Oct 072021
 

In my more whimsical moments, I like to think Richard Seale was sweating a bit as he prepared the Triptych. Bottled in November 2016 and released in the 2017 season, it came right on the heels of the hugely successful and awe-inducing unicorn of the 2006 10 Year Old which had almost immediately ascended to near cult status and stayed there ever since. How could any follow-up match that? It was like coming up on stage after Mighty Liar just finished belting out “She Want Pan” hoping at least not too suck too bad in comparison. He need not have worried — the Triptych flew off the shelves every bit as fast as its predecessor (much to his relief, I’m sure), though in the years that followed people never quite mentioned it in the same hushed tones, with the same awe, and with the same whimpers of regret, as they did the 2006. Some, yes…but not to the same extent.

That may just be a little unfair though, because the Triptych is an enormously satisfying rum, another one of the limited “Collaboration” series between Foursquare and Velier 1 that are notable for their visually elegant simplistic design, their full proof strength and their polysyllabic titles which may have reached their apogee with the Plenipotenziario (while there’s usually a stated rationale behind the choice, I’ve always suspected were a tongue-in-cheek wink at all of us, a sort of private thing between the two men behind it).

It is also a rum that was made to deliberately showcase other aspects of the way a pot-column blend could be made to shine. Some call it “innovation” but honestly, I think the word is tossed around a bit too cavalierly these days, so let’s just say there’s always another way to blend various aged components, and Foursquare are acknowledged masters of the craft.  Most blends are various aged rums, harmoniously mixed together: here, three differently aged elements, or ‘sub-blends’, were joined in a combination – a triptych, get it? – that could be appreciated as balanced synthesis of all. 

These three pieces were [1] a 2004 pot-column blend matured in ex-Bourbon casks [2] a 2005 pot-column blend aged in ex-Madeira and [3] a 2007 pot-column blend matured in brand new (‘virgin’) oak casks. The actual duration of ageing of each before they were blended and then transferred to the final casks for completion of the blending and ageing process, is not known, though Steve James, who has what is probably the most comprehensive background notes on the Triptych, notes that the component aged in virgin oak was aged for six years before transfer (six months is more common due to the active nature of the wood, which in this instance also necessitated a larger proportion of pot still distillate of the blend in these casks).

Clearly this made for a very complex blend of disparate profiles, any one of which could unbalance the whole: the musky, darker notes of the bourbon, the dry sweet acidity of Madeira and the aggressive woody characteristic of new oak casks. At the risk of a spoiler, the rum mostly sailed past these concerns. Nosing it experimentally at first, I was struck by how delicately perfumed it was, quite dry, rather mildly fruity and much more restrained than the solid weight of the Principia that lurked in the glass alongside – this was probably a consequence of the lesser-but-still-solid proof point of 56% ABV. The fruits stayed in the background for most of the experience, and the dominant aspect of the nose was a remarkably restrained woodiness – mild pencil shavings, vanilla, musty books, old cardboard, charcoal, and damp mossy forest floors in the morning. There were also hints of crushed walnuts, almonds and spices like marsala, cumin and rosemary, plus coconut shavings, flambeed bananas and overripe peaches, but these stayed well back throughout.

The rum came into its own on the palate, where even with its relatively few core flavours, it surged to the front with an assurance that proved you don’t need a 99-piece orchestra to play Vivaldi. The rum was thick, rich and – dare we say it? – elegant: it tasted of blood oranges, coconut milk, honey, vanilla and cinnamon on the one hand, and brine, floor polish, cigarette ash (yes, I know how that sounds) on the other, and in the middle there was some sweet sour elements of sauerkraut, licorice, pickles and almonds, all tied together in a bow by a sort of lingering fruitiness difficult to nail down precisely. If the rum had any weakness it might be that the dry finish is relatively lackluster when compared against the complexity of what had preceded it: mostly vanilla, oak, brine, nuts, anise, and little fruit to balance it off.

Clearly the makers, with three aged blends being themselves blended, had to chose between various competing priorities, and balance a lot of different aspects: the various woods and their influence; the presence and absence of salt or sweet or sour or acidity; more strength versus less; the effect of the tannins working with subtler aromatics and esters. That such a tasty rum emerged from all of that is something of a minor miracle, though for my money I felt that the slightly lesser strength made it less indistinct than the stronger and more precisely dialled in coordinates of the 2006 and Principia (which were my comparators along with the Criterion, the 2004 and the Zinfadel).

Perhaps it was too much to hope that the lightning could be trapped in a bottle in quite the same way a second time. The UK bloggers who are so into Foursquare bottlings all claim the thing is as great as the 2006, “just different” but I only agree with the second part of that assessment – it’s different yes, and really good, but nope, not as great.  And the subsequent sales values are telling: as of 2021 the 2006 usually auctions for four figures (outdone only by the Velier 70th Destino which is regularly and reliably approaching two thousand pounds) while the Triptych still goes for around two to three hundred.

All that said, I must admit that in the main, I can’t help but admire the Triptych. It’s no small feat to have blended it. To take several ex-bourbon blends and put those together, or to marry a few aged and unaged components, is one thing. To find a way to merge three distinctly separate and differently-aged pot-column blends, to age that and come out the other end with this rum, is quite another. So much could have gone wrong, and so much didn’t — it’s a testament to the hard work and talent of Richard Seale and his team at Foursquare.

(#856)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • Outturn is 5400 bottles. Based on the youngest aged portion of the blend you could say it’s a 9 YO rum, though the label makes no such statement
  • Given that it came out several years back, clearly others have by now reviewed the rum: Rum Diaries Blog gave it its full throated endorsement and is, as noted, the most deeply informative article available; The Fat Rum Pirate’s 4½-star review is very good; Single Cask Rum was more dismissive with a 78/100 score, and good background notes – I particularly liked his point about the pre-sales hype coming from the perception that it was a Foursquare/Velier product (based on the label) when in fact this was not the case (it was entirely Foursquare’s work). The Rum Shop Boy loved it to the tune of 97 points, while Rum Revelations awarded 94 in a comparative tasting and Serge gave what for him is a seriously good rating of 90.
  • I do indeed have a bottle of the Triptych, but the review was done from a sample provided by Marco Freyr.  Big hat tip, mein freund….

Historical Note

I’ve remarked on this before, most recently in the opinion piece on flipping, but a recap is in order: when the 2006 ten year old was released in 2016, it flew off the shelves so fast that it became a sort of rueful joke that all online establishments sold out five minutes before the damn things went on sale.  

This situation angered a lot of people, because not only did it seem as if speculators or hoarders were buying however much they wanted (and indeed, being allowed to, thereby reducing what was available for people who genuinely wanted to drink the things and share the experience) but almost immediately bottles turned up on the FB trading clubs at highly inflated prices — this was before they were mostly closed down and the action shifted to the emergent auction sites like Rum Auctioneer.

This was seen as a piss-poor allocation and sales issue and some very annoyed posts were aimed at Velier and Foursquare. By the time the Triptych came out, not only were twice as many bottles released, but Richard and Luca came up with a better method of allocation that was the forerunner of the current systems now in play for many of their limited releases.  And that’s on top of Richard’s own personal muling services around the festival circuit, to make sure the uber-fans got at least a sample, if not a whole bottle (which always impressed me mightily, since I don’t know any other producer who would do such a thing).


 

Sep 302021
 

After only four years, the Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve rum has become so quietly ubiquitous, so well known and so widespread, that the bombshell it and all its brothers dropped on the rum world in 2017 has almost been forgotten. Even in the short time since its coming-out party, it has garnered a serious reputation for itself and reminds us all of the great rums emerging from Jamaica. One of the criteria I have for inclusion in the series is availability and longevity, and less than half a decade of being on the shelves might not strike some as sufficient time to enter the pantheon – but having tried it many times, I am convinced that it will hold its power, and continue to appeal.

My personal contention is that in about 2016 or so, a long-gestating tectonic shift started to gather real force, the phenomenon I call The Rise of the New Jamaicans. Appleton, as it had been for a long time, remained the most globally recognized Jamaican name in rum and focused mostly on blends, exported the world over. But by now the colonial model of low cost bulk rum resource extraction from the peripheries which characterized many other distilleries (not just in Jamaica), and which led to value added premium spirits in the central metropole, had been creaking for decades, and finally cracked. In all the major sugar and rum producing areas of the Caribbean, hard hit by falling sugar prices, indigenous producers were taking a good hard look at the constant bulk sales abroad and decided that rather than letting a plethora of re-bottlers and independents reap all the benefits of the rising tide of premiumization, they could get in on the action themselves. 

