Jan 052024
 

Speaking from my solitary spot in the rumiverse, 2023 was in many ways a year of challenges and changes and oddly enough, also of maintaining the status quo and holding the line. It was an exciting year with many new experiences and many new rums, and while I could not attend quite as many festivals as I might have preferred — or met as many friends, colleagues, aficionados and rum people as I wanted to — in many respects the year was a success on other levels and I really can’t complain except for one thing: I didn’t get to taste enough, or write enough. All this while the rum world was expanding and generating ever more new and fascinating branches and going in some interesting directions.

So here’s my observations on the state of the rumiverse, and my commentary on emerging trends and some interesting issues that popped up over the year.

Personal

For those who know something of my vagabond nomadic existence, the big event of 2023 was that after ten years living and working abroad, I returned with my family to Canada, leaving behind a stash of rums in Europe which — in spite of much begging, pleading, negotiating or even outright conniving — had to stay there because the duties and tax levied on shipping such a huge collection were simply unaffordable. One of these days I’ll figure out what to do with it, I guess. 

Happily, the decade away showed me that at least Alberta (if not other provinces) began to get a pretty good rum selection, often from abroad but also from Canadian producers. Admittedly we get only the most occasional Velier rum, and none of the Foursquare ECS series; most of the indies are absent, agricole availability remains weak and juice from the Far East, Taiwan or Australia are wistful daydreams; but enough distillery and independent bottlings are now being seen that one can reasonably pick up a cask strength rum from Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, South America, Japan, and even the odd American edition, with some sleuthing…a high point for me was finding the Japanese Teeda 21 YO, for example.

On the flip side, what with trying to get professional, family and social life back into order, it made writing harder; a lot of that was just finding the time and energy to keep it up. The level of written output maintained for so many years – two reviews a week, essays, opinion pieces, articles and what have you – declined, and so for 2023 I only wrote 86 reviews (vs 88 the year before) even though I travelled less; wrote no published opinions (though quite a few unpublished ones), made no new lists, posted no essays. The Key Rums and Makers series languished somewhat for lack of time to do the deep dives they require: they limped along. And there were at least regular updates to several reference posts which I like keeping an eye on: the Strongest Rums of the World, the Guide to Online Resources and the Annual Global Rumfest Schedule, all of which I think are really useful, and which should not be left to become dated. I remained active on Reddit and posted a few longform comments, but let’s face it — the reduction in output was marked. This was and is frustrating because there are a lot of things I want to research and document more deeply, and the hope is that in 2024 as things settle down I can resume a better output and address these.

Other stuff

Being able to interact with people in an environment where alcohol was not illegal — which is to say, outside of a rum festival environment – was also something I had not realised I missed so much during years of enforced teetotalling. People could actually come over and taste with me. I could attend a tasting, and get a bit of a buzz on, talk to interesting people, meet new ones. The New Renegade tasting run by Jane Nurse at Willow Park was a great evening, and I reconnected with all the fun people at Kensington Wine Market (especially when they had a rum tasting of their own). Mitch Wilson passed through on his world tour, and I attended his Black Tot session in Edmonton; I met Karl Mudzamba of Bira! when he came to Calgary and had an awesome afternoon riffing about the subject with him and some friends. And having Logan, Dwayne, Carter and Neil come over to share their finds and damage my shelf on a weekend afternoon was just a great experience. That said, the store people at major emporia almost totally ignore this category and know little about it, nobody outside the extremely small circle of rumdorks in Western Canada has a clue that there even is such a reviewer as the ‘Caner, and so the obscurity that I began with has come full circle.  C’est la vie.

Mitch of Black Tot and the Krzysiek (the Rum Explorer), Berlin 2023, on the cruise….

With respect to rum festivals, well, those had to be chosen carefully and it was with real regret that I passed on Paris for their major events in March and October and had to limit things to the TWE and German rum shows, which was a decision driven by their being a week apart so attending both was feasible. They were great though: going on a nighttime rum cruise in Berlin with Matt & Carrie, Mitch, the Colours of Rum crowd, the Rum Explorer and Mrs. Caner was an event of which I will retain fond memories; I met up with Alex of the Rum Barrel, Steve Magarry from Oz, Dawn Davies, Dirk Becker, Pete Holland, the Skylark boys, Kris Van S., the UK rum-loving crowd, and of course the UK rum-making crowd from all those amazing little distilleries up and down the country. Overall, I just had a lot of fun walking around and talking to people.

Unsurprisingly, my new location almost demanded that my focus on which rums to review be shifted again, as they already have several times. My desire to try more rums from Australia was temporarily sated (though I look forward with real eagerness to writing about the 2023 Advent Calendar), and I have a backlog of rums from new distilleries from the UK to write about. I lack access to the best of the newest that’s out there – in that respect Canada has not really changed – but on the flip side this leaves me free to spend some time looking at what Canada itself has to offer. For the most part, my initial forays have proved uninspiring – especially among the white rums – but there are glimmers of light in the darkness. Romero and Ironworks demonstrated real quality, for example, and I know there are others to be found and written about.

Passing 1,000

Another event of some note was, of course, that the ‘Caner finally hit that once-unthinkable milestone of the 1,000th review. You have to understand what that meant to a guy who, when he started, once thought that making it to a hundred was cool beans…and didn’t even think there were a thousand rums to taste (let alone that they could be sourced). I’m not the first to get there – Serge Valentin was and remains way ahead (as I write this in the final days of 2023 he’s closing fast on 2000 rum entries) and I’m of the firm opinion that had Wes Burgin (The Fat Rum Pirate) not taken a leave of absence from the reviewing gig he would have gotten to that stat next since he wrote and posted fast and more often. But you’ll forgive me for being just a little proud of the accomplishment. The enormous catalogue of essay-length reviews, none of which was phoned in or just dashed off, all of which I can stand behind, has proved to be a consumer reference tool as useful in it own way as any book out there; and hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t ask about a rum from decades ago which now only lurks on those sometimes obscure and forgotten posts. Tasting notes go stale within a few years, but as snapshots of a moment in time the background details and surrounding context do serve a useful function to laypeople now getting involved in the field…and this is why, although I think the Key Rums series is important, my real love is given to the Rumaniacs, started so many years ago in Paris.

Anyway, as an aside: when I began approaching the milestone I wanted to write about something very special. I sent out an exploratory note to Luca Gargano in Genoa to see if there was anything I could raid his legendary warehouse for, but that got nowhere. And seeing how occasionally, very occasionally, Richard Seale puts out a two- or three-bottle extraordinary release for worthy causes, I seriously considered approaching the man and asking him what could be done…but couldn’t find the courage (or the arrogance to pretend it was a huge deal to anyone except myself). Yet, as luck and a penchant for sniffing around liquor stores would have it, one day I found that amazing Lost Spirits Jamaican rum from 1976 gathering dust (for two freakin’ years!) in an Edmonton shop, and after thinking hard about it for a fortnight, ended up getting the bottle, it became Review #1000, and never regretted that for a moment – it’s now another one of those rums for which I need a special occasion to share with others.

Developments in the Greater Rum World

With respect to the rumiverse generally, here are few observations I made throughout the year.

For one, the number of independent bottlers just keeps increasing every year, and it seems like each turn around the sun brings a new challenger out to the front, in a way that just excites people’s interest and ignites their enthusiasm.  In past year we had the Companie, 1423, Nobilis, Bira!, Rom Deluxe, Valinche & Mallet, TBRQ, Dram Mor, Nectar of the Daily Drams, Swell de Spirits, Rum Sponge and others, and I don’t think it’s wrong to say the Polish company Colours of Rum was the one people were looking at in 2023, if the scuttlebutt, social media commentary and sheer visibility factor is taken into account – certainly they seem to be all over the place these days and the rums they select are damned fine. Holmes Cay is also of note: they made waves mostly in the States and now have an increasing presence in Europe as well (especially with that thundering duo of the uber-aged pot still Foursquare rum and the Grand Arome from Savanna they came out with).

Alas, we lost sight of Sangar from Liberia, and I heard Toucan from French Guiana folded its tents which is a shame and a loss for all of us. Mim in Ghana has changed hands I think; fortunately there’s a fair bit of their juice floating around Europe. Nine Leaves in Japan is having some difficulties and I don’t think they’re doing much right now, and Moscoso in Haiti is using others’ facilities to make their klerens. As always we have losses to offset the gains.

Concurrent with all that, are a plethora of new and small distilleries emerging from around the world. In the UK we saw Retribution, Ninefold, Outlier, Dropworks, J. Gow and the Islay Rum Company take on greater visibility (they were founded in previous years and I met many in 2022, but they deserve mention again here). Matugga out of Uganda is going strong in a new direction. Australian distilleries like Killik, Tin Shed, Husk and Beenleigh began to be represented more in the indies’ repertoire, and none too soon, because a raft of others making rums of equal quality is snapping at their heels and I’m convinced we’ll see many more cross our sightline in the years to come (and none too soon).  The Asian scene remained quiet and I can’t say I saw much from Sampan, Vientiane or Issan on the festival circuit, but I know they’re all still there so maybe I just attended the wrong festivals and didn’t shop enough.

