Jan 182021
 

We’ve been here before. We’ve tried a rum with this name, researched its background, been baffled by its opaqueness, made our displeasure known, then yawned and shook our heads and moved on. And still the issues that that one raised, remain. The Malecon Reserva Imperial 25 year old suffers from many of the same defects of its 1979 cousin, most of which have to do with disclosure and some of which have to do with its nature. It astounds me that in this day and age we still have to put up with this kind of crap.

The little we know from wikirum (this is slightly more than four years ago when I wrote about the Malecon 1979) is that the Don Jose distillery in Panama is the producer – this is the same Varela Hermanos gents who make the popular and well known Abuelo brand. Malecon’s actual ownership as a company or a brand is as hard to track down as before – all the website contact information points to distributors, not owners and their own press information section stops in 2016 and they apparently never participated in any events past 2017, which, coincidentally, is when I first tried their stuff. Their FB page (there’s only one, for the German market) is a bit more active but mostly represents marketing blah, not one of engagement with customers and fans. I read somewhere that the owner is an Italian who likes Cuban style rum and worked with Don Pancho to come up with this range of rums, which is as good or as useless as any other story without corroboration.  (Honestly, with Panama rums these days, I hardly care any more – it’s gotten that bad).

Anyway, profile-wise, there is really very little to shout about with respect to how it tastes.  I can save you some trouble – unadventurous, simple, easy are the adjectives which come to mind.  The nose is quiet and soft: chocolate milk, anise, caramel, some creaminess of ice cream, vanilla, nougat.  There is very little fruitiness to balance this off with some tart flavours – a whiff of citrus peel maybe, a grape or two, not much more and maybe a touch of black tea.

The palate is similarly soft and similarly straightforward. It’s got more chocolate milk and and perhaps a touch of coffee grounds. A smidgen, barely a smidgen of oak and citrus, a sly taste of tangerines; it’s not very sweet (which is a plus) and sports some brine and Turkish olives and a touch of slight bitterness, which I’m going be generous and say is an oak influence that saves it from being just blah.  Finish is okay I guess. Gone too quickly of course, no surprise at 40% ABV and leaving at best the sense of some black tea with too much condensed milk in it, that doesn’t entirely hide the fact that it’s too bitter.

Many will like a rum like this. Tipplers of soft favourites like the Abuelo 7, RN Panama 18 YO, El Dorado 12 YO, the Santa Teresa 1796 or the Diplomatico line would have no issues here at all. Overall, though, from my perspective, aside from bigger Panamanian brands with some actual muscle behind their products (think Abuelo or Origenes), there’s little coming out of the country that either surprises or interests me and this is just another one of them. They’re straightforward rums of little pizzazz (this may be by intent), and while the Malecon 25 is a decent Panamanian, there’s little to distinguish it from a distillate a decade younger.

But, for a rum for which a premium is set because of the supposed ageing of 25 years, that’s not a thing people should be saying about it, because it creates negative expectations for both the brand and the whole country and makes real rum lovers look elsewhere. Let’s hope that in the years to come, this small nation’s rums and their industrial-sized producers can up the ante, make better and more transparent juice and so address the changing tastes of the global audiences better.  Then they could reclaim some of their reputation, which rums and companies like this one have treated with such cavalier disdain, and so carelessly.

(#795)(77/100)


Other notes

  • Lest you think I’m being unfair, others were similarly dismissive: WhiskyFun’s Serge said “isn’t much happening here” though he liked it better than other Malecons, and scored it 78; while his partner in rum, Angus (another rum lover who just doesn’t know he is), didn’t think it was good from a technical side either, and rated it 64. Brian over on /r/reddit gave it a harshly middling score of 53/100, which is just about how I rank it as well (on my own scale). Alex over at Master Quill, the source of the sample I was trying, rated it 82 and also commented on the resemblance to an Abuelo. The best info relating to the brand is probably RumShopBoy’s review of the range from mid 2020, and I recommend it highly (his points score for the 25YO was 55/100).
  • There are two enclosures, one with a wooden box, one with a cardboard one.  The rum is the same in both cases as far as I am aware. I was sent a sample from the wooden-box bottle, which was released first, back in 2016 or so before they switched to cheaper cardboard a few years later.
  • Treat the age statement with caution, as it is unverifiable. Any company this hard to track down doesn’t make provision of the benefit of the doubt an easy task.
Jan 142021
 

Ahh, that magical number of 23, so beloved of rum drinking lovers of sweet, so despised by those who only go for the “pure”.  Is there any pair of digits more guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of those who want to make an example of Rum Gone Wrong? Surely, after the decades of crap Zacapa kept and keeps getting, no promoter or brand owner worth their salt would suggest using it on a label for their own product?

Alas, such is not the case.  Although existing in the shadow of its much-more-famous Guatemalan cousin, Ron Presidente is supposedly made the same way, via a solera method of blending about which not enough is disclosed, so I don’t really buy into (too often what is claimed as a solera is just a complex blend). Oliver & Oliver, a blending company operating in the Dominican Republic, was revived in 1994 by the grandson of the original founder Oliver Juanillo who had fled Cuba in 1959.  It is a company whose webpage you have to peruse with some care: it’s very slick and glossy, but it’s not until you really think about it that you realize they never actually mention a distillery, a specific type of still, source of distillate, or any kind of production technique (the words “traditional pot-still method” are useful only to illustrate the need for a word like cumberworld).

