Both of my eagle-eyed Constant Readers probably observed that I skipped the 400th review essay last year: I brought the 60+ Rumaniacs reviews into the numbering and so jumped right past it, but in any case, 500 seemed like a better number to be going on with. Am I happy to reach this milestone? Oh yes. But that I have done so is a testament less to my own efforts, than those of readers, commentators and friends who continually provide encouragement and advice (and lots of corrections and criticisms). Even Mrs. Caner graces my work with an occasional nod of distant approbation in a “don’t let this get to your head, buddy” kind of way (which from her is a raving declaration of love) while suggesting I pass the glass so she can try the latest juice as well. And the 13-going-on-30, far-too-clever, hyper-intelligent Little Caner is now beginning to get curious about the whole thing himself, and tags along where he can, lending his nose if allowed. So that’s kind of cool too.
Still, if I had to do a pitch as to why I started and continue to run a free site, which costs me a lot in terms of both time and money, I’d be hard pressed to give you an answer that isn’t seen as either specious or self-serving bullsh*t. Certainly it provides no income, and I’ve taken a fair bit of flak in social media for some of my opinions, so what’s keeping things going?
Part of it is habit. It’s a pleasant routine that I’ve fallen into, and I enjoy the writing, the tasting, the constant surprises and informational rabbit holes that any deep interest constantly reveals. I like the people (on all sides of the divide), the honest curiosity of new entrants to the field. I like the fact that even such a niche interest makes me think and consider my opinions carefully, and enriches my store of knowledge. I like the whole forward-looking nature of the enterprise…it’s like I never get to the bottom of the rum glass, there’s always something new and different and obscure to research or find out or enjoy.
Any plans for the future, over and beyond what’s already being done? Nothing grandiose. Cachacas are getting a bigger slice of my attention (still quite a few to write about), and I want to spend some time researching and writing about rums from Africa and Asia. Expanding the Makers lineup continues to be a work in progress, and for sure I intend to acquire and re-taste a number of rums in my mental list of the Key Rums of the World (the effort is not stalled, by the way, just requires samples which are not with me right now). Some general non-fiction essays are in my mind, informational reference pieces of the sort Matt Pietrek and Josh Miller do better and more often than I do. All this keeps me interested and motivated and eager to go over the next hill and see that odd new distillery on the other side. Which I’ll continue to do as long as the purse holds out and Mrs. Caner concurs.
Over the years, a few of my friends interested in getting into the writing game told me that when the sheer bulk of work is considered, the established “names” out there who get the lion’s share of the attention, the long term nature of it…well, they’re a little intimidated and it reduces their motivation. And that’s a fair comment – when I started posting in January 2010 after months of personal writing, the blogging and review landscape was quite small, so the carving out of a personal niche was somewhat easier to do. But I tell them all to not worry about it — just begin. It’s for you, right? You’ve been on FB for four-plus years already, haven’t you? Think what could have been accomplished had you started then. All it needs is one small review at a time, month in and month out, never stop, do it because you like it, be as unkillable as a cockroach and just keep plugging away. That’s what I did, and still do now, and here we are. At 500.
As always, some observations on the state of the rum world…
The Additives Issue
If we think the whole business of additives is going away, we should think again. Oh sure, it’s been written to death and I think the public awareness is there now, in a way it was not five years back. But any time some new rum aficionado starts talking on FB about how she or he liked the Kraken, Pyrat’s, Don Papa et al, there is no shortage of vociferous responses that take umbrage and it starts all up again. Personally, I don’t and never will believe undisclosed additives are a good thing (and I’ll say that until they plant me), but I also feel that too often the so-called “dude, let me tell you what you’re *really* drinking” conversation degenerates into a sort of genteel elitist superciliousness that puts the blame in the wrong corner – that of the consumer, not the producers; and ignores the fact that many people (even those who know their rums) sometimes simply prefer a sweet mishmash of sugar laden crap.
On the other hand, from the producers side, two small label changes give me hope – Pyrat’s stopped calling itself a rum and the Kraken now clearly says it has sugar and is a spiced rum. Maybe the fierce debates on Facebook have created this awareness on the part of those who make rums, but even with this light through the clouds, Wes’s and Richard’s observations remain on point – it’s not enough, the matter should never be dropped, and people should always be asking the hard questions, whenever they buy and at all the festivals. Producers in particular should have the honesty to declare additives in their rums and Governments should make that a requirement through regulatory enforcement; and if consumers have any responsibility at all, it’s to educate themselves on the matter and vote with their wallets if they feel strongly enough one way or the other.
