Aug 182015
 

D3S_9081

As appealing and soft as a pair of slippers on a cold evening

(#227 / 83/100)

*

Nosing this golden brown forty percenter was like revisiting a place in the mind. The soft sweet scents transported me back to the first time I tried the Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva on a dark, bitterly cold and wintry evening.  This rum, made by the same outfit as the DRE, was quite similar: caramel, toffee, unsweetened chocolate and salted butter on rye bread.  There was a slight salty-sweet note here that hinted at soya, or even tequila, but very much in the background, and as it developed, coffee, dried dark fruits and raisins were also elbowing their way to my attention – not bad at all. I felt warmer just sniffing it, and thought back to the early fun days of Liquorature, where I fought a long hard battle to excommunicate the heresy of the scottish tipple with the rums of the True Faith (ultimately without success, but the fight rages on).

I have to comment on the velvety smoothness of the mouthfeel of the Cacique, which was great – it was like your rice-eating mongrel’s adoring I-love-you-master kiss without the drool, or a hungry cat purring and making nice. It was warm and sweet and unaggressive sort of feel on the palate, smooth and thick, without ever quite stepping off the edge and becoming a sweet vanilla-bomb.  Anyway…salt butter again, sour cream, toffee, vanilla, more coffee, very light floral notes, and exactly zero woody or even tobacco notes to be found.  Water?  Naah, I passed – water might have shredded this thing, it was already too light.  You see, the 40% was too weak to really emphasize and bring out the potential of the flavours hidden beneath…I really had to stretch just to sense what I described just now. This made it somewhat unadventurous, uncomplicated, and lacking in what us techno-rum-geeks with our love of exactitude, call “oomph.”  And this carried over into the fade, which might have been the weakest part of the entire drinking experience – the brown sugar came out really hard here, with dark, sweet caramel, butter and toffee…barely escaping the dreaded term “cloying” by the slight bitterness of oak and stale coffee grounds.

D3S_9084

The brand first marketed its rums way back in 1959 – it is now owned by Diageo – and according to wikipedia, it’s the top selling rum in Venezuela (Diplomatico must be pissed). Three varieties exist, the Añejo, the Cacique and the Antiguo, in ascending order, so this is a considered by the makers to be a middle of the road rum. All the rums in the range are supposedly made from molasses distilled in copper pot stills (I kinda doubt that – the profile suggests column still product), aged a little, then blended, then aged again, for up to eight years. The 500 is no newcomer to the stage, being first issued in 1992 to commemorate the date Columbus landed in the New World (I hesitate to use the word “discovered”).  Now you know as much as I do, and that’s still more than you’ll find on the Diageo website.

Cacique is made by Licoreras Unidas SA in La Miel – these are the same cheerful amigos who make the equally sweet, light and very drinkable Diplomaticos, which may inspire either praise and derision depending on where you stand on the sugar issue. I always kinda liked the Diplomaticos myself, especially in the early years — and even now that I’m more of a dark, heavy, full-proofed aged-rum aficionado, I still think they’re really good as introductory sipping rums (which is also how I came across them).  So I expected the Cacique to more or less hew to the same profile, and it didn’t disappoint in any major way. It shared points of similarity with the light Colombian and Peruvian rums, as well as the other Venezuelans, which argues for a commonality of origin in the diaspora of Cuban-influenced roneros.

So…did I like it?  Yes and no.  The smooth and familiar tastes were comforting in their own way, sweet, pleasant, unadventurous, uncomplex – they love you. No attention needed be paid to the Cacique – it wasn’t that kind of rum – but if that’s your thing, add five points to my score. If on the other hand you’re into cask strength beefcakes that menacingly flex their power and dunder and esters in all directions, and show their indifference to your health or your opinion or your tonsils, better take five off.

Other notes

A cacique is an Arawak (Amerindian) tribal chieftain. I wonder if the irony of a bottle label commemorating both the arrival of Europeans, and the title of a chief of those they nearly exterminated, ever occurred to anyone.

Jul 012015
 

D3S_8946

Neither attempt — to make an ersatz agricole (from molasses) or a white mixing agent to take on the more established brands — really works.

