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.

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.


Wine foudres

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).

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.

The sherry industry has no such standardized barrel, but 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 French wine industry, both of which also exceed 1000 liters and can go as large as 5000 liters. 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.

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.

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.


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 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, not reviews, and if he continues like he started, this channel is going places.

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 List of Miscellaneous Rum Trivia.

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”.

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.

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.

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.
Mar 132013
 

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

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

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

Pro Digital:

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

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

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

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

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

My all time favourite walkabout film camerathe light, flawless FM3a

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

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

Pro-film

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

File:London , Kodachrome by Chalmers Butterfield edit.jpg

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Mar 132013
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 132013
 

Ahh, rum. The wonderful distilled product of cane. I feel the same way about it as the poor deluded souls from the Peat Clan feel about their Islays. Partly, of course, that comes from my backgroundalmost half my life was spent in the Caribbeanand while my first recorded drunk was done with local vodka (don’t ask), it is to the rums that my primary allegiance was given, and where it remains.

Rums as a general rule originate from the Caribbean, but there are others from as far afield as Canada UK, USA, Australia, Fiji, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Mauritius, among many others. The precursors to rum are supposed to date back to antiquity. Development of fermented drinks produced from sugarcane juice is believed to have first occurred either in ancient India or China, and spread from there. An example of such an early drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years. Marco Polo also recorded a 14th-century account of avery good wine of sugarthat was offered to him in what is modern-day Iran.

Whatever the case for the ancients, the first distillation of rum took place on the sugar plantations of the West Indies in the 17th century. Plantation slaves first discovered that molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, can be fermented into alcohol. Later, distillation of these alcoholic by-products concentrated the alcohol and removed impurities, producing the first true rums. Tradition suggests that rum first originated on the island of Barbados; and although my experience is that the Bajans like to take credit for doing everything first (these are, after all, the modest folk who sent a telgram to King George sayingYour Majesty, you may join the war: Barbados is on your side,” at the onset of WW2), it’s likely that in this case their claim is probably true. A 1651 document from Barbados stated, “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor”. Sounds like many a rum I’ve had (some from Barbados, ha ha) when not having a pot to piss in in my youth.

Back in 2009 when I started writing, the only non-West Indian rum I have sampled is the Bundaberg from Australia: being in Calgary, even with a stellar shop like Willow Park around the corner, does little to improve the level of selection, since the demographics of Western Canada clearly favour the single malts (much to the Last Hippie’s satisfaction). It always frustrates me to see the shelves groaning under the weight of the multitudinous peats, and closed, securely fastened glass cabinets with the >$500 whiskeys reposing snugly within, while, in some raggedy-ass, dusty, out-of-the-way corner, the rums languish, sadly unrepresented by any truly wide-ranging (or premium) choice. It was for this reason that I pounced on the great English Harbour 25 that day, because, as I explained to Keenan, it’s so rare to see any rum of real aged quality in Calgary that one must risk the wife’s wrath when one does see an above-average sample come on sale. (In passing I’ll note that my wife accepted that expensive purchase with no more than a raised eyebrow and a sigh, though I believe she laughed herself silly to listen to the Bear and I sip it with such delicate lip-smacking, fastiduous sniffing, and ecstatic cluckings and gurglings and murmurs of delight, all the while dabbing tears from the corners of our eyes.)

The selections I see in the various stores I now frequent, have been limited to the staples of single-digit Bacardi, Appleton, Captain Morgan, Mount Gay, Flor de Cana, Havana Club and Lambs with a few others thrown in from time to time. Occasionally I see the English Harbour, Pyrat’s or Screech, but it’s the big guns, the older vintages, that are so sadly lacking here (as well as the experts who can discourse for hours on the nose, mouthfeel and finish, and identify every fruit within by its first name). I won’t go so far as to say we never see the good stuff here in the sticks: we just never see the good stuff all the time. One can always find a Glenfiddich 21 year old or a Johnny Walker Blue Label in a glass case somewhere, but good luck finding Appleton 30 year old, the DDL 21, the English Harbour 25 or that mythical XM 50 (which, for the life of me I cannot recall where I heard about, but for some reason I’m absolutely certain exists in spite of two decades fruitless search for either a bottle or a mention on Google).

Be that as it may, Liquoratureand its successor, the Lone Caner sitehas made the whole business of acquiring and tasting rum a lot more systematic than was previously the case. Being the only banana-man in the joint helps in that I really do like rums more than that obscure Scottish drinkmaybe it’s the sweetness, or maybe it’s just the obstinate desire to be different. Whatever the case, it’s a diverting and harmless pastime, allows me to score points of the Last Hippie (or him off me), brings enjoyment and fun to the party, and permits me to indulge my writing. The fact that I also taste some of the best rums in the world while attacking some poor sod’s choice of book (and then get to pen an essay on the subject) is merely a bonus.

