Jan 242023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#968)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • For now it simply costs too much for serious appreciation, but I do recommend it.
  • This is an exclusive bottling for The Whisky Exchange
  • A brief backgrounder. The husband and wife team have been spirits importers to Taiwan since 2006; by 2013 they felt that the combination of rum’s rise on the international scene, the lack of a “serious” Taiwanese branded rum and their feeling that there could and should be one, made them investigate starting a distillery of their own (at the time Taiwan produced brands called Koxinga Gold and Wonderland, but these were not well regarded and almost unknown outside the island). Experimenting with molasses, juice or cane sugar on a 500L stainless steel pot still for the next three years (without a licence and while holding down day jobs), they decided that the rums they could make were viable, and went on to formally establish Renaissance in 2017 as a single estate distillery in southern Taiwan, using organic methods and mono-varietal cane. 
  • Taiwan had a solid sugar cane industry (cane has been recorded there at least since the 14th century, and the the Dutch introduced industrial sugar production in the 1600s when the island was known as Dutch Formosa)
  • Although agriculture uses almost a quarter of the land in Taiwan (and a full half of the entire sector is plant-crop based), moves to an industrialised hi-tech manufacturing economy have gradually reduced its share to less than 2% of GDP (from 35% in 1952), and it is considered a support of the economy, not a primary driver; land use has been shrinking as well, even though the Government wants this to change in order to promote better food security. Sugar cane used to be an export crop but has been reduced of late, and is not a major focus in Taiwan any longer; therefore it is not surprising that a vibrant sugar or spirits industry based on cane has never really developed (Government monopolies, and restrictions on spirits production, were other reasons); wine on the other hand has become more popular, and the example of Kavalan whiskey is a model that no doubt influenced Mr. Caen as well.
Jan 092023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#964)(73/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Historical background

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

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


 

Jan 042023
 

Rumaniacs Review #143 | R-0963

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

Colour – Light brown

Strength – 40% ABV

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

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

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

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

(75/100) ⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Picture (c) Whisky.Auction

Historical Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Nov 232022
 

Rumaniacs Review #141 | 0953

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

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

Colour – Amber

Strength – 40% ABV

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

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

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

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

(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

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

Historical background

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

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

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


Opinion

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

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

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


 

Oct 132022
 

Do we even need to make mention of what Black Tot Day represents any more, and what the rum is all about? Probably not, but for the sake of new entrants to the field and those who don’t know, it is named after the day in 1970 that the (British) Royal Navy ceased issuing the daily tot of rum to its sailors…a day that to some will live in infamy, given the scandalous break with a centuries-long tradition. 1 However it would be too much to expect that all rums were finished at the same time – and some indeed was left over and this was sold on to private interests, one of which was Elixir Distillers, a bottler and blender owned by the people behind The Whisky Exchange (which these days I guess means Pernod-Ricard, after they bought out the founders in 2021).

Elixir initially released some of the stores they had as the Black Tot “Last Consignment” in 2014 —  it remains available, though expensive at a thousand bucks or more per bottle. It sold slowly, but the response – limited as it was – did suggest that a market existed for such blends if one could bootstrap the name as a brand. And so, since 2019, after two years of experimentation and fiddling around with blend recipes, a number of Black Tot bottlings began to appear for those of more limited means, whose scrawny purses don’t have a grand to blow on a bottle which, let’s face it, was always more about heritage and rarity than taste. That’s not to say all the new editions were particularly cheap: the the annual Master Blender’s Reserve series, the Heart of the Tot 40 YO (with only Port Mourant 1975 juice) and the 50th Anniversary, all of them ran into three figures or more.

The Black Tot Finest Caribbean Blend, by contrast, is the consumer version of the brand. Costing around £60 it is a blend of rums aged a maximum of five years (it is unknown how much the final blend was aged, if at all) in the following proportions: unaged and aged Guyanese rums from pot and column stills (60%), 5 YO Barbados rums from ot and column stills (35%), and a pinch of 3 YO Jamaican rum for kick (5%). The distilleries are not disclosed: reading around suggests Foursquare for Barbados and Longpond for Jamaica (that’s sure to be interesting).  Stating “Diamond” for Guyana is pointless, because for that country it’s not the distillery we need to know – there’s only the one – but the actual stills involved since they are all so distinctive. That aside, the rum is bottled at 46.2% ABV, so it’s not going to hurt anyone and can find wide acceptance exactly as it is.

To say I was surprised at the overall quality of what is being marketed as a downmarket Black Tot is to understate matters. I’ve tried loads of Navy Rum wannabes, real or imagined – rums from Lamb’s, Woods, Kinloch (Navy Neaters), Pusser’s, URM, Townsend (Red Duster), Lemon Hart, Challis Stern (Four Bells), Velier, AH. Riise, Cabot Tower, Potters…and only a few have impressed me with their quality. This is one of them.

The nose opens with a distinct Jamaican funk bomb, and I am instantly reminded of a low-rent TECC or TECA, less intense, but possessing similar notes of rotten bananas, whitening orange peel, and all the delightful aromas of a midden heap in hot weather. It’s a basic funk bomb, to which are added smoke, leather, salted caramel, bitter coffee grounds, and oranges. That’s the Jamaican side of things: as it develops there’s a heavier note becoming evident, licorice, molasses, brown sugar and spices like cloves and sage and cinnamon. And so that’s the Guyanese.  The Barbados portion hides somewhere in between all that, providing structure and a backbone, but to say I could pick out the notes that were its own would be pretentious. Let’s just say there was an element of “not Guyana or Jamaica” in there, and that’s the Bajan influence.

Palate wise, it’s completely solid, and here the Guyana part “tek front.” What was smelled, was tasted: bitter chocolate, coffee grounds, salted caramel, unsweetened black bush tea, toffee, some rubber and glue (I guess that was the unaged part of the blend) and vanilla.  In a curious inversion of the nose, the Longpond then stood up to be counted with pineapple, chocolate oranges, bubble gum and some unsweetened chocolate and the remainder of what could be tasted – cherries, kiwi fruits, coriander, dill, flambeed bananas and pears – hearkened to Barbados, with a touch of flowers and delicate sweetness finishing things off.

At Paris’s WhiskyLive, when Mitch Wilson (their brand ambassador) threatened grievous bodily harm and the extinguishing of my entire house if I did not immediately try the thing, I was hesitant – because as is well known, one does not simply walk into the Black Tot. The expectations are enormous. And yet, having tried it (twice – he doesn’t know I filched an extra sample in my fourth glass), I really liked this rum. It is lighter than the Last Consignment, cheaper than half a hundred indie bottlings I see that are long on promises, high in price and don’t come through and deliver.  It’s crisp, remarkably punchy and dynamic, with the flavours kaleidoscoping around and constantly changing, sometimes one note dominating, at times another. It invites long leisurely examination and doesn’t disappoint.

If Oliver Chilton is to be believed — he’s the master blender behind these Tot expressions, who cheerfully admitted to a certain flair and “mucking about” when creating the blend (he’s quite a character and I strongly recommend you chat with the guy whenever you see him at a rum show) — he just ceaselessly experimented for an extended period, trying everything, trying weird, trying crazy, knowing what he wanted but never being entirely satisfied with what he got…until he finally got it. And I’m here to say that yeah – he really did.

(#943)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Aug 112022
 

Without question, Black Gate Distillery’s “overproof” rum 1is one of the best of the crop of the New Australians that I’ve tried in the last years, and the standout of the 2021 advent calendar.  It is a 52% pot-still molasses-based bag of bragaddocio, it sports an attitude, it’s big, it’s bold, and completely the sort of thing John Wick would have in order to finish off the evening in a style we can best describe as, oh, ”assertive”.

This is all the more remarkable since we’re talking about not only a relatively new distillery (founded in 2009) with relatively few products, but a rather young rum – it’s three years old.  Yet it deserves the accolade, because its aromas it displays and the quality of the first few minutes with it not only set the tone for all that comes after, but suggest there’s even better to come in the years ahead.

Consider how it opens: it’s, in a word, lovely. It blows right out of the glass, and reeks of rich red wines, plums, blackberries and cherries on this side of too ripe. It reminds me of the Tin Shed S.S. Ferret rum I looked at before but without the dusty, cereal, mouldy notes of an abandoned house. Here the house is in fresh paint and good nick, and you smell that glossy paint, varnish, furniture polish, acetones; and if that isn’t enough, the depth of the aromas provides more – strawberries, sorrel, the pungent smell of mauby. I got a well-remembered sense of my mom’s kitchen in Guyana just nosing the thing.

The palate doesn’t drop the ball in the slightest. The 52% strength allows the rum’s profile to be really robust, precise: it’s dry, with dark fruit bonded to crisp herbals, and solid initial notes of brine, olives and spicy miso soup. It’s around the edges that other fruits come out to play – sweet Thai mangoes, apricots, cherries, raspberries, attended to by honey, salt, cloves and even a flirt of lemon zest and cumin. The finish is long and doesn’t introduce anything new, and functions more as a summing up of most of what came before – some dark fruits, a touch of vanilla, red wine, caramel, sorrel, lemon zest and cranberries –  which I assure you is more than enough to elevate this rum beyond the mere ordinary.  

About the only thing you have to watch out for is which one you’re getting, because there are several bottlings under this name, and each set comes from a single aged cask (or two) with its own identifier – the rum I speak of here is from casks #BG081 and 82, distilled in September 2017, bottled in November 2020, and if my reading around is right, just about everyone who has had one of these overproofs really really likes it.

They’re right to do so. It is, I feel, a really fantastic young rum, and one can only wonder where it would be in another five years (or ten) if they had kept any behind to age some more. I know many reading this will prefer their old tried and true Caribbean varietals, but I can wholeheartedly endorse this new Australian expression. It’s as near to an exquisite badass as you can possibly get without being ten proof higher and ten years older. Too many rums we try these days are similar variations on old themes which have lost some lustre and originality, so it can be wonderful to find a rum like this, which finds a different way to tell the same story in a new and exciting way.

