Jan 162022
 

DOK.  The initials which have now become a word, have such a sense of menace.  They have all the unfriendly finality of an axe thunking into an executioner’s block. And perhaps this was deliberate, because a DOK rum (I give a delicious shiver) is at the trembling razor’s edge of esterland, 1600 g/hlpa, something so torrid and intense that it is used to calm down cask strength neutral alcohol before being sold to Scotch lovers, and those only now getting into rum.

Richard Seale is famous for his exasperation about DOK-weenies and fangeeks who wax rhapsodic about these things, because he knows that such a high concentration of esters was historically there for a reason – not to drink neat or rack up drinking brownie points, but to act as a flavorant to pastries, perfumes and cheap European rums in the 19th and 20th centuries (some of these uses continue). The taste of such a rum is so intense that it serves no sane purpose as a drink in its own right, and even in a mix it’s akin to playing with fire if one is not careful.

But of course, nothing will dishearten these spirited Spartans, for they, like your faithful reviewer, are way too witless for fear, and it’s a badge of honour to always get the rum that’s the biggest and baddest with the mostest even when the biggest ‘n’ baddest Bajan says otherwise: and so when one gets a DOK through fair means or foul, well, it’s gonna be tried, screaming weenies be damned.  And I gotta be honest, there’s some masochism involved here as well: can I survive the experience with my senses intact and my sanity undisturbed? Does the Caner like rum?

Judge for yourself.  I poured the pale yellow rum into my glass – carefully, I don’t mind telling you — and took a prudent and delicate sniff. The strength was manageable at 66.4%, and I’ve had stronger, of course, but I was taking no chances.  Good idea, because right away I was assaulted by the squealing laydown of a supercar’s rubber donuts on a hot day.  The tyres seemed to be melting on the road, the rubber scent was that strong. Man, there was a lot to unpack here: porridge with sour milk and salted butter, sharp as hell. Creamy not-quite tart herbal cheese spread over freshly toasted yeasty bread. Glue, paint, turpentine, more rubber, varnish, acetones, the raw cheap nail polish scent of a jaded Soho streetwalker, and still it wasn’t done.  Even after five minutes the thing kept coughing up more: sharp fruits, pineapple, strawberries, ginnip, gooseberries, plus paprika, basil, dill, and red olives.

And the taste, well, damn.  Sour milk in a latte gone bad, plus glue, paint, acetones and melting rubber.  Gradually, timorously, meekly, some fruits emerged: raisins, pears, unripe strawberries, pineapples, green mangoes, ripe cashews.  Oh and olives, leather, brine and coffee grounds, more fruit, and I was thinking that half of me wanted to shudder, stop and walk away, but the other half was mordantly curious to see how long this level of crazy could be maintained before the thing ran out of gas.  Truth to tell, not much longer, because after about half an hour it seemed to think I had been punished enough, and the intense pungency drained away to a long, spicy, dry but tasty finish – I could give you another long list of finishing notes, but at the end it simply repeated the beats of what had come before in a sort of crisp and spicy summation that left nothing unrepeated.

Look, I’m not making up these tasting notes in an effort to impress by establishing the extent of my imaginative vocabulary, or how complex I think the rum is.  Therein lies a sort of pointless insanity by itself. The fact is that those sensations are there, to me, and I have to describe what I am experiencing. That the rum is a smorgasbord of sensory impressions is beyond doubt – the question is whether it works as it should, whether it provides a good tasting and drinking experience, or whether it’s just a pointless exercise in dick measuring by an independent who wants to establish a rep — somewhat like Rom Deluxe did when they released their own DOK at 85.2%, remember that one?  As with that rum, then, I have to respond with a qualified yes

Because it works…up to a point. 

The issue with the rum and others like it — and this is an entirely personal opinion — is that there is simply too much: it overwhelms the senses with an undisciplined riot of aromas and flavours that fail to cohere.  Admittedly, the boys in Germany chose well, and the Letter of Marque is not quite on the level of crazy that attended the jangling cacophony of the Wild Tiger…but it’s close, and here I suspect the ageing did take some of the edge off and allow a bit of smoothening of the raw indiscipline that the Rom Deluxe product sported so happily.  Too, the strength is more bearable and so it works slightly better from that perspective as well.  

And so, I have to give this the score I think it deserves, which is a bit on the high side, perhaps. It sure took courage for the Rum Cask company to release it onto an unsuspecting public, and there’s a lot of interesting aspects to this Jamaican rum: if one dilutes a bit, tastes carefully and with attention, I think a lot can be taken away.  Most people aren’t like that though, and I suspect that if an average Joe was given this without warning, he might grudgingly praise the thing, but would hardly be likely to spring for a bottle the way a committed Jamaican rum fan would. Unless, of course, he wanted a rum that was demonstrably one of the the biggest, bestest and mostest.

(#875)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • Letter of Marque is a brand of the Rum Cask indie bottler in Germany
  • The rum was selected by bloggers Rumboom, Single Cask Rum and Barrel Aged Thoughts.
  • Distilled in 2009, this was some of Hampden’s first output laid down to age, when they reopened that year
  • 300-bottle outturn
  • A “Letter of Marque,” once called a privateering commission, was a document issued by a Government (usually the crown) during the Age of Sail to authorize a private person to attack ships of another nation with which the Government was currently at war.  Essentially it legalized piracy by outsourcing naval guerilla operations to mercenaries — privateers or corsairs — under the mantle of the national interest. The 1856 Paris Declaration eventually ended the practice of privateering and the issuance of such letters worldwide.
  • On Rum-X, some thirty or so DOK rums are listed; clearly, whether we like it or not, these high-ester funk delivery systems are here to stay and as long as they get made, they will get sold, and drunk, and boasted about.
Jan 102022
 

When we think of Haiti two names in rum immediately spring to mind: clairins and Barbancourt.  This pair of diametrically opposite rum making styles dominate the conversation to such an extent that it is often overlooked that there are other distilleries on the island, like Barik / Moscoso, Agriterra / Himbert, Distillerie de la Rue (Nazon), Distillerie Lacrete, La Distillerie 1716, Beauvoir Leriche and Janel Mendard (among others).  Granted most of these don’t do much branded work, stay within their regional market, or they sell bulk rum only (often clairins or their lookalikes that punch up lesser rums made by even cheaper brands), but they do exist and it’s a shame we don’t know more about them or their rums.

I make this point because the Samaroli 11 year old Haitian rum from 2004 which we are looking at today, doesn’t actually say which distillery in Haiti made it.  Admittedly, this is a pedantic issue, since we can surmise with near-total assurance that it’s a Barbancourt distillate: they supply the majority of European brokers with bulk rum from Haiti while the others mentioned here tend to do local sales or over-the-border business in the Dominican Republic.  But we don’t know for sure and all the ebay sites and auction listings for this rum and other Haitians that Samaroli bottled, do not disclose the source, so we’ll take it as an educated and probably correct guess for now.

What else?  Distilled in 2004 and released in 2015 at 45% ABV, the rum hews closely to the mantra Silvio Samaroli developed all those years ago, which said that at the intersection of medium age and medium strength is a nexus of the best of all possible aromas, textures and tastes, where neither the rawness of youth or the excessive oakiness of age can spoil the bottled distillate, and the price remains reasonable.  Well, maybe, though what’s going on these days price-wise might give anyone pause to wonder whether that still holds true.

The rum does nose nicely, mind you: it starts off with a loud blurt of glue paint and nail polish, warm but not sharp and settles down into an almost elegant and very precise profile.  Soft notes of sugar water, pear syrup, cherries, vanilla and coconut shavings cavort around the nose, offset by a delicate lining of citrus and florals and a subtle hint of deeper fruits, and herbs.

Overall the slightly briny palate is warm, but not obnoxious.  Mostly, it’s relaxed and sweet, with pears, papayas, cucumbers plus maybe a single pimento for a sly kick at the back end.  It’s not too complex – honestly, it’s actually rather shy, which may be another way of saying there’s not much going on here.  But it still beats out a bunch of standard strength Spanish-heritage rons I had on the go that same day.  What distinguishes the taste is its delicate mouthfeel, floral hints and the traces of citrus infused sugar cane sap, all quite nice.  It’s all capped by a short and floral finish, delicate and spicy-sweet, which retains that slight brininess and darker fruits that are hinted at, without any effort to overwhelm.

Formed in 1968 by the eponymous Italian gentleman, the firm made its bones in the 1970s in whiskies,  branched into rums, and has a unicorn rum or two in its portfolio (like that near legendary 1948 blend); it is the distinguished inspiration for, and conceptual ancestor of, many Italian indies who came after…but by 2022 and even perhaps before that, Samaroli slipped in the younger generation’s estimation, lagging behind new and hungry independents like 1423, Rom Deluxe or Nobilis.  These brash insurgents issued cask strength monsters crammed with 80+ points of proof that were aged to three decades, or boosted to unheard ester levels…and the more elegant, easier, civilized rums Samaroli was once known for, no longer command the same cachet.

Now, this quiet Haiti rum is not an undiscovered steal from yesteryear, or a small masterpiece of the indie bottler’s art – I’d be lying if I said that. It’s simply a nice little better-than-entry level sipper, quiet and relaxed and with just enough purring under the hood to not make it boring. But to me it also shows that Samaroli can continue to do their continental ageing thing and come out with something that — while not a brutal slug to the nuts like a clairin, or the sweet elegance of a well-aged Barbancourt or a crank-everything-up-to-”12” rum from an aggressive new indie — still manages to present decently and show off a profile that does the half-island no dishonour. In a time of ever larger bottle-stats (and attendant prices), too often done just for shock value and headlines, perhaps it is worth taking a look at a rum like this once in a while, if only to remind ourselves that there are always alternatives.

(#874)(82/100)


Other Notes

  • It is assumed to be a column-still rhum; the source, whether molasses or sugar cane, is unstated and unknown.
  • 270-bottle outturn
Dec 082021
 

It’s the Red Queen’s race, I sometimes think: top dogs in the indie scene have to keep on inventing and innovating to maintain their lead, release ever-older or fancier bottlings, enthuse the fans, show how cool they are, all to remain in the same place — and none, perhaps, know this as well as Velier, whose various “series” go back a decade or more and keep the bar set really high. The legendary Demeraras, Caronis and Habitations, the Indian Ocean series, Endemic Birds, Foursquare Collaborations, 70th Anniversary, Appleton Hearts, True Explorer, Rhum Rhum, NRJ…the list just keeps growing.

But the unspoken concomitant to these various collections is that new editions spring from Luca’s fertile imagination and keep getting issued, so often and so quickly that though they elevate Velier to the status of front runner, they drop out of sight almost as quickly if no champions arise to promote them regularly.  Sure, one or two here or there attain mythical status (the Skeldons, some of the Caronis, the original NRJ TECA, the Damoiseau 1980, the Foursquare 2006 and the HV PM White are some such) but in the main, series as a whole tend to vanish from popular consciousness rather quickly.  Consider: can you name the component bottles of the Endemic Birds series, or even how many there are?

Back in 2017, the Genoese firm of Velier celebrated its 70th anniversary (of its founding in 1947, not Luca Gargano’s ownership), and to mark the occasion they released (what else?) a 70th Anniversary series of bottles from all over the map.  Within that select set was a further sub-group, one of six rums whose label and box design ethos was created by Warren Khong, an artist from Singapore of whom Luca was quite fond1. These were rums from Hampden (Jamaica), Mount Gilboa (Barbados), Nine Leaves (Japan), Chamarel (Mauritius), Bielle (Marie Galante) and St. Lucia Distillers, and it’s this last one we’ll be looking at today.