With the pretty half of Renaissance Distillery – TWE Rumshow 2023

If I had to single out a single distillery for kudos — outside the indies, the Aussies or the New Brits (and I loved them all) — it’s going to have to be Renaissance out of Taiwan, whose single cask, full-proof, sub-five year old rums were simply astonishing, all of them. Their coming out party was at the TWE Rumshow in July and I consider myself fortunate to not only meet the husband and wife team and their sons (same age as the Little Big Caner) but to attend their masterclass and find out more about what they went through to get to this stage….sort of like toiling for a decade to become an overnight success. I know they brought over their best half-dozen to wow us proles, but nobody can make six rums that good without knowing exactly what they’re doing.

And this brings me to an observation I had first made to myself a year ago, thought was premature to state in 2022, which now seems to be appropriate: young rums we would not have looked at seriously before have started to become really damned good. We are conditioned to look for big numbers and multi-decade old rums and yes, those will always be fine and expensive and command our desire.  Yet consider how many rums ten years or younger – even five years and below – have crossed our paths in the last few years and which enthralled, wowed and out-and-out impressed us. Renaissance was one, the Australians and Brits showed us a bunch of others, and even the various blends coming out of more established distilleries around the Caribbean are showing a serious uptick in quality and appreciation. My friends in the whisky world groused many years ago that first the distilleries and blenders made a big thing of “age is everything” until aged stocks ran low at which point they switched the mantra to “age isn’t everything” in their marketing.  Perhaps the same thing also happened in rum, but the amount of new distilleries selling really fantastic younger rums to make cash flow suggests that our little corner of the spirits world may simply be better at making such elixirs.

Arminder, the gent behind Rum Revival, (c) Rum Revival Instagram feed

Online Resources

If you were to consider only website-based reviewers you might think the writing gig is one of diminishing interest and output. I have come to the realisation that this is not so, it’s just that the format and platform and methodology has changed. The rum writing and reviewing game is as vibrant as ever, one only has to look elsewhere.

Some years ago I commented on my dissatisfaction with the increasing prevalence of the “short form” review model (you could argue Serge Valentin popularised if not actually created it), whereby quick, tasty little McNuggets of reviews are written, tasting notes are briskly and succinctly provided and a score assigned. I felt – then and to some extent now – that bereft of context and without placing of a rum in its larger universe, with no provision of some historical or other background, such reviews may be quick to write and lend themselves to building a fast library of tasting notes, but are not always as valuable in the long term. However, in all the ensuing years, the trend has continued and it’s time to stop whining and simply accept that this is the way the world now consumes information. And indeed some of these little reviews, which are almost always platform-based on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube or even FB, are pretty good, with the subreddit /r/rum being the best of them all, and Instagram coming right behind it.

It’s not just written micro-reviews either. Other formats are becoming more prevalent. A new short-form video reviewer I like, Arminder Randhawa, started his Instagram feed and YouTube channel “Rum Revival” in 2022; and 2023 is when he really picked up a head of steam and became much more well known. I met him at TWE Rumshow in July and he’s pretty much the same as he is in his videos: fun, pleasant, engaging. In his videos he is crisp, informative and has good editing chops – his presentations really move along and unlike some others, eschew gimmickry, stay resolutely focused and on point which is why he can get away with very short ones. 

Older stalwarts like Steve the Barman (on YouTube) remain fixtures on the video scene and almost makes me want to try a spiced rum on occasion (he lives in hope). His philosophy is simply that somebody needs to talk about these bottom feeders as well and so he does it, with a blend of enthusiasm and fast talk that is really fun to watch. He has not changed my mind so far, but then, he doesn’t need to. And a hat tip to Ready Set Rum in the USA who has much fun with his friends and rums as he ever did. All three of these made the Rum Raiders “Five Most Influential Rum YouTube Channels of 2023” list – along with Nia of My Rum Diaries and the duo of Roger and Robert of Just Drinking.

In any event, what I did not see as clearly then but which has slowly come into focus, is that such visual or short form reviews are part of the third internet generation of creative endeavour.  This is a generation of creatives which moves a lot faster, attracting a cohort of the consuming audience whose attention span is a lot shorter and probably skews younger. Thousand word essays are passe, reading is so yesterday, and it’s crisp little reviews that make up the bulk of the reviewing ecosystem these days, including the video reviews and podcasts that have become more popular, and this is where I should give a loud shout out to the pair of Will Hoekinga and John Gulla who run that always excellent biweekly podcast The RumCast, which for me is required listening even when I disagree with them. With the exception of Steve and Ralfy who are in the UK, they serve a primarily American audience (and this shows if you know what you’re looking for), but all have a reach far exceeding that and should not be ignored.

A quick roundup of the others around the world: the UK rum reviewing scene has tilted and the three long time resources of Rum Diaries Blog, Rumshop Boy and The Fat Rum Pirate have ceased writing. They remain active on social media and the general rum community but hardly review any longer. Into their place have stepped others. Alex of the Rum Barrel is one of the best: he is a bartender at Trailer Happiness and you sort of wonder where he finds the time to be so prolific; his UK rum distillery tour is an example of the passion and breadth he brings to the subject. Another is Stuart, who runs the Secret Rum Bar and is a short form multi-bottle reviewer in the vein of Single Cask Rum and WhiskyFun. He takes horizontal or vertical tastings as his schtick, and it’s always a good read. Sandor over in Hungary must come in for mention, as he is a long form writer who writes in Hungarian and one of a kind over there, single handedly fighting to get rum some recognition in Eastern Europe. 88 Bamboo represents Asia in fine style and I look forward to the day I can meet their editorial and writing team. Nothing in Australia that I know of (which remains a shame), and Africa and South America remain silent (or at least unknown to me). In the USA, it’s mostly rum clubs (like Austin or Memphis) and reddit contributors with ancillary websites that churn out content these days, and none have made a larger impact outside their region so far as I can tell, though I usually read them all.

The Soapbox Commentary Section

It was with some relief that I observed that to some extent, the vituperation that so characterised 2019-2021 online discourse died down — at least a bit — as COVID receded and the great social movements the world experienced took a break, as they inevitably do – until the next crisis. 

But by no means are any of the issues gone: they’re sleeping, not dead and it seems like people just need something to get them fired up when things gets too quiet. Dosing and disclosure remain on the docket and reliably come up for rancorous discussion every few months on some platform or the other. A fair amount of people who regularly dive into this subject cheered when another lawsuit was filed against a multinational for bad label design related to its ageing, without ever bothering to actually check what the laws really require and what will very likely happen (which is nothing).

The Ministry of Rum FB group, one of the largest social media rum clubs, became a cause célèbre for a while. The issues that got people sharpening their digital codpieces were a combination of  a change in the ethos of the group (to a less adversarial, more inclusive — but also more dollar-centric and monetised — track), the treatment of existing mods/admins, and the seemingly arbitrary removal or banning of those who posted controversial opinions and commentary, without warning. This flashed in the pan until those who it affected (unsurprisingly, this was mostly the same ones who comment the most about all the usual flashpoints) departed the group en masse and immediately found more congenial FB homes. I genuinely didn’t approve (or see the point) of either side’s high handed actions given how many options each had, but there’s no question that the cesspit that the MoR had become is much less brutal now…at the expense of a certain Darwinian character it once held. Not everyone appreciates the change, probably because there are now limits where before there had been none.

The long standing issue of the Barbados and Jamaica GI remains unresolved, and continues to elevate rhetoric and blood pressures in equal measure, even as the spillover to MF / Plantation continues apace on social media.  I find nothing but a raging desire to be right, to shut down dissent, and to target favoured enemies in petty vendettas in most of these posts, and have almost completely disengaged from any discussions on the subject, or even reading them, because how many times do you have to hear “Plantation is sh*t” before you get it? The GI is of great importance and I’m personally behind a strong version endorsed by Foursquare, SNA and Mount Gay (the most recent version of which most commentators have never read), but I argue that the lack of tolerance, the inability to be reasonable, to see points of view other than one’s own, has done more to hurt the case than help it. I simply cannot understand — and will never accept — the constant hate  and personal attacks promulgated by a pompous commentariat who have no skin in the game but are somehow okay with telling everyone else what to think and drink (or what not to)1. And this is why thoughtful people simply sign off from getting involved, which is to everyone’s detriment. Moreover, I am convinced that it’s just a matter of time before one of these flame wars gets physical, and when (not if) it happens, you can be sure that the loudest voices who make the environment so toxic will never take any blame for inciting it. It’s a measure of how deeply this issue and the self-censorship it engenders has become embedded in the rum ecosystem, that I rewrote this one paragraph six times and pruned it savagely (it’s a summary of a much longer unpublished opinion piece), and even now I’m leery about the reaction it will inevitably provoke. But it has to be said and someone has to come straight out and say it – the enmity that people provoke and promote with their intractable trolling does our world no service, because like it or not, Plantation is not going anywhere and the GI is not in our hands…so all that spilled digital ink is accomplishing nothing positive at all. It’s time to take a step back and calm down.

