Aug 122019
 

Last week, I remarked briefly on persons who are famous or excel in some aspect of their lives, who then go off an lend their names to another product, like spirits – Blackwell was one of these, George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila is another, Bailey Pryor’s Real McCoy line might be among the best known, and here is one that crossed my path not too long ago, a Hawaiian white rum made with the imprimatur of Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar who maintains a residence on Maui and has long been involved in restaurants and spirits (like Cabo Wabo tequila) as a sideline from the gigs for which he is more famous.

It’s always a toss-up whether the visibility and “fame” of such a rum is canny branding / marketing or something real, since the advertising around the associated Name usually swamps any intrinsic quality the spirit might have had to begin with. There’s a fair amount of under-the-hood background (or lack thereof) to the production of this rum, but for the moment, I want to quickly get to the tasting notes, just to get that out of the way.

First off, it’s a 40% rum, white, and filtered, so the real question is what’s the source? The back label remarks that it’s made from “first pressing of virgin Maui sugar cane” (as opposed to the slutty non-Catholic kind of cane, I’m guessing) but the YouTube video (timestamp 1:02) that promotes it suggests brown sugar (which is true) so, I dunno.  Whatever the case, it really does smell more like an agricole than a molasses-based rum: it starts, for example, with soda pop – sprite, fanta – adds bubble gum and lemon zest, and has a sort of vegetal grassy note that makes me think that the word “green” is not entirely out of place. Also iced tea with a mint leaf, and the tartness of ginnip and gooseberries.  It’s also surprisingly sharp for something at standard strength, though not enough to be annoying. 

In that promotional video, Mr. Hagar says that the most distinct thing about the rum is the nose, and I believe it, because the palate pretty much fails by simply being too weak and insufficient to carry the promise of the nose on to the tongue in any meaningful way. It’s sharp and thin, quite clear, and tastes of lemon rind, pickled gherkins, freshly mown grass, sugar water, cane juice, and with the slightly off background of really good olive oil backing it up.  But really, at end, there’s not much really there, no real complexity, and all of it goes away fast, leaving no serious aftertaste to mull over and savour and enjoy. The finish circles back to the beginning and the sense of sprite / 7-up, a bit of grass and a touch of light citrus, just not enough to provide a serious impression of any kind.

This is not really a rum to have by itself.  It’s too meek and mild, and sort of presents like an agricole that isn’t, a dry Riesling or a low-rent cachaca minus the Brazilian woods, which makes one wonder how it got made to taste that way.

And therein lies something of an issue because nowhere are the production details clearly spelled out.  Let’s start at the beginning: Mr. Hagar does not own a distillery. Instead, like Bailey Pryor, he contracts out the manufacture of the rum to another outfit, Hali’imaile Distilling, which was established in 2010 on Maui – the owners were involved in a less than stellar rum brand called Whaler’s which I personally disliked.  They in turn make a series of spirits – whiskey, vodka, gin, rum – under a brand called Pau, and what instantly makes me uneasy is that for all the bright and sparkling website videos and photos, the “History” page remarks that pineapple is used as a source material for their vodka, rum is not mentioned, and cane is nowhere noted as being utilized; note, though, that Mr. Hagar’s video mentions sugar cane and brown sugar without further elaboration, and the Hali’imaile Distilling Company did confirm they use a mash of turbinado sugar.  However, in late 2016 Hali’imaile no longer makes the Sammy’s rum.  In that year the sugar mill on Maui closed and production was shifted to Puerto Rico’s Seralles distillery, which also makes the Don Q brand – so pay close attention to your label, to see if you got a newer version of the rum, or the older Hawaiian one. Note that Levecke, the parent company of Hali’imaile, continues to be responsible for the bottling.

With some exceptions, American distillers and their rums seem to operate along such lines of “less is more” — the exceptions are usually where owners are directly involved in their production processes, ultimate products and the brands. The more supermarket-level rums give less information and expect more sales, based on slick websites, well-known promoters, unverifiable-but-wonderful origin stories and enthusiastic endorsements.  Too often such rums (even ones labelled “Super Premium” like this one) when looked at in depth, show nothing but a hollow shell and a sadly lacking depth of quality. I can’t entirely say that about the Beach Bar Rum – it does have some nice and light notes, does not taste added-to and is not unpleasant in any major way – but the lack of information behind how it is made, and its low-key profile, makes me want to use it only for exactly what it is made: not neat, and not to share with my rum chums — just as a relatively unexceptional daiquiri ingredient.

