Oct 112022
 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

(#942)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Reviewers’ links

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

Magazine articles

 

Aug 222022
 

There are several worthy candidates for the claim of being the first one from Cuba. Havana Club 7 YO has been a really strong contender based on ubiquity and price, and the Santiago de Cuba 12 YO was also in the running for the same reasons.  When one considers that the core criteria of the series is the Three ‘A’s – Affordability, Approachability and Availability – it would seem a slam dunk to say the HC-7 should get pride of place.  Even the Havana Club 3 YO has had its adherents, though eventually I eliminated it based on several tastings and for its focus in the mixing circuit rather than it worth as a sipper. But the moment, there are several reasons why I feel the Selección de Maestros gets the nod for the first Cuban rum instead of the obvious choice, and ask you to walk with me on this one.

To begin with, it almost equals the HC7 in availability: over the last ten years I have travelled frequently and found the Selección in just about every airport and bar and spirits shop which I have passed through. Though America’s futile Cuban embargo remains in place after fifty years of failure, one can now bring rums from Cuba into the country as an individual, and it is gradually becoming known as one of the premiere Cuban rums, and classed as a premium product there and elsewhere. Since becoming widely available in the UK and Europe and elsewhere in the mid 2010s when it replaced its predecessor the Havana Club Barrel Proof (which I thought was really good as well), it has made a reputation for itself as one of the best Cuban rums outside of the special and limited editions premiums. There is hardly a discussion about Cuba’s best rums that doesn’t bring it up.


Initially the rum surprises with its restraint.  At 45% ABV one expects somewhat more bite and aggressiveness on the nose (especially first thing in the morning), yet overall it is calm and unhurried, and as firm a no-nonsense nanny waking up the kids. It smells of sweet butterscotch, vanilla, some lime leaves and light breakfast spices.  It retains a clean and crisp profile, redolent of olives, a slight bitter saltiness of old leather, and traces of molasses, caramel and brown sugar, together with a touch of coffee grounds.


Most reviewers who have run the rum through its paces seem to agree that if one excludes price, the Seleccion is simply one of the best rums in HC’s stable.  On Rum-X it pips the 7YO by an aggregate of 3 points (71 to 68 as of this writing) and the gap is even wider in Rum Ratings with its longer history, where, of some four hundred respondents, ¾ rate it 7/10 or better (while the Seven gets more ratings, but fewer “high” points). The Fat Rum Pirate scored it four stars in 2014, Rum Gallery 8/10, and in a more recent review, Alex over at the Rum Barrel gave it 73/100 (about 86 points on my scale). 

As a matter of historical and topical interest, the Seleccion rum is not that faux Havana Club made by Bacardi for sale in the US.  That brand – a bastard offspring created by the appallingly careless lapse of the “Havana Club” trademark by the Arechabala family in 1973 – is a copy of the original, and made in Puerto Rico. This one is a true Cuban product, made on the island: it is distilled from molasses and run through a column still before being set to age, and this is where the skill of the maestros roneros comes into play, because here the rum goes through a triple ageing cycle. The first round of ageing to transmute the aguardiente 1into an aged rum then the second round of ageing in used oak barrels (the exact ones used remain unclear) and then the roneros get together like elephants sniffing the wind, chose the best of those and blend them to be aged a third time in new white oak barrels for a quick burst of new flavours to round out the profile.


On the palate the rum is tawny (if that colour could describe a taste). Light white chocolate with almonds, citrus, pears, leather and coffee grounds are the first tastes one gets, a fascinating melange of sweet, sour and salt. The fruits take on more dominance at this stage: raisins, kiwi fruits, papaya, melons, figs and prunes, an interesting combo of both light and fleshy fruits.  Yet at no stage do the tannins quite disappear and they balance off these other notes quite well with some molasses, licorice, peanut butter and brine, never enough to spoil the experience. It all leads to a smooth, tasty finish that combines all these elements into a spicy, tasty conclusion where the most remembered notes are leather, smoke, salt caramel ice cream and some orange zest.


Based purely on how it tastes, sips or mixes, I have to give pride of place to the Seleccion as one of the key flagbearers of the Cuban pantheon, and regret it not a bit. This is just one of those times when I have to concede that going a bit upscale — instead of sticking with the objectively safe choice dictated by the numbers — is the way to go. It’s especially the case when one tries the Seleccion in conjunction with others of similar type: the quality is self evident and just shines through and sometimes the comparison is as stark as night and day. 

Most likely some will note that the cost should disqualify the rum from serious consideration, and that’s a reasonable criticism for a Key Rum, which claims to represent a more egalitarian perspective of value for money, not being a “great” or “classic” ultra-aged legend of a rum with a three figure price tag. The difficulty I have with blindly applying the letter of the restriction, however (even if it’s my own), is not only staying within the spirit of the rules generally, but in the specific definition of what exactly premium or high priced means in this instance.  An average American who may get a 1.75 litre Bacardi rum of good quality for the unconscionably subsidised price of less than twenty bucks, would perhaps consider a premium to start anywhere above $25, and an ultra-premium at twice that.  A European with more access and more indie bottlings on hand (all of which cost more) might consider fifty euros to be a starting point. A rich retiree, or a freshly minted (and unemployed) uni graduate would have completely different monetary criteria, as would most of us.

So that is why, here, I argue that every once in a while we have to bend that rule, go a little higher, spend a little more, in order to get something of real quality.  In a world where “free” seems to be the order of the day – free internet, free social media, free samples, free reviews – it’s sometimes forgotten that real value costs something. It pays for the labour of people who provide that service or that good, and cannot always be just given away. The Havana Club Selección de Maestros is a truly premium rum that tastes truly good, but doesn’t cost a truly premium sum…just a higher one than usual. In the opinion of this reviewer, that extra price translates into a lot of extra premium, and shows, perhaps, that not all rums — whether or not they call themselves premium — can be reduced to or by something as cold as numbers.  Sometimes, it’s more about the experience, and here, that experience is wonderful and a reason as good as any and better than most, to call it one of Cuba’s contributions to the Key Rums of the World.

(#932)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • My thanks to Dawn Davies of the Whisky Exchange in London, who spotted me the bottle of this and the 7YO which I was able to try side by side to effect a true comparison at the 2022 Rum Show. I still owe her for both.
  • The rum is a blend of rums between 8 and 15 years old.
  • The labels have changed over the years but no full scale reformulation has taken place between batches.  Some argue the taste is similar to the original Barrel Proof, as is the production methodology.
Jun 052022
 

In less than a decade, the indigenous spirits of Haiti have gone from being local moonshine known only to locals, residents of the DR, visiting NGOs, Haitians in the diaspora and the occasional tourist, to rhums that have made their mark and become famous the world over. They are enormously complex, traditionally made, un-tinkered with and unaged, and have helped usher in an appreciation for artisanal cane spirits that would have been unthinkable to the aged-rum establishment as little as ten years ago.

The rums, with their fierce and fiery tastes, initially appealed mostly to cocktail makers (and drinkers), which is to say, barkeeps and barflies, and rum aficionados who know this stuff backwards and forwards.  But their immense and uncompromising profiles are gradually finding a more general audience elsewhere as well: the great mass of rum drinkers who are more middle-of-the-road, who inhabit the medium-to-low price range and are at best occasional tipplers of more exotic fare like this. Slowly but surely, the clairins are winning them over.

Photo pilfered from and (c) Chris Francke, with my thanks

Of course, it could be argued that a much more approachable and well-known Haitian rum brand is Barbancourt, and indeed, one of their range has already been inducted to the Key Rums pantheon. But while the clear style of the Barbancourt rums is worthy of being the first entry into the series from Haiti, one cannot seriously discuss the rums of the half-island without also acknowledging its long-made artisanal backcountry rums. They may be occasionally divisive, perhaps even an acquired taste, yet for those who take a deep breath and dive right in, they are amazingly flavourful, complex and versatile rums. Nobody who claims they love the category can pass them by, or walk away unaffected by their uncompromisingly wild and untamed natures.

For the purposes of this entry, I am limiting the clairins to the five unaged white rums distributed and popularised by the Genoese firm of Velier, not any of the aged variants that have became available as the years progressed, or any of the blends – they all take second place in my estimation to the unaged versions, and I argue that when it comes down to it, it’s the five from Velier that form the base upon which our knowledge of the others rests. You could say they are the core clairins of our comprehension of the subcategory and serve as useful stand-ins for all the others.


As a straightforward and simple introduction, clairins are unaged cane juice (or sugar cane syrup) rhums made in Haiti, usually by small village distillers using cane from small nearby fields (often their own), crushing it with primitive machinery, fermenting with wild yeast, and running the wash through bare-bones and rudimentary (occasionally home-made) distillation equipment – pot stills, for the most part.  Bottling is haphazard and it’s not unheard of for people to bring their own containers to the tiny distilleries to fill up, and the result is sold as-is, almost exclusively at the local level. Much is also sold to village pharmacies in 55 gallon plastic drums and they bottle it for the final consumers.  And it’s long been a practice for merchant bottlers in the neighbouring Dominican Republic to buy clairins in bulk and use it to give their own softer rons some kick and flavour (or to release their own “branded” clairins which are then retailed in both countries). Many larger distilleries do this and rarely or never bottle their own work.

Photo (c) and used with kind permission of John Go

Clairins, then, inhabit a sort of strange universe: they are indigenous, small batch, local spirits and one of their initial selling points to the western world was that they were made on small pot stills, adhering to very old and little-changed methods of distillation dating back to the very introduction of nascent distillation technology by the French plantocracy, more than two centuries ago. The little producers didn’t care if they got a wider distribution in the region, let alone the world, and remained an enclave of spirit making frozen in time. Unsurprisingly, this was a Thing for those of the new rum generation who sought out “natural” and “genuine” spirits that did not interact overmuch with something like, oh, modern technology.

While there are many scores of small clairin makers scattered around Haiti (500 or so, is a statistic often bruited around1), they remain primarily rural spirits like charandas in Mexico or grogues in Cabo Verde or aguardientes everywhere else (in fact, a case could be made that they are aguardientes in all but name). 

As he recounts in his book Nomade tra i barrili (“Nomad among the barrels”), Luca Gargano went to Haiti in 2012 to meet Herbert Linge and Jane Barbancourt and took the time to go around the countryside, where he started to come across these local small distilleries. He tried some of their products and was completely enthralled with the natural, strong tastes they displayed.  Unsurprisingly the first he sampled was one Michel Sajous made down in Chelo (the gent was already very well known in Haiti for his clairins), and a casual offhanded remark a few days later pointed Luca to Fritz Casimir over in Vaval; and some time after that, a chance meeting on the road led to Duncan Casimir’s place (now run by his son Faubert). 

These three small distilleries, out of all the others, formed the initial export crop of the clairins which were to become so well known in the years that followed. By 2014 they were on sale in Europe and Velier lost no time promoting the hell out of them.  They brought bartenders to Haiti to demonstrate the country and the rhums; created the Clairin World Championship; brought out new expressions every year; started ageing some into the Ancyen line of aged clairins; blended them into various permutations, such as the Communal; and added two new mainstays from Le Rocher and Sonson by 2019 in an ongoing effort to expand the range.


The impact these rums had is undeniable and this is where it is useful to keep in mind how fast the rumworld is moving. Even in 2014 when limited-edition aged rums from independent bottlers were becoming more famous and more sought after, the market was still mostly about producers’ brand stables of progressively more aged rums (gold, anejo, vieux, 5YO and up, etc) and filtered cocktail whites like Bacardi’s Superior or various Latin Blancos.  Agricoles were a small but growing niche market, with aged agricoles being considered the ones to get, and outside of the enthusiast’s sphere of interest, “real” white rums from the French islands were relegated mostly to those islands, or metropolitan France. “Unaged” was not seen as a selling point, Rum Fire and Rumbar rums were not a thing, and the Wray & Nephew white overproof was too often dismissively shrugged off as a “Jamaican diaspora rum” or relegated to the tourist trade, not seen for the classic it later came to be.

The release of the first three clairins and the subsequent marketing and bartender involvement, gave the entire category of unaged, unfiltered, natural white rums an enormous boost in visibility, helped even more by social media and the first crop of reviewers who championed them. In the years that followed, agricole rhum makers from Reunion, Guadeloupe, Marie Galante and Martinique — among others — expanded their ranges of white rums, issued others at new proof points (mostly stronger) and even began a few annual releases here and there…the line from clairins’ success is an indirect one to be sure, but another emergent trend, that of parcellaire rhums, can owe at least a small influence to the terroire so clearly associated with each of these so-very-different Haitian whites.

The increasing visibility (and sales) of the clairins was at a minimum a contributing factor in allowing new micro-distilleries to take the chance of issuing unaged white rums of their own: the Asia-Pacific rumisphere of new brands like Issan, Chalong Bay, Mia, Naga, and Sampan may have co-existed or even predated the clairins, but I argue that they were more locally sold than exported, and the clairin tide was certainly one that helped lift their boats on the international scene as well. Aguardientes, grogues, charandas, arrack, kokuto shochu, Vietnamese rượu and many other such cane spirits which are gaining in popularity are in some small part indebted to the respect accorded to unaged cane juice rums so exemplified by the clairins. 

As recently as April 2022, Malt’s writer Han, in a retrospective on the class, suggested that the lack of acceptance of these clairins in the stable Velier’s distributed rums — as opposed to the mania surrounding the Demeraras and Caronis (all of which were aged rums) — resulted from the rhums’ peculiar inability to be neatly pigeonholed and classified, and therefore they were not considered must-haves and financial money-spinners the way the others were. That may once have been so, back when unaged white cane spirits were unusual and considered too lowbrow for wide acceptance.  That’s now changing – and indeed, Han resolutely recommends that people give these rums a closer look and maybe a re-taste to see how really good they are. What were once seen as puzzling differences inhibiting neat placement, are increasingly considered sought-after terroire-driven individual characteristics, demonstrating that the the international rhum audience is learning, adapting, accepting and growing. The clairins are going mainstream, big time.

In short, the five clairins which form the backbone of the exported Haitian artisanal rhum ecosystem – no matter from which year – are serious Key Rums, and no one can be addressed without mentioning every other. They remain affordable, they are originals by any standard, and have become regular bartenders’ backbar staples. They shine in cocktails, yet they can, for those willing to take the chance, be worth trying neat as well, because in few other spirits is the origin, the terroire, the entire process of making it, so evident as in one of these rhums. Their introduction channelled long-gestating trends already gathering a head of steam and perhaps coasted on their coattails rather than creating anything singular themselves – however, I also suggest that they enlarged and accelerated those same trends and had an influence on all rums of this type that came afterwards. They are important rhums from Haiti that need not be overshadowed by Barbancourt, other agricoles, or cane juice distillates made elsewhere, and can co-exist very nicely alongside them all as unique and flavourful rums of versatility and individuality in their own right.


The Rums as of 2022

The very brief tasting notes represent a (December 2021) re-tasting of those bottles I bought and reviewed over a period of some years.  Since there’s a new version out every year or so, the ones I mention below are to be considered as representative only, and the reader should be aware of variations over the years, and from their own experience. However, I do believe that they provide a sense of the differences among them all, their similarities, and something of why they remain so enthralling.

Clairin Sajous 2013 Release, 53.5%

The first clairin I ever tried, the most shocking and still, to me, the fiercest, most rambunctious and fearless – and I feel that way about it perhaps because I came upon it so unexpectedly, without warning, and it knocked me flat. The huge nose reeked of wax, brine and gunpowder, fusel oils and lacquer, sugar water and salt beef, and the taste, solid and savage at the same time, channelled cane sap, brine, olives, unripe fruit and balsamic vinegar.   Even at 53.5% it retained seriously savage character that I’ve spent a lot of time and retatstings coming to grips with.

Clairin Casimir, 2013 Release, 54%

Of all the clairins I’ve tried, this remains my favourite, “maddening and strange if you are not in tune with it, mesmerising if you are.” Floor polish, turpentine, kero on the nose, plus sugar cane juice, sweet soya sauce and salty vegetable soup, plus sultry, dark overripe fruits. Palate wise it’s so well done – thick, voluptuous, herbal, citrus, spicy and even sushi-like, just fruity and sweet enough to be really enjoyable.  I still believe it’s the most elegant of the lot, though I’m aware that others have their own favourites in the line.

Clairin Vaval 2013 Release 52.5%

Also a very good initial foray into the world of clairins, the Vaval is the third of the first edition of clairins released by Velier, and sports a more restrained but still Sajous-like nose of petrol-wax-brine explosive oomph, plus some vanilla, sugar water, unripe strawberries and tart pineapples.  The taste is almost civilised: grass, herbas and an overwhelming sense of a vegetable garden next to freshly cut grass in the sun after a rain.  It has spices, herbs, sugar cane sap and vanilla, and is a completely decent intro to the class.

Clairin Le Rocher 2017 Release, 46.5%

The fourth addition to the pantheon, Le Rocher is much more civilised than the first trio: it’s 46.5% and made from cane syrup, not juice. It smells of salt, soya and soup, and also of light, crisp herbals and fruits. Plus some carrots and a flower or three.  It tastes light and even warm, quite easy warm weather drink, though it retains much of its primitive antecedents: bitter chocolate, wax, cane sap, herbs, olives, and perhaps iodine and wet campfire ashes. Well, nobody said it was easy, not even me.  I liked it, though.

