Feb 152021
 

Remember Lost Spirits? No? This was the company that made rumbles a few years ago, by using a proprietary “flash ageing” process developed by its founder, Bryan Davis, to promote “super fast ageing”. In theory, the chemical reactor Davis built would create a spirit that would taste like a twenty year old mature product, when in fact only a week old. Most sniffed condescendingly, made remarks about charlatans and snake oil sellers, sneered about how it had been tried and failed many times throughout history (usually to con the unwary and fleece the innocent) and walked away…but I was intrigued enough to buy their three initial attempts. Those were not all that hot, although I heard subsequent editions with tweaked settings produced better results.  But the hoopla faded and I heard little more about it and I was not interested enough to follow it up (an article was posted in the NYT in February 11th this year that spoke about the efforts of several companies to currently pursue this Holy Grail.)

That didn’t stop Lost Spirits from hitting the bricks to try and jack up some interest via licensing, and Rational Spirits out of South Carolina teamed up with Mr. Davis, who has continuing to tinker with the technology. In 2017 they released a Cuban Inspired rum, the second generation after Lost Spirits’ own, at a breathtaking 70.5% ABV – its stated purpose was to replicate pre-Revolutionary pot still Cuban rum profiles, and use that as a springboard to do similar magic with many near-dead or all-but extinct rums (like Appleton’s legendary 17 Year Old, perhaps). Weeellll…okay.  Let’s see what we have here, then.

First of all, the actual origin spirit of the rum is somewhat murky.  Master of Malt, Distiller.com and Andrew Abrahams all mention the pot still business, but it’s nowhere stated where that came from or who distilled it; there’s loads of this in the marketing materials which all online stores quote, and they helpfully also include Grade “A” molasses base and charred cask ageing, but hardly inspire my confidence. Since Rational is now out of business and its website leads to a gambling site, not a lot of help to be gotten there. Moreover, the “Cuban style” even in pre-1960 times was considered a light distillate made on column stills (for the most part) so there’s some issues there — would anyone even recognize what came out the other end?

So let’s try it and see. Nose is, let me state right out, great. Sure, it’s rather rough and ready, spurring and booting around, but nicely rich and deep with initial aromas of butterscotch, caramel, brine, molasses.  A nice dry and dusty old cardboard smell is exuded, and then a whiff of rotten fruits – and, as the Jamaicans have taught us, this is not necessarily a bad thing – to which is gradually added a fruity tinned cherry syrup, coconut shavings and vanilla. A few prunes and ripe peaches. Hints of glue, brine, humus and olive oil. It smells both musky and sweet, with anise popping in and out like a jack in the box. Glue, brine, humus and olive oil. So all in all, a lot going on in there, all nicely handled.

It starts, however, to falter when tasted, and that’s in spite of that very powerful proof. The caramel, chocolate, toffee, vanilla and butterscotch carries over. To that is added some aromatic tobacco, rather dry, plus polished well-cured leather. A drop or two of water releases additional notes of citrus and deeper molasses (perhaps a bit too much of the latter, methinks). Aside from faint dark dried fruit, most of what I taste is the non-sweet kind – dates, figs, olives. Very little sweet here, more of spices and leather. The finish is simple enough – it’s long though, and quite hot and spicy (“brutal” remarked Paul Senft, in his review) – mostly vanilla, a bit of fruit, caramel and molasses, plus one last filip of anise.

So, it started really well, and then just lay down, heaved a sigh, farted and then expired, but fatally, it never really enthused me.  It felt more like any reasonably decent low-brow young wannabe rum — made honestly, but less like a Cuban than the bastard offspring of a rather uncouth lightly-aged Versailles hooch and a low-grade but high-proofed Hampden. The nose was fantastic, by the way, which raised hopes, but then all that goodwill drained away, because sipping and tasting invited confusion, leading to outright disappointment.  

In fine, my opinion was that running it through this “flash-ageing” process neither helped nor hindered, because who could tell what the fermentation, charred barrels and the origin-still imparted, versus the tech? And the Cuban-inspired part? Not hardly. Best to ignore that aspect for now and drop the expectation down the toilet, because it’s nothing of the kind.  Take your time nosing it and enjoy that part of the experience to the fullest, because after that, there’s not much of interest going on or heading your way, except a really speedy drunk.

(#802)(79/100)


Other Notes

  • The Wonk has probably written the most about Lost Spirits, here’s a tag for all his articles on the subject. They express no opinion on the technology, but just report on the story up to around 2018.
  • Originally, I scored it 81 as a rum, but ended up by subtracting a couple of points for not making anything remotely resembling a Cuban.  This is an interesting point to think about, when considering a reviewer’s score – it’s not all and always about intrinsic quality excluding all other factors, but also about the expectations he walked in with. I try not to let such secondary issues affect my judgement but in some cases it’s unavoidable, such as here. The re-creation of an old Cuban mark is so much a part of the mythos of this rum it cannot be disentangled from the critique.
  • The whole business about superfast ageing led me down some interesting thought-lines and rabbit holes.  I expanded upon them in an opinion piece separate from this review a few days later.
Feb 042021
 

Given the backward Prohibition-era-style rules governing alcohol in the US, Americans rightly sigh with envy when they see the rum selections in Europe. To get their favourite rums, they have to use any number of workarounds: bite the bullet and go over in person to buy some; have somebody mule it; come to an arrangement with a local liquor store in their state; or, heaven forbid, courier it – a tricky and not hazard-free process, I assure you.  

But occasionally the situation goes in reverse, and it’s the Europeans who grumble at the luck of the Yanks. Ed Hamilton’s little indie operation of eponymous rums is one of these.  Although perhaps the most renowned for the 151 Demerara rum (which went head to head with Lemon Hart in the early 2010s and has remained a bar staple ever since), the Collection also includes a Worthy Park edition, a Navy rum, a white rum, a New York blend, even a pimento liqueur…and several years’ releases (from 2004 through 2009) of St. Lucia Distillers’ rums, bottled in between 2013 and 2015. 

Today we’re looking at the Hamilton 2007 7 year old rum sent to me by my old schoolfriend Cecil Ramotar, which can be considered a companion review to the 2007 9 year old I wrote about four years ago (but of which I still had a smidgen for comparison purposes…in the name of science, of course).  Like its older brother, the 7 YO came off of SLD’s Vendome pot still in September 2007 and set to age in ex-bourbon casks, shipped to the US in 2014 and bottled in January 2015 straight from the cask with additives of any kind.  At a snorting, growling 60.4%, which I thought was excessive until I realized that several others in the line were even stronger.

That strength was bolted on to a firmness of profile and a solidity of taste that was really quite remarkable, and smelled, at the beginning, like I had stumbled into a high end cake shop with a fruit stand somewhere in there.  There were aromas of honey, marzipan, cinnamon and unsweetened dark chocolate; vanilla and the sort of rich pastry that makes really good cookies. I wandered out back and found the fruit shelf: apples, green grapes, fanta, strawberries, and just the faintest hint of saline solution and olives, all dusted liberally with brown sugar. 

Well, the nose might have been good, but taste tells the tale, right? Yes indeed. Again I remarked on its lack of sharpness, it’s lack of raw sandpaper scrape.  I mean yes, it was spicy and hot, but it more gave an impression of real heft and weight rather than cutting pain.  It was slightly salty and sweet and sour all at once, with the piquancy of gooseberries and unripe mangoes married to riper and more dusky fruits: raspberries and peaches and apricots.  Somehow the molasses, salted caramel, brown sugar and creme brulee didn’t up-end that profile or create any kind of crazy mishmash – the integration of citrus, flowers, pastry and cereal notes was pretty well handled and even added some peanut brittle and mint chocolates at the back end, during a nicely long and aromatic finish.

Clearing away the dishes, it’s a seriously solid rum. If I had to chose, I think the 2004 9 Year Old edges this one out by just a bit, but the difference is more a matter of personal taste than objective quality, as both were very tasty and complex rums that add to SLD’s and Ed Hamilton’s reputations. It’s a shame that the line wasn’t continued and added to — no other St. Lucia rums have been added to the Hamilton Collection since 2015 (at least not according to the master list on Ed’s site) and that makes them incredibly desirable finds in that cask strength desert they call a rum selection over there. Worse, only 20 cases of this one were released…so a mere 240 bottles hit the market, and that was six years ago. 

Now, in 2021 I think these rums are a close to extinct, akin to the Stolen Overproof Jamaican which was made, sank without a trace and is regarded as something of an overlooked bargain these days. With reviews like this one and for the kind of quality I argue the Hamilton St Lucia rum displayed, it may now be seen as more desirable, but good luck finding any.  If you do, I think you’d like it (though see “other notes”, below), and hopefully accept that it’s right up there with the better known rums of the New Jamaicans, Barbados or Mudland. In my mind, deservedly so.

(#799)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the empty reviewing landscape in the US where the rum was primarily distributed, few have bothered to say anything about it. Spirits Surveyor wrote about it last year (December 2020) in a short eval, rating it 7 (presumably out of 10) and commented on “liquid baking spices”. In July of 2020 LIFO Accountant on Reddit didn’t care for it and thought it too hot and unbalanced and rated it 4/10, preferring the 9 YO. TheAgaveFairy, also on reddit, gave it a 6+ and extensive tasting notes…and even thought it was a Jamaican for a bit. On RumRatings, it scored between 8 and 9, assuming you discount the one perspicacious gent who didn’t like it because he didn’t care for agricoles.
  • There’s another 7 YO from 2007 in the Collection, with a slightly lesser proof of 59% ABV.
Oct 052020
 

Although just about every conversation about the Hamilton 151 remarks on its purpose to replicate the Lemon Hart 151 as a basic high proof bar-room mixer, this is a common misconception – in point of fact its stated objective was to be better than Lemon Hart. And if its reputation has been solidly entrenched as a staple of that aspect of the drinking world, then it is because it really is one of the few 151s to satisfy both rum drinkers and cocktail shakers with its quality in a way the LH did not always. 

Back in the late 2000s / early 2010s Lemon Hart — for whatever reason — was having real trouble releasing its signature 151, and it sporadically went on and off the market, popping back on the scene with a redesigned label in 2012 before going AWOL again a couple of years later. Aside from Bacardi’s own 151, it had long been a fixture of the bar scene, even preceding the tiki craze of the mid 1930s (some of this backstory is covered in the History of the 151s).  Into this breach came Ed Hamilton, the founder of the Ministry of Rum website and its associated discussion forum, author of Rums of the Eastern Caribbean and an acknowledged early rum guru from the dawn of the rum renaissance.  As he recounts in a 2018 interview (from around timestamp 00:41:50), he decided to create his own line of Demerara rums, both 86 and 151 proof and while barred from using the word “Demerara” for trademark reasons, he did manage to issue the new rums in 2015 and they have been on the market ever since. 

Whether Hamilton 151 has replaced or superseded the Lemon Hart is an open question best left to an individual’s personal experience, but to compare them directly is actually apples and oranges to some extent, because the LH version blends Guyanese, Jamaican and Barbados rums while Hamilton’s is Guyanese only – though likely a blend of more than one still.  But certainly there’s at least some significant element of the wooden stills in there, because the profile is unmistakable.

