Nov 272022
 

I view L’Esprit’s unaged still-strength white rums the way I regard Mrs. Caner – with besotted love not unmixed with a little dread.  Treat her right and there’s no end of the amazing wonders and complexities that will be provided; drink carelessly and you’ll be belted into next week.  Seeing the stats, is clear to see why: the rum is distilled in 2019 in Jamaica, and taken at 85.6% as it dripped and smoked and frothed off the still, then released without any ageing into the wild, unfiltered and unadded-to, and completely, fiercely, joyously untamed. You get the nervous feeling that when you drink it, you can sense the Grim Reaper on your shoulder clearing his throat.

So you can understand both my awe and my trepidation. On the outside, as a white rum, it looks meek and demure (another similarity it shares with my better half), but hard experience with L’Esprit’s recent outturns of this kind have taught me some measure of caution. The initial sniff showed why this was a good idea: it was a wild storm of competing, fighting, angry tastes from all over the map, starting with coconut milk with a touch of gaminess, vanilla, and flambeed bananas drizzled with hot bitter caramel syrup.  As if unsatisfied, it moved on to rubber and tar on a hot day. Glue, solvent, acetones, and behind it all, the rank meatiness of a midden heap, brine and hogo gone wild, into which somebody spilled a bucket of used engine oil.  If there were any fruits around, they were blattened flat by this huge wave of rumstink, and yet, for all that this reads like some kind of crazy, it’s still somewhat better and more interestingly assembled than the Long Pond TECA.

And at that strength, when sipped, well, it provided all the acres of hurt one can expect from that huge pail of proof. It was hot, spicy, initially reeking of stripped out gears and a burnt clutch on an old Land Rover – this was brief and dissipated swiftly, being replaced by ethanol, medicinals, a tart sort of sweetness (yoghurt, citrus, green apples, grapes, strawberries) and sourness (miso soup, Thai sweet chili, soya)…and then it really got going. There was the bitter clarity of licking a copper penny. It tasted of hot and very strong unsweetened black tea, on the good side of being bitter. And then it got more creamy and spicy and warm at the back end, before relaxing into a finish that was long, sweet, salty, sour, bitter – as if all taste receptors got switched back on at once — coughing up citrus, juniper, quinine and mineral water to go with the pears and green apples that closed the show.

Damn, but this was one serious rum. It’s just this side of excessive, and is the sort of thing a resident of Trenchtown would splash on before heading to the local rum shop for a duck curry and a brawl. The tastes are completely off the scale, they’re all over the place like a half-drawn roadmap leading to an undiscovered country and it’s a small miracle that they work together as well as they do. And admittedly, it’s too fierce on the attack: the lips are numbed, the tongue paralyzed, the taste buds burnt out in a bright flash of heated sulphur and brimstone, and this will not be a rum that finds favour with many except Los Extremos who inhale this kind of thing with their morning wheaties.

And yet, and yet…it’s not entirely a bad product : once it settles down it’s a really quite interesting piece of work, in spite of its undiluted demon-piss vibe. What it does, better than most with similar specs, is unashamedly channel trashy 1980s Ahnuld, Sly, Chuck and Dolph Lundgren action movies of the sort we remember fondly today. It drops massive taste bombs, huge sharp congeners, sweat, harsh language and liquid gelignite left right and centre the way those stars dropped one liners and cool kills. I’m not sure that’s a description or a profile that’ll appeal to everyone, but for those who are willing to park their doubts, I think L’Esprit’s Jamaican white brawler is simply one to beware of, treat with respect…and maybe, once one adjusts to its fierce character, even to love.

(#954)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • It’s not stated but as far as I know, it’s Worthy Park distillate.
  • “Cuvée Daniel” refers to (L’Esprit’s owner and founder) Tristan Prodhomme’s second son; the Diamond “Cuvée Edgar” MPM unaged white referred to his first. He made these rums to commemorate them, which I think is a sweet gesture.
  • As always, I must commend the sleek little sample bottles L’Esprit favours, which fit nicely into a presentation box and are just cool as all get out.
  • Pot Still, 279-bottle outturn. Rested between July 2019 to October 2020 in inert tanks.
Nov 232022
 

Rumaniacs Review #141 | 0953

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

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

Colour – Amber

Strength – 40% ABV

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

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

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

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

(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

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

Historical background

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

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

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


Opinion

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

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

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


 

Nov 072022
 

By now it’s almost like an annual event at the beginning of each new rum-release season: Velier makes an announcement about a co-bottling or a new rum, or a whole new series, and the rumiverse goes politely batsh*t for a while. To be honest, I kind of look forward to see what they come up with myself, because you really can’t fault their originality, or their style. And the rums themselves are usually interesting, with an occasional gem popping up here and there.

Now, most independents go with the standard big Caribbean distilleries, keep the labels consistent, and stay within just a few clearly pre-established “ranges.” Not Velier. They go off on their own tangent, every time. There was the clairins in 2014, HV in 2015, the pair of Indian ocean rums in 2017, the Hampden launch in 2018 (and all its various sub-series like Great House and Endemic Birds et al, since then), the Barbosa grogue and Villa Paradisetto in 2019, Japoniani in 2020, and — well, I could go on. Each has its own label design aesthetic, and tries to be original in some small way. For the 2022 season, then, the pride of place along with the Papa Rouyos and twenty Saint James expressions was surely the Magnum Series No.1 featuring Elliot Erwitt’s black and white photos on the label.

The Magnum series of rums capitalises on the same literary concept as the seven founders of the famed photo agency wanted for their own organisation when they created and titled it in 1947, namely the multiple meanings and connotations of the word — greatness in Latin, toughness in the association with the gun, and celebration in its champagne mode (it’s just a happy coincidence that when discussing the matter they always drank magnums of champagne). Since Luca Gargano is a photo buff himself, I’m sure the references resonated with him. Four photographs made by Elliot Erwitt — an American photographer who was asked by Robert Capa to join the agency in 1954 — grace the four (black) bottles of the first release, but I don’t think they have direct relationships with the contents of the bottles in any way, and were chosen simply because they were appreciated as works of art.

So let’s get started with the first of the four, the Mount Gay, which could equally well be called the Last Last Last Ward. It is a pot still distillate laid down in 2007 when Frank Ward was still running the joint; the idea was to create a new and different brand called Mount Gilboa, and there have been some barrels that the Ward family kept after the takeover by Remy Cointreau, some of which were bottled as the Last Ward rums of the Habitation Velier line. The rum was triple distilled on double retort pot stills and aged in American white oak for 14 years (unlikely to be new – the influence would be too great, so my money is on ex-bourbon casks), after which a mere 600 bottles were squeezed out at 60% ABV.

