Sep 222021
 

€57. Think about that for a minute. That’s how much this rum cost when it was first released in 2005. Good luck finding it anywhere near that, now. By 2019 the bottle price had already climbed past £1800 and as of this writing it is closing in on three grand on the auction listings.  And it’s not even the most famed or the best of the Demeraras, because the unicorns most avidly sought after and collected tend to be the PM and Skeldons, and maybe the Albions and UF30E. For some reason, Diamond, LBI, Blairmont and Uitvlugt rums from the canon, even those from pre-1990, are occasionally deemed as “less” — whatever that can possibly mean in this day and age — though of course still appreciating nicely on secondary markets.

Photo (c) Velier

The French Savalle-still Guyanese rum released by Velier may not be one of the top-tier three-decade-old grail quests (unless it’s being sourced by a canny and knowledgeable investor-fan who knows better), but I submit it certainly has the pedigree to be included in the pantheon. Distilled in 1988 and aged in Guyana until 2005, it’s a robust 52.9% 17 year old rum whose origin still was housed at Uitvlugt at the time, and four barrels came together to produce 1091 bottles, which, if they used ex-bourbon American Standard barrels, implies an angel’s share so measly as to be impossible – so I suggest that these were aged in larger casks (see other notes below).

The aromas of this thing were certainly of that rich thickness that marked out others from that far back. The nose was initially spectacular – plasticine, furniture polish, fresh paint over new wood; briny and olive-y, offset by a wonderful scent of autumn leaves after a rain, damp aromatic tobacco, and the deep smell of ripe, fleshy fruits. As it opened up molasses and salt caramel ice cream came forward and were joined by darker and oversweet prunes, blackberries, red cherries…they teetered right on the edge of going off altogether before pulling back from the brink.  Crisp and musky at the same time, the nose had just a trace of tannins at the back end, and was, after some time, even faintly bitter – the fruits were there, but so was the hint of something sour, like an almost spoiled lemon.

The palate was a curious beast, again quite briny, which I thought unusual for an Uitvlugt.  Too, there were these peculiar – if faint – notes of tar and petrol, then the sour-sweet taste of freshly-grated ginger. However, after these badasses came, sneered and then departed, we were thankfully in more familiar territory: molasses, caramel, and burnt sugar took over the stage, to be joined by lemons, chocolate oranges, a freshly baked meringue pie, raisins, dates and prunes. You might think that such notes would present as somewhat oversweet, but the rum never quite overstepped the mark and stayed crisp and flavourful without too much excess in any department. I particularly loved the lingering finish, which was a touch sharp, fruity, warm, redolent of breakfast spices and some olives, as warm and welcome and sweet as Mrs. Caner’s kisses when I promise to buy her that Prada purse she’s been after for so long.

It’s become almost conventional wisdom that the Age’s Demeraras are the pinnacle of everything a Demerara rum could ever aspire to be. Few rums from anywhere equal them, fewer surpass them and they are both summit and baseline for any Demeraras ever made. Given the mania to get one, and the aura of near mythical invincibility surrounding the series, it is difficult nowadays to be objective about any of them…though cold reason suggests that statements of their magnificence are unlikely to be true in every single case.

Still, we have to face facts – the early rums distilled in the ’70s and ’80s really were and are a cut above the ordinary, and there are few weaklings in the bunch, which is why a rum like this can now be found only on secondary markets for four figures. Even parking my cynicism and experience, I have to concede that the Uitvlugt 1988 is so good and so tasty and so approachable – and so limited – that in the years to come, it might go the way of the Skeldons and distort the GDP of small nations. It was and remains a rum seething with the richness of a great spirit in any category, and has added luster to the annals of the Demeraras.

(#852)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • Angel’s share calculation: 1,091 bottles x 0.7 liters/bottle ÷ 4 barrels = 191 liters/barrel, which works out to a loss from the maximum 800 liters (4 x 200 liters for the “standard” ASB) of around 5%. I find that impossibly low over 17 years, even for European ageing, so clearly different, larger barrels were used. I don’t think a 300-liter cognac barrique gives reasonable losses either, but a puncheon of 500 liters yields a loss of around 62%, which makes much more sense in the tropics.
  • The marque on the barrels is SP-ICBU. Tech details from Velier’s site.
  • Not many reviews out there.  Single Cask Rum was really enthusiastic about this one (96 points), much more so than I was, while Marco, in one of the first such reviews back in 2014, was less positive in his unscored review and as usual, his historical detail is impeccable.
Sep 162021
 

Last time around we discussed a Brazilian cachaça from the environmentally astute company Novo Fogo which they called “Chameleon” — it was aged about a year and meant to quietly blend in to the various mixes for which it was destined (hence the name). I felt it succeeded reasonably well on its own grounds, and the next step up the food chain, the “Barrel Aged” version that is the subject of today’s review, also follows in that tradition — though in my opinion, less successfully.

The details are pretty much the same with respect to the company (I’ve added it below the review to save needless repetition). Novo Fogo is based in the southern state of Paraná in Brazil, has a strong organic and environmental ethos, and makes a trio of cachaças ranging from the “Silver” to this young barrel aged iteration: the three are the more accessible, more familiar portion of their range because they are aged — when they are aged at all — in American ex-bourbon barrels: these are sourced from the Haven Hill distillery in this instance, taken apart, sanded and charred. 1

That combo of charring the American ex-bourbon barrels and longer ageing within them, has resulted in the most rum-like cachaça I’ve ever tried. None of the slightly bitter, off-kilter amburana aromas here, no sharp juddering teak notes. Instead, initial scents of vanilla, minerals and cold campfire ashes combine uneasily with more “traditional” caramel, brown sugar, and soft fruits. One can sense the brininess, olives and more pungent hints of a pot still distillate that processed a cane juice wash, but dialled way down and wafting away before one can properly come to grips with it. It’s 40% ABV and that’s part of it, of course, because the 43% Chameleon showed more character, even though it was younger.

The palate is better: it’s tasty on its own terms, and interesting, but ultimately a weak tea that once again fails to provide anything we have not already had from various lightly aged añejos, ambres or gold rums. Biscuits, cereal, whipped cream, plus sugar water and a few spices. A soft hint of peaches, maybe cherries. The few rummy flavours the nose had promised have headed for the hills like the Road Runner, leaving nothing behind but a thin dissipating dust cloud which promises all sorts of nice goodies – black tea, fruit loops cereal, a flash of orange peel, spices and herbs – and leaves your palate twitching…but there’s no follow-through and they dissipate quickly. The finish is pretty much more of the same: short, clean, light, mostly sugar cane sap and frassy, herbal notes. Nothing specific, nothing to remember, nothing that stands out, and all gone too quick.

Aged cachaças are somewhat less popular and perhaps less well known. This is hardly surprising, since the purpose of a serious cachaça is to boost a caipirinha, and the wilder the profile of the cachaça, the better the caipirinha is supposed to be. That sort of crazy comes best from unaged spirits, as evidenced by the strong blancs making better ti’ punches in the French islands.

