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.

 

May 022013
 

D7K_1292

Parts of this rum succeed swimmingly, others less so.

(#158. 83/100)

***

This was the second of two rums brought over some days ago, by my squaddie Tony – he of the famous 151 proof rumballs guaranteed to lay you out flat under the table in labba time. I remember having about four of these alcoholic grenades a few years back, and then having a serious and lengthy conversation with a doorpost for the next ten minutes, thinking it was the Hippie. Tony had the good fortune to visit Cuba recently, and being one of the few Caners in the whole province (he claims to have seen a few others of our near-mythical breed in occasional flyspeck watering holes, though this may be mere rumour), he brought back both this rum and the 12 year old Santiago de Cuba I looked at before.

So what to say about this one? Well, first of all, it’s not of a level quite comparable to the sterling 12 year old mentioned above, but it reminded me a lot of another Cuban rum I reviewed some months before, the Ron Palma Mulata de Cuba, which I didn’t care for all that much in spite of its also being aged twelve years. After doing some research, it came as no surprise that the same company made them both – Technoazucar. The company website barely makes mention of this rum beyond some technical details, which I find an odd omission.

Secondly, the Vigia is made from sugar syrup, not molasses, which may account for something of its lighter, vegetal nose (the title of the rum comes from Hemmingway’s residence in San Francisco de Paula, Havana). Be that as it may, the mahogany rum did indeed have a rather herbal tang to it: dry, spicy, with hints of lemon grass, orange zest, dark brown sugar and cinnamon. Not aloofly astringent like Professor McGonnagal, more like, oh Professor Spout – plumper, more inviting, pleasantly earthy and absolutely no-nonsense. I thought that nose was the best thing about this product, though the taste wasn’t much behind.

The palate morphed from the aforementioned grassy notes to something quite different – a touch of red grapes and wine surrounding the caramel and burnt sugar core. A floral background of white blossoms stole gently around these aromas, and the mouthfeel was pleasant, without drama or overacting of any kind. Not all that smooth, but not overly spicy either – it was quite a difference from the Mulata, and closer in profile to (if lighter than) the Santiago de Cuba. Certainly it was sweeter than either, I should note, just not enough to be either cloying or offensive. A medium long, none-too-special exit redolent of caramel and flowery notes, plus some crushed walnuts, light smoke and leather, rounded off the overall profile.

So, the nose was pretty decent, the palate almost as excellent and the finish just meh. The Vigia was, to my mind, a youngish rum (five to seven years, I judge), one to mix in a nice daiquiri perhaps, or that old standby, the Libre. Some of my ambivalence comes from me seeing it as an agricole, not so much a molasses based product, and while I have great admiration for such rums when properly made (such as in the French Caribbean Islands), here it just seems that they wanted to produce a mid-tier rum without too much additional effort, saved their love for more top tier products, and let it go as it was.

Which is strange because it’s better than the Mulata 12 year old even without that extra care and attention. How odd is that?.

 

Apr 112013
 

D7K_1222

A very good double-aged Nicaraguan rum, from France.  If this is what a random selection of Plantation rums is like, then I have high hopes for all the others.

(#154. 85.5/100)

***

Finally, I have managed to start acquiring some of the Plantation rums (long regarded by me as a major hole in the reviews of rum “series”), and if the Law of Mediocrity holds true, then this is a set of bottlings that would remedy all my bitching about the inconsistencies of the Renegade line. If it is true that the characteristic of the parts is a function of the whole, then we’ll be in for a treat as we work our way through them.

The Plantation line of rums is made by Cognac Ferrand of France, based on stocks bought from around the Caribbean and Central and South America, and some of their uniqueness rests in the fact that they are finished in cognac casks prior to final bottling (so they can be regarded as double aged). This gives the rums in the line a certain heft and complexity that many comment on quite favourably, to say nothing of the line stepping away from 40% as a matter of habit – this one from Nicaragua was bottled at a pleasant 42%. Note also that Plantation indulges the practice of dosing – the addition of small amounts of sugar or caramel to create the overall assembly.

