Ruminsky

Nov 172022
 

Whatever my personal opinions on the need for the four Magnum rums to exist as a separate collection as opposed to being folding into other series, they are there, they’re a fact of life and we move on. In any case, we’ve learnt a bit about the legendary photo agency (even if we’re not into current history) and read up about the style and importance of Elliot Erwitt (even if we’re not photographers or understand the connection), and have tasted four new rums from old and proud houses, so it’s by no means a waste.

Moreover, for all their variations in quality, the fact is the rums really are kind of good, and this is a way to make them shine and gain (even more) popular acclaim. “Good” did I say? Well…yes, though perhaps I understate matters. The Foursquare, for all my relative lack of enthusiasm was quite decent (many disagreed and thought it was much better), and the Hampden and the Mount Gay rums were, I thought, excellent in their own right.  But when it comes ot the Saint James, the lowest proofed of the lot, “good” or “excellent” just doesn’t cut it.  Because this is a rum that’s exceptional.

Part of that may have been the completely approachable strength (45%) and part was surely the impact of fifteen years ageing in Martinique: we rarely see agricole rhums that old, so by itself that’s a selling point; plus, this may be the first indie bottling Saint James have ever allowed (like Appleton’s pot still collection, another Velier coup from a couple of years back). The real takeaway is that this rum combines an agricole sensibility with a long-term barrel-ageing philosophy (much as the Bally 18 YO did) and while of course I can’t speak for your experience or to your preferences, when I tried it, it was love at first sip.

The first notes of the rum opened with a complex symphony so rich I slugged the shot down, then poured a second glass immediately, just to make sure somebody wasn’t messing with me. There was a complex fruit symphony of tart gooseberries, miso, very ripe gooseberries and mangoes, and a smorgasbord of all the sour funkiness I would normally have associated with Jamaica. Pineapples, cherries, sprite, lemon rind, honey, and that was before a panoply of cane sap and herbals made themselves known: fennel, rosemary, cloves, jasmine.  The balance was superb and each delicate aromatic chip  was clear, bright, and neither dominating nor dominated by, any other.

It was a great experience tasting it, as well.  It felt just right on the tongue, silky, velvety, rich, and the tastes just went on from there. A lot of the bright and effervescent character remained, sweet, sour, tart, clean and voluptuous: pineapple slices and light yellow Thai mangoes, plus 7Up, honey, with additional threads of vanilla, cinnamon, rosemary and cardamom, plus just enough coffee grounds, chocolate and woodsmoke to present an intriguing and welcome counterpoint. The prevalence of dried fruits – thankfully not oversweet – brought to mind aged armagnacs or cognacs, especially when combined with a hint of aromatic damp tobacco. And it led to a really nice finish, surprisingly long, presenting a finale of delicious, sweetly gentle florals, bananas, honey, fruits and anise. 

Like Stuart Pearce of the underrated review site Secret Rum Bar, I have tended to view much-reduced aged agricole rhums with some hesitation, some reluctance, even occasional suspicion; and in his own review he noted that he felt the palate became somewhat flat, hence his lower score. I thought otherwise myself, though: it  dialled down from the impact the nose had made, to be sure, yet I didn’t think any quality was truly lost. 

Frankly, my opinion was (and remains, after sneaking a second round in at the Paris Whisky Live later in the year) that it is hard to see how it could have been improved upon. It’s one of the best aged agricoles I’ve ever tried, and to my mind, is some kind of wonderful. It dares to take a chance, to not so much go off the beaten track as delicately careen along the skirting to show possibilities, hinting, not bludgeoning.  It marries a solid age not often seen in agricole rhums, with a lower strength that allows all the complexities of the barrels and the gradual transmutation of the rhum, to be presented in their full flower. To bring this up to cask strength but make it younger would not have worked as well, and to simply age it without addressing the balance of tastes and intensity would have invited failure. Saint James drew upon all the skills they had – and that’s a lot – and ended up providing Velier, and us, with one of those miraculous rhums that achieves its immediate goals of being just damned good…and then continues climbing towards an even higher sensibility.

(#951)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 


Other notes

  • Once again it seems like I have a minority opinion. Secret Rum Bar rated it 84 points, WhiskyFun gave it 88, while Rum-X has an average of 84 points off of 12 ratings.
  • As with the other rums in this quartet, the outturn is 600 magnums and 1200 bottles.
  • The photograph on the label is from 2005 and depicts a scene from the wedding of a friend of Erwitt’s in Rome. The woman shown in silhouette is the bride.
  • The rums in the Magnum Series Volume 1 are:
  • From the Mount Gay “Magnum EE” Review: The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but they have no direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were likely chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.
Nov 142022
 

There was a time not too long ago when anything you got from Hampden was some bulk rum export that got bottled by an indie in Europe. Berry Bros. & Rudd, Murray McDavid, Renegade, Samaroli, Compagnie des Indes, Rum Nation…these companies and more were the ones who kept the name alive and vibrant in people’s memories. And to be fair, the rums they picked were usually quite good – the Samaroli 1992 for example, was really kind of spectacular and even the Murray McDavid edition that was half as old, was no slouch.

All that changed after the launch of estate bottlings by Hampden in 2018, distributed globally by Velier. The reputation of the distillery bloomed overnight, and suddenly we moved from drought to deluge – it seemed like everywhere we turned there was another company that touted its street cred by having a Hampden rum in ts portfolio. SMWS, SBS, Stolen Spirits, Rom Deluxe, LMDW, Duncan Taylor, Mezan, Valinch & Mallet, Rum Artesanal, Rum Club, Blackadder, Silver Seal, Wild Parrot, Hunter Laing, Kintra, and so on and so forth and such like. That’s was a lot of choices, but the cream of the crop – at least with regards to customer appreciation – continued to be the Velier releases with their near-trademarked labelling ethos and tropical ageing.  And they lost no time expanding the Hampden rums into a veritable smorgasbord of offerings to cater to every taste.

At times it almost seemed like Velier-overkill.  There were Habitation Velier Hampdens, the  black-bottle yellow-label series, Endemic Birds, Great House, Warren Khong, Pagos, the various marks editions (now conveniently available as a sample pack) – it seems hard to believe that it all started with just a pair of 8YO rums a mere four years ago.  And, predictably, for the 2022 season yet another Hampden rum was released as part of the “Magnum” quartet, though in this case it was just the one and not a whole set.

Strictly speaking, that rum – on the face of it and going with the bare bones statistics – presents as nothing out of the ordinary. A pot still rum, distilled in 2016 and bottled in 2021 at 60% ABV, aged tropically for five years in ex-bourbon barrels, and bearing the marque HLCF (“Hampden Light Continental Flavoured”) which is therefore in the midrange of esterland: 500-600 g/hLpa, where for my money, the real quality lies buried and often overlooked in the rush to bag the biggest and baddest animal out there (the 1600 beast of the DOK, of course).

But whatever the ester count is, consider just how well the rum, even at that young age, comes across when you smell it.  It reeks some kind of spectacular, I think: all the funky rotten fruits, orange rind, cherries, strawberries, pineapples and half chewed bubble gum we’ve grown to known and love, they’re all there. It exhales a bit of smoke, a bit of vanilla, a touch of cinnamon, some leather, honey and even sweet soya. Glue, acetones, furniture polish, fresh paint rise up to take their place and it all combines into a sort of deep complexity with a lot of different aromatic notes coexisting within a nice harmony. There’s a sort of rough richness to it that I sometimes forget Hampden rums display, and if perhaps the strength is overpowering, a touch of water can certainly bring things down a notch.

This is also true of the taste. Here, it’s more obvious that the rum has the roughness and toughness of a Trenchtown yardie the entire time: it has not been tamed and sanded down by a further decade in a barrel.  What that does, however, is provide some really robust and precise notes that remain rather aggressive and sharp and which can be alleviated with some water. Glue, acetones, sweet pineapple, ginnips, tart yoghurt. The funk is well controlled, neither excessive not too faint, and there’s varnish, apple cider lurking around the corner to cosh you. It spurs roughshod over the palate, which is the youth of the thing speaking, of course, but I have to confess to a certain admiration for that. And it all leads to a nice long finish that has fruity notes, bubble gum, brine, olives, and some smoke, and brings the whole business to a hot close.

Now speaking for myself, I’m not entirely a fan of very young rums being sold at premium prices because too often it seems like a way to leverage a Name and a reputation based on past achievements, rather than intrinsic quality of a rum itself. Yet here I find myself with little to quibble about: the rum bears out a gradually developing personal premise that when it comes to the high ester rum category, the midrange is where the real action lies, not the edges of the bell curve where the extremists lie in wait to hack and slash. 

I liked this rum, a lot, for all its lack of years. It’s tasty as hell. It keeps on going like the barrel had an energizer bunny stuffed inside the entire time. It’s aggressive, it’s big, it’s bad, it’s bold, and had I been the sommelier advising John Wick, I would have said to screw the Austrian and German selections and go with the Hampden. This the rum that would have justified that choice, and the body count would have been way lower had he done so, because, let’s face facts, you just can’t go far wrong when you stick with one of the badasses of the New Jamaican varietals.

(#950)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The Hampden rating doesn’t appear to polarise as much as my previous two reviews of the Foursquare and Mount Gay.  Most agree that it’s a pretty fine rum. Secret Rum Bar rated it 88+ points, WhiskyFun gave it 87, while Rum-X has an average of 86 points off of 30 ratings (as of this writing).
  • As with others in the set, outturn is 1200 bottles and 600 magnums.
  • The photograph on the label is of Coney Island in New York, dated from 1954. 
  • The rums in the Magnum Series Volume 1 are:
  • From the Mount Gay “Magnum EE” Review: The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but they have no direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were likely chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.
Nov 102022
 

The new rums of Velier’s first edition of the Magnum Elliot Erwitt series of rums are only four in number, and it’s too early to tell whether future editions will materialise. Honestly, I don’t see any need to create a new series at all: both the Hampden and Foursquare rums already have well established collaborative series of their own, Saint James could have been folded into the 25th AOC Anniversary bottling and I’m sure a home could have been found for Mount Gay somewhere. The Magnum photographic connection — to rum, Velier or the distilleries — is tenuous at best and even the selected photographer is a relatively obscure choice.

Still, if the intent was to release four rums that stand out in an arresting and visual fashion, then that works, and surely Velier is treading on familiar ground they themselves have helped establish. And there have been one-offs and smaller series before, like the original Damoiseau 1980, or the twin Basseterre rhums, or the two Indian Ocean series releases. Nothing says it needs to be an ongoing multi-year effort like, oh, Rom Deluxe’s “Wild” series. Next year there will likely be yet another one and I do enjoy looking for and at those distinctive designs.

What thoughts like these suggest, however, is a diminishment of the importance of a rum range that retains a quality and consistency level over long periods. The Demeraras, the Caronis, the HV series of rums — even the 70th Anniversary Collection — are all examples of successful and important long term ranges Velier has created. By making a series of short-lived “little” series like Warren Khong, Indian Ocean, Japoniani, Villa Paradisetto (among others), one wonders if there really is an overarching philosophy at work, some kind of through-line that makes each range truly unique in some individual fashion, over and above the arresting designs and colours.

I make this observation because of the four rums in the first collection, the Foursquare is the one that, to me, stood out the least (I tried all four together). The production stats, on paper, are all sterling: pot-column-still blend (the website calls it a “100% pot still pure single blended rum” but that’s a contradiction in terms, and I confirmed it is indeed a blend of the sort Foursquare is known for), distilled in 2005, double aged in ex-bourbon and sherry casks for sixteen years, then released with an outturn of 1200 700ml bottles and 600 1.5L magnums at 61%. A serious, old tropically aged rum. The distillery doesn’t make much that’s older than that.

What it doesn’t do is break new ground in any significant way. The nose is light for the strength, for example, and feels consistent with my memory of other ECS releases. Dusty and somewhat papery at first, before the more usual salt-caramel, vanilla, and aromas of grapes, peaches and ripe apples emerge. There’s a creamy, briny, almost tart laban background, macaroons, some nuttiness, a touch of orange peel and cinnamon, a bit of basil and rosemary herbs. A decent nose, about what is expected.

It tastes about the same. The texture is great, very solid and emphatic, and channels fruitiness well: mostly cherries in syrup (minus the excessive sweet), ripe red grapes and apples and peaches; there’s also brown sugar, vanilla, coconut shavings, some molasses, white chocolate and nuttiness, set off with just the suggestion of citrus. The finish sums all that up, adds little additional complexity and its major claim to fame is that it it is really quite epically long, with notes of unsweetened yoghurt, caramel, vanilla and some indeterminate fruitiness.

