Ruminsky

Jan 242022
 

This essay is a companion price to the review of the Plantation 3 Stars White Rum.


You have to go back to around 2011 to understand something of the regard in which Plantation 3-Stars white continues to be held. Then, just as the renaissance of rum was gathering a head of steam, just as cask strength pure single rums were getting noticed, at a time when unaged white rums were hardly taken seriously outside the French islands, bartenders were faced with a dearth of workhorse mixing rums that weren’t just some boring column-still vodka wannabes.

They were working with and hobbled by holdovers from the 1980s and 1990s, when Bacardi’s light rums held more than half the global market share of rum, when flavoured and spiced rums were chasing flavoured and spiced vodkas in ever more ridiculous cocktails but when nothing was left to service the common standards except for cheap ‘n’ easy whites like the Bacardi Blanca … hardly the most original fare available. Such light rums provided a shot of alcohol, disappeared into the cocktail and left nothing but a cheshire grin behind to mark they were ever there, and almost all other whites for that purpose followed this model.

Into this gap came Plantation, a new and scrappy little indie rum bottler, who loudly blared the superiority of the whole secondary ageing and dosage business upon which their rum-making model rested (even then the stance raised eyebrows), and set out to make a new white character-driven mixing rum for bartenders, similar to what Ed Hamilton was doing with his Lemon-Hart-slaying 151 at around the same time. Plantation’s smartest move was to consult with bartenders, bring bartenders into the process of testing, and then market the hell out of the resulting blend to bartenders (and their bars). They did all that because they wanted to have early acceptance by those who would use it most, and for it to be versatile enough to be useful to those same people in classic cocktails like daiquiris.

What they finally came up with and released in 2012, was a blend of a 3YO Trinidad filtered white rum, unaged rums from Barbados and Jamaica, and a small portion 12 YO Jamaican, and this has remained mostly the same ever since (currently the webpage refers to it as being “a blend of Barbados unaged, Trinidad 2-3 year old, Jamaica unaged and a touch of Jamaica 10 year old”). The response was immediate and enthusiastic. The rum sold like hot cakes, it became a bar staple overnight, and the reviewers of the time gave it glowing encomiums, calling it “outstanding”, “an excellent cocktail rum”, “one of the best whites I ever had…”, and that it redefines white rum.”

It took until 2015 for the first and more indifferent review to hit the newsstands, and that was The Fat Rum Pirate, who rated it two stars and commented rather restrainedly (for him) that he wasn’t impressed and it didn’t blow him away in a mix. Few other website-based reviewers ever bothered to write about it after thatthe emergent Foursquare-Ferrand polarisation of the rumworld surely didn’t helpand these days you’ll get most opinions on reddit or RumRatings.

That wasn’t and isn’t really the whole story, though, because it suggests the rumworld remained static and no other mixing rums entered the fray. Had that been the case, perhaps the 3 Star would have held on to its position as a premier mixer a bit more.

But in the decade since its introduction, other rums rose to compete with it (if not actually supplant it). El Dorado’s own 3 YO is one of the better ones; and there is Havana Club 3 YO, Flor de Caña 4 YO White, Beenleigh’s new underpowered 3 YO, plus old faithfuls like Bacardi Blanca and Superior, or Don Q Crystal, a raft of indifferent Panamanian blancos. But the main thugs out to blacken the 3 Star’s eye are the Probitas/Veritas Jamaican/Barbadian blend released by Foursquare, the titanic twins of Worthy Park’s Rum Bar and Hampden’s Rum Fire (Appleton / Wray’s Overproof has always been around), the ever increasing footprint of young or unaged white agricoles, and, of course, the brutal clairins of Haiti which make killer daiquiris Plantation could only dream of in 2012. Against these flavour bombs, the rather meek-in-comparison flavour profile of Plantation’s 3 Star rum doesn’t bring much to the table any more.

Moreover there is an emergent strain of creative bartenders who are unacknowledgedbut very realnon-brand competitors as well. These gals and guys, with options on their shelf I could only have dreamed about a decade ago, are hot snot enthusiastic about creating their own “house” blends of rums from any number of pure base rums to which they have access. These are used made into concoctions that punch up aspects their creators want in their own cocktails or house drinks, that have bigger and bolder flavours and which take the best of all worlds into a single blended rum no other company is making. As Robin Wynne from Toronto remarked to me when I solicited his opinion, “You could probably blend El Dorado 3YO, RumBar Silver, Chairman’s Silver, Doorly’s White and come up with a better blend. 3 Star is safe, but I want flavour.”

Against these kinds of orcas snapping at its fins, you’d think the Plantation 3 Star is having a hard time holding on to its market position. But I argue that what it lacks in adaptability or boldness as a rum, it makes up for in its ubiquity, versatility and ease of use… and, not to be underestimated, its continuing affordability. I have heard stories about huge cash back incentives for bars, and selling at close to, or below, production cost to capture market share in that segment, while pricing it higher (but still affordably) in retail to give the illusion of value, but the upshot of such practices (if true) is of course to allow it to continually move cases, and to some extent to undercut the supplier distilleries who provide the cheap bulk but also make their own whites in direct competition, but at higher prices. It’s the Bacardi pricing model of the 1960s-1980s, the one that allowed them to dominate the Caribbean distilleries for decades, and kept them tied down as bulk commodity-level suppliers.

That aside, and like it or not, the rum can be used all over the place, and it is certainly priced to move, which are the very attributes it used itself to dethrone the white mixers that came before it. It’s competitive edge therefore arises from being a low cost “every-rum” that can be easily found, used a lot and has some chopsand in that capacity it continues to sell, be used, and drunk, in quantities that justify its production to this day.

Overtaken it might have been, but it hasn’t hit its sell-by date just yet, and it would be a mistake to count it out too quickly. It will likely continue to remain in service for the foreseeable future.


Acknowledgements

  • My thanks go out to Robin Wynne in Toronto, who gave me valuable insights and tips regarding the rum, others like it and the bar scene, and pointed me down some avenues I had not considered.
  • Also, hat tip to Gregers Nielsen in Denmark, with whom I discussed aspects of my thinking regarding the rum and who, as always, provided trenchant observations and critiques of his own.
Jan 242022
 

The Plantation 3-Star rum is part of the “bar classics” range of Plantation’s stable, which includes well-regarded rums like the OFTD, Original Dark and Stiggin’s Fancy. Of course the whole “3 star” business is just marketingit’s meant to symbolize three stars of the Caribbean rumworld whose rums from a part of the blend: Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados. This conveniently elides the stars of Guyana, Martinique, St. Lucia and many others, but ok, whatever. Ditto for theWorld Best Cellar Master” – uh huh. Still, Plantation’s webpage for the rum provides a nice level of detail for those who want more depth on what’s in there: briefly, two of the components hail from Barbados, meaning WIRD (pot and column still) and Trinidad, which is Angostura (column only), but it’s never been clear which Jamaican distillery made their part. Longpond, perhaps, since Ferrand has an association there 1.

Taking it for a spin and trying it, ten years after its initial releaseand after deliberately seeking it outI honestly wondered what the fuss was about and why people kept singing ecstatic hosannas to the thing (when not aggressively pressing me to try it). The nose, for example, struck me as too faint (if reasonably interesting): some vague hints of glue, burnt rubber, smoke, leather, a touch of tar, bananas and ethanol. I had to wait a long time for secondary aromas of pears, white guavas, papaya, and sugar water to emerge, and there wasn’t much of that to speak of here either. It seemed to degenerate into a lightly fruity watery alcohol rather than develop serious chops and character.

The palate was much nicer. It remained delicate and faint, but there was more to work with, somehow. Much of the nose translated over well (usually the reverse is the case, but here it was just…well, firmer). Sweet ethanol flavoured sugar water with a touch of flowers, pears and very ripe yellow thai mangoes. Watermelons and a strawberry infused water. Cane sap, some unsweetened yoghourt and perhaps a green grape or two, but if this thing had any serious Jamaican in here, it was taking a serious step back, because the funk some mentioned wasn’t there for me. There was some shy and retiring hints of nuts, vanilla and aromatic tobacco on the finish, which was nice enough…it’s an easy and reasonably tasty alcoholic shot to pour into whatever mix one had one hand, and can be sipped, I suppose, though it’s a bit too sharp for that, IMHO.

The wider rumiverse’s opinions on the rum vary, either falling into the camp of those who have no problems with a cheap cocktail rum being dosed, or those who do (the latter are usually the same ones who have issues with Plantation for other reasons). Few remark on the taste of the thing, but solely on that basis and ignoring all other aspects of the company, my own feeling is that it’s really not that special. After trying it (twice) I must simply say that while it’s a decent dram, it’s hardly spectacular, and though it got really good scores back at the time it was introduced, to chirp its praises now when so much other, better stuff it out there, is simply unrealistic.

(#878)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other Notes

Jan 202022
 

For years, Bundaberg was considered the Australian rum, synonymous with the country, emblematic of its distilling ethos, loved and hated in equal measure for its peculiar and offbeat profile (including by Australians). Yet in 2022 its star has lost some twinkle, it rarely comes up in conversation outside Queensland (where it sells like crazy), and another distillery has emerged to take the laurels of the international sceneBeenleigh.

Scouring through my previous notes about Beenleigh (see historical section below), it seems that even though VOK Beverages got a controlling interest in the enterprise back in 2003, they contented themselves with providing bulk rum to Europe (beginning with distillates from 2006 shipped in 2007) and servicing the local market. They were clearly paying some attention to market trends, however, because slowly their international recognition got bigger as indies began releasing Beenleigh rum under their own labels to pretty good reviews, and you could just imagine the glee of Wayne Stewart, Beenleigh’s acclaimed Master Blender (he’s been in that position since 1980, some 41 years, which is pretty much as long as Joy Spence over in Appleton), who knew how good his juice was and finally saw it get some well deserved recognition. Bringing in an engaging, technically astute, social-media savvy gent like Steve Magarry onboard as Distillery Production Manager didn’t hurt at all either.

And yet, as of this writing, almost the only rums from Beenleigh that are widely seen, are those from the independents like SBS, Rum Artesanal, TCRL, Velier, Valinch & Mallet, L’Esprit and others. Beenleigh itself is not well represented outside Australia yet, either in the EU or in North America (perhaps because they’re too focused on chasing down Bundaberg in the young-aged volume segment, who knows?) In that sense it’s a pity that the one Beenleigh rum in the 2021 Australian Advent calendar I managed to obtain, was one of their weakestnot the five or ten year old, not the barrel aged or port-barrel-infused, which are all at standard strength or a bit stronger…but the three year old white underproof bottled at 37.5%, which is part of the standard lineup.

The website provides a plethora of information about the product: molasses based, 3-4 days’ fermentation, pot-column still blend, matured in (variously) kauri (local pine) vats and brandy vats for the requisite three years before being undergoing carbon filtration. The product specs state 0% dosage, and I’ve been told it has some flavourant, just a bit, which is slated to be eliminated in years to come. Then it’s all diluted slowly down from ~78% ABV to 37.5% — which means you get a very smooth and light sipping rum that doesn’t hurt, or a relatively quiet cocktail ingredient that doesn’t overpower. It’s like an Australian version of the Plantation 3 Star, a similarly anonymous product that some people have an obscure love affair with and prefer for precisely those attributes.

This is a rum that is light enough that letting it stand for a few minutes to open in a covered glass is almost a requirement. A deep sniff reveals a very sugar cane forward scent, redolent of sweet and delicate flowers, vanilla, sugar water and a sort of mixture of tinned sweet corn and peas, a touch of lemon peel and more than a hint of nail polish, acetone and glue. Going back a half hour later and I can sense a raspberry or two, some bubble gum and a bare hint of caramel and molasses but beyond that, not anything I can point to as a measure of its distinctiveness. Even the alcohol is barely discernible.