The St. Lucia Distillers edition came from the 6000-liter John Dore pot still No. 2 and in a nice gesture, Velier sent Ian Burrell around to Castries to select a barrel to be a part of the collection.  It was distilled in 2010, aged seven years (tropical, of course), and 267 bottles were issued at a nicely robust 58.6%. 

So, nosing it. Sweet acetones and rubber in an extraordinary balance; initially almost Jamaican, minus the fruit…but only till it changes gears and moves into second.  Sweet, light and forcefully crisp with very precise, definite nasal components. Orange zest, green grapes apples and cider.  Vanilla ice cream.  Varnish, smoke, thyme, mint, pineapple, tic-tacs. There’s a lot foaming on the beach with this rum and it’s definitely worth taking one’s time with.

The palate is trickier: somewhat unbalanced, it’s hot and a bit addled and doesn’t roll out the welcome mat, but nobody can deny it’s very distinct. Initially a shade bitter, and even sour; acidic, cider-like, bubbly, light, crisp, sharp, distinct.  Lots of easy esters here, perhaps an overabundance, because then they get bitchy, which is something that happens when not enough care is taken to balance them off with barrel influence and the inherent character of the rum itself. Becomes nice and sweet-salt as it opens up, which is pleasant, but the finish, relatively the weakest part of the entry (though still very good) is all about esters, fruitiness and some briny notes. Lots of ‘em.

Back in 2017 Marius over at Single Cask Rum reviewed the rum giving it love to the tune of 93 points; and six months later, two of the coolest deep-diving Danish rumdorks of my acquaintance — Gregers and Nicolai — went through the series in its entirety and were really quite enthusiastic about the St. Lucia, both scoring it 91. Some months later I nabbed a sample from Nicolai (same bottle, I’m guessing) and this review results from it. It’s an interesting rum to try, for sure: had I tried it blind I would have sworn it was either a Jamaican DOK-wannabe or a grand arome from Savanna, with some intriguing aspects of its own. That said, the rum seems to be too reliant on the sharp sour fruitiness of the esters which the pot still had allowed through to establish some street cred, leaving other aspects that would have made it shine more, left out, taking a back seat or just subsumed.

While by no means a merely average rum – it is, in point of fact, very good indeed, I want more like it and so far it’s the best scoring St. Lucia rum I’ve ever tried – I’m not convinced that it exceeds the (or my) magic 90 point threshold beyond which we enter halo territory. Nowadays it has sunk into partial obscurity and the dust-covered collections of those who bought theirs early, and while prices have been creeping up over the last years, they are thankfully not four figures yet. It’s too bad that more reviewers haven’t tried and written about it so we could see how other scores rank up, but then, it’s really all a matter of degree: all of us who’ve tried it agree that it’s one really fine rum, no matter how many or how few points we award. And it demonstrates once again – as if it needed to be proved – that Velier maintains a comfortable lead in the race they’re running.

(#870)(88/100)

Nov 252021
 

What is there to say about either Velier or Caroni, that hasn’t been said so many times before? 

It seems almost superfluous to repeat the story but for the sake of those new to the saga, here’s the basics: Caroni was a Trinidadian sugar factory and distillery which, after many ups and downs related to the vicissitudes of the sugar industry, finally closed in 2003. In late 2004 Luca Gargano, the boss of Velier, came upon and subsequently bought, many hundreds (if not thousands) of barrels that had been destined for auctioning or fire sale disposal (for the sake of completeness, note that many others did too). 

Previously, either on their own account or when managed by Tate & Lyle (a British concern which operated the establishment for many years), Caroni had made rums of their own, but they were considered low quality blends and never thought to be very good. Now, however, Velier issued them in tiny lots, often single barrel releases, cask strength and quite old. Though initially sold only in Italy, by 2010 they had already acquired an underground following, with a reputation that only grew over the years – and this is why prices on secondary markets for the very first releases dating from the 1970s or 1980s can go for thousands of dollars, or pounds.

These days, with the prices and number of variations of the early Caroni rums ascending out of reach of most, the blended aged expressions may be the best value for money Veliers from the canon we can still afford, or find. What they provide for us is something of the tar and smoke and petrol portions of the profile that characterize the type, without any of the miniscule variations and peculiarities of single barrel expressions.  They are, in short more approachable overall to the curious layman who wants to know what the Godawful kerfuffle is all about.  Granted, many other indies have gotten on the bandwagon with their own Caronis and they are usually quite good, but you know how it is with Velier’s cachet and their knack of picking out good barrels even when making blends. 

So, this one: distilled on a column in Caroni in February of 1998 and aged in situ until September 2015, when it was shipped to Scotland for blending and bottling at 55% ABV.  All this is on the label, but curiously, we don’t know the total outturn.  In any event it’s one of a progressively more aged series of blends – 12 YO, 15 YO, this one and 21 YO – meant for a more consumer facing market, not the exclusive Caronimaniacs out there, who endlessly dissect every minor variation as if prepping for a doctoral thesis.

Those who spring for this relatively cheaper blend hoping for a sip at the well, will likely not be disappointed. It has all the characteristics of something more exclusive, more expensive. Initial aromas are of petrol, an old machinists shop with vulcanizing shit going on in the background, rubber, phenols, iodine. Gradually fruits emerge, all dark and sullen and sulky.  Plums, blackberries, dates, plus sweet caramel and molasses.  Some herbs – dill, rosemary.  And behind it all coils the familiar scent of fresh hot tar being laid down in the summer sun.

The taste is very similar.  Like the nose, the first notes are of an old bottom-house car repair shop where the oil has soaked into the sand, and rubber tyres and inner tubes are being repaired everywhere, and the occasionally pungent raw petrol aromas makes you feel like you’re passing an oil refinery. But this is all surface: behind that is also a more solid and lasting profile of brine, olives, dates, figs, and almost overripe peaches, prunes, even some coffee grounds and anise. It’s dry, and a touch bitter, redolent of aromatic cigarillos, damp black tea leaves. Nice but also, on occasion, a little confusing.  No complaints on the finish, which is reasonably long, thick, with notes of caramel, nuts, licorice and dark fruit.  It’s a peculiarity of the rum that although sweetness is really not in this rum’s DNA, it kinda tastes that way.

It’s been bruited around before that Caroni rums, back in the days of Ago, were failures, implying that these rums today being hailed as such classics are a function of heritage and memory alone, not real quality in the Now. Well, maybe: still, it must be also said that in a torrential race to the lees of anonymity and sameness, they do stand out, they are in their own way unique, and the public has embraced their peculiarities with enthusiasm (and their wallets). 

On balance, I liked it, but not quite as much as the 21 YO in the blended series. That one was a bit better balanced, had a few extra points of elegant distinction about it, while this one is more of a goodhearted country boy without the sophistication – but you know, overall, you would not go wrong picking this one up if you could.  There is nothing wrong with this one either, and it represents Caroni’s now well-know tar and petrol profile quite solidly, as well as simply being a really good rum.

(#866)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • The label is a facsimile of the original Tate & Lyle Caroni rum labels from the 1940s
Nov 222021
 

The Scarlet Ibis rum is not as well known as it was a decade ago, but that it continues to be in production at all is a testament to its overall utility and perceived worth in the bar scene. That said, it remains something of an unknown quantity to the mass of rum drinkers, sharing negative mindspace with, oh, say, Sea Wynde or Edwin Charley, which had their moment in the Age of Blends but have now fallen from common knowledge.  In a few more years they’ll join all those other rums that recede into vague memory if a greater push isn’t made to elevate customer awareness and sales.

Where does one start?  First of all, it is a rum made to order, commissioned by the New York bar Death & Co. The exact year it arrived is unknown, but since D&Co was established in January 2007 (it opened on New Year’s Eve) and since the first note I can find about the rum itself related to a 2010 MoR festival (so the rum had to have been available before that), then it’s been around since 2008-2009 or so, with short observations and reviews popping up intermittently at best ever since. 1. Eric Seed, the NY importing rep for the European distributor Haus Alpenz (which also helped source the Smith & Cross, you’ll remember) seems to have been instrumental in being point man for its creation and subsequently bringing into the US. 

Production is intermittent at best, paralleling the equally inconsistent geographical availability.  Facebook is littered with the detritus of occasional comments like “Where can I find it?” “Is it still being made?” “Like the new one?” or “When did it become available again?” Most who have tried it and have commented on the rum think it’s very nice, and the extra proof is appreciated.  In earlier posts some suggested that the original blend had some Caroni, but Alpenz denied that, and also noted that there was an error in the press materials and it was and always has been a completely column-still product, a blend of 3-5 year old stocks, bottled at 49%.

So, a youngish rum blend, made to order.  That makes it an interesting rum, quite different from most others from the twin island republic which are either overpriced Caronis (on the secondary market) or Angostura’s own decently unexceptional blends. It’s light and sharp (what some refer to as “peppery”) on the initial nose, kind of sweet and cheeky, like the playful towel-snap your older brother used to like flicking in your direction.  It had notes of ripe red cherries, soft mangoes and a touch of lemon juice, honey, butterscotch and brine, which went well with some aromatic tobacco and a very faint hint of a rubber tyre.

Even at 49%, I’m afraid that it didn’t live up to the suggested quality the nose implied. Initial tastes were honey, unsweetened molasses, Guinness stout, olives and pimentos (!!), with some slowly developing fruits – dark grapes, raisins, gooseberries – plus red wine, chocolate and coffee grounds. The finish was short, not very emphatic, quite warm: mostly tobacco, light fruits, olives, toffee and a last hint of citrus. It doesn’t last long, and just sort of sidles out of the way without any fuss or bother.

Overall, it’s good, but also something of a let down. Even at 49% it seems too mild for what it seems it could present (and this from a relatively young series of blend components, so the potential is definitely there).  There’s more in the trousers there someplace, the rum has a lot more it feels like it could say, but it is hampered by a lack of focus: leaving aside the proof point, it’s as if the makers weren’t sure they wanted to go in the direction of something darker (like a Caroni), or a lighter blend similar to (but different from) Angostura’s own portfolio. In a better designed rum it could have navigated a surer path between those two profiles, but as it is, the execution only shows us what could have been, without coming through with something more memorable.

(#865)(78/100)


Other Notes

  • As always, hat tip and appreciation to my old QC Rum Chum, Cecil, who passed the sample on to me. 
  • The first remarks on the rum came from Sir Scrotimus in 2011. There’s a positive bartender’s blog review in 2012, the Fat Rum Pirate picked up a bottle in the UK and wrote quite positively about it in 2015, and Rum Revelations did an indifferent pass-through in 2020.  Redditors have done reviews about it here, here and here. Overall, the consensus is a good one. The rum definitely has more potential than its makers seem to grasp.
  • The Scarlet Ibis is the national bird of Trinidad & Tobago and is featured on the coat of arms
  • The new edition of the rum which came out around 2019-2020 has a pair of ibises on the label. These are far more prominent than the grayed out bird on older editions such as the one I am reviewing here.
Nov 152021
 

Rumaniacs Review #130 | 0864

Today we’ll look at the propenultimate rum which the Danish company Rom Deluxe released in their initial forays into their local rum scene.  Six of the seven rums (the seventh being a special release for a client in 2020) were bottled in 2016-2017 after which the “line” ceased. They were all unlabelled and not sold to commercial establishments on a consistent basis, but taken around to tastings, friends, retailers and served as something of an introduction to the tiny company back before they got “serious”. I wonder if they made any money off them.

This is a Worthy Park rum, cask strength, distilled in 2010 and bottled in 2017 (it’s the only one that was done that year). 

Colour – Gold

Age – 6 YO

Strength 64.9%

Nose – The funk is strong with this one.  There’s gooseberries, pineapples, unripe Thai mangoes, unmistakably Jamaican, a serious, fierce nose. Bags of fruit – green apples, pears, blood oranges, red grapefruit, coming to a nice sweet-sour combo after a few minutes.  I’d say there was some light vanilla and baking spices at the back end, but not enough to do more than lend an accent to the main dish.

