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 anythingwhether solid or liquidhad 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 winehowever, 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 Egyptfor 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 powersthough not always of oakteak 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 subjectI’m just scratching the surface, reallybut 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 measuredand 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 themselvesand 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 meanslightningorthunderbolt”), but from proto-Germanic and Old High German rootsit derives fromfoederandfuodarwhich 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 aleI’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 uselessin 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 litersso 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 commonbeing 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 barrelnote 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 poinçona 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 maturesherry 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 shapethinner 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 unclearsome 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 barrelsconsequently, after a single use they are useless there, which creates a massive surplus. The barrels are exportedoften by breaking them down into staves and then reassembling them into hogsheads elsewherefor 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 tunwhen 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 barrelinitially 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 capacitieschosen for easy subdivisionmake 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 onein this case, the American Standard barreland 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 sizesthe 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 unknownit 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 sizeknown 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 sizeit 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 tradethey 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 abarrel makeror 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 reinforcementthis 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

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Introduction

More and more resources are coming online even asor perhaps becausean 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 infoit’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).


GeneralSocial 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. The question “What do I start with?” is most commonly posted on this subreddit.

/r/RumSerious (Full disclosureI 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 going on here yet but the content isn’t half bad IMHO.

/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 dormanthere, 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 opinionsyou’ll never be in doubt where he’s coming fromand 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 RatingsThis 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) – Oxford-based 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 RumMarius Elder does short form reviews of mostly the independent bottlers’ scene. What he posts is amazing, because he does flightsof similar bottlers, similar years, similar geographical placesto 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 rumsalso 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 MalternativesJohn, based in the Philippines, writes occasionally on rum for Malt online magazine. Good tasting notesand 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.

Others

  • 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 bloggereverto have sent rums for an independent laboratory analysis, over and beyond using a hydrometer.
  • Rum Revelations (Canada) – Occasional and valuable content by Ivar de Laat, who is usually to be found commenting on FB’s various fora.
  • Rum Diaries Blog (UK) – Busy with work these days, great content and reviews, some of which are quite in-depth. Doesn’t post as much as before but any time he does, it’s worth looking at.
  • Rum Shop Boy (UK) – Simon’s Johnson’s excellent website of rum reviews. Personal issues make him less prolific than before, but he assures me he has not walked away and the hits do indeed keep on comin’.
  • 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.
  • PhilthyRum (Australia) – I’m going to put Phil’s site on here, though it has not been updated much this year, because he’s one of the few who post about and from Australia. Nuff said.
  • Québec RhumThis 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.
  • Rum Gallery (USA) – now dormant, 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 doesbecause 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.

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

  • RumPorterThis 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.
  • Floating Rum ShackPete Holland’s personal site, quite apart from his day job as a UK rum educator, brand ambassador and suave Fabio-esque model for the labels of That Boutique-y Rum Company. Of particular interest is his annual listing of the dates of the world’s rum festivals (much disrupted in 2020, of course).
  • The Rum LabThere’s a website for this, with useful stuff like the Rum Connoisseur of the week, various infographics and newsmy 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.

© 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 visitssome like the leisurely examination of a subject down to the nth degree.

  • Cocktail WonkWithout 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 NotesThis 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. As of this writing, there are over 7,000 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 8,000 entries.
  • American Distillery IndexProduced 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.
  • Sugar ListsThis 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:
  • The Boston ApothecaryVery 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.
  • PeterRum 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.

Podcasts / Videos

  • Five minutes of rum – 87 (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.
  • Single Cast (French)The big names of the Francophone rhum sceneBenoit Bail, Jerry Gitany, Laurent Cuvier, Christine Lambert, Roger Caronirun these fortnightly podcasts, which make me despair at the execrable quality of my French language skills. Great content.
  • RalfyWell, 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.coA 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 andRum Talksessions with distillery people
  • RumcastThis podcast was very busy from April to August of 2020, then declined, probably due to the attention switching to Zavvy (Will Hoekinga is part of it, so that may be why). Still alive, though.
  • 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.
  • Rum on the CouchDave 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 style.
  • The New World Rum ClubA new YouTube entrant, fresh out of the gate in January 2021 and already the content has me goingwow!” The Foursquare ECS overview is stunning (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 RumAnother 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 energy and the guests he brings in; the easygoing back-and-forth makes each video a comfortable and fun watch.

