Aug 292023
 

The real question is not so much how good this Malabari Vaatte is, where it originates, or what it purports to be…but what exactly it is. Part of the issue surrounding the Mandakini is that the wording on the label could equally well be describing a real rum, a disguised alcoholic beverage claiming to be one, a spiced spirit, or some peculiar amalgam of all of the above. 

The rum (I’ll use the term for now) is made in Canada, and therefore falls into the rabbit hole of the country’s arcane liquor laws, one of which, like Australia’s, states that a rum — assuming it meets the basic criteria of being made from cane derivatives like molasses, juice or vesou — can only be so labelled if it is aged for a minimum time of one year. That’s all well and good except for this catch: the same terms one would use to describe a true rum not quite meeting the criteria (for example by being a completely unaged one), are also used to describe a neutral spirit that is doctored up to be more palatable. In this case it is labelled as being an “unaged spirit from sugar cane extract” which could be either one or the other, or neither. So which is it, exactly? The producers never say. 

After scanning all available sources without resolution, I finally picked up the phone and asked them directly. The bottom line is that the Mandakini derives from a wash of blackstrap molasses fermented with natural yeast for two weeks or more, and is then double-distilled through a third party’s pot-still, after which a small amount of neutral spirit is added to the mix and it’s diluted down to 46%. There’s a reason for the addition, according to Abish Cheriyam, one of the founders who very kindly took the time to tell me all about it – it’s to bring the price down so it’s affordable to the target audience, as well as smoothening out batch variation.

Trying it out (with three other Indian rums on the table as comparators) makes it obvious that this is not a rum of the kind we know, even taking into account its heritage. The nose is all sweet light candy and icing sugar, some vague sugar water, swank, lime peel, peppermint, bananas, and the kind of weak syrupy essence they dash into your flavoured coffee. Unfortunately the neutral spirit takes away from what could otherwise develop into much more interesting drink: it smells too much like a lightly sweet vodka. Those who are into Jamaican high ester beefcakes or strong unaged indigenous white rums will not find the droids they’re looking for here, and will likely note that this does not channel a genuine product made by some village still…at least not what they’ve come to expect from one.

The taste also makes this point: it is quite inoffensive, and it doesn’t feel like 46%, which to some extent is to its credit. Light, sweet, a little sharp, yet the downside is that there is too little to distinguish it. Some light florals, sugar water, coconut shavings, bananas and maybe the slightest touch of allspice. There is nothing distinctive here, and the rum feels too tamped down and softened up. I try to keep an open mind and am not exactly looking for the raw nastiness and sweat infused crap that real moonshine (like, oh, say, clairin) is often at pains to provide – but at least a hint of such brutality would have been nice. It shrugs and coughs up a touch of mint, alcohol, medicine, cotton candy, it flexes its thin body a bit, and that’s pretty much the whole ball game. The finish is short, light, has some alcohol fumes, white fruit and light candy floss to recommend it, but alas is gone faster than my paycheck into Mrs. Caner’s hands when purses are on sale.


While members of the Indian diaspora would probably get this, the rum does not channel the subcontinent to me, and that’s not a guess, because Mandakini, irrespective of its Indian origins (all three of its founders are from the southern state of Kerala), is actually made by a small craft distillery called Last Straw, in Ontario. This is a small family outfit that was founded in 2013 as a whisky distillery with two small stills; it makes all kinds of spirits on its own account — whisky, vodka, gin, rum and experimentals (including the fragrantly named “Mangy Squirrel Moonshine”) — and nowadays also does contract distilling, designing products from scratch for any client with an idea.

Clearly Abish Cheriyam, Alias Cheriyam and Sareesh Kunjappan – engineers all, who have worked and lived in Canada for many years – had such an idea, one that they felt deeply about, though unlike the Minhas family in western Canada, they had no background in the spirits business aside from their own enthusiasm. They did however, identify some gaps in Canada’s liquor landscape: there was very little Indian liquor on the shelves aside from Amrut’s whiskies or their Two Indies and Old Port rums, and Mohan Meakin’s Old Monk; and none at all that was an Indian equivalent to vaatte, a locally distilled liquor native to Kerala (also called patta charayam or nadan vaattu charayam), which, though banned in the state since the late 1990s (a holdover from pre-independence days when the Brits forbade local liquor so as not to damage sales of their own), retains an underground popularity almost impossible to stamp out. Rural folks disdain the imported whiskies and rums and gins – they leave that frippery to city folks who can afford it, and much prefer their locally-made hooch. And like Jamaicans with their overproofs or Guyanese with their High Wine, no wedding or other major social occasion is complete without some underground village distiller producing several gallons to lubricate the festivities.

Since they could not afford to launch a distillery or wait for the endless licensing process to finish, they went to Last Straw to have them create it, and after experimenting endlessly with various blends and combinations, launched in August 2021, calling it a Malabari Vaatte (the similarity of that word to “water” is likely no accident), and aiming at the local Sri Lankan and Indian diaspora. Both the shape of the bottle and the lettering in five languages (Malayalam, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Telegu) is directed at this population and the fact that the first batch sold out within days in Ontario – at the distillery, because they had not gotten a deal with the LCBO at the time – suggests it worked just fine. People were driving from all over the province to get themselves some.

In Kerala, Malabari vaatte is often made from the unrefined sugar called jaggery or from red rice like arrack, and also with any fruits or other ingredients as are on hand; it has a long and distinguished history as a perennially popular underground hooch, and that very likely comes from its easygoing nature which this one channels quite well. It shares that with other Asian spirits, like Korean shojus, Indonesian arracks, Cabo Verde grogues, or Vietnamese rượu: in other words, it is a (sometimes flavoured) drink of the masses, though Abish was at pains to emphasise that no flavourings or additives (aside from the aforementioned neutral alcohol) were included in his product.

As a casual hot weather drink and maybe a daiquiri ingredient, then, I freely admit it’s quite a pleasant experience, while also observing that true backwoods character is not to be looked for. To serious rum drinkers or bartending boozehounds who mix for a living, that’s an issue — some kind of restrained unhinged lunacy is exactly what we as rum drinkers want from such a purportedly indigenous drink. A sort of nasty, tough, batsh*t-level taste bomb that leaves it all out there on the table.

That said, I can see why it sells — especially and even more so to those with a cultural attachment for it – Old Monk tapped into that same vein many decades earlier. But that to some extent limits the Mandakini to that core audience, since people without that connection to its origins might pass it by. For all its good intentions and servicing the nostalgia and homesickness of an expatriate population far from their homelands, the Mandakini does not yet address the current market of the larger rum drinking population. It remains to be seen whether it can surmount that hurdle and become a bigger seller outside its core demographics. I hope it does.

(#1021)(74/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The name “Mandakini” is a common female name, familiar to most Indians from north or south. It was chosen not to represent anyone in particular but to instantly render it relatable and recognizable.
  • The “Malabari” in the title refers to Kerala’s Malabar Coast, famed for its spices: it’s where Vasco da Gama made landfall in 1498 after rounding Africa.
  • There is currently a 65% ABV version of the Mandakini called “Malabari 65”, available at the distillery in Vaughn. This is one I wouldn’t mind trying just to see how it compares. If they were to make a high ester version of that, my feeling is it would fly off the shelves.
  • The range is now expanded to the original Malabari Vaatte, the 65, a Spiced Vaatte, and a Flavoured Vaatte. The latter two are apparently closer to the kind of drinks the founders initially envisioned and which are popular in Kerala, having ginger, cardamom and other spices more forward in the profile.
May 192023
 

If the author of some fictional novel that somehow included rum were to make mention of a South Sea island hooch made in Fiji, sourced from the Pacific island directly by an African expatriate living in Western Canada (by way of New Zealand), who gave it to a nomadic, vagrant, itinerant (and occasionally fragrant) West Indian to try, he would probably be sneered at for having an overactive imagination and told to stick with something more realistic. And yet, that’s exactly what this product is, and that’s exactly what happened.

To set the stage, I tried the rum (and its siblings) several times on a thoroughly enjoyable, tall-story-and-b.s.-filled afternoon in the company of the bottler, a friendly, well-known gent named Karl Mudzamba – he’s originally from Zimbabwe and now lives in Vancouver. The rum — his rum — was distilled on a pot still at the South Pacific Distillery in 2008, fully aged there, is a blend of nine casks and has an outturn of 1272 bottles.  It is, as a point of interest, also the one that kicked off the small indie company called Bira! which Karl founded in 2019 to address his not unfounded conviction that Canada was not being served the tastiest and the mostest by the bestest – even in Alberta, which is probably the province with the widest rum selection in the country.

What Canadians got in 2020 when the rum was released – mostly only to them – was a rum of remarkable originality. Granted, there have been several indies issuing SPD rums – Compagnie des Indes, Samaroli, L’Esprit, Kill Devil, The Rum Cask, TCRL, Duncan Taylor, and Berry Bros. & Rudd have all done some bottlings over the years; some have been stronger and some have been older – yet few have the tags that characterised this one: pot still and full tropical ageing with a profile that teased and pleased and stayed on to deliver.  Not since the peculiarly elusive and haunting power of the TCRL 8 Year Old have I had a rum from Fiji that made me spend so much time on one.

The nose, to start with, was lovely.  55% ABV made it hit something of a firm sweet spot, and it was dry and smoky to start, reminding me of roasted coffee beans, unsweetened chocolate with almonds, and toffee.  It opened out to some thickly aromatic fruits – bananas, peaches and apricots set off with hints of pineapple and strawberries – before adding a last briny scent of olives.  It wasn’t particularly sweet and had more than just a hint of a freshly disinfected hospital about it, which I hasten to add, was not unpleasant – just odd.It’s the combination that makes it all hang together, and work.

Much of this continued to be sensed on tasting it. This came in three distinct waves which swelled and subsided over time. First, those heavy fruits (apricots and peaches and kiwi) which now felt riper and juicier…more tart, if you will.  Then muskier flavours of coffee grounds, chocolate, crushed almonds with some sharper tannins of oak influence, cinnamon and a touch of nutmeg.  And lastly the salt-caramel ice cream, honey and slight iodine and rubber background which closed up the experience, leading to the long and fragrant finish.  This last was particularly nice because it dispensed with any kind of sharpness and summarised the preceding experience without trying too hard to do anything new: there were just some fruits, some honey and some medicinals – all of which was dry and almost astringent, but fortunately not bitter.  

What emerged out of this tasting session (as well as from everything else from Bira! I tried that afternoon), was the conviction that aside from being one of the first independent bottlers of rums in Canada, Karl knows how to pick ‘em, and indeed, he did his research on Fiji and knew the various releases that were out there, from other independents. Fiji rums have always been a bit hit and miss depending on who’s picking, where it’s been aged and the still that made it.  By going straight to the source and bypassing brokers, by ensuring the barrels were selected according to his own desires and visions, Karl has issued a well-rounded, tasty, complex rum of excellent quality, and best of all, it’s not one I have to get a plane ticket to Europe to find.  If this is what one potential future aspect of the Canadian rum scene is, I may have returned at just the right time.