Several new sites I now visit on a fairly regular basis popped up over the last couple of years (on top of the old stalwarts). One of the best of these may be Single Cask Rum out of Germany (writing in English), which doesn’t do scoring but tastes flights almost every time to offer comparisons and insights. Another now-not-so-new reviewer I like a lot (he appeared up just after I posted the 300th review update) is RumShopBoy from the UK, and if you have not already gone over to Simon’s site to check out his work, trust me, it’s worth it (I particularly recommend his series on the St. Lucia 1931 rums, the El Dorado 15 YO “fancy finish” rums, and the more recent SMWS bottlings). Other sites that attract my attention are Quebec Rhum and A la Découverte du Rhum and Le Blog a Roger (all in French), Rumtastic from the UK (he doesn’t assign scores), Rumlocker from the USA (some interesting commentaries and essays) and several other magazine format sites, all of which I‘ve linked to. I’ve also been twigged to a Japanese-language site called Sarichiiii, which somehow managed to compile a tasting roster of over 350 rums without making a ripple and I think it’s worth a look, though Google translate does make reading a chore, and navigation is tedious because of the large photos.
A corresponding (and somewhat depressing) trend over the last couple of years is the drying up of review sites particular to the North American scene (though the absence or slow decline of sites from other parts of the world is just as bad). In its place I’ve noticed that micro reviews are now springing up, primarily on Facebook and Reddit, and this for me personally, is an incremental contribution to the field, but not one with which I’m particularly happy. Facebook posts get buried in a day unless there are comments and constant likes, Reddit isn’t far behind, and neither really create a body of reference work which sites like those of Wes, Steve, Marco, Matt, Josh, Paul, Laurent, Cyril, Henrik, Dave and others, represent. There’s no background info on these micro-posts, no really well deliberated and expressed opinions (except by fleeting here-today-gone-tomorrow commentary by others), no understanding or sense of the evolution over time in the mind of the poster. Just tasting notes, a score and that’s more or less it. Serge Valentin can get away with that kind of brevity, but not many others can. Few of these posts hold my attention, and none are ones I care to return to, the way I do for any of the websites run by the people noted above — because those writers provide information, not just data. So if a person can write a bunch of such mini-reviews, why not start a website? – it’s cheap and sometimes even free to do.
Lastly I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that aside from Tiare (who doesn’t do rum reviews very often, to our detriment) and the Rum Wench out of Australia (now silent since May 2016), there are no female writers in our small club of whom I’m aware (I would like to be corrected on this if someone knows better), and really wish there were. And also, I live in hope that writers located in Africa and Asia begin to contribute to the body of knowledge we all share, since they’re the ones who know what’s going on in their backyard in a way western writers can’t match and don’t often try to.
Greater appreciation of white full proof rums
Remember that post about the 21 Great Whites? Originally I had intended to stop at ten and thought this would be enough, but the list grew and grew and finally the brakes simply had to be applied before I hit fifty and lost my audience entirely. But what that list and the response to it showed was that the release of the blanc rhums and clairins are no mere flash in the pan. Leaving aside filtered white mixing rums of no particular interest to me (I’m not a bartender or a cocktail guru, to whom such rums are almost like bread and butter staples), these rip snorting high-test white rums are young and often unaged, powerful tasty and of a quality out of all proportion to their age. Habitation Velier had quite a few of these, the clairins are still coming on strong, the French Islanders always had them, and perhaps now they are simply becoming better known and more appreciated than before. I look forward to many more in the future.
The longform essay
As a lover of doorstopping histories, multi-kilo books, series in multiplicate and all forms of well-researched knowledge, how could I ignore the more frequent postings of long pieces exploring single topics? I’ve done a few of my own, Wes Burgin opined quite frequently, but for sheer consistency, Matt Pietrek of the Cocktail Wonk is the gold standard (he’s the opposite of WhiskyFun in his own way), together with Paul Senft of RumJourney, Cyril of DuRhum, and of course Josh Miller of Inu-a-Kena, who still doesn’t write enough and whose essay on the history of agricoles was one of my favourites of 2017. Pieces I particularly liked since #300 are:
- Matt’s essays on sherries and rum fallacies
- Josh’s essay on history of agricoles
- Cyril’s hosting of a massive Caroni taste off
- The Fat Rum Pirate’s thoughts on the Gargano Classification (especially the conclusions). Also the essay/opinion on “Premium Rum – the Impossible Task Part 1 and Part 2.