D7K_1227

The bottle itself conformed to the Plantation standard of presentational ethics: a straw-netting enclosed barroom bottle, with the label identifying the year the rum was laid down (2001 in this case), and a map of the source country. I guess they saved the really fancy presentation for stuff like the Barbados 20th Anniversary edition, which was nothing near to this kind of standard (it was better), yet I have no fault to find here, since aside from the lack of an age statement, it provided most of what I needed.

It’s been a while since I tasted the Flor de Cana series of rums (my stocks are long since drained and not renewed), but I remembered the solidity of those, the depth of flavour, whether simple or complex, and they remained among my favourites until supplanted by other Panamanian and Guyanese expressions. This rum brought back all my memories of why I liked Nicaraguan products so much

The nose was deep and rich, redolent of vanilla, oak (not excessive, very well balanced), caramel, citrus (orange peel, even lime zest) and peaches (minus the cream). There were herbal notes flitting around the initial delectable aromas, and I reveled in the lemon grass scents which reminded me somewhat of crushed lime leaves in spicy Thai cuisine. There was no offensive astringency or bite here, just solid, complex notes I spent an inordinate amount of time admiring.

The palate was lovely. 42% ABV sent a pleasantly heated, medium bodied spirit to announce its prescence with a smoothly powerful fanfare. Honey and caramel flavours led the charge, with subtler tastes of pineapple, a ripe-but-firm mango and vanilla rounding things out. The Nicaragua 2001 was not overly sweet (so what dosing they did do was judiciously restrained, at least), slightly dry without being either cloyingly sugary, or acerbically briny. The rum was all well-balanced flavour and profile, speaking well for more expensive and older rums up the chain of the Plantation line. And I had little fault to find with the finish, which was longish, slightly dry and gave me some oak and vanilla that was not exceptional, just well put together

 D7K_1228

What’s not to admire about a rum like this? Much like the Dictador 20 written about some weeks back, it displayed a solid mastery of rum-making fundamentals. It’s probably the finishing in cognac casks that gave it that extra note of complexity and balance I so enjoyed here, with the body being somewhat enhanced by the sugar (estimated at 14 g/L). In part, I see the production of these limited edition bottlings by European makers as an act of homage for the traditions of the old rum makers and their lost arts. W.G. Sebald, whose works often concerned the loss of memory, once wrote about journeys made through the half-abandoned remainders of the past, through signs that men had once been here and are now forgotten. When you try the Nicaragua 2001, you see what rum can be, once was…and maybe what it will aspire to in years to come.


Other notes

  • The Law of Mediocrity isn’t quite what it sounds like: it basically takes the position that if one takes a random sample from a set and that sample is good, then it suggests that others in the set will also be.
  • There is no literature I can find that says precisely how old the rum is. Of course, since it was casked in 2001, it has to be less than fifteen years old. One German site stated it was six years old, but I dunno…..
  • There is some confusion in the online literature as to whether this is pot still or column still distillate. However, the Cognac-Ferrand site notes it as coming from a columnar still.
  • People have differeing opinions on the matter of additional sugar.  Some like it, some don’t, some are indifferent. The 14g/L number is taken from The Fat Rum Pirate’s list.

 

 

 

 

Mar 302013
 

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

(#144. 83/100)

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mar 302013
 

 

This lovely product will always be one of the top sipping rums of my 2012 experience. The awards it has garnered since 2007 state boldly that many others think so too.

(#138. 88.5/100)

***

Stirred by the Rum Howler’s listing of the Plantation Barbados XO in his intriguing top 30 rum list, and having brought back a bottle from the amazing Rum Depot store in Berlin back in August (yes, it was gathering dust for several months, them’s the breaks when you have a day job and a family and other interests), I resolved to check it out after finishing off the St Lucia series. It was run up against three enormously different rums which could not possibly be mistaken for each other: the Renegade Cuba 1998Downslope Distillery’s wonky 6-month wine-barrel aged rum from Colorado about which I can’t say enough bad things, and the amazing 2012 Rum Nation Demerara 1989-2012 23 year old about which I can’t say enough good things.

