Feb 012023
 

Bacardi hardly needs an introduction. It’s a company of ancient vintage (in rum years), one of the first and remaining big guns of the entire sector, with a storied past from the 19th century, involving the rise of an immigrant family, ruthless business practises, revolution, heartbreak, loss, global expansion and emergence at the other end as one of the great spirits conglomerates in the world. In so doing it has carved a reputation for itself so enormous that one hardly needs to say rum after its name, it is so synonymous and clearly identified with that one single drink.

And yet Bacardi as a whole has a curiously ambivalent relationship with the rum population of today, and the reputation it sports is not without its downside. Their rum is not seen as a stopping point but a start, something to leap beyond, quickly, as soon as one’s wallet can reasonably afford the extra increments that would allow one to buy a true “premium” (by whatever standard people use to define one). For this, to some extent, I blame Bacardi’s modus operandi of relentlessly pushing high-volume, low-quality mass-selling low-priced everyman rums like the Blanca, Gold or even the Superior, into every market possible without regard for improving them much or seeking to colonise a more elevated ethos of quality or premiumisation.

Even if they sell like crazy the flip side is that such ubiquitous cheap rums dilute brand appreciation and make more upscale offerings seem equally lacklustre. These days, rum writers barely acknowledge or review them any longer. And, as many of today’s expanding indies have found, while you certainly need low-priced blue-collar young rums to sell and make cash flow, you also really premium aged rums to seriously develop the brand ito a true quality seller with consumer recognition and appreciationsomething Bacardi has singularly failed to do in spite of efforts like the Facundo line, the occasional ultra-expensive halo releases, or the Single Cane brand 1.

Whatever our opinion of the Bat, however, we must always consider the groundwork laid by its famed blends from decades pastbecause among all the dross, we can indeed find the occasional surprise lying like a forgotten gem in the mud and dreck of carelessly made cheap supermarket hooch we see every day. And one of these is the rebranded Bacardi 8 year old, now called the “Reserva Ocho Rare Gold Rum.” To my mind it is among the best of the not-quite-upscale rums Bacardi makes, and Bacardi seems to have recognized it also, because they recently established (2021) the Ocho as an anchor of Bacardi’s Premium rums which began releasing variations with different finishes to buff and bolster the line.

The Bacardi Ocho / 8 in all its various guises remains quite affordable, has a solid age statement, has several components of the blend which are older than the youngest 8YO, and even if it’s issued at a lacklustre 40% (when will they move beyond that ridiculous self imposed standard, honestly? Is even 43% or 45% for major broad based releases too much to ask for?) it does have more in its trousers than is generally acknowledged.

The nose, for example, shows that quality, if perhaps too subtly for some. Even at that milquetoast strength, one can detect cinnamon, woodiness, leather, licorice, vanilla, and citrus. It’s reasonably complex for 40% – the sly and subtle fruity notes which dance and play and disappear just as soon as one comes to grips with them are a case in pointbut after the off-kilter memory of the Exclusiva, it remains a somewhat less memorable dram. It is, however, clearly and professionally made, a good step above the Gold, or the Cuatro.

The palate is a harder nut to crack. There are definitely tasting notes to be had for the diligent: it is relatively soft, warm, a touch spicy. There are notes of masala, cumin and cinnamon, standing cheek by jowl with vanilla, a squeeze of lemon zest, mauby bark, strong tea, and a hint of sweetness developing at just the right time. So you’re getting bitter and sweet, and a nice lick of the tannins from the barrel, offset to some extent by softer, more fruity notes. I just wish there were more, and the low strength makes the short and light finish a rather pallid affairit’s aromatic, woody, tannic, tobacco-infused, with some sweet to balance things off…there’s just not enough of it, I think.

For reasons surpassing my understanding, the whole rum gives this impression of trying hard to be less when it’s actually more, a perception that dogs the brand nowadays. Most reviewers don’t know what to do about the company’s wares, really, and in fact many new writers and commentators walk straight past the company and jump straight into favoured indie bottlers and expensive new craft rums (I envy them this ability, sometimes) without often stopping to wonder at the strange longevity and quality of what, at first sight, doesn’t seem to be much. It’s gotten to the point where any crowd pleasing column-still rum made by a massive conglomerate is not usually seen as a member of the Key Rums pantheon.

Yet I believe that there are reasons why a rum like this can not only be called key, but serious. It does, of course, tick all the boxes. It is affordable, whatever one might say about the source of that low cost. It is available, a point to which my personal travels can attestI’ve found the rum from the small speakeasies of Alaska and the Yukon to the bars of Central Asia, for illicit sale in the Middle East and just about everywhere in between. The Bacardi Gold is even more easily gotten (and even cheaper) but when it comes to some decent sipping quality of rum, it’s either the 8 or the 10 and for my money, given its decades-long availability everywhere I looked (or didn’t), the 8 gets it because the ten just doesn’t cut the mustard for me in the same way.

Bacardi’s rums as they have been for ages, don’t rely overmuch on flavours developed by fermentation or prioritise the distillation apparatus the way new kids on the block do; their expertise is in wood management, careful barrel usage and selection, and then the subsequent blending. They are based on the skill of maestros roneros with oodles of experience and decades of background in the craft. What comes out the other end can’t be denied, and when I consider the oft-unacknowledged chops of the Ocho as one of the premiere Spanish heritage style rums of the world, it is clear that it isn’t just a key rum for me, but a benchmark against which I rate many others of the style. And that’s no mean achievement for a brand often dismissed as yesterday’s leftovers. As I’ve tried to make clear here, it really shouldn’t be,

(#969)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The blend is tweaked slightly but remeins quite consistent. Of the five different labels shown in the picture, only the green rye-finish edition is substantially and noticeably different.
  • Although made in Puerto Rico, I argue it is less a local Key Rum emblematic of the island, than a global one.
Jan 242023
 

Taiwan is not known for rums, but then, it was not known for whisky either, and look what Kavalan has managed to accomplish. So, sooner or later, I had to come here, where an expatriate Frenchman named Oliver Caen and his Taiwanese wife Linya Chiou, have created one of the most interesting new distilling companies out there: interesting for their location, interesting for their labelling, interesting for their rums, and interesting because so few people have tried anyyet everyone knows of them, and everyone is curious to check them out. Word of mouth like that is priceless.

I’ll provide some company background below this review; for the moment, it’s enough that we know the 2017-established company has a 500L steel pot still and a more recently added 1200L copper Charentais still. Sources for the wash are both molasses and juice derived from their own small estate cane; fermentation varies and can take 15-21 days if from juice, and at least 10 days if from molasses; double distillation is practised and ageing is done in a variety of barrels sourced from France, Spain, Russia, Japan and the US. The sheer variety of the production methods they indulge in probably explains why the company has made it a hallmark of its labelling ethos to provide a level of information on the rum in each bottle that would make Luca Gargano weep with envy and frustration and for which us geeks can only be grateful.

Not many of Renaissance’s rums are as yet easily or commonly available and their production remains relatively small. The rum we are discussing today is a 2018 double-distilled 3 year old rum, and in relating the tech specs you realise that this is where that bible of a label, that ‘wall of text” comes into its own. The rum is molasses based, 15 days fermentation with some dunder, aged in a new 225L American oak cask and then finished in Fino sherry cask (Fino is a dry sherry), 306 bottle outturn and 62% ABV…and just from those details you can tell how much the label provides (I have left out quite a bit, to be honest because sometimes there is such a thing as overkill, though I’m glad to get all this too).

Anyway, the rum’s production background suggests a rich experience, and indeed, the profile is really quite interesting. The nose for example, opens right into licorice, blackcurrants, some medicinals, flortals, light delicate perfumes, vanilla and some crisp citrus notes. Underneath those aromas is something a bit softer and muskier: flambeed bananas, salt butter, the vegetable aromas of a hot and spicy miso soup leavened with ripe mangoes and lemon peel. It’s solid at 62%, though thankfully it stops short of serious aggro.

The palate was just similar enough to rums with which we are more familiar to make the occasional diversions interesting and singular, rather than off-putting. There’s som blancmange, salt caramel, bananas, licorice and almonds, all at once. This is followed, as the rum opens up some, with sharper and quite clear citrus and floral notes, some burnt bell peppers, chocolate oranges, unsweetened chocolate coffee grounds andpeculiarlyeven quinine comes to mind (and I should know). There is some faint sweet spiciness at the tail end which bleeds over into the long finishthis is mostly cloves, ginger, licoricebut at the end it’s fruity with raspberries and some syrup, honey and brine.

Well, labelling is one thing and presentation goes hand in had with it, so it talks well, but based on what I’ve described, does it walk? Opinions are mixed. All in all, there’s a fair bit of hop-skip-and-jump going on here and perhaps its inevitable that with a rum being this young and with all those processes in its DNA, it would be a little uneven. The Fat Rum Pirate, in one of the best reviews so far, suggested this very aspect, wondered what it was like without the Fino finish, and rated it three stars (out of five). Will and John of the Rumcast named this one of their rums of 2022 (in the “most surprising” category at 1:11:28) and Will remarked that “if a high ester Jamaican rum and a Fijian rum walked into a bar and had too much sherry, it would be this rum” but stayed clear of making either a full throated endorsement or a dismissal. The originality was clearly key for Will, as it was so unusual. Serge over at WhiskyFun commented on it being “big,” that he didn’t get the finish, couldn’t say it was brilliant…but surely worth checking out.

That’s really what I come down to as well. It’s unusual, in a good way. While some more ageing would likely make it better, it may be too early to ask for that: as with many small up and coming distilleries who need to make cash flow, young rums is what we’re getting (the Australians were also like this, as are some of the new American craft distilleries). The rum does channel a bit of Jamaican, and combines it with something softer and easiera Barbadian or Panama rum, say (Serge said Lost Spirits, which I thought was a stretch) – and what it reminds me of is, oddly enough, Montanya’s Exclusiva, which scored the same. The Renaissance gains points for somewhat different reasons, but it remains in the mind just as Montanya doesand all I can say is that I just wish it was cheaper.

(#968)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • For now it simply costs too much for serious appreciation, but I do recommend it.
  • This is an exclusive bottling for The Whisky Exchange
  • A brief backgrounder. The husband and wife team have been spirits importers to Taiwan since 2006; by 2013 they felt that the combination of rum’s rise on the international scene, the lack of a “serious” Taiwanese branded rum and their feeling that there could and should be one, made them investigate starting a distillery of their own (at the time Taiwan produced brands called Koxinga Gold and Wonderland, but these were not well regarded and almost unknown outside the island). Experimenting with molasses, juice or cane sugar on a 500L stainless steel pot still for the next three years (without a licence and while holding down day jobs), they decided that the rums they could make were viable, and went on to formally establish Renaissance in 2017 as a single estate distillery in southern Taiwan, using organic methods and mono-varietal cane.
  • Taiwan had a solid sugar cane industry (cane has been recorded there at least since the 14th century, and the the Dutch introduced industrial sugar production in the 1600s when the island was known as Dutch Formosa)
  • Although agriculture uses almost a quarter of the land in Taiwan (and a full half of the entire sector is plant-crop based), moves to an industrialised hi-tech manufacturing economy have gradually reduced its share to less than 2% of GDP (from 35% in 1952), and it is considered a support of the economy, not a primary driver; land use has been shrinking as well, even though the Government wants this to change in order to promote better food security. Sugar cane used to be an export crop but has been reduced of late, and is not a major focus in Taiwan any longer; therefore it is not surprising that a vibrant sugar or spirits industry based on cane has never really developed (Government monopolies, and restrictions on spirits production, were other reasons); wine on the other hand has become more popular, and the example of Kavalan whiskey is a model that no doubt influenced Mr. Caen as well.
Jan 192023
 

 

Developments over the last few years suggest that the American rum world may slowly be shaking off its lethargy and race to the cheap bottom, and embracing a more serious rum loving ethos. Rum clubs are starting up all over the place, American spirits enthusiasts are posting reviews on social media left right and centre, more and more distilleries are making rumand with the sterling efforts of the Old Guard like Richland, St. George’s, Prichard’s, Balcones, Maggie’s Farm and others, it is now possible for you to speak about American Rum (with caps) without somebody just pityingly shaking their head at you and wondering what you were smoking. There are decent cane juice agricole-style rums coming out of Hawaii and the South, interesting experiments in New England, cask strength monsters out of Texas, and even American independent bottlers are springing up from the field like sown dragon’s teeth.