Hope you like the reviews. I enjoyed writing them as much as I did researching them (>hic<)

Mar 132013
 

(First posted on Liquorature, February 2010)

Are we all a bunch of elitist wannabe snobs?

I occasionally think we are. We can be as snooty as a veteran somelier at the Ritz watching a Hawaiian-shirted redneck walk in, and I say that because it ocurred to me the other day that while weI!! — pay lip service to thelesser rumswhose age is measured in single digits (or none at all, as if the maker were too ashamed to say how young the product is), the truth is that we all have a predilection for the older stuff. I confess that sometimes merely the price will get me to take a second look. Just look at the reviews that are up: 12 year, 18 year, 21 year, 25 year. Of the eleven rum reviews that are up right now, only three are of rums less than ten years old, and the Bruichladdich is a marginal call, since it is a limited edition of a very good rum indeed (and its price reflected that).

And yet, that’s unfair. The masses of the unwashed riff-raff and the hordes of the illiterate peasantry such as I, for many years drank nothing but the low-end stuff (and if you doubt me, just look at my nostalgic review of the XM5). We probably know the older stuff is so good precisely because we drank so much backwoods moonshine and low-class hooch in our disreputable and best-forgotten pasts, and therefore appreciate the good rums more by way of simple comparison.

But I don’t mind admitting this: in my pantry reposes, unashamed, a bottleactually, a massive frigginjugof the regular Appleton 5 year old (at least, I assume it’s a fiveI’m not precisely sure) and when I drink on my own or with The Bear, I don’t bring out the velvet smoking jacket, light the candles and call for my hound while the faithful wife lights the fire and brings the slippers; neither do I trot out the expensive vintage, the cigars, mineral water and fancy glasses to taste the good stuff. I just sit my tail down in a pair of mouldy shorts that have seen better days, have a bowl of ice nearby (a bowl’ice in the vernacular) to take a handful from now and then, scratch my behind, and have a damned drink. If the Bear is boozing along, then we simply have a drink together, and not having the pressure to review something top of the line frees us up to actually talk.

My point being that these rums of unstellar vintage and uncertain provenance, are often the ones we turn to when we’re not being overly snooty and revert back to our more proletarian roots, or when we have forty people descending on our houses to imbibe (and we lock up the silverware next to the rarer vintages to prevent pilferage). And more, on occasion these unprepossessing rums surprise, delight and wow us with their qualitythe English Harbour 5-year immediately springs to mind.

I think I’ll therefore make it a point to go lowball and make a concerted effort to write reviews of the rums that crowd the shelves of Sobey’s and the backgrounds of us cheaposand indeed, may even be better known than the high-falutinexclusive multi-decade and multi-dollar ambrosias which fill so many of the rum pages on the web. This has nothing to do with economicsthis post is being written, after all, by a moron who blew two hundred bucks on a single bottle of rum oncebut because I truly believe that not only is it interesting to see how the various blends and ages get more rarefied up the scale, but we develop a better palate for the good stuff when we drink more crap.

Being who I am, I must also confess that it’s a hell of a lot more fun to write about something bad than it is to be effusive about something good. To write about a superlative piece of craft requires no particular talenteveryone knows it’s good and you can’t add much to that. But to vent one’s spleen on a liquid turd that you swear you’ll never touch again, and explain it in flowery prosewell now, that takes skill.

Mar 132013
 

So what exactly are pot stills or columnar stills, batch vs continuous stills, steam distillation, freezing distillation or fractional distillation in the production of rum (or that other scottish drink)? And which one leads to better rum? I mean, I’ve made mention ofused the original pot stillsin my Pusser’s review, and inClassifying rumsI noted that useage of pot- versus columnar-stills is to some extent geographic in nature and affects the output. And there’s something traditional and evocative about the terms. But what are they?

All stills (the word derives from old middle english ‘distilling’) are descendants of the ancient alembics, which were simple devices to capture vapours and condense them. The word alembic comes from the Arabic, and the supreme richness of the irony that a people opposed to alcohol inventing the first stills is one of those things that makes history worth reading, to me. Those who remember their high school chemistry (or like me, simply like blowing up chem labs with weird concoctions), will recall that alcohols vapourize at a lower temperature than waterall stills are based on this fundamental property . (They also freeze at a lower temperature, which is why freeze distillation can be used in colder climes to produce alcohol by skimming off the unfrozen alcohol settling on the frozen water beneath it).