(#929)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Founded in 2009, Black Gate Distillery is located in Central West New South Wales, in the small rural town of Mendooran.  Like most of the micro-distilleries of the New Australians, it’s a husband and wife operation where – in this case – Genise Holingsworth does the good stuff and makes the rum, while her husband Brian dutifully makes that other obscure drink and handles the maintenance aspects (he’s a fitter machinist and auto mechanic by trade). They sourced two pot stills – relatively small at 630 litres and 300 litres capacity – and work with food grade molasses, commercial yeast and water, to make their various rum expressions. All are small batch, which stands to reason when one considers that the rum output of the small operation is only about 2o00 litres annually.
  • So far, Black Gate makes various Dark Rums, overproofs mostly with different finishes or cask maturations, and one called Tawny. Aside from whiskies, no cash flow stalwarts such as gins or “cane spirit” seem to be made.
  • Rums are aged in Port or Sherry casks (or both) for a minimum of two years. This rum was aged for three years in two Australian port (‘tawny’) casks: one of 225L and the other of 100L. A more recent 54.6% edition of the overproof was aged for five years. 
  • Labels are all the same for all these dark overproof rums no matter when made: the specifications are, in a clever bit of economising, white printed stick-ons.
Aug 082022
 

Long time readers of this site will know something of my movement away from softer Spanish/Latin style rons over the years. There’s nothing particularly deficient about many of them (only some), and I have a soft spot for quite a few.  It’s just that I find most quite unadventurous, occasionally boring, sometimes added-to —  though of course they all have their adherents and supporters who buy them and keep the distilleries humming. At most, one can cast aspersions on their escutcheon with matters having to do with disclosure and/or adulteration, something which companies like La Hechicera and Dictador out of Colombia, Malecon from Panama and Mombacho out of Nicaragua (there are several others) have often been the target of. That does not mean, however, that they’re all bad, and it would be a mistake to tar them all with the same brush of indifference and despite.

These thoughts occurred to me because I was forced to take an honest look at what these too-often mild-as-milkwater rums could do when done well, when I tried one that Bristol Spirits — one of the more venerable of the modern independents — had sourced from Venezuela.  The exact distillery it comes from is something of a mystery (more on that below); and it is a column still, molasses-based spirit, aged 12 years in refill American oak (ex-bourbon and in both Venezuela and Europe), un-chill-filtered, unadded-to and released at a robust 47% ABV…which I suggest is somewhat uninspiring and which Bristol calls “just about right”.

They may be on to something there, because frankly, there is little to find fault with.  The rum is crisp and tangy, with aromas jumping all over the map: initially quite fruity with scents of lemon meringue pie, pineapples, unsweetened yoghurt, bananas, it switches over after a few minutes and presents light caramel, vanilla, flowers and is light enough to present almost as an aged agricole-style rhum. It’s apparent simplicity belies an under-the-hood level of complexity I must confess to not expecting (which may be why John Barrett, Bristol’s owner, was smirking the entire time as I tried it).

Nose is one thing, though: and many rums of real olfactory promise falter and die on the palate.  At 47% this is reasonable sipping territory, which is to say, it won’t try to defenestrate my tongue.  Here, it must be conceded that the rum succeeds very nicely.  It has a good mouthfeel; it’s tangy and a little sour, yet with a solid underpinning of caramel and chocolate oranges. Ripe Thai mangoes and peaches are in evidence, some light fruit, and here again, it feels like a firm and slightly deeper agricole rhum, musky, a bit tannic, slightly sweet.  An interesting amalgam, all summed up by a shortish finish that showed off a last flirt of salt caramel ice cream with fruit bits sprinkled on top, a touch of light brine, some flowers, and it is over way too quickly.

So let’s talk a bit about Bristol, one of the stalwarts of the indie bottling ecosystem, a small company run by one man, John Barrett (he has recently brought in a young man, his son-in-law, to help run things). Bristol was established as far back as the 1990s, at the dawn of the modern rum renaissance, and if you really are curious, the Boys of Rumcast did a great interview with the man just a few weeks ago. Bristol Spirits, along with Renegade and Rum Nation, were the first indies I came into contact with that showed me the directions rum could go, and one of my best memories of the early rums I tried and wrote about, was the terrific PM 1980 25 year old that almost converted a dedicated single-malt lover to rums on the spot.  Bristol Spirits has faded from popular acclaim somewhat over the last five years or so, as new, young and aggressive little indies from all over Europe claimed market share and eyeballs of social media, yet they never went away, and their bright and simple labels have been a fixture at many a rumfest where I skulked around, and I’ve never actually had a bad one from the stable.

Bristol buys barrels like everyone else, trades them and exchanges them and sources stuff here and there, does some tinkering, blending and ageing of their own, holds on to stock they like, bottles stuff they think is ready. With respect to this Venezuelan rum, in my opinion, they hit the sweet spot, because it’s very ready. 

This is a rum that defies expectations (especially mine), and is one of the best Latin/Spanish heritage-style rums of my recent memory – in fact, it forces a reconsideration of what these distilleries can do, if juice like this becomes the norm rather than the exception it currently is. The strength is near-perfect, the notes shimmer in simple harmonies that speak of subtle and elegant arrangements which you can almost, but not quite, sense. There’s not a whole lot of oomph going on — consider it a serene chamber piece, not a symphony — and the level of complexity exhibited by a Hampden, for example, is not in evidence. Yet somehow it goes beyond all that, and at the end, it works, it tastes great and you enjoy it, and isn’t that what counts?

(#928)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The Distillery

The producer noted on the label is stated as being “Destileria Sofa” which seems straightforward enough, except that you’ll never find a distillery of that name in Venezuela (and believe me, I tried).  Rum-X and various European shops make mention of it – always with respect to this very same rum and no other – and some remark it’s located in the NE of the country.  But that’s all you get.  There’s no mention of the distillery on google, reddit, wikidot or any other resource I can consult…except for one, and so, your intrepid soused reviewer got on to Simon over at Bristol Spirits: he’s the guy who helps me out when Mr. Barrett doesn’t pick up the phone. 

Long story short, it’s a distillery that makes a certain well regarded rum possibly named after a 16th century Carmelite nun, which has an association with Bacardi that prohibits it from using its own name on independent bottlings such as Bristol’s. So something similar to the “secret distillery” which Compagnie des Indes sometimes includes on its label, or how “A Jamaican Distillery” is used on occasion to avoid complications with the useage of a name like Worthy Park or what have you.  Most of the time you’re given enough to work with, as I was, but I’ll respect the confidentiality in print and not come right out with the name.

All that aside, even though permission was given to use the name of Destileria Sofa on the label as the source for the rum, I still don’t actually know what that represents or means or where the name comes from, so if anyone knows any better, or can provide information from Venezuela, feel free to send it along and I’ll add it to these notes.


Other Notes

  • After this review went up, Mads Heitmann, who runs the Danish webshop Romhatten, commented that the rum was tested at 10-11g/L sugar which he later confirmed with Bristol Spirits. If this is so (I have an outstanding email to them) it won’t change the review, which is locked, but it would explain something of the slight voluptuousness and sweetness the rum displayed, even if not particularly unpleasant in any way.
Jul 282022
 

More and more, being environmentally conscious and paying attention to a sustainable agricultural business model is a determinant for any forward looking distillery that can trade on this aspect of its operations to make sales, gain visibility and win awards. What was once a minor aspect of production methodology has grown to the point where it is something almost every new micro distillery — and many major ones — seeks to institute. More than just ethically correct, it’s good business.

Lord Byron Distillery (named after the 19th century poet who is arguably the world’s first modern celebrity) is one which ticks all these boxes.  It is located twenty minutes up the road from Winding Road Distillery (and is closer to the beach), about 180km south of Brisbane in New South Wales.  It was founded in 2016 by the husband and wife team of Brian and Helen Restall, who are both engineers, and from the beginning went with a zero-waste and fully-sustainable philosophy. Water comes from collected rain and natural springs; bonsucro-certified molasses once merely used as cattle feed is sourced from a farmer co-operative nearby, power comes from a renewable electricity generator, and distillery waste products are turned into liquid fertilisers and feed additives. 

The distillery has two copper pot stills and a steel single-column still; the pot stills were both brought from Europe and are named Ada and Allegra (after Lord Byron’s daughters, I’m assuming) — they produce the usual assortment of gins, vodka, limoncello that make for cash flow – and various cane juice distillates (sometimes double distilled) which are either sold as white “rhum”, spiced, and aged rum, always in small batches.  

The rum we’re looking at today derives from the 2018 harvest and was bottled in 2021, so it is about 2-3 years old, and can therefore be called “rum” under Australia’s regulations.  The exact barrel number is not noted on the sample, but bar batch variation between casks, I think we can assume that what is tasted of one rum from that year, is likely to be similar to all others from that year assuming all bottling was done at the same time.  For the curious, it was aged in a 260-litre ex-red wine barrel, and another six months in an ex-port barrel, so it qualifies as double-aged instead of finished, I guess – oh, and it came out at a solid 55.5% so the impression I get is that it’s made for real rum fans, not casual imbibers.

The rum and its distillery do well from a marketing and ethical standpoint; and it’s a fine rum to taste as well, even for one so young. The initial aromas arising are of cereals, cheerios, and dusty furniture in an old house, as well as (paradoxically) the plastic wrapping surrounding a new pair of leather shoes. There are few sharp notes of sweet and acidic fruits to be found here, so none of the sweetest offerings fo the orchard are on sale: however, one can detect caramel, figs, dates, sapodilla and a touch of brine and papaya.  As it opens up, some dark raisins and lemon pie vaguely waft by, a touch of vanilla and aromatic pipe tobacco, but that’s about it.  It’s quite enough to enjoy, I assure you.

Tastewise, no slouch either: it’s deeper and more luscious than the nose implied, with a dry kind of bite.  It’s very warm but not a scorcher, presenting a solid first taste of brown sugar, salt caramel ice cream, and peanut butter.  This dominates the profile for a while before giving way to some fruitiness of bananas, pineapples in syrup, cherries, and anise. A little oak, a little vanilla emerge, and the port-infused cigarillos are once again in evidence, which I suppose is the wine barrels making themselves felt. The finish is soft yet pungent, quite long, and without serious sharpness or aggro; the closing notes are a firm amalgam of bitter chocolate, caramel, vanilla, raisins and cinnamon, getting quite dry at the back end.