To be clear, not all of themnot most of themmake much that compares well to the big names and heavy hitters of the global rum world which gather most of the plaudits and respect (so obviously I’m not talking about McDowell’s, Bacardi, Zacapa or others in multinational combines’ low-rent stables). We have yet to see a Hampden, Worthy Park, Saint James, Nine Leaves or Savanna in the lineup coming out of the USA…and yet, there are signs that some distilleries, a few, are getting there.

To my mind, one of these Little Outfits That Could is Montanya Distillers who we have met before when discussing their fascinating Platino. Few American distilleries of any size have the street cred engendered by this one small outfit in Colorado that has yet to hit its fifteenth year of operation…and that with just four rums in the standard lineup, none of which exceeds five years’ ageing. Part of it is their published environmental record, the commitment to sustainability and their gender diversity…and partly it’s some pretty good rums as well.

Today we’ll look at one of their older expressions, the 3 year old “Exclusiva”, which one year younger than the top of the line 4YO Valentia. Nothing significant has changed since the Platino review: the Lula Sugar Mill co-op provides the complete residue from the minimal juice processing they doraw unrefined molasses (12% of the fermentations) and raw unrefined granulated cane sugar (88%) which then gets fermented for around a week, before going through the 400L direct-fire Portuguese pot still (the newer US-made still that was installed in 2021 has not seen output to bottle yet). Following In this case the distillate was aged for 2½ years in ex-whiskey American oak barrels (Laws Bourbon for the curious), and six months in French oak that once held Cabernet Sauvignon and port, made by Sutcliffe Vineyards, also a Colorado operation. 1 And then it’s bottled at a standard 40%, which to my mind, is something of a disappointment.

But only for a while, because what this all leads to is a fascinating young rum, a distinctive piece of workone that exceeds its paltry age stats and strength by quite a margin. The recalibration of my original doubts started as soon as I nosed it and inhaled solid scents of dry dusty earth, leather sofa with lint, cereal and of course, old libraries of mouldering textbooks. It smells of the thick, briny, rich beef-filled lentil soup Grandpa Caner used to insist on having every Sunday….and then the rum’s nose really starts to warm up. When that happens, it’s confounding: the fruits come out of nowhere and take over: raspberries, strawberry soda pop, Dr. Pepper, ginger ale; there’s a tart sort of warm earthiness to the whole thing reminiscent of a voluble Berbice fishwife trying to sell you a couple of stale fish and set you up with her daughter at the same time, and as if that isn’t enough, there’s a distinct smell of dirty dishwater with soap (people, I am not making this up!), black pepper and a milky rice porridge. It’s by far the most peculiar nose I’ve worked on all year, among the most distinctive, and entertaining.

So thus far, with just the nose it’s pretty cool, and I had fun ribbing Jazz and Indy about it as my tasting notes grew longer. That said, the taste is more traditional and perhaps more conservative. So the cardboard, leather and mustiness all make an encore, as do the decaying old textbooks; if you can wrap your head around this, it’s watery, woody, dry and papery at the beginning, all at the same time. Some licorice makes a bleated entrance, a few darker fruits like prunes and plums and a few lighter ones like apricots and very ripe mangoes; there’s leather, cinnamon and freshly grated ginger, fanta, and I must say, I did not miss the dishwater one bit. It’s stolid and solid, with the playfulness of the fruits and lighter elements adding a nice counterpoint. Finish is short, to be expected at 40% ABV, but at least it’s on par, nicely aromatic with cereal, brown sugar, vanilla, some light citrus, licorice and nail polish, and didn’t drop the ball into complete insubstantiality as too often happens with young and light rums

Usually, when any small rum company uses terms like “Exclusive” and “Family Reserve” and “Lost Casks” and “My Mutt MacDonald’s Preferred Distillate” and other such nods towards exclusive releases not meant for the quotidian riff raff (like your faithful reviewer), I smile…but it must be admitted that while Karen Hoskin and her team have not exactly made an exclusive, they sure have a rum that’s distinct and original, dancing to its own tune. It’s a fun drink, and yes, a bit weird too. I like that. Too often American rums don’t want to offend, keep it quiet, dial it down, make their rums lessa rum like this one shows that you can be interesting without pissing off the bank or the clientele.

But, I also must say that this is not a rum anyone should start their journey with. It’s not as polarising as the batsh*t crazy tastes of the TECA (few rums are), but it is different, it’s trembling on the edge of not being a rum at all what with the way those tastes come at you from all over the map. At the same time, honesty compels me to confess that it’s among the most original rums I had that day, and maybe that entire month. Even at standard strength, it’s worth checking out for that aloneand if one day I do meet the inimitable Ms. Hoskin, perhaps I’d genuflect, knuckle my forehead and kiss her hand, and ask her if I can please have some more…but stronger, please.

(#967)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • While the majority of Montanya’s sales remain in America, its footprint in Europe is starting to become more significant, what with their distribution arrangement with Skylark covering the UK and EU. This is one reason they are relatively better known than bigger distilleries with a more resolutely North American focus.
  • Thanks go to Jazz and Indy of Skylark, who endured my unrepentant thieving of their rum stocks on one great afternoon in London. I’m not sure whether the 29 YO Uitvlugt rum and some Kyrgyz felt slippers I left behind made up for my sticky fingers, but I hope so. When we were wrapping up and they observed my liking (and oddball tasting notes) for the Exclusiva, the guys, after they finished laughing themselves silly, made me record a complimentary message to Karen to tell her so.
Jan 162023
 

In all the excitement about the latest releases from the Reunion distillery of Savanna, it’s always good to keep in mind that there are two other distilleries on the island making some pretty good rhumRivière-du-Mât and Isautier. I’d suggest that the former is probably the lesser known, but Isautier is gaining some traction of late, because there have been quite a few neat rhums emerging from the distillery in recent years that are making some waves and exciting serious attention.

So let’s forego any long introductory perambulations and get right down to the facts at hand. This is a cane juice origin rhum, made by the named distillery, on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. It’s one a pair of rhums named after two sailing ships used by the Isautier brothers to transport their cargos to and from Reunion in the 19th and early 20th century, and this one is an agricole distilled off a column still (its twin, the L’Apollonie, is a traditionnel, made from molasses). The nice part is that it’s cognac-cask aged for the full 15 years (no short finishes or dual-ageing for these boys) and the results, bottled at 55.3%, is at pains show all the notes that were wrung out of the process.

Nose: “lightly richis the only term that comes to mind, and the aromas come in three distinct sets. First, it’s sweet strawberry bubble gum, bags of tart mangoes, gooseberries, dark grapes, and oranges and lemon peel. Second, floralslight and sweet, like hibiscus, lavender and maybe a dusty rose or two. And then, thirdly, the spicescinnamon and cloves, rounded out and complemented by a touch of vanilla and coconut, and it gets more precise and distinct as the minutes click by. It’s the sort of nose that encourages one to keep it on hand for a second and third sniff, just to see if anything new popped up since the last time.

The palate has sparkly and light notes, exhibiting the sort of happy perkiness Mrs. Caner displays when she gets to buy a new Prada purse. It’s nicely, restrainedly sweet, with notes of cinnamon, cloves and herbs (like oregano, parsley and rosemary, how’s that for an odd combo?). The fresh green grassiness of an agricole is less evidentprobably as the influence of the barrel took over Managementbut in its place we get raisins, apples, prunes, then cereal and honey dripped over fresh toast. Though the finish was not spectacularit more or less summed up the fruity freshness that had preceded it and added a touch of spices and lasted a decently long time,

Overall, I’d have to sum up by noting that the L’Elise had a terrific nose followed by a rather less exaltedbut still excellent, very solidpalate. Admittedly it doesn’t spark a riot on the tongue, however fascinating it smelled five seconds earlier, yet the quality can’t be gainsaid, and the denouement was a nice conclusion to a very pleasing drinking experience. If nothing else, it demonstrated that even if Savanna might have a lock on the high ester fruit bombs, the aged rhums made elsewhere on the islands are no slouches. By any standard, this is pretty fine stuff.

A rhum like this excites curiosity, invites idle wonderings. Like “Where’s Isautier?” “Who is Isautier?” “Is this an agricole rhum?” “What’s the L’Elise?” “Who is John Galt?” Stuff like that. Drax might do us all one better by asking, with perfect seriousness, “Why is Isautier?” And you know, maybe this rhum actually is an answer: Isautier’s L’Elise 15 year old rhum exists because they wanted it to, to reflect their heritage and show off their own rum-making street cred and just put something out there that’s really damned cool. The nice thing about the rum, then, is that when all is said and done, it answers all those questions solely with itself.

(#966)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The rum is part of LMDW’s “Antipodes” collection for 2022/2023. In geography, the antipode of any spot on Earth is the point on Earth’s surface diametrically opposite to it, and antipodal points are as far away from each other as possible. LMDW’s catalogue (p.2, and p.154) notes that the collection “pays tribute to contrasts and opposites through spirits sourced from across the globe….showcasing the duality found in styles and profiles.” Given the catalogue of antipodal spirits and drinks is pretty all-inclusive, it’s not really very meaningful beyond being their theme for 2023.
  • For those who are interested in a deeper look at the background of Isautier, this little biography helps fill in some historical blanks.
Jan 122023
 

Samaroli was one of the first of the modern Italian independents, and focused primarily on whiskies, which remains the core of its indie bottling business to this day. The reputation of the company began in 1968 when Sylvano Samaroli began bottling for the Italian marketthe first non-UK bottler to deal seriously in that obscure Scottish tippleand eventually started issuing rums as well. The most famous of all his rum selections, and reputedly his own favourite, was probably also the first: the 1991-bottled unicorn rum of the West Indies Dark Rum from 1948. The next rum bottlings were done around 1998 and there were a few sporadic non-too-regular releases here and there until 2010…and in that year it’s like the hound was let off the leash and releases have come thick and fast ever since. Not just the usual single cask expressions, but blends and NAS rums, and the ship shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

The rum we’re looking at today is a Guyanese from 1990, bottled 26 years later in 2016 at a reasonable 45% (though admittedly, that’s rather mild for single cask releases) and from a single cask (#68) which decanted 240 bottles. Curiously, the still of origin is never mentioned. Samaroli may have been an early bellwether and trendsetter of the rum scene (as Renegade was in another context), but disclosure was never as big a thing for them as it was for Velier, though far better than Moon Imports, say. The 1990 Guyana vintage, as an aside, seemed to be a favoured year for Samaroli, as they released several expressions from it, in 2007 (two, a PM and a VSG), 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 (also a PM). With a few exceptions, almost none disclosed the still, so clearly this was deliberate; and since by 2016 that was surely a thing for connoisseurs of Demerara rums, one can only assume they did not consider it important for some obscure reason, or that the rum was blended in the barrel from several sources.