That’s probably because O&O isn’t an outfit formed around a distillery of its own (in spite of the header on Flaviar’s mini bio that implies they are), but is a second-party producer – they take rum from elsewhere and do additional work on it.  Where is “elsewhere?”  It is never mentioned though it’s most likely one of the three B’s (Bermudez, Barcelo, Brugal) who have more well known and legitimate operations on the island, plus perhaps further afield as the back label implies..

Well fine, they can do that and you can read my opinion on the matter below, but for the moment, does it stand up to other rums, or even compare to the well-loved and much-derided Zacapa?

I’d suggest not. It is, in a word, simple.  It has an opening nose of caramel, toffee and nougat, hinting at molasses origins and oak ageing.  Some raisins and prunes and easy fruit that aren’t tart or overly sweet.  Plus some molasses, ripe papaya, and strewed apples and maple syrup. And that syrup really gets big in a hurry, blotting out everything in its path, so you get fruits, sweet, and little depth of any kind, just a sulky kind of heaviness that I recall from El Dorado’s 25 Year Old Rums…and all this from a 40% rum.

It gets no better when tasted.  It’s very darkly sweet, liqueur-like, giving up flavours of prunes and stewed apples (again); dates; peaches in syrup, yes, more syrup, vanilla and a touch of cocoa.  Honey, Cointreau, and both cloying and wispy at the same time, with a last gasp of caramel and toffee.  The finish is thankfully short, sweet, thin, faint, nothing new except maybe some creme brulee. It’s a rum that, in spite of its big number and heroic Jose Marti visage screams neither quality or complexity.  Mostly it yawns “boring!” 

Overall, the sense of being tamped down, of being smothered, is evident here, and I know that both Master Quill (in 2016) and Serge Valentin (in 2014) felt it had been sweetened (I agree). Oliver & Oliver makes much of the 200+ awards its rums have gotten over the years, but the real takeaway from the list is how few there are from more recent times when more exacting, if unofficial, standards were adopted by the judges who adjudicate such matters. 

It’s hard to be neutral about rums like this. Years ago, Dave Russell advised me not to be such a hardass on rums which I might perhaps not care for, but which are popular and well loved and enjoyed by those for whom it is meant, especially those in its country of origin — for the most part, I do try to adhere to his advice.  But at some point I have to simply dig in my heels and say to consumers that this is what I think, what I feel, this is my opinion on the rums you might like. And whatever others with differing tastes from mine might think or enjoy (and all power to them – it’s their money, their palate, their choice), this rum really isn’t for me.

(#794)(74/100)


Other Notes

  • The rum is named “Presidente”. Which Presidente is hard to say since the picture on the label is of Jose Marti, a leading 19th century Cuban man of letters and a national hero of that country.  Maybe it’s a word to denote excellence or something, the top of the heap. Ummm….okay.
  • On the back label it says it comes from a blend of Caribbean and Central American rums (but not which or in what proportions or what ages these were). Not very helpful.
  • Alex Van der Veer, thanks for the sample….

Opinion

I’ve remarked on the business of trust for rum making companies before, and that a lot of the compact between consumer and creator comes from the honest, reasonably complete provision of information…not its lack.

I make no judgements on Oliver & Oliver’s production strategy, and I don’t deny them the right to indulge in the commercial practice of outsourcing the distillate — I simply do not understand why it’s so difficult to disclose more about the sources, and what O&O do with the rums afterwards.  What harm is there in this? In fact, I think it does such non-primary brand-makers a solid positive, because it shows they are doing their best to be open about what they are making, and how…and this raises trust. As I have written before (in the reviews of the Malecon 1979, Mombacho 1989, Don Papa Rare Cask and Dictador Best of 1977) when relevant info is left out as a deliberate marketing practice and conscious management choice, it casts doubt on everything else the company makes, to the point where nothing is believed.

Here we get no info on the source distillate (which is suggested to be cane juice, in some references, but of course is nowhere confirmed).  Nothing on the companies providing the distillate. Nothing on the stills that made it (the “pot stills” business can be disregarded). We don’t even get the faux age-statement fig-leag “6-23” of Zacapa.  We do get the word solera though, but by now, who would even believe that? The less that is given, the more people’s feeling of being duped comes into play and I really want to know who in O&O believes that such obfuscations and consequences redound to their brand’s benefit. Whoever it is should wake up and realize that that might have been okay ten years ago, but it sure isn’t now.

Sep 272020
 

It’s peculiar how little information there is on Smatt’s that isn’t all razzamatazz and overhyped positive posturing meant to move cases. Almost nobody has written anything of consequence about it, there’s no review of credibility out there, while the product website is a cringeworthy mass of spouting verbiage long on gushing praise and short on anything we might actually want to know. When you’re relegated to furtively checking out Rumratings and Difford’s to at least see what drinkers are saying, well, you know you’ve got an issue.  

Smatt is, according to those sources I’ve managed to check, a small-batch, boutique, Jamaican blended rum of pot and column still distillate, launched in the early 2010s. Which distillery? Unclear and unconfirmed, though it’s likely to be made by one of the companies under the NRJ banner, given the involvement of Derrick Dunn as the master blender (he started working at Innswood Distillery where he maintains an office, and is the master blender for Monymusk, the house rum of NRJ). The rum is filtered to white, released at 40% and is marketed in upscale establishments in the UK and various duty free emporia (and some online shops), which may be why it consistently maintains a low profile and is relatively unknown, as these are not places where rum geekery is in plentiful supply.