Favourite Reviews / Articles of 2022

As I said, my output decreased somewhat with respect to the essays and commentaries and company biographies but here are some that managed to stand out, even if only in my personal opinion:

  • A user on reddit asked about my tasting methods when there are loads of samples to go through, so I wrote him an extended explanatory reply
  • An extended opinion on the background surrounding the Tamosi “Kanaima” rum formed an addendum to the review which I think was a useful correction and counterweight to the vitriol that had attended the release of the rum a few years ago (which many forgot about, but I didn’t). It just goes to show how much savage commentary is driven by feelings, ego and a desire to be heard rather than anything more thoughtful or knowledgeable.
  • Only two Key Rums articles went up this year (although there is material for more to come) – the Bacardi “Ocho” and the Plantation OFTD, the latter of which was posted with some trepidation (see Soapbox, above), but which was received reasonably well.
  • The Sugar House Overproof rum review was a cheerful look at a masterful unaged rum from one of the New Brits which impressed me to the tune of 90 points. I had similar fun with L’Espirit’s “still strength” unaged MPM rum from Guyana and reread it every now and then for a laugh. Similarly, I enjoyed writing about the Outlier Distillery’s impressive “Hurricane” rum which was bottled at a growly 64% and had taste chops to die for, which was almost matched by the Bundie Overproof.
  • A small series of Rumaniacs reviews of older Bacardis is useful for the window they open into the past — R149 – R154
  • Review #1,000 must come in for mention here as I spent a lot of time researching it and even more drinking it. It’s one of the most magnificent rums I’ve ever tried, both for taste and for heritage.

Best Rums Tasted During the Year

As before I decided to stick with the Rumcast’s simple categorization (more or less) otherwise this post (already overlong) would become unmanageable.  Even within that restriction, it’s really kind of amazing how many fantastic rums crowded into my sightline this year, whether through tastings, festivals, the generosity of friends or simple happenstance (“Oys!! You gotta try dis ting, mon!”). I remain grateful and enriched by the sheer variety I was able to try…which, in 2023, numbered more than 200.

Unaged Rum

It’s not that I didn’t try more unaged rums than this small list suggests, it’s just that overall they were good but not always exceptional.  I could just as easily have added a Savanna or three, and several more from Australia and the UK.  These however, were the ones that stood out to me, and for my money, that HSE was simply the very best of a really strong field with the stunning Islay Rum Distillery Uine Mhor coming a close second. I should have bought myself a bottle, honestly.

Aged Rum (5 years or less)

  • JM VSOP 4YO 43% (Martinique)
  • Rom Deluxe STCHE 2019 3YO Longpond (Denmark/Jamaica) 69.6%
  • Chalong Bay Double Barrel 2YO 47% (Thailand)
  • TBRC Black Gate Australian Rum 3YO 57.2% (UK/Australia)
  • Hampden DOK 2017 5YO 64.6% (Jamaica)
  • Ninefold Distillery Watson’s Reserve 3YO No.1 59% (UK)
  • Renaissance Rums, Taiwan

Australia, Martinique, Jamaica, UK, Thailand, Taiwan…how to chose from such a cornucopia?  I almost hate to narrow things down to just one, because all entrants were uniformly lovely and showcased so much variety.  But this year, I want to give the blue ribbon to Renaissance for sheer overall excellence, even if the others were right there alongside it.

Aged rum (Over 5 years)

  • Rum Club No. 40 Beenleigh 2007 64.8% (Germany/Australia)
  • Appleton Hearts 3rd Edition 1993 63%(Jamaica)
  • Foursquare-Velier Raconteur 61% (Barbados)
  • TBRC Mount Uncle 12 YO Rum 64.9% (Australia)
  • Homes Cay Barbados 2002 20YO Pot still 51.1% (USA/Barbados)
  • The Last Drop Distillers 1976 44YO Rum 68.5% (UK/Jamaica)
  • Havana Club 11YO 50% (TWE Special Release)(Cuba)

It almost seems like blasphemy to pass by a magnificent Mount Uncle rum, a 20 YO Foursquare pot still, or one of the Appleton Hearts, yet I think from my own review notes, I have to award my best aged rum to the Last Drop 1976.  For those who want to have a nomination and award given to something they might actually get to try one day, I’m going to have to say Raconteur was surely a well deserved #2, though I emphasise how strong the entire field is, and that none would be a fail under any circumstances.

“New to me” rum

Honestly, my love is given to this section because this is where rums that don’t always score well — some do, some don’t — but which have a certain something to them, get to shine and show their chops and be recognized.  This year India (or Indian style) had a moment, the New Brits were kicking ass and taking names, and the Philippines’ Luisita deserves serious praise for getting out from under the shadow of Don Papa and somewhat redeeming the honour of the Philippines. Yet, I want to acknowledge Canada’s Romero Distilling’s full proof sherry cask rum, which was by far the best Canadian rum I’ve had thus far and gives me hope that this non traditional region of rum making will rise up and be counted in the years to come.

Most Surprising Rum, aka “AITA for liking it?” Award

Here’s a section that keeps me honest, because they are rums where I had to exercise serious effort not to prejudge. Romero’s Amber and Dark rums did not impress which made their Cask Strength rum so much more impressive; everyone hates on Bundie (not the least in Australia) yet their overproof presented as not half bad. I walked into Cargo Cult not expecting a whole lot and walked back out again really impressed and listening to Steve Magarry snicker. And of course people do know of my general indifference to Doorly’s…so how amazing is it that I really enjoyed not one of their really old expressions but their barely-out-of-diapers 3YO? In this category, I just have to give it to Havana Club though, because normally I’m not a great fan of the Latin / Cuban rum style: however, their 11YO was so solid and well assembled, pipped the 15 YO so easily (which I didn’t think that was possible), that I could not ignore it.  What a lovely dram indeed.

(Really) Honourable mentions

  • Isautier Agent Double 01 and 02 (Reunion)
  • Foursquare Touchstone (Barbados)
  • The New Renegade Pre-cask / Aged Series (Grenada)
  • The new ED cask strength series 2009 (PM and ENM)(Guyana)
  • Naga Rums (Indonesia)
  • Ninefold Distillery’s rums from the UK
  • Worthy Park 2015-2020 5 YO Canadian Only Edition 68% (Jamaica)
  • English Harbour High Congener Series 2014 6 YO 63.8% (Antigua)

These not-quite-there-by-a-nose rums are those that scored just a smidgen below the threshold I would use to bring anything into these categories, but were somehow good enough, memorable enough, that I want to call some attention to them irrespective. Isautier’s duo of cane juice and molasses based rums ensorcelled me, and the Naga rums from Indonesia weren’t of the best but unique and special even so. Ninefold just keeps on getting better every damned year and it’s tough to pick a fave so I chose the lot. Touchstone from Foursquare was really quite lovely (as most of the ECS range is), and I remain chuffed by what El Dorado has done after giving up on the Rares, and folding its limited edition aged caskers into the regular portfolio. Worthy Park and English Harbour are perennially high quality hooches, with some exceptional outturns found this year. Here though, the pride of place must go to Renegade’s precask line and also their young aged rums, most particularly the Pearls, which really was a sublime little rumlet, for something so young.

Overall best

I doubt it’s a secret that of all the rums I tried this year, that Last Drops 1976 took home the crown, and right behind it came the Cadenhead TDL 19YO which I still suspect has a smidgen of Caroni in it (unproven, but…). So that’s number 1 and 2, yet they are so unavailable it almost seems like a cheat to name them to the pantheon at all, because, what’s the point for regular rum folks? With that in mind, I reread my notes, rechecked my scores, revisited my memories, and decided that among all these really fantastic rums, this year I have to declare a tie between the Killik Handcrafted and the Black Tot 50th Anniversary because they were both original, stunning, tasty and unique rums that took rums to another level. But again, I cannot emphasise enough that any of the rums on this list is worth looking for and trying, if you can. I hope you do.

So, once again, there you have an example of my inability to make a top three listing that summarises an entire year of writing, thinking, tasting and reviewing. I hope you find it useful and enjoy your drinking, because I certainly did, and with that, I close this overlong annual review, except for one last section which I too often leave out.

Acknowledgments

No such wrap up would be complete without some words of appreciation, since the effort is never entirely solo and many people are involved in what I do. First and foremost, Mrs. Caner who has and always has had, my back, and in turn, my love. She allows me the time to think and write, and acts as a valued counsellor, especially when I’m angry. She sniffs and mutters dark imprecations about the Prada purses she isn’t getting because of my mad pursuit of the next rum, the next festival, the next meet-up…but I know she supports me in all I do, and once in a while might be persuaded to give a grudging compliment, especially if she gets to stow away on a trip to Paris in exchange.

