Mar 042021
 

If two rums from the same company were made the exact same way on the same still, there are just a few things that would explain any profile variations. There’s the still settings themselves, because one rum might have differentcutsthan the other, or from higher or lower plate; there’s the proof point, stronger or weaker, at which either is bottled; and then there’s the barrel strategy, which is to say, the barrel itself and the duration of the rum’s slumber therein.

Last week I looked at a 12 year old Flor de Caña Nicaraguan rum from Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, which came off their column still in some undisclosed year and was then aged in ex-bourbon barrels in Central America for more than a decade before being diluted down to a milquetoast 40%. The 335 bottles of this Nicaraguan rum released by the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society were also 12 years old but allowed to flex the glutes at a solid 55% ABV, was in so many ways a better rum that one can only wonder at the difference. After all, isn’t tropical ageing supposed to be better? Stuff made at the distillery of origin from cane to cork should be benefiting from the voodoo of location, yet clearly that didn’t happen here.

I mean, consider the profile from start to finish. This SMWS rum was deep and forceful from the get go. Caramel and toffee melded well with a woody component. Dark fruits and raisins waft across the nose and combined with some apple cider, threatens to overwhelm the smellbut the toffee, caramel, oak, chocolate and tart yoghurt end up carrying the day. It’s a bit sweet, with some bitterness after a while, and an emergent strain of coconut and marzipan, with the whole thing getting both darker and sweeter the longer it’s nosed

Palate? Not bad at all. It’s woody, more so than the Flor de Caña product (and this is something about their rums many have commented on before); caramel and bitter chocolate wrestle for dominance with dark Russian peasant bread. “It’s kind of like a thin Blairmont and without the complexity,” remarked my friend Marco, who was tasting it unenthusiastically with me (he was not a fan). I disagree there, because when you leave the rum alone for a while (okay fine, I forgot about it and checked it again an hour later, so sue me) it actually provides some nice notes of coffee, brown sugar, apples and vanillathese temper the slight oaky bitterness we sensed, and while overall I think it is rather simple and the finish just repeats the chorus of notes from above, it’s a pretty powerful statement for the companyand what it could be doing.

I have no way of knowing in which year the Flor 12 was madecompany-made blends like that stay stable for long periods and are tweaked to make them that wayand so a comparison between a continentally aged rum from a single barrel selected by a whisky maker, and a blended, easier product continuously being made by the distillery, lacks true comparability or real meaning; and will without question taste differently. And that’s even without going into the oft-repeated doubts as to whether even back then, their rums truly aged for X years.

And yet, and yet….perhaps it should not taste that different. The shared DNA should be clear, there should be points of similarity that would permit a reasoned comparison to be made, the family tree to snap into focus. Here, that’s hard. If pressed, I’d say I felt this one was less like the 12 and more akin to the superlative blue-bottled 15 year old “21” I’ve always likedbut that one was also quite different from other Flor products (it was an anniversary bottling, never repeated).

So taking all that into account, what made the SMWS rum from Nicaragua so relatively good? Maybe they really were made at different times and in different ways and came off the still already more like second cousins than brothers. But assume for a minute that they were the same up to that point: given the similarity in age, similarity in barrels and assumed sameness off the still, the only thing left to consider is the wide divergence of the proof point, and the ageing location. The 40% TA variant is faint, lacklustre and ultimately boringit in no way provides the complexity and solidity of tastes the CA 55% does.

I’m not trying to make a case for continental over tropical (aside from pointing out how pointless the discussion is from a taste perspective) – but I will go on record for suggesting that maybe one reason Flor de Cana can’t seem to increase its market share or get a bigger footprint on the connoisseur’s mindset, is because they have not had the guts to stake out the full proof market for their products, or even issue a limited edition series of single cask releases. And what that means is that other, smaller independents are stealing the thunder and reaping the rewards that by right should have been theirs. All because they couldn’t be bothered to move away from the traditional philosophy of their blenders.

(#806)(85/100)


Other notes’

  • Simon over at the Rum Shop Boy liked the rum, and made some interesting comments in his conclusions: he suggested that its quality disproves the oft-cited myth that lighter column still spirits require dosage to be truly palatable; and also, that a higher proof is a completely acceptable way of delivering more flavour punch to the rum.
Mar 012021
 

Nearly ten years ago, I was rather indifferent to Flor de Cana’s 12 year old rum. It wasn’t as cool as the older expressions like the 18 for sipping, and was outdone by the 7 year old for a more assertive a cocktail. The 12 YO made a decent drinkexcept insofar as I thought it was somewhat unfinished mid range rum which didn’t seem to be either flesh or fowl.

A decade has now passed, and the brand has lost both brownie points and market lustre with consumers. The 2015 Chronic Kidney Disease matter has died down, but the peculiar and more lasting damage of their age statements continues. In fine, the age statement number on the label was phased out after around 2014 (when Wes Burgin first noted it in his middling-scored review) and now just says “7” or “12” or 18” without further clarification. Of course, even then they were touting that silly “slow aged” moniker, which I regarded then and now with the same sort of impatience. What on earth do they think this means, honestly? That the world spins more slowly for this thing?