Overall, it’s good. That said, it didn’t move me much — what’s missing is something of the exceptionalism, the blazing fire and shoot-the-moon excellence that define Velier’s best collaborations with Foursquare, and that distillery’s own finest ECS editions. This is a hyped limited release with serious artistic pretensions; the profile is consistent, the taste is good, it adheres to most of  the markers that we seek in a limited edition Barbados rum…and yet it’s one that doesn’t ring my bells, doesn’t make me sit up in stunned wtf-level amazement and then head straight over to wherever is selling it so I can get me a bottle and consider myself fortunate to pay three figures for the privilege. Barbados rum lovers will not be disappointed, of course (it would have to be a real dog for that), and investors will continue to buy it because of the limited outturn, so it won’t fail in the market.  For me though, it’s a pass at the price.

(#949)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • From the Velier Mount Gay “Magnum EE” Review: The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but they have no direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were likely chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.
  • This is particularly the case here, where the label photograph is of the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, taken in 1970. What that has to do with the rum or either of the involved companies, is simple: nothing.
  • Others’ opinions of this rum are almost exactly reversed from the Mount Gay Magnum edition which I liked more. Just about everyone who has written in about it loves this one, while I think it less. Secret Rum Bar rated it 92 points, WhiskyFun gave it 86, while Rum-X has an average of 88 points off of 25 ratings, with several topping 90.
Nov 072022
 

By now it’s almost like an annual event at the beginning of each new rum-release season: Velier makes an announcement about a co-bottling or a new rum, or a whole new series, and the rumiverse goes politely batsh*t for a while. To be honest, I kind of look forward to see what they come up with myself, because you really can’t fault their originality, or their style. And the rums themselves are usually interesting, with an occasional gem popping up here and there.

Now, most independents go with the standard big Caribbean distilleries, keep the labels consistent, and stay within just a few clearly pre-established “ranges.” Not Velier. They go off on their own tangent, every time. There was the clairins in 2014, HV in 2015, the pair of Indian ocean rums in 2017, the Hampden launch in 2018 (and all its various sub-series like Great House and Endemic Birds et al, since then), the Barbosa grogue and Villa Paradisetto in 2019, Japoniani in 2020, and — well, I could go on. Each has its own label design aesthetic, and tries to be original in some small way. For the 2022 season, then, the pride of place along with the Papa Rouyos and twenty Saint James expressions was surely the Magnum Series No.1 featuring Elliot Erwitt’s black and white photos on the label.

The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but I don’t think they have direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.

So let’s get started with the first of the four, the Mount Gay, which could equally well be called the Last Last Last Ward. It is a pot still distillate laid down in 2007 when Frank Ward was still running the joint; the idea was to create a new and different brand called Mount Gilboa, and there have been some barrels that the Ward family kept after the takeover by Remy Cointreau, some of which were bottled as the Last Ward rums of the Habitation Velier line. The rum was triple distilled on double retort pot stills and aged in American white oak for 14 years (unlikely to be new – the influence would be too great, so my money is on ex-bourbon casks), after which a mere 600 bottles were squeezed out at 60% ABV.

What comes out at the other end after a near decade and a half is really kind of spectacular.  The initial aromas are a perfumed symphony of sweet molasses, honey, and flambeed bananas in a luscious kind of mélange. A vein of sweet and creamy caramel coffee winds its way around rich scents of custard, coconut shavings and vanilla. This is offset by the tart muskiness of soft and almost-overripe fruits: pears, guavas, oranges, apples, grapes, black cherries. I enjoyed the hint of the spices – cinnamon, cardamom, rosemary — and the whole thing displays a depth of complexity not to be sneezed at.

It tastes really good too.  The 60% lands on the palate as solidly as a right-wing extremist’s denial of …well, anything. It’s deceptively soft, the impact doesn’t get there until later: initially it’s all mushy fruit and smoke and leather, with the barest bitter tang of oakiness.  Vanilla, coconut shavings, those flambeed bananas again, plus light florals, a touch of smoke, and a creamy, tart yoghurt mixing it up with honey, caramel, and a dusting of cinnamon and cardamom. The finish is a gradual come down from these heights – it’s epically long, of course, and doesn’t feel like adding anything to the party, being content to sum up with light molasses, yoghurt, those ripe fruits, pineapples and spices. 

Overall, I think the rum is great, and it reminds me a lot of the Habitation Velier Last Ward 2007 and 2009 rums – which is hardly surprising since they come from the same batch of barrels squirrelled away all those years ago. They all have that sense of displaying a sort of quality without effort, like it was hardly even trying, and are quite different from the normal run of Mount Gay rums which are more widely available, and more affordable. The Magnum is neither worse nor better than either of those two earlier HV editions – better to say it exists on that same level of pot still excellence, and I suppose that if the distillate had not been used for the Magnum line, it would have been completely appropriate to be the third Last Ward in the Habitations. The price will probably keep the average buyer away, but for those who can score a sample or even a bottle of this latest in the Velier lineup, I think it’s more than worth it.

(#948)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Opinions on the online databases like Rum-X and Rum Ratings mostly felt it did not quite come up to snuff; in doing my last checks before posting this review, was surprised to see I liked it more than most. I passed over comments like the alcohol being too high or the profile not being their thing (those are personal opinions, and each has their own which won’t necessarily align with mine), but one thing must be conceded: there are other Barbadian rums out there — some even from Mount Gay — which are almost or equally good, and which cost less.  It has to be accepted that part of the price here is the rarity and small outturn, and the premium of the name.
  • The photograph on the label is a 1999 photo of the Californian seaside resort of Pacific Palisades.
Nov 032022
 

Tanduay, in spite of being a behemoth of rum making in Asia (it sold nearly 23 million cases in 2021) with more than a 150-year history, has a spotty recognition in the west, largely because until relatively recently it sold most of its wares in Asia, and wasn’t all that common, or available anywhere else. What knowledge or reviews of the brand as existed, came from people who had friends in the Philippines who could bring a bottle over, or sip there on a sunny beach and write about the experience. And other Philippine brands like Limtuaco or Don Papa didn’t exactly set the world on fire and make sharp nosed distributors run to book tickets to the Philippine islands: because there as in much of Asia, a lighter, softer, sweeter and more laid back rum-style is much more in vogue. 

But once people realised that Don Papa (in particular) was selling quite nicely in spite of all the hissy fits about sweetening, and saw other brands’ adulterated fare were not really hurt by all the vitriol emanating from social media’s rum clubs, it was inevitable that Tanduay would make sure it expanded into more lucrative markets and try and upgrade its sales to the premium segment, where the real pesos are. This is why, even though they began selling in North America from around 2013 (with a gold and a silver rum, probably as an alternative to Bacardi’s Blanco and Gold rums and their copycats), there’s been an increasing visibility of the brand in the European rum festival and tasting scene only since 2019, with more aged products becoming part of the marketing mix.

The rum we’re looking at today is not really in the premium world, though the Rum Howler suggested in his 2019 review that it was positioned that way.  It’s actually a blend of oak-aged rums of no more than five years old, and it’s semi-filtered to a pale yellow (this could equally mean it’s a blend of aged and unaged stocks like the Probitas/Veritas but I doubt it). Molasses base from a “heritage” sugar cane, column still, 40%. Nothing premium or spectacular on the face of it.

The completely standard nature of its production belies some interesting if ultimately unexciting aromas.  It’s soft, which is to be expected, and a touch briny. Some vanilla and coconut shavings are easy to discern, and these are set off by pears and green apples, ripe gooseberries and a touch of citrus peel. It’s an easy smell, with the combination of soft sweetness, light sour notes and tartness coming together nicely.

Taste-wise it’s light, easy, warm-weather drinking, with the standard proofage making it hard to pick out anything particularly hard-hitting or complex. There’s vanilla, almonds, papaya and watermelon to start, and these are joined with the aforementioned grapes and apples and some tartness of sour, unripe green mangoes and citrus peel. In the background there’s some coconut, light molasses and sweet spices; but really, it’s all so faint that the effort is not commensurate with the reward, and the near-nonexistent light finish – sweet and lightly fruity – doesn’t help matters. It’s light enough so it can be had neat.  The character, however, is too bland and it would be overwhelmed by anything you put bit into (including the ice cube), so it’s probably best to just mix it with a cocktail where the rum profile is the background, not the point.

This is a rum that competes with the Plantation Three-Star, Bacardi and Lamb’s white rums, the Havana Club 3 YO, Beenleigh 3 YO and others of that ilk, which serve as basic cocktail mixing rums with occasional flashes of better-than-expected quality popping up to surprise us (like the Montanya Platino or the Veritas, for example). The Tanduay Silver does not, however, play in the sandbox of agricoles or unaged white rums we’ve  looked at before, and to my mind, they bowed to their cultural preferences and aged it to be as soft and easy as it is — when an unaged, higher-strength product might have shown more chops and character, and displayed more courage in a market that is aching to have more such rums. 

(#947)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • On both the Philippine and US company websites, there is no sign of the pale yellow “Silver” rum I’ve tried; it seems to be for European markets only, as the other two are resolutely colourless in their pictures, and named “white”. The specifications all seem to be the same: a lightly filtered, column-still blend of young rums under five years old.
Oct 312022
 

Rumaniacs Review R-139 | 0946

Captain Morgan was not always the dismissed and derided global rum-killer which has been its lot since it nose-dived into a vat of overspiced and insipid distillate where Diageo put it. But the original spiced-rum recipe — which Samuel Bronfman of Seagram’s bought from the local Jamaican pharmacy of the Levy brothers in 1944 when he had bought the Long Pond Distillery — long predated Diageo’s acquisition. It’s just that Seagram never made it the centrepiece of the brand the way Diageo did. 

For a long time Seagram’s used rums from around the Caribbean to make blends under various brand names (see other notes, below). The Black Label rum looked at here, for example, was a Jamaican rum — we can assume from Long Pond — and there are other now-discontinued variations such as the blend of Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados rums (also under the Black Label brand) made in the early 1980s. In 1984, still owned by Seagram’s, they introduced the “Original Spiced” Captain Morgan rum which soon became enormously popular. So it isn’t all Diageo (or Vivendi, which had merged with Seagram’s a year earlier), and if this Captain Morgan Jamaican rum from the 1970s has been tarted up, well, it’s at least done with a little restraint.

Colour – Amber

Strength – 70º proof / 40% ABV

Nose – Licorice and coke, into which someone dunked a rusty nail (seriously!); ashy and minerally notes which are only partly ameliorated by rather bitter coffee grounds, brown sugar and unsweetened chocolate.  Some dark fruit like prunes, and a touch of citrus-like lemon peel.  There’s even a sense of tomato ketchup on the nose as it opens, but mostly the aromas resemble a low rent Demerara rum than anything else.

Palate – Thin, but nice, to be expected at 40%.  Again, licorice and coca cola, caramel, brown sugar, some molasses. Some coffee grounds and dark fruit.  Rather bland, all in all, buit nice enough, and the slight sweet helps it go down easy.

Finish – Short, light.  Brown sugar, blancmange, anise and light molasses.  If there’s a fruit in there, it’s hiding.

Thoughts – It’s much more “real” than modern Captains, and surprisingly drinkable. There’s more taste, more heft and a lot less clear additions.  For example, I couldn’t sense any vanilla, and the sweetness was borderline, so if had been doctored, it was with a gentle hand and a small spoon rather than a spade.

