Oct 222015
 

Black tot 1

Bottled history.  Nothing more, nothing less.

(#237. 87/100)

***

“The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good,” remarked Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I remembered that bit of wisdom before embarking on our tryst with this rum.  And to ensure that my long anticipation for the Tot wasn’t bending my feeble mind (I bought the bottle 2014, and tasted it for the first time almost a full year later) I tempered my judgement by trying it three times, with the Skeldon 1973 32 year old, BBR 1977 36 year old, a Velier Caroni and the Samaroli Barbados 1986.  Just to be sure I wasn’t getting too enthusiastic you understand. I had to be sure. I do these things so you don’t have to.

As much as the G&M Longpond 1941, St James 1885 or the J. Bally 1929, to name a few, the near-legendary Black Tot Last Consignment is one of the unicorns of the rum world.  I’m not entirely convinced it should be so – many craft makers issue releases in lots of less than a thousand bottles, while some 7,000 bottles of this are in existence (or were).  Nor is it truly on par with some of the other exceptional rums I’ve tried…the reason people are really willing to shell out a thousand bucks, is that whiff of unique naval pedigree, the semi-mystical aura of true historical heritage.  A rum that was stored for forty years (not aged, stored) in stone flagons, and then married and bottled and sold, with a marketing programme that would have turned the rum into one of the absolute must-haves of our little world…if only it wasn’t quite so damned expensive.

I don’t make these points to be snarky. After all, when you taste it, what you are getting is a 1960s rum and that by itself is pretty nifty.  But there’s an odd dearth of hard information about the Tot that would help an average drinking Joe to evaluate it (assuming said Joe had the coin). About all you know going in is that it come from British Royal Navy stocks left over after the final rum ration was issued to the Jolly Jack Tars on Black Tot Day (31st July, 1970 for the few among you who don’t weep into your glasses every year on that date), and that it was released in 2010 on the same day. No notes on the rum’s true ageing or its precise components are readily available.  According to lore, it supposedly contains rums from Barbados, Guyana (of course), Trinidad, and a little Jamaica, combining the dark, licorice notes of Mudland, the vanillas and tars of the Trinis and that dunderesque whiffy funk of the Jamaicans.  And, the writer in me wants to add, the fierce calypso revelry of them all. Complete with mauby, cookup, doubles, rice and peas, pepperpot and jerk chicken.

Black Tot 1

All that aside, the rum’s presentation is exceptional. A wooden box of dark wood (walnut? oak?). A booklet written by Dave Broom on the background to the rum. A copper plated tot container. A tot ration card facsimile. And a bottle whose cork was covered with a hard, brittle wax sealant that Gregers, Cornelius and Henrik laughed themselves silly watching me try to cut off. The bottle itself was a stubby barroom style bottle with a good cork.  No fault to find on the appearance, at all.  Believe me, we were all raring to try this one.

The aromas first: at 54.3%, I expected more sharpness than the Tot exhibited, and enjoyed the deep and warm nose. Initially, anise and slightly chocolate-infused fumes billowed out of our glasses in well controlled balance.  Cardboard, musty hay, caramel and some tar and tobacco juice (maybe that was the Trinis speaking up?) followed swiftly.  The official literature suggests that the Jamaican part of the blend was minimal, because sailors didn’t care for it, but what little there was exerted quite a pull: dunder and a vaguely bitter, grassy kind of funk was extremely noticeable.  Here was a rum, however, that rewarded patience, so it was good that our conversation was long and lively and far-reaching.  Minutes later, further scents of brine and olives emerged, taking their turn on the stage before being replaced in their turn by prunes, black ripe cherries, leavened with sharper oak tannins, and then molasses, some caramel, smoke, and then (oddly enough), some ginger and dried smoked sausages snuck in there. It was very good…very strong with what we could term traditional flavours.  Still, not much new ground was broken here. It was the overall experience that was good, not the originality.

Good thing the palate exceeded the nose.  Here the strength came into its own – the Tot was a borderline heavy rum, almost mahogany-dark, quite heated on the tongue, with wave after wave of rich dark unsweetened chocolate, molasses, brown sugar, oak deftly kept in check.  Thick meaty flavours (yeah, there were those smoked deli meats again). It was a bit dry, nothing to spoil its lusciousness.  We put down our glasses, talked rum some more, and when we tried it again, we noted some salty, creamy stuff (an aggressive brie mixing it up with red peppers stuffed with cheese in olive oil, was the image that persisted in my mind).  Nuts, rye bread, some coffee. And underlying it all was the mustiness of an old second hand bookstore straight out of a gothic novel.  I enjoyed it quite a bit.  I thought the finish failed a little – it was dry, quite long, so no complaints on that score – it just added little more to the party than the guests we had already seen. Smoke, tannins, aromatic tobacco, some molasses again, a little vegetal stuff, that was about it.  Leaving aside what I knew about it (or discovered later), had I tasted it blind I would have felt it was a rather young rum (sub-ten-year-old), with some aged components thrown in as part of the blend (but very well done, mind).