(#997)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Background and Company Notes

  • Karl Mudzamba clearly has a penchant for going his own way. While most new independents who source their rum stock start the exercise with a recognizable Name (Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica are old stalwarts and long-favoured choices, as Holmes Cay for one has demonstrated) so as to ensure initial name recognition and sales, then make an effort to see they are repped in the EU and US almost as a given, Karl has done nothing of the kind. His first release was this one from South Pacific Distilleries, and he sourced it not from Europe, but directly from Fiji. Moreover, he also wanted it to be a completely unaged white rum, but Canada being what it is, with liquor laws predating the Flood and about as hard to turn as the ark itself, unaged rum cannot be imported.  So he went with his second choice, and I’m not unhappy that he did so.
  • The Bira ceremony is one practised by the Shona people of Zimbabwe: it is a dusk to dawn celebration, a ritual, in which members of an extended family or clan get together, and with the use of music and dance, ask ancestral spirits to come into the world of the living. When the spirits come they take over the body of the spirit medium – usually an elder of the family – and act as an intermediary between the participants and the spirits of those who have passed on, or even the Creator. The ceremony is composed of singing, dancing, hand clapping and sometimes traditional musical instruments (drums, gourd shakers), and one consistent feature is to use music favoured by the departed to entice them to participate.
  • So far the small company has three releases out there: the South Pacific rum we discuss here, and two aged cane juice varietals from Mhoba. They’re all quite good.
  • The stylized Bira dancer on the label was added after the South Pacific issue, and is now the logo of the company brand.
  • Other references are:
Apr 282023
 

Returning to Canada and observing the rumscape that has developed over the last decade has not filled me with elation and confidence. Most of what I’ve found and tasted thus far is low level mixing hooch – which wouldn’t be so bad if the majority wasn’t just the kind of barely-aged, insipid, uninspiring, boring blah that Merchant Shipping Co. white rum so splendidly exemplified. They didn’t have to be — after all, I’ve tasted unaged and lightly aged rums from all over the map which exceeded their humble origins and became unexpectedly and quietly impressive products. But up until last week, I was beginning to wonder whether there were any really good ones North of 49.

With white rums of any stripe, the answer so far is a clear “no.” With aged rums, on the other hand, it would seem that there are glimmers of hope. Last weekend the Big (formerly the Little) Caner volunteered to help me run past a series of rums from around the world – I imagine that was a sort of amused curiosity at the doings of his geriatric sire involved – and since his nose is actually quite astute after years of following me around, I gladly accepted his assistance and perspective.  We tried six rums blind together: 1 to my complete surprise, my top pick from the rather low-rent bunch (and his second choice) was the Ironworks Amber rum from Nova Scotia.

This was the same rum-making outfit from Nova Scotia behind the “Bluenose” rum we looked at a couple of weeks ago. I thought that one was an interesting if ultimately not-quite-there foray into aged rums, with a more or less okay taste profile and too little disclosure (this has not changed), yet it wasn’t good enough to crack the eighty-point barrier, beyond which we should start paying a bit more attention. The Amber rum my boy and I tasted and which we’re reviewing today is still a rum in its developmental infancy – it has yet to find its sea legs if it wants to compare with any of the rums from the Big Houses’ stables – but by no means was it a slouch.

Quick stats: 42% ABV, molasses-based (Crosby’s Fancy Grade from Guatemala), with the wash passed twice through a hybrid Muller still and then aged; the ageing is tricky – the website says it is “a combination of a first fill bourbon barrel, and a re-charred Blomidon wine barrel” but whether that means the distillate was aged first in one then another, or two separately aged batches were blended, is not mentioned.  Neither is the duration though I suspect it’s probably less than three years all told.

Yet from these unprepossessing beginnings the rum that comes out the other end is actually quite a nifty drink. “Sprightly!” I said to The Big Caner as we nosed it, and enjoyed the light effervescent quality is displayed when smelled. It evinced bright and lively fruits, young and crisp – green apples and grapes, offset by more sober ones like papaya and melons. Mixed in with the clear sweetness was a little smoke, a little rubber, not enough to take over…more like an accent. There were some hints of hand sanitizer, a medicinal or rubbing alcohol, and the whole thing eased up and settled down after a while, becoming almost creamy.

Tastewise the 42% also acquitted itself reasonably well. Here the subtle impression of a low rent agricole was hard to shake: fresh herbs, green grapes, unripe apples, and some citrus notes were the main players on the stage.  A few riper fruits emerged from hiding, along with toffee and vanilla (thankfully not much of either), bright honey and sugar water.  There was a nice background of brininess to it and it was subtly dry, leading to a short and easy finish of white chocolate, crushed almonds and some citrus, not much more.  At 42% I was really surprised to get as much as all that, to be honest.

Overall then, the Ironworks Amber was light, easy drinking; reasonably well balanced, well assembled and not a disappointment. The sweetness was never allowed to dominate, though it could always be sensed lurking in the background; and if the smoky, feinty notes were not as well tamed as they might have been, well, some more ageing would probably have settled that and there are other rums in the company’s lineup which hopefully alleviate this. What’s impressive is that even in the company of the starter-kit rums in which the Amber found itself, it was able to stand out and make a statement for itself, and – to me at any rate – rise to the top of the heap of six. Granted the competition wasn’t world class, but it was from around the world. And that’s no mean feat, to be in that company, then equal and trump them all.  It gives me hope for the Canadian rum distilling scene, though I hope it doesn’t take until the Big Caner reaches my age to get there.

(#992)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • For some contrasting perspective, see Rum Revelations’ notes on Canadian rums from late 2022: he was rather indifferent to other Ironworks products generally (though they were not the ones I’ve tried, and not this one).
  • The Bluenose rum review  has a more detailed company background at the bottom.
Apr 032023
 

The first thing one notices about the rum, even before it’s poured, is the colour – dark, almost black, with reddish tints, and completely not natural. This creates both expectations and dread in the reviewer because firstly, there’s the whole question of additives, and secondly, it suggests the channelling of the Navy Rum vibe of yore, complete with cutlasses, yo ho hos and some sort of faux-Demerara vibe to deceive the unwary. This does not usually end well.

It’s a relief then, that neither of these is obviously or obnoxiously the case, and in fact, the rum presents rather well at first blush, even with a rather lacklustre 42% strength. The nose has a lot of interesting (if restrained) things going on there: tannins, well polished leather and cinnamon to start off with, quite easy to smell, nothing harsh or bloviating, no straining to make a point.  There some dark elderberry and cranberry notes, vaguely sour, caramel, a touch of molasses and behind it all, the tang of mauby (a bark made into Caribbean soft drinks by locals) – not at all the “traditional” rum flavours one might be expecting and a far cry from the confected, dosed-to-the-gills Bumbu-esque profile one might think is coming.

On the palate it comes off as a bit sweet and briny at the same time, the mauby taking on some more heft, accompanied by cinnamon, molasses and a peculiar sort of scent that reminds me of a sunlit damp forest glade, rank with decomposing leaves and mossy logs and the memory of a rain just ceased.  There is a hint of some fruits – prunes, elderberries again, a vague cough syrup and grenadine dropped here and there.  It’s not bad, all in all, and the finish, while short, at least doesn’t drop the ball, and glides to an easy conclusion with caramel, some sweet prunes, and that slight mauby thing coming onstage for a last bow.

Compared to some of their other efforts, this is a pretty solid rum from the Ironworks Distillery in Nova Scotia (in eastern Canada), though frankly, it would have made more of an impact with several more proof points – 42% really remains to weak. Still, while there are others in the lineup I have not yet tried (including some I don’t want to), as a first introduction to the distillery, I could have picked worse based on label spec. But what are the specs, exactly? There is maddeningly little on the company website.  

Here’s what we know: it derives from Guatemalan molasses imported into the maritimes, fermented on site over a period of weeks (exact time unspecified), and run through an unidentified still which is either a hybrid or a column still made by Muller from Germany.  A further unspecified period of ageing takes place in ex-bourbon barrels, and again, while some of their barrels are placed on board the Black Beauty floating boat warehouse in the harbour, we are not told whether any of the components of this rum were from there. Lastly, at no point is the age of the rum mentioned, yet this is a company which proudly touts the age of the “Ten,” their oldest rum.

If you detect the bite of irritated impatience here, you’re right. This is getting to be a thing with Canadian rums and the companies that make then, and it’s annoying as hell. In this day and age, I should not have to make comments about disclosure (i.e., the lack thereof), or email the company or ask for further details.  It should be right there on the label or at least in their website — which takes such pains to say who they are and with what pride they what they do. Ironworks has been around for more than a decade, and has steadily amassed a nice stable of regionally appreciated spirits. It’s time to stop with this coy, wink-wink amateur-hour stuff and step up to the big boys table – and part of that is disclosure, not prideful marketing about being the Small Distillery That Could with a scrappy origin story.

I like the rum itself, and am relieved that the inclusion of caramel colouring into the mix to make it darker was not compensation for weaknesses in other areas: and the truth must be told, it’s a more complex and interesting rum than I was expecting — a rum I don’t mind drinking, or mixing. But just as I give it the respect it has earned, I demand that we as consumers are treated with a little more respect in our turn, and provided with the details that would tell us what it is that we just paid forty bucks for. 

(#986)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The “Bluenose” is a famous Canadian schooner built in 1921 which won many competitions in the 1920s and was exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Its metal parts were made on the premises of the iron works which the company took over in 2009.
  • I have seen an occasional unconfirmed comment that the rum is spiced, but in the absence of more formal evidence, I chose to doubt it.  The offbeat taste of the rum is, to more a function of its source material, long fermentation, and maybe even the barrels they use.
  • Because of the gradual reduction of North American rum reviewers and the fact that Ironworks does not export much (if at all) other reviews are scant.  However, I point you to Rum Revelations’ notes on Canadian rums from late 2022, including their indifference to other Ironworks products. A reddit reviewer gave the Bluenose 83 points in 2013, and stated its age as about one year. RumRatings was more scattershot, and few conclusions can be drawn from their commentariat – about a third of the votes rated it 7/10. Rum-X, as of this writing, does not have an entry for it.

Historical background

Ironworks is a distillery in the Maritime (Canadian) province of Nova Scotia, founded by Pierre Guevremont and Lynne MacKay in 2009, and inspired a year earlier by a random reading of a magazine article on the growth of the spirits industry (I find this odd because it is much more usual for people to start a distillery based on a connection to some spirit or other, or out of real love for a single product line).  Quite aside from distillation of quality spirits, they wanted to get deep into the technical aspects of fermentation, distillations, ageing and infusing, all via experimentation and personal experience; as well, they hope to use local ingredients as far as possible, and provide employment for the local economy.

They acquired premises in the small town of Lunenburg, in what was once a marine blacksmith’s workshop that serviced the shipbuilders who operated along the South Shore; and happily also provided the title of the fledgling distillery when the time came to name it.  The couple bought a 30,000-litre fermentation tank and a Muller still from Germany (type is not mentioned but I think it’s a hybrid from the few photos I’ve seen), and nowadays source apples, pears, molasses and ferment them all year for a wide ranging spirits portfolio of rum, vodka, brandy, gin and whisky.  Barrels are sourced from all over – with an emphasis on ex-bourbon for rum – and the warehousing has expanded beyond the small storage area to a boat, offices and more.

The company met with enough success that after little more than five years,  it already had won some twenty awards for its products, and it became one of the few of Nova Scotia’s growing craft distillers with a reputation that expanded outside its home province. Their spirits became popular enough that in early 2016 they partnered up with Halifax’s airport to open a liquor store on the premises to allow passengers to buy alcohol when travelling – and limited it to locally made products only. In 2018 they sent a few barrels around the world in a sailing ship, which some herald as a stunt, but which Ms. McKay defended as an experiment to see if the old tale of spirits ageing better at sea was true or not – the barrels were subsequently blended into the “Around The World Rum”, and rapidly sold out.  One could argue as to whether it was marketing or not, but the key takeaway was the willingness of the owners to think a bit outside to box and come up with some ingenious marketing ideas, as well as – one would hope – a more interesting and better rum.