Gregers in Denmark, thanks for all your help, and your friendship; Matt, our back and forth commentary always enriches the narrative. To Steve Magarry who once endured me babbling away for two hours in a Moroccan cafe on a Sunday morning before escaping on a flight back home, to Mr & Mrs Rum who put together those advent calendars that introduced us all to Oz, and the entire Australian and New Zealand rum community who have been so helpful and generous with your time – I’m deeply grateful to you all. Dawn Davies, you’re great, appreciate everything – still owe you a dinner sometime. Steve the Barman, Keegan, Jazz and Indy, well, what can I say, it’s always fun to hang out with you dodgy lot. For the Canadians, my appreciation goes to Dwayne in Sask (originator of the famed Conjecture), Karl of Bira! in BC, Logan, Carter, and Neil in Calgary, the KWM folks — Shawn, Curt, Andrew — who always squirrel away some of the good stuff, or find me the last seat in a tasting; and Robin in TO as always. Tips of the trilby must also go to all those people who lend quiet assistance or act as sounding boards, without recompense or mention: CityBarman, John Go, Richard Seale, Sean Caleb, Christelle Harris, Will and John of Rumcast and many more.

This is a lot, but yet, and yet…one more specific person deserves mention and must not only be thanked, but saluted: the badass, cocktail-sipping Teutonic marvel with more pizzazz then the Energizer Bunny, able to leap pallets of rums and cringing reviewers in a single bound, the indomitable, pragmatic, helpful and supportive, one and only Grandma Caner. If Mrs. Caner gave moral and personal support, Grandma Caner was the one who enabled the infrastructure. For the decade I was in the Middle East, the woman patiently gave up her basement to my rum purchases, rented storage, unpacked boxes, cleared my extravagant buys through customs or the post office, and sometimes fetched them home in her bicycle panier – in summer or winter, rain, snow or shine like a one-grandma Pony Express. Her small apartment was the site of the famed Caner Afterparties, and she took time and money to help me maintain a foothold on the rum scene wherever it was happening. She gets too little thanks in these pages, but she’s amazing, the greatest Mom I know, and there’s a bunch of people who’ve met her over the years who think the same.

And lastly, my personal thanks and heartfelt appreciation goes to all the very many rum loving individuals who read my work, occasionally leave a comment, and in all ways provide impetus for the project to continue. It would not be the same without all of you. Thanks again, and have a great 2024!


 

Dec 062023
 


MOVING TO THE RIGHT SIDEBAR MARCH 1st


Each year for the last two years I have tried to post a constantly updated calendar of all rum festivals around the world for those who need such a thing to plan holidays, abscond from soused spouses or otherwise plot malfeasance with similarly minded rum chums. The post remains a peculiarly unread part of this site, but I find it so useful that to stop curating it strikes me as a sort of diss to dedicated rumistas and business types (you know who you are) who need a facility of this nature to tie together the major and minor shows of the year. So welcome to 2024’s initial listing. It’s a first pass, with many festivals remaining undated and unconfirmed so far.

The listing is in three sections: the main confirmed events, the single-organisation events that have multiple festivals over the entire year, and the unconfirmed items which will be reviewed every month or so to make sure they’re properly included in the “Live” area.

For the most part I have excluded whisky and other spirits expos unless they have a significant rum component of their exhibition (like Whisky Live, for example).  However, this year will include some larger trade fairs and expos that are about the spirits industry as a whole (although there is no guarantee of completeness here as I lack the time to research more). Also included is the 2nd German Armagnac festival, just because I felt like it and because many German rum lovers helped start it, so a hat tip and helping hand is in order for all of them.

Still, for all that, it is heartening to see how many events crowd the calendar, not just in Europe but around the world; and while Canada and South America continues to lag and Africa is barely represented, the sheer variety of geographical dispersion — from Asia, Europe (including the eastern side), USA, the Caribbean and Australia — must surely represent a greater appreciation for the wide variety of rums out there, and who makes them. It’s good to see so many and I hope that more will be initiated in the years to come.

This is one of those posts where I actively solicit user input; there are new events springing up all the time and some will be missed in the first posting; however, long time readers will know I regularly update the post and FB with new events or changed dates / venues as news becomes available. Please contact me if I have left anything out, have made a mistake, or if you have better info on dates.


CONFIRMED EVENTS

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

  • TBA

SINGLE ORGANISERS WITH MULTIPLE EVENTS

  • Bar Convent Trade Show
    • Oct Berlin (see above)
    • Jun Brooklyn (see above)
    • Jul São Paolo (see above)
    • Nov Singapore (Website)(FB)(IG) – exact date TBA
  • Pro Wein Trade Show
    • Mar Dusseldorf, Germany (see above)
    • Apr Tokyo, Japan (see above)
    • Apr Singapore (see above)
    • Nov Mumbai, India (see above)
    • Nov Shanghai, China (see above)
    • 2025 Hong Kong, China, dates TBA
  • Gin & Rum Festival, UK – Multiple Cities (tickets)9
    • Apr 05-06 Birmingham
    • Apr 13 Swindon
    • Apr 20 Cardiff
    • Apr 27 Bristol
    • Jun 01 Derby
    • Jun 08 Lincoln
    • Jun 22 Leeds
    • Jul 06 Stoke-on-Trent
    • Jul 20 Peterborough
    • Jul 27 Reading
    • Aug 03 Bournemouth
    • Aug 10 Colchester
    • Aug 16-17 Glasgow
    • Aug 31 Swansea
    • Sep 07 Manchester
    • Sep 14 Brighton
    • Sep 21 London
    • Oct 05 Northampton
    • Oct 12 Edinburgh
    • Oct 26 Liverpool
    • Nov 02 Cheltenham
    • Nov 16 Newcastle
    • Nov 23 Sheffield
  • The “Gin to My Tonic” Gin, Rum and Vodka Festival, UK – Multiple Cities (FB)(IG)(Tickets)10
    • Feb 03 Colchester
    • Feb 10 Harrogate
    • Mar 02 Cheltenham
    • Mar 02 Liverpool
    • Mar 09 Exeter
    • Mar 23 Birmingham
    • Apr 20 Reading
    • Apr 27 Shrewsbury
    • May 03-04 Manchester
    • May 04 Aylesbury
    • May 18 Nottingham
    • Jun 07-09 Faringdon, Oxfordshire
    • Jun 14-15 Dumfries
    • Jun 15 Bury St. Edmunds
    • Jun 22 Newcastle
    • Jul 05-06 London
    • Jul 13 Salisbury
    • Jul 13 Christchurch
    • Jul 20 Truro
    • Jul 26-27 Cardiff
    • Aug 16-17 Perth
    • Sep 06-07 Swindon
    • Sep 14 Winchester
    • Sep 21 Selby
    • Oct 12 Bristol
    • Oct 12 Bournemouth
    • Oct 25-27 Glasgow
    • Nov 08-10 Aberdeen
    • Nov 30 Brighton
    • Nov 30 Bexhill

AS YET UNCONFIRMED AND UNDATED – Last Checked 24 January 2024

The events listed below are brought forward from 2023, but not yet programmed. Indicated months are from 2023 but there is no guarantee they will be slated for the same month in 2024 so exercise caution when planning them. When dates are posted and locked, entries here will be deleted and moved to the main section above.

  • Feb West Palm Beach Tropical Rum Fest (postponed from 2023)(FB)
  • Feb Guyana Rum Festival (postponed from May and Nov 2023)(FB)(IG)
  • Mar I Hart Rum Festival, Melbourne Australia (FB)
  • Jul Singapore Rum Festival, Singapore (FB)(IG)
  • Aug Alabama Rum Festival, USA (FB)(IG)
  • Aug Fukuoaka Rum Festival, Japan *no website or social media presence

DORMANT / CANCELLED / NOT HELD IN 2023

(Included for completeness; all will be deleted from this list if no event is held in 2024)


 

Dec 292022
 

Although 2020 and 2021 were deserts of activities and opportunities to meet, share, drink, talk and socialise, the rumworld never really stopped ticking over, and while RumCask’s annual three-rum top of the year invitational roundup took a nosedive, many of us kept churning out product and adding to the literature, tasting new rums, and keeping the flag of geekdom fluttering. In late 2021 some rum expos timidly cracked their doors, and 2022 was when the world finally opened up and the entrances were flung wide for a resumption of the festival season.

The COVID period, for all its many tragedies and frustrations, was really quite productive for many – certainly it was one of the most intense periods of concentrated writing in my life. Essays, opinions, reviews, Key Rums articles and producers bios all flowed without pause, and when in 2022 all that output was added the ability to travel and access rum shows and my personal stash, well, there was a lot of material to be going on with for this year.

Highlights

2022 held many interesting experiences for the ‘Caner, following along from the rebuilding of the site after its crash in 2021 – though it’s never really recovered the hit level it enjoyed before that. I wrote 88 full length reviews including four new Key Rums, four major essays, three in-depth opinion pieces, three Makers profiles, yet another list of 21 great white rums, and did a long, rambling interview with Le Blog a Roger via email. And that’s not counting updates to the Guide to Online Resources, the Strongest Rums of the World post (which I keep an eye on because more strong stuff keeps getting made) or the 2022 and 2023 Rum Festival Calendars which I see as a curated resource to help all us citizens of the larger rumiverse make our travel plans (this is the one post where I have no qualms about being approached by commercial interests to list their event).