It is thin, sweet and piquant to taste, smooth as expected (which in this context means very little alcohol bite), with initial notes of white guavas, unripe green pears, figs, green peas (!!), ginnips, and again, some lemon peel and vanilla. A bit of toffee, some molasses lurk in the background, but stay there throughout. It really doesn’t present much to the taster’s buds or even as a challenge, largely because of the low ABV. It is sweet though, and that does make it go down easy, with a short, light finish that presents some red grapefruit, grapes, unripe pears and a mint chocolate.

Overall, this is not a rum that I personally go for, since my own preference is for stronger rums with more clearly defined tastes; and as I’m not a cocktail expert or a regular mixer (for which this rum is explicitly made), the rum doesn’t do much for me in that department either…but it will for other people who like an easygoing hot weather sipper and dial into those coordinates more than I do. The rum succeeds, as far as that goes, quietly and in its own way, because it does have a touch of bitean edge, if you will, perhaps imparted by those old, old heritage local kauri pine vatsthat stops it from simply being some milquetoast yawn-through tossed off to populate the low end of the portfolio. It’s a drowsing tabby with a hint of claws, good for any piss up or barbie you care to attend…as long as you’re not asking anything too special.

(#877)(76/100) ⭐⭐½


Historical Notes

Beenleigh, located on the east coast of Australia just south of Brisbane, holds the arguable distinction of being the country’s oldest registered distillery (the implication of course being that a whole raft of well known but unregistered moonshineries existed way before that). The land was bought in 1865 by two Englishmen who wanted to grow cotton, since prices were high with the end of the US civil war and the abolition of slavery that powered the cotton growing southern states. Company legend has it that sugar proved to be more lucrative than cotton and so this was in fact what was planted. In 1883 the S.S. Walrus, a floating sugar mill (which had a distilling license, granted in 1869 and withdrawn in 1872) that plied the Logan and Albert rivers and processed the cane of local landowners, washed ashore at Beenleigh, empty except for the illicit pot still on board, which was purchased by Beenleighthey obtained a distilling license the very next year.

Through various vicissitudes such as boom and bust in sugar prices, floods that washed away distillery and rum stock, technological advances and many changes in ownership, the distillery doggedly continued operating, with only occasional closures. It upgraded its equipment, installed large vats of local (“kauri”) pine and organized railway shipments to bring molasses from other areas. In 1936 the distillery was described as having its own wharf, power plant, a cooper’s shop and all necessary facilities to make it a self-contained producer of rum. Some have been replaced or let go over time but the original pot still, called “The Old Copper”, remains in a red structure affectionately named “The Big Red Shed”) and is a prized possession.

Beenleigh’s modern history can almost be seen as a constant fight to survive against the more professionally managed Bundaberg distillery up the road (they are 365km north of Brisbane). Bundie has had far fewer changes in ownership, is part of the international spirits conglomerate Diageo, has a much larger portfolio of products and its marketing is second to none (as its recognition factor). Much of that continuity of tradition and expertise by owners is missing in Beenleigh, as is a truly long term strategic outlook for where the rum market is headingit can’t always and only be about low-cost, low-aged, low-priced rums that sell in high volumes with minimal margins. That provides cash flow, but stifles the innovation into the higher-proofed premium market segment which the indies colonize so well. Beenleigh could probably take a look at Foursquare to see how one distillery with some vision could have the best of all worldsbulks sales, low cost volume drivers, and high-priced premium limited editions, all at the same time. It’ll be interesting to see where this all goes, in the years to come.


Other notes

  • A very special shout out and tip of the trilby to Mr. And Mrs. Rum of Australia (by way of Mauritius). The Australian advent calendar they created in 2021 was unavailable for purchase outside of Oz, but when they heard of my interest, they sent me a complete set free of charge. After years of grumbling about how impossible it was to get to review any rums from Down Under, the reviews deriving from those samples will fill a huge gap on the site. Thanks again to you both.

 

Jan 182022
 

 

Shochu, along with awamori, is the oldest distilled spirit made in Japan, just about all of it in the south island of Kyushu and its surrounding islands, and so distinct that several varieties have their own geographical protections. It’s versatile, interesting, very drinkable, and is becoming even more popular than sake in the last years, especially in Japan, where most of it is consumed. And while the focus of my work is rum, and the point of this article is to highlight local spirits based on sugar cane, I must be clear that the cane spirit known as kokuto shochu is just one sub-type of the spirit.

1781 Map showing southern Kyushu and Ryukyu Islands (c) wikiwand.com

History

Scholars dispute whether the art of distillation came from Korea (due to similarities in distillation technology) or from Okinawa (liquor shipping records from the 1500s detailing cargoes from Okinawa to Japan date back at least that far), but in general it’s acknowledged that both routes are valid, and the only real unknown is which came first. Distillation technology appears to have been spread widely via the robust China sea trade in the late 1400s onward; and there was a brisk trade between Korea and Japan at that time that disseminated knowledge quickly.

Initially shochu appears to have been something of a rural spirit, made by fishermen at first, then moving inland to farmers and home brewers and this continued from its origin in the 1500s, through the duration of the Tokugawa shogunate. This is possibly one of the reasons why so many raw ingredients can be used and still be titled shochu, because until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 there was little or no regulationthe Restoration brought in formalization of rules, licenses and some measure of quality control (and of course taxation).

Most shochu was authentic or honkaku shochuwe might call it artisanal todayuntil the early 1900s when the adoption of industrial column stills led to the rise of a second style called korui. This is essentially mass produced alcohol close to 96% ABV off the still, which is then diluted down to below 36% (around 20% or so seems to be common), and is sold as a catch-all alcoholic drink, like an ersatz vodkait is this variation which is closest to the similarly mass-produced, cheap, diluted and near-ubiquitous Korean soju.

Honkaku shochu, for all its cachet as an artisanal spirit now, was for centuries considered a local drink not traded anywhere and only found in Japan; indeed, until the 1970s even within Japan it was considered something of a blue-collar worker’s tipple limited to, and almost all consumed in, the southern island of Kyushu and its surrounding islands.

Benisango kokotu shochu. Photo (c) Whiskey Richard at Nomunication.jp

Basics

First of all, shochu is a distilled alcohol, not made like and completely distinct from nihonshu, or sake (which is brewed like beer is, though it is not a beer itself); it shares close kinship with another uniquely Japanese spirit from Okinawa called awamori, while having its own special rules that make it, again, distinct (shochu is very much defined by how it’s made, not from what); honkaku shochu has no real relationship with the Korean drink soju (unless it’s the barely known traditional Andong soju) and should never be confused with it; and like aguardientes of the Americas, many different raw materials can be used to make shochu (fifty-plus, by some estimates), including but not limited to barley, buckwheat, sake lees, rice, sweet potatoes, kelp, green tea, flowers, mushrooms…and sugar cane. Each has its own peculiarities and naming conventions, and because this is not a primer on shochu as a wholethere are other, better and more in-depth sources and wikipedia for the curious deep diversI must keep things brief, refer you to the “sources”, below for further reading, and will concentrate most of this article on the one variation that is made from sugar cane: kokuto shochu.

Fermentation

The above points aside, several aspects of the drink are common to all varieties. All shochus have a dual fermentation system (awamori only has one, which is one of the main dividers separating the two classes of drinks): one fermentation converts starches into sugars and the other converts these sugars into alcohol. These are really multiple parallel fermentations, and starch conversion and fermentation to alcohol occur simultaneously from start to finish. Both use one of several kinds of a mold (fungus) called koji, which is also utilized in the making of soy sauce, miso, rice vinegars, sake and awamori, and the type of koji used has a discernible impact on the final flavour of the resultant shochu.

Kokuto means ‘brown,’ ‘black’ or ‘dark’ sugar (sources vary as to which is the true and exact meaning) and is akin to jaggery of India, or the panela of Latin America; now, since shochu deriving from sugar directly doesn’t require that first fermentation pass given that the base alcohol source (sugar) is already in existence, it would seem to be an irrelevant stepbut in Japanese tax law, to be called kokuto shochu, the first fermentation must happen, and must happen with rice koji. Failing that, the product must be classified and taxed as some other distilled spirit, like rum. Indeed, leaving out the first step is what the Ogasawara Islands did in the pre-war years when they first experimented with brown sugar shochu using a single fermentation cyclebut the war shut down production and by the time they restarted, the tax law had come into effect and they simply resorted to calling it rum, one of which I’ve actually tried.

Photo from wikimedia commons

Distillation

Shochus can be distilled in either multiple passes or single ones, and the type of still is not a disqualifier (though it can be a restriction). Multiple distillations from high efficiency columnar stills result in a more odorless high-proof spirit and is classified as korui shochu, “Class Abut it’s important to understand that this class is about process, and unrelated to quality. Korui shochus are usually made from molasses, potatoes or corn, and are distilled to 95% or greater and then diluted down to below 36%, always in large capacity distilleriesin that it has similarities with cheap rums around the world.

The more interesting variations of the spiritat least from my own perspective, given my interest in more artisanal cane spiritsare the Class B (Otsurui) shochus which are all the honkaku shochus. As with Class A, the most common base ingredients are rice, cane, barely, sweet potatoes, etc. After fermentation they areand must be, by lawdistilled only once, and only in pot stills. In the old days, many of these stills, especially in the smaller distilleries, were actually made of wood, including cedar (take that, DDL), but this is rare nowadays. Given the single distillation methodology and the still itself, the flavours are bursting out, even at the low strength at which it comes off – 45% ABV or less (if it were more it would no longer be honkaku and the tax breaks would not be applicable). For the rum aficionado, the drink is, essentially, almost tailor-made for taking neat, though it should be stated clearly that in Japan it’s usually diluted or drunk on the rocks.

Ageing

As with rum, the ageing of shochu can be short, medium or long: however, in a divergence from artisanal white rums which have such a strong presence in the rum world, completely unaged shochu is rare. Shochu can be rested or aged in steel tanks, clay pots, wooden barrels or large wooden casksonce it was rare for ageing to exceed three years, because then, especially with wooden casks of any kind, the shochu would get too dark and thus be deemed a whisky, with its attendant and different tax regime. However, in the last two decades this limit has been far exceeded, because at the three year point the shochu could then be labelled as koshu or “old alcohol” and can be sold for a higher price. There are now shochus as old as thirty years on the market (not necessarily aged in oak, mind you), almost all sold only in Japan.

As an interesting side note, ageing is not always or only done in warehouses or temperature-controlled buildings as is common elsewhere in the rum world, but occasionally in caves, tunnels and limestone caverns where variations in temperature and humidity are kept to a minimum. This is probably just a matter of available space, climate control and geographical convenience, rather than any kind of cultural tradition, but Stephen Lyman remarked to me that it is actually preferred by shochu makers, and some even excavate their own underground caverns to age their stocks.

Kokuto sugar (c) Chris Pellegrini, kanpai.us

Kokuto shochu specifically

Kokuto shochu therefore has all the above aspects in common with the other base-material varietals. It is, however, indigenous to and identified completely and only with the Amami islands off the coast of Kagoshima (between Kyushu and Okinawa, in the south of Japan) where there has been a long history of producing it from locally grown cane. So much so, in fact, that it is the recipient of a Geographical Indicator of its own. Amami kokuto shochu is made in any of 28 distilleries there, spread out over five islands and cannot legally be made anywhere else.

Originally part of the Ryukyu Kingdom of Okinawa, they were taken over by the more powerful southern Satsuma Domain in 1609, and turned the islands into one huge sugar cane plantation. For centuries they repressively discouraged the use of the valuable sugar being turned into alcohol (which could lead tohorrors! – losing revenue and distracting the workforce), but the privations of the post-war period when all rice was diverted from alcohol-making to a food source, brought kokuto sugar distillate out of the shadows and kokuto shochu gained some legitimacy at last.

