Ruminsky

Sep 212022
 

Part I was an extended discussion on the evolution and development and early efforts to create a comprehensive data seta databaseof rums. Not just current rums available now, but all of them, from all times, all eras, all countries. That it has never been done doesn’t make it any the less important…or dreamed of.1

To be sure there were some resources available, as listedthe problem was they were scattered, inconsistent, incomplete or did not have such a focus, and almost all that did gradually went dark because of the effort of maintaining them. Peter’s Rum Labels and Rum Ratings remain the best ones that are still live, yet they have limitations of their own. Sites like the American Rum Index and Australian Rum Index remain too small-scale in scope and rarely list rums at all; and review sites with real quantities of reviewsWhiskyFun (the champ with 1600+), the Fat Rum Pirate and this site (nearly a thousand apiece) — can only list rums that have been tried and to which there is access; still other sites like Barrel Aged Mind, Barrel Aged Thoughts and Single Cask Rum (which list issued rums as part of company profiles) only focus on what interests them, and are hardly exhaustiveand therefore there are gaps and fissures all over the place.

The time was therefore ripe for the next phase in such rum databases’ evolution: crowdsourcing and the mobile app. Already technology was moving to a point where solutions in other areas (where large volumes of data had to be collated) were seen as potentially applicable here, most notably that of setting up easy-to-use online infrastructure and letting the users provide the data.

Given the user-driven examples of Wikipedia and Rum Ratings in particular, the only real surprise is why it took so long for some enterprising rum aficionado to combine crowdsourcing with the increasingly headlong move towards portable devices and port the entire concept to mobile in the first place. Maybe it’s because app development is a young person’s game while the real deep diving rum chums are all old farts using desktops (like me, ha ha). The advantages of an app based on mobile rather than desktop (or laptop) technology are clear: in real time and usually on the fly, users provide the input, the content, the tasting notes, the scores, the production details, the label dataand the app or its owner acts as a middleman and moderator, curating the content for error checking, duplication and incorrect data. In this way the combined power of many creates a greater whole than any one person could possibly do alone and if crowdsourced edit and error correction gets folded in, well, you really have something here.

While Rum Ratings was the first application to take crowdsourcing seriously, it was geared for the larger screens of desk- and laptop, and hampered by the fact that the creator, for all the good intentions, was not so deep into the rum culture as to note the wave of consumer requirements and enthusiasm which would have made the website more useful. It was a hobby project that had great utility for a general rum drinking audience, but never stepped up to the next level to make it some kind of de facto leader in the field, or a standard of any kind.


The origin of the application that was and remains the closest to realising the vision of a publicly available, curated, and comprehensive rum database was actually notthen or nowcreated for that purpose. Like most programs, websites or applications that enthusiastic people slapped together in the past two decades with enthusiasm, gumption, gallons of coffee and too little sleep, its genesis was personal. Oliver Gerhardt in Germany was getting interested in rum, had a control spreadsheet to record his tasting impressions of those rums he had sampled, and a Master’s degree project to develop a mobile app: so he simply combined the two and came up with a small and very rudimentary application he called “Rum Tasting Notes”, which replaced his spreadsheet tasting diary.

Unsurprisingly for a first-gen effort where the basics and philosophy hadn’t been firmly nailed down yet, it was primitive. The database mechanism was clunky and at first very manually driven. The architecture lacked community ratings or a tasting feed, and there was only a very rough way to create tastings: if one wanted to record tasting notes it required manual fill of key data with no error checking. There was no true database in the backbone. The point-scale was between 1 and 10 with 0.5-point increments and thus covered only one fifth of today’s value range. But there were a few sliders, a scoring mechanism and a comment field, so the core features were already there.

After playing with it and expanding the facilities of the app for many months, he realised his pet project actually filled a niche that was imperfectly addressed by the existing sources available at the time. Perhaps others would be interested? In early 2018 he showed it to some friends and the app even as it was, was so well received that in December of that year he finalised the first version and uploaded it to the online app ecosystem, for free (it remains a free app as of this writing). Initially RTN was provided to the iOS app store, but an Android version was soon provided as well. At the time it had tasting notesfor that was the purpose of the appfor a total of 300 rums which had been cobbled together from his own notes, blogs, online stores and even books.

Although initially released only in Europe, several things caused the app to grow by leaps and bounds. For one, Oliver brought in several volunteers from the rum community to share it around, talk to fans about itsome, like Benoit Bail-Danel were well known and had good reputations in the field, so their word carried weight, and their social media posts and commentary accelerated the visibility and acceptance. Secondly, he added to the development team quickly: critically this was Jakob Schellhorn for product management and marketing, Marcus Rottschäfer for the recommendation engine and machine learning aspect, Vincent Kesel who played a major role in the development of the android version, Theresa Plos for her lovely design work, and other users and early adopters who provided useful feedback and acted as proselytisers for RTN. Clearly, then, the moment it went up as an app, commercial possibilities were being explored, and it was not going to remain a guy-in-a-garage thing forever.2.

And it didn’t, because it was constantly tweaked and redesigned as more functionalities were added, thought of or asked for. The name got switched from Rum tasting Notes to RumX in a major update in 20213. A website was set up for future expansions, where searches can be done. Both the recommendation engine and the tasting engine became more sophisticated; the latter allowed for both pre-defined words and manual fields; scores were made easier, and extra fields were added for new rums’ background details (a godsend to a guy like me). Error checking, data integrity and duplicate elimination was beefed up as rums were added, and continues to be scrutinized regularly (no rum gets added without being vetted first). And in mid-2022 the app was expanded to be available in North America.

Users could now, on the road and with minimum fuss and bother, add new rums and define where it was bought, basic details about it, whether it was a sample or a bottle, and how much it cost. Bar codes could be scanned in. Users could build a collection of their bottles, their tasting notes, their wish lists, interact with each other through a community feature, link to reviews and websites…the app has become something of a one-stop shop for all the things that individual sites once didlikes, discussions, bottle splits, shares, tasting notes, charts, scoring, and so onwhile seamlessly integrating the experience and making it easier. Plus, it was mobile, so people could use it in real time when they were shopping, scan bar codes into it to get and upload data, check out aggregate scores on the fly and, as time went on, even check out prices and shop online for their rums. People in a shop used to have to search for bloggersreviews to see whether a rum might be worth buyingthis app makes that an option, not a requirement, and it’s faster.

Of course, it’s not perfect: no app really can be and what one person likes might be an anathema to another. Adding a new rum on a smartphone takes time and is still something of a pain in the ass. Tasting notes icons for quick selection are not entirely intuitive (though the colour coding does help) and it’s not always clear what a slider or icon description might actually be for (e.g. “roasted”). It also lacks speed for multiple tastings and updates which a desktop version would assist. There are many like me who have hundreds of tasting notes and would like to add that to the database but it’s not feasible to do so. On a phone it’s just not going to happen: yet there is no facility to do so via an API upload or a desktop version of the program (as yet).


But circling back to the main theme of this two part essay, RumX’s influence and importance exceeds its user-friendliness and multi-functional abilities, to an extent not clearly appreciated by casual users, or even, perhaps, its creator. Most users, after all, just want to know whether to buy a rum or not, or what a bottle they have should taste like, or what others thought of it.

Whether by design or not, though, RumX has become far more than just a tasting notes diary, score aggregator, digital collection builder and rum collector’s app. It has become a central hub in the rum consumer’s ecosystem, connecting shops, reviews, scores, specifications, users and even conversations. And as time went on and more and more people adopted it and began adding to it, what it brought to the table was a digital, mobile tasting note app, reasonably easy to use, minimising the amount of typing and quick to update by the average user. Nothing we’ve ever seen has even come close to this kind of broad functionality. And this in turn has led RumX, not quite four years after its introduction, to already boast more than 13,000 rums in its database.

Just think about what that means. In 2013 I opined to a friend of mine that perhaps there might be 5,000 rums in the world. Ten years on, I know that it was a woeful understatementbecause having seen Luca Gargano’s 5,000-rum warehouse and knowing of Steve Remsburg’s 1,200+ rum collection, and considering the hundreds or even thousands of new rums that get released by old and new bottlers, distillers and indies every year, I’m aware that we are in very real danger of just getting lost in the wash. It’s too much, too fastno writer can keep up, not without help, time, sponsorship or fundingso to have this one resource that lists more than anyone else and has it available to everyone, is a huge benefit to the entire community.

For once, we have the facilitylimited, but still more than beforeto tap into the biggest single repository of rum bottling information that exists for the general public. At last we can tell if the Cadenhead VSG 73.6% 1990-2003 Guyana rum is real, or a mislabelled sample bottle, and not spend two days tracking it down. Individual reviewers and writers might deep dive into a single rum and put more info out there (and in better prose), and those who write informational pieces about distilleries, distillation, companies, personalities, styles, countries and so on will never be out of work. But in aggregate and for what it is, RumX is quite simply the biggest database and the best resource of rum bottling information out there that’s available and accessible to the general public. If Oliver and his team can find a way to upload bulk information or allow the inclusion and processing of data more rapidly by the reviewing sources who have been the backbone of the writing community for so long, I don’t doubt that RumX can top twenty thousand entries in another few years, easy.

And that serves all of us who want to know more about the more obscure older bottlings we occasionally run into, as well as the newest and bestest by the big names. Finally, it looks like after decades of trying, the ultimate rum database has been found: not in the basement labour of an unknown and unappreciated solitary rum lover who never shares because it’s never finished, butas it almost had to have beenin our own collective consciousness, in each and every one of us who love the spirit.


Other Notes

  • I could have made this a single essay and just added RumX as the last entry in the list of databases, but that would have meant shortening the info I had on the app (hat tip to Oliver, who provided much of it) and I felt it to be useful in and of itself.

Sources

Sep 182022
 

Since the very beginning of the distributed and engaged rumiverse, there have been movementsalmost all by individualsto catalogue all rums in existence. All of them came up short, failed, or were abandoned…though many, in hindsight, pointed to the desirable characteristics of some as-yet undeveloped system and encouraged the next generation of creators. Yet perhaps now we are on the edge of cracking the problem. This two part essay charts the beginnings of such projects, why they are important, and where it all seems to be leading.


For rum deep divers, researchers, auction houses, the curious, the writers, the inheritors of dusty bottles, for all these people and more, a good rum databasea listing of rumsis now needed more than ever before. A good database or website that catalogues rums would not only have technical detailsproducer, bottler, source material, distillation notes, dates, strength, age, additives, country or city or company of origin and so onbut link to secondary and tertiary sources, provide label photographs, list online review sites, available shopping sites, and have commentary. In today’s world where questions asking about this or that rum pop up all the time and with ever-increasing frequency, the importance of such a database cannot be casually dismissed. It can be used to gauge value, chart trends and identify purchases, if for no other reasons, but for me it’s because I know something of the simple human compulsion to just know.

Moreover, my own researches into company histories and the Rumaniacs Project showed that sometimes the bottlers themselves are no longer in business and so there’s nobody who can shed light on a bottle being queried; worse, in some cases existing companies themselves kept no records of what the hell they did. There was a Cadenhead rum bottled in 2003 which was practically unknown, to give one example; the SMWS’s lack of a list of the rums they themselves had issued was another, and I can assure you that almost no old rum-making company anywhere in the world has records of all its bottlings, blends, label changes or even markssuch things were either never deemed of great importance or simply left forgotten and unrecorded.


Books

There was a time less than a generation ago, when books were all we got, and we were grateful. Though not specifically created with the aim of compiling lists or catalogues except as an incidental by product of their researches, they immeasurably aided in such efforts. It was considered, with a kind of endearing innocence, a fairly easy task in the pre-Renaissance and pre-Internet era when most people knew at least something about Caribbean and Latin rums but rarely ventured further afield. Local rums in other lands and climes stayed local and developed their own national character, and at best it was world fairs and occasional newspaper articles over the last hundred years that allowed more knowledge to disseminate. Nobody ever really tried to collate or tie together the world of rum into a cohesive whole.

That said, these early books, when (or if) they made lists of rums at all, concentrated on geographical areas for the most part, and tried to gather some knowledge together with what limited information was then available. Excellent as they were in moving the subject of rums forward in the greater perception of the drinking world, however, they had several drawbacks.

For instance, the absence of reference or supplementary materials made it necessary for authors to do primary research, in person. Rum lacked the cachet of wine and whisky, where print magazines and newspapers had on-staff critics who were sent on the tab to major wine- and whisky-producing regions to taste, interview and record: in stark contrast, aspiring rum writers were a solitary bunch working in obscurity, and they had to travel and research and experience rums on their own dime. Unsurprisingly, therefore, they stayed within the confines of the regions with which they came from and which were accessible, primarily the Americas and the Caribbean; and they ignored the rich pickings to be held in other parts of the world (a weakness which continues to this day).

Moreover, by the time any book was written and then proofed, sent to printers and distributed, it was often already overtaken by new releases, and if not, became so within a year or two. Once printed they were locked, and so they dated fast. At the time, the majority of the rum market consisted of a sea of blends (only occasionally re-released, re-branded, or reformulated), and the era of multiple annual releases by a host of independent bottlers or multitudinous monthly batches by micro-distilleries, had yet to arrive: but, even with this slower pace of rum releases, no book could ever really stay current.

Ed Hamilton’s Rums of the Eastern Caribbean and Complete Guide to Rum from the 1990sboth based on his extensive travels and distillery visits in the regionhave long since become almost obsolete (thought retain much usefulness as snapshots in time), and even a more recent book like Martin Cate’s Smuggler’s Cove has a rum list that is at best representative, and is approaching its sell-by date as new rums and distilleries emerge on the stage. Other recent books like the French language Le Guide Hachette des Rhums (The Hachette Rum Guide) with originally 400 and now 550 entries, or Alexandre Vingtier’s more modest effort 120 Rhums are useful additions, but unless updated, will suffer similar fates. And the multi-kilo double-tome of the recently printed Caroni distillery history and its bottlings will surely have to have a companion volume to account for all the releases that will be made after 2022.

The original Encyclopaedia Britannica tried to address the same issue by printing annual yearbooks where they updated the content as best they were able. But aside from the Hachette guide, the writers of books on rum never went that far (and let’s be honest, why should they?) – they rested on their laurels as published authors and moved on to other projects. Even something as potentially useful as a summary-form Rum Bible (an equivalent to Murray’s work on whisky) was never written, because nobody was in a position to taste the hundreds and thousands of rums such a book would entail, even assuming they were known or available for tasting. In any case, any rum lists included by the various established authors were seen as adjuncts or extensions to their main work of description, story telling and historical recollectionnot the primary focus of the work itself.

Things started to change with the advent of the internet and the rise of enthusiast driven weblogs, which started around 2007. Most of the early efforts in this direction were rum reviews, and sites like Refined Vices, Rum Reviews, El Machete and others stuck with this formula until they went dark and were replaced by yet others doing the same thing. Websites were and almost always are, run by individuals, and such initial forays into the online world came from this pool of enthusiasts who did their best to create, as best they could, a repository of the rums they had tasted. Few went further, though some certainly did take it to the next leveland such sites often dispensed with the whole reviewing gig altogether, perhaps as they had to.


Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum Website

Possibly the most influential of the early rum-focused websites, the Ministry of Rum was launched in 1995 at a time when usenet groups and dial-up bulletin boards dominated the online space and user interaction. Windows 95 debuted that year and the Netscape Navigator had only been released the year before and the internet was a wasteland of disparate websites only gradually finding their way. Easy-to-use website builders like WordPress and SquareSpace were far in the future and Ed hired a programmer to create his website. He added a discussion forum for users, wrote some commentaries, added some articles, but for the purpose of this essay, it was his brief country distillery listings and the rums these distilleries produced which is of note. When I researched the early reviews of my own, it was often the Ministry that provided the first core data points of a rum’s origin, stills, strength, company background and other products they made. Sadly the site is moribund and most of the links do longer work, and there was never any structured table listing one could consult, so I actually have no idea how many rums were under the hood.


The Burrs: Rob’s Rum Guide, Ultimate Rum Guide, et al

This is what led to one of the earliest websites that tried to capitalise on the burgeoning rum scene of the late 2000s and early 2010s: the Burrs’ Rob’s Rum site, and the associated list of rums which topped out at 622 items (but which lacked many of the minimum provided details we now take for granted). The site was part of an overall multi-channel effort that tied into their various commercial enterprises, especially the Miami Rum Renaissance (which at one time was the premiere North American rum event). Their Ultimate Rum Guide (now offline, and ported to Instagram) was another offshoot of this approach and listed some rums and provided brief details. Unfortunately it was never scaled up or maintained, ignored far too many rums, was limited in geography, and I don’t think it’s been updated in a while. The efforts of the Burrs have been redirected to the American Rum Index, the Rum Minute (60-second tasting notes on You Tube) and other businesses in which they are involved. So the whole database “project” (and it never really was anything so structured or grandiose) really didn’t go anywhere and died for lack of oxygen.


Taster’s Guide

Another attempt which was much more serious was the (now defunct) site of Taster’s Guide, created around 2010 by a longtime correspondent of mine named Stefan Hartvigson from Sweden. Over time it amassed what for the time was an enormous listing of popular rumsit’s now dark so I can’t remember how many rums it ever had, but it was very detailed, and had many of the fields enthusiasts were to clamour for as the bare minimum in years to come: name, age, components, source, country, distillery, strength and if available, year of distillation, plus notes on each distillery and other rums they made. The site never got the acclaim it deserved because Stefana marine engineer by tradenever marketed it with that intent or did more than casually update itlike many such sites (including my own) the initial impetus for its creation was simply to catalogue his own purchases and info he picked up along the way. Gradually this grew legs and he tried to keep it going with an enormous body of research, but by 2015 he acknowledged that it was too much work for one person to do, and he let it go.


Peter’s Rum Labels

A site that defies easy categorization and is not a database in the strict sense of the word, but was and remains enormously useful and probably one of the best out there for what it is, is the Czech site of Peter’s Rum Labels, created and maintained in English by Petr Hlousek from Prague. It does not have a standardised database format, and doesn’t try listing anything. What it has is pictures of rum bottle labels, and data on each company that makes them, plus translations and “the fine print” on each label. This might not sound like much, but from a historical perspective its worth is incalculable because of the 9,785 label pictures he has from nearly 6,000 producers, companies and brands, many predate the modern era and provide a window on rums of years and decades past. Moreover, there are often small company bios accompanying each (the site is more or less organised by countries and producers) and even how many medals a company or its products won (though I think this ceased around 2010).


Rum Ratings

Then there was Rum Ratings, a website initially created to be a repository of tasting notes by Andrew Shannon, which went live in 2012. As a student in the UK he wanted to remember and catalogue the collection of rums he had left behind in the US as well as those he wanted to try in the future, and the site began life as a personal blog in which he kept his own scores. As he recounts, “Within days of launching, people somehow found the site and asked me if they could enter their ratings as well. It took a little work, but after I opened it up to others things just seemed to take off.” Even without any sort of deliberate or conscious marketing the site gained popularity, perhaps because it was the only one of its kind in the worlda place where people could fulfil their desire to record their own scores and comments of rums they had tried.

The site has come in for criticism (including by me on occasion), because of its populist ethos, something Andrew is correcting over time by bringing in links from external bloggers. The average scoring method is problematic when there are only a few ratings (it comes into its own with greater volumes), though the bar chart of score-distribution is great. The data set for each rum is also somewhat limited and as a rum lover I confess to always wanting more.

Yet I’ve come around to really appreciating this sitebecause alone among all the others it does get updated, you can post your own comments, and you can rate a rum, of which there are close to 8,600 as of 2022. Moreover, because it has been around for so long, it has opinions on rums that go back a long way, which is a useful window into the past (I made use of that when demonstrating why the Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva had to be considered a key rum, for example). So as a resource of archival material, it’s really very useful and should not be discounted simply because it is user-driven and lacks rigorous reviews or tasting notes. It remains in use, updated and non-monetized by a person with no development experience and no connection with the rum world at all and I continue to have a real affection for Andrew’s work, and use it regularly. (Note: there’s an app for it now, but I prefer the desktop version).


Reference Rhum

When it comes to pure data shorn of any externalities, perhaps the best pre-app, pre-mobile, pre-wiki website database of rums, which has now been offline for many years, was the French site of Reference Rhum (not to be confused with the sales page of that name which now exists, or the review site Preference Rhum). Reference Rhum was the last gasp of websites curated by a single person which sought to list all rums in existence, and honestly, I still think it did a bang-up job and came as close as anyone possibly could at that time, to nailing it. There were tons of stats for each rum, label or bottle photographs, distillery notes, distillation notes, proof, age, dates, names, sources. When I was doing bottle lists for some of the “Makers series” company bios, it was Reference Rhum I went to as my first stop. At its peak it had around 9000 rums or more listed with a level of detail no other site even came close to, except for Rum Ratings (and the two weren’t comparable). Sadly, the job of updating and curating the site became so onerous and time consuming, that the owner finally shuttered it, which was a loss to the rum community that is often not appreciated.


The position in 2018

By 2018 or so, whether acknowledged or not, it was clear to many that there was a huge gap in the reference materials available to rum aficionados globally with respect to actual bottlings. Books that were published and posts that were put up were all about rum companies and production details, historical perspectives and limited or specialised foci; and we were and are immeasurably enriched by the research of Matt Pietrek and the few others like Marco Pinieri, Anil Lutchman et al, who mine this lode. Yet aside from the imperfect examples listed above, no-one has ever tried to list all rums in production or those from the past, perhaps because the job is just so absolutely Himalayan in scope. And after my near complete failure to find any reference to that Cadenhead rum mentioned above even from the bottler, I began to realise this could turn out to be a very serious issue indeed for future buyers, fans, writers or researchers.

However, even as the internet widened and democratised the expertise of rum pundits (and their number), it became equally obvious that it was almost impossible for any single individual to create, curate and maintain a master database of this kind. Given the volume of rums and brands available around the world, and adding to that the historical one-offs, merchant bottlings, independent bottlers or special editions dating back (in some cases) centuries, it was simply too time consuming. It would require full-time effort, not occasional after-hours dabbling by enthusiastic amateurs. Nobody has that kind of time in our world, quite simply because nobody is getting paid to do it and it’s such a thankless job. A new system of such record keeping therefore had to be found to address the lack of any serious databases of rums in existence and the gradual move away from desktop computers or even laptops.

We’ll discuss the one application that tries to crack this issue, in more depth in Part II


Other Notes

  • The site of Spirit Radar is an interesting one. Registered in 2020 and run by a small team out of the Czech Republic, the site notes that it is anext generation data platform for rum and whisky collectors.They monitor auctions, online shops and ecommerce sites for historical and current bottle pricing information for rums and whiskies (some 60,000+, they note). The site is fully commercialyou pay for the data service and pricing information and have the option to do a free 14 day trial. As part of the data on each bottle, the sort of thing we needcountry, strength, age, distillery and so onis included, and there are options to create a bottle list of your collection, and the site shows its aggregate current value. Because of its collector and commercial focus and inaccessibility to the broad mass of users, I elected to not include itbut it is a resource of the kind this article speaks about.
Sep 142022
 

Based on really really true events, which may or may not be factual….

“A column still can produce this!” smirked Indy as he poured me a generous dram of the seven year old SBS Antiguan hooch and handed it over, daring me to refuse and making sure my head was bowed and cap reverently doffed. I imagine he would not have been displeased with some genuflection, so chuffed was heand otherswith this rum.

I considered my glass carefully, pen poised over the famed Little Black Book of Tasting Notes, trying to focus yet also look everywhere at once, because I was in the basement bar of The Proofing Room in London, there was a lot going around me at the same time, a ton of rum chums were in attendance, and the rum was quite a handful to unpack at short notice.

I had landed in the UK a few hours before (two hours late), scampered to my fleabag hotel, dumped my stuff, ran over the road to TWE to get some tasting glasses (shout out to Kelvin who was super helpful and fun to hang with in the short time I had there), then back out to meet the my vagrant itinerant friend Richard Nicholson (of NZ Rum Society fame) at the Black Parrot rum bar, and then, after sampling five or six rums, we high-tailed it over to the ‘Room where Kris Von Stedingk was magisterially holding forth on the new 2022 range of rums released by the Danish outfit of 1423. I was out of breath even before sidling in.

The joint was peppered with Visiting Royalty of Rum Geekdom: Dan Greifer was tending bar, Andrew Nicolls was feverishly making daiquiris with rum from his own brand of William George, Kit Carruthers of Ninefold was soaking up info and a glass with equal gusto, Keegan Menezes was down at the back, Indy and Jazz Singh of Skylark Spirits darting around making sure everyone had a charged glass, Vicki Ilankovan of Sated Online was mingling with her trademarked vivacity and energy, while others were calling hellos and pressing the flesh from all corners of the bar. And as Kris was in fine form with his presentation and we were derailing his spiel, Richard and I guiltily avoided his disapproving glare and snuck down to the back where the hoods huddle, and set up shop there.

I was glad it was the Antigua I started with, because that island’s distillery has been making great strides in its own experimental small batch production, dating right back to the work they were doing with the sherry cask edition back in 2016. What I had here was a rum they sold to 1423 – that Danish outfit, you’ll recall, which is part owned by Josh Singh, the benevolent buddha of badass we left at Paris’s Maria Loca bar in 2019 but who went AWOL for this one. Antigua Distillers not only produced the subject of my very first review (the 1981 English Harbour 25YO) but has a new high-congener, full-proofed rum of its own that is supposedly off the scale and which I’ve been lusting after ever since it was released. This rum was one of its progeny.

I tried to listen to Kris rattle off the specs for the rum because he was an interesting and engaging speaker, but the serious rum convo (i.e., the “party”) in my corner was so loud (which was all Richard’s fault, I swear, the guy is just so noisy!) that I could barely hear him, and evidently Kris couldn’t either because he shouted at us to pipe down in best Ratzo style“I’m workinhere!so he could keep with the program and inform the populace and maybe sell some damned rum. We all flipped him the bird and shouted cheerfully ribald insults, then shut up. I started nosing, and then scribbling. Even at play, the ‘Caner has to work sometimes, alas.

The nose of this kinetically powered 64.9% ex-bourbon-barrel aged rum was aromatic to a fault, and demonstrated once again that well assembled column still rums can be the equal of any other kind (even if just one barrel’s outturn). It smelled of vanilla ice cream, bubble gum, strawberries and an amazingly pungent mix of both light and heavier fruits like watermelon, green apples, grapes, peaches, and plums. Into this was interspersed more neutral aromas of bananas, pears and papaya, and a sort of rich whipped cream that would drive a cat to ecstasy. Even with the distractions of more rums, more mixes and the loud hum of conversation, I was able to appreciate a real mastery of the craft with what came out of that bottle.

All this went into the Book with some haste, because things were moving fast, and the bar surface in front of me kept filling up with more and new glasses that had to be guarded from the potential depredations of light-and-sticky-fingered rum enthusiasts (we are not known for respecting the finer points of personal property when it comes to the good stuff). Andrew, enthusiastic as anything, kept making more William George daiquiris (which were really goodbut even a tippler as practised at pilfering as Richard had trouble keeping up with the rollout), and because Kris was moving smartly along with his presentation, Jazz and Indy continued bringing more and more SBS rums to us back-bench louts. Brazil, Denmark, Jamaica, Venezuela, Guyana, French Antilles…we had a minor United Nations of Rum going on here. Every time they poured another samplewhich joined its partners on the countertop in front of me in an ever-expanding lineupthey observed how slow I was going, and regarded me with the sorrowful disappointment of skilled guilt-trippers“What, Lance, is what we’re doing here not good enough for you?” “You don’t like SBS any more or what?” and (more cuttingly) “Eh eh, bai, I thought you were a pro, man! (that stung).

I hastily concentrated on moving on to the taste, and here I must simply observe how vibrant and alive the rum was. Sharpof course it wasand hot, yet that dissipated quickly, and the tastes were at all times there, thrumming, compelling, well defined and completely solid. And there were lots of them. Tart fruits notes of soft yellow mangos, soursop, ripe gooseberries, strawberries, dark cherries and almost overripe pineapple started the party off. These were balanced by nutty flavours combined with unsweetened chocolate, caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee grounds and even a touch of herbs and spices (dill and cumin). Under it all was bananas and the creaminess of a sweet caramel latte which segued beautifully into a finish of epic duration, redolent of the sweetness of sugar cane, the muskiness of caramel and molasses, and the slight bitterness of freshly sawn lumber and ground coffee beans.

What’s amazing about the rum is how well it sips, even at that dramatic proof point. There’s no straining for effect, no sense of extra ageing or esterification added for your edification, no vulgar “let’s whip this out shall we?” backdam bragaddocio of codpieces compared (this sort of thing is left to visiting rum chums in seedy rumbars). It’s an astounding, amazing, astonishing rum, one where the initial experiments I tasted all those years ago seem have come to a kind of glorious fruition. I know the distillery has its own branded rums, ramped up, beefed up, torqued up, squirting esters and proofage in all directions, and I’ve been after those for ages. Until I get one of them, however, this will be a more than adequate substitute.

It was with some regret that I moved to other rums in the SBS’s lineup for the yearyet for the remainder of my time at the bar I kept a glass of this thing running, and eventually considered it the best of the lot, when it was all over. We laughed and talked and discussed rums and had a whole load of fun dissing each other, and finally the whole thing devolved into a raucous party and jam session which was then relocated to Trailer Happiness after we got chased out of the Proofing Room. Yet I remember this rum so well, even without the tasting notes. It showed that English Harbour’s Catch of the Day rum from 2018 which I had also enjoyed and continue to regard as an underpriced steal, had been no accident.

So, to wrap up this overlong “review” let me sum up for those who like it brief. SBS’s 7 Year Old 2015 High Congener Antigua rum is frikken’ phenomenal and I’m just annoyed with myself for not grabbing the damned bottle out of Indy’s hands when I had the chance. He might have decked me, and maybe I would have left the bar with head held high and feet held higher…but man, it would have been worth it to get this thing.