(#220. 78/100)

***

Prichard’s is that outfit from Tennessee which has been quietly and busily putting out rums for nearly twenty years, ever since Phil Prichard decided to make rum in whiskey country.  And while it is now common for new entrants to the market to sell white unaged rum from their stills to cover startup costs and provide cash flow while they wait for more favoured stocks to mature, Mr. Prichard didn’t do anything of the sort, and so his white rum – called Crystal – came later to his company’s portfolio (the first review I’ve seen is dated around 2007).

White rums (or “clear” or “silver”, or “blanc”, pick your moniker) come in several varieties, to my mind: agricoles (of which clairins are a subset), cachacas and white mixers, with a new field of unaged pot still whites beginning to gather a head of steam. The question to me was which target the Crystal was taking aim at, and if it succeeded at any. The evocatively named rum is apparently distilled five times using the same sweet Louisiana molasses as the Fine Rum, which is a major selling and marketing point for the company; it is unaged and comes straight from the barrel (though I’m curious – if it was utterly unaged, what was it doing in a barrel in the first place, but never mind).

Anyway, one thing I remarked on right away after pouring it out, was a certain clear crispness to the nose.  No real complexity here: green apples and vanilla for the most part, and remarkably sweet to smell: the origin molasses were detectable in spite of the filtration. The vanilla was really quite overpowering, though, even if  some cream and saltiness emerged at the back end…overall, nothing too difficult to tease out.

Even at 40% it kinda grated on the palate: it was sharp, too raw – that was the lack of ageing making itself felt.  It wasn’t precisely light either, and the initial clarity of the nose dissipated early, to become a slightly heavier, oilier drink.  When it opened up, other, less appealing tastes stepped up to show themselves off – still a lot of sugar and vanillas, yes, but also harsher iodine and metallic notes, with some crackers and brie teasing the senses without ever taking centre stage. And it was oddly dry as things wrapped up, with those vanillas and fresh-cut green apples returning to take a last look around before disappearing in a short finish.

D3S_8946-001

I review all spirits as if they were meant to be had neat – right or wrong, that’s my cross to bear in an attempt to use the exact same methodology to evaluate every rum I try.  To have different techniques in evaluating different rums based on any idea of what a rum should be used for (sipping drink, cocktail ingredient) is to introduce a bias, if not outright confusion.

So by the standard of whether it works as a neat rum, then, the Crystal doesn’t succeed (and even Prichard’s website doesn’t imply otherwise and plugs it as a mixer).  The very slight acidity of the fruit I tasted, mixed up with the lingering molasses, the vanilla, the jarring metallic notes, creates a discordant taste profile which destroys the sipping experience.  As a cocktail ingredient, then? Probably much better.  Not with a coke though – something sharper is needed to take the vanillas off, so I’d suggest ginger beer, lime, Angostura bitters, something in that direction. Prichard’s own website gives some examples.

Since I’m not into tiki or cocktail culture, such white, bland, filtered rums don’t do much for me, and that’s why in over five years I’ve reviewed almost none (I’ve gotten hammered on them quite often, mind you).  This one’s okay, I guess: it’s just a sweet-molasses-based silver, lacking sufficient complexity or blending artistry to make it as a solo drink. My low score should not be seen as a blanket indictment, then, since its failure as a neat sample does not invalidate it as a cocktail ingredient where it may shine more. I’ll leave it to experts in that field to argue the case for the Crystal, which unfortunately I myself could not and cannot make.

 

Jun 282015
 

D3S_8944

A paradox of the mid range: a pot still rum that fails at very little…except perhaps excitement.

(#219. 81/100)

***

I’ve been writing and rewriting this review for almost three months: each time I came to grips with it, I thought of something else to add (or delete), or some new and interesting product eclipsed the Prichard’s and made me want to publish that first. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, maybe.

Prichard’s has been in business since 1996 when they became the first new distillery in Tennessee since the 1940s and have quite a stable of output, including some interesting rum products to their name – they produce three real rums, one spiced rum, three flavoured rums….plus six whiskies and five liqueurs.  So, as with many such outfits in the ‘States, I occasionally wonder if their love isn’t primarily given elsewhere and they make true rums only in order to branch out a little.  However, the website and interviews suggest the opposite, so maybe I’ve got it wrong. And I don’t mind that…I’m just curious about it.

