Jun 242024
 

This the third review of a rum from Montanya distillers after the interesting white Platino and the somewhat polarising 3YO “Exclusiva” (I never got around to the 4YO “Valentia” and the “Oro” is in the queue). Montanya is that forward looking Colorado-based distillery that made lots of rum waves in the last decade; founded in 2008, it was run by Karen Hoskin before the company was acquired by CRN Ventures in December 2023. Since CRN is made up of head distiller Megan Campbell, former head distiller and operations lead Renée Newton, and brand strategist Sean W Richards (who one imagines is there for marketing purposes) and only has this one asset, then I guess it was either a takeover or a divestment by Ms. Hoskin.

This rum, therefore, predates the change in ownership six-plus months ago, and if the almost complete lack of a redesign of the website aside from a notice of The Event (to say nothing of there being no mention of the Querencia at all) is anything to go by then I guess it’s business as usual. Although I must say that Karen had a visibility and presence in the universe which may have been underestimated as a selling tool, because not a whole lot has been heard about the company or its rums in a while.

Anyway. The Querencia is a rum named after an area in a bullring where the bull makes his defensive stand (interesting naming choice….). It is the only  high proof Montanya has made, is seven years old (their oldest rum) and is, as noted above, curiously absent from their webpage – partly because it’s only sold at their company tasting room and partly because it’s a single barrel release (of 396 bottles) back in December 2021. 

The production stats can be assumed to be pretty much on par with others in the portfolio: the Lula Sugar Mill co-op provides the complete residue from the minimal juice processing they do — raw unrefined molasses and raw unrefined granulated cane sugar — which then gets open-air fermented for around a week, before going through the 400L direct-fire Portuguese pot still (the newer US-made still that was installed in 2021 had not seen output at the time this rum was issued). The distillate was double matured: first aged in an American white oak barrel, that previously held Colorado Whiskey from Laws Whiskey House, and then finished for somewhat under a year in a Ex-Pedro Jimemez Sherry Cask. Final release bottled at 50%.

What then, is it like? If you recall, the Exclusiva was intriguing mishmash of competing aromas: the Querencia is similar but I think somewhat better: the ageing does show up and asks to be counted here and moderates what its younger sibling had: initial aromas are of black and red peppers, a sort of musky dirty dishwater hint (thankfully brief), followed by a smorgasbord of dust and cardboard, and a nice series of sharp and tangy fruits: strawberries, pineapples slices, ripe cherries and gooseberries, closing up shop with sage, dill and a pepper-heavy vegetable soup.

Tastewise, not very traditional either, just nicely assembled: cucumbers in cane vinegar, plus some minerally, ashy, iodine-y notes, well balanced off by 7-up, cola and dill. The taste is more sour than sweet, though there is enough of the latter as well (cherries, ripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, that kind of thing), even a dash of Thai peppers, and smoky red paprika. The finish doesn’t attempt anything new just brings the fruitier sweet and sour elements to a close and leaves without haste or bother.

Altogether, I’d say this is more elegant than any other Montanya offering, while not being as original. It cares enough to be an easier drink and edges into the wall rather than just ramming into it facefirst, so to speak. The sweet and slightly off notes, the sour and brininess, all mesh quite well. Even at 50% if feels softer and more palatable than many others with similar stats, and as a mixer or as a sipper, it works equally well. 

Most of the time I have little patience for the way so many American rums either head straight for the cheap seats so as to max sales, or the boring  middle ground in an effort never to offend even a single potential buyer. The best American rums resolutely go their own way and what we have here is one of those: an interesting, almost noble, attempt to defy the stereotype, to make an original rum to exacting standards, that will nevertheless please. Not one that everyone will love, perhaps, but for sure one that many will respect. I’m one of those.

(#1079)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • A video recap can be found here.
  • Production details updated a few days after posting to take into account Megan Campbell’s helpful follow up email
  • The rum predates the December 2023 takeover and was made around 2022
  • My deepest thanks to the boys at Skylark in the UK, who allowed me to hang around their crib and steal their rums, including this one.
  • More complete company notes can be found in the Platino review
  • Under new ownership, they will be releasing a pineapple habanero rum later this summer (2024); also issuing various cocktail bitters, as well as experimenting with different barrels for aging (e.g. grape brandy barrels).

 

May 312024
 

Although it’s slowly changing, it’s still a good bet that if the average rum drinker were asked to name any Australian rums and the companies that made them, the two most common responses would be Bundaberg and Beenleigh. And whether or not one was a native of Australia, the general consensus would also be that the Bundie (located some distance north of Brisbane in Queensland) is foul hooch for the masses while Beenleigh (just south of Brisbane) aspires to something more highbrow and makes somewhat better regarded rums.  Both export a lot and are known around the world, with Beenleigh having an edge in the indie bottling scene where several different expressions have come out in the last few years, as issued by various bottlers like Cadenhead, TBRC and others.

These simple statements are, however, somewhat at odds with the reality on the ground. For sure the downmarket Bundies don’t have a good reputation and often get savagely skewered (including by me), but starter-kit Beenleighs sold locally aren’t exactly hot-snot bees-knees either. Both have — in the last decade or so — diversified their rum portfolios to cater to all price points and issue rums of various ages and strengths, as well as special editions and anniversary releases and just simple experiments that some happy distiller decided to mess with one day and see what happened (if it didn’t detonate in his face first). And these are, in many cases, not half bad, no matter which outfit releases them

Take this one for example, which is one of the best rum from Beenleigh I’ve ever tried. It’s a ten year old rum, molasses from Queensland, and pot distilled according to the company website but both the label and the advent calendar notes say pot-column blend and so confirmed by Steve Magarry, so there you have it. The “rare” portion of the title comes from its limited edition status – it came from a blend of only four barrels – and the barrels themselves, which were ex-Australian-brandy, and ex-bourbon American oak. The exact outturn is not stated but I would hazard that it’s around a thousand bottles.

For a 46% ABV rum it noses really well, combining both sweet and sour in an amalgam that presents the best of lychees, ginnips, gooseberries and ice wine. There are also apricots peaches and some very ripe dark cherries, buffeting the nose in solid pungent aromatic waves, accompanied – as the rum opens up later – by honey, freshly buttered hot croissants, and some dusty cardboard that is far from unpleasant. This is seriously one fine nose.

The taste is great stuff. A lot of what one senses when smelling it comes back for an encore here: the sweet solidity of honey, lychees, pineapple slices, cashews, ripe apples and pears, combined with subtler tastes of watermelon and papaya. Into this is mixed cinnamon, vanilla and caramel, some olive oil (!!) and a last flirt of ripe red grapes and cardamom helps make the finish an easy and memorable one.

The achievement of being able to represent so many flavors considerable when one considers the 46%, and I wonder whether it was the same 2013 batch of juice that La Maison & Velier released last year. It is soft yet firm, tasty without being threatening, and its only drawback may be the price (AUS$160 / about US$110) which is somewhat high for a ten year old…but maybe not, given the hoops we’d have to jump through to get any.

I have not tasted a whole lot of Bundabergs recently, yet looking at their portfolio these days, I’m not seeing a whole lot they’re making that can catch up with this one. Be that as it may let’s just give Beenleigh the plaudits they deserve here. I think the rum is great, really well assembled, tastes wonderful and isn’t bottled at some stratospheric proof that leaves you gasping, or with so few bottles you’ll never see any. It’s something to drink sparingly and with great enjoyment, if one turns up on your doorstep.

(#1074)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • From the 2023 advent calendar Day 18
Mar 202024
 

We’ve heard of both Iridium and Mount Uncle Distillery before: there’s a five year old of that brand that was part of the 2021 advent calendar, and while I didn’t care overmuch for it, I did comment that at a higher strength might make it a better drink. The company – which spun off the rum making business into a separate little outfit called FNQ Rum Company – clearly knew that already, because with this one they amped up the age to 10 years, jacked the strength to 47% and then probably thinking something else was required, aged it in red wine hogsheads for ten years before giving it a last six-month finish in agave casks left over from whatever they were doing with tequilas that year. All this from a cane-syrup seven-day-fermented wash run through their Arnold Holstein 500L pot still.

All that is pretty nice and conforms to some extent to the 5YO as well: but with that rum, one of the issues I ran into was that it didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be: an aged agricole style rum or one more in tune with the broader profiles of the rum world based on molasses. The Iridium X, fortunately for us, navigates quite well between either one and becomes a decent rum by any standard

Take a sniff and you’ll see what I mean: pineapple tarts and cheesecake get together to tango with yoghurt and sour cream and – if you can believe it – ripe tomatoes. There’s a nice, crisp throughline mixing citrus, pineapples, sweetened red grapefruit juice, bitter chocolate, and the dry dustiness of the warm air coming off of vents that have not been used for some time. Oddly, there’s not a whole lot of brine and  heavy agave notes here coming from the casks, though I imagine for those more in tune with this spirit, some could be found.

Palate is a more settled experience, and becomes a clean and relaxed version of the nose. It’s rather tart and piquant, coating the mouth well, and there’s the same yoghurt, honey and citrus axis around which perambulates the lesser notes: these are mostly gingerbread cookies, unsweetened chocolate, olives (red ones) and some brine. If one hangs around and waits a bit, there are also hints of apple cider, figs and some licorice leavened with some toasted marshmallows, but that’s pretty much it.  Finish is nice enough – medium, aromatic, like a sweet balsamic vinegar sprinkled on a grape and tomato forward salad.

Did I like it? Yes indeed, quite a bit more than the 5YO. The complexity is more present and accounted for, and there’s a lot to unpack at one’s leisure. The parts are well assembled without coming to blows over their differences, and overall it’s as solid a ten year old rum as could come out of any of the usual major regions with which we are more familiar. It’s perhaps no accident that the Boutique-y Rum Company took a 12YO Mt. Uncle to be one of its first Australian releases in 2023 that wasn’t Beenleigh.  I haven’t tasted it but if it’s anything like this one it’s sure worth our attentions.

(#1064)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 15. 
  • The FNQ website is remarkably short on details historical or technical.  Much of the background is from my original research on the Iridium 5YO, which is worth reading in its entirety, as I’ve summarised a lot here.
  • No idea what the significance of the “Iridium” title is. I’ve sent a message along to ask.
  • Mt. Uncle is one of the most northerly distilleries in Australia. Devil’s Thumb (also in QLD) and the Hoochery (in WA) are further north, but not by much.
  • There’s a story that the 10YO is from two lost barrels of the Iridium 5, which is also repeated on the Mt. Uncle website.
  • Although it’s marketed as a limited edition, the exact outturn is unknown. The initial release was 2020 and apparently sufficient stock remains to provide an advent calendar in 2023.
Feb 122024
 

It’s about time to clear up a backlog of older tasting notes that have been shoved to the back by newer and more exciting releases, and so for the next few weeks we’ll try to push some reviews of older expressions out the door. Today we’re going to go back and look at Savanna, that Reunion based distillery which has had a fair amount of good press over the last five years, though perhaps more remaining more popular and well known in Europe than the Americas.

What distinguishes Savanna is the range of what they make. Many distilleries have ranges that are steps of the quality ladder: some have lightly aged and filtered white rums, and cheaper mass-market blends made for mixing, for the budget-minded cost-conscious proles. The next rung would be rums aged up to maybe five or six years, costing a bit more but still affordable to most, moving slightly away from the cocktail circuit without entirely entering the sipping area. Once they get to double figures, say 10-15 years or so, it’s getting premiumised and more to have without mixing, and after 18 years, say, it’s entering rarefied territory. Around this price point are also found special editions, millesimes, limited blends, single barrel releases, commemoratives and other fancy releases that go north of three figures easy. These days secondary maturations or finishes are pretty much found on all levels (except the unaged whites for obvious reasons).

