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 usthe second half of the year has more, on balance, than the first halfit’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 industrydistillers, producers, distributors, buyers, agents, owners, journos and bloggersget to go in without members of the public around. This is less a matter of elitism as one of practicalityit’s difficult to talk business and do a hard sell when a long line of people are impatiently waiting their turn to take a snootful in front of a small booth with limited space.

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

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

The Planning

What these facts point up, however, is the importance by a prospective attendee of at least some planning. Not all rum festivals have the same brands and companies in attendance, so it’s worthwhile checking out what they have to offer. For instance, Brit festivals (TWE, Manchester, UK, etc) would have a stronger representation of British-made rums yet be shy of American ones, while American shows would not have much from the UK and Europe, would probably ignore most agricoles and the Far East, while being stronger on local producers and maybe South America. Berlin has always had a balanced representation of both as well as Latin America, Reunion and Mauritius; and Paris has been best at cane juice varietals, agricoles, grogues, and obscure small distilleries from Asia. Just about all festivals have their local in-country star boys and major international brands from the CaribbeanEl 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 fastany 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 notchso 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 pourtherefore finding them early before they themselves get tired and irritable at repeating the same schtick for the umpteenth time is a good idea.

The Process

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

For experienced festival attendeesespecially 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 classit 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 youmost 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 barthough getting at minimum a good buzz is a near-inevitabilitybut 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 exhibitorsthey 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 festivalsall 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 onwhich 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 lists 2022 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 as a second or third language. Moreover, booth exhibitorswho are often owners themselves, for smaller outfitsare 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 toBonjourwithHi there, how are you?” and then they know instantly they are speaking to a non-native speaker and adjust.That said, somebut not allmasterclasses 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
 


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 datesnot 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 regulationthe Restoration brought in formalization of rules, licenses and some measure of quality control (and of course taxation).

Most shochu was authentic or honkaku shochuwe might call it artisanal todayuntil 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 vodkait 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 wholethere are other, better and more in-depth sources and wikipedia for the curious deep diversI 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 stepbut 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 cyclebut 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 Abut 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 distilleriesin that it has similarities with cheap rums around the world.

The more interesting variations of the spiritat least from my own perspective, given my interest in more artisanal cane spiritsare 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 areand must be, by lawdistilled 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 casksonce 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 tohorrors! – 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 respectit 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 liqueurand 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

  • Macronshave 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 spiritseven if restricted to just cane-based onesis 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 culturedto 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 censorsnet. 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 sayMaltmonster likes rum.

8. Few excellent, lovely, massively aged rums ever got poured into a mixing vat to makejust 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. Yeahthey 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 rumswell worth a look for sheer inventiveness and styleI 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 pointshere 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 mildbarely passes the “is this a rum?” test at all, since none of the notes one would expect out of an entry-level rumthe molasses, brown sugar, toffee etcare 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 lottwo 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.