To my delight, finally, after whining about it for years, I got a serious sample set of Australian rums courtesy of Mr and Mrs Rum in Oz who sent me the 2021 advent calendar, which allowed me to get a sense of what was going on Down Under – the quality of what they are making over there is really quite fantastic and my only regret is they did not have the opportunity to make another one for 2022. I hope that names like Killik, Winding Road, JimmyRum, Kalki Moon, Tin Shed, Black Gate, Riverbourne and others will one day become as well known as the great distilleries of the West Indies, because what they’re making sure bears watching. The best part of the experience (aside from tasting the rums, of course), was simply being in touch with a bunch of really pleasant, committed, talented and skilled distillers, many of whom poured their savings and their lives into these small companies – they were happy to help, provided background, offered samples, and I bet that if I were to turn up unannounced at their doorstep, they’d give me three hots and a cot right next to the pot still and a special unaged white rum to cuddle up next to.

Activity in rums from niche companies in SE Asia, Africa and small islands like Cabo Verde was not as dynamic as 2019 had led me to believe they would be, so I did not see much from Mia, Chalong Bay, Issan, Vientiane, Laodi, Samai, M&G, Barbosa, Vulcao and others as I might have had they been exporting and showing up at festivals. Yet I’m sure they’ll turn up again in 2023, and it’s something on my list to keep an eye on. Balanced against that I was able to pick up a decent set of rums from Madeira, which I think may be poised to become a really big thing if the markets open up for them and a few voices make more noise about how good they are. Like Australia, it may just be a matter of them finding their legs and one producer coming up with something that gets huge audiences east and west, north and south that reflects on all of them. 

And of course I developed a strong interest on Japanese shochus, specifically the variant made from unrefined brown sugar, akin to Mexican panela used in charandas or the jaggery which the Indian rum makers use for some of their products. This led to more research, new friends –  authors and podcasters Chris Lyman and Stephen Pellegrini were amazingly friendly and generous with their time, for example – and yet another branch of the Great Rum Tree to clamber around.

In late 2021 / early 2022 COVID receded and vaccinations were had, so I was able to come to Germany and start tasting a raft of bottles and samples that had been gathering there for over two years (and that’s a lot).  Seeing the sprightly Grandma Caner and making a long-delayed trip to Flensburg were high points, and I would strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in rum go do the museum and the Sugar Mile in that small northern town. There’s a ton of old rum history in Eastern Europe we never hear about, and as I remarked to Sandor, who runs that interesting Hungarian site Rum Ambassador, we could all do to hear more about the stuff from there – sure it’s looked down upon as a verschnitt or a spirit drink or a room (which is to say, not “real”), but the base of these drinks was rum and sometimes we have to relax the standards a bit to understand more about our favourite tipple’s long history.

And, of course, there were the rum festivals, which opened with a bang in 2022. If it was up to me I would have done Miami, Paris (twice), Bordeaux, Berlin, Nordic and London (twice) and maybe even more, but the job, the purse and Mrs Caner stridently objected to such wanton profligacy in spite of my tearfully operatic protestations.  As it turned out, I was able to attend the very well organised first TWE Rum Show in July, as well as Paris’s WhiskyLive in September and was fortunate enough to be accredited with a press pass to both (which did not allow me free entry to anything but the trade session, I hasten to add, though I did get a cool lanyard and badge to make me feel important; master classes and VIP tastings remained on my dime). 

To say I enjoyed my time at these two would be an understatement.  Meeting old friends and making a few new ones after such a long time in Solitary was enervating. I caught up with Christelle Harris and her uncle from Hampden, Benoit Bail-Danel, Jerry Gitany, Mitch Wilson, all my buddies from Skylark (Chet, Jazz and Indy who have now turned into firm friends whose fridges and rum stashes I can raid at will), the guys from J. Gow, Sugar House, Ninefold and Islay Rum Company, Daniele Biondi of Velier, Kris Von Stedingk, Alex Sandu, Ian Burrell, Sly Augustin (at last), Oliver Gerhardt of Rum-X, Robert of WhiskyDigest (best rum reviewer on Instagram by a mile), Dawn Davies of TWE (who sneaked me gratis into a few under-represented masterclasses and spotted me a few bottles I had begged for, for which I owe her big time).  I had too little time with Richard Seale (we have a long-outstanding dinner and drinks discussion between us, but were both too busy), Laurent Cuvier of the French site Man With A Stroller, or Serge Valentin, who I had last met in 2014 at the formation of the Rumaniacs but who remembered me kindly; I missed Luca Gargano of Velier in Paris (I doubt I would have had any chance to actually talk to the man, but it would have been nice to say hello). And no such listing of personages could be complete without mentioning the great time I had cracking up with that certifiable kiwi, Richard Nicholson, who puttered around Europe for a year straight, in an old beat-up, farting, flower-power era VW van and attended every (and I mean every) rum show in sight, paying his way by renting out his services as the festival circuit’s most geriatric and cheerful booth attendant. And you ask why I like rum, the rum world and its denizens?

Indy, Richard Nicholson and the ‘Caner

Favourite Reviews / Articles of 2022

Going strictly by the year’s writing, excluding all the content from 2020 and 2021 (some of which was stuff I remain quite pleased with), here are those pieces I think are worth an occasional reread.

  • Other Sugar Cane Spirits – Kokuto Shochu. Shochu is made from a wide variety of materials, but it was the sugar cane varietal I focused on in this long piece about an almost unknown quasi-rum from Japan. I followed it up with reviews of the Nagakumo Ichiban Bashi Kokuto Shochu, and Tomoet Moi Kokuto Shochu, which hopefully won’t be the last. 
  • The Australian Rum Series Recap.  Granted a score or so of rum reviews from about a dozen distilleries is hardly enough to make any sweeping statements or trend analyses for an entire country with maybe ten times that many distilleries making hooch, yet I feel that even within that limited scope certain remarks could be made, and in it, I summarised my findings from all the rums from the 2021 advent calendar I had tried and keep my fingers crossed there will be another one in my future. 
  • The 2022 Spirits Business Rum & Cachaca Masters Opinion. In this post, which I believe remains applicable to pretty much all spirits judging competitions, I take aim at its many weaknesses, and express my dissatisfaction with the way the entire thing was handled.  At the end, one major conclusion I come to, which has become stronger and stronger of late, that there has to be a consistent categorization model for all rums of all kinds, used by and agreed to, by everyone. This is unglamorous, unsexy and doesn’t fill many column inches or blog posts — and is too often seen as a GI thing, which it only partially is — but I think it will remain one of the most important unsolved issues of the rumworld in the foreseeable future.
  • Key Rums of the World: St. Lucia Distillers Original Chairman’s Reserve. I always knew a rum from this somewhat underrated distillery had to be in the pantheon; I was just hampered by the cessation of the 1931 series after Rev 6, and my being stuck without a sample of the current original. Finally, this year, I managed to get the job done and really took my time crafting something I hope remains useful.
  • A Guide to Online Resources. This post is one that keeps getting updating to stay current and while not often in the “top ten viewed posts of today” (the honour for that goes the Mohan Meakin bio, Strongest Rums of the world and Rum Fest Schedule), it’s one of the most useful posts on the site.  I share it to the curious and the searching at least once a week.
  • Key Rums of the World – Velier’s Haitian Clairins.  It pains me to exclude so many other other Haitian clairins (including the well regarded Benevolence); yet I had to acknowledge the impact the five Velier-distributed rhums have had on the world of spirits, and this was my way of not chosing any one of them.  A lot of text got left on the cutting room floor as well, yet even so, with history, commentary, tasting notes, opinions, hints and background, this article clocks in at nearly 3000 words.  The whole thing speaks to my fascination with, my respect for, and my liking of, these indigenous artisanal rhums…and also my uneasiness about aspects of their promotion.
  • Rhum Jacsi (Martinique) from the 1950s. Okay, have to be honest, this one is all about the history, not anything else. I found the backstory fascinating because it demonstrates something of how appreciation for rum and rhum and the varieties developed over a century in Europe.
  • Review of Saint James “Bio” 2020 Rhum Blanc Agricole. Here it’s the writing I enjoyed.  I don’t always or often feel energised, but after coming up with that joyous opening paragraph, I couldn’t stop and laughed my way through the rest of the review. Who says reviews have to be brief tasting notes and bland factual observations only?
  • A User’s Guide to attending a Rum Festival.  You can tell I was happy to be out and about the world again this year, and in that cheerful frame of mind, seeing the occasional questions on reddit, I wrote this lighthearted (but hopefully useful) novice’s guide to the perplexed, about what a rum festival is all about and how to survive one.
  • Review of S.B.S. Antigua 2015 7 YO High Congener Rum. Hands down my favourite review of the year, because it channels how and where I tried it and who was there, with a sort of heedless abandon (trust me, I kept the embellishments to a minimum – it really was like that).  Plus, it was a ballin’ rum, really. Occasion, location, rum and people all meshed into something raunchy, raucous and special, and I loved every minute of it.
  • Creating the Ultimate Rum database Part I and Part II. This very long post is really about the Rum-X app: in writing it and delving into the history, I was struck once again how even here, the issue of categorization seeps subtly through the narrative. But that said, for historical background and a bio of a really useful tasting app and its founder that just so happens to double as a rum database is helpful in understanding the issues rum aficionados have faced in trying to make any kind of definitive list of all rums.
  • Key Rums of the world – Ron Zacapa 23.  Sooner or later I had to come here and make a case why this damned rum is so pervasive, so popular, so hated, such a constant feature in all people’s rum bios…and a Key Rum. Everyone tries it at one point in their journey.  Some stay there, some move on. This article attempts to present the facts, explain the hype, and what it means to try it.
  • Yet Another 21 Great white Rums.  The third list of its kind. It’s not intentional – I just keep finding more of these delicious badasses, and feel they are often written off with some disdain by too many — especially by whisky drinkers who have no Zero-YO equivalents, look for big numbers, ask for bourbon lookalikes and don’t get how amazing these rums are.
  • Company Bio of Amrut Distillers. Much more well renowned around the world for their whiskies, Amrut isn’t a big player in the Indian rumspace — let alone that of the rest of the world — when compared to Mohan Meakin’s Old Monk or United Distillers’ McDowell’s. Yet the story is interesting and tells us something of what it is and was like in the subcontinent, and the challenges faced by companies who wanted to do more, grow bigger and do it all at scale. Everyone knows something of the Caribbean distilleries and estates – the Asian companies are no less important, or fascinating, even if we have yet to see world-beating rums from any of them.