It is, in short, a powerful wooden fruit bomb, one which initially sits and broods in the glass, dark and menacing, and needs to sit and breathe for a while.  Fumes of prunes, plums, blackcurrants and raspberries rise as if from a grumbling and stuttering half-dormant volcano, moderated by tarter, sharper flavours of damp, sweet, wine-infused tobacco, bitter chocolate, ginger and anise. The aromas are so deep it’s hard to believe it’s so young — the distillate is aged around five years or less in Guyana as far as I know, then shipped in bulk to the USA for bottling. But aromatic it is, to a fault.

It’s also hard to see the Hamilton 151 as “only” a bar-based cocktail mixer when one tries it like I did, neat. The taste is very strong, very powerful — given the 75.5% ABV, caution is of course in order —  yet not sharp so much as firm, a flavoured cricket bat stroking the tongue, tasting thirty proof points lower. There’s the piquance of ginger, red wine, raisins, dark fruits, followed by vanilla, caramel, cloves, licorice, pencil shavings, and cedar planks, melding an initially simple-seeming rum profile with something more complex and providing a texture that can be both coked up or had by itself.  Me, I could as easily sip it as dunk it into a double espresso, and then pour that over a vanilla ice cream.  Even the long lasting finish gives up a few extra points, and it closes the experience with dark red cherries, plums and prunes again, as well as coriander, cumin, cloves and toffee. Pretty good in comparison to a lot of other 151s I’ve tried over the years.

Frankly, I found the rum revelatory, even kind of quietly amazing.  Sure, it hit on all the expected notes, and the quality didn’t ascend to completely new heights (though it scaled several rises of its own).  But neither did it collapse and fall like a rock. In its own way, the rum redefined a good 151, moving it away from being a back-alley palate-mugger, to more of a semi-civilized, tux-clad thug. It might not be as good as a high-proofed ultra-aged Velier from the Age….but it wasn’t entirely removed from that level either. Drinking it, standing on the foothill of its taste, you can see the mountaintop to which it could aspire.

(#767)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • You’ll note the careful use of the word “Demerara” on the label. This was to get around the trademark issue which prevented the use of the term “Demerara Rum.” The rum is trademarked…the river is not.
  • Thanks and a tip of the trilby to Cecil, old-school ex-QC squaddie, for sending me a more-than-generous sample.

 

May 242020
 

No one these days needs any introduction to the Real McCoy series of rums, which Bailey Pryor released in 2013 in conjunction with Foursquare Distillery (another name requiring no elaboration). He was inspired, so the founder’s myth goes, to try his hand at rum after making a documentary on the Prohibition rum runner of yore for whom the phrase “The Real McCoy” is named, since said gent gave pure value for money and didn’t try to gyp his customers.  You could almost say that this is the first instance of a Barbados rum being given a name that supposedly touts its attributes, which is now ascending to the heights of polysyllabically pretentious ridiculousness…but never mind. 

Although Mr. Pryor initially released a 3YO and a 5YO and a 12 YO McCoy rum, somehow the gap-filler of an 8 or 10 year old was not addressed until relatively recently when the 10 year old started to go on sale in the USA (around 2017), issued as a limited edition of 3000 bottles. It was a blend of pot and column still Foursquare distillates aged for between 10-12 years in charred ex-bourbon and virgin oak (the proportions of pot:column and 10:12 years remain unknown, though it’s noted that a rather larger pot still component is present) and bottled at 46%.

You’d think that with that kind of mix-and-match combination of several elements – char, age, oak casks, stills – you’re in for a flavour rollercoaster, but you’re not, not really.  The nose was simply….less (and that’s not because of the 46%, as I was trying it with a set of equal-or-lesser-proofed rums). Basically, there was too much bitter woody smells in the mix, which elbowed out – or at least dominated – the softer aromas for which Barbados is better known. So while I could sense some vanilla, fleshy fruits (ripe mangoes, cherries, papaya), bananas, honey and some light cumin, the real problem was how little of that managed to crawl out from the rock of the woody foreground.

On the palate, the slightly higher strength worked, up to a point.  It’s a lot better than 40%, and allowed a certain heft and firmness to brush across the tongue.  This then enhanced a melded mishmash of fruits – watermelon, bananas, papaya – plus cocoa butter, coconut shavings in a Bounty chocolate bar, honey and a pinch of salt and vanilla, all of which got shouldered aside by the tannic woodiness. I suspect the virgin oak is responsible for that surfeit, and it made the rum sharper and crisper than those McCoy and Foursquare rums we’re used to, not entirely to the rum’s advantage. The finish summed of most of this – it was dry, rather rough, sharp, and pretty much gave caramel, vanilla, light fruits, and some last tannins which were by now starting to fade.  (Subsequent sips and a re-checks over the next few days don’t appreciably change these notes).

Well, frankly, this is not a rum that turns my crank.  While respecting the proficiency and heritage of their long history of rum production, I’ve not cared overmuch for Barbados rums as a whole – too many are just “okay,” lacking unique individuality in too many instances, and it takes a rum like the Plenipotenziario or the 2006 10 Year Old or the Criterion or the Mount Gay Cask Strength to excite my interest…which isn’t much given how many rums are made on the island. 

There’s also the odd fixation with blends that remains puzzling to me since it would seem that in today’s climate of rum appreciation, more aged 100% pot still rums from Fousquare or Mount Gay or WIRD would lend lustre to the island and enhance its variety and terroire to a greater extent than a series of recurring and juggled-tweaked blends would — because right now it’s just the skill and rep of the master blenders that keeps bored yawns of “I’ve had this before” at bay (this is a cruel but true observation about human nature). Fortunately, there are indicators that this is changing – Mount Gay has pot still rum on its current lineup, Foursquare and WIRD both have some on the to-do list, and the Habitation Velier Foursquare pot still rum showed off the potential, so this sub-category is not being ignored completely. 

But for now, this rum doesn’t really work for me. It’s a lesser son of greater sires, a minor Foursquare rum in all ways that matter – nose, taste, finish, the works. It’s one of the few instances where, for all its greater-than-usual pot still makeup and ten years of ageing, I have to ask in some puzzlement What were they thinking? And if I were to give it one of those facile latin names that seem to be gaining traction these days, I’d call it Tantum Odiosis, because that’s really all it is. Now that’s a veritas for you.

(#729)(79/100)

Feb 272020
 

It must be something intrinsic to the USA and their commercial distilling culture, that almost every distillery I’ve come across seems to like making ten different thing off their apparatus.  It’s as if they view a single point of focus, a single product line, as an anathema – a still must be multipurpose, and work to earn its keep by wringing the maximum different amount of spirits out of it.  And this leads to my oft-repeated remark that American distillers seem to like making whiskies, gins, vodkas and other stuff — and produce rum not because of real love for the spirit but as a sort of afterthought to round out the portfolio and provide some immediate cash flow while their hoped-for next Pappy is ageing.

Mad River out of Vermont is no exception to this. In fact, while originally thinking of starting a winery, they finally settled on getting a distillation setup to produce what they really wanted to make – a brandy. Yet, oddly, after sourcing their Muller still from Germany, the first thing off that still in 2013 was a rum, the First Run, and went on from there to make bourbon, rye, and other types of rum — including a silver American “Demerara” (so named probably because it’s made from Demerara sugar, and I have a feeling there’s a potential trademark violation accusation there somewhere if DDL ever hears about it)…and, of course, apple brandy.

The PX is one of their stable of rums, which also includes a Maple-Cask aged rum, the aforementioned First Run and a flavoured vanilla variant. The PX is a single-column-still distillate, aged in toasted and charred barrels, finished in Pedro Ximinez casks (not idea how long in any of these) and released at 46% ABV.  

These bare bones facts obscure a multitude of small issues. For one, they call it a “Demerara-based” rum and remark that the sugar they source is fair-trade certified, but what that means is that it’s a rum made with brown sugar of unstated provenance – if it came from Guyana, which is the only country which can sell a sugar with the word “Demerara” on it, “fair trade” would be an unnecessary statement. For me then, this rum skirts right on the edge of my personal belief idea that a rum should state its origins clearly, and should come from fresh-pressed juice, or molasses…not from sugar itself. The ageing is also never spelled out on the bottle or the website – not the ageing of the base rum, nor the duration of the finishing in PX. We have no idea what the complete outturn is, therefore grading the words “Limited Edition” is impossible. And so these niggling omissions in turn cast doubts (mine) on the “scrappy independent,” “we love what we do” origin story on their website, which I’ve learned the hard way to always regard with some skepticism.

But enough.  Let’s move on to the rum itself and what it tastes like, grade it on how it actually is. Is this a rum that’s up and coming, preparing to take its place as one of the USA’s unsung heroes, a nimble fast-moving upstart ready to take on all comers and make the Caribbean producers look anxiously to their nethers?

Not quite…though it is interesting.  It starts off on the nose with woodchips, sawdust, glue, and old books in a musty library. The fruits start in the background and then slowly gather strength – these are sweet prunes and ripe peaches for the most part, leavened with vanilla, blancmange, some nuttiness and cereals, figs, cloves and raw damp tobacco leaves. The odd thing about it is that it starts nicely but fades away really quickly, so its evanescence is a disappointment — just as I’m coming to grips with it, it vanishes like it’s middle name is Cheshire.

The palate is also somewhat disappointing. The initial tastes are all there – dark fruits, raisins, prunes — but they’re thin and green, not really very precise or dialled-in, more like a mishmash of poorly coordinated soft stuff thrown at a wall. There’s also coffee grounds, tobacco and dark bitter chocolate, more cloves, and in this respect it reminds me a lot of the Dictador 20 or their Best of 1977 – except that it seems lighter, and drier, not quite as polished. As for the finish, that’s simply underwhelming — short and indeterminate, almost indifferent. There’s some tobacco, pancake syrup, vague fruits, smoke, maple sugar, all wispy and vague, here one second and gone the next.

The PX influence is noticeable in the fruitiness, nuttiness and some of the drier aspects of the rum — beyond that, I can’t say there’s much to enthuse. The nose is clearly the best part of the experience, yet even with that, it’s not the sort of rum that encourages sedate evening sipping while watching the sun  go down and discussing the nature of the rumiverse. Part of that is the way the balance feels off, and the tastes and aromas don’t really pop, or mesh particularly well. You’re left feeling this is an essay in the craft, with a few interesting flavours that ultimately fail to cohere, leaving a muddled experience you don’t know what to do with when it’s done. Hardly enough for an unqualified recommendation.

(#705)(76/100)


Other Notes:


Opinion

My point about the jumping all over the spirits-production map, making various different spirits and not settling on one, is merely an observation, not a criticism; and not meant to diss a self-evident enthusiasm for the work, or the commercial realities all such little businesses in the USA must overcome.  After all, the Caribbean rum producers are single-mindedly focused on rums because they started form a base of sugar and molasses which were produced right there, and moved on from that point. American distillers mostly lack this geographic-agricultural advantage. Too, being a single-product producer carries risk: money is tied up in this thing and if sales lag, the enterprise could founder – so the incentive to spread that risk by making several products which can all sell to different market segments, is great.  But what it also does is diversify expertise – and the long, tedious, kaizen-like approach to learning and experimentation and gradual increase in knowledge and skill and quality of the one product they’ve hung their hat on – the way, for example, Mhoba’s founder tinkered for ages to get his stuff right – is missing.

