Feb 172021
 

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

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

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

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

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

And thinking of that leads down some interesting paths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 212021
 

Flipping at is most basic is simply reselling, and mostly seen as akin to scalping tickets. A seller has a bottle of a rum which is sold out of the stores that a buyer wants , and a bargain is struck usually at a markup. It’s a sale. Its specificity arises because of the practice of buying a (usually newly released) rum alight with a buzz and hype: not to enjoy, but to resell at a profitin other words, introducing yet another intermediary with sticky finger between the distillery of origin and the consumer.

Unsurprisingly, flippers have become a sort of personal pet hate of just about every rum aficionado who wants a bottle of the latest Appleton, Velier, Foursquare, Hot-Sh*t New Distillery or Awesome Estate, and can’t get any because it’s been sold out….only for it to turn up on an auction site or a private sales a week later at a massively inflated price. I remember the rage about the the Tryptich release a few years ago, and the way it disappeared from online stores minutes after being listed; bottles then appeared for sale on nascent auction sites and even on FB within just a few daysnot for extortionate prices, precisely, but certainly higher than retail (Foursquare and Velier have been fighting this practice ever since, with varying degrees of success).

The practice continues unabated to this day, and is equally excoriated, as a recent angry FB post and its comments showedand the general consensus is simply this: to see desired new bottlings turn up for sale on secondary markets and know this resale is why they were bought, instead of for drinking, is outrageous, defeats the efforts of all true rum lovers to get real rums and promote them, and frikkin’ annoying to boot.

I completely understand the disappointed anger of those who missed out and now have to pay more. But really, I do wish people would just calm down about stuff like this. Folks are getting all bent out of shape for a producta commodity, as one friend drily refers to itthat provides no benefit one can’t get elsewhere, that isn’t needed for survival, that is essentially a form of luxury item for which there are loads of substitutes, the sale and trade of which represents the foundation stone of capitalist world in which they liveand this causes a meltdown?

Let’s consider some other points and break the matter down for a second.

The prices are actually not always unreasonable when related to retail and whether they rise in price now or later, the fact is that most of the bottles that are most highly sought after are from favoured distilleries or companies which are always in limited supply; and so, once the initial hoopla and distribution and sales are over, the prices would have inevitably risen, whether through auctions, flipping or resale in some other fashion. Flippers just accelerate the process, though sometimes “sampling out” happens as well (I exclude this latter phenomenon for reasons explained in “Other Notes” below).

Moreover, not every single extra bottle is bought with a view for instant resale at a markup (though of course, it’s a big reason). Many people who collect always buy two or three bottles, one to open and share, the others to keep safe. Such storing (some call it hoarding) takes retail stocks off the market and that’s no more to your benefit than flipping isbecause now, instead of their being at least some at a higher price there are none at any price. Then again, people resell bottles rapidly sometimes, because they just ain’t that good. I can think of a number of more recent rums from one indie or another that people bought with high hopes, then turned right around and sold again because they sure didn’t match the hypeand those prices were not high.

Fans and FOMO are also part of the issue herethey create the noise that enables the hype that stokes the legend that elevates the pricesdeservedly or not. It’s a cruel irony (ignored and unacknowledged by most) that those doing the complaining are sometimes the same ones doing the pre-release hyping, and the complaints themselves serve to make the bottle(s) more desirable. It’s a no-win situation for everyone..

It will come as no surprise anyone following the rum news that Velier (including Hampden, Habitation Velier and the classic Caronis and Demeraras), Foursquare (especially the Private Casks and ECS series), Worthy Park, Rom Deluxe, Rum Artesenal, and any special edition series or collectible series (e.g. the Hamden “yellow box” and “Birds,” or Saint Lucia Distillery’s “Ships”) or three-deacade old Jamaican or uber-old Demerara rums by any independent, create loads of buzzand much higher subsequent demand than any old rum made by some new company out there. And it’s not just limited to companies, but sometimes whole countriesReunion, Jamaica, Grenada, Haiti and Barbados are current favourites. I can only imagine what the New Renegade rums are going to do when they start turning up. And that demand hikes prices on the secondary market.

What flippers are doing is acting as speculators who see the divergence between hype and knowledge, and real value, and jump into the breach. When Luca Gargano, in his book “Nomad Among the Barrels”, referred to the Veliermania and Caronimania in the pre 2012 days, he correctly noted that his initial bottlings sold very slowly because nobody knew what they wereand the initial round of collectors in Italy and France and then Europe became the first rum flippers (I bought the Skeldon 1973 from one of them). The point is, fan-love and online promotion helps drive some of this and one of the reasons it continues is because every one of those fans who buys a couple bottles of the latest new creation and crows about it is helping increase its secondary market value. They would do better to be more cautious with their automatic praises when a Name releases anything, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Maybe we need to step back and rethink what we buy, and use less emotion to steer our purchases. The bubble of enthusiasm about favoured bottles and their makers is fine, but I do believe it excessive at timesand it enables flippers’ margins, not our own satisfaction. In any case, why not spread the rum purchasing wings a little? The world is not made up of the four or five brands most commonly complained aboutthere’s tons more out there. New stuff, old stuff, dependable stuff, cheaper stuff, that just doesn’t have the eldritch lustre and glow of a Magic Name.

Too often we buy unthinkinglyto be “in”, to round out the collection, to have the latest, the newest, the best (they’ve been selling us phones, cars and computers on that basis for decades). But rum junkies and rum lovers could (and should) check out other brands and countries and worry less about what other fans think of them, or how cool they look with the latest Appleton Hearts bottles on the table hogging the Instagram feed or driving hits to the First Review. Because that just leads to a sort of “me first” and “look what I got that you don’t” that is the reason behind far too many of these proud poststhey’re left for you to admire but not taste, and so what really is the point of getting the bottle aside from bragging rights? The only people really profiting is those who exploit the margins this attitude creates, the resellers.

I completely get and accept that flippers are an element of the commercial rum ecosystem, not substantially different from those people who stockpiled masks and other medical or consumer supplies in the USA (and probably elsewhere) and then coldly resold at appalling markups in a time of pandemic. I despise them all for their lack of empathy for those poor souls who weren’t as quick off the block, who didn’t have their resources, and who such buyers basically shaft in their desire to make a buck for themselves. But all this wailing and gnashing of teeth won’t help anything, and it certainly won’t stop anything. No method of restriction of rum sales can stop people from buying multiple bottles, and then reselling them. Not direct distillery-selling to individuals, not single-bottle sales, not selling by lottery, not knowing everyone’s first name, marking bottles, numbering bottles, sealing bottles, nothing. It’s a fact of life. We have to get used to it.

In any case, people can and will and should be able to buy what they can and want if they can afford it, and resell if that’s their desire (in that sense we’re all Flippers-In-Waiting and points to the complexity of the issuewe don’t like Flippers when it’s other people, but we’re okay when it’s us). That you and I don’t like the practice is completely irrelevant. The only value on resale such a product possesses is the value we ourselves place on it by choosing to bid and buy. So, we can occasionally choose to walk away and not buy, and remember that it’s not a life-ending decision and our existence is not predicated on, nor the worth of our lives judged by, somehow missing out on this elixir. All it means is we can’t boast about having it and our social media won’t show it and no, we won’t be able to show it off to our rum club. What we will have, is more money to spend on other things, maybe even the Next Thing, and come on, tell me honestly, is any of that really so bad?


Other Notes: “Sampling Out

Originally I had a section on the practice of “sampling out”buying a bottle to subdivide and sell 3cl or 5cl samples to othersI had thought that the prices when all samples’ prices summed up and averaged, are statistically higher per cl than an auction-flipped bottle and so represented another form of flipping. But I needed proof, as a “feeling” was not enough.

I contacted some acquaintances of mine who indulged in this practice (as either buyers or sellers or both), and this and other online research showed the assumption to be inconsistent at best. Checking around for prices of samples on FB versus retail on European sites showed that it was as likely to be higher as lower and in fact, of late the trend has been one of negligible markups.

This was not entirely a surprise. People sample out for several reasons: to recoup the price of an expensive bottle; to share but not incur yet more costs; to make space in the cabinet; to reduce a bunch of heels taking up space or to which the SO objects (these are real reasons!); to get cash for the next halo bottle they really want; to get rid of a bottle that has some valuesay, because it’s very oldbut which they themselves don’t like or which isn’t real famous. Such sellers tend to be more altruistic and sell at small margins or at cost plus postage. So not really a flipping scenario at all.

Then there are those who get a hot bottle and sell samples at a hefty markup. It’s better for those with slim purses who’ll never get the whole thing and could not afford it anyway and the small size of the bottle and its relatively more affordable cost makes it attractive. It’s flipping in all but name, though.


Some good back and forth on the subject took place on the Scandinavian Rum Academy on FB for those who are interested in otherspoints of view.


 

Dec 212020
 


When non-knowledgeable list-makers who pepper the pages of equally clueless online magazines with their silly compendia ask for advice and help, I can tolerate it, but not from this guy, who I read quite a lot of and respect a whole lot more. He should not be asking, in such vague terms, to get for free what he’s paid to write.


On December 8th 2020, spirits writer Tony Sachs posed this question on the Ministry of Rum Forum on FB: “Hey all, picking your collective brain for an article I’m writing about the 21 best rums of the 21st century (so far). Quite a daunting task! I’m trying to go for a balance of delicious and historically significant. Any suggestions are welcome — they don’t have to be currently available, they just have to be great…..As you can tell, I’m just beginning the research! Of course rhums agricole and clairins are acceptable, sodon’t be shy.” In five hours this thing picked up some 77 responses, few of which were surprising (there were 94 less than two weeks later).

At the risk of sounding like a whining puke who enjoys raining on others’ parades and taking down seemingly innocuous and innocent inquiries just because I can, I think for a famed, widely published and widely read spirits writer to ask this question suggests a problematic lack of knowledge about the very spirit he seeks to be discussing and the language used to request ideas. There’s just so much wrong with with the question, and the whole mindset behind it.

Consider the following points and walk with me here:

One: the question is poorly phrased and defined in such vague terms as to lead to any amount of answers. For example: distilled in 21st century, or released for sale in the 21st century? (this has now been addressed). What does “great” mean? Who defines that? Does the statement “Agricoles and clairins are acceptable” mean that they are not to be taken seriously but can get a sympathy entry? Do spiced rums count? What about sweetened ones? And that word “delicious”I mean, seriously? … that opens the door up to such a level of subjectivity as to make the exercise completely pointless, because the amount candidates will simply overwhelm the number asked for. I expect more from a professional spirits writer with years of experience under his belt.

Two: The 21st century is ⅕ of the way through so it’s unclear what good such a list actually serves when we’re only 20% in (thanks, please hold your messages, I saw the escape clause of “so far”) – perhaps it’s a conflation of “coming of age” at 21 with next year and chosing that number of rums, I don’t know. But further to that, let me point out that the real increase in both rum knowledge and rum choice has happened in the last ten years, not the last twenty. This was enabled by the internet and social media (especially Facebook) coupled with the rise and proliferation of bloggers after around 2010 — and what it really means is that very few people have any idea of or about any “historically significant” rum released before that point (let alone a delicious one), unless it’s Velier.

Three: Leaving aside the inherent uselessness of “delicious” given its subjectivity, I doubt very many will know what a truly historically significant rum is, or, for that matter, why it is considered to be so (or should be). In other words, without the context and the statement of why, does any response to this aspect of the question have any meaning, really? Is a rum significant because it is a long time “workhorse” of the bar industry, as Jesse Torres commented? Because it is popular? Has loads of people saying it is? Made by a favoured distiller? Again, criteria are lacking.

Four: the current social media atmosphere favours some brands above others and they get the lion’s share of the press. I hardly need mention that these are Velier, Foursquare, Worthy Park, Hampden for the chatterati, and Appleton, St Lucia Distillers and an occasional agricole or rum from east of Greenwich for the balance. (The 77 comments mentioned above make the point: three quarters of all suggestions are from those outfits). This blinkered mindset relegates far too many rums of actual importance and great taste to the margins, unknown and uncountedand again points to the weakness of the “ask the crowd for suggestions” mentality. You either know your own subject or you don’tif you do you shouldn’t be asking, and if you don’t you shouldn’t be writing.

At end, what this question really is, is a variation of that endearingly innocent “What should I start with?” which abounds in the reddit rum feed. From a beginner, I can accept it. From a pro? …well, not so much. Speaking as a writer myself, I don’t know what good crowdsourcing such a question serves, especially for an article one is likely being paid to write in a field where one holds oneself out as knowledgeable. Is it to get free help? Ideas? Thoughts I couldn’t come up with myself to add to those I can? Save some snooping-around time for work I should be doing, sourcing rum candidates which I, as a spirit writer, couldn’t find the time to research on my own? Sorry, snark or no snark, but I disapprove of this. It smacks of laziness.

And without even looking too hard, I can tell you pretty much what’s going to come out at the other end: Velier, Foursquare, clairins (which is Velier again), the New Jamaicans (Velier repped yet again, with Hampden), Smith & Cross, Rum Fire, maybe Appleton and Savanna, Privateer based on current comments, and a grudging few nods to one or two others. I’d be surprised if anything out of Asia, Australia, Africa or even South America makes the cut. So in the end, it’s pointless. Too much will be excluded no matter what you do and attention will be focused on trends of the day, with not enough light being shone on real long term stars that have stood the test of time over the last twenty years.

Summing up, here’s what I think: you want to write an article like that, create a catchy listicle like that, it’s at best an opinion, so you base it on serious and rigorously defined criteria; on your knowledge and your observation of the field, and your own tastings. You don’t casually farm it out to the crowd. Because posting that question to the MoR is like wandering into a stadium of Rolling Stones fans and asking “Uhhhwho else should I be listening to?” Completely useless. Mr. Sachs would do better to do the fieldwork himself, solo. Then at least the result would be his own honest take, not a crowdsourced smorgasbord based on either the opinions of trend-followers, or the generous input of others who really care about the subject. A subject he should, in any event, know enough about already.


Update February 2021

Some days after I published this editorial, Mr. Sachs contacted me. He took no offense at what I had written, was a complete gent about the whole thing, and we discussed his article and the potential candidates and pitfalls for several days.

The list he finally made is, I think, one of the best of its kind to have come out in recent yearsnot because of the rums he chose, exactly (though those are pretty good given the work he had to do to narrow down the field) but because of the narrative accompanying each one, a combination of trivia, facts and background detail, plus some thoughtful commentary. I had no input into what he finally chose, but he was kind enough to give me a hat tip when he shared the post on FB.

Was my post an exercise in snark? Maybe. Would I take it down? No. Not just because I stand by what I write and take the hit for when I’m wrong, but because the points that were made are relevant and retain a greater applicability than merely to Mr. Sachs, who did a bang up job in spite of my initial fears.

Jan 282020
 

Photo courtesy of romhatten.dk

The El Dorado Rare Collection made its debut in early 2016 and almost immediately raised howls of protest from rum fans who felt not only that Velier had been hosed by being evicted from their state of privileged access to DDL’s store of aged barrels, but that the prices in comparison to Luca’s wares (many which had just started their inexorable climb to four figures) were out to lunch at best and extortionate at worst.

The price issue was annoyingat the time, DDL had no track record with full proof still-specific rums, or possessed anything near the kind of good will for such rums as Velier had built up over the years 2002-2014 in what I called the Age of Velier’s Demeraras; worse yet, given the disclosures about DDL’s practice of additives, to release such rums as pure without addressing the issue of dosage, and at such a high cost, simply entrenched the opinion that DDL was stealing a march on Velier and hustling to make some bucks off the full-proof, stills-as-the-killer-app trend pioneered by Luca Gargano.

It is for all those reasons that the initial rums of Release Ithe PM, EHP and VSG marques, corresponding to the 12, 15 and 21 year old blends El Dorado had made famouswere received tepidly at best, though I felt they weren’t failures myself, but very decent products that just lacked Luca’s sure touch. Henrik of Rum Corner didn’t much care for the Port Mourant and discovered 14g/L of additives in the Versailles, the Fat Rum Pirate dismissed the Versailles himself while middling on the PM and loving the Enmore, and Romhatten out of Denmark, the first to review them (here, here, and here), provided an ecstatic shower of points and encomiums. Others were more muted in their praise (or condemnation), perhaps waiting to see the consensus of developing critical opinion before committing themselves.

Release II in 2017 consisted of a further Enmore and a Port Mourant, with the additional of a special Velier 70th Anniversary PM+Diamond blend. By this time most people had grudgingly resigned themselves to the reality that the Age was over and were at least happy that such Demerara rums were still being issuedand even if they did not bear the imprimatur of the Master, it was self evident that Release II corrected some of the defects of the initial bottlings, got rid of the polarizing Versailles (which takes real skill to bring to its full potential, in my opinion), and the Enmore they made that year turned out to be a spectacular rum, clocking in at 90 points in my estimation. That said, R1 and R2 didn’t really sell that well, if one judges by their continuing availability online as late as 2019.