Worthy Park as a distillery re-emerged on the scene after reopening in 2005. It had been closed since the the 1960s when overproduction of rum had led to the shuttering of several distilleries: Gordon Clarke, a descendant of the family that owned it since 1918, felt the time was ripe to re-establish the brand name and not just make sugar, as the estate had been doing since that time. Rather than refurbish the old equipment, a completely new distillery with wider applications was constructed, and in 2005 the rum began to flow and be laid down for ageing. Bulk sales were established, and occasionally there were also sales of barrels to brokers – this is why we saw the SMWS, L’Esprit, Compagnie des Indes, Mezan, Velier, Rum Nation and 1423 popping up with indie releases for years, and third party contract rums like Doctor Bird coming across our sightlines with increasing frequency. And that’s not even counting Bacardi’s foray into the limited market with the embarrassingly indifferent money-grab of the Single Cane edition.

WP, once they got going, initially released their own inhouse branded series of rums called RumBar, which were relatively young or unaged bar staples, mixers for the most part. Aimed squarely at Appleton’s market share, these began quietly making waves, but had not yet reached any sort of critical mass, though they did became quite popular in the Jamaican, Caribbean and the North American bar scene. This all got a boost with the Special Cask rums that popped up in the festival circuit in 2017. The Marsala and Oloroso editions were really very good, and rightfully garnered rave reviews: but those were limited releases and sold at higher prices, were positioned as more premium. They were, in the following years, joined by other limited edition aged expressions, often finished, with different marques, and carved themselves a niche in the top end premium segment at prices trending towards three figures.

These were the headliners, but behind all the fancy finishes and exclusive editions and what have you, the blended six year old Single Estate rum1 slowly garnered for itself a quietly serious reputation, just kept on truckin’, was never out of production, and has now become synonymous with WP’s affordable mid-range workhorses (though oddly, it was promoted as an Ultra Premium in Jamaica itself when released there in 2019). It is perhaps a bit rarefied, retailing for around £50 in Europe and between $60-$70 in the US, but I suggest it retains real value when one considers the completely pot still production, and the fierce and uncompromising nature of its profile.

Appleton has always cornered the low-to-midrange market for Jamaican rums with its solidly made, tasty, approachable, affordable, available — and let’s face it, also inoffensive — pot-column blended rums. Worthy Park had no time for any of this wussy stuff, and went gleefully all-in with their 18,000-liter pot still. This shows up clearly the moment one cracks the Single Estate rum: the nose is light, yet presents an intense funky, fruity aroma. There is so much going on here that it behooves one to unpack the thing carefully: there is caramel ice cream, butter and salt, brine and olives.  Also softer bananas, cut with lemon peel and behind that is the mustiness of an old second hand bookstore’s back shelf, or that of a hay barn. Finally, as if thinking “dis t’ing still ain’ got enuff kick-up rumpus” it coughed up a last series of notes of biscuits, cereals, vanilla and some undefined indian spices, just because, y’know, it could.

Some might feel the 45% strength is too too timid, and serves only to restrain and contain the wide panoply of fierce tastes of which the rum is capable (and which some people really want), but perhaps more might have reduced us all to a state of catatonic shock, so let’s be grateful. For a pot still rum like this, I submit it’s probably correct, so it can appeal to a larger mass audience.  So, it’s very warm, stopping just short of hot, and presents initially as slightly sweet, with those musty spices detected on the nose snapping into clearer focus: black pepper, curry, turmeric, masala, plus all the extras of coconut shavings, bananas, citrus, vanilla, and the yeastiness of fresh dark bread. It ends things with a trace of nutmeg, cinnamon and oak, leading into a finish characterized by leather, damp aromatic pipe tobacco, port wine and some fruit

This rum tastes really fine: bitter, salt, sweet, crisp, it hits all the high notes, and if it lacks the extra fillip of finishing / double maturation like the Marsala and Oloroso, that’s no hardship, and it’s completely approachable by a layman. It has those mid-range esters, that higher level of funk, and is something like an amped-up Appleton, yet none of it is excessive, and it presents better, I think, because of the pot still origins and the eschewing of the pot and column blend (which I am slowly coming to realize produces an easier rum…but not always one of individual uniqueness).

Now, it’s a curious thing that there exists an unstated, underground perception that Worthy Park has been playing second fiddle to Hampden all this time. They certainly ferment in the same vat: not only does Hampden also sell bulk rum (and have done so for most of its modern existence), but they have their own estate range of fiery New Jamaican bar staples like Rum Fire and Stolen Overproof…as well as releases by well-known indies like the Compagnie, Renegade, SMWS, Samaroli, Murray McDavid, Romdelux, 1423, Rum Nation and BBR. Add to that the worldwide distribution deal Velier cut with Hampden in 2017 and their slick marketing, and you can see why Worthy Park seemed to be lagging behind and picking up footprints.

But I feel it’s a matter of perception, not degree, or even reality. A Key Rum of any kind is more than just “reputation”. It is a measure of reknown and quality, of an easy ability to move between the worlds of the cocktail and the neat pour, of the insatiable desire of secondary bottlers and bartenders and consumers alike to snag a bottle of the stuff, at a price that can be afforded and leave the buyer think he got the best of the deal. It welcomes, not intimidates, and you don’t have to be an expert to “get it”. By that standard, the Worthy Park workhorse of the Single Estate Reserve is not only one of most flexible and most versatile Jamaicans currently extant, but one of the best rums from the island, period, and a compelling reason to add yet another famed Jamaican distillery to the pantheon. Hampden may one day become a component of the canon as well, but for today, let Worthy Park get all the applause it so richly deserves. Because, me bredren, dem may be likkle, but damn, dem tallawah.

(#854)(87/100)


Other Notes

  • Other candidates I had tasted and considered for this entry in the Key Rums series included the Rum Bar White and Gold, as well as the WP Single Estate 3 and 12 Year Old. I felt the overall quality of this rum for the price, tipped the balance.
Aug 052021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#841)(86/100)


Other notes

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

 

Jul 222021
 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#838)(83/100)


Other Notes

Jul 192021
 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#837)(84.5/100)


Other Notes

Jul 062021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#834)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Bottle #160 of 552 released and since each bottle was/is half a liter, the final volume can be calculated to be about 250 liters.  Taking into account an estimated angel’s share of around 3% over 13 years (assuming European aging) then the original barrel volume would have been around 367 liters or thereabouts which would suggest a barrique, puncheon or butt. If aged in the tropics, even partly, then the original volume would be greater. Not really relevant, but I amuse myself with these little conjectures from time to time.
May 162021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#821)(80/100)


Other notes

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

Historical background

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

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

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

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


 

May 102021
 

In the maelstrom of ongoing indie releases coming at us from every direction almost every month, it’s easy to overlook some of the older rums, or even some of the older companies. Secret Treasures is one of these — I had discovered their charms on the same trip where I found the first Veliers, all those long years ago, at a time when the concept of independent bottlers was a relatively small scale phenomenon. Back then I bought the company’s Enmore 1989, and both Grandma Caner and I liked it so much we polished off the thing in under a week, and started looking around for more.

Over the years I bought a few others, got a few samples and reviewed the few I scored, and then ownership changed.  The last rums Haromex (the new distributor) put out the door  before they changed the ethos of the brand was the twin St Lucian John Dore and Vendome pot still rums in 2014 and subsequent releases were radically different. The company and the Secret Treasures brand has faded from view since then, and few consider their rums great finds (when they consider them at all) as other, newer indies jostle for the place it once held (for a more complete historical picture, see below)

This is where I’m supposed to make some nostalgic Old Fart kind of comment where I wax rhapsodic about the long forgotten and unappreciated rums of yore, undisovered steals and diamonds in the rough which weren’t appreciated at the time by the aggressive young rum pros of today, blah blah blah.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. The rum – a Caroni, one of a few released – fell unaccountably short of the high bar set by Velier and other independents, and remains a forgotten, forgettable curiosity, noted more for the associated name than any intrinsic quality it possesses itself.

Let’s do the tasting, then, to demonstrate why somehow this thing falls down flat. The nose gives a promising indicator of things to come, but which don’t.  It immediately reeks of the characteristic petrol, tar and road asphalt in hot weather which so defines Caroni.  It is dry and sere and surprisingly hot for a near-standard-proofed rum (42% ABV), dark and with notes of sugar water, rubber, acetones, fruits – unripe red cherries and strawberries, pears and ripe green apples.  There is also a touch of vanilla and light molasses, but nothing strong or overpowering.

