Ruminsky

May 132021
 

There are some older bottles in the review queue for products from what I term the “classic” era of the Swiss / German outfit of Secret Treasures, and it’s perhaps time to push them out the door in case some curious person ever wants to research them for an auction listing or something. Because what Secret Treasures are making now is completely different from what they did then, as I remarked in my brief company notes for last week’s entry on the “Carony” rum they released in 2003.

In short, from a traditional indie bottler who exactingly and carefully selects single barrels from a broker and bottles those, the company has of late gone more in the direction of a branded distributor, like, say, 1423 and its Companero line. That’s not a criticism, just an observation: after all, there’s a ton of little single-barrel-releasing indies out there alreadyone more won’t be missedand not many go with the less glamorous route of releasing blends in quantity, though those tend to be low-rent reliable money spinners.

But returning to Secret Treasures’ rums of “the good old days”. This one is from Venezuela: column still product, 42% ABV, 1716 bottle outturn. The label is in that old-fashioned design, noting the date of distillation as 1992 and the distillery of origin as Pamperobut it should be noted there is a “new-style label” pot-still edition released in 2002 with a completely different layout, sharing some of the same stats, the reason for which is unknown. As an aside for the curious, the Venezuelan Pampero distillery itself was formed in 1938 and remained a family concern until it was sold to Guiness in 1991; it is now a Diageo subsidiary, making the Pampero series of light rums like the Especial, Anejo, Seleccion and Oro. Clearly they also did bulk rum sales back in the 1990s.

So that’s the schtick. The rum tasting now. Sorry for the instant spoiler, but it’s meh. The nose is okay and provided one has not already had something stronger (I had not) then aromas of caramel, creme brulee and toffee can easily be discerned, with some light oakiness, dark chocolate, smoke and old leather. A touch of indeterminate fruitiness sets these off, some unsweetened yoghurt, plus vague citrusand that word is a giveaway, because this whole thing is like that: vague.

Tasting it reinforces the impression of sleepy absent-mindedness. The rum tastes warm, quite easy, creamy, with both salt and sweet elements, like a good sweet soya sauce. Caramel and toffee again, a hot strong latte, oak, molasses and a nice touch of mint. The citrus wandered off somewhere and the fruits are all asleep. This is not a palate guaranteed to impress, I’m afraid. The finish is odd: it’s surprisingly long lasting; nice and warm, some molasses, coffee, bon bons, but it begs the question of where all the aromas and final closing tastes have vanished to.

You’re tasting some alcoholic rummy stuff, sure, but what is it? That’s the review in a nutshell, and I doubt my score would have been substantially higher even back in the day when I was pleased with less. You sense there’s more in there, but it never quite wakes up and represents. From where I’m standing, it’s thin teaa light and relatively simple, a quiet rum that rocks no boats, makes no noise, takes no prisoners. While undeniably falling into the “rum” category, what it really represents is a failure to engage the drinker, then or nowwhich may be the reason nobody remembers it in 2021, or even cares that they don’t.

(#820)(78/100)


Other notes

  • Comes from a blend of four barrels
  • Sold on Whisky Auction for £50 in 2018. Rumauctioneer’s May 2021 session has anew designblue label bottle noted above, currently bid to £17

Historical background

Initially Secret Treasures was the brand of a Swiss concern called Fassbind SA (SA stands for Société Anonyme, the equivalent to PLC – the wesbite is at www.Fassbind.ch) — who had been in the spirits business since 1846 when when Gottfried I. Fassbind founded the “Alte Urschwyzer” distillery in Oberarth to make eau de vie (a schnapps). He was a descendant of Dutch coopers who had emigrated to Switzerland in the 13th century and thus laid the foundation for what remains Switzerland’s oldest distillery.

They make grappa, schnapps and other spirits and branched out into rums in the early 2000s but not as a producer: in the usual fashion, rums at that time were sourced, aged at the origin distillery (it is unclear whether this is still happening in 2021), and then shipped to Switzerland for dilution with Swiss spring water to drinking strength (no other inclusions). In that way they conformed to the principles of many of the modern indies.

Fassbind’s local distribution was acquired in 2014 by Best Taste Trading GMBH, a Swiss distributor, yet they seem to have walked away from the rum side of the business, as the company website makes mention of the rum line at all. Current labels on newer editions of the Secret Treasures line refers to a German liquor distribution company called Haromex as the bottler, which some further digging shows as acquiring the Secret Treasures brand name back in 2005: perhaps Fassbind or Best Taste Trading had no interest in the indie bottling operation and sold it off as neither Swiss concern has any of the branded bottles in their portfolio.

Certainly the business has changed: there are no more of the pale yellow labels and sourced single barrel expressions as I found back in 2012. Now Secret Treasures is all standard strength anonymous blends like aged “Caribbean” and “South American” rum, a completely new bottle design and the Haromex logo prominently displayed with the words “Product of Germany” on the label.

 

May 102021
 

In the maelstrom of ongoing indie releases coming at us from every direction almost every month, it’s easy to overlook some of the older rums, or even some of the older companies. Secret Treasures is one of theseI had discovered their charms on the same trip where I found the first Veliers, all those long years ago, at a time when the concept of independent bottlers was a relatively small scale phenomenon. Back then I bought the company’s Enmore 1989, and both Grandma Caner and I liked it so much we polished off the thing in under a week, and started looking around for more.

Over the years I bought a few others, got a few samples and reviewed the few I scored, and then ownership changed. The last rums Haromex (the new distributor) put out the door before they changed the ethos of the brand was the twin St Lucian John Dore and Vendome pot still rums in 2014 and subsequent releases were radically different. The company and the Secret Treasures brand has faded from view since then, and few consider their rums great finds (when they consider them at all) as other, newer indies jostle for the place it once held (for a more complete historical picture, see below)

This is where I’m supposed to make some nostalgic Old Fart kind of comment where I wax rhapsodic about the long forgotten and unappreciated rums of yore, undisovered steals and diamonds in the rough which weren’t appreciated at the time by the aggressive young rum pros of today, blah blah blah. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. The ruma Caroni, one of a few releasedfell unaccountably short of the high bar set by Velier and other independents, and remains a forgotten, forgettable curiosity, noted more for the associated name than any intrinsic quality it possesses itself.

Let’s do the tasting, then, to demonstrate why somehow this thing falls down flat. The nose gives a promising indicator of things to come, but which don’t. It immediately reeks of the characteristic petrol, tar and road asphalt in hot weather which so defines Caroni. It is dry and sere and surprisingly hot for a near-standard-proofed rum (42% ABV), dark and with notes of sugar water, rubber, acetones, fruitsunripe red cherries and strawberries, pears and ripe green apples. There is also a touch of vanilla and light molasses, but nothing strong or overpowering.

A salty sweet sugar water greets the tongue with warmth and firmness. All the fleshy and watery fruits we’re familiar with parade aroundpears, watermelons, white guavas, papaya, kiwi fruits, even cucumbers all take a bow. A trace of olives and occasional whiff of strawberries and petrol are barely noticeable, so one can only wonder where, after such a promising beginning, they all vanished to. Eloped, maybe. Certainly they bailed and left the rum with nothing but memories and a good wish to lead to its inevitably disappointing denouement, which was short, breathy, light and watery, and barely registered some vanilla, brine, a fruit or two and exactly zero points of distinction.

Secret Treasures did put out a few really exceptional rumstheir lack of marketing, lack of visibility and lack of distribution mostly relegated them to obscurity (the Enmore 1989 mentioned above is a case in point) — and as is usually the case with small volume bottlers, the outturn of the original line was somewhat hit or miss, and not everything they bottled was gold. This Trini rum was something of a waste of time, for example, weak, unfocused, undistinguished, practically anonymous. Oh it was a rum all right, identifiable as a Caroni, just not much of one. Perhaps it should have been left in the barrels a few more years. Many more years. And then finished in sherry casks. And then spiced up. Then it might have had a profile I’d actually notice. But then again, maybe not.

(#819)(78/100)


Other Notes

  • Outturn 1304 bottles. Distilled 1996, bottled August 2003 in Switzerland. The unproven implication is that it was completely aged in Trinidad.
  • The Ultimate Rum Guide notes it as being a “West Indies Distillery” without further elaboration, and the accompanying photo is wrong. I’ve left them a note to that effect
  • Richard Seale remarked in a FB comment on this review, Age is an important factor in the latter day success of Caroni. This one may also be blended with neutral spiritthis was a practice in Trinidadblending an aged rum with neutral spirit but keeping the age claim!”

Historical background

Initially Secret Treasures was the brand of a Swiss concern called Fassbind SA (SA stands for Société Anonyme, the equivalent to PLC – the wesbite is at www.Fassbind.ch) — who had been in the spirits business since 1846 when when Gottfried I. Fassbind founded the “Alte Urschwyzer” distillery in Oberarth to make eau de vie (a schnapps). He was a descendant of Dutch coopers who had emigrated to Switzerland in the 13th century and thus laid the foundation for what remains Switzerland’s oldest distillery.

They make grappa, schnapps and other spirits and branched out into rums in the early 2000s but not as a producer: in the usual fashion, rums at that time were sourced, aged at the origin distillery (it is unclear whether this is still happening in 2021), and then shipped to Switzerland for dilution with Swiss spring water to drinking strength (no other inclusions). In that way they conformed to the principles of many of the modern indies.

Fassbind’s local distribution was acquired in 2014 by Best Taste Trading GMBH, a Swiss distributor, yet they seem to have walked away from the rum side of the business, as the company website makes mention of the rum line at all. Current labels on newer editions of the Secret Treasures line refers to a German liquor distribution company called Haromex as the bottler, which some further digging shows as acquiring the Secret Treasures brand name back in 2005: perhaps Fassbind or Best Taste Trading had no interest in the indie bottling operation and sold it off as neither Swiss concern has any of the branded bottles in their portfolio.

Certainly the business has changed: there are no more of the pale yellow labels and sourced single barrel expressions as I found back in 2012. Now Secret Treasures is all standard strength anonymous blends like aged “Caribbean” and “South American” rum, a completely new bottle design and the Haromex logo prominently displayed with the words “Product of Germany” on the label.


 

May 062021
 

The rums of the Reunion Island company Savanna span a wide stylistic gamut, depending on the source material (juice or molasses, for they utilize both), which still made them, and how many esters stuck around for the party (this is particularly the case with the high ester still Savanna casually uses to smack the unsuspecting and unwary into next week).

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Velier’s book, they also release a whole raft of “sets” or typesfor example, the Lontan (Grand Arôme / high ester rhums based on long fermentation times of up to 15 days), Creol (aged and unaged agricoles), Intense (molasses based, occasionally finished, aged and unaged), or Métis (blends of agricole and molasses rums). And that’s not even counting the cool-named varieties within those sets, like “Thunderstruck,” “Chai Humide,” “Wild Island,” or the utterly prosaic put-me-to-sleep-please “Belgium.” They seem to have no particular interest in releasing things at a consistent strength and you’ll find rums at standard strength right up to 67% (a 2019 creol I still get delicious nightmares about).

Unsurprisingly, there’s an enormous variation of tastes in these rumsperhaps only the Guadeloupe boys can boast anything that jumps around the flavour wheel as much. You cannot make any predeterminations on “what I expect” with this distillery, and it would be foolhardy to try. I’ve tasted those that are heavy on fruits, others that are more creamy or yeasty or flowery or creamy or are dark, light, heavy, solid, flaky….well, you get my drift.

Still, this 57% ABV grand arôme, which was released in 2016 for La Maison Du Whisky’s 60th Anniversary (they went into partnership with Velier the following year and formed LM&V), seemed at pains to make the point yet again. In this case, it clearly wanted to channel a cachaca duking it out with a DOK, for it nosed pretty much like they were having a serious disagreement: vegetables and oversweet fruits decomposing on a hot day in a market someplace tropical; herbs, wet grass, sweet pickles, hot dog relish (I know what this sounds like!); sugar water; iodine, papaya, strawberries; wax, brine and cucumbers in a light pimento-soaked vinegar. I mean, seriously, does that remind you of any rum you’ve ever tried? I both liked it and wondered where the rum was hiding.

In fairness, the taste was pretty good and conformed more to the ideals. 57% was a good strength for it, and even with the slight roughness of it being unaged, it wasn’t savage, just warm and firm. It tasted initially of brine and olives and then did a switcheroo to light anise and sugar water, fresh sugar cane sap bleeding off the stalk, combined with the tartness of unripe white fruit (guavas, soursop, pears), orange peel and some delicate flowers. A touch of caramel, toffee, breakfast spices, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary and cinnamon, maybe. It fell apart on the finish, alasthat was short, watery, thin, somewhat sweet and lacking any of the complexity with just some herbs, mint, dill, anise and swank drifting away into nothingness.

In other words, the rum started out strongand startlingthat nose really was somethingand then each successive stage was weaker than the one before it. That it had more complexity and style than most whites is undeniable, it just wasn’t assembled that well (which is a purely personal opinion, of course). Why LMDW would release an unaged Savanna rum for a major anniversary at a time when Reunion wasn’t much appreciated and super-aged rums were much more likely to attract attention and money, is anyone’s guess. It’s also a peculiarity of the rum that it comes from molasses but through some weird alchemy of the process, actually tastes more like an agricole, which I’m sure you’ll admit is quite a neat trick.

The Fat Rum Pirate in his four-star 2017 review of this rum, remarked “This won’t be for everyone but [..] but whilst similar to other high ABV whites, it has enough going on to be different.” That encapsulates my own feelings as well: while I enjoy (and sometimes fear) the untamed ferocity of the clairins, the Guyanese and Jamaican unaged crazies, or the more refined French island blancs, I also appreciate something original which has the courage to go off on a tangent, before somehow coming together as a recognizably good rum. This one shows that happening in fine style and I’m happy to have had the chance to try it.

(#818)(82/100)


Other notes

  • The LMDW 60th Anniversary release has a 1,000-bottle outturn. Bottle number noted on the label
  • As before, thanks and a hat tip to Nico Rumlover for the sample. His unscored tasting notes can be found here.
May 032021
 

This is not the first Demerara rum that the venerable Italian indie bottler Moon Import has aged in sherry barrels: the superb 1974 30 Year Old, and several other over their limited rums releases, have also shared in this peculiarity. However, the results are somewhat hit or miss, because while the 30 YO scored a solid and deserved 90 points, this one doesn’t play in that league, however well-aged it may be. It’s entirely possible that this is because the rum is not an Enmore still rum at all, as the label implies, but from the Versailles single wooden pot still.

One wonders if the rum’s profile can settle this, since I’ve noted that labels from Moon Import tend to be rather careless in their wording (when a Port Mourant rum can be referred to as a “rum agricol” you know somebody is asleep at the wheel). Is this Versailles pot or Enmore coffey? Indifferent rum-geeks around the world want to know.

Let’s take a hard look at the dark gold-brown 46% ABV rum, then. The aromas are not helpful: there’s some dialled down licorice, aromatic tobacco, leather and smoke at the beginning, but none of the characteristic raw lumber, sawdust and pencil shavings of the Enmore still. The fruits are dark and piquantprunes, blackberries, stewed plums, plus unsweetened chocolate, coffee grounds and salted caramel. It’s more raw and intense than the DDL’s own Enmore 1993 22 YO from the first release of the Rares, and I have to admit that Moon’s rum had more in common with DDL’s Versailles 2002 13 YO than the Enmore itself. In particular, the attendant notes of musty cardboard, fried bananas and overripe pineapple do not suggest the coffey still.

