Mar 302021
 


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Jun 192018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#522) (83/100)

Jan 302010
 

First posted 30 January 2010 on Liquorature.

(#010)(Unscored)

***

Wow! What a surprisingly mellow, well rounded piece of work this was. English Harbour is aged a minimum of five years in whiskey or bourbon barrels, but there was none of the whiskey taste that so characterizes the Renegade product line, which I have gone on record as not really appreciating. This stuff is good for its age and price.

For the gathering of January 2010, it was the nominated rum alongside two whiskeys, and, to everyone’s surprise, this thing held up against older, more expensive drinks and was the first bottle to be drained. Of course, everyone had heard of my sterling review of the English Harbour 25 year old, but to have the five year compete favourably for its price range was unheard of.

The nose was the faintest bit sharp, and there was the same hint of vanilla, caramel and coconut I recall from its more expensive sibling. I seemed to get a slight trace of cherry. Neat it was unprepossessing, sweet in the way rums are, but the flavour was enhanced on the rocks. There was that slight taste of burnt sugar and sweet molasses and fruitiness on the palate that went down very nicely. Strictly speaking, it’s a bit too harsh to be classified as a really good rum, but it’s a damn sight better and smoother than the XM five year I spent so many of my years drinking, and gives the Appleton 12 some serious competition for flavour.

But the thing is, the real kicker comes from what happens when you dilute it about 2:1 (rum: coke). It was unbelievable: suddenly there was this extraordinary burst of fruitiness and caramel flavour, the cherry and woodsmoke hints went nuts, the nose got vibrant with vanilla and a faint nuttiness, and I just drank that down and poured another to make sure the first time hadn’t been a fluke. I saw Bob having a similar reaction, and indeed, it was between the two of us that we polished off most of the bottle. Neat or on the rocks, the finish is reasonably long lasting and keeps the sweetness running around the back of your throat with a little burn that mars it, for mebut not enough to make it a bad rum, just a five year old.

English Harbour hails from Antigua, and this five year old seems to be real value for money, going from the prizes the rum has won in the last decade (Double GoldSan Francisco World Spirits Competition 2004 and 2005, Gold Medal – Beverage Testing Institute 2005, 2006 and Forbes Magazine – Worlds 10 Most Remarkable Rums 2006). Given that it may even have enticed a few of the peat heads and whiskey lovers in our group to reconsider their prime allegiance, I might almost say it is priceless for its low cost (but that’s just me). Whatever their personal experiences with this unprepossessing five-year was, I can honestly say that for the age and price, this has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the rum world I have had thus far, and it makes me intent on hunting out other specimens from this distillery to try in the future.

Jan 022010
 

 

This was for me, for many years, one of the top five commercially available rums in the world. Not to be missed, even for the price. Four stars, triple A, I don’t care what you call it, this thing is simply awesome.

First posted on Liquorature, January 2010.

(#001)(Unscored)

***

After gathering a ton of notes on rums from all points if the compass for most of 2009, it seemed appropriate to begin my official rum reviews with what is arguably the bestand the second-most expensiverum I’ve ever tasted to this point in January 2010. Now I cheerfully admit to being something of a peasant and have no compunctions about using an expensive rum to dilute my cheap-ass coke if I think it a bit harsh, but for something this exclusive it almost seemed like sacrilege to let anything dilute it.

My friend Keenan and I were doing a rum run at Willow Park to stock up for a wings night (he who gets the largest raise buys the wings). For those who have never heard of it, Willow Park in Calgary may just be as Curt has described itthe best liquor store in Western Canada. Now Curt speaks from the misguided perception of his whisky-love (for which I have found the strength to forgive him), but there is little doubt that I have found more and better vintages of God’s water, more consistently, here than anywhere else. Browsing around, I saw this pricey bottle, read the label, hesitated and then, overcome by a fit of madness, bought the thing. It was all I could do not to wince as the price rang up (and if you think this is dumbass, just read my review of the Appleton 30 year old)

It was well that I parted with the bucks, I think, because even a lifetime of boozing didn’t prepare me for the quality of this babypackaging, bottle, appearance, legs, colour, drinkall were uniformly top of the scale. I reverently cracked the sealed wax over the cork (Keenan’s wife laughed at us and our seriousness), bared our pates and bowed our heads, and took a neat sip each. And sat still, a little awed. This was, without question, the smoothest rum I’ve ever had in my life, one of the very few I’ve had without ice, and, at $200 for that bottle, it’s really pricey, but worth every penny. I’d have to say Keenan’s appreciation wasn’t far behind mine.

English Harbour 1981 is distilled by Antigua Distillery Limited from fermented molasses and bottled in 2006. It’s aged 25 years in used whisky and bourbon barrels and the subtle notes come through in the nose and taste. The copper and dark cedar color is sealed in with a wax-seal cork stopper that, when sniffed, gives a gentle nose of smoky wood followed by black cherry and currants. The initial taste doesn’t disappoint with more dry wood, caramelized dark fruit and roasted cashew in the body. And so, so smooth, it’s unbelievablefirst rum I have ever had without even a smidgen of bite on the way down. The finish is dominated by smoky wood balanced with cinnamon and soft nutmeg tones. It’s like a liquid Hagen-Dasz caramel ice cream. If I ever get another one and feel like parting with that much money for the benefit of the peat-lovers, it’ll make the club for sure.

Highly, highly recommended if you can afford it (it runs into the El Dorado Problem, unfortunately, but in a pinch, the English Harbour 5-year isn’t half bad either at one-eighth the costI’ve got the review here as well). If only to apprise one’s palate of what rums can be at the top of the scale, buying this 25 year old is something a rum-lover should do at least once in his life.


Other notes:

This is totally irrelevant but in 2011 I snagged four more of these babies because a local shop mislabelled them at the price of the 5-Year Old. I can virtuously claim to have shared three of those bottles with others over the years.

The core of this rum is the Cavalier 1981 rum made by the same company. In 2014 I asked a brand rep about it and he admitted that they had underestimated how good the Cavalier waswhen they did, they had enough left for the 5712 bottles that made up this rum.

750ml of 40%. Bottle #552 of 5712.


Update March 2013: This rum has, of course, been superceded in my affections and appreciation of quality, which was inevitable given how many rums I’ve tried and written about. I still think, though, that if one was to make any list of the top five rums in the world, this one should be somewhere on that list.

Update October 2014: tasted this again at the 2014 Berlin Rumfest and scribbled some notes. Even given the evolution of my tastes to stronger and more intricate, original profiles, I’d still give this a solid 89 points. It loses two for lack of intensity at 40%, but the complexity of what is there remains stellar.