A salty sweet sugar water greets the tongue with warmth and firmness.  All the fleshy and watery fruits we’re familiar with parade around – pears, watermelons, white guavas, papaya, kiwi fruits, even cucumbers all take a bow.  A trace of olives and occasional whiff of strawberries and petrol are barely noticeable, so one can only wonder where, after such a promising beginning, they all vanished to. Eloped, maybe. Certainly they bailed and left the rum with nothing but memories and a good wish to lead to its inevitably disappointing denouement, which was short, breathy, light and watery, and barely registered some vanilla, brine, a fruit or two and exactly zero points of distinction.

Secret Treasures did put out a few really exceptional rums — their lack of marketing, lack of visibility and lack of distribution mostly relegated them to obscurity (the Enmore 1989 mentioned above is a case in point) — and as is usually the case with small volume bottlers, the outturn of the original line was somewhat hit or miss, and not everything they bottled was gold. This Trini rum was something of a waste of time, for example, weak, unfocused, undistinguished, practically anonymous.  Oh it was a rum all right, identifiable as a Caroni, just not much of one. Perhaps it should have been left in the barrels a few more years. Many more years. And then finished in sherry casks. And then spiced up. Then it might have had a profile I’d actually notice. But then again, maybe not. 

(#819)(78/100)


Other Notes

  • Outturn 1304 bottles.  Distilled 1996, bottled August 2003 in Switzerland. The unproven implication is that it was completely aged in Trinidad.
  • The Ultimate Rum Guide notes it as being a “West Indies Distillery” without further elaboration, and the accompanying photo is wrong. I’ve left them a note to that effect
  • Richard Seale remarked in a FB comment on this review, “Age is an important factor in the latter day success of Caroni. This one may also be blended with neutral spirit – this was a practice in Trinidad – blending an aged rum with neutral spirit but keeping the age claim!”

Historical background

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

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

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

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


 

Apr 222021
 

One of the things that irritates me about this blended rum from Guyana which Rum Nation released in 2019, is the carelessness of the front label design.  I mean, seriously, how is it possible that “British Guyana” can actually be on a rum label in the 21st century, when Guyana has not been British anything since 1966 and when it was, it was spelled “Guiana”? Are designers really that clueless? And lest you think this is just me having a surfeit of my daily snarky-pills, think about it this way: if they couldn’t care enough to get their facts right about stuff so simple, what else is there on the label I can’t trust?

Still: I am grateful that the back label is more informative. Here, it is clearly spelled out that the rum is a blend of distillate from the French Savalle still, the (Enmore) wooden coffey still and the (Port Mourant) double wooden pot still, and this blend was aged for four years in the tropics (in British Guyana, one may assume) before undergoing a secondary European maturation for six years in ex-oloroso casks, and then decanted into 2,715 bottles, each at 56.4% ABV. What this is, then, is a bottling similar to DDL’s own experimental blended Rares, which has dropped completely out of sight since its introduction in 2019. A similar fate appears to have befallen this one since I don’t know the last time I saw one pop up at auction, let alone on social media.

But perhaps it’s an undiscovered steal, so let’s look deeper.  Nose first: it’s surprisingly simple, even straightforward. It’s warm and thick, and represents the wooden stills in fine style – dusty, redolent of breakfast spices, oak and vanilla at first, then allows additional aromas of coffee grounds, raisins, dried orange peel dark fruits, licorice. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the oloroso influence is dominating though, and in fact it seems rather dialled down, which is unexpected for a rum with a six year sleep in sherry barrels.

I do, on the other hand, like the taste. It’s warm and rich and the Enmore still profile – freshly sawn lumber, sawdust, pencil shavings – is clear. Also sour cream, eggnog, and bags of dried, dark fruits (raisins, prunes, dried plums) mix it up with a nice touch of sandalwood. It takes its own sweet time getting the the point and is a little discombobulated throughout, but I can’t argue with the stewed apples, dried orange peel, ripe red guavas and licorice – it’s nice. The finish is quite solid, if unexceptional: it lasts a fair bit, and you’re left with closing notes of licorice, oak chips, vanilla, dried fruit and black cake.

Overall, it’s a good rum, though I believe it tries for too much with the three stills’ distillates and the long sherry barrel ageing.  There’s a lot going on but it doesn’t quite snap together into a harmonious whole. There’s always too much or too little of one or other element here, the sherry influence is inconsistent at best, and it keeps charging around in a confusing mishmash of rum that tastes okay but never settles down to allow us as drinkers to come to grips with it.  This is an observation also levelled at DDL’s experimental rares, by the way, but not Velier’s “blended in the barrel” series of later Guyanese rums which set the bar quite high for such blends. 

Clearing away the dishes, then, consider it as a decent blend, something for those who want to take a flier on an El Dorado rum that isn’t actually one of them, or a less expensive, younger Velier blend.  Think of it as a stronger and slightly older version of ED’s own 8 Year Old, lacking only DDL’s mastery of their blending practice to score higher. That is at best a guarded endorsement, but it’s all the rum really merits

(#814)(82/100)


Background

Rum Nation is that indie rum company founded by Fabio Rossi back in 1999 in Firenze (in NE Italy), and if they ever had a killer app of their own, it was those very old Demeraras and Jamaican “Supreme Lord” rums which were once wrapped in jute sacking and ensconced in wooden boxes. Rum Nation was one of the first of the modern rum independents that created whole ranges of rums and not just one or two single barrel expressions: from affordable starter bottles to ultra-aged products, and if they aged some of their releases in Europe, well, at the time that was hardly considered a disqualifier.

By 2016, however, things had started to change. Velier’s philosophy of pure tropically-aged rums had taken over the conceptual marketplace at the top end of sales, and a host of new and scrappy European independents had emerged to take advantage of rum’s increasing popularity. Rum Nation took on the challenge by creating a new bottle line called the Rare Collection – the standard series of entry level barroom-style bottles remained, but a new design ethos permeated the Rares – sleeker bottles, bright and informative labelling, more limited outturns. In other words, more exclusive. Many of these rums sold well and kept Rum Nation’s reputation flying high.  People of slender means and leaner purses kept buying the annual entry-level releases, while connoisseurs went after the aged Rares.

Two years later, Fabio was getting annoyed at being sidetracked from his core whisky business (he owns Wilson & Morgan, a rebottler), and he felt the indie rum business was more trouble than it was worth. Too, he was noticing the remarkable sales of the Ron Millonario line (a light bodied, rather sweet rum out of Peru), which, on the face of it, should not be anywhere near as successful as it was. And so, finally, he divested himself of the Rum Nation brand altogether, selling out to a small group of Danish investors.  He kept the Millonario brand and has an arrangement to rep RN at various rum festivals (which was how I saw him in 2019 in Berlin), but the era of his involvement with the company formed two decades earlier, is now over.  

…which might explain why the label was done that way.

Apr 112021
 

After a decade of observing the (mostly Europe-based) independent bottlers, I think it can be said with some assurance that they tend to stick with The Tried and True in their first years. In other words, they source and release rums from the canonical distilleries in the familiar countries – Guyana, Barbados, St. Lucia, or Jamaica, with occasional fliers from Belize, Cuba, Fiji, Australia or Trinidad being seen as second order efforts.

When it comes to distinguishing themselves from the herd, few show much real imagination.  Oh, for sure the Compagnie des Indes releases private blends like the Boulet de Canon and Dominador (and released a very fine Indonesian arrack several years ago); Rom Deluxe goes to the max with its massively proofed Jamaican DOK, L’Esprit does some amazing white rums, and several indies find a way to get rums aged for nearly three decades into their bottles – I merely submit this is more and better of the same. Truly new products that showcase something different are actually in rather short supply.

When it comes to doing something original, then, the Boutique-y Rum Company – a division of Atom Brands in the UK, who also run the Masters of Malt website – is one to keep an eye on. Not only are they releasing rums from the “standard” countries, but they seem to really try to go someplace new – consider their Issan rum, the Labourdonnais, the O Reizinho or the Colombian Casa Santana. Those are rums from niche distilleries many have never even heard of before, and to add spice to the mix, there is of course the cool label design done by Jim’ll Paint It which are bright, clever, funny and chock full of little easter eggs for the knowledgeable.