So we have to guess, which is always fun with Demeraras, and that all goes to the profile. Which starts, as always, with the nose: here it’s woody, with early notes of licorice and caramel, wet sawdust and dark fruits like prunes, raisins, plums, black grapes. It stays that way for a bit, before one senses soft flowers (lilies, just a touch of lavender), pencil shavings and an odd aroma of freshly baked bread dipped into a mixture of red wine, balsamic vinegar and olive oil (it’s not unpleasant, just unusual), with additional tannins, leather and polished wood bringing up the rear. The fruits are kept secondary for the most part, and stay noticeable, but in the background.

How it tastes is not significantly different, although less satisfying. All the same hits are playing but out of order: caramel, sawdust, licorice, dark grapes, raisins, and dates bitten into and devoured by the bitterness of sawdust, lumber, sharp licorice and gingersnaps. It gets somewhat better over time, just not spectacular, one the fruitsplums and cherries and prunes for the most parttake on more weight. Then the rum starts to taste more robust, and even creamy: one gets yoghurt and sour cream sprinkled over with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, with the heavier notes of toffee and caramel holding the high ground throughout. Finish is nice, sweetish and muscular, long lasting (for 45% that’s impressive), channelling final notes of prunes, nuts, thyme, blancmange … and even a touch tomatoes on hot bread reminiscent of pizza!

When I think of Samaroli, it always seems like it’s the grand old man of the indie rum scene; admittedly it has only few really phenomenal, well-known must-have unicorns in the pantheon, and the field has gotten way more crowded with new entrantsyet somehow, it has always seemed to be Samaroli that others aspired to beat. Perhaps it’s because in the 1980s and 1990s and even 2000s, Sylvano influenced a whole raft of young up and coming European rum and whisky peopledistillers, collectors, distributors, simple anorakswho went to him for advice or to see how he did things and paid him homage in their subsequent writings. I have my own favourite Samaroli rums, but given that he up and stepped away from the company in 2008 while retaining some influence in selections, it’s hard to know for sure which bear his fingerprints and which don’t.

Circling back: my first guess on the still is that it’s the Enmore wooden coffeyit lacks the slight roughness of the VSG, and doesn’t have the depth of the PMbut for all anyone knows, it could be a blend as well. It’s difficult to classify precisely, because there are so many odd, even discordant, notes at play here, which means it never gels into something one can really appreciate. And while obviously a “real” rum, it’s also something of an odd duck, what with those balsamic and tomato notes I observed: which lead to amusing mental connections, but also some level of confusion. Gregers Nielsen, who was shamelessly (and all-too-generously) pilfering from my bottle in Berlin the day we were trying this thing, opined that the finish was great, which it was, but alas, that was not enough to save the overall experience being somewhat flat and muddledand at the end, my opinion is simply that it’s rather more miss than hit.

(#965)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


 

Jan 092023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#964)(73/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Historical background

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

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


 

Jan 042023
 

Rumaniacs Review #143 | R-0963

All sorts of little mysteries attend this rum. First of all, what we know: a Haitian rhum bottled by a Belgian outfit named Fryns Hasselt in the 1980s, at 40%. What we don’t know: cane juice or molasses, type of still, which estate or brand, where it was aged and in what kind of barrelsthough I think it’s a fair bet it’s Barbancourt, it came from a column still, and the ageing was around five years, likely in Europe. A bottleperhaps even the same one flipped several timesappeared on Whisky.Auction in February, March, April and May 2019 (which is, coincidentally, just around the time I scored the sample). It seems to be the only one ever released by the little company (see below for a short bio).

ColourLight brown

Strength – 40% ABV

NoseNot much going on here. Very very light. Grapes, green apples, a touch of vanilla and evidence of heavier fruit sensed but not really tasted. Bananas, whipped cream on top of a caramel macchiato. Takes some time to come to grips with this rum, and it opens up to strengthen the vanilla and caramel component, and add a sort of weak fruit salad vibe.

PalateActually quite a bit better than the nose leads one to believe, although conversely, it’s more a matter of intensity than anything new. Caramel, vanilla, nutty fudge, a hint of flambeed bananas, stewed apples and somewhere behind all that is a suggestion of very hot loose-leaf strong black tea cut with evaporated milk, plus just a whiff of citrus zest.

Finishshort, easy, light. Sherbet, vanilla, peaches…any more than that and I’d be guessing

Overall, for all its wispy nature, it was serviceable, and I found little beyond its weakness to dislike: but when this much time and effort is required for a sniff and a snort, it’s hardly worth the trouble. It’s simple, it’s near weightless and reasonably effective at saying it’s a light rum but beyond that, it’s thin pickings and not something that showcases itself effectively enough for a real recommendation. As for it being an actual Haitian rum, well, we’ll have to take that one on trust.

(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Hydrometer showed 40% so the rum is as stated, and not added to
  • My thanks as always go to Nicolai Wachmann of Denmark for the sample.

Picture (c) Whisky.Auction

Historical Background

So who is Fryns Hasselt? An interesting little company, all in all, and they demonstrate that the French and Brits and Italians weren’t the only ones with liquor merchants who had a rep in the late 1800s and that there were small towns not called Flensburg that had several distilleries and bottlers that dabbled in rum.

Gin (or jenever) at that point was a cheap liquor for the masses made from sugar-beet molasses, but there is no record I was able to find that suggests rum was ever physically made in Hasselt. Belgium’s colonial adventures at that time were more in Africa than in the Caribbean, specifically the Belgian Congo. As the Brits found out in India, gin was known to be useful in that it disguised the bitter taste of the anti-malarial drug quininewhich may have accounted for its expanded production, quite aside from keeping the huddled masses toped up and out of mischievous activities like revolutions or communism or questioning the divine right of the king to have huge private properties in Africa while many Belgians of the time lived in misery.

The small town of Hasselt has an interesting history which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself: the key point is that for centuries it was known for its gin distilleries, to the extent that there is a now a jenever museum in the town, and an annual Jenever Fest to celebrate the spirit. In the 19th century, gin production was the most important industrial industry in the area, and most of the involved distilleries were located in Hasselt itself.

Fryns was a family company established in 1887 by the family patriarch Guillaume Fryns: he opened a distillery in a building called “In the Cloverleaf”, situated in a shopping street in downtown Hasselt, and indeed, the cloverleaf has become a logo for Fryns ever since (they trademarked it in 1908). The company passed to Guillaume’s sons Guillaume Jr. and Jules after his death in 1909, and they expanded production by adding a malt house and an ice factory to the premises, more branches in other cities and a fleet of trucks to service them all. They also spruced up the packaging and branched out into liqueurs, which were fashionable in the Roaring Twenties.

The WW2 years saw them shut down for lack of cooperation with the occupying forces so they started the rebuilding with the third generation of Fryns in 1945 and kept a steady business running; however, financial and familial problems forced a sale to external investors in 1979. The name and branding was kept, and in 1988 another large Hasselt-based distillery called Bruggeman bought it (along with a second company called Smeets). In 1995 Bruggeman moved the whole operation to Ghent, and so the involvement of Fryns in Hasselt came to a close.

This was not the end, however, because 2018 Michel Fryns (a fourth-generation scion of the family) reacquired the company and distillery from Bruggeman and promptly moved it back to Hasselt, where it remains to this day, making gins, liqueurs and pre-mixed drinks.

That’s all gin production and corporate history. With respect to rum, as far as I was able to discover, the company never actually made any. My informed supposition is simply that the the new owners post-1979 cast around for other sources of revenue and somehow got their hand on a few other distilled spirits. The only rum Fryns ever released was the old Haitian rum, and one can only suggest that it was an experiment that went nowhere, because aside from the (gin) distiller Smeets, who produced two rums called “Blacky” and “Castelgy” of uncertain provenance (they may have been verschnitts) and the Distillerie Theunissen who put out a single Jamaican rum, there is no record of any other rum ever made (which is to say, bottled) in the town. Certainly Bruggeman never appeared to have released any rums while they owned the company and the brand.

Logistics and a lack of interest probably defeated them, as there were better rums coming out of France, Britain, Italy and northern Germany. So they focused on their core competency and let the idea of branching out into rum wither on the vine, so to speak. That’s a fair bit of supposing and maybes and guesswork, but I think the chain of logic is reasonable.


 

Jan 022023
 

Having now looked at a few standard strength agricola rums from Madeira, it’s clear that for their own “standard line” company bottlings, many remain wedded to mass-audience standards that still appealfor price and availability and approachability reasons, no doubtto the general public. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that they don’t always provide that intensity of taste, that serious jolt of flavour, that something of a more robust strength provides.

A good example of the potential of moving beyond G-Rated crowd-pleasers is this six year old 2015-distilled Engenhos do Norte rum agricola, which was selected by and perhaps made for Rum Artesanal from Germany. Engenhos apparently does this for several indie bottlers (a search of Rum-X turns up most of them), though I’m unclear as to the exact mechanics, since it remains a “970” branded rum, with RA noted as the company that chose it. In any event, it is cane juice, column still, bottled at a solid 51.3%, and at that proof point, the comparison with the laid back and inoffensive “North” rums that we’ve looked at before (here, here and here) is really quite apparentespecially when tried side by side.

Consider first the nose: it is instantly pungent, rather thick and redolent of ripe dark fruitsprunes, plums, raisins, peaches in syrup, and has that slight tart sourness of ripe Kenyan mangoes. It smells much firmer and more solidly constructed than Engenhos’s standard agricolas from the North brand line. It remains, for most of the duration one smells it, somewhat thickly sweet mixed with light citrus and crisper fruit, and thankfully never cloying. Whispers of Danish pastries, caramel, vanilla, guavas and a faint touch of orange zest and a whiff of rubber round things out nicely

Tasting it is a pleasant experience, retreading the road of the nose, with a few short detours here and there. For example, although quite mouth-coating, hot and intense (at first), it’s also dry and a little tannic. Flavours of chocolate oranges and dates emerge, combining sweetness, fruitiness and nuttiness in a nice amalgam; this is set off and then overtaken by peaches, very ripe red apples, rose petals, raisins and a touch of caramel, vanilla and cinnamon, with just a tiny hint of cayenne pepper lurking behind it all. It all leads to an easy-going medium long finish combining fruits, some sugar cane juice on the edge of getting sour, and spices. It’s not sharp at all, rather lacking in body, but I submit that the strength overall is reasonably well chosen for the rum that ends up in the glass.

Compared to the others Engenhos do Norte agricolas, the nose is more intense, which is hardly a surprise, but the palate remained thin, which is. Still, I liked how it developed into a sort of spoiled fruit salad drizzled with sugar and caramel at first, then gets taken over by a slightly more traditional profile. Well constructed overall, it still lacks an individualism that I find oddeven after running several of these Madeiran rums side by side, I still can’t quite put my finger on any aspect of them that identifies the terroire specifically, which indicates more research is probably needed (by me). Too, although it isand others area rum from cane juice, not all of the light green herbaceousness comes through in the sampling, and they exhibit a solidity at odds with the effervescent clarity and brightness most true agricoles display.