(#937)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Initially, based on the lack of disclosed detail on the label and the product sheet, I thought this was not a high congener rum but after the first posting, both Joshua and Kris came up to confirm that yes, it was. “There was no particular reasonfor the oversight, Josh said, but my money is on simple forgetfulness, because no sane marketing guy would leave such a juicy tidbit out. So anyway, I went back and changed the post a little and amended the title to make mention of the fact.
Sep 122022
 

As I remarked in the review of the Damoiseau 2009, there is an emergent trend for agricole rhum makers to make their white rhums stronger. This boosts flavours and intensity and makes for a drink or a mix that has the kick of a spavined mule, and because the rum is unaged, you are getting hit with all those enormous sweet grassy and herbal agricole-style tastes. That not only wakes up a Ti-Punch (or anything else you chose to add it to) but supercharges it.

To some extent I think that this trend is meant to capitalise on the success of the high ester Jamaicans like the Rum Fire, Rum Bar, Wray & Nephew Overproof, together with the realisation by various rum makers (who previously just went with lighter whites) that such unaged rumswhether from cane juice or molassescan be both stronger than the standard and way more exciting…and still people would buy them.

One such rum comes from the brand of Takamaka Bay out of the Indian Ocean islands of the Seychelles, which is a distillery founded in 2002 (it’s actually called Trois Frères Distillery), and from the beginning made rums from both cane juice and molasses. Their initial lineup had a brawling cane juice blanc which was in fact stronger than others available at the time (it was 72% ABV), and which for some reason they discontinued by the early 2010s. They replaced it with this one, three proof points lower and fully from molasses, for reasons that are obscure and may have to do with their major rebranding push around 2013-2014. It is part of their low end “Seychelles Series” of rums which includes infused, spiced and tinkered-with rums for the bar scene.

Now you would think that the producers of an overproof Wray-slaying-wannabe, which of course this aspires to be, would make every effort to ensure its product is packed with flavours of a fruit and candy shop and if it felt like being bellicose, pack itself with a nose the envy of a rutting troglodyte’s mouldy jockstrap. I stand here in front of you saying, with some surprise, that this just isn’t the case. The nose starts off okay, quite spicy, with notes of white chocolate, almonds, soy milk, creamy unsweetened yoghurt. Then it adds a bit of grass and cumin, a shaving of zest from a lime or two. A pear, maybe two, some papaya. But that’s about it. The rum is so peculiarly faint it’s like it would need to stand twice in the same place to make a shadow. This is an overproof? It’s more like slightly flavoured alcoholic water, and I say that with genuine regret.

Regret or not, this light faintness dominates the palate as well. It feels quite delicate (though always spicythe effects of that 69% do not entirely vanish), yet somehow feels less, tastes less, smells less, not just in terms of intensity, or power to originate tectonic plate movement in your facebut in the aggregate sensation. There’s so little coming at you. You get alcohol, vanilla, cream, pears, swank, and that’s if you’re lucky. A touch of lemon zest. Maybe a flirt of licorice, some salt, a light cream cheese on wonder bread. And that’s all. The finish tries to redeem that by being long, dry, coughing up notes of light fruits (pears, Thai mangoes, white grapes), but alas, not enough to save it. For an overproof at this strength, we definitely have a failure to communicate.

Whatever the motivations or economic rationales were for switching the original overproof (which I rated 84 points) from cane juice to molasses, dropping the proof and simplifying the blend, my personal opinion is that Trois Frères might want to rethink that, and maybe even re-tinker. The rum is a disappointment for fans of the company which has other expressions of lesser proof that are really quite good and sells bulk rum abroad which is sometimes even better. It lacks serious tastes for something so strong, it provides no oomph to enthuse the barkeeps and mixologists who are looking for original expressions to enhance their creations, and no incentive for casual drinkers who’re looking for a unique profile. I’m no doomsayer, but I do believe that if something isn’t done to up this rum’s game, it might just arrive DOA and expire in obscurity…and that’s a shame, not least because I didn’t come here to write obituaries.

(#936)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum continues to be made on a column still, from molasses. Its predecessor was from cane juice and I always suspected it had a touch of pot still high ester juice sneaked in. I had no such feeling here, obviously. The company website states that the current 38% “standard” Blanc does indeed have some of that pot still distillate added to it.
  • A biography of the company, last updated in 2021 can be found here.
  • The label has changed from the original 72% version, and its lesser-proofed successor which had a big “69” front and center on the label. I think this version was begun around 2020. The wordBaywas also dropped from the labelling at around this time.
Sep 082022
 

The Bacardi Añejo “Cuatro” hews to all the markers of the long-running Gold and Añejo variations upon which its distillery’s fame rests. It represents Bacardi in fine style, and those who pay the twenty five dollars or less it costs will find their comfort zone is well tended. Because, while it is a blend of mostly four year old rums (with some five and six year old rums mixed in), column still origin and filtered after ageing, the fact is that it represents the standards set by rums of yesteryear while positioning itself as an entry level almost-premium of today. Yeah…but no. There is not enough that’s original here.

Which is not to say it’s not pleasing by itself, within its limits, just that it has to be approached with some care, as it’s light to begin with, so the entire profile bends towards the subtle, not the club in the face. The nose, for example, is warm and gentle as befits a 40% light Cuban-style rum. It faithfully hits all the notes that made Bacardi famouslight caramel, cloves and brown sugar, some sharper tannins, tbacco and leather, interspersed with softer hints of banana, vanilla, green grapes, and perhaps some lemon and camomile tea thrown in. Easy sniffing, gentle nosing, very pleasant, no aggro, no worries.

The same profile attends to the palate, which begins with some spiciness, but of course settles down fast. It’s a bit rough around the edgesthe dry and sharper woody tannic notes don’t mesh well with the leather, aromatic tobacco and unsweetened caramelbut overall the additional vanilla, citrus and banana tastes help it come together. Some notes of black tea and condensed milk, a slight creaminess and then it’s on to a short, breathy finish that drifts languorously by, exhaling some sweet coffee and chocolate, a touch of molasses and freshly sawn lumber, and then it’s over.

To some extent the tasting notes as described say something about the pit of indifference into which the rum has fallen since its introduction. The issue is not that it’s good (or not), just that it’s not entirely clear what the points of it is. The gold or añejo of years past filled its duty admirably without going for an age statement, so why release the Cuatro at all? Because it could eke out a few extra dollars?

Summing up: the rum is okay, but in trying to be all things to all drinkers, falls into the trap of being neither great mixer not recommended sipper, being unsuited to fully satisfy either. For example, the filtration it undergoes removes the bite of youth and something of the biff-pow that a good mixing rum makes, and if that’s what it is, why not spend even less and go for the blanco or other even cheaper options? And at the other end, the age is too young to enthuse the connoisseur looking for a sipping rumfor such people, rightly or wrongly, sipping territory starts with rums older than five years, even ten…not four.

Had Bacardi boosted the rum a few more proof points, aged it a bit more, then they might actually have had something new, even innovativebut rather than show a little courage and diversify into the bottom rung of premiums, Bacardi have copped out and played it safe. Since the Cuatro is not completely anonymous and does display some character, I suppose taken on its own terms it sort of kind of worksso long as you know and accept what those terms are. I don’t, and couldn’t be bothered to find out, so it doesn’t work for me.

(#935)(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Opinion

These days, Bacardi rums just can’t cop a break. Ignored by most serious rum folk, relegated to consideration as a supermarket shelf filler without distinction, they are deemed bottom feeders that have corrupted the innocent palates of whole generations of broke and brainless college students and made them switch to whisky. Bacard’s very ubiquity and massive sales disguise their “good ‘nuff” quality, and have been behind its inability to be taken seriously in the modern age. From once being seen as the pinnacle of rumdom in the 1950s and ‘60s, the spiritous peak to which all wannabe rum distilleries aspired, the rums of the company have fallen to “commodity” status, while a decade’s worth of young and nimble indies and micro upstarts have taken aim at it and started to chip away at the edifice. And you’d better believe that just about nobody even bothers to rate (let alone review) their rums without an occasional scoff and guffaw. That’s what selling more cheap rums than just about anyone else on the planet gets you.

Which is not to say that Bacardi is in any danger of losing the coveted space on or near the top of the sales heap. The shyly accepted subsidies (“oh no, we really can’t, really….oh well, but if you insist…”) that are funnelled to them in the land of purportedly meritocratic capitalism via enormous tax breaks and the despised Cover-Over Tax, ensure that when a Bacardi rum goes up against any other of equivalent stats, the Bat will be orders of magnitude cheaper, even if it is of no more than equal or lesser value.

Bacardi rums have just about always been light column still blends (with some pot still juice of unknown amount in the mix). The company has never really gone the full-proof limited-release route (the 151 doesn’t really count and is in any case discontinued), and while they dabbled their toes into the water of the indie bottling scene, it made no sense for them to do it if they couldn’t do it at scalewhich they won’t, for the same reasons DDL more or less gave up on the Rares…the margins were too slim for volumes that were too small. Even the hyped special editions like the Paraiso didn’t break any seriously new groundsure they were good blends, but to my mind there was nothing that wasn’t available elsewhere for less, and that 40% and the NAS? Today’s customers will not blow the money those cost on a product like thatthey’re going after the boutique market, an area that I maintain Bacardi has never managed to successfully break into.

Except, in a way, they did try, with the trio of aged expressions of which the Cuatro is the youngest. To my mind, even with my rather dismissive tasting notes, these three rumsthe Cuatro, the Ocho and the Diezare among the better budget-minded rums the company makes. They lack the anonymity of the superior, the blanco, the gold or the dark (or variants thereof). They’re priced reasonably to move, and they have that veneer of true ageing about them. Given the lack of any ultra-aged high-proofed rums out there made by their company, these might be the best we can expect from Bacardi for a while.


 

Sep 052022
 

The French island rum makers take ageing in a slightly different direction than most of those elsewhere in the world. A normal Caribbean distiller (actually just about any from anywhere), will take a rum and age it and then issue a blend of X years, and then progressively older ones, year in and year out, with the occasional special edition thrown into the mix. You never know from the main line of El Dorado rum, for example, what year any of them came from, since that’s unimportantthe age is. Ditto for others like Jamaica or St. Lucia or South and Central America, who for the most part follow “the age is the thing” principle for the well-known series of rums they issue. If they release a vintage year, it’s mostly something of a one-off, and even there the age remains the real selling point (if the limited outturn isn’t).

Not so the guys from Martinique and Guadeloupe and Reunion. There, the idea that some years’ harvests or distillates are simply exceptional has long been an article of faith, and this is the basis for their own vintage releases, called millesimes. There, the age is not completely irrelevant but of lesser significance when compared to the specific yearand where that age is mentioned it’s usually in fine print, and it’s the year of distillation which gets the headline treatment and the Big Font. Which is why Clement’s 1952, 1970 and 1976 vintages are famous but you’d be hard pressed to remember how old any of them is, and ditto for the XO which is a blend of all of them.

The additional quality that makes the modern crop of such millesimes so outstanding (i.e., aside from the perception that the year of origin is so special, and what ageing they do get) is the gradual increase in the proof point at which they are issued. Back when agricoles were just becoming a thing and in the decades before that when only known on the islands and France, the ABV of 50% — give or takewas a de facto standard. Nowadays we’re seeing more and more really high proofed agricole rhums topping that by quite a margin, and they’re not only the whites, but aged expressions as well.

A good example of all these concepts is the subject of today’s review: a Guadeloupe rhum from Damoiseau, the millesime 2009, which comfortably hefts a large spiritous codpiece of 66.9% and whose age is mentioned nowhere on the label but is 7 years old according to all references. I’m seeing more and more of these hefty aged brawlers, and only rarely have I found any that stunkthis sure wasn’t one of them, and while the rhum does seem to be somewhat polarizing in the reviews I’ve read, me, I thought it was great.

Consider how it opens on the nose: admittedly, it’s very spicy, very punchy and doesn’t play nice for the first while. Some suggest it be tamed with some water, but I’m too witless for that and masochistically go for the full experience. Once the fumes burn off it wastes no time, and lets loose a barrage of aromas of rich tawny honey fresh from the comb, flambeed bananas (with the wood-flames still licking up), caramel, bitter chocolate, coffee grounds. And this is before the fruits come intart gooseberries, mangoes, green grapes and greener apples, vanilla. A combination of tart and sweet and musky, infused with cinnamon and cooking spices in a rich and sensuous amalgam that Mrs. Caner would likely swoon over.

As would be no surprise in something this highly proofed, the rhum displays a solid and almost fierce pungency when sipped. The agricole notes come out to play now, and one can taste sweet sugar cane sap; vanilla, pears, more of that burnt-wood-flambeed-banana vibe…and bags and bags of fruits. Pears, watermelon, ripe Thai mangoes, papaya, were the high points, with pastries coming up right behindapple pie, honey, vanilla, cinnamon, cumin, rosemary, and as if dissatisfied that this still wasn’t enough, it added coffee, cardamom, and french toast (!!). Closing off the whole experience is a finish of real qualityit is long, surprisingly soft, fruity, creamy, redolent of spices, lighter fruits, sugar cane sap and a jam-smeared croissant still hot from the oven.

This is a rhum that I could go on tasting for an entire evening. As it was, I lingered over at the stand at the TWE Rum Show with Chetan of Skylark and the vivacious Clementine of Damoiseau, pretending to chat and admiring Chetan’s virulent blue shirt (which he insisted I mention in my review so…) while sneaking a second and third pour when I hoped they weren’t looking.

The strength is part of the quality of course, but I honestly believe that even if it was released at a more acceptable (i.e., lower) proof point, this is a rhum that would have succeeded like a boss. The flavours are fierce and distinct and none jar or clash with any other. The rum tastes completely solid and is a drinkable advertisement for the skill of whoever blended the thing. It lasts a good long time, it’s not at all savage, and possesses such a gradually unfolding complexity, such a multitude of aromas and tastes, that you just want to take your time with it and keep it going for as long as you can. I may not always agree with the millesime approach to rum making but when it works as well as this one does, it’s hard to fault the reasoningand even harder not to buy a few bottles.

(#934)(89/100)


Other notes

  • Although I was and remain enthusiastic, take my opinion with some caution. Marcus over at Single Cask despised it to the tune of 69 points in January 2021, though on Rum Ratings, four people gave it a solid 9 (oddly, the standard proofed 42% version was more contentious, with five commentators each giving it a different score ranging from 4 to 10). On the other hand, The Rum Ration rhapsodized in 2020 that it was “one of the best rhums” he’d ever tried, and Alex Sandu of the Rum Barrel in the UKa notoriously hard markergave it a rousing 89/100 in late 2019. It will come down to your personal taste profile, to some extent.
  • There is a 42% version of this rum with pretty much the same label. As far as I know it is simply a reducer version of this one.
Aug 312022
 

Attending rum festivals is one of the most cost-effective ways of sampling a wide variety of rums you might not otherwise have the chance to encounter, as well as (and perhaps this is just as important), meeting all your friends and other folks you’ve only texted, tweeted or commented with over long periods. It’s not as riotous as a jump-up bottom-house, and not as staid as a formal tasting, but it’s almost guaranteed that over a few days you won’t be bored. Almost alone among major spirits categories, rum festivals are still modest enough for you to meet not just booth attendants and rum ambassadors, but actual owners and distillers of small startups (and many large concerns) who are happy to go to the nth degree about their rums, and often have something special squirrelled under the counter for those who show a genuine interest.

Since rum festival season is more or less upon usthe second half of the year has more, on balance, than the first halfit’s perhaps a good idea to assess exactly what attending any one of them is likely to provide, and more importantly, what to do once you get there.