None of that off-the-reservation individuality is in evidence here. The barrel-aged cachaca Novo Fogo made seems almost shy, as if embarrassed to display anything so vulgar as an actual character. It is touted as a step up from its cousin (possibly based on the fallacy that more age = better rum), but smells muted and muffled, with most of the interesting stuff bleached out…and then whatever remains has agreed to a non aggression pact. While rum-like enough to appeal to someone looking into the standard-strength Brazilian spirits market to see what the fuss is all about, I feel it lacks the decent low-level complexity which marked the Chameleon. In this case, the cheaper product gets my money.

(#851)(78/100)


Other notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple-cachaças like Leblon, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
Sep 122021
 

It’s unclear to me what Moon Import thought it was doing back in 2004 when they blended this rum. They had done blends before, something of a departure from other Italian independents who since the 1970s had thought to bootstrap their expertise with single cask whisky selections into commensurate skill with single cask rums … but few except maybe Rum Nation (which was formed nearly two decades after Moon Import) took blends seriously.

Even when released as such, for the most part rums made that way tended to be multiple barrels of a single distillery, usually a particular year and age, so that more bottles of something exceptional could be wrung out. Moon, while certainly adhering to that philosophy when it suited them, also played around with blends more than most, particularly with Jamaican rums and here they mixed up stock from four different distilleries: Innswood, Long Pond, New Yarmouth and Monymusk, from what were undoubtedly barrels aged in Scotland. One wonders how come Hampden and Worthy Park were not considered for inclusion…perhaps they were too aggressive and didn’t play nice.

For originality at least, kudos to Moon – at that time the various operating distilleries in Jamaica were not very well known, so to take these four and combine them took some courage — to mention them individually at all was unheard of. Too bad they ballsed it up on the labelling – they spelled the name wrong on one of them, then added insult to injury by calling it a “Rhum Agricole”, just as they did with the Demerara 1974 released the same year.  They mentioned which bottle in the series it was…but not the total outturn. Moreover, they noted year of production (1982)  and year of bottling (2004)…then said there was a 25 year old hiding in one of them. Clearly quality control and fact checking were unfunded areas of endeavour in the labelling department back in the day.

But that aside, the rum had its points that its shoddy labelling could not entirely hide. Bottled at the 46% commonly used by small independents at that time, it smelled of wax and sugar water plus a bit of unsweetened yoghurt, and stoned fleshy fruits like cherries and peaches just starting to go off a little.  It presented like “Jamaica lite”, a sort of gently funked-up rum which today would be thought of as “meh” but back then was probably considered scandalous. I liked it, not least because that nose really took its time coming out and even a quarter hour later I was writing down things like “old paper”, “sweet and dry” and noted how the light clarity of green apples and citrus combined nicely with the softer aromas.

Tastewise, I would have to say it was somewhat indeterminate: it was hardly Jamaican at all by this point. Oh the flavours were there: the questions is, what were they? The rum was dry, almost astringent, and presented tastes of faint, dry smoky spices like masala, paprika and tumeric. There was some fruity ruminess – raisins, figs, dates, caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon, and yes, there were fruits hiding behind those, but it was curiously difficult to come to grips with them because they kept ducking and bobbing and weaving. Still: fruits, florals, black tea, spices, and a nice cleanliness ot the experience.  It all wrapped up in a finish that carved its way down with firm clarity, leaving behind memories of vanilla, nuts, light caramel, raisins, aromatic tobacco and peaches.

So what to say about the rum? Well, it was a good drink and a tasty dram. It was nice and complex, good nose, excellent palate, worked well as a sipping rum — after twenty plus years of ageing the rough edges had been gently sanded down to smoothness. I liked it, and I think you would too, in spite of its mild I’m-not-sure-I’m-a-Jamaican character. 

The combination worked, and the four distilleries made for an interesting blend. I’m just left with a nagging sense of incompleteness, as if there was more in there we were missing. Bottling each distillery’s rum as a quartet might have done more to highlight their qualities than mixing them all together and forcing them to give up their individuality in the soft merging of variant profiles.  It is to Pepi Mongiardino’s credit that he made a rum that skated past such concerns and came out the other end as a product worth getting. And so, while it does Jamaica no dishonour at all, I think you’ll also find that it inflames rather more desires than it quenches.

(#850)(84/100)


Other Notes

  • Bottle #218 (total outturn unknown)
  • The bottle says “pot still” but I’m ignoring that in my tagging
  • Translation of back label:“This exceptional Jamaican Rhum is part of two different bottles blended from four different distilleries: Innerwood, Yarmouth, Monymusk and Long Pond, aged in Scotland for 20 and 25 years.The two barrels could have been assembled but to keep the meticulous difference we preferred to keep them distinct.

    It will be interesting for amateurs to test themselves in tasting the two different vintages.

    Presents a bouquet of nutmeg, cinnamon, hay, yellow fruits such as apricot, banana and peach smoothed and ripe, and a final of chilli. On the palate it results in licorice wood at the entrance, with honey, cedar, ginger and dry banana.

    Exceptional cleaning and drying of the palate.”

Sep 092021
 

In 2017 I wrote about a cachaça I had tried in Toronto from a Brazilian company named Novo Fogo, which means “New Fire” in Portuguese. That was an unaged, one-year-rested “Silver” cachaça that I liked quite a bit, and in doing my research after the fact, I discovered the company also had a number of other such spirits in the portfolio, resolved to try what I could, and subsequently scouted them out in the years that followed.

This cachaça, then, is the next one up the ladder for Novo Fogo.  It is a blend of both aged and unaged spirits, derived from (of course) cane juice and departs from more traditional Brazilian cachaças in two interesting ways: it is made on a pot still (as opposed to the much more common column still spirits that dominate the industry); and it was aged for one year in American oak, not local woods like Amburana (which make Brazilian spirits so different to the palate conditioned by years of molasses-based rums or aged agricoles from the French islands).  What this does is provide the drinker with the best of three worlds: the terroire of Brazil’s southern province of Paraná (the distillery is located there, not Minas Gerais where the most traditional cachacas are made) coupled with a more familiar aged profile based on American oak… which in turn saves the more endangered Brazilian barrel woods from overharvesting. 

The question is whether that translates into a cane juice spirit that we who cut our teeth on French island agricoles could both relate to and enjoy for its own character.  The initial nose of the 43% cachaça does indeed smell promising: it is so green it squeaks going into a turn. It’s freshly cut green grass, steamed vegetables and palm fronds….if they were liquid. It smells herbal, of sugar water and citrus peel and kitchen spices, and yet also briny and solid — a bucket of salt beef mixing it up with sharp tannic and woodsy notes, and not too many sweet fleshy fruits. 

The taste moves right along from there.  Grassy and green tea flavours are prominent at first, but other sweet notes develop over time as well: light honey, caramel, vanilla, peas.  After opening up, the fruits that seemed to be missing from the nose turn up here: watermelon, pears, white guavas, even sweet peas and steamed corn, mixed up with some soya, lemongrass and parsley in a mild vegetable soup.  It leads to a quiet and short finish mostly characterized by grassy notes and some sweetish, very mild fruits. 