For reasons to do with surplus stocks, politics and tax law in these post-WW2 years, special recognition was given to this type of shochu as ‘brown sugar shochu’ (so long as they used rice koji, and two fermentation passes) to develop the industry and the local region. The spirit remains thus recognized to this day, and is generally bottled at around 25-30% ABV (tax laws change at 25% for most shochus so that has become a sort of unofficial standard elsewhere, but kokuto shochu received a tax break for stronger versions that lasted until 2008, so 30% is more common there).

Aside from the requisite two-pass fermentation and use of rice koji, kokuto shochu is also different from regular rum in one other respectit can only be made from (a) kokuto sugar, which is unrefined sugar very high in mineral content (i.e., without any molasses removed or added back in as may be the case in the west), or (b) blocks of dried molasses deriving from that sugar, that are added to the rice-koji ferment for the second fermentation. So, no cane juice, no gooey molasses, no rendered sugar cane “honey”. If a Japanese distillery used any of these materials, a different tax law would govern production, and it would be classified as rum or a liqueurand indeed, in the interests of expediency, those few rum makers as do exist in Japan, prefer to go this route and produce what we would see as “traditional” rum like Cor Cor, Ogasawara, Ryomi, Nine Leaves, etc..

Photo CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Sales

Kokuto shochu (as are all other kinds) is mostly drunk within Japan and is not widely known outside it. Some eastern- and western-seaboard US states carry it, and there is a store in Berlin called Ginza (closed currently due to COVID) that I was unable to buy from, or visit to taste what they had. I imagine there are more out there. However, for the moment, the good stuff, the best stuff, all remains in Japan and is mostly consumed there.

Wrap up

Rum lovers are often fixated on just a few areas of the world: the Caribbean and South/Latin America; the new distilleries in Europe, the UK, and North America; and micro distilleries in Asia and the Pacific, plus the occasional nod to big ass industrial conglomerates like Tanduay and McDowell’s. South Pacific Distillers and some of the Pacific Islands are getting some traction. But underneath all these well known places and names coil smaller operations, artisanal ones that have a tradition far more interesting, and far older. They produce what is recognizably rum in a form that is distinct and interesting and broadens the understanding of the sugar cane spirit. Shochu is one of these, and it worth seeking out.


Other Notes

  • Macronshave been removed from transliterations of Japanese words used here, e.g. kokutō, kōji, and shōchū.
  • This article is meant as an introduction only, since the field of Japanese spiritseven if restricted to just cane-based onesis huge (and fascinating). Sources, below, provide additional recommendations for reading.

Sources

Jan 162022
 

DOK. The initials which have now become a word, have such a sense of menace. They have all the unfriendly finality of an axe thunking into an executioner’s block. And perhaps this was deliberate, because a DOK rum (I give a delicious shiver) is at the trembling razor’s edge of esterland, 1600 g/hlpa, something so torrid and intense that it is used to calm down cask strength neutral alcohol before being sold to Scotch lovers, and those only now getting into rum.

Richard Seale is famous for his exasperation about DOK-weenies and fangeeks who wax rhapsodic about these things, because he knows that such a high concentration of esters was historically there for a reasonnot to drink neat or rack up drinking brownie points, but to act as a flavorant to pastries, perfumes and cheap European rums in the 19th and 20th centuries (some of these uses continue). The taste of such a rum is so intense that it serves no sane purpose as a drink in its own right, and even in a mix it’s akin to playing with fire if one is not careful.

But of course, nothing will dishearten these spirited Spartans, for they, like your faithful reviewer, are way too witless for fear, and it’s a badge of honour to always get the rum that’s the biggest and baddest with the mostest even when the biggest ‘n’ baddest Bajan says otherwise: and so when one gets a DOK through fair means or foul, well, it’s gonna be tried, screaming weenies be damned. And I gotta be honest, there’s some masochism involved here as well: can I survive the experience with my senses intact and my sanity undisturbed? Does the Caner like rum?

Judge for yourself. I poured the pale yellow rum into my glasscarefully, I don’t mind telling youand took a prudent and delicate sniff. The strength was manageable at 66.4%, and I’ve had stronger, of course, but I was taking no chances. Good idea, because right away I was assaulted by the squealing laydown of a supercar’s rubber donuts on a hot day. The tyres seemed to be melting on the road, the rubber scent was that strong. Man, there was a lot to unpack here: porridge with sour milk and salted butter, sharp as hell. Creamy not-quite tart herbal cheese spread over freshly toasted yeasty bread. Glue, paint, turpentine, more rubber, varnish, acetones, the raw cheap nail polish scent of a jaded Soho streetwalker, and still it wasn’t done. Even after five minutes the thing kept coughing up more: sharp fruits, pineapple, strawberries, ginnip, gooseberries, plus paprika, basil, dill, and red olives.

And the taste, well, damn. Sour milk in a latte gone bad, plus glue, paint, acetones and melting rubber. Gradually, timorously, meekly, some fruits emerged: raisins, pears, unripe strawberries, pineapples, green mangoes, ripe cashews. Oh and olives, leather, brine and coffee grounds, more fruit, and I was thinking that half of me wanted to shudder, stop and walk away, but the other half was mordantly curious to see how long this level of crazy could be maintained before the thing ran out of gas. Truth to tell, not much longer, because after about half an hour it seemed to think I had been punished enough, and the intense pungency drained away to a long, spicy, dry but tasty finishI could give you another long list of finishing notes, but at the end it simply repeated the beats of what had come before in a sort of crisp and spicy summation that left nothing unrepeated.

Look, I’m not making up these tasting notes in an effort to impress by establishing the extent of my imaginative vocabulary, or how complex I think the rum is. Therein lies a sort of pointless insanity by itself. The fact is that those sensations are there, to me, and I have to describe what I am experiencing. That the rum is a smorgasbord of sensory impressions is beyond doubtthe question is whether it works as it should, whether it provides a good tasting and drinking experience, or whether it’s just a pointless exercise in dick measuring by an independent who wants to establish a repsomewhat like Rom Deluxe did when they released their own DOK at 85.2%, remember that one? As with that rum, then, I have to respond with a qualified yes.

Because it works…up to a point.

The issue with the rum and others like itand this is an entirely personal opinionis that there is simply too much: it overwhelms the senses with an undisciplined riot of aromas and flavours that fail to cohere. Admittedly, the boys in Germany chose well, and the Letter of Marque is not quite on the level of crazy that attended the jangling cacophony of the Wild Tiger…but it’s close, and here I suspect the ageing did take some of the edge off and allow a bit of smoothening of the raw indiscipline that the Rom Deluxe product sported so happily. Too, the strength is more bearable and so it works slightly better from that perspective as well.

And so, I have to give this the score I think it deserves, which is a bit on the high side, perhaps. It sure took courage for the Rum Cask company to release it onto an unsuspecting public, and there’s a lot of interesting aspects to this Jamaican rum: if one dilutes a bit, tastes carefully and with attention, I think a lot can be taken away. Most people aren’t like that though, and I suspect that if an average Joe was given this without warning, he might grudgingly praise the thing, but would hardly be likely to spring for a bottle the way a committed Jamaican rum fan would. Unless, of course, he wanted a rum that was demonstrably one of the the biggest, bestest and mostest.

(#875)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • Letter of Marque is a brand of the Rum Cask indie bottler in Germany
  • The rum was selected by bloggers Rumboom, Single Cask Rum and Barrel Aged Thoughts.
  • Distilled in 2009, this was some of Hampden’s first output laid down to age, when they reopened that year
  • 300-bottle outturn
  • A “Letter of Marque,” once called a privateering commission, was a document issued by a Government (usually the crown) during the Age of Sail to authorize a private person to attack ships of another nation with which the Government was currently at war. Essentially it legalized piracy by outsourcing naval guerilla operations to mercenariesprivateers or corsairsunder the mantle of the national interest. The 1856 Paris Declaration eventually ended the practice of privateering and the issuance of such letters worldwide.
  • On Rum-X, some thirty or so DOK rums are listed; clearly, whether we like it or not, these high-ester funk delivery systems are here to stay and as long as they get made, they will get sold, and drunk, and boasted about.
Jan 122022
 

Over the last years, one of the inescapable conclusions I’ve come to is that rums that dare to be different or faithfully rep their terroire without reference to others, will always and only get niche acknowledgement from that sliver of the rumisphere that knows and understands the varieties of rum and is not reluctant to try something on the blank edges of the map. Wider acceptance by the larger mass of the rum buying public, though…that may be harder.

This is perhaps why some of the more artisanal cane derived spirits of the dayaguardientes, grogues, clairins, charandas, kokuto shochu, even cachaçasstruggle to find mainstream acceptance outside their limited areas of origin. It’s no accident that perhaps the most popular and well-known of the Japanese rum makers, Nine Leaves, holds the distinction of being popular and well-known not just because of good marketing, but because Takeuchi-san’s rums are the most approachable to a “western” palate, in a way the country’s other sugar cane spirits are not.

I begin with this comment because a similar train of thought went through my mind as I tried what I honestly believe to be one of the best of the Brazilian company Novo Fogo’s lineup, the pot-still distilled “Tanager” cachaça. Originally they labelled it a “cane juice spirit” but current labels all have the word “cachaça” there, and it is the first of their “Two Woods” series, released in 2017 and afterwards1. The ageing is still rather short: one year in Four Roses ex-bourbon barrels and three further months in arariba (Brazilian zebrawood) barrels, which they claim is what gives it the spirit that characteristic brown-red colour. As to why they named it after a bird, well, who knows (and frankly, who cares? – it’s a nice word, a nice name, and others have used stranger titles).

The woods have had a really interesting impact on the cachaça and changed it quite a bit. The nose, for example is lovely: nutty, salty and a touch tannic, redolent of cane juice, herbs, wet green grass, moss and a delicate line of strawberries and peaches. There’s a sort of damp earthiness to it, mixed up with spices like tumeric and cinnamon that I particularly liked.

The taste is less successful, perhaps because the slightly sharper attack of the zebrawood is more pronounced here, ameliorated by the relatively low proof point of 42%. It’s tannic, but also salty, fruity, loam-y and sweet, and there is that characteristic grassy and sugar cane sap profile of a cachaca, plus some vanilla and sweetly tart pears and white guavas. Cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin round things off in a pleasant, low key finish that just escapes being bitter and becomes, through some odd alchemy, crisply refreshing, like a lemon-mint drink.

Cachaças are, of course, meant to be drunk in a caipirinha, but Novo Fogo is aiming for a different market than the huge internal one of Brazil. The rum tastes like an agricole bent ninety degrees away from true, flavourful and interesting, but not so off the map as to be unapproachable. What’s also important is that the short ageing in that combination of woods has produced a rum that is closer than almost any cachaça I’ve ever tried to a profile that is recognizably a “regular rum”….if not completely.

Therein lies its intriguing and beguiling nature, and therein lies my appreciation for what it is. It may, in the end, be this and the others in the line that espouse a philosophy of finishing rather than ageing in local woods, that will allow Novo Fogo’s cachaças to appeal to a much greater audience than just the aficionados and deep divers who thus far have been its most faithful adherents. I wish them luck,

(#876)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple cachaças like Leblon, Jamel, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
  • One wonders, given all these stats, whether the Habitation Velier series will ever come knocking to take a few barrelsit seems to press all their buttons and they could sure do worse.
  • There’s more company background in their very well-designed website.
Jan 102022
 

When we think of Haiti two names in rum immediately spring to mind: clairins and Barbancourt. This pair of diametrically opposite rum making styles dominate the conversation to such an extent that it is often overlooked that there are other distilleries on the island, like Barik / Moscoso, Agriterra / Himbert, Distillerie de la Rue (Nazon), Distillerie Lacrete, La Distillerie 1716, Beauvoir Leriche and Janel Mendard (among others). Granted most of these don’t do much branded work, stay within their regional market, or they sell bulk rum only (often clairins or their lookalikes that punch up lesser rums made by even cheaper brands), but they do exist and it’s a shame we don’t know more about them or their rums.