Clairin Sonson 2018 Release 53.2%

Made in 2018, ready for distribution in 2019 and then hit with delays relating to the worldwide COVID shutdown, it wasn’t until 2021 I managed to buy the fifth clairin. Like Le Rocher, it’s made from cane syrup, not juice, but when nosed, it feels like an only slightly restrained Sajous is trying to get off the leash – fuel, brine, wax, plus acetones, paint, cider and some oddly variegated fruits – bananas, gooseberries, green apples. A sweet, pungent, tart citrus-y melange combines on a rather luscious palate, and the whole thing is best taken at leisure over a period of time allowing it to open and reveal its true nature…which isn’t bad at all.


Other notes

  • There as yet is no official or regulated criterion for what constitutes a clairin. Velier came up with a series of protocols to define them, but these are somewhat contentious, and not widely accepted – not even within Haiti. This is one of those areas where the Haitian Government or the local producers should really try for a PDO or GI or some form of regulation, just to nail the term down more precisely and ensure minimum standards of production and quality control.
  • Luca Gargano, the CEO of Velier has always made it clear that none of the rums he distributes are “his” or “Velier’s” (Providence and Rhum Rhum brands excepted) – they are, front and centre, rums from the distillery and the location that are marked on the label and the box. I call them “Velier’s Clairins” here for clarity and to avoid the inevitable question of “what about all the others?” had I left Velier’s name out.
  • A very good listing of all Velier’s iterations of the various clairins can be found on Spirit Academy.
  • For now, I can’t quite make a case for inclusion of the only other clairin that is reasonably well known – Saint Benevolence – because for all its laudable charity work and exposure in the States and Britain, it remains relatively low key and uncommented on elsewhere, and lacks wide distribution outside those countries. This applies even more to other kleren / clairin makers in Haiti, like Lacrete, Beauvoire Leriche, Barik / Moscoso, Janel Menard, Cap Haitien / Nazon, Distillerie de la Rue, Agriterra Cotard or Agriterra Himbert.  These sell mostly within Haiti itself, or vanishingly small quantities abroad – many just sell bulk, and they have rarely been tried by most (including me).  I hope to change that in the years to come, as there’s always space in the list for more.
  • An excellent retrospective on clairins was Han’s, who posted first on Malt and a few day’s later re-posted on 88 Bamboo (both in April 2022). It’s one of those coincidences of nearly-concurrent publishing that crops up from time to time.
  • Hat tip to Han of 88 Bamboo for permission to quote from his article and use any photo I wished, and my deepest appreciation to Chris Francke and John Go, who took those great pictures of their own of the entire range of core clairins, and allowed me to re-post their work here.  Thanks, all of you.

 

Apr 032022
 

Of all the rums that St Lucia Distillers makes, perhaps the best known and most widely drunk is the line of Chairman’s Reserve. It was already well regarded when I started this gig in 2009, and it remains a workhorse brand of the company today, more than twenty years after its debut. The Bounty brand is below it, the Admiral Rodney was once above it (in perception if nothing else) but the Chairman’s Reserve always held a cachet all its own, even when it was represented by just that single expression that started the cart rolling.

Made as a blend of pot and column still distillate with around five years ageing, the Chairman’s Reserve aims at a middling sort of profile that eschews the extremes of either light Latin ease or hard-edged funky uniqueness.  The rum was created in the late 1990s when Laurie Bernard (the Chairman himself) felt it was time to create a premium rum that would showcase what the island had to offer – more than just bulk rum shipped elsewhere, more than merely the local or tourist trade island rums like Bounty and Denros…something a bit more upscale. I don’t doubt that some inspiration was taken from the enormous success of the 1992 release of the El Dorado 15 year old and Mount Gay’s own experiments with premiumization, but what was created was so good and remained so popular, that even two decades in, the rum has not lost its lustre.

Which is not to say the rum stayed the same, or that others did not come along that changed the marketing. In 2011 the Chairman’s Reserve “Forgotten Casks” rum was released; the Admiral Rodney and the annually reformulated “1931” limited editions were trotted out at roughly the same time, all aimed at taking the distillery brand more upscale. This process continued — perhaps even accelerated — in 2017 when SLD was acquired by GBH (Spiribam) and a game of musical rums began. They expanded and switched around the Admiral Rodney rums, from being a single rum positioned between the Bounty and the Chairman’s Reserve, to several older and named “ship” expressions at the top end. The yearly 1931 series was discontinued entirely (No. 6 was the last one), the profile was locked into a single stable “1931” (it’s got about 9% cane juice, I’ve heard), and was moved to the top of the premium line with the words “Chairman’s Reserve” added to the labelling.

Now, Chairman’s Reserve – that one single special rum they had started with – had to that point been seen as the premium face of SLD, the recognized face of the brand’s exports, right back from the time of its introduction in 1999.  However, when the portfolio was being rationalised, it was likely felt that it was a little too staid, maybe no longer top-tier…and so it was decided to expand it, a lot. The Reserve became a whole range in its own right, a series varying in both quality and price – when last I checked there were nine separate rums bearing the imprimatur of Chairman’s Reserve: the Original, Forgotten Casks, “2005”, “2009”, “Lewellyn Xavier,“ “White Label”, Legacy” “1931” and the “Masters Selection.” They range from about twenty pounds for the Original, to over a hundred for the Master’s Selection, and only one (the Master’s) exceeds 46%. 

With all that competition and expansion and premiumisation, the Original seems to have faded to the back, but I submit to you that this should not be the case. It remains enormously affordable and one of the few of the St Lucia Distiller’s stable one can find just about anywhere; it is widely commented on, and almost every reviewer still standing has, at some point, taken a crack at the rum (or one of its descendants). It was the first St. Lucia rum the Fat Rum Pirate tried in 2014, and he loved it; so did the Rum Shop Boy, six years later, as well as The Rum Howler; the boys at Rumcast mentioned the CR series in their 2020 roundup (Episode #17 at 0:24:50), John Go in the Philippines came to it more indifferently in 2021, but if Rum Ratings and reddit are anything to go by, people have been encouraged to go for the other variations in the Chairman’s line precisely because the original colonised our mental mindspace so comprehensively…even if they have forgotten the first one from which all others descend.

And when I went at it again in 2021, I came to understand something of its enduring appeal, because even at 40% ABV, even with its great familiarity (I’ve tried it many times, though only in social settings that precluded taking detailed notes upon which to base a review), it held up its end really really well.  Granted it was standard strength, and that doesn’t always work: but the nose it started out with was quietly impressive.  It was creamy, buttery, slightly sweet (but not sweetened) and smelled deliciously of toffee, Danish cookies, salted caramel ice cream, vanilla, honey and a touch of brine. Not a whole lot of sharp fruits presented themselves, and apricots and banana and ripe cherries were pretty much all, so no sharper citrus notes were there to start a riot. There were hints of herbs like rosemary, and spices like cinnamon to round things off.

Taste wise too, it was assembled with self-evident care and skill. Here it was saltier than the nose had suggested it would be – more salted caramel, more saline, a hint of olives, butter – to which were added lemon meringue pie drizzled with brown sugar and a tawny, rich honey, leading to a fully respectable finish that summed up all the preceding points – musky caramel, toffee, molasses, bon bons, vanilla, brine, honey and a good mocha, with a little sharpness added to round things off. 

This is a rum that would never be mistaken for a Guyanese, Jamaican, Brazilian, Cuban, or French island rhum, ever, and in fact, my thought was that the closest it came to was actually a slightly more pot-still-driven Barbados pot-column blended rum like Doorly’s or the Real McCoy. The overall profile was not so much uber-complex as completely and solidly precise, each note coming into its own, distinctly and clearly, then being replaced by another one.  Never too many, never too few, nothing too demanding, always just enough to make for a seriously sippable drink that broke neither palate nor wallet.

Indeed, my feeling about this rum has always been that it wouldn’t scare anyone off the boat and would actually entice quite a few to come on board, not just to rums in general, but St. Lucia in particular. Because by all the measures of price, availability, brand recognition, overall taste, and approachability, the original Chairman’s Reserve just nails it. It’s a fair bet that most people wanting to dip their toes into St Lucia territory will start not with the Bounty rums, or the Admiral Rodneys (that premium cachet, rightly or wrongly, is not conducive to starter efforts), but with one of the Chairman’s Reserve expressions and they can all, every one of them, trace their ancestry back to this one original, the progenitor of the line. It’s a perennial classic for beginners or experts, for sippers, swillers or mixers, a mainstay of rum collections old and new, and it continues to call upon us to heed and hearken to its siren song. Few who do so walk away disappointed.

(#896)(84/100)  ⭐⭐⭐½


 

Dec 122021
 

There are four operations making rum in Grenada – Renegade (the new kid on the block, operating since 2021), Westerhall, Rivers Antoine and Clarke’s Court, the last of which was formed in 1937, operating under the umbrella of the Grenada Sugar Factory (the largest on the island) and named after an estate of the same name in the southern parish of St. George’s.  This title in turn derived from two separate sources: Gedney Clarke, who bought the Woodlands estate from the French in the late 1700s, and a bay called “Court Bay” included with the property (this in turn was originally titled “Watering Bay” because of the fresh water springs, but how it came to change to Court is not recorded). The company sold rums with names like Tradewinds and Red Neck before the Clarke’s Court moniker became the standard, though the exact date this happened is uncertain. Pre-1980s, I would hazard.

The Clarke’s Court Pure White Overproof is a column-still, molasses-based blended white lightning made by that company, and is apparently the most popular rum on the Spice Island, best had with some Angostura bitters (the 43% darker rums made here are supposedly for the ladies, who “prefer gentler rums”).  Local wags claim it’ll add hair to your chest, strip the paint off anything, and can run your car if you don’t have any petrol. Older women reputedly still use it as a rub.

When it comes to seriously pumped-up Grenadian rums, Westerhall’s Jack Iron is not in this rum’s league, though it’s admittedly stronger; and had Clarke’s more distinct, it would have given Rivers Antoine a run for its money as the first Key Rum from Grenada.  It certainly buffs its chest and tries to muscle in on the territory of the famed white Jamaicans (I feel it was meant to take on J. Wray’s White Overproof, or even DDL’s amusing three-lies-in-one Superior High Wine…but it lacks their fierce pleasures and distinct profiles and at the end, is something of a cheap high proofed white rum shot with ‘tude and taste, a better Bacardi Superior with a dash of steroids.

This careful endorsement of mine does not, however, stop it from being something of a best-selling island favourite on Grenada, where it outsells Rivers (because of a larger facility that breaks down less frequently). As with other white rums across the Caribbean, it’s an affordable and powerful rum, a dram available to and drunk across all social classes —  it’s always been made and probably always will be. It’s emblematic of the island and widely known in a way Rivers – which is far older – is only now becoming, and local denizens with a creative juice-it-up bent cheerfully adulterate, spice up or make “bush” variations (such as the one I originally tried back in 2010) at the drop of a hat and in every rum shop up and down the island.

Now, it’s torqued up to 69% ABV, but sources are unclear whether it has been aged a bit then filtered, or is released as is, and while I can’t state it with authority, I believe it to be unaged: it has a series of aromas and tastes that just bend my mind that way.  The nose, for example, is redolent of minerals, dust, watery salt solution, the smell of the ocean on a seaport where the fish and salt water reek is omnipresent.  Some sweet swank and sugar cane juice – there’s a weird and pleasant young-agricole vibe to the experience – plus a delicate line of fruits: sharp, ester-y, unripe, tart and pungent, without the rich plumpness of better-made aged variants.  Kiwi fruit, and one of those cheap mix-everything-in fruit juice melanges. Honestly, I got a lot here, and had walked in expecting a lot less.

69% is strong for a rum, but not unbearable, and it’s just a matter of sipping carefully and expecting some heat for your trouble. Tastes of apples, cider, pears, all sour, begin the experience. These initial flavours are then muscled aside by tequila and brine and olives, not entirely pleasant, very solid; this then morphs into a sweet and sour soup, yeasty bread, cereals, sour cream, cream cheese, all very strong and firm, reasonably well developed and decently balanced. The fruits are also well represented – one can sense a fruit salad with cherries in syrup, plus gherkins and the metallic hint of a copper penny.  Overall, surprisingly creamy on the tongue, almost smooth: not what one would expect from something at this proof point.  It leads nicely into a hot, long finish, with closing notes of fruits (bananas, watermelon, mangoes) and some salt-sour mango achar, miso soup, and sweet soya.

When considered against the other big-name, well known, badass whites from the non-agricole, non-151-proof world, it’s easy to see why it gets less respect than the howitzers from Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Guyana (for my money, Cuba, T&T and Barbados have no overproof white rums that stand out, are as well known, or are so visibly a part of local culture in the way these are, though I’m sure I’ll catch some heated protests about that). It’s not exported in quantity, lacks a solid presence on the American bar and cocktail circuit, doesn’t often come in for mention and has no superstar brand ambassador or cocktail-slinging badass to champion its praises – many people reading this review will likely never have tried it. 

That said, I think it may be an undiscovered steal. Grenadians, to whom it’s a cultural institution, will swear by the thing and embrace anyone who speaks positively of the rum like a brother. Few will drink it neat: I do it so you don’t have to, but really, it’s not made to have that way, and that leaves it to boost a mix of some kind, like the locals who have it with a soda, juice or coconut water (when they don’t throw back shots in a rumshop, or nip at the backpocket flattie all day). The tastes are nothing to sneeze at, there’s enough raw flavour and bombast and attitude here to satisfy the desire for something serious for the rum junkie, and the bottom line is, it’s really and surprisingly good. It’s a worthy entry to the canon, and one can only hope it gets wider international acclaim. We can always use another one of these.

(#871)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • This review is based on two separate sample tastings – a mini from the 1990s and a more recent sample bottle bought from Drinks by the Dram.  The tastes were similar enough to suggest the blend has stayed the same for a long period.
  • The label has remained relatively unchanged for decades.  It is unknown when the rum was first introduced though.
Sep 302021
 

After only four years, the Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve rum has become so quietly ubiquitous, so well known and so widespread, that the bombshell it and all its brothers dropped on the rum world in 2017 has almost been forgotten. Even in the short time since its coming-out party, it has garnered a serious reputation for itself and reminds us all of the great rums emerging from Jamaica. One of the criteria I have for inclusion in the series is availability and longevity, and less than half a decade of being on the shelves might not strike some as sufficient time to enter the pantheon – but having tried it many times, I am convinced that it will hold its power, and continue to appeal.

My personal contention is that in about 2016 or so, a long-gestating tectonic shift started to gather real force, the phenomenon I call The Rise of the New Jamaicans. Appleton, as it had been for a long time, remained the most globally recognized Jamaican name in rum and focused mostly on blends, exported the world over. But by now the colonial model of low cost bulk rum resource extraction from the peripheries which characterized many other distilleries (not just in Jamaica), and which led to value added premium spirits in the central metropole, had been creaking for decades, and finally cracked. In all the major sugar and rum producing areas of the Caribbean, hard hit by falling sugar prices, indigenous producers were taking a good hard look at the constant bulk sales abroad and decided that rather than letting a plethora of re-bottlers and independents reap all the benefits of the rising tide of premiumization, they could get in on the action themselves. 

Worthy Park as a distillery re-emerged on the scene after reopening in 2005. It had been closed since the the 1960s when overproduction of rum had led to the shuttering of several distilleries: Gordon Clarke, a descendant of the family that owned it since 1918, felt the time was ripe to re-establish the brand name and not just make sugar, as the estate had been doing since that time. Rather than refurbish the old equipment, a completely new distillery with wider applications was constructed, and in 2005 the rum began to flow and be laid down for ageing. Bulk sales were established, and occasionally there were also sales of barrels to brokers – this is why we saw the SMWS, L’Esprit, Compagnie des Indes, Mezan, Velier, Rum Nation and 1423 popping up with indie releases for years, and third party contract rums like Doctor Bird coming across our sightlines with increasing frequency. And that’s not even counting Bacardi’s foray into the limited market with the embarrassingly indifferent money-grab of the Single Cane edition.

WP, once they got going, initially released their own inhouse branded series of rums called RumBar, which were relatively young or unaged bar staples, mixers for the most part. Aimed squarely at Appleton’s market share, these began quietly making waves, but had not yet reached any sort of critical mass, though they did became quite popular in the Jamaican, Caribbean and the North American bar scene. This all got a boost with the Special Cask rums that popped up in the festival circuit in 2017. The Marsala and Oloroso editions were really very good, and rightfully garnered rave reviews: but those were limited releases and sold at higher prices, were positioned as more premium. They were, in the following years, joined by other limited edition aged expressions, often finished, with different marques, and carved themselves a niche in the top end premium segment at prices trending towards three figures.