What about taste? Oddly, for a nose that bugled its own assertiveness, the palate is much less aggressive, and really lacks heft in the trousers. Still, there’s something there: the old worn leather of sweaty Clarke’s shoes, some more dark fruits (raisins, dates, prunes, all very ripe); briny tastes, caramel, unsweetened molasses, sweet soya sauce. Not much else, and that’s disappointing, really. Even continentally aged rums can have more complexity than this. And what of the sherry influence? Not a whole lot, sorry to report, marked mostly by its inconclusiveness, leading to a finish that is tolerably pleasant (it’s not sharp or bitchy), warm, fruity, bready (like a hot yeasty loaf fresh out of the oven) but really not that distinguishable.

So on balance, I’d suggest Moon Imports really is a Versailles single wooden pot still rumtoo many of the subtle Enmore notes are missing (I’ve argued before it’s a bit more elegant than the other two stills which tend to a more elemental brutalist profile). Is it worth the £150 it sold for on Rumauctioneer in September 2019? That’s harder, since everyone has favourites, not just among the stills, but the indies that release them and the years from which they hail. I’d suggest that for a rum from the 1980s, for its historical value (1980s single cask rums are getting rarer all the time), released by Moon Import which has a long history of careful selections, yes, it is. For the taste profile and its proof point, perhaps not so much.

(#817)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Serge Valentin has probably reviewed more 1988 Enmore rums than anyone else around (six, covering a period of many years) and nowhere does he mention any confusion between the two stills. Marius Elder of Single Cask Rum and Marco Freyr of Barrel Aged Mind probably did the best listings of them all, including (where known) whether they were Versailles or Enmore still rums, but neither has reviewed many yet (note that links provided here require searching for “1988”).
  • Thanks to Nicolai Wachmann of Denmark for the sample

Opinion

Moon Import’s website provides nothing on this rum, perhaps because a web presence wasn’t a big thing back in 2011, perhaps because good records weren’t being kept, or perhaps (worst of all) because accurately curating one’s back catalogue is not seen as anything importanta not-uncommon attitude among indies to this day, and one capable of driving me into transports of rage any time it is casually tossed out there for popular consumption. When will it ever become common for these old houses to properly research and list their older releases, and why is it considered of such low importance?

That kind of information is needed, because, again like the Moon’s PM 1974, the label is a problem. There was only a single 1988-2011 release made, and that’s this one with the bird on the label, noted as being an Enmore….and yet is also stated as being a pot still product. The RumAuctioneer item description from September 2019 says it’s a Versailles because “the Enmore distillery closed in 1993, with its wooden coffey still and the Versailles still moved first to Uitvlugt and then to Diamond in 2000” Which is true except that a label mentioning a rum as being both an Enmore and a pot still clearly does not have unambiguous lock on historical detail, not least because there was also a still called the Enmore still onsite at the same time. So which factoid are we to take as the right one?

Moon Import could rightfully say “both”the Versailles still was at Enmore, so putting one name and one still type on the label is completely correct. Maybe I’m being overly critical. But consider that these details have a way of spreading to other informational sources that are also now being referred to as research tools. The new app Rum-X correctly notes this as being an Enmore (Versailles) distillery rum and a 660 bottle outturn….but then goes on to say it was distilled on a Double Wooden Pot still, which of course is neither of the other two, but the PM still, thereby exacerbating the confusion. An ebay listing in Italy didn’t mention the still of origin at all.

For the majority of rum drinkers, this is a complete non-issue. They’ll see the years, the age, the indie, and buy it (or not) if they can. For the discerning deep-diving rum fan who counts his money very carefully before dropping that kind of coin on an old rum, the lack of consistency, and confusion about the details, is a potential deal breaker. If you can’t nail the provenance down concretely, then it’s a dangerous buy, and that goes for a lot more than just this rum.

Apr 292021
 

The small Martinique brand (once a distillery) of Dillon is not one which makes rhums that raises fiercely acquisitive instincts in the cockles of anyone’s hearts, if one goes by the dearth of any kind of online commentary on their stuff. When was the last time you saw anyone, even on the major French language Facebook rhum clubs, crow enthusiastically about getting one? And yet Dillon has a completeif smallset of rhums: aged versions, blancs, mixers etc. And those that I have tried (not many, which is my loss) have been quite good.

Today’s subject is not a distillery brand, but from one of the independents, Florent Beuchet’s Compagnie des Indes. Long time readers of these reviews will know of my fondness for Florent’s selections, which mix up some occasionally interesting offbeat rums with the more common fare from Central America and the Caribbean that all the indies bottle. For example, there was the Indonesian rhum released in 2015, the recent 10-Cane rum, rums from Fiji, some from Guadeloupe, and even Guatemala.

So here is a rhum from Dillon, which nowadays has its distillation apparatus located in Depaz’s facilities (see biographical notes, below), and this makes Dillon more of a brand than a complete cane-to-cork operation. It’s a single barrel offering, 2002 vintage which was aged in Europe for 9 years of the total of 13, bottled at a quiet 44%. Note that two Dillon barrels were bottled in 2015, MA56 with a 298-bottle outturn, and MA67 with 322, but my sample didn’t mention which it was so I contacted the source, the Danish rum tooth fairy Nicolai Wachmannand it was MA67 for those who absolutely need to know.

Whatever the case, I must advise you that if you like agricoles at all, those smaller names and lesser known establishments like Dillon should be on your radar. Not all of the rhums they make are double-digit aged, so those that are, even if farmed out to a third party, are even more worth looking at. Just smell this one, for example: it’s a fruitarian’s wet dream. In fact, the aroma almost strikes me like a very good Riesling mixing it up with a 7-up, if you could conceive of such an unlikely pairing. Lighter than the Savanna HERR and much more delicate than even a low-strength Hampden, it smells crisp and very clean, with bags of pineapple slices, green grapes, apples, red grapefruit, bubble gum and lemon zest, all underlaid by a nice nutty and creamy white chocolate and some vanilla and flowers.

Strength is a major component of the assessment of a rhum like this. 44% is the wrong ABV for a woody and character-laden deeper rum like, say a Port Mourant (I thinkyour mileage may vary), but for a lighter and more scintillating agricole such as the Dillon, it’s spot on. Much of the nose bleeds over to the taste: sprite, grapefruit, lemon zest, pineapples, strawberries, and also ripe mangoes, green grapes, apples, pears and a touch of cinnamon and vanilla. At first it feels too light, too easy, but as one gets used to the underlying complexity and balance, a really well-assembled piece of work slowly comes into focus. And this is the case even on the finish: it’s tight, medium-long, and always completely under control, never overstaying its welcome, never being bitchy, never hurrying off before the last bit of flavourcitrus peel, vanilla, whipped cream, pineapplesis showcased.

In short, though released some years ago and getting harder to find, I think this is one of those rhums that got unnecessarily short shrift from the commentariat then, and gets as little nowbecause it’s something of a steal. Dillon may be off the map for all those people who love posting pictures of their latest acquisitions from Hampden, WP, Fiji, Foursquare or the ultra-aged indie-release of a wooden still rum; and it barely registers in comparison to better known agricole makers like Saint James, Clement, Damoiseau, Neisson or JM (among others). I just think it should not be written off quite so fastbecause even for a single barrel release where singular aspects of the cask’s profile is what led to its selection in the first place, it’s a flavourful, well-layered, well-balanced dram that is at that a near perfect strength to showcase its attributes. And there are really quite a lot of those, for anyone desirous of checking out a lesser known marque.

(#816)(86/100)


Other notes

Dillon was established in 1690 when the site of the distillery in Fort de France was settled by Arthur Dillon, a soldier with Lafayette’s troops in the US War of Independence. A colonel at the age of sixteen, he married a well-to-do widow and used her funds to purchase the estate, which produced sugar until switching over to rhum in the 19th century.

The original sugar mill and plant was wiped out in the 1902 volcanic eruption of Mont Pele, and eventually a distillery went into operation in 1928, by which time there had been several changes in ownership. In 1967 Bordeaux Badinet (now Bardinet / La Martiniquaise Group) took over, the mill closed and the original Corliss steam engine and the creole column still was sent up the road to Depaz…so nowadays Dillon continues growing its own cane, but the distillation and bottling is done by Depaz, which is owned by the same group.

Dave Russell of Rum Gallery, who actually visited the distillery, remarked that the creole single column still is still in operation and is used specifically to make the Dillon marque, perhaps in an effort to distinguish it from Depaz’s own rhums.

Apr 262021
 

Isla del Ron is one of the smaller independent rum labels out of Europe, such as have sprung up with greater frequency over the last decade. It’s a division of its parent company Unique Liquids, founded around 2009, and located in north central Germany, between Dortmund and Hanover. To add to the complexity, it owns the related company Malts of Scotlandnot entirely a surprise, since Thomas Ewers, the founder, likes his whisky perhaps more than rum. Since 2012, the company has produced about 22 various single barrel rums from all the usual suspects around the Caribbean and Central America.

The rhum we’re looking at today is a peculiar specimen: a single cask release of 169 bottles at 52.6%….but where from? Consider the label, which says “South Pacific”. Can you honestly make sense of that, given that even the geographically challenged are aware (we can hope) that Guadeloupe isn’t an island in the Pacific? Alex over at Master Quill explains what’s happening here: Ewers bought a cask marked “South Pacific”, but which had been mislabelled, and was actually from Bellevuethough it’s unclear how he came to that conclusion. Assuming he’s right, that sounds simple enough exceptwhich one? Because there are two Bellevues, one on the small island of Marie-Galante, the other on Guadeloupe (Grand Terre) itself, Damoiseau’s Bellevue at le Moule (That Boutique-y Rum Company made a similar mistake on the label of its Bellevue rhum a couple of years ago).

But it seems to be an unknown: Thomas felt it was from Marie-Galante, and Alex wasn’t so sure, given the variety of 1998 distillate marked Guadeloupe that other indies have released in the past, but which was from Damoiseau’s Bellevue on G-T, not Bellevue on M-G. What this means is that we don’t actually know whether it’s a cane juice rhum or a molasses rum (Damoiseau has a long history of working with both), or for sure which distillery produced it.

But let’s see if the tasting helps us figure things out, because the fact is that the Isla del Ron Guadeloupe is actually a quiet kind of delicious (with certain caveats, which I’ll get to later). The nose, for example, is a warm and soft caramel ice cream pillow with a bunch of contrasting fruity notes (grapes, pomegranates, kiwi fruit) lending it some edge. Bags of toffee, bonbons, flowers and a flirt of licorice waft around the glass, set off with oversweet strawberry bubble gum and (peculiarly) some a creamy feta cheese minus the salt. Throughout it remains a pleasant sniff, with some citrus and tannic notes bringing up the rear.

The nose doesn’t help narrow down the origin (though I have my suspicions), and the palate doesn’t eitherbut it is nice. It remains light, slightly briny, and just tart enough to be crisp. It has moments of sprightliness and sparkling freshness, tasting of red grapefruit, grapes, sprite, orange zest and herbs (rosemary and dill) – but also presents a contrasting whiff of sharper and slightly bitter oaky aspects, cinnamon, licorice, molasses, with back-end nougat and coconut shavings allowing it to smoothen out somewhatif not completely successfully, in my view. I do like the finish, which is medium long, medium warm, and quite tasty: closing notes of citrus peel, caramel, pencil shavings and some raisins, plus a few delicate flowers.

Personally, my opinion on its source tends more towards Damoiseau, what with that distillery releasing rather more bulk rum to brokers than Bellevue, which is smaller and has more of a local market; and the molasses and vanilla and caramel notes point in that direction also. To be honest, though, I thought that the rum’s overall profile fell somewhere in between the crispness of the Bielle 2001 14 YO and a Cuban like Cadenhead’s ADC Spiritu Sancti 1998 14 YO. That’s not a major issue though, because as with most such situations, it’s all about whether it works as a rum or not, and if so, how good it is.

On that basis, I’d say that yes, overall it’s a solid Guadeloupe rhumjust one without real originality. It lacks distinctiveness, and carves out no new territory of its own. It’s a lovely tasting rhum, yes, but unfortunately, also not one you’d be able to remember clearly next week. In that sense, it’s like many bally-hooed and overhyped rums we keep hearing about every day on social media, but which then drop out of sight forever without ever having stirred the emotions of us drinkers in any serious way. And that’s a bit of a shame, really, for a rum that is otherwise quite good.

(#815)(86/100)

Apr 222021
 

One of the things that irritates me about this blended rum from Guyana which Rum Nation released in 2019, is the carelessness of the front label design. I mean, seriously, how is it possible that “British Guyana” can actually be on a rum label in the 21st century, when Guyana has not been British anything since 1966 and when it was, it was spelled “Guiana”? Are designers really that clueless? And lest you think this is just me having a surfeit of my daily snarky-pills, think about it this way: if they couldn’t care enough to get their facts right about stuff so simple, what else is there on the label I can’t trust?

Still: I am grateful that the back label is more informative. Here, it is clearly spelled out that the rum is a blend of distillate from the French Savalle still, the (Enmore) wooden coffey still and the (Port Mourant) double wooden pot still, and this blend was aged for four years in the tropics (in British Guyana, one may assume) before undergoing a secondary European maturation for six years in ex-oloroso casks, and then decanted into 2,715 bottles, each at 56.4% ABV. What this is, then, is a bottling similar to DDL’s own experimental blended Rares, which has dropped completely out of sight since its introduction in 2019. A similar fate appears to have befallen this one since I don’t know the last time I saw one pop up at auction, let alone on social media.

But perhaps it’s an undiscovered steal, so let’s look deeper. Nose first: it’s surprisingly simple, even straightforward. It’s warm and thick, and represents the wooden stills in fine styledusty, redolent of breakfast spices, oak and vanilla at first, then allows additional aromas of coffee grounds, raisins, dried orange peel dark fruits, licorice. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the oloroso influence is dominating though, and in fact it seems rather dialled down, which is unexpected for a rum with a six year sleep in sherry barrels.

I do, on the other hand, like the taste. It’s warm and rich and the Enmore still profilefreshly sawn lumber, sawdust, pencil shavingsis clear. Also sour cream, eggnog, and bags of dried, dark fruits (raisins, prunes, dried plums) mix it up with a nice touch of sandalwood. It takes its own sweet time getting the the point and is a little discombobulated throughout, but I can’t argue with the stewed apples, dried orange peel, ripe red guavas and licoriceit’s nice. The finish is quite solid, if unexceptional: it lasts a fair bit, and you’re left with closing notes of licorice, oak chips, vanilla, dried fruit and black cake.

Overall, it’s a good rum, though I believe it tries for too much with the three stills’ distillates and the long sherry barrel ageing. There’s a lot going on but it doesn’t quite snap together into a harmonious whole. There’s always too much or too little of one or other element here, the sherry influence is inconsistent at best, and it keeps charging around in a confusing mishmash of rum that tastes okay but never settles down to allow us as drinkers to come to grips with it. This is an observation also levelled at DDL’s experimental rares, by the way, but not Velier’s “blended in the barrel” series of later Guyanese rums which set the bar quite high for such blends.