Currently the company makes several different rums, the best known of which are the Amber, the Rum Boat Rum, the “Ten”, the Bluenose and the “Around the World Rum”, the last of which was the special edition referred to above.  They also make a rum cream and an experimental rum blended with maple syrup and then aged some more which they call maple rum and which I term an arrangé or infused spirit.

To some extent the rise of the European – and, of late, American – independent bottlers, as well as the obdurate and overly complex regulatory Canadian landscape, has limited the company’s ability to expand as rapidly as they might wish.  The lack of concentration on one spirit type is also an issue I’ve commented on before, and does not allow for world class expertise to develop as rapidly as it would for a more laser-focused company.  But one must consider the commercial realities of small companies which have to make payroll and generate cash flow, and so, for now, we must accept that Ironworks is a distillery that makes some intriguing rums, and is gradually increasing its footprint and awareness around the country.


 

Mar 272023
 

What we are trying today is the Co-Op Caribbean White Rum, which at around C$30 or less is comfortably within the reach of anyone’s purse if perhaps not their purpose. The rum is supplied to the Co-Op supermarket chain by a very interesting Calgary-based company called Minhas Distillery, which until recently didn’t have a distillery in the city, just a brewery, and whatever spirits they produced came from a distillery down in Wisconsin…which is all less than helpful in tracing the product since rum is really not in their portfolio.

What Co-op sells is a white rum in a sleek glass bottle, 40%, without any statement of origin beyond the “Minhas Distillery”. It is supposedly a Caribbean rum, yet no origin distillery is mentioned (let alone a country), and there’s no age, no still, no source material…in this day and age of full disclosure you almost have to admire the courage it takes to foist something so meaningless on the public and pretend it’s worth their coin. Admittedly though, none of this is necessarily a disqualification, because it could be a beast in disguise, a Hampden in hiding — for all we know, a few barrels could have been sourced under the table, or there could be a mad geeky rum nerd distiller lurking in the bowels of Minhas wielding dunder and lightning, ready to bring out the next Caribbean rum killing Canadian hooch.

Alas, sampling it dispels any such romantic notions in labba time. This so-called Caribbean rum is just shy of a one-note wonder. It is not fierce, given its living room strength, and does actually smell of something (which immediately marks it as better than the Merchant Shipping Co. White) – vanilla essence, and mothballs, coconut shavings, and lemon meringue pie.  It smells rather sweet, there are some nice light floral hints here and there; and it has some crushed almond nuts smells floating around, yet there’s also a sort of odd papery dusty aroma surrounding it, almost but not quite like old clothes on a rack at a charity sale, and which reminds me of Johnson’s Baby Powder more than anything else (no, I’m not kidding). 

The palate is where the ultimate falsity of all that preceded it snaps more clearly into focus.  Flowers, lemon, even mothballs, all gone. The baby powder and old clothes have vanished. Like a siren luring you overboard and then showing its true face, the rum turns thin, harsh and medicinal when tasted, rough and sandpapery, mere alcohol is loosed upon the world and all you get is a faint taste of vanilla to make it all go down.  Off and on for over an hour I kept coming back, but nothing further ever emerged, and the short, dusty, dry and sweet vanilla finish was the only other experience worthy of note here.

So.  As a sipping rum, then it’s best left on the shelf. No real surprise here. As a mixer, I’m less sure, because it’s not a complete fail, but I do honestly wonder what it could be used for since there is so much better out there – even the Bacardi Superior, because at least that one has been made for so long that all the rough edges have been sanded off and it has a little bit of character that’s so sadly lacking and so sorely needed here. 

There’s more than enough blame to go around with respect to this white rum, from Minhas on down to those bright shining lights in Co-Op’s purchasing and marketing departments (or, heaven help us, those directing the corporate strategy of what anonymous spirits to rebrand as company products), none of whom apparently have much of a clue what they’re doing when it comes to rum. It’s not enough that they don’t know what they’re making (or are too ashamed to actually tell us), but they haven’t even gone halfway to making something of even reasonable quality. It’s a cynical push of a substandard product to the masses – the idea of making a true premium product is apparently not part of the program.  

In a way then, it’s probably best we don’t know what country or island or distillery or still this comes from: and I sure hope it’s some nameless, faceless corporate-run industrial multi-column factory complex somewhere. Because if Co-Op’s Caribbean white rum descends from stock sourced from any the great distilleries of the French islands, Barbados, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Guyana, Venezuela, Jamaica or Cuba (et al), and has been turned into this – whether through ignorance, inaction or intent– then all hope is lost, the battle is over, and we should all pack our bags and move to Europe.

(#984)(74/100) ⭐⭐½


Background Notes

Minhas is a medium-sized liquor conglomerate based on Calgary, and was founded in 1999 by Manjit Minhas and her brother Ravinder. She was 19 at the time, trained in the oil and gas industry as an engineer and had to sell her car to raise finance to buy the brewery, as they were turned down by traditional sources of capital (apparently their father, who since 1993 had run a chain of liquor stores across Alberta, would not or could not provide financing). 

The initial purchase was the distillery and brewery in Wisconsin, and the company was first called Mountain Crest Liquors Inc. Its stated mission was to “create recipes and market high quality premium liquor and sell them at a discounted price in Alberta.” This enterprise proved so successful that a brewery in Calgary was bought in 2002 and currently the company consists of the Minhas Micro Brewery in the city (it now has distillation apparatus as well), and the brewery, distillery and winery in Wisconsin.

What is key about the company is that they are a full service provider. They have some ninety different brands of beers, spirits, liqueurs and wines, and the company produces brands such as Boxer’s beers, Punjabi rye whiskey, Polo Club Gin, and also does tequila, cider, hard lemonades. More importantly for this review, Minhas acts as a producer of private labels for Canadian and US chains as diverse as “Costco, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Aldi’s, Tesco/Fresh & Easy, Kum & Go, Superstore/Loblaws, Liquor Depot/Liquor Barn” (from their website). As a bespoke maker of liquors for third parties, Minhas caters to the middle and low end of the spirits market, and beer remains one of their top sellers, with sales across Canada, most of the USA, and around the world. So far, they have yet to break into the premium market for rums.


Other Notes

  • I did contact them directly via social media and their site, and was directed via messenger to an email address that never responded to my queries on sourcing. However, after this post went up, Richard Seale  of Foursquare got on to me via FB and left a comment that the distillate possibly came from WIRD (he himself had refused as the price they wanted was too low). The general claim on Minhas’s website is that their products are made with Alberta ingredients. 
  • It’s my supposition that there is some light ageing (a year or two), that it’s molasses based and column still distilled. It remains educated guesswork, however, not verified facts.
  • Ms. Minhas’s father, having sold the liquor shops many years ago, has recently opened a large distillery in Saskatchewan with the same business model, but that is outside the scope of this article and so I have elected not to go into detail, and only include it here for completeness.
Mar 102023
 

The last two reviews were of products from a Scottish rum maker called Sugar House, who bootstrapped a hybrid pot still, a batsh*t crazy production ethos and somehow came out with two unaged rums that should not have succeeded as well as they did…but did; and blew my socks off. This is what happens when a producer, no matter how small or how new, takes their rum seriously, really loves the subject, and isn’t averse to tinkering around a bit, dispenses with the training wheels, and simply blasts off. Juice like this is the high point of the reviewing game, where you see something original, something good, not terribly well known outside its place of origin, and aren’t afraid to champion it.

Consider then the polar opposite, the yin to Sugar House’s yang, a contrasting product which sports a faux-nautical title (we can be grateful that it omits any mentions or pictures of pirates), a strength of 40% and not a whole lot else.  Merchant Shipping Co.’s branded product is in fact, a third party rum — “imported Caribbean white rum” — put together by Highwood Distillery in Alberta (in Canada), which is probably better known for the surprisingly robust Potter’s (gained when they bought out that lonely distillery from BC in 2005) and the eminently forgettable Momento, which may be the single most unread post on this entire site.  Here they didn’t make the rum, but imported it, (the AGLC website suggests it’s probably from Guyana, which Highwood deals in for its own stable), and made it on contract for exclusive sale in Liquor Depot and Wine & Beyond stores in western Canada.

Let me spare you some reading: it’s barely worth sticking into a cocktail, and I wouldn’t stir it with the ferrule of my umbrella. Merchant Shipping white rum is a colourless spirit tucked into a cheap plastic bottle, sold for twenty five bucks, and somehow has the effrontery (please God, let it not be pride) to label itself as rum. I don’t really blame Highwood for this – it’s a contract rum after all – but I’m truly amazed that a liquor store as large and well stocked as Wine & Beyond could put their name behind abominable bottom feeder stuff like this.

Because it’s just so pointless. So completely unnecessary.  It smells on first opening and resting and nosing, like mothballs left too long in an overstuffed and rarely-opened clothes closet, where everything is old, long-disused, and shedding.  It smells like rubbing alcohol and faint gasoline, and my disbelieving notes right out of the gate ask “Wtf is this?? My grandmother’s arthritis cream?” It is a 40% spirit, but I swear to you there’s not much in here that says rum to anyone – it’s seems like denatured, filtered, diluted neutral spirit…that’s then dumbed down just in case somebody might mistake it for a real drink. 

The palate continues this disappointment (although I’m an optimist, and had hopes); it tastes thin and harsh, oily, medicinal, all of it faint and barely there – even for living room strength there’s little to write home about: a lingering unpleasant back-taste of sardines and olive oil, offset by a single overripe pear garnished with a sodden slice of watery melon and a squished banana, and if there is more I’d have to imagine it. Finish is gone so fast you’d think it was the road runner’s fumes, minus the comedy.

I can’t begin to tell you how this tasteless, useless, graceless, hopeless, classless, legless rum annoys me. Everything that could have given the spirit real character has been stripped away and left for dead. I said it was unnecessary and meant it: because you could pour the whole bottle down the drain and go to sleep knowing you’d  never missed a thing — yet it’s made, it’s on shelves, it sells, and a whole generation of young Canadians who can afford nothing else will go to their graves thinking this is what rum is and avoid it forever after. That’s what the implication of this thing is, and that’s the one thing it’s good at.

(#979)(65/100) ⭐½


Opinion

It gives me no pleasure to write reviews that slam a homegrown product — because homegrown products are what give a country or an island or a territory or an acreage its unique selling point, its mental and physical terroire. That’s what’s wrong with this faux, ersatz “Caribbean” rum, because there’s absolutely nothing that says Canada here at all (let alone rum, and certainly not the Caribbean) and as noted above, it’s an import (a near neutral spirit import at that, apparently).  

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear, one of those areas where there is serious potential for putting one’s country on the map lies in rums that don’t go for the least common denominator, don’t go for the mass-market miscellaneous dronish supermarket shelves, and certainly don’t go for the profit-maximizing-at-all-costs uber-capitalist ethos of the provincial liquor monopolies who could give a damn about terroire or real taste chops. It’s the blinkered mentality of them and the stores who follow it that allows rum like this to be made, as if the French rhum makers, global cane juice distillers, and the UK New Wave haven’t shown us, time and again, that better could be done, has been done…and indeed, should be done.