A pot still is a simple closed container containing the ‘washor ‘wineor ‘mash’, to which heat is applied. Most are metalcopper supposedly gives the best results because of chemical interactions that enhance taste and also removes sulphur compoundsbut I’ve heard of glass, clay and even wooden ones being used. Vapours arising at the top of the ‘potas the boiling point is approached are drawn off via a tube or coil, which is run through a colder liquid, thereby condensing the alcohol rich mixture. This mixture is about 25-30% alcohol by volume, and all alembics or moonshine stills usually stop here. However, more sophisticated pot stills take this primary resultthe so-called ‘low wines’ – and run it into a secondary pot still for a second run, which produces a colourless ~70% ABV resultant. Moonshiners add ‘thumper kegsor ‘doublersto their stills to get precisely this effect. This is then drained off into casks or barrels for the final maturation period, and the ageing here produces the brown colours associated with rums or the scottish tipple.

A pot still is a good example of batch distillation: the pot is charged with one batch at a time, and when it is done, another one is introduced. It was and remains, therefore, comparatively energy inefficient and time consuming: but its prime disadvantages were its expense and the fact that each batch would taste different, and so quality see-sawed widely.

Several doublers can be added in series, each draining off the high proof alcohol mixture into the next thumper keg, boiling that, creaming off the higher proof vapours and sending that into the next keg in line, and so on. This is, however, very energy inefficient, and it was discovered that putting pots one above the other is more practical, faster and resulted in higher volumes, and a constantly circulating wash that could be recharged without pause. This is the basic principle of a columnar still, in a continuous distillation cycle.

File:Column still.svgA columnar still is a more complex series of vertically arranged pot stills, where, instead of real pots, there are varying levels filled with packing or ‘bubble platesin one of two columns. The wash (sometimes known as ‘distiller’s beer’) is injected into this column, called an analyzer (A) and falls, while hot steam is introduced at the bottom (2), and rises. The rising hot vapour, low in alcohol, starts to condense as it rises to the cooler upper layers; since the temperature of each of the higher layers is successively lower then the one beneath it, the vapour in equilibrium with the falling liquid is successively richer in alcohol (this has to do with partial vapour pressures and is more mathematically complex than I need to discuss: but the physics is sound).The highly enriched vapour is then taken off and drained (4) into the rectifier (B). The more volatile alcohol vapours rise to the top and are drawn off and condensed. The remaining impurities and ‘loweralcohols condense by using the cooler wash itself (1) to liquify it. The impurities are removed by filters and other reagents, and the resultant joins the wash at stage 5, and is recycled into the analyzer.Because the vapours may have several different kinds of alcohols at (7), each with its own condensation point, the condensing vapours can be drawn off at any level in the rectifier, each giving a different fraction of alcohol (I have simplified the process for ease of expression), or strength: this is why the process is also called fractional distillation, andexactly the same process is used in petroleum refining to produce differing kinds of products from a single feedstock source (there is of course catalytic cracking as well, but doesn’t apply to likker and so I decline to go further in that direction).

This is the great advantage over pot-stills, because while a typical pot still can get a mixture that is 40-50% alcohol on a first or second pass, the columnar still can have a vapour alcohol content of close to 96% with less energy input. As well, feedstock (the wash) can be introduced continuously since enriched vapour is drawn off automatically on a constant basis. Columnar stills benefited because they offered speed, immense capacity, greater economies of scale, significantly lower unit rate costs and more consistent qualitybut they did cost more, and so required a greater capital outlay of the kind only businesses could muster.

All of this is fine and dandy, I can hear the rummies and scotch-lovers grumble, but which one produces the better end product? After all, pot-stills have a long and noble tradition and are still used (Pusser’s, for example). Quality control and chemistry have improved to the point where pot stills can make consistently high-tension hooch that isn’t noticeably different from one batch to the next.

Most light rums are produced from continuous stills, and are highly purified and blended, perhaps even aged for a few months, or charcoal filtered, in order to produce a smoother palate. Heavier, darker rums are traditionally made in industrial-sized pot stills, which are less efficient and have carry-overs from congeners (additives both intended and not, such as caramel, esters, phenols or apeat taste”). But there’s no hard and fast rule, as far as I can tell.

Most Caribbean islands and the South American mainland use columnar stills, with Guyana, Martinque and Barbados utilizing both kinds. Bundie is distilled in Australia using column stills, as are all Asian rums made in Thailand and the Phillipines.

Speaking for myself, I can honestly say I have no preference. The distillation method, to me, is less important than that of the ageing the end product undergoes, and the additives put in. The older rums have been the best I’ve had so far, with honourable mention going to that famous working class tipple, the EH5. The purpose of this article has not been to rank one method against the other, but simply to explain what they mean, and while some detail has been omitted in the interest of clarity, I hope that’s what I’ve managed to achieve here.