I make this point because the Samaroli 11 year old Haitian rum from 2004 which we are looking at today, doesn’t actually say which distillery in Haiti made it. Admittedly, this is a pedantic issue, since we can surmise with near-total assurance that it’s a Barbancourt distillate: they supply the majority of European brokers with bulk rum from Haiti while the others mentioned here tend to do local sales or over-the-border business in the Dominican Republic. But we don’t know for sure and all the ebay sites and auction listings for this rum and other Haitians that Samaroli bottled, do not disclose the source, so we’ll take it as an educated and probably correct guess for now.

What else? Distilled in 2004 and released in 2015 at 45% ABV, the rum hews closely to the mantra Silvio Samaroli developed all those years ago, which said that at the intersection of medium age and medium strength is a nexus of the best of all possible aromas, textures and tastes, where neither the rawness of youth or the excessive oakiness of age can spoil the bottled distillate, and the price remains reasonable. Well, maybe, though what’s going on these days price-wise might give anyone pause to wonder whether that still holds true.

The rum does nose nicely, mind you: it starts off with a loud blurt of glue paint and nail polish, warm but not sharp and settles down into an almost elegant and very precise profile. Soft notes of sugar water, pear syrup, cherries, vanilla and coconut shavings cavort around the nose, offset by a delicate lining of citrus and florals and a subtle hint of deeper fruits, and herbs.

Overall the slightly briny palate is warm, but not obnoxious. Mostly, it’s relaxed and sweet, with pears, papayas, cucumbers plus maybe a single pimento for a sly kick at the back end. It’s not too complexhonestly, it’s actually rather shy, which may be another way of saying there’s not much going on here. But it still beats out a bunch of standard strength Spanish-heritage rons I had on the go that same day. What distinguishes the taste is its delicate mouthfeel, floral hints and the traces of citrus infused sugar cane sap, all quite nice. It’s all capped by a short and floral finish, delicate and spicy-sweet, which retains that slight brininess and darker fruits that are hinted at, without any effort to overwhelm.

Formed in 1968 by the eponymous Italian gentleman, the firm made its bones in the 1970s in whiskies, branched into rums, and has a unicorn rum or two in its portfolio (like that near legendary 1948 blend); it is the distinguished inspiration for, and conceptual ancestor of, many Italian indies who came after…but by 2022 and even perhaps before that, Samaroli slipped in the younger generation’s estimation, lagging behind new and hungry independents like 1423, Rom Deluxe or Nobilis. These brash insurgents issued cask strength monsters crammed with 80+ points of proof that were aged to three decades, or boosted to unheard ester levels…and the more elegant, easier, civilized rums Samaroli was once known for, no longer command the same cachet.

Now, this quiet Haiti rum is not an undiscovered steal from yesteryear, or a small masterpiece of the indie bottler’s artI’d be lying if I said that. It’s simply a nice little better-than-entry level sipper, quiet and relaxed and with just enough purring under the hood to not make it boring. But to me it also shows that Samaroli can continue to do their continental ageing thing and come out with something thatwhile not a brutal slug to the nuts like a clairin, or the sweet elegance of a well-aged Barbancourt or a crank-everything-up-to-”12” rum from an aggressive new indiestill manages to present decently and show off a profile that does the half-island no dishonour. In a time of ever larger bottle-stats (and attendant prices), too often done just for shock value and headlines, perhaps it is worth taking a look at a rum like this once in a while, if only to remind ourselves that there are always alternatives.

(#874)(82/100)


Other Notes

  • It is assumed to be a column-still rhum; the source, whether molasses or sugar cane, is unstated and unknown.
  • 270-bottle outturn
Dec 222021
 

I’m taking some time off and away from writing, and if this cartoon goes up, it’s because I’m tasting as much as I can over the Christmas season when Mrs. Caner, Grandma Caner and the Little Big Caner allow me some time to do that.

Have a great Christmas, everyone, and enjoy the holidays.


Dec 192021
 

Rumaniacs Review R-131 | 873

Bounty Rumnot to be confused with the South Pacific Distillery rum of the same namewas the first branded rum produced by St. Lucia Distillers in 1972 when the combine was formed through the consolidation of the Dennery Distillery (which was owned by the Barnard family) and the distillery run by the Geest family at Roseau Bay.

The rum was considered the workhorse of the brand, a step down from the subsequent releases of the Chairman’s Reserve, Admiral Rodney and other blends of greater perceived cachet and exclusivity that came into prominence in the post-2000 rum renaissance.

The Bounty rum brand has never been retired from active duty, and continues to be sold all around the Caribbean to this day: it is something of a back bar staple in the US, a mixer’s drink for the most part. The various rums that were developed over time can be flavoured, spiced, white, aged, unaged, column or pot-column blends, and retain their popularity by virtue of their affordability and generic usefulness.

The rum was part of a set of minis from the 1970s and 1980s that I bought, and since the label is all but unfindable and there is nothing to distinguish it otherwise, I am forced to make some assumptions until Mike Speakman or SLD (hopefully) gets back to me: I think it’s from the 1970s, sold for airline and hotel minibar use; a column still spirit, slightly aged; and the closest thing to it in 2021 is probably the Bounty Gold rum (not the Dark). No rum as shown on this label remains in production.

ColourLight gold

Strength – 40%

NoseQuite sweet, notes of honey, mead, molasses and brown sugar. There’s also the aroma of hay, sawdust and decaying paper, the musty smell of old libraries and second hand bookstores. With a bit of time to open up, we get green peas, cherries, tart yoghurt and even the slight metallic bite of a coin.

PalateInteresting: some brine and olives to start, plus nuts, almonds and nougat. The slight sweetness of molasses and brown sugar carries over from the nose, as well as raisins, spices, grass and a touch of dill and rosemary.

FinishShort and aromatic, with spices, brine and light fruitiness. Plus, a touch of dustiness returns here.

ThoughtsIn today’s climate it can work as a sipping rum, I suppose, though I doubt many would use it for anything but to make a mix, even assuming it could be found. It’s nice enough, and shows clearly how far St Lucia Distillers’ other rums have come since this was originally made. But back then it was all light blends, and this Bounty rum adheres faithfully to that lackluster profile.

(78/100)


Other Notes

  • Brief subsequent history: in 1993 the Barnards bought out the Geests, and in 2005 sold out to CL Financial who in turn, after their reckless financial exposure to the crash of 2008 nearly bankrupted them, sold out to the Martinique conglomerate Group Bernard Hayot (Spiribam), the current owner.
  • The ageing and still are unknown: my assumption is that as with most such rums made back in the day, it was from a column still, and aged less than five years. It’s descendant is probably the current Bounty Gold rum which is a 2YO column still rum.

 

Dec 162021
 

Publicity photo from J.M.

These days I rarely comment any longer on a bottle’s appearancethere was a time when I actually scored it as part of the review, though common sense suggested that it cease after the pointlessness of the practice became self-evidentbut here I really must remark on the striking distinctiveness of the design. In colour and form it reminds me of Henri Rousseau’s savagely childish yet iconic jungle scenes. You sure won’t pass this bottle on a shelf if you see it.

But what is it? The Martinique distillery of J.M. is of course not an unknown quantityI’ve looked at several of their rhums in the past and in “other notes” below I repeat some of their background. Still, the rhums for which they are known are mostly aged agricoles, many of which are single cask or special editions. Surprisingly enough, this is the first of their whites I’ve taken the time to look at and it is not their regular workhorse blanc issued at 50º but a limited edition at 51.2% – what exactly makes it deserving of a special rollout and naming is somewhat nebulous. It may be something as simple as the distiller and cellar master, Nazair Canatous, coming up with a “blend of cuvées”1 which possessed a powerful set of aromatic profiles. How many bottles make it “limited” is not mentioned anywhere.

Since its introduction, the rhum has been rebranded: the simply-named “Jungle” is the first and only edition of that name, released in 2017 and then replaced the very next year by the retitled “Joyau Macouba” under which it continued to be marketed through to 2021 — but aside from some minor variations in strength, the two seem to be identical. They are also not really expensive, less than €10 pricier than the standard blanc which Excellence Rhum stocks at under thirty euros.

And that makes it, I think, somewhat of a bargain since there are five year old agricoles that cost more and taste less. The nose of the “Jungle” is really lovelydelicately sweet herbal sugar water…with mint and lime juice (not lemon). It displays notes of brine mixed with and soda pop, something like a salty 7-Up. Fruity smells are always hovering aroundpassion fruits, tart red currants, fine and faint lemon peeland there are also some muskier notes of cereals and freshly baked bread lurking in the shadows, and they stay there for the most part.

If I had to chose, I think I’d go for the palate over the nose on this one: it’s just a shade better, richer (usually the reverse is the case). It tastes like a salty, creamy lemon meringue pie topped with caramel and a clove or two; the core of it is a solidly-sweet, crisp, citrus-y firm taste, with enough of an edge to not make it a cream soda milquetoast. Around that swirl the herbs: thyme, cumin, dill, rosemary and cardamom, plus the grassiness of fresh green tea with touches of mint. Olives and brine kept in the background and always seem to be on the verge of disappearing, but they’re definitely there. This all concludes with a medium long finish that coats the palate without drying it outsweet, delicately fruity and floral, and with the spices and herbs gradually fading out to nothingness.

Overall, this is a good white rhum, and I liked it, yet the question remains: what makes it special enough to warrant the limited treatment? The tastes are fine and the overall experience is a little less intense than some of those 50º standards all the agricole makers have as part of their portfolio…perhaps that’s what was considered the point of distinction, since here it was tamed a bit more, while remaining equally complex.

Be that as it may, for a rested-then-blended rhum agricole blanc, it holds up very well. It is tart, tasty and tamed, and, within its limits, original. Strictly speaking, there’s absolutely no reason to buy it when there are so many other white agricoles of comparable quality out there (some of which are cheaper). But you know, we can’t always find relevance, catharsis or world-changing rhums every time we try one, and sometimes it’s simply a relief to find a bit-better-than-average product that eschews extreme sensory overload and simply aims for a little romance, and pleases at a price we can afford. That the “Jungle” manages to achieve that is something we should appreciate when we come across it.

(#872)(83/100)


Other Notes: Company Background

Situated in the north of Martinique in Bellevue, J.M. began life with Pére Labat, who was credited with commercializing and proliferating the sugar industry in the French West Indies during the 18th century. He operated a sugar refinery at his property on the Roche Rover, and sold the estate to Antoine Leroux-Préville in 1790 – it was then renamed Habitation Fonds-Préville. In 1845, his daughters sold the property again, this time to a merchant from Saint-Pierre names Jean-Marie Martin.

With the decline in sugar production but with the concomitant rise in sales of distilled spirits, Jean-Marie recognized an opportunity, and built a small distillery on the estate, and switched the focus away from sugar and towards rum, which he aged in oak barrels branded with his initials “JM”. In 1914 Gustave Crassous de Médeuil bought the plantation from his brother Ernest (I was unable to establish whether Ernest was a descendant or relative of Jean-Marie), and merged it with his already existing estate of Maison Bellevue. The resulting company has been family owned, and making rhum, ever since and was among the last of the independent single domaine plantations on Martinique until the Groupe Bernard Hayot, a Martinique-based and owned family conglomerate, bought it in 2002. Nowadays it (along with Clement and St. Lucia Distillers) is marketed by GBH’s spirit division, Spiribam.