The Plantation series of aged rums from Cognac-Ferrand are the major remaining hole in my review lineup (as of the beginning of 2013) of widely available commercial rums, if you don’t count other rather more exclusive European boutique makers like Bruichladdich, Cadenhead, Berry & Rudd, Bristol Spirits or Fassbind (among others) which rarely touch the Great White North. Knowing what I know now regarding how to begin a review site of popular spirits, I really should start with the younger Plantation variations and move up the scale, but when you have twenty to chose from and can only pick one, you might also do as I did, and start at the top…assuming your wallet holds out.

And I’m glad I did. Barbados rums tend to be on the soft side, but this one was like a feather pillow for the nose, truly…it handily eclipsed the Mount Gay 1703 with scents of white chocolate, buttery toffee, the nutmeg of a good eggnog, vanilla and caramel, and a lovely background of ground coconut shavings in a melange that was utterly terrific. It was a rich sensory love-in of a nose, solidly constructed, soft and breezy and if you ever wanted to have a Christmas rum to sip by a roaring fire, you would never have to go further than this one. I thought of it like a liquid, warm Hagen-Dasz, with all the sweetness that implies.

The palate was similarly excellent: sweet and a shade briny (not too much), soft as a mother’s hug before school on a cold day. It had hints of bananas and orange peel on the medium-heavy body, salty caramel, white chocolate vanilla. My lord this was good, rich and pungent and smooth as a cat’s tummy fur, with just a shade of heat to lend character, a touch of oaky spice and burnt coconut…if this rum was equated to a painting, it would be a lush impressionist Monet or Degas, colourful, vibrant and above all, real. And for once the finish completed the overall picture without failing, warm, medium long and rich, with traces of almonds, citrus and oak on the slightly astringent close.

The XO is a rum that is a blend of Plantations’s “oldest reserves” (not sure how old these reserves were, since no further details are available). The blends are first aged in Barbados in ex-bourbon casks, then taken to France where they undergo secondary ageing in smaller French Oak casks for a further year to eighteen months. I must concede that this process of double ageing (somewhat akin to the Dos Maderas 5+3 or 5+5) is much to my taste…it provides the resultant spirit with a depth and creaminess that is quite becoming and is absolutely meant for leisurely exploration when time is not a factor and a buzz is not on the menu.

As I noted above, this is a solidly built, well presented, utterly traditional all-round excellent premium rum. At €45 I think it might be one of the better value for money rums available for a 40% product. That sentence should be parsed carefully, because what this means is that it is superlative at genuflecting to all the expected traditional rum expectations…but without rising above or vaulting beyond (or violating) them…it lacks the passive agressive adventurousness of Fabio Rossi’s Rum Nation Demerara 1989 23 year old (45%) or the stunning-if-somewhat-oversweet Millonario XO (40%). This is not to diss the Plantation product, mind you, just to give you a sense of both its quality and what else it could have been had someone taped a pair of balles to it.

I wish I could tell you which rums in the Plantation lineup this one compares well to, but I can’t (Plantation Rums are not widely available in Canada). Suffice to say, the Anniversary XO is phenomenal taken merely by itself. It has a complex softness and style recalling the St. Nicholas Abbey 10 or 12 year old, or most of the top Panamanian rums, and a finish that is close to conjugal harmonies. If it has a weakness at all, it’s in hewing too closely to the profile of rums, and not daring to step a little outside the demarcations: I think that had it done so, beefed itself up, perhaps aged it a little differently, they may have been one of the top premiums in the world which all others had to beat. As it is, it’s a great sipping rum that any aficionado should have on his shelf, and share generously with people who simply don’t get how good a premium rum can be when made by people who are fully invested – and who care about – the resultant ambrosias they create.

***

 

 

Mar 302013
 

 

Good rum, but overshadowed by the marketing message

(#131. 81/100)

***

The ad copy reads like a dream: casks squirrelled away in 2007 when a fire ravaged St Lucia Distillers warehouses, were misplaced and then found, and when tried, evinced a more complex flavour profile than that of the standard Chairman’s Reserve (which, alas, I have yet to sample). Is it, as it is marketed, something special?

I have a reason for leading in this way: the other day while Mark the Mad Rock God was receiving instruction from his guitar Yoda, Yoda’s wife and I ran four separate St Lucia distillers products through the wringer (the Forgotten Casks, the Admiral Rodney, the Renegade St Lucia, and the 1931). All were good, all were tasty. Yet somehow, if even by a nose, the Forgotten Casks variant finished in the rear in spite of its overall quality. In other words, there were three other products by the same distillery that beat it.