That’s very likely why I have, so far, not seen much in the American rum industry to enthuse me. The rums most make are competent and occasionally interesting, yet don’t wow my socks off (at least, not yet). My experience thus far has been that those who go the whole hog and deal with rum as their primary spirit — not as some kind of adjunct —  tend to do better qualitatively than those who try to do too much. Privateer is one such, Montanya is another, Richland and Pritchards are always intriguing and there are more.  But I have a feeling that if the Law of Mediocrity holds true, then the low to middling quality of all those American rums that have crossed my path over the last ten years (mostly by pure happenstance) define the majority of rums made there; and the companies I have named with products that really make a splash, are the outliers, the leading edges of the bell curve. Only time will tell if that feeling is accurate.

Feb 192020
 

The strangely named Doctor Bird rum is another company’s response to Smith and Cross, Rum Fire  and the Stolen Overproof rum. These are all made or released in the USA (Stolen hails from New Zealand but its rum business is primarily in the US), but the rums themselves come from Jamaica, and there the similarity sort of breaks down, for the Doctor Bird is one of the few from Worthy Park — one of the New Jamaicans which has quietly been gaining its own accolades over the last few years — and not from Hampden or Monymusk or Longpond or Appleton.

The quirky Detroit-based Two James Distillery — whose staff include, variously, an ex-guitar-maker, ex-EMT, ex-Marine and ex-photographer and who state openly and tongue-in-cheek that they have no problems with people stalking them on social media — is a full-fledged distillery, with a 500-gallon (1892 liter) pot still leading the charge.  But while they produce gin, rye whiskey, bourbon and vodka on that still, it’s really irrelevant here because – again, like Stolen – they didn’t bother to make any rum themselves but imported some barrels from Worthy Park. This is a departure from most American distillers styling themselves rum makers, many of whom seem to think that if they have a still they can produce anything (and are at pains to demonstrate it), but few of whom ever think of buying another country’s spirit as Stolen and Two James have.

That aside, moving on: Worthy Park you say?  Okay. What else? Pot still, of course, 50% ABV, so that part is good.  Hay yellow. It’s finished in moscatel sherry casks, and that kinda-sorta bothers me, since I retain bad-tempered memories of an over-finished Legendario that was well-nigh undrinkable because of it – though here, given the zero reading on a hydrometer, it’s more likely the finishing was a short one, and not in wet casks.

Certainly the sherry influence seemed to be AWOL on initial sniffing, because my first dumbfounded note-to-self was wtf is this? Salt wax bomb just went off in the glass. Sharp funk is squirting left and right, acetones, furniture polish, rotting bananas, a deep dumpster dive behind an all night take-out joint. Harshly, greasily pungent is as good as any to describe the experience. Oh and that’s just for openers. It gives you kippers and saltfish, the sweet salt of olive oil, varnish, paint thinner. Thank God the fruits come in to save the show: sharp nettlesome, stabbing, tart unripe green bastards, to be sure – gooseberries, five finger, green mangoes, soursop, apples, all nose-puckering and outright rude.  But overall the sensation that remains on the nose is the brine and rotting fruits, and I confess to not having been this startled by a rum since my initial encounter with the clairins and the Paranubes

Thankfully, much of the violence which characterizes the nose disappears upon a cautious tasting, transmuted by some obscure alchemy into basic drinkability.  It stays sharp, but now things converge to a sort of balance of sweet and salt (not too much of either), crisp and more fruity than before. There’s wood chips, sawdust, varnish, glue, retreating to a respectable distance. Sweet soya sauce, vegetable soup, dill and ginger, gherkins in a sweet vinegar, followed by a parade of crisp fruitiness. Pineapple, lemon peel, gooseberries, green apples, all riper than the nose had suggested they might be, and the finish, relatively swift, is less than I would have expected — and simpler — given the stabbing attack of the nose.  It provides salt, raisins, the citric spiciness of cumin and dill, exhaled some last fruity notes and then disappears.

Well now, what to make of this? If, as they say, it was finished in a sherry cask, all I can say is too little of that made it through. The light sweet muskiness is there, just stays too far in the background to be considered anything but a very minor influence, and aside from some fruity notes (which could just as easily come from the rum’s own esters), the sherry didn’t habla. Maybe it’s because those Jamaican rowdies from the backdam kicked down the door and stomped it flat, who knows? The strength is perfect for what it is – stronger, and morgues might have filled up with expired rum drinkers, but weaker might not have exhibited quite as much badass.

I think the challenge with the rum, for people now getting into Jamaicans (especially the New ones, who like their pot stills and funky junk dialled up to “11” ) might be to get past the aromas, the nose, and how that impacts what is tasted (a good example of how polarizing the rum is, is to check out rumratings’ comments, and those on Tarquin’s sterling reddit review. This is a rum that needs to be tried carefully because to the unprepared it might just hit them between the eyes like a Louisville Slugger. Personally I think a little more ageing or a little more finishing might have been nice, just to round things out and sand the rough edges off a shade more – this is, after all, not even a six year old rum, but a blend of pot still rums of which a 6YO is the oldest. And those high-funk, ester-sporting bad boys need careful handling to reach their full potential. 

The Jamaicans have been getting so much good press of late – especially Hampden and WP – but the peculiarity of this fame is that it has led to the belief that anyone can just buy a barrel or ten from them, bottle the result and voila! – instant sold-out. Yeah, but no. Not quite. Not always. And no, not here.

(#703)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • “Doctor Bird” is not a person, and is not supposed to be “Dr. Bird.” It is, in fact, the national bird of Jamaica, a swallow-tail humming bird, only found there. Folklore has it that it was named because of the resemblance of its black crest and long bifurcated tail to the top hat and tails worn by country doctors back in the old days.
  • Big hat tip to Cecil Ramotar, ex-QC part-time rum-junkie, who made sure I got a sample of the rum to try.
Dec 112019
 

Last time ‘round we looked at the Ron Carlos Caribbean Style Rum “Black”, which I dismissed with a snort of derision – it was too simple, too weak, and had nothing of any substance to really recommend it, unless all you were looking for is a jolt of something alcoholic in your coffee (and were curious about who Carlos was).  It’s not often I find a product about which I can find almost nothing good to say except that “It’s a rum.” Here’s one made by the same company as the Black, in the same aggressive we-aim-for-the-low bar vein, and if you can believe it, it has even less character than its brown sibling. There are days I weep for the species.

Briefly: this is another rum from Florida Caribbean Distillers, which have several distilleries under their portfolio, sell bulk rums and neutral alcohol around the world, and have a large portfolio of low tier spirits for supermarkets, cruise ships, duty free shops and non-discriminating consumers. It’s column distilled, filtered and meant to take on the Bacardi Superior (yeah, good luck) – I’ve been unable to ascertain if it was aged, but I suspect it has, just to take off some of the rough edges, though they could just as easily have tarted it up some for the same effect.

Anyway, I ran it into my glass at a bar in Toronto — where I traded one of my gems to the cheerfully helpful and knowledgeable bartender, for some ten or so glasses of stuff I was curious about in the other direction (he could not believe some of the cheapos I was asking to try) — and this was quite the epic fail. It smelled of ethanol and vanilla on the open – how’s that for a poor start? – light brine, bananas, and very little fruitiness of any kind aside from the dream of some poor citrus that wandered in and got lost.  Sugar water and watermelon could be discerned, and there was a cold and harsh metallic note in there, that was like licking a penny and about as pleasant.

The rum was standard strength (40%), so it came as little surprise that the palate was very light, verging on airy – one burp and it was gone forever.  Faintly sweet, smooth, warm, vaguely fruity, and again those minerally metallic notes could be sensed, reminding me of an empty tin can that once held peaches in syrup and had been left to dry.  Further notes of vanilla, a single cherry and that was that, closing up shop with a finish that breathed once and died on the floor. No, really, that was it.

I am not, thus far, a fan of anything FCD have created (Noxx and Dunn 2-4-5 succeeded because single individuals with some experience and love for the subject were involved, I suggest, as they were not on Ron Carlos). You can excuse it all you want by saying it’s meant to be a low rent mixer, but when I can easily find an unaged white rum with ten times more character which would wake up – nay, turbo-charge – any cocktail I want to chuck it in, and at around the same price point…well, the argument falls down for me. I could pay twice as much for one of those and still get a better drink, a more enjoyable experience.

Of course, in this line of “work” I’ve tried a lot of white rums.  Aged, unaged, filtered, pure, dosed, mixers, neaters, overproofs, underproofs, popskulls and smoothies, I’ve tried them from just about everywhere, made in all kinds of ways.  Few strike me as unexciting as this one, or made with such indifference, with such rankly pecuniary motives. The Ron Carlos Caribbean Style Light Dry rum is so paper thin, so flat, so devoid of character or flair, or of anything that might make us want to drink it, it might as well be transparent.  Oh wait, hang on a minute….

(#683)(68/100)


Other Notes

  • This rum is now called Ron Carlos “Silver”
  • Production is, as of 2018, in Puerto Rico, in the Caribe Distillery (which is owned by FCD) – I think this one was made in Florida, though.
  • Molasses based, multi-column distilled, charcoal filtered.
Dec 082019
 

If you want to know why American supermarket rums (sometimes called “value rums” which is two lies at once) get such short shrift from so many rum folks, one like this is enough to explain the general indifference. It’s milquetoast, vague, with not a single point of interest, and that’s including the equally lackluster promotion that surrounds it.

Let’s start at the beginning.  What is it, who makes it, where’s it from? We must begin with the label, which unfortunately just makes me want to cringe.  No really. 

For starters, it’s noted as a “Caribbean Style rum”. That’s about as useful as perfumery to a hog, as Tolstoy once remarked. Clearly the makers assume a level of ignorance of their customer base that is off the scale, since exactly what is that?  Even Dave Broom in his seminal book “Rum” where he addressed that very question, backed away in horror at lumping all rums from the region together as “Caribbean.” So, we talking Guyana, Cuban, French Island, Jamaican, Barbadian? Nope. Won’t work. Useless.

Next word: “Black”. Baby Rum Jesus help us.  Long discredited as a way to classify rum, and if you are curious as to why, I refer you to Matt’s takedown of the matter, and anyway – the rum isn’t black, but dark brown.  Then “A smooth Caribbean flavour with a distinctive taste for every palate.” Clearly we’re living back in Henry Ford’s time, where you can have any taste you want as long as it’s black.  The irony of the statement is compounded by the fact that if it’s really distinctive, it cannot by definition appeal to every palate. 

About the only thing we can take as a reasonable fact is the bottom part, where we see the rum is bottled by the “Ron Carlos Company de Licores, Auburndale Florida.”.  Excellent. Who’re they? Google it and you’ll be directed to Florida Caribbean Distillers which is a massive industrial facility producing 188 proof near-neutral spirit (from various sources including cane) and reselling as bulk that around the world. And if the company name sounds familiar, it should be – this is the same multi-column-still factory contracted to make the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5 Florida and the Florida Old Reserve rum I wrote about a year or two back.

Clearly this does less than enthuse me, but the Caner is nothing if not moronically persistent in the face of absurdity, so I gird up my loins and hoist my trusty glass and take one for the team so that you lot won’t have to.

It starts off in unspectacular fashion with very light caramel, chocolate, coffee and flambeed bananas.  Some molasses pokes its head up like a gopher scanning for predators, then disappears, and there’s some citrus chittering waway in the background, too faint to make any kind of statement or balance off the thicker aromas in any significant way.  You can sorta kinda sense some bubble gum and soda pop, sweet and fleeting, and that’s about it. About par for a 40% column still rum, to be honest.