Like other spirits expos, rum festivals are usually held on a weekend, and often comprise of three main elements: there are usually pre-and post-show get-togethers at bars around the city (or even in people’s homes, on occasion) that are enthusiast-driven and attended by aficionados of all stripes; then there’s the main event which is held in a large-ish hall where booths are set up for vendors and distributors to tout their wares; and within that event are somewhat more specialised ancillary “classroom” sessions. In the larger festivals there’s also usually a trade day (or half-day) tacked on at either end, where members of the industrydistillers, producers, distributors, buyers, agents, owners, journos and bloggersget to go in without members of the public around. This is less a matter of elitism as one of practicalityit’s difficult to talk business and do a hard sell when a long line of people are impatiently waiting their turn to take a snootful in front of a small booth with limited space.

The “ancillary sessions” I refer to above are almost always seminars and masterclasses and if you’re wondering, a seminar is an informative get together for anyone who’s interested with maybe a tasting tacked on, while a masterclass is exactly what it describes. This is why when Richard Seale goes into the technical details of the endochronic properties of resublimated thiotimoline it’s a masterclass (and usually leads to a thundering stampede for the exits five minutes in), while a run-through of six agricole rhums by a distributor is closer to a seminar.

All these events can be spread out over a week or, more commonly, two to three days. The recently concluded London TWE Rum Show was on Friday and Saturday with the Trade session between 12-4 on Friday and the public given access after 5pm, and 11am-6pm on Saturday. The Berlin festival, by contrast, tends to be 12pm-9pm Saturday and Sunday, with professionals or media people being let in an hour before either one. Most follow one or the other, or, like the Miami Rum Festival, split it up into two half days sessions in two different venues, one for seminars, one for tasting.

The Planning

What these facts point up, however, is the importance by a prospective attendee of at least some planning. Not all rum festivals have the same brands and companies in attendance, so it’s worthwhile checking out what they have to offer. For instance, Brit festivals (TWE, Manchester, UK, etc) would have a stronger representation of British-made rums yet be shy of American ones, while American shows would not have much from the UK and Europe, would probably ignore most agricoles and the Far East, while being stronger on local producers and maybe South America. Berlin has always had a balanced representation of both as well as Latin America, Reunion and Mauritius; and Paris has been best at cane juice varietals, agricoles, grogues, and obscure small distilleries from Asia. Just about all festivals have their local in-country star boys and major international brands from the CaribbeanEl Dorado, Foursquare, St. Lucia Distillers, Bacardi, Mount Gay, Flor de Cana, Hampden, Worthy Park, Appleton, Angostura and so on. Knowing these things helps you chose the rum festival holiday better, I argue, especially if one is not a resident of the city (or the country) in which the rum festival is happening. Fortunately, these days there are loads to chose from.

Secondly, with respect to planning, it’s always useful figure out in advance if any of the seminars or sessions held alongside the main event are worth your time (not least because usually you have to pay to attend, though the prices vary) and address an interest…or not. Booking in advance is recommended because seating is almost always limited, and popular ones sell out fastany session with Velier or Foursquare or Hampden tends to go quickly, for example, while something more esoteric like “Misunderstandings in the use of language regarding rum” can have you and the presenter having a good dialogue but not much else. I usually stagger the few I attend around both days to divide up the time, and find them particularly useful to provide a break in between very intense tasting sessions, as well as resting my feet.

Thirdly, as noted above, unless you’re okay with simply wandering around, talking to people and randomly stopping wherever it suits you, it is a good idea to know which specific brands and companies are exhibiting. There are several reasons for this. For one it helps you prioritise where to spend your time during a day when it is very likely you will be having more rum in a short period than usual. You may have an interest in Panamanian or Colombian rons, or French Island agricoles, or new American micro-distilleries, so would ensure you know those are represented and which brands are attending. Also, by the end of the day you’ll have a good buzz on and your focus won’t be top notchso tasting those rums you really want to try and talking to people who really interest you the most is best done while some of your faculties remain. It’s also good to remember that there are always some brands that are more popular than others and will always draw a crowd and it’s difficult to get close enough to talk to anyone, let alone get a decent pourtherefore finding them early before they themselves get tired and irritable at repeating the same schtick for the umpteenth time is a good idea.

The Process

If this is your first rum festival or your fifth, the rules are the same for all of us more experienced hacks. Don’t drink and drive and ensure you have your transport to home or hotel organised.

For experienced festival attendeesespecially those in Europe who have several good ones in close proximity (Paris, London, Marseille, Manchester, Berlin, etc) that are relatively easy to get to and are really top classit is no particular problem to get around, and I doubt the rules are different for other parts of the world, from Canada to Australia. As with all things, get a transport pass, have an Uber, or hang with folks you know who themselves know where they’re going.

Also, I strongly recommend eating something before you set out. And take a bottle of water with youmost festivals provide (or sell) water, but why take a chance? Normally a tasting glass is provided at the entrance, and if you can snag a second one, take it. Trust me, it helps. 1. And while this might sound odd, I’d really recommend going with a friend or two, or a small group. The experience is enhanced when it’s shared.

Once at the festival itself, one of the most important things to always keep in mind is that you will be there for a few hours at the very least (my personal record is seven) and be tasting a lot of rums, very quickly. Palate fatigue is a real thing, and so is intoxication, both of which derail the experience. Therefore, take it easy, take your time, and most of all, take small sips, and nose more than taste. Pace yourself. There are often black spittoons on or by all the booths so you can spit, and while I don’t use them very often, I know their utility and don’t think it makes me look like a rum snob at all. Spend as much time at a booth as you please, and talk to the (usually really friendly) people there, especially if you are interested in their products, because they’ll always be happy to tell you all about their company, how they make their rums, and small anecdotes that make it all interesting.

Drink lots of water, and stop whenever you feel like it to take a breather and have a snack or a palate cleanser (if available). Keep an eye on the clock in case there’s a master class you forgot about, because that’s really easy to do when you meet up a bunch of rum chums and get to talking, or are standing in a line at the food truck for a sandwich and are focused on that and not the time. I’ve made that mistake a few times and strolled in just as everyone else was leaving, asking me where I had been the whole time.

I say take tiny sips, and I mean that. The objective is not to get drunk, not gun back shots as if you were at a barthough getting at minimum a good buzz is a near-inevitabilitybut to be able to taste and enjoy the rums. Look around at the festival officials: girls and guys with lanyards and badges denoting staff, judges, guests, press, or exhibitorsthey flit from booth to booth like butterflies but stay relatively sober because (a) they try tasting only what they like and are curious about and (b) they take small sips (if at all) and take their time with it. With some practise, you can more or less stay reasonably sober and attentive and still taste stuff hours into the rum fest without completely blowing out your nose or palate.

One other point I should perhaps raise is that of keeping your ears pricked and your eyes peeled, especially at the larger festivals where it’s unlikely that you can try something from every single booth in the time available. Look for crowds, search for the brands you never heard of, the companies that are obscure (or from obscure places), listen to people talking, try and step back and take an overview to see where the new stars of the show are. There are always one or two new producers who are flying under the radar yet have a quality that should not be missed and which you’ll regret not having tried after it’s all over. Hampden and Worthy Park in 2017 at the German Rum Fest, Liberia’s Sangar a year later, the new Asian rums debuting in Paris in 2018 (Issan, Sampan, Laodi, etc), Lazy Dodo from Mauritius, Toucan from French Guiana), and the new British rum distilleries in the UK festivalsall these had small footprints at the time but were considered bellwethers of rums and trends to come.

Party Time: bars, events, afterparties

One of the best things about being a part of the greater rum community, is the camaraderie and friendship surrounding the participants at non-fest off-the-grid little events. There have been many enthusiastic posts over the years about the Barbados Rum Experience, for example, and various pub crawls at one rum festival or the other, or additional brand-sponsored tastings where one can hear whole dissertations on new releases. When the world agricole rum tour was being organised by Jerry Gitany and Benoit Bail several years ago, Benoit arranged an opening of the 250th Anniversary Saint James agricole rum at the Brandenburg gate in Berlin…at midnight. Aficionados who know each other through social media and commenting and memories of excursions past, sometimes have little parties of their own, or meetups in famed rum bars someplace (Trailer Happiness, Lebensstern, Smuggler’s Cove, Grandma Caner’s apartment, you know the ones), for everyone who feels like it to attend. These are often more fun than the fests themselves and my strong advice is, unless you have a reason for not doing so, attend as many as you can, and party hearty.

There’s no set rule for any of this and knowing where to go is mostly a matter of paying attention, plugging in, watching what influencers’ websites and social media say about what’s going onwhich almost demands being a member of various FB rum clubs or instagrammers who put their professional rum lives out there. Sometimes all it takes is keeping ears open for conversations at popular booths, or knowing somebody who knows somebody else who mentioned that their friends are going to this or that establishment at such and such a time….

These events are rarely, if ever, about tasting rums…though of course that features in all of them. It’s about hanging out with a bunch of like minded folks, and just talking, laughing, sharing experiences, and making new discoveries (“Man I tasted this rum the other day and it’s fantastic, here, check out the sample!) that may not have been considered before. I have the greatest memories of listening to Yoshi Takeuchi tell a hilarious story in a bar in Paris about being mugged in Marseille, of meeting Sly Augustin at Trailer Happiness in London (and being enthusiastically hustled behind the bar to meet his Guyanese cook), or of manfully trying to remove the obstinate metal sealing on a bottle of a 1930s Martinique rhum at an afterparty of my own while Jazz and Indy laughed themselves silly (the rhum turned out to be completely oxidised crap), or of Florian showing off a sample of the legendary J. Wray & Nephew 17 YO at Lebensstern (while chasing away a particularly persistent hooker) but then being told “Sniff only!” You simply can’t make sh*t like this up and the fact that I remember them so clearly says a lot about how much fun they all were.

Summing up

While I’m all for randomising the experience and just pottering aimlessly around a cavernous hall showing off booths in all directions, I honestly do believe that one can have the best and greatest experiences at fests, classes and surrounding events with a little bit of organisation in advance, some forethought on staying sober, and the complete willingness to just have some fun and go wherever the party is happening. Whether official tastings on a stage, or an unofficial get together in a sleepy bar at 2am where the rum is flowing and the conversation is cheerful, it’s an experience to be savoured.

And if your sleep gets interrupted and you go on short rations of energy and sobriety for a few days, well, isn’t that what it’s really all about at confabs like these? We must all make some sacrifices in the name of creating new and cherished friendships, and memories. I’ve got tons of my own, and that is why I wrote this, because there’s absolutely no reason you can’t too.


Other notes:

Aug 282022
 

[In the US] there are a small number of rum distilleries, and a large number of distilleries making rum, observed Will Hoekinga in our 2021 Rumcast interview, indirectly pointing to the paucity of quality American rum making. A corresponding remark I have made myself is that if the random picking of American rums to review results in just a minute percentage being really worth seeking out then the characteristics of the part can be extrapolated to the wholeand both together suggest that of the 600+ distilleries in the United states, only a handful are currently worthy of attention.

This is not a random pronouncement made without facts in evidence either, because after trying half a hundred rums with US branding, it’s clear that the best rums sold there are either imports from elsewhere by local indies (Holmes Cay, Stolen Overproof, Hamilton, Two James, K&L) or smaller distillers like Richland, Pritchard’s, Balcones, Privateer, Maggie’s Farm, or Montanya. For sure none of the big guns like Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Cruzan really go for the brass ring, being much happier to avail themselves of millions of subsidised dollars to make low cost rum of no serious distinction. And other rum makers like Kirk and Sweeney, One-Eyed Spirits, or Florida Caribbean Distillers contract out their blends and rums to other distilleries and can hardly be said to have a single world-shattering product in their lineup.

One of the best-regarded distilleries carrying the rum flag without mixing it up with other spirits (and getting loads of press for this and other more social aspects of the job) must surely be the small Colorado-based outfit of Montanya, which was established in 2008 and whose founder, Karen Hoskin, may be one of the most interviewed rum makers in the world after Richard Seale, Joy Spence and Maggie Campbell. Without even checking too hard I found articles here, here, here, here and here, dating back a decade or more, all of them displaying the same down to earth common sense, practicality and dedication to her craft that one sees too rarely in a land where too often the coin of the realm is visibility, not expertise (or, heaven forbid, a good rum).

Ms. Hoskin, who has loved rum for decades (the first rum she became enamoured with was in India in 1999 – I think she was visiting Goa), decided to begin her own distillery business at a time when her day job of graphic and web design was no longer of much interest. She and her husband set up the distillery in Crested Butte in 2008 with a 400-litre direct-fire Portuguese-made copper pot still1, and immediately began producing two rumsa Platino Light white and a lightly aged Oro dark; these two staples have been joined in the intervening year by the a limited edition Exclusiva, a 4YO Valentia, and a special 10th Anniversary edition. By 2018 their rums were available in just about every US state and they had started on a program of international distribution, especially in the UK and Europe.

The Platino which we are looking at today, is a lightly-aged, filtered, pot still white rum, released at an inoffensive 40%, without any additives or messing around, and it is based on a wash made from raw unprocessed sugar from Louisiana (i.e., unrefined…but not the “sugar cane” that some external sources speak of). Initially the rum also had a touch of caramelised cane juice honey added to it (which was always disclosed), but as of 2021 the practise has been discontinued.

For a company so otherwise forward-looking, I find this oddly conservative. For example, although there is an emergent strain elsewhere in the world, of making (if not showing off) white rums that are pure and unaged, it has yet to become a thing in America, where most white rums follow the Bacardi model of “filtration to white” after a short period of ageing. The rationale is that this gives the best of both worlds: some taste from the wash source, and some from the barrel, with none so stark as to overpower the cocktail for which it is made. This glosses over the fact that with industrial stills producing very high ABV distillate, the former is very unlikely, on top of which filtration also removes some of the very flavour elements distillers claim to be after. In Montanya’s case with the Platino, they have gotten around this by using pot stills so that more flavour is preserved at the other end, and a pine-based lenticular filter which removes most (but not all) of the colour, and yet not quite so much of the taste.

What taste does remain and gets carried forward on the nose, is, in a single word, intriguing. Though the rum is made from unrefined sugar, little of any kind of agricole style sap-profile comes throughinstead, what we get is a papery cardboard aroma of old and tattered textbooks…at least, at the inception. This is followed by quite a bit of funky sharp pineapples and sour fruithalf ripe mangoes, strawberries going off, some overripe oranges, that kind of thing. It gradually turns into a more solid smell that channels some cinnamon, vanilla and cardamom in a pretty good combination.

The palate just wants to keep the offbeat party going, and starts with an odd sort of minerally notelike a licking a penny, or tonic water searching for a limemixed up with the ashy charcoal of dying embers on a cold night (I know, right?). Once more the fruits ride to the rescue: mangoes, soursop, pineapples (again), plus pears, watermelon and papaya. There’s a touch of vanilla, figs and melons, and the whole is sparkly and light, with a more pronounced (but not overbearing) agricole-ness to the experience than the nose had suggested there would be. It all leads to a short finish, light and fruity with just a hint of brine and sweet buns hot out of the oven

My overall feeling, having had it on the go for the best part of an hour, remains one of real interestI’d like to try more of these; since all of Montanya’s production is small batch, the variation of the Platino over time would be fascinating to experience. This is not some cheap, easygoing, hot-weather cruise-ship staple, indifferently made and lazily redolent of the Caribbean’s standard profile of caramel, fleshy fruit and vanilla. We’ve had that a thousand times before and they’re too often all but interchangeable.