(#650)(72/100)


Other notes

  • The rum is filtered but I am unable to say whether it has been aged. The video by Let’s Tiki speaks of an oak taste that I did not detect myself.
Jun 262019
 

The fourth and last of the four Dutch West Indies rums that I obtained solely to shed some light on the islands is a pale 35% shrug of indifference called the Palmera White Aruba rum. You know me, I have a thing for unapologetically barking-mad high-proofed white rums – but dis ain’ dat, as my bushmen squaddies would say back in the old days.

Were you to google it, you’d find that the Palmera Quality Products company produces several rums – notably the White and the Dark “authentic Arubian rums with a rich heritage flavour” at standard strength, and is at pains to mention on its About page that “…PQP produces many different beverages in its own processing plant…[and] produces products locally from carefully developed formulas that meet international standards.” No mention of a distillery, a blender, a sugar cane source, an ageing regimen. Call me a cynic, but it sure implies a mass-produced neutral-spirits-treatment operation to me, not a rum made by a dynamic master blender who knows his sh*t, let alone by a distillery that can be identified.  

And maybe that’s why I can never find out anything about these companies, and why the Dutch West Indian islands’ rums – the San Pablo Gold label and Platinum White from Curacao and the Carta Reserva from Aruba – have singularly failed to make any lasting impression on the rumisphere. That might also explain why nobody ever posts an ecstatic hosanna on FB saying “I got this!” and then basks in the glory of the hunt concluded, the find immortalized, the cheers of the envious crowd modestly acknowledged.

So then, what was in the glass that day? A white rum, 35%, supposedly from Aruba (I suppose otherwise), and very little to go on beyond that. As befitting its puny mouse-that-roared proofage, it didn’t give off much of an aroma – sugar water, grass, dill, the sweetness of laundry detergent and a tad of lemon juice.  It was marginally more assertive than the Carta Reserva, and maybe a shade better balanced between some sweet and lemony components.

The taste was mostly sodas: 7-Up or Sprite, cream soda.  Some vanilla, coconut, and vague herbaceous flavours, sugar water and pears, and believe me, that was reaching. Maybe it’s an island thing, to make rums this weak (the current rums listed on the website are similarly proofed, bar a pair of 151s), but all a rum like this one can do is juice up a cocktail or give you a headache in hot weather because you won’t think something so mild could affect you, when of course it can.

The Palmera is as unprepossessing as all the others from the region I’ve sampled (bar the untried overproofed 151s).  It’s light and white, weak and meek, and after the first three tries with its cousins, I approached it with distinct lack of enthusiasm, and finished the tasting exercise with relief. The rum just, I dunno, has this indifferent air of “good ‘nuff” that offends me for some reason, like barely enough effort was put into it to make it sell, and no more. Even the Curacao San Pablo rums at least had the courage to go to 40% instead of messing around with this underwhelming strength.

Socrates remarked that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Where I to apply that here and paraphrase, I’d add a codicil that the Palmera and its cousins makes inevitable – “Sometimes the examined rum is not worth drinking.”  Sorry, but here that’s God’s own truth, and the best I can say about it is that although it’s pointless and purposeless and near tasteless, let’s be grateful that at least it’s painless.

(#636)(64/100)


Other notes

The design of the modern labels is quite different from the one I bought, so I assume there’s been some changes over the years.  I don’t know if the blend or recipe was changed when the label did, nor am I aware when this happened

Jun 242019
 

This is one of those strange rums that clearly exists, but about which nobody seems to know anything, even though I was informed it remains on sale in Aruba to this day. Jazz Singh out of the UK couldn’t help – he rather witheringly remarked that the only local stuff he found on the island was “a lot of imported column rubbish” and that the one distillery Aruba used to have is definitely closed. And good luck with finding any info on the company whose name is on the label, Playa Liquor and Bottling Co, ‘cause that’s equally opaque and non-communicative. So for the moment I’ll treat is a sort of low rent tourist trap hooch. In fact, I’m not even sure what else the company does, so spare is Playa’s online footprint, on FB or elsewhere.