Release III was something else again. Although once more issued without fanfare or advertising (one wonders what DDL’s international brand ambassadors and marketing departments are up to, honestly), the word about R3 spread almost as swiftly as the initial news of the first bottles in 2016. This time there were four bottlesand although almost nothing has been written about the Diamond “twins” except, once again, by Romhatten (here and here), the other two elicited much more positive responses: an Albion (AN), and a Skeldon (SWR). Neither estate (I’ve been to both) has a distillery onsite any longer, since they were long dismantled and/or destroyedbut the marques are famous in their own right, especially the Skeldon, whose 1973 and 1978 Velier editions remain Grail quests for many.

Speaking for myself, I’d have to say that with the Third Release, DDL has put to rest any doubts as to the legitimacy of the Rare Collection being excellent rums in their own right. They’re damned fine rums, the ones I’ve tried, up to the level of the RII Enmore 1996. I can’t tell whether the R1 series will ever become collector’s prized pieces or sought-after grail quests the way the original Veliers have becomebut they’re good and worth finding. Note that they remain, not just in my opinion, overpriced and this may account for their continuing availability.

It’s almost a movie trope that horror movies first exist as true horror that scare the crap out of everyone, devolve into lesser boo-fests, and end up in sad comedies and unworthy money-grab rip-offs as the franchise passes its sell-by date. I don’t think the Rares will end up this way, because DDL has made it known that they will no longer export bulk rum from the wooden stills, instead holding on to them for their own special releases and blendsso, clearly they are betting on still-specific rum into the futurethough perhaps not always at cask strength. The 15 year old wine finished series and its companion 12 year old set, the new Master Distiller’s collection at standard strength which showcase the stills, all point in this direction.

And this is a good thing, as the stills DDL is so fortunate to possess are unique and they make fantastic rums when used right, and with skill. One can only hope the pricing starts to be more reasonable in the years to come, because right now it’s too early to call them must-haves, and with the cost of them, they might not get the audience that would make them so. They are certainly better than the vastly overpriced 15YO and 12 YO wine-finished rums at standard strength.

Epilogue

Will the Rares survive? In late 2019, four colour-coded bottles which were specifically not Rare Collection items, began to gather some attention online:

  • PM/Uitvlugt/Diamond 2010 9YO at 49.6% (violet),
  • Port Mourant/Uitvlugt 2010 9YO at 51% (orange),
  • Uitvlugt/Enmore 2008 11YO 47.4% (blue)
  • Diamond/Port Mourant 2010 9YO at 49.1% (teal).

None of these were specific to a still, and each was priced at €179 in the single online shop in online where they are to be found. All were blends (aged as such in the barrel, not mixed post-ageing), and all sported some reasonable tropical years. It is unclear whether they are meant to supplement the single-still ethos of the super-specific Rares, or supplant them. As of this writing I have yet to taste them myself (the order is in, ha ha).

Whatever the case, DDL certainly has taken the indie movement seriously and seen the potential of what the Age demonstratedone can just hope their pricing system starts to show more tolerance for the skinny purses of most of us, otherwise they’ll be shared among aficionados rather than bought for their own sake. And there they’ll remain, on the dusty shelves of small stores, looked at and admired, perhaps, but not often purchased.


The Rare Collection Rums

I have been fortunate enough to buy and review many of the Collection so far, and for those who wish to get into the specifics, the reviews are linked here:

In January 2021, the UK based NW Rum Club did a complete review of the entire Rare Collection (releases I, II and III), and it’s worth a look, very informative, talking about the releases, and the stills.

Aug 032018
 

Photo pilfered with permission (c) Simon Johnson, RumShopBoy.com

Over the years, there has developed a sort of clear understanding of what the El Dorado 15 YO is, deriving from the wooden stills that make up its core profilethat tastes are well known, consistently made and the rum is famed for that specific reason. Therefore, the reasoning for expanding the range in 2016 to include a series of finished versions of the 15YO remains unclear. DDL may have felt they might capitalize on the fashion to have multiple finishes of beloved rums, or dipping their toes into the waters already colonized by others with double or multiple maturations. On the other hand, maybe they just had a bunch of Portuguese wine barrels kicking around gathering dust and wanted to use them for something more than decorations and carved chairs.

Few peopleincluding us scrivenerswill ever have the opportunity or desire to try the entire Finished line of rums together, unless they are those who attend DDL’s marketing seminars, go to Diamond in Guyana, belong to a rum collective, have deep pockets or see these things at a rum festival. The price point makes buying them simply unfeasible, and indeed, only two writers have ever taken them apart in toto the boys in Quebec, and the Rum Shop Boy (their words are an excellent supplement to what I’ve done here).

Here are the results in brief (somewhat more detail is in the linked reviews):

El Dorado 15 YO Red Wine Finish – 78 points

Lightly sweet with licorice, toffee and fruity notes on the nose. Cherries, plums, raisins and watermelon on the palate, all staying quiet and being rather dominated by salt caramel and molasses.

El Dorado 15 YO Ruby Port Finish – 80 points

Opens with acetones and light medicinal aromas, then develops into a dry nose redolent of peanut butter, salt caramel, fruits, raisins, breakfast spices and some brine. The taste was rather waterypears, watermelons, caramel, toffee, anise and cognac filled chocolates.

El Dorado 15 YO White Port Finish – 76 points

Very mild, light brown sugar nose, some caramel, brine, sweet soya. Taste was similarly quiescent, presenting mostly citrus, coffee, chocolate, bananas, and of course, molasses and caramel toffee.

El Dorado 15 YO Dry Madeira Finish – 80 points

Nice: soft attack of sawdust and dark fruit: plums, pears, raisins, black grapes. Leavened with ripe orange peel, peaches and olives before muskier aromas of toffee and chocolate take over. Citrus disappears on the palate, replaced by salted butter and caramel drizzled over vanilla ice cream. Also bananas, kiwi fruit, oranges gone off, cinnamon and cloves. Nice, but weak.

El Dorado 15 YO Sweet Madeira Finish – 81 points

Marginally my favourite overall: noses relatively darker and richer and fruitier than just about all the others except the “Dry”delicate nose of peaches, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, caramel, peanut butter, cherries in syrup, candied oranges, bitter chocolate. Soft palate, quite dry, oak is more forward here, plus raisins, cloves and cinnamon carrying on from the nose, and the fruitiness of peaches in syrup, cherries, plus toffee, salt caramel.

El Dorado 15 YO Sauternes Finish – 78 points

Subtly different from the others. Nose of aromatic tobacco, white almond-stuffed chocolate and nail polish, then retreats to salty caramel, molasses, vanilla, cherries, raisins, lemon peel and oak, quite a bit of oak, all rather sere. Palate retains the tobacco, then vanilla, chocolate, coffee, molasses and quite a bit more dried dark fruit notes of raisins, plums, dates, and a quick hint of anise. The oak is quite noticeable, and the rum as a whole is quite dry.


Unsurprisingly, there are variations among those who’ve looked at them, and everyone will have favourites and less-liked ones among these rumsI liked the Sweet Madeira the best, while one Facebook commentator loved the Ruby Port, Simon much preferred the White Port Finish and Les Quebecois put their money on the Dry Madeira. This variation makes it a success, I’d say, because there’s something to please most palates.

The Finished range of rums also make a pleasing counterpoint to the “Basic” El Dorado 15 Year Oldsomething for everyone. But taken as a whole, I wondermy overall impression is that the woodsy, musky, dark profile of the Port Mourant double wooden pot still, which is the dominant element of the ED 15, is affectedbut not entirely enhancedby the addition of sprightly, light wine finishes: the two are disparate enough to make the marriage an uneasy one. That it works at all is a testament to the master blender’s skill, and some judicious and gentler-than-usual additions to smoothen things outthe Standard ED-15 clocks in at around 20 g/L of additives (caramel or sugar), but these are substantially less. Which is a good thingit proves, as if it ever needed to be proved at all, that DDL can forego sweetening or caramel additions after the fact, with no concomitant loss of quality or custom (why do I have the feeling they’re watching Foursquare’s double matured Exceptional Cask series like a hawk?).

What the series does make clear is that DDL is both courageous enough to try something new (the finishing concept), while at the same time remaining conservative (or nervous?) enough to maintain the continuing (if minimal) addition of adulterants. DDL of course never told anyone how popular the Finished Series are, or how the sales went, or even if the principle will remain in force for many years. Perhaps it was successful enough for them, in early 2018, to issue the 12 year old rum with a similar series of finishes.

All the preceding remarks sum up my own appreciation for and problems with the range. None of them eclipse the 15 year old standard model (to methat is entirely a personal opinion); they coexist, but uneasily. There are too many of them, which confusesit’s hard to put your money on any one of them when there are six to chose from (“the paradox of choice”, it’s called). Their exclusivity is not a given since the outturn is unknown. The unnecessary dosage, however minimal, remains. And that price! In what universe do rums that don’t differ that much from their better known brother, and are merely labelled but not proved to be “Limited,” have an asking of price of more than twice as much? That alone makes them a tough sell. (Notethe 12 year old Finished editions which emerged in 2018 without any real fanfare, also had prices that were simply unconscionable for what they were). The people who buy rums at that kind of price know their countries, estates and stills and don’t muck around with cheap plonk or standard proofed rums. They may have money to burnbut with that comes experience because wasteage of cash on substandard rums is not part of their programme. They are unlikely to buy these. The people who will fork out for the Finished series (one or all) are those who want a once-in-a-while special purchasebut that doesn’t exactly guarantee a rabid fanbase of Foursquare-level we’ll-buy-them-blind crazies, now, does it?

My personal opinion is that what El Dorado should have done is issue them as a truly limited series of numbered bottles, stated as 16-17 years old instead of the standard 15, and a few proof points higher. Had they done that, these things might have become true collector’s items, the way the 1997 single still editions have become. In linking the rums to the core 15 year old while making them no stronger, not explosively more special, and at that price, they may have diluted the 15YO brand to no great effect and even limited their sales. But at least the rums themselves aren’t crash-and-burn failures, and are pretty good in their own way. We have to give them points for that.

Jun 202017
 

Two comments I came across in my reading last week stuck in my mind and dovetailed into conversations I’ve had with others over many years. The first was from a reviewing website which stated (paraphrased) that they don’t review what they have nothing good to say about. The other, from a high-end watch-review site called Hodinkee, quoted a journalism professor as saying “If you’re going to write about something bad, it needs to be bad in an important way. Just being bad isn’t enough.”

Which got me thinking. Why write negative reviews at all? They’re often depressing experiences, however easily the words flow, and I always wonder when I have to write one, how some companies who claim to love the juice can make such bad swill at all.

Now, some sites I visit regularly rarely write serious (let alone scathing) criticisms of poor quality rums. A few adhere to the above policy of if there’s nothing good to say, then not saying anything at all. Serge Valentin, who scored one rum I liked 20 points wasn’t particularly negative in his review, just mentioned he didn’t like it (probably because he’s a true gentleman in such cases, and I’m not). Others use temperate language that skates over any kind of negativity, and their disdain is muted. Against such easy-going writers, others write clearly and angrily why they don’t like a particular rum (or aspects of it), as The Rum Howler did with the Appleton 30, for example, or Henrik of RumCorner did with the Don Papa rums, and for sure Wes of the Fat Rum Pirate has done the language of snark proud on many an occasion and caused me to nod in appreciation more than once, because his reasoning and preferences were clearly laid out (even if I disagreed).

Looking through all the reviews of rums I’ve written in the last seven-plus years, I note that I’ve published a few very savage critiques of rums that I felt were sub-par, many in the first few years. These days I pick more carefully and dogs rarely piss in my glass, so that may be part of why there are now less negative reviews than formerly. Still, while age has mellowed me, it’s not been by that much, and I still think the opinions expressed back then, and the ones I write now for stuff I don’t like, are relevant. And there are many reasons for that, and why I wrote, and continued to write, as I did, and why I feel it’s necessary, even important, that we do so.

Firstly, it must be stated that I disagree with the quoted professor as applied to the subject of rums, because this is money being spent by me. I’m not saying I’m a Ralph Nader style consumer advocate, but I do write for consumers, not for producers. Having written a few hundred reviews, my concept of the site has tilted slightly away from merely writing a blog about rums I tried and enjoyed – though this aspect remains and always willto writing about every rum I can lay hands on, as part of a desire to share the experience with those who share my passion. There are actually people who read these meandering essays, and importantly, some base buying decisions on the opinions I express. It implies an obligation on my part to write well and clearly where disappointments occur. Too, since this is my time and my money being expended (a lot of both, trust me), then if I find something that wastes either, I’m going to say so. The language may be tempered or furious, and I basically do it so you don’t have to.

Secondly, I believe that by not writing about mediocre or badly made products – and thereby assuming or hoping somebody else will – I’m essentially giving substandard table-tipple a free pass. That’s a cop-out, and I am firmly opposed to this philosophy. We are bombarded every day with hysterically positive targeted mass-marketing, meant to entice us to buy the latest new “premium” juice, and without a skeptical and jaded eye, it all fades into a dronish mass of boring sameness, without anyone trusted enough to pay attention to writing a dissent. Ignoring bad stuff is therefore not the solution. It has to be confronted, whether it is bad in a big or small way, and not just in commented Facebook posts that disappear in a week. This is especially important when new rum drinkers are entering the fold and are casting around for more than the Diplomaticos, Bacardis, Don Papas or Krakens to which they are accustomed. As writers and opinion shapers, there is a duty of care upon knowledeable bloggers to say when a product doesn’t come up to snuff, and why. Our websites are not facebook pages, but repositories of information and opinion going back many years and are consulted regularly – so why shouldn’t we call out crap when it exists? It detracts from our street cred if we don’t, is what I’m thinking.

Thirdly, there’s the matter of comparability. When there is a large data set of products about which nothing but good things are written, then there is no balance. People have to know what is disliked (and why) so they can evaluate the stuff a writer does appreciate (and why). In other words, an understanding by the reader of the writer’s preferences – it’s not enough to ignore or leave out the stuff one don’t like and expecting the reader to understand why, and where else will one gain that comprehension except by reading a negative review? This is not to say that I think anyone who disagrees with me is a fool (as Sir Scrotimus evidently does about anyone who disses his pet favourites) – I’m just pointing out that agreements and disagreements over any writer’s opinions exist, and given the wide and varying spread of preferences in the rumworld, one should take encomiums, even my own, with a pinch of salt, with the criticisms as a useful counterweight. Far too many buyers do no boots-on-the-ground, rum-in-the-glass research of their own and simply go with somebody else’s opinion1…and if that’s the case, that opinion had better be one that has at least a modicum of credibility.

Does a negative review have to be “bad in an important way”? Not at all. A bad rum is a bad rum, people pay money for it, whether five bucks or five hundred, and if we as writers don’t say so, the consumer is left with marketing hoopla, vague word of mouth, brief social media comments, and the click bait of ill-informed online journalists who know little about the subject they are writing about. One good example was the Downslope Distilling’s wine aged rum, where, when I did my research, I was appalled to find writers rhapsodizing about how it compared so well with top end Martinique rhums. I can only wonder how many bought the rum on that basis, and how many switched off rums immediately afterwards. Robert Parker, in his essay on “The Role of a Wine critic” stated that as far as he was concerned, good wines should be singled out for praise, and bad ones made to account for their mediocrity. I feel the same way about rums, whether made by old and proud houses which have been in existence for centuries, or by new outfits who’re trying to break into the business with small batch production. That’s why I wrote a negative about Doorley’s XO and a positive about the Foursquare 2006, and can stand by each.

Also, who defines what “bad in a big way” is? What is important and big to me is less important and much smaller to Joe Harilall down the street, or even a different reviewer. Is it taste, additives, design, mouthfeel, price, availability, overinflated marketing? For instance, some love the Millonario XO for the very same sweetness others so passionately hate, so what one considers a catastrophe may to others (or me), be inconsequential. To attempt to stratify negativity into stuff that matters and stuff that doesn’t is to attempt to rate what’s important to the larger public; and I lack that kind of omniscience, or arrogance. Better to lay it all out in the open, present the facts, justify the opinion, express the annoyance, and let the inquiring reader or buyer or taster make up their own minds. To me, that goes as much for a cheap ten dollar spiced rum as it does to a thirty year old rum costing two hundred.