What comes out at the other end after a near decade and a half is really kind of spectacular.  The initial aromas are a perfumed symphony of sweet molasses, honey, and flambeed bananas in a luscious kind of mélange. A vein of sweet and creamy caramel coffee winds its way around rich scents of custard, coconut shavings and vanilla. This is offset by the tart muskiness of soft and almost-overripe fruits: pears, guavas, oranges, apples, grapes, black cherries. I enjoyed the hint of the spices – cinnamon, cardamom, rosemary — and the whole thing displays a depth of complexity not to be sneezed at.

It tastes really good too.  The 60% lands on the palate as solidly as a right-wing extremist’s denial of …well, anything. It’s deceptively soft, the impact doesn’t get there until later: initially it’s all mushy fruit and smoke and leather, with the barest bitter tang of oakiness.  Vanilla, coconut shavings, those flambeed bananas again, plus light florals, a touch of smoke, and a creamy, tart yoghurt mixing it up with honey, caramel, and a dusting of cinnamon and cardamom. The finish is a gradual come down from these heights – it’s epically long, of course, and doesn’t feel like adding anything to the party, being content to sum up with light molasses, yoghurt, those ripe fruits, pineapples and spices. 

Overall, I think the rum is great, and it reminds me a lot of the Habitation Velier Last Ward 2007 and 2009 rums – which is hardly surprising since they come from the same batch of barrels squirrelled away all those years ago. They all have that sense of displaying a sort of quality without effort, like it was hardly even trying, and are quite different from the normal run of Mount Gay rums which are more widely available, and more affordable. The Magnum is neither worse nor better than either of those two earlier HV editions – better to say it exists on that same level of pot still excellence, and I suppose that if the distillate had not been used for the Magnum line, it would have been completely appropriate to be the third Last Ward in the Habitations. The price will probably keep the average buyer away, but for those who can score a sample or even a bottle of this latest in the Velier lineup, I think it’s more than worth it.

(#948)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Opinions on the online databases like Rum-X and Rum Ratings mostly felt it did not quite come up to snuff; in doing my last checks before posting this review, was surprised to see I liked it more than most. I passed over comments like the alcohol being too high or the profile not being their thing (those are personal opinions, and each has their own which won’t necessarily align with mine), but one thing must be conceded: there are other Barbadian rums out there — some even from Mount Gay — which are almost or equally good, and which cost less.  It has to be accepted that part of the price here is the rarity and small outturn, and the premium of the name.
  • The photograph on the label is a 1999 photo of the Californian seaside resort of Pacific Palisades.
Oct 242022
 

A kokuto shochu, one of the oldest spirits made in Japan, derives from unrefined sugar (kokuto) and in that sense it straddles an uneasy and somewhat undefined territory between agricole-style and molasses-based rums. Nosing the clear spirit demonstrates that: it opens with a lovely crisp agricole type brine and sweet alcohol, channelling sweet soda pop – Fanta, 7-Up, a bit of funk, a bit of citrus; and then adds a pot still kind of funkiness to the mix, like the aroma of fresh glue on a newly installed carpet, paint, varnish, and a lot — a lot — of fresh, light, tart, fruity notes. Guavas, Thai mangoes, strawberries, light pineapples, mixed fruit ice cream, yoghurt. Yamada Distillery makes two shochus and this is the one they call “Intense” – based solely on how it smells, I believe them.

The taste is, in a word, light. There’s a reason for this which I’ll get to in a moment, but the bottom line is that this is a spirit to drink neat and drink easy because the flavours are so delicate that mixing it would shred any profile that a neat pour would lead you expect. It’s faint, it’s sweet, it’s extremely light, and what I think of when trying it is the soft florals of cherry blossoms, hibiscus; herbs like thyme and mint, mixed up with light yellow and white fruits, cherries, grapes. It’s enormously drinkable, and beats the hell out of any indifferently made 40% blanco in recent memory…and if the finish is practically nonexistent, well, at least there are some good memories from the preceding stages of the experience.

There’s a good reason for its lightness, its sippability — and that’s because it’s a mere 30% ABV. By rum standards, where the absolute lower limit is 37.5% before heading into liqueur country, that disqualifies it from being considered a rum at all: even if we were to accept the dual fermentation cycle and its unrefined sugar base, to the rum-drinking world that strength is laughable. I mean, really?….30%??! One could inhale that in a jiffy, down a bottle without blinking, and then wash it down with a Malibu. 


Consider the provenance and specs, and park the ABV for a moment. It comes from the Amami islands in southern Japan (between Kagoshima and Okinawa), made by a tiny, family run distillery on Oshima Island 1that has existed for three generations, since 1957 — that’s considered medium old by the standards of the islands, where firms can either be founded last year, or a century ago. Perhaps they are more traditional than most, because there are no on-site tastings, no distillery sales, and no website – it seems to be a rare concession for them to even permit tours (maximum of five people), and have as much as a twitter and instagram account.  

But that aside, the Nagakumo Ichiban Bashi is practically handmade to demonstrate terroire. The brown sugar is local, from Oshima, not Okinawa, and that island. They distil in a single pass, in a pot still. The resultant is rested, not aged (at least, not in the way we would understand it), in enamelled steel tanks  for several years in a small solera system. And the resultant is really quite fascinating: similar enough to a rum not to lose me, and different enough to pique my interest.  Even at its wobbly proof point, the whole thing has a character completely lacking in those anonymous, androgynous, filtered whites that sell everywhere. 

Shochus generally, and kokuto shochus in particular, must, I think, be drunk and appreciated on their own level, with an understanding of their individual social and production culture. It is useful to come at them from a rum perspective, but perhaps we should give them space to be themselves, since to expect them the adhere to strength and profile of actual rums is to misunderstand the spirit.

Admittedly therefore, the low strength makes the shochu rate a fail when rated by western palates accustomed to and preferring sterner stuff. My personal feeling is that it works on its own level, and that nose, that lovely, robust, floral, aromatic nose…I mean, just smell that thing a few more times — it makes up for all its faintness of the palate. Perhaps the redeeming feature of the shochu is that you can channel your inner salaryman after work, sip and drink this thing multiple times, still not get a debilitating buzz on, and still find some notes to enjoy. There aren’t too many cask strength rums that allow you to do that.