These were the headliners, but behind all the fancy finishes and exclusive editions and what have you, the blended six year old Single Estate rum1 slowly garnered for itself a quietly serious reputation, just kept on truckin’, was never out of production, and has now become synonymous with WP’s affordable mid-range workhorses (though oddly, it was promoted as an Ultra Premium in Jamaica itself when released there in 2019). It is perhaps a bit rarefied, retailing for around £50 in Europe and between $60-$70 in the US, but I suggest it retains real value when one considers the completely pot still production, and the fierce and uncompromising nature of its profile.

Appleton has always cornered the low-to-midrange market for Jamaican rums with its solidly made, tasty, approachable, affordable, available — and let’s face it, also inoffensive — pot-column blended rums. Worthy Park had no time for any of this wussy stuff, and went gleefully all-in with their 18,000-liter pot still. This shows up clearly the moment one cracks the Single Estate rum: the nose is light, yet presents an intense funky, fruity aroma. There is so much going on here that it behooves one to unpack the thing carefully: there is caramel ice cream, butter and salt, brine and olives.  Also softer bananas, cut with lemon peel and behind that is the mustiness of an old second hand bookstore’s back shelf, or that of a hay barn. Finally, as if thinking “dis t’ing still ain’ got enuff kick-up rumpus” it coughed up a last series of notes of biscuits, cereals, vanilla and some undefined indian spices, just because, y’know, it could.

Some might feel the 45% strength is too too timid, and serves only to restrain and contain the wide panoply of fierce tastes of which the rum is capable (and which some people really want), but perhaps more might have reduced us all to a state of catatonic shock, so let’s be grateful. For a pot still rum like this, I submit it’s probably correct, so it can appeal to a larger mass audience.  So, it’s very warm, stopping just short of hot, and presents initially as slightly sweet, with those musty spices detected on the nose snapping into clearer focus: black pepper, curry, turmeric, masala, plus all the extras of coconut shavings, bananas, citrus, vanilla, and the yeastiness of fresh dark bread. It ends things with a trace of nutmeg, cinnamon and oak, leading into a finish characterized by leather, damp aromatic pipe tobacco, port wine and some fruit

This rum tastes really fine: bitter, salt, sweet, crisp, it hits all the high notes, and if it lacks the extra fillip of finishing / double maturation like the Marsala and Oloroso, that’s no hardship, and it’s completely approachable by a layman. It has those mid-range esters, that higher level of funk, and is something like an amped-up Appleton, yet none of it is excessive, and it presents better, I think, because of the pot still origins and the eschewing of the pot and column blend (which I am slowly coming to realize produces an easier rum…but not always one of individual uniqueness).

Now, it’s a curious thing that there exists an unstated, underground perception that Worthy Park has been playing second fiddle to Hampden all this time. They certainly ferment in the same vat: not only does Hampden also sell bulk rum (and have done so for most of its modern existence), but they have their own estate range of fiery New Jamaican bar staples like Rum Fire and Stolen Overproof…as well as releases by well-known indies like the Compagnie, Renegade, SMWS, Samaroli, Murray McDavid, Romdelux, 1423, Rum Nation and BBR. Add to that the worldwide distribution deal Velier cut with Hampden in 2017 and their slick marketing, and you can see why Worthy Park seemed to be lagging behind and picking up footprints.

But I feel it’s a matter of perception, not degree, or even reality. A Key Rum of any kind is more than just “reputation”. It is a measure of reknown and quality, of an easy ability to move between the worlds of the cocktail and the neat pour, of the insatiable desire of secondary bottlers and bartenders and consumers alike to snag a bottle of the stuff, at a price that can be afforded and leave the buyer think he got the best of the deal. It welcomes, not intimidates, and you don’t have to be an expert to “get it”. By that standard, the Worthy Park workhorse of the Single Estate Reserve is not only one of most flexible and most versatile Jamaicans currently extant, but one of the best rums from the island, period, and a compelling reason to add yet another famed Jamaican distillery to the pantheon. Hampden may one day become a component of the canon as well, but for today, let Worthy Park get all the applause it so richly deserves. Because, me bredren, dem may be likkle, but damn, dem tallawah.

(#854)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • Other candidates I had tasted and considered for this entry in the Key Rums series included the Rum Bar White and Gold, as well as the WP Single Estate 3 and 12 Year Old. I felt the overall quality of this rum for the price, tipped the balance.
Jul 262021
 

Having gone through their aged expressions, millesimes, and young blends from the Poisson-Pere Labat distillery on Marie Galante over the last few years, it is my considered opinion that when it comes to the best intersection of value for money, the surprise standout is not either the 3 year old or the 8 year old (which, since they sit smack in the middle tend to be shoo-ins for the honours of this series), or any of the more upscale millesimes (though those are quite good) but the rather unremarked and seemingly unremarkable two year old called the Doré, which I can only assume means “golden” in French. Certainly its light golden colour explains the name, though one could equally wonder why they didn’t just call it an Ambré, as most others do.

Rhums with names, that are not “premium” – by which I mean “highly priced” in this context – tend to be blends which stay constant for extended periods.  The Doré is considered one of the youthful “Elevés sous bois” (‘aged in wood’) series of rums from Poisson, accompanied by the “Soleil” (Sun) 59º and 55º both of which are aged for six months: they are all supposedly a rung underneath the quality ladder of the 3 YO and 8 YO, and the millesimes and premium editions above that.

But I disagree, and think it is something of an unappreciated little gem that defines Poisson and Marie Galante — as well as Bielle or Capovilla or Bellevue, the other distilleries on the island.  Let me walk you through the tasting of the rhum, to explain.

The nose, to put it simply, was just plain lovely.  It was crisp, creamy and citrusy, like a well made lemon meringue pie fresh out of the oven.  It smelled of ripe peaches, yoghurt, ripe Thai mangoes, red grapefruit and oranges, and the acidic, tart elements were nicely balanced off by softer, more earthy tones. Even for a rhum whose youngest components were 18 months old, there was no harsh stinging notes, no roughness or jagged edges flaying the inside of one’s nose.  In fact, the whole experience suggested a rhum much lighter than the 50% it was actually bottled at.

The taste was reminiscent of that dry, crisp Riesling I remarked on with the 8 YO. That one was gentler and smoother as a consequence of the 42% strength.  Here this was transmuted into firmness, a certain tough clarity, and made the wine feel jacked up and boosted (but in a good way). It was a veritable fruit smorgasbord – apples, pears, cashews, guavas, star-apple, passion fruit, peaches all tramped across the stage at one point or another.  And then there was the herbal grassiness of citrus peel, green grass after a rain on a hot day, cinnamon, a trace of coffee and bitter chocolate…I mean, what on earth gives a two year old rum the right to taste this fine? Even the finish didn’t drop the ball – it was long, fruity, and brought everything to a fitting conclusion of crushed walnuts and almonds, lemon zest, ripe fruits and even that pie we smelled at the inception made a small bow.

I don’t know about you, but I felt this rum to be a quiet little stunner and it remains one of those favourites of mine that stays in the memory and keeps being bought, in a way its cheaper and more expensive cousins up and down the line do not. It samples really well, has a good proof point for what it is, and while it is understood that it’s is made to be a mixing drink, I feel it transcends such workmanlike blue-collar origins and somehow excels at being a downright tasty sipping drink also. And it’s nicely affordable as well being in the less-than-premium segment of Poisson-Labat’s range

What it doesn’t have, is widespread acknowledgement, or awareness by the larger rum-drinking public. It’s crowded out by more popular and better known distilleries like Bielle, Damoiseau, Saint James, Neisson, Bally, and is perhaps perceived to be on the level of the smaller and equally little-known outfits like Bologne, Severin or Montebello. 

In a recent interview on the subject of Key Rums, I remarked that that when it comes to a large country with lots of distilleries, how does one pick just one? Admittedly, Marie Galante has only four (a far cry from the 500 or so in Haiti or the thousands in Brazil), but when it is lumped together with those of Guadeloupe, the problem remains…which one to chose?  The smallness of some of these distilleries makes their rhums fail the criterion of being known, talked about and coming up in the literature.  It’s  particularly problematic considering that for too much of the rum drinking world, agricoles barely register at all, let alone get seriously discussed. I submit that this is a mistake and it’s long past time that the blinkers came off.  We should recognize that cane juice rhums, whatever their sources – and perhaps especially those from the tiny distilleries –  are deserving of greater acknowledgement and respect than they get from outside Europe or the cognoscenti. 

And that being the case, I pick another one here, from the small island of Marie Galante; and have to state flat out that even though you may not aware of it, for the intersection of taste, availability, longevity, age and all round taste, the Dore really is rather remarkable precisely because it doesn’t seem to be anything of the kind.  The Soleil 59º and 55º show their youth in their rough edges and wildly untamed exuberance, and so to some extent do the unaged blancs, though they are really fine in their own bailiwick. The older mid-range 3 YO and 8 YO expressions are too weak to be serious contenders as they fall flat or fly away if one doesn’t pay close attention, and the high-end millesimes are too pricey. The Dore somehow, against all odds, even young as it is, finds its niche with effortless ease, shows its quality and retains its place in the mind…and is, I believe, completely worthy of inclusion in this series as a result.

(#839)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • For those who want more detailed background information, the company biography of Velier and the brief history of Pere Labat are both in the “Makers” section of this website.
May 312021
 

In my own rather middling 2017 review of the Doorly’s 12 I remarked “It’s a well-made, serviceable, standard-proof rum for those who have never gone further (and don’t want to)…and remains a rum of enduring popularity.”  Rereading that review, re-tasting the rum, and thinking about all the developments in the rumworld between then and now, I would not change the review – but must concede that it works precisely because of those things that at the time I sniffed at, and retains its widespread appeal to both new drinkers and old in a way that cannot easily be discounted.  

We’re living in a rumstorm of Foursquare. I’ve never seen anything like it in all the time I’ve been writing about the subject.  Just about every single day, someone writes on social media about picking up this or that Exceptional Cask bottling or one of the Habitation Velier collaborations, gets a flurry of likes and comments, and the next day there’s another one. New releases are now online events in themselves, and while few now recall how startling this seemed just a few years ago, it’s almost a accepted wisdom nowadays that when  they go on sale they sell out five minutes before the shop pulls the trigger. 

All of this has turned the Face of Foursquare, Richard Seale, into the nearest thing the rum world has to a rock star (minus the leather pants). His ongoing online engagement, his irascible turn of phrase, his near-legendary inability to crack a smile, his take-no-prisoners approach to discussions, his highly vocal opinions, his fierce advocacy for protected status of Barbados rum, the quality of the rums he’s putting out the door, his amazing generosity in handing them out at festivals, the commitment to keeping his rums affordable — all these things have elevated him into the “must-meet” stratosphere of any rum festival he chooses to attend.  And have brought his rums to the attention of an incredibly wide audience, including those of whisky aficionados — Fred Minnick famously referred to Foursquare’s rums in the aggregate as the “Pappy of Rum” in 2017, and Matt Pietrek’s review of the rise of Foursquare in  a Punch article in 2018 made a similar reference.

Such publicity and the ongoing releases of cask strength rums in the Exceptional Cask Series (Key Rums in their own right) and the Collaborations leaves faithful old standbys in something of a limbo (much like the El Dorado 21 was), even occasionally dismissed. They are issued at close to standard strength and lack a clear signature kind of taste such as distinguishes Demeraras or Jamaicans, the sort of profile that allows even a novice drinker to take it blind and bugle “Bajan!” without hesitation. That is both the draw and the drawback of the Doorly’s line and the Rum 66, and the R.L. Seale 10 year old, though I contend that this should in no way stand in the way of appreciating them, not just because of their un-added-to nature and their age, but because on a price to quality ratio they’re great buys. People have been bugling the praises of the Doorly’s rums of all ages on both sides of the Atlantic for decades, and with good reason.

In spite of their being eclipsed by the new hot-snot Foursquare ECS and collaboration rums everyone froths over, in the last years I’ve deliberately sought out these standard, aged Bajans – multiple times – just to get a grip on what makes them so unkillable…because, like the El Dorados and low-rent Appletons, they sell gangbusters year in and year out, always come up for mention sooner or later and everyone has either tried one, recommended one, been recommended one or reviewed one.  I mean, everyone. Perhaps the key to their appeal is that In their own quiet way, they define not so much Barbados (although they do), but a single operation, Foursquare. The Doorly’s 12, is, in my opinion, one of the foundation stones of much that came to prominence in the last years – a blend of column and pot still distillate some of which was aged separately in Madeira casks, tropical ageing for the full 12 years, yet not torqued up to full proof, just serenely and calmly itself, at living room strength.

Consider the nose, for example. Not a whole lot of exceptional going on there, but what there is is clear, crisp and exquisitely balanced – it has an initial nutty, creamy and salt caramel attack, a touch briny and, set off with some molasses and vanilla. There’s a lightly citrus and fruity component coiling behind it all, made up of both sharper and sweeter elements (though it should be noted that the rum noses rather dry and not really sweet) like orange peel, bananas and raisins.  But this is an hour of effort speaking – for the most part, the average Joe will enjoy the vanilla, caramel and fruitiness and be happy with the no-nonsense approach.

The palate is where the rum falters somewhat, because the 40% ABV isn’t quite enough to showcase the varied elements (note that the rum is sold at 43% in Europe and other areas).  It has quite a bit of caramel ice cream, vanilla, white chocolate, crushed walnuts and light molasses. With more time and concentration, one can tease out the soft flavours of flambeed bananas, papaya, toffee, offset by spicy oak and citrus peel notes.  There’s even a touch of olives and brine and strawberries.  But it’s weak tea compared to the firmness of slightly stronger rums: 43% would be – and is – an improvement (I’ve tried both variations) and 46% might just be perfect; and the indeterminate finish – oak, vanilla, toffee, cinnamon and almost vaporized fruits – is too short and effervescent to leave a real impression.

Tasting notes such as these describe why I’m not entirely won over by the “standard” lines of rum made in Barbados, which are aimed at a broad audience.  Even in my earlier years of writing, I was ambivalent about them. My tastes developed towards more clear-cut rums displaying more defined and unique profiles. The Doorly’s 12 YO to me is not so much indifferent (because it’s not), as undifferentiated (because it is).  It’s very well made, tastes nice, has wide applicability, can be gifted and recommended without fear or favour, and you can tell it has age and solid production chops – I’d never dream of trying to dent its reputation on those aspects.  What it lacks is a certain element of real individuality. But I repeat that this is just a personal preference, an aspect of my own private proclivities (of all the writers I know, only one or two others share this opinion) — it has nothing to do with the wider world and its generally positive relationship to the Doorly’s line in general and the 12 YO specifically.  And now, after so many years of going back and forth among the various Barbados rums made by the various makers on the island, it’s time to cave, concede these are not flaws as I did before, but real strengths…and admit it to the canon.

Because, all the waffling aside, it’s almost the perfect rum for any enthusiastic amateur with some rum knowledge with which to wet his whistle.  Yes the 14 YO is stronger and the 5 YO is cheaper, but this one is Goldilocks’s little bear, strikes a perfect middle, perfect for a beginner to start their journey away from sweetened rums so many still regard as “premium.” It’s really affordable and of good quality for those who don’t taste a hundred-plus rums a year and have a slender budget with which to make careful purchases. It pleases reasonably on all levels. It almost always figures on a list of “what to start with” for the newcomers. It’s unadulterated and its age statement is real.  In fine, it’s one of the best midrange rums — on price, on age, on quality — ever made, by anyone. 

By that standard, there aren’t many rums that can exceed it. And therefore I do believe that it deserves a place on anyone’s shelf, either as a marker for one’s appreciation of well made rums that don’t ascend to the stratosphere, or a stopping point beyond which it’s tough to go without shelling out a lot more money. How can that combination be beat?  Short answer, it’s almost impossible.

(#825)(82/100)


Other notes

  • The rum re-reviewed here was the 40% version which I own.  I have added more notes to it from subsequent informal tastings at rumfests in both Paris and Berlin in 2019. The 43% edition is slightly better, but it was not what this essay is based on (though it would not change the sentiments expressed).
Sep 022020
 

As the memories of the seminal and ground breaking Demeraras fade and the Caronis climb in price past the point of reason, and the smaller outturns of Velier’s limited editions vanish from our sight, it is good to remember the third major series of rums that Velier has initiated, which somehow does not get all the appreciation and publicity so attendant on the others, or climb in price so rapidly on secondary markets.  

This is the Habitation Velier collection, which to my mind has real potential of joining the pantheon of Caronis and those near-legendary Guyanese rums which are so firmly anchored to the Genoese company of Velier’s reputation. And I advertise the importance of the series in this fashion because its uniqueness tends to fly under the radar – they’re seen as secondary efforts released by a major house, and take third or fourth place in most people’s estimation, behind other more famous “black bottle” series. Sometimes they’re even seen as repositories for leftover stuff that Velier has in stock that would not fit any of the other limited editions – Warren Khong, 70th Anniversary, Indian Ocean Stills, Villa Paradisetto, Hampdens, and so on. Mitch Wilson, introducing Luca in a May 2020 interview, didn’t even see fit to mention them as something special.