What this all does mean, and what just about every reviewer on reddit or other fora is at pains to note (when they bother reviewing anything from Flor at all), is that the big number on the label is completely useless, if not outright deceptive. It tells you nothing of consequence, not the age, or whether it is a blend of X rums (unlikely) or whether it’s a link to the past when it was 12 years old.

With that in mind, let’s see what we have: an older 12 year old 40% rum, whose current “12” blend is no longer now what this once was; column still distilled and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. A more standard rum could not be imagined (unless maybe it’s the Appleton 12 YO or Doorly’s 12 YO). The only reasons to try it are curiosity (always), to see if it could be a candidate for the Key Rums list (no), and to see if anything has changed from my original review (yes, but not for the better).

I confess it did not impress now either. The nose started out medicinal and a bit sharp. It’s predominant characteristic was dark prunes and viscous molasses, honey, overripe cherries, a tang of salt and olives. The ageing showed up via a trace of vanilla and tannins, whose aromas stayed mostly in the background, but overall, not a particularly expressive or impressive nose.

The rum tasted mostly of caramel, treacle and molasses. There was a trace of nuttiness and honey, a few dark and ripe fruits, nothing particularly sharp or tart. Black olives, some brown sugar. It felt like something of a soft blanket, lacking the sharper notes of a citrus element that would have make a stronger statement and balanced things off more nicely. With some strain and patience, a touch of orange peel and unsweetened chocolate was discernible at the tail end leading into the short, dry finish, just insufficient to make a difference to the overall profile. Not something that made it any more memorable, however.

For my money, the 12 YO remains something of a middling work in progress, once leading to the better 18 Year Old (now the “18”) of the supposedly even more upscale “Luxury” expressions (this one is referred to as an “Ultra Premium” in its current iteration). I don’t think it merits anything near those kinds of descriptionsbased on tastes alone, it encourages words like “capable,” “decent” and “mid range” but “Premium”? No chance.

To me, it comes down to that that big number 12 on the label: without any qualifiers or explanations, it is a sign of not just shoddy marketing and the peacock-like display of a double-digit (if not an outright attempt to mislead buyers), but of a lack of faith in their own product. I have no particular issues with Flor de Cana as a wholeI admire what they’ve managed to accomplish to recover their reputationbut this rum is just not worthy, at this stage, of being included in the pantheon. It’s too simple, too ambiguous, and it excites mostly a kind of indifference. Ten years ago it was the sort of rum I’d drink when I just wanted to get hammered, and in that sense, it’s exactly the same now

(#805)(78/100)


Other notes

  • In a time of true-aged cask-strength full-proofs as part of several primary producers’ ranges, I wonder why they insist on keeping this old work horse and not rebrand it as a true 12 year old, and/or goose the proof a bit? For that matter, why not issue a complete range of high-octane full proofs? To stick with the advertising of yesteryear at a time when the world has already changed so much strikes me as odd, to say the least. Perhaps, like DDL, they regard that kind of thing as a loss-leading indulgence of the independent bottlers, not something they really care about themselves.
  • Both TWE and MoM keep on naming their entries for the rum as if it were a true-aged rum, when the label clearly says nothing of the kind.
May 042020
 

There was a very good reason why I took this bottle off a shelf and tried it, even when surrounded by many other rums from equally proud old houses, better made, stronger, of greater quality, produced to more exacting standards, with less kerfuffling oin the label. And that was because I was evaluating Flor de Caña’s entry-to-mid-level rum to see whether it could or should be named to the Key Rums series. The price was attractive, and I retained good memories of an epic bender with my Newfie squaddie Keenan, where we polished off a bottle in labba time on his deck while discoursing on method, critiquing pure reason and waxing poetical on ethical conundrums.

At the time, I had long been a fan of the Flor rums, and they were among my favourite of the first 100 reviews written here, including the original 7 year old I had cut my baby rum teeth on. But back in 2010, they were not the same rums I was drinking now, nor was the same person doing the drinking. Ten years ago, for example, they really did say “7 años” on the label, and not just the deceptive looking numeral 7 without any elaboration at all. The completely meaningless, clueless, pointless and uselessbut evocative“slow aged” and “handcrafted” monikers was on both bottles, but now they had gone a step further and trademarked the former, just to make sure, I guess, that somebody else didn’t come up with the time dilation effects of being around a glass of the stuff. These days, I just pass that kind of stuff with some impatience and get right into the glass.

The nose started decently enoughwarm, fruity, welcoming. It was a bit too sharp for easy sniffing, and the burn of cheap acetone and furniture polish denigrated the experience some. Still, what came after was pleasantblancmange, bananas, cigar smoke, raisins and some molasses, a bit of tinned peaches, nothing too out of left field, or too aggressive. For a column still product pushed out at 40% ABV, it was all right, and didn’t blow the roof off, or fade into tasteless bland listlessness that sometimes characterizes such bottom shelf products.