Speaking of the maker: St Lucia Distillers was formally born in 1972 when the two remaining distilleries on the island — the Barnard Family Estate in Dennery, which was for the most part producing strong white rums, and the Geest family distillery at Roseau — merged to form a joint venture. Today, St. Lucia Distillers Limited is located on the site of the old Geest Distillery, once a part of the Sugar Manufacturers mill in Roseau, on the west coast of St. Lucia. In 2005 the Barnard family, sold to CLICO, with third generation rum-maker Laurie Barnard staying on as Managing Director.The aged plant from the two original distilleries which formed the company was replaced in the second half of the 1990s with a new two-column still, which permitted a rapid diversification of product lines: vodka, gin, brandy, many other rums. However, as a result of St Lucia’s move away from land intensive sugar cane cultivation to bananas, they no longer grow their own sugar, but import molasses from (where else?) Guyana. Both the new stills and a secure source of supply ensured that the company was able to expand and it has created a good export market to Europe and Africa.

 

Perhaps the first inkling that the St. Lucia Distillers may not themselves consider the Forgotten Casks rum among their best offerings is the cheap tinfoil cap. Not a nail in the coffin, precisely…more like a polite nose tap. Squat bottle, decent label, ensconced in a cheap cardboard box giving the history of the forgotten casks themselves. The aroma was nothing to sneeze at, mind: soft scents of citrus (more lime than orange), marzipan and a sort of warm smokiness attended my pouring this dark amber rum. As it opened up, dried dark fruits (raisins?), chocolate and burnt brown sugar began to make themselves subtly felt. It was not a heavy rum to nose, but a very pleasant unobtrusive one, with a subtlety that was quite attractive, and distinct enough to better both the Doorly’s XO and the Juan Santos Five Year old, which were too timid to let us know what they were all about

The arrival of the medium bodied rum was a shade heated, though not so much as to be unpleasant — at 40% I would have been surprised if it had been. The light smoky background persisted under a soft kind of light crispness: Mary, who was kind enough to sample this with me, suggested a wine lover – particularly one who appreciated a Sauvignon-Blanc – would probably really enjoy this baby. As we sampled back and forth we noted tastes of a buttery creaminess, English biscuits, and then caramel and toffee. And a driness that led to a medium long finish redolent of that same creamy caramel. I’d hesitate to add this rum to a mix…it’s borderline, still a bit rough around the edges and needing some couth, yet good enough for the curious to try on their own.

Is it better than the original Chairman’s Reserve which was never misplaced? I can’t tell, since I never had any. However, my online research of St Lucia Distiller’s website suggests that while the original is a blend of rums individually aged for 4½ years and then aged a further six months after blending, this variant is a blend of coffey and pot-still rums seven to twelve years old, first separately aged (by still output) in white oak barrels and then married for a further five years (maybe while lost?)…so probably since 2007. Therefore I’d hazard a wild-ass-guess that yeah, it’s probably better just ‘cause it really is older — and for those who are fortunate enough to try them both side by side, feel free to comment and let me know. (As an aside, note that the Admiral Rodney rum made by the same company is aged eight to twelve years so perhaps this one is either a high-end Chairman’s Reserve or a low end Admiral Rodney.)

 

So: the Forgotten Casks are officially a limited edition of misplaced casks now found and bottled. It’s considered by the makers to be a premium rum. Tastes pretty good, in my opinion. You want to intro someone to rums (especially a wine drinker)…good place to start may be here. All this is good. But it’s not as if, like the original Angostura 1919, the barrels were superlatively enhanced by the fire, or lost for literally decades. These barrels were misplaced for about four or five years, and all that means to me is that they were aged a bit more. The rum is simply not an undiscovered steal or some unbelievably good rum that somehow slipped past us.

