Sep 212022
 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Other Notes

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

Sources

Sep 182022
 

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


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

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


Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum Website

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


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

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


Taster’s Guide

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


Peter’s Rum Labels

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


Rum Ratings

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

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

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


Reference Rhum

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


The position in 2018

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

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

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


Other Notes

  • The site of Spirit Radar is an interesting one. Registered in 2020 and run by a small team out of the Czech Republic, the site notes that it is a “next generation data platform for rum and whisky collectors.” They monitor auctions, online shops and ecommerce sites for historical and current bottle pricing information for rums and whiskies (some 60,000+, they note). The site is fully commercial – you pay for the data service and pricing information and have the option to do a free 14 day trial. As part of the data on each bottle, the sort of thing we need — country, strength, age, distillery and so on — is included, and there are options to create a bottle list of your collection, and the site shows its aggregate current value. Because of its collector and commercial focus and inaccessibility to the broad mass of users, I elected to not include it – but it is a resource of the kind this article speaks about.
Aug 312022
 

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

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


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

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

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

The Planning

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

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

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

The Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Party Time: bars, events, afterparties

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

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

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

Summing up

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

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


Other notes:

Aug 172022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further reading


 

Apr 182022
 


Originally published November 2020. Updated April 2022


Introduction

More and more resources are coming online even as – or perhaps because – an increasing amount of people, young and old and in between, are coming into rum.  They arrive new, or from some other spirit, and are wont to inquire “Where can I find out about…?”  The questions are always the same and after more than ten years of doing this, I sometimes think I’ve seen them all:

  • What rum do I start with?
  • If I like this, what would you recommend?
  • What’s the sugar thing all about?
  • How much?
  • What’s it worth?
  • Where can I find…?
  • What to read?
  • How? Where? When? Why? What? Who?

Several years ago (February 2016 for those who like exactitude), Josh Miller of Inu-a-Kena, who was one of the USA’s premier reviewers before he turned to other (hopefully rum-related) interests and let his site slide into a state of semi-somnolence, published an article called “Plugging into the Rum World.” This was a listing of all online resources he felt were useful for people now getting into the subculture.

Five years on, that list remains one of the only gatherings of material related to online rum resources anyone has ever bothered to publish.  Many bloggers (especially the Old Guard) put out introductions to their work and to rum and just about all have a blogroll of favoured linked sites as a sidebar, and I know of several podcasts which mention websites people can use to get more info  – it’s just that they’re scattered around too much and who has the time or the interest to ferret out all this stuff from many different locations?

Moreover, when you just make a list of links, it does lack some context, or your own opinion of how useful they are or what they provide. That’s why I wished Josh’s list had some more commentary and narrative to flesh it out (but then, as has often been rather sourly observed, even my grocery list apparently can’t be shorter than the galley proofs for “War & Peace”).

Anyway, since years have now passed, I felt that maybe it was time to kick the tyres, slap on a new coat of paint and update the thing. So here is my own detailing of all online and other resources I feel are of value to the budding Rum Geek. 

(Disclaimer: I am not into tiki, cocktails or mixology, so this listing does not address that aspect of the rumisphere).


General – Social Media and Interactive Sites

For those who are just starting out and want to get a sense of the larger online community, it is strongly recommended that one gets on Facebook and joins any of the many rum clubs that have most of the commentary and fast breaking news. There’s an entire ecosystem out there, whether general in nature or focused on specific countries, specific brands or themes.

Questions get asked and get answered, reviews get shared, knowledge gets offered, lists both useful and useless get posted, and fierce debates of equal parts generosity, virulence, knowledge, foolishness, intelligence and wit go on for ages.  It’s the liveliest rum place on the net, bar none. You could post a question as obscure as “Going to Magadan, any good rum bars there?” and have three responses before your ice melts (and yes I’ve been there and no there aren’t any).

The big FB Rum Clubs are:

Other general gathering points:

More specialized corners of the FB rum scene are thematic, distillery- or country-specific, or “deeper knowledge-bases”. Many are private and require a vetting process to get in but it’s usually quite easy. (NB: After a while you’ll realize though, that many people are members of many clubs simultaneously, and so multiple-club cross postings of similar articles or comments are unnecessary).

…there’s tons more for specific companies but those are run by industry not fans and so I exclude them. Too there are many local city-level rum clubs and sometimes all it takes is a question on the main fora, and someone in your area pops up and says, “yeah, we got one…”

The other major conversational forum-style resource available is reddit, which to me has taken pride of place ever since the demise of the previous two main rum discussion sites: Sir Scrotimus Maximus (went dark) and the original Ministry of Rum (got overtaken by Ed Hamilton’s own FB page).  Somewhat surprisingly, there are only two reddit fora thus far, though the main one links to other spirits and cocktail forums.

/r/rum This is the main site with over 25,000 readers.  Tons of content, ranging from “Look what I got today!” to relinked articles, reviews and quite often, variations on “Help!” Conversations are generally more in depth here, and certainly more civilized than the brawling testosterone-addled saloon of FB. Lots of short-form reviewers lurk on this site, and I want to specifically recommend Tarquin, T8ke, Zoorado, SpicVanDyke and the LIFO Accountant. Both the question “What do I start with?” and the happy chirp “Look what I got!” are most commonly posted on this subreddit.

/r/RumSerious (Full disclosure – I am the moderator of the sub). Created in late 2020, the site is an aggregator for links to news, others’ reviews and more focused articles. Not much serious discussion going on here yet but I continue to live in hope.

/r/tiki Lots of rum subjects turn up here and it’s a useful gathering place for those whose interests in tiki and rum intersect.

I’m deliberately ignoring other social media pipelines like Instagram and Twitter because they are not crowdsourced, don’t have much narrative or commentary, and focus much more on the individual.  Therefore as information sources, they are not that handy.


Reviewers’ Blogs & Websites

On my own site I subdivide reviewers into those who are active, semi-active and dormant — here, for the sake of brevity, I’ll try to restrict myself to those who are regulars and have content going up on a fairly consistent basis. 

Reviewers

  • The Fat Rum Pirate (UK) – Wes Burgin remains the second most prolific writer of reviews out there (Serge is the first). The common man’s best friend in rum, with strong opinions – you’ll never be in doubt where he’s coming from – and tons of reviews.
  • WhiskyFun (France) – Serge Valentin is the guy who has written more reviews about rum than anyone in the world (he’s also done almost 16,000 whisky tasting notes but that’s a minor distraction, and a sideline from his unstated, undeclared true love of rums) in a brutally brief, humorous, short-form style that has been copied by many other reviewers.
  • Rum Ratings – This is a user-driven populist score-and-comment aggregator.  From a reviewer’s ivory-tower perspective it’s not so hot, but as a barometer for the tastes of the larger rum drinking population it can’t be beat and shows why, for example, the Diplo Res Ex remains a perennial favourite in spite of all the negative reviews.
  • The Rum Barrel Blog (UK) – Barman Alex Sandu used to post his reviews directly into FB until he gave in and opened a site of his own.  This guy posts mainly reviews, and he’s quite good, one of those understated people who will turn up a decade from now with a thousand tasting notes you never knew were there.
  • Single Cask Rum – Marius Elder does short form reviews of mostly the independent bottlers’ scene. What he posts is amazing, because he does flights — of similar bottlers, similar years, similar geographical places — to make comparatives clear, and the bottles in those flights are often a geek’s fond dream.
  • The Rums of the Man With the Stroller (French) – Laurent Cuvier is more a magazine style writer than a reviewer, yet his site has no shortage of those either, and he serves the French language market very nicely.  Plus, all round cool guy. The poussette has been retired, by the way.
  • Le Blog a Roger (French) – Run by a guy whose tongue-in-cheek nom-de-plume is Roger Caroni, there’s a lot more to his site than just rums…also whiskies and armagnacs. Good writing, brief notes, nice layout.
  • Who Rhum the World? (French) – Oliver Scars does like his rums, and writes about the top end consistently and well, especially the Velier Caroni and Demerara ranges.
  • Barrel Aged Thoughts (German) – A site geared primarily towards independents, and a strong love of Caronis, Jamaicans and Demeraras. Nicely long form type of review style.
  • John Go’s Malternatives – John, based in the Philippines, writes occasionally on rum for Malt online magazine.  Good tasting notes — and its his background narrative for each rum that I really enjoy and which will probably remain in the memory longest.
  • Whisky Digest (FB) – Now here’s a gentleman from Stuttgart who eschews a formal website, and whose tasting notes and scores are posted on FB and Instagram only. Crisp, witty, informative, readable mini reviews, really nice stuff. Love his work. Also posts reviews on Instagram, which is unusual for written work.
  • *Added 88 Bamboo is an interesting website that was started around 2020 by two whisky guys in Singapore to concentrate on…well, whisky.  As luck would have it they allowed guest posts from time to time, and one gentleman, Weixiang Liu, a cheerfully self-proclaimed “coffee brewologist and occasional rum addict,” started to pen some short rum reviews (about 70+ are on the site, most of them his). The writing is nice and the selections are well done.

Others

  • Rum Revelations (Canada) – Occasional and valuable content by Ivar de Laat out of Toronto, who is usually to be found commenting on FB’s various fora and who runs the Rum Club Canada FB group. 
  • Roob Dogg Drinks is run by Toronto-based Reuben Virasami, whose family hails from Guyana. The site went live in January 2021 and posts remain intermittent, but always well written and informative.
  • Rumtastic (UK) – “Another UK Rum Blog” his website self-effacingly says, and he modestly and deprecatingly considered himself a merely “awesome, ace, wicked dude” in a comment to me some time ago.  Short, brief, trenchant reviews, always good to read.
  • Master Quill (Holland) – Alex and I are long correspondents and I always read his reviews of rum, which take second place to his writing about whiskies, but are useful nevertheless.  Like most European bloggers, he concentrates mostly on the independents.
  • Québec Rhum – This large Francophone Canadian site is unusual in that it is actually more like a club than a single person’s interests the way so many others on this list are: within it reside rum reviews, distillery visits, master class programs and some cost-defraying merchandise.  For my money, of course, it’s the reviews that are of interest but it certainly seems to be the premiere rum club in Canada, bar none.

Dormant Sites With Good Content

  • Du Rhum (French) – Cyril Weglarz is a fiercely independent all rounder, writing reviews, essays and even a book (The Silent Ones, see below).  He’s noted for taking down Dictador and other brands for inclusion of undeclared additives and remains the only blogger – ever – to have sent rums for an independent laboratory analysis, over and beyond using a hydrometer.
  • Rum Diaries Blog (UK) – Busy with work these days, great content and reviews, some of which are quite in-depth. As of 2021 he had not really written anything just posts pics and comments on FB, so may drop off this list soon but the work done to date is really quite excellent.
  • Rum Shop Boy (UK) – Simon’s Johnson’s excellent website of rum reviews. Personal issues make him less prolific than before: he assures me he has not walked away and when he returns I’ll move this entry back up.
  • Rum Gallery (USA) – no longer updated for some years, I include it for the back catalogue, because Dave Russell has been active on the review since before 2010 and so has many reviews of rums we don’t see any more, as well as those from America.
  • Rum Howler Blog (Canada) – Chip Dykstra reviews out of Edmonton in Canada, and is one of the oldest voices in reviewer-dom still publishing. He has done rather less of rum of late than of other spirits, and remains on this list for the same reason Dave Russell does – because his reviews of rums from before the Renaissance are a good resource and he covers Canada and North America better than most. Not so hot for the newer stuff or independents, though.
  • PhilthyRum (Australia)  – One of the few who posted about and from Australia, the site has not been updated since November 2018.  What a shame.

News Sites and Newsletters

Not much news out there, the older sites have all been subsumed into the juggernaut that is Facebook.  There do remain some holdouts that try to stem the tide of the Big Blue F and here are a few

  • RumPorter – This site is in French, Spanish and English, and has both a paid and free section. The articles are well written and well researched and may be the best online magazine dealing with rum that is currently extant.
  • Coeur de Chauffe (French) – Magazine-style deep-dive content, curated by Nico Rumlover (which I suspect is not his real name, but ok 🙂 ).
  • Got Rum? – US-based ad-heavy magazine which publishes monthly. Paul Senft, one of the only remaining US rum reviewers left standing, posts his reviews here, and historical essays are provided by Marco Pierini. The rest is mostly news bits and pieces, of varying quality.
  • The Rum Lab – There’s a website for this, with useful stuff like the Rum Connoisseur of the week, various infographics and news…my own preference is to subscribe to the newsletter which delivers it to your inbox every week.  Good way to stay on top of the news if you don’t think FB is serving you up the rum related stories you like.
  • *Added Instant Rum (French) – This is a magazine aggregator (i.e., no original content) which reposts sources and links of articles having to do with rum, in French.

© istock.com/Rassco

Online Research, Technical, Background & History

Once you get deeper into the subculture, it stands to reason you’re going to want to know more, and social media is rarely the place for anyone who needs to go into the weeds and count the blades. And not everyone writes, or wants to write, or reads just about reviews, the latest rums, their rumfest visits – some like the leisurely examination of a subject down to the nth degree.

  • Cocktail Wonk – Without question, freelance writer Matt Pietrek is the guy with the widest span of essays and longform pieces on technical and general aspects of the subject of rum, in the world. In his articles he has covered distillery visits and histories, technical production details, in-depth breakdowns and translations of governing regulations like GIs and the AOC, interviews and much more. Sooner or later, everyone who has a question on some technical piece of rum geekery lands on the rum section of this site.
  • Rum Tasting Notes – Now renamed “Rum-X”. This is not a website, but a mobile application and is a successor to the lauded and much-missed site Reference Rhum.  It is an app allowing you to input your tasting notes for whatever rums you are working with, to make a collection of your own and to curate it … but its real value lies in being a database, a reference of as many rums as can be input by its users.  Last I checked in March 2022, there are over 12,000 rums in the library.
  • WikiRum is another such app, but it differs in that it also has a fully functioning website in both French and English, and also with nearly 8,500 entries.
  • American Distillery Index – Produced by Will Hoekenga (not the last time he turns up here) as part of the American Rum Report, it lists every distillery he could find in the USA by state, provides the website, a list of their rums and some very brief historical notes. There is an Australian Distillery Index that I use when doing research, but it’s not as well laid out.
  • The Boston Apothecary – Very technical articles on distillation.  The September 2020 article was called “Birectifier Analysis of Clairin Sajous,” so not airport bookstore material, if you catch my drift.
  • Peter’ Rum Labels out of Czechoslovakia defies easy categorization.  It’s one of the most unique rum-focused sites in existence, and the best for what it is: a compendium of pictures of labels from rum bottles.  Ah, but there’s so much more: distillery and brand histories, obscure vintages and labels and producers….it’s an invitation to browse through rum’s history in a unique way that simply has no equal.

Sugar Lists

This is a subject that continues to inflate blood pressures around the world.  Aside from the “wtf, is that true?” moments afflicting new rum drinkers, the most common question is “Does anyone have a list of rums that contain it?” Well, no.  Nobody does.  But many have hydrometer readings that translate into inferences as to the amount of additives (assumed to be sugar), and these are:


Podcasts

  • Five minutes of rum – 88 (for now) short and accessible episodes about specific rums plus a bit of text background, some photos and cocktails. If time is of essence, here’s a place to go. Not updated since October 2021.
  • Single Cast (French) – The big names of the Francophone rhum scene – Benoit Bail, Jerry Gitany, Laurent Cuvier, Christine Lambert, Roger Caroni – run these fortnightly podcasts, which make me despair at the execrable quality of my French language skills. Great content.
  • Ralfy – Well, yes, Ralfy does do primarily whiskies on his eponymous vlog and rum takes a serious back seat. He does do rums occasionally, however, and his folksy style, easy banter, and barstool wisdom are really fun to watch (or just listen to), whether it’s in a rum review, or an opinion piece.
  • Zavvy.co – A video platform which co-founders Federico Hernandez and Will Hoekenga (remember him from the American Rum Index?) intended as a live streaming tool for rum festivals, repurposed after COVID-19 shattered the world’s bar industry and cancelled all rumfests.  Now it is a weekly series of interviews and discussions with members of the industry
  • ACR has some really useful virtual distillery tours and “Rum Talk” sessions with distillery people 
  • Rumcast – This podcast run by John Gulla out of Miami and Will Hoekinga from Tennessee was very busy from April to August of 2020, then declined due to both the pandemic and the attention switching to Zavvy (Will Hoekinga is part of it, so that may be why). In 2021 the show went back up to a regular schedule of once a fortnight and passed their 50th podcast in March 2022.  Very in-depth and knowledgeable interviews and occasionally just the two guys riffing on some rum related subject or other.
  • Global Rum Room (FB) – This is a place where every Friday, rumfolk from around the world just hang out and sh*t talk, using a Zoom link.  The link is usually posted weekly and to be found in the group page. It’s a private group, so an invitation is needed but as far as I know nobody has ever been turned away.

Video Blogs

  • Rum on the Couch – Dave Marsland, who runs the UK based Manchester Rum Festival, hosts brief conversational look-what-I-got videos and reviews of mostly one bottle at a time. He reminds me a lot of The Fat Rum Pirate’s informal written style. He really does, quite often, review from his couch. Lots of information and opinion presented in an easygoing fashion.
  • The New World Rum Club – A new YouTube entrant, fresh out of the gate in January 2021 and already the content has me going “wow!” The Foursquare ECS overview is great (and doesn’t have a single tasting note). So far Simon concentrates on narratives, a gradually increasing amount of reviews, and if he continues like he started, this channel is going places.
  • Added: Ready Set Rum – Another new YouTube vlogger, Jamé Wills, a Floridian originally from Trinidad (though his accent tilts more towards Jamaican on occasion).  His rum video reviews are longer than most, and what characterizes them is his cheerful laid-back energy and the guests he brings in; the conversational back-and-forth makes each video a comfortable and fun watch.
  • Added: Consider as well the videos of Scott Ferguson’s vlog “Different Spirits” (lots of rums reviews, some whiskies and other stuff, each about half an hour). He moonlights quite often on /r/rum on Reddit as a commentator and reviewer. The August 2022 episode “Introduction to Rum” is particularly good.
  • Added: Diary of a Rum Hunter is too new for sweeping opinions about quality, for now. Darren has an armchair conversation and rum review thing going, but occasionally moves around in the real world to showcase the subject (as he did with the one about doubling his money on auctions). Each review, with one exception, is about 20-30 minutes. Hasn’t posted anything since December 2021.
  • Added: Rum Reviews (Tik Tok). Hugely enthusiastic and very short notes and reviews of mostly spiced rums, which I would not normally include but nobody else is doing it to this extent and they need a home too. The guy who runs this is the enormously entertaining and energetic Steve the Barman who has a YouTube channel and an Instagram Feed which seem to have very different content from TikTok. Unsurprisingly given his handle, his perspective is that of a barman, and one of knowledge sharing, not reviews so much

Specific Articles

Even within the fast moving rum community where things change on a daily basis, some articles stand out as being more than a flash in the pan and survive the test of time. Most bloggers content themselves with reviews and news, and a few go further into serious research or opinionating. Here some that bear reading:

  • Tarquin (Rachel) Underspoon’s List of what Rums to Start With.  Every boozer and every blogger sooner or later addresses this issue, and the lists change constantly depending on who’s writing it, and when. This is one of the best.
  • The Cocktail Wonk’s article on E&A Scheer. This is the article that allowed laymen to understand what writers meant when they spoke about “brokers” buying bulk rum and then selling it to independent bottlers.  It introduced the largest and oldest of them all, Scheer, to the larger public in an original article nobody else even thought to think about.
  • The History of Demerara Distilleries, written by Marco Freyr of Germany, is the most comprehensive, heavily referenced, historically rigorous treatise on all the Guianese sugar plantations and distilleries ever written. No one who wants to know about what the DDL heritage still are all about can pass this monumental work by. The ‘Wonk has a two-part Cliff-notes version, here and here which is less professorial, based on his visits and interviews.
  • Josh Miller’s well written piece on the development of Rhum Agricole.
  • *Added The Man With A Stroller, Laurent Cuvier, has, as of January 2022, a seriously good 12-part series of mini reviews exclusively dedicated to White Cane Juice Rums. You’ll have to use Google translate to convert the French (note: the link here goes to Part 12; links to the other 11 are at the bottom)
  • [Shameless plug alert!] The Age of Velier’s Demeraras. A favourite within my own writing, a deeply researched, deeply felt, three-part article on the impact Velier’s near-legendary Demerara rums had on the larger rumiverse. Two others are the History of the 151s, and the deep dive into all the different kinds of barrels and containers rum is and can be stored in.

Shopping Sites

Well, I can’t entirely ignore the question of “Where can I get…?” and get asked it more often than you might imagine. However, there are so many of sites nowadays, that I can’t really list them all.  That said, here are some of the major ones I know of that other people have spoken about before.  I’ll add to them as I try more, or get recommendations from readers.

(Note: listing them here is not an endorsement of their prices, selections or shipping policies; nor have I used them all myself, and they may not ship to you).

USA

EU & UK

Canada


The Final Question

I wanted to address the one question that comes up in my private correspondence perhaps more often even than “Where can I find…?” or “Have you tried…?”.  

And that’s “How much is this bottle worth?” 

Aside from the trite response of It’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay, there is no online answer, and I know of no resource that provides it as a service outside of an auction house or a site like RumAuctioneer where the public will respond by bidding, or not. One can, of course, always check on the FB rum fora above, post a picture and a description and ask there, and indeed, that is nowadays as good a method as any.  Outside that, don’t know of any.

So, that said, I never provide a website resource or give a numerical answer, and my response is always the same: “It is worth drinking.” 


Summing up

When I look down this listing of online resources (and below in the books section), I am struck by what an enormous wealth of information it represents, what an investment of so many people’s time and effort and energy and money.  The commitment to produce such a cornucopia of writing and talking and resources, all for free, is humbling.  

In the last eleven years since I began writing, we have seen the rise of blogs, published authors, rum festivals, and websites, even self-bottlings and special cask purchases by individuals who just wanted to pass some stuff around to friends and maybe recover a buck or two.  New companies sprung up.  New fans entered the field.  Rum profiles and whole marketing campaigns changed around us. The thirst for knowledge and advice became so great that a veritable tsunami of bloggers rose to meet the challenge – not always to educate the eager or sell to the proles, but sometimes just to share the experience or to express a deeply held opinion. 

It’s good we have that. In spite of the many disagreements that pepper the various discussions on and offline, the interest and the passion about rum remains, and results in a treasure trove of online resources any neophyte can only admire and be grateful for.  As I do, and I am.


Appendix – Books On Rum

Books are not an online resource per se, so I chose to put them in as an appendix.  I do however believe they have great value as resources in their own right, and not everything that is useful to an interested party can always be found online.

Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of reference materials in the old style format.  No matter how many posts one has, how many essays, how many eruditely researched historical pieces or heartbreaking works of staggeringly unappreciated genius, there’s still something about saying one has published an actual book that can’t be beat. Here’s a few that are worth reading (and yes, I know there are more):

  • Rums of the Eastern Caribbean (Ed Hamilton) – Released in 1995 at the very birth of the modern rum renaissance, this book was varied survey of as many distilleries and rums as Mr. Hamilton found the time to visit over many years of sailing around the Caribbean. Out of print and out of date, it’s never been updated or reprinted.  Based on solid first hand experience of the time (1990s and before), and many rum junkies who make distillery trips part of their overall rum education are treading in his footsteps. (It was followed up in 1997 by another book called “The Complete Guide to Rum”).
  • Rum (Dave Broom) – This 2003 book combined narrative and photographs, and included a survey of most of the world’s rum producing regions to that time.  It was weak on soleras, missed independents altogether and almost ignored Asia, but had one key new ingredient – the introduction and codification of rum into styles: Jamaican, Guyanese, Bajan, Spanish and French island (agricole). Remains enormously influential, though by now somewhat dated and overtaken by events (he issued a follow-up “Rum: The Manual” in 2016, the same year as “Rum Curious” by Fred Minnick came out).
  • Atlas Du Rhum (Luca Gargano) – A coffee-table sized book that came out around 2014. Unfortunately only available in Italian and French for now.  It’s a distillery by distillery synopsis of almost every rum making facility in the Caribbean and copies the format of Broom’s book and the limited focus of Hamilton’s, and does it better than either. Beautifully photographed, full of historical and technical detail.  Hopefully it gets either a Volume 2 or an update for this decade, at some point, and FFS let’s have an English edition!
  • French Rum – A History 1639-1902 (Marco Pierini).  This is one of those books that should be longer, just so we can see what happened after Mont Pelee erupted in 1902.  Still, let’s not be ungrateful.  Going back into the origins of distilled spirits and distillation in the Ancient World, Marco slowly and patiently traces the evolution of rum, and while hampered by a somewhat professorial and pedantic writing style, it remains a solid work of research and scholarship.
  • The Silent Ones (Cyril Weglarz) – Few books about rum’s subculture impressed and moved me as much as Cyril’s. In it, he toured the Caribbean islands (on his own dime), and interviewed the people we never hear about: the workers, those in the cane field, the lab, the distillery.  And provided a portrait of these silent and unsung people, allowing us to see beyond superstar ambassadors and producers, to the things these quieter people do and the lives they lead.
  • Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki (Martin & Rebecca Cate) – Addressed to the cocktail and tiki crowd in 2016 (as is self evident from the title) the reason I include this book here is because of the Cates’ proposal for another method classification for rums that goes beyond the too-limited styles of Dave Broom, and is perhaps more accessible than the technical rigour of the one suggested by Luca Gargano. Jury is still out there. Other than that, just a fun read for anyone into the bar and mixing scene.
  • Minimalist Tiki (Matt Pietrek) – If I include one, I have to include the other.  Matt self published his book about matters tiki in 2019, and again, it is a book whose subject is obvious.  Except, not really – the section about rum,  its antecedents and background, the summing up of the subject to 2019, is really very well done and pleasantly excessive, maybe ⅓ of the whole thing. The photos are great and I’m sure to learn a thing or two about mixing drinks in the other ⅔. For now, it’s the bit about rum I covet.
  • Rum Curious (Fred Minnick) – Building on the previous book by the Cates, this takes rum in its entirety as its subject, and covers history, production, regulations, tastings, cocktails and more. It’s a great primer for any beginner, still recent enough to be relevant (many of the issues it mentions, like additives, disclosure, labelling, regulations, remain hotly debated to this day), though occasionally dated with some of the rums considered top end, and very weak in global rum brands from outside the Caribbean.
  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails (Wayne Curtis) – This is a book about rum, cocktails and American history.  It is not for getting an overview of the entire rum industry or the issues that surround it, or any kind of tasting notes or reviews.  But it is an enormously entertaining and informative read, and you’ll pick up quite a bit around the margins that cannot but increase your appreciation for the spirit as a whole.
  • A Jamaican Plantation: The History of Worthy Park 1670-1970 (Michael Craton & James Walvin) – A deep dive into the history of one of the best known Jamaican distilleries.  (I’m sure there are others that speak to other distilleries and plantation, but this is the one I happen to have, and have read).
  • The Distillers Guide to Rum (Ian Smiley, Eric Watson, Michael Delevante) – For a book that came out in 2013, it remains useful and not yet dated.  As its title indicates, it is about distillation methodology, and there is some good introductory rum material as well.  If you want to know about equipment, ingredients, fermentation, blending, vatting, maturation, that’s all there – and then there’s supplementary stuff about the subject (styles, bars, cocktails, etc) as well, making it a useful book for anyone who wants to know more about that aspect of the subject.
Mar 062022
 

Introduction

In February 2022 the Sprits Business magazine published a list of the 2022 Rum and Cachaca Masters competition awards (also referred to as the Global Spirits Masters’ Awards), which I would strongly recommend you read (it’s not a long article and the list of awardees is at the bottom).