Novo Fogo’s one year old cachaça is an interesting variation on rhums we know. The sweet, herbal notes are not out to lunch or abnormal, and the use of the American oak has helped maintain a lightly-aged profile that other cachacas with more aggressive use of native woods might not (as Delicana showed here and here, it can be a bit hit and miss). Overall, the whole experience is somewhat removed from that of young or unaged agricoles generally, which is as it should be, since we’re not talking about a French island rhum, or a cane juice spirit made in the Indian Ocean islands with the esters dialled up to “11”. The ancestry is, however, quite clear, and anyone who has had even a passing familiarity with agricoles will find much that is recognizable and enjoyable with the “Chameleon”, especially at that approachable strength of 43%.  

That might be the secret behind the name: it is a rhum – a cachaça – made in Brazil, but hews so close to the profile we know that it might in fact be taken for something else.  Only the sly off-kilter notes and occasional divergences are there to tell you it’s not, and I submit that those differences are what make it interesting, and worth taking a chance on…as long as you don’t mind going off the beaten track a bit.

(#849)(81/100)


Other notes

  • The producer was originally a small distillery from Morretes, which is located in the south of Brazil, founded in 2004 by Fulgencio Torres Viruel (known simply as “Torres”) and master distiller Agenor Maccari (“Dr. Cachaça”), and in 2010 the Novo Fogo brand was launched after entrepreneurs Dragos and Emily Axinte partnered up to produce it. Most of the press you will find dates from 2015 which was the date that these four people acquired the facilities of Agroecologia Marumbi SA, a USDA organic certified distillery. This allowed an increase in production which in turn led to exports to North America and Europe around 2017.
  • Ever since its introduction to the festival and bartending circuit in that year, the brand has been gaining in recognition, taking its place alongside old-staple-cachaças like Leblon, Pitu, Avua and Yaguara. Its ever-increasing brand-awareness is tied to their organic and environmentally friendly production processes and stated commitment to sustainable production.
  • Novo Fogo cachaça is derived from sugar cane grown without herbicides or pesticides, and the organic nature of the operations is a major point of their process. The cane is manually harvested and taken to an onsite press that extracts the pure juice, with the leftover bagasse recycled as fuel and fertilizer. Fermentation takes around 24 hours using wild yeast and the 7%-9% wine is then passed through a copper pot still. The resultant spirit is either rested in stainless steel tanks or put to age in American oak casks, though smaller quantities are aged in barrels made of local woods for various other expressions.
  • I reached out to Novo Fogo, curious to find out more about the name, and Luke McKinley responded from the Seattle office and replied “We gave Chameleon its name because it’s a versatile cachaça that can “blend in” to a variety of cocktails. At just 1 year of age, it retains the sugarcane funk of our unaged Silver Cachaça, but picks up enough characteristics from the American oak ex-bourbon barrels to work in stirred, spirituous cocktails.”

 

Sep 062021
 

By now, the story has entered into the folklore of rum: in October 2004 Luca Gargano and the (late) photographer Fredi Marcarini, sniffing out rums from around the Caribbean to round out Velier’s rum portfolio and being dissatisfied with Angostura’s offerings, decided to visit the Caroni distillery, even though it had already been closed for a year. Arriving at the premises and being let in, they were shown a warehouse where several thousand barrels dating back more than twenty years had been stored (and implied to be overlooked, if not actually forgotten). Most of the barrels were bought by Velier in several tranches over the following years, and always presented as some sort of exotic treasure, an undiscovered, unappreciated and unheralded jewel in the mud brought to light through intrepid and personal Indiana-Jones-style sleuthing that reaped the benefits — which larger and less adventurous rum bottlers who safely bought from European brokers, could and did not. 

In the ensuing years beginning in 2005, Caroni rums were carefully released in limited batches to the market, primarily Italy. Just as with the Demeraras, these releases broke new ground – for one, the barrels were not always blended into huge consistent outturns of several thousand bottles, but were often released as they were, a few hundred at a time: at best maybe two or three barrels of similar provenance or age or strength might be combined.  And this is why there are so very many Velier Caroni rums in existence – at last count I have about sixty-plus (the Hampden “Endemic Birds” series follows the principle of multiple bottle releases, though I submit it is for completely different reasons). Sometimes there are bottles from the same year, the same age, but a few proof points apart; in others, it’s a “Heavy” or a “Light” edition. Blends began to be issued in larger quantities.

The rum from today is from the middle of the Caroni era (which we are still living through, even if the end may now be in sight) – distilled in 1996, blended and bottled in 2017 at “Imperial” proof of 100º (57.18%), a massive angel’s share of some 86%, resulting in an an outturn of about 7,000 bottles. The decision to bottle at this strength is supposedly to showcase the heavy character of the rum and perhaps genuflect to the Navy tradition, but I suspect this is more a convenience than anything else, as various lesser and greater proofs have always characterized the Caroni line without any such romantic explanations. The red and white label, it should be noted, like the gold-white-blue Tate & Lyle facsimile adorning some of Velier’s later Caroni editions, is a replica of the style of a 1940s original. Tracking that down proved elusive, unfortunately.

So, to the tasting then. By now the heavy, tarry and fusel-oil profile of the Caronis is one of the most recognized taste markers in the rum world, so it comes as no surprise to find it here: the rum presents opening aromas of rich caramel and tar, deeply intense, with petrol held way back. There’s licorice and dark fruits – raisins, prunes, plums and blackberries – plus a nice sharpish and lighter cognac kick that is far from unpleasant. The real characteristic of the nose seems to be less the diesel machinery than the garden, however – black grapes, very soft mangoes and all manner of overripe fruit. There’s just little tartness to balance that off…unsweetened yoghurt, maybe.

Tasting the thing reveals powerful tar and petrol notes by the bucketload, dry, oily and amazingly mouth coating. The profile is nicely solid, hardly sharp at all, and displays a touch of brine and olives, as well as — initially — an oddly metallic, medicinal sort of taste.  

Once it settles down a richly dark, perfumed profile emerges for real: licorice, tar, dates, raisins, prunes, dark unsweetened chocolate, black grapes, blueberries, that cognac line again.  There’s a delicate sort of citrus background that lends a nice counterpoint to the duskier, heavier tastes. It’s not a rum to hurry through, even on the finish: this is dry, long, aromatic, phenolic, leaving behind mostly sweet thick caramel molasses notes and some burnt rubber, plus a last flirt of exhaust fumes as it roars away into memory.

As a blend, it’s really kind of spectacular – there aren’t many of these deep, surly rums around any longer, and even the New Jamaicans’ high ester rums tend towards the fruity and sharp notes, not the brutal stomp-it strength of the Clydesdales that are the Caronis. That said, not everyone will like the heaviness of the experience: agricole lovers or those who prefer soft Spanish light rums will find little to enthuse them here, and that’s Caroni for you — not everyone is in tune with the steampunk esthetic and industrial farting of this long shuttered Trini style.

