Jan 182021
 

We’ve been here before. We’ve tried a rum with this name, researched its background, been baffled by its opaqueness, made our displeasure known, then yawned and shook our heads and moved on. And still the issues that that one raised, remain. The Malecon Reserva Imperial 25 year old suffers from many of the same defects of its 1979 cousin, most of which have to do with disclosure and some of which have to do with its nature. It astounds me that in this day and age we still have to put up with this kind of crap.

The little we know from wikirum (this is slightly more than four years ago when I wrote about the Malecon 1979) is that the Don Jose distillery in Panama is the producer – this is the same Varela Hermanos gents who make the popular and well known Abuelo brand. Malecon’s actual ownership as a company or a brand is as hard to track down as before – all the website contact information points to distributors, not owners and their own press information section stops in 2016 and they apparently never participated in any events past 2017, which, coincidentally, is when I first tried their stuff. Their FB page (there’s only one, for the German market) is a bit more active but mostly represents marketing blah, not one of engagement with customers and fans. I read somewhere that the owner is an Italian who likes Cuban style rum and worked with Don Pancho to come up with this range of rums, which is as good or as useless as any other story without corroboration.  (Honestly, with Panama rums these days, I hardly care any more – it’s gotten that bad).

Anyway, profile-wise, there is really very little to shout about with respect to how it tastes.  I can save you some trouble – unadventurous, simple, easy are the adjectives which come to mind.  The nose is quiet and soft: chocolate milk, anise, caramel, some creaminess of ice cream, vanilla, nougat.  There is very little fruitiness to balance this off with some tart flavours – a whiff of citrus peel maybe, a grape or two, not much more and maybe a touch of black tea.

The palate is similarly soft and similarly straightforward. It’s got more chocolate milk and and perhaps a touch of coffee grounds. A smidgen, barely a smidgen of oak and citrus, a sly taste of tangerines; it’s not very sweet (which is a plus) and sports some brine and Turkish olives and a touch of slight bitterness, which I’m going be generous and say is an oak influence that saves it from being just blah.  Finish is okay I guess. Gone too quickly of course, no surprise at 40% ABV and leaving at best the sense of some black tea with too much condensed milk in it, that doesn’t entirely hide the fact that it’s too bitter.

Many will like a rum like this. Tipplers of soft favourites like the Abuelo 7, RN Panama 18 YO, El Dorado 12 YO, the Santa Teresa 1796 or the Diplomatico line would have no issues here at all. Overall, though, from my perspective, aside from bigger Panamanian brands with some actual muscle behind their products (think Abuelo or Origenes), there’s little coming out of the country that either surprises or interests me and this is just another one of them. They’re straightforward rums of little pizzazz (this may be by intent), and while the Malecon 25 is a decent Panamanian, there’s little to distinguish it from a distillate a decade younger.

But, for a rum for which a premium is set because of the supposed ageing of 25 years, that’s not a thing people should be saying about it, because it creates negative expectations for both the brand and the whole country and makes real rum lovers look elsewhere. Let’s hope that in the years to come, this small nation’s rums and their industrial-sized producers can up the ante, make better and more transparent juice and so address the changing tastes of the global audiences better.  Then they could reclaim some of their reputation, which rums and companies like this one have treated with such cavalier disdain, and so carelessly.

(#795)(77/100)


Other notes

  • Lest you think I’m being unfair, others were similarly dismissive: WhiskyFun’s Serge said “isn’t much happening here” though he liked it better than other Malecons, and scored it 78; while his partner in rum, Angus (another rum lover who just doesn’t know he is), didn’t think it was good from a technical side either, and rated it 64. Brian over on /r/reddit gave it a harshly middling score of 53/100, which is just about how I rank it as well (on my own scale). Alex over at Master Quill, the source of the sample I was trying, rated it 82 and also commented on the resemblance to an Abuelo. The best info relating to the brand is probably RumShopBoy’s review of the range from mid 2020, and I recommend it highly (his points score for the 25YO was 55/100).
  • There are two enclosures, one with a wooden box, one with a cardboard one.  The rum is the same in both cases as far as I am aware. I was sent a sample from the wooden-box bottle, which was released first, back in 2016 or so before they switched to cheaper cardboard a few years later.
  • Treat the age statement with caution, as it is unverifiable. Any company this hard to track down doesn’t make provision of the benefit of the doubt an easy task.
Dec 282020
 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) has always had a peculiar turn when it comes to labels and tasting notes. The original bottlings didn’t always have permission to use the distillery names on the bottlings — at the time, blends were big, and distilleries did not always want their names to be associated with some off-the-wall, left-field bottle from a strange outfit, when this might shed a poor light on what they were more famed for…the consistency of their blends. This led the SMWS to the use of numerical identifiers for their outturns, and a whimsically titled name that had no relation to reality, really (almost every reviewer makes some reference to how they ignore those names, or don’t understand them).

What that does, though, is force the buyer / drinker / reviewer to actually pay attention to the product and discard preconceived notions at the door. Most will deny this to the heavens, but I firmly believe that few can divorce their expectations of a rum based on the label it sports, from the experience they expect to have, and then actually have. Which makes sense: if you see “Port Mourant” on a label, you expect to drink one, not some weird agricole or a Spanish style ron and your mind will bend that way. SMWS takes away this crutch – not completely, because by now everyone knows what the numbers mean – but enough so that the rums stands or falls upon your relatively clean experience.

So we walk into this rum, knowing only it’s from Panama. We don’t know if its from PILSA / Las Cabras or Don Jose / Varela Hermanos, the two main distilleries (my research suggests the latter); it has a 62% strength and 12 years of ageing in refill ex-bourbon barrels that resulted in 243 bottles. And that’s it.

But what these bare-bones notes don’t tell you is how impressive the dram actually is.  You’d think an industrial column still mass-produced swill can’t aspire to something greater than its origins, yet here it tries hard, it really does. The initial column-still blandness it starts out with is rescued by good barrel activity and some serious cask strength. Notes of coconut, caramel, some boot polish, licorice waft up from the glass, some blancmange, bon bons, chocolate mints and there’s even the hint of an old, well-loved and much-abused leather sofa.  After resting, it opens up to some nice truffles and chocolate notes, vanilla and florals, pineapples, oranges.  Pretty good for a region that has much fallen from favour in the last years as the New Jamaicans, Bajans and other distilling regions forge ahead.

In spite of the high ABV, which lends a fair amount of initial sharpness and heat to the tongue until it burns away and settles down, it’s actually not that fierce. It becomes almost delicate, and there’s a nice vein of fruity sweetness running through, which enhances the flavours of apples, cider, green grapes, citrus, coconut, vanilla, and candied oranges. There’s also some of that polish and acetone remaining, neatly dampened by caramel and brown sugar, all balancing off well against each other. It retains that delicacy to the finish line and stays well behaved: a touch sweet throughout, with caramel (a bit much), vanilla, fruits, grapes, raisins, citrus, blancmange…not bad at all.

I’ve been indifferent to Panamanian rums of late.  My initial enjoyment of their rums from the first years of this site’s reviews — of the Rum Nation 18 and 21 year old rums, the Abuelos (especially the Centuria) and the Panamonte XXV, none of which I would now score as high as I did back then — have given way to a more critical and rather impatient judgement as I see them treading no new ground, not issuing anything particularly interesting and staying with the same old song. These days I don’t buy many and the way Las Cabras has become a distiller-for-hire for small time brands who don’t themselves produce anything ground-shaking or innovative has done little to change that opinion.

Yet somehow the SMWS seems to have bucked the trend of milquetoast anonymous blends produced by the tankerload by equally anonymous brands and third parties. This 12 year old rum strikes me as a midpoint between the soft voluptuous sweetness of the Abuelo Centuria and the rather sterner and more focused AD Rattray, and is really a fine rum for anyone to try. Unless the great Panamanian distilleries up their game and go in different directions it’s unlikely they will every recover my unbridled affection from the early years – but this one gives me hope that the potential for good rums remains.  Even if it’s only in the occasional single barrel, ferreted out by some enterprising indie in Europe. We can hope, I guess.

(#789)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun didn’t dislike it, but wasn’t entirely blown away either and awarded it 78 points. Simon, over at TheRumShopBoy was more enthusiastic, to the tune of 88.
  • As usual, the name is a challenge.  Paddington is a bear beloved of British childrens’ books dating back from the 1950s, but his origin was clearly stated to be Peru, not Panama (though neither, as far as I know, have bears of any kind). So how the SMWS got from that to this is anyone’s guess…perhaps it’s his love of marmalade sandwiches, as Simon slyly pointed out.
Dec 232020
 

Here’s my personally imaginative take on how the (fictitious) Board of Blenders from Consorcio Licorero Nacional (CLN) presented their results to the good folks at Rum of Panama Corp (registered in Panama in 2016) about the rum they intended to make for them at Las Cabras in Herrera.

“We will make a true Panamanian Rum to represent the year the Canal was opened in 1914!” they say, high fiving and chest bumping themselves in congratulation at this perspicacious stroke of marketing genius.

“But CLN is originally from Venezuela, isn’t it?” comes the confused question. ”Shouldn’t you perhaps pay homage to something from there?”

“The company is now registered in Panama, in San Miguelito, so, no.” The answer is confident. “The rum will be made at a Panamanian distillery. We will make it appeal to the masses by making it a column still light rum, but also appeal to the connoisseur crowd and beef it up to a higher strength.”

Ersatz Venezuelan patriotism is forgotten. This smells like sales. “Great!  How much?”

“41.3%” they reply, with the quietly confident air of “it’s settled” that Joe Pesci showed when he told Mel Gibson that a banker’s fee of 2% was standard, in Lethal Weapon II.

Brows knit. “Shouldn’t that be stronger?”

A twitch of moustaches, a shake of heads. This heresy must be swiftly extirpated. “That might scare away the masses, and they’re the ones we want buying the rum, as they’re the ones who move cases.”

“Ah.”

“And look, we will age it, a lot!” say the blenders brightly

Heads perk up. “Oh wonderful.  We like ageing.  How long, how old?”

“15 to 22 years.”

“That’s not bad. Except, of course, we’ve only been in business for four years, so…”

“Oh no worries.  Nobody will check. There’s that one reviewing doofus in the Middle East who might, but nobody really reads his blog, so you’re safe. And, on our website, we’ll say it’s a rum aged “up to 22 years”, so that will give you no end of credibility. People love rums aged more than twenty years”

“Isn’t that called…well…lying?”

“Not at all. It’s a blend of rums, we’ll have aged rums between those years in the blend, we’ll never say how much of each, so it’s completely legit. Better than saying 15 years old, don’t you think?”

“Well…if you say so.”

Paternal confidence is displayed. “You can’t lose: the rum is light, it’s old, the age is unverifiable but completely true, it has a cool name and date as part of the title, it’s sweet, and the production is so complex nobody will figure out who really is behind it, so nobody gets blamed…” More bright smiles all around, followed by toasts, handshakes, and the go-ahead is given.


Or so the story-teller in me supposes. Because all jokes and anecdotes aside, what this is, is a rum made to order. Ron 1914 touts itself as being a 15-22 YO blended rum,“Distilled in the province of Herrera and bottled at the facilities of CLN in Panama City.” CLN was formed in 1970 by five Venezuelan businessmen and deals with manufactured alcoholic products, though nowhere I’ve searched is there a reference to a distillery of their own. In this case it’s clear their using Las Cabras, proud possessor of a multi-column industrial still that churns out mucho product on demand. 