But all that aside, it’s a good mid-range rum, a tasty treat and it’s well selected. It shows off the potential of higher proofed rums, and marries a strong series of tastes to a deep and yet also occasionally sprightly series of lighter elements. The important thing is that it doesn’t play coy, doesn’t try to hide anythingeverything you taste is on the table for you to accept, or not. On balance, I’d go with the former, because compared with the other rums from the company I’ve tried, they got a lot more right than wrong with this one.

(#959)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • 258 bottle outturn
  • The “970” refers to the year the line was first introduced. EdN provided the detail, without explaining why they dropped the “1”.

Dec 262022
 

Photo courtesy of Steve James at The Rum Diaries Blog, who kindly chipped in after my own photo got corrupted.

The clear, light, and distinct nose on this Guadeloupe agricole is really quite sumptuous, and hearkens back to a time before more formal rules were put into place (even on Guadeloupe) as to how cane juice rhums were put together. It has a clean sweetness to it, quite crisp, redolent of grapes, green apples and a touch of vanilla and caramel to start. Sweet and sour chicken with tons of vegetables, sweet soya. And it develops into more complex territory after thatleather, freshly mown hay, citrus peel, cumin and pomegranates and was that oregano I smelled there? It could be, quite possibly. It’s just a low key, precise and controlled series of aromas.

Tastewise, it’s not too shabby either, and I remember thinking, it’s been a while since I had something quite like this, from Guadeloupe or anywhere else. It opens with salty, unsweetened, nearly-bitter chocolate flavoured with pimentonot one of my favourites, but I have tried some on occasion when feeling adventurous (or stupid, take your pick). Coffee grounds (fresh ones, still steaming, not yesterday’s batch which I get at the office), some leather, caramel, toffee, almonds and pralinesmakes me wonder where the agricole is hiding, as the citrus is not to be found and the cane sap and herbal notes aren’t playing nice. Still, there are some fruits to be sensedblack grapes, prunes, overripe peaches, bananasbut not anything crisper than that. It concludes with some lighter notes, of apples and hard yellow mangoes, a touch of sugar water, and it’s quite long for 42% ABV, gliding to a serene stop next to the sign saying “have another sip.”

Which, if you ever locate this almost forgotten rhum, you would be well advised toit’s pretty fine, honestly.


As I noted above, it’s 42% ABV, a cane juice, column-still rhum from the Gardel distillery which is located in the north-east of Grand Terre in the commune of Le Moule. Gardel, owned by Générale Sucrière (itself a major player in the global sugar refining industry) is one of two distilleries in Le Moulethe other is Damoiseauand earns some of its distinction by being the sole sugar refinery on the main island. Gardel doesn’t make any rhums of its own any longer, but it was known for selling rum stock to brokers and others – they ceased distillation in 1992 and destroyed or sold their stills shortly thereafter, so this rhum is among the last that came from there (see also other notes below), even if it came to us via the independent bottler path.

It’s been some time since we reviewed any rums from the “Secret Treasures” line originally created by the Swiss concern Fassbind, and not without good reasonthey sold off their spirits distribution portfolio way back in 2005 to another Swiss distributor called Best Taste which wasn’t interested in any indie bottling operations, and so punted it over to a German company called Haromex. Almost all of the reviews of Secret Treasures rums came from the pre-sale bottlings, which, like Renegade, were perhaps somewhat ahead of their time, and that’s probably why Fassbind was glad to let them go.

Haromex changed the bottle style while keeping something of the label design ethos in the initial post-acquisition period, but nothing has now been issued under the ST label for many years now: the last of them, two St Lucia bottlings (here and here, both quite good) were probably leftovers from the sale. There were some attempts at blends“South America” and “Old Caribbean” were twoyet it’s unlikely you ever heard of either and I never saw them to buy, which tells you all you need to know about what an impact they made. Nowadays Haromex has settled on being a distributor and shows up at European rum festivals here and there to tout its brands…but no rums they themselves have had a hand in bottling.


Fassbind and Secret Treasures may have come on the indie scene too early, and it’s too bad they did not continue: because this is quite a lovely rum. Almost forgotten now except by those Europeans who picked up bottles here and there a decade ago, it shows that it’s not enough to simply have a shuttered distillery to make a name and have a following (did somebody say Caroni?). Nor is it enough to have good production values that people remember. If the audience isn’t there and there is no larger voice to proselytise for it, brand name and rum and distillery will vanish, as Gardel pretty much has.

And that’s a shame for rums which may not have been the best out there, but which at least showed promise, tasted great, and which we didn’t have enough of. They helped chart a path many other small outfits followed in the years that came after, and enriched and educated those like me who consider themselves fortunate to have tried a few. Who knows what Fassbind could have achieved, had they stuck with it. This rum and others of the line give us a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.

(#961)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • My remarks on “the last rum from Gardel” notwithstanding, several independent bottlers have bottled Gardel rhums/rums prior to the cessation of distillation. A non exhaustive list is:
    • Gardel Rhum Vieux Cuvee Ultime 45%
    • Secret Treasure (Fassbind) 1992 11YO 42% Std Label
    • Secret Treasure (Fassbind) 1989 13 YO 42% Black label
    • Secret Treasure (Fassbind) 1989 14 YO 42% Std Label
    • Bristol Spirits Gardel Rhum 1992 10 YO 46%
    • Renegade Gardel 1998 11YO 46% (Chateau Latour)
    • Renegade Gardel 1996 11YO 46% (Chateau Lafleur)
    • Moon Import Gardel 1992 10YO 46%
    • Moon Import Gardel 1982 18 YO 46%
    • Rumclub Gardel 1983 38 YO 46.6% (GMG)
    • Cadenhead Dated Distillation Gardel 1982 20 YO 57.8%
    • Cadenhead Dated Distillation Gardel 1982 18 YO 57.2%
    • Silver Seal “Cigar Choice” 1977 32 YO 50.8%
    • Murray McDavid Gardel 1998 12 YO 46%
    • Douglas Laing Caribbean Reserve 1992 9 YO 46%
  • The source of the post-1992 distillates remains unknown, but as Flo remarked in his deep dive into the distillery, it’s very likely Damoiseau/Bellevue.
  • I’ve elected to keep this rum in the main section and not the Rumaniacs, even though it’s definitely a Golden Oldie that’s dead and gone.
  • This particular Gardel has come up on Rum Auctioneer a few times in 2021-2022, averaging out at about £150 these days. Who knows, it may all be the same bottle (impossible to tell for sure, since, unlike the 1992 edition with the classic cream-yellow-brown label, here the bottle number is not provided).
Dec 222022
 

So here we are again with another rum agricola from Engenhos do Norte, the biggest distillery in Madeira, and another in their line of starter rums from cane juice, column stills and bottled at an inoffensive 40%. These are rums that any cask strength aficionado would be well advised to try neat and first thing in the session, because they have, so far, proved to be relatively light and are easily shredded by the addition of water, a mix or the slightest hint of harsh language. Say “damn!” in front of the “Natural”, and it’ll vanish in a puff of offended vapour.

Of course, rums like this are not made for such people, but for the larger masses of easy rum drinkers who like the spirit, enjoy a decent mix, but can’t name and don’t care about the varieties, know three basic cocktails, and don’t feel they should be assaulted by every variation that crosses their path. For this segment of the drinking population “it tastes good” is recommendation enough.

By that standard this rum both succeed and fails. It has, for example, a really impressive nose, the best of this line I’ve yet come across. It is in its characteristics, almost clairin-like, although gentler, and softer, and slightly sweeter, less inclined to damage your face. It’s redolent of brine and olives, and feels hefty, almost muscular, when inhaled. There’s iodine and s slight fish market reek (well controlled, to be sureit’s hesitant, even shy). After a while some more vegetal and grassy notes begin to emerge, a kind of delicate yet firm green lemony scent that’s quite pleasing and hearkens to the rum’s cane juice roots (though one can be forgiven for wondering why it didn’t lead with that instead of making us wait this long to become a thing).

Anyway, the palate: initially salty and briny, with the low strength preventing it from entering bitchslap territory and keeping itself very much in “we’re not here to make a fuss” mode. It’s pleasingly dry, nicely sweet and quite clear, and has a taste of gingersnap cookies and raisins, but the cane juice action we sensed at the tail end of the nose is AWOL again. It feels rather flattened and tamped down somehow and this is to its detriment. With a drop of water (not that it’s needed), additional wispy hints of sweet pears, guavas, papaya and watermelon are (barely) noticeable, and there’s a slight gaminess pervading at the back end…which is enough to make it interesting without actually delivering more than what the nose had grudgingly promised. Finish is demure, light, clear, delicately sweet and grassy and quite clean. Some vanilla cinnamon, light honey, with maybe a squirt or two of lemon juice…and you have to really strain to get even that much.

Engenhos have said in a video interview that their proximity to the sea gives their rums a unique and individual taste, but of course any island in the Caribbean can make that claim, and they don’t have a clear line of distinctiveness, so no, I don’t really buy that. They have something in their production process that’s different, that’s all, and it comes out in a profile that’s simply not as exciting as others in the West Indies who do more to make their rums express an individualistic island terroire.

This is what I mean when I said the rum both succeeds and fails. It has some interesting notes to play with, yet refuses to capitalise on them and doesn’t take them far enough. 40% ABV is insufficient for them to really come out and make a statement for Madeira: a few more proof points are needed. And what one gets in the glass is not different enough from, or better than, a standard French Island agricole to excite the drinking audience into new allegiances in their drinks. And speaking of the audience: it’s a long standing article of faith that the greater mass of rum drinkers and buyers mostly buy rums that are “okay”, without seeking to extend their experiencesbut what this obscures is the fact that most people are innately conservative and don’t switch favoured drinks and brands easily or even willingly, without a good reason. The “Natural” does not provide enough of such a reason to switch up one’s familiar agricoles. It has potentialbut so far it remains unrealized.

(#960)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • There’s a stronger “Natural” at 60% which may remedy the shortcomings (as I see them) of this one; I’m looking to get one and see for myself.
  • Engenhos do Norte remains as the largest rum producer in Madeira, and has several different brands in the portfolio: Branca, North, 980, 970, Lido, Zarco and Tristao Vaz Texeira. All are column still rums, all are cane juice based and as far as I am aware, all conform to the Madeira GI Indicação Geográfica Protegida. The Lido is a single underproofed (38%) white for making ponchas, the local fruit cocktail. The “Tristao”, “North” and “Zarco” ranges are all series of unaged or lightly-aged blended agricolas (the exact difference among the brands is unclear, as the specs seem quite similar), the “Branca” rums are white unaged rums at several proof points, while the “970” and “980” are more aged variations and can be considered somewhat more upscale.
  • The name “Natural” derives from its cane juice origins, but since all of Engenhos’s rums are agricolas, it’s unclear from the label why this is more natural than others. It could be because it’s rested or unaged (the colour is actually very slightly tinged with yellow, suggesting a possible short period in a barrelI was, however, unable to verify this by posting time). Other sources suggest it’s because it is made from sugar cane on small individual plots, which would make it a parcellaireif true, it’s odd that it’s not more prominently stated, however, since that’s a great marketing plug.
  • All the above aside, at less than €40, this is decent value for money given those tastes it does have.
Dec 192022
 

The “Pagos” rum from Hampdenall 1200 bottles of the releaseis another one of that storied estate’s experiments involving Luca Gargano, whose company has distribution rights to their rums, and who is known for tweaking things in odd directions just to see what comes out at the other end (and if you doubt that, just visit the NRJ quartet or the EMB rums which are about as non-commercial as it’s possible to get). Unusually for Hampden, this isn’t a multi-bottle series, but a one-off release of a single type, though it is my understanding that there may (will?) be others in years to come.