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 stand 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 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.
  • [Shameless plug alert!] The Age of Velier’s Demeraras. My own favourite, 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 challengenot 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.


AppendixBooks 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 RumA 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 reallythe 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 thereand 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.
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 thatand 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 rumswhether bartender, barfly or boozehoundknows 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” rumsindeed, for a long time they were the only overproofs known to homo rummicus, the common rum drinkerand 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 Depressioncocktail 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 existand 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 existthe 69% Harewood House Barbados rum bottled in 1780 is an examplebut 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 Americait had its origins in the fur trade and trading posts of the British-run northern part of the continentbut 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 alcoholbut 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 itis 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 usedit 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 undergroundwhile simultaneously and paradoxically making it more popular. Certainly the strength of such a rum made it useful to have aroundfrom 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 itbut 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 madethis 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 stilldistillate would have come off after a second pass or a retort at about 75% abvbut 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 normand 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 reputationsas 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 freethat 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 mixesthe 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 twothe Zombie and the Swizzleabsolutely 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 just as they launched the Don Q brand with a newly acquired columnar stillthey 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 kinds.

The fortieswar years were quiet for 151s, but by the 1950swith 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 rumsfrom Puerto Rico in particular, but also from Jamaica and British Guianato 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 styleat 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 culturefor them, 151s served another purpose altogether, that of getting hammered fast, and seeing if one could survive itsome sort of proof-of-manhood kind of thing. Stupidity, hormones, youth, party lifestyle, the filmic romance of California beaches, ignorance, take your pick. For yearsdecades, eventhis 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, andmore commonlythe 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 Centurya 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 ofme tooandlet’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 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, blendswhether high proof or notalready 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, andmore importantlywhich 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 affordableand 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’ mindsand 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 (the 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 themand that isn’t manyare 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 oneexcept 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 tastethey 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 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). 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 151so 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 to round out the portfolioDon 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 sometimesalmost 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 LowndesRum, 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 history and when its various rums were first released, changed, reblended, remade, 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
  • 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 RicoSerralles)
  • 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, USAHood River Distillers)
  • Mount Gay 151 (Barbados)
  • Old Nassau 151 Rum (Bahamas)
  • Palo Viejo 151 Ron de Puerto Rico (Barcelo Marques & Co, Puerto RicoSerralles)
  • Paramount “El Caribe” 151 Rum (US Virgins 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 151sjuice 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 happenedsome 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 directionstronger, 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 rumsbut 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. 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) that 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 minedefinitive” – I’m sure there’s stuff lurking around waiting to pounce on my glottis and mug my palate someplacebut it’s a good place to start, and better yet, I’ve tried most and 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.

Hope you like, hope you can find one or two, and whatever the case, have funbut 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 ruman industrial column-still filtered white rarely iswith 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 stillyou’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 madeit 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 (minusoverproof”). 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 rumwhose antecedents stretch back to the 1950sis 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 notprobably for a year or two. The taste, thoughwow. 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 groundand 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 correctthe 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 themselvesjust 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 intentthey 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 OzI’ve not so far managed to acquire one. I’ve heard it’s a beast, thoughso 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 experienceI 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 therefor 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%

Australia adds another to the list with this European bottling of rum from the land of Oz. It’s a sharp knife to the glottis, a Conrad-like moment of stormy weather. What surprises, after one recovers, is how traditional it seems, how unexceptional (aside from the power) – you walk in expecting a Bundie, say, but emerge with a seriously strong Caribbean-type rum. That doesn’t make it bad in any sense, just a very interesting overproof from a country whose rums we don’t know enough about..