Now, that distillery has its own brand of rum, the Cana Brava, but also makes rum for clients: therefore brands like Zafra, Nativo, Grander note themselves as being from there – in that, then, the distillery operates like Florida Distillers who makes the completely forgettable Ron Carlos series of rums I’ve written about before.

And, unfortunately, made a rum equally unlikely to be remembered, because nosing it, your first thought is likely to be the same as mine: lights on, nobody home. There’s just so little going on here, and that’s not a function of the standard strength. There is basically some faint molasses, vanilla, a few unidentifiable fruits – not overripe, not tart, just fleshy and sweet – and an odd aroma of icing sugar. And a whiff of caramel and molasses, though don’t quote me on that – you might miss it.

The taste is also completely uninspiring. It’s so soft and easy you could fall asleep in it, and again, there’s too much vanilla, ice cream, sugar water and anonymous fruit here to lend any kind of spirit or style to the experience. Yes, there’s some caramel and molasses at the back end, but what good does that do when all it represents is a sort of “good ‘nuff” standard profile we’ve had a jillion times before in our journey? And the finish is just like that, short, breathy, a touch of mint, caramel, vanilla, and again, just a snoozefest. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Ron 1914 was a low end spiced rum, and, for those of you who may be in doubt, that’s not a compliment.

The purpose of a rum like this escapes me.  No, honestly.  What’s it for?  In this day and age, why make something so soft and anonymous?  It doesn’t work well as a mixer (a Bacardi white or gold could just as easily do the job for less, if a cost-effective alcoholic jolt was all you were after) and as a sipper, well, come on, there’s way better value out there.

It’s always been a thing of mine that a good Spanish-style ron doesn’t have to enthuse the cask strength crowd with a wooden still in its DNA, or by squirting dunder and funk from every pore – because knowledgeable drinkers of its own style will like it just fine.  They’re used to standard strength and get that subtlety of tastes imparted almost solely by barrel management and smart ageing. But I submit that even they would take one taste of this thing, put down the glass, and walk away, the way I wanted to on the day I tried it in a VIP tasting. I couldn’t do that then, but you can, now. See you.

(#788)(70/100)

Jul 162020
 

The Rum Nation Panama 2009 edition exists in a peculiar place of my mind, since it’s the unavailable, long-gone predecessor of the 18 YO Panamanian which RN released in 2010; this in turn was one of the first Panamanian rums that I had tried that wasn’t an indifferently blended bland blah, that possessed more years  and complexity than I had heretofore experienced, and was an all round lovely drink…or so I thought at the time. Nearly a decade later, my opinions of Panamanian rums is no longer so stellar: but in all honesty, to see a rum from Rum Nation that predates the current age of rum we’re living in is reason enough sometimes, to just grab the bottle, whip out the notebook, and spend an hour or so putting the pour through its paces.

Rum Nation itself needs no introduction, though you can read the bio of the company Fabio Rossi founded in 1999 and sold in 2019 here if you’re interested. They have always had three kinds of rums: [i] the ‘starter’ rums [ii] the multi-decade-old Demeraras and Jamaicans, and [iii] the Rare Collection of upscale limited releases.  Especially in the starters, there have always been justified grumbles and accusations about dosage, however minor, but of late this practice has been discontinued.  I was unable to test this one, unfortunately, but based on how it profiled, I would suggest that yes, it had a little something extra, just not enough to make it a competitor for AH Riise.

That dealt with, let’s get right into the rum. Considering the nose and the smell, the first word I wrote was “light.” It had a nice mixup of bitter tree bark, strong black tea, crushed walnuts, and a nice layering of butterscotch, vanilla and salted caramel. It developed with further hints of leather, some smoke, light molasses and seemed to be a completely decent exemplar of the lighter latin column-still style that was so in favour when it was made and now so disregarded, by so many.  For its strength, 40%, I quite liked it.

That was the smell, but what did it taste like?  Eighteen years in a barrel must, after all, show its traces. To some extent, yes: again, light is the operative word, though gentle can work too. Nuts, leather and butterscotch, a bit of brine and molasses started the party going. The other band members joined in later – vanilla, white guavas, figs papaya, watermelons, watery pears, and even coconut shavings, cloves, white chocolate, almonds and molasses.  But in spite of these good beginnings, they just started big…and then dropped rapidly off a cliff.  All those tastes literally disappeared in seconds, and made a mockery of the finish, which only displayed a short, briny aftertaste of peanut butter, almonds and caramel. Essentially, not much action in the jock and you can see how far the rum world has progressed when you compare something like this to today’s solid offerings.

In fine, the 40% strength is part of the problem, and it’s it’s too thin, too wispy, too fleetingly easy.  I suppose it can be classed as a soft evening sipper but even within that quiet profile there’s too little going on, and I remember liking the 2010 edition much more – but then, those were more innocent times and we had experienced less.  The Rum Nation 2009 says rather more about my changing tastes than about itself. Up to about 2014 I liked 40% blends and the smooth slinky Central American rums from Panama and Nicaragua quite a bit.  For example, Rum Nation’s own 21 YO Panamanian scored 89 points in early 2013; another high point came with the Panamonte XXV, to which I awarded what would be a now-unthinkable 87 points that same year; and the last one I remember scoring that well was the Peruvian Ron Cartavio XO at 88 a year later.  But by then I had started gravitating towards stronger, clearer and more forceful rums that tasted off the scale and gradually moved away from the somnolent ease of the Spanish style. 

Had I tried this Rum Nation product back at the beginning, I believe 84-86 points would have been its lot: now, with so many years of trying, tasting, and thinking about rums from all points of the compass, it ranks higher for providing a window to the world of Ago than purely for taste and enjoyment (although I did like it enough, let me be clear about that).  It’s a rum from those uncritical uncynical times at the dawn of the rum renaissance and deserves to be written about in that vein…but alas, the big-eared, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newb who should do that has left the building…and his successor is a little harder to please.

(#745)(80/100)


Other Notes

As far as I know, the rum stock comes from Varela Hermanos, who make the Abuelo brand, and aged in American oak ex-bourbon barrels.  Awaiting some feedback from Fabio Rossi, and will update the post if needed.

Sep 162019
 

Going back to familiar rums we liked back in the day is something in the nature of revisiting the comfort food of our youth. The memories are strong and consoling, recalling a time of less snark, less cynicism and a whole lot more enjoyment. Surely such positively-associated, fondly-remembered rums deserve a place on the high-scorers list? The problem is, that’s all some of these are – memories.  The reality, informed by a more discerning palate and more varied experience, tends to deflate such candidates and show us both what we liked about them then, and maybe don’t so much, now.

Which brings me to the Zafra 21 Master Reserve which is almighty peculiar in that I tried it a lot in the early years, yet never took notes on it…and almost nobody else in the current rum-reviewing landscape has either.  Back then, I really liked Panamanian rums, before their overall placid sameness eroded my enjoyment and other, more exciting, forceful, original rums came to dominate my pantheon. Taste-wise, I always associated and linked the Zafra — perhaps subliminally — to Diplomatico, Zaya and Zacapa – and (to a lesser extent) to Dictador and Santa Teresa.  They all share certain similarities…a smooth velvety mouthfeel, sometimes solera production, with an oft-accompanying sweetness so characteristic of the type…and a kind of amazing longevity and popularity. I mean, just take a gander at the notes on Rum Ratings – almost 80% of the 201 respondents give it a score of 8 or better. That’s far from the massive 1,472 ratings of the Zacapa 23 or the 1,721 of the Diplo Res Ex, but it shows something of the way popular opinion bends for these soft Latin-style rums.

Still, it’s been many years, so has anything except my hairline and chubbier corpus changed in any significant way here? For example, is it still made the same way?  Does it still taste as easy-going and slickly-smooth as my recollections suggest? 

Based on research I had done at the time, and again for this essay, I’d say it is.  It remains a rum whose original blend dating back to 2009 when it was first released, has not appreciably changed.  It’s a Panamanian column-still rum created by Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez who is better known for both his moniker “The Minister of Rum” (not to be taken seriously, since there is no such position), and a true 21 year old aged in bourbon barrels – though trust issues such as those which afflict other aged Panamanians in these sadly suspicious times might make one take that with a pinch of salt.  In yet another odd thing about the rum, nobody has ever done a hydrometer test on it and post-2010, good luck finding a reviewer who’s written anything (back then the reviews were mostly positive, but of course Johnny Drejer had yet to upend the rumiverse for us).

Yet for its adherents the Zafra 21 YO remains a popular — if faded — star, and people like it, and trying the gold-brown rum makes it clear why this is the case.  At 40% it’s hardly going to blow your socks off, and when inhaled, there was nothing I wasn’t already expecting: caramel, creme brulee, dark fruit, leather, sawdust.  There were subtler notes of cinnamon, vanilla, brown sugar and ginger. The problem with it – for me at any rate – was that it was just too faint – it smelled watered-down, weak, with hardly any kind of serious enjoyment available for the nose, and complexity of any kind was just a vanished dream.

Nothing about the palate and mouthfeel greatly impressed me either, though I must admit, it was nice. Inoffensive might be the kindest word I can come up with to describe the faint driness, saltiness and sweetness, too vague to make a serious impression (and I was trying this first thing in the morning before a single rum greater than 45% had crossed my glass).  Caramel, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon led off, with some additional brown sugar, treacle, molasses. Trying to elicit and identify the fruity notes was as pointless as sniffing an orchard shut down for the winter. It simply had no edge, and stayed light, warm and smooth, with a finish that was short, sweet and light, with light oak, vanilla, pancake syrup and some peanut butter.  Big yawn. How 21 years of ageing in the tropics can impart so little character is the great weakness of the rum, and raises all kinds of flags to the wary.

Look, the Zafra 21 is a completely comfortable drink, like a worn pair of familiar slippers and if that lights up your wheelhouse, go for it, you won’t be disappointed.  The thing is, that’s all you get – it’s something of a one-trick pony, lacking in excitement or oomph of any kind. Thinking I was being unduly critical, I sampled nothing but 40% rums all day and then returned, but it still failed to impress. It’s one of those rums we enjoy for its unaggressive nature and decent profile, but sooner or later, when we have moved on and come back to it, we realize that the nose is anemic, the taste boring, the complexity a let down and the finish lacking any kind of fire.  Then we sit back and wonder how we ever loved it so much at all.

(#657)(75/100)

Oct 252017
 

#396

Since 2013 when I first wrote about the A.D. Rattray Panama rum from Don Jose, the lack of any real effort by Panamanian rum makers like Origines or Varela Hermanos (among others) to go full proof, issue single barrel, well-aged, or year-vintage bottlings has made me lose a lot of my initial appreciation for that country’s rums and I don’t seek them out with the enthusiasm of previous years.  There’s just too much mystery and obfuscation going on with Panamanian distillate, and other rums which crossed my path more recently, like the Malecon 1979, Canalero, and Ron Maja were relative disappointments.  