Savanna stands out in that it makes rums from both molasses and cane juice, instantly doubling the potential variety it makes. Just to keep all the permutations clear is probably why they have all those names for their rums: the “Intense” series are molasses-based and relatively low on esters, hence their being named “starter rums;” the “Lontans” (also called grand arôme rums) which are also from molasses but with longer fermentations and with a high resultant ester count; there are also the “Créol” rhums which are straightforward rhum agricoles, made from fresh sugar cane juice; and the “Métis” rums which are a blend of traditionnelle and agricole. Millesimes, fancy finishes and special editions at all strengths pepper their output as well.

From the above, then, you can get a clear picture of what this rums is: a molasses based low-ester blended rum, laid to rest in 2004, aged for 9 years in ex-cognac casks and then finished in a porto cask, released at 46%. These days that’s the spec for a really decent rum, but in 2014 when this came out, they called it a starter, which shows something of how much the world has moved on, and may be why so few reviews of it exist out there. 

Compared to some of the other Savanna rums tried in this lineup, the nose of this 46% rum presents as nuttier and slightly fruitier (strawberries, mild pineapple, cherries); there is a light aroma of acetones and nail polish wafting around and it’s very tart and pleasant…though I’m not sure I could pick it out of a lineup if tried blind.  After some time we have caramel and blancmange and toffee, swiss bonbons, vanilla, and a strong Irish coffee (used to love those as a young man). There is a dry wine-y note in the background, and some slightly bitter tannics reminiscent of pencil sharpener leftovers, none of it particularly excessive, more like a soft exclamation point to the main thrust of the nose.

The palate is somewhat of a letdown: I’ve been whinging about the mild inoffensive anonymity of 40% rums lately, so it’s surprising to find a rum six points higher providing so little character on its own account. It’s light, watery and sharp and none too impressive. Honey, nuts, dry pastries, toffee oatmeal cookies – it’s like a breakfast cereal with some extras thrown in. A bit salty and creamy here and there as the tasting goes on, with red grapes, pancakes, caramel, light molasses and some coffee grounds making their appearance, and they all vanish quickly in a short, sharp finish made exceptional only by its brevity.  

Overall, this is something of a disappointment, coming as it does from a distillery which makes some really impressive drams. Overall, one must concede that it’s not completely delinquent in taste – it does have aspects that are well done, and the assembly is decent: you will get a reasonable sip out of it.  It’s just there isn’t enough on stage for the €90 it goes for, it’s all quite simple and light… and one is left with the question of whether this is a poor man’s sipper or an indifferent high-end rum that got made too fast and issued too early. The fact that Savanna ended up releasing several 12 YO editions from the 2004 distillery outturn (including a grand arome I thought was superlative) suggests the latter may hit closer to the mark.

(#1057)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • This is part of a collection of Savanna rhums Nico Rumlover sent me some time ago when he heard I was interested, long enough back for him to conceivably have forgotten he did so. Well, whether he remembers or not, I’m immensely grateful for the time he took to crate me a great selection of what the distillery can do. 
  • There are several 2004 Porto Finish single barrel editions out there: I have found two Lontans from different barrels, one eight and one nine years old, this 9YO Intense and a couple of 12YO editions. I’m sure there a few others.
  • Distilled April 2004, aged 9 years; outturn 1327 bottles. Initially I supposedly the notation of the barrel number (#973) was what it was aged in, but observed there was also a 2004 12YO which also has cask #973 marked on it and that one has an outturn of 1480 bottles. Facebook netizen Jizeus Christ Guitare set me straight by informing me this was the number of the Porto cask, which makes more sense, as it could reasonably be used multiple times. Given the outturn one wonders whether it’s a port pipe or other large cask.
  • For further reading on Savanna, I wrote a too-brief historical backgrounder on the distillery, here. A more recent visit to Reunion with a tour of the distillery was described by Rum Revelations in 2022.
Dec 222023
 

Rumanicas Review R-161 | #1047

You want to careful ordering a Clement XO rhum because there is another one also named thus which is not this at all; and two others with the same bottle shape but different names. Fortunately the other XO has a different bottle style and a different strength and lacks the word “Très” (very) in the title, and the ones that do take the bottle design are called l’Elixir or Cuvée Spéciale XO. So just a little caution is all I’m suggesting.

In another odd circumstance, the subject of today’s retrospective also lacks almost any reviews in the online rumisphere aside from Rum-X (of course) and my own unscored 2010 review. In fact, it does not even appear on Clément’s own website under any of its various collections – Old, Tradition, Modern, Iconic Blue Cane or Cuvee. The closest one gets to it is the sales on auction sites and as far as I can tell, RumAuctioneer put one up a few times, the last time being in 2021 where it fetched a surprisingly modest £150.

What this is is one of the first of the premium blends the company put out and is a marriage of what they felt was three exceptional years’ production: 1952, 1970 and 1976, which were also released as individual millesime bottlings. It’s unclear those individual releases were issued before or after this blended XO (I only managed to acquire samples of each many years later). But since the 1952 component has now run out, the specific blend comprising the XO is now defunct and while the company uses the same sleek bottle for other XO rhums, the label is subtly different for each, denoting a different product.

Note also that whether the rum is composed exclusively of those three vintages or is a blend that includes them, is currently unknown. Dave Russell in his 2017 review thought the latter, and David Kanj on Facebook (who brought it to my attention) said he had never been able to confirm it with Spiribam either. Will update, if I can nail it down one way or the other.

Colour – Gold

Strength 44%

Nose – Luscious; deep fruitiness; persimmons, passion fruit. Herbs, cinnamon, vanilla, light toffee, apricots. Green apples and ripe dark grapes. Very appetising and aromatic, if not as crisp and clean as a modern agricole. Just really pungent and complex.

Palate – There’s a smoky, dry. leathery tang of an old port to the initial tastes, but it comes over nicely because of the heft and solidity n the tongue – the mouthfeel is really quite good. Apples, apricots, hard yellow mangoes on  the edge of going soft, and raisins and red wine. To be honest, after years of acclimatising myself to rums at 60% ABV or greater, the XO here no longer demonstrates sharpness (as I commented in my original review) but crisp solidity, even a touch of softness.

Finish – Just excellent. A fitting conclusion to a delicious dram. Crisp, slightly sweet, smooth, deep, dry and with yellow almost-overripe fruits at every turn.

Thoughts –  I was right not to score this at the beginning of my rum journey, since in 2010, the chops to evaluate it was lacking – to this day we still see too few agricoles in Alberta. Back then I commented on its sharpness and its taste without being too chuffed by it.  Coming back after a span of nearly fourteen years, I appreciate it much more for what it is: one of the best aged agricole blends I’ve been fortunate enough to try. Those who have a bottle squirrelled away have a real treasure in their cabinets, a delicious dram representing a time traveller washing up on our modern shores, from the far off Days of Ago.

(88/100) 


Other notes

  • The AOC was first established in 1996, so none of the component rhums conformed to the restrictions; irrespetive of the AOC on the label, then, those expecting a clean, grassy, herbal modern agricole might be somewhat taken aback by the profile, which has its own unique vibe. I assure you, however, it’s all to the good.
Dec 182023
 

Perhaps this rum was inevitable.  Maybe spurred on by the rising price of ex bourbon barrels, or the desire to experiment, or the curiosity about whether a peated whisky really is like a Caroni, or simply to attract those who can no longer afford the Octomores and other similar expressions of Islay, some bright spark at a rum distillery has finished his rum for six months in a peated (Speyside) whisky barrel.

Is that a real thing, or is it just a stunt? Commentary on Rum Ratings suggests a sharply divided audience on this and when you smell it, you can understand why – that peated barrel has a real influence here. You get the initial slap of iodine, antiseptic industrial hospital corridors and seaweed right away, only marginally offset by vegetable soup, some heavy overripe fruits,  caramel, smoky vanilla and leather. The odour of smoke and wet charcoal and ashes is discernible but remains restrained and stays back, and there’s a bit of rubbing alcohol that the ageing has not managed to dispel. It gets slightly deeper and more involved over time but too  my mind, that’s not enough to really elevate it to something top tier.

This is all fine, but it is rather off the beaten track: and if it’s one thing years of tasting new and experimental rums has shown me is that (as with electronics for example) while there are always some rabid early adopters, and those with tastes that go for something this off the wall, it takes rather longer to bring the average consumer along to accepting something so different. And it is different – it’s like Mhoba’s Bushfire, or some of the more radical rums experimentals that get aged in completely new woods that make them smell and taste like barbecue sauce, or a maple syrup.

Still, smell is one thing, but what’s the taste like? Maybe that has a profile more rum-like? Yes and no. The taste is light (the standard strength again, so that’s nice) and easygoing…up to a point. It has a musky and dark feel to it, with notes of bitter, damp and stale coffee grounds, cardboard and mouldy paper, cheap dry unsweetened chocolate left open in the bin at a grocery too long. Again there are some dark overripe fruits but not much and not many and it’s hard to pin them down – plums, dates, figs, I’d suggest. Also medicine, camphor balls, damp sawdust, ginger and a touch of cinnamon, followed by a short and clean finish that again returns to iodine, rubbing alcohol, some toffee and molasses.

So with that out of the way, when I sit back and reconsider it all: in fine I’m not sure that for the average rum consumer that this actually works. It’s a blend of column still distillates aged 5-10 years and tropically aged in American oak, so that part is fine. The 40% ABV keeps the aggro down to a minimum. I didn’t get a chance to test it, there’s something about the ease and rounded nature of it all – even with that delicate peaty bitterness in the background – that suggests it’s not entirely kosher and has been added to, however slightly (NB: however, not checked by me, so that is a completely personal opinion). 

But that peat…it’s is a love or hate proposition. Whisky drinkers would probably have no problems with this expression at all (and it was an anorak who gave it to me). Admittedly that aspect is not overdone and doesn’t take over the entire thing, but it is pervasive and never lets up, and lends a piquancy to the rum similar to (but quite different from) the profile demonstrated by good Caronis. Moreover, the more subtle fruity and wine-y notes imparted by wine, cognac, or other common finishing casks are pretty much absent, this upsets the balance of various elements and gives the impression the rum is not a vehicle to demonstrate the rum, but the whisky element. So with that in mind, it’s up to an individual drinker to decide whether that’s in her or his wheelhouse. Speaking for myself, I have to admit that it doesn’t entirely play in mine.

(#1046)(78/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • My thanks to Curt from Kensington Wine Market in Calgary who gave me the sample to try.
  • Relicario is a brand not a distillery. Made by Barcelo (now a brand within a larger corporate umbrella and no longer the original family’s enterprise) in the Dominican Republic, on the facilities of Alcoholes Finos Dominicanos, which is a new distillery built with EU funds and owned by several major shareholders and investment firms.
  • 1048 bottle outturn according to the label.  It’s a blended rum of several ages ranging from 5-10 years, not of any particular year.
  • Company legend has it that two bottles of an old rum were found in an old reliquary (which is a container made for holding holy relics like saint’s bones or hair) and the profile was replicated to form the line of the brand. I like a good backstory, but never really believe any of them.
Dec 052023
 

In less than fifteen years, the entire rumiverse has changed so completely that not only can a not-that-well-known distillery from a not-that-well-known island make a cask strength rum of force and taste, but it is considered normal for them to do so; and that little distillery has become famous enough to be compared with the likes of major Caribbean outfits both older and younger, of far greater visibility. That is what the English Harbour High Congener rum really means, over and above its interesting stats.

The success of the indie bottlers in the last decade and a half in promoting distilleries and marques and whole countries – Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana are favoured expressions for all of them, though this is now changing – has forced many smaller distilleries in the Caribbean to up their game. Some have started exporting bulk to Europe themselves, for use by the IBs; some sell new make spirit to merchant bottlers direct. But most have expanded beyond their standard blends previously only distributed regionally; and begun pushing the edge of the envelope themselves, in an effort to diversify and premiumise, thereby capturing that slice of the market which the IBs helped kickstart. 