No, what we’re seeing here is traces of real originality. The Platino marries a sort of bizarre agricole-wannabe vibe with minerally notes, cereals and cardboardthen mixes them all up with sharp and funky fruits, as if it was playing its own obscure tasting game of rock-paper-scissors. In my reviews, a high score does not normally attend a light, white, living-room-strength, filtered rumone where a higher proof could emphasise its points more forcefullybut I confess to being somewhat seduced with this one. It’s really worth checking out, and if there ever comes an unaged version, now that would be something I’d buy sight unseen..

(#933)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The website is admirably stuffed with production details, of which I have only taken a few bits and pieces. Some additional details provided by a very helpful Ms. Hoskin on short notice:
    • Montanya does not use fresh cane juice, as it is too difficult to transport from Lula in Louisiana. It is milled on site in Belle Rose and the fresh juice is processed there. Montanya receives 100% of what was in the cane plant in two separate forms which are subsequently recombined: raw unrefined molasses (12%) and raw unrefined granulated cane sugar (88%). The major difference is that these cane products never go to the refinery, so no processing with flocculants or other chemicals. It’s as raw, unadulterated and flavorful as you can get (and is akin to the panela of Mexico, or the unrefined sugar in kokuto shochu in Japan). It would be illegal to sell it in that form in a grocery store in the US.
    • Fermentation is open, water cooled, and lasts 6-7 days. The fermented wash goes into the still at about 17% ABV
    • Distillate comes off the still at about 74% ABV. Ms. Hoskin remarked in her email to me, “People say that can’t be done with alembics, but I am here to say it absolutely can.
    • Barrelling is at still strength, no reduction. “[This]…is somewhat unusual. Many of my colleagues water their distillate down before it goes into the barrel at about 54 to 58% alcohol. I started doing it my way because I just didn’t have a big enough rack house, but now that I do, I can’t see any reason to change.
  • My appreciation to the Skylark gents of Indy and Jazz Singhthe distributors of Montanya in the UK and the EUat whose residence I tried this rum (and quite a few others) in a small but epic Rum Show afterparty. I paid for my plunder with some rum loot of my own, and a special gift for them both from Mrs. Caner.
Aug 222022
 

There are several worthy candidates for the claim of being the first one from Cuba. Havana Club 7 YO has been a really strong contender based on ubiquity and price, and the Santiago de Cuba 12 YO was also in the running for the same reasons. When one considers that the core criteria of the series is the Three ‘A’sAffordability, Approachability and Availabilityit would seem a slam dunk to say the HC-7 should get pride of place. Even the Havana Club 3 YO has had its adherents, though eventually I eliminated it based on several tastings and for its focus in the mixing circuit rather than it worth as a sipper. But the moment, there are several reasons why I feel the Selección de Maestros gets the nod for the first Cuban rum instead of the obvious choice, and ask you to walk with me on this one.

To begin with, it almost equals the HC7 in availability: over the last ten years I have travelled frequently and found the Selección in just about every airport and bar and spirits shop which I have passed through. Though America’s futile Cuban embargo remains in place after fifty years of failure, one can now bring rums from Cuba into the country as an individual, and it is gradually becoming known as one of the premiere Cuban rums, and classed as a premium product there and elsewhere. Since becoming widely available in the UK and Europe and elsewhere in the mid 2010s when it replaced its predecessor the Havana Club Barrel Proof (which I thought was really good as well), it has made a reputation for itself as one of the best Cuban rums outside of the special and limited editions premiums. There is hardly a discussion about Cuba’s best rums that doesn’t bring it up.


Initially the rum surprises with its restraint. At 45% ABV one expects somewhat more bite and aggressiveness on the nose (especially first thing in the morning), yet overall it is calm and unhurried, and as firm a no-nonsense nanny waking up the kids. It smells of sweet butterscotch, vanilla, some lime leaves and light breakfast spices. It retains a clean and crisp profile, redolent of olives, a slight bitter saltiness of old leather, and traces of molasses, caramel and brown sugar, together with a touch of coffee grounds.


Most reviewers who have run the rum through its paces seem to agree that if one excludes price, the Seleccion is simply one of the best rums in HC’s stable. On Rum-X it pips the 7YO by an aggregate of 3 points (71 to 68 as of this writing) and the gap is even wider in Rum Ratings with its longer history, where, of some four hundred respondents, ¾ rate it 7/10 or better (while the Seven gets more ratings, but fewer “high” points). The Fat Rum Pirate scored it four stars in 2014, Rum Gallery 8/10, and in a more recent review, Alex over at the Rum Barrel gave it 73/100 (about 86 points on my scale).

As a matter of historical and topical interest, the Seleccion rum is not that faux Havana Club made by Bacardi for sale in the US. That branda bastard offspring created by the appallingly careless lapse of theHavana Clubtrademark by the Arechabala family in 1973is a copy of the original, and made in Puerto Rico. This one is a true Cuban product, made on the island: it is distilled from molasses and run through a column still before being set to age, and this is where the skill of the maestros roneros comes into play, because here the rum goes through a triple ageing cycle. The first round of ageing to transmute the aguardiente 1into an aged rum then the second round of ageing in used oak barrels (the exact ones used remain unclear) and then the roneros get together like elephants sniffing the wind, chose the best of those and blend them to be aged a third time in new white oak barrels for a quick burst of new flavours to round out the profile.


On the palate the rum is tawny (if that colour could describe a taste). Light white chocolate with almonds, citrus, pears, leather and coffee grounds are the first tastes one gets, a fascinating melange of sweet, sour and salt. The fruits take on more dominance at this stage: raisins, kiwi fruits, papaya, melons, figs and prunes, an interesting combo of both light and fleshy fruits. Yet at no stage do the tannins quite disappear and they balance off these other notes quite well with some molasses, licorice, peanut butter and brine, never enough to spoil the experience. It all leads to a smooth, tasty finish that combines all these elements into a spicy, tasty conclusion where the most remembered notes are leather, smoke, salt caramel ice cream and some orange zest.


Based purely on how it tastes, sips or mixes, I have to give pride of place to the Seleccion as one of the key flagbearers of the Cuban pantheon, and regret it not a bit. This is just one of those times when I have to concede that going a bit upscaleinstead of sticking with the objectively safe choice dictated by the numbersis the way to go. It’s especially the case when one tries the Seleccion in conjunction with others of similar type: the quality is self evident and just shines through and sometimes the comparison is as stark as night and day.

Most likely some will note that the cost should disqualify the rum from serious consideration, and that’s a reasonable criticism for a Key Rum, which claims to represent a more egalitarian perspective of value for money, not being a “great” or “classic” ultra-aged legend of a rum with a three figure price tag. The difficulty I have with blindly applying the letter of the restriction, however (even if it’s my own), is not only staying within the spirit of the rules generally, but in the specific definition of what exactly premium or high priced means in this instance. An average American who may get a 1.75 litre Bacardi rum of good quality for the unconscionably subsidised price of less than twenty bucks, would perhaps consider a premium to start anywhere above $25, and an ultra-premium at twice that. A European with more access and more indie bottlings on hand (all of which cost more) might consider fifty euros to be a starting point. A rich retiree, or a freshly minted (and unemployed) uni graduate would have completely different monetary criteria, as would most of us.

So that is why, here, I argue that every once in a while we have to bend that rule, go a little higher, spend a little more, in order to get something of real quality. In a world where “free” seems to be the order of the dayfree internet, free social media, free samples, free reviewsit’s sometimes forgotten that real value costs something. It pays for the labour of people who provide that service or that good, and cannot always be just given away. The Havana Club Selección de Maestros is a truly premium rum that tastes truly good, but doesn’t cost a truly premium sum…just a higher one than usual. In the opinion of this reviewer, that extra price translates into a lot of extra premium, and shows, perhaps, that not all rumswhether or not they call themselves premiumcan be reduced to or by something as cold as numbers. Sometimes, it’s more about the experience, and here, that experience is wonderful and a reason as good as any and better than most, to call it one of Cuba’s contributions to the Key Rums of the World.

(#932)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • My thanks to Dawn Davies of the Whisky Exchange in London, who spotted me the bottle of this and the 7YO which I was able to try side by side to effect a true comparison at the 2022 Rum Show. I still owe her for both.
  • The rum is a blend of rums between 8 and 15 years old.
  • The labels have changed over the years but no full scale reformulation has taken place between batches. Some argue the taste is similar to the original Barrel Proof, as is the production methodology.
Aug 182022
 

Rumaniacs Review # 137 | 0931

It is becoming a working theory of mine that the heydey of the merchant bottlers and their near-ubiquitous minis of rum must have been in the 1960s and 1970s, bleeding over into the 1980s. Granted this may be because the majority of such rums I find stem from that period, I just don’t think it’s all a coincidence. Air travel and tropical drinks was a thing, hotels had well-loaded minibars, cruise lines stocked them everywhere and while I’ve never found that many merchant-bottler “indie” minis from pre-1960s or post-1990s, the auction sites are rife with little bottles from the era before the oil shocks and mass commercialization changed tourism. Nowadays wherever you go the small bottles are all global (or hyper-local) brands, not small outfits doing their own thing.

We’ve met Charles Kinloch, the bottler of this little Jamaican dark rum, before, They were behind the Navy Neaters Barbados-Guyana blend and the Guyana-only rum, as well as having a hand in the forgettable Dry Cane light rum we passed by in 2020. Founded in 1861, they suffered several changes in ownership before being dissolved in 2008 (see below for a more detailed backgrounder).

As to this rum, it’s from an unidentified distillery in Jamaica. That is not surprising, since it’s only recently that estates’ names became a selling point, once they began branding their own rums. But in the seventies it was all bulk rum and merchant sales and nobody cared about stills or estates of origin, merely that it was “Jamaican” (with perhaps only J. Wray / Appleton bucking this trend). The 70º Proof dates it to the pre-metric pre-1980s era. Beyond that, not a lot more, unfortunately.

Colourdark amber

Strength – 40% ABV (70º proof)

NoseHunh? This is Jamaican? Doesn’t really smell like it. Burnt brown sugar, molasses, plums and raisins. It’s rich and fruity for 40%, feels dusted with a little vanilla, so likely some ageing and a lot of colouring. An interesting point is the almost total absence of what we would term funk nowadaysthe bright, spicy, fruity notes that denote a spruced-up level of congeners.

PalatePlums, flowers, sweet dark chocolate, almonds, lemon peel and some light nail polish. Peaches in cream, light vanilla, coconut and again that touch of molasses

FinishWarm and comforting and surprisingly long. Black tea with condensed milk mixes it up with some molasses, caramel, and vanilla.

ThoughtsSimple and quite effective, yet I can’t shake the feeling it trends towards a Demerara. Perhaps it is and Appleton blend of some kind. Be that as it may, it’s really nice and I happily had a few more glasses that day.

(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

The rum is bottled at 95.5º proof, and the ABV conversion is not actually half that (47.75%) according to modern measures, but 54.5%. And that’s because originally 100 proof rum was actually ~57% and so the maths works out to true navy strength of 54.5%. You can read a brief explanatory essay on the matter to get the gist of it, or a more involved discussion on the Wonk’s site on strength (here) and Navy rums generally (here).


Company bio

Charles Kinloch & Son were wine and spirits merchants who were in existence since 1861, and formally incorporated as a company in 1891. They eventually joined the Courage Brewery group in 1957 – the Kinloch brand was retained, and they issued several rums from Barbados, Guiana and Jamaica (or blends thereof). Courage itself had been around since 1757 and after many mergers and acquisitions was taken over by the Imperial Tobacco Group in 1972, eventually passing to the Foster’s Group in 1990. In 1995 Scottish & Newcastle bought Courage from Foster’s and it changed hands again in 2007 when Wells & Young’s Brewing company bought all the brands under that umbrella. By then Navy Neaters had long been out of production, Kinloch was all but forgotten and the company was formally dissolved in 2008 after having been dormant for decades. The current holding company of the Courage brand name is now is more involved in pubs and beers in the UK than in rums of any kind. (As an aside, Kinloch’s building at 84 Back Church Lane E1 1LX, complete with a sign, is still visible on Google Maps’s street view – it was converted to apartments in 1999, but the sign remains).

Note: There is a German wine shop called Schollenberger established in 1996, which created its own line of spirits (starting with gin) and nowadays releases a Charles Kinloch branded blended navy rum, and a Navy Neaters, with a label that has many of the details of the original. It is unclear whether they acquired the name or are just using it based on the company no longer existing.


 

Aug 172022
 

When it comes to Australia and its rums, it’s likely that only two names immediately jump to mind (assuming you know of any at all and are not from there yourself): Bundaberg and Beenleigh. Both are relatively long-lived companies that predate many better-known producers founded much more recently in other parts of the world, yet it is only recently that awareness of them has climbed. Of course, this is in a large part due to association with or ownership by other major spirits companies with worldwide clout and visibility that can be leveraged, as well as social media trends.

Those two companies aside, however, few western consumers have tasted a wider selection of rums from Down Under. Australian rums don’t make it to rum shows or rum festivals (except in their own region) and pricing problems prohibit easy import or muling of bottles to and from the country, whether by distributors or individuals. But there is a vibrant and dynamic rum culture in Australia, and in the last two decadesparalleling the rum renaissance in the westa host of small distilleries has cropped up, almost all single- or family-owned enterprises that make small batch pot still production. Because of the lack of any blogger or writer or reviewer in Australia who has a broad-based international readership, little of this has reached the attention of the wider rum world until very recently, when Mr. and Mrs. Rum issued the 2021 Australian Rum Advent Calendar. For the first time a wide variety of rums became available for people to try, and it was my good fortune to get hold of a box.

I systematically wrote the reviews one by one, and while they are now done, the thoughts they engender about Australian distillery culture and the rums they make, are too many to fit easily into a single review. Granted that twenty-plus reviews is hardly a complete sampling of the entire country, yet I feel that the points that occurred to me as the process continuedand at the end when I was summing upare relevant in a more general context…more, at least, than just an observation on this or that distillery.

The first is evident from the tenor of the reviews: it’s something of a surprise how good the rums were (and are). Few scored below 80 points, and many were eye openers. I’ve tasted some really foul American, Canadian and Japanese rums which are thankfully not widely available, but here, small and local distillers I had never heard of before were making impressive young rums and cane juice spirits that held themselves up well even when rated against Caribbean rums of greater fame and heritage. Some were essays in the craft, to be sure, and in many cases the rough edges remained visible, the rums too young, the style not yet complete; yet I firmly believe that many will only get better as time goes on, and skills and technique get more refinedand hopefully they will get the attention and kudos they deserve.

The operations making these rums are, for the most part, micro-distilleries, and serve a regional market (some are only at a town- or state-level). A few large ones like Beenleigh and Bundaberg export abroad, but this is an exceptional situation. What characterises most of the distilleries that produced these rums is that they are either sole-proprietorships, husband-and-wife teams, or set up by a few friends, and while I don’t know anything about their financial situation, it seems to me that what they do is a personal thing, a labour of love, and their own funds and families and friendship networks are quite invested in the success of what is at end a small business that has some unique restrictions.