The palate really needed work. There was quite a bit more than the nose, mindbitter chocolate, almonds, orange peel, stale cigar smoke (in an unventilated bar the day after a late closeever been in one of those?), black tea, some brown sugar and brine, sweet soya, molasses, and the further bitterness of wet charcoal and ashes. The problem was, the whole palate was unbalanced and weak. I don’t say that entirely because of the strength, though that didn’t help, but because there everything was so dialled down and faint that it took me the best part of an hour to dissect itand worse, the discordant pieces clashed and banged against each other without harmony, and instead of leading to the quiet glide of a smooth finish, it shoved brine and caramel and vanilla roughly down the gullet and pronounced itself satisfied it had given what had been paid for.

So, after trying it and feeling a distinct sense of being let down, I had to concede that the passage of ten years had changed me and my profile preferences, as well as, probably, the company.

It’s possible that the now-famous 2015 Vice magazine hit piece (about Flor’s purported responsibility for Chronic Kidney Disease which was killing workers at an alarming rate, which was long on inconvenient truths and short on contradictory evidence or Big Picture, but that nevertheless caused a partial bartender’s boycott of their rums in North America) took Flor by surprise. And in their scrambling to retain market share and recover from the mountain of bad press, they started to cut corners to save money. Or maybe they just misread the tea leaves, completely ignored the head of steam that pure single rums were just starting to make and went cheap and mass market and standard strength, instead of to the niche top end where real profits lie.

Whatever the case for the devolution of the rum from its progenitor, it cannot be considered as being an undiscovered steal. It’s not the same rum I had back then. Is it younger? No way to tellit’s a blend now, and some of the trust the company had once possessed has now evaporated, so who’s to tell? The important take-away is that drinking it didn’t make the hours fly faster, just slower, enough to get the tasting over and done with, and with less enjoyment. A decent rum this was. A good mixing agent, yes, surely. A key rum, though? Not reallyit is, in point of fact, quite a bit less.

(#723)(76/100)


Other notes

My low-to-middling opinion here is something of a minority. Several others quite liked it, so if you want some balance to my snark, check these guys out:

Apr 132020
 

Of all the Central American rums I’ve tried, Nicaraguan rums from the Flor de Caña facilities probably are the least like that light Spanish style so popularized by Bacardi. They inhabit a tasting style niche that isn’t quite Latin (or Cuban, if you will), but something that blends the light column still taste with something a bit deeper and richer. It makes for a nice amalgam, though it must be said that their own rums don’t always showcase that effectively, and sometimes it takes an indie to make the point with a single barrel expression. Not as a rule, not consistently, but occasionally, like here, yes.

Black Adder had done some intriguing work with their 12 YO back in 2015, and the Compagnie des Indes has released another Nicaraguan single barrel rum I quite liked, the 2004-2016 11 YO which illustrated the depth of such rums nicely. That one was fruit-forward with background notes of tobacco and spices, and possessed a certain plush softness I wasn’t expecting (previously my experience had been with Flor de Caña’s main line of commercial blended rums). So I was curious how a 17 year old rum from the Compagnie ranked against those two, and whether that additional five or six years of ageing (continental) made a discernible difference.

It did, I think. It almost seemed like there was some pot still action going on behind the scenes, upon a first sniffrubber, salt, esters and acetone, a little paint thinner. Also a nice olive and briny note, set off by sweeter aromas of tinned peaches or apricots in syrup. Some nuts and cereals backed up the chorus, and the real takeaway was the impressive manner in which the balance among these competing aspects was maintained, with no single scent dominating the experience. Even a vague salty rottenness of of overripe cashew fruit (the ones with the external seeds), added rather than detracted from the overall complexity and it was quite a bit better than the 2004 11 YO I brought out of mothballs to do the comparison.

On the palate the rum started off with something of a different vibe: the estery fruitiness I had smelled changed to a delightful sprightly young bubble gum, mint and menthol combo which opened the show in fine style. The rum felt thinner than the nose had suggested, and sharper, but that was likely just a function of the high ABV (64.9%) and again, it felt like it had more richness and depth than either the Blackadder or the 11 YO I was using as comparators. With water, additional notes crept out: honey, dates, nougat and apricots (minus the tin or the syrup this time). There were some vague sensations of oak tannins, aromatic tobacco, caramel, vanilla and a little bit of molasses backing things up, leading to a very long, dry finish of fruits, nuts, honey and coconut shavings.

My personal opinion is that some water might be useful to aid in taming the beast and bringing out subtler flavours that might otherwise be cowed (and there are a lot of those). This is one of those cases where perhaps toning the rum down to an ABV more in the mid-fifties might have paid dividends: nevertheless, I can’t complain with what Florent has achieved here, which is to coax a sterling profile out of a difficult and complex high proofed spirit. And although the Danes were the only ones who got this rum at this strength back in the day, Nicaraguan rums at full proof remain a staple of the Compagnie’s releases, all of which can trace their descent back to the quality of what was envisioned five years ago, in this deserving and near unnoticed release.

(#718)(85.5/100)


Other notes

  • 240 bottle outturn, from Barrel #NCR-30