And they’re not the only ones: almost all major distilleries in the Caribbean now have entire ranges dedicated to high proof, well-aged and year-specific expressions that comprehensively eclipse their own efforts from ten years ago.  El Dorado, Foursquare, Mount Gay, St. Lucia Distillers, Appleton…the list goes on. They work with all aspects of the production cycle – fermentation, stills and distillation, ageing … and have vaulted rum into a whole different level.

Antigua distillers did the same, and I still remember one of their initial efforts, the Small Batch Sherry Cask finish expression, which I remarked was something of “an essay in the craft,” when it debuted in 2016. Now that’s almost passé, because consider this one from seven years down the line: a 2014-distilled rum based on molasses aged for six years in Antigua, which they call “High-congener” and which is a cousin to the 1423 SBS Antigua 2015 rum I’d had in The Proofing Room bar in London back in 2022. 1200 bottles of this hi-octane 63.8% column-still rum were released in 2020, which makes it a punchy six year old in all the departments that matter.

The nose is suitably big, given the strength: it has a richness that is very welcome, and feels solid and dep with notes of pineapple, strawberries and grapes, leavened with a more creamy lemon cheesecake, vanilla, and coconut shavings. Letting it rest helps things settle down and after a while aromas of cherries and green grapes emerge, a bit of mango juice and a tang of brine and olives, and a touch of salt caramel.

Tasting it shows where the rum shines, because here all the stops are pulled out, bunting unfurls and the brass band comes marching through: it’s smooth, buttery, creamy, all laban and cream cheese, brie, and brine, with soft tastes of olive oil, hummus and citrus. The acidity of the fruits and esters is retained, and a fair amount of spices – vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom – is in evidence. There’s toffee and caramel, tannins and coffee grounds, and a treat to sip even at that strength. If I had a whinge at all it’s that the finish is too short – there’s some brine, caramel, warm pastries and a dash of cumin – but overall, this is a rum that would work even if closer to standard strength and one wishes it was in a more general release than something so limited

So, to sum up, punch it does, if perhaps in too few areas.  I somehow expected it to be more complex, yet those aromas and tastes one gets are great in and of themselves. No congener count is provided, which is a shame – we wouldn’t mind knowing so we could rate it against the Jamaican marques. Still, I’d suggest the level is on par with the LROK (the HLCF at best). It is a pleasant, sippable, forceful, solid drink – the strength is no barrier to enjoying it (however, I would not recommend a quick initial guzzle, because 63.8% is 63.8% and it’ll hurt if you treat it with disrespect).

Beyond that, it exhibits a complexity that exceeds the Coeur de Savalle which was gingerly squeezed into a reinforced bottle at 73% or so, and although occasionally sharp and over-tart in the mouth, you can tell that it has a fair bit of funk in its junk, and that it’s a full proof aged rum of uncommon distinction that is quite clearly not a Jamaican. English Harbour, if it wasn’t there already, takes its place with complete assurance at the table already populated by the likes of esterati like Hampden, Worthy Park, Savanna and others, and without apology demands they all move aside to give it room. On the basis of this rum, I don’t see anyone denying them the right to take a seat.

(#1044)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Background material on the company can be found in the Coeur de Savalle review. I liked both equally, by the way, though for different reasons.
  • Antigua Distillers have made a virtue out of necessity: because they only have one columnar still, when it goes down for maintenance their tanks continue to ferment and of course develops into a more acid rich wash that provides the higher levels of congeners this rum displays.
  • Some other reviews: as of this writing Rum-X has 106 ratings averaging at 8.2/10. Stuart at Secret Rum Bar gave it an enthusiastic 90 points in December 2022, while Marius from Single Cask Rum awarded it 88 points in 2021, and in March 2022 John Go rated it 6/10, commenting on its lack of funk.

Historical note

Although they are seemingly everywhere now, back in the Aughts and early 2010s, independent bottlers and single cask releases were still not all that common or well known, though their star was rising among the cognoscenti. The main sources of full proof rums from distilleries (or stills) around the world were the whisky makers who occasionally dabbled their toes in this area of rum: Gordon & MacPhail, Samaroli, Silver Seal, Moon Imports, AD Rattray and Cadenhead for example. Aside from their releases, the only chance anyone was going to get to try something packing serious ABV was to buy any of the famed and ubiquitous 151s, and those were very young rums with little to distinguish them. Almost everyone else pretty much wussed out at 46% at best, except the French whose agricoles seemed to take great delight in up-ending expectations.

Fast forward to the close of 2023 and the landscape has undergone a sea change. Rums are being released north of 50% as a matter of course and an increasing number top 70%; Caribbean and other distilleries’ representative bottlings from dozens of small IB companies are so common now as to approach commodity status; the whisky makers are hardly considered special any longer, don’t issue nearly as much as they once did, and have ceased being serious factors in any budding connoisseur’s mental map of rum bottlers. That torch has decisively passed to the new and nimble independents, the new micro distilleries around the world, and the old estates that have invigorated themselves with new talent, new equipment and a desire to innovate.


Nov 202023
 

Photo (c) MasterQuill.com

The Martinique distillery Clement has, since 1989, ceased making rhum — the brand’s juice has been distilled up the road at the facilities of Distillerie Simon, and from 2017 also and increasingly from Fonds-Preville (both are owned by the Hayot Group). The original premises, however, are still used for ageing, blending and bottling Clement rhums, and they still maintain the AOC designation. Depending on who you speak to then, it supposedly has at least some terroire harkening back to what old Homere Clement made on his plantation of Domaine de l’Acajou, the progenitor of the brand.

Clement was among the first agricole rhums I ever tried, and initially their precise and fussy and clearly-defined tastes weren’t entirely to my liking; over the years, of course, I “ketch sense” and learned to appreciate them for what they were — nowadays I consider my (third) bottle of the Clement XO one of the best rhums I have to show people what an aged agricole is capable of. Over the years other Clement rhums showed their expertise: the release of the trio of 1952, 1970 and 1976 rhums, the special edition Cuvée Homère Clément Hors d’Âge, and an increasing amount of experimentals, single barrel expressions, millesimes and unaged blancs — even a canne bleue of its own.

The subject of today’s review is an ostensibly simple 9 YO expression from 2002 – a Trés Vieux Rhum Agricole, all from 100% canne bleue, aged in a single cask of ex-bourbon, 587 bottle outturn (of 50cl bottles) and a nice and firm 46.8% strength. I suppose the “cask” must have been a big one to provide that many bottles after nine years, even if they were only 500ml – I think we can assume either it was a slightly more sizeable container, rather than an American Standard Barrel 1, or the single barrel moniker is in error and it’s a blend of a couple or a few.

Whatever the ultimate provenance and barrel(s), this is a solid rhum that represents itself and its distillery very nicely indeed. It smells as fresh and bright and sparkly as bedewed sunlit grass and sheets fresh and clean from the laundry, with just a hint of citrus to the whole thing. Herbs, sugar cane sap, pears and white guavas take their turn, and It has additional notes of sweet caramel drizzled over vanilla ice cream, plus prunes, raisins, stewed apples and even a touch of coffee. An espresso of course, with a background chorus of leather, smoke and light tannins becoming evident with some water (though the rhum really doesn’t need that, honestly).

The pleasure here is in how pleasantly light it is to taste. It doesn’t sting, doesn’t bite, it’s not so heavy as to dissolve your tongue or so strong as to cause damage – it’s clean and crisp and no-nonsense, briny with olives and gherkins and some musky sweet spices (cinnamon, fenugreek, rosemary, smoky paprika, masala and even a trace of Kashmiri chilli powder, I kid you not. The same fruits as on the nose reappear to balance this all off, and there’s remarkably little sour in the way this presents: just a nice, easy, almost light crisp white wine-type sensation, culminating in a finish of berries, burnt sugar, toffee and breakfast spices. It’s completely unthreatening and completely pleasurable to drink, and never once seems like it’s straining to make the case.

Honestly, without trying to oversell the rhum, I think it’s a minor treasure: not an undiscovered steal, precisely, more a rum whose qualities seem initially subdued, and so gets somewhat overlooked, and is now mostly forgotten. It grows in the memory over time, however; it gets better and holds up well not only against other brands, but one’s own evolving palate. And each subsequent tasting expands in the appreciation a bit more until you can’t quite put your finger on it, but somehow it has become a quiet personal favourite on its own terms, and a more valued bottle in the collection than those with seemingly stronger credentials. My sample is now gone after four tries to pin down its elusive and ephemeral impact, but these notes will help me remember its unpretentious quality and the enjoyment I took from it, for a long time to come.

(#1040)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • A second 2002 vintage bottling of 582 bottles at 41.6% and barrel #20070079 was done in September 2012 and is sometimes labelled as a 10 YO.
  • If your interest has been piqued and you’re googling for this thing, I’m sorry to report that you’ll find thin pickings. Rum-X doesn’t list it, neither does Rum Ratings — even Whiskyfun, which has more Clement reviews than anyone, hasn’t got this one. And whatever shops you turn up in the search will likely be pointing to a 10YO, a 15YO or some other variant with a different strength or year of make, so no luck there.  In fact, the only unambiguous reference you will find is a 2015 review on the site of Master Quill (mostly whiskies to be sure, but quite a lot of rums as well), and that’s no surprise at all since he was the source of this sample, more than five years ago (so a big thank you to the man, even if it’s late in coming).
  • My photo of the sample didn’t work out and so I copied the one from Master Quill’s review.
Oct 232023
 

 

Originally published as a standalone review in October 2023; revised and extended to Key Rums series in January 2024

Few rums from India make a splash in the western world, and that’s a peculiar thing since it’s entirely possible they were among the first people to actually make any kind of spirit from sugar cane (although it’s likely the crown goes to the Iranians whose “good wine of sugar” Marco Polo supposedly enjoyed on his travels) and for sure have some of the best selling rum brands on the planet. We may not hear of them very often but McDowell’s No. 1. Contessa, Old Port, Hercules, Two Indies and a few others, have a huge market footprint out east.

Historically, rum in India has always been a down-market tipple for the masses, largely because it lacked the snooty pretensions of whiskies (though they, for decades, laboured under similar perceptions until they changed their game), and was made in large quantities using relatively easily available molasses, panela or cane juice. On a larger scale, rum was popular when made by distilling companies because its method of production was essentially column still near-neutral alcohol plus additives for taste: cheap and easy to make at scale, priced to sell. This made rum do well at the rural level — where the majority of Indians still live — but cut no ice at all in the rest of the world.

Among the first to break this mould was the company of Mohan Meakin (previously Dyer Meakin), which was established in the mid-1800s. They made at least some kind of rum all along, but it was the 1950s that were key: in December 1954 they released the first Old Monk rum to the armed forces in its signature Old Parr-style bottle, aged around seven years. It shattered class barriers by being marketed not just the rank and file jawans but to the officer class, and gave rum as a whole a boost by making it more socially acceptable, even respectable, up the social scale.

From that humble beginning sprang a brand of uncommon durability and popularity. For the next fifty years, anchored by huge sales to the military and canny placement in five-star hotels, Old Monk rum was the most popular brand of rum in India, with increasing sales abroad. It became the spirit of choice among university students for decades, and as these educated young people fanned out and emigrated across the world they brought their nostalgic love for the rum with them, establishing the brand in new countries where the company set up distribution arrangements in many countries to satisfy this demand. For a while, so strong was cultural attachment to Old Monk that the global diaspora regularly requested relatives bring some with them when they came visiting, or brought it back themselves when they did. 