For one, they are hampered by the “ageing law”: rum may not be called “rum” until it’s been aged for at least two years in Australia, a law that has been on the books since 1906. Initially enacted to prevent low grade, poorly made, unaged moonshinewhich quite literally, could be and often was, lethalunscrupulously being sold to unknowing patrons, it is not completely a relic of rougher colonial times as I had thought. Alcoholism and abuse by both buyers and sellers is still a problem today and this is one reason why the law remains, and taxes on alcohol remain quite high.

The law’s intention (if not its ultimate effect) was and is to remove unaged full-proof rum from easy distribution to vulnerable segments of the population, though of course it only really affects legally established distilleries, not outback hoocheries beyond the easy reach of regulators, lawmakers or taxmen. But the unintended consequence of this is that one of the potential revenue spinners of new distilleries which need cash flow to recoup their substantial initial capital outlaythe sale of unaged white rum, especially if made from cane juiceis removed, as it cannot be sold as “rum”.

Inventive and agile distillers have gotten around this issue by releasing such rums as “cane spirit” yet undoubtedly sales are foregone by application of a law which has not kept pace with developments in the wider rumiverse, where such cane spirits are called rums. Elsewhere in the world, they also go by names like charanda, grogue, clairin, aguardiente or agricole and have devoted consumers who prize the authentic nature of the spirits produced in such a fashion. The problem in Australia as elsewhere, is, of course, that those not already into rum won’t make the connection between these varieties and “real” rum, which again impacts sales and hampers recognition.

The two-year rule therefore prioritises and incentivises aged rums and other spirits without such restrictions, and this means that for at least those two years (likely moreJames McPherson suggests five) no rum distillery can really make cash flow on rum alone while its stock is maturing. This requires Australian distillers to focus on other money-makers that can provide more immediate revenues: the most common of these is gin, which is why the gin varieties and volumes in Australia are so great. Unaged cane spirit is another. However, unaged bulk sales abroadwhere 10,000-litre or greater iso-containers are the normare usually not feasible, because volumes of rum which are distilled are relatively small, sometimes as little as a few thousand litres annually.

And it must be conceded that most distillers are in it to make whiskies, not rums, and like the American micro distillers I’ve mentioned before, rums are a sideshow, if not a complete afterthoughtthere are many more whisky distillers to be found on Google Maps than rum-focused ones, for example. Some distillers make yet other products in addition to gins and whiskiesspiced spirits, vodkas, limoncello, liqueurs, etc. But the consequence of all this diversity is very much the same as it is in America: focus is diluted and expertise is scattershot, and deep experience, while not absent, is thin on the ground and takes longer to develop than in an operation where it’s rum, and only rum that’s the first spirit of make (I’m not criticising distillersnecessary choices, only mentioning this is an inevitable outgrowth of the rules).

But seen from the outside, clearly there is talent and to spare in Australia and a genuine love of rums. After all, people keep drinking the stuff, and if it’s being bought, it’ll continue getting made. It didn’t matter whether it was a hundred-year-old distillery, or one established less than a decade ago: almost all the rums I tried were of good quality, with some real standouts. The size or age of the distillery had at best a marginal impact on qualityfor example, Killik (founded in 2019) had an unaged white rum was way better than the venerable Beenleigh’s 3 Year Old White, and Black Gate’s Dark Overproof (from a company established in 2009) was its equal though aged.

The key determinants of really good Australian rums seemed to be a combination of their proof points (stronger was mostly better than weaker, though not always) and the ability of their distillers to think a little outside the box, play around and go for something newthey pounced on niche techniques to seek competitive advantage. Since just about all the rums came from a pot still or a hybrid pot/column and had the 2-year age restriction (Hoochery’s Spike’s Reserve aged 7 years and Tin Shed’s Requiem at 6, were the oldest), it was fermentation and source material that helped carry the flag, and high scoring distilleries like Winding Road, Aisling, Tin Shed, Black Gate and Killik had points of uniqueness in their production methodology unrelated to ageing. Some used cane juice or syrup rather than molasses, others went into longer ferments or used dunder and relentlessly experimented to get “Jamaican style” rums out the other end, while still others played around with finishes and odd casks.

That said, a not unreasonable question is whether they display anything specific to themselves, something uniquely Australian that would allow someone with even a smidgen of experience to stand up straight and immediately identify a rum from Oz. After all, say what you will about the Bundie, one sniff of that thing and after you stop spilling your guts and recover your sight, you’d instantly know it for what it was, sight unseen. Are the ones I’ve been reviewing anything like that?

In my personal opinion, not really. In fact, the strongest impression I took away from this admittedly limited sample setand one which had been tickling me since I tasted the first indie bottlers’ Beenleighs years agois how modern and contemporary they tasted, and that’s both a compliment and an observation. While the quality was indisputably there, the tasted profiles often conformed to the formal regional “styles” already popularised by existing countries and their flagship distilleries. To put it another way, it was hard for me to try these rums blind (as I did) and not instinctively see Barbados, Antigua, Trinidad, Panama, or St. Lucia, depending on which it was. They have the same naturemuch improved by being fully pot still distillate, to be surethat makes them fine drinks, but not clearly identifiable as being from Australia. Even the ones that suggested Jamaica were like that (though more Appleton than Hampden or Worthy Park, it must be conceded). The most distinctive were the unaged agricole-style cane juice rums like Winding Road’s Coastal Cane, or high ester unaged rums like Killik’s Silver Overproof. Those you could tell came from someplace new, someplace damned fine.

Does this matter? Not entirely, because good rums are good rums and people will always gravitate towards tasty spirits that don’t break the bank. It’s only superdorks, ur-geeks and rabid rum aficionados (did somebody say “Caner! ?? Hush, ye snickerers) that make these superfine distinctions. However, for a more globally recognized Australian rum category to truly emerge will to some extent depend on being able to sway rum lovers the world around on not only quality, but uniqueness: because, why would anyone in the US or Europe buy an Australian-made Jamaica-style rum when the real deal from Hampden or WP or Appleton can be had more easily and for less? I honestly hope that a localised, Australia-centric style of rum will slowly come into focus because of such pressures, and a move away from already existing styles will help.

Wrapping up, then: notwithstanding all the remarks above, I loved these rums. Almost without exception, every single one of the samples in the calendar displayed a quality that for distilleries so small and often so young, was nothing short of astounding. They are not yet top-tier, bestest-of-the-restest, but damn, they did come close in places, they were good for what they were, and will only get better. The hard and often unappreciated workof so many individual distillers, so many obsessive rummies and their patiently eye-rolling spouses, who experiment without rest or reward day in and day outreally has achieved something wonderful in Australia. I hope to lay hands on more in the years to come, or at the very least more advent calendars as they become available. Because good or bad or indifferent or spectacular, it’s worth it to see a new rum region rise up, snap into focus and add new some fruit to the great rum tree. We should all be grateful for that, no matter where we live.


Further reading


 

Aug 152022
 

Diplomatico is one of those brands that seesaws wildly in the estimation of drinkers, has its determined detractors and equally unmoveable fans, and the opinion one gets for any of the rums in the range is very much dependent on [a] the stance said drinker has with respect to the purported dosage, [b] where they are (North Americans seem to like it more than Europeans do) or [c] what other drink they came to rum from (whisky drinkers will walk away, brandy and cognac fanciers will stick around). All agree though, that more transparency is needed with respect to any additions and until recently this was absent from the company website.

This rum originated somewhere around the mid-teens, I think, when the C-suite at Diplo took a look at the larger rumiverse and decided that their old stalwarts of the Traditional Rangethe Anejo, the Plana, the Reserva Exclusivaand even the upscale Ambassador line, all needed a facelift and some beefing up. New blends like the Mantuano and Seleccion de Familia were issued, the annual single vintage rum was spruced up (with the 2007 12 YO being the first that seems to have a real age statement on it), and in an effort to capitalise on the variety of their rums and their experience, they created a trio of rums that drilled right down to the nuts and bolts of their rums’ basic components. In the French Islands they did this with parcellaires; Diplomaticolike DDL and St. Lucia Distillersdid it with their stills and named them the Distillery Collection. The three rums in this Collection began to become widely available in early 2019.

Whether these new types of rum from an old house succeeded in raising awareness, boosting the casa’s street cred and increasing their sales is debatable. The rums were interesting if all you were drinking was other Diplos…not quite so much when rated by a more international, educated audience as had been developing since the turn of the century. Yet they were interesting, and after reviewing No.1 (“Kettle Still”) and No. 2 (“Barbet Still”), it left the No.3 “Pot Still” to considerbut at the time of release it was not available for me, then COVID struck, the world shut down, and it wasn’t until I spent a most enjoyable few hours in Dirk Becker’s shop Rum Depot in Berlin in December 2021, that I finally got around to trying it.

Like the others it was a blended 47% ABV, molasses-based rum, aged in ex-bourbon casks for around eight years, and I thought it was quite good, all in all. The nose started right off with a sort of brown, deep, sweet scent of caramel, to which was added light sandalwood and leather. A whiff of aromatic tobacco and florals crept in, and it displayed a nice rounded, easy smell, with complexity that seemed absent at first, but which simply took time to build and emerge. Although it nosed somewhat softly, after some minutes the whole was redeemed by the crisp clarity of light florals, orange peel and some nicely ripe white fruits like pears and green apples.

Tasting it continued most of the experiences already nosed. It tasted dark and leathery, with licorice, dried wood chips and a pleasant background of light flowers that balanced well. There was a slight lemony tang to it, the sort of thing sometimes gotten from freshly-washed laundry that had been dried in the hot sun, and behind that was raisins, pears, a hint of pineapple and strawberries, a quick flash of brininess, and the smooth taste of salt caramel ice cream. The finish was the weak pointfairly short even for the proof, and it mostly repeated what I had tried before. Some licorice, vanilla, citrus, leather, aromatic tobacco, none of which could quite elevate it beyond what had already come…but at least there was something there to notice, and it didn’t sink by being some milquetoast whiff of nothing in particular.

The rum is, to my mind, the best of the three Distillery Collection rums, and while it doesn’t feel stuffed with flavour all the time, it has a staying power and a gradually unfolding sense of complexity that is not to be dismissed out of hand. I think that one’s final perspective of the rum will depend on whether the persistent style which Diplo’s roneros could not seem to shake or get pastthat lightness, odd for a pot still rumis to one’s taste.

This was also what made the others less, for me: the No. 1 was intriguing if ultimately lacklustre, and as far as I was concerned the No.2 was nothing we hadn’t already seen from others, done better and costing less. The No. 3 Pot Still is better than both…but only by a little. It’s not that any of them were bad in comparison with Diplomatico’s own branded stableit’s more that they were not as good as the competition they were trying to take on. Only time will tell whether they feel confident enough to keep on releasing more of thesebut speaking for myself, I sure hope they do, because these are rums that have enormous potential and will please a lot of people even as they are.

(#930)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Each of the three rums in the Collection has an outturn of 5,000 bottles. I don’t know if that was all they ever issued or whether this is an annual production run (I suspect it was batch produced and no more was made).
  • As far as I am aware, nothing added here.
  • The picture of the still on the label suggests a double retort pot still. It apparently came from Scotland, was once used to make whisky, and was commissioned at Diplomatico’s facilities in 1959.
  • “Botucal” is the brand name of Diplomatico in Germany.
  • Heartfelt thanks to Dirk Becker and his attentive, knowledgeable and enthusiastic band of stalwarts in Rum Depot, who treated me with patience and courtesy the entire time I was there. Vielen Dank, Leute.
  • Alex’s review over at the Rum Barrel is worth reading, as well as Geoff’s review at the Memphis Rum Club.
Aug 112022
 

Without question, Black Gate Distillery’s “overproof” rum 1is one of the best of the crop of the New Australians that I’ve tried in the last years, and the standout of the 2021 advent calendar. It is a 52% pot-still molasses-based bag of bragaddocio, it sports an attitude, it’s big, it’s bold, and completely the sort of thing John Wick would have in order to finish off the evening in a style we can best describe as, oh, ”assertive”.

This is all the more remarkable since we’re talking about not only a relatively new distillery (founded in 2009) with relatively few products, but a rather young rumit’s three years old. Yet it deserves the accolade, because its aromas it displays and the quality of the first few minutes with it not only set the tone for all that comes after, but suggest there’s even better to come in the years ahead.

Consider how it opens: it’s, in a word, lovely. It blows right out of the glass, and reeks of rich red wines, plums, blackberries and cherries on this side of too ripe. It reminds me of the Tin Shed S.S. Ferret rum I looked at before but without the dusty, cereal, mouldy notes of an abandoned house. Here the house is in fresh paint and good nick, and you smell that glossy paint, varnish, furniture polish, acetones; and if that isn’t enough, the depth of the aromas provides morestrawberries, sorrel, the pungent smell of mauby. I got a well-remembered sense of my mom’s kitchen in Guyana just nosing the thing.

The palate doesn’t drop the ball in the slightest. The 52% strength allows the rum’s profile to be really robust, precise: it’s dry, with dark fruit bonded to crisp herbals, and solid initial notes of brine, olives and spicy miso soup. It’s around the edges that other fruits come out to playsweet Thai mangoes, apricots, cherries, raspberries, attended to by honey, salt, cloves and even a flirt of lemon zest and cumin. The finish is long and doesn’t introduce anything new, and functions more as a summing up of most of what came beforesome dark fruits, a touch of vanilla, red wine, caramel, sorrel, lemon zest and cranberrieswhich I assure you is more than enough to elevate this rum beyond the mere ordinary.

About the only thing you have to watch out for is which one you’re getting, because there are several bottlings under this name, and each set comes from a single aged cask (or two) with its own identifierthe rum I speak of here is from casks #BG081 and 82, distilled in September 2017, bottled in November 2020, and if my reading around is right, just about everyone who has had one of these overproofs really really likes it.

They’re right to do so. It is, I feel, a really fantastic young rum, and one can only wonder where it would be in another five years (or ten) if they had kept any behind to age some more. I know many reading this will prefer their old tried and true Caribbean varietals, but I can wholeheartedly endorse this new Australian expression. It’s as near to an exquisite badass as you can possibly get without being ten proof higher and ten years older. Too many rums we try these days are similar variations on old themes which have lost some lustre and originality, so it can be wonderful to find a rum like this, which finds a different way to tell the same story in a new and exciting way.