(78/100)


Other notes

  • Age is unknown.  Standard practice for such cheap rums is to age them for a few years, more than one and less than five, but that’s unsubstantiated in this case.
  • The label is interesting in and of itself. First of all it says that it’s a “product of Jamaica.”  That instantly eliminates Diageo as the producer. Secondly, it’s 70º proof – this indicates a pre-1980s dating of a pre-metric age in the Commonwealth, after which the “% ABV” and not “º proof” became the law for labels. Thirdly, it’s made by an outfit called Captain Morgan Rum Distillers in London (Dacre Street SW1H), which, as far as I can ascertain, was the distribution arm in the UK at that time, never mind that they didn’t have a distillery there. The street address is long closed and has been redeveloped into flats, a small hotel, and office space.
  • Seagram’s and Vivendi merged in June 2000, with the key point being the joining of their media empires…the spirits business was secondary and Edgar Bronfman noted at the time it would be sold off anyway. A year later the wine and spirits division of Seagram’s was on the block and three conglomerates were in the running to take over the lucrative brand portfolio: an alliance of Brown-Forman and Bacardi, the latter of which at the time was having cash flow issues and was heavily in debt; Allied Domecq; and a partnership of Pernod-Ricard and Diageo. Diageo-PR won the tussle, split the portfolio and Diageo walked away with (among other brands) Captain Morgan, though they had to give up Malibu brand on anti-competitive grounds to do so. 
  • Distillate — aside from that derived from Long Pond, and other countries’ stocks — was primarily from Puerto Rico. Around 2011, Captain Morgan was induced by massive tax breaks and financial concessions, to build a distillery and make its rums in the US Virgin Islands. Nowadays this is where Captain Morgan brands are made.
  • Originally, as noted, Captain Morgan was a blend from Jamaica and other islands. Hugh Barty-King and Anton Massel, in their 1983 book “Rum Yesterday and Today” (p.190), wrote that  “There were always 65,000 forty-gallon barrels of rum at the Seagram UK processing plant at Speke, Liverpool, and the storage centre at Huyton. Their supplies came mainly from Guyana and Jamaica, but also in small amounts from Barbados, Hawaii, Mexico and Puerto Rico. The rum was diluted and made up into various blends, put into bottles on which labels were put with such names as ‘Captain Morgan’ (the most in demand), ‘Woods’, ‘Myers’, ‘Old Charlie’ and ‘Tropicana’.”

 

Oct 262022
 

There are many Indian spirits combines on the subcontinent which make rum — Radico Khaitan, Mohan Meakin and United Spirits, are some examples — not all of which are well known by rum folks elsewhere because of their predilection for selling domestically, or only in Asia. Still others concentrate on beer, whisky or various other industrial manufacturing enterprises, and the rum component of their sales is so minor that it is not widely exported. And yet rum is one of the oldest distilled spirits made in India, and it is this which founded the fortunes of Amrut Distilleries way before they started finding global fame as purveyors of that obscure Scottish drink in the 2010s.

What became Amrut Distilleries – the name means “nectar of the gods” in Sanskrit1 – was established in 1939 in the south-central-Indian city of Bangalore as Associated Drugs Co. Ltd, and then in 1947 as Amrut Laboratories — the founder, JN Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale, was a chemist — with an investment of a few hundred thousand rupees. At the time its stated purpose was over the counter drugs and pharmaceuticals (particularly cough syrup) but with the gaining of independence, opportunities for local Indians expanded in concert with the relaxation of licensing laws. This allowed a distillery licence to become easier to acquire, so Mr. Jagdale promptly got one, and Amrut Distilleries was registered in 1948 (the pharmaceutical division was retained).  

If one were to read the various online newspapers, magazines and hagiographies of Amrut, one could be forgiven for concluding that it jumped fully formed out of Zeus’s brow in the 1980s when they first began making malted whiskey, leading to the global successes and acclaim of their single malts in the 2010s.  However, like most Indian producers of spirits, Amrut had a history before that, and it is frustrating in the extreme to find almost nothing written about the company that would give a more detailed picture of what it did between 1950 and 1982. 

(c) Amrut Distilleries

Be that as it may, Amrut by 1949 had already begun making a blended brandy called “Silver Cup” and debuted in the state of Karnataka (of which Bangalore is the capital and largest city) – vinyards were spreading around Bangalore at that time, so there was a ready supply of grapes (though there was, as was common at the time, a fair bit of adulteration going on…see next paragraph). This must have sold well enough to keep the business afloat, but strangely enough, even with the example of Dyer Meakin’s Solan No.1 whiskey, Amrut did not immediately branch out into whiskies, but for several years mostly sold brandies and rums. Some attention was obviously being paid, however, since by 1962 the company had a contract with the army, (probably following on the example set by Dyer Meakin’s very successful Old Monk rum from 1954) — and they supplied brandy, Amrut XXX rum and Prestige XXX whiskey to the armed forces’ 3000 or so canteens. To this day, sales to the armed forces remain a significant proportion of the companies’ revenues.

It should be pointed out that during these decades, local spirits – “Indian Made Indian Liquors” or IMIL, and locally manufactured foreign ones “Indian Made Foreign Liquor” or IMFL – catered primarily to the low-end mass-market of India. Brandies were from local grapes, rums from local molasses, and gins and whiskies were often from distillate that also came from molasses — in the latter case, with 10%-15% of malted whisky thrown in to make the taste more “genuine”. In many cases, neutral alcohol was mixed with some of the real spirit or additives to give the impression of genuine-ness, and then watered down to below the maximum allowable strength (45% or so).

This was more than just rank pecuniary opportunism, mind (although there was plenty of that too): part of the reason for this procedure in whiskies was that in a country plagued by food shortages and even famines, it was problematic to use grain for the manufacture of alcohol. And alcohol itself was a touchy moral subject when considered with poverty and alcohol’s ambivalent reputation (some states do not allow alcohol to be sold on payday, as an interesting aside). The adulteration and dodgy manufacturing might have allowed costs to be kept miniscule and prices low for local consumers, but was the major reason no Indian whisky was permitted to call itself Scotch or Scots whisky in the EEC and EU for a very long time, in spite of their seeming pedigree and occasional names deriving from Scots culture.

With these facts in mind it would seem logical (in the absence of better information to the contrary) to assume that Amrut essentially played a long and slow game of gradual expansion. They started with brandy, moved into rum and then did a blended whisky which was based at least partly on molasses distillate, as all distillers were doing at the time. Much of the research available suggests that the Bangalore facility was and has remained the main operational centre and initially comprised of a liquor blending and bottling unit, with a distillery added at some later point in the 1950s.

By 1972 they were distilling their own brandy so clearly they had moved away from just blending, and gradually, if slowly, expanding beyond the borders of Karnataka.  In that same year, the 19-year-old Neelakanta Rao Jagdale joined the company (the exact position he was given is unclear, though most sources agree he was helping his father “run” the company).  This was fortuitous timing, as four years later in 1976, Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale, the founder of the company, died, and Neelakanta stepped up to become Chairman and Managing Director. The company forged on under Neelakanta’s leadership, however, and it could be argued that his achievements and the direction he gave Amrut in the 1980s made it a seminal decade in the company’s early history.

In 1984, a Government monopoly over spirits was instituted in the southwestern state of Kerala via the Kerala State Beverages Corporation, and Amrut was licensed to sell to them, thereby acquiring a large market share in that state; they similarly expanded into other states in this decade, and gained loyal customers in states like Pondicherry, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi in addition to its own state of Karnataka. This was accompanied in 1987 by an expansion and refurbishment of the Bangalore distillery, with additional distillation equipment brought in to increase capacity as restrictions on imports were eased. 

Amrut also broke new ground in taking aim at a more premium segment of the Indian spirits industry, when the deregulatory wave of Thatcherite and Reaganite economics started to sweep around the world. In 1982 they began to experiment with making whisky, not just as an inferior and cheaply made mix of real and neutral and molasses spirit, but from grains. This did not stop the MaQintosh whisky from being made as an initially cheap blend, though perhaps it was more notable for casually appropriating two evocative terms – the Mac computer and a Scottish name –  than any intrinsic quality of its own. It was followed in 1986 by the Prestige Blended Malt Whisky, which was also blended with flavourings while at the same time reducing the quantity of molasses spirit and focusing much more on barley. Yet all the while the company was starting to work towards making a true Single Malt. 

By the mid 1990s they had developed whisky that was all from Indian grain and aged to the standard required by international regulations, and Jagdale felt it was of a quality that matched Scottish 12 year old whiskies. The problem was, although they had burgeoning stocks, enough to sell, could they make enough of it to go on and scale up, and could they sell it outside of India? Other companies were also making malted whisky with malted barley imported from abroad (because of grain shortages in India), and this restricted Amrut’s plans…until the early 2000s.

(c) Amrut Distilleries

Several events intersected at that point.  For one, India became self sufficient in grain for the first time and so more was available for alcohol manufacture. Secondly, industrial technology infrastructure got a boost with the ethanol plants built by Praj Industries in the late 1990s so grain alcohol became seen as an economically viable substitute for molasses-based rectified spirit, or extra neutral alcohol. As deregulation gathered steam and a new and more sophisticated (and affluent) urban middle class emerged in India, the moral taboos and restrictions on grain based spirits began to recede.  And lastly, there was the impetus and competition given to local spirits companies and their IMFL by the entrance to the Indian market of foreign liquor multinationals who had the benefit of larger supplies and that air of long-established authenticity which Indian made liquors did not have.

The entry of global spirits conglomerates was crucial because it invaded the premium section of the market, the same one local companies like Amrut were aiming to colonise themselves. Amrut knew that they could either go the route of building strong, original, authentic brands that could compete in the top end — and globally — or be relegated to the mass market, where they would be tied to a multitude of (complex, bureaucratic and often corrupt) local state government agencies and razor thin margins. Vijay Mallya’s United Spirits group solved this issue by acquiring foreign alcohol businesses with well known brand portfolios, saving them the trouble of building their own, but Amrut went in the opposite direction: they would compete directly and build their own brands, reasoning that there would be a knock-on effect for all their other products.

The story has been told so many times that it has been raised to the status of company myth. In 2002 Neelakanta’s son Rakshit was studying for an MBA in Newcastle-on-Tyne in northern England and his father gave him the task of exploring the potential of Amrut’s single malt whisky. Rakshit, with his fellow MBA classmate and friend Ashok Chokalingam, did a series of blind tastings in restaurants and bars, starting with a neighbourhood Indian establishment and eschewing jaded connoisseurs’ opinions in favour of the regular whisky drinkers who would consume the same preferred drink consistently. The results were mostly positive and so he expanded into Scotland and traditional pubs, where again there was approval. This in turn allowed Rakshit to build up a network of suppliers and distributors, and in 2004 — after two years of coming up to scratch on the EU’s packaging standards — the Amrut Single Malt whisky debuted in Britain (in the Cafe India in Glasgow, for trivia-enthusiasts), with expansion to Europe in 2005 (in an odd twist, Amrut’s single malts only became available in India in 2010). 

The logic of introducing an Indian single malt in Britain and the EU was sound: Neelakanta knew that a foreign stamp of approval would raise awareness and sales in India in a way that sidestepped and shortcut the much longer process of winning over local customers, had the whisky first been released domestically (this is a cultural block that afflicts many home-grown spirits, not just whisky and not just in India). That said, initial sales, while decent, were modest, climbing from 2000 cases at first, to 5000 cases in 2008. The tipping point came in 2010 when Jim Murray named the Amrut Fusion released the previous year as the third best whisky in the world. After over a decade of experimentation, marketing, slogging and anonymous legwork, Amrut became an overnight success, if not an outright sensation and, as Neelakanta had predicted, local sales exploded. By 2019 global sales of malt whisky were close to 70,000 cases, in dozens of countries (and that number has surely increased).

Amrut built on this success by releasing other whiskies in the years that followed, like the “Two Continents” which won India’s Whisky of the Year award in 2012. It also made the decision to polish up its semi-premium products, like the 2012 release of MaQintosh Silver Limited Edition blended malt whisky, which uses some of the same malt spirits that go into Amrut Fusion. At the same time, in a long overdue move, they upgraded their cheap rum in launching the Old Port Deluxe in 2009 (it was made from Indian molasses), and the Two Indies Rum several years later in 2013 (made from jaggery distillate and a blend of West Indian rums) – both are export-oriented, and aim to be more upscale products, though reactions and reviews in the rum world have been mostly middle of the road, primarily due to the lack of provided information on either, and the gradual fall from favour of blended and adulterated rums. To round out the decade, a new distillery was built at the same site as the existing distillery in Bengaluru, and commissioned in 2018, which increased capacity to a million litres annually.

In 2019, to the shock and sorrow of many, Neelakanta Rao Jagdale passed away, two weeks before the company won the World Whisky Producer of the Year at the san Francisco Bartender’s Whisky Awards, going up against giants like Diageo and Pernod Ricard. In a move somewhat reminiscent of Google, the third generation — Rakshit Jagdale and his brother-in-law Vikram Nigam — took over, and shared Managing Director duties of Amrut Distilleries, a situation that persists to this day.