Small companies making rum in the USA sometimes try to recreate the American rums of yore by varying their input or production methods.  In this case, Prichard’s use not blackstrap molasses (the black sticky residue after most of the sugar has been extracted), but sweet Louisiana Grade A molasses, of the sort that could be put on your pancakes the morning after.  The rum is then aged for four years in fifteen-gallon barrels of new oak (another point of departure from more traditional techniques) Whether that works or not is up to the individual.  I don’t think it’s all bad, just not something I’d remember enthusiastically a week from now either. It somehow results in a symphony of ho-hum in spite of some off-kilter moments.

Perhaps starting with the aromas might make the point clearer: initially the amber liquid as decanted from the squat long-necked bottle presented clearly, with chocolate and toffee leading the fray.  A little patience, a drop of water, and spices began to come forward – cardamon, fennel, apples, a cherry or two, and sly twitch of lemongrass for zest – before being blattened into the ground by a ridiculous amount of emerging iodine, leather, caramel, burnt brown sugar that dominated the nose from there on in.

The rum was medium bodied, neither fierce nor fawn.  It slid smoothly on the palate, just a little bit of burn from the standard proofage. I dunno, it seemed diffident, good ‘nuff, like a Three Bears of a rum, neither too much or too little.  Again mocha and dark chocolate, coffee, toffee.  And after it opened up, black grapes, overripe apples, more iodine, and a thin kind of vanilla thread through the whole business, with anise, molasses and caramel really taking ownership at this point and carrying the whole experience through to a lacklustre finish with just more of the same — unexceptionally so, in my opinion.

That grayness of my opinion has to do with the fact that while the Prichard’s Fine Rum  is a workmanlike product by any standard — competently made and reasonably executed — it doesn’t have that extra edge of oomph that excites.  It lacks any single shining point of distinction or originality upon which I can hang my hat and say “this part is freakin’ great,” hence my continual suspicion, however unjustified, that bourbon is what they really want to be making, and rum is an indifferent afterthought. Still…that it’s a drinkable, even sippable rum, with perhaps a shade too much Grade A hanging around in there, but worth the outlay — that’s all beyond dispute; it’s the question of whether it’s a must-have that’s is a bit more open to doubt.

See, some rums trumpet their badassery to the world, while others tick over quietly like swiss watches, the undercurrents of their quality self-evident to those who look and enjoy.  Here’s a rum that neither leaves you turning cartwheels in transports of drunken exuberance, nor shaking your head sadly as you mumble about a piece of junk you wasted time trying – but walking away from the experience, remarking to your friend, “That, mon ami, is a plain old rum.”

 

May 102014
 

Skeldon 1971 bottle

It’s official.  Velier has raised the bar for super premium rums, with an extraordinary 32-year old blast from the past that will excavate a punt-wide trench in your wallet if you ever find one.

(#181. 93.5/100)

The 544-bottle run of the Skeldon 1973 Old Demerara Rum has, since being released in 2005, become something of an object of cult worship.  In 2012 a single bottle went for sale on eBay for close to  €500. I searched for three years before I found a gent in France willing to part with his (and at a cost I’m glad my wife never found out about).  It isn’t very well known, except among rabid collectors, and the only reviews I’ve ever seen were in Italian and French.  It is without doubt a rum from further back in time than anything else Velier has ever made, or perhaps will ever make.  And it is worth every penny. Yes, I love Rum Nation, yes I have soft spots for Cadenhead, Berry Brothers, Secret Treasure, Plantation, El Dorado, Pussers, Young’s Old Sam and a score of others. But this thing is a cut above the crowd, and part of that is the way Velier mastered and balanced the subtleties trapped within the enormous tastes of a 32-year-old beefcake.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone outside Guyana who knows about Skeldon, or where it is. It’s a plantation on the far east of the country, right close by the Corentyne River — I visited the area many times in my youth — and not, as some have mentioned, on the Demerara (all Guyanese rums are often noted as being Demeraras, but the pedant in me disputes the moniker).  The original distillate was made in Skeldon before the still was shut down, and I’ve heard that the barrels were transferred to Uitvlugt before finding their final home in Diamond Estate, where Luca Gargano found the last four barrels from that year ageing quietly away in DDL’s warehouses, perhaps even forgotten by them: he snapped them up, and from that stock, made an old, bold bastard of a rum, eschewing the softness of a standard strength and allowing it to be issued at a mouth ravaging 60.5%.