Which may not be too far from the truth. Originally the rum handed out in the 18th and 19th centuries was a Barbados- or Jamaican-based product.  But as time went on, various other more complex and blended rums were created and sold to the navy by companies such as Lamb’s, Lemon Hart, C&J Dingwall, George Morton and others. Marks were created from estates like Worthy Park, Monymusk, Long Pond, Blue Castle (all in Jamaica); from Mount Gilboa in Barbados; from Albion and Port Mourant in Guyana; and quite a few others. Gradually this fixed the profile of a navy rum as being one that combined the characteristics of all of these (Jamaica being the tiniest due to its fierce pungency), and being blended to produce a rum which long experience had shown was preferred by the sailors. E.D.&F. Man was the largest supplier of rums to the navy, and it took the lead in blending its own preferred style, which was actually a solera – this produced a blend where the majority of the rum was less than a decade old, but with aspects of rums much older than that contained within it.

The problem was that the depot (and all records about the vats and their constituent rums) was damaged, if not outright destroyed during the 1941 Blitz.  In effect this means that what we were looking at here was a rum, blended, and aged solera style, that was in all likelihood re-established in the 1940s only, and that means that the majority of the blend would be from the sixties, with aged components within it that reasonably date back to twenty years earlier. And that might account for the taste profile I sensed.

So now what?  We’ve tasted a sorta-kinda 1960s rum, we’ve accepted that this was “the way rums were made” with some serious, jowl-shaking, sage nods of approval. We’ve established it has a fierce, thick, dark taste, as if a double-sized magnum of Sunset Very Strong ravished the Supreme Lord VI and had a gently autistic child. It had a serious nose, excellent taste, and finished reasonably strong, if perhaps without flourish or grandeur.  The question is, is it worth the price?

Now Pusser’s bought the recipe years ago and in theory at least, they’re continuing the tradition.  Try their Original Admiralty Blend (Blue Label), the Gunpowder Strength or the fifteen year old, and for a lot less money you’re going to get the same rum (more or less) as the Jolly Jack Tars once drank. Why drop that kinda cash on the Tot, when there’s something that’s still being made that supposedly shares the same DNA?  Isn’t the Pusser’s just as good, or better? Well, I wouldn’t say it’s better, no (not least because of the reported 29 g/l sugar added). But at over nine hundred dollars cheaper, I have to wonder whether it isn’t a better bargain, rather than drinking a bottle like the Tot, with all its ephemeral transience. (Not that it’s going to stop anyone, of course, least of all those guys who buy not one but three Appleton 50s at once).

So this is where your wallet and your heart and your brain have to come to a compromise, as mine did. See, on the basis of quality of nose and palate and finish – in other words, if we were to evaluate the rum blind without knowing what it was – I’d say the Black Tot last Consignment is a very well blended product with excellent complexity and texture.  It has a lot of elements I appreciate in my rums, and if it fails a bit on the back stretch, well, them’s the breaks. I’ll give what I think is a fair score that excludes all factors except how it smells, tastes and makes me feel. Because I have to be honest – it’s a lovely rum, a historical blast from the past, and I don’t regret getting it for a second.

At the end, though, what really made it stand out in my mind, was the pleasure I had in sharing such a piece of rum heritage with my friends.  I have cheaper rums that can do the trick just as easily.  But they just wouldn’t have quite the same cachet. The same sense of gravitas. The overall quality. And that’s what the money is for, too.

Other notes:

I’m aware this review is a bit long. I tend to be that way, get really enthusiastic, when a rum is very old, very pricey or very very good. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one applies here.

Sep 202015
 
Photo Copyright (c) Henri Comte

Photo Copyright (c) Henri Comte

An agricole that bends the rules just enough to be original, without dishonouring its antecedents. What a remarkable rhum.