Normally, such a rum wouldn’t interest me much, but with the massive reputations the New Jamaicans have been building for themselves, it made me curious so I grudgingly parted with some coin to get a sample.  That was the right decision, because this thing turned out to be less an undiscovered steal than a low-rent Jamaican wannabe for those who don’t care about and can’t tell one Jamaican rum from another, know Appleton and stop there.  The rum takes great care not to go beyond such vanilla illusions, since originality is not its forte and it takes inoffensive pleasing-the-sipper as its highest goal. 

Consider the aromas coming off it: there’s a touch of sweet acid funkiness and herbs – sweet pickles, pineapple, strawberry bubblegum mixed in with some brine, white pepper and cereals. To some extent, you can sense bananas and oranges starting to go off, and it becomes more fruity after five minutes or so – within the limitations imposed by the filtration and that low strength – but not rich, not striking, not something you’d remember by the time you set the glass down.

The palate is, in a word, weak, and it raises the question of why it was filtered at all given that it was already quite delicate as a factor of the standard proof.  It tasted clean, very very light, and pleasantly warm, sure.  And there were pleasing, soft flavours of coconut shavings, candy, caramel, light molasses. And even some fruits, light and watery and white, like pears and ripe guavas and sugar water. Just not enough of them, or of anything else. It therefore comes as no surprise that the finish is short and sugary and sweet, a touch fruity, a little dry, and disappears in a flash

Once I drank the thing, checked my notes and assessed my opinions, I came to the conclusion that while the nose does say “Jamaican” — real quiet — it then gets completely addled and loses its way on the palate and finish and ends up as something rather anonymous. It’s not as if there was that much there to begin with at 40%, and to filter it into insensibility and flatness, to tamp down the exuberance of what an island rum can be, completely misses the point of the Jamaican rum landscape. 

Smatt’s modest self-praise of being one of the finest rums ever produced (“Considered by many as the world’s best tasting rum”) can be completely disregarded. I guess that letting it stand on its merits didn’t scream “excellence!” loud enough for the marketing folks, who clearly have at best a tangential acquaintance with rum (or truth, for that matter) but a real good sense of over-the-top adjectives. But what they’re doing by saying such things is purloining the trappings and cred of some serious, real Jamaican rum, stripping them down and selling for parts. Smatt’s is no advertisement for the island or its traditions, and while I completely accept I come at my snark from a long background of trying whites from all points of the compass (and have come to prefer strong, growly and original) that’s no excuse for Smatt’s to come out with a bland and boring rum that doesn’t even do us the favour of letting us know what it really is, while shamelessly bloviating about all the things it isn’t. Why, it’s positively Trumpian.

(#765)(78/100)


Other Notes

  • Honesty compels me to let you know that in 2015 Forbes named this as one of eight rums you should try. In 2020, the Caner is telling you it really isn’t.
  • I don’t care about the story of the pirate the rum was supposedly named after, and simply note it for completeness here.
  • Age is unknown.  I’d suggest it’s a few years old but that’s a guess based on taste and price.
Aug 092020
 

Black Tot day came and went at the end of July with all the usual articles and reviews and happy pictures of people drinking their Navy Rum wannabes. Although it’s become more popular of late (a practice I’m sure rum-selling emporia are happy to encourage), I tend not to pay too much attention to it, since several other countries’ navies discontinued the practice on other days and in other years, so to me it’s just another date. And anyway, seriously, do I really need an excuse to try another rum? Hardly.  

However, with the recent release of yet another ‘Tot variant (the 50th Anniversary Rum from the Whisky Exchange) to add to the ever-growing stable of Navy Rums purporting to be the Real Thing (or said Real Thing’s legit inheritors) and all the excited discussions and “Look what I got!” posts usually attendant upon the date, let’s look at Pusser’s Gunpowder Proof which is an update of the older Blue Label rum, jacked up to a higher strength.  

Sorry to repeat what most probably already know by now, but the antecedents of the rum must be noted: the name derives from the (probably apocryphal but really interesting) story of how the navy tested for proof alcohol by checking it against whether it supported the combustion of a sample of gunpowder: the weakest strength that would do that was deemed 100 proof, and more accurate tests later showed this to be 57.15% ABV.  However, as Matt Pietrek has informed us, real navy rums were always issued at a few degrees less than that and the true Navy Strength is 54.5%.  Which this rum is, hence the subtitle of “Original Admiralty Strength”. Beyond that, there’s not much to go on (see below).

That provided, let’s get right into it then, nose forward.  It’s warm but indistinct, which is to say, it’s a blended melange of several things — molasses, coffee (like Dictador, in a way), flambeed bananas, creme brulee, caramel, cereals.  Some brown sugar, and nice spices like cinnamon, vanilla and ginger cookies.  Also a bit of muskiness and brine, vegetables and fruits starting to go bad, dark and not entirely unpleasant.

The blended nature of the flavours I smelled do not translate well onto the palate, unfortunately, and taste muffled, even muddled.  It’s warm to try and has is points – molasses, brown sugar, truffles, caramel, toffee – but secondary components (with water, say) are another story.  It’s more caramel and brown sugar, vanilla and nuts — and seems somehow overthick, tamped down in some fashion, nearly cloying…even messed with. Even the subtle notes of citrus, bitter chocolate, black tea, dates, and a bite of oakiness and tannins at the medium-long back end don’t entirely rescue this, though I’ll admit it’s decent enough, and some additional final faint hints of ginger and cumin aren’t half bad.