But they are.  And I contend that ignoring them or relegating them to also-ran status would be denying their importance and does them a disservice – the Habitation line is really quite special on a number of fronts. For, consider these points:

The thirty releases of the collection (so far, as of 2020) remain a world class showcase for pot still expressions only, and no bottler – producer or independent, ever – has taken a chance on focusing so clearly and significantly on just this one specific segment of rums. And, unlike most independent bottlers who release distillate made on no-matter-what-still, let’s-just-take-a-good-barrel, this series eschews both the still/barrel point of view or the geographical specificity of the Demeraras and Caronis, and it takes as its subject matter pot rums from anywhere (Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Marie Galante, USA, South Africa, Seychelles), issuing both aged and unaged rums…often from major houses who have never released such rums themselves. Best of all, the damned things are just fine, the quality remains high, and in a time of ever increasing prices, they have stayed relatively affordable (though still pricey in comparison to a standard rum from any of the representative distilleries – in this they fail the Stewart Affordability Conjecture).

The question is, why did Velier bother? It’s not as if many of these rums or producers are unknown and indies have put out pot still rums for ages (alongside much other good hooch). Why create an entirely separate brand for this stuff, a new series of bottles, an entirely new design look?

Luca Gargano, the boss of Velier, speaks of a time as recently as 2013 (at the time he was just introducing his own system but it had not gained much traction yet) — when in the confusion of the rum world regarding classifications, too much rum was lumped into the class of agricoles, and a catchall category of “rum” that encompassed everything else.  But in that huge collective bucket were many different kinds, including artisanal, small batch rums, “the equivalent of pure single malts.” He envisioned Habitation Velier as a separate branch of his company which would focus exclusively on this subset but made with less fuss and bother and priced more reasonably than the already escalating major bottlings he was getting known for.  

My own feeling is also that he followed the same principle he had with his occasional off-hand one-offs like the Basseterres or the Courcelles, or the original Damoiseau 1980 – he was enthusiastic about them and wanted to show them off (as I have rather wryly observed before, sometimes that’s all it takes, with him). Plus, I’m convinced that he also had some unusual pot still distillate on hand — from Barbados, Guyana, Worthy Park and Marie Galante, etc  — and perhaps felt that releasing them as individual black bottles wouldn’t cut it [see note 1]. The Haitian clairins and the Capovilla collaborations were established with their own distinct looks, and those lines served their own specific purposes, so it made sense to start from scratch and go with a completely new design for a set of rums which could be launched and expanded on in future years, that would concentrate on the uniqueness of pot stills, and include first run rum from new estate distilleries (he was already negotiating with Hampden [see note 2] for their distillate at the time).

The result was a series as distinctive as any previously issued, which channelled much of the same individualistic design ethos as the classics. They were flat 70cl bottles, dark ones for aged rums, transparent for white unaged ones to start (not consistently, but often). They had that subtle hip flask vibe, where you almost felt you could put it in your back pocket like a flattie of old and nip at it for the rest of the day.  The labelling was even better than the Demeraras of the Age (my opinion only) — those original ones almost redrew the labelling map with their near unprecedented level of detail (the name of the distillery, the dates of make, the still, the strength, the outturn) but the proposed Habitation Velier design would provide more, much more.  

For example not only did you get all that, but you were told of the distillate source, the ester or congener level (a geek godsend, surely), its sugar free nature, and were treated to a beautifully rendered watercolour of the original pot still that made it, plus some words on that still, and as if that weren’t enough, where it was aged (tropics) and the angel’s share. In point of fact, the only thing missing here was the bottle outturn, which strikes me as an almighty curious omission given Luca’s mania for providing more rather than less. But when I touched base with him to ask that specific question, he said it had been a deliberate decision, so as to prevent the bottles becoming collector’s items and having the street price rise beyond all sanity in flippers’ and speculators’ hands on the secondary market(see note 3).

Luca Gargano has been a fixture on the rum world for so long that people don’t always remember that there was a time when he was a smallish importer, and “just” another newb indie bottler with odd, even controversial, ideas and his rums were considered obscure and too expensive.  These days his name is known everywhere rums are drunk (and collected). But paradoxically, it’s gotten to the point where the generation of rum drinkers who have emerged in the last five years don’t remember the seminal nature of his earlier work, just see the currently available ones, and I was asked in mystification just the other week “What Demerara rums?” by a man whose memories begin with Caroni and move into the Hampdens and Habitations. To some extent the HV line allows them to participate in the uniqueness of some of Velier’s early work and ethos… but without paying four figures for the privilege.

I have come to the conclusion that the impressive rums of the house, coupled with Luca’s uncompromising perception of what he terms a pure rum, often overshadows an aspect of his character not often discussed, and that’s the one of an educator.  I know of no other rum maker in the world who so consistently releases rums that under normal circumstances have almost no possibility of being big sellers or future grail quests, but does so simply because they interest him and he wants to show off their qualities to interested rum chums, and maybe just because he damn’ well can.  Daniele Biondi in an August 2020 round-table discussion, remarked on a similar point relating to Velier’s desire to always present something unique and different with the HV line, even from established distilleries whose work we know quite well.

Such rums were the Guyanese La Bonne Intention (LBI) rums from 1995 and 1998; the Indian Ocean stills’ rums; the Basseterre 1995 and 1997, the Courcelles 1972, the 2019 NRJ quartet with that growly beast of the TECA, or even the granddaddy of them all, the original fullproof Damoiseau 1980 which he released so nervously. And ask yourself, who on earth, which casual drinker, would ever buy the quartet of the Monymusk EMB and MMW Tropical vs Continental Ageing — which would certainly not appeal to anyone for their price — given what they were issued to achieve? Any one of these other rums could be seen as emblematic of Luca’s desire to showcase aspects of imperfectly demonstrated or understood rumlore. But what has in fact happened to them is that those one-offs appeal to the micro-segment of rumgeeks and deep divers, not the greater rum drinking population at large who are enamoured of great names like Port Mourant and Hampden and Foursquare…but not so much the smaller ones. 

The HV series, then, are perhaps more aimed at that midrange bunch of relatively knowledgeable drinkers, influencers and anoraks, rather than for some high priced connoisseur’s market (where money but not knowledge is more often the real coin of the realm) or the deep-diving über-dorks (where exacting command of micro-detailed minutiae is). They are, in that sense, a useful bridge between more commonly appreciated rums, and those that require a bit more experience, perhaps, to fully appreciate — and can therefore be had and enjoyed and argued over by both long-time aficionados and new-to-the-club rumgeek wannabes.

Lastly, there’s the impressive amount of “firsts” which the HV line has demonstrated: as noted, they were completely distillery-aged pot-still rums, many never seen or released before (like the Foursquare 2013); the first estate bottling from Worthy Park (2005) and the only WPM (2006) mark bottled to date; first Hampden marks like HLCF, OWH, LROK, HGML, LFCH, DOK; first vintage Mount Gay pot still (Last Ward); first PM unaged unfiltered white from Guyana…and so on.  I mean, say what you will and disagree if you must, but that’s quite an accomplishment for any rum maker to produce in such quantity, so quickly.

Taking all this into account, the Habitation Velier range is, in my opinion, near unique – a major, wide-ranging series of paradoxically specific rums, to be seen as such. Aside from the common thread of their pot still origins, there’s little to tie them together. They span the gamut of all rums, all countries, all styles, all ages, all strengths and will only expand as the years pass. There’s hardly a weak one in the bunch, and some are simply stunning. One day I can even see them being reference rums, enabling people to get a grip on regional pot still profiles from around the world.

Of course, picking out any single one of them as a representative of all is an exercise in futility — everyone has a favourite, a preferred vintage, a personal pet love in the line, and this relates directly to the intersection of broad range, amazing variety and needs-a-little-effort approachability. Somehow this one line of rums, overlooked and sometimes even dismissed in favour of Veliers’ more famous limited editions, presses way more buttons than initially seems to be the case, and only grows in stature with time. I deem them not only Key Rums Of the World when considered as a class…but also among the most important series of rums ever made.


Other Notes

  1. In a promotional video interview posted in 2019 but surely made before that year, Luca spoke about the HV rums; originating philosophy, and the original Habitation Velier rums were on display in the now famous black bottles, with special multicoloured “classic” labels.  These designs were never implemented, and were released as standalone black bottles, though still labelled as HV for some reason.
  2. When the Hampden rums started to come on the market in 2016-2017, the best part of the ageing crop was siphoned off to Velier’s “dark bottle range” (my term, not theirs), as a consequence of their perhaps being perceived as more premium. But this has not lessened the stature of those selected for the HV series and while their value has grown – the June 2020 RumAuctioneer auction had the Hampden HGML 2010-2019 9 YO finish up at £230 for example – quite an appreciation over the original price.
  3. Initially when I wrote the post, I had the outturn of quite a few releases of the range, and in line with Luca’s desire not to promote speculation, I elected not to publish them. However, since the webpage on Velier’s site now provides this information as of October 2021, I have added it to my listings.
  4. There are links to only seven rums whose reviews have been published here, to 2020.  More exist and are planned for publication soon, enough to allow me to justify the whole line as an inclusion in the Key Rums series.
  5. Photos taken from and used courtesy of Velier and Habitation Velier facebook pages and official websites. I messaged Luca directly for some of the background details. Note that in October 2021, Velier’s website dedicated a page to all the releases so there’s a complete label reference there for the curious.

Habitation Velier Rums – By Country

Seychelles

  • Takamaka Seychelles Pure Single Rum 3 YO (2018-2021) 60.8% (1150b)
  • Takamaka Seychelles Pure Single Rum Blanc (2020 Unaged) 69% (1200b)

South Africa

  • Mhoba South Africa Pure Single Rum 4 YO (2017-2021) 64.6% (1445b)

Reunion

  • Savanna Reunion Pure Single Rum White HERR (2018) 62.5% (2784b)

Marie Galante

India

Guyana

USA

Barbados

Jamaica

  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO LROK (2010-2016) 67% (5292b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO HLCF (2010-2016) 68.5% (5364b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO LROK-HLCF (2010-2016) 60% (LMDW 60th Anniv)(243b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum <>H White (2018)(Whisky Live Paris) 66% (236b)
  • Hampden  Jamaica Pure Single Rum LROK White (2018) 62.5% (2148b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO HGML (2010-2019) 62% (800b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 7 YO LFCH (2011-2018) 60.5% (7056b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO C<>H (2010-2020) 68.5% (1215b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO LROK (2010-2020) 62%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure single Rum 5 YO OH (2016 – 2021) 62% (2536b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 3 YO HES (2019-2022) 60.5% (620b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 5 YO DOK (2017-2022) 60.5% (1800b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2010-2019) LROK 63.2% (Salon du Rhum)(247b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2010-2019) HLCF/DOK 61% (The One & Only)(251b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2010-2019) <H> 69.2% (LMDW)(158b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 8 YO (2011-2019) OWH 59.5% (Berlin Bar Convent)(274b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 8 YO (2011-2018) LFCH 61.7% (Whisky Live Singapore 2019)(254b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum  7 YO (2012-2019) OWH 62.8% (Whisky Live Paris 2019)(263b)

Habitation Velier Rums – By Year of Bottling

2015

  • Muller LL IV / 3177 Pure Single Agricole Rhum White (Marie Galante) (2015) 59%
  • Port Mourant Still Guyana Pure Single White Rum (2015), 59.0%
  • Foursquare Pot Still Barbados Pure Single Rum 2 YO (2013-2015), 64%
  • Foursquare Pot Still Barbados Pure Single White Rum (2015) 59%
  • WP Forsyths Pot Still Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO (2005-2015), 57.8%
  • WP Forsyths Pot Still 502 Jamaica Pure Single White Rum (2015), 57%
  • WP Forsyths 151 Proof Jamaica Pure Single White Rum (2015), 75.5%
  • Monymusk EMB 248 Jamaica Pure Single Rum White (2015), 59%

2016

  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO LROK (2010-2016) 67%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO HLCF (2010-2016) 68.5%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 6YO LROK-HLCF (2010-2016) 60% (LMDW 60th Anniv)

2017

  • Last Ward (Mount Gay) Barbados Pure Single Rum 10 YO (2007-2017) 59%
  • WP Forsyths Pot Still Jamaica Pure Single Rum (WPM) 11 YO (2006-2017), 57.5%
  • WP Forsyths Pot Still Jamaica Pure Single Rum White (WPE) (2017), 57%
  • WP Forsyths 151 Proof Jamaica Pure Single White Rum (2017), 75.5%
  • WP Worthy Park Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO (2007-2017) 59%

2018

  • Savanna Reunion Pure Single Rum White HERR (2018) 62.5%
  • Last Ward (Mount Gay) Barbados Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2009-2018) 59%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum <>H White (2018)(Whisky Live Paris)
  • Hampden  Jamaica Pure Single Rum LROK White (2018) 62.5%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 7 YO LFCH (2011-2018) 60.5%
  • Long Pond “STC♥E” White (2018) 62.5%

2019

  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO HGML (2010-2019) 62%
  • Long Pond “TECA” 2005 14 YO (2005-2019) 62%
  • Monymusk EMB 2010-2019 9 YO (2019) 62%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2010-2019) LROK 63.2% (Salon du Rhum)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2010-2019) HLCF/DOK 61% (The One & Only)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2010-2019) <H> 69.2% (LMDW)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 8 YO (2011-2019) OWH 59.5% (Berlin Bar Convent)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 8 YO (2011-2019) LFCH 61.7% (Whisky Live Singapore 2019)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum  7 YO (2012-2019) OWH 62.8% (Whisky Live Paris 2019)

2020

  • Privateer New England Pure Single Rum 3 YO (2017-2020) 55.6%
  • Privateer New England Pure Single White Rum (2020) 62%
  • Mount Gay Barbados Pure Single Rum 9 YO (2011-2020) 52.3%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO C<>H (2010-2020) 68.5%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 10 YO LROK (2010-2020) 62%
  • WP Worthy Park Jamaica Pure Single Rum 11 YO WPL (2009-2020) 58.5% 60.4%

2021

  • Mhoba South Africa Pure Single Rum 4 YO (2017-2021) 64.6%
  • Takamaka Seychelles Pure Single Rum 3 YO (2018-2021) 60.8%
  • Takamaka Seychelles Pure Single Rum Blanc (2020 Unaged) 69%
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 5 YO OH (2016 – 2021) 62%

2022

  • Momymusk Jamaica Pure Single Rum 7 YO MMW (2015-2022) 59% (1500b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 3 YO HES (2019-2022) 60.5% (620b)
  • Hampden Jamaica Pure Single Rum 5 YO DOK (2017-2022) 60.5% (1800b)
  • Longpond Jamaica Pure Single Rum 3 YO STCE (2019-2022) 60% (1200b)
  • Amrut Indian Pure Single Rum 7 YO (2015-2022) 62.8% (130b)

 

Apr 272020
 

After more than a decade of sampling rums from around the world, Martinique remains one of those islands to whose myriad distilleries I keep returning. Yet sometimes, when I remark on my liking for them, it’s a 50-50 chance that people wonder what I’m talking about (or why). But no list of Key Rums could possibly be complete without examples from that island, and the real issue is not so much that there has to be one (because there are many worthy candidates), as which it could possibly be and which one to start with when there’s so much choice available. 

What I believe gets in the way of agricole rhums’ wider understanding and acceptance – especially in the USA – is a combination of price, low cost tabletop rum dominance (like Bacardi), that crazy distribution system they have over there (and an equally silly one in Canada), and a general unfamiliarity with the taste. These issues lead to a lack of experience with agricoles as a whole, a dissatisfaction with the (slightly higher) price, and that oft repeated sniff-and-grumble, about how they all seem to be the same. 

In response I usually point to Neisson, with that subtle, oily, oddly tequila-like profile of its rhums, or Saint James’s pot still white. And such rhums exemplify what I like about the wide, wild variety to be found on Martinique – Neisson, as described, Clement with its classical clean and almost austere profiles, and the solid and romantic quality of Saint James. There are others I’ve enjoyed over the years, of course – Trois Rivieres, Depaz, La Favorite, and others – but when casting around for the first candidate from Martinique to include as a Key Rum, it was to these that my mind turned, and eventually at Saint James that it halted.

Saint James makes four rums as part of its regular aged lineup: the 7, 12 and 15 year old aged rums, and the white Fleur de Canne.  They make many others – millesimes, special editions, XOs, etc, (and we should never forget that amazing pot still white which will remain a perennial favourite of mine) – but for the person who wants to dive in to an appreciation of the distillery’s heart, certainly the four regulars I mention deserve to be tried first, and for the price, I think they offer among the very value-for-money “suitcase rums” anyone could ask for. And when one has to somehow chose among them for the best intersection of utility, taste, price, quality and enjoyment, I believe, in my heart, that the Saint James 12 Year old is the one to get.

To some extent, it has a lighter nose than the luscious 7 year old we looked at recently (though both are made on a creole still from cane juice, and are of the same strength, 43% ABV, similarly aged in ex bourbon casks), and it seems a little more precise, more dialled in, each note clear and distinct.  There is the same deep fruity notes of ripe mangoes, peaches, vanilla, ripe cherries, and a prune or two. It manages that peculiar trick of smelling slightly sweet without actually presenting as cloying or overripe.  Indeed, lighter hints of flowers and white, watery fruit come out to balance the fleshy fruits very nicely with guavas and pears, to which, after some time, one can sense honey and wax and a dusting of coffee grounds.