Clearing away the dishes, then, consider it as a decent blend, something for those who want to take a flier on an El Dorado rum that isn’t actually one of them, or a less expensive, younger Velier blend. Think of it as a stronger and slightly older version of ED’s own 8 Year Old, lacking only DDL’s mastery of their blending practice to score higher. That is at best a guarded endorsement, but it’s all the rum really merits

(#814)(82/100)


Background

Rum Nation is that indie rum company founded by Fabio Rossi back in 1999 in Firenze (in NE Italy), and if they ever had a killer app of their own, it was those very old Demeraras and Jamaican “Supreme Lord” rums which were once wrapped in jute sacking and ensconced in wooden boxes. Rum Nation was one of the first of the modern rum independents that created whole ranges of rums and not just one or two single barrel expressions: from affordable starter bottles to ultra-aged products, and if they aged some of their releases in Europe, well, at the time that was hardly considered a disqualifier.

By 2016, however, things had started to change. Velier’s philosophy of pure tropically-aged rums had taken over the conceptual marketplace at the top end of sales, and a host of new and scrappy European independents had emerged to take advantage of rum’s increasing popularity. Rum Nation took on the challenge by creating a new bottle line called the Rare Collectionthe standard series of entry level barroom-style bottles remained, but a new design ethos permeated the Raressleeker bottles, bright and informative labelling, more limited outturns. In other words, more exclusive. Many of these rums sold well and kept Rum Nation’s reputation flying high. People of slender means and leaner purses kept buying the annual entry-level releases, while connoisseurs went after the aged Rares.

Two years later, Fabio was getting annoyed at being sidetracked from his core whisky business (he owns Wilson & Morgan, a rebottler), and he felt the indie rum business was more trouble than it was worth. Too, he was noticing the remarkable sales of the Ron Millonario line (a light bodied, rather sweet rum out of Peru), which, on the face of it, should not be anywhere near as successful as it was. And so, finally, he divested himself of the Rum Nation brand altogether, selling out to a small group of Danish investors. He kept the Millonario brand and has an arrangement to rep RN at various rum festivals (which was how I saw him in 2019 in Berlin), but the era of his involvement with the company formed two decades earlier, is now over.

which might explain why the label was done that way.

Apr 182021
 

When most people spend money on rhum agricoles, they tend to go for the upscale aged (“vieux”) editions, those handily aged expressions or millesimes which have tamed the raw white juice dripping off the still by ageing them for several years. Consumers like the smooth sipping experience of an aged brown spirit, and not many consider that while such rhums do indeed taste lovely and are worth their price tag, the ageing process does take away something toosome of the fresh, snappy bite of a white rhum that hasn’t yet been altered in any way by wood-spirit interaction and a long rest.

Locals in the French West Indies have for centuries drunk the blanc rhum almost exclusivelyafter all, they didn’t have time to muck around waiting a few years for their favourite tipple to mature and in any case the famous tropical Ti-punch was and remains tailor made to showcase the fresh grassiness and herbal pizzazz of a well made blanc. To this day, just about every one of the small distilleries in the French islands, no matter how many aged rhums they make, always has at least one house blanc rhum, and just about all of them are great. In fact, so popular have they become, that nowadays increasingly specialized “micro-rhums” (my term) based on parcellaires and single varietals of sugar cane are beginning to become a real thing and make real sales.

Depaz’s 45% rhum blanc agricole is not one of these uber-exclusive, limited-edition craft whites that uber-dorks are frothing over. But the quality and taste of even this standard white shows exactly how good the blancs were in the first place, and how the rhum makers of Depaz got it so right to begin with. Consider the nose: it is fresh, vegetal and frothily green, vibrantly alive and thrumming with aromas of crisp sugar cane sap, sugar water and tart watermelon juice. And that’s the just for openersit has notes of green apples, grapes, cucumbers in sweet vinegar and pimento, and a clean sense of fruits and soda pop, even some brine and an olive or two. All this from a rum considered entry level.

The palate has difficulty living up to that kind of promise, but that should by no means dissuade one from trying it. It’s a completely traditional and delectable agricole profile: sweet, grassy and very crisp on the tongue, like a tart lemon sherbet. It tastes of lemon, cumin, firm white pears and papayas, and even shows off some firm yellow mangoes, soursop and star-apples. The 45% isn’t very strong, yet it provides a depth of flavour one can’t find much fault with, and this carries over into a nicely long-lasting, spicy finish that is sweet, green, tart and very clean. There’s a whole bunch of fruit left behind on the finish and it really makes for a nice neat pour, or (of course) a Ti-punch.

Depaz is located on the eponymous estate in St. Pierre in Martinique, which is at the foot of Mount Pelée itself: it has been in existence since 1651 when the first governor of Martinique, Jacques Duparquet, created the plantation. Although the famous eruption of the volcano in 1902 decimated the island, Victor Depaz, who survived, reopened for business in 1917 and it’s been operational ever since. The company also makes quite a few other rhums: the Rhum Depaz, a full proof 50% beefcake, the Blue Cane Rhum Agricole as well as an XO and the Cuvee Prestige, to name just a few.

I have never tried as many of their rhums as I would like, and for a company whose rums I enjoy quite a bit, it’s odd I don’t spend more time and money picking up the range (I feel the same way about Bielle and Dillon). I keep adding to my knowledge-base of Depaz’s rhums year in and year out, however, and so far have found little to criticize and much to admire. When even an entry level product of the line is as god as this one is, you know that here there’s a company who’s attending seriously to business, and from whom only better things can be expected as one goes up the line of their products.

(#813)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It goes without saying that this is a cane juice product, AOC compliant, columnar still.
  • Depaz is not an independent family operated establishment any longer, but is part of the Bardinet-La Martiniquaise Group, a major French beverages conglomerate which also owns Saint James and Riviere du Mat.
Apr 112021
 

After a decade of observing the (mostly Europe-based) independent bottlers, I think it can be said with some assurance that they tend to stick with The Tried and True in their first years. In other words, they source and release rums from the canonical distilleries in the familiar countriesGuyana, Barbados, St. Lucia, or Jamaica, with occasional fliers from Belize, Cuba, Fiji, Australia or Trinidad being seen as second order efforts.

When it comes to distinguishing themselves from the herd, few show much real imagination. Oh, for sure the Compagnie des Indes releases private blends like the Boulet de Canon and Dominador (and released a very fine Indonesian arrack several years ago); Rom Deluxe goes to the max with its massively proofed Jamaican DOK, L’Esprit does some amazing white rums, and several indies find a way to get rums aged for nearly three decades into their bottlesI merely submit this is more and better of the same. Truly new products that showcase something different are actually in rather short supply.

When it comes to doing something original, then, the Boutique-y Rum Companya division of Atom Brands in the UK, who also run the Masters of Malt websiteis one to keep an eye on. Not only are they releasing rums from the “standard” countries, but they seem to really try to go someplace newconsider their Issan rum, the Labourdonnais, the O Reizinho or the Colombian Casa Santana. Those are rums from niche distilleries many have never even heard of before, and to add spice to the mix, there is of course the cool label design done by Jim’ll Paint It which are bright, clever, funny and chock full of little easter eggs for the knowledgeable.

Which leads us to this one. The Engenhos do Norte distillery is located in Madeira, an island considered part of Portugal (even though geographically it’s closer to Africa) and one of the few places outside the French islands that can use the term agricole legally. The rum is derived from cane run through a crusher powered by a steam engine (that’s what the label shows), fermented for about 4-5 days, passed through a columnar barbet still and then left to age in French oak barrels. So although it doesn’t say so, it’s an aged rhum agricole. 1395 bottles were released, at a firm but not over-strong 48.8%, and the last I checked it was still selling for around forty quid which I think is a pretty good deal

Tasting notes. The nose is nice. At under 50% not too much sharpness, just a good solid heat, redolent of soda, fanta, coca cola and strawberries. There’s a trace of coffee and rye bread, and also a nice fruity background of apples, green grapes, yellow mangoes and kiwi fruit. It develops well and no fault can found with the balance among these disparate elements.

I also like the way it tastes. It’s initially dry and peppery, but also crisp, tasting of marshmallows, and tart white fruits like guavas, Thai mangoes, unripe pears, soursop, papaya, watermelon and pineapple. There’s a nice thread of lemon underneath it all, cumin, vanilla, and a nice touch of brine and olives. This all leads to a conclusion that is short and easy, redolent mostly of sweet watery fruit with a last musky brine taste, and some more lemon zest.

In a peculiar way, it reminds me less of a French Island agricole than of a grogue from Cabo Verde. There’s a sort of easy crispness to the experience, with the herbal notes evident but not as strong and clear and focused as a Martinique rhum is. For centuries Madeirans drank their rhums unaged and whiteof late they have begun to try and develop an aged rum industry and expand beyond the local market which thus far has consumed everything the small distilleries produce. The development of real blending and ageing skill is still some years in the future, and thus far it’s only the small IBs like Boutique-y that have brought their rums to our attention. But I think that we should keep an eye out for the rhums from Madeira, all of them. Based on the few I’ve tried, these guys know what they’re doing, know how to make a good rhum, and will be going places in the years to come.

(#812)(84/100)


Other notes

  • For centuries, aside from their famed fortified wines, white rum was all Madeira was known for, and just about all of it was made from small family-owned sugar cane plots, consumed locally as ponchos, and as often considered to be moonshine as a legitimate product. Because of the small size of the island a landed aristocracy based on the system of large plantations never took off there. 6-8 years ago, the Portuguese government started to incentivize the production of aged rum on Madeira. Several producers started laying down barrels to age, one of which was Engenhos do Nortehowever the lack of an export market (for now) allowed Boutique-y to buy a few barrels and release them
  • Engenhos do Norte also produces the well regarded Rum North series of rums, as well as the 970 and 980 brands.
  • The label is somewhat self explanatory: it shows the premises of the distillery, the steam driven crusher and the barbet column still. The polar bears are an in-joke: sugar cultivation took off in Madeira in the 15th and 16th century and was called ouro brancowhite gold. It’s long been a sly pun that when mumbled over the roar of the machinery, the phrase is heard as ursa branco, or white bear. On the other hand, some say that Madeirans are huge hulking bear like men who hand harvest ten acres of cane before breakfast and fetch it out one-handed to the factory and this is a way of honouring their physical prowess. I don’t know which is true, but I like both stories.
Apr 082021
 

2016 seems like such a long time ago with respect to Hampden rums. Back then we got them in dribs and drabs, from scotch whisky makers (who could rarely be bothered to mention the distillery) and the occasional indie bottler like Berry Bros. & Rudd, Compagnie des Indes, Rom Deluxe, Renegade or Murray McDavid. That all changed in 2018 when Velier concluded a deal to be their worldwide distributor and the PR machine roared into overdrive. Since then, Hampden has become one of the boutique rums du jour, and they sell out almost as fast as the Foursquare ECS rums.

Back in 2016, though, this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Hampden was known to the cognoscenti of course, those superdorks who paid close attention to the indie scene, knew their Caribbean distilleries cold and bought everything they couldbut not many others from the larger mass market cared enough about it; and anyway, supplies were always low. The distillery was ageing its own stock and continued to sell bulk abroad, so most independents sourced from Europe. That’s how SBS, the geek-run rum arm of the Danish distribution partnership 1423, picked up this barrel.

SBS itself was only created in 2015, seven years after its parent came into being, to cater to the boys’ fascination and love for pure rums. Their business had gone well by this time and they decided to branch out into their first love“our core DNA,” as Joshua Singh remarked to mesingle barrel rums. And they picked up this continentally aged rum which had been distilled in Hampden’s pot still in September 2000 and bottled it in October 2016 in time for the European festival circuit, which is where my rum tooth fair Nicolai Wachmann picked it up and passed some on to me. 202 bottles of this 16 year old rum came out of the barrel and was left as is, at a cask strength of 58.9%.

Clearly, with the explosion of interest in both the SBS range and Hampden over the years, this is something of a find. It’s quite rare, seems to be relatively unknown, and has only turned up once at auction that I could find, and fetched a cool £150 when it did. But when I tasted it, I thought to myself that these guys knew their sh*t, and chose well. Consider the opening salvo of the noseit felt like the Savanna 10YO HERR all over again (and that’s a serious compliment). It had esters puffing and squirting in all directions, very light and clean. A warm exhalation of rubber on a hot day, dunder and funk, formed a bed upon which sparkling notes of red currants, strawberries, crisp yellow mangoes, unsweetened yoghurt and over-sweet bubble gum competed for attention. It had that kind of cloying sweet to it, leavened with some sharper brine and olives and rye bread left to go bad and was the diametrical opposite of the rather dour and dark Caronis or PM Demeraras.

It was, however, on the plate, that it shone. This was a rum to savour, to enjoy, to treasure. It was a solid, serious rum of surprising complexity: just shy of hot, tasting of brine, avocados, kräuterquark, salt crackers, interspersed with pineapple slices, kiwi fruits and the tartness of unripe peaches and more mangoes. There was a wisp of vanilla in there, some faint white chocolate and nuts and caramel ice cream that somehow stopped just short of softening things too much, and allowed the crisp tartness to remain. As for the finish, it didn’t falterit was long and hot (in a good way), and reminded me again of the HERR, though perhaps it was a shade deeper, tasting nicely of salted caramel, bananas, pineapples, fanta, cinnamon and lemon peel.

In short, quite a serious all-round rum, not quite so savage as to scare anyone away, while powerful enough to distinguish it from standard strength rums aimed at the larger non-expert rum drinking audience. 58.9% is a near perfect strength for it, permitting full enjoyment of the nuances without any pain. Could it be mixed? Probablythough I wouldn’t. Hampden has always managed to produce rums thatwhether aged in Jamaica or in Europeset the bar a bit higher than most others; and though nobody comes right out and says so, part of the attraction of a rum so bursting with flavours is to have it neat and wring every tasting detail from every drop. This is the way most people speak of Hampden rums now that Velier is distributing them, but it was no less true in 2016. 1423 sure picked a winner that year.

(#811)(88/100)

Apr 042021
 

Back in 2019 before the world changed, I was fortunate enough (and for the first time ever), to get a “blogger” badge at the Berlin Rumfest. This did not, of course, class with the far cooler “Exhibitor” or “Judge” badge that others ostentatiously wore front and center. Nor did it come with any kind of perks: I did not get let in free; it conferred no free samples or extra goodies; I was not plied with hats, shirts, glasses, and the thing absolutely did not give free entrance to master classes and seminars. In fact, it was so small and drab it could almost be overlooked altogether. Yet I was inordinately proud that I had one, and preened to all and sundry until I was brought down to earth by (who else?) The Little Caner, who asked in that ego-deflating manner he has perfected from his old age of fourteen, what it was good for.

In fine, just one thing: it allowed me to get in one hour earlier than everyone else, and since I usually try to arrive at the opening bell, this was a godsend, because it meant I could talk to some of the busier booth people without a crowd, before they got distracted. So there I was at 11a.m. on a sunny Sunday morning looking for old friends and new ones, and spotted Benoit Bail over at the Saint James stand. He was talking with Marc Sassier (the resident oenologist who is in charge of production at Saint James on Martinique) — I wandered over to say hello, and we started talking about white rhums, of which three examples were on the tabletop.