(#945)(78/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The LMDW entry for this shochu says it is made partly from Thai rice to which muscovado sugar is then added. This is wrong. The koji mould which is used for primary fermentation is developed on Thai rice. But rice is not used as a source of the wash.
  • Shochu is an entire spirit to itself, and kokuto shochu is a subset of that. For the curious there is a complete backgrounder available, with all sources noted.
  • The name on the label, 3S, is a Japanese concern that deals primarily in shochu (the three “S” moniker stands for “Super Shochu Spirits”) where they act as an independent bottler. They are a subsidiary of G-Bridge company, which is a more general trading house established in 2006.
  • I feel that the sugar cane derivative base of kokuto makes it part of the rum family.  An outlier, true, but one which shares DNA with another unrefined-brown-sugar-based spirit such as we looked at with Habitation Velier’s jaggery-based Amrut, and the panela distillates of Mexico.  If it doesn’t fall within our definitions then we should perhaps look more carefully at what those definitions are and why they exist. In any case, there are shochus out there that do in fact got to 40% and above. It suggests we pay attention to such variations — because we could, in all innocence, be missing out on some really cool juice.
Oct 052022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#941)(88/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • The photograph from the catalogue which has been circulating on social media shows 65% ABV and a 285-bottle outturn.  This was an early facsimile issued for inclusion in the catalogue, printed prior to the final bottling The actual strength as issued is 62.8% and there is only one bottling, not two. Outturn is 130 bottles (per the label). I was sampling from Bottle #1. What happened to the other 155 bottles they had estimated when doing the publicity photo is unknown
  • Completely made, aged and bottled in India. The humourist in me wants to ask, does this qualify as continental or tropical ageing?
  • The Velier webpage has not yet been updated for this rum; when it is, you can find it here.
Aug 282022
 

“[In the US] there are a small number of rum distilleries, and a large number of distilleries making rum,” observed Will Hoekinga in our 2021 Rumcast interview, indirectly pointing to the paucity of quality American rum making. A corresponding remark I have made myself is that if the random picking of American rums to review results in just a minute percentage being really worth seeking out then the characteristics of the part can be extrapolated to the whole – and both together suggest that of the 600+ distilleries in the United states, only a handful are currently worthy of attention. 

This is not a random pronouncement made without facts in evidence either, because after trying half a hundred rums with US branding, it’s clear that the best rums sold there are either imports from elsewhere by local indies (Holmes Cay, Stolen Overproof, Hamilton, Two James, K&L) or smaller distillers like Richland, Pritchard’s, Balcones, Privateer, Maggie’s Farm, or Montanya. For sure none of the big guns like Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Cruzan really go for the brass ring, being much happier to avail themselves of millions of subsidised dollars to make low cost rum of no serious distinction. And other rum makers like Kirk and Sweeney, One-Eyed Spirits, or Florida Caribbean Distillers contract out their blends and rums to other distilleries and can hardly be said to have a single world-shattering product in their lineup.

One of the best-regarded distilleries carrying the rum flag without mixing it up with other spirits (and getting loads of press for this and other more social aspects of the job) must surely be the small Colorado-based outfit of Montanya, which was established in 2008 and whose founder, Karen Hoskin, may be one of the most interviewed rum makers in the world after Richard Seale, Joy Spence and Maggie Campbell. Without even checking too hard I found articles here, here, here, here and here, dating back a decade or more, all of them displaying the same down to earth common sense, practicality and dedication to her craft that one sees too rarely in a land where too often the coin of the realm is visibility, not expertise (or, heaven forbid, a good rum). 

Ms. Hoskin, who has loved rum for decades (the first rum she became enamoured with was in India in 1999 – I think she was visiting Goa), decided to begin her own distillery business at a time when her day job of graphic and web design was no longer of much interest. She and her husband set up the distillery in Crested Butte in 2008 with a 400-litre direct-fire Portuguese-made copper pot still1, and immediately began producing two rums — a Platino Light white and a lightly aged Oro dark; these two staples have been joined in the intervening year by the a limited edition Exclusiva, a 4YO Valentia, and a special 10th Anniversary edition. By 2018 their rums were available in just about every US state and they had started on a program of international distribution, especially in the UK and Europe.

The Platino which we are looking at today, is a lightly-aged, filtered, pot still white rum, released at an inoffensive 40%, without any additives or messing around, and it is based on a wash made from raw unprocessed sugar from Louisiana (i.e., unrefined…but not the “sugar cane” that some external sources speak of). Initially the rum also had a touch of caramelised cane juice honey added to it (which was always disclosed), but as of 2021 the practise has been discontinued. 

For a company so otherwise forward-looking, I find this oddly conservative. For example, although there is an emergent strain elsewhere in the world, of making (if not showing off) white rums that are pure and unaged, it has yet to become a thing in America, where most white rums follow the Bacardi model of “filtration to white” after a short period of ageing. The rationale is that this gives the best of both worlds: some taste from the wash source, and some from the barrel, with none so stark as to overpower the cocktail for which it is made. This glosses over the fact that with industrial stills producing very high ABV distillate, the former is very unlikely, on top of which filtration also removes some of the very flavour elements distillers claim to be after.  In Montanya’s case with the Platino, they have gotten around this by using pot stills so that more flavour is preserved at the other end, and a pine-based lenticular filter which removes most (but not all) of the colour, and yet not quite so much of the taste.

What taste does remain and gets carried forward on the nose, is, in a single word, intriguing.  Though the rum is made from unrefined sugar, little of any kind of agricole style sap-profile comes through – instead, what we get is a papery cardboard aroma of old and tattered textbooks…at least, at the inception. This is followed by quite a bit of funky sharp pineapples and sour fruit – half ripe mangoes, strawberries going off, some overripe oranges, that kind of thing. It gradually turns into a more solid smell that channels some cinnamon, vanilla and cardamom in a pretty good combination.

The palate just wants to keep the offbeat party going, and starts with an odd sort of minerally note — like a licking a penny, or tonic water searching for a lime — mixed up with the ashy charcoal of dying embers on a cold night (I know, right?). Once more the fruits ride to the rescue: mangoes, soursop, pineapples (again), plus pears, watermelon and papaya.  There’s a touch of vanilla, figs and melons, and the whole is sparkly and light, with a more pronounced (but not overbearing) agricole-ness to the experience than the nose had suggested there would be.  It all leads to a short finish, light and fruity with just a hint of brine and sweet buns hot out of the oven

My overall feeling, having had it on the go for the best part of an hour, remains one of real interest – I’d like to try more of these; since all of Montanya’s production is small batch, the variation of the Platino over time would be fascinating to experience. This is not some cheap, easygoing, hot-weather cruise-ship staple, indifferently made and lazily redolent of the Caribbean’s standard profile of caramel, fleshy fruit and vanilla. We’ve had that a thousand times before and they’re too often all but interchangeable.  