Which leads us to this one. The Engenhos do Norte distillery is located in Madeira, an island considered part of Portugal (even though geographically it’s closer to Africa) and one of the few places outside the French islands that can use the term agricole legally. The rum is derived from cane run through a crusher powered by a steam engine (that’s what the label shows), fermented for about 4-5 days, passed through a columnar barbet still and then left to age in French oak barrels.  So although it doesn’t say so, it’s an aged rhum agricole. 1395 bottles were released, at a firm but not over-strong 48.8%, and the last I checked it was still selling for around forty quid which I think is a pretty good deal

Tasting notes. The nose is nice.  At under 50% not too much sharpness, just a good solid heat, redolent of soda, fanta, coca cola and strawberries.  There’s a trace of coffee and rye bread, and also a nice fruity background of apples, green grapes, yellow mangoes and kiwi fruit.  It develops well and no fault can found with the balance among these disparate elements.

I also like the way it tastes. It’s initially dry and peppery, but also crisp, tasting of marshmallows, and tart white fruits like guavas, Thai mangoes, unripe pears, soursop, papaya, watermelon and pineapple. There’s a nice thread of lemon underneath it all, cumin, vanilla, and a nice touch of brine and olives.  This all leads to a conclusion that is short and easy, redolent mostly of sweet watery fruit with a last musky brine taste, and some more lemon zest. 

In a peculiar way, it reminds me less of a French Island agricole than of a grogue from Cabo Verde.  There’s a sort of easy crispness to the experience, with the herbal notes evident but not as strong and clear and focused as a Martinique rhum is.  For centuries Madeirans drank their rhums unaged and white — of late they have begun to try and develop an aged rum industry and expand beyond the local market which thus far has consumed everything the small distilleries produce.  The development of real blending and ageing skill is still some years in the future, and thus far it’s only the small IBs like Boutique-y that have brought their rums to our attention. But I think that we should keep an eye out for the rhums from Madeira, all of them.  Based on the few I’ve tried, these guys know what they’re doing, know how to make a good rhum, and will be going places in the years to come.

(#812)(84/100)


Other notes

  • For centuries, aside from their famed fortified wines, white rum was all Madeira was known for, and just about all of it was made from small family-owned sugar cane plots, consumed locally as ponchos, and as often considered to be moonshine as a legitimate product. Because of the small size of the island a landed aristocracy based on the system of large plantations never took off there. 6-8 years ago, the Portuguese government started to incentivize the production of aged rum on Madeira.  Several producers started laying down barrels to age, one of which was Engenhos do Norte – however the lack of an export market (for now) allowed Boutique-y to buy a few barrels and release them
  • Engenhos do Norte also produces the well regarded Rum North series of rums, as well as the 970 and 980 brands.
  • The label is somewhat self explanatory: it shows the premises of the distillery, the steam driven crusher and the barbet column still. The polar bears are an in-joke: sugar cultivation took off in Madeira in the 15th and 16th century and was called ouro branco – white gold. It’s long been a sly pun that when mumbled over the roar of the machinery, the phrase is heard as ursa branco, or white bear. On the other hand, some say that Madeirans are huge hulking bear like men who hand harvest ten acres of cane before breakfast and fetch it out one-handed to the factory and this is a way of honouring their physical prowess. I don’t know which is true, but I like both stories.
Mar 292021
 

 

Indonesia is the region where sugar cane originated and gave rise to the proto-rums of yesteryear, which have their genesis in arrack, a distillate first identified by the Dutch and Portuguese in the town of Batavia (now Jakarta, the capital). After being practically unknown to the larger rum drinking public for a long time, arrack and local rums are now slowly being shown to western audiences, most notably from By The Dutch and their Batavia Arrack, and the little company of Naga which produced the rum we’re looking at today.

Based in Indonesia, Naga is a rum company formed around 2016 by Sebastien Follope, another one of those roving, spirits-loving French entrepreneurs who are behind some of the most interesting Asian rums around (Chalong Bay, Issan and Sampan are examples). While small, the company has several rums in its eclectic portfolio, though they lack any distillation facilities of their own – they are buying from a distillery on Java on the outskirts of Jakarta, which cannot be named.

This particular rum is called the Triple Wood for good reason – it is aged in three different kinds of barrels, and is an extension of the “Double Cask Aged” rum we have looked at twice before – once under that name in 2018, and once as the “Java Reserve Double Aged rum” a year later. The triple wood is similarly a molasses-based rum, column-still distilled, aged for three years in barrels made of teak (also called jati), four years in ex-Bourbon and one more year in cherry-wood barrels – it is, therefore, eight years old. Since the company was only formed in 2016 and this rum came on the scene in 2018, it is clear that the first ageing and part of the second was done at the distillery of origin (or a broker, it’s unclear).

Does this multiple wood ageing result in anything worth drinking? Yes it does – the extra year seems to have had an interesting and salutary effect on the profile –  though at 42.7% it remains as easy and soft as its siblings.  The nose, for example, is a nice step up: cardboard, musty paper, some dunder of spoiled bananas skins, plus strawberries and soft pineapple or two and brine (which, I swear, made me think of Hawaiian pizza). Caramel and bitter dark chocolate round things off.  It’s a relatively easy sniff, inoffensive yet solid.

The palate is goes on to be warm, soft, and somewhat sweeter.  Initially, given its puffed cloudy vagueness, you’d think it’s simple and amorphous, but actually it just keeps improving over time – the rum unfolds like a small origami flower, gradually – even shyly – presenting floral tastes, molasses, toffee, nougat, breakfast spices, licorice and some watery background of melons and pears.  It’s easy and very relaxing to sip, because the flavours don’t come at you all at once, but kind of stroll past doing a slow ragtime.  That low strength, much as I usually prefer something stronger, really is probably right for what that taste is, but it must also be admitted it makes for a weak finish: clean and easy, just not much more than some light flowers, strawberries and bubble gum, fanta, light molasses, and a bit of musty and dust-filled rooms.

I quite liked the rum and enjoyed its low-key, tasty nature, so different from the more aggressive high-proof rums I’ve been seeing of late – after all, one doesn’t always a need a massive overproof squirting dunder, alcohol and pain in all directions.  And arrack, this rum’s progenitor, is an interesting variation on what a rum can be (as an example, fermented rice is usually added to the fermenting molasses – see other notes for more details) which is something worth taking note of and these times of dominance by famed Caribbean distilleries. There’s no question that it’s a somewhat different kind of rum, more representative of its region than of any “standard” kind of profile – but for those who are okay trying something different, it won’t disappoint.

(#809)(81/100)

 


Other Notes

  • Naga is a Sanskrit-based word referring to the mythical creature of Asia, a dragon or large snake, that guards the treasures of the earth, and is also a symbol of prosperity and protection
  • This rum is now named “Pearl of Jakarta.”
  • Production:
    • Fermentation of molasses and fermented red rice in teak vats up to
    • 12% ABV.
    • 52% of this “cane wine” then distilled in traditional Chinese stills to 30% ABV. It is then distilled in these same stills a second time, until it reaches 60-65%.
    • 48% of the “cane wine” distilled in a column still to 92% ABV. 
    • The rums obtained in this way are then blended and aged for 3 years in teak barrels, then transferred to American oak barrels (ex-bourbon barrels) for 4 years before ageing for one final year in cherry wood barrels.
Feb 042021
 

Given the backward Prohibition-era-style rules governing alcohol in the US, Americans rightly sigh with envy when they see the rum selections in Europe. To get their favourite rums, they have to use any number of workarounds: bite the bullet and go over in person to buy some; have somebody mule it; come to an arrangement with a local liquor store in their state; or, heaven forbid, courier it – a tricky and not hazard-free process, I assure you.  

But occasionally the situation goes in reverse, and it’s the Europeans who grumble at the luck of the Yanks. Ed Hamilton’s little indie operation of eponymous rums is one of these.  Although perhaps the most renowned for the 151 Demerara rum (which went head to head with Lemon Hart in the early 2010s and has remained a bar staple ever since), the Collection also includes a Worthy Park edition, a Navy rum, a white rum, a New York blend, even a pimento liqueur…and several years’ releases (from 2004 through 2009) of St. Lucia Distillers’ rums, bottled in between 2013 and 2015. 