That leaves the independents to carry the flag and showcase some potential, and there aren’t many of those, compared to the tanker-loads of juice coming to the market from Jamaica, Guyana or Barbados.  One of the last I tried was Dirk Becker’s Rum Club Private Selection Panamanian 15 year old issued in 2016 (it hailed from Don Pancho’s PILSA facilities), which I thought gave the country’s rums a much needed shot in the arm and showed that a rum aged for fifteen years and bottled north of 50% was a really good product.  That same year I tried this one: Christian Nagel’s 11 year old rum which was sourced from Varela Hermanos (home of Abuelo), distilled on a column still in May 2004, aged in Panama and then bottled at 52.7% in Germany in June 2015 — and came with an outturn of a measly 247 bottles.  

Like Rum Club’s offering, it wasn’t bad, being a solidly built piece of work, light in the manner of the Panamanians generally, the strength adding more intensity to the profile.  There was a clear sort of white wine fruitiness on the nose – pineapples, pears, some tartness, a little caramel – wound around with a thread of citrus, all in a very good balance. To call it “easy” might be to undersell it – it edged towards the crispness of a dry Riesling without ever stepping over and that made it a very good experience to smell.

There’s nothing to whinge about the palate: it started out with the big players of lemon peel, caramel, and vanilla, with some spiciness of oak well under control. It feels and tastes a mite heavy, somewhat sweet, which suggesting some dosing — however, I was unable to confirm this, and neither was the bottler, Christian Nagel, who was emphatic that he himself had added nothing and expressed his frustration to me at his inability to find an unmessed-with rum from Panama, or a rum where the chain of production-evidence is clear and unambiguous. The finish was short and a little sweet, with crisp fruitiness, more lemon peel, pears, and cherries, all very low key and over quickly.

Christian Nagel, who founded Our Rum & Spirits, is not exactly an independent bottler in the normal sense of the word (or, he didn’t start out that way back in 2014 when he bottled his first one), because the rum business is, for him, a sideshow to his restaurant which serves rums as part of the menu.  Yet he keeps cropping up at the Berlin Rumfest, and has multiple bottlings from Guyana, Barbados, Panama and Jamaica, and in 2017 carted off a few medals to add to his stash and burnish his reputation as someone who knows how to pick his casks….so my opinion is that he’s becoming more of a bottler than he started out as, which is good for all of us.

Overall, the rum presented as perfectly serviceable, very drinkable, but I felt it lacked originality and real top-notch quality. Certainly cask strength Panamanian rums like this one are a step above the wussy forty percenters which corner the market in North America, because by being that way they are more assertive, and allow smells and tastes to be more clearly defined and appreciated. So they are, overall, somewhat better. Still, when it comes right down to it they continue to lack…well, adventure, character. A particular kind of oomph. I always get the impression the distillers are stuck in the fifties, when light Spanish column-still distillate was the rum profile du jour. When one considers the rip-snorting island products coming off the estates these days, the mad-scientist ester-squirting power bombs that get issued, each racing to see which can be more original, Panamanians just fizzle. This one is better than most, but it still doesn’t entirely make me rush to go out and buy a whole raft more.

(84.5/100)

Apr 202017
 

“Dale paso al placer” reads the bottle label, which translates into “Give way to pleasure.”  Obeying that would encourage me to give away the bottle.

#358

If the Panamanians (and other rums made in the light Spanish style), don’t up their act soon, I have a feeling they’ll be left behind in an era where tougher, more muscular, and more original rums — many of which are pot still based — are being made both by independent bottlers and more farsighted big distillers in other parts of the Caribbean.  There’ll always be a market for standard strength rums – low price and easy sort-of quality ensures that every hormonal teenager and up-and-coming rum junkie usually cuts their teeth on one of them – yet I believe that the emphasis is slowly shifting from buttercup to beefcake: they are the new premiums, and margins will shift to favour them…and those who don’t get with the program may very well find their rums relegated to third tier supermarket tipple.

These were the thoughts running through my mind as I sampled the Canalero Añejo, which was a 40% Panamanian rum bearing Don Pancho Fernandez’s fingerprints.  That’s no surprise, since he is the master blender for SER Alcoholes, the company that makes it.  SER Alcoholes, whose name is nowhere noted on the label of the rum, is a group of companies now owned by the Grupo Pellas (SER stands for Sugar, Energy, Ethanol, Rum so an “E” is missing there someplace) and operates out of Las Cabras de Pese in Herrera Province in south central Panama where their plant is located. As far as my research goes, it’s a column-still rum based on molasses, and there’s little information online about it beyond that, not even age (I was told it was three years old).

In the smell and taste of this rum, there were aspects of many other Panamanians coiling beneath, somewhat dampening down any originality it may have possessed at the inception. Take the nose: simple and straightforward, spicy and clear, with little beyond some molasses, light citrus and a few fruity hints (mostly raisins and ripe cherries).  The palate was also similar in this way, with more sweet molasses, again some fruitiness of cherries and raisins, perhaps a flirt of vanilla, and even less citrus than the nose.  It was extremely light in texture, hardly worth remarking on, had no real complexity or distinctiveness – it was tough to come to grips with because there was so little going on.  Five minutes after I tasted it I would have been hard pressed to pick it out of a lineup.  Even the finish was like that: short, easy, indistinct and very forgettable.  In other words, a young pup, the runt of the litter, which enthused me not at all, not because it was bad, but because it just didn’t have much of anything.

To me, this is a commercial supermarket rum for those who just want to go on a bender without major effort or expenditure.  It’s soft, it’s light, it’s a rum and beyond that, quite unremarkable. The Ron Maja, Ron de Jeremy, and the Malecon 1979, for all their similarity, were better, the Abuelos were a step up, and the independents’ wares are a class apart entirely.

There are a lot of Panamanians which I’ve enjoyed over the years, many of which are decent markers of the style, reasonably well made, soft and easy to drink. Don Pancho is more or less the poster boy for the entire country because of his extensive consulting work and advice provided to various makers from there.  But perhaps no one person, no matter how esteemed, should have such an outsized influence on an entire region’s production because what it results in is a quiet weakening of true innovation (such as is exemplified by the various distilleries of Jamaica and the French islands, who seem to enjoy making whatever crazy hooch they feel like on any given day while squabbling for bragging rights amongst themselves); and that makes many Panama rums subtly like all the others, with variations being almost too minor to matter – you taste one, you’ve tasted most. Hardly a recipe for maximizing sales or energizing the tippling class to buy every one they can lay hands on.  With respect to the Canalero Añejo, trying it once was quite enough for me since this is a rum where nothing much really happened.  Twice.

(72/100)

Feb 172017
 

A very good Panamanian, with deeper flavours than usual.

#343

Panamanians and other spanish-style rum makers are doing themselves serious injury in their contortions to stay “Latin” or “Cuban” or “Spanish” and justify dosing and/or the lack of provision of details behind their work as matter of course. The recent Rumporter interview with Mario Navarro where he did precisely that, lit up Facebook like the 4th of July, and is just one recent example…but it’s been coiling behind just about every major Latin American or Panamanian release dating back to, oh, the Santa Teresa Bicentenario, the Panamonte XXV and last year’s Arome 28.

Still, the fact is that whether we like it or not, rums made in Central and South America generally, and Panama more specifically, are – and have almost always been – geared towards a buying public that dials in precisely those coordinates: light, easy, 37-40%, lots of blending and barrel strategy, some solera style production, with maybe a pinch or two of other stuff thrown in for good measure to smoothen things out. They don’t give a damn about the movement towards greater transparency or purity.  Massive avatars of aggro are not their thing, and it lies with independent bottlers, almost all out of Europe, to up the ante in both these departments.

Which is why one should be grateful for the Rum Club in issuing this fifteen year old. For all its relative rarity and obscurity, you still get something more (informationally speaking) than the Malecon 1979 I wrote about with such disdain last week. First of all, the rum is made by the “RumClub”, which is very unhelpful until you check the fine print and understand that it’s the bottling arm of the Rum Depot in Berlin, which in turn is run by the man behind the Berlin Rum Fest, Dirk Becker.  This is the second edition, available from 2016, a fifteen year old cask bottled at 51.3% (the first edition was issued for the 2015 rumfest, a single cask ten year old at 51.1%).  The source barrel comes from the same aged stock as Don Pancho’s Origines (PILSA) which makes it a column still product, and kudos to Dirk for not wimping out and diluting the thing. One barrel, 411 bottles with no information about additives but I’m suspecting some caramel to get that dark colouration. We can reasonably assume it was distilled in 2000 or 2001.

To be honest, I’ve not been very enthused of late with Panama, so most of the time I buy other stuff which interests me more.  But a cask strength variation piqued my curiosity, and once I sniffed the darkish red-brown rum, it met with my instant appreciation.  The nose was rich and almost deep with a plethora of dark fruits – plums, prunes, black grapes, licorice, and even some olives thrown in to provide a whiff of brine and some barely perceptible breakfast spices.  It really was quite lovely.

The palate proved to be equally well done, being on the heavier side of “light” and benefitting from the higher proof point.  Black cherries again, very ripe, blackberries blueberries, black cake, caramel and crème brulee. Oh this was nice!  It even suggested a certain creaminess, with a light dusting of vanilla, coffee, cinnamon and nutmeg, and while it had a mouthfeel and texture of some weight and heat which would make one think adding water was a good idea, I found that doing so took the quality down so geometrically that it’s probably best to dispense with that altogether.  After the enjoyment I took from the preceding, the finish was disappointing – short, sweet, some caramel and fruity notes, not much else.  Too bad.

Yet overall the rum was a very good one, lacking just some complexity and a finish of note to score higher. Just about everything works properly here. The rum is not overaged, and unburdened by any excessive oaken influence.  It’s decently rich and flavourful, with a forceful, distinct profile within the confines of its lighter Cuban heritage, and while I accept that different drinkers have different preferences, my own are simply that a rum should not adhere to any kind of limitation but be bottled at the power that enhances and displays its inherent qualities.  Which this more or less did.

When one tries this 51.3% fifteen year old bruiser in tandem with a cupcake rum like the Malecon (bottled at 40%), the failings of the latter snap more clearly into focus, even though the former is half the age. In all respects, the 15 is simply better. Bigger, bolder, badder, better. It showcased what Panama rums could be if they wanted to.  The Malecon and Panamonte XXV and their ilk positioned themselves as fine old boys at the top of their food chains and boasted of their quality…then along came the Rum Club which answered with this impressive rum, providing rum lovers with something of what they had been missing.  And made an irrefutable response to all the notions of “premium” that its predecessors had claimed for themselves, but did not entirely earn.

(85/100)


Other notes

“Rum Club” was the name of an unadvertised speakeasy sort of bar Dirk Becker opened up back when he was getting into rum in a big way and before he opened up the Rum Depot (it boasted 300+ different rums for its patrons).

Feb 152017
 

#342

Considering that the Seleccion Esplendida was pushed out as both a specific year’s production and an enormously aged near-thirty-year-old rum – a breed getting rarer all the time now that collectors, enthusiasts and rum lovers are snapping up the old 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s vintages – it’s somewhat surprising how little of a rep the brand or the rum itself actually has.  I mean, when was the last time you saw anyone rhapsodizing about it, or even giving it a casual mention, anywhere? Perhaps that’s because for something that old we kind of expect to see it issued at cask strength in a limited edition of some kind accompanied by smart marketing, none of which occurred here (the company, Caribbean Spirits, doesn’t even appear to have a website).