 

Mar 132013
 

It seems simple to say that an 80-proof rum is actually just 40% alcohol by volume based on a straightforward mathematical operation, but strictly speaking, it is not true. Actually, using the historical British method in force until 1980, a 40% ABV drink is 70 proof

It has long been a problem to decide exactly how strong a given drink was (or is). From the ancient times, Archimedes’s principle was used to determine specific gravities (i.e., density) by use of hydrometers, but I can trace no records that show the consistent, state-mandated application of the principle to establishing the alcohol content of spirits. In any event, for most of history, brewing and distilling were primarily cottage industries in an overwhelmingly agricultural world, and while rudimentary regulations existed regarding quality control, it was not until the era of industrial mass production around the 18th century and the usual attendant evil of taxation, that consistency and proof of strength became something to be sought after.

The word proof as applied to alcoholic beverages takes its name from the exercise undergone by any rum during the Royal Navy days of yore, as well assubsequentlythe tests a spirit had to go through to rate its strength for taxation purposes. In short, a proof spirit was the most diluted (weak) form of that spirit which would still support the combustion of gunpowder. Not surprisingly, the Royal Navy was intimately involved in this: in order to show that the rum stocks on board were unadulterated, gunpowder was doused with the spirit and set alight. If it ignited, then it was proof, or over proof; if it did not, the liquor was deemed to have too much water and was underpoof. It was discovered that a ratio of 7:4 of alcohol to water was just enough to support combustion. This was deemed “100 degrees proof”. Naturally, this was more of a rule of thumb than anything else, since quality or type of gunpowder was never taken into account.

(The story may also be anecdotal, since a master gunner would need to know the best kind and amount of gunpowder, depending on burn rates, to use on which sized cannonto prevent explosion prior to expelling the cannonballand having gunpowder doused in alcohols of varying strengths gave him quick measures of burn rates; also, fuses soaked in alcohol and gunpowder were common the prevent them being doused by seawater during battles, and gunpowder and/or rum was often added to drinking water as a preservativebut I digress).

In order to address mankind’s innate love of complexity, clearer and more complicated definitions of strength emerged. First, a legal standard was promulgated in the early 18th century, stating that aproof spiritwas half rainwater and half spirit proven by the gunpowder method (this would roughly approximate to today’s ABV measurement); a gallon of proof spirit like this, with a density of 0.923 was deemed to weigh 7lbs 12ozs at 10.5°C (51°F).

By the third decade of the 17th century, tax was being levied on drinks depending on the alcohol content, and a Clarke’s Hydrometer was developed, adopted and stayed in use until 1817. Clarke’s hydrometer was quoted in the 1762 law (and again in 1802) defining a standard gallon of spirits: six parts spirits and one part water by weight, and weighing 7 pounds, 13 ounces at 50°F. It depended on its proper functioning by being bobbed in the liquid, and being calibrated against liquids of known densities, like water or pure ethyl alcohol.

The problem with all such hydrometers to that time was that they worked properly if there was a constant, reliable temperature, and there was only alcohol and water in the mixture…which of course was not always the case. Tax evaders constantly added other ingredientsmolasses, spices, sweeteners and so onwhich increased the density of the liquid without affecting its alcoholic properties (alcohol is less dense than water, the principle on which all such hydrometers function).

Finally, in 1817, the more accurate Sikes’s thermometer became the legal method for determining proof: it was established that using this instrument (pretty much just a refined version of Clarke’s) thatproven spiritswere at least 57.1% alcohol by volume and 49.28% alcohol by weightthe next century and a half of British proof measures (and therefore much of the rest of the world) were based on this number. It was still, however, primarily established by weights, not volumesthese were calculated indirectly. Too, the British Navy did its own ongoing measurements of the gunpowder test (which retained a peculiar longevity) and discovered that the ideal strength for gunpowder to ignite was actually 95.5 degrees of English proofthis equated to 54.5% ABV and therefore if one sees any navy rum at either 57.1% or 54.5% (like the Navy Neaters for example, issued at 95.5 degrees) then it’s okay and there’s no mistake.

Europe settled on the Gay-Lussac system developed by the famous chemist. He invented ancentesimal alcoholometerwhich is a hydrometer calibrated to 100 percentage by volume divisions, and also provided the theoretical background for its use in an 1824 paper. The system became law in France in 1884 and was adopted by the EU in 1973, and is volumetric in nature.

However, time marches on, as do measures, and the term of proof as defined by Great Britain is no longer in use. All spirits are now measured for strength in terms of % alcohol by volume, and while this is not quite half the old proofing formula, it’s close enough for Government work, apparently. The United States regulations on alcohol state that the proof of an alcoholic beverage is twice its alcohol content expressed as percentage by volume at 60°F. So an 80-proof whisky is 40% alcohol. The Europeans used the Gay-Lussac method, and this is now expressed in degrees, not percentages (the numbers come out the same).