Normally I pass by spirits competitions without comment (and occasionally with indifference), since I think they have more value as marketing tools; they may possibly alert me to something I might want to check out and review one day, though.  So when first scanning the list of the medal winners for these “Masters” I just sighed and – almost – moved on.

But the more I looked a that medals list, the more I saw how this one awards extravaganza was being repeated and shared online (once by Forbes Magazine, no less) the more I realised that there was far more wrong with the whole business than that brief first read had suggested. 

In brief: here was a competition stratified into 24 different categories into which 222 “rums” were sorted (a list of the categories is given below this article); and evaluated by 15 judges divided into five panels (what the panels were for is unclear), only three names of which I recognized. 

Within these bare-bones facts lurked what I gradually began to see as endemic problems not limited to just this competition but which it exemplified in a fashion more obvious than before. And whether they considered them or not, they have impacts way beyond their ephemeral online life. 


Part 1 – The Big Issues

One of my main concerns here, is the business of using price as a determinant in some categories —  it was used inconsistently, for some but not all entrants, and for the first time in any major competition of recent note (as far as I am aware). This strikes me as a completely spurious subcategory, given the inevitable variation in the cost of a rum around the world (even within the same country and if you are going to use the UK as your base case, don’t call the competition “Global”). Price points are not, of course, accepted by anyone as a rigorous standard, and I certainly would never rank my purchases or ratings according to such a criterion.  It doesn’t stop there either: these pound-denominated values were related to equally problematic categories of “premium”, “super premium” and “ultra premium” categories. I mean, whose wallet is being consulted here, really? One person’s budget may suggest a super premium starts at a fifty quid, not £26, while another’s might be a hundred.  Though, as far as I am concerned, the twenty-six-pound price point is insultingly low for anything boasting the cachet of a “premium” of any sort, and does nothing but cheapen the word.

As if to add insult to injury, it was decided (as had also been the case in the 2021 Competition) that colour could be used as a category marker, when it has been shown for many years that it is useless as a barometer of grouping like with like. I want to repeat this loud and clear:  “Gold” and “Dark” in particular have exactly zero meaning and zero standing as classifiers, and even “White” has its issues, especially in the last five years. But this was evidently not enough, because having now used it and combined colour coding with the equally meaningless “premium” terms, rums were also divided up into age bands … but this was in yet another set of categories, not the coloured, priced or premiumised categories that had already been established.  Clearly then, dark and gold rums that are premium can’t also have ages, and dark or gold rums that are aged can’t be any kind of premium. 

A point of lesser importance to some but of greater value to others (I’m one of the latter), is that unless we know how many rums were in a competition, and within that competition by category, and not just a list of the winners, we can’t gauge its usefulness because we have no basis for comparison. And even looking at the list and the narrative itself, I felt uneasy – because okay, there were 222 entrants…but of these, a staggering 189 of them, more than 85%, were awarded medals (I hesitate to say “won” because that’s just demeaning the word). This really defeats the purpose of a competition, because it is simply getting a medal for showing up.  To be honest, after disbelievingly checking that stat (twice), what I really wanted to know was more about the 33 losers than any of the winners. The value of any medal is conferred by its exclusivity, not by how many others are sharing the podium.  Just think about it…10 silver medals awarded to spiced entrants, and another 12 silvers for flavoured rums? No sir.

I appreciate that by now you may be feeling a little punch drunk.  Sorry.  But it doesn’t end there.

Consider the title of the competition: “Rum & Cachaca Masters” with a category cachacas combined with cane spirits . With that kind of title, you would expect a lot of Brazilian cachacas in the lineup, right?  Loads of cane juice agricole-style rhums? Wrong. Four cachacas copped a score, three hailing from one company.  Excuse me? Even in the wasteland of Toronto or nominally dry states south of 49, one can pick up more than that, and with Brazil having hundreds and thousands of them, is this really the best that could be found to rate? Even if all the other 33 non-winners of the entire competition were cachacas, a total of 37 is not useful as a barometer of the quality that’s out there to judge.

Lastly there are the non-rums or “not-quite-rums” which are the flavoured variants. A spiced rum being part of this kind of mashup is, I suppose, tolerable, even though I personally disagree (because I do not believe spiced rums have any place in this competition as “rums” and should have their own rankings independent of non-adulterated fare). But to then have added categories of “flavoured”, “flavoured overproof”, “spirit drink” and “flavoured spirit drink” just adds categories for the sake of having them, conflates them with real rums, and mangles any kind of understanding people might possibly have of what rum truly is. 

(Lest you think it’s all bad, at least they didn’t confuse unaged agricoles rhums with their conception of white rums and only one rum (the CDI Jamaica Navy Strength) was in more than one category.  I assure you, I am grateful for that).


Part 2 – Origins

To some extent I blame Spirits Business itself for this, though the issue is really about poor award administration, and poorer education and knowledge of the field of rums, as well as preconceptions about them made that really seem to be as unkillable as Voldemort.

I don’t doubt that the editorial staff, organisers and judges had their hearts in the right place, wanted to rank things honestly and by their own lights; and just to get a couple hundred entrants into the room to be judged at all must have taken some doing. I’ve heard the panels were set up to be independent, the tastings were blind, all of which is nice – though it’s sort of a least common denominator for such things.

But I believe that the categorizations – by far my biggest concern – was not chosen or defined by people in the rumworld or by anyone who really knew rum (or cared), because no reputable rum connoisseur, blogger, influencer, or even halfway involved enthusiast would ever chose such stratifications. None. They would have laughed and pointed the organisers to the Cates method, the Gargano system, or any of the other hybrid versions of these that are used by rum festivals around the world for many years (Cates and Gargano are not universally accepted, though they are the best known and among the most popular).

Also, I think the selection of the judges was poor, including SB’s own editorial staff, the magazine’s writers and one person who was into spirits for five years and mostly dealing with gin, not rum. This sounds fine on paper – a balanced set of experts from across the spectrum – but when taken to its logical outcome, it falls down flat.

For some perspective, let me put it this way: everyone knows I am into rum and have been for over a decade.  I do appreciate whiskies and have a smattering of knowledge about wine and gin and vodka and even cocktails – but would you trust me to knowledgeably and appropriately rate and rank and judge any of those drinks in a competition? Of course not — you would be right not to want me there, and I would be wrong to accept. In short, much as the judges were enthusiastic and dedicated and honest about their evaluations, I question the knowledge base when their love is so widely dispersed among other spirits and not really rum at all (except for three of them, who I know from experience focus their attentions there).

And all is done this by a self-professed professional industry publication, Spirits Business, which touts itself as “…the only dedicated international spirits magazine and website in the world” and revels in how its “varied and insightful features and analysis cover a broad range of topics” and boasts of “our team of award-winning journalists”. This is all well and good, and I do appreciate the breadth of knowledge of the team: but alongside that is perhaps an issue of trying too hard, and doing too much with too few (or too many) resources in the running of all these various such competitions for whiskey, gin, vodka etc etc without actually getting people who know their subject intimately doing the set up, judging and awarding.


Part 3 – Recommendations

So, let’s sum up. This competition is too poorly categorised to be taken seriously, the sample set is too small to be meaningful, too few brands and companies were represented to deserve the title “Global” and too many medals are handed out too generously to reflect real quality and value of their award. They may have thought they were promoting rum, showing off the best of what is out there – what they have in fact accomplished is to denigrate the category and confuse the consumers who take this stuff seriously, or who want to. 

But fair is fair, if I bitch and moan about this kind of thing, well, what are my better ideas to fix it, do better? 

Rum is problematic not in that it lacks categorization, but that it has too many variations to be neatly summarised in just a few, and it doesn’t help that no overarching body exists to even set voluntary classification standards. If was up to me I’d do what SB did with whiskies and have a separate competition for cane juice and molasses based rums, another for spiced and flavoured stuff, a category for multi-styled blends, and then stratify within those broad bands. Or, I’d hang my hat on either the Cate or Gargano system and proselytise for that to be accepted and used by others. But no way would I allow mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy, undetermined, undefined and unstandardized nonsense to be used.

Also, a minor point perhaps: I would find a way to dispense with the entry fees as far as possible because this just discourages entrants and reduces the numbers. One of the weaknesses of this and other competitions is that only what gets entered gets judged, and producers have to pay for each item they submit to be evaluated. A quick calculation shows that to bring five rums into this competition (not that many companies bothered) costs a thousand pounds 1. Now, mid-sized to large companies have no issues with that, but it’s hardly likely some small outfit will bother when they can do so much better at rum festivals where consumers actually get to taste, and journos and bloggers pay more attention. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to expect fees to be eliminated but I do argue they discourage candidates, encourage a medal-extravaganza by the organizers so the fees keep flowing, and if they can’t be done away with, at least they should be kept really really low to encourage maximum participation, and be bolstered by a “Contestant of the XYZ Competition” sticker / logo that can be used as a marketing tool if it doesn’t get a “Medal Winner” tag.

Lastly, I’d really try to rope in some judges who are well known and respected in the community from which the drinks originate. Getting a bunch of whisky anoraks, wine experts and spirits lovers, no matter how well-intentioned and broad-based, is not the best way forward here. Ditto for editors and newsies who take the entire field of global spirits as their fief, or those whose expertise is not in rum but in gin, wine, scotch, vodka or what have you.  No doubt they bring good tasting chops to the table, but really, they are hands down losers when they come up against a real rum aficionado who knows what she’s looking for and what to experience.


Part 4 – Implications

So why did I write this piece? Normally I don’t get involved with this kind of thing because aside from others regarding the lists of awardees as useful for their own reasons, it makes me come off like some grumpy and crotchety old fart feigning intellectual pomposity (like Sir Scrotimus always was). The reason I chose to do so on this occasion was because too many things were out to lunch here, and the Forbes repost / reshare – with a headline of “The Wold’s Best Rums According to the Global Spirits Masters” really disturbed me (as did some of the medal winners’ unseemly crowing about how well they did, when they really didn’t).  I was reminded forcibly of a comment I had written on Reddit about a HipLatina faux-journalistic hagiography of Bacardi, where my final observation was “… [it asks]…to be taken seriously as a sort of objective recounter of real history and factual information, and fails at both — and since people will read it and some will believe it, it’s best to get the objections and criticisms right out there, right now.”

That’s it, really.  Not so much that the issues exist, but that knowledgeable folks keep repeating the same old tropes without correction, and that others will not know any better and accept it; that people will believe the veracity and usefulness of the exercise without critical inquiry. They will see the awards as some kind of real arbiter of agreed upon quality using formal standards of evaluation, when neither is the case.  What these carelessly awarded medal-extravaganzas do is confuse and make people continue to dismiss rum as some kind of good-time drink lacking in credibility that still can’t get its act together. “They can’t even get their definitions and categories in order,” you can almost sense a whisky anorak sniff disdainfully as he buries his beak in a Bowmore.

So yes, I feel so strongly about the matter and I doubt I’m alone in this: after all the years of publicly available rum fests, deeply informative master classes, of aficionados writing about distillery tours (given or taken), gallons of digital ink spilled in writing educational pieces, non fiction pieces, reviews, backgrounders and deep dives into the world of rum, all this is so easily undone by a single awards show done on the quick and on the cheap without serious thought.

Awards competitions are taken seriously, and many of those reading about them will presume that the medals gained represent a real cross-section of the rumworld and its best rums. My contention is that this is simply not true in this case and it is allowing misinformation to creep into the minds of the up and coming next generation. Organizers of such competitions should take the responsibilities of what they are doing more seriously  and understand the impact they have on the perceptions and knowledge of their readers. Anything less is an abdication of their duty of care to us as consumers and all those who are now coming into the field.

At least, that’s the way I see it.


Other Notes

  • Some of the comments I make here are also incorporated into a similar post on reasons to beware of lists and not to accept them uncritically.  It’s a good companion piece.
  • The categories were as follows
    1. White Rum – Standard (£0‐£15)
    2. White Rum – Premium (£16‐£20)
    3. White Rum – Ultra Premium (£31+)
    4. White Overproof
    5. Gold Rum – Premium (£0‐£25)
    6. Gold Rum – Super Premium (£26‐£40)
    7. Gold Rum – Ultra Premium (£40+)
    8. Gold Rum – Aged up to 7 years
    9. Gold Rum – Aged 8‐12 years
    10. Dark Rum – Premium (£0‐£25)
    11. Dark Rum – Super Premium (£26‐£40)
    12. Dark Rum – Ultra Premium (£40+)
    13. Dark Rum – Aged up to 7 years
    14. Dark Rum – Aged 7 to 12 years
    15. Dark Rum – Aged over 13 years
    16. Dark Rum – Overproof
    17. Agricole Rhum
    18. Spiced
    19. Cane Spirit/Cachaça
    20. Flavoured Rum
    21. Flavoured Overproof
    22. Spirit Drink (up to 37.5% ABV)
    23. Flavoured Spirit Drink (up to 37.5% ABV)
    24. Rum Liqueurs

 

Feb 172022
 

As with most new distilleries in Australia, Winding Road is a family affair located about 175km south of Brisbane, whose antecedents go back as far as 2014 when the husband-and-wife team of Mark and Camille Awad were casting around for something to do which would keep them in the more tourist-centric area of Northern Rivers in New South Wales (rather than moving to a bigger city where professional work was more plentiful). At the time the craft distilling movement had begun but was in its infancy, and being in a sugar cane growing district, having something of an entrepreneurial bent and a love for good spirits, it was one of the few ideas Mark had which the boss (Camille) agreed with.

The distillery working area, with Short Round on the right. Photo (c) Winding Road Distillery (from FB, used with permission)

Just like Rick Prosser over at Kalki Moon, who had been in the distilling field for decades, or the trio of friends who opened the urban-centric multi-faceted operation of the Brix Distillery, or James McPherson with his whirlwind fact-finding tour of 70 distilleries in three months, the Awads did as much research as they could, including some hands-on training with the Black Gate and Riverbourne distilleries (also in New South Wales).  Equipment was then purchased based on advice, ambition, literature and financial resources (and with a few Hail Marys, no doubt). This was the 1250-liter pot still manufactured by Burns Welding and Fabrication (also from NSW) which was named “Short Round” (used for rum and whisky distilling), another 400-liter pot still called “Alfreda” (for gins) and a small 8-liter sneakoscope of a still called “Secret Agent” which is used for experiments, testing and working with ideas that may or may not work.

Unofficially, the distillery began a year later, in 2015 when work began on laying the physical infrastructure, getting the equipment, installing it, nailing down the financing, permitting, licensing, sources of supply, casks, distribution, bottles, labels…all the usual big and small things that a new operation needs to get going.  Officially the distillery opened in 2018 (also the year the FB page went live) when production of the first cane spirit began, with cane juice from a local sugar mill a short drive away. The resultant distillate was put to rest in new American oak barrels (not 1st or 2nd fill ex-anything) and became the first edition of the Coast Cane Pure Single Rum after 31 months, and was based on the taste profile, not any arbitrary ageing cutoff. Gradually, with increasing experience, the “Agricole Blanc Virgin Cane Spirit” was issued in 2019 as an unaged spirit and added to the portfolio.

Photo (c) Winding Road Distillery (from FB, used with permission)

Certain decisions were made from the get go, such as that of using not molasses but cane juice: this was driven by having convenient access to fresh cane juice as well as a feeling that an agricole style rum better than most styles, represented the terroire of the region. Also, it was uncommon, and seasonal – recognition factors and selling points as well – and allowed rum to be made between June and October when the cane harvest provides access to fresh juice, while in the other months they switch to whisky; gin is made all year round. 

Another deliberate decision made early on, was not to focus solely on rum or cane spirits: from the inception it was decided to add gins and whiskies to the portfolio.  As Mark wrote to me when I asked, “…We have chosen to pursue rum, whisky, gin, and liqueurs.  Our one caveat in this is that we do not want to be making a myriad of expressions simply to meet a perceived demand (in other words, to just make money).  Rather, we want to do it because we are curious and passionate about experimenting, creating, and always striving to improve.” But he admitted later that his initial vision was, and his favourite spirit remains, rum, and it’s an exciting time to be involved, and part of the new Australian Rum Renaissance.

Retail sales with Mark Awad. Photo (c) Winding Road Distillery (from FB, used with permission)

Casks are sourced from cooperages around Australia. The new oak casks are imported from the US while others are a mix of ex-Shiraz, ex-Pinot, ex-whiskey/bourbon and ex-fortified such as Port, Sherry/Apera, and Muscat. They tend to be 200-300 liters capacity as smaller sizes are considered too active given the climate. A lot of the selections are based on experimentation and simple curiosity, as the whole business of which casks produces the best end product is still being established and researched.

Winding Road started small and will continue small for a while as production and distribution settles itself, but there is no question that in a few years there will be several more expressions, aged or otherwise, of both whiskies and rums, though molasses-based rums are not currently being considered. At the moment the website lists the Virgin Cane Spirit and the Coastal Cane rums, as well as a gin and a coffee liqueur, with a single malt whisky continuing to mature.

One last thing: the name “Winding Road” is a reference to the actual twistiness of the roads in the region, including one called the “Windy Mile” road along which Camille grew up. More than that, though, for this family team, it evokes the serendipitous way they met, the evolution towards a shared life with all its vicissitudes, and especially the taking of winding paths less travelled, where the journey matters every bit as much as the destination. I can think of worse names to call a distillery and not many better.


Sources


Rums list (as of February 2022)

  • Coastal Cane Pure Single Rum
  • Agricole Blanc Virgin Cane Spirit

 

Jan 182022
 

 

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

Basics

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

Fermentation

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

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

Photo from wikimedia commons

Distillation

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

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

Ageing

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

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

Kokuto sugar (c) Chris Pellegrini, kanpai.us

Kokuto shochu specifically

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

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

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

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

Photo CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Sales

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

Wrap up

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


Reviewed Kokuto Shochus

 


Other Notes

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

Sources

Nov 172021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo (c) Richard Blesgraaf, from Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In closing:

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


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

Nov 092021
 

This is a re-post of an addendum to the review of the Cadenhead Green Label Barbados 1986 18 YO Rum, which went up in August 2021.  At that time, although much had been written or quoted about the “Rockley still rums”, some of it was out of date and some was plain wrong.   So I gave a brief rundown of the matter in that review — but now, after a few months, I feel it should best be in a small post of its own that can be updated as new information becomes available (as it has), hence this revised and separated post with relevant addenda.


 

Photo (c) WIRD, from their FB Page

Many producers, commentators and reviewers, myself among them, have occasionally referred to the pot still distillate from WIRR/WIRD as a Rockley Still rum, and there are several who conflate this with “Blackrock”, which would include Cadenhead and Samaroli (but not 1423, who refer to their 2000 rum specifically as simply coming from a “pot still” at “West Indies” – Joshua Singh confirmed for me that it was indeed a “Blackrock style” rum). 

They key write-ups that currently exist online are the articles that are based on the research published by Cedrik (in 2018) and Nick Arvanitis (in 2015) — adding to it now with some digging around on my own, here are some clarifications. None of it is new, but some re-posting is occasionally necessary for such articles to refresh and consolidate the facts.

“Blackrock” refers to WIRD as a whole, since the distillery is located next to an area of that name in NW Bridgetown (the capital), which was once a separate village. In the parlance, then, the WIRD distillery was sometimes referred to as “Blackrock” though this was never an official title – which didn’t stop Cadenhead and others from using it. There is no “Blackrock Still” and never has been.

Secondly, there is in fact a “Rockley” pot still, which had possibly been acquired by a company called Batson’s (they were gathering the stills of closing operations for some reason) when the Rockley Distillery shuttered — Nick suggests it was transformed into a golf course in the late 1800s / early 1900s but provides no dates, and there is indeed a Rockley Resort and golf club in the SE of Bridgetown today. But I can’t find any reference to Batson’s online at all, nor the precise date when Rockley’s went belly-up — it is assumed to be at least a century ago. Nick writes that WIRD picked up a pot still from Batson’s between 1905 and 1920 (unlikely to be the one from Rockley), and it did work for a bit, but has not been operational since the 1950s.

This then leads to the other thread in this story which is the post-acquisition data provided by Alexandre Gabriel. In a FB video in 2018, summarized by Cedrik in his guest post on Single Cask, he noted that WIRD did indeed have a pot still from Batson’s acquired in 1936 which was inactive, as well as another pot still, the Rockley, which they got that same year, and was also long non-functional (in a 2021 FB post, WIRD claims a quote by John Dore’s president David Pym, that it’s the oldest rum pot still in the world, which I imagine would miff both DDL and Rivers Royale). According to their researches, it was apparently made by James Shears and Sons, a British coppersmith, active from 1785 to 1891, and in use between 1936 (date of acquisition) to the 1960s. What this all means, though, is that there is no such thing as a rum made on the Rockley still in the post-1995 years of the current rum renaissance, and even earlier – the labels are all misleading, especially those of the much-vaunted year 1986. 

The consensus these days is that yet a third pot still — acquired from Gregg’s Farms in the 1950s and which has remained operational to this day — provided the distillate for those rums in the last twenty years which bear the name Blackrock or Rockley. However, Cedrik adds that some of the older distillate might have come from the triple chamber Vulcan still which was variously stated as being inactive since the 1980s or 2000 (depending on the interview) and it was later confirmed that the most famous Rockley vintages from 1986 and 2000 were made with a combination of the Vulcan (used as a wash still) and the Gregg (as a spirit still). 

Yet, as Cedrik so perceptively notes, even if there is no such thing as a Rockley-still rum, there is such a thing as a Rockley style. This has nothing to do with the erroneous association with a non-functional named still.  What it is, is a flavour profile.  It has notes of iodine, tar, petrol, brine, wax and heavier pot still accents, with honey and discernible esters.  It is either loved or hated but very noticeable after one has gone through several Barbados rums. Marco Freyr often told me he could identify that profile by smell alone even if the bottler did not state it on the label, and I see no reason to doubt him.

The actual, long non-functional Rockley still has long been sitting on the WIRD premises as a sort of historical artifact – that’s the picture, above.  In November 2021, it was noted they were shipping it off to a coppersmith in France for inspection and potential refurbishment, with view to (possibly) making it useable again.

[This post will be updated as more information becomes available]


 

 

Nov 072021
 

 

For such a newly established company (in rum years, anyway), Rom Deluxe as created a rather enviable visibility quotient for itself. Their near iconic “Wild Series” of rums in particular are not only strikingly eye-catching but boast several entries on the list of strongest rums ever issued, and this goes right back to the issuance of the first one in the series, the Wild Tiger (a Jamaican DOK from Hampden), which I reviewed with equal parts fear and exhileration. They have branched out and expanded into other aspects of the rum business and while they are not quite on a level of, say, 1423 for breadth or global consumer awareness, or Rum Nation for wealth of rums on offer (yes, RN is now a Danish company), they are coming on strong and bear watching.

RDL 5 (WP) (c) Rom Deluxe

Rom Deluxe is was founded in mid-2016 by three friends and rum lovers — Claus Andersen, Thomas Nielsen and Lasse Bjørklund — who created this little hobby-based indie outfit with no greater aim in mind than to maybe bottle a few interesting casks, share them around with the rest of their rum-mad nation, and hopefully cover costs (parallels with 1423 abound). After a year or so Thomas left the company, and for the next two years after that Claus and Lasse ran the show, releasing small amounts of bottlings to the local rum community and getting decent returns and a growing reputation by doing demos at various spirits events around the country. 

The modest success of these small and informal releases encouraged them to expand a bit into more bespoke offerings: they sourced more popular vintages, engaged a talented graphic designer, and prepared to horn in on the burgeoning indie scene in Denmark, with one eye and both ears cocked for opportunities across Europe.

If any year allowed the company to explode into the sightline of the greater rumiverse, it was surely May 2019, when the stunningly designed Wild Series made the rounds of the European rum festivals (starting with the Nordic and moving on from there) and hit the shelves and online stores. The starkly beautiful black and white labels of wild animals (mostly but not always big cats) were highlighted by the enormous beefcake of the Wild Tiger Release 1 (a Hampden), accompanied by the Wild Jaguar Release 2 (from Enmore)…which were subsequently followed up by three more bottlings in the next six months, and another fourteen releases after those in the years that followed (to 2021…they’re up to R.19 now, the Wild Panda Uitvlugt (which may be someone’s love for Po the Dragon Warrior speaking, but who knows?). 

These successful and wildly popular releases allowed the company to imagine, create and expand into other rum series, each with its own design and bottling philosophy.