The problem is, I really don’t know what this thing really is. I’ve said it’s just the older Blue Label 42% made stronger, and these days the majority of the blend is supposedly Guyanese, with the label describing it as a “product of Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados”. But I dunno – do these tasting notes describe a bit of any Versailles, Port Mourant or Enmore profile you’ve had of late?  In fact, it reminds me more of a stronger DDL 12 or 15 year old, minus the licorice and pencil shavings, or some anonymous WIRD / Angostura combination . Because the blend changed over time and there’s no identifying date on the bottle, it’s hard to know what the assembly is, and for me to parrot “Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados” is hardly Pulitzer-prize winning research. And, annoyingly, there is also no age statement on the black label, and no distillation information at all — even Pusser’s own website doesn’t tell you anything about that. Seriously?  We have to be satisfied with just this?  

Hydrometer test result courtesy of TheFatRumPirate.com

Anyway, let’s wrap up with the opinion on how it presents: short version, it’s a good ‘nuff rum and you’ll like it in either a mix or by itself. I was more or less okay with its discombobulated panoply of tastes, and the strength worked well.  Still, I found it oddly dry, even thin at times (for all the sweet and thick background), and given that Wes rated it at 7g/L of something-or-other, I have a suspicion that the rum itself was merely blah, and has then been added to, probably because it was just young  distillate from wherever that needed correction. The brand seems to have become quite different since its introduction and early halcyon days, before Tobias passed it on — and paradoxically, the marketing push around all these new variations makes me less eager to go forward, and much more curious to try some of the older ones.

(#751)(82/100)


Other Notes

  • There are several other dates for cessation of the rum ration: the New Zealand navy eliminated the practice in 1990, the Royal Canadian Navy in 1972, Australia way back in 1921, and the USA in 1862. 
  • Some other reviews of the Gunpowder Proof are from Rumtastic, Drinkhacker, Ruminations, GotRum magazine, Rum Howler, Reddit and Reddit again). None of the other well-known reviewers seem to have written about it.
  • Matt Pietrek’s series of articles on Navy rums are required reading for anyone really interested in all the peculiarities, anecdotes, debunks and details surrounding this popular but sometimes misunderstood class of rums.
Jul 062020
 

Rumaniacs Review #117 | 0742

Bardinet was a French company — now part of La Martiniquaise-Bardinet —  formed by Paul Bardinet in 1857 in the south of France: he came up with the not-terribly-original idea of blending various rhums, much as various merchant bottlers were doing across the channel. Arguably their most famous product was the Negrita brand, originally a blend of Reunion, Martinique and Guadeloupe rhums, which was first released in 1886 with the now famous (or infamous) picture of the black girl on the label.

That picture, drawn by Max Camis (a famous poster designer and press cartoonist of the time) is supposedly the oldest character in French advertising…it’s surprising to see such consistent longevity, and one wonders if in these times it should not be retired.  It has remained a visual staple of the Negrita brand for over a century, and maybe the brand owners feel it has created a heritage and cachet of its own that they are loath to change…but if 1423 be taken to task, and both they and Plantation can change names deemed culturally offensive, then surely this should be on someone’s list to speak to as well.

That polemic aside, one issue created by a label that has remained stable for so long, is difficulty in dating the bottle itself. The auction where it was sourced suggested a date of 1970s-1980s and the frayed and much decomposed back label seemed to refer to a person or place named Olympe, which, when I practiced my Google-fu, turned up a restaurant run by Olympe Versini, a starred chef who was the first woman to have a radio and TV show in France in the 1970s. Artur (see comments below this post) pointed out that not only were barcodes widely introduced in the 1980s but the referred to book on the label was published in 1981, so although originally I thought the 1970s were a good dating, the truth is that 1980s are probably correct.  We do not, unfortunately, know about any ageing it has been through, or how old it is.

Colour – Dark amber

Strength – 44%

Nose – Doesn’t lend itself to quick identification at all.  It’s of course pre-AOC so who knows what made it up, and the blend is not disclosed, alas. So, it’s thick, fruity and has that taste of a dry dark-red wine.  Some fruits – raisins and prunes and blackberries – brown sugar, molasses, caramel, and a sort of sly, subtle reek of gaminess winds its way around the back end.  Which is intriguing but not entirely supportive of the other aspects of the smell.

Palate – Quite good, better, in fact, than the nose. Soft, smooth, warm, slightly sweet, with lots of ripe fruits – mangoes, papayas, a slice of pineapple, plums, blackberries, cherries.  There’s a trace of coffee grounds, vanilla and a nice background tartness to the whole thing, a creamy citrus hint, that gives it an edge I like.

Finish – Short, warm, almost thick, smooth.  Mostly fruits and a bit of toffee and the tiniest whiff of brine.

Thoughts – It’s not a bad rhum — indeed, it’s quite interesting —  just one we don’t know enough about in terms of what went into its blend.  I’d suggest both Martinique and Guadeloupe, though that’s guesswork based on a taste that could be interpreted in many other ways. Good for a sip and a share, however, for those who like sipping back into history. 