Palate – Salt, sour and sweet, really strong, but the sharpness is kept at bay with a firmness of taste elements that is impressive. Funk of course, “tek front”, this thing is Jamaican beyond doubt.  Brine and olives in lemon juice, green grapes and apples, grapefruits again, plus grated ginger and a touch of (get this!) wasabi. So softer notes of dates and figs, cumin, nutmeg.  I could sip this for hours, and in fact, I pretty much did.

Finish – Long, dry, fruity, with apples, grapes, citrus, pineapples, kiwi fruits and strawberries.  Plus vanilla.  And bubble gum.

Thoughts – Really good, really solid rum, lots of notes from around the wheel, but always, at end, a Jamaican pot still rum, and a very impressive one.  I doubt I’d be able to say WP or Hampden in a pinch (and it’s a WP, of course)…just that it’s not a bottle I’d give away if I had one. The bad news is that this one is long gone.  The good news is they — Worthy Park and the independents like Rom Deluxe – are making more.

(85/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks as always go to Nicolai Wachmann, for the sample, and Kim Pedersen of Rom Deluxe for his help with the background details.
  • Outturn unknown
Nov 112021
 

Photo Courtesy Rom Deluxe

Rumaniacs Review #129 | 0863

Rom Deluxe, the Danish company whose very first release and company biography was profiled last week, ended up making a total of seven initial bottlings, all of which were more or less non-commercial, and served primarily to establish the small company’s bona fides around the country. They are long since only to be found either in some collector’s back shelf, unlabelled and perhaps even unremembered, or in Rom Deluxe’s own shelves. As a comment on the many years that Rom Deluxe was only a small hobby outfit, observe that six of these seven bottlings were made in 2016 (the year the company was founded) to 2019 (the year of the “Wild series” first release) after which the ethos of changed to a more commercial mindset; the 7th edition, in 2020, was a special edition for a client, not the market.

In the founding year four bottlings were done, with the second and fourth from Barbados – Foursquare to be exact.  This fourth edition was 11 years old (from 2005), and released in early 2017 at cask strength, though the exact outturn is unknown – I’d suggest between two to three hundred bottles.

Colour – Gold

Age – 11 YO

Strength – 58.8%

Nose – Sweet light fruit, raspberries, papayas and the tartness of red currants.  Cherries and unripe green pears.  Vanilla and the slight lemony tang of cumin (I like that), as well as some hint of licorice.  Delicate but emphatic at the same time, yet the heavier notes of a pot still element seem curiously absent.

Palate – Completely solid rum to drink neat; dry and a touch briny and then blends gently into salt caramel ice cream, black bread and herbal cottage cheese (kräuter quark to the Germans).  After opening and a few minutes it develops a more fruity character – plums, ripe black cherries – and mixes it up with cinnamon, light molasses and anise. It goes down completely easy.

Finish – Nice and longish, no complaints.  The main flavours reprise themselves here: anise, molasses, dark fruits, a bot of salt and some citrus. 

Thoughts – Okay it’s a Foursquare, and so a pot-column blend, but perhaps we have all been spoiled by the Exceptionals, because even with the 58.8% strength, it seems more column still than a pot-column mashup, and somehow rather more easy going than it should be. Not too complex, and not too bad — simply decent, just not outstanding or memorable in any serious way.

(82/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks as always go to Nicolai Wachmann, for the sample, and Kim Pedersen of Rom Deluxe for his help with the background details.
Nov 042021
 

Photo courtesy of Rom Deluxe

Rumaniacs Review #128 | 0862

Few outside Denmark will know or even remember what Rom Deluxe issued back at the beginning of their existence. The Danish company made its international (or at least European) debut in 2019 with the stunningly designed and smartly chosen “Wild Series” (now into R.19 which I call “Po”), and for most people, its history begins there.  However, it has been in existence since 2016 when three friends — Claus Andersen, Thomas Nielsen and Lasse Bjørklund — came together to establish the small hobby-company and their very first release was the anonymously titled rum of RDL #1.

This was a cask strength rum from the Dominican Republic (Oliver & Oliver), issued at 65%, dating from 2004 and bottled in 2016, so a 12 Year Old. Unsurprisingly it’s molasses based, column still, and it was sold not with any fancy printed label glued on to the logo-etched bottle, but a tie-on (!!) which for sheer originality is tough to beat. It’s unlikely to be found in stores these days, and I’m not even completely sure it ever got a full commercial distribution. 

Colour – Gold

Age – 12 Years

Strength 65%

Nose – Quite sweet, redolent of ripe dark fruits with a touch of both tannins and vanilla. There is a trace of molasses, brown sugar and cherries in syrup, plus attar of roses and some other winey notes. Nosing it blind leads to some initial confusion because it has elements of both a finished Barbados rum and a savalle-still Guyanese in there, but no, it really is a DR rum.  

Photo courtesy of Rom Deluxe

Palate – Soft and easy even at that strength: caramel, vanilla, almonds, nougat, tinned cherries and syrup.  It’s relatively uncomplex, with some additional brininess and dryness on the backend.  Nutmeg and ginger lend some snap, and herbs provide a little extra, but not enough to get past the basic tastes.

Finish – Completely straightforward now, with vanilla, unsweetened chocolate, some caramel and molasses.  Very ho hum by this point and once you get here you no longer think it’s either Bajan or Mudland.  You know it’s Spanish heritage juice.

Thoughts – Starts out decently with intriguing aromas, then falters as each subsequent step is taken until it remains as just a touch above ordinary.  The strength saves it from being a fail, and the sweetness – whether inherent or added – mitigates the strength enough to make it a tolerable sip. For that alone you’ve got to admire the construction, yet it’s a rum you sense is a work in progress, selected for ease of use rather than brutality of experience. Three years later, that would change.

(79/100)


Other notes

  • Thanks to Nicolai Wachmann for the sample, and Kim Perdersen of Rom Deluxe for the bottle photographs
  • The background on the company was too long to include, so I wrote it as a separate “Makers” series article, and tucked it over there. It includes as exhaustive a list of their bottlings as possible.
Oct 192021
 

Photograph courtesy of reddit user SpicVanDyke,

DDL has, since 2016, capitalized on the worldwide fame of the heritage stills which the independents had forged during and before the current rum renaissance (though it is a peculiarity of the culture that many Guyanese remain completely unaware of the reverence they’re held in around the globe). They have released several editions of the Rare Collection, and also begun to dabble in some interesting experimentals, as well as standard proof editions of the individual wooden still marques (rather than blends). Beginners and Guyanese rum lovers are spoiled for choice these days in a way I can only envy….where was all this juice when I was growing up?

Yet, to my mind, for all of DDL’s effective multi-pronged colonization of the Demerara rum space, it’s not yet time to count out the independent bottlers who did so much to raise the profile of the marques and the stills at the first place. The SMWS, 1423, Tamosi, the Compagnie, Silver Seal and many others are releasing rums edging ever closer to three decades old, from all the major stills. And even if age isn’t the thing, there are always rums released by outfits we barely heard of — like Norse Cask or Kingsbury or L’Esprit — that somehow wow us with their sheer untrammelled excellence.

One rum like that is from what I seriously consider to be one of the most unsung independent bottlers in the rumisphere, L’Esprit. Located in Brittany and run by Tristan Prodhomme, they have bottled few “merely ho-hum” rums in their short history…at least in my opinion. The subject of today’s review, the 2005 12 YO from the Guyanese Port Mourant double wooden pot still, shows why I think that to be the case: it’s among the best they’ve ever done, and one of the best PM rums out there that isn’t from the 1970s, doesn’t have 20+ years of ageing and doesn’t cost multiples of four figures.

Just opening it and taking a deep sniff brings back a lot of memories, not just of Guyana but the ghosts of PM rums past.  It smells rich and deep and dark (in spite of the dark hay colour), of chocolate, toffee, nougat, of fresh bread hot from the oven.  There’s the aroma of pastries, ginger, marzipan and the fruitiness of rum-soaked, raisin-infused Christmas black cake sprinkled with crushed almonds, and over all of that is the scent, never overbearing but always there, of licorice and anise and lemons. 

Tristan bottled this thing at 58%, which was probably the right decision because it has such a rich and intense panoply of tastes that were it stronger, it might conceivably overwhelm your taste buds with a cheerful sensory overload. It’s dry and dusty, hot but not quite sharp, and if the nose restrained the fruits before, it now allows them off the leash: citrus peel, raisins, plums and dark, ripe prunes; oranges and strawberries and, because that clearly wasn’t enough, even stuffed some flambeed bananas in there for good measure. There’s vanilla ice cream sprinkled with nuts, more black cake (a lot of black cake), toblerone, aromatic tobacco, even a touch of salt caramel and Swiss bon bons. It leads to a long, dry, pungent and aromatic finish redolent of citrus, tart fruits, some yoghurt, anise, dark fruits and a final slice of the cake your Granny used to save for you on Boxing Day.

This rum is, in short, really kind of spectacular.  It does nothing new, but gives so much and does what it does so well, that it’s like revisiting all one’s favourite Port Mourant rums at once. Do I have a thing for Guyana generally, and for Port Mourant specifically?  Sure I do. But it’s more than just liking a rum, any rum, or even this rum. Tasting it is a form of natsukashii — a Japanese term for some small thing that brings back sudden, clear and strongly fond memories — not with a wistful longing for what’s past but with an appreciation of the good times, now gone, always remembered. 

Because, sooner or later, my mind always returns to Guyana. Not just for the nameless waterfalls, the South Savanna or the Pakaraimas; not only because I miss pepperpot, cookup, or a clap’ roti wit’ baigan choka, or egg ball ‘n’ sour; and not solely because I remember the cool red waters of its creeks, Stabroek Market, that lovely blue mosque at Crabwood Creek, speedboats across the Essequibo, cricket at Bourda, the regatta at Bartica, running along the seawall, or the dreaming jungle paths ‘in de bush’ where I worked all those years ago. 

No, not only for those things, though certainly that’s part of it, and of course, I’ve eaten labba and drunk creekwater, so there’s that.  But eventually, always, my mind goes back for the sheer variety of the country’s rums, those amazing rums, in their seemingly inexhaustible variety, that come from all those many stills housed at Diamond. L’Esprit didn’t intend to make a rum that evoked such feelings, of course, but that’s what they did. Every one of us has some object (or some rum) like that.  This is one of mine, and even if you disagree and just drink the thing, I believe you’d like and appreciate the rum for what it is too — a superb example of what DDL is capable of and what L’Esprit managed to bottle.

(#859)(91/100)


Other notes

  • A special hat tip to the reddit user SpicVanDyke, who graciously allowed me to use his photograph when mine turned out to be garbage. His (also positive) review, the only other one I could find, is here.
  • 238-bottle outturn
Sep 272021
 

Just in case rums that have mated with a two-by-four are not your thing, kiss your significant other tenderly and take a deep heaving breath before sipping SMWS’s first Trini offering, because at 63.4% and with this profile, you’ll need a fall-back plan.  I mean, there’s an enormous expanding blast radius of sharp aromas and tastes billowing around this thing that makes such prudence not just an option, but a requirement. Reading the stats on the bottle gives rise to some serious anticipation, which makes it all the more peculiar that it ends up being so…ordinary.

Take a careful sniff. You’ll probably find, like me, a fair bit of “traditional” rummy aromas here: vanilla and caramel, blancmange, coffee, creme brulee. The slight bitterness of oak and wood varnish. Raisins, kiwi fruits and orange rind, a touch of mild salt.  And….and… well actually, that’s pretty much it. What the…? For sure the nasal assault is strong and sharp and hot, yet that proof point, that quarter century age, does suggest that it should do more than simply giving the impression of still being in short trousers. It feels washed out.