No, what we’re seeing here is traces of real originality. The Platino marries a sort of bizarre agricole-wannabe vibe with minerally notes, cereals and cardboard — then mixes them all up with sharp and funky fruits, as if it was playing its own obscure tasting game of rock-paper-scissors. In my reviews, a high score does not normally attend a light, white, living-room-strength, filtered rum — one where a higher proof could emphasise its points more forcefully — but I confess to being somewhat seduced with this one. It’s really worth checking out, and if there ever comes an unaged version, now that would be something I’d buy sight unseen..

(#933)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The website is admirably stuffed with production details, of which I have only taken a few bits and pieces. Some additional details provided by a very helpful Ms. Hoskin on short notice:
    • Montanya does not use fresh cane juice, as it is too difficult to transport from Lula in Louisiana. It is milled on site in Belle Rose and the fresh juice is processed there. Montanya receives 100% of what was in the cane plant in two separate forms which are subsequently recombined: raw unrefined molasses (12%) and raw unrefined granulated cane sugar (88%). The major difference is that these cane products never go to the refinery, so no processing with flocculants or other chemicals. It’s as raw, unadulterated and flavorful as you can get (and is akin to the panela of Mexico, or the unrefined sugar in kokuto shochu in Japan). It would be illegal to sell it in that form in a grocery store in the US.
    • Fermentation is open, water cooled, and lasts 6-7 days. The fermented wash goes into the still at about 17% ABV
    • Distillate comes off the still at about 74% ABV. Ms. Hoskin remarked in her email to me, “People say that can’t be done with alembics, but I am here to say it absolutely can.”
    • Barrelling is at still strength, no reduction. “[This]…is somewhat unusual. Many of my colleagues water their distillate down before it goes into the barrel at about 54 to 58% alcohol. I started doing it my way because I just didn’t have a big enough rack house, but now that I do, I can’t see any reason to change.”
  • My appreciation to the Skylark gents of Indy and Jazz Singh — the distributors of Montanya in the UK and the EU —  at whose residence I tried this rum (and quite a few others) in a small but epic Rum Show afterparty. I paid for my plunder with some rum loot of my own, and a special gift for them both from Mrs. Caner.
Aug 152022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#930)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • Each of the three rums in the Collection has an outturn of 5,000 bottles.  I don’t know if that was all they ever issued or whether this is an annual production run (I suspect it was batch produced and no more was made).
  • As far as I am aware, nothing added here.
  • The picture of the still on the label suggests a double retort pot still. It apparently came from Scotland, was once used to make whisky, and was commissioned at Diplomatico’s facilities in 1959.
  • “Botucal” is the brand name of Diplomatico in Germany.
  • Heartfelt thanks to Dirk Becker and his attentive, knowledgeable and enthusiastic band of stalwarts in Rum Depot, who treated me with patience and courtesy the entire time I was there. Vielen Dank, Leute.
  • Alex’s review over at the Rum Barrel is worth reading, as well as Geoff’s review at the Memphis Rum Club.
Aug 112022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#929)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other notes

  • Founded in 2009, Black Gate Distillery is located in Central West New South Wales, in the small rural town of Mendooran.  Like most of the micro-distilleries of the New Australians, it’s a husband and wife operation where – in this case – Genise Holingsworth does the good stuff and makes the rum, while her husband Brian dutifully makes that other obscure drink and handles the maintenance aspects (he’s a fitter machinist and auto mechanic by trade). They sourced two pot stills – relatively small at 630 litres and 300 litres capacity – and work with food grade molasses, commercial yeast and water, to make their various rum expressions. All are small batch, which stands to reason when one considers that the rum output of the small operation is only about 2o00 litres annually.
  • So far, Black Gate makes various Dark Rums, overproofs mostly with different finishes or cask maturations, and one called Tawny. Aside from whiskies, no cash flow stalwarts such as gins or “cane spirit” seem to be made.
  • Rums are aged in Port or Sherry casks (or both) for a minimum of two years. This rum was aged for three years in two Australian port (‘tawny’) casks: one of 225L and the other of 100L. A more recent 54.6% edition of the overproof was aged for five years. 
  • Labels are all the same for all these dark overproof rums no matter when made: the specifications are, in a clever bit of economising, white printed stick-ons.
Aug 012022
 

It’s been years since I looked at any of the rums of Barbados’s boutique micro-distillery, St. Nicholas Abbey. This is not for want of interest, really – just opportunity. Plus, I had enthusiastically reviewed most of the original three-rum 81012 YO lineup (later expanded to five with the additions of the 5 and 15 YO), and felt no immediate need to search for and buy and try progressively aged and more expensive expressions like the 18, 20 and 23 year-olds that kept on coming out the door at standard strength – sooner or later one of them would cross my path, I told myself. 

As the years progressed they remained at the back of my mind, however, and after 2017 I got interested all over again. Because in that year they released the 60% overproof white —  and since I had quite liked the original 40% version tasted the year before, with its cane juice and pot still origins, intriguing taste and gentle complexity, I hastened to try the OP at the first opportunity (which came at the 2022 TWE Rumshow). The overproof white is, like its lesser-proofed sibling, made from rendered cane juice (‘syrup’) then run through the pot still before being allowed to rest for three months in inert tanks, and then bottled – the current crop of 40% and 60% whites derive from the same source, it’s just that one is reduced and the other isn’t – otherwise, they are identical.

The standard white I tasted in 2016 had teetered on the edge of untameability, and walked a fine line between too little and too much. It was original, yet still felt something like a work in progress where the final vision had yet to snap into focus more clearly; this one was quite a bit better and it wasn’t only the extra proof.  The thing smelled like a whole lot more was in there: sweet vanilla, sugar water, raspberries, cherries, and very little of the briny paraffin wax and floor polish that had marked out its predecessor.  That was present, I hasten to mention, just kept firmly in the background, allowing the fruity flavours and congeners their moment to shine.

The palate was also well assembled, and holds up well; creamy hot sweet vanilla-flavoured cocoa drizzled over a four-fruit ice cream – let’s say mango, cherry, cranberries and pineapple. It didn’t come with a ton of complexity – it was not that kind of rum – what I got was, however, more than sufficient for Government work, and it was firm and warm and intense enough that I could sip it and get something reasonably complex, and near-delicious without having half my glottis abraded. The finish was suitably long and near-epic, mostly light fruits in a salad, some breakfast spices, a touch of cumin, and a green apple slice or two. 