(#929)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Founded in 2009, Black Gate Distillery is located in Central West New South Wales, in the small rural town of Mendooran. Like most of the micro-distilleries of the New Australians, it’s a husband and wife operation wherein this caseGenise Holingsworth does the good stuff and makes the rum, while her husband Brian dutifully makes that other obscure drink and handles the maintenance aspects (he’s a fitter machinist and auto mechanic by trade). They sourced two pot stillsrelatively small at 630 litres and 300 litres capacityand work with food grade molasses, commercial yeast and water, to make their various rum expressions. All are small batch, which stands to reason when one considers that the rum output of the small operation is only about 2o00 litres annually.
  • So far, Black Gate makes various Dark Rums, overproofs mostly with different finishes or cask maturations, and one called Tawny. Aside from whiskies, no cash flow stalwarts such as gins or “cane spirit” seem to be made.
  • Rums are aged in Port or Sherry casks (or both) for a minimum of two years. This rum was aged for three years in two Australian port (‘tawny’) casks: one of 225L and the other of 100L. A more recent 54.6% edition of the overproof was aged for five years.
  • Labels are all the same for all these dark overproof rums no matter when made: the specifications are, in a clever bit of economising, white printed stick-ons.
Aug 082022
 

Long time readers of this site will know something of my movement away from softer Spanish/Latin style rons over the years. There’s nothing particularly deficient about many of them (only some), and I have a soft spot for quite a few. It’s just that I find most quite unadventurous, occasionally boring, sometimes added-tothough of course they all have their adherents and supporters who buy them and keep the distilleries humming. At most, one can cast aspersions on their escutcheon with matters having to do with disclosure and/or adulteration, something which companies like La Hechicera and Dictador out of Colombia, Malecon from Panama and Mombacho out of Nicaragua (there are several others) have often been the target of. That does not mean, however, that they’re all bad, and it would be a mistake to tar them all with the same brush of indifference and despite.

These thoughts occurred to me because I was forced to take an honest look at what these too-often mild-as-milkwater rums could do when done well, when I tried one that Bristol Spiritsone of the more venerable of the modern independentshad sourced from Venezuela. The exact distillery it comes from is something of a mystery (more on that below); and it is a column still, molasses-based spirit, aged 12 years in refill American oak (ex-bourbon and in both Venezuela and Europe), un-chill-filtered, unadded-to and released at a robust 47% ABV…which I suggest is somewhat uninspiring and which Bristol calls “just about right”.

They may be on to something there, because frankly, there is little to find fault with. The rum is crisp and tangy, with aromas jumping all over the map: initially quite fruity with scents of lemon meringue pie, pineapples, unsweetened yoghurt, bananas, it switches over after a few minutes and presents light caramel, vanilla, flowers and is light enough to present almost as an aged agricole-style rhum. It’s apparent simplicity belies an under-the-hood level of complexity I must confess to not expecting (which may be why John Barrett, Bristol’s owner, was smirking the entire time as I tried it).

Nose is one thing, though: and many rums of real olfactory promise falter and die on the palate. At 47% this is reasonable sipping territory, which is to say, it won’t try to defenestrate my tongue. Here, it must be conceded that the rum succeeds very nicely. It has a good mouthfeel; it’s tangy and a little sour, yet with a solid underpinning of caramel and chocolate oranges. Ripe Thai mangoes and peaches are in evidence, some light fruit, and here again, it feels like a firm and slightly deeper agricole rhum, musky, a bit tannic, slightly sweet. An interesting amalgam, all summed up by a shortish finish that showed off a last flirt of salt caramel ice cream with fruit bits sprinkled on top, a touch of light brine, some flowers, and it is over way too quickly.

So let’s talk a bit about Bristol, one of the stalwarts of the indie bottling ecosystem, a small company run by one man, John Barrett (he has recently brought in a young man, his son-in-law, to help run things). Bristol was established as far back as the 1990s, at the dawn of the modern rum renaissance, and if you really are curious, the Boys of Rumcast did a great interview with the man just a few weeks ago. Bristol Spirits, along with Renegade and Rum Nation, were the first indies I came into contact with that showed me the directions rum could go, and one of my best memories of the early rums I tried and wrote about, was the terrific PM 1980 25 year old that almost converted a dedicated single-malt lover to rums on the spot. Bristol Spirits has faded from popular acclaim somewhat over the last five years or so, as new, young and aggressive little indies from all over Europe claimed market share and eyeballs of social media, yet they never went away, and their bright and simple labels have been a fixture at many a rumfest where I skulked around, and I’ve never actually had a bad one from the stable.

Bristol buys barrels like everyone else, trades them and exchanges them and sources stuff here and there, does some tinkering, blending and ageing of their own, holds on to stock they like, bottles stuff they think is ready. With respect to this Venezuelan rum, in my opinion, they hit the sweet spot, because it’s very ready.

This is a rum that defies expectations (especially mine), and is one of the best Latin/Spanish heritage-style rums of my recent memoryin fact, it forces a reconsideration of what these distilleries can do, if juice like this becomes the norm rather than the exception it currently is. The strength is near-perfect, the notes shimmer in simple harmonies that speak of subtle and elegant arrangements which you can almost, but not quite, sense. There’s not a whole lot of oomph going onconsider it a serene chamber piece, not a symphonyand the level of complexity exhibited by a Hampden, for example, is not in evidence. Yet somehow it goes beyond all that, and at the end, it works, it tastes great and you enjoy it, and isn’t that what counts?

(#928)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The Distillery

The producer noted on the label is stated as being “Destileria Sofa” which seems straightforward enough, except that you’ll never find a distillery of that name in Venezuela (and believe me, I tried). Rum-X and various European shops make mention of italways with respect to this very same rum and no otherand some remark it’s located in the NE of the country. But that’s all you get. There’s no mention of the distillery on google, reddit, wikidot or any other resource I can consult…except for one, and so, your intrepid soused reviewer got on to Simon over at Bristol Spirits: he’s the guy who helps me out when Mr. Barrett doesn’t pick up the phone.

Long story short, it’s a distillery that makes a certain well regarded rum possibly named after a 16th century Carmelite nun, which has an association with Bacardi that prohibits it from using its own name on independent bottlings such as Bristol’s. So something similar to the “secret distillery” which Compagnie des Indes sometimes includes on its label, or how “A Jamaican Distillery” is used on occasion to avoid complications with the useage of a name like Worthy Park or what have you. Most of the time you’re given enough to work with, as I was, but I’ll respect the confidentiality in print and not come right out with the name.

All that aside, even though permission was given to use the name of Destileria Sofa on the label as the source for the rum, I still don’t actually know what that represents or means or where the name comes from, so if anyone knows any better, or can provide information from Venezuela, feel free to send it along and I’ll add it to these notes.


Other Notes

  • After this review went up, Mads Heitmann, who runs the Danish webshop Romhatten, commented that the rum was tested at 10-11g/L sugar which he later confirmed with Bristol Spirits. If this is so (I have an outstanding email to them) it won’t change the review, which is locked, but it would explain something of the slight voluptuousness and sweetness the rum displayed, even if not particularly unpleasant in any way.
Aug 042022
 

It’s been a few years since I last looked at Beenleigh’s Inner Circle rum from Australia, and while that iteration from around 2004 was the same strength as this one — 57.2% — there are several differences between it and the current version. For one, it is no longer named “Overproof” but “Navy Strength” (incorrectly, in my view, but maybe that’s just semantics), and uses molasses from three separate sugarcane regions along the east coast of Australia 1 to produce its own distillate from Beenleigh’s column and pot stills, while back in the day it was (supposedly) pot still distillate from Fiji. Too, the older rum was aged just about two years, and the new one sports fiveboth slept in ex bourbon casksand is now topped off with a smidgen of Beenleigh’s “best ten year old”. The green dot on the label, a heritage design item reflecting the strength of the rum, remains, which is nice.

All of this is fairly basic, and for those who want something deeper, I include more historical background after the review, including what the coloured dots are all about. For the moment, it should simply be noted that I had not been particularly impressed with the earlier Inner Circle Rum, commenting rather acidly that it was “as vague as a politician’s statements,” and was surprisingly mild for something at such a strength, with faint tastes that left me rather indifferent.

No such issues afflict this one, which asserts a formidable nose that reeks nicely of dust, sawdust, some acetones and a smorgasbord of fruits from all over the map. The aromas range from a mild raspberry yoghurt, squishy yellow mangoes, dark and ripe cherries, to a dusty and somewhat woody background dusted over with pine needles, some tannins, toffee and vanilla. Plus there’s ice cream, pears, coca cola and even some freshly-ground coffee beans, all of which is reasonably distinct, front-facing and not at all meek and mild.

The taste is thick, fruity and nicely aromatic, and just a bit spicyfor a five year old it is therefore entering sipping territory if one judges solely on mouthfeel and stays there if it’s taste that’s your criterion. First off there’s the thick herbal-sweet aroma of damp tobacco leaves, fresh coffee and very strong black tea into which an inordinate amount of condensed milk has been dunked (this used to be one of my favourite “food-drinks” as a student, and I remember it well). The fruits are also well represented, musky and sweet fleshy onespears, sapodilla, kiwi fruit, overripe bananas, and apricots. With some effort one can make out blueberries, vanilla and some chocolate, not much more, and a citrus tang is oddly absent throughout. The finish is quite pleasant and gives a soft send off, redolent of some brine, dark fruits, raisins, vanilla, cinnamon and a mild touch of wet sawdust.

Overall, it’s a pretty good five year old. While not a complete success as a sipping rum, it remains more than good enough for Government work: its minor drawbacks are the relative simplicity, some tastes that don’t entirely gel, and the occasionally rough heat which has not entirely been sanded down by the oak (it succeeds better with a touch of water to tone it down). Beenleigh has its own flagship rums and this is an old brand name with some heritage and history that came through a convoluted road to their distillery, so it may succeed better in Australia, where memories and tradition ensure a certain familiarity with the product, than in other countries which don’t know anything about it.

Other than that, there’s no real reason for avoiding the rum if a slightly different taste profile is what you’re looking for to wake up your latest cocktail, you don’t want to spend a huge amount of money to get something interesting, and are curious about an aged rum from Down Under. This one fits the bill nicely on all of those.

(#927)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Inner Circle’s website notes it is a pot still rum (“small batch pot distillation”) but other sites and Steve McGarry (lately of Beenleigh), contend it’s a pot-column blend that copied the original process that was historically also a mix of column and pot still distillates.
  • Limited outturn of 2700 bottles.
  • As always, my appreciation to Mrs. and Mrs. Rum for the 2021 advent calendar, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be another in 2022.

Historical Background

Inner Circle was originally made by a now-defunct company called the Colonial Sugar Refinery, which had a long history pretty much unknown outside its country of origin. Formed in 1855, CSR established refineries in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji by the 1890s, and in 1901 they opened a distillery in Sidney, using pot stills to make rums from Fijian and Australian cane. The Inner Circle brand name, which first appeared in 1950, came from the limited high-quality rums they made for distribution to the favoured elite of the company and its clients, and around 1970 it got a broad commercial release in Australia: at that time it was bottled in three strengths, which in turn were identified by coloured dotsUnderproof (38-40%, the red dot), Overproof (57% or so, green dot) and 33% Overproof (73-75%, black dot).

The distillery was sold off in 1986 to Bundaberg and the brand disappeared, though CSR remains as a company involved in manufacturing of building products, no longer rums. The Inner Circle brand was resurrected in 2000 by Stuart Gilbert (the Australian Olympic yachtsman) in concert with Malcolm Campbell, one of the distillers of the company who had the original recipe, and I believe they did so with the financial backing of the Australian VOK group, which also took over the Beenleigh Rum Distillery in 2003. The rums was un-retired and is now a Beenleigh product, thought it seems to be kept as a separate brand and line of rums from their regular releases, judging from their individual and separate websites.


 

Aug 012022
 

It’s been years since I looked at any of the rums of Barbados’s boutique micro-distillery, St. Nicholas Abbey. This is not for want of interest, reallyjust opportunity. Plus, I had enthusiastically reviewed most of the original three-rum 81012 YO lineup (later expanded to five with the additions of the 5 and 15 YO), and felt no immediate need to search for and buy and try progressively aged and more expensive expressions like the 18, 20 and 23 year-olds that kept on coming out the door at standard strengthsooner or later one of them would cross my path, I told myself.

As the years progressed they remained at the back of my mind, however, and after 2017 I got interested all over again. Because in that year they released the 60% overproof whiteand since I had quite liked the original 40% version tasted the year before, with its cane juice and pot still origins, intriguing taste and gentle complexity, I hastened to try the OP at the first opportunity (which came at the 2022 TWE Rumshow). The overproof white is, like its lesser-proofed sibling, made from rendered cane juice (‘syrup’) then run through the pot still before being allowed to rest for three months in inert tanks, and then bottledthe current crop of 40% and 60% whites derive from the same source, it’s just that one is reduced and the other isn’totherwise, they are identical.

The standard white I tasted in 2016 had teetered on the edge of untameability, and walked a fine line between too little and too much. It was original, yet still felt something like a work in progress where the final vision had yet to snap into focus more clearly; this one was quite a bit better and it wasn’t only the extra proof. The thing smelled like a whole lot more was in there: sweet vanilla, sugar water, raspberries, cherries, and very little of the briny paraffin wax and floor polish that had marked out its predecessor. That was present, I hasten to mention, just kept firmly in the background, allowing the fruity flavours and congeners their moment to shine.

The palate was also well assembled, and holds up well; creamy hot sweet vanilla-flavoured cocoa drizzled over a four-fruit ice creamlet’s say mango, cherry, cranberries and pineapple. It didn’t come with a ton of complexityit was not that kind of rumwhat I got was, however, more than sufficient for Government work, and it was firm and warm and intense enough that I could sip it and get something reasonably complex, and near-delicious without having half my glottis abraded. The finish was suitably long and near-epic, mostly light fruits in a salad, some breakfast spices, a touch of cumin, and a green apple slice or two.

Clearly St. Nicholas Abbey have not rested on their laurels since I first ran across their wares back in 2011, or even since I sampled the initial white they made. The profile of the overproof is one that continues to work well for a rum that can be both mixer and sipper, and it straddles the divide neatly. Best of all, it’s well made enough that it never seems to be a binary decision, but one that’s entirely up to the drinker and will satisfy either way, because it’s one of those rums with the “overproof” moniker that doesn’t have to be endured, just enjoyed.

(#926)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Previous reviews of the St. Nicholas Abbey range of rums provide most of the backstory to the estate and the rum-making operation. It remains (as of 2022) the smallest of the island’s distilleries.
Jul 282022
 

More and more, being environmentally conscious and paying attention to a sustainable agricultural business model is a determinant for any forward looking distillery that can trade on this aspect of its operations to make sales, gain visibility and win awards. What was once a minor aspect of production methodology has grown to the point where it is something almost every new micro distilleryand many major onesseeks to institute. More than just ethically correct, it’s good business.

Lord Byron Distillery (named after the 19th century poet who is arguably the world’s first modern celebrity) is one which ticks all these boxes. It is located twenty minutes up the road from Winding Road Distillery (and is closer to the beach), about 180km south of Brisbane in New South Wales. It was founded in 2016 by the husband and wife team of Brian and Helen Restall, who are both engineers, and from the beginning went with a zero-waste and fully-sustainable philosophy. Water comes from collected rain and natural springs; bonsucro-certified molasses once merely used as cattle feed is sourced from a farmer co-operative nearby, power comes from a renewable electricity generator, and distillery waste products are turned into liquid fertilisers and feed additives.

The distillery has two copper pot stills and a steel single-column still; the pot stills were both brought from Europe and are named Ada and Allegra (after Lord Byron’s daughters, I’m assuming) — they produce the usual assortment of gins, vodka, limoncello that make for cash flowand various cane juice distillates (sometimes double distilled) which are either sold as white “rhum”, spiced, and aged rum, always in small batches.