Favourite Rums of the Year

And this leads me to the final section of this ode to 2022, the rums I enjoyed most in 2022, the first list of this kind since the one I made to remember 2019, for the boys at the RumCask, who had asked for a couple of drams, and got a firehose instead.  It should be noted that not all these rums were released in the year: but many were, and it’s important to both make the distinction and try one’s best to be representative of current releases, otherwise the value of the retrospective diminishes to the user.  One is, after all, implicitly suggesting these rums are simultaneously available, of decently recent vintage and worthy of a buy: talking about an overpriced, barely-available rum from five years back is hardly likely to engender enthusiasm or make much sense.

In what may be seen as an odd move, I’ve taken most of the listing structure of The Rumcast (Will Hoekenga and John Gulla’s love child), whose podcast episode #70 listed many of their own picks in a categorization that is relatively brief, but workable (there’s no really good way to do this so it’s all up to the individual – see The Rum Barrel and Secret Rum Bar for alternative takes on the matter).  I’ve ignored a couple, and changed the format some and my context is there for each.

The white rum category continued to be the nexus point for some amazing innovation.  There are several relatively small batch “Bio” rhums from the French islands, so this is surely a coming thing; I enjoyed the distinct differences of Renegade’s pre-cask whites and Saint Nick’s overproof was a quiet little stunner, as were the Australian cane spirits and agricoles.  But for originality, and really freakin’ great tastes, Foursquare could not be beaten this year. As Richard observed to me in Paris, “It’s good to have the Habitation Velier label to bottle these more experimental rums under; we’re not ready to bring it out as a completely commercial product, but this allows us to gauge consumer sentiment.” This consumer agreed, and wanted more.

  • Aged rum (5 years or less)

Aside from old stalwarts from all the usual houses, it’s not often I buy or manage to taste really young rums – the trend is towards older rums or NAS blends or unaged whites these days.  Yet they continue to be made, often by new companies yet to find their niche. Sugar House was startlingly original, and Papa Rouyo was the equivalent of many a sterling Guadeloupe rhum: I considered both of these for the top slot.  I also liked Chalong Bay a lot; and Renaissance is on its own plane of existence sometimes.  It was Black Gate Distillery’s Dark Overproof from Australia that was the standout this year for me – for originality, taste, strength and overall quality. It must be noted, however, that all the others were really strong too, and it’s entirely a matter of personal opinion that Black Gate pipped the others, which were and remain worthy contenders.

2022 had eight rums aged more than five years which were so startlingly good that to pick just one was near impossible. Foursquare’s Sovereignty, Hampden’s Sherry-aged “Pagos”, Nine Leaves’ ever-better Encrypted IV, the Damoiseau, the Bally, that frikken’ awesome Saint James 15YO from the Magnum series… At the end of it all, I threw away the scoring and simply had to acknowledge that the SBS Antigua, like Velier’s “Catch of the Day” is an Antiguan masterpiece and concede it deserves its place on the podium.  If you forced me, if you pressed, I’d have to give a strong second place finish to Saint James and Rum Artesenal right behind that.

One of the reasons to go to rum festivals is to try new things, whether innovations from old companies, or new companies doing their own thing. This year I picked one from each of the major subdivisions of my thinking: one from Japan (a shochu), one from the Australians, one of the new Scottish rum distilleries and one from Taiwan.  I could have picked more, but these were the ones that channelled some form of serious and distinct originality which tweaked the format in a new direction.  Does it come as any surprise that my enthusiasm for the pot still, jaggery-sourced Indian rum from Amrut bottled by Habitation Velier led the pack? I wrote with some wonder, that it’s “familiar enough to enjoy, strange enough to enthrall, flavourful enough to remember (and then some). Taste, complexity, balance, assembly, they’re all quite top notch.” I still think that way about it.

These days, the breadth of experience and the sheer number of rums I have in my physical and mental library makes it difficult for anything to surprise me…or so I thought.  Bristol Spirits showed me I still had stuff to learn. Because, although normally I don’t care much for Spanish Heritage style rums as a whole – the soft, column-still low-strength barrel-aged easy drinkers don’t present much of a challenge or anything that’s significantly different from one year to another – these two rums from the 2022 rollout really impressed me.  They were simply better in almost every way than the occasionally boring rums from either location I’ve tried before.  Whether that’s because they tweaked the fermentation, added a pot still, did some extra boosting under the hood, who knows?  The results speak for themselves.

Honourable mention, however, has to go to two of the more original Australian rums I tried: from Aisling Distillery, who made an agricole with a terroire profile that cause quantum states to vibrate with new frequencies, and Killik’s channelling of the Jamaican style to a completely different level. I hear the latter is exploring opportunities in western markets: when you see it, make sure you try it.

 

  • Overall Favourite Rum Of The Year – based on novelty, strength, taste, uniqueness and the introduction of something new – and these are important, because this year we have a really strong field on so many different levels —  I’ll have to say the Habitation Velier Amrut ticks slightly more boxes for me than the Foursquare LFT or the Australians and the Magnums, though it’s close, very close. Strong runners up are the Black Gate Dark and Velier Saint James Magnum (or the Mount Gay) and of course, that insanely wonderful Foursquare.

And so, there you have it.  An entire year’s worth of experiences and tasting and thinking, distilled into just shy of 4,000 words. It doesn’t cover the actual wealth of rums I tried, or every single experience I had, but it gives you a flavour of how great this year was.

See you next year, then, when the advance towards Review #1000 kicks off. You can be sure there will be an even longer retrospective for that one.

Happy New Year!


 

Dec 062022
 


ON THE SIDEBAR


While 2021 showed a scattering of timid rum festival openings after the ravages of COVID, it was 2022 that showed that the world had reopened with a bang. By the time the year drew to a close, my initial post for that year listed 60+ festivals around the world which either focused exclusively on rum, or had it as a major component of the show – and it’s a fair bet I was undercounting smaller regional festivals which only received local exposure and weren’t widely advertised.

These rum expos ranged from the cricket club party atmosphere with just a few brands of the Guyana Rum Festival, to the behemoths of Paris, UK and Berlin. Granted the whisky expos were bigger (Paris’s WhiskyLive was larger than anything I’d ever seen before) but the sheer amount of rum-based exhibitions, festivals, shows and fairs on display around the world was astounding. Australia had two, Africa debuted in the Ivory Coast, there were at least four I know of in France, the Caribbean had a few, I’m sure there were some in Latin America I never heard of, and the USA had at least ten. Canada is the odd man out in the Americas with none, though given the prevalence of maritimers and West Indians in the east of the country I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

Below is the best listing I was able to put together, of all the rum festivals and associated trade fairs or other shows which feature rum in some significant way.  The dates are as per any online postings or private messages people have provided. For those events which did not update their sources or respond to queries, I have placed their entries below the main body, with notes on the last time they were held for reference: I’ll be checking regularly to see if they have confirmed a show or not. Also, not all of them are true rum-only-specific, laser-focused festivals that are done on a weekend: some are weeklong cultural events where rum, food, music and other spirits feature, others are parties (of varying sizes) where rum is drunk – so ensure you know to which you are going, and why you’re attending (and if you want to know how to survive one, read this article on how).

So, then: for those who like to plan their attendances, save up the pesos, placate (or warn) the significant other, book travel tickets and make other rum-related plans as far in advance as possible, you have enough here to be going along with.  Hope to see you all, in at least one of them. And, as always, if you see I missed one, or got a date wrong, by all means let me know.


