unfolded gradually on the tongue, almost languorously and even at 60.4%, it was amazing how entirely under control it remained the entire time. Most of the tastes in the nose carried over, primarily anise, coffee and bitter chocolate, oranges, strong black tea, cumin, and that lentil soup / beef broth meatiness I remarked on earlier.  But there were also more muted, subtler hints of papaya and fleshy fruits, aromatic tobacco, flambeed bananas and salty caramel. A rather dry note of over-roasted nuts came into play at the back end, a slight indeterminate bitterness (something like a manager who can never compliment your work without a closing criticism), but fortunately the muskier fruit and creamy notes ameliorated it for the most part. And while the finish was more a last bow on the stage than a true epilogue that added a few extra fillips of flavour, it was in no way disappointing, leaving me with a memory of coffee, nougat, salt caramel ice cream, fruits, raisins, licorice and light chocolate oranges.

This was quite a rum, to be sure, and while I don’t think it quite eclipsed the Skeldon 1973, it sang its own distinct tune, hot and delicious, yet paradoxically quite clean and clear, with powerful tastes bolted on to a profile of generous complexity. In fine, the Skeldon 1978 is a black drop of Guyanese-Italian oomph in a bottle, and making it a blend didn’t hurt it one bit. It’s a well-made rum, produced with care and affection, and through the alchemy of its selection, turned a mere rum into a Rum, big, bold, badass….one to be remembered. To have tasted it in tandem with other amazingly old rums and in the company of old (and new) friends, was an experience I’m not likely to be forgetting any time soon.  

(#550)(90/100)


Other notes

 

 

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”.
  • Links to other articles on the Rum Tasting of the Century (to be updated as other articles appear):