Let’s pass on that for the moment though, and simply go with what we have here.  For what it’s worth, I was somewhat ambivalent about this pink-brown 40% column still product out of Panama, partly for its proof point, partly for how it sampled and partly for the price (around €200 these days).  Panamanian rums are a subset of the Cuban style of rum-making, molasses and column still derived and generally light and faintly citrusy, and this rum adhered to the profile (to a point) without major deviations, but also without striking out into the sort of amazing directions one could possibly hope for in a rum nearly three decades old.

It was light on the nose, redolent of sugar cane juice and the creaminess of rice pudding, flowers and saffron, with very little of a caramel or toffee or burnt sugar in evidence anywhere.  In fact it was rather easy and warm, with little tartness or sharpness.  It also presented with a some surprising amount of baking spices, cinnamon, vanilla, and after a while, what to me felt like an excess of cherry syrup poured straight from the can (hold the cherries).  So yes there was fruitiness and pleasant aromas, just nothing earth shaking that would make me want to break out the thesaurus. In point of fact, I was reminded somewhat of a dialed-down Panama Red, or something of the Origines series of rums (which I’ve tried but don’t have detailed notes for). But the more distinct and complex notes of the Rum Nation Panama 21 year old or 18 year old were not part of the program so far as I could tell.

The quality on the palate was certainly better once I got around to tasting it…up to a point  Overall it was soft and well rounded, again quite light, with warm flavours of fruit, aromatic tobacco, vanilla and more cinnamon, maybe a dash of nutmeg. Water wasn’t needed for something this easy, but I added some anyway and was rewarded with some black tea, a slightly more tannic and sharper series of oak and toffee hints, leading to a short and almost imperceptible finish of little distinction where the dominant notes were of cinnamon and vanilla.

Here the 40% worked to its detriment — it should have been stronger and not diluted too much, because for one it actually tasted younger and secondly some of the potential complexity was stifled under a feather blanket of wuss.  Frankly, after playing with it for some hours I just gave up on it.  It offered too little for what it advertised, and struck me more as a cupcake of a rum that would fail to impress the hardcore while probably pleasing lovers of lighter fare: in either case they’d be dropping too many pesos for something where the delivery was nowhere near the promise. If you want a Panamanian with some real huevos, I more recommend the Rum Club Private Selection Panama 15 Year Old, which, at north of 50% really gives you value for money. I’ll tell you more about that next time.

(82/100)


Opinion

The Ron Malecon 1979 is somewhat of an atypical Panamanian rum with which I have a number of issues, not the least of which is the remarkable — and disturbing –lack of background information available about the rum itself, or the outfit behind it.

Here are the few vague “facts” available. 1. The rum is attributed to Caribbean Spirits Panama Ltd, which has the official address in Cheapside, London and about which I can find nothing in Panama proper; 2. The cane used by the company is from “their own harvest”, which leads to more questions than answers; 3. The owners of the (unnamed) distillery hail from Cuba and this rum is made in the “Cuban” style; 4. It is a column-still product; 5. Don Pancho Fernandez is involved somehow, according to an Italian youtube video.  Unfortunately I can’t place the photographs in that video to any of the three distilleries there (Carta Vieja, Ingenia San Carlos or Varela Hermanos). Given Don Pancho’s involvement, I would have expected PILSA (Provedora Internacional de Licores, S.A, established in 2000) and their distillery San Carlos, to be behind the rum (the way the label and the PILSA website speak to their Cuban antecedents suggests it), but as Master Quill pointed out in his own review of this rum a few months ago, this rum predates the distillery, so the question remains open.

When a company which produces several enormously aged expressions has nothing beyond marketing blurbs to promote them and provides little of value on the label, then all sots of doubts start to creep into a rum nerd’s mind. That says a lot for the disrepute some producers have brought upon the field.  We are getting to the point of distrusting them all, if they don’t provide detailed info, up front and every time. Country, source, still, outturn, ABV, barrels, additives and age – these are the minimum requirements many demand, and we have to be able to trust those (I make similar points in the reviews of Dictador’s seemingly ultra-aged Best of 1977 rum, the Mombacho 19, and the Don Papa Rare Cask.

How frustrating it is, then, doing research on a rum this expensive. Are Master Quill’s review and now this one, really the only write up of the Malecon available?  I hope not, but certainly it’s been a chore to find anything concrete, and even the company is damned hard to pin down aside from various notes made on sellers’ websites.  And for a rum fetching north of two hundred euros, which is supposedly aged in white oak barrels, stored in caves (!!) in Panama, for 29 years (1979-2008) – well now, perhaps you can understand my displeasure. We’re living in a time where more, not less is required of the producers of such a rum, sold for such a price. The lack of it coupled with the profile as described casts doubt on the entire age statement and provenance of the product.


Other Notes

  • Many thanks to L’homme à la poussette (the man with the stroller), who provided the sample.  Laurent’s French-language rum site is one of my favourite weekly stopping points as I scour the web for new reviews and articles on the subject, and we trade stuff whenever we can.
Mar 182015
 
D3S_8975

Not my best rum photo ever: I had set the shutter speed too slow…

 

This is definitely a rum to chillax with. A solid, relaxed and very pleasant Salvadorean rum which should be given some attention…even if it’s actually from Panama.

Assume you were a new outfit in a country A and were making a new rum whose brand was once owned and which was once made, by your family; you sourced distillate from another country, B; used that country B’s facilities to make and age the finished product; and hired a Master Blender, also from that B country.  Now, the question is, whose rum is it? A or B? This is not nearly as academic an exercise as it seems, because Ron Maja purports to be a rum from El Salvador, yet the sugar cane and distillate hail from Panama, the rum is aged in Panama, and the ‘recipe’ for the final blend comes courtesy of Don Pancho Fernandez, also associated with the Panamanian industry.

When I ran across the rum at the Berlin 2014 Rum Festival (where it won a Bronze medal for 11-14 year old rums), the company representative was quite clear about the matter without any prompting. She told me frankly that the purpose of making both this product and its younger 8-year old sibling (also an award winner in Madrid in 2014), was to kickstart a long-dormant rum industry in El Salvador generally, and for the family that owned the brand specifically. The issue is not entirely without precedent – for example, Pyrat’s no longer has much, if anything, to do with Anguilla, St Nicholas Abbey sourced its original stocks  from Foursquare, and many Caribbean Islands’ companies buy molasses from Guyana…and you sure never see that anywhere on various labels. (My opinion is below).

That out of the way, what are we to make of the twelve year old rum aged in ex-bourbon barrels, and issued at a soothing unaggressive 40%? It was housed in a squat green bottle, decent plastic tipped cork, and marked with a bare minimum of information on the label – including that “El Salvador” moniker – and poured out in a bright golden liquid. It smelled like what it was, a soft, easy-going, medium-bodied rum, with vanillas, some brown sugar and coconut politely jostling for my attention. There was no aggressiveness at all here, and my initial opinion was that it was a good all-rounder: it could just as easily be a mixer, had neat, or over ice for those who preferred it that way. Still, given its rather gentle aroma, I’m not sure how much any mix would add to its value…a cola or ginger beer might just shred the thing.

Things got rather more assertive as I tasted it (and I went back to it twice that day when no-one was looking just to confirm my initial impressions) – the lightness of the nose gave way to a taste that was more solid.  Soft fleshy fruits, vanilla, a flirt of citrus were in evidence, followed by peaches and ripe apples and smoke.  And again that hint of lemon zest and perhaps even a bit of ginger, for a fillip of complexity. It was very Panamanian, or Latin if you wish – there were aspects of it that reminded me of similarly serene Peruvian and Colombian rums I’ve had, and could be confused with an Abuelo 12 (which was heavier), Juan Santos 12 (a shade lighter), or even Rum Nation’s 18 year old (a bit more complex).  The finish was smooth, warm and quite docile, providing pleasant reminders of what had gone before it.

Maja is trying to jump start an indigenous rum industry, and have created a very good rum from stocks which have all been aged twelve years (it’s not a blend of various ages).  To do this properly, what they have to do is grab some market share from more established companies, and hew to the standard proof line. My own feelings on 40% are not new: still, putting aside such a personal predilection, I believe that the Ron Maja 12 year old is a solid mid-tier rum whose great strength will be its overall delectability and versatility, if not true passion (it’s really not the kind of rum that inspires solo trans-Atlantic voyages in a bathtub, for example, or grandly-declaimed love from the rooftops by misguided lovelorn swains).

It’s simply good, and what it brings to the table is accessibility (many will really enjoy its laid-back profile), overall quality, and lack of in-your-face bite.  It’s a well-made, smooth and warm drink, with enough going on within that you’ll never doubt that it still remembers it’s a rum. And at 40% and €45 per bottle, you really won’t have a problem drinking it neat, which for me is a pretty good recommendation.

(#207. 83/100)


Other notes:

  • The Rumporter online magazine has a small article on this rum here, in French.
  • I have an outstanding email in play to Ron Maja, where they promised to get back on to me regarding more history and background; when received, I’ll update this post.

Opinion

While appreciating the logistics and other problems Maja no doubt has undergone in bringing its product to market, I am going on record as disapproving of the labeling exercise – it ignores the reality of what this rum really is, and touches on larger issues of truth in advertising and presentation. The founding family and originator of Ron Maja is from El Salvador – is this enough to make it a Salvadorean rum when everything that comprises it except the owners, is from somewhere else?

For this to be presented as being what it supposedly is, I believe that some part of the production process has to be in El Salvador (like the Islands mentioned above have ageing and blending facilities in their territories, or St Nick’s is aged and bottled at the Abbey).  The cane, the molasses, the distillation or the bottling…something.  This may just be a fig leaf to add that touch of respectability or verisimilitude, but it would give consumers a better idea of what it is they are getting for their money.

Update March 2015 – According to the company, the recipe used to assemble the rum was developed by the family, and this is the source of stating it is Salvadorean.

May 252013
 

D7K_1864

Offbeat Panamanian rum which makes a virtue out being different. People will like it or hate it for the same reasons. I come down on the side of the former.

There’s something about Panamanian rums I really like. They are not as heavy and dark and growly as Demerara rums, nor as occasionally oaky and citrus-laden as the Jamaicans, or for that matter as soft and plummy and banana-like as I’ve often noted in the Bajans. You would never imagine a Panama rum being vulgar, overbearing or obnoxious, like a cinema-goer behind you who chucks your seat, won’t shut up and then ostentatiously uses his cellphone the whole friggin’ time — just well put-together, complex and riding the fine line between too much and not enough. I think of them as the little bear in Goldilocks…whatever they come out as, it’s pretty much always just right.

A.D. Rattray, those zen like purveyors of simplicity, naturally don’t pay much attention to that, perhaps taking their lead from Cadenhead and their Spartan distillation and ageing ethos. They took rum from the Don Jose distillery in Panama (largest in the country, and home of the Varela Hermanos boys who made the Abuelos), aged it for twelve years, and then didn’t muck about with chill filtration or adding anything, just gave you whatever came out the other end.