The argument was made to me some years back that I should not embarrass or shoot down small producers who are now starting out, who need good word of mouth and positive feedback in order to grow and improve over time. They are, after all, employing people, paying taxes and “doing their best, while you, buddy, what the hell are you doing? (A 2019 article on The Ringer referenced a similar point) We should support them by buying their rums and providing cash flow which they will use to create better products over time. This line of reasoning is fallacious on several levels. One, it’s my damned money, sweated for, hard earned; purchasing and then giving a pass mark to a substandard product is encouraging the maker to continue making the same product, since it’s clear nothing is wrong with itso where exactly is the incentive to change coming from? Second, it’s a straightforward conflict of interest, because then I would be supporting not the consumer (on whose behalf I write, given I’m one myself), but the producer with what amounts to free and fake advertising. Thirdly, people aren’t fools and never more so than now where social media allows them to communicate dissatisfaction faster than ever beforemy credibility would be shot to hell were I to say, for example, that Don Papa is one of the best rums ever made. Lastly, I think every producer has an obligation of their own not to rest on their laurels or produce low level crap that passes muster among the less-knowledgeable, but to go for the brass ring: if they tart up a neutral spirit with additives up to the rafters and try to sell it as a premium product for a high price, why on earth would I want to be a party to that? Or if they are really a small outfit and are making a poor-quality rum, why would I want to be less than honest and tell them where they are failing, when that’s the very impetus that might make them try harder, do better, push the envelope?

So, for laser-focused sites concentrating on a very small portion of their market like Hodinkee does, their editorial policy of writing only about good stuff can perhaps be justified. From mine, where all rums in the world are the reviewing base (though they’ll never all be tried, alas), it’s simply untenable because I do my best to try everything that crosses my path. I write about any and all of them. And that means taking the good with the bad, the high end and the low endin fact, I actively search out the younger and cheaper stuff (which is not always the same thing as “bad”) just to ensure I don’t get too caught up with the old and pricey stuff (which is not always the same thing as “good”).

It’s a personal belief of mine that the past decade of amazing, thoughtful writing by so many bloggers has engendered a relationship between the Writers and the Readers based on some level of trust. Therefore I contend that writing a negative review of a rum on which I spend my money, and one day, you might spend yours, is not lazy journalism or a fun way to let off some steam and bile with witty and eviscerating language, but an important aspect of the overall business of critical thinking and writing abut rumsand maintaining that trust. My own feeling about duty of care towards the audience for which I write may be in a minority, but that feeling is rooted in a desire to provide the best information and opinion possible to an increasingly educated and curious public. As such, I honestly don’t think that a negative review, in any form, if supported by the weight of evidence and clearly-expressed thought, should ever be considered as something to avoid.


Note: In this opinion piece I am merely expressing my reasoning in support of the thesis that published takedowns of poor quality product serve a useful purpose. No negative connotation towards any of my fellow rum bloggers is meant or implied.


 

Jan 272016
 
LUCA-900x411

Photo (c) 2013 congresodelron.com

Luca sounds tired. The boss of Velier has just returned from Cape Verde off the coast of Senegal, where he was investigating small rum producers like in Haiti, has been caught up in the online discussions of the “Rare” issues, gave an interview to DuRhum (in French), and is now on his way to Morocco to attend some business and help shoot a documentary, before heading off to Cape Verde again. I catch him in the back of a taxi, but he’s willing to talk a little. Truthfully, when it comes to rums, the man is always ready to talk, and it’s never just a little. Maybe that’s one reason he and I get along.

We discuss his interview with Cyril, but my own interest is much more focused, and gradually we get to what I want to talk aboutDDL’s new Velier replacements, called the “Rare Collection” and I had opined that premature news of their introduction could have been handled better. Commercial considerations had prevented Luca from going on record before this, but apparently DDL have now given him their blessing, and he knows I want facts rather than speculations.

“I honestly wanted to tell you back in December, when your “Wasted Potential” article came out,” he says. “But we (DDL and myself) had agreed nothing would be said about the Rare Collection until the time for official press releases and introductions came around. So I had to be quiet.”

“It happens,” I shrug, stifling my rush of petty irritation, since, like most people, I hate being wrong. “Why don’t you step me through the sequence of events regarding the issue?

He settles into what I call his ‘presentationvoice and talks nonstop for several minutes. Much to my surprise, the conception of these three rums goes back to January 2015, a full year ago. Following the retirement of Yesu Persaud, the new CEO of DDL (Komal Samaroo) met with Luca and told him they were going to make ‘Gargano-stylerums themselves following the full-proof, single-still, limited-edition principles, and as such the ability of Velier to bottle from DDL’s stocks would cease. “But I have to be clear,” Luca said. “Aside from the Skeldon, I never ever just walked into the warehouse and sampled at random and said I wanted this barrel or that barrel – I always and only got shown a limited selection by DDL and chose from them. And the vintages were getting younger all the time – I was hardly ever seeing stuff younger than the early 2000s any more.”

He’s admitted it before, and confirmed that initially the situation made him sad – it was something like seeing your own child grow up and move out of the house – but proud as well. It showed that there was real potential by a major distiller to go in this direction, and that the full-proof concept was a viable commercial proposition. And it made sense for DDL to fold these rums into the larger el Dorado brand.

“Which would in any case always be associated with you,” I cut in. “For the foreseeable future, DDL’s full proofs will live in your shadow.”

“That’s not important,” he says earnestly. “It’s not about ego for me. It’s about rum: authentic, honest, tropical aged, full proof rum. If DDL makes them, the rumworld is just as well served, because good rums are being made and sold.”

“One could argue that DDL let you take the risk and open the market and then moved in to capitalize on your success,” I point out. I’m not on anyone’s side on this matter and I know business is business (it’s not personal, right?). DDL didn’t get to be what it was without some very sharp people at the top, and while I am surprised it took this long for them to get in on the action, they are finally doing something.

I can almost see him shaking his head. “No. Because it’s their rum. I always insisted that DDL was mentioned on our labels – because I never felt it was ‘mine’…the name of Velier was only ever in the fine print at the back. I found a few diamonds, sure, but never pretended to own the mine, you know? And I did the same for the Clairins.” I think he’s being just a bit disingenuous here, personally, because one does not become a successful businessman without at least a little talent, aggro and braggadocio, and I suspect he knows perfectly well how synonymous his name has become with full proof rums in general, and Demeraras in particular. But I let it pass, and he continues.

rare-mads-1

Photo (c) Mads Heitmann, Romhatten

“So by November of 2015 a lot of the work was done – the selection of the vintages, the label mockups. Some samples went out to Europe –“

“Hang on,” I interrupt. “Exactly how much were you involved in all this?

“Not at all.”

“Seriously?

“No. I did not select the barrels, I did not choose the vintages, I had nothing to do with advertising or label design. All I knew was that there would be an Enmore, a PM and a Versailles. By the time I received samples in December, it was all complete, and my only involvement was as the distributor for Italy.”

“Why are they only being sold only Europe?

He hesitates a moment and I can sense him choosing his words with some care. “DDL is a Guyanese company,” he says at last. “And I think their information gathering and knowledge relate and are geared more to the North American market than the European one. In North America it’s always been difficult to introduce new spirits into their states-segmented markets; and there has never been a really strong movement or tradition or knowledge of craft full-proofs. It was only latelywith Samaroli and a few others becoming available, with online media like Facebook, with the reviews of English language rum bloggersthat the profile of such rums has increased and the potential more fully understood. But in Europe full-proofs have always sold well and been widely appreciated – indeed that has always been my primary market. So it made sense to start there.”

“With the potential to cross the Atlantic in the future?

He shrugs. “That’s for DDL to decide. I hope so.”

“So we’re in December now. My own article on the missed opportunities of DDL came out around that time.”

“Yes, and a lot of people read it. And I wanted to contact you to advise you that there were indeed new single-still rums coming out. But my arrangement with DDL forbade that, so…”

I’m still a little miffed about the matter, but it’s water under the bridge and there’s nothing I can do except admit I got it wrong and move on.

“Why do you think DDL never responded to my article, or contacted me?

“I have no idea.”

“Because it strikes me as strange that a major new bottling is being issued to the market, and there was no advance knowledge, no teasers or sly hints or even massive advertising to stimulate interest.”

“Well, they did send some samples to one of the Rumfests late in the year – I believe to Belgium – “

“And it received almost no publicity at all.”

“It was just for evaluation purposes, I think, not an advertising campaign to kick off the release. That was supposed to come in this year.”

Well, DDL is run by some smart people, and I suppose they have reasons for what they do and how they do it. However, I also believe they are underestimating the force-multiplying power of social media in a big way and maybe my mind just works differently since I’m a consumer as well as a writer, not a company marketing guru.

It occurs to me that with respect to communication, the premature release of information on the Rares must have caught everyone off guard. “So now we come to 2016,” I say, following that thought. “Your company somehow issued a webpage link to show these rums as becoming available, on January 13th. Then it disappeared. What happened?

His embarrassment is palpable over the long distance telephone line. “That was a mistake,” he says ruefully. “My graphics people worked so fast that the mockup and catalogue update were all done ahead of time. They didn’t bother to check with me before posting it up, because they didn’t see anything special about a new item on the cataloguewe do, after all, add stuff constantly. I was in Cape Verde then, away from communications, and as soon as I came out and realized what had happened, I pulled the link immediately. By then the news was all over the place.

rare-mads-2

Photo (c) Mads Heitmann, Romhatten.

“And then?

He lets out a deep breath. “The story went viral in the online rum community. You know this, you followed it.”

Indeed I had. The story flashed around the world in less than a day. Wes at the FatRumPirate pushed out an article on the three rums on the 15th; a Danish blogger, Mads Heitmann, was able to get a complete set of the three bottles and reviewed the PM 1999 ln the 19th. And on top of that, he posted prices on his site and on Facebook, which went viral as fast as the original post from Velier’s site, and changed the entire direction of the story. The news was well and truly out there and could not be called back, which demonstrates what I mean about the power of Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and all the rest.

“But none of it had any more to do with me,” Luca argues. “I made my sincere apologies to DDL, explained to them that the initial, unpriced, posting was an error I tried to correct and not a leak of any kind. I was waiting for a green light from them to make a public announcement and start publicizing.”

I suppose I can accept that, since all my notes and private discussions support it. “The story now started to get bigger than just you, because aside from the annoyance of the rum community about the releases just popping out of nowhere, which is a minor matter, they now had to contend with the pricing. And that was no small thing – it was deemed exorbitant.”

“Your article didn’t help,” he says, half laughing, half accusing, referring to the essay I then wrote on January 20th, where I both complained about the introduction and expressed my hopes for their quality.

The conversation seems to have come around to the point where I’m the one answering questions instead of him; still, the point is valid. “I wasn’t trying to. At the time I was pretty put out. DDL should have read the tea leaves and done damage control immediately, gotten ahead of this story. Back then, I solicited their input without response. Okay, I’m small fry, a small blogger in a wide world of them, and it was an opinion piece, and yet I don’t think I was wrong; and this was now an issue affecting consumers all over the map – somebody should have stood up, posted online, gotten involved, calmed the waters.”

“I can’t speak to that,” he responds, with a note of finality.

The cost per bottle is of interest to us as consumers, so I persist. “What can you tell me about the price, on the record?

PM 1999 Romhatten

Picture crop (c) Romhatten.dk

“I think the Danish numbers are high,” he admits. Privately, I had thought so too, and the KR6500+ (~€870) initially quoted on January 19th for all three bottles together has in fact been reduced in some online shops in Denmark. Factor in the very high alcohol taxes in that country, and the base shop prices (before markups) to consumers are probably closer to expectations. Still high, but relatively more affordable.

“The price in Italy will likely be around the level of equivalent Veliers, plus maybe 10-15%. But I can’t say that for sure across Europe, because I sell only in Italy, to shops, not to individuals, and taxes and markups vary. But they are not as expensive as you made out to be.”

Since I’ve argued that price is a function of brand awareness and exclusivity as well as production costs, I ask the question that’s been bugging me all this time. “What’s the outturn of the range?

“About 3,000 bottles for each expression is my guess. I’m not entirely sure of the exact numbers”

“And future issues?

“I can’t say: I’m hearing that maybe an annual release of two bottlings, with about the same quantity as these.” Which gives us all hope, I think. Two is not as good as four or five, yet I don’t know that many full-proof rum lovers who would complain too much. At least they’re getting something.

The answers are getting shorter, and I sense we may be coming to the end of this conversation. I only have one more. “You’re distributing the rums in Italy, and have had a long association with DDL. You’re hardly a disinterested party. But as a simple lover of rum, putting aside any bias as much as you can, what do you think of the Rare Collection?

There’s a smile in his voice as he notes the care of my phrasing. Or maybe he’s just thinking of these rums, his now-grown children, with fondness, and delights at an opportunity to speak of them. “I received samples in December 2015, and Daniele (Biondi) and I tried them together with five or six other Enmores, Port Mourants and Versailles rums we had from previous years. And I am telling you, these are every bit as good. They lost nothing, and preserve everything in my principles – tropically aged, no additives, single-still, cask strength. The taste is amazingly good, and I think they are great additions to the full proof Demerara lineup. It may be too early to tell, but if they continue to issue such rums in the future, these first editions may one day be worth quite a bit, the same way my first bottlings appreciated on the secondary markets.”

His tone has that evangelical fervor, the ring of utter personal conviction, that always characterizes his public presentations, and I gotta admit, the enthusiasm is infectious. He may or not be right, and others may disagree with his assessment in the months and years to come – but there’s no doubt he really believes they’re that good. I’ve heard him speak that way about his other rums and rhums as well, and we know Velier’s track record, so perhaps we should just take it at face value. Until shops actually start selling them and we start seeing reviews out there, not much more to be said. I think we’re just about done here.

I scratch my head, look at my notes and questions, and realize an hour has gone by. Luca is now buying organic apples for his pretty wife through the taxi window, waiting to see if there’s anything else, but he’s covered it all for me, filled in most of the blanks. What little information I have from DDL confirms most of this. So I give him my regards and thanks, we exchange notes on our movements around the world in 2016 and agree to see if we can meet up somewhere, have a relaxed session and maybe drink a sample or ten. And, of course, as always, to talk rums.

***

Other notes

This was not a formal interview. It was a discussion between the two of us, which is why I wrote it the way I did. From his perspective, it was to some extent also publicity, even damage control. It’s no coincidence that this and Cyril’s more formal interview came out so close together. Had I not written the two other essays about DDL already, I would not have bothered, but this wraps things up and substitutes such opinions and guesses as I have expressed, with more factual information.

The formal release of these rums for sale with all the marketing blitz, brass bands and bunting is supposed to be the end of January / early February 2016.

 

 

Jan 202016
 

Rare Collection

“I hope for them that the rums are good,” muttered Cyril darkly, as a bunch of us exchanged comments on the newest DDL offerings. We should have been happy, but we weren’t, not really. Few of us rum watchers were.

Back in December 2015, I read the tea leaves spectacularly wrong and suggested that DDL would not be issuing single-still Velier-style full proofs any time soon. A month later they did: an Enmore 1993, Versailles 2002 and PM 1999. I’m actually kinda surprised nobody ragged my tail about my utter inability to forecast what might even have been a foregone conclusion after the age of Velier’s Demeraras abruptly ended. So yeah, I munching a big crow sandwich right now.

Still: if you’re not deep into rums, perhaps the way the blogosphere erupted at the news of DDL’s full-proofRare Collectionmight have taken you aback. A link to an article on Velier’s site went viral almost immediately on the FB pages of la Confrere, Global Rum Club, Ministry of Rum; even some blogs made mention of it. People who loved Velier’s Demeraras, and who snapped up indie bottlings of Guyanese rums for ages, were happy as a Caner who fell into the vat, that DDL had finally started to “tek front.”

But as time went on, it became clear that there were several issues with the three bottlings named above, and all of them pointed to what I maintain are deficiencies in DDL’s strategic (or marketing) arm. They misread the public sentiment and displayed no real current knowledge of what drives purchases of upscale “super-premium” rums. They came at the wrong time, at the wrong price, with too little information and with the wrong fanfare.

Consider:

There was absolutely no forewarning at all (see footnote 1). The picture and a brief notation in Italian went up on the Velier website (it has now disappeared) and that was it. And not even in time to make the Christmas season, where traditionally liquor sales peak. As of this writing (January 20th) they are still not represented on El Dorado’s own website (although the deceased Mr. Robinson remains as a valued member of the team). DDL’s Facebook page has nothing, and questions I raised in private messages to them went unanswered. Wow. Who on earth is in charge of getting the message out over there?

Along with the lack of warning, there was no mention of three key points that anyone selling a rum about which there is great anticipation should reasonably consider:

    1. Where were these to be distributed/sold?
    2. What would the price be?
    3. How many bottles were issued?

So essentially, until the Danes at Romhatten got their hands on a set and started writing about them (the PM received a 96 rating), few people knew where they could be had. Most online stores still don’t carry them. It was later established they would not be sold in North America. And when it was understood that they averaged out at €290 a bottle in Denmark and Germany, whereas most independent bottlings of the same ages cost between a €100-200 on the primary market, the grumbles got louder.