Yet even if its sales were gargantuan (for decades, it was one of the five top selling rums in the world), outside a few major regional, internal and historical markets, it was never a truly global widespread seller; one rarely if ever saw the squat and tubby bottles at international spirits or bar expos, and though I’ve passed the vatted 7YO several times on local shelves in several countries, I’ve never seen it at a single festival. And the general opinion of those modern reviewers who have tried it is somewhat dismissive: adjectives like “crude”, “oversweet”, “rough” and “spiced” are common in most write ups I’ve seen, and it’s often relegated it to mixer status, with grudging compliments occasionally thrown in. The Old Monk series of rums, then – and there are quite a few – attract a curious mix of indifference, scorn and loving nostalgia from rum drinkers, some of which is understandable, some less so.  

It continues to be made, however, and continues to sell and for all intents and purposes remains almost a cultural institution in India, so its importance to understanding rum around the world must be accepted. Unlike Appleton, say, it doesn’t look like they have continually tweaked the recipe, and the bottle we see nowadays is recognizable the same as the original. It remains a vatted 7 year old rum from molasses, or that nutrient rich variant called jaggery, which we’ve met before (opinions vary, and the company isn’t telling).I don’t know what the original strength was back when it was first introduced, but at least for the last decade and a half I’ve only seen it sold at 42.8%. Let’s take it as it is, then, and move on.

As a rum it presses all the right buttons.  You can smell molasses, sandalwood, some tar, and overripe bananas, plus some tannics. That’s the first pass.  After opening up it reaches further and hits the spice jar: ginger, vanilla, cardamom, cumin, I would say, and some sweet paprika, all of which is nice and heavy and almost perfumed, while never losing sight of the fact that it’s a rum.

On the tongue the taste is dark and medium heavy, with strong notes of salted – almost bitter –  caramel and unsweetened chocolate, coffee grounds, molasses and licorice. The strength is just about right for all this smorgasbord of subcontinental notes and doesn’t burn a whole lot going down, so sipping neat is an option.  It’s not that sweet and there’s that vague spice shelf drifting in from the nose even here. The finish is like that as well,  being mild, short, breathy, warm, and again, redolent of licorice, caramel and spices, plus what the Little Big Caner called a mix of pepsi and jerky (go figure).

If pressed for a comparison, I’d suggest that the Old Monk has a fair bit in common with the dusky heaviness of the Demeraras, or perhaps Goslings and other dark molasses-forward rums. You can sense the similarities with the Amrut’s Two Indies or the Old Port as well; except that it has its own vibe and that might be because it is either (wholly or partly) made from jaggery, or because it really does have something added to it. We don’t know. Old Monk has always been looked at slightly askance, because it’s hard to shake the feeling this is not what we’re used to, not a rum that’s made completely “clean” and something’s been sprinkled in. But honestly, it’s not too bad, though it sometimes feels a little unfinished. I like the offbeat and unusual in rum, and in the main the Old Monk is very much like Amrut’s whiskies are: definitely what they’re supposed to be — a rum in this case —  just with a slight kink and twist to mark them out as noticeably different. On its technical merits and how it noses and tastes I can’t say my score is wrong: but since this is a rum from outside our regular area, there are bound to be variations. 

So with all that, does it deserve to be in the pantheon of those rums I deem “key” to understanding  the spirt? I argue that it is. Firstly it remains immensely popular and among more than just expatriate Indians, and needs to be seen for what it is. Secondly, it has a long history, both as a company and a brand, and shows something of how rum developed outside the more comfortingly familiar regions we extol in every other post on the subject. We need to understand and appreciate more than just rums from the Caribbean and Latin America, and have to learn about profiles that are at odds with our perceptions of how rum should be made, or should taste. No rum that has lasted this long without serious change and still sells this well, can be ignored just because it’s not in current fashion. It needs to be acknowledged as a rum from its region, for its people, maybe even of its time. Amrut conquered the whisky world by making whiskies to global standards.  Old Monk becomes a key rum by resolutely adhering to its own.

(#1035)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • I’m unsure how different the Old Monk Supreme XXX is from this one. Perhaps it’s just the bottle as both are supposedly 7 years old.
  • There’s a lot of backstory to the brand in the company profile, which I strongly recommend taking the time to read.
Jul 312023
 

Antigua Distillers, the makers of the English Harbour brand of rums, has always held a soft spot in my heart, since it was their exceptional 1981 25 YO which kickstarted my desire to not just jot down tasting notes at the Liquorature rum club, but to actually go publish them (it’s review #R-0001).  Over the years that followed I tried as many of their offerings as could be reasonably acquired: their standard five year old and 10 year old rums, the port, madeira and sherry cask experimentals, and some of the High Congener series. Sometime around 2021 they whipped out this massive codpiece of a rum, strong enough to give Victorian ladies and their swains the vapours. It was issued at rompin’ stompin’ kick-ass-and-chew-bubble-gum strength of 73.6% ABV, like nothing else they had ever done before, and as soon as I heard about it, well, it excited my curiosity way beyond reasonable avarice.

The Cœur de Savalle came from the older 4-column savalle still they had installed in 1966 (later replaced – or at least eclipsed – by the John  Dore which went up in 1991); it’s kind of a limited edition but the exact outturn is unclear – what is obvious from even a brief tasting is that it’s one of the most uncompromising beefcake rums English Harbour has ever made. It had its genesis in the mad dreams of the previous master blender and cellar master of the company, who wanted to produce a special off the rails cask-strength rum that showcased the savalle still to the max (hence the title “Heart of the Savalle”). To do so they chucked a higher than usual proof new-make spirit (80%) into eight uncharred  and of course forgot all about it until the new cellar master/master blender found them almost a decade later. At that point the distillate was so good that it was promptly bottled as it was, before they even knew the strength (the labels were printed later).

Smelling it, you can see why they were so excited. Column still or not, the nose on the rum is immense: huge initial fruity vanilla notes meld with tawny salted caramel, chocolate oranges and even some light mint, all biffing your hooter without apology. There’s toffee, blackberries and occasional flashes of leather and coconut shavings, and compared to others of equal strength and greater age, perhaps not a whole lot – but what is there is at least emphatic and clear without any muddling or undue savagery, and remains quite aromatic.

Palate remains quite fierce and spicy on the initial sips; then it quietens down (either some time or some water will help here). Bitter chocolate and hot sweet black tea mix it up with toblerone, crushed almonds and walnuts, plus a tinge of red wine, some cinnamon. There’s also a hint of brine and a pleasant last taste of bananas and light cherries in syrup, which last is thankfully very much in the background and doesn’t ever become cloying.  The finish is long and tangy with both unripe and overripe fruits, some flowers and white chocolate, quite hot but by no means unbearable nor unpleasant.  

All in all, it’s a really good rum, and oddly, the strength is not an issue. Sure it’s spicy, but so are many other rums north of 60%. Here it’s all about the taste and those are vibrant, quivering and alive and give a good account of themselves.  Some smoothening out could have been accomplished with a bit more ageing, but for what it is – a rum in the middle aged sweet spot of taste and texture – there’s nothing at wrong with it, and much that is right.  It walks a fine line between a brawny cane cutter’s after-hours libation and a more elegant sipping experience in the planter’s house, without ever making a case for one over the other.  That’s quite a neat trick and it makes the rum one to savour and enjoy, no matter where you have it, or how. I quite liked it.

(#1014)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The Rumcast episode #83 took a deep dive into English Harbour’s history and various releases over time, including the backstory of this rum at around the 57 minute mark.
  • The naming of English Harbour was necessary because in the 1980s some enterprising American trademarked the name in the US, just as Antigua Distillers was seeking to export its increasingly popular (Cavalier) rums there. The new name came from the location of a famous annual regatta held on the island, but interestingly, Antiguans themselves initially disliked the title, preferring the old one – this led to Cavalier remaining the rum of choice on the island, while English Harbour is the brand name for the exports.
  • Eight barrels were filled so assuming an average outturn of 300 bottles per barrel after the eight years, I would hazard a guess that the final outturn was around 2400 bottles, give or take.

Brief company background

It’s been a while so a reminder of the salient details is useful for those not familiar with the company. English Harbour rums are made by Antigua Distillers: this company was founded in 1933 as a collective enterprise funded by several Portuguese rum shop owners (descendants of indentured servants from Madeira), who pooled their resources to put up a distillery whose output they then shared in proportion to their investment — each then produced a blended rum of their own from that allocation. Acquisition of nine sugar estates followed, rum production flourished in the post-war years, and inevitably Antigua Distillers came up with its own house brands, starting with the Caballero (or Cavalier) Muscovado rum. Over time it morphed and became known as Cavalier rums by the 1950s (as muscovado molasses became harder to come by) and this was itself subsumed into the English Harbour rebranding in 1993, and after which the first famed “1981” was released (the Cavalier brand has not yet been retired completely).

Mar 232023
 

Compagnie des Indes, run by the flamboyant and cheerful Florent Beuchet, was one of the first independent bottlers whose rums I found and started reviewing, along with Rum Nation and the original Renegade and yes, Velier. The small company is still going strong, and after having made its bones with some really good single cask bottlings — I have fond memories of their Indonesian rum, for example — did some very unusual one-offs (Florida, Thailand, Ghana, El Salvador), and also expanded into blends, much as 1423 has done, with names as evocative as Tricorn, Blacklice, Boulet de Canon, Veneragua, Barbagaya, Caraibes, Dominidad, Kaiman and (on my list to try for sure) the Great Whites. Yet, as with most independents, while it is the softer blends that provide the cash flow, it’s the cask bottlings that are deemed the cream of the crop, and form the edifice upon which the Compagnie’s reputation is considered to rest.

The rum for today is one of these: a molasses-based rum from Fiji, distilled in 2010 on a column still, aged seven years there and three years in Europe, resulting in an outturn of 407 bottles, and whose provenance is not disclosed.

The precedent for such demure modesty in the naming is admittedly not new. Sometimes pre-existing sales arrangements with other brands — even the distillery’s own — come with the condition that third party bottlings don’t get to capitalise on the distillery’s name; sometimes it’s because the provenance is not entirely nailed down; sometimes it’s reverse marketing. Whatever the reason, upon further consideration, the amused cynic in me posits that perhaps there’s a good reason for a rum coming from the only rum-making enterprise on Fiji to proclaim it comes from a “Secret Distillery”: the fact that the rum, alas, isn’t that interesting. 

There is, you see, not a whole lot going on with the nose as it stands. Granted 44% isn’t the strongest rum I’ve ever tried, and indeed it was the puniest of the rums in that evening’s first flight. Yet even taking that into account the rum is something of a lightweight: some light apples, cider and yoghurt, followed by wispy, watery fruits (pears, watermelon, papaya), some grapes, and licorice. There’s a line of sugar cane sap and lemon meringue pie here and there, just difficult to come to grips with and it wafts away too quickly. There should be more to a sipping rum from one barrel than a nose this ephemeral, I’m thinking.

Tasting it reinforces this impression of “move along folks, nothing to see here.” The rum has a firm feel on the tongue, yet you’d be hard pressed to discourse on any single component of what comprises it. Some light, white fruits – guavas, pears, melon – tasting the slightest bit salty at times, overlaid with a whiff of acetone. If you pushed you might hazard a guess that you sense papaya or kiwi fruit, sugar water and maybe a slight briny aspect, akin to salt caramel chocolate. And the finish is just that, a finish, and a quick one at that.  White guavas, a hint of brine, flowers and acetone, all weak and airy and very hard to detect.

Several years ago I tried an earlier one of the Compagnie’s Fiji rums – that one was from 2004, also from South Pacific, also ten years old, also 44%.  At the time it was too new for me to make any sweeping statements about it, though I remarked that it wasn’t quite my cup of tea (for reasons other than those noted here). In the interim there have been quite a few more candidates from the distillery, including those released by Bounty, Samaroli, L’Esprit, TCRL, the Rum Cask, Duncan Taylor, and even the Compagnie a few more times.  None have had this almost indifferent aroma and vague palate, at any strength.