These days, even hydrometers are archaic relics of a less exacting past. Modern measurements of proof rely on pycnometry, hydrostatic balances and (now) electronic densimetry, though all still rely on aspects of Gay-Lussac’s principle. Other more labour intensive and exacting methods fell by the wayside while new ones are constantly being bandied about (like infrared analysis). At end, they all measure the amount of ethyl alcohol in a given sample. And all of that is still expressed in simple terms: proof.

In summary then: in the 1950s, say, a given whisky or rum could be quoted as being 80 proof if measured in the US, 40° proof if in Europe or 70 proof in the UK (and still others based on mass, in some US states). But global standards are now based on simple alcohol-by-volume measures of proof and companies regularly place ABV % on the bottles (sometimes also the proof using older terminology). The methods of assessment have gotten more complex even as the terms remain the same as those from three hundred years ago. It’s like the width of all modern railroad tracks conforming to the width of Roman roads which themselves were based on the width of wagon tracks dictated by the span of two oxen hitched up side-by-side…

It really is enough to drive a man to drink.

Mar 312012
 

I really don’t like the rums listed here.

It’s appreciated that if there ever was a list to piss people off, this is it. Maltsters will snicker into their sporrans to see one of their pet peeves taken down a few notches. Rum pundits will in turns be offended or delighted, depending on their viewpoint and their own predilections for rums. Others will nod (I hope). We do ten best lists, or top ten lists or “best of whatever” listsnot often that you see a list of the bottom feeders (although I’m definitely not the first).

The genesis of this list is actually not in any kind of rabid and face-melting dislikemore in my snarkiness at being taken for a ride with overpriced crap, or with crap period. Some of these should come with advisories.

It’s kind of anticipated that the (actually rather short) list presented here will raise some eyebrows, please a few, and incur the wrath of others, and that’s okay. As I’ve mentioned before, a review of any kind involvesas it mustan element of personal opinion and subjectivity. This is mine. You can take it as seriously as you like, or laugh at it. Hopefully a bit of both

1. Pyrat’sboth the XO and the Cask 23. Not deserving to be called rums, these drinks are more like liqueurs. The orange nose and forceful taste overwhelms all others. The greatest disappointment must be the Cask 23, supposedly originating from DDL’s high ester still, but at end is just a well dressed tart with sweaty armpits, costing way over her true value. That’ll teach me to buy something just ‘cause it’s in a glass case.

Nose: Orange. Lots of orange. We’re talking Florida on steroids here.

Taste: Orange with an orange hint and tangerine citrus cricket bat to the face

Fade: Short and bitchy for the XO; smoother and longer for the Cask 23. Hints of orange

Assessment: just a shade too much citrus in there

Why I dislike it: overpriced, overhyped, and I really hate the orange. Telling me it comes from a high ester still with unique flavour profile doesn’t help me, unfortunatelyit still tastes likeummman orange.

2. Doorlys XO. Didn’t get this the first time, and after three more tries, I still don’t. Weak, pussilanimous wuss of a rum. It’s so low key that its piano seems to lack keys altogether. No yohohos, cutlasses or pistols hereat best you might say it’s the effete cabin boy in Captain Morgan’s galley, and to this day, I’ve never heard Clint’s comment betteredthis thing is the Prince Myshkyn of rums. For those who like delicate bouquets and subtle whiffs it may be the cat’s meowme, I like my rums to be rums, and this ain’t it.

Nose: Huh? Oh yeahsome alcohol and sugar water

Taste: Faint caramel; after straining for half an hour, I might sense a seam of molasses in the bedrock of nothing-in-particular

Finish: Short, pointless, dreary

Assessment: Waste of my money. Too delicate and weak for a real rum. Any kind of mixer would be like a Buxton mosquito landing on a Bajan mosquito netwhich is to say, too bad for the net.

Why I dislike it: simply too weak at everything. It doesn’t even work as a mixer, because anything you add to Doorly’s shreds it utterly. If I wanted anything this gentle or subtle, I’d take a glass of water and chuck a drop of Bacardi 151 into it.

3. Bundaberg. Even Aussies seem to frothingly despise the rum from Queensland. My friend Keenan said he’d rather eat curried dingo sh*t that try it again, and while I’m not quite that in hate with this raw, pestilential hooch, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m glad I didn’t have to shell out for it, but he did. As I understand it, it’s still sitting on his shelf three years laterhe may be waiting to paint his house and use it for a thinner, or feed to me on my next visit.