The palate follows along from this profile, mixing light and deep tastes in a not-too-sweet and juicy parade of mutually supporting flavours: dried fruits, raisins, grapes, guavas, ripe apples and prunes. The secondary, clearer notes of flowers and aromatic tobacco integrate well with the darker ones, providing a little bit of each, nothing in excess.  In the review of the 7 year old I remarked that the grassy lightness we associate with agricole rhums was almost completely absent – here, it starts to be somewhat more evident, though still in the background and its real moment in the sun comes at the close: this ends the tasting with a surprisingly long, fruity and dry aromatic finish that somehow doesn’t brake the experience so much as goose the accelerator mischievously one last time, just to show you it can.

This is a rum that is a step up from the 7 year old but also, something of a different one. The extra ageing showed its influence, the blend is a bit better – actually, I’d love to see what a few extra points of strength might achieve with this thing.  But never mind.  It is a really good dram and the only surprise about it is why it’s not better known. What the 12 year old does so well, is press all buttons of our appreciation simultaneously.  The Coeur de Chauffe white is the most original rum of its kind Saint James makes (in my opinion at least); the 15 is the best in overall quality and taste, and the 7 year old is good quality for money since it’s also the cheapest….but it’s just that the 12 does them all so very well, at a level high enough to make it a must-have. 

You see, it’s in aggregate of the things we look for, that it comes into its own:  good enough to sip, distinct enough to mix, affordable enough to buy, and all-round good enough to give as a gift without shame or apology (or to keep, for the same reasons). By making this rum, Saint James takes agricoles in an interesting, slightly offbeat and distinctive-to-the-distillery direction, and demonstrates that with skill and experience and perhaps just the simple delight in making rhum, that high-grade magic for the masses can be made in a way that doesn’t break the bank.  Any rum that can do all these things at once is a keeper…and a Key Rum for sure. 

(#721)(85/100)

Dec 152019
 

After all these years, there isn’t an average imbiber who hasn’t tried the Venezuelan Santa Teresa Ron Antiguo de Solera 1796 (to give its full and somewhat unwieldy title) at least once.  It’s a solera rum which usually sets alarm bells ringing for those who want both more disclosure and less additives, but somehow Santa Teresa has managed, through all the years, to navigate the treacherous shoals of too much or too little and remained a consistent, if not top tier, favourite of the entire tippling class. Given the rancour and fury that often attends such rums by the social media commentariat, that’s no mean achievement.

Consider: there are nine separate micro-reviews on reddit for this thing, and on the RumRatings site, it has 437 ratings, of which more than 80% rate it 7 points or higher. Online magazines and aggregators like Distiller, Flaviar, Tastings, WineMag, Got Rum, Drink Hacker and Proof 66 have written extensively about its voluptuous charms. Even the blogosphere has always looked at it, always reviewed it, sometimes as one of their first rum reviews. Alex of the Rum Barrel, The Fat Rum Pirate, myself, the Rum Howler, Refined Vices, Ralfy, All At Sea, Rum Shop Boy, Rum Diaries Blog, Rum Gallery, Inu A Kena…all of us between 2006 and 2019 have, at some stage, tried the thing, and its popularity shows no sign of fading. If there was ever a gateway rum for the Latin style that isn’t from Panama or Cuba, then this is it (the Diplo may be another).

I think part of that is because there’s nothing excessive about it.  Nor is there anything overly modest. It certainly evades the trap of turning into an over-sugared mess, or one where that’s all you taste, because the sweet, such as it is, is kept completely in the background.  An August 2019 hydrometer test – mine – rates it as 36.96% ABV, which translates into 12g/L – not good, but hardly earth shaking when compared to other latin rums which have twice or three times that much, and many earlier reviews and tests actually showed none at all (this suggests either batch variation or an evolution in production philosophy); a Santa Teresa rep as recently as 2018 in an interview with Simon Johnson, stated flat out they don’t adulterate their rum.  So, if you accept that, the only complaint that could be raised against it is that it really should be a few points stronger.

The nose is different from my admittedly fading tasting memories of ten years ago, when I first sampled it at a Liquorature get together in Calgary. Then I felt it had mostly standard South American aged rum components – vanilla, caramel, honey, light fruits, all rather low key.  Now the blend presented otherwise: I was tasting glue, sugar cane sap, floor polish, varnish right up front, and I know that wasn’t any part of what I was smelling before.  The 40% ABV still makes it too weak to mount an effective and aggressive nasal assault, and that is an issue they will have to address sooner or later – but at least, with some effort I also sensed very ripe apples, apricots, cherries in syrup, plus a dusting of cinnamon, molasses, caramel, and a little bite from oak, unsweetened dark chocolate and light orange peel.

It’s inoffensive in the extreme, there’s little to dislike here (except perhaps the strength), and for your average drinker, much to admire.  The palate is quite good, if occasionally vague – light white fruits and toblerone, nougat, salted caramel ice cream, bon bons, sugar water, molasses, vanilla, dark chocolate, brown sugar and delicate spices – cinnamon and nutmeg.  It’s darker in texture and thicker in taste than I recalled, but that’s all good, I think. It fails on the finish for the obvious reason, and the closing flavours that can be discerned are fleeting, short, wispy and vanish too quick.

When rated against other rums of its type, the main competitors are the Zacapa, Zafra, Diplomatico Res Ex, the Kirk and Sweeney, or even the Millonario XO or Dictador. But I always found K&S to be too fixated on a particular “cinnamon-lite” profile; Diplo, Zafra and Zacapa were oversugared in comparison; and the Millonario XO was too excessive in both areas, as was Dictador with that coffee note it likes so much. Other producers of rums similar to the 1796 — solera or otherwise — are simply too small and lack market share, and impinge hardly at all in the larger popular consciousness (Don Q and Bacardi are different for other reasons). 

But I believe that after all the years since 1996 when it was introduced (for Santa Tersa’s 200th Anniversary), there are good reasons it remains a fixture in the global rumscape and a perennial popular seller.  As noted above, it can be found just about everywhere in a way that other Caribbean rums aren’t always; it’s extremely well known, and remains affordable to this day (around US$40 or so) — which is good for any average Joe who can’t always get or afford a New Jamaican or Barbadian or St. Lucian or Guyanese rum. Moreover, it just tastes good enough for most and can be used as a gateway rum for Latin/Spanish style rums in general and Venezuelan ones in particular.  Of course, like most gateway rums, if you stick around long enough you’ll inevitably think one day that it’s too weak, too easy and too simple and move smartly along to the next milestone on the journey…but for anyone now starting and not looking to go anywhere, this is as lovely a Key Rum of the World as any on the list before it.

(#684)(78/100)


Other Notes (adapted from 2010 review)

Santa Teresa distillery is located in Venezuela about an hour east of the capital, Caracas, on land given by the King of Spain to a favoured count in 1796. The estate ended up in the hands of a Gustavo Vollmer Rivas, who began making rum from sugar produced on nearby estates – owned by other Vollmerses –  in the late 1800s. The Santa Teresa 1796 was produced in 1996 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the estate land grant, and, produced by the solera method.

In the solera process, a succession of barrels is filled with rum over a series of equal aging intervals (usually a year). One container is filled for each interval. At the end of the interval after the last container is filled, the oldest container in the solera is tapped for part of its content (say, half), which is bottled. Then that container is refilled from the next oldest container, and that one in succession from the second-oldest, down to the youngest container, which is refilled with new product. This procedure is repeated at the end of each aging interval. The transferred product mixes with the older product in the next barrel.

No container is ever drained, so some of the earlier product always remains in each container. This remnant diminishes to a tiny level, but there can be significant traces of product much older than the average, depending on the transfer fraction. In theory traces of the very first product placed in the solera may be present even after 50 or 100 cycles. In the Santa Teresa, there are four levels of ageing. And the final solera is topped up with “Madre” spirit, which is a young blend deriving from both columnar and pot stills.  Seems a bit complicated to me, but sherry makers have been doing it for centuries in Spain, so why not for rum? The downside is, of course, that there’s no way of saying how old it is since it is such a blend of older and younger rums. The marketing for the 1796 says the rum has components of between 4 to 35 years of age in it.

Oct 142019
 

At the opposite end of the scale from the elegant and complex mid-range rum of the Appleton 12 year old – a Key Rum in its own right – lies that long-standing rum favourite of proles and puritans, princes and peasants — the rough ‘n’ tough, cheerfully cussin’ and eight-pack powerful rippedness of the  J. Wray & Nephew White overproof, an unaged white rum bottled at a barely bearable 63%, and whose screaming yellow and green label is a fixture in just about every bar around the world I’ve ever been in and escorted out of, head held high and feet held higher.

This is a rum that was one of the first I ever wrote about back in the day when I wasn’t handing out scores, a regular fixture on the cocktail circuit, and an enormously popular rum even after all these years.  It sells like crazy both locally and in foreign lands, is bought by poor and rich alike, and no-one who’s ever penned a rum review could dare ignore it (nor should they). I don’t know what its sales numbers are like, but I honestly believe that if one goes just by word of mouth, online mentions and perusal of any bar’s rumshelf, then this must be one of the most well regarded Jamaican (or even West Indian) rums on the planet, as well as one of the most versatile.

Even in its home country the rum has enormous street cred.  Like the Guyanese Superior High Wine, it’s a local staple of the drinking scene and supposedly accounts for more than three quarters of all rum sold in Jamaica, and it is tightly woven into the entire cultural fabric of the island. It’s to be found at every bottom-house lime, jump-up or get-together.  Every household – expatriate or homeboys – has a bottle taking up shelf space, for pleasure, for business, for friends or for medicinal purposes. It has all sorts of social traditions: crack a bottle and immediately you pour a capful on the ground to return some to those who aren’t with you. Have a housewarming, and grace the floor with a drop or two; touch of the rheumatiz? – rub dem joints with a shot; mek a pickney…put a dab ‘pon he forehead if he sick; got a cold…tek a shot and rub a shot. And so on. 

This is not even counting its extraordinary market penetration in the tiki and bar scene (Martin Cate remarked that the White with Ting is the greatest highball in the world). There aren’t many rums in the world which have such high brand awareness, or this kind of enduring popularity across all strata of society.  Like the Appleton 12, it almost stands in for all of Jamaica in a way all of its competitors, old and new, seek to emulate. What’s behind it? Is it the way it smells, the way it tastes? Is it the affordable price, the strength? The marketing? Because sure as hell, it ranks high in all the metrics that make a rum visible and appreciated, and that’s even with the New Jamaicans from Worthy park and Hampden snapping at its heels.

Coming back at it after so many years made me remember something of its fierce and uncompromising nature which so startled me back in 2010. It’s a pot and column still blend (and always has been), yet one could be forgiven for thinking that here, the raw and rank pot-still hooligan took over and kicked column’s battie. It reeked of glue and acetones mixed up with a bit of gasoline good only for 1950s-era Land Rovers.  What was interesting about it was the pungent herbal and grassy background, the rotting fruits and funky pineapple and black bananas, flowers, sugar water, smoke, cinnamon, dill, all sharp and delivered with serious aggro.

Taste wise, it was clear that the thing was a mixing agent, far too sharp and flavourful to have by itself, though I know most Islanders would take it with ice and coconut water, or in a more conventional mix.  It presented rough and raw and joyous and sweaty and was definitely not for the meek and mild of disposition, wherein lay its attraction — because in that fierce uniqueness of profile lay the character which we look for in rums we remember forever.  Here, that was conveyed by a sharp and powerful series of tastes – rotten fruit (especially bananas), orange peel, pineapples, soursop and creamy tart unsweetened fresh yoghurt. There was something of the fuel-reek of a smoky kerosene stove floating around, cloves, licorice, peanut, mint, bitter chocolate.  It was a little dry, and had no shortage of funk yet remained clearly separable from Hampden and Worthy Park rums, and reminded me more of a Smith & Cross or Rum Fire, especially when considering the long, dry, sharp finish with its citrus and pineapple and wood-chip notes that took the whole experience to its long and rather violent (if tasty) conclusion.  

So maybe it’s all of these things I wrote about – taste, price, marketing, strength, visibility, reputation.  But unlike many of the key rums in this series, it remains fresh and vibrant year in and year out. I would not say it’s a gateway rum like the Pusser’s 15 or the Diplo Res Ex or the El Dorado 21, those semi-civilized drinks which introduce us to the sippers and which we one day move beyond.  It exists at the intersection of price and quality and funk and taste, and skates that delicate line between too much and too little, too rough and almost-refined. You can equally have it in a high-class bar in Manhattan, or from cheap plastic tumblers with Ting while bangin’ down de dominos in the sweltering heat of a Trenchtown yard. In its appeal to all the classes of society that choose it, you can see a Key Rum in action: and for all these reasons, it remains, even after all the years it’s been available, one of the most popular — even one of the best — rums of its kind ever made, in Jamaica, in the West Indies, or, for that matter, anywhere else.

(#665)(83/100)


Other notes

  • Unaged pot and column still blend
  • The colours on the label channel the colours of the Jamaican flag
Aug 182019
 

The French islands provide a reviewer with a peculiar problem when trying to pick a single rum as being a “Key” anything. This is largely because Martinique and Guadeloupe are almost alone in the world in possessing such a gathering of world-famous rum distilleries in such a concentrated geographical space (a comparison to Islay, say, is not entirely out to lunch). Several Caribbean islands have a single large distiller (St. Lucia, Trinidad) or two (Grenada) or a few (Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica), and Haiti of course comes up for special mention — but none have so many whose names resound through the rumiverse.  So how to pick just one?

The selection of the first of what will be several candidates from the French islands – because to limit oneself just to one or two or even three is to do the entire subset of agricole rums an enormous disservice – is made even more difficult by the fact that Guadeloupe is not seen as a “pure” agricole maker. This is primarily because, of course, they sometimes mess around with both molasses and cane juice styles of rhum, and have never actively sought the AOC designation which so enhances the street cred of rhums from Martinique.

But even so, I like the rhums of Guadeloupe (Grande Terre and Basse Terre and Marie-Galante) — a lot. To me, the work of Gardal, Karukera, Bielle, Longueteau, Severin, Bellevue, Montebello, Pere Labat, Reimonenq, Capovilla and Damoiseau are as good as any the world over, and behind them all still reverbrates the majestic quality of Courcelles, the one that switched me on to agricoles all those years ago when the Little Caner was not yet the Big Caner and I was just getting serious about French island hooch.

So why start with Damoiseau?  The easiest answer is to say “Gotta begin someplace.” More seriously, it’s certainly one of the better known brands from there, the leading producer on Guadeloupe; back in 2016 I remember Josh Miller awarding their white 55% first place in his agricole challenge; years before that, Velier gained confidence to issue more full proof rums by releasing their excellent 1980 version at 60.3% (the first such strong rum in their portfolio); Matt Pietrek suggested the Damoiseau 4 year old Réserve Spécial VSOP was a great rum to have for under US$45 and a good ambassador for the country’s rum-making tradition; and lastly, I simply have good memories of most of their work I’ve tried.  But for me, the VSOP is a bit young and rough, and my affection is given to the very slightly older version which we shall get into without further ado.

Made from cane juice and then aged in ex-bourbon casks, Damoiseau has the occasional peculiarity (in my eyes, at least) of making aged rhums that don’t always or completely showcase the crisp herbal sweet grassiness we have come to associate with agricoles. Here, that isn’t the case at all…up to a point. The cane-juice-derived 5YO, which is near to standard strength (42% ABV) and therefore very approachable by those who want to dip their toes, is remarkably clean and yet still full-bodied for that strength. Immediately there is vanilla, a little oakiness, pears, prunes and the light notes of some pineapple slices.  Also cane sap and sugar water, flavoured with a dusting of cinnamon. And, oddly, a nip of molasses, brown sugar and caramel in the background, which I can’t explain, but find pleasing nevertheless.

The palate isn’t quite as sterling as the nose, though still a cut above normal: a little thin, perhaps – blame it on the 42%, which is, let’s face it, somewhat lacklustre against the shining vibrancy of the whites, so often torqued up to 50%. The rhum tastes a little dry, a little briny, with vanilla, dates, prunes, blackberries and dark grapes leading in, followed by some florals, crisp oak notes, breakfast spices, cereals…and again, that strange hint of caramel syrup and molasses poured over fresh hot pancakes flitting behind all the other tastes.  It’s a perfectly nice drink for all that, and the finish is a fitting conclusion: nice and long with oily, salty and tequila notes, to which are added light oakiness, vanillins, fruits and florals, nothing specific, nothing overly complex just the entire smorgasbord sailing into a serene conclusion.

Personally, I’d suggest that some extra strength would be useful, but by no means does that disqualify the Damoiseau 5 Year Old as a good all-rounder, equally at home in a mix of some kind or by itself. You can tell it’s been aged, it’s slightly sweet and has the requisite fruits and other flavours combining decently, and the rhum navigates its way between a light and heavy profile quite nicely. That slight touch of caramel or molasses was something I liked as well  — if memory serves, it was a similar ”contaminant” that prevented the 1980 from being released as appellation-compliant and that was why it was sold to Velier, but whether in this instance that’s deliberate or my imagination is anyone’s guess. All I can say is that for me it was there, and it did not detract but enhanced.