[75] 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 myselfperhaps 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 disappointedthere’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.

RomdeluxeWild Tiger” 2018, Jamaica/Denmark – 85.2%

Wild Tiger is one of three “wildlife” series of rums released thus far by Romdeluxe out of Denmark, their first and so far their strongest. 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.

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 exportthe 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 drunkand 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 Riversrums, 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.


Late Breaking Additions and Honourable Mentions

Unsurprisingly, people were tripping over themselves to send me candidates that should make the list, and there were some that barely missed the cutin 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.

DOKTrelawny Jamaica RumAficionados 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 theWillie Wonka of alcoholapplied 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 worstbecause 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 cautionand 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 makeuntil the next one, and Pete Holland of the Floating Rum Shack twigged me on to it (that’s his picture, so thanks Pete!) remarkingOnce 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 purchaseand 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.

 


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 amazingfor 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 wallbeyond 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 industrythat it was all inevitable anyway, and maybe they were just lucky bystanders who shone in reflected light of greater awarenessI 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 Distillersnew 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 ABVany 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 producersexcepting those prohibited by law from messing arounddenied (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 offit quite literally changed the rum landscape overnight. For the first time there was proofclear, testable, incontrovertible proofthat 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, 4FineSpirits, Cyril 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 movementJamaican, Bajan and St Lucian rums in particular were were more than happy to trumpet their own purity, as did practically every independent bottler out therejust 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 discussionsthese 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 detractorsit 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 addedbut 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 existand 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 IIThe 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 thatbecause 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 relativityand 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 effectivethough 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 rumson three separate occasions rums had been released at close or equal to 20 yearsthey 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 designeach 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 Guyanathe 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 foundit 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 oneRefined Vicesfrom 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 questsI 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 rumsEnmore 1988 and 1990, Albion 1989, Uitvlugt 1990 and Blairmont 1991. Andnobody 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 timeit’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 Demerarasand, 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 themboth described the Enmore 1995 from the 2011 seasonand 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 vituperationsome thought it a cheap shot by DDLbut 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 blendsremain 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 anywherewere 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 Europeall 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 companiesmaderum for sale around the worldbut 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 everywhereI 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 furtherthe 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 variationspeople like Steve Remsberg, profiled here and here or Luca Gargano, or Martin Cate or the Burrs. Rum culture in the general publicboth in perception and consumptionwas 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 oldOld New England Rumfrom 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 producersrum 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 bookstwo 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 calledThe 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 ingredientthe 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 agentbut 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 interactionand 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 permissionand for the record he refused it to me when I asked after passing review #50, notingcorrectlythat 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 createdwhether aged, blended, high-proofed or all these at oncenever 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 ownerLuca 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 himhe 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 thesehistoricalfigures 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 bloggerspublished 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 likeso 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 stocksto 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 meI 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 scoresthose 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

NPerfumed 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.

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

FLovely, 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

NoseA 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 fruitraisins, dark grapes, datesanise, vanilla, flowers, also peaches and prunes and plums, very deep, very rich.

PalateCoffee, 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.

FinishSpices 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

NoseFor 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.

PalateSoft and generally quite approchable, without losing any of the qualities imparted by the robust proof. Fruits are forward this timecherries, 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.

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

El Dorado 1988 25 YO

43%, tropical ageing

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

PalateSweet 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.

FinishUnclear, 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)

NoseRich, 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.

PalateMore 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.

FinishShort, 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

NoseRefined, 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.

PalateSomehow 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.

FinishCrisp, 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)

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

PVegetable 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 itoh yeah.

FLong and dry. Soy sauce, more veggie soup, sugar water.

Velier Port Mourant 1972 36 YO

47.8%, tropical and continental ageing

NoseHeavenly. 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.

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

FinishAll 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):

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