Perhaps the most acknowledged and admired story in the last couple of years has been the emergence of Foursquare as a rum powerhouse, easily eclipsing Mount Gay, WIRD, El Dorado, Appleton and St Lucia Distilleries as the source of really good fullproof rum, turning what could have been a major impediment to growth (the strictures of Barbadian law regarding purity and additives) into a major selling point. Intellectually partnering with Luca Gargano didn’t hurt either, of course.
But an unanticipated side effect of this success has been the explosion of flippers — speculators who buy as much of a new release as they can and then turn around and sell it on secondary markets (which are now a real feature on Facebook as well as eBay). We first noted this when all of the 2006 10 Year Old disappeared from online shelves five minutes after becoming available and then turning up on eBay a day later at highly inflated prices. So bad did this become that Richard Seale, in an impressive and direct effort at damage control, arranged for personal couriers all over the world to deliver bottles at standard prices to those who were fortunate enough to get one. To say I was astounded at a major primary producer taking on what must have been incredible personal inconvenience, would be to understate the matter.
The whole business of flippers strikes rum lovers as distasteful, since they do not regard rums as an investment but as something to treasure and enjoy, a social lubricant, a matter for scoring brownie points with friends when measuring their collections — and most buy rums for the sheer love of the spirit (believe me, they share generously too). So to have them disappear and require sourcing at twice the price is seen as extortionate. This however obscures the fact that flippers have existed for years – I bought the Skeldon 1973 from one of them – and they will remain a fixture of the landscape, so unless marketing and sales distribution rules change, we may just have to suck it up if we can’t get the juice through regular channels. That’s capitalism for you.
A further unanticipated – and perhaps more welcome – development following right along, is what I call micro flipping – the sale of samples online (so far I’ve only seen this on Facebook). I believe this will likely become a major source of samples for curious people who are interested in checking out new rums, but not entirely willing to part with major money for all rums bottled for an entire line. So certainly I see this as a better situation than whole-bottle flipping, like that post about some joker buying six Principias the other day which had Steve James go practically nuclear. But perhaps it’s too early to see if this is a temporary thing, or something that will cause online and other stores to reconsider their marketing strategy.
Here are some stats for those who, like me, are into their numbers:
- This site represents over five thousand man-hours utilized in buying, sourcing, talking, tasting, noting, writing, thinking, attending rumfests and other tastings, as well as paying attention to the larger rumworld on FB and website postings by others, responding to comments and emails. For a comparison, note that a working year (52 weeks of five 8-hour days and no vacation) is about 2000 hours annually.
- An expense bill that’s long past five figures. That includes not only rum purchases, but books, postage, travel time and entrance fees. Because Mrs. Caner is probably reading this, you’ll forgive me if I don’t give you the precise number.
- Almost half a million words when all essays, musings and meanderings are added to the reviews themselves. For a numerical (but not literary quality) comparison, War and Peace has around 600,000, Gone with the Wind has a shade over 410,000
- Post with the lifetime highest hits: the Velier biography beat out the previous #1, the Bacardi 151 (which slipped to #4) probably due to an updated reposting last year; #2 and #3 remain equally consistent and surprising – the Stroh 80 from Austria (not really a rum) and the Cuban La Occidental Guayabita del Pinar (also a somewhat debatable spirit). The least read rum review ever remains the Canadian Momento, a mere handful of views after many years of being available. I have honestly given up wondering what drives a review to be popular. Is it a hot-snot new bottle review, is it quality of language, rarity, age, style, FB caches not reporting visitors? Who knows? Maybe it’s just dumb luck.
- Fastest climbing post ever was the divisive and somewhat controversial selection of the Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva as one of the key rums of the world, followed by 9 Bajans and 21 Great whites and a biography of Renegade Rums. If nothing else, it shows that the interest in the diversity of rum and its background is in no danger of diminishing.
My list of rum discoveries and appreciated rums in between #300 and #500. So as to keep this short I’ve just linked to the reviews and provided a small blurb for each. Not all are high scoring rums, but my appreciation for what they tried to do and accomplished remains undiminished, and the remain in my memory long after I wrote the review and moved on (which may be the perfect criterion to determine a good rum). In no order:
- Rum Nation Small Batch Port Mourant 1995 21 Year Old
- Yes, I like Port Mourant. They’re all so rich, fruity, pungent, dark and all-round delicious. This one takes it up a level or two and is a worthy successor to the various twenty something year old Demeraras Rum Nation used to issue and which I also liked back in the day. This one is better, and not just because of its cask strength.