This methodology had some disconcerting effects on the dark gold, 46% ABV finished product I was tasting here (bottle #344 from Cask #1). For one thing, the nose was quite dissimilar to most other Panamanians I’ve had thus far, up to and including the fantastic Rum Nation Panama 21 – much lighter, almost like an agricole for starters. I really had to work at this one to dissect it: bananas, strawberries, orange peel and bananas, with some sting and bite at the tail end, which I pretty much expected from a 46% rum, so no harm there. Yet there were also some dissonant notes – a faint whiff of petrol, turpentine, light perfume (I’m not making this up, seriously!). Almost no caramel or molasses scents at all. Mary, who was sampling this baby with me, opined that it reminded her of a wet baseball glove, which I concede may have been reaching just a bit. But there’s no denying that this was quite an original nose for a rum – if it had been heavier, perhaps more pungent, I think I would have liked it even more.

Things opened up some on the taste, however, mitigating some of my concerns. Medium bodied, medium sweet, medium spicy (can’t get away from that 46%, after all) — it presented a certain creaminess on the tongue, just enough. It opened into a licorice background, through which meandered delicate woody notes, white chocolate and butter (some brininess there — again, not enough to turn me off just sufficient to be noticeable). Gradually the rum blossomed out with hesitant caramel, vanilla and molasses tastes, so shy that I remarked to Mary that perhaps this was a rum aged in much-used, almost-dead oaken casks with not much piss and vinegar left in them. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the taste – it was better than the nose – but it really upended most of my expectations, perhaps because it had aspects much more commonly suggested by agricoles instead of Panamanians. Fade was as dry and heated as a middle eastern desert, and lacking any kind of distinctive closing scents of its own, beyond some chocolate, light smokiness and leather.

D3S_5945

Did I like it? Yup, quite a bit. Not as much as I was expecting, but I must confess to appreciating its sheer rawness, its unusual-ness. The ADR Panama rum was unlike the cheerful youth and sprightliness evinced by the Abuelo 7, and couldn’t hold a candle against the Rum Nation Panama 21, though it scored better than the Panama 18, also made by Rum Nation. I think this kind of underblending (is there such a word?) must be deliberate, because surely budgetary concerns were not an issue at ADR, who appear to have a dour agnosticism regarding profit margins in some of their rums, and just go ahead and make what they feel like on any given day, so long as it tastes real good.

Is the rum for young men and college students looking for a fast bender? Is it for us older farts approaching our sell-by dates? New entrants to the rum-appreciation game? Not at all. It’s for anyone who still has a sense of wonder and a feeling for blending style. This rum contains elements that have been thought out (or ignored) and has surprises right to the finish. In its own crazy way, it’s actually quite exhilarating (yeah, and strange). Sipping it for the fourth time, trying to make up my mind, I realized the I needed this sharp left turn to make me understand the differing directions a product could go – the ADR Panamanian Rum from Don Jose has been created and imagined as a new sensory location for us to inhabit. It’s a hell of a rum. It adds lustre to our notions of what can be made, by a guy who knows his stuff, from nothing but the harvested stalks of an oversized grass.

(#164. 85/100)

 

Mar 292013
 

A liquid, light peanut butter and jelly sandwich, heightened with unsweetened chocolate and displaying enormous smoothness and quality. Great product.

Ron Abuelo Centuria is the top of the line Panamanian rum originating from Varela Hermanos, the outfit that brought the 7 year old and 12 year old to the table, issued in late 2010 to celebrate their Centennial.

It’s said in some places to be solera-system-aged for thirty years in used bourbon barrels and in others that the blend of rums (some aged thirty years) was run through a solera: but one must always keep in mind that in any solera rum, only a small fraction of the resultant is actually that old (the math suggests it can be as little as 5% after less than ten years, and the average age of the blend trends towards seven). I make these remarks not to denigrate the product, just to inject some caution (and reality) into pronouncements regarding its age.

Not that you need to know all that, because taken by itself, this is quite a product. Ensconced in a wooden and cardboard box, in a neat bottle with a decent cork, there’s very little about it that doesn’t work. Except maybe the €155 price tag: considering that only 3000 bottles were made, this may be deemed cheap to some lucky fellows who have more money than I do.

Nose first: cherries, dark chocolate, coffee, walnuts and vanilla came right out of the initial pour of the bronze mahogany liquid. Really quite nice, but I suspect there may be some alien DNA in the Centuria somewhere, because after moving on and settling into a creamy, deep burnt sugar and caramel bedrock, there were some discordant background notes that melded uneasily with the core scents so well begun: salt biscuits and a certain musty driness (without being particularly arid) that just seemed, I dunno, out of place. It wasn’t enough to sink the Bismarck, but it wasn’t expected either.

The rum raised the bar for premiums by being phenomenally smooth, mind you. Bitch and bite were long forgotten dreams on the palate, as on the nose: the Centuria may lack the furious, focussed accelerative aggro of a Porsche, but that isn’t its purpose (especially not at 40% ABV) — it’s more a fully tricked-out Audi sedan, as smooth and deceptive as proverbially still waters. Caramel, nougat and burnt sugar flavours led in, followed by a slow segue into a combined smoky, salt/sweet set of tastes reminding one of pecans and dried fruits like dates and figs, not fleshier ones like peaches. In fact, this became so pronounced as to almost dismember the sweeter notes altogether (but not quite,which is to its real credit – great balance of the competing flavours was evident here).

The exit is more problematic: though quite long for a rum bottled at standard strength, there’s something of that buttery caramel salty-sweet tang that doesn’t quite click for me. Yes it was pleasantly heated and took its time saying adios, which is fine — I just didn’t care for the musky, flavours so remniscent of a peanut-butter-and-chocolate energy bar. I should hasten to add this is a personal thing for me, so you may like this aspect much more than I do. And I can’t lie – it’s a damned fine rum, a more-than-pleasant fireplace drink on a nippy night, leading to deep kisses and warm embraces from someone you’ve loved for a very long time.

I often make mention, with top end rums that cost three figures and up, about elements of character. What I mean by this is that the complexity of the parts should lead to a harmonious commingling of the whole in a way that doesn’t repeat old profiles, but intriguingly, fascinatingly, joyously seeks a new tier of its own, for better or worse. The Centuria has character for sure, and what that does is make it different, albeit in a manner that may polarize opinion, especially at the aforementioned back end.

Still, this rum would have, as many overpaid management types in my company would say, all the key performance indicators identified, the drivers nailed down and quantified, all the basic boxes ticked. But then there’s the fuzzier stuff, the weird stuff, the stuff that some guys would call “over and beyond” or “elevated performance”, boldly going where no executive has gone before. In this Anniversary edition rum made by a solid company with quite a pedigree, it’s clear that they’ve succeeded (all my bitching about the off-notes aside). This is an excellent sipping rum where components come together really well, are dead serious about their task of pleasing you, and have taken time out to address some real complex subtleties. This is not the best rum of its kind ever made – my own preference on the Panamanians edges more perhaps towards the Rum Nation Panama 21 — but if you’re buying what Varela Hermanos is selling, they sure won’t short change you.

(#151. 88/100)


Other notes

  • The business about the Centennial is somewhat confusing: Varela Hermanos traces its origins back to 1908 when Don José Varela Blanco founded the Ingenio San Isidro sugar mill, the first in Panama, with alcohol distillation beginning in 1936. So I’m unclear how this rum was first issued in late 2010 to commemorate a hundred years of operations.
  • According to online remarks made by others at the time, but not represented on the bottle or its box, the Centuria contains no additives for colouring or flavour. This is, however, contradicted by hydrometer tests here (27g/L) and by Drejer (20g/L) and PhilthyRum (20g/L).

 

Mar 132013
 

Come on now, be honest, why did you really buy this product?

How can one ignore the advertising and marketing behind something as evocatively (or crassly) named as Ron de Jeremy, distributed by One-Eyed Spirits? There is almost nothing I can write that would not in some way be seen by the average reader as a mandingo-esque, pornographic allusion. I think the best — nay, perhaps the only — way I can approach this review is to do a full one-eighty course change, sink deep into the netherworlds of geekdom and nerd nirvana, and reference a great epos of wishful manhood….like, umm, Star Trek.

Think of this rum as an off-kilter riff on that ultimate TV bromance. This is you and your best buddy playing with phasers and electrocuting Horta in your spare time, because, when you get down to it, Ron de Jeremy is not for drinking by yourself — so who else to try it with than some friend whose sense of humour mirrors your own and who won’t laugh at your new ears and deadpan Sheldonisms? This is a rum born to be shared and snickered over, which is why the younger and more rebellious crowd of rum drinkers probably laughed themselves into a collective sneezing fit and bought it like tribbles were on sale that day.

Ensconced in a bottle reminiscent of the English Harbour 10 year old, numbered (mine is bottle number 23124…but of how many?) it’s fairly simply designed (I always like that), and for those used to seeing Ron Jeremy as a fatter, ageing prescence on a TV show or on photographs, the younger hand drawn visage will be a bit startling. We can all agree, I’m sure, that his face is not the selling point, though. Maybe it’s his ears.

Ron de Jeremy presented such a queerly discombobulated dissonance between nose and palate that it almost seemed like two people, one of whom is in the throes of pon-farr. This started as early as when it was opened and I got an immediate hit of stale Gorn sweat – for me, with my memories of life in the tropics, it presented like the bitter whiff of anti-malarials in a bush hospital. A vaguely bitter, herbal, grassy lead-in that recalls to memory the scent of dried-out sugar-cane stalks (and quinine) was the first thing out the door. And however much it then mellowed out – and it did – however much it transmogrified into caramel, burnt sugar, toffee and butterscotch, it had already mind-melded with me and that made my opinion less than it might have been.

So, negative on the nose, Keptin. Was the palate any better? I thought it was. Quite decent, actually. Medium bodied, a little aggro right up front. Briny, not-so-sweet and heated to start, a shade harsh – an 18 year old Panamanian it was not – then once it hit what passed for warp in its own universe, it evinced a rather pleasant vanilla sweetness, commingled with oak, leather and walnuts (hush, ye snickerers). Medium long fade with a last jarring sweet bath-soap note warping in from nowhere. It may have pretended not to be of a piece with the initial aromas, but clearly, they went together like Spock and the other guy. Essentially, the rum started one way and finished another…maybe I should call it Seven of Nine.

Ron de Jeremy “Adult” Rum is a Panamanian, distilled by the boys at Varela Hermanos who make the Abuelos (or so I’ve been told), hewing to the line of several other Panamanians in my possession, if not quite as good as many. It is near in profile if not in scent to the Abuelo 7. Don Pancho Fernandez of Zafra Reserve fame has been involved in the production of this rum…and here again I make mention of the palate-level similarity all these Panamanians seem to possess (in my own opinion), which perhaps illustrates the drawbacks of having one person, no matter how experienced and well known and qualified, driving the taste profile of so many rums. I like Panamanians a lot, but the ones available to me are similar enough — bar minor variations — that I am in danger of shrugging and moving on out of sheer boredom.

You’d be surprised, though: overall, in spite of its cost of about $40 here in Canada, I’m thinking it’s worth the extra credits. Because for all its failure at the start, it’s a decent, workmanlike rum, better than quite a few others I’ve had over the years. An intriguing, if not necessarily good nose, a decent palate and a fade not to be sneezed at.

I may not believe a company vulgar enough to call itself “One-Eyed Spirits” can bring something this decent to the table right out of the gate. But I can’t always write about what I wanted in a rum, but must address what I actually got — and on that level my opinion is a positive one. Set aside the nonsense of a porn star shilling for a rum just because of his name, put away any preconceptions you have of the marketing message, ignore its opening salvo, strip away all that — and what you’re left with is a Panama rum, one that’s not too shabby, whose quality, like that of the Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Casks, barely succeeds in spite of its advertising, but not because of it.