So we know from years of subsequent experience that both the Compagnie and South Pacific can do a whole lot better, and there is rum out there from the distillery which is just shy of magnificent.  Since I know that, I can only assume that the barrel this was aged in was simply exhausted and had nothing left to give except maybe good advice.  My own recommendation, then, is simply that it’s a pass. Fortunately, given the sheer volume and variety of excellent rum that Florent has put out over the last decade, there is no shortage of good and better rums from the Compagnie that can take its place.

(#983)(79/100) ⭐⭐⭐


 

Mar 132023
 

The Bacardi “Diez” – or, to give the rum its full title, the Bacardi Gran Reserva ”Diez” 10 Year Old Extra Rare Gold Rum – is the top of the trio of the company’s mid-level “kind-of” premium range.  Below it are the old workhorses of the añejo, gold, blanco, black, superior and so on; in its playpen also reside the Cuatro and Ocho (and maybe the Reserva Limitada); and above it are the more exclusively minted bottles of the Facundo line – the Paraiso, Neo, Eximo and Exquisito (I am deliberately excluding the relatively new single barrel editions and the Single Cane series as they don’t neatly fall into consistent ranges).

Because of its reasonable (and subsidised) cost, and its decent profile, the Diez was a serious contender for the Key Rums tag which finally went to the Ocho; it didn’t only lose out because of availability, but because overall, I felt it just didn’t come to the table with everything a tropically aged ten year old should. Let’s go straight in and step it through its paces and I’ll try to explain.

The nose starts out reasonably warm, with baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg), smoke, polished leather, some tannic bite and licorice blending nice. Some caramel ice cream, banana, coconut shavings, white chocolate a nice mix of tannic, bitter and sweet held together with the muskier (but faint)  notes of toffee and brown sugar.  It’s workmanlike, but nothing to excite. It’s like a better añejo, really, with some of the edges sanded off and better complexity (which would be the least of what we could expect).

Tastewise, nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing special. Just more of the same old thing, although admittedly quite well done. Vanilla and caramel and molasses lead the charge, with breakfast and baking spices hastening to bolster the centre.  Leather, smoke and some light crisp fruits gallop around the flanks and are moving too quickly – here one minute gone the next – for any kind of serious engagement…they exist to be noticed but not to grapple with. Raisins, plums, some faint apples define the back end and a short and warm finish, and that’s what a ten year old under fifty bucks will get you.

The tech stats weren’t provided earlier in this review because I honestly didn’t think it was necessary: it’s well known that Bacardi’s rums are column still, short fermentation, light rums, whose taste profile comes primarily from expert barrel selection and blend management by the company’s legendary maestros roneros.The rum is a blend of rums aged a minimum of ten years, is 40% and really, were we expecting more? It’s main selling point may just be that price.

Let’s try to sum up. What we have here is a completely fine Bacardi rum, competently made, nicely aged, a decent Latin-style hooch, light, easy drinking, with some taste chops to write home about – even the slightly added dosage doesn’t detract from that, though I think it’s unnecessary, really. Any surprise would be if it wasn’t all those things, and it is indeed a ways above the made-for-the-mixing-proletariat Superior and Gold and Anejo that sell by the tanker load and keep Bacardi’s sales numbers flying high. On top of that, the Diez is demonstrably better than the 4YO “Cuatro”, addressing many of that young premium’s weaknesses: it is more complex, has more going on and seems more suited for the sipper’s glass. 

What it doesn’t do is eclipse the solidity of the 8YO “Ocho” which also ticks many of the same boxes; moreover, the Diez seems content to go down the familiar path of “same but incrementally better,” and is hardly a serious upgrade from any of its junior brethren. The makers seem to have had no inclination to find new worlds to explore or new profiles to demonstrate,  that would show some innovation, a willingness to go off the reservation, if only a little. I find that disappointing. There are enough standard-strength, standard-profiled, standard-priced rums in Bacardi’s stable, and in anyone’s corner shop. If you’re one of the biggest kids on the block, with over a century of experience behind you, you can surely do better than repeat the same old shtick with a new number.

(#980)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • There are few other reviews for balance out there (even reddit is sparse on the ground here), but no shortage of votes and evaluations. The Rum Howler gave it 90.5 points in 2019; Vinepair’s staff rated it 91 points; two Tastings.com reviewers apparently scored it 94 points apiece in 2022 but since no names are provided and we have no idea who they are, I can’t comment further except to suggest they might do well to broaden their horizons; ¾ of the ratings on RumRatings were 7 out of 10 or better; 77 voters on Flaviar rated it an average of 8.2; and 42 users of Rum-X rated it an average of 70/100 (ouch). Paul Senft, writing for GotRum magazine in August 2019 (the only other full length review I could find), gave it a cautious endorsement while commenting he expected more, and would stick with the Ocho “for a more versatile experience.”
  • It is recommended that you read the reviews of the Cuatro and Ocho for some background thoughts on this trio of Bacardi’s rums.
  • The “nutrition” label on the website says it has 0.5 grams of sugar per serving of 1.5 ozs, which works out to about 11.3 g/L
  • Rum tasted here was the 2009 edition.
Feb 012023
 

Bacardi hardly needs an introduction.  It’s a company of ancient vintage (in rum years), one of the first and remaining big guns of the entire sector, with a storied past from the 19th century, involving the rise of an immigrant family, ruthless business practises, revolution, heartbreak, loss, global expansion and emergence at the other end as one of the great spirits conglomerates in the world. In so doing it has carved a reputation for itself so enormous that one hardly needs to say rum after its name, it is so synonymous and clearly identified with that one single drink.

And yet Bacardi as a whole has a curiously ambivalent relationship with the rum population of today, and the reputation it sports is not without its downside. Their rum is not seen as a stopping point but a start, something to leap beyond, quickly, as soon as one’s wallet can reasonably afford the extra increments that would allow one to buy a true “premium” (by whatever standard people use to define one). For this, to some extent, I blame Bacardi’s modus operandi of relentlessly pushing high-volume, low-quality mass-selling low-priced everyman rums like the Blanca, Gold or even the Superior, into every market possible without regard for improving them much or seeking to colonise a more elevated ethos of quality or premiumisation.

Even if they sell like crazy the flip side is that such ubiquitous cheap rums dilute brand appreciation and make more upscale offerings seem equally lacklustre. These days, rum writers barely acknowledge or review them any longer. And, as many of today’s expanding indies have found, while you certainly need low-priced blue-collar young rums to sell and make cash flow, you also really premium aged rums to seriously develop the brand ito a true quality seller with consumer recognition and appreciation – something Bacardi has singularly failed to do in spite of efforts like the Facundo line, the occasional ultra-expensive halo releases, or the Single Cane brand 1

Whatever our opinion of the Bat, however, we must always consider the groundwork laid by its famed blends from decades past — because among all the dross, we can indeed find the occasional surprise lying like a forgotten gem in the mud and dreck of carelessly made cheap supermarket hooch we see every day.  And one of these is the rebranded Bacardi 8 year old, now called the “Reserva Ocho Rare Gold Rum.”  To my mind it is among the best of the not-quite-upscale rums Bacardi makes, and Bacardi seems to have recognized it also, because they recently established (2021) the Ocho as an anchor of Bacardi’s Premium rums which began releasing variations with different finishes to buff and bolster the line.

The Bacardi Ocho / 8 in all its various guises remains quite affordable, has a solid age statement, has several components of the blend which are older than the youngest 8YO, and even if it’s issued at a lacklustre 40% (when will they move beyond that ridiculous self imposed standard, honestly? Is even 43% or 45% for major broad based releases too much to ask for?) it does have more in its trousers than is generally acknowledged. 

The nose, for example, shows that quality, if perhaps too subtly for some.  Even at that milquetoast strength, one can detect cinnamon, woodiness, leather, licorice, vanilla, and citrus. It’s reasonably complex for 40% – the sly and subtle fruity notes which dance and play and disappear just as soon as one comes to grips with them are a case in point – but after the off-kilter memory of the Exclusiva, it remains a somewhat less memorable dram.  It is, however, clearly and professionally made, a good step above the Gold, or the Cuatro.

The palate is a harder nut to crack. There are definitely tasting notes to be had for the diligent: it is relatively soft, warm, a touch spicy.  There are notes of masala, cumin and cinnamon, standing cheek by jowl with vanilla, a squeeze of lemon zest, mauby bark, strong tea, and a hint of sweetness developing at just the right time.  So you’re getting bitter and sweet, and a nice lick of the tannins from the barrel, offset to some extent by softer, more fruity notes.  I just wish there were more, and the low strength makes the short and light finish a rather pallid affair – it’s aromatic, woody, tannic, tobacco-infused, with some sweet to balance things off…there’s just not enough of it, I think.

For reasons surpassing my understanding, the whole rum gives this impression of trying hard to be less when it’s actually more, a perception that dogs the brand nowadays. Most reviewers don’t know what to do about the company’s wares, really, and in fact many new writers and commentators walk straight past the company and jump straight into favoured indie bottlers and expensive new craft rums (I envy them this ability, sometimes) without often stopping to wonder at the strange longevity and quality of what, at first sight, doesn’t seem to be much. It’s gotten to the point where any crowd pleasing column-still rum made by a massive conglomerate is not usually seen as a member of the Key Rums pantheon.

Yet I believe that there are reasons why a rum like this can not only be called key, but serious. It does, of course, tick all the boxes.  It is affordable, whatever one might say about the source of that low cost. It is available, a point to which my personal travels can attest – I’ve found the rum from the small speakeasies of Alaska and the Yukon to the bars of Central Asia, for illicit sale in the Middle East and just about everywhere in between.  The Bacardi Gold is even more easily gotten (and even cheaper) but when it comes to some decent sipping quality of rum, it’s either the 8 or the 10 and for my money, given its decades-long availability everywhere I looked (or didn’t), the 8 gets it because the ten just doesn’t cut the mustard for me in the same way.

Bacardi’s rums as they have been for ages, don’t rely overmuch on flavours developed by fermentation or prioritise the distillation apparatus the way new kids on the block do; their expertise is in wood management, careful barrel usage and selection, and then the subsequent blending. They are based on the skill of maestros roneros with oodles of experience and decades of background in the craft.  What comes out the other end can’t be denied, and when I consider the oft-unacknowledged chops of the Ocho as one of the premiere Spanish heritage style rums of the world, it is clear that it isn’t just a key rum for me, but a benchmark against which I rate many others of the style. And that’s no mean achievement for a brand often dismissed as yesterday’s leftovers.  As I’ve tried to make clear here, it really shouldn’t be,

(#969)(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The blend is tweaked slightly but remeins quite consistent.  Of the five different labels shown in the picture, only the green rye-finish edition is substantially and noticeably different.
  • Although made in Puerto Rico, I argue it is less a local Key Rum emblematic of the island, than a global one.
Jan 022023
 

Having now looked at a few standard strength agricola rums from Madeira, it’s clear that for their own “standard line” company bottlings, many remain wedded to mass-audience standards that still appeal – for price and availability and approachability reasons, no doubt – to the general public. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that they don’t always provide that intensity of taste, that serious jolt of flavour, that something of a more robust strength provides.

A good example of the potential of moving beyond G-Rated crowd-pleasers is this six year old 2015-distilled Engenhos do Norte rum agricola, which was selected by and perhaps made for Rum Artesanal from Germany. Engenhos apparently does this for several indie bottlers (a search of Rum-X turns up most of them), though I’m unclear as to the exact mechanics, since it remains a “970” branded rum, with RA noted as the company that chose it. In any event, it is cane juice, column still, bottled at a solid 51.3%, and at that proof point, the comparison with the laid back and inoffensive “North” rums that we’ve looked at before (here, here and here) is really quite apparent – especially when tried side by side.