Now, I had tried that shudderingly powerful 60º colourless Hammer of Thor that was the Coeur de Chauffe earlier that year and Marc allowed it was definitely deserving of all the plaudits (it was a non-AOC pot-still white, unusual for Martinique). “But you should try the other two as well,” he said, pointing to the bottles. My eye went first to the frosted bottle of the 50% Fleur de Canne, and he suggested I try it after the 40% red-lettered version. “Forget the Imperial name,” he told me, “This rhum is the original, just watered down for the bartenders circuit. Good to start you off.”

“So, not a sipping rum?” I asked

Everyone laughed. “They are all sipping rums to someone,” Marc smiled, and he and Benoit courteously left me to try the soft white rhum.

And indeed, I enjoyed the nose immenselyit had a nice lemony and herbal opening, like rain on freshly mown grass on a hot clear day. You could almost smell the sunlight. It had all the hallmarks of a really well made agricole rhum: herbs, dill, parsley and a trace of coriander; crisp cucumbers in sweet apple cider, with a red sweet pepper dropped in for kick. A lovely, clean aroma of a natural product.

I looked up from my note-taking. “All the usual?” I called over. “Cane juice, crushing within 48 hours of harvest, quick fermentation, creole still?

Marc looked highly amused. “It would not have the “AOC” on the label without it,” he pointed out. And of course he was right: that appellation is very strict and fiercely adhered toSaint James would hardly mess around with it. “Just checking,” I said, glad he wasn’t offendedmaybe he knew me well enough from my writing to understand why I’d ask the question. He went back to his conversation, and I went back to my tasting.

I liked the palate, but here the softening to 40% and its more uncouth nature worked against it, and it lacked something of the finesse I expect from a well-made white. Now, the grassy, tangy freshness of the nose carried overit was just weak and lacked the assertiveness that would make a statement and allow the flavours to pop. That said, there was some roughness in the notes of lime, bitters, tart fruits, sugar cane sap and green apples which was evident on the neat pour, and it was quickly over. The finish was as crisp and short, and as sharp as Mrs. Caner’s criticisms of my many failingsbut it must be said that many of the aromas of the nosetart apples, grass, dill, lemongrasscarry through. “It’s quite an experience,” I remarked later to Benoit and Mark, when we were discussing the rhums.

Saint James has a range of what some generously refer to as “starter” or “cocktail” rums. The Imperial Blanc, the first of these, retails for around €20, and is succeeded up the price and value chain by the Royal Blanc Agricole (50º, also red lettered label), then the blue-letter variation of the Rhum Blanc Agricole 55º and the rather more upscale frosted bottle of the Fleur de Canne (50º) which is sort of a special edition white, the last of the column-still unaged blancs before the Coeur de Chauffe blows them all into next week.

I’ve tried quite a few of these whites from the company, and the thing is, what impresses about the Imperial is its cost benefit ratioit tastes well and noses even better for the first and cheapest rhum in that lineup. The profile is reasonably good, isn’t strong enough to offend or frighten, and provides most of what is required of a low-level intro to unaged agricoles. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes a great Ti’ punchyou need to go to 50º for that to happen, and Clement and Damoiseau provide stiff competition as wellbut its very good at providing a flavourful jolt to whatever you feel like adding it to, even at standard strength. So while I wouldn’t say it’s a key rum of any kind, it certainly is tailor made for bars, and for anyone of lean purse who wants to start working on his knowledge of the blanc side.

(#810)(80/100)

Mar 312021
 

From the largest barrels (probably better called vats, at the left side)…..

Introduction

Although most of us are aware of the fact that rum, like many other spirits, is aged in barrels, it’s not always clear how large (or small) those barrels actually are, why they are called what they are, or what their original functions were. We just hear “barrels”, visualize a cylindrical container made of of wooden staves held in place by three bands, and think American oak, Limousin, French, amburana, or what have you, and move on. Occasionally we would read something like “refill barrel” or “hogshead” and if we have any more in depth queries, a trip to wikipedia or a specific site 1 can usually clear that right up.

But I think I’m going to go a little deeper today, and examine each type of barrel in its turn, not restrict it to just rums and try and give you some more info. As with many subjects, what on the surface looks to be a fairly straightforward subject is actually rife with all the usual complexities and complications humans seem to love bringing to anything they create.

Note: barrels are used to hold and/or more than one spirit during their lifetimes, so it will not be strange to find barrels used by makers of whiskies, wines, oils or what have you in this list.

Roman transport of wine jars and barrels

General and historical2

Ever since the first quantity of anythingwhether solid or liquidhad to be carried or stored, mankind has invented a container for the purpose (and then a means to measure it). Primitive man used woven reeds, tree bark, then waterproof containers made of the skins or intestines of animals, then fired mud or clay.

In the early history of fermented spirits (wine), the clay amphora was the vessel used to store and transport them. Herodotus noted that ancient Mesopotamians used barrels made of palm wood for transport of winehowever, the difficulty of working with palm led to alternatives being explored, and eventually barrels constructed of staves and hoops not dissimilar to those in use today were made (since at least 2600 BC in Egyptfor measuring corn) and have been a feature of western culture for more than two millennia. Barrels made of oak came into widespread use during the time of the Roman Empire and have remained staples of the industry ever since, not just because of their convenience as storage media but because of their impact on the taste of the spirit it stored (which for centuries was wine).

In China and the far east (including Indonesia), wines and other alcoholic spirits were often stored in earthenware or terracotta (clay) amphorae, but these were fragile and gradually replaced by wooden casks after the arrival of the European colonial powersthough not always of oakteak was one wood widely used in Indonesia, for example.

Over the last seventy years the development of shipping containers, stainless steel vats and steel/plastic drums has rendered the wooden barrel or cask obsolete as a container for transport. However, the oak barrel’s use as an ageing medium for spirits remains completely unaffected.

The shape of a barrel is defined by two simple physical properties: the bulging middle allows them to be more easily rolled and turned whether full or empty; and the rounded construction transfers pressure well, allowing them to be stacked in a way square edged construction would not. Also, white oak is the preferred medium for spirits barrels, both because it is not as piney or resin-y as other woods (it is relatively neutral, not bitter), it is also more waterproof after treatment and transfers flavours like vanillin better, especially when charred. There’s loads more technical data around this subjectI’m just scratching the surface, reallybut for now, this will suffice.

Units of measure 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Barrels are a very old form of container, and the further back we go, the more we diverge from the metric system: then we run into imperial and localized units of measure, differences between nations (e.g. US or UK), or the purpose of what the barrel is meant to contain, which impacts measurements down to modern times. Every culture had its measurements bases and units, often related to physical norms, such as measurements of the human body, the carrying or hauling capacity of man or animal, or the relationship of volume and weight. Unsurprisingly, standardization was a constant problem and volumetric containers like barrels were no exception.

For example, a US dry barrel may be considered 115.6 liters, but also 7,056 cubic inches or 3.28 US bushels, or “exactly” 26.25 US dry-gallons (and we won’t even go into the interior and exterior measurements, lengths or thicknesses of staves, diameter of head, distance between heads, size of bulge and on and on). To add to the confusion, barrels of cornmeal, sugar, cement, flour, butter or salt are defined by weight (and different ones for each, mind you) not volume.

Fluid barrels are also different because they vary according to the particular liquid being measuredand where that’s happening (again, mostly US and UK). They can variously be measured in US gallons or imperial, be defined whether it’s containing beer, oil, or other liquids, or with reference to other supposedly “standard” sizes, like “half a hogshead” or a “euro-keg.”

For the sake of this essay I’m going to mostly stick with the western barrels and not all other containers of measure that have existed throughout history in other cultures and times. Also, I’ll refer to all measurements in liters (with notes on US/UK/other sizes), and reflect fluid barrels, not dry weight or other purposes. Lastly, barrels specific to goods like gunpowder, flour, pork or corn are excluded.


Wine foudres

Tun (~ 950-1000 liters, Old English 252 wine gallons, two “pipes”)

Of all the wooden containers grouped under the blanket term of barrels and used in the spirits industry, the tun is one of the largest, being considered in modern times to be around one thousand liters, depending on what is being measured (though it should be observed that there are larger wooden vessels used in other spirits, noted below). It is also an extremely old word, dating back to the Old Norse and Middle Irish word tunna which denoted any cask or a barrel, and may have derived from the Old Irish tonn which meant skin, or wineskin. It was therefore a word with relationships to both volume and weight (though aspects of even older words with connotations of enclosing also exist). It was a measure of liquid volume.

The tun itself was a large vessel for storing and shipping primarily wine, honey and oil, and for measuring large volumes of beer or aleI’m not entirely sure if it was discontinued for rum and whiskey industries, but nowadays it is considered an antiquated term for a large barrel and has faded from the common speech. It use survives in the names of containers known as the lauter tun and the mash tun, both used in the beer brewing industry

The volume-holding definition of a tun has never been strictly standardized. Nowadays, in the US customary system, the tun is defined as 252 US fluid gallons (about 954 litres), and in the imperial system, it is 210 imperial gallons (about 955 litres). The French have a similar Brobdingnagian cask called a Bordeaux tonneau, which holds 900 liters, or 1200 wine bottles, though its size can vary down to 500 liters (see picture above).

A foudre from Karukera being disassembled in 2021 [They note it as 10k liters, but I dispute that] (From Karukera FB page)

The fluid volume of a tun was somewhat settled on, when, during the early 1500s, efforts were made in England to standardize weights and measures and volumes which were often so localized as to be uselessin 1507 a tun was 240 gallons of oil or wine, but could also be 208, 240 or 256 gallons (the latter seems to have been the most common). Finally, during Henry VIII’s reign (1509-1547) a tun was fixed as the equivalent of 252 wine gallons (~954 liters), or two pipes, a number which facilitated easy division by smaller integers and which had a mass of approximately one long ton. Later, when wine gallons were redefined in 1707 as 231 cubic inches, and the imperial system was adopted in 1824, both this (210 imperial gallons) and the US system (252 US or “Queen Anne” gallons) still worked out to 954 liters. Note that in the beer industry the tun was sometimes said to have 1150 liters based on 252 imperial gallons and there are references elsewhere that say the thing holds 982 litersso it’s not as if there is a final number to speak of here.

The sherry industry has no such standardized barrel, but their tonel (the name can’t be a coincidence) is 800-2000 liters in capacity and therefore shares DNA with the huge foudres and muids of the French wine industry, both of which also exceed 1000 liters and can go as large as 5000 liters. Note also the use of the non-barrel-shaped Intermediate Bulk Container (IBC), which are modern, re-useable, multi-use container used for mass handling and shipping of liquids, semi-solids, and solids.

Gorda (700 liters, 185 US gallons, 154 Imperial gallons)

This huge barrel has fallen out of favour in the Scotch whisky industry, since its capacity is close to the maximum permitted barrel size of 700 liters. It is closely identified with American whiskey which continues to utilize it on a limited basis, usually for blending purposes.

Nowadays it is not commonbeing nearly three times the size of an American Standard Barrel, it’s simply too large (the name itself is Spanish for “fat”), and this creates problems for short term ageing (less surface area contact with the liquid). Also, it is difficult to char properly with existing equipment, problematic to move easily, and even more difficult rack in a warehouse given their weight when filled. That said, the large capacity makes it useful for producing blended, vatted whiskies.

Again, the sherry industry has a cask shorter and fatter than the 600 liter bota gorda (fat cask), called a bocoy. This is usually around 700 liters capacity, and is therefore similar to the 700-800 liter tonelete, a small tonel.

Leaguer (~680 liters / 150 imperial gallons (varies))

A leaguer is another large cask, but seems to have less connection to the British spirits industry and more of the storage of water on board sailing ships and Dutch measurement systems from the 1700s. An archaic word, it has faded from common usage and can only be found in a few nautical references, many of which contradict each other.

For example, wikipedia has no direct entry for it but mentions that a 33-foot launch from 1804 (a launch was the largest boat carried by a warship or merchantman in the age of sail) could carry 14 leaguers of 680 liters each; Nelson’s body was supposedly preserved in a leaguer (filled with brandy, not rum); the wordnik page calls it (erroneously, in my view) a tun, and states it as being 159 gallons without attribution, though this might come from the OED (shorter edition); the Society of Nautical Research has various sources in the conversation that define it as 250 gallons, 159 gallons or 190 wine gallons of water. Note that a leaguer was generally agreed by all modern sources to be outside of the subdivided tun-butt-puncheon-hogshead-tierce-barrel system.

That said, its origin is from the old Dutch word legger, part of the now-obsolete 17th century Dutch and South African measurement of capacity for wine and spirits which was finally abandoned in 1922. In this system, fluid measurements were related to the standard kanne (a can) of 11/32 Dutch gallons (1.329 liters), which was defined in Amsterdam. 388 kannes or 152 Dutch gallons were equal to 1 legger (~576 liters, roughly analogous to a butt, referred to below). Further subdivisions of a legger were as follows:

Legger → half legger → pipe → half-pipe → ahm (or aum) → half aum → anker → half anker → flask → kanne.

These varied sizes of barrels were used most often in Dutch shipping for their fluid or dry stores. However, given that no current barrel or system of volume uses the word, this section is included for completeness only; to avoid further confusion and for the sake of brevity, here’s the reference you can look up if you want more.

Pipe barrelnote the narrower profile [Photo (c) oak-barrel.com]

Port Pipe (650 liters / 171.7 US gallons / 143 Imperial gallons)

Compared to their chubby and squat Madeira cousins, Port Pipes more resemble giant American Standard Barrels (ASBs). The word pipe in this instance refers not the smoker’s implement but to the Portuguese word pipa, meaning “cask”, such as were once used to mature port; it’s something of a coincidence, perhaps, that the shape is slightly more cylindrical, longer (or taller) and narrower than a standard barrel. The size varies with some sources noting them as 540 liters capacity, while others mentioning 650 liters.

As the name implies, they are used to mature Port wines. They are then quite often sold on and utilized as “second use” barrels in whisky distilleries, and more recently, in an occasional rum making establishment. More recently, American craft distillers have taken a liking to them in helping expand American whiskey’s flavors, along side Madeira, Malaga and Marsala barrels (see below)

Madeira Drum (up to 650 liters / 171.7 Imperial gallons / 143 US gallons)

Squat Madeira casks, called drums, are made using very thick European / French oak staves and are shaped rather wider, and shorter than other barrels. In the whiskey industry they are most often used as a finishing cask, and less frequently for primary maturation. Note however that madeira casks (of any kind) are sometimes much less than the 650 liters noted in the title and can range from 225 liters to 300 liters, or even 500 liters according to another source.

Demi-Muid (600 liters / 132 Imperial gallons / 158.5 US gallons)

These large-capacity oak barrels are typically used in the Rhône Valley in France in the wine industry, but have no application or use in spirits as far as I am aware. Weighing in at 124 kg (264 lbs) they are about four feet (117cm) high, with eight metal hoops. Most wineries prefer to use the more manageable puncheons, but demi-muids are still made. The sherry equivalent is a bota gorda, also 600 liters.