(#233. 86/100)

***

In between the larger and more well known independent bottlers lurk smaller operators pursuing their own vision. Some, like Old Man Spirits, or Delicana, fight the good fight without undue recognition or perhaps even real commercial success.  Others seem to find a more workable middle road. Chantal Comte is one of these, an eponymous company run by a bright and vivacious lady who Cyril of DuRhum interviewed earlier in 2015.  I first saw some of her products in 2014, bought some more out of Switzerland, and now keep an eye out for anything else the lady makes, because, almost alone among the independent bottlers, her company specializes in agricoles and pays no mind to the larger market of molasses based rums.  That gives her rhums a focus that seems to pay huge dividends, at the price of being relatively unknown and relegated almost to bit-player status in the broader rum community.

Born in Morocco into a family with West Indian connections, Ms. Comte started out as a winemaker in the early 1980s, in Nimes. Martinique influenced her interest in rhum, and through the decades she was mentored by two major players in the agricole world, André Depaz of the Mount Pelee plantation, and Paul Hayot (the Hayot family company took over the Clement distillery, you will recall). In the  mid eighties this interest developed to the point where she began blending and bottling some of Depaz’s rhums (with André’s encouragement) and stuck with a philosophy of blending the original vintages, sourced from all over the French West Indies, and bottled at natural strength…whatever was felt to be appropriate to the final expression.

What I had here, then, was a bourbon finished 46.5% amber-coloured AOC Martinique rhum…the questions for me were, which plantation and how old, because Martinique has quite a few different agricole makers and Ms. Comte bottles several. But then the fine print on the label showed it was L’Habitation Saint-Etienne, so mystery solved. How old?  No idea. The rhum is a blend, and comprises several different vintages from HSE: there is no detail on whether the blend was itself aged or not, and how long the bourbon finishing regimen was. It was probably an XO, six years old at least, and honestly, I felt it was likely older than that. On the other hand, I was informed that all vintages are derived from small creole column-still distillates (much like most of the French island agricoles) aged in limousin oak before final transferrence to bourbon barrels for the final finishing and blend.  No additions, no filtration, and the AOC designation remains.

D3S_8953

These days I don’t write much on presentation unless there’s something intriguing (or irritating – cheap corks and tinfoil caps are pet bugbears of mine).  Still, I’d like to comment on the beefy barroom bottle, similar to Rum Nation’s, as well as the wooden box, which certainly gets my nod of approval, given the thing costs over a hundred euros – I’ve never discarded my feeling that when one pays a fair bit of coin, then one is entitled to a fair bit of bling, and here the delivery is just fine. (Note to wife: makes a great gift at Christmas).

On to the rhum, then.  Amber coloured, remember, and middling strength. Pouring it out was almost sensuous, it even felt thicker than usual.  It nosed well, and smelled heavenly – instant green lime zest mixed with softer vanillas, plus eucalyptus and that characteristic grassy cleanliness that so mark agricoles.  I remember looking at my glass in some amazement, wondering how the soft and the sharp scents could meld so well.  Trust me, they did. As it opened up cinnamon, rosemary and riccotta cheese came out, and there was a growing background of ripe fruits from the bourbon barrels tapping my tonsils to say “Oy…we’re here.”

For a rum this light in colour, it was also pleasantly deep (though not heavy a la Port Mourant or Caroni, it was too fresh and clear for that) – somewhat stinging initially, even harsh, so watch out.  And also, be warned…there’s an opening salvo of cordite and firecrackers in here, a gun-oil kind of metallic note; not strong enough to overwhelm subtler tastes that were waiting in the wings, and they died away quickly…but it did make my hair curl for a moment.  More traditional tastes followed in swift, balanced unison, trip-trapping across the palate – semi-sweet fresh fruit, lemon-grass,  ripe mangos, papaya, vanilla, ginger (very faint). It began to trend towards driness as it trailed off, and the finish just confirmed that – fairly long, heated, arid, and last flavours of grass and mild zest to round things off.

Honestly, I don’t know how they managed to meld the offbeat metallic notes with sharp citrus, clean grasses and soft fruits all at once and wrap it all up in a bow of tannins that were kept in check, but they did it, and the result is really worth trying. I liked it partly on the strength of that originality, and indeed, it was on the basis of this one rhum, that I bought their 1977 45% and 1980 58% Trois Rivieres editions as well. It’s a little offbeat, marching to its own tune, and if it’s not quite as insane as the certifiable Clairin Sajous, well, I guess they thought that they had taken enough risks with their client base for one day, and pulled in their horns

My experience with independent bottlers is that they usually come to rum after dabbling in the obscure Scottish drink and only later discovering the True Faith.  Ms. Comte took a different path, starting out with wine (she owns the Château de la Tuilerie which she inherited from her father, and until recently, ran the winery there).  It’s debatable what specific skills can be transferred from one spirit to another: yet, if other editions put out by her company are on par with or better than this rather interesting and remarkable rhum, all I can say is that I hope more wine makers move over to rhums, and quickly.