Today we’re looking at the Hamilton 2007 7 year old rum sent to me by my old schoolfriend Cecil Ramotar, which can be considered a companion review to the 2007 9 year old I wrote about four years ago (but of which I still had a smidgen for comparison purposes…in the name of science, of course).  Like its older brother, the 7 YO came off of SLD’s Vendome pot still in September 2007 and set to age in ex-bourbon casks, shipped to the US in 2014 and bottled in January 2015 straight from the cask with additives of any kind.  At a snorting, growling 60.4%, which I thought was excessive until I realized that several others in the line were even stronger.

That strength was bolted on to a firmness of profile and a solidity of taste that was really quite remarkable, and smelled, at the beginning, like I had stumbled into a high end cake shop with a fruit stand somewhere in there.  There were aromas of honey, marzipan, cinnamon and unsweetened dark chocolate; vanilla and the sort of rich pastry that makes really good cookies. I wandered out back and found the fruit shelf: apples, green grapes, fanta, strawberries, and just the faintest hint of saline solution and olives, all dusted liberally with brown sugar. 

Well, the nose might have been good, but taste tells the tale, right? Yes indeed. Again I remarked on its lack of sharpness, it’s lack of raw sandpaper scrape.  I mean yes, it was spicy and hot, but it more gave an impression of real heft and weight rather than cutting pain.  It was slightly salty and sweet and sour all at once, with the piquancy of gooseberries and unripe mangoes married to riper and more dusky fruits: raspberries and peaches and apricots.  Somehow the molasses, salted caramel, brown sugar and creme brulee didn’t up-end that profile or create any kind of crazy mishmash – the integration of citrus, flowers, pastry and cereal notes was pretty well handled and even added some peanut brittle and mint chocolates at the back end, during a nicely long and aromatic finish.

Clearing away the dishes, it’s a seriously solid rum. If I had to chose, I think the 2004 9 Year Old edges this one out by just a bit, but the difference is more a matter of personal taste than objective quality, as both were very tasty and complex rums that add to SLD’s and Ed Hamilton’s reputations. It’s a shame that the line wasn’t continued and added to — no other St. Lucia rums have been added to the Hamilton Collection since 2015 (at least not according to the master list on Ed’s site) and that makes them incredibly desirable finds in that cask strength desert they call a rum selection over there. Worse, only 20 cases of this one were released…so a mere 240 bottles hit the market, and that was six years ago. 

Now, in 2021 I think these rums are a close to extinct, akin to the Stolen Overproof Jamaican which was made, sank without a trace and is regarded as something of an overlooked bargain these days. With reviews like this one and for the kind of quality I argue the Hamilton St Lucia rum displayed, it may now be seen as more desirable, but good luck finding any.  If you do, I think you’d like it (though see “other notes”, below), and hopefully accept that it’s right up there with the better known rums of the New Jamaicans, Barbados or Mudland. In my mind, deservedly so.

(#799)(85/100)


Other notes

  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the empty reviewing landscape in the US where the rum was primarily distributed, few have bothered to say anything about it. Spirits Surveyor wrote about it last year (December 2020) in a short eval, rating it 7 (presumably out of 10) and commented on “liquid baking spices”. In July of 2020 LIFO Accountant on Reddit didn’t care for it and thought it too hot and unbalanced and rated it 4/10, preferring the 9 YO. TheAgaveFairy, also on reddit, gave it a 6+ and extensive tasting notes…and even thought it was a Jamaican for a bit. On RumRatings, it scored between 8 and 9, assuming you discount the one perspicacious gent who didn’t like it because he didn’t care for agricoles.
  • There’s another 7 YO from 2007 in the Collection, with a slightly lesser proof of 59% ABV.
Jan 072021
 

The Masters of Malt blurb for the Grenada-distilled Clarke’s Court No. 37 rum contains two sentences that make one both smile and ask more questions. A “blended Caribbean rum” which is “the thirteenth limited release rum from Clarke’s Court.” And as if trying to top that, they go on to say “The rum was designed to be supplied to exclusive social events” and both just reek of some marketing intern making ad copy in his sleep, evidently unable to come up with anything more interesting about this equally lackadaisical rum.

Why not a “Grenadian” rum, one wonders. And, if this is the 13th edition, why is it called No. 37? Is it related to the possible year of establishment of Grenada Distillers Ltd? Unlikely, because the 1998 book  Grenada: Island of Conflict by George Brizan notes that as being 1936, though admittedly the Clarke’s own website notes the factory as becoming operational in 1937. An anniversary of independence? But that was 1974 so 37 years later would be 2011. Dave Russell of the Rum Gallery probably nailed it when he said it was issued to commemorate independence, and the 300th year of establishment of St. George’s (not strictly right – it was started much earlier – but the star-shaped Fort Royale, later St George’s, was indeed completed in 1710).

Where are the other 12 editions, then? Or No. 1 through No. 36? No records exist. Further research reveals that it’s a blend, released in 2010 and was aged for 8 years in oak barrels, and with current editions of the No. 37 blend also being released at 12 years of age. The Ultimate Rum Guide remarks it was married and then rebarreled with more fruit flavour infused (oh oh…) but this is backed up nowhere else except in hydrometer tests, which also point to additives. Lastly, while the Fat Rum Pirate noted his assumption as being a pot and column still blend, His High Wonkiness says there’s only a two-column still at Grenada Distillers, with which they occasionally make some heavier rum from plates lower down in the column and mix that into the lighter stuff from plates higher up.

Picture copyright Charlene Gooding, from Pinterest

It’s a good thing I did this research after I did the tasting, because all these questions and backstories that filled in the sadly lacking label and website info, came later, and didn’t influence my initial opinion. Alas, that opinion wasn’t all that terrific either. Which is odd in itself, because the experience started out quite solid – the nose, for example, was warm, a little spicy, and smelled initially of molasses bubble gum and soda pop.  Quite sweet smelling, and got deeper than the above might imply or the strength would suggest. Nice tropical fruit basket too – guavas (the red ones), bananas, mangoes, watermelon, gherkins, plus toblerone white, almonds.  Nicely creamy.  Some soft salty notes, like dates and figs.  Creme brulee and caramel.  Irish coffee. So…nice.

It’s on the palate that it sinks, and some of the falsity shines through.  Weak and wispy to a fault. Bubble gum and fanta.  Light citrus, pears, more mangoes and guavas, but oddly muted, as if they aren’t sure they’re supposed to be here (this is usually a good indicator of tampering). White chocolate, crushed almonds, a hint of nutmeg, nuts, vanilla, some salt caramel ice cream. There’s even some light fresh (and I swear I’m not making this up) laundry detergent kinda taste. Overall, just unimpressive, with a finish that has to knock twice to make sure it’s heard, let alone noticed, and gives little beyond some miscellaneous fruits and a bit of tart yoghurt to let us know it was ever even there.

It’s a peculiarity of the rum that it said it was limited, but never actually how limited – the label has a bottle number, but not a “…out of xxx bottles” statement. So it’s hard to say what’s special or limited about the whole thing, especially as it continues to be made to this day and the year of distillation of the bottle one has is not mentioned.  Moreover I can almost guarantee that few reading this know anything about it unless they went on a cruise down to the island themselves, or — like me, Chip, Dave and Ed — date back from those days a decade or more back, when the standards for both rums and labels were very much less exacting than they are now and we accepted what we got with gratitude at getting anything at all.

However that was then, and those same easy standards and low strength fail the rum in this day and age.  It’s nice enough for the unadventurous and indifferent but in no way is it as premium as it makes out it is.  It’s weak, it’s not well assembled, the years it slept actually seem like less, and it’s been added to. Therefore, to me, it’s an average rum of no distinction or special individuality — and so I think I’ll close this already-overlong review by just giving it an average sort of score. 

(#792)(77/100)

Jan 042021
 

The Dzama 6 year old rum from the island of Madagascar sits between the modest 3 and 5 year old rums, rubs shoulders with an 8 YO, and looks up to the more exclusive 10 YO and 15 YO expressions; the company has been busy expanding the range since I first tried their 3 year old back in 2014. Unsurprisingly, the local market share of the company’s spirits is a massive 60% or so – they make a bit of everything alcoholic and are a very diversified drinks conglomerate – their prime market remains Madagascar itself with exports to Europe, some states of the USA and Canada. That said, it has never quite caught on with the rum drinking crowd the way the rhums of the French Caribbean islands, or Mauritius or Reunion have. 