Leaving out production costs and taxes, two things drive a bottle’s price way upage (to some extent, though I have paid an arm and a leg for a seven year old from 1980), and more than that, rarity. The two together create monsters like the Appleton 50 year old ($4500/bottle) for example. One of the reasons a Velier Skeldon 1978 pushes prices past the thousand euro mark on the secondary market, is because there are so few out there.

However, DDL has not marketed the rums with indie-bottler-level pricing to titillate the market and grab initial market share and establish their own reputation for great full proof rums, separate from that of Velier; they gave no hint of how many bottles were issued; they advertised not at all, and to add insult to injury, are staying mum on the fora where they can engage their fans and the general public. All of this suggests that we are being asked to pay very high prices for an unproven product of uncertain commonality. If a hundred bottles had been issued that would be one thing….ten thousand would be quite another matter.

Consider this key point alsoLuca was the recipient of a decade of goodwill for his full proof lines, aided and abetted by issuing rums that were very very good. The man had an enviable track record, made almost no dogs, and had no dishonour or disrepute attached to his product (like DDL got when hydrometer tests began to show the inclusion of unreported sugar to their standard aged rums), and as a result, people were willing to buy his products blind, almost at any price, knowing they would get something that had a good chance of being an excellent drink and a worthwhile investment. And to his credit, Luca provided all the info up front, and never priced his rums to the point where this kind of essay became necessary.

DDL maybe felt that “if we issue it they will come.” Given the explosion of interest in the new line, they were certainly correct there, and they themselves have many decades of goodwill of their own to tap into, deriving from the El Dorado line of rums (if not the Single Barrel expressions). So I’m not saying DDL makes bad rums (quite the opposite in fact). And believe me, I’m not pissy because I read the future wrong. In fact, I have already bitten the bullet, put my money where my mouth is, and bought all three of these releases at those crazy prices. I look forwardkeenlyto reviewing them.

What I am is annoyed with the stumbles of a company for which I have great regard, and which should know better. You don’t issue expensive rums after the holiday season, when purses are scrawny and credit card bills are due. The pricing and the lack of information are sure to piss off more serious rum lovers (and writers) who make purchasing decisions carefully. One spends twenty bucks on a whimnot three hundred. And think about this also: when bloggers to whose opinions people attend say they will not buy these rums because they are too pricey or difficult to get (as several have already told me), their audience gets turned off too, and sales will inevitably diminish. If this happens and DDL believes there’s no market for full proofs, well, then, what do you think they will do? Cancel the entire line, maybe?

So yeah, I’m a little miffed with DDL’s new rums, much as I applaud the fact that they’re issued at all. Only time will tell whether the price they’ve set is justified. In the meantime, they’d better start providing us consumers with more information, not less. And those rums had better be damned good.


Notes

  1. Inadvertently, I’m sure, the Guyanese daily Stabroek News actually mentioned these three rumsback in November 4th, 2015. It is clearly stated in that article that they would only be sold in Europe.
  2. In January 2019, I wrote a recap of my opinions on the the Rares to that point, Releases I, II and III.
Dec 152015
 

Single_Barrels

Introduction

In 2015 it became widely known that DDL was severing its relationship with Velier, and Luca Gargano would no longer have access to their warehouses. With that simple statement, the Age of Velier’s Demerara Rums appeared to have come to an end. In October of that same year, I reviewed the three single barrel expressions DDL issued back in 2007, and the notes in that write up were so voluminous that I split them apart to form the basis of this essay.

My thinking went like this: when you think of all the advantages DDL enjoys in the international marketplacebrand visibility and recognition, market penetration, and the great stills like PM and EHP, to name just threeyou begin to realize just how curious those three rums actually are. And how much they say about the ethos and thrust of the company’s rum strategy (or lack thereof).

Velier showed that there was a real market for such full proof, limited edition rums. You’d think that with the Scots and the Italians’ decades-long love affair with issuing PMs and Enmores and what have you, that this largely untapped market would be aggressively exploited by the company supplying the actual rum, but no, DDL has let Moon Imports, Samaroli, Velier, Rum Nation, Secret Treasures, Silver Seal, Duncan Taylor, and many others, garner the accolades and the money while they concentrate on the core El Dorado range.

Background

The ICBU, EHP and PM expressions remain the only still-specific rums DDL have ever created since the el Dorado line burst on the scene in 1992. DDL, as you would recall, have a number of pot and columnar stills – some of wood, some very old, all producing interesting variations of taste; the El Dorado line blends various proportions of output from these stills. Craft bottlers who have bought barrels made from the stills have long issued limited expressions like PM, EHP, ICBU, LBI, Blairmont, Versailles, Skeldon (Velier remains the acknowledged champion in this regard), and the speed at which they sell and the high prices they command on the secondary market demonstrates the enormous cachet they have.

Yet DDL has, as of this writing (December 2015), refused to go further with developing this gaping omission in its lineup. They told me a few months ago that I should wait for great things coming out later in 2015, and then issued the “new” 15 year old rums with various finishes. An evolutionary stopgap, I thought (then and now) — not a radical departure, not a revolution, not great, and not particularly new. They still don’t have millesimes or annual releases or special stills’ rums of any consequence. The three amigos referenced above are also not marketed worth a damn to exhibit their singular nature, or to take advantage of their remarkable provenance or their accessible proof point. They are priced quite high for rums that don’t have an age statement – together, they cost me north of US$300, and not many people are going to buy such relatively pricey rums unless they are really into the subculture. So here are some initial problems DDL created for themselves: the age, the year, the outturn, none of this is on the label. Why is the year of distillation and age and bottle count not shouted from the rooftops? Age confers cachet in any spirit; single stills’, single years’ output even more so. What’s the holdup with DDL providing such elementary information? Actually, what’s the holdup in creating an entire line of such remarkable rums?

Independent bottlers are the leaders in this field, and there’s enormous interest for these expressions. That single post of mine about the three rums clocked a reach of 400 on FB, and 20 likes on the site, in less than an hour (trust me, that’s fast and furious going for a niche audience such as we writers have). So knowing that limited release rums sell fast to the cognoscenti, knowing the power of social media, and using my experience as a sort of quasi baseline, I ask againwhat’s stopping DDL?

Problems

The very specificity of these rums may be their undoing in the wider rum world, because it is connoisseurs and avid fans and rabid collectors who are most likely to buy them, appreciate them, and understand the divergent/unusual taste profiles, which are quite different from the more commonly available (and best-selling) El Dorados like the 5, 8, 12, 15, 21 and 25 year old. To illustrate further, how many casual rum drinkers even know there are multiple stills at Diamond, and can can name more than the PM or EHP? One could taste the three single barrel rums, and immediately realize that they certainly aren’t standard sippers or the usual cocktail fodderwhich is something of double edged sword for rum makers, who like to be different….but not too different.

Too, it’s possible that seeing the niche interest these expressions developed over the years which Velier then expanded into a worldwide phenomenon, that the boys on the Top Floor were scared dickless and shut that sucker down fast, lest it bite into profits of more dependable rums….rather than seeing it as an opportunity. I have a feeling relative margins of various products were and are involved here.

Then there’s hard consumer cash: such DDL-made single barrel expressions are by their very nature more expensive and get more so as we climb the age ladder, but there’s another reason they cost so much – DDL never made more, or issued them in great quantity (it’s unknown what the year of the batch is, and I’m not even sure how many were made, let alone whether DDL ever issued more beyond that 2007 year, or ever will again).

Another reason to scratch my head wondering what they’re thinking. Are they ignoring the signs of rums’ expanding popularity and the increasing sophistication of the drinking classes, so evident all around them? Or are they simply oblivious?

General economic musings

Now I know something about how products in a manufacturing environment are priced. There’s all the input costs of raw materials, plus labour charges, storage costs, prep costs and marketing and distribution and shipping (using various bases of allocation for overheads), to come up with a unit production cost (i.e., what it cost to make each individual bottle). Depending on the sophistication of the accounting / costing system and the methodology employed, the profit margin is fixed and the rum is released to the market. The brokers, intermediaries, governments, bulk buyers and stores will add fees and markups and taxes to the base selling price, and the result is the €80 to €100 (give or take) which the consumer pays for a middle aged, single barrel expression with 1000 bottles or so issued by an independent bottler. So perhaps this is a lot easier for an independent operation which buys rums from brokers, than it is for a vertically integrated multinational like DDL which has canefields, sugar factories, distillation apparatus, a huge labour force and a supply chain network that is large and far-flung.

Now, that means the entire revenue stream from such a specific, limited rum is likely to be €100,000 or lessdoes anyone believe that it “only” costs that amount to shepherd a rum for ten years through all its stages for a company that is as vertically integrated from cane to cork, as DDL? Not a chance. Smaller bottlers have it easier since they buy one small set of already-aged barrels at a time, low infrastructure costs, and have a skeleton staff; and this is both their advantage and disadvantage because they lose economies of scale while having a limited output in a barrel that may not succeed after ageing (and lose a lot to the angels in the process), while at the same time being able to pick exactly the barrels they want.

But DDL doesn’t have this issuethey have the infrastructure to age much more than just a few barrels at a time, and there are opportunities for a millesime approach, yearly issues, and yes, single-still aged output from multiple barrels, totalling many thousands of bottles. The economics favour DDL’s daring to go in this direction, I think, especially at higher levels of output of which they are clearly capable. (Even some limited test marketing would make sense, I thinkto the USA, I would suggest, because you wouldn’t believe the volume of wistful emails I get from that country, asking me where I got mine and how can they get some?)

Still, more subjective matters do start to come into play. For new products without a purchasing history behind them and issued in limited quantities, it’s a risk, a big one, to invest a decade or more in ageing, take the hit from the angels and losses on barrels that don’t work after all thatthen bottle perhaps 15% of the original volume, price high and hope sales will follow. Distributors and shops will also not want to give shelf space or prominence to stuff they are unsure will move in volume. Also, new products can cut into the sales of the old dependables upon which all cash flow is based (and which may subsidize loss leaders like the single barrels, which can be uneconomical at first).

But it is my contention that DDL doesn’t need to do this: the path has already been blazed by the independent bottlers; and DDL / El Dorado (and the famed stills) is one of the more recognized, widely sold brands in the rum universe. Velier has shown the model can succeed. We know for a fact that a ten year old Demerara rum from a single still (at any strength between 45-65%) can reasonably sell for €100 / US$120 and maybe even more. And the prices escalate with both age and exclusivity, using existing distribution channels and marketing strategies already in place. DDL has spent decades building up its brand and distribution, so these are sunk costs that work to the advantage of selling more, rather than less, of the single-still expressions, even if issued 40% and not cask strength.

el_dorado_bottlerange

Photo copyright lovedrinks.com

What’s on DDL’s strategic mind?

What this leaves us with is a number (depressing) conjectures about DDL’s short and medium term strategy.

  1. The cash cows of the aged rums which blend the stills’ outputs will continue
  2. Experiments with different cask finishes will gather some steam, concentrating, in my opinion, on the El Dorados 12, 15 and 21 years old (I doubt the 25 year old will be tampered with unless it is to make it stronger).
  3. Yes, spiced rums will continue, maybe even be expanded. They sell briskly, much to the annoyance of many purists.
  4. The single barrel, still-specific rums may be re-started, but most of the wooden-still outputs will continue to be favoured for producing the 8, 12, 15, 21 and 25 year old blends, and not for anything more specialized.
  5. DDL will make no sudden moves into new (rum) product lines. The company simply does not seem to be structured to allow experimental development. That’s why agile little companies like Compagnie des Indies can survive and even make money….using DDL’s rums.

In other words, we can expect the status quo to continue for quite some time. They shut Velier out, but gave us nothing to replace it.

Of course, this is all me being pissy. I know some of the guys over there, spent many years in Guyana, love the place, like their rums. It annoys me no end that they almost never respond to emails, provide little beyond marketing materials when they do, have on their website a man gone to the rumshop in the sky many moons ago, and just continue doing the same old thing year after year: as I said, the new finishes on the 15 year old do not really impress me, though I do want to try them (I’m a reviewer after all).

I think this indifference to smaller market segments is a mistake, however. Because three major trends are gathering a serious head of steam in our world:

  1. Aged scotch is rising in price faster than people can keep up; and as the industry frantically tries to sell NAS whisky to make up for the shortfall of suitably aged reserves, malt-lovers will move more and more to craft rums, especially where profiles are similar. Increasing sales of craft rums and the emergence of more and more small rum-producing companies suggests this trend is well underway, so where is DDL’s response? (Observe the farsightedness of Richard Seale partnering up with Velier in the 2015 release season, a position DDL could have had for the asking given their past association with Luca Gargano)
  2. In about five years, as rum penetrates a critical mass of drinkers who demand unadulterated, cask strength, limited edition, well made products, DDL will likely have revisit the decision to divert its stock to more craft-based offerings and reduce the blends (either that or increase output across the board, and with sugar’s woes in Guyana, that might be problematicor another opportunity) . Whether they have sufficient aged rums available at that point to both satisfy the blended-aged market, and something more exclusive, only they can know. But sooner or later, they will have to start.
  3. The USA cannot keep on subsidizing Bacardi and their ilk forever. Too many US citizens are already squawking all over social media about how the best rums are never to be found in their location and when they are, the price differential is too great between those and the subsidized rums. Once they start agitating for reform of subsidies and tax breaks, other countries take the matter to the WTO, and fairer tax regimens and tariffs are passedand sooner or later this will happenthen craft rums will become more competitive, and the US market will explode. DDL had better be ready to increase its market share there when this happens. If all they have is the same old menu and live off past glories, then they will fall behind other, nimbler, smarter companies with a more diversified (or focussed) portfolio.

Summing up.

The three single barrel expressions of DDL’s impressive stable point to more serious structural deficiencies of their medium term planning with respect to rums. They are too weak, too few, and marketed too poorly in a time of an increasingly educated, knowledgeable drinking class. I’m not saying independent bottlers’ craft expressions are the wave of the futurebut I do contend that they will get a larger and larger slice of the market in the years to come, and it seems that DDL is poorly positioned to take advantage of this. If I was on their team, the first thing I’d do is stop selling bulk rum from the wooden stills to anyone, hoard it all, and start issuing high proof, low volume, carefully selected, suitably aged rums in very limited, exclusive markets.

But nothing I’ve read and heard and seen suggests this is on DDL’s planning horizon. There is a subtle sense of complacency involved here, along the lines of “We have the stills, we have the sugar cane, we have the storage space, and tons of old rums. We can adapt whenever we chose.”

Maybe. It will probably be neither so easy or quite so quick. A small outfit dealing in a few barrels at a time, sure. A monolith like DDL? One can only wonder. And, in the case of me and my rum-chum friends, hope a little.

Update January 2016

This article was overtaken by events, of course. In January 2016, DDL announced that they would indeed issue three cask-strength expressions, an Enmore, a PM and a Versailles. No word on issue volumes. The youngest would be about ten years old and for the moment sold only in Europe. So the timing of my essay, as well as my conclusions, really suckedtoo bad. Still, I’d rather be wrong and get some good rums to buy, rather and be right and get none. I hope this is a forerunner of many aged rums to come from DDL, and that they live up to the high standard Luca set.

Aug 252015
 

Bloggers 1

Bloggers 2

 

“I don’t read a lot of blogs because, well, most of them are written by people who aren’t qualified to piss in the ocean,” remarked Ed Hamilton on his blog The Ministry of Rum on July 7th 2015. To say I was surprised at such a blanket indictment of the majority of the rum blogging community would be an understatement. He’s not the only one to make such a statement in the recent past: when I wrote a five part series on how to start reviewing rums earlier this year, in an effort to provide some advice on new bloggers who often cease operation after a short while, I got a snarling response from another writer, who suggested that there are too many incompetents writing as it is (myself among them) and more should not be encouraged.

I simply don’t understand this attitude. It originates from persons who themselves write a lot, opiniate even more, and have a large body of words on their sites (which obviously pass muster by their own definitions of “qualified”), yet they seem to feel that almost all other websites, discussions, opinions and reviews, are a waste of internet space. I can sort of understand Sir Scrotimus Maximus in Retirement Land, since he despises everyone (and spews a vomitus of condescending and negative opinions just about every day), but Mr. Hamilton, for whom I have a great deal of respect, is a more puzzling enigma. Especially given his well-known dedication to rum, and the oft expressed moan abut rum not having enough visibility and fighting an uphill battle against other more established tipples.

To make my own position clear: I myself have nothing but distaste for short, ignorant, non-knowledgable click-bait written by writers for online spirits magazines (see here, here, here, here and here for some examples). Too often they display an abysmal ignorance of rums in general, and make lists of rums that would be amusing if they weren’t so uninspiring. But I don’t think this is what Sir Scrotimus or Mr. Hamilton were referring to. Nor do I believe that they are talking about news stories. Or cocktail sites and writers for them. No, when they refer to monkey mutterings and blogs, they are talking about reviewers. And since I’m one of them, I think I’ll take up cudgels on behalf of myself and others in my field.