Clearly St. Nicholas Abbey have not rested on their laurels since I first ran across their wares back in 2011, or even since I sampled the initial white they made. The profile of the overproof is one that continues to work well for a rum that can be both mixer and sipper, and it straddles the divide neatly.  Best of all, it’s well made enough that it never seems to be a binary decision, but one that’s entirely up to the drinker and will satisfy either way, because it’s one of those rums with the “overproof” moniker that doesn’t have to be endured, just enjoyed.

(#926)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • Previous reviews of the St. Nicholas Abbey range of rums provide most of the backstory to the estate and the rum-making operation. It remains (as of 2022) the smallest of the island’s distilleries.
Jul 282022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#925)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

Jun 302022
 

Photo (c) Riverbourne Distillery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#919)(81/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other Notes

  • As always, thanks to Mr & Mrs. Rum for the samples contained in their 2021 advent calendar, from which this rum originates.
Jun 272022
 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is the largest subscription-based spirits distributor in the world, focussing primarily on whisky but also blends, bourbons, gins, cognacs and, yes, occasionally rums. It has long passed the stage of simply buying a cask here or there and releasing the subsequent bottling, but is a noted stockist and ageing warehouse in its own right, purchasing new make spirit from all over the map and barrelling it themselves. Their prime focus remains the whisky arena, no matter what sort of minor releases they do in other areas of the spirit world, which I guess is understandable given their historical mandate and membership.

That said, 2017 was a relatively good rum year for the SMWS, because that was the year that the most rums were ever issued since they first got the slightest bit serious about them (in 2011): eighteen in all, of which seven were from a single distillery – Worthy Park 1. All but one of the WP Seven derived from a series of casks laid down in 2010 and somehow most of these have made it over into my stash, which does nothing to allay Mrs. Caner’s suspicions as to how much money I spend on rums (not much, honey, honest!).

So today, we’ll be looking at R11.4, a 66.1% ABV beefcake coming off a pot still, aged six years in Europe and with an outturn of 267 bottles. I’d write a longer introduction and throw in a few other observations, but really, with both the society and the distillery being known so well, it’s hardly required nowadays.

The rum is given the usual unique Society title, which this time is actually less obscure than most: it’s called the “Tasty Treat” — though that might be stretching things (especially for those new to the rum scene). The nose, for example, instantly reminds one of the insides of a pair of sweat-infused rubber boots after a hot day spent tramping through a muddy field of freshly turned sod, before it relaxes and grudgingly provides notes of sweet acetones, nail polish and turpentine (just a bit). And if you think that’s odd, wait a while: you’ll be greeted by brine, olives, cucumbers in light vinegar paired with sashimi in pimento-infused lemon juice (I kid you not). By the time you recover, all that’s gone and all that’s left is sharp, tartly ripe fruits: apples, pears, apricots, pineapples. And a touch of orange peel.

The palate is quite hot, as can be expected from something with such a high proof point; however, letting it breathe for a few minutes so it opens up and lets the sharper alcohol fumes dissipate, mitigates that heat, and a rum of rather well balanced flavours emerge out of the chaos. The segue from the nose is seamless: first the spicy, tart, fruity notes – pineapples, pears, strawberries, cherries, yellow mangoes – followed by milder, more mellow tastes.  These are flambeed bananas, caramel, honey, almonds, walnuts, unsweetened yoghurt, vanilla, and hot black tea infused with just a touch of cinnamon and cardamom. I particularly enjoyed how it finished, long and dry, with all flavours coming onstage for a final curtain call.  Nothing new at the close, nothing original, just a succinct summation of the whole experience in a languorous fade.

The odd thing about this rum is that good as it is, strong as it is, it’s missing something of the overall punch and uniqueness of some of the earlier R11.x series, let alone Worthy Park’s own rums which I had on hand as comparators.  It’s tasty and complex enough, yet lacks the voluptuousness of the juice WP puts out the door in its estate bottlings, and jumps around the flavour wheel without the structure of R11.2 or the excellent R11.3.  Maybe that’s a factor of the European ageing, maybe it’s the single barrel, maybe it’s just a different palate, maybe it’s the relative youth. It’s just not quite … there. And so, much as I like it, I can’t quite elevate it to the status of a must-have that had to be acquired by fair means or foul: because while it’s tasty enough, it’s not quite a treat.

(#918)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Jun 162022
 

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

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

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

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

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

(#916)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

Historical Background

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

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

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

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


 

Jun 092022
 

Rumaniacs Review #135 | 0914

Disregard – actually, try to forget – the label for a moment, so that the word “Navy” doesn’t send you into conniption fits. It’s an advertising thing, and exists on that label for no other reason than to draw a line between the seafaring traditions of yore, and your mind — as if somehow, by buying and drinking the rum, you are instantly transported to a noble nautical heritage stretching back centuries, with sea spray in your face, snapping sails overhead, and you line up at four bells to get your tot. I guess that’s the rum part – sodomy and the lash go mercifully unexamined (though one does wonder when some courageous Navy-rum-maker wannabe will eventually go the whole tot on the label, so to speak…but I digress).

The rum is of course not a true Navy rum. That’s just marketing garbage; it’s a standard strength blend of unspecified Caribbean components which one website generously referred to originating from “the best sugar cane” and “from the Caribbean islands of Guyana” – the very thing that always soothes my suspicions about a brand and gives me the warm and fuzzies.  It’s apparently made by a company called “The Four Bells Fine Navy Rum Co.” out of Glasgow which is almost untraceable. Consider it a contract-made third-party blend, no longer made, probably hailing from the island of Guyana. You can trust that. The label says so.

Colour – Dark gold

Strength – 40%

Nose – All the snark out of the way, I must confess it wasn’t half bad. It’s a dark brown rum, actually quite aromatic. There was molasses, wood, tannins, licorice and brine with a heavy, almost sulky attitude to the nose. Wet sawdust, caramel and honey, well-polished leather boots and some emergent lumber notes that kept getting stronger. Nothing new, nothing too complicated, lots of old faithfuls – this is almost like low-level spirituous comfort food.

Palate – Again, good: warm and simple, Molasses, polished leather, dark cherries, raisins, licorice, a smidgen of sharper tannins and some sour citrus rind. By now I kind of had a bead on the thing, so was not surprised to taste additional notes of bitter chocolate, coffee grounds, toffee and molasses, clearly young, somewhat sharp. It reminded me of cheap Canadian mixers like Young’s Old Sam (a perennial favourite of mine).  

Finish – Short, which is to be expected at 40%, a bit sweet and yet also dry, with closing points of pungent licorice, molasses and a very sweet caramel macchiato. 