That might result from the appearance of vanilla and other spices in the flavour profile, though the makers deny any additives on any but the clearly marked spiced variations of the line (like the Vanilla). Company founding legends state that the original genesis of the cane was in the small northwestern island of Nosy-be where supposedly the oils and perfumes of the various botanicals to be found there (vanilla, cloves, pepper are often cited) leach from their roots into the soil and are intermixed with the cane plants’ own root systems, into their stems, and thence to the ultimate distillate. I’m no chemist or botanist, but one could just as easily wonder why similar processes aren’t observed on the spice island (Grenada) for example.

That spiced profile was evident on the 3 year old and I marked it down for that (as did the Fat Rum Pirate when he looked at it some time later), thinking it too dominant.  It’s much less evident here, and in fact, this was almost a completely different rum.  It smelled of rubber, varnish and acetones, and was quite light at 45% ABV.  It had aromas of rotten bananas, fleshy fruits, and going-off apricots, mangoes and pears. That admittedly sounds rather off-putting (I assure you it really isn’t), and what quite a few people hate about such rums, we reviewers like to call it “pleasant” and “character-filled.” In fairness, I remember thinking it reminded me of a low rent Jamaican, but lacking their complete unconcern for the funk you were getting – it was, perhaps, more well-behaved.

The palate was thick, rich and sweet, even in comparison the the 3YO which showed no modesty with such aspects itself but while stronger, had also been paradoxically easier.  Here we were regaled with bananas, cherries in syrup, brown sugar, and a sort of smorgasbord of fruitiness – some tart, some just soft and mushy – and creaminess of greek yogurt sprinkled with cinnamon and cloves. Disappointingly, the finish did nothing much except lock the door and walk off, throwing a few notes of cloves, sugar, cherries, peaches and syrup behind.  Not a stellar finish after the intriguing beginning.

Whether Lucien Fohine — who founded the Vidzar, the owning company in 1980 — was right about the way local plants’ aromas came into the final distillate, or whether they catered to local palates by goosing the juice a tad, the fact is that the rum is a bit too sweet and a bit too overdone, like a nouveaux riche showing off new furs and new bling. It’s not precisely overkill, more like a loud drunk regaling a joint with loud and boring sports stories you’re not interested in – it’s distracting, even off-putting and makes the enjoyment less.

That said, it’s not precisely a bad rum either. It’s a bit like a Bacardi Gold mixing it up with a Diplo Res Ex, or some other such tasty workhorse that can be used for a number of different purposes, even a neat sip – the relatively low strength and the aforementioned tastes help there.  But for someone who knows his rums it’s a bit of a let down, and while it’s certainly pleasant as it is — cocktail gurus and professional mixologists could probably find good things to do with it —  I think I’d rather spring for the upscale aged versions that have more character and less of those distracting flavours.

(#791)(82/100)


Other Notes

Nov 052020
 

Reimonenq out of Guadeloupe is not a producer whose rhums I’ve tried much of, and so the initial attack of this Grande Reserve — nuts, nougat, toblerone, vanilla ice cream and sweet white chocolate — took me somewhat off balance.  The Vielli was a rhum aged 7 years, so I expected a bit of agricole-ness mixed up with more traditional aged olfactory components, not something like that, not right off. But there they were, clogging up my nose.  And that wasn’t all – the dourness of the opening was followed by stuff that was a lot more sprightly – dried apricots, pineapples, strawberry bubble gum, acidic green apples, mint, thyme and Fanta.  I mean, it started out relatively solid but became – or at least seemed to become – progressively more lighthearted, chirpy, progressively younger, as time went by. Not in age but in feeling.

Even the texture and taste of it on the tongue channeled some of that dichotomy, the musky and the crisp, balancing between an aged rhum and a more youthful expression. Sweet bubble gum and flowers, dill, hot black tea, no shortage of various citrus fruits (orange, lemon, red grapefruit), green grapes, brine, red olives.  There was even sweetness, marmalade on toasted bread vanilla, a touch of brown sugar, acetones and nail polish, if you could believe it, with a faint whiff of exotic kitchen spices wafting gently behind it all and morphing at last into an aromatic but dry finish, redolent of brine, spices, nail polish and sharp fruits that seemed to only grudgingly dissipate.  

I looked at my glass in some bemusement, checked the labelling. I got all that from 40%? From this? Wow.

I was really and pleasantly surprised by how well it presented, to be honest.  For a standard strength rhum, I expected less, but its complexity and changing character eventually won me over.  Looking at others’ reviews of rhums in Reimonenq’s range I see similar flip flops of opinion running through them all.  Some like one or two, some like that one more than that other one, there are those that are too dry, too sweet, too fruity (with a huge swing of opinion), and the little literature available is a mess of ups and downs.

Except the Caribbean Journal, which was perhaps overcome with a fit of hyper-enthusiastic vapours when it spoke glowingly of Reimonenq’s 6YO Grande Reserve, and said they made “rum for rum drinkers” (as opposed to mere “special rums” for the proles, apparently), and opined that such a category “…isn’t for everyone, [is] filled with rums of unique character, of sometimes too much strength, of uncanny personality.” Uh-huh. Right. Sure you aren’t working for their marketing department, buddy?

Still, you’d think that anything endorsed so positively – and in the main, reviews of their rhums are more upbeat than negative – should have a rather large footprint, but you’d be wrong – not many reviewers have bothered to try any, except the mastodon of the scene, Serge Valentin (here, here and here to start), and the man who channels his ethos, Marius Elder of Single Cask Rum.  And of course, there’s a few opinions on Rum Ratings, which are too few to make any comments about, but demonstrate the peculiar anonymity of the brand by their sheer paucity and are useful in their own way.

That’s rather odd, because Distillerie Reimonenq has been around since 1916 when it was founded by Joseph and Fernand Reimonenq in the commune of Sainte-Rose on Guadeloupe (the west “wing”, or Basse Terre) and as far as I know, continued under their ownership ever since.  Moreover, they have a wide range of column-still rhums (all cane juice based) that span many ages and many strengths and aren’t half bad.  Indeed, Reimonenq supplies indie bottlers from time to time, most notably Rum Nation, so why isn’t it better known and shown off with pride on social media more often? I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know I’ll be picking a few more of these to look at, and that right quick, as it’s clear I’ve been ignoring them for too long already.

(#775)(84/100)

 

Sep 172020
 

Savanna’s 2005 Cuvée Maison Blanche 10 Year Old rum, in production since 2008 is a companion to the 2005 10 YO Traditionnel and a somewhat lesser version of the superb 2006 10YO HERR issued a year later, and that one, you will remember, blew my socks off back when I tried it. 

Going strictly  by the numbers, it hardly seems to be very different from the various traditionnel (i.e., molasses based) rums that are released with great regularity by the distillery.  But actually, these “White House” 10 YO rums date back to when the 1998 edition was first released as a millesime and has always denoted something a bit more special from the season.  Such rums are intermittently issued, not annually, and have become something of an underground search-for by some (myself included) even if they are not that well known and are nowadays eclipsed by the various Grand Arômes and special series that pop up with much fanfare every year or two. The title, as an aside, references the original Savanna distillery in Saint Paul which bore the name of “Maison Blanche.”

We know a fair bit about Savanna by now (see here for a mini bio if you don’t), so we’ll get straight into what it’s like. Note, first off, that the name has nothing to do with its type – it’s not a white rum, but an aged dark gold one, which would seem obvious, but isn’t always, so I mention it in passing. 

The nose is very nice for something at 43%, and I’ve always wondered why they kept the strength that low: but for sure it’ll provide its adherents many pleasures, like the warm, creamy aromas of honey and caramel, to start. There’s some vanilla, flowers, oak tannins and bite, the vague fruitiness of peaches and ripe cherries and something a bit lighter (pears, I’d say).  The balance among the various pieces is nicely done, though it feels somewhat faint, which may be my schnozz, not yours.

I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but I usually do standard strength rum tastings first thing in the morning when the palate is at its most sensitive and I haven’t (yet) been brutalized by a bunch of stampeding overproofs. That helps here, because although it also makes it seem sharpish, what it really is, is clean and fresh and bright, a delicate smorgasbord of caramel, nuts, molasses, vanilla, fresh red and white fruits (apples, peaches, pears, watermelon, strawberries, papaya, cherries). That’s enjoyable, but the finish – short, clear, clean, minty and with some caramel, vanilla and sour cream – departs too soon and is gone too fast for any sort of real appreciation.