So at the end, the 5YO ticks all the boxes we look for in such a rhum. Young as it is, it’s a tasty, unique product from Damoiseau; it’s of reasonable strength — and therefore doesn’t frighten those now moving out of their comfort zones and getting into different styles, with some stratospheric ABV or a profile of off-the-wall lunacy; and best of all for those who just want to nibble at its edges without biting the whole thing, the price point is right on the midpoint between two other candidates for the position. It’s slightly more expensive than the VSOP, but more elegant; and cheaper than the 8 YO but more versatile.  Any of these three could be a rum that celebrates Guadeloupe, but for my money and what I want out of a rhum like this, the 5 YO is the one that nails it.

(#652)(83/100)

May 272019
 

When you really get down to it, Pusser’s claim to fame rests on two main planks. The first is that it is they are the true inheritors of the actual British Navy rum recipe after Black Tot Day in 1970.  The second is that they follow it.

Unfortunately, neither is completely true, depending on how you look at the background.

With respect to the first point, any research done on Navy rums shows that Lyman Hart, Lamb’s and ED&F Man, among others, sold rums to the Royal Navy back in the 1800s (Man became the major supplier in the 1900s, though I don’t think they were the sole source even then), and it is highly unlikely they were consistent in what they provided.  Moreover, the rum (from whatever source) was always a blend, and the components did not stay rock solid stable for centuries. In fact, according to the booklet about the Black Tot accompanying the bottle and written by Dave Broom, the Navy rum of the 1940s had been a complex blend – kind of solera – and over the centuries the Jamaican component had continually been reduced because of its funky taste which sailors did not like.  Moreover there’s that modern tested-for adulteration of Pusser’s — 29 g/L additives by some estimates — which surely was not part of the original recipe no matter who made it.

Secondly, the very fact that the recipe was tweaked more than once — as recently as 2008 it was supposedly a blend of five West Indian rums — shows up the fallacy of completely buying into the idea this is a true heritage rum: it’s hardly an inheritor of a tradition that once included Guyanese, Jamaican, Trini and maybe even Bajan rums, which progressively got reduced down to Guyana and Trini components, and now is Guyana only. Even by 2018, one could taste that the blend was favouring Guyanese distillate and that might taste good, but wasn’t exactly the Royal Navy recipe now, was it?  

So, strictly speaking, neither statement holds water.  The Gunpowder Proof Black Label is probably closer to the way navy rums used to be made, but yet somehow, in spite of all that, it’s the 15 YO which people remember, which they refer to as one of the touchstones of their early drinking experiences.  The thing is utterly unkillable and regularly turns up on the various Facebook fora with delighted chirps and snazzy photographs and the pride of some person who has either bought one for the first time, or tried it for the first time. It is also one of the most reviewed of the entire Pusser’s line, with just about every writer sooner or later passing by to talk about it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for some examples, almost universally positive)

And why shouldn’t they?  It’s a fifteen year old rum issued at a relatively affordable price, and is widely available, has been around for decades and has decent flavour chops for those who don’t have the interest or the coin for the limited edition independents.

So what was it like?  The tasting notes below reflect the blend as it was in April 2018, and this is different to both the initial rum I tried back in 2011 and again in 2019 when the “new and improved” Guyana-only blend crossed my path.

The nose, for example, certainly has lots of stationery: ruber, pencil erasers, pencil shavings.  Also sawdust, citrus, lumber – reminds me a lot of the Port Mourant or Versailles distillate, if a little dumbed down. After some time, molasses crept timidly out the back end with caramel, toffee, ginger and vanilla hiding in its skirts, but their overall reticence was something of a surprise given my tasting memories — I seem to recall them as much more forward.  Blame it on increasing age, I guess – mine, not the rum’s.

By the time it got around to tasting, the Guyanese component of the blend was much more evident, definitely favouring the wooden pot stills’ aggressive taste profiles. Glue, rubber, nail polish, varnish were the tastes most clearly discernible at the inception, followed by bitter chocolate and damp sawdust from freshly sawn lumber.  It’s beneath that that it shines even at the paltry strength – creme brulee, warm caramel dribbled over vanilla ice cream, coffee and molasses, with just a hint of dark fruits (raisins, plums) and indistinct floral notes tidying things up. The finish, as is normal for standard proof spirits, is fairly short but nicely rounded, summarizing the aforementioned tastes and smells – caramel, vanilla, flowers, ginger, anise, raisins, dark fruits and pineapple for the most part.  The added whatever-it-is makes it sweet and nicely rounded and a decent sip – non-rum-junkies would likely find favour with that, while deep-diving rum chums would equally sniff and say it’s over-sweetened and dampened down, with the good notes being obscured.

Well, each to his own, I guess.  My notes here aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. At the end of it all, it is a tasty all-round rum for most, which survives in people’s tasting memories in spite of its adulteration, and constantly gains new (young) acolytes because of it. My own opinion is that while Pusser’s sells well, its glory days are behind it.  It has not maintained the core blend, being forced by market pressures to simplify the components rather than keep them in play. They have extended their line over the years to add to the stable with the gunpowder proof, various strengths and other iterations, spiced versions and this to some extent dilutes the brand, good as they may all be.

So why do I call this a key rum?  Because it is a good rum which should be remembered and appreciated; because it hewed and hews as close to the line of the old navy rums as we’re ever likely to get; because it’s 15 years old and still affordable; and because for all its blended nature and therefore indeterminate origins, it’s just a well-made, well-aged product with a whiff of true historical pedigree and naval heritage behind it. Even now, so many rums down the road,  I remember why I liked it in the first place.

And aside from all that, even if you don’t buy into my premise, and dislike the brand dilution (or expansion), and even with all the competition, Pussers still has a lustre and brand awareness that can’t be shrugged off.  Almost all bloggers sooner or later pass by and check it out, some more than once. It is a milestone marker on anyone’s journey down the myriad highways of rum. It remains relevant because no matter how many pretenders to the throne there are, this one company supposedly does actually have the (or an) original recipe for the navy rum, and if they chose to change it over time, well, okay.  But the 15 year old remains one of the core rums of the lineup, one of the best they made and make, and nobody who tries it as part of their education, is ever likely to completely put it out of their minds, no matter how far past it they end up walking to other milestones down the road.

(#627)(83/100)

Jan 222019
 

Haiti is unique as a nation because it is where the only successful slave revolt in the world took place, at the turn of the 18th century. Sadly, it is now the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and successive dictatorships, foreign interference and natural disasters have left the place in shambles.

That any businesses manage to survive in such an environment is a testament to their resilience, their determination, their ingenuity….and the quality of what they put out the door. The country has become the leading world producer of vetiver (a root plant used to make essential oils and fragrances), exports agricultural products and is a tourist destination, yet perhaps it is for rum that its exports are best known, and none more so than those of Barbancourt, formed in 1862 and still run by the descendants of the founder.

Until the mid 20th century, Barbancourt was something of a cottage industry, selling primarily to the local market.  In 1949 they relocated the sugar cane fields of the Domaine Barbancourt in the plaine du Cul-de-Sac region in the south east, and by 1952 ramped up production, increased exports and transformed the brand into a major producer of quality rum, a distinction it has held ever since.  

The rhum, based on sugar cane juice not molasses, used to be double-distilled, using pot stills in a process similar to that used to produce cognac (Dupré Barbancourt came from the cognac-producing region of Charente which was undoubtedly his inspiration); however, nowadays they use a more efficient (if less character-driven) three-column continuous distillation system, where the first column strips the solid matter from the wash and the second and third columns serve to concentrate the resultant spirit…so what is coming to the market now is not what once was made by the company.

Haiti has no shortage of other rhum producing companies – but smaller outfits like Moscoso Distillers or LaRue Distillery are much less well-known and export relatively little, (and back-country clairins are in a different class altogether)…and this makes Barbancourt the de facto rum standard bearer for the half island, and one of the reasons I chose it for this series. This is not to dismiss the efforts of all the others, or the the artisanal quality of the clairins that Velier has brought to world attention since 2014 — just to note that they all, to some extent, live in the shadow of Barbancourt; which in turn, somewhat like Mount Gay, seems in danger of being forgotten as a poster boy for Haiti, now that the pure artisanal rum movement gathers a head of steam.

The current label of the 8YO

Barbancourt’s rhums are not issued at full proof: they prefer a relatively tame 40-43%, and every possible price point and strength is not catered to.  The company has a relatively small stable of products: the Blanc, the 3-star 4 Year Old, the 5-star 8 Year Old and the flagship 15 year old (Veronelli’s masterful 25 year old is a Barbancourt rhum, but not issued by them).  Though if one wanted to get some, then independent bottlers like Berry Bros., Bristol Spirits, Duncan Taylor, Cadenhead, Samaroli, Plantation and Compagnie des Indes (among others) do produce stronger and more exacting limited offerings for the enthusiasts.

Yet even with those few rhums they make, whatever the competition, and whether one calls it a true agricole or not, the rhums coming from Barbancourt remain high on the quality ladder and no rumshelf could possibly be called complete without at least one of them.  After trying and retrying all three major releases, my own conclusion was that at the intersection of quality and price, the one that most successfully charts a middle course between the older and the younger expressions is the 5-star 8 year old (I looked at it last way back in 2010, as well as one earlier version from back in the 1970s) which remains one of the workhorses of the company and the island, an excellent mid-level rum that almost defines Barbancourt.

It does display, however, somewhat of a schizophrenic profile. Take the nose, for example – it almost seems like a cross between a molasses based rum and an agricole.  While it certainly possesses the light, herbal aroma of a cane-juice distillate, it also smells of a light kind of brown sugar and molasses mixed up with some bananas and vanilla (it was aged in French oak on Haiti, which may account for the latter). There’s also a sly briny background, combined with a pleasant hints of nougat and well polished leather, plus the subdued acidity of green apples, grapes and cumin.  Not all that intense at 43%, but excellent as an all-rounder for sure.

What the nose promises, the palate delivers, and yet that peculiar dichotomy continues.  It’s soft given the strength, initially tasting of caramel, toblerone, almonds and vague molasses and vanilla (again).  Brine and olives. Spices – cumin, cinnamon, plus raisins, a certain delicate grassiness and maybe a plum or two (fruitiness is there, just understated).  Nope, it doesn’t feel like a completely cane juice distillate, or, at best, if feels like an amalgam leading neither one way or the other, and the close sums all that up.  It’s medium long, with salt caramel ice cream, vanilla, a bit of raisins and plums, a fine line of citrus, a little cinnamon dusting, and a last reminder of oaky bitterness in a relatively good,  dry finish.

What makes the Barbancourt 8 YO so interesting — even unique — is the way the makers played with the conventions and steered a center line that draws in lovers of other regions while not entirely abandoning the French island antecedents. It reminds me more of a Guadeloupe rhum than an out-and-out agricole from Martinique, with perhaps a pinch of Bajan thrown in.  However, it’s in no way heavy enough to invite direct comparisons to any Demerara or Jamaican product.

So, does it fail as a Key Rum because of its indeterminate nature, or because it lacks the fierce pungency of a clairin, the full grassy nature of a true agricole?

Not at all, and not to me.  It’s a completely solid rhum with its own clear profile, that succeeds at being drinkable and enjoyable on all levels, without being visibly exceptional in any specific way and sold at a price point that makes it affordable to the greater rum public out there. Many reviewers and most drinkers have come across it at least once in their journey (much more so than those who have tried clairins) and few have anything bad to say about it.  It’s been made for decades, is well known and well regarded — not just because it’s from Haiti, but because it also has a great price to value ratio. There’s a lot of talk about “gateway” rums, cheaper and sometimes-adulterated rums that are good enough to enjoy and savour, that lead to more and better down the road. It’s usually applied to the Zacapas, Zayas, Diplos and younger rums of this world, but if you ever want to get more serious about aged agricoles, then the Barbancourt 8 YO may actually be one of those that actually deserves the title, and remains, even after all these years, a damned fine place to start your investigations.

(#592)(84/100)


Other Notes

In a curious coincidence, a post on reddit that did a brief review of this rhum went up just a few days before this was published. There are some good links contained within the commentary.

Oct 182018
 

As noted in the Mount Gay XO revisit, that company ceded much of the intellectual and forward-looking territory of the Bajan rum landscape to Foursquare — in the last ten years, correctly sensing the shifting trends and tides of the rumworld, Richard Seale bet the company’s future on aspects of rum making that had heretofore been seen as artistic, even bohemian touches best left for the snooty elite crowd of the Maltsters with their soft tweed caps, pipes, hounds, and benevolent fireside sips of some obscure Scottish tipple.  He went for a more limited and experimental approach, assisted in his thinking by collaboration with one of the Names of Rum. This has paid off handsomely, and Foursquare is now the behemoth of Barbados, punching way above its weight in terms of influence, leaving brands such as Cockspur, St. Nicholas Abbey and Mount Gay as big sellers, true, but not as true innovators with real street cred (WIRD is somewhat different, for other reasons).

Now, I make no apologies for my relative indifference to Foursquare’s current line of Doorly’s rum – that’s a personal preference of mine and a revisit to the 10 and 12 year olds in 2017 and again in 2018 (twice!) didn’t change it one iota, though the 14 YO issued at somewhat higher strength in 2018 looks really interesting. I remain of the opinion that they’re rums from yesteryear that rank higher in memory than actuality; which won’t disqualify them from maybe being key rums in their own right, mind you….just not yet.  But as I tried more and more Bajans in an effort to come to grips with the peculiarity of the island’s softer, more easygoing rum, so different from the fierce pungency of Jamaica, the woodsy warmth of Guyana, the clear quality of St Lucia, the lighter Cuban-style rums or the herbal grassiness of any French West Indian agricole, it seemed that there was another key rum of the world lurking in Little England, and I’d simply been looking with too narrow a focus at single candidates.

I don’t believe it’s too soon after their introduction to make such a claim, and argue that leaving aside Habitation Velier collaborations like the Triptych, Principia or the 2006 ten year old, the real new Key Rums from the island are the Exceptional Cask Series made by Foursquare.  They are quietly high-quality, issued in quantity, still widely available – every week I see four or five posts on FB that someone has picked up the Criterion or the Zinfadel or the Port Cask – reasonably affordable (Richard Seale has made a point of keeping costs down to the level consumers can actually afford) and best of all, they are consistently really good.  

Richard Seale – for to speak of him is to speak of Foursquare – has made a virtue out of what, in the previous decade of light-rum preferences, could have been a fatal regulatory block – the inability of Bajan rum makers to adulterate their rums (the Jamaicans operate under similar restrictions).  This meant that while other places could sneak some caramel or sugar or vanilla or glycerol into their rums (all in the name of smoothening out batch variation and enhancing quality, when it wasn’t “our centuries old secret family recipe” or a “traditional method”), and deny for decades that this was happening, Barbados was forced to issue purer, drier rums that did not always appeal to sweet-toothed, smooth-rum-loving general public, especially in North America. It was at the stage where importers were actually demanding that island rum producers make smooth, sweet and light rums if they wanted to export any.

What Foursquare did was to use all the rum-making options available to them – experimenting with the pot still and column still blends, barrel strategy, multiple maturations, various finishes, in situ ageing – and market the hell out of the result.  None of this would have mattered one whit except for the intersection of several major new forces in the rumiverse: the drive and desire for pure rums (i.e., unadulterated by additives); social media forcing disclosure of such additives and educating consumers into the benefits of having none; the rise and visibility of independents and their more limited-release approach; and the market slowly shifting to at least considering rums that were issued at full proof, and hell, you can add the emergent trend of tropical ageing to the mix. Foursquare rode that wave and are reaping the benefits therefrom.  And let’s not gild the lily either – the rums they make in the Exceptional Series are quite good…it’s like they were making plain old Toyotas all the while, then created a low-cost Lexus for the budget-minded cognoscenti.

Now let’s be clear – if one considers a really pure rum made as being entirely from one country (or island), from a specific pot or column still, deriving from a single plantation or estate’s own sugar cane, molasses/juice, fermented on site, distilled on site, aged on site, then the Exceptional Series aren’t quite it, being very good blends of pot and column distillate, and made from molasses procured elsewhere. And while sugar and caramel are not added, the influence of wine or port or cognac barrels is not inconsiderable after so many years…which of course adds much to the allure. But I’m not a raging, hot-eyed zealot who wants rums to be stuck in some mythical past where only a very narrow definition of spirits qualifies as a rum – that stifles innovation and out of the box thinking and eventually quality such as is demonstrated here inevitably suffers.  I’m merely pointing out this matter to comment that the Exceptionals aren’t meant to represent Barbados as a whole (though I imagine Richard wouldn’t mind it if they did) – they’re meant to define Foursquare, to snatch back the glory and the street cred and the sales from other Bajan makers, and from the European re-bottlers and independents who made profits over the decades with such releases, and which many believe should remain in the land of origin.