Nose: Curried dingo. Just kidding. Alcohol reek, rotting grapes, peeling cardboard

Taste: Horrible. A reek of cloying fly-infested sugar water left to stand in the outback for a day

Finish: sharp, crabby, disapprovinglike my mother-in-law’s face after a two night pub crawl

Assessment: A rum only a mother could love.

Why I dislike it: taste is just too far in the outback for me

 

The Kraken Black Spiced Rum

4. Kraken. Oh my God, what is it about this inky overproof that makes people go into transports of ecstasy over it? The excessive vanilla and flavourings, the sweetness, what passes for texture? The 46%? I’m at a loss to understand it. This is as commercial a rum as it’s possible to make from a base of alcohol to which additives are poured with the reckless abandon of a leaping base jumper. It’s neither fish nor fowlyou can’t really class it as a sipper since it’s too raw, and it’s too adulterated to be a mixer of any kind, so why even bother?

Nose: vanilla. That’s it

Taste: more vanilla, some liquorice, with a molasses background struggling vainly to emerge before being eviscerated by the spice

Finish: dark and strong and raw. This rum does not like you.

Assessment: mix if you must, enjoy over ice if you can. I’m avoiding it

Why I dislike it: cheap, hollow rum sold at a premium it doesn’t earn or deserve. It’s simply spiced itself out of existence without regard for true quality.

5. Momento. For a company that makes the much better Potter’s which has no pretensions to being anything but a cocktail base and a pub mixer (and a good one at that), this golden rum just doesn’t work for me. Bar rums are easy to make: this one achieves a kind of dizzying grandeur of badness even though it is rather cheapand that may be its sole redeeming feature aside from the nifty bottle.

Nose: herbal, grassy, light fruits

Taste: Light, slightly dry, undistinguished. Not smooth.

Finish: short sharp jab to the schnozz.

Assessment: it’s too light to mix well, and therefore shares my main reasons for generally avoiding agricoles, which Momento seems to want to emulate (poorly) with this product.

Why I dislike it: just fails on all levels and even as a mixer I can’t really say it does anything for me. I tried it with just coke (how can anyone or anything mess up a simple Cuba Libre?) and even that didn’t work.

6. Ron Barcelo Anejo. Ron Barcelo makes some nice productsthis, to me, isn’t one of them, and I can trace it right back to the 37.5% strength, which simply does not impart or share flavour that even a smidgen extra proof would. Sure it’s only $25 or so. But so what?

Nose: Faint caramel, bananas and a barely perceptible hint of coffee

Taste: Thin at best with molasses and some citrus that wasn’t sure it wanted to be there. It ended up bailing just as I managed to identify it.

Finish: Short, weak and seemed to be ashamed to be there at all: vanished like a fart in a hurricane.

Assessment: If you’re going to make a rum, for God’s sake make one. Don’t dumb it down or dilute it to catatonia: what on earth is the point of 37.5%?

Why I dislike it: I can’t get drunk fast enough, it does nothing for me neat, it can’t be properly mixed, it’s insulting to call it a chick rum, and it just doesn’t duel with your palate the way anything stronger would, should, and does.

7. XM Five year old. “‘Arry, ‘it ‘e ‘pon ‘e ‘ead wit’ a ‘ammer!!” I can hear my old time bush squaddies roar to a particularly large compadre we all shared (called “Biggers”) so he can donk me for my impertinence. Sorry guys, but it’s true. Drink thisneat or in a mixand then switch to Bacardi or Appleton V/X or others. You feel the difference.

Nose: As scrawny and savage as an alley cat that found no mice. Sharp, searing nose of orange peel and maybe some burnt sugar

Taste: Vanilla, caramel, some kind of fruit jam (but not the kind your mommy made with such love, let me assure you)

Finish: The cat still doesn’t like you, and them claws is sharp on the back end.

Assessment: Cheap backdam hooch made for the bush is all it is. If you don’t care what you get drunk on, maybe this one will do you just fine. I know whereof I speak on this one, trust me.

Why I dislike it: It smacks of laziness and good-enough that offends me for some reason. We must move beyond such crap and demand that Banks DIH make better. If DDL can, why can’t they?

8. Whaler’s. This is a variation of the Kraken above, and when I say that the Kraken is marginally better, it edges out this one because the Whaler’s is just a liquid ethanol to which the mad scientists at their lab drunkenly added spices with the abandon of the Emeril on crack, without even the decency to pump up the volume with some oomph to maybe 45% or so.

Nose; Vanilla, as powerful as if it wanted to mug you with a brick-hard tub of Hagen-Dasz.

Taste: Raw, searing, oversweet, thin, vanilla-stoked, butterscotch-infused liquid vaguely tasting like it should be a rum, but wasn’t sure.