The palate sinks the rum further.  Oh, it’s so bad, so weak, so thin, so forgettable. All the notes from the nose prance and clump around with cement overshoes and no balance – chocolate, coffee, nougat, caramel, molasses and some raisins, and after a few hours (here’s where I started to reach out in desperation) some kiwi fruit and papayas. It’s a near neutral, all-neutered spirit, and whether they aged it or not is irrelevant, really – it’s just plain boring. As for the finish, well, it’s finished.  It’s so faint as to be nonexistent, and I’m at a loss to tell you what it is I just had.  

There’s something going on here under the hood – I think.  It’s really a question of whether you’re sensitive enough to spot it and then, if you scale that hurdle, can identify what it is you got, ‘cause this sucker isn’t giving up anything easy.  You’ll strain long and hard to make this rum wannabe surrender its unexceptional secrets, and frankly, I don’t think it has much to give up in the first place (except maybe a dash of alcohol into a cheap punch). Even if you’re on a budget, you can find better for the same price, and as for me, if I was in a bar this was all they had, I’d pay ‘em to make me not drink it.

(#682)(72/100)


Other notes

  • On proof66, in a 2018 comment, it notes that “All Ron Carlos Rums now are being made in Puerto Rico by Club Caribe Distllers and bottled in Florida.” The poster opined that they’re better now than they were, and give Bacardi a run for its money.  I chose to doubt that. 
  • As a point of interest, FCD controls the Caribe Distillery. Their primary market for rums is cruise lines, duty free shops, bulk sales elsewhere and contract rum creation (like Scheer does), alongside many other distilled spirits and brands.
  • Given the absence of current references to the Black rum reviewed here, it’s possible that it morphed into the “Dark” and was further rebranded into the “Gold”, but evidence is somewhat lacking. I still have not been able to ascertain whether it’s been aged, but from the profile, I would suggest maybe one or two years.
  • Neutral alcohol, neutral spirits spirits, or rectified spirits, are generally  considered to be alcohol at 95% ABV or greater.
Oct 232019
 

soma online

For all the faux-evasions about “a historic 250 year old Jamaican distillery” and the hints on the website, let’s not dick around – the Stolen Overproof is a Hampden Estate rum. You can disregard all the marketing adjectives and descriptors like “undiscovered”, “handmade” etc etc and just focus on what it is: a New Jamaican pot still rum, released at a tonsil-chewing 61.5%, aged six years and remarkably underpriced for what it is.

The Stolen Overproof has gotten favourable press from across the board almost without exception since its launch, even if there are few formal (i.e., review-website based) ones from the US itself — perhaps that’s because there’s no-one left writing essay-style rum reviews there these days except Paul Senft, and shorter ones from various Redditors (here, here, here and here). In my opinion, this is a rum that takes its place in the mid-range area right next to Rum Bar, Rum Fire, Smith & Cross and Dr. Bird — and snaps at the heels of Habitation Velier’s 2010 HLCF, of which this is not a cousin, but an actual brother. 

If you doubt me, permit me to offer you a glass of this stuff, as my old-schoolfriend and sometime rum-chum Cecil R. did when he passed me a sample and insisted I try it. You’d think that Stolen Spirits, a company founded in 2010 which has released some underwhelming underpoofs and “smoked” rums was hardly one to warrant serious consideration, but this rum changed my mind in a hurry, and it’ll likely surprise you as well.

soma online pharmacyThe nose was pure Jamaica, pure funk. It was dusty, briny, glue-y and wine-y, sharp and sweet and acidic. and redolent of a massive parade of fruits that came stomping through the nose with cheerful abandon. Peaches in syrup, near-ripe mangoes, guavas, pineapple, all dusted with a little salt and black pepper.  It held not only these sharpish tart fruits but raisins, flambeed bananas, red currants, and as it opened further is also provided the lighter crispness of fanta, bubble-gum and flowers.  

The rum is dark gold in the glass, 61.5% of high-test hooch and a Hampden, so a fierce palate is almost a given.  Nor did it disappoint: it was sharp, with gasoline (!!), glue, acetones and olive oil charging right out of the gate.  It tasted of fuel oil, coconut shavings, wet ashes, salt and pepper, slight molasses, tobacco and pancakes drenched in sweet syrup, cashew nuts…and bags and bags of fruit and other flavours, marching in stately order, one by one, past your senses – green apples, grapes, cloves, red currants, strawberries, ripe pineapples, soursop, lemon zest, burnt sugar cane, salt caramel and toffee.  Damn – that was quite a handful. Even the finish – long and heated – added something: licorice, bubble gum, apples, pineapple and damp, fresh sawdust.

So, whew, deep breath.  That’s quite a rum, representing the island in really fine style. I mean, the only way you’re getting closer to Jamaica without actually being there is to hug Christelle Harris in Brooklyn (which won’t get you drunk and might be a lot more fun, but also earn you a fight with everyone else around her who was thinking of doing the same thing).  Essentially, it’s a Jamaican flavour bomb and the other remarkable thing about it is who made it, and from where.

The Stolen Overproof is an indie bottling — the company was formed in 2010 in New Zealand, and seems to be a primarily US based op these days — and the story I heard was that somehow they laid hands on some barrels of Hampden distillate way back in 2016 (Scott Ferguson mentions it was 5000 cases in his video review) and brought it to market. This is fairly recently, you might say, but even a mere three years ago, Hampden was not a household name, having just launched themselves into the global marketplace, and Velier’s 2010 6 YO HLCF only reached the greater rum audience in 2017 – apparently this rum is from the same batch of barrels.  The Stolen is still relatively affordable if you can find it (US$18 for a 375ml bottle), and my only guess is that they literally did not know what they had and put a standard markup on the rum, never imagining how huge Jamaica rum of this kind would become in the years ahead. 

When discussing Bacardi’s near-forgotten foray into limited bottlings, I remarked that just because you slap a Jamaican distillery name on a label does not mean you instantly have a great juice. But the reverse can also be true: you can have an almost-unobserved release of an unidentified Jamaican rum from a near-unknown third-tier bottler, and done right and done well, it’ll do its best to wow your socks off. This is one of those.

(#669)(85/100)


Other Notes

60,000 1/2 sized 375ml bottles were issued, so ~22,500 liters. All ageing was confirmed to be at Hampden Estate.


Opinion, somewhat tangential to the review….

If you want to know why I generally disregard the scorings and opinions on Rum Ratings, searching for this rum tells you why.  This is a really good piece of work that’s been on the market for three years, and on that site and in all that time, it has garnered a rich and varied total of six scores – one 9-pointer, three at 7 points, one of 4 … and Joola69’s rating of 1. “Just another Jamaican glue and funk rum” he sneered rather contemptuously from the commanding heights of his 2,350 other rum ratings (the top choices of which are mostly devoted to Spanish/Latin column still spirits). If you want a contrary opinion that indicts the New Jamaicans as a class, there’s one for you.

Certainly such rums as the gentleman champions have their place and they remain great sellers and crowd pleasing favourites. But really good rums should — and do — adhere to rather higher standards than just pleasing everyone with soft sweet smoothness, and in this case, a dismissive remark like the one made simply shows the author does not know what good rums have developed into, and, sadly, that having scored more than 2000 rums hasn’t improved or changed his outlook.  Which is bad for all those who blindly follow and therefore never try a rum like these New Jamaicans, but good for the rest of us who can now get more of the good stuff for ourselves. Perhaps I should be more grateful.

Oct 102019
 

Rumaniacs Review #100 | 0664

The further back in time we go, the less we can find out about rum, not least because such things weren’t considered anything particularly premium back then and the collector’s bug is a recent phenomenon.  And even if a bottle were in fact to have survived from as far back as the 1890s – which is when this one was estimated to have been released – who would have bothered to record it, or written about it, or tried to preserve the appearance, or the label?

Well, we have what we have, so let’s see where it leads. According to the label (which itself a recreation), we are given that it’s a Jamaican rum bottled in France. It must have then been imported to New York by Greig, Lawrence and Hoyt Ltd, but when? According to Renee of Renee’s rarities (he makes a hobby of finding and tracing such dinosaurs) , it could not be dated more precisely than between 1887 and 1900 and I’ll go with that because we literally have nothing better. Secondly, what was the company? Well, that address in NW is now the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in existence since 1965, so no hope there. The company was clearly a wholesale importer based on an obscure 1943 catalog of Madeira wines they put out. I doubt the company remains in existence, as there is no current reference to it anywhere.  Dead end.

As for the rum itself. I could trace Rhum St. Germain out of Bourdeaux as a brand belonging to the company of Robert Behrend & Co. from that city.  The style of lettering of labels that are available, do support a turn of the century print date — the firm was active at this time, being a general spirits distributor, and were known for their wines —  but the problem is, there’s no label linking the specific rum to these labels, so it’s less than conclusive.  I think we could perhaps accept that this is a rum from prewar or interwar years, which could conceivably be from the turn of the century, originating in Jamaica if the label is to be trusted, bottled in France, and then reshipped to the USA.  I wish I could tell you more. But that’s it.

Colour – gold

Strength – ~40% (assumed)

Nose – A relatively light rum, sharp, crisp, not deep, lacking any kind of signature Jamaican flavour.  There are aromas of honey, sweet cherries, blackberries, strawberries, grapes. Also some faint coffee and chocolate notes which are quite pleasant, but overall, it’s thin cheese, really — a lot is going on but it’s too faint to come to grips with

Palate – Nope, not much here either.  Cherries, mangoes, ripe yellow peaches, apricots, honey, with some lighter spices and cider-like notes.  Hard to pick apart anything, so in point of fact it might be even less than the estimated 40%

Finish – Short, sweet and thin.  A bit of fruits and cinnamon and gooseberries, green apples and grapes.

Thoughts: Leaves me with more doubts than anything else.  It tastes just a little like a Jamaican, and is maddeningly un-specific.  No molasses, no real grassiness, and though there’s some hints of sharper fruity flavours and sweetness that hint at something, it’s all too faint to pick apart and come to a conclusion.  Maybe the Germans weren’t the only ones to do a Verschnitt back in the day – I could get behind the theory that it’s ethanol dosed with a high ester Jamaican with no issues. It’s a pleasant rum to drink, I suppose – at least there’s that.  

(#664 | R-100)(69/100)


Other Notes

The Rumaniacs Project has lost some steam of late, but I like the idea of writing about old rums from the past as an exercise in preserving knowledge.  Since I lack the facilities of Luca and Steve to collect thousands of bottles, this is my small contribution, and I’m really happy to keep it going until I become a permanent addition to my own collection.

Sep 192019
 

Much of the perception of small and new companies’ rums is tied up in their founders and how they interact with the general public. Perhaps nowhere is this both easier and harder to do than in the United States – easier because of the “plucky little engine that could” mythos of the solo tinkerer, harder because of the sheer geographical scale of the country. Too, it’s one thing to make a new rum, quite another to get a Je m’en fous public of Rhett Butlers to give a damn.  And this is why the chatterati and online punditocracy barely know any of the hundreds of small distilleries making rum in the USA (listed with such patience by the Burrs and Will Hoekenga in their websites)…but are often very much aware of the colourful founders of such enterprises.