There is an air of “generic” about the rum. It has a title used before – “Superior Carta Reserva” was also a 1970s Puerto Rican rum made for E.F. Debrot Inc (a liquor merchant in Aruba), and it’s white, it’s 35%, and that’s about all you’re going to get here.  I’d hazard a guess it’s a column still product, and that it’s made elsewhere under contract by a third party…assuming it continues to be made at all, because there’s simply no way that any rum company would not advertise its own product, even locally, with this kind of promotional black hole. 

Tasting notes, then, because what else can we do? Nose: a thin, watery, a slightly salty cream soda and Angostura bitters…what we used to call a “rockshandy” when I was a boy.  Plus vanilla and a whiff of citrus. There’s not much more – it’s like light alcoholic water and no aroma of any distinctiveness whatsoever.

Palate? Nope, not a whole lot there either. 35% ABV excites little beyond my indifference.  Even having it first thing in the morning with nothing else before, so that the strength would be less of a factor than later, achieved nothing.  A splash of salt water and an olive or two, vanilla again, a short, faint bite of a very ripe apple, and maybe a pear…or was that a cucumber? Who cares?  The thing is so dim, so bland, so lacking anything resembling character, that you be forgiven for thinking it was in witness protection. The best part is the short, sweet, slightly salty, slightly dry finish, because, you know, it finishes. 

So there we are. Probably molasses based, filtered, an uninspirational, boring, flaccid excuse for a rum, distinguished only by its remarkable lack of anything in particular. It’s a hollow rum, a watery alcohol delivery system, eliciting nothing in the rum drinker except perhaps a big yawn. I’ll just leave it there.

(#635)(65/100)

May 222019
 

Let me run you past the tasting notes of this lower-proofed, higher-aged companion rum to the Laodi White I wrote about last time. It was an amber-coloured 42% which was aged, according to the rep at the 2019 rhumfest in Paris, for 5 years in French oak…so it seemed like it would be relatively tame and mild, taking into account the milquetoast strength and a barely-enough aging regimen (at least, compared to its unaged 56% blanc bro’).

But it wasn’t. To begin with, the nose – well, that was quite a nose, a Cyrano de Bergerac of rum noses.  It was big, it was odd, it was startling and overall rather impossible to ignore. It smelled of old bookcases and old books in a disused manor-house library, of glue holding tattered paper together, of dark furniture and its varnish, and of a gone-to-seed aristocrat smoking an aromatic cigar while wearing a pair of brand new leather brogues still reeking of polish.  It was a rum that was so peculiar that it encouraged equally peculiar phrasing just to describe it properly…at least at the inception. And after a while it did settle down to somewhat more traditional notes, and then we got a basketful of dark, ripe fruits – prunes, plums and apricots set off by the brighter and chirpier red currants and pomegranates, behind which lurked a faint aroma of coffee and unsweetened chocolate and a very pleasant nutty hint.

It smelled light and delicate, and dark and heavy, all at the same time, and one could only wonder what the thing could possibly taste like after such an entrance.  “Flavourful” is one word that could be used without apology. The dustiness of age receded into memory and a nicely solid rum emerged and snapped into focus. It tasted of caramel, toffee, blancmange, white chocolate, almonds, coffee, vanilla, breakfast spices, cinnamon – all the expected hits, I guess you could say.  But it took a step up once the fruits come marching in, because then there was a balanced offset of tart fruits to the firm and thick tastes that came before: prunes and plums, as well as guavas, overripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, green peas (not a fruit, I know) – and a much stronger shading of coffee grounds, as if this thing was channelling Dictador or something.  It never quit went went away, that coffee taste, even on the finish, which was well balanced but far too short, ending with a final exhale, a last shuddering sigh, of fruit and caramel and vanilla, and then was gone.

So, all in all, a surprisingly aromatic rum from Laodi. Just to recap very briefly, this is a Laos-located, Japanese-run distillery on the Thai border, who are perhaps more known for their flavoured low-proof “marriage” rums (coming in coffee, plum, coconut, passion fruit and sugar cane varieties); they use a vaccuum-distillation machine to produce a rhum from cane juice at 47% or so and then rest it in stainless steel tanks for up to five years for the Brown rhum.