How’s the profile when tasted, then? Better, yes…up to a point. The hot bite of oak tannins leads in and never quite lets go. Some shoe polish, iodine, glue. Coiling behind that are salted caramel ice cream, vanilla (again, annoyingly obstreperous) and white chocolate, almonds, and where the hell are the fruits gone? At best, if you strain you might pick up some black tea and with water and I dunno, peppermint gum, a green apple, maybe half a pear.  Water helps tone down that acrid tone, but this just – paradoxically enough – calls attention to the fact that it’s there to begin with. Finish is assertive and spicy, then fades fast, leaving behind memories of spices – marsala, cumin, more vanilla, brown sugar and again, oak and black tea.

By now you’ve probably come to the dismayed realization that this is not a rum eliciting paeans of praise from choirs of angels who’ve gotten high on their share, and you’d be right, because it fails on a number of levels. The strength obliterates subtlety: not always a bad thing when done right, but on this occasion all it does is dampen down what should be a more complex, dense series of tastes. Even with 25 years of continental ageing there should be more going on — instead, we get a fiery shot that could as easily be five years old.  The vanilla is like a guest that won’t leave and between that and the oak, the result is a rum overwhelmed by hot simplicity.

The SMWS, which was formed in 1983, is primarily a whisky society, though in recent years they have branched out into armagnacs, cognacs, bourbons, rums, and even gins. So far they have rums from Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica, Panama, Nicaragua, Belize and Trinidad and it’s all a bit hit or miss, with mostly Barbados, Jamaica and Guyana rums holding up their end when rated against other indies doing the same thing. From T&T they have several Caronis (the R13.x series) and only two from Trinidad Distillers, the R10.1 and R10.2, issued in 2016 and 2017 respectively. That distillery is of course the home of Angostura, and always struck me, what with their industrial stills and barrel focus, as closer to the Spanish heritage production ethos than that of the English.

Personally, I’m not always won over by Trinidad rums aside from the Caronis (this is a purely personal thing). Angostura, though more informative than the Panamanians, too often shares something of their overall ho-hum, good-’nuff anonymity and deserves an occasional suspicious look. Sort of like “Okay, it’s a rum, so what?” That can work with blended releases issued to the broader market where “cheap and decent” gets the sales, but for a more exacting audience exemplified by those people whom the indies serve, that can be fatal, as it is here. The R10.1 is a strong blast of nothing in particular, a big show with no go, showcasing far too much of the barrel and not enough of the booze.

(#853)(79/100)


Other notes

  • Initially the rum sold for £195 but subsequent auctions on WhiskyAuctioneer and Catawiki came in lower than that.
  • Aged in refill ex-bourbon barrels between December 1991 and 2016, with a final outturn of 228 bottles.
  • A comprehensive list of all the SMWS’s rum bottlings can be found at the bottom of the biography.
Sep 022021
 

One of the German independent Our Rum & Spirits’ earlier bottlings is the Guyanese Enmore from 1990 which was bottled in 2015, a year after they released their first one (an 11 YO Diamond). It’s a respectable 24 (European) years old, a solid anvil-dropping 61.2% ABV, 178 bottles, and of course, it’s not from the Enmore coffey but from the Versailles single wooden pot still, which was the still-in-residence at Enmore Estate back then, before everything got shipped off to Diamond around 2000 in The Great Consolidation.

By now I’ve been trying various single-still offerings from Guyana for years, usually made by the indies but also, more recently, by DDL themselves. One thing I’ve observed is that Enmore distillate tends to be a shade more elegant and a touch light, the Port Mourant is dark and rich and rarely bad at any age, while Versailles is somewhat more brutal, is raw and assertive, and takes real skill to bring to its full potential. This may be why there are so many bottlings of the other two in circulation, while Versailles is rather more rare, and used more in Demerara rum blends (along with the PM).

That said, it’s always interesting how a rum made three decades ago and aged for so long holds on to its character. The nose here opens with fresh, damp sawdust and varnished lumber.  One would expect a certain mellowness of age, a smoothening out of roughness, yet the rum still noses like a product much younger, retaining a thin crisp vibrancy, with notes of glue, acetones, licorice, smoke, well-polished old leather, faint salted caramel, and a few ripe stoned fruits for some edge. Oh, and some sweet dusting of brown sugar and cinnamon.

The palate is where such forceful strength comes into its own: here that presents as dry, woody and very sharp, like a whole bag of Red Rose loose black tea dumped into a very small pot and then doused with some brown sugar and a tin of evaporated milk (we called it “bush tea” back in the day – I once fed my little brother some when he was doing exams and he stayed up for two days straight on the stuff). Vanilla, molasses, caramel and licorice are the dominant flavours.  Subtler hints of acetone, soya and brininess become noticeable after a while, and some very faint floral and fruity hints waft around without ever making a serious statement.  Unsurprisingly it concludes with a finish as long as a polar summer sunset, but it’s slim pickin’s: wood and tannins, some salted caramel, anise, and again, a grain or two of cinnamon.

Well, I have to say that for something sporting a jock of such high ABV and age, I did expect something more complex and pungent on the attack. While undeniable strong and hard on the senses, in the flavour department the rum packs all the verve and panache of an eunuch’s underwear. The opening notes are simple, almost lackluster; then the palate overwhelmed with wood and varnish, and I was reminded of the Old Man Spirits’ Uitvlugt, which also showed off a lot of oomph but had little serious sensory action beyond the obvious. It suggests to me that the cask was not very active, and what you got was what the raw distillate brought to the party, not what the barrel itself was able to add.

Be that as it may, I can’t give the final product a completely failing grade, because let’s admit it, at that strength you’re getting a lot, the tastes that are there aren’t bad, and if it takes a bit more effort to tease out more interesting and extra aromatic notes, well, so be it. All the stats – the ABV, the age, the country, the still – are just excuses to get us to engage our senses with the rum itself, a Diamond-based Duke Nukem that’s all action and no reflection, desiring no deeper meaning for itself beyond the test of your ability to cope with it. Speaking for myself, I can’t say that’s entirely a bad thing.

(#847)(84/100)


Background History

Our Rum & Spirits, located in the small town of Hildesheim just south of Hanover in north-central Germany, is among the first of the new wave of modern German independents, however small they might be. Back in 2014 when the company bottled its first release (a Guyanese 2003 11 YO from Diamond), the rum business was a sideshow to Christian Nagel’s restaurant which served rums (and some other spirits) as part of the menu. 

The next logical step was to bottle what he himself would like to have – at the very least if he had a barrel, he wouldn’t run out quite so fast. The reception to the initial Diamond was so good that others followed, and two years later he was exhibiting at the Berlin Rum Fest: he’s now a regular and a medal winner there (several times) and has multiple bottlings from Guyana, Barbados, Panama and Jamaica. For me he’s a regular stopping point whenever I’m there, if only to chat and say hello.

By early 2018 he removed his spirits activities to different premises from the restaurant and now acts as both independent and distributor; this aspect of his work became successful enough that in June of 2021, gave up the gastronomy business altogether.


 

Aug 302021
 

This rum has a very long title: it’s full name is the Silver Seal St. Lucia Distillers “Dennery” Special Reserve Rum, of the “Sestante Collection.”  It’s something of a collector’s item these days, though issued relatively recently around 2017, and all the various terms on the label require some background explanation that might derail your interest in the review itself (unless you’re a trivia and history nut like I am and actually, y’know, enjoy this stuff).  

Let me just provide some bare bones detail on the rum, get right into the tasting and then you can nod off to the extraneous material beneath that if you’re of a mind.  Firstly, it’s a single cask bottling of 600 70-cl bottles watered down to 43% (hence the substantial outturn).  It’s a no-age-statement and undated rum which is highly annoying given that it came from a single cask, and demonstrates that much as we like the indie bottlers, some (even the Oldies) still have a ways to go on matters of disclosure from time to time. Since there’s only one distillery on the island, it’s no hardship to deduce who made it.

That’s the easy part. Things get tricky from here: there are few references online about the rum – not a single reviewer I know has tasted the thing, and those that tasted its cousin, the “Superior” like Wes, Serge or Steve, had similar grouches about it, that there was just nothing to go on, and SS was not returning calls.  The SS website was and remains completely useless; and as if that isn’t bad enough, there are three separate “Dennery” rums from Silver Seal: the Superior, the Special Reserve with a silver box (600 bottles, 43%) and the Special Reserve from the Sestante Collection with the dark red box (600 bottles, 43%). All display a similarly stunning paucity of information.

Another peculiarity is how dark it is – it possibly speaks to decades-long maturation, if one is feeling generous and if SS ever bothered to mention it. But probably not. A first sniff and a snoot rapidly dispels any such ur-aged collector’s edition fantasies.  It presents immediately with such a deep black licorice note that I remember thinking this was a mislabelled Demerara.  It smells of the rich, wet loam of newly turned garden earth after a rain.  Thick aromas of licorice, bitter caramel, wood chips billow out, later accompanied by unsweetened chocolates, coffee, then citrus, chocolate oranges, mint, dark cake.  It’s very solid and not subtle, and completely at odds with the 1931 series of rums I was trying alongside it. Or, for that matter, with the standard Admiral Rodney.

The palate was similarly odd…yet hauntingly familiar. It took me back to the jungles of Guyana where I worked as a young man fresh out of school, redolent of rotten, moss-covered logs decaying into damp dirt and leaves, under a dripping canopy speared here and there with dappled sunlight, and I literally cannot find another way to accurately describe this remarkable profile. It tasted of old and well-polished leather Berbice chairs, minerals, smoke, compost, unsweetened chocolate and dark fruits, creamy cake and just a touch of brine and lemon peel, leading into a long (for 43%) and dry finish that showed off closing notes of aromatic tobacco, dried prunes, dates and again, that leather.

Unusual?  Yeah, it’s unusual. Based onthe writers’ tasting notes it shares a lot of DNA, it would appear, with the Superior — and this is where real info on each of the three releases would have helped us understand the tastes better. It reminded me less of a St. Lucian rum than an over-oaked Versailles from Guyana, and – in a strange way – even the dour wooden mustiness of the Saint James 1885.  I’m going to give it points for unusual tastes and an interesting experience that does not fail (in my opinion, too often people mark something down because they expect it to be one way and then it doesn’t conform to the preconceived notion, for good or ill) but take away a few for excessive dark sweet oak and licorice that dominates too much.  

So is it a buy? The SS Dennery does occasionally sail into — and out of — various auctions for under £200, so it’s something of a pricey-but-affordable indulgence.  And it does have a solid indie name behind it, and tastes and samples well. Yet I can’t find myself recommending the thing. Not because it is too little like a St. Lucian, but because if Silver Seal didn’t care enough to tell us anything concrete about its age or its components or dates or stills, then either they’re too lazy to actually service their consumers in the modern age, or they know damned well what it is they’re peddling and are hiding it. This starving author ain’t buying on either account.

(#846)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Silver Seal was founded by an Italian, Ernesto Mainardi in 2000 and like its predecessor, the Sestante import company which he had established in the late 1970s, it dealt primarily in whiskies: they began to do their own bottlings in 1985. Few records of the rums either company made are extant – most of the famous Silver Seal rums we know today were issued after Mainardi sold both companies to Massimo Righi, the owner of Whisky Antique, in 2010.
  • “Sestante” means sextant in English, and is the name of a collection Silver Seal created that was meant to pay homage to Mainardi’s original company.  It showcases both whiskies and rums, but it remains unclear what makes them special. Too few of the rums in that collection – not that we know anything much about them since there’s no master list anywhere – have been reviewed to make any definitive statement about the matter.
  • St Lucia Distillers was formed in 1972 through the consolidation of the Dennery Distillery, which was owned by the Barnard family, and the distillery run by the Geest family at Roseau Bay. In 1993 the Barnards bought out the Geests, and in 2005 sold out to CL Financial (may their glasses be perpetually empty) who in turn, after their reckless financial exposure to the crash of 2008 nearly bankrupted them, sold out to Spiribam, the current owner.
  • Since St. Lucia Distillers has four stills (two John Dore pot stills, a hybrid Vendome pot still, and the original two-column McMillan coffey still) and their standard line is all blended, the Dennery rum  is likely a pot-column blend (my opinion).
  • There is no “Dennery” style or classifiable rum type (unlike, say, the Rockley over in Barbados). The name has been given to the rum as a callback to the distillery’s origins, that’s all.