Thoughts – Bells is a rum that doesn’t need to be stronger, because for all its evident youth, it’s also heavy enough and has sufficient flavours to be tried neat. It is, in that respect, completely straightforward, and clearly not looking to break boundaries and redefine genres. It’s fine as it is, within its limits, but those limits are further restricted by the lack of information provided about the rum itself, and the company that makes it. Like it or not, few taste blind, and people do tend to rate a rum based on what they know about it…or not. Here we know nothing about the rum, the blend, or the maker – and if we can’t trust the information that is provided, if only on the label, then it makes us trust what we’re tasting less, much less, and there aren’t many who would buy a rum with that kind of cloud hanging over it. 

(#914)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • For what it’s worth, I think the blend is mostly PM out of Guyana. If there’s anything else in there, it’s a very small percentage. The back label notes it as being pot still, but who knows?
  • In British Navy tradition, the strikes of a ship’s bell were not aligned with the hour. Instead, there were eight bells, one for each half-hour of a four-hour watch – four bells is therefore halfway through any one of the Middle, Morning, Forenoon, Afternoon, Dog or First watches (good that someone knew this, because naming it “eight bells” would have been unfortunate, being used as it was to denote end of watch” or a funeral). 
  • There are other Four Bells Rums — “Four Bells” as a title does not appear to have any trademark or copyright or owned brand associated with it: several firms have made use of the title — such as one I reviewed for the Rumaniacs (from the 1970s), or another that went up for auction released by Whyte & McKay
  • There remains no current references to Four Bells as a company, or the rum outside of auction sites and a few obscure online shops. It may just be a one off brand experiment into rum dating back many decades. Rum-X comments that its production ceased in the late 1970s / early 1980s.
  • A stronger 50% version of the rum remarks that W&M have the Four Bells Fine Navy Rum Company as a subsidiary but that can’t be verified. If it is a subsidiary (they have the same address), Four Bells is not mentioned anywhere on its website or company profile, and W&M has so many other minor subsidiaries under its corporate umbrella (59) that it’s unfindable. Even the CEO’s linked in profile doesn’t tell you anything about Four Bells. White & MacKay itself does deal in spirits, and is currently a subsidiary of the Philippines-based Emperador Group which is part of Alliance Global Inc a diversified F&B/Hospitality/Real Estate conglomerate.
  • I’ve sampled this out to some friends over the years, and quite a few really liked it. It’s not a waste of money, if you find it on some dusty store shelf at a cheap price and enjoy a Guyanese style of rum. I’d rate it on par with the ED-8 or -12, though maybe less complex than either.
Jun 022022
 

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

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

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

Photo (c) Tin Shed Distilling Co.

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

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

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

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

(#913)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Historical background

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


 

May 302022
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#912)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

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

 

May 262022
 

Distilleries that go off on their own tangent are always fun to watch in action. They blend a wry and deprecating sense of humour with a quizzical and questioning mien and add to that a curiosity about the rumiverse that leads to occasional messy road kill, sure…but equally often, to intriguing variations on old faithfuls that result in fascinating new products. Killik’s Jamaican rum experiments come to mind, and also Winding Road’s focus on their cane juice based rums1, like they were single handedly trying to do agricoles one better.

Moving on from the standard proofed rums from Australia upon which the focus has been directed over the last weeks, we begin to arrive at some of those that take the strength up a few notches, and when we bring together a higher proof with an agricole-style aged rum — as uncommon in Australia as almost everywhere else — it’s sure to be interesting. Such ersatz-agricoles rums are the bread and butter of the Winding Road Distilling Co in New South Wales (about 175km south of Brisbane), which is run by the husband and wife team of Mark and Camille Awad: they have two rums in their small portfolio (for the moment), both cane-juice based. The first, the Agricole Blanc was an unaged rum of this kind, one with which I was quite taken, and it’s the second one we’re looking at today.

It’s quite an eye-opener. Coastal Cane Pure Single Rum is rum with the source cane juice coming from a small mill in the Northern Rivers area (where WR are also located), and as far as I know is run through the same fermentation process as the blanc: three days in open vats using both commercial and wild yeasts, with the wash occasionally left to rest for longer (up to two weeks). Then the wash is passed — twice — through their 1250 litre pot still (called “Short Round”) and set to age in a single 200-litre American oak barrel with a Level 3 char, producing 340 bottles after 31 months. Bottling is then done at 46% in this instance: that, however, will change to suit each subsequent release based on how it samples coming out of the ageing process.

 

Mark Awad’s avowed intention is to produce a distillate that combines the clarity of agricole rhums with a touch of the Jamaican badassery we call hogo, as well as representing, as far as possible, the terroire of NSW…specifically Northern Rivers, where they are.  I can’t tell whether this is the rum that accomplishes that goal, but I can say it’s very good. The nose is lovely, starting with deep dark fruits (prunes and blackberries), opens up to lighter notes (bananas, oranges and pineapples) covered over with unsweetened yoghurt and feta cheese. There’s a nice low-level funkiness here that teases and dances around the aromas without the sort of aggressiveness that characterises the Jamaicans, combined with floral hints and – I swear this is true – smoke, wet ashes, and something that reminds me of the smell on your fingers left behind by cigarettes after smoking in very cold weather.

Photo provided courtesy of Winding Road Distilling Co. (c) Mark Awad

The barrel influence is clear on the palate – vanilla, some light caramel and toffee tastes are reminders that it’s not an unaged rum. But it’s also quite dry, not very sweet in spite of the lingering notes of lollipops and strawberry bubble gum, has flavours of brine and lemon-cured green Moroccan olives, and brings to mind something of a Speysider or Lowland whisky that’s been in a sherry cask for a bit.  It’s one of those rums that seems simple and quiet, yet rewards patience and if allowed to open up properly, really impresses. Even the finish has that initially-restrained but subtly complex vibe, providing long, winey closing notes together with very ripe blue grapes, soft apples, brine, and a touch of lemony cumin.

I’m really intrigued with what Winding Road have done here. With two separate rums they have provided taste profiles that are quite divergent, enough to seem as if they were made by different companies altogether. There are aspects of this aged rum that are more pleasing than the unaged version, while others fall somewhat behind: I’d suggest the nose and the finish is better here, but honestly, they are both quite good, just in different ways.

The constant tinkering and experimentation that marks out these small Australian distilleries — who strive to find both their niche and that point of distinction that will set them apart — clearly pays dividends. While I can’t tell you with assurance I tasted an individualistic terroire that would lead me straight to NSW (let alone Australia), neither did the Awads head into the outback at full throttle, going straight through the wall leaving only an outline of themselves behind.  What they have in fact accomplished is far better: they have created a rum that is thoroughly enjoyable, one that takes a well known style of rum, twists it around and bounces it up and down a bit…and ends up making the familiar new again. I can’t wait for Release #2.