Yet they do not use actual barrels in their production process. “Ageing in oak barrels requires means that we do not have,” said Mr. Ikuzo Inoue to Damien Sagnier in a 2017 interview, and so, in an interesting departure from the norm, the company uses a different technique – it dumps French oak chips into the vat (this is also mentioned casually and without elaboration on their website) and that provides the “aged” profile, which, after all, is just the interaction between wood and spirit.  By varying the amount of chips, and the amount of char they have (and so the surface area in contact with the spirit), it is therefore possible to extract a rhum at the other end which has a more intense profile than an equivalently barrel-only-aged product.

What this means is that by common parlance, the rum is not aged at all – it is infused. Moreover, the process – both distillation and infusion – means that elements of the profile deriving from oxidation and evaporation are lacking, and there is a minimal angel’s share from the steel vats. To their credit, nowhere does Laodi say that their rhum is “aged X years” and I think the terminology used by the rep in response to my questions was not meant to imply true ageing.  It does raise some flags, though, because there is no real regulation of or accepted terminology for this kind of flavour enhancement / infusion / ersatz ageing process. The closest one can get is the process of using boisé in cognac, or creative enhancement often imputed to low-rent rum brands. Laodi might not have intended it, but surely this methodology will create food for thought for regulators and commentators in the years to come.

All that aside, for me as a reviewer, I have to ask, does it work?  I’d say yes it does – I mean, there were a lot more flavour elements coming out of the Brown than I was expecting.  I think the rhum is tasty, a bit on the weak side, too thin at the end and needs some more boosting, but a pleasant cane juice spirit that tastes aged (Mr. Sagnier himself remarked that he could not tell the difference), and is more enjoyable than that age suggests it might be.  The issues it raises, though, are likely to trouble rum chums long after the bottle they bought is finished and they move on to the next one.

(#626)(82/100)


Other notes

Some of the questions that occurred to me as I was writing the last paragraphs on the subject of using wood chips were:

  • Does it fly in the face of the standard and accepted ways that ageing is defined? (the rum does, after all, rest for the requisite number of years in a vat, according to Laodi).
  • Will it be derided and decried by those who adhere to a more traditional way of ageing rum and consider it a form of cheating?  
  • How many chips are considered the equivalent of one barrel’s surface contact area? How big do they have to be? And, if you want to go to the extreme, why not just use boise or wood powder
  • Is there a limit?
  • Is it forbidden in any way? Is it legal?

I’m not sure. No standard I’ve read addresses any of these issues, not really. Before the sugar and additives debate took over, it was often mentioned (or accusations were made) that extra wood chips were added to barrels of some rums to make the flavour more intense, but this gradually fell out of public consciousness in favour of dosing, additives and wet barrels. I believe that at bottom, ageing can be defined as the complex interaction of wood and spirit over time, and whether the wood is on the outside (barrels) or the inside (chips) can be seen as a matter of terminology, semantics and fine parsing of regulations by the pedants.

But that obscures the fact that a barrel is a barrel, of known and uniform size and internal surface area, a common and well-understood standard used the world around for centuries. Wooden chips or sticks are a totally different thing, and adding an undisclosed amount of chips to an inert vessel just doesn’t seem to be the same, somehow, especially since there are no standards governing how they are, or can be, used. 

Mar 122019
 

Rumanics Review #93 | 0607

The Appleton Special is not yet a true Rumaniacs rum, since it’s still commonly available – it was, for quite a long time, one of the most common low-end starter rums available in North America and Europe, so it’s more than likely that one can still find a bottle.

However, in 2016 it was retired from active service and put out to pasture, to be replaced by the not-quite-as good J. Wray Jamaica Gold rum – I think they tweaked the blend somewhat since the taste is almost, but not quite, similar.  So, since it is no longer in production and gradually will disappear, I include it in this series rather than the main body of the reviews.

As far as I know, this is a blend of very young rums (less than five years old, and my own feeling is  two years and less), pot and column still blend, and an entry level rum made for mixing with whatever you have on hand.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 40%

Nose – Funk and dunder, warm bordering on hot.  Bananas, brine, olives, plus citrus peel, flambeed bananas, some nuts, molasses and faint rubber. Sharp and light at the same time. I suppose one could add some water to bring out the nuances, but at 40% I didn’t bother.  It’s meant for cocktails, so that’s where it shines more.

Palate – All the hits come out to play: vanilla, orange peel, watermelon juice, brine, avocados.  Some apple cider and green grapes, plus light underlying notes of bitter salt caramel and molasses.  Weak and undernourished, really, but they’re there and the longer one sticks with it, the more pronounced they become.