Opinion (adapted from my coment on FB)

I make a lot of noise about prejudging rums based on expectations, and indeed, I firmly believe it is hard to let such notions go when you know you’re tasting a rum this old, from that distillery located in this-or-that particular country. Your experience and background serve to provide background and comparators. As well as, of course, your preferences, biases and likes/dislikes.

But I also believe in the provision of information by the bottler, and to evaluate a special edition – which this supposedly is – one has to know what exactly is special about it: is that the age? provenance? distillation? great harvest from a special year? fancy barrels?

None of this is provided by Silver Seal, and yet within that limitation, the rum is quite nice (though a rather startling divergence from what we understand to be St. Lucian rums). But the opinion on “just the profile” is now harder to contextualize because that’s the only data point there is. Is it as good as other rums that old, other rums that come off of that still, that strong, that year? There’s simply no way to know that or discuss it, and as such I find myself not recommending it for the buy unless you really want to get it and have the free coin. Which I don’t and I don’t.

Aug 262021
 

Cadenhead, in their various rum releases stretching back a hundred years or more, has three major rivers running into the great indie rum ocean, each of which has progressively less information than the one before it:

  • 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 they release.  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 mashed together from multiple distilleries (or stills, or both), mostly from around the Caribbean and Central/South America (they’ve gone further afield of late).  Here you get less detail than the DDs, mostly just the country, the age and the strength, which is always 46% ABV. I never really cared for their puke yellow labels with green and red accents, but now they’re green for real. Not much of an improvement, really.
  • Classic Blended Rum; a blend of Caribbean rums, location never identified, age never stated (not  on label or website), usually bottled at around 50% ABV. You takes your chances with these, and I’ve only ever had one, and quite liked it.

The subject of today’s review is a Green Label Barbados. This is not the first time that this series (which Cadenhead releases without schedule, rhyme or reason) has had a Barbadian rum in it: in fact, I had looked at a Barbados 10 year old back in 2017.  There are at least seven rums that I know of in that series, not counting the full strength “Dated Distillation” collection, and I think they have an entrant from every distillery on the island between the two collections except St. Nicholas Abbey (which doesn’t export bulk). Most of the Greens are from WIRD or Mount Gay, while Foursquare is rather better represented of late in the DDs.

Which one is this, then? As far as I know, it’s a WIRD rum done in the Rockley style, based on these data points: Marco Freyr’s research, Marius Elder’s Rockley tasting based on research of his own, the year of distillation (1986 is a famous year for the Rockley style), and my own tasting – none of which is conclusive on its own, but which in aggregate are good enough for government work, and I’ll stand behind it until somebody issues the conclusive corrective.

I say it’s a Rockley style (see below for a historical recap), which is an opinion I came to after the tasting and before looking around for details, but what is it about its profile that bends my thinking that way?  Well, let’s get started and I’ll try to explain.  

Nose first: It’s both sharp and creamy at once, with clear veins of sweet red licorice, citrus, sprite and fanta running through a solid seam of caramel, toffee, white chocolate, almonds and a light latte. Letting it open up brings forth some light, clean floral scents, mint, sugar water, red currants and raisins, which the Little Caner grandly dismissed under with the brief title of “oldie fruity stuff.” (You can’t impress that boy, honestly).

The palate is interesting: it’s clean, yet also displaying some of the more solid notes which would suggest a pot still component; it retains the sharp and crisp tartness of unripe fruit – red currants, raspberries, strawberries, mangoes. Here the caramel bonbons and toffees take a back seat and touches of brine, pimentos and balsamic vinegar suggest themselves. Leaving it alone and then returning, additional notes of marzipan, green grapes and apples are noticeable, and also a rather more marked oak influence, though this does not, fortunately, overwhelm. The finish is dry, sweet and salt, with some medicinal iodine flashes, plus of course the oak, fruits and licorice, nothing too earthshaking here.

The rum as a whole is not unpleasant at all, and yes, it’s Rockley style — if you were to retry the SMWS R6.1 from 2002 (“Spice at the Races”) and then sample a few Foursquares and a MG XO, the difference is clear enough for there to be little doubt. Surprisingly, Marius felt the herbal and honey notes predominated and pushed the fruits to the back, while I thought the opposite. But he says and I inferred, that this is indeed a Rockley.

I think the extended maturation had something to do with how well it presented: even accounting for slower ageing in Scotland, eighteen years was sufficient to really enhance the distillate in a way that the older Samaroli WIRD 1986 released two years later somehow failed to do. It’s rare, unfortunately (we don’t know the outturn), but it’s come up for auction on whisky sites a few times and varies in price from £80-£120, which I think is pretty good deal for those who like Barbadian rums in general. This rum from Cadenhead is not a world beater, but it’s quite good on its own terms, and showcases an aspect of Barbados which is nice to try on occasion, if only for the variety. 

(#845)(85/100)


The Rockley “Still”

(This section will not be updated, and has been transferred to its own post, here, to which all subsequent information will be added)

Many producers, commentators and reviewers, myself among them, refer to the pot still distillate from WIRR/WIRD as Rockley Still rum, and there are several who conflate this with “Blackrock”, which would include Cadenhead and Samaroli (but not 1423, who refer to their 2000 rum specifically as simply coming from a “pot still” at “West Indies” – Joshua Singh confirmed for me that it was indeed a “Blackrock style” rum).

They key write-ups that currently exist online are the articles that are based on the research published by Cedrik (in 2018) and Nick Arvanitis (in 2015) — adding to it now with some digging around on my own, here are some clarifications. None of it is new, but some re-posting is occasionally necessary for such articles to refresh and consolidate the facts.

“Blackrock” refers to WIRD as a whole, since the distillery is located next to an area of that name in NW Bridgetown (the capital), which was once a separate village. In the parlance, then, the WIRD distillery was sometimes referred to as “Blackrock” though this was never an official title – which didn’t stop Cadenhead and others from using it. There is no “Blackrock Still” and never has been.

Secondly, there is a “Rockley” pot still, which had possibly been acquired by a company called Batson’s (they were gathering the stills of closing operations for some reason) when the Rockley Distillery shuttered — Nick suggests it was transformed into a golf course in the late 1800s / early 1900s but provides no dates, and there is indeed a Rockley Resort and golf club in the SE of Bridgetown today. But I can’t find any reference to Batson’s online at all, nor the precise date when Rockley’s went belly-up — it is assumed to be at least a century ago. Nick writes that WIRD picked up a pot still from Batson’s between 1905 and 1920 (unlikely to be the one from Rockley), and it did work for a bit, but has not been operational since the 1950s.

This then leads to the other thread in this story which is the post-acquisition data provided by Alexandre Gabriel. In a FB video in 2018, summarized by Cedrik in his guest post on Single Cask, he noted that WIRD did indeed have a pot still from Batson’s acquired in 1936 which was inactive, as well as another pot still, the Rockley, which they got that same year, also long non-functional (in a 2021 FB post, WIRD claims a quote by John Dore’s president David Pym, that it’s the oldest rum pot still in the world, which I imagine would miff both DDL and Rivers Royale). According to their researches, it was apparently made by James Shears and Sons, a British coppersmith, active from 1785 to 1891. What this all means, though, is that there is no such thing as a rum made on the Rockley still in the post-1995 years of the current rum renaissance, and perhaps even earlier – the labels are all misleading, especially those of the much-vaunted year 1986.  

The consensus these days is that yet a third pot still — acquired from Gregg’s Farms in the 1950s and which has remained operational to this day — provided the distillate for those rums in the last twenty years which bear the name Blackrock or Rockley. However, Cedrik adds that some of the older distillate might have come from the triple chamber Vulcan still which was variously stated as being inactive since the 1980s or 2000 (depending on the interview) and it was later confirmed that the most famous Rockley vintages from 1986 and 2000 were made with a combination of the Vulcan (used as a wash still) and the Gregg (as a spirit still). 

Yet, as Cedrik so perceptively notes, even if there is no such thing as a Rockley-still rum, there is such a thing as a Rockley style. This has nothing to do with the erroneous association with a non-functional named still.  What it is, is a flavour profile.  It has notes of iodine, tar, petrol, brine, wax and heavier pot still accents, with honey and discernible esters.  It is either loved or hated but very noticeable after one has gone through several Barbados rums. Marco Freyr often told me he could identify that profile by smell alone even if the bottler did not state it on the label, and I see no reason to doubt him.

As a final note, the actual, long non-functional Rockley still has long been sitting on the WIRD premises as a sort of historical artifact.  In November 2021, it was noted they were shipping it off to a coppersmith in France for refurbishment, with view to making it useable again.


 

Aug 152021
 

It was probably a good thing that I first tried this innocent looking white rum1 released by the UK independent bottler El Destilado (not to be confused with the restaurant of the same name in Oaxaca) without knowing much about it. It came in a smallish bottle, sporting a starkly simple label I didn’t initially peruse too closely, and since I was at a rumfest, and it had been handed to me by a rum chum, well, what else could it be, right?

It might have been a rum, but even at the supposedly standard strength of 43.15% ABV, the juice burst with flavours that instantly recalled indigenous unaged cane juice like clairin, or a supercharged grogue fresh of the still and sporting serious attitude.  It smelled, first of all, woody — resinous, musty, oily, lemony; it reeked of brine and olives, almonds, pine-sol air freshener and only at the back end, after taking some time to recover, were there a few shy hints of flowers and some rich, almost-gone fleshy fruits. That’s not much when you think about it, but I assure you, it made up in intensity what it lacked in complexity. 

Okay, so this was different, I thought and tasted it. It was solid and serious, completely dense with all sorts of interesting flavours: first off, very pine-y and smokey. More pine sol — did someone mix this with household disinfectant or something? This was followed by fresh damp sawdust of sawn lumber made into furniture right way and then polished with too much varnish, right in the sawmill (!!). Vegetable soup heavy on the salt, with generous doses of black pepper and garlic and cilantro…and more pine.  Barbeque sauce and smoky sweet spices, like hickory I guess. Darkly sweet but not precisely fruity – though there are some of those – more like the heavy pungency of rotting oranges on a midden heap somewhere hot and tropical, closed off by a long and smoky finish redolent of lemon pine scent, and spoiling fruits, and more olives.

This was intense.  Too raw and uncultured to be a serious top ender, white or otherwise — and I like white rums, as you know — but defiantly original and really quite unique.  I thought the pine notes were overbearing and spoiled the experience somewhat…other than that, a completely solid rum that was probably cane juice, and probably unaged, and a cousin to the French island agricoles.  Somewhere out there a bartender was loving this thing and blowing it kisses.

Which was correct, as confirmed by a more detailed look at that label. It was an unaged cane juice spirit called Aguardiente de Panela, came from Mexico, was akin to the Paranubes from Oaxaca and many others like it. I cautiously liked it – “appreciated” might be a better term; it was tasty, quite original, and felt like it took rum in whole new directions, though it took care not to call itself that. I can say with some assurance that you would be unlikely to have tried anything like it before and therein might lie both its attraction and downfall. But I suggest that if you can, try it. It might be problematic finding any, given the limited outturn of 160 bottles (and indeed, it was something of a one-off, see my notes below this review).