 

Dec 122021
 

There are four operations making rum in Grenada – Renegade (the new kid on the block, operating since 2021), Westerhall, Rivers Antoine and Clarke’s Court, the last of which was formed in 1937, operating under the umbrella of the Grenada Sugar Factory (the largest on the island) and named after an estate of the same name in the southern parish of St. George’s. This title in turn derived from two separate sources: Gedney Clarke, who bought the Woodlands estate from the French in the late 1700s, and a bay called “Court Bay” included with the property (this in turn was originally titled “Watering Bay” because of the fresh water springs, but how it came to change to Court is not recorded). The company sold rums with names like Tradewinds and Red Neck before the Clarke’s Court moniker became the standard, though the exact date this happened is uncertain. Pre-1980s, I would hazard.

The Clarke’s Court Pure White Overproof is a column-still, molasses-based blended white lightning made by that company, and is apparently the most popular rum on the Spice Island, best had with some Angostura bitters (the 43% darker rums made here are supposedly for the ladies, who “prefer gentler rums”). Local wags claim it’ll add hair to your chest, strip the paint off anything, and can run your car if you don’t have any petrol. Older women reputedly still use it as a rub.

When it comes to seriously pumped-up Grenadian rums, Westerhall’s Jack Iron is not in this rum’s league, though it’s admittedly stronger; and had Clarke’s more distinct, it would have given Rivers Antoine a run for its money as the first Key Rum from Grenada. It certainly buffs its chest and tries to muscle in on the territory of the famed white Jamaicans (I feel it was meant to take on J. Wray’s White Overproof, or even DDL’s amusing three-lies-in-one Superior High Wine…but it lacks their fierce pleasures and distinct profiles and at the end, is something of a cheap high proofed white rum shot with ‘tude and taste, a better Bacardi Superior with a dash of steroids.

This careful endorsement of mine does not, however, stop it from being something of a best-selling island favourite on Grenada, where it outsells Rivers (because of a larger facility that breaks down less frequently). As with other white rums across the Caribbean, it’s an affordable and powerful rum, a dram available to and drunk across all social classesit’s always been made and probably always will be. It’s emblematic of the island and widely known in a way Riverswhich is far olderis only now becoming, and local denizens with a creative juice-it-up bent cheerfully adulterate, spice up or make “bush” variations (such as the one I originally tried back in 2010) at the drop of a hat and in every rum shop up and down the island.

Now, it’s torqued up to 69% ABV, but sources are unclear whether it has been aged a bit then filtered, or is released as is, and while I can’t state it with authority, I believe it to be unaged: it has a series of aromas and tastes that just bend my mind that way. The nose, for example, is redolent of minerals, dust, watery salt solution, the smell of the ocean on a seaport where the fish and salt water reek is omnipresent. Some sweet swank and sugar cane juicethere’s a weird and pleasant young-agricole vibe to the experienceplus a delicate line of fruits: sharp, ester-y, unripe, tart and pungent, without the rich plumpness of better-made aged variants. Kiwi fruit, and one of those cheap mix-everything-in fruit juice melanges. Honestly, I got a lot here, and had walked in expecting a lot less.

69% is strong for a rum, but not unbearable, and it’s just a matter of sipping carefully and expecting some heat for your trouble. Tastes of apples, cider, pears, all sour, begin the experience. These initial flavours are then muscled aside by tequila and brine and olives, not entirely pleasant, very solid; this then morphs into a sweet and sour soup, yeasty bread, cereals, sour cream, cream cheese, all very strong and firm, reasonably well developed and decently balanced. The fruits are also well representedone can sense a fruit salad with cherries in syrup, plus gherkins and the metallic hint of a copper penny. Overall, surprisingly creamy on the tongue, almost smooth: not what one would expect from something at this proof point. It leads nicely into a hot, long finish, with closing notes of fruits (bananas, watermelon, mangoes) and some salt-sour mango achar, miso soup, and sweet soya.

When considered against the other big-name, well known, badass whites from the non-agricole, non-151-proof world, it’s easy to see why it gets less respect than the howitzers from Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Guyana (for my money, Cuba, T&T and Barbados have no overproof white rums that stand out, are as well known, or are so visibly a part of local culture in the way these are, though I’m sure I’ll catch some heated protests about that). It’s not exported in quantity, lacks a solid presence on the American bar and cocktail circuit, doesn’t often come in for mention and has no superstar brand ambassador or cocktail-slinging badass to champion its praisesmany people reading this review will likely never have tried it.

That said, I think it may be an undiscovered steal. Grenadians, to whom it’s a cultural institution, will swear by the thing and embrace anyone who speaks positively of the rum like a brother. Few will drink it neat: I do it so you don’t have to, but really, it’s not made to have that way, and that leaves it to boost a mix of some kind, like the locals who have it with a soda, juice or coconut water (when they don’t throw back shots in a rumshop, or nip at the backpocket flattie all day). The tastes are nothing to sneeze at, there’s enough raw flavour and bombast and attitude here to satisfy the desire for something serious for the rum junkie, and the bottom line is, it’s really and surprisingly good. It’s a worthy entry to the canon, and one can only hope it gets wider international acclaim. We can always use another one of these.

(#871)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • This review is based on two separate sample tastingsa mini from the 1990s and a more recent sample bottle bought from Drinks by the Dram. The tastes were similar enough to suggest the blend has stayed the same for a long period.
  • The label has remained relatively unchanged for decades. It is unknown when the rum was first introduced though.
Dec 082021
 

It’s the Red Queen’s race, I sometimes think: top dogs in the indie scene have to keep on inventing and innovating to maintain their lead, release ever-older or fancier bottlings, enthuse the fans, show how cool they are, all to remain in the same placeand none, perhaps, know this as well as Velier, whose various “series” go back a decade or more and keep the bar set really high. The legendary Demeraras, Caronis and Habitations, the Indian Ocean series, Endemic Birds, Foursquare Collaborations, 70th Anniversary, Appleton Hearts, True Explorer, Rhum Rhum, NRJ…the list just keeps growing.

But the unspoken concomitant to these various collections is that new editions spring from Luca’s fertile imagination and keep getting issued, so often and so quickly that though they elevate Velier to the status of front runner, they drop out of sight almost as quickly if no champions arise to promote them regularly. Sure, one or two here or there attain mythical status (the Skeldons, some of the Caronis, the original NRJ TECA, the Damoiseau 1980, the Foursquare 2006 and the HV PM White are some such) but in the main, series as a whole tend to vanish from popular consciousness rather quickly. Consider: can you name the component bottles of the Endemic Birds series, or even how many there are?

Back in 2017, the Genoese firm of Velier celebrated its 70th anniversary (of its founding in 1947, not Luca Gargano’s ownership), and to mark the occasion they released (what else?) a 70th Anniversary series of bottles from all over the map. Within that select set was a further sub-group, one of six rums whose label and box design ethos was created by Warren Khong, an artist from Singapore of whom Luca was quite fond1. These were rums from Hampden (Jamaica), Mount Gilboa (Barbados), Nine Leaves (Japan), Chamarel (Mauritius), Bielle (Marie Galante) and St. Lucia Distillers, and it’s this last one we’ll be looking at today.

The St. Lucia Distillers edition came from the 6000-liter John Dore pot still No. 2 and in a nice gesture, Velier sent Ian Burrell around to Castries to select a barrel to be a part of the collection. It was distilled in 2010, aged seven years (tropical, of course), and 267 bottles were issued at a nicely robust 58.6%.

So, nosing it. Sweet acetones and rubber in an extraordinary balance; initially almost Jamaican, minus the fruit…but only till it changes gears and moves into second. Sweet, light and forcefully crisp with very precise, definite nasal components. Orange zest, green grapes apples and cider. Vanilla ice cream. Varnish, smoke, thyme, mint, pineapple, tic-tacs. There’s a lot foaming on the beach with this rum and it’s definitely worth taking one’s time with.

The palate is trickier: somewhat unbalanced, it’s hot and a bit addled and doesn’t roll out the welcome mat, but nobody can deny it’s very distinct. Initially a shade bitter, and even sour; acidic, cider-like, bubbly, light, crisp, sharp, distinct. Lots of easy esters here, perhaps an overabundance, because then they get bitchy, which is something that happens when not enough care is taken to balance them off with barrel influence and the inherent character of the rum itself. Becomes nice and sweet-salt as it opens up, which is pleasant, but the finish, relatively the weakest part of the entry (though still very good) is all about esters, fruitiness and some briny notes. Lots of ‘em.

Back in 2017 Marius over at Single Cask Rum reviewed the rum giving it love to the tune of 93 points; and six months later, two of the coolest deep-diving Danish rumdorks of my acquaintanceGregers and Nicolaiwent through the series in its entirety and were really quite enthusiastic about the St. Lucia, both scoring it 91. Some months later I nabbed a sample from Nicolai (same bottle, I’m guessing) and this review results from it. It’s an interesting rum to try, for sure: had I tried it blind I would have sworn it was either a Jamaican DOK-wannabe or a grand arome from Savanna, with some intriguing aspects of its own. That said, the rum seems to be too reliant on the sharp sour fruitiness of the esters which the pot still had allowed through to establish some street cred, leaving other aspects that would have made it shine more, left out, taking a back seat or just subsumed.

While by no means a merely average rumit is, in point of fact, very good indeed, I want more like it and so far it’s the best scoring St. Lucia rum I’ve ever triedI’m not convinced that it exceeds the (or my) magic 90 point threshold beyond which we enter halo territory. Nowadays it has sunk into partial obscurity and the dust-covered collections of those who bought theirs early, and while prices have been creeping up over the last years, they are thankfully not four figures yet. It’s too bad that more reviewers haven’t tried and written about it so we could see how other scores rank up, but then, it’s really all a matter of degree: all of us who’ve tried it agree that it’s one really fine rum, no matter how many or how few points we award. And it demonstrates once againas if it needed to be provedthat Velier maintains a comfortable lead in the race they’re running.

(#870)(88/100)

Dec 052021
 

Nobody ever accused the Scotch Malt whisky Society of being in a hurry: although they began releasing rums as far back as 2001 (three unnamed releases, from Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados), they seemed none too happy or enthusiastic with the results, for they waited another ten years before issuing another Jamaican (the R1.2 “Rhubarb and Goose-gogs”), then two more in 2012 during Glenmorangie’s tenure at the helmand then we hung around watching another seven years go by (and new owners take over) before the R1.5 “A Little Extravagant” came out the door in 2019.

As you can imagine, the first issues now command some hefty coin, though thankfully not Velier-esque levels of certifiable insanity (the R1.4 I’m discussing here has been climbing though: £190 in 2016 and £230 two years later on Whisky Auctioneer). This is likely because until Simon Johnson of The Rum Shop Boy blog began reviewing the SMWS rums in his own collection in 2018, most rum people overlooked WhiskyFun’s reviews (or my own 2012 attempts to be funny) few knew anything about the Society’s cane output, or cared much. They were too obscurethe overlap between whisky and rum anoraks had not yet gathered a head of steamand deemed too expensive.

The R1 series (see ‘Other Notes’ below for a quick recap on the numbering schema) of the Society is from Jamaica, Monymusk to be exact and this specific one is from the third issue in 2012, the R1.4, which, in an unconscionable fit of rather reasonable naming, they call “Get the Juices Flowing” … though of course that could describe any Jamaican under the sun. Distilled in 1991, bottled in 2012, the still is unmentionedhowever, since Monymusk rum is distilled at Clarendon which has had a columnar still only since 2009, it’s almost certainly a pot still rum. A peculiarity is the outturn: 696 bottles from a “single cask”, which the label helpfully tells us was a sherry butt (likely 500 liters or perhaps more), and as we know from experience, the Society does not muck around with proof but releases it as is from the cask – 66.2% here.