(#148. 80/100)


Other Notes

  • Masters of Malt mentions the rum as being 8 years old. The bottle of course tells you nothing.
Feb 132013
 


Bottled evening sunset. Among the best of all the 40% Panamanian rums I’ve tried thus far…though that is not quite what the endorsement it seems.

The Panamonte XXV has, since its introduction, received such rave reviews across the board – it may be one of the most critic-proof rums ever made – that it’s led one reviewer (who I note has not done a formal write up or, perhaps, even tried it) to complain vociferously and with unbecoming language about the lemming like behavior of the bloggers who are supposedly in the pockets of the industry and who put over-the-top positive spins on the rum in order to promote it for their own (inferred) nefarious purposes. I don’t agree with this attitude – there are far too few writers out there who love and promote rums, so we should encourage the reviewers, not viciously diss them – but there’s no question that for a really expensive product, perhaps we should really take a hard look and not be too swayed by cachet or price just because it has cachet and price.

Bearing that in mind, and given that I had dropped $400+ on a bottle of the good stuff last year, I felt it right to check how it rated against other rums of either similar age, similar provenance or similar profile, like the Arctic Wolf did in his famous dissing of the Appleton 30. So I ran the Panamonte XXV past the Cadenhead Panama 8 year old, the Rum Nation Panama 18 and 21 year old, the Ron de Jeremy and the Panama Red Overproof, as well as the Abuelos 7 and 12. And just to make life interesting, I added the El Dorado 25 40%, because of its age.

The Panamonte, right off, had a bottle that was impressive…a flagon, more like, gold-tipped-cork and fancy lettering (same as the St Nicholas Abbey rums, just different etching and cork), all ensconced in a two-piece box that you’d better hold carefully, ‘cause if the snaps on either side break while you wrestle it one-handed, the bottom might just pop out like a stock market bubble, and all your hard earned money will go the way of your portfolio. But it’s kinda faux-handmade retro-cool, and I always liked that. Nothing irritates me more than a super premium, highly priced rum, coming in a shabby, cheap-ass, cardboard paper box (though I must concede the overall put-together-ness of the box wasn’t all that great either) .

The rum itself was amber and copper in hue. Soft and warm, the initial scents curling lazily from the glass were well behaved, rather dense clouds of honey, lightly toasted walnuts (or were those pecans?), blossoms like lilac petals, dark fruits like raisins, plums, just-barely-ripe peaches and bananas. Soft fruits, not citrus, and that set the stage for a rum that was not at all sharp, but as comforting as a feather bed in the winter. Maybe with your plump, soused spouse in it.

The Panamonte XXV may be among the smoothest, most unaggressive medium-bodied rums I’ve ever tasted, which is both a good or a bad thing depending on your personal preferences. The arrival stroked the palate with the gentle touch of honey – maybe maple syrup is a better descriptor – as soft as your favourite pooch’s begging eyes: stroke me, master, because I love you. Evolving nuances of coconut shavings, nutmeg, caramel, cinnamon, cumin, a light dusting of caramel and sugars followed through, enhanced by some light tobacco and leather notes – and hardly any oak or citrus spiciness asserting itself.  Quite a change from the aridity and powerful eff-off of the Velier Albion 1994. It had an extraordinary balance that allowed no one taste to hold the high ground or dominate the profile at the expense of any other. It was, in fine, a rum that could be dreamily sipped and savoured all evening long. It might actually be a conversation stopper, for who on earth would want to do anything except make gurgling noises of enjoyment while trying to extract that very last nuance of flavour from it? As for the finish, well, one should not expect anything too epic from 40%, yet even here, warm and breathy aromatic hints of fleshy fruits and tobacco with a sly hint of oak and unsweetened chocolate were the last things to titillate the senses…before I poured yet another glass.

The rum, then, is a Panamanian molasses-based rum aged for 25 years in used oak barrels (standard), and is a product of the same crew who brought you the above-average (but spiced, I suspect) Panama Red I looked at not too long ago – Jim Wasson of Panamonte, and “Don Pancho” of Zafra, Panama Red and Ron de Jeremy…er, fame. It shares something of the generalized softness I sensed in the other Panamanians like the Abuelo 12 or the Rum Nation Panama 21 (the RN 18 is a tad more aggressive), but lacks the youthful yobbishness of the Cadenhead. And it’s different from the El Dorado 25 year old 40%, being not quite as dark or deep, and a shade less sweet (that’s a good thing, by the way). It’s probably better than all of them, though I’d say the RN 21 showcases a little more risk.

So forget my remark about being “critic-proof” – this rum is critic-obliterating. Stripped of the marketing hype (“…every single drop…” – yawn) it’s not hard to see why, because think of all the levels on which it succeeds so swimmingly – it’s smooth, it’s gentle, it tastes great, it releases its character in measured teasing doses, and is bottled at a cushy 40%. What’s not to like? I mean, it’s as if in some backroom office, a blending engineer and management type set out to tick all the boxes, making sure the greatest mass of taste was catered to (they emulated Bacardi, perhaps), and then ratcheting it all up a notch or five and pricing it to match. It makes perfect commercial sense to issue this twenty five year old as it has been, because this is the way most will try it and like it and buy it.

(#145. 87/100)


Opinion

For me, it may simply be too much of a good thing.

This is where I have to tread warily, and be clear about the rationale for my ambivalence. For what it is – a 40%, aged rum – it’s perfectly fine, so its intrinsic quality is not at issue (and my score reflects that). It may be about as good as any such product can or will ever get. So if the rum is so good, you ask, why the beef and bitching? Because, reader, although I haven’t tried as many rums as the Burr Brothers, Dave Russell, Ed Hamilton, or the Arctic Wolf, I have tried a lot and thought deeply about why some appealed to me but not others, tried to understand why I liked stuff I didn’t before, or dislike stuff I once loved. And there you have it – it’s not the rum that has changed, it’s me.

I’ve moved on from commonly available, widely appreciated, well known products that are good to great, from soft and warm and smooth 40% rums, to rums that are stronger, more intriguing, that have the cheerfully experimental insanity of, oh, a seventies Lambo. Rums that encourage some discernment, some thinking.  Rums that don’t give a sweet rat’s behind about running with the crowd. Rums that are really different yet still succeed, somehow (unlike Downslope Distilling’s misguided attempt at a six month old wine aged rum). The Panamonte XXV is without doubt one of the best – if not the best – of the Panamanian rums bottled at 40% I’ve ever tried, and for sure I’ll be sharing it with all my friends when they come over.

But it would have been greater still, I believe, had its makers had the courage to think a little more out of the ticked boxes they were intent on filling, the way Rum Nation, Velier’s full proof line, or even the Scottish rum makers do (this is why the RN Demerara 23 is better than the El Dorado 25, for example); if it could stand out from all the commercial supersellers that fly off the shelves so briskly — and go for something awesome, snarling and unique, that would rear head and shoulders above any other similarly aged product. Something that would not be a merely incremental bettering of its forebears, but a true game changer that people would whisper about in awe and envy, with bowed heads and bated breath, every time they timidly approached the mere wrapping paper that once embraced it.

Which is too bad, really, because what it leaves us with is that while I can express my admiration for the XXV, what I can’t do is rave from the mountaintops about it.

 


Other

Thanks and much love goes to my boy The Little Caner, who managed to hold in his irritation at my pilfering his favourite stuffed toy for use in the photographs.

Feb 022013
 

A victory of Nurture versus Nature. 

The Panama Red (named for some lady of possible legend in a story too long to go into here but which you can certainly google) is perhaps better categorized as a full proof rum, something between about 47-70%. I make the distinction in order to separate such rums from the standard strength of 38-46% which we see most often, and those we tend to think of as real overproofs, 57% or greater (the article “The Proof’s In The Drinking” goes into somewhat more detail on the topic). However, since it is termed an overproof in most reviews, I’ll just make the observation and move on.

Of all the stronger variations of rum I’ve tried – Cabot Tower, the various 151s, the awesome DDL Albion 1994 60.4% and the raging monster of Longpond 9 – this one may be among the most beguiling (not necessarily the best), largely because it upended many of my expectations. It is so well made that one might, on a first try, feel he was drinking a standard strength rum and only know the difference after attempting to rise a few glasses later and toppling in an unceremonious heap (but hopefully saving the bottle).

The first thing I noticed when comparing the rich red-brown Panama Red against other Panamanians on my shelf (the Rum Nation 18 and 21 year old, Cadenhead 8, Panamonte XXV and the Abuelo 12) is how almost perfumed the nose was. The others were solid rums in their way, with interesting profiles – especially the Rum Nation 21 and the Cadenhead – yet once the searing alcohol fumes blew away from this one, it evinced a remarkably different scent of jasmine, nutmeg, honey, nougat, cinnamon and nuts to go along with the slight caramel and burnt sugar under-notes. Of course, as one might expect from a more intensely proofed product, it was a bit sharp, just not unpleasantly so….another surprise.

And the palate was also very different, quite strong: there was something really light and springy, almost cheerful about it. I find that many high-test rums tend to be somewhat navy in character – more taste is added at the deep end to mask the fangs of alcohol. Not here. Spicy citrus and orange marmalade, sweet honey, white chocolate, figs and sharp yellow fruit – more like almost-ripe firm yellow mangos than bananas – and a sort of candied orange chocolate mixing it up with a very slight smokiness of leather and tobacco and oak. A little ginger, cinnamon and baking spices, really nice, and unusually smooth for such a strong rum — not on the level of, oh, the Panamonte XXV – that would be lying – but smooth enough for a 54% drink….which raises the inevitable question of “dosing.” I should point out that all these varied flavours are much more pronounced if you do a comparative tasting, as I did. And the finish was lovely, long and heated: oak tannins, tobacco and a last sly hint of orange peel slinking away into your memory and taking residence there.

According to what research I’ve cobbled together, the Panama Red is produced from sugar cane grown in Las Cabras de Pese in Panama (the distillery for Panamonte is also located there). The rum, made from molasses, is a blend of stocks aged in the usual ex-Bourbon casks for up to five years — oddly, the official website makes no mention of the real ageing: Jim Wasson, the CEO of Panamonte, was kind enough to provide the detail. Anyway, it’s all well and good. Yet to me – and I may be totally wrong about this, so feel free to make up your own mind or point me in the definitive direction of a refutation) – this kind of ageing does not normally impart a taste quite this rich, such a cornucopia of chirpy, limbo-dancing flavours to what is essentially a rather young rum. Now, because the interaction of oak and wood and climate, to say nothing of subsequent blending, is such a complex one, I hesitate to suggest that it’s been spiced or sugared-up and simply not mentioned…but I feel it is. Not that I mind, particularly – I’d just like to know for sure one way or the other. After all, given the wild popularity of spiced rums these days (to say nothing of the emerging backlash against undisclosed additives), there should be no issue with labelling it as such (which was the argument given by my Edmontonian rum chum, who suggested that this was why it wasn’t noted – because it isn’t).