January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Tours / Mutiples / Other

  • Gin & Rum Festival (around the UK, various dates)
  • WhiskyLive (around the world, various dates – not all have rums, but where this is known, an entry will be added above)
  • Aug 21 – Sep 30 Iyoshu Rum Cola Festival (formerly Japanese Craft Rum Cola Festival) Japan *No website or social media sites available; month-long events
  • Singapore Cocktail Festival is 5-21 March, 2023: rums are featured but not central.

Not Yet Scheduled

The events below have not been promoted or updated for 2023 in their online media pages, but may yet take place in the future. (Last checked for updates July 25, 2023)


Dormant / Cancelled / Discontinued

Older or non-recurring Festivals ; occasionally checked for updates, just in case


 

Aug 312022
 

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

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


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

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

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

The Planning

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

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

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

The Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Party Time: bars, events, afterparties

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

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

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

Summing up

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

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


Other notes:

  • Click on the link for a listing of as many rum festivals around the world as I could find. (Currently updated, this link now lists the 2024 expos)
  • A US reader on the /r/rumserious subreddit asked me which fest he should attend given his lack of language ability.  That was a question that had not occurred to me in writing the essay, but it is useful to know, so I responded at some length: “You need have no fear […] because English is spoken across Europe [and Asia] as a second or third language. Moreover, booth exhibitors — who are often owners themselves, for smaller outfits — are often to be seen at rum festivals around the world (or at least around Europe and the USA) and almost always speak good English. If there is a language barrier at all, it’s with cashiers, security, cloakroom attendants and the support staff, but even there, there’s usually one person who can be called on to help. I’ve found it particularly helpful in, say, Paris, to simply respond to “Bonjour” with “Hi there, how are you?” and then they know instantly they are speaking to a non-native speaker and adjust. That said, some – but not all – masterclasses and seminars take place in the language of the country where the festival is held, so if you plan to attend any and must pay for the privilege, ensure you check beforehand, especially in the smaller and regional ones (like in eastern Europe).”

 

Jul 192022
 

It’s been several hard and somewhat depressing years since I’ve managed to leave the country, see some friends and drink rum in their loud, cheerfully disreputable, fun-filled company.  This week is the first in what feels like forever, so no posts for the next week, no reviews, or essays or opinions.  The ‘Caner is on vacation.

But just so you don’t feel unappreciated or without something on hand to pass the time, I’m posting this cartoon I’ve been working on for a few weeks in my spare time.  Enjoy!

Mar 132022
 


PINNED ON SIDEBAR


After the drought of festivals over the last two years, it’s good to see that dates are being announced and get-togethers organized once again. Festivals are those great meeting places where people from all walks of life can get together to sample, learn, educate, understand and meet many of the movers and shakers of the rum world. New rums are launched and old ones given new life. Friends are made, favoured enemies are offered spiced rums. Distillers new and old, producers, owners, ambassadors, agents, brokers, bloggers, vloggers, writers, instagrammers, journalists, hobbyists, aficionados, podcasters, personages and the simply curious all come together to rub shoulders and have a good time to see what’s out there, what’s new and exciting.

In previous years, Pete Holland curated this schedule, but I know he’s busy now, so I’ve taken it on myself to help out for 2022, not least because I want to go to a few of them myself (perhaps even with the lovely Mrs. Caner, who professes disinterest but “might take a glotochka or two” – purely for educational purposes, you understand). 

This is the best I’ve been able to come up with after some searching around. I’ve attempted to note which are trade fairs versus audience led events, and have (sorry!) mostly ignored cruises and specialty one-off affairs or cocktail-only. No doubt there’s the occasional error or omission, so if there is anything to add, delete or change, by all means shoot me a note so I can make corrections.


March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December 

Tours / Mutiples

  • Gin & Rum Festival (around the UK, various dates)
  • WhiskyLive (around the world, various dates – not all have rums, but where this is known, an entry will be added above)

Webpages and festival sites that have not been updated for 2022, or are delayed to 2023

(Last checked for updates August 2nd 2022)


Notes

  1. Guyana Rum Festival (Sep 10-11) is limited; a bit of an expo, some cocktails, BBQ, music, and DDL and Banks products.  Not a true festival.
  2. Craft show Edinburgh (Sep 10-11) reported to be majority gins, and rums made by those companies.
Jan 182022
 

 

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

Basics

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

Fermentation

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

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

Photo from wikimedia commons

Distillation

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

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

Ageing

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

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

Kokuto sugar (c) Chris Pellegrini, kanpai.us

Kokuto shochu specifically

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

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

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

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

Photo CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Sales

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

Wrap up

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


Reviewed Kokuto Shochus

 


Other Notes

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

Sources

Dec 222021
 

I’m taking some time off and away from writing, and if this cartoon goes up, it’s because I’m tasting as much as I can over the Christmas season when Mrs. Caner, Grandma Caner and the Little Big Caner allow me some time to do that.

Have a great Christmas, everyone, and enjoy the holidays.


Mar 312014
 

Poor rums. They always get a bad rap. That piratical background, the snootiness of the whisky world (and my friends, who cast me the pitying glances reserved for congenital defectives, every time I trot out a new and favoured libation). The classiness perceived of all things British. The purported complexity of the Scottish brew, the Russian tipple, or the Mexican hooch. We who sing of the pleasures of the cane just don’t get no respect. Sometimes I feel like a go-player in a chess world.

But you know, for a long time whiskies, tequilas, vodkas et al, took back seat to rums, and were merely regional and not global favourites. Rums were for a long time more popular than whiskies (but that may be because whiskies were all crap at the time, or cheap blends for the proles before they woke up and realized everyone was speaking Jamaican or Guyanese patois, and this had to stop). Washington supposedly rolled in a keg or two for his first inauguration. Rums were among the most smuggled and traded goods in the West Indian trade. Hemmingway immortalized them, trumpeting his favourite cocktails.

And then the Scots started to make standardization and rigid rules the name of the game, upped their ante a jillion-fold, appealed to the nouveau riches and freshly affluent middle classes, and suddenly it became chic, genteel, well bred – even cultured – to be into whisky, specifically the single malts. Or, for yuppies these days, craft vodkas, at which I kind of scratch my head and say okay, whatever. Like a strumpet past her prime, rum was relegated to a dismissive back corner with a dunce cap on its head. Even Larry Olmstead, when he wrote for Forbes some years ago, made it sound like rum was undergoing a resurgence, as if they had ever been away. It’s gotten so bad that when I can convince a dedicated and committed Scotch guy like the Hippie to even try an aged and powerful expression of the cane, I consider this a major victory in my undending battle against the forces of Mordor (where, as we all know, the orcs swill tequila, and the Nazgul are really into Scotch).

But whatever the case, rums have always been glorious creations, avatars of mankind’s seemingly inexhaustible desire to get hammered in new and inventive ways.

And therefore I present my favourite reasons why I think rums are a preferably drink to all the others. This of course comes to you courtesy of a famously impartial judge who would never dream of introducing bias of any kind. Or, for that matter, of convincing my friends to switch their allegiance….’cause you know, that ain’t ever gonna happen.

1. They are cheaper. Oh come on, is this even in doubt? I can pick up ten-, twelve-, twenty-year old rums for a few hundred each (maximum), while an upscale tequila-taster or single-malt-loving schlub who wants to have his collection dandified will drop five hundred a pop easy on some of the better ones. Poor Hippie, who did a Moonlight Graham on the G4, mournfully had to concede that while his palate was up to scratch, his wallet sure wasn’t. Come to the dark side, Hippie.

2. More sites with rums escape the censors’ net. Okay, I’m a little biased that way. ATW, Liquorature, various whiskey fora and all the online shops, are blocked not only in the sere desert where I work (tell me again what the hell am I doing here?), but from far too many company servers these days. But The Lone Caner? The Howler, duRhum, Inu a Kena, Ministry of Rum? They’re all up and sparkling and easily accessible in a way too many other likker based sites specializing in other drinks, are not.

3. They display all the hallmarks of great drinks in any of the other categories. Insanely aged, single barrel expressions. Port finished, wine finished, whisky finished, double aged, soleras. Terroire specific, national or regional styles. Sweet or dry or salty, briny or rubber-laden, floral, fruity, and just spanning the gamut of any palate whatsoever. You got a peculiar taste of any kind, there’s guaranteed to be a rum for you out there.

4. Yes, they also have long defunct distilleries producing rums off the scale. So please stop weeping about Port Ellen and shed a tear for Caroni instead. You’ll feel better and may even have some success in re-opening it.

5. Are produced around the world, and always have been. Whiskies are now in Japan, and Bangalore and a few other places, but rums? Friggin’ everywhere. The variety this introduces is simply astounding. I won’t go so far as to say all varieties are great or even pleasing, but the fact that there are as many kinds as there are is reason to cheer. Nobody has a lock on rum, and nobody gets to set the tone.

6. Nobody looks at you as if you were a moron (or should be guillotined), were you to add a rum to a cocktail. In fact, I posit that soft drinks were invented to add to rum cocktails. Rums can be had neat or mixed or dandified, all depending on palate preference and peculiarity. The only other spirit to which this can really apply is vodka.