(82/100)

May 042020
 

There was a very good reason why I took this bottle off a shelf and tried it, even when surrounded by many other rums from equally proud old houses, better made, stronger, of greater quality, produced to more exacting standards, with less kerfuffling oin the label. And that was because I was evaluating Flor de Caña’s entry-to-mid-level rum to see whether it could or should be named to the Key Rums series. The price was attractive, and I retained good memories of an epic bender with my Newfie squaddie Keenan, where we polished off a bottle in labba time on his deck while discoursing on method, critiquing pure reason and waxing poetical on ethical conundrums.

At the time, I had long been a fan of the Flor rums, and they were among my favourite of the first 100 reviews written here, including the original 7 year old I had cut my baby rum teeth on. But back in 2010, they were not the same rums I was drinking now, nor was the same person doing the drinking. Ten years ago, for example, they really did say “7 años” on the label, and not just the deceptive looking numeral 7 without any elaboration at all. The completely meaningless, clueless, pointless and useless — but evocative — “slow aged” and “handcrafted” monikers was on both bottles, but now they had gone a step further and trademarked the former, just to make sure, I guess, that somebody else didn’t come up with the time dilation effects of being around a glass of the stuff. These days, I just pass that kind of stuff with some impatience and get right into the glass.

The nose started decently enough – warm, fruity, welcoming.  It was a bit too sharp for easy sniffing, and the burn of cheap acetone and furniture polish denigrated the experience some. Still, what came after was pleasant – blancmange, bananas, cigar smoke, raisins and some molasses, a bit of tinned peaches, nothing too out of left field, or too aggressive. For a column still product pushed out at 40% ABV, it was all right, and didn’t blow the roof off, or fade into tasteless bland listlessness that sometimes characterizes such bottom shelf products.

The palate really needed work.  There was quite a bit more than the nose, mind — bitter chocolate, almonds, orange peel, stale cigar smoke (in an unventilated bar the day after a late close – ever been in one of those?), black tea, some brown sugar and brine, sweet soya, molasses, and the further bitterness of wet charcoal and ashes.  The problem was, the whole palate was unbalanced and weak.  I don’t say that entirely because of the strength, though that didn’t help, but because there everything was so dialled down and faint that it took me the best part of an hour to dissect it…and worse, the discordant pieces clashed and banged against each other without harmony, and instead of leading to the quiet glide of a smooth finish, it shoved brine and caramel and vanilla roughly down the gullet and pronounced itself satisfied it had given what had been paid for.

So, after trying it and feeling a distinct sense of being let down, I had to concede that the passage of ten years had changed me and my profile preferences, as well as, probably, the company.

It’s possible that the now-famous 2015 Vice magazine hit piece (about Flor’s purported responsibility for Chronic Kidney Disease which was killing workers at an alarming rate, which was long on inconvenient truths and short on contradictory evidence or Big Picture, but that nevertheless caused a partial bartender’s boycott of their rums in North America) took Flor by surprise.  And in their scrambling to retain market share and recover from the mountain of bad press, they started to cut corners to save money.  Or maybe they just misread the tea leaves, completely ignored the head of steam that pure single rums were just starting to make and went cheap and mass market and standard strength, instead of to the niche top end where real profits lie.

Whatever the case for the devolution of the rum from its progenitor, it cannot be considered as being an undiscovered steal. It’s not the same rum I had back then. Is it younger?  No way to tell — it’s a blend now, and some of the trust the company had once possessed has now evaporated, so who’s to tell? The important take-away is that drinking it didn’t make the hours fly faster, just slower, enough to get the tasting over and done with, and with less enjoyment.  A decent rum this was. A good mixing agent, yes, surely.  A key rum, though? Not really – it is, in point of fact, quite a bit less.

(#723)(76/100)


Other notes

My low-to-middling opinion here is something of a minority.  Several others quite liked it, so if you want some balance to my snark, check these guys out:

Mar 252020
 

Rumaniacs Review #112 | 0714

Bought at an auction for curiosity and an interest in old rhums, it was dated in the listing to the sixties or seventies, and because of its association with two other (Bardinet) bottles from Martinique, it was also deemed to be from there (the info was provided by the seller, so it strikes me as reasonable). 

The address given on the label is now a modern building which houses a Hermes shop, and one of the only clues that an online search provides is a 1906 listing from the Milan International Exhibition, which notes Verhes of Pantin (which is in Paris) as dealing with liqueurs; they used to make some low-proofed cocktails-in-a-bottle under the brand name Paquita. It doesn’t seem to exist any more.  Probably a merchant bottler than, or a shop with a few personalized bottlings and creations of its own. (The other name on the label, L. Ruel of Poitiers, is a printing establishment dating back to 1854 and still in business today).

Colour – Amber

Strength – 40%

Nose – There’s a robust wine-like aroma to the whole experience here. Dark re or black grapes, very ripe, plus cherries. I think its provenance in the French islands is likely accurate because the crisp snap of green apples and subtlety of light fruits points that way.  But if so, pre-AOC (of course) – there’s bags of dark fruit going off, and a sort of counterpoint of rottenness that reminds me of both grappa and (please bear with me) the musky sharpness of burning mosquito coil.

Palate – It’s faint and thin (par for the course for a standard strength rhum) and crisper and clearer…cleaner is as good a word as any. Tastes of tart white fruits and apples, ginnip, soursop and sour cream. I liked the softer tones that came in after a while – flambeed bananas, blancmange, red wine, iodine and something sulkier and unripe balancing it off. But still too weak to seriously appeal

Finish – Warm, dry, wine-y, some grapes and fruits, unexceptional in every way.