Other notes

  • There’s no tech sheet to go with the rum and nothing on the label, but I think it’s fair to say no self-respecting pot still ever made a rum like this, so, column still.  Also, molassess based.  It is probably aged a bit and then filtered, and my guess is less than a year.
Jan 092023
 

The rum we are looking at today is named simply “Fortress rum”, after the Fortress of Louisburg on Île Royale, now Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia, where the barrels of rum were aged. 1. The back label says the rum is made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients (no further qualification), the website talks about “select Caribbean rums” (no further elaboration) aged in “oak barrels” (no further info on what kind) and the company of origin is Authentic Seacoast Distilling Co. Ltd which has its fingers in all sorts of pies: beer, vodka, coffee, rumcake, hand sanitizers and soaps and for good measure has associations with small inns and hotels in the area in a kind of one-stop hospitality enterprise.

What little the website and photos and my own background reading provide is as follows: the rum is a blend of Caribbean imports of unknown provenance, probably mixed in with a small quantity of locally distilled rum made on the single column still seen in the site photo archive (which may be why the label mentions domestic ingredients, although….). The ageing takes place on the island, but no information is provided in what kind of oak barrels or for how long.  Previous comments on social media (especially reddit) are unanimous that it’s a decent Canadian rum, a kind of ok sipper, compares well against Ironworks’ rums, available mostly in the Maritimes and Ontario, and the web page is at pains to mention many medals it won every year between 2015 and 2018 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

I have my own opinion on any spirits competitions’ usefulness, and as far as I’m concerned this is another case where the abominably restricted rum selection available to Canadians — caused by provincial monopolies dating back to Prohibition times — has so limited their ability to taste world class rum, that even a subpar product like this one can tout medals which mean very little as some kind of evidence of success, and never be corrected by locals. Because frankly, it’s not that great a rum at all.

Let’s take it apart so I can explain my chain of reasoning.  Since I knew nothing about the rum aside from the strength (45%), I went in completely blind.  The nose was decent enough – fruity, tart, with some yoghurt, vanilla, strawberries and light citrus notes.  Some bubble gum and cherries, more vanilla and a touch of leather and bitterness of tannins that had not been sanded down very much. Oh, and more vanilla. There was really too much vanilla – initially it was rather laid back and inobtrusive, but gradually it really took over and dominated the entire nose.

45% is a good strength for an unpretentious rum, which this turned out to be when tasted. Some mellow fruitiness started the party going, mostly ripe apples, red cherries, and cranberries.  This was backed up by vanilla, acetones, furniture polish and varnish, to which was added a little salt, caramel, the minerality of charcoal and — bloody hell! — more vanilla.  What little tannins and leather were in the aroma vanished here, and the finish gave little hint of more: some light and easy fruit, cinnamon, vanilla (again!) and green tea, before vanishing with a whisper.

The Fortress rum to some extent suffers from that issue that I’ve remarked on before, that of sharing its production with too many other spirits so nobody has time to do one thing right.  As a rum, it also fails on all sorts of levels – the lack of information provision not the least among them. It’s indeterminate in taste, and its solid proof is undone by an excess of vanilla past the point of being reasonably provided by barrel ageing.  This is why my notes have a big question mark on the page asking “V. Added?” And the more I think about it, that’s what they did. The vanilla is nice…but only up to a point.  Less is really more in a case like this, and like excess sugar in other rums, it masks and hides taste elements that could be more assertive – even interesting – if allowed to get out there and shine.

But we’re not allowed to judge that. Somebody went out there and decided for us that the natural profile — of this unknown distillate off an unknown still and unknown source location, as changed by unknown barrels for an unknown period of time — needed boosting.  They chose to call what they did “authentic”, rather than provide data on what the rum is actually made of, where it’s from and how it’s made up (in other words, really authentic information). The upshot is that they ended up with a distilled sow’s ear while pretending they had somehow succeeded in making a silk purse. 

(#964)(73/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Originally released in 2015 as a result of research with Parks Canada to release something authentic to the 18th century period. The ageing of the barrels in or near to the Fortress itself strikes me as a nice marketing gimmick, but no more.
  • For a rum issued in 2015, minimal or nonexistent disclosure was something that could be glossed over.  In the 2020s, it’s unacceptable for even the company website to make no mention of anything useful, let alone the label.
  • I get the sense from watching an enthusiastic video review from Booze on the Rocks that his bottle was numbered, but no such notation was on the one I poured from.
  • Reddit /r/rum had some more positive evaluations from here and here, and half of the 24 evaluations on Rum Ratings rated it 8/10 or better; the average of two raters on Rum-X gave it 67/100.  Nobody else seems to have done a full review.
  • I am aware of and deplore that as a Canadian-produced rum, its visibility and distribution is hampered by arcane and complex provincial distribution rules that cater to government monopolies’ interests, not consumers. This does not excuse any of the weaknesses it displays, but it does create a feedback issue for the company since too few people get to opine on its quality, and wider distribution is hardly worth the effort of complying with those regulations.

Historical background

Canada – especially the eastern islands and provinces – has a long history of and involvement with rum. The infamous triangular trade (Europe to Africa to the West Indies, or America to Africa to the Caribbean) included trading with Canada’s eastern seaboard, and the French in Quebec and the islands had long established trading posts and a mercantile presence there.  Alcohol was an early and common trading item, especially wine and beer which were made locally since the 1600s — rum, however, was an import from the beginning and came from the French West Indies. In the centuries that passed, rum has in fact become a tipple of choice for Maritimers (while whisky predominates out west, and wine and beer are of course popular everywhere).

Rums were initially bought in bulk from the Caribbean and then blended, a practice that continues to this day: standard Canadian rums brands like Potters, Lamb’s, Screech, Cabot Tower and Young’s Old Sam (among many others) are the result, and it will come as no surprise to know that Guyana and Jamaica tend to be the most common acknowledged sources and profiles. More recently, mirroring developments in the US, rum was also distilled from shipped-in molasses by small distilleries, which often have whiskies as their prime focus – Smuggler’s Cove and Momento and Ironworks are examples of that trend, though so far results have been mixed and none have made any serious local, regional or international splash. As remarked above in “other notes”, this has a lot to do with restrictions laid on Canadian producers by the state and its provincial monopolies.


 

May 262012
 

A better than expected, overproof: smoother, tastier, more engaging.  Should be tried neat before you bastardize it with a mix, ’cause it may just surprise you too.

Yeah. Smell that sucker. That whap you feel in your schnozz is a hundred proof hitting you in da face. This is a rum which indulges in a level of unapologetic phallocentrism that would make Ron Jeremy weep with envy This is what they would serve in Buxton’s Tipperary Hall to my squaddies Biggers and Evan, if they could ever get it. I mean, a hundred proof, wow – sure, his is a rum that only now approaches where cask strength whiskies have been for years, but I can tell you, somewhere out there a tractor is feeling inadequate.

Cabot Tower Demerara Rum, made by the Newfoundland & Labrador Liquor Corporation (who I believe are also behind the Young’s Old Sam, Lemon Hart 151 and a few other bottom feeders I enjoy) is named after a tower in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, situated on Signal Hill (from where Marconi received the first wireless signal from Cornwall, back in 1901). Construction of tower begun in 1898 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland, and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  The rum itself uses Demerara rum (age and still, alas, unknown) imported from Guyana, blesses it with druids and then distils it to a yummy cask strength 57.5%. That to many would make it an instant mixing agent, I suppose, but I’ve been on a bit of a cask strength and overproof kick for a while, so indulge me while I urge you to take a second taste.

Nose? Well, it’s certainly more enjoyable than many of the 151 overproofs I review, and the case could be made that when it comes to man-sized rums this one is right up there. Deep, heavy and powerful, yet lacking in serious bite and sting…quite mellow in its own way, hinting of burnt sugar, molasses, caramel, honey, vanilla, with perhaps some chocolate at the back end: and an odd mustiness, like truffles Soft and sweet…not at all the vicious claws one would expect from something this (relatively) strong.

Claws there were indeed, of course, once I actually sipped this bad boy. The body on the Cabot Tower was like an agile baby hippo…heavy, spirited and playful, and also cleaner and clearer than the dark colour and heavy nose might lead you to expect. Dry, a shade sere and not that sweet after all: the vanilla and chocolate take a back seat and I simply noted a spicy sort of brown sugar with some oak making itself felt as well. The fade was excellent, mind, as a result of the extra alcohol (and some nice zesty licorice notes), and I must tell you, after stuffing myself at a neighborhood restaurant that evening, this rum carved its way down and was an excellent way to aid my digestion. Damn right you can drink it neat. It really is a pretty good rum in and of itself.

People kind enough to read past reviews posted here know of my sneaking admiration for the Newfie products, and that’s not just because one of my best friends hails from there: Young’s Old Sam and Newfoundland Screech both received nice reviews from me, irrespective of their relatively lacking pedigree (a St Nicholas Abbey 12 year old they are not). I just wish I could find out more about it, because even the NLLC website says nothing about methods of distillation, age or blending, let alone what barrels, if any, they were aged in (sure I can say American whisky barrels, because aren’t they always? …but that just seems like a cheat somehow). Kind of annoying.

Summing up, I liked Cabot Cove rum.  A lot. It somehow managed to overcome the cask strength curse that too often attends overproofs where the only thing you feel is bite, and came up with an impressive marriage of puissance and profile (I wanted to use the word “puissance” just once in my writing, so here you are). I spent almost half my life in the Caribbean, and some of my love for dark rums comes from that experience. Sipping this thoroughly cheerful dark red rum which makes no apologies for being what it is and succeeds beyond expectations, all I can say in my own uninspired way is God bless Newfoundland, praise Jah for rums…and thank the Good Lord for Guyana.

(#109. 78/100)

May 032012
 

This review was posted first on RumConnection in two parts in May 2012.  Thanks to Mike Streeter who lends his site to such occasional contributions that exceed his normal article length.

My own, slightly edited (and scored) review which corrected some minor issues and changed the wording a bit, is below.  Suffice to say, this is one of those overproofs I really enjoyed.  I tried it by itself to write the review, but it’s as a mixer and base that this strong, dark Demerara rum really shines.

It’s big, it’s bad, and it’s tougher than a Brickdam jailbird’s meat ration. It’s 75.5% of tonsil-tearing muscle, a dark brown rum hurricane, and among the meanest, strongest rums available anywhere. Lemon Hart 151 stomps up to you (and maybe over you), casts you a mean, cold-eyed glare, and mutters into your traumatized corpus, “Fear me. Respect me. Honour my eye-watering awesomeness.” In the annals of badassery, this rum will always be one of Sweet Sweetback’s baddest songs.

Overproof rums are a rather astonishing display of rum-on-human violence, and the only drinks I can come up with where participants run the risk of traumatic injury every time they try some — to my knowledge, only industrial ethanol, Brazilian alcool, the SMWS Longpond 9 81.3%, St. Vincent’s Sunset Very Strong (84.5%), Marienburg 90 or Stroh 80 can claim higher alcohol levels. Yet they have their adherents (I am one of them). Yes, you can get drunk faster on ‘em, and yes, they make great cocktails, and yes, for those in penury how can they be beat? – but then they exist on a level beyond that, at a point in space and time where you find ultra-marathoners, HALO parachute jumpers and all those nutso A-types who actually enjoy taking a badass risk every time they try whatever it is they try. This rum is absolutely made for such people. Like any massively overproof rum, it is for the taster an equal mixture of pleasure and pain. Few are the surviving drinkers who do not bend a trembling knee after the fact in a showy, post-trauma, did-I-actually-drink-this? thank-you-Jesus-for-letting-me-live piety. Yet, is it bad for all that? I suggest not.