It’s a good rum, a tasty rum and a nice rum. That it isn’t an utterly premium undervalued rum has more to do with its marketing promo campaign than the fact that it’s a decent product, perhaps matured differently and tasting well for its age. I honestly don’t think they needed to state that the barrels were lost and found, because the Forgotten Casks rum stands up quite nicely on its own without further embellishment – all they really needed to say it was an eight or ten years old or something. And the problem for St. Lucia’s Distillers this created, in my opinion, is that by naming the rum as they did, they created an expectation it did not meet, and a cachet I don’t think it quite deserved.

 

***

Just as a closing note: the order of the four rums in my tasting (the reviews for which are not yet complete) is from bottom to top: Forgotten Casks, Admiral Rodney, Renegade and 1931. Less than ten points separate the first from the last, and all exceed 80, which qualifies as good for me and says a lot for the overall quality of the line.

 

Mar 302013
 

 

Light gold rumlet, lightweight in what counts, with an oddly discombobulated flavour.

(#128. 75/100)

***

Some time ago I reviewed an intriguing product out of Hawaii, the Kōloa Gold Rum, which impressed me by having some interesting (if thinner than average) flavours emerging out of an utterly unaged rum. The Old Lahaina “Original Formula” Premium Gold Rum is another in this vein, with a similar taste profile, yet somehow it failed to come up to snuff, where the Kōloa succeeded (both companies produced their first rums in 2009).

Maui Distillers began construction of their distillery in 2003 around Maui’s plantation town of Paia, where the HC&S plantation leased them an old building on the site of the Old Paia Sugar Mill. According to their website, rum is distilled on two steam-fired 500-gallon pot stills originally built for the Boston New England Rum Company in 1946, one of which has a multi tray fractionating column added to it (I suspect to increase the output, and decrease variation in that output…the bugbear of pot stills’ batch production methodology).

Anyway, housed in a thick bar-room style bottle, the Old Lahaina opened its presentation with a herbal, grassy nose that was a shade heated and yet oddly unaggressive at the same time. Delicate is a term I’d use. As it opened up I smelled citrus peel and freshly peeled tangerines mixed with white flower petals….and some faint honey whiffs. My son (The Little Caner) took a sniff, compared it to the Kōloa and said “Same, Daddy…Lahaina is a bit stronger.” (All he did was sniff, before you ask).

Ummm…okay. Moving along, the coppery brown and amber coloured Lahaina was surprisingly astringent on the palate, dry, sere, a shade briny, and not as sweet as most rums. I wondered whether it had been aged or not (I doubted it). Initially it was hard to pick anything out from under the briny backnote, but gradually vague tastes of vanilla and honey made themselves known, until they were overpowered by – get this – rye bread and creamy butter (I am not making this up!). I tried it again and again over three days, but no, there it was. It’s a first for me, I assure you.

The finish was heated, and a little too raw, the exit too sharp, and much too short – you could barely make out more than a faint cinnamon spice at the back end. It wasn’t bitchy, you understand, and didn’t hate me or claw at me on the fade, it was just…indifferent. It shares a lot with the Koloa, which also had a fade utterly lacking in melodrama.

Really, this was just uninspiring. I liked that the scents and flavours were a shade stronger than the Kōloa, just not what the tastes actually were. Maui Distillers claim that each batch is hand blended and each variety (Dark, Gold or Silver) made from an in-house developed formula. Meh. What I have noticed is that these two rums, which I tasted side by side to effect a decent comparison, have certain characteristics in common: a mouthfeel more delicate than usual, some harshness, and an overall lightness that may either come from a lack of ageing, or the specific characteristics of the Hawaiian sugar and molasses used – or both. I make the comment because I’ve noticed that other rums from other lands outside the Caribbean or Central America (like Old Port DeluxeBundaberg or Tanduay) also have marked differences in taste that I sometimes attribute to the variation in base ingredients and cultivation…a sort of terroire-specific thing.

As a mixer the Old Lahaina Gold is pretty good and can do well in whatever bar serves mai-tais and tiki drinks (its relative lack of sweetness makes it particularly suited that way). Me, my evolution goes towards rums I can sip by themselves and enjoy alone without enhancement. So while I can make a very good cocktail with this so-called premium rum, were I to come upon it neat in a glass I’d probably scurry for the pantry hunting for the chaser right away, no matter what the website tells me about it being equally a mixer and a sipper. Because that one I really don’t believe.