That said, even within this ocean of relative indifference, a few companies and names stand out.  We’ve been hearing more about Montanya Distillery and master blender Karen Hoskin, everyone knows about Bailey Prior and the Real McCoy line, Lost Spirits may have faded from view but has great name recognition, Koloa has been making rum for ages, Pritchard’s and Richland are almost Old Stalwarts these days, the Eastern seaboard has its fair share of up and coming little rinky-dinks…and then there’s Privateer and its driven, enthusiastic, always-engaged master blender, Maggie Campbell, whose sense of humour can be gauged by her Instagram handle, “Half Pint Maggie.”

Privateer was formed by Andrew Cabot after he walked away from his tech-CEO day job in 2008 and decided to try his hand at making a really good American rum, something many considered to be a contradiction in terms (some still do). In 2011 he opened a distillery in an industrial park in Ipswich, Massachusetts but dissatisfied with initial results sniffed around for a master distiller who could deliver on his vision, and picked a then-unemployed Ms. Cambell who had distilling experience with whiskey and brandy (and cognac), and she has stayed with the company ever since. The rum is made from grade A molasses, and is twice distilled, once in a pot and once in a columnar still, before being laid to rest in charred american oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The company’s ethos is one of no additives and no messing around, which I’m perfectly happy to take on trust.

So, all that done away with, what’s this Navy Yard rum, which was first introduced back in 2016, actually like?  

Well, not bad at all. Each of the three times I tried the rum, the first thing out the door was sawdust and faint pencil shavings, swiftly dissipating to be replaced by vanilla, crushed walnuts and almonds, salted butter, caramel, butterscotch, a touch of the molasses brush, and the faintest tinge of orange peel.  What is surprising about this admittedly standard and straightforward – even simplistic – profile is how well it comes together in spite of the lack of clearly evident spices, fruits and high notes that would balance it off better. I mean, it works – on its own level, true, dancing to its own beat, yes, a little off-kilter and nothing over-the-top complex, sure…but it works. It’s a solid, aromatic dram to sniff.

The mouthfeel is quite good, one hardly feels the burn of navy strength 57.1%…at least not initially. When sipped, at first it feels warm and oily, redolent of aromatic tobacco, tart sour cream on a fruit salad (aha! – there they were!) composed of blueberries, raspberries and unripe peaches.  Vanilla remains omnipresent and unavoidable, but it does recede somewhat and tries hard not to be obnoxious – a more powerful presence might derail this rum for good. As it develops the spiciness ratchets up without ever going overboard (although it does feel a bit thinner than the nose and the ABV had suggested it would be), and gradually dates and brine and olives and figs make themselves known. The rather dry finish comes gradually and takes its time without providing anything new, summing up the whole experience decently – with salted caramel, vanilla, butter, cereal, anise and a hint of fruits — and for me, it was a diminution of the positive experience of the nose and taste.

Overall, it’s a good young rum which shows its blended philosophy and charred barrel origins clearly. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that it’s well blended, the edges of pot and column merging seamlessly; it’s tasty and strong, with just a few flavours coming together. What it lacked was the complexity and depth a few more years of ageing might have imparted, and a series of crisper, fruitier notes that might balance it off better; and as I’ve said, the char provided a surfeit of vanilla, which was always too much in the front to appeal to me.

I’ve often remarked about American spirits producers who make rum, that rum seems to be something of a sideline to them, a cheaply-made cash filler to make ends meet while the whiskies that are their true priorities are ageing.  That’s not the case here because the company has been resolutely rum-focused from eight o’clock, Day One – but when I tasted it, I was surprised to be reminded of the Balcones rum from Texas, with which it shared quite a lot of textural and aromatic similarities, and to some extent also the blended pot/column Barbadian rums with which Foursquare has had such success (more Doorly’s than ECS, for the curious). That speaks well for the rum and its brothers up and down the line, and it’s clear that there’s nothing half-pint or half-assed about the Navy Yard or Privateer at all.  For me, this rum is not at the top of the heap when rated globally, but it is one of the better ones I’ve had from the US specifically.  What it achieves is to make me want to try others from the company, pronto, and if that isn’t the sure sign of success by a master distiller, then I don’t know what is.

(#658)(83/100)


Opinion

After I wrote the above, I wondered about the discrepancy in my own perception of the Navy Yard, versus the really positive commentaries I’d read, both on social media and the few reviews others had written (94 points on Distiller, for example, and Drink Insider rated it 92 with nary a negative note anywhere on FB). Now, there is as yet no reviewer or commentator outside the US who has written about the Navy Yard (or others in the line), partly because its distribution remains there; those who did really went ape for the thing, some going so far as to call it the best american rum, so why didn’t I like it more?  

The only answer I can come up with that isn’t directly related to my own palate and experience tasting rums from around the world, is that they are not coming to Privateer with the same background as others are, or I do. The sad Sahara of what is euphemistically called “rum choice” in the US, a resultant of the three-tier distribution dysfunction they amusingly call a “system”, promotes a rum selection of cheap quantity, but so denuded of real quality that when the girl next door makes something so much better than the mass-produced crap that masquerades as top-drawer rum over there, it just overloads the circuits of the local tippling class, and the points roll in like chips at a winning table in Vegas. 

This is not in any way to take away from the achievement of Maggie Cambpbell and others like her, who work tirelessly every day to raise the low bar of American rumdom. Reading around and paying attention makes it clear that Ms. Campbell is a knowledgeable and educated rum junkie, making rum to her own specs, and releasing juice that’s a step above many other US brands. The next step is to make it even better so that it takes on better known Names from around the world which – for now – rate higher. Given her fierce commitment to the brand and the various iterations they’re putting out the door, I have no doubt there will be much more to come from Privateer and I look forward to the day when the company’s hooch muscles its way to the forefront of the global rum scene, and not just America’s.


Other Notes

I drew on Matt Pietrek’s deep dive for some of the biographical details, as well as articles on Thrillist, Imbibe and various posts about Privateer on FB. Details of the company, Ms. Campbell and the distillation steps can be found both Matt’s work and t8ke’s review, here.  This is one of those cases where there’s so much information washing around that a synopsis is all that’s needed here, and if your interest has been piqued, follow the links to go deeper.

Aug 122019
 

Last week, I remarked briefly on persons who are famous or excel in some aspect of their lives, who then go off an lend their names to another product, like spirits – Blackwell was one of these, George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila is another, Bailey Pryor’s Real McCoy line might be among the best known, and here is one that crossed my path not too long ago, a Hawaiian white rum made with the imprimatur of Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar who maintains a residence on Maui and has long been involved in restaurants and spirits (like Cabo Wabo tequila) as a sideline from the gigs for which he is more famous.

It’s always a toss-up whether the visibility and “fame” of such a rum is canny branding / marketing or something real, since the advertising around the associated Name usually swamps any intrinsic quality the spirit might have had to begin with. There’s a fair amount of under-the-hood background (or lack thereof) to the production of this rum, but for the moment, I want to quickly get to the tasting notes, just to get that out of the way.

First off, it’s a 40% rum, white, and filtered, so the real question is what’s the source? The back label remarks that it’s made from “first pressing of virgin Maui sugar cane” (as opposed to the slutty non-Catholic kind of cane, I’m guessing) but the YouTube video (timestamp 1:02) that promotes it suggests brown sugar (which is true) so, I dunno.  Whatever the case, it really does smell more like an agricole than a molasses-based rum: it starts, for example, with soda pop – sprite, fanta – adds bubble gum and lemon zest, and has a sort of vegetal grassy note that makes me think that the word “green” is not entirely out of place. Also iced tea with a mint leaf, and the tartness of ginnip and gooseberries.  It’s also surprisingly sharp for something at standard strength, though not enough to be annoying. 

In that promotional video, Mr. Hagar says that the most distinct thing about the rum is the nose, and I believe it, because the palate pretty much fails by simply being too weak and insufficient to carry the promise of the nose on to the tongue in any meaningful way. It’s sharp and thin, quite clear, and tastes of lemon rind, pickled gherkins, freshly mown grass, sugar water, cane juice, and with the slightly off background of really good olive oil backing it up.  But really, at end, there’s not much really there, no real complexity, and all of it goes away fast, leaving no serious aftertaste to mull over and savour and enjoy. The finish circles back to the beginning and the sense of sprite / 7-up, a bit of grass and a touch of light citrus, just not enough to provide a serious impression of any kind.

This is not really a rum to have by itself.  It’s too meek and mild, and sort of presents like an agricole that isn’t, a dry Riesling or a low-rent cachaca minus the Brazilian woods, which makes one wonder how it got made to taste that way.

And therein lies something of an issue because nowhere are the production details clearly spelled out.  Let’s start at the beginning: Mr. Hagar does not own a distillery. Instead, like Bailey Pryor, he contracts out the manufacture of the rum to another outfit, Hali’imaile Distilling, which was established in 2010 on Maui – the owners were involved in a less than stellar rum brand called Whaler’s which I personally disliked intensely.  They in turn make a series of spirits – whiskey, vodka, gin, rum – under a brand called Pau, and what instantly makes me uneasy is that for all the bright and sparkling website videos and photos, the “History” page remarks that pineapple is used as a source material for their vodka, rum is not mentioned, and cane is nowhere noted as being utilized; note, though, that Mr. Hagar’s video mentions sugar cane and brown sugar without further elaboration, and the Hali’imaile Distilling Company did confirm they use a mash of turbinado sugar.  However, in late 2016 Hali’imaile no longer makes the Sammy’s rum.  In that year the sugar mill on Maui closed and production was shifted to Puerto Rico’s Seralles distillery, which also makes the Don Q brand – so pay close attention to your label, to see if you got a newer version of the rum, or the older Hawaiian one. Note that Levecke, the parent company of Hali’imaile, continues to be responsible for the bottling.

With some exceptions, American distillers and their rums seem to operate along such lines of “less is more” — the exceptions are usually where owners are directly involved in their production processes, ultimate products and the brands. The more supermarket-level rums give less information and expect more sales, based on slick websites, well-known promoters, unverifiable-but-wonderful origin stories and enthusiastic endorsements.  Too often such rums (even ones labelled “Super Premium” like this one) when looked at in depth, show nothing but a hollow shell and a sadly lacking depth of quality. I can’t entirely say that about the Beach Bar Rum – it does have some nice and light notes, does not taste added-to and is not unpleasant in any major way – but the lack of information behind how it is made, and its low-key profile, makes me want to use it only for exactly what it is made: not neat, and not to share with my rum chums — just as a relatively unexceptional daiquiri ingredient.

(#650)(72/100)


Other notes

  • The rum is filtered but I am unable to say whether it has been aged. The video by Let’s Tiki speaks of an oak taste that I did not detect myself.
Aug 072019
 

The Blackwell Fine Jamaican rum is the result of another one of those stories we hear these days, about somebody with good intentions, oodles of spare cash, and some street cred in another creative field of endeavour (music, movies, TV, writing, master of the universe, Wall Street, take your pick), deciding they can make [insert product name here] just because (a) they always liked it (b) they have eaten / drunk / smoked / worn / read / watched / experienced it for many years and (c) they want to immortalize their own preference for said product.  “How difficult can it be?” you can almost hear them asking themselves, with a sort of endearing innocence. When that kind of thing is done well and with focus, we get Renegade. When done with less, we get this.