Coming at me, it sat on my table, dark, squat, ugly with brooding menace and the promise of violence in its dark brown-red stare. In trying it, I didn’t waste my time making nice or taking a sniff immediately, because overproofs usually have enough raw alcohol to stun an ox into catatonia; instead, I let the vapours burn off and the concentrated flavours settle. What I got for my trouble was the spirituous equivalent of a weaponized flatus on steroids – it certainly punched like it. Damn but this was strong. A shade muskier than I would have expected. Chopped fruit…oh, prunes, maybe Christmas black cake. My Aunt Sheila used to make cake that smelled like that, back in Guyana.

In the spirit of reviewing rums, I must confess to a certain masochistic pride at being able to drink any rum, no matter how foul or how strong (I can just see one of my whisky loving bête noires snickering “Isn’t that all of them?“). In this case, I’m glad I did, because the taste of the Lemon Hart isn’t half bad at all for such a hellishly potent overproof. Oh sure, it’s as raw as sandpaper on the palate, and I’d never tell you it was a sipper’s onanistic must-have…but there’s more taste there than you might expect, stronger, more intense. That’s what makes it work: I got a spicy molasses darkness mixed up with burnt brown sugar, bananas, licorice (again), baking spices, and just a sly hint of cinnamon. That last is reaching, though. Lemon Hart 151 is plain-simple, powerfully constructed and straightforward dy-no-mite, and I should not pretend it’s some kind of top end table tipple.

As for the finish, well, I run out of ways to describe it in flowery language, so, to be blunt: raw and harsh and had fumes like a porknocker’s searing effluent…made my eyes water, my throat cringe and my sphincter oscillate. To be fair, even through all that there were weak hints of brown sugar and cloves that cried to their mommies (the cask strength whiskies), as they attempted to emerge through the carving heat of the alcohol, so all was not lost. It’s a mixer for sure, yet surprises are in store for the persistent and slightly deranged who stick with it.

The base liquor for Lemon Hart 151 is made in Guyana (which immediately means DDL) and bottled by Canada’s Newfoundland Liquor Corporation, which also makes the Young’s Old Sam and the Cabot Tower 100 proof Demerara, both heavy, dark molasses-snorting rums that pride themselves in not catering to a connoisseur’s sophistication, and for both of which I have a sneaking affection. Previously Pernod-Ricard had owned the marque before selling it on to a privately held concern, Mosaiq, in 2010, and Lemon Hart does indeed have quite a pedigree….it was itself first marketed in 1804 by Mr. Lehmynn Hart as the rum of choice for Royal Navy when he created the Lemon Hart company in that year, having moved the business he started in the late 1700s from Cornwall to London. Whether they market it as such or not, in the darkness and strength of the current product, you can still see the whispers of that old maritime tradition. (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Pusser’s, Lamb’s, Favell’s, or Lemon Hart has the right to the crown of “Navy Rum”.)

I remarked once that overproof rums are getting to the stage that they can seriously be considered drinks in their own right as opposed to seeing them as only Tanti Merle’s black cake ingredients or mixologists’ wet dreams. Unfortunately, like single digit rums or popular blends, they labour under a cloud of perceptive disapproval, often thought of as no more than poor student’s tipples or backdam stand-bys for the bushmen I used to drink with in my youth. I mean, can you honestly see a guy who waxes rhapsodic over the English Harbour 25 year old buy one of these bad boys? Lemon Hart 151 for sure has little couth, zero class, laughs at complexity, and does not give a good goddamn about any of that (or your tonsils, so be warned). What it cares about is giving you a concentrated burst of simple, powerful flavours wrapped up in a sheet of such stunning white lightning that, when your DNA settles back from being devolved and you can speak coherently again, you actually can consider the rum as being…well…kinda good.

(#107. 79.5/100)


Other Notes

  • This is the reissued Lemon Hart 151 which only started to hit shelves in the last year or so and lacks the 1.5% Canadian rum the previous iteration had…it’s not the original rum people may be more familiar with, which did have that inclusion.
  • For additional details on the history and development of 151 overproof rums, this article provides all the background

 

Jan 292012
 

Big, stompin’ rum maybe meant to be a mixed-drinks base but really good neat. Definitely helpful for getting loaded when dollars are tight; interesting when mixed in any number of cocktails. Feeling lonesome in some cold winter clime and miss the Ole Country? This will cure what ails you.

First posted 29 January 2012 on Liquorature. 


I don’t always get top end rums like Barbancourt’s Estate Reserve 15 year old to try, and often, I don’t even want to try them. Sometimes, like most people who’ve had a hard week, I just kick back with a glass of hooch that makes no pretensions to grandeur, pour it, mix it and glug it, and like the fact that it’s just there to make me feel better. Myer’s Planter’s Punch Dark Rum falls squarely into that category, and joins – maybe exceeds – fellow palate-deadeners like Young’s Old Sam, Bacardi Black, Coruba or Potter’s at the tavern bar. These are single digit rums or blends, meant for mixing (cowards cut ’em with whisky) and for my money, they’re all sweaty rums for the proles, displaying a remarkable lack of couth and subtlety – I appreciate them for precisely that reason.

Pour a shot of the stuff and you’ll see where I’m coming from: Myer’s is a dark brown-red, oily rum quite distinct from Appleton’s lighter coloured offerings, and the scents of molasses, liquorice, nutmeg and dried fruit don’t merely waft out onto your nose – they gobsmack your face off. Once you stop crying like a little kid at the neighborhood bully or staring at your glass in wonder, I imagine you might try to recover your dignity, and observe how you can detect caramel, vanilla, perhaps a bit of nutmeg, coconut, citrus. Quite encouraging for something so cheap (less than $25).

The tromping arrival of unleavened flavour square-dancing across your tongue is perhaps the main selling point of a rum like Myer’s. What is lost in subtlety is made up for by stampeding mastodons of a few distinct profiles that actually mesh quite well: caramel, coconut shavings, molasses, fruit, burnt sugar with maybe some orange peel and baking spices thrown in. There’s a weird butteriness in the taste somewhere… maybe from the ageing? Overall, I wish I knew for sure whether they augmented the profile – as I think they have – with any additives: a rum this cheap is unlikely to be this interesting merely on the skill of a blender (if it was, it wouldn’t be so cheap). And there’s a fade here, boys and girls, but it’s strong – more like the exit of a gentleman bank robber discretely blasting away with his gat than the soft silken swish of something more polished. And it’s long, very pleasant – this is a rum which could easily be stronger and still be good.

Mix Myer’s Dark Rum in a Planter’s Punch, in a dark-rum cocktail (feel free to consult Tiare’s excellent site a mountain of crushed ice or any tiki site for ideas) or just mess with the old stand-bys, and the few weak points of the drink as a neat drink are smoothened out and it becomes an excellent base for whatever you feel like making. I’m reviewing it as a sipper, as I must, but this should not discourage you from trying other variations.

Myer’s Dark Rum is hardly an unknown, of course, having been a staple of the cocktail makers’ bars the world over for decades: It was indeed made specifically to address the popularity of Planter’s Punch (which could be equally said to originate in a recipe dated 1908, or in a Charlestonian doggerel from 1878 depending on who you ask). The company founded by Fred Myer in 1879 is now owned by Diageo, and they continue to blend nine rums out of Jamaica at the southern distillery of Monymusk (the plantations of origin are more secret than Colonel Sanders’s recipe) into the drink that we know today. Monymusk, as you may recall, also makes the middling Royal Jamaican Gold rum, which isn’t anywhere near as fun as Myer’s. Aside from calling it the “Planter’s Punch” variation, it is supposedly the same as that first produced in 1879, made from Jamaican molasses, and a combination of distillates of both pot and column stills, then aged for four years in white oak barrels. I’ll also note that my bottle clearly states Myer’s is a blend of Jamaican and Canadian rums, at which I immediately sneer and say…well, “Bulls..t”, not the least because after years of crisscrossing the country in my beater, I still haven’t found a single sugar plantation and therefore I somehow doubt Canada has a rum of its own.

I have to be careful in assigning a rating to Myer’s. It’s not quite a sipper (damned close, though), but some of my review must address the sheer enjoyment I get out of it both as such, and in a proper mix – and even if it *is* added to. Like Young’s Old Sam, it exists in a somewhat less hallowed underworld of rums embraced by bartenders and not so much by connoisseurs, and which some believe must be braved only with fireproofed throat and iron-lined stomach for the crazies who drink it neat. It’s strong, powerful tasting, heavy on a few clear flavours – and doesn’t so much whisper its antecedents as bellow out the sea shanties. It may not be the coolest rum you’ve ever had, or the smoothest, but by God, when you’ve tasted this thing you know you’ve just had a *rum*.

(#92. 80.5/100)

Nov 232011
 

 

First posted 23rd November 2011 on Liquorature

A dark navy rum that starts slow and nasty and evolves into a most amazingly flavourful product, and which can even be tolerated by the masochistic as a drink to sip on its own.


Honesty forces me to confess that the only reason I bought this rum was because Keenan and I had had it in local pub on a wing night and we couldn’t believe what a powerful deep-tasting mixer it made. Seeing it the other day in a shop, I snapped it up, and I have to tell you, for less than $30, you could do worse than try this pretender to the Navy rum throne. Too bad The Bear had bailed for booze-regulated eastern climes by then. I comfort myself by snidely noting his pickings are now as slim as a frog hair split four ways and sanded smooth.

There is something uniquely and even amusingly provincial – nay, Canadian – about Potter’s. The label, which tongue in cheek informs you that if you are reading it, you probably aren’t on a tropical beach (try finding that on a product made in the US); the bottle; the unassuming nature of it all. Okay, enough snickering (yeah yeah, I can see you there in the front row, fella) – I know it has a chintzy kind of faux-70’s bottle design – much like the Alberta Premium – but how can one not help but smile at the sheer chutzpah of makers who can so insouciantly flip us all the bird?

In the glass, Potter’s is copper bronze, almost red (pretty cool, that), with middling thin legs hesitantly draining down the sides. Wafts of molasses and brown sugar were immediately in evidence even before I put my beak into it, and at that point I have to tell you flat out – the initial nose may be the single worst reek since the Bundie (or, for the generous among you, the most distinctive). Plastic, plasticine, playdo and sickly sweet grape esters leapt out at me and sought to crush my sense of smell with a mass attack – I felt like my nose just harpooned a steam locomotive. Molasses, burnt sugar and some vanilla tried vainly to get out from under that crushing stench, but were mercilessly clubbed to the ground.

So pretty bad, right?

Not at all. That’s the crazy thing. Potter’s opened up like a shy bodybuilder, and after the initial bludgeon relaxed, it was actually quite good – one kind of was able to pick out the individual scents (not without effort, admittedly), and while it’ll never be on my list of alltime favourites, it wasn’t all bad. Liquorice, molasses and burning canefields all coiled around the core smells of burnt sugar, and Potter’s made no attempt to be coy or complex – what you nosed was exactly what you got, and nothing more (contrast that against the Pusser’s 15, which had hidden treasures under them tights).