To begin with, who qualifies as a “good” writer? For my money, this would be someone who writes with prose that engages the reader; who has a good understanding of the industry; who crafts decent tasting notes on the rums that are tried; expresses an informed opinion; has a body of rums to refer to, and self-evidently is involved in not only increasing his own knowledge but that of his readers.

Are there truly none of such writers around? Sure there are. Henrik from Denmark keeps getting better all the time and that’s in his second language; Marco Freyr from Barrel Aged Mind in Germany is a historian par excellence with enormously detailed articles on the rums he tries; Josh Miller of Inuakena writes well, tastes well and goes far afield whenever it pleases him; Cyril from duRhum fills in with great reviews of more obscure fare, especially agricoles; Steve James of Rum Diaries writes great reviews in depth; The Fat Rum Pirate writes accessible notes for the common man with lots of opinions and off-hand facts, primarily for the UK crowd, and lovingly tends to the low-end and mid-range. I enjoy Laurent’s work on Les Rhums de l’homme à la Poussette. Dave Russell of the Rum Gallery is a long running stalwart, and while Chip and I happily trade emails back and forth about our differences in opinion, the man does put out a welter of rum reviews that North Americans in particular take seriously.

Why do we need more of such people?

Because, dear reader, there still aren’t enough. Not really. Excluding cocktail blogs which speak to rum as a secondary enterprise, there are less than twenty focused rum reviewing sites in the whole world. I can’t think of many which are run on a commercial basis. And yet we constantly complain about rum taking second place to whisky in the minds of the tippling class, not having exposure, people not “getting” the variety it represents. Well, having more writers who raise the profile would therefore be a good thing, wouldn’t it?

It is online writers like Johnny, Cyril, Dave and Wes who are spearheading the fight against improper labeling, undisclosed sugar and additives and outright deceptive marketing practices. Would less reviewers have the same effect? Not at all. Because then we’d just be left with the polarizing negativisms of Sir Scrotimus.

We also need more writers because they are the ones who call attention to the rums of the world in a time of declining advertising budgets and quality magazine writing about rums. Yes there’s the RumPorter, and yes there’s Got Rum…but there are scores of such publications on whisky or wine, so we’re supposed to be happy with a mere handful on our tipple of choice? Hell no. We need dozens, not just a couple. Reviewers, bloggers and online writers fill this void. You can disagree with what they write, but at least they’re out there providing information. Why would having fewer somehow be seen as better?

Even assuming the statements of these two gentlemen were correct (and I dispute that) they both ignore the obvious question: where are the “qualified writers,” if the ones I mentioned above aren’t representative? No please, educate me. Who are they? For whom do they write? What are their blogs? Are they active and engaged in the rumworld? Are they the few book authors who exist? To toss out generalized comments about the chattering underclass who supposedly don’t know what they’re doing seems grossly unfair to me, without listing them and their opposite numbers who are worth reading. If you are going to use your platform to diss someone, by all means provide a list of those who do fit your personal criteria. More than two, please, and in the same post as your takedown, not elsewhere on your site. Negatives are one thing, but if you have no positives to contribute then your argument lacks substance. More, there’s a puritan ethos of understated censorship wafting through those two comments I find disturbingy’know, Write what I like, or you’re an idiot.

I think that part of the issue is that such qualified reviewers are somehow expected to spring to life overnight like Athena from Zeus’s brow, and wow us with their Kiplingesque prose, incredible depth of knowledge and scintillating wit, right out of the gate. But in a world where nobody (well, almost nobody) gets paid for writing about rum – and to my mind the greater proportion of rum writers write for love, not money – I think it says a lot for the dedication and devotion of rum aficionados who are also reviewers that they do as much as they do for free. This is somehow a bad thing?

So it’s my considered opinion that the two comments above do the writing community a disservice. Yes there is an unmet need for more writers who provide their own perspective and writing style and knowledge. Yes we could use some more professional authors who do more than just blog about cocktails and the tiki culture. We could have more reference materials and other information out there that raises the bar for the expected knowledge of a rum blogger. We need that kind of talent for those who write about rums specifically, not as an afterthought or a sideshow. And the reviewers and bloggers that are so casually dismissed, are the ones that provide, as best they can, this level of commitment and growing expertise. Because nobody else is.

In summary, it’s a shame that opinion makers and commentators like these two, instead of trying to raise the bar with mentorship and good advice for the new blood and existing writers, resort to such unfortunate takedowns. But you know, Mr. Hamilton called it right: he doesn’t read those he doesn’t like. Maybe there’s a word of wisdom for us all in that.

Mar 062015
 

Part 5

Part 5 – Keeping things going

So let’s sum up the preceding four parts.[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

  1. Understand what you’re getting into, and why you’re doing it
  2. Go with a comfortable writing style that suits you
  3. Design a nice look to your site
  4. Know how to taste, score, note and write (and practice a lot)
  5. Know your rums and the larger world around them
  6. Sample around extensively (safely!!! I am not advocating rampant boozing)
  7. Be courteous
  8. Be consistent

If you’ve made it to fifty or more reviews, passed a year of writing, then it’s reasonable to assume this is no longer a mere hobby, but something a shade more serious. Still, as time and rums pass by, interest flags and it’s perhaps no longer as much fun as it used to be…more like work. God, do I have to do another one of these? Been dere, dun dat.

The most common comments I hear from other bloggers, and often experienced myself, are these:

(a) Site hits are too few and too fickle, showing massive variations

The more you write and the more you are active online, the more hits come your way. Of course, this presupposes some level of quality in your work, and a network of contacts who recommend your site and people who share taste, and your way of expressing it. The CocktailWonk suggested finding one’s niche in an increasingly crowded writersmarket, which is a good ideawriting in a way, and about subjects, which no-one else is.

However, never underestimate the power of online “boosting” either. Now, if your perspective is one of “If I build it they will come” and you’re writing to speak of your experiences, your journey, without reference to how many others see what you’ve done…then letting your site sit there, idling gently, building word of mouth, is just as good as any other.

Online promotion is for people who can’t wait, are impatient to get visibility, and understand the hits multiplier that social networks enable. When you put something up, distribute and share on twitter, G+, post on the Rum forum on reddit, use Facebook to like and share, post to StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, Tumblr…these things can – in the short term at least – double and triple your site hits. The flip side is some people will inevitably see it as crass, whatever that means given the reputation of the drink we’re discussing.

(b) Comments are few and far apart

Really, this is irrelevant. People comment when they feel like. You can certainly try to be controversial, write opinion pieces seeking engagement, create a forum for comments like the Ministry of Rum or the RumProject, be active on the FB fora, but here again, it simply takes time to get the volume.

(c) The damn thing is too expensive

Good point. It is pricey. Go cheaper and build “review volume”, and remember this – you will never be able to taste them all, and there will always be an old monster you really wanted that will never be yours. At the forefront, keep in mind why you are here – if your goals have changed and this is not worth the cash, shutter the house and walk away. As a balm, I also refer you to my rather humorous take on affording your favourite tipple, which I name the “El Dorado Problem”, here.

(d) It takes too much of my time

It can be done if you ration your time appropriately. And of course, if your commitment and persistence is there. Just for the record: I have a full time job in a foreign country; a family that has demands on my time; other interests and hobbies; a social life (such as it is); I’m studying for a professional accreditation; I’m learning another language. I balance all this with my writing. If a lazy sod like me can do all this, there should be no reason why you can’t.

(e) Bottles or samples acquisition sucks. I’ve cleaned out all locals shops and bars

Create a sample-exchange network if you can (this suggests you have something someone wants and local postage laws permit it); interface with distilleries or brand reps; buy abroad and ship to yourself. Aggressive industry solicitation (“I’d like to review your products on my site…”) will work, and for sure, good relations with store owners is enormously useful – they often allow you to try heels for nothing, (like Dirk Becker’s store in Berlin, and Andrew Ferguson in Calgary always did for me, bless ‘em.)

(f) People cannot be made to have an interest in rum no matter the effort

This is your job to fix. Consider yourself a rum ambassador. Spread the gospel. Those that don’t like rums are sadly misguided lambs in need of a shepherd to lead them to the cool green grass of the True Faith.

But all that aside, there are many ways to keep your interest from fading, and some of the things you can do at various times are:

1. Attend as many tastings or festivals as you can, and then write about them. Hell, run your own. At the very least you will meet people and get tasting notes for expensive rums you might not otherwise be able to afford or find.

2. Read the blogs from around the world; European ones often speak to rare and very old craft rums about which we can only dream. Google translate does a decent job for those who are not multi-lingual, which is most of us.

3. Comment on others’ blogs (but really, do this if you have something to say, not just because you want to generate hits for yourself), join the Facebook page, start your own…make friends, even if only online.

4. Send and/or share samples on your own cognizance, of rums which you have that others might not. I’ve given away more than half of the Skeldon 1973, for example, and my PM 1980 is long gone down the gullets of the Liquorature Collective, including (to my utter delight) the Rum-despising Maltmonster and his Hippie acolyte.

5. Start a rum club of your own with like minded souls.

I’ve been doing this since 2009, and my interest is maintained by new rums, new friends, correspondents, festivals, and being part of something I feel is of worth. I find that staying in touch generates reciprocal goodwill and increases my engagement with the larger community. And the writing, of course, keeps me busy too. At the end, it comes down to you and what you are prepared to do, and how seriously, or long term, you view the activity. Like any long term endeavour, you should love what you do, know what you’re about, take pride in it, and be professional. Have a sense of humour about it all, and keep the wheels turning. It can, with some effort, be a pastime or vocation that stretches into decades.

Hopefully these comments will give a sense of what it takes to remain that way.

***

Thanks and a big hat tip for helping me out with parts of, and background to, this essay go to:

  • Henrik Kristoffersen of RumCorner for massive investment of time and effort to comment and make this better. I stole some of his remarks.
  • TheFatRumPirate for portions of his starter-rum list
  • Josh Miller of Inuakena for a read through and encouragement.
  • All the online rum writers who over the years have candidly discussed their experiences with running a blog.
  • The Little ‘Caner, nine-year-old scion of Clan ‘Caner, who helped me with the cartoons, lent me his pencils (“Colour inside the lines, Dad!”); and the beautiful, long-suffering Mrs. Caner, who loves me still, even if I spend too many evenings writing stuff like this.

 

 

 

Mar 052015
 

 

Part 4

 

Part 4 – Which rums to start with

In conceptual and generalized terms, this series has so far covered the startup philosophy, the website and postings, and added pointers on sampling and reviewing. Today I move into more familiar territory.

I have a feeling quite a few people were waiting for this post. Alas, no, this isn’t entirely what you thought it would be, because making such a list is a tricky, even controversial, subject to opinions varying as widely as the Pacific.

I’d suggest that you begin with what’s available to you easily and at a relatively low costthose that open a new site not unnaturally tend to begin with what’s already in the cabinet, for example, and it seems that one really great rum is usually what kickstarts the inspiration process. Now yes, this will relegate you to reviewing the old standby rums everyone knows about and which have been written on by many before youbut it also provides you with a solid base from which to start, good writing experience, and a sense of the their relative characteristics, one to the other. More, if you begin from the low end then you’ll appreciate better, older rums more as and when they cross your pathyou have a good basis for comparison. And you can calibrate betterby seeing what others have written on the same rum, you see what you may have missed (or what they have), and gain additional perspective and confidence. It helps even more with rare or limited editions that have no precedent: try finding reviews of the SMWS rum bottlings, for examplewhat on earth can they reasonably be compared to, if you have ‘em right off the bat?

What this is about then, is getting a firm grounding in the core rums of the world and what they taste like, and how they differ: El Dorado, Flor de Cana, Appleton, Mount Gay, FourSquare, Havana Club, Bacardi (yes, Bacardi), Clemente, Abuelo, Goslings, Diplomatico, Barbancourt, St. James, as well as standard mixers like Lamb’s, Meyer’s, Trader Vic’s, and so on (this listing is merely illustrative). It also introduces you to the various styles upon which some place enormous emphasisDemerara, Jamaican, Latin/Spanish/Cuban, Bajan, Agricoles and what have you (the FatRumPirate has a good section on his website devoted to this kind of stratification). If the subject and the act of reviewing is at all important to you, you kinda have to know this stuff. Rum 101, folks. You cannot be a reviewer with street cred, demanding respect, if you don’t have the basics down.

I thought long and hard before deciding against providing detailed list of rums one could begin with because no matter how extensive, I’ll either leave something out, or include one that others disagree with; and have compromised by providing a list of companies making rums that are well known, mostly available, reasonably well-regarded (at least they’re not hated) and fairly representative. It’s up to you to decide what your palate and your wallet can stand, and which ones in the value chain to get.

So, the rums made by the companies below are not a listing of rums with which to start your reviewing life, or a rum baralthough you could do worsesimply ones that gives a reasonably broad base of styles and makes. They therefore comprise a key component of a reviewer’s mental arsenal for evaluating rums. (Note I am deliberately leaving out specific rums from the eastern hemisphere, and independent bottlers. This is not to imply that they are somehow less, however.)

  • Bacardi (no matter what you think of them, they make decent rums)
  • Angostura (Trinidad)
  • El Dorado (Guyana)
  • Appleton (Jamaica)
  • Flor de Caña (Nicaragua)
  • Mount Gay (Barbados)
  • R.L.Seale / 4-Square (Barbados)
  • Havana Club (Cuba)
  • Matusalem (Dominican Republic)
  • Diplomatico (Venezuela)
  • Brugal, Barcelo and Bermudez (Dominican Republic)
  • Travellers (Belize)
  • Goslings (Bermuda)
  • Cockspur (Barbados)
  • Pusser’s (BVI)
  • Abuelo (Panama)
  • Agricoles – Barbancourt, St James, Neisson, HSE, Karukera, J. Bally, Clemente, Karukera, are examples…there are many others
  • Soleras like Zafra, Dictador, Zacapa, Santa Teresa
  • Spiced Rums like Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry’s, Kraken and so on
  • Overpoofs like the various 151 rums made by Appleton, Bacardi, Lemon Hart et al
  • Non Caribbean rums from anywhere (Australia, Thailand, India, Phillipines, Fiji, etc), even if they may not strictly be rums according to general accepted convention. The constant arguments of what constitutes a “true” rum is unlikely to be solved anytime soon, so you should also understand why the Phillipine Tanduay, Czech Tuzemak or Thai Mekhong raise the blood pressure of the puritans.

I tell all people asking me about what to begin with, to start the journey with one or two fantastic examples to show what rum can be, but then concentrate on writing initially about the low end of the market and work up. And I would strongly advise the prospective reviewer against going for, and writing about, the top end, oldest, most prestigious and/or most expensive rums right away, or those from independent bottlers who make rums that are often off the scale. Even if you can afford them or your friends press them upon you, put them away for analysis and review later. I know this sounds totally bat-bleep-crazy, but until you get your basics down and understand the rank and file of commercially available commonality, know your own tastes and how good sub-ten-year-olds can be, you will not be able to properly rate, appreciate or score a premium (or conversely, you may score it too enthusiastically).

Worse, it will colour all your perceptions of the good and commonly available rums forever, and this will be reflected in your writing. Buying top-end aged rums from their makers, or sourcing quality hooch from outfits like Rum Nation, Cadenhead, AD Rattray, Samaroli, Silver Seal or Velier and skipping entry-level grog altogether, is something of a one-way bridge; in comparison, more affordable and younger offerings will seem less, when in fact they really aren’t, just different, and are often good markers of their styles. From my own experience, I can freely admit that I should never have bought the Appleton 30 so quickly; or, much as I have always loved it, the English Harbour 1981.

TomorrowKeeping things going, and a wrap up

Mar 052015
 

Part 3

 

Part 3 – Sampling, and the review itself

In the first part of this series I discussed figuring out how to get your head around what to write, and followed that up in Part 2 with some general remarks on how to deal with your actual website postings. Today I continue in a similar vein about tasting, scoring and the conceptuals of a review.

***

When I taste I scribble my initial notes immediately; then I have to retaste, usually with other rums in play as controls or comparators, then score. Then I have to turn the whole thing into a coherent essay, including research, background and photographs. The re-edits can sometimes take days. Then, and only then, do I post on this site.

Some pointers that work for me and which I’d recommendthe list is not entirely for more casual bloggers, but who’s to say what’s useful and what’s not? As always, find your own method with which you’re comfortable.

1. I’m not going to go in depth on how to nose and taste, hold the glass, dip your beak, etc. The subject has been covered by many others before, and you’ll find a way that works for you. However, a good glass, not a tumbler, is recommended. I used to needle my friend Curt of ATW about pinching his daughter’s Barbie glass collection, but there’s no question that a good tasting glass is part of a reviewer’s arsenal for really getting into a rum’s profile. Sure you can use a whisky glass, plastic cup or tumbler, but remember: you’re a reviewer, not a backyard boozer gunnin’ ‘em down over the grill. It almost presupposes a slightly more structured approach to assessing a spirit.