(c) Amrut Distilleries. Left to right: Vikram Nigam, Neelakanta Jagdale, and Rakshit Jagdale

There has been no large shakeups or news of note from Amrut since then, certainly not in the rumisphere, especially since COVID paused the world and it is only now getting back on its feet. Amrut Distilleries continues and for better or worse has tied their alcoholic future to three major prongs: local sales of semi-premium and cut-rate mass market products within India, reputation-making luxury whiskies globally, and the poor stepchild, rum, making up the remainder alongside other products like gins, brandies and vodkas (the Jagdale Group has many other commercial interests but I focus on the liquor segment here). 

Old Monk rum might have been the bigger seller and the more famous name, and McDowell’s probably outsells it locally, but it was Amrut Distilleries which put Indian liquors on the world stage and gave them some respectability. It worked for whiskies, and perhaps now it is time for the rums as well, especially since the 2022 selection of their pot still jaggery rum for inclusion in the Habitation Velier range. There were plans to release a jaggery-based single-cask rum in August of 2022, Rakshit Jagdale said in a interview in June of that year…but I’ve seen nothing of that in the market so far, aside from a similar promise made in 2017, and the HV edition.

But the time may have come for Amrut to add to the success of the whisky segment and spend some time upgrading the rum portfolio: it should be expanded, premiumised, and allowed to take its place alongside the whiskies at last. Too long Indian rum has taken the low road and suffered for that by being ignored by serious enthusiasts in the larger drinking world, seen as less, and sold too often only to the diaspora. If old Neelakanta’s ambition, vision and risk-taking character have passed to the next generation, and they see the developments of the quality rum portfolios of so many new brands, then perhaps before too many years go by, we will see some seriously aged, unadded-to, unadulterated, pot-still, full-proof Indian rums of real quality come from Amrut. And it would be about damned time.


Rums


Main Timeline

  • 1947 Establishment of Amrut Labs by a chemist, Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale
  • 1948 Establishment of Amrut Distilleries
  • 1949 Silver Cup Brandy introduced at state level in Karnataka
  • 1962 Amrut XXX rum and Prestige XXX whisky sold to Indian Army
  • 1972 Neelakanta Rao Jagdale (b.1953) joins his father in running Amrut
  • 1976 JN Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale dies
  • 1982 Malt whiskey begins to be made with grain; MaQintosh blended whiskey introduced
  • 1986 Prestige Blended Malt Whisky begins to be sold to Canteen Stores Department
  • 1987 New (and now primary) distillery built on a 4-hectare site in Kambipura, about 20 km from Bangalore
  • 2002 Rakshit Jagdale begins testing customer appreciation in Newcastle-on-Tyne
  • 2004 Amrut Indian Single Malt debuts in Cafe India in Glasgow
  • 2005 Jim Murray gives Amrut Single Malt 82/100 points
  • 2009 Fusion launches in UK; Old Port Deluxe rum is introduced
  • 2010 Fusion launches in India
  • 2010 Jim Murray rates Fusion as 3rd best in the world with 96.5 points.
  • 2012 Amrut Two Continents rated Indian Whisky of the Year
  • 2013 Fusion introduced in Mumbai; Amrut Two Indies Rum launches
  • 2018 New distillery commissioned at Bangalore site: capacity increases to 1 million litres annually
  • 2019 Neelakanta Rao Jagdale dies
  • 2019 Amrut wins World Whisky Producer of the Year at Bartender’s Whisky Awards
  • 2022 Amrut selected for Habitation Velier bottling

General Sources

Early years

Whisky

Current details


Other Notes

Most newspaper and blog articles on the company focus on whisky, including technical details, sourcing of barley, the development of single malts and so on. While not downplaying this part of the company’s rich history, I have taken rum as my primary focus and so not lengthened the article needlessly with a deep dive into that aspect of Amrut’s operations. Interested readers can follow the sources of they wish to know more about it.


 

Oct 242022
 

A kokuto shochu, one of the oldest spirits made in Japan, derives from unrefined sugar (kokuto) and in that sense it straddles an uneasy and somewhat undefined territory between agricole-style and molasses-based rums. Nosing the clear spirit demonstrates that: it opens with a lovely crisp agricole type brine and sweet alcohol, channelling sweet soda pop – Fanta, 7-Up, a bit of funk, a bit of citrus; and then adds a pot still kind of funkiness to the mix, like the aroma of fresh glue on a newly installed carpet, paint, varnish, and a lot — a lot — of fresh, light, tart, fruity notes. Guavas, Thai mangoes, strawberries, light pineapples, mixed fruit ice cream, yoghurt. Yamada Distillery makes two shochus and this is the one they call “Intense” – based solely on how it smells, I believe them.

The taste is, in a word, light. There’s a reason for this which I’ll get to in a moment, but the bottom line is that this is a spirit to drink neat and drink easy because the flavours are so delicate that mixing it would shred any profile that a neat pour would lead you expect. It’s faint, it’s sweet, it’s extremely light, and what I think of when trying it is the soft florals of cherry blossoms, hibiscus; herbs like thyme and mint, mixed up with light yellow and white fruits, cherries, grapes. It’s enormously drinkable, and beats the hell out of any indifferently made 40% blanco in recent memory…and if the finish is practically nonexistent, well, at least there are some good memories from the preceding stages of the experience.

There’s a good reason for its lightness, its sippability — and that’s because it’s a mere 30% ABV. By rum standards, where the absolute lower limit is 37.5% before heading into liqueur country, that disqualifies it from being considered a rum at all: even if we were to accept the dual fermentation cycle and its unrefined sugar base, to the rum-drinking world that strength is laughable. I mean, really?….30%??! One could inhale that in a jiffy, down a bottle without blinking, and then wash it down with a Malibu. 


Consider the provenance and specs, and park the ABV for a moment. It comes from the Amami islands in southern Japan (between Kagoshima and Okinawa), made by a tiny, family run distillery on Oshima Island 1that has existed for three generations, since 1957 — that’s considered medium old by the standards of the islands, where firms can either be founded last year, or a century ago. Perhaps they are more traditional than most, because there are no on-site tastings, no distillery sales, and no website – it seems to be a rare concession for them to even permit tours (maximum of five people), and have as much as a twitter and instagram account.  

But that aside, the Nagakumo Ichiban Bashi is practically handmade to demonstrate terroire. The brown sugar is local, from Oshima, not Okinawa, and that island. They distil in a single pass, in a pot still. The resultant is rested, not aged (at least, not in the way we would understand it), in enamelled steel tanks  for several years in a small solera system. And the resultant is really quite fascinating: similar enough to a rum not to lose me, and different enough to pique my interest.  Even at its wobbly proof point, the whole thing has a character completely lacking in those anonymous, androgynous, filtered whites that sell everywhere. 

Shochus generally, and kokuto shochus in particular, must, I think, be drunk and appreciated on their own level, with an understanding of their individual social and production culture. It is useful to come at them from a rum perspective, but perhaps we should give them space to be themselves, since to expect them the adhere to strength and profile of actual rums is to misunderstand the spirit.

Admittedly therefore, the low strength makes the shochu rate a fail when rated by western palates accustomed to and preferring sterner stuff. My personal feeling is that it works on its own level, and that nose, that lovely, robust, floral, aromatic nose…I mean, just smell that thing a few more times — it makes up for all its faintness of the palate. Perhaps the redeeming feature of the shochu is that you can channel your inner salaryman after work, sip and drink this thing multiple times, still not get a debilitating buzz on, and still find some notes to enjoy. There aren’t too many cask strength rums that allow you to do that.

(#945)(78/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The LMDW entry for this shochu says it is made partly from Thai rice to which muscovado sugar is then added. This is wrong. The koji mould which is used for primary fermentation is developed on Thai rice. But rice is not used as a source of the wash.
  • Shochu is an entire spirit to itself, and kokuto shochu is a subset of that. For the curious there is a complete backgrounder available, with all sources noted.
  • The name on the label, 3S, is a Japanese concern that deals primarily in shochu (the three “S” moniker stands for “Super Shochu Spirits”) where they act as an independent bottler. They are a subsidiary of G-Bridge company, which is a more general trading house established in 2006.
  • I feel that the sugar cane derivative base of kokuto makes it part of the rum family.  An outlier, true, but one which shares DNA with another unrefined-brown-sugar-based spirit such as we looked at with Habitation Velier’s jaggery-based Amrut, and the panela distillates of Mexico.  If it doesn’t fall within our definitions then we should perhaps look more carefully at what those definitions are and why they exist. In any case, there are shochus out there that do in fact got to 40% and above. It suggests we pay attention to such variations — because we could, in all innocence, be missing out on some really cool juice.
Oct 192022
 

Nothing demonstrates the fast-moving development of the rumworld more clearly than the emergence of, and appreciation for, white rums, whether called aguardientes, blancs, whites, silvers, platinos, clairins, grogues, charandas, cane spirits or blancos. So no, I am not referring to the anonymous 40% lightly aged and filtered whites of the American cocktail circuit, where the objective is to hide the rum in the mix (Lamb’s, Bacardi and various forgettable blancos are examples of the type) as if embarrassed to even mention its presence. No, I refer to high proofed, often unaged belters that have enormous taste chops and can wake up a dead stick.

There are several reasons for the emergence of these rums as a major branch of the Great Rum Tree in their own right.  For one they speak to the desire of younger audiences for an authentic experience with the terroire of the spirit. It’s not always possible to tell from an aged rum where it hails from unless it’s Jamaica, Guyana or somewhere else with a clearly recognizable profile — by contrast, one is rarely in doubt about the difference between an agricole rhum, a grogue, a clairin, a kokuto shochu or a charanda.

But more than that, white rums are being seen as among the best value for money rums available, because not only are they true purveyors of terroire – they have, after all, not been touched by either barrels’ influence or additives of any kind — but years of ageing are not part of the cost structure. We have been conditioned for years to believe that “older is better” and pay huge sums of money for rums aged three decades or more (or less) – and the entire time, these flavourful rums so representative of their source, which have now gotten to the stage of being good enough to sip or mix, have been quietly developing. They are cheaper, they provide new up and coming distilleries with useful initial cash flow, and are an absolute riot to have for the first time.  If there’s a theme at all in this third list of white rums, it’s the emergence of small non-tropical distilleries’ small batch, pot still, unaged whites at ever increasing proof points, demonstrating uniqueness and distinctiveness and inventiveness.

Hold on to your hats, then, because while it’s sure to be a bumpy ride, it’s equally certain we won’t be bored or unhappy, and that’s something we need more of in these troubled times.


Renegade’s Pre-Cask releases (Grenada)

Years ago I wrote the company profile of Renegade, when they were an early, unappreciated indie bottler ahead of their time. They folded their tents in 2012 but Mark Reynier kept the name, and went on to found a new distillery on Grenada. Not content to wait until his rums aged properly he released five unaged white varietals to showcase what terroire meant.  They are all lovely rums, and they prove that terroire and parcellaire really have solid meanings, because each of these rums is completely distinct from every other.

Killik Handcrafted Silver Overproof White (Australia)

Killik is one of the New Australian rum companies about which we know far too little and get not enough.  It’s hard to say whether their rums will make it to the European or American audiences any time soon: if any single one of them ever does, I hope it’ll be this one. Killik messes around with a hogo-centric approach to their rums and the results are to be seen in all their glory in this almost unknown unaged white rum. (NB Honourable mention should also be made of Winding Road Distillery’s white “Virgin Cane” rum, which was also very good)

Clairin Sonson (Haiti)

Nothing much need be said about this rum, because it’s released by Velier and given all the attention attendant upon that house. For those who don’t know (and want to), it’s made from syrup, not pure cane juice; derives from a non-hybridized varietal of sugar cane called Madam Meuze, juice from which is also part of the clairin Benevolence blend; wild yeast fermentation, run through a pot still, bottled without ageing at 53.2%.  What you get from all that is a low key rhum, quite tasty and one to add to the shelf of its four siblings.

Barikenn Montebello 81.6º (France-Guadeloupe)

Barikenn is a small French independent out of Brittany that is of relatively recent vintage, having been founded “only” in 2019 by Nicholas Marx, who followed the route taken by another Breton bottler, L’Esprit: slow and easy, small outturns, just a few, and high quality every time. A WP and a Foursquare were first, followed by this massive codpiece of a rum from Guadeloupe at a whopping 81.6%. How it maintains a flavour profile at that strength – and it does, a very good one – is one of life’s enduring mysteries.