That out of the way, let’s get on to the interesting stuff: a continentally aged rum old enough to vote, from a distillery from which we don’t get such offerings often enough. Nose first: wow, very powerful (66.2%, remember? … that’ll put some hair on the old biscuit-chest). Deep burnt sugar, buttery and caramel notes offset by smoke, almonds, ashes and charred wood (don’t ask) and a cornucopia of fruits: red wine, citrus, green apples, grapes, raisins, dates, prunes, peaches, strawberries….it’s very rich, with hot and spicy fumes and aromas just billowing out of the glass.

The strength manifests itself uncompromisingly and solidly when tasted as well. Trying small sips until one adjusts is probably best here, because then the flavours can be savoured stress free and more easily. And there’s a lot of those, including initial notes, the beginning of tarry smokiness and burning rubber (excuse me? I didn’t think this was a Caroni). There are also light florals, delicate white fleshed fruits, contrasted moments later with more acidic onescider, green apples, mangoes, red grapes and the tartness of lemon peel, all twinkling and frisky, plus brine, olives and some salted caramel. The finish is excellent toolong, toasty, cereal-y, crisp herbs, fruit-filled, a lollipop or two, bubble gum, strawberries and that light touch of saline.

While there’s no such notation anywhere on the product page or the bottle itself, clearly someone knew enough to let the esters of the leash here, and balance them carefully with softer tastes to take the edge off. The overall impact is undeniable, and it’s a very impressive dramvery fruity and yet also quite dark and firm in its own way with the caramel, vanilla and brine integrated into the profile very well. There are some weak points here and there, mostly at the inception of smelling and tasting: one’s senses need to become acclimatized to the force blasting out of the glass before true appreciation sets in. But overall, this is as good as any Hampden or Worthy Park rum out there, and it’s only major drawback is that it’s so hard to locate these days.

(#869)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • For those new to the Society’s ethos, they don’t name their products, they number them: this stemmed from a practice they had fallen into in the 1980s when whisky distilleries providing single barrels didn’t always want their names associated with this young upstart. Numbers were assigned, one per distillery, plus a second decimal for which release; and funny nameswhich supposedly were coded references to the taste profilewere added later. With the exception of the first expressions in 2001, rums followed this practice and as of this writing in December 2021, fourteen distilleries in seven countries, all in the Caribbean and Central America are represented. There’s a master list tacked on to the bottom of the Society history which I keep updated as best I can.
  • Sincere and grateful hat tip to Simon Johnson, who spotted me this sample when I couldn’t find one. His own review is worth reading.

Opinion

I’ve written and thought about the SMWS more than most indies, because I find their business model very interesting, and most of their rums aren’t bad at allthey just don’t seem to have a firm handle on where they want to go with this aspect of what they do. In terms of their operations, on the surface they are an independent whisky bottler, sourcing barrels from whisky distilleries and releasing them to the market. The main difference is that this market is all subscriber-based and requires membership in the society (at an annual cost, additional to that of the product), and you’ll never see one of their bottles on a shop shelf (unless said shop is a member themselvesand even then, they can only sell to other members).

This creates some interesting commercial dynamics. With thousands of members around the globe and only a few hundred bottles per release (single barrel, remember), it’s inevitable that most people wanting, say, one of the 275 bottles of release 66.177, will be SOL. The society has responded to this inevitable problem by issuing many more expressions in a given period than ever before, from all over the flavour map, and allocating supplies all over the world. They have begun doing blends. Prices are not subject to escalation (except on secondary markets). And of course they have dabbled their toes into other spirits categories as wellgin, bourbon, Armagnac, rum, and so on.

One could reasonably argue how this possibly results in an ongoing commercial enterprise: after all, today there are tons of companies selling single cask bottlings and you don’t have to worry about membership dues tacked on to what is already a hefty price (indie bottlings tend to be more expensive than readily available blends or estate bottlings because of their individualistic nature and different cost structures). The SMWS’s success has rested on a number of pillars: first mover advantagesthey were among the first to seriously popularize the concept of single barrel unblended whisky sales, at scale (while not inventing it); great barrel selections in their first years; really good marketing; the mystique of exclusivity of a subscriber based society; and the gradual move and expansion into more than just Scottish distilleries’ whiskiesother countries, other spirits and even an ageing programme of their own (they no longer just buy pre-aged casks from distilleries).

Because the Society remains at heart a whisky-based enterprise, rums are unfortunately given short shrift, and even engaging Ian Burrell to be a sort of onboard consultant in 2020 hasn’t helped muchthere has been no noticeable improvement or creative explosion on the rum front. The rums that are released are occasionally set at a price difficult to justify, not as varied as they could be (releases remain solely from the Caribbean and Central America in a time of interesting production from around the world) and the lack of real advertising of these products doesn’t engage the broader rum community who could potentially be their greatest cheerleaders. Other better-known and well-regarded indies are running circles around SMWS’s rum portfolio, issuing more, better, more often and with a lot more hooplah, and primary producers are only just getting started themselves. Moreover, the Society’s rums are released with an inconsistency that is problematic by itself: why would anyone fork out an annual subscription fee when one can’t tell whether in a single year this can result in many rums available for purchase, or a few, or one…or none?

So, personally I think that the rum section of the society needs serious work and more attention by someone who can dedicate time and energy to that alone and not dilute their focus with other things. If a 29 year old Guyanese rum or a 23 year old Caroni can cost £275 each and remain on the ”available” list for months, then I think there are underlying issues of price, promotion, awareness and perception of value that must be improved. The Society may be the cat’s meow on the whisky front (though I note that grumbles about availability, price and quality are a constant feature of online discourse), but with respect to rums, they’re nowhere near the front of the pack. And that’s a pity for an aspect of their work that has such potential for growth.

[Note: this opinion is an expansion of observations briefly touched on in the 2020 company profile of the SMWS; also, full disclosure: I am a member of the SMWS myself, focusing solely on their rums].


 

Dec 022021
 

Photo (c) John Go

2003 was clearly a good year for the small Marie Galante distillery of Bielle, since there are several different editions of that year’s rhums on the market: a Hors d’Age 52.9%, a Vieux 9 YO at 49%, a Millésime 2003 Brut de Fût 8YO at 52.8% and yet another special release at 53.1%. Varying ages and strengths, but one doesn’t release that many iterations of a single year without some sort of belief in the underlying quality of the distillate made in that year.

Taking this version out for a spin demonstrates that that belief is not mere wishful thinking or misguided optimism. It’s really quite interesting: for example, wood, paint, glue and sawdust start the ball rolling, with a certain hogo-y sourness of spoiled fruit. This is fades away in almost no time, leaving honey, cheerios, cereals, salt caramel and vanilla in an uncertain truce with the opening aromas. It does develop nicely from there, becoming surprisingly complex with additional fruits and citrus and cinnamon, while retaining the characteristic clarity and cleanliness of agricoles. And then, as if bored, it adds a queer ashy, metallic, medicinal filip to the back end which is truly unusualI went back through all my previous Bielle reviews and found nothing quite like it.

Taste-wise it continues that above average quality and parallels the nose almost exactly: it’s hotter than expected (but okay, 55% is not exactly tame), and again, here, the paint thinner, fresh-sawn planks and varnish lead the way: it’s almost like walking through Home Depot’s lumber section. This is followed by cereal, caramel and vanilla, with fruits apparently taking a vacation at this point, because the impression it laves is one of caramel-toffee saltiness rather than crisp fruity acid-sweetness. There’s some watermelon and light pears coiling around the background, but that’s about it. Oh, and the finish is excellent: long, dry, almost smoky, a hint of ash and iodine, and then a faint recap of the slightly sour fruits mixed in with caramel and cinnamonplus what sure seemed like maple syrup, but that may be reaching.

The distillery: located just south of dead centre on the tiny island of Marie Galante (itself south of Guadeloupe), Bielle is a small sugar plantation dating back to the late 1700s, named after Jean-Pierre Bielle (he also owned a coffee shop), which went through a series of owners and went belly-up in the 1930s; the property was sold to a local landowner, Paul Rameaux, who had no more success than his predecessors in reviving its fortunes. 1975 marked a revival of Bielle when la Société d’Exploitation de la Distillerie Bielle (SEDB) took over the assets, and nowadays a nephew of Mr. Rameaux, Dominique Thiery, runs the distillery. As recently as six years ago it was another small outfit from the French West Indies about whom only the local islanders, rum deep divers and the French seemed to know very much … but my experience with their output (and not just Capovilla’s) over the years suggests they really know what they’re doing.

Still, back to the rhum: I’m not entirely sure how old it is: there’s no mention on the label or the box and other 2003 vintages are a rough guide at best; and no online resources I’ve found make any age statement. My guesstimate is about 6-8 years, (if it was double digits it would likely be much more expensive). It’s a cane-juice derived agricole, column still produced, and a really good all round rhum for any purpose. I particularly enjoyed its departure from the norms usually exhibited by cane juice rhumsnot much herbals or clean green grass here, just real complexity, solid assembly and a construction that allows each note its individuality. These days I think it’s more likely to be found at auction or in a private sale than on a store shelf, but however it crosses your path, if you find a bottle at a decent price, you wouldn’t be losing out.

(#868)(86/100)


Other notes

  • On FB in 2018, there was a comment that the “2003 has been spotted with ~10g/L sugar in it…” deriving from Cyril’s work over at DuRhum. It’s not this one, but then, this 55% version was not tested as far as I am aware.
  • I was provided this unlabelled and unidentified sample by my cheerfully sneaky rum chum from the Philippines, John Gohe was testing me, I think, since he mixed it all up with a bunch of other unmarked samples of wildly varying quality). So those tasting noters are unedited and completely blind.
Nov 292021
 

It’s easy to sneer at standard strength rums in a time of sullen cask-strength hoods issued north of 60%, 70% or even 80%. Those have tastes that attack and maul your extremities, aromas that lunge into your nose with intent to maim, and profiles that burst at the seams with all sorts ofwell, something. Badassery, maybe. In contrast, forty-percenters are considered meek and mild, barely sniffable, weak, easy and not altogether “serious”. Best leave them to the Spanish style roneros. They can have ‘emhere we deal in proof, pard.

Rather than simply issuing such soft multi-country blends, Rum Nation takes a different approach to standard strength rumsthey merely consider them as entry level rums, made for the audience that wants something better than merely another Bacardi wannabe, but doesn’t appreciate some rude over-muscled Trenchtown brawler invading the living room. So a number of their lower cost rums from around the Caribbean continue to be released at that strength and are a complement to their more exclusive, up-market Rare Cask editions.

One of these is the Panama ten year old limited edition from the 2018 season (it had been introduced the year beforethis is the second iteration). The bottle’s presentational and informational ethic is something of a victory of style over substance, because pretty as it is, we don’t actually get much data: it tells us Panama, 40% ABV, 10 YO and 2018 release on the front and back labels, and that’s it. Everything else is fluff, and given what fans of today almost demand on their labels, it’s an odd omission to leave out the distillery of make or the still type. Based on past experience with Rum Nation, I’d suggest they continue to source distillate from Varela Hermanos (home of the Abuelo brand), and given it’s from Panama the likelihood of it being a column still product is high. Aged in ex-bourbon barrels, diluted to forty, and there you are. We’re still in the dark as to what “limited” means, thoughhow many barrels are involved and what the outturn is, remain unknowns.