Labelling the thing as an aguardiente (again, see further down) gives it a pretty broad umbrella, though clearly it is a cane juice derivative. It might have been better to use “cane spirit” to make the sale since aguardientes are a very loose category and present a moving target depending on where one is. Be that as it may, it is has all the hallmarks of a local back-country moonshine (decently made in this instance, to be sure), sporting the sort of artisanal handmade small-batch quality that makes rum geeks salivate as they search the world for the next clairin or grogue.

When such micro-still quality is found, the production ethos behind it that makes it so attractive creates issues for their producers. The output tends to be small and not easily scaled up (assuming they even want to); there somewhat inconsistent quality from batch to batch, and some simply don’t hold up over time. Moreover, such aguardientes or charandas or agricoles or unaged spirits are usually not made for a discerning international rum audience, but for local and regional consumption, by and for people who don’t know (and don’t care) that there are certain markers of consistency and quality asked for by foreign audiences. It isn’t for such tourists that it’s made (a point Luca also thought long and hard about, before promoting the Haitian clairins back in 2014).

This aguardiente perfectly encapsulates that issue.  It is a unique and unusual, very distinctive small batch agricole-style cane juice rum in all the ways that matter.  It satisfies its local audience just fine. That it doesn’t fly as well past its own terroire may not be its problem, but ours. That said, you certainly won’t find me complaining about what it’s like, because I want me some more. And stronger, if I can get it.

(#843)(81/100)


Other Notes:

  • The origin of the cane juice spirit / aguardiente is one of those near-unknown family stills that dot the Mexican back country (the Paranubes was like that also), and made, as stated above, more for village consumption than export. Here, it came from a three-column still tended by Sr.  Delfino Cruz, which — if one can go by the label — is in the small village of San Pablo Ameyaltepec where he produces mostly mezcal. This tiny community of less than two hundred is in the state of Puebla, with the more famous state of Oaxaca on its southeast border: the El Destilado boys were sourcing mezcal from him.
  • Charlie McKay, one of the founders, told me: “We actually only got one batch of the Aguardiente de Panela and then weren’t able to get it again. The Aguardiente was sourced while Michael and Jason were tasting some of Delfino’s mezcal and they noticed a bunch of liquid in drums, asked about it and he sheepishly allowed them to taste it. It’s sort of a side product he was making but more for locals rather than as his pride and joy. Anyway the liquid was super tasty and the guys bought a bunch of it on the spot. I believe, but I’d have to double check, that it was distilled in the same still that he makes his mezcal in.  The panela aspect is the sugar he uses. Our current rum which is an Aguardiente de Caña is make from raw sugar cane juice, extracted straight from the plant and fermented. The panela is a preserved form of sugar that comes as set blocks […] usually from sort of conical shaped molds. It almost looks like a darker version of palm sugar that you’d get from an Asian grocer. Anyway this is rehydrated and fermented, then distilled which gives it a slightly different flavour profile to the more green Caña version. […] It was basically something Delfino wasn’t trying to sell us, but they boys saw it and had to taste it, then we got it, sold it all and now it’s gone.”
  •  The “Panela” in the title is named after panela, an unrefined sugar which is made by boiling and evaporating cane juice – it’s therefore something like India’s jaggery which we have come across before. Panela is commonly made around South America (especially Colombia) and it’s not a stretch to say aguardiente can be made from it, hence the name.
  • The rum was distilled in a three column still and apparently fermented in tanks made of local pine wood – which is where the pine notes must have carried over from. It is likely that wild yeast was used for the fermentation.
  • El Destilado, whose name is on the label, is a UK based indie bottler based on London, run by a trio of spirits enthusiasts — Michael Sager, Alex Wolpert and Charlie McKay; their tastes seem run more into agave spirits than rum per se since this was one of only two cane spirits they have released so far amidst a plethora of mezcals from Oaxaca. As a separate note, I like their minimalist design philosophy a lot.
  • Another rum released by El Destilado is an equally obscure “Overproof” Oaxacan Rum at 52.3% which Alex over at The Rum Barrel took a look at a few months back. 

A Brief Backgrounder on Mexican cane spirits and Agardientes

Having a large band of tropical climate and a vibrant sugar industry, it would be odd in the extreme if Mexico did not have rums in its alcoholic portfolio.  The truth is that their artisanal, indigenous rums are actually not well known: not just because of the overwhelming popularity and market footprint of mezcal and tequila, but because rum brands like Bacardi, Mocambo, Prohibido, Tarasco and other popular low-cost “decent-enough” sellers have the limelight. They tend to stick with the tried and true model of standard-proof light blends of middling age to saturate (primarily) their own and the American market. So the backcountry small-batch rums of long-standing production — which in these days of full proof and indigenous tradition are sometimes overlooked — tend to have a hard time of it.

Leaving aside big brands and other alcoholic categories, however, there have always been many local cane distillates in Mexico, less exalted, less well known, often sniffed at. Some are as specific as charanda, others as wide ranging as aguardiente.  The subject of today’s review is one of the latter, and if for purists it does not fall into our definitions of rum, I argue that if it’s a sugar cane distillate, it should be counted in “our” category, it needs a home and I’m perfectly happy to give it one.

Aguardientes – the word is a very broad catchall, akin to the generic English word “spirits,” translating loosely as fiery/burning water – are strong distilled alcoholic beverages, made from a variety of sources depending on the country or local tradition: macerated fruits (oranges, grapes, bananas, etc), grains (millet, barley, rice, beets, cassava, potatoes, tubers), or the classic sugar cane versions. They can be regulated under that name, and several have protected designations of origin. 

Aguardiente as made in Mexico has a very supple definition, depending on where one is in that country and what the source material is. In some places it is a distilled cane spirit, in others it can be made from agave. It can be proofed down to 35%, or be stronger. It can be added to with spices, additives, you name it…or not. It’s either a poor man’s drink or a connoisseur’s delight, an indigenous low-quality moonshine or the next wave of craft spirit-making to enthuse young hipsters looking for The Next Big Thing. 

Globally, for the purpose of those who primary spirit is rum, aguardientes are and should be limited to those which derive from cane juice only, and indeed many such spirits are properly labelled as aguardiente de cana, or some such titular linguistic variation (in Mexico this is particularly important because of the move to call agave spirts like mezcal aguardiente de agave and create a separation within the term). Unsurprisingly in a category this broad, clairins, grogues, guaros, puntas, charandas, even cachaças, are lumped into it, sometimes incorrectly – it’s a term which requires qualifying words to nail down precisely. But for the moment and this review, consider it a cane-juice-based, small-batch, local (even traditional) alcoholic beverage, and judge it on that basis.

Sources:

I have drawn on general background reading, personal experiences, wikipedia and the Rumcast interview with Francisco Terraza (timestamp 00:30:01) for some of the information on aguardientes generally and Mexico specifically


Addendum

After posting the link to this review on Reddit’s /r/rumserious (full disclosure – I am the moderator of that sub), City Barman made a comment that same evening which I felt was both enlightening and well written, and he kindly gave me permission to quote it here as an adjunct to the main review:

“Back in 2003, we went with a friend to visit his family in Oaxaca. We enjoyed an almost three week bacchanal, sampling as many of the local spirits as we could get our hands on. Tequila, mezcal and aguardiente de caña ran through our blood. The only real value of 90% of what we drank was its ability to get one drunk, on the way cheap. A far majority of it was tolerable to OK, from a taste standpoint, at least to my arrogant Western palate. 10%, however, was special, unique, sometimes divine, and as I found out later, often fleeting.

It’s a very different way of life, a very different culture that allows these incredibly small producers to exist. There is a very fine line separating them between “back-wood moonshiners” and “small batch artisans”. From month to month, a single distiller may find itself on different sides of said line. When one depends on naturally grown, fresh greens and wild, airborne yeast for the process, Mother Nature often overrides human intention. Replacing these things with more standardized, industrial methods would change the end product.

The process, by its very definition, is unpredictable and inefficient. It’s what makes the spirits cheap and “easy” to produce and also affordable to the masses. It’s also what typically creates the magic, when it happens, often entirely by accident. Unpredictable and inefficient are two qualities that ensure the likes of Diageo and Rémy Cointreau will go nowhere near the “category”, hence destroying it. The likes of Signor Gargano may find an audience for these unpredictable, small batches of joy. There may also be other producers, besides Señor Carrera, whose processes create a more consistent, predictable product.

Perhaps it’s perfectly fine and right that these spirits stay with their terroir. They represent the art in spirit making. Art that is intended for consumption, like live music and theater, is ephemeral and not entirely replicable. They also tend to be the ones that come closest to transporting their imbibers to Nirvana. Perhaps it’s good impetus to get us to escape our back yards, travel, and learn something about other human beings; their culture; their fears, hopes and dreams; their favorite drink.”


 

Aug 052021
 

Most independents who release rhums from Savanna, that distillery on Réunion which until five years ago was practically in rum’s ultima Thule, stick with their agricoles – the cane juice rhums, for which the distillery (and indeed the island) is best known. Once in a while a more adventurous indie will go and check out what they can do with their molasses based rums (like Rum Nation did with that badass 2011 7YO Traditionelle in 2018). Those occasional oddballs do succeed, but it’s the cane juice rhums that turn heads, because Savanna boosts and amplifies and juices them up to “12” by running them through the high ester still those boys use with such aplomb. And at the other end, some really good hooch gets wrung out.

Aside from Savanna’s own stable of rhums — their expressions have bred like concupiscent lapines — the indies and their audiences are having a field day with them. Rum Nation, as far back as 2016 and way ahead of the curve, had this one on the grid, and it was a good complement to their Caribbean expressions – laid down to rest in 2009, aged seven years and released to the festival circuit in 2016 and 2017. Surprisingly, almost nobody has reviewed the thing, which may simply be because of the lion’s share of the attention directed at Rum Nation was on other serious hooch on display that year: the Rares, the presentation-level Caroni 21 YO and that amazing 30 YO blended Jamaican, as well as the brawny 60.5% Traditionnelle, a year later.

So on the face of it, it seems to be another one of those really neat Rum Nation products that Fabio Rossi, the former owner, used to wryly refer to and toss off as “entry level”.  45% ABV, agricole, medium-youngish, nothing to write home about, Mommy would probably not be interested. And yet, and yet…it’s really quite a nifty piece of work. 

Take, for instance, that lovely little nose it has. It is sweet, light, aromatic, with occasional whiffs of bubble gum and strawberries. There’s a touch of sweet rosewater and sugar cane juice, light caramel, nougat, almonds and marzipan. And as it opens up over the minutes (I kept this on the go for the best part of half an hour), it happily provides even more: citrus peel, pears, mangoes and green grapes. The estery touch of Savanna is there, never outsized or excessive, out to seduce not to bludgeon, and in that sense the strength is exactly right for its purpose.

The taste is where many rums show their chops and sink or swim: because not everyone really bothers to spend an inordinate amount of time nosing what is, in any event, a social drink. Happily, I can report that all is good here also: initial tastes of cereal, malty cream, seeming to be a dampened down and not as tightly crisp or tart as the nose suggests it might be. There are notes of fanta and citrus based fruit juices, hanging around with light vanilla, tamarind (this was a surprise), more marzipan, almost but fortunately never overstepping the point of vague bitterness.  I must particularly mention the mint chocolate, oranges and a nice sweet creaminess at the back end, and the way it closed up shop: because that is where is many rums, satisfied they’ve given what they needed to, don’t think they need any kind of enthusiastic finale.  Here we have a finish that is light, crisp, sleek, sweet and dry, nicely fruity (light cherries and pineapples slices in syrup), maintaining a delicate citrus action, adding some cereal hints, and ending the sip on a fading, demure note

This is a very impressive dram for something so relatively young and standard-proofed. It lacks the rough-hewn brutality of a full proof rum clocking in over fifty, yet it’s tasty as all get out, softly solid as a Sealy posturepedic, while paradoxically retaining a light and crisp character throughout all those fancy labial and olfactory perambulations. I think of it as an unappreciated little gem, and if still available, it’s a good buy.  Sure, Savanna’s own Lontan and Grand Arome series are quite good (and the 2006 10 YO HERR remains spectacular), but you wouldn’t do yourself a disservice to try this one. It’s an approachable and affordable mid-range rhum that reeks esters while trying hard to pretend it doesn’t, all while serving up a strikingly lovely and winsome profile with sweetly understated verve and panache.