The Skeldon 1973 was remarkably dark, molasses brown, deeper in hue than the PM 1974 I looked at not too long ago. Such was the skill of the makers that almost no time needed to be spent waiting for the spirit to open up in my glass: almost as soon as I poured it out, rich, powerful fumes of coffee, burnt cocoa, and smouldering sugar cane fields billowed out. Mellow aromas of peaches, nuts and licorice provided exclamation points of distinction, and these were followed by notes of honey, pecans and toast. And it wasn’t over yet: after half an hour, when I went back to it, I detected yet other traces of cherries, blackberries, and even a sly waxy taste that was far from unpleasant.  And each component was clear and distinct, crisp and vital as tropical morning sunshine.

If the nose was extraordinary, so was the palate:  intense without sharpness, heated without pain, and not so much full bodied as voluptuous.  Cumin, tannins and a certain muskiness attended the initial tasting, with a briny undertone, all in balance. As these receded, other flavours came to the fore: coffee again, unsweetened cocoa, walnuts, some caramel, burnt sugar cane (as from the nose), almonds, hazelnuts and at the very bottom a wink of eucalyptus oil. Many rums I have tried often seem to come from the recycle bin: reblends, a new finishing regime, a little tweak here or there, but with the venerable core formula always intact. The Skeldon 1973 does a difficult thing: it feels original, cut from new cloth and yet structured around  blending basics so seamlessly that it samples phenomenally well.  It’s got a certain sumptuousness to it, a sense of extravagance and out of sight quality, as rich as the silk in the lining of a Savile Row suit.

As for the finish, well, its persistence may be as unique as, oh, the Albion 1994, or the SMWS Longpond 9. Fumes and final flavours continued to make their prescence felt for minutes after a taste, as if unwilling to let go. Coffee was prevalent, toasted hazelnuts, some caramel, all melded together into a fade that was a function of 60.5%, and lasted a very very long time, none of it wasted.  So good was the overall experience that I must have had four or five tasting glasses of the stuff, just so that I could savour and sample and extract the very last nuance, and even then I’m sure I missed something.

Skeldon 1973 Label

Everything works in this rum.  Nose, palate, mouthfeel, exit, the whole thing. Usually I’m ambivalent about one point or another in a review – good points in one area are marred by small disappointments in others and this is why the “intangible” part of my scoring goes down and not up like all the others – but here there is such a uniformity of excellence that it made me feel re-energized about the whole business of reviewing rums (and, as an aside, that I may have underrated even the phenomenal UF30E which is about on par, and which I used as a control for this review).

What an amazing, fulfilling rum Velier has produced, indeed.  Yes it’s extraordinarily hard to find, and yes its damned pricey.  Good luck finding one in the States or Canada (or even in Europe, these days).  I’m remarkably fortunate in that I was able to source an unopened bottle given its rarity.  Luca Gargano, the maitre of Velier, has a track record with his bottlings that many can only envy, and is used to dealing lightning with both hands; and for no other reason this is why sourcing his products, old or new, is recommended. If you want to see what the industry can accomplish if they really try, spring some pieces of eight for what Velier is making, if even just the once.

Or try getting a taste of mine, if you’re ever in my neighborhood.  I’m almost sure I’d share it with you.

***

Other notes

Distilled in Coffey still in August 1973 and bottled in April 2005

There is a slightly younger version of Skeldon distillate, the 1978 edition – also bottled by Velier – which I have not managed to source as yet. It is selling on Ebay as of September 2014, for €800. I heard it finally sold for €1200. In January 2016, another 1978 was on offer for €2000

Velier, in 2004, bought a stake in DDL (per their website) – Luca notes in his interview with Cyril of DuRhum that it was in 2003.