Consider first the nose: it is instantly pungent, rather thick and redolent of ripe dark fruits – prunes, plums, raisins, peaches in syrup, and has that slight tart sourness of ripe Kenyan mangoes.  It smells much firmer and more solidly constructed than Engenhos’s standard  agricolas from the North brand line. It remains, for most of the duration one smells it, somewhat thickly sweet mixed with light citrus and crisper fruit, and thankfully never cloying. Whispers of Danish pastries, caramel, vanilla, guavas and a faint touch of orange zest and a whiff of rubber round things out nicely

Tasting it is a pleasant experience, retreading the road of the nose, with a few short detours here and there. For example, although quite mouth-coating, hot and intense (at first), it’s also dry and a little tannic. Flavours of chocolate oranges and dates emerge, combining sweetness, fruitiness and nuttiness in a nice amalgam; this is set off and then overtaken by peaches, very ripe red apples, rose petals, raisins and a touch of caramel, vanilla and cinnamon, with just a tiny hint of cayenne pepper lurking behind it all. It all leads to an easy-going medium long finish combining fruits, some sugar cane juice on the edge of getting sour, and spices. It’s not sharp at all, rather lacking in body, but I submit that the strength overall is reasonably well chosen for the rum that ends up in the glass.

Compared to the others Engenhos do Norte agricolas, the nose is more intense, which is hardly a surprise, but the palate remained thin, which is. Still, I liked how it developed into a sort of spoiled fruit salad drizzled with sugar and caramel at first, then gets taken over by a slightly more traditional profile. Well constructed overall, it still lacks an individualism that I find odd – even after running several of these Madeiran rums side by side, I still can’t quite put my finger on any aspect of them that identifies the terroire specifically, which indicates more research is probably needed (by me). Too, although it is — and others are — a rum from cane juice, not all of the light green herbaceousness comes through in the sampling, and they exhibit a solidity at odds with the effervescent clarity and brightness most true agricoles display.

But all that aside, it’s a good mid-range rum, a tasty treat and it’s well selected. It shows off the potential of higher proofed rums, and marries a strong series of tastes to a deep and yet also occasionally sprightly series of lighter elements. The important thing is that it doesn’t play coy, doesn’t try to hide anything – everything you taste is on the table for you to accept, or not. On balance, I’d go with the former, because compared with the other rums from the company I’ve tried, they got a lot more right than wrong with this one.

(#959)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • 258 bottle outturn
  • The “970” refers to the year the line was first introduced.  EdN provided the detail, without explaining why they dropped the “1”.

Dec 082022
 

Rumaniacs Review #142 | 0957

As noted before (and repeated below for the curious), Cadenhead has three different bottle ranges, each of which has progressively less information than the one before it: the Dated Distillations, the Green Labels and the Caribbean blends. 

The Green Label releases are always 46% and issued on no schedule; their labels and the company website provides so little information on past releases that one has to take some stuff on faith — in this case, my friend Sascha Junkert (the sample originator) noted it was a 10 YO bottled in 2000, although even the best resource on Cadenhead’s older bottlings, Marco Freyr, cannot verify the dates in his detailed post on the company and the accompanying bottle list, and Rum-X only mentions one distilled in 1998. There are only a handful of Green Label 10 YO rums from Guyana / Demerara at all, and the 2000 reported date doesn’t line up for any other published resource – when they bother, most mention 1998-2002 as distillation dates. So some caution is in order.

What’s particularly irritating about the label in this instance is that it lacks any information not only about the dates and the still(s), but also the casks – and so here one has to be careful, because there are two types of this 10YO Demerara: one “standard” release, and one matured in Laphroaig casks.  How to tell the difference?  The Laph aged version is much paler and has a strip taped vertically across the screw top like a tax strip.  Hardly the epitome of elegant and complete information provision now, is it.

The Laphroaig aged expression. Note the identifying strip at top.

Colour – Pale yellow

Strength – 46%

Nose – Dry, dusty, with notes of anise and rotting fruits: one can only wonder what still this came off of.  Salt butter, licorice, leather, tannins and smoke predominate, but there is little rich dark fruitiness in evidence.  Some pencil shavings, sawdust, glue and acetone, and the bite of unsweetened tea that’s too strong.

Palate – Continues the action of the sweet bubble gum, acetones, nail polish and glue, plus some plasticine – not unpleasant, just not very rum-like.  Also the pencil shavings, sawdust and varnish keep coming, and after a while, some green fruits: apples, soursop, grapes.  At the last, one can sense candied oranges, caramel bon bons, and more very strong and barely-sweetened black tea teetering on the edge of bitterness.

Finish – Reasonably long, reasonably flavourful, quite thin.  Mostly licorice, caramel, tannins and a touch of unidentifiable fruit.

Thoughts – It’s not often appreciated how much we pre-judge and line up our expectations for a rum based on what we are told about it, or what’s on the label.  Here it’s frustrating to get so little, but it does focus the attention and allow an unblinking, cold-eyed view to be expressed.  In fine, it’s an average product: quite drinkable, decent strength, enough flavours not to bore, too few to stand out in any way. It’s issued for the mid range, and there it resolutely stays, seeking not to rise above its station

(82/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • The three ranges of Cadenhead’s releases are:
    • 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 from the company (aside from a 1939-distilled Green Label from Ago).  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 from multiple distilleries (or stills, or both), mostly from around the Caribbean and Central/South America; a few other countries have been added in the 2020s.  Here you get less detail than the DDs, mostly just the country, the age and the strength, which is always 46% ABV. THey had puke yellow labels with green and red accents for a long time, but now they’re green for real, as they had been back in the beginning.
    • Classic Blended Rum; a blend of Caribbean rums, location never identified, age never stated (anywhere), usually bottled at around 50% ABV. You takes your chances with these, and just a single one ever crossed my path
    • Strictly speaking there is a fourth type sometimes referred to as a “Living Cask” which is a kind of personalized shop-by-shop infinity bottle.  I’ve only tried one of these, though several are supposedly in existence.
  • These older Cadenhead’s series with the puke yellow and green labels are a vanishing breed so I think the classification in the Rumaniacs is appropriate.
  • The pot-column still tagging / categorization is an assumption based on the way it tasted.  I think it’s an Enmore and Versailles blend, but again, no hard evidence aside from my senses.

 

Oct 052022
 

Even after the decade I’ve spent writing about Velier’s rums, the company still manages to pull a rabbit out of its hat and surprise me when I least expect it, and the new Habitation Velier Amrut rum from India is this year’s contender for the rum I most wanted to try, the moment I saw Steve Magarry’s post about it on FB in September of 2022 (it popped up at Paris’s WhiskyLive a week later). Because, consider what a singular rum this is, and how many fascinating strands of the rum world it pulls together:  

It’s a pot still rum, from the HV line (which as you know, I consider a hugely important one) and an intersection with La Maison du Whisky’s “Antipodes” line of spirits – and therefore suggests, as the Indian Ocean series also did, that there is a move by independent bottlers to go further afield to new and unexplored territory in sourcing their barrels1.

In that vein, then, it’s also the only independent bottling of a rum from India itself that has crossed my path since Alt-Enderle’s “India” rum from Germany, back in 2014 (and that one was questionable). And it’s also not made by some no-name, just-opened small distillery with a single small pot still run by a pair of young enthusiastic backpacking European exiles, but a major whisky making house (one that my buddy in Calgary, Curt Robinson, just loves) which makes a popular rum line of its own. 

Thirdly, and perhaps as important, it highlights an emergent (and still relatively small) trend towards using other sources of sugar cane and its derivatives to make rum – in this case it’s not juice, not molasses, not vesou or ‘honey’, but the unrefined, nutrient-rich sugar known as jaggery.  We have met it before from India and always from the same company that makes this rum: Amrut (though I sometimes suspect Old Monk from Mohan Meakin may also use it). And yet even to say jaggery is only used (or made) in India is incorrect, because unrefined sugar of this kind is made around the world. In the Philippine Cordilleras it is inti, in Malaysia it is known as gula melaka and Thailand as namtan tanode; it’s used in making kokuto shochu in Japan and charandas in Mexico (where it called panela), and in both these latter cases the resultant is, while recognizably a rum, also different and completely fascinating. 

Years ago I heard stories about Luca wandering around India when the Indian Ocean series was being assembled in 2018, and there were always rumours that the series was never meant to be just two bottlings: but he never found the proper rums from major distilleries in India that he felt warranted inclusion – they were not pot still, not interesting enough, had additions, were too young, or whatever.  Yet clearly he had identified something at that stage and it was simply not ready then, because the Bangalore-based distillery of Amrut gave him a single barrel of pure jaggery-based rum to bottle in 2022, and this is it. Pot still, 62.8%, 7 years old, ex-bourbon barrel aged, aged in India. And it’s really quite something.

If aroma had a colour, I’d call this “gold”. It smells like a warm tropical evening with the dappled and fading light breaking through the trees in orange and yellow-brown. It’s a high ABV rum, sure, yet all one gets on that nose is ease and relaxation, molasses, vanilla, coconut shavings, coffee grounds, some freshly sawn wood and the firmness of an anvil wrapped in a feather blanket. There are also some fruits hovering around the edges of awareness – a mix of oranges, sugar cane, fleshy stoned fruit (very ripe) and spices like cumin, cinnamon and thyme held way way back, with just enough making it through to tease. It’s one of those rums that invites sustained nosing.

The taste presents more crisply, with somewhat more force, which I argue is exactly the way it should be. Like other Indian rums I recall, it shows off honey, maple syrup, licorice for the sweet stuff, then balances that with the freshness and tartness of pineapple, strawberries, ripe peaches and apricots a fat ripe yellow mango bursting with juice, and an intriguing line of spices (cumin and cinnamon), minerals and light ashiness that together are just different enough to excite, while not so strong as to derail the experience. Attention should also be drawn to a really nice and long finish, which has the sweet and salt of a caramel-laden latte, but is mostly musky and fruity, with some cinnamon, brine, light florals and brown sugar. 

LMDW Catalogue Entry (c) LMDW (click to expand)

A rum like this has to navigate a fine line, since it is not made for indigenous consumers or drinkers from the diaspora — like Amrut’s Two Indies or Old Port Deluxe (or the Old Monk itself, for that matter) — in a region where additives and spicing up do not attract quite the same opprobrium as they do elsewhere. It’s aimed at a western audience which is likely to be unfamiliar with such products and has its own criteria, and so an unadded-to spirit which is clearly a rum is a must…yet at the same time it must also present its own artisanal nature and country’s distilling ethos to show its differences from western-hemisphere rums. It can’t be just another Caribbean rum-wannabe, but its own product, made its own way, hewing to its makers’ ideals and own local tastes.

By that standard, all I can say is it succeeded swimmingly.  I thought it was an amazing, new, fresh and all-round tasty rum, one that was familiar enough to enjoy, strange enough to enthral, flavourful enough to remember (and then some). Taste, complexity, balance, assembly, they were all quite top notch. It was a rum I wish I could have had more of right there. Habitation Velier’s Amrut may not point the way to a third major source of rum raw materials, and never be more than a niche market product as it is – rum folks are as clannish as the Scots when clinging to their favourites – yet I think we may be witnessing another front being opened in the ever widening battle to make rums more interesting, more global, more unique — and, at end, perhaps even more respected. At the very least, even if none of those things appeal or interest you, try the rum itself, just for itself, as it is.  It’s really damned fine.

(#941)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The photograph from the catalogue which has been circulating on social media shows 65% ABV and a 285-bottle outturn.  This was an early facsimile issued for inclusion in the catalogue, printed prior to the final bottling The actual strength as issued is 62.8% and there is only one bottling, not two. Outturn is 130 bottles (per the label). I was sampling from Bottle #1. What happened to the other 155 bottles they had estimated when doing the publicity photo is unknown
  • Completely made, aged and bottled in India. The humourist in me wants to ask, does this qualify as continental or tropical ageing?
  • The Velier webpage has not yet been updated for this rum; when it is, you can find it here.
Sep 142022
 

Based on really really true events, which may or may not be factual….