Finish – Short, mostly caramel, brine, vanilla and funk

Thoughts – Oddly, I liked it better than the new J. Wray Gold.  It’s a subtle kind of thing. Some of the rough edges the Gold retained were less evident here.  It was slightly better integrated, and it could – with some effort – be had neat (though I would not recommend that).  In fine, it’s a fully competent mixing agent, with enough character to wake up a cocktail, yet possessing a fine edge of refinement that incrementally lifts it above its successor.

(74/100)

Nov 242018
 

Rumaniacs Review #086 | 0571

Ed Hamilton, in his 1995 book Rums of the Eastern Caribbean, made mention of the Buccaneer rum as a regular part of the St. Lucia Distillers lineup, but nowadays the rum is no longer in production – the last reference to it was an award given to it in the 2003 Rum Fest (which fest it was is somewhat open to conjecture), and a notation that it was discontinued, later confirmed by Mike Speakman that it was in the same year.  So we can assume that the Buccaneer I tasted is at best an early 2000s rum, no later. An interesting point is that Hamilton wrote of it as being 43%, but both the label photo in his book and my sample came in at 40%.  It’s likely that both variations existed, depending on the market in which it sold (i.e., US versus Europe) – DDL did the same with its El Dorados, for example.

[As an aside, Buccaneer is a title used by several rums over the decades: I found references to a Buccaneer Superior White, a blend of Bajan and Guyanese rum (Buccaneer Vintners, UK); another from Maryland USA (Majestic Distilling) that touted its origin as Virgin Island rum; and a Buccaneer matured rum from Ghana, made by Gihoc Distilleries in Accra, but the background of which is too lengthy to go into here.]

Colour – Dark Gold

Strength – 40%

Nose – Honey, molasses, brine, olives, and the richness of ripe prunes, very arm and smooth.  It’s a little sharp to begin with (it settles after five minutes or so), and has some interesting background aromas of gherkins, cucumbers, pears and a sort of salt-sour tang that’s difficult to pin down precisely but is by no means unpleasant.

Palate – Oily, salty and sweet all at once.  Tastes a little rougher than the nose suggested it might be, but is also quite warm after one adjusts. Pineapple, cherries, mangoes, followed on by dates, molasses, honey and brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla.

Finish – Medium long, and here the molasses and burnt brown sugar notes really come into their own.  Also some light fruitiness, aromatic tobacco and vanilla, but these are buried under the molasses, really.

Thoughts – Certainly a rum from yesteryear.  Nowadays the big guns from St. Lucia Distilleries are the 1931 series, the Admiral Rodney, the Chairman’s Reserve (and its offshoot the “Forgotten Casks”) and some of the cask strength offerings of the Independents (including Ed Hamilton himself). The writing had been on the wall for the wide variety and range of the distillery’s rums even back in the 1990s as they focused on core competencies, consolidation and better-selling brands.  It’s kind of a shame, because this rum was quite a decent dram – but I like to think that all they learned in all the decades since they made them, has now been incorporated into the excellent series of standard proofed rums they make now.  In that sense, the Buccaneer still lives on.

(80/100)

Sep 262018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#552)(86/100)


Other Notes

Sep 242018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#551)(87/100)


Other Notes

Sep 162018
 

The Harewood Barbados rum from 1780 which was trotted out with a tantara of trumpets and a choir of angels at the Tasting of the Century held in London on September 13th, 2018, will probably stand the test of time as the oldest rum that any reviewer or rum aficionado will ever be able to try – not old in terms of ageing (which in this case is unknown), just with respect to how very long ago it was made. It was exceptional in so many respects that it even eclipsed the launch of the Hampden rums which (together with Ms. Harris’s stunning red ensemble) were ostensibly the real reason for the get-together of so many journalists and rum bloggers.