The rum we’re looking at today derives from the 2018 harvest and was bottled in 2021, so it is about 2-3 years old, and can therefore be called “rum” under Australia’s regulations. The exact barrel number is not noted on the sample, but bar batch variation between casks, I think we can assume that what is tasted of one rum from that year, is likely to be similar to all others from that year assuming all bottling was done at the same time. For the curious, it was aged in a 260-litre ex-red wine barrel, and another six months in an ex-port barrel, so it qualifies as double-aged instead of finished, I guessoh, and it came out at a solid 55.5% so the impression I get is that it’s made for real rum fans, not casual imbibers.

The rum and its distillery do well from a marketing and ethical standpoint; and it’s a fine rum to taste as well, even for one so young. The initial aromas arising are of cereals, cheerios, and dusty furniture in an old house, as well as (paradoxically) the plastic wrapping surrounding a new pair of leather shoes. There are few sharp notes of sweet and acidic fruits to be found here, so none of the sweetest offerings fo the orchard are on sale: however, one can detect caramel, figs, dates, sapodilla and a touch of brine and papaya. As it opens up, some dark raisins and lemon pie vaguely waft by, a touch of vanilla and aromatic pipe tobacco, but that’s about it. It’s quite enough to enjoy, I assure you.

Tastewise, no slouch either: it’s deeper and more luscious than the nose implied, with a dry kind of bite. It’s very warm but not a scorcher, presenting a solid first taste of brown sugar, salt caramel ice cream, and peanut butter. This dominates the profile for a while before giving way to some fruitiness of bananas, pineapples in syrup, cherries, and anise. A little oak, a little vanilla emerge, and the port-infused cigarillos are once again in evidence, which I suppose is the wine barrels making themselves felt. The finish is soft yet pungent, quite long, and without serious sharpness or aggro; the closing notes are a firm amalgam of bitter chocolate, caramel, vanilla, raisins and cinnamon, getting quite dry at the back end.

After all is said and done, the real question is whether all the organic, locally sourced, natural ingredients have a discernible impact on what gets poured into the glass. Our grocery shelves are filled with packaged food and drink that contain all sorts of additives, preservatives, binders, chemicals and what have you, that proponents of the organic movement say hides natural flavours. Can we detect such things in rums, and deliberately seek out the pure, the natural?

To some extent, I think so, and here’s a product that makes the case for such products quite well. Lord Byron’s rum is a two year old, double distilled, double matured, with nothing added, made organically, simply, and, like my homemade pepper sauce, with as few ingredients as possible. What we get at the other end when we taste it, is a limited smorgasbord of a profile, that does the neat trick of pretending to be less than it is, then providing more. It is, in short, a quiet little corker.

(#925)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

Jul 192022
 

It’s been several hard and somewhat depressing years since I’ve managed to leave the country, see some friends and drink rum in their loud, cheerfully disreputable, fun-filled company. This week is the first in what feels like forever, so no posts for the next week, no reviews, or essays or opinions. The ‘Caner is on vacation.

But just so you don’t feel unappreciated or without something on hand to pass the time, I’m posting this cartoon I’ve been working on for a few weeks in my spare time. Enjoy!

Jul 182022
 

To drink the still strength, high proofed “Bio” that Saint James distilled in July of 2020, is to be reminded what a distiller at the top of his game can do without even ageing his product. Yes, they’ve made the pot still white I was so impressed by in 2019, but to try this 74.2% growler immediately afterwards (as I did) is like running the bulls in Pamplona in one year…then coming back later when all of them had been replaced by a particularly aggressive bunch of wild Kenyan Zebus that had been fed a diet of diced tigers and enough steroids to father a nation. It’s that kind of experience.

Here’s a rhum that ticks all the right boxes, and then some. It’s a parcellaire micro-terroire rhum made with full attention to organic production methods, run through a column still and bottled as isno ageing, no addition, no reduction. What you’re drinking is what comes dripping off the still. It’s fierce, it’s savage, it’s tasty and as far as I’m concerned, the best unaged white I’ve ever tried…until I find the next one.

This kinetic whomp of proof hits you in the face right from the moment you pour the first shot, and so honesty compels me to suggest you give it a few minutes to settle down, because otherwise it bucks like an unbroken wild horse with half a pound of cayenne under its tail. And when you do sniff, its huge: brine, sweet soya sauce, cane sap, wet grass, and not just bags of fruit but whole sackspears, watermelon, papaya, guavas, apples, sweet Thai mangoes. It morphs over time and additional smells of iodine, smoked salmon, lemon juice and dill come to the fore, and more lurks behind in a sort of aromatic clarity and force we see all too rarely.

And this intense panoply continues on the palate as well. That it is lip-puckeringly intense will come as no surprise, and once that is over and done with and one adjusts, the rich parade of flavour begins and the rhum becomes almost soft: it starts with damp earth, brine and olives, continues onto vegetal herbs, grass, dill, rosemary, then becomes clearer and crisper with cane juice, crushed walnuts, lime leaves (a lime cheesecake is what I kept thinking of) and glides to a precise finish that lasts what seems like forever, a finish that is dry, fruity, sweet, salty, overall delicious…and possibly the best rumkiss of my recent memory.

What a magnificent, badass, delicious rum this is. Rums I like or want to get deeper into are usually kept on the go for a few hours: three days later this thing was still in my glass and being refilled, and I was guarding it jealously from the depredations of Grandma Caner who kept innocently edging closer, twitching her fingers and trying to filch some. Everything about the entire profile seems more intense, more vibrant, more joyful and it’s a treat to just smell and taste and enjoy when one has more than just a few minutes in a tasting someplace. Initially, when I had sampled this rhum at the Rum Depot in Berlin I had been impressed, and bought a bottle straightaway, yet with the time to really get into it without haste or hurry, I appreciated it even more the second time around.

And it also upstages what I thought were other pretty serious pieces of workSaint James’s pot still white, William Hinton’s Limitada and A1710’s Brute 66% to name just three. My serious opinion is that the beefcake of “Bio” points the way to rhums we may hope to get in the future; to try it is to be shown one of the most overwhelming, intensely tasty experiences that one is likely to have that year. And believe me, I honestly believe it’ll be worth it.

(#924)(89/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Background Notes

Some relatively new trends in modern rhum-making that this rhum epitomizes, is perhaps necessary in order to place Saint James’s “Bio” rhum in perspective.

One is the micro-terroire parcellaire approach to rhum production, where cane from a single small parcel or field or area of an estate is identified and harvested, and a rum (or rhum) made from that one area. Usually this is an experimental and limited run, meant to show off the characteristics a master distiller feels is characteristic and unique within that small plot of land. These days, most of the work in this direction appears to be coming from the French Island rhum makers like Neisson, HSE, A1710, Saint James and others like Renegade in Grenada, but for my money the first may have been the UF30E, if not the clairins from the micro-producers of Haiti.

This minimalist, small-batch approach also lends itself well to an emergent strain of sustainable, ecologically sound, carbon-neutral and environmentally friendly, organic or “bio” rhum productionwhich is still in its infancy, for now, yet gaining in importance and credibility. For rums, the term “certified organic” (and its variations) is not a mere catchphrase and marketing gimmick but refers to standard of production that today’s younger consumers take very seriously. Sales are built on such concepts.

And then there is ever-evolving rum-connoisseurship of the drinking classes, which, while once being perfectly happy with rhums and rums topping out at 50% ABV, now seems eager to go to the screaming limit. This leads to the curious (and occasionally amusing) race to the top of the proof pyramid to satisfy such demand, by producersnot all, but some. Ten years ago it was only independents and whisky-making rum bottlers who trafficked in such high ABV rums (151s were exceptions, for other reasons), but in the last couple of years the amount of rums issued north of 70% has ballooned and forced me to re-issue the Strongest Rums list not once, but twice, as new entrants kept getting added.

All of these aspects go into making the “Bio”, and may, as I remarked above, be a harbinger of rhums and rums to come. Cane juice is already considered a way to premiumize and mark out one’s products (high esters and “Jamaican methods” are another), and increasing proof combined with smaller production, limited-edition runs is here to stay. Maybe they will not go mass market, but for smaller distilleries they can sure boost the margin and the sales in a way the bigger global producers can’t.


Other notes

  • Outturn is 5900 bottles
  • It remains remarkably affordable at around €60
  • Thanks to Dirk Becker and the really superlative staff of Berlin’s Rum Depot for bringing this to my attention and allowing me to taste first.
  • The rhum is edging into 151 territory (75.5%), but by no means is the Brut de Colonne to be considered a Ti Punch ingredient, not least because there’s a lower proofed 40% “Biologique” made and exported for that purpose (and another at 56.5% for the islanders) – indeed, some of the blurbs I’ve seen specifically mention it is to be had for and by itself.

 

Jul 142022
 

Belize, until recently, had somewhat withdrawn from the epicenter of avant-garde and popular rum culture. Traveller’s, the main distillery in the country, produced soft Spanish-heritage-style rums like the One-Barrel, Three-Barrel and Five-Barrel rums and the excellent Don Omario (not sure if it remains in production), yet it was overtaken by the full-proof pot-still ethos that have of late almost defined quality modern rums for the deep diving aficionados and connoisseurs. That’s not to say Belize’s rums weren’t popularthey were, and remain so, especially to those who knew about them and liked the style. It’s just that in terms of wider appreciation and “must-have” collectors’ hunger, constant innovation, new expressions, relentless marketing and attendance at festivals the world over, Belize’s rums didn’t keep pace, and have lapsed into a sort of quiet somnolescence.

Two things have changed that view and helped raise the visibility of the country, more than a little. One was the establishment of the Copalli Distillery in 2016: this was (and is) a small, ecologically-minded organic rum maker utilizing sugar cane juice, and their small production outturn, while not reinventing the wheel, has received plaudits and good press (I have not tasted any…yet). In today’s world where environmental concerns, organic agriculture and sustainable practices are considered selling points and hallmarks of quality, the establishment of this distillery immediately created attention.

The other was a development in the USA, home of the micro-distilling culture that prides itself in starting up small outfits that produce every spirit known to man on their small stills (and are at pains to advertise a few that aren’t). In the US, strangely enough, and in spite of the success of Ed Hamilton, almost no indie bottler has ever bothered to establish itself as a serious endeavor to take on the Europeans: at best it’s an occasional one-off bottling that appears, like the Stolen Overproofand yet that strikes me as really peculiar, given the proximity of the Caribbean and Central American distilleries, and the opportunities this offers. In 2019, however, somebody didn’t wait for the second knock: a new company called Windyside Spirits was established by New Yorker Eric Kaye and his wife, specifically to support their Holmes Cay brand, and they went in with the intention of being a serious independent bottler in their own right.

What does that have to do with Belize? Well, in their first year (2019) Holmes Cay tentatively released a Barbados Foursquare rum (selected so they could do a first bottling that wouldknock it out of the park”) and it was so well received that they followed that up in 2020 with four more rums: from Guyana, Barbados (again), Fiji…and Belize. By now Barbados, Guyana and even Fiji were already well known and Belize was something of an outlier, but the combined street cred and positive word of mouth attendant on these releases certainly spilled over…and that small Central American nation was again being seriously considered as a rum maker of some note.


This rum was from the aforementioned Travellers Distillery, and the exact route it used to get to the US, whether via a broker and Europe or directly to the US, is unknown (the rear label suggests it was completely done in Belize). But clearly it went a long way, navigated the torturous byzantine byways of US regulations, and paid a lot of taxes, which is why it retails for a hundred bucks and more even in the US and that by itself might be an issue…to say nothing of the 61% ABV proof point, which would not recommend it to the casual fan of Captain Morgan or Bacardi. It is a column still product deriving from molasses, was aged from 2005 to 2020 in ex Bourbon casks and was released at full proof and without any additives or messing around.

What this produced, then was a dark reddish amber rum of some character. Nosing it for the first time was quite a kinetic experience: it reminded me initially of a full proof Demerara rum: caramel, toffee, molasses, marshmallows (slightly singed), vanilla, mocha, and coconut shavings. It took something of a detour by adding sly background notes of acetones, nail polish, a lemon zest, coca cola and even some licorice, and overall the impression was one of solid, well-aged, not-overly-complex rum of consistent quality.

The palate was (somewhat to my surprise) even better, though I was left regarding it rather dubiously and scribbling in my notes whether this was a Demerara or not and whether anything had been added. Some woody tannins were in evidence, slightly bitter, plus coffee grounds, licorice, damp tobacco, caramel, molasses and brown sugarI mean, it wasn’t, quite, but it sure had elements that a Guyana PM- or Enmore-lover would not be unhappy with. It also felt rather sweet (though not cloying, just a sort of background sense), and had a good bit of dark fruit action developing over time: very ripe dark cherries, black grapes, bananas, and dark unsweetened chocolate, all of wich went well with the toffee-caramel-molasses combo that had started the palate party.Ther finish, as befitted such a strong drink, was nicely long, mostly licorice, chocolate, coffee, and some tannins, a quietening down of that nose and palate, though one that did not add anything new, just toned it all down as it closed things off.


So for a rum chanelling the Spanish-heritage style (short fermentation, high ABV off a column still, flavour primarily by ageing), a bit on the odd side, but very nice; rums made in this way (even if by a former British colony) issued at proof have always excited my curiosity, perhaps because there are so few of them. That’s not to say this one works on all levels or fires on all cylinders because compared to others it is not quite as complexthe proof helps it get past that hurdle in a way that would not have succeeded as well as it did, had it been, say 40%. And then there are the taste and dark colour, which excite some doubts.

But I make that remark as a person who has tried more rums from around the world than most. For an American rum audience used slim pickings locally and to staring wistfully across the European rum shops, getting a rum like this must have been like a blast to usher in the zombie apocalypse. No additives, limited outturn, a tropical age statement of a decade and a half, single cask, and…was that really cask strength? The Belize 2005 took all the dials that rum-makers from Central and Latin America had consistently and puzzlingly left almost unturned for decades and spun them savagely around to “11”. As with the others in the line, the reviews it garnered were almost uniformly positive: Rum Revelations scored it 88 (“a flavour bomb”), Flaviar gave it a solid 8.0/10, Paste’s Jim Vorel penned an enthusiastic (if unscored) review, Rum Ratings’ three voters all said 9/10 and Rum-X had one reviewer award it 98 points.

All of which probably says more about the strength of the desire North Americans have for rums that are better than the standard blah they too often have to put up with, than the intrinisc worth of the rum when looked at dispassionately. But still: the Belize 15YO shows that there is something better than ten-buck supermarket fodder availableand while it may be pricey, it is worth it, and demonstrates that there is indeed a market for indie bottlings made by Americans, for their side of the Atlantic.

(#923)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The reputation Holmes Key developed with this and other rums almost instantly led to two episodes on the podcast RumCast (#2 for the Barbados, and #30 for the Fiji) and blurbs, reviews and articles in various industry fora like Paste, GotRum, Drinkhacker, Rum Lab, Wine Enthusiast, Robb Report, Forbes, and Esquire (to name just a few). No European indie ever got that kind of press so fast, ands it points outto me, at any ratea huge unmet demand for the sort of rums they make and the model they use to produce them.
  • In his review on Rum Revelations, Ivar also remarked on the caramel and winey taste and wondered if Travellers had monkeyed around with it. I don’t doubt HC themselves were completely above board when they said they didn’t, but on the other hand, they took what they got on faith, so who knows?
  • Thanks to John Go, who sent me a sample.