  • The Wild Series with its now-near-iconic black and white design, rightly seen as the most visible icon of the company, is the flagship: they are never supposed to go below 60% and should be really old – greater than a quarter century. The rule was haphazardly applied in the beginning but they are now trying to align themselves more completely.
  • Next up is the Collector’s series: same high quality rum (or as close as dammit to it) which misses the cut for one specification or the other, like the Diamond (R.2) and Bellevue (R.3), which were both really good but missed the strength cutoff. They have less abstract, less striking but always beautiful paintings of wildlife on them – giraffes, orang-utans, alligators, that kind of thing.
  • For the sandbox variations where the bad boys of Rom Deluxe go around picking fights, there’s the Limited Batch series, used for a single cask or half a cask which is special in some way all its own but can’t make the grade for either of the other two top-enders: here the outturn is smaller and price is lower.  A good example of this is a Caroni they once issued, where they only had enough juice to fill about fifty bottles of 50cl, or the very lightly aged Ghana pot still cane juice rum with an outturn of 188.
  • And lastly, there’s the Toyota Corollas of the company, the “Selected” series decorated with well-executed pictures of sailing ships,  specifically designed to be the budget rums: they are  made in the Spanish-heritage style, sometimes with added (and disclosed) sugar. Here, rums from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Panama or the Dominican Republic (there may be others) are blended and worked on to provide a commercial low-end, low-priced product of decent quality. Unsurprisingly these sell like hot cakes and provide the cash flow that allows lower-margin (or even loss-making) high-end halo rums to be made. In that sense the Selected Series follows 1423’s Esclavo and Companero lines, and for exactly the same reasons.

New premises in Horsens (c) Rom Deluxe

2019, then, was a watershed for the company and it began growing, which required other staff to be brought on board: in March of that year Michael Ginnerup and Kim Pedersen, both of whom had helped out for free here and there in the various rum events Rom Deluxe had staged or participated in, joined the company. When, in 2020 Lasse Bjørklund left, these two gentlemen stepped into management and have remained with Rom Deluxe ever since.

Manual bottling line (c) Rom Deluxe

The company itself has not stopped with bottling their own rums, but have diversified – again, as 1423 did, and likely for many of the same reasons – into distribution and sales of their own and other spirits as well.  Partly as a result of needing a place to store and age their own stock and combine that with a sales place and a tasting room, they opened a shop (in Horsense in north west Denmark) where they combined all these activities. There they have their barrel warehouse, and there they also hand-bottle each line among themselves – no industrial sized bottling plant to be found here. 

COVID restrictions from 2020 onwards have not dented their activities in the slightest, as they diversified into the aforementioned additional rum ranges, hosted online tastings and added other companies’ spirits to their distribution portfolio, and as if that wasn’t enough, offered their services as bespoke Private Label creators for companies, clubs and organizations who wanted something for themselves. When the world opens, you can expect them to come out swinging for the fences, but for now there’s no shortages of their rums out there for people to chose from.


Sources:


Bottlings (as of September 2022)

Wild Series

  • R.1 “Wild Tiger” Jamaica (Hampden-DOK) 85.2% Rested 2009-2019, 170 bottles
  • R.2 “Jaguar” Guyana (Enmore EHP) 2002-Jun 2019 17 YO 61.5%
  • R.3 “Puma” Panama (secret, blended, +9.2 g/L sugar) 1999-Oct 2019 20 YO 65.2%
  • R.4 “Black Panther” Belize (Traveller’s, pot-column blend) 2009-2020 10 YO 71.8% 252 bottles
  • R.5 “Lion I” Guadeloupe (Bellevue) 1995-2020 25 YO 55.8% 125 bottles
  • R.6 “Leopard I” Trinidad (Caroni) Jan 1998-Apr 2020 22 YO 57.8% 146 bottles
  • R.7 “Lynx” Guyana (Diamond) May 2010-Jun 2020 10 YO 67.9% 231 bottles
  • R.8 “Cheetah” Jamaica (New Yarmouth) Nov 1994-Aug 2020 25 YO 68.1% 224 bottles
  • R.9 “Ocelot” Jamaica (Long Pond LPS) Mar 2001-Aug 2020 59% 19 magnums
  • R.10 “Caracal” El Salvador (Unnamed) Dec 2007-Oct 2020 12 YO 65.9% 265 bottles
  • R.11 “Leopard II” Trinidad (Ten Cane BTXCA May 2008-Jan 2021 12YO 61.5% 207 bottles 
  • R.12 “Bengal Tiger” Trinidad (Caroni) Jan 1998-Jan 2021 23 YO 63.1% 234 bottles
  • R.13 “Lioness” Barbados (Foursquare) 2005-Feb 2021 16 YO 63%
  • R.14 “Water Buffalo” Trinidad (Angostura) 2009-2021 12 YO 64.7%
  • R.15 “Elephant” Guyana (Versailles MEC) 1988-2021 33 YO 50.1% B1
  • R.15 “Elephant” Guyana (Enmore MEC) 1988-2021 33YO 48.2% B2
  • R.16 “Zebra” Martinique (Le Simon MSRA) 2008-Jun 2021 60.7% B1 239 bottles
  • R.16 “Zebra” Martinique (Le Simon MSRA) 2008-Jun 2021 59% B2 213 bottles
  • R.17 “Rhino” Jamaica (Hampden DOK) 2019-2021 15mos ex-Caroni 86.2%
  • R.18 “Hippopotamus” Jamaica (Hampden JMC ) Apr 1993-Sep 2021 28 YO 57.7% 145 bottles for Rombo.dk (B1)
  • R.18 “Hippopotamus” Jamaica (Hampden JMC ) Apr 1993-Sep 2021 28 YO 56% 121 bottles (B2)
  • R.19 “Panda” Guyana (Uitvlugt PM Still MPM) 1990-2020 30 YO 51.1% 208 bottles B1
  • R.19 “Panda” Guyana (Uitvlugt PM Still MPM) 1990-2020 30 YO 55.2% 231 bottles B2
  • R.20 “Springbok” Jamaica (Hampden C<>H)  xxxx-2022 xx YO 86% 268 bottles
  • R.21.1 “Saiga” St. Lucia (SLRP) 2000-2021 19 YO 47.7% 19x150cl bottles
  • R.21.2 “Saiga” St. Lucia (SLRP) 2000-2021 19 YO 49.1% 21x150cl bottles
  • R.22.1 “Gnu” Barbados (BMMG Mount Gay) 2001-2021 21 YO 54.8% 49x150cl bottles
  • R.22.2 “Gnu” Barbados (BMMG Mount Gay) 2001-2021 21 YO 56.0% 46x150cl bottles
  • R.23    “Pronghorn” Jamaica (Hampden C<>H) 2020-2021 18mos 86% 268 bottles
  • R.24.1 “Eland” Panama
  • R.24.2 “Eland” Panama
  • R.25.1 “Impala” Barbados 62.6%
  • R.25.2 “Impala” Barbados 61.1%
  • R.26.1 “Kudu” Jamaica 68.4%
  • R.26.2 “Kudu” Jamaica 68.5%
  • R.27.B1 “Giraffe” Guyana (VSG still at Enmore, MEV) 1990-2022 54.4% 170x70cl / 25x150cl bottles
  • R.27.B2 “Giraffe” Guyana (VSG still at Enmore, MEV) 1990-2022 53.9% 185x70cl / 25x150cl bottles
  • R.28 “Bear” Trinidad (Caroni) 1998-2022 24YO 63.1% 251 bottles
  • R.29 “Turtle” Guyana (Uitvlugt) 1990-2022 32YO 45.2% for Excellence Rhum
  • R.30.B1 “Fox” Trinidad (TDL: TMAL) 1991-2022 30 YO 59.9% 161 bottles
  • R.30.B2 “Fox” Trinidad (TDL: TMAL) 1991-2022 30 YO 60.5% 198 bottles
  • R.31 “Racoon” Guyana, (Uitvlugt PM Still MPMM) 1989-2022 32 YO 63.4% 211 bottles
  • R.32 “Wolf” Jamaica (Hampden HGML) 2020-2022 2YO 86% 162 bottles
  • Coffret Vol 1 “Tiger Cub” Jamaica (New Yarmouth) 2020 6 months Malaga 73.6%
  • Coffret Vol 1 “Leopard Cub” Jamaica (New Yarmouth) 2020 6 months PX 72.9%
  • Coffret Vol 1 “Lion Cub” Jamaica (New Yarmouth) 2020 6 months Madeira 73.9%
  • Coffret Vol 2 “Bull” Jamaica (Monymusk MMW) 2020 7 months Malaga 69.8%
  • Coffret Vol 2 “Zebra” Jamaica (Monymusk MMW) 2020 7 months PX 68.4%
  • Coffret Vol 2 “Young Elephant” Jamaica (Monymusk MMW) 2020 7 months Madeira 67.4%
  • Coffret Vol 3 Unicorn Series “Pronghorn” Guyana (Skeldon SWR) 2002 19 YO 64.2%
  • Coffret Vol 3 Unicorn Series “Saiga” St. Lucia (SLD SLRP) 2000 21 YO 47.7.2%
  • Coffret Vol 3 Unicorn Series “Saiga” St. Lucia (SLD SLRP) 2000 20 YO 49.1.2%
  • Coffret Vol 3 Unicorn Series “Gnu” Barbados (Mount Gay BMMG) 2001 20 YO 54.8%
  • Coffret Vol 3 Unicorn Series “Gnu” Barbados (Mount Gay BMMG) 2001 20 YO 56.0%

Collector’s Series

  • No. 1 Imperial Navy Blend 57.18% 989 bottles
  • No. 2.1 Guyana Diamond MDS 49.2% 1996-2021 195 bottles added caramel for colour
  • No. 2.2 Guyana Diamond MDS 50.8% 1996-2021 193 bottles added caramel for colour
  • No. 3.1 Guadeloupe Bellevue GMBV 55.5% 1998-2021 258 bottles (Denmark)
  • No. 3.2 Guadeloupe Bellevue GMBV 56.1% 1998-2021 254 bottles (ex-Denmark)
  • No. 4.1 Odmar Edition 3 YO (Richland Distillery) 43% 
  • No. 5.1 Haiti Barbancourt 60%
  • No. 5.2 Haiti Barbancourt 60.7%
  • No. 6.1 Trinidad Ten Cane 60.8%
  • No. 6.2 Trinidad Ten Cane 62.3%
  • No. 7.1 Savanna Grand Arome 55.6% 2013-2021 304 bottles
  • No. 7.2 Savanna Grand Arome 55.4% 2013-2021 301 bottles
  • No. 8   Dominican Republic 65% Blended Rum 2022 592 bottles
  • No. 9   Belize Travellers
  • No. 10.1 Barbados Foursquare 50.7% 2002-2022 19YO 190 bottles
  • No. 10.2 Barbados Foursquare 53.6% 2002-2022 19YO 214 bottles
  • No. 11.1 Panama (secret distillery) 59.1% 2006-2021 16 YO 264 bottles
  • No. 11.2 Panama (secret distillery) 59.6% 2006-2021 16 YO 259 bottles

Limited Batch Series

  • No. 01 Ghana ARC 66.5% Cane juice, pot still, unaged
  • No. 02 Ghana 60.3% Cane juice, pot still, 7 months, 188 bottles
  • No. 03 Panama (undisclosed) 57.18% 1999-2020 21 YO (+9.2g/L sugar)
  • No. 04 Barbados (Foursquare) 61% 2005-2020 15 YO (+0 sugar)
  • No. 05 Guyana (Diamond, PM) 58.3% 2005-2020 15 YO (+0 sugar) 110 bottles
  • No. 06 Cuba (secret distillery) 65.1% (+0 sugar) 191 bottles
  • No. 07 Nicaragua (Licorera de Nicaragua) 61% 2000-2021 21 YO (+0 sugar) 187 bottles
  • No. 08 Jamaica (Secret distillery) 63.9% 2015-2022 7 YO 242 bottles
  • No. 09 Barbados, Guatemala, Jamaica Blend “Consummatus” (+12g/L) 42%
  • No. 10 Trinidad Ten Cane 64% 2008-2022 13 YO 259 bottles

Selected Series (Blends, Ship labels)

  • “Captain’s Dream” 40% (NIC, VEN, PAN) up to 12 Years
  • No. 2 Dominican Republic 40% 5YO  (+20g/L)
  • No. 3 “Dark Navy” 40.6% (TRI, JAM, BAR, GUY)
  • No. 4 “Caribbean Blend” 42% (GUY, DR) Solera 12 Years
  • No. 5 “Strong Navy” 57.5% (TRI, JAM, BAR, GUY)
  • “Sailor’s 2nd Choice” 42% (GUY, DR) up to 12 years
  • “Seven Seas” 40% (PAN, DR) up to 12 years
  • “Deep Water” 40% (NIC, DR) up to 12 years
  • “Treasure Island” 40% (NIC, DR, VEN, PAN) up to 12 years

Original Series

Unaged White Rum Miscellany

  • No. 01 Dominican Republic Grand Arome 65% (cane juice, column still)
  • No. 02 Jamaica (NYE) WM 65% (molasses, pot still)
  • No. 03 Jamaica 65% WPH (molasses, pot still)
  • No. 04 Ghana White Rhum 65% (cane juice, pot still)
  • No. 05 Jamaica Trelawny Parish TECA 65% (molasses, pot still)
  • No. 06 Antigua ADL 65% (molasses, column still)
  • No. 07 Vietnam White 65% (cane juice, column still)
  • No. 08 Jamaica Luidas Vale WPL-CJN 65% (cane juice, pot still)

Black Porcelain Bottles (“Distillery Strength”)

  • DR New Make White Rum 93% (DR, 2021, 474 esters, molasses, unaged)[ref]
  • Le Galion Rhum Grand Arome Batch II 59.1% (Martinique, molasses, unaged)[ref]
  • Trelawny White DOK Batch I, II and III 85.6% (Jamaica, 1600 esters, molasses, unaged)

 

Mar 312021
 

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Roman transport of wine jars and barrels

General and historical2

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

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

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

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

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

Units of measure 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

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

 

Wine foudres

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

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

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


30,000-liter foudres at Saint James, Martinique (photo courtesy of Olivier Scars. from his visit and blog post),

Foudres, Muids and Tonels (1,000 liters to 30,000 liters)

The largest wooden containers which hold alcohol for ageing are foudres , which rum producers have happily co-opted from the wine makers of France. Sherry makers always thought they had the biggest and baddest barrels themselves – and although they have no standardized barrel as such, their tonel (the name can’t be a coincidence) is 800-2000 liters in capacity and therefore shares DNA with the huge foudres and muids of the wine industry, both of which also exceed 1000 liters. Some can go as high as 5000 liters, the Karukera distillery (see photo below) has one of 10,000 liters, and the Olympic champ for size must go to the 63 titanic foudres at Saint James in Martinique (left) each of which is a mind boggling 30,000 liters. And while outside the scope of discussion here, note also the use of the non-barrel-shaped Intermediate Bulk Container (IBC), which are modern, re-useable, multi-use container used for mass handling and shipping of liquids, semi-solids, and solids. These do not, however, have any application to the in situ slow, patient process of ageing which is what wooden containers are used for.

* The word foudre is, interestingly enough, not of French origin (in old French and heraldry it means “lightning” or “thunderbolt”), but from proto-Germanic and Old High German roots – it derives from “foeder” and “fuodar” which were terms used to denote a large barrel for ageing beer or wine.  The word and its variations then spread throughout Europe in medieval times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butts

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

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

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

Malaga Butt (500 liters)

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

Illustration (c) Cask88.com

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

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

Puncheons

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

UK/US puncheons 

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

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

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

A 500L tonneau and a 250L barrique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

225L wine barrel, or barrique

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

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

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

American Standard Barrel, 200L

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

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

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

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

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

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

Octave (unclear – 125 liters or 50 liters)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo (c) fanaticscountryattic.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


15.3 gallon Stainless Steel Keg

Kegs

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

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

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

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

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


Vats

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

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

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


Intermediate Bulk Containers (wikipedia)

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

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

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

20′ ISO Bulk Shipping Container – 26,000 Liters

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

ISO Bulk Shipping containers with a capacity of thousands of liters are also quite common for distilleries which ship spirits around the world.   The 20′ Tank Shipping Container mentioned in this article, for example, has a capacity of 26,000 liters. As rum is now shipped globally in massive quantities by huge distillery operations, doing so via the space-inefficient means of wooden barrels clearly is a non starter.


Trivia

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

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


Other

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


Sources

Apr 232020
 

Introduction

Brutta ma buoni is an Italian phrase meaning “ugly but good”, and as I wrote in the SMWS 3.5 “Marmite” review, describes the oversized codpieces of the “151” types of rums very nicely indeed. These glute-flexing ABV beefcakes have been identifiably knocking people into stupors for at least since the 1930s and possibly even before that — and while they were never entirely good, when it came to serving up a real fast drunk with a hot-snot shot of whup-ass, they really couldn’t be beat. Flavours were often secondary, proof-power everything.

Everyone involved with rums — whether bartender, barfly or boozehound — knows what a “151” is, and they lend themselves to adverbial flights of fancy, humorous metaphors and some funny reviews. They were and are often conflated with “overproof” rums – indeed, for a long time they were the only overproofs known to homo rummicus, the common rum drinker – and their claim to fame is not just a matter of their alcohol content of 75.5% ABV, but their inclusion in classic cocktails which have survived the test of time from when they were first invented.  

But ask anyone to go tell you more about the 151s, and there’s a curious dearth of hard information about them, which such anecdotes and urban witticisms as I have mentioned only obscure. Why, for example, that strength?  Which one was the first?  Why were there so many? Why now so few? A few enterprising denizens of the subculture would mention various cocktail recipes and their origin in the 1930s and the rise of tiki in the post war years.  But beyond that, there isn’t really very much, and what there is, is covered over with a fog suppositions and educated guesses.

Mythic Origins – 1800s to 1933

Most background material regarding high-proof rums such as the 151s positions their emergence in the USA during the Great Depression – cocktail recipes from that period called for certain 151 proof rums, and America became the spiritual home of the rum-type. What is often overlooked is that if a recipe at that time called for such a specific rum, by name, then it had to already exist — and so we have to look further back in time to trace its origins.  

1873 Australian newspaper ad for Lemon Hart (Rum History FB page)

That line of thinking brings us to Lemon Hart, probably the key company behind the early and near-undocumented history of the 151s. It had to have been involved since, in spite of their flirting with bankruptcy (in 1875) and changes in ownership over the years, they were as far as I am aware, among the only ones producing anything like a widely-sold commercial overproof in the late 1800s and very early 1900s (quite separate from bulk suppliers like Scheer and ED&F Man who dealt less with branded bottles of their own, but supplied others in their turn). Given LH’s involvement with the rum industry, they had a hand in sourcing rums from the West Indies or from ED&F Man directly, and this made them a good fit for supplying other British companies. Their stronger rums and others’, so far as I can tell, tended to just be called overproofs (meaning greater than 57% for reasons tangential to this essay but related to how the word proof originated to begin with¹)…but not “151”.

Victoria Daily British Colonist, March 11, 1914. Ad for a 32 Overproof rum, which is what 151s were once called

Navy rums were considered the beefcake proofed rums of their day, and certainly stronger ones did exist – the 69% Harewood House Barbados rum bottled in 1780 is an example – but those that did were very rarely commercially bottled, and probably just for estate or plantation consumption, which is why records are so scant. The real question about rums bottled north of 57% was why bother to make them at all?  And what’s that story that keeps cropping up, about a British / Canadian mercantile concern having something to do with it?

Earliest record of a 151 rum. the Canadian HBC – 1934, Montana, USA

Here’s the tale: the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1670, and was not only the first great trading concern in North America – it had its origins in the fur trade and trading posts of the British-run northern part of the continent – but for some time was almost a quasi-Government of large parts of the vast territories that became Canada. Their chain of trading posts morphed into sales shops which also sold alcohol – but as Steve Remsberg remarked in relating this possibility, the story (without proof, ha ha) goes that rums with proof strengths or lower were insufficient for the business of the HBC in the 1800s: it froze in the deep cold above the Arctic Circle, and so something with more oomph was required (mind you, at that time they sold mostly brandy and gin, not rum so much, but I have no doubt that rum was also part of their overall alcoholic portfolio given their Canada’s long history with rum, and HBC’s identification with it later). 

Lemon Hart had a strong presence in the colonies (it was big in Canada and huge in Australia through the late 1800s to early 1900s, for example), possessing connections to the main importer of rum and the Caribbean rum industry, and can reasonably be construed to have been involved in bootstrapping these efforts into an even stronger version of their regular rums to address HBC’s requirements, a theory I put forward because there really wasn’t any other company which was so firmly identified and tied to the rum-type in years to come, or so suitably positioned to do so for another major British mercantile concern². There is, unfortunately, no direct evidence here, I just advance it as a reasoned conjecture that fits tolerably well with such slim facts as are known. It is equally possible that HBC approached major rum suppliers like Man independently….but somehow I doubt it.

1935 Fairbanks Daily News (Alaska, USA) ad

Whatever the truth of the matter, by the early 1900s some kind of overproof “style” — no matter who made it — is very likely to have become established across North America, and known about, even if a consistent standard strength over 57% had not been settled on, and the term “151” might not have yet existed. Certainly by 1914 the strength had been used – it just wasn’t called “151,” but “32 Overproof”.  (If we assume that proof was defined as 100º (57.14% ABV) then 32 Overproof worked out to 132º proof and the maths makes this 75.43%…close enough for Government work for sure). Unsurprisingly, this was also the Hudson’s Bay Company, which marketed such a 32 Overproof in British Columbia as far back as 1914 (see above).

The Daily Colonist, Victoria, Vancouver Island B.C, 01 May 1914

However, I suggest that such high-powered rums would have remained something of a niche spirit given their lack of branding and advertising, and they might have stayed in the shadows, were it not for the enactment of the Volstead Act in the USA and similar legislation in Canada after the restrictions of the First World War.

That drove the category underground…while simultaneously and paradoxically making it more popular. Certainly the strength of such a rum made it useful to have around…from a logistical standpoint at least.  Because quite aside from its ability to get people drunker, faster (and even with its propensity to remain liquid at very low temperatures of the North), from a shipping perspective its attraction was simply that one could ship twice as much for the same cost and then dilute it elsewhere, and make a tidy profit. 

Although direct evidence is lacking, I am suggesting that sometime between 1920 and 1933 (the dates of American Prohibition) a consistent strength was settled on and the title “151” was attached to rums bottled at 75.5%, and it was an established fact of drinking life, though maddeningly elusive to date with precision. Cocktail recipes now called for them by name, the public was aware, and the title has never disappeared.

The Strength

So why 151?  Why that odd strength of 75.5%, and not a straight 70%, 75% or 80%? We can certainly build a reasonable chain of supposition regarding why overproofed spirits were made at all, why Lemon Hart and HBC made something seriously torqued-up and therefore why subsequent cocktails called for it…but nailing down that particular number is no longer, I believe, possible.  It’s just been too long and the suppositions too varied, and records too lacking.

1938 Ron Rico advertisement

One theory goes that some US state laws (California and Florida specifically) required that proofage (or a degree higher) as the maximum strength at which a commercial consumable drink could be made — this strikes me as untenable given its obvious limitations, and in any case, it’s a factoid, not an explanation of why it was selected. Ed Hamilton of the Ministry of Rum suggested that the strength was roughly the output strength of a historic pot still – distillate would have come off after a second pass or a retort at about 75% abv — but since Puerto Rico was making rums at that strength without any pot stills quite early on (Ron Rico advertised them for being useful for cooking, which is an intriguing rabbit hole to investigate) this also is problematic. Alternatively, it might have been the least dangerous yet still cost-effective way of shipping bulk rum around prior to local dilution, as noted above. Or because of the flash point  of a 75% ethanol / 25% water mix is about the ratio where you can set it on fire without an additional propellant or heating the liquid (also technically unlikely since there are a range of temperatures or concentrations where this can happen). And of course there’s Steve Remsburg’s unproven but really cool idea, which is that it was a strength gradually settled on as rums were developed for HBC that would not freeze in the Arctic regions.

All these notions have adherents and detractors, and none of them can really be proven (though I’d love to be shown up as wrong in this instance). The key point is that by 1934, the 151s existed, were named, released at 75.5%, and already considered a norm – and interestingly, they had become a class of drinks that were for the most part an American phenomenon, not one that grew serious legs in either Asia or Europe. How they surged in popularity and became a common part of every bar’s repertoire in the post-war years is what we’ll discuss next.

Tiki, the Beachcomber, Lemon Hart et al – 1934-1963

In spite of the 151s’ modern bad-boy reputations — as macho-street-cred testing grounds, beach party staples, a poor man’s hooch, where one got two shots for the price of one and a massive ethanol delivery system thrown in for free — that was a relatively recent Boomer and Gen X development. In point of fact, 151s were, for most of the last ninety years, utilized as cocktail ingredients, dating back to the dawn of the tiki era started in the 1930s and which exploded in the subsequent decades. And more than any other rum of its kind, the rep of being the first 151 belonged to the famed Lemon Hart 151, which was specifically referenced in the literature of the time and is the earliest identifiable 151 ancestor.

So if there was ever a clear starting point to the 151s’ rise to prominence, then it had to have been with the repeal of American Prohibition in 1933 (Canada’s Prohibition was more piecemeal in execution and timing of implementation varied widely among  provinces, but in almost all cases lasted less than a decade, during the ‘teens and 1920s).  Within a year of the US repeal, both Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company liquor division and the UK rum supplier Lemon Hart had made 151-proof rums, explicitly naming them as such (and not as some generic “overproof”), and positioning them for sale in the advertisements of the time. 

This came about because of the opening of Don’s Beachcomber, a Polynesian themed restaurant and bar in Hollywood, run by an enterprising young man named Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gant, who subsequently changed his name to Donn Beach to jive with the renamed “Don the Beachcomber” establishment.  His blend of Chinese cuisine, tropical-themed rum cocktails and punches and interior decor to channel Polynesian cultural motifs proved to be enormously influential and spawned a host of imitators, the most famous of whom was Victor Bergeron, who created a similar line of Tiki bars named Trader Vic’s in the post war years, to cater to renewed interest in Pacific islands’ culture.

The key takeaway from this rising interest in matters tropical and tiki, was the creation of ever more sophisticated cocktails using eight, nine, even ten ingredients or more. Previous 19th and early 20th century recipes stressed three or four ingredients, used lots of add-ins like vermouth and bitters and liqueurs, and at best referred to the required rums as “Jamaica” or “Barbados” or what have you. Then as now, there were no shortage of mixes – the 1932 Green Cocktail book lists 251 of them and a New York bartender’s guide from 1888 has nearly two hundred. 