Luca was hinting about the Pagos (the word means “cru” in Jerez) and talking it up at masterclasses in various ‘fests around Europe in 2022, and indeed it was available for the proles to try at both Paris’s WhiskyLive and London’s UK Rumfest before going on sale later that year. The key takeaway is that it was completely aged for around 3-4 years in one of some forty 500-litre butts sourced from a Bodega called Lustau in SW Spain close to Cadiz, which Velier distributes. The butts held Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso for a few years and can therefore be said to have been influenced with and by better sherry, for longer, than far too many such barrels used around the rum and whisky industry which have some cheap plonk dropped in to them for a short time and then sold around as “seasoned.” The quality of the sherry and the length of time in the barrel does make a difference…as this rum shows.1

So after all the visions and daydreams and desires to make a rum version of Macallan (which is not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, I posit, but never mind), what came out the other end was a long-fermentation pot-still Jamaican rum fully aged in these butts for the aforementioned 3-4 years, issued at a nice and firm 52% and sporting an ester count 2 that places it at the very top end of LROK territory, and edging close to HLCF…my own personal sweet spot for Hampden rums.

It’s an unusual bottling, a Hampden, a Velier, a limited edition from real sherry cask ageing, so that said, what was it like? Well, very nice, truth be told. The 52% gives it a sort of firm and easy elegance that isn’t out to wreak havoc on your sinuses, and the initial aromas are of a musky, winey, almost tawny old port. It’s chock full of baking spices like cinnamon, cloves, a touch of nutmeg; it channels a soft line of olive oil and saline, before blooming into all sorts of additional stuff that shows off the funk: pineapples, mangoes, oranges and apples that are too ripe, plus florals, acetones and even some crushed hazelnuts and pistachios. There’s a lot to unpack here for anyone who takes their time with it.

That’s the nose; the palate is somewhat less forward. It’s lightly floral, and provides tastes of a patchouli air freshener and laundry detergent, cinnamon and cloves again, creamed rice, funky and fruity, with an on and off bite that’s fun to experience. There’s somewhat more nuttiness here, but also more tart fruits: passion fruit, cherries, mangoes, strawberries and some yoghurt. I particularly liked the sense of dusty spices that hung around (reminds me of Grandma Caner’s pantry back when I was a kid), and while not overly sweet, the rum does have a sugary, liqueur-y background to it that works well with the caramel, vanilla and bananas you end up with. The finish is pretty fine toosolid, long, not obnoxiousit doesn’t flaunt a bunch of esters in your face and blare “here I am!” like a loud and bombastic opinion you didn’t ask for, just quietly dials everything down so that instead of getting one thing after another, it’s like one thing after another is subtracted, until all you’re left with is some flambeed bananas, oranges, nuts, unsweetened chocolate and wine, hanging around to tease you like the Cheshire Cat’s grin.

Well, now this was quite some rum. I really liked it: both for its complexity and the self-evident care with which it was put together (more ageing or a smaller cask would have upset the delicate balance of the taste elements), which rewarded a more patient excursion of its charms. It’s the sherry cask, I’m thinking, although which cask had more timethe Oloroso is drier and crisper, while the Pedro Ximenhez is quite a bit sweeter, so the impacts are differentis a mystery.

The Pagos, at end, is absolutely a sipping, drinking rum. It’s quite restrained for a Hampden rum, let alone a pot still Jamaicanthere’s an elegance combined with easy strength here that I don’t get to see all that often, a sort of refinement that speaks of a silk glove only barely covering a mailed fist. I’ve heard it’s sold out just about everywhere, and my feeling is that people bought the name more than the rumbut for all those who dropped the coin to get the rum just so they wouldn’t miss out, I think they’ll be stunned at what a lovely rum they ended up getting when they finally open it.

(#959)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


 

Dec 122022
 

Today we’ll continue with another rum from the island of Madeira and the company of Engenos do Norte, which, as its name suggests, is located in the north of Madeira Island. The company was founded in 1928 by the merging of some fifty sugar factories at a time when it was simply not economical for individual small mills to operate. While they had been making rums on the island for centuries, it had a lesser importance to sugar, and most of the local rum was either consumed domestically or in Portugal (wine was actually much more popular and commonly made). In other words, though rum has a long pedigree on Madeira, the emergence of the rum (and local rum brands internationally) as an economic force and a serious revenue and tax generator, is very much a 21st century phenomenon.

Engenhos do Norte remains as the largest rum producer in Madeira, and has several different brands in the portfolio: Branca, North, 980, 970, Lido, Zarco and Tristao Vaz Texeira. All are column still rums, all are cane juice based and as far as I am aware, all conform to the Madeira GI (Indicação Geográfica Protegida). The Lido is a single underproofed (38%) white for making ponchas, the local fruit cocktail. The “Tristao”, “North” and “Zarco” ranges are all series of unaged or lightly-aged blended agricolas (the exact difference among the brands is unclear, as the specs seem quite similar), the “Branca” rums are white unaged rums at several proof points, while the “970” and “980” are more aged variations and can be considered somewhat more upscale.

The Rum North “Barrica Nova” is a golden rum, not marketed as anything particularly special. As with all the others mentioned above, it’s cane juice derived, distilled on a column still, aged for three months in new French Oak barrels (hence the “barrica nova” in the title), and released at 40%. It’s very much a living room rum or for the bartender’s backbar, made for cocktails and not neat sipping; nor does it appear to be anything exclusive or limitedand while it’s on sale in Europe, so far I haven’t seen anyone’s review of it out there.

The rum’s initial nose presents with bright golden notes of citrus, green grapes, ginnips and unripe papaya, nicely fresh and quite lightnot much of the grassy herbals as characterise a French West Indian agricole, yet close enough to suggest the commonality of origin. There are notes of green peas, fanta, and an apple-flavoured creamy yoghurt. There’s a touch of cream cheese, fresh wonderbread toast (!!), with light lemony aspects, and lurking quietly in the background, the rather peculiar aroma of old leather suitcases pulled from musty cupboards after long disuse. All these aromas are rather faint and the citrus and fruit sodas are more dominant, with the others providing a vague and uneasy backdrop that takes effort to tease out.

After that rather decent nose the palate falls flat from exhaustion at trying to keep up. The rum tastes watery, thin and sharp as a harridan’s flaying tongue. Notes of light fruits, honey, sugar water and vanilla predominate, but this is a scrawny kind of gruel, and even a few last minute bits and piecesaromatic tobacco, salt caramel, old carboard and nail polishdon’t really make this a sip worth seeking. The finish is even weaker: short, light, sweet, inoffensive, mostly very light fruitinesswatermelon, papaya, white guavaand requires too much effort to locate.

This rum is not my thing. Like the 980 Beneficiado, there’s just not enough going on to provide a taste profile of any distinction, and while 40% may be the preferred strength locally or for maximal exports, the faintness of what the palate presents demonstrates why some rums should simply be stronger. It enforces a limitation on the producersprobably for tax, regulatory or other reasonsthat should be pushed past for the benefit of consumers who buy it. It’s no accident that the best-scoring Madeira-made rums we’ve seen so far have all been from independents who go cask strength and combine that with some decent ageing.

For the casual imbiber the weak-kneed profile doesn’t mean there is anything ostensibly, offensively wrong with the rum…and yet, for those who have a bit more experience, everything is. Even with the decent aroma, it’s too anonymous, too lacklustre and certainly does not bugle “Madeira!” from the rooftopsat best, it’s an exhausted squeak. It’s made too much for everyone, which really means for no-one, and you’ll forget about it five minutes after walking away. The ‘Barrica Nova’ is underwhelming, underachieving, underdelivering, and underperforming, and although I suppose that like a shotgun wedding’s reluctant groom it’ll grudgingly do what it’s meant to, in my book that doesn’t count as a compliment.

(#957)(75/100) ⭐⭐½


 

Dec 082022
 

Rumaniacs Review #142 | 0957

As noted before (and repeated below for the curious), Cadenhead has three different bottle ranges, each of which has progressively less information than the one before it: the Dated Distillations, the Green Labels and the Caribbean blends.

The Green Label releases are always 46% and issued on no schedule; their labels and the company website provides so little information on past releases that one has to take some stuff on faithin this case, my friend Sascha Junkert (the sample originator) noted it was a 10 YO bottled in 2000, although even the best resource on Cadenhead’s older bottlings, Marco Freyr, cannot verify the dates in his detailed post on the company and the accompanying bottle list, and Rum-X only mentions one distilled in 1998. There are only a handful of Green Label 10 YO rums from Guyana / Demerara at all, and the 2000 reported date doesn’t line up for any other published resourcewhen they bother, most mention 1998-2002 as distillation dates. So some caution is in order.

What’s particularly irritating about the label in this instance is that it lacks any information not only about the dates and the still(s), but also the casksand so here one has to be careful, because there are two types of this 10YO Demerara: one “standard” release, and one matured in Laphroaig casks. How to tell the difference? The Laph aged version is much paler and has a strip taped vertically across the screw top like a tax strip. Hardly the epitome of elegant and complete information provision now, is it.

The Laphroaig aged expression. Note the identifying strip at top.

ColourPale yellow

Strength – 46%

NoseDry, dusty, with notes of anise and rotting fruits: one can only wonder what still this came off of. Salt butter, licorice, leather, tannins and smoke predominate, but there is little rich dark fruitiness in evidence. Some pencil shavings, sawdust, glue and acetone, and the bite of unsweetened tea that’s too strong.

PalateContinues the action of the sweet bubble gum, acetones, nail polish and glue, plus some plasticinenot unpleasant, just not very rum-like. Also the pencil shavings, sawdust and varnish keep coming, and after a while, some green fruits: apples, soursop, grapes. At the last, one can sense candied oranges, caramel bon bons, and more very strong and barely-sweetened black tea teetering on the edge of bitterness.

FinishReasonably long, reasonably flavourful, quite thin. Mostly licorice, caramel, tannins and a touch of unidentifiable fruit.

ThoughtsIt’s not often appreciated how much we pre-judge and line up our expectations for a rum based on what we are told about it, or what’s on the label. Here it’s frustrating to get so little, but it does focus the attention and allow an unblinking, cold-eyed view to be expressed. In fine, it’s an average product: quite drinkable, decent strength, enough flavours not to bore, too few to stand out in any way. It’s issued for the mid range, and there it resolutely stays, seeking not to rise above its station

(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The three ranges of Cadenhead’s releases are:
    • The cask strength, single-barrel Dated Distillation series with a three- or four-letter identifier and lots of detail on source and age; I submit these are probably the best and rightly the most sought-after rums from the company (aside from a 1939-distilled Green Label from Ago). The only question usually remaining when you get one, is what the letters stand for.
    • The Green Label series; these are usually single-country blends, sometimes from multiple distilleries (or stills, or both), mostly from around the Caribbean and Central/South America; a few other countries have been added in the 2020s. Here you get less detail than the DDs, mostly just the country, the age and the strength, which is always 46% ABV. THey had puke yellow labels with green and red accents for a long time, but now they’re green for real, as they had been back in the beginning.
    • Classic Blended Rum; a blend of Caribbean rums, location never identified, age never stated (anywhere), usually bottled at around 50% ABV. You takes your chances with these, and just a single one ever crossed my path.
    • Strictly speaking there is a fourth type sometimes referred to as a “Living Cask” which is a kind of personalized shop-by-shop infinity bottle. I’ve only tried one of these, though several are supposedly in existence.
  • These older Cadenhead’s series with the puke yellow and green labels are a vanishing breed so I think the classification in the Rumaniacs is appropriate.
  • The pot-column still tagging / categorization is an assumption based on the way it tasted. I think it’s an Enmore and Versailles blend, but again, no hard evidence aside from my senses.