After all is said and done, the real question is whether all the organic, locally sourced, natural ingredients have a discernible impact on what gets poured into the glass. Our grocery shelves are filled with packaged food and drink that contain all sorts of additives, preservatives, binders, chemicals and what have you, that proponents of the organic movement say hides natural flavours. Can we detect such things in rums, and deliberately seek out the pure, the natural?

To some extent, I think so, and here’s a product that makes the case for such products quite well.  Lord Byron’s rum is a two year old, double distilled, double matured, with nothing added, made organically, simply, and, like my homemade pepper sauce, with as few ingredients as possible. What we get at the other end when we taste it, is a limited smorgasbord of a profile, that does the neat trick of pretending to be less than it is, then providing more.  It is, in short, a quiet little corker.

(#925)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

Jul 072022
 

When it comes to Australia, the wider world knows of Bundy and Beenleigh almost by default, because they are the big guns that export globally and allow us to try their stuff as found in a duty-free or released by the independent bottlers. But perhaps a better sense of the country could be provided if we run through the rums of those multitudinous small micro-distilleries that dot the landscape, because seriously, that’s where all the cool stuff and innovation seems to be happening as these New Australians seek for the elusive magic of a truly indigenous rum that could not be mistaken for anything else. Not all seriously try for that brass ring, and of those that do, not all succeed – what they all accomplish, however, is to enrich the rum landscape of the entire country, even if they simply make a “regular” rum.

One of the rums that doesn’t make a big thing about channelling some new style or method of production but is content to simply be good, is the rum called Amber “Tavern Style”  Batch No. 5, made by the bluntly-named Yack Creek Distillery (love that name: just saying that – “I had a Yack the other day” – reeks of badass rumgeek machismo, doesn’t it?).  

Photo (c) Yack Creek Distillery

The distillery is located in the Australian state of Victoria, and was founded in 2016 by two friends, Mick and Jamie, conforming to the pattern of many others: the guys were checking out whale sharks in Ningaloo (Western Australia) six years earlier, the conversation turned to spirits and opening a business, and in short order they had made plans. Then years were spent securing the  financing, buying and installing the necessary equipment, doing some training in the field, and the business was set to go. It was called “Yack” after the river and town near which they set up shop, and quite sensibly shortened its name, because calling it Yackandandah might have been a labelling problem and a tongue twister for lexically challenged. Unsurprisingly they have made gin (six varieties) and vodka (just one) to pay the immediate bills, before heading into whisky territory (where they are already up to the 16th edition) and the fifth iteration of their rum line.  The philosophy is to do multiple small batches a year rather than just a few large bones, so runs and outturns have thus far remained relatively modest.

Depending on how they feel, either blackstrap molasses, molasses or sugar cane honey — all locally sourced — is used, fermented with a commercial yeast and then run through a 1000-litre copper still with stainless steel columns (a 130-litre stainless steel and copper modular high column still is utilised for smaller batches and experimentation). For the Amber “Tavern Style” rum we’re discussing today, the distillate is put into an ex-bourbon cask for about four years, and then finished in a Meyrieux Bourgogne cask for a short period before being bottled at 48%.

What that does is produce a golden rum with an uncommonly pleasant nose that is assertive enough not to fade away into thin nothingness. It is, paradoxically both light and rich, redolent of blackberries in cream, cherries, raspberries and a bag of overripe plums.  At no point is it sharp or harsh, just firm and warm,  It changes a fair bit over time too: after a while one can sense oranges starting to go, some kimchi (!!), paint and freshly oiled leather harnesses, and a comfortably upholstered clean leather sofa.  You don’t get that every day in a rum, that’s for sure.

On the palate it continues to be a solid tasting rum with overripe fleshy fruit as before, and tastes a bit of dry sweet cereals, molasses, caramel, a touch of vanilla, brine, and that new-polished leather vibe. It’s not as vibrant as before, though, and the components one would expect to surge to the forefront – aromatic herbs, anise, spices and tart fruits – take a back seat. This leaves salty and musky flavours to take over, at the expense of a more complex multidimensional profile which the nose had hinted was possible. The finish operated at this level also: dry, wine-y, with notes of fat red grapes, licorice, olives, Danish butter cookies and some stale orange rind. It had a certain whiskey-like nature to it, suggesting a malt in rum’s clothing.

Like most new and small distilleries such as we have been reviewing of late, rums like this are youngish, decently made and solidly constructed, but not complex, uber-aged top-enders. They can’t be, because they are the distilleries’ bread and butter, sharing the stage with equally young whiskies and gins through economic necessity (for now). That limits them somewhat, and it’s a quiet achievement that this one succeeds as well as it does.

The Amber No. 5 is an unquestioned achievement of the mid range: it noses solid, tastes firm and finishes with some style, even if it does leave you wishing for more: at the end its informal title of “Tavern Style” pretty much says what the makers probably had in mind when they created it.  And yet, in spite of all that mid-brow aesthetic (or because of it) I really quite enjoyed it, especially in a simple Cuba Libre or with ginger beer, because the rum had enough notes to hold my interest and woke up the mix very nicely; it can even be had neat without undue discomfort. What it also does is remind me — a lot — of a Bacardi 8, a Young’s Old Sam, a young El Dorado or a Doorly’s: a seemingly regular, even overlooked, rum that is quite a bit better when you try it than the bare stats say it is.

(#921)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • I was told the outturn was about a hundred bottles. All are sold in the local area, most at the distillery itself in the small bar they have onsite. Obviously one made it to the 2021 advent calendar from which this sample was obtained, and for which I remain grateful to Mr. & Mrs. Rum for providing.
  • The logo on the company masthead is that of a Blue Murray Spiny Crayfish, commonly found in the creek and was designed by Jamie Heritage and his sister.
  • Yack Creek Distillery is one of a cluster of small family-run distilleries established over the last decade in and around Yackandandah and its surrounds. Backwoods Distilling is close by, and in the area are Barking Owl, Bilson’s, Glenbosch, joining the 10 or so distilleries in Victoria’s High Country.
Jul 042022
 

Photo (c) L’Homme a la Poussette on FB

Rumaniacs Review #136 | 0920

Rhum Jacsi (later named Rhum Jacksi) defies easy categorization and is a research exercise leading down several peculiar rabbit holes. All initial sources agree that the rhum was from Martinique, was made from the 1950s to the 1970s and it is usually to be found at 44% ABV (some later versions were 40%). The source / etymology of the name is not written down but is easily inferred. The distillery of origin is a mystery. The companies involved in its make are the only places one can go and that’s a sufficiently lengthy story to be split off into its own section under these brief tasting notes.

Rum-X is the only place that has any technical specifications: their entry for the rhum states it is from cane juice and done on a column still (of course any such thing as the AOC is undreamed of at this stage of rhum’s evolution), but since attribution is not provided, it’s hard to know who put that entry in, or on what basis.  That said, it’s from Martinique, so the statements are not unreasonable given its rhum-making history.  Age, unfortunately is a complete zero, as is the distillery of origin. We’ll have to accept we simply don’t know, unless someone who once worked for the brand in the 1960s and 1970s steps forward to clear matters up.

Colour – Gold

Strength – 44%

Photo (c) ebay.fr

Nose – Very herbal and grassy, and is clearly an agricole rhum from cane juice. Lots of vegetables here: carrot juice, wet grass, dark red olives, a touch of pimento, and a nice medley of lighter fruity notes – passion fruit, lime zest, yellow mangoes and an occasional flash of something deeper.  It feels better and more voluptuous over time, and I particularly like the aromas of clear citrus juice, soursop, pears, green apples and vanilla.

Palate – Much of the nose transfers seamlessly here, especially the initial tastes of crisp fruits – mangoes, ginnips, ripe apples.  Once you’re past this you also get cane sap, sugar water, a slice of lime, a bit of vanilla.  Light brininess, pears and apples follow that, balanced off by dark, ripe cherries, syrup and toffee. 

Finish – Doesn’t improve noticeably on what came before, and is medium long, but doesn’t get any worse either. Fruits, tart unsweetened yoghurt, miso soup, apple cider, sort of delicate amalgam of sweet and sour overlain with dusky notes of caramel, vanilla and butterscotch.

Thoughts – This is a rum I liked, a lot.  It’s made from cane juice, but feels deeper and richer than usual, and it reminded me of the old Saint James rhums that used to be heated to 40ºC before fermentation and distillation (in a sort of quasi-Pasteurization process). Not sure of that’s what was done here, and of course the distillery of origin is not known, but It feels half clean agricole and half molasses, and it’s all over delicious.

(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Historical details

The labels on the bottles that are now being sold (usually at auction) have the notation that it is certified by CDC. But that was just a sort of selection and verification process, guaranteed by Compagnie Dubonnet-Cinzano. Nothing in their history suggests that they — or Pernod, or Ricard who took them over — originated the brand, and so this leads us to another company mentioned on one of the bottles, that of J&S Violet (Freres), which have a far stronger claim to being the ones behind the first Jacsi rhums. 

Two brothers named Violet – Pallade and Simon – who were initially itinerant drapers, opened a small shop in the southern French town of Roussillon in 1866 (it is about 40km north of Marseille) and driven by a boom in aperitif wines, they created a blend of their own that combined red wine, mistelles and botanicals…and also quinine (perhaps they also wanted in on the sale of anti malarial drinks that would sell well in tropical colonies, though certainly their marketing of the spirit as a medicinal tonic in pharmacies alleviated problems with existing established vermouth makers as well).

This low-alcohol drink was actually called byrrh – the brothers did not invent the title, just appropriated it as their brand name – and was wildly popular, so, like Dubonnet (see below), the company grew quickly. By the 1890s they had storage facilities for 15 million litres of wine, and by 1910 they employed 750 people and distributed in excess of thirty million litres of byrrh a year – in 1935 Byrrh was France’s leading aperitif brand, apparently. Pallade and Simon passed away by the advent of the first world war, and Lambert’s sons Jacques and Simon (the J&S mentioned on the label and therefore also most likely the Jacques and Simon of the brand name) took over in 1920 – which sets the earliest possible time limit on the Jacsi brand. though I believe it to have been created some decades later.