Extract from Don the Beachcomber 1941 drinks menu

What distinguished Beach and Bergeron and others who followed, was their innovative and consistent use of rums, which were identified in some cases by name (like the Lemon Hart 151 or the Wray & Nephew 17 year old), with several now-classic cocktails being invented during this period: the Zombie, the Mai Tai, the Three Dots and a Dash, the Blue Hawaii and the 151 Swizzle, among others.  Not all these required high proof rums, but two – the Zombie and the Swizzle – absolutely did, and by 1941, the Beachcomber’s rum list had several 151 variants including branded ones like Lemon Hart, Lownde’s, and Trower’s….and yes, HBC.

Initially the Lemon Hart 151 was the big gun in the house and was explicitly referenced in the recipes of the time, like for the Zombie, which Beachbum Berry spent so much time tracking down.  But if one were to peruse the periodicals of the day one would note that they were not the only ones advertising their strong rums: in the mid to late 1930s: the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company liquor arm, and a Puerto Rican brand called Ron Rico (made just as the Serralles’ firm launched the Don Q brand with a newly acquired columnar still – they acquired Ron Rico in 1985) were also there, showing the fad was not just for one producer’s rum, and that a market existed for several variations.

The forties’ war years were quiet for 151s, but by the 1950s — with post-war boom times in the USA, and the rise of the middle class (and their spending power) — their popularity began to increase, paralleling the increase in awareness of rums as a whole. Tens of thousands of soldiers returned from duty in the Pacific, movies extolled the tropical lifestyle of Hawaii, and members of the jet set, singers and Hollywood stars all did their bit to fuel the Polynesian cultural explosion.  And right alongside that, the drinks and cocktails were taking off, spearheaded by the light and easy Spanish style blends such as exemplified by Bacardi. This took time to get going, but by the early 1960s there was no shortage of 151 rums — from Puerto Rico in particular, but also from Jamaica and British Guiana —  to rank alongside the old mainstays like Lemon Hart.

The Era of Bacardi – 1963-2000

It may be overstating things to call these years an era of any kind: here, I simply use it as a general shorthand for a period in which 151s were no longer exotic but an established rum category in their own right, with all their attendant ills.

As with most ideas that make money, sooner or later big guns and small come calling to join the party.  Bacardi had its problems by being ousted from Cuba in 1960, yet had had the foresight to diversify their company even before that, and operated  in Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the USA. After the dust settled, they made their own 151 in the lighter Cuban style – at the time it was made in Brazil before production shifted to Puerto Rico, and its low and subsidized price made it a perennially popular rum popskull.  It was widely available and affordable, and therefore soon became the bestselling rum of its type, overtaking and outselling all other 151 brands such as the Appleton 151 white, or the Don Q 151 made by the Serralles boys in Puerto Rico and those that had existed even earlier. 

The official basis of the popularity of 151s remained the cocktails one could make with them.  Without searching too hard, I found dozens of recipes, some calling for the use of Bacardi 151 alone, with names as evocative as “the Flatliner”, “Four Horsemen”, “Backfire on the Freeway”, “Superman’s Kryptonite” and “Orange F*cker”.  Obviously there were many more, and if Bacardi seemed ubiquitous after a while, it was because it was low-cost and not entirely piss-poor (though many who tried it neat over the years might disagree).

One other demographic event which propelled 151s to some extent was the rise of the western post-war Baby Boomer generation and its successors like Gen-Xers who had known little privation or want or war in their lifetimes.  These young people raised on Brando-esque machismo and moody Dean-style rebellion, had disposable income and faced the enormous impact of American popular culture — for them, 151s served another purpose altogether, that of getting hammered fast, and seeing if one could survive it…some sort of proof-of-manhood kind of thing. Stupidity, hormones, youth, party lifestyle, the filmic romance of California beaches, ignorance, take your pick. For years – decades, even – this was the brush that tarred 151s and changed their popular perceptions.

In all that happy-go-lucky frat-boy party reputation combined with the allure of easily-made, inexpensive home-made concoctions, lay the seeds of its destruction (to Bacardi, at any rate).  People got hurt while under the highly intoxicating influence of killer mixes, got into accidents, did stupid and dangerous things. 151s were highly flammable, and property damage was not unheard of, either by careless handling or by inexpert utilization of the overproofs in flambees or floats. Unsurprisingly in a litigious culture like the USA, lawsuits were common.  Bacardi tried to counter this by printing clear warnings and advisories on its labels, to no avail, and finally they decided to pull the plug in 2016 in order to focus on more premium rum brands that did less harm to their reputation.

That singularly unspectacular happening (or non-happening) was accompanied in the subsequent months and years by retrospectives and newsbytes, and a peculiar outpouring of feelings by now-grown-up man-children who, from their home bars and man-caves, whimsically and poetically opined on its effect on their lives, and – more commonly – the tearful reminiscences of where they first got wasted on it, and the hijinks they got up to while plastered. It did not present the nobility of the human race in its best light, perhaps, but it did show the cultural impact that the 151s, especially Bacardi’s, had had.

151s in the New Century – a decline, but not a fall

The discontinuation of Bacardi’s big bad boy obscured a larger issue, which was that these rums had probably hit their high point in the 1980s or 1990s, when it seemed like there was a veritable treasure trove of now-vanished 151 brands to choose from: Carioca, Castillo, Palo Viejo, Ron Diaz, Don Lorenzo, Tortuga and Trader Vic’s (to name a few). It was entirely possible that this plethora of 151s was merely a matter of “me too” and “let’s round out the portfolio”.  After all, at this time blends were still everything, light rum cocktails that competed with vodka were still the rage, neat drinking was not a thing and the sort of exacting, distillery-led, estate-specific rum making as now exists was practically unheard of (we had to wait until the Age of Velier’s Demeraras to understand how different the world was before and after that point).

But by the close of the 1990s and the dawn of the 2000s, blends — whether high proof or not — already showed a decline in popular consciousness.  And in the 2010s as independents began to release more and better high-proofed single-barrel rums,  they were followed by DDL, Foursquare, St. Lucia Distillers, Hampden, Worthy Park and other makers from countries of origin, who started to reclaim their place as rum makers of the first instance. Smaller niche brands of these 151s simply disappeared from the rumscape.

The fact was, in the new century, 151s were and remained tricky to market and to promote.  They exceeded the flight safety regulations for carrying on some airlines (many of whom cap this at 70% ABV, though there are variations) and the flammability and strength made many retailers unwilling to sell them to the general public. There was an ageing crop of people who grew up on these ferocious drinks and would buy them, sure, but the new generation of more rum-savvy drinkers was less enamoured of the style.

Which was not surprising, given the ever-increasing panoply of selections they had. The growing indifference of the larger drinking public to 151s as a whole was aided by the explosion of rums which were also overproofs, but not quite as strong, and – more importantly – which tasted absolutely great.  These were initially IB single barrel offerings like those of the SMWS or L’Esprit or Velier, and also juice from the Seychelles (Takamaka Bay), Haiti (the clairins), Martinique (Neisson L’Esprit 70º), and the highly popular and well-received Smith & Cross, Rum Fire, Wray & Nephew 63% White, Plantation OFTD, and on and on.  These served the same purpose of providing a delicious alcoholic jolt to a mix (or an easy drunk to the rest), and were also affordable – and often received reviews in the internet-enabled blogosphere that the original makers of the 151s could only have dreamed about.

Photo montage courtesy of and (c) Eric Witz from FB, Instagram @aphonik

Many such producers of 151s have proved unable or unwilling to meet this challenge, and so, gradually, they started to fade from producers’ concerns, supermarket shelves, consumers’ minds…and became less common. Even before the turn of the century, mention of the original 151s like Hudson’s Bay, Lownde’s and Trowers had vanished; Bacardi, as stated, discontinued theirs in 2016, Appleton possibly as late as 2018 (their Three Dagger 10YO 151 pictured above was gone by the 1960s), and many others whose names are long forgotten, fell by the roadside way before then. Nowadays, you hardly see them advertised much, any more.  Producers who make them – and that isn’t many – are almost shamefacedly relegating them to obscure parts of their websites, same as retailers tucking them away in the back-end bottom shelf. Few trumpet them front and centre any longer. And on the consumer side, with drinkers and bartenders being spoiled for choice, you just don’t see anyone jumping up on social media crowing how they scored one…except perhaps to say they drank one .

But the story doesn’t end here, because some producers have indeed moved with the times and gone the taste-specific route, gambling on bartenders and cocktail books’ recommending their 151s from an ever-shrinking selection. 

Lemon Hart was, of course, the poster child for this kind of taste-specific Hulkamaniac of taste – they consistently used Demerara rum, probably Port Mourant distillate, for their 151, and even had a Jamaican 73% rum that boasted some serious flavour chops.  Internal problems caused them to falter and cease selling their 151 around 2014, and Ed Hamilton (founder of both the website and the Facebook page “the Ministry of Rum”) jumped into the breach with his own Hamilton 151, the first new one of its kind in years, which he released in 2015 to great popular acclaim.  The reception was unsurprising, because this thing tasted great, was an all-Guyana product and was aimed at a more discriminating audience that was already more in tune to rums bottled between 50%-75%.  And that was quite aside from the bartenders, who still needed 151s for their mixes (as an aside, a rebranded Lemon Hart 151 was released in 2012 or thereabouts with a wine red label and was again subsequently discontinued a few years later).  Even Velier acknowledged the uses of a 151 when they released a Worthy Park 151 on their own as part of the Habitation Velier line of pot still rums (and it’s great, btw). And in an interesting if ultimately stalled move that hints a the peculiar longevity of 151s, Lost Spirits used their Reactor to produce their own take on a Cuban Inspired 151– so irrespective of other developments, the confluence of strength, flexibility of use and enormity of taste has allowed some 151s to get a real lease on life.

Others are less interesting, or less specific and may just exist, as many had before, to round out the portfolio – Don Q from Puerto Rico makes a 151 to this day, and Tilambic from Mauritius does as well; El Dorado is re-introducing a new one soon (the Diamond 151, I believe), and Cruzan (Virgin Islands), Cavalier (Antigua), Bermudez (Dominican Republic), and Ron Carlos (USA) have their 151s of varying quality.  Even Mhoba from South Africa joined the party in late 2020 with its own high ester version. The point is, even at such indifferent levels of quality, they’re not going anywhere, and if their heyday has passed us by, we should not think they have disappeared completely and can only be found, now, in out of the way shops, auctions or estate sales.

Because, somehow, they continue. They are still made. Young people with slim wallets continue to get wasted on this stuff, as they likely will until the Rapture. People post less and review 151s almost not at all, but they do post sometimes — almost always with wistful inquiries about where to get one, now that their last stock has run out and their favourite brand is no longer available.  151s might have run out of steam in the larger world of tiki, bartending and cocktails as new favourites emerge, but I don’t think they’ll ever be entirely extinct, and maybe that’s all that we can hope for, in a rum world as fast moving and fast changing as the one we have now.


Notes

  1. See my essay on proof
  2. Two other possibilities who could have developed a strong rum for HBC were Scheer and ED&F Man.  
    1. Scheer was unlikely because they dealt in bulk, not their own brands, and mercantile shipping laws of the time would have made it difficult for them to ship rum to Britain or its colonies. 
    2. ED&F Mann also did not consider itself a maker of branded rum, though it did hold the contract to supply the British Navy (Lemon Hart was their client, not a competitor). But by the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s, they already had diversified and became more of a major commodities supplier, so the likelihood of them bothering with developing a rum for HBC is minimal (assuming that line of thinking is correct
  3. I have a reference from the Parramatta Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate dated May 11, 1901 (Parramatta, NSW, Australia) that refers to a 33% Overproof Lowndes’ Rum, which, if using metric proofs, works out to 76% ABV exactly and also sheds light on how far back the Lownde’s brand name goes.
  • I am indebted to the personal assistance of Martin Cate, Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry, Matt Pietrek, and the writings of Wayne Curtis, for some of the historical and conjectural detail of the early days of the 151s. Needless to say, any mistakes in this text or errors in the theories are mine, not theirs.

1970s Cruzan 151, used with kind permission of Jason Cammarata Sr.

The List

There is almost no rum company in existence which really cares much about its own release history and when its various rums were first issued, changed, reblended, remade, re-labelled, re-issued, nothing. Nor, since the demise of ReferenceRhum website, is there a centralized database of rums, to our detriment. So one has to sniff around to find things, but at least google makes it easier.

There is a huge swathe of time between the 1930s and the 1990s, when rum was a seen as a commodity (referred to as merely  “Jamaican” rum or “Barbados rum,” for example, in a generalized and dismissive context), and practically ignored as a quality product.  Unsurprisingly records of the brands and rums were not often kept, so the list below is not as good as I’d like it to be. That said, here are those 151s I have managed to track down, and a few notes where applicable. I make no claim that it’s exhaustive, just the best I could do for now. I’d be grateful for any additions (with sources).

  • Admiral’s Old J 151 Overproof Spiced Rum Tiki Fire
  • Aristocrat 151
  • AH Riise Old St Croix 151 (1960s; and from reddit page. A “St Croix Rum” was referred to in 1888 Bartender’s Guide without elaboration
  • Appleton 151 (Jamaica)
  • Bacardi 151 Black (various production centres)
  • Bacardi 151 (standard, discontinued 2016)
  • Barbarossa 151 (USA)
  • Bermudez 151 (Blanco and “standard”)(Dominican Republic)
  • Barcelo 151 Proof (Dominican Republic)
  • Bocoy 151 Superior Puerto Rican Rum
  • Bounty 151 (St. Lucia)
  • Black Beard’s Overproof 151
  • Bocador 151
  • Brugal 151 Blanco Overproof (Dominican Republic)
  • Cane Rum 151 (Trinidad & Tobago)
  • Carioca 151 (post Prohibition)
  • Caribaya 151
  • Castillo Ron Superior 151 Proof
  • Cavalier 151 (Antigua)
  • Cockspur 5-Star 151 Rum (Barbados, WIRD, Herschell Innis, made 1971-1974)
  • Cohiba 151 (USA)
  • Comandante 151 Proof Small Batch Overproof Rum (with orange peel)(Panama)
  • Conch Republic Rum Co. 151 Proof (USA, Florida Distillers Co.)
  • Coruba 151 (Jamaica)(74%)
  • Cruzan 151 (2YO)(White and gold varieties) (US Virgin Islands)
  • Cut to the Overproof (Spiced) Rum 75.5%
  • Diamond Reserve Puncheon Demerara Rum 75.5% (Guyana)
  • Don Q 151 (3YO blend)(at least since the 1960s)(Puerto Rico – Serralles)
  • Don Lorenzo 151 (Todhunter-Mitchell Distilleries, Bahamas, 1960s-1970s)
  • El Dorado 151 (Guyana)(Re-issue 2020s)
  • El Dorado Superior High Strength Rum (DDL USA Inc, 1980s)
  • Explorer Fire Water Fine Island Rum 150 proof (St. Maarten, made by Caroni)
  • Goslings Black Seal 151 (Bermuda)
  • Hamilton 151 (Guyana/USA)(2014)
  • Hamilton 151 “False Idol” (Guyana/USA)(2019)(85% Guyana 15% Jamaica pot still)
  • Hana Bay Special 151 Proof Rum (Hawaii USA, post 1980s)
  • Havana Club 151 (post Prohibition)
  • Habitation Velier Forsythe 151 (Jamaica, WP)(2015 and 2017)
  • Inner Circle Black Dot 33 Overproof Rum (Australia 1968-1986, pre-Beenleigh)
  • James’s Harbor Caribbean Rum 151
  • Lamb’s Navy Rum 151 (UK, blend of several islands)
  • Largo Bay 151
  • Lemon Hart 151 (possibly since late 1880s, early 1890s) (Guyana/UK)
  • Lost Spirits Cuban Inspired 151 (USA)(2010s)(Limited)
  • Mhoba Strand 151º (South Africa)(High Ester, Glass-Cask blend)
  • Monarch Rum 151 Proof (Monarch Import Co, OR, USA – Hood River Distillers)
  • Mount Gay 151 (Barbados)
  • Old Nassau 151 Rum (Bahamas)
  • Old St. Croix 151 Rum (A.H. Riise)(long discontinued)..
  • Palo Viejo 151 Ron de Puerto Rico (Barcelo Marques & Co, Puerto Rico – Serralles)
  • Paramount “El Caribe” 151 Rum (US Virgins Islands )
  • Paramount “West Indies Flaming Rum” 151 (US Virgin Islands)
  • Portobelo 151º Superior Rum (Panama)
  • Puerto Martain Imported West Indies Rum (75.5%)(Montebello Brands, MD USA)
  • Pusser’s 151 (British Virgin Islands)
  • Ron Antigua Special 151 Proof (US Virgin Islands, LeVecke Corporation)
  • Ron Diaz 151 (Puerto Rico / USA)
  • Ron Carlos 151 (Puerto Rico / USA)(Aged min of 1 yr)
  • Ron Corina 151 (USA, KY)
  • Ron Cortez Dry Rum 151 (Panama)
  • Ron Matusalem 151 Proof “Red Flame” (Bahamas, 1960s-1970s)
  • Ron Rey 151 (post Prohibition)
  • Ron Palmera 151 (Aruba)
  • Ron Rico 151 (Puerto Rico)(post-1968 a Seagrams brand, marketed in 1970s in Canada; bought by Serralles in 1985)
  • Ron Ricardo 151 (Bahamas) from before 2008
  • Ron Roberto 151 Superior Premium Rum (Puerto Rico / USA)
  • Three Dagger 10YO Jamaica Rum (J. Wray & Nephew), 151 proof (1950s)
  • Tilambic 151 (Mauritius)
  • Tortuga 151 Proof Cayman Rum (1980s-1990s)
  • Trader Vic’s 151 Proof Rum (World Spirits, USA)

Sources

Some rum list resources

Bacardi’s discontinuing the 151

Don the Beachcomber, recipes, the rise of Tiki and post-Prohibition times

Cocktails

Other bit and pieces

 

Dec 042019
 

Ten years ago, overproof rums (which I mentally designate as anything 70% ABV and above even though I’m well aware there are other definitions) were limited to the famed 151s – juice at 75.5%, often lightly aged, and designed as mixing agents of no particular distinction or sophistication. “Something tossed off in between more serious efforts,” I wrote once, not without a certain newbie disdain.  They were fun to write about, but hardly “serious.”

But then over the years a strange thing happened – some producers, independents in particular, began releasing rums at serious cask strength and many were powerful and tasty enough to make the shortcomings of the 151s evident, and interest started to go in a different direction – stronger, not tied to a number, and either unaged or straight from the cask after some years.  I don’t know if there was a sort of unspoken race to the top for some of these kinds of rums – but I can say that power and seriously good taste were and are not always mutually exclusive, and man, they just keep on getting better. They became, in short, very serious rums indeed.

Clearly the interest in knowing about, owning or just trying such record-setting rums is there. That said, clickbait listmakers don’t respond to the challenge with much in the way of knowledge. If you search “strongest rums in the world” then at the top comes this epically useless 2017 list from SpoonUniversity.com which was out of date even before it went to press. Then, there was a recent re-post of the not-really-very-good 2018 Unsobered “Definitive” list of the strongest rums in the world, which certainly wasn’t definitive in any sense but which got some attention, and an amazing amount of traction and commentary was showered on Steve Leukanech’s FB Ministry of Rum comment thread of the Sunset Very Strong the same week, and there’s always a bunch of good humoured and ribald commentary whenever someone puts up a picture of the latest monster of proof they found in some backwater bar, and tried.

And so, seeing that, I thought I would recap my experience with a (hopefully better) list of those explosive rums that really are among the strongest you can find.  I won’t call mine “definitive” – I’m sure there’s stuff lurking around waiting to pounce on my glottis and mug my palate someplace – but it’s a good place to start, and better yet, I keep updating the list and have tried most, so there’s a brief blurb for each of those. I began at 70% and worked my way up in increasing proof points, not quality or preference (this created issues later as more and more rums blasted past that arbitrary marker, but to take a higher starting point would have meant excluding the 151s which was not something that sat well with me: and so, the list keeps getting longer.  My bad).

Hope you like, hope you can find one or two, and whatever the case, have fun…but be careful when you do.  Some of these rums are liquid gelignite with a short fuse, and should be handled with hat respectfully doffed and head reverently bowed.


Neisson L’Esprit Blanc, Martinique – 70%

Just because I only have one or two agricoles in this list doesn’t mean there aren’t others, just that I haven’t found, bought or tried them yet.  There are some at varying levels of proof in the sixties, but so far one of the best and most powerful of this kind is this fruity, grassy and delicious 70% white rhino from one of the best of the Martinique estates, Neisson. Clear, crisp, a salty sweet clairin on steroids mixed with the softness of a good agricole style rum.

Jack Iron Grenada Overproof, Grenada – 70%

Westerhall, which is not a distillery, assembles this 140-proof beefcake in Grenada from Angostura stock from Trinidad, and it’s possibly named (with salty islander humour) after various manly parts. It’s not really that impressive a rum – an industrial column-still filtered white rarely is – with few exceptional tastes, made mostly for locals or to paralyze visiting tourists. I think if they ever bothered to age it or stop with the filtration, they might actually have something interesting here.  Thus far, over and beyond local bragging rights, not really. Note that there was an earlier version at 75% ABV as well, made on Carriacou and now discontinued, but when it stopped being made is unclear.

L’Esprit Diamond 2005 11 YO, Guyana/France – 71.4%

L’Esprit out of Brittany may be one of the most unappreciated under-the-radar indies around and demonstrates that with this 11 year old rum from the Diamond column still, which I assumed to be the French Savalle, just because the flavours in this thing are so massive.  Initially you might think that (a) there can’t be much flavour in something so strong and (b) it’s a wooden still — you’d be wrong on both counts. I gave this thing 89 points and it remains the best of the 70%-or-greater rums I’ve yet tried.

Takamaka Bay White Overproof, Seychelles – 72%

This Indian Ocean rum is no longer being made – it was discontinued in the early 2000s and replaced with a 69% blanc; still, I think it’s worth a try if you can find it. It’s a column still distillate with a pinch of pot still high-ester juice thrown in for kicks, and is quite a tasty dram, perhaps because it’s unaged and unfiltered.  I think the 69% version is made the same way with perhaps some tweaking of the column and pot elements and proportions. Yummy.

Plantation Original Dark Overproof 73 %.

Also discontinued and now replaced with the OFTD, the Original Dark was the steroid-enhanced version of the eminently forgettable 40% rum with the same name (minus “overproof”). Sourced from Trinidad (Angostura), a blend of young rums with some 8 YO to add some depth, and briefly aged in heavily charred ex-bourbon casks with a final turn in Cognac casks. Based on observed colour and tasting notes written by others, I think caramel was added to darken it, but thus far I’ve never tried it myself, since at the time when it was available I didn’t have it, or funds, available.  I’ll pick one up one of these days, since I heard it’s quite good.

Lemon Hart Golden Jamaican Rum (1970s) – 73%

Since this rum – whose antecedents stretch back to the 1950s – is no longer in production either, it’s debatable whether to include it here, but it and others like it have been turning up at the new online auction sites with some regularity, and so I’ll include it because I’ve tried it and so have several of my friends. Blended, as was standard practice back then, and I don’t know whether aged or not…probably for a year or two. The taste, though – wow. Nuts, whole sacks of fruits, plus sawdust and the scent of mouldy long-abandoned libraries and decomposing chesterfields.

Longueteau Genesis, Guadeloupe – 73.51%

Not a rhum I’ve had the privilege of trying, but Henrik of the slumbering site RumCorner has, and he was batted and smacked flat by the enormous proof of the thing: “…overpowers you and pins you to the ground…and that’s from a foot away,” he wrote, before waxing eloquent on its heat and puissance, licorice, salt, grass and agricole-like character.  In fact, he compared to a dialled-down Sajous, even though it was actually weaker than the Genesis, which says much for the control that Longueteau displayed in making this unaged blanc brawler. As soon as I was reminded about it, I instantly went to his dealer and traded for a sample, which, with my logistics and luck, should get in six months.

SMWS R3.5 “Marmite XO”, Barbados/Scotland – 74.8%

Richard Seale once fiercely denied that Foursquare had anything to do with either this or the R3.4, and he was correct – the rum came from WIRD. But there’s no dishonour attached to that location, because this was one strongly-made, strongly-tasting, well-assembled piece of work at a high proof, which any maker would have been proud to release. I liked it so much that I spent an inordinate amount of time lovingly polishing my language to give it proper respect, and both review and rum remain among my favourites to this day.

Forres Park Puncheon White Overproof, Trinidad – 75%

Meh. Cocktail fodder. Not really that impressive once you accept its growly strength.  It used to be made by Fernandes Distillery before it sold out to Angostura and maybe it was better back then.  The slick, cool, almost vodka-style presentation of the bottle hides the fact that the column still rum which was triple filtered (what, once wasn’t enough?) only tasted glancingly of sweet and salt and light fruits, but lacked any kind of individual character that distinguishes several other rums on this list (above and below it). 

SMWS R3.4 “Makes You Strong Like a Lion” Barbados/Scotland – 75.3%

The L’Esprit 2005 got 89 points, but this one came roaring right behind it with extra five points of proof and lagged by one point of score (88). What an amazing rum this was, with a rich and sensuously creamy palate, bags of competing flavours and a terrific finish; and while hot and sharp and damned spicy, also eminently drinkable.  Not sure who would mix this given the price or sip it given the proof. It’s a ball-busting sheep-shagger of a rum, and if it can still be found, completely worth a try or a buy, whatever is easier.

All the various “151” rums (no need to list just one) – 75.5%

It may be unfair of me to lump all the various 151s together into one basket.  They are as different as chalk and cheese among themselves – just see how wildly, widely variant the following are: Habitation Velier’s Forsythe 151 (Jamaica), Brugal (blanc), Tilambic (Mauritius), Lost Spirits “Cuban Inspired” (USA), Bacardi (Cuba), Lemon Hart (Canada by way of Guyana), Cavalier (Antigua), Appleton (Jamaica), and so on and so on.  What unites them is their intent – they were all made to be barroom mixers, quality a secondary concern, strength and bragging rights being the key (the Forsythe 151 may be an exception, being more an educational tool, IMHO).  Well, maybe. If I had a choice, I’d still say the Lemon Hart is a long standing favourite. But they all have something about them that makes them fun drinks to chuck into a killer cocktail or chug straight down the glottis.  (Note: the link in the title of this entry takes you to a history of the 151s with a list of all the ones I’ve identified at the bottom).