2. Train yourself to know how to identify what you are tasting and smelling. (Practice in the kitchen, on the spouse’s spices, in open air markets, anywhere there’s a plethora of aromas to tease out of the air). Pay attention to your nose, because that’s where most of the taste comes from.

3. Sample blind if you can, and in conjunction with other rums that are your personal baselines for the type. In other words, have three or four glasses in front of you, but with different rums in them, including the current subject, and sample them together without knowing which is which. The point is to be as democratic and unbiased as possible. I usually ensure that the comparatorsall previously reviewed and scoredare of similar styles, or ages. Because the first time you try a really top-tier highly-aged rum costing upwards of two hundred bucks, your enthusiasm can really cloud your judgement, and you may be tempted to give it a free pass just because it is what it is, if no controls are in place to temper your exuberance.

4. Do the occasional vertical tasting of an entire distillery’s line, if you can get them (and afford them); or try horizontally, as with taking five ten year olds and run them past each other. You don’t necessarily have to write about itit does increase your experience and relative understanding, though, and there’s nothing at all bad about that.

5. Have or develop a taste memory for rums of similar types and your scoring for them, so you can assess the current sample against such previous reviews. (Henrik from Denmark told me that he has a mental map of a control group of rums which he knows extremely well, and he uses those as reference points to do his scoring).

6. Learn and practice how to write quick notes (this works well in a public environment like shops or festivals, or perhaps your friendspads), and how to score on the fly, even if a little potted (be comforted, it gets easier).

7. Every review should have, at a minimum, a description of the rum (name, type, age if known, country of origin, producing outfit, and proofage); words relating to colour, possibly viscosity (“legs”); nose, taste (with and without water added) and finish. Anything after that is an optional extrastuff such as if it has been added to, filtered, how it makes a cocktail, company bio, what other rums it reminded you of; comparisons, price, source (pot still, column still, cane juice, molasses) and so on.

8. As noted before, whether you write in clipped sentences, brief notes, stream-of-consciousness or lengthy prose is up to you.

9. Have a score sheet. This would list the things you feel need to be evaluated: nose, taste and finish are the three most common. Some add (and score) presentation, balance and/or overall enjoyment. (My sheet has additional space for comments and the notes on the actuality of what I’m samplingas well as what I’m thinking while I do it. Every now and then I go back through my old notes, but I’m odd that way).

10. Score appropriately and consistently. Scoring is always an issuemany use a system which starts at fifty and goes to a hundred; others use a four star, or five-bottle or ten point system. Mind, I started with the naive idea I could avoid scoring altogether and let the narrative speak for the product. Yeah…but no. It’s really not a good idea to leave scores out. Sometimes that’s all people come to a review to see.

11. Jot down key words that occur as you try the latest subject. Try and isolate specific aromas and tastes, the way it feels on the tongue, or when you slug it down. How it changes as it sits for a while, after you add water, or an ice cube. Feel free to be as metaphoric as you wishlanguage should be pushed around a bit. Good writing in reviews is, I think, an undervalued art form, no matter how some people complain about excessive verbiage. (It’s also a personal belief of mine, unshared by many, that a review should say something about the author and his/her perspective on life, even express a philosophy, which is why I write the way I do).

The easiest reviews to write, the ones that just flow without seeming effort, are the ones you are most enthused about, whether for superlative rums or really bad ones. This is because both your emotions and intellect are engaged and this makes for a better writing experience. I’ve always found the hardest reviews to be the ones that relate a rum that is mid rangenothing special. Only practice can take you beyond that hump, because most rums will indeed fall into this section of the bell-curve.

12. Do not be afraid to call a dog when you find one. Tasting is a subjective thing, true. You tend to get a sense for the good or great rums, and as time goes on your personal palate will likely bend you to one profile more than others, something which should also be noted up front (I have a thing for Demeraras and higher-proofed rums, for example, and the RumProject has made no secret of its utter conviction that un-messed-with rums that are in the mid-age sweet-spot range are the only ones anyone should be drinking). But you will find bad ones too. We all do.

When you’re reviewing something from a new outfit you really want to succeed, tasting a rum about which everyone else in the blogosphere spouts ecstatic hosannas and encomiums; when you’re writing about some aged and rare and expensive dream-rum, even a so-called “exemplar of the style”then if you disagree and dislike it, it absolutely does not means that you have to go with the flow, or even waffle around with weasel-words.

If you can take the time to describe why you love a rum, then the opposite holds true as well; you show respect to both the consumers and the makers when you can clearly explain why you think some well-advertised, supposedly well-made product, isn’t what it claims to be. Do not do the humble, self-deprecating cop-out of stating a dislike for a rum with the short comment about this being nothing more than an opinion, and “I’m-an-amateur-and-I-write-for-amateurs” – as if this somehow says all there needs to be said; if you have an opinion for good or ill, you must be able to argue your case. An uninformed opinion is worthless, and people who do more than just look at scores do actually want to know why you feel this way).

Last note:

For four different styles of writing, compare the brutally minimalist ethic of Serge Valentin on WhiskyFun; the informative memoranda of Dave Russell on RumGallery; the utterly consistent verbiage and brevity of the RumHowler; and Barrel Aged Mind’s Deep Field of research. There’s a niche for everyone, depending on style. No one way will ever be correct, or please everyone.

Tomorrow: Which rums to start with

Mar 042015
 

Part 2

Part 2 – The Website, writing and your postings

Yesterday I wrote about getting the mental philosophy of what you’re doing straight, sort of like getting your battle preparations right. In this part, I speak to your website, your writing and the attitude towards interacting with the world.

In no particular order of importance, then:

1. Hardly needs to be said, but design your website for the long term, and organize your space neatly. This is one of those elementary things that is often and surprisingly overlooked. Maximize useful space at the left and right with widgets, links, categories or what have you. Trust me, it’s hard to do this when you have a hundred posts or pages that need to be reorganized. And think about it – as a reader, don’t you want to easily locate the information you’re after?

2. Modern media influences content: I write for large screens, not ipods. If you think your target audience is the latter, shorter, crisper reviews are more likely your thing. My friend Henrik remarked to me “Consider using a platform that supplies smartphone or tablet apps for better mobile experiences. That is the sole reason I chose Blogspot, which has an app that reformats the writing for mobile screens.”

3. Font should be large enough to be readable immediately, and pleasing to the eye (at the very least your own, since it’s yours). The same goes for color schemes, graphics overlays, backgrounds, and so on. Try not to put yourself in a situation where your site layout becomes a nuisance. That will just piss off or scare off readers, or, worse, makes your site seem unserious. On the other hand, be reasonable about it too, since you cannot possibly please everyone (this site was once impatiently accused of beingtoo busy”, for example).

4. If you must have ads on your site, keep them low-key and discreet. Speaking purely for myself, I don’t often visit “noisy” sites that have pop ups, graphics, gifs all over the place. They dilute my focus and detract from what I want to know, which is the rum itself..

5. Have more than just two or three reviews to start with. A site populated with many reviews will be more interesting than just a few. I had twenty to start, and added three a week for the first few months through a blizzard of writing. Even this, in my rearview-mirror opinion, was too little. However, if you are just doing this to chronicle a personal journey and add notes and reviews and remarks as you experience them, then of course a more meandering path with less quantity is perfectly okay. Alternatively, go live with what you have but don’t advertise it, and get feedback from trusted sources, correct your inconsistencies and adjust as required.

6. Take decent pictures of the products you review. Seriously, poor photography palls my overall enjoyment of a review (though crap writing irritates me more). Take pride in what you do. No, you do not come off as One of the Lads by taking low-res, poorly composed, off-kilter, badly-lit photographs. Because you’re not one of the lads: you’re holding yourself out to be something of an expert, someone whose opinion is worth readinga poor picture does you no favours. It’s all about perception. Happily, it’s not really difficult to do.

7. Copyright everything. You might think this is trivial, it’s free publicity when someone cribs your stuffit’s really not. Without such protection, anyone can use the product of your mind and pass it off as his own without you being able to say or do anything about it. If you don’t care, then this is a moot point.

8. Do not let naysayers get you down. There are always people who utterly disagree, pretend their opinions are the Lord’s Own Gospel, want to take you down a peg, leave a negative comment, or show off how much more than you they know. They exist, they like doing it, so you must accept that and move on. You’re in the public domain, and therefore fair game. Myself, I moderate comments on my site (my friend Curt on ATW does not). My attitude is, if you don’t like, or disagree with, something that’s been written, comment courteously, without condescension and snarkiness, and don’t be patronizingor don’t comment at all. Alternatively, you can use your own site to rebut and insult me (as one person already does, but in his defense, he despises everyone who doesn’t see the world his way, equally).

9. So, keep it civil, and refrain from constant negativity – in your responses, but also in your actual writing. There are some bloggers in other liquor spheres that relish taking the low road, are big, brutish, oafish and in your face (one whisky blogger used so much profanity and was so abusive, it utterly appalled me, and I never went there again). I don’t see much percentage in this myself. It’s shock therapy, it’s off-putting, and it alienates more thoughtful readers. And it’s those readers that engage with you, comment articulately and keep your interest from flagging.

10. Know your field. Write about everything on the subject that catches your fancy. Distilleries, wish lists, yuck-lists, thoughts on controversial topics, how-tos, tips&trickshave a sense of the larger world around your passion. I have no particular interest in amarii, but Josh Miller’s excellent four-part series on the subject was fascinating and I was glad that he, a rum reviewer, took the time to take a left turn. The same goes for Steve James’s series on St. Lucia Rums and the ur-text of Marco’s work on Guyanese distilleries.

11. If you take a picture from the web, or a quote, attribute it properly. Ask first if you can, it’s a simple courtesyI’ve gotten caught out with this a few times, which is why I take my own photos, and put website links to quotes used.

12. Take the long view. Do not get upset by a lack of site visits. It takes time to build an audience, even more for rums, which have nowhere near the extensive and rabid fanbase of whiskies (though it does have one self-annointed, self-appointed High Priest). Again, this goes to commercialism inherent or absent from your site, and your constant, occasional or indifferent promotion through social media. (See also Part 5, keeping things going)

TomorrowSampling and the review itself

 

Mar 032015
 

Introduction

There are a lot of people who write engagingly and have an interest in rum, and some of them, not unnaturally, want to start their own website regarding matters of the cane. Some want to review rums; others want to blog about cocktails; in other cases the new bloggers address themselves to spirits in general. After a while, hits go up, production goes up, and the site takes off. And then, in some cases, it slides into a moribund state of somnolescence.

It’s because I wish we had more rummies out there that I decided to put together some thoughts on what it actually means to set up and contribute to a review site. Because fair is fair, it’s always great to have new blood constantly providing their inputbut I would like to have longevity as well.

See, it’s hard to stay the course for more than a few years. It’s easy to get sidetracked, and life has a way of getting in your way: it justhappens. So the interest is sometimes just lost, the new baby is born, the job gets more intense, the attacks too depressing, the expenditure too high, the site-hits too few. But you can always recognize the consistent long timers and know their websites, because not only do they turn up on every search you have, but they frequently blogroll each other. Somehow they’ve achieved balance and harmonyzen you might say.

Anyway, the points here strike me as reasonable recommendations for those who are thinking of starting their own rum reviewing site. It’s long, so I’ve broken it out into five parts. Feel free to comment on your own ideas, from your own experiences.

 

Part 1

***

1. Have a sense of how you want to writeclearly, concisely, briefly, starklyor perhaps something more lengthy. The briefer you are, the more frequently you will almost be expected to write. Also, what do you want to write? Just tasting notes, or something more? Opinion, price, star rating, distillery infoget this straight in your head first.

2. Understand why you are starting the journey. Do you do this for love, to share your journey, for money, for freebies and the personal back bar, for street cred, to educate fellow rum lovers, to get a job, to round out a profession, to enhance your bartending skills…or simply because you enjoy writing and rum equally? I know examples of all of these types. Be honest with yourself about why you started, because that impacts on both your writing style and your longevity. And your personal life, surprising as this may sound.

3. Be clear in your writing about your intentions, and, by extension, be honest when you write. Your remarks will be valuable to others seeking assistance and clarity, but they will also want to know when you’re stating a fact, or expressing an opinion.

4. All impressions to the contrary, this is not a cheap hobby or pastime (and it’s my personal belief this eventually sinks a lot of potential bloggers who begin with such great hopes and intentions). In spite of what you may think, store owners and distributors will not immediately rush in joyous exuberance to your house in order to ply you with samples, and your friends and family usually won’t provide you with the really top tier stuff. So it will cost you money. If you are coming at this from the perspective that you’ll get free bottles to amend your purse and expand your home bar, that you will be invited on junkets to tour distilleries and attend tastings on someone else’s coin, well, you could beeventually (or if you actively and aggressively engage with industry). But you won’t get as many as you think unless you really write a lot and well. So if you’re committed, you’ll be spending quite a bit of your own money at the inception in order to populate your site with reviews that hopefully others will find irresistible. My own recommendation would be to start small and see if you can keep it up (and to see if the spouse objects). Don’t go spending hundreds of dollars or Euros or whatever, on top-tier rums just because you can (see also part 4, regarding where to start).

5. Following from that, establish your personal policy towards free commercial samples early on and stick to it. This is always and only a matter of objectivity and perceived conflict of interest. It’s human nature to distrust of positive reviews written about a company-supplied sample. At end, it comes down to whether you, in all honesty, feel you can write objectively about a rumespecially something that suckswhen presented to you for nothing by an industry rep (I do not speak of friends or family). Some of my friends see this as a way of defraying the inevitable expenses, others adamantly defend their objectivity, and this is fine – it’s their writing, not mine. I simply feel that if you do accept an industry sample (or the guy who runs your local liquor shop), then just be honest and state it in your review.

6. And you really should have a scoring system from the beginning (whether you publish the score or not). There are quite a few different methods out there. Pick one that you think you can work with for a long time, and start from your very first review (though I would also suggest sampling ten or twenty rums, then scoring them against each other first, just to see how the system works). This is more important than you think, because people really pay attention to scores and will ask questions; also, you can band your reviews together in ranges, as the body of work grows. (See also Part 3 where I go into scoring a bit more).

7. Don’t stop. Build a rhythm and stick to it. I’m not entirely sold on today’s blogworld where if nothing gets posted for three days, the site dieson the other hand I do believe in regular updates. The RumHowler can do three a week, the FatRumPirate is going great guns, and I try to do one a week, but no matter what, just keep ‘em coming. And after you pass fifty, then a hundred, then even more, don’t get bored or discouraged, just keep on doing it (if you must take a break, as many of us do, put up a note saying ‘Out of Office’ for the faithful readers). This has implications for the development of your personal style, your persistence, and your longevity – if you can’t keep up the programme you’ve set for yourself (whatever that might be), then maybe how you write has to be adjusted.

8. My personal taste is for adding information on the maker as part of the overall review. Obviously this makes for a longer essay and gets redundant when you’ve reviewed several products by the same outfit. If you are a master of the short form, then this method won’t fly. For myself, it adds to my knowledge and, I feel, that of the reader. If you decide to go this way, ensure you state outright where your info is sketchy (especially when several sources are contradictory, as often happens)

TomorrowPart 2

Mar 132013
 

Later this year (2010), a milestone in photographic history will be reached: the last produced roll of kodachrome print film and ektachrome slide filmKodak’s famous workhorse of pro-photographers for three-quarters of a centurywill be developed in the last lab still to process its demanding Ex chemistry (for those who are interested, it’s Dwayne’s Photo Service, in Parsons, Kansas). Appropriately enough, that last roll will be shot by veteran National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry, who made that famousAfghan Girlphoto.

Some herald it as a final nail in digital’s ascendancy over film. As an enthusiastic amateur, it started me thinking: when indulging one’s predilection for photography, which is better, film or digital? (I love these ridiculous what-ifs..they are so uselessly entertaining).

Let’s run through the pros and cons, and I’ll give my opinions at the end.

Pro Digital:

Can anything beat the instant feedback of reviewing what you thought you shot after taking it? No more messing arounbd with notes on shutter spped, aperture, filters or special film after the fact. No missing the moment. You shoot, you look (“chimping your shot” – isn’t that a great phrase?) you correct, shoot again. There’s a reason amateurs are getting betterthey can make corrections on the fly.

Practically zero running costs once you buy your camera. No more film or development costs. These days, you can even dispense with the computer and edit your work in camera before you output directly to the printer.

No loss due to accidentally opening the back or not rewinding your film properly. I’m not saying I ever had that happen to em, but once film did stick in my camera and I had an interesting time trying to get it out without losing it. No such issues afflict digital shooters

No more investment in darkroom equipment or being at the mercy of the dropout Walmart technician who is using a big-ass automatic developer without a clue as to what it does or how it affects the final print. If you know what you are doing with Gimp, Photoshop, Elements or Picasa, you can duplicate real pro effects with very little effort.