Saint James Brut de Colonne “Bio” 74.2% (Martinique)

The high water mark for Saint James’s blancs will always, for me, be the Coeur de Chauffe pot still unaged white. Yet for me to dismiss the Brut de Colonne would be foolish because it’s a parcellaire rhum, issued with serious proofage, and best of all, it’s wonderful either by itself, or in a mix. Distinctive, unique, flavourful and useful, it’s a tough act for this old house to beat.

Pere Labat Brut de Colonne 70.7º (Guadeloupe)

There is nothing particularly special about this unaged blanc from Marie Galante: it’s not a bio, a parcellaire or some fancy experimental, and in fact, the 40º, 50º and 59º blancs also deliver similar profiles…with somewhat less power, to be sure. Yet the sheer intensity of what is provided here makes this, the strongest rum in the company’s arsenal, impossible to ignore completely and to be honest, I liked it quite a bit.

Engenhos do Norte Branca Rum Fire 60º Agricola (Madeira)

Slowly but surely Madeiran rums are becoming De Next Big Ting within the rum world and maybe it’s just poor word of mouth that’s keeping them from being more appreciated. The “Branca” at 60% may be Engenhos do Norte’s strongest commercial offering (the word means “The White One”) and it is their own bottling, not something they passed on to either That Boutique-y Rum Co. or Rum Nation. It’s distilled on a column barbet still as far as I know, and it’s quite a tasty treat.

N4021

El Destilado Wild Fermented Oaxaca Rum (Mexico/UK)

El Destilado is a small UK bottler whose signature limited edition rums are all from Mexico (mostly from Oaxaca) and are really charandas in all but name (thought unless from Michoacan and covered by the Designation of Origin, they’re not). This rum is from 100% cane juice, natural five-day fermentation, 8-plate column still distillation and trapped with zero ageing.  The terroire shines through this thing, and while some flavours will appear strange, wild and near-untamed, well, I made similar comments on the clairin Sajous back in 2014, and look how well that turned out. I buy every rum this company makes on principle, because I think when the dust settles, we’ll never see their like again.

L’Esprit Jamaican “Still Strength” White Rum (France-Jamaica)

L’Esprit is one of a handful of unappreciated European indies whose reputation should be greater.  They still make extraordinary barrel selections of aged rums, yet the occasional unaged whites they produce may be even more amazing. On my last list I mentioned their “still strength” 85% Port Mourant white, and of the next batch, the 85.6% Jamaican white released in 2020 is equally worthy of acclaim. If you want to see a white that channels shock and awe in equal measure, you may have found it here.

St. Nicholas Abbey Overproof White (Barbados)

Who would have thought that the conservative Barbadian Little Distillery That Could could escape its traditions? For most of their releases it’s been ever increasing ages and all at living room strength, and then somebody decided to cast caution to the winds, step on the gas and dropped this 60% beater of an unaged white on us. Holy Full Proof, Batman. It’s fiery, it’s spicy and tasty and aromatic, all at the same time

Foursquare LFT White (Barbados)

Few rums are or have been more eagerly anticipated than Foursquare’s various ECS rums or the Collaborations with Velier.  Yet those were and are variations on a theme: well known and much loved to be sure, but not completely original either. This one, now – this one is cut from wholly new cloth for the distillery, has the potential to take the company in a whole new direction, and the best part is, it’s really kind of fantastic: a high-ester long-fermentation style rum from juice that may just cause a few puckered…er…brows, over in the French islands. And, maybe, South Africa. As all the 2022 UK and Paris rum fests are now over, look for reviews of this thing to come soon from all the usual suspects. Me, I think it’s great.

William Hinton 69% White Agricole (Madeira)

A year or so back, I wrote about a white Madeiran rum from William Hinton (Engenho Novo) at the usual inoffensive 40% and gave it a dismissive “it’s a rum” rating of 75 points. It didn’t impress me much. Side by side with that was another review: of the overproof white at 69%.  Both were column still cane juice agricoles, but the difference was night and day – the stronger version is completely impressive on all levels and while it’s made for mixing, I’d enjoy it fine exactly as it is. (The difference is probably because the 69% edition is not aged and has a 2-3 days’ fermentation time, unlike the 40%’s 24 hrs and a couple of years’ ageing and subsequent filtration).

Montanya Platino (USA)

Aside from maybe a double handful of serious distilleries, American rums rarely get much appreciation or respect, and with good reason — they keep trying to make whisky and see rums as a “filler” spirit (if even that), and the results often reflect that indifference. Not so Montanya, Karen Hoskins’ little outfit in Colorado.  There’s all sorts of promising stuff going on there and this white rum is one of them – it’s one of the few white rums out of the USA that does not try to copy Bacardi, take cheap shortcuts, or, at end, disappoint.

Sugar House White Overproof Rum (UK)

The New Scots are coming, and they aren’t messing around. Sugar House demonstrates that it’s not necessary to have a ginormous industrial still, age your rum up to yinyang in barrels blessed by the Pope, be in the tropics or have a cool pirate theme to be completely, totally awesome. I have little interest in their spiced rums, “scotch bonnet” rums or the coffee infused varietals, and even the standard white they make is not in this one’s league. The overproof though….in a word, fantastic. It has so many flavour notes I’m in danger of running out of words.

Islay Rum Co. “Geal” Pure Single Rum (UK)

The British Invasion is getting serious when an island renowned for its whisky distilleries can allow a rum distillery to be constructed (in Port Ellen, forsooth!). I was able to try the 2022 Inaugural Release of a 45% pot still unaged white rum, which is made with a 5-7 day fermentation period and uses dunder.  The results, while not spectacular, channel Jamaica so well that it cannot be ignored, and I wouldn’t want to. Are we sure this is made in Scotland? 

J. Gow “Culverin” Unaged White Rum (UK)

J. (for “John”) Gow Distillery is located on what is likely the smallest rum producing island in the world, up in the Orkneys in northern Scotland, on a 0.15 square mile island called Lamb Holm, where it is rumoured, cane does not grow well. Armed with a 2000-litre pot still they produce a series of lightly aged rums with evocative names, all at around standard strength. The “Culverin” unaged white I tried at TWE Rum Show in 2022 really was a quiet little stunner. Bottled at 50% it channelled dusty, woody, briny, molasses and kimchi notes that reminded me of unaged Port Mourant rums. Note: to be honest the limited (171-bottle and sold-out) edition of the 1st Wild Yeast white rum they did back in March 2022 was even better, but I’d prefer to have this list represent rums you can actually get.

Papa Rouyo Rhum Agricole de Terroire (Guadeloupe)

Papa Rouyo has been quietly available in France for about a year, and perhaps it’s 2022 that was their coming out party.  A new microdistillery in Le Moule on Guadeloupe — which puts them right by Damoiseau — they operate a couple of charentais pot stills to make cane juice rhums. Some are aged, some are single cask, some are taken by indies like Velier for the HV line. But it’s the pair of lightly aged (120 days and 450 days) almost-whites that I include here, because their double distillation and R579 Red Cane varietal makes for two stunning rhums. The aromas and tastes almost explode in the nose and mouth, and while adhering to the general agricole profile, go off in joyous directions of their own at the same time.

La Favorite “La Digue” and “Riviere Bel’Air” (Martinique) Rhum Agricole Blanc (Martinique)

Another pair that are tough to separate: 52% and 53% respectively, parcellaire rhums, limited outturns, AOC specs, 2018 harvest, monovarietal canes, unaged…few rhums pack such a series of plot points to their production details.  What comes out at the other end is delicious: sweet, herbal, spicy, citrus, vegetal, fruity, tart….I could go on, but the bottom line is that this pair of rhums, either or both, shows why parcellaires deserve attention.

Chalong Bay High Proof White Rum (Thailand)

The Thai cane juice rum from Chalong Bay should didn’t make the cut for either of my two initial lists…probably because I had only tried the original 40% white and that was decent, just not terrific. Things got dialled up quite a bit with the  high proof rum, though. The 57% rhum nosed well, tasted well and was an all round winner for me. While I liked it, it’s hard to tell whether such a product would sell in its home country where softer and sweeter profiles are more common, so the jury is out on whether it continues to be made, and if for export only or not.

J. Bally Unaged White Rhum 55% (Martinique)

Bally has been on the list before with their more mainstream 50% rhum blanc, yet the 55% unaged white is so good, it even eclipses the untrammelled quality of the regular offering (which was surely no slouch either).  I can’t say what makes the extra five points of proof so intrinsically delicious, only that somehow it exceeds its origins. I really loved it and went back to the bottle several times to filch some more.

Habitation Velier Distillerie De Port Au Prince Double Distilled White Rhum (Haiti)

Given it was distilled in 2021 (twice) but not seen in public until 2022 (and even then the label seemed incomplete), I’m unsure whether it’s been aged or rested. From the taste, my money is on the latter. Initial distillation in the Providence Distillery located in Port-au-Prince, the capital, with crystalline cane syrup coming from Saint-Michel-de-l’Attalaye (also home of Benevolence, Sajous and Le Rocher). It channels all the agricole hits — brine, fresh fruit, cane, honey and a smorgasbord of a lot else; I found it rather more elegant than the punch of, say, the Sajous.. It’s a great entry into the HV series and just keeps getting better as you taste it. 


Summing Up

Looking at this list, it’s clear that the epicentre of such rhums remains for the most part in the Caribbean (and I’ve excluded a few other really good rhums from there to keep the list from ballooning too far and showcase other regions). There are still many interesting rums to be had from other countries and continents, of course, and I think that the areas to keep an eye on are Asia and Africa (South Africa. Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon specifically, for now).

Another interesting trend these whites suggest, is the emergence of micro-distilleries in locations like the UK, which are outside the usual tropical haunts of enthusiast-driven operations.  Since GIs, terroire and cane juice are not the main focus, they can buy molasses from wherever, and just go from there – so what’s surprising is how good so many of them are. 

Lastly, it’s good to see the 40% limitation is being dispensed with across the board. Whites are being issued at any strength suitable to their character, and although sometimes I think distilleries take it to extremes with the “still strength” releases (Rom Deluxe’s DR 93.6% white rum is the poster boy for this in action), it’s way better than the anonymous blah I grew up with and which still dominates too many bars I’ve been cordially escorted (= “thrown out”) of.

So that’s it for now. Until List #4 comes out, try these and enjoy the ride.


Note: Previous lists of great white rums are here (#1) and here (#2).


 

Oct 172022
 

Foursquare’s Exceptional Cask Series gets the lion’s share of the attention showered on the distillery these days, and the Doorly’s “standard line” gets most of the remainder, yet many deep diving aficionados reserve the real gold for the Foursquare-Velier collaborations. And while some wags humorously remark that the series’ are only excuses for polysyllabic rodomontade, the truth is that the collaborations are really good, just not as visible: they are released less often and with a more limited outturn than the big guns people froth over on social media. So not unnaturally they attract attention mostly at bidding time on online auctions, where they reliably climb in price as the years turn and the stock diminishes.

There currently eight rums in the set, which have been issued since February 2016 (when the famed 2006 10 YO came out): they are, in order of release as of January 2023, the 2016, Triptych, Principia, Destino (whether there’s only one, or two, is examined below), Patrimonio, Plenipotenziario, Sassafras and Racounteur.  All are to one extent or another limited bottlings — and while they do not form an avenue to explore more experimental releases (like the pot still or LFT Foursquares in the HV series, for example), they are, in their own way, deemed special.

On the face of it, the Destino really does not appear to be anything out of the ordinary – which is to say, it conforms to the (high) standards Foursquare has set which have now almost become something of their signature. The rum is a pot-column blend, distilled in 2003 and released in December of 2017: between those dates it was aged 12 years in ex-Madeira casks and a further two in ex-Bourbon, and 2,610 of the “standard” general release edition were pushed out the door at a robust 61%, preceded by 600 bottles of the Velier 70th Anniversary edition at the same strength.

What we get was a very strong, very rich and very fruity-winey nose right off the bat. It smells of sweet apple cider, strawberries, gherkins, fermenting plums and prunes, but also sweeter notes of apricots, peaches are noticeable, presenting us with a real fruit salad.  A little vanilla and some cream can be sensed, a sort of savoury pastry, but with molasses, caramel, butterscotch all AWOL. Something of a crisply cold fine wine here, joined at the last by charred wood, cloves, soursop, and a vague lemony background.

The citrus takes on a more forward presence when the rum is tasted, with the initial palate possessing all the tart creaminess of a key lime pie, while not forgetting a certain crisp pastry note as well.  It’s delicious, really, and hardly seems as strong as it is. Stewed apples, green grapes, white guavas take their turn as the rum opens up: it turns into quite a mashup here, yet it’s all as distinct as adjacent white keys on a piano. With water emerge additional flavours: some freshly baked sourdough bread, vanilla, dates, figs, with sage, cloves, white pepper and cinnamon rounding things out delectably.