The full size muid is a barrel-type with a volume of 1,300 liters, most common in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape area, while the smaller demi-muid (half size version) is common in Champagne and Languedoc-Roussillon. A muid is sometimes equated to a poinçon (puncheon) or is one of the possible types of barrique barrels (see below).

to the smaller and more common variations. Heights are as close to scale as I could make them

Butts

In medieval French and Italian, the botte (Spanish had the word bota) was considered to be half of a tun, or 1,008 pints and referred to the same barrel as a pipe (above). They may have been equivalent at one time, but modern usage of the terms makes the distinction in between the larger capacity pipe and the slightly less voluminous butt, which is more or less standardized at 500 liters (though not consistently so)

Sherry Butt (500 liters / 132 gallons / 110 imperial gallons)

These tall casks are built with thicker staves, and are the most common type of cask in the sherry industry, and also the most common finishing cask in the whiskey industry. The demand for Sherry butts in the Scotch industry in particular is so great that a whole Sherry butt industry has grown up to support it, seasoning the casks with a Sherry style wine that is usually distilled into brandy rather than bottled as the real product. It is sometimes called a bota de extraccion / embarque which translates as “export butt.” Similar to the bota bodeguera with a capacity of 567 liters

Malaga Butt (500 liters)

The Malaga butt is from Spain as is clear from the name; with this barrel some noticeable lengthening similar to a Marsala cask starts to take place culminating in the port pipe (see above). It’s a relatively tall and narrow cask from Europe, utilizing thicker than normal ok staves. It is commonly used in the sherry industry in Spain and again, also within the whisky industry as a finishing barrel.

Illustration (c) Cask88.com

Marsala Cask (500 liters / 132 gallons / 110 imperial gallons)

As the name states this comes from the Marsala region of the island of Sicily where they are used to store and age dry or sweet fortified wine of that name. Fortified Marsala was, and is, made using a process called in perpetuum, similar to the solera system used to produce sherry and some rums. The Marsala casks can and are used for the whisky finishing process (not so much primary maturation) and due to the sweet dark type of wine, whiskies that mature in these casks are usually somewhat darker than normal. (Additional info on Sicilian wines is presented in this interesting article).

Puncheons

A puncheon rum was originally a high-proof, heavy-type rum said to have been first produced in Trinidad, at Caroni, in 1627, but that was probably only because of the barrel it was stored in: the term itself is far older, dating back to early medieval times (~13th century) when it denoted either an instrument to make a hole or a mark (like a punch in gold or silver jewelry) or to the old French ponchon or poinçona barrel of a certain volume and value, marked with a stamp. It was therefore occasionally referred to as a “punch barrel” to mean it had been calibrated by punching marks into it after an inspection.

UK/US puncheons

Historically the puncheon was a British unit for beer, wines and spirits, and an American one for the capacity of a barrel of that name holding wine. However, it has been subject to some variations. In the UK it has been at one time or another 318-546 liters (70-120 imperial gallons) while the Americans defined it as 318 liters (84 US gallons and 4/3 of a Hogshead (see below)). The RumLab’s infographic that notes it as 450 liters exactly, is therefore somewhat imprecise. Note that a puncheon was also referred to as a tertian or tercian (see below) because at one time it was in fact ⅓ of a tun, at around 330 liters. Nowadays they have a rather greater capacity than that, ranging from 500-700 liters depending on what it is used to maturesherry puncheons are supposedly larger than those used for rums.

Machine Puncheon (500 liters / 132 US gallons / 110 Imperial gallons)

This is a short and fat cask made with thick staves of American oak and according to various sources is the one used most by the rum industry. It shares a similar capacity with the Sherry Shape Puncheon (also 500 liters), but that one has a different shapethinner and longer staves are used here, making it more akin to a pipe.

A 500L tonneau and a 250L barrique

Barrique (Cognac) (300 liters / 79 US gallons / 66 Imperial gallons)

The word barrique is a very old one and although long in use in English, itself comes from even older words in Gaul (baril), vulgar latin (barrica) and old French / Occitan (barrica) all of which relate to wooden casks used for storage.

Barriques are relatively small casks used most often to age or store wines, cognac and grappa, and are often toasted to enhance flavour profiles. They come in two types, and this is the larger version, used mostly in the wine and cognac industry and then subsequently in the whisky world as second-hand casks for finishing purposes. It is slightly more elongated than a butt and close to a hogshead in capacity and in place of metal hoops binding the staves together, is distinguished by the traditional use of wooden ones. As far as I am aware, few rum makers use them given their access to alternatives.

Note also that a cognac cask, as this is sometimes referred to, can have a capacity of 350 liters. It depends on the cooperage, the size desired by the maison, and to some extent local tradition.

HDPE Drums (250 liters / 55 Imperial gallons / 65 US gallons)

Almost exclusively for transport and storage of bulk spirits and oils, the high density polyethylene containers are considered inert and food safe, and are therefore useful to ship large quantities of neutral spirit around the world for blenders or third party bottlers to turn into gins, vodkas or other (even cheaper) drinks. They have no place in the traditions of maturation which makes sense since they do not interact with the liquid inside.

Hogshead (225-250 liters / 59-66 US gallons / 49-54 Imperial gallons)

Surely there is no more evocative name for a barrel than this one, yet the etymology is uncertain. The words “hogge’s” and “hed” are demonstrably what they mean today, but the connection with the cask and a pig’s head remains unclearsome say it’s a resemblance thing. It dates back from the Germanic languages in the late medieval period (~14th century) and referred to a measure of capacity equivalent to 240 liters (63 wine gallons, 52½ imperial gallons, or specifically half a pipe, half a butt or a quarter of a tun) – it was standardized by an Act of Parliament in 1423, though it continued to vary geographically elsewhere, as well as depending on the liquid inside. Now a unit of liquid measurement, originally it could refer to any appropriately sized container holding tobacco, beer, wine, ale, cider, sugar, molasses, sardines, oil, herring, or even eels. Within the spirits industry the 225-liter hogshead made of white American oak is primarily used for maturing bourbon before being sent elsewhere to be used in the rum and scotch whisky industries.

It is the practice in the whisky industry to break down five ex-bourbon “standard” barrels (ASB, see below) into staves and to reassemble them with new ends to make four larger 250 liter casks called “hoggies” as the larger casks are more efficient to store volumes of spirits in warehouses.

Also, in the sherry industry, there is a 250 liter barrel called a media bota, which is half the size of the regular bota.

 

225L wine barrel, or barrique

Barrique (Bordeaux) (225 liters / 59 US gallons / 49 Imperial gallons)

A second type of barrique exists, used predominantly in the wine industry, specifically Bordeaux in France, where the measurement of 225 liters was fixed by law in 1866. Before that, the size varied according to the region and could be anything between 136 and 400 liters. It is slightly smaller than the 300-liter cognac version, but retains the traditional wooden hoops, and the secondary use as a whisky finishing barrel. There are also Burgundy barriques, which are closely sized at 228 liters.

The size and popularity of these Bordeaux-sized barrels supposedly derived from their ease of use: one man could roll a barrique around, and only two people were needed to load one. Note that the word barrique is simply French for “cask.” It is further subdivided into a feuillette of just about half this size (110 liters) and a quarteau half again as small and sometimes called a “quarter-barrique” (55 liters).

American Standard Barrel, 200L

American Standard Barrel (200 liters / 53 US gallons / 44 Imperial gallons / ⅕ tun )

No matter how many other sizes of barrel there are, the most common current barrel in use is the American one, whose size is denoted as the “American Standard Barrel” or “Bourbon barrel” and is sometimes noted as being just a smaller hogshead, without the cool name. The reason behind its ubiquity is the US law that requires most American whiskeys to be aged in new oak barrelsconsequently, after a single use they are useless there, which creates a massive surplus. The barrels are exportedoften by breaking them down into staves and then reassembling them into hogsheads elsewherefor reuse in maturing other spirit types including rum, tequila, tabasco pepper sauce, and of course Scotch and Irish whiskies. This makes the ASB the most commonly used barrel in the world. Unsurprisingly, American distillers think these casks provide the optimum surface-area ratio for maturing spirits.

Note that its origin in America means it is not directly related or numerically tied to the imperial system of the English wine cask sizings of tun-pipe-puncheon-hogshead-tierce-barrel-rundlet. The origins of both are, however, undoubtedly the same and just adjusted for customary local usage. There are references to the capacity being 50-53 US gallons (180-200 liters) but most places I checked and people I spoke to maintain that 200 liters / 53 US gallons is the standard.

Tierce (158-160 liters / 35 Imperial gallons / 42 US gallons)

The word itself is of antique Roman (latin) and old French origin, and means “the third” or “a third”. The tierce was ½ of a puncheon, ⅓ of a butt or pipe, and ⅙ of a tunwhen the now-archaic imperial system was instituted in the 15th century the tun was redefined to make it easily divisible by other integers and smaller barrel sizes. Its primary purpose was for wine transport, rum maturation and the storage of salted goods like fish or pork. It is almost exactly the same as a British Brewery Barrel (160 liters but also denoted as 288 pints or 43 gallons) or the Beer Barrel (140 liters, 35 imperial gallons, 42 US gallons) which in turn was used mostly in the storage of beer, ale or lager. This subsystem of liquid measurement had its own peculiarities of barrel sizes and names, like the kilderkin and the firkin (see below)

Most entries on the tierce refer to its relationship to the oil barrel. The oil boom in Pennsylvania in the 1860s created a shortage of containers (let alone standardized ones), so any barrel of whatever shape or size was used, including the 40 US gallon whiskey barrels and the 42 US gallon tierces, the former of which was far more common, and available. In 1866, to counter ever-increasing buyer distrust about measures, oil producers came together and settled on the whisky barrel as the standard barrel of measure and added an allowance of two extra gallons “in favour of the buyer”. This made a standard oil barrel 42 US gallons, the same capacity as the tierce from the time of Richard III of England.

Octave (unclear – 125 liters or 50 liters)

The Whisky Exchange’s blog made reference to an Octave barrel, naming it a quarter the size of a butt, or around 125 liters, which was considered small enough to allow for faster maturation but large enough to permit that maturation to be slower and take longer. Clearly the name refers to it being ⅛ of a tun. That said, the Whisky.com page on cask sizes states that the octave was ⅛ of a butt, or 50 liters but since the very same article also notes that a butt is 500 liters or so, then their math isn’t quite right since one eight of that amount is actually 62.5 liters. WhiskyIntelligence also mentions that it’s 50 liters, ⅛ of a “standard cask” except that there is no standard cask of 400 liters, so again, something of a puzzle. AD Rattray’s “Octave Project” also refers to it as 50 liters (no further qualifications). Let’s agree that it’s one eighth of something, whether a tun or a butt.

Wine Barrel (~120 liters / 26 Imperial gallons / 31.5 US gallons)

Not utilized in the spirits industry as far as I am aware, this barrel remains in use by wine makers and is the equivalent of ½ a wine hogshead or ⅛ of a tun. It therefore shares both the general size and the relative obscurity of an octave. This particular type of barrel is likely the same as the small French wine cask called a feuillette (110 liters). I have no doubt that the wine industry has similar subgradings and fractions of large containers being called other names as the barrel size decreases, but that is peculiar to wine and not the primary focus here, so I’ll simply note it, and pass on.

Kilderkin (81.83 liters / 18 Imperial gallons / 21.62 US gallons)

A kilderkin is half a british Brewery Barrel and conforms to British brewery measuring systems (not those of wine which then became those of distilled spirits). It is mentioned here for completeness, but is not in use for the spirits industry in any consistent or meaningful way. Note that over time there were several differing measurements for this medium sized barrelinitially it was 16 ale or beer gallons (73.94 liters) but was redefined in 1688 to 17 gallons, and again in 1803 to its current size of 18 imperial gallons of ale or beer.

The various ratios are: 1 Beer (or British Brewery) barrel = 2 kilderkins = 4 firkins. For the geek squad, note that the word is from the Middle English and this in turn from the Middle Dutch words kinderkin a variant of kindekijn (small cask), and a diminutive of kintal (i.e., “little kintal”) which is a corruption of the Latin word quintale. It has old French and even Arabic roots, stretching back through Byzantine Greek and into the Latin word centenarium (hard “c”) which referred to a hundred pounds, later a hundredweight. It is possible that a barrel of such capacity filled with wine, ale or beer weighed this much, but I was unable to prove that and so the reason why it was named a quintale remains unknown.

Photo (c) fanaticscountryattic.com

Rundlet (68-70 liters / 15 Imperial gallons / 18.1 US gallons)

Part of the wine measurement system also used by distilleries, a rundlet is 1/7 of a butt and 1/14 of a tun, which makes those parent barrels’ odd sizings and capacitieschosen for easy subdivisionmake rather more sense. A rundlet is another one of those archaic barrel sizes once common in Britain, and was originally defined as about 18 wine gallons and then in 1824 (the date of adoption of the imperial system) settled on 15 imperial gallons

Traditionally for the transport of wine, the cask size has now fallen into disuse and has more interest from a historical perspective than anything else. The word comes from old Middle English and Anglo-Norman words “rondelet” and “rondel” (with connotations of a round shape, no doubt.)

The name has passed into the company of equally archaic and seldom-used colloquialism like “quent” and means any small barrel of no certain dimensions which may contain anywhere from 3 to 20 gallons.

Quarter Cask (50 liters / 11 Imperial gallons / 13 US gallons)

A quarter cask is exactly what its name says it is, a cask one quarter of the size of another onein this case, the American Standard barreland made in exact proportion. Its attraction, of course, is in providing a much greater surface area to liquid ratio, thereby making the maturation process more rapid. However, it is mostly used by smaller brewers and distillers or even those practising from home. It’s sometimes confused with a firkin (see below) but the two barrels are quite distinct types and sizesthe quarter cask one has its origin in the US spirits business, while the firkin (and kilderkin) both come from European beer and ale brewing traditions. Both, however, are a quarter the size of their “parent” barrel.

Firkin (41 liters / 9 Imperial gallons / 11 US gallons)

As noted , the firkin has its origin in the brewing industry, though differing shapes of it were also used for dry goods storage (sugar, flour, peas, etc): it is ½ the size of a kilderkin, and a ¼ of British Brewery Barrel (sometimes called ale or beer barrels), and is occasionally but misleadingly referred to as a quarter cask because it is a quarter the size of the standard brewing barrel of 160 liters. Here I make a clear distinction between the firkin and the American quarter cask because of its different size and origin. The firkin’s use in spirits predates the micro-distillery and DIY brewing boom in the US, and has been used for a long time by Scottish distilleries to speed up cask-spirit interaction, as well as to sell more affordable quantities of spirits to private buyers (as was noted in the origin story of the SMWS, for example).

But as stated, its origin was with brewing and storage of ale and beer and to this day a firkin of 9 imperial gallons, or 72 pints is used to deliver cask conditioned beer to publicans (pubs), though the volume of consumable beer within it is usually less. It is not always shaped like a barrel, but sometimes like a bucket, which makes sense given its use for storage and transport by an individual.

As to the origin of the word: it comes from the same source as the kilderkin, namely Middle Dutch vierdekijn, meaning “little Fourth.”