(#841)(86/100)


Other notes

  • Lots of unknown on this. The location of ageing is not precisely identified, though the “Aged in the Tropics” on the back label strongly implies full Reunion ageing.  Outturn is not mentioned, nor, surprisingly enough, is the distillery noted anywhere on the label.  I was told Savanna back in the day (not Riviere du Mat or Isautier, the only other two distilleries on the island), and have an outstanding email to Fabio Rossi asking about the other details

 

Jul 082021
 

After a successful debut in around 2016, the Transcontinental Rum Line, the indie bottler offshoot of La Maison du Whisky in Paris, has faded some from public view, though they continued to release rums as late as 2020).  That said, with current distribution in the US and parts of Asia, it may see something of a resurgence with that increased awareness. And that’s a good thing: as with all indies of a diverse portfolio of rums it’s a bit hit or miss, but overall they have done pretty well.

La Maison was formed by Georges Bénitah in 1956, and has had a long history with spirits — particularly the importation and distribution of rare whiskies. From what I gather, Georges’s son Thierry and Luca Gargano had (and continue to have) a long and amiable relationship — so the eventual joining of forces into the joint venture La Maison & Velier, which now distributes Velier rums in France, was perhaps inevitable.  Still, before that happened, LMDW was interested enough in the rising popularity of the indie single-cask rum scene in Europe to branch out on its own, and the TCRL range was launched in 2016 with a mix of various “standard” rums all indies seem to prefer, at either cask or standard strength. 

Leaving aside the unoriginal selections from all the usual locations (Fiji and Australia were welcome aberrations, admittedly), what distinguished them right off the bat was their visual imagery and marketing strategy, which was and remains centered around the pictures of the luxury ocean liner which graced their labels, accompanied by old fashioned text font. In the style and the evocation of this era of restrained Edwardian pomp (even if it wasn’t, see other notes, below) one felt a certain genteel sensibility, as one did, for example with the bare and faded yellow labels of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

So, this rum, from Belize. The major distillery of note on Belize is Travellers (Copalli is a new up and comer), which makes the Travellers 1-barrel, 3-barrel and 5-barrel rums for which they are best known, as well as the excellent Don Omario Vintage 15 year old (some backstory for the curious is in the 1-barrel review). This rum dripped off a column still in 2005, and was aged for nine years there before being shipped to Europe for an additional two years ageing, and for whatever reason, they decided to release the two-cask-output of 792 bottles at 46%.

Given the lightness of the profile, that may not have been accidental1, because the rum, even with all that tropical ageing, was soft and warm and pillowlike, completely without the sullen potential for violence displayed by, say, a young pot still Jamaican sporting high proof, dreads and a ‘tude. It presented, I’m afraid, a nose of few surprises: toffee, white chocolate, and some coconut shavings, all very easy and relaxed.  A few minutes later it was joined by vanilla, almonds, ice cream and pears, all quite solid, just unassertive and not really trying be overly complicated.

This restrained, lean-back-in-the-berbice-chair simplicity carried over on the tongue as well, and I wish they had beefed it up some, to be honest – it gave up tastes of coconut shavings again, caramel, honey, nougat, peaches in syrup, cherries and chocolate oranges, which expanded with some water to introduce a chocolate/coffee vibe that was nice, just not particularly unique in any way.  It all moved sedately and quietly into a finish of no real length or strength, which merely repeated these distinct, simple notes, and faded out with warmth and charmth. Yawn.

It’s…well, it’s fine. Tasty little rumlet. But a straightforward presentation of such relaxed and quiet tastes is pretty much what I’ve gotten bored with, with Latin-style rons as a whole. There’s not much real fun in the whole thing, little challenge — though I fully concede this is a hot-weather rum, to be had when force and striking power is not the objective.  By that standard, it’s a very pleasant sundowner sip, and I think the key to enjoying it fully is to pick the right time and place and mood to have it. As it turned out, I had it on a hot July day in Berlin and wasn’t in a mood to play around with its laid-back aw-shucks style, so its charms were unfortunately lost on me.

(#835)(81/100)


Other notes

  • One has to be a little careful about touting the “originality” of the labelling, because the same ship, a reproduction of a painting of the Queen Mary 2, appears on multiple labels and it wasn’t until somewhat later – the 2020 releases referred to above – that each bottle got its own ship. The sensory ethos and evocation of a past time embodied in those ships, the style of painting and the labelling font, remained the same, though

  • I particularly appreciate the extra information the back (and now the front) label – the division of how much time it spent ageing in tropical vs continental climes, the still, and particularly the other bottles in the range (referred to as “lines”, like it was a shipping concern going off to exotic locales…one wonder what they would have done of somebody in the marketing department liked trains).

 

Jul 062021
 

Seeing this screaming violent neon-pink bubble-gum label glaring out from where it squats sullenly in the backbar, one could be forgiven for thinking one had warped back into the 1980s or something, complete with laser shows, tight jeans, big hair and bigger shoulders.  It’s not a rum one is likely to overlook on a shelf, which of course may be the point. But no, it’s just a rum distilled in 2001 and released in 2014, and is one of at least seven casks (probably more) which Samaroli picked up from South Pacific Distillers on Fiji, the only distillery on the island.

2001 seems to have been a good year for barrels, or perhaps it was simply that SPD — which since 1998 was part of the Fosters Group from Australia — may have had cash flow problems and threw open their doors to exporting rum, because other indies like Black Adder, Berry Bros. & Rudd and Moon Import all released rums from that year. And over the last decade, the reputation of this heretofore not widely appreciated Pacific island has only grown. For the most part, they produce the Bounty branded rums for local and regional consumption, and sell bulk stocks to brokers in Europe for the independents.

One of these was the eponymous Italian indie formed in 1968 by Sylvano Samaroli (now in the Great Distillery in the Sky, may his glass never be empty there), which branched out into rums as early as 1991, with spotty releases over the next decade and a half, becoming more regular after around 2005.  Samaroli have released rums from Guadeloupe, Barbados, Cuba, Brazil, Grenada, Fiji and Haiti, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assert that it’s for their Jamaican and Guyanese rums that they are better known (recently they have also begun making blends, none of which I have tried so far). Fiji…not so much.

The stats on this one are quickly recounted: distilled 2001 in Fiji, aged in Scotland, 552 50-cl bottles from Cask #32 released in April 2014, at 45% ABV. SPD has both a pot and a columnar still, but I have no idea which one produced the rum…it’s one of those niggling details that too many bottlers, indie or otherwise, never seem to consider as particularly important for some obscure reason of their own.

Still, it’s always fun to try and figure it out, so let’s move right on to the tasting then.  Nose first: it’s an immediate sharp billowing cloud of fresh plastic coverings on new furniture, rubber, varnish, quite rich. One can surmise that either the pot still was operational that day, or they took it off the column at a lower strength than usual. Fresh sawn lumber notes mixes with sushi and wasabi, displaying a certain metallic iodine note. Some fruits, mostly fleshy and acidic – tart mangoes, gooseberries — are there, faint, and remain too much in the background.  It’s dry and dusty, and after some time suggests some sweet breakfast spices and vanilla and a touch of caramel.

The taste was something of a let down: dry and semi-sweet, it presented cleanly, crisply… almost agricole like. Yet then it went on display notes of brine, black olives, gherkins in vinegar with pimento, pencil shavings, and only grudgingly allowed the hints of light flowers and fruits to take their place. With a touch of water (at 45% it wasn’t needed, but I was curious) faint touches of honey, mead, glue and almond soy milk coil about in the background, not really successfully – they clashed with what had come before.  The finish was nice enough – short and dry, content to be unadventurous and straightforward: almonds, vanilla, citrus, coffee and a last squeeze of lemon.

The whole rum has this odd schizophrenic quality of tastes that don’t quite line up. That’s why I give it a middling low score, though I must stress that I did enjoy it enough not to be fiercely critical. It strikes me as something of an essay in the craft, an unfinished experiment that was let out of the lab before being fully grown, or something. But as I say, it must be conceded that it was a respectable piece of work, had points of originality and was recognizably different from Caribbean products with which we are quite a bit more familiar, which is a plus.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Italian independents, perhaps because they were among the first ones I tried that had a regular output, and even if that output varied, there was no shortage. And while older names like Pellegrini, Veronnelli, Soffiantino, Martinazzi, Antoniazzi, Pedroni, Illva Saronno, and Guiducci are now fading from memory (our great loss, I think), many others continue to thrive: Rum Nation1, Moon Import, Samaroli and Silver Seal, and, of course, Velier.  Even within that group, Samaroli holds a special place in people’s estimation, including mine.  They are not now of that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, it is true — but perhaps ‘ere the end some work of noble note may yet be done. You can see them searching for it in releases like this one, and if they have not entirely succeeded, at least they have not stopped trying. This is a completely decent rum which is unusual enough to warrant a second look, and if you’re into rums from the Pacific to begin with, it’ll not disappoint.  That said, I would not recommend looking directly at that label if you can help it.

(#834)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Bottle #160 of 552 released and since each bottle was/is half a liter, the final volume can be calculated to be about 250 liters.  Taking into account an estimated angel’s share of around 3% over 13 years (assuming European aging) then the original barrel volume would have been around 367 liters or thereabouts which would suggest a barrique, puncheon or butt. If aged in the tropics, even partly, then the original volume would be greater. Not really relevant, but I amuse myself with these little conjectures from time to time.
Jul 012021
 

When I looked at Moon Import’s middling Jamaica rum there was no background information as to which one of the several Jamaican distilleries made it – but here, since Guyana only has the one, we can move on and start complaining about a separate issue unique to the country, namely, which still does it come from? One can only sigh and acknowledge that a reviewer’s job is never done.

The “Remember” series was begun in 2015 by Moon Imports, an Italian independent bottler formed in 1980 by the Genoese Pepi Mongiardino, a sometime disciple of that grand old man, Sylvano Samaroli, whose business he took over in 2008 when Mr. Samaroli found no-one in his own family to continue the enterprise.  The two brands continue to be clearly separated, oddly enough. Like several other Italian distributors, Mongiardino began with whiskies and occasionally branched out into other spirits – cognac, gin, wine, and of course, rums.  Nothing I’ve read suggests that rum is a major thing with Moon — and while they have been releasing rums since 1990 in various ranges, most of them from Guyana, they tend to be rather hit and miss. The 1974-2004 30 YO Demerara Sherrywood rum was amazingly fine, for example, but a 23 YO Versailles released a year later was nowhere near that good and thus far I’ve been unimpressed by the “Remember” series, older or newer.

In 2015, when this rum was bottled as one of the four inaugural “Remember” rums, Moon imports had still had not caught the wave of popular fan enthusiasm (as attended Velier, say, or Samaroli). Smelling this column (“patent”) still Demerara rum illustrated some of the issues: it was too weak, and altogether too unremarkable – dusty and fruity, dark prunes, blackberries and pomegranates, plus overripe strawberries, watery pears and a few slightly pungent off notes, about which the best that could be said was at least you remembered them. There was a faint lushness to the aromas, just gone too quickly to develop properly and make a serious impression.