In the post WW2 years, the demand for aperitifs faded as cognacs, brandies, whiskies and light rums surged in popularity. The Violet brothers tried to expand into other spirits at this time, and it was here, in around the mid-fifties, that we start to see the first Jacsi magazine and poster advertisements appear, which is why I can reasonably date the emergence of the Jacsi rhum brand to this time period. Like most print ads of the time, they touted blue waters, tropical beaches, lissome island women, sunshine and the sweet life that could be had for the price of a bottle. It’s very likely that stocks were bought from some broker in the great port of Marseille, just down the road, rather than somebody going to Martinique directly; and the rhums were issued at 44% even then.  

1950s Label with J& Violet Bros. Label. 44%

Alas, this did not help: sales of Byrrh continued to fall, the rhum business was constant but minimal, and in 1961, beset by internecine family squabbles over a path forward, Byrrh sold its entire business, vats, stocks and barrels, to another company involved in liqueurs and aromatic wines and aperitifs – Dubonnet-Cinzano. It is from 1961 that the “selected and guaranteed by CDC” appears on the label of Jacsi branded rhums and the “J&S Violet” quietly exits.

1961 Label – CDC mentioned

So who exactly were CDC? A bottler, certainly, though not a distillery, for these were indie / merchant bottlings, not estate ones. As noted, Jacsi rhums that have turned up for sale in the past few years, all have labels that refer to la Compagnie Dubonnet-Cinzano (CDC).  This is a firm which goes back to one Joseph Dubonnet, a Frenchman who created an aperitif modestly called Dubonnet in 1846 in response to a competition organised by the French Government to find a cordial which African legionnaires would drink and colonists could buy, that would disguise the bitter taste of the anti-malarial drug quinine (it therefore served the same purpose as the British gin and tonic in India). This was done at a time when fortified and flavoured wines and liqueurs – especially anises and absinthes – were very popular, so M. Dubonnet’s enterprise found its legs and grew into a large company in very short order.

Late 1960s label, still CDC referenced and at 44%

I could not ascertain for sure whether the Italian vermouth company Cinzano had a stake in Dubonnet or vice versa, but it strikes me as unlikely since they (Cinzano) remained a family enterprise until 1985 – and for now I will simply take the name as a coincidence, or that Dubonnet produced Cinzano under licence. CDC, then, dealt much with vermouths and such flavoured drinks, but like Byrrh, they were caught up in the decline of such spirits in the 1950s.  Their own diversification efforts and core sales were good enough to stave off the end, but by the 1970s the writing was on the wall, and they sold out to Pernod Ricard in 1976 – by then the family was ready to sell. Pernod and Ricard had just merged in 1975, and had started an aggressive expansion program, and were willing to buy out CDC to fill out their spirits portfolio, which had no vermouths of note. 

Post-1970s label for 40% version after Pernod Ricard acquisition. 40% ABV and Cusenier name.

By the 1970s, the brand name had been changed to Jacksie, and the “selected and guaranteed by CDC” moniker was retained on the label  for a while before being replaced by Cusenier, which was an Argentine spirits maker acquired at the same time by PC – that’s the last reference to the brand and the rhum that can be found. But in an interesting side note, both Dubonnet and Byrrh (now Pernod Absinthe) continue to be made in Thuir, where the facilities of Byrrh once were. Jacsi itself, however, has long since been discontinued and now exists only in these pages and the occasional auction when one goes on sale. For what it’s worth, I think they are amazingly good rums for the prices I’ve seen and the only reason they keep going for low prices is because nothing is known about them. Not any more.


 

Jun 302022
 

Photo (c) Riverbourne Distillery

Australia’s sugar cane industry is concentrated in the east of the country, so it comes as no surprise that many of the small distilleries that make rum (one cannot firmly state they are always rum distilleries) are located in the states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, usually near some kind of built up infrastructure, though sometimes on the outskirts of some small town or other. The small one-man distillery of Riverbourne is a bit more rural and remote (a relative term) in that there really isn’t much between it and Canberra, the capital, which is an hour’s drive away.

Riverbourne is another one of those craft distilleries that have sprung up in the last decade, and its founder and proprietor – Martin “The Kid” Pye – is the closest thing to a scientist I’ve seen in researching these little outfits. The man is a third generation pharmacist and has studied microbiology, biochemistry, chemistry and mathematics in his career, suggesting he possesses a medieval alchemist’s mindset, and likes seeing how things work, how they’re made, and what makes them tick. He founded his small operation in 2015 and took the time to learn from Redland’s Distillery in Tasmania (one of the few completely “paddock-to-bottle” distilleries in the southern hemisphere, it is said), sourced a 900-liter steam jacketed copper pot still (named “Tilly”) and set about making whiskies, which he occasionally named after various titles in the Ludlum universe.

Rums, alas, were and are not a major priority, yet the mere fact that there is a #8 at all implies seven prior ones – the first was released back in 2018 and has been joined by a spiced version and a gin. It’s the dark sipping rum we’re discussing today, and since the website makes little mention of the technical aspects, here are a few facts I’ve gleaned. The rum derives from food-grade molasses from Northern Rivers, pot-still distillate using Caribbean-sourced yeast for the 14-day fermentation, and is aged for three and a half years in and blended from an ex-French-oak red wine cask and an ex-bourbon cask. The outturn is of course quite small – 100 to 200 bottles, give or take.  Oh, and it’s bottled at 48% which may be the distillers attempt not to scare off to many potential rum drinkers with some cask strength monster only a mother (or a rum dork) could love.

Within that rather sparse background we find a rum that has an intriguing profile…if a little uncoordinated. It starts off with a nose that channels brine, olives, flowers and a miscellaneous mishmash of fruits that is hard to separate. Pineapples, mangoes and a sweet habanero or two do stand out, yet overall, it is not particularly sweet. There’s a peaty, grainy – a whiskey-like – aspect to this that is not normally something I care for, but here it actually works rather well.  Overripe bananas and orange peel, some burnt rubber of doughnuts made by overenthusiastic teenagers on their father’s porsche, a bot of caramel, dates and butterscotch, and that’s the nose for you.

My attempt to describe the oddity of the rum’s initial palate will not resonate with – let alone appeal to – many, but I have to state that the first reaction I had was to mumble “salt soap?” to myself, because that’s what an initial taste is like — the red soap which many of my generation and earlier used in Guyana to wash dutty bukta in a standpipe or down by the river (don’t ask). Yet, once it calms down and breathes, the rum isn’t bad at all: here the sweeter notes stand out more forcefully: butter-rich pastries, pancakes and syrup, dates.  Also fleshy and ripe fruits – cashews, red guavas, soft mangoes, and perhaps some apricots.  It’s sweeter than the nose implies, and one senses the taste of licorice, wet sawdust and a sort of sour-sweet teriyaki without ever coming to grips with it. The finish is long and dry and warm, but adds little to the party – it doesn’t actually provide much of anything except a lackluster recap of what came before, mashed together, dampened by a sweetness that hides subtler notes (though it is thankfully not cloying).

Riverbourne’s love is clearly the whiskies, and they make no bones about that – rum and gin are therefore made to defray costs and round out the portfolio, not the results of dedicated rum nerdiness and rumlove that defines, say, Killik, Soltera, Husk or Winding Road. Within that restriction, however, they haven’t done too badly with the Rich Dark Sipping Rum #8. Sure, the tastes are somewhat muddled, lack precision and it’s hard to tease much out beyond generalities (e,g, “fruit” or “sweet” which is not very useful)…yet somehow, the No.8 kind of works.

Perhaps that’s because it tastes like what it is, because it never pretends to be anything else: a rough and ready soldier’s rum, one for the proles, the worker bees, the cubicle drones — one that is simply, strongly and unaffectedly made with a straightforward lack of frippery…Australia’s own version of the El Dorado 5YO. maybe. I thought it was a nice and unprepossessing middle-ground product, the kind often overlooked in our current fascination with uber-aged Caribbean rums or overproofed white agricoles. Occasionally it takes one like this to remind us that there is a place for unpretentious blue collar rums that are competently made, enjoyably drunk and always in the backbar. This is one of those.

(#919)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • As always, thanks to Mr & Mrs. Rum for the samples contained in their 2021 advent calendar, from which this rum originates.
Jun 162022
 

Aisling Distillery’s “Riverina” rum is one that defies easy description. It is a rum of real originality that can inspire equal parts admiration or despite, and the only one the resolutely whisky- and gin-focused distillery has ever released in its short eight years of existence. Its bare statistics could be described in a short sentence, yet to attempt an analysis of what makes it impressive may actually be too long for a short review like this one…because what it tries is no less than to marry a straightforward rum profile with something wholly and solely its own – a character, a sense of the terroire of the region from which it hails.  

Consider the nose of this 47.5% pot still rum. Now, the molasses was local, the fermentation ran to three weeks with a commercial yeast and it was aged for four years in un-charred ex-shiraz casks sourced from around the NSW region of Riverina, where several wineries exist. Yet from those seemingly commonplace elements came an initial aroma that startles and beguiles in equal measure: a sweet sort of semi-rotten funkiness that channels a heap of castoff fruit outside a busy fruit-and-veggie stand in hot weather: pineapples, strawberries, bananas going off, overripe mangoes and dark cherries, plus a scent of sweat and onions and rotting sweet potatoes.  It reminds me of an overproof St. Lucian mixed up with flashes of a Longpond TECC, both lighter and more floral (faint lilies and jacaranda) than either Winding Road’s Coastal Cane or Tin Shed’s Requiem.

Then there’s the way it tastes.  At a middling sort of strength, it goes warm and relatively easy on the palate, without any undue aggro: it’s actually quite pleasant. The flavours too, are deceptively simple (and not at all like those nose might suggest they would be): initial notes of smoke and well polished leather, and then a parade of bubble gum, fruits (yellow mangoes, strawberries, gooseberries, cherries, and some lighter and crisper green grapes), which then give way to some citrus juice and iced tea. There’s also some Danish butter cookies, brine, sweet maple syrup and caramel, a touch of cinnamon and brown sugar, but none of it is cloying – sweet this is not, and in fact it presents as rather dry, overall. This all segues into a pleasantly long and dry finish, quite aromatic, citrus-y, wine-y, with the briny and slightly “off” notes combing well with sweeter and more musky ones.

This is a rum to admire, and I enjoyed it a lot.  It has a heft and a light snap to it (plus all those weird and wonderful aromas and tastes), and feels like the sort of rum you can take any way you want – neat or mixed. It hews to some of the West Indies baseline with which we are familiar, but part of it is resolutely itself, enticing you with tastes you like and holding you in place while showing off something new. Not many new rum makers can pull off that trick on their first try.