Blood Barrel / Blood Tub (40 liters / 9 Imperial gallons / 11 US gallons)

A small barrel used in beer making, but also for moving spirits on horses or mules. It therefore has no ageing usage, just for transport and small scale sales to private individuals, such as in private casks. They sport a somewhat more elongated oval shape to facilitate carriage and fastening. The exact reason it’s called a “blood” barrel is unknownit may be because it was used to capture blood from slaughtered animals for use in sausages or some such (my surmise).

Pin (20 liters / 4.5 Imperial gallons / 5.4 US gallons)

Used by home brewers or by microbrewers, this small container is ½ of a firkin (see above). There is no point to ageing anything in a cask so small and reactive where it made of wood, so it’s mostly a storage medium, and plastic variations of this sizeknown as “polypins” are popular for homebrewing and small deliveries, as well as in beer festivals.

There are also minipins of around 10 liters which are used to serve ale in people’s homes in the UK. Half the size of a pin, they are usually filled by decanting from any larger container like a pin or a firkin.

Barracoon / barrack (4 liters / 0.9 Imperial gallons / 1 US gallon)

At the very bottom end of the scale is the barracoon, which is perhaps more decorative than functional and displays a peculiar insensitivity for word useage, since the word itself actually means a pen or cage used to keep slaves awaiting shipment during the slave trade. I can find no reference to this tiny cask in a dictionary, or in online encyclopedias. Diffords mentions it without any narrative whatsoever, and ASW Distillery out of Georgia in the US gives it a quick mention without context. Neither describe what it could be used for, though it seems clear that it could only be for some kind of personal use, since it is far too small for any kind of serious commercial application.


15.3 gallon Stainless Steel Keg

Kegs

Kegs are a kind of small barrel insofar as the shape is the same, and like barrels, have their own subculture and nomenclature. The term is not in common usage for the rum (or spirits) industry, but everyone is familiar with it from quaffing suds.

Traditionally, a keg made of wood was simply a small barrel of indeterminate sizeit was used to transport solid goods like nails or gunpowder or corn, or liquids like oil and wine. Its use therefore tended more towards the private than the commercial. Nowadays a keg is often made of metal (stainless steel), very much associated with beer, and has a stated purpose of keeping a carbonated beverage under pressure to keep it from going flat.

That said, it remains curiously non-standardized: where the capacity might be the same, the linear measurements might differ, and vice versa. However, in the USA a full sized keg is seen as a half barrel, or 15.5 US gallons, a quarter-barrel of 7.75 gallons or some subdivision thereof. The key to this is that it doesn’t refer to any of the barrels I have listed above (like the ASB), but a US beer barrel, which is listed as 31 US gallons (about 117 liters).

Of course, beer kegs can come in any kind of size and the accepted convention that they are smaller than a barrel is about all that can be said for them. They can range from 5 liters (1.32 US gallons) for a mini-keg or “Bubba”, to 19 liters (5 US gallons) for a “Corny keg” or “Home Brew” then in ever increasing volumes to a half barrel, a pony keg, an import keg (also known as a “standard European” keg of 50 liters) and then finally the Full Keg of 15.5 US gallons as noted in the paragraph above. Of course there are other variations and sizes and names, but these are the common ones.

A subset of this is the so-called Euro-keg of a commonly accepted capacity of 50 liters. There are smaller subdivisions of this size in Germany (which with a complete Teutonic lack of imagination names them DIN 6647-1 and DIN 6647-2 for example) and the UK denominates its keg size as 11 imperial gallons, which happily works out to 50.007 liters. But in an interesting aside, in some places within Germany where a pour is half a liter, a keg’s capacity is measured in beers, not liters, so that’s pretty cool.


Vats

A vat is any large volume barrel, and is a general catch-all term, not one that is rigorously defined in any official system of weights and measures. It therefore is in the same league as the French foudre and muid, or a tub or a tank, also large-volume containers without clear volumetric definitions. Because of the size, such vessels are at the other end of the scale from kegs or pins.

It is also a very old word, dating back to the Proto-indo-European prefix “pod-” (or vessel) – a word itself at the root of pot. It developed into proto-Germanic “fata” (again, for a vessel or container) and a similar meaning in the Old English “fæt”, though I think it’s similarity to water and wasser suggests a water storage vessel as well. From there it moved into Medieval English and was gradually turned into “fat” meaning a vessel or tank and was used to describe large container used for tanning hides and wine making, with cognates all over the northern European world.

These days, due to its lack of definition and lots of other alternatives, the word is very general in nature. Its use in spirits is retained in calling tanks “vats” especially when producing “vatted whiskies” or naming blended rums like Vat 19.


Intermediate Bulk Containers (wikipedia)

Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs)(1040 or 1250 liters / 228 or 275 Imperial gallons / 275 or 330 US gallons)

Not used for ageing, they are akin to the HDPE drums mentioned briefly above. They are multi-purpose industrial-grade, intermediately-sized and mostly cube-shaped shipping containers, easy to stack or store; and used for the transport and storage of liquids, semi-solids and solids. Their popularity stems from a combination of storage efficiency (they fit into less space than equivalent volume barrels), utility and flexibility since they can be of many shapes and sizes, and of metal, plastic or a composite and are often manufactured to exacting (Government- or industry-mandated) standards permitting transport of hazardous materials.

IBCs come in two varieties, rigid and flexible. Rigid ones are made of plastic, composite, carbon steel or stainless steel, while flexible IBC can be made from fiberboard, wood, aluminium, plastic, and often are seen as heavy sacks. Oak does not fit into their makeup anywhere.

Unsurprisingly rum (and other spirits) are not normally stored in these containers, since they are inert and have no impact on the profile. They are not part of any systems of weights and measures outside the logistics industry. Nor do they have any tradition in the back-history of rum, the distilleries, plantations, or the shipping tradethey are, in point of fact, a modern innovation like the standardized shipping container and are used in modern transport mechanisms. So, for bulk transport and/or storage of alcohol, whether on site or in a vessel, they have their uses and I include them here for completeness.


Trivia

An article like this leads down many obscure rabbit holes that are at tangents to the main purpose. I collect them because I’m a trivia nut and because some of them are just so damned interesting.

  • Someone who makes barrels is called abarrel makeror cooper. However, coopers make many different kinds of enclosed containers, including not just the familiar terms above (hogsheads, firkins, kegs, kilderkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts and pins) but buckets, vats, tubs, butter churns, troughs and breakers.
  • The term barrel to refer to the shooting tube of a cannon (and later, a gun) is directly related to the barrels discussed above. Early metallurgical technology was not sufficiently advanced to contain the explosive force of gunpowder combustion without the tube down which the cannonball would go, warping or exploding. This tube, or pipe, which was sometimes made from staves of metal, needed to be periodically braced with hoops along its length for structural reinforcementthis produced an appearance somewhat reminiscent of storage barrels being stacked together, hence in English it adopted the term of barrel.
  • I said above that a leaguer is an archaic term for a water barrel on board ship in the Age of Sail, though references to such barrels holding wine also exist. One of the most peculiar is a page from the 1907 “Clive’s South African Arithmetic for Standard IV” which had a question requiring the student to convert a half-leaguer to pints.


Other

I have excluded non standardized storage media like tanks, casks (oddly, this is not a defined unit or container of measure or storage, though of course everyone knows what one is), reservoirs, containers, pots, flasks, tubs, drums, or cans. There’s a fair bit of information about these things, but they have limited applicability to spirits generally and rum specifically.


Sources

Mar 292021
 

 

Indonesia is the region where sugar cane originated and gave rise to the proto-rums of yesteryear, which have their genesis in arrack, a distillate first identified by the Dutch and Portuguese in the town of Batavia (now Jakarta, the capital). After being practically unknown to the larger rum drinking public for a long time, arrack and local rums are now slowly being shown to western audiences, most notably from By The Dutch and their Batavia Arrack, and the little company of Naga which produced the rum we’re looking at today.

Based in Indonesia, Naga is a rum company formed around 2016 by Sebastien Follope, another one of those roving, spirits-loving French entrepreneurs who are behind some of the most interesting Asian rums around (Chalong Bay, Issan and Sampan are examples). While small, the company has several rums in its eclectic portfolio, though they lack any distillation facilities of their ownthey are buying from a distillery on Java on the outskirts of Jakarta, which cannot be named.

This particular rum is called the Triple Wood for good reasonit is aged in three different kinds of barrels, and is an extension of the “Double Cask Aged” rum we have looked at twice beforeonce under that name in 2018, and once as the “Java Reserve Double Aged rum” a year later. The triple wood is similarly a molasses-based rum, column-still distilled, aged for three years in barrels made of teak (also called jati), four years in ex-Bourbon and one more year in cherry-wood barrelsit is, therefore, eight years old. Since the company was only formed in 2016 and this rum came on the scene in 2018, it is clear that the first ageing and part of the second was done at the distillery of origin (or a broker, it’s unclear).

Does this multiple wood ageing result in anything worth drinking? Yes it doesthe extra year seems to have had an interesting and salutary effect on the profilethough at 42.7% it remains as easy and soft as its siblings. The nose, for example, is a nice step up: cardboard, musty paper, some dunder of spoiled bananas skins, plus strawberries and soft pineapple or two and brine (which, I swear, made me think of Hawaiian pizza). Caramel and bitter dark chocolate round things off. It’s a relatively easy sniff, inoffensive yet solid.

The palate is goes on to be warm, soft, and somewhat sweeter. Initially, given its puffed cloudy vagueness, you’d think it’s simple and amorphous, but actually it just keeps improving over timethe rum unfolds like a small origami flower, graduallyeven shylypresenting floral tastes, molasses, toffee, nougat, breakfast spices, licorice and some watery background of melons and pears. It’s easy and very relaxing to sip, because the flavours don’t come at you all at once, but kind of stroll past doing a slow ragtime. That low strength, much as I usually prefer something stronger, really is probably right for what that taste is, but it must also be admitted it makes for a weak finish: clean and easy, just not much more than some light flowers, strawberries and bubble gum, fanta, light molasses, and a bit of musty and dust-filled rooms.

I quite liked the rum and enjoyed its low-key, tasty nature, so different from the more aggressive high-proof rums I’ve been seeing of lateafter all, one doesn’t always a need a massive overproof squirting dunder, alcohol and pain in all directions. And arrack, this rum’s progenitor, is an interesting variation on what a rum can be (as an example, fermented rice is usually added to the fermenting molassessee other notes for more details) which is something worth taking note of and these times of dominance by famed Caribbean distilleries. There’s no question that it’s a somewhat different kind of rum, more representative of its region than of any “standard” kind of profilebut for those who are okay trying something different, it won’t disappoint.

(#809)(81/100)

 


Other Notes

  • Naga is a Sanskrit-based word referring to the mythical creature of Asia, a dragon or large snake, that guards the treasures of the earth, and is also a symbol of prosperity and protection
  • This rum is now named “Pearl of Jakarta.”
  • Production:
    • Fermentation of molasses and fermented red rice in teak vats up to
    • 12% ABV.
    • 52% of this “cane wine” then distilled in traditional Chinese stills to 30% ABV. It is then distilled in these same stills a second time, until it reaches 60-65%.
    • 48% of the “cane wine” distilled in a column still to 92% ABV.
    • The rums obtained in this way are then blended and aged for 3 years in teak barrels, then transferred to American oak barrels (ex-bourbon barrels) for 4 years before ageing for one final year in cherry wood barrels.
Mar 122021
 

Let’s quickly run down the tasting notes for the Chamarel youthful aged expression, the VS. This is the most junior of the company’s aged pantheonnamed, one would presume, after the brandy designators of VS, VSOP, XO and so on. The VS supposedly stands for “Very Superior”, but that just goes to show the French had marketing departments in their old maisons for centuries before Madison Avenue was invented, because overall, the rum didn’t exactly wow my socks off.

It smells, right off the bat, of toastliterally. Lots of toast. Also coconut shavings, vanilla, and cereals that have all at some point in their life been burnt, which I grant is amusing (and unusual) but hardly earth shattering. Anyway, this all passes, and then one can smell aromas of honey, flambeed bananas, salt caramel ice cream, nougat, toffee, white chocolate, and crushed almonds. What it’s missing is the tart and clear acidity of lighter elements and fruits, which remain very much in the background on the nose.

Palate is somewhat better, and more integrated, though quite light and there remains a sort of spicy spitefulness about the whole thing. There are tastes of nuts, wine, grapes, and cereals again. The balance is much improved, and the fruit is more forwardI keep getting this idea that there’s a splash of red wine in here too. With resting, there are additional notes of coconut shavings, bananas, more unidentifiable soft and squishy fruit: say ripe mangoes, papayas, cherries, strawberries, that kind of thing. Oh, and welcome spicy notes of cloves and cumin. All this leads to a curiously disappointing finishit’s dusty and short, with hints of cheerios, caramel and crushed walnutsbut the fruits have once again disappeared to wherever they hid while I was smelling it.

The rum as tasted was released at 42%: currently it’s gone back to a more easy sipping 40% (as advertised on its website). I think the strength is decent for what it is, because the rough edges of its youth have not been quite sanded clean yet, and it showcases a sort of jagged edge that a stronger proof might have made worse, rather than better. From what I was told at the booth where I tried it, it was based on sugar cane juice, and run through a column still (twice, hence the “double distilled” on the label), then aged for 3 years in charred American oak; this would account for the rather strong vanilla and smoky profile that characterizes the rum, but oddly for a cane juice product, rather less of the vegetal and fruity notes which one would expect from the source.

Chamarel on Mauritius has been around for a long time, and I’ve written about it in both the Premium Classic White, the double distilled white and Velier’s Indian Ocean Sills selection reviews, so if this piques your interest and you want to know more about them, check out those reviews or their own website. I’ve not tried very many of their aged rumsbecause there really aren’t that may: remember, rum making was legalized on Mauritius relatively recently so it’s not as if a whole bunch of aged stocks exist on the island. So, I started with this one, the youngest, which I didn’t think was all that hot. It was a competent product, but I’m left somewhat confused what it’s meant forit’s not good enough to sip, while lacking any serious punch over and above the vanilla, coconut and caramel, which would wake up a cocktail. Unless such a placid profile is your thing, you may want to see if you can lay hands on their older expressions, a millesime or anything they issue at a greater strength. Otherwise, be prepared by a restless sense of unfulfilled potential with this one.

(#808)(78/100)


Other

  • The rum isn’t bad, just feels unfinished. As proof of its potential, note that it won a gold medal in its category at the 2018 German Rum Fest in Berlin, with other honours in the Agricole Gold class going to Clement Rhum Vieux Select Barrel (Martinique, 40%) and Saint James Ambre (Martinique, 40%)
Mar 082021
 

La Rhumerie de Chamarel, that Mauritius outfit we last saw when I reviewed their 44% pot-still white, doesn’t sit on its laurels with a self satisfied smirk and think it has achieved something. Not at all. In point of fact it has a couple more whites, both cane juice derived and distilled on their Barbet columnar still: one at 42º (the “Classic 42”) for cocktails like a mojito, and the other delivering a sharper 52º and clearly meant for the islanders’ own beloved Ti-punch.