The palate started well, it must be conceded. 45% was and is not that strong or rambunctious, just firm, and the rum presented smoothly enough, dry, with tobacco, wet hay and sherry notes. With a touch of water (added more out of curiosity than necessity) some dates, caramel and ginger were noticeable, and a bit of well-oiled leather, anise and brown sugar. Then, it just kind of faded away into a completely indeterminate weak finish that reminded me of a porto infused cigarillo, and vanished like a dream in the sunlight of morning.

The rum was curiously indeterminate and lacked that sense of purpose and clarity that would make it stand out in a crowd, make a drinker sit up and take serious notice, perhaps pour another glass to check. That it was a rum was the best that could be said. There was fair bit of something there, just nothing much of anything, and that was surprising, because as a general rule, independent bottlers of any stripe tend to be rather good at such releases. But here I could barely be bothered to remember a rum so perfectly serviceable which was at the same time so utterly forgettable. Which makes the title kind of unfortunate.

(#833)(80/100)


Other Notes

  • Thanks and a hat tip to Sascha Junkert for both of the Moon Import “Remember” samples.
  • Though not stated, I think the rum comes from the French Savalle still – a “patent” still (as noted on the label) is continuous, but the Enmore wooden coffey still seems a stretch for what I tasted
  • Age is unknown…I’d suggest it’s ten years or so.
May 272021
 

Image provided courtesy of Jörn Kielhorn

Cadenhead’s defiantly massive codpiece, this 73.6% Mudland slugger, was among the strongest rums they ever unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, in 2003 1; it took no prisoners and provided no apologies and was stubbornly, intransigently, mulishly what it was – an undiluted can of pure whup-ass.  It must have scared the living bejeezus out of so many people when it was released, that all existing bottles were carefully hidden and buried and squirelled away, and blood oaths were sworn to preserve forever the silence of the grave upon its owners. 

Few rums this powerful outside the famed 151s were ever issued in the days before The Age, a genteel time of light and inoffensive blends, when noses were sniffily raised at the agricoles’ overgenerous 50º, and when 46% was considered shockingly outré, almost uncouth…not really fit for civilized company.  Even Velier, who practically redefined what Demeraras could be, balked at going too far in the proof direction back then. And yet, the Cadenhead rum really wasn’t that bad – though it must be mentioned that the growly ABV was to some extent also to its detriment.

That it exuded wild pot-still badassery in all directions was beyond question, and its nose was at pains to demonstrate it wasn’t bluffing. It was pungent. It was sharp. It threw around enormous notes of brine, pineapple, citrus, gooseberries and 5-finger.  Some caramel.  Some vanilla. There were other hints of sorrel, anise and hard Thai yellow mangoes, and yet, oddly, hardly any of the standard spicy and lumber-related aspects that could have been expected from the Versailles single wooden pot still of origin. Paradoxically, the very strength that may have recommended it to many, proved a vehicle to mask the subtleties of the still of origin.

And it didn’t slow down in the slightest when sipped, landing on the tongue with a kind of blunt force trauma that might actually be illegal in some states. Heavy salt caramel ice cream, red olives and brine, leather, oaky spice and aromatic tobacco led the charge.  Fruits were there, both sharp and ripe — prunes, blackberries, black grapes, apples — but these receded, fast, and were briefly replaced by anise, molasses and white chocolate almost too buried under the avalanche of oomph to stand out. The tastes of black bread and sour cream, cream cheese, honey, tobacco, plus a last welcome taste of strawberries and whipped cream weren’t bad at all, just too damned fleeting to be appreciated before poof, they vanished. 

Image provided courtesy of Jörn Kielhorn

Points for the finish which calmed the **** down: it was long and warm instead of crazy hot, creamy with caramel, toffee, salt, chocolate plus coffee grounds and aromatic tobacco — so, in brief, really nice — but the fruits that should have acted in counterpoint, were, alas, long gone. 

All that said, we’re talking about a pretty complex rum here, lots of stuff careening off the wall, with a sort of supercharged glee that might be displayed by a portasan to which someone strapped wheels and a jet engine.  That’s the problem, for me, it’s too much show and no go, and even letting it rest was insufficient to tone it down and allow a more leisurely examination of its profile.  The strength was there, it squatted toad-like on the senses, and it masked nuances a slightly weaker drink might have showcased more effectively (so water was a must with it).

But I’ll give it a guarded recommendation anyway – as one friend of mine says, he prefers the VSG taste profile over any other Demerara, so a rum like this is definitely for those like him – though I think care should be taken here, and as with all Versailles rums, it will be hit or miss for many.  After all, just because it’s enough of a bruiser to intoxicate Opthimus Prime does not elevate it to cult status, and is no reason to casually get one yourself just because it does. 

(#824)(83/100)


Other Notes

This thing had some interesting effects: it made me realize that I can’t count properly, as my list of 21 of the strongest rums in the world now contains 33; that Cadenhead doesn’t just not have a list of what the letter-marques on their Dated Distillation series mean, but don’t have a comprehensive list of their releases either and (c) their staff are really quite helpful and want to assist in such obscure quests even at the expense of their own sanity.

My remarks in the opening paragraph relate to the rum’s almost complete lack of an online footprint – until this review takes off, you will find only a single reference to it.  So some thanks are in order, to all those people who helped me trace the thing. Alex Van der Veer, cheapeau mon ami. Morton Pedersen over at the Cadenheads fans’ FB page, thanks. Nathan and Mitch at Cadenhead (UK), appreciate your time and effort; same goes to Angus and Kiss in the Denmark shop, who really tried.  And most of all, Alex (again) and Jörn Kielhorn, who got me the pictures I needed.

May 162021
 

More than a few rums of Secret Treasures’ “classic” era with those distinctive labels, were all bottled in the year 2003.  When we consider that for years – decades, actually – the original owner of the brand, Fassbind, had been making grappa, schnapps and other spirits, then it’s not too surprising to consider that when they first went into rums, they didn’t mess around with a single barrel bottling, but picked up a number of casks all at the same time and released them simultaneously. So far I can’t find any references to rums from ST released prior to 2003 so I think we can reasonably date the inception of their rum line to that year.

The biography of the company is reprinted below the review, and I’ll simply provide the basic details: this is a WIRR (or WIRD) rum, with the type of still not mentioned (see Other Notes, below) in 1995, on the island of Barbados.  The ageing location is also unknown – Secret Treasures has noted for some others in this series, that they bought barrels that had been aged in situ, but that’s not enough for me to make the claim for this one. Oh and it was reduced down to 42% ABV, which was in line for the period, where producers were nervous about going higher at a time when standard strength was all distributors were often willing to accept (both Richard Seale and Luca Gargano faced this problem with many of their very early releases).

Therefore, what we have here is an interesting rum from the recent past which is something of a curiosity – too “young” to warrant the archaeological excitement of a truly old rum from forty or more years in the past, yet not current enough to be eagerly snapped up by today’s Barbadian fanboy.  In fact, it’s kind of fallen through the cracks. 

Can’t say I blame them. The rum is no great shakes. The nose is good enough – in fact, it could be argued it’s the best part of the experience – a little flowery, nutty, nice background of a caramel milk shake. I liked the spices coiling gently around stronger aspects of the profile, mostly vanilla, cumin and masala. There’s a touch of lemon peel, a little glue and acetones, light fruits – pears, papayas, mangoes, ripe oranges.  Nothing outstanding, just a nice, solid nose.

To taste, it’s warm, an easy drink.  For today’s more seasoned palate, it is, in fact, rather thin…almost unappetizing. I think there may be some licorice here, but it’s so faint I can’t be sure. Crushed walnuts, molasses, cereals, caramel, nougat. Some whipped cream over a dialled down fruit salad with the flavours leached out. The crispness of some apples and green grapes mixing it up with the blandness of bananas, watery pears and papaya, and believe me, that’s pushing it.  Finish is completely meh.  Short, warm, redolent of grapes, papaya, and a touch of the spices but the vanilla, molasses, pineapple and other tart notes is pretty much gone by this stage. 

As with most rums predating the current renaissance, which almost all need a bit more boosting to reach their full potential, I believe that the flaccid strength is the undoing of this rum for the modern aficionado. The nose is fine – faint, but at least clear and discernible – and it’s all downhill to near-nothingness from there. But I say that from my perspective, and those who have always stayed with the 40% rums of the world will find less to disappoint them, though I would suggest the rum retains some of that Goldilocks’s Little Bear characteristic of Barbadian rums in general.  At the time it was made, neat sipping was less the rage than a good mixed drink in which rums were not permitted to have too much character of their own, so that might account for it.

Secret Treasures has never really been a huge mover and shaker on the indie rum scene. They have almost completely dropped out of sight (and weren’t that well known even before that), stay in small markets with their current blended rums, and the promise of their initial single cask bottlings is long gone.  If it wasn’t for long-ignored old and mouldy reviews (including this one, ha ha, yeah you can sit back down there in the peanut gallery, fella), I doubt anyone would remember, know, or much care. But in a way I wish they had stuck with it.  There’s interest out there for such things and while their selections were never top tier, consider that so many releases all took place in the early 2000s, at the same time as Velier’s and Rum Nation’s first bottlings, preceding 1423, the Compagnie, L’Esprit and all those others making waves in 2021. Even if they aren’t that well regarded now, I argue that for history and remembering the first indies, it’s occasionally useful and informative to try one just to see how the world has turned, and dammit, yes, drink it for nostalgia’s sake alone, if the other reasons aren’t enough.

(#821)(80/100)


Other notes

  • A bottle of this went for £50 on Whisky Auction website in September 2018.
  • Outturn was 1258 bottles, from three casks
  • The still: it’s not mentioned on the bottle or Haromex’s website. It tastes, to me, like a pot-column blend, not aggressive enough for the pot, not light and easy enough for pure column.  Amazon’s German site refers to it being pot still, but that is the the only such extant reference (it was confirmed that there was an operational pot still at WIRD in 1995). No other source mentions the still at all (including Wikirum and RumX). We’ll have to take it as unanswered for now

Historical background

Initially Secret Treasures was the brand of a Swiss concern called Fassbind SA (SA stands for Société Anonyme, the equivalent to PLC – the wesbite is at www.Fassbind.ch) — who had been in the spirits business since 1846 when when Gottfried I. Fassbind founded the “Alte Urschwyzer” distillery in Oberarth to make eau de vie (a schnapps). He was a descendant of Dutch coopers who had emigrated to Switzerland in the 13th century and thus laid the foundation for what remains Switzerland’s oldest distillery. 

They make grappa, schnapps and other spirits and branched out into rums in the early 2000s but not as a producer: in the usual fashion, rums at that time were sourced, aged at the origin distillery (it is unclear whether this is still happening in 2021), and then shipped to Switzerland for dilution with Swiss spring water to drinking strength (no other inclusions). In that way they conformed to the principles of many of the modern indies. 

Fassbind’s local distribution was acquired in 2014 by Best Taste Trading GMBH, a Swiss distributor, yet they seem to have walked away from the rum side of the business, as the company website makes mention of the rum line at all. Current labels on newer editions of the Secret Treasures line refers to a German liquor distribution company called Haromex as the bottler, which some further digging shows as acquiring the Secret Treasures brand name back in 2005: perhaps Fassbind or Best Taste Trading had no interest in the indie bottling operation and sold it off as neither Swiss concern has any of the branded bottles in their portfolio.

Certainly the business has changed: there are no more of the pale yellow labels and sourced single barrel expressions as I found back in 2012.  Now Secret Treasures is all standard strength anonymous blends like aged “Caribbean” and “South American” rum, a completely new bottle design and the Haromex logo prominently displayed with the words “Product of Germany” on the label.