I’ve made no secret of my initial liking for Panamanians a decade back and how I gradually fell away from their soothing, silky style. That’s not to say they do not remain approachable, and very likeable: they are, and remain so. Here for example, the nose was light, clean and smooth, medium sweet, redolent of vague florals and bubble gum. Some fruits, caramel, raisins, vanilla, and a touch of molasses and toffee, nicely blended, but not standing out in any way.

The palate continued in that vein of niceness and weakly indeterminate everything-is-in-here tastes. It was sweet, and one can taste caramel, vanilla, flowers, bubble gum, and even sour cream. Also molasses, toffee and the damped down taste of soft bananas, dates, and a plum or two, leading to a short and meek finish which does not exit with a statement or exclamation point of any kind, just kind of sighs and walks off the stage.

This is my issue with Forties generally and to some extent rons in particular. Because they are made on an industrial multi-column still more often than not, and exit the still at a very high ABV, too many congeners and esters are stripped away. Therefore the relatively neutral starting profile off the still can only be enhanced by long ageing, good barrel management, secondary cask maturation / finishesor additives. Here, I was told that 18 g/L of sugar was added, which explains a lot.

So for me, right now, it’s too faint, a touch too sweet and too mildly inoffensive. It lacks distinctiveness of any kind and is easily forgettable. It’s a good enough rum to drink when no thought is required (and the brief one-line tasting notes on rumratings show others have a similar experience), although with its added extras and weak-kneed pusillanimity, I don’t think I’d drink it much unless it was my intention to just have a tot of anything passable in the glass. There’s little beyond “nice” that you can use to describe it, yet it’s important to understand that if you think this way, the rum is not meant for you. It’s a decent enough rum made for those at this stage of their rum journey, and on that basis, Rum Nation really did provide all the info needed for such persons to chose it.

(#867)(74/100)

Nov 252021
 

What is there to say about either Velier or Caroni, that hasn’t been said so many times before?

It seems almost superfluous to repeat the story but for the sake of those new to the saga, here’s the basics: Caroni was a Trinidadian sugar factory and distillery which, after many ups and downs related to the vicissitudes of the sugar industry, finally closed in 2003. In late 2004 Luca Gargano, the boss of Velier, came upon and subsequently bought, many hundreds (if not thousands) of barrels that had been destined for auctioning or fire sale disposal (for the sake of completeness, note that many others did too).

Previously, either on their own account or when managed by Tate & Lyle (a British concern which operated the establishment for many years), Caroni had made rums of their own, but they were considered low quality blends and never thought to be very good. Now, however, Velier issued them in tiny lots, often single barrel releases, cask strength and quite old. Though initially sold only in Italy, by 2010 they had already acquired an underground following, with a reputation that only grew over the yearsand this is why prices on secondary markets for the very first releases dating from the 1970s or 1980s can go for thousands of dollars, or pounds.

These days, with the prices and number of variations of the early Caroni rums ascending out of reach of most, the blended aged expressions may be the best value for money Veliers from the canon we can still afford, or find. What they provide for us is something of the tar and smoke and petrol portions of the profile that characterize the type, without any of the miniscule variations and peculiarities of single barrel expressions. They are, in short more approachable overall to the curious layman who wants to know what the Godawful kerfuffle is all about. Granted, many other indies have gotten on the bandwagon with their own Caronis and they are usually quite good, but you know how it is with Velier’s cachet and their knack of picking out good barrels even when making blends.

So, this one: distilled on a column in Caroni in February of 1998 and aged in situ until September 2015, when it was shipped to Scotland for blending and bottling at 55% ABV. All this is on the label, but curiously, we don’t know the total outturn. In any event it’s one of a progressively more aged series of blends – 12 YO, 15 YO, this one and 21 YOmeant for a more consumer facing market, not the exclusive Caronimaniacs out there, who endlessly dissect every minor variation as if prepping for a doctoral thesis.

Those who spring for this relatively cheaper blend hoping for a sip at the well, will likely not be disappointed. It has all the characteristics of something more exclusive, more expensive. Initial aromas are of petrol, an old machinists shop with vulcanizing shit going on in the background, rubber, phenols, iodine. Gradually fruits emerge, all dark and sullen and sulky. Plums, blackberries, dates, plus sweet caramel and molasses. Some herbsdill, rosemary. And behind it all coils the familiar scent of fresh hot tar being laid down in the summer sun.

The taste is very similar. Like the nose, the first notes are of an old bottom-house car repair shop where the oil has soaked into the sand, and rubber tyres and inner tubes are being repaired everywhere, and the occasionally pungent raw petrol aromas makes you feel like you’re passing an oil refinery. But this is all surface: behind that is also a more solid and lasting profile of brine, olives, dates, figs, and almost overripe peaches, prunes, even some coffee grounds and anise. It’s dry, and a touch bitter, redolent of aromatic cigarillos, damp black tea leaves. Nice but also, on occasion, a little confusing. No complaints on the finish, which is reasonably long, thick, with notes of caramel, nuts, licorice and dark fruit. It’s a peculiarity of the rum that although sweetness is really not in this rum’s DNA, it kinda tastes that way.

It’s been bruited around before that Caroni rums, back in the days of Ago, were failures, implying that these rums today being hailed as such classics are a function of heritage and memory alone, not real quality in the Now. Well, maybe: still, it must be also said that in a torrential race to the lees of anonymity and sameness, they do stand out, they are in their own way unique, and the public has embraced their peculiarities with enthusiasm (and their wallets).

On balance, I liked it, but not quite as much as the 21 YO in the blended series. That one was a bit better balanced, had a few extra points of elegant distinction about it, while this one is more of a goodhearted country boy without the sophisticationbut you know, overall, you would not go wrong picking this one up if you could. There is nothing wrong with this one either, and it represents Caroni’s now well-know tar and petrol profile quite solidly, as well as simply being a really good rum.

(#866)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The label is a facsimile of the original Tate & Lyle Caroni rum labels from the 1940s
Nov 222021
 

The Scarlet Ibis rum is not as well known as it was a decade ago, but that it continues to be in production at all is a testament to its overall utility and perceived worth in the bar scene. That said, it remains something of an unknown quantity to the mass of rum drinkers, sharing negative mindspace with, oh, say, Sea Wynde or Edwin Charley, which had their moment in the Age of Blends but have now fallen from common knowledge. In a few more years they’ll join all those other rums that recede into vague memory if a greater push isn’t made to elevate customer awareness and sales.

Where does one start? First of all, it is a rum made to order, commissioned by the New York bar Death & Co. The exact year it arrived is unknown, but since D&Co was established in January 2007 (it opened on New Year’s Eve) and since the first note I can find about the rum itself related to a 2010 MoR festival (so the rum had to have been available before that), then it’s been around since 2008-2009 or so, with short observations and reviews popping up intermittently at best ever since. 1. Eric Seed, the NY importing rep for the European distributor Haus Alpenz (which also helped source the Smith & Cross, you’ll remember) seems to have been instrumental in being point man for its creation and subsequently bringing into the US.

Production is intermittent at best, paralleling the equally inconsistent geographical availability. Facebook is littered with the detritus of occasional comments like “Where can I find it?” “Is it still being made?” “Like the new one?” or “When did it become available again?” Most who have tried it and have commented on the rum think it’s very nice, and the extra proof is appreciated. In earlier posts some suggested that the original blend had some Caroni, but Alpenz denied that, and also noted that there was an error in the press materials and it was and always has been a completely column-still product, a blend of 3-5 year old stocks, bottled at 49%.

So, a youngish rum blend, made to order. That makes it an interesting rum, quite different from most others from the twin island republic which are either overpriced Caronis (on the secondary market) or Angostura’s own decently unexceptional blends. It’s light and sharp (what some refer to as “peppery”) on the initial nose, kind of sweet and cheeky, like the playful towel-snap your older brother used to like flicking in your direction. It had notes of ripe red cherries, soft mangoes and a touch of lemon juice, honey, butterscotch and brine, which went well with some aromatic tobacco and a very faint hint of a rubber tyre.

Even at 49%, I’m afraid that it didn’t live up to the suggested quality the nose implied. Initial tastes were honey, unsweetened molasses, Guinness stout, olives and pimentos (!!), with some slowly developing fruitsdark grapes, raisins, gooseberriesplus red wine, chocolate and coffee grounds. The finish was short, not very emphatic, quite warm: mostly tobacco, light fruits, olives, toffee and a last hint of citrus. It doesn’t last long, and just sort of sidles out of the way without any fuss or bother.

Overall, it’s good, but also something of a let down. Even at 49% it seems too mild for what it seems it could present (and this from a relatively young series of blend components, so the potential is definitely there). There’s more in the trousers there someplace, the rum has a lot more it feels like it could say, but it is hampered by a lack of focus: leaving aside the proof point, it’s as if the makers weren’t sure they wanted to go in the direction of something darker (like a Caroni), or a lighter blend similar to (but different from) Angostura’s own portfolio. In a better designed rum it could have navigated a surer path between those two profiles, but as it is, the execution only shows us what could have been, without coming through with something more memorable.

(#865)(78/100)


Other Notes

  • As always, hat tip and appreciation to my old QC Rum Chum, Cecil, who passed the sample on to me.
  • The first remarks on the rum came from Sir Scrotimus in 2011. There’s a positive bartender’s blog review in 2012, the Fat Rum Pirate picked up a bottle in the UK and wrote quite positively about it in 2015, and Rum Revelations did an indifferent pass-through in 2020. Redditors have done reviews about it here, here and here. Overall, the consensus is a good one. The rum definitely has more potential than its makers seem to grasp.
  • The Scarlet Ibis is the national bird of Trinidad & Tobago and is featured on the coat of arms
  • The new edition of the rum which came out around 2019-2020 has a pair of ibises on the label. These are far more prominent than the grayed out bird on older editions such as the one I am reviewing here.
Nov 172021
 

What the hell just happened? Did somebody really just pay five figures for a bottle of rum from a new distillery?

No more than a year ago when he took an astonished look at where rum prices were going on Rum Auctioneer, Ian Burrel humorously if rather crudely remarked that you could bottle RS’s piss and still get a buyer and even more of it was Luca’s (and I was told of one rum commentator who would probably thank them both for with tears in his eyes and buy all he could get irrespective). Now, we may have hit a new peak with the just-concluded November 2021 auction.

I saw the numbers, sat back and stared. So much was peculiar, even wrong, about the hammer price of the Dark Matter Physicist #001 “Einstein” Rum. And with good reason, because no two sane persons would bid up a single bottle of a rum to that level, and end up paying £13,000 for it. A Wray and Nephew 17 YO, sure, a Courcelles 1948, yes, a Velier Skeldon, done. But thisthis defied not only logic, but common sense. Thirteen grand. Pounds! Either the buyer(s) had more money than sense (a lot more), or there was something else going on behind the scenes of which we are unaware.

I mean, think about itthis is not a Velier Skeldon 1973, one of which sold for an equally mind boggling, (but perhaps understandable) £20,500 a few months ago. That one at least had some pedigree, an enormous reservoir of goodwill and positive reviews going back many years, released by a company with a phenomenal track record. That was why the lesser 1998 Versailles 9 YO sold an auction or two back for nearly five thousand quidthe painstakingly built reputation and street cred of the man and the company behind it. Does Dark Matter have that? No. Not even close. These were named “Inaugural” for a reason, because the distillery has never actually released a “real” rum before now.

Shorn of all the press, and with all due respect to what they have accomplished, let’s be clear: it’s a newish distillery in Scotland, making spiced and infused rums and liqueurs, but nothing like a range of rums which fans can admire and taste and compare. I have no problem withand can’t mark them down fornot being from the Caribbean, as lots of really good rums are not made in the Caribbean, though it’s generally accepted that most of the well known and best rums come from there. It’s cool that they are Scotland’s first rum-focused distillery in ages, but come on, nothing in the company profile or distillation methodology suggests some sort of ground breaking technique that produces an elixir worth selling a kidney, and eye and piece of your genitalia for.