Granted it could be aged a bit longer (four years is just a starting point, really) and become something even more complex and sanded down: that aside, the reason I suggest you get it (or at least try it) is not just because of that profile, not just because of the medal score it garnered in 2021, but the simple fact that it is on a level with other good local rums that seek to redefine what Australian rum actually is. In my sojourns around the antipodean rum scene I have yet to find a rum range so consistently unique that one single smell would alow me to bugle “Oz!” immediately…but this is one like Killik, Tin Shed, Winding Road and others, that’s wasting no time getting there. It makes me look forward to whatever they will come up with next.

(#916)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • 700 bottle outturn from three ex-shiraz casks
  • Distilled on a 2,200 litre steam-operated pot still, with a steam jacket. The condenser is a worm condenser, not a shell in tube.

Historical Background

Situated in the town of Griffith, Aisling Distillery is in south central New South Wales in Australia, in a region called Riverina, which is locally known as the food bowl of Australia because of the predominantly agricultural economy. This in turn is based on the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) which was established in the early part of the 1900s, resulting in the land being opened up for extensive farming: fuit, vegetables, rice and vineyards were all established here, the latter often by a very large influx of Italian immigrants who remain a significant proportion of the population.

I mention all of this because the Aisling Distillery, which was founded in 2014 by the husband and wife team of Mark and Michelle Burns, was an attempt to capture and claim something of Mark’s Scottish heritage and Michelle’s Dutch background, which had to some extent been subsumed and forgotten in a largely Italian cultural milieu (about 60% of the population claim Italian background)1. A distillery was chosen, which capitalized on Mark’s engineering background and for the potential versatility, because the idea was to  make small batch premium single malts with local barley (for Mark, channeling the Scots) and high quality gin (trading on on Michelle’s Dutch descent). After some research and investment they bought an Australian made 1000 liter pot still (not sure of it has a name) sourced local barely and were off to the races.

As with other such smaller distilleries we have been looking at of late, rum was not the priority. The two year ageing requirement was an issue, some experience and experimentation was needed for rum distillation and in any case, from the beginning, good whiskies and gins were the primary goals. Looking at the amount of whiskies and various gins that have been released and listed for sale over the years — versus a single rum and one vodka — clearly the trend has continued.

That’s what makes it so interesting, to see what they did with the only rum they have produced to date, which was laid to rest in 2016, a mere two years after they started distilling.  What came out the other end in 2021 was considered so good that it won the gold medal and the “best rum” trophy at the Tasting Australia Spirit Awards that same year and basically crowned it as Australia’s best rum. That’s quite an achievement for a company which doesn’t even have a primary focus on the product.


 

Jun 022022
 

Distilling outfits from almost everywhere in the world take the names of their owners, their locations, or some romanticised word that appeals to the founder(s). Occasionally – and I’ve found this in Down Under quite a few times – a bit more sass and irreverence is in evidence, as witness “Robber’s Dog”, “Illegal Tender”, “Holey Dollar” or “Hoochery”, all the real names of real distilleries in Australia. I like that kind of insouciance, however irrelevant it might be to a review of this kind.

Today’s rum is from the interesting and rustically-titled Tin Shed Distilling Co which is primarily known for its whiskies (the UK’s Atom Brands has one from the distillery for the Australian series of That Boutique-y Whisky Co) but also has – as usual – gins (of course), vodkas (one of the owners has a cossack grandfather so…), and a small rum range that goes by the general name of of “Requiem”.  Now a requiem is a last mass of sorts – a prayer and tribute to the dead – and the intent here is for each limited expression to honour a ship and its sailors that went down at sea.  Thus far there are three expressions – the “MV Tom Brennan”, the “SV Songvaar” and the “S.S. Ferret” which last is the subject of this review (but about which, oddly, the company website has no historical details; see wikipedia if you’re curious). 1

Never mind that for now, though. The rum itself: molasses-based, fermented with dried yeast for just under a week, distilled in a nameless Australian-made 2,200 litre pot still and aged for six years in a single American Oak port cask, resulting in an outturn of about 300 bottles; released in 2019 and the recipient of four awards in the years since then. The company began operations in 2013, which means they were laying down the distillate that comprised this rum right from the get go, and clearly they were not hurting for cash flow in the interim if they could afford to wait that long for it to be good enough to release (unaged, two- and three-year-old rums are more common for new distilleries).

Photo (c) Tin Shed Distilling Co.

And it is definitely good enough. The quality such a relatively young rum displayed surprised me, though it does take some getting used to, because the nose has three main components weaving in and out and coiling around each other like a no-rules go-kart race, and that requires some adjustment.  First, there’s a sort of intense initial fruitiness comprising of pineapples, strawberries, unripe mangoes and green grapes. Secondly, there’s the cereal and dusty aroma of cardboard, old books, unswept rooms, second hand bookstores…and cheerios (I know how that sounds).  And thirdly, there’s a medicinal touch of iodine, pine-sol disinfectant and wet ashes, which is fortunately brief and replaced at the last by deeper cherries, syrup, apricots and a prune or two.  I particularly like the way it all winds up with a softer, more relaxed attitude than it starts with.

Even used as I am to rums clocking in north of sixty the relatively tame 46% ABV of this rum works really well – it feels soft yet firm, mouth coating, and lacking any of the dampening effect of added sugar such as defined and diminished some sweetened rums I had tried earlier that day. Mostly, the Requiem tastes of almost overripe and tart fruit: plums, raisins, prunes, blackberries, very dark and very ripe grapes, nicely balanced off by a touch of brine, olives and light soya. The finish is on par with all of this, being rather dry, but light, and channels aspects of what has come before: cereals, dates, brine, and an overripe yellow mango or two. 

It’s unusual for small startups to make such good rums on their first pass: perhaps I should have taken my cue from JimmyRum, which also produced something really good right from the start. I like this one for its well balanced taste and relatively complexity, which didn’t seem to be straining too hard or attempting too much or trying to please too many.

Admittedly, the Requiem S.S. Ferret Is not a “serious” rum in the sense that it’s made from ingredients fermented for a month using wild yeast, dunder pits and dead dingoes, jacked up past 70%, aged for a decade until it squirts congeners from every pore at a level that makes DOK lovers book pilgrimages to Adelaide. Yet it is a tasty and well assembled piece of work on its own merits and within its limits, because like most small distilleries, Tin Shed makes a point of its relentless and ongoing experimentation with the source materials and entire production process.  And while the gents running the show don’t hide their focus on whiskies, they did admit to me that they “should be making more rum.” That’s a sentiment with which I heartily concur, because on the basis of what I experienced with this one rum, Tin Shed is very serious indeed.

(#913)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Historical background

Tin Shed Distilling Co., was founded in 2013 just outside Adelaide in the state of South Australia by two friends, Ian Schmidt and Vic Orlow and built upon the experiences they had had in their previous venture, Southern Coast Distillers2, where they and a third friend, Tony Fitzgerald, established a whisky distillery (you can almost hear the joke start – “A German, Russian and an Irishman start a distillery….”). They did so in 2004 on the premises of the factory that made the flagpoles Schmidt was then manufacturing — he claimed it was “boring” and was looking for something new — and, like with Tin Shed years later, focused almost completely on whisky. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the venture did not pan out and Vic and Ian moved on to start Tin Shed – Southern Coast seems to be closed now, and only lives on in subtle aspects of the design ethic of the Shed’s bottles and labelling.


 

May 302022
 

While there are hundreds of clairin makers in Haiti, and they have been making cane juice spirits there since before the country’s independence in 1804, widespread modern knowledge of the spirit only really came after 2014, when it was introduced to the global audience by Velier, the Italian company made famous by its Demeraras, Caronis, and Habitation pot still rums series. Strictly speaking, Velier’s stable of clairins consists of just five core products from five small distilleries, but this obscures the regular annual releases of the unaged whites, the aged variants, and the various blends.

Initially, clairins from three distilleries were released (Sajous, Casimir and Vaval) a fourth (from Le Rocher) was selected and became part of the canon in 2017, and in 2018 a fifth was put together from a small distillery in Cabaret called Sonson — which is, oddly enough, not named after either the owner, or the village where it is located. It was finally released to the market in 2021, but the cause for the delay is unknown. The rum, like Clairin Le Rocher (but unlike the other three) is made from syrup, not pure cane juice; and like the Clairin Vaval, derives from a non-hybridized varietal of sugar cane called Madam Meuze, juice from which is also part of the clairin Benevolence blend. All the other stats are similar to the other clairins: hand harvested, wild yeast fermentation, run through a pot still, bottled without ageing at 53.2%.

Similar aspects or not, the Sonson stands resolutely by itself. On the initial nose, the sensation is of a miasma of fuel, benzine, brine and wax in a semi-controlled nasal explosion. The thing, no joke, reeks, and if it doesn’t quite mirror the gleeful wild insanity of the original Sajous – fondly if tremblingly remembered after all these years – well, it certainly cranks out burnt clutch and smoking motor oil drizzled with the smoke of a farting kerosene camp stove. Thankfully this is brief, and setting the glass aside for a bit and coming back an hour later, it appears almost sedate in comparison: acetone, nail polish remover and some serious olivular action (is that a word?), the aroma of a freshly painted room in a spanking new house. And after that there’s apple cider, slightly spoiled milk, gooseberries, orange rind and bananas in a sort of Haitian funk party, behind which are timid scents of sugar water, fleshy fruits, herbs and spicy-hot Thai veggie soup sporting some lemongrass.  And all that in an unaged rum? Damn.

The surprising thing is, the palate is almost like a different animal.  It’s luscious, it’s sweeter, more pungent, more tart.  It channels watery, rather mild fruits – melons, pears, papaya – which in turn hold at bay the more sour elements like unripe pineapples, lemon zest and green mango chutney: you notice them, but they’re not overbearing. Somewhere in all of this one can taste mineral water, crackers and salt butter, the silkiness of a gin and tonic and the musky dampness of moss on a misty morning. It’s only on the finish that things finally settle down to something even remotely resembling a standard profile: it’s medium long, a little sweet, a little sour, a little briny, tart with yoghurt and a last touch of fruits and sweet red paprika.