“A column still can produce this!” smirked Indy as he poured me a generous dram of the seven year old SBS Antiguan hooch and handed it over, daring me to refuse and making sure my head was bowed and cap reverently doffed. I imagine he would not have been displeased with some genuflection, so chuffed was he – and others – with this rum.  

I considered my glass carefully, pen poised over the famed Little Black Book of Tasting Notes, trying to focus yet also look everywhere at once, because I was in the basement bar of The Proofing Room in London, there was a lot going around me at the same time, a ton of rum chums were in attendance, and the rum was quite a handful to unpack at short notice.

I had landed in the UK a few hours before (two hours late), scampered to my fleabag hotel, dumped my stuff, ran over the road to TWE to get some tasting glasses (shout out to Kelvin who was super helpful and fun to hang with in the short time I had there), then back out to meet the my vagrant itinerant friend Richard Nicholson (of NZ Rum Society fame) at the Black Parrot rum bar, and then, after sampling five or six rums, we high-tailed it over to the ‘Room where Kris Von Stedingk was magisterially holding forth on the new 2022 range of rums released by the Danish outfit of 1423. I was out of breath even before sidling in.

The joint was peppered with Visiting Royalty of Rum Geekdom: Dan Greifer was tending bar, Andrew Nicolls was feverishly making daiquiris with rum from his own brand of William George, Kit Carruthers of Ninefold was soaking up info and a glass with equal gusto, Keegan Menezes was down at the back, Indy and Jazz Singh of Skylark Spirits darting around making sure everyone had a charged glass, Vicki Ilankovan of Sated Online was mingling with her trademarked vivacity and energy, while others were calling hellos and pressing the flesh from all corners of the bar. And as Kris was in fine form with his presentation and we were derailing his spiel, Richard and I guiltily avoided his disapproving glare and snuck down to the back where the hoods huddle, and set up shop there.

I was glad it was the Antigua I started with, because that island’s distillery has been making great strides in its own experimental small batch production, dating right back to the work they were doing with the sherry cask edition back in 2016.  What I had here was a rum they sold to 1423 – that Danish outfit, you’ll recall, which is part owned by Josh Singh, the benevolent buddha of badass we left at Paris’s Maria Loca bar in 2019 but who went AWOL for this one. Antigua Distillers not only produced the subject of my very first review (the 1981 English Harbour 25YO) but has a new high-congener, full-proofed rum of its own that is supposedly off the scale and which I’ve been lusting after ever since it was released. This rum was one of its progeny.

I tried to listen to Kris rattle off the specs for the rum because he was an interesting and engaging speaker, but the serious rum convo (i.e., the “party”) in my corner was so loud (which was all Richard’s fault, I swear, the guy is just so noisy!) that I could barely hear him, and evidently Kris couldn’t either because he shouted at us to pipe down in best Ratzo style — “I’m workin’ here!” — so he could keep with the program and inform the populace and maybe sell some damned rum. We all flipped him the bird and shouted cheerfully ribald insults, then shut up. I started nosing, and then scribbling. Even at play, the ‘Caner has to work sometimes, alas.

The nose of this kinetically powered 64.9% ex-bourbon-barrel aged rum was aromatic to a fault, and demonstrated once again that well assembled column still rums can be the equal of any other kind (even if just one barrel’s outturn).  It smelled of vanilla ice cream, bubble gum, strawberries and an amazingly pungent mix of both light and heavier fruits like watermelon, green apples, grapes, peaches, and plums.  Into this was interspersed more neutral aromas of bananas, pears and papaya, and a sort of rich whipped cream that would drive a cat to ecstasy. Even with the distractions of more rums, more mixes and the loud hum of conversation, I was able to appreciate a real mastery of the craft with what came out of that bottle.

All this went into the Book with some haste, because things were moving fast, and the bar surface in front of me kept filling up with more and new glasses that had to be guarded from the potential depredations of light-and-sticky-fingered rum enthusiasts (we are not known for respecting the finer points of personal property when it comes to the good stuff). Andrew, enthusiastic as anything, kept making more William George daiquiris (which were really good — but even a tippler as practised at pilfering as Richard had trouble keeping up with the rollout), and because Kris was moving smartly along with his presentation, Jazz and Indy continued bringing more and more SBS rums to us back-bench louts. Brazil, Denmark, Jamaica, Venezuela, Guyana, French Antilles…we had a minor United Nations of Rum going on here. Every time they poured another sample — which joined its partners on the countertop in front of me in an ever-expanding lineup —  they observed how slow I was going, and regarded me with the sorrowful disappointment of skilled guilt-trippers – “What, Lance, is what we’re doing here not good enough for you?” “You don’t like SBS any more or what?” and (more cuttingly) “Eh eh, bai, I thought you were a pro, man!” (that stung).

I hastily concentrated on moving on to the taste, and here I must simply observe how vibrant and alive the rum was. Sharp — of course it was — and hot, yet that dissipated quickly, and the tastes were at all times there, thrumming, compelling, well defined and completely solid. And there were lots of them. Tart fruits notes of soft yellow mangos, soursop, ripe gooseberries, strawberries, dark cherries and almost overripe pineapple started the party off. These were balanced by nutty flavours combined with unsweetened chocolate, caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee grounds and even a touch of herbs and spices (dill and cumin). Under it all was bananas and the creaminess of a sweet caramel latte which segued beautifully into a finish of epic duration, redolent of the sweetness of sugar cane, the muskiness of caramel and molasses, and the slight bitterness of freshly sawn lumber and ground coffee beans.

What’s amazing about the rum is how well it sips, even at that dramatic proof point. There’s no straining for effect, no sense of extra ageing or esterification added for your edification, no vulgar “let’s whip this out shall we?” backdam bragaddocio of codpieces compared (this sort of thing is left to visiting rum chums in seedy rumbars). It’s an astounding, amazing, astonishing rum, one where the initial experiments I tasted all those years ago seem have come to a kind of glorious fruition. I know the distillery has its own branded rums, ramped up, beefed up, torqued up, squirting esters and proofage in all directions, and I’ve been after those for ages.  Until I get one of them, however, this will be a more than adequate substitute. 

It was with some regret that I moved to other rums in the SBS’s lineup for the year – yet for the remainder of my time at the bar I kept a glass of this thing running, and eventually considered it the best of the lot, when it was all over. We laughed and talked and discussed rums and had a whole load of fun dissing each other, and finally the whole thing devolved into a raucous party and jam session which was then relocated to Trailer Happiness after we got chased out of the Proofing Room. Yet I remember this rum so well, even without the tasting notes.  It showed that English Harbour’s Catch of the Day rum from 2018 which I had also enjoyed and continue to regard as an underpriced steal, had been no accident.

So, to wrap up this overlong “review” let me sum up for those who like it brief. SBS’s 7 Year Old 2015 High Congener Antigua rum is frikken’ phenomenal and I’m just annoyed with myself for not grabbing the damned bottle out of Indy’s hands when I had the chance. He might have decked me, and maybe I would have left the bar with head held high and feet held higher…but man, it would have been worth it to get this thing.

(#937)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Initially, based on the lack of disclosed detail on the label and the product sheet, I thought this was not a high congener rum but after the first posting, both Joshua and Kris came up to confirm that yes, it was. “There was no particular reason” for the oversight, Josh said, but my money is on simple forgetfulness, because no sane marketing guy would leave such a juicy tidbit out.  So anyway, I went back and changed the post a little and amended the title to make mention of the fact.
Sep 052022
 

The French island rum makers take ageing in a slightly different direction than most of those elsewhere in the world. A normal Caribbean distiller (actually just about any from anywhere), will take a rum and age it and then issue a blend of X years, and then progressively older ones, year in and year out, with the occasional special edition thrown into the mix. You never know from the main line of El Dorado rum, for example, what year any of them came from, since that’s unimportant – the age is. Ditto for others like Jamaica or St. Lucia or South and Central America, who for the most part follow “the age is the thing” principle for the well-known series of rums they issue. If they release a vintage year, it’s mostly something of a one-off, and even there the age remains the real selling point (if the limited outturn isn’t). 

Not so the guys from Martinique and Guadeloupe and Reunion. There, the idea that some years’ harvests or distillates are simply exceptional has long been an article of faith, and this is the basis for their own vintage releases, called millesimes. There, the age is not completely irrelevant but of lesser significance when compared to the specific year – and where that age is mentioned it’s usually in fine print, and it’s the year of distillation which gets the headline treatment and the Big Font. Which is why Clement’s 1952, 1970 and 1976 vintages are famous but you’d be hard pressed to remember how old any of them is, and ditto for the XO which is a blend of all of them.

The additional quality that makes the modern crop of such millesimes so outstanding (i.e., aside from the perception that the year of origin is so special, and what ageing they do get) is the gradual increase in the proof point at which they are issued.  Back when agricoles were just becoming a thing and in the decades before that when only known on the islands and France, the ABV of 50% — give or take — was a de facto standard.  Nowadays we’re seeing more and more really high proofed agricole rhums topping that by quite a margin, and they’re not only the whites, but aged expressions as well.

A good example of all these concepts is the subject of today’s review: a Guadeloupe rhum from Damoiseau, the millesime 2009, which comfortably hoists a large spiritous codpiece of 66.9% and whose age is mentioned nowhere on the label but is 7 years old according to all references. I’m seeing more and more of these heftily aged brawlers, and only rarely have I found any that stunk – this sure wasn’t one of them, and while the rhum does seem to be somewhat polarizing in the reviews I’ve read, me, I thought it was great.

Consider how it opens on the nose: admittedly, it’s very spicy, very punchy and doesn’t play nice for the first while. Some suggest it be tamed with some water, but I’m too witless for that and masochistically go for the full experience.  Once the fumes burn off it wastes no time, and lets loose a barrage of aromas of rich tawny honey fresh from the comb, flambeed bananas (with the wood-flames still licking up), caramel, bitter chocolate, coffee grounds. And this is before the fruits come in – tart gooseberries, mangoes, green grapes and greener apples, vanilla.  A combination of tart and sweet and musky, infused with cinnamon and cooking spices in a rich and sensuous amalgam that Mrs. Caner would likely swoon over.

As would be no surprise in something this highly proofed, the rhum displays a solid and almost fierce pungency when sipped. The agricole notes come out to play now, and one can taste sweet sugar cane sap; vanilla, pears, more of that burnt-wood-flambeed-banana vibe…and bags and bags of fruits. Pears, watermelon, ripe Thai mangoes, papaya, were the high points, with pastries coming up right behind – apple pie, honey, vanilla, cinnamon, cumin, rosemary, and as if dissatisfied that this still wasn’t enough, it added coffee, cardamom, and french toast (!!). Closing off the whole experience is a finish of real quality – it is long, surprisingly soft, fruity, creamy, redolent of spices, lighter fruits, sugar cane sap and a jam-smeared croissant still hot from the oven.

This is a rhum that I could go on tasting for an entire evening. As it was, I lingered over at the stand at the TWE Rum Show with Chetan of Skylark and the vivacious Clementine of Damoiseau, pretending to chat and admiring Chetan’s virulent blue shirt (which he insisted I mention in my review so…) while sneaking a second and third pour when I hoped they weren’t looking.

The strength is part of the quality of course, but I honestly believe that even if it was released at a more acceptable (i.e., lower) proof point, this is a rhum that would have succeeded like a boss.  The flavours are fierce and distinct and none jar or clash with any other.  The rum tastes completely solid and is a drinkable advertisement for the skill of whoever blended the thing.  It lasts a good long time, it’s not at all savage, and possesses such a gradually unfolding complexity, such a multitude of aromas and tastes, that you just want to take your time with it and keep it going for as long as you can.  I may not always agree with the millesime approach to rum making but when it works as well as this one does, it’s hard to fault the reasoning … and even harder not to buy a few bottles.