Updates

As of 2015, Velier no longer has the right to select barrels from DDL’s warehouses

In October 2015 I retasted this rum, and noted a marked vanilla undercurrent appearing after it stood for half an hour.  This was not substantial enough to lessen the rum’s value – it was too well made for that – but it was there. I thought of rescoring at 93 but then compromised by making note of the fact for interested readers.

 

 

Jul 292013
 

D3S_7028

Good all round Bajan rum from Berry Brothers & Rudd, that’s worth its price and is a good note on which to close your day.

(#175. 85/100)

***

What a relief it was to try this well-aged rum, and to find that its Fijian 8 year old cousin which I had tried some weeks back was indeed something of an iconoclastic aberration. There’s not much I could say about a line of rums of which I have only ever sampled three, and it would have been wrong to extrapolate based on such a small sample size. So it’s a happy matter that I can confirm the Bajan 13 year old is an excellent buy all round.

One of the pleasant things about independent bottlers who make a “series” is the consistency of presentation – think Renegade and their frosted glass bottles, or Plantation and the straw netting. It saves the reviewer a whole bunch of time not to have to assess a presentational score (I know the principle has its detractors, no need to mention it). So, tall bottle, well fitting plastic cork, simplistic labelling utterly consistent with the other BBR rums I’ve written about (the Fiji and the Port Morant 1975).

The lead in on the nose was caramel and molasses, muted and light, yet with some heat as well (the rum is 46% after all). Vanilla undertones had their place before segueing into subtler aromas of pineapple and nicely ripened yellow gooseberries. A flirt of citrus (ripe orange peel) coiled around all of this, well balanced with preceding elements, and then the whole was wrapped up in emerging perfumes of delicate white flowers and a barely perceptible wine background. Quite intriguing, all in all.

I must comment on the excellent mouthfeel of this thirteen year old, honey-coloured rum: it’s medium bodied yet quite smooth for all that, with some heat imparted by the strength, but not so much as to become peppery or overly spicy. There’s a luxurious creaminess in the way this runs across the tongue, a certain chewiness that was very appealing. The rum was neither too sweet nor too salty (while possessing elements of both), and what I came away with was vanilla, honey, white chocolate, light coconut shavings and bananas, all held together by a softer citrus hint than the nose had promised. And at the tail end the odd sweetness of a strawberry lollipop, fading into a long clean finish redolent of chopped fruits and some saltiness. Really quite a decent product – I enjoyed it a lot.

D3S_7032

Where does the distillate originate? I wish I knew for sure. I almost want to say it comes from Mount Gay, but somewhere in that profile I’m more leaning towards R. L. Seale’s FourSquare (and indeed, the Masters of Malt website says that’s its home), and also, from its richness, that it’s a pot still distillate. The ageing in white oak barrels was well handled, in my opinion, because the resultant is in very good balance overall, and it’s a sipper’s drink rather than one to mix.

Writing this review as my life changes yet again, I am assailed by a sense of melancholy. This review will be one of the last for a while (the country I’m moving to is dry in all senses of the word). Perhaps it is fitting that one of the final rums I’ve tried and written up tasting notes for, is also one of the more pleasing ones. Not the best, of course (is there any such thing?) but certainly a rum to have and to enjoy at any point on the arc of your existence. Even if, or perhaps especially, as with me, you won’t be trying any more for a while.

 

Jun 212013
 

D3S_6841

 

Quasimodo in a shrink-wrapped muscle-car with overlarge tyres

(#169. 80.5/100)

***

 Rums have gotten, over the decades and centuries, rather civilized. Sweaty muscular beefcakes like the SMWS Longpond 9 81.3% and the Bacardi 151 always exist, of course, accompanied by more uncouth and less cultured rums even than that, made less for export than for local consumption…but for the most part, what we get is soft, soothing, decent, well padded.

This 46% rum, however, made by those genteel fellows in England, Berry Brothers and Rudd, was none of these things…which, when you recall the near-brilliant 1975 Port Mourant they also made, is kind of odd. Civilized? Nope. Smooth? Not really. Calming, easy on the nose? Don’t make me laugh. Berry Brothers have done something rather amazingly insane, or stupefyingly stupid depending on your viewpoint, with this Fijian product. They’ve made it a raw, nasty, brutish, ugly, foul tasting kill divil that I dunno, should be used to scour the paint job off your souped up Ford F150. Or maybe fuel it.