The Panama Red is made by the same crew who make the Panamonte XXV, were involved with the Ron de Jeremy (tailor made for giggles and crude mandingo jokes), and perhaps even the same original stock as the RN Panama 18 and 21 (I’m on the fence about the Abuelos). There’s something in the subtle alchemy of all these rums – many of which have had the hand of Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez of Zafra fame touch them at some point in their development – that suggests a common ancestor coiling lazily beneath them all. Which just goes to show how masterful blending and ageing can begin from a similar base and then make something spectacular out of it. The nurture here may really be more important than the nature.

Perhaps what I really appreciate about the Panama Red is its overall smoothness, unusual in an oomphed-up rum, and its lovely palate and mouthfeel. Almost everyone I’ve met who has sampled it, expressed some level of astonishment at these characteristics, and all rated it higher than usual. And while I’m no lemming, and cast a more-than-unusually jaundiced eye on spiced and sugared rums as a whole (even assuming this is one) I must concede its quality, and give it a (qualified) recommendation myself. Whether you want to mix it with something to create a subtle, taste-drenched tropical cocktail, or simply take it by itself so you and it can tango in tandem as I did, there is no question that if you like Panamanians, want something stronger, and are on a bit of a tight budget, the Panama Red is a pretty good buy.

(#143. 81.5/100)


 

Jul 042012
 

A more rambunctious, slightly less cultured younger brother of the same company’s 21 year old rum –  complex, hearty, smooth and a full-out tonsil-pleaser.

If the Rum Nation Panama 18 year old had been released on its own without further statement, as it first was in 2000 (I got the 2010 release), it would have been a success by any yardstick, and indeed I make no bones about this – it’s damned good.  It does not fail next to its older sibling…it’s simply a shade different.  And though the 21 year old is better (yes it is), this should not diminish the achievement of Rum Nation in making the 18 at all.

As if in counterpoint to the faux-silver-lined box of the 21, the 18 comes in a standard cardboard enclosure with a peephole, much like a three dimensional equivalent of the buff envelope containing your gas bill, though undoubtedly more pleasant to receive. The bottle was a straightforward barroom style one, with a plastic cork saying nothing in a particular.  Presentation, therefore, was kept minimal, which, for an eighteen year old product, I found surprising – any other maker would have trotted out the dancing girls and razamatazz, but perhaps Fabio felt he had more and even better stuff in the pipeline, and so took even this excellent product and kept things stripped-down.

And that might make you believe it’s the red haired bastard stepchild, perhaps lacking something (maybe legitimacy?). Nope, no such thing. Red gold in the glass, those faint sulphury notes that seem to be the defining characteristic of Rum Nation’s products I’ve tried wafted up at me, slightly heated, and pungent, mixed in with mellow notes of soft sweet peaches and just a mischievously sharp hint of oaky zest to tweak your schnozz. A shade more, oh…assertive. What a nice nose you have granny.

The arrival of the medium bodied rum came with a tantaraa of trumpets: dark chocolate, tobacco, well-cured leather. It was more tart than the 21, a shade briny, with a soft hint of the ocean, and as dry as a Brit expat’s sense of humour.  An odd combination, and in no way offensive.  Perhaps a better word would be distinctive.  The oaky background of the pungent nose remained, and united with the aforementioned tastes that were tempered with honey and licorice notes. I loved this rum at first taste nearly a year ago, and still think it’s quite the bees knees. Maybe it was because it was aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks – I’ve noticed that such multiple cask ageings tend to impart slightly more complex notes (not good in every case, but here, yes).

Finish was softly heated and gently assertive, like a father’s hug, bringing in the last fumes of aromatic leather and dark chocolate.  I believed then as I do now, that the 21’s finish is better, but let no-one kid you about the 18 – it’s very very good, and since it costs around a third less than that admirable product, you could do worse than splurge on it.  Fortunately, neither is so expensive that you have to pawn your kidneys to get one.

Varela in Panama makes this rum for Rum Nation, and here I should make a couple of notes for those who are interested in such things: 1. something like six to eight thousand bottles are made annually, and there’s a run for each year, noted on the bottle 2. Caramel is added at the beginning of the ageing process to the barrels, said caramel made fresh on site, from the same sugar cane as the rum itself and at the same time (does this qualify as an additive? seems a bit of a gray area) 3. All ageing is done in Panama; and 4. This was one of Rum Nation’s first products (the company was formed in 1999 and the first issue of this rum was in 2000), and I think that on the basis of its innovation and quality, it helped establish the company as one to watch.

So here is a rum that in the opinion of this writer, will one day be seen as rightfully taking its place with El Dorado, Juan Santos, Mount Gay, Appleton and others. Rum Nation’s Panama 18 is a sunshine rum that perpetrates a brilliant, splendid and useful shell game on us as drinkers: it is a not quite ultra-premium rum that’s an absolute riot to drink.  Mix it if you want to, but come on, why would you? When that kind of Aphrodite-like body beckons to you alone, well my friends, it might almost be a sin not to dance.

(#113.  83/100)

Jun 152012
 

Drink this and marvel. Who would have thought the El Dorado 21 or the Juan Santos 21 might have serious competition? For a whisker over $100, Rum Nation’s Panama 21 year old rum will titillate your palate, lift your spirits and be your best friend for life.

We are always wrestling – philosophically speaking – with change. And as we get older, we who instituted change, embraced it, championed it…we regret the passing of the old ways which we once loved, but perhaps not well enough to preserve, and now can only remember. I think this way on occasion, and regret the accelerating movement of years, and fall into a reverie the Japanese call mono no aware, which describes a wistfulness about the transience of things.  That’s the state in which my mind was, on the rather depressing day I cracked the Rum Nation Panama 21. It is a single domain product, with a limited production run from a company of which I am a rabid Trekkie-style fanboy. I liked their products so much on a single taste that I bought one of everything they had made, and then went back and stocked up on a couple extra of my favourites. They really are that good.

Consider. Genuflecting rather disdainfully at the “I don’t want to be dinged extra for packaging” Rum Nation placed it in a sturdy, silver-wrapped cardboard enclosure that hugged the elegantly shaped decanter tightly. Forget the box, though – the bottle itself was admirable in shape and contour, and bears out my contention that the overall aesthetic must be considered as part of your experience (and my review), especially as you climb the dollar scale.

Things started swimmingly once I poured it out. Panama rums are not quite as heavy as Demeraras, yet this one evinced slow, fat legs of an impressive oiliness (as opposed to the rather anorexic agricoles I’ve never learned to appreciate properly). Fruity, soft, sweet scents billowed up immediately, intermingled with that faint hallmark rubberiness reminiscent of supercar doughnuts on the tarmac (but nowhere near so aggressive or overwhelming as to be offensive, let me hasten to add – it added a nice touch of distinctiveness). This lovely nose further evinced traces of light flowers and perhaps a shade of smoke. Heavenly, truly.

It was on the palate that I realized I was sampling something quite special: smooth and silky, yet aggressive too (I half-expected it to be bottled at 43% or greater based solely on that observation, but no…); the rum tasted of cherries, peaches, freshly scooped-our tangerines, and by some weird alchemy, also aromatic pipe tobacco and well-cured leather. The Panama 21 was also a shade dry, exactly enough to counterbalance the sweetness which would otherwise have become cloying. The mouthfeel? … simply outstanding, both gentle and assertive at the same time. All of this led to a lasting, smooth fade that was heated and the slightest bit oaky: the rum was aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, all in the Varela plantation of Panama, to which some small amount of caramel is added at the time the barrel is filled, made from the same sugar as the rum itself (and from the same plantation’s cane)

Rum Nation out of Italy focuses on the upper segment of the market, with aged rums originating from specific plantations, aged to their own specifications and with phenomenal blending. I hope these rums seriously break into the North American market, because currently the main sales are in Europe (lucky people). Fabio Rossi, the owner, has taken on the Scotch whisky makers who dabble in rums and is pressing hard on their heels. His stated credo is to make high end, limited edition rums and does he ever deliver. If I had a comment here, it would simply be that I think he should make them a shade stronger…maybe 43% or 46%.

In summary, then the Panama 21 year old is an excellent, lovely rum, reasonably affordable for its age – it shares a price point with two other superlative rums: the El Dorado 21 and the Juan Santos 21. Because the rum is a limited annual production run (perhaps 8000 bottles or so per year) it’s kind of depressing that once this stuff is gone, much like the Caroni I so enjoyed, or the Port Ellen that serious maltsters weep over, then it’s gone forever, and we’ll never see its like again. How sad is that?

So, as noted in my opening paragraph, I sometimes fall into a bad funk. But, more often than the above statement might imply, I also take great joy in beauty and a blaze of excellence, of glory, however ephemeral. A perfectly composed photograph, a raunchy limerick, my daughter’s laughter, a golden-red sunrise, a moment of pure silence in a vast landscape, a piece of prose wittily and exactly written, a snatch of music that raises the hairs on my arm. And in the appreciation of a limited edition rum that exceeds all expectations, has that inexplicable complexity and balance and smoothness that revises my notions of quality…however fleeting its existence may be. That’s why this rum, for the brief shining moments I tasted it and savoured it and wondered at it, gave me a lift that comes all too rarely.

I fall into mono no aware on occasion, yes. But I don’t have to stay there, or let it consume me into melancholy — Rum Nation’s Panama 21 year old rum is one reason why this is absolutely true.

(#111. 89/100)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 042012
 

First published 4th February 2012 on Liquorature

“Hi – we’re Cadenhead.  We’re whisky makers doing rums on the side one cask at a time, and we’re stuck firmly in the last century.  But we make some really crazy s**t that you know you want to try.  Here…have a sip of this drag-strip devouring retro-cool V-12 high test. You’re gonna love it.” (First posted February 3rd, 2012)

Comparing the Cadenhead philosophy with that of the giants like Bacard and Diageo is a little like comparing Terrence Malik films with Michael Bay’s, or a haiku with Paradise Lost. Instead of beating you over the head with all possible volume sold to the widest variety of consumers, Cadenhead is small, tightly focussed on its principles, and has vanishingly small sales of its rum product, which are all made with what seems to be a dour middle finger to the commercial rum establishment. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single commercial rum maker who takes this kind of minimalist, puritanical approach to making rum (unless it’s Bruichladdich with their Renegade line and the occasional Gordon & MacPhail offering and both have prettier presentations).  I mean, Cadenhead seems almost aggressively indifferent to how the world at large reviews its rums. It’s like they say “Like it or lump it, laddie…we’ll keep makin’ it just like this.”  That’s positively West Indian.

William Cadenhead & Co, now owned by J A Mitchell & Co of the Springbank distillery in Campeltown, have a reputed enormous stock of matured Demerara and other rums, and constantly replenish their wares through a rum broker to ensure continual supplies from obscure and not-so-obscure distilleries in the West Indies. They bottle one oaken cask’s offering at a time and then the “run” is done. My inquiries didn’t yield any answers as to which distillery in Panama was the source of the spirit, so we will have to remain in the dark on this one.

However, one thing you can say is that Cadenhead don’t frig around with wussie forty percenters. They chuckle into their sporrans, shake their heads at the weakness of the young, and issue beefcakes of rum, then trumpet the fact long and loudly. 46% cask strength, bam. Sniff that, me son.

The Panama 8 year old is pungent and deeply aromatic on a first assessment. I noted last week that Kōloa Gold had a strange scent that one really had to work at to see it was a rum at all – Cadenhead’s Panama 8 is exactly the opposite, being very obviously a rum with an aggressive attitude redolent of burnt sugar, molasses, toffee, bonbons and perhaps allspice. There was little in the way of secondary, lighter (or “cleaner”) flavours, not that it needed them – this was a serious nose that didn’t have time to muck about.