(#934)(89/100)


Other notes

  • Although I was and remain enthusiastic, take my opinion with some caution.  Marcus over at Single Cask despised it to the tune of 69 points in January 2021, though on Rum Ratings, four  people gave it a solid 9 (oddly, the standard proofed 42% version was more contentious, with five commentators each giving it a different score ranging from 4 to 10). On the other hand, The Rum Ration rhapsodized in 2020 that it was “one of the best rhums” he’d ever tried, and Alex Sandu of the Rum Barrel in the UK — a notoriously hard marker — gave it a rousing 89/100 in late 2019. It will come down to your personal taste profile, to some extent.
  • There is a 42% version of this rum with pretty much the same label. As far as I know it is simply a reducer version of this one.
Aug 222022
 

There are several worthy candidates for the claim of being the first one from Cuba. Havana Club 7 YO has been a really strong contender based on ubiquity and price, and the Santiago de Cuba 12 YO was also in the running for the same reasons.  When one considers that the core criteria of the series is the Three ‘A’s – Affordability, Approachability and Availability – it would seem a slam dunk to say the HC-7 should get pride of place.  Even the Havana Club 3 YO has had its adherents, though eventually I eliminated it based on several tastings and for its focus in the mixing circuit rather than it worth as a sipper. But the moment, there are several reasons why I feel the Selección de Maestros gets the nod for the first Cuban rum instead of the obvious choice, and ask you to walk with me on this one.

To begin with, it almost equals the HC7 in availability: over the last ten years I have travelled frequently and found the Selección in just about every airport and bar and spirits shop which I have passed through. Though America’s futile Cuban embargo remains in place after fifty years of failure, one can now bring rums from Cuba into the country as an individual, and it is gradually becoming known as one of the premiere Cuban rums, and classed as a premium product there and elsewhere. Since becoming widely available in the UK and Europe and elsewhere in the mid 2010s when it replaced its predecessor the Havana Club Barrel Proof (which I thought was really good as well), it has made a reputation for itself as one of the best Cuban rums outside of the special and limited editions premiums. There is hardly a discussion about Cuba’s best rums that doesn’t bring it up.


Initially the rum surprises with its restraint.  At 45% ABV one expects somewhat more bite and aggressiveness on the nose (especially first thing in the morning), yet overall it is calm and unhurried, and as firm a no-nonsense nanny waking up the kids. It smells of sweet butterscotch, vanilla, some lime leaves and light breakfast spices.  It retains a clean and crisp profile, redolent of olives, a slight bitter saltiness of old leather, and traces of molasses, caramel and brown sugar, together with a touch of coffee grounds.


Most reviewers who have run the rum through its paces seem to agree that if one excludes price, the Seleccion is simply one of the best rums in HC’s stable.  On Rum-X it pips the 7YO by an aggregate of 3 points (71 to 68 as of this writing) and the gap is even wider in Rum Ratings with its longer history, where, of some four hundred respondents, ¾ rate it 7/10 or better (while the Seven gets more ratings, but fewer “high” points). The Fat Rum Pirate scored it four stars in 2014, Rum Gallery 8/10, and in a more recent review, Alex over at the Rum Barrel gave it 73/100 (about 86 points on my scale). 

As a matter of historical and topical interest, the Seleccion rum is not that faux Havana Club made by Bacardi for sale in the US.  That brand – a bastard offspring created by the appallingly careless lapse of the “Havana Club” trademark by the Arechabala family in 1973 – is a copy of the original, and made in Puerto Rico. This one is a true Cuban product, made on the island: it is distilled from molasses and run through a column still before being set to age, and this is where the skill of the maestros roneros comes into play, because here the rum goes through a triple ageing cycle. The first round of ageing to transmute the aguardiente 1into an aged rum then the second round of ageing in used oak barrels (the exact ones used remain unclear) and then the roneros get together like elephants sniffing the wind, chose the best of those and blend them to be aged a third time in new white oak barrels for a quick burst of new flavours to round out the profile.


On the palate the rum is tawny (if that colour could describe a taste). Light white chocolate with almonds, citrus, pears, leather and coffee grounds are the first tastes one gets, a fascinating melange of sweet, sour and salt. The fruits take on more dominance at this stage: raisins, kiwi fruits, papaya, melons, figs and prunes, an interesting combo of both light and fleshy fruits.  Yet at no stage do the tannins quite disappear and they balance off these other notes quite well with some molasses, licorice, peanut butter and brine, never enough to spoil the experience. It all leads to a smooth, tasty finish that combines all these elements into a spicy, tasty conclusion where the most remembered notes are leather, smoke, salt caramel ice cream and some orange zest.


Based purely on how it tastes, sips or mixes, I have to give pride of place to the Seleccion as one of the key flagbearers of the Cuban pantheon, and regret it not a bit. This is just one of those times when I have to concede that going a bit upscale — instead of sticking with the objectively safe choice dictated by the numbers — is the way to go. It’s especially the case when one tries the Seleccion in conjunction with others of similar type: the quality is self evident and just shines through and sometimes the comparison is as stark as night and day. 

Most likely some will note that the cost should disqualify the rum from serious consideration, and that’s a reasonable criticism for a Key Rum, which claims to represent a more egalitarian perspective of value for money, not being a “great” or “classic” ultra-aged legend of a rum with a three figure price tag. The difficulty I have with blindly applying the letter of the restriction, however (even if it’s my own), is not only staying within the spirit of the rules generally, but in the specific definition of what exactly premium or high priced means in this instance.  An average American who may get a 1.75 litre Bacardi rum of good quality for the unconscionably subsidised price of less than twenty bucks, would perhaps consider a premium to start anywhere above $25, and an ultra-premium at twice that.  A European with more access and more indie bottlings on hand (all of which cost more) might consider fifty euros to be a starting point. A rich retiree, or a freshly minted (and unemployed) uni graduate would have completely different monetary criteria, as would most of us.

So that is why, here, I argue that every once in a while we have to bend that rule, go a little higher, spend a little more, in order to get something of real quality.  In a world where “free” seems to be the order of the day – free internet, free social media, free samples, free reviews – it’s sometimes forgotten that real value costs something. It pays for the labour of people who provide that service or that good, and cannot always be just given away. The Havana Club Selección de Maestros is a truly premium rum that tastes truly good, but doesn’t cost a truly premium sum…just a higher one than usual. In the opinion of this reviewer, that extra price translates into a lot of extra premium, and shows, perhaps, that not all rums — whether or not they call themselves premium — can be reduced to or by something as cold as numbers.  Sometimes, it’s more about the experience, and here, that experience is wonderful and a reason as good as any and better than most, to call it one of Cuba’s contributions to the Key Rums of the World.

(#932)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • My thanks to Dawn Davies of the Whisky Exchange in London, who spotted me the bottle of this and the 7YO which I was able to try side by side to effect a true comparison at the 2022 Rum Show. I still owe her for both.
  • The rum is a blend of rums between 8 and 15 years old.
  • The labels have changed over the years but no full scale reformulation has taken place between batches.  Some argue the taste is similar to the original Barrel Proof, as is the production methodology.
Aug 152022
 

Diplomatico is one of those brands that seesaws wildly in the estimation of drinkers, has its determined detractors and equally unmoveable fans, and the opinion one gets for any of the rums in the range is very much dependent on [a] the stance said drinker has with respect to the purported dosage, [b] where they are (North Americans seem to like it more than Europeans do) or [c] what other drink they came to rum from (whisky drinkers will walk away, brandy and cognac fanciers will stick around). All agree though, that more transparency is needed with respect to any additions and until recently this was absent from the company website.

This rum originated somewhere around the mid-teens, I think, when the C-suite at Diplo took a look at the larger rumiverse and decided that their old stalwarts of the Traditional Range – the Anejo, the Plana, the Reserva Exclusiva – and even the upscale Ambassador line, all needed a facelift and some beefing up. New blends like the Mantuano and Seleccion de Familia were issued, the annual single vintage rum was spruced up (with the 2007 12 YO being the first that seems to have a real age statement on it), and in an effort to capitalise on the variety of their rums and their experience, they created a trio of rums that drilled right down to the nuts and bolts of their rums’ basic components. In the French Islands they did this with parcellaires; Diplomatico — like DDL and St. Lucia Distillers — did it with their stills and named them the Distillery Collection. The three rums in this Collection began to become widely available in early 2019.

Whether these new types of rum from an old house succeeded in raising awareness, boosting the casa’s street cred and increasing their sales is debatable. The rums were interesting if all you were drinking was other Diplos…not quite so much when rated by a more international, educated audience as had  been developing since the turn of the century. Yet they were interesting, and after reviewing No.1 (“Kettle Still”) and No. 2 (“Barbet Still”), it left the No.3 “Pot Still” to consider — but at the time of release it was not available for me, then COVID struck, the world shut down, and it wasn’t until I spent a most enjoyable few hours in Dirk Becker’s shop Rum Depot in Berlin in December 2021, that I finally got around to trying it.

Like the others it was a blended 47% ABV, molasses-based rum, aged in ex-bourbon casks for around eight years, and I thought it was quite good, all in all. The nose started right off with a sort of brown, deep, sweet scent of caramel, to which was added light sandalwood and leather. A whiff of aromatic tobacco and florals crept in, and it displayed a nice rounded, easy smell, with complexity that seemed absent at first, but which simply took time to build and emerge.  Although it nosed somewhat softly, after some minutes the whole was redeemed by the crisp clarity of light florals, orange peel and some nicely ripe white fruits like pears and green apples. 

Tasting it continued most of the experiences already nosed. It tasted dark and leathery, with licorice, dried wood chips and a pleasant background of light flowers that balanced well. There was a slight lemony tang to it, the sort of thing sometimes gotten from freshly-washed laundry that had been dried in the hot sun, and behind that was raisins, pears, a hint of pineapple and strawberries, a quick flash of brininess, and the smooth taste of salt caramel ice cream. The finish was the weak point – fairly short even for the proof, and it mostly repeated what I had tried before.  Some licorice, vanilla, citrus, leather, aromatic tobacco, none of which could quite elevate it beyond what had already come…but at least there was something there to notice, and it didn’t sink by being some milquetoast whiff of nothing in particular.

The rum is, to my mind, the best of the three Distillery Collection rums, and while it doesn’t feel stuffed with flavour all the time, it has a staying power and a gradually unfolding sense of complexity that is not to be dismissed out of hand. I think that one’s final perspective of the rum will depend on whether the persistent style which Diplo’s roneros could not seem to shake or get past — that lightness, odd for a pot still rum — is to one’s taste.  

This was also what made the others less, for me: the No. 1 was intriguing if ultimately lacklustre, and as far as I was concerned the No.2 was nothing we hadn’t already seen from others, done better and costing less. The No. 3 Pot Still is better than both…but only by a little. It’s not that any of them were bad in comparison with Diplomatico’s own branded stable – it’s more that they were not as good as the competition they were trying to take on. Only time will tell whether they feel confident enough to keep on releasing more of these – but speaking for myself, I sure hope they do, because these are rums that have enormous potential and will please a lot of people even as they are.

(#930)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Each of the three rums in the Collection has an outturn of 5,000 bottles.  I don’t know if that was all they ever issued or whether this is an annual production run (I suspect it was batch produced and no more was made).
  • As far as I am aware, nothing added here.
  • The picture of the still on the label suggests a double retort pot still. It apparently came from Scotland, was once used to make whisky, and was commissioned at Diplomatico’s facilities in 1959.
  • “Botucal” is the brand name of Diplomatico in Germany.
  • Heartfelt thanks to Dirk Becker and his attentive, knowledgeable and enthusiastic band of stalwarts in Rum Depot, who treated me with patience and courtesy the entire time I was there. Vielen Dank, Leute.
  • Alex’s review over at the Rum Barrel is worth reading, as well as Geoff’s review at the Memphis Rum Club.