Other notes

Big hat tip to Cyril of DuRhum, who not only wrote the initial interview with Ms. Comte, but proofed my initial post.

 

Mar 192014
 

D3S_8427-001

 

These three rums are aged curiosities. There’s one from the 60s, and two from the 70s. Information on their origins is maddeningly obscure. The labels are crap, and the corks aged and faded and cracked by decades of rough handling. There’s never been a review of any that I was able to find, and their makers are likely long gone. Yet these three bottles exist, and if for no reason than their history, I review them here, make what remarks I can, score them as best I’m able.

Italy in these days is no stranger to rums, of course. Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation is the name that springs immediately to mind, and Campari recently bought the brands of Appleton and Coruba. Yet in rum’s heydey of the forties and fifties, there were many small outfits that matured their own stocks and brought out limited craft spirits to tempt the palates of those living La Dolce Vita. Some of these were real spirits of the kind we know and enjoy today, but many were what were called “Fantasy rums” – products made from caramel syrup with industrial alcohol, to which various herbs and spices (and in other cases young Jamaican rums), were then added. They were used for baking additives, pastries, or even as digestifs, not so much as sipping rums. They certainly don’t taste like molasses based products.

This to many purists, and according to modern EU rules, disqualifies them from being called rums, and they share similar DNA, then, with Tanduay, Stroh and Mekhong – they edge close to the line without ever quite stepping over it. As before with those examples, I’ll call them rums just because they’re labelled that way and to give them a home.

Anyway, knowing all this, what are they like?

D3S_8436

  • #489a
  • Rhum Fantasia “Stravecchio” Masera 1974
  • Bottled by Seveso Milan
  • Amber coloured, 40%

Nose: Much more of a rum profile than the other two. caramel, brown sugar, peaches and apricots – nice. Soft on the nose, very easy going, with hints of vanilla

Palate: Pleasant and gentle on the tongue, no real spice going on here: medium bodied, a little dry. Vanilla comes out punching, without being overwhelming. Caramel and burnt sugar dominate the taste at the beginning, and then give way to peanut brittle. A shade salty, even buttery, with a pleasant background of walnuts and crushed almonds

Finish: Short. Doesn’t want to piss you off. Toffee and nuts on the close, without lasting long enough to make an impression.

Final score: 80/100

D3S_8441

  • #489b
  • Tocini Fantasia Rhum 1976
  • Bottled by Tocini Company
  • Brown black with ruby tints, 40%

Nose: Slightly sharp, heavy on red/black grape wine; tons of fruit aromas – prunes, blackberries. Reminds me a lot of grappa. Some chocolate, apples, apricots. Licorice comes through after it opens up. Pretty good sniffer, nice and rich.

Palate: Reasonably smooth to taste, a little spicy, not much – medium bodied rum (really love the colour). Loads of licorice – may be too much for some. Back end notes of vanilla and some blackberries, but they’re subtle against the black stuff, which doggedly holds on as if scared to let go.

Finish: Pleasant enough, once the licorice fades out. A bit rough and then stays for a long goodbye, with vanilla and brown sugar notes making a belated appearance.

Final Score: 82/100

 D3S_8439

  • #489c
  • Pagliarini Rhum Fantasia from the 1960s
  • Bottled by Pagliarini Distillery, Municipality of Romani di Lombardo
  • Dark ruby red, 40%

Nose: Thin, striking nose of red cherries, red grapes, and somewhat herbal, like freshly mown wet grass. No real rum profile here: would rate it higher if it had more oomph. Really taste the additional flavourings…pomegranates, some ripe oranges, more cherries, sorrel.

Palate: Soft and round on the tongue, provides comfort without anger. That redness reminds me of sorrel, and so does the taste: plus added notes of fennel, rosemary, cherry syrup. Damn but this is sweet, and not with brown sugar notes either – in fact, this has the least “rum-like” profile of the three. It’s a bit too much sugar: no driness or ageing evident here, and that sinks it for me.