That finish is representative of what I consider something of a deficiency for the Maison Blanche’s – the low strength, which hamstrings tastes that need jacking up to be appreciated more fully. The rum walks a neat line between acid and tart and musk, between soft and sharp notes, and I did enjoy it, especially for that peculiar note to it on the end, a wispy salt-tobacco-pineapple thing that to me is the creole island twang of Savanna. But I honestly wish they had bottled it at a higher proof, something to give it a bit more oomph and smack, that would draw out and showcase those tastes more decisively. Too much is lost in the obscuring fog of 43% for me to consider it truly special — and that’s a shame for a rum that is in most other respects quite a lovely drink.

(#762)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • The year of the edition is always on the front label, at the bottom
  • As always, thanks and my appreciation to Nico Rumlover, who sent me the sample.
Aug 302020
 

Rumaniacs Review #120 | 0757

Each of the 1931 series has some sort of tweak, a point of uniqueness or interest, to make it stand out. The first two, in my estimation at least, were fairly conservative pot-column blending experiments (but very well done). The Third Edition added some sugar to a blend of all four stills and upped the complexity some. By the time they got to 2014, it was clear there was a gleeful maniac running free and unsupervised in the blending area, and he used a bit of just about everything he had in the lab (including agricole rhum, the first made from sugar cane juice at SLD since the 1930s), in an effort to create the ultimate complex blend that only a 9-Dan Master Blender from some insanely intricate solera system could possibly unravel. But oh man, what he created was stunning for a rum bottled at such a quiet 43%.

Brief background: there are six releases of the 1931 rums, one per year between 2011 and 2016, each with its blend of aged pot and column still distillates. In 2017 the 1931 moniker was folded into the Chairman’s Reserve part of the portfolio and it effectively ceased production as a brand in its own right. For the historically minded, the “1931” refers to the year when the Barnard family’s Mabouya Distillery was founded near Dennery – it merged with the Geest family’s Roseau distillery in 1972 to create the modern St Lucia Distillers.

Once again, the St. Lucia distillers site gives zero info on the blend, but direct communication with them provided everything we might want. The blend breakdown is below the tasting notes, and I should note a smidgen of sugar (about 4-6 g/L according to Mike Speakman, who also provided the breakdown). 

Colour – Gold

Strength – 43%

Nose – Damn, but here, the brine and licorice notes are so distinct it’s almost sweaty. Brine and olives, salty caramel ice cream, some vanilla.  Honey, leather, some smoke, molasses-soaked brown sugar.  I particularly liked the light twist of lime and mint which offset thicker aromas of bananas and peaches. 

Palate – The balance of the various flavours permeating this thing s really very good.  The tart acidity of sour cream and fruit melds deliciously with softer, creamier flavours — think lemon meringue pie but with bags more apricots, peaches, green grapes, lime and apples. The salt caramel and molasses is present but unobtrusive, and while the agricole element remains faint, it is there, and maybe just shy. A flirt of vanilla and aromatic tobacco round off a very satisfying profile.

Finish – Shortish, mostly vanilla, lemon zest, light chocolate, and whipped cream.

Thoughts – Whoever made this blend is a genius.  Of the six St. Lucians I had on the go that day, only one eclipsed it (and not by much).  It’s admirable and amazing how much flavour got stuffed into a rum released at a strength that too often is seen as its own disqualifier. I can’t speak for the 1931 #5 and #6, but of the first four, this is, for me, undoubtedly the best.

(86/100)


The components of this blend are as follows:

89% molasses-based.

46% Column still, of which:

  • 6% Aged 11 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 9% Aged 9 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 9% Aged 7 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 9% Aged 9 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 7% Aged 7 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 3% Aged 9 years (Port cask)
  • 3% Aged 9 years (Port cask)

11% from a Pot/Column blend:

  • 50% from John Dore 1. Aged for 10 years (Bourbon cask)
  • 50% from a Column still. Aged for 10 years (Bourbon cask)

32% from a pot still of which:

  • 13% Aged for 15 years, from John Dore 1 (Bourbon cask)
  • 5% Aged for 9 years, from John Dore 2 (Bourbon cask)
  • 7% Aged for 10 years, from Vendome (Bourbon cask)
  • 7% Aged for 9 years, from John Dore 1 & Vendome (50% each) (Bourbon cask)

11% Sugar cane juice based (Agricultural rhum).

  • Aged for 6 years from John Dore pot still (Bourbon cask)

Summary of blend

  • 13% Aged for 15 years
  • 6% Aged for 11 years
  • 18% Aged for 10 years
  • 36% Aged for 9 years
  • 16% Aged for 7 years
  • 11% Aged for 6 years.
  • 94% aged in Bourbon casks
  • 6% aged in Port casks.
  • 51.5% Column Still
  • 33.0% Pot Still John Dore 1
  •   5.0% Pot Still John Dore 2
  • 10.5% Pot Still Vendome

The six editions of the range are colour coded and reviewed as follows:

  • 2011 1st edition – pale yellow [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2012 2nd edition – lavender [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2013 3rd edition – turquoise [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2014 4th edition – black [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2015 5th edition – magenta [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]
  • 2016 6th edition – coral [Rumshop Boy] [Fat Rum Pirate]

A complete flight of all six at once was done and written about by Phil Kellow of the Australian blog Philthy Rum in 2018. 

Aug 202020
 

Last time, I was looking at the really quite excellent St. Aubin 10 year old from Mauritius, which was a cane juice, pot-still, decade-old rhum, a type we don’t see very much of – to my memory only the Saint James Coeur de Chauffe comes close, and that wasn’t even aged. St. Aubin certainly seems to like making rums their own way, while New Grove, also from that Indian Ocean island, provides us with rums that seem somewhat more familiar – they flit in profile between El Dorados and Barbadians, I think, with an occasional dash of Worthy Park thrown in to mix things up.

One of the rums I used as a control that day was the New Grove Single Barrel rum from 2004, which in every way tried to maximize its hit points in a way St. Aubin did not, by specifically nodding to the indie scene to establish its chops — relatively high proof (49.9%, a whisker shy of fifty), a millesime from 2004, nine years old, 297 (individually numbered) bottles from a single barrel #151, columnar creole still, aged nine years in Limousin oak…well, you get the point. 

Although cold stats alone don’t tell the tale, I must confess to being intrigued, since a primary producer’s limited single-barrel expressions tend to be somewhat special, something they picked out for good reason. That felt like the case here – the initial smell was delicious, of burnt oranges and whipped cream (!!), a sort of liquid meringue pie if you will. It negotiated the twists and turns of tart and mellower aromas really well: honey, fruits, raisins, green apples, grapes,and ripe peaches. There was never too much of one or the other, and it was all quite civilized, soft and even warm

Alas, the nose was the best part – the palate strained, it tried, but just couldn’t keep up. Certainly it was workmanlike and tasted well, firm, solid, warm; it showcased some citrus, salted caramel, vanilla and cumin, plus peaches and apricots and faint molasses, just lacking somer of that exuberance and verve the nose had primed me for. The fade was about on that level too – aromatic, a little tangy, some vanilla, bon bons, spices, and again that chocolate-orange vibe I enjoyed quite a bit. I don’t know if that’s a Mauritius thing, just that it was a tasty end to the drink.

Back when I tried New Grove’s 8 YO in 2014, I commented rather dismissively on the strength and hinted at its middle-of-the-road taste which seemed geared to please rather than excite. By the time Lazy Dodo came out a few years later (a very nice blend) I was more in tune with what New Grove was doing. No further issues of anonymity or strength afflicted the 2004 which is a ways better than either of the other two…although it still had its weaknesses, however minor.

I mean, the rum is, overall, quite a good one.  The tastes were strong and crisp and well defined, and it could be sipped easily and enjoyed at any time.  Yet somehow it lacked a pinch of that excellence and uniqueness which would have staked out its own claim to excellence, the sort of thing that made the St. Aubin so good – though by no means should this be regarded as either a criticism, or a failure on their part, for the rum was perfectly delectable in its own way. 

Scores aside, what this pair of rums clearly demonstrates is that the Caribbean doesn’t hog all the glory or possess all the cool kids’ rums – it just seems that way because they get more press.  But if you were to ever start looking elsewhere, beyond the regular and the comfortingly familiar, then take a chance and go further afield. Mauritius in general is a good place to look and New Grove specifically wouldn’t be the worst place to land.

(#754)(85/100)


Background history

Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar, has been at varying times composed of more islands and fewer, and either Dutch, English or French…though Arabs and Portuguese both made landfall there before. Its strategic position in the Indian Ocean made both French and British fight for it during the Age of Empires, and both remain represented on the island to this day, melding with the Indian and Asian cultures that also form a sizeable bulk of the population. Sugar has been a mainstay of the local economy for centuries, and there were thirty seven distilleries operational by 1878 — the first sugar mill dates back to 1740 in Domain de la Veillebague, in the village of Pampelmousses, with the first distillery starting up two years later: they sold their product mainly to Africa and Madagascar.