Thoughts – Overall, it’s like a rich and deeply-fruity modern agricole, and if it was made today I’d say it was from Guadeloupe.  Impossible to tell now, though, which is highly frustrating for any who like deep diving into these things. We’re going to see lots more of such obscure bottlings soon, as records get lost or destroyed, and the owners’ descendants or inheritors or lawyers sell them off. 

(80/100)

Mar 022020
 

Every now and then we find some peculiar, almost completely unknown rum in some unlikely spot, and are struck by exactly how far flung and widespread the production of the spirit really is. I mean, if you aren’t a rumfest junkie or deep diver (and perhaps even if you are), can you recall much about Paraguayan rums?

Paraguay — one of two landlocked countries in South America (quick, name the other one) — is something of a newcomer on the international rum scene, and most of the rums they have made that are distributed abroad have only come on the scene in the last two decades — previously, just about the entire production was local, or regional. And according to some basic research, so far they have stuck with the traditional rons and not gone too far off the reservation. All that is now changing, as they begin to seek a space on the export shelf.

The Heroica we are looking at today is a rum created to take its place alongside its siblings the Black label, the Suave, and the lightly aged Anejos – it is named to commemorate the fallen heroes of the Battle of Piribebuy in August 1869 (part of the devastating Paraguayan War which that country eventually and decisively lost). Yet oddly, it is not mentioned on its website, and neither is either of the other two rums which won prizes in the International Rum Conference in 2015 and 2016.

Here’s what we know – made from rendered sugar cane juice (“honey”), fermented for 72 hours using wild yeast, column distilled, then aged in all kinds of barrels – American oak (ex-bourbon), cognac, Pedro Ximenez and also Marcuya “fruit of passion” wood from Paraguay. Once that’s done, the resultant rons are blended to form the final product. The age is currently unknown — I’ll update this paragraph if I get feedback from their marketing folks — but I’ll hazard a guess it’s medium…about 3-6 years. Little of this, by the way, is noted on the label, which only says it is a Paraguayan rum, commemorates the 1869 battle, is aged in oak vats and 40%. Wonderful. Clearly the word “disclosure” gets more lip service than real purchase over there.

All right, tasting notes. The nose begins with a standard “Cuban” profile – honey, caramel, citrus and faint molasses. These are leavened after some minutes by intriguingly deeper earthy and musky notes of damp soil and wet leaves, some salt and lighter fruits. But mostly it’s the first four — quite straightforward, not too complicated, an easy basket of soft and breathy vapours that cause no problems whatsoever.

The taste pretty much continues in that vein. It’s soft, it’s warm, it’s easy, it demands nothing, and provides a feather pillow for your taste buds. That might seem to be a disqualifier, but while it is to a certain extent simple, it also has enough edge and differences to make to display some character too. One can easily discern and separate honey, cherries in syrup, ice cream, salted nuts, citrus, molasses…underneath all that is the loamy sense of a damp, cool, leafy forest floor, both deep and sharp at the same time. There is a vague aftertaste of nuttiness and sour cream and bread, but this is relatively minor, adding little to the complexity of what’s on offer. And it finishes fast — soft, a quick whiff of toffee, nougat and candied oranges, and it’s gone.

In fine, there’s not much urgent vitality and shivering strength here, nothing to wow the socks off or blow the hair back. It lacks punch and vibrancy, is too easygoing to appeal to me (though clearly not to its adherents and national fans) and seems to want to play it safe within the overall ambit of Spanish style rons. Still, it exhibits more of interest than these remarks might suggest and I think the low strength might be key to understanding how it fails to excite the attention that it could get were it stronger, and those background tastes could come out more decisively.

Spanish-heritage-style rums from South and Central America all have a certain similarity, and while I don’t care for their light softness as much as I once did, I continue examining any new one that crosses my path in the hope of finding one that’ll rejuvenate my affection for their softer charms. This isn’t it, but just for the opportunity to dive into a new rum from a country that’s not renowned for rum and that has produced one we have not heard of before, I can’t say that trying this one was a waste of my time. Fortunately, I liked it enough, and for anyone who likes this kind of ron, I doubt they’d be disappointed in their turn.

(#706)(79/100)


Historical Background

Fortin dates from the post-1989 era and takes advantage of a change in legislation regarding alcohol at that time. From 1941 to 1989 the production and sale of alcohol (and spirits) was a state monopoly, run by the Paraguayan Alcohol Corporation in which the Government and producers both had stakes. Officially this was to rationalize standards, assign quotas, regulate competition and prevent tax evasion, but in reality it was to ensure the commercial elites went into business with the government to share in / siphon off the revenues. After Alfredo Stroessner (the last of a series of military jefes ruling since the 1930s) was toppled in 1989 the laws were relaxed and private industry began to revive.

Fortin was formed around 1993 as a sugar producer by Gustavo Díaz de Vivar, and although it started in Capiatá area to the immediate SE of the capital, Asunción, the company soon moved further east to the town of Piribebuy; after the sugar business took off, he and his son Javier Díaz de Vivar (the current president of Fortin) diversified into rum production with a multi-column still bolted onto the already existing sugar factory they had built. I have an outstanding email to them about their production methods over and above what this article provides (e.g., where does the cane and honey come from?) so an update may come if they respond.