But I like it, and think that even if the prices of the smaller, older and rarer editions of Velier’s Caronis are too high, there’s still good quality and interesting tastes to be found in the high-outturn blends like 12 year old, or the 15, 17 and a few others. The appeal of the Caroni line of rums lies in their miniscule variations from one batch to the next (no matter who issues it), which allows any curious enthusiast to sample just a few and get a good sense for what it’s all about. The 21 year old from 1996 is among the oldest of these blends, and while it does cost a bit, it is, in my opinion, also among the best.

(#848)(86/100)


Other Notes

  • It is often believed that Velier first released the Classic Demerara rums, and as their availability declined and the price ascended (sometimes beyond all reason), the Caronis came in to supplant them as the second great series of rums which made Velier’s reputation.  But strictly speaking, this is not true – the awareness of the Caronis peaked much later, but they began to be released in 2005, just around the same time as the first “true” dark-bottled Demeraras from the Age began to hit the market.

Additional Background

The myth of the “discovery” of these thousands of barrels may be true, but others dispute it, claiming that it had always been known that the rum stocks were there and they existed and were for sale. This goes as far back as 2000 when the distillery was already in perilous financial straits and courting buyers, and one local story held that a foreign consultant valued the year 2000 existing stocks of eighteen thousand barrels at between TT$1 billion (about US$160,000) and TT$6 billion (~US$935,000) depending on whether they were sold as aged or bulk rums. Both numbers were seen as implausibly low (US$935,000 for 18,000 barrels works out to US$52/barrel), as the writer was at pains to point out. 

The distillery shuttered in 2003, and as is now well known, independents like Velier et al, and Scheer/Main Rum, bought out the stocks over the next few years – it was not done all at once, nor was it only Velier, and it went through Government officers (one could hardly get an export license without them). What is missing from all accounts is the pricing asked for and paid, and for what volume. In 2018, by which time Caronimania was a well established (if misunderstood) phenomenon, Raffique Shah (the author of the original 2000 article) returned to the theme and scolded the politicians of the day for ignoring or not even understanding the rum stocks’ pricing given their elevation to the “Blue Label Crowd.” He suggested that they disdained their own country’s rum, couldn’t be bothered to do any due diligence, and allowed a huge potential windfall to slip through their fingers. He all but accused them of skullduggery and corruption.

Whether any of this is true or not is, at this remove, probably impossible to tell. Commercial entities are under no obligation to disclose such matters and since we know neither the volume of barrels sold nor the amount paid for each, or by whom, anything beyond this point is just uninformed speculation that hopefully will one day be replaced by facts. But it’s a good case study in how rums (or any local  third world resources for that matter) get bought and sold.


 

Sep 022021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#847)(84/100)


Background History

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

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

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


 

Aug 302021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#846)(83/100)


Other Notes

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

Opinion (adapted from my coment on FB)

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

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

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

Aug 262021
 

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

  • The cask strength, single-barrel “Dated Distillation” series with a three- or four-letter identifier and lots of detail on source and age; I submit these are probably the best and rightly the most sought-after rums they release.  The only question usually remaining when you get one, is what the letters stand for.
  • The Green Label series; these are usually single-country blends, sometimes mashed together from multiple distilleries (or stills, or both), mostly from around the Caribbean and Central/South America (they’ve gone further afield of late).  Here you get less detail than the DDs, mostly just the country, the age and the strength, which is always 46% ABV. I never really cared for their puke yellow labels with green and red accents, but now they’re green for real. Not much of an improvement, really.
  • Classic Blended Rum; a blend of Caribbean rums, location never identified, age never stated (not  on label or website), usually bottled at around 50% ABV. You takes your chances with these, and I’ve only ever had one, and quite liked it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#845)(85/100)


Notes – The Rockley “Still” (reposted)

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

Based on the research published by Cedrik (2018) and Nick Arvanitis (2015) as well as some digging around on my own, here are some clarifications. None of it is new, but some re-posting is occasionally necessary for such articles to refresh and consolidate the facts.

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

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

This then leads to the other thread in this story which is the post-acquisition data provided by Alexandre Gabriel. In a FB video in 2018, summarized by Cedrik in his guest post on Single Cask, he noted that WIRD did indeed have a pot still from Batson’s acquired in 1936 which was inactive, as well as another pot still, the Rockley, which they got that same year, also long non-functional. What this means is that there is no such thing as a rum made on the Rockley still in the post-1995 years of the current rum renaissance, and perhaps even earlier – the labels are all misleading.  

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

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


 

Aug 232021
 

Rumaniacs Review #126 | 0844

Like so many lightweight blends predating the 21st century rum renaissance, which were sold under inviting names just to move cases which the rum’s inherent quality itself could not, this “premium” rum has a sailing ship prominently displayed on the label. Though it could as easily have been a pirate, a coconut tree, a beach, or all of the above at once, plus a chest, a peg leg and a parrot added for good measure. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s not from the island of Tortuga (north of Haiti): nor is it from the Cayman Islands (500 miles to the west), because the blending and bottling — of unspecified distillates — actually happens on Barbados – or it did, when this bottle was released.

Such was the state of subtly misleading label design in 1984 and the later 1980s when the Tortuga Rum Company was formed and began blending rums to sell on cruise ships and duty free stores around the Caribbean.  Not a single thing is wrong, and yet everything is. Perhaps fortunately, it is now no longer easily available to mislead people into what the word premium means, because these days the company concentrates more on making rum cakes (of which this apparently is a key ingredient).

That said, although it is mostly absent from online emporia where many do their shopping these days, the company still has a stable of flavoured and light blended rums available in the ships and shops noted above. And such older bottles as this one can still occasionally be sourced around the world, as witness an enthusiastic gent leaving a five-star comment (“Absolutely a great rum, the best I have had in fact”) on the Whisky Exchange as late as 2019, and my own quickie review here, based on a bottle from the 1990s sourced in 2018 in Europe. 

Colour – Amber

Age – 5 Year Old Blend

Strength – 43% ABV

Nose – I’m not entirely chased away…it’s not too shabby. Light and easy, mostly molasses, caramel, toffee, leavened by the light notes of coconut shavings, honey and nougat. Some dark fruit – raisins, blackberries, ripe cherries. 

Palate – Again, light, with some firmness lending it a bit of authority and solid tastes. Nougat, honey and coconut, like those white Ferrer or Raffaello confectioneries my much-loved chocoholic daughter can’t get enough of. There’s some sharper fruits here — ripe pears, apples, berries — as well as a touch of salted caramel and molasses, and brown sugar in a hot latte. Nice.

Finish – Warm oily, sweet, smooth. No problem.  Honey again, coconut shavings, a raisin or two, but for me to tell you there’s more would be reaching.

Thoughts – Given my despite for its blandly inoffensive white sibling, I didn’t walk in here expecting much.  But it wasn’t half bad – a completely unadventurous and reasonably tasty light sipping rum of which not much is asked and not much needs be given.  Maybe it’s sold in the right places after all. 