Chamarel distillery is situated in a small valley in the south west of Mauritius, cultivates its own sugarcane, and has a history on the island going back centuries. The distillery takes the title of a small nearby village named after a Frenchman who lived there around 1800 and owned most of the land upon which the village now rests. The area has had long-lived plantations growing pineapples and sugar cane, and a very long history of distilling its own back-country hooch for local consumption, much like the grogues of Cape Verde or the clairins of Haiti..

After 2006, when rum production was finally legalized (previously all cane had to be made into sugar by law), it began to emerge from the shadows, to become something the world started paying attention to. It’s no coincidence that it was in 2008, at a time of weakening demand and reduced EU subsidies and a time of renewed interest in rum, that the owners of the Beachcomber Hotel chain (New Mauritius Hotels, one of the largest companies in Mauritius), created their new distillery on a 400-hectare estate.

The sugar cane is grown onsite and cut without pre-burning between July and December. The harvest is transported directly to the distillery and the crushed sugarcane juice filtered and taken to steel tanks for fermentation after which the wash is run through a copper pot still (for one of their white rums), or the two-column 24-plate still they call an alembic (for aged and other white rums). In all cases the rums are left post-distillation in inert stainless steel vats for three months (or more) before being transferred to ageing barrels of various kinds, or released as white rums, or further processed into spiced variations. In this case the classic is slowly reduced to 52% ABV over six months.

What comes out the other end and is released in a bottle smart enough to sport a doctorate from Cambridge, is a sleek stunner of a rum with a cosh in its back pocket. It’s an intense and crisply fiery taste bomb, and my Lord, was there a lot going on under its crinolinea hot combo of wax, olives, brine and sugar water, acetone and paint thinner, which vied with a veritable smorgasbord of light and watery fruit for the dominance of the nose: guavas, pears, Thai mangoes, watermelon and guavas with a touch of pineapple and strawberry infused water. Slightly sweet, salty and sour, a really distinctive, slightly-addled nose. It’s sharp to smell, yet it’s the sharpness of clear and crisp aromas rather than any deficiency of youth and poor cuts such as too often mars young rums subsequently marketed as cocktail fodder: this thing, on the contrary, smells like you could take it to dinner at the Ritz.

Having already triedand felt somewhat let down bythe restrained, near-lethargic nature of the Chamarel pot still white, I wasn’t looking for anything particularly “serious” when it came to how it tasted, aside from, perhaps, a bit of extra jolt from the higher proof point. I was happy to be disappointed: it was a firm and solid rhum on all fronts, both deep and sharp at the same time, laden with vegetals, wet grass, green apples, grapes, citrus, vanilla, pineapple and a mischievous hint of cider to shake things up. Waiting a bit and then coming back to it, I noted a crisp melange of lemon, thyme, biryani spices, marzipan, more light and tart fruits, some unsweetened yoghurt and even the creamy back end of white chocolate and almonds. It ended up closing the show with a last joyous and furiously spinning sense of fruit, citrus, pepper and a very hot green tea gurgling its way down.

Personally I have a thing for pot still hoochthey tend to have more oomph, more get-up-and-go, more pizzazz, better tastes. There’s more character in them, and they cheerfully exude a kind of muscular, addled taste-set that is usually entertaining and often off the scale. The Jamaicans and Guyanese have shown what can be done when you take that to the extreme. But on the other side of the world there’s this little number coming off a small column, and I have to say, I liked it even more than its pot still sibling, which may be the extra proof or the still itself, who knows.

The Premium Classic was simply a rhum that invigorated, and was hugely fun to try without any attempt to be “serious” or “important”. And that’s a good thing here, I think, because it allows us to relax and just go with it. Now, a lot of us drink rums just to get hammered, start a convo, have a good timeand if we don’t like it we chuck it away, or into a mix and any weakness is shrugged off by saying “others will like it” or “it’s not meant for sipping.” Meh. For me, either it works or it doesn’t and this onefrenetic, alcoholic and cheerfully unapologeticdoes its thing so well, that the day I tried it I looked at the guy at the booth doing the talk and the pour and laughed in sheer delight, didn’t say a word and just held out my glass for more. I haven’t heard much about this company or this rum since then, but I sure hope that gent remembers how much I liked his company’s product.

(#807)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Although this is a rum (or rhum) deriving from cane juice, Mauritius does not have the right to call its products agricoles, and I follow the practise in my naming and description..
Mar 042021
 

If two rums from the same company were made the exact same way on the same still, there are just a few things that would explain any profile variations. There’s the still settings themselves, because one rum might have differentcutsthan the other, or from higher or lower plate; there’s the proof point, stronger or weaker, at which either is bottled; and then there’s the barrel strategy, which is to say, the barrel itself and the duration of the rum’s slumber therein.

Last week I looked at a 12 year old Flor de Caña Nicaraguan rum from Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, which came off their column still in some undisclosed year and was then aged in ex-bourbon barrels in Central America for more than a decade before being diluted down to a milquetoast 40%. The 335 bottles of this Nicaraguan rum released by the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society were also 12 years old but allowed to flex the glutes at a solid 55% ABV, was in so many ways a better rum that one can only wonder at the difference. After all, isn’t tropical ageing supposed to be better? Stuff made at the distillery of origin from cane to cork should be benefiting from the voodoo of location, yet clearly that didn’t happen here.

I mean, consider the profile from start to finish. This SMWS rum was deep and forceful from the get go. Caramel and toffee melded well with a woody component. Dark fruits and raisins waft across the nose and combined with some apple cider, threatens to overwhelm the smellbut the toffee, caramel, oak, chocolate and tart yoghurt end up carrying the day. It’s a bit sweet, with some bitterness after a while, and an emergent strain of coconut and marzipan, with the whole thing getting both darker and sweeter the longer it’s nosed

Palate? Not bad at all. It’s woody, more so than the Flor de Caña product (and this is something about their rums many have commented on before); caramel and bitter chocolate wrestle for dominance with dark Russian peasant bread. “It’s kind of like a thin Blairmont and without the complexity,” remarked my friend Marco, who was tasting it unenthusiastically with me (he was not a fan). I disagree there, because when you leave the rum alone for a while (okay fine, I forgot about it and checked it again an hour later, so sue me) it actually provides some nice notes of coffee, brown sugar, apples and vanillathese temper the slight oaky bitterness we sensed, and while overall I think it is rather simple and the finish just repeats the chorus of notes from above, it’s a pretty powerful statement for the companyand what it could be doing.

I have no way of knowing in which year the Flor 12 was madecompany-made blends like that stay stable for long periods and are tweaked to make them that wayand so a comparison between a continentally aged rum from a single barrel selected by a whisky maker, and a blended, easier product continuously being made by the distillery, lacks true comparability or real meaning; and will without question taste differently. And that’s even without going into the oft-repeated doubts as to whether even back then, their rums truly aged for X years.

And yet, and yet….perhaps it should not taste that different. The shared DNA should be clear, there should be points of similarity that would permit a reasoned comparison to be made, the family tree to snap into focus. Here, that’s hard. If pressed, I’d say I felt this one was less like the 12 and more akin to the superlative blue-bottled 15 year old “21” I’ve always likedbut that one was also quite different from other Flor products (it was an anniversary bottling, never repeated).

So taking all that into account, what made the SMWS rum from Nicaragua so relatively good? Maybe they really were made at different times and in different ways and came off the still already more like second cousins than brothers. But assume for a minute that they were the same up to that point: given the similarity in age, similarity in barrels and assumed sameness off the still, the only thing left to consider is the wide divergence of the proof point, and the ageing location. The 40% TA variant is faint, lacklustre and ultimately boringit in no way provides the complexity and solidity of tastes the CA 55% does.

I’m not trying to make a case for continental over tropical (aside from pointing out how pointless the discussion is from a taste perspective) – but I will go on record for suggesting that maybe one reason Flor de Cana can’t seem to increase its market share or get a bigger footprint on the connoisseur’s mindset, is because they have not had the guts to stake out the full proof market for their products, or even issue a limited edition series of single cask releases. And what that means is that other, smaller independents are stealing the thunder and reaping the rewards that by right should have been theirs. All because they couldn’t be bothered to move away from the traditional philosophy of their blenders.

(#806)(85/100)


Other notes’

  • Simon over at the Rum Shop Boy liked the rum, and made some interesting comments in his conclusions: he suggested that its quality disproves the oft-cited myth that lighter column still spirits require dosage to be truly palatable; and also, that a higher proof is a completely acceptable way of delivering more flavour punch to the rum.
Mar 012021
 

Nearly ten years ago, I was rather indifferent to Flor de Cana’s 12 year old rum. It wasn’t as cool as the older expressions like the 18 for sipping, and was outdone by the 7 year old for a more assertive a cocktail. The 12 YO made a decent drinkexcept insofar as I thought it was somewhat unfinished mid range rum which didn’t seem to be either flesh or fowl.

A decade has now passed, and the brand has lost both brownie points and market lustre with consumers. The 2015 Chronic Kidney Disease matter has died down, but the peculiar and more lasting damage of their age statements continues. In fine, the age statement number on the label was phased out after around 2014 (when Wes Burgin first noted it in his middling-scored review) and now just says “7” or “12” or 18” without further clarification. Of course, even then they were touting that silly “slow aged” moniker, which I regarded then and now with the same sort of impatience. What on earth do they think this means, honestly? That the world spins more slowly for this thing?

What this all does mean, and what just about every reviewer on reddit or other fora is at pains to note (when they bother reviewing anything from Flor at all), is that the big number on the label is completely useless, if not outright deceptive. It tells you nothing of consequence, not the age, or whether it is a blend of X rums (unlikely) or whether it’s a link to the past when it was 12 years old.

With that in mind, let’s see what we have: an older 12 year old 40% rum, whose current “12” blend is no longer now what this once was; column still distilled and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. A more standard rum could not be imagined (unless maybe it’s the Appleton 12 YO or Doorly’s 12 YO). The only reasons to try it are curiosity (always), to see if it could be a candidate for the Key Rums list (no), and to see if anything has changed from my original review (yes, but not for the better).

I confess it did not impress now either. The nose started out medicinal and a bit sharp. It’s predominant characteristic was dark prunes and viscous molasses, honey, overripe cherries, a tang of salt and olives. The ageing showed up via a trace of vanilla and tannins, whose aromas stayed mostly in the background, but overall, not a particularly expressive or impressive nose.

The rum tasted mostly of caramel, treacle and molasses. There was a trace of nuttiness and honey, a few dark and ripe fruits, nothing particularly sharp or tart. Black olives, some brown sugar. It felt like something of a soft blanket, lacking the sharper notes of a citrus element that would have make a stronger statement and balanced things off more nicely. With some strain and patience, a touch of orange peel and unsweetened chocolate was discernible at the tail end leading into the short, dry finish, just insufficient to make a difference to the overall profile. Not something that made it any more memorable, however.

For my money, the 12 YO remains something of a middling work in progress, once leading to the better 18 Year Old (now the “18”) of the supposedly even more upscale “Luxury” expressions (this one is referred to as an “Ultra Premium” in its current iteration). I don’t think it merits anything near those kinds of descriptionsbased on tastes alone, it encourages words like “capable,” “decent” and “mid range” but “Premium”? No chance.

To me, it comes down to that that big number 12 on the label: without any qualifiers or explanations, it is a sign of not just shoddy marketing and the peacock-like display of a double-digit (if not an outright attempt to mislead buyers), but of a lack of faith in their own product. I have no particular issues with Flor de Cana as a wholeI admire what they’ve managed to accomplish to recover their reputationbut this rum is just not worthy, at this stage, of being included in the pantheon. It’s too simple, too ambiguous, and it excites mostly a kind of indifference. Ten years ago it was the sort of rum I’d drink when I just wanted to get hammered, and in that sense, it’s exactly the same now

(#805)(78/100)


Other notes

  • In a time of true-aged cask-strength full-proofs as part of several primary producers’ ranges, I wonder why they insist on keeping this old work horse and not rebrand it as a true 12 year old, and/or goose the proof a bit? For that matter, why not issue a complete range of high-octane full proofs? To stick with the advertising of yesteryear at a time when the world has already changed so much strikes me as odd, to say the least. Perhaps, like DDL, they regard that kind of thing as a loss-leading indulgence of the independent bottlers, not something they really care about themselves.
  • Both TWE and MoM keep on naming their entries for the rum as if it were a true-aged rum, when the label clearly says nothing of the kind.
Feb 252021
 

Back in 2013 when I wrote about the Scotch Malt Whisky Association’s release R3.4 Barbados 2002 10YO “Makes You Strong Like Lion”, several people went on FB and passed the word around that it wasn’t a Foursquare rum, which was hardly needed since I noted in the review that it was from WIRD, and the Rockley Still. Four years later the SMWS did however, decide that the famed Barbados company shouldn’t be left out and bottled an aged rum from Foursquare (the first of two), named it R6.1, and gave it one of their usual amusing titles of “Spice At The Races.” One wonders when they’re going to try for a Mount Gay distillate, though I’m not holding my breath.

Now, for years, every rum geek in the observable rumiverse (bar a few of my acquaintances who don’t drink kool aid) has formed up behind the oft-repeated idea that there is no way a continentally aged rum is the equal of one left to sleep in its island or country of origin. I’ve always taken that statement with a pinch of salt, for two reasons: one, its adherents always talk about taste and age, yet it’s actually touted for social and economic reasons, which is a point often lost in the shuffle; and two, I’ve simply had too many aged rums that ripened in both places for me to be so dogmatic in my assertions, and I’ve seen as many failures as successes in both. Ultimately, it’s the taste that counts no matter where it’s bottled.

This pale yellow rum cost around £75 when initially released, was 57.3% and with a 210 bottle outurn, aged for a solid 14 years old (yes, in Europe) , illustrates the problem with making such sweepingfour legs good, two legs badgeneralizations, because it’s a really a fine rum in its own peculiar way, and one I enjoyed a lot.

Consider first the nose, which opens with the firm assertiveness of my primary school teacher wielding her cane. It smells of sawdust, dusty cardboard, glue, has an odd medicinal touch to it, and also a nice smoky-sweet sort of background. Then the fruits begin their march in: orange peel, strawberries, bananas, pineapple, some light cherries and peaches. The citrus line, augmented with other sharper aromas of persimmons and ginnips provide a lovely through-line, and the smokiness and leather lend an intriguing edge.

The taste is admittedly odd at the inception; my first notes speak of a pair of old, well used, polished, leather shoes (with socks still in ‘em). This is not actually a bad thing, since it is balanced off by ginger, mauby and some rich fruit notesapples, guavas, almost ripe yellow Thai mangoesand these make it both tart and delicately sweet, gathering force until it becomes almost creamy at the back end, with a sort of caramel, port, molasses and vanilla taste to it. This is one of these cases where the finish lingers and doesn’t do a vanishing act on you: it’s slightly acidic and tart, with vanilla, oak, smoke, unsweetened yoghurt and a touch of delicate florals and fruits. Nice.