Given the social media blast which attended that day, many of the facts about the Harewood (bow head, doff cap, genuflect) are now reasonably well known, but since I’ve been following the story since the story broke in 2013, I’ll recap them briefly here. The Harewood estate in Yorkshire was built on the fortune of one Henry Lascelles who arrived in Barbados in 1711, and who within twenty years had built a small empire founded on sugar and banking.  In 2011, his descendant Mark Lascelles found 28 cobweb- and filth-encrusted bottles in the cellar of Harewood House and after ascertaining that they were rums, auctioned them off in two lots. The entire (first) collection of twelve handblown bottles sold for £80,000 at Christie’s in 2014, though the buyers were not disclosed by the Daily Mail which reported on the matter. Sleuthing around informs me that Hedonism Wines of London bought one and then resold it for $17,350 to Wealth Solutions who put a capsule into each edition of their collection of 100 Rum Watches within the “Spirits Watches” collection, and the rum has been dubbed the most expensive in the world. Obviously either LMDW or Velier (or both) bought another (or several) and maybe the Whisky Exchange took a third, hence their listing.  But who cares? This is beyond history, beyond heritage. This is the rum from further back in time then any of us proles were ever likely to try.

And just look at the Bad Boys of Rum who were called in to help taste it: John Gibbons, Gregers Nielsen, Wes of The Fat Rum Pirate, Steve James of the Rum Diaries Blog, Matt Pietrek the Cocktail Wonk, Pete Holland from the Floating Rum Shack and Tatu Kaarlas of Refined Vices were all there trying this thing at the same time I was — and let me tell you, it was a  kinetic experience to hang out with some of the best known writing personages of the rumiverse, and be able to cheerfully talk and sample and poke fun at each other all at the same time.

Photo courtesy of Matt Pietrek The Cocktail Wonk. The Geek Squad soberly considering the Harewood.

In fine, the amazing company aside, it was a fantastic rum. I swear that as we started I regarded the rum with the dark cynicism of an observer of the current American political scene. No way could any rum live up to the hype of the bare stats – 1780; found by accident; oldest from Barbados; most expensive ever; ancient; pure; a window into Ago. “Please God, let this not be an epic fail,” I muttered to myself as I walked over to the tasting to join the Collective. I need not have worried.

The very first — almost disbelieving — notes I wrote down in my book were “How can a rum from that far back smell so modern?”  The aroma was like a top end cask strength rum issued today – decant into a new bottle, slap a fancy label and some words on it, and it could be something you see on a shelf in your local spirits emporium boasting a chubby price tag. It started off musty and dusty, something like the Samaroli 1948 West Indian rum.  It smelled of glue, sawdust, cedar wood, crushed walnuts, grapes and orange marmalade, all of which came together in an extraordinary balance. It developed into rotting apples, sour cream, gherkins in vinegar, before doing a switcheroo and becoming dry and phenolic. It had briny notes, minty notes, licorice notes, hints of molasses, olives, wood chips, aromatic tobacco, light fruits, clean herbs (almot agricole-like)….and this was all in the first ten minutes. The 69% strength at which it was bottled gave everything, and held back nothing, and I had a sneaking suspicion that if I were to strap it onto my bathtub and add wheels, I could set lap records at the Nurburgring.

And that was just the nose.  Tasting it elevated my opinion even more.  The strength was totally bearable and not sharp or vinegary or nasty in the slightest – oh sure it was fierce and strong and hot and dry, but it was a full proof rum and this was par for the course – what was remarkable was its overall sippability (is that a real word?). Initial flavours were of light sugar water, apples and watermelon juice (that agricole touch again), acetones, more tobacco, nail polish, grapes, licorice, light molasses, fried bananas and dark chocolate.  It also had a texture and taste of unsweetened fresh yoghurt drizzled with olive oil, the musky taste of hummus and pea soup and dark yeasty bread, which gradually retreated into a sort of subtle fruitiness, of orange marmalade, pears and the crispness of unripe yellow mangoes. It was the sort of rum that simply got better as it rested and opened up in the glass, and while I was trying hard not to pay attention to the soft conversation and chirps of delight from my compadres left, right and opposite, I don’t think my appreciation was limited to myself alone.  Even the finish was not a let down, and provided a proper ending to the rum – long, aromatic, redolent of light anise and furniture polish, dust, hay and some oak, bitter chocolate, nuts and a last hint of fruitiness too laid back to identify precisely.

In summary…wow!  Honestly, if it was commercially available, it should come loaded with a book of quotations that had nothing but expletives, together with a thesaurus listing all the equivalents to the word “awesome”, just in case one’s vocabulary isn’t up to the task.  Would I recognize it blind? Is it representative of Barbados at all? I don’t know – probably not. What I think is that it’s a rum trembling right on the edge of being off the scale.