But all that aside, there’s another aspect to this which must be mentioned: perhaps my focus still remains to narrow when I speak of the ECS and the company and the island.  In point of fact, given the incredible popularity and rabid fan appreciation for the series – outdone, perhaps, only by the mania for collaborations like the 2006, Triptych and its successors – it is entirely likely that the Exceptional Cask series is a Key Rum because the rums have to some extent had a global impact and strengthened trends which were started by The Age of Velier’s Demeraras, developed by Foursquare and now coming on strong in Jamaica – tropical ageing, no additives, cask strength.  So forget Barbados…these rums have had an enormous influence far beyond the island. They are part of the emergent trend to produce rums that are aimed between the newbies and the ur-geek connoisseurs and won’t break the bank of either.

Perhaps this is why they have captured the attention of the global rum crowd so effectively – for the Exceptional Series rums to ascend in the estimation of the rum public so quickly and so completely as to eclipse (no pun intended) almost everything else from Barbados, says a lot.  And although this is just my opinion, I think they will stand the test of time and take their place as rums that set a new standard for the distillery and the island. For that reason I decided not to take any one individual rum as a candidate for this series, but to include the entire set to date as “one” of the Key Rums of the World.


The Rums Supporting this Article, in 2018

Note – I have not reviewed them all formally (though I have tasting notes for most). All notes here are mine, whether published or unpublished.


Picture (c) Henrik Larsen, from FB

Mark I“1998” 1998-2008 10 Year Old, Bourbon Cask, 40%, 15,000 bottles

This rum remains unacquired and untasted by me.  Frankly I think that’s the case for most people, and even though the outturn was immense at 15k bottles worldwide, that was ten years ago, so it’s likely to only be found on the secondary market. That said, I suspect this was a toe in the water for Foursquare, it tested the market and sought to move in a new direction, perhaps copying the independents’ success without damaging the rep or sales of the RL Seale’s 10 YO, Rum 66 or Doorly’s lineup.  The wide gap between 2008 and 2014 when the Port Cask came out suggests that some more twiddling with the gears and levers was required before Mark II came out the door, and Richard himself rather sourly grumbled that the importers forced him to make it 40% when in point of fact he wanted to go higher…but lacked the leverage at the time.

Mark II — “Port Cask Finish” 2005-2014 9YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 6yr-Port, Pot/Column Blend 40%, 30,000 bottles

Six years passed between Mark I and Mark II, and a lot changed in that time. New bloggers, social media explosion, wide acknowledgement of the additives issue. With the Premise, the PCF Mark II remains the largest issue to date at 30,000 bottles worldwide. Not really a finished rum in the classic sense, but more a double aged rum, with the majority of the time spent in Port Casks.

N – Rubber and acetone notes, fading, then replaced by a smorgasbord of fruitiness: soft citrus of oranges, grapes, raisins, yellow mangoes, plums, vanilla, toffee; also some spices, cinnamon for the most part, and some cardamom.

P – Soft and relatively wispy.  Prunes, vanilla, black cherries, caramel.  Some coconut milk and bananas, sweetened yoghurt.

F – Short, smooth, breathy, quiet, unassuming. Some fruits and orange peel with salted caramel and bananas

T – Still lacked courage (again, the strength was an importers’ demand), but pointed the way to all the (better) Exceptional Cask Series rums that turned up in the subsequent years.

Mark III“2004” 2004-2015 11 YO, Bourbon Cask, Pot/Column Blend, 59%, 24,000 bottles

In 2015 two rums were issued at the same time, both 11 years old.  This was the stronger one and its quality showed in no uncertain terms that Foursquare was changing the game for Barbados.

And the Velier connection was surely a part of the underlying production philosophy – we had been hearing for a year prior to the formal release that Richard Seale and Luca Gargano were turning up at exhibitions and fests to promote their new collaboration. Various favoured and fortunate tasters posted glowing comments on social media about the 2004 which showed that one didn’t need a massive and expensive marketing campaign to create buzz and hype

N – Clean and forceful, love that strength; wine, grapes, red grapefruit, fresh bread, laban, and bananas, coconut shavings, vanilla, cumin and cardamom.  Retasting it confirmed my own comment “…invite(s) further nosing just to wring the last oodles of scent from the glass.”

P – Brine and red olives. Tastes smoothly of vanilla and coconut milk and yoghurt drizzled over with caramel and melted salt butter. Fruits, quite strong and intense – red grapes, red currants, cranberry juice – with further oak and kitchen spices (cumin and coriander).  

F – Clear and crisp finish of oak, vanilla, olives, brine, toffee, and nougat.

Mark IV“Zinfadel” 2004-2015 11 YO Bourbon & Zinfadel casks, Pot/Column Blend 43%, 24,000 bottles

Not one of my favourites, really.  Nice, but uncomplicated in spite of the Zinfadel secondary maturation.  What makes it a standout is how much it packs into that low strength, which Richard remarked was a deliberate decision, not forced upon him by distributors – and that, if nothing else, showed that the worm was turning and he could call his own shots when it came to saying “I will issue my rum in this way.”

N – Light, with delicate wine notes, vanilla and white toblerone. A whiff of rotting bananas and fruits just starting to go.  Tart yoghurt and sour cream and a white mocha, with fruits and other notes in the background – green grapes, raisins, dark bread, ginger and something sharp.

P – Opens with watery fruits (papaya, pears, watermelon, white gavas), then steadies out with cereals, coconut shavings.  Also wine, tart red fruits – red currants, cranberries, grapes. Light and easy.

F – Quite pleasant, if short and relatively faint. fruits, coconut shavings, vanilla, milk chocolate, salted caramel, french bread (!!) and touch of thyme.

T – A marriage of two batches of rums: Batch 1 aged full 11 years in bourbon barrels; Batch 2 five years bourbon barrels then another six in ex-Zinfadel.  The relative quantities of each are unknown.

Mark V “Criterion” 2007-2017 10 YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 7yr-Madeira, Pot Column Blend 56%, 4,000 bottles

My feeling is that while the “2004” marked the true beginning of the really good Exceptionals, this is the first great ECS rum – all the ones before were merely essays in the craft before the mastery of Mark V kicked in the doors and blew off the roof, and all the others that came after built on the reputation this one garnered for itself. It was, to me, also the most individualistic of the various Marks, the one I have no trouble identifying from a complete lineup of Mark II to Mark VIII

N – Red wine, fruits, caramel in sumptuous abandon.  Oak is there, fortunately held back; breakfast spices, burnt sugar, nutmeg, cloves.  Also apples, grapes, pears, lemon peel, bitter chocolate and truffles.

P – Flambeed bananas, creme brulee, coffee, chocolate, it tastes like the best kind of late-night after-dinner bar-closer. Fruit jam, dates, prunes, crushed nuts (almonds) and the soft glide of honey in the background.  Delectable

F – Long. Deep, dark, salt and sweet together. Prunes and very ripe cherries and caramel and coffee grounds..

Mark VI“2005” 2005-2017 12 YO, ex-bourbon, Pot/Column Blend, 59%, 24,000 bottles

The 2005 was an alternative to the double maturation of the Criterion, being a “simple” single aged rum from bourbon casks, and was also a very good rum in its own way.  A solid rum, if lacking something of what made its brother so special (to me, at any rate – your own mileage might vary).

N – Deep fruity notes of pears, plums, peaches in syrup (though without the sugar, ha ha). Just thick and juicy.  Cream cheese, rye bread, cereals and osme cumin to give it a filip of lighter edge

P – Very nice but unspectacular: tart acidic and fleshy fruit tastes, mostly yellow mangoes, unripe peaches, red guavas, grapes raisins and a bit of red grapefruit.  Also a delicate touch of thyme and rosemary, with vanilla and some light molasses to wind things up.

F – Long and aromatic, fruits again, rosemary, caramel and toffee.

T – Not crisp so much as solid and sleek, without bite or edge. It lacks individuality while being a complete rum package for anyone who simply wants a strong, well-assembled and tasty rum

Mark VII“Dominus” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-cognac, Pot/Column Blend, 56%, 12,000 bottles

N – Dusty, herbal, leather, with smoke, vanilla, prunes and some ashy hints that were quite unexpected (and not unpleasant).  Turns lighter and more flowery after an hour in the glass, a tad sharp, at all times crisp and clear. It’s stern and uncompromising, a sharply cold winter’s day, precise and dry and singular.

P – Solid, sweetish and thick, very much into the fruity side of things – raisins, grapes, apples, fleshy stoned stuff, you know the ones. Also dates and some background brine, nicely done. A little dusty, dry, with aromatic tobacco notes, sour cream, cardboard, cereal and … what was this? … strawberries.

F – Quietly dry and a nice mix of musky and clear.  Mostly cereals, cardboard, sawdust, together with apples, prunes, peaches and a sly flirt of vanilla, salty caramel and lemon zest.

T – Quite distinct and individualistic, one of the ECS that can perhaps be singled out blind.

Mark VIII“Premise” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Sherry, Pot/Column Blend, 46%, 30,000 bottles

N – If the Dominus was a clear winter’s day, then the Premise is a bright and warm spring morning, redolent of flowers and a basket of freshly picked fruit.  Cumin, lime and massala, mixed up with apricot and green apples (somehow this works) plus grapes, olives and a nice brie. A bit salty with a touch of the sour bite of gooseberries, even pimentos (seriously!).

P – Very nice, quite warm and spicy, with a clear fruity backbone upon which are hung a smorgasbord of cooking spices like rosemary, dill and cumin. Faintly lemony and wine notes, merging well into vanilla, caramel and white nutty chocolate.

F – Delicately dry, with closing notes of caramel, vanilla, apricots and spices.

T – Too good to be labelled as mundane, yet there’s an aspect of “we’ve done this before” too. Not a rum you could pick out of a Foursquare lineup easily.

Summary

These tasting notes are just illustrative and for the purposes of this essay are not meant to express a clear preference of mine for one over any other (though I believe that some drop off is observable in the last couple of years). It is in aggregate that they shine, and the way they represent a higher quality than normal, issued over a period of many years. You hear lots of people praising the Real McCoy and Doorly’s lines of rums as the best of Barbados, but those are standard blends that remain the same for long periods.  The Exceptionals are a different keg of wash entirely – each one is of large-but-limited release quantity, each is different, each shows Foursquare trying to go in yet another direction. Crowdsourced opinions rarely carry much weight with me, but when the greater drinking public and the social-media opinion-geeks and the reviewing community all have nothing but good to say about any rum, then you know you really have something that deserves closer scrutiny. And maybe it’s worth running over to the local store to buy one or more, just to see what the fuss is all about, or to confirm your own opinion of this series of Key Rums.  Because they really are that interesting, that good, and that important.


Other Notes

  • I am indebted to Jonathan Jacoby’s informative graphic of the Fousquare releases and their quantities which he posted up on Facebook when the question of how many bottles were issued to the market came up in September of 2018.  It is the basis of the numbers quoted above. Big hat tip to the man for adding to the store of our knowledge here.
  • In December 2020, the NW Rum Club did an 8-minute video summary of the high points of the 14-bottle range to that point (Detente).  No tasting notes, just a quick series of highlights for the curious. Worth watching.
  • Big thank you and deep appreciation also go out to Gregers, Henrik and Nicolai from Denmark, who, on 24 hours notice, managed to get me samples of the last three rums so I could flesh out the tasting notes section of this essay on the Marks VI, VII and VIII.  You guys are the best.

The Complete ECS List, Updated June 2022

(Excludes Velier Collaborations, Habitation Velier and Private Cask Bottlings)

  • Mark I“1998” 1998-2008 10 YO, Bourbon Cask, 40%, 15,000 bottles
  • Mark II – “Port Cask Finish” 2005-2014 9YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 6yr-Port, 40%, 30,000 bottles
  • Mark III“2004” 2004-2015 11 YO, Bourbon Cask, 59%, 24,000 bottles
  • Mark IV“Zinfadel” 2004-2015 11 YO Bourbon & Zinfadel casks, 43%, 24,000 bottles
  • Mark V“Criterion” 2007-2017 10 YO, 3yr-Bourbon, 7yr-Madeira, 56%, 4,000 bottles
  • Mark VI“2005” 2005-2017 12 YO, ex-bourbon, 59%, 24,000 bottles
  • Mark VII“Dominus” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-cognac, 56%, 12,000 bottles
  • Mark VIII“Premise” 2008-2018 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Sherry, 46%, 30,000 bottles
  • Mark IX“Empery” 2004-2018 14 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Sherry, 56%, 12,000 bottles
  • Mark X “2007” 2007-2019 12 YO, ex-bourbon, 59%, 27,000 bottles
  • Mark XI“Sagacity” 2007-2019 12 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Madeira, 48%, 24,000 bottles
  • Mark XII“Nobiliary” 2005-2019 14 YO, ex-bourbon, 62%, 12,000 bottles
  • Mark XIII“2008” 2008-2020 12 YO, ex-bourbon, 60%, 27,000 bottles
  • Mark XIV“Détente” 2010-2020 10 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Port, 51%, 21,000 bottles
  • Mark XV“Redoubtable” 2006-2020 14 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Madeira, 61%, 12,000 bottles
  • Mark XVI“Shibboleth” 2005-2021 16 YO, ex-bourbon, 56%, 9,600 bottles
  • Mark XVII“2009” 2009-2021 12 YO, ex-bourbon, 60%, 30,000 bottles
  • Mark XVIII – “Indelible” 2010-2021 11 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Zinfadel 46%
  • Mark XIX – “Sovereignty” 2007-2021 14 YO, ex-bourbon, ex-Sherry, 62%, 12,000 bottles
  • Mark XX – “Isonomy” 2005-2022 17 YO ex-bourbon, 58%, 8,400 bottles

 

Jun 192018
 

It’s a curious fact that what might be the best all-round aged rum from Antigua is the one that is actually mentioned the least: you hear a lot about the popular 5 YO; the more exclusive 1981 25 YO comes up for mention reasonably often; and even the white puncheon has its adherents…but the excellent 10 Year Old almost seems to float by in its own parallel universe, unseen and untried by many, even forgotten by a few (I first looked at in 2010 and gave it a guarded recommendation).  Yet it is a dry and tasty and solid drink on its own merits, and if I had to recommend a rum at standard strength from the island, this one would absolutely get my vote, with the white coming in a close second (and may yet make the cut for the pantheon, who knows?).

There’s almost nothing going on with rum in Antigua that is original or unique to the island itself.  Even back in the old days, they would import rum and blend it rather than make it themselves. Since 1932 one distillery has existed on the island and produces most of what is drunk there using imported molasses – the long operational Antigua Distillery, which produced the Cavalier brand of rums and the English Harbour 5 and 25 YO  They used to make one called Soldier’s Bay, now discontinued, and a colourful local gent called “Bushy” Baretto blends an overproof he sources from them and then drags it down to 40% in a sort of local bush variation he sells (in Bolan, a small village on the west side of the island).

Since the source of all this rum made by Antigua Distilleries is imported molasses, there is no specific style we can point to and say that this one is “key” anything.  Also, they are using a double column still and do not possess a pot still, or a lower capacity creole still such as the Haitians use, which would distill alcohol to a middling 60-70% strength instead of 90%+ basis of their range that wipes out most of the flavours.  So again, not much of a key rum based on concepts of terroire or something real cool that is bat-bleep-crazy in its own way and excites real admiration.

With respect to AD’s other rums up and down the range — the 65% puncheon remains a somewhat undervalued and fightin’ white brawler; the (lightly dosed) 25 Year Old is too expensive at >$200/bottle and remains a buy for money-bagged folks out there; and the 5 YO has too much vanilla (and I know it’s also been messed with somewhat). Since 2016, the company has moved towards stronger, near-cask-strength rums, is experimenting with finishes like the sherried 5 YO and a madeira, and I know they’re doing some work with Velier to raise their street cred further, as well as sourcing a pot still.  But none of this is available now in quantity, and that leaves only one rum from the stable, which I have been thinking about for some years, which has grown in my memory, but which I never had a chance to try or buy again, until very recently. And that’s the 10 year old.

The nose begins with an astringent sort of dryness, redolent of burnt wood chips, pencil shavings, light rubber, citrus and even some pine aroma. It does get better once it’s left to itself for a while, calms down and isn’t quite as aggressive.  It does pack more of a punch than the 25 YO, however, which may be a function of the disparity in ages – not all the edges of youth had yet been shaved away. Additional aromas of bitter chocolate, toffee, almonds and cinnamon start to come out, some fruitiness and vanilla, and even some tobacco leaves.  Pretty nice, but some patience is required to appreciate it, I’d say.

The most solid portion of the rum is definitely the taste.  There’s nothing particularly special about any one aspect by itself  – it’s the overall experience that works. The front end is dominated by light and sweet but not overly complex tastes of nuts, toffee, molasses, unsweetened dark chocolate and cigarette tar (!!). These then subside and are replaced by flowery notes, a sort of easy fruitiness of apples, raspberries, and pears, alongside a more structured backbone of  white coconut shavings, dates, oak, vanilla, caramel. The finish returns to the beginning – it’s a little dry, shows off some glue and caramel, strong black tea. Oddly, it also suggests a herbal component and is a little bitter, but not so much as to derail the experience. Quite different from the softer roundness of the 25 YO, but also somewhat more aggressive, even though the proof points are the same.