You think I’m kidding, right? Yeah…but no.

Some time ago I reviewed the SMWS Longpond 9, and the Rum Nation Demerara 23 and the Jamaica 25 year old. All three of these had rubbery, almost medicinal notes to them that were initially somewhat disconcerting, but eventually melded into a unique whole I could not help but appreciate. The off-notes I didn’t care for were relatively subdued and well integrated into a fascinating synthesis. No such feeling swept over me as my brother and I nosed the Berry Brothers & Rudd Fijian 8 year old. Because in this case, raw plasticine and rubber notes were so powerful, that I felt a Bugatti had just peeled out of the shop, leaving a black strip on the pavement a mile wide. Medicinal, turpentine, paint thinner was what you got on that nose. Iodine, seaweed, brine, salt biscuits. And then more burnt rubber. They held a commanding stance from the outset, and never let go. Yes there were also timid, trembling scents of grassy and herbal aromas that crept in as if afraid to be noticed; yes, if you paid attention you would get apple cider and perhaps a flirt of not quite ripe pineapple. But it was small consolation. You had to try too hard. They were shouldered aside and squashed flat.

To taste, it was heated and spicy, as befitted a stronger product, and it was reasonably smooth, not raw and clawing, so no issues there. Hay-blonde, quite light, somewhat thin and clear and clean on the tongue. I was kind of suckered in by some lazy background notes of freshly-sawn white wood of some kind, bananas, softer pineapple and an even fainter grassy-green floral note that developed over time, but then the uncompromising rubber returned. Merde, but this was unpleasant. Iodine, seaweed, some peat (I kid you not) mixed it up in the schoolyard with an overweight bully of peeling rubber, turpentine and styrofoam. It’s like I was trying to sample a neoprene suit left behind on the set of “Debbie Does Dallas.” I can concede without hesitation that the texture was pretty good, it felt physically pleasant in the mouth, and the finish was medium long and heated (and may have been the best thing about it, perhaps because we could now see an end to the experience). But I simply don’t appreciate a rum that is redolent of the freshly torn plastic coming off new, over-polished wooden furniture.

D3S_6846

So, with all due apologies to BBR (who have made other rums I really enjoyed), this is not a rum I cared for. I asked a dedicated maltster whether, given the profile I described, he would buy it (for $75, which is what I paid), and he said probably, so it may work better for Islay-lovers than it did for me. The thing is, underneath the taste is the texture, and in that texture and mouthfeel you can sense the rum this could have been had it been toned down a bit, perhaps been a bit sweeter (and this is why I scored it as I have). I always thought the Renegades were inconsistent and made by — and perhaps for — whisky lovers, and here we have another in that vein, something of a harnessed lunatic, loud and uncouth and unrefined as a fading rock star’s leopard-skin trousers.

It probably won’t sell much, but you know, I do have a kind of sneaking admiration for the concept, much as I shudder at the taste. It takes a certain kind of guts to make a rum that tastes so crazily off base as to appeal to not just the 1%, but the 1% of that 1% who would welcome the adventure, appreciate the uniqueness and throw caution to the winds when drinking it. Because, for sure, there are very few rums in my whole experience which are anything like this Fijian popskull.

Just be warned – It’s an absolute animal of a drink to have if you’re not prepared.


Other Notes

As is usual with craft bottlings such as this one, I could not find much information on the source. However, since there really is only one distillery on Fiji (the South Pacific Distillery, which makes the seemingly well-regarded Bounty brand), it seems reasonable to suppose that the raw stock comes from there. In what barrels it was aged and in which country, is something I’m currently still researching.

Given the light and clean profile, I will hazard that the distillate comes from sugar cane juice (like an agricole) and not from molasses, and is probably a column still product. Still, these are merely my conjectures, so if a reader has more info, please post a remark.

I notice that there are nine and ten year old Fijian rums made by BBR as well.

 

 

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