Every clairin I’ve tried – and that includes the other four Velier-distributed versions, the Benevolence and a couple from Moscoso distillers – is different from every other.  Even where there similar elements, they bend in different ways, and admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to remember that they are supposed to be sugar cane juice based drinks at all. The heft of the Sonson, and the amount of disorganised flavours at play within it, is really quite stunning…and disconcerting. I think it’s that first nose that confounds, because if one can get past its rough machine-shop rambunctiousness, it settles down and becomes really nice (within its limits – I agree, it’s not a rum for everyone).

It’s also a rum to take one’s time with: after leaving my glass on the go overnight, when I sniffed it the following morning most of the oily rubber notes had gone, leaving only fruit and cereal and estery aromas behind, and those were lovely.  Yet the rum will polarize, because it is cut from a different cloth than most rums or rhums we know and like better, and its peculiarities will not find fertile ground everywhere. I believe that the clairin Sonson is a rum that required courage to make and fortitude to drink… and perhaps a brave and imaginative curiosity to love.

(#912)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The word clairin means “clear” in Haitian creole
  • Of the five Velier-released clairins, I still like Casimir, Vaval and Le Rocher best on a tasting basis, but admire the Sajous and the Sonson most for sheer audacity.
  • Other reviews in the blogosphere are middling positive:

 

May 052022
 

Photo (c) Boatrocker Brewing & Distilling, from Instagram

The distillery and brewery called BoatRocker (with what I am sure is representative of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour shared by many Aussies) is another small family-run outfit located in Melbourne, a mere 50km or so north of JimmyRum. It was officially founded in 2009, and like many other such small enterprises I’ve written about, their genesis is far older: in this case, in the 1980s, when the (then teenaged) founder, Matt Houghton, was enthused by the Michael Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson) show “The Beer Hunter” – this led to a lifelong love of beer, homebrewing, studies of the subject in University, and even gypsy brewing after graduation, which he and his wife Andrea did while saving pennies for a “real” brewery.  In 2012 they acquired property, plant and equipment (as the bean counters like to say), and established their first barrel room and cellar door, all to do with beer.

All this is about the suds, for which they soon gained an enthusiastic following and a good reputation, but where’s the rum, you ask. Well, that’s where things get a little murky and several sources have to be consulted over and above the company webpage. In short, in 2017 Boatrocker merged with a Western Australian gin-and-vodka distillery called Hippocampus — the investing owner of that distillery had taken a 33% share in Boatrocker in 2015 — uprooted that company’s hybrid still “Kylie” and moved lock stock and barrels to Melbourne.  This is what is making all the distilled spirits in Boatrocker now, though I get the impression that a separate team is involved. They produce gin (several varieties, of course), whiskey, vodka and two rums (one is spiced).  Oddly, there’s no unaged white in the portfolio, but perhaps they made enough money off of existing spirits, so that the need to have a white cane spirit was not seen to be as important. On the other hand, rum may not seem to be the main attraction of the company,

This rum then. For the primary ferment, a rum yeast originally from Jamaica is used. They utilise a dunder/muck pit (also not mentioned on the site), and have cultured many bacteria and wild yeast from the local area, which is continually evolving as they add fresh dunder at the end of each rum run. The esters produced by the yeast and bacteria help provide depth to the base spirit. How long the fermentation goes on for is unknown, but once this process is complete, the rum distillation is done using the aforementioned 450 litre hybrid pot still (with two ten-plate columns) and engaging just the first column and five plates – the juice comes off the still at around 58% ABV, and set to age for about two years in first-use bourbon barrels imported from the USA, with a further year in high-char (#3) American oak barrels. Bottlings is done after dilution to 45% ABV, and there you have it.

So that two-barrel maturation is why they call this rum “Double Barrel”, and indeed it does present an interesting profile, especially how it smells. The aromas are exceptionally rich in comparison to the other standard proof Australians I had on the go that day. It’s like a crisp sweet riesling. Red ripe grapefruit, blood oranges going off; dark chocolate, cherries, plums, raisins, cakes and gingersnaps, eclairs, whipped cream over irish coffee, plus a little salt butter and cinnamon. Really quite a lovely nose. 

On the palate the rum feels somewhat thinner and yet also sweeter, than the nose, but retains much of the allure of the way it started out. Honey, coconut shavings, chocolate oranges,  Also light fruits, molasses, caramel, vanilla, herbs, crushed almonds and cinnamon, plus (yes, we’re not done yet) a rich key lime pie and brown sugar. There’s a touch of cheesecake, tarts and, nougat here, but in the main, it’s the fruits that have it. It suffers – if the word could be used – from a thin, short, faint but easygoing finish that has mostly vanilla, coconut shavings, light fruits and a touch of that pie again. It is by far the weakest aspect of what is otherwise quite a decent product.

Overall, I liked the nose most of all, but it was a shallow downhill coast to a somewhat one-dimensional conclusion after that. As I have observed before with the Americans and their desire to wring the most out of their stills by producing everything they can on it, I wonder whether the making of all these different things dilutes the clear-eyed focus on rum somewhat (I’m selfish that way) and that’s why the high bar the opening aromas present can’t be maintained. Dunder and muck pits do help make up for shortcomings in this area, however, and this is why the score is incrementally better than other previously-reviewed rums in this age and strength range. Yet I submit that there’s room for improvement, and one day, if they continue along this path, the potential that the Double Barrel rum only suggests right now will become a true reality. I sure hope so.

(#905)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • As with all the reviewed Australian rums from the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special acknowledgement of Mr. And Mrs. Rum’s kindness in sending me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always.
  • This is Batch #3 according to the advent calendar notes
Apr 072022
 

Photo (c) Mt. Uncle / FNQ Rum Co. Website

Mt. Uncle Distillery is one of the older distilleries of the New Australian rum renaissance we are living through, founded more than twenty years ago, in 2001. Initially it concentrated on fruit liqueurs and spirits, which were based on ingredients conveniently found on the property and the surrounding Atherton tablelands of North Queensland where the distillery was established. Over the years Mt. Uncle branched out to produce gins, whiskies, liqueurs, vodka, and a small range of (you guessed it) rums. It is, as it likes to say, the first (and still only) distillery in northern Queensland and wears that label proudly.

As the company became better known for its gins – there are currently five different kinds – it decided to split off the rum business under its own brand, titled the FNQ Rum Company (the letters stand for Far North Queensland), perhaps in an effort to give those spirits their own distinct character — I’m surprised they would want to distance an evocative title like Mt. Uncle from their products, but never mind, that’s just me. So far they make only three rums, the Platinum (a white, not listed on their rum website), the Iridium Gold (a five year old rum) and the Iridium X (a ten year old limited edition), but the caveat is that there really is not very much detail to be had on either of the main websites, as to how these rums are made, from what and with what.

According to the Australian Advent Calendar notes on Instagram helpfully provided by Mrs and Mrs Rum, the base source of the distillate is sugar cane syrup (where in turn that came from is not mentioned, though the BBC notes it as being from a nearby sugar factory, which suggests the Tableland Mill), a fourteen day fermentation period with a commercial yeast, and finally, the resultant is aged in reconditioned ex-red-wine hogshead 1 casks with a heavy toast. Okay, but what of the still? One source makes reference to “Helga” a 1500-liter still made by the German firm of Arnold Holstein, without stating what kind it is. But since the Iridium we are looking at today won the “World’s Best Pot Still” rum award at the 2021 World Rum Awards and way down on the company FB page there’s a picture of a pot still, I guess we can stop there.

So we have a 40% pot still rum from northern Queensland, based on sugar cane syrup, no additives, no messing around, five years aged in charred barrels, living room strength. Is it any good for those seeking the Next Big Thing? It won “Best Pot Still Rum” at the 2021 World Rum Awards, so it should be a cut above, right?

Yes and no. The rum does present a really nice initial nose of crisp, light fruits — strawberries and ripe gooseberries with all the tartness this implies.  For a rum with its origins in rendered cane juice, this is not a surprise – what is intriguing is that it really presents as both a crisp agricole-style rum and a funky unaged Jamaican, which, as it opens, adds in a deeper note of a young, rough-’n’-raw Versailles rum. There’s some licorice, toffee, damp sawdust and wood chips in a sawmill. A bit of honey, a pinch of cinnamon…but that was pretty much all.

The taste is also good…at the start. Salty, light, traces of cinnamon, sugar cane sap, vanilla, red grapes and fudge; this fades quickly, though and is replaced by more licorice, vanilla, light oak, and a briefest hint of flowers and light fruits, and then it just…dies. The finish is short and breathy and light, a touchy rummy – toffee, brine, grapes – and vanishes faster than the Little Caner when he hears the word “chores”.

My personal opinion is that the Iridium Gold is hampered by two issues: one, it doesn’t seem to be sure whether it wants to be an agricole-style rum, or something more normal and familiar to rum drinkers (which is to say, closer to a molasses-based profile) – it has aspects of both on both nose and palate, and doesn’t do either justice, really. 

Secondly, I think there’s a lot going on in this rum that a higher strength would have showcased more seriously, so I don’t get the 40% strength which could have been jacked up to 43% or even 46% without sacrificing anything. Because I’m at a loss to understand where the flavours went, or why: it’s a pot still rum, relatively young, its trousers should have quite a bit more than just its hands in them, however raw or rambunctious. Were the cuts made at too high a strength and the congeners wiped out?  Were the barrels too inactive, hence requiring that heavy charring that was spoken of? Was the rum filtered before ageing? This is where a better website and better disclosure would have helped me understand more of why the rum seemed so lacklustre and ceased to enthuse, after starting with such promise. Overall, although I really wanted to be, I’m not really that chuffed with this one.