Inner Circle Cask Strength 5 YO Rum (Australia) – 75.9%

This is a rum with a long history, dating back to the 1950s when the “Inner Circle” brand was first released in Australia. It was bottled in three strengths, which in turn were identified by coloured dots – Underproof (38-40%, the red dot), Overproof (57% or so, green dot) and 33 Overproof (73-75%, black dot).This last has now been resurrected and is for sale in Oz — I’ve not so far managed to acquire one.  I’ve heard it’s a beast, though — so the search continues, since I’m as vain as anyone else who boasts about sampling these uber-mensches of rum, and don’t want the Aussies to have all the fun.

Velier Caroni 1982 23 YO Full Proof Rum – 77.3%

One of the classic canon of the Caronis released by Velier and now an object of cult worship, a unicorn rum for many. “A shattering experience” I wrote with trembling hands in 2017 and I meant it. Steroidal fortitude and a cheerful lack of caution for one’s health is needed to drink this rum; and it’s not the best Caroni out there…for sure it is one of the better ones, though.  I don’t always agree with these multiple micro-bottlings from the same year that characterize the vast Velier Caroni output over the years, yet I also think that to dilute this thing down to a more manageable proof point  would have been our loss.  Now at least we can say we’ve had it. And take a week-long nap.

L’Esprit Beenleigh 2013 5YO Australian Rum – 78.1% and 2014 6 YO 78.%

Australia adds another to the list with this European bottling of rum from the land of Oz, and another released a year later.  The first is a sharp knife to the glottis, a Conrad-like moment of stormy weather.  The second, with an additional year of ageing, is much tamer, much better, though still seriously strong. What surprises, after one recovers, is how traditional both seem (aside from the power) – you walk in expecting a Bundie, say, but emerge with a jacked-up Caribbean-type rum.  That doesn’t make either one bad in any sense, just two very interesting overproofs from a country whose rums we don’t know enough about.

Stroh 80, Austria – 80%

Apparently Stroh does indeed now use Caribbean distillate for their various proofed expressions, and it’s marginally more drinkable these days as a consequence.  The initial review I did was the old version, and hearkens back to rum verschnitt that was so popular in Germany in the 19th and early 20th century.  Not my cup of tea, really. A spiced rum, and we have enough real ones out there for me not to worry too much about it. It’s strong and ethanol-y as hell, and should only be used as a flavouring agent for pastries, or an Austrian jägertee

Denros Strong Rum, St Lucia – 80%

A filtered white column still rum from St. Lucia Distillers, it’s not made for export and remains most common on the island. It is supposedly the base ingredient for most of the various “spice” rums made in rumshops around the island, but of course, locals would drink it neat or with coconut water just as fast.  So far I’ve not managed to track a bottle down for myself — perhaps it’s time to see if it’s as good as rumour suggests it is.

SMWS R5.1 Long Pond 9 Year Old “Mint Humbugs”, Jamaica/Scotland – 81.3%

This is a rum that knocked me straight into next week, and I’ve used it to smack any amount of rum newbs in Canada down the stairs.  Too bad I can’t ship it to Europe to bludgeon some of my Danish friends, because for sure, few have ever had anything like it and it was the strongest and most badass Jamaican I’ve ever found before the Wild Tiger roared onto the scene and dethroned it. And I still think it’s one of Jamaica’s best overproofs.

L’Esprit South Pacific Distillery 2018 Unaged White – 83%

Strong, amazing flavour profile, pot still, unaged, and a mass of flavour.  I’m no bartender or cocktail guru, but even so I would not mix this into any of the usual simple concoctions I make for myself….it’s too original for that. It’s one of a pair of white and unaged rums L’esprit made, both almost off the charts.  Who would ever have thought there was a market for a clear unaged white lightning like this?

Sunset Very Strong, St. Vincent – 84.5%

The rum that was, for the longest while, the Big Bad Wolf, spoken of in hushed whispers in the darkened corners of seedy bars with equal parts fear and awe. It took me ages to get one, and when I did I wasn’t disappointed – there’s a sweet, light-flavoured berry-like aspect to it that somehow doesn’t get stomped flat by that titanic proof. I don’t know many who have sampled it who didn’t immediately run over to post the experience on social media, and who can blame them? It’s a snarling, barking-mad street brawler, a monster with more culture than might have been expected, and a riot to try neat.

L’Esprit Diamond 2018 Unaged White – 85% 

Just about the most bruisingly shattering overproof ever released by an independent bottler, and it’s a miracle that it doesn’t fall over its strength and onto its face (like, oh the Forres Park, above). It does the Habitation Velier PM one better in strength though not being quite as good in flavour.  Do I care? Not a bit, they’re brothers in arms, these two, being Port Mourant unaged distillates and leaves off the same branch of the same tree. It shows how good the PM wooden still profile can be when carefully selected, at any strength, at any age.

Romdeluxe “Wild Tiger” 2018, Jamaica/Denmark – 85.2%

Wild Tiger is one of many “wildlife” series of rums released thus far (2019) by Romdeluxe out of Denmark, their first. It gained instant notoriety in early 2019 not just by it handsome design or its near-unaged nature (it had been rested in inert tanks for ten years, which is rather unusual, then chucked into ex-Madeira casks for three months) but its high price, the massive DOK-level ester count, and that screaming proof of 85.2%. It was and is not for the faint of heart or the lean of purse, that much is certain. I cross myself and the street whenever I see one.  Since then Rom Deluxe has released several strong rums in the 80% or greater range.

Marienburg 90, Suriname – 90%

Somewhere out there there’s a rum more powerful than this, but you have to ask what sane purpose it could possibly serve when you might as well just get some ethanol and add a drop of water and get the Marienburg (which also makes an 81% version for export – the 90% is for local consumption).  There is something in the Surinamese paint stripper, a smidgen of clear, bright smell and taste, but this is the bleeding edge of strength, a rum one demerit away from being charged with assault with intent to drunk — and at this stage and beyond it, it’s all sound and fury signifying little. I kinda-sorta appreciate that it’s not a complete and utter mess of heat and fire, and respect Marienburg for grabbing the brass ring.  But over and beyond that, there’s not much point to it, really, unless you understand that this is the rum Chuck Norris uses to dilute his whisky.

Rivers Antoine 180 Proof White Grenadian Rum – 90%

I’ve heard different stories about Rivers’ rums, of which thus far I’ve only tried and written about the relatively “tame” 69% – and that’s that the proof varies wildly from batch to batch and is never entirely the strength you think you’re getting.  It’s artisanal to a fault, pot stilled, and I know the 69% is a flavour bomb so epic that even with its limited distribution I named it a Key Rum. I can only imagine what a 90% ABV version would be like, assuming it exists and is not just an urban legend (it is included here for completeness).  If it’s formally released to the market, then I’ve never seen a legitimizing post, or heard anyone speak of it as a fact, ever.  Maybe anyone who knows for sure remained at Rivers after a sip and has yet to wake up.

Rom Deluxe “Destillation Strength” Dominican Republic 474 Esters Unaged Rum – 93% ABV

In March 2022, the Marienburg lost the crown after reigning just about undisputed since, oh, whenever it was issued. I have no idea what possessed Rom Deluxe out of Denmark to release this MechaRumzilla, but my God, I have to get me a bottle. Because the issue behind all the metaphors and flowery language a review would inevitably entail, is this: can a rum maintain a taste profile worth drinking in any way, even when stuffed with esters, at that strength? Can’t wait to shred my tonsils and find out.


Additions and Honourable Mentions, Included After the Original List Was Published

Unsurprisingly, people were tripping over themselves to send me candidates that should make the list, and there were some that barely missed the cut – in both cases, I obviously hadn’t known of or tried them, hence their inadvertent omission.  Here are the ones that were added after the initial post came out, and you’ll have to make your own assessment of their quality, or let me know of your experience.

Old Brothers Hampden 86.3% LROK White Rum

360 bottles of this incredibly ferocious high ester rum were released by a small indie called Old Brothers around 2019 , and the juice was stuffed into small flasks of surpassing simplicity and aesthetic beauty. Even though I haven’t tasted it (a post about it on FB alerted me to its existence). I can’t help but desire a bottle, just because of its ice-cold blonde-femme-fatale looks, straight out of some Hitchcock movie where the dame offs the innocent rum reviewer right after love everlasting is fervently declared.

Maggie’s Farm Airline Proof – 70%

Maggie’s Farm is an American Distillery I’ve heard a fair bit about but whose products I’ve not so far managed to try.  Their cheekily named Airline Proof clocks in at the bottom end of my arbitrary scale, is a white rum, and I expect it was so titled so as to let people understand that yes, you could in fact take it on an airplane in the US and not get arrested for transporting dangerous materials and making the world unsafe for democracy.

DOK – Trelawny Jamaica Rum – Aficionados x Fine Drams – 69% / 85.76%

Here’s a fan-released DOK for sale on Fine Drams, and while originally it oozed off the still at 85.76% and close to the bleeding max of esterland (~1489 g/hLPA), whoever bottled it decided to take the cautious approach and dialled it down to the for-sale level of 69%.  Even at that strength, I was told it sold out in fifteen minutes, which means that whatever some people dismissively say about the purpose of a DOK rum, there’s a market for ’em. Note that RomDelux did in fact release 149 bottles at full 85.76% still strength, as noted by a guy in reddit here, and another one here.

(Click photo to expand)

Royal Hawaiian Spirits 95% Rum

In May 2020 the RHS Distillery on Maui (Hawaii), which rather amusingly calls itself the “Willie Wonka of alcohol” applied for TTB label approval for a 95% rum which immediately drew online sniffs of disapproval for being nothing more than a vodka at best, grain neutral spirit at worst – because at that strength just about all the flavour-providing congeners have been stripped out.  Nevertheless, though the company seems to operate an industrial facility making a wide range of distilled spirits for all comers (very much like Florida Distillers who make Ron Carlos, you will recall), if their claim that this product is made from cane is true then it is still a rum (barely) and must be mentioned.  I must say, however, I would approach tasting it with a certain caution…and maybe even dread. For sure this product will hold the crown for the strongest rum ever made, for the foreseeable future, whatever its quality, or lack thereof.

Plantation Extreme No. 4 Jamaica (Clarendon) 35 YO 74.8%

Plantation should not be written off from consumers tastes simply because it gets so much hate for its stance on Barbados and Jamaican GIs.  It must be judged on the rums it makes as well, and the Extreme series of rums, which take provision of information to a whole new level and are bottled at muscular cask strengths, every time (plus, I think they dispensed with the dosage).  This one, a seriously bulked up Jamaican, is one of the beefier ones and I look forward to trying it not just for the strength, but that amazing (continental) age.

Dillon Brut de Colonne Rhum Blanc Agricole 71.3%

An unaged white rhum from Martinique’s Dillon distillery, about which we don’t know enough and from which we don’t try enough.  This still-strength beefcake is likely the strongest they have ever made or will ever make…until the next one, and Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack twigged me on to it (that’s his picture, so thanks Pete!) remarking “Once you try high proof, is it ever possible to go back?” A good question.  I probably need to find this thing just to see, and for sure, if it comes up to scratch, it’ll make my third list of great white rums when the time comes.

Velier Caroni 1982 Heavy 23 YO (1982 – 2005) 77.3% | Caroni 1985 Heavy 20 YO (1985 – 2005) 75.5% | Caroni 1996 Heavy 20 YO (1996-2016)(Cask R3721) Legend” 70.8%  | Caroni 1996 Heavy 20 YO (1996-2016)(Cask R3718) Legend” 70.8%  | Caroni 1996 “Trilogy” Heavy (1996 – 2016) 70.28%

Five of Velier’s legendary Caronis make this list, all clocking in at 70% ABV or greater.  They are, unsurprisingly, hard to get at reasonable prices nowadays, and to some extent there’s a real similarity among them all, since they are varied branches off the same tree.  Once hardly known, their reputation and their cost has exploded over the last five years and any one of them would be a worthy purchase – and with its mix of fusel oil, dark fruits, tar, wood chips and no shortage of amazing flavours, I’d say the 77.3% gets my vote for now. Serge thought so too, back in the day….but beware of the price tag, which recently topped £2600 just a few months ago at auction.

rockch12 (2)Cadenhead Single Cask Black Rock WIRR 1986-1998 12 YO 73.4%

Another rum I have not gotten to try, one of the varied editions of the famed 1986 Rockley pot still from WIRD. At a stunning 73.4% this is a surprisingly hefty rum to have come out of the 1990s, when rum was just making its first baby steps to becoming more than a light Cuban blend wannabe. Few have managed to try it, fewer still to write about it.  Marius of Single Cask (from whom I pilfered the picture) is one of them, and he, even though not entirely won over by it, still gave the rum a solid 87 points.

Saint James Brut de Colonne Rhum Agricole Blanc BIO 74.2%

After having tried Saint James’s titanically flavoured pot still juice, it’s a no-brainer that this 100% organic unaged white rum powered by 74.2% of mad horsepower is something which I and any lover of white column still juice has to get a hold of.  Stuff like this makes the soft light white mixers of the 60s scurry home to hide in their mama’s skirts, and will cheerfuly blow up any unprepared glottis that doesn’t pay it the requisite respect.  I can’t wait to try it myself.

Pere Labat 70.7 Rhum Blanc Agricole (Brut de Colonne) 70.7%

Indies and the agricole makers are sure raising the bar for overproofs.  Here’s a lovely still-strength white agricole that just squeaks by the arbitrary bar I set to cut off the wannabes.  I don’t know how good it is but Facebook chatter suggests it’s intense, smoky, salty and comes with optional extra-length claws to add to the fangs it already has.  I want one of these for myself.

 

Rom Deluxe Jamaicans (Hampden) – R.17 “Rhino” 5th Anniversary Edition 2019-2021 <2 YO 86.2% | R.20 “Springbok” (C<>H)  2020-2022 86% | R.23 “Pronghorn” (C<>H) 2020-2021 < 2YO 86% | R.32 “Wolf” (HGML) 2020-2022 <2YO 86%

I have to get myself some of these.  These are all weapons grade rums, the sort of thing tinpot banana-republic dictators only wish they had in their arsenals to dissuade unwashed insurrectionsists who insist on weird things like, you know, their rights. By now Rom Deluxe has morphed into a full blown Indie, and I wonder if they deliberately seek out rums like this to blow our minds. It’s a full blown Hampden pot still rum from Jamaica, and yes, it’s a high-ester DOK funk bomb as well.  Go wild.

Barikken (France) Montebello Distillery 81.6º Brut de Colonne (Unaged)

Unaged, white, clean, agricole. Gradually the agricole makers are coming up to the level of the Latin/Cuban and English style monsters of proof, though one could reasonably ask why they bother.  The taste profile of this one is almost, but not quite taken over by the power of its strength, and is a fitting answer why at least they wanted to try…and should try for even more in the years to come. It’s really quite something.

Montebello Edition Oge Cheapfret Brut de Colonne 77% ABV (Unaged)

Not to be outdone, Montebello released an unaged column still white of their own, though not quite as powerful; I think this came out in 2021 or 2022.  So far I have yet to taste it and can’t provide much commentary.

 

 

Engenho do Norte Branca 78% ABV

Engenho do Norte is a distillery located on the north coast of Madeira and they have several lines of rums: Rum North, Zarco, 980, 970, Lido, and the cane-juice agricoles of the “Branca” or “White” series.  These come in several varieties, from a sedate 40%, up to the previous Big Gun, the 60% “Fire”.  In April 2022 a new version without a name was promoted, setting a new proof point record for the company of 78% ABV – but so far I have not seen any reviews or comments, and it has still not made it to the company website, probably because they’re afraid it might spontaneously combust.

Distillerie de Taha’a, Pari Pari, French Polynesia – “T” Double Distillation 74º

I’m fairly sure nobody outside the region has heard much about this small distillery in French Polynesia.  Yet they seem  to have made a quiet reputation for themselves over the last four or five years.  Their products are cane juice rhums for the most part (Rum-X lists a dozen or so), at various strengths and with occasional ageing, and finishes. This double distilled agricole-style rhum is definitely one I want to try: for its strength, its terroire, its origin and yes, damn it, for sheer curiosity. (NB: I can’t remember where I picked the photo from — it languished in my to-do basket for a while — so I apologize to the owner for the lack of attribution – will correct if notified).

L’Esprit Still Strength “A Jamaican Distillery” 2019 Unaged White Rum – 85.6%

I’m not sure if L’Esprit has gone off on a tangent with these massive overproofs.  I thought the Fiji and Diamond were pretty much the standard badasses the company put out; not so – in 2020 Tristan clearly wanted to outdo his previous efforts and issued 279 copies of this Jamaican monster. I have a sample dissolving a bottle somewhere in a lead lined box suspended in superconducting coils channelling a magnetic field to keep it from doing some weird scientific sh*t…like maybe creating a singularity.  But I can’t wait to try this one.


If I had to chose the best of the lot I’d have to say the Neisson, the SMWSs and the L’Esprits vie for the top spots, with the Wild Tiger coming in sharp right behind them, and I’d give a fond hat-tip to both the old and new Lemon Harts.  This is completely subjective of course, and frankly it might be better to start with which is worst and move up from there, rather than try and go via levels of force, as I have done.

Clearly though, just because some massively-ripped and generously-torqued overproof rum is aged for years, doesn’t means it is as good or better than some unaged white.  Depending on your tastes, both can be amazing…for sure they’re all a riotous frisson of hot-snot excitement to try. On the flip side, the Marienburg suggests there is an upper limit to this game, and I think when we hit around 90% or thereabouts, even though there’s stronger, we ram into a wall — beyond which lies sh*t-and-go-blind madness and the simple lunacy of wanting to just say “I made the strongest” or “I drank it.” without rhyme or reason. I know there’s a 96% beefcake out there, but so far I’ve not found it to sample myself, and while it is a cardinal error to opine in advance of personal experience in these matters, I can’t say that I believe it’ll be some earth shaking world beater. By the time you hit that strength you’re drinking neutral alcohol and unless there’s an ageing regiment in place to add some flavour chops, why exactly are you bothering to drink it?

But never mind. Overproofs might originally have been made to be titanic mixers and were even, as I once surmised, throwaway efforts released in between more serious rums.  But rums made by the SMWS, Romdeluxe, L’Esprit and others have shown that cask strength juice with minimal ageing, if carefully selected and judiciously issued, can boast some serious taste chops too, and they don’t need to be aiming for the “Most Powerful Rum in the World” to be just damned fine rums. If you want the street cred of actually being able to say you’ve had something stronger than any of your rum chums, this list is for you.  Me, I’d also think of it as another milestone in my education of the diversity of rum.  

And okay, yeah, maybe after drinking one of these, I would quietly admire and thump my biscuit chest in the mirror once or twice when Mrs. Caner isn’t looking (and snickering) and chirp my boast to the wall, that “I did this.” I could never entirely deny that.


Other notes

  • In my researches I found a lot of references to the Charley’s JB Overproof Rum at 80% ABV; however, every photo available online is a low-res copy of the 63% version which I wrote about already, so I could not include it as an entry without better, umm, proof.
  • Thanks to Matt, Gregers and Henrik who added suggestions.
Jun 282018
 

In Part I of this short series I described the trends within and position of the rumworld as it existed before Velier began issuing its Demerara rums, and in Part II provided a listing and some brief commentary of the rums themselves, as they were released.  In this conclusion, I’ll express my thinking regarding their influence, and also give an epilogue of some of the characters mentioned in Part I.


So, what made the Age? In a time when independent bottlings were already in their ascendancy, why did this one series of rums capture the common imagination to the point where many of the issues have become unicorns and personal grail quests and retail for prices that, on the face of it, are almost absurd?  And what was their impact on the wider rumiverse, then and now?

Part of their fame is certainly the proselytizing dynamism and enthusiasm of Luca Gargano himself. He is born storyteller, very focused and very knowledgeable;  when you meet him, you can tell he is enraptured with the subject of rum. He travels constantly to private tastings and rumfests, and is well regarded and well known around the world. The rise of Velier is in no small part attributable to the business acumen and personal force of this one man and the dynamic team of Young Turks he employs in his offices in Genoa.

But Luca aside, I think that the Age was what it was because it really was a first, on many differing levels. It broke new ground, created (or legitimized) many new trends, and demonstrated that the rum folks would buy top quality rums even with a limited outturn.  It summed up, codified and expanded principles of the rum world the way Citizen Kane did for film.

One has only to look at the way things were and the way things are to see the influence they had, and while it’s perfectly acceptable to state that Velier was only one aspect of the momentous changes in the world and the rum industry — that it was all inevitable anyway, and maybe they were just lucky bystanders who shone in reflected light of greater awareness — I contend that the Demerara series serves a useful marker in rum history that influenced much of what subsequently came along, and which we now take for granted and indeed, expect from a good rum

The Demerara rums released by Velier were several notches in quality above the equivalent rums produced almost anywhere else and entrenched the issue of tropical ageing as a viable way of releasing top quality rum, because aside from the major brands releasing their aged blends (often at 40-46%), it was almost unheard of to have tropically aged rums of such age produced at cask strength and so regularly. Almost without making a major point of it, the Age enhanced the concept of “pure”, and solidified the idea of “full proof” that otherwise might have taken much longer to get to develop.

The series pointed the way to the future of Foursquare rums, Mount Gay cask strengths, the El Dorado Rares, as well as English Harbour’s and St. Lucia Distillers’ new and more powerful expressions.  They provided an impetus for the re-invigorating of Jamaican distilleries, some of which were all but unknown if not actually defunct, and it could be argued that there is a line of descent from the estate-based Demerara full-proofs to the movement of these Jamaican distilleries to not just sell in bulk abroad, but to issue estate-specific marques of their own.

The Age also moved the epicenter of the top-echelon rums (not always the same as super-premiums) away from aged blends (like El Dorado’s own 21 and 25 year old rums, or Appleton’s 21 and 30 year olds) to single-barrel or limited-edition, estate-specific full proofs.  It gave the French agricoles a boost via Velier’s subsequent collaboration with Capovilla (which is not to downplay the impact of the hydrometer tests mentioned below), and provided small, new rum outfits like Nine Leaves and US micro-producers the confidence that their rums made to exacting specifications, at a higher strength and without additives had a chance to succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace.  

And the Age led to a trend in increased participation of independents and private labels in the greater rum world: new or concurrently existing companies like Hamilton, EKTE, Transcontinental, Compagnie des Indes, Bristol Spirits, Mezan, Duncan Taylor, Secret Treasures, Svenska Eldevatten, Kill Devil, Excellence Rum, L’Esprit, as well as the older ones like the Scottish whisky makers, Plantation, Rum Nation, BBR, and Samaroli, are its inheritors (even if their inspiration was not a direct one and they might argue that they had already been doing so before 2005). Nowadays its not uncommon to see annual releases of many different expressions, from many different countries, instead of just a few (or one).

It would be incorrect to say that the Age of the Demeraras proceeded in isolation from the larger rum world.  While these Demeraras were being made, others were also gathering a head of steam (Silver Seal and Samaroli are good examples, which is why their older bottlings are expensive rarities on par with Veliers in their own right). All the larger independent bottlers increased their issue of stronger rums from around the world.  And I suggest that the work they have done when considered together has led to two of the other great divides in the rum world – cask strength versus standard, and continental (European) ageing versus tropical. To some extent Velier’s Demeraras raised awareness and provided some legitimacy for this trend if not actually initiating it.

Drejer, hydrometers, sugar and the fallout…

One other aspect of the rumworld not directly related to the Age detonated in late 2013 and early 2014, and must be considered. That was the work of the Finland’s ALKO and Sweden’s Systembolaget, closely followed by Johnny Drejer, in analyzing the contents and ABV levels of rums. They used a hydrometer to measure the actual ABV as the instruments displayed, and compared that against the labelled ABV – any difference over and beyond some kind of normal variation was an additive of some kind that changed the density. In the main, that was caramel or sugar in some form or other, and possibly glycerol and/or other adulterants.

Five short years ago, nobody on the consumer side of things ever thought to do such a test.  Who could afford that kind of thing with a commercial lab? — and if the producers were doing such analyses, they weren’t publishing. For years before that, there had been rumours and dark stories of additives going around,  it’s just that public domain evidence was lacking.  Many producers – excepting those prohibited by law from messing around – denied (and had always denied) additives outright, or spouted charming stories about secret cellars and stashes, family recipes, old traditions and rum heritage.   Most of the remainder hedged and never answered questions directly. 

When the Scandinavians started publishing their results, the roof blew off — it quite literally changed the rum landscape overnight. For the first time there was proof — clear, testable, incontrovertible proof — that something was being added to some very old and well-regarded rums to change them. Almost at once Richard Seale of Foursquare used his regular attendance at international rumfests to speak to the issue (as did Luca Gargano), and he, Johnny Drejer, Wes Burgin, Rum Shop Boy, 4FineSpiritsCyril of DuRhum, Phil Kellow, and Dave Russell proved that with some inexpensive home apparatus, you could do your own testing that would at the very least prove something else was in your favourite juice (though not what it was). All the blog owners mentioned above now maintain lists of rums and measurements of the ABV differences and the calculated dosage (that’s where the links direct you).

That direct measurement of, or reference to, a hydrometer test for ABV discrepancies has become a key determinant of honesty in labelling.  Conversations in social media that speak to rums known to have been “dosed” (as the practice has come to be called) are more likely than any other to end in verbal fisticuffs and name-calling, and has created a third great divide in the world of rum drinkers.

This may be seen to be at best peripheral to the Age, but what hydrometer tests and the emergent purity movement did, was instantly (if indirectly) provide enormous legitimacy to the entire Velier Demerara line and those of many of the European indies, as well as the whole pure-rums concept Luca had been talking about for so long. With the exception of the pre-2005 releases, the credibility of these rums was solidified at once, and the increasingly positive word of mouth and written reviews moved them to almost the pinnacle of must-have rums. I’m not saying other rums and producers didn’t benefit from the movement – Jamaican, Bajan and St Lucian rums in particular were were more than happy to trumpet their own purity, as did practically every independent bottler out there – just that Velier reaped a lot of kudos almost without trying, and this helped raise awareness of their Demerara rums. It’s an aside to the main thrust of this essay, but cannot be entirely ignored either.


Epilogue

Many of the players in this short history are still with us, so here’s an update.