(77/100)


Other Notes

  • The Tortuga rum is not named after the island, but to commemorate the original name of the Cayman Islands, “Las Tortugas,” meaning “The Turtles.”
  • The company was established in 1984 by two Cayman Airways employees, Robert and Carlene Hamaty, and their first products were two blended rums, Gold and Light. Blending and bottling took place in Barbados according to the label, but this information may be dated as my sample came from a 1990s bottle. The range has now expanded beyond the two original rum types to flavoured and spiced rums, and even some aged ones, which I have never seen for sale and are therefore likely to remain sold only on ships and duty-frees. In 2011 a Jamaican conglomerate acquired a majority stake in Tortuga’s parent company, which, aside from making rums, also created a thriving business in rum cakes and flavoured specialty foods.
Aug 152021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#843)(81/100)


Other Notes:

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

A Brief Backgrounder on Mexican cane spirits and Agardientes

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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


Addendum

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

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

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

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

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


 

Aug 082021
 

Worthy Park out of Jamaica had been distilling and selling youngish estate rums under the Rumbar label since about 2015, and laying down aged stocks from their spanking new distillation apparatus for a decade before that, all while selling bulk rum for cash flow. The bartender’s rums they released had always gotten good press; and the indies were able to cherry pick some really good ‘uns from the aged sales over the years (like the terrific CDI 2007 7 YO)… but it did leave Worthy Park without some middle-aged offerings of its own, and relegated to something of a second tier bottler, lacking a killer app to vault it to the next level.

They needed it, they wanted it, they got it, in 2017, when they proved once and for all that it was no longer just a purveyor of bulk rum and bartender’s backbar staples, but a major new Jamaican distiller of uncommon quality. That was the year they assaulted the festival circuit of with three serious rums, one of which has become an instant wanna-have classic, and let me tell you, I still remember what that was like.

See, at every rum fest, there are dark shadowed corners where the rum hoods sullenly lurk and gather: they acknowledge each other with a dour “S’up?” and secret handshakes; they exchange and share treasured samples of the latest halo rum, or show off those they have no intention of parting with (sometimes a sniff is all you get). And always they discuss the unheralded stars of the show that have to be tried. That year, as in others, a rumour started and began to spread, about one rum. It was a Jamaican. An awesome Jamaican. The mutterings grew until it was a babble, glasses quivered and noses twitched, and like elephants at a watering hole, the bulls sniffed the air, sensing a disturbance in the Force.  

Glasses were sourced, sniffed, snooted, sampled, swapped, and low muttered “holy sh*t!” exclamations were heard with increasing frequency. Significant looks were exchanged. A drift of the deep divers began to the back booths, slow at first but getting faster: because in the shabby corner over there by 1423, there was a new rum series that just had to be tried and the story was told that if that affable, bearded, vacationing Santa Claus running the booth liked you, or if you could bat your eyes just right at Zan Kong who was holding court right there, not only could you try the two official WP rums on display, you could be spotted a taste of a special under-the-counter juice that was simply off the scale. People were elbowing each other out of the way, they were so eager to get there before stocks ran out. I hadn’t seen anything like it since the stampede to get a snootful of the Caputo 1973, ten years ago. 

Okay, so I exaggerate a little for effect, and because I can’t let a good story pass without a few embellishments…but not really.  Because of the three rums I tried that day, and of the Worthy Park rums I’ve been fortunate enough to beg, borrow, bribe, blackmail, burglarize or sample since then, this thing remains a pinnacle among spirituous codpieces, sporting the sort of cachet and quality that launches small cults and distorts the GDP of small nations.

No, seriously. The rum was a cousin to the “Oloroso”, pot still made, the light WPL marque, aged in American white oak before being shipped to Denmark where it was further aged in a dry ex-Marsala cask, and bottled at one proof point higher (60% ABV, take that, milquetoast wannabes).  It smoked and frothed and dripped off the still in 2012 and was therefore also around five years old. Only 319 bottles, alas, which meant that not everyone who wanted one would ever get one….but for those who did, what a rum they got. The bottle trembled as Zan poured neat drams, as if he feared it might detonate at any moment, and indeed, since that day I’ve heard rumours (probably unfounded, but who knows, right?) that the sound of a bottle of this stuff being cracked disturbs the shape of whole buildings slightly with a small sonic boom. 

I can’t entirely discount such stories, because just sniffing the thing watered eyes and puckered noses (and other parts). The rum was hot, fierce to a fault and at pains to demonstrate it possessed the entire genome of Jamaican funk and Worthy Park badass, plus an extra chromosome for kick, just because, y’know, it could. It was salt butter creaminess spread over freshly toasted sourdough bread. It oozed caramel, bananas, citrus, spoiled oranges and apples way past their prime. The complexity was really something amazing, a forceful fruity cornucopia mixed in with spices that just kept on coming: over-ripe peaches, turmeric, and sweet-smoky red pepper, then back to the fruit salad again. 

It was bottled at 120 proof of power and yet, when sampled all one tasted was firmness, strength, no sharpness, like it was twenty points lower.  It laid down solid notes of flambeed bananas, overripe cashews, coconut shavings, a little brine and olives, and was creamy and aromatic in a very Jamaican-funk sort of way. There were sweet notes of peaches and pineapples in syrup, a fine background of lemon peel, spices again, apples and grapes and raisins all mixing it up in fine style with sweet bell peppers, rosemary and bay leaves.  And it slowed down not the slightest when approaching the finish line: it was long, peachy, creamy, tart, spicy, salty, and still managed to cough up some caramel, lemon zest and tart apples at the close.

Five years old.  If nothing else it showed the astounding quality of the Compagnie’s 7 YO had been no accident. It’s difficult for me to explain precisely what made it so good, and so memorable. The finishing was definitely a part of that, and in spite of the pot still action waning somewhat between nose and palate, the balance of the sweet with the salt with the umame and the tart, was completely stellar. Nothing dominated, everything got its time to shine, and there was a lot there to process. A lot. People throw around the word “complexity” far too casually these days, but here was a rum that really earned it. 

See, the WP Marsala rum displayed a furious sort of weapons-grade rum-making mojo of a kind I had been seeing all too rarely. It rewards multiple tastings, and is a completely enjoyable dram to sip from start to finish. I’ve gone back to it constantly, in all the time between then and now, and it’s not that I had to do that to “understand” it, precisely, or “get it.” I get it just fine. But I had to return to realize how good it really is, how well it marries the smooth elegance of a well mannered socialite with the brutally assertive statement of a cane cutter’s cutlass.  The strength may daunt, but the aroma beguiles, the palate seduces, and the quality of the whole is gradually made manifest…and once that happens, you return to it like a totem of all the quality you want, and didn’t even know you were missing.