And tastewise, oh man – what the hell did Potters do here? The rum is stupid good – no cheapass rum should have such a strong delivery, be this bold, or this distinctive. Dark, smoky, heavy, like the best Navy rums, or el Dorado 5 yr old, better than Lamb’s Navy, or  Coruba by a sea mile, and as good or better than Young’s Old Sam’s.  I tasted liquorice, tobacco and molasses, heavy and smoky on the tongue, with leather, pipe tobacco and perhaps a touch of dried grapes (my six year old son The Little Caner took a sniff and disdainfully remarked “blue cheese” before walking off with his pocketmoney, but he has a point – there is some kind of well aged rindy cheese in there too). Dry and uncompromisingly sere, not too sweet (but not too much in the opposite direction either), and quite smooth for such a seemingly unaged product. And the fade is also good – dry, deep burn down your throat, not bitchy, just slow and powerful – it lacks the sophistication of the Pusser’s 15 yr old, but guys, it ain’t far off, and it costs less. In short, this rum is, in my opinion, an unheralded mid-ranger punching well above its seemingly low-class antecedents – it’s like an accountant who strips off his tie and becomes, oh, I dunno, Superman’s poor doofus cousin. About the only thing I wish I knew was whether they had added anything to enhance the flavour profile.

So who is Potters made by? By the same outfit that makes the utterly forgettable Momento rum I so dissed not too long ago – Highwood Distillers out of Alberta. I didn’t think that the Momento cut it, and said so, but thankfully I didn’t just dismiss the whole distillery out of hand. After tasting this rum, about which not much is said on their website (actually, they just reprinted the blurb on the label), I am happy to report that if they were to branch out into aged rums, perhaps, they might really have something going here. Certainly as navy rums go, I have some fault and much praise to find in the product, because it appeals to all my basic desires in a rum – I don’t have to filet the thing, dissect it into ten different components – it is a straightforward, strong and unapologetic product made for simpler times, and simpler people than we have become.

Now, all things considered, I think Potter’s has a shade too much sulphur and is a bit too feinty to be classed as a good sipper (don’t let that stop you if you’re of a mind – it ain’t half bad that way); something about that background muskiness and cloying nature of it puts me off. And even the label suggests it isn’t one, and I may be one of the few who can stomach it as such given the initial reek (it’ll batter most others into catatonia). As a mixer, though…wow. Rounds out a coke or ginger ale just fine. I could drink it with a cola or as a cocktail base all night long, and all I could think of as I tasted it that night, was that I wish my friend had been with me, and that he hadn’t left to take up a job elsewhere. This rum was made for a guy like him, and in fact, it was a rum like him – outwardly simple, deceptively unpretentious, effective, unforgettable, humorous, powerful and the best essence of all that is north of forty nine.

(#087. 76/100)


Other Notes

  • Potter’s Distillery was founded by Ernie Potter in 1958, and originally only bottled and sold liqueurs, but over the years expanded into spirits. In 1962, Captain Harold John Cameron Terry (Captain Terry) – who started his career at 14 as an Australian seaman – acquired Potter’s Distillers. He took the company public in 1967 and was its CEO for 20 years. In 1990, production was moved from Langley to Kelowna, British Columbia where it remained until 2006. In November 2005, Highwood Distillers purchased Potter’s Distillers and folded it into its umbrella of brands.
Oct 012011
 

Photo (c) Highwood Distillers

First posted 01 October 2011 on Liquorature

A strange rum from Alberta’s Highwood Distillery, Momento is aimed at the high end market without having the cojones to put its quality where its marketing leads it.  It’s clean texture and originality of make are its best features, but I can’t say it really works for me.


There are some cases where a distillery looking to go in a different direction begets some kind of bratty, youthful rum that dances on your tonsils and tries out its chubby biceps on your palate. Bruichladdich comes to mind, or the reblenders and rebranders like Gordon & MacPhail and A.D Rattray (whisky makers all, I sigh). Remember the Caroni 13 year old, the Renegade line, or even (bow head here) the Longpond 1941? Rums like those made you laugh with pleasure, and walk out the store clutching your prizes, with a cape, red boots and big friggin’ “S” stamped on your chest.

Highwood Distillers, alas, does not make the cut with this insouciant Momento rum. It aspires to the heights without trying to scale them, and yet, my inquiries with the company brought forth the comment that they really were aiming for the premium segment of the market. Take my word for it: this is not premium. Nice, inoffensive, original, different. But not top of the line by a long shot.

I must concede I liked the appearance of the bottle, with its transparent label and fancy lettering: there is a spartan simplicity to it which I appreciated. Long slender bottle, enveloping a clear, straw yellow rum topped off with a white cork. If nothing else, that certainly is pretty good.

My disappointment started with the nose. It was a sharp skewer though the schnozz, a cannibal’s bone through the septum, redolent of chemicals and paint thinner. Pungent, thin and grassy…almost like fresh hay. It reminded me of the play-doh in a badly maintained day care. The body (hinted at by swift sprinter’s legs that would make Usain Bolt weep with envy) was thin and unimpressive, tangy and medium sweet – I’ve tasted white wines with more body and depth. And the cloying medicinal properties of the nose followed the palate and arrived with the screaming tantara of a badly tuned clarinet, added to by a briny, almost seaweed like taste, a tad spicy and not particular sweet. Perhaps I sensed some caramel and citrus, but I’d be reaching if I said that with assurance. The rum’s one redeeming feature to me was a certain light clarity, a tight, clean texture on the palate which was a real pleasure to feel, if not to taste. The finish was also some consolation, short and smooth: delicate, light fumes caress your throat before bailing in labba time for the backdam.

So, I give it points for originality, but you’re getting my drift – this is definitely not my glass of the good stuff. I’m barely convinced it’s a rum, and I’m not the only online reviewer to make that observation: maybe because it’s a whisky distiller that makes it, it has many properties that would appeal more to a lover of the Scotches than the rums. As a mixer it is without doubt competent; as a sipper, I’m afraid it falls down flat. Thank God it was paid for: I’d feel real bad taking this as a free sample and then have these negative feelings about it. And yet its antecedents stem from Guyana, DDL stock to be exact, and after coming to Alberta, aged in charred oak barrels for an indeterminate time. Highwood remarked in an email to me that they make no age statements on the blend, and the Arctic Wolf thought it was six to eight years old, but my own take is that it’s quite a bit younger than that – it’s too raw, too rough for any kind of serious ageing and the oak makes almost no imprint on the taste buds.

Look, I’m not really in a bad mood or trying to be bitchy ‘cause it’s fun to write a negative review. What I want is rums to be taken seriously, and this one isn’t helping me any. When a distillery with a pretty good pedigree like Highwood Distillers makes a rum this odd and appears not to be taking the blending all that seriously (unlike their startlingly deep-flavoured Potter’s, which may be one of the best mixer’s extant in the bars of Calgary), I get the impression they’re just making this rum so they can round out their portfolio (maybe it’s because they have so many different spirits in their repertoire – 90-plus, according to their rep).

The Momento might, over a period of years, morph into something pretty cool and interesting, but as it stands, all it is is a snazzy bottle encasing a pale coloured, under-distilled rum wannabe without serious taste or body, and about the best thing I can say for it is that it’s original as all get out, has that clean texture, and goes better with a cola than Doorley’s. I didn’t think it was possible to best the Prince Myshkyn of the rum world at its own game, but with the Momento, you’ve got a winner on that score, however much of a loser it is at all the others.

(#079. 71/100)


Other Notes

  • Highwood Distillers was founded in 1974 and originally operated under the name ‘Sunnyvale’. In 1984, it was renamed ‘Highwood Distillers’ after the famous river and region in which it is located in the Canadian province of Alberta. It bought Potters Distillery in British Columbia in November 2005, and so the Potters Dark rum is part of their brand portfolio.
  • The core distillate of the Momento is imported Demerara rum but it is unknown how long it is aged for or which DDL still it comes from.
Jan 282011
 

First posted 28 January 2011 on Liquorature

An overproof harking back to maritime days of the Empire, Favell’s lacks enough ageing or serious taste to compete with more carefully made and better aged examples of the craft, and will appeal more to whisky drinkers who like cask strength offerings, than those who like lesser strength rums to sip neat. 

Favell’s London Dock Demerara rum plays on the maritime heritage of the British empire’s trading  days: sailing ships, foggy stone wharves, the slow slap of the waves against the wooden hulls of old windjammers and clippers anchored alongside, and West Indian Trade in rum and molasses. Even the labelling reflects a slightly old-fashioned, nautical slant, what with its picture and the interesting notation that it is 100 proof rum…or 57.1% (for a discussion on why 100 proof in Britain is – or used to be – 57.1% alcohol by volume, see my article on proofs here).

Favell’s is, like other rums made in northerly climes, a blend of stock imported from the West Indies (Guyana, in this case) and again, this is stated front and center in the label: Demerara rum, product of Guyana.  In the 19th century the British empire had its largest trading hub in London, and in 1802 an entire new section of the Port of London, the West India Docks, was built to process the vast amounts of sugar and rum arriving from British colonies in the Caribbean. The Rum Dock section gave birth to Lamb’s London Dock and other rums of that period, but whose names have long vanished.  These days, only the term remains, redolent with history.

At 57% ABV, Favell’s is a proof rum (100 proof – anything over that is considered an overproof): we might term it cask strength, if that wasn’t technically incorrect.  There are frustratingly few notations on the distillation methodology available.  About all I can tell you is that the bulk rums come from Guyana, and the blend is made in Canada under license to White Favell, Vintner’s of London, who probably act like Gordon and MacPhail or Bruichladdich, but without the fame. The nice thing is that, like Screech and Old Sam’s, it’s made in Newfoundland, and that probably had something to do with the long maritime tradition of The Rock (or so the romantic in me supposes).

The nose was, as one might expect, not gentle or forgiving.  London Dock rums as a general rule adhere to Navy blending traditions, which is to say they are rough and dark and strong and have tastes are at best unsophisticated.  This one was no exception, and at 57.1%, I wasn’t surprised. It smacked the nose and was redolent of harsh spirit, caramel and some vanilla.  A bit sharper than I personally preferred.  After opening up, however, the alcohol vapours started to recede and a lighter, thinner floral scent stole about the overpowering depth of dark sugar, and I have to acknowledge that if you’re prepared to wait a bit, that almost makes it worthwhile.

However, to my disappointment, the taste failed when compared with either Pusser’s, or the A.D. Rattray’s rather excellent 13 year old Caroni rum, which are the only overproofs I’ve sampled that came close to Favell’s. The sharp taste is not medicinal, precisely (I would have marked it down for that), but it does bite like hell, and not the dark deep burn of a good, mellowed-down, well-aged overproof, but something harsher, less refined: something that required a bit more time in the barrel, I’d say. The rum was decently full-bodied as befits a Demerara rum – the problem was that the taste was not distinct, not particularly complex, or well-defined.  Oh you get the caramel, some faint burnt sugar notes, together with a trace of molasses. That’s all, though.  And the finish , well, it does linger, powerfully so…but one feels that those are mostly the alcohol fumes with some faint hints of the aforementioned standards, and so not particularly distinguished.