 

Dec 052022
 

By now Saint James needs little introduction. It is one of the premiere rum makers on Martinique, has a long and proud history, and isn’t particularly nervous about straying off the reservation from time to time. They have made rhums in their illustrious history that are among the best, the most original or the most storied (not always at the same time, of course) – such as the legendary 1885, the pot still blanc, and most recently, the stunning Magnum series entry of the 2006 15 Year Old with which I was so enthralled.

However, in between all these top end superstars, we must not allow ourselves to forget the standard line of rhums they make: ambre, gold, blanc, and what have you. The Fleur de Canne (“Flower of the Cane”) is not exactly a beginner’s rum, or a standardbut it’s very good indeed and carries the rep of the distillery in new (but not crazy) directions. The logic probably goes something like this: if one of their lesser known, not-quite-off-the-shelf efforts can be this good, what must the uber premiums be like, right?

Specs are straightforward: cane juice rhum, column still, no ageing, 50%. More need hardly be said, except, why not just call it a straight blanc? What’s with all the fancy titling? According to Marc Sassier, it’s made from cane harvested exclusively during the dry season, which he says gives it a more robust and fruity flavour profile. Well, that’s certainly possible. What it does, then, is add yet another white rhum to to the existing rhums of the Imperial Blanc 40°, Blanc Agricole 55°, the three “bio” rhums of various strengths, and the Coeur de Chauffe. You wouldn’t think there were so many variations, but yeah, here they are, and the best part is not so much that there’s something for everyone (and everyone’s wallet) in that stable, but that they’re all pretty fine ponies to take out for a trot. This one is particularly good.

The Fleur de Canne is a bit of a special edition, something of a unique experimental, and I think it’s made in limited quantities (in an odd omission, it’s not on the company’s website). I’ve had it three times now, and liked it a little better each time. The nose, for example, channels straight agricole goodness: a nice green grassiness mixed with the cleanliness of fresh laundry aired and dried in the sun. It’s neat and clean, as crisp as a breaking glass rod, redolent of cucumber slices in vinegar with a pimento for kick, red and yellow half-ripe fruits like mangoes, persimmons, pomegranates, and very ripe sweet apples. It has the tart and citrus aromas of a lemon sherbet mixed with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon, and behind all that is a hint of acetones and furniture polish.

Tasting it continues that odd mix of precision and solidity, and really, the question I am left with is how is a rum dialling in at 50% ABV be this warm and smooth, as opposed to hot and sharp? It’s dry and strops solidly across the palate. Sugar water, ripe freshly sliced apples, cider, lemon zest and nail polish remover, all of which crackles with energy, every note clear and distinct. Lemon zest, freshly mown grass, pears, papaya, red grapefruits and blood oranges, and nicely, lightly sweet and as bright as a glittering steel blade, ending up with a finish that’s dry and sweet and long and dry and really, leaves little to complain about, and much to admire.

You’d think that the stronger 55º blanc would make more of a statement with that proof point: but it’s ultimately just one strong rum within the standard lineup. When it comes to comparisons, it’s the Brut de Colonne “Bio” at 74.2% that the Fleur de Canne is probably better to rank against. Both are special editions in their own way, and I think both serve as sounding boards and test subjects for Marc Sassier’s talent, restless curiosity and desire to tweak the levers of the universe with something a little off the reservation. The construction of the Fleur de Canne is granite-solid in its fundamentals, and yet such is the overall quality that we don’t sense the wheels squeaking. Honestly, I can’t say that the rum is some kind of new and stylistic breakthrough; but it is a rhum to cherish, starting out slow and deceptively simple, getting a head of steam behind it, and then turning out to be so well made that it’s hard to put down even when the glass, and maybe the bottle, is empty.

(#956)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Dec 012022
 

Every year, especially as the Madeira rumfest comes around, there is a flurry of posts and interest about rums from the islands of that Portuguese Autonomous Region (it’s one of two such regionsthe other is the Azores). The better known rums originating there are from the distilleries of O Reizinho, Engenho Novo (which makes William Hinton rums) and Engenhos do Norte, and these three rub shoulders with yet others like Abel Fernandes, Vinha Alta and Engenhos da Calheta. Not surprisingly, there are occasional independent releases as well, such as those from Rum Nation and That Boutique-y Rum Co.

One of the reasons Madeira excites interest at all is because they are one of the few countries covered by its own GI (the Madeiran Indicação Geográfica Protegida), and so can legally and properlyat least within the EUuse the term agricole when referring to their cane juice rums (which is practically all of them). Yet, paradoxically, they remain relatively niche products which have only recentlywhich is to say, within the last decade or sostarted to make bigger waves in the rum world, and few writers have spent much time on their products: WhiskyFun has done the most, with eight and there’s a scattering of others from Single Cask Rum, Rum Barrel, The Fat Rum Pirate and myself.

Today we’ll begin a few Madeiran reviews to raise that visibility a bit more, with some rums from what is perhaps the largest of the distilleries, Engenhos do Norte: although google translate will tell you that the Portuguese word engenho means “ingenuity” it really translates into “sugar mill”, which is what most of these companies started out as. Engenhos do Norte was formed by a merger of some fifty mills in either 1927 or 1928, depending on the sourcethey were forced to come together to remain economically viable (see “Other notes”, below). Their best known brands are the 970 series (introduced in 1970, which is not a coincidence), Branca and Larano, though of late they’ve added more.

One of the more recent additions is the Rum Agrícola Beneficiado 980 — that “980” is an odd shorthand for the year it was introduced, which is to say, 1980 — which is a fresh cane juice rum, 40.5% ABV, column-still made and left to sleep: the final blended rum is from rums aged 3, 6 and 21 years, and although it is not mentioned what kind of barrels are used, I have one reference that it is French Oak and have sent an inquiry down to Engenhos to ask for more details. The proportions of the aged components are unstated, but attention should be paid to the word “beneficiado” (beneficiary) – what this means is that a little cane honey has been added round out the profile, which may be why a hydrometer test, or even straight tastings, tend to comment on a slight sweetness to the profile (it is this which the words on the back label “+ mel de cana e caramelo” mean).

This sweetness is not, however, immediately noticeable when nosing the rum; initially the scent is one of cardboard, brine, light olives and dates, combined with damp tea leaves and aromatic tobacco. Pralines and a caramel macchiato, cloves and milkwhat an odd nose, the more so because it presents very little more commonly accepted agricole elements. There’s a bit of yoghurt mixed up with Dr. Pepper, ginger ale, a kind of sharp and bubbly soda pop, and behind it all, that sense of an overripe orange beginning to go off.

Similarly disconcerting notes appear when tasting it: it’s a bit rough, a bit dry, with rubber, acetones, and brine combining uneasily with honey, vanilla, caramel, toffee and badly made fudge. You can probably pick out additional hints of sweet vanilla ice cream, some tartness of guavas, a touch of citrusnot much more. The finish completes the tasting by being short, mild and inoffensive, presenting a few last caramel and molasses notes set off with Dr. Pepper, licorice, raisins and some oranges. It’s okay, but very different from any agricole you’ve likely tried before, which is both good and bad, depending on your preferences.

Overall, I think the Beneficiado’s weakness is that the freshness of a good grassy, herbal, fruity offset just isn’t there…and if it is, it’s too mild to make a dent. It’s like tasting flavoured fine sandpaper, really, and at just a hair over forty percent strength, it’s too thin to present with any serious assertiveness. Does it work on its own level, with what it actually is (as opposed to what I was expecting, or wished for)? To some extent, yesit just doesn’t go far enough to capitalise on its few strengths, and therefore what we get is a stolid, rather dour rum, one that lacks those sparkling, light aspects that would balance it better, and make it an agricole worth seeking out.

(#955)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Historical Notes

  • It’s long been known that sugar cane migrated from Indonesia to India to the Mediterranean, and was being cultivated on Madeira by the first half of the 15th century. From there it jumped to the New World, but sugar remained a profitable cash crop in Madeira (the main island, which gave its name to the group) and the primary engine of the island’s economy for two hundred years.
  • For centuries, aside from their famed fortified wines, white rum was all Madeira was known for, and just about all of it was made from small family-owned sugar cane plots, consumed locally as ponchas, and as often considered to be moonshine as a legitimate product. Because of the small size of the island a landed aristocracy based on the system of large plantations never took off there.
  • That said, for all its profitability and importance, the sugar industry has been on the edge of a crisis for most of its history: competition from Brazil in the 16th century, sugar cane disease in the 17th, leading to alternative (and competitor) crops like grapes (which led to a much more profitable wine industry) in the 17th and 18th centuries, a resurgence of fungal disease in the late 19th century; the restriction of available land for cane farming in the 20th century (especially in the 1920s and 1930s) … all these made it difficult to have a commercial sugar industry thereno wonder the mills tried to band together. By the 1980s sugar cane farming was almost eliminated as a commercial cash crop, yet even though sugar continued to decline in prices on the world marketsdue to cheaper sources of supply in India, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as the growing health consciousness of first world consumersit stubbornly refused to die. It was kept alive on Madeira partially due to the ongoing production of rum, which in the 21st century started to become a much more important revenue generator than sugar had been, and led to the resurgence of the island as a quality rum producer in its own right.
  • In the early 2010s, the Portuguese government started to incentivize the production of aged rum on Madeira. Several producers started laying down barrels to age, one of which was Engenhos do Norte – however the lack of an export market made them sell occasional barrels, or bottle for third parties. That’s how, for example, we got the Boutique-y Madeira rum from 2019.
  • The distillery is located in the north of Madeira in the small town of Porto da Cruz, and considered part of Portugal (even though geographically it’s closer to Africa).
  • The rum is derived from juice deriving from fresh cane run through a crusher powered by a steam engine, fermented for about 4-5 days, passed through a columnar barbet still and then left to age in French oak barrels.
Nov 272022
 

I view L’Esprit’s unaged still-strength white rums the way I regard Mrs. Canerwith besotted love not unmixed with a little dread. Treat her right and there’s no end of the amazing wonders and complexities that will be provided; drink carelessly and you’ll be belted into next week. Seeing the stats, is clear to see why: the rum is distilled in 2019 in Jamaica, and taken at 85.6% as it dripped and smoked and frothed off the still, then released without any ageing into the wild, unfiltered and unadded-to, and completely, fiercely, joyously untamed. You get the nervous feeling that when you drink it, you can sense the Grim Reaper on your shoulder clearing his throat.

So you can understand both my awe and my trepidation. On the outside, as a white rum, it looks meek and demure (another similarity it shares with my better half), but hard experience with L’Esprit’s recent outturns of this kind have taught me some measure of caution. The initial sniff showed why this was a good idea: it was a wild storm of competing, fighting, angry tastes from all over the map, starting with coconut milk with a touch of gaminess, vanilla, and flambeed bananas drizzled with hot bitter caramel syrup. As if unsatisfied, it moved on to rubber and tar on a hot day. Glue, solvent, acetones, and behind it all, the rank meatiness of a midden heap, brine and hogo gone wild, into which somebody spilled a bucket of used engine oil. If there were any fruits around, they were blattened flat by this huge wave of rumstink, and yet, for all that this reads like some kind of crazy, it’s still somewhat better and more interestingly assembled than the Long Pond TECA.