(#842)(90/100)

Aug 052021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#841)(86/100)


Other notes

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

 

Jul 292021
 

Depending on who you talk to, it’s a toss up whether Hampden or Worthy Park is the best of the New Jamaican distilleries. Appleton / J. Wray is the market leader (in both sales and recognition); Longpond, Monymusk, New Yarmouth and Clarendon have some brand awareness from Jamaican rum cultists and indie bottlers – though of course your average Joe could care less, let alone distinguish among them –  but when it comes to artisanal pot still rums, it’s all down to those two.

Hampden has a distribution arrangement with Velier (you can see Velier’s design ethos in all their labels), uses dunder in distillation, has its own aged rums and is repped by the charming,  dynamic and vivacious Christelle Harris. Worthy Park does not use dunder, has deliberately elected not to partner up with anyone (unless it’s 1423, the Danish outfit who helps them market their rums around Europe) and has their own not-so-secret weapon, the approachable and cheerful King of Cool, Mr. Zan Kong as their export manager.  Both sell “house brands” of their own (the Rumbar line for WP, the Velier-associated Pure Single Rums “46” and “60” for Hampden), sell to third parties which produce brands like RumFire, Stolen Overproof, Hamilton or Doctor Bird, or sell bulk for the use of European indies.

The key to their rise and recognition and all the accolades is less these points, however, than the fact that both have wedded their futures to pot still artisanal rums which have, since their introduction, taken the rumworld by storm. Worthy Park in particular is one of the best of its kind, and been confident enough in their sales to expand the admittedly rather entry-level (though still very good) Rumbar rums into a series of older and more limited expressions called the “Special Cask” series, which are further aged, issued at higher proof, and are simply amazing in every way.

This edition began to be released around 2017, and the bottle under discussion today is based on stocks laid down in 2012 — it’s a 59% ABV limited edition of 428 bottles, though I am unclear whether it came from a single cask or a few (I suspect a few).  It has the peculiarity of being double aged: four years in Jamaica, and another one in Denmark by 1423, which is why initially, at the various rumfests where it was introduced, it was found at that company’s booth.  That European year was in ex-Oloroso casks, so not only different casks but different climates impacted the final rum. Interesting…

The results of that bifurcated ageing regimen and the pot still origin speak for themselves, and personally, wholly on my own account, I can only say the rum is kind of a quiet stunner. The nose startled the hell out of me, I must admit – “…a smoky barbeque with sweetly musky HP sauce?” went the opening words of my handwritten notes — really!  It was redolent of the ashes of a dying fire over which a well-marinated shashlik had been grilling and sizzling.  Which did not stay long, admittedly: the real rumminess came after – caramel, burnt sugar, bags of fruit.  For a while there it even nosed like a pot still white, with slight turpentine, brine, olives and varnishy notes.  Red wine, grapes, plums, very ripe apples, bananas, coconut shavings, the smells kept billowing out and all I could think was somebody had somehow managed to stuff the olfactory equivalent of a grocery’s entire fresh produce section in here.

The taste was similarly excellent, a low-rent masterpiece of execution in precision mixed up with a raucous yard party where de music blarin’ out o’ big-ass speaker size’ like young fridge. It was all-out funky Jamaican goodness, sweet and crisp and very very controlled, with the balance among all the competing elements really quite well handled. Strawberries, pineapples, bubble gum and orange zest started the party; that was then followed by raisins, dark fruits, plums, vinegar, pimento and vinegar dumped with olive oil into a oversalted salad (and I mean that in a good way). Even the finish – sporting a limbo of nuts, paprika, tobacco leaves and more of those oversweet-yet-tart spoiling fruits – added a solid conclusion to the festivities.

No blended rum or column still ever came up with a rum like this. Steve James of the Rum Diaries Blog wrote the first serious review of the series and was enamoured of the entire line, and The Fat Rum Pirate followed suit soon after with a four star review (it’s both amusing and instructive that one thought the sherry influence was too much, the other too little) and Rum Shop Boy weighed in with a positive experience of his own. 

But oddly, in spite of the accolades, the rum never really scaled the heights of consumer desire to the extent that it became a must-have, and if a measure of any rum’s popularity is the amount of times it gets mentioned on social media with gleeful boasts of “I got it!!” then this seems to be considered a bit of a smaller rum.  Personally, I disagree: Worthy Park’s double aged “Oloroso” rum was and remains a seriously constructed piece of complex oomph that any distiller would have been proud to release. “Though she be but little, she is fierce,” wrote Shakespeare of the diminutive Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I think that applies equally to this rum. In people’s minds it may be small, easily overlooked – but in reality, it’s Goddamned huge. 

(#840)(88/100)

Jul 262021
 

Having gone through their aged expressions, millesimes, and young blends from the Poisson-Pere Labat distillery on Marie Galante over the last few years, it is my considered opinion that when it comes to the best intersection of value for money, the surprise standout is not either the 3 year old or the 8 year old (which, since they sit smack in the middle tend to be shoo-ins for the honours of this series), or any of the more upscale millesimes (though those are quite good) but the rather unremarked and seemingly unremarkable two year old called the Doré, which I can only assume means “golden” in French. Certainly its light golden colour explains the name, though one could equally wonder why they didn’t just call it an Ambré, as most others do.

Rhums with names, that are not “premium” – by which I mean “highly priced” in this context – tend to be blends which stay constant for extended periods.  The Doré is considered one of the youthful “Elevés sous bois” (‘aged in wood’) series of rums from Poisson, accompanied by the “Soleil” (Sun) 59º and 55º both of which are aged for six months: they are all supposedly a rung underneath the quality ladder of the 3 YO and 8 YO, and the millesimes and premium editions above that.

But I disagree, and think it is something of an unappreciated little gem that defines Poisson and Marie Galante — as well as Bielle or Capovilla or Bellevue, the other distilleries on the island.  Let me walk you through the tasting of the rhum, to explain.

The nose, to put it simply, was just plain lovely.  It was crisp, creamy and citrusy, like a well made lemon meringue pie fresh out of the oven.  It smelled of ripe peaches, yoghurt, ripe Thai mangoes, red grapefruit and oranges, and the acidic, tart elements were nicely balanced off by softer, more earthy tones. Even for a rhum whose youngest components were 18 months old, there was no harsh stinging notes, no roughness or jagged edges flaying the inside of one’s nose.  In fact, the whole experience suggested a rhum much lighter than the 50% it was actually bottled at.

The taste was reminiscent of that dry, crisp Riesling I remarked on with the 8 YO. That one was gentler and smoother as a consequence of the 42% strength.  Here this was transmuted into firmness, a certain tough clarity, and made the wine feel jacked up and boosted (but in a good way). It was a veritable fruit smorgasbord – apples, pears, cashews, guavas, star-apple, passion fruit, peaches all tramped across the stage at one point or another.  And then there was the herbal grassiness of citrus peel, green grass after a rain on a hot day, cinnamon, a trace of coffee and bitter chocolate…I mean, what on earth gives a two year old rum the right to taste this fine? Even the finish didn’t drop the ball – it was long, fruity, and brought everything to a fitting conclusion of crushed walnuts and almonds, lemon zest, ripe fruits and even that pie we smelled at the inception made a small bow.