So, a couple of points. Marco Freyr of Barrel-Aged-Mind, who was sampling it with me, and who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the various Bajan rum profiles, wondered if it was even a Foursquare at all (I chose to disagree, and accept the rum as stated). Also, It’s unclear from the labelling whether it’s a pure pot still distillate, ormore consistent with Foursuare’s own releasesa blend of pot and column. Rum Auctioneer classed it as a pot-column blend. The bottle remains silent. The Rum Shop Boy, one of the few who’s reviewed it, noted it as pot still only in one part of his review, and a blend further down (and didn’t care much for it, as a matter of interest). However, he further noted in an earlier Kintra Foursquare review some months before, that Mr. Seale had confirmed some 2002 pot still 4S rum had indeed been sold that year. My own initial take was that it was a blend, as I felt it lacked the sort of distinctiveness a pot still distillate would impart and I didn’t think Mr. Seale shipped his pot still juice over to Europe. However, Simon’s quote from him, and Seale’s subsequent note on FB put he matter to resthe confirmed it was a pot still spirit.

All that aside, it was a really good rum, one which shows that when they want to, the SMWS can pick rums with the best of them (especially with more familiar and more famous distilleriestheir track record with less known and less popular marks is a bit more hit and miss). If various laws and regulations being pursued stop indies from getting continentally aged juice in the years to come (though this is unlikely given the extent of Scheer’s stocks), I think the Society can still rest comfortably on its laurels after having issued a rum as fine as this one, young as it may be in tropical years.

(#804)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Rum Shop Boy scored the rum 67/100, so about 83 points by my scale and 3½ out of 5 on Wes’s. Like Marco, he commented on how different it was from the Foursquare rums he knew, and rated it “disappointing”.
  • Angus over at WhiskyFun liked it much more and scored it 87, rolling out the tongue-in-cheek “dangerously quaffable” line, and meaning it.
  • Ben’s Whisky Blog (near bottom of page) rates it a “Buy” with no score
  • Post details regarding source still is updated based on a conversation on FB the same day I put it up. It could indeed be a pot still rum, but the jury remains out.
Feb 222021
 

Rumaniacs Review #124 | 0803

There were several varieties of the standard white Havana Club mixer: strengths varied from 37.5% to 40%, the labels changed from saying “El Ron de Cuba” to “Mix Freely” and in the early 2000s this old workhorse of the bartending scene, which had been in existence at least since the 1970s and produced all over the world, was finally retired, to be replaced by the Anejo Blanco.

From the label design I’m hazarding a guess mine came from the early 1990s (it lacks the pictures of the 1996 and 1997 medals it won that were added later) but as it was part of a collection from much earlier and the design changes were stable for long periods, it may be from the late eighties as well (the HC sun began to be coloured red in the early 1980s which sets an earliest possible dating for the bottle). As far as I know it was a column still product aged for no more than 18 months, filtered to white and made in Cuba.

ColourWhite

Strength – 40%

NoseVery light, fragrant and delicate. Sugar water, coconut shavings (and actual coconut water), watery pears. A touch of light vanilla, watermelon and cucumbers, and an almost industrial sort of aroma to it that is supposed to double for “alcohol,” I guess, but feels too much like raw spirit to me. Without practice this could come off as a serious no-nose kind of rum.

PalateMeh. Unadventurous. Watery alcohol. Pears, cucumbers in light brine, vanilla and sugar water depending how often one returns to the glass. Completely inoffensive and easy, which in this case means no effort required, since there’s almost nothing to taste and no effort is needed. Even the final touch of lemon zest doesn’t really save it.

FinishShort, faint and undistinguished, complete non-starter. By the time you think to ask “Where’s the finish?” it’s already all over.

ThoughtsBy today’s standards, this venerable white is unimpressive. Current Havana Club variants like the 3YO Anejo Blanco or the Verde are slightly more taste-driven on their own account, and have a life over and beyond the cocktail circuit since they possess a smidgen of individual character. This is too much of a backgrounder, too anonymous, to appeal.

Note however, that it is completely consistent with its purpose which was to liven up a mojito or a daiquiri, not to appear on one of my lists of white rums (here and here) that stand tall alone. At the time, this was what such blancos were made for and what made them sell. That this one fails by today’s more exacting standards for white rums, is hardly its fault. We changed, not it.

(74/100)


A picture of some of the silver dry series over the decades, from the FB site HC Sammlung Hamburg

Feb 172021
 

This is a completely theoretical “what-if?” about the implications for the rum world if the technological process of superfast ageing were ever to be perfected.

Ever since ageing of spirits became a thing, people have been trying to make it faster in a sort of half-assed time-travel wish-fulfilment. They’ve tried the adding of wood chips, smaller barrels, keeping the barrels in motion, dosage, temperature control, music, ultrasound, etc etcall in an effort to have the taste of a 20 year old rum stuffed inside a spirit made the day before yesterday.

Take Rational Spirits’ Cuban Inspired rum I wrote about recently, and the NYT article on research into the field. That rum was itself based on technology Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits had developed years earlier (he is mentioned in the NYT piece) where he was trying to do exactly thataccelerate the change in taste profile of selected spirits, to mimic that created by many years of ageing.

I’ve never stopped thinking about what such a technology might actually implyparticularly the outcomes. Because I think that the state of modern chemical and physical technology is such that even with all the thousands or millionsor billionsof disparate variables that interact in such complex ways to create the taste of a seriously aged rum, it may possible, just possiblenot now, but somedayto get close to a 1975 Port Mourantand do it in a few days. And what that implies for the industry should be considered.

Here, I won’t go into the methods and processes various companies have developed: what interests me is what the success of such a process might mean, the impacts it would haveif it were a reality. For the purpose of this what-if article, I am taking “the process” to mean not just being able to produce an ersatz aged product in a very short timebut any profile at will (it is part of the same idea, after all, so one inevitably follows the other).

And thinking of that leads down some interesting paths.

Obviously, first and foremost is money. All input costs gathered post-distillation get reduced with a process that can do “ageing on demand”most especially the warehousing charges of storing barrels for years or decades. Moreover, if one can produce an aged profile in days, oak barrels would be an unnecessary expense since storage could be in larger, inert vats made of steel or even (heaven forbid) plasticthe profile is already “set” so why bother going further with real barrels? Warehousing overheads would be reduced both for the physical infrastructure and its utilities, and the staffing.

Too, if any superfast ageing process can happen, then clearly the angel’s share would shrink to nothing, which would leave more available to be sold. Inevitably, this would have a knock-on negative effect on prices. One of the reasons legends like the the Skeldon 1973 is so expensive is because it was issued at an incredible age which probably left less than 5% of the initial volume available for bottlingcan you imagine five thousand bottles of this stuff being available instead of five hundred, and not having to wait 32 years to get it? The four figure prices it commands now would take a nose-dive.

In point of fact, such a process, since it could theoretically be done just about anywhere and replicate any rum’s profile, would instantly render the distinction between tropical and continental ageing nearly irrelevant. The ripple effects of what “pure” rum would mean under such circumstances are huge even beyond thatbecause if you could not tell the difference between an aged Foursquare produced in situ and a fake that someone else can produce by just dialling in some coordinates on a reactor, the entire business model of premiumization premised on GIs, terroire and island specific profiles is going to be disembowelled. Why pay a hundred bucks for a Hampden Great House when you can get the same thing (or an indistinguishable thing) made down the street for ten?

Tony Sachs, who touched on this topic back in 2015, suggested that it would primarily affect the smaller producers, who would be able to produce a better rum for less money, instead of having capital tied up in ageing inventory and having to sell sub-par young juice to make cash flow. But he also remarked that larger producers could make better “bottom-shelf” booze as well, and experimentation, being made simpler and faster with this tech, would allow profiles to be tested and produced on a much faster cycle than now. Nobody would be immune from this if they wanted to stay in the running. A lot of the same points were made in two FB conversations around the same time, in the Global Rum Club and La Confrerie du Rhumand to this date, none of these issues have gone away (or been discussed beyond the superficialities).

Unsurprisingly, the industry commentators so far remain sanguine, relying on brand awareness, their names, the reputation built over decades, even centuries, the skill of their master distillers, blenders and cellar masters. “Old fashioned craft rum,” said one producer when commenting on superfast ageing several years ago, “Will always be there.” He’s probably right but at what level of production, I wonder, when faced with such a disruptor? The impacts I’ve described (or others I haven’t thought of) may not come to pass, but have not really been considered, largely because nobody takes this technology seriously: and with good reason, since so far it has not been shown to work. Nor, in spite of its application to some rums like Lost Spirits,’ has it succeeded in producing a rum the hype leads us to expect. In other words, the process is not making rums to upend the industry.

A successful technology would, however, force traditional mid-sized rum producers to adapt to a major change in their pricing models and sales strategies. Faced with a technology that would provide real price competition and render their carefully blended aged products less desirable (because a similar product could now be had for less), they would have to up their game by making new and different and (hopefully) even better rums, and to make them in such a way as to hobble any attempts at mimicry by such a process. This would cost them money.

It’s clear why labelling redesign and better disclosure are going to be required….

They would have to advertise differently, focus on their own premium-ness, the genuine nature of their products as opposed to the ersatz lab rats that are coming on the market. You can see this happening with mid sized “country-level” producers now, as they combat cheap US, Indian or Asian rums on the world market, or mass produced rums made by huge multi-column operations like Florida Distillers or those in Panama and elsewhere.

Distinctions between a “manufactured” rum made by a process of this kind, and a traditionally made one, would take on much greater importance, and that would logically lead to the courts. It is very likely that lawsor at least regulations by industry bodieswould be passed regarding advertising and restricting the labelling of such manufactured rums; they would not be able to pass themselves off as the genuine article. GIs would be amended to exclude fake-aged, or processed rums. Social media personages and little online armies would be mobilized by at-risk producers to wage a war of opinion and words against such upstarts (we have seen this already in other areas of the rum world).

The word “ageing” itself would have to be more rigorously defined and enshrined in legislation. If I set up my equipment in Bridgetown, buy unaged bulk rum from any of the distilleries and then run it through the process at half the cost, you’d better believe I can call it a NAS Barbados rum under the current rules, and that means post-distillation processes have to be re-specified and redrafted to stop me from undercutting their prices for what they make and taking away their market share. Moreover, some way of trademarking or patenting the taste profile of a rum from one specific still, distillery or country is going to have to be found and distinguished, because the technology would instantly make counterfeiting and copying known brands a huge issue.

Multinational spirits conglomerates are likely to jump on board with this as well. Since they go after bulk sales of cheap one-for-everyone commercial products whose margins are thinner, anything that reduces costs, or increases quality for the same price, will be looked at and developed. They might even buy the technology from some small tech startup like Mr. Davis and scale it up to industrial proportions, at which point market dominance is a very real possibility and small producers would hit the wall.

Of course, the high end connoisseurship and chatterati would absolutely continue prefer and promote the true-made rum as opposed to any ersatz lab concoction (we see that already with dosed rums). But the painful truth is that such buyers, influencers, self-styled ambassadors and social media pundits, for all their noise, don’t actually account for much in the way of sales (otherwise Plantation and Flor de Cana would have gone belly-up years ago). The mid range and bottom shelf is where the vast majority of sales to the public liethere is no significant, high-end premium market in existence (as there is, for example, in mechanical Swiss watches), just a marginal one.

What this means is that it won’t matter if famed famed distilleries and notables of the industry throw their weight behind artisanal rumsif the cost is low and the quality is good enough, the majority of rum drinkers (who know little and care less about the rum wars others fight on their behalf) will continue to not just go for Bacardi but a low end ersatz Bacardi copy at an even lower price. We won’t even go into the inevitable scourge of counterfeiting that is sure to start if any profile can be replicated at will.

This leads, then, to the possibility that the industry might for the first time require a global controlling body to set proper standards for production and labelling, national and international enforcement with teeth, and to find room for such a manufactured product that can separate it out and classify it in a way that makes its nature pellucidly clear. The dog eat dog nature of spirits production, so tied up in national pride and economics, has so far resisted this kind of move, but I submit that under the pressure of a potentially mould-breaking force, it may become inevitable.

Admittedly, I paint a blue-sky picture of massive disruption here, based on a technology that is far from proven and does not currently exist in the form I posit. So far, none of it has happened, and the earth keeps on spinning as it always has. And as others have pointed out, should such a process or the technology be perfected, it would make the bottom shelf better and the top end cheaper.

In any case, as has been constantly and comfortingly stated, people also do love the genuine article. I have heard no end of statements that people will always prefer the depth and rounded flavour and complexity of a natural, true-aged rum. And that’s completely truefor rums they can get, and afford. But what happens to rums that are out of production but desperately sought after? Rums made in limited quantities? That are too expensive? The Saint James 1885 comes to mind, and we won’t even talk about the Harewood House rum from 1780.

The technology’s research and the articles written about it, is currently and mostly aimed at two aspects of the spirits world: one, to provide an aged profile without actually ageing anything (for costs reduction), and two, to recreate old marks that can be sold for high prices (for revenue enhancement).

Rational Spirits with its Cuban Inspired rum, and Lost Spirits before them with their Navy, Polynesian and Colonial rums, went the route of re-creation. But that created a third additional issue not often articulated, which most commentators (who only focus on the first thing, ageing) never address. And that’s who to sell the recreated dead marks to.

It’s a reasonable question because consider: so few such “dead” rums remain and so few people exist who could actually describe the taste accurately (let alone write about it or have the nostalgia to get one), that you could just as easily do any old thing and say it was a faithful replica, call it “inspired” and who would gainsay you? At best such a duplicated re-creation owes its sales to marketing, curiosity or nostalgia. It’s not really geared or guaranteed to provide a long term market or massive sales. A duplicate does not become a sought-after classic. No aged replica could ever have serious street credbuyers would be unable to say it was genuine and pricing would be a problem. This thing such companies have, that they want to recreate halo-marks of yesteryear, lost or dead, therefore, strikes me as no more than a marketing game and ultimately a dead end.

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What this all in some way leads up to, then is my belief that the real potential of such a process is not in the duplication of past profiles, or even the faux-ageing that nobody will ever take seriously, can’t be proven and can’t be labelled as such. Today’s drinking class don’t give a good goddamn about some Farrell’s Montserrat rum from the 1950s, Trader Vic’s Appleton 17 YO, or even a Caputo 1973 recreation.

What buyers want is the new Chairman’s Reserve at cask strength for five dollars. They’re after a Velier-Hampden Great House or HV Port Mourant White for ten bucks, and even more, would like to buy entire Foursquare ECS range available for only a Benjamin. That’s the third, ignored side of what such as-yet unproven technology would really entail, and all these companies doing research on different ways to flash age, re-create, re-do or re-invent are promoting the wrong aspect of their work. They keep trying to recreate something that doesn’t actually exist any more and bottle their results as an “Inspired” version.

The true, unspoken, unseen, undiscussed killer-app of any process of spirits alteration is in the recreation of what’s popular now. The proof of the pudding is whether they can recreate current marks which people can buy in the store and know really well, and do it so well that almost no-oneconsumer, taster or expertcan tell the differenceand accepts the made product as indistinguishable from the real one. If the companies hustling to develop such techniques were ever to succeed at that, then they’d have my (and everyone else’s) serious attentionand upend the industry overnight.

However, so far that has not seemed to compute, so it’s replication and fast ageing that gets all the attentionand the real market disruptions I once thought Lost Spirits and all the other companies might herald, remain unrealized. For now, anyway.

And, as an old fashioned kind of rum guy who prefers the genuine article myself, I kind of hope it stays that way.