The El Dorado 15 remains a staple of the rum drinking world to this day in spite of its now well-publicized dosage.  It has received much opprobrium for the lack of disclosure (DDL never commented on the matter of dosage until an interview with Shaun Caleb in 2020, and for the record the practice is being phased out) and has slipped somewhat in people’s estimation to being a second tier aged product.  Yet it remains enormously popular and is a perennial best seller, a rum many new entrants to the field refer to as a touchstone, even though DDL has moved to colonize the space Velier pioneered and begun issuing cask strength limited bottlings from the stills themselves in 2016 (the 1997 anniversary editions at 40% were essays in the craft but predated the Age and were never continued).

Photo (c) A Mountain of Crushed Ice

Ed Hamilton has withdrawn somewhat from his publishing and promotional work, and the Ministry of Rum website is a shadow of its glory days, with most of the traffic and rum-chum interaction shifting to Facebook, where his group is one of the top five in the world by user base.  Mr. Hamilton is a distributor of many distilleries’ rums into North America and in 2010 began to issue the Hamilton line of rums from around the Caribbean, all pure, all at cask strength. I quite liked the little I’ve tried.

Independent bottlers continue proliferating in Europe and all follow the trail of the Age – full proof, estate (or country) specific rums.  When from Guyana, it is now standard practice for the still to be referenced, with the “Diamond” moniker being perhaps the most confusing.

The internet has enabled not just one rum forum on one website, but a whole raft of international rum review websites from the USA, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and the UK.  Oddly, the Caribbean doesn’t have any (and I’m not sure that I qualify, ha ha). There are also news aggregators and online shops in a quantity that astounds anyone who saw it develop in so short a time. Aside from private sales on Facebook, websites are now one of the most common ways to source rums as opposed to walking into a shop. The many Facebook rum clubs  are the sites of enormously spirited discussions – these clubs (and to a lesser extent reddit) are the places to get the fastest response to any rum question, and the best in which to take a beating if you profess admiration for a dosed rum. 

Johnny Drejer and the others mentioned above are still updating rum sugar lists. They cover most common rums. The test is now considered almost de rigueur. It has its detractors – it can be impacted by more than just sugar, temperature variations affect the readings, it can be fooled by higher actual ABV being labelled as less, and you never know quite what’s been added – but it remains one of the strongest tools in the ongoing battle to have additives or dosage disclosed properly.

Luca Gargano of Velier, April 2018, Genoa

Velier has grown into one of the great distributors, enablers and independents of the rumworld (though they remain at heart a distributor), and not rested on their laurels, but gone from strength to strength. Luca, always on the lookout for new and interesting rums, scored a massive coup when he picked up thousands of barrels from the closed Trinidadian distillery Caroni in 2004. Velier has been issuing them in small batches for years, so much so that it could be argued that as the sun of appreciation set over the Age of Demeraras, it rose on the Age of Caroni (at least in the public perception). He has championed artisanal rums from Haiti and anywhere else where traditional, organic and pure rums are made. He has forged partnerships and fruitful collaborations with producers around the world.  One, with Richard Seale of Foursquare resulted in the conceptual thinking behind the Exceptional Series, as well as the collaborations of Habitation Velier, which are tensely awaited and snapped up fast by enthusiastic and knowledgeable rum folks. He has an involvement with Hampden out of Jamaica, and when the 70th Anniversary of Velier rolled around in 2017, partnered up with many producers to get special bottlings from them to mark the occasion. Velier has grown into a company with a scores of employees, and a turnover hundreds of times greater than that with which it began.

I appreciate this sounds like something of a hagiography, but that is not my intention.  The purpose of this long essay and this wrap-up, is simply to place the Demerara rums issued during those years at the centre of great changes in our world.  (Not the Caronis, because I contend that the appreciation for them took much longer to gestate; not so much the Rhum Rhum line done with Capovilla, since they remain something of a niche market, however popular; and certainly not the one-offs like the Basseterre 1995 and 1997 or the Courcelles 1972, which were too small and individualistic).  The Age’s rums did not create all the trends noted above single-handedly. But certainly they had a great influence, and this is why we can correctly refer to an Age, even if it is just to mark the time when a series of exceptional bottlings were made.

It is my belief that what the Demerara series of rums did was to point the way to possibilities that were, back then, merely small-scale, limited or imperfectly executed ideas, waiting to be taken to the next level, like Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane did for movies in 1915 and 1941. Velier came in, took a look around and re-imagined the map, then went ahead and showed what could be done. Certainly, like most innovators, Luca built on what came before while amending and modifying it to suit his own personal ideas; others contributed, and Velier did not work outside the great social and spirituous trends of its time. But somehow, Luca more than most gathered the strands of his imagination and used them to tie together all the concepts of rum making in which he believed.  In doing so he produced rums which remain highly sought-after, and used the credibility they engendered to put his stamp firmly on the industry. We live in the world that he and his rums helped to bring about. Whatever your opinions on the influence of the Age, we had what we had before they appeared, and now we have what we have which is better. The work is worth acknowledging, and respecting. It is to our regret that the Age was over before we even properly acknowledged its existence.

In closing, I should mention that the Age of Velier’s Demeraras was only called that when it was over (and for the record, it was by the Danish blogger Henrik Kristoffersen who first used the term in a Facebook post in early 2016). And even if you don’t believe the Age was so central, or had the sort of rum-cultural impact as I think they do, I believe there’s no gainsaying that the sheer quality of rums that were issued for those nine years supports the idea that there was once an Age, that it really did exist…and the current crop of rums from this company remain at a similar level of quality as those first old and bold ones which were once considered too expensive.  It’s great that even now with all their rarity, we can sometimes, just sometimes, still manage to drink from the well of those amazing Demeraras, and consider ourselves fortunate to have done so.

***


This series elicited an interesting discussion on Reddit regarding topical ageing vs continental, here.

Jun 272018
 

Part II – The Rums

Photograph (c) Rumclubfrancophone.fr

2005 – The Age Begins

In Part 1 I gave a rather lengthy rundown of the events and trends leading up to the unofficially named Age.  There was a reason for that – because I wanted to make it clear how the rum landscape was altered after those rums were issued.  And to do that we needed to get a sense of what it was like before.

To briefly recap, the pieces were in place, at the intersection of culture and history and personality:

  • the world was becoming more interconnected and knowledgeable as a result of the proliferation of internet enabled websites and blogs, books being written and the Ministry of Rum website; in short, communications had undergone a sea change.
  • rums had moved from being primarily blends and cocktail fodder to sharing space on shelves with generously aged expressions;
  • people were starting to know more and had more choice; independent bottlers helped move that along, as did the emergent rum festival scene started by the Miami Rum Renaissance
  • and Luca Gargano, having bought a small Genoese spirits-distribution concern, started issuing a relatively large number of Guyanese rums, which were relatively unsucessful but which crystallized his thinking on what he felt the characteristics of good rums were.

Now, we could argue that since the world was ripe for an expansion of cask strength single editions from all points of the compass (the concept was not, after all, particularly new), that Luca Gargano just did it with more verve and panache, and that everyone else was going to do it anyway.  The development was inevitable. History is replete with stories of groundbreaking ideas being developed simultaneously in multiple places (Newton and Leibnitz with calculus; Darwin and Wallace with evolution; Einstein and Hilbert with relativity…and so on). 

Maybe so.  But I argue that nobody ever did it better, or in such volume and he was there at the right time with the right rums, just as interest was catching on. The rumworld was ready for something new and interesting and dynamic, and Luca filled the niche both in what he produced and who he was.

The Rums, by date of issue

As noted in Part 1, after a few years of developing the company and broadening its portfolio, Velier began its move to craft spirits in 1992 (which may not be a coincidence), by beginning its selection of barrels of rum for its brand.  This led, in 1996, to the issuance of three Guyanese rums – all issued at 40% (see next paragraph) and using a third partly bottler (Thompson & Co.).  All were continentally aged.

Note the two editions of the Diamond 1975 at different strengths. I double checked the labels and the images, and yes they clearly note the separate ABV. This then was the first demonstration of something Velier would become famous for: issuing the same rum at varying power (though likely from different casks), which culminated in the multitudinous variations of the Caronis that so amuse, enthrall and irritate the accountants.

  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 – 1996), 40%
  • Diamond 1975 20 YO (1975 – 1996), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1985 21YO (1985 – 1996) 40%
  • Versailles 1991 5 YO (1991 – 1996), 40%

Luca was dissatisfied with this, and four years later tried again, with three more rums from Guyana.  These were bottled by a Holland-based subsidiary of DDL themselves (called Breitenstein), because by this time Velier’s association with DDL had become much firmer and it was felt to be more cost effective – though they remained continentally aged.  Of particular note was Luca’s find of the LBI marque, quite rare, though which still produced it remains an open question. The Enmore also comes in for mention because of its strength – it was the first attempt to issue at full proof…why he did not follow on from this concept here is unknown, but considering that the Damoiuseau 1980 only got released two years later, perhaps it was nerves, or caution, or simply a lack of confidence (though that would seem doubtful to anyone who’s ever met the man).


By the time the third batch of rums was issued in 2002, now all at 46%, Luca knew something had to change. While he was happy with the ages of the rums — on three separate occasions rums had been released at close or equal to 20 years — they were continentally aged and simply not exciting enough, unique enough, in a field where other independents were issuing similar versions, if not in such quantity. But they were all sipping at one well, that of the European brokers, and he felt he had to get his rums from the source. It was this 2002 series that began to do exactly that: all three rums were fully tropical-aged and selected directly from DDL’s Guyana warehouse, which was a first for any independent bottling to that time. Luca himself dates the Age from this release season, though he admits he lacked the courage to go completely full-proof for it, and told me that Yesu Persaud would probably not have countenanced it either at the time.

As an aside, attention should be drawn to the label design – each release season (1996, 2000 and 2002) is clearly distinct from the others. The wild and joyously near-abstract paintings echoed local artists, and we would not see their like again until Simeon Michel was contracted to provide the artwork for the clairins many years later.

  • Albion 1984 18 YO (1984 – 2002), 46%
  • Diamond 1982 20 YO (1982 – 2002), 46%
  • Port Mourant 1982 20YO (1982 – 2002), 46%

Photo (c) Ministry of Rum

My feeling is that the classic portion of the Age started in 2005. The now famous black bottles and simplified labels were introduced in that year and remained constant for nearly a decade. The level of detail on those labels was unprecedented, by any maker, at any time, for any rum. For the first time consumers got the year of distillation and bottling; the casks, the outturn, the strength, the still and the marque, even (sometimes) the angel’s share. And serious strength was on display for once, real full proof, from-the-barrel power.

In the years leading up to 2005, Luca forged a firm personal alliance with DDL (and its chairman, Yesu Persaud).  They showed him select barrels from their ageing warehouse and he chose some to bottle. 2005’s Diamond and Uitvlugt releases are considered good rums but they were relatively young and lacked an element of gravitas.  But one day as he was walking with Mr. Persaud through the ageing warehouse, he spotted five or six barrels mouldering quietly in a corner. They were from a long defunct distillery of the Skeldon estate (the easternmost estate in Guyana – the distillery is long closed though it still makes sugar), and their age took his breath away.  He tried the 1973 and it was such an impressive dram that he almost begged to be allowed to bottle it as it was. For the only time in this partnership, permission was granted and he was allowed bottle all the barrels himself, and the 1973 proved to be one of the most amazing rums ever issued (myth has it that he also got the single barrel of the Caputo 1973 at this time, but that’s another story entirely).

Photo (c) Barrel-Aged-Mind

The three barrels of the Skeldon 1978 were a different matter.  There was insufficient volume to make a decent outturn (whatever that might mean, given that the 1973 only produced 544 bottles from four barrels), and so it was mixed in with some 1973 — and therefore this is a blend, not a rum conforming to Velier’s usual standards.  Still, all of these rums were tropically aged and released at cask strength, and this was what he wanted. (I have heard another story that DDL themselves blended the 1973 and 1978 and didn’t tell him, admitting it only when pressed because he recognized a difference in the profile after the fact).


2005 and 2006 together saw the issuance of not only eight different Guyanese rums but nine and eight Caronis respectively.  None of these received especially wide acclaim or attention, though my feeling is that the 1991 Blairmont was definitely one of the better rums I’ve tried from the stable and the one occasion I tried (without notes) the PM 1993, it was equally impressive, though relatively young compared to its siblings issued in those two years.


2007 was an odd year, when everything issued was under ten years old, which may just have been a function of what was put in front of Luca to inspect and select. The first Versailles rum since 1996 was issued in 2007, and somehow another LBI rum was found – it would prove to be the last.

In this year some of the first reviewing websites began to go live: however, these were primarily American, with one – Refined Vices – from Australia, and showed the slowly building interest in quality rums (perhaps also aided by the Miami Rum Renaissance which started around this time). But while rums commonly available in North America formed the bulk of the writing on such sites at this stage, the European bottlings Velier was making received little or no attention, and remained on sale primarily in Italy.


When it came to releases, 2008 was a banner year for the company, when eight Demerara rums were issued at once. Yet widespread acceptance remained elusive: costing out at over a hundred euros per bottle, most consumers in Europe, where distribution was primarily limited, felt this was still to expensive (bar the Italians, who I was told were snapping them up). One can only imagine how frustrating this must have been to Luca, who knew how good they were. The standouts from this year’s collection were undoubtedly those amazing 1970s Port Mourants, which are now probably close to priceless, if they can even be found. (And even the others are becoming grail quests – I saw an online listing in June 2018 for the Albion 1983, at close to two thousand euros).


Something interesting happened in 2010, overlooked by many, ignored by the rest.  For the first time reviews of the Velier Demeraras start to appear in the blogosphere, and they were all from Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun.  He had begun in 2009 with a raft of generally available rums, and in 2010 issued his first review of Velier rums — Enmore 1988 and 1990, Albion 1989, Uitvlugt 1990 and Blairmont 1991. And…nobody noticed; those who did hardly cared. He was a whisky guy daring to dabble in rums?  Shame on him. The reviews sank out of sight; nobody else would write about these spectacular rums for nearly three years and modesty be damned, when the next round of reviews were published, they were mine.

That same year Velier only issued two rums, though I have not been able to establish why such a small release. (The Blairmont was offered for sale in June 2018 on FB for €2300, for those who’re interested in pricing their collection).


2011 was another skinny year, with only three rums being released, two of which were from Albion. Why DDL would sell off barrels of defunct distilleries like LBI, Blairmont or Albion is a curious window into their commercial mindset at the time – it’s possible that they simply didn’t see any margins in such niche products which might cost more to bring to market than they would sell for, though Velier clearly showed this was not so.  Since Velier maintained a low profile outside Italy, they probably didn’t see such rums adding value to the DDL brand, and were okay letting them go. The Albion 1994 is particularly fine piece of work and I’ve heard it bruited about that 2018/2019 Release 3 of the DDL Rares will have one.


The Diamond and Port Mourant releases from the 2012 season were rums Luca liked a lot…but when he saw three barrels from Uitvlugt marked UF30E (for East Field #30 – perhaps the first incidence of parcellaire (a specific parcel of land within a terroire) ever found) he immediately snapped them up and produced 814 bottles.  It remains, in the opinion of this writer, one of the best Guyanese rums ever made, perhaps even better than the Skeldon 1973. The PM 1997 was also a very very good piece of work, but could not eclipse the UF30E and it’s just a shame that I never managed to try the 30+ year old Diamond.


Nothing was issued in 2013 (the reasons remain obscure), and by the time the 2014 came around, things were slowing down: although we did not know it, the end was drawing nigh. While still being shown barrels to choose from, Luca felt the quality and age was no longer as spectacular as the early rums he had found just a few years before (that might be because he cleared out all the best juice already, I humorously remarked to him some years later). This led to some experimentation of various blends (Diamond-Versailles, PM-Diamond and PM-Enmore) which were positively received, but whose interesting development was never followed up on. That said, these have become as pricey and hard to find as any other of the classic Demeraras – and, reputedly, every bit as good.

Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 – 2014), 53.1%
Diamond 1999 15YO (1999 – 2014), 64.1%
Uitvlugt 1996 18 YO (1996 – 2014) (Modified GS), 57.2%
Uitvlugt 1997 17 YO (1997 – 2014), 59,7%
Port Mourant / Enmore Experimental 1998 16YO (1998 – 2014), 62.2%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1995 19YO (1995 – 2014), 62.1%
Port Mourant / Diamond Experimental 1999 15 YO (1999 – 2014), 52.3.%
Diamond / Versailles Experimental 1996 18 YO (1996 – 2014), 57.9%

(Note that in 2014 and 2015, when the Velier Demeraras were beginning to become more well known, both Cyril of DuRhum and Henrik of RumCorner were starting to write about them — both described the Enmore 1995 from the 2011 season — and it was from that point that the Europeans started to sit up and take notice and prices began their climb as Velier’s reputation gained momentum.)

In late 2014 DDL’s chairman, with whom Luca had had such a sterling relationship, retired, and within months the new chairman informed him (Luca) that they themselves would be releasing “Gargano-style” rums, and the arrangement Velier had with DDL would come to an end. The rums listed above are therefore among the last ever issued by the collaboration (until the 70th Anniversary bottling in 2017, which falls outside the scope of this essay).

Nothing was released in 2015, and in 2016 Demerara Distillers came out with the Rare Collection.  This led to a lot of grumbling and online vituperation – some thought it a cheap shot by DDL – but in the main, such annoyance as was expressed focused mostly around the pricing, which was felt to be exorbitant (and continues this day, with the 2018 El Dorado 12 year old wine finished editions which are also considered to be overpriced).  But what the Rares did was seal the fate of the Velier Demeraras.  Once those came out the door, we knew that there would never be any more.

And just like that, the Age was over.


Other Notes

In Part III I’ll wrap up this short series by assessing the trends and impact which the Age had (at least in my opinion), and provide an epilogue.

 

Jun 252018
 

Part 1 – Influences & Developments to 2005

Introduction

Take a look at the rum world in 2018, and several aspects jump out immediately.  The top-end rums getting most of the press and user approbation are almost all rums issued at cask strength; many, if not most, are made by an ever-increasing stable of independent bottlers, with Foursquare being one of the few primary producers making such strong rums as part of their core lineup, and others hastening to catch up.  Rums are often being made “pure,” which is to say without additives, labels are much more informative than ever before, and unaged whites are becoming more and more popular (and appreciated). The major large-company rum brands of ten years ago – many of which were and are aged blends – remain enormously popular but have almost all been relegated to second-tier status in the eyes of knowledgeable aficionados. And the dissemination of information regarding rums – whether via news stories, magazine click-bait, blogs, review sites, Reddit forums or Facebook rum clubs – has enabled the trend in this direction exponentially.

When one considers the state of the rum world prior to 2005, this ninety-degree turn in the drinking habits of the tippling class seems well nigh unprecedented.  It is my considered opinion that the Demerara (and to a lesser extent the Caroni) rums issued by Velier in the years 2005 to 2014 were instrumental in altering the rum landscape in a way few rums before ever had, or ever will again. To this day, many consider them among the best rums from Guyana ever issued, and that includes the independents (of which Velier was surely one in spite of being primarily an importer). Many of the concepts we take for granted when choosing top-shelf rums from Guyana – indeed, from anywhere – were encapsulated and brought to a wider audience by the Demerara series.  We live in the world they helped make, and it is our loss that they ceased being issued almost before we even properly acknowledged their existence.

In this first portion of a rather long three-part essay I’m going to look at the trends, influences and developments that I believe laid the foundations for what is unofficially called the Age of Velier’s Demeraras. I argue that these were the release of the El Dorado 15 year old in 1992, the rise of the internet, three books, a website, proliferating independent bottlers in Europe — all of which led to a more informed and rum-educated drinking cadre, some of whom went on to form the first websites devoted to rums and reviews. Also, oh yes….there was a small Italian importer….

As it was then…

The rum world in the 1980s was a rather staid one, moving along very much as it had for years before.  Major rum companies from around the Caribbean were issuing more or less the same rums they had been for decades – then as now, 40% ABV was practically a standard, age almost uniformly under ten years (if mentioned at all), and the market was full of familiar brands, similar recipes, incremental development, and with column still blends being the majority of sales.

As with all such general conditions, there were exceptions at the margins. Many small companies “made” rum for sale around the world – but they were really rebottlers and independents, not primary producers with sugar estates and/or distilleries of their own. Too, although 40% was a common sort of strength (especially in the United States), it was not an absolute.  The French Caribbean islands made more than their fair share of rums around 50% ABV and rums made for export to European countries often boosted the strength to 43-48%

When it came to market domination, Bacardi was the undisputed leader, and lighter Spanish-style rums seemed to be everywhere – I even found them and not much else in Central Asian bazaars in the early 1990s.  The great Asian houses like McDowell’s and Tanduay were unknown except in their region. Most rums in production at the time were considered mixing drinks at best, which was a state of mind deriving from the misconception that it was a pirate’s booze, a sailor’s hooch, a drink to have fun with…not something to be taken seriously. Not to be had by itself, or to be savoured on its own. Unlike, for instance, whisky.

Although some independent bottlers issued more seriously aged rums in limited quantities, they didn’t expand production or really take it further – the market was a small one, and such bottlings were mostly bought by whisky aficionados and some hard core rum enthusiasts-cum-collectors, who were intrigued by the variations –people like Steve Remsberg, profiled here and here or Luca Gargano, or Martin Cate or the Burrs.  Rum culture in the general public — both in perception and consumption — was primarily about cocktails, the mythmaking of Hemmingway-esque muscularity…today’s social-media-enabled rum clubs, where reviews of the latest bottling of a favoured company go up in days, hours or even minutes after formal release, where minute variations of favourite styles or individual rums are endlessly bickered over, and where discussions about additives erupt every other post, were not even a cloud on the horizon.

This is not to say a wide variety of rums was not being made – quite the opposite. South and Central America had a long and proud history of rum production.  Companies like Varelas Hermanos, Vollmer, Zacapa, Zaya, Dictador, Travellers, Flor de Cana, Juan Santos, and Cartavio were issuing softly blended and solera-style rums since the early 1900s and some even predated the turn of the century. Cachacas had been made for hundreds of years in Brazil. In the East there were almost unknown rums from India and Thailand and Indonesia. Cuba had its national production arm sending rums to Scheer and began working hand in hand with Pernod Ricard to produce the Havana Club line in the 1990s; and while booted out of Cuba itself, Bacardi was selling rums by the tankerload globally (largely due to subsidies provided by the US government).  The French islands, with their plethora of small and fiercely individualistic distilleries sold primarily to the European market (France in particular), and even with the slow demise of sugar and rum production, distilleries in Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Guyana, Antigua and Barbados (to list but some) struggled gamely on. 

Aged rums made by primary producers from the pre-1990s eras were on the market, sure, and there was no shortage of them….but one had to look carefully for the specific trees in the forest (nowadays even more so when most exist in private collections or in memory alone).  Fernandes Distillery in Trinidad made the Ferdi 10 Year Old from as far back as the 1930s and was still making it in the 1960s and 1970s; Appleton produced a 12 year old and a 20 year old from way back in the 1960s, issued a limited 25 year old in 1987,  and old gaffers will remember the Dagger 8 Year Old and Three Dagger Jamaican 10 Year Old from J. Wray, also hailing to the 1930s; and going back even further in time, Jamaica at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886 by Sir Augustus J. Adderley lists 10, 15, 25 and 31 year old rums from merchant bottlers like D. Finzi & Co. and Wray and Nephew (before they acquired Appleton). I know there was an 18 year old “Old New England Rum” from the USA in 1934; Beenleigh in Australia made a five year old rum (and supposedly supplied the Royal Navy); Banks DIH in Guyana made a five year old as far back as the 1950s (though I don’t know when the 10 year old first appeared). La Favorite on Martinique had a ten year old back in the 1950s and 1960s, but like most agricole makers, were much more into millesime rhums, and while I’m sure the agricoles had more than my research uncovered, their naming convention of vieux, tres vieux and XO makes it difficult to see what is aged beyond, say, six to ten years. Most aged rums around the world seemed to be ten years old or less.  A twenty year old was unheard of, thirty the stuff of dreams. (We had to wait until 1999 for the G&M 58 year old, another ten years for the Courcelles 37 year old).

Anyway, much of the primary producers’ rum production went to Europe in bulk (a lot went to E&A Scheer, which was and remains one of the largest brokers buying rum stock in the world) and was then blended into European producers’ rums, of which there were many, none of which achieved any sort of lasting fame (unless it was the navy style of rum made by UK companies like Watsons for the local market).  There were many small merchant bottlers, shops and back-street independents who released extremely limited and now-often-forgotten bottlings of aged expressions into the marketplace. And so the West Indian distilleries consolidated, shuttered, closed, changed focus, modernized, diversified, found new markets…and somehow the rum continued to flow.

But underneath this relatively placid existence of blends and unquestioning rum-is-fun-no-questions-need-be-asked, several seemingly unrelated events occurred which were to lay the foundations of whole new directions for the rum world.

1992 and the El Dorado 15 Year Old

In 1992, what proved to be an enormously influential rum came on the scene – the El Dorado 15 Year Old and its brothers up and down the line, the 5, 12 and 21 and (later) the 25s. It may not seem so now, when so many aged brands are sold around the world, and where every distillery has a few in its portfolio.  But it sure was then.

Bearing in mind the (very) abridged list of older rums mentioned above, it doesn’t entirely surprise me that whatever the age, few or none seemed to ever make a huge worldwide splash. The market wasn’t there, the connoisseurship was lacking, and information interchange was by magazines and snail mail, not the internet (see below). People just didn’t know enough and had few avenues open to self-education that characterizes today’s fanboys. Remember also, most of the aged rums were issued by small rebottlers in Europe or their agents in the producing countries/islands on behalf of the originating distilleries, and that kept outturn relatively small.  Independents like Samaroli and Veronelli had been making such rums since the 1970s, and Scottish whisky makers and re-bottlers certainly issued their fair share, though they were rare in the pre-1992 era.

And a downside to the independents was that they didn’t always made it clear where they originated – bought directly from the distillery of origin, or through a European broker like Scheer. Only occasionally was it unambiguously stated where the ageing had taken place. They varied from expression to expression, and long term consistency was rare. They were not always specific, and commonly labelled as “aged” or “country” rums – Superior Rum, Extra Old Rum, Barbados Aged Rum, Guyanese Rum, Jamaican Rum, and so on. The concept of making the estate the selling point was almost ignored. Many were, in fact, blends of uncertain age, mixing several estates’ marques into a single product. The consumer was certainly not helped to make an informed choice in the matter because exclusivity was the key selling point – you took what you got, trusted the skill of the producing company, and were grateful.