And at that strength, when sipped, well, it provided all the acres of hurt one can expect from that huge pail of proof. It was hot, spicy, initially reeking of stripped out gears and a burnt clutch on an old Land Roverthis was brief and dissipated swiftly, being replaced by ethanol, medicinals, a tart sort of sweetness (yoghurt, citrus, green apples, grapes, strawberries) and sourness (miso soup, Thai sweet chili, soya)…and then it really got going. There was the bitter clarity of licking a copper penny. It tasted of hot and very strong unsweetened black tea, on the good side of being bitter. And then it got more creamy and spicy and warm at the back end, before relaxing into a finish that was long, sweet, salty, sour, bitteras if all taste receptors got switched back on at oncecoughing up citrus, juniper, quinine and mineral water to go with the pears and green apples that closed the show.

Damn, but this was one serious rum. It’s just this side of excessive, and is the sort of thing a resident of Trenchtown would splash on before heading to the local rum shop for a duck curry and a brawl. The tastes are completely off the scale, they’re all over the place like a half-drawn roadmap leading to an undiscovered country and it’s a small miracle that they work together as well as they do. And admittedly, it’s too fierce on the attack: the lips are numbed, the tongue paralyzed, the taste buds burnt out in a bright flash of heated sulphur and brimstone, and this will not be a rum that finds favour with many except Los Extremos who inhale this kind of thing with their morning wheaties.

And yet, and yet…it’s not entirely a bad product : once it settles down it’s a really quite interesting piece of work, in spite of its undiluted demon-piss vibe. What it does, better than most with similar specs, is unashamedly channel trashy 1980s Ahnuld, Sly, Chuck and Dolph Lundgren action movies of the sort we remember fondly today. It drops massive taste bombs, huge sharp congeners, sweat, harsh language and liquid gelignite left right and centre the way those stars dropped one liners and cool kills. I’m not sure that’s a description or a profile that’ll appeal to everyone, but for those who are willing to park their doubts, I think L’Esprit’s Jamaican white brawler is simply one to beware of, treat with respect…and maybe, once one adjusts to its fierce character, even to love.

(#954)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • It’s not stated but as far as I know, it’s Worthy Park distillate.
  • “Cuvée Daniel” refers to (L’Esprit’s owner and founder) Tristan Prodhomme’s second son; the Diamond “Cuvée Edgar” MPM unaged white referred to his first. He made these rums to commemorate them, which I think is a sweet gesture.
  • As always, I must commend the sleek little sample bottles L’Esprit favours, which fit nicely into a presentation box and are just cool as all get out.
  • Pot Still, 279-bottle outturn. Rested between July 2019 to October 2020 in inert tanks.
Nov 232022
 

Rumaniacs Review #141 | 0953

For a distillery whose founder had a not inconsiderable impact on craft distilling in the state of New York, it’s a shame they stuck with a product that has no end of local competition and is at best reviewed with occasional praise, mostly indifference and sometimes outright disdain: whiskey. And yet they produced a rum or two at one time; and one of them, this rum, while no great shakes, suggested that they had potential and to spare had they stuck with it. Maybe.

This is a pot still, blackstrap molasses based rum (for what it’s worth, blackstrap molasses is the kind that has the most sugar already removed from it and is characterized by an almost bitter taste and thick consistency; it’s also the cheapest). The age is unknown but I think it’s around 2-3 years old, and my perhaps unfounded supposition is that after William Grant injected some capital into the company in 2010 (see historical details below), they wanted to add to the portfolio, and made this 1,000-bottle rum in 2012 to commemorate the Roggen brothers who were Huegenot dry-goods merchants and spirits dealers in the area back in the day. There was also a Hudson River Rum at 46% made at around the same time, and these two products are the only rums I think the company ever made.

ColourAmber

Strength – 40% ABV

NoseYou can still taste some molasses, brown sugar and licorice here, also some sweet fruit which remains, faint, dull and relatively unadventurous. Cherries, orange peel, caramel, some vanilla. It’s paint by the numbers time. Not bad…just not exciting.

PalateVanilla, some apples and raisins, a little licorice and bitterness, and a twang of brine. Brown sugar, caramel, molasses, unsweetened chocolate, and that’s stretching. Essentially, there’s not much going on here. It’s not precisely rough or uninviting, yet the sharpness and youth makes it a drink to have with some care.

FinishHardly anything to report on. Vanilla, some very light fruit, toffee, licorice. That’s about it.

ThoughtsRoggen’s, for all its positive marketing and enthusiastic blurbs on various online stores where it remains to be found (which by itself should tell you something since it was made in 2012), is a rum stuck in time, the sort popular ten years or more ago: punchy if you have it first thing in the morning, but hardly new and or different. It’s a drowsy sort of everyman’s hooch that you could care less about while drinking it, and forget a half hour after it’s done: not because it’s vile, or even poorly madeI have to acknowledge the competency of the distillery in not making an unmitigated disasterbut simply that while the rum is not entirely boring, it’s neither more nor less than just a lot of nothing much in particular.

(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • My thanks to Jazz and Indy Anand of Skylark Spirits, at whose house in London I pilfered the bottle and did the review notes earlier this year. This is not a brand in their distribution portfolio, but something I think Jazz picked up on one of his trips to the States.
  • The historical society of New Paltz was involved in making the rum, which I think is some kind of commemorative or promotional bottling, hence the limited outturn of 1,000 bottles.

Historical background

So, the company story, then, if this intrigues you. Tuthilltown Distillery was founded in the upstate-NY township colloquially known by that name (after a Mr. Tuthill who founded a grist mill there in 1788), but is formally called Gardiner. It was itself established by fleeing Huguenots who settled in the area in the mid-1600s and also established a small town slightly to the north called New Paltz. It was a thriving town by the mid-1700s, and it is useful to know that a pair of Swiss brothersFrancoise Pierre Roggen and Johann Jacob Roggenemigrated there in 1749 and became merchants of some note.

In the current century, Ralph Erenzo, a retired professional rock climber, acquired a property of 36 acres there in 2001, intending to build a B&B, but this never came to fruition because locals kept denying the construction permits. However, Ralph discovered an obscure 2000 law on the books that allowed local micro-distilling at a greatly reduced licensing rate ($1,500, from a previous sum of $65,000) — so long as production was less than 35,000 gallons a year. And so in 2003, with an engineer called Brian Lee (who had come to him looking to use his facilities to make artisanal flour) he shifted to booze, and founded Tuthilltown Spirits by converting one of the mill granaries to a micro-distillery. It was the first new distillery built in New York since Prohibition. Two and a half years later, they produced their first batches of vodka from scraps collected at a local apple slicing plant, and had plans for whiskies. 1

As all good Americans micros do, the distillery went all-in on any distillable booze they could: eau de vie, brandy, absinthe, infusions, vodka, rye, bourbon, gin, and, of course, rum, you know the drill. But it was whiskey that commanded their attention and much like Amrut did, knowing the quality of their product, they did small bar tastings in Paris (yes, Paris) and got a distribution deal with la Maison du Whiskey, aside from whatever small sales they had in-state. This in turn brought them to the attention of William Grant & Sons out of Scotland, who bought the brand (but not the product) in 2010 and injected some much-appreciated capital into the company to improve infrastructure, marketing and distribution; in 2017 they bought the entire thing. At this point they dispensed with all the other spirits and switched entirely to the branded Hudson Whiskey and its variations. And this is why the website for Tuthilltown is dead, while Hudson Whiskey’s is alive and well and why no reference on the latter site will even mention that they once were a smorgasbord of all things intoxicating, including rums.


Opinion

The fact that it’s topical newsmagazines that provide the background to the distillery, the name, the history and the rum’s titlingI searched through quite a few archival documents and websites to find the details used aboveexplains something of my frustration with distilleries who have no sense of their own history or respect for what they have done in years gone by. Granted Tuthilltown is not rum focused, but surely a listing all the products they have made in their existence should be easily available somewhere. This indifference to their product development and past roster, even if discontinued is simply bewildering. I mean, they made it, they labelled it, they sold it, it’s part of who they are…why pretend it doesn’t exist?

I hasten to add that this is not an exclusively American phenomenonGod knows there are examples galore across the geographical spectrum, like that Cadenhead VSG I almost thought was a ghost last year. Still, in contrast, take this counter-example: the Danish indie Rom Deluxe has a webpage devoted to their current releases, but they also have an archival section on their website where they list all their various older expressions made in years gone by. Labels, tech sheets, the lot. Given I can still find stuff from their earliest years knocking about on store shelves or collector’s basements, such material is a godsend when asking the inevitable question “what is this thing?” Quite a different mindset than so many others.

I’ve made a point of bringing up the issue of loss of current records (or having no records at all) for years and it’s the sort of subtle thing nobody really worries about, or notices…until they ask a question and realize that nobody ever wrote anything down, or recorded it and the info so readily available before, now only resides in derelict and near-inaccessible company archives, or on old web pages no longerlive”, or on some long-forgotten FB post. Rum databases like Rum Ratings and Rum-X help, for sure, but I think if companies themselves took some ownership of their releases and made sure the details were always available, then that would just help everyone out when they see an obscure bottle on a dusty shelf somewhere. Because without it, we’ll be floundering around ten years down the roadeven more than we are at presentif steps are not taken now.


 

Nov 212022
 

Rumaniacs Review #140 | 0952

Captain Morgan, of course, requires no introduction, yet its history presented us with some interestingly convoluted pathways (R-139); it showed that although in its modern 2020s iteration it’s a throwaway piece of cheap spiced dreck, made with indifference and sold wholesale with what I can only conclude is contempt for its core audience, the fact is that once, not too far back, it had aspirations to being something quite a bit more interesting. More genuine. Almost a real rum.

We can date this one more accurately because the 70º on the label had been replaced with 40% ABV which went into effect in 1980, and since 1984 the “Original Spiced” came on the market so the blends were gradually (if not instantly) discontinued. This may be one of the last of the true multi-country blends, and in this case it looks like they were drawing down from all the casks they had in storage from Barbados, Jamaica, and Guyana.

ColourDark amber

Strength – 40%

NoseSweet stewed plums, cherries in syrup, Licorice, salt caramel, molasses, wood, pencils, tree bark and sap. A few fleshy fruits roaming around in the background, bananas, very ripe oranges, but too faint to make much of an impression.

PalateThick, sweet caramel and brown sugar dominate, with molasses, and a strong latte. Some apples, raisins, syrup and a few spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s interesting and a far cry from the sort of thin pickings today’s spiced rums have become.

FinishShort, to be expected. Mostly caramel, coffee, chocolate, licorice and some sawdust, with the slightest citrus hint cutting through.

ThoughtsThis is why I like these old rums, and, even more, old rums that are the progenitors of today’s editions. No matter what the economic reasons that the rums of yesteryear were made the way they were, it’s obvious that even at the low strength at which they were issued back then, they were worlds apart, and better, than the modern variants with their crude sweetening and spicing: in comparison, the new “rums” are just ersatz products, pale imitations, and, in fine, dirty deeds done dirt cheap.