That this rum has absolutely nothing to do with the glory days of the British Navy and all its associated traditions is not in dispute.  It’s a pretender to a throne to which Lamb’s Navy rum and Pusser’s stand rather closer in the line of succession and merit. But I wouldn’t exactly mark it down for that either.  These days, I assume marketing swamis and smart people who study people’s tastes and how to sell things to people are usually behind the branding of any rum I review (and if any doubt my statement, feel free to weigh in on the discussion on the Ron de Jeremy slated to be produced this year): and so I don’t really hold it against them.

Favell’s is, to my mind, a success from the perspective of imagination.  I can surely, without effort, think of having a flagon of this at my side as I watch the last of the cargo being loaded onto my old sailing ship bound for Port Georgetown, the hawsers creaking as the tide comes in, the fog swirling around the dimly lamp-lit quay and muting the low conversations of the  sailors as they batten the hatches and make ready to cast off all lines.

Too bad that the taste and overall quality of Favell’s doesn’t quite live up to that promise. Close, but not quite.

(#065. 79.5/100)

Oct 132010
 

First posted 13 October, 2010 on Liquorature

The  best selling and most commonly quoted spiced rum in the world.  It’s the standard by which all other spiced rums are measured not because of its excellence, precisely, but because of its overall “okay-ness”. It’s okay everywhere while being truly outstanding at little. It’s sweetness and spice are part of the appeal.

The fact that this is a low end mixer should not dissuade you from giving it a shot (no pun intended) if you’re in the mood for a reasonably low-priced little something. It’s about on the same level as the cheaper Bacardis (Gold, and Black), but it is spiced and therefore somewhat sweeter than normal, and also not meant to be taken seriously as a sipper.  Yet many aficionados with a less exclusive turn of taste are quite ardent supporters of The Captain’s spiced variant.

As I’ve noted in my review of Captain Morgan’s Private Stock, Seagram used to make the rum, but sold the rights to Diageo in the mid-eighties, and currently it is the world’s best selling spiced rum. The name is nothing more than a marketing ploy, since it enhances the connection to swashbuckling, seafaring pirate days of yore, but beyond that, there isn’t anything else (note that the TV advertising campaign I have seen in Calgary also plays on the whole bit about being like a pirate in breaking the rules and thinking outside the box to achieve success…an interesting bit of moral relativism given Morgan’s history and actions).

Captain Morgan is a tawny gold colour, and displays a medium light body in the glass. The nose is heavy with rum and vanilla, and a bit of caramel thrown in.  I can’t say I detected anything beyond that, because the scent is so overwhelming.  Yet the youth of the rum is evident in the sharpness at the back of the throat (it’s been matured for two years or less in charred white oak barrels), so there’s not much point in trying the rum to sip (unless you’re a slight nutcase like me and want to try it that way nevertheless). The finish is pretty good, though, a tad sharp, though not nearly as much as the nose suggested it would have. Last flavours of vanilla and nutmeg.

For my money, I suppose it’s okay.  It’s a versatile ingredient in mixed drinks, but just too sweet to really appeal to me — and for all those who have read my reviews about liking sugar in my rums, this must sound strange, but there is something as too much and this is a case in point.  Perhaps adding just a smidgen of coke to mitigate the burn is the way to approach it.

However, like Bacardi, the Captain is available just about everywhere, and as a result, if you drop thirty bucks on a bottle when getting something in a hurry, well, you’ll certainly get what you pay for plus maybe a bit extra. Your friends and guests sure as hell aren’t going to refuse it, and, if offered at a party, neither would I.

(#039)(Unscored)

Oct 012010
 

Picture (c) Pete’s Rum Pages

First posted 01 October 2010 on Liquorature.

Lemon Hart is an instructive case study in how one can chose a rum without knowing a damned thing about it. As I’ve noted on more than one occasion, if you go into a store without a blessed clue, you are down to three bases for your decision and only three: the price; the look; and knowledge you have when you enter the joint. Anything different is somebody else choosing for you.

So here, what did I have? Well, the price for a flattie, which was less than twenty bucks; the look, which was simple and unadorned and referred to Demerara – perusers of my writing will know I have a soft spot for the old sod; and my knowledge.  Admittedly, I do have a bit of a larger base of knowledge than some, and so I had certain advantages there.

Knowing the history of the brand though, doesn’t mean anything.  It’s how good the rum in this brand is, in this bottle, that counts.  And I had never had any of Lemon Hart’s variations before, so I couldn’t tell whether any of its cousins were any good and extrapolate up or down, and therefore…well, in the end, I guessed.  How disappointing is that?

Lemon Hart owes its making to the Navy Rums of yore.  I’ve covered this in more depth in my review on the Pusser’s, but to recap, the British Royal Navy, as far back as 1655 until they abolished the practice in 1970, regularly issued a tot of rum to all hands in order to ward off scurvy (they added lime juice to the mix which is why I mentioned before that rum has been mixed since the beginning of its existence, and why Jack Tars are called limeys even today).  Navy rum by tradition is not heavily sugared or added to, which is also part of its distinctive cachet: Lemon Hart, Pusser’s and Lamb’s all pretend to this inheritance (for my money, the Pusser’s makes the strongest case, but that’s just me). Lemon Hart was one of the original suppliers of rum to the Navy, beginning in 1804; Alfred Lamb came a few decades later with his London Dock rum.  Both used raw rum stock that came from the Caribbean, mostly the dark, full bodied rums of Guyana.  Indeed, Lemon Hart states this quite specifically on the bottle I have: Demerara rum product of Guyana. But it is bottled in either Ontario or England.

Lemon Hart is a dark rum, 40% ABV, brown with reddish tints, and has the characteristic thickness and full body of Demerara rums.  When you swirl the liquid in the glass, it has slow fat legs sliding languorously back in. The nose, what there is of it, hints at straightforward rum without embellishment. You can tell it’s young from the harsh burning and medicinal reek, but this is swiftly gone, to be replaced with a powerful molasses overlay. Behind that is a slightly salty tang, just a hint of bitterness as if from some sort of citrus rind. On the tongue it demonstrates its youth with the rawness of the taste.  Yes it’s a bit oily and coats the mouth very nicely, but behind the molasses taste (which is quite overwhelming) and brown sugar, caramel and some fruit, there’s not much here: on the other hand, if simplicity is your thing, LH will definitely shine for you.  The finish is medium long and not very smooth, but since I wasn’t expecting much, it wasn’t too disappointed.

In summary then: a mixer’s rum for sure. Lemon Hart is dense and viscous enough to need only a reasonable addition of cola or ale or Christmas drinks or whatever else your poison is, but it does need it.  Once that is done, you have a decent drink you can enjoy at length without worrying too much about the overall price tag.  And if you have guests, you may even get some brownie points for taking the time to hunt out what appears, in other parts of the world, to be a drink somewhat harder to obtain there than it is here.

(#038)(Unscored)


Note: There is also a Lemon Hart Jamaican rum bottled at 73% which I found many years later.  It was quite good, but no longer made. Lemon Hart is most known for its overproof, 151s and Navy Rums.  I’ve found a few over the years following this review.

Aug 182010
 

Publicity Photo (c) RockSpirits.ca

First posted 18 August 2010 on Liquorature.

Fresh from the intense concentration I brought to the Elements 8 Gold rum, I trotted out the flattie of Smuggler’s Cove Dark to chillax with.  I would have damaged the Young’s Old Sam, but it was almost done, so off I went to this one.  My more romantic side likes to think that the humourous and positive reviews of Newfie Screech and Lamb’s so impressed the family of one of my Maritime friends at the office, that when she went back to Nova Scotia for some R&R (rather more recreation than rest, I’d say), they chipped in to assist in the purchase of a flattie just for me, to drink, enjoy and review. “Drink, mon!” that gift joyously asks, and I am duly grateful and gave Tanya a big (but chaste) smooch to express my gratitude.

Smuggler’s Cove is blended from Jamaican rum stock by Glenora Distillery in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia which opened its doors in 1990: a good example of how low on the pecking order they consider their rum is the fact that they advertise themselves not as a rum distiller (which to me would make them a damned sight more famous and distinctive), but as the only single malt distillery in America (they make the Glen Breton Rare Canadian Single Malt whisky, and they have a legal battle with the Scotch Whisky Association as a consequence of using the name “Glen”). And yet, you really have to search and peruse and squint to find the shy – almost apologetic – remark somewhere in the fine print, that they make amber, white and dark rums as well.  Given that the Dark won a Gold Medal in the 2003 International Rum Festival, I find that a troubling and sad omission.  On the other hand, that just keeps the price down for me, so maybe it’s all good.

After the complex interactions of the Elements 8 which I likened to a young girl growing up but not out of her braces, and learning how to smooch properly (while not exactly succeeding), it is clear that Smuggler’s Cove Dark is her  45% ABV enhanced boyfriend who was out to teach me a goddamned lesson.  He’s the captain of the football team, doesn’t have a brain in his head, but sports a massive set of biceps and very stern case of hallitosis. The nose practically knocks you off your feet: molasses, sugar and spices, with armpits reeking of flowers. (maybe he’s got questions about his masculinity?).

Honesty compels me to admit that I took one sip of this neat, and, like the Coruba, shuddered and reached for the mixin’s. That powerful taste of caramel, vanilla and molasses is well nigh overwhelmed by Football Boy kicking me in the sack with his steel toed Spirit boots, and the burn ain’t pleasant either. There’s a whisper of real potential – nutmeg, fruit and spices whisper gently – under the strong rum reek, but it’ll never come out on its own.  A cola added 1:1 does, on the other hand, provide an intriguing counterpoint and I think it’s not too far from the Old Sam, though the balance of flavours isn’t quite as good as that particular low-end mixer. The finish on its own is brutally strong, like an uppercut you never saw that lays you out, and scratches the back of your throat as efficiently and sharply as might a hangnail on the finger of the doc giving you a prostrate exam.

I’m not suggesting that Smuggler’s Cove is one of the premier low-class hooches out there, like English Harbour 5 YO or Appleton V/X, or Old Sam’s…but I am saying that as a mixer, it’s quite good, with subtler hints a neat sip would not suggest it had.  I’d actually rate it ahead of the V/X. And, it has to be said that much like every Maritimer I ever met, once you get past the the craggy frontage, the dour kick to the tenders and the glorious lack of sophistication, once you accept it for what it is, you might just end up making a friend for life and a staple that stays — constantly replenished — in your rum cabinet forever.

(#033)(Unscored)


Other Notes

  • Jamaican distillery of origin unspecified; the still of make is also unspecified. According to the NLLC provincial website, it’s been made since 1992.  In 2021, when I was repairing the site and followed up, the rum was no longer listed on Glen Breton’s own website. A Canadian distributor, BID, in an undated article, noted it was a blend of rums aged a minimum of two years, and intimated it was pot still derived.
Jun 222010
 

First posted 22 June 2010 on Liquorature.

“The spice must flow,” said the Padishah Emperor in Dune. I agree, because I do love my cheap-ass spiced rums. My sweet tooth and plebian background make having a rum with no stratospheric price or ostentatious pedigree such a pleasant experience, truly.  And I could tell, that day when I trotted out the Renegade 1991 for my Newfie squaddie (who snatched it happily out of my hand with a speed his corpulent frame does not begin to hint at), that even if I was a snob with pretensions to the peasantry, he had more grandiose notions of what kind of rum he liked to drink (or deserved to be poured).