What made the El Dorado 15 (and its brothers) so seminal is that for the first time and over an extended period, a rum was made the same way every time, with an outturn not of a few hundred bottles, but in the tens and hundreds of thousands, year in and year out.  Consumers were getting a true fifteen year old rum of distinctive taste and consistent profile, not some supposedly exclusive and high-priced limited edition of a “Manager’s Reserve” or “Private Family Stock” or “My Dog Bowser’s Anniversary Blend.” Now anyone could buy this rum, which was a cut above the ordinary, had really cool antecedents, and was an absolute riot to drink neat.  Best of all, the El Dorado 15 was approachable – it retailed at an affordable price, had a taste the average consumer would like (toffee, caramel, licorice, citrus and raisins remain in the core profile), could be mixed, swilled or sipped, had great marketing and was issued an unthreatening 40%. The greater rum drinking audience went ape for it.

Within a few years, just about every primary rum producer with a well known brand caught the wave, and the 1990s and 2000s saw an explosion of older rums.  Companies all over the western hemisphere rushed to bring out aged expressions, and such rums soon became staples of many companies’ lines (and Appleton finally got the respect for its 12 YO it deserved, as well as beginning the regular issuing of older variations). The South and Central American and Spanish Caribbean islands’ rum makers took their time with it: they were blenders for the most part, a few solera-style makers, and they saw no reason to go full bore in this direction (many still don’t).  The French islands with their millesime approach and their own ideas on what constituted a good aged rum dabbled their toes, but with a few exceptions (I saw a 12 YO dating back to the 1970s once, so they certainly existed) they rarely ventured over ten years old – and bearing in mind the quality of what they achieved and the recognition their brands already had and have always maintained in their primary markets, it was and remains hard to fault them for this choice.

So the aged rum market almost by default landed, and has remained, with some exceptions, in the British West Indies, led by Appleton and also DDL, the company whose work would produce the next great wave of rums ten years down the road….but not under its own banner.

Books

One development that also raised the profile of rum was the publishing of three books — two in the early 1990s, the other nearly ten years later. To some extent they have been overtaken by events, yet they remain quiet classics of the genre, and carried with them not only the promise of other books written in the decades that followed, but a resurgence of interest in rums as a whole. They remain cornerstones of the literature, not least because they were among the first to try and provide a deeper background to the variety of rums represented without overwhelming the readers in technical minutiae of the rum-making process most neither wanted nor understood.

Released in 1995, Ed Hamilton’s book “Rums of the Eastern Caribbean” was a rich and varied survey of as many distilleries and rums as Mr. Hamilton found the time to visit and try over many years of sailing around the Caribbean.  Because of its limited focus, it lacked a global perspective, but it was a treasure trove of information of the rum producing world in the eastern Caribbean at that time, it was based on solid first hand experience, and many rum junkies who make distillery trips part of their overall rum education are treading in his footsteps. If nothing else, it elevated the knowledge of the curious and made it clear that there was an enormous breadth in rums, so much so that historical info aside, anyone could find something to please themselves. (It was followed up in 1997 by another book called “The Complete Guide to Rum”).

 

Dave Broom’s 2003 book “Rum” was a coffee-table sized book that combined narrative and photographs, and included a survey of the rum producing nations and islands and regions to that time.  It was weak on soleras, missed independents altogether and almost ignored Asia, but had one key new ingredient – the introduction and codification of rum into styles.  Then as now, the debate over how to classify rum was a problem.  Colour was still used as a main marker and gradation of type (the additives and coloration debate had yet to reach wide attention, and was all but unknown to the drinking public), stills were not considered a way to distinguish rums.  Mr. Broom’s contribution to the field was to at least attempt to stratify rums: in his case, regions that had broad similarities of production and profile: Jamaican, Guyanese, Bajan, Spanish and French island (agricole) styles. Cachacas were not brought into the classification and there was no real way to incorporate multi-regional blends or rums from outside the system (like, oh, Australia) – but it was an remains enormously influential, though by now somewhat dated and overtaken by events (he issued a follow-up “Rum: The Manual” in 2016, the same year as “Rum Curious” by Fred Minnick came out).

What these books did was make rum interesting and more appreciated in the eyes of the larger public, in a pre-internet world where whisky prices were just starting to climb.  They showcased something of the variety that rum provided, and educated many neophyte rum lovers into the foundations of their favourite drink. It showed them the varieties and differences and production methods that allowed a more sophisticated understanding of the spirit.  Rum was clearly not just some blended bathtub moonshine for the sweet-toothed who didn’t appreciate a single malt, or a bland and boring mixing agent — but a spirit with a long and technically rigorous, geographically broad-based history that deserved mention, if not respect.

The Internet

To some extent the remarks here are a subset of larger cultural shifts around the world which were enabled by the internet and the world wide web itself.  Access was available in 1995, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it became over the subsequent decades. The internet enabled web pages, those pages enabled blogs, blogs became review sites and fora for interaction — and all of it created a communications revolution for rum lovers.  What this allowed and promoted was a new understanding of the spirit, a grasp of its enormous stylistic range and geographical dispersion, as well as quick dissemination of information on rums, brands, companies, personalities, reviews, and opinions. It’s no accident that the sugar imbroglio (see a brief discussion in Part 3) arose only after the internet permitted such exponential interaction and news-exchange among drinkers; or that the first rum festivals began springing up just as the first review sites did, in the mid 2000s.  The importance and impact of the web on rum appreciation simply cannot be overstated.

It took more time for the first write ups of Velier to come out the door on such websites, but before that happened there came one website that proved to be enormously influential, which all bloggers from that era remember.

Ed Hamilton and the Ministry of Rum

It took years after its launching in 1995 for the Ministry of Rum to acquire the central status it held for the next decade, and in its heyday it was one of the key places for aficionados to meet and share information (Capn Jimbo’s site was the other), and likely the most popular.  While it possessed a fair amount of articles and searchable information on distilleries, brands and countries – a first at that time, and a godsend to the researchers – the real basis for its influence and popularity was the forum and discussion area, and, to a lesser extent, the Connoisseur’s Cabinet where occasional reviews would be posted (with Ed’s permission – and for the record he refused it to me when I asked after passing review #50, noting – correctly – that too many new and aspiring writers folded after a couple of years). At its peak, there would be new discussion threads and posts springing up daily, sharing information, raising issues, offering advice and opinions.  Even now in 2018 there’s a steady trickle of people on that site, posting “Hi I’m a new rum lover from ____”.

In these days of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flipboard, Tumblr, Pinterest, blogs, aggregators, instant messaging and full-time online presences, it’s difficult to remember how groundbreaking this trend actually was. Now rum lovers did not have to create websites (a difficult and often confusing task in the early 2000s) and then hope that they would be found – they could simply post on the Ministry.  Many of the older names in the rum writing game started their careers by commenting – extensively – here. This one original website did more than most other avenues to help disseminate information and news about rum, and introduced the vocal, dedicated fans to one another, a process that has accelerated with the advent of social media.

Independent Bottlers / Private Labels

If you put aside the 151 overproofs that Bacardi, Lemon Hart, Cruzan, Don Q, Goslings, Matusalem and a handful of others were releasing, the limited edition “cask strength” market was all but nonexistent until a decade ago, and these 75.5% mastodons were all you got.  All were considered cocktail bases, not rums in their own right: they were certainly not premiums. Such cask-strength rums as were considered a cut above the ordinary were mostly issued by independents, not by major producers (who limited themselves to powerful cocktail mixers like the 151s), and the independents weren’t looking to make overproofs but echoed whisky maker’s full-proof ethos.

Almost alone in the world, then, the Europeans issued a few high-proof bottlings, released by re-bottlers and spirits companies such as Cadenhead, Gordon & MacPhail, A.D. Rattray, Berry Brothers & Rudd among others; as well as smaller concerns like Illva Saronno (Italy), Vaughan-Jones (UK), EH Keeling (UK), Antoniazzi (Italy), John Milroy (UK), Frederic Robinson (UK), Austin Nichols (USA), A.A. Baker (US), Nicholson (UK), Watson’s (UK),  Sangster, Baird-Taylor, Gilbey & Matheson, Henry & White, Lemon Hart, (among many many others). The Germans had their own such companies such as those around Flensburg (Rendsburger, Dethleffson and Berentzen Brennereien for example, who made long forgotten rums under brand names like Asmussen, Schmidt, Nissen, Anderson and Sonnberg). And there was a scattering here and there, like Walter Reid in Australia, la Martiniquaise and Bardinet in France, a smattering of Americans…and quite a few small outfits in Italy.

It was a lonely occupation for these rebottlers and small operations, because the rums they created – whether aged, blended, high-proofed or all these at once – never really sold very well even at standard strength.  Fabio Rossi, who started Rum Nation in 1999, told me it took more than two years to sell the first Supreme Lord and Demerara series of rums he started off with; and as recently as 2012, one could get the entire Velier Caroni outturn to that point for a couple thousand euros (on ebay’s Italian site), a situation which could certainly not happen today.  It was the hard-to-shake perception of rum as not being “premium” that was at the bottom of it, a situation it took another ten years to rectify, and it was the small, nimble companies who we now refer to as “independents” who led the way.

A word should be spared for the work of the Martinique and Guadeloupe rum producers which don’t conform to the title of independents, but which also laid some of the groundwork for the renaissance of strong and singular rums that was about to take off.  These small estate distilleries sold their rums primarily on the local market and exported to France through their own distribution arms there. Among all their lightly aged rums and blends and whites, they also and occasionally produced millesimes which were specific years’s limited productions, bottled when such outturns were considered a cut above the ordinary. And while these were never very consistent (each one was different from the last), never really aged beyond all reason, only occasionally issued beyond 50% – they did showcase that a particular year’s output of rum might be considered a connoisseur’s drink and could be said to be grand-uncles of the single barrel releases by others.  And that is why the Clement 1952 and 1976, the Damoiseau 1953, Bally 1939 and 1960 and 1970, Montebello 1948 remain hugely expensive, yet still-sought-after exemplars of craft rum making by the producers of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

However, it’s the Italian companies which were to some extent key to the emergent Age, because although many were simply importers and distributors, some also dabbled in blending and reissuing of rums under their own labels.  They created the culture of Italian independents that dated back to the 1960s when sweetened “rhum fantasias” were in vogue in Italy, produced by companies like Pagliarini, Toccini and Seveso; they were accompanied by importers and rebottlers (Veronelli, Soffiantino, Martinazzi, Antoniazzi, Pedroni, Illva Saronno, and Guiducci are just a few examples) which led to their more successful inheritors, Samaroli, Moon Imports, Silver Seal and Velier, just about all who started with single barrel whiskies before turning their attention to rums.

Which leads us to that little importing company from Genoa, and its owner – Luca Gargano.

Luca Gargano and Velier

In the 1980s, Velier was a small family-owned Genoese spirits distributor with perhaps a quarter million dollars a year turnover and a staff of less than ten.  It had been formed in 1947 by Casimir Chaix and concerned itself primarily with importing and distributing wines, spirits, brandy, tea and cocoa. Luca Gargano changed all that by buying it in 1986, when he was still only in his twenties.  He had been a very young brand ambassador for St. James (from Martinique) and the experience had left him with a deep appreciation for rums, especially artisanal ones. When the time came for him to start a company of his own, he used Velier as a vehicle for his deeply held beliefs and the outpouring of his ideas.

Luca, who came from a family that was both close to the land and well connected in Italian commercial and political society, had spent years traversing the Caribbean in his time with St. James.  His filial connection with traditional farming and agriculture, his observation of the way technology was changing the world (not necessarily for the better), his feelings about politicians and the slanted biases of the news, led him to create his now-famous Five Principles: nothing happens in specific chunks of time; newspapers and the media are there for sales and not truth; politicians are in it for themselves; telephones tie you to themselves but offer little except conversations that were better and more enjoyably conducted in person; and why stress out about driving a car when one can use taxis?  And as a consequence he stopped watching TV, didn’t waste his time with newspapers or personal vehicles, chucked away his watch and never bothered with a cell phone of his own.

But there was a sixth principle, not often stated, yet deeply held.  And that was that food and drink should be as natural as possible, organic, free from the interferences of technology, fresh from the land.  When one applies that to food it’s one thing, but few before him sought to apply the concept to rums (except perhaps out of necessity). He felt that rum should be bottled as it either came off the stills or out of the ageing barrel without further messing around.  He may have known more than we did in those more innocent times, because although it is now common knowledge that many old favourites which came to the market in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s were dosed with additives, back in the day there was a lot more trust going around between consumers and producers.

Whatever the case, Luca wanted to put his name on pure rums that were as close to the still as possible, and if aged, fresh out of the barrel.  He started by finding some old Guyanese rums, continentally aged, and put them out the door in 1996, with a further set of three in 2000. Neither entirely satisfied him, because the first set was diluted down to 40% and the second to 46%.  A third series was released in 2002, also at 46% by which time he was in a better position to negotiate barrels with DDL.

And he needed to go further with his ideas on rums, because these early Demerara rums, to put it bluntly, made no mark, no splash, and fell flat.  They sold, but not well (I’ve been able to pick a few up as late as 2017), and in any event were not exactly what he wanted. The continental ageing and dilution in particular dissatisfied him — he felt something of the intrinsic character of the underlying distillate that showcased the stills and their uniqueness, had been lost.  He pulled in his horns, gave it some thought and was much more personal and involved in his future selections. He wanted to issue a rum that was at the full proof of the barrel, not some milquetoast please-the-most rum which he himself did not appreciate.

He was still wrestling with whether this was a workable commercial concept when he found a stored 18 year old rum at Damoiseau in Guadeloupe which was so spectacular, that he released it at 60.3% ABV in 2002, crossing his fingers as he did so.  The success of the Damoiseau 1980 made it clear that among people who knew their stuff, such rums would sell and find their own audience and he not limit himself in the future, as he had with the past three releases.

He issued no new rums for the next three years, and then emerged with the next outturn in 2005.  Four rums, one of them almost a legend. The Age can be said to have begun here.

In Part 2 I’ll look at the rums of the Age, and in Part 3 make some points about the aftermath of their issue and revisit some of these “historical” figures to see where they’re at in 2018.


Notes

Much of this is written based on my own writing and thinking and life experiences, though I have dipped into other bloggers’ published work here and there (like Matt Pietrek’s essay on Scheer and Marco Freyr’s background essays on Barrel Aged Mind). The research done in writing my own rum reviews and company biographies for nearly ten years has provided much of the remainder.

It’s hard to find people whose memories stretch back that far, to recapture the flavour of what the pre-1990s rum world was like – so some artistic license has been used to describe those times, though the facts are as accurate as I could make them.

The section on older aged rums and independents is by no means exhaustive.  It’s surprising how difficult it is to find exactly when a particular ten- or twelve- or fifteen-year-old rum first emerged on the scene, and to find discontinued variations becomes an exercise in real Holmesian diligence. I used my own photographs from Velier’s 4000+ rum warehouse for some of the examples in this section, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Peter’s Rum Labels in Czechoslovakia, which is an amazing resource, the best one of its kind in the world. I hope that people with large rum collections built up over many decades will one day allow people like me access to their stocks – to photograph and catalogue them (and maybe even to try a few) and for sure to write about them, as I do for the Rumaniacs. Too much history is being lost just because we don’t know enough, forgot too much, and never thought to record things properly.

Needless to say, if any mistakes or errors (especially of omission) are noted, please let me know and I’ll make amendments where required.

Jun 032018
 

Rating a rum against comparators is an invaluable tool for any reviewer because it allows differences and similarities, strengths and weaknesses to not only snap into focus more clearly, but to buttress one’s memory of other rums tried in times gone by. And although Guyanese rums are losing some of their lustre these days as the Age of Velier’s Demeraras fades to black and Foursquare is the name du jour, DDL’s killer app is still going strong, and the various permutations of the stills’ output may be the most recognizable, distinctive rum style around (bar perhaps the current New Jamaicans or Reunion islanders’ work).  So when a halo rum comes around, it needs to really be run through the wringer to ensure a proper placement on the leaderboard.

For those who felt I was being unfair to DDL and their 50th Anniversary rum, or overly critical of the El Dorado 25 Year Old from 1988, let me show you what it was up against that day and give you a rum flight of as-yet-mostly-unwritten-about Demeraras which will be posted in the months to come. I don’t do enough of these and always enjoy doing a lineup for the curious; and here I think it might be a useful piece of background reading for the 25 and 50. And indeed, the more I wrote about the results, the more occurred to me…I hope you find my remarks below the thumbnails informative and not overly lengthy.

So here we are.  Note these are just tasting notes, with few opinions, and no scores – those can be found on the full reviews.  The purpose here is to rank them against each other and provide some conclusions for examination and discussion.


El Dorado Rare Collection PM <SVW> + Diamond Velier 70th Anniversary 16 YO

54.3%, tropical ageing

N – Perfumed rum.  No, really. Hot pencil shavings, rubber, sawdust and the flowery notes of esters looking for Jamaica.  It noses sweet and fruity, in a really intense way. Develops into a musky, fruity and deep series of aromas, including strawberries in cream, vanilla and a little licorice.

P – Strong spices: nutmeg and cinnamon. Also caramel, coffee, creme brulee, molasses and anise. Goes deeper and fruitier as it opens up – raisins, ripe apples, peaches.  Also woody, sweet sawdust (I know that sounds weird) and lighter flowers.

F – Lovely, long, lingering, lasting.  Molasses and coffee are dominant, with subtler flowers and fruity backgrounds, and a bit of candied oranges and mint.

El Dorado Rare Collection 2nd Batch Port Mourant 1997 20 YO

57.9%, tropical ageing

Nose – A more elemental version of the Velier 70 PM <SVW>, perhaps a smidgen better because it is more focused. Represents the PM profile in fine style, a little dialled down and not as furious as some others I’ve had. Bags of dark fruit – raisins, dark grapes, dates – anise, vanilla, flowers, also peaches and prunes and plums, very deep, very rich.

Palate – Coffee, sawdust and pencil shavings are instantly and initially dominant, but fade over time, replaced with more of those dark fruit notes of blackberries, plums and prunes, all very ripe. Background flavours of coconut and chocolate ameliorate these, taming it a little without obscuring the sharper flavours. Easy to sip, warm rather than sharp.

Finish – Spices emerge here, mostly cinnamon.  Also oakiness (not too much), coffee grounds. Bitter chocoolate, anise and vanilla, some lighter fruits.  

El Dorado Rare Collection 2nd Batch Enmore 1996 20 YO

57.2%, tropical ageing

Nose – For a rum at cask strength, this Enmore is almost gentle.  Rich, pungent aromas of freshly sawn lumber, damp sawdust. The smells of coffee, chocolate and vanilla are offset somewhat by a nice sweet acetone background.  Softer blancmange and creme brulee provide a soft contrast and it’s almost like a gentle PM.

Palate – Soft and generally quite approchable, without losing any of the qualities imparted by the robust proof.  Fruits are forward this time – cherries, raisins, grapes, fried sweet bananas, and that haunting memory of hot dry earth being hit by summer raindrops.  More caramel and molasses, quite genteel in its own way. Can’t help but wonder about dosage, but lacked the equipment to test for it, and frankly, I have to admit that this works really really well in spite of such questions.

Finish – Long and langurous, giving back some musty, musky flavours that are mostly raisins, anise and vanilla.

El Dorado 1988 25 YO

43%, tropical ageing

Nose – Warm, well rounded, with opening notes of coconuts, bananas, molasses, caramel and some anise. Some fruits emerge almost reluctantly – raisins, prunes, fleshy apricots.  Too much sweetness, it smells thick in a way that is just short of cloying

Palate – Sweet and thick. Vanilla, molasses, caramel, some licorice.  White chocolate, flowers, indeterminate fruits, a little citrus. It’s all very tamped down and muffled, and the adulteration is clear and evident, lending a liqueur-like aspect to the entire experience.

Finish – Unclear, melded and something of a nonexistent affair. Some caramel and toffee, a bit of citrus. Short and very sweet.

El Dorado 50th Anniversary 33 YO

43%, tropical ageing (33 YO)

Nose – Rich, well balanced.  Deep aromas of molasses and licorice and raisins.  Coffee grounds, cherries, vanilla, leather, some smokiness, followed after opening up with salt caramel and ripe fleshy fruits.

Palate – More of that salt caramel, pencil shavings, apples, guavas, more licorice, chocolate and coffee, plus a little citrus for bite and some vanilla.  The sweetness starts to become more noticeable here, and the promise of what it started out as, is lost.

Finish – Short, rather easy (possibly a function of the relatively low strength).  Molasses, toffee, white chocolate and anise for the most part

Velier Uitvlugt 1996 “Modified GS” 18 YO

57.2%, tropical ageing

Nose – Refined, gentle and easy, and that’s not something I say about Velier’s or cask strength bruisers very often. Very distinct: molasses, brown sugar, caramel and vanilla t start.  Adds licorice and a lot of dark fruits (mostly prunes and plums, I would say). Some light citrus peel and brine.

Palate – Somehow the nose is easy while the taste is sharp, not sure how that happened. Salt caramel, brine, olives, brown sugar, combining with tart fruits: red currants, apples, raspberries, prunes, as well as smoke and well-worn and oft-polished leather.

Finish – Crisp, distinct and clear. Orange peel, vanilla, molasses and some of the fruits noted from the plate returning for a last bow. Solidly traditional profile with a character all its own.

Habitation Velier PM White Unaged

59% (unaged)

N – Sharp and fierce, almost jagged.  Rubber, sugar water, watermelon, pears, nuts and fruits. No caramel or toffee flavours here.

P – Vegetable soup and salt beef with brine and olives. Also licorice, leather, flowers, floor polish.  Some green apples, lime zest and an odd vanilla twist. Complex, crisp, clear, seriously intense. Not for everyone, but for those who like it – oh yeah.

F – Long and dry.  Soy sauce, more veggie soup, sugar water.

Velier Port Mourant 1972 36 YO

47.8%, tropical and continental ageing

Nose – Heavenly.  Sweet deep raisins and licorice, soya, coffee, bitter chocolate, leather and smoke.  There’s just so much going on here it’s amazing. White pepper, dates, light briny notes, aromatic tobacco, overripe cherries.

Palate – Licorice right up front in fine style, blended in with vanilla, some light caramel and white pears.  Flowers, sawdust, ripe mangoes, raisins, black grapes, oak…the nose wasn’t lying, I could go at this for another couple of hours.

Finish – All of the above.  Plus some mint.


Having given you a precis of each of these rums, let’s just sum up the ranking (scoring will be in the full reviews, since that’s not the purpose of this flight):

  • 1st  – Velier PM 1972 36 YO
  • 2nd – El Dorado Rare 2nd Batch Enmore 1996 20 YO
  • 3rd – Habitation Velier PM White Unaged
  • 4th – El Dorado PM+Diamond Velier 70th Anniv 16 YO
  • 5th – El Dorado Rare 2nd Batch PM 1997 20 YO tied with Velier Uitvlugt 1996 18 YO
  • 7th – El Dorado 50th Anniversary 33 YO
  • 8th – El Dorado 1988 25 YO

What can we glean from such a lineup, small as it may be?  

Well, first of all, this is a flight that could be done blind and the lower proofed El Dorados (the 33 YO and 25 YO) would have stood out immediately, with the 1988 falling down dead last because of its additives and less complex profile when compared to the 50th Anniversary, which itself was given away by both strength and dosage.  Also, the PM White would have been self explanatory; and the Uitvlugt 1996 because of its “non-PM/EHP” taste profile could easily be identified. The depth and colour and rich taste of the Velier 1972 would distinguish it in any company, so the only real difficulty would be to separate out the Enmore from the other El Dorado Rares, and then figure out which was the PM+Diamond and which the pure PM – in point of fact, I did indeed do this tasting blind, though I knew the 8 rums which were in the mashup.

To me it’s clear that DDL has exactly zero need to adulterate its aged rums. The Enmore was really quite a lovely piece of work and the unaged PM white makes the point even more clearly.  In this day and age, given the quality of the Rares and the track record of Velier in issuing ultra-aged rums from DDL (and remember, Luca never got to choose freely, just from what DDL themselves allowed him to see, implying that they knew of old stashes squirrelled away elsewhere which they thought of using themselves one day), there is simply no need for adulteration.  Taming cask strength blends with distilled water would, I think, be quite enough. Yet DDL keeps on churning out the dosed Old Dependables — the 12, 15, 21 and the really-quite-oversugared 25 year olds from 1980, 1986 and 1988 — perhaps because they really are such dependable sellers and if it ain’t broke why fix it, so why mess with a good cash cow? But I honestly hope they will one day reduce or eliminate the practice entirely – it’s an exercise in pandering to the audience, and the days for that are behind us (my opinion). (Note: in 2020 Shaun Caleb of DDL mentioned that the practice was indeed being phased out).

Of particular note is the PM unaged white, which is admittedly a rather fearsome drink to have on its own. Habitation Velier created this entire “unaged white” series for one purpose – to showcase familiar rums from various countries (or estates), but with the twist that this was it was all pot still rum, and in the unaged ones, as close to the original state of the juice as it came dripping off the still as possible, and how excellent (in their opinion) they were, even in that nascent unaged condition.  Having had oodles of PM rums over the last ten years, I can absolutely assure you that it may be hot and fierce, but many of the markers we look for in that profile are there, right from the get-go – in the various aged expressions in this lineup we see the many branches of the tree that this elemental seed grows into.

The Uitvlugt 1996 also comes in for some mention – it’s easier and quieter and lighter than the others (which is why it can be picked out with relative ease), and it may be one of the better all-round sipping rums which is specifically not from a wooden still.  Myself, I really enjoy the licorice and woody notes of the PM, VSG and EHP, but that should not blind anyone to the quality of what the other stills can do.