So if one were to select a rum  emblematic of the island, it would have to be from this company, and it would be this one.  Why? It lacks the originality and uniqueness of a funky Jamaican, or the deep dark anise molasses profile of the Demeraras, or even the pot still originality of the St Lucian rums.  It actually resembles a Spanish style product than any of those. By the standards of bringing something cool or new to the table, something that screams “Antigua!” then perhaps the puncheon white should have pride of place.  But I feel that the 10YO is simply, quietly, unassumingly, a sturdy and well-assembled rum, bringing together aspects of the other three they make in a fashion that just succeeds. It is at bottom a well made, firm, tasty product, a rum which is pretty good in aggregate, while not distinguished by any one thing in particular. Perhaps you won’t hear the island’s name bugled loudly when you sip it…but you could probably hear it whispered; and on the basis of overall quality I have no problems including it in this series.

(#522) (83/100)

Apr 252018
 

#505

On initial inspection, Rivers Royale Grenadian Rum – a white overproof – is not one of the first rums you’d immediately think of as a representation of its country, its style, or a particular type — perhaps Westerhall or Clarke’s Court are more in your thoughts.  It is made in small quantities at River Antoine on  the spice island of Grenada, is rarely found outside there, and even though it can be bought on the UK site Masters of Malt, it barely registers on the main bloggers’ review sites.

Yet anyone who tries it swears by it.  I’ve never seen a bad write-up, by anyone. And there are a several aspects of this rum which, upon closer inspection, reveal why it should be considered as part of the Grenadian pantheon and on any list of Key Rums, even if it is so relatively unknown.  

For one thing, there’s it’s artisinal production.  Almost alone in the English-speaking Caribbean, River Antoine adheres to very old, manual forms of rum making.  The sugar cane is free from fertilizers, grown right there (not imported stock), crushed with a water wheel – perhaps the oldest working one remaining in the world – and the source of the rum is juice, not molasses. Fermented for up to eight days without added yeast – natural fermentation via wild bacteria only – in huge open-air vats and transferred to an old John Dore copper pot still (a new one was added in the 1990s).  No additives of any kind, no filtration, no ageing. They are among the most natural rums in the world and the white, which is supposedly drawn off the still at a staggering 89% ABV and bottled at 69% to facilitate transport by air, is among the most flavourful whites I’ve ever tried, and thought so even back in 2010 when I first got knocked off my chair with one.

There’s also the whole business of heritage.  In the geek rumiverse, it’s common knowledge that Mount Gay’s paperwork shows it as dating back to 1703 – though it was almost certainly making rum for at least fifty years before that – and River Antoine is by contrast a relative johnny-come-lately, being founded in 1785. The key difference is that Rivers (as it is locally referred to) is made almost exactly the way it was at the beginning, never relocated, never really changed its production methodology and is even using some of the same facilities and equipment. So if your journey along the road of discovery is taking you into the past and you want to know more about “the old way” and don’t want to go to Haiti, then Grenada may just be the place to go.

These points segue neatly into an emerging (if still small) movement of fair trading, organic ingredients and eco-friendly production methodologies.  By those standards, and bearing in mind the points above, Rivers must be a poster child for the eco-movement, like Cape Verde, Haiti and other places where rumtime seems to have slowed down to a crawl and nobody ever saw any reason to go modern.

But is it any good?  I thought so eight years ago, and in a recent, almost accidental retasting, my initially high opinion has been reconfirmed.  At 69%, unaged, unfiltered, untamed, I knew that not by any stretch of the imagination was I getting a smooth and placid cocktail ingredient, and I didn’t – it was more like getting assaulted by a clairin.  It started out with all the hallmarks of a Jamaican or Haitian white popskull – glue, acetone, vinegar, olives and brine exploded across the nose, pungent, deep and very hot. And it didn’t stop there – as it rested and then opened up, crisper and clearer notes came out to party – watermelons, pickled gherkins and sugar cane sap, married to drier, mustier aromas of cereal, old books, fresh baked bread, light fruits and even some yeast.  Weird, no?

As for the taste, well…whew! The palate did not slow down the slightest bit from the jagged assault of the nose but went right in. Although the initial entry was just short of crazy – “like drinking ashes and water and licking an UHU glue stick” my notes go – this offbeat profile actually developed quite well. It turned dry, minerally, the fruitiness and citrus zest took something a back seat, and it took some time to recalibrate to this. Once that settled down the fruits emerged from hiding — cherries, some guavas and yellow mangoes, orange peel, light florals…but the crazy never entirely went away, because there were also hints of gasoline and a salt lick, and the sort of binding adhesive you can occasionally smell in brand new glossy magazines (I know of no other way to describe this, honestly).  And of course the exit is quite epic – a long, searing acid fart that blows fumes of acetone, citrus, brine and deeper fruits down your throat.

This rum is like a lot of very good whites on the market right now: Rum Fire, the Sajous, Toucan, J.B White, to name just a few. Quite aside from the heritage, the history, the production and eco-friendly nature of it, the rum is simply and powerfully an amazing original even when rated against those on the list of 21 Great Whites.  It’s not a rum that apologizes for its sense of excitement, or attempts to buffer itself with a standard profile in an effort to win brownie points with the larger audience.  It is maddeningly, surely, simply itself — and while I admit that strong whites are something of a thing for me personally (and not for people who like quieter, simpler or sweeter rums), I can’t help but suggest there’s so much going on with this one that it has to be tried by rum lovers at least once.

Luca and others have told me that River Antoine are having some issues maintaining the old water wheel and the open-air vats, and repairs are continuously being made. There are rumours of upgrading the equipment, perhaps even modernizing here or there.  I’m selfish, and I hope they manage to keep the old system going – because yes, they can make their rums faster, more easily, and issue more of them. But given the old-school quality of what I tried, the sheer force and fury and potency of what they’re already doing, I somehow wonder if anything modern they do will necessarily be better…or be regarded as a Key Rum. The way I regard this one.

(85/100)

Jan 032018
 

#475

“A few years ago, these rums [Zacapa and Diplo Res Ex] were seen as the baseline for all other rums to be judged.  No longer.”  Thus wrote Wes Burgin over at the Fat Rum Pirate in an excellent July 2017 post suggesting that with social media and education, enthusiasts were becoming more knowledgeable and less apt to accept adulterated rums than ever before.

Yet in spite of that ideal, in spite of the ever-expanding knowledge-base of rums the world over, the Diplo remains enormously popular. It’s unlikely that there’s any rum drinker out there – junkie or not – who didn’t at some point have a fling with this plump Venezuelan señora.  Just about all rum writers have done a thing on it. Like the Bacardis, El Dorados and Zacapas, it’s one of those rums one can find just about anywhere, and for the new people coming to rum cold, it remains a staple, if not always a favourite.  

That is, of course, due to both its very affordable price, and because of is sweet placidity.  You don’t want expensive indie aggro? A light, easy-going drink? Something to relax with? Complex enough for Government work? No thinking required? Here’s your solution. That’s also the reason why it drops off the radar of those people who grow to take their rums seriously (if it doesn’t drive them into transports of righteous rage).  Diplomatico – marketed as Botucal in Germany, named after one of the farms from which the cane comes, though it’s exactly the same product – never bothered to punch it up, never worried about cask strength, never deigned to lose the dosing or adulteration, and sells briskly day in and day out.  The deep-diving rum chums just shake their heads and head for the exits to buy the latest indie casker, and discussions on Facebook about the matter are more likely than any other to end up in verbal fisticuffs.

Yet consider for a moment the page of this rum in the populist-driven, crowd-sourced “review” site RumRatings.  A top-end, well-known, mid-priced unadulterated rum issued at full proof like, say, the Foursquare Criterion has 13 ratings on that site. The Triptych has 11. The 2006 10 Year Old has 4, and the most popular Foursquare rum is the 9 year old 2005 Port Cask Finish with 71.  The Diplomatico in contrast has over 1,200, with most rating it between 8 and 9 out of 10 points. 

Surely neither longevity, nor rank please-as-many-as-possible populism are solely responsible for such a disparity. There’s got to be more to it than just that, a reason why it regularly appears on people’s answers to the constant question “What to start with?” — and I’m sorry but not everyone drinks a few hundred rums a year like us writers and festival junkies, and it isn’t enough to simply shrug, sniff condescendingly and say “some people just don’t know good rums.” If it is – as I suggest – a rum worth revisiting, then such popularity and esteem requires a cold, beady-eyed re-consideration.  We have to understand whether it has something more in its trousers, something subtle, that excites that kind of appreciation. It was in an effort to understand what lay behind the popularity of the Diplo that I deliberately sourced a bottle in Berlin in late 2017, and while my controls were a few stronger, purer rums from the Latin side, to my surprise the Diplo didn’t entirely choke even when ranked against them (I shall now pause for the incredulous expressions of indignation to pass), though for sure it never came close to exceeding any and raced to the bottom in fine style.

Part of all this is its relative simplicity compared to fierce and pungent rums now taking centre stage. The nose was a straightforward sweet toblerone, toffee, vanilla, butterscotch and caramel, very light and easy and butter-smooth, with what complexity there was being imparted by spices aimed at the sweet side – rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg – and a little nuttiness, and a hint of light fruit, all of which took real effort to separate out.  Hardly the most complex or intriguing smell ever to waft out of a rum bottle, and the vanilla and caramel were really too dominant to provide the sort of excellence the maker trumpets for itself.

Similar issues affect the palate.  Smooth – yes, warm – yes, comfortable – undoubtedly.  There was a little oak mixing things up here, but mostly the taste was muscovado sugar and caramel, vanilla, light fruits of indeterminate nature, and those same spices from the nose (cinnamon being at the forefront) with nothing particularly new or adventurous leading one into undiscovered territory.  Overall, even on the finish, and then judged overall, it had little beyond a pleasant, warm sort of sweet unaggressive nature only marginally redeemed by a light tart fruity note here or there, and the edge imparted by a little oak. Beyond that, it was way too sweet for my palate as it stands right now, and in conjunction with the controls it actually sinks even further because the dampening effect of the additions becomes self evident.

So, that adulteration. It’s been measured at 30-40 g/L of whatever-it-is, which puts it in the same league as The El Dorado 12 and 15 year old rums, Rum Nation Millonario and the Cartavio XO, all of which, back in the day, I enjoyed, and all of which have subsequently slipped in my estimation in the years between then and now, and been relegated to what I refer to as “dessert rums.” But what exactly are they adding to their rum?  Back in 2010 when I wrote my original unscored review, the Distilleries Unidas website made tangential mention of flavouring additives (“Only…rich aromas and flavours are used to manufacture rums…” — this comment no longer appears); and Rob Burr remarked on the 2012 Inuakena review that a Venezuelan rum liqueur called Haciendo Saruro is added to the blend, but without corroboration (it was assumed he was speaking from insider knowledge).  So I think we can take it as a given that it’s been tarted up, and it’s up to each person who tries this rum to make up their own minds as to what that means to them. Personally, I no longer care much for the Diplomatico and its ilk.  It presents no real challenge.  It simply isn’t interesting enough and is too sweet and easy. That, however, obscures the key point that people like it precisely for those reasons. It sells well not in spite of these deficiencies (as they are, to me), but because of them…because the majority of drinkers consider these very same drawbacks as points of distinction, and if you doubt that and the unkillability of sweet, check out the hundreds of comments in response to “Don’t treat people like snobs because they like sweet rums” post on FB in December 2017. Since I’m not arrogant enough to believe that my tastes and my palate matter more, or should take precedence over others, I can simply suggest that people try more rums to get a feel for more profiles before praising it to the high heavens as some kind of ur-rum of the Spanish style.

Let us also concede that a rum like this has its place. On the negative side are all the issues raised above.  On the plus side of the ledger, for those who like these things, there is sweetness, smoothness and a stab at complexity.  It works fabulously as a standalone sipping drink when concentration and thought is not desired or required.  It’s not entirely an over-sugared mess like, oh, the A.H. Riise Navy rum. It makes a decent introduction to neat rums for those raised on over-spiced, over-flavoured rums or who came up through the ranks trying rums like Kraken, Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry or Don Papa.  As one of the first steps in the world of rum, this ron remains a tough one to beat, and that’s why it should be on the list of anyone who is assembling the first home bar, and should be considered, for good or ill, one of the Key Rums of the World…even if, sooner or later, all true rum fans will inevitably move beyond it.

(74/100)

Dec 022017
 

#464

Seen over a span of decades, it is more clear than ever that the El Dorado 15 year old is a seminal rum of our time. “It is a bridge” I wrote back in 2010 in my unscored review, remarking that it straddles the territory between the lower end twelve year old and the 21 year old, and represents a sort of intermediary in value and price and age. The best of all worlds for El Dorado, you might say, and indeed it remains, even twenty five years after its introduction in 1992, one of the most popular rums in the world for those who enjoy the Demerara style.  Any time a blog or website has a series of comments on favourite affordable rums, you can be sure it’ll find its way in there somewhere.  It cannot be easily ignored, even now in the time of independents and cask strength Guyanese monsters aged beyond all reason.

That it succeeds at so effectively colonizing our mental map of good rums bottled at living room strength is a testament to its marketing, but also its overall quality.  DDL themselves tacitly accept this by not only keeping the rum in production for over a quarter century, but chosing specifically that one to issue with a number of fancy finishes (and for a very good rundown of those, look no further than RumShopBoy’s complete analysis, and his separate conclusions, as well as the Quebec Rum’s (French) reviews the only ones available right now). My irascible father, no rum slouch himself, scorns all other rums in the El Dorado range in favour of this one. Many Guyanese exiles wouldn’t have their home bars without it.  What the actual quality is, is open to much more debate, since all rumhounds and rumchums and rabid aficionados are well aware – and never tire of saying – that there is 31-35 g/L of additives in there (either caramel or sugaring, it’s never been definitively established), and by that standard alone it should, like the 21, be consigned to an also-ran.

But it isn’t.  Somehow this rum, a blend of the PM, EHP and VSG stills – which is to say, all the wooden stills, with the PM dominant – keeps on trucking like the energizer bunny, and, love it or hate it, it sells well year in and year out, and has fans from across the spectrum.

Tasting it in tandem with the 12 year old (I’ll do a revisit of this as well soon, though not as part of the Key Rums series) and the 21, it’s clear that it possesses a bit more oomph than it’s younger sibling, in all aspects.  Not only in strength (43% ABV) and age (three years more than the 12), but also in overall quality. It noses quite well – licorice, anise, creamy caramel, bitter chocolate, leather and smoke.  Orange rind.  Some mustiness and vague salt – basically all the things that the cask strength indies demonstrate, with good complexity and balance thrown in…but somewhat more dampened down too, not as fierce, not as elemental, as what might have been the case.

The various hydrometer lists around the place have shown there’s adulteration going on in the rum, and there is no doubt that when you drink the 15 in tandem with clear, untouched rums, the softening effect of the add-ons are noticeable. What is astounding that even those levels don’t entirely sink the experience. Consider: it’s smooth and possesses depth and heat.  It starts with licorice, and adds oak, some smoke, then slowly the dark fruits come into play – prunes, raisins, black olives, overripe cherries.  There’s some honey and the faint molasses background of coarse brown sugar.  In every way it’s a better rum than the 12 year old, yet one can sense the way the flavours lack snap and crispness, and are dumbed down, softened, flattened out – the sharp peaks and valleys of an independently issued rum are noticeably planed away, and this extends all the way to the finish, which is short and sleepy and kind of sluggish, even boring: sure there’s caramel, molasses, oak, licorice, nuts and raisins again, but didn’t we just have that?  Sure we did. Nothing truly interesting here.

All that aside, I’d have to say that for all its faults, there’s a lot to appreciate about this particular rum.  Much like the 21 it rises above its adulteration and provides the new and not-so-demanding rum drinker with something few rums do – a particular, specific series of tastes that almost, but not quite, edge outside the mainstream.  It gives enough sweet to appeal to those who bend that way, and just enough of a distinctive woody-smoky-leathery profile to attract (and satisfy) those who want something heavier and more musky.  

Now, let me be clear – a superlative demonstration of the blender’s art this is not. It is not one of the fiercely pungent Jamaicans, not a lighter, clearer, crisper agricole, nor is it an easy going Cuban or Panamanian, or a well-assembled Bajan.  I think it’s eclipsed even by the single-still offerings of DDL What it really succeeds at being, is well-nigh unique on its own particular patch.  Its success rests on great appeal to the masses of rum drinkers who aren’t drinking a hundred different rums a year, and who don’t take part in the Great Sugar Debate, who just want something tasty, reasonably well made and reasonably sweet, reasonably complex, that can be either sipped or swilled or mixed up without breaking the bank.  It’s on that level that the El Dorado 15 year old succeeds, remarkably well, even now, and is a tough, well-rounded standard for any other rum of its age and proof and point of origin to beat. Or at least, in the opinions of its adherents.

(82/100)