Which is not to say Lamb’s is a bad rum, or even particularly limited in quality. Alfred Lamb, who started making this dark rum from West Indian raw stock in 1849 in London — his factory was bombed out during the London Blitz and subsequently rebuilt — simply added spices, aged it in cellars below the Thames (hence the original title of London Dock Rum) and made pretensions to the Royal Navy cachet by stating his product was made with that recipe.  Pusser’s did the same, as readers of that review may recall. In the years since, Lamb’s has become more of a tipple than a refined drink, and not – to my knowledge anyway – any kind of top tier rum; though I know a few who swear by its 151 proof offering. One can find it pretty much anywhere in Calgary for under thirty bucks.

When I’m drinking with a good friend, I like a good grog, but the point is not the drink but the conversation that the drink enables.  Of course, if the conversation is about the drink, that’s another matter (for example, the higher priced stuff which I like company to taste with) – but for the most part, when I talk I just like a good little mixer on hand, and this is why SDRs (single digit rums) are always good…one never worries about how much money is being pissed away, only what a good time you’re having with it.

The rum is dark reddish in colour and has a very decent, almost heavy body. Lamb’s is a blend of rums from all over the Caribbean (up to 18, or so my research suggests), and has a virulent nose that I should warn you against taking a deep sniff of, if you don’t want to go crying to your mommy about how the bad rum bottle biffed you on the hooter.  The spirit burn on the nose fades fast and leaves the brave and persevering soul with an overwhelming sniff of caramel, with vanilla and cherry undertones.  The spices are harder to pick out – nutmeg and licorice come through at the tail end.  The taste is strong with the spice, and the spirit burn from those nose hasn’t gone anywhere, just grabs you by the throat and holds on – yet it can be tolerated and even adjusted to (as I did), at which point it transmutes into a sweet and caramelized almost-sipper that I quite enjoyed. The finish is hard to gauge because you’re being assaulted by the admittedly harsh spirit burn, which lasts long after the taste has vanished.  Lamb’s is about as subtle as a charging brontosaurus, really.

I’ll concede that the rum is better as a mixer, but I would caution against coke or (god forbid) pepsi.  Some kind of cola with a little less sugar would probably enhance it better, otherwise you get a syrupy mess that you either like or toss away.  For the record, I had only coke on hand so that was what I used, but as I got drunker that evening in Keenan’s house, I found that it got progressively better over ice.  Maybe that was my throat being sanded away, or something.

In summary, I liked its simplicity and taste, even as I acknowledge how devoid it is of real complexity – a connoisseur would probably never buy one of these except as a reference point. If I were to wax metaphorical, I’d say Lamb’s is the country sweetheart with a heart of gold, the one who can rope a steer or take apart a John Deere tractor, who’s on the square-dance floor at Ranchman’s giving you the eye, who you really can’t go wrong with if you don’t expect too much, treat her right and don’t tread on her toes.  Perhaps give her a kiss when the night is over.

That may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure as hell is mine.

(#026)(Unscored)

May 312010
 

 

Picture courtesy of Chip Dykstra, TheRumHowlerBlog

First posted 31 May 2010 on Liquorature.

All humour and snide Newfie jokes aside, Screech is a thoroughly rock solid rum: not brilliant at any one thing, it is simply good at everything without shining anywhere.  Odd, but if you’re after something that just goes ahead and does what it does, here’s the one for you.

One has to smile when seeing a name as evocative as Screech. It has all these connotations of pain about it, mixed up with the Newfie seafaring heritage and their backwoods image so beloved of Canadian humourists: and so one’s imagination goes riot as the tipple of Newfoundland comes on the table for a taste.  Will it be a mess of agony as it sears one’s defenseless throat?  Will it be redolent of paint thinner, drano and various vile poisons meant to lure the unwary to their doom? One of those harsh hooches originally made on small wooden pot stills by somebody’s Uncle Seamus and not to be sampled by the unwise?

Screech has been so panned over the years, so made into an object of humour, that it’s quality (or lack thereof) have been made the butt of jokes, as opposed to being evaluated on its own merits.  Being a peasant myself and having grown up on low class paint remover and equally vile smokes made from kongapump leaves (don’t ask…but just whisper it to any Guyanese and he will nod wisely), I happily suffer from none of these hangups, and am perfectly prepared to sample this Single Digit Rum as one more interesting drink on my liquid road to nirvana. And I’d be lying if I wasn’t at least a little intrigued by something with so memorable a title.

Originally, Newfoundland hooch was not called that, or anything at all…it was just 18th and 19th century backwoods booze gleaned from the sticky leavings from the insides of molasses or rum barrels that had come through Newfie harbours from the West Indian trade.  It was melted out of the barrels with boiling water and then distilled in homemade stills to produce a hellishly strong rotgut akin the Brazilian alcool, or South African Cape Smoke, and as likely to make you go blind as anything else.  I worked in Labrador a few years ago, and the stories I heard suggested one can still buy its modern (and equally vile) descendants under the table in a few more rural areas.

The story goes that some poor sap from south of 49 took a hefty shot of the stuff while stationed on The Rock during the forties, and, seeing a Newfie toss it back (as any real man should), followed suit: apparently his howl of pain and misery (accompanied by a most interesting purplish colour change to the face) echoed for miles, brought his detachment in on the run, and they demanded to know what the hell that ungodly screech had been.  The Newfie (I like to think he bears a suspicious resemblance to the Bear) raised an eyebrow, blinked mild eyes, and said “The screech? That be the rum, boyo.”

Anyway, the stuff I was tasting is a more refined variant, based on blending of real rum stock imported to Newfoundland from Jamaica.  It’s a two year old distillate of molasses that gets aged in used whiskey or bourbon barrels, isn’t spiced or dandified like a tart’s handkerchief, and doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is: a young rum, happy to be brazen, rough and a bit uncouth, showing off its spankin’ new sailor’s wellies.

Okay, so enough anecdotal nonsense.  Is it any good?

I thought it was. Oh, it kicks like a St. John’s fishwife on a bad hair day, no doubt; it’s not subtle, but bold and assertive and sports a hefty pair of biceps, together with a deep spirit-y nose redolent of molasses and caramel and not much else. It might make the eyes of the unwary water, the way any young brew does (the Coruba is another good example of a rum that does this). It has medium legs and a darkish copper-red, medium-dark colour and body…and it is just on the right side of enough sweet for me: not as spicy or caramelized as the Captain Morgan Private Stock, and not as whiskey-like as the Renegades. Quite a decent flavour profile, with some hints of fruit I couldn’t quite pick out…and maple, I think. A short and searing finish alleviated by…what else?  Another shot.

It’s at this point I should make remarks on what I smell and taste and what have you, but that’s just a waste of time with something so elemental. And being that way, I won’t make any more comments about nose and palate and finish (all are a bit raw, though by no means as harsh as some others I’ve tried) since my experience suggests the terms are overused in a product that is made to be drunk by people with no time to waste on frippery. My more dramatic side suggests that the dour nature of The Rock carried over into the character of its rum, and I liked that just fine.  I took it neat but preferred it with ice, and with cola it goes down very nicely indeed.

In summary then.  Screech is a decent mixer and can be had with colas or other mixin’s with nae problems (make a Scrape for yersel’ if ye want).  But the truth is that only wussies mix it up: real Newfies (or their wannabes) put hair on their chests and weight between their legs by drinking it the way it was meant to be had, which is to say, neat.

And if you be screamin’ yer lungs out after imbibin’, well, me son, it just be the Screech.

(Oh, and forget the cod: that be for tourists only.)

(#022)(Unscored)

 

Feb 252010
 

First posted 25th February 2010 on Liquorature;

(#004)(Unscored)

Young, rambunctious and strong of nose and taste.  It is the epitome of a low ranking Demerara rum, with powerful scents and tastes lacking in anything remotely resembling complexity: and yet, I really kinda like it.  Perhaps because it’s a simple creation of such primary flavours.  It’s not meant for taking neat, but as a mixer? Yummo.

***

The bottle of Old Sam I tasted is a “single digit rum” whose ingredients come from the Old Country, where the primary distillation takes place in DDLs facilities — these are the gentlemen who make the excllent El Dorado 21 year old also reviewed on this site —  but is matured and blended in Newfoundland.  There it is made by the same company responsible for making Screech, the much-loved, equally-derided traditional Newfie tipple –  also deriving from a Caribbean raw stock –  and which I have to check out one of these days.

The history of the rum revolves around parts of the old “Triangular Trade” (from Europe with trade goods, to Africa for slaves, over to the West Indies for sale of slaves and goods and loading of fruit, fish, sugar and rum, and then back to Europe – over time stops in North America were added).  Howard Young and Company introduced Old Sam to England in 1797 – why they would ship it to Newfoundland for blending is a mystery, since rum was already being made in commerical quantities in the Caribbean at that time: perhaps it was because back then, Guiana was vacillating between being a Dutch colony and an  English one, and often used as a bargaining chip in the wars of the time between these two powers.

Old Sam is a Demerara Rum, dark and rich, redolent of molasses and bunt sugar. It is aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels, and then blended with various other 12-year old rums. “Navy” rum is a much bandied-about term — Pusser’s, Lamb’s, Screech and Old Sam all like to make claims to the title, but this low end stuff is nowhere near the much better, smoother Pusser’s, and even the Old Sam website recommends it as a mixer, or a base for cocktails and food requiring a rum ingredient.

Having said that, I have to say that the nose, while sharp, is rich, and develops good hints of caramel, brown sugar – a lot of brown sugar – and a shade of fruity vanilla.  Nothing out of the ordinary, and being relatively young, is not particularly smooth.  Note that I still get all pissy when rums don’t mention their age even if it’s two years old or something, since to me, age and price and word of mouth are the three pieces that go together in assessing whether to buy a rum or not. For this one I have one out of three – price, and since that is quite low (about $22), and since I’ve never heard of this one mentioned, or lauded, it seems reasonable to suppose it’s a young ‘un, not particularly special, and indeed, the tasting pretty much confirmed that. Harsh on the way down, has a burn and kick that would make a smarter man swear off low-end rums for good, and not much of a finish.  About par for a low end rum – it’s definitely not for sipping. As a mixer, it’s pretty good, but not everyone will enjoy that very rich burnt sugar and molasses taste.

Rereading this, it sure looks like I am dissing the rum. That’s unintentional, and perhaps results from me treating it like an upscale sipper, and judging it that way. So let me be clear: it’s disappointing as a sipping spirit….but in a mix, it’s excellent. Brown sugar, molasses, caramel, vanilla and coke.  Fine, just fine.  It kind of proves the point that you don’t have to have a premium sipper to enjoy a rum. Unsuspected riches exist for the diligent trawler and tireless taster, and if you’re into deep, dark Demerara rums, you can do worse than this unpretentious product. Personally, I’ll keep searching for better, knowing that another rum equivalent of Cibola is probably waiting for me out there, somewhere…but that doesn’t mean I don’t like this one.

Update June 2020

  • Over the years my liking for Old Sam’s has remained steadfast, and these days I’d probably score it around 80-82. My personal opinion is that it is a large proportion PM distillate, though this has never been confirmed. With DDL no longer exporting bulk “heritage still” rums, it’s possible that Young’s Old Sam may be forced to change its blend in years to come.
  • Who Old Sam actually was is a subject of some conjecture, brought to a head with the BLM movement in the last years, because to some the drawing of the man  on the label is that of a black man, implying a product being sold that implicitly glorifies slavery.  Others dispute that interpretation of the picture, saying it’s of Mr. Young himself.