(#911)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The website specs refer to a single 200-litre barrel and the initial math seems wrong if 340 700-ml bottles were issued (since that works out to 238 litres with zero evaporation losses). However, that only computes if you assume the distillate went in and came out at the same strength. Mark confirmed: “The figures on our website are correct, even though at first glance they may seem a bit off.  We filled the barrel at 67.1% ABV and when it was decanted the rum came in at 65.1%.  We ended up with just short of 169 litres which we then adjusted down to 46% ABV.  This gave us a bit over 239 litres which resulted in 340 bottles, plus a little extra that went towards samples.”
  • As always, chapeau to Mr. and Mrs. Rum for their kind supply of the advent calendar.
May 162022
 

Two years ago I took a look at L’Esprit’s Beenleigh 5YO rum from Australia and after trying manfully to come to grips with the gasp-inducing strength of 78.1%, I got up off the floor and wrote a fairly positive review about the thing. That rum was hot-snot aggressive and not bad at all, and there I thought the tale had ended…but then came this one. And then it became clear that Steve Magarry (who was then Distillery Manager over at Beenleigh) and Tristan Prodhomme (the showrunner at L’Esprit) read my review, rubbed their hands gleefully while cackling in fiendish delight, and released something a little older, a little stronger…and a whole lot better.

The 2014 rum which was bottled in 2020, has 0.2% more proof points than the one I reviewed, clocking in at 78.3%, and it’s one year older. It remains a pot-still rum, suggesting a lurking taste bomb in waiting. On the face of it, the stats would make you take a step backwards (unless you’re the sort of person who methodically works your way through the list of 21 Strongest Rums in the World, smiling the entire time). And taking even a cautiously tiny sniff is probably best here, because the rum is lava-like, the rum is sharp, and it presents itself to your attention with all the excitement of a switched-on electric hair dryer dropped into your hot tub…while you’re in it.

The first notes to discern are ostensibly off-putting: shards of burnt rubber, rotten carrots. plus meat spoiled enough for flies to be using it for a house. Stick with it: it gets better fast once it learns to relax, and then coughs up vanilla, almonds, toffee, brown sugar, and ice cream over which has been drizzled hot caramel.  Relatively simple, yes, and it seems quite standard (except for that startling cold-open), yet somehow the nose is really quite amazing. It continues into sweet dense fruit and whipped cream over a rich cheesecake, plus leather and aromatic tobacco, cherries and syrup, and that crisp sensation of biting into a stick of celery. It works, swimmingly, even though logic and the reading of such disparate tasting notes suggests it really shouldn’t.

Nosing is one thing, but rums live or die on the taste, because you can jerk your scorched nose away a lot easier than a burnt and despoiled tongue. What’s surprising about L’Esprit’s Beenleigh is that it actually plays much softer on the palate than we have any right to expect.  There’s almost a light perfumed sweetness to it, like strawberry candy floss and bubble gum, mixed up with more salted caramel ice cream….and mango shavings.  There’s gelato, pears, apricots over which someone poured condensed milk, and it’s really spicy, yes….but completely bearable — I would not throw this thing out of bed. Plus, it channeled enough fruitiness – orange marmalade, butter chocolates and gooseberries – to provide an interesting counterpoint. And I also liked the finish – it was hot and sweet black tea, crisply and sharply heavy, and fruitily tart, and slightly bitter in a way that wasn’t really unpleasant, just lent a distinctive accent to the close.  

By now we know more about Beenleigh (see other notes, below) than we did before the pandemic, much of it due to the increasing raft of independent bottlers who have put their juice through the door (including Velier, of late – Ralfy loved their 2015 5 YO), as well as the social media presence and engagement of Steve Magarry himself. What was once a distillery known mostly to Australians, uber-geeks and obscure reviewers, has, in a remarkably short period of time, become quite celebrated for the quality of its rum. Like Bundaberg, it has started to become an icon of the antipodean rum scene, while tasting better.

A whole lot better. This is an impressively civilized overproof rum  It hums along like a beefed-up garage-tuned homemade supercar fuelled with the contents of whatever’s brewing in grandma’s bathtub, and by some subtle alchemy of selection and ageing, becomes quietly amazing. Really.  I expected rougher and nastier and uglier, feared Azog, and yet to my surprise, somehow got Legolas. 

(#908)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • Sugar cane growth had been encouraged in Queensland by the Sugar and Coffee regulations in 1864, the same year as the Beenleigh plantation was established (it was named after its founders’ home in England). Initially sugar was all it produced, though a floating boat-based distillery called the “Walrus” did serve several plantations in the area from 1869 and made rum from molasses – illegally, after its license was withdrawn in 1872, continuing until 1883 when it was beached.  Francis Gooding, one of the founders, purchased the onboard still and gained a distilling license in 1884 from which time such operations formally began in Beenleigh. Through various changes in ownership, Beenleigh as a distillery continued until 1969 when it shut down because of falling demand, then relaunched in 1972 under the ownership of Mervyn Davy and his sons; they didn’t hold on to it long and sold it to the Moran family in 1980, who in turn disposed of a controlling share to Tarac Industries in 1984. All the post-1969 owners added to the facilities and expanded the distillery’s production to other spirits, and it was finally acquired in 2003 by VOK Beverages a diversified drinks company from South Australia, in whose hands it remains.
  • Tristan confirmed that the rum is indeed all pot still distillate.
  • L’Esprit is a small independent bottler out of France, perhaps better known in Europe for its whiskies. They’ve been on my radar for years, and I remain convinced they are among the best, yet also most unsung, of the independents — perhaps because they have almost no social media presence to speak of, and not everybody reads the reviews. I also think they have some of the coolest sample bottles I’ve ever seen.
  • An unsolicited (but very welcome) sample set was provided gratis to me by the owner, Tristan Prodhomme, for Christmas 2021, perhaps because he knew of my liking for strong hooch and that I buy his stuff constantly. If we can meet next time I’m in Europe, I have to see what to do to even the scales.
May 122022
 

Sooner or later, no matter what the SMWS thought the Big Gun Rums deserving of their own Big Green Bottle were, they had to come here, to Release 7.1 of the vaunted and much ignored “R” (rum) series. By 2016 when it was put on sale for the membership, they had rums from Guyana (DDL), Jamaica (Monymusk and Longpond), Barbados (WIRD) and Trinidad (Providence)…and that was it. And even if you’re not in to rums – or weren’t, six years ago – it’s clear there’s just a whole lot missing there, which could have buffed and burnished the SMWS’s sadly lacking rum department.