So, can it be the fact that it’s a single amazing bottle, perhaps, like the near-priceless Caputo 1973, or the 2021-released trio of Foursquare “Sly” bottles, or “The Burrell” rums which fetched a “mere” £6,400 for both together in 2019, or even the better known Appleton 50 year old (which limped in on this same auction for £4000)? 1

Photo (c) Richard Blesgraaf, from Facebook

No. It’s calling itself Cool because it is the Very First, even though the other eight bottles from the line are all from the same cask (and yet other unnamed bottles comprise the rest of the outturn and we don’t know where those are, so far). So making and naming the first bottle is somewhat less than unique, especially since we are hardly in a position to judge. It’s a marketing gimmick from that perspective.

And the bottle itself is also not a special edition of any kind either. You know the ones that are: they’re the ones that rest on silk pillows, in a gold-embossed, diamond-encrusted box made of polished purpleheart, that are made from hand blown glass designed and fashioned by Lalique, enclosing a fifty+ year old rum whose hand-harvested cane was tenderly drawn by ox-cart from the fields, individually hand-peeled before being manually fed into a crusher and thence the 400 year old copper pot still operated by maestros roneros with three centuries experience among them. Is it that kind of special? Nope, not that either. Aside from being nine single bottles with cool sounding names (at least one of which, by the way, is copyrighted, so I wonder whether they bothered to check into that), there is literally nothing to mark them out as something exceptional. Six year old rums released for the first time ever are not, I’m afraid, special. Not yet, anyway.

Putting all this together, then, there’s something more than crazy about who paid that price. No bar-owner, connoisseur or dabbler in rum, no American ex-bourbon-fancying Foursquare enthusiast, no global rum nerd, no writer, reviewer, blogger, journo, judge or junkie, none of them, would realistically fork over that kind of gold for that rum. Not ever. Amateur buyers who get carried away with bidding excitement rarely have the money, and the rest of them know what value is, they watch prices like hawks, and are keenly aware of the resale value of anything they bid on. They bid for real value, and I’m sorry, but that kind of value does not arise overnight, even for a first editionif it does, it’s because the trappings and shine are worth more than the tipple within, or because Luca is bottling his chamberpot or something.

So if we exclude the buyers and the liquid and the bottle then I think, at end, this was something else. No matter what I might theorize, the fact is that somebody out there felt they gained something from this exercise.

Is it the distillery? After all, whoever bought the nine bottles, whether a company or an individual, one person or many, the knock-on effect is the same: an enormous upswell of free publicity for the company. You’ll never be in the dark about Dark Matter Distillery again, because it’s guaranteed that everyone ooh-ing and aah-ing about the coin fetched by those nine bottles, would have checked into the distillery pronto to see what was going on (as I did, for example). Facebook comments are already gathering steam, and this article will lead to the same end. So from the distillery perspectivethey were the ones who sold the bottles directly through the RA siteit’s all good, it’s increasing their visibility by orders of magnitude. Too, if they themselves bought their rums back, it’s a tax write off as publicity expenses; and if other parties did the buying the distillery nets a cool £41,800 less expenses. (Note: yes, I’m being cynical, but I’m honestly showing you where my thinking leads meand to be clear, I have no evidence of any of this being the case).

The auction site? They have a vested interest in ensuring the highest prices are paid (as did the distillery), and get commissions on a percentage basis of the hammer price from both buyers and sellers, and there gave been scandals on other online auction sites before thisbid rigging is not unheard of. Moreover, the matter of fake bids, bidder authentication and vetting process of RA was seriously called into question in the weeks following this auction (and the subsequent one in December 2021) in a long and passionate FB threadas well as the comments on a poll that followed iton the Rum Collectors group. This pair of posts was all about fake bidders becoming too prevalent and brazenly jacking up prices without any action by the website.

Nowhere was the word ‘collusionused and it is probably too harsh to make the accusationbut surely indifference by RA played its part in allowing this to become an issue. But no, at the end I don’t really buy into the supposition of nefarious behaviorRum Auctioneermay have paid little attention to fake bids in the past, or tried to control it, but their own viability as a new going concern depends on privacy, trustworthiness and avoidance of scandal. Rigging is simply too obvious, and more importantly, Rum Auctioneer is a minnow: November 2021 might have been their biggest month with close to 2000 rums on sale, and nearly half a million pounds changing handsbut this is netting them a mere £83,000 or so in fees. This is dwarfed by the sheer scale of the main site Whisky Auctioneer where a single lot in the October 2021 auction had a value equalled by all of Rum Auctioneer’s November sales, where anywhere between seven to ten thousand items are on offer, five figure prices are common and the money at the end is reckoned in six and seven figures. They hardly need to waste time trying to fiddle around in the rum auctions when so much money is sloshing around elsewhere, and in any case, why risk the visibility of something as stark as this when “bidding up” could be easily hidden elsewhere? So no.

If we discount either of these, then what we are left with is people who bought the rum(s) for purposes of their own that have little to do with drinking or sharing: collectors or flippers with deep pockets and shallow knowledge bases who think they can recoup their money in a few months by relisting the bottle(s). I think they will be in for a shock at that point. Ten years from now, who knows? Ten months, howevernah.

Let’s be fair though. This is an Opinion, a conjecture on my part, caused by my not being in possession of enough facts (the big one beingwho the hell bid, and paid, those prices?). I could be completely out to lunch. Maybe there really are some trust fund babies out there who bid against each other (at the close there were 100 bids on the “Einstein” and they sure weren’t me or anyone I know), some petro-billionaires who got tired of buying paintings like “Salvatore Mundi” and didn’t want to fork out for an entire distillery, some teenage Silicon Valley types who just got vested, or a newly minted tuhao who is now putting together the ultimate spirits collection. For them, this is a rounding error in the petty cash, not the serious money it is for most of us proles.

I just can’t help but wonder. Like Ian, who in that above-mentioned post cautioned buyers about auctions, I’ve been uneasily watching the climb of online prices ever since Rum Auctioneer and Catawiki and other auction sites opened for business over the last few years: at the high end, the real rum lovers no longer stand a chance to buy the good stuffmore and more I get the feeling that it’s collectors, speculators and flippers doing the buying (and reselling), early buyers of favoured rum producers selling their collections because of those same prices and because they need the money, or bids being inflated by people who have no intention of being left holding the bag. Maybe it’s all bottle collection, or a flipper’s long game. I hope not.

Whatever the case, Dark Matter’s final hammer price bore no relation to any objective reality and seems to be a victory of money over sense (or appreciation). It’s often said that in investing, past performance is no real guide to future returns. The lesson we can draw from this situation is that a nonexistent past performance can now generate major present value, and the future can look after itself. We should all worry about that.


In closing:

Normally we don’t know if a rum was bought just so it could be turned around and recycled the very next month, but here we actually do: because there’s only one of each of the Nine. If they pop back up for sale, we’ll know why they were bought. If not, then we’ll be able to understand that too. Maybe that’s the best we rum aficionados can hope for, that one day the price of the Nazgul will seep back to some semblance of normalcy so we can buy them and decide whether they’re piss or poison…or something that somehow earns that incredible value. I won’t be holding my breath.


Disclaimer: I want to make it very clear that I am neither accusing nor making slanderous claims about any action taken by the parties mentioned in this post. This is an opinion piece that wonders what possibly could have happened, and why, and is a work of speculation.

Nov 152021
 

Rumaniacs Review #130 | 0864

Today we’ll look at the propenultimate rum which the Danish company Rom Deluxe released in their initial forays into their local rum scene. Six of the seven rums (the seventh being a special release for a client in 2020) were bottled in 2016-2017 after which the “line” ceased. They were all unlabelled and not sold to commercial establishments on a consistent basis, but taken around to tastings, friends, retailers and served as something of an introduction to the tiny company back before they got “serious”. I wonder if they made any money off them.

This is a Worthy Park rum, cask strength, distilled in 2010 and bottled in 2017 (it’s the only one that was done that year).

ColourGold

Age – 6 YO

Strength 64.9%

NoseThe funk is strong with this one. There’s gooseberries, pineapples, unripe Thai mangoes, unmistakably Jamaican, a serious, fierce nose. Bags of fruitgreen apples, pears, blood oranges, red grapefruit, coming to a nice sweet-sour combo after a few minutes. I’d say there was some light vanilla and baking spices at the back end, but not enough to do more than lend an accent to the main dish.

PalateSalt, sour and sweet, really strong, but the sharpness is kept at bay with a firmness of taste elements that is impressive. Funk of course, “tek front”, this thing is Jamaican beyond doubt. Brine and olives in lemon juice, green grapes and apples, grapefruits again, plus grated ginger and a touch of (get this!) wasabi. So softer notes of dates and figs, cumin, nutmeg. I could sip this for hours, and in fact, I pretty much did.

FinishLong, dry, fruity, with apples, grapes, citrus, pineapples, kiwi fruits and strawberries. Plus vanilla. And bubble gum.

ThoughtsReally good, really solid rum, lots of notes from around the wheel, but always, at end, a Jamaican pot still rum, and a very impressive one. I doubt I’d be able to say WP or Hampden in a pinch (and it’s a WP, of course)…just that it’s not a bottle I’d give away if I had one. The bad news is that this one is long gone. The good news is theyWorthy Park and the independents like Rom Deluxeare making more.

(85/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks as always go to Nicolai Wachmann, for the sample, and Kim Pedersen of Rom Deluxe for his help with the background details.
  • Outturn unknown
Nov 112021
 

Photo Courtesy Rom Deluxe

Rumaniacs Review #129 | 0863

Rom Deluxe, the Danish company whose very first release and company biography was profiled last week, ended up making a total of seven initial bottlings, all of which were more or less non-commercial, and served primarily to establish the small company’s bona fides around the country. They are long since only to be found either in some collector’s back shelf, unlabelled and perhaps even unremembered, or in Rom Deluxe’s own shelves. As a comment on the many years that Rom Deluxe was only a small hobby outfit, observe that six of these seven bottlings were made in 2016 (the year the company was founded) to 2019 (the year of the “Wild series” first release) after which the ethos of changed to a more commercial mindset; the 7th edition, in 2020, was a special edition for a client, not the market.

In the founding year four bottlings were done, with the second and fourth from BarbadosFoursquare to be exact. This fourth edition was 11 years old (from 2005), and released in early 2017 at cask strength, though the exact outturn is unknownI’d suggest between two to three hundred bottles.

ColourGold

Age – 11 YO

Strength – 58.8%

NoseSweet light fruit, raspberries, papayas and the tartness of red currants. Cherries and unripe green pears. Vanilla and the slight lemony tang of cumin (I like that), as well as some hint of licorice. Delicate but emphatic at the same time, yet the heavier notes of a pot still element seem curiously absent.

PalateCompletely solid rum to drink neat; dry and a touch briny and then blends gently into salt caramel ice cream, black bread and herbal cottage cheese (kräuter quark to the Germans). After opening and a few minutes it develops a more fruity characterplums, ripe black cherriesand mixes it up with cinnamon, light molasses and anise. It goes down completely easy.

FinishNice and longish, no complaints. The main flavours reprise themselves here: anise, molasses, dark fruits, a bot of salt and some citrus.

ThoughtsOkay it’s a Foursquare, and so a pot-column blend, but perhaps we have all been spoiled by the Exceptionals, because even with the 58.8% strength, it seems more column still than a pot-column mashup, and somehow rather more easy going than it should be. Not too complex, and not too badsimply decent, just not outstanding or memorable in any serious way.

(82/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks as always go to Nicolai Wachmann, for the sample, and Kim Pedersen of Rom Deluxe for his help with the background details.