The finish is perfectly satisfactory: it’s nice and long and aromatic, yet introduces nothing new: it serves as more of a concluding summation, like the final needed paragraph to one of Proust’s long-winded essays. The rum doesn’t leave you exhausted in quite the same way as that eminent French essayist does, but you are a bit wrung out with its complexities and power when you’re done, though. And the way it winds to a conclusion is like a long exhaled breath of all the good things it encapsulates.

So…with all of the above out of the way, is it special?  Several of the ECS releases are of similar provenance and have been rated by myself and others at similar levels of liking, so is there actually a big deal to be made here, and is there a reason for the Destino to be regarded as something more “serious”?

Not really, but that’s because the rum is excellent, and works, on all levels. It noses fine, tastes fine, finishes with a snap and there’s complexity and strength and texture and quality to spare. It does Foursquare no dishonour at all, and burnishes the reputation the house nicely (as if that were needed). The rum, then, is special because we say it is: viewed objectively, it’s simply on a level with the high bar set by the company and is neither a slouch nor a disappointment, “just” a very good rum. 

Sometimes I think Richard may have painted himself into a corner with these rums he puts out: they are all of such a calibre that to maintain a rep for high quality means constantly increasing the quality lest the jaded audience get bored. There is a limit to how far that can be done, but let’s hope he hasn’t reached it yet — because know I want more of these.

(#944)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • There is a “47” and a “17” on the “Teardrops” box’s top left and bottom right tears. They reference the founding of Velier in 1947; and the issuance of the rum and 70th Anniversary of the Company, in 2017. There are total of seventy tears, of course. The numbers are repeated on the back label
  • Wharren Kong the Singaporean artist, designed the Teardrops graphic.
  • The pair was tried side by side three times: once in 2018, again in December 2021 in Berlin (from samples) and again at the 2022 Paris WhiskyLive (from bottles).

Addendum – The Two Destinos

Are the two expressions of the Destino — the general release “standard” and the Velier 70th Anniversary Richard Seale “Teardrop” edition — different or the same? The question is not a mere academic exercise in anal-retentive pedantry of interest only to rum geeks: serious money is on the line for the “Seale” release. The short answer is no, and the long answers is yes.  Sorry.

What happened is that as the Destino barrels were being prepped in 2017, Luca called Richard  — some months before formal release —  and asked for an “old rum” for the 70th Anniversary collection. Richard, who doesn’t do specials, anniversaries or cliches, initially refused, but after Luca practically broke down in tears (I exaggerate a little for effect), Richard raised his fists to heaven in a “why me?” gesture (I exaggerate a little more), grumbled a bit longer, and then reluctantly suggested that maybe, perhaps, possibly, just this once, it could be arranged to have six hundred bottles of the Destino relabelled and reboxed with the Velier 70th Anniversary colours. This was initially estimated as two casks of the many that were being readied for final blending. Luca agreed because the deadline for his release was tight, and so it was done. The label on the “Teardrops” was prepared on that basis, way in advance of either release.

Except that for one thing, it ended up being three casks, not two, and for another, “Teardrops” was in fact decanted, bottled and released a couple of months earlier than “Standard.” Yet they both came from the same batch of rum laid down in 2003, and aged identically for the same years in ex-bourbon and ex-Madeira … in that sense they are the same. The way they diverge is that three barrels were separated out and aged a couple of months less than the general release.  So, according to Richard, who took some time out to patiently explain this to me, “In theory they are ‘different’- like two single casks  – but in reality it’s the same batch of rum with the same maturation.”

Observe the ramifications of that almost negligible separation and the special labelling: on Rum Auctioneer, any one of the 600 bottles of “Teardrops” sells for £2000 or more, while one of the 2,610 bottles of the  standard goes for £500.  People claim “Teardrops” is measurably better because (variously) the box is different, the taste is “recognizably better”, or because the labelling says “selected two of his oldest Rum casks” and “very old ex-Rum casks” and not ex-Madeira and ex-bourbon. Or, perhaps because they are seduced by the Name and the much more limited 600 bottles, and let their enthusiasm get the better of them. 

Yes the box is different and the labelling description is not the same: this is as a result of the timing of the box and labels’ printing way in advance of the actual release of the rum, and so  some stuff was just guessed, or fluff-words were printed.  We saw the same thing with Amrut catalogue-versus-label difference in 2022), but I reiterate: the liquid is all of a piece, and the rums within have the miniscule taste variation attendant on any two barrels, even if laid down the same day and aged the same way. Maybe one day I’ll do a separate review of Teardrops just because of that tiny variation, but for the moment, this one will stand in for both.


 

Oct 132022
 

Do we even need to make mention of what Black Tot Day represents any more, and what the rum is all about? Probably not, but for the sake of new entrants to the field and those who don’t know, it is named after the day in 1970 that the (British) Royal Navy ceased issuing the daily tot of rum to its sailors…a day that to some will live in infamy, given the scandalous break with a centuries-long tradition. 1 However it would be too much to expect that all rums were finished at the same time – and some indeed was left over and this was sold on to private interests, one of which was Elixir Distillers, a bottler and blender owned by the people behind The Whisky Exchange (which these days I guess means Pernod-Ricard, after they bought out the founders in 2021).

Elixir initially released some of the stores they had as the Black Tot “Last Consignment” in 2014 —  it remains available, though expensive at a thousand bucks or more per bottle. It sold slowly, but the response – limited as it was – did suggest that a market existed for such blends if one could bootstrap the name as a brand. And so, since 2019, after two years of experimentation and fiddling around with blend recipes, a number of Black Tot bottlings began to appear for those of more limited means, whose scrawny purses don’t have a grand to blow on a bottle which, let’s face it, was always more about heritage and rarity than taste. That’s not to say all the new editions were particularly cheap: the the annual Master Blender’s Reserve series, the Heart of the Tot 40 YO (with only Port Mourant 1975 juice) and the 50th Anniversary, all of them ran into three figures or more.

The Black Tot Finest Caribbean Blend, by contrast, is the consumer version of the brand. Costing around £60 it is a blend of rums aged a maximum of five years (it is unknown how much the final blend was aged, if at all) in the following proportions: unaged and aged Guyanese rums from pot and column stills (60%), 5 YO Barbados rums from ot and column stills (35%), and a pinch of 3 YO Jamaican rum for kick (5%). The distilleries are not disclosed: reading around suggests Foursquare for Barbados and Longpond for Jamaica (that’s sure to be interesting).  Stating “Diamond” for Guyana is pointless, because for that country it’s not the distillery we need to know – there’s only the one – but the actual stills involved since they are all so distinctive. That aside, the rum is bottled at 46.2% ABV, so it’s not going to hurt anyone and can find wide acceptance exactly as it is.

To say I was surprised at the overall quality of what is being marketed as a downmarket Black Tot is to understate matters. I’ve tried loads of Navy Rum wannabes, real or imagined – rums from Lamb’s, Woods, Kinloch (Navy Neaters), Pusser’s, URM, Townsend (Red Duster), Lemon Hart, Challis Stern (Four Bells), Velier, AH. Riise, Cabot Tower, Potters…and only a few have impressed me with their quality. This is one of them.

The nose opens with a distinct Jamaican funk bomb, and I am instantly reminded of a low-rent TECC or TECA, less intense, but possessing similar notes of rotten bananas, whitening orange peel, and all the delightful aromas of a midden heap in hot weather. It’s a basic funk bomb, to which are added smoke, leather, salted caramel, bitter coffee grounds, and oranges. That’s the Jamaican side of things: as it develops there’s a heavier note becoming evident, licorice, molasses, brown sugar and spices like cloves and sage and cinnamon. And so that’s the Guyanese.  The Barbados portion hides somewhere in between all that, providing structure and a backbone, but to say I could pick out the notes that were its own would be pretentious. Let’s just say there was an element of “not Guyana or Jamaica” in there, and that’s the Bajan influence.

Palate wise, it’s completely solid, and here the Guyana part “tek front.” What was smelled, was tasted: bitter chocolate, coffee grounds, salted caramel, unsweetened black bush tea, toffee, some rubber and glue (I guess that was the unaged part of the blend) and vanilla.  In a curious inversion of the nose, the Longpond then stood up to be counted with pineapple, chocolate oranges, bubble gum and some unsweetened chocolate and the remainder of what could be tasted – cherries, kiwi fruits, coriander, dill, flambeed bananas and pears – hearkened to Barbados, with a touch of flowers and delicate sweetness finishing things off.

At Paris’s WhiskyLive, when Mitch Wilson (their brand ambassador) threatened grievous bodily harm and the extinguishing of my entire house if I did not immediately try the thing, I was hesitant – because as is well known, one does not simply walk into the Black Tot. The expectations are enormous. And yet, having tried it (twice – he doesn’t know I filched an extra sample in my fourth glass), I really liked this rum. It is lighter than the Last Consignment, cheaper than half a hundred indie bottlings I see that are long on promises, high in price and don’t come through and deliver.  It’s crisp, remarkably punchy and dynamic, with the flavours kaleidoscoping around and constantly changing, sometimes one note dominating, at times another. It invites long leisurely examination and doesn’t disappoint.

If Oliver Chilton is to be believed — he’s the master blender behind these Tot expressions, who cheerfully admitted to a certain flair and “mucking about” when creating the blend (he’s quite a character and I strongly recommend you chat with the guy whenever you see him at a rum show) — he just ceaselessly experimented for an extended period, trying everything, trying weird, trying crazy, knowing what he wanted but never being entirely satisfied with what he got…until he finally got it. And I’m here to say that yeah – he really did.

(#943)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Oct 112022
 

“The Zacapa is here to stay” Wes Burgin said rather glumly, in his recent Rumcast interview, reluctantly acknowledging that if ever there was an indictment of purported rum-based meritocracy where only the good stuff rises to the top, it’s the ubiquity, fame and unkillability of this one Guatemalan rum, long an example trotted out in the seething maelstrom of arguments about what a rum is or should be. There’s a lot wrong with it and a lot right with it and it has equal numbers of foes and friends, but whatever one’s opinion is, everyone has an opinion. Nobody is indifferent, not with this rum. Add to that that it is not entirely a bad drink — come on, let’s face it, there are worse ones out there — and remains one that is globally available, reasonably affordable and always approachable, and you have another controversial Key Rums in the series: the Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23 Gran Reserva.

It is, like the A.H. Riise, Diplomaticos, Dictadors, Dead Man’s Fingers, Mocambo, Bumbu, Don Papa, Zaya, Kraken, El Dorado and Tanduay and so many others, one of the nexus points of the rumworld, a lightning rod almost inevitably leading to “discussions” and heated outpourings of equal parts love and hate any time someone puts up a post about it (as recently as August 2022, this was still going on, on reddit).  And all for the same two reasons – it’s been added to with sugar or caramel or vanillins or more, and the ageing “statement” is deceptive given it’s a solera style rum (therefore the number on the label is at best a shuck-and-jive dance around the truth). It is therefore the hill that anyone who despises adulterated, faux-aged rums is prepared to die on and indeed, in the US there’s a lawsuit filed against Diageo about this very matter.  

What the rum does is point out the sheer marketing power of the big conglomerates.  No matter how many people hate on this thing or decry its failures, the Zacapa 23 sells like crazy, and there are very few parts of the world I’ve ambled through (and that’s a lot) that don’t sell it. Diageo has used its marketing power to place a rum that is considered substandard (by today’s standards) in everyone’s sightline, and showed that intrinsic quality is near-meaningless…a refutation of Randism if I ever heard it.  You don’t think of Guatemala when you hear or see the Zacapa –  you just think “23”, and thank God it isn’t “42”.


It wasn’t always this way. A decade ago it was a well-regarded rum with a good reputation that people really enjoyed, won boatloads of prizes, and aside from the ever-vigilant Sir Scrotimus (he kept us safe from nefarious commie rum agents making the world unsafe for democratic drinkers), not many negative comments were ever assigned to it.  Moreover, even now you will find the Zacapa 23 in just about all shops, airports and mom-and-pop stores around the world … which is perhaps a sadder commentary on — or necessary correction to — writers’ purported influence.  