(78/100)


Other notes

  • The label states that it’s made by an outfit called Captain Morgan Rum Distillers in London (Dacre Street SW1H 0DR), which, as far as I can ascertain, is the distribution arm in the UK at that time, never mind that they didn’t have a distillery there. The street address is long closed and has been redeveloped into flats, a small hotel, and office space.
  • Seagram’s and Vivendi merged in June 2000, with the key point being the joining of their media empires…the spirits business was secondary and Edgar Bronfman noted at the time it would be sold off anyway. A year later the wine and spirits division of Seagram’s was on the block and three conglomerates were in the running to take over the lucrative brand portfolio: an alliance of Brown-Forman and Bacardi, the latter of which at the time was having cash flow issues and was heavily in debt; Allied Domecq; and a partnership of Pernod-Ricard and Diageo. Diageo-PR won the tussle, split the portfolio and Diageo walked away with (among other brands) Captain Morgan, though they had to give up Malibu brand on anti-competitive grounds to do so.
  • Distillationaside from that derived from Long Pond, and other countries’ stockswas primarily from Puerto Rico. Around 2011, Captain Morgan was induced by massive tax breaks and financial concessions, to build a distillery and make its rums in the US Virgin Islands. Nowadays this is where Captain Morgan brands are made.
  • Originally, as noted, Captain Morgan was a blend from Jamaica and other islands. Hugh Barty-King and Anton Massel, in their 1983 book “Rum Yesterday and Today” (p.190), wrote that “There were always 65,000 forty-gallon barrels of rum at the Seagram UK processing plant at Speke, Liverpool, and the storage centre at Huyton. Their supplies came mainly from Guyana and Jamaica, but also in small amounts from Barbados, Hawaii, Mexico and Puerto Rico. The rum was diluted and made up into various blends, put into bottles on which labels were put with such names as ‘Captain Morgan’ (the most in demand), ‘Woods’, ‘Myers’, ‘Old Charlieand ‘Tropicana’.”

 

Nov 172022
 

Whatever my personal opinions on the need for the four Magnum rums to exist as a separate collection as opposed to being folding into other series, they are there, they’re a fact of life and we move on. In any case, we’ve learnt a bit about the legendary photo agency (even if we’re not into current history) and read up about the style and importance of Elliot Erwitt (even if we’re not photographers or understand the connection), and have tasted four new rums from old and proud houses, so it’s by no means a waste.

Moreover, for all their variations in quality, the fact is the rums really are kind of good, and this is a way to make them shine and gain (even more) popular acclaim. “Good” did I say? Wellyes, though perhaps I understate matters. The Foursquare, for all my relative lack of enthusiasm was quite decent (many disagreed and thought it was much better), and the Hampden and the Mount Gay rums were, I thought, excellent in their own right. But when it comes ot the Saint James, the lowest proofed of the lot, “good” or “excellent” just doesn’t cut it. Because this is a rum that’s exceptional.

Part of that may have been the completely approachable strength (45%) and part was surely the impact of fifteen years ageing in Martinique: we rarely see agricole rhums that old, so by itself that’s a selling point; plus, this may be the first indie bottling Saint James have ever allowed (like Appleton’s pot still collection, another Velier coup from a couple of years back). The real takeaway is that this rum combines an agricole sensibility with a long-term barrel-ageing philosophy (much as the Bally 18 YO did) and while of course I can’t speak for your experience or to your preferences, when I tried it, it was love at first sip.

The first notes of the rum opened with a complex symphony so rich I slugged the shot down, then poured a second glass immediately, just to make sure somebody wasn’t messing with me. There was a complex fruit symphony of tart gooseberries, miso, very ripe gooseberries and mangoes, and a smorgasbord of all the sour funkiness I would normally have associated with Jamaica. Pineapples, cherries, sprite, lemon rind, honey, and that was before a panoply of cane sap and herbals made themselves known: fennel, rosemary, cloves, jasmine. The balance was superb and each delicate aromatic chip was clear, bright, and neither dominating nor dominated by, any other.

It was a great experience tasting it, as well. It felt just right on the tongue, silky, velvety, rich, and the tastes just went on from there. A lot of the bright and effervescent character remained, sweet, sour, tart, clean and voluptuous: pineapple slices and light yellow Thai mangoes, plus 7Up, honey, with additional threads of vanilla, cinnamon, rosemary and cardamom, plus just enough coffee grounds, chocolate and woodsmoke to present an intriguing and welcome counterpoint. The prevalence of dried fruitsthankfully not oversweetbrought to mind aged armagnacs or cognacs, especially when combined with a hint of aromatic damp tobacco. And it led to a really nice finish, surprisingly long, presenting a finale of delicious, sweetly gentle florals, bananas, honey, fruits and anise.

Like Stuart Pearce of the underrated review site Secret Rum Bar, I have tended to view much-reduced aged agricole rhums with some hesitation, some reluctance, even occasional suspicion; and in his own review he noted that he felt the palate became somewhat flat, hence his lower score. I thought otherwise myself, though: it dialled down from the impact the nose had made, to be sure, yet I didn’t think any quality was truly lost.

Frankly, my opinion was (and remains, after sneaking a second round in at the Paris Whisky Live later in the year) that it is hard to see how it could have been improved upon. It’s one of the best aged agricoles I’ve ever tried, and to my mind, is some kind of wonderful. It dares to take a chance, to not so much go off the beaten track as delicately careen along the skirting to show possibilities, hinting, not bludgeoning. It marries a solid age not often seen in agricole rhums, with a lower strength that allows all the complexities of the barrels and the gradual transmutation of the rhum, to be presented in their full flower. To bring this up to cask strength but make it younger would not have worked as well, and to simply age it without addressing the balance of tastes and intensity would have invited failure. Saint James drew upon all the skills they hadand that’s a lotand ended up providing Velier, and us, with one of those miraculous rhums that achieves its immediate goals of being just damned good…and then continues climbing towards an even higher sensibility.

(#951)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Once again it seems like I have a minority opinion. Secret Rum Bar rated it 84 points, WhiskyFun gave it 88, while Rum-X has an average of 84 points off of 12 ratings.
  • As with the other rums in this quartet, the outturn is 600 magnums and 1200 bottles.
  • The photograph on the label is from 2005 and depicts a scene from the wedding of a friend of Erwitt’s in Rome. The woman shown in silhouette is the bride.
  • The rums in the Magnum Series Volume 1 are:
  • From the Mount Gay “Magnum EE” Review: The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but they have no direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were likely chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.
Nov 142022
 

There was a time not too long ago when anything you got from Hampden was some bulk rum export that got bottled by an indie in Europe. Berry Bros. & Rudd, Murray McDavid, Renegade, Samaroli, Compagnie des Indes, Rum Nation…these companies and more were the ones who kept the name alive and vibrant in people’s memories. And to be fair, the rums they picked were usually quite goodthe Samaroli 1992 for example, was really kind of spectacular and even the Murray McDavid edition that was half as old, was no slouch.

All that changed after the launch of estate bottlings by Hampden in 2018, distributed globally by Velier. The reputation of the distillery bloomed overnight, and suddenly we moved from drought to delugeit seemed like everywhere we turned there was another company that touted its street cred by having a Hampden rum in ts portfolio. SMWS, SBS, Stolen Spirits, Rom Deluxe, LMDW, Duncan Taylor, Mezan, Valinch & Mallet, Rum Artesanal, Rum Club, Blackadder, Silver Seal, Wild Parrot, Hunter Laing, Kintra, and so on and so forth and such like. That’s was a lot of choices, but the cream of the cropat least with regards to customer appreciationcontinued to be the Velier releases with their near-trademarked labelling ethos and tropical ageing. And they lost no time expanding the Hampden rums into a veritable smorgasbord of offerings to cater to every taste.

At times it almost seemed like Velier-overkill. There were Habitation Velier Hampdens, the black-bottle yellow-label series, Endemic Birds, Great House, Warren Khong, Pagos, the various marks editions (now conveniently available as a sample pack) – it seems hard to believe that it all started with just a pair of 8YO rums a mere four years ago. And, predictably, for the 2022 season yet another Hampden rum was released as part of the “Magnum” quartet, though in this case it was just the one and not a whole set.

Strictly speaking, that rumon the face of it and going with the bare bones statisticspresents as nothing out of the ordinary. A pot still rum, distilled in 2016 and bottled in 2021 at 60% ABV, aged tropically for five years in ex-bourbon barrels, and bearing the marque HLCF (“Hampden Light Continental Flavoured”) which is therefore in the midrange of esterland: 500-600 g/hLpa, where for my money, the real quality lies buried and often overlooked in the rush to bag the biggest and baddest animal out there (the 1600 beast of the DOK, of course).

But whatever the ester count is, consider just how well the rum, even at that young age, comes across when you smell it. It reeks some kind of spectacular, I think: all the funky rotten fruits, orange rind, cherries, strawberries, pineapples and half chewed bubble gum we’ve grown to known and love, they’re all there. It exhales a bit of smoke, a bit of vanilla, a touch of cinnamon, some leather, honey and even sweet soya. Glue, acetones, furniture polish, fresh paint rise up to take their place and it all combines into a sort of deep complexity with a lot of different aromatic notes coexisting within a nice harmony. There’s a sort of rough richness to it that I sometimes forget Hampden rums display, and if perhaps the strength is overpowering, a touch of water can certainly bring things down a notch.

This is also true of the taste. Here, it’s more obvious that the rum has the roughness and toughness of a Trenchtown yardie the entire time: it has not been tamed and sanded down by a further decade in a barrel. What that does, however, is provide some really robust and precise notes that remain rather aggressive and sharp and which can be alleviated with some water. Glue, acetones, sweet pineapple, ginnips, tart yoghurt. The funk is well controlled, neither excessive not too faint, and there’s varnish, apple cider lurking around the corner to cosh you. It spurs roughshod over the palate, which is the youth of the thing speaking, of course, but I have to confess to a certain admiration for that. And it all leads to a nice long finish that has fruity notes, bubble gum, brine, olives, and some smoke, and brings the whole business to a hot close.

Now speaking for myself, I’m not entirely a fan of very young rums being sold at premium prices because too often it seems like a way to leverage a Name and a reputation based on past achievements, rather than intrinsic quality of a rum itself. Yet here I find myself with little to quibble about: the rum bears out a gradually developing personal premise that when it comes to the high ester rum category, the midrange is where the real action lies, not the edges of the bell curve where the extremists lie in wait to hack and slash.

I liked this rum, a lot, for all its lack of years. It’s tasty as hell. It keeps on going like the barrel had an energizer bunny stuffed inside the entire time. It’s aggressive, it’s big, it’s bad, it’s bold, and had I been the sommelier advising John Wick, I would have said to screw the Austrian and German selections and go with the Hampden. This the rum that would have justified that choice, and the body count would have been way lower had he done so, because, let’s face facts, you just can’t go far wrong when you stick with one of the badasses of the New Jamaican varietals.

(#950)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The Hampden rating doesn’t appear to polarise as much as my previous two reviews of the Foursquare and Mount Gay. Most agree that it’s a pretty fine rum. Secret Rum Bar rated it 88+ points, WhiskyFun gave it 87, while Rum-X has an average of 86 points off of 30 ratings (as of this writing).
  • As with others in the set, outturn is 1200 bottles and 600 magnums.
  • The photograph on the label is of Coney Island in New York, dated from 1954.
  • The rums in the Magnum Series Volume 1 are:
  • From the Mount Gay “Magnum EE” Review: The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but they have no direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were likely chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.