The medium bodied gold rum was also quite excellent on the palate. The arrival, as befitted a cask strength offering, was a shade sharp on the initial taste, and then mellowed out very nicely – then the dark burnt sugar, the caramel and nougat started to come to the fore; after opening up some more, other soft flavours began to gently emerge like little ballerinas not sure of their reception on the stage: vanilla, chocolate, a good wine-soaked cigarillo, the lightest perfume of flowers. And yes, before you ask, a bit of briny spice on the back end. The finish was long and lasting and wafts of chocolate, leather, tobacco and sugars fought genteely for dominance. After the odd non-specificity of the Kōloa Gold, I must confess to being very taken with this rum which had no time to pretend it was anything other than what it was. A rum, and a rough ‘n’ tough ‘un at that.

What impressed me about the Cadenhead here was its depth. It’s difficult for me to put this precisely, but what I’m describing is a measure of the intensity and dark heat of the mingling flavours as they chased each other down one side of my nose, out onto the tongue and then up the throat. I’ve noted before that overproofs deliver a whallop of flavours a standard 40% rum just doesn’t – in this aged eight year old rum, the company has somehow tamed a raging spirit right out of the cask with nothing more than distilled water.

A rum like the Panama 8 has to be approached with a certain mindset: there’s no point in thinking that this is a mixing agent or a sweet Caribbean tipple at a holiday resort. It is, on the contrary, a rum made by a whisky maker to an exacting principle best described as “keep it simple.” Panama 8 has no colouring or other additives, is not chill filtered, is as close to the output of a barrel as you can imagine – and therefore can truly be said to be an expression of what an unadulterated rum should be. This won’t find favour with many rum aficionados whose palates are accustomed to smoother, more carefully blended fare. But if you want to know what a rum is before a blender starts tinkering with it, then this is surely the place to start.

(#101. 83.5/100)


Other Notes

  • In 2010 I tried the 12 year old Demerara variation from Cadenhead and didn’t like it, scoring it low. I don’t have any of the rum left to compare against the Panama, but I stand by the score as it was back then. In fairness, given how much I like this one, the Demerara 12 may deserve a re-try to see if it’s me that’s changed, or the rum really was that unimpressive. In 2020, I managed to re-taste it and came away with a better understanding of its quality..
Dec 182011
 

First posted 18th December 2011 on Liquorature.

Much as I like the Ron Abuelo 12, I must concede that somehow, by a subtle mismatch of flavour, nose, body, complexity and overall profile, this otherwise excellent rum just fails to attain greatness.  That’s not to say this is not a really good product, because it is – and at a price most of us can afford, you wouldn’t go wrong adding it to your shelf. The middle tiers, that is.

One problem with liking a rum is that the rum as a rule doesn’t really like you back. In fact, the converse is true: the more you indulge your appreciation for one, the more you suffer for that presumption (usually with a Godzilla-sized headache) – no rum will ever crawl into your bed, buy you that Porsche you wanted, remember your birthday, or care that you have an anniversary.

A second issue is that rums you might deem worthy of your love cost cold hard cash, and a lot of it (much like real spouses do). Now this is not a problem for professional spirits reviewers who obtain samples from all and sundry, or for a Google founder who might want a new 911 GT3 – it is, on the other hand, a rather bigger deal if you are a mere working joe like yours truly, on a limited budget. Perhaps the solution is to tread lightly: enjoy what you can for what it is, and don’t go too far off the reservation in fawning over any one product. Keep dreamin’ of the good stuff and enjoy the diamonds in the mud you can occasionally uncover.

Like this one from Panama – the Abuelo 12 year old, which was one third of the rum selection in October 2011 for what is traditionally Liquorature’s sole rum-only evening: mine. I’ve made it a practice to know nothing about any of the three rums I always offer to my guests so that their discovery is also mine. Ron Abuelo was definitely the pick of the evening on that score not because it was exceptional per se, but more because it was overall an utterly all-round above-average product

Aside from the almost-impossible to get Centuria, this is the oldest rum in the stable of Varela Hermanos SA of Panama, who have been in business of rums since 1908 when Don José Varela Blanco went operational with the first sugar mill in the then recently formed Republic of Panama. In 1935 the site began to distill sugar cane juice for the production of liqueurs, and since then the company has been expanding its range into a wide variety of different spirits products. They distil the 40% 12 year old from estate grown cane in the usual barrels that once held bourbon; it won the 2009 Ministry of Rum tasting competition for Premiums, the first year it was marketed, and followed that up with a double gold from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And probably deserves it – if after a hundred-plus years of working with spirits the company still doesn’t know what it’s doing, I’d be amazed.

Appearance wise, ostentation was kept to a minimum, as probably befits a $48 rum – cardboard box of no distinction, embossed dark brown bottle hiding the golden rum within; plastic tipped cork, seated tightly as my six-year-old’s fist on pocket money day.

The golden copper-bronze rum had remarkably slow legs which spoke well for its viscosity; the nose was initially spicy, and this faded quickly and transmuted into a rich honey-vanilla and burnt sugar accents that opened up later into subtle hints of flowers and cherries, with a sweet woody background and perhaps something subtler – that of new-mown hay, maybe some grapefruit or other citrus rind. It reminded me a bit of both the Mount Gay XO and the Flor de Cana 7 in that respect.

Flavour-wise I had nothing to complain about. I liked it.  A lot. The rum was heavier and a shade thicker than the colour would have suggested: honey, nuts and caramel were there right from the get-go. The Abuelo 12 year old was not as sweet as these remarks would suggest – there was a retention of the oak there, a bratty kind of stinging insouciance that I didn’t expect from a rum aged this long.  This may have been from a shade too much oak refusing to leave, like a guest who doesn’t know the party is over. But even so it was smooth and possessing a reasonably complex profile that took time to emerge. That taste deepened on standing to slightly briny but rich molasses, and here I’d suggest that it trended toards a younger El Dorado…perhaps the ED 12 year old.

As for the fade, it was long lasting, smooth, if not entirely balanced – vanilla, tannins, dried fruits and a hint of the burnt sugars didn’t quite harmonize (but still, let me hasten to add, damned good for all that). I’d suggest that it missed being superb by some small slip of the blender’s art (or my own predilection for other profiles). But let me be clear: it’s above average and most people buying it will not be disappointed. It has points of similarity, as noted, with the Ron Zacapa (though not as smooth and not quite as sweet), Cruzan Single Barrel, Flor de Cana 7, Mount Gay XO and El Dorado 12 or younger. My take would be to have it as it is and don’t mix the thing.

I said at the beginning that rums you love are usually heartless products that give you a clonk on the head instead of returning your affection, and cost a bundle to obtain. This is true for many top-end products, but not this one: Ron Abuelo 12 year old is a reasonably gentle, occasionally-harsh-yet-loving, soft and slightly off kilter rum that doesn’t cost your left arm to get, will treat you with the respect you deserve and won’t viciously burn your precious vintage Superman comic book collection of you don’t like it. It’s moderation personified, not too much of any one thing, and delicately treads the line between too sweet and not sweet enough, between too smooth and too harsh. That probably won’t endear it fully to people with delicately attuned noses that can dissect a rum’s bouquet into fifty constituent pieces – but maybe, at end, this is a rum for the rest of us: those of us who are not Google founders or professional sample receivers, and who simply want a damned good drink that won’t bust the bank.

(#089. 79.5/100)

Dec 182011
 
Abuelo 7

First posted 18 December 2011 on Liquorature.

Better than the Ron Abuelo 12 year old, if not quite as smooth. 

As a general rule, the older a rum is, the better it’s supposed to be, and price points certainly follow on from that. We pay extra money for the ageing, the loss the maker suffers from the angel’s share, the supposed care and expertise taken in blending and smoothening out all the aged components so as to balance out the oakiness. So you’d think the older the rum, the better, right? Not so in this case. In fact, I reviewed the 12 and the 7 year old rums side by side and had to check my results not twice, but three times – just to make sure it wasn’t a mistake (as you can imagine, during that exercise my computational aptitude went down exponentially, hence the third check to make sure).

Ron Abuelo 7 is the younger, brasher, more insouciant sibling of the top of the line Abuelo 12 year old from Hermanos Valeros about which I wrote very recently. Made from sugar cane syrup (rendered down cane juice) deriving from cane growing right by the Varela Hermanos distillery in Panama, it is distilled in a four-column still and then aged for the duration in ex-bourbon white oak casks prior to final blending – the youngest rum in the final blend is seven years old.

I have no clue why rum producers seem to think that brown, nearly opaque, bottles, are considered a plus – it hides the colour of the spirit within from the casual browser in the shop and gives no basis of comparison even at that admittedly coarse level. Be that as it may, the amber-gold rum – it has the appearance of fresh honey – is embraced by a simple, plastic-capped bottle, no biggie there. Presentation is rock solid without flamboyance of any kind. “I’m a rum,” this thing proclaimed with low key machismo…”nuff said.”

Right off, the nose suggested that I had was something different. Without a real sting to the snoot, the Abuelo 7 revealed scents of chocolate and coffee wallowing in a caramel burnt-sugar bath. Soft, smooth and easy on the inhale, with traces of vanilla, straw and caramel. The aspects of this nose were impressively strong and distinct (not usually the case with middle-aged rums, where one often has to strain to get the slightest hint of aromas so subtle they would make Jean Baptiste Grenouille faint with the effort).

And the arrival was, simply put, excellent. Though not quite as heavy on the tongue as the 12, it’s medium to heavy body was impressive by itself, and it shared the 12’s lack of overall sweetness. However, its smoothness and overall complexity carried me past such concerns regarding sugar: I was tasting caramel, vanilla, some oakiness and a more earthy flavours, and hidden in the back end were muskier hints of leather, of damp ground steaming after a tropical rain and baked fruit enveloped in a kind of smokiness which I found delectable. All this with almost no burn at all: I wouldn’t mix this with anything, and even over ice I might not enjoy it as much. The fade was long, deep and lasting as well, and while here some spiciness started to creep in, it was not unpleasant, but more like the deep heat generated by reddening coals in your fireplace on a cold winter’s night, or exactly the right note of strength and heat you’d want as you watch the sun sink hissing into the ocean in a pleasant tropical twilight, with a glass of this stuff in your hand. What a lovely, lovely rum this was.

Were I to wax metaphorical (again), I’d suggest that what we’re talking about here is character. The difference between various movie actors portraying the same role – and the best example might be James Bond. The Abuelo 12 aspires to be Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore – exquisitely dressed, urbane, debonair, unflappable, always ready with a quip, with the culture and breeding right there out front on the lapels of the Savile Row suits – but lacking, I dunno, some kind of down to earth machismo. The Abuelo 7 is more like, oh, Connery; or better, Daniel Craig. Brooding, capable, awesomely efficient, dynamic as all get out, yet not as well-bred. I mean, with the Abuelo 7, as with Mr. Craig, you get the elemental brutality and proficiency of a well-educated street-thug. And believe me – I mean that as a real compliment. The Abuelo, on the levels described above – taste, smoothness, complexity and character – makes me hurry to see Casino Royale again, while sticking Goldeneye and Moonraker back on the shelf.

(#088. 81/100)