Finish: Short and harshI think I swallowed a dried stick of vanilla and it scraped my throat to shreds. My tonsils demanded a condom if I was to have more.

Assessment: This is a hollow rum, the first I’ve ever tried. “Rare, Reserve Dark Rumthe label describes it. Are you kidding me?

Why I dislike it: it seems crassly commercial to just buy some rum stock, run it through an industrial facility to add spices in an effort to beat out Captain Morgan, and sell it as some kind of classy product on that basis, with minimal ageing of any kind.

***

So there you have it. My list of eight peeves. Each reviewer, I think, has his own list of rotguts which he either felt he paid too much for, or which was advertised as something it was not, or was simply bad. Here are the ones I feel a dark burning resentment about. You may disagree, and that’s perfectly cool. I’m sure you have your own list of private dislikes.

A last word (and I feel it important that I say this, so bear with me)

I term myself a reviewer on the strength of tasting a whole lot of rums and writing about them in the best prose I cansome justification can be found in that my hard earned dollars are going into this exercise and that being the case, why shouldn’t I? My purpose isin between other aspects of my life that take precedenceto entertain, educate, amuse, share my passion and perhaps put some facts out there in the public domain that others may use. (The fact that the ‘Caner site doesn’t garner a whole host of daily hits suggests not many people really care, but them’s the breaks).

Thomas Hardy said, in the field of literature, thatCompared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there, the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones.Same for reviews. And just because it is easy (and fun) to skewer a company’s rum does not invalidate their achievement in putting a product out there at all. Their money, time, effort and entrepreneurship are on the stand, every day, being judged. So it doesn’t matter how well I describe what I tasted, or how snarkilywhat matters is that there are physical products out there that someone made, the making of which employs people, gives others some enjoyment, and affords writers like me the license to write our own bags.

Liking the rums or not, that achievement should be recognized. I may dislike the products listed here. This does not mean they are not worth more than my words designating them so.

 

Nov 012010
 

(First posted on Liquorature November 2010; edited October 2014)

What makes a Bacardi 1873 superior to, or a dog when compared against, a Santa Teresa 1796? On what basis do I compare my loving, cheerfully nostalgic review of the Clarke’s Court overproofbush variation with the disdainfulful yark-my-guts-out review of the Bundie? What exactly is the rating of the Bacardi 151, which, when you read it, is remarkably short on facts and long on humour. If I were to make a top five list of any kindtop-enders, dark rums, spiced rums, premiums etcis there a consistent methodology backing up my assertions, or is it all just my opinion on which ones deserve to be in such a list?

After almost two years of drinking rum after rum and getting serious about writing about them in the last ten months since the Liquorature website went up, questions like these have pretty much forced me into revisiting the whole business of assigning a numerical rating to my favourite drink. To some extent, my methodology at the inception derived from a decades-long perusal of movie reviews; Roger Ebert’s four star system and his even more simplified (and troublesome) thumbs are almost standards in themselves, but in practice they are useless except at opposite ends of the spectrum.

After all, what distinguishes a subjectively assessed 2.5 star review from a 3 star? You know you’re getting quality with four stars and crap with oneit’s in the middle the problems crop up. Now contrast that against the New York Times or New Republic stance of not assigning a rating at allin their opinion the writing and experience of the writer is what counts, the feeling and thinking of the critic as he watched the movieand under such conditions, rankings and ratings aren’t required.

Then there was my issue with the way The Hippie rated his whiskies: sharp eyed constant readers (all three of them, ha ha) will note that of his first fifty whisky reviews he skewed heavily to assigning 90% or greater rankings to almost all of them. He defended this by noting that he knew what he was getting and so picked stellar examples of the craft to review, but when you think about it, if all reviews are uniformly positive, you dilute your relative ratings system and reduce their utility to a reader. You need to leaven all the positives with some negatives or neutrals to sustain a perceived objectivity and permit a baseline of sorts (to his credit, Curt has started reviewing some dogs of late).

Added to all this is the iconoclastic stance I have towards everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon and attempting to recreate Jim Murray’s numerical system in that invaluable resource, his Whisky Bible. Now, not everyone can imitate, let alone approach the brilliance of his pithy one liners (I’m a decent writer, but I tend towards the verbose, and I’m in awe of of his short, sharp and scintillating literary gems), but surely alternative approaches can be taken? Surely it’s not always and only about numbers at the end of the day?

And there is the crux of it. Numbers on individual drinks mean nothing. An individual review stands or falls on its own merits: on the skill of the writer in recreating what he smelled and tasted and thought, and his ability to not only bring you along, but explain his point of view on whether he cared for the product or not; and irrespective of whether you agree, you at least take the point.