Two events created the backlash against Zacapa (and other sweetened rums) that persists to this day: one was the purchase of a 50% controlling interest of ILG, the parent company of Guatemala’s Zacapa/Botran, by Diageo in 2011, with all the negative connotations and dark suspicions people bring to any multinational buying out a local star boy. The other was the 2014 sugar analyses pioneered and published by Johnny Drejer, which lent full weight to the mistrust people had for Diageo and the changes they had supposedly made to Zacapa (though frankly, this is debatable – some evidence suggests they simply continued existing practises, and actually did us a solid by noting the solera method in the “age statement” on the label). This lack of trust and confidence is what has dogged Zacapa right down to the present, and the whole business about the large number “23” on the label is brought up any time fake age statements are discussed.

Nowadays, the Zacapa 23 is more than just a name for one rum, but the title of the whole brand line: a series of rums stretching from the original Gran Reserva to the new ‘Heavenly Cask’ series like La Doma and El Alma, all bearing the moniker Zacapa 23. Much like Bacardi premiumising the “Facundo” line with several expressions or St Lucia Distillers doing the same with the Chairman’s Reserve series, Zacapa 23 is now lo longer just one but several. It’s the original that still drives sales, though, and although its basic are well known by now, it’s worth repeating them here. The rum is distilled on column stills, from cane juice “honey” (or vesou) fermented with a yeast apparently deriving from pineapples and then aged in ex-bourbon and sherry barrels using what is called a solera, but is in reality probably a complex blend. The result is a blend of rums with ages of 6-23 years, with no proportions ever given.

I’ve reviewed the rum twice now, most recently an older version from pre 2010s (2018, 75 points), and once a newer one, but longer ago (2012, unscored, but positive). To write this review I took a currently available version, and it really comes down to filling my glass again to revisit it — and try, with a 2022 sensibility, to come to grips with its peculiar longevity and staying power. Because, why does it still exist and persist?  What makes it so popular?  Is it always and only the sugar? Or is it just canny marketing aimed at sheeple who blindly take what’s on offer? 


Taking a bottle out for a spin makes some of this clear, dispels some notions, confirms others.  The nose, for example, is a real pleasant sniff, and even as a seasoned reviewer trying scores of rums at every opportunity, I can’t find much to fault: it starts off with butterscotch, vanilla, coffee, toffee, cocoa, and almonds in a perfectly balanced combination.  It’s a sumptuous nose, and let’s not pretend otherwise – that’s what it is. A light sting of alcohol, nothing serious, won’t scare any new premium-rum samplers off. Some light florals and fruits – pears, cherries, apricots an a lighter still touch of pineapples. A sort of light sweetness pervades the entire aromatic profile and if it seems somewhat simple at times, focusing on just a few key elements, well, that’s because it is, and it does. That’s the key to both its durability and appeal.

The nose allows you to see what’s under the hood: or, rather, what you should in theory be tasting, when it comes to that stage.  But this is where things turn south because much of what is sensed when smelling it gets tuned down, like an equaliser with too few high-frequency notes and the base ramped too high. The rum feels perfectly pleasant on the tongue: reasonably firm, with some solid salt caramel, vanilla and almond notes, brine, butter, cream cheese.  There are sweet caramel bon bons, a bit of fleshy fruits, all held back. More of that toffee and cafe au lait, and enough sweet to be pleasant. If there is some edge it’s in the vague hint of leather and smoke, pleasant, and all too brief, which also describes the finish: this is short, wispy and not assertive enough to make a statement, leaving you mostly with memories of almonds, truffles, toffee and caramel ice cream.


The whole thing is not so much vague as dampened down and the subtler, crisper, more flavourful notes are restrained, as if a soft feather blanket had been placed over them – a characteristic of rums that have additives of any quantity. Since this hides the complexity of what would otherwise be a much dryer and more interesting rum, it presents as something simple and easy and very drinkable (which is both a good and a bad thing – good for newbies who are experimenting in this range, bad for more experienced fans who want more). As such, it’s easy to see why it is such a perennial best seller.  Like a Windows computer versus a Mac back in the day, it’s good enough.  It’s tasty, no effort really needed, a mite challenging but not enough to cause headaches, and overall, a completely serviceable rum.

So, realistically, the rum is not entirely a fail and within its limits is a tastier-than-expected little hot-weather drink. Even after all these years, it remains a rum most can afford, most can find when they want to buy a “premium”, and it’s easy as hell to get involved with.  For a great many consumers it remains the key intro-premium rum, one that gets them past the dreck of Captain Morgan and Bumbu and Krakens they were raised on, and into slightly better rum that will one day lead to…well, even better ones, we can hope, though many simply stop there and go no further. It is a constant reference point for the commentariat and the literature, and many people cut their rum teeth on it. For those not looking to up their game and who like their softer Spanish-style rums and soleras, it’s also the stopping point, a rum they stick with them through thick and thin —  many regard with eternal fondness and never quite abandon it for their whole drinking lives. 

That may not make it a Great Rum. But it trundles along very nicely as one which is key to understanding rums.  Because if I were to say what makes the Zacapa something better than it is made to be, it’s that it shows the art of what’s possible for a low end premium. A cheap ten dollar hooch will rarely supersede its origins, and a top-end high-proof thirty-year-old will never get any better (or cheaper) – neither will exceed expectations. The Zacapa sits in the grey area between those two extremes: it excites curiosity, and makes people venture further out into the darker waters of deeper, stronger, wilder, more complex rums.  And then, not often, not always, but sometimes, it leads, for some intrigued and interested folk, to all the great rums that lie beyond the borders of the map, where all one knows is that here there be tygers. Seen from that perspective, I contend that the Zacapa 23 should be seriously regarded, not only as a gateway rum, but as a true Key Rum as well.

(#942)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • I am indebted to Dawn Davies of The Whisky Exchange in London who spotted me the bottle from which this review is drawn. I owe her a dinner next time I’m in town.
  • Pre-acquisition by Diageo in 2011, the entire Zacapa 23 bottle was enclosed in a straw wrapping. Now only a belt of the material remains; Rum Nation was inspired by — and copied — the wrapping style for their own Millonario 15
  • Because of the nature of the article (and its length), it will come as little surprise that I did a lot of reading around on this one. Below is a non-exhaustive list of the major ones.

Reviewers’ links

  • Tatu Kaarlas’s 2008 review on Refined Vices, probably the first ever written.
  • Rum Ratings of course had to be mentioned.  It’s got over 2,000 ratings stretching back a decade, most of which are 7/10 or better, though most of the older ones are the better ones, while newer ones skew lower
  • Flaviar has an undated marketing plug that shows what promotional material looks like.  It is, of course, epically useless.
  • In 2017 The Rum Howler rated it 91.5
  • In an earlier review when he was just getting started, The Fat Rum Pirate scored it three stars in 2014.
  • Jason’s Scotch Reviews gave a good but unscored review in 2020
  • Reinhard Pohorec on the Bespokeunit lifestyle website which bills itself as a “Guide to a dapper life” gave a fulsome review of the rum in 2021.
  • The UK rum blog Rumtastic, in an unscored 2016 essay, commented that it was “really too sweet” and noted its unchallenging nature
  • Serge rather savagely dissed and dismissed it with a contemptuous 50 points in 2016 after having given 75 points to pretty much the same one in 2014
  • MasterQuill 2015 a rather meh 80 points
  • Henrik at Rum Corner liked it at the beginning of his journey, not so much by the end.  His 2016 review remains the best ever written on that rum, and his observations are on point even today
  • Dave Russell rated it 8.5 points in a 2017 review and in a head to head with the “Anos” version stated there was no discernible difference pre- and post- Diageo.  That might sound fine until you realise that whatever the modern variation has, the older version must therefore have had too.
  • Cyril of DuRhum gave it an indifferent unscored review himself, but it’s his 2015 sugar analysis that made it clear what was going on.
  • Rum Robin on the solera method but not a review.
  • Tony Sachs wrote the most recent review of the rum in 2022, and one of the better roundups of the issues surrounding it.

Magazine articles

 

Oct 052022
 

Even after the decade I’ve spent writing about Velier’s rums, the company still manages to pull a rabbit out of its hat and surprise me when I least expect it, and the new Habitation Velier Amrut rum from India is this year’s contender for the rum I most wanted to try, the moment I saw Steve Magarry’s post about it on FB in September of 2022 (it popped up at Paris’s WhiskyLive a week later). Because, consider what a singular rum this is, and how many fascinating strands of the rum world it pulls together:  

It’s a pot still rum, from the HV line (which as you know, I consider a hugely important one) and an intersection with La Maison du Whisky’s “Antipodes” line of spirits – and therefore suggests, as the Indian Ocean series also did, that there is a move by independent bottlers to go further afield to new and unexplored territory in sourcing their barrels1.

In that vein, then, it’s also the only independent bottling of a rum from India itself that has crossed my path since Alt-Enderle’s “India” rum from Germany, back in 2014 (and that one was questionable). And it’s also not made by some no-name, just-opened small distillery with a single small pot still run by a pair of young enthusiastic backpacking European exiles, but a major whisky making house (one that my buddy in Calgary, Curt Robinson, just loves) which makes a popular rum line of its own. 

Thirdly, and perhaps as important, it highlights an emergent (and still relatively small) trend towards using other sources of sugar cane and its derivatives to make rum – in this case it’s not juice, not molasses, not vesou or ‘honey’, but the unrefined, nutrient-rich sugar known as jaggery.  We have met it before from India and always from the same company that makes this rum: Amrut (though I sometimes suspect Old Monk from Mohan Meakin may also use it). And yet even to say jaggery is only used (or made) in India is incorrect, because unrefined sugar of this kind is made around the world. In the Philippine Cordilleras it is inti, in Malaysia it is known as gula melaka and Thailand as namtan tanode; it’s used in making kokuto shochu in Japan and charandas in Mexico (where it called panela), and in both these latter cases the resultant is, while recognizably a rum, also different and completely fascinating. 

Years ago I heard stories about Luca wandering around India when the Indian Ocean series was being assembled in 2018, and there were always rumours that the series was never meant to be just two bottlings: but he never found the proper rums from major distilleries in India that he felt warranted inclusion – they were not pot still, not interesting enough, had additions, were too young, or whatever.  Yet clearly he had identified something at that stage and it was simply not ready then, because the Bangalore-based distillery of Amrut gave him a single barrel of pure jaggery-based rum to bottle in 2022, and this is it. Pot still, 62.8%, 7 years old, ex-bourbon barrel aged, aged in India. And it’s really quite something.

If aroma had a colour, I’d call this “gold”. It smells like a warm tropical evening with the dappled and fading light breaking through the trees in orange and yellow-brown. It’s a high ABV rum, sure, yet all one gets on that nose is ease and relaxation, molasses, vanilla, coconut shavings, coffee grounds, some freshly sawn wood and the firmness of an anvil wrapped in a feather blanket. There are also some fruits hovering around the edges of awareness – a mix of oranges, sugar cane, fleshy stoned fruit (very ripe) and spices like cumin, cinnamon and thyme held way way back, with just enough making it through to tease. It’s one of those rums that invites sustained nosing.

The taste presents more crisply, with somewhat more force, which I argue is exactly the way it should be. Like other Indian rums I recall, it shows off honey, maple syrup, licorice for the sweet stuff, then balances that with the freshness and tartness of pineapple, strawberries, ripe peaches and apricots a fat ripe yellow mango bursting with juice, and an intriguing line of spices (cumin and cinnamon), minerals and light ashiness that together are just different enough to excite, while not so strong as to derail the experience. Attention should also be drawn to a really nice and long finish, which has the sweet and salt of a caramel-laden latte, but is mostly musky and fruity, with some cinnamon, brine, light florals and brown sugar. 

LMDW Catalogue Entry (c) LMDW (click to expand)

A rum like this has to navigate a fine line, since it is not made for indigenous consumers or drinkers from the diaspora — like Amrut’s Two Indies or Old Port Deluxe (or the Old Monk itself, for that matter) — in a region where additives and spicing up do not attract quite the same opprobrium as they do elsewhere. It’s aimed at a western audience which is likely to be unfamiliar with such products and has its own criteria, and so an unadded-to spirit which is clearly a rum is a must…yet at the same time it must also present its own artisanal nature and country’s distilling ethos to show its differences from western-hemisphere rums. It can’t be just another Caribbean rum-wannabe, but its own product, made its own way, hewing to its makers’ ideals and own local tastes.