Archive, storage and metadata. We use computers for all digital media, and we can get all our EXIF metadata stored alongside with our pictures in a way that makes retrieval a breeze. Workflow management is quite simply, easier. Add that to the fact you can still print your work for archiving, or simply upload it, burn it or store it, and you should have access as long as our techological age lasts. And instead of being limited to 36 exposures, my current card takes 1300+ 12mp JPEG pictures (about a quarter of that if I add RAW).

My all time favourite walkabout film camerathe light, flawless FM3a

DSLRs are so good nowadays that the quality of lenses in the limiting factor in determining picture quality, not the sensor or the camera itself. Point and shoots are also getting good real fast, and while I don’t use them, I fully appreciate their utility.

No problems running through airport x-ray scanners and having your film fogged

Pro-film

Dynamic range of film is better. Just take a look at this kodachrome shot of Picadilly circus done in the late forties (taken from Wikipedia).

File:London , Kodachrome by Chalmers Butterfield edit.jpg

Older (film) cameras are entirely independent of power sources, and if you doubt me, feel free to review Nikon’s earlier F-series, all of which are brutally hewn blocks of metal with which you could brain an elephant, and entirely manual.

Nikon F2AS with MB1 motor drive. A big, ugly, heavy brick of a cameramine still performs like a champ

 

Your experience and judgement count when using mastodons such as these, so what you gain in independence you lose in gratification of instant feedback. DSLRs have battery packs that make you feel you just added half a kilo to your camera bag, and you cannot function without them, but they are not required on film bodies, where for a generation they were screw-on optional attachments.

Noise in film is prettier and more artisitc than digital noise. It’s better called grittiness, and is worlds removed from the rainbow speckled hues of digital crap that messes up long exposures or high-ISO pictures. I’ve heard that there are actually programs around that will alter a digital image to add the grain back in.

Here’s the thing. Film cameras are film cameras until the end of time. I have a Nikon F2, F3, F4 and F5 (you can pick them up for a song nowadays and may even be good investments long term quite aside from the enjoyment of using them) and they work like swiss watches. Their all metal construction and titanium shutters defy today’s use ’em and toss ’em mentality. I’m an unabashed Nikon fan sure, but I started with a Canon A-1 and I tell you, that thing cranked film through for two decades without a single problem. Today’s crop of digital camera will not only be obsolete inside of a decade, but are actually decreasing in valueI bought a Nikon D40x the other day for under a hundred bucks, while my F2 from 1972 may actually be going *up* in value.

You can scan film negatives or transparencies, and always have the maximum resolution of the scannerin other words, your digital picture shot at 12mp will remain that way forever, but your 35mm negative can always be scanned at the maximum resolutuion of the technology today. Strictly speaking, 35mm film grain is about the same resolution as a 24mp JPEG, so all along film has been at resolutions which digital cameras areonly now approaching….and for a fraction of the cost.

Film cameras were finger driven, not menu driven (the F5 excepted). Instead of poking around with ten different menus and submenus and options, you just had to fiddle with two, maybe three knobs, all while peeking through the viewfinder. And let me tell you, full frame film camera viewfinders are huge and bright in comparison to the smaller ones on today’s digitals rather tepid offerings. I won’t even discuss point-and-shoots.

***

If I had a choice, I’d like to use film but have the instant feedback of digital. I like the feeling of a precision mechanical instrument that does what it is supposed to do with no fuss, no bother and no frigginaround. The D2x I use most often fits well in my hands, but for tactile delight and a sense that the camer is doing what it is engineered (superbly) to do, the F5 and F3 remain my favourites (and my god, the AF on the F5 is staggeringly fast). For any kind of indoor work, I’d say digital is probably better for assessing flash work, but then, I’m not very good at it, so maybe that’s just me.

In the end, it all boils down to your feeling as an artist if you are even remotely serious about photography. Do you do better work with digital inpostor are you simply a perfectionist of the film world (there may be a generational divide here which I am not addressingit’s my opinion that younger people are happier with digital because they are more comfortable around the core digital technology). I love film, but concede that digital does offer more flexibility, consistently better-exposed work, and, often, faster on-the-fly shooting. I do in fact do some post-processing work to punch up colours and contrastmostly in Picasa or GIMP, since my demands are slight and the programs are freebut I stand in awe of what people achieve with true pro-level digital image manipulation.

Be that as it may, there’s norightanswer. What is a fact is that your equipment does not matter, and neither does your megapixel count. At the end of the day, the best camera in the world is the one that you have on you, and nothing beats your imagination and skill when it comes to making a truly stunning picture. All your camera and technology do is enable what your mind has already decided.

Very much like how a cheap piece of crap rum can enable the best conversation of your life. Or the bestwell, you know what I mean.

Mar 132013
 

The El Dorado Problem is that pitiful state of affairs reached when a truly superior rum appears on the shelf, demurely winking at you to buy it….and you don’t have the cash because it’s just outside (or way outside) your price range. It comes from yours truly, who realized he had such a problem when attempting to buy the El Dorado 25 year old a few years ago.

Many of us netizens and lurkers in the rumiverse are at that stage where young families are the phase of lifechildren still in the single digits, a wife whose ring still has some sparkle and shine, and who might even still love you a little (instead of treating you with the sort of gentle condescension reserved for congenital defectives). First houses or starter homes (or rentals). Pennies are watched, and we are slowly climbing over the bodies of our contemporaries in the quest to attain that dubious distinction of clerkdomthe corner cubicle.

It is generally at this time in our lives that we cast around for time-wasters and hobbies to take our minds off the daily drag: for me, the club is something like that. Some guys I know are into photography; others moonlight in bands; one friend has a thing for hats (I think he wants to be the Imelda Marcos of headwear, but with less expense and taste), another is into mountaineering, whisky and a book club. And some older folks have grandkids, a country home to maintain and a position in society to uphold in keeping with their dignified geriatricity. Ka-ching.

The thing is, this rum hobby of ours, or the side interests, involvesespecially at the inceptiona fair amount of expenditure. A good camera body or a guitar is probably close to a thousand bucks or more. Having seen friendswhisky cabinets, I estimate many have got maybe two or three grand in there. I myself have occasionally been overtaken by bouts of insanity and blown a few hundred on some choice (and not so choice) rums that caught my eye.

Our spouses mostly consider us as half-tamed hobos who, by dint of firm discipline, a smack or two and occasional love, can be tamed and house-broken from the vagabondage of our bachelor years (fifteen years with my significant other has not cured her of this delusion, which I am at pains to foster). And nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the beady-eyed, cold glare with which they double check everything we buy. And given how carefully they monitor our expenditure, it’s a real chore to pass off our toys not as wannabes or spur of the moment expenses we can casually shrug off, but as necessities.

However, my experience and anecdotal evidence suggests a few avenues we can explore to pretend we are doing mankind a service by buying the things we do. And this is the core of my essay that suggests how we poor slobs could possible address the El Dorado Problem

1. First and foremost, we can have a separate bank account. This is frowned upon in more polite circles (my geriatric sire is aghast that my wife and I have our own accounts), but I find it invaluable. Stops long-nosed wives from checking up in things. If you have internet banking with online statements, you can actually have an entirely private transaction record. Spouses being who they are, they will inevitably be curious, but so long as you don’t have to borrow from her (definitely a no-no), all will be fine

2. If discovered, say the purchased object was on sale. And not just any sale, but a sale to end all sales. Make gargantuan (and hopefully unverifiable) claims likethe rum was 50% off, how could I resist, a deal like that will never come up again!”

3. Hint at gift-giving time that you would like a new velvet smoking jacket (or whatever). And be creative about thisdon’t limit yourself to standard birthdays and Christmas, but father’s day, valentine’s day, anniversary time, Halloween (“I need the thousand-buck rum to lend gravitas to our picture of Junior at Halloween, hon,” you can just hear someone saying plaintively) and whatever else you can think of.

4. Just shrug and refuse to answer niggling questions on why you had to buy that $500 one-of-a-kind rum (or gold-plated classic Canon F1 film camera you know you’ll never use, but you had to have it because that thing went to space, man), but if you don’t want your bed to turn as cold as my new freezer, I’d recommend against this practice, which is usually only good for new arrivals whose wives haven’t cottoned on to local divorce laws yet.

5. Hide receipts, hide the evidence, and trot your hideously overpriced rum out casually months later with anOh this old thing? Always had it, dearsince last December I think.I actually did this with the English Harbour 25, once. Can’t be tried too often, howeverwives get suspicious and no matter what you think, they aren’t stupid.

6. For the wussies out there, run home crying and throw yourself at her mercy and beg forgiveness, sayingI don’t know what made me do it, honey.Promise never to do it again (until next time). Incompatible with point number 3 or 4 .

7. Give your purchase to her as a presentthe trick here is to actually give her something she might want but which you want more. I have given my wife bottles of wine I particularly like (rum would be a dead giveaway and way too obvious), a GPS I get to use, a small digital camera I take along when I don’t feel like schlepping a massive pro model and lens around, and TVs I assured her we absolutely needed for our bedroom. (I like to think I’m fooling her, but truth is, I think she sees through me like I was Saran wrap). This point is a case in plausible deniability – “It was all for you, hon.And you smile winningly.

8. Make her give it to you. This takes some skill, to be honest, because it is not only a matter of hinting around the edges ofoh I could really use a new Velier rum”, but making her sayOh, you know, I think you really need a new bottle,” as if it was entirely her idea. For a real touch of subtletyartistry, reallyyou can protest a little at the expense and modestly claim you don’t deserve it. (Well, strictly speaking you don’t, but you must take one for the team once in a while and sacrifice your finer feelings for the good of the wife’s happiness). And to add a touch of extravagance, make sure all your relatives with money are in on this so they can all chip in for you and upgrade.

9. Keep her informed. And I really mean thattell her as far as possible in advance that if Bottle X of Brand Y ever comes on the market, it’s one of those seminal moments in your drinker’s life, and you have to have it. Not only does this dovetail neatly with point 8, but when you do, at some stage, walk into your home cradling this beauty like your newborn child, she may shed a happy tear for you.

These are the best ones, but the ones below are also pretty decent, if pedestrian: I mean, if you actually have to work at getting money together, it sort of defeats the purpose of having it handed to you, right? But in a pinch, these are tried and true, so I have to be fair and list them

My favourite method is to siphon off a little cash now and then from leftovers. Since I pay all bills online, I can also set up a small savings account without paperwork and transfer a fifty or so every two weeks or so into it. After a few months, I have enough to afford a new lens, a two hundred dollar rum, or any other kind of frippery. “Fripperyis a rather elastic term and fluctuates in quality. Currently, it stands forMercedes”. Note that since my bank does not pay me to advertise for them, I won’t tell you which one it is.

Cut out the crap! It really is amazing how seemingly insignificant steps can net you bucks that turn big in a hurry. Don’t buy coffee at Starbucks but bring a Thermos with your own vintage, don’t buy lunch but make one at home. That can save you maybe ten to fifteen dollars a day. Twice a week, and conservatively, you could ring up over a hundred a monththat’s one of the hippie’s bottles right there. Turn off lights you don’t use, don’t leave the sprinkler running, sell stuff you don’t need or use (Kijiji is great for this), pay off all credit cards on time, don’t have large lines of credit balances….I estimate that on average, I make maybe $350 per quarter or more on insignificant steps which result in no negative cash flow, and then I just siphon it off.

If you can, bank your overtime instead of getting paid for it immediately. It’s a nice nest egg.

If you’re single, move back in with your parents. I’m sure they’d be glad to have you. Offer rent below that which you currently pay and throw in some chores for free. The difference is free money. Not really recommended, but it does work.

Now keep one thing in mind: do not spend money you don’t have, no matter how good the deal or the steal. If a cask strength top-of-the-line 25-year-old rum comes up for sale at a price not commonly seen, but you don’t have the money and you know your credit card can just barely be paid off with next week’s paychequeresist! Don’t do it! You survived for 30+ years without this ambrosia….I know you won’t believe me, but you will and can live without it on your shelf. It’s the fish that got away. On the other hand, if you are connected like a Boss, get samples and maintain relations with people, and maybe they’ll lay it away for yougood luck with that.

There’s very little I can’t get if I save enough, and if I can’t save or don’t have it on hand, then I won’t buy itit really is that simple. My wife thinks I’m an absolute ass with money (when I absently mumbleI bought what last week? For how much? Oh. Okay.it drives her bugsh*t), but the truth is, I actually have a really good idea of how much I need from one month to the next, and more importantly, where it’s going. I have zero compunction about spending a few hundred dollars on three bottles of rum (or even more on just one)…but only as long as the needs of my family are met and nothing else is competing for my attention.

Granted, I may not be buying really expensive rums just nowbut that’s just because I’m in full saving mode at this point. After all, I can always buy the low-class crap, and review it as part of my commitment to the Single Digit Rums. But I’ll tell you thisthe day you see me pulling up to a RumFest somewhere in my spanking-new mid-life-crisis on Potenza tyres, well me boyos, that’s the day you’ll know I’ve solved the El Dorado Problem.

Sep 012010
 

(First posted on Liquorature, September 2010)

Rum connoisseurs and aficionados must occasionally weep with envy when they see the myriad regulations and hoops that whisky makers have to jump through when labelling their product. That sounds utterly counterintuitive, unless you’re trying to get a handle on what rum actually isperhaps, like obscenity or time, you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it (or is that the Matrix…?).

I think that the advantage whiskies have over rums in this regard, is the geographic nature of production: whisky is so markedly identified with just a few countries (Scotland, Ireland, the USA, Canada and a few others) that it seems almost homogeneous. Scotland in particular is fierce about what defines and denotes aScotchwhisky. I don’t necessarily agree with the philosophy of such harsh and narrow rulings, but the interesting thing about the concept of such rigorous definition and labelling is that as Scotland lobbies for and tightens international regulations regarding terms likeScotchorsingle malt”, the world follows suit. And in this way uniformity of production methodology, terminology and understanding is disseminated across the globe, irrespective of whether we are discussing a Yamazaki 12 year old, an Amrut Fusion, or Glenora Distillery’s Glen Breton Rare Label (or any of the Last Hippie’s objects of unseemly adoration from the Highlands or Islay).

Consider this: to be considered a Scotch whisky and be labelled as such, a whisky must not only conform to certain production methods (much to the distress of Loch Lomond), but make clear statements of age; where it has been matured within the five whisky-producing regions of Scotland; where it has been distilled; whether it is a single malt scotch whisky, single grain scotch whisky, blended malt scotch whisky, blended grain scotch whisky or blended scotch whisky; it is not allowed to call itself or label itself in this fashion unless it toes the line on the behind-the-scenes rules governing what each item means; and so on. They don’t mess around, those Scots, do they?

But look: tequila is quite as demanding in its own wayyou can’t label the drink a tequila unless it is made from the blue agave plant grown in in Mexico. Doesn’t matter whether you import the stuff to Pago-pago and harvest, distill it and bottle it there. If the plant don’t come from one of those four states, it ain’t a real tequila. Try labelling it as such and you could be slapped with a lawsuit in labba time (Mexico has claimed the international right to the wordtequila”). There are other examples in the tippling world: the use of the word Sherry is limited to a small geographic location in Spain; Champagne is identified with France (and a relatively tiny part of it, at that). Unlike Panama hats which are not made in Panama, or catgut which is not from a cat, or how the Canary Islands are not named after birds, most liquors now have international trade regulations backing up their claims to be this or that, with the notable exception of vodka, though in recent years movements in eastern Europe are trending to standardization of this also.

Contrast that with the harum-scarum, make-stuff-up-as-you-go-along, practically unregulated mish-mash of how one can label a bottle of rum. Bar certain (inconsistent) national standards, there is no global requirement worldwide for any rum maker, be he from Austria, the Caribbean, South America, Thailand, Australia or otherwise, to make an age statement, to note the source materials or to discuss the additives. Neither is there the inference that if something is said to be a rum, that consistent manufacturing methods are automatically in force. Local (national) regulations dominate the manufacture and labelling of all rums around the world, and there is no overarching structure knitting together all the variations. About the only nomenclature regarding rums that is nominally accepted by allmakers and consumers alikeis that rum originates from sugar cane. That’s it. Even that is not adhered to, since Czechoslovakia has spirits labelled rum but made from sugar beet; and rum-verschnitt of Germany tastes like rum but is only rectified spirit blended with water and imported rumand the percentage of true rum in the blend can be as low as 5%.