I don’t know about you, but I felt this rum to be a quiet little stunner and it remains one of those favourites of mine that stays in the memory and keeps being bought, in a way its cheaper and more expensive cousins up and down the line do not. It samples really well, has a good proof point for what it is, and while it is understood that it’s is made to be a mixing drink, I feel it transcends such workmanlike blue-collar origins and somehow excels at being a downright tasty sipping drink also. And it’s nicely affordable as well being in the less-than-premium segment of Poisson-Labat’s range

What it doesn’t have, is widespread acknowledgement, or awareness by the larger rum-drinking public. It’s crowded out by more popular and better known distilleries like Bielle, Damoiseau, Saint James, Neisson, Bally, and is perhaps perceived to be on the level of the smaller and equally little-known outfits like Bologne, Severin or Montebello. 

In a recent interview on the subject of Key Rums, I remarked that that when it comes to a large country with lots of distilleries, how does one pick just one? Admittedly, Marie Galante has only four (a far cry from the 500 or so in Haiti or the thousands in Brazil), but when it is lumped together with those of Guadeloupe, the problem remains…which one to chose?  The smallness of some of these distilleries makes their rhums fail the criterion of being known, talked about and coming up in the literature.  It’s  particularly problematic considering that for too much of the rum drinking world, agricoles barely register at all, let alone get seriously discussed. I submit that this is a mistake and it’s long past time that the blinkers came off.  We should recognize that cane juice rhums, whatever their sources – and perhaps especially those from the tiny distilleries –  are deserving of greater acknowledgement and respect than they get from outside Europe or the cognoscenti. 

And that being the case, I pick another one here, from the small island of Marie Galante; and have to state flat out that even though you may not aware of it, for the intersection of taste, availability, longevity, age and all round taste, the Dore really is rather remarkable precisely because it doesn’t seem to be anything of the kind.  The Soleil 59º and 55º show their youth in their rough edges and wildly untamed exuberance, and so to some extent do the unaged blancs, though they are really fine in their own bailiwick. The older mid-range 3 YO and 8 YO expressions are too weak to be serious contenders as they fall flat or fly away if one doesn’t pay close attention, and the high-end millesimes are too pricey. The Dore somehow, against all odds, even young as it is, finds its niche with effortless ease, shows its quality and retains its place in the mind…and is, I believe, completely worthy of inclusion in this series as a result.

(#839)(85/100)


Other Notes

  • For those who want more detailed background information, the company biography of Velier and the brief history of Pere Labat are both in the “Makers” section of this website.
Jul 222021
 

 

Poisson-Père Labat, who worked for the most part with blancs, blends and mid range rhums, came late to the party of millesime expressions – at least, so far as I have been able to establish – and you’d be hard pressed to find any identifiable years’ rhums before 1985.  Even now I don’t see the distillery releasing them very often, though of late they seem to be upping their game and have two or three top end single casks on sale right now.

But that has not stopped others from working with the concept, and in 2017 Velier got their mitts on a pair of their barrels. That was the year in which, riding high on the success of the classic Demerara rums, the Trinidadian Caronis and the Habitation Velier series of pot still rums (among others), they celebrated the company’s 70th birthday.  Though it should be made clear that this was the company’s birthday, not the 70th year of Luca Gargano’s association with that once-unknown little distributor, since he only bought it in the early 1970s. 

In his book Nomade Tra I Barili Luca – with surprising brevity – describes his search for special barrels from around the world which exemplified his long association with the spirit, sought out and purchased for the “Anniversary Collection”; but concentrates his attention on the “Warren Khong” subset,  those rums whose label designs were done by the Singapore painter. There were, however, other rhums in the series, like the Antigua Distillers’ 2012, or the two Neissons, or the Karukera 2008.  And this one.

The rhum he selected from Poisson-Pere Labat has all the Velier hallmarks: neat minimalist label with an old map of Marie Galante, slapped onto that distinctive black bottle, with the unique font they have used since the Demeraras. Cane juice derived, 57.5% ABV, coming off a column still in 2010 and aged seven years in oak.

It’s a peculiar rhum on its own, this one, nothing like all the others that the distillery makes for its own brands. And that’s because it actually tastes more like a molasses-based rum of some age, than a true agricole. The initial nose says it all: cream, chocolate, coffee grounds and molasses, mixed with a whiff of damp brown sugar. It is only after this dissipates that we get citrus, fruits, grapes, raisins, prunes, and some of that herbal and grassy whiff which characterizes the true cane juice product. That said I must confess that I really like the balance among all these seemingly discordant elements.

The comedown is with how it tastes, because compared to the bright and vivacious effervescence of the Pere Labat 3 and 8 year old and the younger blends, the Velier 7 YO comes off as rather average. It’s warm and firm, leading in with citrus zest, a trace of molasses, aromatic tobacco, licorice and dark fruits (when was the last time you read that in a cane juice rhum review?), together with the light creaminess of vanilla ice cream. There’s actually less herbal, “green” notes than on the nose, and even the finish has a brief and rather careless “good ‘nuff” vibe to it – medium long, with hints of green tea, lemon zest, some tartness of a lemon meringue pie sprinkled with brown sugar and then poof, it’s over.

Ultimately, I find it disappointing. Partly that’s because it’s impossible not to walk into any Velier experience without some level of expectations — which is why I’m glad I hid this sample among five others and tried the lot blind; I mean, I mixed up and went through the entire set twice — and Labat’s own rums, cheaper or younger, subtly equated or beat it, and one is just left asking with some bemused bafflement how on earth did that happen? 

But it’s more than just preconceived notions and thwarted expectations, and also the way it presents, samples, tastes. I think they key might be that while the rhum does display an intriguing mix of muskiness and clarity, both at once, it’s not particularly complex or memorable –  – and that’s a surprise for a rhum that starts so well, so intriguingly.  And consider this also: can you recall it with excitement or fondness? Does it make any of your best ten lists? The rhum does not stand tall in either people’s memories, or in comparison to the regular set of rums Père Labat themselves put out the door. Everyone remembers the Antigua Distillers “Catch of the Day”, or one of the two Neissons, that St. Lucia or Mount Gilboa…but this one? Runt of the litter, I’m afraid. I’ll pass.

(#838)(83/100)


Other Notes

Jul 192021
 

 

There is a certain whimsy about a piscatorially titled distillery. “Poisson”, the small distillery also referred to as Père Labat is located on the west side of Marie Galante (the small island to the south of Guadeloupe) and means “fish” in French — which is, I’m sure you’ll grant, a rather odd name. 