With all due respect to the makers who expended effort and sweat to bring this to market, I gotta be honest and say the Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum doesn’t impress. Part of that is the promo materials, which remark that it is “A traditional dark rum with the smooth and light body character of a gold rum.” Wait, what?  Even Peter Holland usually the most easy going and sanguine of men, was forced to ask in his FB post “What does that even mean?” I imagine him nobly restraining the urge to add an expletive or two in there, because colour has been so long dismissed as an indicator of a rum’s type or an arbiter of its quality. 

Still, here’s the schtick: it’s a 40% ABV throwback to yesteryear’s mild rums, a blend of pot and column still rums from that little hoochery J. Wray, and no age statement: it has indeed been aged (in ex bourbon barrels), but I’ve heard 2-4 years ageing, one guy at the 2019 Paris fest  told me “around five” and in a review from back in 2014, The Fat Rum Pirate noted it was “only aged for 1 year”. We’re going to have to say we don’t know, here. Though I question whether it’s important at all, since everything about it suggests it is not meant as a sipping rum, more a cocktail ingredient, and some rough edges and youthful notes are tolerated characteristics in such a product.  

An inviting dark red-amber colour, the first sharp and hot notes out the glass are caramel, molasses, light vanilla, not much like the younger Appletons, any of them. There’s a wisp of seaspray whisking a single olive into your face, some raisins, black cake and cinnamon – but funk, rotting bananas, spoiling fruit?  Nah, dem ting gaan AWOL, don’ go lookin’. To be honest, as something that trumpets the fact that it’s a Jamaican rum, it seems to be in no hurry to actually smell like one. 

The palate is equally indeterminate, and its unique characteristics may be youthful sharpness and jagged edges, to say nothing of its overall rough feel on the tongue. Even at 40% that’s no fun, but once it relaxes (which happens quickly) it becomes easier – at the cost of losing what tastes it initially displayed into a vague melded mist of nothing-in particular. These were fruits, dark ones, black cake, molasses, cinnamon, lemon peel, fading fast into a rough and hurried finish that was sweet, with some licorice, bananas, lemon peel and a couple of  raisins. Frankly, I thought it something of a yawn through, but admittedly I say this from the perspective of a guy who has tasted growly old bastards bottled north of 60% from the New Jamaicans. Anyway, it reminds me less of a Jamaican rum than one like Cruzan or Gosling’s, one of those blended every-bar-has-one dark mixing rums I cut my teeth on decades back.

With respect to the good stuff from around the island — and these days, there’s so much of it sloshing about —  this one is feels like an afterthought, a personal pet project rather than a serious commercial endeavour, and I’m at something of a loss to say who it’s for.  Fans of the quiet, light rums of twenty years ago? Tiki lovers? Barflies? Bartenders? Beginners now getting into the pantheon? Maybe it’s just for the maker — after all, it’s been around since 2012, yet how many of you can actually say you’ve heard of it, let alone tried a shot?  

The real question is, I suppose, what other rum-drinking people think of it. I may be going too far out on a limb here, but my personal opinion is that Not much is the most likely answer of the kindhearted, and Nothing at all is the response of the rest. Me, I’m with those guys.

(#649)(69/100)


 

Other notes

  • The Blackwell brand was formed by Mr. Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) and Mr. Richard Kirshenbaum (CEO of NSGSWAT, a NY ad agency), back in 2012. The Blackwell rum derives from a blend of pot and column distillate made by J. Wray and Nephew, developed with the help of Joy Spence, and is supposedly based on a Blackwell family recipe (secret and time honoured, of course — they all are) which hails from the time the Lindo family (who are related directly to Mr. Blackwell) owned J. Wray & Nephew. In 1916 Lindo Brothers & Co. bought J. Wray, and picked up the Appleton sugar estate at the same time. The whole edifice was merged into one company, J. Wray and Nephew Ltd, and it existed for nearly a hundred years until 2012, when the Campari group bought the company.
  • The words “Black Gold and “Special Reserve” on the label are marketing terms and have no bearing on the quality of the rum itself, or its antecedents.
Apr 072019
 

When a bunch of the rum chums and I gathered some time back to damage some rums and show them who was boss, one of them remarked of this rum, “Easy drinking” — which initially I thought was damning it with faint praise until I tried it myself, and continued with it three or four more times after they all staggered back to their fleabag hotels, surprised by its overall worth.  It’s not often you get to try (or be really pleased by) an indie bottling from the USA, given how much they are in love with starting whole distilleries rather than sourcing other people’s juice.

Which is not to say that Smooth Ambler, the West Virginia outfit that made it (and then never made another) isn’t a distillery – it is.  But like most American spirits makers, they are into whiskies, not rums, and one can only speculate that given the components of this thing are reputed to date from 1990 and earlier, that to make it at all they must have gotten a pretty good deal on the distillate, and it’s to our regret that they themselves commented that it was a one time deal for them, as “we don’t make rum.”  

That out of the way, tasting notes. Nose first: take your pick on the terms — rancio, hogo, dunder, funk — it’s all there.  Rich and sharp fruits. Red currants, pomegranates, rotten bananas and a milder form of fruits thrown on the midden that haven’t completely spoiled yet.  Caramel, vanilla. I actually thought it was a muted Hampden or Worthy Park, and it was only after it opened for a bit that other aspects came forward – vanilla, caramel and some tannics from the oak, which is not surprising since part of the blend comes from (what is assumed to be) 75% Appleton’s column distilled 1990 stock (so 23 YO, given this was bottled in early 2014) and another 25% from a pot still dating back, according to them, 1985. No idea where it was aged, but for its richness, I’d almost say tropical.

Palate and nose diverged rather markedly in one key aspect – the characteristic Jamaican funk took a serious back seat when I tasted it, and became much more balanced, really quite approachable, if losing somewhat of its individuality and craziness that so characterizes Jamaican high-ester screamers.  Some of the acidic fruits remained – green apples, sultanas, cider, bitter chocolate, vinegar — but with some attention one could easily discern soy, olives and brine as well, to say nothing of sweeter, softer fruits like tinned peaches and apricots in syrup. Plus maybe a bit of cumin, smoke and lemon peel.  There is a layer of nuttiness, caramel and toffee underneath all that, but it serves more as a counterpoint than a counterweight, being too faint to catch much glory. Much of this stayed put on the finish which was soft yet spicy, just on the rough side of being tamed completely, with cumin, nuts and fruits closing things off, perhaps without bombast, but at least with a little style.

It’s a tough call, what to think of something like this.  The balance is good, and oddly enough it reminds me more of a Jamaican and Cuban blend than a meld of two Jamaican houses.  The strength at 49.5% is also spot on, residing in that pleasant area that is more than standard strength without tearing your tonsils out as a cask strength sixty-percenter might. There’s a lot here that a bourbon fancier might enjoy, I think, and while it won’t take on the big Jamaican players we now know so well, it’ll give a good account of itself nevertheless. I thought it an interesting rum and a very sippable dram for those who want to try something a little different, and as I finished my fifth glass, I could only think that yes, my friend was right when he said I had to try it; and that it was a crying shame Smooth Ambler didn’t care enough about rums to follow up with what they had achieved on their first go through the gate.

(#614)(84/100)


Other notes

Both the Rum Barrel (on Facebook) and The Fat Rum Pirate commented on its excessive oakiness, but I felt it was just fine myself.

Mar 062019
 

So here we have a rum I’ve never heard of before, made by an outfit called Florida Caribbean Distillers (FCD) in (where else?) Florida. For those with better memories than mine, if the company name sounds familiar, it should be – this is the same one that is contracted to make the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5 Florida rum I wrote about a few months ago.

FCD is located halfway between Orlando and Tampa: they control the Club Caribe Distillery in Puerto Rico, as well as distilleries in Lake Alfred and Auburndale (both in Florida – the latter distillery produces this rum).  They are the oldest continuously running distillery in the US, being formed in 1943, and (somewhat to my surprise) said to be the largest rum producer in the US, bottle all rum for Cruzan and several smaller labels for contract clients including cruise lines and duty free shops as well as providing distillation, storage, ageing and bottling facilities as part of their service.

They make a bunch of other spirits as well – liqueurs, wines, vodkas, whiskies et al, which means that focus on true batch and artisanal production is not part of the programme. So if you’re looking for some kind of pot-still originality from a leaky, farty backwoods micro-distillery run by a grizzled old salt legalizing his moonshine, or a spanking new copper thing bolted together by an eager-beaver yuppie with the ink barely dry on his MBA and a strong minor in ecological distilling, well, this isn’t really either of those things.

What it is, is a blend of “select rums” aged two years in sherry casks, issued at 42% and gold-coloured. One can surmise that the source of the molasses is the same as the Noxx & Dunn, cane grown in the state.  Everything else on the front and back labels can be ignored, especially the whole business about being “hand-crafted,” “small batch” and a “true Florida rum” – because those things give the misleading impression this is indeed some kind of artisan product, when it’s pretty much a low-end rum made in bulk from column still distillate; and I personally think is neutral spirit that’s subsequently aged and maybe coloured (though they deny any additives in the rum).

Anyway, tasting notes: the nose is the best part, stop reading if that’s all you need. Nutty cereals and salt crackers with cream cheese.  Citrus, flowers, brine and pickled gherkins in balsamic vinegar.. Soft and creamy, quite unaggressive, but tasty enough. Some white chocolate, brown sugar, cinnamon, but the overarching aromatic notes are the salt of maggi cubes and avocados.

To taste it’s disappointing, and leaves me wondering where the sherry influence went and hid itself. There’s some good stuff going on when you smell it, but to taste it wimps out and goes flat as spit on a hot rock.  There’s traces of oaken tannins, salt, caramel, a hint of white fruits, grapes, unsweetened chocolate. Also cereals, nuts, toffee, with a faint line of citrus twittering in the background, nothing really noticeable unless you concentrate.  All in all, it’s actually quite simple, and tastes very young, even a bit harsh, untamed (and not in the way an unaged white does). This jagged bite carries over into the finish as well, which really could use some taming, and gives little beyond some very light fruits and florals, and a last briny note.

For my money, the Florida Old Reserve Rum is not strong enough to make a statement, not old enough to demonstrate real complexity, not distinct enough in any way to perk up a cocktail; and the sherry cask ageing?….well, it’s something of a challenge to find traces of it at all. Tried blind, I doubt you’d notice its absence (or presence, or care). What it seems to be is something of a product that showcases what the distillery can do for others and maybe to bootstrap industrial scale rum making so effectively done by Bacardi.  Well, say what you will about The Bat, they at least can make decent rums. Here, I’d say that a lot more work needs to be done.

What really amazes me, in doing my background notes, is that the Beverage Tasting Institute gave the rum 93 points in 2014 and 88 in 2016.  Leaving aside the drop in scores over a two year span, one can only wonder what sort of sample set they had and what they were comparing it against, to give such a rating to something this unexceptional. If it was up to me I’d never drink the Reserve neat, and mix it without ceremony — always assuming I bought a bottle in the first place, and that’s really unlikely, now that I’ve tried it.  

(#605)(72/100)

Dec 282018
 

Just as we don’t see Americans making too many full proof rums, it’s also hard to see them making true agricoles, especially since the term is so tightly bound up with the spirits of the French islands.