Feb 272020
 

It must be something intrinsic to the USA and their commercial distilling culture, that almost every distillery I’ve come across seems to like making ten different thing off their apparatus.  It’s as if they view a single point of focus, a single product line, as an anathema – a still must be multipurpose, and work to earn its keep by wringing the maximum different amount of spirits out of it.  And this leads to my oft-repeated remark that American distillers seem to like making whiskies, gins, vodkas and other stuff — and produce rum not because of real love for the spirit but as a sort of afterthought to round out the portfolio and provide some immediate cash flow while their hoped-for next Pappy is ageing.

Mad River out of Vermont is no exception to this. In fact, while originally thinking of starting a winery, they finally settled on getting a distillation setup to produce what they really wanted to make – a brandy. Yet, oddly, after sourcing their Muller still from Germany, the first thing off that still in 2013 was a rum, the First Run, and went on from there to make bourbon, rye, and other types of rum — including a silver American “Demerara” (so named probably because it’s made from Demerara sugar, and I have a feeling there’s a potential trademark violation accusation there somewhere if DDL ever hears about it)…and, of course, apple brandy.

The PX is one of their stable of rums, which also includes a Maple-Cask aged rum, the aforementioned First Run and a flavoured vanilla variant. The PX is a single-column-still distillate, aged in toasted and charred barrels, finished in Pedro Ximinez casks (not idea how long in any of these) and released at 46% ABV.  

These bare bones facts obscure a multitude of small issues. For one, they call it a “Demerara-based” rum and remark that the sugar they source is fair-trade certified, but what that means is that it’s a rum made with brown sugar of unstated provenance – if it came from Guyana, which is the only country which can sell a sugar with the word “Demerara” on it, “fair trade” would be an unnecessary statement. For me then, this rum skirts right on the edge of my personal belief idea that a rum should state its origins clearly, and should come from fresh-pressed juice, or molasses…not from sugar itself. The ageing is also never spelled out on the bottle or the website – not the ageing of the base rum, nor the duration of the finishing in PX. We have no idea what the complete outturn is, therefore grading the words “Limited Edition” is impossible. And so these niggling omissions in turn cast doubts (mine) on the “scrappy independent,” “we love what we do” origin story on their website, which I’ve learned the hard way to always regard with some skepticism.

But enough.  Let’s move on to the rum itself and what it tastes like, grade it on how it actually is. Is this a rum that’s up and coming, preparing to take its place as one of the USA’s unsung heroes, a nimble fast-moving upstart ready to take on all comers and make the Caribbean producers look anxiously to their nethers?

Not quite…though it is interesting.  It starts off on the nose with woodchips, sawdust, glue, and old books in a musty library. The fruits start in the background and then slowly gather strength – these are sweet prunes and ripe peaches for the most part, leavened with vanilla, blancmange, some nuttiness and cereals, figs, cloves and raw damp tobacco leaves. The odd thing about it is that it starts nicely but fades away really quickly, so its evanescence is a disappointment — just as I’m coming to grips with it, it vanishes like it’s middle name is Cheshire.

The palate is also somewhat disappointing. The initial tastes are all there – dark fruits, raisins, prunes — but they’re thin and green, not really very precise or dialled-in, more like a mishmash of poorly coordinated soft stuff thrown at a wall. There’s also coffee grounds, tobacco and dark bitter chocolate, more cloves, and in this respect it reminds me a lot of the Dictador 20 or their Best of 1977 – except that it seems lighter, and drier, not quite as polished. As for the finish, that’s simply underwhelming — short and indeterminate, almost indifferent. There’s some tobacco, pancake syrup, vague fruits, smoke, maple sugar, all wispy and vague, here one second and gone the next.

The PX influence is noticeable in the fruitiness, nuttiness and some of the drier aspects of the rum — beyond that, I can’t say there’s much to enthuse. The nose is clearly the best part of the experience, yet even with that, it’s not the sort of rum that encourages sedate evening sipping while watching the sun  go down and discussing the nature of the rumiverse. Part of that is the way the balance feels off, and the tastes and aromas don’t really pop, or mesh particularly well. You’re left feeling this is an essay in the craft, with a few interesting flavours that ultimately fail to cohere, leaving a muddled experience you don’t know what to do with when it’s done. Hardly enough for an unqualified recommendation.

(#705)(76/100)


Other Notes:


Opinion

My point about the jumping all over the spirits-production map, making various different spirits and not settling on one, is merely an observation, not a criticism; and not meant to diss a self-evident enthusiasm for the work, or the commercial realities all such little businesses in the USA must overcome.  After all, the Caribbean rum producers are single-mindedly focused on rums because they started form a base of sugar and molasses which were produced right there, and moved on from that point. American distillers mostly lack this geographic-agricultural advantage. Too, being a single-product producer carries risk: money is tied up in this thing and if sales lag, the enterprise could founder – so the incentive to spread that risk by making several products which can all sell to different market segments, is great.  But what it also does is diversify expertise – and the long, tedious, kaizen-like approach to learning and experimentation and gradual increase in knowledge and skill and quality of the one product they’ve hung their hat on – the way, for example, Mhoba’s founder tinkered for ages to get his stuff right – is missing.

That’s very likely why I have, so far, not seen much in the American rum industry to enthuse me. The rums most make are competent and occasionally interesting, yet don’t wow my socks off (at least, not yet). My experience thus far has been that those who go the whole hog and deal with rum as their primary spirit — not as some kind of adjunct —  tend to do better qualitatively than those who try to do too much. Privateer is one such, Montanya is another, Richland and Pritchards are always intriguing and there are more.  But I have a feeling that if the Law of Mediocrity holds true, then the low to middling quality of all those American rums that have crossed my path over the last ten years (mostly by pure happenstance) define the majority of rums made there; and the companies I have named with products that really make a splash, are the outliers, the leading edges of the bell curve. Only time will tell if that feeling is accurate.