(#897)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Mt. Uncle is clearly not willing to just produce standard stuff that everyone else does. They have expanded beyond gins and rums, and into whiskey and vodka and agave spirits (as of 2022).
  • Iridium is a very hard, brittle, silvery metal akin to platinum, and second densest metal on earth (after osmium), as well as one of the rarest. Its usefulness and commercial applications stem from its high melting point and anticorrosive properties at high temperatures. It is unclear what relevance the title has to rum, even metaphorically, since it’s not rare, hard, silvery or anti-corrosive. It does have a real ‘cool factor’ based just on how it sounds, however, so maybe that’s it.
  • The FNQ website is bare of most details I would expect to find in a site dedicated to two rums (even though there are actually three), and the core Mt. Uncle site didn’t have much more. In years to come, I hope they expand their background materials for the benefit of the geek squad or the simply curious.
  • As with all the reviewed Australian rums from the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and doff of the deerstalker to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge. Thanks, as always.
Mar 202022
 

Rumanicas Review R-133 | 0892

There was a lot of rum floating around Italy in the post-WW2 years, but not all of it was “real” rum; much was doctored miscellaneous plonk based on neutral alcohol. I tried some a few times, but a brief foursome with a trio of Italian Rum Fantasias from the 1950s, carelessly indulged in back when I was young and irresponsible, left me, as all such things do, with little beyond guilt, a headache and a desperate need for water. Even way back then — when I knew less but thought I knew more — I was less than impressed with what those alcoholic drinks had to offer. I’m unsure whether this rum qualifies as one such, but it conforms to the type enough that mention at least has to be made.

The company of the Antoniazzi Brothers operated out of the small northeast-Italian town of Conegliano, in the county of Treviso. Initially my researches showed they were in existence in the 1950s, which suggests they were formed in the post war years as spirits merchants. But it became clear that not only had they been active in 1926 as grappa makers – the region is famous for the product, so that makes sense – but a document from 1950 shows on the letterhead that they had been founded in 1881.  Who the founder was, who the sons were and the detailed history of the company will have to wait for a more persevering sleuth.

Still, here’s what we can surmise: they probably started as minor spirits dealers, specialising in grappa and expanded into brandies and cognacs. In the 1950s onwards, as Italy recovered from the second World War, they experimented with Fantasias and liqueurs and other flavoured spirits, and by the 1970s their stable had grown quite substantially: under their own house label, they released rum, amaretto, brandy, sambuca, liqueurs, gin, scotch, whiskey, grappa, anise and who knows what else. By the turn of the century, the company had all but vanished and nowadays the name “Antoniazzi” leads to legal firms, financial services houses, and various other dead ends…but no spirits broker, merchant, wine dealer or distiller. From what others told me, the spirits company folded by the 1980s.


Colour – Straw yellow

Strength – 42%

Nose – Very light and floral, with bags of easy-going ripe white fruits; not tart precisely, or overly acidic; more creamy and noses like an amalgam of unsweetened yoghurt, almonds, valla essence and white chocolate. There’s also icing sugar and a cheesecake with some lemon peel, with a fair bit of vanilla becoming more overpowering the longer the rum stays open. 

Palate – Floral and herbal notes predominate, and the rum turns oddly dry when tasted, accompanied by a quick sharp twitch of heat. Tastes mostly of old oranges and bananas beginning to go, plus vanilla, lemon flavoured cheesecake, yoghurt, Philly cheese and the vague heavy bitterness of salt butter on over-toasted black bread.

Finish – Nice, flavourful and surprisingly extended, just not much there aside from some faint hints of key lime pie, guavas, green tea and flambeed bananas.  And, of course, more vanilla.

Thoughts – It starts well, but overall there’s not much to the experience after a few minutes. Whatever Jamaican-ness was in here has long since gone leaving only memories, because funk is mostly absent and it actually has the light and crisp flowery aromatic notes that resemble an agricole. The New Jamaicans were far in the future when this thing was made, yet even so, this golden oldie isn’t entirely a write off like so many others from the era.

(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Hat tip to Luca Gargano and Fabio Rossi, and a huge thank you to Pietro Caputo – these gentlemen were invaluable in providing information about the Antoniazzi history.
  • Hydrometer gauged this as 40.1% ABV which equates to about 7-8g/L of adulteration.  Not much, but something is there.
  • Source estate unknown, still unknown, ageing unknown

“Fantasias”

Rhum Fantasias were to be found in the 1950s through the 1970s as the Italian versions of Vershnitt or Inlander (domestic) rums such as had been popular in Germany in the 1800s and early 1900s (they may have existed earlier, but I never found any). This class of spirits remains a brisk seller in eastern Europe: Tuzemak, Casino 50º and Badel Domaci, as well as today’s flavoured spirits, are the style’s modern inheritors.  They were mostly neutral alcohol – vodka, to some – to which some level of infusion, flavouring or spices were added to give it a pleasant taste. To the modern drinker they would be considered weak, insipid, over-flavoured, over-sugared, and lacking any kind of rum character altogether. Fifty years ago when most people didn’t even know about the French islands’ rums, Jamaica and Barbados were the epitome of ‘exotic’ and Bacardi ruled with a light-rum-mailed first, they were much more popular.


 

Feb 142022
 

Photo © NISHIHIRA-SYUZO Co., Ltd

It was to examine this almost-rum (and others like it that will inevitably come) that the detailed treatise on Japanese kokuto shochu had to be written, because without it the review would have lost much of its context and the shochu’s offbeat profile would not have been properly understood.

In brief, shochu is a type of Japanese distilled spirit made from various ingredients, where a two-phase fermentation process using a mold is de rigueur: one to convert starches to sugars and another to convert those sugars to low-proof alcohol, which is then distilled using pot stills. Kokuto shochu is one kind of several different popular varieties, distinguished by being made from unrefined brown sugar (as opposed to sweet potatoes, e.g.) and following the dual-fermentation process. To some this might disqualify it from being a true “rum” but I chose to say it’s one in all but name. It’s made from sugar cane, and in the house of the Father are many rooms, and that’s what counts.

Although we talk a lot about agricoles being grassy, herbal and vegetal, I don’t think I’ve ever had a rum (for that’s what this is, more or less) that took it to the extremes of actually channeling real vegetables — and some rotting ones — the way the Tomoet Moi did. I mean, this really was akin to an alcoholic veggie soup – complete with parsley, cilantro, carrots, balsamic vinegar, brine, olives and the weird aroma of damp decomposing cloth in an abandoned barn somewhere and only a casual nod to fruits or sweet of any kind. After it settles down, it reminds me of a cane vinegar, with that same slightly sweetly sour note to it that makes it so distinctive, poured over a bowl of sliced yellow mangoes spiced with sweet peppers and salt.  I know that sounds peculiar, but take it from me…it works. You just have to stick with it.

Still, even after opening up and after the initial assault on your schnozz has been beaten back, the residual notes of vegetables left to rot in a midden remain faintly there, lending a piquancy to all that you subsequently taste. And what a taste that is: vanilla, cane juice, sweet acetones, nail polish, sugar water and the pungency of diluted turpentine (usually that comes on the nose, but not with this drink). Fanta and Sprite, a touch of orange citrus, cloves passion fruit, cranberry juice and sweet peppers, and if the spoiled bananas and apricots at the back end don’t leave, well, they don’t upset the fruit cart either and for all this to be going on at 40% is no mean achievement. Finally, it kind of relaxes, gets easier and more watery-sweet and then concludes with a short, mild, fruity, floral, sweet and biting finish that is far from unpleasant.

That’s the one….

Clearly, the method of fermentation which kokuto shochu utilizes, combined with the pot still distillation, creates a profile that would give the incautious serious pause, and I now suspect there was probably something of a shochu element in the Seven Seas Japanese rum by which I was so nonplussed in 2018. It was different in the same way this is, with a strong element of rot and brine and seemingly off-putting elements to it, yet where Seven Seas failed (to me, at any rate) Tomoet Moi came together and really became something worth trying…several times. 

As John Go wrote in his own review of the spirit, it really needs time to open up and breathe.  Impatience and a fast guzzle have no place here, and in fact, it rewards keeping it in the glass for an extended period. The sweet, salt, sour and umami aspects of the profile come together in a fascinating synthesis, which, while unfamiliar and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, is sweetly pungent, original and distinctive and never overbearing — and those are the characteristics of any good spirit, I think. Admittedly I started out by being knocked back on my heels…but stuck around, started to enjoy it, and finally, at the finish, stayed to bemusedly and almost wonderingly applaud. 

(#884)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • Thanks as always to John Go who spotted me the sample. He’s a treasure trove of juice from Asia.  I had no idea what it was and tasted it completely blind, because John steadfastly refuses to label the samples he sends me, and just numbers them.
  • The spirit is aged for two years in oak casks, filtered to white and bottled at 40%. 

Brief company background

For historical reasons (now backed up by GI protection) kokuto shochu is only — and can only be — made in the Amami Islands which are situated south of the Kyushu and north of Okinawa. There has been a long history of sugar cane cultivation and (sometimes illegal) distillation here, just as there was on Okinawa.

The firm that makes the Tomoet Moi is Nishihira Shuzo Ltd (shuzo is a Japanese word meaning an alcohol producing company), a family-owned and -run sake brewery and distillery that has been in business since 1875, when they were granted an awamori-making license for Shuri (in Okinawa) in that year. In 1927 a new distillery was established by Tomi Nishihara, the first head distiller (or toji) in the Amami island of Kikaijima, and has remained a small enterprise there ever since: the warehouse was destroyed by air raids at the end of the war, the distillery moved to Amami’s main island, and it is currently run by his great-granddaughter Serena.  The company employs seven people, which is six more than Nine Leaves has, if you recall. 

Just about all production is sold and consumed in Japan, which is hardly unusual. Their standard product is the Sango (an unaged, traditional shochu for the mainstream) and Kona (and oak-barrel slightly-aged shochu for the younger crowd). In 2019 Serena Nishihara created the Tomoet Moi as a more upscale aged offering, breaking with tradition by naming it, in a play on the words “Tomorrow”, “Tomi” and the French words “toi et moi”, which is as good an example of layered meanings in eastern culture as you could ask for.


 

Feb 092022
 

Photo (c) Two Rum Chicks, used with their kind permission

There are five bottlings planned for the Australian Distillery Kalki Moon’s “Cane Farmer” Series, named as an homage to the farmers in Queensland who were instrumental in developing the state. The Plant Cane — an unaged white spirit which is a rum in all but name — was the second, introduced in December 2020, with spiced and darker aged expressions that can be called “rum” locally being developed for future release.

We’ll go into the background of the company later, but for now, let’s just talk about this white unaged spirit, made from molasses (yes, molasses, not juice), fermented with a commercial yeast for six days and then run through a 600-liter pot still called “Pristilla”…twice. The high proof spirit coming off the still is then diluted with water over a period of around eight weeks, down to the 44% we get here.