It’s in their aggregate that ratings come into their own: in their ability to stratify whiskies, rums, vodkas et al into groupings that a prospective buyer can choose from according to certain bands of rough similarity. It was this last point that has led me to abandon my strict adherence to my NYT policy of simply describing my experience (yes I try to write well, engagingly and to add some information as well, but you’re reading my rum review to understand whether it’s worth your cash or confirms your own experience, not to indulge me). Because at the end, what a reader is asking for is an understanding of how one rum stacks up against another, and if faced with a choice of two equally priced and presented rums, which one should he pick.

The mood, tone and style of my writing disguises the underlying essentials of a rum (the facts), while elevating what some see as nonessentials: my sense of humour, my delight in writing, and occasional irrelevancies (I can hear Maltmonster mutterOccasional?” into his Bowmore). More than one reader has mentioned that my reviews are simply too long, and while my usual response is a resigned shrugI do this for love, for free and for me, and if someone feels that way, they are welcome to advise me which words to cut, or click through to more convival (and shorter) review sitesI must concede it is a weakness when trying assemble a more objective measure of indivdual elements of quality in a rum.

Having said all the above, I’ve reluctantly decided to change my approach. Not to shorten anything, but to add two things: one, a short summary somewhere in the review, probably at the top or bottom, that encapsulates everything I want to say in a sentence or two. And an attempt to quantify my observations. Try as I might, I simply cannot escape the long shadow of the standard nomenclature: Appearance/ presentation, Nose, Taste/Palate, Finish and Intangibles. These will be placed at the bottom of each review, in red, with the points I gave, and what the weight of each is, adding up to an even hundred for ease of calculation.

A few things have to be said right out front:

Appearanceis a thorny aspect to rate: many reviewers ignore it entirely, contending that the taste is what it’s all about. I believe that this is absolutely so for barroom bottles and the general mass of rums, but less so for premiums, where the price absolutely includes presentation knick-knacks like cool boxes, fancy corks and bottle etching, and therefore the overall aesthetic must be considered. If it pains you to see a rating for this, just adjust my score for it by deducting it from the totals and dividing by 90 – when I did this I realized that it had little impact on the scoring, and so have kept on.

Intangiblescounts down from a full rating, unlike all other sections where I start from zero and work upin other words, I take away what I don’t like; it’s that extra something that simply can’t be easily quantified, but which elevates the entire experience of the drink (JM refers to this as balance, which is the way the elements relate to each other harmoniously, or notas good a term as any, I suppose). So Clemente Tres Vieux gets a few measly points there, while Clarke’s Court gets a better rating (lost in other categories), as do the Zaya 12 and the EH-5. On the other hand, Clemente, EH10 and DDL 21 will get brownie points in Appearance/ Presentation, while Appleton 30 gets marked down for the cheap tin, and Clarke’s gets a big fat duck egg.

Arguably the biggest points of contention will be Nose, Palate/Taste and Finish, and here’s where the largest element of subjectivity comes into playI won’t pretend that what I experience will mirror your own memories of the drink, but it will faithfully reflect what I had. And as always, I’ll describe, in my review, the steps and thinking that went into the final ranking I gave: you may not agree with me, which is perfectly finebut you’ll understand why I gave it the marks I did.

Perhaps I needed to crack more than fifty rums before I came to this pass: before, it was a hobby, a sort of tickling interest of mine. These short little essays (wellrelatively short) became a labour of love for me, an exercise in creative style and clarity of expression. Now, it’s obviously gone beyond that. And as this occurs and more reviews go up and the years lengthen, scoring really does become more important.

I dread going back over so many rums to assign and re-assign the summary and numbers (and to endure the smirks of my friends with the inevitable I-told-you-sos), but there are sound reasons for doing so. I guess I had to do enough of these reviews to understand that, and feel committed enough to finally make that plunge.

Update (2014):

The so-calledstandardscale starts from 50 and goes to 100. Most whisky and wine scores reflect this system (and so did The Rum Howler and other early rum sites) and using it, top of the line spirits usually score in the nineties.

Update March 2015

All scores have now been pored to the 50-100 scale, with appearance marks stripped out, and a mathematical formula assigned to adjust the scores proportionately.

 

Feb 132010
 

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, other designations exist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can therefore stratify rums with level of flavour

Light or silverunder-proof, and/or clear rums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update August 2015

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

Update July 2017

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

Jan 042010
 

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The Lone Caner originated in a book and spirits club called Liquorature, of which the Caner is a founding member.

This site is geared towards rum reviews that people (hopefully) stop over to check out, before dropping big bucks on sterling products. Or minor bucks on so-so products. Or maybe just to read something interesting. That is, after all, how it all started, and it’s been a long, fascinating journey with no end in sight. For more information, see the About tab at the top of this page.

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