By that standard, all I can say is it succeeded swimmingly.  I thought it was an amazing, new, fresh and all-round tasty rum, one that was familiar enough to enjoy, strange enough to enthral, flavourful enough to remember (and then some). Taste, complexity, balance, assembly, they were all quite top notch. It was a rum I wish I could have had more of right there. Habitation Velier’s Amrut may not point the way to a third major source of rum raw materials, and never be more than a niche market product as it is – rum folks are as clannish as the Scots when clinging to their favourites – yet I think we may be witnessing another front being opened in the ever widening battle to make rums more interesting, more global, more unique — and, at end, perhaps even more respected. At the very least, even if none of those things appeal or interest you, try the rum itself, just for itself, as it is.  It’s really damned fine.

(#941)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The photograph from the catalogue which has been circulating on social media shows 65% ABV and a 285-bottle outturn.  This was an early facsimile issued for inclusion in the catalogue, printed prior to the final bottling The actual strength as issued is 62.8% and there is only one bottling, not two. Outturn is 130 bottles (per the label). I was sampling from Bottle #1. What happened to the other 155 bottles they had estimated when doing the publicity photo is unknown
  • Completely made, aged and bottled in India. The humourist in me wants to ask, does this qualify as continental or tropical ageing?
  • The Velier webpage has not yet been updated for this rum; when it is, you can find it here.
Oct 032022
 

The full name of this rum is the “Barikenn ‘81.6’ Brut de Colonne Rhum Agricole Blanc de Guadeloupe (Montebello)”.  I imagine that just trying to say the whole thing in one breath distracts somewhat from the fact that this is one of the most powerful rums of recent memory (yes, I know there are others that eclipse it – I made the list, after all), and if one loses focus and takes it too lightly then one might just find oneself being blasted into next week.

Most of us know something about Montebello, but who is Barikenn?  At first I thought it was a lesser-known brand name from the small distillery on Guadeloupe from which the rhum hails – the principle is not unheard of, after all. I was then corrected by a gent on Instagram who pointed out very politely that it was a French indie bottler, namely himself, Nicholas Marx (no relation to Karl), and the company was named after an old spelling variant of barrique, or barrel, in Breton. He founded the Brittany-based independent bottling outfit in 2019 in order to share his passion for high quality full-proof rums, free from adulterants and completely transparent – and while he did not explicitly state it, I get the impression that until recently his market was primarily regional (much like Tristan Prodhomme of L’Esprit, which is also in Brittany, began his own operations).

If he felt that staying small was going to last, the reception of his bottlings soon disabused him of such notions. Starting out in 2019 with a pair of well regarded Foursquare and Worthy Park rums, he added a Guyanese 8 YO the following year which WhiskyFun rated 91 points … and people started to take notice. 2021 was when things got really interesting, because aside from a Mauritius and Fiji addition to the roster, he dabbled in water not many indies would dare to, so soon: unaged, white, column-still cane-juice rhum…at still strength (I amuse myself by wondering if he was taking a cue from Tristan’s high proofed South Pacific and Diamond whites).  I bought a bottle in Berlin last year, and gingerly tasted it, feeling as nervous as on my first date all those years ago and with good reason – rums north of 80% can rearrange your insides, if not treated with care.

Nosing it makes the point quite clearly, because even a small and delicate sniff is like stuffing an oversalted maggi-cube up your nose, or snorting a spoonful of marmite seasoned with extra cayenne. I’m aware that this is a peculiar way for any rum reviews’s nose section to start but stay with me…it does develop. After a while one can sense lemon-infused sugar water, dish washing soap, tart pears, cranberries and red currants.  A little rubber, a few acetones, a touch of vinegar (or sweet cider), and the notion one is left with after a few minutes, is one of commendable restraint in something so notionally powerful.  Unlike, say, the Marienburg, the Wild Tiger or the Sunset Very Strong, the aromas on this Barikenn aren’t out to trample you flat (and then stomp on the pieces) but seem genuinely relaxed and easier than one might expect.. 

The taste is large, round and strong, for sure, but not, thankfully, harsh. Initial tastes are dirty, earthy, salty, yeasty, bread-y, quite pungently so, and the added marmite and vegetable soup flavours may not be to everyone’s taste. However, after some time these recede and give way to the fruit basket: bananas, red currants, strawberries, bubble gum, some pineapple slices, which leaves me wondering where this was hiding when I was smelling it. It does do somewhat better with some water, adding sweet and sour chicken, soya sauce, brine and a sort of sparkly and intense fruity note, plus plastic, brine and acetones, in a nice mix.  It all leads to a long and sharp finish redolent of resin, plastic, unripe green fruits that’s really too thin and lacks heft…yet nothing I could genuinely warn you away from. 

The whole thing just works. The whole experience is one of intensity, power and puissance which falters a bit at the end, yet the tastes are so pungent and deep that all I could think was that this is what the Marienburg could have aspired to, because the strength does not actually detract here as it did there: it just needs to be handled with some care and patience. 

These days it seems there is some kind of obscure, unstated and never-acknowledged race to the top for these unaged white rums. Blending and filtration are lesser concerns, and it’s all about finding a rum that’s exceptional straight off the still – something raw and undiluted, a no-age ultra-proofed Sam Jackson style m*f*er that’s made to show it’s the meanest, the baddest and the tastiest, a rhum which can take out Mace Windu without busting a sweat or resorting to force lightning. The Barikenn Montebello is as serious and as tasty a white rum as you’ll have all year, proofed up and jacked up to a level of taste intensity that ensures you don’t just get the point…you get the whole kitchen sink as well.

(#940)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • 300 bottle outturn. The rhum was (column) distilled in 2019, rested in inert steel tanks, and bottled in 2021. 
  • Source of the cane juice is single variety “red cane” which reputedly has exceptional taste qualities.
  • Barikenn has released another variation of this rhum in 2022, but at a milder 52º – it’s from the same 2019 batch.
Sep 292022
 

Rumaniacs Review #138 | 0939

Hawaiian Distillers, Inc. is a Hawaiian corporation that has been in business for more than forty years. Before 1980 it was mainly manufacturing tourist items, including ceramics and specialty Polynesian Liqueurs and you can still find many of its small bottles and knick knacks on various eBay or other auctions. In the more recent era, these are the fine people who “made” the overdosed and overspiced Hana Bay and Whaler’s abominations and give real rum a bad name. For the most part, nowadays the value of their products lies in the ceramics from the 1970s, not their rums from any year. 

Colour – White (clear)

Strength – 40% ABV

Nose – It smells, well, dirty, like a loamy forest floor where wet leaves have decomposed. Sweet. Leaves and grass. Vanilla, peaches, plums, apricots, pears, all very very light and almost indiscernible.  Tastes like lightly flavoured sugar water, and there’s not much going on here, it all smells ike you were nosing a rum diluted in a bathtub.

Palate – More of the same, really. No sting, no serious heat. A watery, vaguely rummy spirit that might even be sweet. Light – extremely light – fruit notes and a bit of sugar.  Coconut essence, vanilla.  Not much else.  It’s warm on the tongue; perhaps I could even say “spicy” — were I feeling either sensitive or generous. None of that translates into any kind of taste profile worth mentioning, unless it’s dead lilies.

Finish – Short, warm neutral floral infusion with a pear thrown in.

Thoughts –  Big yawn.  This is a rum that is absolutely not missed by anyone and should be left on any shelf or auction where it appears. Even with my despite for some modern and cynically made American rums, what they do now is worlds removed from, and better than, this “rum” … which I now need another rum to wash out of my mouth so I can get a real buzz on and maybe try to forget its unrelieved tedium.

(65/100) ⭐½

Sep 262022
 

The Havana Club 3 Year Old Cuban rum (the one distributed by Pernod Ricard) is a delicately light cream shaded spirit, and one of those workhorses of the bartending circuit, much loved and often referenced by drinkers and mixologists from all points of the compass. That it’s primarily utilised in making mojitos or daiquiris and other such cocktails in no way dampens the enthusiasm of its adherents, with only occasional grumbles about access (by Americans) and how it may or may not compare against the Selvarey or the Veritas (Probitas) or any Jamaican of one’s acquaintance.  

It’s been around almost forever, and if it was more versatile might even have made Key Rum status. However, as various comments here and here make clear, the consensus of opinion is that it’s best as a mixing rum (when not dismissed as being “only a mixing rum”).  It bypasses the single barrel high proof ethos of today and remains very much was it always was, a blended rum that’s molasses based, column-still distilled, aged for three years in white oak, released at 40% ABV, and all done in Cuba. I gather it sells well and has remained a staple of cocktail books and bars both private and commercial.

When nosed it’s clear why the opinions are what they are. It smells quite creamy, but does have some claws. Aromas of vanilla, coconut shavings, almonds, and leather are there, and it’s the developing tart fruit – red currants, tangerine rind, unripe apples – and citrus that are its signature and which everyone comments on. I don’t find the citrus particularly heavy or overwhelming, just enough to make themselves felt.  Overall, the nose is pretty much what I would expect – light, crisp and a bit weak.

The palate is somewhat more interesting, though it does start off as sharp and astringent as a Brit’s sense of humour. It feels a bit thin and the flavours need effort to tease out (that’s the 40% speaking). The citrus is more pronounced here, as are a few bitter notes of coffee grounds, tannins and toasted chestnuts. These are balanced off by vanilla, a lemon meringue pie and an oddly evocative wet hint of steaming air after a rain in the summer. At all times it is light and very crisp and could even have been an agricole were it not for the lack of the grassy herbals.  And a comment should be spared for a delicate, short, dry and surprisingly smooth finish, even if it doesn’t bring much to the table beyond those notes already described above.

Clearing away the dishes, then, the HC 3 YO has its strengths and plays to those and stays firmly within its wheelhouse: ambition is not its thing and the rum doesn’t seek to change the world. Personally, having sipped it solo and then had it in a mix (I’m not a cocktail making swami by any stretch, so that duty is Mrs. Caner’s, because she really is), I think that while individually the elements of nose, palate and finish seem to be at odds and growl at each other here and there, in aggregate they cohere quite nicely. By that standard, it’s really quite a decent piece of work, one that deserves its “bartender classic” status….though to repeat, a neat pour is not really its forte, or my own preference in this instance.

(#938)(78/100)


Other notes

  • My thanks to Daniel G, a co-worker in my part of the world (which I can’t specifically identify for obvious reasons), who spotted me a generous sample from a bottle he had.
Sep 212022
 

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

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

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

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

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


The origin of the application that was and remains the closest to realising the vision of a publicly available, curated, and comprehensive rum database was actually not — then or now — created for that purpose. Like most programs, websites or applications that enthusiastic people slapped together in the past two decades with enthusiasm, gumption, gallons of coffee and too little sleep, its genesis was personal. Oliver Gerhardt in Germany was getting interested in rum, had a control spreadsheet to record his tasting impressions of those rums he had sampled, and a Master’s degree project to develop a mobile app: so he simply combined the two and came up with a small and very rudimentary application he called “Rum Tasting Notes”, which replaced his spreadsheet tasting diary.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Just think about what that means. In 2013 I opined to a friend of mine that perhaps there might be 5,000 rums in the world.  Ten years on, I know that it was a woeful understatement – because having seen Luca Gargano’s 5,000-rum warehouse and knowing of Steve Remsburg’s 1,200+ rum collection, and considering the hundreds or even thousands of new rums that get released by old and new bottlers, distillers and indies every year, I’m aware that we are in very real danger of just getting lost in the wash. It’s too much, too fast – no writer can keep up, not without help, time, sponsorship or funding – so to have this one resource that lists more than anyone else and has it available to everyone, is a huge benefit to the entire community.  

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

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


Other Notes

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

Sources

Sep 182022
 

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


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

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


Books

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

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

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

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

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

The original Encyclopaedia Britannica tried to address the same issue by printing annual yearbooks where they updated the content as best they were able. But aside from  the Hachette guide, the writers of books on rum never went that far (and let’s be honest, why should they?) – they rested on their laurels as published authors and moved on to other projects.  Even something as potentially useful as a summary-form Rum Bible (an equivalent to Murray’s work on whisky) was never written, because nobody was in a position to taste the hundreds and thousands of rums such a book would entail, even assuming they were known or available for tasting. In any case, any rum lists included by the various established authors were seen as adjuncts or extensions to their main work of description, story telling and historical recollection — not the primary focus of the work itself. 

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


Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum Website

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


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

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


Taster’s Guide

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


Peter’s Rum Labels

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


Rum Ratings

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

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

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


Reference Rhum

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


The position in 2018

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

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

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


Other Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#937)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#936)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

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