Agricole, let it be remembered, is the French term for agricultural rums made from pure sugar cane juice, and called such to distinguish them (not without a little Gallic disdain, to be sure) from traditionnels, or traditional rums, which are made from molasses, a by product of the sugar making process. For the most part, having much to do with the finances, molasses rums are much preferred by producers, because the issues of storage and spoilage which afflicts cane juice (it can go bad in just a few days) – that’s one reason why agricoles are closely associated with actual sugar estates with a distillery nearby – not always easy in a country the size of the USA where there is much greater separation between the two. (Note also: by EU law (but not that of the US) the term “agricole” can only be used by French Overseas Departments (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and French Guiana) and Madeira…nobody else. A lot of distilleries the world over ignore this in practice, until time comes to sell their product in the EU)

St. George’s, a 1982-established California distillery much better known for its gins, absinthes, vodkas and whiskies, get their fresh cut cane from Imperial Valley just to the east of San Diego along the Mexican border, and when a load comes in, they crush it immediately, add the yeast and ferment (duration unknown) before running it through a pot still (Josh Miller spoke of a hybrid pot/column still when he visited them in 2013 but St. George’s wrote to me and said “pot” for sure).  The resultant spirit is rested for a short while in stainless steel tanks, with some being drawn off to age for a few years in oak, the rest being bottled at 43%. My version was based on the 2014 harvest according to the sample info, and was therefore issued in that year.

On the nose…oy!  What was this? Vegetable soup, or (take your pick) meatballs, dumplings, dim sum or spring rolls…that kind of thing.  Also vinegar, soy, pickles and fish sauce, a pot of brine and what felt like three bags of olives. Behind all that is a sharp edge, like a red wine gone off somehow, and whatever fruits there were took a reluctant step back – so much so that the first thoughts that ran through my mind as I smelled the rum was it was a low rent clairin that tried for the brass ring but ran out of steam.  Still – nice. Adventurous. Different. I like that in a white rum.

Alas, the palate, after that jarringly original overture that so piqued my interest, seemed to go to sleep, a function of the 43% ABV maybe, and a reminder that pungent rums like unaged whites don’t always succeed when dialled down to a somnolent standard strength.  Still, it did wake up after I ignored it for a bit, and gave a twitch of sugar water and watermelons, fresh-cut pears, vanilla and citrus, very light and very pleasant. Yes there was a sort of creaminess and black bread, behind which lurked the brine and olives (lots of both), but the rum seemed to have problems deciding whether it wanted to be a crowd pleaser or something truly original such as the nose had promised, and the finish – long, dry, salty, lightly fruity, sweetly watery – just followed the palate into a docile conclusion.

Truth is, the whole experience was schizophrenic – it started off with fire and smoke and major f**ken attitude, then just lost its mojo and sagged against the wall.  For all the unbalanced helping of crazy with which it opened, I liked that off-kilter nose a lot better than everything that followed because it showed all the potential that failed to be realized later on. An unaged pot-still white should be a little off-base – anything else and you have a mere cocktail ingredient and there are already enough of those around.

That said, it’s not that I actively disliked the rum…just that I felt there was nothing serious here: nothing badass that dared to offend…or inspire (say what you will about the TECC and TECA rums from NRJ and their barking-mad taste profiles, they had real balles).  So, at end, it’s a light alcohol with great promise (how it smelled) and too little follow-through (palate and finish). Cyril of DuRhum reviewed this same edition, scored it at 77 and provided some great details on the company, and it was tasty enough to make Josh Miller wax rhapsodic in 2013 when he visited the place, tried some and recommended it highly both by itself and in a Ti-punch (you need to read his 10/10 scored review as a serious counterpoint to mine and Cyril’s) – but here I have to be somewhat less enthusiastic based on my own tasting five years down the road.

(#583)(76/100)


Other notes

  • Neither this rum or its lightly aged brother is listed on the St. George’s website.  When I touched base with them, they sadly informed me that because of the difficulty of acquiring fresh cane, they have ceased rum production for “a number of years,” though they remain on the lookout for new and stable sources.  For the moment, they’re not making any.
  • An irrelevant aside to this review is that I inadvertently tried it twice: once in 2017 based on a sample sent to me (totally blind) by John Go; and the second time in 2018, this time one I bought on a whim.  In both cases my tasting notes were practically identical, and so was my score.  I think this is an innovative, intriguing rum from the US which can and should be tried if possible.

 

Dec 222018
 

We don’t much associate the USA with cask strength rums, though of course they do exist, and the country has a long history with the spirit.  These days, even allowing for a swelling wave of rum appreciation here and there, the US rum market seems to be primarily made up of low-end mass-market hooch from massive conglomerates at one end, and micro-distilleries of wildly varying output quality at the other. It’s the micros which interest me, because the US doesn’t do “independent bottlers” as such – they do this, and that makes things interesting, since one never knows what new and amazing juice may be lurking just around the corner, made with whatever bathtub-and-shower-nozzle-held-together-with-duct-tape distillery apparatus they’ve slapped together.

Balcones, a central Texan outfit from Waco named after a fault line running through the southern half of the state, is a bit more than the kind of happy backyard operation my remarks above imply — they are a primarily whiskey distilling operation, started a decade ago, and their website has a great backstory about how it all started in an old welding shop under a bridge in Waco into which, after some refurbishment, they installed copper pot stills from Portugal, and shoehorned a whisky distillery inside. And after a few years, they began to make rum as well, because, well, “We like to drink rum so why not give it a shot?” as Thomas Mote the distillery manager cheerfully remarked to me.

Okay, so let’s see if they succeeded. Consider first the nose.  For all of the 63.9% it’s quite warm and smooth: it started out with a musky scent of damp earth, a sort of mustiness that reminded me a of a warehouse chock-a-block full of old cardboard boxes, brine, salt and sweet olives.  Then it became somewhat more bourbon-like – raisins, molasses, fleshy fruits starting to go off, then caramel, nuts, butter, vanilla and ice cream. It smells curiously indeterminate – which is why detailed fruity notes can’t be listed – you know there’s a lot of stuff here, but it’s tough to come to grips with them individually.

On the palate, after exercising all the usual precautions for a rum this strong (take a rather small sip until things settle down, because the taste is sharper than the nose leads one to believe and remember, it’s a 63.9% saloon brawler that does its very best to clean the bar counter and rip your face off at the same time), I sensed a salt-rye-fruit-bourbon soupcon of flavours on the palate: a combo of salt, sweet and sour — vegetable soup, sour cream, maggi cubes and deep caramel and vanilla notes, all at once, circling each other for dominance and advantage. The fruits – papayas, very ripe peaches in syrup – were set off by muscovado sugar and light molasses without much citrus lending a sharper note (though there was some) and to which was added hazelnuts, some sweet olives and brine, dark chocolate, cherries, fading out quietly (and lengthily) to a pleasant, warm, aromatic conclusion redolent of cherries, flambeed bananas and molasses, but nothing significantly different from the tastes that had preceded it.

Balcones was swiftly and remarkably forthcoming to all the usual inquiries, noting that it was 100% pot still and used a blend of Barbados-Style Lite Molasses and Blackstrap from Louisiana and Guatemala respectively, fermented for 4-5 weeks (much longer than anything else they make), and they play around a bit with yeast and an undisclosed dunder process to add to the flavour profile. Ageing is between 2-4 years and the rum is made in annual batches of a few thousand bottles at most, and no additives of any kind (“oak and time!” they told me proudly).

Still, taking apart those tasting notes, a number of things jump out. The caramel and vanilla and molasses notes are not precisely domineering, but very much in evidence, to the point of taking over — there’s a sort of dampening effect of the musky and more solid flavours which prevent sharper, crisper, clearer ones (fruits and citrus and florals) from emerging properly and engaging. The range of tastes on show lacked the complexities one expects of even a lightly aged rum, and yes, it actually has a profile reminiscent of a rye or bourbon, maybe a tad richer and sweeter and more congener-rich….more rum-like, if you will. It’s a pretty nifty drink for that strength.  It reminds me of my first encounter with Potter’s Dark, yet it also presents as simpler than it could have been, which makes me ask myself, as I always do with such a profile and which seems to be somewhat of a characteristic of many of the US rums I’ve tried, what is it they really want to be making and was too much whisky lore infusing the rum?

I’ve remarked before that most new and smaller US distilleries seem to be more interested in making whiskies and produce rums as something of an afterthought. Whether not not that’s the case here, Balcones has evidently given the matter quite a bit more thought than usual, and come up with a product that deserves real attention (the business with the yeast and dunder points there). It’s unquestionably a rum; it’s got real fire in its jock; it’s rum-like enough to please, while also original enough to encourage a double-take, and an all-round powerhouse fun rum. I think I’m going to keep an eye on these guys going forward – there’s some interesting stuff going on in Waco, and I hope that they expend their production to a larger stable, aged more, in the years to come.  Certainly their initial full proof rums give us a lot of reason to appreciate what they’ve done so far.

(#581)(81/100)


Other notes

The Special Release is issued annually since 2013 (twice in 2014), but identifying the year is difficult.  To the best of my knowledge, mine is from the 2016 season.

Dec 162018
 

When we think of independent bottlers, all the usual suspects out of Europe usually come to mind — Velier, Rum Nation, L’Esprit, the Compagnie, the whisky boys up north who indulge themselves in the odd single cask expression from time to time, SMWS, Bristol Spirits, and the list goes on.

These well-known names obscure the fact that smaller operations — stores and even individuals — can and do in fact issue single barrel offerings as well.  For example, Kensington Wine Market in Calgary does it with whiskies quite often; a bunch of redditors recently got together and bought a cask of a 2005 Foursquare rum; and in the case of the rum under review today, K&L Wines out of California bought a single cask of Uitvlugt Savalle-still juice from an independent warehouse in Scotland, and issued it in the States.

It excites equal parts curiosity and admiration, and not just because of the retro-cool label – although that’s quite attractive. I mean, it’s not as if the US is known for independent bottlings – they’re much more into going the whole hog and creating entire new distilleries (however small). The rum is twenty years old (1994-2014), a robust 52.8% and for once seems not to have been sourced from Scheer.  The name “Faultline” is what K&L uses for its own bottlings, and I gather that The Two Davids of K&L happened to be in Scotland in early 2014 and found two Demeraras (Enmore, Uitvlugt) and a Jamaican Hampden mouldering away, and manned up and bought the lot to issue as was – not a trivial exercise for them, since (as they put it), these casks were “much more expensive than single malt whiskies despite the fact that they’re half as desirable.”

Half as desirable?  Oh please. To American audiences maybe, but I submit that were they to try this thing and go further afield in their polling, the scales would be rather more evenly adjusted.  The nose of an Uitvlugt rum, deriving as it does from a Savalle column still, is a great counterpoint to the woodsy Enmore and PM and Versailles rums (the UF30E remains one of the best Guyanese rums ever made, in my own estimation) — here it delivered quite well. It began with a nose of old leather shoes, well polished and long broken in. It provided smoke, a faint rubber background, and after opening up, the light florals of a fabric softener and freshly sun-dried laundry.  There were more traditional aromas of caramel, vanilla, molasses, cumin, tea leaves and aromatic tobacco, with rich deep fruits (peaches, apples, apricots) dancing around these smells, but never overwhelming them.