- Foursquare (Velier) 2006 10 Year Old Barbados Rum
- A simply amazing rum from Barbados. Absolutely gorgeous. I haven’t tasted the Principia or the newer Exceptionals, but they’ve got to be really damned good to beat what this rum does so casually, as if it was no bodderation at all.
- L’Esprit Guadeloupe 1998 12 Year Old Rhum
- L’Esprit is the little engine that could and may be one of the future collectors’ grails, if they continue this way. This rhum from Bellevue operates on several levels at once, just about all of them firm and tasty.
- Savanna HERR Millésime 2006 10 Year Old Rum
- Brutal, sharp, ripe with bags of fruits and esters and happy to show every single one of them off at the same time. It takes some time to come to grips with it and identify all the stuff going on under the hood.
- Savanna Lontan Grand Arôme Vieux 2004 12 Year Old
- The HERR was a smorgasbord of everything Savanna could throw into a rhum: this one was softer, more muted, but no less complex. And I argue it’s even better because it just wants to showcase a proportion of its potential really well, rather than everything at once and dilute your focus
- Bristol Spirits Jamaica 1974 30 Year Old Rum
- Not as much funkiness as one might expect from a Jamaican. It’s just dark, deep and rich, thick with mouth watering flavours, in spite of what at first sight might seem like a doubtful 43% ABV. A wonderful rum from Ago.
- Velier Courcelles 1972 31 Year Old Rhum Vieux
- The original Courcelles was magnificent, and this one is just as good. Flavours come and go, and the complexity and overall balance were as good as what I remembered. Hard to get a hold of, of course – most of the older Veliers are, nowadays – but if you can, absolutely worth it.
- Bielle Rhum Vieux Agricole Brut de Fût 2007 7 Year Old
- Precise, crisp, clear, complex to a fault – we don’t hear much from Bielle, and this sub-ten-year-old rhum is a good reason to change all that.
- Rum Nation Small Batch Jamaica 1986 30 Year Old
- It’s probably been dosed, but this is one of those cases where the results still rise above that: this is one lovely Jamaican, bottled at a warm 48.7%, three special years’ rums from Longpond.
- Habitation Velier “Last Ward” Barbados 2007 10 Year Old Rum
- A lovely, haunting Bajan rum, somehow both diffuse and well balanced, melding all its flavours seamlessly – impressive for something bottled at 59%
- St Aubin Rhum Agricole Blanc
- A tamed pot still white, not as barking mad as a clairin, and very approachable at 50%
- Toucan No. 4 Rum
- A new rhum from French Guiana. Simple, straightforward, mild at 40%, really well put together. Does itself proud by not trying to be too much, or all things to all people.
- Rum Fire “Velevet” Jamaican White Rum
- Fierce, uncompromising, full-proof white rum bursting with esters and power from every pore. Flavourful and searing, and may be best for mixing, but trying it on its own is also quite an experience
- Whisper Antigua Gold Rum
- Just a sweet, humble little rumlet. Doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, and is a nice starter spirit that does everything right in a low-key, unassuming manner. In fact, it’s grown in my estimation and tasting memories since I first tried it
Honourable mention has to go to the following who could just as easily have made this list
- Silver Seal Enmore 1986 21 Year Old
- Barik Premiere Cuvee ESB
- Secret Treasures St. Lucia John Dore and Vendome rums
- EKTE Jamaica No. 2 12 Year Old
- Hamilton St. Lucia 2004 Pot Still 9 Year Old
So, there we have it, a roundup of the rumworld and one reviewer’s place in it as best as I can summarize the situation. Most likely there’ll be another one at #750, if I last that long. Probably, since I don’t see the exercise ceasing any time soon. After all, it’s still fun, right?
In passing this personal milestone, I’d like to thank all the rum-loving people who come by here and read, whether agreeing with my assessments, writing style, opinions, verbosity, or not. Gratitude also goes out to the many correspondents and commentators who engage in thoughtful, heated and passionate discourse on the many Big Questions, or even just one small one. And, of course, a big hat tip the producers – primary or independent – who keep upping the ante in terms of what they make and the way in which they make it, and provide a rich lode of material for us writers to mine and discuss with like-minded folks. It takes all of us together to make up the rumiverse.
All the best
The Lone Caner