Kalki Moon has several stills – a small, 100-liter pot still (for gin) made in Australia, and another 200-liter pot still (for rum) bought in China were the original stills. Other stills were added later: Pristilla (for more rum), then “Marie” — another Chinese 1000-liter still sourced in 2020 (for yet more gin) — and in 2022 a 3000-liter Australian-made pot still will replace Pristilla (for even more rum). 


This white rum (I’ll call it that and ask for Australians’ indulgence in the matter) has certain similarities to both the Brix and the JimmyRum whites we’ve already looked at, but with its own twist. The rum has and interesting character…and the nose, it must be said, is really kind of all over the place. It starts out smelling of brine, olives and iodine, and even puts out a vague scent of pine-sol disinfectant, before remembering it’s supposed to be a rum and choking that off.  Then you get a sort of dhal or lentil soup with black pepper and masala spice, which in turn morphs into a more conventional Jamaican low-rent funkiness of banana skins, overripe fleshy stoned fruits and soft pineapples, and the hogo of meat beginning to go. When you’re done you feel like you’ve just been mugged by a happily unwashed baby fresh off his daily vegemite.

Photo (c) Justin Galloway, used with his kind permission

Never fear, though, most of all this confusion is gone by the time it’s time to start sipping the thing.  Here we get a solid, sweet, luscious depth: strawberries, pineapples, very dark and very ripe cherries, melons, papayas and squash (yes, squash).  Some squishy overripe Thai mangoes and maybe some guavas, with just enough citrus being hinted at to not make it a cloying mess, and just enough salt to balance all that off.  It’s not entirely a success, but not something you would forget in a hurry either.  The finish goes off in its own direction again, evidently forgetting (again) what it was supposed to be, and leaves me with a simultaneously dry and watery sort of cane-vinegar-wine vibe, cardboard, and a bland fruit salad where nothing can be picked out.

It’s an odd rum, and to be honest I really kinda like it, because for one, it really does taste like a rum, and two, even if the tastes and smells don’t always play nice and go helter skelter all over the place, there’s no denying that by some alchemy of Mr. Prosser’s skill, it all holds together and provides a punch of white rum flavour one can’t dismiss out of hand.  Not everything can be “like from the Caribbean” and not everything should be. With Kalki Moon’s first batch, my advice for most would be to mix this thing into a daiquiri or a mojito or something, and check it out that way…it’s really going to make those old stalwarts jump. For those of strength, fortitude, and Caner-style mad courage, drink it neat. You won’t forget it in a hurry, I’m thinking…just before you start wondering what a full proof version would be like.

(#883)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

 


Company  Background

Photo (c) Kalki Moon

Kalki Moon is named after an enduring image in the mind of the founder Rick Prosser, that of the full moon over the fields of Bundaberg in the neighbourhood of Kalkie, where he had built his house. After working for thirteen years and becoming a master distiller at the Bundaberg Distillery and dabbling in some consultancy work, Mr. Prosser decided to give it a shot for himself, and enlisted friends and family to help financially and operationally support his endeavours to build and run his own artisanal distillery, which opened in 2017 with two small stills. 

Australian law requires any spirit labelled “rum” to have been aged for two years, which places a burden on new startup distilleries wanting to produce it there…they have to make cash flow to survive for at least that long while their stock matures. That need to make sales from the get-go pushed the tiny distillery into the vodka- and gin-making business (gin was actually a last minute decision) — Mr. Prosser felt that the big brands produced by his previous employer, Diageo, had their place, but there were opportunities for craft work too.

Somewhat to his surprise, the gins he made – a classic, a premium, a navy strength and even a pink – sold well enough that he became renowned for those, even while adding yet other spirits to his company’s portfolio. Still, he maintains that it was always rum for which he was aiming, and gin just paid the bills, and in 2020 he commissioned a third, larger still (named “Marie”, after his grandmother) to allow him to expand production even further.  Other cash generating activities came from the spirits-trail distillery tourists who came on the tours afforded by having several brewing and distilling operations in a very concentrated area of Bundaberg – so there are site visits, tasting sessions and so on.

At the same time, he has been experimenting with rums – some, of course, ended up becoming the Plant Cane – but it took time to get the cuts and fermentation and still settings right, so that a proper rum could be set to age. At this point I believe the spiced and maybe the dark (aged) rums will be ready for release in 2022 or shortly thereafter. The gins are too well-made, too profitable and too widely appreciated, now, to be abandoned, so I imagine that Kalki will continue to be very much a multi-product company.  It remains to be seen whether the dilution of focus I’ve remarked on before with respect to small American distilleries who multi-task the hell out of their stills, will hamper making a truly great artisanal rum, or whether all these various products will get their due moment in the sun. Personally I think that if his gins can be good enough to win awards right out of the gate, it sure will be interesting to watch what Mr. Prosser does when he gets a head of steam under him, and the aged rums start coming out the door. So far, even the unaged rum he made is well worth a taste.


Other Notes

  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and touch of the Panama to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge when they heard of my interest (it was not for sale outside Australia). Thanks again to you both.
  • A sample pic shows what I tasted from but it really lacks a visual something.  When I scoured around for bottle pics, I found the two (much better) photographs which you see included above, so many thanks to Justin Galloway and (chaste) kisses to the Two Rum Chicks, who kindly allowed me to use their work.
Feb 032022
 

Brix Distillers is an interesting contrast to the JimmyRum distillery we looked at last week.  With Jimmy’s, you got the impression of a down-to-earth, easygoing, somewhat blue-collar enterprise with a cheeky sense of humour that also provided good info on who and what it was. Brix, on the other hand, gives more of a yuppie vibe and emanates a youthful vigour that is paradoxically, also somewhat anonymous (none of the owners are identified on their website, for example). While Jimmy’s is definitely a distillery with a bar and restaurant (of sorts) attached later, one can easily get the impression that Brix’s is more of a cool all-in-one inner-city eating and drinking establishment built around the pot still on the premises (it’s the way the pictures they provide are composed). Or maybe it’s all about the cheerful rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne as to which is the cooler city, or something.

Be that as it may, let’s just go through what one can glean from the resources available.  The distillery was founded in 2017 after two years’ worth of planning and setup, by James Christopher, Damien Barrow and Siddharth Soin, three friends who are also partners in a popular local restaurant. They sourced an 1800-litre copper pot still made in Australia (called “Molly”) and forged direct connections with suppliers and growers so as to source local ingredients as far as possible: Australian molasses and organic sugar cane from their supplier, a farm in Woongoolba close by the Rocky Point sugar mill (Southern Queensland, just south of Brisbane), locally-made spices, barrels and everything else they need. Their outturn includes a limited edition white cane juice spirit (“Urban Cane,” issued annually ), a white mixer, a lightly aged gold and a spiced rum, plus some flavoured mixes. There’s more ageing out back, and I’m sure we’ll see that in the years to come, as rum education and rum improvement are part of what Brix is all about as well.

Today’s review is about that “Urban Cane” spirit, which you’ll note is not called “rum” due to Australia’s naming regulations, which don’t recognize or allow unaged spirits to be called rums until they’ve been aged for two years 1. It’s mentioned here and there as being an agricole, but this is incorrect usage since the term has limited and specific applicability – at best one can say it’s an agricole style rum, and “cane spirit” works just as well. It’s called “Urban” because essentially, in January 2020, four tons of cane was transported by refrigerated truck from Woongoolba to the distillery premises in Sydney, and crushed right there into cane juice. Then it was fermented (using an indigenous yeast), with excess husk matter chucked into the ferment for some additional kick and character, double distilled to 60% and then 87% ABV, then diluted down to 43.3% and bottled into 395 bottles.

It’s that husk matter, I think, that allows the unusual initial scents of this clear white rum to come to the fore: it has the dry, dusty, musty mildewed scents of an old room in an abandoned house.  Paper, cereals and – somewhat paradoxically – also the smell of new paint. The dank loamy notes of dark earth freshly spaded over.  This doesn’t sound all that appealing, I confess, but it really kind of is, and in any case, none of this hangs around for long, so be of good cheer. Soon, the scent of fruits and grass takes over: green herbs, crushed lime leaves, light strawberry bubble gum, some pineapple slices, cherries in syrup, tart mangoes and nicely ripe peaches – it’s quite a transition, and the fruity character of what it all ends up as, is very pleasant to sniff.

To taste, some of that initial dryness shows up for a quick moment; then it vanishes, the tenor changes, and the most lingering impression one is left with is one of fruit and spices – lightly sweet, tart and even a touch bitter.  One can taste green apples, pineapples, raisins, slightly sour not-quite-ripe-mangoes, apple cider and, if you can believe it, radishes, cilantro, lime leaves, and the fresh lemony brightness of a washing detergent. The finish doesn’t just repeat these notes, but adds some sweet soya sauce, mint, rosemary, citrus again and even some pine-y sort of resin and wraps it all up in a bow.

It’s really quite a fascinating rum, because while hewing to aspects of the expected profile of an unaged cane spirit, it dares to go off in its own direction – there’s stuff from all over the flavour map here, jangling and crowding and jostling happily together, not caring whether it works, just showing, maybe, that it can. It’s sweet, sour, salty, complex and a riot to drink, and while I wish it were a bit stronger, that’s my thing, not yours.  And if perhaps one cannot taste this and immediately recognize more comforting, familiar fare (like, say, low-strength agricole blancs, clairins or unaged Jamaicans), I can tell you that in my opinion Brix’s Urban Cane Spirit can take its place among them as a white worth drinking, an unaged rum (yes, a rum) with its own peculiarity and originality of character, and that after all is said and done and the glass is empty, that it’s a rum you want to try again…and again.

(#881)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • For those who don’t recognize the term, “Brix” or “degrees Brix” is a unit of measurement of sugar content in a solution, usually alcohol.
  • As with all the Australian rums reviewed as part of the 2021 Aussie Advent Calendar, a very special shout out and tip of the sombrero to Mr. And Mrs. Rum, who sent me a complete set free of charge when they heard of my interest (it was not for sale outside Australia). Thanks again to you both.
  • Shane Casey, the head distiller at Brix, comments on the background of the company, and some technical aspects of making the rum, as well as talking about rums in Australia, in the Fermenting Place podcast Episode 27.