I have a feeling I’m going to catch some flak for this review, of a rum I know many think is the bastard offspring of a low quality formaldehyde mixed with a crazy paint stripper and the stinking armpit of a sweaty canecutter at noon. Short version – miles better than its low-bred coz from the sticks.
Full disclosure: I absolutely detested the original low end Bundaberg Rum, and even Aussies with whom I’ve occasionally been in contact seem to despise the rum most indelibly linked with their land. It was a raw, nasty, foul tasting morals charge, a rum so way off base it was in Mongolia, with a taste so different you found yourself clutching what remained of your tonsils and crying like a baby after merely one sip. My squaddie the Bear probably still as that original bottle from two years ago in his pantry, never opened or sampled again. Stefan Hartvingson, of that excellent website tastersguide, thought that even the Reserve, a step or two up, was not as good as his wife’s nail polish remover.
Therefore it was with some trepidation that I forked out forty bucks for the Bundaberg Reserve when I saw it. You might reasonably ask why I bothered. Well, partly it was curiosity, and partly it was so I could give it a shot (so to speak) and see what it was all about. It couldn’t really be as bad as the entry level, could it? And how could I call myself a reviewer of rums if all I did was go after what everyone else said was good and never went off the reservation myself…where’s the intellectual honesty in that?
Bundie has been around since 1888 when several small operations in Queensland combined to form the Bundaberg Distilling Company, which has been in operation (more or less) ever since – fires caused a cessation in production in 1907 to 1914, and again in 1936 to 1939. The Polar Bear mascot was introduced in the 1960s to signify Bundie’s ability to ward off the coldest chill, and Diageo bought the entire concern in 2000.
With respect to the 40% rum itself here is not much real information about the Reserve. According to the company website, it’s a blend taken from vats which seem to be maturing very nicely, and are reserved for some ageing in oaken casks and subsequent bottling and marketing as something more high end. Supposedly released in June 2009, only 5,000 bottles. There’s no age statement to be found anywhere, not any indication of how long the blend remains in the oak casks – from my own observation and experience, I’d hazard a guess it’s around five to seven years. The bottle is the standard slope- shouldered, simply-labelled bottle. Tinfoil cap…utilitarian but effective, so no great fancy cork nonsense for this baby.
There was an earthy, musty nose of truffles and damp earth when fresh rain hits it, to start one off – immediately you get the picture: this is not the normal rum one is used to, all caramels and burnt sugar. Behind that initial scent I got pineapple, some fleshy fruits, with a faint nuttiness coiling around it all, and the expected brown sugar notes attending smartly. Much better. The cloying turpentine and rotting fruit assault of the Bundie I had tried previously was dialled down so far as to make it a mild characteristic rather than the whole show of that variation. For something touted a ‘Reserve’ – usually seen as a cut above the ordinary – the arrival was a bit sharp and peppery, yet I got a clear “rum” taste of sugars and phenols that wasn’t bad – the weird thing is that the musty taste of the nose was nowhere in evidence. Certainly there’s a piquancy to the Reserve – I couldn’t fault it too much for that, however, since the smoothness of the product was rather pleasant and not raw and raging as I had half-feared. The finish was utterly unexceptional – short, sweet and spicy, and I can’t say I cared much for that – the taste was the best thing about this entry into the Bundie stable.
Bundaberg rum may be considered Australia’s signature spirit, but it’s a queer thing that Aussies themselves don’t seem to care much for it, unless one counts yobbos whose aggressive demeanour after a fair night’s enthusiastic duelling with the spirit has caused the company much embarrassment. Maybe most antipodean dwellers think they’re too good for it, or some such – it may be held in the sort of genteel contempt that King of Diamonds is in Guyana.
But truth to tell, this ain’t all bad, guys. It can be mixed or taken with water, or even (for those who really like something original) taken by itself, and here I should note that a certain smoky character emerges with a cola, and I really enjoyed that. Sometimes I come to a rum with low expectations and get surprised…this is one of those times. I came to sneer and stayed to write of my tolerable appreciation (and that was not a lightly given accolade, believe me). Bundaberg Rum is not the chippest kid on the block, and it won’t convince anyone who hates the other varieties to give it a try…but it’s better than the bad word of mouth has it. Not by an enormous margin…just enough that you notice it.