Finish: will o’ the wisp, disappears the moment you look for it, much like the Cheshire Cat; though, like that feline’s grin, it retains a smile of sweet cherry syrup and rosemary to see you on your way home. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Final Score: 79/100

***

At end, it’s unlikely these rums will be easily acquired or even sought after – I may actually have bought among the last bottles extant (and given their shabby state when they arrived, that wouldn’t surprise me). They have been overtaken by other spirits that taste similar and don’t call themselves rum. It’s likely that I paid the price I did because of their age and rarity, which is fine ‘cause I’m interested in the subject and was curious — but if you’re a fanatic about these matters and prefer a more traditional rum profile, I’d suggest you only try any Fantasias that cross your path if you can get them for free. It’s an expensive indulgence any other way, especially if they’re as old as these, and you may not like them much.

Unless of course you’re baking with them, in which case, avanti!

***

 

Closing note: Thanks to Luca Gargano of Velier, Cyril of DuRhum and Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation, who very kindly provided background information I used to write this article.

 

 

Sep 062013
 

D7K_2901

 

A subtle, supple rum, undone by a lack of courage

(#178. 78/100)

***

Consider for a moment my score on the Barceló Imperial. A 78 rating for me is a decent rum, if nothing to write home about. For a premium product, it’s something of a surprise – so here I should state straight out that that score reflects primarily its lesser proof and maybe excessive ladling in of sugar, not any other intrinsic quality. Frankly, it could have been higher.

When I originally read the Barceló Imperial review from Josh Miller at Inu A Kena, I immediately fired off post on his site to ask him whether he got the 38% version I had been avoiding for over a year in Calgary, or whether he had something a shade more torqued up. Because when I’m springing for something that is being touted as a premium (even if I didn’t in this case), I’d rather have a rum that’s…well, a real rum. As it turns out, his was indeed 40%, while the one that Jay of Liquorature trotted out on my last meeting of the Collective prior to absconding, was the lesser proofed bottling.

You’d think that this 2% difference is minimal, but nope. It really isn’t. Consider first the nose on this attractively packaged, sleek looking bottle. Soft as sea breezes, sweet with scents of molasses, cashews (white ones), caramel, prunes and almonds…but all very quiet, slumbering almost, as delicate as the frangipani and white flowers which it called to memory. No intensity here at all, which is where it went south for me, trying to be attractive and pleasant to nose, but somewhat emasculated by a vague cloying sweetness.

This gentleness was mirrored in the taste and the feel on the palate as well. It was soft, warm, billowy, aromatic. It loved me and wanted to share its feelings. Toffee, slight citrus notes, apples and pears led off, with slowly emerging caramel and almonds following on. The mouthfeel was surprisingly “thick” — that’s the added sugar again — and that lesser alcohol content also made it somewhat (disappointingly) bland. Still, I must concede that the balance of the muskier, smokier, deeper sugar tones with the slightly acidic citrus and faint astringency was rather well done. The finish, which came as no surprise, was short, providing a closing sense of nuts and molasses.

D7K_2896

So all in all, a decent product, as I said, perhaps a shade too sweet for some, too damped down for others, even though there is some complexity hiding underneath. People who go in for softer rums, perhaps soleras or liqueurs, would have no problem drinking this one, I think. Those preferring a more aggressive disposition will disagree (I am one of these). I mean, this is touted as a premium rum, and its sexy shape and packaging reflect that, even if its price (around $50 in my location) seems somewhat low. Part of this might be its ageing, which is uncertain – I’ve read claims of components in the blend being as much as 6 or as much as 10 years, but since the official website makes no statement on the matter at all, I’d suggest that Barceló may still be tinkering with it and aren’t ready to make a definitive statement…yet.

One characteristic of underproofed products is that you get the taste without the strength; with added sugar you get thickness without complexity;  and this is like gorging on white bread, or a cheap hamburger – a few minutes later the taste is gone, you’re hungry again, there’s no buzz in sight, and you’re unfulfilled, wanting more. If that’s what Barceló are trying to do, all I can say is that they’ve succeeded swimmingly, ‘cause that bottle of yours is going to be finished in no time. Still, I wonder what my malt swilling amigos would make of this rum, those gentlemen who inhale aged cask-strength whiskies by the caseload and can barely sniff standard proof drinks without being snooty about it. I think they would probably make similar comments to mine – interesting notes, some delicacy harnessed to artistry in service of a fine sipping dram. But I’m sure they’d also say, sorry Ruminsky, we like you and all, but there’s just not enough buxom in the bodice and backside in the bustle, to make this rum worth lusting after.


Other Notes

Barceló hails from the Dominican Republic, where it shares the island with the other two “B”s – Bermudez and Brugal. They have been in business since 1930, when Julian Barceló (a Mallorcan emigre) founded the company, and Spain remains one of its primary markets, though they ship rum to some fifty countries these days.

 

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