The Harewood 1780 is, to me, one of the most paradoxical rums I’ve ever tried, because with a very few exceptions, almost nobody who could afford it could possibly appreciate it, and just about nobody who can appreciate it could possibly afford it (one exception, as all are aware, is Luca Gargano, who organized this epic event and about whom no more need be said). Moreover, aside from being the oldest rum in existence (for now) the rum is amazing in one other respect — it adheres to a profile so modern that were one to taste it without knowing what it was (fat chance, I know), it would not be out of the realms of possibility to give it a great score and then ask wonderingly which new independent on the rum scene made this damned thing.

But we couldn’t try it blind – and much as I tried to not let the heritage and age of this rum sway my mind and my scoring, the fact of the matter was that the panoply of tastes and the complexity of the whole experience could not be denied.  We who sat down that day and tried this rum were privileged beyond all measure to have a window opened up into the way rums tasted back then, how they were different from now…yet also curiously the same. For all the changes that have occurred in the industry and the technology between 1780 and 2018, the truth is that the current inheritors of the tradition of quality rum-making aren’t that far away from what was once being made. And that is all to the credit of both those who came before, and those who make rums now.  

(#549)(94/100)


Other notes

  • There were some moral some issues with selling a rum made by the labour of slaves – a way around the matter was found by donating all the proceeds of the sales to charity. Note that in June 2019, one attendee took on this uncomfortable subject head on.
  • Since the modern columnar still had not been invented at the time, it stands to reason the rum was made on a pot still of some kind.
  • The rum was distilled in two forms, according to Christie’s – “Light” and “Dark”, with apparently differing taste profiles.  Whether the terms were used for colours or an actual distillation technique is unknown, but it’s with some dismay that I now have to see if in my lifetime I can find a sample of the “Dark”. The Light tested at 69.38% ABV and the Dark at 57.76% (page 40 of Christie’s catalogue)
  • Links to other articles on the Rum Tasting of the Century (to be updated as other articles appear):

 

Aug 142018
 

Rumaniacs Review #081 | 0538

In Barbados, back in the early 1900s, distillers and bottlers were by a 1906 law, separate, and since the distilleries couldn’t bottle rum, many spirits shops and merchants did — Martin Doorly, E.S.A. Field and R.L. Seale were examples of this in action. On the other side, in the early 1900s a pair of immigrant German brothers, the Stades, set up the West Indies Rum Refinery (now known as WIRD) and all distillate from there carried the mark of their name.

In 1909 Mr Edward Samuel Allison Field established E.S.A. Field as a trading company in Bridgetown and over time, using WIRD distillate, released what came to be referred to as “see through rum”, also called “Stade’s” which sold very well for decades.

In 1962 Seale’s acquired E.S.A. Field and continued to bottle a dark and a white rum under that brand (which is why you see both their names on the label) – the white was humourously referred to as a drink with which to “Eat, Sleep And Forget.” In 1977 the bottling of ESAF was moved to Hopefield (in St. Phillip), so that places this specific rum between 1977 and 1996, in which year the distillate was switched to Foursquare and the mark of “Stades” was discontinued. These days the brand is not made for export, and only sold in Barbados, in a very handsome new bottle. Richard Seale points out it’s the most popular rum in Barbados.

Colour – White

Strength – 43%

Nose – Dusty, plastic and minerally, like dead wet campfire ashes. Lots of off-ripe fruits and toffee, but also sugar water, watermelons and pears, iodine and medicine-y notes, all of which exist uneasily together and don’t really gel for me.

Palate – Sort of like a vegetable soup with too much sweet soya, which may read more bizarre than it actually tastes.  Bananas and so the queer taste of wood sap.  Kiwi fruit and pears, some brine and again those off-ripe sweet fleshy fruits and a sharp clear taste of flint.

Finish – Medium long, something of a surprise.  Dry, and after the fruits and toffee make themselves known and bail, also some flint and the sense of having licked a stone.

Thoughts – Odd rum, very odd. Given the preference of the drinking audience back then for more “standard” English rum profiles – slightly sweet, medium bodied, molasses, caramel and fruits – the tastes come off as a little jarring and one wonders how this came to be as reputedly popular as it was  Still, it’s quite interesting for all that.

(79/100)


Other notes

Thanks to Richard Seale, who provided most of the historical background and (lots of) corrections. Ed Hamilton’s Rums of the Eastern Caribbean contributed some additional details, though as was pointed out to me rather tartly, there are occasional inconsistencies in his work.