It’s this kind of lack on the international level which makes rums so widespread and so tricky to pin down. One can argue that it leads to ten times more innovation and variety than the rather staid whiskies of the world, but not surprisingly, it more often has led to all kinds of confusion and arguments. A good example of this is the matter of additives. The Zaya 12 year old for example has been attacked for misrepresenting itself as astraightrum, when in fact many believe it is a spiced variantwhich the maker is under no obligation to disclose (whether a rum states on the label it is spiced or not is a marketing thing, not a regulatory requirement). Then there’s the matter of its origin: when Diageo took over in 2008 and moved production to Trinidad, it still produced the 12 year old and labelled itTrinidad Productionon the bottleyet what did that mean, since Trinidad obviously had not been producing it for twelve years yet? Did it refer to raw stock from Guatemala bottled in T&T, or stock matured in T&T, or bothwhat? Another rum with a similar issue is Stroh which is made in Austria. Nowhere on the bottleany bottle that I have seen, at any rateis there anything that says what the source stock is, what’s been added, or how old it is. Its harsh taste has led me to remark only half-jokingly that it may not be a rum at all (it might be another example of the German variety). Clearer labelling would eliminate such frustrating inconsistencies. But that would require a standard and somebody to own the wordrum”, or at the very least, some of its variants likeDemerara rumornavy rum”. I can’t see that happening.

Part of the problem is the sheer spread of rum manufacturing. Whisky is primarily made the UK, Ireland, Japan, Canada and the USA and these countries have moved together (to some extent) in their definitions of the product, with Scotland as ever taking the lead; but a brief catalogue of rums encompasses almost the entire tropical belt and then some. Every Caribbean island has its own; it’s made in South America, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Europe, Africa, Europe and the United States. Hell, even Canada makes it from stock imported from the West Indies. And while many countries have their own legislation defining the product, by no means is this consistent, as the following paragraphs make clear.

1. There is no standard for materials of origin: yes, rum is mostly derived from sugar cane, but there is sugar cane juice (from the first pressing) which composes the French agricoles and Brazilian cachaça; the molasses by-product of dark sugar production; sugar cane syrup; rectified alcohol as in Europe; and as noted above, sugar beets. Hardly a model of standardization. The Scots must be laughing into their sporrans at this craziness.

2. There is no internationally agreed-upon standard production method. My reference to Loch Lomond above referred to its problems meeting the new definitions of Scotch whisky production: Scotch can, since 2009, only be made from pot stills, while LL uses a variation which is more properly termed a columnar still. Rum suffers from no such restrictions. You can make it from an alembic if you so desire, and it’s all the same to the label if it is made from a pot or columnar still, or even just mixed from pre-existing ingredients.

3. There is no agreed-on definition of minimum strength (below which, for instance, it would be classified as a liquor, not a rum): local regulations define rum as a minimum of 38-54% ABV in Brazil, 40% in Chile, the US and Canada, and 50% in Columbia. The ageing the primary spirit must undergo prior to being recognized as rum also varies: it’s a minimum of eight months in Mexico, one year in the Dominican Republic and two years in Venezuela and Peru. The definition of anejo, aged, matured, XO or reserve is also the subject of hot debate around the world, with exactly zero consistency. Now granted, the West Indies has been unable to come up with a single voice on political affairs for over half a century, but surely if they can put together a cricket team they can sort out the difference between an aged and an extra old rum? Just within de Islands? (I’m not holding my breath here).

4. As if all this is not bad enough, there are the variations on types of rum recognized by the various countries within their borders: white, light; gold, amber, medium; dark, black, heavy; overproof; matured, aged, anejo, reserve; flavoured, spicedand this is just variations among the US, Canada, Barbados, Brazil, Mexico and Peru. None of these gradations are exactly equivalent, so what’s a guy to do aside from read reams of reviews and turgid essays like this one?

5. Lastly, there is very little consistency on what the additives are, or even can be: it’s hardly ever mentioned. Pusser’s makes a big deal that nothing is added to its Navy Rum recipe, and so does Doorly’s; the Kraken makes no mention of any additive at all, yet it’s clear that caramel has been added to give it that characteristic opaque tint and spiced taste; and I’ve already mentioned the acerbic discourse on the Zaya 12 year old. We simply do not know whether a given rum has had caramel (or anything else for that matter) added for colouring or taste or not: whether the vanilla note we have comes from the oaken ageing, or a drop or two of ersatz extract provided by a smart distillery chemist. And in such uncertainties, anyone can blend anything and add anything and call it rum.

This has implications beyond mere naming and consistency and my personal snottiness regarding what the hell a bottle of rum contains; definitions are the heart of free trade agreements, where common and agreed-to definitions are key to tariffs and duties (or exclusions therefrom). Too, a common and shared agreement on what a rum is makes everything else not meeting the definition *not* a rum, and subject to differing regulatory regimes, differing import or export duties. It would stop such imposter spirits from marketing themselves as such. And lastly, it would preserve the right of sovereign countries to impose different legal requirements on local production. It would, in short, assert quality control.

Now in recent years matters have started to change somewhat. For example, the emergence of premium sipping rums has placed a new emphasis on accurate labelling (unregulated thus far, but still….): things like age statements, a personal bugbear of mine; or blends versus single barrels versus single yearsproductions; and the statementProduct ofcarries some real meaning now. But it is still a matter carried this far by major distillers and makers of the top end rums. They have a vested interest in branding and differentiating their product to give it that cachet of exclusivity (conferred by the Scotch Whiskey Association via their rigorous standards, and copied, not initiated, by rum makers, much to my displeasure).

For example, Bruichladdich, ever ahead of the curve, were quite clear in their Renegade Rum line: this rum is made from stock from this country, and is that old, and was bottled in that year. El Dorado out of Guyana did the same thing with their ground-breaking 15-year-old, so does Appleton in Jamaica and several othersbut too many rums still lack this basic device of conformity. Now certainly this sounds like I’m making a case for strangling the very variety that makes rum such a fascinating drink, but surely some basic standards can be agreed to? Without some kind of standardization, rum will always be disparagingly viewed as a tropical drink, suitable for the odd rum punch, black cake or cocktail, in spite of the sterling efforts of master blenders in the top distilleries to change the perception.

My personal feeling is that if rum ever wants to be taken seriously (and I can just see Maltmonster snickering into his rum-barrel-aged scotch as he reads this), it has to get its act together vis-a-vis its definitions, production and labelling. Not everyone has time to do research online (even today with wi-fi, i-phones or blackberries) to see what it is they are getting. Not everyone has the same definitions and there will always be smaller operations seeking to push the very outside of the envelope of what a given spirit is or how it’s made (like Compass Box did in the whisky world). And for trade between countries, it’s almost a requirement internationally.

But the fact is that amid all this confusion, rum can never aspire to the very top tier of the liquor world if that aura of respectability is missing, if quality control is not there, and nobody can agree on even what the hell a rum actually is. That would require that methods of production, ageing, and statements of additives and quality on the labelling are more rigorously defined. And enforced.


Notes

  • I am indebted to an older article written by Professor Norman Girvan on the Association of Caribbean States website, which I drew on in the notes on national regulations and confusion of standards.
  • April 2021 Update: many of the issues mentioned here have slowly been addressed in the last decade: colour is no longer seen as a way to classify or rum (though labelling them that way continues); battles over Geographical Indicators show how nations are slowly beginning to see the added value of their own national brands; and more informative labels are considered standard now, for any rum company seeking to be taken seriously.
Feb 132010
 

(First posted on Liquorature, February 2010. Edited December 2014 and August 2015)

In my wasted youth, those with more discerning palates often confused my rather simple mind with their scientific analyses of their spirits, making sober statements about bouquet, oiliness, finish, colour, nose, mouthfeel, texture, blah blah blah. I was always confuddled. Smoke? Peaty taste? Waddat?

So here I’ll take the time to talk a bit about what distinguishes the rums from each other. Note that this is not a tasting test runthrough. It’s simply a way to distinguish different rums, and gain some insight as to the properties that make them what they are. Not surprisingly, my own experience factors in there as well, since I’ve been drinking the stuff for a very long time. Full disclosure: wines are not part of the discussion, since no true rummie will admit to tasting the wussy drink, which in any case requires a more finely tuned, subtle palate than most Real Men possess (which is why they are rummies and not winos).

***

Perhaps a result of its association with the Caribbean, seafaring, slavery and piracy, there has always been that vaguely odious cachet of disrepute hanging over rums, which in my opinion, is undeserved. The schnozz of a rum taster must be every bit as attuned to subtle hints of flavour and texture as the snoot of a whisky lover or the trumpet of a somelier. Rums, after all, in spite of their less lofty reputations, display all the variety, colours and methods of distillation as their unfairly favoured Scottish bretheren or French cousins.

Several differing methods of distinguishing rums exist. Country, colour, strength, additives and , of course, age. My research suggests that many categories overlap each other, which adds nothing to the clarity of the rankings.

Originally, all rums were dark and fairly unrefined (there’s a reason the Bajans referred to it asKill-Divil”). However, a contest held by the Spanish to improve refining methods in the 1800s led to the creation of a process that produced a better quality, more golden rum (the winner went on to found Bacardi). The colour of rumclear (white, or silver), gold (light brown) or dark (also known as Navy) is not entirely a function of the length of distillation (as some would like to infer), but more of the distillation process and ingredients added, and their ratios to each other.

Rum is traditionally made from cane juice or molasses (which itself is a by-product of boiled cane juice), yeast and water: the shorter the fermentation period, the lighter the rum (referring in this case to colour), the longer, the darker. After the distillation process is complete, rum is aged in barrels made of various materialslike oakwhich impact the flavour of the final productI’m unclear at what point further additives like fruit are brought into the mix. While rum may be clear before going into the aging process, colour is added by both the barrel itself, and the inclusion of caramelwhite rum is an exception, since no caramel is brought in, and any colour added by the barrel is removed by straining. I should also mentionaguardiente de cana” (“burning water”) which is a kind of coarse South American cane-hooch infused with anise, and agricoles, which are primarily French island rums distilled from cane juice, and which may be aged or not.

Based purely on the criteria of colour, rums can be categorized as follows

Dark or Navy Rumsone of the major divisions of rum, with long ageing time and strong flavour. Aged in oak barrels, hence the colouring (plus more molasses and caramel involved). Commonly used in cooking. Much of the molasses flavour is retained. Often made in a pot-still or simpler columnar distillation unit, like cognac or some scotch.

Gold Rumintermediate, and aged to a particular colour, but this does not tell you anything about the age or flavour. Aged in wooden barrels, and are more complex in flavour than light rums. Usually aged a few months or years

Light Rumclearer in colour, and a less ‘heavyflavour. Subdivided into ‘silverand ‘lighttaste, though only a matter of degree except to the delicately long-snooted. Little or no ageing.

On the other hand, other designations exist:

Overproof rums are often referred to as having a strength greater than around 50%. There’s an overlap with Premium rums here, since many premiums are also overproofs. These days, the term is pretty flexible, since the original meaning meant anything over 100 proof, which was (at that time) 57.1% ABV. See article on proofs here if you’re interested.

For what it’s worth I have, after some yearsexperience with rums that are made for sipping yet bottled at around 55-60% (and which cannot be classed as overpfoofs), decided to make some personal changes to how strength is denominate

  • Standard strength for me is 40-50%
  • Full Proof is a strength of 51% to 70%
  • Overproof is anything over 70%
  • I kind of stay away from rums under 40% which can be termed Underproofs

Flavoured rums, which have deliberate inclusions to add the taste of citrus or mango or anything else. Juan Santos makes a coffee infused rum which isn’t bad.

Spiced Rums, which normally bring up the caramel or nutmeg to the level where it overpowers any subtlety gained from the barrel or from ageing. Labels usually indicate this is the case.

Premium Rums are those which for one reason or another are supposedly above average: in age, in taste, in distillation methodology, or in exclusivity and availability (therefore mostly age, since any fool can make a rum in 24 hours, while it takes slightly more expertise to fashion something for 25 yearsand age develops the complexity of flavour, making it deeper and more intense).

Ultra-premiums are are not just above average, but marketed as being the cream of the croppresentation, age and price are all usually very good (or at least sold to us as being that way). Age is still seen as the primary marker of this type.

Strictly speaking, colour tells me very little about the quality of a rum, since I’ve had some decent gold and dark ones whose colour gave no hint as to how good it was. Whites are for mixing, Flavoured are for cocktails, and I’ll drink Spiced ones like Lamb’s or Captain Morgan, but only with a chaser, since they are not made for sipping. Mixing additives only improves such drinks. Since I was at a penny-grubbing stage in my life for a long time, I logically drank only the cheapest, and since the cheapest also demanded you cut them with something, it’s no surprise that coke or pepsi were (and to some extent remain) my chasers of choice.

We can therefore stratify rums with level of flavour

Light or silverunder-proof, and/or clear rums

Medium (or Gold, or Amber) – ths covers most rums I’ve ever tasted

Full-Bodiedthese tend to be darker, but the designation is more a marker of intensity of flavour

AromaticMalibu is a good example of this, but any spiced or flavoured rum qualifies

see what I mean about confusion? There’s lots of overlap here

Anyway, so does this assist in categorizing rums? Not entirely.

Rums are made in many countries, and not surprisingly, almost all are tropical (I have heard it’s something to do with sugar cane not growing well in winter-prone climates). The best known are, of course, Caribbean, and as a loyal West Indian myself, I sniff disparagingly at the offerings of other parts of the world, even as I happily indulge myself in tasting them. A non-exhaustive list of rum producing states includes the USA, Canada, the French West Indies, Barbados, Anguilla, Antigua, Cuba, Dominica, Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, Fiji, Hawaii, Finland (Finland??), India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Reunion, Australia and some European countries. Europe acts mostly as a blender of rums, not as a maker of origin, which would therefore explain what Bruichladdich’s Renegade brand does. Some 1500+ rums are said to be in existence. I honestly believe that to be a low number.

Rums have supposedly notable geographical styles and nuance. If one defines rum as either light in colour, or dark, then they roughly follow divisions introduced by country of origin: Spanish speaking countries such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and Latin America, produce primarily light rum; English colonies like Barbados, Guiana or Jamaica, mostly the dark. This is an extremely broad rule of thumb, so be careful in applying it.

Barbados is known for semi-light rums, with soft, almost smoky flavors. Cuba and Puerto Rico, the largest producer of rum, produce very light, dry, opulent rums. Trinidad and the Virgin Islands tend to produce medium to medium-light mellow rums. From Guyana comes the very dark, medium-bodied but rich tasting Demeraran rum made by adding spices and fruits to the distillation process. Jamaican and Martinique rums, made with molasses, are usually full-bodied, sumptuous and pungently flavored. Java distills a rum called Batavia Arak, an aromatic rum made with molasses and red rice, which is then shipped to The Netherlands for further aging and which I have never yet seen or tasted. Haitian rums, made from cane juice and double distilled in pot stills, are appreciated for their smooth and delicate flavor. Thus far (2010), I’ve not had enough non-Caribbean rums to make a determination whether they are on a class above, below or on-level with my favourites. The Bundie from Autralia was not particularly prepossessing for example, but I have to have a more serious retest to write my review.

The distinctive characteristics that make up a rum’s taste depend on factors such as the sugar cane’s quality and origin and whether it was made from molasses or directly from cane juice. Most rum is made from the former, which contains minerals and other trace elements that contribute to the final flavor. Rums made directly from cane juice, primarily those from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique, have a vegetal, clear, clean aspect. The yeast type and fermentation speed, as well as the kind of still, also tell. Light-bodied rums are produced in sophisticated multi-column distillation units and have a more delicate rum flavor. Heavy-bodied rums are produced on simpler multi-column distillation units or by means of traditional pot stills. Distillation temperature also matters—the higher the temperature, the lighter the body and more neutral the taste.

Finally, perhaps the most important factor determining quality is the length and type of aging. Rum develops more complexity in small charred oak barrels. Aging in casks also adds a tawny color, although some producers mix in caramel tints. Rum aged for a year or less in stainless steel is clear and has little flavour. The best rums I have ever tasted have all been aged for more than 20 years old, and in oak.

Having said all of the above, I cannot in all honesty state that I apply these categories or criteria to every rum I taste. It’s still a very subjective sort of thing. Burn, finish, body, taste and flavour, strengththey all have their place. I have a sweet tooth, so that counts (if they ever made a white-toblerone-flavoured rum, I do believe I might die a happy alcoholic). I do, however, like to know about the provenance of the rums I sample, and something about how they are made, and what their colours or tastes denote. It is in an effort to put my reviews on a more consistent base, and to answer questions of the curious like Clint, that I did the background work on this post.

Update August 2015

Having been at this for more than five years now, I have come to the conclusion that there are two, and only two, primary markers of how rums should be classified in the first passwhether it is from molasses or cane juice, and whether it is made on a pot still or column still. Subsequent gradations cane be age, colour, what type of columnar still, and maybe strength and Broomes’sstyles”. The debate is heating up in social media, so it’ll be interesting to see where this leads in the years to come.

Update July 2017

A good summary of the proposed classification systems is here. For what it’s worth, I have participated in many of the discussions regarding the Seale-Gargano method and translated the Rumaniacs version which the article from Distilledsunshine draws on, from the original French language article written by Cyril of DuRhum.