7. No rules (bit of a double edged sword, this one) and therefore easier to make. Sugar, yeast, maybe molasses, wooden barrels and off you go. And it’ll even be legal!!! And you can call it a rum!!. Try doin’ that with a tequila or a scotch whisky and the claymores will be out in Caledonia before you can say “Maltmonster likes rum.”

8. Few excellent, lovely, massively aged rums ever got poured into a mixing vat to make “just another blend” (an accusation often hurled at conglomerates who make, oh, Johnny Walker). Hippie once grumbled that far too much excellent tipple of his preference got made into cheap blends rather than being issued on its own…I feel for you buddy.

9. You’ll always be at home in any tropical clime, and maybe all the cold ones, and have loads of new friends, the moment you crack a bottle, yours or his. It won’t even be the best, but maybe some high wine or white lightning made in the man’s backyard. He’ll offer you his sister and be your friend for life. Plus, you’ll get hammered. I simply can’t praise this attitude enough.

10. If you’re a writer on alcohol like me, you won’t have to compete with ten thousand other websites dedicated to your passion, but merely a few ten or so. Instant recognition! You’ll be well known, faster! Girls will like you, wives will leave you. Against that, you have gimlet eyed lawyers making sure you don’t infringe some obscure cocktail’s trademark, or idjits who always think they know more than you taking pot shots, but whoever said public websites were problem-free?

I’m aware I’ll never swing lovers of other drinks to the side of the good stuff. I mean, like, ever. Gents who have their favourite tipples are as fanatic about their drinks of choice as fundamentalists biting the heads off snakes while speaking in tongues. I’m more likely to find the English Harbour 25 year old selling for twenty five bucks (though there was this one time…). I expect my fellow Liquorites and their malty friends (who may also be my friends) to take up arms here and post long winded, sarcastic diatribes about how I’ve lost my mind, my senses and maybe even my friends if I continue to spew such twaddle. Sorry guys. I miss my drinks over here. I’d even drink a Glen Muddy 1957 if I could ever find one, I’m that down about the whole situation (this may be punishment enough for the sedition and heresy I’m peddling, so spare a sad thought for me when not thinking about the Caroni).

Did I mention my last point?

11. Yeah…they do taste better

(NB: The author wishes to state categorically that he does indeed drink all the other spirits mentioned here, and has no special beef for or against any of them, except in so far that rums are the best).

 

 

 

 

Apr 012013
 

May 5th 1992.  A release date that will live for…well, a heckuva long time.

Because, before Assassin’s Creed, before Metal Gear Solid, Socomm or Call of Duty, before Quake and Duke Nukem (long may he reign as King of Vaporware), there was the ur-game of them all, the ancient DNA of all first person shooters, and it was released that day.  Nope, not Doom, but its startlingly original, blood spattered, laughingly and irreverently pixellated daddy, Wolfenstein 3d.

While I fully acknowledge the origin of the game in Muse software’s 1984 incarnation, it was id Software’s 1992 revisit of the game that broke all barriers and ushered in the era of the true first person shooter, where the environment was realistic looking 3d and scrolling and perspective were from that of the player.  But what really made it a breakout success and runaway hit was the stroke of genius Id/Apogee had, of giving away the first episode for free, and then charging for the remaining five. Shareware was well on the way to changing business models for the entire software industry.

Wolfenstein 3d sold like a gazillion copies.  Office managers routinely cursed its name. Parents were constantly kicked off their own computers (when they had them) by their kids, who played all night sessions, and then got hooked themselves after watching it for a while. Until its even better successor Doom came along (with its equally original and innovative network deathmatch play), it was quoted as one of the greatest contributors to loss of office productivity between 1992 and 1994.

One of the reasons for its perennial attraction for just about anyone of any age, was its ease of use.  Left and right arrow keys, space to shoot, and maybe two other keys to throw a grenade or push a wall for secrets.  Compare that to today’s games, which use what seems like every key on my board, plus a few I never heard of.   My son kicks my ass at the Wii and playstation games, but I moider da bum on keys…so long as I can use just a few and I don’t have to think in 3d.  Wolfenstein’s game engine made all that possible.

Wolfenstein 3d ushered in the first glimpse of a true FPS, much as Jordan Mechener’s original Prince of Persia almost redefined how graphics should look in an adventure game (both have now merged into fully rendered 3d worlds, but at the time their innovations were stunning and revolutionary to people who had only ever seen side-scolling images that did not move like real objects)

Seen today, we smile at the archaic graphics and clumsy bitmaps and poorly rendered images.  Relative to today’s sleek gaming worlds, of course they are.  At the time though, we had never seen anything quite like it.  And me and my friends, we stayed late at our offices, played all the levels (plus more freebies), did speed runs and became masters and boasted of our achievements when we met for beers.

I’m sure today’s twelve-fingered, thick-thumbed and iron-wristed Xbox and PlayStation ur-swamis are as bad, as addicted and as dedicated as we once were. But I can almost guarantee that they never had quite as much fun as we did in those days when the technology was so new it had literally never been seen before.  That technologically-inspired sense of wonder and fun, plus ten beers and a pack of smokes would keep us going in our offices until long past midnight, surrounded by tinny speakers, glowing big-ass monitor and other crazies doing exactly the same thing.

Beat that, newbs

Jul 232012
 

Inspired by the amazingly refreshing (and original) website andabattleofrum which has a world cup of rums – well worth a look for sheer inventiveness and style – I decided to implement an idea that both that site and the ongoing whisky range tastings on allthingswhisky.com have done so well.

Having sampled the Flor de Cana 5 and the Juan Santos 5 at the same time, I resolved to make a go of two other five year olds in the larder, and run all four through their paces to see how they stacked up against each other: after all, trying them individually was one thing, but if I rated them all at the same time, would the scores change?  Now there was a challenge to the scoring system.  And anyone who has associated with me and my rum work for any length of time knows the despite in which I hold the whole business of scores to begin with, so perhaps I should try and see whether it was as consistent as I claimed it was.

Flor de Cana 5 year old

Nose: Faint rubbery notes coil among the darker flavours of caramel and burnt sugar and fleshy fruit. Spicy, yet not overpoweringly so.
Palate: Heavy bodied (competes manfully with the El Dorado), dark sugar notes with pineapple and peaches.  Quite dry and medium sweet. A shade harsh
Finish: Medium, heated finish with some softer billowing caramel and nutty flavours.
Assessment: Overall, it failed somehow.  On its own I ranked it at 76 points…here I didn’t think it did all that well.

El Dorado 5 year old

Nose: Dark, rich brown sugar.  White flower notes, caramel, slight molasses. Became almost creamy as it opened up.
Palate: Yummy.  Heated, a shade sharp. Arrived with burnt sugar and caramel nuttiness, just enough sweet.  Deep, dark, unashamedly rough bushman of a rum, yet quite excellent for all that.
Finish: Long and lasting, with faint closing notes of almonds.
Assessment: The epitome of younger Demerara style rums, and a credit to DDL. This is like the rambunctious first born in your family, an A-type for sure.

Angostura 5 year old

Nose: Grapes, fleshy fruits, peaches. Strong heated nose redolent of burning canefields
Palate: A medium bodied melange of vanilla, burnt brown sugar, caramel. Thick and almost chewy, yet spicy and containing a certain grace as well.
Finish: long and lasting with a closing aroma of caramel
Assessment: Aggressive, forceful and straightforward, yet lacking some of the uncouth brawny cheeriness of the El Dorado.

 Juan Santos 5 year old

Nose: Light and delicate, yet heated spirits tickle your nose. Fruit and vanilla notes so well balanced it’s almost impossible to pick apart.
Palate: Gently assertive, extremely mild…barely passes the “is this a rum?” test at all, since none of the notes one would expect out of an entry-level  rum – the molasses, brown sugar, toffee etc – are present.
Finish: long, a shade brny, and quite dry, with almost no flavours poushing past to provide closure.
Assessment: passive aggressive problem child who prefers never to speak up in class


General conclusions

Having gone through this exercise and gotten quite high doing it, what were the results and how did they stack up against my posted scores?

Well, not too bad.  Side to side rankings came up with this result:

Last was was the Juan Santos,third came the Flor, second the Angostura, and first (somewhat to my surprise) came the El Dorado 5.  Scores in my reviews bore this out: in order, 74, 76, 77 and 78, and all variations came in nose, the palate and finish, with little difference in the intangibles.  So all in all, I see this as an initial  vindication of the system, if you could call it that and however miserly it might be.  Other rankings of this nature will inevitably follow because I feel (as others do) that tasting single rums in isolation can be a sterile exercise, and gives no reference baseline which a multiple sampling would enhance.

Just as a side note, I really am impressed with Angostura’s product.  It has real character and a certain elemental brutality about it that I liked a lot…two point separation or not, it is in many respects on par with the El Dorado, which perhaps supercedes it in just that slight smidgen of smoothness and depth that pulled it ahead.

Anyway, please note that (of course) these scores reflect my tastes, not necessarily yours.  You will undoubtedly have your favourites, as I have mine, and concordance is unlikely.  And this is without even considering how many five year old rums out there, of which this is a miniscule sampling at best. That said, have fun trying them out anyway. I know I did.