The stories I heard about the second batch of the El Dorado Rare Collection being better than the first are really true – they are. Not by leaps and bounds, no, but incrementally and demonstrably so nevertheless (I wish I could have tested them for dosage, even so).  If the third batch (it’s now in prep, three marques, all interesting) keeps at this level of quality, then all those who rent their robes and gnashed their teeth about the booting out of Velier in 2015 can at least be comforted that there is some kind of replacement on the horizon, even if, with their usual odd marketing, DDL never lets on what the outturn is (or was). There remains one caveat…I’m still seeing them on store shelves and online rum emporia too often, and that to me suggests they are not selling well…so I think some price adjustment had better be made and a more targeted marketing strategy laid out — because if they see poor sales then no distributor or store will want them and then DDL might just give up the whole idea…which is not exactly what any of us want to see.

Lastly, note the preponderance of topical ageing here; and in particular, the bifurcated ageing of the PM 1972 which was the top rum of the day. Luca is a fierce believer and proselytizer of laying barrels to rest in the tropics – and always has been – and scorns continental ageing that so many independents go for when plumbing the works of Scheer for their European indie bottlings.  The 1972 shows that other approaches are possible and work in spectacular fashion. Me, I’m somewhat on the fence about this and lack his dynamic laser-like focus on tropical only (though of course, we approach the matter from differing perspectives). Brutally quick tropical maturation gives quick returns and amazingly rich and robust profiles, but I’ve had enough really interesting continentals of similar equivalent age (1 yr tropical can be said to be 5-6 yrs continental, give or take) to appreciate the quieter subtleties they impart as well. And as I remarked humorously to him some time ago, there’s no way we could have ever gotten a Longpond 58 year old rum in the tropics (an Appleton 75 due in 2037 and an El Dorado 75 in 2041 will let us see if this is true).

Anyway, the rankings I’ve done show how the preceding paragraphs impact the placement and hint at the eventual scoring, to be added in here when the real reviews are written.  Age and the still and strength are less indicators of quality on their own than complexity and originality of taste and the way these come together in a cohesive whole. No one element dictates quality, they all do. The PM white is unaged but beat both the 43% offerings; it is stronger than all the rest, but slipped in relation to the Rares, and the 1972 was standard proof (almost) but came out on top.  Just about every rum tried (aside from the sweetened abominations of the 25 and 33) scored in the high eighties and snapped at the heels of the exceptional Velier 1972.  Now that’s a wonderful rum, and it’s not that it fails, but that others succeeded and are getting better all the time…and that probably shows the full proof concept and aged rum ideas Velier gave us, have been learned by DDL (now if they could only forego that damned dosage…).  

If nothing else, this brief look at eight rums from Guyana demonstrates to us all that the future remains a bright and vibrant and experimental and interesting one for Demerara rums, and they won’t be relegated to second class status any time soon. And that should give us all reason to hope for more in the years to come…even if they’re not the Veliers we remember so fondly.

Nov 012017
 

*

All apologies to those who like the Bacardi Superior, Lamb’s White and other filtered, smooth, bland (dare I say boring?) 40% white rums in their cocktails, or who just like to get hammered on whatever is cheap to get and easily available – but you can do better.  For anyone who likes a massive white rum reeking of esters and funk and God only knows what else, one of the great emergent trends in the last decade has surely been the new selection and quality of white rums from around the world.  Almost all are unaged, some are pot still and some are column, they’re usually issued at north of 45%, they exude badass and take no prisoners, and in my opinion deserve more than just a passing mention.

Now, because aged rums get all the press and are admittedly somewhat better tasting experiences, white (or ‘clear’ or ‘blanc’) rums aren’t usually accorded the same respect, and that’s fair – I’d never deny their raw and oft-uncouth power, which can be a startling change from softer or older juice.  They aren’t always sipping quality rums, and some are out and out illogical and should never see the light of day. Yet we should never ignore them entirely.  They are pungent and flavourful beyond belief, with zesty, joyful profiles and off-the-reservation craziness worthy of attention, and many compare very favourably to rums costing twice or three times as much.

So let me just provide the curious (the daring?) a list of some white rums I’ve tried over the last years.  It’s by no means exhaustive, so apologies if I’ve left off a personal favourite – I can only list what I myself have tried. And admittedly, not all will find favour and not all will appeal – but for sheer originality and gasp-inducing wtf-moments, you’re going to look far to beat these guys.  And who knows?  You might even like a few, and at least they’re worth a shot.  Maybe several.

(Note: I’ve linked to written reviews where available.  For those where the full review hasn’t been published yet, some brief tasting notes. Scores are excluded, since I’m trying to show them off, not rank them, and in any case they’re in no particular order).


[1] Clairin Sajous – Haiti

If creole still haitian white rums not made by Barbancourt had a genesis in the wider world’s perceptions, it might have been this one and its cousins. In my more poetic moments I like to say the Sajous didn’t get introduced, it got detonated, and the reverbrations are still felt today.  There were always white unaged popskulls around – this one and the Vaval and Casimir gave them respectability.

[2] J. Bally Blanc Agricole – Martinique

What a lovely rum this is indeed.  J. Bally has been around for ages, and they sure know what they’re doing. This one is aged for three months and filtered to white, yet somehow it still shows off some impressive chops.  The 50% helps for sure.  Apples, watermelon, some salt and olives and tobacco on the nose, while the palate is softer than the strength might suggest, sweet, with fanta, citrus, thyme carrying the show. Yummy.

[3] St. Aubin Agricole Rhum Blanc  – Mauritius

New Grove, Gold of Mauritius and Lazy Dodo might be better known right now, but Chamarel and St Aubin are snapping at their heels.  St. Aubin made this phenomenal pot still 50% brutus and I can’t say enough good things about it. It has a 1960’s-style Batman style salad bar of Pow! Biff! Smash!  Brine, grass, herbs, salt beef and gherkins combine in a sweaty, hairy drink that is amazingly controlled white rhum reminiscent of both a clairin and a Jamaican.

[4] DDL Superior High Wine – Guyana

Nope, it’s not a wine, and it sure isn’t superior.  I’m actually unsure whether it’s still made any longer – and if it is, whether it’s made on the same still as before. Whatever the case, Guyanese swear by it, I got one of my first drunks on it back in University days, and the small bottle I got was pungent, fierce and just about dissolved my glass. At 69% it presents as grassy, fruity, and spicy, with real depth to the palate, and if it’s a raw scrape of testosterone-fuelled sandpaper on the glottis, well, I’ve warned you twice now.

[5] Novo Fogo Silver Cachaca – Brazil

Fair enough, there are thousands of cachacas in Brazil, and at best I’ve tried a couple of handfuls.  Of the few that crossed my path, whether aged or not, this one was a standout for smooth, sweet, aromatic flavours that delicately mixed up sweet and salt and a nice mouthfeel – even at 40% it presented well. Josh Miller scored it as his favourite with which to make a caipirinha some time back when he was doing his 14-rum cachaca challenge. Since it isn’t all that bombastic or adversarial, it may be one of the more approachable rums of its kind that is – best of all – quite widely available.

[6] Neisson L’Espirit 70° Blanc – Martinique

Breathe deep and easy on this one, and sip with care.  Then look at the glass again, because if your experience parallels mine, you’ll be amazed that this is a 140-proof falling brick of oomph – it sure doesn’t feel that way. In fact there’s a kind of creaminess mixed up with nuts and citrus that is extremely enjoyable, and when I tried (twice), I really did marvel that so much taste could be stuffed into an unaged spirit and contained so well.

[7] Rum Fire Velvet – Jamaica

Whew!  Major tongue scraper. Massive taste, funk and dunder squirt in all directions. Where these whites are concerned, my tastes tend to vacillate between clairins and Jamaicans, and here the family resemblance is clear.  Tasting notes like beeswax, rotten fruit and burnt sausages being fried on a stinky kero flame should not dissuade you from giving this one a shot at least once, though advisories are in order, it being 63% and all.

[8] Charley’s JB Overproof (same as J. Wray 63%) – Jamaica

A big-’n’-bad Jamaican made only for country lads for the longest while, before townies started screaming that the boys in the backdam shouldn’t have all the fun and it got issued more widely on the island. Very similar to the J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof with which it should share the spotlight, because they’re twins in all but name..

[9] Nine Leaves Clear 2015 – Japan

If Yoshiharu Takeuchi of the Japanese concern Nine Leaves wasn’t well known before he released the Encrypted for Velier’s 70th Anniversary, he should be. He’s a Japanese rum renaissance samurai, a one-man distillery operation, marketing manager, cook and candlestick maker – and his 50% unaged whites are excellent.  This one from 2015 melded a toned down kind of profile, redolent of soap, cinnamon, nutmeg, apples and other light fruits, and is somewhat better behaved than its Caribbean cousins…and a damned decent rum, a velvet sleeve within which lurks a well made glittering wakizashi. (the 2017 ain’t bad either).

[10] Cavalier Rum Puncheon White 65% – Antigua

Same as the 151 but with little a few less rabbits in its jock.  Since the Antigua Distiller’s 1981 25 year old was review #001 and I liked it tremendously (before moving on) I have a soft spot for the company…which shouldn’t dissuade anyone from trying this raging beast, because in it you can spot some of those delicate notes of blackberries and other fruit which I so enjoyed in their older offerings.  Strong yes, a tad thin, and well worth a try.

[11] Rum Nation Pot Still White 57% – Jamaica

One of the first Independents to go the whole hog with a defiantly unaged white.  It’s fierce, it’s smelly, it’s flavourful, and an absolute party animal. I call mine Bluto. It’s won prizes up and down the festival circuit (including 2017 Berlin where I tried it again) and with good reason – it’s great, attacking with thick, pot still funk and yet harnessing some delicacy and quieter flavours too.

[12] Kleren Nasyonal Traditionnal 22 Rhum Blanc – Haiti

Moscoso Distillers is the little engine that could – I suspect that if Velier had paused by their place back when Luca was sourcing Haitian clairins to promote, we’d have a fifth candidate to go alongside Sajous,Vaval, Casimir and La Rocher. Like most creole columnar still products made in Haiti, it takes some palate-adjustment to dial in its fierce, uncompromising nature properly. And it is somewhat rough, this one, perhaps even jagged. But the tastes are so joyously, unapologetically there, that I enjoyed it just as much as other, perhaps more genteel  products elsewhere on this list.

[13] Toucan 50% Rhum Blanc Agricole – French Guiana

This new white only emerged in the last year or two, and for a rum as new as this to make the list should tell you something.  I tried it at the 2017 Berlin rumfest and liked it quite a bit, because it skated the line between brine, olives, furniture polish and something sweeter and lighter (much like the Novo Fogo does, but with more emphasis)…and at 50% it has the cojones to back up its braggadocio. It’s a really good white rhum.

[14] Rum Nation Ilha de Madeira Agricole 2017

Lovely 50% white, with an outstanding flavour profile.  Not enough research available yet for me to talk about its antecedents aside from it being of Madeira origin and “natural” (which I take to mean unaged for the moment).  But just taste the thing – a great combo of soda pop and more serious flavours of brine, gherkins, grass, vanilla, white chocolate.  There’s edge to it and sweet and sour and salt and it comes together reallly well.  One of those rums that will likely gain wide acceptance because of being toned down some.  Reminds me of both the Novo Fogo and the St. Aubin whites, with some pot still Jamaican thrown in for kick.

[15] A1710 La Perle

A1710 is a new kid on the block out of Martinique, operating out of Habitation Simon.  This white they issued at 54.5% is one of the best ones I’ve tried.  Nose of phenols, swank, acetones, freshly sawn lumber, bolted onto a nearly indecently tasty palate of wax, licorice, sugar water, sweet bonbons and lemongrass.  It’s almost cachaca-like…just better.

This list was supposed to be ten but then it grew legs and fangs, so what the hell, here are a few more Honourable Mentions for the rabid among you…

[16] Marienburg 90% – Suriname

This is Blanc Vader. With two light sabers. Admittedly, I only included it to showcase the full power of the blanc side.  It’s not really that good.  However, if you have it (or scored a sample off me) then you’ve not only gotten two standard proofed bottles for the price of one but also the dubious distinction of possessing full bragging rights at any “I had the strongest rum ever” competition.  Right now, I’m one of the few of those.

[17] Sunset Very Strong Overproof 84.5%)

The runner up in the strength sweepstakes. Even at that strength, it has a certain creamy delicacy to it which elevates it above the Marienburg.  Overall, it’s not really suited for anything beyond a mix and more bragging rights — because the hellishly ferocious palate destroys everything in its path. It’s a Great White, sure…like Jaws.

[18] St. Nicholas Abbey Unaged White – Barbados

This is another very approachable white rum, unaged, a “mere” 40% which blew the Real McCoy 3 year old white away like a fart in a high wind. Part of it is its pot still antecedents.  It’s salty sweet (more sweet than salt) with a juicy smorgasbord of pretty flavours dancing lightly around without assaulting you at the same time.  A great combo of smoothness and quiet strength and flavour all at once, very approachable, and much more restrained (ok, it’s weaker) than others on this list.

[19] Vientain Loatan – Laos

Probably the least of all these rhums in spite of being bottled at 56%, and the hardest to find due to it hardly being exported, and mostly sold in Asia. On the positive side is the strength and the tastes, very similar to agricoles.  On the negative some of those tastes are bitter and don’t play well together, the balance is off and overall it’s a sharp and raw rhum akin to uncured vinegar, in spite of some sweet and citrus.  Hard to recommend, but hard to ignore too.  May be worth a few tries to come to grips with it.

[20] Mana’o Rhum Agricole Blanc – Tahiti

Not so unique, not so fierce, not so pungent as other 50% rums on this list, but tasty nevertheless.  Again, like Rum Nation’s Ilha de Madeira, it’s quite easily appreciated because the 50% ABV doesn’t corner you in an alley, grab you by the glottis and shake you down for your spare cash, and is somehow tamed into a more well-behaved sort of beast, with just a bit of feral still lurking behind it all.

[21] La Confrérie du Rhum 2014 Cuvée Speciale Rhum Blanc – Guadeloupe

A hot, unaged, spicy 50% blanc, with an estery nose, firm body and all round excellent series of tastes that do the Longueteau operation proud.  It’s lighter than one might expect for something at this strength, and overall is a solid, tasty and well-put-together white rhum. La Confrerie is a quasi-independent operation run by Benoit Bail and Jerry Gitany and they do single cask bottlings from time to time – their focus is agricoles, and all that knowledge and promotion sure isn’t going to waste.


So there you have it, a whole bunch of modern white rums spanning the globe for you to take a look at (as noted above, I’ve missed some, but then, I haven’t tried them all).  

I used to think that whites were offhand efforts tossed indifferently into the rum lineup by producers who focused on “more serious work” and gave them scant attention, as if they were the bastard offspring of glints in the milkman’s eye. No longer.

Nowadays they are not only made seriously but taken seriously, and I know several bartenders who salivate at the mere prospect of getting a few of these torqued up high-tension hooches to play with as they craft their latest cocktail.  I drink ‘em neat, others mix ‘em up, but whatever the case, it is my firm belief you should try some of the rums on this list at least once, just to see what the hell the ‘Caner is ranting on about.  I almost guarantee you won’t be entirely disappointed.

And bored?  No chance.


Other notes

Consider this a companion piece to Josh Miller’s excellent rundown of 12 agricoles, taken from his perspective of how they fare in a Ti Punch.

Two years after publishing this list I found others, and so published a list of 21 More White Rums.

Aug 222017
 


So the other day a guy on reddit wrote that he was was due for surgery and bored out of his mind and could us redditors perhaps post some facts about rum which he didn’t know?  Well, now, that was a challenge, and while I may have missed the US National Rum Day, the idea took hold of me and after jotting down maybe ten or fifteen points of my own, I sent off a blast to all my rum chums, asking them for small anecdotes and trivia and facts they might know of,  which are not all that well known

In the interests of full disclosure, it must be confessed that I’m a nut for inconsequential information-nuggets – many of them, throwaway or useless factoids though they may be, are often the first threads that lead right down the rabbit hole into the labyrinth where great gnarled old stories are to be found, like abstract minotaurs who prey upon my free time and interests and happily consume both.

So here’s a list – our list – of a whole raft of such trivial pursuit winners, which won’t be unknown to rabid cognoscenti but which are interesting nevertheless; compiled for the benefit of  MaxwellHouse5, and I’m hoping his surgery went well, and my huge thanks and hat tips to all those rum lovers out there who added to it.

****

  • The country with the most distilleries in it is Haiti, with over 500 (I’ve heard it may be much higher).  Most of these are backyard, backhouse, Mom-and-Pop operations and sell to the local market.
  • The strongest commercially available rum is made in Suriname (90% ABV)
  • Sugar cane originated in South-East Asia, not the Caribbean
  • Although rum is made from sugar cane (juice, syrup (“vesou”), molasses), the distilled spirit is sugar free.
  • A Muslim from Persia (now Iran) named Muhammad ibn Zakaria Razi invented the first pot still, called an alembic, in the 9th Century AD.  He was the first to write, draw and describe it, and it should be noted that it lacked a cooling ‘coil’ for a condenser and used a tube instead; moreover, it was not used for distillation of alcohol. The principle of distillation was, mind you, known for centuries before that.
  • The slang word for rum – “grog” – was named after a coat worn by a British Admiral.  The same Admiral was who George Washington’s estate was named after.
  • In Germany, cheap supermarket hooch that isn’t very good (except for a headache)  is referred to as “fusel”, which comes from the word “fuselstoff” (for fusel oils).
  • The first website devoted to rum was created (as far as I can tell) in 1995.
  • Luca Gargano, the famed boss of Velier, does not wear a wristwatch, own a cellphone or drive a car. He can…but choses not to.  As a further aside, Tatu Kaarlas, the Finn who runs the Australian rum wesbite Refined Vices, doesn’t wear a watch either.
  • The Coffey (or columnar) still in its original form was not invented by Aeneas Coffey, but by Robert Stein, whose 1828 still was in turn channelling Sir Anthony Perrier’s patented 1822 whiskey still. Aeneas perfected the design of both.
  • The Zacapa 23 is not 23 years old, and the Opthimus 25 ain’t 25.
  • The only successful armed takeover of an Australian Government was called the Rum Rebellion (though whether it really had anything to do with rum has been questioned) and overthrew William Bligh…yes, that William Bligh.
  • Rum used to be distilled (illegally) in small boats off the coast, in Australia
  • The South Pacific Distillery on Fiji is actually owned by the Coca-Cola Company (it’s part of their diversification strategy)
  • One of the reasons copper stills are so popular among rum makers is because they effectively remove sulphur compounds from the wash
  • Although copper stills are very common, stainless steel stills are also used.  However, there are two stills in Guyana which are made out of wood, and they are the only ones in the world.
  • Almost all boilers on the estates in Martinique run on bagasse, the residue of cane crushing. The eco-champ might well be Rivers Royale in Grenada, which uses a water wheel for crushing cane.
  • The French call their sugar cane juice rhums agricoles (or agriculturals) and rather disdainfully refer to molasses based rums as Industrielles. Every rum maker who uses molasses, in turn, calls their rums “the best.”
  • The revamped Barik Distillery in Haiti was built from scrap metal which included washing machines and car doors.
  • Due to its inland location, St Lucia Distillers receives its molasses deliveries from tankers that anchor in Roseau Bay via a 2km long pipeline that follows the Roseau River. These molasses are from Guyana, and the story goes that when one such shipment was held up some years ago, causing a shortage of rum, riots nearly broke out.
  • In Barbados each still is given a Registration number. Even if removed from use, the still number is never re-assigned to a different still…which would sure as hell interest the guys who obsess over which still produced Velier’s famed Demeraras.
  • Barbados has four Rum Distilleries, but only St. Nicholas Abbey uses fresh pressed sugar cane juice for their rums; they do, however, reduce it to syrup first.
  • The initial rums of St. Nichloas Abbey were sourced from FourSquare, until their own stocks matured.  They are primarily in the original 10, 12, 15 and 18 year old rums.
  • The most expensive commercially available rum in the world is the Appleton Estate 50 year old (retails for around US$5000 when it can be found). Honourable mention goes to the El Dorado 50th Anniversary bottling (which is not 50 years old) at around $3,500. The “commercial” criterion excludes the single bottle of a 1940s J. Wray & Nephew (US$54,000), the 20-bottle Angostura Legacy (US$25,000), the ~US$6,000 St James 1885 or the 1780 Barbados rums found at Harewood.  It also excludes the secondary market values of rums like the Velier Skeldon 1973, or the 1-bottle outturn of the Caputo 1973 which may well be priceless.
  • The rum which has been aged the longest remains the Gordon & MacPhail 1941 Longpond, at 58 years, bottled in 1999.  For the deep-pocketed, it sells for around two thousand euros these days.
  • According to the Spirits Business, Bacardi remains the top selling rum brand, with Tanduay (Phillipines) and McDowell (India) in 2nd and 3rd.  Both of the latter sell primarily to their local markets and Asia.  There’s a story that Tanduay buys pot still rum from DDL to mix in small quantities into its rums,  but this is unconfirmed.
  • In Jamaica, Captain Morgan is made by J. Wray & Newphew (i.e., Appleton).  In the USA, if one strictly adheres to the TTB rules, Captain Morgan is not a rum at all.
  • The last distillery on the small island of Montserrat closed in the 1950s.  It was called Farrell’s Estate.
  • Social media, engagement and festival speakers have pushed the matter of additives and adulteration to become perhaps the single most-discussed issue in the rum world.  However, adulteration of rum has been around at least since the 18th century and is nothing new.  (It’s good that we’re not letting tradition get in the way of reforming the practice).
  • Pusser’s rum is named after the purser, that gent who was in charge of giving sailors their daily tot in the British Royal Navy
  • The daily rum ration (the ‘tot’) began in the British Navy because of the inability to source brandy from France, which was often at war with Britain. Beer took up too much space.  Lemon or lime juice was often added to rum to combat scurvy, which is why Brits were sometimes called ‘Limeys’.  The German navy used sauerkraut (”sour herbs”, mostly pickled cabbage) for the same purpose, hence the pejorative “kraut.”
  • Guyana, which was called British Guiana prior to independence in 1966, and home of the famous El Dorado brand, was once a Dutch colony.  As was New York.
  • Epris, one of the larger distilleries in Brazil, is now distilling primarily fermented rice for vinegar and sake…in Brazil!
  • With respect to the 2-, 3- and 4-letter codings on Cadenhead’s rums, nobody – including Cadenhead – actually knows what they all mean.  One online wit supposed the Trinidadian rum moniker TMAH stood for “Too much alcohol here,”
  • Black Tot Day is generally taken to be July 31st every year, and commemorates (mourns?) the date in 1970 when rum rations were discontinued in the British Royal Navy.  However, the US abolished it far earlier in 1862 (!!).  And the Canadian Navy only stopped the practise in 1972 (March 30th), and the New Zealanders (bless their hearts for holding out as long as they did) finally bowed to the inevitable and ceased the ration in 1990 (28th February, but couldn’t they have waited until April 1st?)
  • The progenitor of all rums is supposedly arrack, made in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) with yeast strains mixed in with fermented red rice
  • Batavia Arrack is used in the spirits market to this day, but also as a flavour/aroma enhancer in the confectionary, tobacco and perfume industries.
  • Jim Beam (the whiskey maker out of the US, whose parent company is Beam Suntory) owns and bottles Cruzan rum
  • There are very few rum producers who have an actual Solera system like the one used in sherry production (this is where the solera method comes from). Santa Teresa in Venezuela and Cartavio in Peru are some of the only producers who uses a Solera to produce some of their rums. Almost all other producers who claim to be making soleras, are in fact just blending rums.
  • Although the term “Angel’s Share” is commonly used in rum to denote the losses due to evaporation during the ageing process, this is actually ported over from the whisky world.  Some parts of the Caribbean use the term “Duppy’s share” – a duppy being a sort of malevolent spirit who drink’s honest people’s rum (among other assorted evils); the word is of Bantu origin.
  • On Game of Thrones, whisky is never mentioned…but rum often is.  Mr. Clegane is not a fan.
  • In spite of the amusingly named Rumdoodle Peak – which is, alas, not named after rum of any kind – Antarctica remains the one continent where rum is not made commercially…though I’m sure someone has a bathtub over there and is brewing some.
  • The fastest selling rum in Compagnie des Indes entire stable of expressions is the Boulet de Canon No. 2, which is a blend.
  • In Jamaica, it is mandatory for distilleries to buy molasses from the government, which in turn buys it on the global commodities exchanges. This led to the following bizarre situations: in 2016, Jamaican distilleries had to distill molasses from Fiji that the government sold them, as it was cheaper…and the government sold the homegrown Jamaican molasses to other countries. And, Worthy Park had to sell its own molasses to the government…and then buy it back for distillation.
  • The Swedish Government initially refused to sell and distribute Compagnie des Indes Caraibes rum, as they felt the picture on the label promoted slavery.  The situation was resolved when it was proven that the picture hearkened back to a period after slavery had been abolished
  • 1% of Alcohol duties collected on any rum imported to the United States is returned to every American distiller producing rum (a big part therefore going to Baccardi). Which means that every bottle of rum coming from around the world and sold in the USA effectively subsidizes and helps the American rum producers to grow against imported rums.
  • “Virgin sugar cane juice” (or honey) is a marketing term for reduced – boiled down – sugar cane juice. It’s nothing special, except in so far that it allows the honey to stay fresh longer without spoiling, as pure juice would.
  • Ageing rum in ex-Bourbon barrels is actually quite recent, being mentioned as a new practice back in the 1940s.  Before that different barrels were used: fortified wine, port and sherry barrels.  Also madeira barrels were likely used back in the 17th and 18th centuries because Madeira was a regular shipping stop on the way to and from the British West Indies and the spirit was popular there at the time.

So there you have it.  Feel free to add a few of your own, or send me a PM to include it.  It’s a lighthearted break from the seriousness of our world and I sure hope MaxwellHouse5 liked it.

***

A lot of patient, funny, knowledgeable people helped put this together, or I’ve sourced the points from their published / posted work, or their notes to me.  In no order, thanks to Josh Miller, Marco Freyr, Alex Van Der Veer, Tatu Kaarlas, Cyril Weglarz, Steve James, Paul Senft, Robin Wynne, Gaetan Dumoulin, Laurent Cuvier, Steve Leukanech, Rob Burr, Matt Pietrek, John Gibbons, John Go, Johnny Drejer, Florent Beuchet, Luca Gargano, Fabio Rossi, Richard Seale, Marcus Stock, and if I’ve left anyone out, really sorry, send me a note and I’ll add you to the Roll of Honour.