However, after three years’ of zero rum outturn, perhaps somebody was finally waking up, because in that year nine rums came out, and four new distilleries were added — Nicaragua’s Flor de Cana (R8), Trinidad’s Angostura (R10), Barbados’s Foursquare (R6)…and Hampden Estate’s R7. Which is nice, though it would be hard to explain why Worthy Park was ignored (they were allocated R11 a year later), where St. Lucia’s Distillery was (and is), and why every single agricole has yet to be given a spot alongside sterling rums from points around the globe.

Well, never mind. The important thing is that they finally got around to adding one of the real and enduring stars of the rum scene, Hampden Estate, which had already and quietly started to make waves in the rum and whisky worlds via independent bottlers’ offerings and various spirits festivals (they would begin the release their own estate bottlings in 2018). Certain years of Hampden’s bulk sales always seem to come up as touchstones – 1992 was one such, with the superlative pair of the  Samaroli’s 24 YO and the 25 YO being examples of the possibilities, and 1990 and 2000 both had some pretty good rums from Berry Bros, Rum Nation, CDI, Renegade and SBS. In twelve years of constant writing, I’ve never found a Hampden dog.

This one is no exception. Distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2016 for release in 2017, it’s a 54% sixteen year old cultured bruiser with an outturn of 214 bottles, and even if it doesn’t say so, the marque is an LROK “Common Clean”, which places it in the pleasantly mid- to low-range of the  ester charts (and therefore provides you with the advantage of not requiring expensive insurance against having your face ripped off, as you would with a full-powered DOK sporting off-road tyres). It is, of course, pot still made, and aged in ex-Bourbon casks.

Just about every reviewer of SMWS rums (and even some of the whiskies) likes to repeat the old trope that they (a) find the odd names of the spirits incomprehensible and (b) ignore those peculiar tasting notes that are on the label. You can sort of see the point since “Welcome to Jamrock” is not exactly clear to those genuflecting to The Queen’s. Me, I read the entire label (including the warnings) and just smile and enjoy the sense of irreverent humour at play.  The truth is, though, the rum is weird, it is odd, and I think it took some courage to release back before Hampden gained the street cred it did after 2018, and people got more used to the profile.

Consider: the nose opens up with the scent of hot porridge to which has been added a pinch of salt and a pat of melting butter. To this is then brought caramel, toffee, and the dry smell of cracked plaster and mouldy drywall in an old and dusty house.  And then we also start getting olives in spicy vinegar, delicate flowers, cherries in syrup, figs, a little bitter chocolate, marmalade with a little red-pepper attitude – it’s oddball to a fault, it’s strange and it’s peculiarly tasty, and I haven’t even gotten to the second best thing about it. Which is the gradual intermingling of herbs, grasses, marigolds and a trace of sandalwood, with cinnamon, cumin and citrus juice, all doused with aromatic tobacco (and if this sounds like a lot, it’s because, well, it is.)

Once we get to the pour and the palate, though, the rum gets down to business, stops with the fancy stuff and hauls out the happy slapper. The good stuff slides right off and it becomes a full-out badass, starting off with new paint, medicinals, a sort of minerally tang, and the crackling flash of ozone like an electrical fire’s after-smell.  There’s the disused taste of a second hand store’s sad and expired dust-covered back shelf wares here. Paprika  and black pepper, more of that vague pimento and tobacco taste, bell peppers, chocolate oranges, strawberries, even a touch of brown sugar and toffee, plus a smorgasbord of mashed-together fruits one can no longer separate. The finish is really good, by the way – it’s fruity, estery, slightly bitter, crisp, dry and has a flirt of nail polish, oakiness, bitter chocolate, caramel and campfire ashes about it, and is one to savour.

All this, from a wrong on the wrong side of 60%.  It’s amazing, it spreads carnage in all directions, but so politely that you can’t help but love the thing, and for sure it took courage to risk releasing it as it was, because at the time Hampden was not as well known as it currently is.  Now, I have to admit that this is a rum for drinkers with some naso-glottal fortitude – solera-style fanciers, El Dorado 12 YO fans and Zacapa lovers are strongly advised to smell and sip carefully lest they be rendered comatose – yet the overall quality shines through regardless for everyone, expert, aficionado or newb alike. Even at a time when we are spoiled for choice and we can have multiple rums from single distilleries to hone our senses, there are still rums out there that shine a light on aspects of estates and producers we think we know really well, and reveal qualities we can only consider ourselves fortunate to have experienced. This is one of them.

(#907)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Other Notes

  • The word “Jamrock” refers to Jamaican’s slang for their island which they sometimes call “de Rock” (much as Newfies do theirs), and the bottle title is also the name of a 2005 song by Damian Marley.Given the premise of the song, I like the left handed compliment it implicitly gives the rum
  • Not many others have reviewed this rum, but Rum Shop Boy also rated it high in his 2018 review (87 points). The Rum-X app averages things out at 85 points from 4 ratings (before this review gets incorporated).
  • It is assumed that the distillate matured in Europe, and was sourced via a broker, or, of course, Scheer / Main Rum.
  • For those who want more background into the SMWS, a biography and bottle list (of rums) is available.

Opinion

As I’ve remarked before, yes, sure, the Society (of which I am a card-carrying, dues-paying member) is primarily a whisky club and a whisky indie bottler and that’s where its international rep rests — but to my mind, if they are going to expand into other and interesting directions like rums, then it should be doing it right, doing it seriously, and stop farting around with a mere thirteen distilleries’ and 76 bottlings twenty years after issuing the first one (as a comparison, in their very second year the Society bottled from the 16th whisky distillery and was already approaching a hundred separate releases). The inconsistency of releases, with occasional years’ long gaps, is moving out of amateur hour and into outright embarrassing and does the society no favours at all.

A regular and consistently applied schedule of top quality rum releases, however minimal, is not an impossibility in this day and age (especially if they were to hire me to source it for them, ha ha). And if it is a big deal, if new and exciting distilleries and well-regarded older ones can’t be identified and sourced, why bring in The Global Rum Ambassador on retainer as an adviser? The Society can and should do better with its ancillary releases, because if it can’t, then it should bite the bullet, admit failure (or lack of interest and expertise), and just cease altogether instead of keeping hopeful rum fans strung along. This is a huge potential new fan base they’re ignoring, at a time when more and more people are turning disgustedly away from the prices and rarity of top end whiskies. I simply don’t get the indifference.


 

May 052022
 

Photo (c) Boatrocker Brewing & Distilling, from Instagram

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

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

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

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

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

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

(#905)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

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