The palate was also very approachable and tasty. Soft and warm, tasting of brine and red Moroccan olives (they’re slightly sweeter than the green ones); leather and wooden floors, old and well worn and well polished, so to speak. Fruitiness is again generally light – green grapes, peaches, some lemon zest, raisins – resting well on a bed of salty caramel, butter and cinnamon.  Overall, not too concentrated or overwhelming, and the strength is just about perfect for what it does. It teases and doles out delicate, clear notes in a sort of delicate assembly that invites further sipping, and the finish goes in yet other directions: dry and somewhat tannic, hinting at strong black unsweetened tea, oakiness, some raisins and stewed apples, toffee, toblerone and coffee grounds. Plus a last whiff of those fruity hints to round things out.

There’s not really a true periodic stable of such rum releases by K&L who are more into an “as and when” approach, and therefore such bottlings are, I submit, more like personalized number plates lending street cred to the issuer…something like vanity rums. Fun to get, fun to drink, interesting to have, great to taste, cool to point to — but not really meant to build a brand or a rum-issuing company: K&L is after all a liquor emporium, not an outfit specializing in indie bottlings. So a rum like this serves to draw attention to the store that sells them, providing a sort of exclusive cachet that you can only get if you shop there.  Well, that’s fair, I don’t rain on capitalism – but it does make that kind of release something of a one-off. It doesn’t support a wider array of brands or draw attention to other rums released by the same company, since there aren’t that many to be going on with.

That doesn’t invalidate the Uitvlugt 1994 though.  It’s lovely. It exists, smells the way it smells, tastes as it does, and is a real nice piece of work. I think what it points to is something often ignored by the larger American rum tippling public and the press —  that they have the same potential to issue good single-barrel, limited-edition, cask-strength rums as anyone else…and come up with something pretty nifty at the back-end when they try. This rum, limited as it is and even with its price tag, is really quite good…and single barrel or not, I’m sure the Davids weren’t disappointed with what they got.  I know that I wasn’t.

(#579)(85/100)


  • Big thank you to Quazi4Moto for the sample. It’s taken a while, but I got to it at last.
Sep 292018
 

Having dispensed with the age-shattering, wallet-busting Heritage Rums of the Tasting of the Century, let’s go to something a little less aged, a little less up-market, a little less well-known, and not at the same level of age or quality — something from, oh, the US.  The resurgence of rum and concomitant explosion of small micro-distilleries there suggests that sooner or later we’ll find something from over the pond and south of 49 that’ll wow our socks off.

Certainly this rum suggests that it can and implies that it does — when you peruse the website for the Noxx & Dunn 2-4-5, it leaves you with the distinct impression that it’s lovingly handmade by a team of unsung experts working to redefine the category as we know it. There are glitzy photos, weather for various parts of Florida, notes that it is unadded-to and unadulterated, made from Florida molasses, aged in Florida in American oak barrels, and it’s all very positive.  “A team of craftsmen with almost a century of knowledge believe that a blend of 2, 4 and 5 years produces the most consistent and drinkable of spirits” they remark, evidently not believing either the names of these craftsmen or consistently good older rums from anywhere else are worth mentioning.

Well, never mind my snark, let’s just dive right in and taste the thing. Like many lightly-aged blends it was gold in colour and edged timidly above the standard strength with 43% ABV.  The initial nose presented crisply and with a light fruitiness (pears, apples and apricots). It didn’t develop much beyond that, though after half an hour I could sense some vanilla, nuts, brown sugar, flowers and raspberries – and it got sharper, edgier, over time, not less, which is usually the hallmark of a very young rum, or very active barrels (they use once-used ex-bourbon barrels for ageing).

Taste-wise, not bad.  It felt something like a cross between a light Spanish style anejo and a weak Demerara without distinctly adhering to the profile of either.  Dry and crisp, it was not entirely easy on the palate — that’s the uncouth youth coming through — tasting mostly of light white fruits (guavas, pears, that kind of thing), pecans, coffee, oak and leather, and gradually developed those fruity notes the nose had hinted at – raspberries and very ripe cherries, all overlain with tannins, breakfast spices and light molasses.  The finish, quite short and sharp, was more sweet-ish, with some bitter chocolate oranges, vanilla, brown sugar and quite a bit of oak bite.

My take is that the pot still part doesn’t provide a good balance to the lighter column still portion, the age is still too young, and I felt that the oak was really overactive, exacerbating the driness and slight bitterness beyond the point of being totally approachable – though I say this as an evaluator taking it neat (as I must), not a mixing guru, for whom such a profile would probably shine more. Not a rum to sip really, more one to mix up into a cocktail of some kind.  According to Robin Wynne, that sterling barman running Miss Thing’s in Toronto who spotted me the bottle in the first place, “…I [would make] an Old Fashioned with it, or swapping out bourbon in a Vieux Carre with it. Also makes a great rum negroni…” So there are some suggestions for those inclined in that direction.

When I started sniffing around, the reps in Toronto were very helpful in providing additional information which is not on the webpage, and the story behind the brand is  somewhat more prosaic (and to my mind, rather more interesting) than what’s on public display. Noxx & Dunn is a relatively new rum on the American scene, created a few years ago by a group of individuals who used to be part of Appleton’s salesforce and were let go when Campari acquired it.  They formed their own little outfit called The Tall Tale Spirit company, and this is their only product (so far). It’s meant, as far as I’m able to determine, as a barroom mixer. The rum is primarily (but not totally) column still distillate, the blend of which is a trade secret but kept reasonably constant in order to make for a consistent taste profile.  Note that TTS don’t actually own or operate a distillery, or grow sugar cane or anything – the distillation is done by Florida Caribbean Distillers and the source is molasses from the cane grown in that state (see “other notes” below). What we have at the other end of the process, then, is a blended two-year-old rum with added components of rums four and five years old, made under contract to TTS’s specifications. Also on the plus side, there are no additives, it’s 43% and it’s fully aged in Florida in the usual American ex-bourbon oak barrels.

Overall, this is the sort of rum that is fine in a bar – which is where I found it – but not for greedily savoured home-consumption or sharing with the rum chums to show off one’s incredible perspicacity in sleuthing out undiscovered steals. Not to diss the makers, who evidently are pouring some real passion into their work, but I think it’s like many other such rums from the USA that aren’t entirely multi-column-still flavoured ethanols: too afraid to go where the flavours might actually lead, too timid to amp it up a few volts and really provide a mixer with balls or a sipper with style. It’s just shy of being a true original and that’s a shame for something that’s otherwise quite intriguing.

(#553)(78/100)


Other notes

  • As noted, the Noxx & Dunn is a contract “private label” operation, not a cane-to-cork producer. The distillery of origin is Florida Caribbean Distillers, located halfway between Orlando and Tampa: they control the Club Caribe Distillery in Puerto Rico, as well as distilleries in Lake Alfred and Auburndale (both in Florida), and provide distillation, storage, ageing and bottling facilities as part of their service.
  • Only one other review of this exists, by the Rum Howler, here.  He liked it a lot more than I did, so his opinion is worth noting, given my own more middling score.
May 182017
 

Photo (c) Quazi4moto from his Reddit post. This is the exact bottle the sample was taken from

#365

Just about everyone in the rum world knows the name of Ed Hamilton. He was the first person to set up a website devoted to rum (way back in 1995), and many of us writers who began our own blogs in the 2000s or early ‘teens — Tiare, Tatu, Chip, myself and others — started our online lives writing in and debating on the forums of the Ministry of Rum. He has written books about rum, ran tasting sessions for years, and is now a distributor for several brands around the USA.  A few years ago, he decided to get into the bottling game as well…and earned quite a fan base in North America, because almost alone among the producers in the US, he went the independent bottler route, issuing his juice at cask strength, thereby helping to popularize the concept to a crowd that had to that point just been mooning over the indie output from Europe without regularly (or ever) being able to get their hands on any.

This rum was distilled in 2004 on a Vendome pot still by St. Lucia Distillers, who also make the Admiral Rodney, 1931, Forgotten Casks and Chairman’s Reserve, if you recall. They have both a Vendome pot still and a John Dore  pot still (as well as a smaller one, and the rums mentioned above are made by blending output from all in varying proportions) – Mr. Hamilton deliberately chose the Vendome distillate for its complexity and lack of harshness, and its source was from Guyanese molasses fermented for five days.

With my usual impeccable timing, I moved away from Canada at that exact time, and never managed (or seriously attempted) to pick up any of the Ministry of Rum Collection, since my attention was immediately taken up with agricoles and the European independents. However, one correspondent of mine, tongue in cheek as always, sent me an unidentified sample (“St. Lucia” was all the bottle said), and after tasting it blind, being quite impressed and writing up my notes, I asked him what it was. Obviously it was this one, a nine year old bottled at a rip-snorting 61.3%.  And it really was something.

On the nose, the high ABV was hot but extremely well behaved, presenting wave after wave of the good stuff.  It started off with rubber and pencil shavings, old cardboard in a dry cellar, some ashy kind of minerally smell, coffee, cumin and bitter chocolate…and then settling down and letting the rather shy fruits tiptoe forwards – raisins, some orange peel, peaches and prunes, all in balance and well integrated.  No fault to find here – I was unsure whether a standard proof drink would have been quite as good (in fact, probably not).  Throughout the whole exercise – I had the glass on the table with some others for a couple of hours – there was some light smoke and burnt wood, which fortunately stayed in the background and didn’t derail the experience.

As for the palate, wow – if gold could be a taste, that was what it was.  Honey and burnt sugar, salty caramel all mixed up with flowers, more chocolate and the citrus peel.  The tannins from the barrel began to be somewhat more assertive here, but never overbearing.  In fact, the balance between these components was really well handled.  With water, deep thrumming notes of molasses and anise shook the glass, leading to grapes, pineapple, acetone (just a little), aromatic tobacco and olives in brine; and throughout, the rum maintained a firm, rich profile that was quite excellent.  Somewhere over the horizon, thunder was rolling.  And as for the finish, here it stumbled a little on the line – long as it was, the tannics became too sharp; and while other closing hints remained firm (mostly molasses, caramel and brine plus maybe a prune or two) overall some of the tempering of one taste with another was lost.  

But I must note that the rum is a damned good one.  I think it’s a useful intro rum for those making a timorous foray into cask strength, and for those who wanted more from the Admiral Rodney or the 1931 series, this might be everything they were looking for from the island.

Some years ago I ran several of the standard proof St Lucia Distillers rums against each other, observing that while they were quite good, they also seemed to be missing a subtle something that might elevate their profile and quality, and allow them take their place with the better known Bajans, Jamaicans and Guyanese.  As the rum world moved on, it is clear that in small, patient, incremental steps — perhaps they were channeling Nine Leaves — St. Lucia Distillers, the source of this rum, were upping the tempo, and it took a few European indies and one old salt from the US, to show what the potential of the island was, and is. St. Lucia may have been flying somewhat under the radar, but I’m here telling you that this is a lovely piece of work by any standard, admirable, affordable and — I certainly hope — still available.

(86/100)


Other notes

  • Vendome is a company, not a type of still, and dates back to the first decade of the 1900s, building on experience (and customers) dating back as far as the 1870s when Hoffman, Ahlers & Co. were doing brisk business in Louisville (Kentucky).
  • Aside from the eight St. Lucian rums in the portfolio, The “Hamilton Collection” includes Jamaican and Guyanese  rums.  The Hamilton 151 is specifically intended to be better than (not to supplant) the Lemon Hart 151 which was out of production at the time.
  • Kudos, thanks and a huge hat-tip to Quazi4moto, who sent the sample.  He was, you might remember, the gent who sent me the Charley’s J.B. white rum I enjoyed a few months ago.