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 different “cuts” than 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 smell…but 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 vanilla – these 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 company…and what it could be doing.

I have no way of knowing in which year the Flor 12 was made – company-made blends like that stay stable for long periods and are tweaked to make them that way – and 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 liked — but 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 boring – it 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 drink…except 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 descriptions – based 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 whole – I admire what they’ve managed to accomplish to recover their reputation – but 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 useless — but 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 enough – warm, 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 pleasant – blancmange, 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, mind — bitter chocolate, almonds, orange peel, stale cigar smoke (in an unventilated bar the day after a late close – ever 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 it…and 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 tell — it’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 really – it 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:

Jan 282019
 

Speaking in general terms, my personal drift away from Latin- or South American rums over the last few years derives from the feeling that they’re a little too laid back, and lack pizzazz.  They’re not bad, just placid and easy going and gentle, and when you add to that the disclosure issues, you can perhaps understand why I’ve moved on to more interesting profiles.

Far too many producers from the region do too much unadventurous blending (Canalero), don’t actually have a true solera in play (Dictador), have a thing for light column still products which may or may not be tarted up (Panama Red), and are resting on the laurels of old houses and family recipes (Maya) whose provenance can hardly be established beyond a shadow of doubt (Mombacho or Hechicera).  Moreover, there is too often a puzzling lack of easily-available background regarding such rums (more than just marketing materials) which is out of step with the times.

Still, I have to be careful to not paint with too wide a brush – there are many good rums from the region and I’m not displeased with all of them. In a curious turnabout, my favourites are not always released by from or by Latin American companies — at least, not directly — but by independents who take the original distillate from a broker and then release it as is.  This avoids some of the pitfalls of indeterminate blending, additives, dilution and source, because you can pretty much count on a small indie outfit to tell you everything they themselves know about what they stuffed into their bottle.

That’s not to say that in this case the Compagnie is a poster child for such disclosure – the distillery on this one is noted as being “Secret”, for example. But I suspect that Florent was a bit tongue in cheek here, since any reasonably knowledgeable anorak can surmise that the 11 YO rum being reviewed here is a Flor de Cana distillate, column still, and aged in Europe.

Compared to the Mombacho 1989 that was being tried alongside it (and about which I still know too little), the nose was much more interesting – perhaps this was because the Compagnie didn’t mess around with a soft 43%, but went full bore at 69.1% for their favoured clients, the Danes (this rum is for the Danish market). Yet for all the strength, it presented as almost delicate — light, fruity (pears, guavas, watermelon., papaya), with a nice citrus tang running through it. When it opened up some more, I also smelled apples, pears, honey, cherries in syrup, and a pleasant deeper scent of aromatic tobacco, oak and smoke, and a touch of vanilla at the back end.

The palate was also very robust (to say the least). It was sharp, but not raw – some of the rougher edges had been toned down somewhat – and gave off rich tastes of honey, stewed apples, more sweet tobacco and smoke, all of it dripping with vanilla. Those light fruits evident on the nose were somewhat overpowered by the strength, yet one could still pick out some cherries and peaches and apples, leading into a very long and highly enjoyable finish with closing notes of gherkins, brine, cereals, vanilla, and a last flirt of light sweet fruits.

Perhaps it was a mistake to try that supposed 19 YO Mombacho together with this independent offering from France.  On the face of it they’re similar, both from Nicaragua and both aged a fair bit — but it’s in the details (and the sampling) that the differences snap more clearly into focus, and show how the independents deserve, and are given, quite a bit more trust than some low-key company which is long on hyperbole and short on actual facts.

As noted above, neither company says from which distillery its rums hail, though of course I’m sure they’re Flor de Cana products, both of them.  We don’t know where Mombacho ages its barrels; CDI can safely be assumed to be Europe. The CDI is stronger, is more intense and simply tastes better, versus the much softer and easier (therefore relatively unchallenging) Mombacho, even if it lacks the latter’s finish in armagnac casks. Beyond that, we get rather more from the Compagnie – barrel number, date of distillation and bottling, true age, plus a little extra – the faith, built up over many years of limited bottlings, that we’re getting what they tell us we are, and the confidence that it’s true. That alone allowed me to relax and enjoy the rum much more than might otherwise have been the case.

(#593)(84.5/100)


Other notes

  • Controls this time around were the aforementioned Mombacho, the Black Adder 12YO, and another Nicaraguan from CDI, aged for seventeen years.  I dipped in and out of the sample cabinet for the comparators mentioned in the first paragraph — not to re-evaluate them, just to get a sense of their profiles as opposed to this one.
  • Distilled December 2004, bottled April 2016, 242 bottle-outturn
  • We should not read too much into the “Secret” appellation for the rum’s source.  Sometimes, companies have a clause in their bulk rum sales contracts that forbids a third party re-bottler (i.e., an independent) from mentioning the distillery of origin.
Jan 252010
 

First posted 25 January 2010 on Liquorature.

(#007)(Unscored)

***

Memory fails as to who introduced me to this Nicaraguan gem. I have a feeling it was Dougie from the office when he went down there. I was initially a bit doubtful, but since I was trying to scare up some good stuff for the first non-whiskey night of Liquorature, which thus far had been exclusively a Scottish binge, I felt it was necessary to pull out the stops: I had already bought the Appleton Master’s Blend and the Zaya, and this one’s price point fell somewhere in between.

The oldest of the Flor de Cana rums made from molasses, this sweeter than average dark brown rum is aged for eighteen years in used whiskey or bourbon barrels, yet somehow avoids that harsh bite so characteristic of rums aged in whiskey casks (like Renegade’s offerings). Because it is younger than the Appleton Master’s Blend, it isn’t quite as pretentious either, and so I deplored the similarity of the bottle with the 12 year version somewhat less. This is also the darkest of the rums we had that night, a rich clear brown with a slightly red tint; and, poured, it releases a nutty, smoky aroma, with hints of burnt sugar.

The taste in the mouth is superb (but note that my own predilections run slightly more to sweet than the average, so I won’t pretend this will work for others), sweet and spicy – those caramel notes really start to come out if you can hold it on the tongue – and a bit of oak flavour that begins to dominate after a bit. Actually, more than a bit. As you sip, the oak overpowers everything else and though the finish is smooth and fine, I felt that for an 18 year old, this was not quite the standard I expected. I think I’ll have to go back to this.

The issue for me is that the 12-year and even the 7-year Flors are fantastic for their ages, and the balance that I found tipping to the oak here, is better handled in these younger offerings. They are simply better on the texture and body, while their finish is a little less. Now I’ve been accused of taking one sip, passing judgement, and drowning the poor baby in coke at the first hint of distress (a holdover from my plebian past where a flattie and a bowl’ice plus pepsi was all I needed to go with the curry goat I had an hour before), but unfortunately here it was almost necessary. I’d take the 12-year neat, and the 7- with some coke, but the 18-year old, sadly enough, and good as it was, did not move me to treat it with the great degree of reverence I initially thought it deserved, and therefore I shrugged and bastardized the poor thing.

Again, I stress this is one of those I have to go back to, so my review may change; right now I’ll place it in the first tier, just not right up at the top. Second shelf, perhaps. I’m hoping it’ll move up.


Other Notes

  • A few years after this review, Flor de Cana removed the “years old” from the label, which has been widely derided as deceptive, because now there is no longer any kind of definitive age statement.