New Grove, a rum making concern founded by a Dr. Harel, dates back to 1852 and is intimately connected with another major Mauritius family, the Grays. The Harel family have moved into other concerns (like the Harel-Mallac group, not at all into agriculture), but other descendants formed and work for Grays – one of them sent me the company bio, for example, and three more sit on the board of directors.

Grays itself was formed in 1935 (the holding company Terra Brands, was established in 1931 by the Harels and the first still brought into operation in 1932) and are a vertically integrated spirits producer and importer.  They own all stages of local production, from cane to cork, so to speak, and make cane spirit, white rum, a solera and aged rums, for the Old Mill and New Grove brands which were established in 2003 for the export market. This explains why the SBS Mauritius 2008 rum, for example, noted on its label that it came from the Grays’ distillery.

Aug 172020
 

Mauritius is another one of those rum producing areas that flits in and out of our collective rumconsciousness, and seems to come up for mention mostly (and only) when a blogger checks out a new indie expression (SBS and Velier spring to mind). Cognoscenti might recall Penny Blue, New Grove, Chamarel or Lazy Dodo rums from the graveyard of reviews past, but honestly, when was the last time you saw one yourself, tried one, or even bought one?

St. Aubin is one of the Indian Ocean island distilleries that have been gathering some goodwill of late and should not be left out of anyone’s purchasing calculations, and with good reason: they taste pretty damned good, and they have a long history of both pot and column still production stretching back two centuries. If distribution can be sorted out beyond Europe, and there’s a resumption of the rum festivals where one can find their products, then we can hope their reputation ticks up more than it has so far.  This particular rum is the top of their line, being a limited edition of not only a set number of bottles (2,080) but from a particular harvest (2003), cane juice source, completely copper-pot-still distilled, aged a solid ten years and aimed at a wider audience by tamping it down to 43%.  Based on those specs it’s practically a must-have, 

Certainly the 2003 10 YO does its next-best relative the St. Aubin Grande Reserve (which is itself a combo of 30% pot still 10YO from 2004 and 70% rested 7YO column still juice) quite a bit better, simply by not diluting its own core fully-pot-still essence. This is key to understanding how good the 2003 smells, because it noses cleaner, crisper, even a shade lighter…and quite a bit more is going on under there.  What was, in the other aged expressions, a sort of sweetness is more delicate here, closer to sugar cane sap and sugar water than the slight heaviness often attendant on molasses based rums. There are aromas of flowers, masala spice, cloves and a dash of cinnamon. And leaving it standing to open up, one gets additional hints of coffee grounds, unsweetened chocolate, and a nice delicate vein of vanilla and citrus. 

The oak influence takes on a more dominant note on the palate, which is initially sweet, dry and intense.  There’s bitter chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and a vague grassiness more sensed than actually experienced, plus citrus peel, chocolate oranges, cumin and the slightest hint of cilantro.  Plus some Fanta and 7-up, which I was not expecting, but no entirely unhappy to taste.  The whole drink is clean, crisp and dry, and the gradually emergent and assertive herbals and tart notes make it a pretty nifty neat pour.  Finish is not too shabby – medium long, mostly bon-bons, caramel, light flowers and lemon meringue pie.

The cost of this ten year old rum released in 2014 is in the €140 range (when it can be tracked down – I found that price in the Mauritius duty free, but not much elsewhere) and this is one of those instances where even with the modest strength, I think it worth picking up if you’re in funds.  Because on top of how well it noses and tastes, those stats are impressive – pot still, ten years tropical ageing, cane juice distillate, its own peculiar terroire, something not from the Caribbean….that’s pressing a lot of buttons at once.  Too often we uncritically and unthinkingly fork out that kind of coin for regularly issued blends, just because of the associated name. The new and the unknown needs to be tried on its own terms as well, and here, I think that for what St. Aubin provides us with and what we get out of it, it’s well worth pausing to try, to share, and to buy. 

(#753)(86/100)


A brief history

The Domaine de St. Aubin, named after the first sugar cane mill established by Pierre de St. Aubin in 1819 or thereabouts, is located in the extreme south of Mauritius in the Rivière des Anguilles, and has been cultivating cane since that year – however the date of first distillation of spirits is harder to pin down – it’s likely within a few decades of the original opening of the sugar factory (there are records of the Harel family starting a distillery which is now New Grove in the 1850s, which also makes the Lazy Dodo brand). In the late 1960s the Franco-Mauritian Guimbeau family – who made their fortune in the tea trade for which Mauritius is also renowned – acquired the estate and retained the name, and gradually developed a stable of rums produced both by a pot still (which produces what they term their “artisanal” rums) and a relatively recent columnar still for larger volume agricoles. 

Jul 012020
 

As the memories of the Velier Demeraras fades and the Caronis climb in price past the point of reason and into madness, it is good to remember the third major series of rums that Velier has initiated, which somehow does not get all the appreciation and braying ra-ra publicity so attendant on the others. This is the Habitation Velier collection, and to my mind it has real potential of eclipsing the Caronis, or even those near-legendary Guyanese rums which are so firmly anchored to Luca’s street cred.

I advertise the importance of the series in this fashion because too often they’re seen as secondary efforts released by a major house, and priced (relatively) low to match, at a level not calculated to excite “Collector’s Envy”. But they are all pot still rums, they’re from all over the world, they’re all cask strength, they’re both aged and unaged, and still, even years after their introduction, remain both available and affordable for what they are. When was the last time you heard that about a Velier rum? 

Since there is such a wide range in the series, it goes without saying that variations in quality and diverse opinions attend them all – some are simply considered better than others and I’ve heard equal volumes of green p*ss and golden praise showered on any one of them. But in this instance I must tell you right out, that the EMB released in 2019 is a really good sub-ten year old rum, just shy of spectacular and I don’t think I’m the only one to feel that way.

The first impression I got from nosing this kinetic 62% ABV rum, was one of light crispness, like biting into a green apple.  It was tart, nicely sweet, but also with a slight sourness to it, and just a garden of fruits – apricots, soursop, guavas, prunes – combined with nougat, almonds and the peculiar bitterness of unsweetened double chocolate.  And vanilla, coconut shavings and basil, if you can believe it.  All this in nine years’ tropical ageing?  Wow. It’s the sort of rum I could sniff at for an hour and still be finding new things to explore and classify.

The taste is better yet. Here the light clarity gives way to something much fiercer, growlier, deeper, a completely full bodied White Fang to the nose’s tamer Buck if you will.  As it cheerfully tries to dissolve your tongue you can clearly taste molasses, salted caramel, dates, figs, ripe apples and oranges, brown sugar and honey, and a plethora of fragrant spices that make you think you were in an oriental bazaar someplace – mint, basil, and cumin for the most part.  I have to admit, water does help shake loose a few other notes of vanilla, salted caramel, and the low-level funk of overripe mangoes and pineapple and bananas, but this is a rum with a relatively low level of esters (275.5 gr/hlpa) compared to a mastodon channeling DOK and so they were content to remain in the background and not upset the fruit cart. 

As for the finish, well, in rum terms it was longer than the current Guyanese election and seemed to feel that it was required that it run through the entire tasting experience a second time, as well as adding some light touches of acetone and rubber, citrus, brine, plus everything else we had already experienced the palate.  I sighed when it was over…and poured myself another shot.

Man, this was one tasty dram.  Overall, what struck me, what was both remarkable and memorable about it, was what it did not try to be. It didn’t display the pleasant blended anonymity of too many Barbados rums I’ve tried and was not as woodsy and dark as the Demeraras. It was strong yes, but the ageing sanded off most of the rough edges. It didn’t want or try to be an ester monster, while at the same time was individual and funky enough to please those who dislike the sharp extremes of a TECA or a DOK rum – and I also enjoyed how easily the various tastes worked well together, flowed into each other, like they all agreed to a non-aggression pact or something.  

It was, in short, excellent on its own terms, and while not exactly cheap at around a hundred quid, it is – with all the strength and youth and purity – a lot of Grade A meat on the hoof. It stomped right over my palate and my expectations, as well as exceeding a lot of other more expensive rums which are half as strong and twice as old but nowhere near this good…or this much fun. 

(#741)(86/100)