Initially, I had thought that the estate was called that to commemorate the fishermen who might once have plied their trade on the nearby coastland, but no, nothing like that. It was given the name of the woman, Catherine Poisson, who bought the land from the estate of La Marechand of which it was originally a part – her actual relationship with the owners of that time is now lost to history, alas. The Père Labat business got tacked on later, by Edouard Rameau, a subsequent owner of the Poisson estate, who spearheaded its pivot away from sugar distillation and to the making of rhum, and casually appropriated the name of the famed Dominican friar who was instrumental in the development of the sugar industry of the French Caribbean islands back in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

Poisson-Père Labat continues to operate, though its name recognition quotient is not what it once was (except among enthusiasts, who sing its praises). It makes several different varieties of rhums – blancs, blends and aged expressions – at various strengths, and the subject of today’s review is from their aged line.  It is creole column still distilled, aged eight years in oak, though in a curious omission, their site doesn’t actually mention what kind (Limousin, ex-Bourbon…).  

It is also bottled at a curiously weak 42% ABV: since many of their premium rhums — and the blancs — are bottled at a higher strength, one can only assume these were meant for the American or lower end market where an aged product is called for, but not so strong as to frighten away the average drinkers.

Well, never mind.  The fact is, the rhum really is pretty good. The nose, to start off with, is clean and crisp, and has both the bite and sweet of a very good, very dry Riesling. There is a low level citrus of red grapefruit and oranges, plus bags of other juicy stuff like ripe green apples, pears, red currants, red grapes, and some herbal touches that dance around the edges without ever becoming serious participants. Not to be too anthropomorphic here, but it seems like just a bubby, crisp and happy nose. It aims only to please.

There’s an equally varied amount of tastes when one sips the thing, too – the tart, spicy fruit carries over cleanly.  Apples, yellow mangoes, unripe papayas, blood oranges, and the less-sweet black grapes.  The sharp tartness that I noted in the nose seems much more controlled here, being willing to allow the moist tobacco, freshly mown green grass and other herbs like dill and parsley to have a brief moment to shine. Sadly, the denouement leaves a lot to be desired, for while the rum surmounts the low proof in tastes and smells, at the close it kind of falls apart and chokes.  It’s wispy, short, faint, with leather, smoke, chocolate, vanilla and some undifferentiated fruits closing off the show. Nice but not impressive.  

That’s too bad, really. Had the finish been up to the standard of what came before, this would have been superlative. It presses a lot of buttons and presents a pretty well-balanced profile with a fair amount jostling for attention under the hood.  

And so, let’s sum up by noting that it’s a (small) cut above the 3YO Rhum Vieux we looked at last time. There’s more going on, more complexity, and my dissatisfaction with the close set aside, it’s a pretty neat drink to have. But as with so many other such agricoles I praise from time to time, I just wish they had added a few extra points of proof to the potion, because then it would have really shone. For the moment, though, let’s be grateful what we have gotten: a middle-aged agricole rhum bottled at living room strength which will not disappoint.

(#837)(84.5/100)


Other Notes

Jul 122021
 

With all the publicity and attendant pictures, conversations, comments, posts and other media razzamatazz attendant on the big agricole makers of the French Caribbean islands, we sometimes overlook the smaller rhum makers there. Like their more famous siblings, they have also been around for decades and centuries and although they remain not so well known, not so warmly endorsed and not so widely trumpeted, they quietly chug along year in and year out, and make their own juice…maybe unheralded and unsung, but a boss drink by any standard.

One of these places is Distillerie Poisson-Père Labat on Guadeloupe’s southern island of Marie Galante, named after the 17th century Dominican friar who modernized sugar making technology in the French islands (he was the proprietor of the Domaine de Fonds-Saint-Jacques on Martinique and owned slaves there, which leads to a complex and problematic legacy).  The small distillery is on the extreme west of Marie Galante, balancing off Bellevue in the east and Bielle and Capovilla in the centre, and I’m going to review four of their lesser known rhums over the next week or so.

Suffice to say, Labat has been in operation since 1916 as a distillery making rhum agricole (and as a sugar estate before that, since the 1860s – it supplied a local factory nearby) and continues to distill its cane juice on a copper column still brought in from Barbados in 1934.  Their rhums range from white (Labat 59º, 55º, 50º and 40º and a monster of 70.7º) to “Ambre” and “Boise” lightly aged from 6-18 months, and older versions aged 2, 3 and 8 years, and the top end millesimes and fancy pants editions aged more than ten.

The three year old reviewed first does not, then, provide any mysteries: it straddles the divide between the young ambre and boise rhums, and those of the more upscale aged expressions without any sort of attempt at exceptionalism, like its 2 YO cousin the L’Or. At 42% ABV it is less a Ti-Punch ingredient than something for tourists and those who like a young rums without fireworks to gently juice up a cocktail or something. 

(c) Poisson-Pere Labat (Publicity photo) New Version 45% ABV

Yet there’s more going on here than immediately seems to be the case with a strength that low.  It’s got a nose that is soft and herbaceous, redolent of acetones, varnish and more than a touch of turpentine and sugar water. It has the crispness of freshly aired laundry snapping on the line in the breeze of a hot summer day, tart white fruits (pears and guavas), bubble gum, plus the quick snap of lemon zest, and perhaps some crushed nuts. That’s really a lot of nose for a rhum so relatively anemic. I’ve made grumpy comments about standard strength wispiness before, but there’s little to find fault with here – it’s simply a delightful rumlet to smell.

Admittedly, the palate doesn’t quite drop the ball, though there is some drop-off in intensity now. It is a light and quiet and soft rhum, warm and delicately tasty, never losing its clarity or clean taste.  This is all about precise watery fruits – watermelon, papaya, pears dripping juice, mingled niely with the tartness of a ripe soursop. There’s a touch of soda pop like Sprite and Fanta, sugar water, acetones, even the hint of some brininess (this stays very much in the background), before it all fades out into a very clear finish that’s mostly like Mike’s Hard Lemonade with some watermelon thrown in. It’s actually quite impressive.

It’s possible that this 3 YO is no longer made, since it doesn’t appear on the Labat website — not an infallible indicator, since several other rhums they make aren’t there either — and because it has almost completely disappeared from the online literature and conversation (I’ve sent a message to inquire). What I see is mostly about the 8 YO, the soleil, the 55º and the 70.7. That’s okay, those are good too, it’s just surprising to see something as well made as this almost-midrange rhum given such short shrift.

Never mind.  If you find it, it may be pricey, as all agricoles are, relative to a molasses based rum of equal age.  But I argue it’s well made, it’s tasty and for sure it’ll wake up the drink, a cocktail, a party (and maybe even you) at the same time. Plus, it can be had by itself – almost – and it won’t entirely disappoint taken neat. Not a top-tier rhum, it represents its own level quite nicely indeed and remains a rhum that does quite a bit more than you think it does. Like my wife, it doesn’t nag or jab or needle, only soothes and welcomes…and in rhum terms, that quality might well be priceless.

(#836)(83/100)


Other notes

  • There are two versions of the 3 YO; the discontinued 42% ABV described here, and the current 45% ABV version. The switchover happened around 2018, as far as I know.
  • A biography of the company is available, too long to be ncluded here
Jul 082021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#835)(81/100)


Other notes

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

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

 

Jul 062021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#834)(83/100)


Other Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#833)(80/100)


Other Notes

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