Feb 192020
 

The strangely named Doctor Bird rum is another company’s response to Smith and Cross, Rum Fire  and the Stolen Overproof rum. These are all made or released in the USA (Stolen hails from New Zealand but its rum business is primarily in the US), but the rums themselves come from Jamaica, and there the similarity sort of breaks down, for the Doctor Bird is one of the few from Worthy Park — one of the New Jamaicans which has quietly been gaining its own accolades over the last few years — and not from Hampden or Monymusk or Longpond or Appleton.

The quirky Detroit-based Two James Distillery — whose staff include, variously, an ex-guitar-maker, ex-EMT, ex-Marine and ex-photographer and who state openly and tongue-in-cheek that they have no problems with people stalking them on social media — is a full-fledged distillery, with a 500-gallon (1892 liter) pot still leading the charge.  But while they produce gin, rye whiskey, bourbon and vodka on that still, it’s really irrelevant here because – again, like Stolen – they didn’t bother to make any rum themselves but imported some barrels from Worthy Park. This is a departure from most American distillers styling themselves rum makes, many of whom seem to think that if they have a still they can make anything (and are at pains to demonstrate it), but few of whom ever think of buying another country’s spirit as Stolen and Two James have.

That aside, moving on: Worthy Park you say?  Okay. What else? Pot still, of course, 50% ABV, so that part is good.  Hay yellow. It’s finished in moscatel sherry casks, and that kinda-sorta bothers me, since I retain bad-tempered memories of an over-finished Legendario that was well-nigh undrinkable because of it – though here, given the zero reading on a hydrometer, it’s more likely the finishing was a short one, and not in wet casks.

Certainly the sherry influence seemed to be AWOL on initial sniffing, because my first dumbfounded note-to-self was wtf is this? Salt wax bomb just went off in the glass.Sharp funk is squirting left and right, acetones, furniture polish, rotting bananas, a deep dumpster dive behind an all night take-out joint. Harshly, greasily pungent is as good as any to describe the experience. Oh and that’s just for openers. It gives you kippers and saltfish, the sweet salt of olive oil, varnish, paint thinner. Thank God the fruits come in to save the show: sharp nettlesome, stabbing, tart unripe green bastards, to be sure – gooseberries, five finger, green mangoes, soursop, apples, all nose-puckering and outright rude.  But overall the sensation that remains on the nose is the brine and rotting fruits, and I confess to not having been this startled by a rum since my initial encounter with the clairins and the Paranunbes

Thankfully, much of the violence which characterizes the nose disappears upon a cautious tasting, transmuted by some obscure alchemy into basic drinkability.  It stays sharp, but now things converge to a sort of balance of sweet and salt (not too much of either), crisp and more fruity than before. There’s wood chips, sawdust, varnish, glue, retreating to a respectable distance. Sweet soya sauce, vegetable soup, dill and ginger, gherkins in a sweet vinegar, followed by a parade of crisp fruitiness. Pineapple, lemon peel, gooseberries, green apples, all riper than the nose had suggested they might be, and the finish, relatively swift, is less than I would have expected — and simpler — given the stabbing attack of the nose.  It provides salt, raisins, the citric spiciness of cumin and dill, exhaled some last fruity notes and then disappears.

Well now, what to make of this? If, as they say, it was finished in a sherry cask, all I can say is too little of that made it through. The light sweet muskiness is there, just stays too far in the background to be considered anything but a very minor influence, and aside from some fruity notes (which could just as easily come from the rum’s own esters), the sherry didn’t habla. Maybe it’s because those Jamaican rowdies from the backdam kicked down the door and stomped it flat, who knows? The strength is perfect for what it is – stronger, and morgues might have filled up with expired rum drinkers, but weaker might not have exhibited quite as much badass.

I think the challenge with the rum, for people now getting into Jamaicans (especially the New ones, who like their pot stills and funky junk dialled up to “11” ) might be to get past the aromas, the nose, and how that impacts what is tasted (a good example of how polarizing the rum is, is to check out rumratings’ comments, and those on Tarquin’s sterling reddit review. This is a rum that needs to be tried carefully because to the unprepared it might just hit them between the eyes like a Louisville Slugger. Personally I think a little more ageing or a little more finishing might have been nice, just to round things out and sand the rough edges off a shade more – this is, after all, not even a six year old rum, but a blend of pot still rums of which a 6YO is the oldest. And those high-funk, ester-sporting bad boys need careful handling to reach their full potential. 

The Jamaicans have been getting so much good press of late – especially Hampden and WP – but the peculiarity of this fame is that it’s sometimes thought you can just buy a barrel or ten from them, bottle the result and voila! – instant sold-out. Yeah, but no. Not quite. Not always. And no, not here.

(#703)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • “Doctor Bird” is not a person, and is not supposed to be “Dr. Bird.” It is, in fact, the national bird of Jamaica, a swallow-tail humming bird, only found there. Folklore has it that it was named because of the resemblance of its black crest and long bifurcated tail to the top hat and tails worn by country doctors back in the old days.
  • Big hat tip to Cecil Ramotar, ex-QC part-time rum-junkie, who made sure I got a sample of the rum to try.
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